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One Day

Date: December 11, 1968
Location: Lam Dong Province, Viet Nam
C Company, 1/12th Cavalry, First Cavalry Division

 The edges of the clearing near the Cambodian border were ringed with deadly black puffs of smoke from the air bursts of the artillery barrage. As the eight helicopters approached, the barrage lifted and two cobra gunships peeled away from the troop ships; headed for the clearing. The cobras shredded the edges of the clearing with 2.75 inch rocket fire and a vicious stream of mini gun fire. The Hueys carrying the troopers then approached the L.Z. in a staggered column of twos. The door gunners on both sides of the ship raked the edge of the makeshift L.Z. with M-60 machine gun fire. As the skids touched the ground the door gunners stopped firing and second platoon and part of field H.Q. piled out of the choppers and ran, crouched low, for the edge of the clearing where they took up temporary defensive positions. The two cobras circled overhead while the choppers flew to the fire base and returned with the first platoon and part of the third. The third and final trip brought the rest of third platoon and field H.Q. In less than 40 minutes Charley Company, one hundred men strong, was on the ground. It was a textbook exercise in combat helicopter assault tactics.

Second platoon had the point that day. Two riflemen and a grenadier from first squad led the column, followed by L.T. Pozmann and his R.T.O. (radioman). Then came the machine-gunner and his assistant, Roy Shabram, who was carrying the tripod for the ancient Browning .30 caliber air-cooled gun. The rest of the platoon followed, each man 15 to 20 feet behind the one in front. The H.Q. delegation followed and then the remaining two platoons joined in the procession.

The vegetation was especially dense; large mahogany trees, some bamboo, and the usual vines that the troopers referred to as “wait-a-minute” vines. The point-man worked his way through the tangle until suddenly he came upon a large trail. This trail was like none he had ever seen. One by one, as the troopers joined the point man’s path the “pucker factor” zoomed off the scale. The trail was paved, so to speak, by a six foot wide mat made from perfectly split and woven bamboo. Every 50 yards, on alternating sides of the trail were covered bunkers. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was a tentacle of the Ho Chi Minh trail. The point man had gone down the trail about 30 yards when he spotted a flash of movement. He reported it to L.T. Pozmann but was told to keep going. He took a few more careful steps and saw another flash. He asked for permission to do a “recon by fire” but permission was denied. It was now deadly quiet, but if you listened closely you could hear the muffled clicks as the M-16 selector switches went from Safe, right past Semi, and all the way to Auto or “Full-Rake” as the troopers called it. The Grenadier also quietly closed the M-79 and slid the safety forward. All eyes were focused and sweeping both sides and forward. Again the point saw movement. He pleaded this time, for a recon by fire. The answer came back the same, “keep moving”. He had gone no more than five steps when he caught a flash of green cloth and held the trigger back, emptying his clip. His volley was answered with the intense crackle of AK-47 fire. The point team instantly hit the ground and returned fire. The L.T. and his R.T.O. retreated a small distance in order to better direct the men. The three men in the front called, “bring up the gun”. There was a large dead log lying along the trail and the gunner, Roy, and Arnie Ohnstad, the ammo bearer, crouched low and ran along the right side of the log until they were forward with the point detachment. Roy set up the tripod, the gunner mounted the gun and by this time the assistant had threaded a belt of ammo. The gun team and the point team sprayed the area to the front with heavy fire. To the rear they could hear the L.T. direct troopers to an area, change his mind and direct them to another, and change his mind once again. All the while he was doing this, he was up running around. Two rounds caught him in the chest and he fell, dying. D.K. Vadakin, seeing his fellow Ohioan wounded rushed to help him. A bullet to his chest left a young widow grieving. Meanwhile the fire-fight raged to the front. The troopers detected fire coming from behind a mound to their front and concentrated on returning fire. The mound shielded the enemy so rifle fire was ineffective. A trooper would have to raise up to get a direct shot but any one thinking about this was discouraged by looking up to see small arms fire shredding vegetation a foot to eighteen inches above where they lay. They then tried the grenade launcher but the growth was so thick that the projectile was unable to go far enough to arm the fuse. It would hit a vine or stalk of bamboo and clatter uselessly to the ground. The grenadier fired several rounds but the result was always the same – no explosion. Someone suggested throwing a grenade but that idea was quickly squelched. Grenades had a nasty habit of bouncing back towards the thrower when they hit bushes or trees. By now the ammo was starting to run low, so the fire from the troopers subsided somewhat while they waited for re-supply. The gunner and grenadier drug out their .45 autos and fired a few rounds. The helicopter with the ammo soon arrived, hovered overhead, and kicked out more ammo which was quickly passed forward. With the fresh supply of ammo, the tempo of fire intensified. One of the riflemen, Ken Gauthier from the first squad crept up to the right side of the large log and rolled over the top to the left side. There was an intense crackle of enemy fire, one round hit Ken in the femur, and he screamed with pain as he crawled back over to the safe side of the log. This seemed to shock the machine gun crew into the realization that maybe there was fire coming from more than the immediate front. The gunner swung his gun as far as he could to the left and made a sweep towards the front. This stilled some of the enemy fire, so while Roy kept a steady supply of ammo connected the gunner continued to rake the area. After several hundred rounds of this, the fire from the left was finally quiet. Only a lone enemy remained to the immediate front. He continued firing until his ammo was expended. He then threw down his weapon and shouted, “Chu Hoi”. (I surrender) There was a brief discussion about what to do, but with the firing subsided, Chief, the gunner from first platoon carrying an M-60 arrived. On the battlefield, one vote is unanimous. Chief stood up and stitched the young soldier with a burst from his M-60. The fire-fight was over.

