It was late February or early March 1969. I had been Dragoon Bravo 16 for about a month. We were in Di An base camp and tonight was my platoon's turn to pull RRF. It was my first RRF, but I had watched the other platoons pull it repeatedly without getting an order to roll. It was just a routine thing to do.
When we were RRF, we slept on the tracks in the motor pool. The barracks were only about 500 feet away. I had noticed that everyone broke out the litters to sleep on, and hung ponchos and so on, and I recognized that all of that had to be collapsed and stowed before the tracks could roll. I discussed this with my Troop B commander, Captain Carroll Dennis. I argued that the RRF hardly ever rolled out, that the barracks building was a 30 second sprint from the tracks, that the radio room was next to the barracks and the CQ could rouse us if something became active on the net, and the tracks could be cranked instantly because there would be nothing to stow. I added that we hardly ever spent a night in camp and that a bunk was a luxury that these field soldiers deserved on such rare opportunities. He agreed to the experiment and we happily racked out in our bunks. I ordered everyone to sleep uniformed except for boots.
Of course it happened. I don't recall the hour, but the CQ was shaking me awake and telling me that division wanted me going out the west gate (or was it the east gate? 31 years makes it murky). It must have been around 2230 or 2300.
My NCOs did a good job motivating movement, but as the engines came to life I did notice a few stragglers and I got angry ..... I think we took about three or four more minutes to start moving than we should have. I made a note to myself that this was the end of the experiment, thanks to only a few who ruined it for the rest of the guys.
As we rumbled toward the gate, I was instructed to change to Squadron push and call Dragoon 3. I was informed that an ARVN convoy, with American advisors, had been en route to change the guard on a bridge at Lai Thieu and had been ambushed with casualties. They were pinned down on the road and the firefight was continuing. The gate would already be open and we were to proceed to the firefight and take appropriate action upon arrival.
Love that old Army term ..... "take appropriate action." In other words, "Use your imaginuity, son, and don't screw up."
We arrived at the gate to find it still closed. I keyed the boom mike and informed Dragoon 3. My platoon sergeant, "Pappy" Leonard, was yelling at the MP, but he had his orders. No one goes out the gate after dark without orders from higher. Dragoon was going to have to make this one happen. After an interminable period of six or seven minutes, the MPs listlessly began to pull the concertina wire out of the road. Removing the three strands took a few more minutes, then we were through and rolling at top speed on the paved highway to Lai Thieu.
After five minutes I could see parachute flares and I knew we were nearing the firefight. I was nervous as an FNG, but it was not my first contact and I was very busy anyway. "Pappy" reported seeing the ARVN duece and a half up ahead and soldiers in the ditch firing toward the cemetery. A couple of them waved at us and seemed to cheer.
I thought to myself, "Wow. Some things endure throughout history. I'm John Wayne in "Fort Apache" or in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." The wagon train is about to be overrun by the Indians, but the Cavalry appears on the horizon, the bugler sounds the charge, and the Cavalry rides to the rescue." I had an urge to regress to the officers club at Fort Knox and shout orders over the radio, "Horse handlers to the rear! Carbines Forward! Form skirmish line! Draw sabers! At a gallop .... CHARGE!" I suppressed the urge, most likely to everyone's complete satisfaction. And thank God I did, for at the time I didn't know that Dragoon had my platoon push up and the entire TOC was listening to every word I said. Lieutenants had enough image problems without that kind of help.
I then saw that we had no manuever room. There was a large cemetery to the right and the built up village of Lai Thieu on the left with rice paddy behind. We were road bound. I ordered the platoon to drive directly into the kill zone to the ARVNs and to herringbone and open up with every weapon we had for a mad minute, then to identify and take out individual targets. I wanted the VC to be psyched out at our firepower and to run away shrieking "choi oi" as they abandoned their weapons and tore off their uniforms. It didn't work quite that way.
