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War Story

UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regt. from the Fihol Rubber Plantation during Operation Wahiawa.

SFC James K. F. Dung

Behind 'Friendly' Lines

05 June 2006

John A. Larsen

In August 1967, I returned to Vietnam for my second tour. I had already served a six-month TDY trip from the 1st SF Group on Okinawa, assigned to the 400th Army Security Agency Special Operations Detachment (Airborne). Our job had been to provide communications intelligence to 1st SFG.

This time I was assigned to the 400th's sister unit, the 403rd Radio Research Special Operations Detachment. It was hoped that the change in designation from “Army Security” would confuse the North Vietnamese intelligence types, who would be unable to determine the unit's true function.

During my first tour in 1965, we had an intercept site in Tay Ninh at Trang Sup (A-301) Special Forces camp. It was there that I first became acquainted with the problem that every American unit working the Vietnamese experienced – enemy agents. Trang Sup had two A Teams – one operational, another that trained Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) soldiers for the camps in Tay Ninh. All in all, there were nearly 1,000 troops in camp. It was believed that as many as 5-10% were VC or VC sympathizers. The team house had been heavily sandbagged and was well stocked with weapons and ammo in case it had to become another American “Alamo”

Regardless, you always knew that it took a single enemy agent to toss a grenade into your room. In those early days of the war, most operations involved walking out of the camp early in the morning and getting into the wood line before the VC observers on Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) spotted you. Of course, no one ever admitted they knew who fired the red star cluster right after your patrol departed the camp. Nobody ever spotted the guy.

While we were there, one of your intercept operators was walking by the Luc Luong Dac Biet (LLDB – South Vietnamese Special Forces) radio room and stopped to listen to their operator sending Continuous Wave (Morse code). A few minutes later, he shut down. As our man was leaving, he heard the operator come back up using VC radio procedure. Our operator immediately ran back to the intercept site and was able to verify that the LLDB operator was indeed a VC agent.

I slept in the dispensary when I was in camp. As an added safe-guard, I always managed to sneak some extra food to the camp mascot, a dog I called “Old Yeller.” His claim to fame was that he hated Vietnamese – of any dialect or political persuasion. This was a little unusual. On my first tour at a border ranger camp, the Vietnamese dogs barked at me for about two weeks, until they finally accepted me as a resident. They always barked continually at any visiting Americans. One night I woke up to hear Old Yeller quietly growing. I grabbed my M-14 and looked down the hallway. About six feet back from the door a CIDG soldier with a red filtered flashlight stood, sending what appeared to be Morse code towards Nui Ba Den. He was so intent on what he was doing that he didn't notice my presence until I stuck the muzzle of my rifle behind his right ear and walked him to the team house.

Other things happened. We would often find the feed cover on the .50 cal. machine gun ajar, and on closer inspection would discover that someone had dropped a handful of dirt in the feed tray. Sometimes we would find rags stuffed down the barrel of the 81mm mortars. Yet it was on my second tour that I personally witnessed the real clincher.

I arrived in Pleiku in August 1967 after spending 10 months in the hospital with tuberculosis picked upon my first tour, six months more at Ft. Meade attending a school run by the National Security Agency, and then Ranger School. I was ready and eager to get back to work again.

For the first time 45 days, I worked out of Engineer Hill and lived at the C Team compound of Bravo Company, 5th SFG. Things hadn't changed much in the two years since I had left Nam. The camp barber was discovered carrying blasting caps. A further search revealed that his plywood barber chair was hollow and was crammed with C-4 plastique explosives. The barber shop was located just behind the commander's – LTC Faistenhammer – office.

If I may digress, LTC Faistenhammer was an interesting man. A native German, he left Bavaria for the US around 1936. He returned in 1944 as a tanker with the 4th Armored Division. At the conclusion of the Korean War, he was serving as an artillery officer. After a tour with Operation White Star in Laos, and several trips to Vietnam, this dedicated officer would spend a major portion of his career under combat conditions, and 17 years later I would round out my own career by serving as a sergeant major of Company A, 3rd Battalion, 10th SFG under the command of his son, Major William L. Faistenhammer. They were both excellent officers.

In another incident, someone operating a forklift at the ammo dump noticed a wire running into a pallet of 105mm shells. Sure enough, an investigation turned up a satchel charge set to blow on command. One night we had an alert, and one of the sergeants had a harrowing experience. The NCO kept his web gear hanging from a mail in his room. When the alert sounded he back into his LBE and began to slip it on. He noticed a slight resistance as he pulled it onto his shoulders. Looking back he spotted a thin wire hooked to one of the M26 grenades hanging from his web gear. Luckily, the safety pin had been bent just a little too much to pull out as he donned his equipment. While I was at the C Team compound, I kept my gear locked in a wall locker until I was ready to go to bed at night and all the local Vietnamese were out of the camp.

Shortly before the Vietnamese national elections in 1967, I was sent out to Camp Buon Blech (A-238) with a couple of intercept operators. Buon Blech was located on a mountain that overlooked the surrounding area. I liked it because the VC / NVA would have to attack uphill rather than across open flat ground like at the lowland camps. The three of us were to determine if being nearer to the Cambodian border would enable us to intercept more transmissions and provide more timely intelligence to the camp by being on site. Most of what we picked up was not duplicated by any other source, so the assignment paid off. However, as an analyst I didn't have a lot to do. Any well-trained analyst could handle a much larger amount of intercepts than a single pair of operators could produce. In addition, because of their security classifications, I was unable to bring along the required working aids to process the intercepts.

