It was one of those easy missions, no humping, the chopper dropped you off on top of the mountain and that's where you stayed. We ate C-Rations cooked over a C-4 fire (the burning plastic explosive from an old Claymore could heat a C-Ration can in no time at all) instead of dehydrated LRP Rations eaten cold. We even had mail deliveries. But there were down sides too. We were sitting pretty much on top of a bald knob. The mountaintop had long been cleared by larger units that used it as a temporary firebase. LRPs like the jungle. In a firefight there are plenty of trees to hide behind in the jungle. Here, except for a couple of sandbag lined open pits, there was nothing. And though from our vantage point we could see many miles in every direction, because of the steepness of the slope we couldn't see the jungle 100 meters away. The biggest disadvantage of all was the fact that there were only three of us. If the bad guys hit us we were sure to be outnumbered and there was no place to run and no place to hide.
We did, of course, take precautions. Before we had left Mary Lou Masoletti had laid out some "Delta Juliets." (Every other unit in Vietnam with whom I have talked called defensive targets "Delta Tangos." Why the Second Brigade called them "Delta Juliets" and what the "J" in Juliet stands for is beyond me.) We set out three or four Claymores around our defensive perimeter. Also, Masoletti had sent Plaskett down to the edge of the clearing to set out some trip flares. (At least I thought they were on the edge of the clearing.)
Then there was our personal armament. We probably had a dozen fragmentation grenades and four or five white phosphorus grenades among us. Masoletti carried a CAR-15, the short "Commando" version of the M-16, and Plaskett carried a full size M-16. They had twenty magazines each, each magazine loaded with 18 rounds of 5.56 mm. I didn't much like the M-16, it fired too fast, had magazine that was too small (this was before the introduction of the banana clip), and was almost uncontrollable when on fully automatic. The CAR-15s that we had had all of the weaknesses of the full size rifle and additionally, had been through so many hands and had been fired so often that you could seldom fire a full magazine without them jamming. My weapon of choice was the Swedish K, a submachine gun that held a 35 round magazine and fired a healthy 9-mm pistol round. The fact that it fired 200 rounds a minute slower than the M-16 was to me an advantage, because it meant that the bad guys would have to keep their heads down that much longer. I carried 11 magazines for the K and an extra 100 round box in my pack. I also had my M-79 grenade launcher and 40 rounds of high explosive 40mm ammunition.
But, as I said before, it was an easy mission. We had been up there a week, maybe two, and it looked like we were going to take back every thing we had brought with us. The view from that mountain was spectacular. To the northwest we looked down on Polei Kleng. With the naked eye you could see the helicopter pad and the command bunker. With the help of binoculars you could make out the battery of 155 mm self-propelled Howitzers. To the northeast and east was the jungle covered ridge that was the primary focus of our attention. Below the ridge and winding through the jungle around our mountain was the road that led from Kontum to Polei Kleng. To the west and southwest a broad valley trailed off toward the horizon.
It was through this valley one day, that we saw an invisible giant walk. At least that's how it appeared when we watched the Arclight. Arclight was the code name for a B-52 strike and the bomb craters seemed to appear from nowhere as if they were the footprints of an invisible giant.
Arclights were fascinating but our mission was to watch the hills to the east and southeast to see if we could spot where the North Vietnamese were launching the 122 mm rockets that had been harassing Polei Kleng. The NVA were not being very cooperative. Not once during our time on that mountain did they launch a rocket. They had something else up their sleeve.
It was around mid morning when the line of Armored Personnel Carriers snaked their way down the road that led to Polei Kleng. They stretched for nearly two kilometers and were escorted by a tank at either end of the column. When the lead tank reached the big bend in the road, just before it straightened out for the last run to Polei Kleng, the NVA launched their attack. There must have been at least two companies of them because small arms fire and B-40 rockets erupted from the jungle all along the column. We were sitting in the cat birds seat.
Of all the LRPs that I have known, I don't know of any two that were more in sync during contact than Masoletti and I. Masoletti grabbed the radio's handset, reported the contact and got transferred to the firebase at Polei Kleng. Meanwhile, I had the map and was plotting the coordinates and encrypting them. I read out the coded message, Masoletti repeated it and within a couple of minutes of the onset of the attack the smoke round landed in the middle of the NVA line.
"Repeat H E," Masoletti ordered and the first high explosive round exploded amidst the smoke to the marker round. "Give me a battery!" and 155s began exploding all along the NVA line.
And of all the LRPs that I have known, I don't know of any that wanted to fight more than Plaskett. "I'm going to try to get closer, to see if I can help," he told us and ran down the ridgeline toward the crest. Now, with my map reading and coding duties done and the adjustments in the artillery in Masoletti's quite capable hands, I, too, was left with nothing to do. Besides, I could see that Plaskett was not going to do any good from this range with an M-16, but perhaps, with the steepness of the mountain and all, an M-79 could have some effect. I grabbed my grenade launcher and headed after him. I could clearly see Plaskett at the end of the ridge and except for some stubby brush the trail was quite clear. Plaskett saw me coming and over his shoulder shouted, "Look out for the . . ."
Suddenly it was the forth of July, with fireworks shooting straight up to the sky.
". . .trip flare."
I beat on the thing with the but of my '79 and though I couldn't put it out, I at least got it pointed toward the ground. "Well if they didn't know we were here before now, they certainly do now," I thought. There was nothing that could be done about it now. I joined Plaskett and fired a couple of rounds in the direction of the battle and quickly learned the futility of trying to get a '79 round to travel five kilometers. But the effort was not useless; it woke us to a problem much closer at hand.
A rifle bullet travels at some 1,700 feet per second, much too fast for the human eye to follow. But when you are in the middle of battle and the adrenaline is pumping you can do amazing things. I heard the popping of small arms fire from below us on the hill and I saw the bullets flying over our heads. For some time I blamed myself for attracting them when I set off the trip flare, but the clarity of time, I realized that they could not have covered that much distance, climbing such a steep hill, in that short of time. They had been there all the time.
"Let's get out of here," I told Plaskett.
"You go on, I'll cover the retreat," he said.
"How are you going to do that with that thing," I said pointing at his M-16. "Now get out of here and let me do my job!"
I backed my way up the hill, dropping '79 rounds over the crest as quickly as I could load and fire. Masoletti met us at the top of the hill and deployed us along the upper crest. Gun ships were now on station at the sight of the ambush, relieving Masoletti of the responsibility of directing artillery fire. He had already called in our contact.
I tried using the Swedish K, holding it over my head and firing over the crest, but I soon realized I was doing nothing more than making noise. I returned to the '79, popping rounds in a fan shape down the hill. All at once, after one of my shots, the enemy, who had ceased firing, renewed their shooting with increased vigor. I had hit a soft spot.
"Don't we have a Delta Juliet down there?" I asked Masoletti.
"Roger that," he said reaching for the handset. "Red Badge Alpha, this is Two Echo, fire Delta Juliet two-zero-zero-two." We saw the puff of smoke from a single gun at Polei Kleng. Before the shot even hit, Masoletti was barking out his next order.
"Repeat H E!"
And again while the shot was still in the air. . .
"Give me a battery!"
This seemed to put a damper on the bad guys' efforts. Before long the gun ships came over our way and patrolled the hillside looking for targets. Occasionally they would let go a burst from their mini-guns, but before long the hill was quiet, the enemy was in retreat. The gun ships, too, went away.
Now only the three of us were left, waiting and listening. In due time we heard what we were listening for, the flip, flip, flip of the rotors of the Huey that was coming to take us home.
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