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

Project Delta’s Operation CASS PARK I in support of the 101st Airborne Division wasn’t going well. By the end of the third week of April 1969, Project Delta had completed three weeks of reconnaissance operations in the A Shau Valley and none of the Recon teams had been successful in gathering usable intelligence information the 101st needed to conduct their upcoming operation. The Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) Platoon and elements of the 81st Airborne Ranger Battalion had gone into the valley in sufficient strength to survive long enough to gather some intelligence, but six-man Recon and Road Runner patrols had all ended in disaster or near disaster. A Recon team with three USSF and three LLDB was MIA, one Road Runner team was MIA, the 281st Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) had lost three Huey helicopters, and the operation had one more week to go before it ended.

After three weeks of reconnaissance operations, all the Project had been able to ascertain was that the enemy had sufficient troop strength in the valley to quickly counter six-man Recon teams with at least platoon sized units, they could assemble company sized units to counter BDA Platoon operations, and if Delta Rangers entered the valley in company strength, the enemy would soon meet them with a battalion. Project Delta’s conventional reconnaissance operations were not succeeding, so the decision was made to try something different. The 101st Airborne Division provided Unattended Ground Sensors (UGS) and telephone wire tapping equipment to Project Delta Recon teams and our war suddenly went “High-Tech.”

Half my Recon team had quit Recon after my last reconnaissance patrol in the A Shau Valley and I needed three replacements to complete my team, so a composite team was thrown together for me. I was short one USSF and two LLDB, but I received two USSF and one LLDB to complete a six man Recon team. SGT David L. Lange Jr. and SGT William R. (Grit) Pomeroy Jr. were assigned to my team just for one UGS mission, and we only had one day to train up on the equipment and to rehearse SOPs and Immediate Action (IA) Drills before we infiltrated.

The 101st sent over five UGS along with an Ordnance Branch Second Lieutenant to train Project Delta’s reconnaissance personnel on how to deploy the sensors, and we assembled on a small hillside within the FOB to attend his training. The Lieutenant made quite a sight standing at the bottom of the hill wearing starched OG-107s W/ baseball cap, dark rimmed GI glasses, wearing his butter bar on one collar, an Ordnance Branch flaming bomb on the other, and with his five UGS devices lined up beside him. If you’re wondering how I could possibly remember after all these years that the Lieutenant wore an Ordnance Branch flaming bomb on his collar, you’ll figure it out as this story unfolds.

The Lieutenant looked up at the (about) 20 of us sitting on the hillside in front of him, introduced himself, stated that the purpose of the training was to teach us how to install these UGS devices in enemy controlled territory, and then he told us these five UGS devices were all the 101st Airborne Division owned and we were to be very careful with them. He divided us into four groups of five, with each of the four groups taking an UGS device, and the Lieutenant kept one device with him as a demonstrator.

The UGS devices were black metal boxes about the same size and shape as a .50 caliber ammo can and they weighed about twenty-five pounds each, with much of the weight belonging to their internal batteries. The devices had two attachments: 25 feet of black rubberized sensor cable attached to one side of the device, and an antenna that was supposed to look like a small bush attached to the opposite side of the box with 25 feet of coaxial cable. The 25-foot sensor cable was rubber coated, about one inch thick, and weighed about forty pounds. This sensor cable was not only heavy, but it was also bulky. The cable couldn’t be rolled any tighter than a 3 foot in diameter coil that would have to be strapped to a team member’s back, and we knew right away that negotiating a coil like that down a ladder and through the brush was going to be a problem. I could almost hear the rejoicing that must have taken place in the 101st Division’s Recon teams when they heard Special Forces was taking their UGS.

The Lieutenant stated the plan was for Project Delta Recon teams to install these UGS on well-used trails in the A Shau Valley to monitor enemy movement, and this installation required digging a 6 inch deep by 6 inch wide trench across the trail, placing the 25 foot long sensor cable in the trench, burying the cable, attaching one end of the cable to the sensor device, attaching the antenna to the device, arming the device, burying the device, and then removing all evidence that a trench had been dug across the trail. The UGS device would record enemy activity passing over the sensor cable, and aircraft over flying the valley at regular intervals would upload the data for analysis.

This didn’t sound practical to me, as properly installing one of these UGS would require a Recon team to spend at least an hour on and around a well-used trail, and well-used trails were just that, they were well used, so the chances of a Recon team being detected while emplacing one of these devices was highly likely. Not only that, but a Recon team couldn’t even step on one of those trails and carefully brush out our tracks without leaving enough evidence that an experienced tracker couldn’t detect it, and we were now expected to dig a trench across one of those trails and leave no evidence. I was not looking forward to this one at all.

The class went on for about twenty minutes with the Lieutenant lecturing on the seismic and magnetic capabilities of the device. If the device was properly installed, it could count enemy soldiers as they walked across the sensor cable, determine what direction they were traveling, and could determine whether the person who crossed over the cable was armed, or not, by reading its magnetic signature. Then he got to the good part.

