It didn't take long for you to know that when Captain K said you were going on a cakewalk, the shit was really going to hit the fan. When the choppers landed us in the late afternoon at a safe LZ right outside the Arvin Compound of PK 17, 122mm rockets were hammering in all over the place. Cakewalk? Not when it starts like this.
The battalion operations major stood in the middle of the LZ repeating over a bullhorn what Captain K had said. "Leave your rucksacks in the pile here. You won't be needing them. They'll follow you on a truck. Just take your poncho liners and your combat gear. A hot meal for chow tonight."
He was no more convincing than Captain K, but we left the rucksacks there anyway. Three NCOs moved with us who were at DEROS or beyond, but there wasn't any transportation available to take them to An Khe. They had to move with us.
We dug in there for the night. It was easy soil to dig, so we dug deep--so deep we could stand up in the holes and just see out over the rim. Good protection from the rockets. Nice fields of fire too.
The next day the battalion moved out toward the first island.
A battalion. Sounds like we had a real big force, but it wasn't a whole battalion. It wasn't much more than at half strength. And it wasn't very well armed. Along with the usual small arms stuff like M-16s, shotguns, M-60s and 45s, there was one 50-caliber machine gun and only one mortar tube with 27 rounds of ammunition. We were too far away from Camp Evans for artillery support, and the ARVNs at PK-17 wouldn't fire for us because of friendlies in the area. The sky was overcast with a ceiling so low you could almost touch it--a fog just waiting to drop, which made air support impossible.
The battalion spread out so far over the rice paddies that we must have covered an entire grid square. We moved in a diamond formation: Ace High in the front, Stacked Deck in the back, Bad Bet and Wild Card walked the flanks. Roving Gambler, with his headquarters group, moved somewhere in the middle.
I felt very comfortable and even safe being in the rear with Stacked Deck. Even more comfortable because Stacked Deck was in a diamond formation, too, and my platoon was in the rear of it. We were a long way from where the action would start.
It started in the usual way.
First, there was sniper fire. So, Ace High set up a perimeter, and the other three companies moved through them. Next came more sniper fire. So, Bad Bet extended the perimeter, and Wild Card and Stacked Deck moved through it closer to the fire.
Then there was more than just sniper fire.
Undisciplined AK-47 rounds zinged over our heads from several directions as 60mm mortar rounds plopped down in a random kind of pattern. Wild Card futher extended the perimeter, and we moved through it. The perimeter couldn't be extended any more.
I no longer felt as comfortable or as safe.
Approaching the front of the perimeter, I passed the battalion intelligence officer. He was a day beyond DEROS himself. I overheard him say to his RTO that we were probably headed for one of the biggest firefights of the war; he wouldn't have missed it for anything in the world. I wondered how those NCOs felt about that.
Then I was ordered to form up and assault a tree line just across the rice paddy. Rounds from AK-47s were whizzing over my head. It was continuous fire.
I did what I was ordered. Twelve men on line, with M-16s on full automatic, charging across the rice paddy. Four men stayed behind; just couldn't seem to want to do something dumb like that.
We took the tree line without casualties. An AK-47 round fractured a grenade hanging from my RTO's harness. It caused him quite a scare, but it didn't blow up. It just kind of fizzled there. I told him there was a lesson to be learned from this. When a grenade lands in your foxhole, there's no reason for someone to be a hero by diving on top of it. Just shoot the goddamned thing, and all it will do is fizzle. Just shoot quickly, and aim correctly!
"You took the wrong tree line," Captain K yelled over the radio. "You've got to take the next one just parallel to where you are. And you've got to do it now because the whole damned battalion is beginning to move out across the rice paddy, and there ain't no place else for them to go beside where you are now, and there's not enough room there for all of you. So move out!"
Sure enough. There were guys running across the paddy toward my tree line, and many of them were getting hit. It looked like they were getting hit from the left flank as well as from the front. Under these conditions, it wasn't an order worth studying.
