Cacti War Stories


Edited by Wiley "Tiny" Dodd
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Getting Ready

by Curtis Gay
12 March 1967

The following is a excerpt from the book "One More Sunrise" by Curtis Gay who served with A company 2/35th 1966-67. The book is available thru Amazon, Barnes & Noble or can be ordered thru most bookstores. If you would like a signed copy you can contact Mr. Gay at cpgay@rocketmail.com

March 12, 1967

Coming back to the field was strange this time. I had moved up in rank to Sergeant. Although I had been acting as squad leader since the old-timers had all rotated out, I hadn't felt the weight of responsibility until I actually had the stripes on my sleeve.

I had a new Platoon Leader. Lieutenant Putnam had been promoted as Company Executive Officer while I was gone. His new duties would keep him in base camp at Pleiku. Sgt. Rodriquez had replaced Sgt. Rivera as Platoon Sergeant. A new Company Commander and First Sergeant, a bunch of new replacements---it almost felt like I had been reassigned!

The brief period of time during which supplies are delivered to forward areas is always a flurry of activity. I stepped off the helicopter and spent a few minutes unloading the containers full of hot chow that had accompanied me on my ride from the base camp at Pleiku.

To my surprise, Gabelman was among the sick heading back. The RTO was moving under his own power but he didn't look well at all. It was unusual to see him without the radio strapped to his back and a camera in his hand.

"What's the matter with you, Frank?"

"Sick. Malaria."

I had been there myself, so I understood the short response. He had probably been suffering with the symptoms for several days already. I remember that I sure didn't want to talk to anybody about anything. All he would desire at this point would be to lie down and either sleep or just die.

I stood to the side and watched the helicopters leave before reporting to the Company headquarters.

Sgt. Rodriquez escorted me to my platoon's location to introduce me to my new Platoon Leader.

"Sgt. Gay, meet Lieutenant Karopzyc."

The Lieutenant looked up from the map he was studying and smiled.

"Pleased to meet you. Sergeant. Heard a lot about you. Glad to have you back!'

Even though he was a very young Lieutenant, he was one of those guys you liked and respected the first time you saw him.

We also had a new medic, Specialist Meade. The guy seemed to always be grinning. He had set up his "office" with the Lieutenant and radio operator. What first attracted my attention was that he had no weapon. Most medics wore a pistol, some carried a rifle. I even knew one who carried a shotgun. I told the Lieutenant that I would talk to the medic about keeping his weapon with him.

"Well, Sergeant, he doesn't have one. He's a conscientious objector."

"What!" I gasped. "What in the world is he doing out here with us?"

"He volunteered to be with a combat unit."

I couldn't believe what I had just heard. My father and uncles, who had all been in World War II, talked about conscientious objectors with distain. The men I had grown up around had all told me that a conscientious objector was just a coward hiding behind his religion to avoid military service. Now I had one right here in my Platoon! How was I going to maintain any kind of fighting spirit among my men with this influence in our midst? I decided to wait and see what happened. If it became a problem then I would have no choice but complain. Until then he was the closest thing to a medic we had.

The Lieutenant soon gathered the whole platoon together. On a pile of sandbags was a map of an area none of us had ever seen before.

"Men, this is where we are going. A large contingent of North Vietnamese Regulars has been spotted in this area. The B-52's are going to bomb the area tonight and we're going in the morning to see what kind of damage was done. I have to tell you this--- contact with the enemy is eminent."

"Eminent?" puzzled Waycaster "What's that mean?"

"That means the shit is gonna hit the fan!" mumbled Rodebaugh.

"Pack light," said the Lieutenant, "and double up on ammunition. You're going to need it. We leave at 0600."

We heard the explosions of the five hundred pound bombs in the distance during the night. If I didn't know what was happening, I would have just written it off as artillery fire.

The next morning First Platoon left early. The rest of us acted as if they were the only ones going out on patrol that day. If anybody was watching the camp they might prematurely report back, not knowing that the entire Company would be out investigating the damage done by the B-52 bombers the night before. After giving First Platoon about a half hour lead, Third Platoon struck camp and headed towards the center of the bombed area. The first half-mile or so was very easy going and we made good time. Then suddenly the entire terrain changed, which was not unusual at all in the Central Highlands. We navigated a thirty foot deep gully. On the other side of the gully we made a sharp turn into the jungle. A well-worn trail led the way.

