Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry 25th ID -
Personal Experience Narratives (War Stories)
Just Remembering, 29 July 1969
Today is 29 July 1999. Thirty years ago today, I killed the first (that I knew of) of eleven humans that would make my personal body count. That was in Viet Nam, 29 July 1969. I had possibly killed before, but had not seen the enemy, on June19th, but that is another story.
In an area known as the Boi Loi Woods, there was a night lager perimeter known as "the Doughnut." The Boi Loi Woods had for years been known to be a haven for the VC (Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) Regulars. My Troop, A Troop, 3RD Squadron, 4Th U.S. Cavalry, 25Th Infantry Division was to arrive in the area on the 27th of July, to perform large area sweeps (known as "RIFs" for Recon-In-Force), basically, "search and destroy" missions. The woods had been "Rome plowed", so called because the bulldozer blades originated in Rome, Georgia. Trees were pushed down and into piles to be burned. This was a way of denying concealment and shelter to the enemy. It was effective in the short term, but the forest has the ability to renew itself. In the tropical climate, this takes only a few years, but starts almost immediately.
As we got word that we were going to this place, the talk of the "old timers", the ones who had been there before, had everyone apprehensive. "We ARE going to get hit when we get there. It might not be the first night, but it will be soon", they would say. "It’s not a question of will we get hit, but of when will we get hit!"
They did not lie, these "old timers" knew the fight would come, it was only a matter of time. The first day we arrived, we checked the site, "The Doughnut" carefully for mines and booby traps. We then form the three platoons on line and did a sweep around the perimeter a couple of times to determine that there were no fighting positions or spider-holes for the enemy to use in an attack. Evening came as we dug in for our stay. We had to dig a covered fighting position to the right side of our vehicles and sleeping positions. You could sleep in the driver’s seat fairly comfortably, but the cots were more preferred. Your sleeping position had to be deep enough to have your body below ground level in case of a mortar attack or grazing ground-fire. Either could, and would come without warning. At dusk, the claymores, concertina wire, and trip flares were set up. This gave some "false sense of security" to those of us who knew no better. "If Charlie wants to come in, that shit won't stop him". Be that as it may, I felt better knowing that at least I might have a few seconds early warning if any thing happened.
The re-supply chopper had flown in the mail, dinner, cooks, water and ammo. Everyone was reminded to carry their weapons wherever they went within the perimeter; you never knew when they might come in handy. We took whatever supplies were needed, mail, if you got any, and chow, back to the vehicles, to sit and wait. "It’s coming, you can write that down". We stayed at 50% alert until late in the evening. I wasn't going to sleep for a while, so I volunteered for first watch when we went to single watch. No matter what, a two-hour watch is a long time. I was ready to go to sleep at Midnight. I awoke the driver for his shift then crawled onto my cot. I looked up to ensure the fifty was manned, looked out into the darkness one last time, then lay down to sleep. Next thing I knew, I was being awakened to stand 50% alert the next morning. The night had passed without an incident. All was well in my world. "Don't get too cocksure, IT IS going to come, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, but it will come".
On the 28th, we had a long day of searching for signs of activity. It was again hotter than any time I had experienced in my 20 years on this earth. The sky was cloudless, the tropical sun, unrelenting. Why would anyone want to be in a place like this? We were here because we were ordered to be. I guess that was why Charlie was here also. Since the area had been roam plowed there wasn't much of anything here, so I thought. We spent the day searching piles of trees that had not burned for spider holes and tunnels where supply caches could be stored. That and looking for an enemy that didn't want to be found. Here, he would choose the time and place to make his presence known. At the end of what could be called a wasted day, we returned to the "doughnut" to a hot meal, cold shower, and another night of wondering if it would happen tonight. It did not.
The morning of 29 July 1969 began the same as the day before, Hot, with more hot on the way. We had our breakfast of powdered eggs, bacon, bread and coffee. Engine fluids were checked and replenished as needed. Around eight, word came to mount up to begin another day of missions. We would leave the perimeter by a different route each day, just in case Charlie left a little surprise on one of the trails. It was a common practice for frequently used trails to be mined over night, especially if it was traveled a lot. The two RIF platoons would each go to a different AO within our larger Area of Operation. This was done to keep Charlie off guard (or on guard, as the case may be). He could never know for sure where we would begin to search in earnest. We would try to keep the pressure on him. Little did I know that he cared less about what we had in mind, he had his own agenda. His plan was to make believers out of a bunch of invaders of his stomping grounds.
Another uneventful day was spent checking out old fighting position, spider holes, and the occasional short tunnel. All were searched in vain; there were no signs of recent activity at any of them. In the late afternoon, we moved from an on-line formation into a column, then headed for the doughnut.
During this period of my tour, I was assigned to the Platoon Sergeant’s tank, A-25, as the Assistant Track Commander. All this did was make me responsible for the tank when SSG (Lester) Pruitt was not on the vehicle. When he was, I was the loader for the main gun and manned the left mounted fifty-caliber Browning M2-HB machine gun. It was positioned just in front of the loader's hatch.
