Morning in a Garden of Steel

by William Gritzbaugh

The small village of Ba To sat at the southern edge of I Corps, the northern-most of the four military regions established by the US military during the Vietnam War. The hamlet thus gave its name to A-106 Ba To, a heavily-fortified US Army Special Forces (SF) camp just across a small but fast-flowing stream from the hamlet. I lived there in 1969, along with a compliment of Vietnamese and Montagnard troops. Ba To is etched in my mind since, in its surrounding jungled mountains, I was first shot at by people trying to kill me. Funny how something like that stays with you for the rest of your life.

We also ran a separate training facility for new recruits into the Civilian Irregular Defense Group, or CIDG, a hometown militia that was the main fighting force that Army Special Forces fielded against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces throughout Vietnam. The training center was a few hundred yards west of the SF camp and was quite rough: a few plywood buildings, canvas tents, and sandbag bunkers, all connected by trench lines. When the recruits were on site, maybe a hundred per training cycle, it was a noisy, muddy and bleak environment. A small detachment of six US SF troops, myself included, assisted the Vietnamese cadre in training.

Upon completion of their training cycle, the recruits would go on a combat patrol into the surrounding mountains, which were a major infiltration route for Communist troops. Two US SF advisors accompanied these patrols to assist their Vietnamese counterparts in the event that enemy contact would necessitate air support or Medevac extractions. For this patrol, the task fell to me and Sergeant First Class Lewis.

After a long day of humping the stream beds and mountain trails to the west and north of Ba To, our column of troops finally arrived at its NDP, or Night Defensive Position, high on the shoulder of a mountain. As we prepared our sleeping positions and ate our meager ‘LRRP’ rations, Sergeant Lewis told me that this same NDP had been the site of a major ambush the previous year. Several indigenous troops had been killed, and a SF trooper wounded. That Lewis was irritated with our Vietnamese counterparts for using this site again was an understatement. But protocol required that we politely defer to our allies rather than make a ruckus. Needless to say, we figured the VC would hit us in the early morning, which made the night pass slowly.

Pre-dawn arrived and a thick fog enveloped the mountain. We could only see a dozen yards in any direction, and the possibility that VC ambushers lurked in the underbrush made everyone tense. We expected a firefight to begin any second, but our column snaked away from the NDP without incident and headed down the mountain side. We moved slow through the stubborn fog. I could only imagine the stress of the guys on point as they felt their way along. Sergeant Lewis and I, a few dozen yards back in the column, struggled to see the men just in front of or behind us.

Just beside the trail, a few feet to my right, I noticed a strange object protruding from the ground. I slowed my gait a bit and studied it. Then I saw another similar object that sprouted plant-like from the ground nearby. I froze and Sergeant Lewis nearly bumped into me as I stood on the trail. I took a few more steps and scanned the terrain to the left and right. Dozens of tail sections of mortar rounds stuck out of the earth. The array gave the ground the look of a devil’s cactus garden. All were ‘dud’ rounds that had failed to explode on impact, but now became a mine field for our little fog-enshrouded column of soldiers.

I would later learn that the VC used the area as a vantage point to gather intelligence on the activities at the SF camp two thousand feet below. Knowing this, the camp would fire mortar or artillery rounds – referred to as ‘H & I’ or ‘harassment & interdiction’ – at the area in hopes of killing or driving away those observers. Over the years, the many dud rounds, often caused by corroded impact fuses of WWII vintage, turned the area into a potential death trap for the unwary.

I took a mental inventory of the fin assemblies as we tip-toed past them, each soldier following the exact steps of the man to his front. There were numerous 81 mm and some 107 mm or ‘Four Deuce’ rounds. Most were ‘HE’ or high explosive, but at least one appeared to be white phosphorus. Scores of impact craters of rounds that did explode on impact merely added to the other-worldly landscape we’d strolled into.

Every war leaves behind detritus that continues to kill and maim long after the guns are silenced. I’ve since wondered if that dangerous mountainside field yet rests there, possibly attracting a closer look by curious tourists from Germany and Australia. Perhaps the Communist government sent a team up there long ago to detonate those rounds safely. I sure hope so.

Had the VC opened up on us as we traversed the clearing we would have had no option but to dive for cover amongst those fin sections, possibly setting off explosions as we sought the safety of Mother Earth.

I thank God they did not, and we soon left the fog and reentered the jungle, which, even with all its dangers, seemed almost safe.