GIs...."STAY OUT!"

Copyright 2006: Darwin Stamper. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)

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Webmaster's Introduction: Darwin "Scotty" Stamper was an experienced Non Commissioned Officer with more than one tour in Vietnam to his credit. This story is a good example of how valuable experienced "NCOs" were to the war effort. Also....View Scotty's comments to the "DISCERNING THE TIGER" story here on the War Stories pages.

During my first tour in Vietnam in 1966 to 1967, I was with the 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) and my unit’s normal duties at one point included ambushing Viet Cong (VC) sampans at night along the Song Be River. During the day there was no rest for the weary and we conducted patrols of the same area. The river was heavily populated and there was heavy VC activity all throughout the river’s vicinity. One day we came upon something that really shocked me. It was a bamboo thicket with hand written signs along the perimeter of the thicket that said “GIs stay out”, “Mines” or “booby traps stay out!” As I peered into the thicket, I could see mortar rounds and grenades hanging from the trees and on the ground were artillery and mortar rounds set up as booby traps. (What would today be call Improvised Explosive Device or “IEDs”). We wondered what was inside this thicket that the VC didn’t want us to see? A base camp, hospital, or arms cache maybe?  Fortunately our platoon leader had enough common sense to back off.

A few months later we came across another bamboo thicket with the same kinds of signs and the same booby trapped ordinance. Unfortunately, our Commanding Officer (CO) decided that we should move into the thicket and check it out.  That cost us two dead and four wounded when the COīs RTO tripped a booby trap.

In 1969, during my third tour in Vietnam I was assigned as a platoon sergeant with B Company 1/50th Inf (Mech).  While patrolling with our Armored Personnel Carriers (APCīs) about five hundred meter off of Highway 1…infamously referred to by the French during their war with the Viet Minh as “The Street Without Joy”(1)… we found a very large bamboo thicket covered with Bamboo trees and scrub brush. There were signs warning us to stay out of the area and that the area was booby trapped. We looked into the thicket from the edge and, sure enough, there were mortar rounds hanging from trees, grenades and artillery rounds were laying on the ground wired to be tripped by anyone entering the thicket. We called the coordinates of the thicket in to Headquarters and continued with our patrol, but I got a sinking feeling we would be back. There was something in there the enemy was trying to protect and I knew higher command would want to know what it was.

A few weeks later our platoon was working the same area and driving our APCs  along the outer edge of the thicket. I was riding on the track right behind the platoon leader and as we drove along I saw the signs in English warning us to stay out. I looked up at the Platoon Leader’s (LTs) track and saw him sitting next to the Tank (Track) Commander (TC) hatch with his foot hanging off the side. I called him on the radio and told him with all the booby traps he might want to put his leg up, he gave me a short answer and continue on with his foot hanging over the side. Not more than five minutes later I saw an explosion as the LTīs APC ran over a mine blowing off the tread on the left side. My first thought was that he had lost his foot and that we might have driven into an ambush. We stopped and dismounted setting up a perimeter and I was worried there might be more mines. I walked up to the LTīs track and he was shook up, but by the Grace of God, neither he nor anyone else was hurt, just shaken up some. 

We repaired the track and continued on with our patrol, but I noticed the LT never again hung his foot over side of his APC!

A month or so later the whole company was back in the area and this time I knew we were likely going to try and penetrate the thicket; my first clue was the air force jets bombing and napalming the thicket. As soon as the planes left we moved our APCs up and set up security outside the thicket. Then the CO told us we were going inside and see what was in the area. I started getting bad vibes right away and my mind flashed back to 1966 when my old company tried the same thing and we took casualties.

