Target area: In the mountains, just above the east sie of the Ho Chi Minh Trail about even with the DMZ.
Mission: POW snatch.
As I had been the Intel. Sgt. on MLT-2 (Mobile Launch Team), one of the launch teams that monitored recon teams in this general area and also an Intel. Sgt. working in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) on the CCN compound in DaNang, I was very familiar with the infamous reputation of this target area. CCN had not gotten a team out of this area, intact, in about a year. The last team inserted into the area was RT Michigan. The team was ambushed and overrun. The Bru were able to scatter into the jungle, but all three Americans were captured.
When the Bru realized that their Americans had been captured, they circled back to see if they could help. They got back to the ambush area just in time to see the three Americans, on their knees being killed, execution style, with a bullet to the back of the head. The Bru were able to E&E (escape and evade) East until they encountered friendlies.
None-the-less, I accepted the mission and was explicitly told not to inform my Bru where we were going. It was the norm for the 1-0 to do an over-flight of the target area to get the lay of the land and pick out potential LZ’s (Landing Zones), usually small open areas where they could be inserted and/or extracted by helicopter, normally HU-1D’s “Hueys” referred to as “slicks.”
The over-flights were done in the O-2 (Cessna Model 336/337) which were flown by FAC’s (Forward Air Controllers) referred to as COVY (their call-sign.) My over-flight was notable in two ways. First: I got to hear a fighter get shot down over North Vietnam and all the radio chatter of the SAR (Search and Rescue) efforts to retrieve the air crew. And second: I started to hear some strange static over the head-set. The pilot immediately started flying like he just came down with a bad case of hypoxia (a condition of oxygen deprivation experienced by pilots and air crews when they are at a high ltitude and lose their supplemental oxygen supply.
The pilot calmly informed me that “someone” was about to get an AA (anti-aircraft) radar lock on us. In all the hours I have spent flying: jumping, contour flying, closed in, in a C-130 with the fumes of burnt jet fuel, commercial, etc., that was the first time I experienced nausea and started looking for the “barf bag.”
We (whoever the “we” were) prepped for the mission and were flown to Camp Eagle, the base of the 101st Airborne Div. (Air Assault). The night before the planned insertion we ate in their mess hall. I remember this well as barbeque spare ribs were on the menu. That night I got very sick with what was determined to be food poisoning. By the time I had recovered enough to insert, the weather had closed in and the mission was scrubbed.
Mission #4, redux:
Around the last week of July, 1970, my company commander called me in and told me the mission was back on and since I had already prepped for it, he wanted RT Michigan to take it. I tried to explain to him that as I had about two weeks until DEROS, I didn’t think it was in the best interest of the mission for me to take it. (Attitudes change when a soldier is getting short. Self-preservation starts taking precedence. The wrong decisions can be made for the wrong reasons.) But my CO was new to CCN Recon. He was a leg (non-airborne) officer who had been sent up from Saigon to get a little command time (important for advancement.)
He told me that either I would take this mission or my Bru and I would spend the next four weeks on the beach, filling sandbags from dawn to dusk. He was totally unaware of the SOG policy of the right of a member to take or refuse any mission for any reason. Hell, we were going into Laos which was not authorized by Congress. And we went in “sterile,” i.e. with nothing to identify us as U. S. Soldiers - no dog-tags, no IDs, no markings on any equipment - nothing that IDed us as “lawfully recognized” soldiers, which by international law, classified us as spies. Not only were we breaking U. S. law, we were exempting ourselves of the Rules of the Geneva Convention (governing the conduct of warfare and the treatment of POWs), which, by the way, the U. S. had never signed. If (when) captured, it was “legal” to immediately execute us, which the NVA did gleefully and, more often as not, brutally. That’s why “volunteer” was the word of the day for MACV-SOG.
Rather than argue with the dumb bastard, I acquiesced and reported to our Sgt. Maj. He told me who my other team members would be (as I had no regular Americans on my team my entire time as 1-0.). My 1-1 (assistant team leader) was to be Cpt. James Correll. He had been on one insert, but they got shot off the LZ. He had yet to have put boots on the ground. And, at the personal request of the Sgt. Maj., I was asked to take a young Staff Sergeant as my 1-2 (commo man). He had been in on a few missions, each with a different 1-0. Seems he was a bit of a problem according to his former 1-0's. This was his last chance as I was to give him the thumbs up or thumbs down.
