This is my account of my first mission with MACVSOG, FOB II (later Command and Control Central (CCC), in Kontum, Vietnam, in spring of 1968, with SSG VanHall and SSG Davidson, and Team Iowa. Our top secret mission was to plant an anti-tank mine on the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. I am compelled to provide a background context. Prior to arriving at MACVSOG, I was assigned to 5th Special Forces Group Headquarters in Na Trang, Vietnam.
I was assigned as a radio operator in Area Defense. When the large base was under attack, the coordination of the defense happened through the radio operator. It happened twice in the four months I was there. For someone, it would have been the cushiest assignment. I , and two other radio operators, worked a twelve hour shift in the bunker, then twenty four hours off in a cosmopolitan, beach city with classic French architecture and cuisine, a restricted “American beach,” cheap “33” beer (the only brand available throughout South Vietnam), and five-dollar “short-time” whores, the two most available pleasures. I was twenty two, and I hated Na Trang. I volunteered for the war to be in the fight, not beach time, not classic French stuff, not cushey duty in a bunker. I spent my abundant off-duty time drinking “33” beer, visiting five-dollar whores, and sleeping. I noticed, except when the voice radios were on from 1800 to 0600, all I did was answer a switchboard, about seven calls per day–what a waste of a well trained asset. I went to my boss Lieutenant, and requested a transfer to this shadowy combat bunch called SOG. He didn’t dismiss it, but replied, if you find a replacement, I’ll approve your transfer; an impossible task. After a week, I went to my boss and shared my aforementioned observations about the amount of radio and switchboard traffic. I suggested, we bridge a second switchboard to his office and let the clerk work the seven calls from 0600 until the radios go on at 1800, and have a radio operator come on duty from 1800 to 0600. “You’d only need two radio operators for that, LT.” I was on my way to the fight. I was assigned to FOB II, in Kontum, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, and placed on Team Iowa.
The other two Americans on Team Iowa was a seasoned recon one-zero, SSG VanHall, and SSG Davidson, who was seasoned combat vet, but like me, was new to SOG and Team Iowa. It’s an overstatement to say, I was very wet behind the ears. My combat experience was shooting pop-up targets on the range, and lots of miserable field training tests in Pineland (the name of the SF training area in North Carolina), and my cushy life in Na Trang. When VanHall and Davidson talked about the mission, they shared a lingo, a combat shorthand, only the combat experienced understand. My marching orders from them were, you’re carrying the radio, do what we tell you, and don’t be stupid. I didn’t know enough to even formulate an appropriate question. Thinking back, having me carry the PRC 25 was a mistake, but because my speciality was 05B (Morse Code radio operator), and neither VanHall nor Davidson wanted the heavy load. I was a radio operator by training, but I was unfamiliar with the interactive lingo of air support and teams. Mostly, I was the pack mule, VanHall would grab the handset and do all the talking, or tell me exactly what to say. Trusting the team lifeline, the radio to a newbie, is too risky, but not in this case. In Laos, our only limitation was we could take no more than thirteen people, and VanHall liked to go in heavy. He had about one month left on his one year tour, and this was his last mission, and he wasn’t going to take any unnecessary risks. The team loaded into two slicks. VanHall and I, the Vietnamese team leader, our interpreter, and three heavily armed troops. Iowa was a diverse team, Montagnards, Vietnamese, and one Chinese Nung.
I was too new to notice diverse teams were unusual. Davidson rode in the second slick with six more troops. The first slick flared and began to hover, we were all eager to exit. The LZ was grassy, and although the prop blast blew the grass downward, it was difficult to judge the distance to the ground. One troop left early, as soon as he jumped, we all followed. As our slick rose, the second slick with Davidson and the rest of the team took its place. As I reached the woodline, I turned to watch Davidson and five guys struggling through the grass to join us. I noticed, I couldn’t hear anything being said on the radio, so I turned up the radio as loud as I could. In the tense post-chaos, silent wait for the normal jungle sounds return, the handset blasted covey’s request for a sitrep cut loudly through the silence, followed by me answering in a loud, above normal speaking voice. VanHall grabbed me, eyes wide, and yell-whispered, turn that fucking radio down, and be fucking quiet! We had never talked or trained about noise security. I was fucking clueless. The hot and humid, thick, triple canopy jungle was dark, damp, viney, buggy and smelly-rotten, and stifled our movement. It was difficult to maintain noise discipline with thirteen people. A six man team is more controllable and silent. In the afternoon we discovered two abandoned bunkers on the edge of large open area. VanHall said they were used to observe or attack a team using the open area as a LZ. VanHall pulled two “toe poppers” from his rucksack and planted them in the floor of each bunker. Seeing those bunkers, was my rude message, “this shit is for real.” It wasn’t my Special Forces training that kicked in. It was my childhood years of stalking rabbits and quail, BB gun battles, hide-and-seek, Boy Scouts, and running from the police after pulling some prank that kicked in. In that moment, I became a recon guy.
