Perhaps the most frustrating activity of the war in Vietnam was that we
almost never saw the enemy we pursued. Signs of enemy activity were all around us -
bunkers, underground tunnels, occasional rocket or mortar
attacks, and again and again, the booby-traps.
We heard that in the northern war zones the danger was ambush by the NVA forces, and in
the south it was booby-traps. I know the latter half of that statement was true.
The mines and explosives were so effective that the enemy would put up signs
warning the civilians, and us, that an area was mined. We usually took those signs
seriously. More than once we skirted an area which had the "Tu Dia"
(pronounced "too die") signs posted on sticks and trees.
About two weeks after I joined Alpha Company we boarded trucks to move to a fire
support base near the village of Trang Bang, on the road to Tay Ninh. That very
first morning we went out to sweep the nearby fields, which were overgrown with tall
grass, bushes, and young saplings. Once they had been cultivated, for old rice dikes
After moving parallel to the road for an hour we approached an area of dense brush
blocking our advance. Posted at intervals were six inch pieces of paper with a skull
and crossbones drawn on them, along with the words "Tu Dia". Minefield!
Somebody didn't want us to go in there. Our platoon sergeant looked at the signs for a
moment, and then stood there contemplating the alternatives. As we stood waiting for
a decision, a single shot was fired at us from several hundred yards away, across an
overgrown meadow. It wasn't really close, but it did come from the general direction
we had been heading when we saw the signs.
We took cover behind a foot-high dike as another shot rang out. But we were too
far away to return effective fire. The shots, along with the warning signs,
convinced Sarge not to continue on in that direction. We turned about and
headed back towards the highway. An hour later, without further incident, we reached
the highway and called for trucks to return us to the base. Our original objective
had been to sweep both sides of the highway. We never finished even one.
Back at the fire base we relaxed beside our bunkers and looked across the adjacent
river to fields on the other side. From our vantage point, we could see the blacktop
highway which ran past our base, over the river, and south to Cu Chi and then to Saigon.
And we were sitting there watching as the enemy launched an ambush on a convoy
coming up the road toward the bridge. From the rooftops we saw the lead trucks catch
fire from exploding rocket-propelled grenades. Heavy machine gun rounds arched from
the fields beside the road and swept through the column of trucks and jeeps, while the
rapid fire of dozens of AK-47 rifles joined in the attack. The men in the trucks
were virtually defenseless, since at most they carried M-16
rifles for personal protection, if that. They were truck drivers, not combat
soldiers. The area was supposed to be secure. In fact, we were the ones
responsible for securing that area - which we had bypassed a few hours earlier because of
a few little signs posted on the bushes, and two sniper rounds. That was the respect
those little signs commanded.
Within minutes one of our units converged on the area to return fire. Helicopter
gunships raced in from Cu Chi and raked the area with their miniguns. The enemy held
on tenaciously, fighting for every inch of ground they were forced to give up. For
more than half an hour they returned heavy fire, and then retreated under cover of the
heavy brush. But they had met their objective - on the highway lay four dead and
seven wounded. Supply trucks littered the road, some burning out of control, others
destroyed by rockets and heavy machine gun fire. As evening settled upon us and the
sky turned red with the sunset, thick black columns of smoke continued to drift slowly
Booby-traps took many forms. There were the simple kinds, such as bamboo punji
sticks placed in a concealed hole. Others were more sophisticated. There were
hand grenades on sticks with trip wires crossing the trail, tin cans full of explosives
embedded in mud walls beside well-traveled routes, and unexploded 105 mm projectiles
rigged with a grenade as a trigger. We saw all of these and more in the areas we
One day we pursued an enemy force all morning. Our overhead choppers relayed
sightings to us on the ground. But we couldn't quite catch up with them. The
brush was heavy, visibility was limited. Again and again we received reports to
change our direction, they were just ahead of us - but always we failed to see them.
We reached an open clearing about noon, and stopped for a break. The clearing was
carpeted with tall grass, and spotted with occasional large trees. The area had once
been a lovely meadow for a nearby farm house. The roof was of red tile. It was
obviously the former home of a wealthy landlord. Behind the house, and directly
ahead of us, was a forested area overgrown with thick brush. That was where the
enemy had last been seen. The company commander, Captain Robert
Connolly, had most of the men form into two columns to enter the
brush. Since I was in the command group and would not go in with the lead elements,
I sat down with my back to one of the large old trees to take a rest. Most of the
command group sat nearby, while the captain rose to observe the entry. One by one
the men disappeared into the dense brush, as both columns advanced together.
About six men had entered the woods when the point man spotted a booby-trap trip wire
ahead. Word was passed back. Captain Connolly decided to pull the lines back out.
