Bob Rash had been a platoon leader when I got to A Troop, and since he had the most time in the field, when our XO, LT Dusty Pilcher rotated back to the States, Rash was made the XO. Rash did not want to go back to the field, in fact he didn't even stay in Lai Khe at night because of the regular rocket attacks. I think he felt like he had used up all his luck when he was a platoon leader and didn't want to push the issue. He had a hooch in Di An and made the drive to the troop rear in Lai Khe every day, hence the nickname, "Road Runner" Rash. The other distinction Bob had was that he was the only person I know of who called his wife over his VRC-46 radio from Thunder I; he was reading his SOI one night in his track and saw a FREQ and Call Sign for the Nui Ba Den retransmission station. He called them up and talked them into a MARS hookup back to the States, and he actually spoke with his wife. I've been in awe of him ever since! Anyway, I told Bob I'd be glad to go back out to A Troop; I knew the troop, knew how it operated, got along well with the 1SG, and knew the other platoon leaders and most of the NCO's. Besides, since my permanent assignment within the Squadron was still unknown, I was ripe for every crap detail that an officer could pull at the basecamp of the Big Red One. LTC Haponski, the Squadron Commander, gave his blessing, and off I went, back to A Troop.
On the day I'm writing about, we had been conducting three separate platoon-size reconnaisance in force missions (RIFs) north of Lai Khe and on both sides of Hwy 13. At about 1530 hours (the time we would normally start looking for a place to set up our night defensive position (NDP)), I received a call from the Squadron TOC telling me to assemble the troop at the south gate of Lai Khe by 1700 hours, and to be sure that we refueled all the vehicles at that time. Then we were to go into the Trapezoid to an infantry battalion NDP and reinforce them. They were deep in bandit country and expecting to get hit that night. I was also advised not to use the roads after we crossed the bridge at Ben Cat (a single-span Bailey bridge which could only take one tracked vehicle at a time), because they were suspected of being heavily mined (in fact the whole area was full of mines and booby traps). We had recently been briefed on a new mine which was thought to be in that area, called a tilt-rod mine. It was planted in the center of the road or trail and was designed to go off under the belly of an armored vehicle (where the armor is the thinnest).
The directions I was given to the infantry battalion NDP were to cross the Ben Cat bridge, move northwest across the northern portion of the Iron Triangle, and cross into the abandoned rubber plantation (which was rapidly becoming jungle again) at the base of the Trapezoid. We were to go north into the abandoned rubber plantation for several hundred meters until we found a road running roughly east west. That road would take us to our objective; nobody was quite sure where the objective was, but it was at the end of that road. I thought, "another hair-brained scheme from Division; it'll take us at least an hour to get all the tracks across the Ben Cat bridge, another 30-45 minutes to get across the Triangle and into the Trapezoid rubber, and who knows how long to bust that jungle to get to the infantry NDP. We'll parallel the road they said led to the NDP, but stay one or two rows of rubber off of it, in case it's mined. It will most likely be dark a long time before we get there, and busting jungle in the dark in bandit country is a great way to get ambushed. What a bunch of idiots!" When we left, I had no frequency or call signs for the infantry battalion we were going to reinforce, and when I asked about that, I was told that they would be given to me enroute.
We moved out around 1730, after topping off all the tracks. We got to the Ben Cat Bridge and crossed it one vehicle at a time, taking up defensive positions on the far side until all the vehicles were across (this was the Iron Triangle, after all, and most anything was possible there.). The crossing of the Triangle was uneventful. We had to be careful to dodge the bomb craters that were difficult to see in the Rome plow cut that had grown back up so that it was even with the top of an ACAV. As usual, we led with a tank. In this case, I believe the second platoon was in the lead of our column. The TC was PSG Farler. Order of march was lead platoon, troop HQ, and the other two platoons, plus the VTR.
As we entered the rubber, the shadows were getting long. We moved due north until we found the east-west road, crossed that road, and turned left (west) and paralleled the road one row of rubber off. The going was incredibly slow; the jungle was thick, and Farler's tank was having a tough go of it. As it got darker, I got more nervous. I knew that flares were useless in the rubber (I learned that during an all-night foray through the Michelin plantation a month or so earlier) and was anxious to rendezvous with the infantry battalion (whose call sign and frequency I still did not have, nor did I have firm coordinates on their location). "This is very, very flaky," I thought. The idea of linking up with these dug-in grunts in the dark, moving my vehicles into their perimeter, and establishing positions within their NDP without rolling over a fighting position or an infantryman we couldn't see seemed like a mighty difficult undertaking. I called 2nd platoon again to urge them on. 2nd Platoon (can't remember if it was the Platoon Leader, Mike Armstrong, or PSG Farler), recommended that we "thunder run" the road, because at the rate we were busting jungle, the trip to the NDP could take all night. I thought about it for about 30 seconds and said, "OK, let's do it." Bad mistake.
Farler busted his way to the road, turned onto it, and started moving out slowly to allow the remaining vehicles in the column to make it to the road. When I got the report that the last vehicle was on the road, I told 2nd Platoon to "kick it." At that time, I could still see PSG Farler's tank up ahead, but just barely. I happened to be looking at the tank when I saw a blinding yellow/red flash of light, heard a huge BOOM! and the whole rear end of the tank lifted off the ground! I also saw PSG Farler shoot straight up out of the cupola, almost level with the back of his thighs, and then fall back down into the cupola. I thought, "tilt-rod!'' as the tracks in the column herringboned and opened fire. This was done without command by me-it was "normal" battle drill when we were in bandit country. When it became evident that we were getting no return fire, I started yelling, "Cease Fire!" As most of you know, that was easier said than done-once cavalry troopers started shooting, it was difficult to get them to stop. I jumped off my vehicle and went to Farler's tank. It was not burning, but it had severe damage to the engine compartment and a huge hole in the bottom. Evidently, the vehicle was going fast enough that the mine (which should have gone off under the crew compartment, went off under the engine). Farler was on the ground then, as were his crew. They were shook up pretty badly, but (except for some scratches and bruises and ringing ears) not hurt.
