by Rolf R. Kreuscher
The lights came on. The movie was over. The people started to stream out of the crowded theater. I kept my seat so I could study the faces of those who might have been there-- in that place so far away and so many years ago --for a clue, any clue. What were they saying? Had I missed something in my two years over there? Had my many peers -- then and in the years to come -- failed to tell me something? Hardly. While some of the film's scenes had been realistic enough, this wasn't quite the Vietnam War as I had known it. But no matter what, some memories had returned -- some good, some bad.
Sleep wouldn't come that night. My mind kept racing back to the Van Canh Valley. The pictures of the valley, the village, the camp, the people, the rain, the heat, the jungle seemed so real. The faces, including those that would not be among the living by the time I would leave the valley were so close that I felt that I could reach out, touch them and ask: "Was that the way it was?" One event especially kept coming back, an event of which I'm not even sure of the exact date, but one which nevertheless was real....The 1st Company, all Montagnards except the XO (Executive Officer) who would lead them today, stood proud and tall with their new American helmet liners which we had awarded them a couple of days ago. The First was the most reliable of our four companies. The Recon (Reconnaissance) Platoon, led by a tall, striking French/Vietnamese Eurasian whose brother had been impaled by the VC and displayed in front of the Dong Tre Special Forces Camp a few months earlier, was ready. All thirty of them.
They were the best. Extra pay, extra rations and extra casualties. Most were young Montagnard boys, including four brothers of the Bahnar Tribe. I had always wondered how old those four were -- the oldest fourteen, maybe thirteen? Even
the 2 LLDB Sergeants (Vietnamese Special Forces) were ready. They were in charge, but only on paper. In real life they usually just tagged along. We were in charge. We controlled the money, the food, the supplies and all that was needed to survive. Staff Sgt. "Cowboy" Leeves and Sgt. "Bac Si" (Doc) Burtis were the other team members, plus two interpreters, to go along on this mission.
"Cowboy" Leeves, his left hand in a cast because he had punched out a sailor on his last R&R in town and who could therefore not carry a rifle, had his big
.44 Magnum on his hip. He had insisted on going along because he considered the Recon Platoon as his. "Doc" Burtis looked like a big game hunter in his tiger suit and big bush hat, although his first aid and surgical kit did not quite match up with his telescopic M-16 rifle. Somehow he had acquired, from sources unknown, the only M-16 scope in camp.
As soon as the sun went down behind the mountains we moved out--all 157 of us with our assorted W.W.II weapons and six modern M-16 rifles --- off to find the bad guys. Our target was Son Thanh, a village about 15 miles due south on National Route #6.Rt.6 was the only road in our area, as a matter of fact it was one of only 3 North-South roads in all of Central S. Vietnam. It ran smack down
the middle of the length of Van Canh valley, along with the only railroad line in the country. The railroad had ceased to exist some years ago. Its rails and crossties had made good bunkers for our camp. Rt. 6 had also ceased to function as a road, at least to the South of Van Canh village. (We had reopened the road to the North the month before.) The road had been cut in many places by the V.C. The jungle had also taken its bite out of the one-lane dirt road in many places. Son Thanh was the only known populated village besides our Van Canh in the once prosperous and heavy populated valley. As far as we knew, no government force had entered the village in years. I had flown several reconnaissance missions (as an observer) in a small Army observation plane over the village and thought that I
knew everything that there was to know about the place. It was fairly large with a village square and about 30 stucco buildings with tile roofs, some of them 2 story buildings, around the square and village center. There were several outgrowing hamlets with their mud-walled houses and thatched roofs. I estimated that there were about a thousand souls in the village. Intelligence reports indicated that a V.C. Main Force company was stationed in Son Than. Our mission was to
sweep and search the village, fix and destroy any enemy forces, show the flag in the area, and then go home again.
Our plan was simple: march straight down Rt.6, enter the village at first light, and God help us if the V.C. Company was there waiting for us. (We were no match for a Main Force Company). Our camp mortars (all three of them) could give us fire support for the first 5 miles, but then we were on our own. At first light we would get air support (in this case a lone observation plane) which would be our eyes and ears, and our life line with the good guys. It could call air strikes if we got into big trouble, but certainly it would serve as a communication relay to our base because we were afraid that we could be out of range back to our camp
with our PRC-25 radios. This was early 1966 -before the days of the U.S. fire bases throughout S. Vietnam and fire support for everybody.
