A Walk with Dick on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
My unit arrived on armored personal carriers (APC’s) traveling deep into the jungle up one branch of the Ho Chi Minh trail. The general area was located just West of An Loc in Tay Ninh Province. It was the last few days of May 1967, and I had just turned twenty earlier in that same month. My unit had recently completed Operation Junction City, which was the largest campaign of the entire war. I wish I had kept better track of the personal events surrounding my tour of duty, but I didn’t and that’s that. I believe now that the purpose of this mission was to act as a blocking force, to keep the enemy from coming back over the Cambodian border after we had pushed them out during the Junction City operation. As I remember now, 50 years later, we arrived just before night fall., but were not given orders to dig in until well after sunset. It was unusual because we arrived at our destination by riding on top of Armored Personnel Carriers, and did not fly in on helicopters. There were no civilians what-so-ever and nothing but jungle everywhere. The place evoked a very spooky feeling in everyone and we were told that any Vietnamese spotted were to be considered enemy combatants. We were finally given orders to dig in, chest high. The jungle clearing for our night defensive position (NDP) was perhaps 5 recently cleared acres in size. It may have been cleared by bull dozers. Perhaps a bull dozer was trucked in with our unit and we had to wait for the jungle to be cleared away before we could dig in. I cannot remember. If that is true, it would also explain why we didn't use helicopters, because there had been no available clearing for them to use as a landing zone. At least there would have been no safe landing zone because the area was crawling with thousands of enemy combatants.
However, the very first thing I do clearly remember, was a soldier in the next position to mine cussing very loudly while digging his fox hole. Our recently assigned commanding Officer, 38 year old Lt. Colonel Richard E. Cavazos walked up from behind that private as he was digging and cussing in cadence with each strike of his shovel, oblivious to the CO’s presence. Seeing the commander, the rest of us stopped, to observe what was going to happen next. The “Ole Man” just stood, staring down at this private with his hands on his hips. The soldier continued his rant but finally turned to his side. As he did, he then noticed Dick just standing over him. Without being spoken to, he immediately threw down his entrenching tool and stood straight up facing the commander. There was a pause as he waited for the inevitable dressing down that would surely come from any typical battalion commander in the First Infantry Division. However, we would soon learn that Dick wasn’t your typical commander. He beckoned the soldier to come closer and the soldier meekly complied and got out of his half dug fox-hole. Then, very calmly, as if he were talking to his own son, Dick said, “I know how tired you are and how hard this ground is but you have got to finish digging that hole because it could save your life. Now, get back down there and finish the job”. The entire time, Dick never once raised his voice, nor changed the fatherly tone of it. He then gave that man a light kick in the rear with his right boot as the man turned to climb back into his fox hole. Far from being angry, the man looked around at us with a sheepish grin on his face as he quietly started digging again. Very calmly, Dick walked on to survey other parts of the perimeter.
While located at this NDP, we would sometimes have flares shot from artillery guns light up the jungle around us at night. This lighting created a really spooky feeling as shadows danced along the backdrop of jungle vegetation outside our perimeter. These flares could not have been shot from our guns because they were too close to deliver them properly. They had to come from the guns of other artillery positions like ours located only a few miles away. The maximum range of these 155 artillery guns was just under 10 miles. As other units provided artillery support for us, we, in turn, did the same for them. Requests for fire missions were, in fact, being called back and forth between units all the time, so our NDP was a very noisy place day and night. Also, at night, “Puff the Magic Dragon” (The nick name for a C130 cargo plane fitted with a Gatling gun) could be spotted in the distant sky by observing the streaming red tracer rounds spraying toward the ground from its cargo bay gun. Knowing that we were just one of a number of units spread out several miles apart in NDP’s, and that each of these positions, including ours, had artillery units embedded with them, told me something else. We were on a sizable operation which would probably last longer than a day or two.
