War Story: A Camp In The Clouds

02 December 2008

Charles McDonald

By 1964 the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong had successfully expanded their operations in Laos and South Vietnam. The cost to the U.S. military in manpower had reached 225 servicemen.

Communist terrorist and sapper squads regularly raided military installations, disrupted communications, damaged railroad facilities, highways, bridges, destroyed commercial aircraft, and sabotaged industrial plants, agricultural plantations, and population centres. The systematic assassination of local administrators and teachers helped to destroy social and economic programmes throughout the country. The border areas South Vietnam shared with Cambodia and Laos and North Vietnam, along with much of its coastline had fallen into the hands of the communists.

U.S. Army Special Forces personnel trying to assist the South Vietnamese Army were feeling the brunt of the violence that was ripping South Vietnam apart. Those of us who wore the Green Beret had a common goal and a common end – true to the Special Forces motto: “Liberate the Oppressed.”

The war in neighbouring Laos was well covered by the world press corps, however, the American public had little to no idea that our own troops were involved. Actually, thousands of NVA troops were being tied up in Laos, fighting Royal Lao forces and Hmong tribesmen who were trained and advised by U.S. Special Forces personnel.

In early 1964, North Vietnam was moving thousands of its soldiers and tons of military supplies through their base areas along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos into staging areas in Cambodia and South Vietnam. Among other troops, this trail system was being supported by two NVA communication battalions. It was at this time that the decision was made to expand the U.S. advisory role in South Vietnam. Many Special Forces teams based on Okinawa were placed on alert for immediate deployment to Southeast Asia. And it wasn’t long before American Special Forces efforts in Vietnam received a real adrenalin kick when their numbers were fortified with additional teams arriving from the 1st Special Forces Group on Okinawa, bringing total U.S. forces serving in aviation units and other advisory roles to 35,000 men.

While the growing vituperation continued between North Vietnamese and U.S. leaders, my team, located in the northwest corner of South Vietnam near the village of Khe Sanh, continued with its efforts to construct a new fortified camp. We worked at a frantic pace, knowing that we were one of the most exposed positions situated along the western boarder of South Vietnam. Our camp was located along the airfield amid the rugged mountain frontier where the borders of North and South Vietnam and Laos come together. The camp was dominated by the 5,820ft Dong Voi Mep Mountain, which the French had named Dent du Tigre (Tiger Tooth). The fear and anxiety of being caught unprepared by the enemy was a daily certainty that only the completion of the camp’s defences would cure. The first Special Forces team had been deployed to the Khe Sanh area on 8th July 1962. We were their replacements.

Tribal Villages
In those early years there were many Bru Montagnard villages in our operational area from which we were able to recruit manpower. The local tribesmen located their villages high on the Khe Sanh mountain plains and erected their longhouses there in naturally protected areas. The communal longhouses were built of solid teak poles buried in the earth, upon which were erected structures consisting of bamboo floors with open-air walls supporting overhead thatched roofs. Each structure housed several families. Access was achieved through the use of notched log or a more conventional ladder. This elevated, covered plateform offered protection from the damp ground, tigers, bears and poisonous snakes. The Bru longhouse was a simple structure containing a cooking room in the centre of the structure, an assembly room at one end, and a communal bedroom at the other end. The cooking hearth had a solid earthen floor as its base.

Mass Execution
Not long after our arrival we received information of a mass execution in the Bru village of Houng Hoa located near the Laotian border southwest of Route 9, a few klicks out from Khe Sanh. This area was under the shadow of the Co Roc Mountains, an area which previously had been heavily fortified by the NVA. The enemy soldiers had merely improved upon the cave systems, fortifications and nearby airfields that had been constructed by the Japanese military forces twenty years earlier.

Before our arrival, the local villagers had been able to buy their privacy by paying off the NVA with money, livestock and rice, but times had obviously changed.

