The National Archives
The Threshold Of Survival
24 April 2006
Mondol Kiri Province, Cambodia, 27th May 1970 - It was just three weeks into the official Cambodian raid and the targeted NVA and VC supply depots and bases in the Parrot's Beak, Angel's Wing and Fishhook border regions were a mess.
The once safe havens and sanctuaries where the enemy had previously flaunted his presence by operation openly were in a shambles. They had lost thousands of soldiers killed or wounded in action while tons of weapons; munitions, military stores and equipment were either captured or destroyed. Most of the communist forces had taken their licks and quickly retreated further into the Cambodian countryside while thousands of their frantic comrades caught behind the invasion forces were left to fend for themselves.
In the Fishhook area hiding from the scout helicopters and Cobra gunships became an exercise in survival while the threat of discovery by American long-range patrols served to accentuate their fears.
The five man patrol from Hotel Company, 75th
Rangers, the 1st
Cavalry Division's LRRP / Ranger unit, were just inside a wooded hilltop that overlooked several broad open grassy fields among the rolling expanse sixteen clicks outside Fire Support Base David. David was the Cav's most forward fire support base and consisted of little more than a makeshift, hastily constructed artillery position loosely secured by an infantry company.
The recon team's 7-day mission had revealed little. Other than a few new trails, a few bunkers and a small number of farm plots used by the NVA and VC to supplement their diets, there was no sign of enemy presence in the area.
However, the food plots were well tended, telling the recon team that someone was taking care of them. It was possible that the NVA had already passed through the area, leaving behind the crops as living food caches. After, all a time frame for the American with-drawl from Cambodia had already been publicly announced. All that the NVA / VC had to do was to wait until that day, then move back into their border sanctuaries. History had taught them to be patient, but it was likely that those caught behind the 20 mile wide Allied invasion were not willing to bide their time. After the beating they had taken, they were likely itching for an opportunity for a little while payback.
The LRRP team was less than an hour from extraction. From their hilltop position they had a good view of their designated pickup zone, as well as the wood line and a small field below them. A narrow east-west trail came up across the open hill while another north-south trail crisscrossed the green expanse below.
The assistant team leader, Sgt. Erwin “Skip” Thessin, was the first to spot the three NVA soldiers as they came out of the wood line opposite the team and started up the hill. He nudged Sp.4 Lee “Shorty” Comstock, the team leader, who carefully brought up his rifle and targeted the approaching NVA. The remaining three Rangers followed his lead as they cautiously studied the jungle around them.
“Those guys aren't fucking farmers,” Comstock whispered to Thessin.
The three soldiers wore dark green uniforms and pith helmets, shouldered heavy packs and carried their AK-47s at the ready. They were hard core NVA. The team watched them scan the late afternoon sky for American helicopters. If they were aware that five LRRPs were waiting just up the hill, they showed no indication.
It would be up to Comstock to initiate contact, and he waited until they were well up the hill before he opened up. Two of the three soldiers went down immediately. Return fire from the third NVA was immediate and accurate, giving his wounded comrades time to crawl back down the hill. The enemy soldiers dropped their packs and used them and the contour of the hill as cover as they withdrew.
Within minutes it was over. An awkward silence settled over the area. Comstock sent the team's medic over to cover the south side of their hill while Sgt. Chuck Donahoo, the rear scout, moved over to secure the north side. The RTO covered their 180 while Comstock and Thessin moved out towards the rucksacks left behind in the kill zone. The three NVA soldiers were long gone, but judging from the amount of blood left behind, one or two of them were seriously wounded. Comstock and Thessin moved cautiously toward the site, reconning by fire as they advanced, aiming at any likely hiding place. When they reached the packs Comstock tied their McGuire rig ropes together and looped them around the first pack while Thessin provided security. They knew that the NVA hadn't had a chance to booby-trap the rucks but there was no point in taking unnecessary risks.
When the rigs were secure Comstock and Thessin got down behind some cover. With one hard pull, Comstock yanked the rope. To their relief there was no explosion. He did the same with the remaining two but any relief was short lived as the main body of NVA soldiers arrived at the edge of the woods at the very minute and opened up on the Rangers from several different directions at once. The three NVA soldiers had been the point element for a much larger force. The team's hasty ambush was about to take a dramatic turn.
Donahoo was laying prone covering the path to the north, when the sudden fire from the NVA surprised him. As he turned back to cover Comstock and Thessin he spotted two NVA soldiers coming out of the wood line to his immediate front. They were trying to flank the LRRPs.
