"Recollections Of Vietnam"

7. Bait & Wait - 6 Hours In A Hot Zone

 

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

October 19, 1999

Infiltration Route

January 19, 1969

Mission: 1) Make Contact With Enemy, 2) Determine Their Strength, 3) Hold Contact For The Insertion Of A Battalion Landing Force (BLF), 4) Extraction Of Team To Occur At Time Of BLF Insertion.

Team Call Sign: Amanda

Team Composite: 7 Members of Team 1 C 2

Team 1 C 2 Members: L/Cpl. Dennis M. Soldner - (Asst. Patrol Leader/Point), Pfc. Franklin J. Butcher (Butch) - (Primary Radio), Pfc. Frank J. Ladzinski (Ski) - (M-79), Cpl. Leslie E. Gordon Jr. (Flash) - (Patrol Leader), Pfc. Wilson (WeeWilly) - (Scout/ Tailend), HN L. B. Blume (Doc) - (Corpsman), Cpl. Jackie Lee Blankenship (Buck) - (Secondary Radio)

It was January 19th, 1969. My team and I were to be inserted below a ridgeline on long finger that pointed north and then dropped off into a valley to the northeast. In the valley was a "suspected" major enemy infiltration route. The valley was located at coordinates XD965647, just south of the DMZ, the ridgeline was on the northern edge of the National Forest Reserve (Son Phan Cong Hoang Quoc Gia) which includes Mutterís Ridge.

We were to be inserted in an unorthodox fashion using two (2) Huey helicopters (Slicks). Our normal team compliment was six (6) members and we would typically be accommodated in one slick. This was accomplished by having two (2) members on each side sitting on the open portal with their feet dangling; while the other two (2) members would then occupy the inner bay; one facing to depart from the port (left) side, and the other facing to depart from the starboard (right) side. In this case however, there was to be seven (7) members. This necessitated two (2) insertions, the use of two (2) insertion helicopters and the team being split. This was something that we never had to concern ourselves with when we used the old workhorse CH-46 Helicopter. We were definitely going to get noticed. So much for stealth!

The team carried the normal compliment of individual weapons and grenades however, I decided that because of the terrain and high probability of contact head-on, that I would carry a shotgun loaded with 0/0 buckshot on point, my secondary weapon was an M1911A1 .45cal. pistol. There is no standard ammunition pouch for shotgun shells, especially for the amount of ammo I wanted to carry. I remember having to make several ammo pouches out of medical bandage pouches, which were not designed to carry much weight.

The insertions went off without resistance. Flash (Cpl. Gordon's) slick was first in, and my bird followed in as the other was heading out of the LZ. The slick pilots had a habit of never setting the birds on the ground; they would hover above it. That meant that you had to leap from the skid you were standing on to the ground below. Depending how far off the ground the skid was left you vulnerable to injury on insertion. My bird came to a hover 3 to 4 feet off the ground, I could see the team fanned out in the grass, and I jumped. Upon hitting the ground, one of my ammo pouches strings let go. Now I was scrambling to recover as much of the ammo and put it back in the pouch while trying to take up my defensive position in the wheel. I recovered as much as I could locate and retied the pouch to my belt.

 

 

Soon after the insertion birds departed we lay there listening and could hear movement. Flash had this reported and requested that an AO (Aerial Observation Plane) be sent on station. We were in a very vulnerable position lying there in the middle of the finger covered by only low grass. Behind us approximately 75 meters to our south was the edge of a treeline, which led up to a ridgeline that looked directly down on us. To our east the finger fell off to the valley below; to the west the finger dropped off and was paralleled by another finger leading to the valley. Off to our north about 75 meters was the edge of another treeline that continued northeast and dropped off gradually to the valley. There were no other likely LZís on the high ground, the valley below was the only other option but the enemy occupied it.

A decision was made to maneuver ourselves to the treeline to our north where we would take up defensive positions. I took position at point and cautiously headed off to the treeline, the team followed. Once we got just inside of it we took up our positions and waited. Just as we did that the AO arrived and was beginning to circle overhead.