I went back to my track and reported what had happened to the Squadron TOC. I then ordered the platoon leaders to move their vehicles into the jungle on each side of the road so the VTR could move up. I advised them to have their men be vigilant; the bad guys knew for sure we were here now, and they might try to move against us. As I was formulating a plan to move another platoon into the lead and bust jungle for the rest of the night, I got a call from Squadron. "Abort the mission and return to Lai Khe." "Well god-DAMN," I thought.
We got the VTR up to PSG Farler's tank and were hooking it up for towing when the incoming small- arms fire began. It was sporadic, probably from no more than a squad-size enemy unit. They could get pretty close in the jungle, but the firing seemed to be coming from at least 50 meters out (which in that jungle was a good ways). We returned fire in heavy volume. The VTR crew got the tank hooked up in record time. We suppressed the enemy fire and turned the column around and moved off the road due south toward the Iron Triangle. So far on this mission I had combat-lost one tank and had no confirmed enemy killed to show for it (but the crew of that tank was pretty much OK, thank goodness).
Once we broke out of the rubber and crossed the road that formed the northern boundary of the Iron Triangle, I asked my FO (I believe his name was LT Borsos) to see if he could get some illumination for us. It was quite cloudy, and there was very little ambient light. I was concerned that we might lose a vehicle in a bomb crater (in fact, about a month later, B Troop had an ACAV go into a bomb crater in the Triangle; the vehicle flipped over and the TC was crushed).
The FO got some illum going, and about that time sporadic sniper fire broke out from the rubber. We got beyond the range of that pretty quickly, but then were faced with another problem. The illum rounds were going off right over us, and the shell canisters were dropping around us. I asked the FO to move the illum back toward the north - we would still get the benefit from it, but it wouldn't be dropping the canisters around us. He said he would, but couldn't seem to adjust the fire away from directly over our heads.
As we continued through the Rome plow cut, I got a frantic message on the radio from the troop medic, SP5 Gene Garrison. He said that someone had thrown a grenade into his track. This was entirely possible, given the height of the Rome plow growth we were moving through, but I heard no explosion. I asked if he was sure, and was anybody hurt. He said nobody was hurt and that he'd get back to me. We continued to move across the northern part of the Triangle toward the Ben Cat Bridge. When he called me back he told me that one of the illum canisters had gone through the open troop hatch on his ACAV, through a 5-gallon water can, a case of C-Rations, the sandbags on the floor of the track, and stuck in the bottom of the track itself. That meant I had combat-lost a second vehicle that night (when the armor is penetrated, the vehicle is considered a combat-loss). Of course, since the vehicle was still driveable, we would continue to use it while we waited for its replacement.
Shortly after that, it started to rain, and the rain came in torrents and we quickly got soaked to the skin. We continued toward the Ben Cat Bridge, and when we got to the bridge, we crossed in the rain - one vehicle at a time. We turned the guns of the vehicles waiting to cross to the rear in case the bad guys decided to mess with us.
Getting the dead tank across was quite an operation., and a tribute to the professionalism of the VTR crew. The VTR towed the tank to the near end of the bridge, stopping just before getting on the bridge, and un-coupled the tank. The VTR then crossed the bridge, turned around, and the crew deployed its wench cable back across the bridge and hooked it onto Farler's dead tank. It continued to rain the whole time this operation took place. The VTR crew skillfully wenched the dead tank across the bridge, unhooked the wench cable, turned back around, and hooked up the tank for towing again. The remainder of the unit crossed without incident, and we moved out for Lai Khe. Of course, we had to get concertina wire removed at several places, and then had to convince the REMF MP's at the south gate of Lai Khe to let us in. It continued to rain. We were all soaked, and pretty pissed off.
I reported in to the TOC via radio that we had closed Lai Khe, and was told to park the vehicles in the troop motor pool. I asked if I should personally come to the TOC, and was told there was nobody there but the duty officer to whom I could report. By this time, it was well after midnight. I was soaked, as was everyone else in the unit. I went back to the Troop HQ/Rear Operations Center with a couple of the officers (don't remember who just now), thinking, "This has been one hell of a day." There was some cold beer in somebody's refrigerator or ice chest, and we broke out a couple of those.
Suddenly, the sirens started wailing, and we heard explosions-rocket attack! I crawled under a table with a couple of other folks and we waited out the attack. One of the troopers came running up from the motor pool and said that one of our tracks had taken a direct hit from a 122mm rocket. Don't remember which track, or which platoon it was from. I asked if everyone was OK, and was told, "Yes, everyone is fine; nobody was on the vehicle." I said a silent prayer of thanks and walked down to inspect the damage. It was impossible to ascertain the extent of it with my flashlight, so I decided to postpone further inspection of my third combat-lost vehicle of the day until daylight (which, by that time, was not that far off). I found a cot, crawled into it, pulled a poncho liner over my head, and went to sleep. My last conscious thought was, "this has been a long day; thank goodness we didn't lose anyone." Several days later we went back into the Trapezoid, but that's another story.