The A Shau
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) was assigned to the U.S Army’s 5th Special Forces Group in Nha Trang, Republic of Vietnam, but it was under the operational control of the Commanding General Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), General Westmoreland, and after 1968, General Abrams. As an asset of the Commanding General MACV, Project Delta was on call to conduct reconnaissance operations throughout the whole of South Vietnam. If the Commander of any of the Corps Tactical Zones had a reconnaissance target his recon units were unable to handle, he would put in a request to the Commanding General MACV for Project Delta to run the target. This, of course, meant anytime Project Delta was given a reconnaissance target, it was going to be a real challenge.

Project Delta’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols were intended to be uneventful operations, and most of them were. A recon team was expected to infiltrate undetected by the enemy, remain undetected while it gathered the intelligence it had been sent in to gather, and finally exfiltrate still undetected by the enemy. These were the successful patrols and there were many, but they are seldom remembered, mentioned or written about. Recon patrols we still remember in vivid detail are the few patrols where things went wrong, our recon team was detected, we never managed to gather the required intelligence, and we wound up fighting for our lives. It has been an odd turn of events that it is now our failures we remember and it is our successful patrols we have let slip from our memory.

But then, our uneventful successes were little more than a stroll in the jungle, and our failures were frequently anything but uneventful. Ultimately, it was much more than just a personal failure or a personal success when we failed or succeeded in our recon patrols. When our recon patrols were successful and we were able to provide the commanders we worked for with the information they needed in order to make good decisions, the war went smoothly. However, when we failed to provide needed intelligence and commanders were forced to make decisions in the blind, the consequences could be disastrous. This is the story of one of those failures and its consequences.

Toward the end of March 1969, Project Delta, with the 281st Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) and the ARVN 81st Ranger Battalion in support, deployed to I Corps and set up a Forward Operating Base (FOB) near Phu Bai. The 101st Airborne Division was planning to conduct search and destroy operations in the A Shau Valley and needed to know enemy strengths and locations within the valley. They had been unable to put any of the 101st recon teams on the ground in the A Shau Valley without getting them killed, so Project Delta had been called in to run the target. During the month of April 1969 we conducted reconnaissance operations throughout the A Shau Valley in an effort to provide the 101st with the enemy intelligence information they needed to properly plan and conduct this operation.

Project Delta had been called in to conduct reconnaissance of the A Shau simply because the 101st Airborne Division LRRP units just didn’t have the experience to operate in an area like the A Shau, and they weren’t going to gain any experience in the A Shau by trying. If a recon team went into that valley and didn’t know exactly what they were doing, they weren’t going to learn in the A Shau, they were just going to die. Even if a recon team knew what they were doing, it still took a good amount of luck just to survive.

The reason the A Shau was such a tough recon target was no secret; there were probably more VC/NVA per square kilometer in the A Shau than any other place in South Vietnam, and over the years the enemy had perfected their counter-recon team techniques to the point it was near impossible for a recon team to survive very long in that valley. A six man recon team could seldom get into the valley undetected and would usually make contact with at least a platoon sized VC/NVA unit soon after infiltrating. Any recon team unprepared to operate against such odds didn’t last long. Some said we weren’t doing real reconnaissance patrolling in the A Shau and what we were actually doing was just attacking with an inadequate force. In a way, I had to agree with them. When six men go off to do battle with at least thirty, they’re definitely not conducting conventional recon.

On my first recon mission into the A Shau, my recon team was assigned a reconnaissance area of operation (AO) in the south-central part of the valley, and most of the AO included a large mountain that dominated the entire area. When I flew out with the U.S. Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC) to look over my AO and select my infiltration/exfiltration LZs (Landing Zones), I observed heavily used trails running around the base of the mountain and along the tops of the ridge lines running off the mountain. The lower areas down in the valley floor had numerous hard packed trails and small fields where the VC/NVA were growing vegetables to supplement their diets, and by the number of farms down there, they were feeding quite a few troops. From the air, it appeared that most of the VC/NVA were concentrated low in the valley floor with the fewest at the higher elevations and even fewer on the steep sides of the mountain. This was Hill 937 and the 101st Airborne Division would one day soon call this mountain “Hamburger Hill.”