I do not know how to properly express what I am about to say but here it goes. I will do the best I can. While most missions had their moments of complete and utter fear, this one was different. It just felt extremely dangerous all the time. It’s a feeling I will never be able to describe to anyone who has not spent time in a combat zone. Perhaps a half century later, the resident fear I experienced then is why the events of this mission have become so entrenched in my memory. My gut was in knots the entire time we were in this place.
We performed road clearing operations every day that we were there, in order to receive supplies by trucks, coming up from Saigon down that same road from the south which we initially traveled in on. Each night the enemy would mine the road and each morning we would provide protection for mine sweeper crews as they cleared the mines. Then, after clearing mines, a portion of the battalion would be placed at two man intervals to sit all day on both sides of the road to keep the road clear of enemy activity. It is important to note that this entire area was considered a kill on sight zone. There were no friendly civilians in the area. In the evening, when everyone withdrew to the safety of our NPD, I would listen to other road guards talk about the attempts of camouflaged enemy soldiers trying to sneak up on them. I was amazed at an account of a sighting by one soldier of what looked like a bush moving toward him. He said that he was so mesmerized that he took no action as the figure melted back into the jungle. Go figure. “You mean you just sat there and watched as this bush disappeared from view? What if that bush had decided to take a shot at you”, I asked? The soldier never answered me.
For several days in a row my squad would help the mine sweepers clear the road by patrolling through the jungle on one of their flanks while another squad would patrol on the other side of the road for protection. Sometimes the mine sweepers would get ahead of us on straight stretches of roadway, since we had to plow through thick jungle on each side of the road to keep pace with them. When this happened and a mine sweeper was hit by an enemy sniper’s bullet everyone would stop while the wounded man was evacuated. I am very glad I was not a mine sweeper in Vietnam. However, I did walk point for my platoon while plowing through the jungle beside the road in order to provide some protection for these guys. It was amazing how noisy my platoon members following me could be. They would talk. They would step on sticks. They would allow brush to make loud scratching sounds as it rubbed along their back packs. You name the type of noise and they could make it. Anyone hiding in front of this line of soldiers could hear us coming in plenty of time to set up a claymore mine or at least take a pot shot at the man in the front and that man was me. This type of behavior was infuriating to me. In response, after several days of this behavior while performing this road clearing duty, I pushed further ahead and completely out of sight of the next man in line. Many years of bow hunting had taught me to travel quietly through the woods, and at the same time continually focus on the slightest movement to the front. While ducking and coming up on the other side of a hanging vine, I saw movement. Instinctively, my M14 responded with a 3 round burst, intentionally just a little low so as not to overshoot, taking advantage of the effects of a 7.62 millimeter round hitting the hard laterite ground and ricocheting up instead of chancing overshooting into thin air. Sergeant Bartee was out of sight behind me. Of course, when he heard the shots, he immediately came running to catch up. I was just standing there looking ahead. “What’s going on?”, he asked. “I shot at something that moved in front of me”, I replied. “But it was nothing”, I added, thinking to myself that I was probably letting the stress get to me and becoming a little too jumpy. We started moving forward again and the guys behind me definitely quieted down a lot, as they continued following the sergeant and I. A few steps further and Bartee grabbed my shoulder and whispered, “Be careful. I see blood on some of these tree leaves we are walking through”. I nodded and kept walking without replying. Nothing else happened on that day, of any importance, and no mind sweepers were killed. We never found out where the blood came from. Did I actually wound somebody who then ran off? To this day, I don’t have an answer for that question.
This type of cat and mouse operation was a typical example of the way so many young men died in Vietnam. Personally, I tried my best to always be the cat but no one could deal with all the uncertainties 100% of the time. So, one or two were killed here, or one or two there, or one or two everywhere, every day, all over the place. This rate of attrition, all seemed so acceptable to the generals who were marred down in a mindless political situation, which I believe, hindered their ability to properly support, train and control mid-level commanders at a tactical level. Many casualties were definitely caused by a lack of tactical knowledge, which led to inept command decisions being made by many mid-level commanders. I am very happy to say that Dick was not such a commander. In the field, he only danced to his own tune while carrying out orders from higher up and like a seasoned conductor for the New York Symphony, he played some real high-brow stuff, which grunts like me appreciated little at the time. Now, years later, I realize I wouldn’t be here now if Dick had not been there then. Several years back, in a phone conversation with him, I asked him why he was so successful in carrying out mission after mission with such low casualties, yet with such great success against the enemy, where other units, who were performing similar operations, would get shot to pieces. He simply replied, “Wayne, Vietnam was not my first rodeo.” By that, he meant that he had cut his commander’s teeth during heavy fighting during the Korean campaign.
