Widow's Village

By Tom Hain

I first heard the name "Widow's Village" as we were waiting to load onto the choppers that were to take us there. We had been in the field for a few days with no contact, when we were ordered to move to a map reference and wait. The first sortie of slicks had already taken about half of our two company force and it was starting to get dark. I was with the second lift. There was speculation that we wouldn't go if it was dark. The first lift had moved far enough away that they were out of radio contact and we didn't know what to expect. We took advantage of the time to eat our C's, clean our weapons and just to relax in the cool of the dwindling daylight.

It had been about 35 minutes since the first sortie left when the thap, thap, thap sound of the Huey's blades grew loud enough to make us get ready to move. The choppers landed in two columns and we loaded up in quick time. I got one of the two best seats on the chopper, sitting on the floor in back of the pilot's seat by the front of the open doorway with my feet hanging out. It was the best place to be because there was the doorframe to hold on to, and the pilot's seat was armored so there was some protection. Also, when we were about to land, you could get out and stand on the skid to be ready to jump off as the aircraft flaired before touching the ground. That was important because the chopper was a big target and getting away from it quickly would increase your chances of survival in a hot LZ. And I liked the thrill of open air flying. The view from up there was great.

When we were on our way, one of the guys asked the door gunner what the LZ was like. He said it was HOT, and to get off quick and find cover as soon as we touched down. Our squad leader tried to give us instructions about sticking together, but the noise on the chopper was too loud to hear him. I think we were all too scared to listen. Most of us had been in hot LZs before, but none of us had done it in the dark, and it was pitch black out now.

As we approached the LZ, the door gunner told us to get ready. Damn, the LZ was hot! Even over the noise of the chopper we could hear the gunfire and the sound of grenades. I looked down and saw the reflection of the stars and the tracers in the water in the rice paddies. It looked like we were about 50 feet in the air, so I stepped out on the skid. There were no lights on the chopper so I figured that the pilot was using night vision goggles to see where we were going. When he flaired to land I would just step off and be running when I hit the ground. I had done it before and I was proficient at it. At least that was the plan.

This time when I stepped off, I fell for what seemed like forever. When I hit the ground I sank into the mud up to my thighs, driven down by the weight of the equipment on my back. There was a foot of water on top of the mud. I lost my M16 and my helmet from the jolt of landing and I was stuck! The chopper that I had just jumped from landed about 50 feet away and I was by myself. I was stuck so badly that I needed help to get out. I was like a flag pole in the middle of a raging battle.

As I was struggling to get out, one of the guys from another chopper tripped over me in the dark and he helped me get loose. We looked for my M16 but all we found was my helmet. We crawled to a dike and found some of our guys there. I had a chance to catch my breath. A short time later the artillery flares started coming in and the area was lit up well enough to read a book. I saw that the place where I had landed was somewhat sheltered by rice paddy dikes, and with enough light I might find my weapon. I dropped my equipment and crawled back to look for it. I found it a short time later. The barrel was plugged and it was caked with mud and would have blown up if I had tried to fire it. Being without it made me feel naked, even if I could only use it as a club.

We located the rest of my squad by radio and I was able to crawl to where they were, dragging my equipment behind me. They were positioned behind a dike and they were busy laying down fire. They weren't going anywhere. I needed the time to clean my weapon. The fire fight was still going strong. The red and green tracers were going in all directions. The ARTY was pounding the treeline in front of us and it was clear that we were in deep shit. The guys around me were laying down grazing fire. The M60 gunner was yelling for more ammo (we all carried M60 ammo) and everyone was yelling for air support. I worked on my M16 as if my life depended on it.

It seemed like hours had passed when I finally started returning fire with my nice clean M16, but it was probably only 20 minutes or so. I was directed onto targets by the guys who had been firing all along. I looked over to where the M60 was and the barrel was glowing a dull red. They had to let their weapons cool and mine was stone cold. I put some rounds into a half a dozen targets and before I knew it I had fired 5 or 6 magazines and my barrel was hot too. That's when Spooky showed up overhead.

The firepower from Spooky was a sight to behold. There were three multi-barreled, electrically operated, high-speed guns sticking out the side of an old C47 airplane that the pilot could direct onto a target by flying a tight circle above it. The burble sound of the radial engines on the old plane was very distinctive, and the noise that the guns made was like nothing else. Each gun could fire up to 6000 rounds of 7.62mm ammo per minute. Every fifth round was a tracer and they fired so fast that it looked like a single bright red line. I loved Spooky. He worked out for a few minutes and then left. Afterward the intensity of the fighting was cut by 75%. Only sniper fire and an occasional mortar round were incoming. I loved Spooky!

I remember two dust-offs coming in that night. There might have been more. Some of us tried to get some sleep.

