This is an excerpt from John Meyer’s Vietnam memoir, Across the Fence
As we approached the end of November 1968, the FOB 1 brass asked me to take ST Idaho south to assist FOB 6 at Ho Ngoc Tao, located north of Saigon. I gladly accepted the offer. The team needed a break and everyone was happy about heading south.
Scuttlebutt in camp among the old veterans of SOG was that FOB 6 targets were dangerous, but not as dangerous as FOB 1 targets. But we knew the recon teams had been hammered running Cambodian targets in the Daniel Boone AO. It sounded dangerous enough to me, especially when Pat Watkins warned me about the flat terrain in Daniel Boone targets, which was a startling contrast to the Laotian mountains we had grown accustomed to in the Prairie Fire AO.
Even though it was November, the heat and humidity in Saigon felt thicker and heavier than Phu Bai. When we arrived in the compound, Bubba took the team to the indigenous quarters while I reported to S-3. There was a lot of activity going on. The OIC (Officer in Charge) greeted me and said the CO wanted to talk to me as soon as he could break free. There was some sort of crisis with the State Department and the CIA that involved one of the teams. No more details were offered. I went back to Bubba. He had found some food and lodging for the Vietnamese team members, all of whom wanted passes to Saigon. I asked Bubba to check with the recon company personnel as to SOP for Vietnamese team members going to town without weapons.
I returned to the office of the Commanding Officer for FOB 6, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph R. Drake. I could hear The Beatles’ Rubber Soul playing in the distance.
When Drake finally appeared, he took one look at me and the Specialist 4th Class rank on my arm and frowned. “I thought they were sending me an experienced team,” he said. “Are you the One-Zero?”
“Yes, sir. My Zero-One and Zero-Two have been running recon for C and C and working with SF for five years. I’ve had several missions on the ground in the Prairie Fire AO, both as a One-One and as a One-Zero, including the successful insertion of those three-piece Air Force seismic sensors in the middle of the A Shau Valley.”
“You know the One-Zero position is an E 8 or E 9 billet?” Drake asked.
“Yes, sir. My time in grade is only a few months, but during that time I’ve spent a lot of time on the ground and have been shot out of a lot of targets in Laos. My little people are very good. I’d stack them up against any indig troops in Nam, sir. How can we help you?”
Lieutenant Colonel Drake sighed and told me about his “little” problem. “We’ve got three NVA divisions that are MIA – the first, the third and the seventh divisions, to be specific. The spooks can’t find ’em, aerial reconnaissance can’t find ’em and, quite frankly, we’re worried as hell that they might be lining up another attack on Saigon or one of our A camps. They took a licking from us during Tet, but they’re resilient and everyone from General Abrams to the spooks is worried. As I said earlier, welcome to Ho Ngoc Tao.”
Drake reviewed the latest intelligence estimates the U.S. had on NVA strength across the Cambodian border; it was 100,000 plus. The terrain was open and as flat as a pancake. The mission for ST Idaho: locate one of the three NVA divisions that had disappeared. Gather any intelligence or information on those units and, as always, if the opportunity presents itself, capture an enemy soldier or a porter who moves supplies south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail Complex. After apologizing for having to leave, he asked me to make myself available to talk to him later that evening. He asked if we could launch tomorrow. I told him I’d prefer a night at House 10, the MACV-SOG safe house in Saigon, where SF and folks from intelligence agencies stayed. House 10 was a secure hotel with everything from cold drinks to hot women. Drake chuckled as he left the room, shaking his head no.
I went back to the humble hootch where Bubba and I were quartered. He told me that Hiep and Sau had passes and would be back in camp at first light. I told him that we had to be ready to run a mission in the morning. I also told him about the three missing NVA divisions and watched his eyes widen in disbelief.
“Whoa,” he said. “Three NVA divisions? Missing? How did that happen? Let’s hope they find ’em before we launch.”
I told Bubba to get some extra claymores and to make several 5 and 10-second fuses, in case we had to run from the NVA. As I unpacked and geared up for the mission, Bubba found the S-4 sergeant, who gave him extra claymores, det cord, ammo for our CAR-15s, plus sawed-off M-79s and M-26 frag grenades.
As Bubba unpacked the ordnance, he told me of a warning he received from S-4: in the flat terrain, the NVA would literally try to run over a recon team. Several teams had experienced massive frontal attacks by charging NVAtroops. I had heard of this happening to recon teams, but from my experience in Laos, the charging NVA were beaten back before they broke into our perimeter. With that warning ringing in my ears, I told Bubba to give every member of our team a claymore mine with a five-second fuse and extra short fuses, in addition to the conventional hand-held detonator that came with the mine.