We took out a patrol and arrived at the sight of the mass execution. When we saw the carnage, we froze in place, trembling in sudden rage at the wanton barbarity of the NVA. These peaceful villagers had been guilty of no crime other than a desire to be left alone and allowed to follow the seasons: planting, harvesting and tending their livestock. But the bestiality of the war had found them and had extracted a deadly homage.

We were shocked. We honestly believed that we stood for what was right, good and true. What we were looking at was all wrong. It was war on civilians. It was the loss of humanity and the glorification of madness. It was spreading terror solely for the purpose of intimidating people. The VC sector chief was demonstrating his total control by the execution of a number of villagers. For the first time I realised that there were no neutrals in this war. Smelling the stench of death and viewing the human waste, I suffered my first spiritual sickness of the war. It left holes in my heart and soul that would never heal.

Apparently, the NVA had randomly selected a number of men from the village for execution. The only criteria had been being present. These men were not merely executed. They did not just die. They were “scattered” in death. Parts of their bodies were embedded in the creek bank and dispersed everywhere along the sandy ground. A sticky syrup of bloody body fluids had coagulated beneath the dead. As I stood there fighting my nausea, I could almost hear their cries of horror and agony when they fully realised the intent of their executioners. The Bru’s had not been shot, but had been executed with grenades – both fragmentation and M-79. The small craters were everywhere and offered mute testimony to the method of execution. Few of the bodies were in one piece. I recorded mental images of the carnage that would remain indelibly stamped in my mind for the rest of my life. I knew at that moment that if our enemies were capable of this, then I would never allow myself to become their prisoner.

The central authority who had ordered and enforced this harsh discipline was the local VC district chief. I doubted if he was even a communist. But it was he who frightened the tribesmen with threats of communist reprisals and helped to select the villagers to be arrested, interrogated and killed. I wondered how he established just who would be the “lucky” one chosen for this specific act of terror, this devilish spectacle of butchery. They were meant to serve as an example for others of what happens to those who fail to cooperate with the district chief. It was designed to produce fear and compliance among the native population. It worked. The shame of it is that the enemy employed this tactic throughout the war, and nowhere do I recall anyone anywhere outside of South Vietnam, protesting its implementation. But we knew the NVA used this type of intimidation against those who were not cooperating or who failed to volunteer to serve as fighters, labourers, or bearers along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail
The Troung Son Mountain trail was a spiderweb network of many tiered, forested trails that were used for the infiltration of enemy agents, NVA military units, and convoys of ammunition from North Vietnam to the contested areas of Laos and South Vietnam. The trail system was naturally protected by highland vegetation, bad weather, mist-shrouded valleys, thick clouds, and ground fog. In addition, the enemy utilized press gangs who pulled the natural overhead cover together where possible to hide the trails from aerial observation. These labour gangs also maintained the trails and repaired any damage caused by Allied fighter/bombers. There also existed an elaborate network of tunnel and cave systems along the trails where enemy personnel were able to seek shelter from both the weather and American bombs. Even as early as 1964, the somewhat undeveloped trail network still contained nearly 8,000 miles of roads and footpaths, and was lined with large numbers of way stations, rest areas and service points for the soldiers using the system. Soviet supplied Molotova trucks brought supplies south on the trail as far as possible, then the supplies were off-loaded and broken down where they continued on their way on the backs of elephants, horses, bicycles, or porters. It took the NVA several months to move troops and supplies through the system to their ultimate destination. Two entire NVA infantry divisions were used to provide security along the trail.

The Se Pone River
In our area, the border was marked by the serpentine meanderings of the Se Pone River. This mysterious, shallow stream twined gracefully through the towering, heavily forested mountains, running out slowly, coiling itself to rest occasionally in deep, quiet pools. The mountains it ran through were wild, beautiful, and rich in colour. It was a magical, mystical place where the war could easily be forgotten as it lulled you into a serene fantasy – that is, until it suddenly and unexpectedly erupted in your face. Our job was to make sure the enemy experienced the same dichotomy.