By 3 a.m. we had reached a small pass about 50 yards wide. From there Route 6 dropped into the Son Thanh plain. We had been lucky so far. No booby-traps, no mines, and no V.C. Were we really going to surprise them? When we had moved out of our camp we had actually gone north on Route 6 --away from Son Thanh-- to try to fool the V.C. who surely was watching us. Once out of sight of our village we had stopped, waited for complete darkness, and then back-tracked
to the South-- toward our target. We moved thru the pass, but stopped as soon as our point reached the open area on the Son Thanh side of the pass. Although it was a very dark night, we could see the outlines of the village and its surrounding rice paddies and pastures below us. Nothing seemed to stir in the village -- no noise, no light, not even the shimmer of a cooking fire could be spotted. Had the V.C. cleared out the village and moved its people into the jungle?
Only 3 days ago I had spotted some people and cattle from the air. We decided to hold in the pass, and move into the village at first light. The troops were exhausted. This would give them about two hours of rest. The miles and heat had taken its toll. Although it usually cooled off after midnight in this area, this was not the case on this night. The heat and humidity were oppressive. We were soaked in our sweat. Even Thieu, my interpreter and native son of the village, was beat. According to him, he had been on this road to Son Thanh many times. That, of course, was before the V.C. had taken control of the village. He now pointed to a spot a few yards away from us where the railroad track and the road almost touched, and where the hills and jungle came right up to them from the right (or West). It was there, he explained, where his wife and sister had been killed in a V.C. ambush. They had been on their way home to Van Canh from Tuy Hoa when the V.C. had ambushed their train. Thieu had recovered their bodies a few days later with a government relief force out of Van Canh. It was the last train to travel the valley. I wondered how they had gotten the train out of there, because even in the dark I could see how the track and even the rail bed was torn up, and torn up
real bad, for as far as I could see. I didn't ask. There surely was no train there now.
When the first hint of approaching light appeared, we moved out of the pass. Right down the road we went, hoping to get into the center of Son Thanh before it got light. However, the pass had hidden the first rays of daylight from us. It was now rapidly getting light. And what had looked like a couple of hundred yards to the village in the dark, now stretched out to eternity. But we were still in luck.
We still had radio contact with our base, and we still had not been discovered, or at least not been fired on. As our point -- the young Bahnar brothers --approached the edge of the village, shots rang out from a bamboo thicket off to the right. Those were warning shots for the village! One of the village guards had finally woken up. Would they be in trouble tomorrow! We had to deploy. Incredibly we even managed to do that according to plan. God was still with us.
Our Montagnard troops now swept into the Vietnamese village.
It was broad daylight now. Of course the promised airplane had not shown up yet....
The sweep through the village was uneventful. Not one shot was fired at us in anger, and within 30 minutes we had secured the village. Cowboy Leeves' platoon had spotted about 5 V.C. running away from the village, but they had
gotten away from him clean. Our Montagnard troops had done well so far. Although no love was lost between them and the Vietnamese, they had treated the villagers well. There sure had been none of the shooting, raping, beating and pillaging that Hollywood likes to show. We hardly saw any people, or
animals for that matter, as we swept into the village. But now the people started to come out of their hiding places, and as it is all over the world, the kids came first -- staring, laughing, then talking and asking for goodies --just as I had done a long time ago when the first Allied troops had entered the town I then happened to be in a world thousands of miles away. What a strange world this was! But
I sure could relate to those kids.
