1st/18th Infantry Battalion, near the Cambodian
In the spring of 1967,
I was a PFC and somewhere near the Cambodian border, when our sister
battalion, the 1st/16th Infantry, of the First Infantry Division
was ambushed by a hardened North Vietnam Regiment of
approximately 1,200 troops. They were hit during a search and destroy
mission, while setting up a perimeter in a jungle clearing, and the
results weren't very pretty. The clearing had been marked and targeted
by the NVA's mortars, setting two to three hundred yards inside the
jungle curtain. Enemy snipers tied themselves to the tops of huge trees
overlooking the clearing in order to shoot down on the Americans.
When word came for my unit, the 1st/18th
Infantry Battalion, to saddle up, we were pulling guard at a large
American base camp, maybe fifty clicks away from the ambushed 1st/16th.
We jumped in trucks and headed for the landing strip where Hueys were
lining up to take us by squads to the jungle clearing.
While sitting to the side of my chopper,
waiting for word to load, the door gunner jumped out and ran to the back
of the ship to check something near the rear rotor blade like he had
probably done a hundred times before. This time he forgot to duck and
the blade knocked his head off. In less than five minutes his limp body
was placed in a body bag and carted off. Another gunner took his place.
A friend, that went through basic with me, extended his tour for a door
gunner's job, just to have a clean, dry bed to sleep in at night.
Word came to load into the Hueys, and
after loading, each chopper moved up and off the air strip forming lines
not unlike giant droning bees at eight to ten thousand feet. The sky had
never been so blue and the earth below was carpeted with a rich emerald
green. There is a high that comes with flying into a hot LZ that I can't
fully explain. Within minutes a few moving specks could be seen on the
horizon ahead of us. The specks grew larger as our formation of weather
beaten Hueys drew closer, and proved to be the phantom jets that had
arrived before us. They were working the area over with napalm, rockets,
and gattling guns. I can never forget the brilliance of the huge orange
fire balls of napalm contrasted against the green of the jungle and the
blue of the sky.
An M-14, not a 16, was cradled in
my arms. My legs were dangling from the Huey's floor board ready to step
out on the runner when we were within jumping distance of the ground.
The Huey would be a death trap if we started receiving incoming fire.
The choppers banked and swooped low over the trees to lessen the chance
of taking a hit, as they formed a single line to make their runs for the
center of the landing zone. Centrifugal force was the only thing holding
me to the floor of the ship as it made its turn. Our pilot was good and
he brought the Huey to within six feet of the ground. In less than two
seconds everyone in my squad was on the ground.
I immediately dropped the ninety pound
ruck sack I was carrying and ran for the tree line straight in front of
me. To my left side, my peripheral vision caught a glimpse of soldiers
from our sister battalion dragging black body bags to the center of the
clearing and adding them to a neat row that was already twenty to thirty
bags long. Inside the tree line I came face to face with the only
defender left, of the ambushed unit, on that side of the perimeter. He
had superficial cuts on many parts of his body, from flying shrapnel. I
asked where the rest of his squad was. He said that he was the only one
left. He also said that he had been receiving incoming carbine fire from
one of the big jungle trees in front of us. A few seconds after making
this statement, mortar rounds started falling to our right side. The
first one landed no more than ten yards away. The 1st /16th soldier and
I hit the ground together and crawled behind a large ant hill, which
wouldn't offer much protection against flying shrapnel, but it was
better than nothing at all. Cries for medics started from our right
side, which was an indication that some of the falling rounds had found
The NVA didn't keep the fight going for
long. Their objective had been completed, which was to catch the
1st/16th off guard while entering the clearing and inflict as much
damage as possible, before the American Air Force could arrive. The
incoming rounds we were receiving now, were only intended to keep the
American reinforcements penned down long enough for the NVA to make good
their escape. They would deal with my unit on their terms, another day.
Minutes pasted after the shelling
stopped. Orders came to dig in. My newly found comrade from the other
unit disappeared with what was left of his Battalion. Within an hour or
so Chinooks appeared at the center of the clearing with tons of supplies
hanging in webbing underneath their bellies. It was obvious we were
going to stay a while. That night past without any noticeable incidents.
Next morning word trickled down, that the
NVA regiment's base camp was probably close by. Recon patrols started
leaving our newly established base camp regularly. Each company in the
battalion took turns sending out squad sized patrols. It would be my
squad's turn in two days. Of course anything could happen in two days.
Our new platoon leader brought a new M-16
with an M-40 grenade launcher mounted under the barrel. He had gotten it
from the fresh supplies we received that the Chinooks brought. He handed
one to the man in my squad, who carried the old shotgun type grenade
launcher. The new lieutenant became upset when Walker refused to
trade in his old weapon for the new one. Several hours passed and the
good natured college grad tried every conceivable means of verbal
persuasion outside a direct order, to change Walker's mind. Finally the
argument was settled when Walker picked out the top of a tall jungle
tree over a hundred yards in front of our position as a target, and
launched five grenades at it. All five were in the air before the first
one hit. All five where direct hits. Walker got to keep his old thump
gun and I made him a cup of hot chocolate from the powdered creamer
and cocoa in our C-Rations that evening to celebrate.
