By June 1968, Staff Sergeant Pat Watkins had been running recon for over seven months and had seen some of the worst of what that could entail. In fact, the run of luck SOG had experienced from December 1967 to April 1968 had been about the cruelest he could imagine. Of the original 14 team leaders who had started out running recon with him in late 1967, only four remained alive and active.
Watkins had started with ST (Spike Team) Moccasin, operating out of Da Nang. When recon operations at Da Nang were placed on hold due to the lack of sufficient personnel, Watkins quickly volunteered to head north to Khe Sanh, which had been under continuous siege since January 1968. Some took his volunteering as a sure sign of mental impairment, but for anyone who truly knew Watkins, this is simply what he did. Although he was one of the few men in recon with a wife and family, he was not about to sit idly by when there was a job to be done.
When Watkins arrived for duty at Khe Sanh, it was still under enemy fire on a daily basis. Living conditions were spartan. The entire camp was scarred and pocked-marked from enemy ordnance. Dry red dust coated everything, including every intimate nook and cranny of the siege survivors. Showers were practically unknown, as was hot food or cold drinks. Troops ate nothing but C-rations and were allotted just one canteen of water per day.
Watkins found the SOG recon teams and larger Hatchet Force Company dug in along a perimeter that faced Highway 9. The Special Forces troops looked west toward Co Roc Mountain, home of the infamous “Co Roc Express.” Whenever there was any inviting activity in or around the Marine base, the NVA would immediately roll out its 152mm heavy guns and blast away. The SOG men quietly went about their work, training and running top secret missions, while the embattled Marines in the compound generated almost daily news coverage during the siege of Khe Sanh.
No one relaxed at Khe Sanh. Ever.
Khe Sanh was not a place of niceties, so Watkins was introduced without ceremony to his new team, RT Lion. It consisted of seven Montagnards from the Bru tribe and an American, Special Forces Sgt. George Godwin, who had just transferred in from a Special Forces A-Camp the previous month. Neither the Bru nor Godwin had ever run recon.
Moreover, the Bru, considered by many to be perhaps the most primitive of the many Montagnard tribes, were just four months out of the jungle and loincloths. As an enticement to support the Special Forces mission, these 14- to 18-year-olds had been given Zippo lighters before being issued M-16s.
There was, however, one very very big asset the Bru brought to the table and that was their fierce and absolute hatred of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Driven off their ancestral lands along the coastal plains and pushed deep into the inhospitable highlands, they had been the prey of the Vietnamese and others for centuries. Now the NVA destroyed their villages, raped their women, and pressed their men into unwilling servitude. Early on, the Special Forces, recognizing their potential value as guides and soldiers, befriended many of the Montagnard tribes, living with them and training them. As a result, the Montagnards were as fiercely loyal to the Special Forces as they were hostile to the Vietnamese, both North and South. They may not have been able to chuck a hand grenade all that far, but you could trust them with your life.
In early May 1968, RT Lion was joined by a wiry, tough-as-nails little paratrooper who introduced himself as Lou “Jake Three Zero” DeSeta. DeSeta had served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade for 13 months and had participated in the fabled Battle of Dak To, surviving the horrific battle on Hill 875, during which a U.S. plane accidentally bombed U.S. troops after the paratroopers had pushed the NVA soldiers off the hill. DeSeta stood all of about five feet three inches tall and tipped the scales at maybe 120 pounds, fully loaded. But one look into his eyes told you all you needed to know, and Watkins immediately designated him the One-One. Godwin then became the One-Zero.
On June 4th, Watkins was called into the TOC and told he and RT Lion were booked for a tour of Tango-6. Tango-6 was nothing other than the notorious target Oscar-8 under an assumed name!
