Chap 15 The Voice of God

     Now, let’s go back to my story of the battle of Xom Bo II, itself, where once again brave "to be spit upon" Americans were pitted against hopeless young North Vietnamese rice farmers. To be more accurate, they were the teenaged children of rice farmers, who had been systematically brainwashed since birth, and then mentally and physically tortured to produce an expendable commodity of war. The entire process was conducted under the absolute supreme control of less than twenty God hating sociopaths. In fact, all communist governments are under the absolute and total control of less than 20 people no matter how large the population.

      When the tail end of A Company 2/28th Infantry trickled into the clearing, artillery officer Hearne and other key officers had already joined Lazzell, at the spot where the command bunker was going to be dug. They stood, listening to Lazzell flap his "little man tongue" when in fact, he should not have been calling for a meeting, at all. Instead, he should have been just finishing, a calling down of "the world", on the jungle surrounding the clearing, prepping it with napalm, cluster bombs and all the artillery he could get his hands on. After the prepping was finished, he should then have had his first companies in the line of march to double time around each side of the large clearing toward the north end, with the speed and urgency of an air assault. They should also have been instructed to immediately start digging in. The two trailing companies of the 2/28th should have been ready to double time into position behind the 1/16th, instead of being allowed to linger far behind, in the jungle. There had been an abundance of warnings recently, to indicate that walking into LZ X-Ray could be more dangerous than an air assault, yet Lazzell was treating it like it was a "walk in the park". Triet's sappers were keeping him abreast of when Lazzell would arrive at LZ X-Ray. I talked about that in the last chapter. Yet, it's obvious from reports and maps, which I have found, that Lazzell was taking a very cavalier attitude toward the entire march from LZ Rufe to LZ X-Ray. Sergeant Murry, himself, later verified that no one was told to dig in when his men first arrived. Instead, the men were allowed to rest and eat lunch. This means that they were allowed to fall into a much more relaxed state of mind, than should have ever been allowed to happen. Boxes of machine gun ammo were scattered around and out of easy reach of the gunners. Some men started writing letters home. Some took naps. This relaxed attitude was just the icing on the cake for the party Triet had planned for Lazzell.

     When the attack started, Hearne was standing in a circle of leadership personnel, with no choice, but to listen to Lazzell talk about "God knows what". It was at this moment, that the first sporadic gun fire could be heard in the background. Some of those first shots were fired by Triet's tree snipers. They should have been burned up in the prepping, which never occurred. Instead, Triet was able to telephone orders to those snipers to start shooting Lazzell's men in the clearing. He was able to telephone them, on that same como wire, which also should have been burned up in the prepping. Triet's subordinates were now given the "go ahead", to start the formations of brown uniformed conscripts "double timing" down the ox cart trails toward their death. Chinook resupply helicopters were circling above and it didn't take long for Triet's snipers to realize that they made much better targets, than individual soldiers in the clearing. The Chinooks were big, and they were slow. They were slowed even more, because they had webbing dangling from under their weather-beaten bellies, crammed with all sorts of resupplies. The diversion, which these lumbering giants offered snipers, probably saved some American lives. Only one man in the 2/28th A Company was killed in the clearing by a sniper. His name was Lloyd Wohlford. His friend, Spec-4 Canute was lying beside him when he was fatally shot. Canute immediately drew sergeant Bivens' attention, to what was happening. The sergeant took it upon himself to have his squad break formation with the rest of his company and move closer to the protection of the wood line. Others along the entire length of A Company followed suite. Sergeant Bivens' unilateral decision to break formation and move proved one thing. It proved that he knew the most important part of his job was looking after his men. He probably knew a lot of other things, too. They were things, which should have been done before the battle started. However, those choices were not his to make. Nor, were they choices which his company commander could have made either. Those choices, to be made before the first shots of the battle were fired, fell into one man's lap and his alone. That man was Lt. Col. Rufus Lazzell. Bivens knew that. He also knew that after the first shot was fired, he would be the man making the life and death choices, at least for his squad.

      The enemy attack was more concentrated on the northwest corner of the perimeter, where several ox cart trails converged into the clearing, but in this chapter I am not going to give great detail about the main battle, itself. David Hearne has already given a good account, which he took from "eyewitness" accounts of the people, who were there that day. Sergeant Murry was in the "thick of the fight" on the north end. He also gave a good account. Hearne wrote about it in a book entitled "June 17, 1967" Battle of Xom Bo II". Murry gave more details in his book which is entitled "Content With My Wages A Sergeant's Story". May I just say this? Sergeant Murry's two machine gunners, in 2nd platoon were among the very first exposed to the initial main thrust of the brown suited "conscripts", as they came flooding down ox cart trails toward them. 1st platoon was stacked to Murry's front, hampering his men's ability to return fire, without hitting men in 1st platoon. However, Murry, was able to position his two machine gunners, Jose Garcia, and Bob Pointer on the left flank where a gap existed between B Company Black Loins and A Company "Rangers". Jose Garcia heard the conscripts stampeding down the ox cart trail, in front of his position, before he saw them. When Jose opened up, the return fire was enormous. Since the prepping of the clearing had been inadequate, the trails around the clearing were clear of the downed trees and branches that a good prepping would have caused. This lack of prepping allowed for much easier access to predetermined points around the perimeter. Once conscripts were within about fifty meters of the perimeter, they were guided by "black pajama" sappers, who were skilled at probing for holes, in the woefully unprepared defenses. If they encountered heavy return fire, they used the previously dug pits, as temporary shelter until the firing subsided and then moved on to probe another part of the perimeter. As usual, most of the Americans shot over their enemy's head, but not so with Company B of the 1/16th. Captain Ulm's Company of "veterans" were holding down the east side of the perimeter and they were definitely not shooting high. Conscripts started dropping like flies, as they passed through Ulm's fields of fire. The one's that made it, joined others who had already moved in on the South side of the perimeter. Here the return fire on them was much lighter, because the 30 Americans covering such a wide expanse of the perimeter just didn't have the fire power to repel such large numbers. Lazzell should have redirected Hearne's A Company of the Black Lions to cover that side of the perimeter as soon as they entered the clearing, but he didn't. Instead, he allowed them to continue marching single file toward the north end of the open clearing. Now, the sparse return fire on the south side made it possible for the NVA to advance almost nonchalantly into the clearing, murdering the wounded, and taking souvenirs, as they went along their way.