With Hill 937 taking up most of my AO, I had a choice of picking an infiltration LZ either on the top, on the side, or at the bottom of the mountain. I assumed the enemy held the top of the mountain and had at least an observation post up there, as it provided a good view of the entire valley, so I shouldn’t pick an LZ there. There were heavily used trails around the base and along the tops of the numerous ridge lines running off the mountain making those areas unsuitable for an infiltration LZ, so that left the fairly steep sides as the best option for use as an LZ, if I hoped to infiltrate without being detected. Wherever I picked an LZ on that mountain, even on the steep sides, I still stood a very good chance of the enemy observing my helicopter infiltration from the valley floor.

For my primary LZ, I selected a small clearing on top of a spur about four fifths of the way up on the side of the mountain, and my alternate LZ was a small clearing on the side of the mountain about half way up. Both LZs required the helicopter to drop down among the trees into the small clearing and hover along the steep mountainside long enough for my team to climb down the 35’ ladders and drop to the ground below. It was a tight fit for a UH-1H (Huey) helicopter, and the entire time the helicopter was dropping into the hole, its main rotor blades would be only a few feet from striking the mountainside. I knew these locations would be tough LZs for our infiltration helicopter pilot to negotiate, but I also thought they were well within a good pilot’s capability, and I just may have been wrong about that.

It was imperative that the FAC be able to recognize and accurately plot a recon team’s LZs, because it was the FAC who vectored the helicopter in to the LZ during infiltration. The “Hole Bird” (helicopter carrying the recon team to be infiltrated) would drop out of flight formation long before it neared the recon teams AO and approach the infiltration LZ at treetop level with the FAC directing the helicopter by radio. The “Hole Bird” pilot would not see the infiltration LZ until he was right on top of it.

After studying Hill 937 for about forty-five minutes, I had seen enough and the FAC turned and headed back toward the Phu Bai FOB. As we flew back down the valley, we heard a radio call from a recon team on the ground that had been infiltrated the day before, and I immediately recognized the voice and the call sign as that of SGT Charles Prevedel. The only words he said were the FAC’s call sign and his call sign, nothing more. With that, I knew immediately something was badly wrong because SGT Prevedel had not whispered the call-out as he would have normally done; he had shouted into the radio handset. We stayed in the area and the FAC continued to try and establish radio contact with the recon team until we ran low on fuel and had to leave.

SGT Prevedel and his six-man recon team were never heard from again. They were lost to a man, all six of them: SGT Charles F. Prevedel, SP4 Douglas E. Dahill, SSG Charles V. Newton, and three LLDB (Vietnamese Special Forces). They were carried as Missing in Action (MIA) for many years before their status was finally changed to Missing and Presumed Dead.

The BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment) Platoon, led by SFC Jerry Nelson, went into SGT Prevedel’s AO several days later in an attempt to learn the fate of the recon team, but shortly after entering the AO, the BDA Platoon made contact with a large NVA unit and a Company from the ARVN 81st Ranger Battalion was sent in to assist the BDA Platoon in the search for the recon team. After several days of searching the team was not found, and the search for them was ended. If the enemy had the decency to bury them, all six of them are still lying there in unmarked graves where they fell.

SGT Prevedel had arrived in country on his first combat tour a few months earlier; this had been his third or fourth recon patrol with the Project, and his first patrol as recon team leader. SSG Newton and SP4 Dahill had just arrived in country and this was their first recon patrol. Their AO had been in the valley floor where the bulk of NVA/VC units were located and there is little doubt they met a quick and violent death at the hands of a numerically superior enemy unit.

Back at the FOB, I had my hands full just getting prepared for the patrol. I had picked up a new assistant team leader, SSG Joseph (“Little Joe”) Hartman, just before deployment to Phu Bai, and this would be his first recon patrol, so I was busy trying to teach him everything he needed to know to back me up. Two of the four LLDB on my recon team were also new to recon, and all three new guys had a lot of catching up to do. After only two days of preparation, rehearsing SOPs and immediate action drills, we briefed back and flew out for a last light infiltration.

