Pat McLauglin's Account at Loc Ninh on Oct. 29,1967            1/18th Battalion Led By Richard Cavazos

1130 hours on 29 October 1967

We were digging in “DePuy” style when Lima 6 RTO, David Estus, from upstate New York radioed over, “Lima 1, Charlie 6 wants to see you and Lima 6 at the command bunker.” I acknowledged, threw on my shirt, grabbed my steel pot and 14 and headed into the Rubber. What a difference the shade made. The sun was brutal out in the open where Lima was digging in, this seemed like air conditioning. “Digging-in” was a project and we did our share of griping about the time and physical effort required to do it right. No infantry unit dug in like the BRO in late 1966 and 1967.

The division commander when I arrived in country was Major General William E. DePuy. He devised and directed that all infantry units in the field construct bunkers with overhead cover and firing ports utilizing the “wagon train” formation with bunkers staggered front, rear, front, rear and so on. A foxhole must be deep enough for the two men who would be firing from the bunker to stand upright so that they could fire their weapons from the standing position. The third man sat in the well and overlooked the bunker.

We filled the sandbags with the dirt from the foxhole and placed them around the foxhole, leaving space for the two firing ports at the front corners and at the center rear, the well, which is the entrance with steps down into the bunker. Typically, three sandbags stacked one upon the other would suffice. Utilizing the axes and chain saws we humped, or that were flown in after we hit the perimeter (yes, including 5 gallon cans of gas), we cut logs for overhead cover. We made a lot of noise but the choppers dropping us off made even more—so we couldn’t keep our presence a secret. Two layers of sandbags were placed upon the logs and extra dirt went in front to form a berm. At each firing port sand bags were placed going out at a 45 degree angle to suppress the muzzle flashes so that the only way for the enemy to see the weapon firing was for him to be in the line of fire or “kill zone.” Camouflage was added to aid in blending in with the environment.

The “V” positioned sandbags of the bunkers in the rear positions were carefully lined up so that the men firing from those portals could cover the bunkers to the front. The line of fire would take in the area in front of the forward bunker and the bunker itself. This way, if the enemy overran the forward bunkers the men in the rear were positioned to rain fire on the enemy in defense of their buddies. Again, the only way for the enemy to see where the firing originated was if they were in the “kill zone.”

Some smart guy figured that we grunts should also have some extra protection so a directive was issued to extend rows of sandbags to the rear of the bunkers forming a rectangular sleeping area. This permitted two men at the position to sleep in some security from shrapnel and small arms fire that might sweep across the area, while the third man stood guard. I trust that MG DePuy, and his successor MG Hay who continued to improve the defensive fighting positions, got the credit they deserved because many lives were saved and severe damage inflicted upon the enemy that sought to overrun those BRO defensive fighting positions.

Having said that, let me opine that the construction of these bunkers was a major chore. When we hit a Landing Zone (LZ) to set up a new NDP or moved from one NDP to another we also had patrols, ambushes, guard duties and observation and listening post (OP & LP) obligations. Between all of this you shoveled dirt, filled sand bags, and cut overhead cover all in a coordinated effort to complete your bunker, pass inspection and, if you are lucky, get an hour or two of sleep.

A defensive position had to be completed before the occupants could catch any shut-eye. And if we moved NDPs the bunkers had to be constructed each night. The Squad Leaders were the enforcers to get their squad positions completed in between their turn to dig and fill sandbags. Now, grunts have been known to use colorful language from time to time. But I can’t recall any more colorful language spewing forth than on those several occasions when we dug all night to complete our bunkers, got no sleep, and post-sunrise were told that there had been a change of plans: “Men, new orders, we are moving out. Break down your bunkers, empty the sandbags, and carry them with you as you will need them when we dig in later.”

What the f--k, over!

1200 Hours on 29 October 1967

Arriving at Charlie 6’s position, Captain Annan laid out a map and began his briefing. “Sergeant Mac, you are here with the platoon leaders because the “old man” wants your squad on point.” The “old man” was Dogface 6, Lt. Colonel Richard E. Cavazos, Commander of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry.

