Erick W. Miller
Fighting is a terrible failure of diplomacy. War is insanity en masse. The existence of evil constantly drives people to one or the other. The first thing one learns about both forms of un-Christian-like behavior is not to telegraph ones punches. This story is a perfect example of why it shouldn’t be done.
My company was air-assaulted to the top of Hill 882 which was the highest land feature in that area of operations. We were delivered to this amusement park in a four bird lift. (I was on the fourth bird, bumper to bumper fashion as is the custom) This was a very hot AO and we were greeted by small arms fire. Every man in the first lift off loaded without any casualties. This means that there are twenty well armed and well trained men on the same real estate as the NVA who had the nerve to shoot at our wives and girlfriends lovers. The reinforced squad that comprised our un-welcoming committee didn’t stick around for one reason which all parties concerned knew. This wasn’t their base camp and they had no desire to die so far away from their own well armed and well trained friends who had strong, safe bunkers to hide in and shoot from.
Looking around the LZ, I saw all the familiar faces of the men our CO felt the most expendable. (Unless I missed a compliment?) The joke was that they were all dependable under fire. At any rate, I was in good company. If I had to die, it would be among friends. We already knew that we’d be operating in platoons in trident and we would be lead platoon. There were plenty of NVA on that hill to share with all three platoons and we weren’t selfish. It should be noted that platoons and companies were much smaller in mid 1970. We only had 70 men in our entire company.
Eventually the whole company made it to the picnic and we set up a perimeter on the military crest. We were prime targets for mortars which, gratefully, were never launched. Now comes the time for our artillery forward observer to plot protective fire and to call in some harassment and interdiction rounds.
After our little show of force, the NVA put on a display of their own. They conducted their version of our ‘mad-minute’ where they opened up with everything they had. Hell, I was impressed. They had every weapon we had plus the standard package of Russian and Chinese stuff including their very own 51 caliber machine gun(s)? It was pretty noisy. The message was clear. They had plenty of weapons with ammunition to waste and we were welcome to come and get it.
Too stupid to be afraid, my platoon moved off the hill in the general direction of the noise. I moved out first since my job as point makes me the biggest dummy. The next biggest dummy is my friend Travis Shattle who walks my slack with a machine gun so I guess that I have to admit that he’s as big a dummy as me.
I was following an obviously fresh trail (obvious) of about 15 NVA in their version of jungle boots. As we progress down the main finger of land going north, I see signs of enemy moving off the trail and to our flanks on almost invisible but fresh trails. Soon it appears that I’m only following about three men. It is starting to get very dark and there are only 27 of us, a fact that the enemy must well know by now.
I sent for the Lieutenant (Stephen Schultz) who is dangerously close to the head of the column. I told him what I knew. I suggested that we back up a few meters to the last flat spot we passed and make a tight perimeter and be quiet for the night. He agreed with me once he knew that there were enemy on both sides as well as to the front and that is what we did. We had been traveling fast and were now a long way from the rest of the company at the LZ.
Naturally we put out trip flares and Claymores before we chow down. Light and noise discipline are in effect (obviously, I promise I’ll stop saying obviously) so coffee is out of the question and C-rations are eaten cold. Yummy!
In my capacity of being the biggest dummy, the platoon sergeant naturally comes to me and says that our FO, a new guy, went outside the perimeter to relieve himself and hasn’t returned. The Sergeant gave me his pistol and I crawled out in the blackness (hoping to avoid wet spots) looking for our lost sheep. As we set up our perimeter, we could hear the enemy digging in on both sides of the trail. The further I crawl (dry so far), the closer I get to the diggers so that I’m nearer to them than to my guys on the trail. Yes, they were that close!
Soon a loud stage whisper drifts my way coming from the relative “safety” of the perimeter I’d so foolishly left. It is the platoon sergeant calling me back. Good news I can always use. Upon my return I am informed that our little sheep was never really lost at all. He had merely covered himself with two ponchos so he could read his map with his red flashlight. Great, two more guys vying for my title of biggest dummy. There’s no job security in the jungle.
