"Recollections Of Vietnam"

4. Unforgivable - Contact Denied

 

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

November 18, 1999

Dark Days

November 25, 1968

Mission: Locate Suspected Enemy Camp

Team Call Sign: Barrister?

Team Composite: 3 Members of Team 1 C 2 (Cpl. Pete) & 3 Members of Team 1 C 3 (Barrister?)

Team 1 C 2 Members: Pfc. Edward E. McGee (Mac) - (M-60 Machine Gun), Pfc. Franklin J. Butcher (Butch) - (Primary Radio), Pfc. Dennis M. Soldner - (M-79 Grenade Launcher & .38)

Team 1 C 3 Members: Pfc. Thomas E. Shainline - (Patrol Leader), L/Cpl. Rufus F. Sticker - (Scout/ Tailend), L/Cpl. Ronald R. Lowry (Fish) - (Point)

 

It was Monday, November 25th, 1968, three (3) days before Thanksgiving. The team was inserted on a finger below a ridgeline to our south. The finger then dropped off into a heavy dense forest that ran north and northeast. There was a valley to the east, a field with low grass running east. It was U-shaped and was bordered by the finger in the west, the base of the hills to the south, and in the northeast where the dense forest headed. In the jungle forest was a "suspected" enemy camp. It was believed to contain a possible POW interim camp and used as a base to infiltrate into the village of Thon Doc Kinh (Tin City) at coordinates YD096524. The area was located at coordinates YD062484, just south of Hill 158 and a ridgeline on the southern edge, which includes Hill 354. This was on the western end of an area often referred to as the "Backyard", ours maybe, but it should have been called the "Front Porch", theirs.

It was to be a mission of stealth. The team carried the normal compliment of individual weapons and grenades however, it was decided that because of the type of target and high probability of contact, that Pfc. McGee (Mac) would carry an M60 machine gun, and we would all hump extra ammo for it. I carried the M79 grenade launcher with a mixture of ammo, 40mm (grenades) and flechets (darts), and my secondary weapon was a .38cal. service revolver.

We were inserted without any incident. At that time because of the open terrain I carried the M79 loaded with a 40mm grenade. L/Cpl. Lowry (Fish) was at the point as we slowly made our way down the finger and into the dense forest of the jungle. At 2nd point behind Fish was Pfc. Shainline, followed by Pfc. McGee (Mac) with the machine gun, then Pfc. Butcher (Butch) with the radio, I was next with the grenade launcher still loaded with a 40mm grenade, followed closely behind by L/Cpl. Sticker at tailend. Once into the forest we took a short break.

 

 

Afterwards, we then proceeded to move down through the jungle when an abrupt halt was called as we were cautiously approaching a stream.

There hanging from a tree was a clean NVA uniform. We quickly searched the immediate area, there was rice cooking but no weapon or enemy soldier to be found. Butch immediately called in SitRep (Situation Report) on what we had found; we were told to continue mission.

We suspected that the enemy now knew we were there and was somehow watching us, if so then we had been compromised. We touched nothing and covered our tracks hoping that the enemy was upstream bathing or relieving himself and would not be aware of our presence.

The team then continued silently through the jungle in a northeasterly direction, constantly stopping, looking back and listening for the enemy we might have alerted. After traveling a short distance it was decided that we should take a break. I remember thinking about the look the NVA would have had on his face if when he returned we had taken his uniform and then his having to explain its absence to his commander.

We were now staying close to the outer edge of the dense jungle so it was decided that I would continue to carry a 40mm grenade in the M79 rather than change to a flechet round. Then it happened.

We could hear them coming through the jungle some distance behind us, there had to be whole bunch of them with all the noise they were making but I could not see them yet. Contact would soon be imminent. Butch relayed the information as well as a request for an immediate extraction. We were denied the extraction and told to evade and continue our mission. So we moved out as fast as we could while still being cautious and silent as possible. They were gaining on us and spreading out to encircle us. They were attempting to drive us out of the jungle and we were running out of concealment.

The team continued in the only direction possible, south, adjacent to the outer edge of the jungle, right at the corner where it formed a natural L with a slight bump at the heel. Butch was again on the radio reporting our impending situation as contact was imminent and requested an emergency extraction. It was again denied and were told to evade. We had nowhere to go except to the open field south of us and now at our backs as we lay facing into the jungle but kept a constant eye behind us in the direction of the open field and valley. We were positioned at the inner part of the heel, L. L/Cpl. Lowry was under the brush that formed the bump at the heel of the L, followed by Pfc. Shainline, Pfc. McGee, Pfc. Butcher, myself and right in the corner was L/Cpl. Sticker. You could hear them scurrying all through the jungle around us, but as of yet we could not see them.

