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The year 1965 saw a massive buildup of American assistance to the South Vietnamese government. Because the ports of Vung Tau and Cam Ranh Bay had not yet been developed, the supplies initially had to be shipped through the narrow Saigon River, ending at the crowded inland port of Saigon. Whenever a freighter arrived in Vietnam, it had to be stacked up a half mile offshore, waiting its turn up the shallow, serpentine river. The Rung Sat Special Zone surrounded the Saigon River as it meandered 45 miles to the ocean by Vung Tau, spitting yellow silt into the crystal-clear South China Sea. The Rung Sat's saltwater mangrove swamps were laced with deep, narrow, muddy, perilous creeks and dikes.
Local VC and recently arrived NVA troops began systematically attacking freighters in the river. It wasn't hard to paddle out from one of the river's many nooks and crannies at night, place a magnetic satchel charge on the thin hull of a slow-moving freighter and then detonate it, constricting the flow of other traffic. Frequently the VC also tried, without success, to float a mine downstream to strike a freighter like a bowling pin.
The VC had access to and knowledge of the intricate waterways, using them to billet infiltrating troops from North Vietnam, to store war materiel and to intercept the American supply chain through the Saigon River. The swamps in the Rung Sat appeared impregnable to American soldiers. The water was above their chests at high tide, with miles of dense, woven bamboo snarled into scrub brush, designating boundaries for the waterways. Aerial observation of the enemy's activities in the swamps was impossible because of this gnarled cover. The small and twisting streams were inaccessible to most U.S. Navy patrol vessels in 1965.
In early 1966, U.S. Marines were committed to their traditional mission of penetrating the swamps on foot, destroying the enemy in his concealed camps and picking him off as he negotiated the maze of waterways in sampans and narrow, flat-bottomed dugouts. After that first operation, the freighters enjoyed a respite from enemy activity for a month. The Marines, however, were needed elsewhere. An Army unit had to be committed to the area — one that was familiar with the challenges of swamps. Many of the soldiers in the 1st Infantry Division had received training in the swamps at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Thus, the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry (1-18 Inf.) 'Vanguards' were selected to take up where the Marines had left off.
MACV decided the Marines' understanding of this area would prove beneficial to the 1-18 Inf. From April 17 to April 21, the battalion was divided into small groups for the Marines to train in operations in the Rung Sat Special Zone. No ego problems were caused by Army troops taking training from the Marines in this instance — the lessons learned would save lives.
Battalion supply managed to locate more than 400 VC-style hammocks, made of parachute material sewn around wooden posts on each end. The troops needed them to sleep above ground, which was covered with water at high tide and mud flats at low tide. Each soldier would carry his steel pot (this was optional), the basic ammo load, one day's rations, a canteen of water, no flak vest or entrenching tool, and fewer grenades and mines than normal. Medical gauze sheets were tied around the neck to seal against red ants and scorpions. Ropes and rappelling D-rings would be used to facilitate river crossings. Rations were stuffed into socks, which were hung from the top rear of the web gear suspenders. The light load would make the troops more maneuverable and flexible when they needed to cross streams, slosh through mud at low tide or slip through dense vegetation. Narrow poles on the stream banks indicated VC crossing points, showing where a log traversed underwater. The troops learned to cross small rivers by holding onto the side of a rubber air mattress, with equipment piled on top. Such crossings would be easier if the troops lugged only half their normal loads.
Many in the 1-18 were short-timers, with less than a month to go on their tours when the training session finished. This would be their last operation.
On April 22, Lt. Col. Karl Morton said goodbye to his men before leaving for a new assignment. 'Men,' he said during reveille, 'this is the one we've been waiting for. We've finally been assigned a turkey shoot. The Communists are trying to control this area, store personnel and material, while interdicting our supply chain.
'They're letting us go out there and fight Charles on our terms. You've had a taste of those swamps the last few days, and now you'll taper down to small-sized units. Many of you have been here with the Big Red One since last June. You've met the enemy, seen a lot of action, kicked his butt, and know how to handle yourselves. Your experiences have taught and benefited the newly-arrived men, and they appreciate it. We are going to have only one company in the swamps at a time for 36 hours. The other will be reserve, next in line, while the third is on pass in Vung Tau, drying out their feet and bodies from the swamps.
'The only way Charles gets around is in boats. There are no streets or roads in these mud flats. You'll be sloshing through that mud in ocean water — sometimes to the chest. And you will be ambushing, and ambushing, and ambushing them. At every stream you come to, you will stop and ambush them. Many camps have a tiny dock. If the dock is occupied, it means they're home, and you've got them. If it's empty, wait for them to return.
