GROUND FIGHTING IN THE VIETNAM WAR
The kind of ground fighting the Americans did in Vietnam was unlike anything U.S. soldiers had been subjected to before. "In Vietnam," Karnow wrote, "there were no front lines to advance; the war was pervasive. An apparently benign peasant could be a guerilla, a pretty prostitute a clandestine agent, the kid who delivered the laundry a secret informer, Flooded rice fields concealed spikes, booby traps permeated jungles, and barracks were vulnerable to terrorist attacks... No wonder the grunts were so paranoid and their commanders frustrated. So strategy was reduced to a basic formula: kill as many as of the enemy as possible in hopes of breaking their morale.
Col. David H. Hackworth wrote in Newsweek: "I spent five years in Vietnam between 1965 and 1971. Commanding U.S. infantry in the field and advising South Vietnamese troops. I was wounded four times, decorated often. I saw America's young men, many entrusted to my care, march into a meat grinder."
A typical GI was outfited with an M-16 selective fire (fully automatic) rifle, a bayonet, and grenades. Officers were armed with a typical M1911 .45ACP, or in some cases, a .38 Special revolver. A unit often also had some M-79 grenade launchers, LAW anti-tank rockets, flamethrowers, machine guns. Artillery units had 8-inch howitzers 155-millimeter guns, phosporous grenades. disposable rocket launchers, and anti-personnel mines.
Ground forces were often moved in and out of positions by helicopters (see helicopters). They were also moved by trucks in convoys. On the water, particularly in places like the Mekong Delta, the U.S. military relied on "swift boats," 50-foot crafts aluminum-skin crafts outfit with two .50 caliber machine guns and twin 480-horsepower Detroit Diesels (See Kerry). Tanks and armored personnel carriers were not widely used in Vietnam. They were of little use in guerilla war fought in jungles, rice paddies, swamps and villagers—as was the case with much of the combat in Vietnam.
By 1965, the Viet Cong controlled much of the coast and the border areas with Cambodia and Laos and had heavily infiltrated the Mekong Delta. Both American and North Vietnamese soldiers said they cold smell their enemies before they saw them. "You can't camouflage smell," said one U.S. Marine, "I could smell the North Vietnamese before hearing or seeing them. Their smell was not like yours or mine, not Filipino, not South Vietnamese either. If I smelled that smell again I would know it. [Source: Boyd Givens, National Geographic, September 1986]
Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches : "Take the glamour out of war! I mean, how the bloody hell can you do that? Go and take the glamour out of a Huey, go take the glamour out of a Sheridan...Can you take the glamour out of a Cobra, or getting stoned at China Beach? It's like taking the glamour out of an M-79, taking the glamour out of Flynn." He pointed to a picture he'd taken, Flynn laughing maniacally ("We're winning," he'd said), triumphantly. "Nothing the matter with that boy, is there? Would you let your daughter marry that man? Ohhhh, war is good for you, you can't take the glamour out of that. It's like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones." He was really speechless, working his hands up and down to emphasize the sheer insanity of it. "I mean, you know that it just can't be done!" We both shrugged and laughed, and Page looked very thoughtful for a moment. "The very idea!" he said. "Ohhh, what a laugh! Take the bloody glamour out of bloody war!" [Source: Michael Herr, "Dispatches"(1977)]
Weapons, Tricks and Booby Traps Used by the Viet Cong
The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese for the most part didn't have the powerful heavy weapons, helicopters, high-altitude bombers and tanks that the Americans had. They often made do with AK-47s semiautomatic guns, ingenious and deadly booby traps, and mines, often made from unexploded bombs harvested after American bombing missions. Some weapons such as tanks were of relatively little use in the mountains, swamps and rain forests where much of the fighting took place. The most useful—and often most advanced—heavy weaponry the North Vietnamese possessed were its Soviet-made anti-aircraft guns and artillery. In Moscow's Museum of Armed Forces you can see a Kalashnikov used by a North Vietnamese soldier to kill 78 Americans on April 7, 1968.
Booby traps employed with deadly effectiveness by the North Vietnamese were often inspired by traps used to catch wild animals in the forest. They included neck snares that choke animal to death when it struggles to escape; spring snares that lift the animal in the air and hold it upside down; jaw traps that clamp down to the bone; falling weight traps that crush skulls; bamboo and wooden spike traps that skewer prey; hidden pits with spikes lying at the bottom; and pits with large spike-covered plates that enclosed on victim like a giant bear trap.
To hide their tracks some soldiers wore specially designed boots that left the imprint of Vietnamese-style sandals walking the opposite direction. When crossing roads North Vietnamese sometimes put down a canvas sheet over the roads, and the last man across would roll it up so there would be no prints
American soldiers used to use a dowsing-like device, made from L-shaped coat hangers to locate mines and booby traps. The U.S. Department of Interior even financed a study in which 150 people were asked to place wooden blocks over places where they got a positive dowsing reading. The pattern developed in which the participants had a tendency to put the rods where their magnetic field anomalies, which sometimes correspond with he presence of water and/or metal. [Source: People's Almanac]
See Cu Chi Tunnels
Viet Cong Tactics
The Viet Cong traveled light and were very mobile. They remained hidden during the day and came at night to infiltrate villages, ambush American soldiers and run other missions. In the day, the Viet Cong donned farmer clothes. American had no idea who was a farmer, who was Viet Cong, who was a Viet Cong sympathizer, and who was farmer fighting for the Viet Cong.
Former OSS officer Carelton B. Swift Jr. wrote in the Washington Post: "Consider Giap's poor soldiers: An old woman carries a covered basket that contains arms for hiding Viet Cong. Kids try out a little English on a passing GI, learn which way his unit is moving, and pass the information on. American forces could not deal with this kind of enemy; they grew frustrated and guilty when forced to fight them."
A former Viet Cong soldier names Nguyen Huu Vy told Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post that when he began fighting for the north he had no weapons. "his first squad armed itself with fake rifles carved from the heavy, butt end of coconut palm fronds. With them they ambushed [South Vietnamese] soldiers who were apparently too frightened to look closely at the weapons. The squad built up an arsenal by stealing the weapons of Diem's forces, usually in ambushes. With new weapons he could expand his force to a platoon, then a company, then a battalion.
Mao Guerilla Tactics and Spider Holes
The Viet Cong used tactics pioneered—or at least used effectively—by Mao Zedong and the Red Army in China in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Mao was a great spokesman for guerilla tactics. “The guerilla,” he wrote, “must move among people as a fish swims in the sea.” He said guerilla tactics are what “a nation inferior in arms and military equipment may employ against a more powerful transgressor.” On guerilla tactics themselves, he wrote:. “They consist mainly of the following points: Divide our forces to arouse the masses, concentrate our forces to deal with the enemy...Arouse the largest number of the masses in the shortest possible time."
The Red Army had a great deal of success by following tactics outlined in the following slogans: "When the enemy advances, we retreat. When the enemy halts and encamps, we harass him. When the enemy seeks to avoid battle, we attack. Whenever the enemy retreats, we pursue." The highly mobile Red Army attacked quickly with a sudden concentration of force and then quickly dispersed after the attack was over.
Large battles against forces that outnumbered them were avoided at all costs. Communists in unfriendly territory operated underground and in cells and through united front operations. When a military operation was taken it aimed to follow classic Maoist insurgency theory: overrun police outpost and remote military bases; let the state overreact with human rights abuses; capitalize on the resulting public anger over the abuses to gain support and win new recruits.
Mao was not a great military tactician but he was able to surround himself with talented military minds. He also realized that one of the greatest underutilized military assets was women. Jiang Jee was young female revolutionary who was killed in fighting the Nationalists and made into a martyr.
The North Vietnamese employed spider holes in Vietnam War. "It was very common for Japanese troops to dig very small, one-man concealed foxholes," William L. Priest, who wrote Swear Like a Trooper: A Dictionary of Military Terms and Phrases, told the Washington Post. The man in the spider hole would wait for an enemy soldier to pass by and then would pop up, often shooting the soldier in the back. "It’s a suicide mission," Priest says. "Take out as many men as you can from behind before you’re taken out." The phrase was also used in Vietnam to describe similar underground sniping holes used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, according to the US army Military History Institute. [Source: Washington Post]
Free-fire zones were places pounded with artillery or annihilated with napalm and bombs in an effort to drive out the enemy. American soldiers were authorized to shoot at anything that moved. Large swaths of the Mekong Delta, believed to be dominated by the Viet Cong, were declared free-fire zones. Some places were described as "Wild Wes-like shooting galleries."
