A Blackhorse Irishman in Vietnam
Michael Coyne is one of the unknown number of Irish who fought in Vietnam. Working in Chicago during the 1960s, it was only a matter of time before the Vietnam War caught up with him.
Interview by Wesley Bourke
Published in Spring and Summer 2017 editions
I was born in Cornamona, Galway, 1945. When I was seven, we moved here to Jenkinstown, Co. Meath, just outside Kilcock. We moved up as part of the Land Commission. All our family, including myself, spoke Irish. When I was 16 my mother was dying and my uncle arranged for me to go to Chicago. On 17 May, 1962. I landed in New York and met up with my father’s family there. I saw all the sights, like the Empire State Building. When I first got to Chicago, I got a job with an Italian gardener. For six months, I went around the suburbs cutting shrubs and that kind of thing. My uncle then got me a job with an Irish-American Furrier by the name of Jerome McCarthy. He gave me a job as an apprentice furrier. I got to do and learn everything about furs. I had a great time going to and helping run the fashion shows in all the big hotels in Chicago. In 1963, I turned 18 and had to sign up for the draft. I got called up for the first time two years later. Jerome McCarthy managed to get me off, based on my job being vital. I’ve no idea why a furrier was classed as vital. This happened two or three times. You’d get called up, ready yourself for going, and then you’d be told to go home.
Called Up and Film School
However, on 23 October, 1966, I was called up again. I went through the medical again and all the other paperwork. They told me “it’s ok go home”. I was on edge and apprehensive and I said ‘no, I want to go’. I was fed up with it. That was it. Off I was sent to Fort Campbell in Kentucky. My boss did not take well to me leaving him. Fort Campbell was our introduction to the military. Here you got your hair cut, issued uniform, and learned the ideology of the U.S. Army. Then it was down to Fort Stuart in Georgia for basic training. This was another 6 – 8 weeks, I can’t fully remember. We arrived on a bus, the Drill Sergeants were there to meet us “Out Out Out!” they shouted. You had to be quick. Fort Campbell had taught us that much. In to our billets, then 05:00 the next morning “Up Up Up!”
They told me “it’s ok go home”. I was on edge and apprehensive and I said ‘no, I want to go’. I was fed up with it. That was it. Off I was sent to Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
The training is the same the world over. The training didn’t bother me. I got on with it. I was skinny and fit. I spent my time helping the poor devils who were breaking down crying. After basic we were sent to Advanced Training School. Every now and then volunteers were asked for. One day an instructor came in and said “We need two volunteers”. Two of us put up our hands. “You! you’re going to Air Traffic Control. You! Coyne, are going to Film Projection School”. I had no idea what that was. Myself and the other guy thought to ourselves ‘great we got nice cushy numbers. I’ve no idea what happened to him afterwards. Another three-week course; this time learning all about recording and editing film. I did a test and passed it. The unit made all sorts of films on things like training videos. A lot of the guys in the unit had served in Vietnam and there was a lot of talk about their tours. They had been over there with the Film Projection Unit. They all said it was a piece of cake. So, I said I’ll volunteer for that.
South Vietnam and Blackhorse
I went down to the Administration Sergeant. He said no problem and did up the paperwork. The next day he called me back. “You are not a U.S. citizen. Goddamn! I am going to have to send all kinds of paperwork up to Washington to get security clearance for you”. That was all sorted and in April 1967, I flew from Tacoma, Washington to Cam Ranh Bay. Cam Ranh is located at an inlet of the South China Sea situated on the south-eastern coast of Vietnam, between Phan Rang and Nha Trang. I was so tired after the journey and the heat was killing.
In our hammocks, we were told we’d be called at 07:00 to parade and get further orders. I was flat out and missed the first call. At 11:00 there was another parade. I fell in and my name was called. “Where were you at 07:00”. ‘I heard nothing’ I said. “It’s going to cost you. You’re going up to Blackhorse”. I didn’t’ know what that meant. I’d never heard of Blackhorse in my life. As it turned out the Blackhorse were the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. They were an army within an army, famous for their exploits in World War II. The Blackhorse Regiment deployed to South East Asia on 11 March, 1966. The Regiment specialised for combat in a counterinsurgency environment. The units M113 armoured personnel carriers were modified with two M60 machineguns with protective gun shield mounted at the port and starboard rear of the vehicle, and a combination circular and flat frontal gun shields added around the .50” heavy machine gun mounted at the commander’s hatch. These modifications turned the M113 into an armoured cavalry assault vehicle. In theatre, the troopers referred to it as ACAV. The regiment was also equipped with M48A3 Patton tanks. The tank was named after General George S. Patton of World War II fame. The unit also had a helicopter company.
