by Gary Linderer
There are a lot of great stories of U.S. long-range recon patrols – other than those of SOG – operating in Laos and Cambodia. Most of them are just that – great stories. But some of them have been substantiated and have been proven true.
Others are officially unsubstantiated but yet the eyewitness testimony of a number of participants indicates that at least they believed they were some place they didn’t belong – and didn’t want to be.
On 20th October 1969 Sergeant Frank Anderson’s recon team from Company L, 75th Rangers, 101st Airborne Division got a warning order for a patrol far out into the western expanses of the Division’s area of operations. Their mission was to locate the route of march of enemy replacements being fed into South Vietnam to rebuild the strength of the 5th NVA Regiment operating somewhere in the south western Ashau valley. The 5th NVA Regiment, led by the notorious Colonel Mot, had been a poison thorn in the side of the 101st Airborne Division for nearly two years. Repeatedly bloodied by elements of the Division, remnants of this enemy unit always managed to regroup under Mot’s able leadership and quickly reappear to strike again and again at the Screaming Eagles and their allies.
The most disturbing thing about this particular long-range patrol was that the border indices on the AO map didn’t match any of the maps the Rangers had ever used before. As a matter of fact, the map of the team’s RZ didn’t have any names or terrain feature that remotely rang anyone’s chimes.
Nothing unusual happened at the pre-mission briefing except that the operations officer who conducted it announced to the Rangers that they would be carrying a newly developed AM radio and a single PRC-25 instead of the usual two PRC-25s. In addition, he stated that the patrol leader would be issued a URC-10 emergency survival radio, good only for transmitting out to aircraft passing overhead. Finally, the team’s normal SOP for situation reports had been slightly modified. Normally, a long range reconnaissance patrol had a minimum of four to six scheduled sit reps per day, sometimes more if the area or the situation merited it. But on this particular patrol the team had been assigned only two scheduled daily sit reps – one at first light and one at last light. These patrol requirements were highly “unusual” to say the least.
The first light insertion on the 22nd> went in without an over flight. This bothered Sergeant Anderson almost as much as the one-hour chopper flight out to the team’s AO. And to make matters even worse, not one of the Rangers had failed to notice that the insertion aircraft continued flying west on a 270-degree azimuth even “after” they had passed over the Asahu valley. It didn’t take a master’s degree in geography with a minor in cartography to tell Anderson and his teammates that they had probably brought along the wrong passports. These were not good signs and were most likely responsible for the added sense of anxiety shared by each team member on the patrol.
The five-man team went in on a tiny clearing along the lower tip of a secondary ridge nestled amid towering mountains. It was rugged country and strangely devoid of the normal bomb and artillery craters that so abundant in the Ashau. Anderson’s patrol moved off the LZ as quickly as they could and immediately found themselves in the middle of dense layers of lush ground cover.
The team spent the first two days of the four-day mission slipping around the mountains looking for signs of the NVA replacements. But there was no indication that anyone or anything other than a few wild animals had ever set foot anywhere in the AO.
The Rangers experienced commo problems from the very onset of the mission. The PRC-25, usually the team’s chief source of commo, was only capable of intra-patrol communications, and the new AM model radio, which operated on two batteries instead of one and was thus heavier than the PRC-25, was also having a difficult time reaching the radio relay team – wherever they were situated.
On the third day Murphy’s Law decided to step in and relieve the team’s boredom. The weather, still in the midst of the monsoon season, decided to drastically change for the worse. Thick, dark clouds rolled in from the west, and the patrol was soon the unfortunate target of a driving downpour.
On the evening before, the Rangers had moved into an area of double canopy jungle and had set up a night defence position on the crest of a thickly wooded knoll There was little to no ground cover under the forest, except for a large number of fallen trees scattered about here and there. With a swing set or two, a drinking fountain and some horseshoe pits, the area would have made a passable municipal park.
In the middle of the thunderstorm Anderson ordered his senior RTO to set up the field expedient wire antenna for the AM radio so that the patrol could make its scheduled morning sit rep. They had just completed transmitting and were busy putting away the antenna wire when a column of NVA soldiers suddenly materialized out of the driving rain no more than ten metres from the nearest Ranger.