Cavazos was an ROTC Texas Tech grad, who played football in college. As an infantry Platoon Leader in Korea he won the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest combat decoration. Already he had made a name for himself in the Army as an up and coming infantry officer. For those of us in the Dogface Battalion, the “old man” was special. His command instincts were exceptional and he loved his grunts. As for his grunts, they would, and did, follow him anywhere. The 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry became the Dogface Battalion when LTC Cavazos took command in March 1967 and changed the call sign from “Duchess” to “Dogface.” We were then, and will forever be, Dogface soldiers.

Military Intelligence reports a known enemy unit 500 meters or so north of our current position, advised Annan. We are going out to find the enemy. Charlie Company is going out in an inverted “V” with Lima’s First Squad on point, Mike behind to the right, November behind to the left. Oscar Platoon manned the mortars and was standing by in the open area behind the bunkers that Lima had yet to construct. Charlie 6 doled out various instructions, map positions were coordinated, and the known presence of the enemy nearby was hammered home. There were no questions. “All right, let’s get ready to saddle up and move out. SGT Mac, remember that this is a ‘no fire zone’ so you and your men hold your fire unless fired upon.”

“Captain, that doesn’t make any sense in light of MI’s confirmation that the enemy is right outside our perimeter.”

“Those are our orders.”

“Sir, those orders don’t make any sense based on what we’ve been told.” This is the real life situation created when some civilian sitting in Washington or some rear echelon egghead decides that “no fire zones” are one answer to budgetary or public relations concerns, particularly around the Rubber plantations.

As Lima 1 with the responsibility to take the point element out in an area infested with folks having bad intentions, the “no fire zone” order was ridiculous. Of course, this was not the brainchild of CPT Annan, nor any of us, but was the operative rule of engagement. At this moment Dogface 6 strides up to me and says “SGT Mac, what’s the problem?” I explained the situation and the Battalion Commander stated that he and CPT Annan expected me, with command of the point, to make the correct decisions to safeguard my men and myself under the circumstances as they unfolded. “Do you understand those orders?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Are you ready to lead us out?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Charlie Company saddled-up and when Lt. Zima gave me the word we headed north deeper into the Rubber. I was humping 11 magazines in addition to the one loaded in my 14, duplex rounds, every fourth or fifth round a tracer, three fragmentation grenades, and two smoke grenades. Typically, the magazines were loaded with 18, sometimes 19, rounds. The duplex rounds were 2 in 1. Two projectiles (rounds or bullets) made up each 7.62 cartridge, with the second bullet fitted into the hollowed-out back end of the front projectile. You pulled the trigger once and two projectiles headed down range. The projectiles began to separate from one another the further the rounds traveled. The M14 could bring smoke, big time.

Because we were in an inverted “V” instead of the usual column formation Lima had two Point Men, O’Connor on the right and me on the left. The closest man to me was Coleman about 5 meters to my rear. The “Pace Man,” Lonnie “Smitty” Smith from Nebraska, was right behind him. O’Connor, who also carried a 14, was 10 to 12 meters to my right. First squad was behind and to my right with Mike Platoon fanned out behind. Second squad was to my left with November Platoon to their rear. Lima’s 5 and 6 and their RTO were positioned near the center of First and Second Squads.

Since we were in the Rubber and unimpeded by thick brush, the spacing between men was measured by meters and not a couple feet. The day was full sun, no clouds, and oppressively hot. The Rubber trees provided shade with intermittent sunlight cramming through. Line of sight down the row of Rubber in which one walked was unimpeded, and as one walked along looking right and left permitted clear views down those rows. But, as we moved forward, we only had a clear line of sight down the row in which we walked. The trees were spaced several meters apart lining the rows and the distance across each row was maybe 6 to 7 meters. Throughout the Rubber ran irrigation trenches flowing with the contour of the terrain. The trenches were deep and wide enough to conceal an enemy force.

As we moved north through the Rubber, after 300 meters or so the sounds of Companies A and D back at the NDP fell away. They were digging-in while Charlie Company went to work. When we got back Charlie would have to hustle to get our night defensive positions up and on line.

