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Wow! The reality of the war struck me like a brick up the side of my head. Another radio operator, like me, had just been killed; I was going to replace him.
Day One: Arrival in Nam and Hitching to 1/3 Field Headquarters…"This was nothing like I had expected"
After a long flight from Okinawa, we landed in Da Nang on April 28, 1968. It was hot and dry, over 100 degrees. I picked up my seabag and was loaded onto a large, open truck for a short drive to the main processing center. Everyone I saw was wearing the standard jungle fatigues and jungle boots; their uniforms looked faded, old and dirty. Compared to them, I looked like a shiny new penny. Within a week, that would all change dramatically.
I was to report to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division in Quang Tri, wherever that was. I later learned it was the area closest to North Vietnam, along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I realized the significance of that soon enough. It hardly seemed like a war zone here. Yep, maybe my tour of duty in Vietnam wouldn't be so bad after all, except for the heat.
I was sent back to the airport to board a plane for Quang Tri. I hoped to get a window seat, but all I saw was a C-130 cargo plane. There were no seats and, about 100 of us simply sat in rows on the metal floor. The noise was almost deafening.
We landed in 30 minutes in Dong Ha and were herded to a plywood terminal surrounded by sandbag bunkers. I was told to go out to the road and hitchhike south to Quang Tri. This was nothing like I had expected. Looking east, I saw smoke and red dust rising above the trees. I had to ask someone what it was that I was seeing. It was artillery shells impacting several miles away. In training and drills, I had fired all kinds of weapons, been on all kinds of maneuvers and patrols; but no one had ever mentioned artillery, or any kind of large, crew-served enemy weapons such as rockets and mortars.
"Geez, do the North Vietnamese have such weapons?" I wondered.
I thought the "veterans" standing around looked old for young kids—dirty, tired and battle worn. Their uniforms were faded and grungy. Their boots looked like they had walked a thousand miles in them. "Can you tell me how to get to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment in Quang Tri?" I asked one of them.
"Yeah man, ya wait for a truck or something to come along and ya catch yourself a ride south. Tell the dude to let ya off at Quang Tri base. That's where 1/3 is, man."
A convoy of big trucks and jeeps came by soon enough, and I stuck out my thumb. A truck stopped.
"Where ya headed, man?" the driver asked.
"Quang Tri Base," I replied.
We passed civilians wearing the traditional black pajamas, sandals and those funny straw hats that looked like a large, wide cone. This was the attire of the peasants and farmers. It was also the common uniform of the Viet Cong. I wondered if some of these civilians were Viet Cong? I hoped not—I hadn't even been issued a weapon yet.
The small villages were home to a simple society, and I had to wonder just why these people needed defending. Could communism possibly impact these people in any manner that would pose a threat to the United States? Already I was beginning to search for reasons to be here, justification for the war.
After about 30 minutes, the driver shouted, "Quang Tri, man!" I threw my bag over my shoulder and was directed to a tent with a sign that said, "H & S Company, 1st Bn. 3rd Marines." I handed my personnel records and orders to a man sitting at a makeshift desk.
"Lance Corporal Hunt, welcome to 1/3, man. I'll get ya checked in; then you need to go to supply and pick up your equipment. You'll leave your bag there. It'll get stored until your tour of duty is up. You'll be assigned to H & S Company for now. Any questions?"
"Yes sir," I said. "Where is the supply tent?"
"Come on man, ya know the drill, I ain't no officer, I work for a living. Go out the door, turn right, third tent on your right."
At the supply tent, another Marine looked at my orders. "Lance Corporal Hunt, 2533 huh? Great, we just had a radio operator killed yesterday, they'll be glad to see you!"
Wow! The reality of the war struck me like a brick up the side of my head. I was a "2533," radio and telegraph operator. Another radio operator, like me, had just been killed; I was going to replace him.
I was issued my combat gear: jungle fatigues, jungle boots, OD green T-shirt and skivvies, a jungle hat, helmet, four canteens, web belt, medical bandage, gas mask, an M-16 with two bandoliers of ammunition and three hand grenades. I headed outside to find my new sleeping quarters and get settled. I found a tent with about a dozen other Marines in it, relieved to see that I wasn't the only FNG (fucking new guy) here. I dropped my gear, introduced myself (as if somebody really cared) and tried to find out what was going on.
