"Recollections Of Vietnam"
13. Heroes All - My Last Mission
Written as Remembered by Cpl. Dennis M. Soldner, USMC, Retired
May 20th, 1999
Mutters Ridge (Nui Cay Tre)
June 1 - 2, 1969
Mission: Establish Observation Post At The Abandoned Fire Support Base On Mutters Ridge In Support Of An Operation Being Conducted By The 4th Marines.
Team Call Sign: Fire Raider
Team Composite: 4 Members of Team 1 C 2 (Fire Raider) & 4 Members of Team 1 C 3 (Old Colonel)
Team 1 C 2 Members: L/Cpl. Dennis M. Soldner - (Scout/Point), Cpl. Jackie Lee Blankenship (Buck) - (Primary Radio), HM3 L. B. Blume (Doc) - (Corpsman), Pfc.Robert Owen - (Scout/M-79)
Team 1 C 3 Members: Cpl. Thomas E. Shainline - (Patrol Leader), Sgt. Thomas L. Henning - (2nd Point), L/Cpl. Roy L. Reagan - (Scout/Tail End), Pfc.Gerald Miller - (Secondary Radio)
Team 1C2 (Fire Raider) had recently returned after having been relieved from duty on India Relay (Hill 819), located southeast of Vandergrift Combat Base. L/Cpl. Franklin Butcher (Butch) was left with the relief force on Hill 819 and L/Cpl. Frank Ladzinski was assigned KP duty. This left the team short of personnel when the warning order came down for this mission. A decision was reached to form a composite team made up of members of my team 1C2 (Fire Raider) and Cpl. Thomas Shainline’s team 1C3 (Old Colonel). Cpl. Shainline was given the overall command of the patrol due to his expertise and experience as a patrol leader.
It was decided that because the mission would require a fixed position observation post on an abandoned FSB, the team in all probability would be probed and close contact with the enemy would likely occur. We were not the first team to be going there. In 1968 there was a team in Charlie Company, its call sign was Little Gull. That team was given a mission to reconnoiter Mutters Ridge. After reaching Hill 484 on January 19th, 1968 they were continuing their mission when they were ambushed. Of the eight (8) team members, six (6) were KIA. Their bodies were recovered on January 21st, 1968. Therefore in addition to extra small arms ammunition the team also brought a case of hand grenades.
The team was inserted late in the afternoon of June 1, 1969. The insertion point was 2½ miles south of the DMZ on Hill 484, coordinates XD967616 and went unresisted. The team immediately set up in a defensive wheel and waited. Facing north were Cpl. Shainline and Cpl. Blankenship, west was Sgt. Henning and Doc Blume, south Pfc.’s Owen and Miller, and east L/Cpl. Reagan and I. After a brief period of waiting, watching and listening L/Cpl. Reagan and myself left the perimeter to scout to the edge of the finger of Hill 484 running east. We discovered signs of old enemy activity including a homemade gunsight for a crew served weapon and several possible avenues of approach and concealment which the enemy could use. We then returned to the teams’ perimeter to report what we had found and established this route as a possible enemy approach and emplacement for a heavy weapon because of the terrain and concealment. To the west of the teams position at coordinates XD963616 was an abandoned CH-46 facing in a north-south direction, with the ramp facing to the north. The team did not approach or scout in the vicinity of the chopper as it was suspected to be in all probability to be mined and or booby-trapped. The area was however, designated as a possible enemy avenue of approach due to the concealment provided by the chopper. On the north side of our position running east/west was a trenchline and to our south was a steep drop off.
While the team continued to observe the area an assessment was made as to what approaches the enemy may take and where they could conceivably place any supporting weapons. Once that was decided the on-calls were plotted. The on-call coordinates were to the north XD965627/59, to the east XD984613/19, to the south XD966610/36, and to the west XD960617/48.
As nightfall approached the team set out placing claymores around its perimeter covering the likely areas of approach. The team remained on 100% alert till 10:00PM and then went to 2 hour shifts at 25%. We put our packs on the outer edge of our perimeter for cover.
