On that previous operation we discovered a huge base camp laid out like a wagon wheel. It was full of bunkers designed for use by supply and service units. Only the outer ring of bunkers was fighting positions. We had gone in on the heels of an Arclight (B-52 strike) and found a few bodies and casualties during the time we spent there. We also found lit cigarettes on the ground, NVA ponchos, packs, food on cooking fires, etc., all indicators that the enemy was close. We removed a lot of supplies, captured a hospital (complete with a wounded NVA soldier who had received some fairly sophisticated medical care), and generally wreaked havoc with the place. The bunkers were very well built, and we were unable to destroy many of them. We even tried neutral steering a 60-ton VTR on top of one and it held up.
We moved out early on the morning of June 25, moving through the area we had been in a couple of days earlier when our mission to reinforce the infantry battalion NDP had been aborted, and we had combat-lossed three vehicles. This time we stayed off roads, and stayed in the Iron Triangle longer, entering the Trapezoid near the northwestern end of the Triangle.
Our objective was a large open area southwest of the bunker complex. We were going to use it as a base area from which we could move the Rome plows into the bunker complex. We entered the large clearing at approximately 1400 hours, and immediately began to set up our perimeter. I placed the attached tank platoon from 12 o'clock to 3 o'clock (with 12 being north -- they were in the northeast quadrant of the perimeter, which was the portion facing the direction of the bunker complex location, and the area I thought we'd be hit from if the enemy attacked us). The other three A Troop cavalry platoons completed the circle, and we had the infantry company dig their foxholes in between the tracks around the entire perimeter. The Engineer Company and the troop CP were in the center of the perimeter. I asked the engineer company commander to dig a trench that we could back a couple of HQ tracks into in order to make a covered TOC. They started on the ditch, but didn't get it dug out enough to put the tracks into it. The ditch was to come in handy later on that night.
The OIC for the operation was a Major (I believe his name was Smith) from Division HQ. As I recall it, he pretty much stayed out of the way and let us set up the perimeter as we saw fit. By dark, we had one strand of concertina wire up and all of the RPG screens erected in front of the tracks. The infantry guys had their fighting positions well underway. Sometime during that afternoon, my former Platoon Sergeant, SSG Godwin of 1st Platoon, informed me that a couple of the troopers had see some people watching us from the edge of the wood line. When the watchers saw that they were noticed, they disappeared.
As it started getting dark, the FO registered some on-call fires (again, mainly to the northeast of our position, and we settled in for the night. We did not put out any listening posts because the distance between the perimeter and the woodline would have made it impossible for us to pull the LP's back in if we were hit.
I normally slept in the A66 track (to be close to the radios), but with the Major from Division there, the track got a little crowded, so I decided to sleep on the ground beside the vehicle. I bedded down in a cluster of folks that included SSG Roderick "Pappy" Guy, HQ Platoon Sergeant, and SGT Gene Garrison, the Troop Senior Aid Man.
At about 0210, I was awakened to a rapid TUNG, TUNG, TUNG, TUNG, TUNG, TUNG sound coming out of the jungle to the east of our position. Somehow I recognized the sound as mortars being fired. I yelled, "incoming!" and started to get up to get to the track. One of the rounds impacted close by, knocking me down and wounding both SSG Guy and SGT Garrison. The mortar rounds kept coming in, as did RPG's which were being "lobbed" in, as well as being fired directly at the vehicles. By this time, the platoons were firing out 360 degrees around the perimeter. I got to the radio and called for a sitrep from the platoons. There were several men wounded, including one severely wounded man from the attached tank platoon. His name was SP5 Hipshman, and he was sleeping behind his tank when a mortar round landed next to his head. I directed that the wounded be brought in to the ditch. SGT Garrison stuck his head in the track and said that he was hurting pretty badly. I told him to go get in the ditch, and that I would call for a medevac. Instead, SGT Garrison risked his life by going to the perimeter and dragging other wounded soldiers into the aid station we were establishing in the ditch (he was subsequently awarded the Bronze Star w/V device for his actions that night, as well as the Purple Heart).
By this time, the enemy had opened up on us with small arms and at least one heavy machinegun (from the sound of the bullets passing overhead, it was a .51 caliber, and there may have been more than one). We began to put up hand flares, and I told the FO to fire his preplanned targets, and to get some illum ASAP. He was unable to contact the DS artillery unit, though he tried repeatedly. Of course, I was screaming at him to get me some damn illum and to put some counterbattery fire on those mortars. We eventually discovered that one of the mortar rounds had blown his radio antenna off. Once we got another antenna on, the arty started coming in, and we quit using our hand flares (though we used nearly all of them by the time the arty started coming in). The handflare situation was made more critical when, earlier in the attack, an RPG had struck a box of handflares that was hanging off the side of the turret of one of the tanks. The explosion was spectacular, and I thought the tank had taken a direct hit from the RPG and that it had penetrated the armor and hit some of the ammunition inside. I was about to move one of the HQ tracks to the perimeter to cover the gap when the smoke cleared and I saw the tank still sitting there firing. Everyone on it was OK.
