The mid-afternoon sun bore down on me, radiating heat-hotter than a Mississippi farm in summer, on this late March day* as I eased toward the small compound at Bong Son. I stepped it up a bit as I forged ahead on the shadeless, dusty-red dirt-path, trying to keep up with the others — as best I could, lugging 50 lbs in the stifling heat and humidity — wondering where those Special Forces guys were headed. I had no clue where I was going, either, after I found the PIO tent.
As I got closer, I picked-up the bustle of what sounded like a large wilderness camp: jeeps, generators, a bulldozer or two and people moving about. I vacated that fantasy immediately when 155 mm (penny nickel-nickel) cannons began popping in quick succession and gunships in the distance letting loose with M-60s, 7.62 miniguns, and 2.75-in. rocket artillery.
Near the edge of the outpost, I raised the flap on the GP medium (18′ x 36′ tent) next to a sign shaped like a cross, stuck in the dirt, with the horizontal strip artlessly printed in black lettering: “Bong Son PIO.”
Inside stood a few soldiers with no rank insignia, their uniforms already soaked-through-wet in the usual places with sweat. They were gathered in front of a map showing the Central Highlands and on a board to the right grease pencil markings on acetate read: “CBS SF, WTOP, ABC Net, Baltimore Sun, and Stringers.” It looked like they could use some help.
TA 312 crank field phones rested on expended ammo crates, wires were strung on the dirt floor, A single light bulb hung from the apex of the tent.
A few men in casual attire that I assumed to be reporters were sitting, feet propped on makeshift desks, and chatting. Several were puffing on filterless cigarettes.
Despite the sides rolled up on the OD tent it radiated heat, lots of it, a breeze hardly about. I felt a bit awkward with my heavy load and tape recorder competing for a natural resting spot, with my gas mask. I hunched down and dropped my butt onto a stack of empty ammo crates.
I stood quickly when I saw a tall-thin-man in his mid-twenties, sidewall haircut,** in jungle fatigues with a 1st Cav patch on the shoulder of his left sleeve, coming my way. He might be the Officer In Charge (OIC) of the 1st Cav’s small PIO detachment here in Bong Son. Yes, he was the man I’d be reporting to, 1st Lt. Blankenship (pseudonym).
Nestled about 113 kilometers northeast of An Khe in the Binh Dinh Province near the South China Sea, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was the Village of Bong Son. Nearby, the forward operating outpost for the 1st Air Cav. rested on a plateau of about five acres. An artillery battery was based here, and a substantial line of defense surrounded the small tent city. Some of the Cav’s most lethal helicopters were on standby here, and the outpost was busy with hundreds of troops coming and going, all using it as a strategic base to launch combat operations closer to the enemy.
No formal mess halls, no KP, no formal shitters, no burning shit, at least for me. Although I had a full-time job here with PIO, I was subject to details like helping set-up tents, assisting the engineers in building bunkers, filling sandbags, digging slit latrines, and pounding spent ARA (aerial rocket artillery) tubes into the dirt for us to piss in. For me, a 14-16 hour day was typical, seven days a week, of course.
I’d rather be out in the bush with the infantry, and I volunteered for those assignments.
The mission in and around Bong Son was straightforward: Search out the enemy, kill him, and destroy his matériel. Now that’s more like it, that is, until you actually do — encounter the enemy.
Until you’re actually in the bush, like this unidentified soldier. The towel around his neck is designed for cooling and keeping insects from his collar. (U.S. Army-Charlie Haughty)
In Vietnam, there were no front-lines per se, but if there were a firefight, ambush, a specific operation with likely enemy contact, that could be considered a front-line, while it lasted. Even the Base Camp back at An Khe could be a front-line if the enemy were to gain access in significant numbers. It’s safe to say that the Binh Dinh Province, in and around Bong Son, was one of the Cav’s — if the the war’s — most active areas of operation during the time I covered it, Jan. 67-Jan. 68.
My first field assignment would be my most significant, considering the eventual publicity and culminating at the highest level: The White House.***
Lt. Blankenship, my OIC, knew me from nothing, I was a Private First Class with no experience in the field, no record of anything actually, and had been In-Country all of two months. He, no doubt, saw me as just another soul sent from HQ (at the member’s request) he’d be somewhat responsible for.
It was mid-morning, Monday, March 20, 1967, AFVN was playing Happy Together by the Turtles. Back in D.C., fourteen hours behind us, LBJ wouldn’t be briefed on the situation in Vietnam for several hours.
I was in the PIO tent answering phones, rereading, and taking in the scent of a letter from Marty when I got a message from G-2. One of our Cav companies several clicks (kilometers) farther north was in jeopardy of being overrun by a superior enemy force. Requests for reinforcements had just been flash messaged Z.
