"Recollections Of Vietnam"

2. Radio City - Losing India Relay

 

Written as Remembered by Cpl. Dennis M. Soldner, USMC, Retired

June 29th, 1999

Hill 819

September 23 - 24, 1968

Mission: To Relieve (Flip / Flop With) A Team Garrisoned On Hill 819: 1) To Serve As A Radio Relay Station In Support Of Reconnaissance Team Operations Being Conducted By The 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion and 2) Provide An Observation Post Overlooking Where The Song Quang Tri and DaKrong Rivers Meet in the Valleys Southeast Of Vandergrift Combat Base.

Team Call Sign: Cpl. Pete

Team Composite: 6 Members of Team 1 C 2

Team 1 C 2 Members: Cpl. Stephen G. Miller - (Patrol Leader / M-60), L/Cpl. Jackie Lee Blankenship (Buck) - (Scout), L/Cpl. Leslie E. Gordan Jr. (Flash) - (Scout), Pfc. Anthony Cardenas - (Primary Radio), Pfc. Dennis M. Soldner - (Scout), Pfc. Beauclair - (Asst. Patrol Leader / M-79)

 

 

On September 22nd, 1968 Team 1C2 (Cpl. Pete) was given a warning order for a mission to man a Radio Relay Station on Hill 819 (Coordinates: YD097378). The site was called India Relay. We were Flip / Flopping with a team at the site. No major contact or sightings had been reported, just mortars and general harassment probes which were beginning to occur more frequently. We were briefed by Cpl. Miller, who advised us that we would be bringing an M-60 along with our normal compliment of weapons (M-16’s & M-79); grenades (Gas, Smoke, HE and Thermal for the Radios), pop flares and extra ammunition for the weapons. Enough C-rations to last an extended period of time, as well as extra batteries for the radios, it seems the top of Hill 819 had a tendency of being socked in by fog, clouds and rain. And lastly to make sure that we brought our gas masks and that they were in working order. Reconnaissance Marines going to another fixed position location, so much for stealth.

On mid morning of September 23rd, 1968 we loaded the equipment and the supplies onto the CH-46 the inside was packed. Then we got on the chopper and were heli-lifted to the site. It was a very dreary and eerie looking. It was also looked like a pigpen with trash all over as approached to land. We landed in the saddle (Coordinates: YD097374) just below the top of Hill 819 and Hill 819b (Coordinates: YD098373). A bunch of smelly, smiley-faced Recon Marines greeted us, anxious to get back to Quang Tri.

We all immediately began unloading and humping the equipment and supplies up the hill, while Cpl. Miller got an up to the minute brief from the team leader that was leaving. Once everything was offloaded and up the hill the other team got on the bird and headed out.

Pfc. Anthony Cardenas verified communications and began first watch, concurrently the team members were then given and set in their defensive / watch areas and relief assignments for radio watch.

We scanned the area with and without binoculars looking for signs of the enemy but found none, though I think everyone felt we were being watched.

The day was uneventful for us on the hill, this was not the case for some of the teams in the field, and whoever was manning the radio would keep us informed of the goings on in between relaying messages back and forth.

Then the rain came, hard at first then that cold drizzle. Now the hill was muddy too. This was going to be a miserable place.

Nightfall soon came and so did the rats, real big ones. Several of them even came up and visited the inside of the Comm tent; Tony (Pfc. Anthony Cardenas) was not a happy camper when they did. Other rats would scurry back and forth across the top of the hill from trash pile to trash pile. A lot of the garbage however, had been tossed down the sides of the hill and just outside the clearing on the top; they were now rummaging through it making noise. It was going to be difficult to differentiate between any movement by the enemy encroaching our position and the rats.

I guess the enemy figured the same thing and wanted to test the new guys on the hill.

All through the night we would hear movement and noises. We would wait to either spot an enemy soldier or hear the distinct sound of equipment before tossing a grenade or two in their direction. They would also obligingly do the same. They would come from one direction as a diversion and then toss grenades from another. We were hugging the ground so we would not be silhouetted against the sky and afford the enemy precise targets. Every now and then we would be forced to engage the enemy with our small arms, M-79 grenade launcher and M-60 machine gun and a short firefight would be followed by silence.

