View from the CP (2)
by Stan Traeb
May 18th 1969
"View from the CP" (2)
LZ Penny May 18th 1969
By Stan Traeb
Sometime during the early morning hours of May 18th 1969, Bravo Company received an Operations Order which advised Bravo of the fact that their assigned mission for the day was to locate a "suspected NVA Battalion" base camp. We were ordered to link up with a "RF - PF" (Rough Puff) Platoon whom had a prisoner who was to guide us to the suspected location.
Shortly after first light, Bravo Company moved out toward the link-up coordinates provided by Battalion S-3 and made contact with the RF-PF Platoon. The RF-PF Platoon had a MACV Captain as their advisor and interpreter, and, as promised, a prisoner. I requested that the prisoner be released to Bravo Company and assigned the Dog Handler, whom had joined the company earlier, and the Point element of the lead Platoon, to oversee the actions of the prisoner as he guided us to the suspected NVA Base Camp location. Through the MACV Captain, the prisoner was advised that there would be dire consequences for him if we were led into an ambush. He understood, and we proceeded to move out under the prisoner's direction, however, we moved very cautiously since his intentions were still unproven.
As we moved down from the top of a hill, toward a dry stream bed, I was advised by the Point element, that the prisoner had pointed to a hill on the opposite side of the dry creek bed, and that his gesturing indicated that the hill was where the suspected NVA were located. As I moved forward to a vantage point where I could observe the hill which the prisoner identified, I observed that there were actually two adjacent hill masses. The one pointed out by the prisoner was on the right, then a saddle area which developed into a second hill less than a 100 meters to the left of the suspected location and that this second hill was somewhat higher in elevation. I stopped the column and viewed both hills. We were about 100-150 meters or so from the base of either hill. I decided that I wanted Bravo Company to clear the higher of the two hills first as a safety precaution. We changed direction slightly, and headed for the highest hill first.
We hadn't travelled more than 50 meters when, word came back to the CP, that the Scout Dog had just alerted, and that meant that there were NVA in the immediate area. The CP group consisted of the CP Security Man (Bill Delaney), Company Net Radioman (Jake Upton), Battalion Net Radioman (Vaughn Connor), Myself, the Artillery Forward Observer (Bill Wallin), the Forward Observers Radioman (Name Unknown), the Artillery Recon SGT (Joe Schmanski, but better known as Tiny), the Head Company Medic (Doc Eichstaedt) and the Field First SGT (SFC Estepp). There was also a small detachment of Engineers (approx 2-3 men, names unknown) and, this group was sometimes utilized as a "ready-reaction force", if needed.
The Point element of Bravo also reported that they observed a few circular Chinese Claymores in the tops of some of the trees a slight distance ahead. Before Bravo could deploy into an on-line formation, the Dog Handler was shot by a burst of AK-47 fire fired from a position on the side of the hill. He was badly wounded in the stomach, and was recovered by the Point element and evacuated back to the CP location where his wounds could be treated by the Head Medic (Doc Eichstaedt).
As the Dog Handler was being transported back down the hill, two Platoons were brought on-line for an assault on the hill. I believe that it was the 1st and 2nd Platoons, with the 3rd Platoon securing our rear. Joe Soga, a 2nd Platoon Machine Gunner, Tom Mills, Larry Nenne, Fred Spangler, Bobby Cochran, and several other 2nd Platoon members state that they were on the right flank of the assault, and that the main opposition at that time seemed to be coming from the center left of the hill, but that there was still enough resistance in front of them to make progress very slow. That matches my recollection of where the main NVA resistance was initially the strongest on the first assault. As the two platoons proceeded to advance up the hill, the volume of fire from the hill increased. John Barbeau, the 1st Platoon Leader, Platoon SGT Ayala, SGT Bob Toledo, a Squad Leader, Squad Leader Ted Balzarini, a Machine Gunner named Siaz, Diaz, and the rest of the 1st Platoon continued to push forward into the heaviest fire, but were stopped cold because of the determined resistance from the NVA. This fact caused me to reflect on what our original mission was and what the objective was, and, since it was a suspected Battalion Base Camp, the question became one of "had we found the entire Battalion, or was the hill being occupied by a smaller unit". Either way, caution was advisable until we had a better feel for what was really on the hill.
