By Manuel Beck
Tt was June 2, 1968, and I was glad May was over, and I was hoping June would be a better month than May. All the Special Project Units in SOG lost more men and helicopters in May 1968 than any other time in the war.
We had the next twenty-four hours to get ready to do something that we had never done before. However, it didn’t sound too bad. One of our rifle companies would be airlifted just across the border to see if they could find the NVA and see how much damage they could do. Charley was very brave when it came to chasing a six-man Recon Team. Let’s see what happens when Charley runs into a 150-man Rifle Company. The commander for the Rifle Company was First Sergeant Goad, and he had four platoon sergeants, Sergeant First Class John Salazar, and three other sergeants. We didn’t have officers as company commanders in our Rifle Companies at that time, only NCOs.
I had met John Salazar back at Ho Ngoc Tao. He seemed to be a good soldier, and he knew how to lead a Rifle Company in combat. First Sergeant Goad told my Recon Team that we would be attached to Sergeant Salazar’s platoon, and John would brief us on what he wanted us to do and where to go if we made enemy contact. My six-man recon team had been assigned to John’s platoon, which was one of four platoons in one
of our rifle companies from B-56 Project SIGMA. My Recon Team was Team 2, and Sergeant First Class Harry Cohan was the One-Zero (Team Leader). I was the One-One (Assistant Team Leader,) and we had four Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) soldiers on our team. The CIDG soldiers were devised by the CIA. John and his platoon would escort our recon team within two miles of our objective, and then the platoon would return to their command post.
My Recon Team arrived at the airfield at 0700 hours, and the Rifle Company arrived about thirty minutes later. The helicopters arrived at 0800 hours, and we started loading up for our thirty-minute flight to the largest LZ I ever saw. I was comfortable flying in a helicopter that was landing in an LZ big enough for just one helicopter; however, this LZ was the size of four football fields. In addition, I had never seen that many helicopters in the air at one time. The helicopter I was riding on was in the middle of a flight of thirty helicopters. We landed without incident and moved into the jungle. That was very scary, moving through the jungle at such a fast pace. It was like a walk in the park. I thought it was crazy moving that fast and making all that noise. The company moved further in one hour than a Recon Team would move in a day. When you have 150 men, you don’t have to be quiet while moving through the jungle looking for a fight.
My recon team was in the middle of the platoon formation walking single file. About two hours into the march, I saw a chicken run across our path. I thought that was strange, because I knew chickens didn’t live in the jungle. When we got to the point where John would let the recon team go on our own, I told John what I saw. He agreed there must be someone in the area using the chicken for food. John said he would check it out on his way back. We left John and his platoon and started toward our objective. About thirty minutes after we left John, we sat down to take a break. Then we heard one hell of a firefight in the direction we had just came
from. I got on the radio to see if I could hear anyone talking about the firefight we were hearing. No one was saying anything. We thought it must be John’s platoon, and they found the owner of that chicken.
The firefight went on for a few minutes then stopped. We didn’t hear anything else, so we started toward
our objective, which was a crossroad on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was time to get my mind back into the mode of moving like a Recon Team, slow and cautious. We were moving with Cu as point man, Cohan was second, then three CIDGs, and I was last. Usually, I wouldn’t be the tail-gunner. However, after hearing about the previous firefight, I was worried that maybe someone was following us, and I felt better at the back covering the team just in case. While we moved, I couldn’t help to think about the firefight wondering if John and his platoon were okay. We stopped again to look and listen to see if we were being followed. I looked at the map to ensure we were on course, and I noticed we had to cross a stream before we reached our objective. I told Cohan I was afraid with all the rain we had, we might not be able to cross at the point we had planned because
the stream might be a river. He agreed it might be a problem for us. We all knew there were over 20,000
North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers in the area. I didn’t understand why I was so uneasy about someone coming up behind us, but I was. I even went back several hundred yards while the rest of the team rested.
Before I left, Cohan joked about how pissed he would be if I were killed or captured because I had the radio with me. That little bit of humor made me feel better about our situation. I couldn’t see or hear any movement behind us, so I returned to the team’s location. As soon as I got back, we started to move toward the stream. To make matters even worse, it began to rain again. The vegetation in that area was getting thicker, making it hard to move through.
Sometime later, we stopped, and Cu, the point man, came back and said we were at the stream, and it was not a stream anymore; it was a river. Just what I was afraid it would be. We moved forward to look at the water to see how deep it might be. There was no way we could cross at that point. After looking at the map, we decided to move south parallel to the stream to see if we could find a place to cross. The undergrowth was so thick along the stream bank we could hardly move at all. It took us almost two hours to move a few hundred yards. Cohan wanted to get across the stream before it got dark.