We set up our command post in the shade of the large Catholic church in the middle of the town. (This was a town to me now, not a village). We then started our house to house search, hoping to find anything connected with the bad
guys. The village did have the usual elaborate shelter and tunnel system, but we didn't have to drag anybody out as the villagers had come out on their own. We didn't find anything. Nothing. No hidden V.C., no weapons, no ammunition, not even any food to amount to anything. By now we had noticed that there were only women, old men and kids in the village. The only male that we saw (who looked
over 15) seemed to be the village idiot. Questioning of the locals revealed that the town was occupied and run by a Local Force V.C. platoon of about 25 men. They obviously had decided not to fight today. A Main Force V.C. company
was usually in the area, mainly between the village and the S. China Sea, about 10 miles to the East. They had moved out about 4 days ago, taking all of the able-bodied men with them. This was standard V.C. practice. They used the
local people, especially to carry supplies. We were quite aware that in a V. C. controlled area everybody worked for them, be it men, woman, or children. There were no exceptions. They had no choice about it, although a booby-trap set by a little boy could kill you just as dead as one set by a hard-core V.C. I had personally directed the search of the buildings around the town square. Judging by the buildings, this had been a rich town, by Vietnamese standards. Besides the Catholic church, there was a large Bhuddist pagoda, a 4 room school, a two story town hall which was now being used as V.C. headquarters, and a dispensary which was empty except for a couple of cots, bandaging material, vitamin C ampoules, and a few instruments. The 3-story building I had observed from the air used to be a private residence. It was now being used as a V.C. hotel, judging by the many cots in it and other equipment found. There were also 2 small stores, however, the shelves were bare except some U.S. flashlight batteries and some of the ever present vitamin C in tablet and liquid form. The
center of the square was still filled with open-air market stalls, but the days of selling anything in an open market seemed to be long gone. As a matter of fact, food seemed to be very scarce in the village, along with everything else. That didn't stop the V.C., however, to proclaim on every available wall, on posters, and transparencies hung between the houses, how great it was to be in the communist paradise.
The V.C. Headquarters building yielded a cabinet full of records and files, including what appeared to be a village tax roster, a list of active V.C. members, as well as a list of the infra-structure in the area. This was big stuff. Our
camp informed me that the next available helicopter would be sent to pick it up. Our airplane also finally showed up, and was now circling overhead. A few minutes later the Recon platoon leader brought me a surprise. A real man! He was about 28 years old, well dressed in European style clothes. He spoke to me in English! As a matter of fact, his English was better than that of any of our interpreters. He explained that the reason he was in the village and not out
in the field with the V.C. was that he was the school teacher. Teaching the children, especially the daily dose of propaganda, was more important to the V.C. than for him to carry supplies for them. That made sense to us. He had
been teaching school in the Nha Trang area when he had come home in 1963 to visit his parents (the owners of the big house). Unfortunately this was the time when the last of the government troops and authority and authority had left, and the village was taken over by the V.C. From then on nobody, not even one
soul other than V.C., had been able to leave the village. Since the two local school teachers had been eliminated as "imperialist" agents some time before, he had volunteered to teach, and he had been there here ever since. He pretty much confirmed what the villagers had told us. Food was especially scarce, but nobody was starving. Most of the food that the village produced had to be turned over to the V.C. as a form of tax. Other than what the village produced themselves, there was nothing available in form of goods of any type. The V.C. didn't bring anything in, except their own supplies. All of the men between 16 and 60 were either active V.C. or had to work for them as laborers, mostly carrying supplies. Everybody was put to work -- men, women, and children --as long as they were healthy enough, whenever needed by the V.C., and that was quite often. The shelters, the tunnel system, and all of the fighting positions around the village (luckily unmanned when we stumbled into the village) had been dug and built mostly by the women and kids. He was ready to leave this place and go
back to Nha Trang. I assured him that we would take him out with us, and if he couldn't find a way from our camp to Nha Trang, we could always use a good combat interpreter. (I didn't know if he was real crazy about the combat part of it,
but he agreed. ) By noon we were ready to move out. But before we could move on to new adventures, about 200 people had gathered in the square with bags and baggage, including about 80 head of cattle. An old man, apparently the village elder, informed me that they were going with us. They wanted to get away from the V.C., away from this miserable existence. Knowing what the government refugee camps looked like, I asked him if they had places to go other than a
refugee camp, and if not, were they sure they wanted to go. The old man explained that many of the people had relatives in the Qui Nhon area (which was under government control), including some who had husbands and sons in the S. Vietnamese army, and the rest didn't care what it looked like on the other side. At first I really didn't believe that they wanted to go of their own accord.I suspected that the LLDB Sgts were behind it, forcing them to go with us. I took several of the villagers aside and questioned them in private. The school teacher also checked with them. But the answer was a resounding yes -- they wanted to get the hell out of here. I immediately asked our camp for helicopters to evacuate the villagers -- one Chinook helicopter could do it -- but not one helicopter was available for the next couple of days. We had to walk them out to our camp. Well, I thought, this ought to be fun! It was getting late. We had to move now if we hoped to reach camp before dark, as at least a 5 hour, steady march awaited us. Actually, to hope for 5 hours was expecting a miracle, considering the civilians with their loads, the heat, and the fact that it was generally uphill back to our camp. The heat was terrible, at least a 100 degrees in the shade. The humidity
was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Some ominous clouds also started to appear in the sky, signaling the possibility of one of those rare, but severe thunderstorms during the dry season.
