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0750 HOURS, 3 MAY 1967
With seventy-pound rucksacks on our backs, our column threaded its way through thick undergrowth and triple-canopy jungle. In our shadowy world, the still morning air was heavy with the smells of humus and mold. High in the trees, the morning mist was beginning to burn off, and a few rays of sunlight glowed a translucent white as they penetrated to the soft, moist earth. The jungle was alive with buzzing and chirping, and to the southeast, I could hear the faint hum of the forward air controller’s single-engine observation aircraft.
Ten meters to my front, SFC Bob Cole led silently on point. Bob was an operations sergeant who had come to the Mobile Guerrilla Force after SFC George Ovsak was killed at Trang Sup Special Forces Camp. To the Cambodians, Bob was known as Trung si Khmao. They were awed by the fact that his skin was darker than theirs, and they held him in great esteem. With his silencer-equipped, nine-millimeter, MK-II British Sten gun at the ready, Bob slipped through the wet foliage with feline grace. A seasoned point man, he paused every few steps while his brain sorted every shred of stimulus for possible danger—the rustling of leaves, a color that didn’t fit, the smell of a Vietnamese cigarette.
With every step, my boots sank into creamy black mud, and from the jungle floor, twisting trails of steam slowly worked their way skyward. As the navigator, I used a map and compass to keep Bob on a zigzag course to the southeast. Every few minutes, he looked to the rear, and I used hand-and-arm signals to adjust his course to the left or right.
Two paces behind me, Ly, our seventeen-year-old Cambodian radio operator, walked with our PRC-25 radio handset pressed to his ear. Ly was well built, had straight black hair, and friendly brown eyes. He didn’t speak much English but was very reliable. Ly was followed by Luc, our Cambodian platoon sergeant. Luc was a quiet, no-nonsense professional who had been fighting the Communists for nearly twenty years. Rumor had it that he was wanted for the murder of a South Vietnamese Army officer. Next in line was our three-man machine-gun section and the remaining thirty-five Khmer-Serei Cambodians of the 3d Platoon.
Following our bootprints through the mud were Capt. Jim Gritz, the Mobile Guerrilla Force commander, S.Sgt. Tom Horn, the headquarters-section radio operator, and the fourteen Cambodians of the headquarters section. Bringing up the rear were SFC Glen Bevans, S.Sgt. Roy Sparks, and the thirty-nine Cambodians of the 2d Platoon. The Recon Platoon—S.Sgt. Dale England, S.Sgt. Jim Williams, S.Sgt. Hal Slusher, and forty Cambodians—was five kilometers to the southeast. Our 1st Platoon remained at Trang Sup Special Forces Camp—the home of the Mobile Guerrilla Force—because we didn’t have the necessary helicopter support to airlift the entire company into the area of operations.
Since January 1967, there had been extensive enemy sightings in the Viet Cong Secret Zone southeast of Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp, and intelligence suspected that the 271st and 273d Main Force Viet Cong regiments had moved into the area. Intelligence also believed that elements of the 84th and 141st North Vietnamese Army regiments were operating in the enemy Secret Zone. In addition to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army regiments, guerrilla bands from the 81st Rear Service Unit were also known to be operating throughout the area. Our mission had been code-named Blackjack-33, and our objective was to draw the enemy regiments into a decisive engagement so that they could be fought and destroyed by the 1st Infantry Division. I didn’t like the idea of being used as bait, but Col. Francis “Blackjack” Kelly, commanding officer, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), had received assurances from Maj. Gen. John Hay, commanding general, 1st Infantry Division, that units of his division would immediately move to reinforce the Mobile Guerrilla Force if we made contact with a large enemy unit. It was a dangerous game—like hunting a three-hundred-pound tiger with a jackknife.
Kaw, kaw, kaw. A crow interrupted my thoughts. Looking up through a few holes in the canopy, I saw patches of blue sky. Our world beneath the canopy would soon become a steam bath.
Whack-whack-whack! Whump-whump-whump! A distant firefight erupted to the southeast, and a surge of adrenaline shot into my system. As I closed the gap with Bob, I took a compass direction on the firing.
“Sixteens and AKs,” Bob whispered.
“Yeah, 160 degrees,” I said as we pushed silently through large, heart-shaped leaves.
“Gotta be Recon,” Bob said.
“Bac-si.” Ly handed me the radio handset.
