When Charlie Company crossed the border, its troops couldn’t imagine they would be the very last unit out—or the fate that awaited them.
After three days beating the bush in Bu Dop and finding nothing but deserted jungle, I got a radio call on April 29, 1970, from battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Rick Ordway. He told me do something I didn’t often do: “Go to the green box”—code for secure voice communications. My radio operator (RTO), Specialist Merle “Denny” Dentino, inserted a KY-38 encryption device into his PRC-77 radio, which turned our conversation into gobbledygook to any eavesdroppers.
“The company is to be picked up tomorrow morning at 0800 hours,” Ordway said.
“What is this all about, sir?” I asked, curious why he wanted us out after only three days.
Even with secure voice transmission, Ordway wasn’t talking. “I’ll brief you when you get back to Fire Support Base Buttons tomorrow.” This must be big, I thought.
I had taken command of Charlie Company in January, and for four months we operated along the Cambodian border in Phouc Long Province, a sparsely populated jungle area 75 miles northeast of Saigon. As one of four rifle companies in the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), we settled into a routine that seldom changed. We’d spend 25 to 35 days on search and destroy missions in the jungle, and then return to the battalion firebase to pull security for seven days before hitting the jungle again.
It was almost 4 p.m., so I had the men unsaddle and prepare to bed down for the night. The mysterious call ignited a wildfire of speculation among the troops. “Is the war over?” “Are we headed for a major battle raging somewhere?” We all tried to sleep, but with the nagging uncertainty of what tomorrow would bring, we had little success.
At sunrise we wolfed down C-rations, packed up and started humping two miles through the jungle to the pickup zone. The heat and humidity were unbearable even this early, but we were pumped and got there 15 minutes before the scheduled extraction. The sound of helicopters finally broke through the quiet at about 10 a.m.
During the 15-minute flight to Song Be, we could see a giant red dust cloud rising from Fire Support Base (FSB) Buttons, created by swarms of C-130 cargo planes and CH-47 and Huey helicopters landing and taking off. There was no longer any doubt that we were embarking on a massive operation; we just didn’t know what or where it was.
As we jumped out of the helicopters, the executive officer on the ground, squinting through the red cloud, yelled at me over a cacophony of engines: “You are the last company to come in, Six! I’ll take the men back to the company area. You go to the battalion tactical operations center and wait for a briefing.”
“Do you know what’s going on?” I shouted.
“Not a clue,” he shrugged.
The tension-filled tactical operations center (TOC) was packed when I got there. I grabbed a chair in the back, and in a few minutes Ordway walked in and stood before his anxious audience. With a dramatic flair, he looked at his watch and announced: “Gentlemen, approximately four hours ago a massive South Vietnamese force crossed over the border into Cambodia to find and destroy North Vietnamese Army (NVA) sanctuaries. We leave tomorrow on the same mission.” As a murmur began to rise in the small space, the operations officer jumped up to lay out the operational plan and the sequence in which we were to carry it out. My company was to be airlifted into Cambodia the next day, May 1.
Closing the briefing, Ordway warned us that enemy resistance would be strong and we should expect heavy casualties. The TOC was quiet as we hurried out to brief our troops. The platoon leaders and sergeants took the news with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. I was anxious and uncertain too, but mostly I felt energized. Finding the enemy in Vietnam had become more and more difficult, but in Cambodia, I thought, we could do some real harm.
The base bustled with activity as men were taken to CONEX containers to exchange worn and dirty equipment for new. Weapons were recalibrated and test fired. Medics swapped out their medical bag contents with fresh supplies. While some troops joked around nervously, most were quiet, filled with their own thoughts about what we would encounter in Cambodia.
The first leg on our journey began the next morning when Sergeant Rand “Al” Wall, the acting artillery forward observer, and his RTO hopped aboard the 1st Platoon’s C-130, followed by Dentino and me. As soon as we lifted off the oil-slicked runway, we shot straight up at a 45-degree angle to avoid enemy ground fire. In the air for maybe six minutes, we watched as the airfield at FSB Snuffy, near Bu Gia Map, came into sight, and we dropped precipitously, reversing the technique used when we took off. With our wheels just inches from the ground, a single shot was fired in the troop-staging area, spooking the pilot and causing him to violently pull back on the yoke. The aircraft shot straight up at a 60- degree angle, coming within a few feet of hitting some trees at the end of the runway. One careless gunshot and a nervous pilot nearly got a large chunk of Charlie Company killed—before we even set foot inside Cambodia.