      Mean while back at Lai Khe, during the attack on LZ X-Ray, my squad was just finishing up a nice hot lunch and returning to our perimeter bunkers for a refreshing afternoon nap. I had already positioned my "nap time spot" behind some sandbags, so a sniper could not zero in on me. Milliron was still state-side and Bowman was also gone. Maybe he had taken an R & R. I can't remember. The ever-faithful Walker was there, as always. Unfortunately, those "nap time" plans were soon interrupted when Bartee returned from a briefing at command center. Moments after returning, he gave us orders to saddle up, and before long another unit showed up to relieve us of perimeter guard duty. We followed Bartee down the dirt road which led to the mess hall tent, where we had just been served lunch. Other groups of men in my battalion were already congregating around a line of "deuce and a half" trucks. Some had already started climbing into the back of empty trucks. It wasn't long before the trucks were loaded and started pulling away, heading through a grove of rubber trees, and toward the air strip. While riding to the air strip, Bartee explained that the 1/16th "Rangers" were under heavy attack and needed our help. When we arrived at the air strip, a line of helicopters were already waiting for us to load up. We were down to seven men, in my squad, and low on new recruits in the unit, as a whole, but never mind that. Two companies of my battalion, or around 200 hundred, strong, jumped off the truck and filed down the right side of a line of Huey helicopters. The general feeling was, that we had the best "ole man" in the entire division and we could handle anything the enemy would be able to throw at us, as long as a ignorant lieutenant didn't get in our way. The chopper's engines were running, and rotor blades were turning slowly. Now, it was hurry up and wait, and wait, and wait. We knew the drill and would never take the initiative to board a chopper until told to do so. While waiting, some guys took this opportunity to nervously check their gear. Some left our lines to walk over to several stacked crates of ammo, hand grenades and C-rations. Most of us, stayed stocked up on such stuff as that, so we just sat in the dirt, leaned back on our ruck sacks, and waited. In the past I had waited a lot, but this time it was different. The longer we waited to board our "chopper", the more time I had to think, and I must say, what a strange feeling rolled over me. It was a feeling of euphoria, which was buoyed on the wings of a song, and I would remember this strange sensation, for over fifty years.

      Had I finally lost my mind? I was actually feeling a tidal wave of upbeat emotional energy. How could I be experiencing a feeling like this? Instead, I should have been feeling at least some anxiety, over the very real prospect of dying. We knew for sure that we were flying into a "hot LZ" and I knew for sure that I was carrying a worn-out M-16, which couldn't hit the side of a barn at fifty paces. However, my mind was having none of that. Instead, it was on auto pilot, embracing a feeling which was totally new to me. I can only explain that "off the wall" sensation in the following way. You see, there was a much greater fear, than combat, which had been taking hold of my emotions, little by little, since joining my unit and even before, in A.I.T. Furthermore, I had no outlet to relieve this pent-up emotion. I never drank. I never smoked and I never complained about anything, to Sergeant Bartee, or anyone else, for that matter. I just tucked things down, inside, and went along to get along. And why shouldn't I have done that? I was convinced, that I was powerless, to change anything about the senseless way Army leadership did things. From those first days, shortly after basic, and starting during those first days in A.I.T, I had learned that excelling didn't buy much respect, at all, from my superiors. In fact, it seemed to do just the opposite. After finishing A.I.T., I had not been promoted to P.F.C. as 99% percent of the others had, and why? Was it because my sergeants had to stay up all night looking for me, during "escape and evasion" training? Maybe it was because I refused to buckle under, when given the third degree, about not signing up for Officer Candidate School. I never really figured out the reason. However, I assumed that it was one or the other. It could not have been for poor performance, because I graduated A.I.T. at least in the top ten. One sergeant told me that I would have graduated first in my class if I had only run the mile instead of walking it. The most recent occurrence, fueling my passive aggressiveness, was the recent article 15. It didn't bother me much, at first. Yet, afterward, in the days since, I could feel a kind of smoldering deep inside me, with the misdirected object of that growing anger being Captain Brown. Though he was an actor in a minor incident, he was also somewhat of a last straw. My perfectionist mind, was now causing me to close off more than ever. The distain which I felt for the current leadership of the military was overwhelming and the damage it caused in my mind, by this time, was irreparable, under present conditions. So, I knew, if I wanted to survive, not the enemy, but the Army, itself, I just needed to bid my time and keep my mouth shut. Even before I was forced to enter the Army, I had never developed the social skills to interact successfully with those who had the rule over me. The fear of what they could do to me was much too frightening. It had been this way since I turned thirteen. That was also the year I turned my back on God. Yes, "Cowering down", withdrawing into myself, and picking on my younger brothers was the only way I had of dealing with stupid expectations from my parents, teachers, employers and now the Army. A cowardly approach to every aspect of life had become my norm. However, I was smart enough to realize, that my cowardly norm might not work this time. This time, I was about to face the real possibility of some really stupid orders being issued which could get me and my squad killed. That was unacceptable. Why? Because I valued my life above everything. There was just no way that I was going to follow stupid orders, issued from the stupid mouths, of stupid men, at the expense of my own life. For the first time in my life, I would have to buck the "order giver" and thus the institution behind that idiot, who issued the order. The dread of the consequences behind that very real probability did not scare me. It terrified me! Oh sure, I had learned to handle Bartee, and we also had Cavazos, whose orders most of us, including me, would have followed unquestioningly, but I couldn't handle the platoon sergeant, or our "wet nosed" platoon leader. I certainly couldn't handle our "blundering idiot" first sergeant or the numbskull company commander, Brown. I feared them much more than I did the enemy. Of course, the feelings, which I am describing here, were brought on by extreme self-centeredness, but I didn't realize that, at this time. At this moment, as I was about to board a helicopter, taking me to war, I was beginning to feel as though I was loosing all control and for a "control freak" like me that was the one place I would never allow myself to go, ever! I was beginning to feel like the most helpless human being in the entire world. Perhaps, that's why this feeling of euphoria was showing up. Perhaps, it was my mind's way of tripping a circuit breaker and "wigging out" to avoid other more horrible ways of venting. I really don't know. However, this "out of nowhere" good feeling just kept getting stronger. Of course, there was always a high, which came with flying into a hot LZ, but this was more than that. Perhaps I really was finally entering the foyer of that same "happy place" as Randle McMurphy later entered in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". 