Our unit was in a firefight in the village of Dai Do along Song Bo Dieu, a branch of the Cua Viet River. One company had been overrun, and other units were involved in the fight. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) wanted to control the river so it could then move in and take Dong Ha and eventually move on Quang Tri, the provincial capital.
This was a major battle, and we were outnumbered by the 320th NVA Division. I kept thinking about the dead radioman I was replacing. I recalled what they said in radio school: The life expectancy of a radio operator in a firefight is 15 seconds. That big antenna sticking high in the air was a dead giveaway, like a big arrow pointing downward saying, "Here I am, shoot me!"
The next day, April 29, three of us were told to go back to the road and hitchhike to the bridge over the Song Do Dieu, where Routes 9 and 1 intersect, and catch a Navy boat to 1/3 field headquarters at Thon Lap Thach village. We were told we wouldn't be coming back for a good while. I was surprised that no other experienced Marine would be with us to tell us what to do and when to do it. We were totally on our own.
At the dock, we waited and waited for the Navy boat—and not without some excitement. In the early afternoon, small-arms fire from a tree line on the opposite side of the river broke out, and we scrambled to a nearby bunker. Some of the more seasoned guys at the dock laughed it off and made some comment about "Charlie" being a poor shot. Later a mortar slammed into a track vehicle about 50 meters away. I dove for the ground and covered my head with my hands, as if that would protect me.
I had survived my first encounter with real enemy fire. This was just my first couple of days in Vietnam. How was I ever going to survive 13 months of this?
As the day drew to an end, and no boat arrived, we decided to catch a ride back to battalion headquarters, where no one seemed surprised to see us.
Day Three: Getting the Hang of Being a One Four Man, Part of Tactical Air Control …"I Felt Proud"
The next day, the gunnery sergeant ordered us back to the dock, where I was astonished to see a 10-foot "john boat" with a small gas motor, skippered by a long-haired Marine in a camouflage jungle hat, waiting for us.
"Listen up!" he shouted. "Unstrap your helmets and lock and load your weapon. If the boat capsizes, get rid of your helmet immediately; the weight of the damn thing will drown you. But hang on to your weapon, you just might need it. Swim to the southern shore because Charlie is on the north shore. Any questions?"
"Yeah, which is the southern shore?" I asked.
"It's on your right as we head down river. Mount up!"
The helmet will drown me, swim to the southern shore, Charlie's on the north shore (and who is Charlie anyway?). This doesn't sound good.
I unstrapped my helmet and put a fully loaded magazine into my new M-16. It seemed strange to chamber a round and click the safety off. The only time I had ever done that before was on a supervised firing range.
We zigzagged down river for 15 minutes, the small motor racing at full speed. I crouched low in the boat, feeling like a mouse being sent into a cage full of lions.
As we slowed along the southern shore, I could see a village through the woods ahead, some bamboo hooches and a small stone pagoda. As several men ran out to help us off the boat, bullets began flying by my head, and I heard the distinct crack of AK-47s. A Marine motioned me to grab his hand so he could pull me out of the boat, but in an instant I saw him jerk backwards and realized he had been hit. I sprang from the boat and ran toward the village, bullets kicking up dirt all around me.
"Corpsman up, corpsman up!" a Marine shouted.
I reached the pagoda and dived behind it. The others followed, dragging the bleeding and unconscious Marine to safety. The corpsman ran to his side, and I sat frozen watching the "doc" do his job. He was no older than me, but he displayed the skills of an educated doctor. The bullet had only grazed the Marine's helmet, not penetrated it. The steel pot had saved his life, and I was relieved to know that some of this heavy equipment really did work.
"One four man up!" the corpsman shouted.
Another Marine ran to the injured man's side, a radio operator.
"I need a routine medevac, I've gotta get this man to an aid station."
"Candy Tuff one four, this is Bravo one four, over."
"Bravo, Candy Tuff, over."
"Roger, I need a routine medevac, over."
"Roger, routine medevac, out."
Now that was more like the teamwork I had been taught back in infantry training. Both men clearly knew what they were doing, no officers or noncoms telling them what to do. I was impressed.
