A Walk in the Woods
by Steve Carpenter, Delta Recon 1969-70
 

Project Delta provided the platform from which grew the long range recon outfits of the Viet Nam era. It provided the basis for experience from which other units drew to develop mission planning, training and execution. Not all missions that were run in the Project were successful or even eventful, as far as affecting the status quo. Virtually all missions, however, provided good experience, lessons learned and some measure of excitement.

In October of 1969, I was assigned as the second man on a team led by Ralph Hill. Ralph was a career soldier with lots of experience. His mission, in part, was to get me ready to take over a team of my own. We received an OP Order that called for a mission to locate a suspected battalion sized headquarters located just inside the border from Laos near the DMZ. After conducting the initial mission brief, Ralph tasked me with the aerial recon of the AO and the duty of selecting a primary LZ, as well as planned routes of travel, alternate LZs, rally points and E&E routes. I met with an Army FAC named Captain Jones and climbed into the back seat of the Bird Dog, my only instructions being that if I had to puke, I was to do it in my helmet. I was later told that Jones was an ex-SF guy and his biggest joy in life was causing young NCOs to vomit in his plane.

About 20 minutes into our flight, we received an emergency call from a team on the ground requesting air support. They were in contact and in dire straits. As we diverted the short distance to the team’s location, Captain Jones called for fast movers. The team was easy to locate on a mountainside by the dust and smoke rising through the canopy. The team marked its location and directed FAC to the enemy locations. Captain Jones banked the little plane sharply, instructed me to hang on, and shoved the throttles forward as he dived toward the mountainside. No more than a few hundred feet from the ground, he toggled a switch and fired 40 mm rockets from under each wing. The plane seemed to stop suddenly in mid flight and drop toward the ground. It recovered quickly and cleared the trees as it circled for another pass. I noticed, for the first time, a circle with a cross in it grease penciled on the windshield. I realized that this was his gunsight. About then a flight of jets arrived on station and I watched as Captain Jones expertly directed their attacks and marked their targets with more diving assaults of his own. The team managed to break contact and radioed an OK. We continued toward the AO.

The AO, as expected, was a heavily canopied piece of ground that ran mostly vertical. The ridge tops were steep and jagged and there were few breaks in the canopy. Near the top of one ridge there was a long narrow opening that ran down one side for about a hundred meters, too obvious and too convenient for an LZ. On the opposite side, very near the border, was a small opening two thirds of the way down the mountain that was too steep to land a chopper, but large enough to effect a ladder infil. The FAC and I agreed that we were looking at our best bet. We headed back toward the FOB, monitoring ground traffic as we went. As we passed over the FOB Captain Jones asked if I was ready to go down. I responded that I was and he proceeded to perform a loop that ended in a nose dive toward the runway below. As we spiraled toward the ground I was aware that the engine noise had stopped and that Jones was talking in a normal voice as though nothing was happening. At some point, which I still believe to be about 10 meters above the ground, he engaged the engine and brought the plane back to its horizontal flying attitude. I squeezed my testicles out of my boots and back into place as he came around for a landing. As we rolled to a stop, I grabbed my gear, jumped from the plane and placed my vomit free helmet on the seat. Captain Jones, a look of grave disappointment on his face, wished me well.

Opinions vary on the wisdom of last light versus first light insertions. Suffice it to say we decided on a last light insertion primarily because of the location of the LZ down low on the west side of the mountain. The setting sun should give us a slight advantage from being pinpointed right off the bat. We geared up, ran our drills, did our final mission brief and headed for the choppers. It was a long run, about 45 minutes to the LZ and we arrived at just the perfect time. As the decoys peeled off we dove and made a beeline for our spot. The ladders were extended and we began to exit the aircraft. With me dangling on one side and the point man on the other, the aircraft took ground fire from the LZ and pulled off. I climbed back into the chopper and hurried to the other door to pull the VN point man back up. We aborted and headed back to the FOB. Infils and exfils tend to be the times of greatest vulnerability and being ‘shot off’ an LZ leaves a team pretty unsettled. Back at the FOB we discussed our plan and decided to approach the secondary LZ at first light. Nobody liked the idea, since we had already rejected it as our primary, but they sure wanted us in there. The bright side was that we’d be nearer the top of the hill, and have a little less climbing to do.

Ralph and I met with the team and we decided to go a little heavier on ordnance and a little lighter on chow. We boarded the choppers an hour before daylight, after being seen off by the rest of the recon section. These mission send-offs had become a quiet ritual within the recon section. They were somber and serious affairs that lacked the bravado and humor that characterized most of our existence. I always felt that they revealed the true depth of the feelings we held for each other and exhibited the level of serious professionalism that distinguished this group from any other.

