Puff

[BadEye note: In early ‘69 I was working as a team leader of a recon team in B-36, III Mike Force. One day I was told that I would take a Chu Hoi (NVA who surrendered and agrees to work with us) on a mission to find a hospital complex in War Zone D. We would be accompanied by a battalion of our SF led Cambodes, but I would lead the way with the recon team. Since the closest LZ was only about 300-400 meters across only a company of Cambodes could land at one time. According to plan, when my team landed we ran to the woodline to set off in the direction of the hospital complex while the first company organized a perimeter on the LZ and waited for the other two companies and the battalion HQ. Well, that was the plan. What follows is part of what happened next when the plan changed. The actual text was in response to a young lady on the VWAR-L who asked someone to describe what “Puff” was....]

“Puff” was a C-47 (twin engine, prop driven) of WWII vintage. It had 7.62mm MiniGuns sticking out of the port (left) side and a starlight scope sight for the left-seated co-pilot/pilot to aim with. Had to use him a few times, down in III Corps, but I didn't catch the AF unit designation of the crew. Had other things to do at the time.

As I found out, Charley knew Puff was a night fighter because it flew too close to the ground for daylight orbiting. Charley would always wait Puff out until dawn when Puff would disappear like Dracula at dawn's early light. As soon as Puff was off station, you would hear mortar rounds thumping and the first assault elements beating the bush towards you to close the gap before helos and fast movers took up the overwatch.

Being just a small recon team, our choices were few if we had not used Puff's breath of fire and the darkness to get our butts out of a noose Sir Charles tried to put around us. You learn a lot about night patrolling at a time like this. I always took the back door out, but one time I got trapped on an infil LZ ....

I had a Chu Hoi (NVA sapper who had surrendered) who said he would lead us to a hospital in D Zone that had French doctors and underground ORs and convalescent wards. Big place, he said, but lightly guarded. The VC/NVA relied upon stealth since they annihilated a ARVN Airborne Ranger element near there. The area had not had many visitors since then, at least not until the III Corps Mike Force decided to jump on this "fetted pig". How fast can a guy on crutches run, anyway!

To make a long story short, my recon team and this Chu Hoi jump off the first helo with a battalion of Cambode strikers right behind us - or so I thought. By the time we hit the wood line I'm face to face with guys wearing pith helmets and jumping into trenches and fighting bunkers along the edge of the LZ. They didn't expect us so soon, but for the troops still trying to assemble on the LZ it was fortunate that when we hit the ground we ran straight to the wood line.

The first 4-5 Chucks didn't see what hit them. They were only a couple of yards away, handing each other ammo and equipment into the trenches. Their own noises and excitement plus the noise of the choppers on the LZ disguised our noise as we walked right up on them. My point man stopped dead in his tracks and backed up so fast he stumbled over the M79 man behind him and they both fell over each other right in front of me.

We had been through this scene on the previous mission when the point man almost walked into a bamboo viper in a bamboo thicket and nearly ran me down trying to get out of the way. This time I ran forward, expecting to slay the green dragon, but instead found myself standing at the edge of a trench, running from right to left. I looked 3 yards to my right to at two boyish looking Chucks with weapons shouldered. One was standing upright in the trench facing the other looking out of a bunker entrance -- both of them looking up at me. They never moved -- just stared at me. Probably had their life running in super-high fast motion on the screen on their frontal lobe.

I, equally transfixed, but slightly more schooled on immediate action drills, took one more step forward to regain my balance. This put me with my legs straddling the crawl trench, but with my back to these two startled deer. While still straddling the trench and with my head turned 180 degrees looking at these two statues, I jumped straight up in the air while turning to face them -- I must have looked as comical a John Balushi, Samarai Warrior. I, in my disciplined, schooled manner, however, leveled my CAR15 at them an squeeeeezed off a whole 30-round magazine into their pretty faces that were not 6 inches apart and only about 6 feet away. Actually, they disappeared in all the dirt and rocks as the other 28 or so rounds exploded off of the trench walls. Marksmanship is not a big requirement at this range and level of excitement. "Surprise, Speed, and Violence of Action" are valid principles at close range - back me on this one, Bucky.

