My first day as the Operations Officer of the 3rd Battalion was a disaster. The outgoing Battalion Commander wasn't used to having a staff. He had fired every operations officer assigned to the battalion and preferred to do everything himself. He had already planned the entire day's operation, which involved a move of the entire battalion by helicopter. As usual, there weren't enough helicopters available to complete the move in one day, and I could tell that at the end of the day we would be split in half. The problem with that was that half the battalion would be outside of artillery range and very vulnerable to attack. This was not good. No, it's worse than that.
Before arriving at the battalion I had noted this same thing happen in this same battalion and had called it to the attention of the Commanding General. As it turned out, he didn't have operational control of this battalion, though it was part of his brigade, and was only interested academically. Still, I didn't want a repeat of that situation now. It was both embarrassing and very unwise.
I started making changes on the fly in an effort to get a viable force on the ground under artillery coverage. I didn't know what I would do with the part of the battalion that didn't make it, but I would face that problem after I knew how bad it was going to be.
One of the changes I made was to take helicopters scheduled to pick up the remnants from a resupply of A Company and use them to move troops. The A Company commander, who had the day all planned out, was upset that he would have to wait. As far as I was concerned he could leave part of the company at the pickup site and carry out the rest of his mission with the rest of the company. He didn't agree. The longer he waited the angrier he got. Somehow he got word back to the outgoing battalion commander, who stepped away from the change of command ceremony long enough to call me on the radio and tell me I was fired. I paid no attention to that. I was too busy and in a few minutes he wasn't in command.
Finally, late in the afternoon, it became clear that I had failed. The battalion was going to be split just as I had feared. I then sent helicopters to finish A Company's resupply, only to be castigated once again by the company commander about his wasted day. To put that in perspective, his company hadn't had an enemy contact in months, so the odds of it doing anything useful that day were pretty slim.
Then, that night at 2000 hours, or 8 PM, all the company commanders called me on the radio at the same time. A radio call usually goes something like this:
"Grey Wolf 33 this is Red Fox 6, over."
"Grey Wolf 33, over."
"This is Fox 6, my right flank is engaged with estimated ...."
This, however, was different and I didn't understand what was going on. It went like this:
" Grey Wolf 33 this is Red Fox 6, over."
"Grey Wolf 33 this is White Hawk 27, over."
"Grey Wolf 33 this is Black Panther 72, over."
And then silence.
After a few minutes, one of the commanders asked, "Aren't you going to go over tomorrow's operation? Over."
I replied, "I'm confused. What do expect me to do?"
The company commander answered, "Grey Wolf 6 always talked us through everything we were supposed to do the next day."
"Over the radio?", I asked, dumbfounded.
It turned out that the outgoing battalion commander had spent hours on the radio with the company commanders every night going over every place they were to go and everything they were to do, using simplistic codes such as "blue line" for stream and "hotel" for hill. It was no wonder they hadn't made contact with the enemy for months. All that the local VC had to do was have their English speaker listen on the radio to that conversation and then they could operate with impunity somewhere else. Anyplace else.
I explained my opinion of that to the company commanders and declared that I would never divulge their operations over the radio. I already knew that the A Company Commander was mad at me and guessed that the now others thought I was some kind of nut.
As I learned later, the company commanders were relieved at my attitude, both as far as moves were concerned, and about the nightly radio calls. They didn't know how much things were about to change.
When I finally met the A Company Commander, whose name (this is true) was Huba Wass de Czege, he was friendly and respectful. He had decided that I brought "an element of sanity" to the battalion.
Huba was a wonderful company commander, and he had excellent credentials. He was a West Point graduate and had been a high-ranking cadet. This was his second tour in Viet Nam, so he knew his way around. He was the bravest and smartest man in his company and personally manned an ambush position every night. His company headquarters, which amounted to him, his radio operators, his first sergeant and his forward observer, had killed and wounded more enemy than the entire rest of the battalion. Now Huba had decided that I showed promise.
Every chance he got, Huba tried to convince me that the way we operated, in companies, dug in every night with overhead cover, was doomed to failure. He thought it would be better to break up into smaller sized units, ambush at night, and leave the chain saws and helmets back at the base camp.
Huba didn't have to convince me. I totally agreed. He did have to give me ammunition to use on the battalion commander, Lt Col Berke. I kept working on Berke, but he knew he had to convince his boss, the Task Force South commander, who was making us do things just the way he had done them in the Korean War. No matter that conditions were completely different. I wasn't making any progress.
One night we assembled the entire battalion on an old airfield. It was the first time the battalion commander had ever seen his battalion. It was also an opportunity to work with the company commanders in person. Huba asked me to go with him to try to convince the old man one more time. I agreed.
