SemiREMF Stories, Americal 69-70

by

Dave Nisse

 Hot LZ and First Blood.

The unit I was attached to as the artillery liaison, the 1/1 Armored Cavalry of the Americal division, had recently been transferred from LZ Hawk Hill west of Tam Ky to a new base of operations. It was Chu Lai, the division headquarters, and my liaison section and all the FO teams were transferred along with the CAV and reassigned en-masse to another artillery unit there as well. This was quite unusual, as our new unit was a general support arty unit of 155 and 8" howitzers. As general support, they had little or no experience with the job of directly supporting line units. You can imagine our surprise and delight when we first went to report in to our new unit and found a huge swimming pool at the battalion headquarters that some enterprising CO had actually managed to requisition. The pool and the ready availability of a source of equipment and supplies that were either brand new or looked like it had all just passed an Inspectors General (IG) inspection was too good to be true

 Perhaps you can also imagine the dismay of these rear echelon mother fÖ.. ( REMFs) upon seeing my somewhat rag tag collection of semi-REMFs and field soldiers. My liaison section members were usually able to keep themselves clean and somewhat presentable due to availability of soap and fresh water at the cavalry headquarters. However, the FO teams were usually covered with an aromatic mixture of heavy dust, axle grease, oil, diesel fuel and sweat that is a part of being in a tracked unit in the field. Further, I allowed my liaison team to effect a few non-regulation momentos of their field experience in their wear. I felt they had earned it and also it allowed them to fit in better with the cavalry troopers they worked with every day. Turned out this was usually frowned on in these rear areas. The CAVís new base of operations was a miserable flea infested set of sand dunes just inside the southwest corner of the Chu Lai perimeter. It had the added advantage of being situated next to a huge bomb dump that supplied the large airstrip to our southeast. On the other side was the Chu Lai headquarters of the 5th Special Forces group. Not exactly prime real estate, but at least the only thing to worry about was an occasional 122mm rocket fired from a belt of valleys on the other side of rugged hills to the west called the rocket pocket.

 I am not sure who had been there prior to our moving in but they left some nice hootches and an O-club. It felt like being in an old French Foreign Legion movie as we waded through the sand dunes there. Whoever the genius was that decided put a cavalry unit there couldnít have picked a worse spot. The sand worked its way into every nook and cranny on our tracks, especially when the wind started to blow in off the ocean. It turned our normally hard maintenance chores into a nightmare. However, we soon adapted as best we could and decided the added security of the main camp was well worth the pain of living in the sand. The CAV built a very nice tactical ops center (TOC) accented with the standard military scorched plywood motif for added "style". My new hootch was quite large and I shared it with only one other guy who was rarely there. I soon had it outfitted with a nice swivel fan and a small reefer for cokes and beer. It was most definitely "Fat City" as we referred to this pleasant state of affairs. The Dunes or Sand City, as we soon began to call it, had the standard REMF segregation of the officers and enlisted men. My hootch was on the outside of officer territory, which was situated on the North side of our base camp. In the center of the camp were the headquarters buildings and the TOC. The enlisted territory was on the south side and the motor pool and track yard was stretched out along the inner eastern side of the camp.

 After our first rocket attack one evening a few days later, I realized that there were no bunkers within easy reach of my hooch and so set about building one. I tried to get some help from the CAV officers in the area but they laughed and scoffed at the idea. I decided to do it myself for the exercise, but it was mostly out of pure stubbornness. For the next couple of weeks, whenever I had some slack time in the late afternoons after the cooling breeze blew in off the ocean, I worked alone building a bunker just outside the back door of my hootch. First, I headed over to Special Forces camp next door looking for something sturdy for a roof. They had tons of equipment and supplies they used to help with their Vietnamization efforts. I stumbled across some large heavy steel half round pieces of drainage pipe. I traded a couple of worn but useable 50 cal. barrels for one, which were easy to come by in the CAV but scarce as hens teeth for the Special Forces.