The Patrol
We often listened to Radio Hanoi. It was probably 75% of our entertainment. Not long after the mass execution we heard over the air that the NVA would soon be seeing us. We laughed and made light of this revelation, but it still caused an uncomfortable trickle of fear that made its way slowly down my spine.

We were headed west on a n extended combat patrol, moving cautiously through the dense mountain forests. Ahead of us stretched a vast area that was both unique and unexpected to us. This part of South Vietnam was a forbidding and nearly impenetrable wilderness. The only passage through it was by means of a vast network of narrow, shadowy footpaths, established over the centuries by generations of Bru tribesmen, following the natural contours of the land. The trails ran helter-skelter through the darkened hardwood forests, always following the paths of least resistance. It was these ancient footpaths that enabled us to move unimpeded through our operational area. Our patrols were lonely affairs, conducted in a world of twilight and darkness, among dense stands of tall, virgin forests, where the interplay of light and shadows were like music without sound. It was a beautiful, peaceful place of unspoiled terrain. We soon felt like heathen trespassers tramping through a sacred burial ground. We were aware that eh secondary ridges running below the mountain peaks were still occupied by beasts of the forest and primitive men. Open savannas intruded into some of the valleys and along the Se Pone River that formed the border between Laos and South Vietnam.

We followed the trial as it dropped down out of the mountains and ran parallel to the river. The trail had existed for eons and had been beaten smooth by the bare feet of generations of Montagnards, and more recently by the boots of Japanese, French, North Vietnamese and American soldiers.

We sent out scouts a full half-day ahead of us. They were experienced and skilful woodsmen, and we knew they would alert us to any danger that lay in our path.

The Se Pone was high and murky from recent rains. Frequently in the lowlands along the river we were forced to drop down on our hands and knees to crawl under and through endless mazes of vines and creepers. Our pace was slow and deliberate. However, the physical exertion was nothing compared to the mental stress of staying constantly alert.

We were operating outside the ranger of our PRC-10. But we did carry HT-1 which were capable of ground-to-air communications. During our patrol, a U-1 Otter – a small utility transport – made a daily courier flight into Laos. When it passed overhead we were able to communicate with the aircraft and have it relay a message to our base. Other than the Otter, we had no communications with anyone.

The trail led us away from the river and back up into the mountains where we were hidden again among the green foliage and dark shadows of the triple canopy forests. It wasn’t long before we were hypnotized by the sounds of an incredible variety of jungle birds singing overhead. This was a good sign so far – a sign that we had not been detected, nor were other men in the immediate area. As we moved deeper into the forest, the greens became dark and grey as bamboo and lianas choked out the remaining beams of external sunlight as it tried to filter through the canopy. Like a door slamming shut on a windowless room, the impenetrable darkness of virgin forest quickly closed in around us. No matter how many times I travelled these main trails through the dense triple canopy, I always got the same impression that they had just been swept clean.

Each day we clambered though the mountains, burdened by the heavy weight of our packs, ammunition, and weapons. Our shoulders, backs and legs ached from the physical exertion, while our stomachs cried out from the hunger we were already beginning to experience. We moved slowly, carefully searching our surroundings and peering cautiously around each bend in the trail, continuing to move in god weather or bad – it made no difference to us.

Fortunately, water was never a problem. We encountered plenty of gravel and rock bottomed streams flowing down from the mountains, and although the water carried more than its share of forest debris, it was still clear and tasted good. We often took our breaks among the damp cool boulders near these feeder steams.

We sometimes listened to distant thunder forecasting an approaching rainstorm. The superstitious Bru would whisper quietly but uneasily among themselves, muttering something about Bok Claik, the storm spirit – an evil omen of some dreadful thing possibly to come. I had learned from past experience to pay particular heed to everything the Bur did or pointed out. Their wisdom and jungle lore transcended generations of experience in the bush.

During the night, especially during wet weather, mosquitoes came out in droves. They came in two categories – large and voracious, and small and voracious. The constant threat of these pesky hoards caused us to always try to camp on high ground where there was a better chance of catching a breeze.

