Patrolling II

 

Another long, hard day lay ahead.  We were to fly to the Ho Bo Woods to link up with our sister Bravo company to sweep a suspected enemy stronghold.   The Hueys were arriving early, so we wolfed down breakfast and hurried out to the wire to form up.

We left the security of Patton's thick walls by way of the "back gate", one of several small openings left in the berm when it was built.  We went straight out through the first rolls of concertina and hung a left past the barbed wire grid for several yards to the pathway through it.  We crossed the grid, then turned left again to find the opening in the second concertina fence.  The openings were offset so Charlie would have a bit more trouble negotiating his way through at night.Huey

We waited in formation for the choppers to descend.  Soon a far-off thumping heralded their arrival.  Nine White Knights (the unit insignia painted on the front of their helicopters) descended in a line, like a flock of geese landing in formation.   As the leader came in he banked steeply forward, nose up, tail swinging close to the ground, the propwash braking the chopper to a stop.  Then he leveled off and settled to the ground.

One by one the others did the same.  They were coming in faster than usual for a pickup, sort of hot-shotting around.  The sixth chopper to land came in too close to number five, and quickly swung forward to brake.  As he did, the tail of his chopper dipped perilously close to the ground.  All in a moment the tail-stabilizer rotor slammed into the dirt and sheared off, spinning into the air towards us.  We scattered in all directions as the blade danced in the air for a few moments, and then hit the ground and bounced harmlessly out of the way.

The chopper was now rudderless!  The pilot immediately tried to compensate.   He hit the throttle, and the chopper lurched up into the air.  It bounced up until it was hovering ten or fifteen feet in the air, but with no stabilizer, the body of the chopper began to rotate in the direction of it's huge main blade.  The pilot appeared confused, not knowing what to do.  Perhaps he was a greenhorn.  His chopper spun in a complete circle, the body picking up momentum and going faster and faster.  The tail began to wobble up and down, until the craft was bobbing and spinning crazily in the air.  There seemed to be a disaster in the making.  Then suddenly the pilot just cut his engines, and the spinning machine dropped to the ground with a "Crump!"  The landing skids skewed around, and the long tail twisted to one side.  But all four men walked out of the Huey alive.

And wouldn't you know it!  They blamed us!  The official story, as we heard it later, was that a piece of debris thrown up by the propwash hit the tail rotor.   The next morning we had to go out and "police up" the entire area.

In the meantime, we still had a job to do.  Seven lucky men returned to the base while the rest of us loaded up.  In fifteen minutes we were safely on the ground in the Ho Bo Woods.  Bravo had arrived on schedule and started off without us.  We set off in search of them.

For an hour we moved through thick, wiry brush.  Thin, blown-down trees littered the terrain, and tangling vines made the going even more difficult.  After a radio consultation with Bravo, the captain decided we were going in the wrong direction.   We turned back, at an angle, and walked for another hour.  By ten that morning we had seen nothing.  No Charlie, no Bravo.  We emerged from the forest into a patchy clearing at the edge of a plateau.  The captain mercifully called a break.

We sank to the ground, exhausted from fighting our way through the undergrowth.   Out came canteens and cans of food.  I opened my favorite, a can of fruit cocktail, and started to savor the contents.  Ten feet away three men sat shooting the breeze.  As they talked, an eighteen-inch square piece of ground right behind them lifted slowly up, and a head and hand appeared.  The hand held a grenade!

Suddenly, an M-16 on full automatic exploded in the silence of the clearing.  The head and hand disappeared, and the dirt trapdoor fell to the ground, slightly askew.  Five feet from the door a GI sprang to his feet, his smoking rifle pointed at the hole, and ripped back the trap door concealing the tunnel.  He fired the rest of his magazine down the hole, then stepped back and pulled a grenade from his web gear.  In an instant he pulled the pin, yelled "Fire in the hole!", and dropped the grenade into the tunnel.  We all rolled instinctively to the ground as the blast threw a shower of dirt into the air, and the muffled explosion resounded through the clearing, followed by a second as the enemy grenade also exploded.  What was left of my fruit cocktail lay scattered on the ground.

We jumped to our feet and looked around, warily eyeing each bush and possible tunnel entrance.  Several men cautiously approached the hole.   One reached down and pulled the remains of an NVA officer from his hideout.   Beneath him was another man, also killed by the blast.  We recruited a Chieu Hoi scout to go down into the hole to look for others.  Reluctantly he lowered himself into the tunnel and disappeared.  The minutes dragged by.  We could only wait, guessing what was going on down there.

Then our Chieu Hoi returned, dragging a third victim from the tunnel.  There were smiles and handshakes - we were glad to see our Chieu Hoi alive!  He later received a Bronze Star for his work.  Not bad for a former VC.

All in all, it was a close call.  If the one GI had not been alert, and sitting with his rifle at the ready, the grenade would surely have killed or injured those three men.  And perhaps others.  The trap door would have closed, and we'd never have known what caused the blast.

We searched the area for more hideouts.  One by one we discovered hidden openings.   Each received a grenade or two.  Even if we didn't see any casualties, there probably were some.  The grenade blast would cause compression damage whether there was shrapnel damage or not.  If only that one officer had stayed hidden, we'd never have known they were here.

We started off again on our search for the elusive Bravo.  Half an hour later we found them, on the opposite side of a long, shallow ravine.  They were busy slugging it out with Charlie.  We decided to wait awhile before joining up.  Before long, Bravo pulled back and called in the heavies.  In a few minutes helicopter gunships arrived.  One after another, they took turns firing canister rounds into the thick brush.  Then they fired rocket after rocket into the enemy positions.  When the gunships were empty, two F-4 Phantoms took over.

