Long after the fact, a commander learns that his battlefield intuition deep in a Vietnam jungle was right—and saved many lives.
When experienced combat commanders say that something “doesn’t pass the smell test,” they usually know what they are talking about—and if their bosses are smart, they’ll listen up. Call it a gut feeling, intuition, vague suspicion, hunch or educated guess, if it comes from a soldier who’s been steeled in combat—against any enemy in any war—it can mean the difference between life and death, disaster and success. Those involved may never know whether they actually dodged a bullet; such is the nature of war. My own experience in the jungle of Vietnam drove this point home for me in a very big way.
From February to July of 1966, I was a major assigned as the senior American adviser to a task force of the Vietnamese Airborne Division. In late July, I was reassigned to command the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry—the Wolfhounds—of the 25th Infantry Division. From November 3 to 5, the Wolf hounds engaged and defeated a hardcore Viet Cong (VC) regiment reinforced with a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion during Operation Attleboro. In the fierce combat, we suffered more than 50 casualties, including a company commander and first sergeant killed and several platoon leaders, platoon sergeants and other key leaders killed or wounded.
After almost three days of continuous battle, the battalion was relieved late on the evening of November 5 by a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division and airlifted to the base camp of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade at Tay Ninh. On the afternoon of November 9, as we were enjoying hot meals three times a day courtesy of the 196th, we received a warning order to conduct a ground bomb damage assessment (BDA) following a Boeing B-52 strike scheduled for 0600 hours the following day, in the eastern sector of War Zone C. The purpose of this strike was to destroy a major VC base camp, which we were assured had been confirmed—by an undoubtedly overworked intelligence officer located somewhere near the center of downtown Saigon. This suspected camp was believed located along a stretch of about 1,000 meters of the Prek Klok Stream, a shallow, skinny, presumably scenic and until now inconsequential creek that sometimes had flowing water, but not often—maybe during monsoon season, and even that wasn’t a sure thing.
The Wolfhounds initially protested what had all indications of being a long, hot, sweaty and potentially futile hike through thick triple-canopy jungle only to verify deep B-52 bomb craters in acreage that until the raid had been fertile and completely undisturbed by any self-respecting VC. With little eagerness or enthusiasm, we prepared for another “jungle adventure.”
On the morning of November 10, we launched UH-1D helicopters for a short 10-minute flight to the landing zone (LZ) nearest the alleged VC base camp. To allow a window of at least half an hour after scheduled time-on-target (bombs away time) and the departure of the B-52s as they headed back to Guam at 30,000 feet, the 27th Infantry touched down at 0630.
As is the habit of a veteran unit, we quickly assembled off the LZ and struck out east in the direction of the B-52 strike. We expected to find the 20- foot-deep bomb craters that were the standard B-52 signature—and, we hoped, a thoroughly pulverized VC base camp. Unfortunately, the LZ was almost 3,000 meters from the supposed VC base camp and, given the kind of jungle that lay ahead, we were unlikely to move any faster than 500 meters an hour. The day was as long, hot and arduous as we anticipated— but there were a couple of surprises thrown in to keep things interesting.
About an hour after we had started moving toward the objective, several of us, including the Bravo Company commander, Captain Robert P. Garrett—a superb officer who was also one the battalion’s best “smellers”— started to sense the presence of VC. We couldn’t put our finger on it exactly. Flank, front and rear security spotted nothing out of the ordinary— but something just didn’t feel right. We paused often to send out quick cloverleaf reconnaissance patrols but still found nothing alarming other than strong hunches, strange feelings in the back of our necks and increasingly strong “smells.”
At about 1300 hours, Garrett radioed that he wanted to speak with me privately, but because everyone and their brothers and cousins were operating on the battalion command net, we both knew this was impossible. To my amazement, he resorted to whispering over the radio and making it a challenge for me and my other company commanders, and anyone at higher headquarters monitoring our net, to understand what he was trying to report. After several minutes of borderline humorous whispering, followed by many “Say whats” and “Say agains,” Garrett finally got his message across. Bravo Company had discovered a man-made clearing that held a VC cache of what he estimated to be at least 40 tons of rice. In a stunned voice that probably could be heard all the way back to Tay Ninh, I replied, “This is Mustang Six, you what?”