We couldn't get organized. Every time we were ready to move, something else occurred with the villagers that caused us to delay again. It was impossible to get an accurate count of the villagers. Every time we counted we got a different count as some left, new ones came, or someone was chasing a chicken down the road. More baggage appeared, cattle bolted and had to be caught, etc. We considered staying in the village for the night and move out early in the morning, but that did not seem such a good idea without artillery support as that Main Force Company could return and clean our clock at night in the village, or ambush us in the pass. I was sure that we had only discovered part of their
tunnel system inside the village, so they could pop up right in the middle of us, without us knowing where they came from, or without us spotting them before they hit us.
We finally started to move out around 2 o'clock. Obviously we could never make it to our camp before dark, but I had a good spot in mind where we could stop for the night, about halfway between us and camp. We were quite a sight as
we started to move up the road. I wished that I had a camera, as nobody would ever believe what we looked liked after about a mile up the road. At first everything was well organized and in good formation. The Bahnar brothers, with
about 20 head of cattle, took the point again. Like cowboys they were driving the cattle in front of them. It was hoped that the cattle would set off any mines or booby-traps planted on the road since we had moved into the village. The Recon platoon followed with about 20 villagers in the middle of their staggered column, followed by another bunch of cattle driven by some young boys. The first platoon was next, again with an assigned number of villagers in their middle, followed by the command group, with the school teacher next to me, and another bunch of cattle behind us, then another platoon with villagers and cattle, and so on with the rest of the 2 platoons. Some of the women carried big bundles on their heads, with small children on their hips or clinging to their clothes. Some, especially the old men, carried big bundles slung over their shoulders or balanced a long, wide carrying stick on their shoulder with a basket filled to the brim hanging from each end. That looked awful heavy! Some of the lucky ones pushed or pulled small,
primitive, overloaded two-wheel carts. There were even two deluxe models with bicycle wheels. I also spotted a European-type four-wheeler. There were live chickens slung over shoulders, piglets sticking out of baskets, pigs on leashes, ropes or halters being dragged along (or dragging people along), dogs being led or just following along. Some people had small songbirds in fancy, hand-made cages. After about a half-mile we had no more formation, only a mob. As
our point disappeared into the pass, the rear of our column just started to come out of the village. In other words, we were stretched out for a good mile-and-a-half! Obviously these refugees were overloaded, and moving with any speed or
in any resemblance of order or combat formation was impossible with all of the kids, animals and heavy burdens.
"My kingdom for a Chinook" kept going through my mind. As soon as my group had cleared the village I noticed a young woman with a big bundle on her head, a baby on her hip, and a boy about 3 years old trying to hang on to her dress. The
boy wore a dirty little T-shirt, was barefoot (as most of the children) and bare from the waist down. But what really caught my eye was the fact that the boy had a right clubfoot, yet he bravely tried to walk-- without crying or complaining. My heart went out to the little boy. There was no way that he or his mother could ever go more than a mile. I asked the boy (and his mother) if he would like for me to carry him. I also gave him one of my last lifesavers, and with a smile he
settled down on my shoulders. (I would carry that boy just about for the rest of his life.) I now passed the word to the troops to help carry whatever they could as we wouldn't move very far unless we helped carry some of those loads. I couldn't see ordering the villagers to leave even more of their meager belongings behind just so we could make a little better time. If any of the V.C. were waiting to ambush us along the road, they would probably laugh themselves to death
when they saw us moving and forget to shoot, especially when they saw some of our troops who were definitely not combat- ready -- carrying or dragging assorted loads. It was quite a sight to see some of those tough little Montagnard soldiers
with a light-skinned Vietnamese kid on their hips, the Browning Automatic rifle (BAR) man with a 25 lb. BAR in his right hand and a little bird in a cage in his left hand, or one with bandoleers of machine gun ammunition all over his body, pulling a pig along on a rope or a live chicken looking out of his rucksack.