As my ACAV got near the duece and a half, I saw an object in the middle of the highway. I then realized with some horror that it was the head of an ARVN soldier. That was when I realized that this wasn't a case of someone panicking at a shadow; there were VC there and they were shooting. My smile went away. My back felt like an icy fist had gripped it and my pucker factor went to 10. As I keyed the mike, I thought I heard shivering in my voice and I thought "Yeah. Some John Wayne you are!" But when I asked Pappy privately later, he said everyone thought I sounded calm and cool and reassuring. I should have made a career in Hollywood.
The mad minute impressed us all, or at least me, as it was my first one. I fired to both sides of the road from a herringbone, as I was unsure from where the ambush came. The ARVNs were firing into the cemetery to the right, but one of my tracks had reported seeing muzzle flashes from the huts in the village to the left.
I ordered "Cease fire! Cease fire! If you see VC, engage them, but fire on identified targets only." It became very quiet. The scene was illuminated by flares and my tanks had their Xenons searching. I saw an American get up and begin moving up and down the row of ARVNs in the ditch, and I figured he was the advisor. I wondered if it was John Cook; I had met him and Major Chau (Di An District Chief) a couple of weeks earlier. Then I remembered that Lai Thieu was not in Di An District.
I was eyeballing the cemetery when I saw a shadowy figure crouched over but running fast from one headstone to another. I keyed the mike again, "All Lima elements, they are trying to run. I see them at the back of the cemetery. I'll mark the spot; all elements try to get a target back there!" I grabbed my thump gun and launched a round toward the headstone. I figured I could adjust fire like a TC to a gunner. To my surprise, although it remained my secret, the round exploded almost exactly where I had seen the VC running. So I keyed the mike and said, "That's the spot. Watch for movement and engage on sight."
But it was over. We never got another target. After a quiet five or ten minutes, I ordered SSG McDougal to take a dismounted patrol out through the cemetery to the back of the graveyard, through the area where I had seen the movement. The ARVNs also paralleled with a patrol to the left of mine. Both patrols made it to the jungle line behind the cemetery without incident. The VC had fled. I was glad; I knew I had masked the fires of all my mounted weapons by sending men straight out in front of the tracks, but I couldn't see an alternative. I had decided though, that if something popped I would send tracks out into the graves flanking the dismounted men. That would desecrate a lot of graves and I didn't want to consider the aftermath. But none of it occurred.
I dismounted and walked over to Pappy's tank. I smiled and said, "Guess that worked OK. We didn't take any fire ourselves." Pappy gave me a funny look and pointed at the .50 cal ammo box in the tank bustle rack below where he was sitting. It had a nice round 7.62 bullet hole in it. It had been up on his commander's cupola on his cal fifty ready rack. Some VC rifleman had tried for him.
I have often wondered if today he is still OK with that close call. I don't know where he is to ask.
I never met the American advisor that night. After the dismounted sweep, some Ruff Puffs showed up and we were ordered back to Di An. Upon returning, we found the gate closed again, but it was instantly opened without argument. I think the MPs had heard our mad minute and were more respectful.
I bedded down the platoon ..... ON the tracks ...... and went to Squadron HQ as ordered via radio. When I entered the TOC, the squadron commander, LTC Bill Haponski, came into the room to meet me. I remember the scene mostly because he was wearing an OD t-shirt, boxer shorts, and dog tags. I wondered if one saluted a superior officer attired in his underwear. The boss stuck his hand out, shook my hand, congratulated me on a great job, and spent some time debriefing me in detail. Then he said, "Division says you did a great job but it took you too long to get moving initially." I said, "But the holdup was getting the gate open. I could have taken another five minutes starting out and still not been there any sooner." The commander just gave me a look and said, "Next time get moving faster." I knew he was right and I shut up forever on that subject.
I doubt that the "Firefight at Lai Thieu" appears in the histories anywhere. But it is forever recorded in mine.