Remembering the Elephant – Day Three

Thursday, April 01, 2004
Quang Tri City and all the surrounding areas were in turmoil on April 1st. Swarms of refugees were making their way down Highway One. People pushing carts or riding bicycles, hampered by their possessions strapped on, motor bikes putt-putting down the road spewing that unforgettable stench of mo-gas. As I now recall, the sky was dark, gray and overcast. Looking around our site, I saw it literally carpeted with fragments and pieces of Russian artillery shells that had been showering down on us all night.

I guess somewhere between 3:00 AM and 4:30 AM I’d caught a little bit of sleep in the bunker out on the perimeter. Of course we took turns cat-napping; someone had to be awake at all times in the event of an infantry or sapper attack. My main concern was the old French building north of our camp. It was built by the French during their stay in Viet Nam, and was being used as an orphanage. Or had been, now it was supposedly empty.

By April 1st, there were no South Vietnamese troops with us at 3 Star. There had been a small detachment of “South Viet Ruff Puffs” or regional forces with us, but they had split. These guys were similar to our National Guard, not actual ARVN troops. All had bailed except one young kid who could barely speak any English, but I ended up with him. As I recall, he totally trusted us Americans (and why else would he have stayed around?) so he became my “partner” as we patrolled around the perimeter.

One thing I didn’t have out there were any fragmentation grenades. These dangerous little dandies were not something you left just lying around back at base camp. I had my M-16 rifle, and the Viet kid was packing an old M-1 Carbine, WW II vintage. He had one “Willy Pete” grenade hanging off his belt; that is, an explosive that blows out white phosphorus, which sticks and burns to ANYTHING it gets on. Some young MAC-V lieutenant came out, probably sent by the XO of the base, a Major Bundy. (I think that was his name. He later promoted me that day, I should remember him.) I could tell that this young “Looey” would much rather have been back in the command bunker, but here he was out on the line. I asked him where they had the “frags,” we could sure use some out here. He informed me they didn’t have any! In a polite way, I asked him, then what in hell were we supposed to do when the “Dinks” were coming through the wire? He told me not to worry, the South Vietnamese were sending up a battalion of South Vietnamese Rangers. ( Oh yeah, by the way I am still waiting. )

He left, but much to my surprise came back in awhile carrying an M-16 with what looked like a drain pipe underneath it. He asked me for my rifle and handed me this thing. He said, “Here, this is the new XM-203.” It was an M-16 rifle with a 40- millimeter grenade launcher attached to it. It was to supersede the M-79 grenade launcher.

Now the M-79 was a fine little shooter. It was a single shot weapon that could launch a 40-millimeter high explosive grenade out to 300 meters. I had trained with the M-79 and was a pretty good shot with it. The launcher could fire a series of different types of payloads. HE (high explosive) Willy Pete (white phosphorus) buckshot, which by the way could stop charging troops from overrunning your position, flares, and etc. The only problem was I had never shot one of these things before. It was much different trying to aim this UNDER YOUR RIFLE, than the original M-79. But you take what you can get. By the way, the military uses these today, and they are now called a “M-203” having removed the “X” or experimental. They ended up working very well. He also handed me a couple of bandoleers of grenades. And then he hustled back to the command bunker. I understand that was dug in pretty deep.

The NVA continued shelling us, the incoming rounds would come in a flurry. As the incoming shells impacted all over the area, they really did sound like a high-speed freight train roaring in. It was scary as hell.

Just before true daybreak, the kid and I were out on the north side slipping and sliding through the brush looking for any bad guys who might have something planned up their sleeve. That is when the kid grabbed my arm and pointed out toward the old French colonial building I mentioned before. I looked, really straining my eyes and wasn’t sure if I saw movement out there. He kept pointing and quietly saying “VC, boo coup VC there.” VC meant Viet Cong or the bad guys, but what he really meant was NVA troops. We slipped and slid back to one of the perimeter bunkers and I grabbed the land line phone and got the command bunker. I told them we thought we had movement by the orphanage. I told them I would take a squad over there and check it out. Now, one paradox that has burned in my mind all these years later is that they refused to let us go check the building out. Flat refused. I knew it made no sense what-so-ever! If there were NVA there, I knew they were probably lining us up for a real paste-ing. I figured that if the NVA had infiltrated the building, they were probably an RTO team. In other words a radio observation team that could call in corrections for their artillery fire. But when you are a junior sergeant you don’t argue with a Major or a Colonel. We were assured that the South Viets had the Rangers coming up to help us. Yeah, sure.