They were 25 yards away and running in a crouch and moving quickly to flank Comstock and Thessin. When Donahoo swung back toward the NVA, he fired a split second too late. His return fire was enough to stop the assault, but the enemy now focused their fire on the 22 year-old Chattanooga resident. Automatic rifle fire from two AK-47s knocked the rifle from Donahoo's hands, lifting him up and spinning him around in a half circle, before tossing him violently back down on the hard packed trail. He floundered on his back trying to recover his M-16 only to find that it was a good three feet away. His first thought was that the rifle stock had taken the bullets meant for him. Then came the realization that there was blood coming from his right side. He started to panic but realized there was no time. The two NVA soldiers who had shot at him were still running forward, bent on finishing the job. In a supreme effort, Donahoo managed to pull his rucksack over his shoulders and drop it in front of him for protection. Still prone, he brought up his back up weapon, a sawn off M-79 grenade launcher. He snapped off a canister round at the two approaching NVA and was relieved to see them tumbling over backwards. He quickly broke open the “chunker” and shoved home a high explosive round and fired. The HE round armed itself a few feet after leaving the barrel. Even if it didn't explode, it would still punch a hell of a hole through a man. Donahoo was relieved when the round detonated. Hurriedly, he reloaded and fired again. When the NVA in the tree line to his front quieted down, Donahoo took the time to check his wounds. He could breathe, but not without some difficulty.
His right side seemed heavy and was going numb. “Shit!” he said, loading the Chunker again and levelling it on the rucksack as he used his free hand to feel inside his camouflage fatigue shirt. Any hope that it was a flesh would was quickly dashed when he found the bullet wound in his right side near the ribs. There was a thumb-size hole where it had entered and there was more. A second hole a few inches above the first was seeping blood while a third an inch or so higher was hardly bleeding at all. Donahoo felt around his back but couldn't find any exit wounds. He was sweating and his face felt flushed only it wasn't from the firefight.
Donahoo recalled something about chest wounds with no exit points, and what came to mind offered little solace. If there was little blood, then it was likely that he was bleeding internally, which could explain the heaviness he was feeling in his chest. There wasn't as much pain as he thought there would be, but then does one feel pain when one's dying?
Another burst of automatic weapons fire stitched the bottom of his rucksack and worked its way along his web belt, shattering his canteen and bringing him back to reality.
He didn't have time or enough bandages to treat his wounds, but used the dressing in his first aid pouch as a stopgap measure anyway. Anything was better than nothing. Sudden movement in the wood line below brought him back upon his pack, firing his M-79. He followed the first shot with five more quick rounds.
Comstock and Thessin had their hands full with the tree line to their font so Donahoo turned the Chunker to help them, dropping in a line of HE rounds and giving the two Rangers time to fall back to the perimeter. He kept up the Chunker fire, alternating between tree lines until he ran out of rounds.
Comstock was waving him back and had no way of knowing that the rear scout had been hit. “Come on!” Thessin yelled. Donahoo nodded but said nothing.
A burning sensation now replaced the numbness, and the adrenalin pumping through his system didn't help matters any. His right side felt like it had awakened from a deep sleep to the pain of a thousand needle pricks.
He knew he couldn't make it back in a single sprint and he wasn't sure if he could walk, let alone run anyway, so he settled on another plan. There was a small anthill ten yards to his rear. It was only two feet high and about three feet in diameter, but it would offer him the cover he needed to shield him as he tried to get back to the team.
He crawled quickly, each lunge a painful ordeal. Finally he reached the mound. The NVA and his teammates were still exchanging fire and the area reeked of cordite and tree resin. Donahoo tried to get to his knees, but dropped back grimacing in pain. When he tried again a few minutes later, he discovered that someone was behind him, helping him to rise. It was Thessin! The assistant team leader got him to his feet, at the same time firing at the NVA soldiers closing in on the team. The enemy troops were throwing grenades. The nearby explosions seemed to have little effect on Thessin, but Donahoo could see a dark red rosette growing on the back of the NCO's shirt.
Comstock moved up to prevent the NVA from crossing the open field below. At the same time he grabbed the radio and called in targets for the gunships just arriving on station. The remainder of the team kept up a steady stream of fire at the encircling NVA.
As the assistant team leader inspected Donahoo's wounds, Comstock paused to check Thessin's wounds as well, with more than a little concern registering on his face. The team medic dug through the aid bag for dressings to cover the wounds of the two Rangers. Thessin seemed ok and said so, but Donahoo wasn't looking too good. His face was no longer flushed, but now drawn and clammy. His eyes were listless and he seemed to be going into shock.
“Can you walk?” Comstock asked. Donahoo nodded. “I can try”, he answered.
