06 April 2009


We moved out at about 2300 to cordon a village about a click to the east. It was there that we encountered the remains of a French colonial highway—-cobble-stoned, but grassy. At first light, Third Platoon passed through the cordon to sweep the ville, and after securing it, it became the company’s patrol base for the day. That afternoon, Chip led a patrol on down the road towards the next ville, about 1800 meters away.

When the patrol returned, the Skipper conducted our usual evening meeting. Chip had observed suspicious activity in the ville. The order was fairly straightforward.

At 2300 (11pm) First Platoon, followed by Third Platoon, Command Post Group, and Second Platoon, would move east along the trace of the old French road. About 800 meters short of the ville, the CP Group, including the mortar squad, and Second Platoon would halt to set up in reserve and to support us by fire. First and Third Platoons would continue to the objective, which was surrounded by an easily recognizable dirt trail.

First Platoon would cover the north and east sides, and Third would turn right to take the west and south sides of the cordon. At first light, Second and the headquarters would move forward and search the village.

We were in the dark of the moon, so movement was slow. At about 0030, as we were still along the road, Chip radioed the Skipper. “I don’t know what you expected to find, but we have beaucoup gooks.”

“Charlie One, this is Six. What do you mean ‘beaucoup?’”

“I mean booooo cooooooo!”

As I turned to pass the word to my radio operator, he whispered, “Aw, shit!” He was pointing to a bamboo arch over the road with a five-pointed bamboo star at its apex. We were definitely in indian country.

We increased our rate of march and within two or three minutes had made the right turn to begin the cordon. I was just behind my first fireteam. We were within about 20 meters of linking up with Chip when a group of men ran through the gap, firing AK-47’s (a very distinctive sound to anyone who has ever heard it.) There was also cautious M-16 fire, but we were all concerned with avoiding hitting other Marines.

At the same moment, as we were taking cover, the first explosions began. We would hear a “thump” as something hit the ground, followed by a low order explosion. There were many more thumps than explosions, but enough to keep us low. There were also a number of explosions easily identified as coming from M-26 fragmentation grenades.

The 60mm mortar squad back with the CP group began to fire flares to help us link up, and after about 30 minutes of cautious movement, we were able to do so.

The rest of the night was punctuated with infrequent rifle fire and lots of explosions. I had three men slightly wounded by shrapnel.

At first light, Second Platoon swept through the village, clearing and securing it. We had hit a VC grenade factory. The village “manufactured “ ChiCom grenades for the local VC and NVA units. It was also an “R&R” (“rest and recreation”) area for the NVA, and a clothing repair point.

The ChiCom factory was the biggest find. Chicoms were the VC grenade of choice. Think of the WWII German "potato masher" grenade we’ve all seen in the movies. Make the handle out of bamboo, and make it shorter. In place of the machined or cast grenade body, use an old round fish can, complete with painted or paper wrapper, about the size of a frozen orange juice can. Pack it with home-made explosive using a water buffalo dung base. Add a friction fuse in the grenade armed by pulling a cord that ran down the inside of the handle and ending with a piece of bamboo to be used as the pull tab.

They were crude, but if one went off close to your head, deadly. Otherwise, you got some nasty shrapnel wounds and concussion injury.

We later found hundreds of “duds” that had been thrown at us, and I estimated that there were two-to-three detonations per minute somewhere within the village during the five hours between the start of the firefight and the time that we collapsed the cordon.

As we secured the village and established the perimeter, all residents were herded to the center of the ville. In one location, several Marines were securing an NVA soldier who had been wounded in the leg. He was glaring at us and looking furtively at our equipment. I moved on ahead to find the Skipper.

While I was reporting that we had secured our part of the perimeter, there was a shot. I ran back and found the NVA dead. He had apparently tried to grab a Marine’s rifle and was killed by another Marine. This was, as I have said, a hard core area.

Eventually, we found 18 bodies in various clothing, including 12 in partial or complete NVA uniforms. We captured a number of AK-47 and SKS rifles, hundreds of chicom grenades, several rocket propelled grenades, and other assorted weaponry. We also found a bolt of NVA green cloth and a Singer sewing machine, which we destroyed.
Our first opposed cordon and search had been successful. We suffered seven casualties, none requiring medevac.

We settled in for the day. The villagers were searched and interrogated to no avail. They had no idea where the grenades came from, had never seen the dead strangers—although there was a lot of wailing among some of the families—and they were all loyal to the Saigon government. As usual, the kids were treated well by our troops. Our Marines shared candy from their Cs with the baby-sans, and the Docs began to treat the many rampant skin infections they found. Other than the dead, there were no young men in the village. Old men (60+) old women, young women and kids, including some infants (perhaps the products of NVA R&R), but no young men. Imagine that!

I took out a reconnaissance patrol that afternoon, preparatory to the night’s move. As we left the perimeter, we passed a bomb crater into which the dead NVA bodies had been placed and covered with earth. There was a crude sign stuck on a dead tree limb, written in grease pencil on cardboard from a C-ration carton: “These dudes done in by C/1/5.” The ancient and honorable ritual of counting coup was being observed.

While we were out on patrol, we were resupplied by helicopter. Resupply was a big deal. The requested supplies—ammunition, food, spare parts, batteries, were carried in a cargo net slung from the belly of a CH-46 helicopter.After the net was landed and the tether dropped, the bird would land to off-load passengers and mail, to pick up passengers (especially those lucky souls going on R&R or home for good) and to reclaim the cargo net. As the chopper moved in, I always thought of the song “Wells Fargo Wagon” from The Music Man. The kid wonders what goodies might be on the wagon for him, and we all thought the same.

In the day’s mail, I found a large manila envelope from a second grade class at McKinley School in Granite City, Illinois. My Mom was a School Nurse, and McKinley was one of her schools. Easter was upon us, and the kids had hand-drawn Easter cards for me. They were lovely.

Some reflected the importance of that day—the open tomb and the empty cross. The girls had drawn bunnies, brightly colored eggs, and rainbows. At least two boys had airplanes running airstrikes on Golgotha—probably future Baptist preachers! But one captured me so intently that I kept it and reproduce it here. It is the essence of the Marine!
Gary T is now 47 or so, about my wife’s age. He probably has kids of his own. I wonder if he knows how many times over the past 40 years I have pulled his card out of my scrapbook to ponder it and thank him in my heart for the wisdom that a little boy shared with me.

Semper Fi.

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