Villagers in free-fire zones were encouraged to move to "strategic hamlets," but often they didn’t want to because their families had lived in their home villages for generations and they were afraid of losing them. If the staid they could be regarded as "target of opportunity" and fired upon.
The policy of village destruction, heavy bombardment, free-fire zones, "relocation" of peasants and other indignities created hundreds of thousands of displaced people and wounded. In Quang Ngai, the province that surrounded My Lai, 70 percent of the villages had been destroyed by B-52 bombs, bulldozers, napalm, artillery fire, lighters and matches, gun fire and other means. Some 40 percent of the population lived in refugee camps and civilian casualties were in the neighborhood of 50,000 a year.
"The wreckage was all around us," Tim O'Brien in the New York Times wrote, so common it seemed part of the geography, as natural as any mountain or river. Wreckage was the rule. Brutality was S.O.P. Scaled children, pistol-whipped women, burning hootches, free-fire zones, body counts, indiscriminate bombing and harassment fire, villages in ash, M-60 machine guns hosing down dark tree lines and any human life behind them."
Search and Destroy Missions
Much of the grunt work done by American GIs involved search and destroy missions, in which soldiers, often dropped off by helicopter, hunted for Viet Cong guerrillas or NVA regulars to protect villages and slow infiltration. Many search and destroy missions took place in the Mekong Delta, where patrol boats were used like helicopters to deliver troops and draw enemy fire.
There were very few conventional battles in Vietnam and much of the fighting took place during search-and-destroy missions in which American GIs were frequently ambushed by Viet Cong guerrillas who found many good hiding places in the lush jungles, swamps and high grass, moved freely at night, and often received food and assistance from local villagers.
On November 2, 1962, David Halberstam wrote in the New York Times Magazine: "recently American and Vietnamese officials, in an attempt to change the pattern of the war with the north, designed a new tactic: The idea was to strike quickly into the heart of the mountains, defy the laws of guerilla warfare (the laws say you don't attack the enemy unless you have a 7-to-1 manpower edge, but heck it should be more like 10-to-1), hit a larger enemy force by surprise, tear him—and run like hell."
American units were constantly harassed by sniper fire. Describing a sniper attack, in 1967, Tom Buckley wrote in the New York Times, "The siesta ended with the buzz-buzz-buzz of bullets passing close and the crack of distant rifles. 'Snipers!' someone shouted. The men in the squad rolled over cautiously. They put on their helmets and reached for their rifles. From the other side of the big house Bennet shouted: 'Here, here!' The squad followed the sound. It came from a hut that looked as though it were about to fall down. The child, a girl of around 2, was held tightly by her mother. She was a thin, worn woman, barefoot...Here eyes were expressionless...In her face was only intense fatigue."
Taking Fire on a Search and Destroy Mission Near Khe Sanh
Describing a search-and-destroy mission in Khe Sanh, platoon commander Andrew DeBona told the Washington Post, "Mike Company was used as screening patrol force. We'd usually work out from the combat base and conduct six-to-seven day patrols looking for the NVA or any sign of them...We were in our forth or fifth day...The plan was to have two platoons, 1st and 3rd...conduct a large semi-circle sweep operation. The terrain was largely elephant grass that varied in length form waist to shoulder height. The area we were sweeping towards was somewhat wooded...The 2nd Platoon, along with the section of 81-mm mortars, remained in our night defensive position [as ] the reaction force if we made contact."
After "smelling" the enemy and finding flattened elephant grass that was slowly rising, he said, "I said, 'Oh man...Keep your eyes opened. Keep moving.' We hadn't gone more than another 20 steps when all hell broke loose. Rounds were zipping everywhere....The really nasty twelve-sevens [.51 caliber machine guns] normally used for anti-aircraft—when those thing are coming at you it sound like the biggest bullwhip, and they were snapping all around."
The man in front took a bullet in a grenade on his belt, "and suddenly there's this tremendous flash and plume of white smoke...he's screaming and thrashing around because this thing is burning him [and] there's mass confusion." "I had an M-16 in each hand. I said, 'C'mon, we've got to find those missing guys.' We went booming back up there and we found all of them...deader than a doornail. All five of them were within 10 or 15 feet of one another. It was like a shooting gallery for the bad guys."
Search and Destroy Mission in the Mekong Delta
Describing the Batangan Peninsula in Quang Ngai province Time O'Brien wrote in the New York Times: "The Graveyard we called it. Littered with land mines, almost completely defoliated, this spit of land jutting eastward into the South China Sea was a place Alpha Company feared the way others might fear snakes, or the dark, or the bogey man. We lost at least three men here; I couldn't begin to count the arms and legs."
On the Batangan Peninsula O'Brien’s company battled the 48th Viet Cong Battalion. "It was the 48th that Alpha Company chased from village to village, paddy to paddy, during my entire tour in Vietnam," he wrote. "Chased but never found. They found us: ambushes, sniper fire, nighttime mortar attacks."
The commander of the 48th, Ngu Duc Tan, a man with sixteen battle scars scattered around his body, later told O'Brien, "U.S. troops not hard to see, not hard to fight. Much noise, much equipment. Big columns. Nice green uniforms."
To make the searching easier, the Americans dug canals to drain the swamps and used napalm and herbicides to clear the vegetation. Describing an area in northern part of the Mekong River, one former Viet Cong fighter told National Geographic, "The Plain of Reeds was an ideal hiding place. We were not afraid of anything but chemical warfare. Then we were helpless."
Ambushes and Village Searches in the Vietnam War
Finding the Viet Cong was difficult and if they suspected ones were found they were hard to determine from normal villagers. One fore SEAL who worked in the Mekong Delta told the Washington Post, "It was literally pin the tail on the donkey. Half the time you ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time." And this led to a number of tragedies and dead civilians.
The film maker Oliver Stone fought in Vietnam and made movies about the war such as Platoon and Born on the Forth of July . He told Time: "I was in villages where villagers were killed and abused. It came from anger, fear. There were rapes, beatings and murders. I heard stories from people I was close to. You’re in a hot fire zone. A villager comes up from behind, say a sand dune. He’s surrendering, but sometimes a guy would just pull the trigger and plow him away."
A U.S. soldier responsible for clearing out tunnels told Time, "We were passing by a monastery when mortars started flying around at us. Guys were screaming and yelling, ‘Mom!’ I was 18 years old. I was scared. I had a rocket launcher, and I fired it into the monastery. It went quiet. When we went in to look, there were a lot of dead. A French priest and some nuns."
Sgt. Major Len Koontz told the Washington Post he had drank some water from a well where dead bodies had been dumped and came down with a severe case of diarrhea. His best friend Zach took his position. "We got ambushed . Zach got shot in the leg and falls. 'Lenny, come and get me! But I'm getting shot at too, and I can't move because I have the runs so bad. They shot him again and again, and he's calling for me to come and get him, and I can't move."
Koontz told the Washington Post, "Consequently, Zach died of course." Soon afterwards another friend Shelton," took "a 50, caliber round in the stomach. As he's falling, he takes another one in the head. A fierce firefight takes place, and I couldn't get him out of there. He was alone, dead...In the morning we get reinforced and go back up with two platoons. Shelton isn't there anymore.. they took his body and stripped it and mutilated him and stuck him in the middle of the a bomb carter."
See My Lai
Patrols in the Vietnam War
Many soldiers operated in units that carried out patrols. Describing what they were like one patrol sergeant told Time: "I don't know, man. You chopper in. It's raining. People are shooting at you. You're running, just trying to stay alive. It doesn't matter."
A patrol was usually lead by a "point man." "For me," Tim O'Brien wrote in the New York Times Magazine, "Vietnam was party love. With each step, each light-year of a second, a foot soldier is always almost dead, or so it feels and in such circumstances you can't help but love. You love your mom and dad, the Vikings, hamburgers on the grill, your pulse, your future—everything that might be lost or never come to be. Intimacy with death carries with it a corresponding intimacy with life. Jokes are funnier, green is greener. You love the musty morning air...You love your friends in Alpha Company."
On walking the point, Chuck Hagel said: "Well, a point man, as I think most people know, is the individual who was out front. And these are usually squad- sized patrols, sometimes a company-sized patrol, depending on the mission. And you have the front — physically the front position, but also the responsibility of essentially not walking your squad or your company into an ambush or a trap. So you had to be very, very focused on the peripheral vision and the antenna and just the sense and the instincts and something doesn’t look right or grenades hanging in trees, which booby traps were just a way of life. You dealt with that all the time. And just generally having an antenna that’s on 360 degrees all the time. And there were a lot of guys who just didn’t pay attention to it. They just — it’s just the way they were. And I, again, always felt better if I was up front than maybe some others. [Source: Mark Thompson, Time January 16, 2013]
The Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols unit was called "some of the baddest s.o.b.s in the war." They were units of four- or six men who played a cat-and-mouse game with the enemy to try and figure out their positions. They operated in places everyone else was afraid to go. "If you saw them in a civilized setting, they were likely to be drunk and abusive."
