The Longest Day – a Personal Retrospective

by Master Sergeant Mark A. Praught (Ret.)

(Editor’s Note: We in the Veterans caucus support our fellow veterans and want to hear their stories, even if it sometimes relates troubling war experiences. MSgt. Praught (Ret.) wrote this retrospective piece after being interviewed for the VMF Caucus’ May 2022 newsletter’s Veteran’s Spotlight. The interview and the powerful media images of the war in Ukraine inspired him to ‘dig deep’ as he tried to make sense of his longest day while on active duty – May 14, 1970, the day the US military pulled out of Cambodia.)

I was an accomplished citizen-soldier, warrior, and patriot from my first day in basic training to the longest, most arduous, and deadliest day of my life — the day that owns a place in the history of the Vietnam War. After the war, I served in all components of the US Army until retiring in 2009.

First, how did this 37-plus-year military career start?

I was planning on attending college in the fall of 1968 and had been accepted to the local junior college. I was highly disappointed in not going to college as planned.

However, the Vietnam War was at its peak; Tet ’68, the war’s worst enemy counteroffensive, was winding down. Yet, May 1968 was the month of that war’s worst casualty count — 2,460 men dead. As a result, the US military needed more young men. So, imagine my surprise on getting that dreadful letter, a draft notice. Of course, my mother cried over it; her girlfriend’s son, a year older than I, was a drafted Marine and killed during the battle of Khe Sanh a few months earlier. However, my father, a WWII veteran and a survivor of the Normandy invasion of June 6th, 1944, at Omaha Beach — he saw it much differently.

All of the other military services turned me down as they had their monthly quotas filled. If I did nothing, my choices were to get drafted into the Army or Marines as a “grunt” (infantryman). So I enlisted in the Army for a job as an Armor Crewman (MOS 11E), a “Tanker,” reasoning that the Army’s armored divisions mainly were stateside and in Europe, not Vietnam – or so the Army recruiter told me. But I went in with the attitude to do my duty for the country in its time of need. I did not ever imagine I would have a 37 and a ½-year career. After training at Ft. Knox for eight months and a wartime promotion to Sergeant (E5), I had orders to Korea and was on the DMZ for 6 of the ten months there. Then came my new orders, the reassignment to the Republic of Vietnam.

Arriving in Vietnam a month before the Cambodia invasion, I was assigned to H Company, 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR); the regiment was commonly known in-country by its nickname “Blackhorse”. I was a Tank Commander (TC) of an M-48 “Patton” tank, an absolute jungle crusher at 56 tons combat loaded.

On May 14th, 1970, the Cambodian invasion (Operation Rock Crusher) was ongoing with its deadly daily grind. The 11th ACR, being the US Army’s largest, most significant ground armored force in Vietnam, led the attack into the “Fishhook” combat zone. The mission was to search for and destroy the North Vietnamese Army’s ability to wage war in the area north of Saigon and to give time for South Vietnamese forces to train and defend themselves.

The 2nd Squadron (battalion) had the task of leading the invasion, with the 1st & 3rd squadrons protecting its flanks. Each squadron’s firepower had three armored assault troops, a self-propelled howitzer battery, and a heavy tank company, as well as a tracked heavy mortar and flame thrower (Zippo) platoon. For the most part, daily enemy contact with gunfights was common to most elements of the Blackhorse throughout the two months of the invasion.

That morning of May 14th, the company commander had an operations order assigning the 3rd platoon as the lead element of the day’s combat assault; that was the bad news. The good news was that day would most likely be the last and deepest thrust into Cambodia, per forthcoming orders from President Nixon. The problem was that two of the platoon’s five tanks were down with engine/transmission troubles. That day, I was the point/lead tank; my usual call sign was “Hotel 32”. In addition, the terrain with large trees necessitated we move as a single column, the most dangerous for any armored formation. We were going on an old logging road, most of the time slowly moving at a walking pace.

Many hours and kilometers (“klicks”) later, I was reconning with the TC’s .50 caliber machine gun, shooting bursts and praying that the enemy would engage with us at a distance, so we could back off, letting artillery, Huey Cobra gunships, and USAF Phantoms work them over before we ran through and over them.

Over the radio, my platoon leader started yelling, “Hotel 32, cease fire, cease fire”. Just as I turned and looked back at him, the Squadron CO’s Huey passed low over my tank, so low that I could see the rivets on the bird’s belly. If I had kept firing, a ricocheted .50 cal. round could have brought down that chopper….. I turned back around, and then Tranh (a Kit Carson scout/ repatriated VC) shouted and pointed down the road ahead and ran and jumped behind the tank’s turret.

