The plane touched down at Bien Hoa in the mid-afternoon sun. The realization of where I was came to me with mixed emotions of wonder, excitement, apprehension and fear. I had volunteered for this, I told myself, so there's no use in questioning the decision now. You better suck it up and accept whatever happens.
I gathered up my personal belongings and checked to make sure my orders were still in the Manila folder I had. I began to wonder what war was going to be like.
We waited for the ramp to be brought to the plane and the door to be opened. We stood in the aisle and slowly moved forwards. As I approached the opening, I felt the air temperature begin to rise as the cool 70-degree air inside the airplane began to be warmed from the hot tropical air outside. Closer to the door, it became obvious to me that the temperature outside was very hot; but just how hot was not evident until I stepped out the door.
I was momentarily shocked as the hot, damp, musty air literally sucked the cool, dry air out of my lungs. I involuntarily contorted my face as the stench of mildew, mold, and rotting vegetation filled my nostrils. It took me by surprise; and I teetered at the top of the ramp thinking, holy shit, is this what the jungle smells like? My next thought was, man, did I screw up! I hesitated for just a moment longer and told myself, I'll be getting back on this airplane one year from now. I'm not going to die here. That's all there is to it......
Four days later, after in country P-training, as it was called, I got my orders to be attached to the 101st Airborne Division. With only my duffel bag and orders in hand, I was hurried into a C-130 with two dozen other newbies and whisked away into the sky over Vietnam.
I was glad when we reached an altitude that appeared to be out of range of enemy fire, but the thought still worried me. I wondered if we were just not being hit and imagined bullets and surface to air rockets blowing us out of the sky. The jungle below looked dense and unpopulated; and I sat there in panic, pondering what I would do if we were shot down, alone in the jungle, not knowing where to go or what to do. I had jungle survival training, but I was wondering if I would really be able to survive if I had to.
We flew for an hour or so before we started a rapid descent to an unknown rendezvous with an airport, I hoped, and not a crash landing. There appeared to be nothing but jungle below us, and I hoped that they would tell us if we were in some sort of trouble. Nothing was said, and I could do nothing but sit there with my thoughts.
We touched down; and when the plane came to a stop and taxied near a small terminal, a Sergeant appeared at the front with a clipboard in hand and called off 8 or 10 names. Mine was not one of them.
When those individuals had exited the plane, the door was closed; and we quickly took off again, climbing very rapidly into the cool air above the jungle. We flew for another hour or so before repeating the same procedure of landing, names being called, and taking off again. This routine continued several more times until there were only one other GI and myself remaining in the plane.
As the plane descended again, I noticed that it appeared to be at a steeper angle then before; and, once again, I panicked at the thought that there was something wrong with the airplane. This had been my first encounter with a C-130; and the noise, vibration, and primitive passenger accommodations made me feel like I was getting a taste of "seat of the pants flying" a little more firsthand than I cared for. The seats were nothing more than canvas straps sown together into a sling.
We touched down with a heavy "bump," and the engines were immediately reverse thrusted. The pilot braked very hard because we had just landed on the shortest runway I could ever imagined an airplane of that size landing on...without crashing off the end.
The plane whipped around at the last moment, still trying to stop; and, at the same time, not run off the runway. The Sergeant appeared once again and finally called out our names. We stood up and were quickly ushered out the door.
I looked around and noticed that we had landed on a PSP runway, surrounded by small trees and brush, with nothing more than a small hanger hardly big enough for a single engine plane to park in, with nothing else around. The C-130 whipped around, revved the engines to full throttle, released the brakes, and zoomed off into the late afternoon sky.
The sun was getting low, and I was horrified at the thought of being left out in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, not knowing where we were or what to expect. We stood there on the PSP, all alone, with no combat gear or weapons and stared at each other in disbelief.
"What the hell are we supposed to do now?" I asked my partner.
"Shit, I don't know," he said. "What the hell is going on? Are we supposed to be here? Where the hell are we? Where the hell is everybody? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?"
We stood there in bewilderment, anger and frustration until we decided that we were probably pretty good targets, just in case Mr. Charles happened to have seen the plane land and decided to come and investigate us; so, we scanned the area for some place to hide. We ended up near the small hanger and crouched down by some large bushes...and waited.
Finally a jeep came down the dirt road leading to the hanger. We waited until we positively identified the two occupants as Americans before we gave away our position and approached the jeep as the GIs got out and began to look around for us. I was extremely happy to see them and felt relieved that we hadn't been left to die in the jungle all alone.
"We're here to pick you up," they told us and began loading our gear into the back of the jeep. "You guys are lucky you made it in. Charlie has a .51-cal machine gun hidden out at the end of the runway somewhere in a tunnel, and he shot down the last C-130 to take off from here. They have sent patrols out, but we can't find Charlie, or the .51-cal."
