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Death on the Airwaves

By Ben G. Crosby
12/5/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

In the face of a human wave attack, an isolated unit’s survival hung on the courage of its radio operators.

The heat reflecting off sandbags shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight. It was only the 20th of March. Wondering how hot it would be in August, I pulled aside the canvas flap and stepped back into the tactical operations center (TOC) after a brief respite from the unrelenting squawk of military radios. Inside, my eyes took a few moments to adjust to the low light—but there was no time. Unknown to me, a battle was about to start.

This fight in 1967 was a continuation of an earlier battle against the NVA’s 66th Regiment, which had recently been reinforced by soldiers from just across the Cambodian border. The 66th sent one battalion, about 250 strong, in an all-out effort to destroy a company of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry (2-35). The enemy intended this to be the last stand for the 120 men of Charlie Company.

Proximity to the Cambodian border made this location an infiltration route into the Central Highlands, a key area that both sides wanted to control. The Ho Chi Minh Trail tracked along inside the border to the NVA’s Base Area 702, an enemy safe zone.

According to plans drawn up by battalion commander Lt. Col. Clinton E. Granger Jr. and myself (the battalion operations officer), Companies A and C would leave their night locations and search toward Cambodia. Once we found the enemy, we would fix him in place using indirect fire and maneuver— either air or ground assault. Ground maneuver in this jungle was by foot; there were no carriers that could operate here. We also needed a large landing zone that could accept several helicopters simultaneously, but large LZs were rare finds. Thus the terrain worked to neutralize what would have been our significant advantage over the North Vietnamese—speed of maneuver. As it happened, maneuver was even more limited than we knew. We were in the middle of an enemy haven.

Some time after 1500 hours, Company C spotted two enemy soldiers running along a well-used trail. Charlie Company fired, but the NVA ducked into the undergrowth and disappeared. Little did we know, a regiment of several hundred North Vietnamese occupying concealed positions had just been alerted. Charlie Company’s commander, Captain Ronald B. “Rick” Rykowski, now faced a determined enemy in difficult terrain. He had no idea what a formidable force he and his men would soon encounter.

The rest of us were equally unaware. The entire NVA 66th Regiment was poised to strike. Moving from concealed positions, one enemy battalion was ordered to attack the rifle company with a human wave assault and kill everyone.

Meanwhile, Master Sgt. David Butters, the battalion operations sergeant, monitored radios with me in the TOC. The bunkered enclosure, slightly larger than a jail cell, served as an office for the six men shoehorned inside. On its walls hung color-coded maps that displayed the hieroglyphics used to post locations of maneuver elements and the enemy, if known. Outside, the TOC was covered with sandbags a foot thick.

The temperature inside the bunker soared from the heat generated by our powerful military radios. Stifling hardly began to describe it—and the constant tension didn’t help either. Jungle fatigues became soaked with sweat. A polecat could have passed through undetected. Above the maps hung two light bulbs, which, together with the radios, used all the power from the portable generator. Whenever it coughed, the lights flickered. If the generator failed, flashlights were our only choice.

Besides battalion headquarters, heavy artillery and its logistical tail were all crowded together atop this barren ridge only a few miles from the Cambodian border. This complex was called Fire Support Base Dragon.

Butters, an experienced operations sergeant, had finely honed the radio operators’ skills. He smoothed their feathers when they became ruffled in the pressure cooker of the TOC. A single mistaken location could lead to a disaster—wounded or killed Americans. Butters relentlessly coached each member of the operations center team. The operations map hung closest to the radios. Next to it was the intelligence map where enemy locations were maintained. The artillery map displayed numbers and codes that identified prefired concentrations. Without close coordination of air and artillery, friendly fire could land on the rifle companies. Precision was imperative.

Suddenly, we heard heavy automatic weapons fire during a radio transmission. It crackled like rapid-fire lightning bolts. A report of a wounded soldier with a request for a Dustoff blasted out of the speaker. “Cougar Six-Five, this is Charlie One-Niner-Sierra. We got a Whiskey-India-Alpha [WIA—wounded in action] and need Dustoff ASAP, over.”

The TOC replied: “This is Six-Five, roger. Are you secure? Where’s your Lima Zulu [LZ]? Go ahead.”

“One-Niner-Sierra, negative! We’re under heavy contact! No way to get to a Lima Zulu. But we’ll need Dustoff ASAP, over.”

The noise of battle, thuds of enemy mortar rounds, cracks of high-speed bullets and screams of pain came with each transmission. Wide-eyed stares swept from radio operator to operations sergeant and back. We listened but were powerless to do anything.