All of a sudden we heard the unmistakable clicking of rifle safeties, simultaneously the AO spots and reports 15 - 20 enemy soldiers on line moving toward our position from the east.

Apparently some the enemy force had already moved close to our position because next came a chicom grenade from the west, it landed 10 feet from our position, but failed to explode. Then small arms and automatic gunfire suddenly broke out from all around us. Objective 1 of our mission to make contact with the enemy was now accomplished.

We were now trading small arms fire with the enemy force. Some of the NVA had managed to get to within 50 feet on the northeast side of our perimeter. I remember that I was facing west, Butch (Pfc. Franklin J. Butcher) was on my right and Ski (Pfc. Frank J. Ladzinski) was to my left, and we would alternately pop up and fire at the approaching enemy. I had just fired, when Butch got up and let go a burst. Just then the tree right next to him starts shedding splinters as he was coming down and I am going up to fire again. He starts hollering at me to watch where I am firing, and then a startled expression overcame him as he realized that I am firing a shotgun and not an automatic weapon. That was when we spotted the enemy machine gun that was set up across the ridge from us at coordinates XD948643.

Flash coordinated the supporting arms with AO who directed the jets onto the different enemy positions. The AO would swoop in to mark the target with a rocket, usually drawing fire from the enemy, then the jets would come in screaming, and drop a bomb or strafe away with there 20mm cannons. As soon as one target was eliminated, another would be spotted. They were making pass after pass. Whenever the jets would exhaust their ammo or fuel and depart, the AO would direct artillery onto the enemy positions. Then the process would repeat itself as other jets came on station. It seemed like it went on forever. Objective 2 of our mission called for us to determine the enemyís strength. Unfortunately, we could not determine the exact size of the force we were opposing, and could only estimate that it was a reasonably sized one given the fact that so many targets were being spotted. Objective 2 was still ongoing.

It was during one of the jets runs at destroying the machine gun across the ridge that HN L. B. "Doc" Blume, who was on his first patrol would be called upon under fire for first time to come to the aid of one of his teammates, "me". I had risen to my knees with my head down as one of the jet made itís run and released itís bomb, I peeked to soon. I had rose up to witness and report the damage when I was hit in the chest and throat. It sent me reeling back, knocking me to the ground clutching my throat. "Doc Blume was there hovering over me almost instantly, he came unhesitantly under fire from his position on the other side of our perimeter. He immediately grabbed my hands from around my throat, looked at me, said there was no blood, that I would survive when I could catch my breath, and that I should keep my !!!!!!!! head down, as he did not want to have to return to my side again. He said that I was lucky that the flying debris that hit me was just a clod of dirt. He then calmly returned to his position within our perimeter and commenced once again doing battle with the enemy.

Sometime during the engagement, the grunts that were standing by were notified. They were then loaded onto 12 helicopters from Marine Aircraft Group 39.

Upon their arrival on station they began circling off in a distance to our west. The AO continued directing Marine jets, artillery and now helicopter gunships to form a protective circle of fire around our surrounded position. I felt a little easier figuring it would not be long before they landed and we would be extracted. That assumption proved wrong.

For reasons unknown to me the grunt landing force kept circling in the distance, while the powers to be were trying to decide whether or not to commit the force. I can only believe that they were probably hoping and looking for a full scale helicopter assault, rather than only one chopper at time and a small piecemeal commitment of troops. The size of the opposing enemy force was an unknown, and if you couple that with the fact that the LZ would undoubtedly be hotly contested with a high possibility of the enemy downing a bird in the LZ leaving all of us on the ground vulnerable. If that occurred a relief force would be hard pressed to come to our aid in time.

We continued to engage the enemy. Objective 3 of the mission called for us to hold contact with the enemy, but this was soon going to be a real problem as our ammo was beginning to dwindle.

In reflecting back, the enemy commander in all probability made a decision sometime shortly after seeing all the activity in the air. That decision was most likely that they would keep us there and use us as bait, which is no doubt why they never launched a full scale assault on our position. Now, both sides were using us.