We all paused when the squelch broke on the radio. The word was passed up to us. Be on special alert. First Platoon is in contact. Look out for snipers. They were pinned down by automatic weapon fire and we were to maneuver left to assist them. It so happened that the trail turned to the left at that very time.

The squad slipped easily onto the trail with Waycaster on point as usual. Hernandez and I followed him closely.

Suddenly Waycaster raised his hand to signal a halt. He dropped to one knee and pointed down the trail. Hernandez and I quickly and quietly moved up, taking position on either side of him. Seven North Vietnamese Regulars were coming up the trail directly towards us! They all had their weapons slung over their shoulders and seemed in a hurry to get somewhere.

Waycaster pointed to himself and held up one finger. He pointed to Hernandez with two fingers. I got three. As we had been trained, Waycaster would shoot the first man, Hernandez the second and I was to shoot the third. With this plan we wouldn't all shoot the same enemy. Four of them fell with our initial barrage. The jungle behind them exploded with enemy fire.

We didn't know it at the time, but our under-manned Company of about 150 men had walked directly into an enemy Battalion base camp, with another Battalion coming in from behind them as reinforcements, bringing their total to about 1500! All I knew was that all Hell had exploded in my face! We had just kicked a hornet's nest, and these hornets had automatic weapons!

As we shot it out with the enemy in front of us, I heard a lot of people crashing through the jungle, moving to our left. As I loaded my third magazine of ammunition in what seemed as many seconds, I screamed the warning.

"Watch the left flank! They're trying to flank us!"

My voice came out much higher pitched that I expected, but that was the least of my concerns at the moment. I yelled out over the noise for the rest of my squad to move up on my left side. As soon as they did, gunfire erupted along the entire length of the column. The flanking movement ceased but the three of us remained under heavy fire.

Every weapon has its own sound, and the rattle of an AK- 47 right beside me changed my focus very rapidly. That's the enemy gun of choice! When I turned I saw Hernandez holding the AK-47 in his hands. A dead NVA soldier lay at his feet.

"He ran up right beside me! I grabbed his gun and shot him with his own gun!"

The firing went on for what seemed an eternity. They came at us in groups of four to seven. We were on an elevation and on a small point, so they couldn't advance on us without being exposed for about 20 yards. At this range they seemed more like targets than people. We shot them down as fast as they jumped up. I was so focused it felt like I was the only one fighting. Only when I took a quick glance to my side was I reassured that others were still with me. I was glad we took the Lieutenant's advice to carry extra ammunition. Waycaster and Hernandez had extra grenades, which proved very effective in slowing the assaults. Even though we were elevated, shrapnel and dirt flew by us every time a grenade went off. The amount of bloodshed was unbelievable. People were being killed and wounded all around me. Arms and legs got separated from bodies. One of the enemy soldiers stood up to throw a grenade back at us. I had him in my sights to shoot him before he could throw the grenade. It exploded in his hand, removing half of his arm and most of his face. I had to pause for a moment in disbelief of what I had just seen. The shooting from our front soon brought me back in focus.

I had a grenade launcher mounted below my M-16 which brought extra firepower to the fight. I was firing into the trees, causing the grenades to explode high and rain shrapnel down on the enemy. They didn't seem to like that very much. Every time I fired, I received an even heavier concentration of small arms fire in return. The amount of firing was so intense that I watched a small tree to my right erode away piece by piece. Bullets hit in front of me, beside me and sailed over my head. Rocks and splinters of trees pelted me and stung my whole body. I just knew that the next bullet would hit me. My body tensed in anticipation. I fired two more rounds from the grenade launcher with the same results. I heard a lot of people scattering left and right and after the fourth round the return fire lightened considerably. That was good, because I was now out of rounds for the grenade launcher. In a way, it was a relief to run out of rounds for the grenade launcher because of the amount of attention I got in return.

The noise of battle denies description! Often times it was not even possible for the person lying next to me to hear what I was saying. Artillery and mortar rounds exploded in front of us, often sending dirt, debris, and shrapnel pouring down on us. Small arms fire rattled from both sides of the engagement. Hand grenades went off at close range. Men shouted both in command and pain. The noise became a part of my very existence. It entered my body and attacked the system almost like an electrical shock that wouldn't cease. I wanted to bury my head in the ground to escape it.

