Copyright 2003. Bruce Martin. All rights reserved. No
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The NVA Get Scrooged – By Themselves
I had been in Viet Nam about seven months when the urge hit me to ride a recon outfit’s junket to the far out boonies.
As an informational services office pogue (ISO later became PAO), I had considerable field and combat experience, attaching myself to many regular Grunt companies – mostly in the 2nd Battalion, Fourth Marines (P.X. Kelley’s first outfit) or, the 3rd Battalion, Fourth Marines. Too often, a search and destroy mission was only a walk in the sun.
We were operating out of the Chu Lai area, where the 1st Battalion, Fourth Marines – still armed with venerable M-1 rifles – had unfairly earned the label “Chu Lai National Guard.” Reliable old 1 /4 was charged with perimeter duty and did a most excellent job of keeping the VC at bay. For the record, the Fourth Marines was commanded by Colonel Sherman and XO’ed by Lieutenant Colonel Cherigino. First names of officers were not always my business.
The passage of time and way too many memories have blurred other unit designations. During three of my four fun-filled romps in Viet Nam, I attached myself to many, many units – including the ROK Marines. But, I believe it was “A” Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion whose general purpose tents were pitched just on the other side of ISO’s two-tent complex -- one for living shared with multiple families of rats that had burrowed under straw mats (and into) footlockers cast on the ground. Our canvas cots reposed on the mats, too, providing a highway to us as we dwelt in the arms of morpheous. We each receive the personal attention of at least one rat.
The other GP tent, with plywood lying atop the ground for flooring, was our office. Equipped with two typewriters precariously straddling ammo crate desks, we generated great volumes of battlefield vignettes in the form of news releases “For Immediate Release” and Fleet Hometown News Release forms -- you know: Pfc. Joe Schmuck, son of Mr. and Mrs. John Schmuck of Topeka, is serving with ….
We did much of our typing without benefit of ribbons, which dried out quickly. Instead, I came on the brilliant idea of typing on carbon paper facing a sheet of paper. I later learned that much of what we carefully produced died when it eventually got back to our 3rd Marine Division Informational Services Office in Da Nang because a mustang lieutenant there would not accept carbon copies.
A photo section, under a fairly innocuous staff sergeant whom we saw every couple of weeks when he came around to check on his mail, shot few photos for our fleet hometowners. The four working photogs were more than tolerably good in the field under combat conditions – Lance Corporal Henderson, Pfc. Rose, and the other two, I forget.
I, a sergeant, had become the senior ISO pogue when the SNCO in charge had gone to Da Nang to become a temporary second lieutenant for as long as it took to win what became an un-winnable war. Lance Corporals Bisher, DesRoaches, Lookabaugh, and Corporal Wesighan – the last dropped from MarCad because he punched the lights out of two instructors, the second of which was a second chance -- were my cohorts. I pretty much ran things – or not -- so, when I asked who wanted to go play VC tag with recon, I was the only one who volunteered. I had a wife and three children, the youngest of whom was exactly a month old. But, I volunteered. Maybe I was bored.
Captain Tardiff, Lieutenant Bone, and Sergeant Agamasi – I remember only their last names and ranks, and, Boy! are those names and young faces forever embedded in my memory. I wish I could remember the corpsman and the other four or five with whom I made the insert.
My personal prep for the excursion was to scrounge three other 20-round magazines, giving me a total of five with 100 rounds, some of which had come ashore on Operation Starlight. I convinced the Fourth Marines armorer to spring for five bandoliers, each containing sets of ten 10-round charger clips pocketed in pairs. My 600-round stash made me feel invincible!
I added two temporarily purloined canteens to my original issue of one, figuring I would consume one a day on each of our planned three-day mission. I stocked my rucksack with six cans of ham and mothers, six C-rat packs of butt ribbon, two moldy mini packs of filterless C-rat Pall Malls, and two pair of immersion-foot producing black-dyed socks – thank you DoD for denying us our green ones.
Early in February, 1966, on a Tuesday two days after my 26th birthday, my French-made alarm clock – bought in the ‘ville -- rattled me awake at 0400. Fifteen minutes later, I had trudged through the copse separating our tents from recon and reported to Captain Tardiff, who checked my rifle – a Springfield with a selector switch and a flash suppressor from which you could do pull-ups without it bending.
The rifle was a trophy awarded me by the Headquarters Battalion, 3rdMarDiv armorer – Sergeant Charlie somebody -- for waiting 13 days patiently after arriving in-country to be heeled. (He had, on my first quest for a weapon, issued me a 100-round bandolier and one magazine, telling me to check regularly until he received some rifles.)