“Good. We're going to move down the far side of the LZ and get a medevac in. If we stay here they'll only be able to hover and lower a jungle penetrator”, Comstock explained. The team leader didn't have to finish his explanation for Donahoo to understand the implications. If the rescue chopper had to hover, it and the man on the cable would make easy targets for the NVA in the trees.
Comstock had the gunships work over the enemy positions while he led the team down through the wood line to the sough. Soon they were away from the battleground and had arrived at their secondary pickup zone. The gunships continued hitting the enemy to keep them away from the extraction.
Minutes later the Rangers heard the distinctive sound of popping blades as the medevac helicopter came into sight, inbound toward their LZ.
“Get ready!” You're going out…both of you!” Comstock ordered as the medevac made its short final approach on the yellow smoke grenade they had used to mark their position.
As the Huey touched down the NVA tried another assault to get in range of the medevac. The remaining three Rangers stood up to cover the extraction of their two wounded teammates as the Thessin raced for the open bay doors carrying Donahoo over his shoulder. When he reached the ship, he tossed Donahoo inside and jumped in after him. The pilot dipped the nose of the aircraft and roared away from the gunfire on the ground below. The metallic ticks of incoming rounds tearing through the helicopter's thin skin let everyone on board know just how close the rescue had been. The flight medic inspected the shrapnel wounds in Thessin's back and quickly bandaged them before turning his attention to Donahoo. As he opened the scout's shirt he winced as he studied the wounds. The without a moments hesitation, he reached into his aid bag and brought out a morphine syringe.
“This will help,” he said, injecting the syringe into Donahoo's arm. With the loss of blood and the morphine the badly wounded Ranger was soon floating in and out of consciousness. Reality became blurred, and what little awareness remained only confirmed his nightmare.
When he came to later in the field hospital, the nurse and medics were cutting away his boots and jungle fatigues. “Gunshot wound! Right lung!” someone yelled to his right. A doctor tried to get a tube down his throat and into his damaged lung. Donahoo fought him until others stepped in to physically restrain him. He was too weak to fight for long and finally resigned himself to the trauma procedures being used to save his life.
“LACERATED LIVER!” someone else shouted behind him, quickly following with, “AND BLOOD IN THE ABDOMINAL CAVITY.”
“Broken ribs and fragments, too” the first voice, added, a little softer now. Mercifully the Ranger NCO drifted away once away once again, as the poking and probing continued.
Donahoo came to again only to find that he was being loaded on another helicopter. An overworked nurse was telling the flight medic that he was stabilized to travel. It didn't feel that way to Donahoo.
“…three in the chest, huh? The medic said to the wounded Ranger. “Don't worry, man, you'll be okay.”
Donahoo was laying on his side on a stretcher and covered with a sheet. The flight to the evac hospital in Long Binh was cold and jarring. In pain he drifted in and out of consciousness as the helicopter shuddered through the cool evening air.
He was startled awake on another helipad; this time in Long Binh where he was taken to triage and examined by a tall, think doctor before he was carted off to the surgical ward. The following morning the Ranger NCO was prepped, given anaesthesia, and wheeled off into surgery.
Afterwards in recovery two hours later, he awoke from the anaesthesia dry and still groggy. He could hear the muted sounds of conversation going on around him. The wounded soldiers occupying the ward were busy exchanging war stories. Their talk was occasionally punctuated by the sounds of laughter and low, deep sobs.
“You Cav?” a badly wounded soldier asked from the next bed. Donahoo's head was pounding as he turned to face him.
“Who you with?”
“Lurps,” Donahoo replied
“No wonder,” exclaimed the wounded soldier. “You take a round in the chest?”
“A three round burst.”
“Man!” the soldier in the bed next to him muttered shaking his head. “I bet that NVA is still shaking in his sandals wondering what the fuck it takes to kill you guys!”
Donahoo managed a think smile. “Not too much more,” he said knowing in a gravely voice. “Not too much more.”
Several days later the 1st
Air Cavalry Division Commander, Major General George W. Casey, presented Sergeant Chuck Donahoo with a Silver Star for gallantry, an Army Commendation medal and a Purple Heart.
But rather than spending the obligatory few minutes with the LRRP / Ranger, Casey stayed with the young buck Sergeant for a full 20 minutes, asking questions about his background and family, Hotel Company and the mission that had landed him in the hospital. When he was ready to leave he thanked Donahoo and told him he was proud to have had him in his Division.
It didn't lessen the pain of the injuries or make the recovery any easier, but Casey's genuine sincerity and fatherly concern would have its impact. It would take years for the Ranger NCO to recover, but eventually Comstock and Thessin's actions and Casey's words led to pride replacing Donahoo's pain.
Rangers may lead the way, but it's often how they're led that makes all the difference.
This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.
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