Later that afternoon, Hueys began ferrying Delta Company into Cambodia, but a call from battalion informed me that the “system” was overburdened and no more choppers were available until the next day, May 2. We were mentally and emotionally prepared to already be in Cambodia and now we had to wait one more day before jumping into what we all believed were the jaws of hell.
Early the next morning as we assembled along a tree line bordering the airstrip, we could hear the artillery barrage and F-4 fighters that were pounding our landing zone (LZ) five kilometers across the border. Then 20 helicopters swooped in with absolute precision, landing with just the right distance between each bird. Once the company was aboard, the flight leader gave the command and like a slow-motion dance all the choppers drifted off the ground in unison and headed straight ahead toward our LZ. Finally, Charlie Company had become part of the biggest air assault on record.
Flying low and zigzagging around tall trees, our tension grew when we spotted two surprised NVA soldiers scattering for cover as we flew over them. Moments after the artillery barrage ended, Cobra gunships peppered the landing zone with rocket and machine gun fire. With the gunships circling above us and providing covering fire, we offloaded in a large field and scurried to a skimpy line of tall, thin trees. The adrenaline rush slowly subsided as we comprehended that we had made it to Cambodia safely and uncontested. Immediately, I moved the company north, and within an hour the point spotted five enemy soldiers emerging from the woods. I motioned everyone to take cover in the tall grass and to wait for the North Vietnamese to get closer. One of our men fired his M-16 prematurely, however, and others followed. The NVA turned tail and escaped into the woods, concluding our only enemy encounter during our first day in Cambodia.
Around 4:30 p.m., we found a grove of trees ideal for a night defensive position (NDP). Two squads searched 200 meters out for any trails where automatic ambushes could be established. Simple—but extremely lethal—commo wire was connected to Claymore mines positioned at foot level and to fragmentation grenades hanging from trees at head level. The wire was then attached to a radio battery that connected to a trip wire strung across the trail. Anyone hitting the trip wire would be blown away. The automatic ambush was the best night defensive weapon we had.
The next morning I awoke just before dawn. As men began to stir, I prepared some coffee and was lacing it with dry cream and sugar when the blast of an automatic ambush shattered the calm. Minutes later, Specialist Rodney Young radioed, “You guys have got to see this to believe it.” On the trail, we found a dead North Vietnamese still on his bicycle, both hands clutching the handlebars, one foot on a pedal caught in mid-motion, his transistor radio still blaring with Vietnamese music. One of the riflemen quipped, “It’s like the TV show Laugh-In, where the guy rides a tricycle around and just falls over.”
During the next five days, we ran into several small enemy forces, killing seven NVA while suffering no casualties. Our early success took away some of the edginess we had been feeling since the invasion began.
While on patrol, every four days was “log day,” when we got resupplied with water, food, ammunition, radio batteries, mail and other essentials. Since we had to find an LZ large enough for the resupply helicopter, our search and destroy mission came to a halt on log day. On one log day, I sent 1st Lt. Billy Shine’s 2nd Platoon to find a landing zone while the rest of the company scoured the immediate area for signs of the enemy. After about an hour, Shine radioed saying he had found the “mother lode of caches” and was standing in the middle of a huge truck park and maintenance shop.
We hustled over to Shine’s position, and spread over a quarter-acre were cargo trucks, pickups and several Land Rovers—one with only 730 kilometers on its odometer. Some of the 33 vehicles were from China, Russia and Czechoslovakia, but most were Ford trucks made in the United States. A veritable parts department loaded with bearings, brake shoes, axles, transmissions, batteries, pistons and more was scattered about, along with a large generator, welding tools, barrels of gasoline and cases of oil.
In addition to the motor pool, we found underground sleeping quarters with electricity, a mess hall with live chickens and pigs, a recreation area complete with a ping-pong table, a first-aid facility, 50 tons of rice and lots of personal belongings. Battalion ordered all serviceable vehicles taken to FSB Evans, four kilometers away. We found 12 good trucks and Land Rovers but sent only 10, keeping two to carry the company’s backpacks. Specialist Tom Hirst, 3rd Platoon medic, had worked for a car dealership in Baltimore, Md., and, with the precision of a car thief, hot-wired the vehicles. In a couple of hours, men of 3rd Platoon mounted the vehicles and headed down the road toward Evans. Once there, they were immediately flown back to the site of the NVA motor pool. We then commenced to blow up everything of value and burn the rest. When we finished, we found a good NDP in a thick clump of trees nearby and set up several automatic ambushes. We then settled in for the night, satisfied with our productive day’s work.
