The Battle of Rach Lach
by Matt Kritzer

 

The late afternoon sunlight drifted lazily down into the jungle clearing in front of us. Like yellow Tinkerbell dust it settled on the leaves of the trees and whispered a magical, lingering call to the oncoming dusk. Silently, respecting the closing of the day, we surrounded the clearing. Only the hissing yellow smoke grenades broke the quiet and, mingling with the yellow sunlight, the yellow cloud of smoke billowed up through the green jungle canopy to mark our position for the oncoming helicopters.

Not only had the Tay Nihn sun been brutal all day but also there had been marked contributions from the red ants and the ever-present hoards of vulturous mosquitoes.  There had also been some close calls from snipers in the morning and early afternoon.  Bullets from nowhere close enough to suck the air from around your face, yet always respecting the anonymity of its author.  Death with a faceless messenger, brought directly to you compliments of the overgrown Michelin Rubber Plantation. 

Suddenly, the ominous the crack of an AK crashing through the underbrush.

The rifle shot shocked the jungle into momentary, total silence, except the pounding of my heart behind the tree.  Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the hushed neighborhood returned to its shrill gossiping.  There was lots of ensuing disarray; everyone scurrying for cover, shouting and shooting at shadows, but in the end...a handful of nothing.  Taunting and staring, the tongue-wagging screeches bemused that nothing had actually happened at all; and I must be crazy to be crouching there shaking and frightened in a beautiful tropical paradise such as this?!  It left a blushing, bewildering feeling.  A feeling like standing and dusting the snow off myself, years later at a bus stop in front of Cleveland State University.  It was dusk when a passing truck had backfired, leaving me laying flat on my face in a snow bank.  Embarrassed schoolbooks scattered in the snow amongst the whispered looks.

The pounding of the helicopter rotors behind me signaled the arrival of my taxi. 

Most of our Company had been up all night on some super ambush that had yielded nothing and we had already had two helicopter attack operations today, sweeps with no results.  They couldn't possibly be trying to fit a third Eagle flight in before dark.  Having a kill for the day, or not, two flights were plenty!  Running across the clearing toward the open choppers, the face of the door gunner seemed to concur; this had to be the ride home wherever that was going to be tonight.

As the choppers lifted off, my thoughts drifted toward a warm meal, a letter from home and a dry spot to catch a few hours of serious zzzs.   Maybe tonight was the night that the flying saucer I had been calling would come and transport me out of the jungle.  I half believed it.  And God.  What about God?  There was only one way He was going to get me out of here…in a bodybag.  I wasn’t crazy about that option.

Aylor was grinning, sitting across from me, as if reading my mind for the last time.  He was a good squad leader with fairness and common sense leadership as his strong suits.  A golden California boy.  He was about a year older than I and had that look like he and everyone around him was never going to get hit.   But in reality, his thoughts were thousands of miles away.  His eyes drooped in ecstasy, looking down, contemplating the photograph of his sparsely clad fiancée.  He had been staring at that same snapshot, with the same intensity, for the past three months.  His absorption was so total, it seemed as though he was just about to step into the snapshot and join her.  Sitting motionless on the metal deck of the helicopter, he was a photograph himself, a moment frozen in time.

I couldn’t understand why Sgt. Tate was sitting next to Sgt. Aylor, and not with his own squad on another chopper.  Yet I knew that they were tight, both from California, and all, besides; this was the ride home.  Tate seemed disinterested in Aylor’s snapshot.  He must have seen it a million times and was now lost in the late afternoon. "Trash" Williams and Jack Cooperwood joined Tate staring passively at the beginnings of a major sunset.  The orange golden rays danced off the fuselage and streaked across the interior of the chopper, leaving the six of us awash in a serene glow.  The roar of the engine and the pounding of the blades seemed to dissipate into a peaceful humming as we drifted toward the end of the day.

