DEROS Short Calendar 1966 Ch Chi
SHORT~poof! 1967

"Last Day... Last Dust Off"
"I'm not allowed to blow the whistle. I'm not allowed to ring the bell. But let the damn thing leave the track and see who catches hell!"

by: Theodore T. Jagosz, Cpt Inf (USA)
XO of HHC, 1st Bn (Mech) 5th Infantry ("Bobcats")
1966-67
© 2004
 
SHORT~POOF!
 

 

"Last Day... Last Dust Off"

After five months on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Quang Tri Province, I finished my tour as the S-5 (Military/Civil Affairs Officer) of the 1st Bn (Mech) 61st Infantry, 1st Brigade, 5h Infantry Division (Mech).

I was infused into Military Assistance Command (MACV) and was sent to United States Army Vietnam (USARV) Advisory School located at Di An. This was directly across the Saigon River from where I had served my first tour (see Bobcat Bravo Two Six) and was also the Division Rear HQ of the the 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One).

The two week advisory course was specifically tailored to train Mobile Advisory Teams (MATs), consisting of a Senior Advisor (Cpt), Deputy Senior Advisor (1/Lt), Heavy Weapons Advisor (Master Sergeant), Light Weapons Advisor (S/Sgt E-6) and a Senior Team Medic (Specialist Fifth Class). The mission and concept of MATS had been conceived by William Colby the author of the "Phoenix Program" and in our half of South Vietnam was closely monitored by John Paul Vann. In fact, the commencement address at our graduation in January 1969 was delivered by John Paul, himself, who stuck around for several hours to participate in an impromptu bull session with the recent graduates.  He discussed some of the finer points of advisory assistance that were meant to enhance the combat effectiveness of the Provincial Regional and Popular Forces, a militia organization designed to provide greater security for the thousands of small villages and hamlets and thus promote pacification. As has been published in other documents, the Phoenix program did much to organize and categorize the intelligence data base of the Viet Cong political and military infrastructure. In the first three years of operation, the program contributed to the defection, capture or neutralization of more than 60,000 Viet Cong.

Photo: Huey resupply.
War-Stories.comThe biggest reason for the unqualified success of the militia forces in home defense was that its ranks contained so many tens of thousands of "Hoi Chan" (Ralliers) who had defected from the Viet Cong to participate in the South Vietnam government's "Chieu Hoi" (Open Arms) Program. These defectors knew our enemies, not only by name, but often knew his family and where he and they lived. One of the attractions of the program was that a rallier was promised a military assignment if not in his home village with the Popular Forces (PF), at least he would serve in the confines of the Province with the Regional Forces (RF). The percentage of such defectors in either unit ranged from 25% to 33% and they proved to be some of the bravest troops I ever served with. In fact, just before I reported for this assignment, one of my fellow officers in the 61st Infantry and an advisor on his first tour advised me, "Ted, be careful when operating with the 'Rough Puffs' (a derogatory name). A lot of them have more guts than brains!" I liked the part about the guts and the part about the brains was proved to me to be unfounded.

The term "Advisor" seems a little patronizing to me. Think about it. What kind of advice can you possibly give to your counterpart, who not only had a good military training but also maybe had ten years or more experience fighting a guerilla war for one side or the other or on both sides. Of course this man will be open to suggestions but don't ever try to take command of his unit (you will fail). This situation was obviously frustrating to some of my fellow advisors. At one team house, I saw a colorful cartoon of an ancient choo-choo train leaving the tracks. The caption read, "I'm not allowed to blow the whistle. I'm not allowed to ring the bell. But let the damn thing leave the track and see who catches hell!"

