War Stories

Rappeling Mission

by Len Calabree
September 1969

Rappelling Mission

By Len Calabree

Recon 2/35th

In mid September 1969 I found myself being hustled out of the reception center in Cameron Bay to Pleiku where I was assigned to the Recon platoon of the 2nd /35th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division. My assignment to this unit coincided with the Recon platoon being pulled out of the field and sent to Reconnaissance School.

After more than one week of intense specialized training the platoon was being transported on a couple of duce and a half trucks to a relatively pacified jungle area outside of Pleiku. The plan was to spend the next couple of days actually utilizing our new training in a jungle setting. At the completion of this mission we would all be certified Reconnaissance trained and would be authorized to wear the coveted Recon patch. Most of the men were not feeling too well after a night of revelry. Many of us went into excess knowing that we most likely would not see the rear area again for several months.

While in transit to our destination the small convey suddenly stopped. New orders were just radioed over to us. Bravo Company was pinned down in a firefight and was experiencing heavy causalities. Being the reactionary unit for our battalion, we were always the first to be sent out to help a unit in distress. We were told to dismount from the trucks. We were going out to help them. A wave of fear of the unknown, along with the Recon bravado, swept through my body. I was going to find out quickly how good this platoon really was and experience my first action.

In a few minutes about a half a dozen Huey choppers started swooping down to pick us up. It also had two medics along with two engineers on board. The engineers were loaded with C4 and were going to blow a LZ once Recon secured an area. The medics were sent to assist the Bravo Company medics to work on the many wounded and help prepare the dead for extraction. New York (John Germano) and Navy (Virgil Patrick) were assigned to the first chopper with one of the engineers and a medic. Chain saws were loaded on both choppers to help us clear the LZ .I was assigned to the second bird along with Jake, Ben, and Gomer, along with an engineer and medic. We also had two chain saws to bring with us.

We first stopped at a Green Beret camp to pick up extra ammo. It did not take a long time to reach the contact area from this camp. As we got close we secured two rappelling ropes to each side of the chopper floor. Three of the men and I fastened our O ring to the rope and moved out onto the skids. We waited for the signal to drop our ropes. As we slowed down to prepare to rappel, I looked over to the first chopper that was about thirty-five yards in front of our bird. I could clearly see the two medics on the skid on my side. I could also see two ropes dangling on the other side on the chopper. Just as the men were going to rappel, the chopper started taking heavy fire. I saw one of the medics get hit in his foot and looked like he was going to fall off the skid. Someone reaches out and pulls him into the bird. I later found out that it was Navy who probably saved the medic's life. Smoke started pouring out of the chopper. Occasional sparks could be seen as some of the bullets ricocheted off the fuselage. Tracers were also shooting into and past the chopper. Both our birds veered off to the right. The four of us on the skids of our chopper jumped back in as soon as the centripetal force allowed. Within a few minutes we were told that our mission was changed, and we would be dropped about two clicks from the action at a recently blown LZ.

Once we landed, we were told that the gooks somehow hacked into our radio frequency and in excellent English guided the first chopper over their unit instead of Bravo Company's perimeter. The men on the first chopper were sitting ducks. The medic, engineer, and Germano were hit. We soon realized that Navy also took a round in his leg. Fortunately, it hit a deck of cards that were in his pocket. The round penetrated about three-quarters of the deck, stopping you can guess on what card! Yes, the ace of spades. When I tracked Navy down earlier this year, one of my first questions was asking him if he still had the bullet. Unfortunately, Navy lost the round, and to this day he laments that a piece of history and folklore went the way of the bullet.

After humping for several hours over two very steep hills, the last hour in the pitch dark, we finally reached Bravo Company. Jake, Navy, and Gomer were very happy to pass the chain saws that they were carrying to some of the guys in Bravo Company. We were constantly probed that evening and no one slept. Snoopy flew above us lending supporting fire all night.

Early the next morning both Bravo Company and Recon were running low on water. Someone had to hike out to the stream that was about 500 yards from the perimeter. Since Bravo Company tried to reach the stream several times over the last two days, and each time experienced heavy contact, no one from their unit volunteered to get water. I was wondering what the next step was when suddenly a few of the Recon guys got up and said that they would get the water. Without hesitation or another word the rest of Recon stood up and lined up to leave the perimeter. I wanted to scream out "are you nuts?" There were about 100 guys in Bravo Company and Recon had about twenty men. Since I was the new guy, I had the sense to keep my thoughts to myself. The next thing I knew, we were leaving the perimeter in the direction of the stream. To my amazement we humped to the stream and filled all the canteens we brought with us without getting into a firefight. The general demeanor among the men while at the stream filling the canteens reeked cockiness. I was amazed at the precision that occurred without any talking or noise of any kind. One squad set up on the far side of the steam, another on either flank. The other two squads filled the canteens. My mind again started screaming "why are they not moving faster?" They were acting like they wanted to stick around until the enemy returned. After being in the field with Recon for a few days, I learned two things quickly. One was that moving too fast could cause mistakes. Two if you moved slowly while in a situation that we were experiencing you had a better chance that the enemy would return. You would then have the opportunity of getting even with them for shooting up a few of our men. Duh, they didn't care if they got in a fight. As a matter of fact they were looking for a fight!

As we got close to the perimeter, we called in to let them know we were returning. As we moved close to the edge of the perimeter there was commotion up front. Apparently a few men from Bravo got spooked when they saw some movement outside their perimeter. Although they knew we were coming back in they were not sure that it was us. They had their rifles up and were ready to fire at us when they realized we were not the enemy. A few of our lead guys went nuts and tried to get their hands on these guys but were held back by cooler heads. The next day started a long campaign in the Cu Pong Mountains.

I learned several other things while we supported Bravo Company during that first twenty-four hour period. Most of all, I realized that Recon was as good as advertised. But, that's another story to be told at another time.