Copyright© 2010 by Joe J
Fred kept me beside him when he set up the ambush, to make sure the radio I carried was at hand if he needed it. Of course, I'm sure he also had me with him so I wouldn't get myself in trouble during my first night in the field and possibly my first firefight. When it was midnight and nothing had happened, Fred pulled us back a couple of hundred meters and we set up a perimeter in a couple of large shell craters. After calling in our new location to the TOC, Fred divided us up into two man teams and called it a night. One person on each two man team stayed awake while the other slept. I was sort of disappointed when the Viet Cong didn't come traipsing down the trail that night.
We moved out again at first light and swept the rest of the Recon side of the perimeter. We were back inside the compound by nine-thirty, just in time to watch a dump truck jettison a load of sand right behind our bunkers. My dreams of calling it an early day and hitting the rack ended when the Recon Company first sergeant flagged down Fred and called him over to the orderly room. Fred came back out of the orderly room in a couple of minutes, and sent me and two of the Yards to the supply room for empty sandbags.
"Top wants two more layers of sandbags on top of the bunkers before night fall," he explained.
So instead of snoozing on my bunk, I ended up operating a D-handled shovel, filling sandbags. After fifteen minutes on the shovel, Rick switched places with me. I grabbed a filled bag in each hand and lugged them around the end of our first bunker then down the line to the last one. Walking around to the front of the bunkers where they were lowest to the ground made it easier to heave the filled bags onto the roof.
I was showing off for the Yards on my fifth trip around the bunker by carrying two filled bags on each shoulder as if they weighed nothing. As usually happens to show offs, I scuffed my jungle boot in the dirt in front of the center bunker and tripped over one of the claymore firing wires. The only thing that prevented me from falling on my ass was the wire breaking and sweeping forward, wrapped around my foot.
Fred saw me hopping to keep my balance and shot me a quizzical look as the Yards laughed hysterically.
"I tripped on one of the claymore firing wires and broke it, Boss," I said apologetically.
Fred nodded and jumped off the top of the bunker, landing right beside me. He grabbed the wire and pulled the wire until he was holding the loose end.
"These things don't break that easily, Jody, it looks like someone intentionally cut this," he said, pointing to the squared off end of the wire.
Fred made a quick check of the dozen or so firing wires and found over half of them cut. He told us to keep working, and hustled over to the Recon Company headquarters. He was back in ten minutes with Sergeant First Class Donnelly, the company first sergeant. Donnelly surveyed the situation and sent me and Rick to round up all the recon men still in the compound, and send them to the company headquarters.
That afternoon, every team not in the field checked their wires and found much the same as we had. Donnelly had us keep quiet about what we found and went to meet with the camp commander. Everyone knew that someone either in the Vietnamese Security Company or some locals working around the camp had sabotaged our defenses; the trouble was that if we made a stink about it, we'd loose any tactical advantage we could make of their treachery.
The cut wires were a sure tip off that the rumors of a Tet attack were probably true. Consequently, we were ready for Charlie that last night of January, as all of the recon teams not in the field were in their bunkers. I was in the left most of our three bunkers with Kip, the interpreter, and our point man Bing.
Unfortunately, it wasn't only the Viet Cong who showed up that night. In addition to the VC, a hard-core North Vietnamese Army regiment, which had slipped across the border from their sanctuary in Laos, hit our camp at two in the morning.
The NVA started us off with a thirty minute barrage of B-40 rocket and mortar bombs, with a few rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) thrown in for good measure. The rocket and mortar barrage was nerve wrackingly scary, because you could hear the incoming rounds, but didn't have a clue where they were going to land. As I sat huddled in the corner of the center bunker, dirt raining down on my head with each near miss, I silently thanked Donnelly for insisting on the extra layers of sand bags.
A few sappers managed to creep up to the wire and blow a couple of gaps in the outer triple apron barbed wire fence around 0230. Black pajama clad VC came boiling through the gaps in the fence. They came in teams of threes and fours, each team with a wooden assault ladder. They were lit up clearly by the illumination rounds our mortar crews were firing every minute or two. The mortar men never missed a beat, even with the incoming rockets and mortar rounds dropping all around them.