We met Berke in his tent and were having the usual discussion without success when the sergeant major burst into the tent. He said that a soldier had a pistol and had said he was going to kill the battalion commander. Since the soldier was armed and threatening, no one had been able to subdue him. Berke told us to leave his tent. We tried to stay with him, but he said to get out. Only one person, if any, should die, he reasoned.
As I walked out of the tent I looked up and saw an obviously agitated soldier carrying a pistol. I guessed that this was the would-be assassin. Since we were face to face, I had to do something. Without thinking I demanded that he hand me the weapon. Years of experience with soldiers probably caused me to do that. I don't know how many times I had recovered one of my soldiers from the MPs who told me that he was a madman. The soldier would then meekly walk with me to my car and I would drive him back to the company having a perfectly normal conversation. For some reason, when one of their officers was there, soldiers turned into lambs. So I asked for it, and he handed me the pistol.
As soon as he handed me the pistol a couple of big sergeants who had been following him jumped on him and hauled him off. I now had the pistol in my hand and was just outside the colonel's tent, in which he was awaiting an armed man intent on killing him. I walked into the tent, put the pistol down on the field table with a little more drama than necessary, and said, "Now, can we talk?"
By the time Huba returned a few minutes later, it was clear that Berke had given in. There's nothing like having your life saved to open your mind. He did limit the new tactics to A Company and said we had to hide it from the Task Force Commander. Partial victory!!
Now, however, we had to play an incredible cat and mouse game with the task force commander. And, for some reason, I bore the brunt of that. The task force commander absolutely delighted in coming to our firebase when Berke was away, and making life miserable for me. I don't know how many times he insisted that I give him a tour of the firebase on which he would find something not to his liking, usually a soldier without a helmet on or some similar thing. He would then have his fun chewing me out about it. He always won these encounters, he being a colonel while I was just a major. One time, and only one time, I had the last laugh.
We had just brought C Company back into the base camp after uninterrupted months in the jungle. We were letting the troops shower, eat, drink beer, get clean uniforms and just relax for a day. Of course, Col Cleland arrived to inspect and, of course, Berke was away. I was not the second in command, but somehow Cleland got hold of me as he always did and asked me to take him to C Company. I reminded him that I was the operations officer and had no command authority, anticipating a spate of butt chewings when we got to the company.
Sure enough, as soon as we reached the company the colonel spotted a soldier putting on a brand new set of jungle fatigues on which was pinned a Combat Infantryman's Badge. The CIB is the most highly respected badge in the Army and is awarded only to infantrymen, the guys who slog through mud, sleep on the ground, and fight the enemy face to face everyday. To be eligible for one you must have served in an infantry unit in combat.
Cleland asked me who had awarded the CIB to this soldier. Of course I didn't have a clue. I again reminded him of my responsibilities and suggested that he ask the man's squad leader. Instead, Cleland called the soldier over and asked him who had awarded him his CIB.
"No one, sir!" the soldier responded, obviously terrified.
I was a little curious about that. After crawling the jungle for weeks or months facing death daily, soldiers weren't usually terrified by anyone. Cleland told me to get the man's entire chain of command. It was time, he stated, for an important lesson.
It probably took fifteen minutes to find the squad leader, platoon leader and company commander. I was to represent the battalion commander. When everyone was finally assembled, Cleland told us to watch and listen carefully. He would show us how to properly award the CIB. He then made a wonderful speech about the significance of the award and the incredible heroism of the young man upon whom this award was being bestowed. He had the soldier remove the badge and hand it to him. He then pinned it on the soldier's shirt and told him, "From now on you will always remember that this badge was awarded to you by Colonel John Cleland." The soldier was white as a sheet and trembling.
Cleland then said to the squad leader, "Sergeant, if your officers fail to do their duty and make this important award properly, it is your responsibility to insist that they do it. Now, I want you to tell me why no one properly awarded the CIB to this soldier."
"Sir, no one awarded him the CIB because he hasn't earned a CIB. He just got here today."
Cleland never missed a beat. As though nothing had happened amiss he said, "Well, he's got one now," turned on his heel and strode back to his helicopter. I'm sure he noticed my insubordinate grin.
We had to hide the fact that we had a company using good tactics in the jungle contrary to instructions and subject to continuous inspections by Col Cleland. Soon it became even more difficult. A Company was doing much better than the other companies. Almost every night the enemy walked into at least one of its ambushes. The other companies, following instructions from on high, were crashing through the jungle like a herd of elephants, lighting off their chain saws which could be heard for miles, sawing down trees and making bunkers every evening. No enemy ever came near them. The other company commanders were demanding the same opportunity as A Company had.