“Say again, Fox Four,” Captain Gritz radioed the Recon Platoon with a calm Oklahoma twang. “I’m only reading you two by two. Over.”
“Fox Control, this is Fox Four,” Staff Sergeant England responded in his West Virginia drawl. “RT (Recon Team) Delta made contact with a VC platoon on our back trail. I’m moving to the POC (point of contact) with RT Bravo. Over.”
“Roger, Four. What’s your location and distance to the POC? Over.”
“From the RP (a reference point on our maps), I’m at right 1.2, up 2.3. Delta’s two hundred meters northwest. Over.”
I looked closely at my acetate-covered map and saw that he was at the northern edge of a large clearing called Bau Chu.
“Got a fix on ’im?” Bob whispered as we moved together.
“Yeah.” I used a twig to point to the location on the map. “He’s at 951 669.”
As Bob looked at my map, I grew concerned about the distance to the Recon Platoon. If England got into trouble, it could take hours for us to close the gap.
“Gonna be a long day,” Bob predicted as the firing continued. “Intel intercepted AM radio signals from that area.”
“That’s what Horn was tellin’ me,” I said.
The enemy used long-range AM radios for communications between their regiments. For tactical operations, they used short-range FM radios. The fact that there were AM radio transmissions coming from the area of the Bau Chu clearing was a good indication that at least one regiment was operating in that area.
We continued southeast through a thicket of green, tan, and brown clumps of bamboo. Near the ground, the fifty-foot stalks were bundled together, but at the higher elevations, the weight of their long narrow leaves bowed them over. High in the bamboo, small green birds chirped as they fluttered from stalk to stalk.
“Memphis, this is Fox Four-Bravo. Over.” S.Sgt. Hal Slusher, a recon section leader, was calling the forward air controller.
“Fox Four-Bravo, this is Memphis. Over,” the FAC responded.
“Memphis, this is Bravo. We need gunships. Over.”
“Roger, Bravo. Memphis, out,” the FAC responded as we slipped between tall stalks of lime green bamboo. To the southeast, the exchange of small-arms fire and explosions intensified.
“Fox Control, this is Fox Four. Over,” England gasped for air.
“Four, this is Control. Over,” Gritz responded.
“Control, I’ve linked up with Delta. We’re in contact with an undetermined number of VC. Mixed black-and-green uniforms. Got movement on both flanks.”
Whoomph, whoomph. What sounded like two claymore mines exploded.
“Four, this is Control. Break contact. Over,” Gritz ordered.
“Roger, Control. We’ve broken contact,” England yelled.
When a Viet Cong unit made contact with what they thought was a recon team, they would generally lay down a base of fire, move quickly on both flanks, and try to encircle it. If the team was to survive, it had to move to the rear before the encirclement was complete.
“Fox Three, this is Fox Control. Over,” Gritz radioed the 3d Platoon.
“Control, this is Three. Over,” I whispered into the handset.
“Three, this is Control. Pick it up. Straight line to the POC. Over.”
“Roger, Control. Three, out.”
“Psst.” I closed the gap with Bob. “Move it out,” I whispered. “Straight to the POC.”
“Right.” Bob had a green triangular bandanna tied around his neck and used it to wipe his face. He didn’t say anything, but I sensed he didn’t like the idea of moving in a straight line. It was dangerous because it provided the enemy with the opportunity to predict our route of march. Setting a pattern was an invitation to sudden death, and Bob knew that if we were ambushed, he would be the first to die.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, we moved quickly through an area of dead and dying bamboo. The ground was littered with broken sections of mold-covered bamboo and brittle leaves.
“Memphis, this is Fox Four-Bravo. Over,” Slusher radioed the FAC.
“Bravo, this is Memphis. Over,” the FAC responded.
“Memphis, got a Bode down with a gut wound. Need an immediate medevac. Over.”
“Roger, Bravo. I’ll have a Dustoff on the ground in one-zero minutes. Memphis, out.”
The temperature must have been close to a hundred, and my black-green-and-brown tiger-stripe fatigues were soaked with sweat.
With my finger on the trigger and my thumb on the selector switch, I watched for movement on both flanks and tried not to step on the decaying sections of bamboo—a crunch could be heard for a hundred meters.
Whack-whack-whack. Whump-whump-whump. The stutter of M-16s and AK-47s broke the silence.