 Then, I dug a large wide trench and re-enforced the sides with ammo boxes and sandbags to keep them from crumbling in. I recruited some "volunteers" help from my liaison section one afternoon and together we muscled the drainage pipe onto the sandbag walls I had sunk into the sand. I then used empty wooden 90mm tank round boxes for the roof, as they were larger and easier to work with than sandbags. They had rope handles on either end. I put four layers of boxes on the roof and filled them in with sandbags where the curvature of the pipe required it. When it became too dark to work at night, I would walk over to the O-club for a few cool ones to re-hydrate my body. The CAV guys in the O-club always razzed me about being sweaty, sandy, and odorous after my afternoon workout on my bunker project. I retaliated with a promise to sit at the entrance of my bunker with my M-16 and collect admittance fees when we had our next rocket attack. I finished it in about 10 days and when the next rocket attack hit a few days later, it turned out that I had lots of CAV company in my new bunker. I never heard another word about being a rocket wimp or my bunker from my CAV brethren after that.

It quickly became apparent that our new squadron commander was a different breed of cat than his predecessor. He proved to be a tough, no-nonsense commander who believed that the best place to command his CAV units was from a command and control (Charlie Charlie) helicopter just overhead of his maneuvering elements or on the ground with them. He also believed that he needed his arty liaison with him wherever he went. So I turned the daily operations of the liaison section over to my liaison sergeant while I was flying with the "old man" and followed him around like an obedient hound dog.

 I spend a great deal of time over the next 12 months bouncing around the Southern I Corp in either a Bell UH-1 helicopter called a Slick due to its lack of rocket pods or a Light Observation Helicopter (loach) with the squadron commander. A typical day consisted of up at daybreak and down to the heli-pad to meet the chopper and crew that had been assigned as Charlie Charlie bird that day. The pilots rotated their flying assignments and so we rarely had the same pilots. We loaded up our gear and any mail or supplies needed and flew out to each CAV unit operating in the field. Generally, we spent the day monitoring ground operations overhead, giving the ground commanders short aerial reconnaissance look-sees, communicating maneuver directions via smoke grenades, helping out with re-supply, delivering hot meals, and in a crisis situations flying dust-offs or providing whatever support was needed. When on the ground I would talk with my FO teams and find out if they needed any thing at all and provide it for them on my next trip out. My typical outfit during these excursions was: M-16; 25 magazines loaded with 18 rounds every other round tracer (24 fit compactly in a Claymore carrying bag); a PRC-25 radio; maps of the area; a code book called an SOI; pistol belt with a .45, canteen, and battle dressing; steel pot; jungle fatigues, and boots.

 I typically rode in the middle of the aircraft in the web seats against the back of the passenger compartment, unless something was happening. Then I got down on the floor next to the door on the left side of the aircraft with my back against the pilotís seat facing the colonel. There were rarely enough flight helmets to go around for the passengers so I was rarely hooked up to aircraft intercom system. From my position on the floor, we could communicate by shouting over din of the helicopter as we were facing each other just a few feet apart. I could also bring my M-16 to bear out the door and add a little firepower to the door gunnerís M-60 machine gun. Also, if the door guns jammed or broke down, we had my M-16 for cover fire, which was better than nothing. From there, I could clearly observe the situation out the door, call for and adjust any arty fires the colonel wanted. The pilots were usually not very happy to be around when the arty was coming in but I would point out the gun-target line so they could establish a safe orbit pattern away from the incoming rounds.

 Shortly after I started to get the hang of this new mode of operation, the monsoon season began and the rice paddies quickly became un-navigable for our M-48s. This meant that the troops began operating without their normal complement of internal heavy fire support. A "light" troop was sent into an area northwest of Tam Ky on intelligence that a strong NVA unit was infiltrating through this area trying to take advantage of the rainy season. Flying during the monsoon rains was possible depending on how low and thick the rains and cloud cover was. In the mornings, we would wait to see if the Aviation Company who flew for us had determined whether or not they could fly. I never did figure out what the criteria used to determine whether we flew or not as it seemed to me sometimes we flew through miserable weather and sometimes we didnít. I guess it was a function of what the meteorological boys were saying and the aviation company commanderís discretion. It also seemed that the chief pilot or aircraft commander (AC) had some discretion in the matter as on occasion we would start out for the field units and then turn around and come home.