Once again we came down out of the mountains into the lowlands near the river. With the heat more extreme out in the open we were soon running low water. I remembered the advice of my experienced patrol partner, SSG Ratchford P. Haynes, who had warned me that I should always let one of our tribesmen fill our canteens. If anyone was watching, and he happened to be another Montagnard, he was less likely to shoot one of his own kind. But I considered letting someone else fill my canteen rather risky. I didn’t like the idea of drinking from a canteen that might contain a leech or two. So, on this occasion I decided to go to the river for my own water.

I had just finished filling my canteen when I felt the hair on the back of my neck stiffen. As I quickly put the canteen back into its pouch, I was almost certain that I was being watched. I felt a faint rush of blood to my temples. I tasted the aluminium bite of adrenalin at the back of my throat. My eyes rapidly search the cover along the opposite shore for any sign of danger. As I rose quickly and turned to run, the sonic noise of two bullets cracking close over my head added speed to my legs. A sniper was firing from close range, and instead of concentrating on just one target, he was committing the unpardonable sin of switching from the target to another out in the open. Being greedy and trying to kill all of us had resulted in no hits at all.

Another burst sent liquid shafts of water exploding from the edge of the river right where I had just been squatting. I sprinted about twenty feet up the steep bank and went down hard behind a small log lying out in the open. The bullets were still cracking viciously all around. Suddenly, I was afraid. The log was not only small, but I soon realised that it was also quite rotten.

Two more bullets whistled past my ears, spraying a stinging mist of fine sand over me. I heard a resounding “whap”, followed by a cry of pain, as one of my people took a hit. I turned my heard and looked up the slope, and saw two of my men run out, each snatching up and arm and a leg, and lift the wounded man from the ground. In seconds they had gotten him into the brushy cover higher up the bank, indicating that he was either dead or unconscious.

I could hear Haynes yelling at me, but I couldn’t make out a word he was saying due to the sonic cracks of passing bullets and the pounding of my pulse in the ears. For a moment, confusion and doubt threatened to overwhelm me. Then, with a renewed burst of energy, I leaped to my feet and sprinted once more for the cover at the top of the embankment. With bullets kicking up dirt around my feet and a loud explosion detonating behind me, I dove over the embankment just as a second loud blast shattered the jungle. As I crawled into the brush, Haynes burst out laughing at the stupefied expression on my face. He had covered me the entire time I was under fire, and had used his M-79 on the only visible target across the river – a single hut, which was now a pile of shattered and burning debris. While I was fighting my way to cover, Haynes had disintegrated the structure and any other areas he had suspected of hiding the sniper. There was no longer any sniper fire coming from across the river.

However, the NVA now knew we were here. The bamboo telegraph would ensure that. And to complicate things even more, we now had a wounded man who needed a medical evacuation, even though his wounds were not life threatening. The enemy would soon be after us, and we were burdened with a litter case. I had not followed the good advice of my partner, and now my patrol was in a risky situation because of it. Thanks to my impetuosity we were about to become hunted.

We moved out immediately, following a dry, rocky runoff that would only turn wet when it rained again. We would use the rocks to mask our trail. Periodically, our rear security would drop off to one side to monitor our back-trail, but no one was ever detected following us.

As the sun began to set in the west, we left the vicinity of the river in a zigzag route to try to throw off any trackers. It was on our wounded man but he would have to endure it for the time being. Soon we stopped for the night, and I watched our back-trail for a long time. With the moon behind me, I stood in the deep shadows close to the trunk of a large tree watching and listening. Finally, I gave up and went to sleep. No one had been observed following us, but that really didn’t mean much. We all knew that the enemy would still be out there searching and planning.

I awoke once during the night to the sounds of the normal nocturnal chorus. Minutes later, the cacophony was broken by a single, deep-throated cough from a distant tiger searching for his prey. We were not the only ones being hunted that night. None of us slept too soundly. I dozed off and on my rifle cradled in my arms, the receiver protected between my legs.