Describing a routine patrol near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam, Doug Dromey told the Washington Post, "our battalion was helo-lifted into the mountain jungle [searching] for 200 Viet Cong. As we left the choppers...50 cal. machine guns opened up along the .30s You've never imagined as much havoc...Four night and three days it rained and we were awake 90 percent of the time. No food for five meals, or water. No ponchos for protection...We walked through jungle so thick a machete didn't hardly help. Our bodies took a worse beating than any man could endure...
"Few men were bullet casualties, but we had to walk back [through] 10 miles of waist deep water (sometimes chest deep). No choppers because of foul weather. We suffered better than 45 percent casualties in my platoon from 'immersion foot.' ... Some were so bad their feet were a mass of blood. ... "Have you ever seen a grown man cry? Probably not, well these men were crying while we were returning. It's hard to explain the pain unless you've felt it yourself ... but you learn to love a real man over here.
Patrol Firefight, with Chuck Hagel, U.S. Secretary of Defense Under Obama
Recalling a patrol in March 1968, Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, later said: "We were conducting a bridge security exercise, and it was backed — what we talked about earlier, keeping the highways open at night, running those — those roads. And bridges were obviously important because that was a main attraction of the saboteurs, to blow up those bridges and disrupt as much of the flow as the VC could. So we were on a — on a bridge security detail. And it was late into the night, maybe even early in the morning, when we got a call to pack up and get to a village where it was believed that VC were in the village. And we moved very quickly into that village. [Source: Time, January 16, 2013 =^=]
"My track was the lead track going in, lead track being the armored personnel carrier. We surrounded the village with our APCs and dismounted and then worked in the village. And if I recall, there was not any activity in that village that night as far as any firefights or we didn’t find anybody. And we spent, I think, an hour, hour and a half searching the village and found nothing. Whereupon we mounted back up on the APCs and moved away from the village, the same way we came in. Since my track was the first track going in, my track was the last track going out. And as we were going out, my track, being the last track, we hit a 500-pound mine, which was detonated, had been detonated, through a detonation wire that VC were in the trees and of course chose us because we were the last track. =^=
"Fortunately our track did not take the full blast that — the track didn’t come right up on top of the middle of that bomb. And the — the bomb blew the track up, and it came up the side of the track. And I was on — sitting on the left-hand side was the leader of the track, and my brother Tom was in the .50 caliber machine gun, working the radio that night, and the driver. And as we engaged the force of the impact of that bomb, of course the track was blown up… The fire came up the side and hit me all the way up and down my left side, burnt my face, arms. My brother Tom was unconscious because of the concussion. And a lot of action going on. We had — also were experiencing some machine gunfire from the — from the jungle. And by the time our other tracks could get turned around and come back, what I did was get everybody off the track because I was afraid that it would blow with all the ammunition that we had in those tracks, and it would blow up. =^=
So we were able to throw everybody off the track. Some guys got off on their own. My brother Tom was unconscious, and we took the earphones off of him. He had blood running out of his ears and his nose. And I didn’t know if he was dead. So we got him off. I threw him off, and I fell on top of him as we — as we dove off. And by this time, the machine gunfire had — had gotten even fiercer and heavier, but our tracks were coming back to get us. And we had to clear the area first. We had — I think we had people injured that night, too, and maybe even a couple killed from that. And Tom had had the concussion and been hit with, I think, some shrapnel. I had been hit with shrapnel and burnt my face and up and down. Both eardrums of mine were blown out as well. And until we could secure the area, they couldn’t bring any choppers in to get the wounded out. =^=
"And so I’ll never forget take — they took Tom and me out. And Tom was burned a little bit, too. I was burned pretty bad. And they put the salve on me over my face and my arms. And they wrapped us up in a blanket and put us on another APC and took us on down the road where we could secure things. And we waited for the choppers to dust us off that night along with the other guys that were hit. And the burn — of course there’s nothing quite like a burn. The pain. And we didn’t have any medics there with us. And we did have some guys, again, I think, that were pretty bad shape, so the morphine, everything was used for them. They did give us some shots, but the pain was pretty bad. And I remember sitting on that track, another track, waiting for the — the dustoff to come and medical evacuation, and thinking to myself, you know, if I ever get out of all of this, I am going to do everything I can to assure that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, calls upon to settle a dispute. The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it. People just don’t understand it unless they’ve been through it. There’s no glory, only suffering in war. =^=
Hagel’s Patrol Hit by a Viet Cong Booby Trap
Recalling a patrol in March 1968, Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, later said: "We were on an ambush patrol. We knew that VC had been in this area. And we were walking through a very dense jungle, and we were crossing a — a stream. And someone hit a — in fact, my brother Tom and I had been walking point. Had been walking point almost all day. This was a company, if I remember. I think it was company strength. And my platoon had had the point position. And Tom and I had been out on point most of the day. And the company commander, I think Captain Davis, rotated my squad back to the second-position squad, and they moved up a squad. [Source: Time, January 16, 2013 =^=]
"And about an hour later, we were crossing a stream. One of the point guys hit a tripwire in the stream. There were large Claymore mines that had been placed in the trees. And so when that tripwire was hit, the Claymores exploded and of course took down the guys in front of us. Hit me with shrapnel in the chest. Tom got shrapnel in the arms and I think some in his chest. We — there wasn’t — if I recall, there was a — there was a bit of a firefight, but what the VC would do, they’d slow you down and stop you with these major booby traps, and this one was a major one. And then they usually would leave behind some snipers. =^=
"Occasionally, they’d have a couple of machine gunners that would pick some of you off because in the disarray of the explosion and you’re trying to get to your guys, you’re vulnerable. And some of that happened. And I don’t remember how many people were killed there, but I know there were quite a few wounded. And then we had to — somewhat of a firefight, and they were able to get the dead lifted out. It was hard to get in with choppers because it was so dense. And then of course you got problems, too, with the security of bringing those choppers down that low. And they were concerned about bringing them in. =^=
"And so we — we stayed there up — we had to, until nightfall, to get the dead out and then the more severely wounded. Tom and I, the captain came to us and said, "Can you guys make it?" And we said, "Yes, we can." And so he said, "Can you get back on point and lead us out?" So Tom and I were wounded, but we got back on point, and I think that was — I was as afraid that night as I think I’ve ever been because it was dark. And when it gets dark, it’s — it is dark. And how many more booby traps you’re going to walk into that you really can’t see. We almost hit another one. My brother Tom saved us. There was another — about — we started to move out. Probably it wasn’t 20 or 30 yards from where we were as we started to get — it was starting to get dark, moved out. =^=
"And Tom spotted a — a live hand grenade hanging with a little — a little thin veneer there of wire, which it would have gotten me. And he was able to grab the grenade and defuse it. But we walked them out. We finally got out. I don’t know at what time. Maybe 11:00 at night and finally got out, and the choppers came and picked us up. It wasn’t that bad. I mean, they took us to hospitals and — I still have some shrapnel in my chest. It was peppered pretty good and punctured and a lot of blood, but there was not anything that was life-threatening. And they took us into a field hospital, and we spent, I think, three days there. They dug most of the stuff out of us, out of Tom and out of me, but they left some of it in me because it was around the heart. And so it’s interesting when I get chest x-rays. (laughter) They show up." =^=
American GI Patrols on the Last Link of the Ho Chi Minh Trail Before Saigon