Our helicopter dropped out of flight formation and descended into the valley floor about ten kilometers out from my infiltration LZ and the FAC directed us into the LZ as planned. I was standing behind and between the two pilots as we approached my primary LZ and I noticed the pilot was having some difficulty with the swirling winds near the top of the mountain as he attempted to drop us into my primary LZ on the steep mountainside. As the pilot was carefully lowering us into the small clearing, I felt the helicopter shudder when the main rotor blades struck something on the side of the mountain, we lurched sideways, the pilot lost control of the helicopter, and we fell off the mountain.

We spun around several times, and as the pilot was struggling to regain control of the helicopter I saw my alternate LZ go by as we continued to fall out of control toward the valley floor. I sat down and braced myself for the impact I knew was coming, and at about tree-top level in the valley floor the pilot finally regained enough control to perform a semi-controlled crash in the middle of a clearing and some distance from my recon AO. Before I could stop him, Hartman jumped off the helicopter and ran into the woods line with the LLDB right behind him. I couldn’t fault Hartman for doing that; he was just doing what he had been trained to do, and he had no way of knowing we were not on our infiltration LZ or even in our AO. I had no choice but to jump off the helicopter, follow them, and bring them back to secure the downed helicopter, but as I entered the wood line I looked back and saw the helicopter slowly lift off, and if a helicopter can be described as such, it limped away.

When I joined my team in the wood line, I put in a radio call to the FAC and right away he asked me, “Do you know where you are?” My answer, of course, was, “No.” The FAC shackled my coordinates, sent them to me and I discovered we were over a kilometer outside our AO, well inside a Road Runner AO, the Road Runner Team was already on the ground, and I was in their AO with them. When I discovered this, I requested immediate pick up and movement to my AO, but my request was denied. It was now too dark, fuel was low, and my helicopter was damaged, so whether we were in the right location or not, we were there for the night.

Our being in a Road Runner AO with a Road Runner Team posed something of a problem because Project Delta Road Runner Teams were ethnic Vietnamese, wore NVA uniforms, and carried AK-47s, so positive recognition and identification of the enemy was now impossible. As we could no longer be completely sure who was the enemy and who was friendly, we would have to hesitate when we met the enemy and give them the first shot. This, of course, is not a good situation to find one’s self in anywhere, and especially not in the A Shau.

The FAC advised me the decision had been made by Command and Control (C&C) my team was to stay near the LZ and the flight would be back at first light in the morning to pick my team up and move us to our AO. That didn’t sound good at all to me because the helicopter had not only set down in a large clearing; it was a VC/NVA vegetable garden and we had just tore hell out of it. There was a heavily used trail running down the edge of the clearing/garden, so I was pretty sure that LZ would have visitors come morning, if not sooner. I intended to look for another LZ, as there was no way I wanted to return to that vegetable garden LZ in the morning.

We moved up hill and got about a hundred fifty meters up the side of a finger before it got too dark to move any further. Recon teams would usually move until it got too dark for anyone who might be following them to see them move into a RON (Remain Over Night) site. I picked a RON site in a dense thicket on a steep hillside; we fish hooked (doubled back) into the thicket, and prepared to spend the night straddling trees. I was fairly certain we would have trackers on our back trail come morning.

Once the enemy saw a helicopter make a last light landing in their area, as I was fairly certain they had seen our helicopter do, at first light they would send a three/four man tracker team to investigate. If the tracker team found a recon team’s tracks on an LZ, as I was sure they would find ours, they would send one man back to report their finding, and then the trackers would begin following the recon team’s trail. Soon, the man they sent back to report would return with at least a platoon-sized element and take up the trail behind the trackers. Eventually, the distance would close between the recon team, the trackers, and the platoon.