The weapon had belonged to some unfortunate Doggie on a muddy battlefield to the south. It took me two days to clean the rust and grime from the Springfield. I fam-fired it in anger on my first patrol – a squad from Lima 3/9, Captain David Colcombe commanding – two days before the Corps’ 190th Birthday. A couple of weeks later, I was ordered to Chu Lai by the ISO, Major King D. Thatenhurst, who, as a gunnery sergeant, had been killed twice in Korea.
I must have passed Captain Tardiff’s once-over, for he introduced me to Sergeant Agamasi, a stocky, pleasant Guamanian, and told me to stick with him, do what he told me. I met Lieutenant Bone, then a corpsman and four other Ronnie Recons, one of whom kiddingly reminded me that I was dressed to kill with all my ammo. I had a bayonet and a Bowie knife, the latter of which my wife had insisted on buying for me in Mobile the night before I left for Viet Nam. Only two of the bandoliers were slung across my chest – the other three were stuffed into my rucksack. I didn’t tell him.
Seems it was very dark, the tail-end of the monsoon season. But, it wasn’t raining.
On Captain Tardiff’s command, we gathered for a briefing. Actually, the recon lads had done all that the night before, excusing me. However, Captain Tardiff just wanted to remind them that we were going out into the toolies about 18 miles southwest of our present position – he gave us each the map coordinates. We were to insert just at dawn on a hilltop overlooking a rainforested valley in which an NVA regiment was believed marshalling. Our mission was, essentially as I remember it, not to make contact but to snoop around and estimate enemy strength and to maybe call in some H&I fires via an ANGLICO detachment assisting our valiant ARVN sponsors at a fire base not too distant for a 105. If the opportunity came to snatch a prisoner or two, we were to take it.
It all sounded pretty spiffy to me.
A short ride in a three-quarter ton truck, an almost instant boarding of a ‘chopper whose red-lighted interior reminded me too much of blood, and 20 minutes later, our UH-34 Seahorses landed on a sparsely vegetated hilltop. The Seahorses were lifting off before the last man on each clambered out. Dawn was cracking the sky to the west. The ten of us quickly dispersed across the hill’s summit, me sticking with Sergeant Agamasi like vomitus on a drunkard’s shirt. We took up prone positions at measured intervals around the flat peak, that is, everyone except Sergeant Agamasi and me.
Soon, the sun began to push long shadows from the puny vegetation across the morning-warmed ground. I began to feel naked as I lay atop the shrub-barren hillock next to Agamasi. He kept checking his watch. We both looked down the windward side of the hill into the rainforest beneath us, seeing nothing.
I noted the time as being shortly after 0630 when Agamasi moved me onto what was clearly a well-traveled trial. He told me to cover the trial, then, before crawling away, said he needed to check in with Captain Tardiff.
The day’s heat was coming on. I was a bit drowsy, but I had no trouble staying alert. I could visualize a well-armed NVA patrol marching cockily up the trail, straight into my pos’. What to do, I wondered. Open up? Shout a warning? Do neither, just observe them unless it was clear I had been spotted?
Suddenly, a burst of M-14 fire followed by the detonation of a hand grenade behind me spared me of a decision. I heard yelling.
Agamasi shouted: “They got Martin, they got Martin!”
I said nothing as I snapped the safety off my Springfield. I became more alert as my eyes swept a quick 360 all around while I shifted my body to accommodate my moving head. I paused in my sweep just long enough to identify a wafting black pall behind me. It was smoke from the explosion.
Captain Tardiff began a quick roll-call of last names. He omitted mine, but got replies to each one he called.
“Hey! Sergeant Agamasi!” I yelled. “I’m here where you left me – I’m okay.”
“You hit?” a detached voice asked.
“Nope! I’m just fine,” I replied.
A roaring silence prevailed.
Minutes later, Sergeant Agamasi snaked over to me with a big grin on his face. He brought a new tale. Behind him, Captain Tardiff and Lieutenant Bone crawled to each other from opposite directions of our tiny perimeter. They conferred quickly.
I asked my still grinning mentor what had happened. He explained that one of the recon Marines had to relieve himself. He had crawled a little down the mountain and was squatting in a strain, his rifle locked firmly across both shins to help him maintain balance. The reconner heard approaching footsteps. He looked up to see a uniformed NVA soldier – with no weapon visible – nonchalantly strolling up the hillside, well off the beaten path.