 Far below, at the edge of Hau Nhgia Province, wormed the mighty Oriental River.  Known in Vietnamese as the Van Co Dong River, for a distance it followed very near to the boundary between South Vietnam and Cambodia.  It's meandering ran parallel to the Saigon River, flowing through the Capital to the South China Sea.  One of the River’s tributaries, the Rach Lach River, ran from inside Cambodia and formed the boundary between South Vietnam and Cambodia under what we called the Angel’s Wing.  This river route was part of the Underground Railroad used by the North Vietnamese Army to send its war material from North Vietnam, by way of Loas and Cambodia to its Army of North Vietnamese Regulars and Viet Cong sympathizers in and around Saigon. The River was the final link in the infamous Ho Chi Mihn Trail and the source of weapons to be used in the upcoming attempted capture of Saigon during the 1968 TET Offensive. 

If Saigon was the heart of South Vietnam, then the Oriental River was a main artery and a major pressure point at which to feel it's incessant pulse.  Pumping muddy jungle water to the beat of helicopter rotors, its flow was clogging with corpses and captured war material.  In a wholesale attempt to purge this situation, the North Vietnamese had sent two regiments of regular soldiers, stationed in Cambodia; the 269th and the 263rd, to guard this portion of the Trail.

Suddenly the helicopter lurched forward and started its decent. 

Both door gunners locked and loaded, one of them pointing down at the Hamlet below.  We all stared blankly at each other.  They must have spotted something!  Anything to scare up a kill before the sun died.  From our point of view, it might just be some poor farmer, terrified of helicopters, running to his hooch with a rake in his hand.  He'd be screaming for the wife and kids to take cover in the bunker, under the hooch.  They'd all be so petrified that they could hardly move.  They all knew how this scene was supposed to end.

Ever downward, we swept closer to the River, but on the wrong side!  They must be making a mistake; this was Cambodia!

Just above the treetops the door gunner yelled, "Get ready!"

Closest to the door, I knew my cue.  Standing up in the open doorway, I simultaneously grasped the side of the fuselage and swung down, outside the chopper onto the narrow runner.  With my rifle pointing out, slung over my shoulder, I tightened my grip on the fuselage and my rifle as the wind rushed around my face.

The roar of the helicopter engine was truly deafening but the crescendo grew as the door gunner started blasting at the ground below.  It was like standing on the center platform in a New York subway station, with express trains screaming past in either direction at the same time.

All at once there was a new sound; incoming rounds...pelting the fuselage near my hand.  We were being shot at by lots of people down there with automatic weapons.  This landing zone was monster hot.  The Captain was sending us in on top of them.

They should have pulled up and gotten us out of there, but we were continuing down below the trees.  Now I could clearly see what seemed like about 40 black pajamas, scurrying to vacate the rice paddy as we landed, literally, on top of them.  Six feet above the ground, I jumped from my perch, landing with a thud in the middle of the dry rice paddy.

We had disrupted the enemy completely.  The waiting enemy ambush force was unnerved by the unexpected landing zone we had chosen and sought to escape a face to face confrontation with our Company.  Both sides were shocked to find themselves in close quarters fighting that included swinging rifle butts and even helmets. In the tight quarter’s melee, it was difficult for either side to fire their weapons; consequently, many lives were spared on both sides.  There was no way for me to prepare myself for this type of fighting, the enemy yelling and running so close.  Though it lasted only a minute or so, it seemed like a much longer time.  It was at once, mass confusion with different uniformed soldiers, crisscrossing each other, running for their lives and hitting each other with anything at hand.

Above and behind me the door gunner was franticly yelling at the others on the chopper to jump. I felt Bailey land close to me and together, heads down, we rushed for the cover of the rice paddy's earthen dike.  It seemed like half a lifetime away.

Due to the Captain’s bold maneuvers, they were as much surprised to see us as we were to see them, and in the confusion, they didn't have time to estimate our strength or maybe they thought that we were just the frontal attack of a much larger force.  For one of those God sent reasons, we were not immediately overrun and slaughtered…we were pinned down but we had taken their rice paddy.

