ONE MONTH IN THE SIX YEAR VIET NAM TOUR OF SSGT PATRICK TADINA
Dave Gowen is a 5'8" wiry outgoing fellow from, I believe, Philadelphia who graduated from LRP School with me in September 1968. It turns out, he also graduated with my Jump School Class in February, but unlike me (who received orders for Ft. Bragg) he, and the other 90% of that class, headed for Viet Nam in the middle of Tet '68. His first assignment with the 173rd Airborne Brigade was not in the "Central Highlands" region of Bong Son, but far to the South with a battalion patrolling the rubber plantations and hedgerows surrounding a place called Tule Wah (sp?) just north of Saigon. This was the armor group for the Brigade (tracks being ineffective in the mountains around LZ English (Bong Son) where we were based- the best they could do was clear the highways and guard the base camps. But in the flat regions to the south they could fan out and maneuver through the countryside.) On Dave's first day he was told to hop on one of the Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) and drive. The unit was in a running battle with the VC during Tet '68. The APCs had been modified so that the driver sat on the roof on top of a sandbag manipulating the controls with the help of a pair of super-long handles which extended into the driver's compartment below. Without any training on this configuration APC, he managed to get it running and maneuvered awkwardly following the six-man squad assigned to ride ( but today, preferring to walk) on his track through the hedgerow country. That day (riding on the biggest bulls-eye on the battlefield) he got blown off two tracks, one by a VC jumping from a hedge and firing a B-40 rocket, and the other on a fresh APC when he hit a mine. The next day, on yet another track, a B-40 knocked him off into a ditch and he managed to pick up enough frag wounds to come in from the field for a while. Three tracks in two days- his first two days in-country. He knew he was going to be dead in a month. He volunteered for LRPs looking for a safer environment.
It's 22 October 1968, nearly a month since the end of LRP School, and I've only run two missions. Dave has already run four, so, to me, he's twice as experienced. My assigned team leader ( Campbell) has been on assignment away from the area, and I'm getting anxious to do something. Another team leader (Bruegerman) had come back from the Soui Tre valley with reports of large concentrations of NVA and was going back in a couple of days. I volunteered to go out with him, but he only wants experienced guys on this one. So now I'm talking to Dave about getting on his team with "Baby-San" (Carr) for a team leader, and "Froggy" for a point-man. We're sitting around in our sleeping hootch.BS'ing when we hear a commotion outside. Pat Tadina has come back from his extension three weeks early muttering, "The World sucks" (Stateside is a different experience when your used to playing mountain man all day), and is anxious to get back to work. He's been promised a team that would do nothing but pull ambushes. . That excites me and Steve Macomber ( a fellow hootch-mate in the same fix I'm in). Dave tells us Tad (Tadina) was his team leader on his first mission in which he made contact (had a firefight) with the NVA ( North Vietnamese Army). Dave said he was a sharp as nails team leader. Steve and I marched over to Tad's hootch and volunteered our services, to which he replied with the flick of a wrist, "Yeah, yeah, sure". It was obvious that he was hoping to find more experienced guys. Our hope was that he couldn't ... by coming back early he screwed up the mission schedule, and if he didn't want to sit around for three weeks, us cherries might be the only guys available. Tad had been in country for over four years at this point, before his extension to head up a team to run intentional contact missions, and he didn't need a lot of greenhorns who needed nurse-maiding along for the ride.
I flew down to Qui Nhon, went swimming and hit the PX the next day with Dave Gowen. It was a good chance to lobby to get on his team, but Dave was a newbie, too, and didn't have any pull to make that happen. The other Team Leaders were all out in the field, and there was no one else to ask. A couple of days later it became apparent to Tad that there were no men in the area, either. Everyone was out on missions, and he was getting froggy.
October 25th: Tad's taking our team of cherries out, Me, Macomber, Georgia Fox, MacCalester, Tony, Tad, and an experienced man I'll call Goof. I've got the radio, Tony the M-60 machinegun, and Tad's going to be pulling point acting as an advisor to get Goof up to speed as a Team Leader. Tad liked to lead teams from the point position anyway, so our team will look like a traditional team this mission. Tad(point), Goof(Team Leader) followed by me(RTO), Macomber(scout), Moose(scout), Tony(machinegun), Ga Fox(scout), and MacCalester(Asst-Team Leader(ATL)) covering our backtrail. To Tad the mission was a warm-up for what he wanted to do, but for us cherries it was the real thing- a Hunter-Killer mission in the An Lao river valley. Our designation... Hawk (for Hunter-Killer) 61.
The next day is spent preparing for the mission. Tad and Goof overfly our mission AO (Area of Operations) to identify and mark LZ's (Landing Zones) for infiltration and extraction, and get a general feel for the terrain. We prepare our gear and weapons. The M-16's are field-stripped, scoured and reassembled with a healthy dose of thick LSA oil (they are temperamental in hot, humid climates.) An LSA-soaked rag is stuffed into the empty pistol grip to be used to continually wipe off the rust during the mission. Enough parachute cord to make a sling is wrapped around and taped to the outside of the pistol grip. We removed the sling swivels as they rattled and made metal-to metal contact. We never used slings in the field as we always carried our weapons at the ready, with a round in the chamber and the selector switch on safe (it was noisy chambering a round), but if we needed to make a rope extraction, we would need to fashion a sling to have both hands free. We'd cut the selector switch spring in half so it would move silently like butter. (I was almost courts marshaled for defacing government property two months later, when I filed the selector switch stops off so I could flick the switch up (instead of down) and it would spin to the first detent- full automatic. I got out of trouble by writing a five page treatise comparing the M-16 with the AK-47. When you need full auto you need it now. If you have time to take an aimed shot, you have time to look down and select single fire. The first stop on an AK selector is full go-go, and the M-16 is single shot. I got to carry an AK for my last 15 missions.) The Marines had stopped using the M-16 in 1968, and had gone back to the heavier, bulkier M-14 which fired a 7.62 (30 Caliber) round which would kill people, and didn't have the reliability problems associated with the M-16. Later, on a mission in February, I came upon a VC we had ambushed lying prone in a ditch facing me. I put a round through the center of his boonie hat and ran past him chasing his comrade through a hedgerow. When I returned, the other team members had him standing on his feet. The cloth hat was enough to deflect the little 22 Caliber round so he only had a scratch. We got extracted, resupplied on the choppers, and reinserted into the same valley with orders to "do it again". The next day on an ambush I put 18 rounds (we never loaded a 20 round magazine to its full capacity as the spring might rust and not feed the rounds) of single shot tracer (I was point man that mission, and as such would use full go-go if surprised. For that my first magazine was pure tracer so I could "hose" and see where all the rounds were going ) straight through this VC carrying a beautiful Thompson submachinegun with the stock taken off. I wanted that weapon. I watched the light tracer rounds go in and fly out his backside as he flailed his arms and legs like he was swatting flies. When I ran out of ammunition his feet hit the ground running through a hedgerow, and my Thompson was lost forever. When I got back, I told the General that if he wanted kills, let me carry a weapon that would kill. I humped an AK after that.)