It never seemed to end. Three times we ended in hand-to-hand and bayonet fighting because we simply couldn't reload fast enough. On one assault, my rifle jammed with an enemy ten feet in front of me, his bayonet fixed and bearing down hard. I don't know why he didn't just shoot me. He charged me intent on sticking me with his bayonet. I pulled out my knife. When he lunged I brought the knife down hard between his neck and shoulder. Blood gushed straight up into my face while gurgling noises came from his neck. He went limp and fell on top of me. I pushed him off and crawled over to the place where I had been able to scoop out a shallow trench. I wiped the blood off my face and glasses as much as I could with my sleeve and cleared my jammed weapon. There was a lot of blood on my right arm. Several times I tried to wipe it off with no success.

I was bleeding!

He hadn't completely missed me with his bayonet thrust. It was more of a tear than a cut, about two inches long on my right forearm. I took my olive-drab bandana from my neck and folded it into a long strip. The sweat and dirt caused the wound to sting and burn as I wrapped the bandana tightly around my arm. Blood soaked and stained the bandage. After a few minutes the bleeding had stopped.

The fight moved up and down our left flank as if they were trying to find a weak spot. Just as soon as we decided that they had given up on us, here they came again! After about six hours of this we noticed a sudden lull to our front.

Suddenly another war broke out about a quarter mile to my right. I didn't know it but C Company was advancing from that direction. The enemy had left enough troops to keep us occupied and turned their attention to C Company.

The three of took advantage of the moment to retreat and join the rest of the Platoon. We were surprised to find that they had fallen back and were occupying some enemy bunkers to our rear. We had been left out there on our own!

Meade, the new medic called me to his side as I returned. He had gathered all the wounded in a tight circle. Any doubts I may have had about this man's courage were now dismissed. Even though we were still under fire Meade was moving from man to man doing all he could with limited resources. The bullets that popped and whizzed by his head didn't seem to concern him at all. He had built a make-shift shelter from logs and rocks.

The young Lieutenant, who hadn't been with the Platoon more than two weeks, was fatally wounded in the chest. The Lieutenant had plugged the bullet hole with his own finger. By the time I arrived, the finger was neatly bandaged permanently in place. If the chest wound weren't enough, he also had numerous shrapnel wounds. When an enemy grenade had fallen in the middle of the wounded the Lieutenant had covered it as well as he could with his helmet. This action saved many of the wounded as well as the medic from being killed or being further wounded. The only person injured was the Lieutenant himself.

"We're out of water", said Meade.

The fact was we were all out of water. The Lieutenant had a small flask of whiskey he wanted to drink.

"Don't you have something, anything else we can give him?"

I knew that Meade really didn't approve of alcohol under any circumstances. And alcohol probably wasn't the best thing for the Lieutenant anyway. It wasn't until that moment that I remembered the can of Creme soda in my pack. Nobody had wanted it. I had put it in there because I didn't want it to go to waste.

I removed my web gear for the first time since the battle had begun. As I began to dig through my pack, I noticed the holes. Three bullets had passed completely through my pack, two from the left side and one from the front. I knew the enemy fire had gotten close at times, but I didn't realize how close until I found those holes! Miraculously, the can of soda was still intact. I handed it to Meade, who opened it and began giving the Lieutenant small sips at a time.

"Sergeant, you are a life saver," smiled the Lieutenant between drinks.

Minutes later, he was dead.

Among the wounded lying on the ground around the Lieutenant was a soldier who, until recently, had been a cook's helper. Why he was in the field was anybody's guess.

A bullet had shattered the pistol grip on his M-16 and cut his hand. He had screamed in pain while the enemy approached his position. Frozen with fear and pain, he didn't fire at all. This was when the enemy had gotten close enough to throw the hand grenade among the wounded. Luckily, another soldier noticed the situation and stopped the advance. Other soldiers moved in to fill the gap. As I left the Lieutenant's side, the soldier with the wounded hand announced that he was also thirsty and demanded a soda from me. Pretending not to hear, I moved on.

I found the middle of the perimeter where Sergeant Rodriguez had set up his small command post. Huddled next to his radio operator, the Platoon Sergeant seemed surprised to see me.

"We've got to get these wounded out of here. I don't think the Lieutenant is going to make it."

His response was short. "I'll be glad to get us out of here if you'll secure a landing zone!"

I stood surveying the far side of the perimeter as I tried to formulate a plan. After a moment what he was telling me finally soaked in. We had no landing zone and no way of securing one. I had been so focused on my little part of the battle that I hadn't realized we were now completely surrounded and cut off. We were stuck right where we were until help arrived!