At that moment, in the midst of the melee, I saw one brave Viet Cong, armed only with a hand grenade, jump into the Command helicopter as it lifted off.  He obviously intended to blow up the chopper along with himself. The determined VC definitely would have succeeded had it not been for the Company Radio Operator who had not yet exited the craft.  Turning around in the chopper, he grabbed the surprised Viet Cong before he could pull the pin on his handgrenade, and wrestled him to the metal deck of the chopper.  The terrified pilots lifted off while the two men fought desperately just behind their seats.

Very much aware of the death struggle going on a few feet behind them, the frantic pilots broke away from the Squadron Flight Plan and flew at top speed, and at low altitude, straight for the Cu Chi main base.  The radio operator was about the same size as the enemy soldier but he was hampered, to the tune of about 40 pounds, by the heavy PRC-25 Radio and extra battery that was strapped to his back.  I had no idea how that melee was going to end up.

Meanwhile, the nine other choppers had discharged their unwilling passengers and had limped off, leaving 60 of us, trapped in a rice paddy, in the middle of a full Company of approximately 100 north Vietnamese Regular Soldiers and Viet Cong, on the Cambodian side of the River.  Even the sun wasn't going to stick around for this one.

I tried to get a low down on this caper as quickly as I could.  The fallow rice paddy that the enemy had occupied was about half the size of a football field surrounded by a two to three foot earthen dike.  It was on the West Side of the Oriental River, which formed our eastern boundary.  To the south of us ran an oversized irrigation canal.  On the north side was the Rach Lach Tributary, on the banks of which stood the hamlet of Rach Lach.  It consisted of a dozen thatched huts that were just a stone’s throw from where we landed.  The West Side of the perimeter was an overgrown, brush filled rice paddy with a tree line directly behind it.  We were now taking heavy fire from three sides and from snipers across the river…we were totally surrounded with bullets coming in like angry bees; fast and furious.  

Though Bailey and I reached the dike next to the River, we were by no means safe.  From across the perimeter, I saw Roger West get hit in the back, through his ammo belt.  On landing he had made it to the dike on the west side and was facing out, thus the bullet came from across the Oriental River!  They were shooting at us from all four sides! 

Bullets started hitting the dirt near our feet and, as Bailey and I ran one way down the berm, the bullets followed us closely. Quickly, instinctively, we changed directions as if on cue, but the sniper had us zeroed in and, again, the bullets smacked close to our feet.  With no options left, we dropped to the dirt and returned fire in the general direction of the muzzle flashes we had seen coming from the trees on the northwest side of the perimeter.  The sniper fire ceased from that particular position.

In the midst of the confusion, out of the corner of my eye, I a black pajama running across the southern dike, about twenty yards to my left.  I shifted my fire in that direction and saw it go down.  It was close enough that I wanted to see it and get the ear. After months of shooting at shadows, I finally had a chance to see what I had brought down.  It had been two months since I had the high of getting close to one of my own kills.  The bloody remains of the soldier whose balls I had blown off, after a nightlong fire fight in the Mekong Delta near An Hoa when I was attached to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.

Crouched down and stumbling like a drunkard toward a half bottle of wine in the gutter, I made my way along the dike only to discover, to my amazement, that it was still alive and that it was a female.  I was both shocked and dismayed that I had only hit her in both legs.  The thought of " doing her" crossed my mind and made my finger itch; but something told me to wait.   There was plenty of time to kill her.  Besides, she wasn't going anywhere.

I glanced around to see where she had come from and spotted a small bunker opening at the corner of the dike.  I sprayed the small opening with my M-16 and crawled inside.  Lying on the earthen floor of the bunker was a leather satchel.  I knew that they hadn’t had time to booby-trap it so I tore at the straps and found about twenty pounds official looking documents and maps.  A veritable jackpot of intelligence information.  Back at Chu Chi, some Intelligence Colonel was really going to get his rocks off over this stuff.

 As I scrambled out of the bunker, Bailey crawled over to inform me that a medivac was going to try to get Roger West out. Together we yanked the girl off the dike and dragged her to where West was to be dusted off.  I knew that the leather satchel had to get back to Headquarters but, to this day, I don't know why we put the girl on the chopper.  This was the first prisoner I had ever taken. We had an unwritten rule of executing all of our prisoners.  By this time, all of us had given up playing by the rules of engagement with an enemy that had refused to acknowledge that there was even a rulebook.  

