Cacti War Stories

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"View from the CP"

by Stan Traeb
May 8&9 1969

"View from the CP"

LZ Penny
May 8th - June 11th 1969

By Stan Traeb
CO Bravo Company 1969

Our first day at LZ Penny: May 8th 1969 - May 9th 1969
Bravo Company received a preliminary warning order from the Battalion Commander (LTC Price) at approximately 0530hrs on May 8th. That warning order instructed Bravo Company to prepare for insertion into a "Hot LZ" with the probability of a large scale contact with NVA forces. Bravo was instructed to increase the individual basic ammunition loads for each rifleman and to make sure that plenty of hand grenades and M-72 LAWS were issued.

Immediately after getting the warning order, the word was passed to each Platoon Leader and Platoon Sgt for implementation. Each Platoon drew additional ammunition and equipment. Canteens were filled and rations were drawn in preparation for our Combat Assault.

At this point, I had no knowledge of what we would be facing on our arrival at the "Hot LZ". I didn't know that Firebase Penny had been overrun by the 24th NVA Regiment several hours earlier, and, I also didn't know that Penny was where we were headed. I did pick up on the fact that something serious had just occurred, and that there were some signs of panic in the rush to correct whatever happened.

We were to be inserted by Chinook, which was ominous in itself, since, almost all Combat Assaults were performed with the utilization of Huey Slicks. The difference being that Slicks held 5-6 Infantrymen whereas a Chinook held about 30. It was evident that there was going to be an attempt to get as large a force as possible on the ground on the first lift. I didn't know that we would be replacing a Company from the 3/8th Infantry (or what remained of a company). Since it was anticipated that this was going to be a hot LZ, I and parts of the CP group were on the first Chinook into the LZ. It was only then that I found out we were relieving another unit. As we attempted to disembark from the Chinook, the other element rushed to get on board the same Chinook and I had to stop some of the other element grunts and ask "Who's in command of this unit?" A single, NCO was pointed out to me, and I approached him asking if he was in command and what his rank was. He identified himself as a SSGT and said that there were no other Officers or NCO's left so by default, he was in command. I asked for a quick assessment of the situation, and he responded, "Throw a rock in any direction, and you'll probably hit an NVA" He wished us well, and gave us his blessings before proceeding on board the Chinook for extraction. I knew then that the situation was probably going to get much worse, before it got better. Several men from the 2nd Platoon of Bravo had the chance to exchange brief greetings and gather information from this other unit. They told the 2nd Platoon guys, including Joe Soga, that their Company had been attacked three days in a row at this same location, and that they had lost an entire 3 man LP position the previous night. Only three helmets were recovered from the LP position that morning. Such was the general state of affairs as Bravo Company completed the replacement of this 3/8th Infantry Rifle Company.

I proceeded to give LTC Price a Sit-Rep (Situation Report) and he asked if the LZ had been hot. I responded to the negative. We had not made contact with any enemy forces yet, but the previous unit said NVA forces were swarming around the area and contact was probable in the near future. He then, requested that I prepare Bravo Company to move out on a Search and Clear mission and attempt to make contact with those NVA forces. Since we had been sent a single 81mm Mortar and crew, I was somewhat reluctant to try and carry the tube, ammunition, and base plate into the jungle while attempting to make contact with NVA forces that were known to be gathered in the immediate vicinity. In addition, it was also well into the afternoon by the time Bravo Company was assembled and ready for deployment, and, I figured that we only had about two hours left before we would be forced to start setting up a new Night Laager, so I advised LTC Price that it might be better if we were to fortify our existing position for the night, rather than risk getting ambushed by a large NVA force known to be in the area. Beside, with all of the Chinook activity having just taken place, any NVA units within 10 Clicks knew where we were anyhow. Better to fortify and kick out in the early AM. LTC Price thought about my recommendations for a split second, and agreed that we should fortify our position and not rush into an engagement with NVA forces which had ample opportunity over the previous several days to set up around our position. For this, I was thankful!