The next few days passed without incident. But he gnawing hunger at the pit of my empty stomach was beginning to bother me more than usual. After two weeks on patrol. We were without rations. My stomach had shrunk. I no longer required the amount of food I had needed back on Okinawa, but a certain amount of sustenance was still necessary to maintain my energy. There were no fantasies here in the wilderness. Survival required nothing but the absolute truth. I began to feel light-headed, and I knew that the others were suffering too. Fitful, infrequent sleep was the only way to relieve the painful grip of an empty stomach. We drank a lot of water, but it succeeded only in quieting the growling. Our stomachs had been too long without nourishment to be fooled by a quart of tepid water. But thanks to the jungle survival skills of our Bru tribesmen, we were able to survive the remainder of the patrol by living off the land.

Death Comes Courting
It was late afternoon – the kind of day when the fetid smells of the sun heated foliage makes even the act of breathing a laboured one. We were slipping up a trail that followed a semi-dry rocky creek bed crossing a low spot between two mountains. We were moving cautiously, stopping to search each new bend in the trail. The trees and undergrowth were so dense that it hindered our view considerably. More than usual, we had to rely on our ears and our noses to scout the trail ahead of us.

Suddenly, one of our advance scouts returned to the patrol to warn us that they had just discovered a smooth bottomed sandal track. It was located in a damp spot in the creek bed and it had still been filling with water when they walked up on it. Whoever had made it had been alone and in a hurry; the deeper part of the track at the ball of the foot. The natives in this area didn’t wear sandals, but the NVA did. And they now knew where we were and in which direction we were heading. Our nerve alarms were jangling.

The other two scouts had made a track of their own and were watching how fast the water was seeping into it to determine how old the first track was. The soon determined it wasn’t very old – just minutes ahead of us. Even though we knew that down the trail somewhere, around one of the bends, there would be an ambush waiting, we decided to continue on. It was very discomforting.

Suddenly, the silence was broken by a single, “crack – thump” of a rifle shot. It had come from well ahead of us up on the high ground. We knew immediately that it was a warning shot. It had to be the NVA scout who had most likely been moving parallel to us. He had left his job of tracking us at this location and moved on ahead to fire the warning signal. It meant that he was familiar with this part of the country and he knew that he had friends in the neighbourhood.

After the echoing sound of the rifle shot had died away, there was dead silence around us. The air was thick enough to cut with a machete. Mr chest was tight, almost as if someone was squeezing it. A new surge of adrenalin was pumping through my veins. I could almost smell the cold sweat glistening on the men around me. It stank of fear – controlled fear – but fear none the less. Whatever was going to happen would be happening very soon.

Our point element was under the able leadership of our most experienced veteran, SSG Haynes. I watched as he moved back down the file formation, eyes roving from side to side, to tell me that we were going to be ambushed. We discussed the matter for several minutes trying to decide what course of action to take.

He finally decided that we would not allow ourselves to be drawn into the area where the signal shot had come from, but would move off in another direction, relying on the NVA not having enough troops in the area to set out multiple ambushes. With the decision made, he calmly returned to the front of the patrol.

We moved up the trail until we found a secondary. Our long formation was heading northeast up a long, slow grade that rose sharply on our left. The trail now narrowed to pass over a low saddle, surrounded by trees and low brush on both sides. Just below the crest was an ideal area to conceal an ambush.

Haynes and his point element eyeballed the thick tangle of cover, looking for any indication of danger. They were surefooted but steady. As they reached the crest of the saddle, they hesitated momentarily. A slight breeze suddenly stirred the leaves, bringing the fait aroma of sour sweat and wood smoke saturated clothing. It was a warning, but it came too late. Haynes knew instantly that the enemy was there. The ambush opened with the sudden, methodical popping of AK-47s, followed by the quick volleys of our return fire.

