Dry Hole
by Donald J. Taylor
Sergeant Major (Retired)
U.S. Army Special Forces
Project Delta Recon Team Leader
July 1968 - July 1970

Special Operations Augmentation (SOA) Detachment B-52 (Project Delta), 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) infiltrated Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols into enemy controlled areas to gather Essential Elements of Information (EEI) concerning enemy units located in Project Delta’s Area of Operation (AO). This EEI was the critical information and intelligence needed by American and South Vietnamese combat units planning to conduct operations in the area, and the intelligence information these units usually needed was that concerning enemy unit identity, strength, and location.

In other words, Project Delta recon teams went in to find the enemy, identify them, and count them, but not necessarily to fight them. However, there was always a caveat to our operations orders and that was: If the opportunity presented its self, the recon team was to “snatch” an enemy prisoner and bring him back alive. As VC/NVA were never known to come along peacefully, this caveat gave a recon team authorization to, at any time, stop being a recon team, become a six man assault element and initiate contact with the enemy. It must have been the foolishness of youth causing us to think six men could go into an area occupied by at least a battalion of the enemy, pick a fight with them, and believe we could continue to get away with it without eventually having to pay the ultimate price for our audacity.

It stands to reason then that all Project Delta Reconnaissance Team Operations Orders hinged on the presumption the enemy was somewhere in the recon team’s AO, but occasionally a recon team would be sent into an area where the enemy was either no longer there or they never had been. When a recon team discovered it had been sent in to patrol an AO where there was no enemy to be found, the AO was called a “Dry Hole.”

On the rare occasion when a recon team found it had been dealt a Dry Hole, it was usually accepted as a much-needed R&R (Rest and Recuperation) that should be enjoyed to its utmost. However, some of these Dry Holes turned out to be almost as unforgettable as recon patrols where heavy contact with the enemy was made, and here are some of my memories of the most unforgettable Dry Holes I experienced while leading long range reconnaissance patrols with Project Delta:

Daisy Cutter

In mid November 1968, Project Delta redeployed from a Forward Operating Base (FOB) at the An Hoa U.S. Marine Corps Base in I Corps and flew directly to III Corps to establish an FOB beside the runway at the Dong Xoai Special Forces Camp.  There had been no stand down between the two deployments, but we were told the Project planned to shut down operations around 20 December, leave a security element to secure the FOB, and the Recon Section, along with some of its support elements, would return to Nha Trang for a Christmas and New Year stand down.  However, those who were there must remember the Christmas Stand Down of 1968 never came to pass; Project Delta continued operations through both Christmas and New Year Holidays.

A week before Christmas, just as my Recon Team was preparing to pack up and return to Nha Trang for our promised stand down, we were summoned to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) for a mission briefing and my Recon Team was assigned a 10 Kilometer by 10 Kilometer square for a Reconnaissance Area of Operation (AO) in the heavily forested area east of An Loc, Binh Long Province where intelligence reports indicated numerous NVA company/battalion sized base camps were located.  Later that day, I flew out with our U.S. Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC), Major Roscoe, in an O-1 Bird dog to take a look at my recon AO and select my infiltration and exfiltration LZs.

Before the advent of the GPS, finding the exact 10K by 10K AO out in an area like that devoid of any prominent terrain features was no easy task, but we finally agreed an area between two small rivers constituted my recon AO, and I commenced to look for an LZ in the area I could use for my infiltration.  It wasn’t long before I caught sight of something in the northwest corner of my AO I had never seen before, and I asked the FAC if he knew what it was.  When he replied, “That’s a Daisy Cutter crater,” I remembered reading in The Stars and Stripes about the BLU-82B “Daisy Cutter” bomb, but I had no idea they made a crater like the one I saw below.

What I saw was not a hole in the ground crater like bombs usually made, but it was a perfect circular clearing over 200 meters in diameter, filled with white sand, and located in the deep green of a densely forested area.  According to the story in The Stars and Stripes, a Daisy Cutter was a huge bomb that exploded several feet above the ground’s surface, left no hole in the ground but exploded laterally completely removing all vegetation and top soil within the blast’s radius and creating an excellent 4 to 5 helicopter LZ.  It didn’t take much imagination to see that white disk cut out of the green as a Daisy, thus the BLU-82’s nickname “Daisy Cutter.”  I could have picked any of the several small clearings in my AO as an infiltration LZ, but the Daisy Cutter had peaked my curiosity and I just had to have a closer look at that magnificent LZ, so I selected it as my Primary Infiltration LZ, and that was a decision I would soon regret.

When we first saw the Daisy Cutter crater, I asked Major Roscoe if he knew why the U.S. Air Force had dropped the bomb there and he knew nothing about it.  He went on to say he had met a C-130 pilot who had dropped several of these Daisy Cutters and these bombs had scared the Hell out of the pilot.  The C-130 pilot had said the Daisy Cutter was rolled off the ramp and dropped by parachute at about 6,000 feet AGL so the C-130 could get out of the area in time to escape the blast of the bomb’s 13,000 pounds of High Explosive.  If the parachute failed, the bomb would hit the ground while the C-130 was still inside the blast area with deadly consequences for the C-130 crew.

Back at the FOB, I checked with our S-2 and they knew nothing about the crater and had no information about a recent ground operation in the area.  I thought that was a bit curious, but bombs were dropped on Vietnam every few seconds and no one could expect S-2 to keep up with all of them.  However, as I thought the sole purpose of a Daisy Cutter was to cut an LZ for a ground operation, I did think it was odd that the LZ had been created and there was no record of a following ground operation. 

The next afternoon, my recon team packed up, briefed back and we flew out for a last light infiltration.  The FAC easily vectored us in and, of course, the UH-1H (Huey) “Hole Bird” had no problem at all setting us down in that “Mother of all LZs.”  As soon as the helicopter touched ground, my recon team exited and attempted to run into the wood line, but there was no wood line.  We ran into a solid barrier of logs, limbs, brush and debris towering to 50 feet above us.

In the failing light of EENT (End Evening Nautical Twilight) we looked around and across that expanse of sterile white sand and saw the barrier before us completely encircled the crater.  The Daisy Cutter had impacted in triple canopy jungle where the trees ranged in size from 200 feet down to 50 feet, and when the bomb exploded, it probably vaporized all the trees in a 50-meter radius from the point of impact; then it cut down trees for the next 50 meters and pushed them out into the trees beyond.  For the final 100 meters of the blast radius, this mass of logs uprooted the trees in its path, pushed them outward, and finally deposited the trees in a 50-meter thick wall that was 40-50 feet high and completely encircled the blast area.  The blast created by 13,000 pounds of High Explosive had cut a circular clearing, roughly 250 meters in diameter, and had deposited the contents of that clearing along its outer boundary in the form of a 50 foot high wall of logs, limbs, brush, and debris.

My recon team was inside a 50-foot high log corral and the only way we were going to be able to get off the LZ was to climb out.  It would soon be too dark to safely climb onto that entanglement so we would have to hurry or we would have to RON (remain over night) on our infiltration LZ, and that was unthinkable.  We started moving around the edge of the crater looking for a relatively solid place to climb out until it became too dark to continue the search and we did the unthinkable; we RONed on our Infiltration LZ.

The next morning at sunup we continued our search for a way off the LZ until we came upon our tracks from the night before; we had completely circled the LZ without finding a way out.  The problem wasn’t that this was a solid wall of logs.  The problem was that this was a haphazardly piled mass of logs and debris that was extremely unstable.  We had made attempts in several places to climb out, but our weight would cause the logs to shift, roll and threaten to bury us in its entanglement.  A couple of times we had climbed almost to the top only to find that if we were to continue we would have to either climb over logs too unstable to support our weight or we would have to crawl under them, so we would turn around and climb back down into the crater.

By mid-morning, we were still on our infiltration LZ, it was apparent there was no safe way to climb out of the crater, but it was also apparent it was even more dangerous, as exposed as we were, to remain in that crater. The term “Shooting fish in a barrel” came to mind.  We were the fish, the crater was the barrel, and the VC would do the shooting if they ever got to the top of that log wall from the outside before we could escape from inside the crater.