      We boarded our chopper and started lifting off the ground. The sky was a pale blue, and the landscape below was dotted with patches of rubber trees around Lai Khe. Soon, rectangular outlines of rice patties could be seen, hugging muddy brown riverbanks, which snaked through the countryside. Then, more emerald green jungle appeared, as we flew further northeast toward the beleaguered Murry and his Rangers and David Hearne and his Black Lions. It was only a fifteen-minute ride, but it was the most exhilarating ride which I have ever experienced in a helicopter. That nonsensical feeling was still alive within me. Other lines of Hueys were all around us in the air. The combined beats of their main rotors made a noise, which gave rhythm to that feeling inside me. Of course, no Vietnam Vet, will ever forget the distinctive beat of a Huey's main rotor. That sound will always send a shiver up our spines. On this particular ride, however, the beat of the blades, not only amliphied my euphoria, but their rhythmic sound evoked another strange happening in my head. To their drum beat, the song "Hey Mr. Tambourine Man", by the Byrds, started playing over and over in my head. I had first heard that song, while listening to the Saigon radio station, on a small radio, which I carried in my ruck sack. Now, it was repeating itself again and again, as I sat with my feet dangling out the door of the Huey. Yes, I am now convinced, that on this day, June 17, 1967, I was well on my way to losing my "freaking" mind.  

     As we neared the LZ I snapped back to reality. For some reason, I had a little superstitious “bent”, which said it was always better to be the first, to hit the ground, running, so I always tried to sit as close to the door gunner as possible. Once in flight for only a short time, we could see in the distance a few moving specks several miles from us, diving toward the ground like so many angry birds. The specks grew larger as our formation of faded olive green Hueys drew closer. Those specks soon turned out be the phantom jets, that had been coming and going from the battle for some time now. They were working the area over with napalm, Gatling guns and antipersonnel bombs. I will never forget the brilliance of the huge orange napalm fire balls, bellowing up and being contrasted against the green of the jungle and the blue of the sky.

     It had been a long and terrifying afternoon for forward observer Hearne and an even more terrifying one for Murry, and his machine gunners, Garcia, and Pointer. It had also been just as terrifying for many others, as well. Men had been killed all around Murry, Garcia, and Pointer, as they experienced the brunt of the attack. Miraculously they survived. However, when the shooting was over, only six men in Murry's platoon were fit for duty. Lazzell had gone air born in his bubble helicopter early on. He wanted to place himself in a position to better coordinate artillery and air strikes, but like everything else this guy did, in the heat of battle, that was a mistake. The background noise from his helicopter and the battle, itself, plus the increasing amount of smoke, created by the fighting, prevented him from affectively doing what he was trying to do. For all intents and purposes, when Lazzell went airborne, he became just another observer of things going on below him.

     As I said, my legs dangled in the air just above the Huey's landing skids, so I would be ready to jump out as soon as possible. The Huey would be a death trap if we started receiving incoming fire. When we reached the LZ, choppers in front of our own banked toward the clearing and swooped low over the trees to lessen the chance of taking a hit. Centrifugal force was the only thing holding me to the floor of my ship, as our bird banked to follow the one in front of it. We made our final approach, and our pilot was good. He brought the Huey to within six feet of the ground. In less than four seconds everyone in my squad was running for the wood line. Many years later, Dick said that he was already on the ground directing traffic, when my B company got there, which did not surprise me. I immediately dropped the ninety-pound rucksack as soon as I exited the aircraft. As I ran, I could see, to my left, in my peripheral vision, soldiers dragging black body bags, filled with the limp bodies of young Americans. Those bags were being added to a line of others near the northwest side of the clearing. That line was already twenty to thirty bags long. Inside the tree line I came face to face with only one defender, from the ambushed 1/16th battalion. He had superficial cuts on many parts of his body, from flying shrapnel. Immediately, he warned me that he had been receiving sniper fire from one of the big jungle trees about twenty meters to our front. About thirty seconds after telling me that, mortar rounds started falling to our right side. One landed no more than ten yards away. The 1/16th soldier and I hit the ground together and crawled behind a large termite hill, which did not offer much protection against flying shrapnel, but it was better than nothing. Cries for medics soon came from our right side. Michael Morrow, an RTO in the Black Lions Battalion, was killed by one of these mortar rounds. It was the largest mortar attack of the day. I would not find out until over fifty years later that this mortar attack had wiped out an entire squad in my platoon, to our right. Captain Brown's RTO, Fred Walters, told me years later that Porky Morton, Bianchi, Schotz, Ruiz and Lemon were among those wounded in that squad. They were wounded so badly, that they never returned to the unit. At the time, I had assumed that only one or two men had been wounded, at most. That should tell the reader how withdrawn I had become. I made no effort, whatsoever, to get to know people. Bartee, Walker, Milliron and Bowman were my world. If one of those four were not injured than my world was completely in tact, such as it was.

