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 cant 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 couldnt 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 dont 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 ACAVs, 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 its time for stand-to. Get the bums up! My butts 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 its 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 drivers 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 ACAVs 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 Winstons, Luckys, Camels and Pall Malls. They laughed because I wanted the Kools but I told them that the menthol was the only thing that didnt 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 couldnt 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 ½ 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.
Rodney H. George
3 How 11th ACR
The incursion into Cambodia held a lot of surprises for the 2nd Squadron, but one that may stand out in the memories of the Troopers of the 3rd Platoon of E Troop was when they found themselves being commanded by a cannon-cocker.
Units on the march in Cambodia experienced a lot of re-supply problems, and this situation apparently extended to replacement officers as well. So for whatever reason (my memory is hazy here), sometime after we took Snoul, the CO of E Troop ordered me to temporarily assume command of 3rd Platoon. Although an FO received training in a lot of ways to support his troop, command of a line platoon was not among them. This was strictly going to be OJT.
I had been in-country about eight months by that time, first as FO with an infantry unit in 1st Division before it stood down and then as E Troop FO, so I had a pretty fair background in bush busting. But more importantly, 3rd Platoon had experienced NCOs and seasoned track commanders upon whom I could rely to keep me from getting us into trouble! They must have done a good job since we experienced no major problems, even on the way back out of Cambodia.
Not so lucky were Buddy Bennett, Bobby Perryman, and Jim Claywell, the enlisted men who manned the FO track (Zulu) and continued to provide artillery support while I was with 3rd Platoon. Third Platoon was in column behind the HQ element on a road march when I heard an explosion ahead, followed by a call over the E Troop net stating that Zulu track had hit a mine.
We herring-boned into a defensive posture but nothing else happened, so I went forward to check on the situation with Zulu and found the men being treated by the medics for the injuries they had sustained (fortunately not fatal) . Zulu's left track and several of its boggie wheels had been blown off by the blast.
Isolated incidents about Cambodia come to mind even today. Like when we first entered Cambodia (I was serving as FO then) and the only person in E Troop HQ with a map of the area was the CO who, of course, rode on his own track. I kept thinking How can I call in artillery or air support, when I don't have a clue where we are on the ground?.
Fortunately we didn't need it. Or when we took Snoul and liberated cases of bottled soda pop to replenish our dwindling water ration. Or when a care package of cookies arrived from home (they lasted maybe 10 minutes despite being stale). Or that stateside newspaper reporter we less than enthusiastically hosted on the FO track, who put down his camera and quickly learned how to operate an M-16 when we took sniper fire.
I remember finding a disabled NVA truck which we requested permission to destroy. Destroy it we did, as every track in 3rd Platoon cut loose with their .50 calibers. That was one truck the NVA would never make use of for replacement parts.
I recall large quantities of bagged rice we tried to destroy (the damned stuff seemed indestructible). And a rich red soil that somehow seemed different from Vietnam's. And many, many Cambodians with incredulous looks standing along the road as track after track rumbled by.
And I remember another thing, and here my memory is crystal clear. We had very light contact (if any) with NVA units for a couple of months after we came back out of Cambodia. Taking the fight to the NVA sanctuaries across the border delivered a hard blow from which it took them awhile to recover. That respite was all too brief but it was well deserved.
David R. Watters
It had to have been sometime in early December 1971. I was in the field with one of the troops (E, F or G) and we had the wagons circled somewhere north of An Loc and a little east of the Cambodian border.
It was hot, clear and sunny and at about 11:00 in the morning, someone popped smoke and a couple of Hueys settled down with a quartet of USO celebrities aboard. This was part of the group traveling with the Bob Hope troupe; but for us only the second string. The first team and all the pretty girls were with Bob Hope at Long Binh.
Three baseball players and an umpire came to visit us. Disappointing you might say. The Troopers kept watching the opened Hueys, but there was not a dolly in sight. Nonetheless, their visit was a break from bouncing through the bush, worried more about red ants and breaking torsion bars than VC snipers. Digesting diesel smoke and washing it down with sweat strained through a crusty mustache. We all seemed to have one then.
The ballplayers, as I recall were Bobby Bonds, Doc Ellis and a Kansas City star whose name escapes me. Accompanying the three ballplayers was National League umpire Nick Colosi.
The players hung around the command track and signed autographs and talked with a number of troops. Umpire Nick Colosi on the other hand walked to the perimeter and greeted the troopers either on their tanks or ACAVs. As he made his way around the perimeter, he exuded a certain ease and was comfortable with the Blackhorse Troopers. Laughter followed him and a lot of smiles appeared on the faces of those he stopped to talk with.
When he crossed the open yardage, stepped around an RPG screen and approached the track I was with, our anxiety heightened. I was particularly anxious to meet him as he was a colleague of a good friend of mine and another umpire, Augie Donatelli.