I talked the mission over with the other two Americans, who could provide valuable input, but the final decision as to the mission plan was my responsibility. This was a job where experience (as little as I had) trumped rank. That’s why I had a captain assigned as my assistant.
The “plan” we came up with (the same plan as the scrubbed attempt) was as follows: We would go in heavy (well armed). One of the Bru would carry an RPD (Chi-Com machine gun) as it was much more reliable that the U.S.s M-60. We’d forego food for extra ammo. I had trained with a surpressed (not silenced) M-1 .30 caliber carbine (left over from WWII). The 5.56mm M-16 and CAR-15 round was not a wounding round. It would leave a little hole (about the size of a .22) where it went in and a big hole where it came out (if it didn’t bounce around inside the body, tearing up organs and muscle as it went). The M-1 Carbine fired a small-charge/grain round. And, as with ever mission, I carried a suppressed .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol.
We inserted late in the afternoon, but not as late (last light) as normal. Soon after we inserted, I called (in the clear) a team emergency and requested an immediate extraction. The slicks swung back around, I threw smoke (red as I remember), and each slick (There were two.) came in and left as if we were extracting. Sneaky us! We moved off the LZ into a good ambush position. The COVY and the slicks flew out of visual range and hung around. It was known to be a habit of the NVA counter-recon teams to investigate LZ’s to see what they could see. Maybe get a little Intel.
We waited and waited. It got darker and darker. No one showed up. So much for plan “A”. It is a rule of thumb in warfare that nothing ever goes as planned. Also, you can do everything right and lose. And you can do everything wrong and win. Just before last light, we moved to a different position away from the LZ and set up our RON (remain over night).
I had a neat bit of gear with me. A mini seismic sensor set. There were for four small widgets that kinda looked like big golf tees with a small antenna on it. Each of these was pushed into the ground out from the team on a likely avenue of approach. I wore a small ear piece like an old fashion hearing-aid that was attached to a small receiver. If disturbed, a sensor would send out a signal. Each sensor had a different pattern - short beep, short beep, short beep . . . or short beep, long beep, short beep, long beep . . . The only problem was that the sensors were very sensitive. The slightest breeze moving a tree would set off a sensor. We didn’t sleep much as it was but hearing that constant beeping all night was a bit un-nerving. One never knew if it was an NVA patrol or just a nervous tree.
Some time during the night I had dozed off a little. I was startled awake by loud noises. Trucks, lots of trucks, were moving South on the Trail. And tracked vehicles! Bulldozers? Tanks? When I was debriefed in the hospital in DaNang, the Intel. officer notified me that the air force’s electronic sensors had recorded 23 trucks and 3 tracked vehicles, probably tanks.
We moved out of our RON predawn. At first light, we started hearing multiple explosions down on the trail, not far to our West. Our first thought was NVA engineers repairing bomb damage to the trail. We worked our way South and soon found a short ridge heading West. We broke out of the cover of the jungle and into some elephant grass. I remember it was very hot. None-the-less, the leeches were up early, looking for a quick snack. This stands out in my mind as I had not seen any leeches since my last operations with the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) back in ‘67 - ‘68, and had always associated them with very damp regions.
The ridge we were on was like a finger pointing into the valley the trail ran through. When we got out on the “nail” we found some downed trees and small bomb craters. I gathered CPT Correll and my 1-2 for a pow-wow. Since no one had showed up for our ambush nor did there seem to be anyone on our back-trail, our belief was that we had somehow luckily gotten into our target area without drawing a crowd. But we still had that POW to snatch.
We could see light activity (work gangs?) on the trail not far below us. We decided it would be imprudent to invite them up to us so we discussed going down to meet them. In the mean time, I was trying to raise COVY who should have been circling very near since first light (never overhead) but could get no response.