Rather than expose the entire six-man recon team on the side of the log and debris wall while hunting for a way out, we searched until we found a fairly solid looking spot and sent the point man to the top, but within seconds of him arriving at the top, he turned around and hurriedly scrambled back down.  Our point man reported he had seen an abandoned NVA/VC base camp on the other side of the wall, but he couldn’t be absolutely certain it was abandoned.  It was highly unlikely there would still be any NVA/VC in the base camp after such a narrow miss by a Daisy Cutter, but one could never be absolutely certain about those things, so I sent the point man back up to observe the base camp for at least 30 minutes before we put the entire team over the wall.  After about 30 minutes, our point man signaled us he had seen no activity, so we climbed over the wall one at a time. 

My recon team re-grouped on the other side and proceeded to cautiously examine the remnants of the VC/NVA base camp.  The base camp consisted of about 10 bunkers the blast from the Daisy Cutter had collapsed, but we couldn’t tell if any of the enemy had been in the camp when the bomb fell or if any of them had been killed by the blast.  There was no fresh sign of enemy activity, and the bunkers appeared to have been abandoned for at least three months.

By the bunkers’ positioning, we could tell they were just part of the outer defenses of a large base camp, and the main part of the camp had been where the crater was now located.  Because of this, we believed the Daisy Cutter had not been dropped simply to cut an LZ, but it had been dropped as part of a tactical air strike to take out a large VC/NVA base camp.  The team spent that day and the next patrolling the area around the crater and found several other places where the base camp’s outer defenses protruded from the crater.  To us, this confirmed a direct hit had been made on a VC/NVA base camp of at least battalion size.

We patrolled our recon AO for the full five days and never found any fresh sign of VC/NVA activity in the area, and we hoped if any VC/NVA were left alive after the Daisy Cutter blast, they were now out looking for Chieu Hoi (surrender) Leaflets they could redeem at any of the local U.S. or ARVN outposts.  A Daisy Cutter may have left something to be desired as an LZ cutter, but as a tactical or psychological weapon it was unsurpassed by anything except possibly an Arc Light.  As I had crossed over the top of the log barrier around that crater, I had looked back into its wide expanse to admire the destructive power of a Daisy Cutter’s 13,000 pounds of HE, and if I had been either a VC or an NVA soldier, the sight would have been enough to make me find religion then and there.

After we were extracted, had completed our debriefing, and had adjourned to the Beer Tent, Pat Walters, my back up on this patrol chuckled and said, “Someday, we’ll look back on this and laugh.”  I had thought then that he was joking because there was absolutely no way anyone could ever look back on what had just happened and laugh, but the other day I did just that.  Our last recon mission of 1968 had been a Dry Hole, and we thanked God for the Christmas present, but the gift would have been much better if He had kept the damned Daisy out of it.

In recent years, the BLU-82B (Daisy Cutter) has made the news several times when they were dropped in Iraq and Afghanistan during tactical air strikes.  As they report these air strikes, the news anchor or reporter always adds, “… and this BLU-82 bomb, the Daisy Cutter, was used in Vietnam to clear Landing Zones for helicopters.”  Whenever I hear this, I cringe and remember the worst LZ I ever selected was a Daisy Cutter LZ.  The BLU-82 may be an excellent tactical or psychological weapon, but believe me it makes a sorry LZ.          

Agent Orange

In February 1970, Project Delta deployed to Phuoc Long Province in III Corps Tactical Zone and established a Forward Operating Base (FOB) beside the runway at Bunard Special Forces Camp. Shortly after arriving at Bunard, my recon team was given a mission briefing and assigned a Recon AO in an area that had been completely defoliated by Agent Orange in 1966-67.

Before much of it was defoliated, Phuoc Long Province had been completely covered with dense tropical rainforest and jungle. Hidden under the trees of these forests and jungles were numerous Viet Cong base camps and an infiltration trail network that funneled enemy troops and equipment from Cambodia to the outskirts of Saigon. Because of this, much of the area had been defoliated to give U.S. surveillance aircraft the ability to monitor these trails and interdict enemy movement. But now, after four years had passed, some of these defoliated area’s vegetation had recovered to the point where the ground was no longer visible from the air, and my recon mission was to determine if these old trails were active again, and if possible, which enemy units were using them. For a recon mission, that had seemed to be simple and straight forward enough, but it didn’t turn out to be very simple at all.

Immediately following our mission briefing, I flew out with our U.S. Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC) in an O-1 Birddog to conduct a Visual Reconnaissance (VR) of my Recon AO and select my primary and alternate Infiltration Landing Zones (LZ). I had patrolled this area with a Company of Montagnard CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) back in 1966-67 when it was defoliated and thought I knew the area well, but I was completely unprepared for what I saw when we flew into the target area that day.

As we approached at about 2,000 feet AGL (above ground level), I first saw my recon AO on the horizon as a blob of grayish white that stretched from horizon to horizon in an otherwise sea of green. When we came closer, I realized the magnificent tropical rainforest I had once known was no longer there. The 200-250 foot tall hardwood trees that were 15-20 feet in diameter at the base and had stood proudly since, it seemed, the beginning of time had been dead now for over four years, and they now appeared to be nothing but sun bleached, grayish white skeleton arms reaching toward the sky with the bony fingers of their skeletal hands spread out in pitiful supplication.

I remembered back to a time four years earlier when I had roamed these forests with a Company of Montagnard tribesmen who were as much a part of the forest as were the trees, the birds, and the animals. A Montagnard CIDG Company would move along the forest floor grazing on the occasional fruit, berry, nut, leaf, or seed as they passed through, never taking more than they needed, and always careful not to harm the forest in any way. In fact, those giant trees had played a large part in their animistic religion, and I wondered how these gentle people now felt about how we had completely destroyed this once glorious creation of God.

Montagnard CIDG Companies were usually made up of a single extended Montagnard family, with the grandfather being the Company Commander, his Platoon Leaders were his sons, the Platoon Leader’s sons were Squad Leaders, Fire Team Leaders were the Squad Leader’s younger brothers, and the Riflemen and BARmen were, for the most part, the teenage boys of the family. Montagnards were brave soldiers, excellent hunters, tremendous trackers, knew the forest like no other, and they were fiercely loyal to U.S. Army Special Forces, but there was a problem with how they were organized as a combat unit. A Montagnard Company, being a close-knit family, made for a well-organized unit, but the familial closeness of the unit was extremely detrimental to its combat effectiveness. As this was a combat unit made up entirely of close family members, it couldn’t sustain even the lightest casualties without it becoming an emotional catastrophe within the unit requiring immediate withdrawal back to camp, followed by a period of mourning by the entire family of the deceased soldier.

One of my fondest memories of the time was seeing a thirteen-year-old Montagnard BARman, brave beyond his years, searching for the Viet Cong, dragging a Browning Automatic Rifle through the jungle, and the rifle had been bigger than he was. But a memory I could live just as well without is one of seeing the boy’s Platoon Leader, who was also his father, carrying the boy’s dead body back to camp and to the boy’s mother.

It had always been a village wide disaster for the women of the tribe when we brought back their dead fathers, husbands, sons, or brothers, and the women’s weeping and wailing could be heard for several days until they had finally cried themselves out. A war just couldn’t be fought without taking casualties, but that could never be told to a mother when she was holding her dead son in her arms.

Many of the forests where these Montagnards had made their home were tropical rainforests made up of 200-250 foot trees and were single canopy forests not the typical triple-canopy jungle where there were three layers of foliage. Montagnards were nomads and built their log, thatched roofed longhouses under the cool shade of these trees and would live there only until they had depleted the surrounding forest of food, and then they would move to another forest.

In the oldest of these tropical rainforests, the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest had prevailed and the trees that could grow the tallest and largest had succeeded in towering over their competitors. They had spread their branches, interlocked with other trees of their type, and had completely blocked any sunlight from reaching the forest floor. As there was no sunlight allowed to reach the forest floor, no other trees could rise to challenge these giants’ supremacy, and very little plant life was able to thrive in the perpetual gloom of the forest floor, just a variety of different strains of orchids, lichens, small shade tolerant bushes and such. As different from tropical jungle where visibility was frequently restricted to no more than arm’s length, visibility on the tropical rainforest floor was excellent; sometimes as much as seventy-five meters visibility between the tree trunks could be had.