My impression of how the previous unit had prepared their defensive position left me cold. Shallow skirmish positions barely 4 - 5 inches deep, was their only cover, and I was left with the impression that they had resigned themselves to death. I didn't know, at that point, that they had been under constant attack for the previous three days, and, that they may have done the best that they could under their given situation, but I knew that we needed to substantially improve this defensive position should the NVA feel that they had sufficient forces to attack us that night. The 3/8 Company we replaced, had been hit hard by the NVA and their entire company probably numbered under thirty (30) men since the entire unit was able to load up on a single Chinook. It appeared to me that they fought hard, but were depleted and incapable of defending themselves much longer. That assessment also meant that we were probably going to be experiencing some larger scale contacts in the near future. I didn't realize that several hours later, we would be fighting for our existence because the NVA did, in fact, have sufficient manpower in our immediate area to lead them to believe that they could overrun us the same as they did at Penny with 3/8 Inf.

Bravo Company proceeded to improve the defensive positions by digging chest- deep; 6 inch log covered, and sandbagged fighting positions. While OP's (Observation Post during periods of good visibility such as daytime) were put out to watch for enemy activity, the rest of the company either cleared fields of fire, or dug. At nightfall, Claymores and Trip Flares were placed around the perimeter. LP's (Listening Post for periods of limited visibility such as nighttime) were then posted outside the perimeter for the night (each Platoon site being manned by 3 Riflemen), with the most likely approaches to our position being selected as those sites.

About Midnight, there was a commotion in the 3rd Platoon area. I was advised that someone had been either bitten or stung by something venomous and that the soldier was having an adverse reaction. He was brought to the CP for treatment by the Head Medic, or, should the situation warrant, be evacuated. The Head Medic (Doc Steve Eichstaedt) spoke with the Battalion Surgeon via radio, and the bite was determined to be either a Scorpion or Millipede bite, and as such, non-life threatening, so there was not going to be a night extraction. Morning would determine if a Med Evac was necessary. Doc Eichstaedt was advised to restrain the man since he might be subject to convulsions as a reaction to the venom, but that, as long as the airway was kept clear, it should be a non-life threatening situation. That man has subsequently been identified as Rod Wunschel, who was later badly wounded on June 10th and, as a result of the severity of those wounds, died in March of 1991.

As a result of the medical activity that night, the CP group was wide awake until the medical emergency started to subside. This happened shortly before 0300hrs. I had just lain down on my air mattress, when there was a single, lengthy burst of M-16 fire which came from the direction of one of the Platoon LP positions, followed by a period of total, absolute silence. It turned out, the following morning, that the single burst had been fired by either a 3rd Platoon LP named Fales, or, by a 2nd Platoon LP, by the name of John Stocks. In either case, both LP positions, at some early point, engaged NVA forces at point blank range. In my mind, and as a result of 43 years, I'm no longer certain who fired first, but the main issue is that both LP's performed their mission in exemplary fashion and at great personal risk. There were several dead NVA or evidence of dead NVA in front of each LP position when the area was swept after daylight. Upon hearing the small arms fire from an M-16, I jumped up from my air mattress, just as the first RPG rounds ripped into Bravo's perimeter. That was the opening of what turned out to be a deluge of RPG rounds fired at Bravo. I saw two of the LP positions dashing back into Bravo's perimeter as they were silhouetted by the flashes from the exploding RPG's. What caught my attention was the fact that they were screaming "Friendly, Friendly" as they dashed into our perimeter. As the LP's re-entered Bravo's perimeter, John Barbeau, the 1st Platoon Leader, Bill Delaney, Ted Balzarini, and others from the 1st Platoon detonated a number of Claymore mines which were oriented toward where some of the RPG fire originated. The detonation of those claymores added to the din of battle. It also established a solid defense against the NVA and possibly prevented them from trying to penetrate our perimeter in that sector. All of the Platoons,1st, 2nd & 3rd, reacted with tenacity, fully supporting and covering their respective LP's as they re-joined the perimeter. Everyone then sought cover as the volume of incoming rocket fire was compelling everyone to seek whatever safety was available.

