07 June 2009


Sunday morning dawned sunny and clear for a change. We watched the Company pass our position and then set up an ambush, but no one came. After an hour, we moved out and rejoined the Company in a little ville about 800 meters east of the mountains. Charlie 3 had the southeast side of the perimeter.

We cleaned and inspected weapons and then I put half the platoon down for four hours sleep, or what would pass for sleep in the heat of the day. At about 1300, we shifted. I really couldn’t sleep, and just moved from hole to hole talking to the troops. The Gunny had his transistor radio on and I caught a few innings of the St Louis Cardinals game. (The broadcast team, as I may have mentioned earlier, was the greatest of the generation—Harry Caray, Joe Garagiola, and Jack Buck. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, although Harry Kalas and Larry Anderson were pretty close.)

The battalion was on the move. The increasing contact with larger units over the past couple of days convinced the Colonel Riley that the NVA was getting ready to fight. Bravo was 5 clicks to our southwest and Alpha, with the CP group moving east from a place called An Bang (3) toward a little hill called An Bang (1) which was about 2 clicks to our southeast. At about 1500, they reached An Bang (2) which was about 800 meters west of the objective. A platoon from Alpha started across an 800 meter wide rice paddy to recon the objective.

An Bang (1) was a complex of small rises, perhaps 25 feet above the surrounding terrain. The complex was about 1,000 meters from east to west and about 500 meters from north to south. The map indicated that it was pretty much surrounded by trenches, so it may have been an old French compound at some time in the past. The ground was covered with scrub that rose to 15 or 20 feet, although the center had a long, flat open area that would make a great LZ. The northern, western, and southern sides were pretty steep—relatively speaking—but the east side had a gentle slope out into more paddies.

Charlie Company had not been there before, but I think that one of the other companies and the CP group had been. The Old Man had decided that it was time to pull the battalion together and this was good ground for a battalion-sized unit. Obviously….

As Alpha’s platoon got to within about 10 meters of the western side, they were taken under heavy fire and pinned down in the paddy. At least three Marines were KIA almost immediately. I will write later about the platoon commander and platoon sergeant, but let it suffice to say that the platoon commander did not live up to the high standards of our Corps that day.

We could hear the firefight when it started, and the battalion tactical net (the radio net that linked the battalion commander to his company commanders, just as the company tac linked Frank to Neal, Dick and me) came alive. They immediately began to pound the hill with Alpha’s 60mm mortars and the battalion’s 81mm mortars. Rob Montgomery, one of my classmates, was now the 81mm mortar platoon commander. It was his former platoon that was pinned down in the paddy.

He moved forward to be able to adjust his mortars onto the NVA position as the firefight raged.

Suddenly, I heard him on the net. “I can see them, I can see them. Oh, hell, let’s go!” He dashed out into the paddy to try to extricate “his” platoon. He stood in the paddy, directing fire at a several enemy positions which were destroyed.

Less than a minute later, someone came up on the net. “The Lieutenant is down.” He was hit by at least one machine gun bullet and began to bleed out. Nonetheless, he closed with a second machine gun position which he single-handedly destroyed along with its crew.

At that point, he collapsed. Somehow, the Corpsman kept him alive. Thankfully, his Navy Cross citation (scroll down)notes that the President takes “pleasure” in making the award. If you read enough citations, you quickly figure out that if the President “takes pride” in making the award, it is a posthumous award.

Rob left the Marine Corps after his three year obligation and had a distinguished career in the FBI. He was Special-Agent-in-Charge of the Portland, Oregon office when the Nancy Kerrigan-Tanya Harding mess occurred. In the aftermath of the Ruby Ridge stand-off, Rob was appointed the Special-Agent-in-Charge of the Crisis Management/Hostage Rescue Team headquartered at the FBI Academy (less than 3 miles as the crow flies from TBS) and then as the first Special-Agent-in-Charge of the Critical Incident Response Group, which consolidated all FBI functions relating to crisis situations.

