JUST ANOTHER OPERATION
The whoop, whoop, whoop of the chopper was loud. I looked around the slick at the faces of the Scouts and they looked fearful but proud, some smiled, some were lost deep in thought.
The Scouts were members of the 406th Company, one of three that made up the ARVN Highland Scout Companies. Nearly all the Scouts were Montagnard with the officers being Vietnamese. The Scouts were lightly armed reconnaissance units, sent out to search for enemy units. The Scouts were not expected to engage these enemy units, as they were usually much larger and more heavily armed, but to move quickly and quietly and gather information. Often though, the NVA units were eager for a fight and more than willing to try to annihilate the Scouts.
We were nearing the LZ. “Tyler Alarm 3, Tyler Alarm 3, this is 38 Bravo – radio check over” I said into the PRC-25 handset. “38 Bravo this is 3, hear you loud and clear, over,” came back at me. I checked my rifle and my gear and leaned over to check the PRC-25 radio in the pack of the Scout next to me. The young Montagnard Scout that carried the radio smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. “No sweat trung s~i Ski” he said in broken English and smiled at me. Everything appeared ok and ready to go.
I was nervous, maybe scared as I looked down at the passing rain forest. Another combat assault onto a nameless mountain because some intelligence guy said this or that NVA (North Vietnamese Army) unit was operating in this area and wanted us to find out for sure. Was Charlie going to be home? Was the LZ going to get hot? My mind was racing. So far the LZ was cold. The previous chopper had dropped its load of Scouts with no problem.
I pulled the map that was encased in a sealed plastic sleeve from my pants pocket and studied the map again for possible locations for defensive artillery fire should we need it. Circles marked on the map around the LZ showed NVA mortar ranges based on the size of mortar. I carried a string with a loop on the end to hold a grease pencil. There were markings on the string for the different ranges for NVA mortars. With the string and grease pencil, I could make mortar range circles around any position on my map.
“We are about to reach the LZ,” the door gunner mouthed to me. We started to descend at a fast rate. The Scouts all started to get into a ready position. The ground was closing fast but so far no fire from below.
I slid down so I was standing on the chopper struts. I wanted to be able to jump to the ground when the time came and make a fast exit. I didn’t ever want to get caught inside the chopper if it was being fired upon and I didn’t want to be responsible for blocking anyone from getting off.
The chopper touched the ground and I ran a few feet and got ready to direct the next incoming choppers. The Scout carrying the radio was right behind me as usual. The Scouts on the chopper ran past us into the line of trees to add to the growing perimeter.
Almost immediately after the chopper lifted off, another was coming in to land. With my arm motions I aided the chopper to a landing and another 8 Scouts raced for the perimeter.
Just as the chopper was lifting off, I heard the “duk, duk” of mortar rounds leaving a mortar tube and immediately yelled “incoming” and hugged the ground. The mortar rounds exploded in the LZ without harm. The Scout with the radio pulled on my sleeve and motioned towards an old hole in the ground. We crawled over and piled into the relative safety. “Duk, duk, duk” again. “Incoming!!” Must be three mortar tubes I thought as I tried get a bearing on the direction of the sound. One round landed really close, throwing dirt and debris on the Scout and me. Another round landed further away, the third in the trees surrounding the LZ.
I got on the radio and called for an immediate halt to the incoming choppers and called the “red leg” call sign and told them to prepare for a fire mission. Damn I thought to myself, no helicopter gunships for support when we need them.
Another “duk, duk, duk” in unison and I and the young Scout and I hugged mother earth. One round landed in the LZ the other two in the trees. I wondered about casualties.
I grabbed the radio handset and called for fire missions on preset target positions in the direction I thought the mortars were firing from. In a few very “long” minutes the sound of the impacting artillery rounds reverberated over the LZ and the surrounding rainforest. I couldn’t see the explosions, but based on the sound they seemed to be in the vicinity of the enemy mortars. Artillery rounds impacted on other preset targets and soon there was only the sound of the rainforest.
