Keep in mind that things are happening much faster than I can recount them.
I have Sgt. B working the radio, trying alternate frequencies, logistic frequencies, whatever. Nothing but silence from that radio. Cane I kept below the berm but tell him to crawl over to the dead ARVN and take his rifle and ammo. Which he does. At this moment I see movement along the tree line and hear whistles blowing. Trung is going to try and overrun us with a charge. And he has a good opportunity to do this because his men are heavily concentrated AT the kill zone while ours are spread out.
Up to this moment Trung's ambush had been going fairly well. But he became too ambitious. As his men came out of the tree line they were firing, moving quickly but not quite running; they were exposed to our fire which quickly increased along the road and took a toll. But what really turned the tide was our artillery. At the opening of the attack the artillery troops took heavy casualties. The canons were in the heart of the kill zone.
Those few soldiers not dead or wounded HAD quickly unhitched the two howitzers from their trucks and manhandled them so they were pointing at the tree line, although the guns were too elevated. Cpt. Diep had been urging on the survivors over the radio. [This was when he and his staff disappeared in a blast.] The gunners couldn't see the enemy that was shooting at them but they managed to fire a couple of HE shells (high explosive) into the woods. This is no doubt why Trung did not order his charge in the opening minutes of the ambush. I think he was startled to discover the howitzers in operation no matter how feebly. He had expected to knock out our two canons. He came close to succeeding.
But now that his men were coming at us in the open our surviving artillery soldiers began firing canister rounds and traversing their guns left and right. Canister rounds are like huge shotgun shells. Each shell contains, I suppose, a couple of hundred steel darts. As the shell leaves the muzzle of the cannon these darts spread out and cover a wide area. These canister rounds did terrible devastation among the advancing NVA and stopped their charge cold. Those who weren't dead fled back to the wood line. Obviously, this was a good development but the battle was far from over.
I looked down below me. Sgt.B was still working the radio; still to no effect. Cane looked up at me. Recall that he was a clerk, had never been under fire before, had never seen any kind of action. He was a great kid. Think of Radar on MASH, similar gentle personality only taller. Cane asks, "Sir, is it always like this out here?" I replied, "No Cane, this is nothing. It's usually much worse than this." Sgt. B rolled his eyes and I returned to the business of shooting.
So the fighting continues. Trung is not about to withdraw. With rifles and mortars and artillery and RPGs a battlefield can be a very noisy place. A battle of this size, in broad daylight, is unheard of because the NVA know that airstrikes and other support will come down on them. But this day there is no radio communication.
The fight has gone on for perhaps 90 minutes. Suddenly, the radio comes to life. I hear a voice say, "What the @/#! is going on down there?"
I looked up. At perhaps 800 feet was a slick (a Huey helicopter without forward-mounted guns or rockets.) The chopper was on a milk run traveling down the coast when the pilot saw smoke and, as he got closer, the explosions. Fortunately, he had something more important than gunfire, a much more powerful radio and at his high altitude he could transmit for a great distance. I told him what was going on and told him to send me a FAC.
A FAC is a forward air controller. A FAC does very courageous and important work. He is in a small single-engine plane, just a souped-up Cessna or Piper Cub. He has no weapons other than smoke rockets to mark targets. FACs commonly fly just a few hundred feet above the treetops and some times just inches above the trees. The FAC can call for the airforce to send in the cavalry and most importantly I can talk to the FAC giving him instructions which he can pass on to the jet pilots. My army radio could not communicate with the airforce radios directly hence the need to go thru the FAC.
The helicopter comes down to low altitude. A very bad idea. I tell him to stay high but he wants to see the action. The NVA, as I expected, fired an RPG at the Huey which exploded just behind the aircraft rocking the helicopter. The pilot promptly decided that high altitude was a much better idea. An RPG travels 300 meters. If it doesn't hit anything it automatically explodes.
At this point I am happy to see Cpt. Diep show up. I thought he was a goner but the earlier RPG had just knocked him and his staff down. They decided to stay down and I did not see them for a long while.
Shooting was still going on though a bit less intense than formerly. I was thinking maybe Trung was starting to organize a withdrawal. With the arrival of the helicopter he was more than smart enough to realize that he was running out of time.