Frank, Neal, Woody and I were getting antsy. It was obvious that this was a major contact. I said, “Geez, if we are going to go, I hope we go now. I sure don’t look forward to moving down there at night with everyone as jumpy as they are bound to be.” Frank told us to get to our platoons and make sure they were alert—no problem there; they could hear what was going on and the close air support aircraft were orbiting over our position. But the call did not come.

Finally, just at dusk, my radio operator said, “Skipper wants you.” We headed up the trail.

At the CP, Frank was packing up. Neal was there and Woody got there seconds after me. “OK, let’s saddle up. We’re moving down to link up with Alpha and the CP group. Mac, you take point. Charlie 1 next with the CP group, then Charlie 2. Be careful. We don’t need any intramural firefights.”

We headed back down the trail. I was pissed! Why move us in the dark? As I left the scrub and looked at one of my positions, an oily grey-black cloud appeared in the empty rice paddy just outside of our lines, followed by a cair-rump! Aw, who the [universal adjective] is throwing a grenade right now, I thought?

There were quickly four more explosions across the hill and I realized, as a launched myself into my hole, that we were being mortared. And it started.

We were repeatedly probed all night. There was grenade fire, mortar fire—ours and theirs—and small arms fire. Several claymores were fired. The small arms fire was most disturbing. Ordinarily, you did not fire a rifle or machine gun because it helped the enemy spot the location of the weapon. At one point, Frank radioed to the Company “The next time I hear rifle fire, there had better be a body to go with it!”

Almost immediately, there were three shots from one of my positions to my right front. OK, we need to calm down here. I told Gibby that I was going to check lines, gave him my rifle, and grabbed my .45. As I moved, I was constantly whispering, “Hold your fire; it’s me.” I got to the hole from which the rifle fire had originated.

“What the [universal adjective] are you shooting at?”

“Uh, him, Sir.” There was a dead NVA, two rounds in his chest and one in the head, lying next to the hole. Although SNL was still years away, it was a Roseanne Roseannadanna moment. Never mind. I patted the Marines on the shoulder, told them well done, and crawled back to my hole. I radioed the Skipper to report that there was, indeed, a dead body.

We continued to receive mortar and rocket propelled grenade fire all night. We had a Spooky gunship
up and firing for us. The Spook was an old DC-3 aircraft that had three 7.62mm (roughly, .303 cal) gatling guns mounted in the fuselage. As it orbited and fired, the fire concentrated so that in one minute, it could put one bullet in every square inch of a football field. In the time-lapse photo (taken by one of my Marines and used as his Christmas 1969 Christmas card with the sentiment "Peace on earth and good will to men!") you should remember that between every tracer round, there are four ball rounds. A truly awesome weapon.

Finally, at about 0400, the NVA broke contact. At first light, we checked the area and found another nine dead NVA just outside our lines. The troops had already gotten the good war prizes—belts, cap badges, knives-but I was looking for maps and other intelligence material.

We found two NVA in front of a hole, lying on their backs. Both were missing their legs from the knees down—it was clear that the Marines in the hole had popped a claymore when they were right in front of it. About 5 meters behind them was another body, lying face down.

Dick Rollins and I rolled him over and I ripped his shirt open to look for a map. He had a little Carolina blue ribbon tied through one button hole. His chest was covered with little gray bumps. “Hey, Doc,” I called to my Corpsman. “What do you make of this?” He approached. “Whattaya think, Doc? Could it be smallpox?” Doc jumped back. Dick joined him.

Finally, I was able to persuade Doc to come closer. “Is it on his back, too?” We rolled him back over and pulled up his shirt. His back was covered with entry wounds.

As near as I can tell, he either was walking backward—rear security?—or, more likely, turned to run as the flare in front of the claymore was triggered and the claymore detonated. The claymore pellets penetrated his body, but could not break through the last layer of skin. We referred to him thereafter as “the chicken gook.”

Charlie Company had seven casualties, all wounded, no emergencies, but three were priority and a total of five were evacuated. As soon as we got the wounded out, the Skipper called me and told me to mount up Charlie 3 as security for a patrol to escort him down to battalion.

Thus began another day in paradise.

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