A View from the CP (3) June 8th 1969
by Stan Traeb
June 8th 1969
"A View from the CP" (3)
June 8th, 1969 - LZ Penny
The morning of June 8th, 1969, began like any other ordinary morning in the Central Highlands. After a night of not much sleep, Bravo Company had a normal Stand-to at about 45 minutes before daybreak which is known in the military as: Before morning nautical twilight (BMNT).
As part of the stand-to, Bravo Company manned their fighting positions which had been prepared the previous late afternoon when we set up our night laager. Those positions were manned until sunrise. When no enemy activity was detected, each Platoon send out a Sweep Patrol to clear their assigned sectors of any enemy who might have set up ambush positions to catch us by surprise as the Company moved out on the day's mission. The assigned mission for the day was a normal "Search and Clear" mission with no particular purpose in mind, other than re-establishing contact with NVA Main Force units which we had been searching for since the May 18th firefight. Today was a little unusual in that there seemed to be a lack of Intel on possible NVA concentrations which was unlike several operations in the past two -three weeks which identified potential, large unit enemy concentrations as the focus of the mission, so I was feeling somewhat at ease since I was not expecting the possibility of a hard fight that day.
We moved out in a column formation, with the 1st Platoon leading the way, followed by the CP group, then the Second Platoon, and the Third Platoon providing rear security as we maneuvered toward the first checkpoint assigned by Battalion S-3. Basically, a checkpoint was nothing other than a grid designation on a topographical map, which was usually some sort of distinctive terrain feature which we could easily recognize. Most of the Search and Clear missions involved traversing about 5 plus Kilometers of jungle which, upon reaching the final designated grid, we would set up another night laager position. Every night, we dug fighting positions, sent out Listening Posts (LP's), placed Trip Flares, and covered the perimeter with Claymore mines. This was the Standard Operating procedure and every Infantryman knew that after a long and tiring day of cutting through the jungle, they would end the day by digging a chest deep fighting position, providing overhead cover for those positions, and clearing away fields of fire around those positions, and the possibility of getting no sleep because of having to pull LP duty. Such was the lot of an Infantryman. Hard work, very little sleep, and the probability of enemy contact. I often heard the grunts complain of being tired and hungry, but, I never heard a complaint about the mission. The men of Bravo were of a higher state of discipline and motivation.
As we moved toward our first checkpoint, and had only travelled 500 meters or so, the First Platoon point element signaled for a halt in movement and motioned for everyone to drop down into prone positions. This was usually a sign that the day was going to get worse, since it usually meant that NVA had been sighted or were suspected of being in close proximity. I radioed 16, the First Platoon Leader, John Barbeau, and asked what was going on. He responded that 3-5 NVA were spotted in a bamboo clump immediately ahead. I asked if there was any indication that these NVA had detected our presence. He said that he didn't think so because they were still making coffee or rice and one of them was still lying in his hammock. On hearing the facts, I speculated that we had just stumbled upon an NVA outpost of some sort. Since it was about 0730hrs, I figured that it could be a Listening Post which hadn't been called back to the main body yet, or, since it was daylight, it could be an Observation Post (OP) that had just been posted. Either way, I told John Barbeau that I would start working my way forward, but, that he should open fire on the area if it appeared that the enemy was alerted to our presence.
As the CP group started to crawl forward, there were several bursts of M-16 fire and I knew that John had engaged the NVA. The need for stealth disappeared so I, and the rest of the CP group, led by Bill Delaney, began advancing rapidly toward John's position. I alerted the Second Platoon to advance with the CP group and to be ready to deploy on command once I had a plan of action in mind. At that point, everyone dropped their rucksacks and proceeded to maneuver with "fighting gear" only. Basically, "fighting gear" was nothing more than at least 3 bandoliers of M-16 ammunition, and M-26 Fragmentation Grenades. Since, I suspected that the NVA sighted, and engaged by the 1st Platoon in the Bamboo clump was an outpost, I needed to make sure that our attentions weren't focused on the outpost while a main force unit was somewhere in the immediate area, and presented a more serious threat. I hoped that I had assessed the situation correctly and that I could discover the main force unit more quickly than they could discover us. If, there was a main body close by, we needed to identify that location as quickly as possible and organize an assault before the NVA could adequately prepare for the coming fight. This needed to be done rapidly since small arms fire had already been exchanged and the NVA now knew that we were in their immediate presence. The element of surprise had now been lost completely, and we had to deal with this fact as rapidly as possible. I didn't want to give the NVA any more time than necessary to prepare their defensive positions. As I crawled up to John's position, he stated that he and his point element had killed at least one of the NVA in the bamboo clump to his immediate front. While visually scanning the area, I noticed that there was a much larger bamboo thicket about 80-100 meters beyond the clump in which the 1st Platoon had engaged the 3-5 NVA. I took a guess that this thicket was the most likely area for more NVA and had John bring his First Platoon on line and deployed the Second Platoon on line also and started to advance toward the larger Bamboo thicket.
