Americal Division 69-70

By Dave Nisse

The Police Call

 It was late afternoon and the heat of the early autumn on the coastal plains west of Tam Ky wasn’t quite as relentless as it had been a little earlier in the day. The Charlie Charlie chopper settled down next to a line of dusty armored cavalry vehicles (ACAVs), strung out through the scarred and deserted countryside. These M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) belonged to the 1/1 CAV of the Americal Division. The "goofy grape" colored smoke used to mark the landing position swirled around the helicopter and the several men standing next to the troop commander’s track. When the flying debris from the helicopter’s ground effects died down as the pilot eased off the pitch and throttle, several of the troopers ran forward in a crouch. They quickly began unloading the supplies from the floor of the bird that included a brightly colored orange mailbag, boxes of C-rations, and assorted munitions.

 The squadron commander, a lieutenant colonel, stepped off the bird and walked over to a dusty 1st lieutenant standing in a sweaty flack jacket with goggles dangling from his neck. I followed him out and walked over to an equally dusty arty second lieutenant standing a little behind the cavalry COs. "So, do you know where your gonna laager up tonight yet Foh", I said. I was a junior artillery captain and worked as the liaison for the 1/1 CAV and this young forward observer worked for me. We had both been doing this job for several months and were both relatively old hands. "Not yet, captain. We’ve still got to sweep another 5 klicks along that river to the south" he responded. "Anything I can get ya from the REMF city for tomorrow, I think the old man’s gonna head in after this ash & trash run", I continued. "Naw, I think we’re okay for the rest of this mission, thanks anyway, Dai We", the 2Lt said.

 I looked over at the colonel and I could see he was just about done with the troop commander. He was passing on final instructions for the evening and a few words of encouragement for the long night ahead. The 1st Lt. nodded several times and then the colonel turned and walked back towards the Slick (helicopter). I turned to follow and over my shoulder said, "rattle my cage if you have any trouble getting your FPF (final protective fires) grids cleared tonight LT". He nodded and I quick-stepped over to the chopper and climbed on board just behind the colonel. The pilot increased the throttle, pulled pitch and the helicopter shuddered up into the air a few inches and began moving slowly forward. In a few moments, as our airspeed increased the bird stopped its shaking and smoothed out in what the pilots called a "transition" from hover to flight. The colonel looked over at me and yelled," we’re calling it a day, captain". I yelled back over the wind and blade noise in the open passenger compartment and nodded, "Okay, Sir". I settled back into the web seats and relaxed a little. "Back to land of hot chow and mattresses", I thought. The helicopter leveled out at about 1500 ft. and headed east towards Tam Ky.

 Suddenly, a distant explosion sounded over noise of the helicopter. I had jerked my head towards the door, startled out of my reverie about the luxury of the Chu Lai base camp. I looked at the colonel as he was talking into his flight helmet and the helicopter radios. The helicopter banked into a hard 180-degree turn and began to descend back towards where we had come from. A few moments later, he looked up at me and yelled, " the lead track hit a mine, we’re going back to dust-off". I gritted my teeth as I knew from the volume of the explosion at 5 klicks that it must have been a large mine and it probably wasn’t going to be a pretty picture. As we neared the troop, we could see a line of stationary ACAVs just behind a small fire burning which was billowing out a cloud of dark black smoke. There didn’t appear to be as much activity as I would have expected on the ground. The fire seemed to be coming from something burning next to a huge crater a few meters behind the lead track. I was somewhat perplexed as the track nearest the crater didn’t appear to have any noticeable damage.

 There was no colored smoke to mark a landing position and so pilot set down off to one side at about the middle of the column. A few troopers from the rear of the column were beginning to edge forward moving slowly and carefully looking at the ground as they moved. As the helicopter began to flair for landing, I finally got a good look at what was burning. I realized that it was an oblong piece of metal wreckage with a row of boogey wheels attached and the black smoke was from their burning rubber. I then began to make out other pieces of unrecognizable debris scattered in over a wide area around the smoking crater. "My god, it just about disintegrated that track", I thought. The colonel jumped off the helicopter and ran towards the tracks at the front of the column. I got off the bird slowly thinking to myself that nothing could have possibly survived such a blast. I walked slowly after colonel and as I passed looked up at the people on the tracks. I realized that the reason there wasn’t much activity was that most of the people in the tracks were still stunned by the huge concussion of the blast. A few were just now beginning to recover and move around a little. The colonel had also realized that we were the first ones there with our wits about us. He began to run around the wreckage and yelled to me help him look for survivors.