As we walked to the mess hall for dinner, the oppressive heat seemed unrelenting. Bubba and I thanked the SOG brass for originally stationing us in Phu Bai, more than 400 miles north, where the heat was a little less sweltering. Over dinner we talked about the mission in general terms: Bubba and I would carry our sawed-off M79s and our CAR-15s, and we’d take Sau, Hiep, Phuoc and Tuan, our reliable M-79 grenadier, who could pop a high-explosive round into a tire at 200 yards. Since this was our first mission into the Daniel Boone Area of Operation, I reiterated that we’d go very light on water and food, and very heavy on ammo, grenades and claymores.
“I’d rather die hungry than run out of ammo,” I told Bubba. “Three divisions?” he asked, and shook his head.
After dinner, Bubba and I went to the CO’s office. I told the staff where I would be when Lieutenant Colonel Drake wanted to brief me. Sometime after 2200, someone from the TOC (tactical operations center) told me the CO wanted to talk to me.
When I reported to Drake, he had a series of photos and maps, plus secret and top secret reports sitting on top of a desk. “Can you go tomorrow?” he asked. I told him we were prepping for a mission with a six-man team and gave him a brief rundown on each member of ST Idaho. I also explained that we’d be very light on food and water, heavy on ammo, grenades and claymores.
We started going through the materials spread across the desk. He methodically reviewed each written report and handed it to me when finished. Some of the reports appeared to be very specific in details, as though someone on the ground, near the missing divisions, had written them. Others were more generalized. Then Drake showed me the photographs. They were high resolution, clear shots taken from high altitude. The pictures brought to mind the photographs printed in The New York Times during the Cuban missile crisis and how they had provided the damning evidence of Russia’s intentions 90 miles south of the United States. But Lieutenant Colonel Drake had photographs taken from a much higher altitude than the Cuban photos. Curious, I asked where the shots had come from. He mumbled something about the latest in high altitude photoreconnaissance and moved on.
The CO pulled out a map of the Daniel Boone Area of Operation. He reviewed the status of several Special Forces A camps recently hit by the NVA and camps anticipating enemy contact from NVA troops staging in Cambodia. Drake then pointed to a spot on the map, suggesting it as a landing zone. Based on everything we had looked at, it looked like a good choice to me.
By now it was around midnight. Before I left, Lieutenant Colonel Drake reminded me about the significant differences in the rules of engagement in Cambodia as opposed to the ones we operated under in the Prairie Fire AO. First, recon teams were limited to going only 20 klicks, or kilometers, into Cambodia from the border. In Laos, the western limit was much deeper. Second, we were prohibited from using fixed-wing aircraft. That rule stopped me dead in my tracks: no fast movers and no A-1E Skyraiders? I wouldn’t have been standing there if that rule had applied to us while we were in Laos. Third, helicopters and recon teams couldn’t use white phosphorus weapons. To every Special Forces troop and aircrew member, the rules of engagement forced on us by the State Department were ludicrous and criminal.
He reminded me that we were going to be inserted on Thanksgiving Day. I told him that we were planning to dine on state-of-the-art chicken and rice LRP rations at the launch site before going into the target. When Drake said he would try to get hot Thanksgiving Day meals out to the team and aircrews before we launched, I thought he was kidding.
Shortly after first light on Thanksgiving Day, Sau and Hiep arrived at the compound. Happy from a good night in Saigon with family members, they quickly prepared for the mission. I explained to Hiep what the area of operation looked like, what the intelligence reports had estimated and what we were hunting for. When Hiep interpreted the mission to Sau, the veteran SOG warrior’s face turned sour. Speaking through Hiep, he reminded me of the thin vegetation in the target area and said that some of the indigenous troops had warned him about the NVA getting stronger and using more brute force against FOB 6 recon teams.
Finally, we arrived at the launch site in Bu Dop. At the northern end of the runway was an Air Force compound. We settled into a tent on the east side of the runway and south of the Air Force compound. It looked like a quiet, peaceful launch site.
Unbeknownst to me, a short distance away from the tents was a Green Beret A Camp that had recently encountered heavy attacks from NVA soldiers who struck the camp at night, then retreated to the sanctuary of Cambodia.
