"Recollections Of Vietnam"
Baptism - My First Mission
Written as Remembered by Cpl. Dennis M. Soldner, USMC, Retired
May 20th, 1999
August 28 - 30, 1968
Mission: To Establish An Observation Post On Razorback Ridge In Support Of An Operation Being Conducted By The 4th Marines.
Team Call Sign: Cpl. Pete
Team Composite: 5 Members of Team 1 C 2, 1 Member of Team 1 C 3
Team 1 C 2 Members: L/Cpl. Robert P. Jones - (Patrol Leader), L/Cpl. Jackie Lee Blankenship (Buck) - (Primary Radio), L/Cpl. Leslie E. Gordan Jr. (Flash) - (Scout), Pfc. Edward E. McGee - (Scout), Pfc. Dennis M. Soldner - (Scout)
Team 1 C 3 Member: L/Cpl. Rufus F. Sticker - (Asst. Patrol Leader)
Upon finally arriving at the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion area, which was now located in Quang Tri, I was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Platoon, Team 1C2 (Cpl. Pete). 1st Lt. Edward V. Osborne was company commander at that time.
I do not remember with any clarity the precedence of what actually occurred next. I seem to recall being escorted down through the company street, and feeling very strange because I still was decked out in my statesides. They were like a big sign that said here comes another FNG. I immediately made my first decision, get rid of them as quickly as I could get my hands on a set of jungle utilities and boots. The next thing through my mind was "when do I get a weapon?", this is a war zone afterall. That thought had been going through my head ever since leaving Okinawa and again when we entered country landing and offloading down south at Da Nang. The next question that was running rampant in my mind as I was heading down the street to meet my First Team Leader was "how was I going to be welcomed into this experienced team?". I was nervous.
When we got to the teams’ tent I was introduced and turned over to L/Cpl. Robert P. Jones the team leader. He was great. We talked and then he introduced me to the rest of the team members. I was lucky, besides several experienced members; Pfc. Anthony Cardenas, Pfc. Charles H. Cummings, Pfc. Edward E. McGee and 2 others who were not present (Doc Larry Alley who was at scuba school, & Pfc. Beauclair), there were 2 other FNG’s who had just arrived and joined the team; L/Cpl. Jackie Lee Blankenship (Buck) and L/Cpl. Leslie E. Gordon Jr. (Flash). I was shown to an empty cot, and then given a list, directions, told where the other necessities were located and told to go gather up my gear. When I returned I took note of how the others had stowed theirs, some things were the same so I followed suit, other pieces appeared to be stowed according to personal preference and therefore I did the same trying out several ways until I was satisfied. One of the first things on my list was to change out of my stateside utilities and boots. After doing so I felt good, then I noticed I still looked the part of a FNG, the new jungle boots were a dead give-away.
I remember having to go through some sort of in-country Recon indoctrination. I believe we zeroed in our weapons; went through Immediate Action Drills; were given a medical brief on the importance of malaria pills, water purification and other means by which to stay healthy; such as the avoidance of certain things like snakes, leeches, centipedes, tigers, and numerous others that could make life hazardous. After the indoctrination period we were released for duty with our teams.
Sometime shortly thereafter we received a warning order for a mission. L/Cpl. Jones was briefed and then we were briefed. There would be no partying tonight. I remember looking at the map, being shown Hill 300 (coordinates XD961581), then given a description of the site. All rock, sheer cliffs and was told that it looked like something out of the prehistoric age. I wondered how we would get to the top and for that matter off. Then we were told what extra gear we would bring, (2) pieces of 100ft. green rope, and be sure to bring your Swiss Seat rope and D (snap) Ring. We were then told whom we would shadow and what we were to do on the patrol. Then we went about getting the chow, and additional munitions. We, the FNG’s, checked and cleaned our weapons, and packed our gear accordingly with the help of our experienced teammates. We were then told to get a good nights sleep, yeah right. Anxiousness, nervousness, and anxiety set in and I slept fitfully.
The next morning when I awoke I still had the jitters. Our gear was checked and given the once over. My mind was putting me through hell, I wondered and worried about things like whether I would perform okay, and if we made contact what will I do. I wondered if Buck & Flash were as nervous as I was, and what was going through Jones, Sticker, and McGee’s mind.
