That Circle In The Sky

 

One of the first rules of combat is to never repeat anything too often or the enemy will pick up on it.  We broke that rule at Patton II and it cost us dearly.  For more than two weeks we set up night ambushes west of Patton.  Each night the platoon left the wire at dark.  We crossed the dry fields and split up into three squad-sized units.  Going in different directions, the three squads proceeded to their assigned ambush positions.  But each night, we were ending up in approximately the same three places.

One squad crossed the road and went towards the village of Bau Dieu.  They stopped just short of the hootches and farmyards.  A second squad moved into the open fields on the south side of the road and took up positions covering the road.  The third had the shortest distance to travel, and took a position halfway down the road just beyond a sprawling group of hootches and farms.

Tonight it was our turn to walk the distance - we were headed for the village.   Though it was only a kilometer, four-fifths of a mile, it was a long walk in the dark.  For two hours we moved as quietly as we could past silent hootches.  When we finally reached our assigned ambush position, we put out claymores and arranged our ammo.  A guard schedule was set up, and the rest of the men lay down to sleep.

Things started to happen almost immediately.  An ARVN fort dominated the center of Bau Dieu.  There we maintained an observation tower where GIs took turns on lookout all night.  The big starlight scope mounted on top spotted enemy movement in the village.  The radio crackled to tell us Charlie was headed our way.  Our platoon leader, 1Lt. Tom Deutschlander, fresh from a Ranger unit in the Delta, decided to take aggressive action.  Without waiting, we pulled in our claymores and moved forward toward the line of hootches marking the edge of the village.

Sure enough, as we got closer we could see men were moving into the hootches.   They planned to ambush us!  "Fire!",  the lieutenant shouted.   We opened up on the hootches.  Our fire was immediately returned.  It was heavier than we had expected.  Rapid muzzle flashes told us that enemy soldiers occupied at least four hootches directly in front of us.  Suddenly we were under attack from two directions as automatic rifle fire erupted from positions near the road.   Had we not moved when we did, we would have been trapped.

Observation TowerAs it was, we were still in trouble.  The lieutenant split our firepower to cover both flanks.  Then he called for air support.  Within minutes they would arrive and the tide of battle would change.  But it wouldn't be soon enough.  Over the crackling of the rifles and machine guns came the high-pitched whoosh of incoming mortar rounds.  The first one hit the dry rice paddy that had been our ambush site just a few minutes before.  One by one those deadly rounds fell, covering the field we had just vacated.  Then someone must have sent back word that we had moved.  A round landed right behind us.  Another fell to one side.  We frantically called the tower.  Could they spot the mortar?  Yes, they had it in sight.  Would they open fire, please?  No way - they were sitting ducks up in that tower!

Then it was too late.  A round landed behind Lt. Deutschlander, throwing chunks of shrapnel into his body.  Another round hit three more men.  Screams of "Medic!" filled the air.  The lieutenant was seriously wounded, but he continued to lead the fight.  More rounds hit nearby, narrowly missing us.  The lieutenant radioed the tower, ordering them to fire on the mortars.  Soon, the slow clunking sound of the .50 caliber machine gun in the tower echoed above the small arms fire.  The mortar stopped firing.

Things were getting tight.  There were only eleven of us, and perhaps thirty of them, plus those out of sight back in the village (we watched green VC tracer rounds rise towards the tower in the village.)  We were outnumbered and outgunned.  Just when things seemed desperate, the cavalry arrived.  The first helicopter came diving in with miniguns and rockets blazing.  The effect was dramatic.  All firing from the village ceased for a moment.  As the Cobra swept past the shooting resumed, but Charlie knew the tables had turned.

Minutes later, the sky overhead was full of gunships and Cobras.  Ten or eleven formed into a big circle in the sky, and one after another swooped in to unload their rockets and rake the hootches with machine gun fire.  A command chopper settled into the center of the circle.  It was our battalion commander himself, LTC Constantine Blastos, come from Cu Chi to personally direct the battle.

Now we aimed M-60 tracers at one of the hootches from which we were taking fire, and radioed the gunships to hit it.  One after another the choppers came down, firing their rockets, until the walls were gone.  We moved our fire to the next hootch, and it too was demolished.  One by one we leveled the hootches where the enemy was hiding.  The M-60 barrel got so hot that we could no longer shoot in a straight line, but were spraying bullets in the general direction of our target.

As soon as one chopper ran out of ammo, another took its place as it headed back to Cu Chi to rearm.  The circle in the sky remained unbroken, though from time to time a lone Cobra broke formation and swept into the village to hunt for fresh game.   Miniguns blazing, the chopper would turn suddenly and race off to follow a moving target.