I raced to my tent, gathered my gear (which now included a machete), returned, and volunteered to go to the scene and cover it for AFVN radio news. I would try to chopper-in with some of the reinforcements.
My Lieutenant — thinking I couldn’t get a lift — approved it. Within the hour, I was Airmobile and cruising at 100 knots barely above the palm trees, in a UH-1D 1st Cav Slick. (Unarmed logistics ship, although some had door gunners.)
I made my case over the fluttering chopper blades and rotor-wash to the pilot in the right seat (usually occupied by the Pilot in Command) why I needed a lift. Halfway through my appeal, he pointed toward an open door. With one foot on the runner, I hopped aboard and found a hold on the support of the already occupied canvas seat, slid my butt on the floor to the open port door, and sat next to another trooper. With our legs suspended just outside the chopper, we pointed our M-16s straight ahead, The pilot pulled power on 6,500 lb. Huey, dipped her nose, and lifted us above the palms in less than three seconds.
The pilots were on ass-and-trash duty (non-combat passengers & supplies) when they were diverted to Bong Son to pick up some troopers that were needed to assist the Cav company farther north. Onboard was a squad of six infantrymen laden with M-16s, M-79s fragmentation grenades, an M-60 with several bandoliers of ammo (about 45lbs alone), several canteens of water and a bunch of other stuff, a huge load for sure.
The men appeared anxious. A half-hour ago, one of these soldiers was probably catching up on some sleep, folding a good hand of poker, listening to a tape from home, or about to get off alert and scrounge a lukewarm can of Schiltz® when notified they were shipping out immediately.
To the West, hues of green flickered from the picturesque Annamite mountain range (2,819 meters) and to our right, waves from the South China Sea crawling gently onto the sugar white beaches, made our flight seem more like a sightseeing expedition than a military operation. Upon closer observation, the landscape below was dotted with bomb craters, some fresh, while others reflected water in the bright sunshine. The air at our altitude was cool, and we were ready for what awaited us — I thought.
One of the older-looking soldiers (like 21), sitting atop his helmet, raised his voice, over the din of our vibrating, amped-up bird, and said to no one in particular “If a Cav company is in trouble, there must be beaucoup gooks out there,” and then looked my way and said, “Who do f— are you, you been out there, out there in the shit?” “Yes, No, I mean, No,” I stuttered. He shook his head and started tapping his fingers on the barrel of his sixty. I would have felt even more out of place, had my jungle fatigues and boots not been broken in, a quick tip-off for being a FNG (f—ing new guy).
Another trooper dangled a Pall Mall® from his lips, unsure if he was allowed to smoke, or if he could light it, even with his Zippo,® at this altitude with the doors open.
Our unarmed chopper would not fly near a suspected VC battalion with crew-served weapons just to insert the seven of us. But it would get us closer.
My first flight in a Huey was exhilarating and a bit uneasy, especially when the pilots banked a sudden hard-left, straining our bodies with about 2 Gs (gravity); I realized, I was just along for the ride.
A first-timer like me inadvertently tumbling from one of the wide open doors where I was sitting, at thirty-five-hundred feet would be a detriment to the mission, and the battalion commander would, no doubt, have some tough questions for the pilots. Finally, an unlucky clerk would be tasked to diplomatically explain my “non-combat death” — for the commander’s signature — in a letter to my next of kin.
After about twenty-minutes in flight, I felt the chopper bleeding off speed and losing altitude as the pilots lowered the collective, assumed a slight nose up attitude, and decreased RPM. The pilots settled into a hover, over a grassy knoll, about 12 feet above ground, swaying the vegetation. The Slick hovered scarcely low enough and barely long enough for us to leap from the skids. I landed awkwardly, shoulder-high in Elephant Grass.
Now 1,700 lbs. lighter, the pilots pulled power on the Lycoming T53 turboshaft, ingested all 1400 horsepower, belched JP-4 fumes and swiftly reached altitude and 110 knots. They disappeared way too soon for my comfort.
I thought about the popular and prudent military truism, “Never Volunteer for Anything.”
The seven of us had just been inserted in the Plains, about 50 clicks North-Northeast of Bong Son and alone. It was quiet except for the whir and buzz of swarming insects, and a monkey or two sounding off in the distance. Now we were getting a taste of what it must be like for the elite Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), who are dropped off in small numbers and on their own for several days at a time. We weren’t expecting to be out that long. But, still.
