Part 1. Rendezvous at Midnight
The day had been long, hot and just plain miserable. Getting back from a five day operation put a wild desire to get a shower and clean clothes. We had been with Bravo Company of the 3d Battalion, 506th Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division. Our area of operation, A.O., for that operation was south and west of our L.Z., Landing Zone "Betty", about 20 klicks; 20,000 meters, out to the West. Then we were to sweep South and East back toward L.Z. Betty. We had some light activity. For an FNG, freaking new guy it was basically a walk in the park, I thought, until the first round cracked over my gourd. We made contact several times, but as was Charlie's habit, they were night probes and daylight harassment, nothing heavy.
Chuck, however, had a habit of nipping at you. He would kind of lull us into a sense of; "Hey, there's nothing out here. Just a couple of VC out to mess with us". Nothing big at all going on; then WHAM! All hell would break loose! Looking back, I think we had probably reached that point. Then, after five days of boonie scooting, headquarters ordered us out. We had C.A'd, Combat Assaulted, into the insert L.Z. in Hueys, UH-1 helicopters. Now we were to pull a patrol back to LZ Betty. That little stroll took another day, almost two. So now we were back and ready for a kinda'-hot shower and some kinda'-hot chow.
As Mouse and me walked back from the shower point, we were feeling pretty good about our little op. Not on top of the world, but still pretty good. We were still walking and talking. On the way back to the hooch, a GP Medium Tent, our Lieutenant called us over and gave us the good news. We were to go back to the hooch and put our dirty field gear back on and get ready to go back out. Next, at 2300 hours, 11 P.M., we would meet up with our next unit. Without saying much, we were not exactly happy about going back out so soon. Little did we know.
Let me tell you about Mouse. His name was Allen D. Owens and he was my Sergeant. The cool thing about Mouse was his height. He was the first Marine to be allowed to join under five feet. He topped out at 4 feet and 11 inches, but that wasn't a handicap for sgt Owens. He had a chest like a barrel, used to run sometimes and did exercise when he thought he needed it or just wanted to. When he did the exercise and run thing, we, of course, would accompany him. He used to tell us he was height challenged, not brain dead. I was a Lance Corporal and had been in country since October. I'd been out on some support missions, seen some action but not real unit support. We saw some action during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year at the end of January. That was when two other members of the Nha Trang Team were sent to other teams. I was sent to Team 2-7 to really start pulling my weight. Sgt. Owens had come over when the Marines landed at Danang back in'65. This was April of '68. Mouse, was just the guy to learn from; and I did.
We got to the chow hall a bit before 2300. We looked around and didn't see anybody. It was then we heard the voices coming from behind the chow hall in the area where we washed out eating trays and utensils. We didn't always use a mess kit in the rear. We went over and had just stepped into a very low light when their Sergeant First Class stopped us, asked what the hell we were doing there. Mouse spoke up, with a command air and told them we were their Naval Gunfire Support. I was a bit unnerved by our reception, but now we were somebody and human again.
After a short brief, Mouse came back over and relayed our duties. We were attached to a LRRP Team. A Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol Team. Where we were going, there would be no support for at least 30 to 40 minutes. We were the only support available from the time we went in until the next day about 1400. We were all that stood between us and Charlie if, or when, the fecal matter intersected with the oscillating rotator. In other words we were the last support and the only support until the next day.
The first thing Mouse told me to do was check for anything that rattled. If it did, tape it up, down, sideways or any way I could to kill the noise. That's when I got really curious and anxious. I asked him what the mission was and he said we would be briefed with everyone at 0100. I kept shaking and taping until Mouse told me to go over to the smoke pipe on the immersion heater and shove my hand and arm down in it as far as I could. Following orders, like any young buck, I did exactly as he said. I put my hand and arm down that smoke stack all the way up to my arm pit. It was smelly, grimey, oily and full of soot. I walked back over to Mouse and he grinned. He actually had a pretty good since of humor, sometimes. I looked at him and asked, what now Sgt Owens. Still smiling he said, now rub your hand and arm all over your face and other hand and arm. Make sure you rub that stuff all over your neck and under your chin, no uncovered spots to stick out. Doing as I was told, I was slimeing myself all over with that stinky crap. I felt like a real prize winner for a hog calling. We finished and we waited. So often one hears the expression 'hurry up and wait'. And that was what we did.
For a while we felt like mushrooms... kept in the dark and fed on manure.
Part 2. Boat Ride in the Dark
Sergeant Owens checked us over again for rattles and clanks... and again. Sgt Owens, aren't we rattle-free yet? Never hurts to double and triple check he said. Sound travels a long way at night, especially if it's out of place. Then we both proceeded to check out how our gear was wrapped and packed. We still didn't know what time or where we were going. We were basically making busy or anxious work. I knew I was a completely blacked out Marine with all of that soot and greasy junk all over me. Some might say camouflaged but there was no green, brown or other black colors being put on. My brain started picturing and wandering. Must be really important to do things the way we're doing them. All of us were completely covered. I didn't know why exactly, but I did know the mess sergeant was gonna be happy with his cleaned up immersion burners. These immersion burners were set on the side of a 50 gallon garbage can. The can was then filled with water about six inches from the top edge. Then the burners were lit and the water was heated. Usually there were three or four of the rigs in a row. Here they had two rows of cans. This let the troops go through and wash their mess kits, cups and trays quicker. When my mind began to settle into mission mode, I really started checking everything waiting for 0100 to get there.