So what does an advisor do? His main job is just to be there; on operations with his counterpart and on radio watch at the base camp. With our two radios we had a world of support ranging from US air strikes and artillery missions to immediate reaction forces from US units with a lot more firepower such as tanks and armored personal carriers. The militiaman was essentially a rifleman and even in an RF rifle company his organic direct support artillery was one 81 MM mortar tube. A large part of the advisor's job involves establishing a good rapport with the neighboring US units and keeping them informed about the local situation in the villages. This type of coordination paid off as demonstrated in the "Bobcat Bravo Two Six" story. More than coordination, it really helps if you can plan combined operations with the US unit. The RF/PF really like riding around on tanks and armored personal carriers and they really like to impress the US troops with how well they operate on the ground.

Last but not least, the Vietnamese soldier mostly appreciated the advisor's ability to call in a US medical evacuation helicopter (Dust Off) and the subsequent medical treatment in a US facility. It was a tremendous boost to the militiaman's morale if he knew that a dust off was only minutes away in the event that he was seriously wounded. In the past, however,  a dust off or two got tricked by the Viet Cong and got ambushed. From that time on no dust offs were authorized for Vietnamese wounded unless an American advisor with present on the ground.

A lot of stuff happened during those seven months. My team moved four times during that period. We were, after all, a Mobile Advisory Team. At first we moved from one hot spot to another. Our last two moves were precipitated by other factors. It's an old axiom in the advisory assistance business that, "You don't defecate where you masticate" (I hope Poss doesn't know what that means) [The Air Force doesn't masticate, so I wouldn't know]. Unfortunately, some team leaders just didn't absorb that lesson at Advisory School. It shouldn't be hard to realize that even a Vietnamese woman of easy virtue is probably some Vietnamese soldier's woman. For an American "big nose" to move in on the relationship with his wealth and gigantic physique creates a morale problem if not an international incident. Prior to the last of these moves, from Lai Thieu village to Chanh Lu village in Ben Cat District, the offending MAT leader came down to Lai Thieu to effect the coordination of our trading spaces. There is no point in moving a gas operated refrigerator or other bulky issue items when the items at either site are in good working order.  While the other team leader was putting the "bad mouth" on his former counterpart, Major Moc Suth, my Deputy, 1/Lt Michael Arnovitz, was on his way to Chanh Lu to do the same with his opposite number, to make a paper transfer of serial numbers from one hand receipt to another.

While I had to listen to the same song and dance from my replacement that I had heard the last time we moved, Lt Arnovitz was having a much more exciting time in Chanh Lu and as he reported to me later. He drove our Team 1/4 ton utility vehicle (Jeep) up to Chanh Lu (I didn't let anybody drive my trusty 3/4 ton Dodge, for one reason, it only had brakes for three wheels). He arrived at the RF Group HQ (three rifle companies, a heavy weapons platoon and 350 attached Popular Self Defense Forces [PSDF] and Revolutionary Development [RD] cadre ... a military empire numbering over 1,500). He wasn't there but a few minutes when the RF Group CO, Major Moc Suth, came storming out of his bunker, pointed to Mike and ordered, "Follow me!"

The Major jumped on his Honda 50 CC motorbike and Mike obediently followed. Shortly, they turned off the road leading to our southernmost outpost and went cross country. Mike began to hear a lot of shooting.  As it got very loud, Mike saw the Major dismount and join 11 militiamen behind a rice paddy wall, who were engaging 30 or more North Vietnamese Army (NVA) men a scant 100 meters away behind another paddy wall. A big firefight was in progress. The Major barked some orders and while waving his .45 caliber pistol wildly, he led these 11 men who fired their M-16s on the sprint against the NVA position. Mike told me he shook he head and wondered to himself, "What's a nice Jewish kid like me doing in a place like this?" My guess is that Maj Moc Suth needed Mike's truck to haul back the loot, 30 weapons in all including: a .30 cal. Browning MG, several M-14s and M-16s and an assortment of AK-47s and other communist weapons.