After the Lieutenant had gone through the lecture on trench digging, cable connection, and antenna connection, he came to the part about the requirement to arm the UGS device before covering it over and burying it. He stated that once the UGS device was armed and activated, any movement of the device would cause it to explode, and this, of course, was to prevent the enemy from capturing the device if they found it.

The Lieutenant then said, “Now, pay attention and watch me closely as I arm this device. To arm the device, you take this specially shaped key, insert it into this hole in the upper right hand corner of the top of the device, turn the key one full turn clockwise, and then you carefully remove the key. Remember, after it’s armed any movement will cause a thermite charge inside the device to explode in a fiery blast that will completely destroy the device. Now, to disarm the device, I’ll reinsert the special key and turn it one full turn counter clockwise, like this. This device is now disarmed,” he proudly exclaimed as he withdrew the key.

The Lieutenant was really getting into it by now and was enjoying himself immensely as he continued, “Now I want one man in each group to pick up the key to your device and we’ll all together arm and disarm the devices in front of you. OK, on my command insert your keys.” We dutifully obeyed his command. He then commanded, “OK, now turn your keys one full turn clock wise.” Again, we obeyed his command. He seemed to really enjoy the suspense of it when he said, “Now, withdraw your keys and remember any movement of those devices will cause them to explode.” By this time, everyone was standing and staring at the armed devices sitting there unsteadily on the hillside when the Lieutenant commanded, “OK, carefully reinsert your keys. Now, turn your keys one full turn counter clockwise. Withdraw your keys. Your devices are now safely disarmed.” We obeyed his command, disarmed the devices, and then we just stood there relieved that that part was over, as playing with strange explosive devices was not a risk any of us wanted to take unnecessarily.

Then the Lieutenant announced, “During the next part of our training, we’ll practice assembling and emplacing these devices on this trail behind me just as you would on operation, so pick up your devices and follow me.” The Lieutenant reached down and picked up the UGS device in front of him and it exploded in his hands. When the thing blew, the class quickly scattered, and in doing so kicked and stumbled over the UGS devices on the hill side and they blew up too. Somehow, I don’t think the Lieutenant had the disarming part right, but he sure knew how to arm them.

Needless to say, the Lieutenant didn’t dismiss the class; everyone just wandered off. As I walked away, I looked back and saw the medics treating the Lieutenant for his burns and saw all five of the 101st Airborne Division’s UGS burning on the hillside. I felt sorry for the Lieutenant, not so much for his burns, they weren’t serious, but how was he ever going to explain the loss of all that equipment to his boss. At any rate, I was glad I wasn’t going to be called on to dig up any high speed trails in the A Shau Valley.

As no UGS devices survived training, our UGS mission was cancelled and my team was given a wiretap mission instead. We were then issued wire-tapping equipment that was nothing but a small Sony wire-reel recorder with two wires attached, and on the tips of these attached wires were straight-pins that were to be inserted into the two wires of our targeted enemy telephone lines. The telephone wire we were expecting to find in the A Shau Valley was Chinese made field phone wire very similar to U.S. Army WD-1, except the two individual wires that made up Chinese wire were wound left over right and U.S. WD-1 is wound right over left. The recorder was battery powered and it wasn’t waterproof, so it was necessary to seal it in a plastic bag prior to concealment.

After about thirty minutes training with the recorder, we had the hang of it and proceeded to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) where the Project Staff gave us our mission briefing, and we were assigned an Area of Operation (AO) the Project Staff believed to have an enemy telephone line running through it. Our mission was to find the telephone line, attach the tape recorder to its wires, leave the recorder attached for twenty-four hours, recover the recorder, and exfiltrate with the recording of any traffic that may have been passed over the wire. Well, at least that was their plan.

I had been hoping they had a technique similar to how the unattended ground sensors (UGS) uploaded to an overhead aircraft and the recorded conversations would be transmitted and recovered in a similar manner. But when I was told that after emplacing the recorder on the target telephone line, the Recon team was to remain in the area for twenty-four hours, recover the recorder and call for extraction, I knew our Project Delta Staff had no understanding of what we were up against in the A Shau Valley

With as many of the enemy as there were in the A Shau Valley, it was near impossible for a Recon team to infiltrate the valley without being seen by them, and once detected, trackers would be sent to follow the Recon team. These trackers would surely find any object the recon team left on its back trail. When the recorder was found by trackers, they would rightfully assume someone would be coming back to retrieve it, and a reception would be put in place for the recorder’s retrievers. At the time, I thought this telephone line recorder idea was even worse than the one involving digging up high-speed trails, burying UGS, and hoping the enemy wouldn’t notice.

That afternoon, I flew out with the FAC in an O-2 Sky Master to over-fly my Recon AO, select my primary/alternate infiltration LZs and any possible emergency extraction LZs.
The AO was located above the extreme southern end of the A Shau Valley where the valley rose up and ended in some of the highest elevations found in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The streams and rivers flowing down from this area into the A Sap River had, over time, carved out the southern end of the A Shau Valley as the river flowed northwest into Laos.

