Stay Behind
by Steve Carpenter (Delta Recon 69-70)

Some operations lasted longer than a few weeks or a month. Such was the series of operations run out of the FOB at Mai Loc from August to November, 1969. The FOB was set up a half mile or so from the front gate of A-101 at Mai Loc, known as the gateway to the north. The A camp had been plagued with a steady stream of thefts, deceptions and attacks from local insurgents. It wasn’t long before rockets, small arms and mortars were directed at the Delta FOB, the helicopter pads, and at any aircraft attempting to take off or land from the small air strip. When some new volunteers arrived in September, they were taken on a local mission to prepare for the ‘real thing.’ Led by D.J. Taylor, the group encountered a group of local bad guys engaged in hiding arms pilfered from the A Detachment. An engagement followed in which one of the new guys, Tom Crosby, was shot in the neck. He was saved by the brilliant actions of medic Dennis McVey, who managed to stop the bleeding from a severed artery. All this to say that it never got really quiet at Mai Loc.

In the fall of the year, the weather became such that aircraft couldn’t support the Project’s mission. Low cloud cover, steady rain, and wind all added up to reasons for Delta to stand down for a couple of weeks in Nha Trang. It also gave the CO time to straighten out the credibility problem that seemed to persist with the conventional units we were OPCON to. They didn’t want to believe or react to the real time information that the teams provided. The FOB could not be left unguarded or unattended, and so four young Recon guys volunteered to stay behind and keep an eye on things. A company of the Project’s Ranger Battalion also stayed near the compound to provide security. The four volunteers included SSG Jim Thornton, SGT Chester Howard, SGT Bob ‘Archie” Inscore, and me. The compound consisted of a few tents that housed the Recon, Staff, and Commo personnel, a briefing tent, and the TOC tent. The compound perimeter consisted of multiple coils of concertina wire, some noise makers and a few claymores. A mortar pit was located close to the Recon tent area, as were several metal Conex boxes used to store rations and equipment. The routine on stay behind was pretty simple: somebody manned the TOC at all times, a few random inspections were done every day and night, and the rest of the time was spent drinking beer, staying dry and playing cards. The excitement of the day was lifting the cargo pallets in each tent to determine how many venomous snakes had sought refuge from the wet weather.

L to R: Chester Howard, Steve Carpenter, Jim Thornton, & Bob
"Archie" Inscore, after the big boom.

One evening, as Jim Thornton manned the TOC, Chester, Archie, and I were aroused by the sound of small arms fire and radio traffic from the Ranger company requesting fire support. As the qualified mortar man, I grabbed my weapon and web gear and ran to the mortar pit and began to unwrap the 81 mm mortar and position it for use. Chester clambered to the top of a conex container and began to relay fire requests to me from the radio. The call for fire put Chester on a straight line between the mortar pit and the NW perimeter that was apparently being attacked. He called out a range; I positioned the tube, charged the round and called ‘fire in the hole!’ Although on a straight line path toward Chester, the mortar round travels in a high arcing trajectory enroute to its target, and would pass well overhead. Several revolutions out of the tube, the round loses the locking pin on the detonator and arms itself. The first round, a white phosphorous illumination round, exited the tube with a ‘bloop’ and traveled the twenty feet to Chester’s conex in very slow motion. Chester turned toward the pit as the round launched and watched it come slowly toward him like a slow pitch softball, and hit the side of the conex box just inches below his feet. His eyes grew to the size of dinner plates and he stammered his way through some kind of exclamatory expression replete with four letter expletives. I began to laugh at the surreal image of Chester dancing and swearing in the strobe like flashes atop the conex box. I charged another round and sent it his way, with the same result. By this time the person on the other end was calling for High Explosive rounds, and so I complied. This time I changed the charge and the round hit the conex two inches higher toward Chester. By this time, I could hear Archie laughing, and I was becoming hysterical with laughter. I quickly grabbed a pinch bar and opened a different box of rounds, took the charges from that box, and started again. This time almost everything went where it was supposed to go. After another fifteen minutes of illumination and HE fired on the perimeter, the fight was over. A total of eleven rounds lay at the base of the conex container, the product of charges rendered useless by the humidity. By this time Archie and I were laughing so hard we were rolling in the mud, and Chester joined in.

Early the next morning, we gathered at the pit to assess our next move. We cautiously transported the enabled but unexploded rounds to the bottom of the deep gully that ran just north of the recon tents and stacked them neatly. I then placed five pounds of C-4 under them with a thirty minute delayed fuse and retreated to the recon area to wait it out. The four of us each cracked a beer and sat on a cot, wondering aloud how big a bang it would make. When it finally went off, we were apparently not the only ones impressed with the magnitude of the bang and the ensuing cloud. Within minutes, a jet from Quang Tri was flying over at low altitude asking if we thought we’d been nuked. Thornton replied in his slow, laconic style, “Nope. Just a couple of kids havin’ fun.”