06 June 2009


Note from Laundryman Charlie 3 romeo oscar: Mac,our platoon commander, was Laundryman Charlie 3 actual. I'm LMC3 romeo oscar. He's been having a tough time lately, but he wanted the June stories, leading up to what we all call "that night," to go out on schedule. Fortunately, he had them written down. I'll keep posting them until I run out. Please keep him in your prayers. LMC3 Romeo Oscar, out.

PS, I told him that piece of shrapnel was as big as his damned leg!

The NVA still did not want to come out and play. We moved every night and began to once again concentrate on the area just east of the mountains that we had covered in the first couple of days in the Arizona.

There were some memorable days. One afternoon, the Company was moving during the day—a rarity for Charlie Company. We came to a wide part of a stream that cut through high banks on both sides. The Skipper called a halt and ordered Second and Third Platoons to set up security on the opposite banks. Charlie 1 and the CP group entered the stream and washed clothes and bodies for the first time in three weeks. After they were done, they came out of the stream, most wearing only boots, flak jackets and helmets, and relieved Charlie 2. After another 20 minutes, Charlie 2 relieved Charlie 3.

I think it is hard for most folks to understand the huge effect that something as little as this unexpected “treat” could have on morale. We had lost good people and we were emotionally dragging. Spirits zoomed! After our clothes were dried (the beauty of the rip-stop material used for our utility trousers dried quickly), we dressed and resumed our march. Within an hour, we were sweaty and dirty again, but spirits remained high.

We were now working the west central part of the Arizona, just under the mountains. Bravo Company was to our southeast under the command of Captain Gino Castagnetti. Company A, commanded by Captain Phil Torrey, was to our east, acting as palace guard for the battalion command post group. We had all shifted westward, trying to coax the NVA out of the mountains.

We had been “rice paddy” Marines for as long as I was in Vietnam. Unlike the Marines of the 3d MarDiv to our north and the Army to our south, we had very little experience in the mountains. However, we began patrolling into the easternmost edge of the mountains that stretched west into Laos, encountering high, steep terrain and triple canopy jungle for the first time. Navigation was extremely difficult in such terrain and it was a new learning experience. (“Triple canopy” refers to jungle that has three distinct layers of growth. The first might be 40 feet above the ground, the second layer about 70, and the third over 100 feet. It was a dark, dank environment.)

On June 1, Charlie 1 took a patrol into the mountains. Coming out of the canopy they spotted 5 NVA on a trail about 400 meters to their front. The NVA had a radio and were soon seen to be heading in Charlie 1’s general direction. The platoon established a hasty ambush and waited for nearly an hour, but the NVA had apparently taken a different trail and did not enter the ambush.

The next day, we attacked a ville to our northeast. As we did so, we received 100 to 150 rounds of small arms fire. It was a distinct possibility that we were taking stray rounds from a firefight between a patrol from Alpha Company and some NVA that were trying to cut between us. The ville was dotted with bunkers and spider holes (a foxhole with a camouflaged moveable cover) which we destroyed. We rounded up another 100 or so civilians and sent them back to Duc Duc refugee camp for interrogation.

That evening, two B-40 rocket propelled grenades exploded outside our lines. We went to 100% alert (our norm was two up and one down throughout the night)and fired illumination rounds from our 60 mm mortars, but saw nothing.

The next morning, we moved further north and attacked a ville at first light. Eight NVA ran out of the ville and we took them under fire, seeing at least two drop. We found one body with a weapon and many blood trails. We moved back to our west.

That night, Bravo Company was dug in about 3 clicks to our southwest. They were attacked by a large force that penetrated their lines. The NVA captured one of Bravo’s machine guns before being driven off.

On the 5th, Charlie 1 patrolled into the mountains again. As they rounded a bend in a trail, they had a “point-to-point” contact, one of the most common types of meeting engagements in our strange little war. Both sides opened fire—no one was hit on either side as far as we could tell. However, the NVA were probably an observation post because Charlie 1 recovered a 5 galloon can filled with a rice and meat mixture, 4 sets of black pajamas, I pair of Ho Chi Minh sandals (made out of old tires), a wallet containing identification, a couple of cans of fish and four cans of C-rations.

Just before sunset that evening, Charlie 1 spotted 22 NVA south of their observation post, near Bravo Company’s area of responsibility. Bravo sent out a platoon-sized patrol to check their area and Third Platoon was sent to cover our area. There was an aerial observer up in an OV-10. The aircraft fired several rockets into the fleeing NVA. We checked the area until dark but found nothing.

Just after midnight, an individual walked through Charlie 1’s position and was captured. At first light, the POW was brought into our lines and evacuated. The Skipper received permission to return to the same area that night.

We started to move in the early afternoon with Charlie 1 on the point, then Charlie 2, and Charlie 3 was rear security. We were moving further into the mountains than we had in the past, and the change in terrain was stark. AS he spotted the objective, Neal radioed that it was “damn’d steep.”

“How steep,” the Skipper responded?

Referring to a landmark at OCS, Neal replied “It makes the Hill Trail look like an ice rink!”

We were in a deep draw between two ridge lines that towered at least 250 meters above us. We were advised that there was a 6-man recon team from 1st Recon Battalion's permanent OP on Hill 200, which was about 6 clicks north of us, operating in the area. The team, “Mink Coat,” reported that they could hear NVA moving to their front. Suddenly, we were taken under heavy rifle and automatic weapons fire.

At the same time, the Skipper dropped off the net. His radio handset had come loose from the radio, but we needed coordination. Neal and I talked briefly and told Charlie 2 to secure the CP group as we attacked up the hill. We fired several rockets up the hill and returned fire until Mink Coat advised that they were taking some of our rounds.