The Blackhorse Regiment deployed to South East Asia on 11 March, 1966. The Regiment specialised for combat in a counterinsurgency environment
While I was with Blackhorse, Base Camp was located approximately 3.7 miles south of the village of Xuan Loc on Route 2 and around 1.2 miles southeast of the village of Long Goia. Saigon was about 22 miles to the west along Route 1. When I arrived in Xuan Loc, Blackhorse were just coming off Operation Manhattan. This Operation, starting on 23 April, was a thrust into the Long Nguyen Secret Zone by the 1st and 2nd Squadrons. This zone was a long suspected regional headquarter of the Viet Cong (VC). 60 tunnel complexes were uncovered, 1,884 fortifications were destroyed, and 621 tons of rice was evacuated during these operations. Blackhorse had a reputation for carrying out effective Reconnaissance In Force (RIF) operations. Operation Manhattan ended on 11 May, 1967.
Two or three of us paraded in front of Colonel Roy Farley, he himself only newly appointed the regiment’s Commanding Officer on 8 May. The Regimental Command Sergeant Major at the time was Donald E. Horn. “I see you’re an Irishman” Farley said. “What’s that you have” he asked pointing at my camera. ‘I’m a projectionist’ I said. ‘I show training films’. He bellowed out, “Aint got no room for no training films here. You can be my driver”. That’s good I thought. Well I was at that for about a week. One evening I was smoking pot with a bunch of other lads. The next day the Colonel called me over, “Coyne I hear you were smoking pot”. There was no point in denying it. “Right as punishment you are going up with the scouts”.
Operation Kittyhawk and the Iron Triangle
An ongoing operation at the time was Operation Kittyhawk. It began in April 1967, and ran to 21 March, 1968. The Regiment was tasked to secure and pacify Long Khanh Province. It achieved three main objectives: VC were kept from interfering with travel by locals on the main roads, South Vietnamese were provided medical treatment in programs like MEDCAP and DENCAP and finally, RIF operations were employed to keep the VC off balance, making it impossible for them to mount offensive operations. These operations brought us up to and into Cambodia and around the famous Iron Triangle.
The Iron Triangle, or Tam Giác Sắt in Vietnamese, was a 120-square mile area in the Bình Dương Province. It got its name due to it being a stronghold of Viet Minh activity. The Triangle was located between the Saigon River on the west and the Tinh River on the east and bordering Route 13 about 25 miles north of Saigon. The southern apex was seven miles from Phu Cong, the capital of Bình Dương Province. Its proximity to Saigon concerted American and South Vietnamese efforts to destabilise the region as a power base for Viet Cong operations. The Iron Triangle had a vast network of tunnels from which the Viet Cong operated. The tunnels, built during the war with the French, was said to have a network of over 30,000 miles at its height throughout North and South Vietnam. Hundreds of miles of this network were in the Iron Triangle. They were especially concentrated in the area around the town of Củ Chi.
As part of Kittyhawk, 1st and 3rd Squadrons were carried out Operation Emporia from 21 July – 14 September. These were road clearing operations with limited RIF missions. As I was the spare man, I used to regularly get called down to check things out – foxholes and tunnels were very regular. I was up with the scouts for three weeks. A replacement was needed on one of the tanks in 1st Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Squadron, after a trooper was killed. I was transferred there and that’s where I remained. In Vietnam, a Patton tank had a crew of five (commander, gunner, loader, driver and back-deck gunner). My call sign was Delta13Charlie. Delta meant D Company, 13 was our tank, and Charlie was me. As in C for Coyne. Whereas Delta13 was the tank commander, Delta13Kilo was for Kilock, and Delta13Foxtrot was for Fisher.
On our Patton tank I was the back-deck gunner – otherwise known as the spare man. I had an M60 machine gun, M79 grenade launcher, an M3 .45” grease gun, and an M16 assault rifle. We didn’t use the range finder down in the turret that much. In the close environment of the jungle visibility was very poor. My vantage point on top was critical. We lost four tanks in my time. I was also wounded four times. RPG’s (Rocket Propelled Grenades) were a common enemy.
They’d hit the tank and bits of shrapnel would go everywhere. We rarely saw Base Camp, as we were constantly on operations. Food, fuel, ammunition, spare parts, were all flown out to us by helicopter. The squadrons were very self-sufficient. Tank engines were even changed in the middle of the jungle.
In the Summer of 1967, the South Vietnamese presidential elections were being held. As part of Operation Valdosta I & II, the regiment was tasked with providing security at polling stations during the elections and to maintain reaction forces to counter VC agitation. 1st and 3rd Squadrons operated in the Long Khánh District. The presidential elections were held on September 3rd. The result was a victory for General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, who won 34.8% of the vote. The operation was a great success. Voter turnout was 83.2%.