Both Platoons advancing up the hill were now taking fire from multiple fortified positions, and I reported to our Battalion TOC that I suspected the hill was occupied by a Company or larger NVA unit. This was possibly an over-estimation, since assaulting an enemy defensive position was the most difficult form of combat, and a defended position made advancement a very difficult procedure, but, as the two Platoons continued to press the assault, the fire from the enemy line of resistance started expanding lineally also making it appear that new defensive positions were now firing on us. Gary Lee, of the 3rd Platoon vividly remembers seeing Bobby Nichols and another rifleman from the 2nd Platoon charging back down the hill followed by AK rounds kicking up dirt all around them. It seems that the two of them had gotten well ahead of the rest of the Platoon and had engaged about 6 NVA thinking that everyone else was abreast of them. When they found out that they were out front and alone, they quickly fell back to where the rest of the Platoon was. They later reported killing several of the NVA before falling back. Casualty reports began filtering into the CP location which was perhaps 30 or so meters behind the advancing Bravo grunts. The Dog Handler was being treated for a severe stomach wound, and there was a sense of urgency on the part of Doc Eichsteadt. A 1st Platoon rifleman by the name of Mendez was dragged into the CP position with a severe head wound. Seeing Mendez being dragged into the CP location had a tremendous impact on my newly assigned CP security man, Bill Delaney. Bill had been Mendez's Squad Leader before his assignment to the CP and was a good friend of Mendez also. Bill spoke with him and tried to keep him conscious while Doc Eichsteadt started treatment. Doc Eichstead recognized the necessity of treating Mendez immediately and went to work trying to save both. He also said that an immediate dust-off was necessary for both. Mendez was critical. His head wound was more than life threatening. His death was imminent and even a dust-off was a long shot, but, it had to be attempted. I hollered for a dust-off, and got a reply from an unexpected direction. Delta Troop 1/10 Cav had been monitoring our radio traffic and indicated that a Loach would be inbound for the extraction. Shamrock 6 was a call-sign I was very familiar with since it was that of my former Commanding Officer when I served with Delta Troop as their Executive Officer for about 4 months. I advised him of the fact that the extraction would be within 50 meters of the NVA bunkers, but that Bravo would lay down a massive wall of fire to suppress any enemy fire as he came in to remove the two severely wounded grunts. Bravo laid down successful suppressive fire, and the two critically wounded men were extracted. Maj Schweitzer, Commanding Officer of Delta, made the extraction himself, at great personal peril, and for his actions, I am eternally grateful.
The CP then moved forward to link up with the two on-line Platoons. The volume of fire from the hill had almost everyone pinned down and I was assessing our situation when I saw a Rifleman from the 1st Platoon running back toward the CP. It turned out to be Danny Mayo, and he wanted more ammunition. He had just expended all of his own ammunition providing covering fire for Charlie Tanner who had been pinned down by a RPD Machinegun and was in an exposed position. Thanks to Mayo's covering fire, Charlie was able to shift to a position which provided better cover. I tossed Danny one of my bandoliers, and he went charging back into the fight. Danny was a free spirit whom you wanted in the field, but was bound to cause problems when not in a firefight. His courage in battle was beyond question, but he was destined for trouble when in the rear. Bill Delaney had once served with Danny while Bill was still a member of the 1st Platoon, but, at the moment, Danny might have been in the 2nd Platoon, but I'm not certain since he served in both the 1st and 2nd Platoons at different times. I do remember that the 2nd Platoon Sgt, SSG Gregory (Tiny) thought highly of him and interceded on his behalf on several past occasions. Bill also held Danny in high esteem. Truth is, so did I. I just didn't want to be anywhere with him that didn't have dense jungle surrounding it. I didn't want to be held responsible for his actions when in a more civilized setting. He was a character!