It was up and over just like World War I: lock and load and move forward on full automatic. It would have been a nice touch to have fixed bayonets, but none of us carried them. We took the next tree line but lost two men in the assault. Good wounds, nothing real permanent, but good enough to get them out of the war.
There was a trench along the tree line--not a very deep one, nor very wide, but deep enough to provide some cover. An odd thing...there was a trooper already in it, a path finder who had been scouting ahead for chopper landing spots. He was sitting there with his red baseball cap on like nothing was happening.
Soon, Captain K and his RTO came over and joined us along with the Artillery F.O. and his RTO (both of whom were just along for the walk because they didn't have any artillery pieces that could shoot for them), and they took up space in my trench line laying flat down inside it. Some of my men had to get out of the trench to make room for them. They just lay flat on the ground along the edge of the trench.
The major assault action shifted to the left, and things quieted down in my sector.
I looked around to check things out. Looking straight down the trench line, I noticed a little hump of dirt. And on the other side of the hump was a NVA soldier. I don't know how he could have failed to realize we were so close. He didn't seem to realize that we were there or that we posed a threat to him.
I was going to shoot him, but the thought occurred to me that the honor should go to Captain K, seeing that he was working on his third Silver Star without ever seeing a live NVA. I told the man in front of me to pass it up to Captain K that there was a live NVA right in front of him, and he could shoot him if he wanted to. I knew when the word got to Captain K because I could see him pushing his face deeper into the ground.
So, I shot the NVA myself. There wasn't much aiming room over Captain K's head (and the thought did occur to me), but I managed to get a round off anyway. The NVA soldier was a very easy target; and if he hadn't moved just as I squeezed the trigger, I'm certain I would have gotten him right in his left ear. But just as I gave the final squeeze, he kind of half stood up. Instead of getting him in the ear, the round smashed into his left side. He went down.
I sent one of my men over to police up any weapons and to check the guy out for documents. PFC Black was given the assignment, but he never completed the task because he took a round himself in his right ankle. He was pulled back to the trench line, and someone else completed the job for him. PFC Black was out of the war; his ankle was completly shattered.
The NVA soldier was still alive. He was a man of rank, and he turned out to be one of the luckiest unkills of the war. In addition to his weapons and his documents, we also retrieved his land line communication equipment that he was using to talk with his regimental headquarters. This guy was like a brigade operations officer. Holy shit! A regiment! A brigade! That's at least three battalions! Some kind of cakewalk this was turning out to be.
Things kind of quieted down right after I shot the NVA officer. The rest of the battalion had moved across the rice paddy into positions along the tree line, but there were still casualties laying out there in the paddy that had to be rescued and dead bodies that had to be retrieved.
The NVA made this a difficult operation. The fallen were being used as decoys. Many of the rescuers became casualties themselves. The NVA had moved into positions behind the advancing battalion, and they remained strong on left flank. They fired into the open paddy from both locations.
Fortunately, it was late January. Dusk came quite early, helped along by the low cloud cover. Cleaning up the battlefield became a little easier and a lot safer. The paddy was almost cleared of wounded and dead just as darkness set in.
As a rescue team was about to leave for the last casualty, a NVA soldier came out of the semi-darkness and ran toward that casualty with his AK-47 on full automatic. He scored a lot of hits before he himself was taken down in a hail of M-16 rounds. He was such an obvious target that at least a dozen troops opened fire on him. The dead G.I. was retrieved.
Making several trips, one Huey Slick ferried the wounded and dead back to Camp Evans. The wounded NVA officer was taken out on the first trip. He was in serious need of medical attention, and we were in serious need of intelligence.
There was no other firing activity for the rest of the night.
Setting up for the night was quite easy. The NVA had already established a pretty good perimeter: trench lines, bunker complexes, firing holes, even a well constructed mortar pit. We fragged everything before we jumped into it or began to dig more dirt out of it. There were no booby-trap casualties.
My platoon occupied three holes, all 13 of us.
Empty USAID "Hands-accross-the-sea" cement bags were all over the place, but the NVA had not yet completed any cement bunkers. Lots of foundations had been laid, and some of the mix was not yet solid.