On one occasion, up at Binh Long we were conducting a RIF. Lieutenant Reid came up one day, “we need you to carry the radio and go up and check out a fork in the trail with myself and Smithy”. Smithy was the Sergeant from Kansas City. I put on the radio and went up to the fork about 1,000m up the trail. I was standing behind. The Lieutenant and Sergeant Smith were in front to my left and right. The Lieutenant said to me “check that trail there”. Smithy said “it’s ok I’ll check it”. Up he jumped and went over. The next thing BANG! The top half of his body was gone. His legs were still standing there. Hard to believe, but his legs were still there. It was so fast. I looked down and parts of his rib cage was sticking in my arm. Within a fraction of a second myself
and Lieutenant Reid were on the ground, our tanks were firing over our heads. The rockets that had hit us had gone on to hit the tanks. The Patton tank used the 90mm M377 canister anti-personnel round. This canister projectile was filled with 1,281 spherical steel pellets for use at short ranges. It was particularly effective against personnel in dense foliage. The tanks opened-up with everything. All around us the jungle started to come down around us.
We went from one operation to another. Patrols and more patrols. On 5 December, Colonel Roy Farley was replaced by Colonel Jack MacFarlane. During this time, Donald E. Horn was the regiments Regimental Command Sergeant Major (RCSM). This was a new rank introduced earlier in the year. From 14 December – 21, we conducted Operation Quicksilver. 1st and 2nd Squadrons were tasked with the security of the highway between Bến Cát and Phuroc Ninh. Its purpose was to secure routes that moved logistical personnel of the 101st Airborne Division between Bình Long and Tây Ninh Provinces. Cordon, search and Reconnaissance in Force (RIF) missions were carried out. Quicksilver rolled into Operation Fargo, 21 December – 21 January, 1968. Fargo was a regimental seized operation. RIF’s were conducted in Bình Long and Tây Ninh Provinces and Route 13 was opened to military traffic for the very first time. When we drove over or found a tunnel, as spare man I was always sent down to check them out. You grabbed your .45 and bayonet and down you went. On one occasion, I jumped down and found a room with a Singer sewing machine. In the corner of the room there was a trap door. I knew the Viet Cong (VC) or North Vietnamese (NVA) soldiers were on the other side. And they knew I knew they were there. I wasn’t going near it. So, I sat down and started peddling away on the sewing machine. I sat there for around 15- or 20-minutes peddling away. Crawling back up to the tank “nothing down there except a sewing machine if you want it”. If I’d opened that door I wouldn’t be here now.
In the villages, I was always the one to drop down and talk to the villagers. I’d ask them “Where VC? Where VC?” they’d always reply “No VC! No VC!” The Sergeant asked me one day, “God Dam Coyney! How do you speak to them?” “I speak English” I told him. The Vietnamese spoke some English. Some better than others. One time this old lady shouted Number 1! Number 1! The guys on the tank just thought the villagers liked me. I knew what it meant – I was marked as a target. I got back up on the tank and told the commander, “they’re friendly’s, let’s go!”. You avoided a fire fight when you could.
“When we drove over or found a tunnel, as spare man I was always sent down to check them out. You grabbed your .45 and bayonet and down you went.”
On another day, we were the lead tank. We came up to a stream. I said to Danny Cline, “that looks like a mine”. “I agree”, he said. We stopped the tank and called in the engineer minesweepers. I could hear on the radio in my helmet, a captain shouting “come on move it! I have a schedule to keep to”. He sent down an intelligence officer, who was also a captain. He started kicking the ground with his foot. I was looking down from the top of the tank at him. Danny shouted, “Sir don’t go over there it’s not safe”. The officer replied back, “I didn’t do all that training in the States for nothing”. BANG! He went 100 feet in the air. All that we found of him was his boot. A straight up blast. His son wrote to me for some time after. I initially told him his father had stepped on the mine. Eventually I had to tell him he kicked it. He asked me why his father had kicked it? I told him he was under severe pressure to get the column moving again. I remember a chaplain arriving in camp. “Coyne you’re a Catholic, aren’t you?” I replied yes. “Report to the chaplain”. We took a walk into the jungle. There were two big pits. Around 14 American dead soldiers. The chaplain said a few words, but wanted me then to also say some prayers. I wasn’t a practising Catholic. All I could remember was the Hail Mary. “What’s that priest over there at that pit doing?” I asked. The chaplain replied, “that’s for the Protestants”. Can you believe that, even in the middle of Vietnam!