I notified Battalion that we were not making any headway against the fortified positions since they appeared to be stoutly defended. I requested Tac Air support, if any was available. At this point, I was ordered to hold in place and to not continue the assault and take more casualties. Further instructions would be radioed shortly. I withdrew both on-line Platoons back down the hill while we awaited further orders. The firing ceased as Bravo broke close contact with the enemy forces on the hill. During the initial exchange of fire, the prisoner disappeared and I have no knowledge as to his fate. We had a bigger problem now.
I positioned the RF-PF Platoon in a natural, large depression which was located near the saddle of the two hill masses, and directed them to watch the saddle area between the two hills and interdict any movement coming from the lower hill which is where the NVA prisoner indicated that the main body of NVA were located, while Bravo was assaulting the higher hill directly to its left. The RF-PF Platoon was equipped with M-2 Carbines which made a distinctive POP, POP when fired and I heard several rounds from their location, but suspected that it was nervous fire as opposed to contact fire. I ran over to their position and asked the MACV advisor what they were firing at and my nervous fire theory was confirmed. I told the advisor that the next time I heard them fire, they better have some dead NVA to show me, or I'd have Bravo take their rifles away, or sentiments similar to that thought. They got the message and all went well after that. Anyhow, there was no threat that I detected coming from the lower hill. Everything seemed to be happening on the higher ground. In Vietnam, however, because you haven't seen anything yet, or heard anything, it doesn't mean that there's nothing there, so we kept a watchful eye on the area and on the RF-PF.
At about this time, I was advised that Tac Air was inbound and that Bravo was to hold in position until Delta Company could be inserted some distance away. The plan was for Delta to maneuver from their insertion LZ to the reverse side of the hill that was to Bravo's front and coordinate an assault up the reverse side of the hill with Bravo going back up the front of the hill. This would take several hours to accomplish since Delta Company had to be extracted from their current location, then, lifted into the closest LZ to where the hill was located, then maneuver cross-country to the reverse side of the hill. Upon having been given this order, I pulled Bravo back to the dry stream bed where we kept an eye on the hill, but were in relative safety from small arms fire.
A Forward Air Controller's voice came over the radio and he identified himself as the Forward Air Controller, or Sider/Cider FAC for short. Since Bravo Company was occupying the stream bed, he requested us to pop smoke along our front so that it gave him a front-line trace of our actual position so that we wouldn't be hit accidentally by any of the ordinance dropped by the TAC Aircraft. I asked if he knew what type of ordinance the Tac Air was carrying because we were within 100 meters or so of the target location. He announced that the two F-100's were each carrying 500 pound bombs. I asked if either had Napalm, and was given a negative. As smoke was popped by both Platoons in the stream bed, I told the Forward Air Controlled that we were too close to the target area to chance 500 pounders, and asked what else might be available. He advised that they could make strafing runs across the hill, and I said OK. He announced that he saw the smoke we popped and called back the colors to confirm that those were the colors we popped. The colors checked out, and I proceeded to give him an attack direction which would insure that the F-100's would attack parallel to our position. He then proceeded to fire several smoke rockets until he was advised that he was on-target and could start the gun runs on the hill. Everything seemed to be under total control at that point.
