Few people know the power and fury of an M109 howitzer firing its rounds. But China Spring resident Will Haning, 69, does. He was the machine gunner on a .50-caliber weapon on a howitzer during the Vietnam War, where he served 11 months and nine days.
For a young adult fresh from his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, Haning got quite the experience from his brief time in the military. He was raised in a family of all girls and admits to being a bit spoiled because he was the only boy. “I was still a snot-nosed kid,” he said. “I had never been out of Iowa.”
Haning attended a technical high school, where he took, among other things, drafting. After graduating, he went to work for a time as a surveyor, then as a draftsman. But soon, Uncle Sam came calling in late 1968 and Haning was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Haning traveled to Fort Polk, Louisiana, where he received his basic training in the artillery division, followed by advanced training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he learned to aim, load, shoot and maintain a howitzer. In April 1969, he was sent to Vietnam.
He arrived in Long Binh, which was at the time the U.S. Army’s largest base in South Vietnam, reports say. It was located outside the city of Bien Hoa, roughly 20 miles north of Saigon. He was issued his “OD Greens” (olive drab green) jungle fatigues. “Everything you had was green,” he said.
Sleeping in the open field
From there, Haning was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 35th Artillery, Battery C. They did not stay in Long Binh. Instead, they were assigned to shoot for many different units, which meant spending most of his time out in the field. Sometimes they slept out in the open, sometimes on another base. They also slept in 2x2 corrugated metal pipes that looked much like mini Quonset huts. Each could hold two cots in each.
Haning’s memory of where he served has now faded, and he has trouble pinning down locations. He knows he was in the small town of Xuan Loc (pronounced Swan Lock), and military records show the 2nd Battalion, 35th Artillery served from mid-1966 to April 1970 at Black Horse Base Camp, a U.S. Army camp.
The M109 crew of six (sometimes five) included the driver, gunner and assistant gunner, as well as ammunition handlers. While Haning operated the .50-caliber gun, he also had duties on the M109, including inserting the powder and projectiles, which weighed about 100 pounds.
The .50-caliber Browning heavy machine gun he manned was detachable, and they would put it in the bunker when they settled in for the night. It was nearly as tall as Haning, and the gun and the tripod it sat on weighed a combine 128 pounds.
The M109 self-propelled howitzer fires a variety of 98-pound 155 mm munitions, including high-explosive, illuminating, smoke and rocket assisted. They would work with different forward observers, who would give coordinates of where to fire. “We never did see where we shot,” he said. That because the firing range of the howitzer was miles away.
Although they never were directly involved in battle, their job was an important one that helped keep the enemy at bay and provided additional support for ground soldiers.
An argument can get you killed
There were some frightening moments, such as the time a soldier and sergeant got into an argument. The soldier was so upset, he pulled out a grenade, released the pin and dropped it between the two men. Everyone, including Haning, hit the dirt. The sergeant, however, pushed the soldier away, grabbed the grenade and tossed it to the nearest berm — all within seconds. Because of his actions, no one was hurt.
Haning later drew an interesting assignment when Charley Company was sent to provide firepower to the allied Australians, who had their own compound in Vietnam. Haning, however, worked on special projects. While assigned to build a meeting center for the local Vietnamese, he also built a bar for the NCO club out of junk wood.
“Australians are different,” said Haning. “They’re super people.”
Although he was only there about 30 days, it made quite an impression.
Shortly thereafter, Haning’s time was up and he returned to the States in March 1970. He was assigned to Fort Hood and liked Texas so much, he decided to stay. He was honorably discharged in June 1970.
Haning moved to Temple and took a job surveying before landing a civilian position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He retired in 2011 after 34 years of federal service. In 1997, he made a second go of marriage and wed Brenda Slayton; they’ve been married for 20 years. Today, Haning keeps busy with volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity.
Looking back on his service, he’s proud that he served and would do it again. “You learn to take care of yourself and cover your buddy, too,” he said. “You meet a lot of nice people.”