Moving around the perimeter, I offered what encouragement I could and did my best to redistribute ammunition. Every once in a while a bullet would whiz by me. Sometimes they buzzed like a bee; other times they popped. By the time I heard them it was too late to do anything but move lower and pray for continued poor aim by the enemy. The bullets reminded me that we were far from being out of trouble.

The Company remained pinned down. All three Platoons were separated and unable to link up. We knew that the enemy had us greatly outnumbered. Just dumb luck had given us the advantage of surprise and allowed us to hold the high ground when the battle began. C Company was making a move through the jungle to reinforce us, but wouldn't be able to get there until the next morning.

It was now about four o'clock in the afternoon and we were running desperately low on ammunition and water. First Platoon had set up its own defensive position but weren't any better supplied than we were. Second Platoon, however, with Captain Barcena and his Headquarters Section, wasn't very far away from us and had extra ammunition.

An eight man squad was put together which quickly and easily joined up with the Second Platoon. By 4:30 the squad was ready to return to our position. They were joined by five men from the Second Platoon. The Company RTO, who had once been in the Third Platoon, insisted on joining the group, making their number fourteen.

Halfway between the two Platoons the enemy mortar rounds began raining down on the returning group. An enemy ground force, which had moved in between the patrol and Third Platoon, opened up with automatic weapons.

Pinned down by the deadly ambush, the patrol suffered heavy casualties. Eight of the fourteen were killed and the rest were now split up into two smaller groups. Unable to move in any direction, the survivors had no options other than to just hunker down and wait.

Back with my squad, the long wait also began for us. A terrible thirst began to set in. I had long ago drunk the last of the water from my canteen. Once I started thinking about being thirsty, I couldn't get it out of my mind.

Thirty feet in front of my position was a dead NVA soldier. I had been looking at him every few minutes to be sure he was really dead and not just playing possum. I had probably looked at him twenty times before I saw it. He had a canteen slung over his shoulder!

It's most likely as empty as mine, I reasoned. Maybe it's booby-trapped. I'd probably get shot before I could get it anyway. But I'm so thirsty!

"Cover me!" I told Waycaster as I crawled out to the body.

Being careful not to move any part of the body, I slipped the canteen off his shoulder and crawled back. Proud of myself for being so resourceful, I offered Waycaster a drink.

"I ain't drinkin that" he declared. "Probably full of all kinds of nasty stuff."

Great! Now I was reluctant to drink the water I had just risked my neck for. I remembered all the warnings we had been given about the hazardous of drinking untreated water. I couldn't stand it. I drank heavily from the canteen that the dead enemy soldier had placed his own lips on just hours earlier.

In the early morning hours, word was passed along the line that C Company was very close to joining up with us, so be careful not to shoot them. When they got close enough to be heard they would blow a whistle. We would then blow a whistle in our perimeter and guide them in safely. Soon I heard a whistle blast out of the darkness to my right. My spirit soared! Finally! We were finally getting some help! My joy was short-lived, however. The jungle in front of me shrilled with whistle blasts from twenty or thirty different locations. I guess our Army wasn't the only ones that had whistles! C Company would remain where they were until daylight.

As the night wore on, B Company was helicoptered into a landing zone to our north. They began an attempt to rescue us from that direction. We could hear the heavy firing coming from their direction. The enemy had noticed them moving towards us and attacked to stop their progress. But B Company pressed on. Finally, only one sniper stood between the two Companies.

When the Captain from B Company learned about the sniper, he decided to take him out himself. He walked out toward the sniper. A squad was positioned behind the Captain with orders to fire on any muzzle flashes they saw.

As he emerged from the clearing he yelled,"Hey Charlie! Here I am! Take your best shot!"

The sniper shot the Captain and was instantly killed by the squad's fire. The Captain was wearing a vest full of magazines which saved his life. He was wounded but not seriously.

C Company arrived with the sunrise. Sergeant Peterson, who I had met in NCO school, was at the lead of C Company.

"Man, am I glad to see you guys,"

"Glad you appreciate it. I lost two of my guys back there!"

They had run into an ambush themselves and had lost several men.

By this time the enemy had disappeared into the jungle. With the area now secured, we conducted a search of the area in front of us. Dead NVA soldiers were everywhere! We knew we had done considerable damage, but had no idea how much. Altogether we had a body count of sixty-one! These were the enemies that weren't recovered when the rest retreated. There was also equipment and weapons all over the place. Everybody picked up a souvenir or two. I kept the rifle I had almost been bayoneted with and the empty enemy canteen.