Where there was one booby-trap there were usually others. In the confusion of
backing out, the men bunched closer together, and as the last of the left column emerged
from the brush, nearly a dozen men were packed into a tight line. One man stepped
aside to get out of the way of another. Boom! A terrible explosion echoed
through the clearing, and the line of men fell instantly to the ground. We all rose
quickly to go to their aid, but someone yelled, "Don't move! Don't move!"
He was right, of course. There were sure to be other mines nearby.
Instinctively, several of the men began screaming "Medic!", and a platoon medic
in the other column, heeding the call, broke ranks and started off through the tall grass
between the columns, taking the shortest way to the wounded. We watched in horror as
he took two steps, and "Blam!", a second booby-trap exploded, dropping a
half-dozen men in the right column. The captain, who had been standing about
fifty-feet from the edge of the woods between the two columns, was thrown backwards off
his feet as dozens of metal fragments ripped into his chest. Amid the screams, the
remaining medics carefully worked their way in to help their fallen comrades.
The senior platoon leader, 1st Lieutenant James Sylvester, immediately took
command and had us search the area inch-by-inch for more bombs, but we had hit them all.
Quickly I called for Medevacs to pick up our wounded, while others secured an area for the
helicopters to land. Working as fast as he could, our "Doc" stanched the
gaping wounds as we all supplied extra bandages. Many of
the wounds did not bleed - the force of the blast had sealed them shut. The
booby-traps had been constructed from 105 mm howitzer rounds, which had been fired at the
enemy but had not exploded. A 105 mm shell is more than a foot long, five inches
across, and made of steel which shatters into long, thin, needle-sharp fragments when the
high explosive inside is detonated. Carefully the VC had converted them into lethal
mines, standing upright at ground level with trip wires connected to a detonator at the
top - probably a grenade fuse. Their shrapnel had swept outward like a scythe,
cutting the legs out from under a dozen men. The toll was heavy. When the
final count was in, five of the men had lost both legs from the knee down, and four others
lost one full leg. For many, the flesh and bone had been completely blown away by the force of
the explosion. Other men suffered severe shrapnel wounds. Before
long Captain Connolly was able to return to us, but his chest wounds were never completely
cleaned of metal fragments. He took some of them home with him.
High explosive or homemade, the result of a booby-trap was the same. One of us
was sure to be injured or killed. The enemy often made do with very crude
booby-traps, and relied on cleverly concealing them from us.
One morning after a hike through rice paddies and streams, we were about as careful or
careless as might be expected. We always tried to be alert, but hours and days
without any sign of trouble sometimes lulled us into a false sense of security. We
entered a village area, and slowly moved through to the other side. At the head of
our platoon was a Chieu Hoi (pronounced "chew hoy"), a former VC who had changed
sides and was now serving as a scout for us. As we started down a trail between a
mud hootch and a rickety rail fence, the Chieu Hoi spotted something. As we watched,
bewildered, he took off running, bent at the waist, with his arms stretched out in front
of him, trying to catch something. A chicken flapped its wings and took off for the
safety of the hootch, the Chieu Hoi in hot pursuit. One thing these men liked to do
was eat, and liberated chicken was high on their list of favorites.
Two steps, maybe three, was as close as he came to catching the bird. In his
haste, he was careless, though this time, even fully alert, he might have missed the
clues. A grenade had been planted in the mud wall of the hootch, about waist-high.
The trip wire consisted of a piece of barbed wire which meandered from the fence
over to the wall. It was not tight, as we were used to, but loose. The intent
was for someone to just step on the wire, or kick it aside. The timer-fuse had been
removed, and it was set to explode the instant the pin was pulled. Our Chieu Hoi,
bent over and intent on dinner, hit the wire as his head came level with the grenade.
These guys seldom wore our steel pots - they were too large and heavy.
Instead they wore cloth jungle hats, which were no protection at all. One of our
men, who until the chase had been on point, was close enough to take several shrapnel
fragments in the stomach.
I ripped open a combat bandage and wrapped it around the
bleeding shrapnel wound of our point, as several others moved to the assistance of the
Chieu Hoi. He was still alive, though blood was streaming from wounds on his temple
and face. He was dazed, incoherent. It didn't look as if he could possibly
live more than a few minutes. When the Medevac finally arrived the Chieu Hoi, head
wrapped in bandages, was still moving. We placed him aboard the chopper, and we
later learned that he survived, without serious injury. The only thing that had
saved him was the amateur placement of the grenade. It must have been planted just a
bit too deep in the wall, and the hardened mud had contained most of the blast. The
fragments, lethal at ten or fifteen yards, had never made it the four-or five-feet to his
head. He didn't get his chicken, but as consolation, he was spared paying the full
price for his carelessness.