The A Shau Valley ran from the southeast to the northwest, and, like a funnel, the large end of the valley was to the north, and the narrow end of the funnel was at the southern end. Of course, my Recon AO was in this narrow southern end of the funnel and in the path of every NVA unit infiltrating down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the Hue-Phu Bai area. It was from this area, just one year earlier, the Viet Cong attacked and seized Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Those are ancient mountains lying between the A Shau Valley and the coast, and long ago they must have been majestic creations of God, but the almost constant rain blown up from the moisture of the South China Sea has, over the years, eroded and carved them into a labyrinth of ridges, valleys, ravines, and gullies with the streams and rivers draining toward every point of the compass. The mountains are composed mainly of soil, contain very few, if any, rocky outcroppings, and the rain has carved them like a hot knife through butter.

This was some of the roughest terrain in South Vietnam for a long range Reconnaissance team to work, and it was not just because there were more VC/NVA in the A Shau area than there were anywhere else in country. The height of the mountains made it difficult for helicopters to operate at that altitude, and the terrain its self was near impossible to move through. With the mountains cut up into ridgelines with steep sided valleys, ravines and gullies, it was near impossible to move through this area without following along the tops of the sometimes razor thin crests of these ridgelines. Long ago, wildlife had moved through this area on top of these ridgelines and created trails that the first humans must have then picked up and claimed.

Mountains bordering the A Shau Valley are completely covered from top to bottom by tropical rainforest with a variety of trees both large and small, dense brush and nearly impenetrable thickets, but the valley floor is mostly flat, almost treeless, and grass covered. To try to move through these mountains above the A Shau Valley and not follow along the tops of their thin ridgelines was not impossible but it was nearly so. Moving through the mountains by contouring along the sides of their ridgelines revealed that the ridgeline’s sides had also been eroded and carved by the rain into a never-ending series of small brush filled gullies and ravines that had to be traversed. Moving down into and up the other side of these brush filled, steep sided ravines was not only slow but it was also noisy. The enemy, moving quietly along the trails on the tops of these ridgelines, could keep track of a Recon team’s progress not only by the noise a Recon team made traversing these brush filled gullies, but from the top of the adjacent ridgeline they could also see the tops of this brush shake as the Recon team moved underneath.

Moving through the mountains by following along beside its streams and rivers was impossible, as it required traversing the never-ending succession of brush and water filled ravines and gullies that drained into them. The only practical way for a Recon team, or anyone, to move through those mountains was to move along the tops of its ridgelines, and the enemy had already claimed them for their own. A Recon team would never move on an enemy trail, and every one of those ridgelines above the A Shau Valley had an enemy trail running along its top.

The rainy season was now in full swing in this part of Vietnam, Monsoon rain clouds covered these mountains daily, and when this happened nothing could fly until the clouds departed. During the Monsoon season, a Recon team on the ground could expect to go for several days without air support of any kind, and if we got into trouble, we were on our own as none of our support elements could get in to help us.

If the weather, terrain, Viet Cong, and NVA weren’t enough of an obstacle for Recon teams to overcome in the A Shau Valley, there were also the Montagnards to contend with. When U.S. Army Special Forces abandoned the A Shau Special Forces Camp and left the valley in January 1966, there were an estimated 30,000 Pakoh Montagnard tribesmen living in the valley. Many of these Montagnards fled the valley when Special Forces departed, but many remained, and the A Shau Valley’s Montagnards were now not only in full collaboration with the Viet Cong, they were Viet Cong, as it was the only way the Montagnards could have remained in the valley and not have been killed by the communists.

These Montagnards were excellent hunters, they knew the valley like no other, and we knew first hand that the Viet Cong were using them as trackers. Six months earlier and a little further south in this same mountain range, Jerry Nelson and I watched a team of Viet Cong Montagnard trackers as they worked our back trail and we realized they weren’t just tracking us, they were stalking us as if we were game animals. Those Montagnards had been hunting a large variety of game animals in those mountains since they were boys, and they probably knew every hill, stream, tree, bush and blade of grass in the area, but they died before they realized we could also stalk them.

After studying the AO for about thirty minutes, I selected a primary infiltration LZ in a small clearing on a hillside about a kilometer from the east-west ridgeline where the targeted telephone line was reported to be. A very visible high-speed trail ran along the crest of this east-west ridgeline, and the targeted telephone line ran beside or near the trail. My infiltration LZ was in the upper end of a small north-south valley formed by two fingers running off the targeted east-west ridgeline, and my intended infiltration approach was for the “hole bird” (infiltration helicopter) to drop out of flight formation about fifteen kilometers out from my AO and follow the river at treetop level as the FAC counted off the valleys until we came to the small valley with my LZ. My valley was the seventh of about twelve small identical valleys that drained southward into the river from the targeted east-west mountain range’s ridgeline, and when directed by the FAC, our hole bird pilot would turn off the river and make an approach on my LZ at the end of this small valley. Well, at least that was our plan.