A few minutes later a mechanized vehicle with a 50-caliber machine gun rolled up to carry us to the battalion field headquarters. I reported for duty and was sent to the communications (commo) section, which consisted of several radio operators and a few officers. The air liaison officer told me that I would be a part of the tactical air control (TAC) party. A sergeant named Ralph Gordon would train me to be a "one four man."
I had heard that term earlier. It was what the doc had called the radio operator. The one four man had radioed for a medevac chopper to get the injured Marine flown out to an aid station. So that's what I would be doing here.
Tactical air control was a vital support function in the Marine line company. It was the one four man who brought in the medevac and resupply choppers, and who controlled the airstrikes with the aid of an aerial observer (AO). The one four man was responsible for telling the AO where the lead friendly elements were and where the enemy was. This required him to be close to those elements and to have radio communications with them.
The one four man had to know the different types of ordnance used by the fixed-wing aircraft that flew support, as well as the ordnance carried by the UH-1 or Huey helicopters and gunships. He had to know the bursting radius of these ordnances and had to decide which was best suited for the particular combat situation. It had to be effective on the enemy without causing harm to friendlies. This was a lot of responsibility for a young Marine. I felt proud.
The one four man carried a sidearm, usually a .45 pistol, but his real weapon was his radio, the PRC-25. It could transmit and receive up to 21 miles, depending on which antenna was hooked up, either a 3-foot tape antenna or the whip antenna, which could unfold to a maximum length of 15 feet.
Gordon assured me that he would stay with me until he felt that I knew enough about the one four man job to take over on my own.
That night, I stood radio watch and was told to write down everything that came across several radios monitoring the company traffic from the 2/4 Marines. North of the river, 2/4 had been in heavy contact with a large NVA force at Dai Do. The enemy objective was Dong Ha. If they succeeded, the entire I Corps and Quang Tri would be in jeopardy.
Being new in-country, the transmissions about probing of the company's lines, listening posts seeing figures in the dark, and an ambush springing its trap on an unsuspecting enemy squad made little sense to me. I was glad it wasn't me at the other end of those radios. It seemed pretty serious to me, so when the new radio operator came to relieve me in the early morning I carefully briefed him. He shrugged and said, "Yeah man, so what else is new?"
Day Seven: Seeing Death, Phantoms and Napalm…"I was suddenly overcome with despair"
On May 4, we moved out to Dai Do to relieve 2/4, which had been sent to investigate reports of enemy activity in and around the village. The NVA had built fortified bunkers and tunnels throughout Dai Do and along strategic hedgerows. When the Marines entered the village, the NVA sprang an ambush.
Amtraks ferried us across the Song Bo Dieu, and we formed a single file to move across a barren rice paddy, about 1,000 meters of open terrain before reaching the village's hedgerows and trees.
When I finally entered the village, death was everywhere—dead Marines, North Vietnamese, animals. I was suddenly overcome with despair, thinking I would never see my own home again. My feelings about the war and our involvement in this conflict became feelings of indifference; my conviction became simply one of survival. Nothing else mattered.
Moving deeper into the village, we came upon a ditch and found 28 dead Marines. Men were dragging them out, placing them in body bags to be evacuated and shipped back home.
Shortly, our column stopped and an aerial observer appeared overhead. Gordon explained it was a Cessna O-1, or Bird Dog, flying recon. The Bird Dog could fly slow enough so the pilot could spot enemy positions, and then he would radio the one four man and ask what type of ordnance might be allowable based on the location of friendly ground troops.
Soon, F-4 Phantoms were circling overhead. The AO fired a white phosphorous rocket (Willie Pete) into the village far ahead of us to mark a target. The first F-4 dropped a couple of large, silvery canisters of napalm that exploded in two huge balls of fire. A second jet swooped in, dropping six bombs, followed by six tremendous explosions. Gordon explained that the napalm caused the "gooks to get up and run" from the fireball, and then the second jet would drop the 250-pound bombs while the "gooks were in the open, killing them all."
After the airstrike, we moved out again. We came across a captain and a gunnery sergeant, tied up in trees, shot in the back of their heads. Their company overrun, these men had been taken prisoner, probably tortured and then murdered.
We soon reached the cratered area where the napalm and bombs had been dropped. Large globs of the burnt napalm lay around the ground, stuck to shattered trees. Debris was everywhere. This would be our command post (CP) for the night. As everyone started digging foxholes, it dawned on me that I had never been trained in how to dig a proper one with an entrenching tool. Exhausted, hot and inexperienced, I dug a shallow hole and called it a day. I soon drifted off to sleep.