As the command group approached the pass -- we were about a 100 yards south and still in an open area -- we received rifle fire from a tree-line about 150 yards to the left. Although I heard some bullets zinging over our heads, nobody was hit, not even one of the animals. It really took some shooting to miss our mob! There was immediate bedlam on the road as everybody dove for cover. About a mile of gun-fire opened up on the area where the fire seemed to come
from. And now the funny side of war, the unsolicited comedy as a by-product of conflict, showed its face again. however, it's a bearable one, and is always present just as much as is the misery. There was this machine gunner firing tracer bullets from behind the cover of the rail-bed with a large pig on a rope attached to his cartridge belt trying to pull him away from the gun into a ditch. And there was Doc Burtis, the medic, standing all by himself in the middle of the road, totally exposed to enemy fire, without any kind of cover, squeezing off aimed rounds with his telescopic M-16 at something out there, something I surely couldn't see. And then there came "Cowboy" Leeves charging down the road to
join me to get in on the action (his Recon platoon was already in the pass and without action). There he came, his left arm (in the cast) dangling down his side, firing away with his .44 Magnum, that awful long barrel of the revolver just spitting out fire. It was amazing how quickly he could reload the gun. He looked like the real American Hero. When he reached me, he rested that long barrel of his Magnum on his cast and fired off a few more rounds in the direction of the bad guys. For that he got a big round of applause from all of the people lying in the ditch along the road or behind the cover of the rail-bed which closely paralleled the road at this point. With a nice, deep bow and a grin he then joined me in the drainage ditch.We couldn't spot where the fire was coming from. Whatever it was -- it probably came from those 5 guys that got away from us -- it wasn't doing us
any harm. Therefore I got everybody to stop wasting ammunition. By this time the fire against us had also stopped. So we all got up and started to move again. We had a long ways to go yet. We couldn't afford to chase after a few guys who were probably just trying to make their combat operations goal for the month. Or were they just trying to delay us?Whatever -- our long, hot walk continued.
We were beat. The unmerciful heat and the miles had taken their toll. That little boy on my shoulder had become heavier and heavier. The last 36 hours without sleep also started to show now. We had now covered about 8 miles since
leaving Son Thanh, which was really not bad, considering. There were about two hours of daylight left, but we had to stop soon and settle down for the night. The area that we had in mind for the night was in sight now. Only a few hundred yards more! Here the valley opened up into a about a half-by-half mile flat, open bowl. A small valley and a foot trail came in from the West. There had also been a village there once, but now the only thing left to remind you of it was a white stucco building in the middle of a grassy area about the size of a football field. The grass, strangely enough, looked like it had recently been mowed, which, of course, could not be the case. T here was even a 3- strand, fairly well intact barbed-wire fence around the grassy area. The building had once been a sub-district headquarters and police station. The fenced-in area looked ideal to hold the cattle and villagers for the night, in fact the whole area looked good for a night- defensive position for all of us, a place where we all could get a little rest. First we searched the whole area and established our routine defensive perimeter. One platoon conducted a sweep of up to about 400 yards out and away from the fenced-in area. The area outside the fence was still fairly open as things went around here, but it did have clusters of secondary undergrowth mixed in with the hedges, shrubs, bushes and small trees of the one-time village.