'The Marines killed 52. When I'm back in the States, I want to read where the Big Red One outshot the Marines. Good luck, and good hunting. You men are the greatest!
'And for you old veterans, I want you to support the replacements, show them the know and the how. Pass your wisdom on to them. Give them the benefit you didn't have when you arrived in-country. This knowledge might save someone's life.'
The Vanguards were experienced, jungle-savvy veterans, with nearly a full year of combat under their belts. But many troops who had grown up in cities found the swamps as uncomfortable as they had found the jungle when they first encountered it. In the Rung Sat, they would be challenged by water and by unstable log bridges only a few feet above the water.
Operation Lexington III began on April 26, 1966. It was unique. For the first time in the war, the South Vietnamese military would be supporting Americans. Their Junk Force would act in a blocking and support role. Small landing craft would carry a platoon, drop it in the swamp and wait in reserve until needed.
On April 26, Charlie Company loaded three platoons into Vietnamese landing craft docked on the Saigon River. Alpha Company was held at the dock in reserve, while Bravo Company waited at the forward command post in Vung Tau. The Vietnamese navy ferried each platoon into swamps until the stream became too small for the craft to operate.
Each platoon left its landing craft at a different location and struggled across the roots and boughs covered with slippery mud, to begin a coordinated sweep of the objective areas. Initially the water was waist high. After an agonizing half hour, the land rose sufficiently to allow walking on top of the snarls. Simultaneously, two platoons encountered walkways that were fashioned from trimmed twigs fastened across parallel runners of small branches. These led through the undergrowth. The attention to detail in construction of these primitive walkways was phenomenal. Each platoon designated a point squad to advance along the walkway as it led downslope toward a stream, the logical location for a camp.
The wind favored the Americans, murmuring and whistling through the overhead cover, which drowned out any telltale sounds. Ten minutes later, the two platoons' pointmen discovered camps constructed on ramps of branches and twigs. Six VC were sitting on logs in the center of one camp, while eight more lounged in hammocks and beds in the other. Neither camp had established even rudimentary defenses.
The pointmen signaled the situation. They flashed hand signs, indicating the number of VC, and extended a hand, palm out, halting the platoons. For the moment, all was quiet. The patrol leaders coordinated so that the two attacks would be simultaneous and neither would give a warning to the other camp. The platoons also radioed back to the landing craft to take up blocking positions at the closest stream to prevent any escape by boat.
The pointman for each patrol assembled on line. Each man selected two targets close together, signaled the rear when ready and then opened fire. The vegetation was so dense, the patrols had assumed they were far apart. Each was astonished by their proximity after hearing each others' firing. In a few seconds, the disciplined platoons had decimated their targets. After the firing stopped, both point squads cautiously entered the camps, ensuring that their targets were dead before signaling for the rest of the platoon. Each camp appeared to have been a holding station for new Communist troops. Beds, military equipment, putrid food and cooking facilities were elevated on makeshift furnishings to keep them above the daily tides. The men from both platoons inspected the camps, curious to see the enemy's living quarters above ground for the first time. The patrols then searched the camps for weapons and equipment that later were lifted out by chopper. The VC bodies were dumped into the stream, and their boats were set on fire.
The gunfire, of course, alerted all VC within a five-mile radius. For the remainder of the operation, the element of surprise was gone — and yet the 1-18 would still find the pickings good.
By 1 p.m. that first day, the third patrol had found a camp next to a stream, minus the boats and occupants. The GIs set up an ambush along the bank and waited. Its location, above sea level, afforded them an opportunity to rest on dry ground. By 4 p.m., the platoon leader was preparing to move to another location when the men on the bank were alerted by a muffled splashing sound. Almost immediately, four armed VC nonchalantly poled their flat-bottomed boat around the corner of a narrow waterway, standing erect. The platoon opened fire, the impact lifting two of the VC off their feet and tossing them into the water, while the other two collapsed inside their boat.
After 36 hours, the landing craft picked up their platoons and returned to the dock, where the duties rotated. Charlie Company dried out at Vung Tau, and Bravo Company was in reserve at the dock, while Alpha Company anxiously loaded up and moved out.
On the fifth day of Lexington III, while Bravo Company was overrunning a position, six VC managed to retreat across a stream near the rear of their camp. Elements of the battalion reconnaissance platoon monitored the action and coordinated a pincer movement of two landing craft on the small peninsula. They trapped the VC and killed all six in a single, smooth effort. Concurrently, Bravo Company killed four more inside the camp. The Americans were surprised and impressed by how professionally the South Vietnamese sailors had operated, wishing their fellow Americans at home could see their efficiency.