So here’s the plan we devised. As soon as COVY came up. I’d request an air strike on the men working on the trail. Lots of fast movers (F [Fox]-4's) and SPADS (A1-E’s). We planned on moving down the mountain to be close to the trail and directing the air strikes through our FAC (Forward Air Controller.) Circling just over the mountain to our East would be the Slicks (HU-1D’s) and Snakes (AH-1's) ready to come in to the rescue when we had our man. We knew when the air strikes started, the vast majority of the NVA would head for their bunkers and would be keeping their heads down. But there’s always the one or two guys who get caught in the open and just duck for cover. We’d swoop in like a flight of Valkyries, snatch the package and be gone before the dust cleared. Only my 1-2 had strong reservations about the plan but could offer no alternative.
Since I still couldn’t raise COVY, we settled down in a tight perimeter using the fallen trees and small craters as cover. The sun was now too high in the sky and it had become very hot and we still had no radio contact - with anyone! Never a good position for a recon team in Laos. We knew if our radio was out and he couldn’t raise us, he’d come looking where we should be! Seven guys alone with only small arms feel pretty naked without air support.
There was one alternative left. One we really weren’t supposed to use. Circling above us at about 35,000 feet was a C-130 Blackbird. These were highly classified, specially outfitted, MACV-SOG birds. At night, their call sign was “Moonbeam” and in the day time it was “Hillsboro.” (Time for a “weird” memory moment.) Although I wasn’t allowed to talk about it with anyone when I got home, if I had been, I would have bet the homestead that the daytime call sign was “Sunshine.” For 40 years “Sunshine” has been in my brain. After all it was “Sunshine” (Really “Hillsboro”) with whom I finally made contact. I let them know as much as they needed to know to get us some help. Of course, this couldn’t happen today with communication satellites and GPS’s.
Hillsboro had no radio contact (???BIG SHRUG???) with anyone in Da Nang. So they radioed their HQ at Tan Son Nhut (Air base near Saigon.) Remember, MACV-SOG, like any highly classified operation is highly compartmentalized. Somebody there knew who to contact in Saigon. And Saigon called CCN in Da Nang on a land line (regular old telephone.) To let them know one of their teams needed a FAC ASAP. (At least that’s the story I got, and I’m sticking to it.)
Not long after COVY came on station, I gave him our approximate position (That was usually the best we could do working off the old french maps from the 50's.) since he couldn’t just do a fly by and I told him our plan - the air assets I’d need and when I needed them. Then I waited a surprisingly short time. Not only had CCN approved the plan; but, the fast movers and all the rest were being scrambled as we spoke. They’d get close and orbit until we called for show time.
I turned to my team and gave then the sign to saddle-up. To my amazement, my 1-2 stood up to put his web gear on. We “dressed” in three layers. First came the jungle fatigues with all its pockets. In the pockets was carried all our emergency/survival equipment: the map, the URC-10 (pronounced ERK-ten), flares, mirror, compass, flash-panel and a nifty little saw that rolled up and would cut through a fair size tree.
On top of that was worn the web-gear. Web-gear is like a heavy duty set of suspenders. It held up the pistol belt which carried the ammo pouches and one or two canteens. Grenades were hung from it and it was a favorite place to carry a bayonet.
And on top of all was the ruck-sack: food, extra water, dry socks and other non-essential equipment.
When we RONed, or took a break, we’d lean back on the ruck and maybe - maybe - unhooked the pistol belt. When (seldom if) we made enemy contact, we might have to hunker down and fight but getting the hell out of there was always first choice. To loose some weight and allow one to move a little faster (and help get between tight places), the ruck-sack could easily be dropped. The ones we had in Nam even had quick releases on them. The web-gear was carried until it no longer had use i.e. all the ammo was gone. Then it would be dropped. You were then left with your jungle fatigues and its pockets full of basic emergency/survival equipment. You were down to E&E (Army speak for Escape and Evasion.)
The big deal here is that we never, never, never took off our web-gear. And here was my guy, standing right up in the middle of our little defensive position, sliding his web gear over his shoulders.
