Ninety percent of the enemy encounters in our area of operations were
impromptu, small scale affairs. We were always out looking, searching, hunting for
VC hideouts and tunnels, and yet when we found them it was usually by accident. If
there was any shooting, we just backed off and waited for help from the air. But
today was going to be different. Today we were going looking for trouble, and we
knew just where to find it.
A large headquarters complex had been located, complete with fighting positions,
bunkers, tunnels - the whole works. A frontal assault was planned. A convoy of
armored personnel carriers (APC's) pulled up outside the gate to
give us a lift. We climbed aboard and the caravan started off down the road to Trung
Lap. A thick, choking cloud of reddish-brown dust rose around us as the tracked
vehicles picked up speed.
When we reached Trung Lap we turned down another, narrower road. It petered out
and we headed north and east across the rice fields beyond the hamlet. Soon the
terrain became wilder. Old rice dikes were still in place, but field grass covered
the ground instead of rice. We slowed our pace and searched the ground ahead of the
track more carefully. All eyes were on the lookout for booby traps or hidden mines.
Our ride suddenly ended at a large, open field, surrounded with
rows of trees. And we were not alone. Hundreds of other soldiers were
gathered in clumps across the field, and there were more tracks than I had ever before
seen in one place. In all, eight companies of men had been assembled, along with a
company of armored personnel carriers. A flame-throwing
nozzle was mounted on one track, and another had a 120 mm mortar built inside. There
was even a command track, with antennae bristling from its top and sides.
We took our place toward the center right of the line that was forming up. The
tracks took up positions interspersed among the groups of men, and then on command we all
started forward. This was just like something out of a World War II flick! We
just didn't do this sort of thing. It was definitely taking on the appearance of
Our platoon moved into what had once been a farmyard. Only remnants of the walls
remained. We were alert, guarding against hidden tunnels,
wary and watchful lest Charlie pop up to ambush us from behind. We poked into every
depression, watched every clump of bushes for hidden foxholes. We moved so
cautiously that everyone else passed us and we had to hurry to catch up.
The ominous "Tu Dia" signs glared at us from the forest. Booby-trap
warnings. The company to our right decided wisdom was the better part of valor and
halted. We marched on. The tracks opened fire, their big machine guns thumping
away up and down the line. Charlie heard the call and answered with a chorus of
return fire. The fight was on. As we moved closer the volume increased.
Now a hand signal from the Sarge warned us to get down and take cover. I took a
position behind the nearest dike, about a foot high, just a few feet away from the nearest
track, and began to fire on the clumps of bushes and the tree line ahead. The return
fire no longer had that distant sound. Charlie had found us - this stuff was coming
right at us! Still, the presence of the track reassured me. It was big and friendly.
Then all of a sudden, what I thought would never happen to me, seemed to. I felt
a sharp jolt as something hit the back of my leg. "So this is what it's like to
be hit!", I thought. But there was no pain - no burning, searing agony as I had
seen so many times. "Must be really bad.", I thought. I didn't have
the courage to look. I fired another burst into the trees. Then I felt
something slam into my shoulder. I turned to see how badly it was bleeding, and
noticed suddenly that the rest of the platoon was at least twenty feet behind me - the
"hits" I was taking were huge clumps of dried mud they were throwing to get my
attention! Sarge motioned wildly for me to come back. I had been so intent on
the shooting ahead, and staying with the track, that I was the only one out there with it.
The rest of the attack had stalled one rice dike back. Just then the track
driver got the same message. He jammed the gears into reverse, leaving me as the
forward element. I decided to take everyone's advice and pull back - I could always
be a hero some other day!
For several minutes we held our position, while the firing intensified. Then the
order came to pull back, and Sarge led the way. Now I found out how he had stayed
alive as long as he had - he yelled "Follow me!", and led a strategic
withdrawal. He rose to a crouch and took off at a quick trot to the rear, only
stopping from time to time to encourage the rest of us to catch up. He leaped
three-foot rice dikes at a single bound, always one dike ahead of the pack. And he
didn't slacken the pace until we were hundreds of yards back from the shooting. At
the time I didn't think it was very courageous. But I was still young and this was
my first war. Sarge had been through several. He had been a green recruit in
World War II, had seen action in Korea, and served once before in Vietnam. Now, he
wanted to get home alive one last time, and in that he was wiser than many of us. We
just expected to get out O.K. - he was working at it. And in doing so, he was giving
us all a better chance of making it along with him. He was a good man.
With the first wave over, the heavies moved in. If we hadn't known beforehand
just exactly where the hidden base was, we did now. The helicopter gunships came
first. They sprayed the area with rockets and machine gun fire. When they were
empty, the Phantoms did their thing. Five hundred-pound bombs rained down on the
forest, and plumes of smoke rose above it. Black balls of smoke mushroomed out of
the trees, with fire belching from the center as the napalm bombs ignited one after
another. Just to clinch the deal, the mortar track opened up and fired into the
woods, though the exploding bombs gobbled up the tiny blasts of the mortar rounds.
As we lay on the ground to protect ourselves from stray fire, we took our only casualty
of the day. Suddenly a man screamed in pain. I turned to look and saw him
writhing on the ground, his face contorted in agony, though no cause was visible.
Our new platoon leader, 1Lt. Tom Deutschlander, tore the neckerchief he always wore from about his neck and reached towards
the back of the man's leg. There it was, a foot-long, jagged sliver of hardened
steel sticking out of the flesh. The huge bombs dropped by the Phantoms had thrown
it all that distance. The dagger had imbedded itself halfway into the leg and broken
the bone, and the red-hot metal was searing his flesh. The lieutenant took hold of
the shard with his handkerchief. It too started to smolder and smoke as he yanked
the fragment out and flung it away. We covered the wound with a field
dressing and called for a Medevac. Even as far back as we had been, it wasn't
After an hour of air strikes, we formed up to try the assault one more time.
Again we marched on line toward the forest, and again enemy fire streamed from the
trees. We didn't get nearly as far this time. We retreated once more, and
called in another wave of air strikes. And that was enough of a workout for one day.
We climbed aboard the tracks about three that afternoon and started back over the
fields toward Patton II. Since we had done so little damage today, we supposed that
we would get another chance at them tomorrow. But it was not to be. The next
day we were off on a heliborne while other units returned to slug it out. This time
they were more tenacious. By late afternoon of the following day, the enemy base was
ours. It was an underground fortress, complete with
hospital. Several hundred men had occupied it, and dozens fell with it. Others
made their escapes through hidden tunnels leading into the thick forest behind them.
And, of course, there were casualties. To our credit, while our group didn't
take the base, almost none of us got hurt, either. Seems like a fair trade.