“I was a 27-year-old captain who commanded Delta Battery, 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, 1st Division. That battery was the longest serving unit in the history of ‘The Big Red One.’ It went back to the Revolutionary War when its original commander was Alexander Hamilton,” the 72-year-old retired Punta Gorda, Fla. bird colonel said. “That was kinda cool.”
He took command of his unit after serving four months as an artillery liaison officer with another infantry unit in the 1st Infantry Division. That battalion was commanded by Col. Al Haig, who went on to become a four-star general and eventually Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration.
“That’s the best training an artilleryman can get. That helps him understand what the infantry needs in the way of artillery support,” Starsman explained. “When I took command of my howitzer battery I worked closely with Lt. Col. Terry Allen, commander of the 2nd Battalion 28th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division–‘The Black Lions.’
“Lt. Col. Allen was providing security for my battery when he was out in the field. Every night we’d get together and I’d tell him what kind of fire I could provide his patrols the next day,” he said.
They were located in a spot in the jungle 75-miles northwest of Saigon. A few months later, on Oct. 17, 1967, along a jungle stream called Ong Thanh, west of Highway 13 connecting Saigon with Cambodia, Allen and his soldiers collided with the seasoned 271st Vietcong Regiment that drew the unit into a pitched battle in the bush.
It was a disaster for Allen and his green, under-strength infantry battalion. He was killed in the fight and so was Francis Dowling, his sergeant major. When the shooting stopped, 57 of Allen’s troopers were sent home to the U.S. in body bags and 77 more of his soldiers were wounded. The Vietcong left 103 soldiers on the battlefield.
When Starsman and Allen fought the North Vietnam Army (NVA Regulars) and the Vietcong (VC) several months before the lieutenant colonel was killed the situation was similar, but the outcome was entirely different.
“We flew into a hot landing zone and we didn’t stop firing at the enemy for 72-hours. We landed in CH-47 (Chinook twin-rotor helicopters). When we came in the NVA and VC were shooting at us with small arms fire, AK-47s,” he recalled more than 30 years later. “Around our LZ (landing zone) it looked like pictures of the beach at Anzio in World War II. Shell casings were laying all around because we didn’t have time to pick up the brass.
“It was August 1967 and our job was to engage the enemy that had attacked en masse,” Starsman said. “Because we were under enemy fire flying into the LZ we didn’t have time to properly prepare our Howitzers for firing. Normally you’d like to have a half hour to set up the guns, but we didn’t have it.”
It’s a scientific process. Under ideal conditions the big twin-rotor Chinook choppers would fly the 105s into the LZ dangling from ropes and set them down in exact locations so they could be zeroed in with surveyed coordinates.
“The reason for this is we were able to bring our fire within 50 meters of our infantry. To do that you need to know exactly where you are so you don’t shoot your own guys,” Starsman said.
“I was in the first chopper to come into the LZ. What I discovered was we had picked an area covered with eight-foot tall elephant grass to locate our Howitzers,” he explained. “Because of the elephant grass our Howitzers didn’t end up in a very pretty star formation.
“Normally five of the battery’s six guns would be placed in a circle with the sixth gun in the center. After we got the Howitzers set up we would build sandbag parapets around the guns to protect the gunners from enemy fire. But we never got around to doing that,” the colonel said.
After four days of fighting the NVA and VC in the jungle north of Saigon, Battery D was flown back in CH-47 Helicopters to Quan Loi, the headquarters base where they flew out of to the hot LZ.
“We had done a good job in the field. We didn’t lose a single man, but the NVA and VC lost a lot of people,” Starsman said with satisfaction.
Five months later it was a different story.
“On Jan. 31, 1968 I was flying into our base camp aboard a helicopter with my battalion commander, Col. Charles Rodgers. He was a black officer and a great guy who would later receive the Medal of Honor for the part he played in recapturing some of his guns after his unit was overrun by the NVA,” Starsman noted.
It was Tet, the largest enemy offensive of the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive convinced many Americans we had gotten into a guerrilla war we weren’t able to win.
Eight weeks later when most of the shooting died down, tens of thousands of NVA and VC were dead on the battlefield, but the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was never the same. Until this attack the American public had been assured by their government–President Lyndon Johnson and Gen. William Westmorland– it was winning the war in Vietnam.
Some 80,000 enemy troops attacked more than 100 villages and cities throughout South Vietnam. More than 45,000 NVA and VC were killed during the two months uprising. By the end of 1968 American forces had lost in excess of 16,000 killed and thousands more wounded that year alone.
“During the first day of Tet my Howitzer battery was out in the field and I was stuck in Quan Loi with my battalion commander. My job was to try and catch a helicopter back to my unit. Later that day I got a chopper back,” Starsman recalled.
Battery D was set up some 50-miles north of Saigon. His unit was out in the bush again to act as a blocking defense against attacks by the NVA and VC on the capital of South Vietnam.
“This was another opportunity to catch the enemy when they were massed so we could do maximum damage to them,” he said. “What I found out about a week later when I got my newspaper was the press back home in the State said Tet was a defeat for us,” the colonel said in disgust. “From a military standpoint the NVA and VC lost Tet.
“I think the NVA and VC were worthy foes. They fought well and they fought hard,” the old warrior said.
A few months later Capt. Starsman left Vietnam after his year in the war zone and come back home to Marsha, his wife, their son, Scott, and daughter, Margo, who were praying for him to return safely. His 20-year military carer would continue.
“I need to mention servicemen’s wives. They sacrifice and provide a serviceman with the ability to do his job. They don’t get enough credit for what they have to do during the time they’re separated from their husbands during war or at other times. They keep things together for the family,” he said.
The Starsmans retired to Punta Gorda Isles in 2001.
Name: Raymond Elliot Starsman
D.O.B: 16 Nov. 1938
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 7 June 1961
Discharged: 30 Sept. 1982
Unit: 1st Infantry Division “Big Red 1”
Commendations: Legion of Merit, Bronze Star with V for Valor, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Meritorious Unit Commendation, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal (Four Awards), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Parachutist Badge, Secretary of Defense Identification Badge, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm, Republic of Vietnam Civil Action Unit Citation
Battles/Campaigns: Vietnam – Tet Offensive
Locations of military or civilian service: Panama, Vietnam, Korea, USA
Special duties/highlights/achievements: Battery and Battalion Commander, Chief Army Missile Research & Development
This story first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 and is republished with permission.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.
Click here to view Starsman’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.