I was brought back to the real world of the Au Shau valley by the thump of an outgoing Artillery round. I know that the marines were pushing up the far end of the valley and into Cambodia and the ARVN's were working from the bottom of the valley and making a road to the new LZ we named Little Screaming Eagle after our shoulder patch. Camp eagle is almost always the 101st Main Fire Base in every war. As the first Company of the 3rd Battalion had started pushing towards the Mountain, their Forward Observer called in a fire mission because his unit had made contact with a unit of unknown size.
In those days, it was very common for the NVA to set up small ambushes and traps and then withdraw before the US troops could engage all their firepower. Between the mortars, the Artillery, the Jets or fast Movers and the gunships, we could pretty much over whelm most forces in a fair fight on flat and level ground. Oh shit, Oh Dear, I thought as I saw that the rounds were advancing towards the Mountain. When our unit all got on the ground, there was a meeting to give us a new mission for the next day. His Company unit and the other unit on the ground would both start moving up the mountain to see what was there. Yep'er, there be gooks in them there hills and only a bunch of grunts can go there and flush 'em out. That night we dug in at the edge of the landing zone and you can bet no one had to tell them to make overhead cover on their fighting positions.
Bright and early the next morning, the Point man started into the brush and found the trail criss crossed with booby traps. Most of the traps were not the stupid punji stakes but real live grenades and a few mines. Did I mention that you go real slow when you start finding things that can kill ya' . It took almost all morning to get halfway to the edge of the mountain. The other unit had gone about twice as fast and had lost three or four men already. I was proud that our guys were maintaining their composure and keeping everyone well. All of a sudden, a boom went off in the front of the element and everyone listened for more fire or the sounds of an AK 47. All you had to do was hear an AK 47 go off once and you never forgot it. A quick radio check told us that the point man had run into a Cobra on the trail and had dispatched it with a 40mm canister round from his grenade launcher. That damned snake was at least 8 feet long and as big around as my arm. It was a reminder that an armed enemy isn't the only thing that can kill you. I don't think there was any element of surprise left in that damned valley. We had an idea where they were and they knew we were coming to get them.
When we got to what was the base of the hill, there were bunkers everywhere. Most of them were dug well with connecting trenches between them. Much to my surprise, we found them not manned. One of the guys wanted to see if the Law rocket would take one out and CPT Sawyer let him fire just one. Damn, there were secondary explosions as whatever the hell was in that bunker also exploded. That was the first of many things that just wasn't right to a bunch of pretty experienced Infantrymen. We bypassed those positions and pretty soon began to run into wire and traps everywhere. Just a quick calculation told me that at least an NVA Regiment must have been there to make all the fortifications.
My Platoon stayed pretty tight with the company headquarters and we didn't get spread out very much. The Forward Observer for the Artillery was with the Company CO and one of the mortar FO's was right there with me. The Forward Observers talked and did their best to use only what was needed to keep a round nearby. It is a hell of a lot faster to shift a fire from a target than call in a new mission. I found out just how good it was to have all that firepower when our Point element moved into a ravine and led us right into an ambush. If the ground had been level, the troops would just have moved out on line and flanked the machine gun. Because the ravine had that avenue of attack channeled up, we had to use the artillery and mortars to cover our withdrawal. It took me about 15 minutes to explain to the Company Commander what the hell had happened and to get Battalion to let us change that avenue of approach. The only thing that kept Battalion from ordering us back into that ravine was the fact that our sister company was fighting to stay alive and Battalion ordered us to prepare to move over to where there were a lot of wounded Sky soldiers. By the time the battalion had any idea what to do, it was getting dark and it was decided that we would just dig in there and in the morning go sort things out. Charlie Company had been deployed early and now there were two companies attacking what was a pretty fortified position. Battalion committed the third company to help our sister company and we were directed to push forward and find a route up that damned hill. That was the first day in my six months of combat that my skill and training just met their match. It wasn't so much that we were using bad tactics, we were trying to face an enemy of at least the same size as our Company and they were in well fortified positions. It mattered not how much artillery he would dump on a position, as soon as the rounds stopped falling, the enemy would appear from their tunnels.
As we moved forward, we were trading the lives of my men for every foot. By the blood trails and body parts in the new trenches as they took them, it was pretty evident that he was making the enemy pay a high price also. The conventional tactics told us that if we were to win this battle, we would need three times as many troops as those we were trying to throw out of their fortifications. Even with the augmented firepower, it wasn't anywhere a fair fight. What the Fuck did I say, there is no such thing as fair in fighting.
From my first day in country, I was overwhelmed by the smells. Around the American units, the smell of burning shit and diesel fuel was everywhere. If you were a lowly soldier and screwed up, you are likely to find yourself on the shit detail. Not a detail that was the shits, but the job of burning the feces of the other guys. Out in the field, you just dug a hole with your entrenching tool. If you were near the Vietnamese villages, the smell of dried fish in the market just out smelled everything else. If you add the smells of a battle to the smell of decaying flesh you might understand how strong the smells were. The odd thing was that after a couple of days, the soldiers just became immune to their own smell. They smelled like sweat socks stored in a vat of dog puke. Tear open a body and it smells bad. Let it rot in the jungle for a day or two and it would gaga a maggot.
The fight continued on for the rest of the day and just about dark, the enemy just pulled back and we could not move on. The exhaustion and high number of wounded just was like some kind of glue that stuck us the ground where we stopped. We got permission from battalion to start moving some of the wounded back down the hill and the rest of the Company dug in with at least 50% of the men awake at all times. Do the math, half of half is about 25%.
The Company Commander started to check with his Platoons and see what his combat effectiveness was. Much to his horror, he found that the Company was almost out of water and ammo. The only thing that saved them was that the guys carrying wounded back could bring up ammo and water cans. By morning, the Company was pretty much used up and tired. The good news is that they now had water and ammo to try to regain the edge. Almost as soon as the unit started back up that damned hill, the enemy began to pop up and fire at us. All day that day it continued that my Forward Observers would fire and then the unit would gain a few feet. More heads would pop up and more fire. Again this battle continued for the second straight day. From time to time, the dug in troops would roll a grenade down the hill at us. We would return the favor by throwing our grenades at them. The hill was so chewed up that a lot of the grenades rolled down the hill fell in holes and against blown down trees. I'm sure that a lot of our grenades did the same. Again at nightfall, the strange eerie silence would fall over them. We evaced more wounded and more water and ammo was brought up.
I had pretty much been up for about 72 hours straight and just passed out asleep somewhere during the night.
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