Suddenly, brilliant aerial flares burst above us and came floating down, dropped by an Air Force cargo plane circling thousands of feet above the fight.  Now the village was as bright as day, bathed in an eerie white light, with deep shadows inside the buildings.  Any movement by the enemy was now visible to the hovering choppers, and one by one they went after available targets.

The smoldering ruins in front of us no longer presented any danger.  No shots came from them.  For us, the immediate threat was over.  It was almost two in the morning.  We had been fighting for three hours.  A Medevac came to evacuate our wounded.  Lieutenant Deutschlander left last. He said his good-byes to all of us and departed.   Eventually he would transfer to a hospital in the states and then be discharged.

As the Medevac lifted off, reinforcements moved up to our position.  Our other two squads had moved closer as soon as the shooting started, and had entered the fight on our flanks.  They joined us now, along with the remainder of our company from Patton.   Like ghostly shadows, they moved in two long columns out of the darkness and into the bright magnesium glare of the flares.  We started with them into the village.

We cautiously approached the first hootch, knowing we might have to fight our way house by house into the village.  We flung grenades through the open doorway and then flattened ourselves against the walls, just the way John Wayne would have done it.  The blast rocked the walls and lifted the thatch roof.  We rushed in shooting.  The hootch was deserted.  Carefully, we moved to the next one.   As we prepared to enter, GIs from the other column came out of another hootch with three prisoners, all of them civilians.  We paused while the company commander moved forward to assess this turn of events.

Consultation established that the Viet Cong, in order to conceal their plans from us, had forced the villagers to remain in their homes while the attack was set up.  The enemy had known that the tower would spot an exodus from the village.  So, throughout the long, terrifying night, the villagers had been forced to hide in their bunkers.   Now, if we continued forward into the village we would kill innocent civilians.   Our captain turned the columns around and we retreated.  Even though it meant letting the VC escape, we would wait until dawn to move in, thereby sparing the villagers.   Artillery fire bracketed the fields surrounding the village, just to make things tough for anyone leaving in a hurry.

Cobras hovered overhead throughout the night.  With first light they departed and helicopters brought us breakfast from the fire base.  I was never so hungry in my life.  Hot scrambled eggs, bacon, mashed potatoes, fruit - we even got seconds!   It was great.

As we ate, we learned other details of the night.  American armored personnel carriers had been attacked on the far side of the village by more than 50 men.  The "tracks" had fought house-to-house also, but not quite the same way we did.  With .50 caliber machine-guns blazing, they drove right up to and over a house.  The VC inside could flee or be crushed.  The tracks, too, had taken casualties.  Several had been hit by rocket-propelled grenades - a deadly weapon against their inch-thick aluminum walls.  With battles raging on both sides of the village, battalion HQ had pulled out all the stops.  Every available gunship had been committed to the fight.  Air Force support had been called in.  And artillery fire from all the surrounding bases had been brought to bear on the fields near the village.

Finally, with the fighting over, it was time to assess the results.  We formed into columns again and started in.  The first visible sign of change was the first row of hootches.  We had reduced them to rubble.  From their smoldering ruins we pulled out nearly a dozen bodies.  Other bodies lay near the road from which we had taken flanking fire.

We moved on.  Here and there we found the remains of water buffaloes.  One had been blown in half - the front half, bloodied, was lying on the ground where it had fallen, but the back half was gone, disintegrated by the direct hit of a Cobra's high explosive rocket.  One of the Cobra pilots had seen movement, looked at the target and pulled the trigger.  The rocket did the rest, guided by a targeting mechanism in the pilots helmet.  In a moment the buffalo was gone, cut in half by a direct hit to the tail!

On a more solemn note, there were other bodies.  Villagers were laying out their loved ones, killed by the hail of bullets from both sides.  Older men carried wooden coffins, some plain, some ornate, to bury the victims.  Bodies lay on the grass in front of many houses.  Mothers.  Children.  Old women.  Families knelt beside the dead, mourning and weeping.  Its hard to explain the feeling you get inside seeing such a sight.  It is not a pleasant one.

Of course, here in the village we found no bodies of young men, of VC.  They had been removed from sight.  We were meant to see only the civilian dead.  We left the village and moved into the fields on the south, searching for bodies.   Altogether, we found twenty-two.  Perhaps there were others, such as the mortar crew silenced by the tower.  The armored unit fighting on the other side of the village had killed many more.  The real payoff came in the days that followed.   No more mines exploded.  We had killed the men responsible.  Shortly before noon we started back.  For us, the excitement was over.  It was time to get back to our sandbags.

 

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That Circle In The Sky:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Picture Copyright 1995 Bob Lindgren
Last modified: March 02, 1995