Much of the life in these tropical rainforests existed in the tops of their giant trees where a diverse assortment of gibbons, monkeys, birds, reptiles, and insects lived in natural harmony. Also living up there were huge black Pterodactyl looking birds with fifteen-foot wingspans.  These birds had long, sharp, orange beaks that completely encased their heads, and made a whoosh-whoosh-whoosh sound with their wings when they flew that sounded for all the world like an incoming 4.2 inch mortar shell, so we simply called them “Four-Deuce” birds.  Four Deuce birds fed on the birds and monkeys in the tree tops and the whooshing sound of a Four Deuce bird’s approach would spread panic among the monkeys and birds that lived up there.

On the forest floor lived tigers, elephants, black bears, huge elk, small barking deer (yes, they barked like a dog), wild boar, a variety of small rodents, poisonous/non-poisonous snakes, and, of course, the Viet Cong. This area had once been home to the Viet Cong 9th Main Force Division, and there had been base camps hidden from the air here under these trees for the Division’s 271st, 272nd, and 273rd Main Force Regiments. I would have wondered where those Regiments had gone to now, but I already knew. The Viet Cong 9th, with all three of its Regiments, had gone into Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive and they never came out; they had died almost to a man.

It took several years for the U.S. Air Force’s Operation “Ranch Hand” to defoliate a large swath between the Cambodian Border and Saigon, and my Recon AO was now located in a part of this swath. During the time Ranch Hand was defoliating this swath through Tay Ninh, Bin Long, and Phuoc Long Provinces, I had been out numerous times on combat operations in these areas, and I eventually became somewhat at ease with defoliation occurrences, but my first experiences with Agent Orange were a bit disconcerting.

As a herbicide, Agent Orange was most effective during the dry season when this part of Vietnam would go for months without any appreciable rainfall and plant life had been stressed to the maximum. In addition to that, Ranch Hand would run their defoliation flights during mid-day when the day’s heat was at its highest and plant life was especially stressed. During this intense heat of mid-day, I would halt my Montagnard Company, form a defensive perimeter and not move until the sun dropped toward the horizon and the temperature dropped with it. The Montagnards called this noontime break “Pak” and believed it to be unhealthy to move during this period of extreme heat, and it probably was. During the intense heat of Pak, everyone, even the Viet Cong, would find shade, halt, lie down, and fall into a semiconscious stupor (it wasn’t really sleep) until the intense heat of mid-day had subsided. Only American combat units moved in the noonday sun, reminiscent of an old East Indian proverb, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.”

It was during one of these Pak time halts when my first experience with Agent Orange occurred. In the distance, we heard the rumble of a low-level approach of what we had thought to be an approaching flight of A1-E Sky Raider bombers because of the sound of the aircrafts’ reciprocating engines and their propellers. As Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) flew these bombers and considered our AO to be a “Free Fire Zone,” they were liable to drop their bombs whenever and wherever they pleased, so the sound of their approach claimed our undivided attention. When the sound of what we thought were approaching bombers drew nearer, we could hear they were coming in very low, just as they would if they were on a bombing run, and I could see the look of apprehension on my Montagnard troop’s faces. A flight of A1-Es could do a lot of damage and we could tell from the sound they would soon be right on top of us. About that time, what we had thought to be A1-Es would pass directly overhead just above the treetops, and we would smell a faint chemical odor. We then knew these aircraft were not single engine A1-E bombers but were twin-engine C-123s of Ranch Hand, and we were in the midst of a defoliation operation. We had been told Agent Orange was completely harmless to human beings and I had believed it, but what happened next gave me second thoughts about the chemical’s safety.

Within minutes of the aircraft passing overhead, leaves would begin to fall from the trees. Thousands of gigantic trees that had stood there probably since before the time of Christ were now dying after receiving a single dusting of what had to be the most poisonous substance on the planet. What started as a rustling of the falling of a few leafs soon increased in volume to become a loud hiss as millions of leaves began to fall from thousands of trees until it sounded as if the forest was exhaling its dying breath in a final, loud, continuous sigh. The birds and the monkeys in the tops of these giant trees would begin to scream and fly or jump about in mindless panic, and a few monkeys would become so panic-stricken they would lose their grip and fall to their deaths on the forest floor, causing my Mountagnards to think the monkeys had been killed by the defoliant. I never understood what had caused these animals to become so panic stricken when they were caught in an Agent Orange defoliation, and I wondered if they had possibly known something I didn’t know, or could they have sensed something I was unable to detect?  Could the birds and animals have sensed the agony of thousands of trees, as these living beings died a slow, horrible death? Could they have understood that their home, their world, and their life as it had been was now gone forever?

As my Montagnards were as much a part of this forest as were the birds, animals, and the trees, they were also near panic over what was happening around them, and they looked to me to see how I reacted. I knew if I showed the least bit of apprehension, concern, or fear, a mindless panic would quickly spread through the Montagnard Company like wildfire, just as it had through the birds and animals. To show them I was not the least bit concerned and was sure my country would never do anything to hurt me, I lit a cigarette, slowly smoked it and calmly watched the world die around me. When I finished my cigarette, I pretended I didn’t even notice we were all being buried under a blanket of falling leaves, and I closed my eyes and pretended I was asleep. I wanted my troops to believe nothing was wrong and this was just a normal everyday occurrence in my world, but I knew deep inside something was badly wrong; I just didn’t know what it was. Each time I was caught up in an Agent Orange defoliation operation, I would have a deep feeling of foreboding that something very evil had just passed my way, and the world around me would never again be the same.

In the months and years following these Agent Orange defoliations, Montagnards frequently came to me and told me they believed these defoliation operations were causing their pigs, chickens and their wives to give birth to either stillborn or deformed offspring. Each time this happened, I told them, and I believed it at the time, Agent Orange was harmless to anything but vegetation, they were only repeating communist propaganda, and they must stop spreading those lies. But, somehow, I don’t think I ever convinced them I was correct in my evaluation of Agent Orange.

That was then and this was now. I had a job to do, and I wondered what the FAC had thought of my long silence as I stared at the present and thought of the past. I looked down through the skeletal remains of the forest of my memories to observe what had sprung up from the forest floor after sunlight had reached it. What I saw was a wild tangle of small trees, bushes, underbrush, vines, and weeds that had now, after four years, grown to a height of about 20-30 feet and seemed to be almost impenetrable in places. Survival of the fittest was again being contested among the various types of vegetation competing for supremacy just as it had eons ago, and one day again in the distant future the most fit would again rise above the others, block the sunlight and choke the life from its competitors. But for now, it was true that overhead observation could no longer penetrate through to the forest floor, and the trails passing through this area could no longer be seen from the air, so I was going to have to go down there and take a look.

I selected an infiltration LZ in a grass-filled clearing bordering the dead forest and an exfiltration LZ in another clearing an estimated four days movement to the north. This area north of Phuoc Vinh was rolling hills cut by frequent streams that drained into the Song Dong Nai River, so there would be adequate watering points throughout the route of march between my infiltration LZ and my exfiltration LZ. We were only two months into the dry season and I was fairly confident these streams would still be flowing, but by May, I wouldn’t have bet my life on it.

In selecting an infiltration LZ, a route of march, and an exfiltration LZ, there were several considerations to ponder. One primary consideration, of course, was probable enemy locations. But there were other considerations of equal or possibly more importance than the enemy and one of those considerations was probable locations to obtain water. This was the dry season, it hadn’t rained for months, small seasonal streams had dried up and water would be hard to find if we moved away from major streams or rivers. When moving through this terrain in 120 degree (F) temperature, a soldier needed over a gallon of water a day just to survive, and he needed more than that if he was to stay healthy. That meant in our movement we had to find water on a daily basis or we were in big trouble, as a lack of water in this terrain would kill a man just as quickly as a bullet and maybe even quicker. Each man on the team carried six canteens and it was of paramount importance we filled them daily. Wherever I selected an infiltration LZ and an exfiltration LZ, there had to be a daily source of water along the route of march between the two, because during the dry season a recon team’s daily priority was finding water. After the team’s water needs had been taken care of, the priority would then shift to gathering the required EEI, but that usually took care of its self; the enemy needed water too and we would usually find them near the same water we needed.

During the dry season, when it didn’t rain from December to May in this part of South Vietnam, all animal life, both prey and predator, depended on the few remaining sources of water, and next to tigers the major predator found around this water was the crocodile. Fortunately, these fifteen to twenty foot reptiles feared humans, were not known to attack people, and I was thankful for that. I once had a face-to-face encounter with a large crocodile during a stream crossing and saw that if the croc had used the same blinding speed he had used in getting away to attack me, he would have easily had me. That thing was, hands down, the fastest moving animal I had ever seen.