 Occasionally, we would not be allocated a bird, as there werenít enough aircraft available for everyone who had requested one. On one dark gray, damp morning a couple of weeks into the monsoon season, the word came down from on high that we had struck out this time and wouldnít get a Charlie Charlie bird that day. We returned to the TOC and I started to determine what I needed to do that I had been putting off while flying. There always seemed to be plenty that needed doing, either cleaning or repairing our equipment or scrounging up the never-ending stream of supplies we needed: maps, batteries, radios, clothing, mail, goodies from PX, admin paperwork, training the newbies (also referred to as fÖ new guys, FNGs). I began to work my way through the stuff I needed to take care of that morning. About mid-morning, the tactical radios on the CAV side of the TOC began to crackle with reports of heavy fighting. The troop had turned up a small valley near a large hill, which turned into a box canyon rather than the pass around the hill that the troop commander thought it was. Just about the time he realized his mistake and had started to turn around, they began to take heavy fire from the end of the canyon. They were reporting several NVA .51 cal machine guns firing at them which was very unusual as these heavy machine guns were rare and usually reserved for anti-aircraft uses. This seemed to indicate a sizeable force that was willing to stand and do battle.

 The troop commander shortly requested permission to withdraw as he had begun to take fire from three sides as the enemy began to infiltrate down his flanks on either side of the valley. Additionally, he had begun to take heavy Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) fire. The RPG was the communist-bloc equivalent of our light antitank weapons (LAW), kind of like a bazooka, and was the bane of our ACAVs. The colonel ordered the troop commander to hold his ground and to keep the pressure on the enemy and to call for air and arty support. At the same time, the colonel got on the horn and as a result of the heavy action got our priority bumped up somehow and soon we had a chopper headed our way. I looked through my collection of maps and found the one that I would need and then heard the chopper approaching. I grabbed my pistol belt, which had a .45 and 2 spare clips of ammo, field dressing, canteen, and hurriedly strapped it on. I grabbed my radio, the maps, and decided to forgo my M-16 as I could hear the colonel yelling at me to move it out as he headed out the door. This proved to be a mistake I would later regret and never repeat again.

 I caught up with the colonel and his XO, a younger major, and ran down to the heli-pad with them. We turned our backs to the stinging sand and dirt being kicked up by the ground effects as the chopper settled to the ground near us. We then ran forward in an unnecessary but involuntary crouch caused by the huge blades thumping just over our heads. Once we had scrambled on board, the colonel and the major pulled off their steel pots and put on flight helmets, got on the intercom and began giving the pilots the necessary directions to get us over the fire fight. I settled into the web seats roughly in the middle and put on the small OD seat belts that were there. This was my first flight into a combat situation and I figured it just made good sense to strap in. The pilot pulled pitch and lifted the bird into a hover, pedaled the bird towards the west, dropped the nose and we gradually transitioned into forward flight. We flew up to about 1500 ft, turned north as we crossed Highway 1 and then followed it till we were approaching Tam Ky where we angled off towards the west. The clouds were heavy but high enough that the visibility was still good. The air streaming in the open door was damp and cold so I rolled down the sleeves of my jungle fatigues and buttoned them up. The terrain below was an open plain covered with rice paddies and broken by numerous streams and rivers and an occasion small hill. It was very green and wet looking with the muddy rice paddies reflecting back up the steely gray of the skies. It just looked and felt like we were going to a battle.

 Our pilot that day was an old hand coming towards the end of his tour. You could always tell the most seasoned pilots by their demeanor and the fact that they usually had the better birds. The newer pilots got stuck with ratty looking, heavily patched, and banged up helicopters. It was an extension of a sentiment that pervaded during the Vietnam War that your life was worth more the longer you were in country. I could never quite see the logic of it myself but never the less found myself buying into it strongly during my last few months in country. The pilots would paint or have painted on their flight helmets their radio call signs or names. They wore a Nomex flight suit, which was a one-piece jumpsuit affair, made of a fire retardant material. The material was dense and looked like it was hot and uncomfortable but probably wasnít bad as long as you were flying. As we took up an orbit over the battlefield, I could see the red tracers from the machine guns on the ACAVS streaming out towards the heavy vegetation surrounding the box canyon. From the head of a canyon up on a heavily wooded ridge came the green tracers of the enemy streaming back. After one or two orbits, the old man yelled at me that we were there first and the needed dustoffs hadnít arrived yet and that we were going in to extract some critically wounded troopers.

