Camp Ranier, Dau Tieng, Vietnam
Today is June 9th,1968 and our company has ambush patrol once again.
Tonight, the company will leave the base camp and split out into three different platoon sized (roughly 20-25 men) ambush sites along a major supply route west of the village in the Ben Cui Rubber plantation.
The company has orders to leave the “wire” (base camp perimeter) at 1600 hours. The azimuth will take us out into the rubber plantation. It will be dark soon and there is no moonlight. I have left the machine gun crew and started my new job as the RTO (radio telephone operator) for my3rd platoon leader 1LT Chris Brown, who hails from Texas.
I change the battery to my PRC-25, turn on the radio and start the procedure to perform a commo check with the C.O.’s (company commander’s) RTO, call sign “Charlie 6 X-Ray”. Charlie 6 is the C.O.’s call sign. If it’s just the company going out, we have our own “push” assigned and we drop using “Charlie” and abbreviate our calls to numbers, i.e. ‘6 X-Ray this is 36 X-Ray’. If we were operating with another company, it would be ‘Charlie 6 X-Ray, this is Charlie 36 X-Ray’.
We leave the base camp with 1st platoon taking the point followed by 2nd and 3rd platoons. I locate LT Brown, who has a stocky build and a pleasant smile and fall in behind him in formation. The company moves to a checkpoint where we will wait for darkness.
Around 1700 hrs, just before we arrive at our holding point we relieve elements from R-6 at checkpoint Golf, a security bunker outside of the west gate to Camp Rainer. R-6 elements are from the 3/22nd Infantry who are assigned responsibility for that post. They return to Dau Tieng. We arrive at our assembly area around 1830 hrs.
The word is passed down from 1LT Ron Hendricks, our C.O. This is Ron’s first assignment as a company commander. He has been reassigned from Delta Co. It is time to head out to our AP (ambush patrol) sites and it begins to rain. I check my watch and it is 1917 hrs.
Within minutes we enter the Ben Cui Rubber Plantation. There are hundreds of acres of rubber trees stretching upwards toward the dark sky about 30-40 feet. Once under the umbrella of the trees, the stars and night light have been vanquished.
It has gotten so dark that everyone in the platoon has a hand tucked into the ammo belt of the guy in front of him. Without doing this, I can’t see the guy to my front. My eyes won’t adjust to the darkness. We are in the trees and there is no starlight. It’s continues to pour now and all one can hear is the water splashing off of the leaves of the trees and striking the ground. We get an occasional lighting flash that lights up the trees.
Tonight’s operation has us setting up three separate ambush sites. 1st and 2nd platoons drop out of formation and move off their destinations, and separate from the group.
We move forward in the night, just a platoon. I am about 8-10 guys back of the guy on point and following LT Brown. I don’t recall most of the names of the soldiers I am with.
We move in silence towards our ambush site. The platoon edges along in the rain, trying to navigate to the site where we are to set up the ambush.
The wind is blowing along with a constant downpour as I wipe the water from my eyes and face. The company left base camp close to an hour and a half ago. There are occasional flashes of lightning again. Everyone scans left and right keeping an eye out for anything moving. Everyone is uneasy and alert moving in these conditions. The suspense builds along with the sweat that is being created under the strain of not knowing if the enemy is out there or what he may be up to.
Another lighting flash cuts across the sky and I think I see a group of people, 5 or 6 or more, dressed in dark clothing standing on a road to our front. The light is playing off of their rain ponchos. Is my mind playing tricks on me? Did anyone else see what I did? I am unsure and we continue moving forward, toward those figures. I am guessing they were about 100 feet away. I don’t say anything, unsure of what to do. The sky lights up again and this time there is no mistake.
Shots ring out and the platoon dives for cover, each of us landing in pools of water and mud on the floor of the rubber plantation. We are as surprised as Charlie as we come face to face less than 50 feet apart.
Because of how we were moving, not everyone has a clear field of fire. I have a number of troops between me and the enemy. There is random and sporadic fire directed at the VC. They are returning fire as well. I can hear the crack of some AK-47’s and then “Whoosh”. I know a RPG is coming and there is a loud explosion to my right, then another one. This one sprays me with shrapnel. Nothing serious, just small fragments in the hands. PFC Juan Antu, a 20 year old Mexican kid from Yvalde, Texas, one of our grenadiers who packs a M-79 Grenade Launcher, is hit in the exchange.