During a short break, I sat down next to Meade, the Medic. I now had great respect for this man who I was once so skeptical about.

"You really should have a weapon if you're going to be out here with us," I began. "If you don't want to carry a rifle, I can get you a pistol."

He smiled and pulled a worn New Testament from his shirt pocket.

"No thanks. I am well armed already."

"Tell me something then---why are you out here in the field? You could easily be back in a hospital where you wouldn't get shot at."

"I'm the closest thing to a Bible most of you will ever know."

I never tried to get him to carry a gun again.

A trail ran directly in front of where we had set up our defensive positions. This trail interconnected an extensive bunker system. What we had discovered was an interlocking set of base camps. A hand rail made of vines stretched along the trail which had enabled the enemy to easily navigate the trail at night. This explained how they had been able to move so rapidly in flanking movements right in front of us.

Once the impromptu sweep was completed, it was time for us to leave and join the three Companies together in the area that B Company had secured. It was the best area around to land helicopters for evacuation and resupply. C Company would lead the way, and we would follow. We were soon at the landing zone that B Company had secured.

Much to my surprise, Colonel Grainger, the Regiment Commander, was manning the position where we entered into the perimeter.

"May we join your tea party, Sir?"

"Welcome aboard, Sergeant!" was the reply.

Once all the companies were safely inside the perimeter of the LZ, hot chow was served and the wounded were tended to and evacuated. B and C Companies were to be flown out to other landing zones. A Company was to continue on foot to another location.

Making ready to depart, all unnecessary equipment was stacked in the middle of the LZ. The dead were also there. Body bags were lined up in a row. There wouldn't be room on the choppers for both the bodies and all the empty water and food containers, so the containers would have to be left behind.

"Knock holes in everything" I ordered. "Don't leave Charlie a thing he can use."

"I hope I'm not here long enough to get like you!"

I turned around to see three replacements standing there, looking in shock at the scene. It seemed that the only thing that we seasoned veterans were concerned with was making life harder for the enemy. It probably appeared to the replacements that we were unfeeling and calloused as we went about our mission while our fallen comrades were lying in body bags at our feet.

"You're just cold", muttered the replacement.

I went about my business, but couldn't stop thinking about what the soldier had said. I paused to take personal inventory. I was filthy. It had been three days since I had bathed. I still had dried blood all over my body and uniform mixed with the dirt from crawling around on the ground. A bloody bandage sagged from my forearm. The Chinese Assault Rifle with its long pointed bayonet was slung over one shoulder and the NVA canteen I had drunk so heavily from hung at my side. As I gave direction I pointed with my own rifle as if it was another finger. I knew I smelled since I had soiled my pants twice during the battle. I had to relieve myself but wasn't about to raise my body any higher than necessary. I could visualize the letter home saying:" Sergeant Gay died while exposing himself to enemy fire". I had a stubble of beard. I hadn't slept since we left on the previous day, and I must have appeared haggard. My mind and body were in full "fight or flight" mode despite being tired. I am sure that it wasn't a very good first impression for the replacements.

Had I changed? Was I really just cold? If so, would I ever be normal again? Had I left a piece of my soul in the jungle that day in March of 1967?

At the moment I had more pressing issues on my mind. I couldn't worry about what a bunch of replacements thought about me. It was now well past noon, and we had a lot of jungle to cover before dark. As I adjusted my pack and picked up my rifle, I gave the command,

"Saddle Up!"

That was when it struck me.

The pain in my gut doubled me over at first and then sent me to my knees. Then I was on my side in a fetal position. I vomited until there was nothing left, and then I vomited some more. All this was accompanied by diarrhea. Somebody had sent for a medic. He stood there for a minute watching me waste away from both ends before he kicked the enemy canteen at my side.

"Tell me you didn't drink from that!"

"I did Doc. I was just so damned thirsty."

"Well, now you know why we tell you not to, don't you?"

The Company continued on without me while I spent the next week in base camp recovering from the amoebic dysentery I had contracted from the enemy canteen. He wasn't able to kill me that day, but he sure did hurt me.

We didn't know how lucky we were that day, we seldom did. All we really knew for certain was the reality of day to day surviving. The strategy and tactics were decided somewhere far removed from where we grunts lived--- and died. The North Vietnamese we had just met were part of the NVA 66th Regiment- about 1500 men- whose mission it was to destroy us. Our undersized Company of about 150 men had been blessed with the element of surprise and the advantage of holding the high ground. We didn't know it, but we weren't done with these guys yet.