There were no houses or huts left -- there never were. (One could only tell where the huts had been by looking at the ground and/or vegetation.) Two platoons moved out and established the (routine) outer-perimeter by setting up the usual ambushes and listening posts, etc. Then we drove the cattle into the fenced-in area, counting them as they came in. We had 87 head of cattle. We then ran the herd back and forth over the grassy area to make sure that there were no surprises in forms of mines or booby-traps in store for us, followed by a search of the building and the whole fenced-in area in general by the rest of the platoons. Nothing. Then we moved in the villagers. We now did get an
accurate count, by name and family -- nineteen families, 187 people, mostly women and children. We also checked with each family how many cattle they owned (that were with us), and if they could identify them. It had occurred to me that I had never seen a peasant family that had more then one or two head of cattle, with a water-buffalo thrown in once in a while, in any of the villages, including the wealthier ones. I had also never spotted more than three or four cattle on my observation flights over Son Thanh, but then again, V.C. villages kept their people and cattle hidden when an aircraft was overhead. Sure enough, the villagers admitted to only owning about 35 of the cattle. That meant they had either rounded up a whole bunch of cattle that belonged to their left-behind villagers, or they had a V.C. herd with them that had been kept in the village.The latter sure would make us happy. Obviously this called for a long talk with the
village elder and the school teacher.
The LLDB Sgt. and I were on our way back to the building. We had checked the perimeter. Everything looked good. The people, including some of the troops, were all sitting around large cooking fires preparing their evening rice. One such large group was sitting around a fire about five yards from the building's front entrance. The company XO was there talking to the village elder. We walked
up to them, exchanged a few words, and stepped into the building. As soon as we were in the building, there was a was a deafening explosion outside. At first I thought we were under large caliber mortar fire, but I had not heard any of the tell-tale sounds of incoming rounds. As we rushed out of the building into a cloud of dust and smoke, still deaf from the big bang, a picture of horror greeted us. There were bodies and pieces of bodies all over the place. A soldier was holding the XO in his arms, blood spurting from the XO's neck. I ran up to him, screaming to do something, to stop the bleeding. The soldier looked at me and gently said: "Het roi" (Gone). He was right. The XO looked at me. There was peace in his eyes. They seemed to say not to worry, that things will be alright -- as his life
spurted away. It was over in seconds. The Montagnard soldier gently closed his Vietnamese officer's eyes. But there was no time to reflect. Whatever had happened, it had happened to the group of people next to the building, the
group we had just passed a second ago. Judging by the hole in the ground and by the dead and wounded which were scattered all over the place, some as far out as thirty yards, it looked like a booby-trapped 105 mm artillery round had gone off. How could we have missed a booby-trap that size? Other than the XO, not one soldier or animal was even scratched. The people sitting around the fire must have absorbed the total blast and shrapnel of the exploding shell. There was no screaming and crying of the dying and wounded as one always sees it in the movies. There were some groans and moans, but hardly audible. Maybe we were still deaf from the big bang. Actually it was eerie considering what had just
occurred. The Vietnamese are a stoic people, I guess, when tragedy strikes. The only noise came from us, trying to do what had to be done. Eight were dead, torn to pieces, including the little boy I had carried all afternoon. I recognized him only by the club foot, not much else was identifiable. The boy's mother and the village elder were also dead. I did not see the woman's baby anywhere. Five other people were torn up pretty bad, still alive, but probably without hope. Nine more were seriously hit, but they looked like they had a chance if we could get them out. There were also a few what we considered "walking wounded", who would be fine with some treatment. We called for Dust- Off's (Medical evacuation helicopters). We were in luck. Two were on their way immediately, but still 20 minutes out. Two more regular helicopters were also en route. We would
bring in the helicopters on the road. We were sure that the road was safe. The troops immediately had fanned out and searched the area again. Again nothing. But then one of the medics discovered an old commo (U.S. field telephone) wire
leading into a clump of thick undergrowth outside of the fence, about 40 yards from the explosion.We had the answer.
What had gone off was not a booby-trap, but a cleverly camouflaged, remote detonated device, set-off by a nice friendly man hiding in the bush. I'm sure his after-action report would read: "Today many enemies of the freedom loving
peoples of Vietnam were killed by our heroic actions." The medevac helicopters approached. Daylight started to fade now, but one could clearly see the big red-cross markings on the aircrafts. As the first chopper started to come in for a landing on the road, heavy automatic weapons fire from a small wooded knoll, about 200 yards west of the road hit the chopper. The chopper took some hits and had to pull out. Luckily (again) nothing was badly damaged nor any
of the crew hit. This time we were able to spot where the fire was coming from, and we immediately got our two machineguns and our one mortar into action. As soon as our little, hand-held mortar got the range of the knoll, the firing coming from it stopped. The medevacs now came in and picked up all of the wounded. Ten minutes later two "Huey" helicopters picked up the dead and some of the walking wounded.
