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Saturday, May 18, 2013
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Cambodia on Fire
Prince Norodom Sihanouk had ruled the fairy tale kingdom of Cambodia for 29 years, first as an 18-year old puppet-king, now as a 47-year old father-king. He was an adept, occasionally ruthless sovereign, a professional sax player, filmmaker and an actor. He spoke Khmer, French and English, kept a harem, and entertained lavishly, infusing a Cambodian sensibility into all that he did. He was living the life.
At the same time, Sihanouk labored to stay out of the Vietnam War by playing both sides. He allowed North Vietnam to establish the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail and the U.S. to bomb it.
In March, 1970, while this cool cat was on a world tour, he was overthrown by a conservative faction, led by politician Lon Nol and the military. They wanted their country back, from North Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge. Others weren't so sure. Country-wide riots erupted between supporters of Lon Nol and the communists.
Cambodia was on fire.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the grunts of Charlie Company were speculating what their next assignment would be when the word came down: "Good morning, gentlemen. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves the construction of a firebase named 'Jay,' which will be located one mile from the Cambodian border and may result in certain death."
Our ears perked up. We had never built a firebase before. Jay would be a temporary artillery camp, one of ten new 1st Cav bases going in astride the Cambodian border infiltration routes. Provocations and tempting targets for the 95-C North Vietnam Army Regiment moving into the border country.
Was the high command dangling live bait to entice the NVA into revealing their dispositions and strength? To goad them into unprofitable or suicidal attacks? I'll probably never know, but intended or not, a deadly game of cat-and-mouse had begun. Our foes were experienced and capable. Cunning as foxes. Tough as nails. And they could roar like the devil.
What if they attacked before the base was hardened?
We packed for a combat assault and were lifted to a scratch patch of virgin prairie in the jungle, a big open space the size of two or three football fields. The usual half dozen to a dozen 105/155 mm high explosive rounds had already been put in to clear and soften the landing zone. We hoped the bush wouldn't be hot. It wasn't.
Shortly after we got there, a giant twin-rotor Chinook helicopter flew in, dangling a bulldozer from a heavy chain. As soon as the dozer was dropped, the fun began. It built a dirt berm perimeter in an oval shape three to four feet high while the Chinook came and went like an enormous bird building a nest. It dropped a mule (jeep), coils of concertina wire, several 105/155 mm artillery pieces and mortars.
An artillery group arrived to man the battery of five big guns and mortars at the center of the base. When the dozer was finished with the berm, it moved to the far end of the enclosure, in the general area of the CP, and then plowed a trench 4-5 feet deep for an ammo dump.
We had no idea the devastation that would come of this.
Meanwhile, all the grunts on base were busy filling sandbags and collecting empty ammo crates for their defensive bunkers. We dug foxholes. A steel sheet placed on top made a nice roof. The company's M60 machine guns were positioned on the berm, gun barrels pointed at the wood line. The air was hot and the ground was hot. Shirts came off in the 100 degree heat and humidity. The sweat dripping down from the upper half of our bodies kept the top half of our pants soaked.
The mule dragged the shiny coils of concertina wire outside the berm, releasing them in strategic locations for the grunts that unrolled the barbed Slinkys into seamless entanglements, set between the berm and the forest.
It was imperative that we create something from nothing before nightfall.
Presto. We did. We took care of business.
The brass had also arrived. No big deal. The seasoned soldiers followed instructions or did their own thing.
After the last light patrol went forth for the first time ever on Jay, battalion C/O Lt. Col. Hannas made the rounds, walking the perimeter, checking our readiness for the night. It appeared that he was overseeing most of the activity.
Friendly and confident, He would come up to an infantryman, “Do you need anything? Are you ready to go? Notice anything in the bush?” It was like a visit from one of your friends,
He had some guys do their thing with whatever weapon they had. No jams were allowed.
When Hannas came to me, he pointed to a 4-inch thick tree 15 feet high 100 yards away. "See that tree out there by the wood line. Try to get as close as you can."
|M79 Grenade Launcher|
"I guess you can't get any closer than that!" and he moved on. When he was done, it was business as usual.