Not only did I know Augie and Mary Donatelli, I had previously taught their children in school and felt Nicks visit was somehow a surrogate visit from the whole family.
Nick did come on board with the ease of a veteran and we quickly found out why he was so much at home with these bare chested and grimy Troopers. Nick was a veteran of World War II. Italy and Anzio beach. It wasnt long before he was exchanging war stories with the crew and developed a particularly close relationship with Mike Aguilar.
Mike was a big guy from California that we all called Chief. Both a Native American and combat veteran trooper, he had re-upped a number of times and (as I was told) had at least two or three Silver Stars. Nonetheless, Nick and Mike got into such a conversation that the umpire never moved from our track and we enjoyed his company for at least 20 to 30 minutes until word came down the choppers were revving up.
As Nick was shaking hands all around, I remember Mike digging into his gear and coming out with one of his Silver Stars. Chief Aguilar pinned the medal on Umpire Nick Colosi and fellow veteran of another era. Nick was touched. I was touched as he and big Mike embraced with back slapping gusto and laughter that possibly hid a few departing tears.
Ill not forget that scene of mutual respect and manly appreciation that pronounced an understanding of what each had experienced.
A few months later, the Regiment left Vietnam and a number of us were transferred around. Many went home and just as many stayed on either voluntarily or because they had less than six months in country. Big Mike volunteered and went to another unit in country. That was March 1972.
In July, I was the Chaplain for the 229th Helicopter Assault Battalion (1st Air Cav) and flying one Sunday morning from firebase to firebase saying Masses for the troops.
Flying east of Long Than on our way to Baria, my pilot got a call that a Chinook went down in the area and to try and locate the aircraft.
He did so quickly as the fire and smoke was billowing up just a few clicks away. While he circled and awaited the Cobras to provide cover, I asked him to go down, hoping to help the survivors. We did and I got as close to the flaming Chinook as the intense heat would allow. No survivors. All I could see was metal burning, flames, smoke and ashes.
There was no possibility of anyone living through that holocaust. I was helpless. Except for prayer, offering conditional absolution for the souls of the troops on board and blessing their remains, I could do nothing.
A few days later after returning to Ben Hoa, I read the story of this tragedy and saw the manifest. Among the dead were some former Blackhorse Troopers but the one I knew and remembered well was Sergeant Mike Aguilar.
Dark Holes in the Jungle Floor
Enlisting in 1969 1 had dropped out of school discontented with home life. With a parents permission, I started basic training at the age of 17. Basic and AIT was an awakening for me. Life wasnt as easy as I thought.
After 11Bravo training, I was sent to Panama for duty in the canal zone. That was an experience in itself. We were trained in survival, jungle warfare, recon, and jungle expert. Then we started training the Officers bound for duty in Vietnam. Fort Sherman was the training ground for jungle expert school, one of the hardest experiences any person could go through. This is where I went through demolitions school and gained other knowledge about life and living in a tropical forest.
I spent 8 months in the jungles of Panama trying to keep my clothes and boots from
rotting off me. I (1049) volunteered for duty in Vietnam after that. They sent me to serve
with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Just as any new guy your first duty was usually busting trail. Three months later my other talents became apparent. Our LT. started ordering explosives for me, armed with blasting caps, shape charges, det-cord, C-4 and other paraphernalia my work was just beginning as a Tunnel Rat.
One of the first tunnels I searched was good sized. It had two floors and went on it seemed forever. It felt as if I spent days in there searching for booby traps. When I came out on the other side of the bunkers there was a Sheridan sitting just 15 feet from the entrance. We all stared wide eyed at each other scared. Im sure glad I have blue eyes. The crew didnt even see the opening to the bunker, until I came out. Returning to the APC for explosives, det-cord and fuses, it took another hour or so to set charges. I blew the Bunkers from the inside because it was so large. That became my trade mark.
One of the things that always amazed me was the engineering of the tunnels and bunkers. From the top it was difficult to see anything at all, only paths and small openings. It was inside that a person was awed.
Stout log ceilings reinforced with log pillars. Some of the bunkers were more simply constructed yet effective. Some of them had more than one level. I feared these types the most, going down into the next level put me on edge. They were harder to destroy than the others. When linking the charges together, it was important to rig a delay so the upper charge went off first.
The different types of bunker complexes were used for both -combat fortifications and other purposes. Things like bomb and mine factorys, others were medical, such as a dentists office made out of bamboo, surgical and some were training.
The job of a Tunnel Rat never got any easier, very tedious thankless work. There was another instance when we made contact and a large Bunker complex was found. The CO was hot to get going again, but you just dont crawl into a tunnel and start tossing 15 Lb. shape charges around. The tunnels were searched, disarmed, charges set, the fuse lit, then I went back to eat lunch. The CO, still impatient demanded when was I going to be finished. I looked at my watch and told him with a smile, two seconds. One bite of C-rations later the charges went off, showering the COs APC with dirt, weeds, branches and one very big log. I walked passed the CO to check all the charges to make sure they went off okay. I gave him a knowing sideways glance, the CO and I understood one another from that point on.