My assumption must have been that somehow either the satchel or the girl would tell someone in the rear how to get us out.  I figured that this would be the last chopper out.  The other med-evacs had already come and gone. 

I watched the medivac limp in, taking a tremendous amount of fire.  The chopper never really landed, it just hovered about a foot or so above the ground.  After they had maneuvered West on board, we threw the girl up to the surprised medics.  I flipped the leather satchel to one of the medics, yelling for him to get the satchel and the girl to S-2.  He acknowledged, slipping the leather straps around his shoulder, and with a thumbs up, they went limping off.  With the amount of bullets flying through the air from so many directions during that whole maneuver, it’s a wonder no one was hit.

For a few seconds, it looked as though the dust off was not going to make it.  At about treetop level, it veered and swayed, almost hesitating.  Then, suddenly it banked sharply to the east, over the River and home it went.  Several other choppers were not that lucky.  They only made it as far as a small field on the West Side of the river and huddled there in relative safety, too badly shot up to go any further.  One of the downed choppers had both a wounded co-pilot and a wounded crew chief.  We lost a total of about 5 choppers during the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Apparently the enemy was trying to regroup and headed toward the hamlet to the north.  They were cutting across the rice paddy to our west and were holding women in front of them as human shields.  For a moment, we held our fire.  Then I heard my platoon Sgt. yell for us to open fire and kill anything that moves.  The ensuing volley from our weapons brought to an end to the Viet Cong supposition that Americans would not shoot women.  We later found that they were all Viet Cong anyway.

Small arms fire was still pouring in on us and so were the B-40 rockets.  Suddenly we were down to 46 men.  I overheard the Company Commander on the radio stating that he couldn’t tell whether the Viet Cong were pounding us to cover their escape or to hold us in place until they could mount a reinforced counterattack from the hamlet.  He wisely reorganized the platoons, assigning each one a portion of the rice paddy perimeter to defend.  Alpha and Charlie Companies, still pinned down, were just a half of a kilometer from us. They wanted us to join up with them to form a strong perimeter for the night but they had no idea of our precarious position.  We did try to move toward them, but we took three more casualties before going only 50 meters.  Change of plans.  We would have to stay put for the night and defend ourselves as best as we could. 

Bailey and I had been separated from the rest of our squaour squad.  The others; Ayler, Tate, Cooperwood and Williams having gotten off the left side of our chopper, had jumped the western dike, making their way down the southern irrigation canal about 30 yards before being literally stopped dead.  My squad leader, Sgt.Aylor, was shot in the throat, Sgt. Tate had caught one in the heart and Cooperwood, the machine gunner, had been hit between the eyes.  Eddie "Trash" Williams, the only survivor, had his pockets picked while he played dead in the overgrown brush for over an hour.  Enemy soldiers were crawling all around him. 

At dusk, Williams managed to claw his way back, 30 yards, to the rice paddy perimeter, carrying Cooperwood’s machinegun back with him.  He yelled, “Don’t shoot!” and stumbled into the perimeter.  Unfortunately, once in the perimeter, "Trash" imagined himself safe and stood, still crouched over, with a little too much of his lanky frame exposed above the dike.  At about the middle of the perimeter, he took an AK47 bullet in his left shoulder blade, going completely through him and out his underarm on his right side.  It was a double sucking chest wound.  By the time I had crawled out to him, he had but a minute or less to live.  He looked up at me and tried to say some gurgling words as his lungs filled up with blood.

As the warmth of his last mumbling rushed past my face, his body convulsed and twitched.  Whitehead, who had crawled over to us started to cry.  I looked at him and then at the dead Williams, who was by now just a slab of meat in my mind and, teary eyed, I mumbled to myself, “It doesn’t mean a thing.”

The daylight was beginning to fade. There were another three dead and seven wounded had to be evacuated from our little band.  It wasn’t easy getting a dust-off chopper in to us and I’m sure that the dust-off pilots were drawing straws to see who would go.  It took our birds of mercy more than 45 minutes to slip in and get our guys out in the growing darkness.  By then, two more of our wounded had died and another guy, from the second platoon, had been shot in the leg.  Even the Captain took some shrapnel in his leg but he was staying with his men, no question.

