This mission started out routinely. As team leader, I was given my orders and assigned a team to accomplish the mission. I was informed Brigade Intelligence suspected enemy activity in our assigned area, but they had very little real information to offer. The routine continued as I gathered the team and reviewed the mission objectives with each of them. The designated assistant team leader (ATL) started getting the team ready, while the Platoon Leader or Platoon Sergeant and I would make an aerial recon to look over the terrain and select insertion and extraction points. On return, I would brief the team with what I learned from my aerial inspection. Sometimes we were inserted the same day, but this mission gave us the luxury of one more full night of sleep.
The routine continued, as my team lifted off in our insertion slick (Huey Helicopter). We were accompanied by a Command and Control ship, which flew high and monitored the tree top activity. We had two gunships acting as decoys and were ready with rockets and firepower for protection, if necessary. Another empty (except crew) helicopter flew with the formation prepared to serve as a rescue ship in the event the insertion did not go as planned.
Everyone is vulnerable during insertion and had their reasons to execute the insertion quickly. We didn't like the sound of a jet engine announcing our arrival. The longer the chopper stayed with us, the better chance the enemy had on getting a fix of our location. The chopper becomes a sitting target while hovering close to the ground in an unsecured LZ . With little room to maneuver, a single shot from an enemy rifleman could spell disaster. If you hesitated, the gunners would give you a little help. The pilots did their best to get us close to the ground, but at times the elephant grass and other underbrush caused us to jump a little further than we liked. I have many times tasted my boots in my mouth during insertion. There were some sprained ankles and even broken legs, which normally would end the mission if severe enough.
While the gunships flew at treetop level to distract the enemy, our insertion slick approached the landing zone(LZ). We slipped out onto the skids of the helicopter as we went below the surrounding treetops. Each team member picked a clear spot to jump to, and as team leader I always tried to go first. Out I went, and when I hit, my legs kept going. What looked like an ideal LZ from the air turned out to be a swamp that had not been documented on our maps.
"I hope this is not quicksand" was my first thought.
"If the enemy finds me here unable to move, I'm a dead man." was my second thought.
We each sunk nearly to our knees. As I tried to pull up my foot, it would create a suction. After a struggle we finally got to some solid ground. The pilots seeing our situation stayed with us until we gave them an all clear. We appreciated the support, but we were nervous the helicopters extended stay might have alerted the enemy that something was going on.
We quickly discovered that more than just the LZ was a swamp. In every direction we tried to move, the swamp confronted us. We finally picked a direction and started our struggle through the swamp, not knowing how far we would have to plod to solid ground. We hoped we were not spotted because we could hardly move, let lone fight.
Muddy, wet and basically exhausted we finally reached dry ground towards evening. We found a secure position for the night. It was my practice to select two positions. In the first position we would eat and wait for darkness. Once it was dark we would move to the second area . On chance we were spotted during the daylight hours, this would disrupt any plans the enemy had for catching us. I moved them as a team or if stealth was in order one at a time.
Our routine was to put our packs in the center so our heads would be close for communications and we faced out in all four directions and set the watch. The night was quiet and we were dead tired so we thanked Charlie for that. After eating our breakfast , we planned our actions for the day. I always tried to involve my team members and kept them aware of our position as much as possible. We had an uneventful day as our AO seemed basically undisturbed with the exception of where the Montagnards had been cutting bamboo or digging for roots.
Again we went through our routine for the night to be safe. Another quiet night. On the third day we moved into a small wooded area which was very dense with heavy under brush. From here, we could see almost 360 degrees and the ground was slightly raised and sloped down north, east, south, and west towards the wood line around. We were near a Montagnard Village so there was activity and we had to be careful not get compromised. We watch the yards move in and out of the village area all day but we saw nothing suspicious.
As darkness closed in, we pulled together for security. It was to dark to see, but we begin hearing movement in the wood line and on the trail to the village. We were confident we had not been spotted, because they were talking to loud and proving themselves to be just as human as us and just as vulnerable. Some filed by close enough I could have reached out and touched them on the ankle, but they were not aware of our presence. After a while it was quiet and we set the watch for the night.
We were use to spending hours or even days in the same position if the situation called for it. On day 4 we decided to stay in place. We ate and I assigned positions as I had done the day before. In order to take full advantage of the visibility our position provided, we had to spread out more than we wanted to. This decision almost cost me my life. Because of the underbrush we could not always see each other and this made it difficult to communicate. To communicate we had to talk in a low voice or move to each other which was not our normal practice.
I was wearing my jungle camouflage fatigues with some additional earth tone colors provided by the swamp. I had also covered my face with camouflage stick and was looking pretty scary. Doc was watching the left flank and I the right. I could see the trail coming out of the jungle and into the next wood line towards the village. I was in a sitting position a little to relaxed with my M-79 grenade launcher and my Car 15 rifle lying at my right side.
I looked to my left and I was stunned to be looking into the eyes on an enemy soldier. My life flashed before me as he raised his weapon within ten feet of me and pulled the trigger. Still making eye contact, I reacted automatically, without a thought, as I raised my rifle and wounded him in the head, while at the same time,realizing his weapon never went off. My first instinct was to save him.
As I pulled my team together my mind was flooded with questions as I accessed our situation. Was he alone? Does he have friends close by? Did anyone hear the rifle shots? Should we prepare to fight or start evading? Has our position been compromised? How quickly can I get support in necessary?
Doc explained he didn't kill him at first sight because of the activity the night before. The fact he was using the wood line to avoid overhead detection led Doc to believe he may have been the point for a larger force. He let him pass and he had no way to warn me.
I reported the contact to Brigade, and with no immediate danger in sight, we pulled the soldier into the woods and tried to give him first aid. Because of the severity of his head wounds, I was unable to save him.
After he died, I searched him and found he was dressed in three uniforms. NVA, VC, and a Montagnard loin cloth. Why? Can only believe they were aware of our unwritten orders to not mess with the unarmed Montagnard's working the jungle for food. If he had seen us he could have stripped down and pretended to be one of the soldiers from a regional force who were on our side, even though we wondered at times. They often dressed in black pajamas like the Viet Cong or he could have hid his weapon and acted like a yard gathering food and then later ambushed us.
I wondered why his weapon did not fire. I pulled back on the operating handle and found no round in the chamber. Lucky for me, because it was a Chinese submachine gun with a 30 round magazine called Chi Com. I continued my search and found many documents. He was an officer in the North Vietnamese Regular Army. Most likely recruiting in the area.
Brigade wanted the documents so they extracted us. We hid the body under some foliage. The choppers arrived and the mission was over.
The mission ended, but those eyes that I locked with in mortal combat have lived on for years. Today, I thank all those who were praying for me. I also pray for the soldier's family who to this day probably does not know the fate of their loved one. War is ugly and should never be, but as long as the heart of man is the way it is ... War is inevitable.
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.
|Story INDEX||NEXT Story|
Return to Base Camp