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.
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