Iíd been in-country for two months before my first air assault. For infantry duty it had been a relatively easy two months.
Charlie Company was working with the Engineers clearing the brush away from Tra Bong Road when I joined them in early November. We did this for about a week. There was some danger, a little sniper fire, and nearly every day one of the bulldozers would trigger a booby trap. We had a couple of guys wounded by friendly fire and a couple more got shot up after they fell asleep in the middle of the road and a single VC blundered upon them. My platoon, the second, came through without a scratch.
After the Engineers, we wandered around LZ Stinson for a couple of days. We had Thanksgiving dinner in the field. Like most other guys it was the first Thanksgiving Iíd spent away from home. There was a lot of quiet reflection going on.
For the next month we were in a pacification project. It was a nice little village, maybe 300 inhabitants. I became acquainted with a Vietnamese family. My hooch was in their back yard and my guard position was in their front yard. There were seven people in the family: papa-san and mama-san, an adult son who'd lost an eye fighting against the NVA/VC, a married daughter who's husband was in the ARVN, her two toddlers (a boy and a girl), and an unmarried teenage daughter. I played around with the two kids a lot and gave them my unwanted food. The teenager sold me an oil lamp. Every day she'd come to my hooch and replenish the oil, I'd give here some of my extra rations in return. The son and oldest daughter sat guard with me, nobody else in the platoon, just me. The son had an old French bolt action rifle.
It was hard to believe there was a war going on during that month in the village. We went on patrol every day and ran a couple of ambushes but in the whole month we never fired a shot.
We spent Christmas Day, 1969 on LZ Stinson then went to Chu Lai for a three day stand-down.
We had been maneuvering to the west of OP George for a couple of days when we were told we were going on an air assault into Happy Valley. It was on the far western edge of the battalion area of operations. The area was heavily populated, everyone was VC or a VC supporter. A hot reception was expected. There was an artillery prep a couple of hours before we took off and a couple of gun-ships were on hand to cover our landing.
Since I was relatively new I didnít get a seat in the door. I was stuck in behind the pilots, facing the rear. I couldnít see a lot but as we descended I caught glimpses of huge bomb craters, some overlapping another. They looked to be 20 or 30 feet across and were filled with crystal clear water.
We didnít really land, the Huey hovered a few feet above the ground and we jumped out. The landing zone was a small clearing that had once been a rice paddy. Since there were only 4 or 5 Hueys involved it took 3 or 4 lifts to move the whole company. Second platoon was the first in, I was on the second chopper. The whole company was inserted without incident.
Our mission for the first day was to investigate an enemy base camp on a ridge a couple of klics to the west of the LZ. There were no villages in the vicinity, anybody we encountered was to be considered an enemy.
We didnít have any option on approaching the base camp area. We had to use a much traveled trail. A few feet to the left was a swift moving stream, to the right was an impenetrable mass of razor grass.
As we left the LZ the lead squad discovered a dead VC on the trail. He had been killed by the artillery prep. He was the first dead man I saw in the war. He was face down in a puddle of water. There was very little blood but I didnít stare long. Since he still had his AK-47, we assumed he had been alone.
A few minutes later our point man nearly walked into an enemy soldier. They both hit the dirt and each fired a magazine at the other. There was less than 20 feet between them but nobody got hit. When our guy stopped to reload the VC ran away.
The platoon sergeant made me and a couple of the other new guys wade into the river looking for the VC. It was chest deep, cold, and swift. I ruined a camera and a couple of packs of Winstons, and of course the only clothes I had were soaked. Another guy lost his footing and was washed 50 yards down stream. Iím sure the VC was half way to Hanoi by the time we got out of there.
Without further incident we arrived at the foot of the ridge, below the suspected base camp. The valley was a little wider here. Off to the left was a concentration of old bunkers, trenches and tunnels. There were a lot of bomb craters and a some unexploded ordinance laying around.
