by Duke Barrett
I recently had the honor of partaking in “The 50th Commemoration of the Vietnam War” ceremony this past April at Ft. Irwin, CA. Having done so, this well-meaning event couldn’t help but stir up a few old, and I mean old, lasting memories. Here, below, is but one.
Good manners require that I be cordial to all visitors but one in particular, the one from the deepest recesses of my mind, the one who makes a number of unannounced visits, the one I find most annoying and treat it as such. Let’s call that visitor a “lasting memory,” and seared into my being or not, to that blast from the past, so to speak, I say “enough already.” Call me rude.
Allow me to explain. Many years ago, June 23rd, 1966, I was part of an undermanned reconnaissance platoon of the 1/8 Cavalry, of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, Airborne. We had just been airlifted into the immediate area surrounding the city of Tuy Hoa, South Vietnam, along the picturesque South China Sea. Our mission was to assist an overwhelmed 101st Airborne Division who were locked into some
heavy fighting with a large number of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army regulars in the hills surrounding Tuy Hoa. This hardened and highly trained unit of paratroopers had only recently been engaged in some intense close-order combat at Dak To, north of Kontum, where we too had just completed operations.
As our platoon anxiously awaited orders just inside the relatively secure perimeter of the 101’s fire support base, my buddy Frank and I reminisced about life “back in the world.” I remember telling Frank how I’d rather be home for my sister’s birthday, that particular day of June 22nd, than chasing bad guys through the jungles of Vietnam. Well, as luck would have it, our orders were just as we’d expected. No birthday celebrations for you Mr. Barrett. How’s bout another reconnaissance patrol into an area ripe with North Vietnamese Army troops first thing in the morning on a nearby hillside? “Hey, that’s cool,” I thought. I mean, that’s what we do; we’re paratroopers. Who in their right mind would pass up an opportunity like this? Home is overrated. On a positive note, at least this patrol was going to put us on a hillside that led to a mountain top where it could possibly be a little less jungle like, a wee bit less humid, and maybe even cooler, like, you know, only in the high 90’s. Life can be good at times.
Just after dark we settled in our temporary accommodations for a good-nights rest as visions of NVA danced in our heads. At the dawns early light on June 23rd, following a night’s rest, we rolled out of our beds, took hot showers, had breakfast and coffee and then turned in our room keys as we checked out at the front desk. (I kid) Actually, as soon as we woke up we rolled out of our poncho liners, which like
us, were on the damp ground, grabbed our weapons, checked our gear for large insects and snakes, saddled up and boarded the waiting choppers for the short flight to the army Special Forces compound on the nearby hillside. Call us grunts.
Immediately upon our arrival at the SF compound we linked up with a squad from another brigade with the sole intention of beefing up our anemic numbers. The attached squad came from the “blues,” an elite element of the 1/9 Cavalry, of our division reconnaissance company. The 1/9 Cav saw more combat than any other fighting unit in all of Vietnam, and that’s a fact. Great! This could be seen as either a good sign or a bad sign depending on one’s perspective. It turned out to be not so good. Action was the word of the day.
As our reinforced reconnaissance platoon left the compound and headed farther up the hillside asordered, we made enemy contact only minutes following our departure. The designated point squad for this patrol happened to be our third squad. In short order they killed three NVA soldiers who were at the trails edge in what appeared to be a futile and fruitless search for water. A thorough search of the enemy corpses for intelligence purposes yielded little, if any information and so off we went again. The trail, more or less an animal trail, soon turned into an extremely wide trail. That, you all, is not cool.
I personally didn’t understand why we were actually walking on that trail as our recon platoon and patrols usually operated on the sides of any given trail, especially a wide and obviously used trail. Chances of even more contact soon became apparent by the significant numbers of freshly dug fox holes and “como” wire adjacent to this South Vietnamese version of a mountain freeway. The million-dollar question was just how many troops did these fox holes and wire constitute?
Our platoon sergeant, Sergeant Blease, a hardened Korean War survivor of the Battle of Pork Chop Hill soon realized that we’d stumbled upon something far larger than our relatively small number of troops were manned and equipped to handle, prompting him to call for air-support in the form of helicopter gun-ships. In no time they arrived and peppered the ground to our immediate fore with rockets and M-60 machine-gun fire. In the process of this strike, a hot expended shell casing fired from an M-60 machine gun went down the back of my fatigue shirt. It burned like hell and really pissed me off. Call me an ingrate.
