Nights 1, 2, and 3 ... An Ambush

Copyright 2003.  Stew Harris.  All rights reserved.

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It was a just after two in the afternoon and Dai Uy Lang looked a little worried. It was his normal condition. A small, intense man, his eyes bulged at the best of times.  When he became excited, the condition became worse. And his voice rose.  These were not good things for someone in a leadership role. However his most redeeming features were his actions and the content of his words.

“My man in Phu An says the 48th Battalion will attack us tonight.”

"My man in Phu An” meant his spy.

I knew he had at least two people in the village willing to hide an old PRC-10 and use it to communicate something to the Dai Uy when they thought it was important. Lang paid them out of his own pocket. That was probably the reason there were only two.

"The 48th Battalion will attack us

This was easy to accept on an intellectual basis. After all, the Army listed our area as the de facto AO of the 48th. They considered the whole area “VC controlled.”  When I complained to the G-2 at Quang Ngai, he revised the data for our base from “V” for VC controlled to “C” for contested.  And it had been seven months prior to that when the 48th had, in fact, attacked and over run the base. All the advisors received Purple Hearts that night, one of them posthumous with an added Navy Cross. That the 48th would come back was easy to accept.  Intellectually.

But an icy knife penetrated the cool, abstract consideration of the information that was just given.
The luxury of time to make leisurely evaluations was suddenly transformed into an immediate reality.


“Tonight?” I said, highlighting what I considered the most important item. Adding “The whole battalion?” Thus making note of another interesting point. That would be something between 400 and a thousand men, depending on what shape the battalion was in. We would be defending with about 65 junkies and only four American sailors.

Dai Uy Lang answered me.  “He thinks tonight, but he is not certain.”  Was that good or bad?  “But not the whole battalion.”  That was good.  “He said one of their men was in the market this morning.  The man said they would not need the whole battalion to kill the junk base.”  Cocky bastards.

I asked Lang the obvious question.  “Well, Dai Uy.  What do you think we ought to do about this?"  There was a bit of politics involved in this exchange.  Lang was the commanding officer of the Vietnamese base.  I was the senior advisor. Unless things worked well between the two of us, no one on the base stood much of a chance of surviving the adventure.  It was important that we agree on a course of action.

Lang answered.  “Well, Dai Uy, I don’t know.  What do you think we ought to do about this?”

An agreement of sorts.

We had a clean slate and it was time to begin to write on it.  “Do you trust your man?  Did he say anything more about where or when they would come?”

“I believe he heard what he said,” answered Lang.  “That much is true.  It may have been someone just wanting to brag and be an important man, but I do not think so.  I have heard some other things about the VC being in the swamp.”

Wonder why he hadn’t shared that?

The sluggish, tidal river we lived on flowed south past the junk base to Phu An. It bent inland to the west and within a few hundred meters petered out, draining into a swamp further south.  The entire area was a free fire zone but artillery fired into wet marsh produced few results.  It was a perfect assembly area.

I spread a map on the table.  We lived on the flood plain of the Song Tra Khuk, flat, fertile land with no high ground.  Except for what we called Black Mountain.  It wasn’t much of a mountain, barely a hundred meters high.  And it wasn’t really black, just the boulders that covered it were.  The road from the front gate headed for a gap between the west edge of Phu An and the east edge of Black Mountain.  It passed through a grove of trees and turned west, toward Quang Ngai city.  The road was constrained by the dwindling tidal river to the south and the rocky, shear face of Black Mountain to the north. Something of a choke point.

The river, the road and the rocky face of Black Mountain ran parallel for several hundred meters.

“Where along here,” I asked, pointing to the map, “is it possible to wade the river?”

I was looking for the easiest path from the swamp to the road and to the base.

“About here,” Lang said, indicating a distance on the map of about an inch.
“It depends on the tide.”  He tapped the river further inland.
“Here,” he said, “they can cross all time.”

“Yes, Dai Uy.  But they still have to come down this road.”