Before arriving with my whole team in Chanh Lu, I had conducted a dozen or so dust offs mostly at night and after combat casualties were sustained. The first dust off in Chanh Lu was to evacuate the injured from a vehicular accident (none of the injuries were life threatening). Somehow in this remote little town and at the intersection of the only two dirt roads meeting each other, two Lambretta scooter mini-buses decided to occupy the same space at the same time. Pacification had arrived.

A month or so elapsed and after many combat operations and other activities when, Father's Day, the third Sunday in June arrived and with a DEROS date of 18 July, I felt I was getting "short", less than a month to do. I had a thing about "getting short". It's a big deal for me. I remembered a certain 35 minute trench fight with my old rifle platoon in the 5th "Mech" the "Bobcats". My platoon of 25 men or so was blasting away at a trench, filled with a VC Heavy Weapons Company and two platoons of infantry, 150 or so of them.  After 20 minutes of prep, my platoon moved on the trench. The platoon on my right didn't move with us!  On the trench the squad I was riding with got its butt kicked by two 57 MM recoilless rifles, wounding just about everybody on the vehicle. Reorganizing a few meters back, we conducted a second assault and yes, we were successful in overrunning the enemy but once again the platoon on our right had not made a move.  After the fight and back in base camp I asked my fellow platoon leader about his inaction. He lamely said, "I didn't see anything". Wow! Unbelievable! Then he said, "Goodbye. Tomorrow I'm becoming an agricultural advisor with MACV". I recall that he had been a very good platoon leader until that day. I resolved to myself that if and whenever I got "short", I'd do whatever it took to fulfill my responsibilities to others even if it was on my "last day".

So, on that Father's Day, I happened to be relaxing and having lunch with both my counterpart, Maj Moc Suth and the Chanh Lu Village Chief. After more than 10 years of warfare, it seemed that everybody took Sunday off, even the VC. In the course of the meal the Village Chief suggested to me, "Dai Uy (Cpt),  you've done a great job here and you need a break. I have some friends in a village not too far from here who would be happy to entertain you, me and the Major". I thought to myself, "Uh oh! Here's a new twist to the 'rules of the game'. If the Vietnamese invite you, it's OK to go and defecate in somebody else's village". I had to think quickly. I didn't want to offend my hosts socially in what was a genuine offer meant to reward me, and vicariously, my team, for having behaved ourselves. I begged off by saying, "I'd really like to but ...." Then I recounted to everybody, and the Major concurred, that I had a contact in the 1st Infantry Division who told me that they were closing down one of their fire support bases (FSB) north of Lai Khe on Highway 13 ("Thunder Road") and near the Cambodian border. I told them that while I was informed that they were removing all their artillery, they didn't want to remove their lower caliber ammunition; namely, 350 rounds of 81 MM mortar ammunition including:  high explosive, white phosphorous, and illumination rounds. Just too much air lift required. So, they had planned to destroy the 81 MM in place. I was welcome to have it if I would come and pick it up. We all agreed that this would be wonderful addition to our ammo bunker and although I really didn't want to go, I was committed.

Photo: Truck, Boy and his Dog

War-Stories.comI made sure my 3/4 ton truck was empty and I opened the passenger side door of the truck and invited my mascot, a white German Shepard mix, "Road Wheel" to get in. Prior to this, "Road Wheel" went everywhere with me. Most dogs love to travel and smell new smells. He wouldn't move. I went to the mess bunker and got a piece of bacon to entice him into the truck. He wouldn't move. This was at a time when I didn't realize that dogs know something about some things we cannot sense. It should have been a bad omen for me and subconsciously I was disturbed that "Road Wheel" was leaving me to go all alone on this trip.

Photo: Truck Takes a Lick'in and ....