The trackers were seldom in a hurry, they would usually try to keep their distance and “study” the recon team. They would attempt to determine the azimuth the recon team was moving on, and to ascertain whether or not the recon team fish hooked (doubled back) and ambushed their back trail frequently. If the recon team fish hooked often, trackers would not follow the trail directly but would parallel the trail 5-10 meters to the side. If the trackers could determine the azimuth the team was consistently traveling on, the platoon would take a high-speed trail and move to a good ambush spot ahead of the recon team and hope the recon team would walk into it.

Another variation of this tracking technique was to, once the trackers had located the recon team’s trail, bring up an infantry company, go on line and assault through the recon team. However, the VC/NVA didn’t like to do this, because, even though they might eventually kill the recon team, they knew a recon team could inflict heavy casualties on them, so they would patiently wait and look for an advantage that would allow them to kill the recon team cheaply.

I knew the morning would bring a very busy day, so I was determined to get a good night’s sleep, but that was not to be. Hartman was new in country, on his first recon patrol, had never before spent the night in the hole, and I don’t think he slept at all that night.

Sometime after midnight, Hartman woke me and whispered, “I hear something.” I listened for a minute or two, only heard a small animal scratching around about fifteen meters away, so I went back to sleep. A little while later, he woke me again and whispered, “I think we’re surrounded.” All I could hear was another animal farther up the hill scratching around, so I went back to sleep. It wasn’t long before he woke me again and asked, “We’re surrounded. What do you want me to do?” I was getting a bit exasperated with him at this time and almost told him to shut up and go to sleep, but I reminded myself this was his first time in the hole, so I just told him, “Follow the SOP.”

The SOP for being surrounded at night in your RON was to wait silently until the enemy stepped on you, then you shot them, tossed M-26 fragmentation grenades down hill, waited for the blast, and then the team ran through the blast area and reassembled.

I knew no VC/NVA were going to walk through our RON site in a thicket on a steep hillside, so I went back to sleep. Almost immediately, Hartman woke me and asked, “Do you want me to throw it now?” I was suddenly wide awake, and I asked him, “Throw what?” When he answered, “ The grenade,” I knew he was frightened out of his wits and was no longer thinking clearly. I told him our RON had not been penetrated and to put the grenade away. His answer was, “I can’t.” When I asked him why he couldn’t put it away, he answered, “I pulled the pin.” This was starting to get serious. I replied, “OK, put the pin back in the grenade.” He said, “I can’t.” I asked why, and he replied, “I threw the pin away.” I told him, “OK, I want you to hold the grenade with both hands, and if you happen to drop it, please let me know.”

I opened my rucksack and pulled out a smoke grenade. I always put a turn of “100 mile an hour” tape around smoke grenades in my rucksack so I knew I could remove its pin now in the dark and it wouldn’t pop. I pulled the smoke grenade’s pin, carefully straightened it with my teeth, held the pin between my teeth and reached over and laid my hands on both of Hartman’s shoulders. I slid my hands down his arms until my hands covered his, and I said, “Now, carefully, give me the grenade.” He slowly withdrew his hands, and I moved mine down over the fragmentation grenade’s spoon. As soon as I had the grenade firmly in my possession, I held it in my left hand, took the pin from between my teeth, and carefully inserted it into the grenade; no small task in total darkness.

I didn’t give the grenade back to Hartman, and it took me quite a while to get back to sleep. I knew that we had just narrowly avoided disaster. As close as we were together in that thicket, if either of us had fumbled that fragmentation grenade, the entire team could have been killed. An RON in a dense thicket made it difficult for the enemy to toss grenades in on you, but it also made it difficult to toss a grenade out without it bouncing back on you.

The next morning, the FAC flew over and did that sputtering engine thing FACs did to signal they wanted to talk, and advised me that we were not going to be picked up, but we were to move out of the Road Runner AO and move directly to our AO about a kilometer away. The FAC shackled the azimuth we were to follow enroute to our AO, radioed it to me, and advised me we were to follow that azimuth in order to reduce the possibility of bumping into the Road Runner Team. I learned much later that we couldn’t be picked up and inserted in our AO because all air assets were tied up in the search for Prevedel’s recon team.