The recon lad, his Hawaiian lineage working for him, looked up from his very compromising position and smiled a Vietnamese greeting to the soldier from the north hoping to capture him: “Chou, ong!” the Marine intoned. Instantly, it became apparent to the Marine that the NVA trooper was, for whatever reason, cradling a live grenade in both hands.
Obviously startled by the Marine, the enemy soldier simultaneously bolted down the hill, tossing the grenade rear with a to-whom-it-may-concern attitude as he turned in headlong retreat. The grenade landed in the unoccupied center of our perimeter.
The Marine who was taking care of business when the interloper surprised him, took care of more business: Still squatting, utility trousers over his boots, he cut the NVA soldier down with a three-round burst from his M-14 – at a small price. The rifle’s recoil drove Hawaii-boy backward – into his business.
It was obvious to the captain and the lieutenant that we had just been compromised by the Gomer Pylesque antics of a now very dead NVA soldier. We could not stay on the ridgeline a minute longer. The appealing jungle leeward side of the hill would hide us as the recon Marines intended to carry on their mission.
It was barely mid morning. Already, it felt like a week.
Lead by Lieutenant Bone, we formed a well-spaced column and began wending our way toward the rainforest. Captain Tardiff was carrying the radio, communicating with Recon Battalion.
About three-quarters of the way down a hill that was a least 100 feet high, the staccato crack of AK-47s and AK-46s drove us all to ground. There was no cover or concealment – except the trees and shrubs in the rainforest 30 or 40 feet across the even valley floor before us at the foot of the hill.
“Into the bush!” Captain Tardiff commanded. We scrambled to our feet firing and rushed into the edge of the jungle. I changed magazines on the way, stuffing the empty into my utility jacket. We wore no flak jackets or helmets.
No one went down, no one was hit from the scattering of automatic weapons fire coming just from the left of us. Once in the bush, I noticed everyone went quickly into prone positions. I did the same, maybe four or five feet from Sergeant Agamasi.
We had already stopped firing at targets we could not see. Seconds later, the NVA fire withered and died. We could hear one of theirs yelling what sounded like sing-song yelps – obviously, in pain. A single gunshot preceded a very pregnant silence.
At least a half hour passed before we began to stir. Lieutenant Bone crawled the jungle floor, counting noses. Then, for the first an only time in the field, one grenade could have gotten us all as we bunched near a gigantic moss encrusted bolder, the only one in sight within the bounds of the rainforest.
“We’re compromised,” Captain Tardiff said, breaking the obvious to us. “We’re going to RON, then, just before dawn, make our way back up the hill on which we landed this a.m. for pick-up by 34’s. Tonight, we move further into the greenery and sit tight. We’ll have 50 percent watch, and take two-hour naps.”
“Skip?” Sergeant Agamasi interjected, “Is there a chance we can take a look at these guys tonight? I’ll be glad to move in on their suspected pos’ if someone will go with me.”
To the last Marine, the reconners all volunteered to join Sergeant Agamasi.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Captain Tardiff said. “I was informing battalion about our compromise, and they in turn informed me about a line of severe wind and rain squalls moving our way from seaside. I know rain would make a good cover for checking them out, but I want us all together when I get word in the a.m. that our extraction birds are inbound.
“Meanwhile, let’s get further into this forest before it’s dark and the rain gets here.”
We made sort of a skirmishers line, spacing out about three to five feet between us, and began moving eastward. A few hundred feet into the rainforest and we came to a sharply sloping gulley heavily populated with what looked like an undergrowth of fichus trees. Captain Tardiff positioned us in a fairly tight perimeter. He put me on a sharp incline, indicating two trees between which I was to return fire if we were attacked.
Moments later, after I opened a much anticipated can of ham and muthas, a torrent unleashed itself as the darkest pitch I’ve ever experienced engulfed us in one swallow. It seemed that I was immediately drenched by five humongous drops of rain.
Later that night, when it was my turn to sleep for a couple of hours, I found an immediate use for the aiming stakes Captain Tardiff had set for me. The incline on which I was situated was so steep that when I lay on my side to sleep, the rivulets of water pouring round me loosened the earth and caused me to slip down the incline. I solved this by pulling the bill of my water-saturated cover over my face, and getting into the supine position with an aiming stake under each armpit.
I am certain I actually dozed. The collar of my utility shirt channeled water down my back, through my trousers’ legs and into my already soaked boots. Fortunately, the rain was warm – I remember it well.
A sharp crack awakened me. I heard the corpsman, the next man on my right in our little perimeter, muttering painfully. He had just shot himself in the foot with his M-1carbine.