On his missions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, near Saigon where the Cu Chi Tunnels are, U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd,"During our time at Pershing our focus was to primarily disrupt the flow of men and supplies from Cambodia down through war zone C and D and into Saigon. Our job was also to engage the enemy at every opportunity and eliminate them. The VC supply Trail passed down through the East side of Dau Tieng and through the Michelin rubber plantation. This was one of the hottest spots in Vietnam. If you look at charts of casualties, you will find Hau Nghia province and Tay Ninh province right up there in the number of casualties. It was also the most direct route to the capital because of the direction of the rivers which the VC could use their sanpans to ferry supplies, in addition to using the trails. So our base was surrounded by some of the hottest areas of real estate in South Vietnam at the time. [Source: Sergeant Arnold Krause, with Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, April 2013 |~|]
"The Trail also wound through the iron triangle, which was a Viet Cong-dominated area, between the Thi-Tinh and Saigon rivers, next to Cu Chi district. It then crossed the Saigon River in the Hobo Woods and Filhol rubber plantation, bypassing Cu Chi and on towards the outskirts of the capital, Saigon. To our East were many small Hamlets and villages that favored supporting the local VC forces. To our Northwest, the Boi Woods, to the Northeast laid the Hobo Woods and the Mushroom, three geographical strongholds for the enemy south of the Saigon River. |~|
"In October, the company was on a mission near the southern side of the Saigon River at a time when we were sweeping through a heavily populated wooded area. As we are moving to this area we engaged a small force of VC and a firefight ensued. After the enemy disengaged from the action we swept the area and discovered a rice cache. It was covered with vegetation above ground, most likely because it was going to be moved soon. As for the bags themselves, they were likely confiscated after being used somewhere else. |~|
"One time we found hospital supplies wrapped in U.S. newspaper, so nothing surprised us. There were several tons of rice found and we airlifted it back to FSB Pershing. The discovery of food stores, ammunitions, and medical supplies was not a daily occurrence but it happen a few times. Prior to the discovery of this food cache, when we were near Hoc Mon, we were specifically seeking out weapons caches based on Intel, and spent days scouring the banks of creeks and rivers looking for munitions hidden in the vegetation along the shore lines. We frequently found in the field, small arms, mostly 5.56 Chicom rounds for the AK-47’s. Of the bigger stuff, occasionally we would find 75mm recoilless rifle rounds, 122mm rockets, 82mm and 60 mm mortar rounds, and tons of RPG-7’s – rocket propelled grenades, some artillery rounds, but not sure of what size. |~|
"VC tunnel complexes and spider holes, as they were called, were everywhere we went. I did very little tunnel work because I was too tall and manuvering in a tunnel was not easy. The tunnel holes or entrances in places were barely 18-20 inches wide, so it took a small man to get into these. Most of the "Tunnel Rat" guys packed their .45’s and a good knife and if they remembered, some sort of ear plug, but you still had to listen for the enemy. When the Division base camp was built at Cu Chi, it was right on top of the Cu Chi Tunnel complex, which I think was left over from the French struggles, but certainly expanded with time. Saying "on top" does not imply that the tunnels were in the base camp, but they were close by. |~|
"Cu Chi remained the 25th Div base camp from 1966 to 1971 when we began to pull out. Cu Chi got mortared or hit with 122mm rockets occasionally and did experience a few ground attacks. BUT, it was too big for the enemy to overrun. They got through the wire when I was there, and blew up a bunch of CH-47 Chinook helicopters.
Fighting the Viet Cong and NVA on the Ho Chi Minh Trail Before Saigon
U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd,"Most of our operations consisted of search and destroy missions, reconnaissance in force, either on foot, or using Eagle flights, which were intended as a show of strength, moving in by Huey UH1-D helicopters and sometimes CH-47 Chinooks, the latter only to secured landing zones. There was a vast array of assault helicopter companies that supported the 25th division in this area. During the months of October and November the company and the Battalion engaged in many battles with the Viet Cong and NVA. We relied heavily on the utilization of combat assaults to surprise the enemy and catch them in areas that were favorable to us in defeating the enemy. [Source: Sergeant Arnold Krause, with Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, April 2013 |~|]
"About the only difference between VC and NVA, was the uniforms. The NVA operated in larger numbers and were a military unit while VC were guerrilla fighters, squad and platoon strength normally, usually locals from the villages, but could also be regional. The VC normally would ambush you, get someone injured, not killed, then try and draw you into a rescue effort in hopes of killing more. They would organize and co ordinate large nighttime activities, ground assaults at NDP’s, night defensive positions. These would be places where we stopped at night and dug in. We would deploy concertina wire and claymore mines around our location and then sit and wait, like bait, to see if Charlie would try and hit us either with mortar fire, or ground assault. |~|
"We would rely on artillery fire and aerial support if attacked. In these instances, the F.O., forward observer for artillery, would zero in the closest battery support to our location. He would have the artillery fire air bursts of White Phosphorous by having them calculate from the center of our location, These airbursts would then encircle or position overhead with each gun. So when the shit hit the fan, they could drop down from these calculations and hit the enemy with HP, high explosive. |~|
"In December of 68 I was given three more replacements which brought my squad up to nine, the highest strength I had experienced in any a squad I was associated with during my time in Nam. Most of the time our platoon strength was around 25 and a company strength varied between 75 to 100 men. Companies were usually four platoons, the fourth platoon a heavy weapons platoon (mortars) which usually stayed in the base camp. It was an up-and-down year for my company and for my platoon. During the year that I was there we lost 22 men plus a medic, 12 from my platoon. During the month of December we lost our platoon leader, and two close friends of mine. I ended up as acting platoon Sgt. for about three weeks. |~|
Turnover rate in the company during my period of time there was very high. Doing my own research, for a company that averaged between 100 and 120 men, we had close to 400 men listed on the company roster for a one-year. This list made up men arriving, rotating home, wounded and sent home, killed or reassigned to other units. As you can see a large turnover which translated into a lot of inexperienced men in the field that needed to be brought up to speed quickly. |~|
Firefight with the Viet Cong Near the Ho Chi Minh Trail
U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd, "It was December 14th, 1968, and we were making a company combat assault just south of the village of Sa Nho, Vietnam, almost due east of FSB Pershing, about 5 clicks. The evening before, the Lieutenant had briefed us that it would be a two platoon lift (Eagle flight) and the S-3 (Air Operations officer) scheduled 10 choppers for the mission. Lift off would be at 1400 hrs, and our field strength was approximately 60 men. We were to sweep south east, then rotate north hitting our checkpoints along the way. Intelligence (S-2) said that there had been enemy movement spotted in the area. Right after landing in an area of rice fields, the company formed up into two columns. Our platoon (3rd) had the point (meaning we had to walk ahead of the rest of our force). SP4 Jim McInvale was leading us, with Sgt. Conlin right behind him. I sent out flankers as we began to move out to our first checkpoint. [Source: Sergeant Arnold Krause, Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, April 2013 >>]
"The terrain where we’d landed was mostly dry rice fields mingled with dense wooded thickets and hedgerows. From the landing zone, the company was about 200 meters from the wood line. As the column neared the hedgerow area, we started taking heavy automatic and machine gun fire, and we were pinned down out in the open. The rice paddy area afforded us some protection because of the dikes that were built to hold water, but it made maneuvering difficult. Sgt Richard Conlin went down with the first burst and we couldn’t get to him. He was about 15 meters to my front. As soon as the shooting started, we automatically recoiled into a defensive position, finding any cover we could. >>
"SP4 Jim "Big Jim" McInvale was leading Sgt Conlin when he got hit not 5 feet behind him. McInvale was also hit in the opening volley, in the side under his left armpit. Close by is Darrell Kuhnau, a rifleman who is screaming and out of control. McInvale tries to reach Conlin but knows he’s dead. He continues to fight using his M-79. My squad and 1st squad spread out and return fire. Sgt Price and Sgt Buckley move the M-60’s up to the front and we start laying out a suppressing fire along the tree line.The VC continued to return fire. They are about 40 meters to our front Bullets were kicking up dirt and dust everywhere. You could hear them whistling by, sounding like mad bees. I could see muzzle flashes from VC rifles at three or four points to my front and settle my sights on one of them. >>