Well, we got on line and were told to move in and mark any booby traps we found. It took no time at all finding them, hell, you couldn’t miss them! They were hanging from the trees like Christmas Tree Ornaments and also lying on the ground covered with leaves and brush. As we moved in I waited for the explosion I was sure was going to come.  It was hard to conceive having over a hundred men tromping through the thicket without setting something off! As I walked along, trying to negotiate the rounds hanging from the trees, just trying not to brush one of them and set it off, I took my eyes off where I was stepping for a second and felt something give way beneath my right foot. When I looked down I saw I had stepped on a wire running from one tree to another and a chicom pineapple grenade attached at the base of one of the trees. I had tripped the booby trap but it was a dud! I felt the sweat running down my back. A lot of grunts in combat are superstitious, and I am one of them! Something was telling me to stop and get the hell out of there.  I knew if we stayed in that thicket we were going to get some people killed.

I shouted for my Platoon to stop and carefully pull back out of the thicket. When we got outside I lit a cigarette and waited for the ass chew I knew was coming.

I didn’t have long to wait as the LT came up and asked me what I was doing. I told him that I pulled the troops out before someone got killed or maimed. I told him that I had been through this before and I didn’t want to get my people killed when they couldn’t fight back. He told me that I had probably just gotten him relieved of duty. I replied that It had been “my call” and would take full responsibility.

The CO came out of the thicket and started yelling at the LT. I told him the LT didn’t pull the troops out… I did. He threatened me with a Court Martial. I explained to him that I had been through this before and if we kept pushing it we were going to get someone killed. He ordered me to take my people back into the thicket. Before I could reply there was a tremendous explosion in the thicket and I heard wounded screaming and people shouting for medics.  We learned that the COīs command group had tripped a booby trapped mortar round and there were several casualties. We called in dust-off and got the casualties out and then the CO ordered the rest of the company to pull back out.

I spent some anxious time waiting for the promised Court Martial and resultant jail sentence…but no punitive action was ever taken.

Webmaster's Addendum, Summer of 2006: Subsequent to the posting of this account on the website, Bob Camors, former Commanding Officer of both "Alpha" and then "Bravo" Companies provided information on this Bamboo forest.  It was referred to as "Stitt's Woods" after the Forward Air Controller who was called & sent in F-4's to blast the place in September of 1969.  Following is a section of Map Sheet 6631-III, showing the approximate location of the site at coordinates AN854186

Webmaster's Addendum, Fall of 2006: More recollections have come in on Scott Stamper's "Stitt's Woods" story. Mike Chisam, former 1st Platoon Leader, "Bravo" Company, sent along these reflections on his experiences in the area.

Stitt’s Woods!! I know it well! 

I would have guessed it was about 400 meters west of the "X" on Bob Camor's Map (above), but … I don’t have my maps and it has been 37 years!!  Bob is probably right on!! (Editor’s note: In determining the “Stitt’s Woods” location, Bob Camors was very adamant about this location.  He STILL has his maps!! And I believe his recollection is very accurate.)

The day I took over 1st platoon, “B” Company was located just north of Ap Binh Lam.  Captain Robert Hagen, an Armor Officer, was the CO.  My first patrol was in the area of Stitt’s Woods.  This was several months before Charlie Company got caught in the woods and took so many casualties.  It was also before Capt Stitt, the FAC (Forward Air Controller), blew the place apart.  The woods was surrounded by rice patties and some flat open ground.  We didn’t go into the Woods but found some documents buried in an open field.  As we start moving, one of my troops stepped on a mine.  I had been the Platoon Leader less than two hours.   We dusted him off and he seemed to be in good shape.  I never heard anything about him and he didn’t return to the company.  That night I went on my first ambush which was also in the vicinity of Stitt’s Woods. 

About a month later, I was in the vicinity of Stitt’s Woods and it was almost dusk when we received a single shot from the Woods.  I chose not to go in. 

I did go into Stitt’s Woods on one occasion.  I found several booby traps and fortunately we got out without any casualties.

My track hit a mine on Highway ATL 8B just south of Ap Binh Lam.  Fortunately it was a dud & didn’t do any damage.   That was also close to Stitt Woods.