“This is Mustang Bravo Six, I say again, we found enough rice to feed an army.”
“This is Mustang Six. You’ve got to be kidding me—you know not to do that!”
The implications of discovering VC rice could be severe. The main consequence was that some shaving-in-hot-water rear echelon staff officer would insist that the entire cache be backhauled and turned over to the Vietnamese government to distribute to refugees. This was a very decent, noble, thoughtful and generous gesture, one that infantry grunts understood, agreed with and seldom complained about, even though these same grunts were the stevedores who had to physically load and carry the rice to the nearest pickup zone (PZ). Typically, from the PZ, Chinook helicopters would then haul the rice to some extraordinarily happy official designated by the Vietnamese government to receive it. Moving rice already bagged was one thing, but this cache was an estimated 40 tons of unbagged rice. All that the grunts and I— especially the grunts—could visualize was countless days of backbreaking labor in the middle of very hot, very humid triple-canopy jungle, sacking rice and then struggling 1,000 or so meters to the nearest PZ. All the while our general unease was growing, since the “smells” kept getting stronger as the day went on.
Under the circumstances, I did not particularly care for the idea of our troops having to backhaul 40 tons of loose rice; nor did I imagine that the troops would receive this kind of news with good cheer or much enthusiasm—and I didn’t blame them.
The battalion command group had been moving with Alpha Company, which was about 10 to 15 jungle-distance minutes south of Bravo Company, so I radioed Garrett to stand pat until I could get to his location. Striking out through the jungle with my two RTOs (radio-telephone operators), the battalion S-2 (intelligence officer) and the battalion operations sergeant, I found Garrett and Bravo Company staring at four huge circular bins made of tightly woven bamboo stalks and bamboo matting. Each bin, about 25 feet in diameter, was raised and supported about 2 feet off the ground by an intricate series of reinforced bamboo logs. Each was completely covered by a thatched roof impossible to spot from the air. The walls of each bin were perhaps 4 feet high—and all four bins were overflowing with loose rice. I felt sure that no living American had ever seen that much rice in one place at one time, and in all likelihood never would again—which was OK with me. My first reaction (besides cussing) was a vivid image of Wolfhounds carrying rice from that day until their DEROS (date eligible to return from overseas service). My second reaction was, “I wonder how many months it took Charlie to carry this much rice from wherever he got it?” My third reaction was, “Surely we have better things to do than spend the entire rest of the month backhauling rice.”
This was a serious dilemma. I looked at Garrett, who stood looking at me while the troops of Bravo Company— with pained expressions—stood looking at both of us. Out of the corner of my mouth, I whispered, “Got any ideas?”
Out of the corner of his mouth, Garrett whispered, “No, sir, I was hoping you might.”
I whispered, “Well, we can’t just walk off and leave it, that’s for sure.”
Out of the corner of his mouth he replied, “Nope.”
After standing there in silence for another minute or so, I turned to him and whispered, “How much C-4 and how many cratering and shaped charges do you have?” (As a matter of battalion SOP, each company always carried demolitions to assist in constructing PZs and destroying tunnel and bunker complexes.)
Garrett replied without hesitation, in a much relieved voice, “Enough.”
As battalion commander, I was obliged to make a decision, so I proceeded mentally to conduct a thorough U.S. Army Infantry School–approved analysis of the situation, examined carefully at least half a dozen different courses of action, cranked in a great deal of smell-test intuition and then issued a textbook U.S. Army Five-Paragraph Field Order: “OK, have at it.”
It took a while to prepare each bin, but when we finally shouted “Fire in the hole!” the scene was absolutely spectacular. Pieces of bamboo, bamboo matting and thatched roof flew in all directions and rice was dripping from trees, spread under the trees, covering bushes and ankle-deep on the ground. For 50 yards in every direction the jungle looked like Vail, Colo., on Christmas Day. Once the “dust” had settled, I said: “Well, I guess I ought to be getting back to the command group. Tell your [now smiling and happy] guys good job. See you later.”
Because we had stopped to solve the rice problem, we almost ran out of daylight before we found the alleged VC base camp area that the B-52s had been sent to destroy. We did find so many nicely formed and recently made bomb craters, though, that I didn’t hesitate to report to my brigade commander that “Mustang has located and is now standing in the center of evenly spaced B-52 bomb craters that look as if they were made this morning, but negative indications of any base camp of any size, shape, purpose or ownership.”
