After graduating from Jefferson City Senior High School in 1965, Gary Schmutzler enrolled at Lincoln University to earn a degree in business administration. Like all male students at the time, he had to participate in the ROTC program for the first two years of school, but as the Vietnam War escalated, he had to make a decision about his future in the program.
“I knew a lot of people who had enlisted and some who had been drafted,” he said. “With the war going on, I knew that if I stayed in ROTC, I had a chance to become an officer.”
Between his junior and senior year at Lincoln, Schmutzler completed his summer camp at Fort Riley, Kansas. In May 1969, he earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army.
The young officer “branched” into the field artillery and reported to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in the fall of 1969 for his basic officer course. When his initial field artillery training ended in early March 1970, he remained at Fort Sill for months, assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery, and helped provide fire support to the field artillery school.
“Around mid-summer (1970) I received orders to deploy to Vietnam, so I knew I was going,” Schmutzler recalls. “I said goodbye to my fiancée, Doris, in early November and flew to Vietnam.”
His plane landed on November 7, 1970 at Cam Rahn Bay in southern Vietnam. The young officer found transportation to the northern part of the country to join his new unit – B Battery, 8th Battalion, 4th Field Artillery, which would earn the nickname “Cannons of the DMZ”.
Schmutzler said, “We were about four miles south of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and it was the rainy season, so things were pretty quiet when I got there.”
Over the next few weeks the gunner served in a number of capacities to include fire direction officer, mess officer and platoon leader for two 175mm gun sections; however, perimeter defense remained central to his duties. Then, in February 1971, the weather began to clear up and it didn’t take long for the situation to turn deadly.
“We were informed that we were going on a temporary mission to support an offensive campaign led by the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam),” he explained. “It was Operation Lam Son 719, and the ARVN were going to cross into Laos to attack the Ho Chi Minh Trail to disrupt North Vietnamese logistical support.”
Schmutzler further noted that American forces were not allowed to enter Laos, so his battery moved to the vicinity of Khe Shan to set up firing positions inside South Vietnam in order to provide long-range artillery support to ARVN forces.
“I remember moving part of the drums at night, and it was scary,” he said. “Our position was about a quarter of a mile from the Laotian border and as soon as we set up our firing positions we started taking incoming fire from the North Vietnamese, who were using Russian 152mm howitzers.”
Solemnly, he added, “the South Vietnamese underestimated the force that would be needed for the operation”.
The moments of the operation remain etched forever in his thoughts, including those of a battery set up in a position next to his which was directly hit by enemy artillery, killing the entire crew. Two days later, his battery took rounds, which inflicted multiple casualties, including a soldier from Missouri.
“They made us retreat a short distance and bivouac after dark,” he said. “Our weapons were not set up and we came under a ground attack that night around 11 p.m. from North Vietnamese regulars firing RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and small arms at our positions.”
He continued: “Our perimeter defense machine guns were working as the rest of us returned fire. The engagement ended when the attackers withdrew.”
After this operation, the battery was located at Camp JJ Carroll near Dong Ha, South Vietnam. On a daily basis, soldiers could expect rocket attacks, eventually culminating in the flippant declaration, “It’s raining on Carroll again.” Despite defensive measures, the attacks often cost the lives of American soldiers.
Schmutzler returned to the United States in September 1971 and was discharged from active duty. The following month he and Doris got married, raised two children and have since become the proud grandparents of four grandchildren.
In the years following the war, he was able to apply his studies at Lincoln University and eventually retired after a long career as a senior personnel analyst in the Office of State Administration. Subsequently, he worked seven legislative sessions for the Office of Budget and Planning and at Frenchie’s Antique Mall.
An active member of Trinity Lutheran Church, the Cole County Historical Society and the 8th Battalion 4th Artillery Association, Schmutzler said he was grateful to have survived his service in a combat zone while not regretting any of his military experiences.
“Faith was a very important part of my time in Vietnam, and we were lucky to have good chaplains there,” he said. “I was also lucky to have been able to pass the test of combat because you never know how a person will react until they are placed in such circumstances.”
He added: “In my opinion, it was more than survival, more about being able to discharge responsibilities effectively and do so under fire.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.