Time was getting critical, it was getting late, and darkness would soon be upon us. We had now been on the ground close to 6 hours and a decision was desperately needed to either commit the marine grunts or somehow extract us which was part 2 of Mission Objective 4 and very important as far as we were concerned.

The AO continued to direct and coordinate our support. Meanwhile, our CH-46 extraction birds arrived on station and began circling overhead with their gunship escorts. This is where it gets a little testy and a small clarification may be in order. Whenever I refer to our birds, I am referring to pilots and crews that were more or less assigned to operating with and highly familiar with our reconnaissance operations and I firmly believe that we developed a special respect for each other. I may be mistaken but I remember hearing that one of the pilots knowing how desperate our situation was becoming had a heated discussion with the decision makers and issued an ultimatum that if the ground troops werenít inserted immediately he and his crew were going in to extract us.

Apparently a decision was made and the grunts were not inserted. We were advised to mount up, be ready to break contact, and make a mad dash to the LZ which we were inserted in 75 yards away. The CH-46 and 4 gunships came in hot, firing all their guns as they swooped in to pick us up. I think it initially took the enemy by surprise because I donít think they fired a shot at the bird till we started lifting off, they still wanted us for bait. Once we were all safely onboard and departed the area, additional airstrikes and artillery missions were laid on by the AO.

I do not know to this day whether or not the grunts were ever inserted, nor do I know if that pilot caught any grief, but if he ever reads this I have something to say him. Semper Fi! And Thanks.

Later, during my tour there was another similar patrol, which I would lead that had a different outcome. It was a patrol that sanctioned my pride as a Recon Marine and affirmed my respect for the Grunt. Our mission was to locate an enemy force that was suspected to be operating in the area. We were to use stealth and avoid contact. Needless to say, we located the enemyís positions and the bunker complexes they occupied. We reported our findings, eluded detection and moved to a location to secure a Landing Zone (LZ) for the grunt force, which had been standing by.

We were advised when the force was enroute. The landing zone had already been identified when the helicopters carrying the grunts came on station. The lead CH-46 Helicopter immediately, started its approach to the LZ, the others began peeling off and following one by one not far behind. Fear set in as the many what ifs ran through my mind again. Do all the marines on the bird know that there are friendlies on the ground, in the LZ? What if someone opens up, will we become targets? Is the team ready to if something goes awry? I had been on the radio earlier and was assured that the marine infantry, pilots and crewman all knew we were on the ground.

The LZ was on a finger below a ridgeline in some tall elephant grass that we had trampled down as much as we could forming a large circle with the team fanned all around its outer edge. As the CH-46 was approaching and about to make its touchdown you could see the crew and the grunts looking at us and scanning the terrain. Then the helicopter was on the ground and the grunts charged out, peeling off to take up their defensive positions around the LZ and the team began to withdraw to a position in the LZ for our extraction. I immediately located the officer in charge of the initial force as he directed his marines and prepared for the offloading of the second bird, which was making its final approach. I briefed him as to the enemyís, approximate size, location, and types of positions we were able to identify. The entire time I could feel the grunts glancing at us in awe. After completing my briefing the officer looked at me and said, "You guys are nuts!". I looked at him and said "No Sir." and as I pointed to the helicopter that was now making its approach into the LZ I signaled to the team that it was our ride home. I then said "Sir, you see that bird coming in, well, we will be leaving on it, you guys are staying, going over that ridge, and then will be charging up another hill right into the midst of a heavily entrenched, well equipped enemy force. As far as I am concerned sir, you grunts are the nuts." I smiled, as did he. We were both proud to be Marines. As I started off towards our ride I glanced around in awe at the faces of the grunts. They knew that the enemy had been found and that they would soon be engaging him, yet I seen no fear. I nearly cried and wondered how many would not survive.

 

Special Footnote:

    1. Excerpts of after action interviews of Team Amandaís patrol were written and published in Sea Tiger Vol. V, No. 8 dated February 21st, 1969.

Retrospect:

Reconnaissance duty was hazardous but it had its advantages.