Our perimeter must have resembled what Dante had in mind when he penned "Dante's Inferno". For minutes, our perimeter was illuminated by the flash of high explosive RPG rounds, Claymore mines and the illumination of Trip Flares, which caused eerie, strobe-like pauses in movement around the perimeter. It seemed like it went on forever, however, somewhere during that time, I, along with everyone else, dove into prepared Fighting position. I have no idea how large the assaulting force was, but, from the volume of rocket fire, I estimated that the assaulting force was greater than Platoon strength, and perhaps as large as Company strength. I estimate that Bravo Company took over 100 rounds of RPG fire which, I estimate came from at least 8 - 10 RPG firing positions. All of the rounds impacted within the 40 -50 meter diameter perimeter. Those RPG rounds which missed the perimeter positions tended to impact at or around the two CP Fighting positions since both were located in the center of the perimeter. It was during the initial deluge of rocket fire that it was discovered that, in our haste to get into a Fighting position, the CP radios had been left near the Forward Observers fighting position, so, someone had to crawl out of the fighting position into the incoming RPG fire and retrieve the two radios. I believe that Jake Upton, the Company Net RTO finally made the successful recovery after several previous attempts had been made by others, including myself, who were repulsed by the intense rocket fire. We had no means of requesting Fire Support from anywhere without radios. They were our lifeline! It was absolutely essential for them to be within arm's reach for coordination of Fire Support and for communication with all three platoons. The incoming rocket fire was at its most intense at that time, and it took an act of incredible courage on Jake's part to recover those radios.

As I was hunkered down in my Fighting position, SFC Estep, the Field First Sgt, hollered "Who's in charge of this fight?" I knew that he was addressing me and that he was correct. I wasn't in charge! The NVA were and they had all of the momentum, and they were taking maximum advantage of that fact. SFC Estep's question (plea), which was uttered with utmost urgency, forced me out of the numbing shock caused by having been hit with such a large volume of high explosive rounds and I hollered back to SFC Estep, "Do you have any suggestions?" He said TWO WORDS. Mad Minute! I thought it was a great suggestion, and the word was passed that on command, every member of Bravo would expend as much ammunition as possible for approximately one minute. I gave the command a few seconds later and Bravo Company established a wall of small arms fire. In a split second, the Mad Minute allowed us to re-gain the initiative, which we never lost again during this battle. Much is owed to SFC Estep, especially by me, since he shook me out of the state of shock caused by the mind-numbing effects of incoming high explosive rounds.

I personally think that the NVA were preparing to launch the ground assault portion of the attack at the same time Bravo fired the "Mad Minute". The violence of the wall of fire completely caught them off guard and completely disrupted their ability to mount an effective ground attack. During the entire deluge of incoming RPG fire, I don't recall hearing much return fire from Bravo. The NVA had effectively pinned us in our bunkers, and they must have thought that they had done substantial damage to us which they were then going to capitalize on, by overrunning us. The Mad Minute broke their backs! They were caught in the wall of lead just as they anticipated an easy penetration of our perimeter. In the meantime, LT Bill Wallin (Uncle Wally), the Forward Observer from 2/9th Arty, and I conferred as to what could be shot in the way of Artillery for general support, and he advised me that the NVA were too close to us for the use of conventional high explosive rounds, but that he could shoot something called "Firecracker" which our supporting Artillery unit, 2/9th Artillery, had never shot before. Firecracker was an early form of a munitions' now called "Cluster Bombs". Small, explosive spheres were ejected from an Artillery casing at a pre-designated point in its trajectory, covering a considerable area with "Bouncing Betty" types of explosives. Rules of engagement for that type of munitions' required a unit to be under eminent peril of being overrun. He also advised that, in order for the mission to be effective, it would have to be called down on our own position. Since we had taken the time to erect sturdy, well -protected fighting positions, I told LT Wallin, "Shoot it". After authorizing the Firecracker mission, I advised Battalion that Bravo needed a Spooky (C-47 Gunship) on station immediately. Also, after the Mad Minute provided a shift in momentum, the 81mm Mortar crew jumped into action. They fired their rounds at the max elevation (1560 mils) the tube was capable of firing without the round dropping back on the firing position, and with a charge of ZERO on the 81mm round. The tube was pointed almost perpendicular since 1600 Mils is straight up. I asked where the rounds would land, and they said "72 meters (approx 200 feet) from where the tube was located". By that time, we had Spooky inbound and I placed a Strobe Light between the sandbags on my Bunker. I told Spooky to shoot 50 meters out from where the Strobe was and to shoot in a 360 degree circle. They complied and fired for about 15-20 minutes or so until they had expended their on-board ammunition. The pilot then advised that he would remain on station and drop flares for illumination until daylight.