At 02:50AM on June 2, 1969 all hell broke loose.
Unbeknown to us enemy sappers had silently encroached our position to within hand grenade and satchel charge distance. They launched their initial attack with the hand grenades and satchel charges and subsequently opened fire with several machine guns. The enemy machine guns were located to the north at XD971621 and to the east at XD974614.
During the initial assault a satchel charge landed and exploded on the other side of my pack wounding me, sending shrapnel through my lip into the mouth, shattering teeth, peppering my face with flecks, rupturing my right eardrum and causing blood to flow from the nose. It also blew me back a couple of feet and placed me in close proximity to where the crate of grenades was. The team was already responding to the assault. As I attempted to crawl forward to my defensive position gunfire erupted tearing into my pack and then a grenade impacted near me shattering my M-16s’ hand guard and with it my left index finger exiting through my middle finger. I hollered to my left over the gunfire and explosions to Buck (Cpl. Blankenship) to report contact. Buck raised up to assess the enemy position and started to report, just as a grenade exploded next to him. Shrapnel ripped apart his lower abdomen severely wounding him. Cpl. Shainline was immediately at his side and took over the radio. Doc Blume was next and immediately began treating Buck. Grenades were landing and exploding everywhere some were even being tossed back at the enemy. The team could not blow the claymores that had been set out for fear of the enemy having turned them toward us. The team was engaging the enemy positions with small arms fire and grenades while Cpl. Shainline continued to report our condition as well as, request and direct artillery on the enemy positions. It was during this time that a grenade landed near my legs and exploded totally mangling my right leg and severely damaging my left leg. The explosion sent me into the air and I landed with my back to the enemy. I looked at my legs and then attempted to move to my defensive position but to no avail. Doc Blume had witnessed my limp body fly through the air and immediately headed for me. As he approached my position he was struck in his right leg by three (3) machine gun bullets that went clear through. He made it to me by hopping on one leg to my position. By now I had also been wounded in the right forearm, left hip and lower chest as well. I was a bloody mess. On my right L/Cpl. Reagan was also wounded severely in the hip. All eight (8) team members were wounded by now, yet they gallantly fought on. Cpl. Shainline was now at the center of our position that was now fully illuminated from the flares being dropped directing Spooky on the enemy guns. The enemy took exception to this and proceeded to fire at Spooky, big mistake. All this time Sgt. Henning was holding off the enemy from the west, engaging them and directing small arms fire in a valiant effort to keep the enemy from overrunning our position. Cpl. Shainline continued to bring our supporting arms closer and closer to our precarious position. The team decided to decline the Sparrow Hawk that was gearing up to come to our rescue to prevent further casualties and losses.
I have been told that we held the enemy at bay for 1½ hours that evening, though I have no way of confirming that. However, based on that, at approximately 04:20 AM with Spooky and Gunships on station a CH-46 swept down to extract our decimated team. The helicopter landed facing east towards the advancing enemy who were utilizing the abandoned CH-46 as cover and were taken under fire by the left door gunner. With only the ramp and left rear wheel perched on the hill, the pilot had placed the bird between the team and a strong enemy position, which was then engaged by the right door gunner. That particular position was also previously the site of an enemy gun emplacement that was destroyed by Spooky.
Under cover from the gunners the team began to withdraw. The problem was there wasn’t enough walking wounded to get everyone to the chopper at once. Pfc.’s’ Miller and Owen assisted L/Cpl. Reagan, Sgt. Henning and Cpl. Shainline carried Cpl. Blankenship with Doc Blume hobbling/hopping at his side. It was then that I glimpsed at the pilot with a pipe in his mouth watching me. He must have seen me signal to go because he shook his head no and began speaking into his headset, he wasn’t leaving till we were all safely onboard. At just about that moment the crew chief appeared at the foot of the ramp with his .45 in hand as Cpl. Shainline and Sgt. Henning came roaring out of the helicopter and grabbing me under the arms dragged me onto the birds ramp. The ramp was covered with blood and slippery. As the helicopter quickly and sharply by the lifted off, several of us including the crew chief began to slip out of the bird but were held by the others till the ramp shut. It was then that the adrenaline in my body gave out, shock set in and loss of blood was taking its toll. My eyes began to roll and Doc Blume shook me, slapped me, and cursed me, screaming that he wasn’t going to let me die now. I lapsed in and out of consciousness till we arrived at 3rd Med. Bn..