As Bravo Company moved toward the thicket, we started to receive some small arms fire from the right flank. It was determined fire, but not from a large number of NVA and, I suspected that the NVA were hastily deployed to try and engage us in flanking fire. At least, I hoped that I made a correct assessment, since, if the main force was already on our flank, we were going to have a rough day ahead! One NVA in particular, must have spotted the THREE radio antennas in the CP group and emptied his 30 round magazine into the CP. The rounds began impacting where Bill Delaney was positioned and walked completely through the CP position. Front to back! Miraculously, no one was hit. I hollered out "Did anyone see where that came from" since there was no question that whoever fired the AK had us in visual sight. The rounds impacted so close to everyone that, if the NVA were given time to reload, the next time around, we may not be so fortunate as to have no casualties. Bill Delaney hollered back "I think I see him, he's in a tree". Bill, then flipped over from his prone position and emptied his magazine into some tree foliage. While I didn't see anyone drop from the tree, we never again took any fire from that direction, so, I believe, Bill eliminated whoever did the shooting. I was grateful since one of the rounds from the AK had impacted the ground between my index finger and web of my right thumb. Much too close for comfort. I didn't want to give the shooter another try.
Bravo Company then began an assault on the bamboo thicket ahead. We started receiving a significant volume of small arms fire from the thicket, and I suspected that I had made a correct guess as to where the NVA were grouped. From the volume of fire, I estimated that there was at least a Platoon of NVA in that thicket, but believed that there might be more, since the NVA were well trained and had good fire discipline and did not expose their positions until they had a target in sight. The volume of fire from the thicket began causing casualties in the First Platoon. SSgt Ayala, the First Platoon Sergeant was hit several times and, one of the AK rounds went practically straight up the barrel of his M-16. The Flash Hider was blown off and a portion of the barrel was shot away. I think we had five casualties from small arms fire on this first assault and needed to evacuate the casualties as quickly as possible since most, if not all, of the wounds were serious. We pulled back to the bamboo clump where the 3-5 NVA were first sighted and organized a Dust-Off of casualties. While in the bamboo clump, I saw one of the dead NVA still lying in the hammock he was occupying when first sighted by the First Platoon point element. I think John Barbeau, who had a habit of walking with the point element, was one of the men responsible for the NVA's demise. The NVA soldier had been hit by small arms fire multiple times, so there may have been more than one person shooting at him. We hadn't spent any time looking for the other four since time was of the essence and we needed to assault the main body of NVA as soon as possible. We had immediately deployed for an assault on the bamboo thicket beyond, so, it was never determined if any of the others were hit or not. It's possible that the fire we took from the right flank may have been from the NVA who were able to flee the outpost area, or was a deliberate flanking attempt from other elements of NVA of which we had no knowledge. Since we had just overrun the NVA outpost position and would soon be taking fire from a different NVA position, it was possible that there were many more NVA in the immediate area, and that some of those units were attempting to flank us. Either way, we kept up a high concentration of artillery fire on the surrounding jungle hoping to discourage any attempts at concentrating additional forces for deployment against Bravo Company.
After our casualties were dusted-off, we formed up for a second assault on the thicket. As we moved forward on-line, we began receiving a larger volume of fire than we received from the first attempt. This was indicative of NVA conduct of battle. They never played their entire hand until they were ready to throw all-in. This tendency always caused me to be very cautious about committing all of my available resources until I was reasonably certain that we weren't going to be drawn into any type of envelopments, and until reasonably certain that the NVA were mostly all committed to the action. At this point, with increased resistance from the thicket, I and the Forward Observer from the 2nd Battalion 9th Artillery, Bill Wallin decided that we needed to pound the thicket with artillery fire before proceeding any further since we were beginning to take a number of casualties. LT Wallin began adjusting artillery fire while Bravo Company temporarily halted in place. Bravo Company took this time to form up for a third assault on the thicket.
