by Kregg Jorgenson
22nd October 1968 – Sergeant Don Van Hook turned with a start in the darkness and brought up his rifle. There was very little light filtering through the cloudy windswept pre-dawn sky, and the surrounding I Corps mountainous countryside was a puzzle of shadows and contrasts. It made it difficult for Van Hook to clearly identify even the trees no more than a couple of metres away, let alone make them out to be Viet Cong.
He couldn’t be certain if the rustling sound in the elephant grass he was hearing was a Viet Cong fighter sneaking up on his six-man long range patrol team, but he strained his ears and eyes against the darkness in an attempt to locate his target – that is, if it really was a target.
Van Hook was the team’s ATL, assistant team leader, and with only three weeks left in country the 1st Cav. LRRP wasn’t about to take any unnecessary chances. Well, any more unnecessary chances that is. He had already come to the conclusion that going out on this latest mission was unnecessary enough since he was an under 30 short timer. But his team leader, Sergeant Bill Hand, needed an “experienced ATL for the mission, and Van Hook was the obvious choice. He was an experienced ATL, and since Sergeant Richard Turbitt the only remaining veteran ATL in the unit, was back in the States on extended leave, the hammer fell on Van Hook. Turbitt needed him on this patrol, but the short-timer was less than enthusiastic about the idea.
Van Hook went to great lengths to point out to Hand that the only way for an “inexperienced” ATL to become an “experienced” ATK was to go out on another patrol, especially one just off Highway One. Because of the probability of enemy contact along this north / south roadway, the French had named it the “Street Without Joy” nearly a decade earlier.
Van Hook was arguing his case, only Hand wasn’t buying it.
“Trust me,” said Van Hook. “Making experienced ATLs out of inexperienced ATLs is a good system. It works, so take someone else, Bill. I’m short,” Van Hook argued in vain to the grinning Georgian who only stood there slowly shaking his head.
“Sorry,” Hand replied, “I need you, and besides, with all of the incoming we get here at the base camp, it’ll be safer for you out in the bush.”
Van Hook had not come back. He knew Hand was right. The NVA and Viet Cong were getting very proficient at targeting Camp Evans with rockets and mortars, yet they had a difficult time even tracking the small long range patrols in the outlying jungles.
Hand gave Van Hook a reassuring pat on the shoulder and in his Pelham, Georgian drawl added, “Besides, it’ll be your last chance to properly say good-bye to Charlie before you leave.”
Van Hook’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t want to say good-bye, let alone get close enough for them to hear me, even if I’m screaming. No goodbyes, right? I mean if I go out with you they’ll be no initiating contact. Okay?”
The LRRP team leader nodded. “No contact, if we can help it,” he said. The LRRP teams were supposed to be used for long range reconnaissance, not long range behind the lines ambush and run like hell patrols, but more and more it seemed to be the way the job was heading.
“No ambushes, prisoner snatches, or anything else stupid, right?”
“Right,” said Hand. “Just reconnaissance.”
Van Hook was adamant. “I want you to promise me,” he demanded.
“Okay, okay, I promise,” the team leader gave in, holding up one hand while Van Hook stood leering at the smiling southerner.
Hand’s promise was a small comfort to Van Hook, even less when he learned that the team was going to be inserted near a jungle trail intersection along the My Chanh river in the same AO where another LRRP company’s patrol had gotten in to a firefight a month ago, and PFC Felix Leon, Jr. had been killed.
The comfort had eroded even more so when the supporting gunships rolled in hot on the landing zone, prepping it with rocket and mini-gun fire, just as the team’s insertion helicopter began its short final run.
Hand was screaming at the pilot to get the gunships to stop, only it was already too late. The damage had been done.
“Might as well ring the doorbell and pass the enemy a calling card saying ‘Yankee dog American LRRP team Silent Avenger three Foxtrot is landing right here, right now’,” muttered Van Hook.
Their luck dwindled even further late that afternoon when the team’s pointman, Specialist Fourth Class ‘Little John’ Hardesty, found five sets of Ho Chi Minh sandal prints on a secondary trail at a stream crossing. The muddied water caught in the depressions was still seeping in to the soil, telling both Hand and Van Hook that the Viet Cong who had used the trail weren’t very far away.
“We’ll set up and monitor the trail,” whispered Hand to his shaken ATL. He motioned the patrol to move back into the dense underbrush to take up positions.