Around 8 p.m., the 3rd Platoon sector reported seeing several flashlights moving our way and hearing muffled Vietnamese voices. Suddenly one of the automatic ambushes went off, and we waited anxiously for what would follow. Thirty minutes later, another automatic ambush and a trip flare went off. The dreadful moaning and crying of a badly injured enemy seared the quiet night for the next several hours. Finally, around midnight, we heard a single shot, and then silence. None of us slept much that night.
At first light, I took a group out to check the area. Just 100 meters from our perimeter, we came across the torn and bloody bodies of nine North Vietnamese scattered about—one with a rifle in his mouth and a toe wrapped around the trigger. Hidden in some tall grass was a wounded soldier, who offered no resistance. The medics treated what appeared to be relatively minor wounds, and a helicopter came to take him away for treatment and an intelligence debriefing. We later heard that the prisoner died in the chopper.
We loaded our heavy backpacks onto our two new trucks and moved out “light” in open terrain to find the enemy. Three days later we hit heavy jungle, however, and had to ditch the vehicles. Reluctantly, we poured gasoline over our trucks and tossed torches on them. With the truck hulks smoldering, we slipped on our backpacks and moved off into the jungle. “Man, I sure got lazy with those trucks schlepping our gear,” one of my riflemen muttered. Yeah, I thought, so did I.
A few days later, we were following a river when we came upon a large waterfall cascading down a mammoth rock formation—a beautiful wonder of nature right in the middle of a war zone. The closer we got, we could see the waterfall was hiding something. Behind it was a cave that had housed an NVA hospital complete with surgical tables, oxygen tanks, a respirator and all the instruments needed for serious surgery. It was impractical to completely destroy all of the equipment, so, hoping to make it uninhabitable for a little while at least, we tossed canisters of CS gas into the cave.
Nearby were cottages, shower stalls, enclosed latrines and a large covered dining hall. We burned everything to the ground. Days more of careful searches in the area yielded only a few empty bunkers.
As we continued our mission, we discovered numerous bunker complexes and enemy caches. In one we found some 400 brand new SKS carbines, still wrapped in oilcloth, and enough ammunition to supply an NVA battalion. In another we turned up 10 tons of rice, mortar tubes, machine guns and boxes of AK-47s. In yet another we even found outboard boat motors. During this time, we killed six more North Vietnamese without suffering casualties.
On June 7, as we moved slowly through extremely thick jungle, something barely visible caught the eye of the last rifleman in our formation. I took a squad to check it out and found four neat stacks of 55-gallon barrels of gasoline. A camouflage net covered the 100 barrels, many marked “Dutch Shell Oil.”
I reported the find to battalion and requested enough C4 plastic explosive, blasting caps, detonation cord and fuse igniters to blow it all up. Shortly afterward, a Huey was overhead, lowering several bags of explosives. Battalion issued an urgent advisory warning for aviators not to fly anywhere near us.
One squad provided security at the fuel dump while the rest of the company moved a safe distance away. Lieutenant Craig Troup, Specialist Danny Long, Specialist Jim Wilson and I each rigged a stack of barrels and then ignited our fuses simultaneously. With just 10 minutes to get safely away, we all ran like hell to the company’s location. We were nearly there when the mammoth explosion shook the ground, knocking us all down. Flying in an observation plane close enough to see the explosion, the brigade commander later said it looked like an atomic bomb had gone off.
I awoke on June 14 pondering what we had accomplished in the past 40 days inside Cambodia’s border and hoping our luck would hold. We had killed 25 enemy soldiers, and found and destroyed incredible caches of weapons and food without having any men killed or severely wounded.