Enthusiasm was overriding capability and common sense as I was also trying to get some of the others down the trench also. Since I had been carrying all this ammo on so many recon missions, I thought it would be a shame not to shoot every one of them while I still had the chance. To me at this point chances were that I wasn't going to get any more chances.

After a millennium of time thinking at the speed of light I'm standing there trying to squeeze more rounds out of an empty gun when I notice more movement down the trench. More and more heads are popping out of bunkers and trenches I had not seen. I think part of my mind was still looking for the yet unseen snake!

At this point all my thought processes and training converge in my pea-sized brain -- throw a grenade? Change magazines? Pull a knife and charge? My brain froze for a brief second as my hands moved without purpose, not knowing what to do until the clutch in my brain engaged again and gave my feet a direct and simple order - get the hell out of there! It's amazing how the brain reacts to overload and fear. For some reason I felt like the boy in Red Badge of Courage as he beat feet to the rear, but I camouflaged my moves as a well rehearsed choreography of a break-contact immediate action drill.

By this time my team has formed a little semi-circle which I rush towards like a bull elephant. I noticed they were standing straight up so they could shoot down into the trenches. They looked like dove hunters gone wild in a melon patch. It was great sport if only for a short while. They, however, are starting to get the same primordial brain messages I had, but realize as well as I do we will have to run over a hundred yards back to the middle of the LZ where the first company is just starting to form a perimeter while the other two companies are still airborne. Fuck heroic last charges! Discretion lead the way!

We end up doing the standard break contact drill and ran towards the company perimeter which, by now, is receiving sporadic fire from the rest of the woodline to the west and north -- a classic, but large, L-shaped ambush, slowly turning into a C-shaped ambush. The only thing we had going for us was the fact that the area had been arclighted and there was plenty of hand fox holes -- platoon sized! We start leapfrogging from hole to hole, but we only got half way to the company perimeter. We found ourselves caught between increasing outgoing friendly fire and intense enemy fire. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!

As I am trying to coordinate with the American company commanders so we can get into the perimeter, Charles (not Chuck anymore) starts getting the range of our crater with what I think are mortars. Then I get a call from Blue Max (Cobra gun ships) pilots who tell me that the boys in kaki are crawling up within throwing distance and throwing grenades at us. Lucky for us they don't play baseball in that part of the world!

I'm starting to get downright panicky now. To charge the trenches again would be heroic, but short lived. To run through enemy *and* friendly grazing fire towards a frantic and equally unprotected company perimeter would be the murder of my recon team since the rest of the battalion’s 'Bodes, at this point, don't even know we're out there.

Praise the Lord for Motorola, but I got the Cobras working for me and cleaned up the area between my crater and the woodline. As luck would have it, however, the Cambodes are starting to burn their hands on overheated weapons and noticing the ammo is running low. They also realize that the other two companies aren't going to get in either. I found out later that 17 of the helos we borrowed from the Ist Cav that day got shot up so we are running low on transportation also. Then I get a call that the gunships are going back for reload. That leaves me in no-man's land, and everybody is low or out of ammo except Sir Charles (1 knighted him at this point)! Screw this! It's now or never!

I threw every smoke canister I had to let the 'Bodes know friendlies were out front. I coordinated with the Blue Max to roll in and make a gun run whether they had any ammo or not 'cause Trung Si Mop (Big Sarge) was makin' his move!

Worked like a charm. The OlE fired the rest of his smoke rockets and all six rounds from his pistol, and then the Cobras fired a rocket or two and a few burps of 7.62, but it was enough to get Charles's head down. Meanwhile, I showed the rest of the team what Olympic speed running was like as we made a mad dash for the friendly lines. I spotted a rather large crater in what I hoped was the center of the perimeter and dove in with the team and the Chu Hoi right on my heels.

The only problem was that it must have been a 750 lb. bomb crater. It must have been 30 ft across and 30 ft deep! I never even hit the sides. Dove headlong into the muck and goo at the very center, 30 feet down! Would have drowned in the quick sand bottom with the radio and rucksack on my head if Mike Hendricks, my 11, hadn't pulled me out. We still had a hard time just getting to the top of the crater. The soil had the consistency of baking flour.

Well, that was the start of a long day that lasted three more days before we got off of that LZ. That evening and the evenings that followed required us to use Puff all night.

 

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