Butters grabbed the mike. “Six-Five, roger. We’ll do what we can. Are you calling in artillery? Over.”

The next transmission left more questions than it answered, “One-Niner-Sierra, yes, but I’ve got to put the radio down now and shoot…”

Butters called again: “One-Niner-Sierra, Are you there? Over.”

There was no reply.

The operations sergeant transmitted again: “One-Niner-Sierra, this is Cougar Six-Five, are you there? Over.”

Still no reply. In his personal journal, Master Sgt. Butters wrote:

“The 1st Platoon RTO, One-Niner-Sierra, continually updated Captain Rykowski on the contact. Then the NVA human wave assault began. I could hear the enemy AK fire very clearly. One-Niner-Sierra calmly said ‘I’ve got to put the radio down now and shoot.’With his mike still open, I heard the AK fire. One-Niner-Sierra was silent. I don’t remember his name, only his call sign and the distinct way he pronounced the word ‘Sierra’ with an exaggerated upward inflection on the ‘e’. Somewhere on the list of the KIAs of Charlie Company, March 20, 1967, is this young man’s name.”

A burst of enemy fire had struck One-Niner-Sierra, killing him. He was Corporal Dennis B. Stockwell, from Sioux Falls, S.D.

Butters requested a Dustoff helicopter with a hoist. Disgustedly, he mumbled, “Oh, shit, we’re into it again!” My thoughts searched for answers. There were none. As military men know, no battle plan, however brilliant, survives the first enemy shot. Ours was no different. Time was now an enemy.

The absence of any large LZ offered little hope for reinforcement by helicopter. Single-helicopter LZs would not enable enough soldiers to be airlifted in fast enough to turn the tide in our favor. Trickling in combat power was the worst possible course of action. That would have allowed the enemy to defeat us piecemeal.

Quickly I reviewed the options, and concluded that we had to move Alpha Company. Granger agreed. We also called for all available fire support from artillery and gunships. Granger and I stared at each other, hoping that some miracle would appear. But miracles don’t happen in war. What happens are choices—more often than not, bad ones.

Captain Louie Barcena, veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion and now commander of Company A, replied in his Cuban accent, “Jesus, we’re on the way.” He added an expression or two in Spanish that couldn’t be translated.

Maneuver in a jungle environment was particularly difficult, and Alpha Company was too far away to reach Charlie in time. The ravine-laced jungle slowed movement to a snail’s pace—but the troops forged on toward the sound of the guns. Our only chance would be helicopter gunships, if they could get there in time.

The TOC transmitted appeals for any gunships to support the beleaguered rifle company, while heavy artillery pieces mere yards from our operations center blasted away. Shock waves from the big guns shook the bunker. Our ears rang from the unrelenting racket. Dust kicked up from every sandbag. Radios squawked, RTOs plotted on the maps and Butters double-checked. What else could happen?

Then matters got worse. Rykowski was hit by enemy fire. He was severely wounded and bleeding heavily. After One-Niner-Sierra was killed, Specialist John Mucci from Chelsea, Mass., grabbed the mike to continue communicating. Others were struck down. The artillery forward observer, Lieutenant Emory—the eyes of the big guns—and 1st Lt. Michael G. Sudborough, a rifle platoon leader, were both mortally wounded. Charlie Company was losing leaders. Control slipped away as fast as American blood drained into the jungle floor. Wounded sprawled everywhere. The enemy soldiers charged the weakened rifle company in a human wave attack, racing forward into Charlie’s machine guns. The guns were already smoking, but Charlie’s withering fire cut the assault to ribbons. The enemy regrouped for a second try. Guided by bleeding officers and wounded noncommissioned officers, Charlie Company fought back.

Over the din of the battle, we heard the pleas from Mucci. His requests cut deeply. Rykowski was fading out of consciousness. Firing back at the enemy, Mucci propped up his wounded company commander. Artillery thundered down on the third wave of attackers but it had little effect on the second wave, which was only yards from Charlie’s defensive perimeter. Alpha Company had not linked up. We feared that Charlie Company could not hold out.

Butters screamed for helicopter gunships. Brigade responded that gunships were on the way. Charlie Company was about to be overrun. Inside the TOC there was a foreboding I had never before experienced. Between each transmission and the next hung a heavy silence, punctuated only by the squawk of the radios. Some of us offered silent prayers. Others stared blankly, while sweat dripped from their earphones.