The M-60 machine guns in every third bunker put a deadly cross fire in the gaps, but Charlie still kept coming and by then, more sappers had hit in three different places. While the M-60s were concentrating on the breaches in the outer perimeter, we fired up the men darting the hundred feet between the outer and second barrier. The second barrier was made up of concertina wire, the rolls stacked three tall and two deep. We fired aimed, three to five round bursts of full automatic fire, but the zigzagging, bent-over VC were elusive targets. The hundred feet between barriers was liberally salted with small anti-personnel mines called 'toe poppers', but not many of them were exploding. By the time that first wave reached the concertina wire, over half of them were still on their feet.
The men carrying the assault ladders stood them up where there were sags in the concertina barricade created by mortar rounds and rockets. Amazingly, the VC managed to stand about a dozen of the ladders across my narrow field of vision. Through all this, the mortar barrage never let up, but most of the big 122mm rockets were pounding the other side of the camp.
Just when I thought we had the attack stopped, we started receiving RPG rounds that were targeting our bunkers. The RPGs were meant to keep our heads down while the khaki-clad NVA soldiers exploited the gaps the VC made in our defenses. Before we could blink, about a hundred VC and NVA were swarming across the ladder bridges. Enemy in the second wire was our cue to blow the first set of claymores, so I grabbed the far-left clacker and squeezed it forcefully. My claymore exploding joined about half a dozen others, and the resulting spray of steel pellets downed a good quarter of the attackers.
By the time we blew our first claymores, a third wave of commies was there to exploit gaps that were appearing in the concertina obstacle. I was reaching for the clacker to fire a second claymore, when an RPG rocket hit the left front corner of our bunker. Even though I was on the other side of the bunker, the blast wave, hot sand and some shrapnel knocked me down to my knees and disoriented me for a few seconds. I shook my head and cleared it, then jumped to my feet. Kip was getting to his feet also, but Bing, who was closest to the blast, was still down. I told Kip to take care of Bing, and I reassumed my position in the firing port of the bunker.
When I peeked out, I was just in time to see another wave of khaki pour through the almost completely destroyed outer fence. They charged across the open area, despite the machine gun fire raking their ranks, and plunged pell-mell through the gaps in the concertina. Many more of the NVA than I thought possible had survived the claymores and machine guns. Once through the concertina, they took cover behind their fallen comrades' bodies, and lobbed grenades and satchel charges into the tangle foot barbed wire that formed the third ring of our defenses. The teams in the bunkers rewarded them with a fusillade of 40mm rounds from M-79 grenade launchers.
After two salvos of 40mm, the Viet Minh decided that it was better to hit the wire than it was to be sitting ducks. They rose up in mass and assaulted towards us. It was the last official act for most of them, as the jellied diesel fuel 'foogas' and the last line of claymore either set them on fire or cut them to ribbons. Probably no more than fifty of them escaped the carnage.
By first light, we were clearing the wire and making hasty repairs and setting out fresh claymores in case of a repeat performance. It had been a lopsided battle, but Recon Company still suffered some casualties. Two Montagnards were killed and four seriously injured. We also had two Americans injured bad enough to medivac to Pleiku. In return, we killed or captured over three hundred NVA, and more than a hundred VC.
The S-2 found out that the Recon Company compound had been the night's primary target. The rockets and mortar fire on the other side of the camp was to keep reinforcements at bay. Finding the claymores active had been a big unpleasant surprise for the bad guys. Among the dead and wounded were three members of the security company. Those men not only cut the firing wire, but had also surreptitiously marked clear lanes through the anti-personnel mines.
After all the excitement died down, a medic on one of the other teams checked out my slight shrapnel wounds, and pronounced them too inconsequential to matter. Bing, our point man was a little worse off, but nothing that required medivac. Fred gave him a couple of days off to get over the headache being knocked out gave him, but that was about it. I was happy that I'd been able to do my job, despite the fear that I felt during the attack, and my teammates seemed satisfied that I would be able to hold my own.
