Firefight with the Viet Cong Near the Ho Chi Minh Trail

U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd, “It was December 14th, 1968, and we were making a company combat assault just south of the village of Sa Nho, Vietnam, almost due east of FSB Pershing, about 5 clicks. The evening before, the Lieutenant had briefed us that it would be a two platoon lift (Eagle flight) and the S-3 (Air Operations officer) scheduled 10 choppers for the mission. Lift off would be at 1400 hrs, and our field strength was approximately 60 men. We were to sweep south east, then rotate north hitting our checkpoints along the way. Intelligence (S-2) said that there had been enemy movement spotted in the area. Right after landing in an area of rice fields, the company formed up into two columns. Our platoon (3rd) had the point (meaning we had to walk ahead of the rest of our force). SP4 Jim McInvale was leading us, with Sgt. Conlin right behind him. I sent out flankers as we began to move out to our first checkpoint. [Source: Sergeant Arnold Krause, Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, April 2013]

“The terrain where we’d landed was mostly dry rice fields mingled with dense wooded thickets and hedgerows. From the landing zone, the company was about 200 meters from the wood line. As the column neared the hedgerow area, we started taking heavy automatic and machine gun fire, and we were pinned down out in the open. The rice paddy area afforded us some protection because of the dikes that were built to hold water, but it made maneuvering difficult. Sgt Richard Conlin went down with the first burst and we couldn’t get to him. He was about 15 meters to my front. As soon as the shooting started, we automatically recoiled into a defensive position, finding any cover we could.

“SP4 Jim “Big Jim” McInvale was leading Sgt Conlin when he got hit not 5 feet behind him. McInvale was also hit in the opening volley, in the side under his left armpit. Close by is Darrell Kuhnau, a rifleman who is screaming and out of control. McInvale tries to reach Conlin but knows he’s dead. He continues to fight using his M-79. My squad and 1st squad spread out and return fire. Sgt Price and Sgt Buckley move the M-60’s up to the front and we start laying out a suppressing fire along the tree line.The VC continued to return fire. They are about 40 meters to our front Bullets were kicking up dirt and dust everywhere. You could hear them whistling by, sounding like mad bees. I could see muzzle flashes from VC rifles at three or four points to my front and settle my sights on one of them.

“PFC Ed “Wally” Wales from New York, and SP4 Jesse “Taco” Tostado, who hails from SoCal were dropping high explosive rounds from M-79 grenade launchers into the wood line. We were getting no word from command about what to do. No effort was made to try a flanking movement to the left and into the tree line. Any attempt to move to the right with no cover would have been suicidal. We were without an officer since 1LT James Merrett was killed two days previously. SFC John Partee wants to call in a C.S gas drop using one of the planes from Cu Chi equipped for that, and asks Buckley about it. Buckley retorts by asking him if he’s crazy because none of us have gas masks with us. Then Partee starts talking about bring in an air strike, but that thought gets no traction. I ’m burning through my ammo pretty quick and others up front are also. I send a runner to the rear to get us more ammo.”

American GI Patrols on the Last Link of the Ho Chi Minh Trail Before Saigon

On his missions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, near Saigon where the Cu Chi Tunnels are, U.S. Army Sergeant Arnold Krause told journalist Peter Alan Lloyd,”During our time at Pershing our focus was to primarily disrupt the flow of men and supplies from Cambodia down through war zone C and D and into Saigon. Our job was also to engage the enemy at every opportunity and eliminate them. The VC supply Trail passed down through the East side of Dau Tieng and through the Michelin rubber plantation. This was one of the hottest spots in Vietnam. If you look at charts of casualties, you will find Hau Nghia province and Tay Ninh province right up there in the number of casualties. It was also the most direct route to the capital because of the direction of the rivers which the VC could use their sanpans to ferry supplies, in addition to using the trails. So our base was surrounded by some of the hottest areas of real estate in South Vietnam at the time. [Source: Sergeant Arnold Krause, with Peter Alan Lloyd, Eyewitness Accounts The Vietnam War, April 2013]

“The Trail also wound through the iron triangle, which was a Viet Cong-dominated area, between the Thi-Tinh and Saigon rivers, next to Cu Chi district. It then crossed the Saigon River in the Hobo Woods and Filhol rubber plantation, bypassing Cu Chi and on towards the outskirts of the capital, Saigon. To our East were many small Hamlets and villages that favored supporting the local VC forces. To our Northwest, the Boi Woods, to the Northeast laid the Hobo Woods and the Mushroom, three geographical strongholds for the enemy south of the Saigon River.

“In October, the company was on a mission near the southern side of the Saigon River at a time when we were sweeping through a heavily populated wooded area. As we are moving to this area we engaged a small force of VC and a firefight ensued. After the enemy disengaged from the action we swept the area and discovered a rice cache. It was covered with vegetation above ground, most likely because it was going to be moved soon. As for the bags themselves, they were likely confiscated after being used somewhere else.