On another day, after clearing the same road of mines, my friend, (and I didn’t have many), a 26 year old guy named Bill Milliron and I were positioned alongside it, as road guards. We were placed there to protect resupply vehicles traveling down it during the daylight hours. It was too dangerous for anyone to travel at night. The enemy owned the night and would always mine the road again each night so it had to be cleared each and every day. This guard duty lasted all day and was about as boring as it can get. In late afternoon I heard a sound coming from the jungle in front of us about fifty yards away. Milliron heard it too at about the same time. The jungle was too dense to see anything so the noise could be coming from a mongoose, looking for snakes, because these little guys were numerous around that area of Vietnam. However, Milliron and I were not stupid enough to take chances. Nor was either of us the kind of guy who would wait to see if a bush moved and then see who could stare at it the longest without taking action. It is safe to say that we both were type A personalities who believed very much in being proactive, although, at the time, I am sure neither of us knew what that word meant. We immediately stopped the soft spoken conversation we were having about rose gardens in his home town of Santa Barbara, looked straight into each other’s eyes, and at the same time reached for a hand grenade. The jungle under growth consisted of mostly small saplings that would allow a well thrown grenade to go ricocheting at least 20 or 30 yards if thrown properly. So, we threw them at about the same time and about the same distance. One grenade went slightly to the right and the other went slightly to the left. Kaboom! And then all was silent. To this day, I don’t know what made that noise or whether or not we stopped a man or a mongoose or nothing at all.
After returning to base camp that evening, and sometime after having a "delicious" supper, which consisted mostly of ham and lima beans from a can of C-Rations, my other friend, Glen Bowman, from Kentucky, and I were laying on our backs just outside our fox hole looking up at the diming sun light in the sky as night approached. To say I felt at peace with all the world would definitely be false. Let’s just say I felt more like one who has received a very short reprieve from something ominous, since we would not be going out this night on an ambush patrol. I suppose I was so naïve that I was feeling way more confident in the protection provided by our NDP and supporting artillery and air power, than a more savvy soldier would have ever felt. Our own artillery guns were temporarily silent too, which added to the strange peace I was feeling, I am sure. Bowman fell asleep on his back beside our fox hole. Who knows where Milliron was? Then it happened. An artillery shell landed in the distance. It was probably another supporting unit who was H and I-ing (harassment and interdiction fire) just outside our perimeter. That was done quite often to make the enemy think twice about sneaking up on us. I never bothered to turn my head to look. Then, another shell landed a little closer this time, and then another closer yet. Still believing this was our own artillery at work, I rolled over and fell into our fox hole just to be on the safe side. Just as I looked up to holler at the sleeping Bowman, another shell landed not twenty yards away well inside the perimeter and behind our fox hole. Bowman screamed. He was hit with shrapnel. The next round fell further on down the line and the next and the next. Obviously, this was not our artillery. It was an enemy mortar team walking our perimeter with a little H and I fire of their own. It was over very quickly. I checked Bowman’s condition. He was still lying on his back just outside our foxhole and still looking straight up and moaning. He said he had a burning pain coming from his stomach. Immediately, from who knows where, Milliron appeared and was standing over him. I was now out of our fox hole and squatting down beside him. Milliron and I both saw it at the same time. There was a jagged piece of very hot spent shrapnel lying on his belly, burning the crap out of him. We brushed it off and all three started laughing, very relieved that he would only have a small red burn mark as a result of that shelling.
