Copyright© 2010 by Joe J
We were only a few hundred meters from the LZ when we heard trackers behind us looking for our trail. We could tell they were in the search mode, because they were in a line formation, clacking bamboo sticks together to keep the line dressed. Fred veered us to the left and almost walked right into a platoon of NVA that were moving up to joint the chase. As we cut back in the opposite direction, Fred had a hurried few words with me.
"This smells like a trap, Jody, they were on us too quick for it to have been an accident. More than one platoon after us means this is a company sized operation, so there are two more platoons out there somewhere. Get Covey on the horn; tell him to find us an LZ and bring in some air. Have him turn the choppers around at Dak To and send them back for us pronto, I'm pulling the plug on this fiasco."
I nodded and unclipped the handset from my web gear. Fred wasn't one to abort a mission over some bullshit little thing, so if he was worried, we had stepped in it big time. I passed the message up to Covey. Our Covey rider was a big, rawboned former recon man named Jessie Caraway. Caraway was a hillbilly from West Virginia, aptly nicknamed 'Country'. Country rogered my message and told me to stand by. He was back on the radio in a few minutes.
"The only LZ close to you is about three klicks northeast of where you inserted. Estimate ninety mikes on the chopper turn-around, and no can do with tac air right now. Everything in the air is up north on a Bright Light for a downed F-4. Hillsborough says they have a pair of Sandies (A-1-Es) on the way to refuel in Thailand, but the turn-around is about the same as the helicopters. Looks like you are on your own for a while."
Hillsborough was the code name for the Air Force C-130 that orbited over Laos as a flying command post. Hillsborough had the final say on air operations, so we were shit out of luck for at least another hour or two. I trotted forward to give Fred the news. We were walking a quicker pace than normal, trying to put some distance on that pursuit, but still covering our trail the best we could. The enemy troops were about three hundred meters behind us now, and spread across a wide front. The incessant clacking of their bamboo sticks was making us all nervous.
When I told Fred about the lack of air support, he just nodded, but he looked thoughtful about the LZ situation. I thought Fred would be relieved that we were within three kilometers of an LZ, but my mind just didn't work on the same frequency as his.
"This don't smell right, Jody. What do you want to bet that the rest of this company is waiting for us between here and that LZ? They split the company and put two platoons on each LZ, then the bunch whose LZ gets landed on herds whoever landed towards the other group."
I saw no reason to doubt Fred's analysis, so we were between the proverbial rock and hard place. We could not make a ninety degree turn, because the commies were spread out too far for us to slip by then, and we had a force ten times the size of ours in front of and behind us. We might evade them by moving diagonally but that would put us further in bad guy country and allow them to reinforce. It was scary as hell to think that right now was probably as good as things were going to get.
Fred was maddeningly calm as he looked down at his watch.
"Let's go, we have at least an hour and a half to kill. We are going to move slow and I don't want to leave a sign we've been this way," he said.
We crept for another thirty minutes, covering five hundred meters at the most. We crossed a small creek and started up the other hill, when Fred suddenly called us to a halt.
I walked up to him to see what was going on.
"This is a good place to turn things around," he said before I could ask him anything. "They will probably stop before they hit the creek, to make sure they stay dressed when they cross. When they stop, we are going to attack right through them and haul ass back to the LZ we inserted on. If we have any luck, we will only have two platoons to deal with before the choppers can get here."
It was incredible too me that Fred could think up something as unexpected and boldly calculated as that while we had been running for our lives.
Fred put us down in a wedge-shape formation about twenty five meters up the hill. Fred would initiate the attack, and we'd all jump up and follow him. The ten minutes we lay there waiting for the NVA soldiers had to be the longest in my life. My adrenalin was spiked so high I could feel my heart try to jump out of my chest. It took every fiber of self control I had to lay still.
Just as Fred suspected, a team of two soldiers stopped on the far bank of the stream. One soldier had his AK-47 at the ready, while the other was clacking the bamboo sticks one against another. Three more pairs that were in our field of vision arrived a few seconds later. They were well spread out and were maintaining their line fastidiously.
After about a minute, a whistle trilled two blasts somewhere off to our left, and the men seemed to step forward in unison. Fred waited until the pair in front of him was in the middle of the knee-deep stream before he jumped up and greased them with a couple of controlled bursts. The rest of us leapt to our feet and did the same to the unlucky NVA soldiers near us. Then we all dashed across the creek, going right through the gap we'd blasted in their line.