I plotted a route along my required azimuth that would take us up the finger I was on, over the ridgeline it led to, down the other side, and into my AO. I then added up all the negatives that had been thrown at us and realized we were now in deep trouble. We had been inserted on a vegetable garden LZ near the valley floor where we were sure to have been seen, now we were required to follow a specific azimuth and could not periodically alter our course. To limit my recon team’s ability to move freely was a death sentence. I had to now assume there were trackers on our back trail; to assume otherwise was suicidal. In addition to making every effort to ambush and kill any trackers on my team’s back trail, I would have to do everything I could to confuse the trackers and prevent them from guessing my recon team’s intended target or where my team was going, and this would be impossible now that I was not permitted to frequently alter my course.

Normally, to confuse trackers, if we started out moving on an azimuth in the morning, we would never be on the same azimuth at noon. When we started moving down a hillside on an azimuth, we would never arrive at the bottom on the same azimuth we left the top. If we started moving up a ridgeline following a specific azimuth, as we were now going to do, we would never be on the same azimuth when we reached the top. In our movement, it was vital that we never did anything that would allow the enemy to predict where we would be at any future time. We would change azimuths frequently, dog leg, double back, anything that would prevent the enemy from predicting where we were going. Because, if we ever allowed the enemy to successfully predict where we were going, we knew the enemy would have a unit there waiting when we arrived. But now, I couldn’t use any of those counter tracker techniques.

During my FAC VR, I hadn’t studied this area, and I had no idea what kind of vegetation we would pass through along my route of march. We soon found there was no triple canopy covering the finger we were contouring. The vegetation was small trees, brush, dense thickets that had to be detoured around, and small elephant-grass filled clearings. I soon noticed through the foliage that there was another smaller finger about 100 meters on our left with a very steep draw between the two. It was also obvious that if we could clearly see the adjacent finger, anyone on the adjacent finger could see us, so we tried our best to only move through the densest foliage that blocked the view from the adjacent finger.

As we continued to climb toward the summit of the ridgeline, I noticed the finger on our left continued to grow closer and closer and the map indicated it would merge with the finger I was on long before we reached the top. The finger we were climbing was somewhat larger than the finger on our left and we were soon looking down on the top of its ridgeline from about 75 meters away. After moving several hundred meters up the finger, we could see a vegetable garden on the top of the adjacent finger with a trail running down the side of the garden. The trail that had run through the vegetable garden we had landed on had continued up along the top of the finger we were on and was now about 50 meters above us. At some point immediately ahead of us, those two trails would converge and that was where I fully expected an ambush to be awaiting us if we continued traveling on the azimuth we were on.

Around noon, a heavy cloud cover moved in and a cold drizzling rain began to fall. It was SOP during bad weather for recon teams to “Ground Hog.” That meant the team would stop moving, find a good hiding place, and remain hidden until the weather lifted. This was done simply because when weather moved in like that, nothing could fly and our lifeline was cut. If we got into trouble, no one could come to assist us. We were on our own until clear skies returned. The VC/NVA knew this and they would become exceptionally aggressive when they knew we were unable to bring our air power to bear on them.

We doubled back on our back trail, moved into a very tight thicket on one of the steepest spots on the hillside, and put in a hasty ambush overlooking our back trail. Half the recon team was eating and the other half was watching their backs. The six of us were so close in that thicket we could touch one another. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my LLDB point man, Chung Si Tran, eating his PIR (Packaged Indigenous Ration) and his white ration spoon was halfway to his mouth when we heard an estimated company sized unit of VC come on line on the trail 30 meters above us and move rapidly down the steep hillside in our direction. We froze in place and didn’t move in the slightest. My point man’s white spoon remained suspended in mid air between his mouth and his ration package. I got glimpses of the VC as they passed the thicket and saw they were dressed in black, armed with a mixture of weapons, were shouting, talking and were moving rapidly down the steep hillside. They didn’t even slow down as they passed the thicket we were hiding in. As soon as the last of the VC had passed by, I saw my point man, still with the white spoon poised in mid air, continue on to his mouth with the spoonful of fish heads and rice. Then he rapidly finished off the bag and stuffed the empty bag in his rucksack. The man definitely had his priorities. Certain death had just passed us by and it hadn’t even caused Tran to lose his appetite.

