The Western AO

by Tom Hain

Background: The events in this story happened in the summer of 1968. It's about the 2nd platoon of Bravo Company, 4th of the 47th, 9th Infantry Division. I was a rifleman in the 2nd squad. I had been in country for a few months and was past the new guy stage. I was 21 years old.

AO = Area of Operation.

The Western AO was a few square miles of rice paddies and woods on the west side of a canal that separated it from the 9th Infantry base at Dong Tam. The canal was dug by the French and ran due north from the Song My Tho. It was an area that the VC used to shell us. They would set up a mortar tube, drop in three rounds as fast as they could, then take their tube and run like hell. There was a platoon of GI's out there all the time on guard duty. Keeping it clear was a 24 hour job. But because of the farming and the civilian population it wasn't considered to be the most dangerous place to be, or the most unpleasant. It could have been a picture post card if it wasn't for the war. Guard duty there was considered a lucky break from what we usually did.

The west side of the canal was lined with hoochs (houses) of the farmers and fishermen that used the Western AO and the surrounding waterways to make a living. Just beyond the stand of shade trees that sheltered the hoochs, it opened up onto rice paddies, dotted here and there with more trees and more hoochs.

On the East side of the canal was the Dong Tam airport, separated from the water by a 15 foot tall berm to stop direct small arms fire. At intervals along the berm were bunkers with 50 Cal. machine guns and the usual barbed wire and Claymores. But with the water as a natural barrier, the likelihood of a ground attack coming from the west was not great. What did come from the west were mortars and rockets.

The canal was about 50 ft. wide and was only about 6 or 8 feet deep. To get to the other side we had to use boats because the closest bridge was too far north to be practical to use. Sometimes the Navy would give us a Tango that would take the whole platoon across at once, but most of the time the army would supply us with a PAB (plastic assault boat) with a driver that would shuttle us to the other side in groups of 4 or 5. The PAB was a 15 ft. Boston Whaler fishing boat with a big tiller steered outboard motor. Four or five fully loaded troops was maximum load even at slow speed. It took longer to load and unload than it did to get across but the whole operation was done at a leisurely pace that made it seem more like a fishing trip than going to war. Sometimes the guys that we were replacing would be there to greet us and to take advantage of the boat ride home.

When we all got to the other side we would move to a position somewhere less than a klick from the canal and we would set up camp for the day. Then the locals would flock around us with all kinds of stuff for sale. You could get anything; jewelry, switch blades, fresh pineapples, stuff made out of empty shell casings, a bottle of Coke or beer. A cold "33" (ba-moo-ee-ba) was worth whatever they asked for it on a hot day. The local whore house was represented also. It seemed like a picnic sometimes. There was no reason for keeping a low profile. We wanted the VC to know that we were there. With all the fire power that we had available just over the tree line in Dong Tam, we felt safe enough.

As the sun went down the locals would "di di" on home before curfew. When it was dark, we would get up and move to a new location for the night just in case they had our day position targeted for a mortar round or something. The next morning the locals would find us again.

One day two kids came to the LT with a story about some VC tax collectors in a village not far from where we were. After some radio conversation with the company commander, the decision was made to go get them. The whole platoon went. We took the kids with to show us the way. We didn't trust them.

On the way there, we stopped, made a U-turn and went back the way we had just come, in a big hurry. I never found out why. Walking any trail more than once was a bad idea and it made us uneasy. Sometimes people make the wrong decisions. We were about to find that out.

I was the eighth guy in line behind a new guy, the RTO, the squad leader, a rifleman, the machine gunner, the M79 man, and the point man. We walked 20 meters apart. The two kids were with the point. The path that we traveled was on a rice paddy dike that ran about 75 feet away from the edge of a heavily wooded area. There was a canal that was sparsely lined on one side with trees and bushes that ran from, and perpendicular to the wood line, that we had to get across. Opposite the wood line and behind us was open rice paddy for about a half mile or so. The other side of the canal was open land too. If anything was going to happen, logic said that it would come from the wood line. But logic was the tool of the VC.

The lead men bunched up getting across the canal. There was a log to walk across if you could balance and you weren't too heavy. Otherwise you had to jump across and the guy ahead would catch you. Five guys were across the canal when the sixth guy, the RTO, stopped and turned around. He picked up his handset and lifted it to his ear when an explosion went off behind him. The blast, that came from the bottom of the canal, caught him at belt level and turned the upper half of his body and all his equipment into flying debris. The lower half just fell over. Three of the guys on the other side of the canal were wounded too and all five, and the two kids that led us into this mess, were cut off from the rest of us. The most badly wounded guy was in need of fast medical attention. The guy between the explosion and me was frozen and just stood there. The rest of us dropped down behind the dike and poured fire into the wood line.