 I jogged over towards the crater and began to get a clear picture of the size of the crater and the magnitude of the destruction caused by the mine’s blast. I began to feel a sickness down in my stomach and a growing certainty than no one could have survived. I stopped a few meters away from the crater and began to scan the ground. I focused on a blackened piece of wreckage roughly 1-foot square at my feet wondering what it could be. As I bent over, I could see it glistened strangely. I slowly realized that this piece of wreckage was really a badly charred quarter of a human rib cage. I was now certain that no one had survived and saw a large rock on the edge of the field a few yards away. I walked over to the rock, sat down with my elbows on my knees and my chin on my chest. As I stared at the ground, my mind raced with thoughts about what it would have been like to have been on that track. I wondered whether you would have had time to hear or feel yourself being shredded and even melted, as must have been the case. A moment later, the colonel ran up and yelled at me. " What are you doing captain, get off your ass and help me look for survivors". I stood up slowly and looked him in the eye and as gently as I could said," Sir, there are no survivors". He opened his mouth for reply, but as I looked at him I saw the anger drain from his face. He didn’t say anything but shook his head and returned to his fevered looking. He still wasn’t ready to accept what had happened yet.

 I sat back down and returned to my grim musings. After a few minutes, I got up as I had noticed a regular shape on the other side of the clearing about 100 meters away. I began to walk over that way, keeping a close eye on the ground as I walked. When I got to within about 20 meters, I could make out that it was the rear loading ramp of the exploded ACAV. The loading ramp was a large thick piece of aluminum roughly 6 x 8 ft. with slightly rounded edges and a rubber seal to keep the water out when fording rivers. It also has a shortened doorway on one side of it. This was the only thing that had survived the mine in one piece. I visualized it sailing through the air like a giant square Frisbee from the force of the blast. I looked back across the field and could see the men of the troop beginning to collect near the track at the front of the column. I walked back over to see what was going on. When I arrived, I asked the nearest trooper," what’s was going on". He looked up at me with a grimace and quietly said," police call". When it sunk in what he was saying, I looked around and saw a couple of men with dark green rubber body bags under the direction of the troop 1st Sgt. I wasn’t sure I wanted to take part in this and walked over to where the colonel was talking to the troop commander.

 I listened and after a while I was able to get the gist of it that they were saying. They were trying to figure out how many men had been on the lead track. They thought it was three as it was standard procedure to have the lead track run with a skeleton crew for just this eventuality but couldn't be sure. The lead track duties were rotated around the troop to spread the risk around equitably. It was akin to walking point in an infantry unit but required a lot less skill and expertise. The men in the lead track had run out of luck in that field, the odds of war turned against them. The consensus opinion was that the mine had been a dud air force 500lb bomb rigged with a pressure detonator. The crater was a dead give away as we encountered them all over the place.

 It turned out that both the air force and our artillery had high enough dud rates that it was common practice for the VC to dig up our duds and use them against us. It's hard to imagine the kind of courage it takes to dig up a live bomb, refuse it with a home made detonator, and replant on some commonly used trail. We tried to avoid falling into common patterns of operating for this very reason. However, after working in any one area for a period of time it became hard to find unused routes, laager sites, and river crossings. The enemy was then able to "seed" the areas of high use with mines targeted at our tracks. We also tried to keep our operations as short and as random as we could make them in any one AO.

 By now the men were on line and moving across the field collecting the scattered fragments of the troopers that had been on the lead track. When the colonel made no move to join in, I gratefully stayed near him, although I felt a little guilty about it. In the year I served with him, this was the only time I saw him use his rank to an advantage and not choose lead from the front. A little later a dust-off bird flew into the LZ and picked up 2 partially burdened body bags. We were later able to confirm that there had been 3 men on that lead track.

Return to Home Page