Shortly afterward, Sergeant Blease ordered a more stealth like recon of the immediate area and summoned my buddy Frank, a Davy Crockett re-incarnate, for this undertaking. Frank, a God-fearing, guitar pickin,’ good ole country boy from North Carolina, was ordered to scout the real estate that lieahead and given the opportunity to pick one good man to go with him. As luck would have it, he picked me and I’m sure it was because we were best of friends. Opposites attract. I was a city guy, a “rock ‘n’ roller,” Frank, well, he chewed tobacco. My question: Is that any way to treat a friend?
So off we went, quietly and cautiously, and I mean cautiously, for about a hundred yards up, that trail was abundant in thin trees which provided little cover. Due to the encounters we’d already experienced this day, we had a gut-feeling that we’d soon have our hands full, of action that is. Call us seers.
Approaching some broken foliage just off of the trail, I can still picture Frank slowly pulling back a branch from a bush, motioning to me with his finger pointed downward, indicating a target, slowly lifting his M-16 rifle and firing a short burst of rounds into the dug-in enemy position. That’s when things got heated. You know that old saying “monkey see-monkey do?” Well that was pretty much my role in this close encounter of the worst kind. Frank pointed and fired. Then I fired. He threw a grenade, I threw a grenade. Then we both fired into the enemy position with Frank putting another head shot on the remaining pith helmeted NVA gunner, momentarily silencing the enemy position. Not to be outdone, I fired my weapon and tore apart tree limbs and the like. In a split-second, a full-fusillade of withering, angry automatic weapons fire poured down on us like monsoon rains. Well assured that they now harbored even more ill intentions towards us, we high-tailed it, or as they say in country, “di-di mau’d” back down the trail, much less cautious and stealth like than our recent approach.
In our tactical retreat to the rear, we rolled, jumped and somehow outfoxed the speeding projectiles intent on maiming us as they flew between our legs, whizzed past our ears, under our arms and kicked up dirt and debris all around us. The foliage along our escape route became victim of the high-powered rounds intended for our demise and nearly caused an environmental forestry disaster.
I must emphasize an important point here. If it were not for Frank’s keen eye and innate survival skills, it is highly likely that our platoon would have walked right into that well concealed and camouflaged L-shaped ambush and at a minimum; we’d have been torn to shreds if not annihilated. I came to this conclusion as the intelligence debriefing days later informed us that we had encountered an enemy element of the 620th NVA regiment. That’s like thirty seven good guys versus two to four hundred hardened enemy troops. Not particularly good odds, even for a bunch of cocksure paratroopers. Incidentally, as a result of this action, Frank was awarded a well-deserved Bronze Star with “V” device.” The “V” is for Valor.
For the rest of the day things only got worse. Third squad had again been ordered up and told to make yet another recon of the trail in spite of Frank’s warning of the impending perils that lay ahead. As feared by Frank and I, in no time another fusillade was withered upon our brothers, taking down both the point man and squad leader. The two of them, Private Raymond and Staff Sergeant John L., were then used as live bait as the surviving members took cover. The survivors immediately regrouped and launched a heroic but futile attempt at rescue only to be driven back by an overwhelming force. In the interim the two dying troopers that lay on the trail bled-out.
The enemy had been attempting to surround us for some time and had it not been for some dog-eat-dog fighting, they may have succeeded. The NVA probed us from all directions and never succeeded at figuring out just how “small” in numbers we actually were. The close in air-support certainly hindered their effort as well but came with a price to both sides. A short-round rocket fired from one of our supporting gun-ships landed in our midst, killing a “cherry,” a newly assigned NCO. This poor guy, Sergeant Honorario, never knew what hit him. He took a large piece of shrapnel to the chest which opened him up like a can of c-rats. Others were wounded as well, including my buddy Frank and my squad leader, Staff Sergeant Grimm. The concussion from the exploding rocket threw us all as if we were nothing more than ingredients in a tossed salad. In the melee, Frank took shrapnel or a round to the upper arm and as a result he was momentarily incapacitated, much to my chagrin. Our attached squad from 1/9 suffered two casualties as the NVA again attempted to flank our position immediately following the explosion that knocked us down but not out.
Following the deadly blast of friendly fire, those of us from the second squad who were at a minimum, disoriented but unscathed, cleared our heads and waited for the ringing in our ears to stop as we took up a defensive position at the trails head. Void of any kind of cover whatsoever, like a large tree, stump or a culvert, our positions were entirely at the mercy of our NVA tormentors. Virtually pinned down by the NVA machine guns, we waited nervously for a full-on frontal attack. Literally hundreds, if not thousands of hostile rounds were fired at us all afternoon and miraculously they missed their intended target.