I don't know what time it was when the shelling started, but I scrambled to my foxhole and found that my body would not fit into it. I curled up into a fetal position trying to squeeze in. I saw a flash in the northern sky like lightning, and seconds later I heard a very distinctive pop. A 130-millimeter artillery piece was firing a round directly at us from the DMZ. About 15 seconds later, came the screaming freight train sound of the incoming and then the thundering explosion nearby.
Day Eight: Unexpected Adrenaline…"This was it, real combat, nothing like the movies"
The next morning, we continued our sweep through Dai Do. It appeared that the NVA had left, but I assumed they were probably still close by. A new perimeter was formed and we dug in for the night. I quickly began work digging a bigger foxhole.
Shortly after dark, the northern sky lit up for an instant, and I heard the gun pop. I grabbed my radio and jumped into my foxhole. Seconds later another Marine jumped into the hole with me. The freight train sound of an incoming round roared overhead.
"I'm not getting out of this hole," the Marine said.
"Neither am I," I replied.
My radio suddenly came alive: "Candy Tuff one four, this is Blue Devil one four. I have a weather report for you, over." I couldn't believe it. We were in the middle of an artillery attack, and the regimental one four man was trying to give me a weather report. "Candy Tuff one four, this is Blue Devil one four. High temperature, 130, winds from the south, sunny with zero percent chance of rain."
"Roger, out," I replied as another round exploded inside our lines.
"Candy Tuff one four, do you copy, over?"
"I said roger, out." Radio procedure was one thing I did learn in radio/telegraph school. Gradually the incoming ceased, and I drifted off to sleep.
When day broke and the other Marine crawled stiffly out of the foxhole, I was surprised to see that it was the battalion XO, a major. He hurried off to talk to the battalion commander, Colonel Jarvas.
After a quick breakfast of C-rations, I was told that the line company, Bravo, would be moving out heading east to an adjacent village. Only the battalion CP was staying behind with the 81-mortar crew, officers and a few enlisted men. That meant that we had no one protecting us now.
Gordon took over radio watch and I just hung around. About midmorning an aerial observer came on station, and Gordon turned the radio over to me. Because the Bravo Company one four man was controlling the situation, I was just monitoring the traffic.
Bravo Company approached the village cautiously and was about 30 meters away when the NVA unleashed a ferocious ambush from behind a hedgerow. The Marines had only a few low paddy dykes as protection against the wall of bullets shredding their ranks. Mortar rounds were rapidly inflicting heavy casualties.
My radio crackled: "Candy Tuff one four, this is Bulldozer X-ray, put your six on the line, over….Candy Tuff one four, do you copy, over."
The aerial observer was calling me. Why is he calling me? Where's Gordon? What do I do?
He was shouting now, "Candy Tuff one four, get your six now!" I didn't understand what he meant by "get your six," but the urgency in his voice was causing my adrenaline to rush. With explosions and small-arms fire, the situation was deteriorating rapidly. "Sir, I don't understand, I'm new in-country, over."
"Put the colonel on the radio, son, now!"
"Roger, wait one." I replied.
I ran to the colonel and handed him the receiver. "Sir, the AO wants to speak to you."
"Six, this is Bulldozer X-ray, get your people back now. You're in imminent danger of being overrun. I've got waves of gooks coming from the back of the village charging forward toward your lines!"
Colonel Jarvas turned and said: "Marine, get on line now and shoot anything that moves. Pass the word to every available man to get on line and shoot anything that moves."
Suddenly we were in a desperate situation. Bravo Company was pinned down in the middle of the rice paddy and could be overrun by attacking NVA at any minute, leaving no one between the enemy and us. I moved to a bomb crater and took up my firing position, locking and loading a round into my M-16 and flipping the safety switch off. I took several grenades from my shoulder belt and placed them on the ground in front of me.
I had only been in-country a few days and had never even fired my weapon. Would it even work?
I had qualified in boot camp as a rifle sharpshooter, but I had never fired my weapon at another human being. I could see people moving far in the distance, but they were just specks, indiscernible as friend or enemy. My job was a radio operator, not a grunt. I was certain that this would be my last day on earth.