We have no cover other than the darkness that surrounds us. Everyone is staying put from where they have dropped to the ground. Finally, we are returning a base of fire at any muzzle flashes we can see and Charlie disappears into the darkness, the firing stops and the rain, which was pouring down, eases up but the wind continues to blow hard.
It’s around 2100 hours. We do a quick check to see what our casualties are. Juan Antu, who was in front of me, has taken a bullet. The round hit his helmet, spun around in the helmet liner and entered his skull in the back.
I try talking to him, “Juan, can you hear me? Where are you hit”, but I’m getting no response. The medic is busy with other wounded so I try to see what I can do. I’m feeling around on his chest and arms trying to feel for wounds or blood. His helmet is off and he is lying in the wet mud on his back. We can’t risk using any light because we are unsure whether the enemy has fully retreated or still hanging around.
I continue to try and find out where he is hit.
I lift him up out of the water and mud to check his back side. He is limp and lifeless. There are no wounds that I can find to his chest so I probe around on his head and it feels like a cracked egg. He is gone. A good kid, quiet, polite and someone whom I was just getting to know, is no longer. I stare at his limp figure for another minute, then radio for an immediate dust off [a Medevac chopper]. The weather is bad and the winds and rain are heavy. We are told the dust off will have to wait until the weather lifts.
Dau Tieng “Dust off” says they can’t go up in this wind. An hour later, Dust off 77 attempts to brave the weather, then radios to us that they are aborting the mission and return to base camp. We wait and we can’t get a Medevac for several hours from anywhere. We try and make the wounded comfortable and set up a security perimeter and hunker down in the storm. There is no sign that the VC are still around.
Finally, a crew from Cu Chi volunteers to come to get us, but the team from Dau Tieng makes another attempt and braves the weather and arrives at 2240 hours. I radio to the chopper and try to talk the chopper down to our location. We have a flash light we are using to get his attention. The light is placed into a helmet so it can only be seen from above.
There is a clearing that we have moved to alongside the main supply road and a quick security perimeter is put in place. We have more wounded than the chopper can take. It can’t get off the ground. Someone needs to remain behind until a second Medevac arrives. We lighten the load. There are nine wounded on board heading back to Dau Tieng.
Our KIA is left behind and we have instructions to bring him back to camp in a vehicle. It has been a rough night. What’s left of the ambush patrol waits near a main road for daylight and we sweep the area once more.
We find 4 VC ponchos, one with a lot of bullet holes, but no blood trails and no bodies. Not surprising in the heavy rain we had during the night. We report a possible 5 VC body count anyway.
As dawn arrives, a second chopper is ordered to our location, then once again the flight is cancelled by battalion and orders are issued for a second time, to get back to camp via convoy. We finally get Antu loaded on a deuce and a half. The convoy reverses direction and as it heads back toward Dau Tieng, it picks up the rest of the company at their ambush site locations and we are then trucked back to base camp.
We give a briefing and afterwards, I, along with three others, head down to see the medic to get our wounds attended to. I get written up for my second Purple Heart. After leaving the aid station, I head back to our squad tent to catch some sleep.
The final tally is 13 WIA’s, 4 are hospitalized, and one KIA. Two of the wounded is our commanding officer, Ron Hendricks who remained with 3rd plt as we set out on our ambush and LT Brown. Hendricks is hospitalized for three weeks and we get a temp C.O.,1LT Jimmy Ford to fill in.
Epilogue – Looking back at this night patrol, and thinking about the numerous other ones, too many to count, always reminds me of how quickly a situation can turn from good to bad. No one ever felt at ease or comfortable when we were out roaming around in the dark. Bad things always happened. The whole idea was to make the enemy uncomfortable too, in his maneuvering around at night. It was a disruption tactic, occasionally effective when an ambush was set up and the trap sprung.
Night patrol was the most nerve wracking event we were asked to do. Your imagination had a field day, and you couldn’t see booby traps or other dangers as you walked.
The happiest you ever saw anyone in combat was when you entered the “wire” (perimeter of a base camp) from an ambush patrol and knew you were once again “safe.”