After the usual routines of NDP life at the end of a hard day, I was summoned to troop headquarters for planning the next day's mission. I had already met the new Alpha Six when he first arrived, but now we were meeting after his Operations briefing for the next day. In addition to a new troop commander, we had a new mission. It was to be an S&D foray into NVA held jungle, but with a brand new tactic. We were going to use a "box" formation.
The box was a concept that someone in our headquarters had invented and Dragoon Six had decided that 18 April was the day to try it for the first time. In standard S&D jungle crashing operations, we entered the jungle in a single file column, with the lead tank clearing the way. It was very slow and was easily thwarted whenever the lead vehicle was attacked. The box was unique and untried.
We were to place all six tanks in the troop on line, fender-to-fender. They would be next to one another and almost touching. The ACAVs were to form a box behind the tanks. With seventeen ACAVs in the troop, they were to be four deep and six across lined up behind the tanks. The box was formed as depicted below, where tanks are shown as X's and ACAVs as A's:
XXXXXX AA AA AA AA A A A AAAAAAThe formation was therefore to be about 100 feet wide. The tanks would fire their main guns to the front with canister and .50-caliber machine guns, while the ACAVs on the flanks would fire their .50-caliber and M-60 machine guns to the flanks, and the last row of ACAVs would provide rear security. The ACAVs in the middle would be the troop commander, and the other troop headquarters' vehicles, including two flame-thrower vehicles. The flame-throwers were nicknamed as "zippos", after the famous cigarette lighters we all carried.
Of course we had many questions about the mechanics of how and why, but the decision was already made. When I assembled my TCs later they expressed the same, plus many other questions and uncertainties. All this planning for something brand new was very time consuming and it was well after midnight before any of us even tried to sleep. It had been a long and harrowing day and tomorrow promised a lot of unknowns - both about the heavily fortified NVA base camps and the new and untried box formation.
But, our night would be short. A little before 4:00 a.m., all hell broke loose. Mortar rounds began hitting all around us. With the heat at night, most crewmembers slept outside. The initial onslaught threw a lot of shrapnel in my platoon's area and six men were wounded right away. No one on my vehicle was hit. The medic, from my vehicle ran to all of our wounded and gathered them into my vehicle. None of the wounds appeared to be life threatening, but all were bleeding, and some profusely. That was my first experience with the smell of blood. I had never before known that blood had an odor, but I learned otherwise. For weeks afterward, my "bed" would smell of blood, constantly reminding me of that night.
One of the troop headquarters vehicles took a direct hit and started burning. The sky was filled with both the light of flares and the flames from the burning truck. With the shrapnel flying all around, we closed, but did not secure the back hatch on the ACAV. In case of a direct hit, we didn't want to be sealed, but we did want overhead protection. Finally, after an interminable time, the shelling ceased. We were lucky. Other than the original six, my platoon had no other casualties and no vehicles were hit.
As dawn broke, dustoffs arrived and we were able to evacuate the wounded. Three-Five and I immediately began figuring out how to rearrange crews to cover all vehicles and make up for the six who were just dusted off. As we were getting into full daylight, Pete, my TC came looking for me. Our driver, Younger, had discovered that the hubs of all six of the road wheels on the right side of our vehicle were shattered.
Three-Five and I went with them to survey the damage. In addition to the damaged road wheels, there were shrapnel scrape marks all over the side of the vehicle. Looking at the pattern of the shrapnel, it appeared the blast was centered about chest high. We then discovered a small tree about seven or eight feet away from the vehicle that had been cut off at about that same height. The splinters from the wound on the sapling's trunk were splayed towards the ACAV. The chilling reality suddenly became apparent. That was not merely a mortar attack. A gook had fired an RPG right at the side of my vehicle. Under the cover of the mortar barrage, he had evidently snuck up close to our perimeter. He probably saw us gathering the wounded into my vehicle. He got off a good shot and only a very small sapling prevented him from killing ten of us. The sapling was only about an inch or two in diameter. If his RPG shot had been an inch in either direction, we would have been history. I couldn't believe how close we had come to annihilation.
But there was no time for thinking or supposing. I got the troop mechanics to assist our mechanic and my crew and they got us ready to roll within a short time. There was no hot breakfast that day due to the direct hit on one of the mess hall trucks during the mortar attack. By about 6:30 or 7:00 we were ready to go and learn what the box formation would be about. Under the leadership of the new Alpha Six we left the NDP with my platoon again in the lead and headed for the area that had been identified as a probable NVA base camp. After about an hour we reached our staging area. In the grass of the clear area next to a large tract of jungle, we proceeded to move into the box, facing the wall of the jungle. I was surprised at how quickly the formation materialized. I had mistakenly thought it would be more difficult to construct, but all TCs seemed to grasp the concept and knew their assigned slots. After the formation jelled, we started moving toward the treeline of the jungle.
As we came within a few meters of the jungle, the tanks began firing their canister rounds into the thick underbrush. Then, upon reaching the treeline, the tanks set about pushing down the standing larger trees still in front of them. Progress was slow, but we inched our way into the jungle. From my vantage point on the right flank, it appeared we were clearing trees for the construction of an interstate highway. The wide swath of the troop left nothing but cleared jungle.
