War Story: Border Surveillance

14 August 2006

Charles McDonald

Okinawa - In 1964 our twelve-man Special Forces A-Team, A-323, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), was stationed at Machinato, Okinawa. During the dark hours of early morning we were loaded onto two trucks, canvas down and secure, and driven to nearby Kadena Air Force Base.

Still under blackout conditions, we were backed into a C-123 Hercules transport where we were allowed to dismount from the vehicles, which the drove back down the ramp and back across the runway. Seconds later, the Hercules' ramp closed and we were on our way to Vietnam.

During the early morning hours we were flying north along the coast of South Vietnam toward our destination, Da Nang. I watched with heightened interest the surf breaking against the white sand beaches along the coast. It looked too peaceful, too serene to be a country at war.

Squalling tires announced our arrival in Southeast Asia. It was 1964, the Year of the Tiger. It would be here in Vietnam that I would learn that "suffering is the one promise that life will keep".

Camp Khe Sanh

We were assigned the mission of building a Special Forces camp at Khe Sanh in the North Western corner of South Vietnam.& The location of the camp was to be up on the plateau under the shadow of the DMZ, just North East of the old abandoned French fort on a hilltop east of the town of Khe Sanh. We were to establish a temporary camp there overlooking Route 9 while the new camp was being constructed.

Up on the plateau the only structure that existed amid the sea of tall grass was 3,900 feet runway constructed of PSP (Perforated Steel Planking). The northernmost Special Forces camp in the country, Camp Khe Sanh would be located just below the North Vietnam boarder and only a few miles east of Laos. We knew that we would be under constant surveillance by the enemy, but then that's why we were there.  Their Ops on the mile-high Dong Voi Mep, or Tiger Tooth Mountain and the even higher 7,750 feet Dong Quang Ngai Mountain, would know every move we made. The "secret" war in South Vietnam was heating up, and we were to be a part of it.

In addition to building Camp Khe Sanh, the mission of A-323 was to provide border surveillance in the tri-border area of North and South Vietnam, and Laos. The CIA had already attempted to establish border surveillance through the efforts of local Montangnard tribesmen. We were to bring them together inside a fortified encampment featuring underground concrete bunkers, and a large number of hardened fighting positions that would withstand anything the enemy could throw at us.

In each corner of the new camp we constructed a massive combat bunker housing five separate machine gun positions and an underground ammunition storage area. A communications trench ran the entire perimeter of the camp linking together all the fighting positions. We worked hard and our progress was steady.

The camp had a platoon of Chinese Nung mercenaries who served as personal bodyguards for the Special Forces soldiers at Khe Sanh. They were outstanding fighters whose pay scale was much higher than that of the CIDG and the regular Vietnamese army. A small squad of Nungs would accompany us on patrols to guard against assassins within the ranks of the CIDG or ARVN.

The local Montagnards were of the Bru tribe.  They provided the CIDG battalion that garrisoned the Khe Sanh Special Forces camp.  The Bru, like most Montagnards, were animists who believed that living spirits and Yang, the supreme God, existed in nature, such as in the trees, plants, animals, rocks, rivers, mountains, particular tracts of ground and even in the sky.  Fear, anxiety and the dread of evil spirits, along with omens from dreams and signs were the dynamic forces that controlled their daily lives, even their very existence.  Every minor or major catastrophe was attributed to the spirits.  On patrol, the superstitious Bru tribesmen paid particular attention to the presence of birds, monkeys, deer and especially Mr. Tiger.  However, the spirits of the sky received the highest attention, because they were regarded as the source of important omens.  The Montagnard tribe to the south along the border or our operational area was the Tau-oi who lived in the remote mountainous highlands.

A short distance to our west, North Vietnamese Army units were hard at work developing the complex overland supply system known as the Ho Chi Minh trail by which supplies and soldiers were moved from North Vietnam into parts of South Vietnam.  This 8,000-mile trail network ran mostly through dense, mountainous forests.  Depending upon the distance individual NVA units had to cover; it could take from several weeks to several months to reach their final destination.  It took the equivalent of two entire infantry divisions just to secure this maze of trails and roads.  Besides thousands of workers, the transportation network depended on numerous rest stations and countless agricultural plots to maintain it self.  In 1964, some 18,000 North Vietnamese regulars worked their way south, arriving at various locations in South Vietnam.  It was our job to maintain surveillance on their activities.

