Long Range Recon Patrol Team Designation: H-4E
Consisting of: Team Leader -Sgt West (Brian) ATL -SSgt Johnson RTO (FNG) -SSgt Larsen(Robert) Team Member-Spec4 Vogel Scout -Y Blong
Assigned to 4th Division Headquarters "K" Co. 75th Infantry (Rangers) Camp Enari, Pleiku, R.V.N
On June 9th of 1969 team H-4E was sent to 2nd Brigade at L.Z. Mary Lou in Kontum, RVN and assisgned a mission to search for possible enemy weapons & supply caches.The area of operation was the Chu Goll-Chu Pa mountain region West of Polei Kleng, which is not far from the border of Vietnam west of Pleiku.this A.O. was in a mountainous area with dense triple canopy jungle and only one good air insertion point, an abandoned firebase in the upper righthand grid of the AO. There were only two or three other extraction points in this A.O. on scattered ridge lines having small trees that would have had to be removed for a hover extraction.There were supposed to be no friendlies in the A.O. and fire support was 175s out of Plei Djereng at maximum range, which was better known as no fire support.
Team H-4E was inserted into the A.O. on the morning of June 10, 1969 on the abandoned firebase and moved out to the north into the jungle. The team started working a pre-determined search pattern through the A.O. : north to the river, west along the river to the A.O. boundary, south to the A.O. boundary, east to the A.O. boundary, and then north back to the abandoned firebase for extraction.
On the afternoon of June 13th (Friday the 13th) the team moved along a ridgeline passing a sparsely wooded knoll area and noted it as a possible emergency extraction point.(prior planning is a good thing) The team continued along the ridgeline until we came upon what appeared to be an old NVA "shallow trench"perimeter campsite of platoon size on the hill top. This campsite was located on a well used trail which ran up from the valley on the Polei Kleng side over the not-so-heavily wooded hill top and back down into the triple canopy covered valley heading toward Chu Pa and the abandoned firebase. It was decided to move down below the hill top away from the trail for half a "klik" or so and break for a good meal. After moving, we called in our situation report, our current position, and advised Headquarters at 2nd Brigade that we intended to set up a night location/ambush site on the trail. At this point we could establish communication only by using the long fish-pole type antenna or a field expedient wire-type antenna. The basic whip antenna was not enough to allow us commo with friendlies. This was a notable disadvantage because if we got into some bad "sierra" we werent likely to have the opportunity (not to mention wanting the visibility) of attaching sections of the fishpole-type antenna extending up 10-12 feet into the air to request assistance from the rest of the world. Using this type antenna was not really what one might consider an inconspicuous activity nor the easiest if youre in the process of "di-di-ing" the area while shooting to cover your "alpha".
I took point to lead the team to select the ambush site, SSgt Johnson(ATL) was next, followed by SSgt Larsen(RTO), and then Y Blong(scout). Sp4 Vogel was last, pulling rear security. I felt that it would be the best for me as the teamleader to be first to approach the trail and determine the ambush site. Standard procedure would have put another team member on point. The team moved up the hill toward the trail and encampment site leaving approximately 15 feet of interval between team members.The team was just getting in view of the trenched campsite when I noticed movement down the trail. I hand signalled the team to stop and get down. Please note that the area we were now in was mostly open with only scattered scrub brush which the team attemtped to get behind to use as cover. There were some tall thin trees well behind us and some 30 or so yards to our sides. In short, damned near no cover at all and nearly nothing that would stop flying pieces of metal. I signalled first one, then two, then three, fingers in the air to indicate how many people I could see at the time coming up the trail. It was hard to tell if they were NVA or ARVNs or what. They werent wearing helmets. They were moving slowly, cautiously, and quietly, with their weapons at the ready. But, when the single file of NVA uniforms following the three men came into view, it was obvious that they were a point element for a larger force. I signalled the team to get down and went into a crouching position myself. I really wanted to get back away from the trail where we would have at least a little cover, but I didnt dare move for fear of drawing attention. I also had no way of knowing just what the rest of the team could see either. As the enemy point element got closer, I very slowly went to a