One day after receiving our operations order, we briefed back and flew out for a last light infiltration. As planned, our hole-bird dropped from the flight formation about fifteen kilometers out from our AO and we made our approach at treetop level with the FAC directing us to our LZ. Our hole-bird pilot saw our LZ as soon as he was directed to turn off the river and he put us into the small clearing for a ladder insertion, and that was not what I’d planned. The LZ had appeared much larger from the air the day before during my FAC VR, and I had planned for a low hover and jump off. But we were soon on the ground and moving east up the mountain’s steep side and toward the north-south ridgeline running along its top. I planned to guide on this north-south ridgeline to take us up to the mountain’s east-west ridgeline where the targeted telephone line was believed to be.

In the failing light of EENT (End Evening Nautical Twilight), it appeared as if I’d made another mistake. From the air the day before, this hillside had appeared to be covered in triple canopy jungle, but what I found was just small groups of trees interspersed with small grass and brush filled clearings and cut by the expected brush filled ravines and gullies.

The team continued to move up the hillside until it became too dark to continue and I had to make a decision on what we would do for an RON (remain overnight) location. Our choices were to either go into one of the dense thickets in the ravines on our right or on our left and hide, or we could look for a good defendable position. I decided to stop in a stand of small trees overlooking our back-trail where we had come through a small clearing consisting of knee-deep brush and grass. We had been moving uphill along the crest of a small ridgeline that dropped off steeply on each side, but where we stopped it had leveled out into a small saddle before continuing on up toward the top of the north-south ridgeline. This small saddle not only afforded us a level spot for our RON, but it provided us with the defensive capabilities of a hilltop on three of the four sides of our perimeter. But, best of all, this location provided us with a good position to monitor and ambush the small clearing our back-trail passed through. If trackers weren’t already on our back-trail, I knew they soon would be.

We went into a standard RON (Remain Over Night) formation where we were close enough to touch one another and prepared to spend the night. By SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) we put out one Claymore mine on our back-trail using one of the tree trunks to protect us from the back blast. Instead of finding a good hiding place for an RON as I usually did, this time we RONed in an ambush position.

Soon after dark, we heard movement on the top of the ridgeline about fifty meters above us, then we heard the soft crunch, crunch, crunch sound made by shovels digging along the ridgeline, and we knew the enemy was digging in above us. At first, we thought it might be an echo, but soon we were sure we detected the sound of more digging along the top of the opposite finger’s ridgeline, and I went to sleep knowing we were going to be in for a very exciting time come morning.

To make matters worse, a cold drizzling rain began to fall soon after midnight and continued through out the night, and, come morning, I had a hard decision to make. It wasn’t a good idea to move in the rain because if you ran into trouble you were on your own as no air support was available in inclement weather, but it was also not a good idea to remain in your RON after sun up. There were negative implications attached to either decision I made, so, after sunrise, I decided to remain in the RON for a little while longer in hopes the weather would lift soon after sunrise. I had good reason to believe the enemy was dug in on our perimeter, they were just waiting for us to come to them, and I had no intention of tangling with them if I had no air support on call.

About two hours after sunup, the rain stopped, I told Grit to recover the Claymore and we prepared to move out of our RON. I intended to turn north, to contour the hillside moving in the direction of our targeted east-west ridgeline, and I had no intention of continuing to climb the hillside in the direction of the digging I’d heard the night before.

We were lying there in the edge of the tree line in a tight 360-degree perimeter covering Grit as he left the perimeter to recover the Claymore mine. Dave Lange, one LLDB and I were covering Grit and our back trail, two LLDB were on flank security covering the ravines on our right and left. Grit recovered the Claymore, returned to his rear security position directly behind me, opened his rucksack and began to put the Claymore away.

As we waited for Grit to stow the Claymore, the three of us (Dave Lange, one LLDB, and I) were overlooking our back trail down a fairly steep hillside and across a thirty-meter wide clearing covered with knee-deep brush and grass where I expected to see trackers, if they were on our back trail, to step out of the wood-line thirty meters away. I was lying there observing the wood-line thirty meters away when, out of my peripheral vision, I saw a small shadow under the brush about fifteen meters away slowly change color from black to gray, and then there was a muzzle flash right beside the changing colors. Suddenly, there were six or seven muzzle flashes under the brush in a ragged line fifteen meters in front of us. At that range you don’t hear bullets whiz by; you just see the flash and simultaneously hear the muzzle blast and the bullets impacting around you.

With Dave Lange on my left and my LLDB counterpart on my right, we returned fire with 4-5 round bursts of aimed fire at the muzzle flashes. Grit and the two LLDB flank security in the level area behind me were out of the line of fire and couldn’t return fire down the steep hillside to my front, so they tossed fragmentation grenades over my head and downhill onto the VC. No one ever admitted throwing it, but someone to my rear, and it had to be one of the two recently assigned LLDB, tossed an M34 White Phosphorous (WP) grenade over my head, I saw it land about ten feet to our front and I had time to think, ”This is really going to hurt,” before I saw it start to roll down hill and out of sight. The WP grenade went off in the middle of the VC line of firers, some particles of WP landed among us but none of us were burned.

By team ambush SOP, after firing three magazines and tossing one grenade we ceased fire. The firing to our front had stopped, and the only sound we heard was one of the VC emitting the continuous “death” groan the mortally wounded frequently make with their dying-breath, and then he too became silent. I believe the only reason we won that firefight was because we had the up hill advantage and could easily toss grenades down on them from a prone position, but they would have had to rise up on their knees to toss grenades up hill at us.