"PFC Ed "Wally" Wales from New York, and SP4 Jesse "Taco" Tostado, who hails from SoCal were dropping high explosive rounds from M-79 grenade launchers into the wood line. We were getting no word from command about what to do. No effort was made to try a flanking movement to the left and into the tree line. Any attempt to move to the right with no cover would have been suicidal. We were without an officer since 1LT James Merrett was killed two days previously. SFC John Partee wants to call in a C.S gas drop using one of the planes from Cu Chi equipped for that, and asks Buckley about it. Buckley retorts by asking him if he’s crazy because none of us have gas masks with us. Then Partee starts talking about bring in an air strike, but that thought gets no traction. I ’m burning through my ammo pretty quick and others up front are also. I send a runner to the rear to get us more ammo." >>
Sprayed By Friendly Fire and Retreating During a Firefight with the Viet Cong
U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd: "Our C.O, 1LT David Riggs seems paralyzed and can’t figure out what to do. He was our platoon leader prior to being elevated to the company C.O, but he looks like a deer in headlights right now. The F.O. (Forward Observer for artillery) who is sitting beside Riggs calls for a fire mission and within a minute there is a White Phosphrous round landing in front of us. The F.O. adjusts fire with a second round, then radios "give me six rounds and fire for effect" and within a few minutes we started peppering the tree line with 105mm high explosive shells. That’s all good for now, but we’re still stuck out in the open. The F.O. continues to adjust the artillery fire and is slowly walking it closer to our lines. Soon, we are being hit by the shrapnel. [Source: Sergeant Arnold Krause, Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, April 2013 >>]
"I ask my R.T.O. (radio telephone operator) SP4 George Toto to contact the F.O. to adjust fire, but for whatever reason the artillery fire does not get adjusted and the rounds continue to pour in. Right now, I’m afraid that someone in the platoon is going to get hit. Again I ask the R.T.O, to get the C.O. on the horn and to cease fire. The firing continues so I jump up and race back to where Riggs is, zig-zagging as I go to avoid fire. I yell at him and ask what the f*** is going on. No reply. He is not in good shape and is trying to light a cigarette but his hands are shaking so much he can’t hold the lighter still enough to hit the end of his cigarette with the flame. I look at the F.O, and tell him what is happening up front. He finally issues an order to lift the fire. I race back to my position turning my ankle in the process. The action continues on for a few more minutes and then the incoming fire ceases. Kuhnau is still yelling up in front of us like a crazed man. We tell him to stay put and stay down. >>
"The platoon stops shooting as well and we sit and wait and catch our breath. The sweat is pouring off of us and we are all thirsty for a drink of water. When it looks like the enemy has retreated we rush in to get McInvale, Kuhnau and Conlin. "Big Jim" has been hit pretty bad and needs help fast and a dust off. Tostado hoists Big Jim up and we pack him out of there. Kuhnau is not hurt, but is really shaken up. There is no urgency for Conlin; he is gone. He took a burst across the chest. A call for a dust off is made and Jim McInvale, George Toto (I think he got hit with shrapnel from the artillery) and Conlin’s body are loaded on the chopper. >>
"We searched the area for bodies and found 4 dead VC but no weapons. We deduced that the VC had been camped in the area and we had landed on top of them, rather than they were waiting to ambush us or had assembled once we’d landed. Not long after this, we were picked up by Hueys and returned to our night laager at Pershing. Once we made ‘contact’, all bets were off and the rest of the mission was usually scrubbed. With our lack of command leadership, we would not have been in good shape to remain there and to establish a NDP, which is why we headed back to Pershing for a pretty somber night. Conlin had been with us for about 4-5 months and was well liked by the guys. And, anytime you lost someone, it became a fairly quiet night. Later, McInvale was given the Bronze Star for Valor along with a Purple Heart for this action." >>
Night Ambush Patrol on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd: "Today is June 9th,1968 and our company has ambush patrol once again. Tonight, the company will leave the base camp and split out into three different platoon sized (roughly 20-25 men) ambush sites along a major supply route west of the village in the Ben Cui Rubber plantation. The company has orders to leave the "wire" (base camp perimeter) at 1600 hours. The azimuth will take us out into the rubber plantation. It will be dark soon and there is no moonlight. I have left the machine gun crew and started my new job as the RTO (radio telephone operator) for my3rd platoon leader 1LT Chris Brown, who hails from Texas. I change the battery to my PRC-25, turn on the radio and start the procedure to perform a commo check with the C.O.’s (company commander’s) RTO, call sign "Charlie 6 X-Ray". [Source: Arnold Krause, with Peter Alan Lloyd, Wall Street Journal, Eyewitness Accounts General News The Vietnam War, May 2013:::]
"We leave the base camp with 1st platoon taking the point followed by 2nd and 3rd platoons. I locate LT Brown, who has a stocky build and a pleasant smile and fall in behind him in formation. The company moves to a checkpoint where we will wait for darkness.... We arrive at our assembly area around 1830 hrs. The word is passed down from 1LT Ron Hendricks, our C.O. This is Ron’s first assignment as a company commander. He has been reassigned from Delta Co. It is time to head out to our AP (ambush patrol) sites and it begins to rain. I check my watch and it is 1917 hrs. :::
"Within minutes we enter the Ben Cui Rubber Plantation. There are hundreds of acres of rubber trees stretching upwards toward the dark sky about 30-40 feet. Once under the umbrella of the trees, the stars and night light have been vanquished. It has gotten so dark that everyone in the platoon has a hand tucked into the ammo belt of the guy in front of him. Without doing this, I can’t see the guy to my front. My eyes won’t adjust to the darkness. We are in the trees and there is no starlight. It’s continues to pour now and all one can hear is the water splashing off of the leaves of the trees and striking the ground. We get an occasional lighting flash that lights up the trees. :::
"Looking back at this night patrol, and thinking about the numerous other ones, too many to count, always reminds me of how quickly a situation can turn from good to bad. No one ever felt at ease or comfortable when we were out roaming around in the dark. Bad things always happened. The whole idea was to make the enemy uncomfortable too, in his maneuvering around at night. It was adisruption tactic, occasionally effective when an ambush was set up and the trap sprung.Night patrol was the most nerve wracking event we were asked to do. Your imagination had a field day, and you couldn’t see booby traps or other dangers as you walked. The happiest you ever saw anyone in combat was when you entered the "wire" (perimeter of a base camp) from an ambush patrol and knew you were once again "safe." :::
"Tonight’s operation has us setting up three separate ambush sites. 1st and 2nd platoons drop out of formation and move off their destinations, and separate from the group. We move forward in the night, just a platoon. I am about 8-10 guys back of the guy on point and following LT Brown. I don’t recall most of the names of the soldiers I am with. We move in silence towards our ambush site. The platoon edges along in the rain, trying to navigate to the site where we are to set up the ambush. The wind is blowing along with a constant downpour as I wipe the water from my eyes and face. The company left base camp close to an hour and a half ago. There are occasional flashes of lightning again. Everyone scans left and right keeping an eye out for anything moving. Everyone is uneasy and alert moving in these conditions. The suspense builds along with the sweat that is being created under the strain of not knowing if the enemy is out there or what he may be up to. :::
"Another lighting flash cuts across the sky and I think I see a group of people, 5 or 6 or more, dressed in dark clothing standing on a road to our front. The light is playing off of their rain ponchos. Is my mind playing tricks on me? Did anyone else see what I did? I am unsure and we continue moving forward, toward those figures. I am guessing they were about 100 feet away. I don’t say anything, unsure of what to do. The sky lights up again and this time there is no mistake. :::
Fire Fight During a Night Ambush Patrol
U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd: "Shots ring out and the platoon dives for cover, each of us landing in pools of water and mud on the floor of the rubber plantation. We are as surprised as Charlie as we come face to face less than 50 feet apart. Because of how we were moving, not everyone has a clear field of fire. I have a number of troops between me and the enemy. There is random and sporadic fire directed at the VC. They are returning fire as well. I can hear the crack of some AK-47’s and then "Whoosh". I know a RPG is coming and there is a loud explosion to my right, then another one. This one sprays me with shrapnel. Nothing serious, just small fragments in the hands. PFC Juan Antu, a 20 year old Mexican kid from Yvalde, Texas, one of our grenadiers who packs a M-79 Grenade Launcher, is hit in the exchange. [Source: Arnold Krause with Peter Alan Lloyd, Wall Street Journal, Eyewitness Accounts General News The Vietnam War, May 2013 :::]
"We have no cover other than the darkness that surrounds us. Everyone is staying put from where they have dropped to the ground. Finally, we are returning a base of fire at any muzzle flashes we can see and Charlie disappears into the darkness, the firing stops and the rain, which was pouring down, eases up but the wind continues to blow hard. It’s around 2100 hours. We do a quick check to see what our casualties are. Juan Antu, who was in front of me, has taken a bullet. The round hit his helmet, spun around in the helmet liner and entered his skull in the back. :::