So it was just a matter of time before we had the entire battalion slinking through the jungle and ambushing successfully at night. All this had to be done secretly. When a company was assigned to provide firebase security we had to fly in helmets and chain saws. That was where Cleland could inspect.
This worked so well that we practically eliminated all the enemy in our area, which was amazing because our area actually encompassed two entire provinces. We only had one mishap with these tactics and that was because someone violated instructions.
First thing one morning we received a report from B Company that it had lost contact with one of its platoons during the night. The company commander guessed that the radio operator had fallen asleep and hadn't worried too much about it. But now it was daylight and still no contact. He had no one close enough to get there quickly, could we fly there and check it out? As soon as we could get a helicopter up we were on our way to the last reported position for that platoon.
The way the battalion operated was like this. Each company was required to break up into at least seven ambushes every night. That meant that there should be about two or three ambushes per platoon, more if desired. As soon as it turned dark, all ambushes were to move to their ambush sites, making it very difficult for an enemy to follow them and know where they had stopped. The ambushes were manned all night. The troops could get some rest during the day.
This was very, very tough on the soldiers. It was hard to get much rest during the day. The fear involved in spending the night in such small groups was intense. It took quite a toll on the troops. We believed, and experience proved, however, that this tactic gave us all the advantages. The enemy didn't know where we were and if they tried to find us in the dark they walked into the ambush. After months of using this tactic we had killed lots of enemy and had not had a single fatality to one of our soldiers. It worked great.
When the battalion commander, now Lt Col Bethea, and I arrived over the place where the platoon had reported one of their ambushes, we immediately found a couple of our soldiers in a little clearing, waving to us. We hovered over them but couldn't communicate with them over the noise of the helicopter. The chopper was hovering about seven feet over the ground and was unable to go lower without clipping the trees. I took a radio and jumped out to talk to the soldiers to try to find out the situation.
I learned that there were only eleven soldiers left alive out of a platoon of over 30. All the survivors were wounded, so I called the battalion commander back and boosted a few of the worst wounded up into the chopper for evacuation. The helicopter left me on the ground with the other eight soldiers.
It wasn't a happy situation. I was the only one on the ground who wasn't wounded and about the only one who was rational. The survivors were just flat scared, as would be expected under the circumstances. Now they were still out there with a useless staff officer. At least I had a radio.
I started asking questions. The story was grim. The platoon had no platoon leader and a brand new platoon sergeant. The troops had convinced the platoon sergeant that they needed to stay together all night and report their two assigned ambushes, even though they didn't even have one. They moved into position in daylight and were aware that the enemy was trailing them. In fact, that was part of their argument for staying together. As soon as they settled in they broke out the pot and lit up. By dark they were all wasted. Everyone went to sleep by midnight. At two in the morning the enemy attacked. The platoon was methodically annihilated. The enemy left the few survivors by mistake. They were so badly wounded that they looked dead.
I went over to the place where this had occurred. It was sickening. I was so mad at the soldiers who survived that it was all I could do to hide it from them. I needed them alert and in control for another fifteen or twenty minutes, so I said nothing and just fanned them out to ensure that we weren't attacked by surprise. In about half an hour the helicopter returned and we pulled everyone out.
The important message is that as hard as this tactic was to execute, and despite the pressure to do something, anything, else, the battalion operated in this way for many months with great success. There were lots of great officers and NCOs, and many courageous soldiers in that battalion. We should never forget them.
One consequence of the massacre of the B Company platoon was the loss of radios and weapons to the enemy. One weapon in particular was never available to the VC and that was the way we wanted it. The weapon was the M79 grenade launcher. This weapon fired a 40mm grenade for hundreds of meters. If fired into a formation, a single grenade could inflict numerous injuries or fatalities. It was a crowd killer. We had lost one in the massacre.
I was out with the Vietnamese District Chief a couple of days later when I heard the distinctive sound of an M79 being fired. I could tell about where it was and knew that none of our troops were there. The district chief said that none of his soldiers were in that area, either. It had to be our lost weapon. It fired again and this time I heard the grenade go off. It wasn't very near us, but it seemed that the weapon was being fired at us. The district chief obviously thought so, too, because he dived under the jeep.
I thought about this a few seconds and decided that the VC were guessing how to fire it, and weren't doing very well. I estimated how many rounds they might have gotten. I figured that they probably only got a dozen or so. I decided to use them up. I climbed up on the hood of my jeep and defied them to hit me with one of those grenades. The district chief, from under the jeep, was begging me in two languages to get in the jeep and head for safety. The enemy kept firing and the grenades weren't landing noticeably closer. After nine tries he gave up. I hoped that meant he had run out of grenades, and it turned out that it did. No one ever fired one at our troops again.