kneeling position. Then, as more and more NVA came onto view, I went to a prone position. I knew I was in a very poor location, but the best I could do for now was stay still and hope the camouflage worked. Any movement or sound made by me would surely result in detection.In addition to the fact I was sure I was in clear view, I was positive that the entire ridgeline could hear my heart pounding as I tried to hide under my Alice pack. As I laid there in the semi-open things went from poor to worse. I observed a weapons platoon, a mortar platoon, and regular infantry, all using very good noise discipline and moving in single file. There was even what appeared to be a six-foot tall Chinese advisor who seemed to be in charge. The advisor didnt act like the other NVA. Not only did he seem to have an air about him of authority and calmness, but he even patted his forehead with a hankerchief instead of wiping with his sleeve to remove the perspiration. And when he issued a command it was quietly responded to, unlike the grumbling GIs might be likely to make. As the NVA got to the trench area they would stop briefly to rest, take a drink, and relieve themselves. For some reason I seemed to be in the general area the NVA seemed inclined to use as a latrine and at any given time I could always look around and see at least three or four of them near me. Some of the NVA were so close that I could see the finer parts of their anatomy as they crouched to take a crap or just take a leak. It seemed impossible that none of them had seen me or at the least heard my heart pounding, they were so close. They must have felt very secure because of their numbers and relaxed by the opportunity to take a short break As the count of NVA got over 200, one of the soldiers on break started looking at the ground on the trail in front of me. As the NVA soldier surveyed the ground near the trail, he scanned the area in my direction, eventually coming to stare at the lump of rucksack and the LRRP under it maybe 30 feet away from where he stood on the trail. The NVA soldier had his rifle slung over his shoulder as we came to stare at one another. I had my CAR-15 on auto and my finger ready to squeeze the trigger. But, I really didnt want to start the confrontation, knowing that myself, and then the team would be the center of attention right after I put a burst into the curious NVA. But the NVA soldier didnt seem too anxious to find out what the lump of rucksack with the M16 pointing out of it might do either. He made absolutely no moves to lower his weapon from the shoulder sling position nor did he say anything.He just stood there probably thinking that this would be the end of his military career if he so much as moved.Of course, I had the same problem, a serious predicament and no bright ideas. Not doing anything seemed to be working for now, so let the NVA start the ball rolling and well go from there. This Mexican standoff situation between me and the curious NVA seemed to drag on forever. Meanwhile more NVA soldiers continued to come up the trail, quietly pausing at the resting area, relieving their bladders and bowels within a few feet me, and then moving on up the trail toward Chu Pa. This could not go on for long, what with the NVA soldier just staring off to the side of the trail like some sort of statue.If another NVA noticed my observer, he would either ask what the problem was, or check things out himself. And that would be a true test of my invincibility. The rest of the team had seen most of what was passing by in front of them on the trail. They could see the three man NVA point element with weapons at ready followed by a long column of NVA regulars silently coming up the trail from the Polei Kleng direction. Ssgt Larsen was third man back from me and had no cover either. But, he did have one of the PRC-25 radios, which he was carrying LRRP style, hidden inside his rucksack, turned off, and with the antenna bent over his shoulder and tucked into his web gear shoulder strap by the hand Mic-set. He pulled up the antenna and grabbed the hand-set but couldnt get to the top of the radio to turn it on without a lot of movement and removing his rucksack. Larsen signalled to Y-Blong, who was behind him and Y Blong crawled up and turned on the radio.By this time Ssgt Larsen knew we were in a bad situation since from his viewpoint he had seen twenty or more of the soldiers pass our location. Two of them had their weapons over their shoulders and those weapons were RPG rocket launchers. In short, these were NVA regulars showing exceptionally good discipline. Larsen got on the radio in whisper mode, calling for "any station this push".There was a comeback and it was an Air Force FAC (Forward Air Controller). He asked for our situation. By this time another 30 or so NVA had come by , some pausing to relieve themselves and or take a brief rest. Larsen couldnt believe we hadnt been spotted. He gave the FAC our grid location, and in a short time the unarmed plane was high and East of us. The FAC spotted the NVA column moving up the trail and exclaimed "Holy shit, look at all the guys on the trail! What is your location? Can you pop smoke?". Larsen said "No way were popping smoke!", but "I can hit you with a shiny."