“Combat 101,” in regard to any firefight situation with an enemy, dictates the elimination of any crew-served weapons, such as mortars and machine guns, and the North Vietnamese were applying this lesson to the best of their ability. Our task for the remaining daylight hours was to observe the trail and stop any unwelcome intruders from entering our perimeter. Protected only by my army issued helmet and an M-16 rifle, I positioned myself next to our own M-60 machine gunner, Specialist Steve, and laid in anxious wait. With our gunner being to my immediate left, the expended cartridges fired from his weapon would fly past me and land to my immediate right, creating a mess of white hot, hollow cylinders. Incoming rounds fired at us by the NVA swept in a motion from right to left, hitting the expended cartridges that were only inches from my head. These empty cartridges then flew up and about, made a tingling sound while airborne and crashed harmlessly back on to the jungle floor. Try as I may to count the number of times that I covered my head with my bony left hand in a ridiculous attempt to stop the bullets from penetrating my helmet and head, strained my already challenged mathematical abilities.
After a number of hours of this torture and the seemingly bleak situation that had paid visit upon us, I began to believe that we may actually survive this day, if not only to suffer another. Think positive.The NVA never realized our weakened state but soon came to understand our resolve as we beat back a number of probes. As hard as it was to believe, the enemy machine guns stuck to their fields of fire. Not once did they ever make an adjustment. I mean, had they moved their gun another foot or so in our direction, they may have well brought about an unfavorable ending in our quest for survival. I for one am eternally grateful for their taking a position and sticking to it. No flip-flopping here. Fortunately for us, headquarters was well aware of our dire situation and ordered a nearby company, from the second battalion of the seventh cavalry to re-enforce us. They air-assaulted in to a landing zone in our vicinity late that afternoon. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the NVA withdrew from their fighting positions and disappeared into the vast jungle. As reinforcements moved in to link up with us they too lost a couple of good men and in turn killed a number of the NVA who were plentiful in numbers around the contested area.
I had been alerted to watch and listen for friendlies that were to approach from the same direction thebad guys had been determined to assault us from. Like an end to a nightmare or an answer to a prayer, the point man from the 2/7 Cav, followed by the rest of his company, arrived at dusk, as per schedule. I’ve got to tell you that in all of my life I’ve never been so damn happy to see anyone as I was when I laid eyes on that weary and dirty infantryman. I kick myself time and time again for not getting that troopers name. To say thank you is hardly sufficient. I mean, what can you say? To that trooper and his band of brothers, speaking for the entire recon platoon I say “Gentlemen, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.” Call us grateful.
Shortly after our brief rendezvous with the seventh, we licked our wounds, gathered up our dead and wounded and headed for another landing zone for extraction of our casualties, under the cover of darkness. All along the way that evening and early morning, we could hear voices of the enemy who were apparently close by. In the darkness of a full canopied jungle we couldn’t see a thing and prayed
that the NVA could not hear us. It was anything but easy carrying the dead, in the dead of night, on make-shift stretchers, as the bodies would get caught up on “wait a minute” vines, all but stopping our movement, but we prevailed. At daybreak, hungry, worn and weary, we arrived at our objective, the LZ, where we set up a perimeter and waited for the medevac chopper to evacuate our casualties.
Being both tired and famished following an especially long day and night, we were left to wonder when division was going to send us a re-supply chopper. You know, like food and water. That would have hit the spot. Instead, division ordered us to run another recon patrol of the immediate area. I’m convinced those back in the rear calling the shots believed us young troopers to be every bit as fit and hydrated as young camels. Well, we then reluctantly but dutifully moved out on yet another patrol. Surprisingly, at this point of the mission, morale had yet to peak.
Only a little more than a couple of klicks from the LZ, our luck began to change for the better, in the form of Divine Intervention. Yeah, that’s right. Miraculously, a lone chicken sent from Heaven above or maybe Tuy Hoa or even more probable, from the recently ravaged and abandoned village we had just come upon. As we readied to scout out the village, the chicken unwisely let his presence be known by clucking even louder than the refreshing sounds of the nearby enemy-body-laden creek where we refilled our canteens. Following a thorough recon of the village, the chicken became our main point of focus. Suffice it to say that the poor scrawny little chicken didn’t stand a chance. As stated previously, life can be good at times. You know, like when you catch a break, or a chicken. Call us thirsty. Call us hungry. Call us Vietnam Vets.
Duke Barrett is a veteran of the Vietnam War (1965-1966), where he served as an infantryman and senior scout with the 1st Airborne Brigade, 1st Air Calvary. Mr. Barrett graduated in 1979 from Wisconsin-Parkside with a BA in Political Science, and is the author of the novel The Wall of Broken Dreams. Mr. Barrett is now retired from the US Postal Service and resides in Las Vegas, Nevada.