The next thing that happened was totally unexpected, and made me thankful that I had waived off the 500 pound bombs. The first aircraft appeared from behind the hill firing his strafing run directly at us. The rounds missed the top of the hill and walked (at about 250 miles an hour) right through the center of Bravo's position. Thankfully, no one was wounded! I immediately ordered a cease-fire and reiterated the need for the strafing run to be made PARALLEL to our front lines. The next run came from the right direction and was right on target, but the knowledge that, if the first run had been a bomb run, many from Bravo would not have survived, including the entire CP group. As the two F-100's were expending their ordinance on the strafing runs, the 3rd Platoon radioed that 3 NVA travelling at sling arms were approaching from the rear. I couldn't believe it! An airstrike was hitting the hill and the three NVA were less than 50 meters to our rear and were walking right into the on-going airstrike. It was communicated to the 3rd Platoon to "Engage" or words to that effect and 3rd Platoon reported that "We have, three NVA KIA's, three AK-47's, and three rucksacks". Each of the NVA were carrying a rucksack, and it was later determined that each rucksack was filled with Hash or Hemp. I don't recall which, and frankly, wouldn't know the difference. Anyhow, now we knew why they weren't paying any attention to the airstrike. As they walked along the trail, they must have been sampling the cargo. It's still unbelievable to me that they weren't paying any attention to two F-100's screaming overhead about two hundred feet off of the ground.
The F-100's expended their ordinance and departed station. At this point in time, my personal memories are a little vague, but I remember having A1-E's on station during one of our firefights on Penny, and, I've come to the conclusion that after the F-100's departed station, two SPADS (A1-E's) arrived on station. I have a distinct memory of watching them orbiting at about 10,000 feet, then rolling over, and basically diving straight down on their target. I can't be 100% sure, but this is the only action we were in which would have allowed the SPADS to hit a target in this fashion. They reminded me of two vultures circling their prey, then diving straight down to engage that prey. I'm pretty certain that the NVA also had a similar impression. Anyhow, my memory also has them utilizing their on-board .50 Cal Machine Guns (I think each aircraft had 6 on board guns). They also expended their ordinance, then departed station. For the record, Bravo Company had 4 Tac Air strikes flown in general support during our time in the field at Penny, and, this is the only action where there were lulls in the fighting which would have allowed me the luxury of actually watching the airstrikes, so I'm assigning the SPADS to this action also. The F-100's are a certainty, the SPADS, possibly are placed there by default, so it's possible that there may be a blending of two separate memories being attributed to a single action.
During this time period, Delta Company was inserted into a LZ reported to be approximately 1 1/2 Kilometer away, at least as identified to me. Battalion S-3 gave us the coordinates and we were instructed to await Delta Company's arrival at the hill when we would then mutually assault different sides of the hill. Since movement in the jungle tends to be really slow due to having to cut through the jungle with machetes, and, Delta would also have the added responsibility of exercising caution due to the possibility of the NVA having set up an ambush for any relief forces being added to the fight. I mentally figured that it would be at least several hours before Delta would arrive and we could plan our mutual assaults up reverse sides of the hill, so I instructed Bravo Company to remain vigilant and fire on any movement detected on the hill so that the NVA knew that we were still a threat to them.
As time passed, I kept abreast of Delta's progress by radio contact. As the hours went by, I radioed Delta and asked for an update of their position. When I was given their current location as being about 1 Kilometer from linking up with us, I asked if they would verify that position since it meant that, according to the insertion location I had been provided, they had only travelled 500 meters in the past 3 hours. It caused considerable concern in my mind since I deduced that they may not, in fact, had been inserted in the correct LZ, or at least, not in the LZ I thought. This was not uncommon, especially when hasty LZ's were formed since it depended on the Slick pilots to correctly identify a position in dense jungle. There were several different incidents where Bravo Company was supposed to be inserted at a specific location, only to find that we were not where we were supposed to be, however, the pilots were not to blame, it was the difficult terrain and dense jungle which caused the confusion. Anyhow, I now wondered where they actually were in relation to my position. I acknowledged their transmission and told them to give a holler when they wanted me to pop a hand flare. They said that, when they got closer, they would request a flare to guide them into position.