Meanwhile, the dustoff had come on station, as had a couple of gunships from the 1st Cav Division. They were working on knocking out the .51 cal (or one of them, anyway), which they did. The dustoff said he was willing to come in, but I waved him off because the small arms, machinegun, mortar, and RPG fire was still too intense. That was the night I found out what being an officer really meant. I asked the dustoff to stay on station until things quieted down a bit, and he said he would. I then ran over to the ditch to check on the wounded. I went from man to man telling them that we had a dustoff on station and to hang on-that they were going to be OK. The medics were working on the more seriously hurt ones. When I got to Hipshman and told him he was going to be OK, the medic working on him (I believe it was SGT Garrison), said, "It's OK, sir; he just died."
That was the first man I had lost KIA; I'd had several wounded before, but nobody killed. I can't describe the feeling. Fortunately, I was really busy at that time, and really didn't have time to contemplate it until later on. I still find myself wondering if I'd let that dustoff come in when he first got on station if Hipshman would have made it. Of course, I could have just as easily ended up with a crashed helicopter and four more wounded. I'm sure that's not much comfort to Hipshman's family; it's not that much comfort to me, either.
After the 1st Cav Cobra knocked out the .51 cal, things quieted down, though we continued to take sporadic small arms and RPGs until daylight. About an hour before dawn, SSG Guy and I walked (jogged, actually) the entire perimeter talking to the troops and telling them to hang in there, and conferring with the platoon leaders and the infantry company commander. Recall that SSG Guy was wounded in the first burst of mortar fire, but he showed his courage and did his job, just like the rest of the troopers, tankers, and infantrymen did that night. Like SGT Garrison, SSG Guy received the Bronze Star w/V Device and the Purple Heart that night. Both soldiers were awarded their medals by the Division Commander at Lai Khe a couple of days after the action while they were recovering from their wounds.
At daylight the enemy broke contact. We had redistributed ammunition, and we called for more, as well as bringing in the dustoffs (it ended up taking a couple) to get the wounded out. Bill Newell came out on one of the resupply choppers. He thanked me for taking the unit in his absence and told me he had heard I had done a good job. It was a bittersweet thing for me; I was glad to see him back, and for my personal safety I was glad to be getting out of the field, but I really hated to leave that unit out there.
I thought at the time that this could have been my last night in the field. I was going back to a staff job (turned out to be the S4), and figured to spend the remainder of my tour doing that (though I really didn't want to-I had come to Vietnam to lead troops, not to push paper). But it was the Army and we do what we are told to do.
That was the start of a pretty difficult couple of months for A Troop. The NDP (I believe it was called Mons II) became a sea of mud (tanks literally sinking up to the sponson boxes), and they made lots of contact and hit lots of mines. They did succeed in completing the Rome plow operation and denying that base area to the enemy (at least while they were there). "Hardcore Alpha" once again proved itself Prepared and Loyal.
Thanks, Tommy Good job. That's a great story, and if fills in some stuff that I've been trying to sort out.
The night you talked about with the spectacular fireworks was supposed to be my last night in the field (I was Acting A6 while Bill Newell was on R&R, and he was due to return to the unit the next day). I remember the next morning, someone from First Platoon came by the CP track with a couple of beers -- I couldn't believe it! The beer was warm, but it sure did taste good after the night we'd been through.
I went back to be the Squadron S4 for about 1.5 months, and then went back out to the field with B Troop when John Guthridge got killed.
I'm going to send your story to Bill Haponski and Bill Baty for inclusion on the web site (and most likely in the book). Keep sending the memories (and thanks for serving your Country -- just in case nobody has said that to you lately).
This monograph is from SSG Tommy Mathis (AL2). Tommy was an outstanding NCO (moreso because he was one of the "instant" ones). He had lots of natural leadershiip ability, was cool in a crisis, and always led from the front. It was an honor to serve with him. One of the neat things about this project is that it has afforded me the opportunity to re-establish contact with so many fine Soldiers . . . (including you two guys!).
Carl Bell -----Original Message----- From: Thomas Mathis Sent: Monday, July 24, 2000 18:41 To: Carl Bell Subject: TRAPEZOID
Here are some memories about the trapezoid campaign. As you said, Tinsley had been with us a few weeks. The first platoon left La Khe sometime around the middle of June. We entered the Iron Triangle at Ben Cat, followed the same trek that you described in the Long Night essay. The difference is we went all the way to the old highway that followed the river down the southern edge of the Triangle. There was about 1/4 mile of jungle between the rubber and the river. We started moving down the scrub brush area that filled that area. We were about a mile down that corridor when a chopper pilot circling overhead began to talk to us. For some reason, we shared a frequency in that area with some helicopter unit. When we were in Di An, there was no problem, when we moved to La Khe, we began to walk on each others radio traffic. We were picking our way along, trying to find a good passage. The pilot informed us that we were in The Largest Known Minefield in Vietnam. We finally cleared the area without mine incidence. We were traveling on a semi paved road (as I said, it was at one time a major highway.) We soon hit a mine, disabling one of the tanks dusting off my gunner Kieth Frantsen who was walking point for the mine sweep team. We moved on into a fire support base that was being dismantled. We stayed the night there. I remember we were setting up for the night, there was an infantry platoon that was setting up with us. The infantry platoon leader asked me if his men could tie their panchoes to our ACavs for the night. I tried to explain that it would be better if they would deploy between the tracks and about 20 yards to the rear for better coverage and interlocking fire layout. They were content to tie their shelter to our ACavs. We then began to deploy our RPG screens in front of the tracks. They asked me what they were for. I explained the theory of the screen. They quickly unhooked their ties and moved 20 yards to the rear of us. That night , I think it was June 19 (my birthday) RPG's began to sail into our perimeter about 12:30. There was a small ground attack, several people in the place were dusted off.
