Copyright© 2010 by Joe J
After our mission to Kilo-Nine, we spent another five days down in Nha Trang, lazing around on the beach. We went back to the same hotel and frequented the same go-go club as before. Fred and Rick liked the places, and both of them had steady girls at the club. I was still the married fifth wheel, but I did my best not to be a party-pooper. Su-Lin was a big help in that regard, as she was my cover, and Ricks largess made the nights she spent in my company easy money.
On this trip, I had photographs of Megan and Shelby to show Su-Lin. She made a fuss over my daughter and insisted on buying a small Jade Buddha necklace for her that she had blessed by the monks at a Buddhist Temple. Su-Lin also helped me find a good deal on an Opal ring for Megan's twenty-fifth birthday. Let me tell you, that little girl could haggle! I was almost embarrassed by the price she harangued the poor jeweler into accepting. I teased her about it once we were outside the shop.
"You can't call me Cheap Charlie anymore, after what I just witnessed," I said.
She laughed and slapped my arm playfully.
"You still big Cheap Charlie, but you okay anyway," she said in her cutely accented English.
I did not look down on Su-Lin for what she did for a living. To my mind, she was doing what she had to do to support her family. In her situation, I wouldn't have blinked once before doing the same thing. What I did feel bad about was her being so young and having to give up her dream of becoming a nurse. Su-Lin was a reminder for me that not all the victims of war were combatants.
Big changes came about as soon as we returned to duty. The biggest was Rick leaving our team to take over as one-zero of RT Washington. I moved up to one-one, but there were no replacements available, so I was still stuck with humping the radio.
Our stand-down ended on a Thursday. On the following Sunday, we flew up to Dak To with our gear to spend a week pulling Bright Light duty. Bright Light duty meant we were the forward deployed quick reaction search and rescue team for both downed aircraft and recon teams in trouble over in southern Laos and northern Cambodia. Since the code name for a rescue mission was 'Bright Light', the stand-by team was known as the Bright Light team. Bright Light duty was rotated among the mission ready recon teams.
Our quarters at Dak To were three bunkers next to the helicopter pad at the southern end of the camp's runway. Part of our job at Dak To was to help rearm and refuel helicopters working with teams across the fence. We were also integrated into the security scheme, because our bunkers were part of the camp's perimeter.
Thankfully, we had a quiet week at Dak To, our main excitement was sending off two teams that were inserting in relatively quiet targets around the tri-border area just across the border. Both teams were on bomb damage assessment missions after B-52 strikes. BDA's were short one and two day missions to check out how much actual damage the bombs actually did.
While we were at Dak To, Fred talked a Huey pilot into letting us practice extracting on 'strings'. Strings were ropes tossed out of a hovering helicopter that we hooked onto with snap links. Strings were used for extractions from areas in which the helicopter couldn't land. We had special harnesses called STABO rigs that we wore to support our weight. We also practiced rappelling into an LZ to small to land on.
Free rappelling from a helicopter wearing a sixty pound rucksack was my definition of the exact opposite of fun. And while I was dangling under the helicopter flying a couple of thousand feet above the jungle at eighty miles an hour, all I could think about was how well I'd put on my STABO rig and how old was the rope I was hanging from. I was not looking forward to using either technique on a real mission.
RT Alaska flew in and relieved us on Easter morning, the 14th of April. That day was my one hundredth in country. One hundred down, three hundred to go.
On Monday morning, Fred made the ritual trip down to the TOC to pick up our next mission. He was back in thirty minutes with a target folder and looking none too happy. I gave him a raised eyebrow look as he tossed the folder onto the card table with a snort.
"We drew a Psyops mission," he said disgustedly. "And not only that, but we have to take the new assistant S-3 with us."
Pysops was Army speak for Psychological Operations, and the new assistant S-3 was an arrogant spit-and-polish Captain named Kress. Fred stomped around for a minute more, then took a calming breath.
"The S-3 told me we have to include Kress in on our mission planning, but I want us both on the same sheet of music first."
I nodded my understanding as Fred took out the warning order and map.
"Our target is Hotel-Eleven. It is about five klicks west of where we found the bunkers In Hotel-Eight. RT Missouri found a good sized cache site with three bunkers full of rice, ammo and medical supplies. We are tasked with visiting the cache and dropping off some Pole Bean."