I was surprised that next morning, when a flock of helicopters landed over in the other side of camp and started loading up troops.
"What's going on?" I asked Fred.
"RT Missouri found a high-speed trail right on the border. It's probably how the NVA infiltrated. Two hatchet platoons are going in to block the trail and try to finish these guys off," he replied.
The Hatchet Company was an American-led force of Montagnards that conducted platoon and company-sized operations to exploit what recon teams found, and to attempt to rescue recon teams that got into trouble. They were heavily armed, well trained and fierce.
Later that morning, some of the same helicopters brought back the team that found the trail, and I participated in a recon ritual where every recon man in the compound greets the returning team at the helipad with cold beer and congratulations for making it back.
My narrative to good old Mike hit a snag at this point, because my assignment was classified and I couldn't share certain details of what I'd done. When I told him that, he smiled and nodded.
"You were in Command and Control Central, Jody. I know all about that unit. I know, for instance, that you ran recon along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Southern Laos and Northern Cambodia."
I looked around to make sure we weren't being over heard before I replied. No one seemed to be paying us any attention as we sat on a cargo pallet halfway between the ramp and the troop seats.
"How did you know that?" I asked.
"Part of my job," he replied. "Heck, I've even been out with a few of the teams."
I didn't see how Mike, slightly over weight and not a young man, could have accomplished that, but I instinctively knew it was true. I gave him an acknowledging nod and got on with my story...
The team we met was exhausted from being chased by the bad guys for two days. They took the beers gratefully and trudged towards their team room. The mortars and rockets had flattened a couple of team rooms, but theirs was relatively untouched.
For the next seven days, we trained hard to integrate me into the team. We practiced immediate action drills (IADs) until our actions were automatic. The IADs were designed to let us break contact and get away if we ran into NVA soldiers. We walked through the exercises and went through them full speed without firing our weapons. Once we had the maneuvers down, we practiced them live fire until Fred was satisfied. Then we ran through the IADs again, this time changing positions in the formation so we could do each other's job. I appreciated Fred being a tough taskmaster, because the better we were when we hit the ground, the better our chances of survival.
On the eighth day, we walked out of the camp and ran a two day local patrol. We did everything as if we were deep in enemy territory. When we returned, I thought we were ready for anything, but Fred decided we needed one more practice, so he volunteered us for a patrol around Dak Pek, a Special Forces A-Camp that sat right on the Laotian border way up country. The camp was under a siege of sort, receiving harassing mortar fire. Every night for the last two weeks, twelve rounds fell on the camp. The rounds were spaced throughout the night to keep the beleaguered SF men from sleeping soundly. The camp commander had asked our big boss for some help in finding the shooters that were making their lives miserable as they tried to recover from almost being overrun during Tet. Our commander put out the word asking for a team to volunteer, and Fred jumped on the opportunity.
We flew up to Dak Pek on two CH-34 helicopters early the next morning. The CH-34 was a piston-driven single door aircraft from the 1950s. The helicopters belonged to SOG, and were flown by Vietnamese Air Force pilots. They were painted a plain OD without any markings to identify them as U.S. or Vietnamese. They were FOB2's primary insertion aircraft.
As soon as we landed, Fred had a quick conference with the camp commander. Fred wanted to insert us into the jungle west of the camp, and was quizzing the American captain on potential DZ locations. Fred figured that by inserting one ridgeline over from the mountain south and west of Dak Pek, we would catch the mortar crews unawares by coming at them from the wrong direction. He herded us back onto the helicopters and we flew off. Ten minutes later, the Kingbee dropped like a rock into the LZ. The pilot flared out at the last minute to hover five feet above the ground, and I hopped out the door in Fred's shadow. Within two minutes, the entire team was on the ground and hustling off the LZ into the edge of the jungle. Fred radioed the camp that we were safely on the ground then moved us out.
We moved through the jungle like wisps of smoke, each step measured and deliberate while constantly looking around us. Fred positioned himself the second man back from the point, I was the second man behind him, and Rick walked drag, erasing the signs of our passage as he scanned our back trail for trackers.