Surely they would send us artillery and air support.

I swung around looking for the Captain and spotted him behind the berm facing the west rice paddy.  His radio operator's face looked long and drawn sporting the grimace of an undertaker.  The Captain seemed to be trying to hide his face but judging from the redness and tears around his eyes and the way he was yelling into the radio, it didn't look like help was on its way any time soon.  Being in Cambodia or near the border, we were too close to get any help from our artillery.  The enemy positions were too close to us for air support, besides we were also too close to Cambodian air space for our planes maneuver.  Charlie was playing for keeps and we were still playing around with arbitrary rules and international incidents.

Night settled in and the Captain made his rounds, crawling around the perimeter.  There was still a considerable amount of small arms fire coming in but the rockets had stopped.  The Captain told us to brace for a possible human wave attack that would probably be coming sometime soon.  It was no surprise to me.  Once Charlie figured that he had the upper hand, I knew that he’d throw himself at us in a wall of human flesh.

What were they waiting for?  Why didn't they attack?   They had the cover of darkness, no moon, and it had started to rain.  They had everything was going for them.  I waited in agony for what I perceived to be the inevitable end.

Then it happened.  I heard rocket and mortar fire exploding in the night, coming from Alpha and Charlie Companies’ positions.  Then I heard the Captain’s radio screech and belch out the Battalion Commander’s words, “We’re being hit to keep us down!  Get ready!  They’re probably coming after you!”.

Then, as if on cue, the Viet Cong started to attack us.  They hit the North end of the perimeter first with very heavy rifle fire and 40 millimeter rockets. I could bearly make them out, coming forward through the darkness.  I had the impression those black figures were all coming toward me and, to my horror, I was right.  My decimated squad took the brunt of the attack.  The three of us hid behind the dike that was being peppered with bullets.  I was lying as flat as I could trying to become one with the mud.  I looked at the two guys lying there beside me and suppressed the urge to wet myself.  As we heard the Aks getting closer, I took charge and yelled for us to open fire.  With my words barely out, my fears instantly dissipated and we all threw our torsos over the dike and returned fire in unison.  It broke their attack.  Some of us started yelling after them, “Come on, you slope-headed mother Fuckers!” “C’mon, shoot us!  Shoot us!”.  It was sort of a victory taunting that you might hear after a high school football game.  After all, we were mostly teenagers, just out of high school and our team had just won.  For now.

Then things got quiet.

Where in the hell was Sgt. Ward?  With my squad leader, Aylor, killed, the platoon sgt, Sgt Ward, was my next in command.  He had brushed past me, earlier, and mumbled for me to take over the squad and defend our section of the perimeter.  I figured that he was going to answer nature’s call in some discreet corner or to powwow with the Captain or do a number of other things for the rest of the platoon.  Sgt. Ward always took good care of his men. But where was he now?  I hadn’t seen him in hours and with the constant snipers, I feared the worst.

By about ten thirty, I must have had twenty rounds left.  Close to midnight, I was down to about eight rounds. I got what was left of the squad to share ammo and grenades.  I gave away some rounds to the guys who were completely out, leaving me with two rounds and a hand grenade.  I had the pin pulled on the grenade and held it tightly in my cold, wet hand.  We were waiting on another human wave attack that was sure to come sometime during the night.  By this time they must have figured out how small a force we really were and also figured out that we must be low on ammunition.  The next human wave was sure to come and I knew that my only hope of survival was that River.  I reasoned that after the first charge, it would be hand to hand fighting and every man for himself.  I fantasied that I would have to deal with one or two of them, then try to slip behind the rest of them and into the River.  There flowating undetected, I would let the current take me downstream then cross the River and make my way back to Cu Chi, about 12 kilcks away, It was a long shot but what else did I have?  I wasn’t going to die here; I made up my mind.

I was still barefoot.