As we discussed the rules of engagement for our new AO, a chopper landed with a Thanksgiving feast, complete with hot turkey, cranberry rolls, gravy and mashed potatoes. Bubba and I were duly impressed; Drake was a man of his word. The fact that we were getting ready to launch into a new target area didn’t diminish our appetites. The entire team enjoyed the Thanksgiving Day food. The gallows humor of the day was that if this was our last meal before getting waxed, at least it was a feast. As we finished overindulging,
U.S. Air Force UH 1F model Hueys arrived to slip us into Cambodia. The pilots and crewmembers were from the Air Force’s 20th Special Operations Squadron. They called themselves the Green Hornets. The Special Forces people at the launch site had told us they were
very good and that the UH 1Fs they flew had more power and flew faster than Army versions of the Huey.
During the briefing, the rules of engagement were repeated again. I mentioned how the lack of fixed-wing assets made me uncomfortable. The Green Hornet squadron leader quickly spoke up, saying that once they inserted our team, they’d fly far enough away so that no one would hear them, yet they’d be able to return to the AO in five to ten minutes if we called for an emergency extraction. He said that the Green Hornet gunships had unique weapons systems, including miniguns in the door gunner position, rocket pods and M 60 machine guns. The pilot also said that after our insertion, the lead ship and the backup aircraft would pull dummy insertions in the area to confuse the enemy.
The Green Hornet pilots further impressed us with their knowledge of their aircraft. They said the Hueys they were flying were the most powerful at the time and that with the flat terrain, they would fly strictly nap of the earth. One officer warned us “snakeeaters” not to let our feet hang too low or they’d hit the treetops going into the target.
He wasn’t kidding. As we flew into the target area at full speed, we were close to the trees, but what worried me more was the vegetation. Instead of the dense jungle foliage of Laos, it reminded me of the thinly wooded central New Jersey countryside I had hunted with my cousins.
The door gunner gave me the thumbs up sign. We would be on the LZ in a matter of seconds. As soon as I alerted the team, the Huey was flaring for a quick landing. Bubba exited on the left side with Phuoc and Tuan; I went out the right side with Hiep and Sau. The Huey was up and gone, the insertion slick and quick. The ground under the knee-high grass was wet and sloppy, but as we moved into the wooded area, the soil became firmer.
Once in the tree line, we set up our first perimeter. We could hear the Air Force choppers executing false insertions away from us. As we looked up, there was no double canopy. No thick jungle overhead. We could see sunlight. And we could see straight ahead, through the trees, more than 100 yards. This was so different from Laos. I called the Green Hornets and gave them a team okay signal, letting them know the insertion was successful.
Instead of waiting at the LZ for the customary 10 minutes, I moved the team out, heading west, toward the area Lieutenant Colonel Drake and I had targeted the night before. With the vegetation so much thinner, we had to increase the amount of space between team members when we moved. The area was quiet, with little or no bird noise, which was always a bad sign when you were on the ground.
After 10 minutes of cautious movement due west, we took our first break. I did a quick commo check with the Air Force command ship. Again, the Air Force pilots were on the money. They were airborne and they could make clear commo with me. And per the briefing, I couldn’t hear their helicopters.
Because the vegetation was so thin, I had Hiep remind everyone that they had to have a 5-second fuse in their claymores. I had Phuoc, our point man, and Bubba put 5-second fuses in two additional claymores and 10-second fuses in a few more.
The openness of the wooded area made me cautious. We hadn’t been on the ground too long when Sau, my counterpart, spotted smoke and we moved toward it. Sau, who was number two in our line of march between Phuoc and myself, silently mouthed, “No VC,” and we continued forward. As always, Sau’s reading of the NVA was correct. He and Phuoc moved deeper into what appeared to be a base camp, as Bubba and I set up a perimeter with the remainder of the team.
Sau and Phuoc reported back in a few minutes. They said we were on the periphery of a huge NVA base camp. The smoke was originating from a fading fire. They said there appeared to be other fire sites that still had warm ashes. Now the adrenaline really started pumping. I had never walked into an NVA base camp before.
The fact that there were no NVA troops there at that moment seemed almost unreal. I started taking pictures, but Sau was nervous. His eyes were getting bigger. His speech was getting quicker. Hiep was getting nervous just talking to Sau. Sau was quick, smart, agile, and fearless, but he could smell the NVA and he knew how they worked. He had been fighting them for three years, compared to my five months running SOG targets. From my previous experiences with Sau, I knew that his eyes were an accurate gauge of enemy presence in the immediate area. His eyes were growing bigger by the second.