Trip flares and claymore mines were set out. Forward observation posts were set up but not very forward from the line. Our one mortar tube was located in the abandoned NVA mortar pit. The 50-caliber machine gun was placed for best coverage of the rice paddy.
Captain K told us we would continue the assault at 0700 hours on the next day. Everyone should remain on maximum alert all night long--two awake for each one sleeping.
At nightfall on that first day the battalion in that location consisted of 175 men.
All the NCOs and the battalion intelligence officer, who were there beyond DEROS, had made it through the day.
Everything was quiet, but there wasn't any calmness. Fear was very loud to everyone there.
Day two began like most other days when you were out on an operation. Everyone was stirring by 0630. People were getting their shit together: folding poncho liners, straightening out web gear, brushing their teeth without toothpaste. You could smell C-4 burning as water was being heated for C-rat coffee. The usual pissing and crapping was taking place both inside and outside the perimeter. Conversations were low.
For some dumb reason, we were ordered to bring all our heavy stuff to the mortar pit which was also used as an LZ. It was to be choppered out and returned to us at the end of the day. This heavy stuff was just ammo boxes of 50-caliber rounds. We would only have to carry a few belts and half the remaining mortar rounds.
This stuff was carried to the pit. A Slick appeared at about 0645. No other orders had yet been issued. We'd just continue our cakewalk toward Hue.
Just as the Slick hit the ground, the NVA exploded in on us. Incoming rounds sliced through and down upon the perimeter from every direction. It was like the NVA were staging a mad minute, and we were the target. It was instant terror! Or was it horror and fear? Or was it all of them. They fired from the ground; they fired from the tree tops; they fired from half way up the trees.
Everything from their small arms arsenal came in at us: AK-47s, mortar rounds, RPGs, hand grenades. The sound was ear splitting, and it was deadly. Just about everyone who was above ground became immediate casualties...most of them dead. Everyone who had their pants down or their dicks out died. That NVA mad minute lasted for at least a half-hour. But no ground assault was launched.
The Slick took off at once, leaving the heavy stuff behind.
I lost one man KIA during this opening blast. He took a round in the side of his head just as he was leaping back into his hole. His body stayed there all day long. Three of his buddies fought from the same hole all day long. None of the rest of my men were wounded, but my platoon really wasn't much more than a squad--12 men!
Many troops were not even safe in their holes. The NVA in the trees just fired in on top of them. It was almost impossible to return effective fire because you couldn't get a good firing angle for your M-16. A number of hands were blown off as troops attempted to hold their M-16s pistol-grip style and fire just over the rim of their holes.
Spirits were not soaring! A lot of praying was going on. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death--just like it was in the Bible, not the way it was written on the sides of so many helmet cloths. Thinking you were a mean Mother ***** here wasn't going to help get you out of it.
When would it end? What was in store for us then? Would the assault come?
"Fire up, clear the goddamned trees," Captain K yelled over the PRC-25. "Then direct your fire outward."
Other O3s were commanding the same thing.
The incoming fire diminished, but it didn't stop. The trees, however, were cleared.
Ammunition was running low. At our rate of fire, we would have been out of ammo by 0800.
The Slick returned. I think we all expected it would return because we knew that choppers always came to the rescue. No matter how deep the shit, there was always a chopper and a pilot who would put his life on the line to help you out. It was like a tenet of war. An article of pure faith! A chopper would always come to the rescue! This one came with ammunition.
As soon as it appeared, the NVA increased their fire, most of it directed at the chopper. How could they have failed to miss it?
Its only fire power was from the two doorgunners who sprayed their M-60s outside the perimeter as best they could. It put down, unloaded, and took off empty within the same minute.
This event repeated itself throughout the course of the day. The fire would die down, the chopper would appear, the fire would increase. The chopper would leave, the fire would die down again.
During the day, we managed to get some of the wounded to the LZ, and they were choppered out. Even some of the dead were choppered out.