That was a sleepless night for most of us. Between the enemy’s mad minute and the digging noises, there were plenty of nervous men on that hill, NVA included. They got a bad draw when the 101st moved into Thua Thien province. They still had the advantage since we were split into platoons. Also, thanks to Nixon’s efforts to appear to be winding down the war, the division was operating at about 65% strength. No one told the NVA that the war was winding down. The NVA feared that we would find their base camp and call in Tac Air before they could chew us up with ambushes as they managed to do to the poor 5-0-Deuce who was there before us and had 30 KIA and over 200 wounded. They had to be extracted without the satisfaction of completing their mission. There was a rumor that 1st Lieutenant Schultz had been on that hill with them.
Our strategy was to find their base camp while avoiding ambush. We planned to use dogs for this, but there wasn’t any dog that first night, and I’m here to angrily tell you that when we did get the dogs, and they would alert, the dog and handler would stay put and the point man of the hour would have to creep up to see what Lassie was trying to tell Timmy (Jeff for you older fans). They used this tactic after the other platoons lost a couple of dogs to enemy fire. I know because I did that very thing twice that I remember. That’s something you don’t forget and there ain’t nothin’ like it. Two dogs were killed on our little operation in one of the other platoons. One before he alerted. The other who charged an ambush. It wasn’t all fun and games.
The second or third or fourth day, and believe me, this kind of life kinda runs together after a while, Travis gave up his M-60 for a 90MM recoilless rifle that no one wanted to carry. His reward was a cute little .45 with matching leather holster and the privilege of following me on one incident where the dog’s life was made clear to be more valuable than mine. After I’d fired a deafening LAW, Travis came forward with me to see the effects, if any, that my LAW had. He fired a bee-hive round down a steep side trail which the enemy had “obviously” disappeared down. (I apologize for saying obviously) I guess his life wasn’t too valuable either. Oh well, it was a war, no matter what the politicians and civilians wanted to call it. Thinking about it today still makes me MAD.
I can’t believe to this day as I edit this in 2003 that I lived. I bet that I disappointed a lot of people and surprised more than just myself. God loves a fool.
We were able to proceed in this dangerous fashion right up to the door of their happy home. I had the privilege of being on point again on that particularly exciting day. They had pulled the trees together to completely and effectively block the trail. I was convinced of two things. 1- This was ‘it’ and 2- they didn’t know that we were there yet. Of course the column is stopped and the Lieutenant came forward along with one of the other point men. As we tried to figure out a plan, the other point man took out a baseball frag and threw it over the man made wall of vegetation. There was no response from the enemy at this time but we had definitely lost the element of surprise. That pointman had ‘telegraphed’ our punch.
Since the wall was impenetrable, the Lt. put together an X-ray to go around the obstacle. Call it fate, Sgt. Mike Hensley, the third point man and his slack man, Gary Berry, another gunner led this doomed expedition. In the same patrol were Floyd Legassie, Harold Thorman, Doc Mundy, Ted McCormick and some equally important soldiers whose names I can’t recall. The NVA were ready and waiting. Thirty meters out, the X-ray walked into an ambush. They quit giving my platoon dogs. At any rate, Sgt. Hensley was shot several times and Gary Berry nearly lost his nose to RPG shrapnel besides being shot in the shoulder. The front of the column was pinned down while our friends lie bleeding. Lieutenant Schultz managed to organize a defense and finally the patrol returned fire. That took the bravado out of the enemy long enough for the wounded to be treated and medevacked and the survivors were able to rejoin the rest of us who had formed a perimeter of sorts.
The expression ‘all hell broke loose’ is inadequate to describe what happened next. We had ripped the top off an ant hill full of NVA, Legassie said that they were running uphill to get behind us before the remnants of the X-ray could even rejoin the platoon. (My story ‘The Front’ is a small excerpt from this adventure.)
We already had Cobras in the air to keep us from being over run and to protect the medevack choppers. The Cobras sent much of the enemy back underground and Phantoms screamed in to pound the bunker complex. The complex was invisible from the air at first since the NVA had tied the trees together overhead for concealment. First Lieutenant Schultz had smoke popped or a strobe lit, hard to remember, to mark our position and directed the F-4’s as he stood up and observed the battlefield. That man had blood running from both ears and refused to be medevacked, thank God.
It gets confusing here, but I’ll search my memory for accuracy and avoid embellishment. No embellishing was necessary to make this adventure exciting. Whoever coined the phrase, “War is hell” wasn’t exaggerating one bit.