The team was silent as we each rehearsed our insertion plans in our heads. Light was barely peeking over the horizon when the decoy ships headed to their locations and our ship tree topped it to our LZ. In a matter of seconds, the chopper settled just above the ground, we exited the aircraft, and then it was gone. There is a unique silence that greets a team on an LZ as the thump-thump of the choppers recedes into the distance. We paused briefly at the edge of the LZ to look and listen. There was a movement across the clearing at about 50 meters that was so swift that it caught my eye, but left no visual impression. There was no reception of gunfire. Ralph checked in on the radio and heard that the decoy ship that approached our aborted LZ had received very heavy ground fire. Apparently we were expected. I told Ralph about the movement across the LZ and we moved quickly to skirt the opening and investigate. We found an observation ground blind that looked recently occupied. It appeared that an LZ watcher was on the way to warn others of our presence. Ralph passed the information on through the FAC and we were off on the run. Many typical recon missions were compromised in some manner; either by enemy contact, enemy observation, or some other means of detection. A team’s presence, once detected, never went unchallenged. The intensity of the challenge depended on the enemy’s capabilities, level of concern and mission. Our teams had no way of gauging the bad guys’ response. Expecting the worst, our team covered ground quickly and quietly into some of the steepest terrain in that part of the country. By performing evasive maneuvers, checking and covering our back trail, and diving into deep and dark undergrowth, we were able to establish ourselves in a good overnight position. After a full day of uphill and downhill climbing under the weight of our packs and web gear, all the while at a heightened level of vigilance, we were sweat soaked and exhausted. We were also relieved that there was no indication that our location was known. The team took turns eating and prepared for the night. Night time temperatures might drop 40-50 degrees below daytime temperatures. While still in the balmy range, it became very chilly to a sweat soaked and immobile guy. Even a dry jungle sweater did little to bring comfort. The night, spent straddling a tree trunk to prevent sliding down the mountain, was long, uncomfortable and sleepless. Fortunately, it was also uneventful. At first light we prepared to tackle the mission anew. We began the slow process of moving through the undergrowth with stealth and purpose, in search of clues to the whereabouts of the enemy. Near mid day we approached a break in the slope of a steep hill as it flattened slightly toward the crest. Cautiously we peeked over the break. It was still over 100 meters to the crest of the ridge, and the vegetation, at first glance, seemed a continuation of what we had been fighting for a day and a half. As we slowly rose to continue, tunnel-like openings through the undergrowth subtly became apparent. We retreated a few steps below the break and regrouped. Ralph cautiously crept to the break and slowly glassed the area with his binoculars. Silently he motioned us back down the hill. Once we’d established a little distance, Ralph said that he had seen several defensive positions through the expertly cleared fire lanes, but spotted no troops. We decided to take a break and try to circle the positions and establish the extent of whatever it was we had found. We began to traverse the hill before attempting to reach the top. As we completed our traverse and neared the hilltop, I heard a foot slip on the steep hillside accompanied by an audible pop. Ralph was on one knee with his other leg extended straight downhill. He grimaced in pain and his face was drained of all color. Ralph’s leg was out of line at the knee and rapidly swelling. The team quickly found a less steep spot and formed a defensive perimeter. Ralph’s leg continued to swell and turn a nasty shade of blue. He could not place weight on it or walk. We were nowhere near an LZ and our radio reception was limited because of the terrain. Our only good fortune was that we had not spotted any enemy since leaving the LZ the day before. FAC was due overhead anytime for our noon sitrep. We prepared the coded message for delivery and waited. FAC, as usual, was right on time. The message delivered, FAC advised what we already knew; there was no decent LZ anywhere close to us. There were a couple of spots where he could see the ground through the canopy at the very top of the narrow ridge directly above us. He further advised that we were to find a hiding place and sit tight until further notice. There was a problem elsewhere and no aircraft were available to extract us. We took quick stock of our situation and decided we were as well off where we were as anywhere we could get to with Ralph’s leg. We settled in for our wait.

A couple of hours later we heard the drone of the FAC and listened as he said that they would try for a first light extraction the next morning. About an hour before dark, we heard the unmistakable sound of movement through the foliage. It came toward us quickly, and with a purpose, from the direction of the suspected enemy defensive position. We shared a determined exchange of acknowledgement and quietly stacked magazines in front of us in preparation for a fight. The movement continued to become louder and came directly for us. As our adrenaline pumped we gripped our weapons and watched as nine apes suddenly appeared overhead. They saw us at about the same time we saw them and formed a circle around us. As they peered down at us, we avoided eye contact but were able to get a good look at them. They appeared to be about five feet tall, if they stood up, and had butts that were like red patent leather, that they seemed to enjoy digging in. After perhaps three minutes of mutual admiration, the apes turned uphill and resumed their treetop journey. We had no sooner breathed a collective sigh of relief when the retreat was punctuated by a gunshot no more than 100 meters above us on the hill. We heard the apes shriek and take off and heard a definite thud as one of them hit the ground. We may have been lonely, but we weren’t alone.