We were headed that morning for a large bunker complex that a helicopter pilot had spotted a few days earlier. Suddenly we ran across a hard-packed trail—a good sign we were getting close to the bunker complex. Specialist Tom “the Black Prince” Johnson, the company’s best point man, was in the lead with Specialist Tony Harper, when the men spotted some NVA preparing to ambush us. Harper and Johnson sprayed the enemy location. Instantly the jungle on three sides erupted in heavy AK-47 machine gun fire and B-40 rockets. Specialist Lester “Uno” Langley, second man from the point element, brought up his M-60 machine gun and cut loose. Most of the 1st Platoon was pinned down and fired frantically at what seemed to be the center of the enemy ambush. With the 3rd Platoon spread out in battle formation to roll up the enemy’s left flank, the 2nd Platoon, which was positioned at the rear of our column, attacked the enemy’s right flank.
The intense and confusing battle was made even worse because I could not establish radio contact with battalion. Finally, I stood behind a tree and pulled Specialist Tom Thon up with me, and ordered him to place his radio as high above his head as possible. He didn’t like it, but he braved it out. A B-40 rocket smashed into our tree, showering us with bark and small pieces of shrapnel, and bullets cracked all around us, but Thon stood his ground, and we finally got through to battalion, requesting immediate artillery support and Cobra gunships.
About the same time, a radio call from Lieutenant Richard Friedrich reported that his platoon was meeting heavy resistance and that Sergeant Mickey Wright had been killed while charging a bunker. I told him to pull back, and just then I heard Johnson screaming, “I’m hit!”
As he lay exposed on his back, enemy fire raked the ground around him. Specialist Larry “Doc” Stansberry rushed out into the open, flopped down beside Johnson and applied emergency aid that saved Johnson’s life.
In a matter of minutes, Specialist Nat Green, Rodney Young, Specialist Robert Delaney and Specialist Steve “Doc” Willey helped Stansberry pull Johnson safely behind a large tree.
Just about then, Sergeant Wall tapped me on the shoulder. “Arty is cranking up and should be on target in three minutes,” he said. I called 2nd Platoon to withdraw into the center of the perimeter.
The artillery barrage whistled in on time and on target 100 meters behind the enemy positions. The steady 10-minute barrage only ended when a gunship arrived. Run after run it fired miniguns and rockets directly in front of our perimeter until its payload was exhausted. The jungle became eerily silent as we moved carefully toward the enemy positions. Trees were ripped apart. Timbers of enemy bunkers were crushed or opened like smashed pumpkins. No enemy casualties were found, just a few blood trails.
A medevac used a jungle penetrator to lift Johnson out, but not Mickey Wright. Policy dictated that medevacs could not transport dead bodies, forcing us to leave the area and find a suitable landing zone. We found one just before dark, so we’d have to wait until morning to start Wright’s final journey home. The next day being a log day, we remained at the LZ for our resupply. I had kept the automatic ambush site up from the night before along the same trail we were on when we got ambushed. As the resupply helicopter was about to land, the automatic ambush went off.
I grabbed a radioman, a machine gunner, his assistant gunner and four riflemen and headed for the ambush site. Bent over, weapons at the ready, we inched closer to what now looked like bodies lying in the trail. We found three dead North Vietnamese, two carrying AK-47s, and the other a B-40 rocket launcher. Each was laden with extra ammunition and hand grenades. We felt a sense of elation that we had gotten some revenge for the death of Wright. Too bad there weren’t more. But, the next day as we headed out, we found 10 fresh graves. We had struck a mighty blow upon our comrade’s killers after all.
On June 28, I received a secure radio call from my new commander, Lt. Col. Norman Moffett, informing me that President Richard Nixon announced that all U.S. troops would be out of Cambodia a day before the previously established June 30 deadline. This meant we were pulling out the next day, June 29. Moffett then told me that Charlie Company was designated to be the last company out, and, to chronicle the historical event, a group of journalists and TV reporters would accompany us back across the border.
We broke camp early the next morning to reach the landing zone where the journalists would be dropped. As soon as we heard their two helicopters, we threw out purple smoke to mark the place where they were to land. There were more than a dozen journalists, photographers and TV reporters, each eager to cover “the last American fighting unit out of Cambodia.” But as we trudged through the heat and humidity toward the river that separated Cambodia and Vietnam, I noticed their enthusiasm slowly ebbing away. I ordered more frequent breaks than normal, and as we rested, the journalists interviewed some of the men, looking for personal stories and their feelings about the war.