Marked clearly on the map was the junction where Highway 922 met Highway 92, perhaps one of the most lethal crossroads in military history. Fortified with every type of anti-aircraft weaponry the NVA could muster, and teeming with NVA troops, it was the nexus of the Ho Chi Minh trail complex in I Corps—the northern section of South Vietnam, and the scene of one bloody engagement after another. It was also the headquarters of General Vo Bam’s 559th Transportation Group. In order to protect itself from the prying eyes and organized mischief of SOG’s reconnaissance operations, the 559th had developed a number of highly trained anti-recon units that were not only vicious, but held lots of dirty little tricks up their dirty little communist sleeves. What a mission for the team to break its cherry.
It now appeared that Watkins and the untested RT Lion would be inserted into Oscar-8, the most hostile environment he could imagine.
With Watkins, Godwin, and three Bru in the leading 1st Air Cav helicopter, and DeSeta and four Bru trailing in the second, the team flew west at just 600 feet off the ground. They soon crossed the Tchepone River into Laos. They could see NVA troops scattering for cover as they passed over and watched as green tracer rounds tracked their flight. It’s going to be a long day, Watkins thought to himself. A very long day.
But then he smiled. DeSeta was wearing his communist “boonie hat,” a black floppy thing with a bright red star on it. DeSeta had claimed it from a dead NVA solder while he was with the 173rd, and now wore it faithfully, like it was a good luck charm. What made Watkins smile was DeSeta’s habit of having the red star face forward whenever he was on point and face to the rear when he was in the tail-gunner’s slot.
Watkins was brought back to the business at hand when he got word they were approaching the LZ. He looked out and marveled at what he saw below him. Because Oscar-8 had been worked over so many times by B-52s and other bombers, it resembled a cratered moonscape. Trees were almost nonexistent and what cover there was tended to be low and sparse, the exception being the elephant grass, which could grow to heights of six to twelve feet.
Based on what he could see, Watkins was not overly surprised to discover that the team was going to be dropped off on the rim of a substantial bomb crater. There was not a hell of a lot of choice, except perhaps for the size and depth of the things.
Once on the ground, the 10-man team quickly formed up and, led by Watkins on point, moved smartly away from the open terrain around the crater and about 50 meters into the underbrush and elephant grass. As the team moved south into deeper cover, NVA anti-aircraft artillery opened up on the departing choppers.
Watkins made sure the tail gunner was concealing the team’s tracks and then he made his first contact with Covey, the SOG forward air controller. Watkins got the coordinates and relayed them to DeSeta, who marked their position on the map.
Covey informed Watkins that one of the gunships had been shot down near Highway 92. Fortunately, the crew, including two wounded, had managed to escape and had been picked up. Then DeSeta told Watkins that RT Lion had been inserted at the wrong location. One bomb crater looking pretty much like another, it seemed they had been mistakenly inserted very near the junction of Highways 92 and 922. Jesus, they were sitting at the pulsing heart of Oscar-8.
But not to worry, Covey said. He was busy talking to the aircrews about the possibility of coming back, picking up the team, and reinserting it at the right LZ. He suggested the team “hold tight,” as if it might inadvertently wander off or relax into beach-party mode.
When the shit comes, it comes in buckets. As a thoroughly pissed Watkins was explaining the situation to an incredulous Godwin, DeSeta crawled over to tell them that Man-Loi, the tail gunner, had spotted beaucoup NVA swarming around the LZ. Covey confirmed there was indeed lots of enemy activity around RT Lion, but that all the helicopters were returning to base in order to drop off their wounded and refuel.
The team pulled in its claymores and began a slow and dangerous trek toward what looked to be a slight rise in the ground. As they moved for 10 minutes and listened for 10, they could hear enemy voices on both sides of their line of march. The team was nearly surrounded. RT Lion moved with a much greater sense of stealth and caution. They managed to reach the rise undetected and secured a perimeter.
The team settled in its RON (remain over night). Watkins didn’t like the idea of just sitting and waiting for the enemy to attack. So he took two of the Bru and set up an observation post next to Highway 92.
Before he moved out, however, Watkins did a commo with the night airborne command center, code named Moonbeam. Moonbeam assured RT Lion they were loud and clear and that in future commo checks, all they need do was break squelch (key the mike without speaking) three times to indicate they were alive and well.