Where were we ... oh, yes, preparing an M-16 for combat. We'd drill a hole in the plastic handgrip and run a fully-extended cleaning rod into it. If a round jammed in the chamber, we could pull the rod out, jam it down the barrel, knock out the defective round and continue to fire. We taped the plastic hand grips and stock to break up the profile ( and to assure that the fragile plastic would hold together and not break into flying shards if hit by a bullet.) Then, after the weapons were all cleaned and oiled, we'd go down to the dump behind our complex and burn off a magazine to make sure everything worked. When we returned to the hootch we would not touch anything else on the weapon except to place tape over the muzzle to prevent water from invading the barrel. (I later talked with a member of Chennault's Flying Tigers who said the AVG did basically the same thing with the 50 Cals on their Tomahawks in China.)
Next we would break open a few cases of freeze-dried LRP rations and select our cuisine for the next five days. We ripped open each package, took out the entrees, wrapped tape around them and stuck them in the bottom of the pack (I had picked up a 1954 internal frame NAVY ruck sack which was being sold by the Vietnamese in Bong Son. The metal external frame "Alice" setup the line companies were using was good for attaching lots of extraneous goodies the batts might need, but they rattled, and the shiny metal would not only give away your position, it would make noise if accidently brushed by a weapon or a rock.) We'd pick out the condiments we liked, stick them in one empty LRP ration bag, and tape it up. We might also include selections from indigenous LRP rations ( I was particularity fond of rice and sardines). Next we loaded our water... 3-5 two-quart collapsible "Fat Rat" canteens. On top of them we placed a few extraneous goodies (smoke grenades, hand detonator and wire as well as 15 & 20-second time delay fuses for the Claymore mine, binoculars, camera and a block of C-4 plastic explosive (which we used, primarily, for cooking purposes- dig a small slit-trench with your knife, carefully unfold your canteen cup (we'd blacken them and tape the handle, but it was still metal-to-metal contact so we had to move all of the pieces slowly and deliberately), fill it with water, pinch off a small chunk of C-4 and place it in the trench and light it. It burns very bright and hot ... your water would boil in seconds, and, unlike the trioxane bars the batts used, it gave off no smell. But you had to be careful with C-4... you had to let it burn itself out. It was like a firecracker you'd break in half. If you light one, it will fizzle ... but if you stomp on a fizzling firecracker it pops. The same thing happened, on a larger scale, at LZ English when two engineers, cooking in their hootch with C-4 (and with blocks of C-4 stored under the hootch floor boards) decided to put their fire out early by stomping on it. The chunk went off, and acted as a detonator for the larger store, and the hootch disappeared in a cloud of smoke and splinters. I saw the men in the ER at B-Med. No arms, legs or faces ( just holes where mouths, noses and eyeballs once were), burnt to a blackened crisp. The Doctors just stood in the corner and let us medics practice tracheotomies, starting IV's and burn procedures. It didn't take C-4 long to boil water.
We'd close the inner part of our pack (on mine, I had an inner rubber lining with draw-string to keep everything water-tight), and on the top flap we'd attach a Claymore. Claymores were used if we were staying in an OP (Observation Post) for an extended period, and by the ATL (the last man on the single-file LRP patrol) during "Immediate Action" drill. "Immediate Action" occurred any time the point man made unexpected contact with the enemy coming down the trail in the opposite direction. The point man would burn-off a mag at full-automatic while the rest of the team would jump off the trail- even men going right, odd men going left ( if you forgot your number just go in the opposite direction of the guy in front of you.) As the point man finished, the man behind him ( who now had a clear line-of-fire) would open up on full go-go as he, the point man, would spin around and run down the now-clear trail to the nearest cover at least fifty meters back. Each man, in turn, fires, spins and runs (reloading on the run) while the ATL is screwing a 15 or 20 second time-delay fuse into his Claymore. When it's his turn, the ATL fires, places his pack in the center of the trail and pulls the pin on the fuse and runs back to join the others at the "Rally Point". The idea is to keep the enemy's head down with a steady stream of automatic fire, and to discourage eager-beavers from following the retreating team too closely with the Claymore going off about the time the early ones would arrive ( we were a small team in the middle of "Charlie" country and he would be emboldened by his numbers, while we would be on the defensive.) In a fire-fight, however, a small LRP team could put-out as much firepower as a 120-man line company because everyone on the team would be firing and bringing their weapons to bear at the critical point of the battlefield. The use of more than 6-12 men was usually counter-productive in that, upon contact, not everyone in the larger unit would see and be able to bring effective fire on the enemy in a jungle environment, and the greater numbers meant greater exposure on the move, and discovery more probable.