After the artillery fire, there were no more incoming mortar rounds. Either we had gotten lucky with the artillery rounds our Charlie had decided it was time to leave us alone. I radioed for the rest of the choppers to come in and one by one they dropped their load of Scouts. The first chopper in carried out two Scouts wounded by the mortar attack and soon we were all alone on the lonely mountain.
As soon as all the Scouts had landed the Scout Company Commander headed us out of the LZ single file, like a large snake, down the mountain towards a mountain saddle which would lead us towards our next objective.
The vegetation on the saddle between the two mountains was for some reason only single canopy so you could view the sounding terrain. It was beautiful, with the clouds almost enveloping the numerous neighboring mountains. “Beautiful morning” I thought to myself.
The sparse canopy of the mountain saddle also meant a good ambush point with good fields of fire for the NVA so everyone was tense and alert. We moved at a good pace considering all the “wait-a-minute” vines that tugged at us as we struggled to move forward.
The terrain was up and down, up and down and the triple canopy rainforest was back and visibility was very limited. From my map I knew we were headed up towards the next objective, the mountaintop, but the terrain was tough and I was tired. “Too much beer drinking”, I thought as I sweated profusely while we humped our way forward. “The first day is a bitch and it always seems to be like this,” I thought as my body was slowly remembering the shape it needed to be in. I sweated out all the multiple sins I had enjoyed since the last operation. “Too many damn beers!”
Just as daylight was fading, we reached our next objective, another mountaintop. The Scouts quickly formed a perimeter and started digging in for the night. Nearby the Scout Company Commander was directing a couple of the Scouts to where he wanted his foxhole dug for the night. The other advisor and I and the Scout carrying our radio picked a spot close by and started digging our holes. We shared the task. When the foxholes were dug we strung our hammocks low over our foxholes and covered our hammocks with our ponchos to form small a-frame shelters.
In the fast fading light the other advisor and I visited the company commander where we sat down and plotted possible targets for defensive fire. When we got back to our shelters, I called the supporting artillery unit on the radio and give the Fire Direction Center or FDC the numbered defensive target coordinates in case their help was needed during the night.
The morning light was barely filtering into the foggy perimeter when the Scouts silently started to build small fires to cook their rice. Fires were made in the morning so the smoke would blend into the fog and not give our position away. We ate our only hot meal of the day and when over, the Scouts made rice balls, like snowballs, from the extra rice they had cooked and placed the rice balls in their packs for munching on during the day. The other advisor and I had eaten tasty LRRP (long range recon patrol) rations.
Even before full light, we were up and ready and headed towards our next objective, another mountain top, another day of hard humping and maybe a party with the NVA.
The day was a day of heavy humping in rough terrain but uneventful except for a Scout finding a fresh NVA spider hole. The spider hole made everyone nervous. If there was one spider hole there was probably many more that we couldn’t see, and those might not be empty.
We quickly moved from the area of the spider hole and as the sun was descending behind a neighboring mountaintop, we made our night position. Again we found a location close to the company commander, dug our foxholes and made our hammock shelters and setup defensive fires with the company commander and artillery support.
I awoke that next morning to the smell of cooking fires. It was a usual morning, rice cooked by the Scouts, LRRP rations for us advisors and a silent move on to our next objective. Just as we cleared our night position, NVA mortar rounds started falling into it. Not bothering to stop and count our blessings, we moved out of the area quickly. We didn’t want Charlie to realize we had already departed and adjust their fire.
As we moved on, the Scouts all seemed to be tense and fully alert. They all carried weapons in the ready position. From previous experience, when the Scouts got uptight like they were, it meant that they knew that the NVA were close and they expected to make contact at any time. We moved forward at a very careful pace, no talking, no noise, and everyone ready for whatever would happen. Around 9:00am a violent firefight erupted towards the front of the line. I moved forward to assist if I could.
When I got to the front of the company, the Scout who had been on point was dead and two other Scouts were wounded. They had run into a hidden NVA machine gun bunker probably setup in what the NVA thought was a good avenue of approach to one of their positions or a likely route for us to take. By the time I reached the forward position the bunker was neutralized and a Scout medic was taking care of the wounded. The point man didn’t have a chance. One of the wounded had a bad sucking chest wound; the other was hit in the shoulder.