The enemy platoon had been climbing up the steep side of the knoll, moving in a wedge-shaped formation with a point element out front and flankers to both sides. They were moving fast in the heavy rain, almost as if they were trying to reach shelter somewhere nearby. The enemy soldiers were wearing pith helmets, khaki uniforms and rucksacks, and were carrying their weapons at port arms. However, their initial shock at seeing a five-man Ranger team strewn across their path didn’t keep them from responding instantly. The NVA point man opened up, hitting Anderson and another Ranger in the back, and wounding a third in the lower leg.
The Rangers responded a split second later dropping five or six NVA at the front of the column before they could advance or retreat. Anderson himself, though wounded, put at least three of them down with a sustained 18-round burst. The remainder of the NVA recoiled and fell back beyond the military crest of the knoll to regroup. Apparently, they had been just as surprised as the Rangers and needed time to lick their wounds, assess the situation and react properly.
Up on the knoll the Rangers were doing exactly the same. Anderson’s wound had fortunately been a grazing wound high on his back near the shoulder. While painful, it would not keep him from performing his duties. The patrol’s rear security man, PFC Whitledge, had not been so lucky. Leaning against a fallen log directly in the path of the NVA patrol, he had been the first Ranger hit. A single round had blown out a large piece of his left calf muscle, breaking both bones on the way through. The wound was serious, but the tough young Ranger kept his cool and returned fire immediately, nailing the NVA who had shot him, and also dropping the soldier directly behind him.
The third Ranger hit was the RTO. Like Anderson, he had taken a round in the back. Unlike Anderson, this round had gone in just above the right kidney and had exited through the Ranger’s shoulder joint, puncturing a lung on the way out. With 60% of the recon patrol already wounded in the opening seconds of the battle, their odds for survival seemed lower than a private’s base pay.
Anderson knew that the enemy was probably preparing to fire and manoeuvre against the team. He ordered those Rangers who still could to toss frags over the edge of the knoll. The grenades detonated among the NVA just as they were beginning to move back up to the military crest of the knoll, once again breaking up their plan of attack. This gave the Rangers time to act.
With the RTO out of action and the team’s next regularly scheduled sit rep still twelve hours away, Anderson suddenly remembered the URC-10 in the cargo pocket of his pants. He reached down with his good arm and extracted the small rectangular survival radio. Anderson prayed that the unfamiliar radio still worked. He quickly transmitted a message identifying the sender as Ranger Team 13, adding that they were in contact and had casualties. He gave the team’s six-digit coordinates, the frequency for the Ranger TOC, and asked the receiver to alert that station upon receipt of the message four more times, then set the beeper device on the transmitter and prayed that someone was listening.
Two hours later a single C-130 flew over the patrol’s location and picked up their emergency transmission. The pilot quickly put out a call for help, and alerted the Ranger TOC back at Camp Eagle that it had a patrol in deep trouble.
Two additional hours passed before the Ranger heard the distinctive sounds of Huey helicopters heading their way. Amazingly, the NVA had been quiet for the past four hours, but Anderson knew that they were still out there somewhere. He suspected that they were most likely waiting for reinforcements and the coming of darkness before they moved against the team again. Their first effort had already proven too costly.
A pair of slicks from A Company, 158th Aviation Battalion, “The Phoenix”, had arrived from Camp Evans. The lead ship was flown by the battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, and was equipped with three Maguire rigs. Unfortunately, the two slicks were a long way from home and without gunship support. Anderson realized that they were probably flying into a trap, and not knowing their frequencies, had no way to warn them to abort. Suddenly, the voice of the aircraft commander of the lead ship came in over the team’s PRC-25. He asked Anderson to pop a smoke grenade. The Ranger team leader complied and soon the slick pilot had pinpointed the team’s position in the double canopy jungle.
When the lead aircraft moved into hover directly over the team, the enemy hiding back just beyond the military crest of the knoll opened fire. Immediately, the second Huey moved in and took up position to one side of the rescue ship and began suppressing the enemy small arms fire with its two M-60s. While the slick turned gunship held the NVA at bay, the crew chief on the lead aircraft kicked out the Maguire rigs directly over Anderson’s patrol.