“One time we found hospital supplies wrapped in U.S. newspaper, so nothing surprised us. There were several tons of rice found and we airlifted it back to FSB Pershing. The discovery of food stores, ammunitions, and medical supplies was not a daily occurrence but it happen a few times. Prior to the discovery of this food cache, when we were near Hoc Mon, we were specifically seeking out weapons caches based on Intel, and spent days scouring the banks of creeks and rivers looking for munitions hidden in the vegetation along the shore lines. We frequently found in the field, small arms, mostly 5.56 Chicom rounds for the AK-47’s. Of the bigger stuff, occasionally we would find 75mm recoilless rifle rounds, 122mm rockets, 82mm and 60 mm mortar rounds, and tons of RPG-7’s – rocket propelled grenades, some artillery rounds, but not sure of what size.

“VC tunnel complexes and spider holes, as they were called, were everywhere we went. I did very little tunnel work because I was too tall and manuvering in a tunnel was not easy. The tunnel holes or entrances in places were barely 18-20 inches wide, so it took a small man to get into these. Most of the “Tunnel Rat” guys packed their .45’s and a good knife and if they remembered, some sort of ear plug, but you still had to listen for the enemy. When the Division base camp was built at Cu Chi, it was right on top of the Cu Chi Tunnel complex, which I think was left over from the French struggles, but certainly expanded with time. Saying “on top” does not imply that the tunnels were in the base camp, but they were close by.

“Cu Chi remained the 25th Div base camp from 1966 to 1971 when we began to pull out. Cu Chi got mortared or hit with 122mm rockets occasionally and did experience a few ground attacks. BUT, it was too big for the enemy to overrun. They got through the wire when I was there, and blew up a bunch of CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

Hagel’s Patrol Hit by a Viet Cong Booby Trap

Recalling a patrol in March 1968, Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, later said: “We were on an ambush patrol. We knew that VC had been in this area. And we were walking through a very dense jungle, and we were crossing a — a stream. And someone hit a — in fact, my brother Tom and I had been walking point. Had been walking point almost all day. This was a company, if I remember. I think it was company strength. And my platoon had had the point position. And Tom and I had been out on point most of the day. And the company commander, I think Captain Davis, rotated my squad back to the second-position squad, and they moved up a squad. [Source: Time, January 16, 2013]

“And about an hour later, we were crossing a stream. One of the point guys hit a tripwire in the stream. There were large Claymore mines that had been placed in the trees. And so when that tripwire was hit, the Claymores exploded and of course took down the guys in front of us. Hit me with shrapnel in the chest. Tom got shrapnel in the arms and I think some in his chest. We — there wasn’t — if I recall, there was a — there was a bit of a firefight, but what the VC would do, they’d slow you down and stop you with these major booby traps, and this one was a major one. And then they usually would leave behind some snipers.  Continue reading

Patrol Firefight, with Chuck Hagel, U.S. Secretary of Defense Under Obama

Recalling a patrol in March 1968, Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, later said: “We were conducting a bridge security exercise, and it was backed — what we talked about earlier, keeping the highways open at night, running those — those roads. And bridges were obviously important because that was a main attraction of the saboteurs, to blow up those bridges and disrupt as much of the flow as the VC could. So we were on a — on a bridge security detail. And it was late into the night, maybe even early in the morning, when we got a call to pack up and get to a village where it was believed that VC were in the village. And we moved very quickly into that village. [Source: Time, January 16, 2013 =^=]

“My track was the lead track going in, lead track being the armored personnel carrier. We surrounded the village with our APCs and dismounted and then worked in the village. And if I recall, there was not any activity in that village that night as far as any firefights or we didn’t find anybody. And we spent, I think, an hour, hour and a half searching the village and found nothing. Whereupon we mounted back up on the APCs and moved away from the village, the same way we came in. Since my track was the first track going in, my track was the last track going out. And as we were going out, my track, being the last track, we hit a 500-pound mine, which was detonated, had been detonated, through a detonation wire that VC were in the trees and of course chose us because we were the last track. =^=

“Fortunately our track did not take the full blast that — the track didn’t come right up on top of the middle of that bomb. And the — the bomb blew the track up, and it came up the side of the track. And I was on — sitting on the left-hand side was the leader of the track, and my brother Tom was in the .50 caliber machine gun, working the radio that night, and the driver. And as we engaged the force of the impact of that bomb, of course the track was blown up… The fire came up the side and hit me all the way up and down my left side, burnt my face, arms. My brother Tom was unconscious because of the concussion. And a lot of action going on. We had — also were experiencing some machine gunfire from the — from the jungle. And by the time our other tracks could get turned around and come back, what I did was get everybody off the track because I was afraid that it would blow with all the ammunition that we had in those tracks, and it would blow up.

So we were able to throw everybody off the track. Some guys got off on their own. My brother Tom was unconscious, and we took the earphones off of him. He had blood running out of his ears and his nose. And I didn’t know if he was dead. So we got him off. I threw him off, and I fell on top of him as we — as we dove off. And by this time, the machine gunfire had — had gotten even fiercer and heavier, but our tracks were coming back to get us. And we had to clear the area first. We had — I think we had people injured that night, too, and maybe even a couple killed from that. And Tom had had the concussion and been hit with, I think, some shrapnel. I had been hit with shrapnel and burnt my face and up and down. Both eardrums of mine were blown out as well. And until we could secure the area, they couldn’t bring any choppers in to get the wounded out.

