Reporter Grabs a Gun
In Bitter Viet Jungle Battle
By JO3 GARY
S&S Staff Correspondent
"WITH THE 3RD BRIGADE, 25TH INF. DIV., Vietnam --- Dawn, less than
half a mile from the Cambodian border.
"A 12-man squad is winding its way to home
base through thick, dark jungle after spending a long restless night at
Outpost Cord No. 4 watching for Viet Cong.
"Fifteen minutes from now, five of the 12
men will be wounded. Two will be near death.
"Moving along a creek bed, the men try to
stay as quiet as possible. "The squad leader, Sgt. John Smith,
throws one hand up over his head. Everyone freezes. "One, two,
three seconds pass as Smith searches the mass of jungle to his left.
"Slowly, he raises three fingers, one by one, and whispers, 'I've
spotted three of 'em over there.'
"The tense silence erupts as the Viet Cong
open up with automatic weapons. "We dive for the sand and scramble
madly for a tree trunk near the creek. "A soldier at the end of the
trunk cries out as a slug tears into his chest. It doesn't take long to
realize there are more than three. Many more.
" 'You, you and you,' Smith says. 'Get
across the creek before we're surrounded.' By two's and three's the men
splash across the creek, staying so low their chins nearly hit the
"The radio operator has made a frantic
call to company base camp, telling them of our situation. The company is
2,000 meters from us across the same rugged, nearly impenetrable
terrain. They are roughly 30 miles southwest of Pleiku.
"Running, stumbling, firing to the left
and right. carrying the wounded man, gasping for breath, we look around
us for any kind of cover. "There is none, only elephant grass four
feet high. "Two men in front of you drop, partially hidden in the
grass. You do the same. Fifty thoughts race through your mind as you hug
the ground. If only you had a rifle, a pistol, a grenade--anything.
"It's not quiet now. You can't distinguish
the sound of one bullet, or even a burst from a machine gun. It's all
one terrible nightmare, sounding like a million rounds going off at
once. " 'Hey . . . you . . . help me . . . ' "You look around.
'Stars and Stripes . . . I'm hit . . . help me . . .' It's Smith. He's
about five feet away.
"You start crawling to him. You don't
really want to, but you do. What you really want to do is bury yourself
as deeply as you can into the ground. " 'Smitty, where are you
"His eyes stare skyward, looking at something you hop never to see.
He drops his hand from his chest. Blood spurts into the air. "You
find a bandage and tie it around him, telling him everything is going to
be okay, thinking to yourself, wondering--will it?
"Ahead of Smith, PFC Milton Vaughan is slumped
against a tree, that same stare in his eyes. Gray matter is oozing out
of the wound in his head. "You find another bandage and cover the
hole as he mumbles, 'My God . . . My God . . . My God . . . '
"All around you men seem to be shouting,
yet trying to keep their voices at a muffled whisper. The Viet Cong now
maybe 50 or 60, have you surrounded. "They are screaming and
yelling, hoping to panic the squad. It sounds like a Western movie with
Indians whooping. But it's real. "The air is filled with the smell
of cordite, leaving a dense haze, engulfing the seven men still able to
"PFC Gabriel Diaz, firing his M-60 machine
gun into the grass, yells. 'They're right there. I can see the bastards.
. . . They're right there, ten meters away.'
"The M-16 you found by Smith's side is
ripping into the grass in front of you. There's nothing to see but grass
and smoke. But they're there, ten meters away. "The rifle stops
firing. You find another clip and slam it into the gun. "Viet Cong
are screaming all around you. Suddenly it hits you. You're fighting for
your life. "The rifle jams. "The jungle turns dead quiet.
Everything you've ever heard about an M-16 rifle races through your
mind. It won't fire. No matter what you do it won't fire.
"Another M-16 is laying close by. You grab
it. Shove a fresh clip in and wait. "The jungle explodes in another
wild burst of fire, cries and smoke. You level the rifle and squeeze the
trigger. Nothing happens--nothing. "You drop the useless weapon and
squirm closer to the ground. "One thought races very clearly
through your mind. " 'What in hell are you doing here!'
" 'The map, I've got to have the map.'
It's Sgt. Richard C. Austin, who has taken command of the squad. "
'Where is it?' "Austin says that Smith has it. You reach Smith
again. 'The map Smitty, we've gotta have the map.' He's deep in shock.
He says nothing.
"Without the map we haven't got a chance. The company, now on its
way to us, has to know exactly where we are.
"You reach down Smith's bloodied chest and
find the map. It's warm and sticky, covered with blood. "You crawl
back to Austin and give him the map. He talks into the radio, telling
the company where we are.
"The area off to the right is wide open.
You grab another rifle and make your way to the open spot. "A
deafening blast sends your face deeper into the ground. A grenade or
mortar has landed where you had been only seconds before. "It's
white phosphorous. Little holes start smoldering on your back and legs
from flesh-burns. You slap at the holes quickly, then turn and look back
down the barrel of the M-16. "Then, the 30 minutes that has taken a
lifetime to pass, is over.
"C Co., 1st BN, 35th Inf., has spotted the
squad. You can hear them talking and shouting orders. "One of the
first persons to reach us is SP5 Glenn R. Bowers, senior medic for
Charlie Company. He bandages the wounded, tries to calm them, and calls
for make-shift stretchers to be made from tree branches and ponchos.
"Forty-five minutes after Smith spotted
the first three Viet Cong, he and the other four wounded are in a
chopper, on their way to the field hospital in Pleiku.
"Capt. Alvino Cortez, C Co. Commander,
says his company has found four VC bodies, plus some ammo and automatic
weapons. But there has to be more than that dead. You know there are.
"That was the morning of July 7th. That night, Austin, Diaz and the
other five who survived the fight unwounded were back at Outpost Cord
"They'll probably be there tonight. And
every other night."