We loaded up in the morning and headed to the pad to wait for our ride. I think my gear weighed more than I did. We waited for awhile as the CH-46’s shuttled in and out landing, unloading extracted teams and loading up teams that were to be inserted prior to us. Early afternoon came and then it was our turn. Things got serious, you could see it come over on everyone’s face as we shuffled to our bird and boarded. We were all locked in our separate thoughts as we flew towards our RZ (Reconnaissance Zone).
As we approached the Razorback we were all on our feet looking out our portholes, I was in awe of what I saw. L/Cpl. Jones was with the crew chief and was communicating to the pilot. We swung north of the Razorback and made a north-south approach towards Hill 300. The ramp was lowered and L/Cpl. Jones and the crew chief were on it holding on. There was no LZ (Landing Zone) per se; the chopper was not going to be able to touch down. The intention was to approach out of the north to the southern edge of Hill 300, hover with the blades just above some small trees, place the ramp just above a large protruding rock formation and then we would jump onto it. Our timing and the skill of the pilot would play a key role in our insertion.
L/Cpl. Jones gave the signal and was the first one out and on the ground, then L/Cpl. Blankenship (Buck) with the radio, followed by Pfc. McGee, L/Cpl. Gordon Jr., myself and last was L/Cpl. Sticker our (APL). We were all safely on the ground and the chopper moved off and took up a position circling in the distance to our south. We immediately formed a defensive wheel and established communications. The Ch-46’s and its’ escorts were then released and headed off to continue the process of extracting and inserting teams.
We then went about our business of observing our surrounding area. We watched as the 4th Marines conducted a sweep in the valley to our southwest in the vicinity of coordinates XD945575. We were continuously scanning the area around them looking for any indications of enemy activity. We were also monitoring the area around us, as we knew that any enemy in the area had more than likely seen our insertion.
At approximately 1600 hours (4:00 PM) we observed several of the enemy setting up a .51 caliber machine to our southeast on a nearby hilltop (coordinates XD961579). L/Cpl. Jones was in the process of calling in a fire mission as L/Cpl. Sticker and I watched from behind a large boulder as the enemy assembled the gun.
I figured our position was already compromised, and I guess I was anxious in wanting to show that I had the courage to engage the enemy, so I raised my M-16 and fired several shots at them. It was a big mistake, and it nearly cost the life of a teammate. The enemy immediately began returning fire, the rounds chewing away chunks of the big boulder that both L/Cpl. Sticker and I were hunkered down behind. Boy was he pissed, and he let me know it in no uncertain terms. I was still an FNG and promised myself I would never again jeopardize the life of teammate by doing something stupid.
Shortly thereafter the marine artillery out of Camp Carroll fired, destroying the gun and its crew. We then continued our mission of observing the surrounding with the knowledge that we had been compromised.
We were still on 100% alert at 2130 hours (9:30 PM) when Pfc. McGee spotted (8) NVA coming one of the two trails that ran up the Razorback. They were zig zagging back and forth from one side of the trail to the other as they advanced on our position. He quickly shot the point man, killing him. The rest of the team instantly opened fire on the remaining enemy force. We tossed grenades and fired at them with our M-16’s and M-79 (Grenade Launcher), the result (7) more confirmed kills. I killed for the first time that night and I do not recall regretting it one bit. Throughout the night we would have illumination round fired as the enemy made repeated attempts to scale the steep hill and dislodge us but we were able to keep them at bay with grenades, occasionally the M-79 and artillery. Things would be quiet and you could here the clank of their equipment against the rocks or at times the sound of falling rocks. In fact, one of the enemy; slipped and fell, we heard scream as bounced of the rocks and when he finally landed we could hear his moans of pain. Then he was silenced and things got quiet again. We would hear the noises toss some grenades and things would get quiet, this maneuver went on all night.
Early on towards morning of August 29th, at 0400 hours (4:00 AM), (12) NVA were spotted entering a cave. L/Cpl. Sticker called in an artillery fire mission on the position while L/Cpl. Jones directed our small arms fire and utilized his M-79 to keep the enemy pinned in the cave. At 0700 (7:00 AM) called for an airstrike on the holed up enemy. Under the direction of L/Cpl. Jones the marine jets made several bombing runs on the cave. The first jet would come roaring in and make a pass firing its 20mm’s to drive the enemy back into the cave with the second jet following closely behind to drop a bomb. They did this several times. In all they dropped (5) 500 pound bombs completely destroying the cave and its occupants. The total confirmed was now up to (20) NVA.