Shortly after our arrival, it was my turn to take out a patrol.  We were to patrol south twenty klicks along the Laotian border, starting from Route 9 at Lang Vei.  Fortunately, my patrol partner was Staff Sergeant Ratchford P. Haynes, a professional soldier and veteran of the Mobile Training Team White Star in Laos.  He was also our senior team communicator.  I always felt secure with Haynes because he commanded with a great deal of cool objectivity, sharp reflexes, and self-confidence in his own judgement.  He was a man who was always in complete control of the situation.

Prior to our departure, we had to check out our tough Bru tribesmen and their equipment.  I looked into each man's dark, weathered face, noticing the high check-bones, the broad nose and the short, stocky physique.  They had powerful shoulders and arms, promising reserves of strength and endurance that would prove beneficial during the long patrols against the enemy.  I noticed that they always wore smiles on their faces, almost as if they alone understood the humour of war.  A few had tattooed faces, pierced ears and upper teeth that had been filed down.  Their bright, almond coloured eyes expressed a wildness that lurked just beneath the surface.  Most were much smaller than we Americans, measuring around five feet four inches tall.  The Bru were good troops, well disciplined, and eager to learn.

The Long Patrol

We moved through an open, vast expanse of high grass that spread across the hills toward a mist covered mountain ridgeline over 5,000 feet high.  In places the grass was over our heads, hiding us as we moved through it.  When we finally reached the crest of the mountain, we left the grass and entered the dense, shadowy forest.  The vegetation at ground level soon thinned-out as the overhead grew taller.  I heard a constant chattering of birds above us, busily hunting for food among the higher branches.  I looked up and spotted several, some with scarlet-striped backs, other with yellow underbellies.  I couldn't help but notice how the Bru eagerly watched to see in which direction the birds flew off.  When I asked them what this meant, they told me that it was an omen.  If the birds flew to the right, it was a good sign.  But if they flew to the left, it meant that there was impending danger ahead.  If this had happened the Bru would have immediately returned to Khe Sanh.  They fervently believed that the spirits had sent such omens to them in the form of a sign or a dream to warn them of good or evil in their futures.

The trees above us, reaching to heights of 80 feet or more, formed a continuous, impenetrable canopy.  A second, lower level formed another ceiling about 50 feet above us.  The combined effect of the double overhead canopy filtered out the sunlight, causing our surroundings to be in constant shadow.

We moved up and down the steeply sloped ridgelines, following a well-worn trail.  Frequently shifting our rucksacks, we struggled across deep ravines, stepping across cool, gurgling mountain streams.  And as always the sounds of the birds, monkeys and insects was with us.  The sharp yap of barking deer, the sudden hair-raising scream of a jungle peacock, or the distant cough of a hunting tiger – each day was a new experience, each night brought new terrors.  Except for the rising hordes of persistent mosquitoes, we would soon grow to feel comfortable in the jungle.

One evening, on the western promontory of a mountainous ridge, we watched a splendid panorama of undulating emerald green hills, over shadowed by a setting red sun dropping slowly beneath the horizon.  It was a breathtaking view that none of us present would ever forget.

The next day we watched the fog in the valleys below us break up in the warming early morning sun.  We could see the Sepone River winding like a dark snake beneath us.  Day after day we patrolled through the dark, black shadows of the virgin forest in pursuit of the enemy.  We were high in the country, and the air was crisp and fresh, unlike the dank, cloying air down in the lowlands.  Occasionally, we would come upon small wooded structures in unlikely spots in the middle of the jungle.  Our 'Yards told us that they were placed there by unseen primitive mountain tribesmen as temples to placate evil spirits who lurked there.  We looked at them but did not touch them.  Our Bru's seeing that we were curious, had warned us not to go near them.  The miniature temples guarded sacred places that were integral parts of the religions of mountain hunter past and present.

We also ran across well-prepared ambush positions that, fortunately for us, were unoccupied at the time.  Our point men had to be extremely careful to avoid walking up on the enemy soldiers from behind, or blundering into an "occupied" ambush position.  We found where the enemy had emplaced sharpened bamboo stakes in the undergrowth along the trails, usually opposite the prepared ambush positions.  Anyone attempting to take cover outside the kill zone would find himself the main course of jungle shish kebab.

Sign Cutting in the mountains

We knew that there had been people in the area ahead of us.  We found tracks in the trail and physical warnings cut into trees.  They were for our benefit and warned us that we would die if we went any further.  But we were also forced to pay heed to other warnings.  An animal track, like a single imprint of a deer's split hoof, found on a the trail at the wrong time or facing the wrong direction, would be an evil omen that would send our Bru tribesmen heading home.  They believed that to ignore such a warning would bring disaster on all.  It could result in meeting the devil, or being killed by a snake or eaten by a tiger.  We soon found one such sign, a skull and crossbones cut into the trunk of a large tree.  Nothing came from it because it was meant for Ratchford and me.  Haynes grinned when he saw it, and warned me that I had better not go any further.