War-Stories.comThe road from Chanh Lu to Ben Cat District HQ and Highway #13 is not generally a bad dirt road. It's mostly straight. But curved or straight and all alone you drive like hell. You are a moving target for an ambush and you don't want to be a slow moving target. That's why you'll notice that I carried no canvas on my 3/4 ton, and of course, seat belts. In the event of ambush, you want to drive straight through it or at least, be able to dismount quickly and fight back. I had driven this road just the day before, so when I rounded a curve at high speed and saw right in front of me an unavoidable shell crater, I had no choice but to hit it and hold on. The empty truck bounced high and landed sideways to my left. It skidded to my left. I turned the wheel  in the direction of my skid, keeping the truck upright but I saw it heading toward the ditch on that side. No avoiding it. Just as in the movies, everything seemed to happen in slow motion; I saw the ditch, the left wheels dug in and over the truck went, two and 1/2 times, by the grace of God, I was dumped unceremoniously into the ditch (the only place I could not be crushed) and as I looked up, I saw the truck make 1 and 1/2 more turns to end up up-side down a few meters away. Nothing exploded. As you can see from the photo, I got rescued by militiamen on their way to the big city, Ben Cat. They took me back to Chanh Lu. The medics put a bandage on my arm and we returned to my truck to recover it. As you can see, "Road Wheel" more than willingly came back with us to the accident site to inspect the disaster he had so cleverly avoided earlier. He seems too happy. My first lesson in "Dog 101".

This good mission to recover soon to be destroyed mortar ammunition and the reason for doing so brought to mind an earlier episode on that tour on the DMZ, in Quang Tri Province. In October, 1968, my Operations NCO, Sgt Lawrence Hadzima, and I were returning in our 3/4 ton truck from a coordination mission involving "Operation Fisherman" with Major John M. Shalikashvili, the MACV District Senior Advisor for Trieu Phong District. The sun had set and as Larry and I were crossing the causeway between Trieu Phong and Quang Tri City on our way to the 61st Inf base at Lang Ve, we noticed a sampan with family aboard trying to free itself from a sand bar keeping it out of the Cua Viet River and safety. We stopped the vehicle. I said to Larry, "We can't leave them there overnight." He said to me, "We could get high centered pulling them off this sand bar." I said, "I know. Let's do it."

We got out the tow chain, pulled the sampan to safety, tried to get on our way and, sure enough, we were high centered on the sand bar. I immediately called our 1st Bn, 61st Inf HQ, told them of our dilemma, asked for some M-113 A-1 armored personal carriers to pull us out and the answer was basically, "Tough crap!" I called Major Shalikashvili in Trieu Phong and he shortly arrived with his counterpart, Major Nhiem in their CORDS International Scout. Seeing our dilemma, Major Shalikashvili called out and remarked to us, "Ted, let this be a lesson to you. No good deed will be left unpunished!"

So, I'm all beat up from contusions from the wreck. But I get a new steering wheel for the 3/4 ton and it is good to go. Then 2/Lt Arnovitz is due to be promoted to 1/Lt. This is important because I am due to leave shortly and already the Province Senior Advisor, Col Munday, is asking me about my suggestions for a replacement for me. I want Lt Arnovitz to take my place and I have many reasons for this, but it's a Captain's slot. I drove the 70 miles to Long Binh Base to get some frozen black steaks for Mike's promotion party.

We had a good time but later that night I felt weak. SFC (E-7) Coutermarsh, our Team Medic (lucky to have such a high ranking and experienced medical type) takes my temperature, 104. He dusts me off in the middle of the night. They take me to the 1st Inf Med Hosp at Lai Khe, FUO (fever, unknown origin).  They think it's malaria but I know Sgt Coutermarsh has personally administered all the prophylactics to all the members of the team twice daily to ward off malaria.

Mortared all night at Lai Khe. Out of the cot and into the bunker and vice versa all night. They decide to dust me off again, this time to Phu Loi or Di An. I don't where, but they think I'm critical. But what do I know because I'm delirious. For almost ten days I'm having blood taken every hour on the hour because you have to catch those malarial suckers just as they're breaking out of their cysts. I'm told to take cold showers every hour or the nurses will give me an alcohol bath to bring the fever down. Doesn't sound good. Finally get the fever down and they release me. A friend picks me up and takes me back to Ben Cat District.

