"Recollections Of Vietnam"
12. Distant Lights - A Convoy Escapes
Written as Remembered by Cpl. Dennis M. Soldner, USMC, Retired
July 14th, 1999
May 17 - 30, 1969
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; 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: Colonial Village
Team Composite: 6 Members of Team 1 C 2
Team 1 C 2 Members: HM3 L. B. Blume (Doc) - (Corpsman), Cpl. Jackie Lee Blankenship (Buck) - (Scout), Cpl. Leslie E. Gordon Jr. (Flash) - (Patrol Leader), L/Cpl. Franklin J. Butcher (Butch) - (Primary Radio), L/Cpl. Dennis M. Soldner - (Asst. Patrol Leader / Point), L/Cpl. Frank J. Ladzinski (Ski) - (M-79)
In May, 1969 Team 1C2 (Colonial Village) was sent to a Radio Relay Station on Hill 819 (Coordinates: YD097378). The site was called India Relay. This time we would be Flip / Flopping with one of several teams currently providing security at the site.
Some of us had been there before. Our previous visit in September of 1968 had nearly proved fatal. Shortly after our last visit the 9th Marines had been sent to clear the area and to establish a defensible observation and radio relay outpost. I do not know what kind of resistance they had met, but from the looks of it they had done their job.
The finger running northeast (Coordinates: YD100379) had been cleared of vegetation. Barbed wire encircled the perimeter; there were sandbagged fighting holes, and bunkers; the Comm bunker was deep and heavily sandbagged, it was even equipped with a lightning / target rod (Antenna), and of course I am sure that improvements were constantly being made by those sent to man the site. Oh yeah, it even had an open-air two holer on the western side of the hill.
Defensive armament consisted of (2) M-60 Machine Guns, (1) 60mm Mortar with HE & Illumination rounds, and Pop Flares as well as the normal complement of individual weaponry brought by the team members (M16ís, M79ís, M3Aís, M1911A1ís, & Grenades). The perimeter was also wired with trip flares and claymores. The outpost also had Binoculars, and a Star Light (Night Vision) Scope for visual surveillance.
It was a fixed position, but we had heard that it was considered easy duty now, almost like an in country R&R. A regular shuttle was even scheduled for re-supplying the outpost. We were protected; we were going to be behind barbed wire. We would only have to perform line duty; lookout, and Butch (L/Cpl. Franklin J. Butcher) would pull radio watch. Housekeeping and maintenance had to be fulfilled as well.
The drop-off / LZ was at the base of Hill 819 in the saddle (Coordinates YD097374) just outside the first string of wire. As you climb the path up the hill, about halfway you come upon a memorial. It is a simple one, two recon bush hats sitting on a couple of pieces of metal in the form of 2 crosses with a small wooden plaque. The names and date of their deaths are inscribed. They were both from Alpha Co.; they were KIA December 28th, 1968 from as I remember booby traps. The names on the plaque are L/Cpl. Gerald G. McGinley and L/Cpl. Dennis E. Mickelson.
Hill 819 had changed in itís appearance but it still had an eerie look and feel to me, especially in the cloud cover and I could never shake the feeling that the enemy was watching us. I was no longer a FNG.
Duty on the hill on numerous days proved to be relatively light, and in many ways boring. We fam fired the 60mm and set up some oncalls for it; we would get together with the other teams and have a cookout or make a stew from our rations; stand our watches, rest and sleep.
There were days though, that were anything but boring. There are several that come to mind; for instance, imagine you are Doc Blume, and you are sitting on one of the two drums at the outer edge of the perimeter. Below you is a steep drop-off to the barbed wire, it is not bad enough that the drum next to you is moving on its own but you can feel yours vibrating as well. Then it happens, remember the lightning rod I mentioned, well donít you know it, lightning strikes it, "crack! boom!" and sets off all the claymores on the hill "kaboom!". The whole hill shook. Talk about being scared shitless. It just so happened that Butch was on duty in the radio bunker, and when he finally could get up and out of the bunker he was shaking his head and wanting to know what had happened and what was going on. He said that he got tossed off all the walls in the bunker and had lost communications. Everyone initially thought we were getting hit but then realized the hill got hit by lightning. It was then that we saw Doc and started laughing; he was not a happy camper. It was funny but then we all got serious again, No Comm, No Claymores, and you know what all over the place. While the Communication specialist people got to work on establishing communication and letting the base (HQ) know happened, a detail was formed to go out and determine what blew and what didnít. I am glad I did not pull that detail, you never knew what other booby traps were out there.
Booby traps and mines were always something I feared. It wasnít just a fear of getting myself blown away but that I would get my team destroyed by tripping one. As a point man I had encountered and avoided several of the enemies, but it always seemed that the scariest times were on walk-ins/outs from friendly positions, especially at dawn or at night. It wasnít just the fact that maybe someone on the line did not get word of your movement in the area but it seemed that no one could tell you precisely where all the booby traps were. That was because prior to that unit being there, there had been someone else and they had so to speak customized the area. A grim reminder of this was the memorial on hill 819. They replaced what they could, given the limited spare supply, and relocated some of the others for the most strategic coverage. Me, well I got the clean up and burn detail. Now I was standing there sending up smoke signals from the burning drums. I remember pouring the fuel; stirring away, lighting the fire and watching the little white critters disappear. It stunk, the odor and the smoke just lingered on that hill. I could not even look at rice for a long, long time.
Another incident occurred, when a team was dropped off at the hill, they were to hump from the hilltop to their RZ (Reconnaissance Zone). I donít remember if it was early morning or dusk but they started off down the saddle (Coordinates YD097374). The patrol had just reached the end of the clearing and was beginning to descend when one of the team members tripped a trip wire and set off a perimeter flare. It scared the hell out of everybody, but we were all thankful that it had not been more than just a flare.