Those VC were good. I had expected them to walk out of the wood-line thirty meters away, but they had crawled out of the wood-line instead. Sometime during the early morning hours, they had slowly and silently crawled to within fifteen meters of us without making a sound or shaking a bush, and the falling rain had covered any sound they might have made. As low as the VC were, even if our Claymore mine had still been in place its blast would have missed them, but the fact remained, whether knowingly or not, they had entered the kill-zone of an ambush and had paid the usual price of admission; they paid with their lives.

I did a quick visual check of the team to determine whether or not we had taken casualties. A lot of bullets had just come our way, but everyone seemed to be all right. In preparation and anticipation of the next round of this firefight, the team was digging in their rucksacks to replenish the ammunition and grenades they had just expended. Grit always carried eight (8) M26 Fragmentation Grenades with four of them in a canteen cover on his right side and four in his rucksack. He had just thrown the four grenades he had in his canteen cover and was replacing them from his rucksack.

The team seemed to be all right, but I could smell that familiar smell that indicated someone close by had been shot, and I didn’t think the smell was coming from the dead VC over 15 meters away, downhill and downwind. The smell I’m speaking of is the one caused by the kinetic energy released by the impact of a high velocity bullet when it strikes human flesh. This kinetic energy burns the skin and flesh releasing a small puff of smoke that carries the unmistakable sickly sweet smell of burning human flesh, so I continued to search for the source of this smell within the team.

Then, I noticed something odd about the back of Dave Lange’s tiger stripe shirt. Dave was on my left and slightly downhill from me, so I could clearly see his back, and there was a small piece of his shirt that had been precisely punched out as if it had been cut out with a small cookie cutter. The piece of cloth was perfectly circular, about 7.62 millimeters in diameter and was just hanging there attached by one or two threads. I had seen quite a few bullet exit wounds by that time and had never seen an exit wound that looked like that, but as I stared at the hole in his shirt, I saw blood begin to darken the fabric around the hole and I knew then that Dave had been hit.

I whispered, ”Dave,” and he replied with a whispered, “Yeah.”

Then I asked Dave Lange the stupidest question one could ask a man with an obvious bullet hole in him, I asked him, “Are you OK?”

Dave’s answer came right back at me, “Yeah, I’m OK. How about you?”

His answer was a surprise so I replied, “I’m OK, but, you know, you’ve been shot.”

Upon learning he had been shot, Dave Lange only had one question; he asked, “Yeah, where’d they get me?”

Dave Lange was so intently focused on killing the enemy he hadn’t even noticed the enemy had almost killed him, and I didn’t figure out until much later why the exit wound on his back had looked so strange. The bullet had entered the upper left quadrant of his chest, had passed through his chest without striking either a rib or his lung, and the bullet had tumbled while passing through his chest to exit his back exactly base first punching out a precisely 7.62 MM patch of cloth from his tiger stripe shirt just like a wad-cutter type bullet would have cut the fabric. I had never seen a bullet exit wound like that before and haven’t seen one like it since.

When I told Dave he had been hit in the chest, he held his CAR-15, still aimed toward the front, with his right hand and swiped his left hand across his chest. His hand, of course, came away covered in blood and I heard him say, in a whisper, “Oh, Shit!” Then, I asked Dave if he could back off the line and let Grit check his wound while I maintained security. Dave replied that he could, and he slowly backed off the line. Dave was surprisingly alert and agile for a man who had just received an apparently serious gunshot wound.

Dave Lange had been in that heightened state of awareness some soldiers enter into when engaged in close combat. Some say that when they’re in this state, all their senses are focused on killing the enemy. Their senses are magnified to the point their vision can detect and identify the smallest detail; they can hear a leaf fall out of a tree at a hundred meters and identify the type tree it fell from; they can smell the enemy’s breath and identify what they ate for their last meal, and their physical strength is magnified three fold. Soldiers have been shot through the heart while in this heightened state and have continued to fire, empty a magazine, change magazines, empty it again and throw a grenade before their body falls down and dies. Some call this heightened state an “adrenalin high,” and some simply call the state “Berserk.” What it really is I don’t know, but I do know it exists.

By then, there was little doubt we were surrounded, as there was shouting from the top of the ridgeline above us, and more shouting from the bottom of the hill we were on. Both enemy elements above and below us were demanding a situation report from the enemy unit we had just engaged, but they weren’t receiving any answers because they were all dead, or playing dead; one can never be sure an enemy soldier is dead unless you shoot him yourself...again. The only answer the enemy received came from us in the form of 40 MM HE rounds from our sawed-off M-79 grenade launchers.

Most Project Delta Recon teams carried at least one of these sawed-off M-79s and I frequently carried one myself. The barrels on these M-79s were sawed-off midway of the forearm, and the forearm was then discarded. The stock was sawed-off behind the pistol grip making it a 40 MM single shot pistol with a seven-inch barrel. The sights were removed and the weapon was either used as a point-blank weapon or as a 40 MM mortar for indirect fire. In mountainous terrain, such as we were in, they were an excellent method of lobbing grenades up hill.