Lexington III was suspended on May 5 and resumed on May 21. Twenty-three VC had been killed so far, with not one GI injured. The base of operations now shifted to Vung Tau, with the Vietnamese navy released from its mission for this phase. The patrols were delivered to the edge of the Rung Sat by truck, to begin by fording a river, the men clutching rubber rafts piled with equipment. The first two men moved across on point, escorted by another on a raft, while the remainder of the troops kept their weapons trained on the opposite bank, until all three men crossed and seemed to have secured the far side. Now, the patrol would be able to launch the other rafts and cross in security.
This phase of the operation was in a part of the swamp that was higher, drier, more sparsely vegetated and punctuated with designated trails. The more human-friendly terrain facilitated ground travel between the many enemy base camps above sea level. The VC would not be traveling exclusively in boats.
The heat on the VC had been turned up since the arrival of the Americans, and the Communist troops began to surrender to the South Vietnamese in greater numbers. Alpha Company conducted the first sweep, led to a base camp by a rallier, or NVA defector, a former lieutenant who had been a VC since 1954. Some of the troops involved in that operation later confessed his help had made them feel like cheats during final exams.
Not long after the GIs forded the river, the rallier cautioned the patrol leader about the proximity of a camp. Almost immediately, the point squad encountered barbed wire, punji traps and a machine-gun bunker — the first fortified camp the Americans had found. The lead elements were preparing to climb over the barbed wire when a machine gun began spitting out instant death from the concealed bunker. Two men kicked the punji stakes over with their boots and slid into the pits, using them as foxholes from which to return fire.
A command-detonated booby trap of five grenades had been strapped to trees in front of the camp. The VC triggered it, but only two grenades exploded, injuring no one. The two men in the punji pits each tossed a hand grenade into each gun slit in the bunker, killing everyone inside. After the explosions, the GIs received heavy supporting fire from the rest of the patrol behind trees, which allowed them to climb the barbed wire and scramble forward to a trench that surrounded the camp.
The remainder of the patrol did not have time to encircle the camp before several VC escaped through a hole carved out of the brush in the rear. When the camp was secured, the GIs explored a shallow tunnel, where they discovered two VC hiding next to a cache of Chinese 7.62mm ammo, five carbines, a sack of grenades and a box of mines. The Americans cleared enough of the overhead cover so that a chopper could be brought in to hoist the captured materiel away.
By the end of the second week of the resumed operation, 25 more VC had been killed, with only two GIs slightly injured. Staff Sergeant Ralph Spengemann was one of those whose time was getting short. After a brief firefight at a stream crossing where four VC were killed, he called to the medic.
'Look what happened, Doc,' he said, pointing to a hole in his trousers. 'We ambushed them crossing the stream. One of them shot and hit the ammo pouch of the guy next to me. That caused his cartridges to explode. I didn't get hit! I was running to that tree for cover. The VC shot again, hit the radio of the RTO [radio telephone operator], and it ricocheted off. I felt something bang my leg, and ran my hand down the back. Look at this sucker sticking out — can you pull it, or do I have to be medevaced?'
'I'll pull it out,' the medic said, 'but you still have to be evacuated to battalion med for repairs.'
'I was so surprised and insulted that I got zapped, especially being as short as I am. I didn't call you at first,' Spengemann replied. 'Didn't want to give that VC satisfaction he shot anyone. It's OK now — he's dead.'
'This is one of those million-dollar wounds that should not heal until after your discharge date,' said the medic. 'Congratulations, Sarge.'
Every day more camps were attacked and destroyed, and more VC were ambushed in boats. The entire operation was running smooth as clockwork — until tragedy finally struck.
One day a Bravo Company patrol was attacking a base camp when a squad slipped to the left flank without informing the men in front. Someone on line heard a noise, glimpsed a flash of color in the brush on his flank, fired instinctively without sighting the target first and killed a man in the squad joining his flank. The battalion had lost 21 men during their year; that GI was the second of two to be killed by his own.
The platoon was silent during their truck ride back to Vung Tau an hour later. Normally they would have been laughing about the prospects of 36 hours of fun and games during their break at the 'resort.' They had nothing to laugh about now, with the body of an American soldier wrapped in his poncho in the back of a truck.
By now, all the local Communists knew American troops were patrolling the Rung Sat Special Zone. Many infiltrators from North Vietnam were trapped inside the 30 square miles of swamps, and they hauled their equipment from small camps, consolidating into large units at the camps with the best fortifications.