A wounded NVA soldier was dragged over to Diep. He was conscious but not long for this world. He had a small hole in the middle of his chest. Don't know if it came from a bullet or one of those steel darts. Diep starts questioning the soldier who, like many, appeared quite young. Diep wants to know the identity of the unit we are fighting, name of the commander, how many troops etc.
[WARNING. If you know yourself to be particularly sensitive, skip the next two brief paragraphs.]
The prisoner is not responding tho his eyes are open. I doubt he could respond even if he wanted to. Diep has one of his men bring him a long thin twig from a nearby bush. As he continues to ask questions he sticks the twig into the hole of the soldiers wound and swirls it around like a swizzle stick. I moved away.
I don't approve of Diep's actions. However, I understand them. We were still in a fight and Diep wanted combat intelligence. Immediately. Even now, I can still see that dying soldiers face quite clearly.
In less than 10 minutes a FAC showed up and we began talking on the radio. The firing from the NVA had practically stopped. Trung and his men were now, without doubt, running fast for the mountains they came from, about two miles farther west. I dialed in the FAC on the ground situation and told him where I wanted the bombs dropped. He had two Super Saber jets inbound from Phan Rang airbase.
Since the NVA had abandoned the tree line I estimated they were now probably half a mile or more into their retreat. That was my best estimate given the time and terrain factors. The FAC fired a white smoke rocket to confirm that the bombs would be dropped where I requested and to enable the jet pilots to see where to release their bombs.
[A technical note. The F-100 Super Saber was our first fighter that could fly supersonic in level flight. In a few months, in 1970, these planes would be taken out of service and replaced by newer craft. So I got to see them on one of their final missions.]
At this point all was going as it should. I had called in many bombing runs before. This was going to be easy and effective. I saw the first Saber jet bank into a descending turn to make his first bombing strike. Suddenly the FAC is on the radio speaking urgently. "Do the NVA have tanks out here?"
I replied to the FAC, "No way. The NVA have no tanks in South Vietnam." He responded that he could see tanks below him. At that moment a jet was screaming in to drop its 500 lb. bombs. I yelled into the radio to "Check Fire! Cancel that bomb drop." It was stopped in time, seconds from release.
A third voice came on the radio, an American Lt. Col. in charge of an Armored Cav unit stationed near us back in Song Mao. He had brought his unit cross country, not on the road, and now his tanks and armored personnel carriers were crashing through the vegetation and chasing the NVA deep in the woods which I could neither hear nor see. Ordinarily I would be thoroughly delighted with this development. But this officer did something incredibly stupid. Namely, he failed to inform me of his arrival and dispositions. Thus, I nearly had bombs dropped on American troops.
The protocol is clear. It's also common sense. If a senior officer arrives at the scene of a battle and wants to intervne, the first thing he must do is contact the ground commander on the scene, inform him of his arrival and find out what the situation is. It could be a 4 star general. Makes no difference; he must first contact the ground commander conducting the battle before doing anything else. His failure to do this almost resulted in a tragedy that I would have had to carry through life even though it would have been the Lt.Col's fault.
A week later I confronted the Col. and forcefully expressed my view of his actions. He could say nothing and I was completely supported by my own boss, the superb Col. O'Boyle. RIP. Lt.Col. O was the 3rd and last Regimental Senior Advisor I served with and he was top notch.
So the fight was over. In summary, the battle lasted nearly two hours. We lost 17 killed and twice that wounded, some seriously. The artillery platoon took the heaviest casualties. Near as we could estimate from recovered bodies, weapons, and drag marks the NVA lost between 70 to 80. Many of their casualties came from the cannister rounds fired by our howitzers.
As we began to reorganize our road march and evacuate the dead and wounded via helicopters, Sgt. B approached and sheepishly reported he'd had an "accident." I asked if he was wounded. No. What happened is that when those mortar shells went off at the start of the ambush, he lost control and defecated in his pants. And in that sad condition is how he fought his battle. I pointed out a low bush which would afford some privacy where he could clean himself up. I chewed out the clerk who hid under the jeep, but not too badly. Congratulated Cane on his coolness under fire.
And so we continued up Hwy 1, the aptly named "Street Without Joy." We listened to The Supremes singing "I hear a Symphony" on Sgt.B's Panasonic; used max volume and sang along at our own max volume. We were high on adrenalin. My war had the best music of any war. We had Motown.
In a few days we would be fighting Trung again in the mountains of Ninh Tuan.
"Life is good if you don't weaken." AG Russell