While the point detachment quietly talked, heated their noon meal, puffed on their cigarettes, and let the adrenaline wear off, the first and third platoon members carried the dead and wounded back to be picked up by choppers at the L.Z. where Charley Company had landed that morning.

Second platoon had been pretty badly chewed up in the fire-fight, so third platoon assumed point duties for the rest of the afternoon as Charley Company continued down the bamboo paved trail. After walking for a couple miles they stopped for the day near a small clearing. The artillery forward observer, a lieutenant referred to by his radio callsign four-niner, also served as the company’s powder-man. He set C-4 charges to clear a few trees and the L.Z. was ready for the night. Everyone made haste to get the foxholes dug that night and by the time that second platoon finally got to the perimeter, the positions on the south and west of the ring were about half done. Second platoon was assigned the north side of the circle. The late comers shed their packs and had taken only a few shovels of dirt when extremely heavy small arms fire erupted from the west side of the perimeter. Third and first platoon, on the west and south of the perimeter were taking the brunt of the fire. Someone then shouted, “Sniper in the trees” and Chief swung his M-60 upward and sprayed the suspected area. Casualties were mounting and ammo was running low so Medivac and resupply birds were called. Two cobra gunships accompanied the birds and four-niner talked with them on the radio. As they neared the perimeter a call went out around the perimeter to “pop smoke”. The troopers around the perimeter pulled pins from smoke grenades and threw them a few feet to their front. The colored smoke rose through the triple canopy jungle and the first cobra started his pass with 2.75” rockets. The first rocket hit in the middle of the mortar pit where four-niner and his R.T.O. was huddled along with members of the mortar crew. The volley then proceeded towards the west, leaving a trail of dead and wounded troopers. Charley Company was in deep trouble now. The man responsible for directing the copter gunships was dead or dying and the portable radio was out of comission too. The C.O.’s R.T.O frantically twisted knobs and spun dials to get his radio on the air support frequency. He lost the race; the second gunship began his pass and the deadly growl of the mini-gun chewed up first platoon and made its way out into the enemy position. Finally the radio was on the right channel; as the first cobra was coming in to make his second pass his radio screamed, “Lift fire.” He pulled out and circled overhead. The word went out again to pop smoke. This time, the position was properly noted and the gunships pounded only the enemy formation. The enemy fire finally abated and the procession of medivac and log birds kept the L.Z. busy transporting wounded and dead troopers out of the jungle.

There were no longer enough troopers to man the original size of the perimeter, so the size of the circle was shrunken to seven positions. A couple of troopers declared, “If they want us we’ll make it easy for them to find us.” They chopped through the bamboo mat and dug their hole in the middle of the trail. No one built a hooch or even inflated their air mattress that night. The two troopers in each hole took turns sleeping and standing watch in one hour shifts until dawn finally came. The night passed tensely but un-eventfully for the fourteen troopers left there.

 © Ed Boysun 2001

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