Finally, the gunships arrived. Each armed helicopter came with four machine guns and two multiple rocket launchers. When enemy troops were in close proximity to friendly troops, the gunships fired only machine guns, which were more accurate than rockets. Mucci transmitted locations and gave firing directions to the gunship team leader, and the gunships opened fire with machine guns. Some bullets struck only yards from Charlie Company’s blood-soaked perimeter. Pass after pass, the helicopters rolled in, firing repeatedly at the waves of North Vietnamese. We could hear enemy screams above the staccato music of airborne automatic weapons fire. Trees were stripped of their leaves. At last the assault stopped, and Charlie Company was saved from certain death. A sigh of relief went up in the TOC. The North Vietnamese retreated toward Cambodia but left behind their dead.

Rykowski was getting weaker. I heard his voice trail off as he seemed to be nearing death. Butters said, “If we don’t get a medevac in there now, Rykowski and many of his men will be dead soon.”

To make matters worse, it was getting dark. Granger agreed that I would take the command and control (C&C) helicopter with Captain Jim Lanning, the assistant operations officer, into the battle zone and put him in command of Company C. Using that helicopter, we would evacuate Rykowski to the hospital, where he could be stabilized.

Butters demanded to go, but I ordered him to stay as he was needed to coordinate operations. Colonel Granger agreed that he would remain at the fire support base, as it was unwise to have both senior officers trekking through the jungle.

Shortly before 1900 hours, Lanning, two radio operators, a couple of soldiers and I lifted off from FSB Dragon. Within minutes we located a clearing not far from the battle area, but the helicopter was unable to land. This clearing was just large enough for the C&C to hover. The only way to get down was to jump. We did.

It became eerily quiet after the helicopter pulled away, leaving us to our thoughts. I concentrated on linking up with Charlie Company. The mission was to find it and reestablish a commander. What was the route? From the map, it appeared to be about 500 meters to the company’s position. Five hundred meters in the jungle can be a lifetime. Enemy activity was absent—at least for now. Creeping through tangled “wait-a-minute grass” in the dark, not far from where a major battle had recently been fought, was no stroll down the boardwalk.

The clean smell that floated up from the jungle floor was a welcome relief from the stuffy TOC. Nature, in its stillness, was beautiful. Plants had no way to escape the scene of a battle. The animals had long since departed, but insects remained—especially the pesky mosquitoes. Drenched in Army-issue insect repellent, we were as foul-smelling as fresh road tar. It could repel everything: dogs, cats, mothers, even parish priests. As we moved quietly, only the crunch of our boots disturbed the night.

After the constant artillery bombardment, the eerie silence struck me: no howling monkeys, no screeches that territory had been violated. We bored through 200 meters of jungle, and then came upon a recently used trail heading in the direction that we wanted to go.

As a second lieutenant taking Ranger training, I learned that you never get on a trail, much less one in enemy territory. It’s a sure ticket to an ambush and that’s one event no one wants to attend. After crossing the trail, we entered a bunker complex—unoccupied thank goodness, but with an odor of urine to alert us that the enemy had been there recently. Just then, the jungle hush was broken by sounds of movement coming down that used trail. I thought it might be soldiers from Alpha or Charlie, seeking to lead us to their defensive position. Thinking of the impending link-up, I yelled, “Hey, who’s there?”

The answer was the last thing I wanted to hear. It was in Vietnamese. There was a lot of shouting and scurrying around. Damn! I thought. We hit the ground, with Lanning only a couple feet from me. I said softly, “Hold your fire.”

Everyone clicked his weapon onto full automatic. If attacked, we would take out as many as we could. Even though the jungle air had cooled, sweat gushed down my chest. We were in trouble. A handful of lightly armed Americans, we had made contact with a group of heavily armed North Vietnamese. They were so close we could smell them: the odor of rotten rice. Shivers crept up my spine. The North Vietnamese had been bloodied, but they weren’t dead. If the enemy realized that we were only a few, they could easily overrun us. Getting killed was one thing. Getting captured was another—it was the worst of all fears.

I asked Jim if he had brought any hand grenades. He whispered back, “No.”

Silence reigned as we hid. Some of us begged for divine intervention, offering in exchange promises that would never be kept. My trembling hands cupped the radio mike. In muffled words, I said: “Six-Five, this is Three. Enemy contact. Negative fire.”

The TOC detected that all was not well. “Cougar Three, are you still at the Lima Zulu? Push once for yes and twice for no, over.”

Following a procedure that radio operators used when they could not talk, I pushed twice on the radio microphone’s push-to-talk button. It broke squelch—turned off the rushing sound made by the radio’s speaker back in the TOC—thus answering safely.