It was during one of these encounters that a full magazine fell out of my ammo pouch landing next to me in the mud. I was preoccupied firing my weapon when I heard this thud next to me, thinking it was a grenade I swept my hand through the mud in a knee jerk reaction. To my surprise and embarrassment I tossed a full magazine at the enemy. I can still remember realizing what it was as it left my hand and seeing it flying through the air, the look on my face must have been something, but can you imagine the look on Charlie’s face.

We all kept crawling over the top, not staying in any one fixed position; that is except for Tony who was not only manning our radio and reporting our predicament, but also relaying messages from other teams to base.

While our probing by the enemy was going on, team 1C3 who were also attempting to set up a Radio Relay site in the same area on Hill 824 (Coordinates: YD019396) was experiencing the same activity. You could see the small arms fire being exchanged during the night.

We would have artillery fire for us and then the artillery would shift and fire for them. The artillery firing went on throughout the night for us, at one point we had eight-inch guns firing danger close. Their shells would impact below our crest on the northern side and the top of the hill would shudder, I thought for sure the top would collapse or cave in. We had the artillery fire on the long finger to the northeast (Coordinates: YD100379) and onto Hill 819b to our south across the saddle whenever things got quiet for to long. These were the most probable approaches where the enemy could mass unseen and then to try to overrun us. Besides all our attention had been diverted to the north, northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest by their probing.

As daylight was approaching the probing and firefights intensified, we blew our claymores and we requested an extraction, as our position was untenable against any large enemy rush. We were told to hold until morning, that weather permitting they would attempt to extract us then. We continued to fire H&I (Harass & Interdict) artillery, throw grenades, and fire at the enemy when spotted.

Morning came and we could see the clouds below us in the valley’s, we weren’t socked in everyone else was! As it grew later in the morning the clouds rose and we were fogged in. We all were growing very anxious in anticipation of having to stay another miserable night or worse face numerically superior enemy head on. Finally the clouds rose to a height where we were only blanketed by the base of them. Cpl. Miller had this reported to Quang Tri base and they dispatched our extraction choppers.

Once we were advised that the birds were on there way we set about destroying the extra batteries and in some cases, booby trapping the rations and we would be abandoning.

I could feel the enemy watching us.

I could hear the choppers approaching but could not see them. Pfc. Cardenas was on the radio with them, advising them of our status and directions of both enemy activity and possible areas where they could be hiding. We were still on the top of Hill 819.

It had been decided that our pickup zone (LZ) was the saddle; we would wait till the bird was approaching the LZ, throw a smoke grenade and then race down the side of the hill onto the chopper.

Just as the pickup chopper (CH-46) peeked out of the clouds on an east to west approach the enemy began to make its move. The chopper requested us to pop a smoke. We did and began to race down to the pickup zone firing at the enemy as we went; they were coming up over the top. Problem was so did Charlie.

Just then the pilot acknowledged the popping of green smoke and we did likewise. It was then that we seen the other green smoke. Would you believe we both popped a green smoke! His approach to land was going to put him on the eastern finger right in the middle of Charlie. I could not believe what I was seeing.

Tony (Pfc. Anthony Cardenas) was immediately on the radio desperately trying to warn the pilot that he was about to touch down in the midst of the enemy. I do not know if Tony got through first or the pilot and crew realized who they were about to pickup, but all of a sudden that chopper stood on its ass and headed for the sky with bullets following. It appeared as though it jumped to where we were waiting in the saddle. Needless to say we were on in hurry and departed quickly.

I wonder what kinds of stories were told back at the helo barn that night. The crew appeared to be a bit pale when we boarded and I think I appeared the same way.

Elements of the 9th Marine Regiment were later sent to Hill 819 to clear the area and establish a permanent hilltop position.

We joked and kidded nervously on the trip back to Quang Tri. Once there we went to the slop chute as soon as we could to relieve some of that nervous tension. We had in essence been defeated but we had escaped.