After about thirty or so minutes, we were probably about a hundred meters into the jungle. Suddenly, the jungle came alive with fire. The tanks increased their rate of fire of both canister and .50-caliber to the front and the ACAVs on the flanks laid down heavy machine gun fire to the sides. And we continued to bulldoze forward.
Within minutes, we could see remnants of bunkers and holes in the ground start to appear. We were driving through a heavily fortified underground complex of NVA bunkers, and enjoying overwhelming firepower superiority. The weight of the tanks was crushing bunkers, and the crews of the ACAVs in the middle of the box formation were firing rifles and dropping grenades into the exposed bunkers and tunnel network. We were devastating the bunker complex.
At one point, the tanks up front were coming under very heavy fire from concealed and fortified positions. In addition to the RPG and AK-47 fire, we were also gassed. We all suddenly felt burning eyes and skin, and were coughing. Charlie was using gas on us! Luckily, it was only something like tear gas. We put on our gas masks and kept moving and firing. Within minutes the gas dissipated and we removed our masks and were once again able to breathe clearly.
Alpha Six had one of the tanks on the front line nearest the resistance back out of line and he ordered one of the zippos forward into its slot. The intense flames and heat from the flame-thrower immediately eliminated the enemy fire. The zippo created a conflagration similar to that produced by napalm. The gooks who were not burned outright were deprived of oxygen and suffocated.
There was shrapnel flying all over us. My driver got hit on the hand, and the medic treated him immediately. A couple of my vehicles also took some shrapnel hits and before I realized what he was doing, my medic jumped down to the ground and ran from vehicle to vehicle treating the many small wounds. He was actually jumping over holes and bunkers. I was scared that he would hit a booby trap or a wounded gook would see him up close and eliminate him. His actions without regard to his personal safety were beyond his duty. I decided right then to recommend him for a Silver Star.
We continued our unstoppable forward progress until we were sure we had completely overrun the base camp. Intelligence officers, who immediately came in to survey the scene, estimated it had been a company-sized NVA base camp and we were credited with over a hundred kills. Of course, kill ratios were an important part of the measurement of American success in Viet Nam at that time.
We had expended most of our load of ammunition during that foray and were rewarded with an early return to the NDP for re-supply. The box formation was a huge success! Praise was being showered everywhere for the destruction of the NVA camp. My troops had conducted themselves perfectly! On the way back to the NDP, I made a decision and broadcast it to the whole platoon. I was going to put everyone in for a medal. A Silver Star for the medic and Bronze Stars with "V" devices (denoting valor) or Army Commendation Medals with "V"s for everyone else. That afternoon, I got the TCs to begin collecting facts from their crews and I called MSG McCord and our troop clerk back in Phu Loi to enlist their help in preparing the citations and documentation. Over the next few weeks, we collaborated to complete the recommendations. Eventually, as far as I know, they all did receive their medals.
It meant a lot of work, but I was a firm believer in the concept that if you take care of your men, they will take care of you. Plus, these guys were professional and performed so well under extreme conditions, that they earned and deserved recognition. Of course, Three-Five was a big influence and help in bringing about this mass award. That day, our team fully materialized, with our lightening bolt-decorated vehicles. We were a strong unit!
The medic became a new person. He was a Mexican-American kid, whose name I wish I could remember, but I think it was similar to Vasquez (which is how I will refer to him in this account). Prior to that day, he had been an overweight, shy, introverted guy, whose voice we hardly ever heard. The Silver Star brought about a complete personality transformation. He gained self-assurance, and with it, over the next few weeks, we discovered a likeable, witty person who suddenly fit in with the rest of the platoon. Gone were his shy and subservient traits. I felt proud of my part in recognizing his bravery and helping to bring out the real person. I suspect that may have been the first time in his life that he had received positive recognition for something he did. A couple of days later I learned that the confusion and excitement of those days resulted in another medal for me. As I collected the pieces of the puzzle, it seemed that Dragoon Six apparently told two people about putting me in for an award. The first one got his message correctly, but the second one got caught up in the confusion of two consecutive days of action. It resulted in a Bronze Star with "V" for the actions on 18 April when we overran the NVA battalion base camp. In the citation I finally saw several months later, I learned that I was credited with leading the force and even employing the zippo. If I thought I was undeserving of the Silver Star, this was far more unearned. The Silver Star resulted from a different perception of facts, while the Bronze Star was based on fiction. I was merely there. I did nothing heroic. In two long days, I had received more medals than most career officers ever dream of, and I hadn't truly earned either one. In my mind, my only worthy accomplishment was no more deaths of my men and survival for me - and both had only been a hair's width away. The other platoon leaders were doing the same things and were heavily involved in the same recent actions, but received no awards. This realization started my guilt feelings about these medals for which I had been nominated. I honestly felt I had done nothing out of the ordinary. I just did my job, but under difficult circumstances.