“Roger, Three, can you give us a location? Yes or no?”

Two pushes on the mike informed Butters that I didn’t know. Were we close to Charlie? I knew we were only 100 meters or more from the clearing, but other than that I was lost. All the while, enemy soldiers crashed along the jungle trail at a trot. How many I didn’t know, but a lot more than there were of us. My guess is that 50, maybe even 100 of the enemy passed by us. Good God, were we lucky!

After they passed, there was no time to ponder our good luck. We resumed moving northeast in the direction of Charlie Company as quietly as possible.

“Six-Five, this is Three. We’re on the move again. Enemy units headed southwest.”

“Roger, Three. Keep us informed. Do you have the size of that enemy unit?”

“Negative, but a lot of them. They were hauling ass out of here.”

Suddenly, we heard the sound of approaching rotor blades. Some more soldiers were arriving at that same jungle clearing we had just jumped into. From the racket the enemy had made passing by us, we knew that they were heading for Cambodia to lick their wounds. We were thankful, however, to have reinforcements for our link-up with Charlie Company.

We returned to that almost-LZ to learn that Granger and his radio operators had dropped in the same place. After joining up, everyone moved back to the bunker complex. Then the reinforced patrol, now under Granger’s command, headed to the northeast in the direction of Charlie Company. Some troops from Alpha joined up shortly afterward, and we continued toward the night defensive location. Happily, their linkup indicated that the route was mostly secure. Even though they served as guides, it still took about an hour of picking through the undergrowth to get there.

The first Dustoff had arrived in the meantime to evacuate the wounded. We heard the whop-whop-whop of its rotor as it hovered above Charlie Company. Suddenly, there was an explosion—and then dead silence. Horrible news. There was nothing we could do. Before the medevac could get its hoist into use, it had been shot down by an NVA rocket-propelled grenade, killing two of the crew and blinding both pilots. Both enemy soldiers were killed after they exposed their position. The Dustoff’s landing lights had mistakenly been turned on, making it an easy target.

A sweep of the area by Alpha Company cleared the defensive perimeter so we could begin the evacuation with some security. But upon our arrival at the site, we saw that the evacuation would be impossible because the trees were 100 feet high. There was no place a helicopter could land. The only possible way to extract the wounded would have been to winch each soldier up one at a time—a long and tedious process, and dangerous, as the first Dustoff had already been shot down. We simply couldn’t get it done fast enough. Along the route to this position, however, there was a potential LZ—small but usable—about 200 meters away. We moved back to secure this LZ to begin the evacuation.

Between the trees, a vertical tunnel opened to the night sky just large enough for a single UH-1D helicopter to hover in and out. The pilots informed us that the maximum they could lift would be two wounded at a time. The choppers had to hover straight up—levitate—or the rotors would strike the trees.

In order to direct the pilots when they flew into this vertical opening, I stood directly below the Plexiglas bubble. Each Huey hovered down guided by my flashlight and directions over the helicopter’s radio. It was dangerous, but there was no other way. Bright flashes of the emergency strobe light led the pilots to the general area. As they hovered closer, the strobe was turned off. The helicopter door gunners and crew chiefs hung out the rear doors, held by their safety straps, and watched to prevent tail rotors from striking the trees.

The initial flight brought in the battalion surgeon and his medical assistant, and a battalion engineering team armed with chain saws. The medics undertook the difficult task of sorting the horribly wounded from the slightly wounded and the dead. Those slightly wounded would have to wait until first light for evacuation. The severely wounded were lifted out first. The dead would remain until morning.

I talked directly to the pilots as they flew close to this hole in the canopy, “Dustoff Five-Five, this is Cougar Three, over.”

“Five-Five, go ahead.”

“Dustoff, do you see my strobe? Over.”

“Cougar Three, negative but I’m close— should be there in two minutes.”

“Roger that.”

Whenever there was a break between helicopters flying in, the next two wounded were prepared for the flight to the hospital at Pleiku, a round trip of 30 minutes. The surgeon administered blood expander and strapped the soldier to a litter. The sound of approaching rotor blades meant more soldiers could be saved.

“Dustoff Five-Five, I’ve got your strobe.”

“Cougar Three, I hear you coming. Get directly above the strobe and come straight down.”

“Roger, we’re coming down”

“Cougar Three, just go easy, the trees are close.”

“Dustoff Five-Five, I’ve got it. We’re coming down.”

I transmitted instructions to go this way or that to squeeze him down that narrow vertical opening, “Five-Five, come about four feet forward.”

“Roger. Moving forward.”

“Watch my flashlight.”