"I try talking to him, "Juan, can you hear me? Where are you hit", but I’m getting no response. The medic is busy with other wounded so I try to see what I can do. I’m feeling around on his chest and arms trying to feel for wounds or blood. His helmet is off and he is lying in the wet mud on his back. We can’t risk using any light because we are unsure whether the enemy has fully retreated or still hanging around. I continue to try and find out where he is hit. I lift him up out of the water and mud to check his back side. He is limp and lifeless. There are no wounds that I can find to his chest so I probe around on his head and it feels like a cracked egg. He is gone. A good kid, quiet, polite and someone whom I was just getting to know, is no longer. I stare at his limp figure for another minute, then radio for an immediate dust off [a Medevac chopper]. The weather is bad and the winds and rain are heavy. We are told the dust off will have to wait until the weather lifts. :::
"Dau Tieng "Dust off" says they can’t go up in this wind. An hour later, Dust off 77 attempts to brave the weather, then radios to us that they are aborting the mission and return to base camp. We wait and we can’t get a Medevac for several hours from anywhere. We try and make the wounded comfortable and set up a security perimeter and hunker down in the storm. There is no sign that the VC are still around. Finally, a crew from Cu Chi volunteers to come to get us, but the team from Dau Tieng makes another attempt and braves the weather and arrives at 2240 hours. I radio to the chopper and try to talk the chopper down to our location. We have a flash light we are using to get his attention. The light is placed into a helmet so it can only be seen from above. :::
"There is a clearing that we have moved to alongside the main supply road and a quick security perimeter is put in place. We have more wounded than the chopper can take. It can’t get off the ground. Someone needs to remain behind until a second Medevac arrives. We lighten the load. There are nine wounded on board heading back to Dau Tieng. Our KIA [killed in action] is left behind and we have instructions to bring him back to camp in a vehicle. It has been a rough night. What’s left of the ambush patrol waits near a main road for daylight and we sweep the area once more. We find 4 VC ponchos, one with a lot of bullet holes, but no blood trails and no bodies. Not surprising in the heavy rain we had during the night. We report a possible 5 VC body count anyway. :::
"As dawn arrives, a second chopper is ordered to our location, then once again the flight is cancelled by battalion and orders are issued for a second time, to get back to camp via convoy. We finally get Antu loaded on a deuce and a half. The convoy reverses direction and as it heads back toward Dau Tieng, it picks up the rest of the company at their ambush site locations and we are then trucked back to base camp. The final tally is 13 WIA’s, 4 are hospitalized, and one KIA. Two of the wounded is our commanding officer, Ron Hendricks who remained with 3rd plt as we set out on our ambush and LT Brown. Hendricks is hospitalized for three weeks and we get a temp C.O.,1LT Jimmy Ford to fill in. [WIA= wounded in action] :::
Drugs, Freaks and Beyond Fear in the Vietnam War
Michael Herr wrote in "Dispatches", "Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. I never saw the need for them myself, a little contact or anything that even sounded like contact would give me more speed than I could bear. Whenever I heard something outside of our clenched little circle I’d practically flip, hoping to God that I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed it. A couple of rounds fired off in the dark a kilometer away and the Elephant would be there kneeling on my chest, sending me down into my boots for a breath. Once I thought I saw a light moving in the jungle and I caught myself just under a whisper saying, "I’m not ready for this, I’m not ready for this." That’s when I decided to drop it and do something else with my nights. And I wasn’t going out like the night ambushers did, or the Lurps, long-range recon patrollers who did it night after night for weeks and months, creeping up on VC base camps or around moving columns of North Vietnamese. I was living too close to my bones as it was, all I had to do was accept it. Anyway, I’d save the pills for later, for Saigon and the awful depressions I always had there.[Source: Michael Herr, "Dispatches", Knopf, 1977 ***]
"I knew one 4th Division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it. He told me that they cooled things out just right for him, that he could see that old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope. "They sure give you the range," he said. This was his third tour. In 1965 he’d been the only survivor in a platoon of the Cav wiped out going into the la Drang Valley. In ‘66 he’d come back with the Special Forces and one morning after an ambush he’d hidden under the bodies of his team while the VC walked all around them with knives, making sure. They stripped the bodies of their gear, the berets too, and finally went away, laughing. After that, there was nothing left for him in the war except the Lurps. ***
"I just can’t hack it back in the World," he said. He told me that after he’d come back home the last time he would sit in his room all day, and sometimes he’d stick a hunting rifle out the window, leading people and cars as they passed his house until the only feeling he was aware of was all up in the tip of that one finger. "It used to put my folks real uptight," he said. But he put people uptight here too, even here. "No man, I’m sorry, he’s just too crazy for me," one of the men in his team said. "All’s you got to do is look in his eyes, that’s the whole fucking story right there." "Yeah, but you better do it quick," someone else said. "I mean, you don’t want to let him catch you at it." ***
But he always seemed to be watching for it, I think he slept with his eyes open, and I was afraid of him anyway. All I ever managed was one quick look in, and that was like looking at the floor of an ocean. He wore a gold earring and a headband torn from a piece of camouflage parachute material, and since nobody was about to tell him to get his hair cut it fell below his shoulders, covering a thick purple scar. Even at division he never went anywhere without at least a .45 and a knife, and he thought I was a freak because I wouldn’t carry a weapon. "Didn’t you ever meet a reporter before?" I asked him. "Tits on a bull," he said. "Nothing personal." ***
But what a story he told me, as one-pointed and resonant as any war story I ever heard, it took me a year to understand it: "Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened." I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked him what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, fucked if he’d waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was. His face was all painted up for night walking now like a bad hallucination, not like the painted faces I’d seen in San Francisco only a few weeks before, the other extreme of the same theater. In the coming hours he’d stand as faceless and quiet in the jungle as a fallen tree, and God help his opposite numbers unless they had at least half a squad along, he was a good killer, one of our best. The rest of his team were gathered outside the tent, set a little apart from the other division units, with its own Lurp-designated latrine and its own exclusive freeze-dry rations, three-star war food, the same chop they sold at Abercrombie & Fitch. The regular division troops would almost shy off the path when they passed the area on their way to and from the mess tent. No matter how toughened up they became in the war, they still looked innocent compared to the Lurps. When the team had grouped they walked in a file down the hill to the lz across the strip to the perimeter and into the treeline. I never spoke to him again, but I saw him. When they came back in the next morning he had a prisoner with him, blindfolded and with his elbows bound sharply behind him. The Lurp area would definitely be off limits during the interrogation. ***
"When the commander walked by us he almost took an infarction."Don’t you men salute officers?" "We’re not men," Page said. "We’re correspondents." When the commander heard that, he wanted to throw a spontaneous operation for us, crank up his whole brigade and get some people killed. We had to get out on the next chopper to keep him from going ahead with it, amazing what some of them would do for a little ink. Page liked to augment his field gear with freak paraphernalia, scarves and beads, plus he was English, guys would stare at him like he’d just come down off a wall on Mars. Sean Flynn could look more incredibly beautiful than even his father, Errol, had thirty years before as Captain Blood, but sometimes he looked more like Artaud coming out of some heavy heart-of-darkness trip, overloaded on the information, the input! The input! He’d give off a bad sweat and sit for hours, combing his mustache through with the saw blade of his Swiss Army knife. We packed grass and tape: Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing in the Shadows, Best of the Animals, Strange Days, Purple Haze, Archie Bell and the Drells, "C’mon now everybody, do the Tighten Up. . . ." Once in a while we’d catch a chopper straight into one of the lower hells, but it was a quiet time in the war, mostly it was lz’s and camps, grunts hanging around, faces, stories."
