The Veteran’s Voice: Foster Berry

Foster “Alligator Man” Berry, originally from New Orleans, is now a resident at the Cameron Veteran’s Home.

Foster has the distinction of serving and seeing action in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam. He was wounded in all three wars.

Berry entered the U.S. Army in January of 1944. He took Basic Training at Fort Lewis, WA, followed by additional training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He was trained in tank warfare, tank flame throwers.

Following Fort Knox, his unit was sent to San Diego from where they shipped out on LST’s (Landing Ship, Tank) for the war in the Pacific.

They landed at Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands) which was heavily fortified and defended by 30,000 Japanese forces. The fighting during the Battle of Saipan was very intense. The island was mostly rock and jungle and it was virtually impossible to dig a foxhole. Soldiers often used bomb craters and natural crevices for protection. The tank crews stayed in the tanks. The battle claimed 3,426 American lives and 10,000 wounded, but the Japanese took heavy losses, only 921 were captured.

After taking the big island, they then had to clear the many smaller islands in the Marianas. The Japanese, in smaller forces, were dug in well, and most had to be “burned out” of their hiding places.

The American forces then headed to Okinawa where the fighting became even more intense. Berry says that while the landing was relatively easy, the ensuing battle became “very tough”.

Berry said that the Japanese were well-entrenched, with a large, complex cave system. He described the man-made caves as a “honeycomb” defense with the caves all connected. Berry’s tank, and others, used their flame throwers on each individual hole, then would “seal the hole” from enemy use, before moving on to the next hole. Many Japanese lost their lives to smoke and fire. 

The Battle of Okinawa was described as a “typhoon of steel”. While the land battle was being fought, there was also a “sea battle” with many “Kamikaze” attacks. Both sides took heavy casualties at sea, the biggest blow being the sinking of the Japanese carrier Yamato. The Battle of Okinawa caused a total of more than 160,000 casualties.

Berry’s tank unit and most surviving troops were loaded on ships and spent 10-15 days afloat, preparing for a land invasion of the Japanese mainland. It was during this time that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, ending the war. 

After the Japanese surrender the troops landed in Japan, expecting at least some resistance, but there was none. The surrender was total and complete. Berry remained in Japan for two more years as part of the occupation force. He was then sent home to New Orleans.

He had a thirty day window to decide if he wanted to re-enlist. He noted that previously returning veterans had taken most of the jobs, and his military check was insufficient to live on, he rejoined the Army. He knew he would be provided with clothing and other needs, along with 3 meals a day.

He was sent to Fort Benning, GA. He was engaged in many training schools including “jump” school (paratrooper) and Army Ranger school.

Then, in 1948, the United Nations was formed. One of the UN’s first decisions involved Yugoslavia’s threat to Trieste, Italy, which was valuable due to its deep-water port. Yugoslavia’s Tito wanted that port. The UN ruled differently which created the “Trieste Crisis”.

 Fort Benning was charged with forming an expeditionary force for duty at the Italian-Yugoslav border. Berry was part of the 5000 man U.S. force while the UK sent another 5000. It resulted in the first UN “success” when Tito backed down and withdrew from the area.

 Back in Fort Benning, Berry became involved in the “Davy Crockett System” developing the M-28 and M-29 system using a tactical recoilless gun for firing a M-388 nuclear projectile carrying a payload with a yield of 10-20 tons of TNT. This system was deployed during the Cold War.

Berry was involved in teaching at this time, specializing in ground mobility. Soon after he was sent to Alaska for four years where “a boy from Louisiana learned about ‘cold’”.

Then the Korean War began. Berry was sent to Fort Lewis, WA for deployment to Korea, landing at Busan. Fighting was intense. Orders from MacArthur, given at Inchon was to “break out of the perimeter and head north. Move forward and take real estate, not prisoners”. This was among statements which resulted in MacArthur’s removal from command.