We'd carry what we need for combat on our "web gear" ( a pistol belt with a pair of suspenders attached) with all points of metal-to-metal contact taped for silent movement. We attached ammo pouches and one-quart canteen with canteen cup to the pistol belt (with the fat rats we didn't need the water, but we did need the cup, so we'd save the small canteen for emergency purposes.) We found we could stuff 3-4 grenades in an empty canteen pouch on the other side of the pistol belt to balance the load (on later missions I carried a Claymore bag crammed with 8-10 grenades.) on my left suspender strap I had taped my British Commando knife upside down ( I know you weren't supposed to, but this knife had been hand-made by the Randall company, and the sheath had an excellent pull-the-dot strap which kept it firmly in place. I could release the strap with a thumb push and pull the blade to bear in one smooth motion, and never had any problems with it unintentionally falling out or even moving while on the run.) On top of the knife sheath I had taped a battle dressing. On the right suspender strap I had taped either a red smoke canister ( to mark the enemy) or a large White Phosphoreus ("Willy Pete") grenade. High on the back part of the suspenders (behind the neck) a can of albumum (plasma) was taped- and every man on the team knew how to start the IV in the field ( we'd practice on each other in the rear).
We'd buy our Vietnamese tiger-fatigues in Bong Son, the village outside our base camp (LZ English). They were camouflaged with horizontal fragmented shards of navy blue (not black like the stateside variant),khaki, brown and green. The seats had been let out, and a large portion of matching material sewn in to accommodate the more ample American behind. Only LRPs were authorized to wear them, and then, only while in the field. They usually fit pretty snug and didn't need a belt. We loaded the pockets uniformly so in case someone got hit everyone would know where critically items the downed man was carrying could be found without having to fumble through his pockets. In the small pocket on the right leg calf would be a plastic bottle of insect repellant ( this was good stuff- it would melt plastic and rubberized poncho material, and on cold nights ... it did get cold on some months in the Central Highlands ... you could rub some on and it would warm you up.) In the upper right thigh pocket went mini-smokes (small smoke grenades), pen-gun flares, signal mirror, flash panel, map (folded to the AO, covered with plastic and taped) and grease pencil (to mark critical points ... LZ, pickup point, E&E (Escape & Evasion) route ... as well as often used frequencies. The grease pencil markings could be quickly rubbed off in the event of imminent capture ( and every man knew that if he couldn't be ambulatory after being hit, he might have to be left behind in order to save the team.) The RTO and Team Leader also carried the SOI (Standard Operating Instructions with frequencies of nearby friendly units, their locations, frequency change times and contact procedures for the next week) as well as the KAK codes (which changed every six hours) used to code messages and Logstats. The ATL would use this pocket for his URC-10 or 11 emergency radio tuned to 121.5 VHF or 243 MHz UHF (the standard aircraft emergency frequencies) to be used if the radio got hit, or if the team got separated for some reason. The Team Leader could also use this frequency to talk directly to the jets making an air-strike if there wasn't an OlE birddog flying in the area for liaison. My experience was that there was always an OlE somewhere, and since the enemy monitored those frequencies with direction-finding equipment we had special procedures for use of the URC-10. Violation of those procedures meant the radio was in enemy hands and called for an immediate air-strike on the radio position. Besides, the 01E's were very helpful. The Army variant (called Hawkeye) would help you call in artillery, and he would pass you off to the Air Force counter-part (Tonto) who would mark the strike area with a white smoke rocket, check our position (we'd signal with a panel or mirror) to be sure the jets wouldn't pass over us, and coordinate several passes dropping 500 lb high drags, napalm, and 20 mike-mike (millimeter) runs. Often times Tonto would tell us what flights were available and let us pick the ordinance we'd want brought to bear. For me, the bigger the better.
In our left thigh pocket we'd carry our rubberized plastic ground cloth which was noiseless and kept you dry, warm and snug. It's all the sleeping bag you need, and it folds neatly and fits in one pocket. There are no rear pockets on Vietnamese Tigers (we carried no identification and wore no patches.) Sometimes there was a pocket on the left sleeve for cigarettes or insect repellant, The left shirt pocket was for personal goodies (cigarettes... I carried mine and a Zippo lighter in a waterproof plastic case ... log book and pen. In the right shirt pocket went the pill kit and morphine syrette (the pill kit consisted of a plastic container filled with malaria tablets, cold pills, a codeine tablet, dexamphetamines, and several Darvon tablets). That's pretty much all of the equipment list.
Attached over my knife/battle dressing would be a taped-up snap link and a neatly coiled six foot length of rope (to make a Swiss-seat to use for rappeling or rope extractions.) Around my neck was a green towel ( to muffle coughs) and on my head was a Indiana Jones-style green hat with a broad brim to hide the eyes while in camouflage (boony hat brims are too short). The top of a sock had been cut off and slipped over the wrist to hide the watch, and on my hands I'm wearing a pair of Air Force pig skin fighter pilot gloves given to me by my father (they are thin, skin tight, and afford perfect protection from the brush and razor sharp elephant grass, while being flexible enough to pick up a dime.) Now, with the addition of a little brown, green and black face paint, we're ready to go.
Tad and Goof are back from their overflight and inspect our equipment. We each get an extra 100 rounds for Tony's gun to hump, and Ga Fox (one of two blacks to make it through the September LRP school) gave us a briefing on his match M-1 rifle (he had just returned from sniper school in Nha Trang.) Only the first 100 barrels manufactured go on a match rifle, only the first 100 bullets out of the mold go into the match rounds, which are hand-loaded by people who individually count each grain of powder to provide consistent accuracy. The scope is rugged and precision-made, and Fox says he can consistently put a round through a man's head at 800 yds.
