by Dan Pope
The Tet offensive of 1968 was legendary. We’d all heard the horror stories and believe me they weren’t pretty. I’d been in-country for nine months and had dreaded Tet ’69 the whole time. It was the end of January 1969 and Tet was upon us. Just thinking about it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
The entire company was in our new base camp in An Khe, together for the first time, since each platoon had always worked independently. Usually, we only saw the guys from the other platoons in passing, but this was a special occasion. We were about to make the official transition form Company E (LRP), 20th Infantry (Airborne), to C Company (Ranger), 75th Infantry.
We were all enjoying the camaraderie when the word came down, “All available team leaders to the briefing room”. ALL the team leaders had never been summoned before, so we knew that something “BIG” was coming. The short and skinny was the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s S-2 had just gotten intel indicating that there was to be a major Tet offensive directed at An Khe. I got that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, “Oh shit, this is it, steel yourself, man. Here it comes!” The 173rd, who we were op con to, wanted to blanket An Khe with Ops as far out as possible as an early warning system against the attack.
Half my Team 2-1 was gone, either on R & R or they were elsewhere in-country for various reasons. I was instructed to combine the remnants of my team and stand by for a mission. I didn’t like it. When you’re in the bush with your teammates all the time, you learn what to expect from them. It’s not the same with new people, and it made me uneasy. At least the team leader of the team was an “Old Foul Dude”, who everyone had a lot of respect for. I knew he was good, and it alleviated a lot of my doubts. Another thing that made me very uneasy was that our AO was 32 klicks out. We would be stretching commo to the max, and would have to rely on a radio relay team and a repeater just to be able to communicate with our base. I also knew that if the shit hit the fan we would have to hold out for a long time before help could reach us.
The briefing ended, and the other team leader and I went back to the hootch to give our teammates their warning order. We also needed to sort out the team composition. We could select an additional two men from your respective teams. He was short on choices and decided that one of the guys he would take was an FNG who had just been assigned to his team. His rationale was that an OP mission was the least risky patrol to take a new guy on. The FNG was a huge black soldier from Atlanta, Georgia.
I picked Gary Snavely, a level headed lurp who was one of the finest radio operators in the platoon, and “Deuce”, another black soldier from Harlem in New York who would walk rear security. Deuce was all business, and I felt good about having him along. He’d grown up in a different kind of “Jungle”, but the instincts were there, and that’s all that mattered. The other team leader would be the official team leader of the combined team, while I served as hit ATL. He told me that he would take the point, which was fine with me. I always walked point on my own team, but I didn’t mind the break. The pressure of point was intense, and it would get to you after awhile.
We got everything ready for the mission that afternoon while the TL was out on the aerial recon. The next morning at first light we were on the pad ready to go. The crew chief of the insertion slick finished his checklist; we boarded the aircraft, and in minutes were airborne. We gained speed and altitude as we headed south. I looked down on the village of An Khe and thought about all the REMFs who would be in town that day spending their money, unaware that they were being watched over by the “men with painted faces”.
Our AO was south-southwest of An Khe, near an area known as VC Valley. The Viet Cong in the area were not just plain VC. These were Montagnard VC, and they were the best there was in the jungle, bar none. The mountains of the Central Highlands had been their ancestral home for more than 2000 years. The rumour was that an accident had occurred in the An Khe area where ARVNs had wiped out an entire Montagnard village, slaughtering everyone. The story was believable, because everyone knew that the Vietnamese hated the Montagnards, and wanted to destroy them so they could take their lands. As a result, the “Yards” in the area were at war with the Vietnamese, and since we were their allies, that included us. It was the only area in Vietnam that I knew that to be so. Just the thought of going up against Montagnards in the jungle gave me the chills.
The inbound ride to the AO was long, and as I looked down at the terrain of the Central Highlands passing below, I became lost in thought. It was one of those rare moments when you could take time out from the war for personal reflection. It was a moment almost suspended in time, as opposed to the psychological trauma that surrounded us.
The highlands were beautiful, and the area the team was flying over was no exception. We were directly over the Truong Son Mountains, the western backbone of South Vietnam. They are made up of alternating parallel mountain chains, running generally northwest to southeast with peaks ranging from 2,000 to 2,600 feet. A few of the peaks toward the east reached as high as 6,000 feet. The mountain ranges served to create a climatic barrier between the western reaches of South Vietnam and the coast.
