“Sign on for ADVENTURE. Join the Marine Corps. Board large ships for RESTFUL ocean cruises. Go to EXOTIC places. Meet NEW and INTERESTING people….and kill them!”
Vietnam in general and the area southwest of Da Nang in particular was certainly full of exotic places and interesting people who frequently did their level best to kill us, and we responded in kind.
We were relieved at the base Camp by a company from 2/5 and headed back out into the Phu Nhuans. It was a time for working out the tactical kinks that resulted from being in a defensive posture for so long. We had a lot of Marines who had joined the Company at the Base Camp. They had never humped the bush, and there were lessons to be learned. On the first re-supply, we sent a lot of unnecessary gear to the rear, and lightened up our loads considerably. We had to, because, in addition to his personal load, each man had to carry a part of the company’s load.
As I noted earlier, my personal load included a 12 gauge shotgun (in place of an M-16), 2 M-26 fragmentation grenades and a smoke grenade, a ruck sack with my M-1911A .45 caliber pistol, 3 loaded magazines, and a box of shotgun shells (00 buckshot), extra socks, shaving gear, cleaning gear for weapons, and writing paper, a poncho and poncho liner packed away, 4 canteens, first aid kit, compass, red-lens flashlight, binoculars, K-Bar fighting knife (my Dad’s from WWII), entrenching tool (folding shovel for digging in—and a great help if you had to mix it up hand-to-hand), helmet, and flak jacket. That came to about about 35 pounds, plus 8 pounds of water. Adding the ever-present green towel , C-rations, a claymore mine with trip flare, and, usually an extra battery for the AN/PRC-25 radio, the load came to about 50 pounds.
Then, each man carried either a couple of 60mm mortar rounds, an extra can of linked ammo for the M-60 machine gun, or a couple of 66mm Light Anti-tank Assault Weapons (LAAW). That upped the load to maybe 60 to 65 pounds.
The machine gunner carried the M-60 (23 pounds), and the mortar men shared the team's load—one carrying the tube, another the base plate, and the third the tripod, plus a couple of rounds per man.
The unnecessary stuff—gas masks, rubber ladies (inflatable mattresses), and stuff sent by families that was OK for a semi-garrison existence, such as cans of koolaid—went to the rear or was buried.
We humped only three or four clicks that first day, but it hurt.
We set in around a small ville and immediately dug in. Some correspondent attached to an Army unit had written an article titled Charlie Owns The Night! by that he meant that the Viet Cong ("Victor Charlie") moved freely at night because Americans were incapable of or afraid to do so. That was about to change.
At the 1700 officers’ call, the Skipper announced that we were headed for Go Noi Island which was some eight or nine clicks to the northeast. He assigned 3d Platoon the night’s ambushes, and announced that after this night, our routine would generally be as follows:
Between 2300 and 0300, the company would move to an objective—almost always a ville—and would cordon (encircle) it. At first light, the ambush platoon would rejoin the company and would sweep the ville, which would then become the Company patrol base for the day. Area security and reconnaissance patrols would go out to find ambush sites for the next night and the next night’s objective.
The night would indeed belong to Charlie--Charlie 1/5. That became our routine for the next five weeks.
The news that we were headed for Go Noi was not welcome. It was a very bad place, full of NVA in deep, well-constructed and well-reinforced bunkers. The 27th Marines had operated there the previous year with good results, but lots of action.
The old railroad from Da Nang to Saigon crossed the middle of the island. All of the rails and the steel ties had been removed by the NVA to use in their bunker complexes. There was a large three span bridge at the south of the island, just above the junction with the An Hoa spur. All three spans had been dropped into the streambed years earlier. The island was covered with elephant grass 10 to 12 feet high, so transit was a nightmare.
The next morning, our mission changed. We were still headed toward Go Noi, but we were tasked with searching an area (the Cu Bans) south of the island and east of Phu Loc (6). An A-6 Intruder had suffered a short-circuit and had dropped 14 unarmed 500 pound bombs into the sandy stretch of land south of the Song Ba Ren (i.e., Ba Ren River).The fear was that the VC/NVA would retrieve the bombs and use them for booby traps. The hunt was on.
People often think of war as nothing but misery, pain, and ugliness. There is plenty of that, but an image that has stayed with me for forty years occurred on the way from our ambush site to link up with the Company. As we passed through a small ville, we passed a bush covered in deep red flowers. In the midst of the subdued earth tones this beacon of color was breath-taking.
The area in which the bombs were thought to have landed was about 4 square kilometers of sandy soil covered with grass. The bombs were equipped with Snake-eye retarded fins—large perforated fins that used for low-level strikes. They were secured by a band until dropped from the plane, at which time they could be set to open, slowing the bomb’s descent and allowing the plane to escape the blast radius of the bomb.
We were to find that the bands had stayed in place. Thus, we were looking for signs of holes about 2 feet in diameter where 500 pounds of steel had hit the sand almost perpendicularly. It was a search for 14 needles in a very large haystack.
We moved into the area and the Skipper figured out the grid for the search pattern. Division sent out engineers and an EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) team to blow up the bombs as we found them. We spent all day criss-crossing designated patches of land, looking for entry holes. When we found one, and, surprisingly, we found about 10, the EOD team would respond.