I was shaken up by the death of the Scout that had been on point; I had shared a meal with him, his wife, and their small child just a couple of weeks ago.
There was no open area for a dustoff chopper to land in the area so the company moved back down the mountain to a small but suitable spot we had passed earlier in the day. The dustoff was called and arrived at the LZ location about the same time some of the Scouts had finished checking the area for a possible ambush. The LZ had a number of stumps so the chopper couldn’t fully land but hovered as we lifted the one dead and two wounded Scouts up to the chopper crew. As the chopper lifted and flew away, we very carefully continued our ascent of the mountain, taking a different route to avoid a possible ambush. Things were different now; The NVA knew we were here and we knew a fight was waiting for us ahead in the Green.
We continued towards our next objective, everyone now fully alert and ready. My nerves were solid but agitated and I was in a type of excited anticipation mixed with fear. We moved forward making our own trail, the rainforest mainly triple canopy but at times double canopy. Visibility in any direction was limited to just a few feet most of the time. Occasionally we would come across a well used trail, a trail that had been used frequently. There were no villages anywhere close so the trail users had to be the NVA. To follow one of these trails would certainly have meant an ambush so we continued to our objective making our own trail.
Around 2:00pm the column stopped and the Scouts in front and behind me moved off the trail and formed a type of perimeter. I quietly moved forward to see what was happening. As I got forward I found out the point man had detected an NVA position to our front. The Montagnard soldier on point had noticed that the NVA had disrupted the vegetation to possibly improve their fields of fire. Because of his keen eye, he had discovered several NVA fighting positions but the NVA did not seem to know we were so close to their positions. I and the other advisor conferred with the Scout Company Commander on what to do. We very quietly agreed that since we did not know the size of the NVA force we should move away and call in artillery on the NVA position. Hardly without a sound, we did exactly that, and when we were a safe distance from the target, I called for artillery strikes on the area of the NVA positions, undoubtedly causing an unknown number of NVA casualties.
We moved quickly and quietly from the area towards our objective. Around 4:00pm our luck ran out. The front of our column surprised a group of NVA soldiers preparing a defensive position. I moved forward as the Scouts put out a tremendous volume at the unsuspecting NVA, killing or wounding all of them, but the fight was not over. Within minutes, the forward platoon including me was taken under heavy fire buy an NVA force of unknown size. The volume of fire from the NVA who had moved in on our left flank was so horrific there must have been a large number of them. I called for artillery support and directed fire as close as I could to our position. The NVA had learned that if they got up close to the American or ARVN unit they were fighting, artillery fire against them was ineffective as the Americans and ARVN didn’t want artillery fire to fall on their own positions. The foliage was so thick in the area it was hard to see in any direction. The NVA bullets flying overhead were causing it to rain leaves down on the Scouts. The NVA were so close that a grenade slugfest was also going on.
As our fight continued, the rest of the company made a flanking maneuver on the NVA, eventually forcing them to withdraw. In all, the firefight was intense but short, probably lasting only 20 minutes, but the costs were high. The Scouts had 2 dead and 4 wounded. We found 3 NVA dead and numerous blood trails where the NVA dragged away their wounded and dead. To our knowledge there was no acceptable place for an LZ in the area so we were forced to take our dead and wounded with us as we moved forward and away from the scene of the firefight.
Knowing we needed to get the wounded medevaced, I got on the radio and tried to contact the Forward Air Controller that was flying in our area. Before long I connected with “Elliot 10”, told him the situation and what we needed and gave him our position in code. Within minutes he radioed back and in code gave us coordinates for what looked like an acceptable LZ. He also said he would handle contacting Dustoff and coordinate our arrival and Dustoffs arrival at the LZ and provide air support in case it was needed. Since the rainforest was so thick, the FAC couldn’t see us as we moved towards the LZ so I needed to periodically radio him with our coordinates.
As we were nearing the LZ, the ARVN commander in Kontum decided that because of the Scouts casualties, three KIA and eight WIA, so far in the operation, that it was time to extract the Scout Company. He ordered the Scout Company Commander to make a night position at or near the LZ and prepare for the company to be lifted out in the morning.