The Tet Offensive
On 30 January, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive. Coinciding with the Tết holiday (Vietnamese New Year). It was one of the largest campaigns during the war. It was fought over three phases: I. 30 January – 28 March; II. 5 May – 15 June; and Phase III. 17 August – 23 September, 1968. The offensive cantered around surprise attacks against military and civilian command and control centres throughout South Vietnam.
When the offensive broke out on the night of January 30th, we were actually across the border in Cambodia and had just gone through a continuous fire fight to get there. When the offensive began, we then had to turn around and fight our way back to protect Saigon. We left tanks and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) burning all along the road. But we had to keep moving. Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) kept coming at us, but we had to keep going and get through it. Saigon was a battlefield. Scenes just like what you would see on TV today in Syria. The place was being torn apart.
Operation Adairsville began immediately on January 31st. Word was received by II Field Force HQs to immediately re deploy to the Long Binh/ Biên Hòa area to relieve threatened installations. At 14:00hrs 1st Squadron was called to move from our position south of the Michelin Rubber Plantation to the II Field Force Headquarters. The 2nd Squadron moved from north of the plantation to the III Corps POW Compound where enemy soldiers were sure to attempt to liberate the camp. The 3rd Squadron moved from An Lộc to III Corps Army, Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) Headquarters. It took only 14 hours and 80 miles to arrive in position after first being alerted. 1st and 2nd Squadrons continued security
operations in the Long Binh/ Biên Hòa area and the area around Blackhorse Base Camp under Operation Alcorn Cove which began on 22 March. This was a joint mission with the ARVN 18th Division and 25th Division. This operation rolled into Operation Toan Thang – a joint operation involving the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions. Toan Thang was the first of a series of massive operations combining the assets and operations of the ARVN’s III Corps and our II Field Force. The purpose of this operation was to maintain the post-Tet pressure on the enemy and to drive all remaining NVA/VC troops from III Corps and the Saigon area. A total of 42 U.S. combat battalions participated at one time or another in Toan Thang. The Tet Offensive allowed the regiment a chance to fight the enemy formations in open combat. Colonel MacFarlane was wounded in March 1968, and replaced on 12 March, by Colonel Leonard Holder. He was killed only a few weeks later on 21 March. Colonel Charles Gorder took command of the regiment on 22 March.
Awarded the Bronze Star
The VC and NVA launched Phase II of Tet in early May. This was known as the May Offensive, Little Tet, or Mini-Tet. The enemy struck 119 targets throughout South Vietnam, including Saigon. 13 VC battalions, slipped through the cordon and again turned Saigon into a battlefield. Mini Tet was nearly worse than the main offensive. In early May, I came across a guy from Kentucky. He was bent over, wrecked with worry. He had a wife and four kids. On 13 May, the tanks and APCs were all lined up for a counterattack near Saigon. I can still remember our Captain with a machete in one hand. As he dropped his hand with the machete he shouted “CHARGE!”. We all rolled forward firing as we moved. Rockets and tracer rounds came at us from all over. Bullets were flying everywhere. I was on the top deck with the M60.
“I can still remember our Captain with a machete in one hand. As he dropped his hand with the machete he shouted “CHARGE!”. We all rolled forward firing as we moved.”
On the tank beside me my counterpart, a guy from Dakota Washington, was dancing away. Bullets flying all around. I thought he’s f**king gone. At the end of the battle we counted 14 to 15 holes in his clothes. Not a scratch on him. That’s the way it played out. He was off his head on drugs. As for the poor devil from Kentucky, his track got hit. They were nearly all killed. The whole unit had to pull back. All night long we could hear them. “Help, Help”. Awful shit. On 30 May, the tanks and the APCs were all in the rice paddies at Đức Hòa, a rural district in the Mekong Delta region. There was an intense fire fight. Nearly everybody ran out of ammunition. The Captain was standing with a prisoner. He said to us, “There’s four APCs out there and there’s nine of our wounded in them. We need two or three guys to go out there and get them”. He looked at me. I got my M16 and headed out with Staff Sargent Francis Hinnigan. It was like wading through mud. Next thing Hinnigan went down. Machine gun fire zeroed in on where we were. He was hit in the shoulder and leg. I kept going bullets were whizzing all around. I got hit. But I got there. There were nine guys wounded, some of them were in bits, legs and other parts missing. Another guy was wounded but he was able to give me a hand. We got them all into a track (M113 APC). I got into the front and drove them out of there all the time under fire. For his actions that day, Michael was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor.