Around 2 p.m., we came across a large tree that had fallen across the river, providing us with a convenient bridge into Vietnam. The first few troops who crossed had left a thick coat of mud from their boots on the tree, making it perilous for the rest, a few of whom slipped off into the leech-infested river. Nevertheless, the entire contingent was soon across the river, giving the company a sense of relief. After all, we were leaving behind a much more dangerous place than what we would find “back home” in Vietnam, where the enemy was hiding more than seeking.
We moved on to FSB Thor, the battalion’s headquarters, about 300 meters away from the river’s edge in a large open field surrounded by trees.
Invited into the firebase, the journalists left us for cold drinks and the chance to probe the minds of fresh troops. Meanwhile, we set up our NDP close to the firebase. Alpha and Bravo companies were already camped out in other quadrants of the same area. With quarters so tight, I was a bit worried about what would happen if the enemy attacked. Would the companies shoot each other up? Still, we felt secure to enjoy our first evening back in Vietnam and looked forward to a quiet night’s sleep.
It turned out sleep was elusive for me, so around midnight I got up to have a cigarette and noticed the heavy fog blanketing us, so thick I couldn’t see Dentino’s hooch right next to mine. I butted the cigarette and determined to get some sleep.
For some inexplicable reason, around 5 a.m. I began listening more closely to the distant thumping of friendly mortar rounds hitting the base plate. Moments later, as I heard the spinning of a couple of rounds getting closer and closer, I realized that in mere seconds horror was about to strike us. Crashing into the company perimeter, the two mortar rounds exploded with deadly fury, driving shrapnel into trees, bushes and sleeping men. One piece smashed through my mosquito net, flying past my face. I fell out of my hooch into bedlam. Wounded men were screaming in pain, others were screaming for medics. Through the fog, ghostly silhouettes moved in and out of the shadows—some in sheer panic, others calmly helping the wounded.
In front of me, Lieutenant Troup was clamping the blood spurting from his nearly amputated foot. He looked at me and quietly said, “Six, my foot is hit.” No sooner did the words leave his mouth when Doc Stansberry was at his side. A few feet away, the company medic, Specialist Bruce Johnson, was flailing on the ground in agony, desperately trying to stop his own chest wound. Doc Willey emerged out of the dark, dropped to Johnson’s side and slapped a compress to stop the sucking and bleeding. Johnson haltingly cried, “Tell my wife I love her.” He was certain he was going to die and so was I.
We radioed the firebase, asking for their medics to come out to help. Before long a jeep load of medics roared up and began roving through the area trying to find the injured scattered everywhere.
Battalion called, saying a medevac was on its way, and we scrambled to bring all the wounded to the end of a large clearing so we could set up a triage. The wounded were still being brought out when we heard the medevac hovering just above the fog. I radioed the pilot that I would set out a ground flare for him to vector in on, but his response left me stunned. He refused to land until he had gunship support.
This was friendly fire, I told him, no enemy was involved. He wouldn’t budge: no gunships, no landing. I begged, but he still balked. I went ballistic: “Look, I have your tail number. I know who you are and if you don’t start down immediately, I swear to God, I will find you and put a bullet in your brain!” I think I really meant it and the pilot must have thought so, too. He told me to light the flare, he was coming in.
As soon as the medevac landed, we loaded the most seriously wounded. It had room for six. Doc Johnson was one. Troup was another. I ordered Mike Waters put on as well, even though I was certain he was never going to make it. He died moments after the medevac lifted off.
With all the wounded out, we took a head count. Only one man was missing, my RTO, Denny Dentino. We found him still in his hooch. The same piece of shrapnel that nearly hit me in my hooch had killed him instantly.
Two men were dead and a total of 29 were wounded, 19 so severely that they were evacuated out of Vietnam. Ironically, the medevac pilot did put me on report—not for threatening to kill him but for putting a dead man on his chopper. The “friendly fire” incident was determined to be erratic mortar rounds, which should never have been fired over our position.
Hours earlier, Charlie Company had triumphantly crossed the border as the last American unit to return to Vietnam from the historic invasion of Cambodia. Then, in less than 60 seconds, one deadly mistake tragically killed and wounded more of the company’s brave men than scores of enemy combatants were able to achieve during our seven weeks in Cambodia.
Michael Christy’s first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967-68 was with the 5th Special Forces Group. After seven months in command of Charlie Company, he finished his tour with the 1st Air Cavalry Division as the 3rd Brigade’s assistant operations officer in Bien Hoa. He currently works in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.