“Five-Five, we have your light. We’re about 50 feet above you.”

“Keep on coming, you’re looking good. Come to my light.”

Radio communication was difficult. I had to scream over the roar from rotor downwash. Sometimes my flashlight carried the message as I motioned for the helicopter to move forwards or backwards. Only a few short feet spared the tail rotor from the trees. A helicopter crash would mean the seriously wounded might not get medical attention until the next day—probably too late. Everyone close by the LZ cared for the wounded and assisted with their loading. The rest provided security.

“Five-Five, you only got a couple more feet and you’ll have a skid on this tree. Don’t cut power while we load.”

“Roger, Cougar Three.”

A successful landing meant the pilots could rest one of their skids on a fallen tree. Full power was required to keep the Huey steady as soldiers shoved two wounded aboard to be lifted out. My ears still ring when I think of those rotor blades swishing above my head.

“Five-Five, OK, you’re loaded. Pull straight up.”

“OK, Cougar Three, roger. We’re heading to Pleiku as soon as we get some flying room. We’ll be back for the next load, over.”

“Cougar Three, be careful. Go straight up. Watch your tail.”

“Dustoff Five-Five, thanks.”

“Cougar Three, Five-Five, you’re clear. Thanks.”

“Dustoff Five-Five, see you in a few minutes. Out.”

As the chopper faded into the distance, stillness swallowed those of us behind. Stars in the sky stared down silently on the agony below. Just the burp of chainsaws gnawing at trees interrupted the quiet as the engineers worked to enlarge the LZ. Sometimes Lady Luck can help, and we needed a lot from her. Charlie Company had already paid dues to the goddess. It was only fair that she bless us that night. She was there, and she did.

Three hours and 17 sorties were required to evacuate 34 severely wounded soldiers. Rykowski was aboard one of the first helicopters. The rescue operation was a success. None of the men evacuated died from their wounds. Had we not undertaken this risky medical evacuation, many Americans would have died there.

At about 0200, Granger and I flew back to FSB Dragon. There we enjoyed the cacophony of artillery, which usually lifted a person 6 inches in the air whenever they fired. After that harrowing medical evacuation, though, the guns’ sound hardly affected us at all.

The next morning I awoke to find my ankle swollen to double its size. Lacing my jungle boot was impossible. When my foot touched the ground, pain shot up my leg. I slipped the boots on and left one set of laces flying. Later in the command and control helicopter, Granger asked, “What happened?”

“Evidently, it was injured when I jumped out last night, but I just noticed it,” I replied. Adrenalin protected soldiers in battle.

The helicopter landed where we had evacuated the wounded—though the LZ had now been enlarged by the engineers. I limped over to Lanning. There he stood with two grenades dangling from his belt.

I asked Jim half-jokingly, “Did you have those last night?”

He said, “Yup.”

“Why didn’t you give them to me when I asked?”

“Because you would have thrown ’em,” he replied. He was right.

Security was provided by two soldiers while I hobbled over the battle area hoping to learn from this hard-fought engagement. The onerous task of evacuating our dead to the military mortuary had begun. They lay in rank-less rows covered by ponchos until soldiers placed them on helicopters to be lifted away forever. Bullet-riddled trees, their bark shredded, stood as silent witnesses to the ferocity of the previous night’s battle. Other trees lay splintered, shattered among the abandoned bodies on the ground. Only their stumps reached skyward.

The NVA had not moved their dead. The only sound was the buzzing of flies, which infested the battle area, crawling around in every blown-out eye socket, every split-open stomach, every gaping-wide mouth, depositing their eggs. And their buzzing foreshadowed an even more obscene development: Jungle heat turned the eggs into maggots oozing out of every open wound. The odor of rotting human flesh was overwhelming. This killing field will always haunt the memories of the men who fought there. This was Hell.

Postscript: This battle was named by Master Sgt. David Butters as “One-Niner,” in honor of one of the radio telephone operators from Charlie Company. John Mucci fought his final battle with cancer, and died on April 8, 2005, with Rick Rykowski holding his hand. Right after the battle, Spc. 4 Mucci had been transferred to the TOC to work for Butters. Mucci was awarded the nation’s third-highest decoration, the Silver Star, for his heroic actions under intense enemy fire on March 21, 1967.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Ben Crosby, U.S. Army (ret.), earned two Silver Stars and four Bronze Star Medals (two with V Devices) for his service in Vietnam as an infantry officer. He dedicates this article to John Mucci. For additional reading, see: Taking the Offensive, by George L. MacGarrigle; and A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, by James Ebert.

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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