That’s when all hell broke out - automatic weapons and granades. It was 1000 hours, in spite of what you might read (have read) elsewhere. I watched as a round or shrapnel sliced through my 1-2's gut opened it up horizontally. I watched in horror as a large gory mass of flesh folded down over his groin and he dropped to the ground. In the stress of the sudden attack, it looked like his entire groin had been blow away. That took all of about .3 of a second. I was still talking to our FAC; had the handset up to my face. But my conversation changed dramatically from about how we were going to snag one of those little commie bastards to my screaming Prairie Fire about 10 times in rapid succession. (Prairie Fire was not only the code name for our AO (Area of Operation) and our above top secret, need to know security classification, it was also our “code” word for get our asses out of here now as we are in eminent danger of being overrun.
Horror of horrors-- When I released the button to receive, the radio was dead silent. Since I had the handset in my right hand, my CAR-15 was laying across my lap. My men were doing their thing, shooting the crap out of the elephant grass where the fire was coming from. I needed to lay down a little suppressing fire myself. I reached for my weapon with my left hand; but, my damned hand wouldn’t close over it. I dragged my hand across it about 4 times, trying to figure out just what the hell was going on. A little panic was starting to set it. One of my men was down, probably KIA, I had lost commo with my FAC, and my left hand had seemed to pick this time of all times to go on strike.
This was an emergency if there ever was one. I snatched out my URC-10 and checked the frequency. “Covy, Covy this is . . . ‘ and that sweet MFer was there. I gave him a sitrep (Armyspeak for situation report.) which brought him right to our area. I confirmed our location with a signal mirror. Then gave him an azimuth (direction) and distance (10 meters?) to our interlopers. Our old O-1 “bird dogs” carried 2 each 2.75 inch air to ground missiles under each wing. These beautiful new O-2's carried EIGHT 2.75 inch missiles under each wing. Remember, all FAC pilots had to have had experience flying close ground support in a fast mover, and this guy rolled in like the professional he was. He put three or four missiles right into that elephant grass. As he was circling around for another run, the entire valley lite up with anti-aircraft fire.
Just then the F-4's got there. Remember they had been scrambled before we had even been attacked. However, they couldn’t be much direct help to us due to all the anti-aircraft fire coming from all the mountains on each side of the trail. Of course, our little fire fight was still in progress; but, my men and I had good cover while Charlie was laying out there on their bellies with the leeches.
Next on the scene were those most beautiful A-1E SPADS. Remember, the man on the ground (me) does not talk to the various pilots. Everything is relayed through the FAC. COVY informed me that our bad guys were “danger close,” a term I borrow from the books of Maj. Plaster, as it fits the situation so well. It implies that the enemy is so close, tac air cannot attack them without danger of hitting your position. This was a bit like my previous mission when I gave permission to drop napalm very close to my men.
At least one of the SPADs covering us was carrying cluster bombs. Hmmm! Being a different kind of ordinance than napalm, he wanted to make his run from West to East, i.e. down into the valley, very fast, trying to avoid the anti-aircraft, swoop up the ridge we were on, just to our North and drop his cluster bomb to hit on the west side of the ridge so that the boomlets would scatter up, over and down the other side.
Again I had little choice. If we didn’t get that counter-recon team, they’d soon be reinforced and we’d be dead. If the SPAD pilot was a tad off . . . .I told the FAC to have him go for it. We had our heads down as he started his run. As he appeared coming over the ridge, I saw the canister drop, hit, split and the bomblets scatter. It was like 100 soldiers had all thrown a hand grenade at the same time. And then, almost in slow motion, I saw this yellow (I never knew they were yellow.) object coming at me. It was the shape of a medical capsule maybe 10 to 12 inches long. And I watched as it hit about 5 feet away from me. I held my breath for a few seconds and the word dud came happily into my mind. Now how lucky is that?
Sometime between when we were hit and this point, my 1-1 low crawled over to me and mentioned that the back of my left arm was bleeding profusely. He put a field dressing on it and told me our 1-2 was still hanging in there.