Well away from the trail, a soldier's wary eyes spotted fresh yellow-coloured human faeces.  The files still on it indicated that it was fresh.  I watched as the Bru tribesmen pressed it with a stick, and picked at it, pointing to the outside and them the inside.  He spoke to my South Vietnamese counterpart, remarking that since the surface was the same as the inside in colour and consistency, then it was fresh.  The enemy was not very far away.  When I pointed to the strips of red in the stool, one of the Vietnamese told me that it was peppers that had been eaten with the soldier's meal.  NVA faeces characteristically neither smelled nor looked like ours.  From the large size, colour and lack of odour of this particular sample, we could tell that the enemy soldiers in the area were getting plenty of the wrong foods to eat.  Their diet had to consist of large amounts of cellulose roughage, which is not readily digested by the human body.  This accounted for the large size and composition of their stools, and the anaemic NVA soldiers existing on a very plain diet of rice and other local plants.  Since we had a lot of protein and iron in our diets, our own stools appeared dark and smelled rather strong, forcing us to bury them while on patrol.

Our scouts found an occupied rest station just across the border in Laos, next to the Sepone River.  There were three longhouses and a number of lesser structures located in a grove of tall trees along the river.  For some reason the enemy soldiers were all-relaxing in a single longhouse.  They had been singing when our scouts first spotted them, but by the time the rest of our patrol had moved up the enemy appeared to be engaged in some sort of meeting.  There were no guards observed along the river side of the rest area, so we approached from that direction.

After observing the situation, we decided to booby trap their rest area, specifically the building where the meeting was going on, so that they could not get out without suffering heavy casualties.

Setting up patrol security on the east side of the river, we sent a team out to find a rendezvous point where we could move to and remain overnight after we finished with the enemy at the rest area.  Then we selected two men to infiltrate the enemy rest camp and set up the booby traps.

At dusk the two men silently bellied up to the slow-moving river.  With the security team observing the sand embankment that marked the narrow edge of the enemy rest area, the two men slipped into the rest area and stealthily made for the opposite shore.  With just their heads showing above the waterline, they progressed quickly across the stream and disappeared into the shadows of the NVA encampment.  Several long minutes later, we saw them reappear along the river bank and begin their trip back across.  When they reached us they quickly reported that they had successfully booby-trapped the area without being spotted.  Tempted to stay for the fireworks, we decided that discretion was the better, and left immediately for our rendezvous point.

A day later, a scout on point was moving ahead of us when he spotted men across the river.  He signalled back to us that we had company on the other side of the water.  In a crouch, we hurried to a pre-designated area to our rear and set up a hasty ambush on a bend in the river.  We deployed quickly but carefully, selecting our positions in the darkness of the triple canopy jungle.  The Bru were excited and had a look of triumph on their faces.

My patrol partner whispered for me to initiate the ambush.  My blood ran cold in my veins as we waited for them enemy to appear.  We had selected a good spot.  The vegetation on our side of the river ran right up to the water.

Finally, the enemy patrol appeared.  Their scouts were alert searching the jungle for possible danger.  They moved slowly, studying the terrain to their front a long time before moving up.  Then I realized that they were going to cross the river – right in front of us – less than 50 metres away.  Surprisingly, their attitude suddenly became more relaxed, almost casual, as they reached the river and started across in mass, weapons slung over their shoulders.  I was shocked to see that they were not sending their scouts ahead of the main force.

Slowly, I checked my weapon to make sure the selector switch was set for semi-automatic fire.  I took quick stock of my surroundings, noticed that there was almost no wind.  The sun was high and behind us, forcing the enemy to look directly into it, and then into the dark shadows where we lay hidden.  All the elements for a devastating ambush were in our favour.

I continued watching until I saw what appeared to be the last man in the enemy formation coming down the steep sloping bank across the river.  I settled into a comfortable position and carefully picked my target.  I eased the safety off my M-2 carbine and snugged it tighter against my shoulder.  I could almost feel the Bru hidden around me waiting, ready to fire.  Lining up my target over the front sight, I leaned into the butt of my carbine, took a deep breath and squeezed off the shot.