By now it was past midnight and Charlie still hadn't attacked again.  What were they waiting for?  Why didn’t they human wave us again?  They had the cover of darkness, no moon, and it had started to rain.  They had everything going for them.  For hours we waited in agony for what we precieved as the next human wave.  Yet for hours the only sound we heard was the steady, heavy rain.  I was an irritating rain that was loud enough to make it difficult to hear any enemy movement and at the same time, through enough to drench us, leaving us all cramped and shivering.  None of us had stood up for nine hours and the rain had substantially cooled things off.  As the rain finally diminished, the mosquitoes came to dine. 

I ripped the back off a dead Viet Cong’s silk, camouflage shirt lying near me, and wrapped it around my neck to keep the mosquitoes off.  The shirt was bloody but I was beyond caring, I had long ago run out of repellent.  I even thought of dragging Williams' body next to me to protect my back and keep me warm but he had stiffened in the damp cold and wouldn't have served well as a wrap-around backrest.  The cold and the anticipation of being overrun, along with the accuracy of the snipers kept us sullen and silent. 

With increasing intensity, a small muffled sobbing broke the silence.  It came from the corner of the perimeter where Wilkerson had set up Cooperwood’s machinegun.  I thought Sgt. Ward would take care of Wilkerson but I hadn’t seen him since he had crawled past me, long before the human wave attack.  By now I was sure he was dead.

With great care, I replaced the pin in my hand grenade and crawled over to Wilkerson.  I don't know where I found the words but somehow I told him that we were not going to die here if everybody did their job.  I explained to him that his duty was to watch across the neighboring rice paddies and down the canal and if anything moved, to open up with that M60 using short bursts.  I also reminded him that there were quite a few of us left and we all had to depend on each other.  I think that was all he needed to hear.   He turned, stopped crying, and looked out into the darkness with resolve.  He lost his right leg, a few weeks later, to a booby-trap.

As I crawled back to my position, I seriously thought of throwing the grenade just to get things started, to make the first move.  But as I looked over at Whitehead, Whitehead looked up to the sky.  Suddenly, I heard it too.  A chopper, heading towards us. We hadn't received any incoming rounds for a while; maybe it was all over.  Maybe they were coming to pick us up?!  We could see him, he had all his lights on...it must be OK!

In an instant all my hopes were dashed, as tracers streamed out from all four sides of us, all aimed at the well-lit chopper. I could plainly see that the chopper was being badly hit.  Why didn't he pull out?  He kept coming closer, listing from side to side.  Finally he was hovering about five feet above us.  I was sure that he was going to crash.  How could anyone survive the bullets going into that chopper?  Surely none of the brave crewmembers would walk away from that bird, what balls they must have!

Faintly, I heard the second chopper come in directly behind the first.  He was running without lights and you could hardly tell he was there at all.  Instantly it became clear what was going on.  While the first chopper acted as a decoy, absorbing all the enemy fire, the second chopper hovered above us and the door gunners tossed down cases of ammunition.  There were also C-rats, hand grenades and even a small 60mm mortar.  A box of insect repellent nearly hit me on the head.  I quickly grabbed myself a bottle.  There were rumors that some of the amo boxes had boxes of Hershey bars taped to them but they somehow disappeared in the First Platoon’s area of the perimeter.  In an instant they had finished unloading and the first chopper wobbled out.  There had to have been a ghost flying that machine.  The second chopper didn’t seem to have been hit.  It pulled out fast, leaving us to wonder if this resupply had really happened at all.

We later found out that the runway back at Cu Chi was lined up all night with volunteers waiting to come rescue us.  A Captain of the Hornets, the chopper unit that had brought us into our hellhole, had dreamed up this little plan to resupply us and he had flown the first gunship.  We all owe our lives to Captain Adkinson, Hornet Stinger Alpha, whose helicopter flew only another three kilometers before the engine died and he crash-landed in a rice paddy.  Later, both he and his gunship were picked up safely and returned to Cu Chi.  That chopper was a big attraction for a few days, before it was scrapped.  There was hardly a square foot that didn’t have a bullet hole and all the glass was gone as well as the oil and fuel tanks.