Choppers soon appeared overhead along with F-4s. The AO was working with the Bravo one four man to drop snake and nape on the village. "Bulldozer X-ray, use a run in heading of zero five zero, over."
The Bravo one four man was telling the aerial observer to have the jets follow a heading of zero five zero when they dropped their bombs. You always wanted the fixed wing to approach the target parallel to your troops so that if the bombs overshot the target, they wouldn't be dropped on your own men.
Moments later the jets came screaming down at over 250 miles per hour and unleashed the napalm and bombs, giving the pinned-down Marines a chance to pull back as the North Vietnamese scrambled to shelter.
The Bravo one four man had executed a coordinated maneuver. Just after the napalm and bombs exploded, the choppers descended into the paddy to drop reinforcements and take out the dead and wounded.
Now a pair of Huey gunships appeared overhead.
"Bulldozer X-ray, this is Whiskey Delta. What have you got for us, over?"
"Ah, roger, Whiskey Delta, we've got gooks in the open, marking the target now. Run in zero five zero. Use everything you've got."
The AO fired his Willy Pete, which exploded in a cloud of white inside the village. In an instant, the two Hueys approached. The first chopper unleashed a volley of 60mm rockets as all six of his M-60 machine guns fired continuously. I was witnessing a ferocious battle 1,000 meters in front of me, coordinated by the Bravo one four man just as a conductor would conduct an orchestra, in unison, with precision.
While the choppers were making their attacks, our mortar crew continued to fire mortars into the forward lines of the enemy. I was amazed at the amount of firepower we were putting into the village.
We were getting the upper hand as another company was dropped in to aid Bravo in the rice paddy and the gunships continued to circle the village and attack in a coordinated manner.
Then, without warning, the entrenched NVA moved from their positions and began a daring counterattack into the paddy, where the Marines had formed a firing line behind the dikes. As waves of NVA poured out of the village to overrun the Marines, I tightened my grip on my M-16 and took aim in the field in front of me. Adrenaline raced through my body as the fear of dying almost overwhelmed me. This was it, real combat, nothing like the movies.
It looked like mass confusion in front of me. Hueys strafing the NVA with machine gun fire and rockets; hand grenades exploding in the middle of the NVA attackers; Marines pouring fire into the onrushing enemy. The counterattack quickly faltered, and the enemy turned back into the cover of the village. Once again, death covered the ground.
"One four man up!" The 81-mortar crew had run out of ammunition, and I was being summoned to call in resupply choppers. We needed to get mortars, ammo, water and other supplies in, and get the dead and wounded Marines out.
Gordon told me what to do, and I radioed the regiment for the supplies and medevacs. Then Gordon took over radio watch, and I went back to my foxhole. I decided to dig it a little bit deeper, just to play it safe. Gordon brought in more resupply choppers to a landing zone (LZ) to the west, and the dead and the wounded were taken aboard.
The rest of the day, artillery and air power pummeled the village. The artillery FOs and Bravo Company one four man did their jobs. By dusk, the village lay in complete ruin.
The Marines in the rice paddy pulled back to Dai Do just before dark, forming a tight perimeter around the CP. I met the Bravo one four man, a lance corporal, who had done such a magnificent job that day coordinating the air attacks and airlift of reinforcements.
Week's End: Reviewing the Battle …"It was the best job training I could get"
As the day ended, we sat around cooking C rations and talked about the fight. I had only been an observer but I had witnessed the use of coordinated air and ground fire against a well-entrenched enemy. I had listened to the radio exchanges between the ground one four man and the supporting aircraft. It was the best job training I could get, sitting 1,000 meters away from all the action yet able to see and hear everything first hand.
All night long, Dai Do was bombarded with artillery fire of all sizes, making sleep nearly impossible. I also feared a counterattack, but none came.
The next day, we moved across the rice paddy to the village. The enemy had fled during the night, pulling back to the DMZ, about 12 miles away.
The scene in the abandoned village was now a familiar one to me, but thankfully this time there were no dead Marines.
For now at least, the worst was over, and so was my first week in Vietnam.
* Adapted from Robert E. Hunt's book, One Four Man Up, Infinity Publishing, February 2009, available at www.HistoryNet Shop.com
Robert E. Hunt completed his tour as a radioman in Vietnam in May 1969.
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