We had one untested asset.  We called it our ambush team.  It consisted of eleven junkies, pretty much self selected who were prepared to take their M-2 carbines and strike out across the land.  The lead petty officer was Ha Shi Tam.  While the sing song Vietnamese language is strange to a Western ear, Tam was even less understandable. He had a hard, almost guttural northern accent. He had been born and raised in Vinh on the North Vietnamese coast. Tam was near my size, only better muscled. As lead petty officer, he carried the BAR.

The advisors had returned to Coastal Group Sixteen only three weeks prior. There had been very little time to work with the team. We had been out on a couple of daytime patrols, really nothing more than a chance to familiarize ourselves with the terrain and begin to understand what the team could do. One hike ended with shooting coconuts out of a tree and drinking the milk. The milk was cool and delicious and invariable produced violent diarrhea four to eight hours later. The Vietnamese felt this was hilarious. We were getting to know each other.

But even on these brief excursions, Tam had begun to distinguish himself. The other junkies did what he told them to do. His orders were crisp and purposeful. He was able to control the team on a line of advance with hand signals and minimal noise. He would naturally flank an ambush position.  He watched his team and he watched out for them. He had made them his own.

And, he seemed to like Americans. Although one often needed a translator -- even if you were Vietnamese -- to talk to him, he was willing. He was one of the few junkies to which a map meant something.  Yep.  Tam was the leading petty officer of the ambush team.

It was time to take them out at night.

“I think we should send out the ambush team,” I said.

“Why?” asked Lang.  Then he would have only 55 men for the perimeter.

“If we sit inside the wire and wait, we will allow the VC to attack when and where they choose.
If we set the ambush team along the approach to the base, we will have some warning.

He was not convinced.

“We may even so upset them that they will not attack.”

Lang could see the advantage of that, but . . . . .

“The advisors will go with the team.”

The statement was like an electric shock.  In the back of Lang’s mind was that the team would leave the base and disappear into the night, a loss of a dozen men for no clear purpose.  If nothing happened, the team would reappear in the morning. If there was a problem, the team would be of little use. But with the advisors along, it would be a better investment.

Even that, however, presented problems.  Lang had been specifically charged with not losing any more advisors. It would not be a good career move.  “Will you go, Dai Uy?”  If I went, he would feel obliged to go as well.  He did not want to be isolated from his base if it were attacked.

“Yes, I think so, Dai Uy.”
Before the wheels could fall off the wagon, I added,
“I think Troung Uy Xi can lead the patrol.”

Troung Uy Xi would not lead the patrol, Tam would.  The base executive officer would be in charge, but the team would work for Tam. A junior officer sent to learn from a senior petty officer.  Perhaps we were teaching them something.

“I think we should go here,” I said pointing to the top of Black Mountain.  “We should be able to see the river crossing and the road. If they cross further upstream, they will still have to come down the road.  Unless they go around the mountain and that would take a great deal of time.”

“I agree,” he said.

I repied. “It will be dark about 1900. We will leave about 1930. Can you tell Troung Uy Xi and the team?”

“Yes, Dai Uy.  I will tell the men.”

If I had seen the file of men moving through the darkness, I would have marked them down as VC.  The lead man was big and carried a BAR.  He wore green trousers and a Chicago Cub tee shirt.  A bandana kept his hair in place.  The next man was short, conforming to the normal Vietnamese stature, carried a carbine, and wore Navy issue dungarees and a ball cap.  His white sneakers flashed in the murk with each step.  The third man was shorter still.  He had a helmet that was clearly too large for him, but he had matching green trousers and blouse plus boots.

By the time the fourth man came into view, I might have changed my mind.  It was me.

My first time out at night and I had a full combat load: helmet, flack jacket, Marine issue greens, M-16 with seven extra clips loaded with the superstitious count of 18 rounds per clip (no tracers), boots instead of shower thongs for the first time in a week and the one green tee shirt I owned, removing the little white V on the collar bone, a perfect aiming point.  And I carried a PRC-25.