When we had returned to the perimeter, there was SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) that we went through. Among these were the checking of vital fluids of both the vehicle, and us and the posting of a watch atop the vehicle. The crew pretty much knew what was expected of each other and went about their routines without much prompting, as the TC’s, Plat. Sgt., and the L. T. meet to discuss the day’s mission. This was our third day, and we had seen no sign of the enemy. That was to say, no recent signs. We were cautioned to ensure the men on watch were attentive to their duties. Because of the lack of recent activities, people were beginning to get a little slack. Again we heard the, "We will get hit in this position" story, even though the old-timers were less apprehensive about it. When the meeting broke up, everyone returned to his position. We were still on 50% alert at dusk, so half the crew would go eat, while half were on guard. Being assistant TC meant that I would insure all of my crew eats before I did. You must take care of those you're responsible for.
After chow, we visited friends and relieved those on guard, maintaining the 50% alert. As the evening progressed, the entire crew congregated on or around the vehicle. SSG Pruitt and I were at the fifties about 2230 hrs. when there was a flash from the back-blast of an RPG, then the explosion as the rocket-propelled-grenade struck the RPG screen of the 2-2 track. Sergeant Pruitt, opened fire from the TC hatch, as I swung in behind the left fifty. I cranked off a hundred rounds and, after re-loading, dropped inside the turret to load the main gun. Exiting through the loader’s hatch, I announced, "Up" into the intercom and resumed firing the fifty cal. I heard Sgt. Pruitt announce, "Two-Zero elements, this is Two-Five. Main gun on the way." A moment later there was the blast and violent recoil as he pulled the trigger, firing the 152 mm main gun of our Sheridan. Instantly the equivalent of 42 pounds of #4 casehardened finish nails (flechettes, darts about 1-1/2 inches long) were hurled from the muzzle in a spiral that would cover the length of a football field within that same distance! This was truly a weapon of mass destruction, if you were on the receiving end! Only God could help the enemy who happened to be exposed to the swath of this "canister" round.
I glanced to the left, to the 2-2 Track. There was someone manning the fifty, but the sixties on either side were silent. Men were shouting, waving arms wildly, and pulling other men from the rear ramp of the APC. We were to find out later that the whole crew of Two-Two had been on top of the vehicle when the first RPG fired, hit their screen and exploded. The section of chain-link fencing had accomplished its primary function of stopping a direct hit of the vehicle. The unfortunate reality was that the portion of the fence that was stuck, became added shrapnel to the exploding Rocket-Propelled-Grenade. Every one of the crewmen of Two-Two had been blown from the vehicle. Of the five men, only one was not severely wounded. PFC Wayne Finke crawled from the interior, where he had fallen, to the Commander’s fifty and began returning fire. Men from the Mortar Track, at the Platoon Headquarters, inside the perimeter, ran to assist in manning the sixties.
We kept sweeping the area before us, trying to keep the heads of our attackers pressed to the ground. If they are pressing their bodies to the ground, they aren’t likely to be able to lay effective fire on us. Our actions kept the enemy at bay until the mortar crew was able to hang illumination flares around the perimeter allowing us to have visual sight of the attackers. Hopefully!
When an illumination round reaches a preset altitude, the projectile detonates, releasing a magnesium flare that floats back to earth, turning darkness to light. The swing of the flare causes dark shadows to grow in length as it descends, making the battlefield to take on an eerier scenario. Fortunately, the mortar crew is usually hanging another one before the one before gets too low.
When the first flare ignited, I saw a dark figure jump up and run for cover. Swinging the fifty in that direction, Both SSG Pruitt and I cut loose with a ten to fifteen round burst. Near the end, I saw the figure pitch forward as it flipped out of sight. "I got him," yelled SSG Pruitt. We kept the fire raking the area of our responsibility until the order to "cease fire" came over the radio.
The night attack was ended by our superior firepower within an hour. We stayed on 100% alert for another hour as the med-evacs picked up our wounded and dead. I had seen only the one figure during the attack.
We waited, on 50% alert, until an hour before dawn, and from then until the sun was brightening the gloom of night, we were on 100 % again..
Patrols were formed and we set out to sweep the perimeter. I was about fifty or sixty meters in front of the tank when someone to my right shouted a warning, "LOOK OUT!"
I dropped to my knee, M-16 at the ready. "I think I see somebody behind that bush!" The voice called out again. My 16 to my shoulder, selector to ‘AUTO’, I approached the bush in a round-a-bout move. There was a body behind the bush. The pistol holster strapped to his waist indicated that it was an officer. I approached slowly until I could see his head, and then relaxed a little. A single .50 caliber round to the back of the head is not a pretty sight, but it guaranteed that I had nothing to fear from him. I now knew why he had ‘flipped’ out of sight. Looking back toward the perimeter, I was staring at the front profile of the tank. I knew it had to be the ‘figure’ from last night.
Did I feel remorse? Yes, I did. But when I thought about the casualties that we took, I soon got over it.
Or did I?
William T. Marthers - 29 July 1999
Reb_A26 A3/4CAV25thInfDiv RVN 69/70