About the only negative involved with these sawed off M-79s was when the standard fourteen-inch barrel was cut down to seven-inches, it changed the arming distance of an HE round. With a standard fourteen-inch barrel, an HE round wouldn’t arm until it reached thirty meters, but when the barrel was cut down to seven inches, an HE round would arm somewhere around five meters, making it entirely possible to shoot yourself with one of the things. No one ever had the nerve to test just how close those HE rounds actually armed, but we had seen them explode in brush after traveling no more than ten meters and I know they didn’t arm at four meters, but that’s another story…

In September 1969, I was taking a Recon team into a low hover/jump off LZ on the western edge of the DMZ when a man (name withheld) jumped off the infiltration helicopter, hit the ground, and rolled. As he rolled, the sawed-off M-79 attached to his web gear accidentally discharged and the HE round struck the side of the helicopter at a distance of about four meters, but it didn’t explode; it just left a dent with a smudge of gold paint on the pilot’s door. It goes without saying, that really pissed off the pilot, and the only way the 281st AHC would allow us to continue to carry sawed-off M-79s on their aircraft after that was if we’d promise we’d never again carry one on a helicopter with a round in the chamber.

You could really feel the recoil when firing one of those sawed-off M-79s in training, but in the so-called “heat of battle,” you could fire it one-handed and not even notice the recoil. But later, you’d wonder what had torn up that web of skin between your thumb and your trigger finger; it was the tang safety on the M-79 as it recoiled back into your hand.

I put in a call to radio relay and informed them I needed the FAC, I had a wounded American, and we needed an emergency extraction. A few minutes later the FAC radioed me, said he was over my location, and asked me to pop smoke. I could hear the O-2’s engines, but with the echo in those mountains I couldn’t determine his location or distance from me. I threw a mini-smoke out into the clearing and asked the FAC to identify smoke, but he replied he couldn’t see it and asked me to throw another. I threw another mini-smoke into the clearing, and again the FAC couldn’t see it. Then, I threw a full sized M18 smoke grenade, and about a minute or two later the FAC advised he had me in sight but I was in the wrong area, and I was not inside my assigned AO.

At the time, I didn’t know what the FAC meant about my team being in the wrong area, but I found out later my team had been inserted into the wrong valley, and when I was in radio contact with the FAC and thought he was overhead, he was over a valley adjacent to the one I was in. If the F-4 Phantom pilots the FAC had stacked at 10,000 feet hadn’t seen my smoke and advised the FAC where to look for us, he’d never have found us. Somehow, the night before during our infiltration the FAC had miscounted the valleys leading up to my AO, he had directed my hole-bird pilot to turn up the wrong valley, and my Recon team had been inserted into the wrong AO. I knew then why my AO had looked so differently at ground level than it had from the air during my VR.

A mistake like the FAC had made in directing my hole bird pilot into the wrong valley was easy to make in this area, and I’m surprised it didn’t happen more often. The area above the southern end of the A Shau Valley was a maze of mountaintops, hills, ridgelines, valleys, rivers, and streams all looking alike, and there were few, if any, prominent terrain features anywhere in the area. In addition to that, during “last light” insertions it was last light only on the mountaintops, night had already fallen in the valleys, shadows filled those valleys and they became ink-black puddles of darkness with just the mountaintops protruding into the last light. During last light Recon team insertions, hole birds would plunge into those puddles of darkness ten to twenty kilometers out from the Recon team’s AO, and the FAC, peering into this darkness from above, would guide the hole bird into the Recon team’s LZ. To this day, I’m still in awe of how these Project Delta FAC pilots flying alone above us could do this while flying through clouds in semi-darkness, dodging mountaintops and ignoring occasional enemy ground fire.

As soon as the FAC had my smoke plotted, I was ready to start running air strikes on the two ridgelines above me. I knew if I didn’t clear those ridgelines of enemy troops before my emergency extraction flight arrived, we’d never get out of the hole we were in. I asked the FAC to identify the ordnance and the type aircraft he had for me and he replied, “Snake and Nape (500 LB High Drag HE and Napalm) on F-4 Phantoms at 10,000 feet.”

It was always good news to learn there were F-4s above us, as they had the best bombsite of any aircraft used during the Vietnam War. In a bombing run, an F-4 might be as much as 25 meters long or he might be as much as 25 meters short of his intended target, but he would never be off target to his left or to his right by more than, at the most, two or three meters. That meant with F–4s, I could run Napalm parallel to our position along the ridgeline fifty meters above us and not be too concerned about them putting anything on the side of the hill where my team was located. As F-4s could be either long or short in their delivery, you could run F-4s parallel to your team, but it was never a good idea to run F-4 air strikes over your team when the enemy was as close as they now were.

When the F-4s burned the top of the ridgeline fifty meters above us with several sorties of Napalm, we could feel the intense heat and see the flames through the trees, but we were never in any danger. Then I asked for Snake along the adjacent ridgeline about 150 meters away, but after the first sortie of Snake, I had to call it off and use Nape instead, as the Snake was throwing too much shrapnel into our hillside. In addition to the shrapnel whacking the trees around us, one large piece of metal I recognized to be part of the tail-fin assembly of a 500 LB High Drag bomb came whirring through the air and embedded in the ground dead center of my Recon team’s perimeter.