I heard a resounding "SLAAAP" as the explosive impact of the round mangled the lungs of the NVA soldier I had shot.  More empty brass casings flew from my carbine as I continued to select targets and fire.  I couldn't hear my own shots over the din of thunder kicked up by my companions hidden along the river bank.  Taking a second to look up over my gun sight, I could clearly see the looks of horror and surprised on the faces of the NVA soldiers caught in mid-stream.  Bodies were dropping everywhere as our ambush chewed through the tightly packed enemy.  The NVA groped for their weapons, trying to get them off their shoulders and into play as geysers erupted all around them.  Disoriented, many stood frozen in terror, unable to react – until it was their turn to stop a bullet.  There was a rush of sound as the firing came so fast and furious that it blended into a continuous roar, drowning out everything else.  The effect was shattering.  The enemy formation was shredded as the water of the Sepone River turned red.

Wounded enemy soldiers began to reach the opposite shore, but were quickly picked off by Bru sharpshooters as they staggered up the bank.  There was no return fire.

Finally, the last surviving NVA was on his hands and knees, his head drooping downward.  He struggled once to get up, then slowly collapsed, rolling weakly onto his side in the water.  Then it was over.  The ambush had not lasted more than three minutes.  Now there was only silence, except for the eerie ringing that persisted in our ears.  Trapped in the river, the enemy column had had no chance.  What I had just witnessed and participated in hurt me in my heart and soul.  The image was locked forever in my mind.  I said a silent prayer that I would never find myself on the receiving end of such an ambush.  Slowly, without thinking, I fed another magazine into my carbine.

Dead men littered the stream and its opposite shore.  The river ran red with blood as far downstream as I could see.  Except for the sound of weapons being reloaded, a lingering silence hung over the scene.  The smell of cordite…and death…was everywhere.  For the first time, I realized that this war was going to be close and personal.  I silently resolved to myself that, just like the warriors we led, I would take notice of anything and everything during the rest of my tour in Vietnam.  I would not let my eyes overlook anything.  I would always be ready for the unexpected.  I had just witnessed the results when one wasn't.

Now we had to worry about getting home before a larger enemy force found us and attempted to get a little payback.  We knew they would try to think like us, to second-guess what we would do and which way we would go.  We told our rear guard to alert us immediately if there was any indication that we were being followed.  This would give us time to arrange another ambush.

We decided to take the long way back to Khe Sanh, heading farther inland from the border before turning north.  We would head due east deep into the mountains, until we reached the Bru village of Huong Hoa located on the south side of Route 9, just below the last bridge in South Vietnam.

A cold chill had found its way up the back of my neck.  I had little doubt that the NVA would ambush the route we came down on, hoping that we would return the same way.  The wind had picked up, and it looked like rain might be on the way.  Its arrival meant that we would leave a discernible trail wherever we went.  Armed with this knowledge, we climbed high into the rugged, wild mountains.

We moved quickly but with extreme caution.  The awareness that we were being pursued spurred us beyond our fatigue.  In places the jungle was almost too thick to permit our passage, but we forced our way through.  We knew that we couldn't lose the enemy soldiers tracking us, but hopefully we would be able to stay far enough ahead of them to avoid contact.  I could sense that everyone was on hyper-alert when, late in the day we moved into a densely vegetated low valley.  The thick undergrowth sliced our hands and faces as we fought our way through.  Finally, we broke out at the edge of a slow moving stream that proved to be the tributary we were looking for.  It led north to the larger river that passed by the village of Huong Hoa.

That evening we contacted an aircraft flying overhead and had the pilot relay a message that we badly needed an aerial re-supply of food and ammunition.  With our rations nearly gone we had been forced to forage for lemon grass, bamboo shoots, the core of an occasional banana tree, and colocassia roots to mix with our remaining rice supply.  It barely sustained us.

The ambush at the stream had expended much of our ammunition, making a second fire-fight a risky proposition.  The re-supply would go a long way toward restoring our chances of surviving the mission.

The next day we discovered a clearing with a cultivated plot along the edge.  Someone had planted taro and manioc.  The condition of the plants indicated that whomever was maintaining the garden plot had to be nearby.  A quick but thorough search of the area turned up an NVA rest station made up of several empty huts.  It was being looked after by a single Montagnard family; a man, his pregnant wife and a crippled boy.  We told them that they would have to come with us to Khe Sanh for interrogation, a fact which they seemed to accept without complaint.

We moved on, travelling in total silence at a pace that was progressive but not tiring.  Our rations were depleted and our situation was becoming desperate.  We followed the river, weapons at the ready, always searching ahead for signs of movement or enemy forces waiting in silent ambush.