Doc -- that’s all I recall of his name – had gone to sleep with his rifle’s muzzle tucked into his boot top “to keep mud and rain out.” He was apparently holding the rifle along the inside of his leg when he managed to make it unsafe and discharge it. Fortunately, the round produced only a grazing wound and a fairly nasty burn before taking off most of his boot’s sole.
Using only limited light, we dressed Doc’s foot and put his boot back on. When we eventually walked out, he walked with us.
Meanwhile, we settled in again. I was sure we were hours away from extraction. My watch did not have a luminous dial, I did not have a flashlight, the use of which had again been forbidden after using a highly shielded one to treat Doc.
Sometime in the wee hours, a firefight started to the east of us. Not just haphazard rifle fire, but carefully laid machine guns and mortars – maybe even pack howitzers, Captain Tardiff was later to opine. It was very clear that a lot of give and take was happening.
Captain Tardiff took to the radio, curious about the gunfight. I later learned there were no friendlies in the area. Since there was obviously incoming and outgoing concerned, the conclusion was crystal: The gooners were shooting each other up.
The firefight lasted a good hour, by all of our accounts -- longer I’m sure. Occasionally, we could hear spent small-arms rounds falling in the tree-tops – the rain had relented for a long spell. And, we could hear unspent rounds zipping through the triple-canopied branches well overhead. I am sure that once or twice I caught glimpses of green tracers arcing high over us. In our after action, others reported seeing them, too.
A grey, muddy dawn found us each sitting miserably up in a tightly drawn perimeter. Captain Tardiff passed the word that there would be no ‘choppers until around noon – if the fog cleared.
By mid afternoon, it was raining again. Captain Tardiff got us into a column and led us to the top of the hill on which we had landed on the bright, clear morning the day before. We spent the night atop the hill and witnessed, so help me God, a repeat of the intramural battle from the night before.
This time, we, on the leeward side, could clearly see green tracers being exchanged as 12.67 mm machine gun fire crossed opposing lines. We could see mortar flashes from the north as the weapons fired on southern targets. We heard occasional stray rounds impacting below us and buzzing over us. Again, it lasted at least an hour.
Dawn brought with it four Seahorses and a Huey gunship, Marine Corps style: a 50-caliber machine gun on the right side, a rocket pod on the left skid. It was trying to rain as the first Seahorse flared its blades to land, then quickly powered up to regain flight. The pilot and crew chief had both been hit by enemy ground fire.
We could not see, as we remained prone in anticipation of the ‘choppers landing, the NVA gunners. But the gunship did, and he wasted them with rockets, then strafed them for good measure.
Meanwhile, a second ‘chopper peeled out of formation and began returning southeast. It had suffered, we were to learn, a dramatic loss in oil pressure and the pilot did not want to overtax the engine with the strain of the thousand pounds or so we would add, once five of us were aboard.
Again, the gunship let loose on a target we could not see, then flew inches off the deck above us as it ascended back into the sky. It might soon be our only hope for covering fire if we had to seek concealment in the jungle again.
I was laying near a pile of boulders when – surprise of surprises – a Seahorse suddenly roared down above me. I was laying directly under the tail rotor and wondered how I was going to get up without ruining my day and that of several other Marines. The door gunner saw my plight, cupped his hand to the microphone on his flight helmet and the hovering ‘chopper jigged away from me and sat down its wheels simultaneously.
I rolled from under the whirring blade, scampered to my feet, and was the third Marine in the bird. The crew chief, manning an M-60 on the window side, was blazing away. We took two more Marines aboard, and instantly the trusty Seahorse, lovingly dubbed “the Shuddering Shithouse,” began to laboriously claw for altitude. Both crewmen were blazing away with their machine guns as we raced above the triple-canopied rainforest, the second Seahorse visible behind us as it lifted off the hilltop.
Back in the Fourth Marines headquarters area, I listened to the opinions and observations as we went through a debriefing.
“A new tactic has been born,’ said Sergeant Agamasi, as he raised a virtually unaged, green San Miguel beer. “We sneak into the goners camp, confuse them, and for two nights in a row, they’re so jumpy they shoot themselves up! What a war!”
I don’t know what kind of damage the NVA did to each other with their shoot-outs – only they know the count. But I do know that I have wondered many times if a couple of rival NVA rifle companies took things too far in a quarrel over something insignificant. More apropos, I think we may have witnessed – unknowingly – a couple of genuine no holds barred live-fire training exercises that got a green NVA regiment seasoned in a heartbeat. They did things differently, you know.
-- Semper Fidelis --