The ARTY kept pounding the treeline with 3 - 5 round salvos, called H & I (harrassment and interdiction) for the rest of the night. It was to keep them awake and keep them from regrouping. Their sniper fire kept our heads down and the pucker factor up. When the sun came up the next morning, all the firing stopped. I looked around to see that one of the choppers that had brought us to this hell hole had not taken off again. We were spread over an area that was much bigger than two companies should have been defending. We were in little groups here and there. Some of the positions hadn't fired because of the possibility of a cross fire. I was in one of the perimeter positions facing a horseshoe treeline about 300 meters away. There was 200 - 300 meters between the hooches at the corners of the rice paddies that stretched about a half a mile behind us. The mud that I had jumped into was about 50 feet from a hooch and the hole that I made was only about 8 feet from a two foot tall dike. I probably would have broken my legs if I hit that dike when I jumped from the chopper, but it probably stopped a few rounds that were comming my way too.

We were resupplied by chopper, we regrouped, then we started moving in the direction from where the fire had come. My squad was point. We moved into the treeline at 4 or 5 places on line. There was no incoming fire. We didn't expect any. We took a body count. There weren't many. We didn't expect a lot. The VC had time to drag their dead away. The smell was a mixture of mud, explosives and death. There was no noise except for the wet muddy sound of our own footsteps. What was left of the treeline wasn't very deep, maybe 200 meters. Shell craters and trees cut down by artillery made it tough to walk. We were heading due east toward a town on a major river where we were supposed to be picked up by boat.

As we came out of the treeline we saw that the way to the village was down a road that had been blown up many times before we showed up and was barely passable even on foot. There was a treeline on either side of the road leaving an open area about 200 meters wide down the length of the road. Huge shell craters lined the route. There were mounds of dirt where a hooch once stood here and there, and bunkers were dug into the side of the roadway about ever 50 meters or so. We couldn't see it at the time, but there were also trenches connecting the bunkers. There were a few hooches along the way, but it didn't look as if anyone had lived there for a long time. Way off in the distance we could see the town we were headed for.

As we started to walk, the pointman saw someone running in front of us and we all opened fire until the target disappeared. No return fire. OK so far. But as we moved a little ways further, we received fire from 3 or 4 different locations and we all dove for cover. This wasn't going to be a walk in a park. It wasn't well aimed fire, but it was enough to keep our heads down. By using fire and movement tactics we were able to keep advancing. Now there were gunships overhead, and they would make a pass at a target in front of us every few minutes. Our squad RTO relayed messages from them. They told us where they saw movement, and we kept our heads down while they worked out on them. Sometime we would get the word from them to check out a bunker or something else that they thought suspicious.

We spread out over the open area. Now there were 4 columns with the pointmen out only about 20 meters. The pointman from my squad had a shotgun for close action. I was three or four men behind. Suddenly an explosion went off in front of me. Our pointman had triggered a land mine. One leg was gone above the knee and the other leg looked like a burnt match. The medic gave him morphine and they called in a dust-off. I was next in line for pointman.

When we moved out after the dust-off left I was out in front watching where I stepped and the open area ahead. One of the jobs of the pointman was to drop hand grenades into bunkers. As I came up on a trench that ran across my path I saw a bunker at the end. I stepped over the trench, walked up to the bunker, and dropped in a fragmentation grenade, and I walked on. BOOM! A few steps later one of the guys from behind yelled, "Hey Hain! You got one back here!"

My heart started doing double time and my stomach flipped over and over as I walked back to the bunker. The poor SOB didn't move fast enough to get out of the bunker and he paid for his lack of speed with his life. I felt good and bad about it, and I still do.

The SOP in our company said that since it was my KIA, I had to go into the bunker and drag out any weapons or equipment that were in there. I declined the invitation. One of the other guys did it for me and came out with a brand new SKS rifle. It was light and accurate and was used by their snipers. It still had grease in the barrel. Because it was a bolt action rifle it was a trophy that he could take home. Only semi-auto and automatic weapons had to be turned in. It would have been mine if I had the stomach to go into the bunker. I regretted it for a few years but then I got philosophical about it. It would have been a reminder of something I'd really rather forget and I've lost the fascination with guns that I once had.

But the fact that there was grease in the barrel didn't sink in until later. He had never fired the weapon! We found out later that we had walked into a VC training camp. The hot LZ the night before had killed most of the cadre. The VC that were left put the trainees up front to slow us down with sniper fire while they made their escape. This poor SOB was probably to scared to shoot and was hiding in that bunker hoping that we would just go away. If one of the guys behind the point would have found him, he probably would have surrender to them. He didn't need to die.

The distance that we covered that day was only about a klick. As we got closer to the village that was the end of our journey, we saw that it was surrounded with barbed wire and had ARVN bunkers at the entrance. It was strange that a VC training company would be that close to a fortified outpost. It didn't make any sense unless they were training to over run that outpost, or they were recruited from there. As we moved into the village the people lined the path and stared at us. Could some of them be the VC we were just fighting? The thought was hard to ignore. I glared back at them hoping that they could sense what I was thinking. I was tired and I was glad it was over.

The boats were waiting for us when we reached the river and we boarded and were out of there on our way back to the ships. I never found out what the real name of the village was -- only that we called it "Widow's Village."

Copyright © 1997 By Thomas J. Hain, All Rights Reserved