08 June 2009


From Laundryman Charlie 3 romeo oscar: Check out my message on 6 June. And the Lieutenant is just protecting me. I counted at least 150 people before I gave up!

When we got to a small hill just north of Alpha and the CP group, I had the platoon establish a defensive perimeter. The Skipper, his radio operator, my radio operator and I, headed south with one fire team for security. We passed through Alpha’s lines at about 0715 and headed for the CP.

Colonel Riley, his S-3 (Operations Officer) and other members of his staff were under a tree, along with Captain Torrey, Alpha 6. Jerry Ayers, one of my classmates, was standing about 10 meters away. I nodded to him and moved with the Skipper to join Laundryman 6.

Lieutenant Colonel William Riley had assumed command of the battalion while we were at the bridge. I had met him, but only briefly, along with the other officers of the Company. He looked up and grinned, exuding confidence. “Great! Frank’s here. Let’s get started. Everything OK?”

Frank nodded. “Five wounded, but nothing too serious, Sir.”

The Three pulled out a map. “OK—we think there was at least a battalion of NVA on this hill yesterday afternoon. We think they slipped off to the east during the night, but we have no contact with them right now. We have been taking sporadic small arms fire from the hill this morning, so somebody is still there. Bravo is about three clicks over thataway (southwest) and will patrol to our south. Charlie will move down here from the north and east to see if the bad guys may have tried to go around north, but do it smartly. We need you to assume CP security . Alpha will resume its attack on the objective at 0900.”

The Old Man took over. “Frank, Alpha has several casualties out in that damned paddy. Their platoon is going out to recover them. Attach one of you platoons to Alpha Company for their attack.”

I grabbed our radio handset. “Charlie 3, this three actual. Saddle up and get over here most ricky tick.” I looked up. Frank was scowling. “Well, you’re gonna give Alpha your most experienced platoon, right?”

He grinned and shook his head. “Sure, but how about you let me make the decision first, OK?”

The Old Man chuckled and slapped us both on the shoulder. “All right, gents, let’s get this done.” I felt as if my Dad was there--the Old Man's calm confidence was just like Dad's.

I moved away with Captain Torrey, Jerry and another lieutenant I did not know. At this point in time, of the surviving members of our class that had joined the battalion in December, Jerry and I were the only two still in the bush as rifle platoon commanders. In the distance, I saw another lieutenant forming up a platoon and moving toward the eastern edge of the position. The platoon did not look right to me. They had lost five KIAs the day before, but there was an air about them—something unhealthy. Jerry cast a glance their way, frowned, and shook his head.

Captain Torrey took us to a concealed position from which we could observe our objective. It was about 800 meters away across a wet paddy.

“OK . That is Objective A. Situation: Objective A is believed to be held by anywhere between a company and a platoon. It has been hit with artillery all night. Charlie Company is to our north and bravo to our south. One platoon will be about 150 meters to our left recovering their casualties.

Mission: We will attack and seize objective A. Execution: We are going in with two up and one back. Jerry, your platoon will be on the left. Mac, you take the right. I will follow with the CP group and the other platoon. Logistics: Make sure you have plenty of ammo and grenades. Mac, there is a dump over by that tree. Make sure you have fresh batteries for the radios. Mac, Company Tac is 71.05.

It is now 0802. Be in position to commence the attack at 0900. Questions?” There were none. I headed over to my platoon.

I had heard them coming in about 10 minutes before. As usual, the grapevine worked well. Levi had already gotten the word that we were going in. I paused to watch this seeming normality. I had not said a word to my small unit leaders since the radio message telling them to hiyacko on down to join me.

Levi had them finishing up with cleaning weapons (they had started automatically when we stopped on the intermediate objective) and Bob Henson had already found the supply dump. He had a working party carrying boxes of grenades and other ammo as well as fresh batteries over to the platoon. I heard him yell “Hey, Doc. Do you need any resupply?" The Leading Petty Officer of the battalion medical platoon, a Petty Officer First Class, was already talking to Doc. “I’m cool, Henson,” Doc replied.

