31 December 2008


We quickly settled into a routine. Because the ambush patrols were squad sized, after I had accompanied each of my two squads on a night roving ambush, I tended to remain in the rear with the platoon headquarters.

A roving ambush was interesting. Each squad would depart the lines after dark and move out along the road. The lead squad would move out a couple of clicks and set in at their first ambush site. The second squad would set up an ambush a few hundred meters beyond strongpoints A and B. After a couple of hours, each squad would move to a second position, and then to a third a couple of hours before daybreak. With my two good squad leaders, things went smoothly.

We lieutenants did what platoon commanders do. We inspected our troops before they left on patrols, we supervised the preparations for day activities. And we did the administrative stuff that never ends, not even in war time. I conducted a JAG Manual informal investigation into the loss of two compasses, a prerequisite to writing them off.

And we began to discover that war can be boring.

We got boxes of paperback books from Special Services. The troops devoured them and then passed them along. I once read an interview of a Continental stewardess who worked the flights to and from Vietnam. She said “They go in reading comic books; they come out reading newspapers and novels.” She was right.

Our newspaper was the Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes. It was published daily and we usually got ten copies for the company as part of the mail and resupply. It was usually 20 to 24 pages, with about 10 to 12 pages of hard national and international news, an editorial page with columns from a wide variety of American newspapers, a financial page, the funny papers and several pages of sports, professional, college, and inter-service. It was the distributed all through the Pacific (Vietnam, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Guam, Taiwan, Thailand, and any other places at which there were American bases) and was “the newspaper” for a lot of Americans.

The first headline I saw announced the escape from captivity of Major Nick Rowe. Rowe had been a POW for over 5 years and was one of only 34 Americans to escape from Vietnamese captivity during the war. His superb book, Five Years To Freedom, is a testimonial to the men who were POWs and, among other things, revealed that the “anti-war” movement in the United States was actively working with the Communists and against our troops. His carefully crafted cover story (that he was a Purdue ROTC grad and civil engineer) was finally defeated when the VC received information from the States revealing that he was a West Point graduate and a Green Beret. At that point, he realized that he was a marked man and made his desperate and successful escape.

He remained on active duty and was on a long-standing communist target list. In 1987, Colonel Rowe was assigned as the chief of the Army division of the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG), providing counter-insurgency training for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. In February 1989, he had acquired intelligence information which indicated that the communists were planning a major terrorist act. He warned Washington that a high-profile figure was about to be murdered and that he himself was second or third on the assassination list. On the morning of April 21, 1989, as he was being driven to work his vehicle was ambushed and he was killed.

Another officer captured with him, Captain Rocky Versace, was executed by the VC as a propaganda show for the villagers in the area. He was awarded the Medal of Honor

Humbert Roque Versace
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, Intelligence Advisor, Special Operations
Place:Republic of Vietnam
Entered service at: Norfolk, Virginia
Born:Honolulu, Hawaii
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while a prisoner of war during the period of October 29, 1963 to September 26, 1965 in the Republic of Vietnam. While accompanying a Civilian Irregular Defense Group patrol engaged in combat operations in Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on October 29, 1963, Captain Versace and the CIDG assault force were caught in an ambush from intense mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from elements of a reinforced enemy Main Force battalion. As the battle raged, Captain Versace fought valiantly and encouraged his CIDG patrol to return fire against overwhelming enemy forces. He provided covering fire from an exposed position to enable friendly forces to withdraw from the killing zone when it was apparent that their position would be overrun, and was severely wounded in the knee and back from automatic weapons fire and shrapnel. He stubbornly resisted capture with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition. Taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, he demonstrated exceptional leadership and resolute adherence to the tenets of the Code of Conduct from the time he entered into a prisoner of war status. Captain Versace assumed command of his fellow American prisoners, and despite being kept locked in irons in an isolation box, raised their morale by singing messages to popular songs of the day, and leaving inspiring messages at the latrine. Within three weeks of captivity, and despite the severity of his untreated wounds, he attempted the first of four escape attempts by dragging himself on his hands and knees out of the camp through dense swamp and forbidding vegetation to freedom. Crawling at a very slow pace due to his weakened condition, the guards quickly discovered him outside the camp and recaptured him. Captain Versace scorned the enemy's exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts, and inspired his fellow prisoners to resist to the best of their ability. When he used his Vietnamese language skills to protest improper treatment of the American prisoners by the guards, he was put into leg irons and gagged to keep his protestations out of earshot of the other American prisoners in the camp. The last time that any of his fellow prisoners heard from him, Captain Versace was singing God Bless America at the top of his voice from his isolation box. Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America and his fellow prisoners, Captain Versace was executed by the Viet Cong on September 26, 1965. Captain Versace’s extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army, and reflect great credit to himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.

There were convoys of military vehicles intermingled with small busses jammed full of humanity and motor scooters with four or five people riding. At strongpoint Delta, a daily security patrol scouted the western approaches to An Hoa. Strongpoint Charlie sent out a fire team ambush, augmented by Popular Forces residents of the villages in the area.

We were settling into a routine. The only real danger seemed to be from booby-traps.

Once the road opened for the day, the flow of traffic on the MSR was busy.

Every morning, the platoon that manned strongpoints Alpha and Bravo provided a squad sized patrol to provide flank security for the morning road sweep. A couple of tanks and a two-and-a-half ton truck would arrive at the top of the hill. The squad assigned to accompany the sweep would link up with them and the sweep would begin.

An engineer team with a mine sweeper would walk the road ahead of the lead tank. The two fire team security patrols would move out to about 100 meters off the road. Because the engineer team leader was in charge, the SOP devised by 1st Engineer Battalion had to be followed. The engineers seemed to believe that if they could not see the flank security, there was none. They demanded that the troops move no less than 75 meters nor more than 100 meters from the road.

We all begged, pleaded, screamed and cursed this stupid policy, but Regiment backed upthe engineers. The problem was that the VC were not stupid. They soon figured it out—plant the booby traps in the 25 meter-wide zone.

The booby traps were mostly dud hand grenades and mortar rounds rigged to explode when a trip wire was pulled. Some were pressure devices, triggered when stepped upon. After Mike Koch took mover Second Platoon, we even found a bear trap. (Fortunately, the Marine stepped into the trap in a wet paddy. The trap sank and the muck slowed the spring action. Instead of a broken ankle, all he got were some bruises and one hell of a sea story.)

Our Marines became very good at spotting the traps, but the odds were on the VC’s side. We might discover 6 traps, which would be disposed of by the engineers, but the seventh one would get someone.

We were fortunate. We had well over 60 casualties during our time at the Base camp. All but four were due to mines or booby traps. And of those, only two Marines were killed. But they were always there.

About two weeks into my tour, the Skipper called us in and had us draw slips of paper from a helmet. I “won.” Division had started a school for small unit leaders. Charlie Company had a quota of one. Now, six months later, I would have jumped at a week in Da Nang, but I was just getting to know my platoon, and I sure didn’t want this trip.

I went anyway.

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