Down on the ground, Anderson helped Whitledge and his nearly unconscious RTO into two of the rigs. He then decided that one of the two Rangers that had not been hit would have to go out with the two wounded men to stabilize them in their rigs. Anderson and the remaining team member would stay behind and wait for the second lift. He knew that it would be almost completely dark before the slicks returned, and he doubted that either of them would still be alive by then.
The lead aircraft took several hits lifting out with the first three Rangers, but managed to get out of range of the enemy guns before they knocked the ship from the sky. The courageous pilot was sure that the two men left behind would never survive until he could drop off his load at Camp Evans, refuel, and return to the AO, so he did the only thing he could think of at the time. Flying approximately five klicks to the east he fund an old abandoned crop field and slowly lowered the three Rangers to the ground. He set his bird down beside them and as his door gunner and crew chief got out to re-coil the Maguire rigs, he yelled for the three soldiers to find a place to hide until he returned.
Back at the knoll, Anderson and his comrade were surprised to see two more Hueys arriving overhead so soon. They stared silently as two Maguire rigs dropped through the trees and landed inside their tiny perimeter. Without hesitating his companion helped him into the loop at the bottom of one of the ropes, then turned and climbed into the remaining rig.
Anderson looked up and signalled that they were ready to go. He dreaded leaving the team’s equipment and radios behind, but there had been no opportunity to destroy them and there was nothing he could do about it at the moment. Right then, their lives seemed more important than a bunch of easily replaceable gear.
The aircraft commander of the lead Huey began to slowly lift his ship straight up and out of the LZ. Immediately, the aircraft began taking hits from enemy small arms fire coming from the surrounding jungle. Once again the second Huey manoeuvred alongside and began laying down a heavy suppressive fire with its two M-60s.
Dangling helplessly exposed at the ends of the ropes, the two Rangers expected at any moment to be shot off the Maguire rigs. Miraculously, the enemy soldiers hidden in the trees below seemed to be concentrating their fire on the helicopters, and totally ignored the two Rangers hanging beneath.
Suddenly Anderson found himself hung up on a large tree limb. With his wounded shoulder stiffening up, he was unable to push himself away from the tree and was in immediate danger of being stripped out of his seat by the strain of the aircraft dragging the rigs through the jungle. Just in time, the pilot realized what was happening below him and lowered the aircraft enough for the Ranger team leader to free him self. When Anderson was once again out in the open he signalled the pilot to continue the lift, but he nearly lost his balance and fell as the aircraft commander brought the Huey straight up in a rapid, near vertical climb. Then suddenly, they were above the jungle and moving away from the area.
The Phoenix bird set down minutes later in an overgrown field at the foot of a tall mountain. Anderson and his teammate quickly freed themselves from the Maguire rigs and started for the helicopter, only to spot their three missing comrades moving slowly toward them from a nearby thicket. Realizing for the first time what had transpired, Anderson nodded his approval to the pilot as he joined his four teammates and quickly climbed aboard the helicopter. They were soon on their way back to the rear.
Low on fuel, the two shot-up Hueys finally set down back at Camp Evans. The two badly wounded Rangers were removed from the aircraft and taken directly to the base field hospital to have their wounds treated. There they would be stabilized for a future Medevac flight down to the 22nd Surgical Hospital at Phu Bai.
Anderson and the two remaining Rangers stayed on board as the aircraft refuelled, then they too, were flown directly to the 22nd Surg. There they were checked out thoroughly to make sure certain that they hadn’t sustained any wounds they were unaware of. While they were at Phu Bai the Ranger Company was informed of their arrival by landline, and a truck was sent to pick them up and return them to the Company L compound at Camp Eagle.
A few days later, Anderson received word from his company commander, Captain Robert Guy, that the 158th Aviation Battalion commander had called him to find out how the five Rangers had fared. Regretfully, Anderson had missed his one opportunity to thank the courageous pilots and their crews. If it were not for them, he and his teammates would have never gotten out of the jungle alive.
Sergeant Frank Anderson and his two teammates soon returned to the company to continue running patrols. Whitledge and the RTO were sent back to the States to recover from their wounds. Their war in Vietnam was over.