About mid-summer of 1968, I was a platoon leader in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, doing a combat tour in the Republic of South Viet Nam. My company, C Company, 3-7 Infantry, was stationed on the south end of Saigon in various locales bordering the edge of the city. We were there to guard against post-Tet ’68 incursions by the Viet Cong (VC), the indigenous communist military units that had nearly been wiped out during Tet by Allied Forces, and to conduct offensive operations against them. Plenty of them were still scattered around, both as individuals and as broken military units, hiding out in patches of jungle, rice paddies and other agricultural areas near Saigon and its surrounding environment, particularly in the Mekong River delta tributaries.
We conducted a variety of patrolling techniques and operations to find these dangerous units in order to eliminate the threat they represented. Most of the time, we did “Eagle Flighting”– aerial reconnaissance, leap-frogging one platoon over another with one flight of five or six UH-1B “Huey” helicopters, the platoon in the air being the other platoon’s reaction force in case of contact. Bigger units could “pile on” if necessary, since III Corps had the air assets to do so, if we needed them.
We also operated out of big riverine forces craft called “Ragboats” (Landing Craft, Materiel [LCM]), from which we would be taken to various locations for long, hot walks in the sun and delta mud! During the dry season, those walks were somewhat more tolerable. Well, it was the dry season and most of the paddies were baked hardpan dry, especially if the area was abandoned and there was no one to work the fields. Maybe these areas were deserted or devoid of people from over-farming, fighting or enemy presence. At any rate, we had to dig the bad guys out of their hiding places in order to eliminate their threat.
Some brilliant soul, up the chain of command, decided that we would do company-size patrols in the Mekong River delta tributary system of waterways using high-speed airboats to seek out the VC (as bait?). These boats have an aircraft propeller to drive them, with the engine and propeller in a cage at the rear of the boat, above the stern like a big house fan. These boats were fiberglass, flat-bottomed skiffs with almost no draft. They don’t sit more than a few inches in the water even when loaded. Since they have no propulsion system in the water, they can be used in swampy areas that are full of water plants and grass or where there is land that is just barely under water. Their main advantage is high maneuverability and speed.
Our boats came equipped with a machine gun pintle mount in front (we had to use our own guns) and an American boat driver, who had communication with the other boats and our command structure. They were assigned to and temporarily under our company command. Each boat held a squad (more or less) of infantry, and generally traveled in tandem in unit order, down the river or tributary we were on, for ease of command and control. The boat drivers knew the immediate action drills, the first and foremost being to turn toward the area from which enemy fire was coming and to assault “on-line” with automatic weapons and firing forward as a main defense (with riflemen helping out), straight into an ambush.
Our company was aboard some brand-new airboats on patrol going south out of Saigon on a little-used tributary. The land alongside the waterway was dry. The rice paddies had not been worked in a while and there were large patches of jungle a hundred meters or so back from the river, which looked like original growth that had only been cut away enough to create some rice paddies that followed the river line. Traveling in airboats isn’t quite as cool and dry as a ride in a Huey, but it can be breezy, though somewhat wet. The breeze from the fast movement helps in a hot, humid climate like a river drainage in the Mekong delta.
FROM SHEER BOREDOM TO RAVING TERROR
“Hours and hours of sheer boredom, interrupted by moments of stark raving terror” described the next few minutes: from the jungle on the right, back away from the river, across the dry paddies, we began to receive fire. Sporadic at first, but building in volume, AK-47 fire, with belt-fed machineguns entering into the fray. Then came the mortars. With communication between the boat drivers and the company commander, all boats turned to the right and came up on line. Our machineguns in each boat began returning fire on the tree line. There didn’t seem to be any opposition on the flat open area of the dry paddies, which was intended to be their killing ground for us. Their mortar rounds were coming in behind our boats and the boat drivers were assaulting directly over the shoreline and onto the paddy area with no real physical obstacles in their way. The racket from all of the automatic weapons going off was terrible, with mortar explosions coming behind us adding to the din.