After effective artillery fire fell on the thicket, Bravo Company assaulted the position a third time. We still took small arms fire, but, this time we pushed into the thicket and overran the NVA position. Once the position was overrun by Bravo Company, we occupied the NVA fighting positions which were dug behind individual Bamboo clumps within the thicket area making them relatively unaffected by M-16 fire, which, because of the light weight of the bullet, wouldn't penetrate very much Bamboo. The M-60's were much more effective and provided our main small arms threat to the NVA. Upon Bravo Company seizing the thicket area, we occupied the NVA fighting positions in preparation for a possible counter-attack by the NVA. Based on the number of fighting positions in the thicket, it was apparent that Bravo Company had just overrun a Platoon sized NVA unit. While we found bloody bandages and other evidence of casualties within the thicket, no bodies were recovered. Undoubtedly, they were removed when the NVA evacuated the thicket. Upon occupying the NVA fighting positions, it was discovered that each position had freshly dug earth at the bottom of each. One of the Bravo Infantrymen started digging with his hands to determine what caused freshly dug earth to be in the bottom of the fighting positions and discovered that there were 82 mm Mortar rounds hastily buried in the bottom of the fighting positions. Not Booby-trapped, but buried in an attempt to hide these rounds from detection. Bravo Company began excavating each of the NVA fighting positions and removing the Mortar rounds buried in each while keeping alert for an NVA attempt to push us out of their former position.
As we were extracting the Mortar rounds, the NVA began to fire 82mm mortar rounds on the bamboo thicket. They had two or three tubes set up less than 400 meters from the thicket and had the thicket perfectly zeroed-in. I suspected that the NVA whom had retreated from the thicket we had just overrun, had fallen back to this location. The rounds began hitting by the two's and three's about every 25 seconds. All were within our perimeter position and we began taking heavy casualties from the Mortars. I decided that, since they had the thicket zeroed-in, we needed to move from the immediate area, so I ordered Bravo Company to perform an orderly withdrawal from the thicket. Since there were more NVA in front of us, as evidenced by the Mortar tubes, I chose to withdraw back out of the thicket and to deploy more loosely than when we were confined in the thicket area. As we moved from the thicket area, the Mortar rounds followed us out of the thicket, so it was evident that there was a NVA Forward Observer somewhere on the same flank that we had been taking fire from already, and was walking the rounds back with us as we withdrew from the immediate area. The rounds were still falling at the rate of two or three every 25 seconds or so and we were beginning to take substantial casualties as a result of those rounds. I ordered everyone to pull further back, but to do so only during the 25 or so seconds of flight time it took from the time we heard the tubes popping to the impact of the mortar rounds. After the rounds impacted, we performed the same procedure while starting to evacuate our casualties from the contact area. LT Wallin, the Artillery Forward Observer and I discussed our options as to what could be employed to silence the Mortar tubes which were causing such havoc. Since both of us had a compass direction to the Mortars from our current position, and were able to make an estimate as to the distance to the tubes, we concurred as to the approximate location of those tubes. LT Wallin then suggested employing an artillery technique called "3 Quad, 3 Deflections", or words to that effect. While I wasn't familiar with the term, LT Wallin quickly told me that each of the six 105mm artillery pieces would fire rounds at 3 different deflections and three different elevations which would blanket an area with 105mm artillery rounds exploding every 5 meters apart, and would saturate a specified area with at least 54 rounds of 105mm fire for each Fire Mission shot. I told him to get it done as quickly as possible since the NVA Mortar tubes were inflicting significant casualties on us. LT Wallin began the pattern fire on the suspected Mortar locations. The first several Fire Missions caused no slackening of fire from the Mortars, so LT Wallin continued to shift the coordinates of the target area until we detected a change in the pattern of the incoming rounds. As LT Wallin proceeded to shift the fires, it became apparent that we were either closing in on the NVA, or were already on target since the firing finally started to diminish. As the fire from the Mortars started to slacken, I decided to organize a casualty evacuation point to our rear. The 3rd Platoon was tasked with securing an evacuation point about 100 meters or so, to our rear. As the 3rd Platoon organized a perimeter, I heard one of the 3rd Platoon machine guns start firing with purpose. Delaney, I, and the rest of the CP immediately responded by moving rapidly to where the machine gun fire was originating. When I got into position next to the gunner, I asked him what was going on, and he responded that he took some flanking fire and