As the team set up their claymore mines, Van Hook became even more disgusted when Hand pointed out that one of the new men had faced his anti-personnel mine directly back at the team.
“Claymores face out, son!” whispered Hand ominously, as he edged up next to the cherry and turned the mine around himself. Van Hook rolled his eyes and quickly moved up to check out the other to make sure they hadn’t made the same mistake. When he was done he rejoined the team leader.
“It’s always the little things, isn’t it? Aren’t you going to miss all this when you leave?” chided Hand. “Sure you don’t want to extend?”
Van Hook swore at him under his breath as Hand called in the team’s defensive artillery coordinates. Suspicious of the map supplied to him at the pre-mission briefing, Hand called in a few marking rounds to find out if his suspicious were correct. They were.
The maps were always a problem. The American maps were modified from the French maps, which had been further modified form Japanese maps, and since the subtropical jungle had a way of quickly reclaiming every thing in its path, the patrols could never be certain they were exactly where they thought they were. Once Hand made his corrections and adjusted fire, he was satisfied with their situation and their position.
As the day turned to dusk, and then quickly to total darkness Silent Avenger Three Foxtrot continued to monitor the trail. By the next morning when no enemy soldiers appeared, Hand decided that after breakfast they would move out to the northwest towards a known trail junction a couple for klicks away. This small trail they were watching was likely a feeder path, which meant the trail junction was a good place to focus their attention.
However, their breakfast was suddenly interrupted as three heavily armed NVA soldiers appeared from nowhere out on the trail. Cautiously, the three men crossed the stream in front of crossed the stream in front of the hidden LRRP team, then disappeared from further down the trail where it snaked out of sight into the jungle. The NVA had been unaware that their every move had been tracked through the gun sights of six American weapons.
“We’re use arty,” Hand whispered to Van Hook, who nodded quickly in agreement. Both men knew that the VC and the NVA often moved about in three man elements, but this could just as well be the point element for a larger enemy force. Ambushing the three men would give their position away, but calling in artillery on them would reveal nothing – at least nothing that would immediately pinpoint the patrol’s position to a larger enemy force following behind them. Harassment and interdiction fire was a ply still used by U.S. forces to keep the enemy on their toes.
After several artillery rounds slammed into the area where Hand estimated the three men to had reached, the team leader summoned a scout helicopter form the 1st of the 9th to fly over and check out the damage. When the pilot of the H-13 discovered no bodies and drew no fire, he flew off on another mission. This tactic wouldn’t draw undue attention to the six man patrol, since the 1st of the 9th oftenemplyed scout helicopters to monitor enemy traffic in the area.
“Nothing,” the RTO whispered, after the pilot reported his findings.
“Well, maybe not yet,” Hand replied, deciding it was time to move the team to the trail junction two klicks away.
Hardesty took the point again, moving out on Hand’s compass heading. Less than two hours later, they reached the trail intersection. Along the way, the team had discovered an abandoned anti-aircraft position. Although it was well maintained. Before moving on, Hand made a notation on his map to call it in as an artillery target.
They found that the main north / south trail was almost three metres across, and consisted of hard packed soil, capable of supporting vehicular traffic since it attracted too much attention, but the smaller trails were their lifeblood. One close look confirmed this.
Of the two trails, the smallest showed the heaviest use. Scanning the area, Hand soon spotted what he was looking for, so he motioned for Hardesty to lead the team up a small hill 100 metres away. The hill over looked the trail junction and the surrounding area.
Once on top, Hand took a long look around before he was satisfied that the spot offered cover, was defensible, and the patrol could effectively monitor its target from there.
“We’ll set up here,” he whispered to his teammates, dropping his rucksack and retrieving his map. As Van Hook set about securing the team’s perimeter, Hand once again surveyed the immediate area With their claymores finally in place and the artillery coordinates called in on the trail junction, a hilltop on the E & E route to their rear, and the anti-aircraft position they had found earlier, the team settled in to wait out the enemy.
By late afternoon their patience was rewarded. A heavily armed NVA soldier suddenly stepped out of the underbrush and on to the smaller of the two trails. The man cautiously studied the trail junction, and after several moments, turned and waved to three more enemy soldiers hidden behind him.
‘The four man NVA patrol moved like LRRPs,’ thought Hand, as he watched them edge along the trail, well spaced and covering their surroundings 360 degrees. Unknowingly, they walked past the hidden Americans, carefully skirting the hill before disappearing back into the jungle. As they passed from view, Hand admired their patrolling technique – even as he called in the artillery coordinates on their location.