Normally I weigh 175 to 185 pounds in peacetime. In Vietnam I go down to 155 due to the heat, exercise, etceteras. When I reported to Major Domingo, the Ben Cat District Senior Advisor, in mid July 1969, I weighed about 125 pounds. He took one look at me and said, "Ted, you look like death warmed over! No way you are going back to Chanh Lu. Not tonight, anyway." I slept fitfully because I heard the sounds of battle in the background. They were coming from Chanh Lu.

That's how I missed the biggest fight that MAT III-3 ever got involved in. K-2 Battalion of the VC (mostly NVA) Dong Nai Regiment decided to attack our southernmost company in the village. Prior to this Mike and I had fired in all our pre-registered artillery registrations, he knew where they all were, both on the map and on the ground.

In the beginning the enemy dumped over 500 rounds of mortars into the compound of our southernmost company, knocking down all the two-niner-two antennae communicating to Group HQ (they remained in radio contact). The VC originally attacked from the north and set up two 75 MM recoilless rifles to destroy the fort. They seriously wounded one man but that was the most they could do because they were sitting in the middle of one of our artillery concentrations. Mike immediately called in the fire mission and each weapon never got off a second shot. Then Mike called in "Puff The Magic Dragon", the USAF AC-47 gunship, to strafe the northern end of the village to the south of the fort because an enemy element was staging there for  an assault on the fort. That took out that force without hitting a single hootch in the village.  In the middle of the fight and night, Mike flew into the southernmost company area to dust off the one seriously wounded defender.

At first light, Mike noted that the VC had left eleven sappers dead in the wire of the defending RF company. Along with Major Moc Suth, MAT III-3 perused the enemy blood trails. At one point they came upon two NVA soldiers asleep by their weapons and captured them. They were heading south, deeper into free world territory. They knew no better. This was not the VC Dong Nai Regiment of old and my first tour, just foreigners.

I arrived the next morning just after the fight. I got all the reports first hand and they confirmed the sagacity of my recommendation of Lt Arnovitz to take charge of MAT III-3 after my departure. As my Deputy and because I was disabled at the time, I expected no less of him because I had prepared him for something like this. I was proud of him and his accomplishments and under great duress and satisfied what I had done as his mentor.

This fight and Mike's conduct of his end of it only confirmed my earlier decision to put him in charge after my departure. I had listened every night as Mike voluntarily conducted English lessons with Major Moc Suth and his staff. He had the Major's confidence and I could not let a "dud" take over this team. I consulted with my Master Sergeant (M/Sgt) Diaz, my Senior Weapons NCO, and a veteran of WW II, Korea, and now on his third tour in Vietnam about the prospect of such a neophyte taking command of the team. I asked him what he thought. He told me, "Lt Arnovitz is totally capable of taking command of this team. He's maybe the only choice, but ..."  I pressed Sgt Diaz, "But, what?"  Sgt Diaz said, "I can't say."  I said, "I'll say it for you. He's vulnerable." Sgt Diaz, "Yes." I said, "He's going to die, isn't he?" Sgt Diaz: "Yes."

How do we know these things? We don't. We just feel them. Those who are about to die have a certain "aura" about them. Those of us that have been around death too long see it, no, rather we sense it. Yet we are powerless to prevent it. Less than a month after I left this command, Mike was in charge. A call for a dust off came in at night and Mike dutifully called it in (as I had done so many times) and led the chopper to the LZ with a strobe light. The strobe light didn't bring on the enemy's attention but the helicopter did. The enemy was aiming for and trying to shoot down the helicopter when he fired his RPG-7 anti-tank rocket.  The rocket passed through both open doors of the chopper and hit Lt Arnovitz on the other side. A fluke?  I guess so. But we knew it would happen somehow, and God bless and keep 1/Lt Michael Arnovitz.