Then came the long wait. I was shooting azimuths to AA positions and giving estimated distances from our position. It seemed like every time tac air took out a gun position, three more would open up. And this was possible as the NVA had learned to mount much of their AA along the trail in the beds of trucks. Then when they got a team(us) pinned down, they could drive the AA to the location and use the team for bait. They knew how valuable those air assets were and how tenacious our pilots were.
While I was doing this, I was spending a lot of time talking to my brother, Dan. He was 11 years my senior and had died about 12 years earlier; but, was my personal hero. He fought with the 187th RCT in Korea. When he came home on leave with the razor creased khakis, the bloused, spit-shined boots, the wings and the garrison (the polite term for it) cap with the glider patch, I was only about 6 or 7 years old, but I was hooked. I was now telling him things like, “Okay, you bastard. You got me into this mess, now you get me the hell out.” Closest I ever got to praying in combat. I think he must have heard me and leant a hand.
It remained quiet around us, but we had to stay alert in case one of the little rat bastards was trying to sneak up on us. We sent the intermittent hand grenade into the elephant grass and over the side. I don’t know how long it took, but I was leaking a lot of blood and started to feel a little woozy. Think I might have passed out a time or two. So to be on the safe side, I gave the radio to CPT Correll and turned the team over to him. Seemed like the prudent thing to do.
I continued to try to spot new AA locations and kept the signal mirror flashing to I.D. our position for the new guys on station.
The rest was up to the air support. Finally COVY told CPT Correll that they felt it was as good as it was going to get and a slick was inbound. I started to select the guys for the first load out leaving myself to stay (first in, last out) when CPT Correll reminded me that he had command (For you civilians: Once I turned command over to CPT Correll, the only way to get it back was for him to become incapacitated or to return command to me.) and our 1-2 and I would be on the first slick out with the rest of the team on the second. He was right of course. I would not have been most effective man to leave behind should the NVA turn up on our doorstep again
The first slick landed in the elephant grass and a couple of guys from the Bright Light Team came running over with a stretcher and loaded my 1-2 up. Somebody helped me up and we made a dash for the chopper. I got there first and jumped in. When they tried to push the stretcher in, its legs got caught on the rolled up ladders. I still had not come to grips with the fact that my left hand was almost as useful as a paperweight as I tried to grab the stretcher handle. Someone wisely pushed me out of the way and pulled my 1-2 in. We lifted off and headed straight to the field hospital at Quang Tri.
It was over at 1400 hours. It had taken four hours of constant air strikes to suppress the AA enough to get us out. Think about it! The military had launched (and risked) millions of dollars worth of aircraft at the behest of one lowly NCO. I have no way to compute the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fuel and ammunition that was expended. There is no way to compute the NVA losses in weapons, ammunition and men. There is no doubt that their losses were heavy, and for us, it was a total, if minor, victory in a big war.
>>>ASIDE: I include this just because it still makes me grin to think about it.
We had no more than touched skids down when medics were there to rush my 1-2 and me into the hospital. I remember laying on a gurney for a short time in a hallway. And someone giving me an injection. Then I was rolled into surgery. My right (uninjured) arm, palm up, was strapped to a board sticking out to the side. I suppose for IV’s and the like. There was a nurse doing her thing next to me. Someone at my head (probably the anesthesiologist) requested some assistance. The nurse leaned over my restrained arm, and, as my luck would have it, her left breast rested gently in my right had. Call it “target of opportunity” or reflex action but I couldn’t help myself as my right hand did a little squeeze. (For the uninitiated, combat is the greatest of all aphrodisiacs.) I'm sure that Army nurse told the story many times of the Green Beret on the operating table, fresh off the battlefield. Who had taken her “vital signs.”<<<
I didn’t really come to until I was in the Navy’s China Beach Hospital near Da Nang. My first memory was a group of men almost completely surrounding my bed. That was the tradition. Few wounded men from CCN recon ever regained consciousness without a gaggle of comrades standing around them. When The word reached CCN that one of their guys was at China Beach (or the navy hospital almost across the street), a couple of jeeps would head out, and everybody who could, climbed aboard. I remember seeing my company commander standing at the foot of the bed, his head hung low. He never made eye-contact with me nor said a word to me. He had just learned the meaning of “burden of command.”