I looked back and 2 NVA soldiers in the tree line where the jungle road curved to the right fired an RPG anti-tank round at us. I watched as that orange-red fireball appeared to slow down and took forever to reach the tank’s hull, hitting just under the hull’s front slope on the left side. (This, I learned years later, is called “time dilation”.)

When it did, it burned an inch hole through six-plus inches of hardened steel, missing the stored 90 mm main gun ammunition by less than an inch. (Think of the two-hole space in a 6-pack of beer; if it hadn’t missed that ammo, my crew and I would certainly have had our names on the Vietnam “wailing wall” in Washington today). Even today, 50 plus years later, in my mind’s eye, I can still see that plasma ruby red stream of molten steel flashing inside the turret, below me, and in the left field of my vision. As the TC, I was above and right of the impact. I had shards of spall impact my lower body, and a jagged one bounced off the rear of the engine wall, sticking me with a wound to my lower back below my flack vest. For moments that seemed like an eternity, I was stunned and dazed, my ears were ringing, and acrid smoke filled the turret. I looked around — WTF? My conscious reasoning brain was overloaded. I was just given a cease-fire order, and the enemy took advantage of that. Slim, the crew’s loader, was sitting on the loader’s hatch and miraculously uninjured from the RPG’s blast. He dropped down into the turret, turned on the evacuator fan, and cleared the turret’s smoke. Then, he angrily shouted at me and said, “We got to fight.”

It was then with those words that the “Lizard brain” in all of us, took me over; that part of our brain doesn’t think. It just reacts in not thinking. It makes us do things automatically; it doesn’t sense fear; it just converts all of that seemingly boring and repetitive training into determined motion and action. It will only pause to hear your comrade’s cries for help in its single-mindedness. Lizard brain allows you to get past your fear and terror that the conscious brain wouldn’t let you do in the name of self-preservation. Without Lizard brain, there is panic, anxiety, and immobilization.

I was back on the TC’s .50 cal. M2 (affectionally called “Ma Deuce,” ’cause in battle, she’s your best friend). Sweeping an arc of bullets in front of me, every fifth round was a tracer, showing where that deadly stream was going. I reached down and grabbed the TC’s turret and fire control handle that pointed the 90mm main gun on the place where I last saw the two “dinks” fire at us. I pulled the rope lanyard, and as the 90mm main gun rocked the whole tank back; the sound was a loud “BOTT,” as you feel the pressure wave coming out the muzzle in a flash with smoke, and the gun’s breach automatically lowers, ejecting the spent shell casing. A black ball canister round just cut a swath into the jungle, eliminating the brush and saplings, leaving bigger trees without their bark.

While Slim was reloading the main gun, I used the co-aux .30 cal. machine gun, a holdover from WWII to sweep some more. I had to give the .50 cal. a break, as it was smoking hot from all the rounds I fired from it. Slim slapped my leg and yelled, “Up” I swung the gun to my far right and perpendicular to the road and hull (as this was an upside-down “L” shaped ambush on us), pulled the rope again, and another swath of jungle disappeared. I yelled to Slim, “H-E, H-E (high explosive),” took aim back where the RPG came from, and yanked the rope; whatever was there wasn’t there anymore.