One time we were sitting on the hill and could here the whoosh roar of rockets being launched from the valley to our north. We did not know what the target was but guessed it might be VCB (Vandergrift Combat Base), which sat approximately 9 miles to our northwest. VCB was advised that they could possibly expect rain (Incoming Rounds). As I sat there perched on top of the communications bunker with the binoculars trained on VCB the rounds hit. VCB asked if we could identify the launch site, we had to respond negative other than they appeared to have come from the valley to our north. A second barrage was launched and we advised them of further rainfall, those rounds struck as well. As suddenly as it had started, the enemy stopped firing. Unfortunately, we were never able to provide VCB with a target for retaliation. I did not realize it then but it was all part of an elaborate setup by the enemy to draw a contingent force of the 9th Marines into the area. They had bigger plans.
It was shortly after the rocket barrage. I was on watch one night and was scanning the valleys and I see lights. Lots of them, they were a good distance away, across the valley and river to our north. The lights were coming from vehicles, you could tell because they were bouncing as they went along the road reflecting up into the trees and when they would turn you could see two lights. I went into the bunker and looked at the map, a convoy was apparently on Route 556. (Coordinates YD102426)
A sitrep was immediately called in reporting what we were witnessing at which time we were advised there were no friendlies on the road or in the area. We were plotting the fire mission when all of a sudden a huge firefight erupted in the valley to the west. (Coordinates XD998451) Red and green tracers were flying everywhere. The grunts, I am assuming the contingent of the 9th Marines out of VCB were really getting into it with appeared to be a large enemy force. You could see the flashes from rounds impacting as well as hear that all too familiar "crumpch".
Our fire mission was immediately denied due to the guns being required and necessary to support the unit in the firefight. We alternated between watching the firefight, the lights from the convoy, and updating our coordinates for the fire mission.
I just sat there watching and could not believe what I was seeing. This convoy was slowly moving along using Route 556 as it snaked its way up and over the hills across the river and valley to our north. It was a long convoy and as one vehicleís set of lights would disappear when it crested the top at Hill 385 (Coordinates YD118432) it seemed that anotherís would appear. The enemy was smart. I know, that they knew we could see them, but by first drawing the grunts into the area with the rocket barrage; and then having their rear guard create a diversion by getting into that firefight with the marines out of VCB; they knew we would not be able to bring an artillery barrage down on the convoy.
The lights kept appearing and then disappearing over the ridge. Finally the last lights disappeared, it seemed like forever, and probably felt that way even more so for the infantrymen. No sooner had the convoy passed over the ridge when all of a sudden the firefight stopped. The enemies rear guard was now disengaged, it had done its job and was probably enroute to meet up with the convoy.
We had continuously monitored the progress of the convoy and updated our coordinates in the hopes of having our fire mission cleared. Immediately following the end of the firefight our mission was cleared. We could no longer see the convoy but figured anticipating its route would not be difficult. In all probability it would break off and follow Route 558 or less likely would continue to follow Route 556 in which case we would be able to spot it again. As we could no longer see the convoysí lights we called for the artillery to fire on the northern slopes of Hill 385 along Route 558 in the hope of getting lucky. Just maybe we might be able to spot a secondary explosion.
The artillery blanketed the area but I do not recall seeing any secondarysí. I was frustrated because I felt they had beat us and escaped unscathed and "it did mean something". We were unable to go undetected, we were in a fixed strategic position, and the enemy was fully aware of our ability to observe movement in the valley as well as our capability to utilize available firepower. This position apparently overlooked one of the enemiesí main infiltration routes right into our backyard, which is why in September of 1968 they were so anxious to displace us and not allow us to establish an observation post. In the end however, they simply outsmarted us.
Sometime shortly after we were flip/flopped with another team. Ski (L/Cpl. Frank J. Ladzinski) was assigned to KP upon the teams return and Flash (Cpl. Leslie E. Gordon Jr.) was promoted to Sgt. and transferred to Echo Company. Butch (L/Cpl. Franklin J. Butcher), the teams regular radioman remained behind Hill 819. The next patrol for Buck (Cpl. Jackie Lee Blankenship), Doc (Hm3 L. B. Blume), and myself after leaving India Relay in the end of May would be with team 1C2 Fire Raider. It was to be our last, and Butch had to helplessly listen to our desperate calls while on radio watch on India Relay. It was a highly emotional experience when Butch and I finally got to see one another again in San Diego at the Battalions (West Coast) 2nd Reunion. I saw Flash at the Battalion Reunion in Las Vegas and finally located and spoke to Ski. I had grown old over there and I had often worried and wondered like a Mother Goose, if they made it.
The hill at times gave off a relatively peaceful feeling, I can remember sitting there feeling like I was in the heavens peering through the clouds below and looking down at the world surrounding me. I remember reflecting on the fact that I had changed. I had grown old at the age of 19. I had gone from FNG to Confident, from Confident to Cocky, from Cocky to Mean, and from Mean to Over Caring & Protective. So much so that I had declined to go to Recondo & Scuba School, or on R&R when offered for fear of something happening and not being with my teammates. Burnt Out maybe, but I think I just felt that my place was there, it was where I belonged, and it was where I wanted to be, "with my team".
Pictures below of Memorial were taken on Hill 819, May 1969.
Wooden Plaque, Crosses, Recon Hats
Located at the base of Hill 819
L/Cpl. Gerald G. McGinley
(Panel 36W Line 085)
L/Cpl. Dennis E. Mickelson
(Panel 36W Line 086)
Third Reconnaissance Battalion
KIA December 28, 1968