1 The Fourth of July
It was a moonless night, and seventeen green-faced men were hidden in the bush and along the dikes; we were hunting the Vietcong. Fresh, hot intel had come in from the Chieu Hoi camp that had been checked, double-checked, and confirmed by the CIA. We were loaded for bear and ready to let Charlie know that they couldn’t hide too deep or too far away. No matter where they went or what they did, we would find them, dig them out, and make them dead.
The VC that had been preying on the local villages, carrying off sons and daughters at the muzzle of an AK-47, and dropping random mortar rounds into cities and towns throughout South Vietnam, would be moving cross-country tonight. We had blown away one of their newly trained mortar teams only a few days ago, and they knew that as soon as we got better intel it would be only a matter of time before we would capture or kill them all. They were running scared, looking for a safe haven where they could train more mortar crews and operate without interference. The VC were hoping that if they moved far enough, fast enough, we would lose their trail, the intel would dry up, and they could continue raining down terror in the form of ChiCom (Chinese Communist) mortar rounds on the helpless villagers and townspeople. They could run, but tonight they couldn’t hide.
Motionless, like frozen green statues in the bush and along the paddy dikes, we wouldn’t initiate our ambush until the VC were centered in our field of fire. It wasn’t long before they came walking down the path that ran the length of the dike between two rice paddies as if they were absolutely sure that they were the only armed bastards in the valley. Even before we could see them, we heard their gear clinking and banging; they were talking and laughing. As they came within about sixty yards of our position, we could hear the slapping of their sandals on the hard, sun-baked mud. It was as dark as it could be on a cloudy, almost moonless night, but their movement and black pajamas, the uniform worn by most of the VC, made them easy targets against the lighter bush and paddies behind them. Even with the minimal illumination from the quarter moon, we could see that their rifles were slung over their shoulders or carried carelessly, almost casually resting on their shoulders. The two RPK machine guns that I could see were useless; they didn’t even have ammunition belts inserted into the receivers. That these VC had survived so long could only have been what we called PDL—pure dumb luck. They didn’t know it, but their luck was about to go south.
Traveling at the speed of light, the incandescent, blinding flash from the explosion of two claymore mines, each containing a pound and a half of C-4 explosive, was the only warning the VC got when we initiated our ambush. We had carefully placed and secured the mines only a hundred feet from where we waited. Moving more slowly, only at the speed of sound, the concussion from the blast wouldn’t reach them until after the two thousand steel ball bearings fired from the claymores went screaming across the dike at three times the speed of sound, shredding tree trunks, flesh, bone, and anything and everything else in their path.
With the sound of the blast still ringing in our ears and the flash of the exploding claymores still burned into our retinas, we opened up with four M-60 machine guns, two Stoner light machine guns, nine M-16 rifles, and two 12-gauge shotguns. Six or eight concussion grenades and two ground illumination grenades exploded, lighting up the sixty-yard-long kill zone in the middle of the paddies. As our red tracers streaked through the darkness, cutting down everything that crossed our field of fire, two white star parachute flares transformed night into daylight. The VC never knew that we were there in the darkness. Two of them lived long enough to get their weapons off of their shoulders, but neither of them lived long enough to pull back the operating handle on the right side of the receiver and get a round into the chamber. In less than a minute the officer in charge (OIC) called a cease-fire. None of the VC centered in the kill zone had fired a single round, and none of them was going to need medical treatment. Bodies, pools of blood, and parts of bodies were strewn across the killing zone. For fifteen or twenty seconds, we could hear a few of the VC moaning in pain. Then we heard the familiar gurgling gasps as their lungs collapsed, they bled out, and the battlefield went silent. Tonight we would not be taking any prisoners back with us for interrogation.
After a security perimeter was set up, a four-man team was sent out into the kill zone to cautiously roll over and check the bodies. With all of the VC confirmed dead, the team searched what was left of the bodies for documents or any other materials that might be useful to the intel people. Once these were secured, they gathered up all of the weapons and munitions so that they could be destroyed. Intelligence gathering was always our second highest priority; staying alive through the use of overwhelming firepower was always our first. We wanted to take prisoners so that we could bring them back and get more actionable, solid information that would lead us to VC even higher up the chain of command. On many of our missions we were successful, but when we staged an ambush we knew that dominating the field of fire was the best and maybe the only way to make sure that all of us would get back to base alive, in one piece, and without any serious injuries. It was our job to make the VC pay the death tax. Only after they had paid that tax could we take prisoners or look for the bloody, sometimes bullet-riddled documents that might lead us to another good operation.
There was also another reason that was always in the back of our minds when we dropped the hammer or fired the claymores that initiated an ambush. In the free-fire zones where we operated most of the time, there were always VC cadres moving men and munitions, or resting up after a march through the bush. Most of these cadres were small groups of ten or fewer men, but when two or three cadres got together to come looking for our usual six- or seven-man squad, they could easily outnumber us six or eight to one. When we touched off an ambush, we wanted it to sound and look like at least a company-sized force was in the area and on the attack. That might make the VC quick reaction forces or individual cadres think twice about charging through the boonies trying to track us down before they had grabbed up the extra men and the heavy weapons they would need to overpower a company. Creating the impression that we were a large, well-armed company gave us just what we needed most after an ambush: the time to search the dead, grab every document we could find, destroy their weapons, and haul ass back to our extraction point before the VC could get coordinated teams assembled and out looking for us.
In only a few minutes the bodies were searched, the weapons destroyed, and our head count complete. With all of our weapons reloaded and the rising moon lighting the way, it didn’t take long to hump a couple of klicks back to our extraction point near Quang Tho village.
Just as we started to hear the distant whop-whop-whop of the blades of the helo coming in for our extraction, we saw the first trails of green VC tracers arching up into the sky. Two Seawolf helos that were running interference for our extraction helos peeled off and started their firing runs on the area along the tree line where the muzzle flash from the AK-47s and the tracer fire were concentrated. The Seawolves swept down on the VC, firing volleys of 2.75-inch rockets, and thousands of rounds per minute from their 7.62 miniguns. Both of the door gunners were busy laying down .50 caliber fire from the Browning machine guns. The roar of the guns and the concussion of the rockets exploding drowned out even the sound of their rotors. I remember thinking that all of those red tracers arching down from the sky and explosions lighting up the night was as beautiful as any Fourth of July fireworks display I had ever seen. Even as we prepared for extraction I couldn’t stop myself from thinking how lucky I was, and how easy it could have been for me to have ended up someplace else, living a life that I would have never chosen. My father, a navy chief, had taught me more than he would ever know, or admit, and I had almost always gotten lucky when luck was the only thing that mattered. I had a lot of people to thank, but there were two people in particular that I hoped I would live long enough to thank someday.
Excerpted from Seal Warrior by Thomas H. Keith, J. Terry Riebling.
Copyright 2009 by Thomas H. Keith and J. Terry Riebling.
Published in July 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
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