There was no holding back now. Our point element moved fast, led by the resolute Haynes. Like the beserker of old, he immediately took the fight to the enemy. Fear became maniacal rage. With uncompromising courage, Haynes charged into the ambush, his finger on the trigger of his weapon, unleashing short bursts to cover his advance. He ignored the bullets whining past his head and tearing bark off the trees nearby. Other members of his point element were wounded around him, but the viciousness of their assault succeeded in sending the ambushers reeling back on themselves.

Haynes realised too late that he had already tripped a bobby trap wire tied to a Chicom grenade somewhere in his wake. Thank God it had failed to explode! Just ahead of him was another long, yellowed bamboo handle with its dark, serrated head sitting upright on the ground. Haynes commanded his warriors to stop while he checked the area for more booby traps. He had seen and hard the NVA ambushers abandoning their positions, so he knew that the immediate danger was no longer from them.

Nervously, he swung through a complete 360degree circle, quickly searching his immediate surroundings. Finally satisfied that there was no immediate danger from his rear, he again faced forward and located another tripwire to his front. Backing up toward the trail, Haynes avoided a number of booby traps in returning to the rest of the patrol.

Ahead of me in the trail, two men were down. They had fallen silently. One body was kicking feebly, the other wasn’t moving at all. I could tell from their colour that they were already. I moved up and checked one of them and saw that he had taken a round in the head. I could find no wounds on the second man, until I rolled him over and discovered that the back of his head was gone. Both men had died instantly in the opening volley.

Suddenly, the small, almost inconspicuous sound of shuffling up ahead and off the side of the trail caught my attention. It was the sound of brush grating against cloth uniforms, the sounds of people trying to cove quickly over crunchy leaves and brittle twigs.

I moved off the trail into the brush, watchful for booby traps. Again I heard the scuffling sound of running feet – ahead of me now. It had to be more of the NVA ambushers. Fearing that they were being flanked, they were bailing out of the area. I spotted two khaki-clad, armed men moving rapidly over the hill to my right. I flipped the selector switch to “full auto”, but before I could fire on them they disappeared in the shadows of the broken terrain. Then there was only silence around me.

Dripping sweat, stood there, suddenly aware of how physically and mentally fatigued I felt. To pursue would have been foolhardy. I backed slowly toward the trail to check out the damage we had taken in the ambush.

A closer examination of the kill zone revealed the spot had been chosen by the enemy with care. I quickly photographed the booby trap that had failed to detonate under Haynes. The NVA fighting positions had been well prepared, with Punji stakes out in front, aiming stakes, and well-manicured fields of fire cut through the underbrush. We could easily tell how well designed the ambush had been when we got into their positions and looked back down through their firing tunnels at the trail we had come up. From out on the path the enemy positions were almost impossible to detect. Only the fast, savage counterattack led by SSG Haynes had prevented more of us from being killed and wounded.

We needed to get a medical evacuation helicopter in to pick up our wounded, but we were too far out of range to communicate by radio with Khe Sanh. Our only hope for commo was to pick up an aircraft with our single HT-1 radio. Fortunately, aircraft passed overhead more than once a day coming or going into Laos from Vietnam. If we could establish contact with one of them we could have it relay our message to base. Sometimes they would even relay our massage without responding to us.

After regrouping, we designated a new point element and alerted them to move out. The tribesmen on point were visible frightened but they fought back their fear and advanced up the trail. I was somewhat concerned when I saw this. Patrolling deep in enemy territory required absolute focus, a hundred percent alertness, and total discipline at all times. Your body, mind and senses had to be in sync or you would not survive. Patrolling is both an intellectual and sensual activity on which everyone’s life depends on each other.

We soon came to a large open area with a stream running through it. The point element discovered more sandal tracks in the soft dirt on the trail. We stopped once again and crouched next to some small trees and bushes to break up our outlines, and began to scan the area around the open clearing with our eyes – a couple of us even employing binoculars. Sniffing the air and detecting nothing but the clean, refreshing smell of the forest, we were soon satisfied that we were alone. We moved across the clearing and back into the cover of the woods without incident.