The firing continued. No one was safe above ground.
At about mid-morning, the NVA began mortaring our bunker positions, which were really NVA positions because they had built them. They had a map of the whole perimeter so they knew where to aim. They just walked their mortars down a line of bunkers, taking out one, then another and another, the rounds landing almost in the middle of each bunker top. Troops were blown away, tossed into the air to land wounded or dead out in the open.
Snipers went to work taking out the troops who attempted to rescue them.
Our mortar tube answered the NVA mortars and scored some direct hits. It also took out some of the snipers. The NVA mortar bombardment stopped.
Still, we had no artillery support nor gunship support. And because the ceiling remained low, other air support was out of the question.
Captain K communicated over the radio throughout the day, always the same message. Battalion was coming up with a plan; we were going to get out of this shit; help was on the way.
Somewhere along the perimeter someone was playing a tape of the Mama's and the Papa's "California Dreaming."
At about 1400, he radioed that I should meet with him in his hole. I had only the vaguest notion where it was located, and the thought of exposing myself looking for it out in the open was pretty scary.
"Just look for the high antenna, and get your ass over here," he said.
I visually scouted out every possible point of cover between my hole and his and mapped out in my mind the route I would take to get there. It was only about 40 feet away. I managed to get there without being hit. I don't think I was even aimed at.
Captain K always had the nicest holes. They were always trim and large and perfect rectangles, like he'd had them measured with a transet before he had them dug. There was plenty of room in it for me. He laid out the plan for our departure.
The NVA officer I had shot had provided battallion intelligence with lots of good information. He had revealed that it had been his regiment's plan to sucker us into these positions. Clearly, they'd been successful with that part of their plan. Once they'd suckered us into this position, it was their intent to keep us pinned down here during the day light hours. Again, they had been successful. Then, shortly after dark, they were going to assault our positions and annihilate us. They could easily have done this. We were completely outnumbered and outgunned.
"But," Captain K said, "we're not going to let them do this."
The NVA officer also revealed something else. It was his regiment's standard procedure to stand-down each night for tea. Each night at dusk, the whole regiment stopped doing whatever they were doing and took tea. They ate their goddamned supper! The whole ***** regiment just left the line, sat down, and ate! How ***** outrageous! But how fortunate for us!
The NVA were magnificant soldiers in many, many ways; but one of their flaws was their inflexibility. Once things were set, once plans were made, and procedures established, they found it impossible to change them. Tea was at dusk, and that was the way it was! Never mind there's a battalion of G.I.s just sitting out there ready for the kill. First, we'll eat.
"So, what we're going to do is this," said Captain K. "At dusk, were going to get out of our holes, and we're going to line up in single file, and we're going to walk right out of here. We're going to walk straight across that rice paddy for one klick, and then we're going to hang a left and continue south until we get to the hillside.
"We're not going to do anything that would let the NVA think we were about to leave. We're going to leave our trip-flares and our claymores right where there they are. And we're going to leave our dead here, too. We can't take 17 bodies with us.
"Carry your own radio.
"By the way," he added, "Cav artillery pieces have been located at PK 17, but they're not going to fire for us until after we've left. Then they'll fire on command. Observers will remain close to here; and as soon as they see our trip flares go off, they will level these positions with a 15 minute barrage and then continue to fire on the position all night long.
"Now, get back to your position; and tell your men the plan."
I went back the same way I had come. Incoming AK-47 fire intensified as I went, so I paused and stayed undercover in the ruins of a small Buddist chapel. Only half the walls remained standing. The roof was pretty much blown off. A dead G.I. was crouched in the corner. "Jersey City," he had called himself. He had just joined the company a few days ago although he was a seasoned combat vet.
He served with the Big Red One for six months but had had to go home because of a family medical emergency. His Father had died while he was there. When he returned, he was sent to the Cav. And there he was. Dead just three days after he'd gotten there. Jersey City magic-markered onto his helmet. His Mother was going to love it!
