IN THE MIDDLE
It was late afternoon and our mission required us to be air lifted to a forward firebase of the 2nd/8th Infantry. Before my Vietnam tour, I attended language school for 8 months in Washington DC. Because I spoke Vietnamese, my team was often made up of some or all of the Yards (Montagnard Tribesmen). On this mission I had three Yards named Doc, Saul, and Muoi.
Landing about 6 PM we began our briefings with the Battalion Commander. We were informed we would enter our Area of Operation (AO) by foot from the firebase at 3 AM under the cover of darkness. Our mission was to confirm intelligence reports that a large enemy force was moving into the area.
After receiving my orders, I coordinated call signs, determined available artillery support, briefed the rest of my team and completed other normal team leader duties. We bedded down near the Command Bunker so the Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) on duty could easily wake us for our 3AM departure.
Just before dark, a soldier dressed in VC style black pajamas approached the perimeter wire waving a white flag. With his weapon slung and the barrel pointed toward the ground, he fell to his knees and put his hands behind his head. He shouted "Dung Bang Shum!" I translated the phrase to mean, "Do not shoot." We secured and questioned him. We learned he had deserted a large unit because he did not want to fight. We then decided to take advantage of what little sleep time we had left.
3 AM arrived quickly and the perimeter was alerted we would be departing through the wire. As we moved down through the tall dew soaked grass we were quickly soaked to the skin. The combination of being wet and the cool early morning air caused our bodies to shiver.
We were probably no more than 100 feet down the hill from the perimeter. Suddenly, high angle enemy fire started falling into the perimeter behind us. This was immediately followed by intense enemy ground fire to our front. We found no comfort in knowing the return intense ground fire behind us was friendly. We hugged the ground and tried to stay out of the crossfire. Our one advantage of darkness was suddenly taken away as parachute flares fired from the perimeter turned the night time sky into noon day light.
I tried to raise someone on the radio. I wanted to remind the perimeter of our position. Either they were to busy to answer the call, or figured we were on our own. While anticipating and watching for a ground attack, we tried to dig slit trenches with our hands to create as much cover as possible. We decided unless there was a ground assault, we would wait it out and try not to give our position away.
In training I had observed firepower and mad minute demonstrations from the safety of the bleachers where all the weapons were fired on full automatic for one minute. You would actually see the machine gun barrels turn red. But watching a real firefight from this perspective including the sounds of ricocheting bullets and the thuds of branches falling adds a completely new dimension.
Then the real scare, as if it was not bad enough. I hear on the radio 'Puff the Magic Dragon' offering his assistance to the Battalion Commander. 'Puff' ' is a C 130 night flying gunship with devastating firepower. Hoping to survive 'Puffs' miniguns without cover is like hoping to avoid raindrops in a thunderstorm. The pilot wanted to know which side off the perimeter to fire on. I immediately made contact with him over the radio and let him know our situation. He acknowledged, but the perimeter never did. The firebase may have been disappointed he never dropped his load, but if he had, I would not be recalling this story, let alone sharing it.
As we hugged the ground waiting for daybreak, I replayed the events in my mind. I recalled an NVA tactic where one enemy soldier would surrender while the forward observer would count his paces into the perimeter. Did I miss something? I should have realized he was not a VC because his accent was that of an NVA. They pronounce their words a little harder and to me with a little pop at the ending of certain words, plus he didn't look like an average VC. After 30 years, I can still vividly replay in my mind the sights, sounds and smells of that night as if it were happening now.
It seemed like an eternity, but as the morning light began to break about 6 AM, and the firing stopped. We continued to lie there for sometime. I finally made radio contact with the Battalion Commander and informed him we were okay. We were directed to continue our mission. We started moving and we received some small arms fire from a rifleman or sniper. I called artillery into that area and we moved on.
We moved to an area where we stopped to eat our breakfast. LRRP rations were a lot better than the C-ration but we only ate two per day. I never had weight problems in Vietnam. At least not while I was in the infantry! After breakfast we moved without incident for the rest of the day.
The hardest part of that day was fighting the wait a minute vines. These vines entwined themselves very densely and have thorns all up and down its vines. They were difficult to walk through and they were impossible to run in. We tried to bypass the vines, but they were everywhere. The yards were in most cases small. Not that I was huge, but I felt I should take the lead. I always tried to put my men's welfare before my own. In this case the thorns ripped through my clothes and then the sweat running into the cuts would cause a burning sensation. I was thankful when we were free of the vines.
We found a good place close to a creek to set up for the night. We ate and set the watch, so one would be awake at all times. We put our packs in the middle, back to back and all of our heads would rest on the pack. The one on guard would sit up and face out. If anyone moved out of our arrangement the whole team had to be awaked. We did not want to wake to a sound and open fire on a team member. This happened to one team and it was not pretty.
Morning came without incident. With the exception of some pre-planned artillery fire, the night was quiet. We ate and saddled up to continue our mission. About noon, we moved to the top of a hill which was not very dense but enough to conceal us. We decided to stop and rest and look and listen. We were in a close perimeter and could see and whisper to each other. We heard voices on both sides of us but we could not see them. It was evident; they were taking a break and we were right in the middle. Earlier, I had not been able to raise Battalion on the radio and was hopeful I could now. I keyed the mike, covered my mouth and whispered that I was in trouble. No one could hear me. This was a little nerve racking, so being a smoker I reached for a cigarette. Doc warned me they would smell the cigarette by grabbing his nose. Thank God for the yards, they lived in the jungle and in most cases knew all about the sounds and smell. Your right. I did not light up and learned a valuable lesson.
Finally my signal was picked up by a Forward Air Control (FAC) flying in my area. I explained my situation and he relayed it to Battalion. Even though the Battalion was mechanized, it would still be a while before they could reach us. The FAC said he had bombers due for another mission soon, but if I would mark my position he would divert them. I told him I thought we had the point of a larger unit coming behind them. I based this on the fact that I was looking for a large unit and there were definitely several close to us. I rolled on my back and marked my position by signaling the FAC with my mirror. It was not long and the FAC notified us he was ready to mark the target with a smoke rocket. I lost the argument that the smoke rocket would send a warning. He marked the target and the soldiers near us got excited and scrambled. After the bombing was complete, we moved into the target area and only found bomb craters and many freshly made paths as they scrambled. That is why I hated smoke rounds to mark. Not only FAC but also the artillery in most cases.
Soon the mechanized company linked up with us. They did a sweep and concluded they had escaped. This was always disheartening! The commander ended our mission and we loaded onto the tracks. The armored mechanized unit soldiers made the ever-present comment; "You guys must be crazy to operate in such small groups." We explained how four soldiers committed one to the other stood a pretty good chance. By being quiet and moving stealthily we could often get close to the enemy without their knowledge.
At Battalion we were debriefed and choppers came to extract us back to Brigade. We rejoined the rest of the platoon members that were between missions. In the platoon area we were able to rest until the next mission. For team leaders, the shortage of NCO's sometimes meant going out again in 24 to 36 hours.
May God bless all
This is a true story and reflects the real experience of Ssgt. Bob Smyers while serving with 2nd Brigade LRRP's 4th Infantry Division. This story is to allow others whether they served in the military or not to experience the Vietnam War through the unique perspective of a LRRP/LRP. Bob Smeyers dedicates this story to those who have served our country and especially the ones that fell for it. This story should not to be used without permission from the author.
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