On our second day, we neared our objective, the Ho Chi Minh trail. It wasn’t easy. Our early morning involved moving down a steep hill, through the narrow valley, and by noon arrived at the hill top. We planned to find a thick hiding spot, remain there until night. While the rest of the team would secure the rally point, VanHall, our Vietnamese team leader, the interpreter, and another troop would, leave their gear and S trip down to weapons and ammo. Two men would secure the far side of the road, one on our side, VanHall would plant the anti-tank mine, and they would withdraw back to the rally point, where we would remain until daylight and withdraw. Suddenly we heard voices, speaking Vietnamese, coming directly from the area VanHall planned to breach the road. It surprised us, because it was loud enough for us to hear. VanHall asked the interpreter to translate. “What are they saying?” “They say, they come kill us,” was his reply. Immediately we began to hustle down the hill back into the valley and as we were nearing the top of the where we started, we began to receive fire from the top of the hill across the valley. We weren’t trying to be quiet, we were moving as fast as we could. I’d heard a lot of gunfire, but I had never heard a bullet whizzing past. It’s a sound I’ll never forget. VanHall yelled for me to contact, the relay site, Leghorn. VanHall wisely told us not to return fire. We were getting fire in our general direction, but no one had gotten hit. If we had returned fire, we would have given away our position. “Leghorn, this is lockjaw. Over. Leghorn, Leghorn, this is lockjaw. Over.” I got nothing but silence. I tried again and again. We were running, bullets were whizzing by. We ran toward some rocks we could use for cover. Running towards the rocks and calling for Leghorn as I ran. About five feet from the rocks where VanHall and Davidson had taken cover, Leghorn responded, lockjaw this is Leghorn. Over. I noticed, it was that spot, and only that spot, five feet from the safety of the rocks.
If I moved one foot in any direction, I lost contact. From the safety of the rocks, VanHall told me our location and requested air support and extraction. Until I was assured Leghorn had support on the way, I stood in the open, a sitting duck. After telling Leghorn we were going to lose contact when I moved, I made it to the relative safety of the rocks. The NVA was hesitant to leave the top of their hill into, what would have been ‘death valley.’ The incoming fire rose and fell in volume and came close, we never returned fire, and remained safely behind our rock cover, until air support arrived about 1600. VanHall grabbed the handset and directed the air support. We had A1-E, fighter bombers on station. VanHall worked them. He mainly had them drop their ordinance from where we received fire and worked it down to the road. The pilots were getting secondary explosions from the roadway. Evidently, we had stumbled upon a daylight truck park, a place where supply trucks were hidden from sight during daylight hours. VanHall kept working the A1-E’s, but covey was worried it wasn’t safe to attempt a withdrawal, and wanted us to remain overnight (RON). As a safety measure, they dropped cluster bombs a safe distance and clearing any enemy soldiers trying to flank us or approach from the rear. VanHall wasn’t happy about staying the night without support. I don’t think any of us slept. I lay awake all night and counting the secondary explosions from the direction of the truck park. Each one would sounded like a rumble, like the earth was growling, and the sky would brighten and diminish into darkness, followed by another, then another. By the end of the night, I counted fifty two. Shortly after daybreak, covey arrived to take us home. Covey gave us directions to a small LZ, where we were to be extracted on strings. The A1-E’s prepped the LZ and widened it with the bombs he had on board. He spent extra time doing a lot of prep because he saw a secondary explosion on the LZ. We arrived to find a small hole in the triple canopy, and the floor of the jungle peppered with bomb craters, still warm and smoking. We came out in two slicks. The rest of the team on the first chopper, and VanHall, Davidson, the Vietnamese team leader, interpreter, another troop, and me on the second.