Just beyond the area Bravo had left, enemy gunners had mounted a .51 caliber heavy machine-gun in a dugout fighting position.  We swept the area the very next day and discovered that they had dug a small circular doughnut-shaped hole in the ground, about four feet deep and no more than six or seven feet across.  They had placed the gun on the center column of dirt, and from the pit could fire the gun in any direction by moving around the circle.

The Phantoms approached.  The machine-gun opened up as the first jet began its slow, shallow dive.  Its heavy chunking sound rolled across the wide ravine between us.  The gunners kept firing until the jet released its first two bombs.  Then they pulled the gun down into the hole with them.

The bombs started their tumble to the ground.  A visible shock wave formed in the air above the target, followed a moment later by a resounding "Boom!".  And to our astonished ears, as the Phantom climbed away from the target, came the sound of the machine gun blasting away again!  They had pulled it out of the pit and were trying to shoot down the jet as it pulled away.  Talk about gutsy!

We watched the Phantoms drop down on their target again and again, and each time retreat, the heavy .51 caliber slugs following close behind.  On the fourth run the contest ended.  The Phantoms scored a direct hit.

The story was clear as we walked the area the next day.  There was the ring in an open clearing.  It was surrounded by huge craters - all near misses.  One, however, came right to the edge of the doughnut.  The pilots were right on target each time, but the nature of the gun position had required a direct hit to take it out.   Those Phantom pilots were up to the challenge.  Still, it must have been close.  That machine gun could have stopped the Phantoms.  It was one on one, and the Phantom pilots came out on top.

To give our enemy due credit, Charlie was always resourceful.  While we had the advantage in weapons and fire power and aircraft, Charlie had courage and determination.   As we sat and watched the show across the ravine, we never realized we too were being fired upon.  Other enemy soldiers spotted us and set up a mortar.  Each time the Phantoms dropped their bombs, these men fired a mortar round at us, timing their shots so the exploding bombs concealed the sound of their own rounds hitting the ground.   Their timing was excellent.  We took perhaps six or eight rounds before we knew what was happening.  Fortunately for us, their shots fell short.

The mortar position was too far away for our rifles.  Our forward observer, the artillery lieutenant who always accompanied us, checked his map and called in the 155 mm. howitzers at Patton.  One minute later the first rounds landed.  We watched the big shells tear up the hillside.  The first rounds missed.  Those of us who had seen the mortar called out corrections to the lieutenant, and he radioed them back.  The second salvo was closer, and the third landed on top of the firing area.   Now on target, the six guns began a rapid volley and proceeded to flatten the area.   For five minutes they pounded away, moving their fire from one side to the other.

When the barrage was finished we picked up our gear and started over to investigate.   It took fifteen minutes to cross the ravine.  When we reached the target area, we could see the effects of the shelling all about us.  The torn brush looked as if it had been swept down by a gigantic weed whip.  Small trees were cut in two.   Bushes lay flattened, pushed to one side.

We methodically searched the ground for evidence of the attackers.  I spotted the hideout first, as a bright spot of color caught my eye.  We discovered a collapsed bunker, carved out of the side of a steep bank - it had taken several direct hits.   Clothing and personal effects lay scattered about.  We discovered mortar rounds abandoned in the brush when the crew scrambled for cover from the huge howitzer shells.  In caches near the bunker we found mines, grenades, and materials for booby traps.  And we did find one leg sticking from the rubble on the bank.

On PatrolSatisfied we had taken care of the mortar crew, we moved on.  We still hadn't linked up with Bravo.  We started off on a long afternoon's march through woods and thick underbrush.  At three-thirty we got a radio call that Bravo company had been attacked as choppers picked them up.  One of the choppers was down about one kilometer ahead of us.  Gunships were on their way, but they wanted us to make a forced march on the double to protect the crew until they arrived.  It looked as if we were really going to meet a part of Bravo after all!

The only "forced march" training I'd had was back in Advanced Infantry Training.  We carried heavy packs, and trotted along dirt roads for fifteen minutes at a time.  I remember that those hikes were killers.  Now we were faced with ninety-degree-plus heat, rough terrain, and a full load of combat gear.

The captain started us off at a trot.  At first the going was easy as we pushed through tall grass and thin saplings.  Then we entered an area hit earlier by bombs and artillery.  Fallen trees lay like pick-up sticks, one on top of the other.   Baseball-sized orange-colored bomblets sat unexploded on the ground.  We scrambled up and over the obstacles, with one eye always on the ordnance scattered about.

Soon we were exhausted, but the pace continued.  We stumbled on, trying to dodge the explosives, and trying to keep up.  Our line was getting stretched out, the men getting farther and farther apart.  As the brush got thicker again, the man in front of me disappeared.  I trotted faster to catch up.  Just how far was a kilometer, anyway!  In those woods, it seemed we had already gone ten or fifteen miles!   Finally, after more than thirty minutes of running and climbing, we broke out of the woods and into the open.

A field of tall, blond grass lay in front of us, several hundred meters wide.  The disabled Huey sat in the center, a thin column of dark smoke rising above it.  The crew and passengers circled the machine in a thin defense perimeter.  They were happy to see friendly faces coming out of the forest.

A big skycrane arrived half an hour later and lowered a cable to the ground.   These helicopters were real workhorses.  Sometimes we'd see one flying back from the border region near Cambodia with as many as three damaged choppers hanging one below the other.  In minutes, the stricken Huey was aloft, dangling like a dead insect at the end of a string.  With hardly an effort the big flying crane climbed away and disappeared into the distance.

Our turn came next.  A flight of Hueys arrived and we climbed aboard for the flight home.  After all, we didn't want to be late for dinner, and our night ambush patrol.

 

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Patrolling II:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Patrol Picture Copyright 1995 Bob Lindgren
Last modified: March 02, 1995