I yelled at the new guy to get down but I ended up having to push him down behind the dike. There was part of a rib cage and some parts of the dead man's equipment where we landed and the new guy was freaked! I was freaked! I convinced him that to shoot into the wood line was prudent and we focused on the job. Over the sounds of battle I could hear calls for help from the guys on the other side of what was now a big muddy hole in the ground. We had to get the wounded over with us to get them dusted off and they needed help now. The medic, who came running without concern for his own safety, and I crawled over to them and we all crawled back, dragging the wounded with us. The shooting stopped shortly after that.

One of the wounded was a Hawaiian guy. He had a sucking chest wound that the medic patched using the plastic bag that the bandage came in to seal off the air so he could breath. The bandage held the plastic bag in place. He was scared and asked me to stay with him until the dust-off got there. He was my friend and he didn't have to ask. I did what I hoped he would have done for me. I kept the sun out of his face and washed the mud off him. Because of his wounds he couldn't have any water to drink and I had to keep telling him that. The other two wounded were covered with small holes from the shrapnel. One was more serious than the other but they were both able to walk and sit up and all of their parts were there.

When we heard the thap thap thap of the Huey, we popped smoke and directed him to land as close to the wounded as he could. We sheltered the guys from the rotor down wash. The Huey driver put it down quickly with the open doorway toward us, just 40 ft away.

Just as the skids touched the ground, a B40 rocket came out of the wood line and took off part of one of the rotor blades, throwing the Huey into a wild off balance gyration. There was the danger of being hit by the remaining blade as it took divots in the ground around the chopper, the renewed threat from the VC, and now there were more wounded. The guy tending the wounded next to me got a piece of shrapnel through his knee cap and one of the door gunners from the chopper was hit too.

The down wash from the dust-off had also blown away the plastic bag from the sucking chest wound and he couldn't breath. I needed to find something to seal the hole quick! I used my thumb while we desperately searched for anything plastic. Someone close by had his tooth brush in a plastic bag and he passed it over. It worked but now his breathing was more labored. He was in more distress than before. He had to get out now!

The fire into the wood line slowed, then stopped. There was no return fire. Victor Charlie was gone. He had done his damage. We never saw the enemy but the results of his work was all over that rice paddy. We had been set-up. We walked right into it. They were smarter than us this time.

The second dust-off landed without incident and took the wounded out. I never saw my Hawaiian buddy after that. I hope he's well. Soon after that a Chinook came in and collected the downed Huey and its crew. We sent the two kids and as much of the dead man as we could find too. The rest of us tried to find out what the hell had happened.

We found that the VC had recovered an unexploded 155 mm round from our own artillery and planted it there the night before. It was dug into the side of the canal and we all walked right over it the first time we walked that way. It was detonated remotely by wires that ran down the canal AWAY from the wood line! When we returned fire the first time, we were shooting in the wrong direction. The guy with the B40 rocket didn't move into position until after we stopped shooting into the wood line. As far as we could tell, it only took two VC to do all this damage, and they got away without a scratch.

The VC would always mark their booby traps in some way. Sometimes it would just be a broken branch or piece of cloth stuck to a tree, but sometimes they put up a sign that said "Tui Dai" (too-e die) or "death zone." The sign that we found was on the other side of the canal. It was a piece of wood on the ground about 1" by 2" with letters painted in a color that matched the dirt. The whole platoon had walked right by it and never saw it. The theory is that our RTO might have seen the sign or something and was calling on the radio to pass the word when they blew it on him. RTO's were a preferred target.

The kids that led us into the trap were turned over to the ARVNs. They were brutal with their prisoners. None of us objected. They knew that someone was going to die when they started this. They weren't kids anymore and we all wanted them to burn in hell.

Later that day we got news that one of the wounded guys that we sent back died of his wounds. He was one of the original walking wounded. None of us expected him do die. The medics at he EVAC said he was sitting up smoking a cigarette and he just fell over dead. Some of the scrap metal inside him must have shifted or something. That brought the totals to two KIA, and four WIA for them and zero for us.

After it was all over we moved to a new day position and the locals found us again. A cold beer was just what I needed. These Vietnamese couldn't have anything to do with what happened. They wanted us there to buy their stuff. These were good Vietnamese, right? Anyway, I needed that beer!

That night on resupply we got a brand new PRC-25 radio, and that's how I became a radio operator.

Copyright © 1996 By Thomas J. Hain, All Rights Reserved