When the group left, S-2 stayed behind to de-brief me. They showed me a couple of interesting objects. One was the handset from my radio. These looked pretty much like a telephone of the day with a curled cord. My handset had only 3 inches of cord left on it. That's why I lost commo! The other was a small piece of electronic gear I had attached to my web gear over my top-left fatigue pocket. It was about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It had a hole going through it from side to side, no doubt made by an AK-47, 7.62 mm round. If I had been leaning three-quarters of an inch more forward . . . well you get the picture.
When I re-connected with CPT Correll many years later, he related to me that the second slick was not so lucky. They started taking small arms fire on the approach. By the time the team loaded (They had moved back into the elephant grass and were waiting.) the Huey’s windshield was gone. The ship had gotten a lot of hits but was able to lift off and fly back to the MLT. CPT Correll told me that on the way to the chopper, they saw many blood trails but no bodies. I know I’m glad we weren’t the guys in the elephant grass when it hit the fan. When that FAC rolled in and put those rockets in their midst--it must have been a big “Oh Shit! moment for them.
Now: Everything that was done wrong but turned out to be right and done right but turned out wrong.
We didn’t have good intel on enemy troop strength for the area, but we knew it was a bunch. I was told in my de-briefing that there were an estimated 3 to 4 NVA battalions in the close vicinity. Many probably just moving South along the trail. Figure 4 companies per battalion/100 men per company - 7 of us - you do the math. Enemy troop strength was one of the things every recon team was supposed to assess. There were few choices for an LZ without landing in the valley itself. The fact that we didn’t get shot up making the insertion should have rung some bells. The idea that we had gotten away with fooling the NVA with our fake extraction was ludicrous. One very wrong and dangerous assumption.
I now very strongly believe that the NVA knew we were there and were probably on us within the first half hour. Taking out 7 men would have been no big chore for them, so they must have just decided to shadow us to see what we were up to. It was a good plan on their part to collect intel on the guys who were there to collect intel. They could snach us up anytime they wished. They spent the night with us but probably slept better and then followed us through the elephant grass the next morning and watched us for hours as I, unknown to them, had no communication and was spending all that time attempting to make contact with someone.
My plan sucked and if put into action would, without doubt, have gotten us all killed. Had we moved out, down the mountain, towards the trail, they would have been above us and could have taken us out easily (by throwing rocks at us) or followed us down the hill and pinned us against a blocking force in the valley. To help us, our air assets would have had to fly down into the valley, below the AA, very dangerous for them and we would have lost planes and pilots. (As it turned out, there were no American lives lost during the entire operation [that I know about].)
But once I got contact with my FAC and the plan was made operational, the air assets were in route. Had the NVA got tired of waiting to see what we were up to they could have overrun us any time until the fast movers got there. By standing up to put his web gear on, our 1-2, had saved all our lives.
Maybe one of their NFG’s freaked when he saw our 1-2 stand up (target of opportunity, in the open) and fired, starting the fire-fight. Or they could have planned on stopping the cat and mouse game when we moved away from the trail. We did have actionable intel at that point. We had cover; they didn’t. Our fast movers and SPADS were already in the air and on the way. I don’t know, even now, what better plan to snatch a bad guy could have been put into place. But ours was none-the-less, all things considered, one very stupid plan with little to no chance of success. It was a suicide mission from the start. HQ knew it, and deep inside, we knew it. Bottom line, most MACV-SOG missions were suicide missions; but, we were the best (at least in our own minds) and willing to step into the ring. During both tours, many of the guys I served with quoted that 2,000 year old expression, “We who are about to die, salute you.”
I did absolutely nothing to merit a Silver Star that morning; although, I did earn my Purple Heart. It was the bravery of the pilots and their crews that won the day and it was their actions that were truly heroic. It takes real gonads to fly into radar directed anti-aircraft fire. The bravest thing any of us on RT Micigan did was step off the skids onto the LZ. We used to joke that anyone who got off a chopper in Laos should automatacally get a Bronze Star for valor. Me---I’m just one of the luckiest SOB’s to ever don a Green Beret.