After a few heartbeats of dead silence, we started receiving fire from both sides as we sprinted up the hillside. We couldn't return the fire, for fear of hitting one another as we wove our way up the hill. We were about half way up, when my tail-gunner partner, Kai cried out as two AK slugs thumped into his side. Kai was alive when I reached him, but blood was spurting out of his side faster than I thought possible. I yelled out and Lum, the closest man to me, hollered something in his own language. In seconds, Lum and Kip the interpreter were carrying Kai's weapon and rucksack, while I was dog-trotting with his limp body over my right shoulder.
Up ahead, Fred had his own problems, as a round had caught Bing through his left knee. He was alive and conscious, but he couldn't walk. Bo and Thue were supporting Bing between them, hustling up the hill. The firing started dying out when we disappeared into some thicker jungle, but we could here noncoms and officers yelling to organize a pursuit.
My lungs were on fire and my legs felt like lead by the time we reached the top of the hill. The adrenal rush that had been propelling me was fading, and I was starting to tire when we crested the ridge line and called a halt. I gently laid Kai down on the ground and Lum dropped the dead man's rucksack. I didn't feel any better that everyone else was gasping for breath also.
Fred and Bo walked over to where I was sitting and Bo knelt down to examine Kai. Once he confirmed Kai was dead, he called Kip over and the two of them redistributed Kai's ammo among the remaining combat effective Montagnards. While they were busy, Fred flopped down next to me, took a pull from his canteen and handed it to me.
"Bringing Kai's body out is the right thing to do, Jody, but you are going to have to slow those guys down by yourself so the rest of us can get to the LZ. Delay them any way you can, but don't be a hero. Fight smart, fall back when you have to, and don't let them encircle you."
I nodded and stood up. I took off my rucksack, but I pulled a claymore out of it and stuffed a half dozen magazines into my shirt before I headed back to the top of the hill. As I left, Fred was calling in a contact and status report to Covey. Fred did not declare a Prairie Fire, because we were still moving and trying to dictate the action.
The NVA force had regrouped and I could hear them carefully moving up the hill in front of me. I dashed forward for about thirty yards and emplaced the claymore in the middle of a patch of two foot tall ferns to camouflage it, and sighted it directly down the hill. I played out the firing wire behind me, covering the wire the best I could with dirt and leaves. I high-crawled twenty meters, and put a big-assed tree between me, the claymore and the NVA. I also pulled out a couple of grenades, flipped the safety clip off the spoon, straightened the bent wire on the safety pin, and laid them beside me. Then hugging the ground at the base of the tree, I stuck my head out just far enough to watch down slope.
About five minutes later, I spotted the NVA point man moving cautiously up the hill. He was about twenty meters to the left of my claymore, so I let him go and tracked him with my peripheral vision. I wasn't going to waste the claymore for one man. The point squad was maybe twenty-five meters behind the point man. They were in a staggered column of twos, with about five meters between men. I detonated the claymore when most of the squad was in the fifty meter kill zone, then chucked a grenade at the point man. As soon as I saw him go down, I heaved the second grenade down the hill, then jumped up and sprinted over the top of the hill.
I stopped twice more to fire up the NVA platoons, but they were wary now and spread way the hell out again. They made themselves less of a target that way, but they slowed down to almost a crawl. I managed to milk the trip back to the LZ for almost forty-five minutes.
Fred was happy to see me when I sprinted the last fifty meters to the LZ, and slapped me on the back as I sat there huffing and puffing.
"Good job, Opie! Covey says the Cobras are fifteen minutes out and the slicks and A-1's thirty out."
That was the best news I'd heard since my R&R. I found some cover and took my place in the perimeter, six fresh magazines of death and destruction stacked by my right hand. Fred had already set out a pair of claymores.
The LZ was a ragged, sloping jungle clearing about thirty meters in diameter, about a third of the way up a hill. It was encircled by a twenty meter band of fifteen to twenty-five foot tall young trees. Three and four foot tall elephant grass covered the cleared area of the LZ. The jungle was sparse single canopy down to the bottom of the hill, but thick and verdant upslope. The ground around the center of the clearing undulated unnaturally in a couple of places. When Fred brought me back my rucksack, I asked him about the strange LZ to keep my mind off the angry fifty to eighty NVA soldiers we could hear coming down the other hillside.
"This clearing doesn't seem natural, Fred. Who do you think made it?"