Ambushed Again
We were still moving carefully through the forest when once again the silence was savagely interrupted by the popping sounds of AKs. As I began to react I spotted the men in front of me flinching and ducking as they began their own evasive manoeuvres. More of the staccato chatter of automatic weapons was coming from inside the thick undergrowth. I grabbed a nearby M-79 grenade launcher and fired three 40mm rounds in a high, arching loop into the rear of the enemy positions. Bullets were cracking overhead and thudding into ground around us as the enemy ranged on our positions. The terrifying whine of ricocheting rounds sang through the branches, chewing bark off the trees and showering us with shattered limbs.

We returned fire immediately, trying to put out more rounds down range than the enemy was tossing at us. Then it was suddenly quiet once again. After allowing a few seconds to catch our breath Haynes signalled for us to move out in our classic infantry advance – fire and manoeuvre toward the suspected enemy positions.

Suddenly, more fire from a single Kalashnikov assault rifle had everyone ducking low again as we continued to move forward. Our point element, supported by base of fire laid down by the rest of us, charged ahead. Once again they found that the enemy had already cleared out of their ambush positions. Was it hit and run tactics, or were the NVA not prepared for our reaction to their ambushes?

A brief check determined that we had taken no friendly casualties this time, but our point man had been knocked to the ground in the initial burst of fire. The impact of the bullet that had hit his rucksack had shattered everything inside it. He was lucky, and he knew it.

Haynes once again directed the point element to move out of the area at once. We had to keep going before the enemy had time to set up another ambush. We continued moving until it was too dark to see, then set up a night defence position and waited. It turned out to be a long wait, and an even longer night.

The enemy had not yet found us by the following morning. We did manage to make contact with an aircraft passing overhead on its way into Laos.

We relayed our message to base, then moved out toward higher terrain while at the same time searching for an open area large enough to serve as a helicopter landing zone.

Medical Evacuation and Re-supply
The chopper reached the general area of our LZ but was still off in the distance. We did a quick final check of our wounded to make sure they were ready for the Dustoff. One man’s breathing was punctuated by a sharp hissing sound emanating through his clenched teeth. I checked another wounded soldier and discovered that he was running a high fever. The cooler air on the flight back would help him more than anything I could do on the ground.

We conducted a long count while depressing the handset key, transmitting a steady radio beam to guide the chopper within sight of our location. The increasing pitch of the rotor blades was definitely growing louder as the aircraft zeroed in on our radio beam. We finally spotted him off in the distance as he dropped below the tree line before making his final run in to our LZ. By voice we guided the pilot into our exact location, using the clock face system to get him right over us and down on the ground. We fought the rotor wash of the big Sikorsky H-34 as we hurriedly loaded our wounded aboard. I remember their bloodshot eyes, their twisted faces filled with pain. Their wounds were nasty looking flesh wounds – painful but not life-threatening. Air evacuation always proved to be a great morale builder among our Chinese, Montagnard, and Vietnamese troops. Unfortunately, there was no room for our dead. We would have to carry them with us or leave them behind – an option no one was willing to exercise.

The helicopter shuddered as it lifted straight up out of the LZ. It dropped its nose slightly, swung low out over the forest to pick up ground speed, then disappeared over the horizon. It was then that we remembered the crew had forgotten to kick out our re-supply of rations.

We reached the aircraft by radio and were told that a U-1 Utility transport would drop supplies to us soon. Aerial re-supply was a vital part of our long-range patrol ground operations during this period of time in Vietnam. We only had to find a 100yard square opening in the trees and hope for good weather. Skilled pilots were a big help. Luckily for us the weather remained good. When bad weather set in, we were often on our own. We could hump a week’s worth of rations, but after that period we had to receive a re-supply or live off the land.