I wanted to see if we could find a weapons or food cache and suggested going farther west. Not waiting for Hiep’s interpretation, Sau looked at me and said, “Call helicopters now! Beaucoup VC come now!” I must have had an incredulous look on my face, because I couldn’t hear anything, and I certainly didn’t see any NVA troops and I really wanted to grab something to take back to FOB 6 for Lieutenant Colonel Drake. Hell, he had given us Thanksgiving dinner before we shipped out, the Green Hornets had given us a perfect insertion and now we were in a base camp of some sort. But in identical situations in Laos, I had doubted Sau and barely survived to tell about it.
When Sau turned to Hiep, he was more agitated. Before Hiep said a word, I turned to Bubba, who was tail gunner in our formation, and to Phuoc and directed them to turn around.
I signaled that we were going back to our LZ. If Sau was overreacting, we’d talk about it later.
“Sau say this is big enemy camp. We’re beaucoup lucky no VC here. He found hundreds of fresh footprints going there,” he pointed south.
“Di (Go)!” Sau hissed. “Di di mau (Go quickly)!” We were in Cambodia, alone, with no fixed-wing aircraft. Sau’s eyes were as big as saucers.
I told Bubba to give me a claymore mine with a five-second fuse. I gave Bubba and Phuoc the “move quick” signal. As we moved back to the LZ, I stayed at the rear of the formation with Sau hastily covering our tracks. We had only gone a short distance when Sau hissed, “Beaucoup VC! Beaucoup VC!”
I could see pith helmets in the distance coming from the south. I radioed the Green Hornets’ C&C helicopter and told them to return with their gunships and to pick us up at the primary LZ, ASAP! C&C said they’d have assets on site in 10 minutes or less. That fact, if true, was incredible to me. We never had that sort of response time in Laos. Now, even 10 minutes seemed like a long time. Tuan and I fired our M-79s as two high bursts, which slowed the NVA down for a few seconds. Sau opened fire, shooting single shots and moving backwards, no longer bothering to cover our tracks. I yelled to Bubba to move out at double time. The race for life was on.
Sau hissed to Hiep and pointed north. Damn! There were pith helmets and NVA uniforms coming at us from the north, too, and at a dead run. The elements from the south were apparently from the division that had left the base camp, and the NVA from the north were apparently moving into it. The good news: the NVA were no longer MIA. The bad news: green AK 47 tracer rounds were cracking over our heads. The morning quiet turned into a noisy crescendo as weapons on both sides blasted away.
Sau and I placed a claymore behind a tree, pulled the fuse lighter and ran. The NVA were now running and shooting wildly. We sprinted to catch up to the team as the claymore exploded. The NVA kept on charging. Sau quickly placed his claymore in front of a tree and ran while Tuan and I provided covering fire. We sprinted toward our team as the second claymore detonated. We felt the blast on our backs as we ran. As Phuoc and Bubba pushed towards the
LZ, Hiep, Tuan, Sau and I fired and fell back, using the immediate action drills the entire team had practiced for hours on end. Tuan’s M 79 rounds were deadly effective. Those, combined with my M-79 rounds and the CAR-15 fire from Hiep and Sau, temporarily stalled the hard-charging NVA troops.
We reached the LZ quickly in comparison to how cautiously we had exited it. As the team set up a hasty perimeter, Hiep placed another claymore in the path of the NVA that were charging us from the south. To the north, Bubba rigged a claymore with a contact detonator on a tripwire. As the tide of pith helmets flowed toward us, Bubba and I opened fire with our M 79s, and Sau and Hiep opened up on full-auto with their CAR-15s. More NVA emerged from the smoke of the M-79 high explosive rounds and tripped Bubba’s claymore.
That’s when the first Green Hornet gunship arrived. I popped a smoke canister and directed a gun run to the west of our perimeter. Within seconds the gunship roared in front of our perimeter, shredding the NVA ranks, slowing them down for a few seconds. The Green Hornet’s firepower was incredible.
Finally, the Green Hornet slick that inserted us into the target area arrived on the LZ, as close to our position as possible, with his left door facing us, and the nose pointing north, or northwest. Fortunately, the Air Force made it to us in less than 10 minutes. The relentless NVA kept coming after us. As Tuan and I each unleashed one more M 79 high explosive round at the NVA, Bubba led the team toward the Air Force Huey. We always had an American lead the team’s approach to an American helicopter, to avoid any confusion in regard to the South Vietnamese team members on ST Idaho. I fired the last claymore as a wave of NVA troops got in front of it. That last claymore blast gave me a few, precious seconds to make it to the Huey.