As I was swinging the gun tube back, Austin, my driver, was attempting to crawl out of his driver’s compartment in the hull below me. He was peppered with shards, bloodied, and burned from the initial RPG blast (his driver position was between the two banks of stored 90 main gun rounds in the hull.) I jumped out of the TC hatch and down on the hull and lifted him out by his flack jacket, and we both dropped to the ground in front of the tank. Then, still fueled by the greatest adrenaline high of my life, I grabbed his flack vest by the collar, dragging him, and tossed him under the tank’s rear main grill doors of the engine compartment (the engine was still idling). I looked up, and Jim, the (back deck) gunner, was doing his best to help Doc the medic with Doc’s own leg wound (shot) and Tranh’s arm wound (shot). Jim and I moved Doc and Tranh to Austin on the ground. Jim took charge of the three wounded. I took a short running leap stepping into the drive sprocket of the track drive, vaulting onto the tank’s back deck, and leaping into the TC’s position again. Slim, in the meantime, was throwing the 90’s spent shell casing out the loader’s hatch as the turret floor was getting treacherously covered with spent casings. We had fired 10 of the 18 rounds in the “ready rack” located to the left of the main gun. Lizard brain was sensing the tempo of the battle was surging again. Back on the .50 cal., I had used up at least half of the 250 rounds in the minigun can beside it. Then a second RPG was fired at me personally from a 45-degree angle right in front of me and missed me by less than a foot over my head. I started giving bursts on where the last RPG came from, never seeing who shot it. All the while, everything was still in slow motion. I could not move fast enough. As Slim again yelled, “Up.” I triggered a 90mm beehive flechette round towards the area of that last RPG, wiping out more jungle.
I swung the gun tube to the right, perpendicular to the hull. Suddenly multiple long gray streaks appeared from my lower right, arcing up and to my left in front of me… Even Lizard brain was momentarily doing a WTF, and then the last streak grazed the top of my right forearm. It had cut a neat “u” shaped groove in my arm … I seemingly stared at it for an eternity; it suddenly gushed blood and, for the first time, some real pain. I looked down to the right and saw the muzzle of an AK-47 receding back into an enemy “spider hole.” It was just a few meters away from me. (Note that the TC’s hatchway is about 10 feet off the ground). Being in pain, pissed and bleeding, I wrapped a t-shirt around my arm and grabbed a “baseball” hand grenade off of the rack of different grenades in the TC’s cupola, pulling the pin and leaning out and lobbing the grenade; spoon flying off, it went down the hole. I whipped around and grabbed my .45 pistol, firing down the hole until a geyser of red dirt shot out, falling over everything in a red cloud.

Within moments to minutes, my conscious self came back; “WTF happened?” I was aware that the tempo had slowed to almost nothing; the tanks behind me were all just idling, and the crews were helping their wounded get on the ground. Jim and Slim were the only two out of the six of us who started that day without a scratch.

I told them I needed help, and Jim took over the TC’s position. I got out of my hatch and stumbled onto the ground, tired, bleeding, and still a bit dizzy. I noticed my pants were wet with blood, and then I felt a shard sticking out of my lower left-back. Oh good, I didn’t piss in my pants after all. I walked back past the other two tanks of the 3rd platoon. Then past the company commander’s tank.

Captain Scissom’s tank had it the worst; Scissom was sitting in the loader’s hatchway, his legs cut off below the knees by the first RPG that also cut his TC, SSG. Jim Daigle virtually in half, killing him. The CO’s driver SP4 Dale Cunningham jumped out of his position and got up on the turret, pushing Captain Scissom back, swinging the main gun towards the enemy, and getting the .50 cal on them. Unfortunately, a 2nd RPG struck the .50 cal and Cunningham, taking off the side of his head and face.

SP4 Dale Cunningham was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart posthumously, and SSG Jim Daigle was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously. In all, 9 were wounded and 2 killed in action.

God gave me a pass that day.

I was bandaged up and asked to stay with my crew because we were spread thin, down to three men per tank. So, the dust-off medivac Hueys came in and loaded up all the other wounded and the bodies of Daigle and Cunningham.  

The entire column of tanks and tracks did a neutral steer, pivoting 180 degrees in place. Where at the beginning of the day, I was the point tank. Now I was the very last in formation. I swung the main gun over the rear deck, protecting the formation as we left. I fired a few more 90mm rounds as we were leaving in case the enemy thought about pursuing our retreat. And by then, the howitzer battery from base camp was peppering the area, followed by the Huey Cobras, and later the Air Force napalmed everything we had started.

When we rolled back into the base camp, we “circled the wagons” and our company’s 1st Sergeant walked over to my tank and said, “Talk to me.” He saw how bloodied and dirty I was; I jumped down and collapsed, momentarily passing out. I had finally allowed myself to succumb and go into shock. The medics came with a stretcher, put an IV into me, and cooled and washed my face. Hours later, I walked over to another dust-off Huey, taking me to the 124th Medivac Hospital in Long Binh, Vietnam. The Huey landed, and I was the only one to limp off. The chopper was loaded with zipped black body bags and a soldier on a stretcher. Inside, after washing me down, an Army nurse (aka an angel) came over, gave me a little water, started another IV and looked me in the eye, and said, “Today is over for you, you’re safe, and I’m going to give you something for the pain and sleep.” I told her “Thank you” and was out like a light.

Weeks later, I found out about that day: it was the farthest ground penetration of the Cambodian campaign by the US Army Vietnam and elements of the 11th ACR. I was the soldier, Tank Commander, who stood the deepest in enemy territory. Period.

If the question arises, how does one remember details from over 50 years ago? It’s easy. It’s a hardwired memory that I can’t forget.

Idiom:  “Firstest and fastest” usually wins in battle; however, sometimes “mostest, bestus and longest” overcomes the initial advantage!