By Rodney H. George
The sky slowly started to slide from black as a cup of army coffee to a slight hint of gray in the east. I stretched my arms out of the TC cupola and yawned. As I brought my arms back down they fell back around the twin handles of the “ Ma deuce” pointing out the front of the turret. My thumbs gently stroked the butterfly trigger of the .50 caliber M-2 heavy machine gun that was the main armament of the ACAV. I peered from right to left checking the area between the dark square shape on my right, across the featureless blackness in front of me and ended at the larger black shape on my left. Shit!! I still can’t see a damned thing past the shine of the .50 cal. Ammo laying in the ammo tray on the left side of the .50. How are you supposed to see anything? Charlie could crawl up here and slit my throat before I could see him! I knew that there were several layers of concertina wire, trip flares and claymore mines set out along the perimeter to stop just that sort of thing from happening. Every once in awhile that would work to stop Mr. Victor Charlie. Old Vic was gutsy and knew how to slither through our defenses if he wanted to badly enough. If he thought it was worth his while he would sneak in and set his own charges and the first we would know about it was when something near and dear to us blew up!
Just thinking about that sent a shiver down my spine and drove away the sleepiness of sitting there for two hours. I checked my fields of fire in front of me again. I could make out a little more of the shape of the ACAV on my right and the rounded edges of the M-48 tank on my left but you still couldn’t see anything at ground level. I knew that there was a dirt road about 50 meters in front of us. It was route 333 that ran from Gia Ray past the rock quarry where we were guarding some engineer elements and then swung into QL-1 (what passed for national highway-1) at Ap Suoi Cat and ran westward to our base camp at Blackhorse near Xa Xuan Loc.
It had been a quiet night by our standards. A few sniper rounds fired into our area during the night to keep us from sleeping too well. Even the rumble of artillery H & I missions (harassment and interdiction) stayed far to the north of us. You still don’t get much sleep in the field. Each ACAV and M-48 had four people assigned to them. Everyone stayed up until 2200 and got up at 0600 for stand-to. Stand-to was a condition where all guns are manned and the driver is ready to start the vehicle for maneuvering. The idea was that the VC liked to attack at dusk and at dawn so by going to stand-to we were ready for them. Then we would take two hour guard shifts on the .50 caliber if our ACAV was on the perimeter or radio watch if we were with the command group inside the perimeter. This guaranteed that we would never get more than four hours of sleep each night.
“We” were the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. We had arrived in Vietnam in August and September of 1966 and were the largest armored unit to serve in the Republic of Vietnam. My own little piece of this unit was that I was the driver of 3How73. An ACAV that was assigned to the 3rd Forward Observer section of the 3rd Squadron Howitzer Battery. An ACAV was a M113 armored personnel carrier that was modified to become an Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle by adding a protective steel turret to the .50 caliber machine gun and adding two M-60 7.62 machine guns in side mounted shields. In effect we were a light tank designed for combat from the vehicle.
As a forward observer section we were assigned to the line troops to provide them with artillery support fire. 3rd FO section was usually in the field with I Troop. Each Armored Cavalry squadron was made up of a headquarters troop, three line troops each with 26 ACAV’s, a M-48 tank Company with 17 tanks and a howitzer Battery with 6 M-109 155mm self-propelled howitzers. 3rd Squadron 11th ACR consisted of Hqs Trp 3rd Squadron, I Troop, K Troop, L Troop, M Company and 3rd Howitzer Battery.
Our missions included search and destroy operations, road security and providing security for the engineer battalion. It was the latter that had us at the rock quarry near Gia Ray. My stint in the TC turret was about over. It was time to wake up the troops for morning stand-to.
I dropped down out of the TC turret into the ACAV and shook the Recon sergeant awake. “ Hey Donatto! Up and at em it’s time for stand-to. Get the bums up! My butt’s asleep from that damned TC hatch! Get one of the gunners up there while I make some coffee.” As an E-4 I was the second ranking member of the crew. Besides the sergeant, the rest of the crew was made up of two PFC gunners that manned the side M-60's. Ken on the left and Randy on the right. If we had been out in the boonies everyone would have gone to stand-to and breakfast would wait. Since we were in the perimeter of the rock quarry with it’s own guard bunkers and were actually a reaction force to strengthen their defenses we were a little more casual. We kept one man on the .50 but everyone else turned to cleaning up a little and making breakfast out of whatever C-rations we had on board.
As soon as I had stretched enough that my legs would work right I climbed up onto the track on the left front of the ACAV, grabbed the antennae protector bracket with my right hand and the edge of the open drivers hatch with my left and hoisted myself up on top of the ACAV. I dropped down into the driver’s hatch, flipped the ignition on with my left hand and made sure the automatic transmission was in neutral with my right. I offered a short prayer to the battery gods and hit the starter. The 361 cubic inch Chrysler V-8 caught with a roar and I kept it at half throttle while I checked the gauges. Everything came up to green and the exhaust smoothed out as the engine warmed up. I let the throttle off to an idle then reached back on the right side and unlocked the rear main door and lowered it until it stopped on the wood block that I had setting behind the track. It was still very warm outside. At least with the door down you could air out the smell of sweat, gasoline and the hot electric smell of the two large radios racked on the left side of the ACAV interior. Those radios were our link to the Fire Direction Net and the company that we were assigned to. They were on 24 hours a day. I checked the gauges again to ensure that the batteries were indeed charging and then climbed up and out of the ACAV leaving it idling in the growing light of the morning.