I signaled “all clear” as I approached the Green Hornet Huey and jumped into it. As the chopper started to lift out of the LZ, several NVA burst from the woods, surprised to see our slick and a second chopper that was providing covering fire. They were gunned down instantly. As the Air Force chopper I was riding in started to lift off the ground, an NVA soldier running at full speed burst from the thinly wooded area onto our LZ, just a little to the left of the door gunner. As the NVA soldier dug his boots into the muddy soil to stop his forward momentum, they kicked up clumps of mud. He tried to bring the muzzle of his AK 47, which was pointing skyward, to bear on our chopper.
I remember watching the clumps of mud from his boots slowly kicking upward toward the rotors as the door gunner and I hit him in the chest with a burst of gunfire. It felt as though I could count the spent shell casings flying from the door gunner’s M 60. When the rounds struck the NVA soldier, his forward movement stopped suddenly, so suddenly that he reminded me of a cartoon character who is running at full speed and whose head and feet moved forward while his chest and stomach are slammed backwards from the impact of the bullets.
The NVA never hit the ground as the rounds drove him backwards into the woods. He disappeared from our sight as the Huey quickly gained air speed and altitude. We could see dozens of NVA soldiers firing at us. For a second it seemed as though all of their green tracers were heading right at our slick. At the last moment, I threw a white phosphorous grenade down toward the NVA as a final, lethal blast from us. It was something I had done on my previous targets in Laos. For a brief, fleeting moment, I thought about the rules of engagement, which prohibited the use of “Willie Peter” in Cambodia, but dismissed it quickly, as we were deep in Cambodia. I didn’t give it another thought.
In seconds, the Green Hornets were screaming back toward the launch site at top speed, whisking us away from certain death, flying nap-of-the-earth. I checked my men for casualties. There were none. As the six men of ST Idaho sat in silence, I looked over and saw the Air Force gunner pumping his fist in the air, talking excitedly into his microphone, still enjoying his adrenaline high. ST Idaho was quiet. Real quiet. We had been moments away from a very violent death and we had killed an untold number of NVA soldiers—soldiers who continued to earn our undying respect. I took no pleasure in killing the enemy. It was simply us or them.
When we landed at Bu Dop, it was approximately 1400 hours. I went straight to the SF personnel to send a SITREP to Drake. I told him that the message was simple: you were right in your estimate of where the NVA are located.
Meanwhile, Bubba tracked down cold sodas and cigarettes for the men on our team. A short while later, the Green Hornets invited Bubba and myself to join them for a Thanksgiving dinner at the Air Force mess hall. We told them that we should be the ones buying them dinner. The narrow escape from Cambodia was sobering. As Bubba and I walked north toward the Air Force area, he asked me what would have happened if the Air Force had been delayed a few more minutes. I told him not to think about that, but to be grateful for Uncle Sam’s Air Force and for those five-second fuses on the claymore mines. The gods of recon had smiled on ST Idaho one more time.
In the Air Force mess facility, nobody seemed to mind that Bubba and I were the dirtiest folks stuffing our faces with Thanksgiving chow. We were starved. I found myself savoring the flavor of the turkey, suddenly appreciating turkey more than I had in recent years, or hours, for that matter. The mashed potatoes didn’t come close to my mother’s, but just being alive to enjoy the meal added extra flavor to them. Afterwards, Bubba and I rolled out of the mess hall and headed back to the SF area of tents and dust. One of the SF launch site people said we had to get back to FOB 6 ASAP for a debriefing. I reported directly to Lieutenant Colonel Drake.
“Give me a thumbnail description of what happened, so I can send that to Saigon, then we can eat our Thanksgiving dinner and do the detailed report afterward,” Drake said. “That makes two Thanksgiving dinners and one mission. Not bad for a day’s work.”
“Make that three dinners,” I laughed. Bubba and I ate the third dinner, after making sure that Hiep, Sau, Tuan and Phuoc had turkey and the trimmings, too. Again, we gave thanks to God for the Green Hornets.
On Friday, after a morning of training and weapon maintenance, I gave everyone an overnight pass to Saigon, reminding them that they had to return to base at first light for another mission. Bubbamadeanother supply run.We went over toS-3foraquick preview of the next day’s mission: a POW snatch from Cambodia. Nothing was better than a living person who worked in or drove through Cambodia for picking up useful intelligence. S-3 said there were several roads in an area farther northwest from our Thanksgiving Day target and they would make good targets for Saturday.
After the briefing, Bubba returned to S-4 to pick up a few land mines to knock out an NVA truck and a couple of Light Anti-Tank Weapons (LAWs).