Our unit always stationed ambush patrols a few hundred meters outside of our NDP at night to provide early warning of an approaching enemy. That same night, the three of us were awakened by gun fire close by in the jungle. Someone, maybe sergeant Bartee, came by our position and let us know that one of our 1/18th battalion ambush patrols was caught up in a fire fight and was ordered to pull back to our NDP as quickly as they could. There were wounded, so some of the weapons and gear they carried had to be abandoned in order to make hast carrying these wounded men to safety. I cannot remember if medevac helicopters, which were called “Dust Offs”, came out or not. I do remember flares lighting up our NDP perimeter the rest of the night and I also remember that the shelling increased considerably around our perimeter, fired from our supporting units, miles away. Needless to say, hardly anyone slept the rest of the night. I know I didn’t. “Puff” came closer than ever to our position as evidenced by its streaming red tracers streaming down to earth in the black night sky.
The next morning, my B Company November Platoon was ordered to go out to the site where the previous night’s ambush patrol had engaged the enemy and retrieve any weapons and gear that we could find. I wasn’t walking point that day. I remember that our patrol seemed to take a zigzagging course to the site of the fire fight, which in thinking back, was a really smart idea. I am sure now that Dick Cavazos advised his platoon leaders on taking this zigzag course instead of a straight line just to confuse the enemy in case they would try to ambush us. Charlie was so good at these kinds of tactics and we would soon find that they had their own deadly trick to play to counter this zigzag maneuver. In thinking back now, I believe Dick not only suspected the possibility of us being ambushed on the way out, but I believe he also anticipated what their alternate strategy would be if they couldn’t pull off a simple ambush in the first place. However, years later, I can tell the reader for sure that not a single draftee on that patrol had any idea of the kind of trouble we would soon be facing and to this day I am sure there are those who were there, who still do not realize that they owe their lives that day to Dick Cavazos and what he would do next.
On this meandering course to the ambush site, I remember walking past a really dark skinned, bushy haired guy sitting against a tree with a tourniquet around his leg clutched by lifeless hands. He was a stone cold dead enemy soldier. Everyone gazed at him but no one touched him. By this time in my tour of duty, I had seen plenty of dead bodies but this guy gave me an eerie feeling which I have never forgotten. In his still stance he seemed to be silently heralding to each one who passed him, and saying that we would all soon be joining him on that very same day. Almost 50 years later the thought of that guy still sends a chill up my spine.
It was a very hot day and by the time our patrol filed past the dead guy everyone was wringing wet with sweat. Now, all anyone around me wanted to do was find our objective, secure any gear we could retrieve and make a bee line back to base camp. The jungle was a triple canopy with very thick under growth. I remember the air becoming extremely stuffy. Finally, we arrived at the previous night’s ambush position. I cannot remember picking up a single piece of lost equipment or even looking for any. Yet, very quickly, I remember other members of the patrol being loaded down with lost gear and the order to move out was given.
Even if I had not helped carry a single thing, no one would have complained about me not pulling my weight. In looking back now, I realize this was the high water mark in my relationship with my unit, although I didn't know that at the time. I was completely accepted as a good fit by every old guy in the unit and theirs were the only opinions that counted. At least half of them probably saw me as a strange Marty Robins gun fighter ballard loving bumpkin who didn’t smoke, drink or do drugs and a real party pooper when it came to letting off steam during our unit down time. However, now, while humping the jungle, I was viewed as a real asset, because out here I had proven myself to them time and again. I carried the much more potent but much heavier M-14, 300 M-14 rounds, 2 one hundred round belts for the M-60 machine gun, 8 hand grenades, 1 LAW and up to 6 quarts of water which I gladly shared with others. I walked point and never got lost, which hardly anyone in his right mind wanted to do. I was an excellent shot, had an eye for detail and was very good at improvising, which was very calming to others in the various combat situations we had faced up to this point. Because of my low self esteem I avoided all opportunities to fraternize with the NCO’s and the officers, which, I am sure, would have created jealousy toward me with my fellow draftees. I didn’t have a prejudice bone in my body. So, no. No one would have ever thought that I wasn’t carrying my load, even if I didn’t help carry a single piece of the recovered items.