The air support was necessarily so close that they started out with 250 lb. bombs which were bouncing off the trees and were more of a danger to us since we had no bunkers. It’s not in the daily report and it’s not in General Hennessey’s report, but they went all the way up to 2000 lb. bombs. I know because I walked over one that failed to explode later that day as we searched the area. SSG. Joel Kriss rigged it to blow. He was the one who spotted it, as he looked back on the patrol to keep men from bunching up going down this steep area cleared by the bombs. By then, our platoon was so small that any patrol consisted of all thirteen of us. At any rate, the bigger bombs were doing the trick and the place started looking like a parking lot strewn with logs. For some reason, as I was lying down, bouncing up and down when each sortie roared in, one thing stuck with me. I was so low to the ground that I could see a medium sized centipede clinging to the under side of a plant. (In Vietnam, six or seven inches is ‘medium’ sized.)
We could only raise up to fire between sorties. That wasn’t exactly safe either since the Cobras came in when the jets went out. Kevin McLaughlin got Cobra shrapnel in one arm. All of a sudden, it became calm. I say all of a sudden, but it was probably gradual. It seemed like we had conquered the beast. Some of us rose to our feet to survey the damage. There was so much debris heaped about, dirt mixed with smashed trees and God knows what. We still didn’t know for sure if the bunkers were empty. Four of us got on line. Audie Murphy had nothing on 1st Lt. Stephen Schultz, because bloody ears and all, he was one of the four all the way to the left. I was on the far right, SSG. Kriss acted as assistant gunner to Travis Shattle, who was back on his beloved M-60. They were between us. We were laying down a pretty good volume of fire as we moved ahead still getting no response. We stopped where the jungle was still halfway intact, just tangled with debris. Travis stood on a splintered stump firing the 60 from his shoulder while SSG Kriss kept feeding him ammo. The LT and I are more or less watching those two, not firing anymore. Travis started being more particular about placing his rounds into the darker patches beneath the debris to our front. His brass is burning my left arm, so I moved further right and leaned against one of the few trees still standing where we had stopped. I started getting peppered with bark on my right side. The tree was disintegrating before my eyes. I yelled “Cease fire!” When the boom of the 60 stopped, we heard the TREMENDOUS volume of fire coming at us from the ‘many’ well concealed bunkers still to our front. Thank God the NVA were spraying and praying or someone else would have had to write this.
We had to literally beat a hasty retreat uphill and take cover behind logs with what was left of the platoon. The Cobras that had been hovering saved our lives. The NVA must have realized our weakened state and tried to over run us again. The jets came back, this time with Napalm. Lots of it. Very hard to breathe. The record states that the Napalm was ordered 100 meters to our north. That was a joke. 100 meters to our north would have been beyond the bunker complex. The S-2 reports stated “Wall to wall Napalm” and the pilots took that at face value. I guess we had been written off. Good thing that I couldn’t see all this from the air, I might have been scared or something. Men uphill behind me to the south were getting burned. Gregory Kuehl was totally on fire. There were enemy uphill too. There had to have been tunnels they were using that we couldn’t find.
I helped Floyd Legassie and Harold Thorman get on a jungle penetrater one at a time that the medevack lowered, expecting to have to put Gregory in a litter basket. When I turned around for him, he got to his feet and ran to the penetrater and sat on it by himself as if he rode one every day. Doc Mundy must have spiked him with morphine. Floyd and Harold had already been bandaged while we waited for the medevac’s They both seemed pretty calm. That was when Floyd said that he’d seen NVA running uphill to get behind us when his patrol was ambushed.
I lost track of how many sorties and cobra missions and I’ll bet that there doesn’t exist an accurate measurement anywhere of what went on and I’ll bet that’s deliberate. There were 13 of us left when the smoke cleared and one of that number was my hero, 1st Lt. Stephen Schultz with bandages over his ears. We finally strolled right into that bunker complex. It was like a city.
I pulled a John Wayne (entry before throwing grenade) in one large bunker that was; 1. Empty, thank God and 2. A hospital. I was hoping to take a prisoner or just shoot some of the bastards that were trying to kill us. I threw a grenade in one small bunker and crawled in only to see that after I had blown the linings of the walls out, a mother rat with babies clinging to her had survived and ran past me. I wouldn’t believe this either, but I saw it. Nothing but a daisy cutter* works on rats.