He saw my confused look and explained.
"Pole Bean is doctored ammunition that explodes when Charlie tries to use it. The SOG brass down in Saigon thinks that fucking with their ammo will make Charlie lose confidence in it. We are supposed to hump in ten rigged 82 MM mortar rounds and a dozen magazines of 7.62. We go in on day one, find the cache and rig it during the next two and exfil on day four. The S-3 says it's a piece of cake with minimal bad guys in the area. That's why he's sending Captain Kress along. The old man wants the TOC officers to spend at least one mission on the ground to see how we operate. He thinks doing that will make them do a better job of selecting targets."
Fred did not sound as if he was buying any of it. And if Fred didn't like it, I damned sure didn't, because I had total trust in Fred's judgment.
Fred sent me to track down the captain. When I returned with Kress, Fred was sitting at the card table with the map spread out in front of him. Fred did not stand up when we came into the team room, which didn't sit well with the by-the-book Captain Kress. I sighed inwardly as Fred coolly appraised Kress. I hated the idea of being in the middle of a 'who has the biggest dick' contest. Thankfully, Fred defused the situation by standing up and sticking out his hand.
"Welcome aboard Captain," Fred said cordially, "ready to run some recon?"
When the Captain nodded and took a seat, I knew that the Colonel Acton, the FOB Commander, must have laid down the law to Kress. Acton knew where his bread was buttered, and that certainly wasn't with the rear echelon planners over at the TOC. The colonel knew he could find a new assistant S-3 with a thirty second phone call, but their were probably only two dozen men in Vietnam who could take a team a hundred miles into enemy territory with any hope of coming back out.
Fred was respectful but firm as he told Kress how things worked on RT Montana, and what was expected of the captain.
"This is my team, Captain, and we do things my way. You are free to offer any suggestions you want right up until I make my decision. After that, you need to shut up, pick up your rucksack and move out. On this team, rank doesn't count, your position on the team does. Because he has more experience, Opie is my one-one and second in command. You are the one-two and would normally hump the PRC-25, but I'm leaving the radio with Opie."
Kress looked unhappy about everything Fred said, but he nodded his head in understanding and we got down to the business of planning the mission.
The next morning, Kress fell in with us for first call and PT and he ate with Fred and me at the messhall. After breakfast, we formed up in patrol order and walked out to the range. Fred put Kress in front of me in the order of march and we walked through a couple of IADs. Kress acted as if he was bored by the drill, but demonstrated that he at least knew what was expected of him.
The following day, Fred went on his aerial recon and left me in charge of issuing our basic load of ammo, grenades, claymores and rations. I also helped Kress rig his web gear and ruck so it didn't jingle.
When Fred returned, we finalized our plan and rehearsed our brief-back. When Fred was satisfied Kress and I had the plan down pat, he walked over to the TOC and declared us ready to brief the commander. The S-3 scheduled our brief-back for the next morning, and tentatively scheduled our insertion for the day after.
Colonel Acton approved our plan after quizzing Kress on parts of it. Fred inspected everyone's gear that afternoon, and distributed the doctored mortar rounds and AK ammo. Captain Kress didn't look happy that he ended up with three mortar rounds, but he didn't say anything. Kress became quieter the nearer we came to our launch window. That bothered me, so the first chance I had, I expressed my concern to Fred.
"Yeah," he acknowledged, "I noticed that too. Keep an eye on him Jody, because I don't trust that dickhead for a second."
Captain Lance Kress was a West Point graduate and was quick to let you know that his father was a Major General commanding an armored division in Germany. He was on a tour extension after serving with the Americal Division down in Chu Li. Kress wasn't Special Forces qualified, but as a staff officer, he really didn't need to be. We all figured he was in SOG strictly to have it on his resume when the promotion board for majors convened. According to Rick Pierpont, even the other officers detested the guy.
Kress was fidgety during our insertion and slow off the helicopter when we hit the LZ. He finally made an ungainly exit when Bo, our zero-one nudged him out the door. Fred came in on the second Kingbee, and we all dashed into the edge of the jungle. Fred radioed in the team okay and the helicopters roared off back towards Dak To. Kress was a little wild-eyed, but he fell into his place in the formation, and off we went.
