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HOT LZ ...
1st/18th Infantry Battalion
Operation Junction City

A voice in the Jungle

by: Wayne Wade
1st/18th Infantry Battalion
© 1999

 
 
1st/18th Infantry Battalion, near the Cambodian border, 1967
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 t
he 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 their mark.
      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 senses.
      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 my hearing.
      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 Junction City.

 

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