Our celebration was short lived. That night, we came under heavy mortar fire once again, but without any casualties. Shortly after the incoming rounds began falling, the TC of one of my tanks called. He was seeing tube flashes from the mortars in the village out in front of us. He asked me for permission to drop a round of 90mm high explosives into the village. I instinctively knew better than to seek permission from higher up. Based on my own decision, I quietly instructed him to fire just one round, which he immediately did. With the din of incoming rounds, no one in the troop headquarters heard the tank fire, and I got no questions as to why. Within a few seconds, the mortars stopped and never started again. We stayed in that NDP for two more weeks and never were fired upon again. I knew that directing fire into a civilian village would have been considered wrong, but I felt we had to do something to fight back. If we carefully obeyed all the rules we could not survive. The lives of my men were more valuable than obeying "no fire" zones. We were given certain ranges of azimuths that we were not allowed to fire into, which included that village. Both .50-caliber and 90mm explosive rounds can travel for several miles. Therefore, we were forbidden from firing in directions where certain civilian and military facilities were located, unless we were returning fire. If I had been caught, I would simply claim that we were returning fire. But, I never heard any repercussions. I have hoped and prayed for over thirty years that no women, children, or innocent men were killed or hurt by our fire.
The next day we headed for a different area to conduct the same type of S&D operation using the box formation. This time, I was assigned the rear guard responsibility and my ACAV was at the left rear corner of the box. As we did the previous day, we moved from a clear area into the deep jungle with the tanks clearing the path. From the air, Dragoon Six slightly redirected our path as a small turn to the left. He was leading us to a particularly suspicious spot he had noticed from the air. As we approached that area about a hundred or so meters into the jungle, we started receiving heavy RPG and machine gun fire from the front.
The progress was extremely slow, and after over an hour we hadn't moved forward but a few feet. With the continuous firing we were using up ammunition rapidly. As we continued to hammer on the resistance, Dragoon Six had brought Bravo Troop into the area and they were lining up in a box back in the clearing. Finally, as we were approaching two hours of trying to break through, we were ordered to back out of the jungle to the clear staging area.
As soon as we were clear of the jungle, Bravo Troop moved into the slot we had cut. They continued forward as far as we had been, and came under intense fire. As they were attempting to add to our progress, we began resupplying.
A large fleet of huge helicopters brought in fuel and ammunition to the clearing. I don't remember how many there were, but it was several Chinooks and Sky Hooks carrying slings. Some of the slings contained 90mm canister rounds, some contained .50-caliber machine gun ammunition, some held M-60 ammo, and some had bladders full of diesel fuel. As an approximation of the magnitude, I estimated that we received over fifty rounds of 90mm canister, times six tanks, or over 300 rounds. Likewise, we had used up a serious amount of .50-caliber - probably fifty-to-one hundred boxes per vehicle, times the eight ACAVs on the flanks. In addition, they brought extra .50-caliber gun barrels.
The .50-caliber machineguns will melt a gun barrel in a short time unless the operator uses patience and discretion to only fire in short bursts. They create an unbelievable amount of heat when fired heavily, and in the intensity of the action, several burned up their barrels. Each ACAV carries an extra barrel and several of the TCs had to replace their barrels while we were still in the jungle.
Another phenomenon of the .50's is "cookoffs". After firing a box or two of ammunition, if the operator leaves a round in the chamber, the built up heat from the previous firing will cause the round to fire without the trigger being pulled. We called it cooking off the round. There were numerous times when a TC would almost hit one of the other men in the platoon with a careless cookoff. One time, I felt a round go right over my head. Of course, with the shock wave from a .50-caliber, if it is even vaguely in your direction it sounds close. Three-Five and I had to constantly remind the TCs to remove the ammo belts after firing.
Our resupply in the field was a massive logistical exercise. But there was more to come. As we were resupplying, Bravo Troop was expending their ammunition. After over an hour of hard work in the bright sun, we got all vehicles topped off with both fuel and ammo and reformed our box to await further orders. Shortly thereafter, Bravo began running low and they backed out of the cleared jungle area. We moved back into the slot while they resupplied. Bravo Troop then became the recipient of another massive logistical resupply. There must have been hundreds of supply people in Phu Loi working hard, plus the helicopter units to bring about these in-the-field complete resupplies.
Finally, after almost another hour of pressing the enemy, we broke through the perimeter and into and then across the fortified encampment. As we reached the edge, the resistance dissipated. The NVA had retreated, but left many killed behind. The head count this time was even larger than the day before. The intelligence people estimated that we had destroyed a battalion-sized camp housing over 300 troops this time. And with very few friendly casualties.
We were kicking butt! We were successfully eliminating enemy sanctuaries without spilling more American blood. We were doing what we were sent here to do. For one of the very few times ever, we could feel the enjoyment of success.
On the following day, we once again set out on a box formation S&D effort. This time was different. We received no resistance as we completely overran another NVA base camp. This one had been freshly evacuated. I guess they heard us coming and had already learned the hard way that they could not stop us. We set up security around the base and infantry were flown in to search the bunkers. Lots of supplies and weapons were captured, but no NVA were seen. The box formation tactic had proven to be a complete success. Our only serious cost was the large amount of supplies we used.