We were running low on ammunition and called for a re-supply, something that was taboo for a reconnaissance team. In our case however, our position was a tenable one even though it had already been compromised, and with little or no chance of being extracted without casualties, the decision to send a re-supply helicopter was made. The re-supply chopper took numerous hits while dropping us the ammunition, so many in fact that the damaged bird had to fly southeast to the Rockpile (coordinates XD980559) a distance of 2½ miles and set down there for a physical. The Gunships escorting the re-supply chopper spotted (4) NVA close to our position but had to leave post haste with the CH-46 that re-supplied us. L/Cpl. Jones immediately called in a fire mission and as soon as the helicopters departed the airspace the artillery was cleared to fire. Their fire was accurate, and the tally was now up to (24) NVA confirmed.
We were tired but we knew that as darkness came, the enemy would be coming for us again. And come they did. At 2100 hours (9:00 PM), the enemy was trying the trails again, we drove them off with grenades and small arms fire. We could see lights at base of our hill so L/Cpl. Jones called for the twin 40’s from the Rockpile to fire on them. He also requested our on calls be fired, in fact, they would end up firing them throughout the night.
At 0200 hours (2:00 AM) of August 30th we took (5) incoming rockets around our position, nobody was hit and we hunkered down in anticipation of an enemy assault. I believe the rockets were fired prematurely, because at 0300 hours (3:00 AM) another team located on the Rockpile could see lights still moving around our position. Spooky arrived on station shortly thereafter and began working on the enemy. During one of its runs while the enemy was firing back Spooky started taking fire from another .51 caliber machinegun from a nearby ridgeline. Spooky silenced the gun and the enemy ceased firing.
Daylight came and we got word that we were to be extracted but needed to prep a LZ (Landing Zone) for the helicopter to pick us up quickly. The team then went about disassembling several Claymores (Directional Anti-Personnel Mine) and utilizing the C-4 explosive to destroyed several small trees to provide a small clearing, however, the chopper was still not going to be able to touch down. The team would have to use the same method as its insertion, only this time we would be jumping onto the ramp.
Late that morning at 1000 hours (10:00 AM) when the helicopters arrived we were ready. L/Cpl. Jones was in communication with the helicopters and appraised them of our situation and where most of the contact had originated. The Gunships took up their positions looking for enemy activity in the south, southeast direction. The CH-46 pilot approached the Razorback from the north, lowering his ramp he then swung the tail of the chopper towards us. You could see the bullet holes appearing in the fuselage while the chopper hovered there. We were taking fire from an enemy light machinegun as we began to quickly jump from the side of the hill onto the ramp. The Gunships immediately responded by firing rockets at the enemy position. L/Cpl. Jones was the last on board and immediately gave the signal that we were all on board and to depart the area.
On the way back to the helipad at Quang Tri, I can still remember seeing all the happy grins and feeling elated to have survived. It was time for a beer, shower and some chow. One thing I cannot recall doing is eating on the patrol though I know we must have. I guess the food did not make an impression on me.
When we arrived back at camp we were given a warm welcome by those who had heard or been told of our action. It was time for war stories and laughter as we humped on down to our tent. L/Cpl. Jones and Sticker went to be debriefed while we all started the process of getting our gear back in order, cleaning our weapons, replenishing our ammo, getting out of our grimy clothes, then heading off to the shower, returning and getting dressed. That’s where it ended for me, the adrenaline stopped as I lay on my cot and I just went to sleep wondering was I still an FNG.
In September of 1968 while visiting 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion Major General Davis extended his personal congratulations to the members of Team 1C2 who happened at the time to be on the pad at Quang Tri waiting to be inserted at Hill 679 near Khe Sanh.
I would only serve with L/Cpl. Jones on one more mission. That patrol was in the vicinity of Khe Sanh, Hill 679. We had requested an emergency extraction at night and were attempting to break contact and evade when the chopper landed. The team was running onto the CH-46 with our patrol leader (L/Cpl. Jones) at the tail. Just as L/Cpl. Jones approached the ramp a Hand Grenade or RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) round went off. The blast blew him onto the helicopter and he took a nasty wound to head from the shrapnel. L/Cpl. Jones was retired from the bush and finished his tour in the Company Front Office.
We were unable to go undetected but had in essence accomplished our mission, which encompassed searching the area for the enemy by observation, reporting their activity, and where possible destroy the enemy through the use of supporting arms and air. We did that and for (2) days we had also deprived the enemy of that strategic position which would have allowed their spotters to report the activity of the 4th Marines and afford their forces an edge.