I remember heading back but the return trip seemed weird simply because my squad was not in the lead position. I had to depend on someone else to blaze a trail and that didn’t suit my nature. Bowman, Milliron and I had led enough patrols to know that we could follow an azimuth through any type of terrain, night or day, and at a thousand meters be no more than ten meters off a check point. I counted paces, Milliron followed the compass reading and Bowman hacked his way through any obstructions with his machete for the rest to follow. We had led the entire battalion on several moonless night marches when it was impossible to see one’s hand in front of one’s face. We had also experienced getting lost when others took the lead and coming under friendly fire because we were not where we were supposed to have been. If a patrol didn’t know where it was located on a map at all times and it ran into trouble with the enemy, coordinating artillery support by radio was next to impossible because fire support people needed to know where you were located on the map so they could direct their shelling on to the enemy position instead of you. There were no GPS satellites in 1967. Everything depended on the guys on the ground.
By the time we were maybe 300 meters from camp the line of men in front of me stopped so my squad stopped. I had no idea where we were because I wasn’t walking point. The 'ninety day wonder" (second lieutenant) leading this, and his platoon sergeant came walking back through the ranks telling everyone in a low voice that we had been traveling parallel to the road that ran through our NDP for a while now. We were on the Cambodian side of that road which ran straight through the middle of our base camp. It was also the road that ran south on the opposite side of base camp toward Saigon, the same road that was cleared every day in order to receive resupplies, which I talked about earlier. The enemy resupply lines were using this branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as their resupply route into South Vietnam mainly at night. However, their combat patrols scoured the jungle around the road night and day looking for targets of opportunity. I suppose our NCO’s were getting tired. It was hard to continue plowing through the underbrush of thick bamboo especially with the extra gear some were carrying, so they made a bad decision to get on the road and follow it the rest of the way into camp.
Our entire patrol of about 40 men did a left face and started walking toward the road. We were no more than about 50 meters off to the right of the road so in less than five minutes or so every man in the patrol had clawed his way through the underbrush and was standing on the road. My squad of maybe 9 or 10 men was somewhere in the middle, so there were men behind me and men in front of me as we stood on the road. When I squinted through the sweat in my eyes, I could see bunkers and the barrels of our 155 mm artillery sticking up into the air. It was just a short walk to the relative safety of the NDP so we started moving forward toward camp.
My understanding of events like this one which I am trying to explain here, has deepened over the years, as I have matured and as I have gleaned more information about certain events through the evolution of the internet. What has not changed, however, is my impressions of how good Dick Cavazos was at making the seemingly small detailed decisions that saved people’s lives time and again. He was flying above us now in his bubble chopper like a mother hen and calling in for help from Lima platoon, ordering them to move quickly and meet us on the road to help carry the gear. Our platoon leaders had broken a cardinal rule, which was never to travel on a jungle road without flank protection, and I am sure Dick had gotten nervous about that decision and the increased possibility of an ambush, even though we were only a short distance from camp. However, instead of becoming distracted by thinking about how he was going to chew someone out when we returned to camp, he kept his focus on the task at hand, which was getting men safely back off that patrol. I am sure the ass chewing happened later also. Now, Dick was checking things out in the chopper above us, where he could think, alone, for himself.