 All of a sudden, it felt like the bottom had dropped out as we began a steep, spiraling descent towards the canyon below. At just about the time I decided we were going to crash, the pilot straightened out the chopper and flared it by kicking the tail down to scrub off our forward momentum and eased us into the muddy rice paddy between two ACAVS. As we set down, the fire rapidly increased on both sides, the enemy firing at our helicopter and the ACAVís firing back trying to suppress the fire. Out of the back of the nearest ACAV, several troopers jumped into the mud and began to drag or carry the wounded across the paddy to us. The incoming fire kicked up splashes all around us. The increased fire from the ACAVís did a good job of holding down the enemy fire down and we weren't hit. Shortly, six or seven troopers jumped or were helped into the bird. They were all covered with mud and blood. The pilot began to lift up out of the mud and move forward.

 I could see the colonel yelling at the men each in turn. At first I couldnít make out why he seemed upset. Suddenly, through the racket I could hear him asking each in turn if he was wounded. Since they were all covered with blood, I had assumed they were. The colonel had clearly been here before and realized that none of the men would get off the bird once on, unless ordered off. About half the men were medics or just other troopers who had helped carry the wounded to our bird. When he found an unwounded man, he propelled him towards the door and briskly ordered him to get back to his ACAV and into the battle. By the time he found the last unwounded man, we were about 6 ft off the ground and moving at about 20mph. The unwounded man hesitated at the door, so the colonel shoved him out. As we lifted away, I saw him land into the muddy water on his back with a large splash and immediately get up and begin slogging towards the nearest ACAV. I could see he was working furiously but the mud and water forced him to move like he was in slow motion.

The AC was pulling as much pitch into the big blades as they dared and also weaving from side to side to try and throw off the ground fire. When the enemy rounds hit the helicopter they made a loud metallic ticking sound. When I turned back, the colonel was talking to and closely looking over the wounded men as the helicopter literally shuddered up into air. I could see from the look on his face that he wasnít happy about something and wondered what was wrong now. He pulled on the flight helmet and began talking animatedly into his mike.  I was a little stunned by it all and just sat there looking at the bloody wounded men on the floor. Suddenly, the bird lurched into rapid turn and I thought we had been hit. The colonel yelled that we were going back in, we hadn't gotten the critically wounded man. He had realized that the men on the floor, although bloody, were not badly wounded. None had critical wounds that couldn't have waited for the dust-offs that had been ordered up.

Without hesitation, the pilot had whipped the bird around in violent turn that I had no idea a helicopter was capable of doing. We dropped back down in a roller coaster fashion to where we had just left in a matter of a seconds. Once again as we set down, I could hear the firing intensify on both sides and see the rounds splashing into the water all around us. This time we set in the LZ for about 10 seconds, an eternity it seemed, and no one emerged from the tracks. The colonel was yelling angrily into his mike and turned to us saying that men were afraid to exit the track because of all the firing. I couldnít say I blamed them.

 The major setting next to me suddenly jumped up and leaped out of the bird and splashed towards the ACAV. His action finally galvanized me as I realized here was something I could do to help. Also, the sooner we got the casualties on board, the sooner we would get out of that hot LZ. I tried to stand and couldnít move. I momentarily wondered if this was what they meant by the phrase paralyzed by fear. After unsuccessfully struggling to stand for a few moments, it finally dawned on me I still had the seat belt on. Relieved but feeling stupid as hell, I popped the belt and scrambled out of the chopper and splashed across the 20 meters to the ACAV. That was the last time I put on a seat belt in a helicopter, except for one occasion I was in a forced landing. Thinking I was scared stiff one time was enough for me.