Helicopter Missions in Vietnam
Michael Herr wrote in "Dispatches", "I was already down at the strip waiting for a helicopter to come and take me out of there... At one lz the brigade chopper came in with a real foxtail hanging off the aerial... "Best way’s to just keep moving," one of them told us. "Just keep moving, stay in motion, you know what I’m saying?" We knew. He was a moving-target-survivor subscriber, a true child of the war, because except for the rare times when you were pinned or stranded the system was geared to keep you mobile, if that was what you thought you wanted. As a technique for staying alive it seemed to make as much sense as anything, given naturally that you were there to begin with and wanted to see it close; it started out sound and straight but it formed a cone as it progressed, because the more you moved the more you saw, the more you saw the more besides death and mutilation you risked, and the more you risked of that the more you would have to let go of one day as a "survivor." Some of us moved around the war like crazy people until we couldn’t see which way the run was even taking us anymore, only the war all over its surface with occasional, unexpected penetration. As long as we could have choppers like taxis it took real exhaustion or depression near shock or a dozen pipes of opium to keep us even apparently quiet, we’d still be running around inside our skins like something was after us, ha ha, La Vida Loca. [Source: Michael Herr, "Dispatches", Knopf, 1977 ***]
"In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder. Men on the crews would say that once you’d carried a dead person he would always be there, riding with you. Like all combat people they were incredibly superstitious and invariably self-dramatic, but it was (I knew) unbearably true that close exposure to the dead sensitized you to the force of their presence and made for long reverberations; long. Some people were so delicate that one look was enough to wipe them away, but even bone-dumb grunts seemed to feel that something weird and extra was happening to them. ***
"Helicopters and people jumping out of helicopters, people so in love they’d run to get on even when there wasn’t any pressure. Choppers rising straight out of small cleared jungle spaces, wobbling down onto city rooftops, cartons of rations and ammunition thrown off, dead and wounded loaded on. Sometimes they were so plentiful and loose that you could touch down at five or six places in a day, look around, hear the talk, catch the next one out. There were installations as big as cities with 30,000 citizens, once we dropped in to feed supply to one man. God knows what kind of Lord Jim phoenix numbers he was doing in there, all he said to me was, "You didn’t see a thing, right Chief? You weren’t even here." There were posh fat air-conditioned camps like comfortable middle-class scenes with the violence tacit, "far away"; camps named for commanders’ wives, LZ Thelma, LZ Betty Lou; number-named hilltops in trouble where I didn’t want to stay; trail, paddy, swamp, deep hairy bush, scrub, swale, village, even city, where the ground couldn’t drink up what the action spilled, it made you careful where you walked. ***
"Sometimes the chopper you were riding in would top a hill and all the ground in front of you as far as the next hill would be charred and pitted and still smoking, and something between your chest and your stomach would turn over. Frail gray smoke where they’d burned off the rice fields around a free-strike zone, brilliant white smoke from phosphorus ("Willy Peter/Make you a buh liever"), deep black smoke from ‘palm, they said that if you stood at the base of a column of napalm smoke it would suck the air right out of your lungs. Once we fanned over a little ville that had just been airstruck and the words of a song by Wingy Manone that I’d heard when I was a few years old snapped into my head, "Stop the War, These Cats Is Killing Themselves." Then we dropped, hovered, settled down into purple lz smoke, dozens of children broke from their hootches to run in toward the focus of our landing, the pilot laughing and saying, "Vietnam, man. Bomb ‘em and feed ‘em, bomb ‘em and feed ‘em." ***
"Flying over jungle was almost pure pleasure, doing it on foot was nearly all pain. I never belonged in there. Maybe it really was what its people had always called it, Beyond; at the very least it was serious, I gave up things to it I probably never got back. ("Aw, jungle’s okay. If you know her you can live in her real good, if you don’t she’ll take you down in an hour. Under.") Once in some thick jungle corner with some grunts standing around, a correspondent said, "Gee, you must really see some beautiful sunsets in here," and they almost pissed themselves laughing. But you could fly up and into hot tropic sunsets that would change the way you thought about light forever. You could also fly out of places that were so grim they turned to black and white in your head five minutes after you’d gone. ***
Surviving a Helicopter Crash in Vietnam
Helicopter pilot USMC Gunnery Sergeant Paul Moore told the journalist Peter Alan Lloyd, "I had one particularly close call was when I was flying an H-34 to determine some control problems. I had a VNAF Capt as co-pilot and we were observing a flight of Army HU-1s on a mission on a mountain. I auto-rotated down the mountain side and when I added power and pulled up the collective to recover from the auto rotation, the helicopter began a rapid spin and loss of fore and aft cyclic control. (Later I discovered that the tail pylon had sheared resulting in an extreme out of balance fore and aft). [Source: USMC Gunnery Sergeant Paul Moore, with Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, May 2013 |~|]
"I followed the known emergency actions which I was very familiar with, since I also taught them, as we dropped approximately 1,500 feet, including auto rotation prior to the flare at about 500 ft when the tail pylon failed and the spin began. We hit nose down because of loss of fore and aft control, then I applied full left cyclic to wind up the Main rotor blades, as they struck the ground. These procedures were: ) Reduced the hand throttle to idle to stop or reduce the spinning; 2) Turn off the battery switch; 3) Turn off the magneto switch. These actions were to help prevent a fire when crashing. Then I had to stop the main rotors before they came through the cockpit. I did that by full left cyclic so the main blades would strike the ground, and stop their travel before they could hit the cockpit. I was on the bottom left side of the helicopter, and the VNAF Captain disappeared out through the right side window, leaving me with my left leg trapped. |~|
"I finally got out on my own, and had several banged-up areas and some bleeding. Then I saw the Captain standing in the flooding Av Fuel, firing finger flares in the air. I quickly got that under control, and then he wanted to start walking towards Nha Trang, which was several miles away.I told him "Good luck with any possible VC and the land mines around the perimeter of the area there." I decided to stay with the wreckage, and he also wisely decided to remain. We were without a radio, the one in the chopper being unusable, but luckily, after about twenty minutes, the Army HU-1s flew over and I then I safely fired some finger flares. The army helicopters suspected a possible VC trap and circled around us for a while, then finally one came down and saw who we were – although the door gunner had us covered, just in case. |~|
Swift Boat Ambush
Between the hours of 1800-1900, 12 April 1969, at a well-camouflaged sector along the narrow Duong Keo, southernmost in South Vietnam's vast system of navigable waterways, U.S. Navy PCF's ("swiftboats") then supporting Vietnamese Marine river operations under the aegis of SEALORDS incurred their most devastating and demoralizing setback to date. A well-planned and perfectly executed Viet Cong heavy weapons ambush inflicted heavy material damage to every swiftboat unit involved in the action and accounted for thirty-nine wounded in action, many seriously and requiring immediate medical evacuation. Vietnamese Marine casualties were of equal severity. One of the eight boats involved, PCF 43, was totally destroyed during the encounter. Its mangled, blackened carcass still rests on the ambush site. Her seventeen-member crew included ten members of an underwater demolition team, two were killed: Only three of the remaining fifteen escaped unscathed.[Source: By LTJG Peter N. Upton, UDT-13, article supplied by Steven L. Waterman, mwweb.com/ndc/SwiftBoats :::]
LTJG Peter N. Upton wrote: "Vietnamese mornings are singularly beautiful... However, this morning elegance passed quickly, when word was passed to UDT promulgating the modus operandi and logistics requirements for the upcoming three-day SEALORDS operation. It was about 1630 hours when UDT personnel scampered down the sagging cargo net, consummating the already bulking load. Rendezvous with the PCF units involved in the mission took place approximately one hour later, one thousand meters outside the gaping mouth of the Duong Keo, the watery path which would lead to the day's assigned sweep area. Forty-three informed the command boat of her special cargo, then took her assigned station as the rear element of a stately file of eight units. Flak gear was donned and battle stations manned on the fantail as the boats proceeded to enter the foreboding jaws of this river, infamous for its demonstrated hostility to allied units who dared venture into her inner reaches. :::
"On this day a Viet Cong heavy weapons company, consisting of approximately seventy-five hard-core guerrillas, was located in the area of the Duong Keo when they received warning through an elaborately contrived signal system that a swiftboat incursion was underway. A well fortified sector, up the river about five kilometers, interlaced with freshly built bunker, trench, and spider-hole emplacements and permeated with thick mangrove vegetation provided excellent cover for their weapons positions. Almost guaranteed of success, the enemy set up and waited. :::
"Discipline was perfect: the Viet Cong patiently awaited the greatest possible number of boats to be encompassed in their kill zone, then triggered the ambush with a claymore mine aimed at the lead boat. All hell broke loose as a murderous fusillade of rocket, recoilless rifle, machine gun, and small arms fire ensued. Every boat in the file received immediate hits and personnel casualties, but each roared back with her full arsenal of heavy .50 caliber machine guns. One by one the boats maneuvered upstream, out of enemy range. seeking open ground on which to set up an emergency medical evacuation station. :::
