My Battalion [1st Bn/44th Regt/23 ARVN Div] received orders to leave the coast and make a road march up into the mountains. A road march means traveling in jeeps and trucks. We were going to operate in the vicinity of DaLat, the summer capital. The march took the best part of a day. The terrain forced us to climb up thru seriously big mountains and thru increasingly dense jungle.
We set up our headquarters company adjacent to a large American fire base. They had all kinds of artillery including the extra impressive Long Toms which fired a 175 mm. shell about as far as you wanted. As a reference, they could throw their extra powerful shells from Washington D.C. to Baltimore.
At this time I had my full complement composed of one 2nd Lt. and two sergeants. Initially, the headquarters company would serve as a reaction force to support the other companies as they moved out to set up positions several miles apart. The basic idea was to set up ambushes and/or act as blocking forces. I was the senior advisor until the Colonel flew in later in the week.
Although we would spend little time at the firebase, we Americans were given a Quonset hut to sleep in and pitch our gear. The first night we gathered around a lantern set on a small table and played cards. About midnight there was a tremendous roar followed by a ground-and hut-shaking explosion. This was a nasty 120mm. rocket launched by the NVA from the mountains about a mile distant. I looked up from my cards and observed that my 3 fellow Americans had somehow expanded their eyes to the size of large saucers.
Sounding as indifferent as possible, I simply said, "Gentlemen, that is incoming. Everybody out." At the back of the hut was a large doggy door. We scrambled thru this and into the trenches that had been dug around the hut. We did not go out thru the main door because we did not know if the NVA were attacking and had already penetrated the base.
I put the Lt. and his NCO on one side of the hut with Sgt. B and myself covering the other. Sirens wailed as the artillerymen ran to their defensive positions and many flares were launched into the darkness. Almost simultaneously, our guys opened up with their numerous .50 caliber machineguns, sending their glowing tracer rounds into the mountainside from which the rocket had come. [.50 cal. machine guns can throw their rounds several miles.]
As it turned out there was no ground attack. Unfortunately a single American had been killed by the rocket explosion. So that was our introduction to the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
The following morning I sent the new Lt.and his Sgt. to join A company. I spent the day with my counterpart Cpt. Diep, the Battalion CO. After dark I was with Diep listening to the radio. One of our companies was in contact, i.e. in a fight.
I hoped it wasn't A company as the Lt. was new and green. It turned out to be B Company and the news was bad.
Lt. V, the company CO had been killed. This was a great loss on several levels.
Van was outstanding. Bigger than most Vietnamese he was a natural leader; had a great personality, a huge wonderful smile, very smart with lots of experience. For some reason he took a liking to me and despite language challenges we became good friends. I miss him to this day.
V's loss was personally painful, but professionally the situation of his company was now grim without his leadership. The reason is that the ARVN did not have a strong core of NCOs, sergeants. In an American unit if the officer is down, there are sergeants who will step up and keep things organized. Or even if the NCOs were down there always seemed to be some soldier of any rank who would take charge. But that individual initiative was mostly lacking in the ARVN. With V gone B company was effectively paralyzed.
Cpt. D was obviously concerned as he explained the situation to me. He asked me if I thought we should respond with his HQ company. Naturally I said yes we would have to go and quickly. But I knew what he was thinking and then he said it. The NVA would be set up to ambush our reaction force. This was a standard tactic and we would certainly be ambushed. But there was nothing for it but to go if he did not want to lose all of B company.
We piled into trucks and jeeps and were on our way.
We knew where Company B was pinned down. They had been hit just having passed thru an abandoned quarry. The road system looked like a Y. The main road was the stem of the Y and continued along the left branch. The right branch was a turn off onto the quarry road which we followed. Having to cross a very narrow, very rickety wooden bridge we crossed on foot. The bridge was unlikely to handle the weight of the trucks if the men stayed inside. Also the tires only had a two or threeinch margin from the edges of the bridge.
We could hear gunfire ahead of us. The sounds of the shooting revealed that it was the NVA who were doing most of the shooting. The sound of the AK-47 rifles used by the enemy was very distinctive as was the sound of our own M16s. But I did not hear M-16s. We walked quickly. Soon the trucks rejoined us. We remained on foot walking beside the trucks which we used to screen our left flank. On our right was the high sheer granite wall of the quarry.
I and Cpt. Diep both knew the enemy would soon have to attack our column. And this they promptly did. Because the terrain was was open on our left we could see all the way to the main road which we had turned off of and the low hills rising on the far side of that road which were occupied by an NVA force of undetermined size.Perhaps a distance of 400 yards.They could see us strung out along the quarry road with the 80 ft high stone wall of the quarry at our backs. There was ample moonlight and starlight.
The attack on us opened with a new sound, that of a very unfriendly heavy machine gun. We could see the tracer bullets as the gunner stitched back and forth, up and down our column. We had all dived to the ground urgently crowding behind truck tires or engine compartments...anything to stop those bullets from striking us.
Now occurred one of those little miracles that turned up with some frequency in battle. The enemy machine gunner was industriously traversing up and down the considerable length of our column. He should have been tearing up our force quite thoroughly. But I noted that all the machine gun fire was aimed too high; all those tracer rounds were going over the tops of the trucks or over the engine compartments. As long as we kept hugging the ground no one was being hit. Our greatest danger was from bullets ricocheting off the granite walls a couple of yards behind us.
What I believe happened was this. The machine gunner was on the slope of a hillside. He was shooting down at us from a higher elevation at a distance of 3 to 4 hundred meters. From his height and particular angle his tracers may have looked to him as though they were hitting perfectly, tearing thru the men and vehicles. As well, he may have simply been unable to depress his weapon any lower. He probably imagined he was going to be declared a Nationalist Hero of the People. At least he may have thought that until he heard the artillery shells screaming down on him. I had called in a fire mission from the firebase.
As the friendly shells began exploding on the hills across from us I noted that the AK47 fire up ahead of us suddenly ceased. The NVA were running away to avoid destruction. The enemy would fight all night long if it was just them against the ARVN. But they knew they could not stand up against American firepower. Providing that firepower was my major job when battle was joined. Just to give them an extra special send off I radioed for a Spooky gunship. Spooky spent a pleasant hour laying waste to likely NVA escape routes.
We recovered the body of V carrying him with great respect. Only two of our men were slightly wounded by bullet fragments. Company B also had several other soldiers killed early in the fight. We returned to our base camp before sunrise.
Because of this particular fight I have always had mixed feelings about Dalat, a handsome resort town with excellent French cuisine available. But it is always the loss of Van that I associate with that area.
"Life is good if you don't weaken." AG Russell