Things quieted down. Frank came back up on the net and told Neal and me to proceed to the top of the hill and secure it, which we did. About 20 minutes later, Charlie 2 and the CP group finished the climb. We quickly set in our perimeter for the night, and Mink Coat harbored with us until about 2200. They then headed deeper into the mountains, looking for the NVA.

The night was quiet, but rainy. Sunrise revealed fog and dripping jungle. Before noon, we heard and then saw the NVA launching 122 mm rockets toward An Hoa. Nicknamed “Stalin’s organ” by the Germans in WWII, they made a very distinctive moaning sound as they were launched. We called artillery fire and called in airstrikes on the area. The artillery, located in An Hoa, was firing at close to its maximum range. As we had been for several days, we were on the “gun-target” line, which meant that the rounds passed over our position en route to the target. Hearing them go whooshing over us was eerie.

At about Noon, the Skipper ordered me to conduct a patrol to our south and east and to then set up a night ambush on the trail to our east. When the Company left the mountains the next morning, we were to remain behind for an hour to ambush any NVA that might be following.

At the same time, about four clicks to our south, a platoon-sized patrol from Bravo Company was also working in the mountains. The point man suddenly alerted, reporting that some 25 NVA were walking down the middle of a stream along which the patrol was located. They set up a hasty ambush and waited.

Now, Mr. Charles had a well-deserved reputation as a soldier, but we sometimes had a tendency to inflate him into a superman. In this case all 25 NVA were walking along, smoking and joking, rifles slung over their shoulders, no security out. The ambush opened fire, killing all 25 in the opening volley. Twenty-four bodies were recovered—the 25th floated away down the river. Rifles, machineguns (including the M-60 that Bravo had lost earlier in the week), B-40 and RPG-7 rocket launchers and a radio were recovered.

Back on our hill, Charlie 3 formed up and moved across the top of the hill, past the 60mm mortar position, and headed down a long southwest finger to begin our patrol. The jungle was so thick that we were practically “asshole to belly button.” We had been out about 15 minutes when the Company spotted another 27 NVA moving east into a small village. The group broke up into groups of 3 to five and entered the hooches. The Skipper called and adjusted artillery fire into the ville.

Maybe an hour later, lightning hit one of our 60 mm mortar tubes, injuring one crewman. As a CH-46 landed to evacuate him, NVA on the next ridge opened fire. I was listening to the radio and heard Frank ask Dick Wood if he could adjust fire onto the ridge. In the background, I could hear Dick Rollins sending his call for fire to the 2/11 fire direction center.

I was now well down into a draw to the east of our position and, quite frankly, lost. I heard Frank talking to Dick Wood, who was going to adjust the artillery. Frank told him “I’m going to ask for a battery 6 immediate fire for effect.” That means that he would ask the battery to fire six rounds of high explosive rounds per gun (36 rounds) without firing the usual one-gun white phosphorous round to adjust the fire.

We had just broken into a small clear area and had begun to spread out. The point fire team was separated by about 7 meters, so that the point man was 20 yards to my front. I called for a quick halt and called Frank. “Charlie 6 actual, this is Charlie 3 actual. Could you ask them to fire one willie peter (WP) round?” I was really hoping that I could see it impact and figure out my position.

“That’s a negative. It’s nowhere near you.”

“Roger, but I would really appreciate it.”

“All right, dammit, but it won’t do you any good.”

We later learned that the battery firing for us had been firing without a stop for 18 hours. Apparently one of the Marines made a 100 mill error on the elevation of the gun. A mill is one 6400th of a circle. It moves the strike of the round 1 meter for each 100 meters of distance, in this case, 1,000 yards short.

We heard the round whooshing towards us and, experienced as we were, realized that it was not going to go over us. The round hit right behind the point man’s heels. Time slowed down.

The point man went cart-wheeling through the air, his clothing on fire. The other two Marines were down with white phosphorous burns. My radio operator told me that he saw a piece of the shell casing as long as my forearm fly between us (we were about 3 feet apart).

Several people were calling “Corpsman, Corpsman,” and Doc was grabbing people to start putting mud over the white phosphorous fragments to cut off the air supply. (You may recall from high school chemistry that WP burns in the air.) The point man was down, having landed on his head, knocking him out.

I was screaming into the handset “CharlieCharlieCharlieCharlieThreeCharlieThree. Checkfirecheckfirecheckfire.”

Gibby tapped me on the shoulder, holding the connection that attached the handset to the radio. “It’s gotta be hooked up to work, Sir.”

I could hear Levi back along the column, making the same call. No more rounds came our way.

Doc advised me that two of the three were OK, but would require medical attention to remove the WP. The point man was still out cold, with second degree burns. I called for a medevac.

We were deep under triple canopy. The Skipper told me that if we needed a jungle penetrator (a heavy steel weight that could punch through the vegetation), it would take 90 minutes to rig it and get it to us. Having heard the explosion, he told me that we were about 800 meters to his east. I talked to Doc and then told him we could carry the point man to the ridge in 45 minutes. He agreed that that was the way to go.

We struggled up the hill, passing the poncho from team to team, and actually got there in 35 minutes, blowing and steaming. The bird arrived five minutes later and took all three men to the Naval Support Activity Hospital. Two returned to the platoon the next day. The point man, who already had two purple hearts, was pulled to the rear and finished his tour of duty with the regimental security platoon.

We formed up and headed back out to our ambush site. The rest of the night was quiet.

I often wonder about that day. Why did I ask for the WP round? Why did Frank—who was not known for giving in—agree. Six HE rounds would have probably killed the entire platoon . War is a fluky business!

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

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