We arrived at the LZ just after the area had been worked over by fast movers and artillery called in by the FAC giving us the great support. The Scouts moved out and formed a defensive perimeter around the LZ and I coordinated with the approaching Dustoff chopper. On his order, I threw out a smoke grenade to mark the position of the LZ. He radioed back he saw red smoke and I affirmed that red was correct. The Dustoff chopper landed and took away four KIA and seven WIA. One of the wounded Scouts had died during the move from the firefight to the LZ. I radioed the FAC and thanked him for his excellent support and he said he or a replacement would be in the area if we needed help during the night.
The Scout Company Commander decided to make a night position on one side of the LZ. The Scouts prepared defensive positions and settled in for the night. Making a night position so close to the LZ made me nervous and I knew it made the Scouts nervous. Because of the activity earlier with the Dustoff flying in and out, the NVA had to know exactly where we were. I dug my foxhole extra deep after I setup defensive fire coordinates with the artillery FDC.
The night started out quiet and peaceful. I dosed for a while but a bad dream woke me. I lay in my hammock and listened to the night. Just as I was about to fall asleep again, small arms fire opened up across the LZ. I flipped from my hammock into my foxhole and tried to figure out what was happening. Since it appeared that all firing was going out with minimal or no fire coming inside the perimeter, I ran over to the LZ side of the perimeter to see what was happening. The Scouts said that a NVA force of unknown size had moved out onto the LZ and they took them under fire. Possibly the NVA were trying to pinpoint our exact location or had been trying to find anything salvageable on the LZ. I moved back to my night position and tried to sleep.
Again, small arms fire broke the silence. This time our perimeter was receiving heavy fire. The side of the perimeter opposite the LZ was being attacked. I radioed the artillery FDC and requested fire on the likely approach points for the side of the perimeter that was being attacked. As the artillery rounds landed, I adjusted the artillery fire closer to our perimeter and to the left and right, saturating the area of the attack with artillery fire. The FAC came on the radio and asked if there was anything he could do. I told him that I thought we were being probed and if it got worse I would radio him.
After the defensive artillery fire the NVA seemed to disappear back into the rainforest. The attack seemed over for now, but within minutes, the NVA hit the north side of the perimeter, near the edge of the LZ. I again called for artillery defensive fire and the attack ended. Again the night became quiet but all the Scouts were 100 percent alert and prepared.
A couple of hours passed and then I heard the distinctive “duk, duk” of mortar rounds leaving mortar tubs and then the sound of the explosions of mortar rounds within our perimeter. This time the mortar rounds seemed to be coming from different locations. I called the FAC on the radio and asked him to try to pinpoint the location of the mortars from their flashes when they fired. I radioed the FDC and called for artillery fire on points around the perimeter. The NVA mortars fired again and again with their deadly rounds landing in our perimeter. The FAC radioed and said he had pinpointed a firing position and called for artillery fire on that position, neutralizing that NVA mortar. None of the NVA mortars fired again but everyone prepared for a big attack.
Thankfully the following hours passed without incident and the sky was beginning to brighten from the dawn. As usual the mountains were shrouded with fog. The Scouts had received no casualties from the NVA probes but had suffered 3 slightly wounded from the mortar attack. These wounded did not need a Dustoff to come for them but instead would wait for the big extraction later.
The perimeter was becoming active with the Scouts following their usual morning routine of making fires and cooking their rice like nothing had happened during the night. I made a small C-4 fire and heated water in a canteen cup for a hot LRRP ration meal. Soon the dawn turned into day.
I received a radio call that the extraction choppers would arrive shortly. Soon the call came to throw smoke. I threw a yellow smoke grenade, which was confirmed by the incoming chopper pilot. Soon choppers were landing, and then taking off with loads of Scouts. Helicopter gunships were circling the LZ, occasionally firing rockets into areas around the LZ, or raking the same areas with machine gun fire, keeping Charlie from attacking our shrinking position. Soon it was just 7 Scouts and me, and then finally it was our turn. We were headed home.
©Copyright October 2007 by Charles Schwiderski