20 April 2009

BACK TO THE BRIDGE

We returned to Liberty Bridge the next morning, Thursday, April 24, 1969. The company exited a tree line about 500 meters east of the main service road between An Hoa and Phu Loc (6) in the vicinity of The Alamo. We could see trucks lined up waiting to pick us up to take us to the compound north of the river where we would assume responsibility for security of Liberty Bridge and the northern approach to Phu Loc (6).

For reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, we moved to the road on line rather than in column. As we swept westward, I heard my radio operator say, “Uh oh!”

I looked back to see that he had kicked loose an M-26 fragmentation grenade rigged as a booby trap. He moved left and I moved right about two steps and we both went prone, shouting “Grenade” and “Take cover.”

We were taught to get prone, with our feet towards the grenade. Because the explosion would send shrapnel into the zone of least resistance, i.e., upward and outward, while prone you offered the lowest profile and your feet would take the substantial portion of the blast. I began to low crawl away from the grenade, thinking Damn! This is gonna hurt!

It was a dud. We both got away from the grenade, and then pointed it out to one of our engineers who placed a C-4 charge next to it and destroyed it in place.

When we got to the compound, Captain Wilson told the officers that he was being relieved as Commanding Officer within 24 hours and would move to the battalion staff. In the meantime, 1st and 2d Platoons would man the compound and I was to take 3d Platoon down to the bridge and relieve a platoon from Bravo Company. As I started to leave, Captain Wilson put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Mac, you may as well put your CP in the middle of the bridge, because life won’t be worth living for the guy who lost it if the VC destroy the damned thing.”

We moved down to the bridge which was about 200 meters from the compound. Since Christmas, the SeaBees (Naval Construction Battalion) had built a new bridge to replace the ferry. It was built on massive wooden piles driven into the river bed and had a brand new asphalt roadway. There was no superstructure, only waist high rails of angle iron. The idea was that during high water in the monsoon season, the bridge could be underwater without being carried away. (It worked—the monsoon season later in the year inundated the bridge, but it was usable as soon as the water receded.)

Tom Pottenger’s platoon was guarding the bridge. It was the first time I had seen him since we joined the battalion at Christmas. He quickly briefed me on the situation. There were squad-sized sand-bagged emplacements at each end of the bridge. He, too, kept his CP on the bridge at night. A fire team secured a field generator about 75 meters east of the north approach to the bridge to provide power for lights that shone into the water at night.

There was also an ammunition bunker near the south approach that stored dynamite and C-4 which was used to make charges to toss in the river at night. The idea was to kill any swimmers who might try to mine the bridge.

At the south end of the bridge, there was a space under the roadway where troops not on duty could crap out in the shade during the day. The day watches were a fire team at each end of the bridge and two two-man teams on the bridge in sand-bagged positions along the up-stream side. Other than securing the bridge, our only other responsibility was to send out a daily squad-sized patrol along the south bank of the river into two villages located about 500 and 1100 meters west of Phu Loc (6).

I relieved Tom and told Levi to get our people into place. My radio operator told me that I was wanted at the compound, so he and I headed back up the road. As I left, Tom’s platoon was forming up to move south to rejoin the rest of Bravo Company.

When we got to the compound, 1st Lieutenant Frank Satterfield was waiting for us. Shortly thereafter, Captain Wilson relinquished command of Charlie Company to Lieutenant Satterfield in a short ceremony that dates from the earliest days of the Republic. With the words “I relieve you, Sir”, Frank was our CO.

The old and new skippers met together for a few minutes and then Mike, Chip, Neil, Dick Rollins and I entered the bunker. Frank announced that Captain Wilson had explained his planned reassignments. He said that although he agreed with the changes and would make them over the next few weeks, until he got his feet on the ground, he was leaving all of us in our current billets. Captain Wilson bade us a quick farewell and headed across the river to take over as Assistant Operations Officer (S-3A) of the battalion.

Frank spent a couple of minutes with me before I headed for the bridge. Essentially, all standing orders were to remain in force for now. He told me to be ready to meet with him the next afternoon, after he returned from a local security patrol into the eastern Arizona Territory.

When I got to the platoon, there was a flurry of activity. Finally, Levi brought a Marine to me with the news that he had “lost” his 40 mm grenade launcher. This is a hard thing to do, and we talked at some great length about his genetic and familial short-comings. I went back up to inform my new Commanding Officer of the loss. He was no happier than was I.

(We contacted Bravo Company to see if Tom Pottenger’s people may have inadvertently picked up an extra blooper. “Negative,” came the reply. Three weeks later, the blooper was mysteriously returned. Later, when I asked Pott about the earlier denial, he grinned and said, “Hell, Mac. You were at the bridge and we were headed for the bush short one blooper until ours was repaired. We just borrowed it.” We laughed then, but on 24 April, it was not a laughing matter in Third Platoon!)

Otherwise, our first night at the bridge was uneventful, and the newly installed asphalt of the bridge deck was a much better mattress than any I had had in some time!

It was the last good night’s sleep I have had in 40 years.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Mac, you write VERY well about your experiences. Have you ever considered publishing them?