We heard the VC Company thrashing around in the bottom of the draw and then we heard them start up the side of the adjacent finger. We could hear them halt before they entered the clearing/vegetable garden on the top of their finger. Soon, two VC armed with SKS carbines walked across the edge of the clearing and entered the woods line on the upper end of the clearing.

What we saw next was so bizarre it still has me puzzled to this day. After a few minutes, the two VC we had observed crossing the clearing returned to the edge of the clearing accompanied by a tall, heavy set, Caucasian male with thinning blond hair. Using the two VC as a frame of reference, the man appeared to be over 6’ tall, weighed in excess of 200 pounds, was somewhat overweight, and was somewhere in his mid to late thirties. He was wearing light green or khaki trousers, but he was not wearing a shirt, and he was not armed. He wasn’t wearing a hat or a shirt, and this was quite odd, as there was a cold rain falling. The two VC were wearing black PJs, clear plastic ground sheets as ponchos and they wore floppy hats, but the Caucasian was bare from the waist up, and this made no sense at all.

The two VC were standing on each side of the Caucasian, and they were talking and looking intently at the side of the hill we were on approximately 75 meters away. Suddenly, the Caucasian seemed to point directly at the thicket we were hiding in and they all three continued to talk and look in our direction. This went on for several minutes, and then the two VC walked back across the clearing and returned to their unit. The Caucasian turned and walked back into the woods line, and we sat there in the rain wondering what would happen next.

Because of the overcast skies and the rain, the VC knew they could show themselves without fear of air attack. They had come down that hill behind us because they knew we were somewhere on the hillside, and they had expected us to be strung out in a movement formation. They had intended to make noise and drive us downhill ahead of them into the draw at the bottom of the hill where it would have quickly ended badly for us, but for some reason, they hadn’t expected us to be hiding in a small thicket. I knew they would soon figure out what we had done and would come back. I expected them to start slowly and methodically searching the thickets on my hillside, and I didn’t intend to be there when they got back.

Then, one of the VC on the adjacent hillside started shouting and I understood enough of his Vietnamese to know he was talking about us. I thought he was possibly shouting orders to another VC unit either on his hillside or mine, so I asked my LLDB counterpart what he was saying. My counterpart replied, “He say we surrounded. He say we must surrender.” My counterpart only told me part of what the VC had shouted at us. He told me much later that the VC had directed their demand at them, the LLDB, and the VC had said, “You are surrounded. Surrender and give us the Americans, and we will let you live.” My counterpart was deeply offended the VC had thought he was so stupid he would believe a Communist.

I knew if we stayed there where we were, the VC would eventually find us and it would all be over very quickly, but we might stand a chance if we were able to get off of that hillside. I decided running into the Road Runners was the least of our problems now, so we were going to come off the required azimuth we had been on. We started carefully moving up hill toward the ridgeline running along the top of the finger we were on while using all available vegetation to screen us from view on the adjacent hillside. The VC had come from the trail along the top, so I hoped there weren’t many, if any, still up there. I intended to cross the top of the ridgeline, move down the other side, and put some distance between me and where the VC had determined we were located. But that was not to be.

We hadn’t moved but a short distance up the hill before all hell broke loose. It took me a while to figure out what the VC were doing, and when I did, I was still puzzled. The VC Company had spread out along the top of the adjacent finger and were reconing by fire into the numerous thickets on my hillside. They seemed to be “firing at will” with no specific target other than the many thickets in front of them. They couldn’t possibly be trying to get us to return fire, could they, or were they just hoping to get lucky and eventually hit one of us? Or were they trying to drive us off the hillside and up to the top where they had an ambush waiting?

While we were lying there on that hillside with indiscriminate bullets popping around us and I was trying to figure out how I was going to extricate my team from this dilemma, God made an appearance. The rain stopped, the clouds parted, and the sun showed through. I said a silent thanks to God, and then I said a silent, “Now it’s my turn,” to the VC.

