Places, Bases, and Memories – Vietnam
By Darryl Elmore, U.S. Army (Ret)
In June 1964, I was part of an operation designed to intercept a VC propaganda team reported to be parading a small group of U.S. Prisoners of War along the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. The purpose was to show the locals and the VC units that the Americans were easily beaten in combat. In charge of this operation was Saigon based, Maj. LaMar and the 1st SFG A-Team at Trang Sup, a camp about 12 kilometers north of Tay Ninh.
The operational plan LaMar designed was to employ the classic military hammer and anvil tactics used successfully by Alexander the Great in his conquest of the known world. The first element of his plan was a superior infantry force setting up a blocking position. The second element was an airmobile cavalry using armed helicopters to drive the enemy out of hiding into a clearing into the waiting friendly infantry units ready to blow them away.
Several American Special Forces personnel with a company of Vietnamese CIDG moved to the northwest with the mission of establishing a blocking position. During the planning, the intelligence and terrain dictated that a river crossing was going to be unavoidable. What was missing was a rope long enough span the river. The only possible source to get such a rope was in Saigon. So Maj. LaMar, having no transportation and being a man of personal drive, went to Tay Ninh where he obtained a ride on a local civilian truck. Unfortunately, it was dark and he started the wrong way; he was 20 kilometers into Cambodia before he discovered the mistake. He quickly turned around and made it to Saigon that night.
A day later we were still planning for the operation when a C-47 transport arrived overhead and started circling the camp where the forces involved in the mission were staging. We had no ground to air communications but we figured something was up. The cargo door was open and we could see people standing in it.
So the team sent a jeep with some smoke grenades to the fields a kilometer or so from camp. They got there and popped a couple of white smoke grenades. They had guessed right because the plane made another pass and out popped a man who had a duffle bag dangling from his parachute leg straps. It was Maj. LaMar with the rope we needed for the operation in the duffle bag.
The overland element departed camp and patrolled for two days until they reached the river they had to cross in order to reach the blocking positions. The river spanned over 100 meters and it had a fast current, offering real obstacles.
One of the Special Forces NCOs swam the river to take a line across so they could drag the heavier rope across. Others covered him with fire and several swam to join him and help establish a position on the far bank. Shortly they established a single rope bridge and the entire force crossed to continue the mission.
The same morning the blocking force crossed the river, an H-21 helicopter arrived and parked along the road leading into the camp. Shortly after the Command & Control element flew in from Saigon with a colonel and some staff. Their arrival was almost tragic.
As the Command & Control ship approached, we popped a smoke grenade and I was directed to provide guidance. As is common, the pilot decided that he would land where he wanted to land so he over flew us and landed in the old French mine field left over from 1954. The chopper landed and the colonel and some of his staff started to walk over. We started yelling and finally, I fired a few round over their head with my carbine. That got their attention and finally, they stopped and did their best to retrace their steps back to the Huey. Once on board, the chopper lifted off and the rotor wash detonated two anti-personnel mines. Fortunately, the aircraft did not suffer much damage and was able to continue the operation.
During the days prior to the operation all of us not designated to go on the operation were fully employed in support. We had several missions besides this one and sleep had been mostly absent. I was not scheduled to go but at the last minute, I was detailed to replace a guy who was sick. Otherwise, I would not have been part of the heliborne element.
Finally, we loaded the H-21 helicopters and launched. Shortly after we inserted, my first real combat assault and only one I ever made in an H-21. I was glad I never made another in one. That model was designed for operations in Alaska and did poorly in the heat and humidity of Vietnam. It just performed poorly in high-density altitudes. That poor performance made the pilots fly a long slow approach and shallow glide angles for landing. Take offs were equally poor, slow lift off and flight to climb out from an LZ.
Anyway, we acted as the maneuver element or hammer, our mission to push the enemy until they ran up against our blocking force or the anvil. As it turned out we only encountered small delaying elements; contacts were short lived and designed to make us deploy while small enemy elements evaded us. We would reform, and continued to sweep the area until linking up with the blocking force. We had not found the POWs.
The main target, the VC and the U.S. POWs had left the area. (A decade later I learned that the operation had been compromised in Saigon days before we deployed our forces).
So after linking up, the entire force reformed and began a search mission. We moved parallel to the river and moved down river towards Tay Ninh.
We continued to move down river on foot but late in the day, some Vietnamese Higgins boats arrived to pick us up. We had three Higgins boats but we had over two hundred troops. To accommodate the entire force, the Vietnamese had brought some smaller civilian craft, big sampans actually, which we ended up securing alongside the Higgins boats for the ride back down river.
We loaded the Higgens boats and sampans just as dark settled in and started slowly down river. I was in the lead Higgins boat with the other two following at about 100-meter intervals.
It was a very dark moonless night, visibility was limited which also dictated slow movement. The move was slow and with nothing to do, I stretched out on the deck for a bit. For some reason, I decided to get up and leaned against the starboard bulwark. Sgt. Snyder and I just stood there staring off into the dark.
Shortly after, the VC set off a mine in the river. It was pretty powerful. The mine detonated just off the port bow, the plume of water shot up and the boat heeled over a bit from the shock. Immediately the VC opened up with automatic weapons fire from the shore to our right. The enemy troops were located only a few meters away.
When I went to basic training we learned night fire. They explained that most people shoot high in the dark unless trained otherwise. After the night fire class; another class in night vision and some exercises how to successfully apply the newly learned techniques, we went to the range with our trusty M-1s. We were to engage man sized silhouette targets at about 30 meters distance.
We went on line, assumed the prone position and on the command to commence to an 8 round clip, reloaded and fired a second clip. I was amazed at the results. I got 16 hits on my target just by doing what I had just been taught! All the bullets had hit in the lower chest or lower.
So when the Vietnam Cong opened up on us, Sgt. Snyder, attached to the team for the A-Camp at Go Dau Ha, we were the only guys on that side capable of firing. We immediately opened fire on the enemy as they fired back. I estimated the range to be about 10-15 meters: muzzle flashes and noise!
All their fire went high, every round they fired went above the boat. Not one round struck the boats or personnel. Snyder and I went through several magazines and we were so close we even heard someone on shore cry out followed by a lot of yelling. About the time we heard all the yelling, the enemy fire stopped. Either we had hit some of them or they ran out of ammunition.
When we had a chance to check on possible casualties, I was amazed that we had not suffered any. Later, I figured the reason none of our people were hit was the VC had missed that class on night firing.
While the enemy ceased fire, our boat moved on and as the boat navigated a bend in the river, the Vietnamese boat commander ordered cease fire. If we had continued to fire we would have been created a crossfire situation creating a condition of us firing at our own boats before they made the turn. He knew his business and kept everything under control.
After that excitement, it was a quiet trip to a Regional Forces/Popular Forces (RF/PF) outpost where we disembarked and cooled our heels until sunup when trucks arrived to take us back to our base.
That was my first close range exchange of fire with the enemy. My last close range exchange was in the summer of 1993. Good training works day and night.