Very shortly after I glimpsed Dick’s chopper, shots rang out. Bullets started kicking up dust on the dry road bed around me and rounds started popping by my head. Everyone started running down the road toward camp and instinctively started shooting, laying down suppressing fire, as they ran, some firing into the jungle on one side of the road and some on the other. The man running in front of me had an M-14 like mine, instead of the smaller M-16. He was so nervous that he dropped several of his magazines of ammo on the ground as he was running and trying to reload at the same time. He just kept going, never stopping to pick them up, so I reached down and grabbed them on the fly and used them myself. It was a lot easier to get resupplied with ammo than it was to replace magazines for that ammo. Besides, given time, I could break apart the 100 hundred round belts of M-60 machine gun ammo I carried and use it in my M-14 if I had magazines to put it in. I am sure I never gave these magazines back to that man. In a very short time we reached Lima platoon’s leading people, who were strung out from base camp, heading out to meet us. Lima people continued to fire into the jungle on both sides of us as we filed through their ranks, never stopping until we reached our perimeter. The overwhelming volume of return fire from 2 platoons did its job. Soon, there were no more incoming rounds coming from the jungle around us. The ambushers who had hastily set up their trap now had their hands full just dodging bullets themselves and keeping their heads down. They quickly found themselves on the receiving end of at least 8 machine guns as well as 8 grenade launchers (We called them thump guns) besides each rifleman’s fully automatic small arms fire. The fight was over. They had been discovered too soon to spring their trap. For the ambush to be effective, my platoon needed to be a lot closer than we were when the first shots were fired. Instead, when the shooting started, our lead man was perhaps 200 meters down the road. Only one man got shot in the leg. Dick had won again but more importantly none of his men had lost their lives because of his command focus on seemingly small details which would not have mattered to a lesser man.
Back at camp, after the fire fight, I learned more on exactly how Dick foiled the enemy ambush. Dick’s instincts were spot on when he had Lima platoon come out to meet us. From his bubble chopper, the huge jungle trees scattered amongst a dense undergrowth of jungle below obscured his ability to see camouflaged enemy soldiers lined up on both sides of the road between my November platoon and base camp. I believe that he realized that unseen possibility of danger and quickly took the extra step of sending Lima platoon out to meet us. He also made sure that they did not use the road, but instead, he had them split and come down each side of the road, according to standard operating procedure, where they would be hidden inside the jungle. Dick was staying two steps ahead of Charlie. Since his visual from his reconnaissance chopper was obscured, he now was using Lima to surprise any ambushers, knowing that they would be intently watching us coming down the road and not expecting anyone sneaking up on their six. Later, a friend of mine from Lima Platoon confirmed what I am saying. He said he was the one who fired the first shot. It happened exactly the way I have described. As my friend was walking point and moving toward my November platoon through the jungle on one side of the road, he came upon an enemy soldier standing by a tree in front of him, watching my platoon so intently coming up the road, that he was oblivious to my friend sneaking up on him from the opposite direction. Death came to that enemy soldier quite unexpectedly as he instantly went from being the hunter to the hunted, a fate that happened to so many in this ill-advised war.
Several Days after getting caught up in that attempted ambush, it was my squad’s turn to go out on ambush patrol down that same section of road we had had the fire fight on. There was no question now in anyone’s mind about this being a very dangerous undertaking. Bartee was nervous as “all-get-out”. Heck, we all were. There was a good chance we would make contact with the enemy. Everyone else heading in that direction had. So, no one and I mean no one thought we would fare any better. We were given orders to go out parallel to the road about 500 meters and set up close enough to the road to be able to shoot anything coming down it that night. Other squad sized ambush patrols were going out also from other sections of our NDP but ours was the most dangerous, because it was on that branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail headed in the direction of Cambodia. There was nothing out there in front of us but thousands of enemy troops in staging areas around the border. Night ambush patrols were used by combat units in Vietnam primarily as early warning detection of enemy activity coming close to a unit’s location.