UNITED STATES ARMY
[HEAD QUARTER INFANTRY] FORCE VIETNAM
APO San Francisco 96266
3 Oct 1968
[Ref: October 138X]
AWARD OF THE BRONZE STAR MEDAL
.. TC 320. The following AWARD [is announced.]
COYNE, MICHAEL US54811088 (SSAN: 368…39..0998) PRIVATE FIRST CLASS
E3 United States Army. COMPANY D 1ST SQUADRON …. ARMORED CAVALRY
Awarded: Bronze Star Medal with “V” Valor …..
Date action: 30 May 1968
Theater: Republic of Vietnam
[hostile enemy on]30 May 1968 while serving as a machine gunner with
Company D, 1st Squadron 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in the Republic
of Vietnam. On this date, Company D was engaged in an assault across rice
paddies in the vicinity of Duc Hoa when they and several armored cavalry
assault vehicles became mired in the [mud] When the assault was halted to
reorganize, four armored cavalry assault vehicles 200 meters ahead, which
had nine wounded crews in [them] were unable to withdraw. Upon learning of
the problem Private Coyne immediately volunteered to join a team to retrieve
the wounded. He moved through the soaked rice paddies under a constant
[smothering] hail of enemy fire. Reaching the forward armored cavalry assault
vehicle positions, Private Coyne moved from man to man and assisted in treating
and moving the wounded men to the cover of [the armored] vehicle. Private
Coyne and two companions then [….] free it from the mud and drove it through
a continuing volley of enemy fire [to] the rear area from which the wounded
men could be medically evacuated. Private Coyne’s unwavering devotion [to
country] and great personal courage in the face of enemy fire were in keeping
with the highest traditions of the military service and [reflect] great credit upon
himself, his unit and the United States of America.
Authority: By direction of the President under the provisions of Executive
Order 11046, 24 August 1968.
AOR THE COMMANDER:
OFFICIAL: CH. CHANTRELL, CHIEF OF STAFF
M, WESTON JR
(some text missing due to degradation of citation.
I caught malaria in mid-July that year. They flew me out of the jungle. I was so sick. By the time I got to hospital and they did tests, the malaria had gone into relapse. So, nothing showed up. Back on a chopper I was put and sent back to my unit. Within twelve hours I’d passed out. I woke up on the fourth of July, I could have sworn they were trying to kill me. I was sent from hospital to hospital; Long Bihn hospital, Alaska, and then Valley Forge. I wouldn’t wish malaria on anyone. My temperature was so hot my brain should have been cooked! I never returned to Vietnam after that. My military service was effectively over and I was ‘separated’ out on disability on 29 August, 1968. Colonel Gorder was replaced on 15 July, by none other than Colonel George S. Patton Jr. The son of General George S. Patton IV of World War II fame. RCSM Horn was replaced around this time too with RCSM Daniel J. Mulcahey, who himself was wounded sometime later. Colonel Patton requested that the regiment test the M551 Sheridan. 1st Squadron were the first to use the new tank. While all this was happening, I was in hospital.
Separated Out and the War at Home
After I was ‘separated out’, I went back to work for the fur company in Chicago. My boss’s son had got killed while I was in Vietnam in a car crash. He was miserable. He couldn’t understand how I’d survived Vietnam and his son gets killed in a car crash. I worked for a bit with my brother in Indiana, got in trouble with the law. I eventually made my way to London where I worked as an electrician, spent a year in Saudi Arabia in 1972 on the powerplants, we were pulled out when the 1973 Arab– Israeli War broke out. Christmas 1973, I was broke. Wandering the streets, I looked up and saw a sign for Bank Line Shipping. Days later I was on a flight to Panama to meet my ship. That was another adventure.
I was meant to be discharged in 1972. The U.S. Army office in London told me there was a problem, as the office where I was inducted in Chicago had been burnt down. In theory, I couldn’t be discharged. After I asked for back pay the paper work was soon sorted and I was discharged from the U.S. Army on 22 October, 1972. I was not the same guy. One thing that stays with you after you have been in a battle. You never want to be in another one. For a least five or six years after the war I was a headbanger. I can’t remember mostly what I was doing. I didn’t give a shit about anything and I couldn’t remember anything. My head was a right mess. It still lingers.
Michael returned to Ireland in 1979. He became a founder member of the JFK Post, American Legion (Dublin), in 1996, he is also a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Irish Veterans, American Veterans of Vietnam and the Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Association. Michael later took a case against the U.S. government over the effects of Agent Orange. (Agent Orange was a chemical used to defoliate the jungles in Vietnam). He lives today in Jenkinstown, Co. Meath, with his wife Libby, two sons Thomas and Michael, and their daughter Vanessa.