I made it back to my hole and told my troops what we were going to do, then went to the other of my two positions and told those troops the same.
They had no complaints about the move, but they complained about running out of cigarettes.
We were pretty well versed in the scariness of nighttime manoeuvers. The Colonel had trained us well for these events. We had done three of them during the past month. That's why Captain K told me to carry my own radio. It was just a reminder. It served to keep the noise down. This single file exit was going to be a piece of cake for us!
Things really quieted down as dusk approached. Silence actually set in. The NVA were taking their tea!
So, we got up--one platoon after another; and in single file at arms length from each other, silently walked away into the darkening night. It didn't take long to clear the area. There were less than 150 of us.
There really was no need to leave an observation post behind. We were able to see the trip flares go off from where we were. It happened just as we were making our left turn. We crouched and watched as the artillery barrage began. No cheers were spoken, but everyone of us felt a silent joy.
We walked on through the night. Movement was very slow. It was very dark, so we had to move even closer to each other than at arms length. We were also in rice paddy mud and water that came above our boots. There were frequent stops. Every once in a while, you could hear some one falling over into the water as people were actually falling asleep while they stood waiting for the next move forward.
The move took all night long. By dawn we had reached the foothills of the mountains west of Hue about eight klicks from where we started. We climbed up onto the hillside and just lay down there--keeping our distance from each other, of course. We hadn't lain down for more than five minutes before mortar rounds begain raining down on top of us. Add a few more casualties to the list!
The NVA mortar tube was right out in the open just across the rice paddy on the edge of the third island. We carried a 90mm recoilless rifle with us with just a few rounds of ammunition. The soldiers who carried it loaded it and took aim on the mortar position. They fired and scored a direct hit. That's when a loud cheer went up.
That ended the action for the rest of the day.
A medevac chopper took out the wounded. The beyond-DEROS NCOs and the battalion intelligence officer left with it, too.
The Mama's and the Papa's were still playing "California Dreaming" from somewhere on the hillside:
All the leaves are brown,
And the sky is gray;
I went for a walk
On a winter's day...
This battle was to go on for the entire month of February--29 days in 1968. There were three islands in those rice paddies. These became known as the TFP area of operations. TFP for "That ***** Place." Combat action was a day to day occurrence--some of it extraordinary, some of it just mundane.
Combat action as mundane! It sounds absurd, doesn't it? By the time it was over, three battalions were engaged in it--two of them Cav units, the other from the Airborne. (Was it the 101st or the 82nd?)
A lot of folks died here.
A lot of stories remain to be told about it.
A five second episode; the detonation time for a Chicom grenade.
The battle for Hue was over. The NVA were all dead or heading for the mountains to the West. Our battalion was ordered to return to Camp Evans.
The operations major was in charge that day. As we moved out he scouted ahead in a Loach chopper. He spotted some retreating NVA so he ordered the battalion to form up on-line and assault forward across the dry rice paddy toward them with our weapons firing.
We soon caught up with them. There were three of them, and they weren't in very good condition. They just crouched down in an irrigation canal and, waiting until we came upon them, they surrendered.
We thought we had them all, but there was another one who had decided not to surrender. She had lain down in some rushes and covered herself with a camouflage cloth.
Jennings, the mortar man discovered her as he was kicking around looking for abandoned weapons.
"Holy shit!" he yelled. "She's got a goddamned grenade!"
This was said as he swung his mortar tube down onto her head. He then threw himself away like sliding into second base to avoid the explosion.
Broddie, the M-60 machine gunner, on hearing Jenning's alarm, charged the rushes with the M-60 blazing away.
The hand grenade exploded...
Just as it exploded, the major's Loach hit the ground, and he leapt out charging the rushes with his M-16 on full automatic.
Now, what did they all get out of this?
The major was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in action.
Jennings got a new mortar tube.
Broddie got his third Purple Heart for some shrapnel that hit him in the face; and because it was his third award, he got a ticket back to perimeter duty at An Khe.
The NVA lady got killed four times over.
Me? Christ! Just another goddamned observation.