Then all of a sudden about 10-15 meters down southeast from us in the short section of the L, there was a noise and the jungle began to part. You could not see anyone but apparently, one of the enemy was looking out into the field for us. I raised my M79, which still had a grenade in it. I did not have the best line of sight. I waited, but the enemy slowly backed into the jungle closing the bush he had parted. I do not know if he in fact spotted us, and the event that takes place next leads me to believe he did not, but no one fired. I am not sure why none of the others fired; maybe we were all waiting for someone else to fire that first shot but our doctrine dictated that we not engage unless absolutely no alternative choice existed. I can only assume it was that discipline that prevented our firing so as not to give our position away until truly discovered. In my case however, besides the reason I have just mentioned there was a second reason I was hesitant. I feared that when the grenade exploded it would also wound my teammates.

Now we were really getting nervous. They were closing in. The next thing that happened is indelibly etched in my mind. A young Viet Cong (VC) enemy soldier, in all probability a main force scout & guide, wearing his tan pants rolled up as well as his black shirt sleeves, with a web belt around his hips and magazine pouches over his chest, carrying his AK-47 weapon in the ready position and crouched in a hunters walk comes around right next to the bush that L/Cpl. Lowry is lying in and under. A surprised look came over his face, his eyes went wide but his mouth never did move as he looked face to face at me and spots the rest of the team.

The next few seconds seemed to happen in slow motion and have lasted forever. I fired my grenade. At the same time McGee fired the machine gun but it jammed after the first round. I had hit my target in the middle of the chest and it sounded like a watermelon that had been dropped and then blew apart. L/Cpl. Lowry was now motionless as he lay in the bush wounded in the neck. Pfc. Shainline’s bush hat was blown off his head and upon seeing L/Cpl. Lowry he immediately moved to his side to tend to his wound. Butch was on the radio reporting contact with one serious WIA and requesting an immediate emergency medevac and extraction. Then all hell broke loose.

It seemed like the enemy just cut loose with everything from two sides. I do not believe that they had pinpointed our position, only our general area, it was like an enemy mad minute. I could see them now, and there were a lot of them because groups of them would scamper from tree to tree, underbrush to underbrush. They were getting closer and closer, moving to our right, from north to east and to our left, west heading south and now we had to engage them fully and in doing so compromised our position.

The helicopters were on the way and with nowhere to run we would have to hold on till they arrived. Just then several of the enemy made a move out of the woods down in the slope to our southwest in attempt to take us from the rear. We had spotted them and were able to kill some of them and the remainder withdrew back to the woods. They were now beginning to squeeze in on us. The firefight was intensifying and we could not bring supporting arms to bear on them, they had gotten to close.

Our helicopters arrived on station but due to the proximity of the enemy to our position the gunships could not provide covering fire for us or the extraction bird. I am sure they were as frustrated as we were at the time.

The extraction helicopter, a CH - 46 swung in from the east taking a northerly approach its nose head on at us and the enemy in the treeline in front of us. He came in with its 50. Cal. machine guns blazing, the gunners were raking the treeline to our west/south and north/northeast providing cover fire while avoiding hitting us. The helicopter set down about 50 meters from us in the open field. The tailgate was down and pointed south away from us and the enemy.

We would have to make through the open field with the enemy firing from two sides. There is no way describe the fear and anxiety that I felt as Pfc. Shainline and myself grabbed L/Cpl. Lowry under the arms and began plodding our way to the bird, while the rest of the team and helicopter were firing at the enemy to keep them down. Somehow either the love or compassion for a fellow recon marine, the "Espirit de Corps" training must have taken hold. There was no time to think just act. We did not hesitate and made our move. As we got about one-third of the way to the chopper the rest of the team broke from the treeline running backwards firing, stopping firing, running. Pfc. Shainline and myself were struggling to get L/Cpl. Lowry out of there, but were tripping and there were several enemy bodies in our path, which we were attempting to avoid. As the team got closer to the bird the gunner took to firing over our heads at the enemy who had now reached the edge of the treeline that we had vacated to the north. We were in a low crouch as we passed the cockpit; the pilot glanced at us, and then continued looking straight at the treeline that he was directly exposed to. The rest of the team with the exception of Pfc. McGee passed us and took up positions near the tailgate firing at the west treeline. Pfc. McGee had seen how much we were struggling and so when he reached us he grabbed L/Cpl. Lowry's legs, mistakenly dropping the M60 in doing so. We were now directly under the left (portside) gunner and the 3 of us were now moving quickly to the ramp. Once we were on board the team immediately followed and we were instantly in the air, swinging east and south to escape the small arms fire. I hope that the gunships were able to deliver some of their devastating ordinance on the little people before they had to depart to cover our birds but I cannot recall.

We stopped enroute at 3rd Med. where they offloaded L/Cpl. Lowry for treatment and then we headed for base.