The VC had the good sense to stop shooting when the clouds parted, but they had made the fatal mistake of firing on me and not killing me, because now I knew where they were. I called the FAC, he showed up a few minutes later and asked me to mark my position with smoke. I advised the FAC we were under fire and couldn’t mark our position. Then I gave the FAC the coordinates of the clearing on the adjacent spur where I had seen the Caucasian and asked him to fire a smoke into it. I crawled over to where I could observe the clearing, and watched as the FAC put a White Phosphorous (WP) smoke rocket dead center of the clearing. Using the smoke round as a reference, I could then give the FAC the azimuth and distance to my location. Once the FAC had me accurately plotted, I could direct air strikes much in the way artillery is adjusted, and we were then ready to start running tactical air strikes on the VC.

I asked the FAC what kind of ordnance he had for me today and he gave me the available list to work with. When a Project Delta recon team was in contact, we had “Broken Arrow” (U.S. troops in contact) priority on all ordnance in the air at the time that was not going to other U.S. troops in contact. I was looking for “Snake and Nape” (High Explosive 500 pound high-drag bombs and Napalm) and the FAC soon had plenty of each orbiting at various altitudes over the A Shau. Using the smoke marker as a reference point, I was able to give the FAC directions to where the VC Company was and then had the FAC run about 12 sorties of Napalm across the top and side of their hill. After that, there was little doubt we had killed everything within a two hundred meter swath along the top of that hill.

I used Napalm on the adjacent hillside and hilltop because with only 75-100 meters distance between the enemy and my team, Snake would have thrown too much shrapnel into my hillside. For good measure, I had the FAC put in three sorties of Snake about two hundred meters further up hill from my location where I had expected an ambush to be awaiting us if we had continued on our required azimuth.

About the time the last sortie of Snake had been delivered, the helicopters arrived for my emergency extraction. I brought the recovery helicopter into one of the many grass filled clearings on my hillside, but as we were climbing the 35 foot ladders, the door gunner on the right side began to fire long bursts with his M-60 into the top of my hillside. He told me later that he had seen several VC hiding in the grass along the trail 30 meters above my position, but they didn’t even try to fire on the helicopter. All they wanted to do was to hide. They had probably witnessed the fate of their comrades on the other hillside and wanted no part of another Napalm strike if they were to fire on us.

Too bad for them, because as soon as we boarded the helicopter and left the area, the FAC had some Nape still stacked above the A Shau and he burned the top of the hillside we had been on. There’s little doubt the U.S. Air Force killed a company plus of VC that day in the A Shau, and I can only hope we got the same bastards who killed SGT Prevedel’s recon team.

The post mission debriefing progressed normally until I came to the Caucasian we saw and the Intelligence Section (S-2) debriefer reacted in disbelief. That frequently happened in our post mission debriefings. These S-2 intell-types had a preconceived notion of what was out there and they only believed what fit into their imaginary scenario. We would work hard to bring them intelligence, but all too frequently the hardest part of the effort was getting them to believe us. Even though they acted like they didn’t believe us about the Caucasian, they really got upset when I got to the part where I called in Napalm and killed everything within two hundred meters of the sighting.

I don’t know, nor do I care, who the Caucasian was, but one thing I do know is that he was in full collaboration with the enemy, and the other thing I’m fairly sure of is that he, along with everyone else on that ridgeline, is now dead. Another thing I was fairly sure of was that he was not an American POW. By his age, demeanor, mannerisms, and general appearance, I figured him to be European, probably French. But why did he remove his shirt before he came out to where he knew Americans could probably see him? That will probably remain one of the many unsolved mysteries of my life.

It is somewhat interesting that the after action report for this recon mission is not among those Project Delta After Action Reports (AAR) that were released and published, and I wonder if it has anything to do with my sighting of the Caucasian and the fact I probably killed him? Who knows, and by this time, who cares?

I had expected to be inserted into my AO on Hill 937 immediately after returning to the FOB, but that didn’t happen. The Project Staff was no longer interested in Hill 937, and I received a mission brief the next day for a different AO.