Doc was 19. Henson was 19. Sergeant Levi was almost 21, an old man. There was no urgency or apparent concern, just men who knew what they had to do, going about doing it. The squad leaders (one 18, one 19) were inspecting weapons. Gibby (18) was with the other radio operators, making sure they knew the correct frequency. I realized that I was truly blessed.

I called Levi, Henson, Doc, and the squad leaders over. One squad leader, Mike Tonkyn, had just taken over his squad—his squad leader was one of the casualties from the short round on Saturday. He had become a fire team leader 8 days before, taking over Unfried’s fire team. He was as cool as a cucumber, as if he had been a squad leader all his young life. (He looked 12—and still does!!! Sorry Mike, but that’s the truth.)

I issued the order, asked for questions, and getting none, told them I would inspect weapons in 10 minutes and we would then move out to get into position. At 0855, I moved to Jerry Ayers’s right, ensuring that we were linked up. We shook hands, exchanged “see you on the hill”s, and went to work.

At exactly 0900, we moved out. Jerry and I had agreed that, based on yesterday’s experience, we would move across in squad rushes, then fire team rushes, then individual rushes. A squad rush is coordinated by the platoon commander. He orders one squad to move while the other (we still had only two squads per platoon) covers. A fire team rush is coordinated by the squad leaders, moving one fire team at a time. Individual rushes are controlled by the fire team leader.

We started receiving fire almost immediately, although it was light and sounded high. Both platoons crossed an 800 meter wide paddy about two meters at a time. You are chillingly exposed in a paddy, especially a wet paddy, as this one was. The mud and water are knee deep and it is hard to move, so you are essentially launching yourself forward in a shallow dive each time you move.

We reached the far side two days later—OK, it was about 15 minutes, but it seemed longer—and started to move up onto the hill. Captain Torrey came behind us and moved his other platoon into the center as we wheeled north. Jerry was still on the left and I had shifted east but was still on the right. The south side of the objective was covered in scrub and continued to slope upwards.

I sent a scout forward to see what was in front of us. In the movies, everything always moves quickly and everyone is running around fully erect. It just doesn’t happen that way. We moved slowly, crawling, taking our time.

The scout reported that about 100 meters to our front (north) the ground leveled off and opened up. In the middle of a large open area, there was some sort of a low concrete structure which stood about waist high. For at least 50 meters all around, the ground was open and flat as a board.

I moved up for a look and then reported this to Captain Torrey. Jerry had done the same thing on his side. There was just no good way to get to that bunker (as we now thought of it).

The Skipper told all three platoons to inch forward. The middle platoon began to receive fire. Putting binoculars on the concrete structure, I could see what appeared to be ventilation slits about 6 inches above the ground. The slits were about two inches high by six inches wide. The NVA were using them as firing slits and were getting great grazing fire. Every casualty was initially hit in the ankles. We pulled back a bit. It was now about 1045.

Captain Torrey called for the platoon commanders. He had set up his CP in a little dip in the ground. His corpsmen were working on the casualties and the Gunny was making a canteen cup of coffee, which the Skipper passed around. Jerry came sliding in from the left just as I got there. The other lieutenant was already there.

The Skipper had moved up and had seen what we faced. Normally, a position like that is reduced by the “blind ‘em, blast’em and burn ‘em” method. Someone would toss a WP grenade in front of the aperture, followed by a satchel charge and then a flame thrower. There were problems, however.

I doubt that a NFL quarterback could toss a WP grenade 50 yards, and there was no way anyone was going to get closer and remain unhit. We had satchel charges available, but the flame section was back at An Hoa and no one could remember when we had last used our flame throwers.

The Skipper decided that Jerry and I would provide suppressive fire and the middle platoon would try to hit the southern firing slits with anti-tank rockets. The 66mm LAAW (light anti-tank assault weapon) had replaced the 3.5 inch rocket launcher (a super bazooka that replaced the original bazooka, the WWII 2.36 inch rocket launcher). The LAAW was light, disposable, and fairly easy to fire. However, it did not have a white phosphorus round which we could really have used.

We returned to our platoons, briefed our small unit leaders, and when all three platoons reported “ready,” we started. The machine guns and rifles fired at the slits, but return fire was heavy. Only two of six LAAWS hit anywhere on the structure. The middle platoon took more casualties, again marked by ankle wounds.