At first light, ST Idaho was transported back to the Bu Dop for an early morning briefing. The Green Hornets had recently flown over the target area and knew of several LZs that would place us less than a kilometer away from a road. Intelligence reports indicated plenty of troop movement in the target area, but no specifics. Because the Green Hornets performed so well on Thanksgiving Day, we trusted their judgment on the LZ selection. And again, they promised to pull several fake insertions after they dropped us off.
For the second insertion in a row, I was impressed with the speed and alacrity of the Green Hornets. In no time flat, we were on the ground. Again, the choppers pulled several fake insertions away from our target area. I gave a team okay and we moved out toward a road the Green Hornets had spotted. This time, although the vegetation wasn’t as thick as Laos, there was a second canopy, making it a bit denser than what we moved through on our prior mission. We didn’t need to have such a large interval between team members. We moved for 10 minutes and took the traditional 10 minute break to listen to our surroundings. Because we had good cover and another excellent insertion, I pushed the team to move longer than 10 minutes. Nobody complained.
We had a perfect insertion; we were in “Indian Country” and on the move.
It wasn’t too long before we heard the first trucks moving from north to south. We advanced toward the road with extreme caution. The intervals of the trucks heading south were irregular.
The first few we heard were single trucks. Then there was a group of several trucks. Phuoc went up to inspect the road. He told us the road was wide and that the vegetation next to it was thick. I took out my 35mm camera and moved to the roadside with Bubba and Phuoc. The vegetation was so thick that I could poke my head through it, place the camera up to my eye and take several shots of trucks moving toward us without being observed by the truck drivers or the NVA. For the next hour or so, we moved along the roadside, finding the best spot to set up an ambush.
At one point, I came to a swatch of vegetation that was so thin I could pass through it without effort to get onto the road. There was no roadside pull-off area. As I walked north, I came across a road sign that had the number 33 on it. I wondered if this were Route 33 in Cambodia and if it headed toward the shore like the Route 33 in Trenton did.
Bubba picked the best ambush point and prepared to place one of the land mines in the road. After several false starts, Bubba got out into the road and started digging frantically, while the rest of the team remained behind the vegetation. We could hear another truck coming, so Bubba quickly covered up his hole and returned to the team. As he was moving through the brush, I couldn’t believe my ears. The truck I heard sounded like a 1946 or 1947 Chevrolet truck. My dad had a 1949 Chevrolet milk truck when I was a kid and I would have known that Chevy truck sound anywhere in the world. Hearing it in Cambodia was one more oddity of the war.
When Bubba said he was ready to plant the mine, we put together a traditional recon ambush, with two claymore mines in the center. The arcs of fire were set at an angle so that everyone would be killed except for the person in the very center of the ambush. At dead center was a piece of C 4 plastic explosive, which was cut to size and had enough force to knock a man out. Then, to the northern and southern flanks, the team placed claymores and we placed one behind us for rear security.
Once the ambush was in place, several more trucks passed down the road. These trucks carried NVA troops, but everyone in the trucks seemed unaware of our presence. This was a startling contrast to Thanksgiving Day. I told Bubba to plant the land mine so we could set it off from our ambush site. He looked at me with a huge smile on his face and asked where I wanted to spend the bonus we would get for capturing a POW. SOG had a policy that stated any recon team that captured a live POW would receive a five-day R&R to anywhere in the world and a cash bonus of $100.
As Bubba planted the land mine, I called the Green Hornets’ C&C helicopter to notify them that we’d need a lift real quick. I gave them the code term to advise them that we were going to attempt a POW snatch. I was excited as I waited for a response. This was recon at its best. We’d had a perfect insertion. We were deep in enemy territory and the NVA didn’t know we were in his backyard. It was a classic scenario for an ambush. John Wayne would have been proud. For a brief moment, I dreamed of an R&R in Hawaii or Hong Kong, somewhere exotic.
But the recon gods had other ideas.
The Green Hornet C&C acknowledged my radio transmission but said, “Abort mission. Return to insert LZ ASAP.” I looked at the handset as though it was a pit viper that had just bitten me. “Repeat last transmission,” I said, sounding incredulous.
“Abort the mission. Return to LZ ASAP for immediate exfil.” I questioned his sanity. I told him we’d have a live POW in a matter of minutes. I was shocked. I asked him to repeat one more time and he said, “Per the direct order of General Abrams, you are ordered to abort the mission and return to the LZ ASAP.” SF men knew the old tank commander hated Special Forces troops, but this was taking military rancor too far.