We had barely covered five hundred meters before we ran smack into a platoon of Viet Cong headed towards the LZ we just left. We didn't know it at the time, but a VC battalion had recently crossed over into this area to relax and regroup after three months of hard fighting against the 4th Infantry Division. It was their cache that RT Missouri had discovered. So much for the S-3's piece of cake.
Bing started our break contact IAD and dashed back down the line. When Kress saw Bing hauling ass in the opposite direction, he panicked and followed the point man. After I expended my nineteen rounds towards the VC, I dashed back down our back trail and caught up with the team. When I arrived, Fred and Kress were in a heated conversation while the Yards milled around uneasily. As soon as I trotted up, Kress spun towards me.
"Call for an extraction Jemison, I'm declaring a Prairie Fire," Kress whispered stridently.
Prairie Fire was the code word teams used to declare an emergency that required their immediate extraction. When a team declared a Prairie Fire, it meant they were about to be over run. A Prairie Fire emergency brought out the Bright Light team and the Hatchet Force, along with every aircraft within a hundred miles.
I hesitated and glanced over at Fred. Fred shook his head negatively. Kress saw me look at Fred and grabbed my arm.
"Don't look at him, Sergeant, I'm the senior man here," he hissed.
I was uncomfortable about disobeying a direct order, but Fred was my team leader, not Kress. I pulled my arm out of his grip and shook my head. When I looked over at Fred again, he had his Car 15 leveled at Kress's chest.
"Take his weapon, Opie," Fred whispered calmly.
I snatched the M-16 out of Kress's hands and Fred poked him in the ribs with the flash-suppressor of his Car-15.
"We are moving out, Captain, and I suggest you keep up, or we'll leave you here," Fred said.
The entire fiasco with Kress lasted less than a minute, and we were on our way again before the VC could get their shit together to give chase. I called in the contact as soon as we started moving. Charlie didn't appear too eager to challenge us after our display of fire power, so we shook them easily. We made a wide loop around the cache's location and crawled into an RON about a thousand meters north of it.
The next morning, Covey was overhead bright and early with some instructions for us, based on our Sitrep from the night before. The TOC wanted to know why the VC were suddenly occupying an area that had been empty ten days ago. The S-2 had the theory that Charlie was there for the cache, but they wanted us to verify that. The problem with that scenario was that the VC knew we were in the area.
Covey had the cure for that, however, and later in the afternoon, he rode herd on a fake extraction from a LZ about two clicks further from the cache than the infil LZ. We laid low until the ruse had been run, then we started creeping towards the cache.
Captain Kress had started acting like he had good sense when we hit the RON the night before. Fred accepted his apology and gave him back his shooting iron. He was still okay the next morning, so Fred put him in the formation between Kip the interpreter and Lum, one of our grenadiers. Lum had loaded his M-79 with a shotgun round and was watching Kress like a hawk.
We crept down towards the cache location until we were within five hundred meters; then we spread out until we were about twenty meters apart and found a concealed position to lie in. When we were in place, Fred and Bing sniper-crawled towards the cache.
Three agonizingly long hours later, Bing and Fred came low-crawling back up the hill. Fred found Kress and me, and briefed us on what he'd found.
"There must be at least three hundred VC down there, and they are planning on staying a while. They have already built a couple of additional bunkers and a couple of dozen bamboo huts."
We stayed where we were while Fred passed the news up to Covey for relay to the TOC. Thirty minutes later, Covey had a return message from the TOC. The TOC wanted us to pull back about two thousand meters and secure an LZ we would find there. Colonel Acton was sending a Hatchet Company to deal with the VC.
We snuck back over the ridgeline and then hustled down into a small valley. We found a place to hide overnight, and the next morning we located the LZ.
The LZ was a marshy, elephant grass covered clearing along side a sluggish stream. The area around the LZ was too open for a recon team to use for infiltration, but secured by us, it was an ideal spot to land a hundred-man company. We scouted around the marsh in two inward-spiraling loops, and didn't find anything or anyone. We advised Covey that the area was clear, and he told us that the helicopters were twenty minutes out.