The base camp had training facilities for sappers*+. I quit counting bunkers and just sat down to rest. Adrenaline had wiped me out. I don’t even know what day of the mission we were in but it wasn’t over. It was one of those nightmares that grips you and won’t let you wake up. It’s like a roller coaster. Once you get on, you ride it to the end, one way or another. For some people, it ended early, on a medevack** The rest of us had to finish the ride and complete the mission.
Both of the other platoons were getting hit. Second Platoon was ambushed and had men wounded where they were operating nearby and Third Platoon had to call in jets of their own. They had a point man named Sammy Gullart killed by a command detonated booby trap. (26 May 1970) They were in almost as bad of shape as we were. I’m told that we had to link with the second platoon to have a decent force, but I don’t remember. We were getting replacements and I don’t recall who came when, but some of them were pretty good men right from the start. We even had a married guy with a couple of kids walking point for awhile. He was a shake and bake. SSG Joel Kriss graduated top of his class and came in country as an E-6. He was as good as they get. Hard 5’s like to make fun of the shake and bakes, but a lot of the shakes could read a map better and were better at thinking on their feet than the people who made fun of them. Politics had less to do with their promotions and brains had everything to do with it.
We dropped our rucks one day to run after a LOH (light observation helicopter) that had been shot down, still on that damn 882. When we found the bird, one man was frozen in a seated position, burned to a crisp with his helmet melted around his head. The other man was tangled upside down in a tree with his hands, head, and feet missing. We wrapped them in ponchos and slept in the rain that night. Many of us were in T -shirts only. We were able to salvage the mini-gun off the LOH along with at least one of their revolvers. We carried the men and armor back to our ruck sacks which I wasn’t able to find. The married E-5 with the kids told me I was one ridge away. He took over point and got us there right at dark the next day. I wish that I could remember his name so I could give him proper credit.
All of this carnage was part of Operation Texas Star. Fire Base Ripcord was the centerpiece of that operation and rightfully so. I was in Kit Carson’s Buddy School at Camp Evans when Ripcord was going south. Chinooks were flying landing nets full of NVA bodies over head. The rumor was that the bodies were being dropped in the path of fleeing NVA. Before I went to Camp Evans, I was with the company as DRF, (division reaction force) as we marched toward Ripcord from the general area of Fire Base Jack. We were supposed to be mopping up fleeing enemy that the B-52’s were driving like roaches when the lights go on. Chinooks and sky cranes were flying broken and burned helicopters over our heads like wreckers on a freeway. We had whipped 882 but the 2nd of the 502nd deserves credit for 714. Anyway, by the looks of the sky full of wrecked choppers and nets full of bodies, the war wasn’t over in 1968 like the press wanted everyone to believe.
Chuck Norris lost a brother during that operation on one of the hills near Ripcord. He was new and just taking his turn on point and got killed before be had time to learn the ropes. Unless you were there or happen to read this, you’ll never know what we went through because in 1970, nobody cared about Vietnam any more. We were an annoyance. If any of my readers doubt this story, go to the archives and get the daily reports and S-2 pages for B-Company, 1st 327 infantry from mid may to the end of June, 1970. I’ve already been called to task and buried the “inquiring mind who wanted to know” in paperwork and witnesses/survivors. I was in 1st Platoon FYI.
There is at least one other, very myopic version of these events circulating around military internet sites. I did my best to give credit to as many good soldiers as possible in writing this story. For the record, General Hennessey’s report leaves out a lot of embarrassing details, like the friendly fire incidents that burned our guys and got the Captain of Delta Company shot up by 20 MM cannons as a jet expended his ordinance on what the pilot was led to believe was an empty hilltop. I have copies of the incident report chronicling this event. Compared to what the O Deuce and the Ripcord boys went through, we were damn lucky and I know it.
Does this story sound like we were lucky? Upon reflection, I guess so. Now I can take my Clonazepam and Trazadone and try to go to sleep. Yeah, right.
Daisy Cutter = 15,000 lb bomb *+ sapper = North Vietnamese Special Forces **medevack = medical evacuation helicopter
Erick W. Miller 10 Nov. 1997 Re-written and details added 3 July 2002, 27 July 2003, and 11 Jan 2004
Copyright 2004 All rights reserved.