Knowing that we had been resupplied, the North Vietnamese never attacked us again that night. 

When the sun finally showed up, there miraculously appeared small framed, skinny black man who was naked to the waist, save a bandana; and covered, from head to toe in dried mud.  It was Sgt. Ward!  Where the hell had he been? 

There had only been few shots fired for the past few hours, yet no one dared move from their positions.  Up and down the line of the perimeter, there were green huddled soldiers, cramped and tired, but still on alert. Everyone was waiting for another human wave attack at dawn.  It never came.

Several hours later, before noon, I heard movement all around us. I was ready to start again.  Come on, let’s rock and roll!  Teeth clenched, I was exhausted but ready for more, and then my adrenaline stopped dead in its tracks.  It was the sound of tracks, Armored Personnel Carriers.  The tenseness subsided slowly and was replaced by adulation. Tracks could only mean that the 5th Mechanized Infantry had arrived.  God bless them, they were always pulling us out of the shit.  Then the 5th Special Forces Group with ARVN Rangers came sidling up to our positions.  They had all come to rescue us albeit a little late.

Still, we were elated to see them.  It wasn’t ‘till then that I felt safe enough to gingerly stand up.  A few more down the line started to stretch their legs and expose themselves. Gradually, wearily, all our men stood upright and began to move around.  Our first thoughts were to our dead.  Stumbling around, we found them and our rescuers helped wrap them in ponchos and line them up neatly for pick up.  Like so many slabs of meat, they had nothing to do with real people; they were by now part of the rocks and dirt that belonged to Hau Nhgia Province.

After we got ourselves together, we conducted a sweep of the area and captured much war material in the Hamlet.  There were plenty of gook corpses strewn all over the area, both in the Hamlet and in the surrounding countryside. The last thing we did was to burn the Hamlet of Rach Lach to the ground.  Anything of value was thrown into the River.

Eventually, the choppers came to take us out, both living and dead, and deposit us back to our base camp at Cu Chi, in the rear.  Later, the Battalion Executive Officer, Major Helms, told me that I was to receive the Bronze Star for Valor.  A piece of metal to replace my youth and my sanity?!  I never found either again.  Not in the jungle and, certainly, not back home.

We were playing a cat and mouse game with these two NVA Regiments.  The North Vietnamese would venture out of their lair in Cambodia, beat us up a bit, then slide back into their Cambodian sanctuary, knowing we would not violate Cambodia's neutrality by following them.

Little did we know that the Hamlet we were racing toward had been assessed by the Brigade Intelligence Officer as being the home of a well-equipped Viet Cong Unit capable of devastating a heliborne light infantry company, like our selves.  The it was a guerrilla rallying point to protect a large supply cache of munitions and food and was defended by both Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars. 

We grunts had no idea that earlier in the morning, two of our companies had landed a half of a kilometer west of the Hamlet.  Both Alpha and Charlie Companies had met stiff resistance from snipers and RPGs and were completely pinned down.  All that they could do was to try to consolidate their platoons and find adequate cover.  They were going nowhere and suffering casualties.  The Battalion commander had then radioed my company, Bravo Company, to come and help them, since we were being held in reserve. 

But these experienced Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars were masters of long term tactical planning and they had the patience to carry out their plans.

Though Alpha and Charlie Companies had landed in an area cutting off the enemy’s escape route back into Cambodia; the enemy had them pinned down almost exactly where they had planned, in case of an attack.  The bulk of the enemy force was waiting for our reinforcing Bravo Company to arrive and land in the presupposed location were they could deliver a devastating attack, wiping us out as reinforcements and suffer few casualties, themselves.  

Our Company’s Commander, Captain Larry Garlock, had the admirable qualities of leadership, shrewdness and, above all, adaptability. Judging from all the other Officers we had or had had in our unit, these were rare commodities indeed.  The Captain told the Chopper Commander to abort the prearranged landing zone since it looked to him like a perfect place to be ambushed.  Instead the Captain chose a gutsy and potentially disastrous course of action, he had the choppers land in a dry rice paddy, which was exactly where the bulk of the enemy force was hiding and laying in wait to ambush us. 

