Trapped!

 

Conrad's death was still on my mind as we pushed on.  The open fields gave way to thick brush, and then to forest.  We drew in our flanks - in the dense undergrowth they could no longer keep up with the column.  We moved slowly.   The hot morning sun shining through clear skies had given way to a low layer of clouds.  Not only was it hot, it was muggy.

About two o'clock the rain began.  It started with a downpour, and then got worse.   The forest around us grew as dark as night.  I took my trusty olive-drab towel from around my neck and covered the bolt area of my M-16.   The rain was coming so hard I was worried it would leak past the bolt cover and get into the chamber.  If I needed to use the rifle suddenly I didn't want any watery surprises to slow me down.

Visibility was about zero.  I could barely see the man in front of me.  We were soon walking along with one hand on the man in front of us so we didn't get separated.  After fifteen or twenty minutes of this, the captain shouted from behind, "Ramsey, call the lead squad and tell them to stop - we can't tell where we're going!"  I relayed the message to the lead squad's RTO.   Then, just like a train stopping in the yards, car bumping into car, we collided one with another until we were all standing in a very short line in the jungle, the rain still pouring down.  By the time it slowed to a steady drizzle, we were soaked right down to our socks.

The captain gave the word to march on.  The lead squad started off.  The front of the line stretched out again and slowly disappeared into the jungle.  In a few minutes the entire line was moving again.

The column had gone only a few hundred yards when a sudden burst of M-16 fire exploded somewhere in front of us.  We all tensed, ready to fire.  Another burst erupted.  Third platoon had entered a clearing in the forest.  I radioed the lead RTO to find out what was happening.  He reported that the point man had emerged from the forest to find three VC soldiers smoking and chatting under the wide leaves of a nearby bush.

Both sides were so surprised they just stared at one another for a second.  The VC rose to flee and the point fired, killing two.  The third made it into the dense brush and disappeared as the point fired again.  Third platoon, under the command of Lt. Steve Donaldson, moved forward into the brush to find the third man while we entered and spread out into the clearing.

Confusion reigns in combat.  Everything happens so quickly that no one can see the whole picture.  No one knows what will happen next, or where - so you stumble on and unwittingly set up the next scene of the drama.  As we walked forward into the clearing, enemy soldiers were frantically scrambling for the safety of their fighting bunkers on the hill around us.  The enemy had meant this to be an ambush site, but we had entered the clearing too high up the hill and walked right into their camp.

Suddenly a grenade flew from a hole in front of Third platoon, bounced off the chest of one man and fell to the ground, where it exploded.  We all threw ourselves to the ground, just in time to see another pop out, and then another. Cries of "Medic!" filled the air.  The Third platoon medic, Larry "Doc" Jackson, had his hands full.  Our command group medic, SP4 Roger Smith, crawled forward to help, and the First platoon medic was right behind him.  We had no braver men than these, who would risk everything in order to help a wounded comrade.

The VC in the hole must have cornered the local market in grenades.  For several minutes they threw one after another up from the hole.  Some of the grenades had been in the jungle humidity too long, and just sat there smoking.  But most were all too fresh.  Soon, most of the men in Third platoon were injured.  Meanwhile a growing chorus of enemy small arms fire sprouted from hidden positions just up the hill.   Third platoon was trapped - to move forward was to risk more grenade fragments, to move backward into the open was suicide.  First platoon crawled into position to give Third some covering fire.  Finally, one man crawled forward to the hole itself, pulled the pin on a fragmentation grenade and threw it.  A muffled explosion and a spray of dirt signaled the end of those VC

As soon as the shooting started I had radioed Cu Chi for air support.  Now it arrived.  Two helicopter gunships darted about above us giving us the covering fire we needed to pull back down the hill.  Rockets and minigun fire streamed into the enemy positions.  While the enemy looked the other way, we took advantage of the opportunity to get out of there.  We pulled our wounded back to the command position.   First platoon crawled off into the hedgerows down the hill, followed by the remnants of Third.  The command group went last.  Before leaving, I pulled a white phosphorous grenade from my shoulder harness and tossed it up the hill to where we had seen enemy firing.