Within minutes the sound of a rumbling freight train filled the sky as the 155mm rounds pounded into the jungle beyond where the NVA soldiers had disappeared.
If there was any doubt that an American long range patrol was working in the area before, it was surly shattered when the first well placed salvo impacted. The NVA weren’t stupid, and it wouldn’t take them long before they realized that these U.S. fire missions were anything but random. It was only a matter of time before the enemy came looking for whoever was calling in the accurate fire. Hand knew it, he also knew that Van Hook knew it. This was the reason that the veteran short-timer was now frowning.
“Technically, it’s not initiating contact,” Hand offered to his scowling ATL.
As the patrol settled in for the evening, Bill Hand elected to stay on guard until 2400 hours. He knew that if they were going to get hit, it was likely to be during this time frame. By 0100 hours, he felt it was safe enough to get some sleep, so he instructed the regular watch to wake him by 0400 hours for the next period of likely danger.
There was a quarter moon with cloud cover overhead, and any illumination that managed to filter through to the jungle below was lost in the mixture of grey and black shadows. The surrounding jungle remained quiet…maybe too quiet for Van Hook.
The ATL was on guard duty and considering everything that had happened on the mission so far, he wasn’t about to go to sleep – not yet, anyway. At least not until he was absolutely certain it was safe. Easing back against his rucksack and cradling his rifle in his arms, across the perimeter, Bill Hand drifted off to sleep.
Less than an hour later, the team leader was startled awake by the pressure of someone’s hand clamped firmly over his mouth. Van Hook’s voice whispered in his ear, “Gooks….talking!”
“Where?” Hand muttered quietly.
Van Hook didn’t really know for sure and quickly said so. “Out there somewhere. All I know is that I heard it.”
The TL cupped his hands behind his ears and listened for several minutes. When he heard nothing in that period of time, he retrieved his Starlight scope, switched it on and did a slow, visual “360” around the team.
The jungle was washed in the feint green aura of the night vision device. There was nothing but the wind rustling through surrounding trees and the blades of near by elephant grass. Hand waited and watched, and when he was sure there was nothing out there, he wrote it off as short-timer’s nerves. Why not? At the end of his own tour of duty, Bill Hand expected to be in the biggest and most well protected bunker he could find back at camp Evans – at least until the outbound helicopter left to take him back to the “freedom bird” that was waiting to take him back to the States.
“I’m going back to sleep. Wake me if you hear it again,” he whispered, putting away the Starlight scope and leaning back against his rucksack. Within minutes, Hand was sleeping peacefully once again.
Twenty minutes later, Van Hook’s left hand was again clamped tightly over the team leader’s mouth. This time when Hand sat up, Van Hook already had the rest of the team up and in defensive positions.
“Gooks talking, and they’re real close!” he breathed.
Hand turned and saw that the team’s RTO, Sergeant Glenn Lambert, was nodding in agreement. He had heard it too.
“It was most definitely Vietnamese…something about surrender or die.”
Hand found the Starlight scope again, switched it on and studied the surrounding area. Nothing! Hell, even the crickets were still chirping…a certain sign that all was still quiet around them.
“So where are they?” Hand asked handing the scope to Van Hook. The ATL took it and began to study the surroundings. Like Hand, he too, met without success.
“I…I duno,” Van Hook finally announced.
“Damn it! Don’t wake me up again. I’ve got guard in a little while and I need to get some sleep,” Hand complained, perhaps a little too loudly. “There is absolutely nothing out there. NOTHING! Now, let me sleep!”
Hand pushed back against his rucksack and pulled his boonie cap over his eyes. “No one! Not a damn thing!” he grumbled.
Fifteen minutes later Van Hook was shaking Hand back awake, while he and Lambert hovered over him just inches from his face.
“It’s you, damn it! You’re talking Vietnamese in your sleep!”
“That shit we were taught in training…surrender or die, or something like that!”
Hand sat upright. “Some last mission huh?” he grinned. But before van Hook could answer he added, “I’ll…I’ll take guard now.”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Van Hook complained. “I couldn’t sleep now if I tried. I’ll probably stay awake until I DEROS!”
“I’m sorry man,” Hand muttered. “I’m really am.”
“Yeah, well I should have known it was you when I heard it the first time.”
“Why’s that?” asked Hand.
“Because the Viet Cong don’t ask, “Surrender or die….ya’all””