“And so I’ll never forget take — they took Tom and me out. And Tom was burned a little bit, too. I was burned pretty bad. And they put the salve on me over my face and my arms. And they wrapped us up in a blanket and put us on another APC and took us on down the road where we could secure things. And we waited for the choppers to dust us off that night along with the other guys that were hit. And the burn — of course there’s nothing quite like a burn. The pain. And we didn’t have any medics there with us. And we did have some guys, again, I think, that were pretty bad shape, so the morphine, everything was used for them. They did give us some shots, but the pain was pretty bad. And I remember sitting on that track, another track, waiting for the — the dustoff to come and medical evacuation, and thinking to myself, you know, if I ever get out of all of this, I am going to do everything I can to assure that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, calls upon to settle a dispute. The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it. People just don’t understand it unless they’ve been through it. There’s no glory, only suffering in war.

Patrols in the Vietnam War

Many soldiers operated in units that carried out patrols. Describing what they were like one patrol sergeant told Time: “I don’t know, man. You chopper in. It’s raining. People are shooting at you. You’re running, just trying to stay alive. It doesn’t matter.”

A patrol was usually lead by a “point man.” “For me,” Tim O’Brien wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “Vietnam was party love. With each step, each light-year of a second, a foot soldier is always almost dead, or so it feels and in such circumstances you can’t help but love. You love your mom and dad, the Vikings, hamburgers on the grill, your pulse, your future—everything that might be lost or never come to be. Intimacy with death carries with it a corresponding intimacy with life. Jokes are funnier, green is greener. You love the musty morning air…You love your friends in Alpha Company.” Continue reading

Ambushes and Village Searches in the Vietnam War

Finding the Viet Cong was difficult and if they suspected ones were found they were hard to determine from normal villagers. One fore SEAL who worked in the Mekong Delta told the Washington Post, “It was literally pin the tail on the donkey. Half the time you ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.” And this led to a number of tragedies and dead civilians.

The film maker Oliver Stone fought in Vietnam and made movies about the war such as Platoon and Born on the Forth of July . He told Time: “I was in villages where villagers were killed and abused. It came from anger, fear. There were rapes, beatings and murders. I heard stories from people I was close to. You’re in a hot fire zone. A villager comes up from behind, say a sand dune. He’s surrendering, but sometimes a guy would just pull the trigger and plow him away.”

A U.S. soldier responsible for clearing out tunnels told Time, “We were passing by a monastery when mortars started flying around at us. Guys were screaming and yelling, ‘Mom!’ I was 18 years old. I was scared. I had a rocket launcher, and I fired it into the monastery. It went quiet. When we went in to look, there were a lot of dead. A French priest and some nuns.”

Sgt. Major Len Koontz told the Washington Post he had drank some water from a well where dead bodies had been dumped and came down with a severe case of diarrhea. His best friend Zach took his position. “We got ambushed . Zach got shot in the leg and falls. ‘Lenny, come and get me! But I’m getting shot at too, and I can’t move because I have the runs so bad. They shot him again and again, and he’s calling for me to come and get him, and I can’t move.”

Koontz told the Washington Post, “Consequently, Zach died of course.” Soon afterwards another friend Shelton,” took “a 50, caliber round in the stomach. As he’s falling, he takes another one in the head. A fierce firefight takes place, and I couldn’t get him out of there. He was alone, dead…In the morning we get reinforced and go back up with two platoons. Shelton isn’t there anymore.. they took his body and stripped it and mutilated him and stuck him in the middle of the a bomb carter.”

Search and Destroy Mission in the Mekong Delta 

Describing the Batangan Peninsula in Quang Ngai province Time O’Brien wrote in the New York Times: “The Graveyard we called it. Littered with land mines, almost completely defoliated, this spit of land jutting eastward into the South China Sea was a place Alpha Company feared the way others might fear snakes, or the dark, or the bogey man. We lost at least three men here; I couldn’t begin to count the arms and legs.”

On the Batangan Peninsula O’Brien’s company battled the 48th Viet Cong Battalion. “It was the 48th that Alpha Company chased from village to village, paddy to paddy, during my entire tour in Vietnam,” he wrote. “Chased but never found. They found us: ambushes, sniper fire, nighttime mortar attacks.”

The commander of the 48th, Ngu Duc Tan, a man with sixteen battle scars scattered around his body, later told O’Brien, “U.S. troops not hard to see, not hard to fight. Much noise, much equipment. Big columns. Nice green uniforms.”

To make the searching easier, the Americans dug canals to drain the swamps and used napalm and herbicides to clear the vegetation. Describing an area in northern part of the Mekong River, one former Viet Cong fighter told National Geographic, “The Plain of Reeds was an ideal hiding place. We were not afraid of anything but chemical warfare. Then we were helpless.”