This is my first attempt to put the most memorable action I experienced in Vietnam on paper. It’s one of those incidents you try to put out of your mind, but it keeps popping up to ruin your day.
This mission took place in July, probably the hottest month of the year in Southeast Asia. It’s the dry season and you really need to be in shape to endure any prolonged, hard physical activity, especially involving “beating the bush”. It wasn’t uncommon to see men going out on ground patrol and have at least three canteens on their “web gear.” Your uniform would get so wet with perspiration that it would build up until it stank and got very stiff if you cooled down. Very uncomfortable.
Our mission involved a platoon size unit that would be inserted in a specific area and attempt a probing operation to help determine the size of an enemy build up reported in the Central Highlands area. Our Corps HQ wasn’t able to confirm the size of the enemy unit using conventional measures.
We went in very early in the morning. We were inserted several kilometers from our target trying to deceive the enemy as to what exactly we were doing. Remember, the VC was always watching what we were doing and were very quick to react to our movements.
We “humped” the bush for a couple of hours without incident. It was so quiet, you instinctively knew something was brewing. The entire unit was “super vigilant.”
As we got closer to the suspected site where the build-up was suspected, we spread out in a horizontal sweep of the area. Suddenly, our right flank started taking small arms fire. We found the NVA just where we thought they would be.
We formed a perimeter and began to concentrate fire into the area being hit. Our entire front started to receive sporadic fire. We moved some squads to redirect fire into those areas.
I must tell you that being in combat actually produces high adrenaline levels in most people. So much so that you’re not frightened, but somewhat excited about what is going on. You don’t think about dying, you focus on the mission you’ve been sent to complete.
We soon realized that we were outgunned. It was time to call for helicopter support. We had some gun ships waiting to respond to just this situation. Capt. Harsh, the mission commander, called for them to lay down fire directly in front of us, not more than 50 meters away. In the meantime I was dispatched to the rear to set up an LZ and begin to pull our troops out. Well, the only area I could find for an LZ would only allow bringing in a maximum of two recovery choppers at a time. Seeing as how they could only take out 6 to 8 people at a time, meant that we would need about three groups of two choppers in order to evacuate the entire unit. We didn’t have enough recovery choppers on site to do this. We were at least 30 kilometers from Camp Holloway where we had additional aircraft on standby. This was going to be tight.
By now the air cover we had was also taking fire and, on the ground, we were beginning to take mortar fire from the enemy. We had a 3" Chinese mortar we had captured along with some ammunition, so we told the crew in charge of that to begin firing back.
We organized the unit and moved out six men at a time as the choppers came in. It seemed as if this took forever. But, I’m sure it was only a few minutes. As I directed the next to last chopper in the air to come in to get us, I loaded it up with five to six men and gave the Crew Chief a “good to go.” He took off quickly.
We made a mistake though, and the chopper I had just sent off was the last lift helicopter on site ready to retrieve us. Also, I miscounted the number of men taken out and realized that I was the only one left on the ground. You have to understand there were a lot of things going on at the same time so it was hard to keep everything sorted out.
I don’t think I panicked. My Troop Commander, Capt. Trujillo, came on the air for me. He had been at the target for quite some time flying a Huey himself. He realized what had happened and radioed me that he was coming in to get me. He did just that, even though he reported taking some pretty heavy enemy fire into his aircraft. As he came in he didn’t actually touch the ground, but was moving slowly across the LZ. I ran to the aircraft and one of the door gunners helped me in. I was oblivious to the enemy fire, and focused entirely on the job at hand, getting my butt out of there.
Once we got airborne and were out of the range of the enemy fire, I lit up a cigarette, but found that I already had one lit in my mouth. This was when I experienced what everyone had been talking about, the “pucker factor.” It happens when things are taking place around you that are so bizarre, and you are totally incapable of controlling the situation. You tighten up for a minute or two and feel helpless. I believe anyone that has gone into combat has experienced the “pucker factor” at some time.
We made it back to base met for a debriefing. It was estimated that the NVA actually had a battalion size unit on the ground in that area. An ARVN unit big enough to run them out was sent out to do so.
That mission was the one that has stuck with me for about 40 years now. For whatever reason, God decided it wasn’t my time to go, but he gave me a lot to think about, most of all, that we are not we are human and life can be very fragile.