Captain Dennis called a troop formation and he held a heart to heart talk with the troopers, explaining why the bar had to be closed. I heard one NCO say, "Captain, we are going north tomorrow. The last time we did that was Fire Base Rita, so we know there's a good chance that some of us will not come back to Di An. That's why we are partying." The old man was understanding but did not yield, and everyone settled down for the night. He had made a smart move. We were restricted to the squadron area, so the various clubs were fortunately out of bounds.
I had heard much of Fire Base Rita (November 68) from Johnny Walker, my predecessor as B16, and Walt Crowder, current B5 and former B36. The fighting had been heavy and fierce, and I had no desire for a similar experience. But I suspected I was going to get it.
I remembered my shock earlier that morning when I had gone to the PX barber shop, figuring that a long time might pass before I could get another haircut. Our participation in Operation Atlas Wedge was classified, so I was shocked to have my petite young Vietnamese barber clip my hair and say, "So, Troung Uy, tomorrow you go north!" I just looked dumbly at her and said, "We're Cav. We go everywhere." She didn't pursue it ..... but I thought, "Well, we won't be surprising anyone!"
The next day, the 1st Squadron, 4th United States Cavalry rolled out the gates of Di An. I had never seen the squadron road march together, and I was impressed with how invincible we seemed. What awesome power we wielded. It was a heady day.
The built up, pacified outskirts of Saigon gave way to jungle, and the asphalt gave way to laterite and red dust clouds. We were "up north." Indian country.
Contact was minimal at first, as we jungle-busted and cloverleafed and outposted roads. We went through the Hobo Woods, we worked the Trapezoid thoroughly, we entered the infamous Iron Triangle where so many had already died in this war. And, on 29 March 1969, we neared the Michelin Rubber Plantation. It still operated under French control in the midst of the war, with seeming disregard for caring about whose army was hanging out in the orderly rows of rubber trees. I have refused to buy Michelin tires ever since this experience.
The main thing I recall about 29 March is thinking, "Be very careful today. Don't ruin your mother's birthday." I didn't. But I didn't call her as I ordinarily did, either.
On the morning of 30 March 1969, we were going into the Michelin all the way. We had a stream to our left flank and another to our right flank. These two streams converged gradually to the south of us and merged into one larger stream. We were in the open mouth of a watery "Y", and we were to sweep southward until we reached the juncture of the two streams. We were sternly warned to not knock down any rubber trees, as Uncle Sammy had to shell out big bucks if we did. Intelligence had the 7th Division of the North Vietnamese Army camped in there. This time, Intelligence was intelligent.
Bravo Troop deployed on line, with left to right order being Mike, November, Lima. As Lima, I believe we were the right flank. I had no knowledge of any friendlies to my right.
We began to move down the neat rows of rubber trees. B6 told us platoon leaders not to fire without permission; there were other friendlies in the AO. I rogered.
We halted. We sat for some time. I then saw ACAVs and Sheridans approaching in a column toward me from my right. Seeing Sheridans, I knew it was the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, as no one else in Nam had Sheridans (thank God). Bumper markings soon confirmed that. As they neared, we noticed how somber they were. No waving, no smiles. Just the "thousand yard stare." Then I saw a litter lying on the open cargo hatch of an ACAV. A pair of jungle boots was sticking out from under a lumpy poncho ....... a body that they had so far been unable to evacuate. I was surprised; I had not heard any firing. They passed on through my platoon silently except for the diesels.
I wondered why no one had radioed me that I had friendlies approaching my position. That seemed flaky to me. But I also knew that none of us would have fired on approaching armor, as we had never seen the NVA use armor. That would change in a few years.
We began to move forward again, on a radioed order from B6.
I had my VRC 12 on platoon push and my aux was on troop push. The aux was mostly silent, and that was unnerving. I tried calling B6, but there was no answer. M5 called B6 to say I was trying to reach him, but no response. I was experienced enough to know that this meant that CPT Dennis was being kept heavily on the the Squadron frequency. I wished I had a second aux so that I could listen to Squadron net. I did have a PRC 77 hanging on the back of my seat. I used it for dismounted patrols. But it only had a handset, no speaker, and I really couldn't keep the handset to my ear under the CVC helmet.
I heard small arms fire and some "whumps" coming from the left flank ..... November element. After a moment, I heard SSG "Mac" MacDonald, the commo chief, on the troop net with "Mike Five, Lima Six, Bravo Six wants you to hold in place. Hold in place." I rogered and keyed the platoon net, "Lima elements hold up. Hold up. Hold in place."
Then, on the troop net: "Bravo Six, November Five. Bravo Six, November Five." "Go, November Five." "We took an RPG. Driggers and Brown are dead and I'm wounded." More silence, but the crescendo of fire to the left flank was increasing. I did not know it until much later, but SGT Garrick had tried to get to PSG McGrath's tank to assist and protect ...... McGrath was a little ahead of the line ..... and the ACAV took an RPG that cut through the TC's gunshield like it was butter and Garrick died instantly. Elsewhere, other troopers were going down. Twelve of us died in very short order that day; many more sustained various degrees of wounds.
"Lima elements, Lima Six. We have enemy in the area. November is in contact, Driggers and Brown are dead and November Five is wounded. Everybody up, everybody up, all weapons ready to fire. Tell me if you see movement or take fire. We still have received no clearance to fire. We still have received no clearance to fire."
"Bravo Six, Lima Six. Am I clear to fire on identified targets?" Silence.