27 October: our choppers have an emergency mission in the morning, so we opt for a late-in-the-day infil. The Co rides in the C&C chopper to observe, and our chopper is surrounded by a couple of gunships. When we arrive at our AO our ship, the gunships, and the C&C chopper maneuver wildly in what the pilot's call a "Beehive", with individual ships going down, touching likely LZs and returning to the bedlam above. This is kept up all the way down the valley and on one of the passes our team is deposited. As the rear skid touches the ground, the first man goes, followed closely by the others, in patrol order so that in the second and a half that it takes the pilot to rock his ship forward and pull pitch for takeoff the team is off on a dead run for the woodline. Noise matters not here, the chopper sounds will mask all. Once into the woodline the team goes down on one knee in a circle with all weapons pointed out in all directions, and we sit. There is nothing more quiet than a LZ once the chopper has left. We strain our ears and look for signs of people moving toward our position. This is when the team is most vulnerable, on infil, when the enemy is watching the likely LZ's he knows (better than we) in his backyard. The purpose of the Beehive is to confuse the observers on the nearby hilltops as to our exact position. This time it confused Goof, who got us off on the wrong LZ, 10,000 meters from our intended destination. When Tad checked it on his map he could hardly contain himself. Five minutes in the quiet down position and I call in a"First Base" to let the CO in the C&C ship know we're in safe, and he asks to speak with Tad. He confirms we're in the wrong AO and wants to know what we want to do. "We'll hump it" whispers Tad in the handset which he hands back to me as he returns swearing in whispers, gestures and grimaces to Goof, who got an earful. I sign off the radio, get up and prepare to hump...we have a long way to go and it's getting late. We have no choice but to use the main trails (an absolute no-no in our training- but this is a Hawk mission, the idea is to make contact with the enemy, and we need to move fast.) We move about 1500 meters out of the valley and into the mountains before it gets dark. We setup our laager (camp site) 50 meters off the trail under some bushes, spread out our groundsheets in a circle with our heads together so we can shake the guy next to us if he starts to snore, or if it's his turn on guard duty. We'd use our packs for pillows, and guard duty only meant that you were awake and listening, you didn't move around. We're up in the morning at first light, fold up our groundsheets, and have a hearty breakfast of hot chocolate and granola bars. We start moving at 0700... fast, toward our objective, the newly abandoned Fire Support Base (FSB) "Corregidor". Up and down hills for about 2,000 meters when Tad spots what appears to be a montagnard booby-trap of bamboo spears on the trail. Closer inspection revealed it to be set only to spear small animals, but this was the problem of moving on main trails ... a watcher could spot you and arm his pre-positioned booby traps. We gingerly step over the trap and continue not 20 meters before Tad kills a snake by stepping on its head and cutting it off with his Randall. Tad sees a garden on the next ridgeline, so we move off this trail over to it. Here we discover another trail, follow it and discover an enemy base camp. We prepare to assault, but as we move in it's apparent that the men are all out on patrol (probably looking for us) and the only people here are a couple of kids, 2 women and a badly wounded man. We had trouble making commo, and I pulled out the long whip antenna and installed it. We were a long way from any friendly forces, but I finally managed to raise Hawkeye and called for an immediate extraction. Higher relays back that they are on the way, but wants us to relocate closer to our primary destination. Tad goes over again where he wants Goof to put us in for infil. When the choppers arrive, we extract our prisoners and wait our turn. We're in that garden we had initially spotted. I sit down, leaning back on my ruck, and when I get up I spot a montagnard crossbow arrow stuck in the ground next to me. Don't know where it came from, but I picked it up for a souvenir.
We don't need any resupply, so after pickup we just tool on down the valley closer to our destination LZ, and guess what. Goof screws up and puts us into the wrong LZ again. He's starting to remind me of Gomer Pyle...the boy can't read a map. But, at least this time we're only 5 clicks away (5,000 meters). It's nearly dark when we infil, and, after moving only a short distance, Tad spots four hootches. We back up a little ways, but can't see squat, and rather than move blindly in the dark making all kind of noise, we crawled under some bushes and laagered in to wait for morning. All night long I hear movement off our right front, and hear what sounds like human voices talking softly. We forgo breakfast in the morning and move out at 06:30 (first light) heading for the four hootches down the hill. On the way, we descend a steep cliff just below our laagersite and discover three "sleeping hootches", complete with cots and hammocks, dug into the side of the cliff under a natural overhang. These sleeping hootches were common along the Ho Chi Mihn trail, and were used by NVA soldiers moving south in groups of 3 to 6 en route to linking up with their larger group at their destination point. We checked the coals in the campfire ... they were cold, so we moved out toward some rocks. Tad heard movement in the rocks ahead, and as we were sneaking up on them our rear security made contact. Tad threw a CS grenade into the rocks and Goof goes bonkers. He doesn't know whether to attack forwards, backwards, or just sit down and cry. Tad takes control and we move forward. In the rocks we find two sleeping hootches in caves, a spring with running water, and an old mamma-san crouched in a corner afraid to move. We talk to her in broken Vietnamese, apologize for the inconvenience, and move out into the jungle. Goof is still a bit shaken, is moving slowly holding the rest of us up, and soon loses contact with Tad, the point man. He's acting confused, like he wants to turn around and go back and I'm right behind him saying,"keep going, he's up ahead". We finally found Tad, move a couple hundred meters and Tad hears voices up ahead. He calls Tony up with the machinegun to be point and move in first, and gets behind Goof to push him up the trail to make contact. Goof