The slopes of the mountains were covered with lush tropical rain forest, made up of tropical hardwoods that towered over a hundred feet in the air and formed triple canopy jungle. Beneath the top canopy of the forest flowed numerous mountain streams with occasional waterfalls that were a bright sliver wisp in contrast with the green of the forest. Elephants, Tigers Leopards, Deer, Monkeys and all manners of reptiles, snakes and insects climbed through the trees and roamed the forest floor.
Above 2,600 feet, the hardwoods changed to evergreens. This area received some of the heaviest rainfall amounts in Vietnam, over 100 inches per year. Between the mountain ranges lay broad gently sloping plains covered with an undulating sea of tall grasses. I imagined the scene was very similar to those areas in America where the High Plains met the Rockies.
The rainfall of the monsoon season turned the forest slopes a rich, deep, emerald green. But the monsoon was just ending and the warm dry Laotian winds had begun to blow out of the southwest signalling the onset of the dry season. The greases on the plains were beginning to turn a golden hue in stark contrast to the emerald mountains. As I looked out at the breathtaking beauty of it I thought to myself, “It’s the kind of place I could be content spending the rest of my life”.
Suddenly, a loud voice brought me out of my reverie, “Two Mikes!” The two-minute warning, we were almost on top of the LZ. I pulled my shoulder straps up, under the weight of my rucksack and sat up with a groan. This was to be a five-day OP, instead of the normal three days, and were carrying extra supplies. I reformed my tiger stripe camouflaged beret, pulled it down tight on my head against the pull of the rotor was, scooted over to the open door and let my legs dangle over the side. I glanced around at the other team members to assess what kind of mindset they had. I think this is where the “thousand yard stare” originated. At that moment, each man was in his own private little place in his mind, prisoner to his own reflections. I’ll never be able to forget the looks on the faces of men about to go into battle.
The chopper began losing altitude rapidly. We were going in! I rotated my body, reached down and placed one foot on the skid. Gripping my camouflaged M-16 with the long slender noise suppressor tightly, I shifted my weight to the foot on the skid and rotated my upper body, weapon first, outside the chopper facing forward. We were going in parallel to the base of the mountains next to where the tree line met the open plain. We were actually landing on the open plain, visible to anyone with a 180-degree radius of our insertion. It was an acceptable risk since the only other LZ was a klick further up the mountain, and we were saving it for our exfil.
Before the chopper could settle into the waist high elephant grass, we were off and running for the tree line. Just inside the cover of the forest we crossed a large stream that ran parallel to the base of the mountains. As we moved, the RTO established radio contact with our X-ray element and gave a thumbs-up on commo.
We patrolled another 50 metres and lay dog. This was the moment when you became part of the environment; your senses fine tuning to their ultimate level. Every shadow, shape and movement is assessed as a possible threat. Your mind catalogues and analyses every sound emitted from your surroundings to determine whether it’s ebb and flow, normal rhythm or alien. If the birds and insects don’t return to their normal activity level soon, you’ve probably got company.
And there’s the sixth sense you’ve gained from many, many hours in the jungle. You are able to feel the threat long before you can physically identify it. More than once when I was walking point, without ever knowing why, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I got that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that fear brings. That’s when you start backing up because you know you’re in danger. You’ve learned to trust your instincts, that’s what keeps you alive. Lack of these abilities is what makes a new man a risk to a team. He just hasn’t yet acquired all the tools of the trade.
Satisfied that we were alone, we began to move again. Our intended OP site was less than a hundred metres away, but we wanted to make certain the area was clean before we reached it. We moved up a draw between two fingers that stretched down from the mountain. Our OP was on a level knoll at the tip of the finger on the right. We would spend the next few hours reconning the area around the OP site before deciding if it was safe enough to set up housekeeping.