About 5 minutes after this conversation, all hell broke loose on the reverse side of the hill Bravo and Delta were planning on jointly assaulting. I knew immediately what the cause of the gunfire was on the reverse slope. I ordered Bravo Company to get out of the dry stream bed and to assault the hill mass again since it was my hope that we could relieve some of the pressure on Delta Company since I was certain that Delta had just been ambushed while traversing the reverse side of the hill while not knowing that they were actually climbing the objective hill mass where there was a known NVA concentration of forces. Our third assault up the hill was met by a large volume of rifle fire from NVA forces, so it was apparent to me that the NVA had either, split some of their forces, or that there were positions already occupied by the NVA on the reverse slope of which Bravo Company had no knowledge, since the reverse side had not been approached yet. Either way, Delta was in contact on the reverse slope, and, I was certain that the action caught them by surprise since, based on their radio traffic, they were unaware of the fact that they were climbing the objective hill mass already.
As the casualty reports came over the air from Delta Company, it became apparent that they had been badly hurt, and that they had one platoon trapped in a kill zone on their side of the hill. Battalion ordered Bravo Company to cease its assault and to pull back to our previous night laager which was 500 -600 meters away while Delta Company attempted to extract their dead and wounded. My remembrances of the casualty count reported via radio by Delta Company was 7 KIA's and 17 wounded. All from one platoon, more or less. That meant that on May 18th, 1969, as many as 9 Cacti soldiers may have lost their lives on the side of a hill somewhere in the jungle surrounding LZ Penny.
I listened to radio reports from Delta Company until about 0300 hrs the following early morning before I heard the report that everyone was accounted for and that they were no longer in contact, or in the kill zone of the ambush. During the time that they were on the side of the hill, nothing could be fired in general support like artillery, or a follow-up airstrike since Delta was still trapped in the target area. It was a long night for Bravo Company also. We went from finding a significant NVA concentration in the morning to assaulting that concentration twice, then ordered to hold in place while Delta Company was inserted to join in the assault, and finally, thinking that Delta's arrival would catch the NVA by surprise, and allow both companies to overrun the hill. Unfortunately, now, everything had become deadly and chaotic because of the ambush. Our third assault had been hastily put together which prevented Bravo Company from making much headway during this assault to try and relieve some of the pressure on Delta. While we knew that we had killed at least 6 or 7 NVA that day, we were never given the satisfaction of getting to the top of the hill.
I didn't find out until 2010 that the Recon Platoon had been ordered in to the contact area to assist Delta Company with the evacuation of their dead and wounded. The Recon Platoon always got this type of assignment. Someone is in trouble, and you're going to help! I had great respect for those in the Recon Platoon. Over the years since 1969, I'd believed that Delta Company was ultimately responsible for their own extraction from that hill side, and I always wondered why Bravo Company was not shifted to its right flank in an attempt to link up with a shattered Delta Company. Now I have my answer!
There is still one thing that bothers me, however. Bravo Company assaulted the hill mass that WAS NOT IDENTIFIED as being the main NVA position by the prisoner. Did we make a lucky guess as to which hill mass to assault, or were there more enemy on the second hill that never revealed themselves to us. Guess I'll never know, but I think of it often. In the jungle, you never knew until someone was shot.
During the assaults by Bravo Company and the ambushing of Delta Company, the NVA utilized the confusion of battle to slowly disband and melt into the surrounding jungle. By daybreak of the following morning, nothing was left on the hill except some of the remnants of battle. They were fully aware of the massed firepower that would be brought against their position once Delta Company was out of the contact area, and wisely chose to evacuate the area. Bravo Company never returned to the two hills and was given the assignment of attempting to interdict the retreating NVA forces by moving toward likely avenues of withdrawal. While there were some incidents of sniper fire and on a couple of occasions, twenty-plus rounds of incoming 82mm Mortar fire, contact was not re-established with any larger sized NVA forces until June 8th, 1969, but that's another story in itself.
Once again, I thank the loyal and courageous grunts of Bravo Company for their skill and determination in the face of extreme obstacles. We made a total of three assaults on the hill side on May 18th, 1969. I wish the results were different.
Bravo Company 2Bn 35th Inf