Mouse was just adding this as another mission to write about in his notebook. We asked each other questions to recheck. It would not do to get caught out where-ever without batteries for the radios; extra hand set, the flex antennae and the whip antennae with their kit bag attached to our packs. I had one kit bag with all the radio gear and he had one. I carried the radio and Mouse carried the extra batteries, 4 of them.
So far, so good. I had four canteens on my ruck sack. We were using ruck sacks procured from the Army supply system. They were a lot bigger than a haversack and knapsack rig. Four canteens and two half gallon bladders on my ruck, two on my cartridge belt; 4 magazine pouches with 2 taped grenades on two of the pouches. We had put a small piece of tape on the grenade spoon just in case it was dropped or got loose. Sometimes, rarely, but still we err on the side of being safe, something might catch the grenade pin and pull it out. Without that tape we would be up the fecal creek. Each mag pouch had 4 magazines with 18 rounds. We had not been blessed with the 30 round magazines yet. Until that time, I carried a rig of 2 magazines taped together. When the first mag ran dry, I dropped it, flipped it around and popped in the other magazine. In our rucks we carried 2 or 3 bandoleers of extra ammo. Each bandoleer had 4 or 6 pockets. Each pocket held two stripper clips with 10 rounds. Rats, C-rations, I stuffed in boot socks in the order I thought I'd eat them, enough for 5 days. Poncho and a camy shelter half to use as a blanket or for a shelter. T.P. was a necessity, and just a few other needed items. We knew the general area we would be going in but had not been issued maps. Those we would get at 0100. We had masking tape and sheets of plastic we got from the 105 millimeter Howitzer ammo cases to water proof our maps. We also had some for water proofing our rucks and gear. Especially important was to make sure the radio and batteries were kept dry. If it wasn't needed, we didn't haul it.
The Lurp (LRRP) SFC finally called us all together. I had dozed a bit and kind of jumped when Mouse slapped my helmet. The Sergeant gave out the maps. Then he gave us a center point, grid "X", with an "N" number click radius and 10 navigation grids. He also gave us the grid where we would be inserted. He told us to orient our maps to that grid. I plotted it, stared at it, looked at Mouse and he looked at me. Point "X" was about 19 clicks from the point where we'd be inserted. We figured they would brief us pretty soon. We had reached 0100 and it was now 0100 + (plus) 20 mikes (minutes). This op had started and we still had no word. Mouse told me to start setting the map up with the center point, point "X", the insert grid and the navigation grids. Navigation grids are points selected by the Operations Officer and the commanders who would be in the TAO (Tactical Area of Operations). They're used to give locations over the radio without encrypting the actual grids. The points are given names such as, in this case, makes of automobiles. We had used a lot of these navigation points. Some had been cities and some states, but they were always separate. It was one group and never mixed with another group. The "KISS" principle always applied. If the center point was used, it was always, for this operation, referred to as "X".
Point "X" for us was the center of the TAO for posting an 'Air Hazard'. Some places they called it a 'Save-A-Plane'. What it did was make a big circle to tell choppers and planes that from point "X", there was a radius of "N" meters, there were missions being fired and to keep their aircraft out. Resupply birds and gunships knew where we all were so they didn't have a problem. When we fired a Naval Gunfire Mission the target coordinates, grid(s), were given in the open. The navigation points named after makes of cars were never used. Charlie could read a map, too. To use a car make, say Cadillac, we would pass it this way: "You this is me, over." "Go you." "My poz (position); from Cadillac: right, 4.2; up, 3.5; over." Put simply it meant that "me" was 4200 meters right , and 3500 meters up from point Cadillac. Left and Right was West and East, respectively. Up and Down, North and South, respectively. These were for the maneuvering elements (in this case it was the companies of troops and the LRRP unit) using the navigation points. We passed our positions to our NGF Officer and team members using these grids also.
About 0230 we were all ready and were called in with the LRRP unit for the final brief. We were to be transported by 2 Vietnamese Navy Junks to the insertion point. Next we would offload, walk, float or swim to the beach. That was the first part of the initial mission. The second part was to move those 19 clicks to secure and set up an LZ (landing zone). An area large enough for Alpha and Bravo companies to do a CA (combat assault). The LRRP's had members who were Pathfinders and would prepare the area for the assault. This had to be done by 1500 hours. After the CA, Sgt Owens and me would leave the LRRP's and join up with Bravo to support them during the operation. This was the third part of the operation for us.