It was clear, easy going, no need for a machete here. O’C and I made frequent eye contact to stay connected and in sync. Our pace was measured and controlled. We both expected something, but quite unsure what it would be. From Pennsylvania, Ken Gardellis brought up the rear of First Squad in the formation. Between Gardellis and the point were Willett, Mercer, Smith, Beal, Cone, Brandon, Martin, Duncan, Myrick, Biser, and Coleman all alert.

1230 Hours on 29 October 1967

Out now 400 meters from the NDP, I could discern the end of the Rubber and beginning of the jungle line. This was maybe 200 meters from me. Was I the enemy this is where I would spring the ambush. They had the benefit of cover and the ability to move around undetected to better position them to hit us as we approached in plain view. I’m fixated on the jungle line, running scenarios through my mind. Anyway you look at it the situation is not pretty and every step we took brought Lima closer to an uneven confrontation. If the intelligence was accurate the jungle line at the end of the Rubber was about where the enemy was supposed to be. How close will we get before they open up on us? How experienced—how good—are these guys? What would I do in their place?

As I step over another irrigation trench, looking left then right, it occurs to me that the enemy could spring an ambush from that venue but the jungle line remained my first choice. The trenches would provide concealment to the enemy but not give the undetected maneuverability the jungle wall provided. Johnny and I are talking back and forth about the possibilities and the jungle line and trenches are the two options. I caution First Squad to be alert. We were 500 meters out and less than 100 meters short of the jungle line.

“G--ks!” Johnny shouted loud and clear. I scanned the jungle line for movement, and see nothing. I looked to my right, O’C was in the prone position as were others. I shouted, “Johnny, where?” O’Connor had seen movement in the trench to his front, confirming the venue the enemy favored.

“Mac, get down! They’re right in front of us.”

Quickly shifting my line-of-sight down the row from the jungle line I spot him. Less than 15 meters directly to my front in the trench that ran perpendicular to my path was an enemy soldier. I’m standing upright and there is no cover between us. The enemy soldier has a clear line-of-fire. To my left is a rubber tree 10 feet away. To my right is the open space between the rows of trees. The soldier is positioned behind a machine gun on bi-pods that rested in an indentation he had dug straight out from the trench. This concealed the gun somewhat with the barrel hovering right above ground level. His left hand was cupped on the top of the weapon, right finger on the trigger and his head cocked right looking down his barrel pointed right at my chest. He was patient, waiting until I saw him.

The Smile

When our eyes locked he lifted his head above his weapon and smiled at me. He wanted me to know that I had just gotten myself killed, that he would be the last person I saw on this earth. His smile was big and sinister. The smile conveyed that it was important to him that his target, a stupid, clueless American knew that his life was over. He was pleased that he had waited to kill this enemy soldier rather than cutting him down without warning. The look of shock on this American’s face said it all—he did know that he was a dead man! His patience had paid off. He would tell this story to his sons and their sons.

The command to pull the trigger began in his brain and the impulse moved down his central nervous system out to the peripheral nervous system, traveling through the protection of the myelin sheath to his right trigger finger. The impulse arrived instantaneously. As the soldier squeezed the trigger his smile disappeared. The first shots fired upon the Dogface Battalion at Loc Ninh cut through the stifling heat of this early Vietnam afternoon.

His smile invoked the shocking realization of my fate. The thought that I would die today, in this place so far from home, exploded in my mind. The first emotion was anger at me: “You idiot, you’ve just gotten yourself wasted. He’s got you.”

Next, my life passed before my eyes. Warm memories growing up with my mother, father, and sisters, places we had lived all brought contentment to my mind.

Then, a deep sadness enveloped me. It was the awareness of the impact my death would have on Mom. She would not be able to move on. Even today, these memories trigger emotions reminiscent of those that imprinted themselves on my mind in that blink of time.