"Bravo Six, Lima Six. Am I clear to fire, over?" Silence.
"Lima Six, Lima Four."
"I have movement to my front. People running around with rifles."
"Four, Six. Keep me posted; I am trying to get clearance to fire."
"Bravo Six, Lima Six, over!" No response.
"Six, Four. I can identify AKs and NVA uniforms. They're not friendlies."
(pushing buttons rapidly on the 12) "Roger Four." "Brovo Six, Lima Six I need clearance to fire OVER!" Silence........ "Four, Six. Are you POSITIVE it's Charlie?" "Roger that!" "Six, Three, I see them too, it's Charlie."
"Roger ..... all Lima elements commence firing. Commence firing. I'll get permission tomorrow." We cut loose with everything. And so did the NVA. I guess they had waited for us to introduce ourselves properly.
An RPG streamed in and exploded on the ground next to the ACAV to my left front. Then one exploded on the ground about ten meters from my own track. I flinched and wondered if I was hit ....... decided I was lucky this time. Another RPG exploded near me about where the first one had hit. I got off my seat and stood in the hatch of the ACAV to be hopefully a little better protected ...... but if we took a direct RPG ....... I had often joked with PSG Leonard that he and I were marked men for having three radio antennas on his tank and my ACAV when every other track in the platoon only had one. I had facetiously told him I wanted him to scrounge a bunch of antennas and add two more dummy ones to every track in the platoon.
Right now, I was sorry he hadn't taken me seriously.
The incoming fire stopped and gradually our outbound fires dwindled as we failed to find targets. Now there was artillery landing about a click to the south and we had gunships above. Lima Four called for the medic. As Doc ran to the track, I got a sitrep from every vehicle. We had some cuts from shrapnel and debris, but it was all band aid stuff. We had been extremely fortunate.
SSG MacDonald called me. "Lima Six, do you have any wounded?" "Affirmative, but nothing we can't handle here on site. No dustoff needed at this time" SSG MacDonald fervently said, "Thank God!" I still didn't know about the other casualties, so I didn't appreciate that exchange as much as I did later.
After a while, Bravo Six told us to move out slowly and carefully, taking care to clear any bunkers completely. We began to advance.
We entered a bunker complex. I had one man dismount from each track and formed an infantry squad to clear bunkers. Rice was still cooking over fires and laundry was hanging on lines. We threw hand grenades into each bunker, then had a look inside. Nothing but signs of a hasty departure.
We slowly moved through the base camp. Then ...from a bunker about 20 meters to my front ...... an AK on full automatic emptied a 20 round magazine right at us. My dismounted patrol hit the dirt as bullets struck all around them. I wish I could remember some names, but I just can't without a roster. One sergeant went down clutching his shin and rolled over twice; I and PSG Leonard both thought he had taken a bullet. So did he. It turned out to be a rock thrown by a bullet and he was only bruised. I called B6 and said, "I'm in contact again, hold up the line." MacDonald rogered. One of my men yelled "Throw me a LAW and I'll take them out!" I thought for a moment, and knew that no one in the platoon had fired a LAW since I had arrived and probably not since basic training. I had a vision of hitting our own, and I yelled "Negative! Too close!" I ordered two cal fifties to fire into the bunker for suppression, then sent the dismounted men around the left flank with orders to get grenades into the bunker. This was accomplished, and the bunker was silent. We pulled three bodies out of it and laid them out alongside the bunker. The wounds were obvious enough that there was no question that they were dead. We collected three AK-47s and other equipment and some documents, then notifed higher and continued the advance.
Through the next hours, we got off some shots at fleeing NVA, but no more heavy contact occurred. We were warned that D Troop's Aerorifles had been inserted south of us as an anvil to our hammer, but they were at least a click away and we never saw them.
I cannot recall if this is the same day or the following day, but I'm fairly certain that it was the next day, 31 March, that we continued the clearing of the base camp, and we arrived at the stream bed. I dismounted, and, leaving PSG Leonard in charge of the tracks, took a dismounted patrol along the stream bed. We saw numerous holes dug into the bank of the stream. I was carrying an M-16 instead of my usual thump gun, and I checked out the first hole I came to. Empty. Second hole .... one of my NCOs peeked around the corner and was looking into the eyes of two NVA. He started squeezing the trigger then realized they were not armed. As I backed him up at the entrance to the hole, he waved them to come outside. They did. They were unarmed and wounded and had clearly been left behind as unable to travel. One had a bullet hole in his armpit that exited from his back; I could not understand how he was walking. The other was shot in the thigh. They were both shaking as if it were winter in Canada. I placed them both on litters and evacuated them back to the troop CP. I don't know what happened to them after that.
We continued the search of the stream bed. I soon saw another hole with a foot sticking out of it. I watched the foot for a while and it did not move at all. I wondered if he was just playing possum, and there was no safe way to approach closer, so I shot the foot. It still didn't move. I then approached and found an unarmed, bandaged body. He, too, had been left behind, but he had succumbed to his wounds before we found him. We followed the stream bed to the actual juncture, where we were halted. We found three more bodies in holes along the way. We did not find a weapon or anything of intelligence value. The NVA were gone and had taken everything except the wounded who could not self-propel.
Bravo Troop was then pulled out and we left the rubber plantation behind. Many of us also left behind our boyhood. We also left the souls of twelve young Squadron cavalrymen whose names may today be seen on The Wall. All twelve names are in a neat and orderly row, one right after the other. Just like rubber trees.