Number five in the column was my boatswain mate configured as I was except for the radio. We had agreed that I would carry it out, he would carry it back.  The rustling of our nylon flack jackets drowned out the soft noises of our Vietnamese escort.  Even our helmets seemed to give off a metallic noise as we moved.

The plan was simple.  We would proceed along the road until just short of the village.  One man would go ahead, past the ville and the small grove of trees until he could see up the road and along the river.  If he saw no activity, we would move up the back of Black Mountain and take a position along the ridge.  Eleven Vietnamese junkies and two American advisors would wait there for the enemy battalion.

We rested in a cemetery just off the road until our scout returned.  We were not tired, but sweating.  Sweat from the tropical evening.  Sweat from all the gear, especially the flack jacket.  Sweat from fear.

Looking down the road, past the ville and into the grove, shapes began to emerge.  Men, huge men with weapons growing larger as I looked.  Larger and larger until I realized I was looking at the trees.  First time out.  First time in the dark.  Gotta try real hard not to shoot myself in the foot

Our scout returned.  Nothing seen along the river road.  We saddled up and started toward Black Mountain.  The moon had risen and was providing more light than I would have wanted.  As we started up the back side of our oversized hill, anyone watching from the ville could have seen us.  And someone was almost certainly watching.

The climb was treacherous because of the rough ground and large stones scattered over the hill, but in minutes, we were at the top.  The moon, behind us, was still low enough that the reverse slope was in darkness.  Rather than hold the top of the hill and be a profile, I decided to slip over the ridge and rely on the night to hide us.  Our plan did not include holding these positions when the shooting started.  Three or four clips into the crowd and we would be out of there, leaving them to deal with the confusion and some 81mm from the base.

The killing zone would be a stretch of road a little less than 100 meters long, ending just short of the grove of trees.  To our target’s right would be the river.  The face of Black Mountain would be to their left.  It was not a shear face, but steep enough to give very little cover, steep enough to make a frontal attack almost impossible.  I placed Tam and his BAR to the right.  The advisors and their M-16s would hold the left end of the kill zone.  If the bad guys escaped to the left, they could quickly get behind us.  And they would be almost as close to the base as we were.

We settled in to wait.  It was not quite nine.  I’m sure there was no need to think about sleeping at that particular moment.  Adrenalin was high among both the Americans and the Vietnamese.  The view was almost perfect.  The moon lit the swamp across the river to the south.  If they chose to crawl, perhaps we would miss them, but if they were upright, we would see them coming from half a mile.  And since they expected no one else to be out that time of night, I did not think they would be crawling.  Although the road twisted in and out of sight to the right, we could see enough such that no one would show up in the kill zone unexpectedly.

I went down the line, checking to make sure everyone was ready.  Each man had his carbine and extra ammunition.  Each was positioned to fire into the kill zone.  Each seemed ready.  There must have been more I could do, but I didn’t know what it was.  I returned to the end of the line where my boatswain’s mate was and we waited.

With everyone else as alert as they would probably be all night, I decided to take a look around.  From the top of this hill, the night sky was beautiful.  Only the glow off to the right from Quang Ngai city kept it from being a sky unaltered by human hand.  No radios, no internal combustion engines, no sounds to disturb the evening.  It was much too pretty for a war to be going on.

I had a chance to review the constellations.  I knew fewer than I once had, but I recognized one rarely seen while steaming in the northern hemisphere:  I could see most of the Southern Cross.  I thought ahead to an R&R in Sydney and hoped it would be the best memory from this year.

An hour had passed and it occurred to me that we might be here for a few hours.  I worked my way back to Tam on the other end of the line and using sign language and fractured Vietnamese, explained that I thought each man should alternate, a couple of hours sleep and a couple of hours on watch.  I found Troung Uy Xi in the middle of the line and explained it to him as well.  It was, lest we forget, his patrol.