     Triet had no intention of keeping the fight going after Cavazos arrived, nor could he have done so, if he had tried. His supply of "weaponized teenagers had been depleted and would need to be replenished. That was okay, because his tactical objective to hit the bungling Lazzell fast and hard had been met. Now, it was time to withdraw and wait for a resupply of more, young "rice farmer conscripts", who had already started flowing into his hidden base camps in the area. The last mortar attack was only to keep us pinned down long enough, to make good his withdrawal. Minutes after that shelling stopped, orders came down for my unit to start digging in. The 1/16th soldier soon left me and joined up with what was left of his A company. Lazzell's battered A Company was air lifted to Chi Linh airstrip, but not the "Ole War Horse", Captain Ulm, and the men in the Ranger's B company. Forward observer, David Hearne,  also stayed and slept across the clearing from me that night. He didn't start unwinding, though, until he had made sure that his guns, located five miles away, had properly registered locations in his assigned sector. He also made sure that there were a good number of flare canisters, readily available, to light up the perimeter, in case we were attacked in the middle of the night. Although David didn't realize it, at the time, he was in the "good hands" of the "wiliest fox" in the woods, Dick Cavazos. I almost pity any enemy unit who would have had the nerve to hit Dick's lines on this night, and that's not an idle boast. That statement would be well validated in the months to come.

     There were 189 American casualties and 39 killed in this battle. Some were so severely wounded that they were sent to Japan and others on to the states, never to return to their units. I am sure that the wounded men in my platoon's third squad lived shortened lives due to their wounds, as do most wounded soldiers in any war.   

     Within a short time, Chinooks appeared at the center of the clearing. They brought tons of supplies and cold cans of coke, buried in dripping chunks of ice, swinging in the webbing underneath their bellies. I left my two nameless foxhole substitutes taking the place of Milliron and Bowman, and made my way back to where I had dropped off my ruck sack. As I recovered it , Chinooks were now dropping off Marston matting, Maddox’s, and sandbags. No one had to order us "ole timers" in my unit, to help carry these vital materials back to our positions. We just paired up and did it. From above, looking down, a Chinook crewman could have easily mistaken us for a colony of worker ants, in human form. In less than two hours, our DePuy bunkers were well on the way to being completed. Listening posts were also established and night ambush patrols were assembling to leave the perimeter, for a dot on a map. I am sure now that Dick, himself, would have scrutinized those ambush locations. Since my position was concealed inside the wood line, I never realized that the First Infantry Division commander, Major General Hay, had dropped in long enough to pin a silver star on the chest of Pvt. First Class Ben Walker, in B company 2/28th Infantry. I don't know why Garcia and Pointer didn't get one? Something else happened too, or maybe I should say, "stopped happening". When I first arrived, my olfactory nerves were bombarded with the sickening sweet smell of burning flesh and napalm. The smell had been so intense that it soon deadened those same nerves, and then went away altogether. That night, between my times on guard, I slept like a baby, beside our bunker, on my air mattress. I always covered myself with my plastic poncho, to shield myself from falling rain drops, but not from getting wet. Getting wet was inevitable, as was getting "eaten alive" by giant mosquitoes. To keep them at bay, I needed to skillfully apply liquid mosquito repellent. Too much, and it would burn holes in one's skin. Okay, maybe I didn't sleep like a baby, after all. Listening to music over my small radio earpieces while awake and during guard duty did seem to help me relax. Tensions finally eased for everyone and the night passed without an incident. Later I learned that most of our ambush patrols heard lots of noise throughout the night. More than likely it was enemy patrols searching for weapons, which had been left behind during the battle.    

     Next morning it was business as usual for us. After our continental breakfast and halfway through my half-filled canteen-cup of coffee, Bartee appeared from his morning briefing and immediately delivered the word, that our squad would be running a patrol this morning. He and I began reviewing the route drawn on his map, while his RTO hung close and listened. This guy never seemed to hold a grudge against me for yanking his rifle out of his bullying hands, but from that day forward, I never liked him. I 'am sure that's why I can't remember his name. As we continued to review and commit to memory the azimuths for each check point, on the map, the other men in my squad automatically started rounding up what they needed for the patrol. They began sorting out what would be carried on the patrol and what would be left behind, as dead weight. Bartee had an experienced crew here, so he made no inspection of each individual grunt. He was not a "hen-pecker" and we liked him for that. The other four guys, including Walker, as usual, didn't look on, while Bartee and I studied the map. They couldn't have cared less because it wasn't their job to navigate. So, why should they listen to us discuss the route, when they could be enjoying the last few bites of "Tex's" home-made donuts and maybe a good smoke? I dread thinking about how they would have gotten home if something had happened to Bartee or myself, but then, I was the eternal "over-thinker".    

