Born: November 29, 1951
One of my most vivid memories of Vietnam relates to events that occurred during my last 40 days in-country. Our battalion was the spearhead of the 101st Airborne Division (Ambl) during one of the largest and last Allied operations of the Vietnam War, “Operation Lamson 219” – the incursion of the South Vietnamese Army into Laos.
Our Forward Command Post (FCP) was located at Khe Sanh. Our outfit’s area of operation was LZ Shepherd, a small radio-relay outpost just off Route 9 along the Laotian border in the hills of Khe Sanh. Our mission objective was to help supply communications for our units in this area, and to maintain rear security support for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units while they were in Laos.
The panoramic view from our mountaintop was picturesque. Our days were business as usual: close radio watch, cleaning weapons and, when possible, daydreaming of home, the U.S.A. Occasionally 122mm North Vietnamese Army (NVA) rockets would buzz over our heads en route to Khe Sanh. Fortunately we had no contact with them or the Viet Cong (VC) during this time.
It was a beautiful day in late March of 1971. Suddenly, and seemingly from out of nowhere, an American artillery white phosphorus “marking round” exploded violently 200 meters directly overhead. We were all too familiar with the “fire for effect” follow-up procedures, about the only hope being a dash for our foxholes and prayer. Nevertheless, I was a “short-timer” and my gut feeling was telling me that whoever was responsible for this miscalculation were sure to be “friendlies” in the immediate area, somewhere just out of sight and unaware of our location.
Access to our hill was possible only through one barely-negotiable entrance, a small, densely wooded area some 60 meters east of our defensive perimeter. We kept this region fortified with 105/155mm Howitzers and/or a mortar platoon. My short-timer’s intuition was telling me that this was the location of our unknown intruders, friend or foe.
The instant that the marking round exploded overhead, I grabbed my M-16 rifle, a bandoleer of ammo and two grenades, and set out running toward the access area in hopes of locating the source of impending disaster, and to “check fire” this potential tragedy.
As I approached the wooded area, I peered over a small slope and to my complete surprise, I had stumbled upon a full-fledged Mechanized Infantry squad. Their Commanding Officer was standing alongside his radio operator (RTO) making the necessary adjustments on his marking rounds. They were in the process of commandeering our mountain, via the use of artillery to help clear a makeshift road and to detonate any land mines that might be in the area to ensure safe travel of their track vehicles.
Due to the dense woodland foliage and the fact that I had approached them from their blind side, my position wasn’t compromised, and they were certainly unaware of our presence in the area. With precious time running out, I need to touch base with them, and fast! While taking a few seconds to evaluate the situation, I realized I was alone and didn’t want to risk spooking them for fear of being shot by accident, that by the time they would recognize me as one of them, the firing mission would be over.
Without further hesitation and while remaining under cover, I ran back to our perimeter to fetch our Commo-Chief, Lt. Zase. Together we hurriedly returned and I covered his flank as he rushed their position to “check fire” their intended objective and make known our presence. I stood close watch and observed as Lt. Zase secured the RTO’s handset to intercept their radio communications. He was successful and we were elated knowing that for the time being, all were out of harm’s way.
As the adrenaline wore off, it was time to rejoice! However, Murphy’s Law had one more surprise in store for us. Feeling pretty good at the outcome of our mission, Lt. Zase and I walked back toward our hill. On my way to locate the source of the friendly fire, I had passed a large rock, but naturally hadn’t taken time to examine it. Now I wanted a witness to verify this “find” of mine, what I thought to be nature’s perfect rock! As we approached it now, we saw that two of our men who had seen me take off and followed me, were checking it out. Minus the bumpers, headlights, and wheels, at the time - it was about the same size and shape of an old Volkswagen car, a near perfectly smooth semi-oval design camouflaged with a few weeks’ dense jungle overgrowth. As we removed the foliage, closer examination revealed, to our astonishment, an unexploded dud C-130 aerial bomb! It was complete with olive-drab paint and a few choice words written with Magic Marker for Ho Chi Minh. This incident was reported forthwith. After researching this event, I found out that our comrades had discovered the bomb just prior to Lt. Zase and I returning to the area. Unbeknown to me at the time, as previously mentioned I accidentally located the bomb first. However, due to the camoflaged foliage I thought it was a large rock and our comrades made the discovery before I had a chance.
Soon afterward, our unit relocated to another area of operation, to continue our mission. I pale to imagine what may have happened had a stray artillery round ignited this extremely volatile weapon.
Unfortunately, accidents occur in the inevitable confusion of combat. It has been said, “All’s well that ends well.” The lesson that I relearned from this wartime experience was, “prior to expediting an artillery mission, remember to survey the target area for possible friendlies.”
In closing, I salute you all and may God bless America’s most precious resource — our military forces. With best regards,