(signal mirror). The FAC saw the shiny and asked where to put the ordnance in relation to the signal. Larsen said "Approximately 20 yards away ." FAC warned Larsen,"Thats awfully close. I have a couple of loaded fast movers.What do you want me to do?" Ssgt Larsen figured that up to this point the team had been extremely lucky not to be spotted. If we were spotted we would probably be all be dead soon anyhow. So, he told the FAC "Send them in." and did the best he could to hand-signal the team of the incoming air-strike. When I say rest of the team, that doesn't include me, Sgt.West, up on point doing the staring thing with the NVA soldier. I had absolutely no idea what was going on behind me. The only distractions I had, beyond staring at the NVA, were the guys who were moving around on both sides of me taking a crap or taking a leak. I had even stopped counting the NVA column passing me by on the trail in favor of focussing on the curious NVA soldier. The jets came in from the Polei Kleng side of the ridge from the same direction the NVA were coming out of the valley. The first thing I heard was the scream of the jets and then all Hell broke loose. I suppose the NVA had the same experience.Over two hundred NVA had walked past our position and more were coming until the bombing and strafing threw everything into total turmoil. After the jets were done, the FAC got on the horn and informed us that Army gunships were on site and would be taking over. The lead gunship contacted Larsen and he gave them a shiny to verify our location.Within a minute or so of the jets leaving, the gunships were tearing up the trail and hilltop. During the brief lull between jets and gunships, I had an opportunity to crawl back to the team and radio. Both myself and the NVA soldier had been distracted from the standoff when, without warning, the jets came screaming in and blasted the crap out of the entire neighborhood. Leaves and small tree branches were falling all over us. Trees were taking shrapnel only a couple feet off the ground above our heads. The lead gunship contacted us and asked if they were firing too close. But we were so close to the NVA that we needed "close". "Thats good, but no closer to our side of the trail" was the response from Larsen. The heliocopters made a couple more passes and just before the last pass we were informed that they would be leaving and not be back. Darkness was coming and the choppers could not refuel and rearm in time to return. It was suggested that we might want to "Di Di" the area if possible.The FAC said hed stay around for a while longer and do radio relay until we could get to another location. Amazingly, none of the team even got a scratch from the pounding the jets and gunships inflicted on the area. Equally amazing was that to our knowledge none of the NVA ever knew that we were even there, except for the one soldier that I had been doing the stare-down with. All the NVA had been very preoccupied with departing the area just after all Hell broke loose. Not one shot was fired. As soon as the dust and confusion cleared, I decided to head for the nearest possible extraction LZ. We had been lucky so far, and it was best we not be around when the surviving NVA came to collect their comrades who didnt fare so well. Surely out of the several hundred NVA there were enough survivors that we would be sorely outgunned. And, at least for the moment we still had commo via the FAC who was kind enough to hang around temporarily. The team took a gamble and went straight thru the NVA encampment/rest area crossing the trail and up to the ridgeline. I hoped that none of the NVA had taken cover in the encampment trenches. I figured if we moved fast thru the open area we would surprise them and get them first and keep going, or if we took fire from the tree line we could at least use the trenches for cover(probably not for long, but wed take a few more of them with us). We passed thru the open area quickly and without incident. Then we moved along the ridgeline approximately a half mile toward a knoll we had noted earlier in the day as a possible LZ. Along the way as a precautionary measure we stopped and assembled a claymore with a timed fuse for our rear security to deploy if any of the NVA came up behind us. About this time a message came in from our Division LRRP RTO Spec4 Hamm at the Brigade Hq. at Kontum.It seems that when the