But just as the inevitability of my certain death settled in another part of my brain analyzed the situation. Instinct assumed command. I may die here today--but not willingly. Subconsciously, deep in my brain somewhere, the logical impulse to dive for the cover of the nearest Rubber tree was overridden by another command. Dismissing the logic to dive to the left, I dove right. I dove to the open space away from the only shelter available to me. As I dove right the machine gun fired a burst of six to eight rounds favoring the empty space to my left. The NVA soldier counted on his target diving for the only cover available. He miscalculated. He missed me.

Diving right I fired a round before hitting the ground and, by sheer luck, the bullet impacted just in front of my adversary. He jerked his head back and I was on my knees firing again. He ducked down in the trench and I now had the advantage, firing a few rounds into where his head had been. I’m thinking grenades. Pulling a frag out of the canteen pouch that I used for extra grenades when the second canteen of water seemed less important, my dilemma was whether I lay my weapon down in order to pull the pin and throw. If the soldier jumps up to fire a burst at me and I’m on my knees fumbling with a grenade this would be…galactically unpleasant.

Inwardly, I chuckled at the image of John Wayne and other Hollywood “heroes” pulling grenade pins with their teeth. Were it only that simple. Putting my 14 down, hugging the ground I pulled the pin, armed the grenade, threw on “one thousand and two” and overshot the trench. I had not adjusted for what I’ll call the adrenalin factor. Turning to Coleman, I hollered for him to toss some grenades and he threw up the two he carried. This gave me four frags. My second grenade was on target, right in the trench and timed perfectly. It blew as soon as it landed.

We have movement in the trench to my right in front of O’Connor and down the trench from him. Are they in the trench to the left of me? “O’Be!”

“Yea, Mac”

“I’ve got this guy under control but don’t know if they are in the trench to my left. Can you and Porky check it out?” Both O’Be and Porky simultaneously responded “Will do.” They moved swiftly, flanking to the left and while they were doing so I lobbed another grenade. This one landed right on the far edge of the trench over the location of the gun and exploded. Not as effective as a direct hit it was nonetheless lethal.

The Second Squad Leader and Team Leader hollered back that the trenches were clear up to the position to my front. Hearing this, I rushed the trench and jumped in. To my surprise, there were four NVA soldiers at the machine gun position and not just the man with the sinister smile.

Looking immediately to my right down the trench my vision was blocked by a large ant or termite mound. The mound was about 25 feet from me, and sat right in the trench. It appeared that my grenades had killed the four NVA soldiers and, as I bent down to double check, an AK-47 on automatic opened up on me from over the mound. The cracking blasts of the rounds fired at me seemed to suck the air out of my lungs. The rounds missed but I don’t know how. This was the second time that I escaped death in a matter of minutes. Pivoting right I fired several rounds into the mound letting this character know that I am alive and kicking.

While pivoting, I stepped on a body but not one of the four NVA soldiers. Looking down, I’m shocked to see that it is a Dogface. John Willett had jumped in the trench to my left, away from the mound, and when the AK-47 rounds passed me John was hit. At this point, we are the only Dogface soldiers in the trench. Willett hadn’t wanted me to be alone in that trench. O’Be and Porky are down to the left some distance and the remainder of Lima is sitting tight.

Turning my attention to John Willett, I observe that he has experienced a head wound and a geyser of blood is squirting up 18 inches above his head from a deep gash over his ear. Unless I do something John will bleed to death in this trench. Stepping over John to reposition myself to fire again at the mound, I stuck my left thumb in the hole in John’s head and yelled, “Medic up.” The bleeding slowed significantly.

Instead of waiting for the NVA soldier on the other side of the mound to pop up and unload on us, I placed a couple rounds into the mound to remind him that this may not be his best move. “Medic,” I yell out again. And here comes Doc Simpson, the company medic, who accompanied us on this patrol. From South Carolina, Doc Simpson was one of those fearless medics a Dogface could count on to be there if the call came. Briefing Doc on Willett’s condition he jumped in the trench and I handed Willett over to him.

