In the spring of 1971, the business of recon took a strange turn. Teams were not able to successfully infiltrate their Areas of Operations. One of the teams, RT Asp, infiltrated and was never heard from again. The number of casualties and captured personnel climbed sharply during this period. We were being compromised from within. This is the factual account of how I came to realize that we had a spy in our midst.
We were going in heavier than usual. I had SSG Risto (Finn) Onermaa as my 11 and Tommy Thompkins with Johnny Elia as strap hangers. Combined with the six montagnards I had selected for this mission, we totaled ten men. A little heavy for a routine recon but, this one wasn't routine. During an overflight of the area, we had spotted commo wire. We were going to "tap" into it!
Our mission area was a mountain rain forest tract that was deeply wounded and scarred by extensive, old, slash and burn farming techniques. The vast cleared areas now covered with a lush carpet of Elephant Grass. The protective covering of jungle canopy existed only in a loosely defined archipelago along the ridge tops and slopes too steep to farm. Maneuvering in this area would not be easy. Places to hide were few and far between. Traveling through the tall grass would mark our trail as surely as, walking through fresh mud. Our tail gunner would have a difficult time, hiding our trail.
The Forward Air Controller or "Covey" was directing rocket fire on the LZ. I noticed that he had missed our intended landing spot by a good 300-500 meters. This really didn't concern me much but, I remembered how much emphasis LTC Donny Bellfi, the CCN commander, had placed on knowing exactly where the team was to land. He even had me plot it out to a ten meter coordinate and mark it on the aerial photographs and post it on the "Sit Map".
The choppers came into the LZ in trail formation. The straphangers were with me; Finn was on the second bird landing about 100 feet to the rear of the lead bird. We jumped out of the lead chopper into waist deep Elephant Grass. Finn exited from the trail chopper into grass that was over his head! Events began taking a nasty turn!
The grass swirled from the rotor wash as the choppers rose into the air. I looked to the rear and saw the rest of my team disappear as their bird also ascended. They were only a hundred feet from me and completely lost from site! I counted heads. Tommy Thompkins, Elia and the point man were with me. The rest of the team would surely join us in less than a minute.
Suddenly, we were enveloped in machine-gun fire from the river, 200 meters west of us. I grabbed the radio mike and started calling in fire from the cobras as I sprinted to a small, elevated outcropping of rock and trees to my east, near the original site for the LZ. The volume of fire had also cut Finn off from rejoining the team but, I suspected that the fire was also driving him to the same area. "Damn!" I thought. This was just what we needed! A split team is death to a recon team! Just linking back up was extremely hazardous!
The snakes began working the river as the four of us sprinted to the trees. I was already thinking about calling for an extract. We were compromised and had a split team. As soon as we linked up, we were getting out of there!
The air in front of us erupted with green tracers! Bullets whipped past our heads like angry hornets! The enemy was waiting for us in the trees! "This way!", I shouted and turned to the north, towards another small rise in the ground. The distance between Risto and the rest of our team was growing larger. We were now, I figured, a hundred meters apart and I could not see them. I couldn't even call in fire to support them because, their exact location couldn't be pinpointed! This was bad! Very, very bad! "When I reach some cover," I thought, "I'll work on linking the team up!"
We reached the base of the small rise. The ground was rocky here and lightly forested. I was at the point followed by Thompkins, Elia next then the point man, paradoxically assuming the tail gunner position. Something in my path exploded! The air in front of me turned white! Heat blasted my face and something heavy, hammered me in the groin! Reflexively, I fell to my knees, my breath knocked from me. My face in the dirt and my hands digging into the rocky soil, peeled the fingernails back as the pain lanced through the pit of my stomach. I struggled against this intense agony to breathe but, my body would not cooperate. I knew that I had received every man's nightmare wound. I had been hit in the balls! Finally, my lungs began to work again! I managed to suck in a half a breath when a massive wave of nausea attacked! My stomach convulsed, vomit exploded out of my mouth in an unending torrent! I could not breathe and I couldn't stop retching! I felt myself begin to lose consciousness. My vision grew black at the periphery. I was puking my life onto the ground, in front of me and I couldn't stop! Wave after wave of stomach contractions swept through me and when my stomach was emptied, the dry heaves kicked in! I collapsed, unable to fight this killing pain.
A hand grabbed me by the collar, pulled me onto my back and dragged me to some cover! The dragging caused my legs to extend and allowed me to breathe again. My vision cleared and I saw Thompkins pulling me towards Elia. They had moved twenty to thirty feet away from the explosion when they realized that I was not with them.
I could not bring myself to survey the extent of my wounds. I was afraid of what I'd find, or even worse, wouldn't find, between my legs. The pain was easing somewhat now and I rolled onto my hands and knees, crawling in the direction that Tommy was pulling me.
Tommy stopped dragging me and asked if I was all right. Without waiting for a reply, he exclaimed, "We can't stay here!"
He was right! we were now catching fire from the west and the south. The rocks we were in could not protect us much longer. The snakes were no longer firing and the Forward Air Controller was waiting for more instructions from us. Fire couldn't be directed to the south because Risto's location was unknown. The air assets relayed that they did not have a good fix on him either.
