"Recollections Of Vietnam"
5. Gotcha - Caught in the Open
Written as Remembered by Cpl. Dennis M. Soldner, USMC, Retired
January 20, 2000
Southwest of Dong Ha
December 12th, 1968
Mission: Locate and report enemy activity.
Team Call Sign: Barrister
Team Composite: 3 Members of Team 1 C 3 (Barrister) & 3 Members of Team 1 C 2 (Beach Boy)
Team 1 C 3 Members: Pfc. Thomas E. Shainline - (Patrol Leader), Pfc. Maurice M. Howell - (Scout), Pfc. Roy L. Reagan - (Tail End)
Team 1 C 2 Members: Pfc. Dennis M. Soldner - (Asst. Patrol Leader / Point), Pfc. Franklin J. Butcher (Butch) - (Primary Radio), Pfc. Frank J. Ladzinski (Ski) - (M-79)
It was the afternoon of December 12th, 1968. We were in the Backyard, 4 miles southwest of Dong Ha, where terrain consisted of low grass, rolling hills and clusters of trees. Streams ran through some of the gullies with trees lining the sides.
The team had moved out and away from a patchy treeline, following a ridgeline northward and over to a small grassy knoll where we took up a position to scan the area for signs of the enemy. The knoll had a finger that ran westward. The ridgeline continued north sloping down into a saddle about 20 meters wide and over to another finger on which a treeline extended to the west. I was scanning the surrounding hills when something caught my eye to the west / northwest. I had spotted movement coming out of a treeline, however it was outside of our RZ (Reconnaissance Zone).
We called in a SitRep (situation report) and plotted a fire mission. As the fire mission was being called in, we were asked if we could identify the target. At the time the only thing we could make out through the binoculars was that the movement we had spotted was several personnel in fatigues. The next thing surprised the hell out of us, the fire mission was placed on hold and HQ headquarters told us to watch the personnel and tell them what we saw. Low and behold one of the people starts waving their arms. We were surprised to say the least. We reported what we saw and then we were told to identify ourselves by doing the same thing. Remarkable, now we were going to expose ourselves. Standing up in open terrain, waving your arms attracts the attention of anyone who happens to be around. We would have to dîdî (get) out of there and make ourselves scarce in a hurry. Battalion then informed us that the people we saw were friendlies. In fact our own, we had spotted another team. Someone was probably going to catch some hell, but first they would get to watch a show. We were about to engage the enemy.
During the entire time we continued to scan and listen for other noises or movement in the area. Then we spotted movement near a treeline in a valley 2 clicks (2,000 Meters) to our southwest. This time though it was the enemy. Our patrol leader, Pfc. Shainline, immediately directed an artillery fire mission in on the enemy, resulting in several secondary explosions.
Then we noticed enemy soldiers about 100 meters away. They were at the edge of the treeline that we had just come from to our south. An AO (Aerial Observer) had arrived on station and was orbiting above, so Pfc. Shainline then requested a fire mission through him. The first volley of rounds was on target and as they impacted the enemy broke from their positions of cover in the treeline. The team immediately took the enemy under fire and drove them back into the treeline, killing one in the process. We kept them pinned there and had another salvo of artillery fired. The rounds drove the enemy out of the treeline once again, and we repeated the process of driving them back and pinning them in the treeline with our small arms fire. This time though, two enemy soldiers lost their lives. Another salvo was fired resulting in the process being repeated. The process became so repetitious that it was comical.
Meanwhile, a large enemy force was attempting to encircle our position by moving northward hastily through a sparsely treed valley to our southwest / west. They were spotted and fixed wing aircraft were directed onto the target by the AO. They initially dropped napalm into the target area and drove additional enemy soldiers out of concealment. This brought further air strikes and casualties to the enemy. Pfc. Maurice M. Howell continued to monitor the enemy's movement in the valley as well as report the results of the air strikes to Pfc. Shainline, our patrol leader who was located in the southern center of our perimeter. He had his hands full coordinating the airstrikes, artillery barrages with AO, and directing the small arms fire at the treeline to keep the enemy penned up in the target area.