When I returned to the Bunard FOB, I briefed my recon team on what I had seen, and we all agreed the toughest part of this recon mission was going to be making our way through the dense brush that had sprung up from the forest floor. In every way, this mission had seemed to be just another routine recon patrol for a six-man recon team.

My recon team and I had been together for some time by then, and we had our SOPs and immediate action drills down to a routine, so we needed very little rehearsal in preparation for this patrol, but we had a new man on our recon team and he needed to practice our drills with us at least a few times. My assistant team leader had been SSG Terrence W. (Terry) Pardee, but he had recently completed his tour, returned to the U.S., and had returned to civilian life. SSG William R. (Grit) Pomeroy Jr. was then assigned to my team and this was going to be his first trip into the “Hole” with me, so I was very busy for the next two days teaching “Grit” our SOPs, immediate action drills, and everything he needed to know to back me up. Grit stayed with my recon team until Project Delta closed out the following July, and we worked very well together until the end. Bill Pomeroy got the nickname “Grit” because he was from Alabama and had (still has) a very deep Southern accent.

Three days after we received our mission brief, we briefed back and flew out for a last light insertion. I had picked a fairly large grass filled clearing for my Primary LZ, our “Hole Bird” was able to do a low hover, and we jumped out at about six feet above the down-wash compressed elephant grass. We had only moved, mostly by crawling, about a hundred feet into the dense underbrush beneath the dead trees before it became too dark to move further and we “fish-hooked” into an RON (remain over night) position. By SOP, we went into our 360-degree defensive perimeter where we were close enough to touch one another and prepared to spend the night.

I had noticed during our crawl into this tangle there were no birds, monkeys, or insects to be heard and the air was deathly quiet. Suddenly, a few hundred meters away, there was the “unmistakable” rattle of gunfire punctuated by a single grenade blast. We were immediately on the alert as we tried to figure out what had just happened. We were the only “friendlies” in the area so the firing must have come from what sounded like a squad of VC/NVA firing a short burst of auto and semi-auto fire and then tossing a single grenade. No, by the sound of it, they would have had to throw the grenade and then fire while the grenade’s fuse burned.

Within a few minutes, we heard an almost identical mixture of auto/semi-auto fire followed by a grenade burst, but this was several hundred meters in the opposite direction from the first firing we heard. By the distance involved, this had to be a different enemy squad using the same technique of tossing a grenade and firing until the grenade blew. A short time later we heard the very same technique repeated; the burst of fire punctuated by a grenade burst, but in yet another direction and a farther distance from us, and it didn’t take us long to figure out what the VC/NVA were doing. They had heard our helicopter land but they didn’t know exactly where we were, so they had sent out several squads to “probe” likely locations where we might be located.

The VC/NVA probed for us all night long. Through out the night, we heard the same technique repeated over and over again in various directions and distances from us. It was always the same: a burst of small-arms fire followed by a grenade blast. In addition to the firing, we also heard noises typical of troops crashing through the brush at night when they couldn’t clearly see what was before them. None of us slept at all that night, and as the morning light slowly filtered through the foliage and we could just barely see outside the perimeter of our RON, immediately to our front we heard the now familiar Pow-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pow-Pow-Pop-Pow-Pop-Pop-Kaboom…, as one the long-dead, giant trees fell and narrowly missed us.

Then the noises we had heard all night suddenly made sense to us; the dead forest was now disintegrating and falling around us. Termites and rot had devoured the bases of these long-dead trees and they were, one by one, falling into the forest floor. As a dead tree toppled, it fell through the neighboring trees’ dead branches, broke them off making sounds like rifle shots, and then it made a sound as loud as any grenade when it impacted with the ground. In addition to the trees themselves falling, we could now identify the sound of dead limbs and branches falling from the dead trees all around and above us, and we realized the dead forest was now a death trap, as the debris, much of it falling from over 200 feet, could be as deadly as a rifle bullet if it struck you. Realizing this, we moved as quickly as possible back to our infiltration LZ to escape from the danger of being under those disintegrating and falling trees.

We obviously needed to make another plan, but what were we to do? We sat there on our infiltration LZ as the sun slowly rose and tried to figure out how we were going to work our way out of this quandary. Surely, the VC/NVA already knew what we had just found out and were not using the trails running through this disintegrating forest, but we had been sent in to physically check these trails and we were somewhat obliged to follow our orders. Even though it was extremely dangerous to continue our mission, I couldn’t call back to the FOB and request an emergency extraction because the trees were trying to kill us, so I changed my plan to where our route of march took us mainly over the elephant grass clearings that bordered the dead forest and only took us through narrow bands of dead trees separating these clearings from one another. If the enemy had been in the area, it would have been suicidal to move in the open like that, but as it was, it would have been even more suicidal to try to move under that disintegrating forest.

We moved through the elephant grass until we reached our first water point, and then after we had filled our canteens, we made an un-tactical movement (dash) to where our map indicated an old infiltration trail was located about 100 meters away. On reaching the old trail, we took photos of the trail’s unused condition, and a photo (a picture is worth a thousand words) of one of the gigantic dead trees lying across the trail. We then turned, made another mad dash back to the elephant grass clearing where we spent the rest of the day and that night near our source of water, and the whole time there, we watched and listened as the dead forest disintegrated beside us. I had been present when the forest had been put to death, and a macabre twist of fate had now brought me back to bear silent witness at their funeral when, one by one, those ancient trees fell to the forest floor and returned to the soil from whence they came.

The next morning, I radioed the FAC, gave him “Mission Accomplished” and asked him to relay our request to the FOB for a routine extraction of my recon team. That had been one Dry Hole where I’d have much preferred to have found the enemy instead of what we found.

My Valley

During March 1970, Project Delta was still at the Bunard FOB and conducting reconnaissance patrols in the Song Dong Nai River basin when my recon team was assigned a Recon AO that encompassed most of a small river valley in the foothills of the Central Highlands. My Recon AO was at the maximum range of a UH-1H helicopter and would be the first patrol the Project had sent out that far, as most of our patrolling to date had been in the vicinity of the Cambodian Border. My assigned river valley was one of the headwater-rivers of the Song Dong Nai River and lay between two ridgelines that continued to rise to the north and eventually became part of the Central Highlands. At our mission briefing, we were informed there was a large unidentified enemy unit in this valley and our recon mission’s EEI was to try and identify this unit.

Following the mission briefing, I flew out with the Forward Air Controller (FAC) in an O-1 Birddog to select my infiltration/exfiltration LZ and to look over the AO. We approached the target valley at about 2,000 feet AGL, and as we drew near enough to the valley to get a clear look at it, my heart almost stopped because of what I saw. The bottom of the valley, where its river flowed into the Song Dong Nai River, was about fifteen kilometers wide and the valley was about forty kilometers long with steep ridgelines on each side. The valley was covered in tropical rainforest with large grass-filled clearings scattered throughout, but the thing that immediately captured my undivided attention was the number of hard-packed trails that ran down the sides of the river in this valley, and the hard-packed trails that ran down the ridgelines that bordered the valley. Not only did these heavily used trails run north and south beside the river and down the ridgelines, but they also crisscrossed the valley from east to west in numerous places and could be clearly seen where they crossed the grass-filled clearings.

I had not seen such “unmistakable” evidence of enemy activity since the A Shau Valley, and I estimated there had to be at least a division of NVA in the valley to beat down trails like that. If there had ever been a question as to where the VC/NVA had gone when they departed the defoliated areas of War Zone C, I thought I had just found the answer, and I wondered why they didn’t just run a couple of B-52 Bomber Arc Light strikes down the valley instead of sending a six man recon team in there on a suicide mission. I asked the FAC to take us down lower for a closer look and he refused. He believed that with the amount of enemy troops down there, we would be shot out of the sky if we ventured any lower than we were.

I picked my infiltration LZ in a small clearing with a large hard-packed trail running through it on top of the easternmost ridgeline forming the valley, and I intended to make my infiltration approach from the east, never flying over the valley to reach my LZ. The clearing was large enough for a sit down or low hover, and would have been an excellent LZ if not for the heavily used trail running through it. I also intended to make a first light infiltration instead of a last light insertion, because, with the amount of enemy obviously in the valley, I knew we’d be in heavy contact within minutes of landing in our AO, and, if we could, this would give us all day to fight our way out.

