by Dwight Davis
May 6th 1970
May 6th 1970
By Dwight Davis C Co. 1969-1970
Fifty years ago on May 6, 1970 my battalion (2nd/35th Infantry) became part of the only official U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
On May 6, 1970, our division became part of the great Cambodian invasion of 1970. This was probably the only mission I was ever on that made sense to me. The theory was that American and South Vietnamese forces would hit Cambodia in force for the purpose of interdicting the bad guys' supply lines. Everyone had known for years that VC and NVA troops used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to bring in supplies to South Vietnam. This was a series of trails running down the border of South Vietnam mostly in Laos and Cambodia. The bad guys actually drove heavy duty trucks down these trails as well as thousands of bicycles loaded down with ammunition and other supplies.
The 4th Infantry Division played a fairly small role in the invasion of Cambodia. Two brigades of the 4th Infantry Division were sent into Cambodia which could have amounted to approximately 3,000 troops but probably amounted to many fewer because all units were undermanned at that time. Troops had already been withdrawn from Vietnam as part of the "Vietnamization" of the war by the Nixon administration. This is out of approximately 30,000 U.S. soldiers and 48,000 South Vietnamese soldiers assigned to the Cambodian invasion. The most significant action was in the area known as the "Parrots Peak" west of Saigon. The 4th division troops were considerably north of that area.
Although there had been the "secret bombing of Cambodia" which the Nixon administration was criticized for, not only by anti-war activists but by the international community, we had never actually attacked the Ho Chi Minh trail with troops. The critique of the Nixon administration was that this action effectively expanded the war into Cambodia which was, theoretically, not a participant in the war. To the typical GI this view was Bull Sh*t. We wanted to bomb the entire Indo China Peninsula into the Stone Age.
As it turned out the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 was a very successful mission. Thousands of pounds of munitions and other supplies were captured and/or destroyed.
"Using the usual means of measurement-enemy casualties and captured material-U.S. officials estimated the results were ten times greater than the preceding twelve months of operations in Vietnam itself. The allies captured enemy ammunition-15 million rounds and 143,000 rockets-that could have supplied all NVA and VC in II, III, and IV Corps for more than ten months. The other statistics were equally spectacular: 14 million pounds of rice, enough to feed all enemy combat battalions in South Vietnam for four months; 22,892 individual weapons, sufficient to equip 74 NVA infantry battalions; 435 vehicles and 11,700 bunkers destroyed; and 199,552 antiaircraft rounds, 5,487 mines, and 62,000 grenades. Although the enemy for the most part had retreated, the allies claimed 11,349 Communists killed. The CIA, however, called the body count 'highly suspect.' 'Many of the alleged casualties,' it stated, 'were the result of air and artillery strikes [making] a precise body count so difficult [and resulting] in civilian and non-combatants. . . being included in the loss figure.' "
According to coverage in the Stars and Stripes this mission put the bad guys in a hurt for no less than six months. Theoretically, that was supposed to give the South Vietnamese time to regroup and better ensure their control over disputed territory. I do not believe that happened, however, we definitely hurt "Charlie's" ability to fight for a while.
Our trip to Cambodia was begun with a convoy from Camp Radcliff to a small village on the South Vietnam/Cambodia border a distance of approximately 70-80 miles west of Camp Radcliff. The village was named New Plei Djereng. The convoy was long with many deuce and a halfs carrying the troops. I was impressed by the lead vehicle which was a deuce and a half with several modifications including additional armor. Its best asset, however, was a Quad 50 which is a .50 caliber Gatling gun; a real pee bringer.
Moving by convoy is definitely less tiring than humping, however, there was a downside. In particular, we had to go through the An Khe pass. For several miles the narrow two- lane highway cut through a mountain with steep walls on both sides. A couple of kids with .22 rifles could eat you up in that place because there was no way to hide and they would have the high ground. The only time I ever wore a flak jacket in Vietnam was when I went on convoys and I was glad to have it then.
When we got to the border, we were supposed to catch Slicks into Cambodia. As it turned out the helicopters involved got shot up badly inserting another unit into Cambodia so our CA was canceled until the next day. A short distance from New Plei Djereng, we set up a battalion perimeter which was huge, approximately 500 men. As I was getting my area ready I looked up and saw a couple of puffs of dust in the distance perhaps 200 meters away. As the dust got closer I could see it was three women; two fairly young and one older. The older one was probably no more than 40-years-old, however, she looked used up. These were peasant women. As luck would have it the two younger ones were prostitutes. They went into the high elephant grass and set up their business. It was an amazing sight. I recall seeing no less than 20-30 guys in single file waiting their turn with one of the hookers. They were just chatting and smoking like they were waiting to get into a movie or go to chow. In a couple of hours it was over and the three women trudged back to the village. In a couple of weeks a bunch of these guys would line up in single file again at a forward firebase where medics would administer penicillin shots to them, the first of three.