One of the new recruits in my squad had
it in for me. He could just look at me and get mad. I honestly cannot
remember anything I could have done to make him feel this way. Since I
was sharing a position with him on this particular mission, the next
morning I volunteered to go out in front of our position on OP
(observation post) just to get away from him for a while. I stopped
short of my destination long enough to eat a can of C-Rations One of the
claymore mines in front of the position the new recruit and I were
occupying exploded while I was eating my meal. It sprayed 750
buckshot-sized pellets all over the observation post I would have
been at, had I not stopped to eat. I ran back to the perimeter to
find out what was going on. The new recruit was standing there at our
bunker showing the platoon leader a broken safety lever on one of the
claymore detonators. He was telling the lieutenant that he had been
playing around with the detonator when it accidentally went off. Nothing
more was said about the incident by anyone, including myself.
The next night came and went and very
shortly after morning chow it was time for my squad to go out on a recon
patrol. Not a single enemy sniper had been located by the other patrols
since we had relieved our sister battalion. The NVA had simply melted
into the jungle and vanished. There was a lot of tension among the
members of my squad. No one believed that the enemy unit had gone very
far. Everyone thought there was a very good chance, that a large enemy
base camp lay within short walking distance of our location. The patrol
that stumbled across it had as much chance of surviving the encounter as
a steer in a slaughter house. I walked point, and my squad leader was
next, followed by the radio man. The machine gunner brought up the rear
as always. It was a beautiful sunny day. The jungle was open enough to
move quietly through without having to use a machete. We had to stay on
our charted azimuths. There was no room for error. If we got off course
and had to use a spotter round to pin point our location, it would be a
dead giveaway to the enemy. It was three, maybe four clicks to our first
check point, then we turned right on a new azimuth, that took us up
gently slopping terrain. This was some of the easiest maneuvering I had
done on any patrol I had ever been on. It was a long patrol, as long as
any I had ever run, except the night patrols when the entire battalion
was on the move. But that's another story.
There were seven of us in my squad, five
old-timers and two recruits. An old timer from the Indian Nations of New
Mexico carried the M-60 machine gun. He had been in a lot of fire fights
and was one of the best gunners I had ever seen.
I carried a LAW, eight grenades, and two
hundred rounds of ammo for the M-60, as well as 300 rounds of M-14 ammo
for my own weapon. If we were hit, we would take far more of them out,
than there were of us, but the final outcome would be set in stone. All
the members of my squad would be dead in a matter of minutes.
When we had reached the halfway point on
the second leg of the patrol, the jungle became very quiet. Monkeys that
had been howling from the tree tops no longer were there. There was not
even one sound of a bird anywhere. The backdrop of the everyday sounds
of life in the jungle had completely disappeared. The silence was
overwhelming. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck
bristle. I stopped walking and turned to look at my squad leader
standing 10 yards behind me. His face had a tortured look. We stood
there facing each other for what seemed like the longest time.
I felt the words coming to my lips and
being whispered to him almost as if I were repeating something someone
else was saying to me. "If we go any further, we are going to
walk straight into their base camp" the words said. There was
no proof of that statement in anything that I experienced with my five
The radio man handed the mic to our squad
leader. The sound of breaking squelch by keying a mic could be heard a
long way, so I instinctively turned to the front again in the direction
we were traveling in, straining to see the slightest movement that
looked out of place. The conversation on the radio behind me was lost to
After several minutes our squad leader
motioned for me to return to him. "We are withdrawing," he
said. The tortured look on his face had turned to one of relief. After
backtracking a hundred yards or so, he started explaining to me, that
the colonel had given orders over the radio to mark our position and
return to camp. His exact words were, "We don't need to get any of
you boys hurt. That's why America makes so many bombs. We'll target the
area for an air strike."
That night, while sitting in camp,
drinking a cup of hot chocolate, the ground began to rumble. The shaking
of the earth around us was over in a matter of minutes, and I finished
my cup of hot chocolate. The B-52's
from Guam completed their mission and were on the way home. Tomorrow
my company would return to the bomb site to see if indeed there had been
an NVA base camp located close to the spot where my patrol had stopped.
The next day my company moved out early
to survey the damage the B-52's had done the night before. Within the
general area of the bombing, the terrain had been devastated. The
thousand pound bombs had left craters twenty feet deep in the ground.
Huge trees had been uprooted. It was impossible to locate the exact spot
where we had been standing the day before, because the bombing had
changed the look of the area so much. What wasn't hard to determine was
the destruction to the NVA base camp, that had been located there within
the direct path that our patrol had been traveling in the day before.
Bunkers and underground connecting tunnels were everywhere. Some of them
had been unearthed and many others had been covered up by the bombing.
It was obvious that the NVA had been caught off guard. There were quit a
few exposed body parts but many of them had been buried alive in the
under ground bunkers and tunnels. That peculiar sickening smell of dead
bodies pervaded the entire area of the massive kill. I am sure that
almost every person in that camp was wiped out. I don't think that there
was any doubt that this was the camp of those responsible for the ambush
of the 1st and 16th infantry.
There is more to this
story than meets the eye. A few months after the events above occurred,
my entire unit was decorated for outstanding performance during Operation