At 3rd Med. we were rushed into receiving, 1st Sgt. George Saxton was waiting there with watery eyes and I recall him asking what happened as the doctors and corpsman were cutting away my leopards and boots. I do not know or remember if I provided any coherent answers. I was later informed that Doc Blume had remained standing near the doorway in his own pool of blood, refusing treatment until we were all being tended to.
The next thing I remember is waking up on a ward, and there at the foot of the bed stood 1st Sgt. Saxton with L/Cpl. Frank Ladzinski (Ski) a teammate who did not participate in the patrol. I asked if everyone made it and where they were. 1st Sgt. Saxton said yes and then pointed to the beds where Cpl. Blankenship and L/Cpl. Reagan were. I do not remember seeing any of the others on the ward.
Shortly thereafter I was transferred to the Hospital Ship Repose. 1st Lt. Gary L. Randall, who was the company commander at the time, came out and spoke to me about the patrol and told me the Battalion had recently lost a whole team. I inquired about the rest of my teammates. He informed me that Cpl. Blankenship was also onboard the Repose. I then made inquiries as to where he was on the ship and arranged to go see him. When I visited Buck he was in pain and suffering. We spoke for awhile and he informed me that he would be going to Japan as his next stop and I told him I would be going to Guam and then we said goodbye. It was the last time I would see Buck; he died of his wounds on June 23rd, 1969, seven (7) days after his 19th birthday.
It is irony at its worst, both Cpl. Blankenship’s and my first mission and last mission entailed setting up an observation post in support of an operation being conducted by the 4th Marine Regiment.
My next stop for treatment was Guam. It was dark when we arrived and when we were offloaded they placed our stretchers in a long corridor. A Corpsman came by checking our medevac tags and when he looked at mine he said there were some people looking for me. I thought to myself, now what have I done? I was then placed on a ward with my bed directly in front of the Nurse station. Sometime thereafter I was taken from the ward for a dressing change and when I returned I was informed that someone had called for me. I drifted off into unconsciousness and was awakened for a phone call. On the other end of the line was Doc Blume and he informed me that he and L/Cpl. Reagan were there at Guam being treated for their wounds and would come by and see me. Once again, I drifted off. I do not know how much time passed but when I awoke L/Cpl. Reagan and Doc Blume were at my bedside. We talked and I told them I had seen Buck on the ship, they told me they would be heading stateside soon and we said our good-byes. I remember watching them as they hobbled away, it was time for a shot and then I closed my eyes and drifted away. When I awoke they were gone.
In August of 1969 elements of the 4th Marine Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Foxtrot Co. and Echo Co. respectively would take on units of the 304th NVA Division in two (2) battles on Mutters Ridge, loosing (19) Marines KIA and (75) Marines WIA. The site of Foxtrot Co.’s battle was Hill 484 where they faced (2) NVA companies in heavily entrenched and fortified positions.
While the story ends here, there is something that I must say. I do not know, nor did I see everything that occurred that fateful night, but what I do know is that every member of the team fought heroically because if they hadn’t none of us would have made it off that hill. To the Pilot and the Crew of the CH-46, your valor will never be forgotten.
You are "All Heroes to Me".
Team 3D3 Flight Time
Members Panel Line
1stLt. Michael M. O'Connor 23W 66
Cpl. William A. Buck, Jr. 23W 61
Cpl. William M. Wellman, Jr. 23W 69
L/Cpl. Douglas W. Barnitz 23W 61
Pfc. Robert L. Pearcy 23W 67
Pfc. Harold A. Skaggs 23W 68