I was directed to remain in the vicinity of the now quite obliterated Prek Klok Stream. If it had ever been scenic, it was no longer so and definitely no longer resembled a shallow, skinny creek as much as it did a long, ugly-looking potential mudhole, at least come the monsoons.
Since more and more of us had begun “smelling VC,” the brigade directive to stay put was an order that I accepted with considerable reluctance. Deciding to put a little distance between us and the alleged VC base camp, I moved the battalion a couple of hundred yards west of the bomb line. There we assembled all three rifle companies and prepared a night defense position, or NDP.
The area we selected for the night looked like every part of War Zone C jungle, so we were startled to realize suddenly that the jungle floor was moving. In fact, it was in constant motion—all of it, no matter where you looked, in every direction. It was like watching a science-fiction horror movie. Upon closer examination we discovered that what seemed to be a continuously moving jungle floor was actually several million (billion?) leeches, all slimy gray wormlike creatures about an inch and a half long. All were apparently starving to death, and all were inching up to a semi-standing position before surging slowly, inexorably toward heat, which in this case meant U.S. soldiers. And as we also discovered, the leeches had absolutely no regard or respect for rank. They came from every direction, all intent on cleansing our blood supply and/or entering any and every body orifice. Thank God we noticed those bloodsuckers before it got completely dark. We immediately named our NDP “Leech City.”
Leeches or no leeches, we still had to put out listening post security, and we still had to organize and coordinate our defense and dig in. The good news, though, was that the U.S. Army insect repellent actually seemed to work. By saturating our boots and the bottom of our trousers, we were able to fend off most of the massive, unrelenting leech attacks that continued all night and well into the morning.
I tried to sleep by spreading my poncho on the ground and saturating the edges with insect repellent, but in only a few minutes the leeches managed to cross this innovative barrier and were soon crawling all over me. The sight and sounds of the commander of the 1st Battalion of the 27th U.S. Infantry leaping and hopping around in the middle of the night with one shot-up arm still in a sling while hollering for more insect repellent was so unusual (and I’m sure from a spectator’s point of view quite humorous) that I suspect it became one of the main memories some soldiers carried home from Vietnam.
Since we had to remain standing all night long, none of us slept—we just stood there like wobbly statues from dark until dawn. And to make things worse, in spite of our best efforts to ward them off with insect repellent, many leeches managed to evade long enough to find their targets, and many troops found leeches in strange and unmentionable places the next morning.
In the meantime, all night our VC “smell” became stronger and stronger. Just before dawn, Garrett notified me that his listening posts had been hearing too many unusual noises all night and he was concerned that his unit might be cut off. Dick Cole, the Alpha Company commander, and Norm Gill, the Charlie Company commander, both immediately came up on the net to tell me that they, too, were concerned about their listening posts. “There’s a lot going on around here that doesn’t add up,” I thought.
All my senses were running in high gear, and I did not like any of the answers I was getting. I requested an aerial scout team to check out our general area, but none was available. We sent clover-leaf patrols out 500 meters in several directions, but they found nothing specific enough to hang their hat on. Still, my intuition was telling me, “This area is no place for smart people of an understrength battalion to be.”
I called brigade and requested permission to move the battalion a couple of thousand meters west. This request was denied, and I was directed to “stay where you are.” I asked why, and got one of those “just because” answers. I next demanded to speak personally with the brigade commander, who got on the radio and repeated, “Stay put.”
I respectfully balked, and requested that he come to my position so we could discuss it face-to-face. Fortunately, Colonel Tom Tarpley, the brigade commander, was an unusually reasonable and loyal commander. To his credit, he agreed to come to my location.
We landed his helicopter in a one-ship LZ located about 100 yards from our NDP, and the two of us walked off to the side to discuss the situation. Tarpley kept insisting that we “stay put,” and I kept trying to convince him that we needed to move ASAP, even agreeing to return the following day if that was essential. He kept asking, “Why do you feel you need to move?” and I could only argue, “Because we smell VC everywhere.” Then there was the following exchange.
“Have you found any positive signs or seen any?”