was uncontrollably scared and begins shooting up the AO before he sees anything. When I got up to him he was sobbing, apologizing to Tad and his hands were shaking uncontrollably. Tad was disgusted, took over the team and moved Goof into a Scout position in the middle of the pack. Tad was still point, and I was right behind him as RTO. We need to move fast. Two contacts in 200 meters... the enemy knew exactly where we were. We moved a click as fast as we could and laagered that night on the other side of the An Lao river. We had no commo all day and that night it rained and got real cold. To make matters worse, I had ripped the seat out of my pants. Great day... and this morning promised more of the same. Still no commo, We had laagered under some bushes next to the river, and I picked seven leeches off my bod. We get up and move out to Corregidor. All day we climb only to find the slope getting steeper. The thirty extra pounds of my radio is making a difference, and Tony's having a hell of a time muscling the gun. Near the top, the slope turns into a sheer cliff with caves and sleeping hootches embedded in it. We scale the sheer face with weapons slung, using both hands searching for finger and toe holds for the 90 foot ascent. By 1700 we are on top of the mesa, and I am able, for the first time in two days, to make contact with Hawkeye on the radio. We move a click across the top of the mesa easily, and laager within sight of the FSB. The next morning we move onto the Fire Support Base and cook our breakfast there. This base had been used by the artillery, and when they had pulled out they had left a lot of goodies behind. We found 84 variable-time 155 howitzer fuses, 200 lbs of cratering charges, 7 blocks of C-4, two cases of fuse lighters, 1500 feet of time fuse and a case of carrots. We chow down on the carrots. We also played with our special weapons, burning off some of the M-60 ammo, and tossing our new M-33 baseball handgrenades which were supposed to have a bursting radius of 50 meters. We rarely threw grenades at targets farther than 20 meters, and were concerned about getting hit by shrapnel from our own grenades. We needn't be, as none that we threw ( and we threw them all) went off. When we got back, we traded the whole platoon's M-33's on a two for one basis to the ARVN's for M-26's. They thought they were getting a deal, and we got a whole lot of grenades that worked. An EOD ( Explosive Ordinance Demolition) team was flown in and blew the explosives in place. We saved the VT fuses, as they were valuable ($85 apiece- almost a years pay for a Second Lieutenant- someone stayed up all night copying each serial number down, and someone subsequently got his ass chewed out.) Goof made himself out to be a hero, but we all knew who led the team, and we vowed never to go out with Goof again. Bruegerman ("Bergie") got four kills in the Soui tre and had to be pulled out on ropes through the jungle when Charlie began closing in. We had made a bet on who'd have the most kills and POWs before we went out, and although he had a much more exciting mission, with our five POWs we had technically won the bet.
The next day ( November lst) Goof and Ga Fox get orders for Recondo School, and we felt good that we didn't have to go out with Goof anymore. Toney, "Wooley". Macomber, Moose and me went to Phu Cat AFB and spent the night getting drunk at the NCO club wowing USAF-types with our war stories. We made it back to English the next afternoon, only to find that Tad had hand-picked his Hunter-Killer team- HAWK61. T/L: Tad, ATL: Macomber, RTO: me, Sct: Toney, Sct: Murrey (Moose), Sct: Wooley, Sct: Reeves, Sct: Argerbrite. We did good the last time out, we were all the cherries from the September LRP School, and Tad, the old pro, wanted us. We were just waiting for a mission.
November 4: Tad went on his overflight. We're going into the Tiger mountains across the Bong Son river in sight of LZ English on one side and the South China Sea on the other. The area is aptly named "VC Valley". I'm still tired from the last mission... that was a hump. We plan to walk in from the Bong Son bridge this time.
November 5: We go down to the bridge wearing fresh jungle fatigues with no patches, carrying our gear in duffle bags, and eat dinner with the 17th Cav. They have a tank permanently stationed there guarding the bridge. We go up to the coke shack and drink cokes and B.S. with the coke-girls until it gets dark and they shut down (2100 hrs). Reeves tells the girls we are the 13th Engineers from Saigon. Coke-girls are fun, you can learn a lot of Vietnamese cuss words by talking to them. We go back to the bridge and in the cover of darkness, change into our Tigers and prepare our weapons.
At 0100 we move out, picking our way up the steep hills surrounding VC Valley. Twice Wooley fell into ravines. We laagered on top of a hill and wait for daylight. Up early, cook breakfast and move out at 0800 following the ridgeline. At midday we spot 4 VC moving through the valley. At 1730 we've reached a pretty good OP/laager site for the night and spot 16 VC. I tried to call in Artillery, but the only people I could raise were the 17th Cav mortars. They were way off. The VC scattered and ran from the mortars. We go to sleep.
Up in the morning early and move out at 0700. I'm humping an M-79 grenade launcher this mission, and am carrying my ammo in a large Claymore bag. For extra protection, I also have a Colt 45 attached to my pistol belt. Tad has his Car-15 ( a shortened M-16 with telescoping stock), and everyone else is humping M-16's. We move down off the ridgeline into a draw looking for basecamps. We hear voices ahead and sneak up slowly. We don't find a basecamp. Just clothes, where mamma-san had been doing her laundry. We walked across the valley to try our luck on the other side. Hawkeye, alerted by the activity yesterday, was watching the valley and spotted us. We hid low as he buzzed us three times before I could find and switch to his frequency to call him off. Now every VC in the valley knew where we were, so we quickly moved to a ridge bordering the valley, paralleling the Bong Son river overlooking a trail next to the river. At a place where the trail moved into the open with ankle-high grass we setup for ambush, with everyone lying prone on the small ridge 30 meters away. A couple of guys kept a watch on our rear ( the VC in the valley knew where we were, but someone coming down the trail into the valley wouldn't. This is my fourth mission, and so far I haven't killed anyone. In less than an hour six VC walk into our trap.