We were taken a few miles away where we were loaded into the back of a deuce and a half, along with 15 or so other newbies, and driven up what I found out later to be QL-1. As we drove to Camp Evans, I became very angry that we were made to sit in the back of the truck in plain sight with no weapon, vulnerable, and with no clue where we were or where we were going...or what the hell was going on.
When we finally arrived at Evans, we were quickly issued a blanket and directed to a hootch and told that we were to stay there until morning when we would be assigned to our units.
I was taken by jeep to LZ Sally the next morning and issued combat gear, finally, and given a bunk assignment. I then walked to the company area where I was assigned duties and got introduced to the guys I would be working with. Since there wasn't a need for a 63C20, which was my MOS as a tank vehicle repair mechanic, my job was to place orders for supplies and repair parts for the company and the companies we supported. (click here to see the supply area at Sally).
I began to get settled in, watching and learning, and getting accustomed to the routine. LZ Sally had our company of 40 men, a couple of infantry companies from the 101st, and an MP company. It was a very small compound, only the size of 4 or 5 city blocks square.
Day two at LZ Sally, and I pulled bunker guard. They wasted no time in getting me on the duty roster. Being the new guy, I was assigned to carry the M-60 and all the ammo out to the bunker, which was only about 300 feet away from the company area. So we loaded up with the M-60, ammo, hand grenades, M-79 grenade launcher, M-16s, steel pots, flak jackets, night scopes, .50-cal machine gun, claymores, and other implements of destruction and headed out to the bunker line.
I was trained in the art of carefully placing claymore mines (with "this side towards enemy" side actually towards the enemy), setting up and remembering fire zones and hand grenade locations, and hooking up and testing detonators for the fugas. We hooked up the field phone and tested the commo with the command bunker.
As darkness settled in and the conversation dwindled, an eerie feeling of threat to my safety and well-being came over me as I peered out into the darkness, with images of human wave assaults and hand to hand combat in my mind. I peered out into the darkness, straining my eyes to see anything at all recognizable.
At 0200 hours, and well past my allotted time to sleep, I was still peering out into the darkness, scared to death and unable to even consider sleeping. That left three of us awake. Suddenly, my heart leaped out of my chest, and I gasped as I heard an unfamiliar, but very distinctive sound, of a large object flying through the air as it rapidly approached our position. It resembled the sound of a jet engine, but I realized it was an artillery round.
When the shell impacted the ground directly in front of the bunker but several hundred meters out, I shouted "oh shit, we're gittin' hit" as I dived for the bottom of the bunker and proceeded to attempt to crawl inside my helmet. As the echo of the explosion died out, I heard laughing and soon found out that it was directed at me.
"What the hell are you guys laughing at," I asked from the floor of the bunker.
I looked up and noticed that they were still sitting up having quite a good time laughing at me.
"What the hell is going on?" I asked, just before I heard that same whooshing sound again, which by now was very familiar to me, even though I had only heard it once just a few seconds before.
The second round impacted even closer than the first, to which I responded with the same outcry of "holy shit, what the hell is going on you guys" as I cringed at the concussion that echoed in my ears again. They were laughing too hard to answer. By this time, I was not only pissed off at their taunting but confused about what was going on and their attitude toward the rounds.
"That was DTs," one of them finally told me, through his laughter.
"What the hell is a DT?" I asked, embarrassed at my ignorance and obvious overreaction to a non-threatening situation.
"It's the Navy sitting off the coast and lobbing 8-inchers just outside our perimeter to keep Charlie off our butts. They're called defensive targets."
"Shit," I said. "Why didn't somebody tell me they were gonna do that, dammit. How in the hell do I tell DTs from incoming?"
"You'll learn," he said.
I most certainly did. Sooner than I expected.
Day four ended like the other three, getting settled into the routine of the company and making friends with the other guys. I had heard that there were 3 Divisions of NVA traveling along the A Shau Valley and that they were within 10 clicks of Sally, so we were on 100% alert.
I sat around the hootch that evening and wrote a couple letters. One to Mom and Dad and one to a friend. At lights out, I tucked my mosquito net under the mattress and had a cigarette, lying there with a million thoughts going through my head. I finally drifted off to sleep.
I woke up with a start as the sound of a rocket impact echoed in my ears. I sat up and listened for a second, not sure if I had heard something or just dreamed it.
WUMP! WUMP! WUMP!
I heard it this time for sure and tore at my mosquito net, trying to loosen it from under my mattress, and rolled myself onto the floor-- mattress, mosquito net, and all.
WUMP! WUMP! WUMP! WUMP!