When I told the team to pull in the ambush, they looked at me as though I had eaten a bad batch of peyote buds mixed with Cambodian red marijuana. I told Bubba to replace the handheld detonator with a pressure detonator. I wasn’t pulling that mine out of the road for anyone. Reluctantly, the team returned to the LZ. When we were about 100 meters from the LZ, Bubba wanted to fire one LAW at a tree in the distance for practice. I told him that when he was done, to booby-trap the LAW tube with one more deadly surprise for the NVA.
The Green Hornets arrived and we had one of the few uneventful extractions ST Idaho enjoyed during my tenure with the team. I asked the door gunner what had happened. The pilot tried to tell me, but there was too much noise in the aircraft. Finally, I put on the door gunner’s helmet and spoke to the pilot on the intercom. He told me that Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk had filed a formal complaint with the U.S. government about the use of a white phosphorus grenade in Cambodia on Thanksgiving Day.
It was a clear breach of the State Department’s agreement to allow SOG teams to operate in Cambodia. When we returned to FOB 6, Lieutenant Colonel Drake pulled me aside to ask about the white phosphorus grenade. I gave him two versions of the story: off the record, I did it and I had no regrets. I reminded the CO that ST Idaho would have suffered severe casualties had the Green Hornets not reacted so quickly to our call for an extraction. The official version, I didn’t know anything about the unfortunate and untimely explosion of the grenade in the lovely country of Cambodia and I was sincerely sorry if any vegetation was damaged by it. That version went into my After Action Report and that was the last we heard of the incident.
Since it was Saturday, I gave everyone passes for Saigon, but told them to be ready for another target Sunday morning and that I wanted everyone to be mission ready. I also said I wanted to take eight men, to give us more firepower in the field and to give the younger men on the team experience on the ground.
Recon didn’t rest on Sundays, so we geared up for another Daniel Boone target. This time, our insertion was delayed several hours because another FOB 6 recon team was in heavy enemy contact and the Green Hornets were working the NVA over, but good. After a rough Saturday night in Saigon, all of us took naps at the Bu Dop launch site. This time, the mission was a general reconnoiter of a target northwest of the launch site in Cambodia. If we were able to get a POW, that would become our top priority. We also carried equipment to execute a wiretap if we found any NVA telephone lines. Because the white phosphorus incident was still a political hot potato, the brass strongly suggested that we not blow up any trucks or create any major incidents.
Later in the afternoon, the Green Hornets arrived. After a quick briefing, we agreed to a two-helicopter insertion with dummy insertions, only this time the dummy insertions would occur before we jumped off of the slick. Again, the insertion was flawless. We were in the wood line and on our way for a general area reconnaissance.
This time, we played it by the book, moving 10 minutes, then waiting 10 minutes. As we moved, I swore that I’d never run an eight-man team again. It was too cumbersome. In this target, the vegetation still made me a tad on edge, as it had a second canopy in some areas, but still gave us long lines of sight, something we weren’t used to. The younger team members I took with us, Chau, Son and Cau, moved well in the bush. Son was working so well that Sau worked him on point for a while, to give him experience.
As darkness approached, we looked for a good spot to RON. With the flat terrain, finding a good RON became really dicey.
Ordinarily we’d look for high ground, dense vegetation, or an area far from any trail. Finally, we found one and Sau set up a perimeter, set up the watch rotation and oversaw the placement of extra claymore mines. In one area where the vegetation was thin, Bubba placed a couple of toe poppers in the ground. I couldn’t sleep. The flat terrain played on my mind. Also, I couldn’t believe how good the Green Hornets were on insertions. This was the third time they had inserted us without any trackers or dogs getting on our trail. In Laos, it was a different story.
Before first light, the entire team was awake, alert, retrieving the claymore mines and preparing to move out of the RON. After a night on the jungle floor, I wanted an R&R anywhere with firm beds, clean sheets and cold drinks. Because I insisted on carrying the PRC 25, there was little room in my backpack except for essentials. At night, when I slept on the ground, I did so without an air mattress or hammock. The sole item of comfort was an Army-issue pullover sweater that buttoned up to the neck. Whenever I put it on at night, I always worried about Charlie hitting us as I was pulling the sweater over my head. It was one of the few creature comforts I allowed myself or had room for in my rucksack.
Shortly after first light, the Green Hornets’ C&C aircraft flew into the edge of our AO for a routine commo check. I gave him a quick team okay and prepared to move the team out of the RON. However, the C&C crew told me to wrap up the mission. There was another problem that he couldn’t discuss on an open frequency – we knew the NVA monitored SOG FM radio transmissions and had radio direction finding equipment.