Third platoon found the first hole. When the engineers and EOD guys got there, we began to realize the magnitude of the effort. As the engineers began to dig down to the bomb, the sandy soil would slide back in. They jury-rigged a sort of cofferdam, but the soil was too unstable. At six feet, using a probe, they determined that there was some metallic object at about 10 feet. After hours of digging, they identified the after end (back end) of the fin retarder. The bomb itself was probably another eight to ten feet deeper. They finally set a shaped cratering charge over the presumed top of the bomb and we cleared the area. When we came back after the shaped charge was detonated, they found no sign that the bomb had detonated and the sand had pretty much filled the crater.
After that, when an entry hole was discovered, the engineers dug to about six feet, set off a cratering charge, and called it a day. We all hoped that it drove the bomb so deep that even the NVA would decide that recovering it was a lost cause.
During the course of the search, Second Platoon found the decomposing body of an NVA soldier. Based on later events, we believe it was one of the sapper unit that had hit Phu Loc (6) earlier in the month.
We continued to search the area for about four days, but we would soon move on east.
On the third day, resupply was late and, because we had been operating semi-independently, we were running short on chow. We came through a ville in which the people had spread corn and sliced potatoes on rice mats in the sun to dry. We tried popping the corn--without oil, mind you--and boiling the potatoes. No joy! Fortunately, resupply came in that afternoon.
Just before we left the base camp, we had joined two new officers—Neal Meier and Dick Wood. Neal had been my bunkmate during our PLC Senior summer at Quantico in 1967.
Captain Wilson called us all together and explained that, he would normally make Mike Koch (who was the senior lieutenant in the company) the Executive Officer and then move Chip (next senior)to Weapons Platoon commander so that Dick and Neal could take over their platoons. But because we had so many new troops, and because Mike and Chip were known quantities, he made Woody the XO and Neal took Weapons Platoon.
A word about “seniority.” Every officer has a date of rank, i.e., the date that his promotion is effective. Mike was an OCS graduate and had a date of rank of 1 April 1968. Chip, Neal, Woody and I were all PLC graduates and, with most of the rest of our respective classes, had dates of rank of 5 June 1968—the date on which the Class of 1968 had graduated from the naval Academy.
Every year, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps in Washington, publishes a “lineal list” (commonly called “The Blue Book” because of its cover in the days of paper manuals) establishing seniority within dates of rank. When officers are promoted, their new commissions establish their lineal position within their date of rank. For example, say that 1,000 first lieutenants are selected by the annual Captain’s Promotion Board to become Captains. Federal law limits the number of captains in the Marine Corps, so not all 1,000 are promoted together. Rather, as captains are promoted to major, that frees up slots for, let us say, 25 lieutenants to advance to captain. All promotions are effective on the first of the month, so those 25 new captains will all have a date of rank of “1 Octanuary 19XX.”
Each will then receive a lineal number within that month. If one officer is number 24, he is senior to the officer with number 25, even though they have the same date of rank. That way, there is no confusion over which of them would succeed to command if they were in the same unit.
For second lieutenants, until they complete TBS, their seniority within date of rank is alphabetical. So, Chip Hartman was senior, followed by Mike McCarty, Neal Meier, and then Dick Wood. Mike, Chip and I were pleased to keep our respective platoons, but Neal and Woody were raring to go. In retrospect, the Skipper’s decision—sound and reasonable as it was—haunts me to this very day, but we’ll get to that later.
On the last afternoon of the bomb hunt, First Platoon spotted what appeared to be an NVA soldier in a tree line about one click to our east. The Skipper called in artillery and an airstrike on the area. While that may sound like over-kill, we were near Go Noi, and it did not pay to half-step. The air strike was snake and nape--the aircraft carried snake-eye bombs and napalm.
Two A-4’s were assigned the mission.
Flying in a race track pattern, 180 degrees apart, they were apparently guiding on an “S” shaped river bed adjacent to the tree line. After about three passes each, one aircraft turned left towards us. Neal and I were both watching through binoculars.
“I guess he is out of bombs,” I said, turning back to watch the other aircraft.
“Oh, shit!” Neal bolted for a fighting hole. I looked up and saw a napalm canister tumbling away from the aircraft in our direction. I landed on Neal in the hole, as we both screamed “Incoming” at the tops of our lungs.
Across the perimeter, we could hear the sounds of Marines calling “Incoming,” as they took cover. I could hear our one-four (the forward air controller) yelling “Abort, abort, abort” into his handset.
We waited. I remember thinking, Damn but this is gonna hurt.
Fortunately, the canister missed us and fell about 100 meters outside our lines, adjacent to a small ville. A few Vietnamese soon came wandering into our lines with minor burns. None required medical evacuation; our Docs fixed the folks right up.
It seems that the pilot became misoriented and picked up the dry streambed along which we were dug in. That happens. Has in the past, will in the future.
About an hour later, we spotted an NVA approaching, hands in the air, rifle grasped in both hands, shouting “Chieu hoi.” He was giving up. We later learned that he was one of three survivors of the unit that had hit Phu Loc (6). He was 29, a Master Sergeant with 15 years in the NVA. His uniform was worn, but clean and pressed. He had a fresh haircut and his weapon was spotless. In short, he was a professional soldier worthy of our respect.
He wolfed down the C-rations we offered him, proving that he was really hungry. Within about 20 minutes, a CH-46 helicopter arrived to take him away for questioning.
The next day, we moved on out.