Six VC were assigned to ambush a trail that crossed a field on the edge of the Rung Sat. It was an isolated location, and the ambushing VC had brought along some hashish to make their stay more tolerable. (Hash was not produced in South Vietnam — it was a staple of the North Vietnamese supply shipments, which the Big Red One frequently intercepted.) The VC had carved out prone positions inside the tree line. An ocean breeze blowing across the field cut the humidity. That, coupled with the hash, apparently helped them feel secure from any danger.
One of Charlie Company's patrols had not made contact that day or night. On the morning of the following day, battalion operations directed them to leave the swamps and probe the hard ground leading to Vung Tau. They headed to a field that rose and climbed to a dirt road, where a convoy would pick them up later that afternoon.
A trail crossed the field where the ground began to change from mucky saltwater marsh to a mixture of fresh water and clay. Sparse brown grass grew in the field, barely enough to satisfy a small herd of goats. The soil was mushy where the troops departed the swamps, but it dried as it rose above sea level. The VC rested, secluded inside the brush at the edge of the field. They observed the American patrol as it spread out upon entering the field, moving cautiously forward.
Suddenly, the 'crack, crack, crack-crack' of incoming rounds shattered the still morning air. The GIs dived to the wet ground, astonished that the bullets were splattering the mud about them in a random manner. Looking up from the mud toward the source of the fire, they saw six VC shooting from only 30 meters away. Each had stood up straight along the side of the field, aiming his weapon in the direction of the GIs while weaving from side to side, squeezing off rounds — one at a time.
It took only a few seconds for the 45 Americans to sight in. All the patrol's weapons fired together, then the GIs walked to the riddled VC bodies. They had fallen haphazardly around a tube of hash and a clay pipe.
Clearly, the VC had been too messed up to know they should have employed better cover and concealment and used better fire discipline. The men of Charlie Company didn't want the incident publicized. They were afraid some do-gooder might claim a war crime had been committed.
In Lexington III's last action, Alpha Company divided its platoons into 12-man patrols. Each patrol was no more than 15 minutes away from the next, so it could easily assist if another ran into serious resistance. Immediately inside the jungle, they located a vacated major base camp next to a VC-designated stream crossing. Walkways had been built with small sticks fastened to medium-sized trimmed branches, keeping them out of water and mud. There were six elevated sleeping platforms, with a thatched canopy of twigs. A well-weathered shirt hung from one of these beds. One of the short-timers snatched it, saying, 'This is going to be a nightshirt for my kid brother.'
'What's this, a grinder?' asked the pointman, who had discovered a massive stone wheel that revolved on an axle above a stone table. It had been used for crushing rice into flour. That camp had evidently served as the mess hall for the VC in the Rung Sat. The Americans also spotted a well. They drew water covered with green scum and bugs, and someone pronounced: 'This is filthy! Can you imagine anyone having to drink this kind of stuff all the time?'
Several men felt brave enough to sample it. The water had a hint of salt — not surprising, since the camp was at sea level in salt-water swamps. An aluminum auxiliary fuel tank from a U.S. fighter lay next to the well, probably jettisoned in flight, but surprisingly not damaged.
'What are they doing with something like this?' someone asked.
'Come here, look!' another man called out.
Behind it was a box with 200 spoons that had been fashioned from another fuel tank. Next to them was the wooden form used to mold the spoons. The VC had used wire cutters to slice the rough shape of the spoon from the tank. Then the piece was placed into the form and pounded to the shape. Finally, someone filed and rounded the edges. Everyone helped himself to the spoons, which would make excellent souvenirs.
The troops hacked a hole in the jungle canopy so a chopper could evacuate the rice mill and supplies. The beds, part of the walkway and the well were hacked apart. Some beans — already contaminated — were left for the VC to eat.
After the last chopper left, the patrol followed a trail leading from that camp to another one, next to a different stream. This, too, had been evacuated. Then, the patrol leader received a call from an adjacent patrol that four VC were poling the stream in his direction. The patrol established an ambush and waited two hours, but the boat never appeared. The patrol moved out again and eventually reached a junction of two streams. They once more established ambushes and waited out the last night of Operation Lexington III.
Alpha Company's patrols converged at the CP in Vung Tau the next day and climbed onto a waiting convoy to join the remainder of the battalion in their base camp at Bear Cat, 25 miles away. The operation had been a success, with 58 VC confirmed dead. Only one GI had been killed, and several others had received minor injuries, including two bad cases of bee stings. The operation in the Rung Sat had come to a close, and so had the 1-18's first year in Vietnam.
This article was written by Ray Pezzoli, Jr. and originally published in the December 2001 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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