To The Rear, March!

 

Patrol Base Hunsley (see historical note below) was much like Dragon.  It was located in a remote, enemy-held area.  It was small, with just two companies of soldiers to defend it.  The terrain was a bit different, however.  Tall grass covered the surrounding fields, and thin forest stood a few hundred meters away in two directions.   The atmosphere was different, too.  I sensed a darkness all about.  Even at Dragon, with the constant danger, the booby-traps, and the direct confrontations with Charlie, the terrain had an open, airy feel to it.  It did not seem sinister.   This did. There was a hovering presence, a nearness of doom as the days went by.

On the evening of our arrival we were greeted with a dinnertime mortar attack. I couldn't help thinking "There goes the neighborhood!"  Our 105 mm howitzers returned fire in less than thirty seconds, and the shelling stopped.  The enemy gunners were probably new at the job.  Their rounds had landed more than a hundred meters beyond the dirt berm making up our outer perimeter.  We were in no immediate danger from these guys yet.  But it was a foretaste of what was in store for us here.Fire Support Base Hunsley when it was young...

At Hunsley we quickly fell into the same routine - long daytime patrols through the surrounding fields and forests, and night ambush patrols where we sat waiting in the dark for something to happen.  And each evening, just about supper time, the mortars would open up.  And each evening, the rounds came just a bit closer.

About a week after our arrival we were scheduled for a night ambush patrol.  We gathered our gear and headed for the wire.  Forming up in the twilight, we moved out into the fields toward the far forest tree line.  Dark was soon upon us.  It was a cloudless night, but there was little light to guide us.  For more than an hour we walked through waist high grass toward our objective.  Then the grass gave way to tall, thick brush.  It was the kind that grew in twisted, tangled clumps.  The branches were gnarled and bent.  We found an existing path that led forward in the direction we were heading.  Suddenly I got a call from the lead squad - something had moved in front of them.  Though it was difficult to see in the darkness, they were sure someone had been there, and moved quickly away as we approached.

The enemy knew where we were.  That was a bad sign.  The captain hesitated, questioning whether to go on or turn back.  Finally he decided to press ahead toward our objective, being especially cautious.  We had gone another few hundred yards when we caught that unmistakable smell.  VC!  It was very strong.  We must be close to their hideout.  This had all the makings of another unforgettable night patrol.  But as we stood there pondering the implications of the smell and the earlier sighting, an emergency call came over the battalion radio.  Condition Red!   Hunsley had just received intelligence that there would be a ground attack on the base that night and we were ordered to return as quickly as possible to reinforce the patrol base.  Our night ambush was canceled

I passed the word to the squad RTO's and we turned about and started back at a trot.  I, for one, was glad to be going back.  Even the prospect of a desperate fight at the patrol base was better than slugging it out in the dark, in the midst of dense brush, not knowing where the enemy might be, and having no place to hide or run to in a pinch.  I felt a heavy burden lift from my shoulders as we left the thick stand of brush behind and moved out into the open once again.

It took us about twenty-five minutes to make our way back, worrying all the way.   But we arrived without incident.  All was quiet.  We soon took up our positions on the berm, glad to have the security of solid walls between us and the enemy.

As you might have guessed, absolutely nothing happened that night.  Intelligence was wrong.  Or perhaps moving directly into the enemy camp, as we had done, caused a change in their plans.  Perhaps they thought we knew their plans and were bringing the fight to their doorstep instead.

Whatever it was, I'll never forget those moments in the dense brush, with the thick smell of enemy all around us.  We had never before been in an area where the smell was so strong.  There must have been many of them living there, and I don't like to think how the night would surely have ended.  We always avoided direct confrontation with a superior force at night - that was for daylight when we had lots of air support and a chance to drop back and let the big guns have a go at it.

Early the next morning the captain came over to my bunker.  We were good friends by now.  He had been Alpha company's commander in the early months of my tour, until he was hit by shrapnel from a booby-trap.  After months of recuperation he had returned to take command once again.  I was his RTO as we sat through the long night ambushes at Emory, and fought our way out of ambushes in the Ho Bo Woods.

Now he told me he had just been reassigned to the rear, to Cu Chi.   "Ramsey," he said, "I'm taking you with me!"  I couldn't believe my ears!  After seven long months in combat, I had suddenly been given a reprieve!

The rest of the day went slowly, and quickly.  I was in a daze.  I made my rounds saying good-bye to the friends who weren't so lucky as I.  I bequeathed my few possessions to those who wanted them.  My nylon Vietnamese hammock, hung comfortably inside my bunker, was passed on with a minimum of ritual - it was occupied even before I left the bunker.  I picked up my gear, packed away my writing materials, loaded my pack, and waited for early afternoon and the daily re-supply chopper.