We did find a place downstream that was twice as wide as the rest of the river, and it didn’t look as deep as the other places. Cu didn’t want to be the first into the water because he was afraid it would be over his head. You have to remember all of our CIDG soldiers were about five feet two inches tall. I told Cu I would go first and check it out. I took off my ruck and started across the river. At the deepest point, it was up to my waist. The banks on both sides of the river were not steep, and it was an easy crossing to the other side. At that point, the river was about fifty feet across, and I could see several hundred yards up and down the river. That was not good because we could be seen from both banks at a great distance; we had to cross as fast as possible.
I motioned for Cohan and the team to stay where they were until I could go into the jungle on the other side and check it out. I was almost to the other side when I saw and heard something that made my heart stop. First, I saw several fresh boot prints in the mud on the bank in front of me, and then I heard voices and the sound of empty canteens banging together. There I was, still in the water with forty feet of water behind me, twenty feet of open space in front of me, and nothing but an open river as far as I could see on both sides. I had nowhere to go, and I couldn’t move in any direction. It all happened so fast I didn’t even have time to let Cohan know what was about to happen. I took two steps back, and then I saw two NVA soldiers step out from the jungle carrying several canteens. The first soldier had canteens hanging from his body, and the other was
carrying an AK-47 rifle. We saw each other at the same time. I will never forget the look on their faces when they saw me. I can only imagine what they saw on my face. I remember thinking, I have to shoot the one with the AK-47 first. We both raised our rifles and fired at the same time. We were about twenty feet from each other. I fell back into the water, but I didn’t know why. I emptied my twenty-round magazine with one pull of the trigger, hitting both of them. I remember Cohan and the rest of the team jumped into the water, grabbed me, and pulled me back to their side of the river. When they got me out of the water, we went back into the jungle. We ran for several yards before I noticed that I had a dull pain in my right hip. I looked down and saw that one of the ammo pouches on my ammo belt was destroyed. I told Cohan I thought I had been hit. Cohan removed my belt, and I saw blood coming from my hip. A bullet had entered the ammo pouch striking the magazines, then ricocheted into an area between my ribs and hip, causing a slight flesh wound. Cohan wrapped a bandage around my waist, and then we were off running again to the east. I was hurting more from the impact of the bullet on my ammo belt than I was from the bullet wound itself. We moved for a few minutes, then stopped and set up a defensive position. I told Cohan each of the NVA soldiers I shot were carrying at least ten canteens, so we knew there were at least ten to twenty soldiers with those two and maybe more. It was dark now, and we were not sure where we were. Cohan looked at my wound and said it was not that bad, and the bleeding had almost stopped. With all the excitement, we missed our evening radio check with the FAC. Cohan tried to make contact with the FAC but was unable. Besides, with all the rain and cloud cover, the FAC might not have been able to fly. We had to wait until the next day before we called. I was thankful that I was not hurt very badly. No one slept that night because we were set up in a defensive perimeter waiting for Charley to come after us. It rained all night and was still raining when it got light.
At 0600 hours, Cohan made radio contact with the FAC and informed him we needed to be extracted because we had made enemy contact and been compromised. Cohan told the FAC I had been wounded in a firefight, but I was okay. We told him where we thought we were. The FAC told us as soon as he got the Rifle Company out, he would send helicopters to extract us. The FAC figured it would be at least two hours. Cohan told him we would be moving to the east, looking for an LZ. My hip was hurting now, and it was very painful walking. We continued moving northeast in hopes of finding an LZ within the next two hours. The jungle was not as thick as it had been, and we could see a range of hills on the map that showed an open area. We started toward the hills. We made it to the hills and found a space big enough for a helicopter to land. I was thankful we were no longer in a triple canopy jungle, and the rain had stopped. However, the sun was out, and it must have been 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. I was starting to feel weak and sick to my stomach. My hip was hurting so bad I could hardly walk. We sat at the LZ for more than two hours before we heard the helicopters coming.
We were extracted without incident and flown back to the launch site. When we arrived, we went to the TOC for our debriefing. After our debriefing, we were told about the firefight we heard after John dropped us off. We were told that John and his platoon found a basecamp, and he reported the location back to the company, and he reported that they found several newly constructed bunkers, spider-holes, and trenches. The platoon departed the basecamp and was returning to the company when they came under heavy enemy automatic weapons and rocket fire. They said John took a direct hit from a Rocket- Propelled Grenade (RPG) that took off the upper half of his body. The only way they could identify his body was by an “Airborne” tattoo on his arm. John was a brown-skinned person like the rest of his soldiers, and at first, they thought the body they recovered was a CIDG soldier until someone noticed the tattoo.
Sergeant First Class John Salazar was killed on June 3, 1968. He was a good friend and a great Special Forces soldier. May you rest in peace, John Salazar