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VietnamIt was November of 1968. We were in an area we called the Oregon Trail. Not sure where it was other than it was in II Corps. It was mountainous terrain -- not like the dimples sometimes called mountains in the Eastern U.S. Steep slopes, high cliffs, waterfalls, few valleys but many brush-filled ravines. More like the mountains of the Pacific Northwest -- different vegetation of course.
A shitty place to fight. Full of well dug-in NVA , no room for maneuver, plenty of opportunity to be ambushed, plenty of spots where snipers could shoot from concealment on the far side of a ravine with plenty of time to get away. Dead areas where we were in an artillery shadow, i.e., no support.

From a buck sergeant's perspective, we didn't do well. Unlike fighting VC in the villages and woods of the Bong Son Plain (where other platoons or companies could be brought in to reinforce quickly), we had few options when we made contact. Generally the lead squad would stumble upon a group of bunkers, contact would be made and by the time another squad would get into a flanking position the NVA would have withdrawn.

On the grander scheme of things, the operation is likely to have been considered a success. An NVA division (probably the 3d for those who you care about such things) was operating in the area of the Oregon Trail. Two companies of 2/503d Abn Inf (Bravo for sure -- my company and Delta I think) were to flush the NVA into blocking positions that had been set up by our 1/503d and a battalion of ARVN. The 4th Infantry may have had units in support as well. Other units would be airlifted in to support the blockers as needed.

Turns out to have worked surprisingly well. The NVA would leave platoon and company size elements behind to make contact with us while the main force withdrew.

Hmmmn . . I wonder if it occurred to those who had planned the operation that we could have been completely chewed up if the NVA had chose to stand and fight or go over the top of us.

In any event, on the morning of the 3d (?) day of the operation, the NVA main force made contact with 1st bat and our company was told to prepare for extraction to support.

My platoon was at the bottom of a ravine at the time. We were ordered to hump to the top of a hill and link up with the rest of the company. To top it off we were told that the slicks were in the air (probably BS). My squad was assigned as trail squad for the platoon. Earlier that morning we had made incidental contact with the forces the NVA had left behind (incidental = we shot at each other but neither side hit shit). We were pretty sure that the bad guys would be following us.

What followed was one of toughest climbs I've ever done. For you back-packers out there, I'd guess we had an elevation gain of 1500 feet in 3/4 mile. During parts of it, we had to go on all fours; grabbing vines and saplings hand-over-hand to get ourselves up. Steep. A nice brisk Autumn day at home to be sure, but hot as hell there. And full rucks of course. Plus pressure to get there quick.

About halfway up we took a quick breather. This guy in my squad (I'll call PFC X) had only been with us a few weeks. Some guys adjust quickly, others don't. PFC X had an attitude problem. He was a whiner, a complainer, a victim of some great conspiracy whose sole purpose was to inconvenience him. If he was assigned to a detail, to PFC X it wasn't because he was a newbie and that detail went to newbies; it was because SGT Z was a bigot or SSG Y hated people from his state or SFC W played favorites. PFC X would have fit in well in the multi-culturally diverse society of universal victims we seeming to be creating in this nation. I say would have because he didn't keep that attitude. He adjusted. Started carrying his own load -- basically grew up. I think that what happened on that hill was a major part of that.

Anyway, when it was time to end our breather and get moving, PFC X wouldn't get up. He wanted to rest awhile longer; he wanted someone else to carry his gear. I went over to PFC X and asked if he was hurt. He said no but that he just couldn't go anymore. Called for Doc. Doc said he wasn't suffering from heat stroke. Told PFC X that he had to get his ass up the hill. (The rest of the platoon was moving).

He refused so I reached down and pulled the M-16 off his lap (so it wouldn't end up being used by some VC to waste a GI one day) and matter-of-factly said, "Then Die" and headed up the hill.

Would I have gone back for him to literally kick his lazy ass up the hill? Yep. I waited for him a bit up the hill just out of sight.

A few minutes after I left him, he caught up with me and I returned his weapon. To his credit, he had all his gear with him. After I had disappeared from his sight, he heard (or imagined he heard) NVA coming up the hill. He chose to live. Real or not, the NVA had provided him with motivation.

Craig Thompson
B 2/503 173d ABN BDE (SEP)
RVN 68-69
Note: by Craig E. Thompson


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