As the pointman I was at the northern most position of our perimeter overlooking the saddle and the tree lined finger. Ski (Pfc. Frank J. Ladzinski) was to my right with his M-79 (Grenade Launcher) watching our backs to the northeast / east. I was concerned that some of the enemy had made there way into the gully or possibly onto the finger directly to our north and were now slowly working their way towards our position. This created a problem because I could not see down the length of the gully or along the side of our finger, and the trees on the other finger could provide the enemy visual concealment as they approached. There was only one way to find out and as assistant patrol leader I felt the responsibility was mine.
I informed Ski that I was going to check the gully and treeline for movement and for him to cover me. Without notifying our patrol leader of the actions I intended to take I moved out, down the slope onto the saddle.
I was now down below the knoll our perimeter sat on and moving very slowly on the saddle. I could see Ski watching nervously as I began to visually check the side of the finger and gully for signs of the enemy. I saw none. I continued northerly across the saddle, my eyes intensely focused on the treeline that I was approaching, searching and listening for any indication of movement. I was a little more than halfway there when I heard a clinking sound and something caught my eye. At that time, Ski was unaware of what I had seen or heard. I immediately removed a grenade from my belt, pulled the pin and hurled it in the general direction of the enemy. I turned and was beating feet as fast as I could back up the slope as the grenade went off. Ski who only saw what I did and had not seen the enemy was standing at the top waiting for me and I still to this day cannot believe what I was saw. I am looking at him and he is standing there swatting at his ears and bitching out loud about mosquitoes buzzing them. I screamed at him to get down as I got close and then proceeded to explain how those were not mosquitoes but bullets that were flying by. You can imagine the look that came over his face as he realized what he had been doing.
By now Tom (Pfc. Thomas E. Shainline) was aware of what I had done. He was pissed at my leaving the perimeter, jeopardizing not only my own safety but that of team as well without his knowledge and proceeded to let me know it as he went up and down one side me and then the other. But that came to abrupt halt as there was another more immediate and urgent problem he had to deal with. I informed him what I had encountered, which easily confirmed given the sporadic small arms fire we were now taking from the treeline. We now had the enemy on 3 sides; a 100 meters away in a treeline to our south, 150-200 meters away in the valley to our west, and 25-30 meters away in the treeline to our north. Did I mention earlier that to our east (backs) was nothing but a steep drop off into a gully and then a flat plateau. It was getting late and darkness of night would be upon us soon. The team called for an extraction.
The knoll would have to serve as our extraction LZ (landing zone), but something would have to done with enemy to our north before they could converge and establish a foothold in the treeline. Suddenly, we observed several enemy soldiers positioning themselves in a small cluster of underbrush and trees. Pfc. Shainline instantly ordered Ski to take out the position with the M-79. Pfc. Ladzinski fired, the round impacted on a small tree directly above them, killing one of the NVA soldiers. Unexpectedly and without warning, Pfc. Shainline then initiated and led an assault against the enemy's position causing them to flee in panic and utter confusion. One additional enemy soldier was killed while routing and displacing the remaining small band of enemy soldiers. We then withdrew to our position on the knoll anxiously awaiting our ride home.
As the sun was setting and nightfall was almost upon us we were extracted. It was such a short ride I think our adrenaline was still in high gear when we arrived back at base.
We were only able to confirm 5 NVA soldiers, a BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment) had not been possible or feasible but the artillery had been on target as well as the airstrikes. We had survived another hairy patrol and had not sustained a single casualty, while the enemy I am sure had paid a dear price.
This mission was the textbook application in coordination of the direct use of precise and immediate supporting arms against an overwhelming numerically superior enemy force. For us it proved to be the difference between surviving and extinction.
do not think it was a coincidence that 2 teams were operating in such close
proximity of one another in the same area (Backyard). Especially when you consider
the time of year (December with Tet Coming in January), nearby major combat
bases (Quang Tri, Dong Ha) and Tet 68 still fresh in everyone's mind. Do you?