initial report of 200 NVA and counting had reached the HQ , the C.O. had felt it was a fabricated report. Hamm had set the C.O. straight in no uncertain terms that the report was likely to be accurate. Spec4 Hamm had pulled a bunch of missions as assistant teamleader with me and knew I just didnt work that way. Of course when the FAC had made the remark over the air about seeing all the NVA on the trail, Hamms claim had been substantiated. The message was actually a request for a body count of the dead enemy soldiers back at the encampment area. At this point, going back to where the NVA were likely removing their dead and dying hardly seemed a practical thing to do from our viewpoint.We had seen that they were well-armed and exceptionally well disciplined. We didnt need to see how pissed off they were. Them knowing we were there, and where we were, would be an invitation to being chased all over the countryside. An estimated body count seemed to be appropriate and HQ was placated by the numbers Hamm gave them. The team moved along the ridge line until we came to a good spot to hole up for the night.The FAC called "off station" and we thanked him for saving our butts. After setting up our night location we called our sitrep and the coordinates of our location. We kept a high alert that night even though it was drizzling rain and pitch black. At around midnight out of the blue there was sudden screaming of jets out of nowhere and explosions in the encampent area. We got on the radio with 2nd Brigade HQ immediately and were informed that the Air Force was doing follow-up bombing and knew exactly where we were. Good thing we were accurate in giving our location! The remainder of the night was miserable, but good for hiding and we didnt have any unwanted company. The next morning we called in our Sitrep and requested an extraction.We told them we would be preparing an extraction LZ by blowing enough trees with explosives to allow a slick in to get us. We were asked if a rifle platoon should be inserted. We explained that the only LZ they would be able to use was the abandonned firebase we had been inserted on.The problem was that the firebase LZ was right in the path of the NVA forces route of travel. Over 200 well-equipped regular NVA had passsed us the day before and at least that many were still coming up out of the valley on the Polei Kleng side.We figured that due to the surprise, speed and accuracy of the air attack they had suffered from 40 to as much as 60% casualties, but that still left a lot of bad guys on high alert.To our knowledge the air rifle platoon was never sent in. When the extraction slick got to our location we blew some small trees to make an area clear enough for it to get in and touch at least one skid. Fortunately we got a chopper pilot who wasnt afraid of tight places with small arms fire and disastrous possibilities, and we were extracted and flown back to 2nd Brigades Firebase LZ Mary Lou for debriefing.
Looking back on this mission, we are lucky to be here now. Because: 1.If we had gotten our ambush set up sooner and sprung it on the three-man NVA point element, our five-man team would have had to contend with an NVA battalion-size or larger enemy force and they would have known our location. 2.We were not fired upon when caught by surprise in our bad, open, downhill location near the encampment site on the trail and again when we left the area immediately after the air strikes and gunship attacks. I still can't believe that I did the staring thing with the NVA soldier and he didn't alarm his comrades, nor did they see me. 3. The Air Force FAC happened to be in our A.O. and happened to check our radio frequency and to pick up our radio transmission.Not to mention the FAC having jets almost immediately available and being able to get gunships onsite shortly after the jets left. Over all this was a good mission because we took no friendly casualites and inflicted high enemy casualities. The team for kept it's cool and didn't give away our position in a very tense situation while doing all the right things in the best of LRRP tradition. The "Big Ranger" in the sky must have been watching out for us that day.
My thanks to Robert Larsen for providing facts about the mission he had written at the time and those he could remember. Y Blong, I hope you managed to survive after we left. If you, your family, or even a Montagnard friend read this, I would appreciate you letting me know how things turned out. I dont even know what village you came from. My conscience still bothers me at the thought of having left behind a LRRP teammate and loyal friend.Vogel and Johnson, if you read this, please feel free to contact me or come to the next Ranger reunion and personally critique my writing.
Brian West Teamleader, LRRP team Hotel-4-Echo until Aug 1969