River Crossing

Later that day, we arrived at a ford where we were able to cross the river.  This was the spot we had given the pilot coordinates for our re-supply drop on the day before.  Now we had to hope that it was on the way.

The loud roaring of the river, along with a gusty wind that had come up at mid-morning, made it difficult to hear anything else.  The suddenly, I heard the faint hum of an aircraft engine to the northeast.  I could see nothing but the sound was unmistakable.  The aircraft was coming in low and fast, and then it was there, right over us, an Australian CV-2.  The pilot banked sharply, searching for our marker panels.  When he spotted our signal, he levelled out, descending to treetop level, free-dropping the supplies as he passed overhead.  In seconds, the plane was out of sight and sound.  When we broke open the bundles, we discovered that the free-drop had destroyed most of the food supplies.  Disappointed, we salvaged what we could, divided it among the members of the patrol then pushed on across the river.

The torrent, which was moving more swiftly along this part of the river, was chest deep. We sent a security team across the river ahead of the main patrol while the rest of us formed a human chain to aid in traversing the turbulent waters.

On the other side, we formed back up and moved quickly away from the river, climbing higher into the forest.  Even though our rear security had spotted no one on our back trail, we still had the feeling that we were not alone in the bush.

Suddenly, the cacophony of normal jungle sounds ceased.  It was so immediate that it was clearly noticeable.  This meant danger to us.  Someone or something was coming toward us, trespassing in the natural environment of the forest.  I thought it was the enemy until I spotted the swirling grey-black clouds pushing out of the east, and felt the sudden gust of a stiff, cool breeze against my face.  We were in for a savage jungle thunderstorm, and we had little time to prepare.  In the silence before the fury hit we moved into the protection of a cluster of large trees, intermingled amid a jumble of ancient boulders.  We would wait out the storm there.

We heard the rumbling of distant thunder and saw the flashes of jagged lightening against the darkening sky.  Then a strong guest of wind came up and the storm was upon us, shaking the tops of the trees, making them dance back and forth in the driving rain and the bolts of lightening.

Whispers spread quickly among the Bru.  The superstitious tribesmen muttered fearfully about Bok Claik, the storm spirit – an evil omen of some dreadful thing to come.  The thunderstorm was this evil spirit announcing his presence.  I felt an immense sense of relief that the NVA had not yet found us, because our Bru had just lost a great portion of their fighting effectiveness.

The force of the storm increased, as the giant trees swayed all the way down to their roots.  Raindrops, falling horizontally, were driven into us like bullets designed to cause pain but not injury or death.  The cold water plastered our uniforms to us, as our body heat began to escape out into the storm.  As the total darkness of night closed in, the tempest finally passed over us and was gone.

The rain brought leeches in great numbers.  We soon felt them invading our flesh as they located every opening in our clothing.  There was little we could do but play the role of unwilling hosts.  We would have to deal with them in the light of day, and our vengeance would be great.

Two days later, again out of food, we had reached the limit of our endurance.  We had to stop, find something to eat, and rest a while before we would be able to go on.  We holed up in the shelter of a shallow draw along the river.  Higher up the stream we located a few deep pools of water trapped in erosion pockets among the rocks.  In the pools, large fish could be seen suspended above the bottom.  We sent out a few two-man teams to collect them with the "old reliable" fishing technique of soldiers everywhere – Dupont spinners.  The final results were far greater than expected.  Soon the teams had returned with large quantities of concussion-stunned fish.

The Bru's built a number of small, scattered cooking fires, and waited until they had been reduced to coals.  Then they cooked the fish, using a number of methods; baking them in mud cocoons, grilling them over heated rocks, or boiling them in their helmets.  Cooking was risky, but forging ahead without the nutrition was a sure bet for disaster.  The cooking fires burned themselves out as the night closed over.

The next day we emerged from the cloud-covered forest, out of the mist that surrounded us, and finally onto the open ridges overlooking the longhouses of Huong Hoa.  Immediately, a feeling of safety and well being settle over us.  We had beaten the odds…the jungle…and the enemy.

We moved down toward the village.  There remained only one more river to cross before reaching the open expanse of Route 9, and then on to the escarpment of the Khe Sanh plateau.

As we crossed the river in borrowed native log canoes, our rear security team reported spotting an enemy tracker, a shadowy figure standing back on the edge of the forest, watching us.  Our fatigue and hunger were now forgotten.  We were on the final leg of our odyssey.

When we reached camp, we heard that Hanoi Hannah had mentioned how busy the boys at Khe Sanh had been out on patrol along the border.  She was talking about us.  It was nice to know that someone really cared.

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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