When they are centered in the "kill-zone" Tad signals by rising and opening up. We all follow suit and the roar from the M-16's is deafening. I'm moving as if in a dream state pumping M-79 rounds in at the feet of our victims. My rounds are the only individually identifiable rounds going out because each M-79 shell is a small grenade which would kick-up a lot of dust when going off. It was important for me to get the placement of each round right on target. The shooting stops as quickly as it began, and all is still. Three VC are down and three have escaped- two by diving off the embankment into the river, and the third by diving and low crawling into the brush of a ravine near the entrance to our ambush site. Tad takes three men down to check the bodies while leaving two men behind to provide covering fire and me on the ridge to make commo and call a "Timber" (Immediate Extraction). I continue to Pump M-79 rounds into the brush where I saw the VC dive into the ravine while Tad and the others check the bodies and the embankment for the other two escapees. Tad retrieves 1 AK w/folding stock, one M-1 rifle, an M-79 grenade launcher and several rounds of grenades. Tad comes back up to our position and we move back down into the valley and crouch behind a low rice paddy dike to await the choppers for home. . They don't come ... they've been delayed, and we're left exposed in the middle of VC Valley. We tell Higher we're going to walk out, but he tells us to wait. The choppers will be there shortly. I'm still in my dream state, in a low crouch, thinking about what just happened when I hear a pop and look down and see my pants pocket smoking. I quickly pull everything out of my right thigh pocket and find the mini-smoke that had just gone off. In the top of the can was a bullet hole, in the top of my pocket flap was a bullet hole and my .45 was warm. I must have chambered a round back at the ambush when I was in my dream state, but I couldn't remember it. Lucky it didn't hit my knee. Two hours later the choppers arrive and take us home.
The next day, November 8, Dave Gowen and I go into Bong Son and raise hell. On the way back, we stop off and visit with a mutual friend, SP/5 Greene, at B-Med. He has just set up a dispensary for the Vietnamese located just inside the perimeter wire, and is interested in hearing our exploits. The following day I'm on KP (Kitchen Duty). We're going out tomorrow and I get word I'm going on R&R to Hawaii on the twenty second. I will need to report to An Khe on the twentieth.
November 10: They took us down highway 1 and dropped us off at a. bridge manned by ARVNs. At midnight we move into VC Valley, hump two hours to the top of a hill and sack out. The hill is a good OP, so in the morning we look for activity. After seeing none, move out late ( 1000) east into the valley. Moving slowly and quietly, we, at last, come to the trail we're going to ambush (1500 hrs). We move down the trail and locate an excellent ambush site and set up. For four hours we sit quietly in the hot sun waiting for someone to walk into our trap, but nothing happens. At 1900 hrs we move back up a hill, make commo and laager in for the night. Smitty is manning the radio at TOC (Tactical Operations Center) tonight, and he calls me up to tell me that Nixon won the election. "Great", I say,"Now maybe we can end this stupid war with his 'Secret Plan'." It rained that night, and we got soaked. The next morning the radio wasn't working. We could hear Higher fine, but water had gotten into the handset, and we couldn't break squelch. Tad was reluctant to make contact without commo, so we compromised. We went back to the trail and followed it out to the highway looking for targets of opportunity. If I could get the handset working, we'd go back into the valley, but no such luck. We reached the highway and hitch-hiked a ride back to English.
Hunky Rabel got killed today (November 13) as he dove on a hand grenade to smother the blast and save the rest of his team. Everyone in the compound is shaken up- Laslo was a friend to all. He was a Freedom-Fighter in Hungary before he escaped across the border when the Russian tanks rolled-in in 1956. He came to the States, joined the Army, and was in Special Forces in Europe before Viet Nam came along. He earned his E-6 stripes the hard way... in the field. A lot of the old guys are embittered... they're blaming our recent rise of casualties and increased frequency of missions on the unit's shifting of focus from Reconnaissance to the Hawk team concept. Martinez (one-of our E-7 LRP School instructors- and a former Ranger School instructor) is putting together another Hawk team based on Tad's concept. Its designation is Hawk62, and my good buddy, Dave Gowen, is on it. I'm a hardened veteran now, bloodied and proven in combat, and the "old guys" are starting to accept me as one of their own. I'm also a medic (a supposedly sensitive, understanding fellow) and as such they give me more deference and respect than they do the officers. They come around and pour their hearts out as if I'm a psychiatrist, and they don't understand that I'm having a hard enough time keeping my own head together in this kind of environment. I may be a medic, but I'm no Chaplain. Even Captain Buzacci pops in for a heart-to-heart. This is getting be too much. I find out that in previous years the average number of missions per year was twelve ( and those were reconnaissance missions, usually without contact). With our current pace of missions, you could have that many, now, in two months.
Given the nature of a Hawk mission ( go in, observe, see how they're moving, move down and ambush) field time was usually short (2-3 days) and intense ( as compared to a 5-6 day recon mission where all you did was sit on a hilltop and observe the activity.) The "old guys" were having a hard time accepting the concept...they wanted to live a little longer and become "older guys". Us newbies didn't know any better, and we stuck together, preferring, the action and excitement of contact. Tad told me an old Montagnard saying:
See as an eagle, clear and from afar;
Think as a snake, quick and unblinking;
Move as a panther, lithe and sinuous;
Crouch as a lion, muscled and ready;
Kill as a Mongoose, swift and silent;
Die like a man."
Toney, Wooley, Moose, Macomber and I (Tad's team) went to Phu Cat AFB on the fourteenth to scratch for supplies. I want a pair of Air Force sunglasses, and the other guys wanted a pair of fighter pilot gloves like mine. This time we're invited to the officer's club where the fighter pilots want to hear our tales of daring-do. After an evening of lies and debauchery, we're quartered in the BOQ (Bachelor Officer's Quarters) and for the first time since arriving in Viet Nam, I experience a hot shower. We love Phu Cat... it's just like being home in the States. Good food, good liquor, paved streets with sidewalks. They have recently changed our LRP patch design from an inconspicuous blue and white tab saying simply LRP over the top of our "Airborne" tab atop the red, white and blue 173rd patch to a huge red, black and white banner saying"74 Inf, Long Range Patrol, Airborne" and we stand out at Phu Cat. Everyone comes up to us in the PX to glom on to some war stories. We're like rock stars here. Steve Macomber and I left Phu Cat early the next morning, the Idolatry was getting to be too much.