     A mild drizzle began to fall as we left the perimeter and headed out, following our first azimuth, through the virgin jungle. The drizzling rain was protection against our patrol being detected by the "black pajama watchers" staked out around the clearing. It muffled the noise we made. Rain also prevented the enemy from smelling us. Not far into the jungle, I walked past a few dead enemy bodies left lying around from yesterday's battle and crossed an ox cart trail. It had been drilled into us, by Dick, not to walk on those trails and I thought that I understood the entire reason for that. However, I only understood in part. You see, enemy ambushes on trails were not the only thing to fear. Booby traps were also to be feared and they were almost always placed on trails, around camps and in tunnels. However, they were almost never placed in the wide expanses of the jungle. I walked point on many patrols, while serving in Vietnam, and I never walked a single trail, except for that day at "Thrust". I also never ran across a single booby trap. Not walking trails, and the fact, that I had been raised by a father who taught me a little about navigating the woods, contributed greatly to my survival. It’s true, that my father put no emphasis whatsoever on encouraging me to become involved in sports, as other fathers did. No doubt sports and other school activities encouraged by the other fathers gave their sons a head start over me in the civilized world. However, this world was not civilized and I don't think that I would have survived this uncivilized one to return to that other one, if not for those alternative lessons, which I learned from my father. Those learned lessons meant that I had no problem holding the compass, shooting a bearing, and continually counting paces, with no help from anyone else, although it would have been nice if Milliron and Bowman could have been there. The distance to the first check point was around 800 meters. The second check point would be almost twice that. This was no short security patrol. It was more like a recon patrol and the longest squad patrol, which I had ever run. There was one more thing, worth mentioning. It was something which was hugely important to the survival of any patrol.  It was our squad radio, and, on this day, it would literally save our lives. Truth is, it could be a big distraction for a point man like me, so I almost always tuned it out. Lately, I was able to count on Sergeant Bartee more than when he first showed up to take over the squad. Since the volume on the radio would always be turned down, he would relay to me, what I needed to know. Today, without Milliron and Bowman's help, it was more important, than ever, to ignore the radio and give my full attention to the job, at hand.

     Looking back now, after analyzing various "after action reports" it was apparent, that there was a lot of signs, indicating a heavy enemy presence still in this area of operation. The enemy unit, which attacked Lazzell at LZ X-Ray, was also the same unit, which attacked Alexander Haig near the Cambodian border, on April 1. That was only two and a half months ago. Now, this same unit had just mounted a full-strength attack over sixty miles closer to Saigon. Something wasn't adding up. Could it be, that decimated units like the 271st were not retreating to Cambodia every time they got "shot up", as we naive Americans believed? Given time constraints, that just didn't seem to be plausible. How could Thanh have Triet do that, and yet, show up again, so soon, sixty miles further south? It seems to me now, that we Americans, who are so susceptible to any Svengali with a smooth talking voice in the media, were easily swayed by the leftist leaning viewpoints. Those viewpoints not only seemed to give too much credit to the enemy's fighting ability, but also way too much virtue to the leaders of their side of the conflict. There simply would not have been enough time for Thanh to have reconstituted this unit, transforming raw recruits, into what is sometimes described as the "fabled" and "storied" veteran jungle warriors. Here is a much more plausible description. They were "ravaged conscripts", some as young as 12 years old, who would be very fortune, indeed, to survive the soulless war tactics imposed upon them by their communist masters. After the battle of Ap Gu, the surviving conscripts of the 271st kept moving south. Their ranks were replenished, on the march. They took temporary breaks to resupply and rest along the way, in the numerous base camps, scattered from Cambodia to the outskirts of Saigon. These NVA forces were not "long time" veterans, as we supposed, but instead, were "doped-up" brown and green uniformed teenage conscripts, whose jungle fighting skills were limited to, not much more, than a ten-minute lesson, on how to fire an AK 47 or a handheld rocket launcher. They were also given a very short lesson on how to respond to a whistle or a bugle, so their hard core communist cadre could more easily herd them into their "suicidal death charge" positions. My guess is that anyone refusing would have been immediately shot in the head.   

     On this day, as on many other days, my squad patrol was in close proximity, to many enemy forces of all sizes. So, with this heavy enemy presence, why weren't our unit's small patrols making more contacts? Here is one major reason Dick made sure our patrols stayed off trails. However, because speed was essential to the enemy, they mostly stayed on the trails. They didn't have helicopters and other transport aircraft. So, their vast network of trails was how the enemy got around so quickly, staying on course, to perform a myriad of murderous, but time sensitive missions. Clawing through thick jungle vegetation, to ambush a small American patrol was not a wise use of their valuable time. They usually had "bigger fish to fry", than ambushing a small patrol, like our patrol on this particular morning.

     After we had gone almost due west for three or four hundred meters, it's possible that we heard the blades of a Huey, as it brought General Hay back to our location for a second time. It is also possible, that we heard Westmoreland and the news crews, when they landed at LZ X-Ray. However, whether we did hear and whether we did know, or not, would have made little difference. In Vietnam, a small patrol like ours was a world unto itself. It would be over fifty years later before I learned from Hearne, that the brass had paid a visit to LZ X-Ray. Westmoreland stayed quite a while. Medals were handed out, which, except for the Medal of Honor, has always been a very subjective undertaking. Medic, Mike Stout, received a silver star, but machine gunners Garcia and Pointer, who prevented the entire northeastern section of the line from collapsing, the day before did not.