As darkness fell, we prepared for another long vigilant night. Ralph, in obvious pain, sweated profusely. There was little we could do for him. I used Ralph’s code book and handset and reported our situation to FAC as he put us to bed for the night. Sometime during the night I watched several lights move along the top of the ridge above us. They moved toward the positions we had spotted earlier. They showed no signs of looking for us. There are sights, sounds and smells that I will always associate with Viet Nam. The drone of the FAC, the thump of the choppers, the rumble of B-52 strikes, the smell of diesel fuel and shit burning, and the sour smell of your own sweat-drenched clothing as you sit on the damp earth in the dark jungle. As morning approached, Ralph and I discussed a plan for getting out of Dodge. We’d only get a brief shot at it, given our lack of mobility. We inched our way to the top of the hill where I had seen the lights the night before. With a little luck we would be close to one of the spots the FAC had said he could see ground. The ridge top came to a sharp point and fell steeply off the other side. A well used foot path was worn along its crest. A quick glance revealed two things. First, we were in luck that some down trees left a very small opening in the canopy through which McGuire rigs might be dropped. Second, the trail in front of us was alive with leeches poking their heads out of the leaves and rotating them like tiny radar in search of their next meal. Something warm blooded had passed recently. The leeches receded into the leaves. FAC arrived just after first light and said the ships were on their way. Suspecting we had people in both directions along the ridge top, I instructed FAC to hold the ships until the last possible moment for extraction. We didn’t have much room to maneuver and I needed to expand the LZ just a little bit to ensure that the choppers could get low enough. I rigged a claymore to the tree I needed to remove and posted half the team to watch in each direction. I instructed FAC that the claymore detonation and the falling tree would mark our location and that he should run the gunships up and down the ridge as the first ship came in. It went like clockwork. The tree fell, the first ship flared in, the belly man dropped the rigs and half the team left. I looked around, expecting to have the VN team leader and the point man with me and was surprised to see Ralph still there. You can debate the wisdom of that move til the cows come home and it won’t change a thing. The second ship moved in as the gunships identified enemy troops heading our way. The chopper began taking fire from a distance before the rigs were thrown out to us. I had donned Ralph’s pack to have access to the radio and had attached my pack to his via a karabiner. Normally, time permitting; a pack would be attached to the sling seat of the McGuire rig before settling into it for the ride. Unfortunately, time didn’t permit. I helped Ralph into his seat, made sure the VN team leader was aboard and struggled into my seat, still wearing both packs, as the chopper pulled pitch to escape the ground fire. I glanced up to insert my left wrist into the safety strap (thank you Norm Doney) and saw my rope tighten against the half loop it had fallen in around a big ass tree. The first thing that hit the tree was my head. I awoke at around two thousand feet suspended from a 120 foot rope behind and beneath a helicopter pushing about 80 knots. I was hanging backwards, nearly upside down by my ankles and my left wrist through the wrist loop. I still had both packs attached to my back. Although my left arm was numb, I could tell that the shoulder, elbow and wrist were stretched out of joint. I grabbed the handset, pressed the transmit button and screamed, “I don’t know if you can hear me or not, but PUT THIS MOTHERFUCKER DOWN!” The belly man’s head popped out of the chopper and quickly back in again. Against all common sense and good training, the pilot set the ship down next to a river. The belly man and a door gunner rushed to help Ralph and me into the chopper. I’m convinced that my arm would have been literally torn off in a pretty short time.

Back at the FOB, we were greeted by the usual cold beer and handshakes. The medics attended to Ralph and gave me a quick inspection. The feeling returned to my arm after a few hours and by the next day I had most of the motion back, which was good because Doc assigned me to help train the pilots and new guys on proper McGuire rig use. He made the assignment with a twinkle in his eye and about a half of a shit eatin’ grin on his face. I learned at the debrief that we had taken a lot of ground fire as we were dragged through the trees. It appeared that we may have found the base camp we were looking for, but it was not fully occupied at the time of our visit. Later that night, in typical Recon fashion, we sat around the tents and I was gently tutored on all the things that were right and wrong about our little walk in the woods. Even the old timers paid close attention to these sessions. In this business, if you stop learning, you’re probably dead.
 

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