After some intense moments, the RTO managed to get the Viet Cong pinned down with his arms apart.  At that point, because the viciously writhing Viet Cong was still armed and determined in his mission, the RTO decided to throw him out of the open doorway.  Sensing what the American was about to do, the desperate guerrilla altered his savage resistance to include tightly gripping the RTO with his arms and legs and was now biting and headbutting.  The RTO still managed to hang on to the hand that held the hand grenade and kept the pin from being pulled.  Thus the surreal battle continued as the stricken pilots pushed the helicopter to near record speeds, making the machine shutter as they took turns twisting their necks to view the battle behind them that held their fate.

Upon landing at Cu Chi, waiting MPs in riot gear quickly disarmed and interned the ambitious Viet Cong.  The RTO suffered numerous bites and bruises and was treated for exhaustion but otherwise he was all right.  He later received a Bronze Star for his actions. I didn’t know that he had told the Captain that he had to find his two missing squad leaders.  His golden California boys, two of the best squad leaders in Bravo Company.  Right after that was when he had buzzed by me and told me what to do.  When he left my sight, he ventured into a place few have been to.  It is a blurred, surreal flight of pure adrenaline, sparked by duty and fear, into the midst of survival that prevails on experience, skill and luck or the Hand of God for a successful conclusion.  Regardless, he would never come back the same and I think he knew it, as he stripped to the waist.

Armed only with a knife and the CO’s pistol, Ward slipped down the overgrown embankment of the southern irrigation canal and followed the reeds near the muddy water.  Slowly and silently, he made his way forward, sometimes grasping reeds to pull him through the thick muck with no noise.  His muddied ebony skin was good camouflage since there was no moon and without any reflections, no one could see his small ripples near the canal embankment.  After slithering about 30 meters down the canal, Ward spotted an area of matted, dead reeds at the top of the bank.  Quietly, he wriggled his way up to find three dead American bodies lying face up, just a few feet from one another, their pockets ransacked.  Lying in the grass with his bodies, Ward was torn between protecting them from mutilation or getting back to the men who were depending on him in the platoon.  The decision was made for him, when, a man rose to his knees to adjust his gear, just three feet from his side………and he wasn’t one of ours.     

Ward felt the electricity of shock and fear shoot through his churning stomach as his facial muscles grew taunt and he clenched his teeth.  Squirming nervously in the high grass, Ward heard two whispers directed in his direction.  “Phai im lang!””Phai im lang!”(Be very quiet!).  With that human forms rose to their knees all around him and headed south to the canal.  His mind was screaming, he had actually joined the Viet Cong!  Being so small, dark skinned, and without a shirt the enemy didn’t suspect him even if they looked right at him.  Ward’s mind was racing for alternatives, just as a hand lightly shoved his shoulder.  It was a guerrilla leader, trying to get his frightened unit moving and, thus, caused Ward to involuntarily do what he hadn’t considered and probably wouldn’t have done on his own.  He joined them. 

Without further thinking, he rose to his knees and began sneaking away with them.  He crawled as rhythmically as they did, careful not to attract attention while fighting to control his mounting terror.  His only hope was to work his way to the outside left rear of the group.  But how would he get away? 

If he made a break to the river, his own men in the perimeter would shoot him due to the noise.  Slowly he worked his way around and to the back of the group of what he estimated to be 20 Viet Cong.  Were there others?  There must be more of them closeby.  Ward knew that he had to do something fast.  At any moment one could ask him a question or order him to do something. 

Now the last man in the band, he continued moving with them for about another 100 meters before lowering his chest to the ground and remaining motionless, praying no one had seen him.  Gradually the group of guerrillas dissipated into the night and Ward congratulated himself in being slicker than a kitchen cockroach. But he knew that it wasn’t over.  Not yet.

He knew that if he moved around, in the location he was in, he was in real danger of being shot by one of us along the perimeter line.  Another danger was being spotted by other Viet Cong and even if he could move, he probably wouldn’t be able to find the bodies again.  He knew that he had no choice but to lie very quietly until daylight.  And that he did.

 

 

 

 

 

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