The next day we flew into Cambodia. The official name of our battalion's mission was Binh Tay 1. The terrain was substantially different than what we were used to. It was mostly flat with large areas that had no trees. We found out later that the water there was really bad. We had been quite lucky with regard to water. We were all advised to be careful about drinking water in Vietnam, however, we found the water in the mountain streams we encountered to taste good and be safe. In Cambodia, we had to catch water from rain in our ponchos which we ran into canteens. When we were forced to use water from streams we had to add lots of iodine tablets which eventually makes the water taste awful. Some guys added Kool-Aid to cover up the bad taste, however, that tended to make you thirstier because of the sugar content.
We experienced no contact when we landed in Cambodia. Shortly after we got there we broke up into platoons and headed off in different directions. The Order of the Day was to find supplies and arrange to have them carried out or destroy them and that included food. Every rifle platoon had been assigned an engineer who carried explosives for the purpose of destroying whatever caches we encountered. The first couple of days we found nothing, then just about every platoon found caches. Our first one was a large grass thatch hootch in which was stored rice. We tried to burn it, however, that did not work very well, so we had as many guys piss on it as possible to destroy its value we thought. We ultimately had the engineer blow it up. The First Platoon's first encounter was a Montagnard woman walking down a trail. They ambushed her and killed her. They felt bad about that, however, movement is movement.
Then my platoon encountered a small village which had been abandoned shortly before we got there. We learned later that there was not much combat during the entire Cambodian invasion. The bad guys knew we were coming and beat feet out of the area as fast as they could. There was nothing remarkable about this village. It had a few grass thatch huts and that was about it. We did, however, encounter an old enfeebled woman who could barely move and was obviously frightened of us. Later that day we called in a helicopter to evacuate her. I am sure she wound up in a refugee camp somewhere among the other hundreds of thousands of homeless people in Southeast Asia. Lt. Troester later expressed regret about moving this old lady because it meant that she was permanently removed from her people and doomed to be included with the many homeless people in Vietnam.
I cannot recall why we did not burn this village since destruction was our goal. I suppose it was because it was so small, in poor condition and apparently worthless. We found no signs of bad guys in this village and not much of anything really. It appeared the inhabitants took all their worldly possessions with them when they left. The burning was to come later.
In the next day or two we stumbled on another village. This one, however, was fairly large with many grass thatch hootches and a bunch of livestock running around; pigs and chickens. It had been abandoned no more than a few minutes before we arrived since there were some cooking fires still smoldering. We got some good souvenirs from this village including several Montagnard crossbows, some old French paper currency from the Indo China days, and I found a neat knife. The knife had apparently been made out of some part of the undercarriage of a vehicle. It had a good edge, however, and was the size of a small machete. The case was made of some type of soft metal and the knife fit in the case well. I carried this knife for most of the rest of my tour, and then I gave it to a guy in my platoon who had given me his sister's address, after I admired a photograph of her, which resulted in very few letters both ways.
This village had definite signs of the bad guys. One corner had apparently been used as a classroom. It had a chalkboard and benches for students to sit. There were also wooden models of U.S. aircraft there including helicopters. We guessed that one subject was how to shoot down American aircraft. I do not recall finding any weapons. In any event, after searching the village thoroughly, we decided to burn it down and kill all the livestock. In the vernacular, this was referred to as a "Zippo Party" after the famous cigarette lighter which was the lighter of choice for most GIs. It was amazingly easy to torch the village because the grass thatch hootches went up quickly. In no time we had flames 40-60 feet high. While the hootches were going up in flames we were shooting every animal we saw. It was at this point that my LT let his journalistic instincts take over again and he began to take many photographs. I looked at the flames and decided that we needed to di di out of there ASAP (As Soon As Possible). I said: "Come on, Sir. If they didn't know where we were, they do now!" He reluctantly let us exit the village.
My 24th birthday was in Cambodia. It was an unusual birthday.
After a few more days of humping around Cambodia we were pulled out and flown to a staging area just across the border in South Vietnam where we got on deuce and halfs to convoy back to Camp Radcliff. While I was sitting in the back of the truck waiting for the convoy to start I saw a Chinook (a large transport helicopter with two propellers) come in and kick up an amazing amount of dust. Apparently, the dust blinded the pilots because they landed on a deuce and half killing a couple of GIs and wounding others. More evidence of the fruitlessness of our efforts. Guys got killed by accident as well as by small arms fire.
When we started on the convoy back to Camp Radcliff an FNG in my truck pulled out a pipe and a "Nickel Bag" ($5.00 worth of marijuana about the size of a man's fist). I watched incredulously while he packed up the pipe with dope and start to light it. At that point, I grabbed his pipe, hit it against the side of the truck so the contents fell out, then grabbed his bag and through it over the side. I said: "Jesus Christ man, I am your F**king platoon sergeant. Don't be smoking that Sh*t in my presence. See if you can get a beer from somebody!"