It was dark now. We had decided to move. But with a twist. Cowboy Leeves and one platoon would depart for camp with the villagers. The rest of us, including the
schoolteacher, would take off for Son Thanh again before daylight. The V.C. should really be surprised this time when we popped into the village again. We would fade into the brush along the side of the road when the Cowboy departed,
hoping the V.C. would think that we all had moved North. As the show started to get under way, a couple of soldiers found another casualty in the bush right outside the fenced-in area. It was an older woman, still conscious, the left
leg blown off below the knee, and the right so badly mangled that the thigh looked like a mass of pulp. It was hard to believe that she was still alive, that she had not bled to death. But here she was.I will always remember how she
looked at me under the glare of the flashlights, not a sound coming from her lips, not even the sound of pain. But those eyes were pleading, but I was not sure if they were pleading to just let her die in peace, or to put her out of her misery, or to help her. I took her hands into mine, held them for a while, hoping that if nothing else at least it would tell her that we would not abandon her in this miserable place miles from nowhere. Whatever, Doc Burtis took over. I requested another Dust-Off. An angry Camp Commander came on the air, asking how many more bodies I had laying around. He flatly stated that we could not get another Medevac unless it was absolutely mission essential.
I chose to ignore the first question, but I made it absolutely clear that I thought the Medevac was mission essential. (It was very difficult and dangerous for
helicopters to fly into areas and situations like this at night.) Thirty minutes later the Medevac, guided in by our flashlights, picked up the woman. She was still alive.
As soon as the chopper was gone we all moved out. But then heaven opened up on us. One of those thunderstorms that had been in the air all afternoon caught up with us. We were soaked before we even had a chance to get our ponchos on. Within minutes the temperature dropped about 40 degrees. I couldn't remember ever being so cold, and this in tropical Vietnam! That night about four of us got real close under a couple of ponchos, but I did get about four hours of sleep. Maybe I just passed out for a few hours.It had been a long day!
We were in the village again. The teacher had shown us a path leading from the pass to the eastern edge of the village that had enabled us to reach the first houses completely undetected. We had even managed to get in a blocking force to the South and West. We had had a talk with the teacher. Besides agreeing to lead us into the village again, he had informed us that the V.C. cadre had
scheduled some type of ceremony for today. He had also enlightened us about the cattle. The cattle was a collective V.C. herd which had originally been donated by the peasants to the "cause" and which, of course, had grown over
the years. The people that had left with us intended to sell them as soon as they got on the other side. Not a bad idea if it would work. Beef was at a premium in S. Vietnam.
The teacher had been right.The ceremony was still on. The square was all decked-out with flags, posters and signs. They sure didn't waste much time after we had left the place, as we had torn down all their propaganda signs and posters. It was now the beginning of Pak (siesta) time. We had really
surprised somebody this time. There were two rows of tables with hot food still on them in the town-hall. But not even one little V.C. in sight! Our blocking force also had not spotted anybody fleeing the village.ut somebody had sure
left the town-hall in a hurry. These guys were still in town! We frantically searched every inch of the village. Every house, every bush, every hole. Nothing. We
interrogated, we offered bribes, we threatened. Nothing.
But we did find out that there had been about 10 V.C. cadre in the town-hall when we had swept into the village. But where were they? I got on the air and asked for a U.S. engineer unit who could find and flush out tunnels with their smoke generators and "tunnelrats. "But as with the helicopters, no such luck. Apparently a big U.S. operation was taking place that had all the priorities. But at least
some of our troops enjoyed a hot meal in the town-hall that day. Back on the road we went. Heading North. We had given up on finding the bad guys in the village. As we approached the pass, we again came under fire. This time they were not kidding. We came under heavy automatic weapons fire from the same general area as we had yesterday. We were pinned down. Luckily for us, the V.C. had not picked a good spot to hit us. We had the railroad bed as cover, and we had
been in a good formation to react when the first rounds came our way. Our little old airplane, which had been circling along the S.China Sea, was over us within minutes. It spotted the enemy fire and as miracles sometimes do occur, he
was able to get an airstrike! It seems that some U.S. planes were cruising in the area with nothing else to do. Within minutes they came! Two beautiful, propeller driven, slow A1 World War II vintage fighter bombers, first diving and dropping their bombs, then straffing the target area in several passes. What a beautiful sight to watch. Just what the doctor ordered. The firing stopped as soon as the
fighters made their first pass. As soon as the planes departed, our Recon platoon moved into the area, but other than a couple of old huts and lean-to shelters nothing was found. The V.C. presumably had departed into the hills. Our
plane told us to stay put for a few minutes as a new plane would replace it. The new plane had something to drop for us. Twenty minutes later the new observation plane came in low over our heads and did drop a box. (Our Team Sgt. was the observer on the aircraft.) The box landed right in front of us on a grassy spot, still intact. What was in it?
