Long Range Recon Patrol
It didn’t have a name when it began. Like Antietam, its significance would only be realized gradually, somewhere about half way through its happening. And then it would be given a name – the TET Offensive.
It began slowly at first – reports coming in from the patrols furthest out – ours and other LRRPS to the north in I Corps ... sightings of enemy movement, more than usual. And there was something different in what we were seeing this time. It wasn’t VC. And it wasn’t the usual NVA, shifting from one position to another.
New cammies, disciplined movement, heavy weapons – all the characteristics of regulars moving into the line.
But not that many ... not yet.
They were doing a pretty good job of hiding what was coming in. Moving at night, small groups, about 8-10 men. One squad here, another a dozen clicks and three valleys away. But within a few days, our patrols were reporting more and more sightings. And I Corps and Americal G2 were beginning to come up with a pretty grim picture.
It looked like this might be developing into something .... But what? Were they planning to hit a particular unit? Or could this possibly be some kind of major offensive?
G2 called a meeting of company commanders, including myself as the LRRP commander, and briefed us on what they knew and didn’t know, mostly from LRRP and overflight reports.
G2 wanted blanket coverage – every patrol in the field. We didn’t hold back even one in reserve.
My patrol left at dawn, and after about a 30-minute ride, jumped from the choppers and headed for the tree line. Our mission was to keep an eye on a fairly wide dirt trail about eight miles straight out in front of Chu Lai. Our patrols had spotted some NVA moving down through the valleys in this area, and they could pour a lot of troops down the larger valleys really quickly if they wanted.
Our LZ was about three clicks to the southwest, and it was going to take some serious climbing to reach our objective – a high mountain slope overlooking the trail about a mile below, winding its way through a large open valley some three kilometers long and a kilometer wide. (I know that a lot of you guys have been there, because it was always of serious concern and a watch zone for us.)
We reached the ridgeline that evening, just after sunset, coming up through the trees and brush on the backside. The top of the ridge was flat. No cover, just bare rock and dirt, about four yards wide.
We waited for it to grow a little darker, and then crawled across the ridge and down into the grass on the other side. There were no trees on this side, nothing to hide behind ... only the thick grass, dry and yellow now, sometimes only a couple of feet high, sometimes taller than our heads, sweeping down the mountain until it met the dark brush running along the stream in the valley below. On the other side of the stream lay the small village and then the trail.
... A light mist slips into the valley. Points of light flicker here and there in the village below. We can still make out the trail through the binoculars – running the full length of the valley, following the base of the mountains on the other side.
This is not a good position – nothing but grass between us and any fire we might draw, but I know from the recon I flew three days earlier that this is the only place we can get a good handle on the trail.
It’s EENT, the first day. We settle in and watch.
I’ve forgotten most of the Army lingo, these so many years later, but not EENT or BMNT. Ending Evening Nautical Twilight, that moment when the last speck of light is gone and you’ve got the long, cold night stretching ahead of you, and the leaches. And Beginning Morning Nautical Twilight, that blessed moment when the mist starts to dissolve and the first warmth of daylight creeps into the trees.
Anyway, nothing happens this first night, except that G2 forwards a message over the radio. They want us to check out the village in the morning ... see if we can spot any NVA.
Now and then throughout the night, we hear the ‘whump’ ... ‘whump’ of the artillery our other patrols are calling in.
We start down the mountain a little before dawn, while the village is still buried in mist, taking a long sweep to the south where we‘ve got good cover coming down, and then cutting back north into the undergrowth bordering the stream.
Two hours later, we’re just about there, some fifty yards south of the village, threading our way slowly, carefully, through the high grass and brush by the stream.
– Damn!! – It happens in a flash! Up comes a kid out of nowhere, right against the point man.
We stand there, frozen in time, the kid looking at us, we looking at him. The point man runs for the kid, tries to grab him. But he’s gone.
Just one of those things; it happens.
“All right,” I say quietly, “we’re out of here. Let’s go.”
We swing back to the south, moving quickly. Then up the slope at the point where we’ve got good cover. We radio in that the patrol is compromised. They want to know if we want extraction.
Ordinarily, of course, we’d be out of there, moving on to a secondary objective or heading for the PZ.
But it’s the trail that holds us. We just have the feeling that something's coming down.
“We’re going to take a chance on staying,” I say over the radio as we head up the hill. “We’ll let you know if we have to make a run for it.”
We head back north, to where we can see the trail again, and then settle into the grass about fifty yards from the top of the ridge. We don’t like being this far down, because we’ll be in the open if we have to make a run for the top. But we don’t have much of a choice ... the grass up near the top is only about waist-high.
I have one man crawl over to the back side of the ridge, just to make sure we don’t get any surprises from that direction. Our first rendezvous point, if we get scattered, is about 500 yards below him.
I'm thinking maybe we better set up some artillery cover. I’d talked to the arty unit before we left camp, showing them on the map where we’d be and the trail we’d be watching. And I’d planned to call in spotting rounds on this second day anyway, just to make sure we had the trail well-bracketed. But that was before this village fiasco.
If there are any NVA in the area, calling in the spotting rounds would probably convince them that we’re still around, but we figure we have to go for it.