Before I could radio any more instructions, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye! Ten feet to the north of us, two NVA regulars leveled rifles at the backs of Thompkins and Elia. I raised my M-203 and fired a canister round!
Thompkins jumped! He looked to where my gun was aimed and saw an SKS rifle clatter down the rocks towards him.
"Let's go!", I shouted and ran to where I had just fired. The M-203 leading the way as it pumped out round after round of HE fire and M-16 bullets in effective covering fire.
Reaching the top of this small ridge we discovered the horrible truth! The ridge was occupied by NVA soldiers, lightly dug in and facing the valley to the west. The rocks we had just come through had hidden us from fire from these locations! We had just punched through the weakest point of the line and were now at the northern flank and just slightly to the rear of the enemy. They were set up for a far ambush in the valley and only providence had allowed us to escape! We were completely cut off from the rest of the team. We had to do something!
Ignoring the recon dictum of: "Break contact and continue the mission", we went on the offense! Unleashing a devastating barrage of grenades, 40mm HE and 5.56 rifle fire, we attacked the enemy flank and began rolling it to the south! We were fighting like Viking berserkers and the enemy fled from our deadly, unexpected onslaught, leaving the ridgeline to us.
Reaching the southern tip of the ridge we finally caught sight of Finn and the rest of the team. They were heading straight towards us and had a platoon of NVA hot on their trail. Newly directed air support and ground fire from our location, gave them the covering fire that they desperately needed. In a matter of minutes The Finn linked with us!
At the same time that Risto rejoined us, the counterattack began. From the southeast, in the exact location we had plotted for our infiltration LZ, rope netting catapulted into the air! The area had been booby trapped and the enemy movement had set it off. From the east and the north, enemy fire again found us. Throwing a CS grenade towards the point of the most concentrated fire; I used the white gas, it gave off, as a marker for our air assets. Calling in fire on the smoke, we moved west off the ridge.
Covey informed us that the birds did not have any more station time. We had to get to a LZ now! We moved into the Elephant Grass, set up a hasty perimeter and popped smoke. I stood up and directed the first chopper in.
Risto piled as many people as he could into the first bird. The enemy was closing on us, fast! The bird climbed straight up, turned to the east and cleared the ridge. I was now left with two montagnards, everyone else evacuated. NVA streamed onto the LZ! I remember thinking, how well their khaki uniforms camouflaged them in the golden grass. They were now in the center of the perimeter that the team had occupied moments before. The firing drove me back! I could not return fire because the second chopper was on short final and I was afraid that our return fire would hit it. I ran towards the north!
The chopper came in! The Door Gunner's and Crew Chief's, M-60 machine-guns spitting tracers to the flanks of the bird! They seemed unaware of the enemy troops directly below them!
"Pull up!" I screamed into the radio, "Pull up! They're right below you!" My transmissions seemed to fall on deaf ears as the chopper settled to the ground.
We immediately reversed our direction and headed back to the chopper. I saw the puzzled look on the pilots as we appeared to be firing our weapons straight at them. One of the pilots looked to his left and saw what we were shooting! The NVA soldier died just three feet from the cockpit, killed by fire from my point man!
We scrambled aboard! I grabbed the Crew Chief and pointed straight down at the ground. An NVA regular was right below him, crushed by the skid! He did not realize that they were so close!
The tail of the chopper abruptly lifted skyward! The bird, now just feet off the ground, thrust forward, nose down, tail high and beating the air for all that it was worth! North we flew, straight towards the east/west portion of the ridge. The pilot pulled into transitional lift just before we struck the trees, barely clearing the obstacles! Clearing the ridge, the chopper kicked to the right, pointed the nose down and followed the trees down the eastern slope of the ridge. Leveling off just a few feet above the ground we roller-coastered over the Elephant Grass until we cleared the enemy fire, leaping high into the air only when the crew felt that they were no longer being fired upon!
We caught up with the other helicopters and assumed the lead. The air at this altitude was cooler and I began to calm. I queried the Crew Chief about the others on the team. He radioed the other bird and reported that they were all OK!
It was at this point that I first dared to examine the extent of my wounds. My right hand tentatively crept between my legs. My fingers tenderly conducting the inventory. A lot of pain on the right testicle but, everything seemed to be accounted for and in the correct location! I pulled out a first aid bandage and opened my pants. I applied the dressing and realized that the wounds, were not as bad as I had feared. A wave of relief washed through me!
On the long flight back to Danang, I reflected on the events of this mission. We had just gone through the kill zone of a well planned and organized area ambush. Miraculously, we had survived with just minor injuries. Ambushes of this scale are not hastily thrown together. They require good intelligence. Helicopter traps are not haphazardly strewn about the AO. The enemy had to know exactly where we were landing. Also, recon teams were getting detected at the point of the infiltration with increasing frequency. No team had a successful infiltration in three months. The evidence spoke for itself! There was a spy in the TOC.
Another epiphany! LTC Bellfi knew of this compromise! The insistence on posting the ten digit coordinates for the infiltration LZ; we were cast out as a bait! A lure, the spy couldn't resist! Bellfi was willing to sacrifice a team! How many other teams had already been sacrificed?
This was not the leadership I had known and trusted in the past. This would change the way I ran all future missions. I could never blindly trust my leaders again!