Other rockets began impacting, and I realized that they were very, very close.
Several guys began screaming "we're getting hit; get out to the bunker line" as they ran past my area in the hootch. I scrambled out of my mosquito net and out the door with the rush of bodies, having only time to grab my M-16 and a bandoleer of ammo that I had strategically placed in the event that I had to exit the hootch in a hurry. Thank God I had the presence of mind to do that, I thought, as I scurried out the door.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
And the night lit up like the Fourth of July as I jumped down the three steps at the front of the hootch. The rockets began to explode--two in front of me, less than a hundred feet away, and one to the right. I dived for the shallow ditch that had been dug alongside the road that ran in front of the hootch.
KA-BOOM! KA-BOOM! KA-BOOM! KA-BOOM!
The number of rocket blasts began to increase, and the intensity of the concussions became almost painful.
I hadn't made it to the bunker, which was still 50 feet from me; but the rockets were coming in so fast now that I just lay there in the dirt hugging the ground as tightly as I could and hoping that one of them didn't hit me. Several landed very close, and dust and chunks of earth rained down on me. I stayed prone for a moment, face down, then curled up into a ball, trying to make myself as small a target as I could.
I lay there for what seemed like hours but was, in reality, only 10 or so minutes as the rockets continued to impact all around the compound--some close, some far away. Is this really happening to me? I thought. God please let this be a bad dream.
The impacts were very close together now, and sounded like a string of very big firecrackers going off. I stayed where I was for fear of catching shrapnel if I got up to run to the bunker. The rockets continued to come in, while I silently prayed that I would make it through this.
Suddenly, the rockets stopped as abruptly as they had started. I looked up and around for a brief moment and noticed that there were other guys lying in the shallow, one-foot deep ditch with me. Parachute flares began lighting up the sky, 5 then 10 then 30 or so. It became almost as light as day, as the sky became filled with the flares; and the only sound that could be heard for a few moments, with rocket blasts still echoing in my head, was the eerie sound of the flares hissing as they slowly descended to the ground. Several of them landed within a few feet of where I was lying.
Still frozen in a prone position on the ground, I lay there in the dirt not wanting to get up and run to the bunker in fear of being seen from the bunker line, which was only the distance of two hootches away. I was not sure that I wanted to take the chance for fear that the rockets may come again.
I heard the sound of Cobra engines approaching, getting louder, drowning out the sound of the flares. The bunker line suddenly opened up with guns blazing, now only minutes after the rockets quit raining in; but, as the Cobras approached and began firing, the bunkers became silent. Shit, I thought. There must be NVA in the wire.
I watched as one Cobra approached, from Camp Eagle I assumed, with the rotors cutting the thick night air with their WHOP! WHOP! WHOP! as he came in under full throttle. The nose of the Cobra was tipped foreward as he approached at full speed; and I could see him slow up as rockets and mini-gun and 40mm shells rained out of the ship. With so much firepower coming out of the ship, their recoils appeared to cause him to slow down without changing the attitude of the ship.
First 2, then 3, then 4 Cobras began working the wire outside the perimeter, all around the small compound. I felt somewhat relieved to see so much firepower available but still terrified that there were NVA just a few hundred feet away trying to breach the wire.
"Oh my God," I heard myself saying, "we're getting overrun. What should we do?" I directed my question to the guy next to me.
"Just hold your position," he said. "If they manage to take out the bunker and get through the wire, we can pick 'em off from here."
Great, I thought.
I lay there for over an hour watching the Cobras work out with mini-guns and rockets, alternating fire with the bunker guards, while tracers flew in what seemed like every direction with explosions lighting up the sky. The Cobras expended their payloads, then took turns returning to Evans and Eagle to rearm.
I prayed that the perimeter defenses would hold up and that all the Cobras wouldn't run out of ammo at the same time. I wondered if this was going to be it for me, and I imagined what could take place next if the perimeter got breached. My hands sweated on my M-16 as the battle raged on. Every muscle in my body was tense as I imagined waves of NVA coming through the wire.
The perimeter held; and slowly, the battle diminished as the Cobras did their work. Finally, only occassionly could I see the red tracers from their mini-guns snaking their way to the ground, finishing off the last few NVA trapped there and unable to retreat. Eventually, the Cobras left, one by one; and, as the last flare sputtered to darkness, the silence cut the air and burned in my ears.
I sat up and wiped the dirt and sweat from my eyes. I sat there stunned and exhausted. An overwhelming sense of relief came over me as I thought about what could have been. No one said too much as we slowly began to move around, to gather in groups, to talk about the ordeal, and finally to head back to the hootch, as the first signs of the morning sun began to streak across the sky.
We had taken over 120 rockets inside the wire, and I had survived my first taste of combat.