     Not long into Westmoreland's visit, a new guy in B Company 2/28th, David Aldridge, was making his very first security sweep, just outside the perimeter, along with Staff Sergeant Jiminez, the team's RTO, Buck Sergeant Glover and point man Guy Clinger. New guy, Aldridge, had been assigned to Guy Clinger's position soon after he arrived the previous afternoon. His clothes were still bloody, from riding to X-Ray on a blood soaked Chinook, which had been evacuating the wounded. Before loading aboard, at Lai Khe, Aldridge had watched in horror, as many of the flying beast's "walking wounded" had helped others stumble down the off-ramp. When Aldridge arrived at X-Ray to join his unit for the first time, my unit was already there. He was assigned to Guy Clinger's squad. He arrived too late to take part in the big battle, so he and Clinger immediately started digging in and talking non-stop. With only their entrenching tools, to do the job, digging their DePuy bunker took almost the entire night. Now, as the tired Aldridge began his first full day in the field, I am sure he had no idea, that he was about to earn his Combat Infantry Badge so soon. Here is how that happened. Since Westmoreland was nearby and walking the perimeter, someone sent Aldridge and members of his squad to check out one of those dangerous ox cart trails. That's when trouble found him. His fire team had walked only a little ways down the trail, when they surprised some sappers assigned, by Triet, to keep an eye on us Americans. When the fire fight ended, David Aldridge had earned his C.I.B. and lost his new-found buddy, Guy Clinger. This all happened within his first 24 hours in the field. I thank God, that we had a commander who unilaterally took the initiative to enforce an order for us to stay off trails. We crossed trails, walked beside trails and ambushed trails, but we never walked on trails. As a matter of fact, I was now leading my squad alongside a well-traveled ox cart trail, which skirted the bamboo ticket to my left. The 25 meters or so, of jungle foliage between us and the trail, however, concealed our movement and the wet jungle deadened the sounds we made, to any foot traffic passing by our patrol on the trail.       

     I am sure my patrol was still close enough, to hear the shooting going on back at the NDP. However, random shooting was common. If we heard the fire fight, we would not necessarily have associated it, with being a hostile action. It could have been "practice firing" of some sort. Furthermore, while on patrol, for noise abatement reasons, no news of a small fire fight would have been transmitted to our ears by radio. Generally speaking, base rarely called us, unless we called them first. So, I continued to lead my little band further and further into the virgin jungle, skirting the thicker stuff to my front, by going left this time and right the next time. This technique worked, to cancel out errors in navigation. Staff Sergeant Bartee walked along silently about 10 meters behind me. Since our time at "Fire Base Thrust", he had gained an unwavering trust in my judgment calls.

     Somewhere in the jungle, to our front, the shrill shriek of a blue pitta could be heard above a chorus of other jungle birds. There were also bands of gray langur monkeys hiding high in the treetops, being completely quiet, as we passed by. I didn't spend a lot of time looking up. I knew that most threats would come from stumbling onto a patrol or a base camp and not from tree snipers. So, that's where my eyes "stayed peeled". We were passing through rather thick secondary undergrowth, it would have been hard for a tree sniper to look down and see me, as we passed by. Besides, why would tree snipers hang out in the middle of the jungle, waiting on a small patrol, like us, to come along? They wouldn't. I also rarely looked back unless Bartee whispered for me to do so. When walking point, I suppose I was in what some point men called the "zone". I, personally, didn't have a name for it, but if I had, I would simply have simply called it "hunting". I just did what I had done in the George Washington National Forest of Virginia, so many times before, which was to spend one boring hour after another giving my full attention to spotting "out of place" details or movement to my front when I was deer hunting. I had also recently picked up a little trick from Walker, which helped a lot. Like him, I started draping a green towel around my neck, to periodically wipe the sweat and rain from my eyes, so I could see "better".

     I quietly announced our arrival at the first check point. With little ado, Bartee nodded. I then began "shooting " a new compass bearing. It was on an azimuth, which would take us almost due north. I can't remember whether Bartee allowed the men to pause for smokes, or not. More than likely, he did. The rain had now stopped completely, as we started the second leg of our journey. It would be almost a mile to our next check point. It was an easy walk. The route took us up a gentle incline, where the undergrowth thinned slightly. The thinner undergrowth allowed me to travel in a much straighter line toward our second check point. I could "sight in" my compass on objects, which were much further away. This increased our ability to stay on course while incrementally saving time, because I did not have to stop and reshoot headings, as often. The sky cleared and the sun above us was brilliant. Shards of almost liquid sunlight pierced the canopies of giant jungle trees, around us. These brilliant columns of light streaming from above to the jungle flooring below created the sensation, that I had just entered into the interior of "some grand cathedral". If not for the present circumstances, I am sure, that this little spot of earth, could have fooled even an "angel of God" into thinking that he was walking through the Garden of Eden. Thirty meters to my front a mongoose hopped from "spot to spot". While watching that mongoose, that same peaceful feeling came over me, which I had experienced months ago, as I sat along that riverbank. I know now that it was the peace associated with the "rising up" of the Holy Spirit, in my soul. He knew something, which we didn't. He knew, that left to our own devices, we were not going to live long enough, to reach our second check point, and He had known this since before the beginning of time. That's one reason He had already made sure that my squad now had the right squad leader and the right battalion commander for what was going to happen next.