Climbing out of the trench, from my knees, I fired a couple rounds past the mound into the top portion of the trench that I could see from this vantage point. Quickly inserting a fresh magazine I shouted, “Johnny, see if you can get some grenades into the trench. I’ve got a good angle on him if he pops up.” O’Connor, not adjusting for the “adrenalin factor” either, lobbed a grenade over the trench. His second toss was right on the money. When it blew an NVA soldier was blown up out of the trench and deposited on the edge. A loud cheer rang out as this was observed by those near enough to see the action. O’C and others rushed the trench firing. Three NVA soldiers were in this position, now all dead. One of these three had fired the rounds that struck down John Willett.

Back in the trench, I lifted the machine gun that nearly carved me up and tossed it out of the trench. Someone standing over me fired off in the distance down the trench. Looking up, it was Porky, his M16 in rapid fire. He spotted enemy soldiers down the trench. “I nailed one, then a second as they were running down the trench,” Porky yelled. Small arms fire, theirs and ours, grew more intense as Mike Platoon battled the NVA in the trenches off to our right. O’Brien, setting down his 14, picked-up “my” machine gun and opened up on the NVA down the trench line. Standing and firing from the hip in bursts of 3 and 4 O’Be exclaims, “Mac, this is beautiful. It doesn’t kick, doesn’t ride up, it’s smooth.”

“O’Be, you dummy, get your ass down.” He just looked at me, laughed and kept firing at the NVA he could see off in the Rubber. Let them get a taste of their own weapon. Classic O’Brien—one of a kind—an unforgettable character!

As Doc worked on Willett I directed O’Connor to guide others in getting our wounded comrade back to the NDP. Lt. Zima called for a MEDEVAC. Willett was carried back and promptly dusted-off. Charlie Company lost PFC Charles Gentry, from Cumberland, Maryland, who was struck down in the early part of the battle. He gave his life in service to the nation at the age of 19.

Now, walking into an ambush is bad news but to walk into the end position of essentially an “L-shaped” ambush is good news—so long as you survive the experience. And this is what the enemy had laid out for us with the long stem of the “L” winding throughout the trenches to the right of Lima’s location. Mike Platoon was pinned down mainly in the open with the NVA concealed in and firing from the irrigation trenches.

We didn’t know it at the time but we were fighting soldiers from the 165th NVA Regiment. The NVA launched a counterattack from the east against Mike Platoon’s right flank.

Several Mike soldiers had been directed out in a cloverleaf and were caught in a bad position when the NVA counterattacked. According to Paul Tidwell, a Mike grunt who carried an M14, he went out about a hundred meters to support his three friends joining them in a trench to provide some protected concealment. The NVA assaulted the trench and were beaten back until one enemy soldier flanked them and fired down the trench wounding the four Mike Platoon soldiers. During the attack, of the four weapons carried, an M16 and an M79 (grenade launcher) were rendered inoperable leaving only two operable weapons. The four soldiers, with wounds classified as minor to serious (sucking chest wound), were sharing an M14 and a .45 pistol as they fought off the NVA assaults.

As the crescendo of machine guns, rifles, and grenades quickened in pace and volume Charlie 6 pulled Lima and November Platoons back towards the NDP repositioning to the left behind Mike Platoon. We were formed on line and instructed to move through the Rubber keeping the discipline of the on-line formation with the objective of flushing the enemy out of the protective trenches and flanking the NVA’s counterattack on Mike Platoon.

“Everybody understand what we are doing?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Roger that.”

“Lets move out.”

Moving out I hollered to First Squad to stay together so no one got out front and exposed more than necessary. Lima’s discipline was on the money. All together, each man doing his part. We moved a couple hundred meters and began engaging and flushing the enemy out of their havens. Mike Platoon greeted the heavy fire from the M60, the 14’s, 16’s and “thump guns”, the M79 grenade launcher, like manna from heaven. The wounded Mike Platoon soldiers in the trench were spared the fate that the 165th had in mind for them.