Fred shrugged and replied, "If I had to guess, I'd say it was a crash site from the French-Indo-China war. I think the plane slatted down right here and set the jungle on fire. The wind probably blew the fire mostly down hill."
Before I could respond, the radio broke squelch and Country Caraway's voice filled the speaker.
"November-One this is Covey; we see some movement to your south. It looks like a couple of squads moving west, trying to flank you. The Cobras are five minutes out, so hang tough down there."
I was on the upslope portion of our small perimeter and was peering intently into the jungle, when a RPG round swooshed over my head and exploded about fifteen meters to my right. Right after the RPG warhead exploded, a couple of AKs opened up to our left. I ignored what was happening over there and kept my eyes moving as I scanned the area up the hill. Sure enough, I caught a few darting movements back in the edge of the thicker jungle. I had a hunch that the NVA were massing on the high ground above us, and that the shooting from the left was just to occupy us until they were positioned to attack.
Thankfully, the cavalry in the form of a pair of fully armed Cobras galloped up just then, and I had Covey vector one of them at the massing troops. By the time the Hueys arrived, the LZ was as quiet as when we landed.
I made a trip to the dispensary as soon as we returned to FOB, and had Doc Mitchell remove a couple of RPG fragments that were just under the skin of my right thigh. As soon as he was done, I showered and headed to the club.
I attended my first informal after actions meeting at the club that night, as we veterans discussed the new tactics the NVA were employing. The aggressive anti-recon units were making already tough missions virtually impossible. We were making them pay a steep price for their efforts, but the NVA didn't seem to mind sacrificing fifty to a hundred men just to get one of us. And the sacrifice was paying off for them right now, as we had lost two teams on the ground, and had four other American KIAs in the last month. We were down to eight effective teams, and it took six weeks to get a new team up and running.
A big part of the problem was that we ran the same targets time after time, because the trail was fixed in place and it was our only area of interest. At each target, there were only so many suitable LZs, so Charlie could pretty much watch them all and know the minute we hit the ground. To counter that, we were doing more mock insertions; fake landings on one LZ while the team sneaks into another. We also inserted behind air strikes and B-52 missions while the NVA had their heads down.
We took Kai's body to his village the day after we returned. It was only my second visit to the cluster of long houses on stilts that made up the village. It was a sad and somber affair as Kip translated Fred's account of what happen to Kai, and extolled his bravery.
Fred recruited us a new American as soon as we returned to duty from stand-down. Fred snagged the guy out of the commo bunker and he was as an unlikely choice for recon as you could find. The new guy wasn't even Special Forces qualified; instead, he was a speedy-four radio-teletype operator on loan from the group signal company. His name was Jim Whitcomb, but he looked so much like Fred, he could have been his son, so I nicknamed him 'Junebug'. Junebug was what folks in my neck of the woods called boys named after their father.
The resemblance between Fred and Junebug was uncanny, and the more time that Junebug spent with us, the more he sounded and acted like Fred. I knew that Jimmy Whitcomb was going to be a good one right off the bat. He was gung-ho and soaked up what we taught him like a sponge. I had no qualms about handing over the radio to him.
While we were training Jimmy, we also tried out a new zero-four to replace Kai. Fred had hired him from the Yard village. The guy had been on the Mike Force running in-country recon, so he had experience. He fit in with us and passed muster with Bo, so we kept him. Bing would be laid up for a while, but his leg wounds weren't severe enough to keep him from returning, so we didn't hire a replacement for him. Instead, we moved Lum to point and operated with five Yards instead of six. With Jimmy on the team now, that was no hardship.
We drew a mission as soon as Fred changed our status to mission ready. Our target was Hotel-Seven, another close to the border AO. Fred made it a ten day mission by having us walk in from the A Camp at Dak Pek. Whatever intel SOG had received that made them curious about Hotel-Seven proved to be right on, because the place was crawling with activity. We found so much we were having to radio in three sitreps a day. After four days, we were suddenly pulled back across the border and told to stand by. The next morning, a dozen B-52s carpet-bombed the area back to the Stone Age.
The contrails from the big bombers were still fading when Covey sent us back in to do a BDA.
The bombs being dropped since Rick's failed mission were delay fused, so the big thousand pounders exploded after they'd burrowed into the ground. The delayed fuse bombs were much more effective on dug in targets, but made navigating around the craters a chore. We snuck around for a day, and found nothing and saw no one, it was eerie how quiet it was, compared to the activity of three days ago.