Harry Stapleton of Punta Gorda, Fla. drove an M-48 “Patton” tank in Vietnam in 1968-69 named “Crimson and Clover.” The 69-year-old local resident maintains “I was no hero,” but he found himself in some firefights with the enemy he distinctly recalls almost 50 years later.
“I remember getting off the airplane and being shocked by the heat and the smell of burning sewage,” he said. “There was also a smell of death.
“My fist night in Vietnam we were attacked by enemy mortars about 1 a.m. The sirens went off as the mortars were coming in. We were in Long Binh, a major Army headquarters base. It was just outside the city of Bien Hoa, 20 miles north of Saigon.
“They brought in ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ a converted C-47, twin-engine transport plane of World War II vintage equipped with a couple of .50-caliber Gatling guns. That’s the last we heard of the enemy,” Stapleton said.
“After a couple of weeks waiting to be assigned the lieutenant came in one day and told me, ‘Grab your M-16 (rifle), flak jacket, helmet and duffle bag and hop on that Chinook (helicopter).’ I was headed for the field.
“The chopper had a stereo on board. I remember it was playing ‘Heat Wave’ by Martha and the Vandellas. As we flew off the lieutenant told me, ‘Son, put that flak jacket under you on the seat. We’re flying at tree-top height and the enemy can put a hole through the bottom of this helicopter that could hit you.’
Stapleton joined M-Company, 11th Armored Cavalry. He became the driver of a “Patton” M-48 tank. It was equipped with a 90 millimeter main gun, a .50 caliber machine-gun and an M-60 (.30-caliber) machine-gun.
He had more than the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong guerrillas to contend with in the jungles of Vietnam. There were also deadly spiders and black scorpions that could drop off the trees into a tank that could cause a soldier grief. If bitten by one of these critters it could put a soldier out of action with a big welt from the bite.
“I never will forget our first firefight with the NVA. We were out in the jungle with four of our tanks going up a hill when they attacked. We had run into an enemy base camp and we didn’t know it,” he explained. “They set up an L-shaped ambush. While we concentrated on enemy troops that made up the shore side of the L, they hit us with more enemy fire from the long side putting us in a crossfire. It was very scary.
“What frightened us most were enemy RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades). They could penetrate the steel of our M-48s with a shaped change and then explode,” Stapleton said. “We were hit from the back with an RPG, but it didn’t knock out our engine. We were lucky.”
Stapleton’s tank was caught in the enemy crossfire and out in the open for hours under heavy enemy fire. At some point the enemy faded away and the shooting stopped.
The closest Stapleton came to serious injury was during a firefight at the Michelin Rubber Planation.
“The NVA had a base camp in a mountain with a bunch of tunnels we knew nothing about until they attacked us,” he said. “At least 300 enemy were everywhere during the firefight,” he recalled. “A couple of them crawled on the top of my tank and we had to button thing up. I got my .45 (pistol), popped open the hatch and fired at them.
“At that instant I was hit with shrapnel from an enemy mortar round. I was hit in the face and groin. A medic bandaged me up and I was medevaced out,” Stapleton said.
Before being helicoptered to a MASH unit, he recalls that the NVA just melted away.
“They disappeared back down their tunnels. It was really something—they were there fighting and then they were gone,” Stapleton said.
Stapleton was interviewed by CBS Anchorman Walter Cronkite in Vietnam shortly after the “Tet Offensive” that turned the political situation in the country upside-down. It was “Tet” that caused the U.S to eventually get out of the ill-fated war.
Cronkite arrived in Vietnam in February 1968 to assess the U.S. military progress in the country. In addition to talking to Stapleton and others he also interviewed Gen. Creighton Abrams, the senior U.S commander in the country. Afterwards the newsman reported to millions at the close of his 30-minute daily news program that Vietnam was a lost cause.
President Lyndon Johnson reportedly observed after Cronkite’s newscast, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
The president didn’t run for a second term in office and U.S. troops were pulled out of Vietnam in 1973. The war was lost by 1975.
Stapleton would fly home to the States on a C-141 “Starlifter” transport plane. He and another trooper arrived in Oakland, Calif. in uniform. He kissed the ground when he arrived.
“There were 35 or 40 Vietnam protesters waiting for us at the airport,” he said. “I took a Northwest Orient Airplane out of Oakland to Huron, Ohio near where I lived at the time.
“I went to work for the Norfolk and Southern Railroad. I retired as a track foreman after 34 1/2 years working for the railroad. I loved my job,” Stapleton said.
He moved to this area from Ohio eight years ago.
Name: Harry A Stapleton
D.O.B: 25 July 1947
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 6 Dec 1967
Discharged: 8 March 1969
Rank: Specialist 4
Unit: 11th Armored Cavalry
Commendations: Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Vietnam War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Feb. 15, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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A note from Chip Brinkley
“Mon, Feb 15, 2016 at 10:43 AM
“Dear Mr. Moore –
“I just read and enjoyed your article on the WFTV website Soldier recalls dangers of tank driving in Vietnam, and was happy to see your reference to my father’s TET commentary. One of the most interesting aspects of the story to me is that he had dinner with Creighton Abrams the night before he left (they knew each other from the Eighth Air Force in WWII) and Abrams himself said the war was a stalemate.
“But I’m writing with what might seem a small quibble: the TET editorial was not at the end of the half-hour news. For his first editorial, they wanted to keep it separate from the news and made it its own special report.