Getting back to the story of my short time in country, I was well received by Major Moc Suth and my team upon my return from the hospital. I made the final arrangements for the change of command with Maj Moc Suth and my team. The day before I was supposed to leave, I sat in with the planning session of the next day's operation for the RF Group and my team. We were short one member of the team of five before this day and with me leaving the next day, all three remaining members would go with Maj Moc Suth with one company of RF far off to the more dangerous north while another company would engage in local security to our south west. Of course I was leaving the next day, so we said our "Good byes" that night.

Finally, it was my very last day of my second tour. I said my good byes to my team the next morning as they departed on their combat operation. They departed. I had plenty of time. My plane was not leaving from Biên Hòa AB until early the next morning. So I leisurely packed my two duffle bags and placed them in the 1/4 ton truck I was to take to Province HQ. I was to turn in my weapon and TOE to Province and collect my mail. Then on to Biên Hòa an the big PX.

It was so quiet as I was doing these things. Nobody around. Everybody in the field. Too quiet. I was just getting into the 1/4 ton ready to drive off when I heard the radios start to crackle in the Group Tactical Operations Center (TOC).  My motor was running but I waited. Shortly I saw the Group S-3, Operations Officer run out of the TOC. He ran up to me and said, "Dai Uy! You have to help! One of our companies ran into a company of NVA. They defeated them and are chasing them from the field! But we have two wounded, a sucking chest wound and a shot to the stomach!" I asked, "Where is Major Moc Suth and my MAT team? Can't they help?" The S-3 answered, "They're several Kilometers to the north. This company is engaged to our south."  He added, "Please call in a dust off!"

Photo: Ain't I purtty!

War-Stories.comI alluded earlier to where an advisor has to be on the ground when the Vietnamese call for a dust off. We had no advisors where the combat was taking place but I could not resist the pleas of the S-3. I called in the dust off. The "Angel" (dust off) responded and asked my location. I told "Angel" that the wounded had bad commo (Vietnamese) at their location and they would have to pick me up at my base camp to lead them to the LZ. Angel, "Roger. Is there an advisor on the ground?" Thinking quickly but deviously I replied, "Roger, you'll see an advisor on the ground (namely me)." Shortly a UH1D swooped down to our base camp at Chanh Lu an picked up the Group S-3 and me. The S-3 expertly directed the pilots to the LZ. From a height of about 500 feet and as we could survey the battlefield below, I could distinctly see that one of our RF companies was aggressively pursuing the an NVA company and had the best of the battle. The NVA were fleeing. Nevertheless, as we descended lower I could detect the distinct, "Whack, whack, whack ..." of supersonic bullets passing between the open doors of the helicopter, going in one door and out the other.  This told me we were on a "hot" LZ. The enemy was contesting this evacuation. I had hoped that the pilot hadn't noticed  this angry greeting to our arrival. His nasty look in my direction told me he noticed. I could see the litter cases coming. The angry pilot demanded, "Where the hell, is that (expletive) advisor on the (expletive) ground. I had to make room for the litter cases to be loaded, anyway, so I jumped off the chopper, faced my questioner and sang out, "Ta Da! Here I am!"

As each wounded militiaman passed me on his litter, he was wearing a broad smile on his face despite his pain, and each flashed me the "OK" sign universal to all cultures. With the wounded aboard, I almost thought that the dust off pilots were going to leave me behind. It was tense while the enemy shot at us as we departed. Once we gained altitude, everyone began to laugh. The pilots were still shaking their heads because they got snookered. On the intercom I informed them, "By the way, guys, before you take these brave soldiers to the hospital, I'd appreciate it if you drop me off at Chanh Lu. This is my last day in country and I was going home before all this happened."

They did so, smiles all around. It was so quiet in Chanh Lu when the helicopter departed. It was so quiet when I landed at LAX. Too quiet.

 
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