As we passed the last soldier, who I now believe was William Cossa, he was sitting on top a large bunker on the perimeter, and I will never forget the pitiful look on his face, as he waved his hand, in a quick goodbye jester. To this very day there is no doubt in my mind as to what he was thinking. “You poor guys", he thought, "I wonder how many of you will be alive and in one piece come tomorrow morning.” I am sure he had watched other ambush patrols, leave the safety of the NDP at this very same spot, on previous evenings, just to be shot up sometime during the night by special killer teams of NVA roaming the jungle close to our lines. these enemy soldiers were trained on how o probe our defenses and kill as many Americans as possible. They took no prisoners. I never knew William Cossa, which wasn't unusual at all and he never knew me, but I could read his mind and sense his pain. Something in the hopeless look on his face has been seared into a patch of my brain to this very day, as our paths crossed for the last time in this world. I do not know if he knew anything of the Holy Spirit and the protective power He commands in protecting His own, nor do I think he or I, at the time, guessed I would return to my God someday, due in part because of Hs bringing to my rememberance the depth of His love during this terrible time in my life.
As we moved quietly toward our assigned ambush position, everyone sensed this time would not be like other times. It would not be good enough this time just to set up as usual, like we had done on so many other ambush patrols and then count the long hours of maintaining a one man watch per every three soldiers until dawn broke. Bartee knew it would not be good enough, Milliron knew it, Bowman knew it and I knew it. The only other man in our squad whose name I can remember was Walker, a former pimp from Ohio, who, quite frankly, knew it too, even if he would never say a thing. He would never voice his tactical imput on this or any other situation, for that matter, so I really don’t know what he thought. He just concentrated on being the best thump gunner (M40 grenade launcher) in the entire division. Given clear space, he could put five rounds on target down field at seventy meters before the first round landed. I was shocked the first time I saw him do it. Then I thought o myself, goodness gracious. “That will really look good on your job resume when you get back to the world (U.S.).” I may have even joked with him about it. Anyway, here on the Ho Chi Minh trail, Walker was a great asset, and while he and I were polar opposites, we became friends for that short period of time in our lives, confiding in each other aspects of our very different lives back in the States. However, knowing his ghetto background, I was shocked to one day hear him say that he was proud to be serving his country.
When we arrived at our appointed ambush spot, there was a tree similar to the one in the picture above, standing directly on the spot that was plotted on the map to be our ambush site. That tree was to become our tree of life. I don’t know who voiced the idea first, but the idea was embraced instantly by everyone, whether they said anything or not. Everyone knew this idea was the right idea for the deadly situation we were now facing. If we waited until the bullets started flying, to hatch a plan, it would be too late. Each ambush patrol that had been sent in this general direction from our NDP, previously, had made some type of contact with enemy patrols during the night. Nobody had any allusions that our night would turn out any better. It wasn’t hard to understand that what we needed first, more than anything was what we had left behind at our NDP and that was our fox holes. The tree and its sprawling network of roots were to be our answer for that problem.. I remember standing in the inner circle close to Sgt. Bartee with his radio man, Bill Milliron and Glenn Bowman, discussing our plight, as the others silently looked on. Okay, I guess I was somewhat of a leader after all but only in extreme circumstances like the one we faced now. You could not have thrown me out of that board meeting if you were the biggest Sgt. at Arms who had ever lived. You might say, that I was standing so close that I was inside Bartee’s baggy shirt pocket. In less than two minutes our meeting adjoined and of course it was Bartee who articulated to the rest of the squad the tactical actions decided upon by our little committee. We jointly decided that each man would dig a swallow depression in the soft dirt, underneath a tree root and the entire squad would do this in a circle around this tree. We used the tree’s roots as overhead cover and concealment, while actually digging underground just a little below the jungle floor. Each man made a space just big enough to slide completely under one of the extended roots. As you can see in the picture above, there were plenty of those extended roots to accommodate ten men. If contact with the enemy was made during the night, everyone was sternly told to not fire a shot which would most certainly give our position away. Instead, we would detonate our Claymore mines and move as fast as possible in the direction of our base camp. At a relatively safe distance, we would then regroup and radio for artillery support to be dropped behind us on the ambush site we just left. Then, we would wait for further orders from the “Ole Man”.