I took the first watch.  I could make out the junkies for a few dozen meters down the line as they alternately tried to sleep and see in the dark.  For my part, the adrenalin remained too high for sleep to be an issue.  There was still some light from Quang Ngai City but it was obviously less.  Phu An had disappeared into total darkness.  The river shimmered in the moon light and the tidal grasses on the other side gleamed white and did not move.  105s shells fired from Quang Ngai departed for the mountains but their impact did not disturb the night.  Only the hourly “sitrep” requests from Victor broke the silence.

I became convinced I was not going to die in the next four or five minutes.  I took off the flack jacket and the cool evening breeze did its work.  Lying on that hillside, I kept the supposedly threatening swamp in view between my knees as I consistently drifted up into the beautiful stars.  As Johnnie Cash said, it was much too pretty for a man to wanta die.

And so I passed two hours.  I would periodically walk the line to make sure I was not alone on the hill, but all was in order.  Those junkies on watch seemed at least as alert as I was.  My supposition was that they, also, did not want to die on Black Mountain.

A little after midnight, I awoke my boatswains mate and assigned him the next watch with instructions to call me at two. On that beautiful, peaceful hill, I was asleep in three minutes.

The next thing I knew, a voice speaking in a stage whisper was saying, “Dai Uy!  Dai Uy!  Wake up!”  It was my boatswain.  This was a habit left over from ships at sea.  An enlisted man would never touch an officer, even when dispatched to call him for the next watch.  Boats had learned this lesson too well and it resulted in my emerging from my sleep a little more slowly than I should have.

As I recalled where we were and what we were doing, I grabbed for the M-16 by my side and sat upright.

“What?  What the hell’s goin’ on?”

“Nothin, Dai Uy.  Nothin’.  It’s just two o’clock.”

“Oh,” I said, as my pulse rate halved.
“Oh,” again as I tried to collect my thoughts.
“Anything happen?  Did ya see anything?”

“Not a damn thing, Dai Uy.  It was as peaceful as a church yard.”

It was time to review our situation.  Even if enemy elements began crossing the river now, they would barely have time to reach the base and mount an attack in the darkness.  If we broke the ambush and returned to the base under cover of night, we would not disclose -- or at least not advertise -- the fact that we had been out.  A little stalling and I thought we could go home.  “Call Troung Uy Xi.  We need to talk.”

I scrambled back over the ridge line, about twenty yards, to be out of sight of where we thought the enemy might be and waited for the other advisor and the Vietnamese jaygee to join me.  When they did, I passed out Winstons all round and used a battery operated lighter -- small, glowing electrical elements, no open flame -- to light the cigarettes.  I went over the situation with Xi, trying to lead him to make the conclusions I had already made

It was easy.  He smiled broadly.  He began it giggle slightly.  He was delighted.  A little before 2:30, we broke the ambush and headed home.  I picked up the three filter tips and put them in my pocket.

We had hardly defeated the 48th Battalion.  We were not even bloodied.  But we were no longer virgins.

Night 2

Almost exactly twenty four hours later, it started again.  I happened to see Dai Uy Lang heading for the comm bunker a little before two in the afternoon.  He looked worried.  Again.  Ten minutes later, he emerged and, looking neither to the left nor right, headed directly for the advisors’ hootch.

He knocked and entered, observing the military courtesy.Although it clearly pained him, he included the Asian etiquette of inquiring if the advisors were all well and expressing pleasure that we were.  I offered him beer, which he did not like, and Doctor Pepper which he did.  He declined both.

Finally, he began.  “I have more information, Dai Uy.  This time it comes from two sources.”  Both of his spies had checked in.  “They both say it will be tonight.”  Hot damn.  “One man says many VC came to the market this morning to buy food.  He says they brag that they will kill the junk base tonight.”  His English was very good, but I wished he could find one fewer use for the word “kill.”

This time I did not interrogate him as closely.  I knew he believed what he was saying. “What do you want to do, Dai Uy?  Is it the same plan?  They will come out of the swamp and down the road?  Shall we set the ambush team again?”