Berry and his unit encountered tough resistance as they fought their way up to Pyongyang. It was then that the Chinese entered the Korean War, pushing the American’s back southward. Berry said the Chinese “came over the hills in swarms”. Berry was wounded by a Chinese bullet which entered his leg, travelled into his stomach, clipping his intestines in several places, before lodging in hip. He was evacuated to a hospital ship where he stayed for 6 months. He said “it was difficult to tell which bothered him the most, the pain or the seasickness”.

He was sent back home afterwards. By this time he had spent so much time in the military if was difficult not to reenlist. He was unmarried with no family to support, so it made sense to just “stay in”.

In December of 1963 he was sent to Vietnam. Although still in tanks, his extensive training caught the attention of Command, and he was assigned to a South Vietnamese Ranger Battalion, Military Assistance Command.

 The Vietnamese Battalion Commander had trained at Fort Benning several times and spoke excellent English. He called Berry aside and said he had a “special job” for him. The Commander hand-picked 15 Vietnamese Rangers and appointed Berry as their commander. He told Berry that he wanted him and his men to stay in the field and keep him informed of “what is going on”.

 Berry and his men spent 20-30 days at a time in the field “snooping”. They engaged the enemy in firefights from time to time, and would report back to the Commander on what they were finding in the field. They were able to report that there was an increasing number of North Vietnamese replacing members of the Viet Cong.

They were sent back out to try and determine an estimate on how many North Vietnamese were in the area, and how well they were equipped. During this operation they were engaged in a heavy firefight when one of the Rangers was hit. Berry, a large man, carried the injured Ranger on his back for a considerable distance to a pre-arranged location to meet the med-evacuation helicopter. At one point they had to cross a hardened mud wall. Berry tripped and fell, banging his shoulder against the wall and displacing the shoulder joint. Despite the pain, he managed to carry the Ranger on to the evacuation location.

Unable to land, the copter sent down a basket along with a medic. After sending up the injured Ranger, the medic noticed a problem with his shoulder. The medic handed Berry an object and told him to bite down hard, when he did so, the medic popped his shoulder back into place. He says he manages the shoulder well, but Missouri’s cold weather reminds him of the incident.

When Berry returned to his unit, he received a radio message to “pull out” immediately. They had traveled about a mile when a flight of B-52’s arrived and carpet-bombed the enemy location. Berry could tell they were hitting the right location and the sound was very loud. Unable to return to the scene, Berry is certain the bombing inflicted heavy casualties. 

After 10 days rest, his group of Rangers received yet another “special mission”. Intelligence had learned that the North Vietnamese were taking weapons, ammunition, and supplies from the Viet Cong and sending it back north on barges in a canal.

On the first night, he observed a string of barges moving north, but was not yet prepared to take action. The next day he radioed for a supply of Claymore mines, and later that day received 100. He and the Rangers set them in a line along the canal every 40 to 50 feet. About 2 a.m. they heard the barges coming. They waited until the lead barge passed a pre-determined spot and set all of the mines off at one time. It was “quite a commotion”, with rifles and machine guns decorating the trees around them. He radioed a nearby American unit who arrived to help recover the cargo. Four North Vietnamese were still alive and tried to resist, but were easily dispatched.

They recovered 20 tons of ammunition, 4-5 hundred machine guns, and more than 1000 rifles, removing weapons which would have been used against them in the future.

 After 14 months in Vietnam, Berry decided “no more wars for Berry—I surrendered”. He returned to New Orleans where he spent 22 years as a Deputy Sheriff, mostly patrolling downtown New Orleans. He took the job with one stipulation---he would not work in September which was “alligator season”. He personally knows some of the characters on the TV Show “Swamp People”. He has 3 alligator heads in his room, one from a 12-footer, one from a 10 footer, and one from a 4 footer. He lies the way it startles new guests to his room!

Foster Berry is one of the few who served in three wars, WW2, Korea, and Vietnam. He was wounded in all three, but survived. He is quite a character who really enjoys the Cameron Veteran’s Home.

 

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