Again, Watkins took point as the trio cautiously moved forward about 150 meters, where they ran into Highway 92. They could hear voices and vehicle traffic. Then, their luck continuing its dismal descent, the sky cleared and a bright moon came out to cast an iridescent glow over everything.
Even though they had heard voices and vehicle noise, once they reached the road there was no traffic in sight, so Watkins boldly stepped out onto the highway. He could see nothing, but he could hear lots of voices and activity on the opposite side of the road. He immediately melted back into the brush about 10 meters and set up an observation line, with Er about 30 meters to his right and Rong the same distance to his left. Er and Rong put out claymores facing up and down the road.
Watkins was nearly blinded when the first set of headlights rounded the bend not five minutes later. This was stark evidence of NVA confidence in the fact they owned the night, at least in Oscar-8. The first vehicle was soon followed by three trucks packed with supplies. They passed so close to Watkins he could clearly see the soldiers in the cabs, smoking and chatting. He could also make out the foliage that had been draped and fastened across the tops of the trucks to camouflage and conceal them from American aerial reconnaissance flights. In short order, 10 more fully loaded trucks passed. Interspersed between them were dozens of soldiers and civilians pushing rickety bicycles piled high with everything imaginable, from live chickens to weapons and ammunition.
To Watkins’ utter amazement, the next vehicle was a goddamn bulldozer, its blade up in the air, and an NVA soldier signaling directions with a flashlight. Watkins was barely over the bulldozer when along came two Russian T-34 tanks, their gun barrels facing aft, and their external fuel tanks mounted just as the manual said.
It took more than three hours for the NVA parade to pass. As the last of its rumblings grew faint, Watkins came out of his daze and looked around. He immediately saw Rong crawling toward him with a panicked look on his face. Watkins had been so mesmerized by all the traffic he had forgotten about young Bru team members, Er and Rong.
When Rong reached him he could barely talk. Watkins calmed him down as best he could and made him start over. Rong said he’d been watching the road traffic, just like Watkins, and had been as taken with it as he was. While he was staring at all the vehicles passing by, a hand had reached out, and given his arm a shake.
A Montagnard soldier, one of those the NVA had pressed into service, said, “It’s your time for guard duty.” Fortunately Rong was too stunned to do anything but nod his head and grunt a kind of acknowledgment. It was enough, however, and the NVA Montagnard moved off into the brush in one direction while Rong went in the other direction toward Watkins. Rong was badly rattled and of the definite opinion that the three of them ought to abandon Highway 92 and get back to the rest of the team as fast as possible. Watkins agreed.
He let Er take point as they tried to maneuver themselves out of the tight fix they were in. The sun was about to come up and they could hear voices all around them. They could even smell food and coffee being prepared. Making an exit unseen was going to take some serious doing.
As luck would have it, Er took a slightly different track than the one Watkins had taken and he stumbled into a 37mm anti-aircraft position almost immediately. The crew was sitting behind a stack of ammo crates around a small fire, cooking rice and talking. Before Watkins could tell Er to bluff his way past, the 16-year-old, NVA-loathing kid opened up with his CAR-15 on full automatic. As if this wasn’t bad enough, he failed to hit a single enemy soldier, so Watkins quickly tossed two grenades into the breakfast circle while Er reloaded and Rong opened fire.
Watkins shouted for them to follow him as he took point and went crashing off through the thin vegetation toward their RON site. Despite the noise they were making, they could hear NVA troops hollering at each other and sounding the general alarm. All unholy hell was about to break loose.
(Featured image: Lou “Jake Three Zero” DeSeta sits behind a .50 caliber heavy machine gun at SOG secret base FOB 3 in Khe Sanh, with two members of RT Lion. The photo was taken a few days before RT Lion launched into Oscar-8 target in Laos. Note the black hat with the red start that DeSeta is wearing: He recovered it from a dead NVA soldier during a firefight when DeSeta was serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade prior to arriving at FOB 3 with SOG Special Forces.)