The major and another man were wrestling to get an unconscious man on a stretcher through the back door when I arrived. I grabbed hold of one side and the three of us got the stretcher and the badly wounded man through the door. I grabbed the handles at the back of the stretcher and the major and the medic took the front and we splashed across the paddy to the chopper. As we stumbled along across the open rice paddy amid the heavy firing, all I could think of was the man the colonel had kicked out the door moving in what seemed like slow motion. I knew we were probably moving even slower. After what seemed like a several minutes but was actually just seconds, we made it to the slick, lifted the stretcher, and slide it aboard next to the other wounded men on the floor. The medic grabbed me and yelled at me to hold the tourniquet on the wounded man's arm and then headed back towards the AVAC we had just left. The major and I hopped into the aircraft as the bird lifted out of the LZ to heightened firing one more time.

 After we were in motion, I moved over to side of the stretcher where I could see a GI web belt wrapped around the wounded mans upper arm. As I reached for the belt, I was shocked to see that his forearm was detached at the elbow and hanging by a single strip of torn muscle and cartilage. Somehow I hadn't seen it till that moment. The belt had begun to loosen and I could see the blood begin to flow heavily out of the raw stump. After a momentís hesitation, I grabbed the belt and pulled it tight and the blood slowed to a slow oozing. A few moments later, the colonel looked over my shoulder at what I was doing and nodded. As he moved back towards his seat, he slipped in a large pool of blood that had been forming under the stretcher, which no one had noticed. He leaned over and told the major to check out the manís back and returned to his seat next to the open door. The major looked at the growing pool of blood under the stretcher and reached for his battle dressing. He removed it from his belt and tore open the cardboard container it came in. He went to the other side of the man and gently lifted him and then gritted his teeth in way that let me know that there was a terrible wound there. He shoved his dressing into what was apparently a large opening in the manís ribcage. He did the best he could to cover and protect the wound before easing the unconscious man back down to the stretcher. He then sat down next to the colonel and put on his flight helmet shaking his head.

 Several long minutes later, we arrived at the medievac hospital in Chu Lai. The medics waiting at the pad there smoothly took over for me and had the wounded men and the stretcher out of the bird in a moment. We took off quickly and headed back for the battle. As we flew back, the fresh air blowing through the doors quickly dried the blood on the floors and the strong smell of the blood in our noses began to ease. We heard later that the man died, in spite of putting up a valiant struggle to live. For a while, it had looked like the doctors and nurses would pull him through but after over 30 pints of blood and about 48 hours, his terrible wounds overcame all our efforts. By the time we reached the fire fight again, a pair of Cobra gun ships and another pair of C-Model Huey gunships were rocketing and shooting up and down the sides of the canyon. The colonel asked me to get a fire mission ready on the head of the box canyon. Just then, one of the Cobras radioed it had been hit and was going down. He was going to try and set it down on a road just south of the fight. The colonel directed our pilot to go and pick up the gunship pilots.

 As we flew around the hill, I could see the Cobra hitting the road and sliding down it in a huge cloud of dust. It came to a rest and the pilots scrambled out of it before the blades had stopped spinning. We settled down on the south side of the road about 50 meters away. The pilots had determined that nothing was on fire and were inspecting the damage as we came up. From there, we could hear the firing from just over the crest of the hill and see the other helicopter gunships continuing their gun runs. The colonel directed me up the road about a 100 meters to secure that flank and sent the major in the other direction to cover the other flank with his M-16. I pulled my .45, chambered a round and headed up the road and took up a position in the shallow ditch on the side of the slightly raised road away from the fighting. After a few minutes crouched in the dirt scanning the tree line about 100 meters away, I began to feel awfully lonely and just plain foolish armed with only a .45 and 2 spare clips (21 rounds). I decided that that was the last time I was ever going anywhere without my rifle.

 About 15 long minutes later, a slick from the Aviation Company showed up and the colonel called me back in. I was very relieved that no NVA had come out of that treeline. The colonel explained that they were going to airlift the Cobra out as it could be repaired and that the aviation boys were taking over for us. We took off and headed back to our orbit over the fight. The fighting had eased when we arrived overhead but the colonel directed me to go ahead with the fire mission I was working up prior to the Cobra going down. I finished up figuring out the grid coordinates and contacted the 155 battery at Hawk Hill to fire a mission on the hillside overlooking the box canyon.