The Skipper called for us again. It was nearly Noon.

The coffee was still fresh—fresh being a relative term when discussing C-rations. It was surreal. We were taking coffee breaks from the war to plan our next try! What I wouldn’t give for one more cup of coffee with Jerry, Captain Torrey, the Gunny and that other lieutenant, in that little dip, with the occasional round cracking over our heads, and the adrenaline high.

“Any suggestions,” the Skipper asked.

Jerry piped up “Well, I could hook left around the old Chevy and Mac could go long towards the telephone pole.” We all grinned, remembering other gentler days of improvisation. We continued to brainstorm.

About 1330, the S-3 called to brief us on a new idea. We headed for our platoons. In about 10 minutes, a CH-46 appeared carrying a 500 gallon fuel bladder as an external lift. We put more rockets and 40mm grenade fire on the bunker to keep the inhabitants busy.

The bladder was tethered to the chopper by two hoists (known in the trade as “donkey dicks”) which kept it twice as far from the bird. The crew chief, looking through the hell hole in the bottom of the chopper guided his pilot until they could set the bladder onto the top of the structure. He then released the cargo and beat fee outta there.

The middle platoon, which had taken all the casualties, was given the honor of firing machinegun tracers at the bladder. On the second burst, it exploded in a huge roiling gout of flame and smoke.

Jerry’s platoon assaulted from the west, but it was all over. There were nine dead NVA in the structure. They did not appear to be burned; Doc surmised that they suffocated or died of ruptured lungs. A couple of grenades made sure. It was now 1430.

We checked out the rest of the hill and reported it secure. By 1545, Charlie Company and the CP group were on the hill, I had chopped back to Charlie Company, and we began organizing our defensive perimeter. Charlie 3 had the east center of the hill, with Neal on my right and Woody on my left. Alpha took the west side of the hill, tying in with Charlie 1 on the south and Charlie 2 on the north.

We had not been resupplied since Friday morning, so as soon as the hill was secure, resupply birds appeared.

At about 1615, we heard heavy fire to our southwest. Bravo Company, moving to join the battalion, had run into a large body of NVA. The firefight started when the point man spotted six NVA setting up a 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine gun. Captain Castagnetti assigned six riflemen to aim in in the crew and ordered “Fire.” Five dropped and the sixth only had a second to look around before he, too, was history. And the fight was on.

A few minutes later, we saw two CH-46’s enter a race track pattern over Bravo’s position. This was a classic medevac formation, and Frank confirmed it when he said “Bravo’s got two emergencies.”

The lead (Dash 1) headed in and the chase bird (Dash 2) continued to circle. Suddenly, Dash 2 layed over on its side and swooped down. I heard Frank mutter “Oh, shit, Dash 1 was just shot down.” Within a minute Dash 2 pulled out of the zone and headed for Danang, hedge hopping over our position before it climbed to altitude.

The firefight continued for another hour or more. Occasional rounds came zipping over our heads.

Two resupply birds dropped their external loads and then, one at a time, landed to off load passengers. We were receiving replacements. The last man was walking down the ramp when he suddenly crumpled. A stray round from the firefight had hit him right between the eyes. He was medevacked on the same bird. War is a fluky business!

As darkness settled, we manned a very strong position. It was a quiet night. We were all beat. Charlie 3 had gotten some sleep on Sunday morning, but many of us had not slept since Friday night. At about midnight, Bravo Company came into the lines and just dropped in place. I checked lines one more time and stretched out.

The next morning, one of my Marines came up and sheepishly asked, “Did anyone enter our lines from over their (pointing east) last night?”

“Not that I know of. Why?”

“Because about 0200, a column of people walked right across the top of the hill in single file.” Damn!

“Why didn’t you challenge them,” I asked.

“Uh, well, Sir, I thought maybe I was the only man on this whole damn hill that was awake, and I didn’t think I could handle them all by myself.” (To this day, that has remained my rule of thumb definition of “prudence.”)

“Yeah, I see. Well, let’s just let that be our little secret, OK?” Fluky, flukier, flukiest!

He grinned. “Aye, aye, Sir. Works for me.”

Marines. How can you not love them?

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