As the elections drew closer, the intelligence sergeant (who I remember as SFC Jerry Clark) received reports that the VC were going to attack Buon Blech to demonstrate the weakness of the South Vietnamese government. Several nights later, we were heavily mortared, but the VC were firing into a strong headwind. Their fire proved to be ineffective, but our counter-battery fire, firing with the wind, chewed them up pretty bad. We had a little trouble with the increment settings swelling with moisture and causing some of the rounds to hang up in the 81mm tubes.

The day after the failed VC attack, I asked the Intelligence sergeant about a partially finished bunker located just below the team house. He explained that it was being built to house a pair of .50 cal. machine guns, but the camp was too short-handed to finish it. I told him I had instructed on the .50 cal. during my first tour and volunteered to finish the job. He assigned me a squad to finish the bunker and set up the machine guns. Putting most of the squad to work stacking sandbags, I took the rest of the men to the supply building to pick up the two .50s. We found them still packed in cosmoline, so I signed out for about a 10' square of white canvas, a can of gas, some cleaning rags and a bamboo pole. Dividing the canvas in half, I stripped the two machine guns and had my detail clean off all the cosmoline from the parts. While they were busy with this task, I took a ¾ ton truck to the ammo bunker, located some wooden crated of .50 cal. ammunition, and loaded about 2,000 rounds of what turned out to linked all-linked aircraft ammo. When I discovered my mistake, I had to return to the ammo bunker, unload the crates, and pick up a couple of thousand rounds of ball ammo. At 30lbs. Per 100 rd. can, I was pretty tired after finishing the exchange.

When I got back and checked on my weapon cleaning detail, I discovered all the parts were clean, but I was missing one bolt stud. I figured one of the Montanyard CIDG soldiers had simply lost it. With one gun down, I quickly reassembled the other, set the head spacing, and took it out to the nearby range to fire up some old 55-gallon drums. It was just like shooting tin cans with a .22, except it was a little more impressive. I walked those drums back over the 6' high earthen berm like they were nothing.

When I finished, I took the .50 back to the bunker, set it on the tripod, ran some patches through the barrel, and went to dinner. I joked with one of the Montanyard assistant cooks, who was only 13, that I could use an assistant gunner. As I would find out later that night, he took me seriously.

Buon Blech was a pretty squared away camp and possessed a better than average security system. Each night the camp would put out several five man ambushes along approach routes to the camp's perimeter. The SOP was for each ambush team to put out a Claymore mine. Each soldier carried an M2 Carbine. If the enemy showed up, the team was to fire the Claymore, empty a 30 round magazine on full automatic, then fall back toward the camp. What we heard later that night was one of these ambushes being blown north of the camp near the airfield. The camp began firing illumination rounds from its 81mm mortars over the area of the contact. The flares drifted over the airfield and disappeared below the trees on the far side. The floating flares formed shadows across the airfield. The camp commander ordered that no one fire until he gave the word, and he specifically ordered me to avoid loading the .50 cal. until he OK'd it.

A short time later, I reported to him over the radio that I could see people coming across the airfield. He asked me if I was sure. I replied that I was, since they had just set of a trip flare. I didn't tell him that it was our five man ambush teams coming in. He authorized me to load the machine gun and stand by. I grabbed retracting slide handle on the right side of the receiver, began the first of two pulls that were required to chamber a round in one of John Browning's .50 cal. machine guns, and was shocked to find that the retracting slide handle had come off in my hand.

With a useless machine gun, I knew I wouldn't be able to stop a VC assault. When the next flare burned out, I took advantage of the cover of darkness, jumped up on the lip of the bunker, grabbed the gun off its tripod, and brought it back inside. To make matters worse, I knocked my M-16 into the dirt wall, jamming mud into the flash suppressor and possibly down the barrel. Now I was really upset. With an impending enemy attack, I was without a functioning weapon. Desperate, I banged the flash suppressor on the cement floor of the bunker, stuck the rifle over the lip of the bunker, closed my eyes and squeezed the trigger. At least I had one weapon that still worked.

I shined a flashlight beam along the right side of the .50 cal's receiver to where there should have been a retracting slide handle held by a pin. The only thing I saw was the threaded portion of the lug. Because of the previous problems with the 81mm mortar rounds hanging up, I had gotten in the habit of carrying several 81mm mortar safety pins in my pocket so I could quickly reinsert them into the hung rounds. I put the retracting slide handle back on the lug and pushed the one of the mortar safety pins through the hole the cotter pin went through. While this served to keep the handle in place, it was still too loose to operate. Suddenly, the 13 year old cock's assistant from the mess hall showed up to be my assistant gunner. He had taken me seriously. I had him push against the left side of the receiver as I pushed at a 45-degree angle against the right side, and between us I was able to cock the weapon. It wasn't easy, but could be done.

We put the machine gun back on the tripod and prepared to ruin someone's night. We had heard carbine fire and several more Claymores going off when we were working on the machine gun. Now that we were back in business, everything was quiet again. As it got closer to daylight, we realized that it was over. Normal VC SOP was to attack at night and pull out before daylight, when US air power arrived. I was pissed that I had not fired a single round.

We learned a little later that the VC force had bumped into several of our five man ambushes as it had approached the camp. The enemy commander, his executive officer and the unit's political officer were among those killed and wounded. As the last of the Claymores detonated, the leaderless VC decided the Gods were not with them on that night and withdrew from the area.

As dawn finally appeared, we stood down and went to the mess hall for some coffee. When I returned to the bunker a little later and looked around, I located the cotter pin, lying in a little strip of mud where the concrete floor ended short of the wall. You could see where someone had attempted to stomp the pieces into the mud by stepping on them. Undoubtedly, this was the same individual who has 'lost' the other .50's bolt stud.

If you ever find yourself working in a foreign country with locals and your .50 cal. is critical to your base camp defence, I would advise you to bend back that cotter pin and check it several times daily just in case one of your 'allies' isn't exactly what he's supposed to be.

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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