Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)
Immediately following the Battle of Song Mao in April 1970 after our thirsty ARVN guests had departed, Charlie Company wheeled about for a dismounted sweep through the legendary ancient guerrilla sanctuary known as the Le Hong Fong Forest. A gnarled mass of stunted, spiny trees struggling for survival on a salt plain along the South China Sea, the Le Hong Fong was hot, dusty and dry - dry as a bone. It was impossible to hack through the tough, twisted brush with any grace or silence, but the forest was interlaced with small footpaths, tall enough for emaciated Vietnamese to glide along hunched over, but just over waist-height for most G.I.s. Worse yet, the woods were liberally sprinkled with bunkers whose firing ports and firing lanes blanketed the footpaths. Since Chinese rule, the Le Hong Fong had been owned and operated by the enemy. But we were sweeping the forest to clean up enemy survivors from the two-battalion attack on Song Mao.
The next few days were a primal struggle out of the dark side of Disney's Fantasia, hot, dry, uncomfortable, treacherous work that kept us on our toes... where the rewards seemed hardly justified by the risks, the conditions, the stress and the cost. Still, most grunts in Nam can remember times like that, and certainly anyone who battled the Le Hong Fong Forest can. The operating philosophy was to take the mission a step at a time, even if that made the task seem endless. Finally we linked up with our tracks, which had been paralleling our "progress" with skeleton crews, and the relief in our sweaty, dirty, thirsty, exhausted troops was palpable.
And then I received another mission... another company-sized dismounted patrol into the Le Hong Fong Forest, into a part that we hadn't yet searched. And this was to be done during the night.
The basic idea was to slip into the woods clandestinely at dusk and move through them unseen and silent throughout the night to cordon a distant village at the edge of the Le Hong Fong Forest, while our APCs laagered and the watching enemy, if any, were lulled into thinking that we were just another average U.S. unit that was afraid of the dark and buttoned up at night. Looking back, it was probably smart to be afraid of the night, but it was part of the Infantryman's 24-hour day and so we used it to our advantage.
Out came the reflective tape for the twin fireflies that would lead us, gear was taped down, exposed skin camouflaged, basic loads of ammo issued, magazines filled, weapons checked, water consumed, Tabasco-flavored rations eaten, plans made, basic field hygiene attended to, as each soldier made himself ready in his own private ceremony.
After a brief reconnaissance of the start of the route, the night movement commenced and, basically, went uneventfully. Our plan was to have Charlie Company cordon off three sides of the village at the edge of the rice paddies that surrounded it, and the Vietnamese National Police to chopper in at first light to complete the cordon and conduct the search. Intelligence identified that we had chased a large number of enemy survivors out of the woods during our sweep, and some were spending the night in the village.
I had placed the company in a giant "U", with one platoon on each wing and the rest of us spread along the base. Our recon hadn't taken us near the village, and our maps showed the village and paddies, but couldn't be taken as gospel where the avenues of egress were, and it was too dark as we crept into position to see every little pathway back into the Le Hong Fong from the village, but we had them all covered with overlapping fire. My company CP was placed near the center of the base, where I could best influence the battle as it developed, and we set up and overlapped our zone of fire with the platoons on the right and left of us before settling down to nervously wait for daybreak.
Fortunately for the Charlie Company command group, the operation went off without a hitch and the enemy were taken completely by surprise, or were just too badly beaten and tired of being chased by us to care. Over 80 NVA-"suspects" were apprehended, with associated military hardware. Our tracks joined us, and we were again mechanized Infantry, returning to LZ Betty for a brief stand-down, change of command (I was so short I was a one-digit midget) and yet another mission.
You may be curious why I said "fortunately for the command group". As dawn rose and the pitch black coalesced into tinted shapes and reflections off the paddy surfaces, the structure of the dikes became clear and we saw to our immense chagrin that the Charlie Company command post was guarding the center of the main road from the village over the paddies. Had the NVA tried to put up a fight or escape, the tiny company command group would probably have borne the brunt of their attack.
More than one person called me "John Wayne"
that morning, and I'm just glad that I didn't get a chance to prove
Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin,
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