     On and on we went. The men following behind were being exceptionally quiet this morning. They weren't dumb. They had arrived on the same chopper as me. They, too, had seen all the black body bags of our boys who had died in that battle the day before. They, too, had walked by the same enemy corpses strewn about, in the jungle around us, as we went about our business of preparing and improving our DePuy bunkers. That sight had already set a somber mood for our patrol. Furthermore, most of my squad members had been on enough security patrols to realize that we were going much further this time, than usual, which meant we would be much further away, if we needed help. The further we went, the more I could sense the growing fear in them. I could also sense that same fear starting to overshadow that brief Holy Spirit peace, which I had allowed myself to experience, as I momentarily soaked in the majesty and almost prehistoric grandeur of the jungle around me. Somewhere to our front I could hear the cry of another blue pitta. Within seconds after hearing his second shriek, I heard the voice. It was not an audible voice. Actually, it had a much more powerful effect on me, than if it had been an audible voice. This voice momentarily over-rode everything, which my five senses were telling me. It was the voice of The Holy Spirit and He simply said, 
"If you go any further then you are going to die". That message made me freeze, in my tracks. I then slowly turned, and just stood staring at Bartee, who was fifteen paces behind me. He knew I had something important to say, so he kept walking toward me, until he was within whispering distance. His radio man followed close behind, while the rest of the squad remained motionless. As he closed the gap between us, he never took his eyes off mine, and he never uttered a word. When he stopped, his face was five feet from my face. He just stood there as quietly, as if he was a "church goer" waiting for the praying to start. In that instant, as I stared into his handsome "twenty-six-year-old" countenance, his features became so ingrained in my mind, that I can still see them today, as clearly as I did then. He was five foot nine with sandy blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. I can also see the droplets of sweat "beading up" on his face and dripping off his nose and chin. He had a very compliant expression, which said that he was willing to receive whatever I was about to say, with the same respect due the voice of God. At this instant, with all his faults, our squad could have asked for no better leader, than Sergeant Bartee. "They are just in front of us", I said, in a whispered very "matter-of-fact" tone. When this communication was given, Bartee's trusting demeanor never changed. There was not a hint of doubt in his face, as to the truth of what I had just said. However, I had no natural proof, whatsoever, to back up what I had just said. Without that proof, I am convinced no other squad leader in the entire First Division would have taken me at my word. Over the last few months, however, Bartee had developed the rare ability to trust me and the rest of his men, much more than before. You see, trust breeds trust just as suspicion breeds suspicion and Dick had by now laid a good foundation for trust instead of suspicion to start spreading amongst our ranks. In this present situation, however, here's the truth of the matter. Bartee trusted me more than I trusted myself. If he had questioned my judgment this time, as he had done, when he had first become our squad leader, there would have been no flak from me. In fact, I would have been the first to agree with any second guessing from him, in the absence of hard proof. Truth is, I, myself, was now starting to have doubts about whether I was correct or not. However, Bartee took my original unfiltered announcement and acted on it before I had time to verbalize a single crippling doubt. That was a mile stone for Bartee. Looking back now, I realize that Bartee, with all his faults, was the right person to be leading this patrol at this time. However, though Bartee wholeheartedly believed me, the final decision on whether or not to continue our patrol on course was not up to him.

Sergeant Bartee 1967

Picture of Sgt. Bartee Sent to Me
in 2017 by Fred Walters

     "I'll call "command" and see what they want us to do", Bartee whispered. Fortunately, Dick, himself, was made privy to the call. I say "fortunately", because there were many command levels between a security patrol and the battalion commander. In most cases, any of those levels could have unilaterally made the decision, to tell us what to do next. For example, Captain Brown was the CO of my B Company and the decision, on whether we were to continue our route, could have easily fallen to him, alone. Here was the problem with that. There really was an entire battalion sized enemy base camp located less than one hundred meters to our front, but I had no visible proof. Acting on a point man's word alone, was not something, which most leaders, at the time, would have done. The First Infantry Division just didn't operate on that level of trust. One major reason for this is because building trust takes time. The short rotation periods, of officers and men didn't give a unit's leaders enough time in combat to know themselves, much less many of their men. Bartee and Dick were perhaps the only two people in my entire unit who would have trusted me to this degree at this time. When Bartee called our command post to say that his point man believed there was an enemy force located directly to our front, not only did Dick not hesitate to tell us to turn around and back track the way we came, but he also told Bartee to mark our present location on the map. "America makes plenty of bombs", he told Bartee. "We will bomb this spot tonight and see if there is anything out there in front of your patrol. I don't want to take the chance of getting any of "you boys" hurt". As our patrol arrived back at base camp, I cannot describe how relieved everyone felt. Yet, there had been not the slightest contact with the enemy. It was uncanny, to feel that much relief for seemingly no reason. Even after surviving the last mortar attack, I had not felt such relief. I had no idea until over fifty years later that men had died that morning at the NDP while we were on what was seemingly a much more dangerous undertaking.  

     It was now mid-afternoon, and we were already looking forward to settling into our perimeter positions for the night. There would be no ambush patrol for us tonight. I learned nothing about the arrival earlier in the day of our high-powered visitors. I also learned nothing about the fire fight, which took place just outside the perimeter, while we were on patrol. After settling into my position on the perimeter, the predominate thought was to keep my ears tuned to hear the helicopter, which would bring one of Tiny's home cooked meals to us in Mermite containers. I did, on occasion, write letters home. So, maybe I settled down to write a letter. I can't remember. One thing that I do remember not feeling, however, was this. I felt little concern, at all, about whether I was right or wrong, when I warned Bartee that the enemy was where I said they were. I was just happy to be alive, and at the same time felt I had no professional reputation, whatsoever, to uphold. The Army had just recently helped reinforce that feeling when it had demoted me to E-2. It was an unjustified attack on my character, and I will never forgive the Army for doing that. As Christians, we are called to forgive people, but we are by no means called to forgive the evils of an organization or an idiology.  