The FAC called while he was putting in the Snake and told me to find an LZ, my emergency extraction was inbound, and it was thirty minutes out. Even though the top of the ridgeline above us had been burned and any VC/NVA up there were probably dead, I still didn’t want to climb up there and look for an LZ, and I certainly didn’t intend to go down into the valley to find one. The clearing downhill from us where we had just made contact with the VC would have made a good McGuire Rig extraction LZ, but you just don’t use the site of a recent firefight as an emergency extraction LZ unless you’re extremely desperate and I wasn’t that…yet.

If Dave Lange had been so badly wounded he couldn’t move, we’d have attempted a McGuire Rig extraction right there, but he was still alert and mobile even though he had lost a lot of blood by that time. So, with Grit carrying Dave’s rucksack, we started moving north contouring along the hillside until we found a spot that, with a little work, could serve as an emergency extraction LZ.

Our extraction LZ was nothing more than a spot on the hillside where the trees had thinned out enough that if we could knock down one large tree with a Claymore mine and cut down about five smaller trees with our M-16s and CAR-15s, we could bring in McGuire Rigs. The back-blast from the 1.5 pounds of Composition C-4 explosive in a M18A1 Claymore mine will usually take down a tree with a twenty inch diameter and it worked nicely on the largest tree in our LZ. An M-16 on full auto will bring down a tree with a ten-inch diameter quicker than a chainsaw can bring one down and we quickly had our extraction LZ.

We were cutting down the last tree when we heard the faint muttering sound of Hueys echoing through the mountains and we knew the 281st AHC was inbound with our emergency extraction. I marked our LZ with smoke, asked the FAC if he had us in sight, he did, and I advised him we were ready to bring in the first extraction ship. The team could have come out by ladder on this LZ and only use one extraction ship, but Dave Lange was wounded, he couldn’t climb the ladder, so he would have to come out by McGuire Rig, and it would take two Hueys to lift the six of us out three at a time by McGuire Rig.

Two Charlie Model gun ships were the first to arrive and the FAC directed them to start making mini-gun and rocket runs on the two ridgelines above us. The C&C ship was the next to arrive. I made radio contact with C&C and advised I would put my wounded out on the first lift by McGuire Rig and the second lift would come out by ladder.

My plan was for Dave, Grit and one LLDB to come out by McGuire Rig on the first lift with Grit making sure Dave didn’t fall out if he passed out from loss of blood. I would remain on the ground with two LLDB and wait for the second lift. As it was a perfectly good ladder LZ, I intended to come out by ladder and avoid the long ride through the mountains back to Phu Bai sitting in a McGuire Rig 100 feet below the helicopter. Well, at least that was my plan.

We heard the first extraction ship coming up the valley below us, and as it drew nearer we heard it slowly climbing up the hillside, still at treetop level, before it suddenly appeared in the hole we had cut out above us with our Claymore and our M-16s. As soon as the Huey was centered on the hole about 75 feet above us, we looked up and saw the Recovery NCO looking down at us from the Huey’s left door, and then three sandbags with McGuire Rigs attached came plummeting down to impact dead center of the LZ.

Grit, Dave, and one LLDB left our perimeter, moved to the center of the LZ, snap-linked their rucksacks to the bottom of their McGuire Rigs, stepped into the loop, slipped their left wrist into the safety loop, and then signaled the Recovery NCO with a “thumbs up” that they were ready to be lifted out. From the time the Huey centered over our extraction LZ to the time Dave, Grit and one LLDB were lifted out took no more than thirty seconds.

Our perimeter had just shrunk to two LLDB and me and we were on a mountainside with at least a company of VC. What could possibly go wrong? The first lift had gone so smoothly there was little indication the next couple of minutes would become one of those “unforgettable” moments.

As soon as the first lift cleared the LZ, the second extraction ship made its approach. The Huey came up the valley just as the first extraction ship had done, centered over the hole in the canopy above us and began to drop into the hole far enough to drop us the 35 foot ladders. I looked up and saw the Recovery NCO, Johnny G. Santora, looking down at me, and then all hell broke loose. The extraction ship began to receive small arms fire from about fifty meters back along our back trail and the left-side door gunner locked the trigger back on his M-60 and fired a continuous burst of fire in return. I heard bullets smacking into the extraction ship and expected to see the helicopter pull up out of the hole and flee the scene, but it didn’t, it just hung there taking hits and hitting back. Apparently, the pilot had made up his mind he wasn’t going to leave without us, so we were going to have to climb out by ladder while under fire, and I wasn’t looking forward to that at all. But if the pilot was going to remain over us while under fire and throw a ladder to us, I was somewhat obliged to climb that ladder while under fire.

It was then that Johnny G. Santora made a decision that probably saved all our lives; he pulled the ladder in and tossed the three McGuire Rigs down to us. As soon as the McGuire Rigs hit the ground in front of us, the two LLDB and I left the cover of the tree line, moved out into the LZ and stepped into them.