As night cloaked the camp, we seeded trip flares and Claymore mines into the wire so the enemy couldn't take notes if they happened to be watching from the woods.
A Wild West show commenced with the big guns and little guns firing randomly at the trees. Flares lit up the night. After the "mad minute" ended, we judged Jay’s first day as a success. The cool air slowly crept in as we lay back on air mattresses near our bunker, using poncho liners for covers. Satisfied, we exchanged stories and shot the breeze. Then we crashed. The weather cooperated and the rain stayed away.
Our squad pulled guard duty in our area throughout the night, rotating each member for one hour. We used our night vision training. If we saw anything move out there, we radioed the mortar platoon to pop a flare.
The next morning at the break of day, our squad went on “first light” patrol, beyond the wire, into the tree line a little ways, tracing the same path as the “last light” patrol had the night before.
Bob and I must have stirred up a hornets nest. And I don’t mean that metaphorically! We both got stung in the eye. It hurt like hell. Our eyes swelled shut. Using our good eye, we managed to find our way back and tracked down the medic. The treatment took two or three days. We earned a purple eye, not a purple heart.
The next week, we all had lots of down time between patrols and the day to day activities. No humping! Bob composed his poems and I made a tape of the mad minute racket. Everyone wrote letters home, listened to music and read books if they had them.
Was the 95-C watching us from the woods?
Capt. Jackson woke up one day with heart attack symptoms. He had to be checked out. No one was happy. Before he left, he shook hands with everyone in the company. Our beloved captain was leaving. To be near him was to admire him. Only two men were killed in action during his five months leading Charlie Company.
He was relieved by Capt. Rice.
Vietnam is not Disneyland. Most of us were just putting in time to get the hell out. We had no use for the army. Still, in a week and a half, we had grown accustomed to Jay. We had built it with our own sweat and tears. We were proud of our new baby. You might even say attached.
After chow on 28 March, Charlie Company squeezed through a gap in the wire to an assembly spot and hiked into the woods under our new captain, leaving Jay behind forever. Alpha Company replaced us. They were the poor souls man-handling a massive .50 caliber machine gun through the jungle. A terrible strain and just one example of the unnecessary hardships inflicted on their men by some COs.
We had gone only a few clicks when we set up camp for the night. It passed quietly until faint sounds of gunfire disturbed us. It was only an hour before daylight.
Dark red clouds appeared over Jay!
Jay was under heavy attack and we prayed that we would not be sent to their rescue. That would mean walking back through the pitch black jungle, blind and vulnerable to ambush. Thankfully, that call never came. The brass probably figured Alpha Company could handle the situation. A strange mixture of relief and regret surged through me. Talk about mixed emotions.
As rockets, mortars, recoilless rifles, and RPGs rained down, Jay defended itself with flechettes, small arms, and grenades.
Right at the onset, a mortar probably intended for the ammo dump landed between Lt. Col. Hannas' legs. He had been sleeping on the sheet metal roof over the CP and "lost everything," according to the air waves. Quick work by the medics saved his life - but not his legs.
The same round also took out the CP and fire control antennas, disabling all communications and artillery except for direct fire. Consequently, the Cobra gunships, tactical air and supporting artillery were delayed until FSB Illingsworth noticed the red glow and contacted Brigade and Division.
The squad bunker we built took a direct hit from an RPG, killing two soldiers. Sad. I couldn’t help feeling that we had been given a reprieve. That could have been us!
600 NVA had come out of the woods and thrown themselves at the perimeter in a futile attempt to overrun the firebase. At first light they withdrew, taking an unknown number of wounded with them, leaving 74 dead at the scene. Jay's casualties were 14 killed; 52 wounded. Only three NVA were captured.
Alpha Company was devastated.
Had a thousand scheming eyes been watching our little eight man squad patrolling out by the tree line? Were they taking the measure of Jay, that morning?
We could have been wiped out in a nanosecond!
Jay was abandoned after only eleven days.
It was Easter Sunday, 1970.