The next day, we secured the area while the Fire Support Base was dismantled and blew up all the stuff left over. We then moved out down the highway once again. The road had spider holes all along it, lots of activity in the area. We had some Rvn rangers with us for a while that day, one of them stepped on an anti-personnel mine. We run onto several bicycles loaded with fresh vegetables. We had surprised a group of the bad guys moving supplies. One of the bicycles was loaded with turnip greens, the greens were still fresh, picked only a few hours, or less, before we arrived. Some time by late afternoon, (WE were now in the Trapezoid Area) another tank hit a mine. We now had two tanks down so we had to stop. While we were trying to deploy in a defensive position, one of the Acavs hit a mine. We were stuck. We set up and everyone was very nervous about mines. I told the mine sweep team to clear out between the tracks and in the center of the position where we would be walking. They made a half assed sweep of the area and come back and told me they had finished. I called the sweep team together and explained that we had now hit 4 mines behind their work and that if one of my troopers stepped on one more mine they should give their hearts to God, you know the rest. They set about their task with much more care and then reported the area clear. We put everyone on the ground with bayonets to probe for mines and clear the area. None were found.
We sat there on those tracks for two or three days without any contact but you could smell them nearby. We sank a boat going down the river that night. The question arose whether to destroy one of the tanks in place, and proceed or to wait for other help. I was asked to set the charges on the tank to destroy it. Later, a decision was made for the Troop tank retriever to follow a mine sweep team in and retrieve us. I sure was glad to see that unit coming down the road. We loaded the entire basic load off the two tanks onto AL2 and AL1. I was now riding on a few thousand pounds of high explosives. We cleared the highway without incident and made our was almost to the Rhone Plow support base that you described in your earlier post where the ground attack wounded the medic and the SSG. About 1/4 mile from the base, we linked up with some of the other platoons. They were making ready to enter a bunker complex. Jet support had been called in. We had a ring side seat to phantom jets working out, 100 yards in front of us. 200 lb bombs and napalm. We all come online to enter the complex. I talked to Tinsley and we made a decision to leave AL1 and AL2 to the rear because they were both loaded to the top with trank rounds. Everyone else went into the bunker complex and with little resistance, cleared the thing. I think the gooks left right ahead of the Phantoms, those that could. Some bodies and contraband was seized.
I was sitting on top of my acav watching everyone come back out of the bush. A group of infantry was walking across the open ground in front of my track. I was watching them, looking right at one of them when he a mine exploded at his feet sending him 20 ft into the air. We checked him out immediately, he had no marks on him but was dead. There was two or three panchos deposited beside my track with soldiers in them. He had hit one of the tilt rod mines you spoke of before.
We finally come together and all started to move into the Fire Support base where all the Rhone Plows were. I had to get rid of the tank rounds but nobody knew what to do with them. I took the two tracks and began to travel around the perimeter distributing tank rounds to the tanks. There was a tank company there besides the 1/4 cav. The mud was so deep in the areas where the tanks and Rhone Plows had traveled that it was up to my crotch. I waded the mud around the perimeter, distributing the tank rounds. It was night by now, I was sludging along through the mud from tank to tank with the acavs following me. All of a sudden the world fell out from under me. I had walked into the trash pit the dozers had dug to throw trash in. It was about 10 feet deep, my heart was in my throat, I felt of everything assuring myself I was still alive and trying to organize my thought. I walked out of the pit and nobody laughed, I guess it was so dark that they didn't know what had happened to me. I finished the task and went back and took a showere under a cold shower bag on a cold night in Viet Nam.
A couple of nights later was when the mortars or RPG's hit and wounded the guys we talked of. The fireworks display that night was spectacular. I remember one helicopter and an enemy machine gun going after it for several passes. Tracer rounds from the mini gun going down, tracer rounds from a Chi Com machine gun going up. I was impressed by that chopper pilot. The tracers from the ground finally subsided. I remember setting on AL5 talking to SSG Godwin when the first round hit. I jumped from the tank and was running toward my track when another round hit the brume between the two tracks. I nose-dived into the ground next to my track, the sight of the whole thing made me the butt of a lot of laughter after it was all over.
During this week, I come to the realization, We are finally in the war. I guess I didn't run into you out there, I didn't realize you were at that Fire Support Base, or I didn't remember .
Long winded but I couldn't find a stopping place. Next episode, The Return To La Khe.
Tommy "Tex" Mathis