My emotions were mixed.  I felt like I was abandoning my friends who had to stay behind with the danger, while I got to go to a safe, cushy job in the rear.  After months of casual living in the field, I was now going to be exposed to the rigors of Army discipline - saluting, clean uniforms, inspections.  I wasn't sure I was ready for that!  Though there was danger in the field, if I remained I was next in line to move up to one of the permanent radio slots at the fire base, and then I would never again go out on patrol.  That was as safe a job as there was.  But on the other hand, until that time I would be exposing myself to the ever-present dangers of combat.   There were no two ways about it - being in the field was dangerous.  In the end, I knew that duty to my family came first.  I had no right taking unnecessary chances when I didn't have to.

At 3:30 o'clock sharp the re-supply chopper appeared over the horizon of trees and lowered itself to the ground, a cloud of dust rising around it.  I grabbed my gear, picked up the nearest rifle (I was so excited that I took someone else's shiny new M-16 instead of my old rusty one.)  I followed the captain out of the wire for the last time.  We walked quickly to the landing pad and climbed aboard the Chinook, as men unhooked the big supply net from under the chopper.  Then the blades increased their rotations, and the big machine lifted up and away.  I watched the tiny ring of dirt and sandbag bunkers shrink away into the surrounding meadows as we turned and headed towards Cu Chi.  Silently I said good-bye one more time to the friends I was leaving behind.Chinook Lifting Away

Fate had intervened again.  What was to be would be.  Two hours after I left Hunsley the enemy launched a punishing mortar attack.  This time they found their target.  Dozens of high explosive shells rained down inside the patrol base, wounding and maiming the men I had just said good-bye to.  The first salvo of shells hit in our command group area, and one round made a direct hit in the doorway of my bunker, killing the man who had "inherited" my hammock.  He was lying in it writing a letter at the time - he never even had time to roll out and take cover.  As I walked to the mess hall for my first indoor meal in months, the Medevacs were racing into Cu Chi with Alpha's casualties.

And if I had remained and survived the mortar attack, would my luck have held out?   One week later the entire command group I had shared so many adventures with was gone.  On a routine patrol the point man discovered a trip wire hidden in the grass.   The column carefully moved around the booby-trap while three men stayed behind to plant C-4 explosive beside it and light the fuse to detonate it.  Once the bomb exploded, the column moved on while the three men trotted along beside it to return to their position near the front.  Just as the three men reached the center of the column, opposite the new commanding officer, one tripped a hidden wire.  A loud explosion sounded as the entire command group was thrown to the ground.  Several were dead.  Others had severe injuries.  The artillery lieutenant, attached to our unit as forward observer, took shrapnel in his hand and leg.  When I visited him later at the Cu Chi hospital, he congratulated me on getting out when I did.  He told how my replacement's replacement had been seriously injured.  Only seven days after leaving the field, twenty-one of the men I'd known were injured or dead.

And so started the second phase of my year in Vietnam.  Plucked from battle just before I'd surely have become a casualty, I started forward on a new life, that of company clerk.  In my new role I would fill out forms, write up awards certificates, prepare paperwork for the occasional court martial, and fill in officer efficiency forms.   After an initial period of adjustment I gradually became accustomed to my new duties.

Of course, there were hardships, like learning to sleep on a soft, springy bed.   And taking a shower every morning before work.  And going to the pool across the road to relieve the heat of the day.  Yes, it was tough, but I stayed with it. And in the end I came to accept it.  Still, life in the rear was not without its adventures!  I came as close to becoming a casualty in my own company area as I ever did in the field. But, that's another story.

 

Patrol Base Hunsley was named in honor of First Lieutenant Dennis R. Hunsley, a platoon leader of  Company C, 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 5th Infantry, who was killed in  a night action March 15, 1969.  1Lt. Hunsley's platoon was riding point, patrolling the area between Cu Chi and Tay Ninh when they were ambushed and hit.  During the firefight, 1Lt. Hunsley pulled five wounded platoon members from an APC before he himself was killed by hostile fire.  For his heroic actions in that fight, 1Lt. Hunsley was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.  Just two weeks before this action, 1Lt. Hunsley had received the Silver Star for another firefight the previous year when his quick thinking and accurate fire saved his men from injury during an ambush.  Respected by his platoon (his men called him "Baby-San" because of his slight stature), 1Lt. Hunsley was described as a caring person who, before his service in Vietnam had been a Boy Scout, and as a high school student volunteered more than 500 hours at his local hospital in Hannibal, Mo.
 

 

 

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To The Rear, March!:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Chinook Picture Copyright 1995 Bob Lindgren
Bunker Picture Copyright 1995 Paul North
Last modified: March 02, 1995