4th/47th Battalion ConnectionJohn Gerbing is another local veteran who served in the same 9th Infantry Division unit that I served with from May 1966 to January 1968 when it was reactivated for combat in Vietnam. I didn’t know John then but when I visited my friend Jerry Danielsen years ago I discovered that John was his next-door neighbor. John and I stayed in touch and we finally met at Route 66 to begin creating this veterans page.
Topsy TurvyJohn W. Gerbing was born May 19, 1945, in Chicago and lived there until he was 6 years old when his father, an aerospace engineer, moved his family to San Jose. In 1955, they moved again to the San Fernando Valley as John’s father worked for North American Aviation. John attended Crespi High School until his 11th grade when he met a beautiful girl named Patricia Ready, who attended Monroe High School. John was so smitten with Pat that he promptly transferred to Monroe not knowing that she would soon break off their budding romance. John said, “Pat turned my world topsy turvy.” While attending Crespi, John competed in track and field, and running the 100-yard dash was his specialty as he ran it an amazing 10.2 seconds.
Uncle Sam’s GreetingAfter graduating from Monroe High School on June 19, 1964, John attended Valley Junior College and blissfully rekindled his relationship with Pat. However, he dropped out, intending to resume the following semester. Uncle Sam had different ideas. John received his draft notice, known as “Uncle Sam’s Greeting Letter,” and reported to downtown Los Angeles’ induction station on May 17, 1966. It’s noted that this is the exact thing that happened to me when I stupidly dropped out of Pierce College and was also drafted May 17, 1966. After that long day at L.A.’s induction station, John was bussed to Fort Ord for several days of Army orientation, receiving a buzz haircut, olive drab fatigues, boots, multiple vaccinations, etc. John recalls, “We arrived at Fort Ord late that first day and we could not get off that bus fast enough for those crotchety ole sergeants hollering at us.”
Custer HillAfter three days at Fort Ord, John and his fellow soldiers flew to Kansas City and then bussed to Fort Riley, Kansas, arriving at 5 a.m. the next morning. John said, “Once again, we suffered another rowdy and uncouth reception by a bunch of ol’ sergeants who treated us like criminals. We got no sleep until after another really long rough day.” Also on John’s first day with Alpha Company, 4th/47th Battalion, he was assigned as an acting buck sergeant squad leader, which irritated his men as it was his job to assign floor scrubbing, cleaning toilets, etc. Soon, these newly minted soldiers received disconcerting news that they were part of the 9th Infantry Division’s reactivation for combat in Vietnam. Echo Company Soon, John’s basic training was completed and everyone received a two-week leave of absence. The San Fernando, Antelope, Simi and Santa Clarita valleys were hit hard by the draft and it brought a great many of us together at Fort Riley. We chartered a Super Constellation passenger plane and flew to Van Nuys Airport for a glorious two-week leave of absence. John and I reminisced what a fine day that was. But alas, it was soon over and we were back to Fort Riley for advanced infantry training. John had made good friends with Noel T. West, who was assigned to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for medical training. Before departing, Noel convinced John to join a new 4th/47th company, Echo Company, as a four-deuce mortar man. John was in Alpha Company’s mortar platoon so it made sense, though John really hated leaving his Alpha buddies, but he took Noel’s advice. John fondly remembers his friend to this day and he strongly believes that his advice saved his life.
USS General John PopeOur 4th/47th Battalion trained from May until December 1966, receiving a Christmas two-week leave of absence and for John and the rest of us it was a bittersweet reunion with our families knowing that afterwards we would deploy into combat. During the first week in January 1967, while it was snowing we boarded a troop train at Fort Riley for a four-day trip to Oakland, where we boarded a World War II troop ship, the USS General John Pope. Two weeks later, we docked at Okinawa for refueling and resupply, which enabled a five-hour shore leave that morphed into a rollicking bar-hopping good time. In the middle of that night a surprise roll call was conducted as we learned a soldier was seen by our military police stealing food from the ship’s galley. Those MPs chased that young soldier to the top deck where he shockingly jumped the rail into the dark Pacific Ocean never to be seen again.
Heat and HumidityOnce arriving at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, in late January 1967 John and his troops boarded deuce and a half trucks and rushed bumper to bumper to Camp Bearcat, where we all established a base camp. The extreme heat and humidity was a major factor while putting up tents, digging mortar trenches and filling what seemed like a million sandbags. Bunker guard duty and patrols around Bearcat’s jungle perimeter was assigned to all units. It was serious business though combat action was light. However, Alpha Company’s Sgt. Benito Alaniz, on bunker guard duty one night, was killed by a Viet Cong sniper. No sooner than completing our base camp we relocated to our new base camp, Dong Tam, down in the Mekong Delta and an abundance of Viet Cong activity was encountered. John and his mortar team were always counted on to support infantry operations in the Mekong Delta’s hamlets, jungles, rice paddies and swamps while seeking to destroy Viet Cong forces.
Search and DestroyThe 4th/47th’s first significant firefight occurred on May 15 after enduring months of grueling platoon, company and battalion seize, search and destroy patrols. Charlie Company’s 1st Platoon was caught in the open and took a number of casualties including one soldier, Pete Peterson, killed in action. Meanwhile, Charlie Company’s other platoons rallied to support our pinned-down troops and all the while John’s mortar team fired their four deuce mortars in support. At the end of the day, the Viet Cong lost over 90 fighters. A month later, the 4th/47th encountered a much larger Viet Cong force hunkered in heavily fortified bunkers while U.S. soldiers crossed open rice paddies. The company John had transferred from, Alpha Company, suffered 32 men killed and almost everyone else of their 120-man unit was wounded. John’s good friend, medic Noel T. West, lost his life that fateful day, and to this day, John remains eternally grateful that Noel convinced him to transfer to Echo Company. Altogether, our 4th/47th Battalion lost 47 men during that ferocious battle. A month later, the 4th/47th experienced another significant firefight and endured more killed and wounded in action as 1967 proved an extremely dangerous and costly year.
Honorable DischargeAfter departing Vietnam in January 1968, John was honorably discharged May 16, 1968, and he returned home with a strong desire to marry his beautiful sweetheart, Patricia, but first he needed a job. Pat worked for Pac Bell and John managed to land a job there as well so he suggested, “Why don’t we just get married?” And so they did at Hollywood Presbyterian Church on April 25, 1970. John and Pat moved to Canyon Country in 1980 while John continued his career at Pac Bell. Meanwhile, their son Robert was born in 1970 and daughter Kimberley was born in 1975 and after 41 years, John retired from Pac Bell having fully achieved his American dream. These days, John loves woodworking, building balsa wood airplanes, visiting his family and driving his brand new Cadillac.