Footprints

 

Our group was especially large today.  Most company-sized daytime patrols consisted of two platoons of about thirty men each, and a command group including the captain, an artillery lieutenant, two RTO's for the captain, a sergeant and RTO for the lieutenant, and a Company medic.  We usually took two lifts of nine Hueys each to transport the company.  Today we had needed three lifts.   The helicopters had to go back a third time to bring the rest of our group to the jumping off point.

As company RTO I was monitoring the company frequency.  But there was almost no radio traffic today.  I gleaned from the captain that the night recon flights had spotted a large enemy supply column, including ox-drawn carts, passing through the area the previous night.  Our objective was to locate those supplies.  We set off down the trail the enemy had used the night before.  It was easy to follow the wheel marks.  They went on and on, never turning off or stopping.  We followed the trail across a high grassy plateau.  Here and there the tracks passed beside old bomb craters filled with water.  We sent divers to the bottom to see if any supplies had been hidden there.  But our efforts turned up nothing.The Trail Led To Bomb Craters...

Just before noon the captain called a halt.  We spread out in a clearing thirty to forty yards across, and sat down to eat the C rations we had brought for lunch.  I opened a can of fruit cocktail and dug in, while the captain used my radio to call the choppers to come pick us up.  He was abandoning the search.

As I sat eating, I noticed footprints in the dirt in front of me.  Perhaps footprints is the wrong word - they looked more like small oval tire tracks.  Both the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars needed footwear that was durable.   Regular leather shoes rotted too fast in the damp climate of South Vietnam.   So some clever person invented the "Ho Chi Minh" sandal, named after Communist North Vietnam's leader.  The sole was made from an automobile tire tread.   Slits were cut along the front sides to hold cross-foot straps made of rubber inner tube strips, crisscrossed in an attractive pattern.

It was these footprints I saw in the dirt.  I pointed them out to the captain.   "They probably passed through here last night" he said.  As I ate my food, I noticed more and more of them, on both sides and behind me.  I said, "Sir, there are tracks all around us here!"  But he was more interested in making his radio calls than in footprints.  "They probably stopped here to rest, just like we're doing now" was his reply.

Soon it was time to leave.  Our pickup choppers appeared on the horizon.  The men leaving on the first lift positioned themselves.  We popped a smoke grenade to guide the choppers in.  They set down and the men jumped quickly aboard.  The rest of us knelt nearby, turning our faces to avoid the dust cloud raised by the props.   Then the nine ships leaned forward and lifted off, struggling to gain altitude.

Just as they started away a shot rang out from the fields beyond our perimeter.   Charlie was out there, waiting for us!  Apparently we had succeeded in finding the supply convoy after all.  The enemy knew we usually made two lifts, and probably planned to ambush us as the choppers landed for the second lift, when only half our force was left.  One eager soldier had fired too soon, or accidentally.  What they didn't know was that today we needed a third lift of choppers to transport the remainder of the unit to safety.

The minutes dragged slowly by as we waited for the choppers to return.  But the captain was busy.  He called Cu Chi to request helicopter gunships, and warned the Huey pilots that they faced a hot LZ on their next trip in.  Then the choppers arrived and started in to pick up our second lift.  The door gunners opened fire on the fields beyond us, and we joined in with everything we had.  The men of the second lift dropped to the ground as a heavy stream of enemy return fire poured in.  When the choppers slowed to a hover, men jumped to their feet and scrambled aboard, and then turned to continue firing out into the fields.

The nine ships got away as fast as they could, but it was not fast enough.  As they climbed above the nearby trees we could see four of the Hueys trailing black smoke.   They had been hit hard.  As they disappeared into the distance we received word that three of the four could not make it back to Patton.  They were going down about a mile away.  The men on board would form a defense perimeter until help came.   They also told us there were casualties.  And three men were missing.  It looked as if they hadn't made it to the choppers.

As soon as the choppers were gone the fields became quiet.  We stayed as low as possible.  The enemy probably didn't know we were still there.  There were less than thirty of us left.  And perhaps up to a hundred of them!  They outnumbered us several times.  Judging from the sounds, their main fighting positions were 200 to 300 feet away, right in front of us.  Quietly, the captain sent men crawling across the grassy clearing to see if we could find the missing men.  The searchers found two, but not the third.

The radio had been silent all morning, but it was buzzing now.  I got updates from the gunships - they would arrive soon.  And I checked with the Air Force Bronco pilot who would soon be coordinating Phantom air strikes.  They would give us the cover we needed to escape.

The gunships went right to work when they arrived.  They strafed and rocketed just dozens of yards from where we lay hugging the ground.  They swept back and forth across the fields, raking the enemy positions with minigun fire.  One by one we threw out smoke grenades to identify our position.

Soon the gunships were out of ammo.  They called to wish us good luck and turned toward Cu Chi.  Before they were even out of sight the Bronco spotter plane appeared overhead.  The pilot circled a few times and then swooped down to mark the enemy positions with a white-phosphorous rocket.  We popped more smoke to let him know just where we were.

The Phantoms arrived a few minutes later.  Each made one lazy circling dive above the phosphorous marker to see what the target looked like, and then lined up for the real thing.  The first jet came racing in from the horizon, firing its 20 mm cannons.   A puff and then a stream of thin black smoke appeared behind the jet.  At the same moment a line of red fire streaked towards us, missing by just dozens of yards.   A curtain of dirt flew into the air as slugs tore into the ground.  Clods of dirt bounced beside us.  The brass shell casings danced nearby as the jet streaked off into the distance again, only seconds after starting its run.  Even now I remember the excitement at seeing so powerful a weapon in action.

After a pause the second Phantom began its run.  As it came in, we were looking directly down its approach path (after all, we were practically on it!).  It looked as if the Phantom was coming right at us.  I still have occasional nightmares about that - the plane starts its run, the line of tracers is coming right for me, my feet are like lead, but I get out of the way just in time as it circles for another try.

When the Phantoms were finished, two fresh gunships flew in.  It was time to make our escape.  At a crouch we moved to the center of the clearing for our pickup.   Then we realized we were out of smoke grenades.  We had used them all up.

By chance I had discovered some experimental smoke grenades at Patton.  They were in little 35 mm film cans, each containing 15 seconds of smoke.  A small cardboard ring with sandpaper on it was used to ignite the smoke.  I still had four in my pocket.  When the choppers appeared over the trees, I threw the canisters one by one, calling their color to the incoming choppers as each one ignited.

The gunships poured minigun fire into the enemy positions as our pickup choppers raced in.  As we scrambled aboard we had a piece of good luck.  We literally stumbled across the missing man, lying hidden in the grass.  He was seriously wounded.

Our flight headed over the trees and soon we came to the clearing where the damaged choppers had landed.  Before long a Skycrane would come to haul them away.  We staked out a wide perimeter around the downed choppers and guarded them until late that afternoon when choppers came to return us to Patton.

That evening, as I wrote my daily letter to Sue, I reflected back over the day's happenings.  Except for those thirty minutes, it was just another uneventful day.   There was the tiring morning's march looking for an elusive enemy.  And then a long afternoon spent sitting in the full heat of the midday sun, baby-sitting three dead helicopters.  Yes, just another long, uneventful day.  Except for thirty minutes.

 

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