I saw an airburst of white phosphorus over the jungle and knew that our forward observer was calling for artillery fire. The airboats were charging full-throttle, straight into the ambush, like a cavalry charge of old. We raced across the open killing ground at full speed, all guns blazing forward. We stopped just short of the tree line, dismounted, and went on line. My platoon was assigned the left corner of the patch of jungle and 1LT Nick Baker (one of my Ranger school instructors a few months earlier) had his platoon to my right. We received orders from the company commander to probe the tree line. Baker went straight in; my platoon entered the jungle at a 45-degree angle, heading toward Baker’s platoon.
My point man was out in front of my unit a fair distance when the shooting started. Since he thought that he just might be in the line of fire, he later told us that he got down in a body of water, below ground level. Baker’s platoon initiated contact. His M-60 machine gunner cut a VC in half, vertically. When that happened, we had just come upon a very nicely dug VC single-man L-shaped fighting position, with the excess dirt neatly placed in a berm in front of the hole to add to its defensive ability to protect the occupant, who had just vacated the premises. He had left his web gear, complete with two U.S.-made yellow smoke grenades, his lunch–a land crab with its claws tied up, and his square-sided flat-blade shovel.
A HUMAN PILE IN A HOLE
My platoon sergeant and my radio-telephone operator (RTO), complete with all his PRC-25 radio gear, and I were briefly examining this fighting position when the shooting started in our sector. We all leapt into the hole; I was on the bottom, my platoon sergeant was on top of me and my RTO was on top of him. The previous tenant had decided to send in a late ‘rent’ payment. He was armed with an AK-47 and he must have gotten down in the prone position in order to fire back at his previous position. It seemed like the bullets were coming across the fighting hole just about 6 inches off the ground, cutting twigs and leaves and dropping them in our faces. I was trying to count rounds, because I was running out of air in my lungs.
Remember, I had two men and their gear on top of me, and nothing was showing above ground. There was a slight pause; Victor Charlie had done me a favor and ran his gun dry. With a burst of adrenalin, I “helped” my two “roommates” out of the hole. We then opened fire from ground level in return, but got no more enemy fire. The rest of my platoon had also opened fire, all in the same general direction we were shooting. Baker’s platoon and the rest of the company had opened fire down the line as well.
During the general melee, my RTO got close to me so that I could use the radio, and managed to dump 18 rounds of very hot 5.56mm brass down the back of my fatigue shirt! I think that I had blisters for a week or two after that! When I told him what he had done, he thought it was moderately humorous but later apologized when the platoon medic told him that it wasn’t all that funny.
The order came over the radio for a cease-fire on line. We moved forward, but found no more enemy. We figured that the ferocity of our counterattack, plus blocking fire from our own artillery and the arrival of two Huey Cobras, had made the VC decide that they had bitten off more than they could chew. Higher headquarters told us to hold back from further pursuit and informed us that the Cobras had spotted them much deeper in the jungle and worked them over again.
AN M-16 RIFLE BARREL OXYGEN TUBE
Where was my point man? As we moved forward, we found him coming back to us, completely covered in goopy mud. He said that he wasn’t about to move with all of the firing going on, so he had burrowed down into the mud and was completely covered in it. He had opened up his M-16 rifle, pulled out the bolt and was breathing through the barrel, when the VC who had been shooting at us literally ran over him, stepping on him in his haste to get away from our fire! None of us was hit and we didn’t know if we had hit any more VC other than the one that Baker’s platoon had killed initially. No blood trails were found.
The real casualties were the airboats. We had used them to cross the dry paddies in order to close with the enemy and to get out of the kill zone. We had literally ground the bottoms out of those fiberglass-hulled boats. We had to stay on site until enough Huey helicopters were flown in to evacuate all of the damaged watercraft, which was every last one of them. It took 6 weeks to repair the damage to the bottoms of all those fiberglass skiffs back in the rear maintenance shops and to return them to active service.
Higher command was not happy with that at all, but we had survived by driving through the VC kill zone intact as a fighting unit and took the fight to the enemy. We were evacuated as a whole company aboard some LCM “Ragboats” sent to pick us up just about dusk. We were exhausted but exhilarated, knowing it had been a job well done.
Steve Schreiner is presently President of the Firearms Coalition of Colorado. He is running for the NRA Board of Directors. He is endorsed by RKB.