Each of us paired up with one of the wounded to help back.  I had "Red", so named because of his bright red hair.  Now his hair was a different color - a darker, dull and sticky red.  The fragment wound on his temple was oozing blood right through the bandage wrapped around his head.  His face was streaked with dried blood.   His eyes were glazed - he wasn't going to be able to help me much.  I clutched my handset in one hand, held onto my M-16 and struggled to hold Red up as we staggered down the hill.  I came to a shallow crater and slid down into it, taking Red with me.

Now the radio came alive.  More gunships were arriving, wanting a turn at the action.  An Air Force twin-engine Bronco was just coming on station to serve as air controller for the Phantoms that were on their way.  And two Medevacs hovered just out of range - they were willing to come in for our wounded if we could just suppress the ground fire long enough to give them a chance.  The deep rattle of enemy 51 cal. machine guns could be heard up the hill, as they tried to drive off our choppers.

The second wave of gunships moved to the attack.  For a moment as they took position there was a lull in the firing.  With that a Medevac came forward into the grove where we were sheltered.  It dropped low to avoid the overhanging trees, its prop wash pounding the grass into an undulating mass.  One by one the wounded were loaded aboard.  The pilot was obviously nervous - he was gesturing to us to move faster.  Medevacs were sitting ducks - unarmed, and defenseless.  And the air was again thick with flying lead.  Finally the pilot swung his ship about and headed downhill out of the grove.  Picking up speed, he turned and lifted away.Medevac Chopper Looks For A Way In...

The second Medevac came in.  It was time to move Red.  I tried to lift him out of the crater.  I had never realized until now what "dead weight" meant.  Red was unable to help - and with my radio, ammo, and gear, his weight was just too much.  I yelled for help, but no one could hear me over the noise of the chopper and the shooting.  In seconds the Medevac would leave.  Red could not survive another thirty minutes without medical attention.  I talked to him - I told him he just had to help me.  And from some deep well of inner strength, Red started moving, pushing up the steep side of the crater.

With his arm over my shoulders, I stood him up and staggered to the chopper.  I dropped my radio handset, but there was no time to pick it up.  It dragged along behind me in the grass at the end of its cord.  I bent low to avoid the rotor blades of the bobbing chopper as I pulled Red over to the doorway.  The medics on board grabbed him and pulled him from me, and then the pilot turned and raced the helicopter away.

Now the Air Force Phantoms were on station, ready to start their bombing runs.   That meant it was time for us to move further back.  We formed into our line and trotted at a crouch down the hill.  We crossed a small valley to the opposite hillside where we could watch the show in safety.  My white-phosphorous grenade was still throwing a thick column of white smoke into the sky as the Bronco dipped its wings and dove toward the forest.  The pilot fired a white-phosphorous rocket right on top of my marker to keep the smoke coming, and then banked away to talk the Phantoms in.

The first Phantom completed a wide circle and leveled out, going right for the smoke.   It dropped two 500 lb. bombs from its wings.  They seemed to float slowly to the ground, tumbling as they went.  There was silence for a second, and then a huge cloud of dirt exploded where the white smoke column had been.  These were earthquake bombs, set to go off a fraction of a second after hitting the earth.  They would shake bunkers apart and collapse them even if they didn't score a direct hit.  The second Phantom lined up and came in, and a second set of bombs rolled into the enemy position.  Both Phantoms made wide circles out to the horizon, and lined up for their second runs.  Less fire was coming from the forest now.  The enemy had gone underground.  Some of them were probably still digging to get a little deeper.

The Phantoms dropped napalm bombs on their fourth run.  These roared into thunderballs of flame and death.  Those who survived the searing heat suffocated as the fire sucked the oxygen out of bunkers and tunnels.  Then the planes made strafing runs until they were out of ammo.  The Phantoms carried awesome firepower and we welcomed them as much as the enemy dreaded them.

As the Phantoms roared away, two Huey helicopters joined the fight.  Each carried three 55 gal. drums of napalm dangling from a long cable.  No offense intended, but the Army should have saved the money and the effort.  I talked to some Huey pilots later in my tour and learned that the pilots had no aiming device other than looking down at the target between their feet, and then counting to five after they passed it.  I leave it to your imagination how well it worked.

The Hueys clunked along, two thousand feet over the target.  The first pilot must have been using the back of his feet for a bombsight, because the barrels didn't release until he was 300 yards beyond the target.  Down they came.  Up went the fire and flame.  Perhaps he got an outpost, but he didn't hit the ambush site.  The second Huey hovered past the target - I think this one counted to 50.  His shot was farther off than the first.  We called to thank them for their effort and sent them back to Cu Chi.

