Reminiscence of a Holiday

Tom Hays

My recent R&R in Australia was fading fast. Back into the grind with no time for reminiscing, things had already changed in the recon platoon since I'd been away. One Lt. was gone, died in a river crossing, and another Lt. had replaced him. It had been three days since the last mission, and we'd taken in all the pleasures that could be gained at FSB JOY, an ex 1st Cav Firebase turned over to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in the middle of the jungle in War Zone D. We were due to go out again, after all, our job as recon platoon was to go find something for the rifle companies to keep busy with.

As the early morning sun slowly rose in the east, we gathered our gear and three days rations. Three slicks sat silently on the chopper pad as our twelve man unit crowded inside and waited. The pilots sat idly chatting, as the door gunners went around the outside of the choppers routinely checking for minor maintenance problems. These magnificent machines belonged to the gunners, the pilots were only there to fly them. We just sat inside the bay of the Hueys watching, and waiting.

Soon, the new platoon leader came out to the choppers from the Battalion TOC. The Lt pointed to positions on his map as the pilots checked their maps for confirmation. Once things were cleared with the pilots the Lt. climbed aboard with the rest of us. Then came the slow high pitch winding sounds of the engines as the rotors gradually gained speed until they sliced the air with a thumping noise. The rotor blade vibration could be felt throughout the choppers until the birds slowly rose away from the ground, pitched, and gained speed in a forward direction. Shortly we were airborne heading deep into the thick green jungle.

Once over the triple canopy jungle the choppers flew just above tree top level. There wasn't a whole lot of chopper traffic in that vicinity of the jungle, so Charlie could hear us coming. We just hoped we didn't land on top of him. The jungle was Charlie's land, we knew it, he knew it, and we knew, he knew, we were coming.

The slicks circled the designated landing zone before dropping as a unit to discharging its cargo of cammie clad warriors. Jumping from still airborne choppers into tall elephant grass, and crouching in position out of sight, the recon unit waited for the sound of the choppers to fade away into the distance. The sound of a whispered command signaled a mad dash to the edge of the jungle. The 'Warriors," silently disappearing into the trees and underbrush of the tiny LZ. Soon the sounds of the jungle insects reconvened their symphony of familiar jungles sounds.

Once huddled together, the Recon unit gathered around the platoon leader awaiting instructions as to the route of their objective. We learned we had been reinserted into an area of the jungle where we had contact with a battalion size NVA base camp the previous month. We had called in an air strike and a track unit from D Troop 17th Cav. to came in and pull us out. We were lucky to have gotten out then, and I couldn't see why we were back again. I don't know what had happened after we left, and I wasn't eager the find out now, but Battalion TOC wanted to know.

The early morning sweltering heat turning the jungle floor into a sauna. The heat, and humidity, along with all the gear we carried, slowly sapped away our energies, and drenched us in sweat. We stumbled through the double and triple canopy jungle walking a slow meandering route next to a winding stream. The undulating terrain was filled with natures own garden of obstacles. With small saplings for hand holds, we frequently stumbled along making good movement with minimal use of the machete. Not thick brushy jungle, but tree filled and vined vegetation, with scattered visibility about fifteen or twenty feet. The kind of stuff that people just disappear into.

It wasn't long before the point man became frustrated and tired after a couple hours of snaking up stream. The platoon stopped for a brief rest. Sentries put to the front, back and flanks. We had set a fast pace, and the heat and humidity was getting to everyone. After a brief break, and another point man, we started cautiously moving once again along the stream. Within minutes the platoon came to a sudden stop. The situation changed, and the sudden stop alerted everybody in the line.

NVA clothing was scattered around, along with what appeared to be a washboard next to the stream. The platoon silently moved through the water and across the stream. A well used trail was intersected leading away from the stream. The tension along the line became very heightened. Seconds later, voices! The faint sound of Vietnamese filtered through the air. The platoon leader suddenly froze and crouched down, with one hand cupping his ear, signaling the sound of noise, and the other hand, finger stabbing the air, signaling the direction. Everyone crouched, intensely listening to the sounds of voices. Realization...... beaucoupe NVA! Pulses and breathing increased. We were in the box. Just as we were assessing the situation an NVA soldier came down the path toward the stream. The NVA looked up, froze, face to face staring at the pointman. Suddenly Charlie turned and ran. Instinctively the point man's shotgun discharged. The NVA was down. A fraction of a second later M-60's and M-16's furiously opened up. Every man along the line automatically turned right unloaded clip after clip of M-16 ammo into the brush up the hill while advancing rapidly on line. All hell broke loose. We had committed ourselves. Within seconds the sound of AK's and automatic weapons fire answered the call from up the path. Bullets sprayed, splintering small trees and scissoring loose a downpour of falling leaves. The NVA, surprised and panicky, could find no defensive positions and gave ground. The momentum took us up the hill, into the middle of the base camp. The constant rat-a-tat-tat of M-16s, M-60s and grenades going off all around. The platoon pushed through the company size base camp in pursuit of the fleeing NVA, tossing grenades into the bunkers and hootches as they passed them. One man stopped, pulled the pin out of a frag, tossed it into a bunker then fell down in his haste to get away managing to get up just before the grenade went off. In what was seconds as opposed to minutes, the men found themselves on the other side of the complex next to the stream. The NVA were caught so completely by surprise that what few managed to get out left most of everything they had behind.

Slowly the firing let up with the familiar sound of AK-47s popping sporadically all around us, followed by a burst from an M-16, then silence. The platoon secured the area against a counter-attack which never came. A search of the bunkers for contraband revealed weapons and intelligence. AK-47s, ammunition, numerous grenades, rucksacks, field glasses, and medical supplies were brought out and stacked in a pile. Six dead NVA lay around the compound, 14 bunkers, 17 hootches, and numerous blood trails leading out the other side of the base camp. Artillery fire, air strikes, and Bravo company of the 4th Bn, 12th Infantry were sent in to reinforce us.

A resupply chopper brought in more ammo, C-4, and a combat tracker team made up of a dog, his handler, and a sniper to follow the numerous blood trails left behind by the fleeing NVA.

Once Bravo company worked its way through the dense jungle, and linked up and secured the area, the recon platoon took a much needed rest. With a shakey hand I lit a brown stained Chesterfield from a C-ration four pack left over from World War II. As I took that first long drag and fought back a cough, I thought about Australia, and wondered if R&R was only a dream.

Tom Hays

Medic Echo Recon 4th bn, 12th Inf
199th Light Infantry Brigade 1969

Copyright 1998 Tom Hays All Rights Reserved

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Added 9/24/98