When I returned to the FOB, I briefed my team and described in detail what I had seen in our recon AO. After hearing what I’d seen, the team knew this was going to be the recon patrol we had always dreaded would one day be assigned to us; a patrol where we were sent into a valley so full of the enemy we stood little chance of coming out alive. This was indeed the “Valley of Death” we had all dreaded but knew would one day come our way. So we planned on taking as much ammunition, grenades and Claymore mines as we could carry, because we intended to take as many of the enemy with us as we could when we departed this world. None of us thought we would be alive long enough to get hungry, so we planned on carrying very little food. SSG William R. (Grit) Pomeroy Jr., my assistant team leader, said a much-needed prayer for our souls and we went to bed early. We knew we were going to need all of our strength for what lay ahead of us.

My request for a first light insertion was approved, and we flew out the next morning at BMNT (Beginning Morning Nautical Twilight). Our “Hole Bird” dropped out of flight formation about ten kilometers out from my AO, and we flew up the Song Dong Nai River just barely above the water as the FAC vectored us into our LZ. When we broke over the eastern ridgeline, our pilot saw our infiltration LZ and settled the helicopter into it for a sit down.

As soon as the helicopter touched ground, I jumped off, started to run into the wood-line and stepped into a knee-deep pile of very fresh elephant dung. The team assembled in the wood-line beside the trail and we looked around in both astonishment and relief. We saw that both the clearing and the trail were covered with elephant tracks and with deposits everywhere of both old and fresh elephant dung. This heavily used trail had not been beaten out by human traffic, but it had been made by a herd of elephants…wild elephants, and if there were wild elephants in the valley, the enemy would be nowhere nearby.

There had been reports over the years of the VC/NVA using elephants as load carrying animals, so we couldn’t, as yet, call this a dry hole, and we started cautiously making our way into the tropical rainforest in the valley below. But it didn’t take us long at all to come to the complete realization there were not only no enemy in the valley, but it was highly doubtful if any humans had ever even been there before we had arrived. The gibbons, monkeys and birds showed no fear of us at all, just curiosity, but the elephants kept their distance. We could hear elephants moving away from us as we approached, but with their excellent senses of smell, hearing, and probably memory of man, they never let us get close enough to see them. I had no way to determine how many elephants were in that valley, but I would guess it had taken possibly a hundred, maybe more, to make the number of elephant trails we found.

It was on the afternoon of the first day when we met the “Forest People” (Ngoui Rung). I had heard of them from both the Montagnards and the Vietnamese since first arriving in Vietnam, but I had always considered these stories of the “Forest People” to be nothing more than folklore much like the stories of the Yeti of the Himalayas, the Sasquatch of our own Pacific Northwest, or maybe even like the stories of Leprechauns in Ireland.

The “Forest People” were very much a part of a Montagnards every day life, as anything a Montagnard couldn’t understand or couldn’t explain was conveniently blamed on the “Forest People.” If something was lost or was unexplainably broken or damaged, it was always the “Forest People” who had done it. One had to remember that the Montagnards were still in the stone age when we met them, and they didn’t understand much about the world outside the forest around them, but they did know the forest very well, and I should have listened to them when they said there were “Forest People,” because there they were now, all around us.

Over the years, we had all caught glimpses of animals in the forest that were so fleeting we couldn’t identify them, and the Montagnards, if they also couldn’t identify them, would say, “Forest People,” but when we tried to pin them down with a description of these elusive “Forest People,” they would simply describe them as people with brown hair all over their bodies. Montagnards were reluctant to talk much about the subject because it was considered bad luck to talk about the “Forest People,” but, apparently, the “Forest People” didn’t wear clothing, and neither had the Montagnards when we first met them. Montagnards, both men and women, had worn only the equivalent of “G” strings or sarongs and were bare breasted, but they hadn’t worn these clothing items out of a sense of modesty; they had worn them to keep insects off of, and to protect, their privates. Except for their brown hair, the “Forest People” before us now were completely naked.

Montagnards believed these “Forest People” were not only very dangerous but they had supernatural powers. They believed if someone ever offended the “Forest People,” they would come in the night and exact a terrible vengeance upon both the offender and his family. Some of the stories about the “Forest People” even alluded to them being cannibals who would tear out and eat the livers of their victims. Montagnards seemed to have such an unreasonable fear of the “Forest People that it was difficult for we Americans to understand, so many of us simply wrote off the whole “Forest People” issue as nothing more than a primitive people’s superstition, but now I knew we had been wrong…very wrong.

Only one time before, had I observed what was said to be an encounter between the Montagnards and the “Forest People,” and that had happened on a company sized combat operation with a Montagnard CIDG Company in northeastern Binh Long Province. It had been during the dry season, most of the small streams had dried up, but we had finally found a small flowing stream in the bottom of a steep draw completely surrounded by triple canopy jungle. The company had a “Water Hole” SOP we followed during these occasions where, rather than the entire company going down into the draw to stumble around and contaminate the water (to say nothing of the security issues involved), we would send a water detail made up of one man from each squad down to the water hole while the remainder of the company secured the perimeter. The water detail gathered the canteens from their squads, each man in the water detail tied his squad’s canteens together on a rope and slung them over their shoulder, and then, with canteens a clattering, they proceeded together down into the draw.  Within a few minutes, there were grunts, screams, and one hell of a commotion going on down in the draw, and then the water detail excitedly returned, but with empty canteens.

When I asked what had happened, I was told, “That water belongs to the ‘Forest People,’ they say we are not welcome to it, and we must go.” Needless to say, that answer made no sense at all to me. We were on a combat operation and were moving toward contact with at least a company-sized unit of Main Force Viet Cong, and a small number of “Forest People,” without a shot being fired, had just put us into retreat. If the Montagnards could fear the “Forest People” more than they feared Main Force Viet Cong, then the “Forest People” must be some fearsome beings, and now, there they were, four years later, all around us.

The “Forest People” had suddenly appeared in the trees above and around us. We hadn’t heard or seen them coming; they were just suddenly there, and they were continuously moving about, never still. They moved in and out of our field of vision so quickly we could never get a good estimation of how many there were around us. There could have been many, or there could have been only a few; we couldn’t tell. Then one large male dropped down into the forest floor and approached us. I figured him to be either the leader of the group or, most likely, the designated intimidator. He was about five feet tall, long armed, no tail, weighed over a hundred pounds, and, except for its face, he was covered from head to toe in graying brown hair. It was obviously of the ape or orangutan family, but its facial complexion and some of its features were very similar to those of a Montagnard. I could see the almost human intelligence in its eyes as it gazed into mine, and then it grunted and smiled, but it wasn’t a smile of friendship; it was showing me its teeth and the message was very clear. The message it conveyed was almost telepathic in its clarity: we were not welcome, and we must leave, or there would be violence. Just for a moment, I thought I was going to have to shoot him. Then, the “Forest People” disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.

The apes had attempted to intimidate us, and I could now understand how a meeting like that would have affected the Montagnards whenever they had attempted entry into the valley. The “Forest People’s” intimidation routine may have been effective in keeping the Montagnards out of the valley over the years, but I was afraid these apes were in for a rude awakening if an American combat unit ever entered the valley.

I asked Grit what he had made of this confrontation, and after a moment of reflection, Grit succinctly summed up our encounter, put the occurrence into perspective, then in his slow Alabama drawl replied, “That was the biggest monkeys I ever seen…right mean looking ones too.” Well, so much for the “Forest People,” and I hoped Grit hadn’t just delivered their epitaph.

We continued moving toward our exfiltration LZ, and we didn’t see the “Forest People” again, but I had known they were watching, and I wondered if they had thought we were heeding their warning and leaving their valley.

We moved through the valley for three days marveling at the diverse wild life in its tropical rainforest, and I saw once again the “Four Deuce” birds in the treetops with the gibbons, and monkeys. On the forest floor we saw the black bear, the giant elk, we heard the small barking deer, and caught glimpses of tigers as they checked us out, decided we weren’t prey, and silently crept away. All was well again in the world, and the war was far, far away. This had indeed been a “Dry Hole,” and a gift from God to be enjoyed to its utmost. We could have reported “Mission Accomplished” and exfiltrated after two days, but we stayed three, and if we’d brought more food, we’d have stayed for five.