On May 5, 1970, we were operating just north of Ap Binh Lam, still close to Stitt’s Woods.  Bob Camors left me in charge of the company to go back and get ready for some type of inspection.  My platoon had an ambush out that night – no contact.   Two tracks went out to pick them up.  I was standing up in the command track when they were coming in.  About 200 meters NW of our location, they had to cross a stream with very steep banks.  I had always taught them to get off and check the crossing site out because the limited crossing sites were ideal for mines.  The first track hesitated for a minute and then started down the steep bank without checking.   I picked up the radio to call, but by that time the second track was already starting down the steep bank.  There was a very large explosion that blew the track into the air and flipped it over.  When I got there, the track was burning and sounded like a pop corn popper!!  We were moving Ramon Grayson, the TC (“Tank” or “Track” Commander), away from the track when it blew up.  It knocked me head over hills! Fortunately I wasn’t wounded.  When we went back in to retrieve Charles “Red” Arron’s body (the driver), a grenade round cooked off and wounded the person next to me. Fortunately his wound was minor.  I don’t remember who the PFC was that got wounded.  I went through the copy of the Company Roster from the period and believe it was Grady Butler.   Without that roster, I would have never been able to recall his name.   Two killed and three wounded that day.

When Bob & I met recently at “The Wall” (Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC) we asked ourselves the inevitable question, “what if?”… “If I had led the tracks out to pick up the ambush would I have been cautious enough to avoid that tragedy?”  The names and faces of a lot of my soldiers have faded over the years, but I will never forget Grayson & Arron.

Yes, I remember Stitt’s Woods well.

Mike Chisam, 1st Platoon Leader, Bravo Company, 1969-70

Webmaster's Addendum, February of 2010:  Reference the book "Enter and Die" by James W. Milliken. The book is a memoir of the author who served with "D" Company, 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry in the 9th Infantry Division in 1968-69.  These mined areas were quite prolific throughout the delta region in which he served.  It was common practice to avoid these areas at all cost.  They were set up by the enemy who knew American "curiosity" would draw them in and inflict casualties. Pictured below is a sign common to these areas in the delta.  I could find no Vietnamese translation for the term "Tu Dia".   It is my "hunch" that the sign maker did not speak English...but had learned the phrase "To Die"...and tried to translate this using Vietnamese characters.  "Tu" is pronounced "to" and is the Vietnamese pronoun for "you" (Familiar) and "Dia", in Vietnamese is pronounce "Die".  Hence a "Loosely" translated "To Die".

My translation in the previous paragraph, based on a "hunch" is somewhat in error. In 2014, I read the book "Silence Was A Weapon, The Vietnam War in the Villages" by Stuart A. Herrington. In his research into a village in Southwestern South Vietnam (Tan My), the author, fluent in Vietnamese, spent months developing a relationship with a former Vietcong leader who explained:
"Government forces in the village tacitly cooperated with the Vietcong. Even though the government's 58th Regional Forces (RF) Group conducted daily day and night operations in the village, these posed no problem for the Vietcong. The government
       unit had been in Tan My long enough to know what areas of the village to avoid in order to prevent bloodshed. Ambush patrols usually went to the same site several nights a week, while daytime operations consisted of sweeps through the hamlets that
       carefully skirted the heavily booby-trapped Vietcong hiding areas. Lest there be any doubts about which areas were unsafe, the Tan My Vietcong had thoughtfully marked them with warning signs. These signs had a skull and crossbones emblem and
       were inscribed 'Tu Dia' or 'Death Area' . They served a duel purpose: the local people were therby warned of the danger...especially the children, and the RF soldiers were neatly guided by them around the perimeters of enemy hiding areas."

(1) From the Book "Street Without Joy" by Bernard B. Fall, First Published in 1961, ISBN: 0805203303

Copyright 2002 Darwin S. Stamper,
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Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website
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