We try to make it look as random as possible, leaving plenty of time between rounds – a smoke puff up at the other end of the valley, another over on the other side of the mountain, another at the point where the trail first comes into the valley, another where the trail passes the village, another couple of puffs in the air about 75 yards below us, and so on for about two hours, until we’re sure the arty’s got the trail well-calibrated and we’ve also got some protective fire if we need it.
The sun is warm on our backs. It’s about noon. We’re in a pretty tight formation, about ten feet between each of us, so that we can communicate and concentrate our firepower if we need to.
The grass around us is about five to six feet high. Because of the slope of the ground, we can see the trail without standing up, but not the village or the base of the mountain.
And then all of a sudden, we hear a banging, clattering noise way down the mountain, about five hundred yards below us. And it's coming up the hill. I stand up so that I can just see through the grass. There are about a hundred of them, strung out in a long line, banging on tin plates and boards and cups and I don’t know what all, raising a hell of a racket, trying to make us spook and run. And behind the line of paddy hats and black pajamas are the regulars, AK 47s at the ready, waiting for us to bolt.
The options are flying through my mind ... make a break for it ... call in the artillery ... just sit tight and hope we aren’t spotted.
It’s the trail that holds us, still. The NVA have been coming down most of the other major valleys around us – we can hear our guys calling in the artillery. Sooner or later, they’re going to come down this trail as well.
And up they come, slowly, beating on their pans and boards.
I turn around to check the guys out. “All right,” I whisper, “we’ll hold. If they uncover us, let’s blow the hell out of ‘em and make it for the PZ.” The radio man turns down the squelch all the way, quietly calls up the arty unit, and has them stand by with the defcons.
Then we all go flat on our backs, heads to the uphill side, rifles pointing belly-level at the grass in front of us. All we can see is a little blue sky above the top of the grass. They’re getting closer. I grip my Thompson tightly, my finger on the trigger. My palms are sweating.
And then they stop, about twenty-five yards below us. We can hear them talking and yelling at one another. And then three or four of them come on up to the ridge, passing about thirty yards to the north of us. They stand on the ridge for a while, looking around and talking, and then they come back down. We can’t see any of this, just hear it. And finally we hear them all going back down the mountain, their voices growing fainter. They must have figured we were hanging around the stream or were somewhere lower down the mountain. Either that or maybe they thought we’d cleared out once the kid saw us.
After a while, the adrenalin stops running and our heartbeats gradually settle down from about 300 beats a minute.
Everything’s quiet. Just the dusty odor of grass, blue sky over our heads, a few wispy white clouds.
It’s quiet the rest of the afternoon. The sun slides down behind the mountains and the mist starts coming back into the valley.
And then we see it.
A small fire in the trail, way up at the far end of the valley. We check it out with the binoculars – looks like cornstalks, tied up in kind of a teepee. After a moment, we see another little fire, further down the line. And then another.
I nod to our radio man, “Get the artillery on the phone, something’s coming down.”
But nothing. Just the mist growing thicker in the valley. And the cornstalk fires burning down to a red glow, and then dying out altogether.
But the cornstalks had to be some kind of signal. Why else would someone set them on fire?
Darkness ... nothing ... the cold coming in against our bones.
– And then it's there! We see the first flashlight, clear up at the end of the valley, just the tiniest point of light moving down the trail, and then about five yards behind, another point of light, and then another, and another.
Our radio man is back on the phone.
We can hear the muffled noise far below, the sound of movement, some faint voices, as the long line of lights begins to pass the village below, stretching out for a half mile up the valley, moving past the village and on to the south. Through the binoculars, we can barely make out the men carrying the flashlights
I roll over on my back and look to the radio man – “Blow the shit out of ‘em, Jim.”
We’d have preferred to use air bursts, of course, but can’t because we want to try to keep the shrapnel out of the village.
But it works out okay because of the smoke we’d called in and adjusted earlier. The arty guys have got the road dead cold. They begin at each end of the valley, marching the rounds as fast as they can toward the center. And then almost
immediately, another battery opens up and starts hitting the road right in the center – ba-whoom, ba-whoom, ba-whoom!
And then we’re hearing artillery in other places too, way out in front of us, and somewhere behind us.
The valley floor’s lit up from one end to the other – two miles of bursting shells and smoke ... and amid the thunder, we hear yelling and running.
And then it stops.
The radio man passes the handset to me. “How about it?” asks the voice on the other end.
“Really nice,” I say.
“Well, we’re moving on, then ... your guys are calling in all kinds of shit tonight.”
The thunder of artillery is rolling through the hills all around, reflecting off the clouds like sheet lightning.
But it’s completely dark in the valley now. The people in the village have snuffed out all of their candles and lamps. We hear an occasional shout here and there, but nothing more.
The acrid smell of gunpowder begins to drift up the slope.
We stay the night, just to keep an eye on things, relieving the guard on the back side every couple of hours.
And then, just before dawn, we head on back over the ridge and down toward the PZ.
There would be more fighting, of course, in the days that followed ... some heavy stuff by the infantry companies. But the big push, at least in our sector, was over.
A number of units up north took some pretty bad hits. But the Americal was mostly okay, and I came off patrol that next morning with quiet thankfulness. First, because the NVA never made it to our Division headquarters in Chu Lai. But more immediately and profoundly because every one of our patrols made it home.
And I can see them even now ... tired, smiling ... coming down the road, one patrol, and then another, and the guys who’d already got in ... whooping and cheering and running out to hug the guys just coming in. You did good, LRRPs. Real good.