An observed artillery fire mission consisted of a carefully scripted set of information passed over the radio. Once I had established radio contact, I identified the grid coordinates, the type of target, my direction to the target for subsequent adjustments or that I would adjust on the gun-target line, the type of ammo for the first round, the type of ammo and number of rounds for adjustment, and finally the type ammo, number of guns, and rounds to fire for effect. The standard daytime first round was of "smoke high streamer". This round emitted a large brightly colored smoke trail for the last few hundred meters of its flight. This provided the observer with a good indicator of where subsequent rounds would impact, a visual indication of the gun-target line, as well as being a relatively safe non-exploding round just in case the observerís grid coordinates had been dangerously off.

 When the guns fired, they radioed "shot over" and I acknowledged, "shot out". When the rounds were close to computed impact time, the guns radioed, "splash over" and I responded, "splash out". Once I had verified from the smoke round the impact point, we switched to high explosive (HE) and made the necessary adjustments, add, drop, left, or right in meters. From the air, I was able to make these corrections quickly and accurately as the view from up there made estimating the distances much easier. After very little experience, I would have rounds on the target usually with a single adjustment and never more than two. Once the rounds were on target, I requested, "fire for effect" and the battery would respond with the number of guns and rounds I had requested or that they could supply based upon their ammo situation. In this case, I had requested a grid fire for effect, which produced a rectangular pattern of rounds starting at the head of the canyon then sweeping up over the crest of the hill. I figured by this time that they might be trying to withdraw in that direction. The fires went in right on target and walked slowly up the hillside. It was like some invisible angry giant pounding the earth causing 50 meter diameter eruptions of blackened earth, trees, and flying shrapnel with a heaving crumping noise that sounds like nothing else on earth. When my fire mission was complete, the enemy had ceased firing completely and the fighting died away. The CAV had requested infantry support, as the enemy positions were well back in the heavy trees and jungle hillsides so that the ACAV couldnít get at them. The troopers would conduct some dismounted operations but usually not in the heavy bush. They werenít really trained or equipped for that kind of fighting.

 By the time a company of infantry was airlifted in, it was late afternoon. The mop up operation was no where near complete when darkness began to fall. The CAV troop and infantry support withdrew down the canyon to the nearest good laager site and spent the night waiting for daybreak to complete it. We pounded the site randomly during the night with artillery to try and inflict casualties as the enemy almost always collected their dead and equipment after. By the next day, the enemy had withdrawn and taken most of their casualties with them as was usually the case. Never the less, it was clear we had encountered a sizeable force of combined anti-armor and anti-aircraft. From the number of .51 cals and RPGs being fired at the troop, it couldnít have been anything else. We were pretty sure we had done them severe damage with the gunships and arty but were only able to locate about a few enemy bodies and equipement. We never found any of the heavy crew served weapons, which made the operation most unsatisfying for us.

 A few days later, we landed on the top of the hill and walked down to the now vacant fighting positions dug down in the tree line. From the number and size of these positions it was clear we had encountered at least a company sized unit of mixed anti-aircraft and anti-armor heading to rendezvous with a regimental sized unit they normally operated with. In addition to the casualties we inflicted, I am quite certain put a hell of a wrinkle in their time tables. I also could see that in spite of the intensity of my artillery fire, it had inflicted little damage on enemyís deep holes and firing pits. The widely dispersed grid fire was not as effective as I had hoped. I needed to use more concentrated fires and a mixture of air, quick, and delay fuses to be the most effective against this kind of a position in the future. I would have sworn those guys were part gopher after examining the deep fortifications they had dug. For myself, I felt I had passed my first real test of fire and blood and had managed to do my job without any major screw-ups. I choose to overlook my little seat belt incident, which no one had noticed and I sure didnít advertise. I knew I still had a lot to learn, but felt a growing confidence that I would be able to hack whatever the gods of war threw my way.

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