detected multiple bodies moving in the wood line to his flank, so he decided to sweep the area with his M-60. His name was Kennibaum, and he had been a recent infusee from the 101st Airmobile. I told him to keep up his fire and to keep sweeping the wood line to suppress any possibility of a flanking move by the NVA. During this time, the 2/9th Arty was still firing the 3 Quad, 3 Deflection pattern on the Mortar locations, and must have been on target as we ceased taking any Mortar fire whatsoever, so I asked LT Wallin to shift some of the fire to our flank, so that it might cause the NVA problems, if, in fact, they were going to try and flank us. As this was done, I asked the CP Medic (Steve Eichsteadt) to stay at this location and be ready to treat the casualties from the 1st and 2nd Platoons as they were evacuated to the rear. I, and the rest of the CP then returned to where the 1st and 2nd Platoons were spread out on line. They were still taking small arms fire, but it was from a distance, and not that effective, however, the fact that the NVA were not willing to break off the engagement while we were pounding their positions with Artillery fire, was somewhat worrisome. I asked for a quick casualty report from both Platoons. The numbers reported back to me were kind of numbing. Both Platoons were reporting able body strength at less than 10 men per Platoon. The rest were casualties . Some more severely wounded than others. I, and the CP group were immediately behind the 1st Platoon position when I ordered a casualty evacuation back to the 3rd Platoon evacuation site. As the 1st Platoon began evacuating their casualties, it required every able bodied man that still remained in that Platoon to accomplish this task, so, I ordered them to continue the withdrawal past the CP and back to the main collection point 100 or so meters to the rear, leaving the CP group as the forward line of resistance should the NVA seize this opportunity for a counter-attack. The 2nd Platoon was also in about the same condition as was the 1st, so I ordered a general evacuation of the contact area while the CP group formed a final line of resistance, should it be necessary. As this was occurring, I remember SGT Toledo of the 1st Platoon hollering that Siaz, a Machine Gunner from the 1st Platoon was hit multiple times by mortar shrapnel and small arms fire, and since Siaz was larger in size than most grunts, his evacuation required multiple able bodied individuals. SGT Toledo held in position until others could respond to assist him with Siaz's evacuation. Siaz was placed on either a Poncho Liner, or Poncho, and several people, led by SGT Toledo evacuated Siaz directly through the CP location while under small arms fire. I'm convinced of the fact that SGT Toledo would have stayed with Siaz even if they were the only two left in the field. SGT Toledo cared deeply about Siaz and was intensely proud of Siaz. Siaz used to like to profile the fact that he was capable of humping the M-60, and 600 rounds of linked ammo wound around his body. SGT Toledo's loyalty and courage was apparent that day.
By this time, we had so many casualties from Mortar shrapnel that the Third Platoon "Casualty Evacuation" point, was overwhelmed with casualties. During this time, we were still taking some NVA fire from the right flank , and, Doug Kennibaum was still firing suppressive machine gun fire, along with several other members of the 3rd Platoon, on the jungle wood line to the right. This was the same general area from where we had taken flanking fire previously on all of our previous assaults, so it was getting to be a cause for concern. I didn't know if there was fresh movement of troops into the flank position, but the fire hadn't diminished during the entire firefight, and required some attention to insure that there wasn't a massing of NVA on that flank. LT Wallin proceeded to start two tubes of the 105mm artillery using the same 3Quads, 3 Deflections fire pattern on that flank, while the rest of the Battery was still involved in trying to silence, or eliminate the NVA Mortar tubes which had already caused us so much grief.
Eventually, the artillery fire had the desired effect of silencing the 82mm Mortars since we ceased receiving any more fire. The 82mm Mortars had been effectively used by the NVA and generated over 30 more casualties within the Company. Bravo Company received about 100 rounds of 82mm Mortar fire during the time we occupied the Bamboo thicket, and, during the time we were forced to withdraw our casualties back to the evacuation point. This time frame was perhaps 30-45 minutes or so, and, between the small arms casualties from the three assaults on the thicket, and the mortar fire, caused at least 36 casualties that day. The number of casualties from that day caused a tremendous loss in fighting ability of Bravo Company. Three assaults on the thicket, then enduring approximately 100 rounds of 82mm Mortar fire had taken its toll. While I can't remember with total accuracy what the final casualty count was that day, I do remember, calling TOC from the "casualty evacuation point" and requesting enough slick support to evacuate at least 32 wounded caused by the Mortar fire alone. It had been a trying day up to that point, but the grunts of Bravo showed no let up in their actions.