Curiously we opened it. Almost unbelievable: 12 cold cans of Pepsi packed in dry ice! I don't believe I ever had anything more delicious, more refreshing, anything better tasting than that cold Pepsi on that awful, hot, steamy day.That was the life! But we had to move on to beat the bush some more.
Three days later we were back in camp. The villagers were gone, the cattle was gone. Within a month one of the LLDB Sgt.'s would be court-martialed for having sold the cattle. The final score of the operation:V.C. killed or wounded: None; captured:87 cows. Friendly casualties:1 soldier KIA; civilian casualties: Many.
November 1968.I was back in Qui Nhon waiting for transportation to my new assignment as the U.S. military advisor to Hoia An District, about 5 miles from the former Bong Son Special Forces Camp where I had spent my last 4 months the last time I was in this tropical paradise. I had heard that the S-4 (supply officer) was going to Van Canh by jeep, so I hitched a ride. When I showed up with my M-16 and combat gear he laughed at me, pointing out that there was no need for that stuff as the road to Tuy Hoa, and all the way to Saigon for that matter, was secure. I told him that I remembered it a little different. But he was right. We
covered the 30 miles to Van Canh within an hour. The only thing that slowed us down was the awful heavy civilian traffic on Highway #1 and #19 outside of Qui Nhon before we turned off on Highway #6 (formerly National Route #6) to
Van Canh. The old one lane, dirt road was now a major Autobahn with two big, wide paved lanes. The jungle was pushed back at least 50 yards on each side where it was not bordered by cultivated fields or villages. The valley was
teeming with life. All of the abandoned fields and villages had sprung back to life again. The railroad was even running again! The Korean Tiger Division was securing the entire valley and they seemed to be doing a great job.
Special Forces had left the valley. All of the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Groups) troops were now converted to South Vietnamese Regional Forces. The camp that we had built in Van Canh was now the District Headquarters. I was immediately recognized as we pulled into camp. The old Recon platoon leader, now a Regional Force company commander, dragged me into the camp canteen which formerly had been the LLDB teamhouse. Bo, the ex-4th Co. commander was now the"restauranteur". After a few Ba-Me-Bas (33) (Saigon beer which always tasted like formaldehyde), the ex-platoon leader insisted on taking me for a ride in his new official jeep. We flew down the road to Son Thanh. In less than 20 minutes we were in the middle of the square. It was market day. The
square was bustling with people and activities. The vendor stalls were filled with goods (lots of black-market U.S. PX stuff), food, fruits and vegetables. A Korean company was stationed right on the eastern edge of Son Thanh. Times sure
had changed! On the way back to Van Canh I made him stop the jeep where we had been pinned down by the Viet Cong he last time I had come up this road. He remembered. Especially the Pepsis from the plane of which he didn't get one because he was beating the bush with his platoon while we were living it up, enjoying those cold Pepsis. He made a big point of this. On we went, racing up the road, through the pass, past the old stucco building inside the fenced-in area that still looked like the grass had just been cut. But now it was in the middle of a village and cultivated fields again. It was also a police station again. As we pulled into the camp a few minutes later the sun was slowly disappearing behind the
mountains.It was time to go again.
I would never return to the valley.But what have I remembered most of that hot, beautiful valley? The Pepsi from the sky, of course. Actually, I'm glad that I did go see the movie. It did make me go down memory lane. I wonder how many of those Vietnamese people who were my comrades-at- arms survived the war? How many are still alive today? How many survived the re-education camps and the communist system?
How many became boat people? How many made it to our safe shores? Have I ever really cared?