The C&C pilot told us to find an LZ and to let him know when we’d be ready for extraction. After a brief discussion with Hiep and Sau, Son and Sau left the team for a few minutes to locate an open area that they had observed the night before when we were approaching our RON. They returned a few minutes later. I called the Green Hornets and told them we’d be ready for extraction in 10 minutes. Since the AO had been so quiet, I gave them a vector from our insertion LZ and told them to look for yellow smoke. A few minutes later, the Green Hornets roared into the new LZ, picked us up and returned us to base.
The reason we were yanked from the field this time stemmed from a tragedy in the Prairie Fire Area of Operation on 30 November. An H-34 Kingbee was shot out of the sky during an Eldest Son operation. Seven Green Berets from FOB 1 and FOB 4 were killed when an anti-aircraft round struck the Sikorsky chopper and ignited the ammunition on the aircraft, killing everyone onboard.
Eldest Son missions were quick hit deals. SOG teams would take captured NVA ammunition and mortar rounds that ordnance specialists had rigged to explode and place them along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. This was one of the psychological operations used against the NVA. The ordnance was placed along the trails with the hope that the NVA moving south would pick it up. Subsequently, when the NVA troops used the ammo it would explode, killing or wounding the enemy soldiers. Recon teams often carried a few clips of Soap Chips ammo or an Eldest Son mortar shell on a mission, leaving the bad ammo where an NVA soldier would find it. Some of the recon men jokingly referred to these missions as “medal missions.”
That joke ended on 30 November.
One of the men killed in that ill-fated Kingbee was Staff Sergeant Arthur E. Bader, Jr. I liked Bader. On my last night at FOB 1 before shipping out to FOB 6, I played in a poker game where he won a lot of money. The longer we played, the more money Bader won. The more Bader won, the more morose he became. At one point I asked him what was wrong; he was winning and he was ahead several hundred dollars, but kept complaining that he’d never spend the money. His response was that he had had a premonition that he was going to die and that men about to die often win a lot of money, money they would never spend. We all tried to josh him out of his dark mood, but failed.
Bader was a unique Special Forces Green Beret. He had earned and lost three separate fortunes in between three terms in the service. He was in his 30s, but still enjoyed SF, spoke fluent German and a few other languages and merely wanted to accomplish any mission assigned to him. On the long flight back to Phu Bai, I kept hearing him talk to us at the poker table that last night. Now he was gone.
More than two decades later, a recovery detail brought Bader’s remains home to Atlantic City.
Chapter Twelve: Cold as Hell
In December 1968 ST Idaho was loaded onto Kingbees and flown to the Quang Tri launch site, which was north of FOB 1 and north of Hue. I hated Quang Tri. All it had were smelly old army tents. They always seemed dirty, sandy and dusty from all of the helicopter activity in the area. The site itself was located near an ammo dump for the Marine Corps, possibly its 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company. While personal comforts sucked, when we launched into DMZ targets or Prairie Fire targets from there, the helicopter ride to the target was shorter and that meant the air assets could remain on site much longer than when we launched out of FOB 1. There was a definite tactical edge to launching from Quang Tri.
When we planned to launch from Quang Tri the daily routine consisted of leaving FOB 1 early on Kingbees, then the team would go to the stinking tents and wait for a pre-mission briefing. The time frame between landing at Quang Tri, getting a pre-mission briefing and actually launching into a target depended on a number of elements lining up: having good or acceptable weather, the availability of tactical air and helicopter gunship support and how many other teams were on the ground at that time.
If one of those elements failed to come into alignment, the spike team spent the remainder of the day getting dirty in Quang Tri, returning to the comfort and security of FOB 1 at the end of the day. Occasionally, an additional delay would occur at a place called the Rock Pile, a god-forsaken Marine firebase where helicopters could land prior to launching into a target.
The DMZ had become a hot target area at the end of ’68 as MACV-SOG headquarters received several reports of increased troop movement from North to South Vietnam. The brass wanted to know if the NVA was gearing up for another Tet Offensive…
(About the featured image: John S. Meyer returning from training at FOB 6 Ho Ngoc Tao in November 1968 with ST Idaho South Vietnamese team members, from left: Cau, Son, Nguyen Van Sau, Nguyen Cong Hiep and Minh. ST Idaho was detached to FOB 6 briefly in November 1968 because the recon teams had taken a beating in the Daniel Boone (Cambodia) Area of Operations. John S. Meyer photo)
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