Bravo Company had succeeded in overrunning an NVA outpost defended by up to five NVA, also overran an NVA Platoon defensive position, recovered a number of 82mm Mortar rounds, and took a pounding from additional NVA units in the immediate area which had access to two or three 82mm Mortars and more ammunition than they were capable of using in that particular fight. Under the direction of LT Bill Wallin, the Artillery Forward Observer, more than 500 rounds of 105mm artillery had been fired in support of Bravo Company and may have been instrumental in keeping the NVA from massing enough force to hit our right flank. The 500 plus rounds fired in support of Bravo Company that day, was the greatest number of rounds the 2nd Battalion 9th Artillery fired in a single day the entire time they were on LZ Penny.
After our casualties were evacuated, which took 5 Slick ships, if I remember correctly and came courtesy of Delta Troop 1/10 Cav. In fact, I have a recollection of the fact that Delta sent all of the aircraft that were normally reserved for Delta Troop's own internal Aero Rifle Platoon for this mission. Once again, I was deeply indebted to the unit to which I had been previously assigned before becoming a Bravo Cacti Blue of the 2nd Bn 35th Inf. We withdrew back to our previous night laager and prepared for the possibility of an NVA counter-attack. At this time, TAC Air arrived on station, and Sider/Cider FAC came over the air to request spotting assistance. The Battalion Commander, LTC Price, took command, since he was in a C&C ship overseeing the general action, and said that he would coordinate the Air Strike. There were two Air Force F-4 Phantoms available, each armed with 500 pound bombs. They began their "hot run" on the target area, but Bravo Company had already been ordered to return to our previous night laager, so the impact area was not within Bravo's viewing ability. We wouldn't be able to gauge their effectiveness until the following morning when we were to swept back into the contact area to recover our rucksacks, and engage any remaining NVA in the area. I also believe that LTC Price's C&C Loach was hit multiple times by 12.7mm (.51 Cal) anti-aircraft fire while he was spotting for the TAC Air. My memory is a little vague as to whether his C&C ship took fire on the late afternoon of June 8th or during the action of June 10th. Either way, this was further evidence of the fact that we were in the middle of a significant sized NVA concentration which appeared to be spread out over a kilometer or so of jungle. LTC Price's helicopter was forced to return to LZ Penny because of a Transmission warning light alerting the pilot to serious damage sustained from the 12.7mm anti-aircraft hits. I also believe that the helicopter experienced total transmission failure just as it returned to LZ Penny. I also believe that LTC Price was slightly wounded by the anti-aircraft fire, but cannot be certain as to the details. I do know that LTC Price's name appears as a casualty in the informally re-constructed casualty figures for the 35th Inf. The record date is shown as 0300hrs on June 9th, so that affirms June 8th as the actual date, however, the only thing I can positively state from my own knowledge is that his C&C ship did take ground fire on either the 8th, 9th, or 10th of June while in support of Bravo Company. There were a lot of things happening on those three days, and some of my memories may have blended together.
Battalion notified the Recon Platoon to move to our location to provide temporary replacements for our wounded, and to help bolster our defensive abilities for the night. When they arrived, they were certainly a welcomed sight. They were destined to remain with Bravo Company until sometime during the afternoon of June 9th. All of Bravo Company's rucksacks had been abandoned in the contact area near the Bamboo thicket and needed to be recovered. Recon was to provide the main force necessary to recover the rucksacks, and to provide the offensive capabilities necessary should the NVA still be present in force around the contact area. Recon took the initiative by volunteering to go into the contact area as soon as they arrived at our location during the late afternoon of June 8th, and guided by SSGT Gregory (Tiny), the 2nd Platoon SGT from Bravo Company, who volunteered to lead Recon back into the contact area, attempted to recover as many rucksacks as possible before nightfall. The remainder of the rucksacks would be collected on the morning of June 9th when Bravo Company and the Recon Platoon swept back into the thicket to see if any NVA were left in the area. I do know that my rucksack wasn't recovered until the next morning, and that, when recovered, it had already been looted by the NVA. Our return to the thicket on the morning of June 9th is further explained in the prolog leading to the action of June 10th, 1969.
Bravo Company now had a total effective troop strength of 48 men, not counting the Recon Platoon.
Bravo Company 2nd Bn 35th Inf