Back in Bong Son, we find Tad getting ready to go out to link-up with Bergie who's spotted large concentrations of NVA in the Soui-Ca valley. Higher wants Bergie to ambush, but two of his people have contracted malaria, and need to be evacuated. "Where are those other sorry muthas", yells Tad as we arrive ( referring to his team). Steve and I packed in one hour, and are on our way to the chopper pad ( which was just outside our compound) when we're told the mission has been delayed. That's fine...just as long as it hasn't been canceled. This is an excellent opportunity for a Hawk mission, a hot AO with a "heavy" team (two teams together). Bergie had reported seeing over 100 NVA moving down a trail in front of him last night. Moose and Wooley get back in time to hastily pack up, and, as we're inserted into the Soui-Ca, we help the two sick guys getting on our "slick" (Huey). Bergie is there at the LZ and we move up out of the valley to a laager/OP on the ridge that he had been using. That night, just as it was getting dark, we counted 28 NVA moving down the trail carrying RPD machineguns and a 82mm mortar before it got too dark to see any more. We got up early the next morning ( November 16) and moved down to the trail for an ambush. Nothing came through, so we moved back up the hill, found an old "Mike"Force laager and setup for the night. Again, the next morning, we move out early and set up in the shade, this time, on a ridge overlooking a perfect "kill zone" where the trail came out of the bushes into an open 50 meter-long area of ankle-high grass. At 1000 hrs two NVA ( one with an AK, and the other carrying a ruck) move into our kill zone. We're at the ready, but we wait. We may want to let these guys go through and wait for a larger number. Someone fires, I don't know who because I'm looking through the peep sight of my M-16, and we all cut loose (me, with single fire aimed shots). . Tad takes five men down to check the bodies, and I stay, with four others, up high on the ridge to make commo and provide covering fire. The NVA with the ruck is dead in the middle of the trail, but the one with the AK has crawled off into the bushes. On the far side of the kill zone is a small stream, and beyond that is a small cliff 20 ft high which blocks my view of an area which on my map is marked as an old abandoned FSB. As I'm giving our Situation Report (SitRep) to Higher, Hawkeye breaks in and asks if there are any friendlies in our AO. I tell him that the closest friendlies are 10 clicks to the south, to which he replies,"Well, you've got 40 or more people wearing pith helmets to your Echo (East) moving toward your position." We try to get Tad's attention in the valley with waves and gestures ( it's hard doing this stuff and remain silent). Finally he looks up, and realizes from the desperation of our gestures that he needs to get back up to our position. Meanwhile, Hawkeye, Higher and I are thumbing through our SOI's and contacting every unit near our area, requesting LogStats to be sure of their positions before we start bringing artillery in. Tad breaks off the search for the wounded NVA and when he gets up to me he really has a case of the tail-section. He wanted to let those Charlies through, and wants to know who the trigger-happy cowboy was. Now he is mad because I've called him back up before he can confirm the second kill, but when he's appraised of the situation his attitude changes. Hawkeye has already made contact with the Artillery and has called in a fire-mission.
Suddenly the jungle silence is broken by a Clang, Clang, Clang sound. "What's that", I whisper. "Somebody's driving in engineering stakes at that old Fire Support Base across the "blue line"(stream)," Wooley replies. I call Hawkeye and tell him to hold off on his fire-mission. He objects, they almost have a round in the air. I tell him to hold his horses for two minutes while I check something. The only reason anyone would be driving engineering stakes into the ground would be to build hootches, and the only people stupid enough to do that, in this country, were Americans. The closest American friendly in our vicinity was B Co., 2nd Batt. I contacted them and asked them to KAK up their LogStat, which they did, and it confirmed they were 10 clicks south. Then I asked them if they were at an old Fire Support Base (ours being the only one in the valley), to which they replied,"Roger That". I called Hawkeye off, told him his pith helmets were steel pots, got back on B Co's freq and told them where they were, and if they'd walk to the "Whiskey"(West) 20 meters they'd find a cliff overlooking a stream and a clearing with a dead NVA soldier lying in the center, and, if they continued to look up the ridge line, we'd wave to them. We contacted Higher and told him we had friendlies out of position in the valley, the probability of friendly-fire accidents was high. Lt.G wants us to relocate, but that won't solve the problem. These cowboys in B Co. didn't know where they were at...they can't read maps, and we could get in the Line of fire no matter where we relocated in the valley. We call for an extraction, pack up and move out to link up with the line company across the "blue line" (it's safer being in the middle of those clowns than to be anywhere on their perimeter.) When we got to the FSB we told the CO what we had been seeing for the last three days. He told us that we were full of shit, that if there were any NVA in the valley he would have seen them (as his men continued to hammer in engineering stakes and a couple were turning on their Boom Boxes to get in the groove.) He was in the process of calling in his Delta Tangos (DTs-Defensive Targets- pre-fired and set artillery benchmarks... this is done using live artillery rounds.) I say, "Sir, what is your logstat again." He gives me the same logstat as before. "And where is your DT? Up the valley about 10,000 meters?", "Yes" he replies. "Then, Sir, could you do me a tiny little favor and make that first round smoke?" The First Sergeant, standing behind the Captain with the binoculars looking down to the far end of the valley, turned to me and smiled. The Captain did make that first round smoke, and was looking down the valley through his binos for the splash at the far end of the valley. He jumped out of his skin when the round went off behind his ear, directly overhead. But he still refused to admit that he had made a mistake. He just canceled the fire-mission and went on about his other "Captainly duties". . Suddenly, one of his men who had laagered on the cliff over-looking our kill-zone came running up, saying he had just seen an NVA soldier go down the trail toward the south. The Captain called a Lieutenant up and ordered him to take his Platoon (24 guys) to the south to see if they could catch this guy. Our people got curious, and walked over and staked out the cliff and observed the trail. Twenty minutes later 11 NVA march into our kill-zone, and our team is there on the cliff, salivating, looking at these guys through our peep sights, just waiting for the last one to get into the clearing. A man runs up and grabs the weapon out of Wooley's hand and says,"Don't shoot" "Why?""Don't know...orders from the Captain." I run over to the Captain and say,"Why". "I've got a Platoon out and I don't know where they are. Don't worry, my platoon will get 'em."Yeah, sure. I went back to the cliff to watch them move through. The guys all stood up and waved. The NVA soldiers looked up and saw us (we were trying to draw their fire so we could justify shooting them) but all they did was put the heads down far in their shoulders, gulp, and gingerly walked across the kill-zone, straining to keep from breaking into a dead run. There were probably some soiled NVA britches that night. We got exfiled at 1400 hrs. On debriefing, Major Stang (Brigade S2 - the head of intelligence) acted surprised. B Company never reported sighting any NVA.