“No, sir, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t nearby.”
“I need a better reason than just because you ‘smell’ them.”
“Sir, I’ve been wandering around rice paddies and jungles for almost a year now and so have two of my three rifle company commanders. There is absolutely no question in my mind that we are about to be in deep trouble. Sure, we can handle it, but given the battalion’s losses during the Attleboro fight last week, and the fact that we still have not received any replacements, especially for some of our key leaders, I don’t want to think what it might cost us. I just do not believe this is the right time or place for us to get into another major fight.”
I guess this must have convinced him, because early that afternoon he allocated a handful of lift ships and I moved the battalion about 2,500 meters northwest of Leech City. We continued operations throughout War Zone C until early afternoon of Thanksgiving Day, at which time we returned to our main base camp at Cu Chi. During this period we had several contacts; a few of them were fairly serious, but most were brief firefights that usually lasted no longer than an hour or so. And other than a get-your-undivided-attention mortar attack one night, nothing more significant happened.
Ten years passed, commander for operations of the 82nd Airborne Division. One morning in the spring of 1976 I received a phone call from an old friend assigned to and I was now the assistant division the Defense Intelligence Agency. He wanted to read to me one of the documents captured from the VC in late 1966. As he explained, so many thousands of documents had been captured during the Vietnam War that it had taken years to make complete translations for historical purposes and official records. The document he read was an abbreviated operations order for a VC regiment to “attack the 1st Battalion, 27th U.S. Infantry commanded by Major Melroy (sic) from two directions on the night of 11 November (1966),” which was the night following the B-52 raid.
Apparently, this order had been written on the 10th, the same afternoon that Bravo Company discovered the large rice cache. Bob Garrett’s “smell” had been the real deal. It seems we had been tracked most of the day by small two-man VC reconnaissance elements. The VC order stated, “We must have revenge and destroy the enemy who killed so many of our comrades near Tri Tam.” Tri Tam was another Vietnamese name for Dau Tieng, the closest village to the battle of Attleboro. Upon hearing this, I was, and I was not, surprised.
I was surprised that VC intelligence was so good and so timely that the enemy was able to identify not only the battalion but also its commander—me—and that they were able to do so on the same day we made the helicopter assault from the 196th base camp at Tay Ninh. I couldn’t help but wonder how VC intelligence could be so precise, and so quick.
“It was a lot easier than you might think,” my friend said. “First of all, Charlie reads the Stars & Stripes, too, and for two or three days in early November of that year, the 1st of the 27th and your name was splattered all over the front page. Secondly, it was always assumed that among the Vietnamese permitted to work on U.S. base camps, there was at least one paid informer. So after Attleboro, when the Wolfhounds were sent to Tay Ninh, the VC probably knew about it before the last chopper landed. And spotters—don’t forget spotters were outside every fire base and spread throughout many potential LZs in the war zones. The VC also knew that wherever possible, we invariably sent units to the site of B-52 raids to conduct BDA. It didn’t take them long to figure out where you and your guys were headed.”
On the other hand, though, I was not surprised to learn that the VC had planned a regimental-size night attack, which, had we not moved when we did, would surely have resulted in a substantial number of Wolfhound casualties. Had I not been confident of our “smelling” proficiency, and had I not won the brigade commander over to my point of view that afternoon near Leech City, it is very possible that given our strength and circumstances, the 1st Wolfhounds would have taken more casualties there than we had at Attleboro. While there is also no question whatsoever in my mind that in the end we would have defeated the VC, I also know we would have paid a bloody price doing it.
Fortunately for us, Colonel Tom Tarpley was smart and willing to listen. And while—incredibly—our gut feelings were confirmed a decade later, there were undoubtedly many other cases of battlefield intuition that were never confirmed, yet likely saved countless lives.
Major General Meloy commanded four platoons, three companies, and later two battalions in Vietnam: the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry for six months in 1966-67, and the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in War Zone C for 12 months in 1970-71. He has also been chief of Battalion and Brigade Tactics at the U.S. Army Infantry School, and a brigade commander, assistant division commander, and the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division. For additional reading, see: Some Even Volunteered: The First Wolfhounds Pacify Vietnam, by Alfred S. Bradford; and A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, by James Ebert.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.