During my tour of duty I searched and destroyed 30 or so bunkers and bunker complexes. I still have dreams about the tunnels and have a hard time in crowds and closed in places. I think this is because in the dreams the walls seem to breathe and know Im there.
Today I feel lucky to have lived through the dark holes in the jungle floor!
Daniel S. Brown
I was up at the Regimental Headquarters when a radio contact came in that said the 3rd Squadron was in contact and had captured three prisoners who appeared to be VC cadre. Our two young interrogators at the squadron were not having much luck and my august presence was urgently requested. The Colonel was kind enough to loan me his chopper, saying something to the effect of "Get your butt on my bird and get out there, and don't get it shot up either"!
When I got there it was obvious, after examining the documents captured with them, that these were indeed VC VIPs. Every attempt to talk to them was met with a long discourse on imperialistic American pigs, which did little to endear them to me. Then the devil, in the form of a young Captain who was the Squadron S-2 (Intelligence) whispered in my ear! As luck would have it, (ours, not theirs!) an automatic ambush had been tripped shortly before and killed a couple of VC, (They had to be VC, they were dead!). The young Captain came up to me and said, "I've got an idea. I should have said "Get thee behind me Satan" but pride is a terrible thing. These guys were important and I wanted them to talk. His plan was to separate our three prisoners. We would then go out to the perimeter and dig a grave in which we would put one of the dead VC in face down. After this I would go back to the first live prisoner and ask him again to talk. When he refused I would give a signal and a soldier at the "grave" site would fire off a few rounds. This was my signal to say "OK sucker, we just shot your friend and now it's your turn, come on." I would then lead him to the "grave" hand him a shovel and say "OK, cover him up and then dig your own right next to him.
It worked like a charm. No more than a couple of shovels full of dirt and the response would be "Can't we talk about this. The results were beyond my fondest dreams. We got the location of their headquarters. We took couple of platoons, went there, wiped out over twenty of a VC battalion we had been hunting for months and captured a large supply of weapons, food, and other supplies.
There was one small problem. That happened to be the day that the Regimental Surgeon and the Regimental Chaplain were visiting the third Squadron giving a drug and VD lecture. They nearly ran over each other in their haste to return to the Regiment and report me for "War Crimes"! There was a distinctly chilly atmosphere awaiting when I returned to the Regiment with my three prisoners in tow. I was told to take them immediately to the 1st Cavalry Division POW collection point and remain there until given further instructions. Bewildered, and unaware of the actions of those two fine gentlemen, I got back on the chopper and flew off into the night.
Late the next afternoon I got a call to return to the Regiment. The Regimental Exec, LTC Switzer, called me in and informed me that I was to be charged with maltreatment of Prisoners of War. I was relieved of all duties and under normal conditions would have been put under arrest. There being little place I could go anyway, I was informed that I was confined to quarters but could go to the club as long as I just ate, drank and kept my mouth shut about the "incident.
I went to the club, made some comment about just leaving the bottle on the bar, and proceeded to do the bottle as much damage as I could. To appreciate what happened next, one must understand that just the month before the Regiment had participated in Nixon's 1970 venture into Cambodia. Our objective was a small town called Snoul. It was the last great Calvary charge. The regiment lined up side by side on a hill overlooking the town and down we went, over a 100 tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers with guns blazing. We literally leveled the place including the local motorcycle factory. Coming out we had motorcycles strapped to every vehicle and every one above the rank of Pfc. had their own.
Lieutenant Colonel Sweitzer, the Regimental Executive Officer was a driven, and truly brilliant, man (He retired as a four star). He rarely slept and could be found in his office working at any time, day or night. As the brandy did its devious work I got more and more angry at what appeared to be the end of a grand and glorious military career. Finally I got up, left the club and stormed into the Colonel's office. "All right Colonel," I said; "What I did was wrong but if I am going to jail this whole damn Regiment is going with me! If you want to talk about the Geneva Convention let me remind you of all of those motorcycles running around here. That is what is known as pillaging. Those 50 caliber machine guns that we routinely use against the VC are anti-aircraft weapons and as such are forbidden for use against personnel. All those "automatic ambushes" we have that protect our rear ends would be considered hidden mine fields and strictly forbidden. The Colonel glared at me in a manner that, if I were sober, would have reduced me to ashes and then said; "Get your butt out of my office"
That was the end of the "War Crimes" charges and we each went
our separate ways. It was years later when I was again assigned to the 11th Armored
Cavalry Regiment, this time in Germany, when our paths crossed again. I reported to the
Commander, who just happened to be, now, Colonel Sweitzer. He looked at me and said;
"Sit down. Bud. That was another time and place. Earlier in the war I would have
decorated you on the spot for what you did, but after My Lai, well.
with the "Tales" go HERE