It was a very somber team that arrived back at our base in Quang Tri. The former team patrol leader Cpl. Chris Helligso who was rotating home met the team at the helipad; he was shaken and wanted to know what had happened. The team sadly informed him as to what had occurred, it was what you could call a real "Clusterf—k", he became uncontrollable, rage set in and he stormed off to HQ. Pfc. Shainline went to debriefing and the rest of the team members headed off to their hooch’s in the company area. I cannot recall anything of that evening other than feeling very down and guilty for having seriously wounded a teammate with shrapnel when my grenade had exploded.

Pfc. McGee caught hell for losing the M60 machine gun and rumor has it they also wanted to have him pay for it, but his choice was a simple one. While the loss of the weapon on the field would probably result in adding to the enemies’ arsenal, it was better to leave it than the alternative.

Some time during the next day we were informed by the Gunny that L/Cpl. Ronald R. Lowry had died of his wounds. I remember hearing that he had drowned on his blood.

I lost it, and I got sick to my stomach. I had killed a teammate. There was no excuse in my mind; if I had changed rounds and had a flechet loaded and I could have fired earlier taking out the first enemy soldier, I could have hesitated till someone else fired to take out the enemy that walked in on us. All of this was going through my mind and I stated to the gunny that I would not go to the bush anymore because I had screwed up and killed a teammate with my shrapnel.

He looked at me quizzically and said that L/Cpl. Lowry did not have a shrapnel wound, an AK-47 round hit him, and that it entered his neck and then traveled down into his lungs. I said I did not believe him, he was fuming but understanding and he sent me to my hooch. Later that evening I recall being shown a purported x-ray of L/Cpl. Lowry with a bullet in the lungs. I thanked him but was still shaken. He ordered me to sleep on my decision. The alternatives were not going to be any better.

I replayed and went over and over that particular moment in the patrol and pieced together what had in all probability happened. When I fired and hit the VC with the grenade as his body was going down he jerked the trigger, in doing so he let off a short burst, starting low and going up before blowing apart. The first round hit L/Cpl. Lowry in the neck and because the weapon was almost parallel to the ground the bullet traveled down into his lungs, Pfc. Shainline's bush hat was blown off his head by the next round, and then the enemy was gone. Now I would have to live with the fact that my watermeloning the enemy with a 40mm grenade caused his weapon to haphazardly fire.

I informed the Gunny of my decision. I would go back to the bush, if for no other reason then payback.

I refer to this era in 3rd Recon as dark days because teams were being denied extractions, contact with the enemy was denied, and sightings as well as impending dangers were not believed. I do not know if the reason was that they did not trust us in the field, did not believe us, or whether it was politics and pressure from above to insure Tet of 1968 was not repeated. But denial and non-belief of reports from the field played heavy in the enemies’ Tet offensive in 1968. I can recall one team who had been in contact with the enemy bringing one of their dead back to our base area in order to prove they in fact had encountered the enemy.

Cpl.’s, L/Cpl.’s and even by Pfc.’s, experience and expertise was what counted in the bush. They led 99.9% of the Reconnaissance teams and patrols during my tour. Reconnaissance Marines were to my knowledge, volunteers for hazardous duty, if the upper echelon is not going to believe us in the field, then we should not have been out there constantly exposing our derriere in hostile territory, the enemies backyard. No friendly civilians, ground or air forces were allowed to penetrate our Reconnaissance Zones (RZ’s) for fear the teams would be mistaken for the enemy. Reconnaissance teams worked only in Free Fire Zones, where only hostile personnel were to be encountered. Once a team is compromised their usefulness as an intelligence gathering source is negated, their lives are in serious jeopardy and the remainder of their mission is usually spent evading a numerically superior enemy force hell bent on annihilating the team.

I only hope that those who made the decision not to pull a team can live with it the rest of their lives. I try live with the ones I made, and I do it everyday because I am reminded of it and them when I awake, and look at myself.

 

 

Special Footnote:

    1. L/Cpl. Ronald R. Lowry, DOW (Died of Wounds), November 26, 1968, Panel 38W Line 067. RIP.

Retrospect:

Since that patrol as each Thanksgiving holiday approaches I know the nightmares will come and I must relive it. I knew when I began writing about my patrols that some would be more difficult and trying and this is one that really torments me. I cannot recall another patrol where I carried the M79 or brought an M60, but I do remember walking point most of the remainder of my tour. To this day, I cannot forgive myself nor will I ever forgive those that denied us the ability to escape until it was too late. Those actions are Unforgivable and it cost the life of my teammate. And now as Thanksgiving Day approaches, I will remember and never forget that while I sit and feast with my family and friends, his family sits and remembers their son that lies buried in the cold ground. I am sorry.