"PCF 43 never made it. Her position as last unit in the file, aggravated by her heavy load, combined to seal her doom. For, as the lead boats were exiting the kill zone and scrambling to safety upstream, the 43 was just arriving; as the first seven boats churned and leapt forward in violent reaction, throttles to the wall, the 43 succumbed to her bulk, falling farther and father behind until she was relatively alone, hopelessly alienated in the center of the kill zone. Viet Cong gunners then focused on the hapless intruder. Singled out for the kill, the 43 was ripped asunder, inexorably, and with lightning-like quickness: cascading water spouts signaled the near misses, though gunners at point-blank range will miss but once. One B-40 rocket found the fantail, instantly killing Doc Worthington. Hinson and Piper received frag wounds from the blast, Piper's helmet perforated and blown off by a piece of shrapnel. AK-47 rounds raked the deck, one piercing Sandlin's left leg, leaving a clean, though gaping wound. Another rocket exploded in the pilot house, mortally wounding the OIC and knocking the coxswain unconscious for precious seconds. Naked, without a guiding hand, 43 gesticulated wildly and careened into the north bank of the river, coming to her final, alien rest, high and dry amidst the mangrove foliage directly in front of the Viet Cong emplacements. :::
Fighting Back Against a Swift Boat Ambush
LTJG Peter N. Upton wrote: "The bewildering, awesome reality of the situation was beclouded by momentary shock. The enemy, probably in a similar state of amazement, did not organize directly and afforded the 43's survivors invaluable minutes in which to orient themselves. LT Lomas scurried into the pilot house and aided the wounded there. Sandlin's pain was eased by a quick shot of morphine and a battle dressing. The sporadic shrapnel wounds of a minor nature were of no immediate concern. Survival, and survival only, was paramount, and to live, the survivors knew they had to fight. To this end, a hasty defense perimeter was formed. Campbell, with Piper and Broderick on the fantail, maintained constant M-79 grenade fire into the north bank. Luckily, the 43 boat canted toward the river and provided some natural cover for them. Crew members, discarding the .50 caliber weapons as useless, grabbed M-16 rifles and set up firing positions covering the south bank, thereby providing the stricken unit with a 360 degree perimeter. [Source: By LTJG Peter N. Upton, UDT-13, article supplied by Steven L. Waterman, mwweb.com/ndc/SwiftBoats :::]
"Simultaneous with these actions, Ruiz and Lowry found the detachment's M-60 machine gun, and, using the 43's hull for cover, slid past the bow in order to set up a firing position in a natural emplacement ten meters away. Sandlin, ready to go, was given a rifle and carried to this frontal position thereby supplying additional firepower. Concussion grenades were also used to supplement these basic weapons in the forty minute effort to ward off any attempts of an enemy assault. The foliage proved indeed provident, absorbing much of the enemy fire while precluding his use of rockets and heavy rounds altogether. Though continuous, the resulting incoming fire was relatively ineffective. Only Ruiz was seriously wounded in the ground action as a Chinese hand grenade exploded next to his M-60 firing position. Heroic acts became well-nigh routine as 43 was transformed into a blazing bunker: some fired while Hinson passed ammunition and loaded M-16 magazines; weapons jammed and were replaced; hand grenades were exchanged with the enemy but twenty meters away, a diabolical chess game, one Viet Cong spider hole checkmated by Lowry's accurate throw. As a result of this aggressive perimeter action, the necessary volume of fire was sustained and the enemy never risked a frontal onslaught. :::
Rescue After a Swift Boat Ambush
LTJG Peter N. Upton wrote: Thoughts gravitated toward rescue: where in almighty hell were the other boats? 43's radio was destroyed beyond repair and the backup PRC-25 unit set up by LT Lomas and the SEALORDS staff officer lacked the transmission power to break into the net already froth with urgent traffic. PCF 38, seventh boat in the file, was just heading out of 43's sight when she realized her trailing sister was missing. Brazenly, she attempted to implement rescue by reentering the ambush site. Thirty-eight's bravery was thwarted by a rocket round which slammed into her pilot house, severely wounding the OIC and rendering her steering useless. The coxswain's skillful manipulation of the twin screw throttles enabled the boat to limp out of the kill zone without suffering further damage. [Source: By LTJG Peter N. Upton, UDT-13, article supplied by Steven L. Waterman, mwweb.com/ndc/SwiftBoats :::]
"Upon reaching the medevac area, 38 passed the word of distress, thereby galvanizing the command boat, PCF 31, and a cohort, PCF 5, into swift action. Both boats entered the kill zone with guns roaring and arrived intact at the scene of battle. Thirty-one maneuvered into a position adjacent to the wreckage while 5 poured out covering fire. Long prayed-for extraction became a euphoric reality as dead and wounded persons were passed up, and finally, the perimeter was withdrawn, exhausted and unbelieving. The evacuation completed, 31 and 5 raced to the medevac perimeter where the dazed men of 43 joined the somber procession, ferrying the wounded to the dustoff helicopters,vainly trying to collect and convey their thoughts of the past hour. l he air was heavy with a pungent haze of disbelief. :::
"Meanwhile, only twenty minutes after her crew and UDT had been evacuated, 43's fate was sealed as over a thousand pounds of high explosives and mortar rounds concocted an eruption of cataclysmic intensity, hurling a spuming vortex of flame, smoke, and twisting metal over five hundred feet into the air-her twin diesels could not be halted during the fight, had overheated and ignited fuel, thus starting the irrevocable chain which ended in her ultimate destruction. Wisely, the boats refused to risk a night transit and bivouacked in the river, tethering to mangrove stumps within the reinforced defense perimeter. Few of the 43 boat's survivors could muster the strength to close their eyes; frozen to the decks of their new homes, they gazed into the starry firmament, wondering, reckoning. :::
Resuming the Mission After the Swift Boat Ambush
LTJG Peter N. Upton wrote: "First light of 13 April manifested typical magnificence; lacking, however, were contemplative spirits necessary for the breathing in of such grandeur. Following the sumptuousness of mawkish tomato juice and canned scrambled eggs, orders were barked and the perimeter troops reembarked in order to proceed with the days schedule of sweeps. The buzzing activity provided a well-needed elixir, forcing wretched visions of the previous day's ambush into realms of temporary obscurity. Towards nightfall the sweeps terminated and the Marines formed protective enclaves for the night's rest. The swiftboats, released from support duty, then formed the classic file and headed to sea and safety, retracing the path of the tragic twelfth. :::
"Short minutes after getting underway the boats passed the still-life remains of the 43, an aesthetic aberration suspended on the north bank of the Duong Keo, simply out of joint with her surroundings. Looking at her bow, bending towards the azure heavens in a searching gesture, one could almost feel motion, a groping for the malignancy which was the cause of her agonizing death. The uninitiated might further try to recreate the essence of the once pulsating holocaust which presently stood calmly before them. The vibrant sensations of that enormity-the anguish, the torments, the frustrations, and the ecstasy-however, will forever remain an esoteric fact, privy to the surviving fifteen: no effort of meditation could possibly reveal those secrets. :::
Dead American Soldiers in Vietnam
Describing his buddy Chip, Tim O'Brien wrote: "he wrote letters to my sister. I wrote letters to his sister...In the bush...nothing kept us part. "Black and White" we were called. In May of 1969, Chip was blown high into a hedge of bamboo. Many pieces. I loved the guy, he loved me. I'm alive. He's dead. An old story, I guess."
It was not unusual for half the men in a company to get killed or wounded. One soldier told the Washington Post, "A few months before leaving Vietnam I spent four hours of my life 50 feet from a North Vietnamese machine-gun emplacement...One fellow exposed himself to enemy gunners and drew their fire...Then came his screams...We knew we were watching the man who had given his life for us die."
Describing a dead friend he found U.S. Senator John Kerry told Atlantic Monthly, "What was left was human and yet it wasn’t—a person that had been only a few moments earlier and that now was a horrible mass of torn flesh and broken bones; bent and bloody, limbs contorted and distorted as they could never be alive."
Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches : "I met this kid from Miles City, Montana, who read the Stars and Stripes every day, checking the casualty lists to see if by some chance anybody form his home town had been killed. He didn’t even know if there was anyone else from Miles City in Vietnam, but he checked anyway because he knew for sure that if there was someone else and they got killed, he would be all right. "I mean, can you just see *two* guys from a raggedy-ass town like Miles City getting killed in Vietnam?" [Source: Michael Herr, "Dispatches"(1977)]
One captain hardened by years of combat told Tobias that he so many men die he couldn't keep track. One 18-year-old was killed only after he arrived at the base. "What was I supposed to tell his parents?' he said. "I hadn't even met him...Tag'em and bag'em."
Families of dead GIs received letters from the White House which said their son was "in the prayers of Mrs. Johnson and myself at this time of sadness" and Gen. Westmoreland who promised to "to do our utmost to bring eventual victory so that your son's sacrifice was not in vain." They also received check for money recovered from their son's belonging even if it was less than a dollar.
The body usually showed up about 10 days later with a telegram: "HIS REMAINS WILL BE PREPARED, ENCASED AND SHIPPED AT NO EXPENSE TO YOU ACCOMPANIED BY AN ESCORT TO A FUNERAL HOME OR TO A NATIONAL CEMETERY SELECTED BY YOU. IN ADDITION YOU WILL BE REIMBURSED AN AMOUNT NOT TO EXCEED $300 TOWARD FUNERAL AND INTERNMENT EXPENSES IF INTERNMENT IS IN A PRIVATE CEMETERY."
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014