When the NVA soldiers left the security of the trenches they ran to the east looking for safe Rubber. One NVA soldier ran across my row some 50 to 60 meters distant. Looking to his right he spotted me and came to an abrupt halt. He back stepped to the center of the row and glared at me. Slowly, and almost ceremoniously, he raised his AK-47. I stepped left a couple paces and leaned my shoulder into a Rubber tree taking a standing firing position.

The soldier opened up on full swoop and the green tracers floated, seemingly in slow motion, to me, by me. For the third time in this fight I felt the cold and clammy fingers of death reaching for me. My heart pounding, I’m breathing hard. Deep breath, hold, aim, fire on semi-automatic--one shot at a time--keep your composure—squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk. Fire, I missed.

The NVA soldier continues to fire on automatic bursts, as we both understood that in seconds one of us would die. Repeat the cycle: don’t let the situation control, I’m in control. Fire a second round, the soldier stops, hesitates, drops to his knees. His AK-47 slipping to the ground, as he stares at me. I fire again and he goes to ground.

Another soldier enters my row, sees his fallen comrade, spots me, and speeds into the next rows seeking to place many Rubber trees between us. No time to cycle through the firing steps taught in Basic and AIT. A quick shot, then a second leading the racing soldier this one finding its mark. The 7.62 projectiles knocked the soldier to the ground, he rolled, and bounced up limping. Two or three more shots taken found undeserving Rubber trees as the enemy’s quest for escape was satisfied. Running off, limping hard and with determination, the NVA soldier must have praised his deity as he, for the moment, had escaped the fate of many of his comrades who died in battle this day in a Rubber plantation somewhere near the Cambodian border.

Delta Company was committed to Charlie Company’s right but the fight was over as far as the 165th NVA Regiment was concerned. The NVA were fleeing east then north seeking refuge. Dogface 6 called in artillery and airstrikes to chase them into oblivion. Don’t know how many were killed or wounded while attempting to flee, but they left 24 bodies behind. Dogface casualties were one killed and nine wounded.

The plantation owners no doubt rejoiced at hearing of a large battle waging amongst the “Terres Rouge,” promptly commencing plans to send a very large invoice to Uncle Sam to pay for all of the damage inflicted by the thoughtless GI’s. On a positive note, the Washington civilian kicking down a martini at the Willard’s Round Robin bar and the rear echelon egghead tossing down some cold “33’s” on the rooftop of Saigon’s Rex Hotel can sleep soundly this night: the rule of engagement was honored as First Squad, Lima Platoon didn’t fire until fired upon!

1600 Hours on 29 October 1967

Clean up took a while. We dragged the enemy weapons, ammo, and grenades back with us and left the dead for their comrades to come and collect. We took care of ours and they took care of theirs. I learned years later that this engagement was dubbed the “Battle of Srok Silamlite I.”

Lima was exhausted, but we had bunkers to build. O’Brien and I pushed the guys to get it done. Grunts from Recon Platoon and Alpha and Delta Companies came by to hear what went down. The mood was elevated. We won a solid victory, although it was tempered by the casualties we took. Dogface 6 came by to see how we were doing and to give special thanks and congratulations to Lima Platoon. He told me that the fighting performance of Lima at the point was pivotal to the battle and more than justified his confidence in us. “You all made the Dogface Battalion proud,” Cavazos said with genuine affection. A few of the men from Mike Platoon came by to offer special thanks to Lima. One crusty NCO said, “We owe you big time, and Mike Platoon will not forget what Lima did today.”

That night, although exhausted, I slept little. The battle kept replaying in my mind. What had I done right, where had I gone wrong? How did I miscalculate so as to where the enemy would spring the ambush? Had the NVA machine gunner cut me down before I saw him how would the fight have changed? How many Lima men would have died had that gunner and his three comrades opened up on the point element before O’C eye-balled movement in the trench to his front? Did the gunner’s three mates endorse his decision to not spring the ambush until I spotted him? How many family and loved ones grieved in North Vietnam, mothers, wives, children because of a smile? How many across the Pacific were spared that grief?

Was the smile worth it? It has been to me. It’s value to me and others that day—priceless! Its cost to the NVA soldiers in that trench and others that day—everything! This was the price of a smile.