Soon after my recon team returned from this patrol, Project Delta terminated operations in the area, closed down the FOB at Bunard, and returned to Nha Trang for a brief stand down before deploying to Mai Loc. The war quickly wound down after that, and I’m nearly positive no combat operations were ever conducted in or near the valley before the war ended. My recon team had confirmed the enemy had played no part in creating the extensive trail network in the valley, and the war effort lost all interest in the area. Thanks to my recon, the valley survived the war without ever having been touched by it. When the NVA rolled down from the north in their trucks and tanks on their way to Saigon during the 1975 invasion, they passed through western Phouc Long Province, but they never came near the headwaters of the Song Dong Nai River and “my” valley.

I hadn’t thought of that valley for decades, but several years ago I read a newspaper article about a species of rhinoceros thought to have been extinct for many years had been found in a remote valley near the Song Dong Nai River in Vietnam, and when I verified its location on the map, I found it was indeed “my” valley. As time passed, this area became the Nam Cat Tien National Park and is considered a “National Treasure” of Vietnam where the government now protects all the birds, animals and trees.  Vietnamese Travel Agencies now advertise guided tours through this National Park where visitors are guaranteed they will see a diverse assortment of birds and wildlife to include rhinoceros, elephants, crocodiles, bears, deer, boar, monkeys, gibbons and tigers, but, sadly, no mention is made of the Ngoui Rung. My reconnaissance of this valley back in 1970 had prevented the war from ever reaching this paradise and it wasn’t lost; it’s still there, and I intend to go back and visit “my” valley again one day.

A Pleasant Stroll in the Jungle

In April 1970, Project Delta broke camp in Bunard, returned to Nha Trang for a brief stand-down, and then in May, the Project deployed to Quang Tri Province to set up an FOB outside the Special Forces Camp at Mai Loc and conduct Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols along the Laotian Border from the DMZ south to the Khe Sanh area.

Mai Loc was the northernmost Special Forces Camp in the Republic of Vietnam and was the proverbial “stone’s throw” from North Vietnam. This had been the second time Project Delta had worked out of an FOB at Mai Loc, and we knew on arrival our recon missions were not going to be easy ones. There were just too many enemy units in the area for a recon team to expect to infiltrate undetected and remain undetected through out a five-day recon patrol. Anytime a recon team went into the Khe Sanh/Lang Vei area, the team knew it was probably going to come out by emergency extraction after a fierce firefight with the enemy.

Soon after we arrived, my recon team received a mission briefing and was assigned a recon AO that one look at the map promised to be one of the toughest recon missions I had run to date. My Recon AO lay right on the Laotian Border due south of the abandoned Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei, southwest of the abandoned Special Forces Camp/Marine Base at Khe Sanh, and just south of where Route 616 crossed the border from Laos into South Vietnam. Route 616 was a road that connected with the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and was used by the NVA to funnel troops and equipment into Quang Tri Province. This had been a well-traveled road, and Project Delta recon teams had reported truck traffic running up and down 616 on numerous occasions. We were going into a recon AO inside a “fishhook” formed by a turn in the Xe’ Pon River where the river delineated the Laotian Border, and the sheer rock Coroc cliffs rose up over 1,000 feet on the Laotian side of the river.

Just by looking at my recon AO on the map, I could see trouble written all over it. We were briefed that intelligence reports indicated this area held numerous small base camps and supply storage areas where supplies were off-loaded from trucks crossing over from Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail using Route 616. Our EEI was to determine whether there were storage facilities (caches) in our recon AO, and if so, what type equipment or munitions were kept there? I knew right off this was going to be one very bad recon AO; it just couldn’t be any other way.

After the mission brief, I flew out with the FAC in an O-2 Skymaster to select my infiltration and exfiltration LZs and saw right away that this AO was just as bad as the map indicated. My AO was inside a turn in the river, with Laos on three of its four sides, and I could see from the numerous bomb craters through out my AO that it had been heavily and recently bombed. In the center of my AO was a shallow valley with a small river running down its center that drained into the Xe’ Pon River right at the base of the Coroc Cliffs. I picked an Infiltration LZ in what appeared to be a large bomb crater made by three closely spaced 500-pound bombs and an exfiltration LZ near the Laotian Border directly under those Laotian cliffs. My infiltration LZ was well within the South Vietnam side of the border and my route of march would take us right up to the river and the Laotian Border to exfiltrate. I could tell from the air that wherever we moved in our AO, we would be under the watchful presence of those solid rock Coroc cliffs towering 1,000 feet above us.

The FAC VR (Visual Reconnaissance) confirmed it for me; this was going to be one tough recon mission. There was just too much enemy activity in the area for it to be otherwise. As this was an extremely hot area and I expected to be in contact as soon as we left our infiltration LZ, I requested a first light insertion and it was approved. My assistant team leader was still SSG William R. (Grit) Pomeroy Jr., and he and I spent the next day running the team through IA (immediate action) drills and practicing movement SOPs (Standing Operating Procedures). Then we test fired our weapons, packed up, briefed back, and the next morning we flew out for a first light insertion.

Our insertion helicopter had no problem settling in for a low hover in our three-bomb crater LZ, and we jumped out at about six feet above ground, ran into the wood line and assembled. To my surprise, we found a waist high bamboo fence inside the wood line, and I then realized my infiltration LZ was really a VC/NVA vegetable garden the U.S. Air Force had completely destroyed with three each 500 pound bombs.

As soon as we crossed the fence and moved fifty meters into the jungle, we found ourselves entering an abandoned NVA company sized base camp. The camp consisted of about ten above ground, thatched roof, log constructed huts that could house about ten men each. Underground bunkers had been dug alongside each building, but they had not been dug with the defense of the base camp in mind; the bunkers were only intended to provide overhead cover for the men who lived there. Having no defensive positions, this base camp wasn’t arranged like the base camps I had seen constructed by VC/NVA combat units, and I assumed it had been built to house laborers. A 500-pound bomb crater was in one corner of the base camp and had destroyed one of the huts, but other than that the base camp was undamaged. By the degree of weather related rot, mold, and the amount of underbrush grown up in the camp since the last time it had been cut, I estimated the camp had been abandoned for over six months, or about the time the 500 pound bomb had hit the camp. It was currently toward the end of I Corps’ Monsoon Season, and the camp appeared to have had no occupants during the entire rainy season.

There was a hard packed trail leaving the camp in a direction that would take it out of our AO and in the direction of Route 616 and another hard-packed trail leaving the camp toward the southwest. Both of these trails had had no traffic on them in quite some time, foliage had begun to grow across them and should have been cut back long ago. By the old cut-marks on the trails, I could tell the trails had not been maintained in well over six months.

We paralleled the old, unused trail and followed it north until it departed our AO and found nothing, so we turned around, returned to the base camp, and then paralleled the old trail to the southwest. As I considered all trails to be danger areas, I was extremely uncomfortable paralleling enemy high-speed trails, even old ones that hadn’t been used in six months or more, but it had begun to look more and more as if we had just been dealt a dry hole.

As we followed the old trail to the southwest, we came upon trails breaking off to the right and to the left leading to cache’ areas where the enemy had built 10’X 20’ foot log platforms about 3’ off the ground to store equipment on top of and keep it off the ground. We found about twenty of these cache’ sites and they were all empty. It took us most of the first day to recon this cache site, and by the end of the day we were fairly sure there were no VC/NVA in that part of our AO, so the next morning we turned and started moving southwest in the direction of the Laotian Border and our extraction LZ.

On our second day in our recon AO, we entered into a tropical rainforest covering the hills forming the northern side of the valley that run through the center of our AO, and I intended to follow these hills until they ended at the Xe’ Pon River and the Laotian Border. After leaving the NVA cache’ site and entering into the rainforest, we saw no further sign of enemy activity. By the end of our second day, the four Vietnamese Army Special Forces (Luc Luong Dac Biet (LLDB) on my team were convinced we had been blessed with a dry hole and they went into full dry hole mode. Once LLDB became convinced they were in a dry hole, they became infected with what we called “the dry hole syndrome,” and once infected they couldn’t have been more relaxed and carefree if they had suddenly found themselves on a beach in Miami.

