Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one and part two here.

Back in the transient barracks, Watkins continued crawling toward the end of the hallway. He froze. Silhouetted by flare light in the open doorway, a NVA soldier cautiously peered in to determine if anyone inside was still alive. He was also trying to ignite a satchel charge, but was having some difficulty. The sapper gave up on the satchel and Watkins saw a hand grenade rolling down the hall towards him. Watkins quickly fired two rounds at the sapper and shouted, “Grenade!” Instinctively, he covered his head with his hands. The force of the explosion pushed Watkins backward down the hall, peppering his hands, arms, and back with shrapnel. He figured this was it; he was as good as dead.

In his barracks, Pugh saw a VC sapper wearing tan shorts silhouetted in the doorway. Pugh opened fire and the VC sapper promptly returned fire. “I could feel the round snap the air around my eardrum,” Pugh said. “I raised my weapon just a tad and fired again. This time there was a thud-like sound as the VC fell to the ground.”

The entire compound was now a swirling battleground, with dozens of small but deadly firefights in progress. It was difficult to tell the scantily clad Americans and indigenous personnel from the enemy. And there was no command coordination, just a lot of individuals struggling against uncertain and overwhelming odds. The air was filled with enough chaos to overload the senses: screams, shouts, bullets, dust, smoke, and the smells of cordite, burning wood, rubber, fuel, and seared flesh.

The enemy launched an intense barrage of 82mm mortar fire at FOB 4 from somewhere behind ST Rattler. At the same time, enemy forces crawled close to the bottom of the ledge where ST Rattler was positioned and threw hand grenades up at the ledge. The Nungs responded quickly, killed the NVA sappers below them with American frag grenades and small-arms fire, as Trimble joined them in defending the side of the ledge where the ropes hung to climb to the top.

As soon as the situation permitted, Trimble made his way toward the south side of the mountain with several of his Nung team members. The Nung, who had an uncanny ability to ferret out an enemy’s location, even in darkness, pointed silently to the place where the mortar and its crew were hidden. On Trimble’s command, he and one of the Nungs fired a volley of HE (high-explosive) M-79 grenades at the target while the others poured CAR-15 rounds into the brush. In short order, both the attack on ST Rattler and the mortar fire came to an abrupt and permanent halt. Silencing this well-positioned mortar saved a number of lives and relieved some pressure on those in the Da Nang compound who were fighting hand-to-hand in a frenzied effort to keep from being totally annihilated.

From his new vantage point, Peters could observe a steady crisscrossing of enemy troops. Some had their bodies wrapped with explosives and many carried satchel charges and baskets of grenades, along with their AK-47s. It was clear they had come prepared for a long night. Like many of those around him, Peters had operated in the chaos of jungle warfare, where unexpected things happened quickly and at close quarters, but he had never seen a large-scale battle like the one currently raging around him.

John Peters in a Kingbee helicopter in 1968.

Peters was brought out of his daze by a sapper who was running across in front of him, firing his AK-47 as he ran. Peters fired a short burst from Bric’s CAR-15, and the sapper pitched forward to his knees, his forehead resting in the sand like a Muslim in prayer. He never fell over, and for the rest of the night, Peters could see his nearly naked body bowed over as if offering a final homage to whatever brought him to this place on this night.