I had survived another patrol, this was my fourth, of them 3 had resulted in contact with the enemy. This was my 3rd patrol with my team 1C2 and the first time I would be WIA (Minor), but it was my 4th mission having served on patrol as a member of team 1C1. Unfortunately at the time I was out with 1C1, my team 1C2 had also been sent out on a patrol. Even as an FNG to the team I felt my heart sink and had a feeling of guilt for not being with them as I listened helplessly to the radio. They were surrounded and in a serious firefight with the NVA who were within feet of their position. A Sparrow Hawk had arrived and was encircling the team; there were however, NVA within the security perimeter around the team provided by the Grunts and the team itself. While area was being cleared one of the NVA raised up and was killed as he hurled a grenade at the team. It landed by Pfc. Beauclair and Pfc. Charles H. Cummings (Chuck). Pfc. Cummings immediately an unhesitantly jumped on Pfc. Beauclair while shoving him to the ground, absorbing the shrapnel from the grenade and was seriously wounded in his legs. He would later be awarded the Silver Star for his actions. I had now lost (2) teammates to serious wounds (L/Cpl. Jones & Pfc. Cummings) in less than the (3) weeks I had in the bush as an FNG. I did not get to know Chuck for long and I did not get to say goodbye as he was med-evaced before I returned, but I did get to say Hello again at our Battalion’s Association Reunion in March of 1991 at Hilton Head. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to let him know that I wished I could have been there on September 14, 1968.

I was beginning to no longer feel like a FNG. Man was I wrong there. I would prove to still be an FNG after this mission. It was on my next patrol. We were in the backyard near road 558 in Cam Chinh, Cpl. Miller was the patrol leader. We were in our harborsite and along comes a lone Charlie, he is just about to walk into us, it was then that I switched my weapons selector from semi to full auto, I thought everyone in the world heard the click. I felt a hand on me, squeezing and when I looked it was Cpl. Miller shaking his head and he pointed at all the lanterns that had appeared over a hill and coming our way. We were lucky, Charlie didn’t hear it and turned up a trail heading back north, he must have been a local guide for the troops visiting from the north. We watched as the troops passed, and there was quite a few of them. We reported what we had seen and were told to boot out of there as some B52’s were coming to throw a party for them. We booted and finally set up in a new harborsite. I remember lying there, looking into the lit up sky, and feeling the earth tremble, as the B52’s dropped their bombs. I felt like an FNG, I had jeopardized the lives my teammates!

My Team and I would revisit this site in May of 1969, the site was quite different by then and I would I believe discover why the enemy did not want us to have a position on top of that hill (See "Distant Lights"). My next patrol, after leaving India Relay in the end of May would, be with team Fire Raider, it was to be my last.

 

Special Footnotes:

    1. A priority must have been set to establish a permanent Radio Relay site in this area; Team 1C3 lead by L/Cpl. Rufus F. Sticker was given the same parameters for a mission, at the same time. Their location was also to the southwest of Vandergrift and west of Hill 819. Excerpts of after action interviews of their patrol were written and recorded in the III Marine Amphibious Force, Vietnam, Issue of Sea Tiger dated October 25th, 1968,Volume IV, #43. Their results were essentially the same.

 

Retrospect:

We were unable to go undetected, we were in a fixed position with a numerically small force for the defense of a strategic priority site, the site was not easily accessible for relief or reinforcement, and thus we were unable to accomplish our mission. I can merely wonder how many teams were placed in jeopardy for failing to be able to communicate due to our defeat. I can only hope they understood that we did the best we could, given the circumstances at the time.

Throughout my tour I encountered the enemy on approximately 75% of all my patrols, not including those where we were shot out prior to or on insertion. The odds of lasting a full tour were against me and after 11 months the odds caught up with me. It happened at another fixed position observation post! I would not have survived to live another day and be able to tell this story except for the courage and dedication of my Recon Teammates and a Helicopter Pilot and his Crew.

I was Lucky! I served with the Brave & the Few of 3rd Recon.