SSG Hartman had had enough; he quit recon, and I couldn’t really blame him. I tried to convince him that not all recon patrols were as screwed up as our last had been, but he said recon just wasn’t what he wanted to do. He quit recon and soon left the Project. The two new LLDB I had taken in also quit recon, leaving me with just the LLDB Point Man and Tail Gunner to build another recon team around. Two days after we came out, we went back into the A Shau again, and in many ways the next recon patrol was even more “unforgettable” than this one had been.

Several years later, Little Joe Hartman was killed in an automobile accident on an icy mountain road somewhere in the Bavarian Alps. Rest in peace, Little Joe.

Even though I never got on the ground on Hill 937, I did get to study the mountain in great detail during my FAC VR, and this, combined with all the intelligence reports available to the Project, gave me a very good estimation of what I would probably have found there. The terrain on that mountain was as treacherous as any I had ever seen anywhere in the world. On Hill 937, there were multiple steep sided fingers running down from the summit into the valley below, and most, if not all, of these fingers had trails following along the tops of their ridgelines, but any of those fingers, with or without existing trails, offered access to the summit. This told me the NVA would have access to the summit from a 360-degree approach and would also be able to withdraw with a 360-degree exit capability. Such terrain made the summit of Hill 937 an excellent place for the NVA to position themselves to inflict the maximum amount of casualties on anyone attempting to climb the mountain, but it was a poor place to permanently base a battalion or regimental sized unit. The logistics involved in maintaining a large unit at or near the summit of such a mountain would have been both difficult and unnecessary for the NVA to attempt. Besides that, the NVA scattered their units to prevent their destruction by air strikes and only assembled them into battalion and regimental strength for battle, then scattered them again into platoon or company sized elements.

Project Delta never reconed Hill 937, but there is little doubt in my mind if I had been able to recon the summit of Hill 937, I would have, at most, found a small observation post at the summit and nothing more. If I had been able to recon the summit of Hill 937 and had reported there was nothing there, I don’t think the 101st would have run a battalion sized operation to climb the mountain to verify my report, and in doing so afford the NVA an opportunity to inflict heavy casualties upon them. I like to think the 101st would have ignored Hill 937 and would have concentrated on eliminating the enemy in the valley floor where the VC/NVA maintained their base camps.

A combat leader, whether he’s a recon team leader or a battalion commander, when on the move in enemy controlled territory he must never allow the enemy to predict where he’s going to be at any given time, because if he ever allows the enemy that opportunity, and if the enemy is capable, they will surely have a reception awaiting him when he arrives. When the 101st, with a battalion of infantry, began climbing toward the summit of Hill 937 and took several days to get there, it afforded the NVA the time and the opportunity to assemble a battalion and move it into place at the summit to await them. The rest of it is now history.

A week after Project Delta came out of the A Shau Valley, the 101st Airborne Division went into the valley with most of the Division on a Recon in Force/Search and Destroy Operation. Some of the hardest fighting of the war took place during that 101st operation, and some say it changed the course of the war for the bad. The Democrat controlled U.S. Congress was determined to prevent President Nixon from achieving a victory in Vietnam and were constantly looking for ways to hinder Nixon’s prosecution of the war. These Democrats, along with leftist journalists, came down hard on General Creighton Abrams because of the U.S. casualties suffered by the 101st Airborne Division in the A Shau Valley, and especially the casualties they took on Hill 937 (Hamburger Hill). From that point forward, the U.S. curtailed large offensive operations that took the fight to the NVA, and the U.S. fought a defensive war that would produce fewer U.S. casualties. This, of course, produced fewer NVA casualties, and this made the Democrats happy.

The Democrats knew we couldn’t win the war if we couldn’t kill the enemy, and the last thing the Democrats wanted was for President Nixon to win that war. Then, as now, a Democrat controlled Congress had rather have U.S. soldiers killed and our country defeated than allow a Republican President to receive credit for defeating our country’s enemies.

One can only hope a just God has reserved an appropriate place in Hell especially for these Democrats.
 

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