Now it appeared to be "mop-up" time.  Time to count the bodies and see how much damage we had done.  We crossed the ravine and started back up the hill.   We walked past the glade in which we had sought refuge, and then into the ambush proper.

The weapons of war had dramatically altered the landscape.  The meadow before us was bare.  The napalm had burned a hundred-yard hole in the forest, leaving only the blackened trunks of trees where thick undergrowth had been.  The spot where I had thrown my grenade was literally gone - replaced by twin craters.  The Phantoms had scored a direct hit!  Six more 10-foot deep craters filled the center of the clearing.  The freshly turned earth around them was laced with the black remnants of explosive, and the smell of burnt gunpowder filled the air.  Just ten yards from where the command group had crawled for cover, six sunken squares of earth stretched up the hill.  They represented collapsed bunkers.  Other bunkers spotted the hillside around us.  We had probably killed many of the enemy.

We were well spread out.  First platoon, which had taken no casualties, circled to the right, and the rest of us took the center.  Suddenly a burst of AK fire crackled to the right.  A rapid volley of M-16 fire exploded in return.  The firefight was on again.  There was less shooting than before, but it was like a nightmare starting all over again.  Grenades - GI this time - echoed in the forest.

The command group scrambled into the twin craters.  Earlier, we had been in the open, but the bushes had helped to conceal us.  Now, with no ground cover, we really felt exposed.

With my head below the rim of the crater, I called First platoon's RTO to get their status.  Their point man was dead.  A VC had popped up out of a tunnel entrance and emptied his magazine into him.  The rest of the squad had opened fire, driving the VC back into his hole, where a grenade had finished him off.  Now the enemy fire was growing.  First platoon was in an exposed position.  They wanted to pull back if it was OK with us.

The captain ordered us to withdraw and First platoon moved quickly back down the hill.   Third platoon, what was left of it, began withdrawing to our left.  We in the command group were ready to follow.

At that moment I saw a man lying in a shallow pit thirty feet in front of us.  He was one of ours.  But he wasn't moving.  We all looked at one another, and the captain said "We've got to get him!"  Then we saw the man's head move - he was alive!

I had obtained a quick-release shoulder harness for my radio some weeks ago - by pulling a nylon strap on the left shoulder, the shoulder strap came apart.  Now I jerked the release and slipped the radio from my right shoulder.  Climbing up out of the crater, I sprinted over, firing bursts from my M-16 as I ran.  I dived in beside him.

The young soldier looked up at me without speaking.  "Where are you hit?", I yelled, ripping a field dressing from its pouch.   He just looked at me.  "Where are you hit?", I repeated.   Finally he said he wasn't hit.  I explained as quickly as possible that we were preparing to leave the area, and he was welcome to come along.  But he was so frightened he couldn't move.  He was a new man and this was his first firefight.   The enemy fire was starting to intensify around us.  We both had to leave soon, or maybe not at all.  I jumped up, grabbed his shoulder harness and yanked him to his feet - then instinct took over.  He ran as if his life depended on it, which in fact it did.  In his haste he dropped his grenade launcher - I was right behind him and grabbed it as I ran.  Then we both jumped into the crater.

As soon as I put my radio back on, the command group climbed out of the crater and we ran at a crouch to join the rest of the company.  The gunships arrived again as we started down the hill.  They were welcome to keep the whole place for themselves as far as I was concerned.

Two First platoon soldiers had dragged their dead comrade out of the forest.  Now we needed to carry him across the ravine and up the other side.  Death affects people in different ways.  I remember the startled looks of those seeing one of their own dead for the first time.  This guy had taken a full magazine, from bottom to top.   No one really wanted to touch him.  Finally four of us grabbed lifeless limbs and lifted the body up the hill.

For us, this fight was finally over.  We weren't going back to attempt another body count.  The gunships tore the hill apart with their rockets, and strafed the tree line with minigun fire.  Two more Phantoms came in and unloaded their bombs and napalm.  We moved up onto the plateau ahead of us and waited for choppers to take us home.  Later on we learned that the enemy left the area that night, and once on the move, other units took them apart little by little.  But our own cost was heavy.   In the three hours of battle we lost twenty-five percent of our company.  It was a hard loss to take.

 

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Trapped!:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Last modified: March 02, 1995