“I think that is a good plan, Dai Uy.  Both my men say they are forming up in the swamp and will come after dark.”  He paused, and added, hopefully,  “Will the advisors go also?”

‘Yes, I think so." My Troung Uy, two years out of the USNA, and my E-6 engineman were hanging around, staying within ear shot.  “But tonight I will send the other two advisors.”

“I agree,” said Lang.  “That is the plan.  I will tell the men.” He got up and left.

As soon as he cleared the hootch, questions began about what exactly we had done the night before. Casual questions that had been in the form of “tell me a sea story” began to require detailed answers.  What exactly was the terrain on top of Black Mountain like?  How good was the view of the kill zone?  Who held which position when the skirmish line was established?  Did Troung Uy Xi contribute anything?  Should we use the same plan and positions two nights in a row?

I explained that the hill had a much sharper ridge line than appeared from either a view from below or from looking at the chart and that was why we had chosen to be on the facing slope.  I explained how and why we had chosen the kill zone.  It was clearly defined when seen from above and why the team could not allow any VC to reach the grove to the left.  Troung Uy Xi would not embarrass himself, but Ha Shi Tam should be considered the leader.  The same plan and positions?  A much harder question.  There did not appear to be another position from which a dozen defenders could hope to see and inflict damage on an advancing force.  We agreed that the team would take the same general approach, but that if a similar or better position presented itself, the team would use it.

And so it came to pass.  A little after 1900, a 23 year old graduate of the US Naval Academy who had received his designation as a fleet OOD in his destroyer seven months prior and a 28 year old First Class Engineman, able to tear down and repair almost any operating equipment on a destroyer, put on their helmets and flack jackets, picked up their M-16s and marched out into the darkness to set an ambush on Black Mountain.

The team approached the hill along the same route.  They set their ambush in almost exactly the same spot

And they had exactly the same result: no contact.

But, at least we had no virgins left.

Night 3

The day was given over to discussions about locally generated intelligence.  There was a consensus opinion among the Americans that, whatever Dai Uy Lang was paying his informants, it was too much.  While the general enemy order of battle placed the 48th “somewhere” in eastern Quang Ngai province, there was emerging doubt that even that data was accurate.  In the less than 30 days that the advisors had been back at Coastal Group 16, there had only been three attacks and they had clearly been in the “harassment” category.  In truth, the attackers had probably been little more than a couple of squads at most.  The most dangerous thing that had happened had been ARVN 105s in the wire.  Hard to blame -- or give credit to -- the 48th Battalion for that.

So when Dai Uy Lang entered the advisors’ hootch a little after two in the afternoon, he was a bit abashed.  He stood in the doorway, his hands on his hips, smiled in a very shy way and shook his head.  “Dai Uy,” he began.  “It is happening again.”  Groans and snickers all around.  Even Lang chucked slightly. “I know, I know.  But both my men report the same thing:  more VC in the market place and more boasts that they will kill the junk base.”  There was that usage again.  “I do not know what to do.  The story has not changed.  Except that they report more men in the village.  My men may be wrong, but they are not lying.  I know that.”  He paused and repeated, “I do not know what to do.”

I did not have the heart to tell him the story of the little boy who cried “Wolf.”  Instead I asked a question: “Do the men in the village have weapons?  How do your men know they are VC?”  I had two reasons for asking the question.  We might be the victims of an over eager imagination.  If the stories were true, perhaps we could go to Phu An tomorrow morning and meet this folks there rather than in the middle of the night on Black Mountain.

“They all have weapons,” responded Lang without hesitation.  “Some have only grenades, some web gear.  But some have AK-47s.”  It was not a traveling circus troop.  “Besides, they say they are 48th Battalion.” 

Fairly strong confirmation. Time for a leading question.

“The ambush team has been out two nights in a row.  Can they can go out again tonight?”

High marks for Lang:  “If I tell them to go, they must go.”

“All right, then, Dai Uy.  I think we should go once again.  And there will be advisors to go.”

Lang smiled. “Thank you, Dai Uy.  I will tell the men.”  He turned and left.