With the Firecracker rounds exploding, 81mm Mortar fire exploding, a 360 degree wall of mini gun fire, and our own internal weapons firing, it evidentially became too much for the assaulting NVA force, and they slowly began withdrawing, leaving behind a number of dead, and major body parts of others. Spooky did stay with us until first light providing constant illumination of the general area until natural daylight allowed us suitable visibility.

The following morning, at first light, patrols were sent out from each Platoon to sweep their assigned sectors. The sweep missions were to insure that NVA units had withdrawn from the immediate area and to locate any dead/wounded NVA and to seize any weapons and equipment left behind. Some of the Bravo infantrymen who were present at Penny also remember a "Mad minute" being fired just as first light arrived. It would have made sense that, prior to the sweeps being sent out, that a "Recon by Fire" would have been an effective means of disclosing any NVA left in front of our perimeter, but I don't have a specific memory of doing so. Both 2nd and 3rd Platoon patrols reported immediate results in a search of their sectors. I remember going out to meet up with Gary Lee, of the 3rd Platoon, and other members of the patrols at points where bodies and parts of bodies were discovered. One of the bodies turned out to be that of a NVA officer. Personal effects revealed several photos of him in dress uniform; however, being unfamiliar with the designations of rank for NVA officers, I believed him to be a Company Grade Officer, either a Lieutenant or Captain. Also, many RPG rounds were recovered from the general area. Some were stacked in Montagnard wicker baskets which had shoulder straps for back carry. AK-47 rifles were also recovered along with a fully armed RPG-7 and numerous Chi-Com Hand grenades which the Grunts of Bravo loaded into some empty 'yard baskets, which had previously contained the RPG rounds used in the assault on our perimeter. In addition, a clump of Bamboo was found which had entrails and viscera coating the vegetation. Those wounds had to be fatal to the wounded NVA; however, no bodies were recovered from that site. The NVA had a reputation for extracting their casualties as best as possible, and when bodies were found on the battlefield, it normally meant that they were under extreme duress and were more interested in evacuating the immediate vicinity of the battle than in recovering their dead. It meant that we had hurt them badly. In addition, a ¾ eaten case of C-Rations was found in a clump of Bamboo. Apparently, this was one of the NVA's advance positions and it was less than 50 feet from our perimeter. The total number of killed NVA was estimated to be 18, as determined by physical body count, plus the addition of the body parts which were believed to be from fatal wounds. These wounds would have not have been survivable, even if the wounded persons were still alive when removed from the battlefield.

At this point, a Huey Slick was called in for extraction of the weapons and ammunition. The bodies were left in place for the time being. The Grunts of Bravo, through their courage and valor, had just dealt the NVA a devastating defeat. Literally snatching victory from the jaws of defeat! We had been hit hard, but never lost the ability to hit back harder and more often. Bravo Company earned my lasting respect that night/morning, and I can't adequately express the pride I have in the job each of the Grunts performed. From absolute fear and chaos, Bravo was able to recover and administer a lethal blow to the attacking force. Subsequent conversations with Larry Nenne and Joe Soga, from the 2nd Platoon, at our reunions, years later, revealed that they still have haunting memories of seeing body parts from NVA soldiers hanging from the trees as we moved out of the area on May 9th 1969. Such was our first night at LZ Penny.

Like most battles, there were incredible individual acts of courage performed by many different people. Unfortunately, on a moonless night at 0300hrs, most went unobserved. To all Bravo personnel who were there, you have my undying respect for jobs well done under very difficult conditions.