That was the plan. However, as everybody knows, who has ever been in combat, very rarely does the plan completely join hands with reality. This plan, we would soon learned, was no different. Night settled in, and a couple hours of silent darkness went by. If an enemy patrol had walked past that tree, their pot smoking, glazed over eyes would have seen nothing. We were as invisible as one could become in our individual self-made spider holes with that tree and its roots as our towering protector. As I mentioned earlier, there were other NDP’s nearby who would fire artillery at random, targeting outside the perimeter of our base camp at different times during the night just to keep enemy patrols nervous. These fire missions were actually a little reassuring to me, because they were a sign that we were being backed by a lot of powerful support besides what we could see with our own eyes. So, when I heard the first 155 mm round land in the direction of our NDP, not only was I not alarmed but I was glad. A second shell landed a little closer in our direction, then a third closer still. It was now obvious that the fire mission was an H and I mission directing artillery fire down the side of the road that our ambush patrol was located on. It was a tactic we described as “walking the road”. When two or three more rounds landed even closer, our radio operator was on the horn (radio) calling for a cease fire. That doesn’t happen instantly. Our command post would have to call the CP of the unit engaged in the fire mission and they in turn would then order their gunners to cease fire. Two or three more rounds landed even closer. Everyone held their breath, and scooted as far up under their overhead covering of roots as they could get. Another and another landed, coming closer and closer and now all anyone could do was wait helplessly, in mortal fear for our lives. The killing radius of a 155 mm shell is 50 meters and we were in the direct line of fire with no sign of it stopping. Now, shells were landing only fifty meters away. Within just a few seconds, two more exploded in an air burst, near the top of our tree, and well within the killing radius. The jungle flooring around us shuttered as it was hit by the supersonic shock wave from the blasts. The air we breathed immediately became heavy with fine particles of dust which were kicked up, as the shock wave propelled thousands of red hot shrapnel shards in every direction. The shock wave alone from a 155 blast can kill. The roots must have given us the protective covering we needed to survive the blast. If we had been caught in the open, every man in my squad would have been killed or badly wounded. Now, two more shells landed 30 meters or so past our tree and then there was nothing but silence. I was still alive. The fire mission had been cancelled but not in time. It had already delivered its most deadly punch when the two shells landed toward the top of our tree. Men started crawling out from under tree roots. Cavazos was on the horn telling Bartee to bring his men home. In the smoky haze and smell of exploded shells, every man was standing without a scratch. It was a miracle. Those tree roots had been the instrument of that miracle, which I now believe was initiated by God years before, when that tree first germinated. No doubt those large tree roots and the lower branches, with entangled vines, had absorbed some of the blast and shrapnel that would have surely cut us to pieces if we had been in the more open jungle.
We now headed home as fast as we could. When we arrived at the perimeter, we entered base camp about the same place where we had departed earlier, but I didn’t see Cossa. goodbye to us earlier. One, of several soldiers now milling around that bunker, alerted to our early arrival, told us that shrapnel from the first 155mm round fired from that ill-planned fire mission had taken his head off. Cossa was 20 year old SP4 William Cossa from Inglewood, California. We also learned from this guy that the artillery unit involved was embedded with a 173rd Air Born unit several miles away, although we never used the term “embedded” back in those days.
In the next day or so we broke camp, saddled up and headed South, walking on that same road that we dared not walk on just a few days before. Obviously, higher command knew something us grunts didn’t know. Did the enemy abandon the fight and withdraw from this branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail? Until this day, I have no clue. All I can say is that we went for a long hot walk heading south. Each man was carrying a ruck sack that weighed from sixty to ninety pounds. People were passing out from the heat but not a single shot was fired on either side. It was as if the enemy had vanished off the face of the earth. I cannot remember what happened next. I just know it wasn’t good. Nothing that happened in a line unit during my tour of duty was good, except the leadership exhibited by Dick Cavazos. I recently read a statistic that said 40% of the people who served in Vietnam signed up for a second tour. Really? Come on now. Really? I find that hard to believe.
This picture of the Hourglass located due North of fire base Burt at XT500890 and only about 4 Km South of the Cambodian border looks very similar to the NDP we occupied in the story I have told here. It could very well be the same place.