As I walked to the back of the ACAV I noticed that this ritual was being repeated up and down the line of ACAV’s and M-48's. We were veterans now. No one had to tell us how important it was to be ready to wheel into battle at a moments notice. I pulled out our goody box and took out the large can that we used to boil water. I grabbed a couple of Sterno tabs and kicked a hole in the dirt. I filled the Billy can from one of our 5-gallon water cans and dropped the tabs into the hole and lit them with my butane lighter. I placed the can on the tabs to heat the water that would be used for four cups of coffee and the rest for shaving.
I pulled a cigarette out of my crumpled Kool package and lit it up. I never had trouble getting a carton of Kools out of the crates of cigarettes that the manufacturers sent us on a monthly basis. Not many of the guys wanted them. They all wanted the Winston's, Luckys, Camels and Pall Malls. They laughed because I wanted the Kools but I told them that the menthol was the only thing that didn’t taste like a burning VC village smells. I grabbed my tool kit and set about making sure that the track tension was right and that there were no loose end nuts on the track pads. I sure as hell did not want to throw a track right in the middle of a firefight. As I was checking the end nuts I saw a column of soldiers approaching from Gia Ray. There was an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) regiment stationed there. I think it was the first time that I had ever seen ARVN troops up and moving that early in the morning. They were marching down 333 towards Suoi Cat. They were marching in company formations with the lead company about 100 meters ahead of the next three companies. “Hey guys! Take a look at this. I called to the rest of the crew. ARVN intel must have found a battalion of VC chickens somewhere.” It was a standard joke that all the ARVN troops were good for was stealing chickens from the local villages.
A lot of the guys came out to
the road to watch this spectacle of a real-live ARVN unit actually marching
somewhere. As we laughed and whistled at them you couldn’t help but notice
that they wore GI helmets that looked like they were on children and most of
them carried M1 Garand rifles that almost dragged on the ground when slung
on the shoulder of the average Vietnamese male.
For all the world it looked like a group of boy scouts playing army. We watched as they disappeared around the corner of the road as it wound along the base of Nui Chua Chan, one of the larger mountains in the area.
We had been tasked with sending a platoon back to Blackhorse Base camp to escort a resupply column of trucks out to the rock quarry. As the forward observer section we had been included in the escort group to provide artillery support if needed. We were to be on the road by 0700 hours. We were just getting the final briefing prior to leaving when we heard the sounds of a heavy firefight. Immediately the entire camp stood-to in case the attack was aimed at the rock quarry. The platoon that had been warming up to go to Blackhorse was sent as a reaction force for the ARVN unit that had passed by that morning.
We roared out of Gia Ray looking for a scrap. About two kilometers down 333 we came upon the ARVN Battalion. The VC had laid a heavy ambush using a regiment reinforced with heavy weapons platoons armed with recoilless rifles. Their intended target had been our platoon of tracks that they knew was going to be going to Blackhorse that morning. They had geared up to take out the whole platoon and get the machine guns and ammunition from our tracks. They would have hit us if it had not been for that stroke of luck of the ARVN Battalion using that road before we did that morning.
The carnage was unbelievable. The lead company of about 150 ARVN soldiers had been overrun by the VC regiment when they sprung the ambush. Most of them died without ever getting their rifles unslung. The VC went right over the top of them and then disappeared up into Nui Chua Chan before the rest of the ARVN battalion could even close on them.
As we pulled up and herring-boned into defensive positions, the majority of the ARVN troops were breaking and running to get out of the area. We reconned by fire but got no return fire so it was obvious that the VC had decided to leave the area once the ambush was broken. We sent out patrols but could not establish contact with the VC. The ARVN commanders had left their dead where they lay. The entire battalion left the area and headed back towards their camp at Gia Ray.
After we secured the area it was left to us to bring in 2 ˝ ton trucks to load the ARVN bodies in. My track was one of the tracks assigned to load bodies and collect weapons. We swung the bodies up into the trucks and others stacked them. We filled two trucks with the stacked bodies of the dead ARVN soldiers. The weapons were stacked into an ACAV. We no longer saw them as the humorous undersized soldiers but as fallen comrades who by simply choosing to use that road prior to us saved us from the same fate that they suffered. My final and most lasting memory of this incident is this. Once the final body was loaded onto the trucks I shut the tailgate on the last truckload of bodies. As the driver heard the tailgate shut, he put the truck in gear and started out. I was still at the rear of the truck and was drenched by a wave of blood that sloshed from that truck as it started. I was soaked from head to toe and remained that way for two hours until we got to an area that had showers.