After every mission we were debriefed, usually by Major Stang, but sometimes (when we were in a critical AO) the General would sit in. I remember one such debriefing with the General a few months later after returning from a successful ambush in a valley north of English. "Son, tell me how they were moving.""They were moving up and down the valley, but primarily down, on this main trail.""And where do you think they're coming from, and are going?""I assume they're just going through the valley to the north""No, we have had teams to the north, and have watched it to the north with IR at night, they move in and out of the valley, but they don't move north.""Then there's got to be a basecamp in there, a big one. The valley is like a box canyon with sparsely wooded side ridges, but the base of the canyon has a steep slope and is heavily wooded. That's where they're going, and they've got to have a big basecamp in there.""And what would you do about it?""I'd use two companies, one I'd place on the side ridge to the west, and the other I'd land north of the base end of the canyon. These would be the "beaters". I'd load them down with hand grenades, have them stretch out abreast in one long, single line with orders not to lose contact with the man next to you, and head down ranting and raving like banshees, chucking grenades, and firing wildly ahead into the brush. The "beaters" will scare the "tigers" out into the valley and the "hunters" on the ridgeline will have a field day laying down full-envalid fire into the fish in the barrel below.""Son ... we did exactly that two months ago""And nothing happened?""Nothing.""Then the beaters' walked right over the basecamp""Which means?""It's a cave. They have a huge underground complex in there.""And how would you find it?""I'd break the canyon base into thirds, and would use 3 LRP teams going in at different times. The first team going in on the right with orders to move halfway down and listen/investigate sounds of movement. A complex that large probably has several entrances, and the entrances are probably guarded by a VC in a spiderhole. Find the entrance, you've found the complex. If the team on the right isn't successful, extract them and put one in the center, etc.""And do you know anyone who might be interested in running such a mission?""We're here""I just might take you up on that...soon." But another team was inserted first, while we were resting from our recent mission, and they found the complex and captured the sixth highest ranking man in COSVN (Central Office, South Viet Nam- the Viet Cong). He was a surgeon, and the complex was an underground field hospital.
Our motto was "We're the General's Eyes and Ears'. With the advent of the Hawk teams we were now becoming his teeth as well. But it wasn't easy. The day after my last mission with Tad I was sitting in a bar in Bong Son when one of the guys drove up in the unit's tiger-striped jeep. He said, "Doc, listen to this". and I listened to the radio as the new Hawk team (Hawk62) headed by Martinez was in a firefight for its life, and begging for immediate extraction. Lt. G. told them the choppers were busy resupplying the Batts and they'd have to wait their turn."You're good LRPS, Stand and Fight " were his immortal words, spoken from the security of the TOC. I hopped in the jeep and said,"Drive" and we tore into English straight to Major Stang's office. I burst in and said,"Sir, listen to the LRP Freq." He turned on his radio, and after a few seconds listening to the back-and-forth banter between the team and Lt G he broke in and said,"Lieutenant, get your ass to the chopper pad NOW. Boys, we're coming, to get you." Then he called the choppers, pulled rank and ordered them to kick the supplies off two birds and get them in the air. He went to the pad to go out with Lt G in the C&C ship to extract the team, and I went to B-Med to greet them when they arrived. On the way I stopped at the VietNamese dispensary and got Doc Greene ( the mutual friend of mine and Dave Gowen- who was on the team.) We went to the medevac pad next to the field hospital and the slick carrying the team brought them straight there. The damage: Reeves, Killed In Action; Martinez, Gowen, and Wiley Wounded in Action; MacCallister and Mowery unharmed. Dave told me that Marty had screwed up when he let two twelve year old boys, who stumbled on the laager that morning, go. Marty didn't relocate the team, and the kids went home to get daddy and the AK. Back at the unit, about five guys quit on the spot to protest the transformation from Recon to Hawk, and the quality of the people in the rear who held our lives in their hands. Most of the teams are in, and a lot of people are really pissed off. S-2 smells the situation and puts the word out- all teams into the field tomorrow. I didn't go the field because I was going on R&R, and, when I got back, I had orders for the month-long Recondo School. . When I got back from Recondo School I found that the unit had completely been transformed. Two LRP Schools in December and January brought us up to true company strength with over 100 people (In September we had 24 total). Our name had been changed to N Company, 75th Infantry Airborne Rangers ( in fact, I was told to sew that patch on before going to Recondo School in December.) The mission for all teams now contained the Hawk element, with ambush, if not the primary mission, the secondary component. I don't believe Tad and I ran any other missions together, though the next six months for me was pretty much a blur with back-to-back Killer missions which I patterned in the Tadina style, with me at point with my AK. I owe a lot to Tad for getting me off on the right foot and even if we didn't run any more missions together, we'd always rub elbows and compare notes between missions. It was an exciting year.