By the middle of the third day, we were over half way to our extraction LZ, the LLDB were having a good old time, laughing, joking, and smoking cigarettes. I tried to get them to straighten up and act right, follow our SOPs and get serious about what we were doing, but they weren’t having any of it. My LLDB counterpart would come back at me with, “Cam cau chi, Chung Si. Cam cau VC.” (No sweat Sergeant, No Viet Cong.) I almost expected them to, at any time, sling arms, hold hands and start singing and skipping through the forest in carefree abandon.

By that time, I had been working with LLDB for several years and had come to understand they had a much different outlook on life than did most Americans. The Vietnamese equated caution with fear, and, to them, there was nothing wrong with showing caution/fear when it was necessary, but to show caution/fear when it was unnecessary was to be downright sissy.

After an American had observed LLDB in several tight situations, he would begin to understand that Vietnamese would put off getting concerned about the enemy until the very last possible minute or the last possible second in some cases. Then there were some LLDB who thought it was unmanly to even show any concern at all for the possibility of imminent contact with the enemy and believed this showed the world how brave they were. This ability to turn caution off and relax in the middle of a combat operation was probably a good thing if you were going to partake in a war that spanned many years as it had for the LLDB, but their timing had to be perfect or they would occasionally find themselves in very serious trouble.

When an LLDB got serious and showed agitation and concern about the enemy situation, you better pay attention and get prepared for the coming disaster, because it was frequently too late to do anything about what was going to happen. And if your LLDB counterpart ever turned to you with abject terror in his eyes and said, “Beaucoup VC,” you always knew he wasn’t kidding, because there was one thing LLDB would never joke about and that was the VC.

There was a distinct cultural and psychological difference between how the LLDB and most U.S. Army Special Forces viewed the war. Most Americans would only spend one year in the war and would remain keyed up and on edge from the time they arrived until they departed. The American would leave country after one year with his nerves frazzled and would be a likely candidate for future PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but the LLDB were in the war for the duration and PTSD was not part of their culture. There were no touchy-feely psychiatrists at their equivalent of the Veterans Administration, and there were no words for PTSD in the Vietnamese language.

I tried to remind myself these LLDB had been fighting the communists much longer than I had, they would be fighting communists long after I was ordered out of the country, and they needed to take their moments of rest and relaxation wherever and whenever they could find them, but I knew they had to be wrong about this AO being a dry hole. One look up at those Coroc cliffs would remind me it was just not possible to find a dry hole anywhere around there. The enemy had to be there, but where were they? That night the LLDB were laughing, joking, smoking cigarettes and grabassing in the RON (remain overnight position), I still couldn’t get them to behave, and I just hoped they were right about this being a dry hole.

The morning of the fourth day we awoke to a peaceful morning in a peaceful forest, and we continued our pleasant stroll toward our exfiltration LZ, but the Coroc cliffs seemed to be looking down on us and laughing at our brazen foolishness. Later that morning, we came up to a stream flowing across our route of march that we had to cross. The stream had a steep bank on our side that dropped off about six feet down into the crystal clear running water below, was about twenty feet across and less than knee deep at its deepest. The opposite stream bank was a fern filled gentle slope that slowly rose up until it met thick vegetation about fifteen feet from the water’s edge. The stream flowed through triple canopy jungle, the sun never penetrated to the streambed, and we found ourselves peering down into the gloom below.

Streams were considered danger areas, and we had a well-choreographed and rehearsed SOP routine we used when crossing all danger areas. Danger areas were all roads, heavily used trails, clearings, and streams, or any place where contact with the enemy was likely and contained good fields of fire and observation the enemy could use against us. The primary purpose of our danger area SOPs was to move the team through the danger area as quickly and as securely as possible. We had used our SOP for stream crossings a thousand times before and could run it in our sleep if we had to.

We halted and went into a hasty defensive perimeter while we observed the stream for enemy activity. After I had observed across, up, and down the stream long enough to be fairly certain it was free of enemy activity, I sent the point man across. The point man slid down the bank into the water, rapidly crossed the stream, and as soon as he reached the wood line fifteen feet from the water’s edge on the opposite side of the stream, he dropped down and took up a security position straight ahead at twelve o’clock. As soon as the point man had dropped into position, without any prompting my LLDB counterpart slid down the bank, rapidly crossed the stream and dropped down into the ferns between the water’s edge and the wood line to take up a security position facing nine o’clock and down stream. I was glad to see the LLDB had not become so deep into the dry hole syndrome that they would goof off in a danger area, as I slid down the bank, rapidly crossed the stream, and dropped into my security position facing three o’clock and up stream. Then nothing further happened.

As soon as I had dropped into my position, Grit was to slide down the bank, rapidly cross the stream and take up a position providing security immediately behind me and facing five o’clock. Right behind Grit would come the assistant tail gunner who would take up a position to Grit’s right and provide security at seven o’clock. The tail gunner was to cross the stream, not stop but continue straight through the formation, take over as point man and continue forward. The assistant tail gunner would rise up from his seven o’clock position and follow the tail gunner, now to become the assistant point man. I would rise from my three o’clock position and follow behind the new assistant point man with Grit rising and following right behind me. My LLDB counterpart and the previous point man would rise and follow behind Grit until we had moved a safe distance from the danger area then we would halt and reform in our regular movement order. Our danger area SOP was intended to move us through the danger area as quickly and securely as possible, and the stream crossing shouldn’t have taken us much more than sixty seconds. But Grit had not followed immediately behind me, and I lay there wondering why.

Out of my right side peripheral vision, I could see the opposite bank where I expected to see Grit slide down into the stream, then move across the stream and drop down behind me. But after lying there for several minutes there was no movement on the opposite bank, and I was becoming angrier and angrier the longer I lay there. What were they doing over there, taking a chow break or a nap? How could they have become so lax in their dry hole syndrome they would goof off in a danger area? But what had really irritated me was I thought Grit was now goofing off along with the LLDB.

To make matters worse, I was lying on top of a mound of wet ground about three feet above the stream on my right, and on my left was a small three feet deep gully holding about six inches of stagnant water in its bottom, and the entire area was infested with land leeches. Land leeches didn’t live in the water, they lived on the damp ground near water, and like all leeches they lived on blood they sucked from passing animals. Land leeches were about the same size, color, shape and consistency of night crawlers or earthworms, and they moved like an inchworm moved by humping their backs straight up then pushing their heads forward. Land leeches sensed their prey by seismic vibrations in the soil that telegraphed the presence of their next meal. I could see several leeches inching their way toward me from the front, had to assume there were more approaching from my rear and both sides to say nothing of the ones I had dropped down on top of. If Grit and the two LLDB on the opposite bank had followed the SOP instead of whatever they were doing, I would have only lain there for ten or fifteen seconds before I was up and moving again and the leeches wouldn’t have been a problem. But as it was, I’d soon be covered from head to toe by those leeches, and it was only because Grit and those two LLDB on the opposite bank had decided to take a chow break, a nap, or whatever the hell they were doing instead of following the SOP. And I asked myself again, “Where in the hell was Grit?”

Land leeches couldn’t penetrate your clothing to get to you; they had to crawl through your boot blouse, your fly, your beltline, your shirtfront, or your collar to get to your bare skin. Before we infiltrated, we would always apply a heavy application of leech repellant to those areas of our uniform where leeches could penetrate, but it would wash off after several days in the rain, and it had rained on us every day so far. After a land leech gained access to your bare skin, they would apply a strong natural analgesic to deaden the pain, and then they would shove their heads deep into you and gorge themselves on your blood. A land leech the diameter of matchstick when it crawled onto you would quickly grow to the thickness of your thumb. The slightest pressure on one of the little gluttons would cause them to explode leaving a large splotch of blood on your uniform as if you had been shot, but that would kill the leech and that, in its self, was a problem. When a leech got on you, and fed, you had to make it pull its head out before you killed it or its head would remain forever inside you. To this day, you can tell who was a Project Delta recon man, and who wasn’t, by the number of still visible leech cysts around his belt line. A spot of insect repellant or a lit cigarette would usually cause a leech to pull its head out and un-attach its self from you, and I asked myself again, “Where in the hell was Grit?