I had mentioned earlier that the South Vietnamese civilians were scrambling to get out of the way of the onrushing North Vietnamese Army. One sight that has never left me was watching retreating ARVN 3rd Division troops commandeering several civilian buses at gunpoint, yanking all the civilians (including the elderly and children) out of the bus and then taking off. I mentioned that the ARVN 3rd Division wasn’t worth a shit earlier, didn’t I? There was nothing we could do about it, they were out on Highway One, we were buttoned up inside the 3 Star base. We could only watch and curse them.

Across Highway One and some distance away was an American Aviation Detachment, where Army choppers could fly in, gas up, etc. There was suddenly one hell of an explosion over there. The aviation gas stores were hit, and lit up the sky like an exploding nuke. To this day I don’t know if they got hit by an incoming round or maybe the sappers got to them. But the word began circulating that sappers hit them. Hell, it could have been. This added a whole new intensity to our “Pucker Factor.” The TOC or command bunker ordered me back off the perimeter.

I got back there and there were about 15 guys or so standing around. The Major, Bundy, was putting together a “reactionary platoon.” If, or when the NVA assaulted us, the platoon was to be available to “patch up” any holes that appeared in our defenses. Bundy promoted me to NCOIC or Non-commissioned officer in charge of the platoon. That young lieutenant who gave me the XM-203 was made the platoon leader. Oh joy. In order to be an effective team, it is always a good idea to train together, and I didn’t have a clue who half those guys were. It was ad-hoc in the worse sense of the word. I thought we were lambs being led to the slaughter.

I lined them up, got all their names, did a weapons and ammo check, then we did what the Army is best known for, we hurry up and waited. Oh yeah, the shelling kept coming. Since we weren’t doing anything else, someone broke out a case or two of C-rations and we picked and chose what we wanted and ate. Most of the rest of the day we waited and waited and endured the almost constant shelling.

Now we were wondering just where in hell our Air Force was. I found out later that they were flying missions but not anywhere around where we were. Our biggest fear was NVA “iron,” or tanks hitting us. We did not have one damn thing to make a dent in a tank, not one damn thing. Normally, anti-tank weapons are available for infantry. The U.S. had introduced LAW rockets in Viet Nam. This was a one-shot disposable weapon that you fire and then throw the launcher away. The LAW fired a 3.5-inch rocket that theoretically COULD knock out a tank. The trick to taking out a tank is to hit it on the side or the ass-end with your rocket. Tanks were not protected as greatly on the sides and rear but have thick armor on the front. Well, of course you must have a rocket. 3 Star had been issued LAWs, the problem was that the rocket was a self-contained weapon. It had a battery and electrical circuits and in the heat and humidity of Viet Nam, the circuits had a tendency to corrode. The secret of a LAW in Viet Nam was this … “You use them or lose them.” The LAWs had been sitting around in the heat and humidity and were useless. Most wouldn’t shoot. So where in hell was OUR AIR FORCE?

Later that night we were probed by infliltrators. Nothing too serious, they just wanted to see what they might be up against. I won’t bore you with details, but suffice to say nobody was getting very much sleep. Someone had made the decision that we might have to retreat out of there the next day. Yeah, no shit. The next day was Easter Sunday, the celebration of the risen Christ. The big question on my mind, and for that matter eve other young troop that night, was would we be around to celebrate another Easter, or Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Christmas?? ‘Cause without being too dramatic, it didn’t look too good for the ol’ Home team the night of April 1st, 1972.

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