It would be my turn in the barrel along with my boatswain mate.  In what had become a ritual, we saddled up and made ready to depart after darkness.  The advisory team was tired.  Each night, two men had gone on the ambush while the other two were required to stand a port and starboard radio watch.  Very little enthusiasm was associated with our preparations.  I expressed the hope that, if this turned out to be another fool’s errand, we might be home early.

In almost total darkness, we filtered out the front gate and headed down the road toward Phu An.  Again, we paused in the cemetery where the road entered the grove of trees while a scout was sent forward to make sure the almost mythical 48th Battalion had not already begun to cross to our side.  I had the feeling we were on something of a snipe hunt.  While we waited at the foot of Black Mountain, I turned to my boatswain mate and asked:

“What do ya think, Boats?  Should we go back up there again?”

“I don’t know, Dai Uy,” he answered.

Then he made one of the most important statements I would hear in my entire year in Vietnam.

“I didn’t leave nothin’ up there.”

I changed the plan.  When the runner returned with word that we were alone on our side of the river, I took both Troung Uy Xi and Ha Shi Tam aside.  We would not climb the hill again.  We would move forward through the grove of trees and set the ambush on the far side.  We would be able to look across the river and up the road.  If the VC crossed, we would see them and engage with the agreed upon format -- several clips into the lead elements and then run, calling mortar fire on them.

We established the position on the far side of the grove with almost all of our weapons looking down the road.  It would be quite inhospitable if the 48th showed up.  The view down the road and across the river was almost as good as what we had had on top of the hill.  The swamp grass on the far side of the river was impenetrable from our position, but we would quickly see anyone emerging from it and trying to cross.  They would have more than a 100 meters of waist deep water to cross to get to us.  I was satisfied and quickly set a watch schedule identical with what we had previously used.

I took the first watch.  The night was not as idyllic as the previous outing.  The canopy of trees blocked a large portion of the night sky.  The village of Phu An was behind us and it had not yet gone to sleep.  A radio could be heard.  Dogs were still up, barking and looking for stray food.  Cooking fires still burned.  But at least we had not had to climb the hill.

Almost exactly on the stoke of eleven, I heard a soft “whomp” from somewhere in the grass across the river.  I had not been in country long enough to identify the sound.  It was an outgoing 60 mm mortar.  While the round was still in the air, I raised my head to get a better fix on what was happening.  I clearly saw the blue finger of light reach across the river and turn into a bright yellow flash on the face of Black Mountain.  Almost exactly where we had set our two previous ambushes.  It was a B-41.  Then two heavy machine guns opened up, raking the area around where the rocket had impacted.  The 60 hit in the middle of the maelstrom.  AKs opened up, at least a dozen of them, from the grass directly to our front left.  They, too, were pounding the face of Black Mountain.

“Jesus H. Christ!  What the ? ?”  Boats was awake.

More mortars and rockets.  The machine guns and small arms continued.  Rock chips and a few ricochets began to land around us.  “Get everybody up and let’s get the hell out of here!”  He started one way, I went the other.  All the junkies were mesmerized by the fireworks and more than willing to retreat.

All except Tam.  I got to him just in time.  He was preparing to engage. “Dung ban!  Dung ban!” I yelled at him over the din.  "Don’t shoot.  Don’t shoot. " He turned and looked surprised.  “Di Di, Mau!”  Let’s go.

We stopped on the far side of the grove only long enough to count noses and call the coordinates into the base.  Only Troung Uy Xi was missing.  He had already run for home.  When we had everyone, we broke into a sprint.  It was 600 meters to our front gate.  We walked the last 50.

The heavy explosions had ended.  Only the machine guns and small arms continued.  They probably wondered why there was no return fire.  Ha Shi Tam caught up with me just before we entered the base.  I didn’t know he knew any English.  “Numba ten, Dai Uy.  Numba ten,” he said.

At least that.  Yep, the 48th was out there.  But for better or worse, we were home early.

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