It was a good site. The small, heavily forested knoll was large enough to accommodate the team, but small enough to provide a perimeter we could defend if the need arose. The finger sloped away steeply on three sides making it a real bitch to assault. The undergrowth was sparse, giving us good visibility all around us. The elevation was such that we were able to look out across the tops of the trees growing along the streambed and see most of the plain. The plain stretched gently upward toward another mountain range 8 to 10 klicks to the east that paralleled ours to the north and south as far as we could see. If anything moved out on the plain we’d be able to see it. With a source of fresh water only 150 metres away, we had all the comforts of home for a long-range patrol. The knoll was an excellent OP.
We set up our perimeter and put out our claymores, then installed a long antenna for the PRC 25. When we finished, we got out the big spotter binoculars and settled down to watch and wait.
For four days and nights we kept up our vigil, maintaining the boring routine that consisted of eating meals, observing the valley, calling in our sitreps, and pulling watch at night. The nights were the worst time. They were dark as ink, forcing us to pull in close enough together to pass the radio to the next man by feel alone. During the day the empty plain was beautiful and serene to look at, but at night it became a place of evil, if only in our minds.
By the morning of the last day, the pressure was beginning to get to us. I could tell by the way everyone kept to themselves except to perform their duties.
We were set to be extracted at 1100 hours that morning, so I suggested to the TL that I do a little area recon before we headed out to the LZ. The cherry overheard my request and asked the TL if he could go along. I gave the team leader a doubtful look, and he casually returned one that read, “Oh what the hell!” I thought about it for a second, then turned to the cherry and whispered, “Okay, you follow me. Be quiet, and don’t do anything unless I say so”. He nodded in agreement.
We gathered up our web bear, checked out weapons and got ready to go. I led off to the south side of the knoll, moving slowly down the incline into the draw between us and the opposite finger. We scouted up the opposing slope, picking our way through the trees in a direction that would bring us to the tip of the finger.
We soon reached an elevation that put us even with our OP when suddenly I picked up movement on my left in my peripheral vision. I snapped my head in that direction and found myself looking through an open tunnel in the forest foliage that gave me clear view out on the plain on the far side of the stream. I slowly moved my head side to side to scan the grass on the other side, and then I spotted him. It was a Caucasian, well over six feet tall, dressed in strange camouflage fatigues, without face paint, but wearing a dark beret. He appeared to be carrying no weapon, nor was he wearing a pack. My mind refused to accept what my eyes were seeing, yet I knew it was for real.
My brain began to race a thousand miles a minute as I entertained a myriad of possibilities. “Is it another long-range patrol in our AO by mistake? No, he would certainly be carrying a weapon and a ruck.” Then my heart stopped in mid-beat. An NVA soldier came into view following the Caucasian three metres behind. Then another, and another, came into view. It was the point element for a larger NVA force.
While I kept my eyes glued to the opening, I softly snapped my fingers to get the cherry’s attention, then motioned frantically for him to move up next to me. When he got within reach, I grabbed him by the neck and thrust his face next to mine in front of the opening. The point element had passed and there was no longer anything there. I could tell he thought that I was jerking his chain, just because he was a cherry. But just then, more NVA came into view and I could feel him start to tremble in my grasp as the adrenalin hit his veins.
I whispered in his ear, “Get back and tell the team. I’m gonna get a head count. Now move”.
I watched in awe as more NVA filed past. I couldn’t believe it! They were walking through waist high elephant grass right out in the open, 20 metres on the other side of the tree line, just like they owned the damned place. They were force-marching and covering a lot of ground, and they were headed straight toward An Khe. Each one carried a large pack and was armed with an AK-47 or an RPD machine gun. Every man was loaded to the max. There was also mortar tubes, base plates, B-40 and RPG rocket launchers and extra rockets. There were even larger calibre crew-served weapons and a number of 122 rockets. S-2 had been right and we had hit the jackpot!
The cherry was making a lot noise behind me as he crashed through the jungle like a mad bull. He was in a panic to rejoin the team. I was suddenly struck with the fear that if the enemy heard, I would quickly be in some very deep shit. Here I was separated from the team without a radio and 32 klicks to E & E to the nearest friendly outpost. When I glanced back once again, I saw him scrambling up the side of our knoll like arse was ablaze.