There were no known friendlies except for the Cav platoon we were to reconnoiter with. Where? We didn’t know exactly. Our best intel from G-2 and the erstwhile chopper pilots indicated about ten clicks farther northeast. We had maps, a prick twenty-five (PRC-25 radio), impressive armament, first aid kits, several canteens of water, C-rations, and a buck sergeant to lead us safely to our destination. The standing joke was, don’t worry about the bullet with your name on it so much as the one with: “To whom it may concern.”
If we met enemy resistance, larger than a platoon, well, I tried not to think like that. I had no input, nor should I, in planning our route or tactics. My responsibility would entail scanning the terrain, remain in the prescribed formation, take orders from the squad leader, and do nothing stupid. Sounds easy enough.
The monsoons had pretty much rained out this far north, and in the sparse vegetation, we had little protection from the early afternoon sun; chalky-white residue bordered the wettest spots on our uniforms, already soaked from the heat and humidity.
I had already lathered my exposed skin with army-issue bug spray, 100% DEET, marginally effective, but it was good for removing the dreaded leeches. I was told to be careful of swatting insects, as the enemy knew only GI’s did that. (I would also learn that when insects are slapped, especially the mosquito, the injection stem, often, remains embedded in the skin.)
During a brief break as we feasted on C-rats, I got affirmation of what I’d been hearing all along; few GIs are fond of the ham and lima beans entrée. I loved them. I could trade most anything (even crackers, salt or sugar) for a can of that nourishing mix. Had a Snickers® bar been available, I’d smack down 20 MPC dollars (military pay currency) without hesitation, and savor for 20 minutes. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
After burying our trash, we hydrated and moved out proceeding in a wedge formation, as much a squad can, or we maintained a squad column. When the terrain began closing on us, we moved in a trail formation. Our squad leader kept reminding us not to bunch-up. When we encountered thick canopy, the squad leader put one of the men on point, his M-16 on “semi [auto],” with a round in the chamber. Most of the grunts had their magazines taped together, one up and one down for a quick change.
By the time we had covered a couple of clicks, we heard sporadic clack, clack, clack, in the distance, indicative of AK-47 small arms fire. Our RTO employed his radio but was unable to raise the 1st Cav platoon, we believed to be near our location. During a brief respite, our squad leader reiterated our responsibilities. We took a few sips of water and moved out in the direction of the gunfire.
With each step, the top of my snug jungle boots pressed down and pierced the soft skin in and around my inflamed, and sweat-soaked ingrown toenails of both feet. I’d already found open blisters at our last break. Here I was trying to keep up with foot soldiers, and I was having foot trouble. Of course, I wouldn’t tell or complain to the men in the squad. Soon enough, I’d see pain from a different perspective.
After advancing for another half-hour, we spotted unidentified troops at about 500 meters from our elevated location and quickly moved into a concealed position. Unfortunately, no one had field glasses, and our RTO was still unable to reach any friendlies.
We became whisper-quiet, communicating with hand signals. No cigarettes from here on, recheck weapons, determine if any equipment was making noise as we walked. (Dog tags were already taped together or secured in the tops of our boots) We proceeded slowly and strategically, hot and tired, not swatting insects.
When we were within about 100 meters of the troops we had spotted earlier, our squad leader determined they were friendlies. We spread out, crouched in the vegetation, and began to high crawl when finally our RTO made contact. Our squad leader popped smoke (asking them to identify the color) to be sure they knew our location and the direction we were coming. We found the haggard infantrymen in a sandy field lined with palms trees and dotted with local grave mounds.
Hot and tired, I backed away from the group of soldiers and stood alone watching — wondering if I would have a story to file, or how and when I would get back to Bong Son — when a scourge of mosquitoes swarmed overhead and descended upon me with their unmistakable high-pitched whining. The winged warriors punctured my sweat-soaked skin, injected saliva, and sucked blood, leaving itchy red welts from their painful bites. I resisted the urge (from previous advice) to slap the parasites attacking me, hoping I was up-to-date on my Primaquine. I squirted the last of my army-issue bug juice around my collar and down the back of my neck.
We had made it to our first objective; find some 1st Cav troopers and join them in search for the Cav Company. The soldiers were from 1st platoon, down to 20 men, and far from being fresh troops. They weren’t horsing around, cursing or harassing each other, an indication they were bushed. The seven of us gave up one canteen each, enough for a few sips for each man.
Haggard Trooper, (unidentified) in Binh Dinh area, near ambush site in March 1967. (US Army Charlie Haughty)
*March and April were the hottest months in the Central Highlands.
**Army lingo for hair shaved from sides of the head, similar to Kim Jong-un.
***After my initial foray with a Cav infantry platoon, there would still be plenty of time for action and adventure in attacks from an enemy, that many times, we never saw.