     That night, while sitting in base camp, sharing a canteen cup of my concocted brew of hot chocolate, the ground began to shake slightly. Along with that shaking, came a low rumbling sound, the kind of sound made when 750-pound bombs tear "swimming pool sized" holes in the ground. The shaking of the earth around us lasted no more than five minutes. I finished my cup of hot chocolate. Tomorrow my entire B Company would return to the bombsite to see, if indeed, there had been an enemy presence near where I had said it was. Tonight, I just made sure that I could find each claymore detonator in the dark, in case, we were attacked in the middle of the night. Six extra hand grenades were always stashed in my ruck sack and my rocket launcher was always laid out near the back door of our bunker for anyone to use in a "pinch". Walker was next door, sleeping with the deadliest "thump gun" in the division, so I had little concern about how well I would sleep tonight. I believe the correct description is, again, "I slept like a baby", a baby, who was awakened every three hours to pull guard.

     The next morning, on the 19th of June, my entire company moved out early to survey the results of the bombing, which shook the ground during the night. We took a more direct approach than my squad had taken the day before. I believe my platoon was in the lead, but my squad was not the point squad. It was easy to tell when we had arrived at the bomb site, because the majestic rain forest, which had looked to me like the "Garden of Eden" yesterday, was now devastated. The bombs had left deep craters in the ground. Huge trees, which were hundreds of years old, had been uprooted and it was very hard to navigate through the tangled mess. The first thing that alerted me to the fact that human life had been destroyed, was the uniquely sickening sweet smell of dead human flesh. I had smelled this odor too many times before. It was impossible to locate the exact spot, where we had been standing, when I heard the warning voice of the Holy Spirit, because the bombing had changed the appearance of the area so much. What wasn't hard to determine, however, was the destruction of a very large enemy base camp, which had obviously been located directly in the path of our security patrol. Large, disheveled pieces of bamboo, used as supports for overhead covering, were scattered everywhere. Most of the 53 ten-man earthen bunkers and underground connecting tunnels were caved in. I am sure there were hundreds of enemy conscripts buried beneath the rubble, making it impossible to get an accurate body count. Some rather intact bodies had been flung in all directions, landing in grotesque poses. No doubt, many of these "slave victims of tyranny" had been resting in a relatively peaceful state, before their earthly souls were translated from one hopeless situation to an infinitely worse one. The enemy had no clue, that they were going to be targeted by an air strike. I believe that almost every person in that camp was killed. At the time, however, that sobering fact gave me nothing, but a feeling of relief. Why? Because these enemy soldiers could no longer be used to hurt us. The anguish came later, as I realized, not only had they lost their natural lives, but they had also lost something of much greater value. They had lost Jesus Christ, who is the key to eternal life, and the only means by which to perpetuate the infinite potential hidden within every human's eternal soul. Yet, I was not responsible for their deaths. Nor was Dick responsible. Nor was President Johnson responsible. Nor was God responsible. All responsibility for their eternal deaths rested squarely on their own shoulders, when each at some point had chosen to reject The Holy Spirit's beckoning, to confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Yes, I say again, although the responsibility for their natural deaths lay squarely on the shoulders of less than a hundred evil ideologues, living in Hanoi, Moscow, and Beijing, the responsibility for their much greater eternal death rested squarely on their own shoulders.

      There was little doubt that this was the camp of those responsible for the ambush of the 1/16th and the 2/28th on the 17th of June at the battle of Xom Bo II.

     In a phone conversation with retired general Richard Cavazos, in 2005, I asked him why he had trusted my unfounded announcement of an enemy presence. He simply said, "I always trusted my men".  I was then corrected by him, when I mentioned that the bombing run was made by B-52's. "Wayne", he said, "Those were not B-52's. Those were Australian Canberra's. Most likely they were from the RAAF 2nd squadron, which had been initially deployed at Phan Rang on April 19th, 1967. They destroyed 47 of 53 ten-man bunkers, which could easily have housed a battalion sized force. The successful outcome, from my viewpoint, at the time, could have been the result of using Canberra's instead of B-52's. Here's why. I learned years later that many of the B-52 bombing runs inside Vietnam, were compromised by spies in Saigon, who were regularly able to get their hands on the schedules, for those planned bombing runs. The Canberra runs were definitely made on the spare of the moment which would have been harder information for spies to detect and pass on in time to warn their coharts.

We stuck around LZ-X-Ray until the 23rd of June, along with Hearne and his 2/28th Infantry. Both battalions made company-sized sweeps of the area during the next three days but made no significant contact with the enemy. Triet was still around, though. We knew that to be true, because our night ambush patrols could hear heavy enemy activity each and every night, while we were at LZ X-Ray. On the morning of the 23rd of June, we were flown out, by helicopters, just after the 2/28th was also air lifted out. The choppers took us on a twenty-five-minute ride to Fire Base Gunner 2. There we waited until afternoon to catch a ride in some C-130 fixed winged aircraft which flew us into Di An and a nice folding cot to sleep on that night. It was a great feeling to hear rain drops splattering off the roof of my tent instead of my plastic poncho.

     However, this was not to be Dick's last run-in with Triet.   


Lt. Col. Richard Cavazos