I could now feel leeches crawling down my collar, but my SOP didn’t permit picking land leeches while inside a danger area, so I just lay there. Water leeches weren’t that bad. You only got them on you when you were in the water, and when you got out of the water you picked them off and you were done with it, but a damned land leech would follow you home and crawl in bed with you. Given a choice, a recon team would never RON in a wet area infested with land leeches, but sometimes we had no choice in the matter and would have to spend the night picking leeches off one another.

One of the nastiest wounds I observed during the war was when one night in our RON a land leech crawled into an LLDB’s ear while he slept. The leech had probably stuck its head through the man’s eardrum and was sucking his brain fluid when he awoke screaming, but that wasn’t the worst of it. A fellow LLDB, in an effort to help him, squirted insect repellent into his ear to make the leech let go. Everyone must remember the insect repellent that was a clear liquid, came in a small white plastic squeeze bottle and was so strong it would melt your watch crystal if you got some on it. The insect repellent dissolved the leech in his ear, probably dissolved the man’s eardrum and was eating its way through his brain in a very short time. I gave the man one syrette of Morphine and he still continued to scream, the second syrette had no effect, and I knew the third would either knock him out or kill him thereby putting him out of his misery, so I went ahead and gave it to him. The third syrette knocked him out and kept him out until the next morning when we could medevac him, and I asked myself again, “Where in the hell was Grit?”

Finally, there was movement on the opposite stream bank. In my peripheral vision and through the thin screening of ferns, I saw Grit slide down the opposite bank, slowly walk to the middle of the stream about ten feet from me, stop, take out his canteen, bend over and start to fill it. That in its self pissed me off, but when the two LLDB slid down the bank together, walked over to Grit, stopped and also began to fill their canteens in the middle of the stream it was more than I could stand, and I intended to chew their asses right there in the middle of the stream.

I raised up on my forearms, turned my head so I could clearly see them and said in a rather loud voice, “Hey!” and that was as far as I got with their ass chewing. I was looking into the startled faces of three NVA soldiers as they dropped their canteens and went for the AK-47s slung around their necks. A very hasty “fight or flight” decision had to be made and I selected flight, as there was no way I could have swung my CAR-15 through 45 degrees of ferns and engage them before they raised their AK-47s up to engage me. I might have beaten one of the three, but one out of three just wasn’t good enough at that range, so I rolled over and fell into the gully on my left as the top of the mound I had been lying on exploded from the impact of a hail of bullets that flung mud, dirt, and debris all over me. I brought my CAR-15 up to engage them when they came over the mound, but they never did. Bullets continued to strike the top of the mound and beyond, and two grenades went off in the stream. Then there was the usual silence that came after a firefight when the only sound to be heard was the crying and moaning of the dying and the wounded.

The crying and the moaning was coming from the stream, so I raised my head above the mound and saw the three NVA now lying in the middle of the stream either dead or dying. I saw my LLDB counterpart jump up, run to where the point man was lying and they both disappeared into the wood line. I joined them, and we took up a position where we could observe the opposite bank. We knew the three NVA now dead in the stream had come from the opposite bank, but we didn’t know if there were any more NVA over there or not. We didn’t know if the three NVA had been alone or if they had been the point element of a larger unit. We didn’t know if Grit and the two LLDB were still over there and alive or if they had been over run by the NVA. We had no communications with them and had no way of knowing their status, so we just lay there and waited for what would happen next.

If there had been an engagement on the other side and our three team members had prevailed, they would soon be crossing the stream, but if the NVA had been successful, the NVA would soon be sliding down that bank. If it were our team members who came off of the bank, we would be there to cover them, but if it were the enemy, we would be there to kill them. After a few minutes, we saw movement on the opposite bank, and much to our relief our tail gunner slid down, crossed the stream and joined us, followed by Grit and then the assistant tail gunner. I moved the team away from the stream and to a hilltop that could be easily defended, and we then attempted to sort out what had just happened.

Grit told me that when I had slid down the stream bank and started to cross the stream, he had heard the three NVA coming up behind them. He said the three NVA had halted in the tall grass just a few feet to his right, and they had observed the opposite side for several minutes before, one at a time, sliding down the bank into the stream. The NVA were in his direct line of fire with where he knew I was lying in the ferns, and he couldn’t shoot them without fear of hitting me. But as soon as they began to fire on me, it no longer mattered that I happened to be in his line of fire, so he emptied a twenty round magazine into their backs…and into where I had been. While Grit was reloading, the two LLDB with him had thrown two M-26 fragmentation grenades into the stream for good measure. Although one of the NVA groaned for a few minutes, all three had been killed almost instantly.

As in all contacts with the enemy, there had been valuable lessons to learn, or to relearn, from this engagement. First of the lessons to be relearned, of course, was that a recon team’s SOPs must be followed at all times while in the hole even if it happened to be a dry hole. If the LLDB had been religiously following our SOPs all along, I would never have mistaken the enemy for my team members when the enemy made an unexpected appearance. Danger flags should have immediately popped up in my mind when I saw men come off the opposite bank and they were not following my team’s SOP for a stream crossing.

But, to me, the most disturbing thing that had just happened was that I had, for a moment, doubted Grit’s competence and dependability, and he had never before given me reason to doubt him. Grit was a solid, dependable, and highly competent recon man, and I had been extremely fortunate to have him on my recon team, but I had just doubted him and it had almost cost me my life. The moment Grit had failed to follow our SOP, I should have known something had gone bad wrong, and the only thing it could have been was that the enemy had somehow entered into the equation. I could write it off as a temporary lapse in judgment brought on by the leeches I had been lying in, or I could admit to myself it was a serious character defect I really needed to work on.

There had also been another way of looking at it. If I had immediately recognized those three NVA crossing the stream, I would have had no choice but to shoot them before they reached the other side and saw me. Just as I had been in Grit’s line of fire, so was he in mine. Grit, in his position on top of the stream bank, only had a thin screen of grass for cover, and if I had fired most of a twenty-round magazine, point blank, into those three NVA, I would have probably hit Grit several times. If that had happened, Grit would have probably been killed, and I would have had to live the rest of my life with the knowledge I had killed my partner.

Still yet, there is another explanation for the outcome of this brief engagement if I tell you SSG William R. (Grit) Pomeroy, Jr. was, and still is, a deeply religious man and a devout Christian. At the end of his tour in Vietnam, Grit left the Army, attended Divinity School, received a Degree in Theology, and returned to the U.S. Army as a Protestant Chaplain. Grit served as a Chaplain with Special Forces units and ministered to countless Special Forces soldiers during their time of spiritual need for the next thirty years. Lieutenant Colonel William R. Pomeroy, Jr. retired from the Army a few years ago at his last assignment as the 20th Special Forces Group Chaplain. To me, there is little doubt but that God made one of His infrequent appearances in that streambed that day to save one of His favorite servants and just happened to inadvertently save my life in the time of it.

My team was back together again, no one had been even slightly wounded, and I was glad to see the LLDB were back to following our SOPs. Whether those three NVA had only been three unlucky hunters, or whether they had been three very amateur trackers would forever remain unknown.  Whoever they were, one must pity them for how they departed this world.  A filthy, bearded, wild-eyed, leech covered apparition had risen up from the ferns at their feet, shouted at them, scared them out of their wits, then disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared, and then they were shot dead from behind. None of us knew exactly what had just happened, but at least everyone now knew this wasn’t a dry hole. I looked up at the Coroc cliffs towering over us and could almost hear them say, “I told you so.”

I had already radioed the FAC and reported my recon team had become separated because of enemy contact during a stream crossing, and the FOB had launched a recovery operation that was inbound at the time. I had no way of knowing how many NVA were now in the area, but I did know we had been detected by the enemy, and our location in the AO had been compromised, so I called the FAC, reported my recon team had linked up and asked him to relay my request to the FOB for an emergency extraction. We moved to a small clearing on the top of a hill, and a short time later we were extracted by ladder.

On the flight back to the Mai Loc FOB, the recovery NCO told me word had just been received that Project Delta was closing down and all personnel would soon return to Nha Trang for reassignment. As it turned out, this would be my last recon patrol with Project Delta, and it had almost been nothing more than a dry hole to remember. But as it was, this patrol had made the last contact with the enemy any Project Delta recon team would make, the last enemy soldiers killed during the war by Project Delta had just been killed on this patrol by the future Chaplain of the 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne), and as such, it had been a most appropriate way to end my tour of duty with Project Delta.

 

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