The noise was deafening. The whine of the Huey’s engine laboring to maintain a hover at that altitude mixed with the sound of its rotor blades striking the tree-tops and then mixed with the sound of the door gunner’s M-60 returning fire on our perimeter, as I looked up at Johnny G and gave him the “thumbs up” ready signal. That had been all the pilot had been waiting for, and, almost immediately, I felt the ropes tighten as he pulled the Huey up and out of the hole.

However, in his understandable haste to put distance between enemy ground fire and us, the pilot began his departure from the mountain a bit prematurely and I saw the trees coming at us at a high rate of speed. Being dragged through the trees was one of the greatest fears of a McGuire Rig extraction, as it was near impossible to be drug through the trees without some piece or part of your gear becoming snagged or entangled in a limb or a branch. When that happened, the helicopter was tethered to the tree until the limb broke, the rope broke, or the Recovery NCO cut you loose with the machete he had on board for that purpose. It goes without saying, to be cut loose in the top of a 150’ tree in the A Shau Valley with the enemy on the ground below shooting at you is the thing of which nightmares are made.

We might have made it through those treetops without a problem but for one thing. As I had been expecting a ladder extraction, I had rigged my CAR-15 for a ladder extraction and not for a McGuire Rig extraction. If I had rigged my CAR-15 for a McGuire Rig extraction, it would have been snap linked to my LBE (Load Bearing Equipment) on my right side with the muzzle pointing forward. But as it was, my CAR-15 was draped over my neck by a 550-cord sling with the weapon lying flat across my body in preparation for a ladder extraction. The reason we rigged them differently was because when climbing the ladder your CAR-15/M-16 had to lie flat across your body to prevent it from protruding through the ladder and hanging up on the ladder while climbing, as it would have if you had the weapon snap linked to your side with the muzzle pointing forward in preparation for a McGuire Rig extraction. Each extraction required a different rigging technique for your weapon and I was about to be reminded why.

As we passed upward through the trees, a tree limb snagged the 550-cord sling on my CAR-15, I briefly saw my weapon below me stretched out on the 550 cord, and I had time to think, “Something is going to have to break and break soon.” Either my neck was going to break, the limb was going to break, or the 550 cord was going to break. As it took 550 pounds of pressure to break 550-cord (hence its name), I knew my neck would break long before the 550-cord did, so my only hope was for the limb to break, and, luckily for me, it did. Right then and there, I made a promise to myself I would never again put something around my neck that wouldn’t break before my neck did, and that’s a promise I’ve been able to keep now for over forty years.

It seemed to take longer, but just as it had with the first extraction, from the time the Huey centered over our extraction LZ to the time we were lifted out took no more than thirty seconds. It just seems longer when you do it while being shot at.

With the three of us finally loose from the trees, our extraction helicopter quickly gained altitude and we started our long McGuire Rig ride back to the Phu Bai FOB while hanging 100’ below the helicopter. As we departed, I looked back at the A Shau Valley and hoped I’d never see it again. Of all the places I’ve been and don’t care to go again, the A Shau Valley still tops the list.

Project Delta closed out the Phu Bai FOB two days after I was extracted and we departed the area never again to return to the A Shau Valley. MACV-SOG Command and Control North (CCN), based in Danang, assumed responsibility for reconnaissance in the A Shau Valley, and the valley gave them nothing but grief in the years to come. But Project Delta never went back to the A Shau Valley, and for that I’m most grateful.

When Dave Lange recovered from his wound, he was assigned to my Recon team as my Assistant Team Leader (ATL) and accompanied me on several more Recon patrols during our next deployment to An Hoa, until, with my recommendation, he became a Recon Team Leader during our deployment to Mai Loc. Dave was a good Recon Team Leader and led a number of successful Recon patrols before his tour ended, he returned to the U.S. and left the Army.

David L. Lange Jr. was a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department for the next fifteen years until he became discouraged with civilian life and returned to the Army and to Special Forces. The last time I saw Dave was over twenty years ago when he was serving as a Special Forces Weapons Sergeant (18B) on an A-Team in the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, KY.

William R. Pomeroy Jr., (Grit) returned to my Recon team a year later and backed me up as my ATL until the Project closed out in July 1970. Grit and I have stayed in touch over the years and have remained close friends throughout.

John G. Santora Jr. (Johnny G) felt he was responsible for dragging me through the trees that day in the A Shau Valley and apologized for it every time he saw me in the coming years. I kept assuring him it wasn’t his fault, and, in fact, he had probably saved all of our lives by throwing us the McGuire Rigs instead of kicking out the ladders that day. If we’d used the additional time it would have taken to climb the ladders and exposed the extraction helicopter to more ground-fire on that LZ, the enemy could possibly have shot the helicopter down, it would have crashed on top of me, and that would have been the end for all of us.

Fourteen years after that day in the A Shau Valley, MSG John G. Santora Jr. was killed in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crash somewhere along the Honduran/Nicaraguan border in the mountains between Mocoron and Sotocano, Honduras. Rest in peace, Johnny G.

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