Behind the NVA point squad came a platoon sized element, then another. I watched fascinated as they moved past in single file. I was vaguely aware how much time was passing, as the procession went on and no. Suddenly, I realised that they were heading toward the knoll the team was on. “What if they make contact before I get back? I need to get the hell out of here immediately. No, I can’t. I’ve got to see how many there are”. I found myself suddenly engaged in a battle of self discipline – and I was losing.
I was shaking badly from my own adrenalin rush. My heart raced, and I was perspiring freely as my breathing became fast and laboured. Four NVA platoons had already passed across the opening. They were moving at a forced march pace with 20 metres between the platoons. When they finally stopped coming, I had counted 210. I waited a little longer to be sure that was the end. There were no others.
Satisfied, I broke for the team. I was moving as fast as possible without giving myself away. Then it suddenly hit me! “Holy ssshhiiit! that guy was a Russian advisor!”
As I crossed the draw I could see the TL climbing a tree on the tip of the knoll, exposing himself to get a better vantage point. Man, this guy had some balls!
By the time I reached the perimeter the TL was up the tree with the radio and spotter glasses. The rest of the team was frantically putting on their gear and getting ready to haul arse. The NVA were moving into the stream bed below us to take a break. As I hurriedly got into my ruck, I could barely hear the TL giving coordinates to the 105 battery. “Negative, Regleg, no spotter round. Fire for effect between the coordinates and cover the blue line!”
He dropped from the tree and said, “I’ve already got choppers headed this way for the exfil, and we got lucky there’s a flight of Cobras close by. They’ll be here ASAP”. Before he could finish his statement we heard the distinctive sound of an incoming 105 round, then another and another. When they hit they were followed immediately by secondary explosions, some of which were less than 100 metres away. The noise of the barrage built to an incredible crescendo as more and more rounds slammed in. By the time the barrage lifted we had counted 28 secondary explosions of varying magnitude. I’ve got to see how many there are.
The noise slowly subsided until there was only an eerie stillness down below. I hear the TL talking to the gunships as they approached our AO. He quickly briefed the spotter pilot who requested a flyby. I could hear the even drone of the LOH scout helicopter as he made a close pass parallel to the stream bed.
“I didn’t take any fire”, he said. “I’m going in for a closer look”. The pilot turned the Loach around and started a run at treetop level directly over the stream. We listened, expecting automatic weapons fire to erupt at any second. “My God! I’ve never seen anything like this”, he said, “there are bodies everywhere!”
By the time, the radio was a buzz of activity. The slicks were inbound, ETA two mikes. The TL was telling the gunships to cover us while we made for the LZ, then he turned to us and said, “Okay, lets move”.
We headed west off the knoll toward the LZ a half klick further up the slope. We moved as fast as we could, and the Cobra gunships stated circling the area. The TL was talking to our “One-Zero” and the slicks as we moved. I heard one of the Cobras roll in and dive towards us head on. Suddenly, he fired a pair of rockets that came whooshing down over our heads and impacted right behind us. They had passed so close that I thought I could have reached up and touched them.
“CHECK FIRE…CHECK FIRE!” The TL screamed in his radio, “That’s us!”
“Negative”, answered the pilot, “you’ve got bad guys right on your ass”.
Deuce turned to look back and said, “I don’t see anybody”. The TL responded, “Haul ass, MOVE…MOVE…MOVE”.
We did, glancing over our shoulders the whole time while the Cobras worked over our back trail.
It seemed like we made it to the LZ in seconds. Adrenalin can almost turn you into a superman. Well, maybe it makes you think you’re a superman! The slick, orbiting close by, was on the ground before we reached the centre of the LZ. We ran for the chopper as fast as we could go, and dove head first into the cramped cargo bay, landing in a big pile that we would sort out later.
Everyone was screaming, “GO…GO…GO!” as the pilot pulled pitch and lifted out of the LZ.
At altitude, I looked back at the smoke rising out of the stream bed and thought to myself, “Son of a bitch, we did them a real number”.
When we arrived back at our chopper pad in An Khe, we found a jeep waiting with instructions for the TL and I to go with the driver. We were taken to the main Tactical Operations Centre where we were personally debriefed by the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
When the briefing was over, he said with genuine sincerity, “Gentlemen, thank you, that’s a job well done”. Then he reached across the map table and shook my grimy, camouflaged hand.