The was a fork in the trail. Second platoon proceeded toward the ridge, the rest of the company continued along the main trail. It was steep, we moved cautiously. Near the top we heard a baby crying, we slowed to a snailís pace.
We reached the crest of the ridge and split up. The lead squad moved down the left side of the ridge toward a hooch and the crying baby. Part of my squad continued on the main trail which ran down the other side of the narrow ridge. I followed a couple of guys along a trail that ran along the right side of the ridge.
Our trail dead ended after a few meters. We found a couple of tunnels that looked fresh. I volunteered to pull guard on the surface while the other two guys explored them. They found an NVA helmet, a belt buckle, and a rusty bayonet.
We were told to stay where we were as flank security. Every once in a while somebody would drop by to tell us what was going on. The crying baby was lying in a dead womanís lap at the bottom of a four foot hole in one of the hooches. There was a dead man in the bottom of a similar hole in another hooch.
Fearing that the baby was booby trapped, they suspended the medic over the hole and he attached a web belt to the babyís ankle. Once attached they slowly pulled the baby out. They got the dead man and woman out using the same technique.
The baby was a girl, relatively healthy and very hungry. She couldnít have been more than a couple of days old. The man and woman were young, early 20s. The hadnít been dead long. They were still warm. Theyíd both been shot in the back of the head. There were no exit wounds. We originally assumed they were victims of the artillery prep, now it appeared that they had been executed by their compatriots.
I can only guess at what happened. The VC unit knew we were coming. They didnít have long to gather some necessities and get the hell out. They couldnít take the baby, it would make too much noise, or maybe the mother wasnít strong enough to travel. In either event the man wouldnít leave without them. So, some cold blooded son of a bitch shot them and put them where it would delay us long enough for the rest of them to get away.
It started to rain. We quickly destroyed everything we could. We pitched grenades into the tunnels and set fire to anything that would burn.
I saw the woman for the first time just before someone dumped a bag of rice on her. I looked into her face until it was covered. She had been somebodyís daughter, and, for a short while she had been somebodyís mother. I wondered if her last thought was of her daughter and what would become of her.
I think half the guys in the platoon volunteered to carry the baby down the hill. Our medic was the logical choice, he was a conscientious objector and of course unarmed. I was jealous.
At the bottom of the ridge we joined up with the rest of the company. We set up for the night in the old fortified area we passed earlier. It was a dreadful place but it was high and dry. Within our perimeter were caved in bunkers, tunnels, vertical shafts, and trenches. Behind my hooch was a water filled bomb crater. A few yards beyond that, still in the perimeter, was an unexploded 250 pound bomb. The place gave me the heebie jeebies.
It was raining so hard that the choppers were grounded. That meant that the baby was spending the night with us. The grounded choppers also meant that it would be a miserable night. A couple of weeks prior to this mission the brigade commander replaced our ruck sacks with those little fanny packs we used in basic and AIT. We were only supposed to carry shaving equipment, food, and ammo. He devised a system where our heavy gear was brought out every night. He was trying to make us a lean, mean, fighting machine. On nights like this, when the choppers were grounded, we had to rough it. No air mattress, no poncho liner, no dry socks. And, no re-supply of food or water.
The medics came around and collected anything that would make the little girl more comfortable. I gave up a dry, almost clean, T-shirt that I had stashed in my fanny pack. We all gave up the sugar and powdered cream from what little rations there were.
The captainís radio operator sat up all night with her. The concoction he made with the sugar and powdered cream didnít work, she cried much of the night.
Having a baby in our midst gave new meaning to the war. We were protecting and caring for a totally innocent and helpless child. It was the first time that I felt like we were doing something worthwhile.
Early the next morning a Medivac came and took her away. I was glad she was safe.
Iíve often wondered what happened to her. If she survived, sheíd be 27 years old around New Yearís Day.
Copyright 1996 © Wes Zanone All Rights Reserved
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