We finally picked up the sound of the Otter droning loudly just north of us. Haynes got the pilot on the U-1 and guided him to our location. Suddenly, there it was. We saw it snaking along the ridge just above the trees, a face peering from the open door of the aircraft. The Otter reduced power and began the drop. Static line secured to the floor of the aircraft, the last of the small wooden pallets of G-13 cargo parachutes blossomed overheard from the Otter aircraft as it droned on over the horizon and vanished, and then the faint sound of the engine was gone.

The Final Leg
We headed back to Khe Sanh, taking a different route to forestall another ambush. Again, we decided to take a more difficult route, this time staying off the trails, going directly through the mountains to the east. However, we would constantly worry about our back-trail. Because of the size of our patrol it was impossible to sterilize the path we left behind us. Fortunately, the weather appeared to be deteriorating which would soon help to wash out any signs of our passage. So we kept a close eye on our back-trail as we moved along the crest of a high mountain ridge. As far as we could tell, we were not yet being followed. However, we weren’t out of danger by a long shot. The NVA knew that we would be heading eat – there was no other direction we could go to reach friendly territory. They would be spread out like hounds sniffing the ground as they tried to pick up our trail. It would only be a matter of time before they found it. We had to put a lot of distance between them and us before the storm hit.

Soon, dark, ominous clouds were rolling in over us, blotting out the sun. The temperature dropped dramatically as Mother Nature set the stage for a really big display of her raw power. A light shower arrived first, just enough to dampen us down and deaden the sounds of our movement. But then the main storm struck with all the fury and rage of a woman scorned. The force of the wind rocked the hilltop as a curtain of darkness dropped over us. Flashes of blinding lightening pierced the darkness with the brilliance of a thousand strobe lights. We were in the wrath of a tremendous typhoon that had moved inland from the South China Sea. It had hit with little warning and now it was trying its damnest to blow us off the ridge, or drown us in the process.

Drenched, we took shelter slumped down behind the largest trees we could find. Debris and branches flew past us as the storm raged unabated. The chilling rain continued in slashing, wind-driven torrents. It was a phenomenal experience that made us feel totally humble and insignificant in the face of such power. The superstitious Montagnards were doubly terrified, believing that some unearthly evil had been unleashed upon them.

Finally, the storm passed beyond us. We shook ourselves out and continued to move in the evening darkness. We were too wet to sleep. But Mother Nature wasn’t finished with us yet. We were in the eye of the typhoon, and it wasn’t long before the back side of the storm was upon us, exacting a greater toll than the front of the storm. The wind renewed its fury and howled ferociously, broken only by the frequent snap of forest giants giving up their battle with the storm and toppling slowly to the forest floor.

Then the storm was over for good. It was still raining lightly but the winds and lightening had moved on to the west. That’s when the forest leeches came out in mass to dine on us. Miserable, wet, and chilled to the bone, we were too tired to deal with them or anyone else for that matter, and losing a few ounces of blood didn’t seem as important as trying to keep moving and staying warm. Now was the time of greatest danger. We were leaving a trail on the rain soaked forest floor that a blind man could follow, and there was nothing we could do to cover it up. The tall grass in the few open areas we crossed would take a long time standing back upright after we passed. Mud from our boots was constantly transferring itself to the vegetation and rocks we crossed. We had to hurry.

Our Return From the Dead
At last the sun broke through the clouds, and with it returned the warmth we needed to restore our strength and our will to survive. Still shivering in our damp clothes, we emerged from the long shadows of the dark, foreboding forest into the sunshine. The fetid odor of death emanating from the corpses of the slain comrades we carried with us was strong now. It filled our lungs with each breath we drew, threatening to overpower us. We moved into a huge expanse of tall Kunai grass. This was the last high point we had to cross before we reached our camp. We were now in line-of-sight with Khe Sanh and once more in radio contact, and could even see the blue whisps of smoke rising from the cooking fires far ahead. We suddenly felt more comfortable, knowing the end of our ordeal was in sight.

We finally reached the camp where we turned over the bodies of our dead to their wives and families. The time for mourning had arrived, and it was a ritual that I would see repeated again and again before my war finally cam to an end.

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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