Ambush
Ambush
AMBUSH


by Vaughn Banting

I might begin this story by pointing out that a mind has a mind of its own so to speak.  When our mind doesn't have enough
information to recollect a story, based on what information it does have, it tends to fill in the blanks.  And thus after 30 years since
experiencing these events it is difficult for me to be sure that some of these specific circumstances are not now just time altered
lies. But risk that as I must, at least knowing, about the subconscious brain's propensity to alter a story, should help my,
conscious self, guard against doing it for any base motives.

When my memory is unclear on a point, I will just admit it and bounce on to a clearer recollection.  It won't make for the smoothest
of narrative but the images that are still clear to me, put together in as chronological order as this aging brain will allow, I think still
can produce a meaningful tale.

However, added to the memory loss we all encounter as we age, are my own extenuating circumstances.

Since Vietnam I have had two malignant brain tumors and a total of four separate craniotomies.  Courses of chemotherapy and
radiation have also not helped memory recall. But I must state, in my brain's defense, that my long-term memory has not been
damaged nearly as much as my ability to recall recent events.  The missing pieces of my long-term memory are not likely any
more extensive than those of the reader's.

So now try to stretch your own memory back to the jungles of Vietnam, during the period of 1970 and 1971, specifically on the day
of March 2 1971.

I received a call on my prick 25 radio saying there had been a change in the ballgame and being the senior RTO of the third platoon
I had learned to dread calls like that.  The time it took me to decode the particulars of the coming mission only gave me more time
to dread it.

The plan was simple. We were to be picked up by choppers from our then current ambush patrol activities and flown miles and
miles over impenetrable jungle to locate and land in a large clearing. In fact the clearing turned out to be so large that it easily
encompassed a group of recently arrived, armored personnel carriers or APCs, found as we landed, arranged in a circle like a
wagon train drawn up for the night.

It seems that our battalion commander, a Lt. Col. Salucci, had gotten some intelligence on a battalion sized enemy force supposed
to be headquartered in a bunker complex some direction into the jungle from this clearing.  (I never did find out how the track units
got in there in the first place, we being called in to rift the area because the trees of that jungle were supposedly too large for the
APCs to maneuver among.)

Before I get into the particulars of the story, it might be important to note that this all took place during the period nearing the end of
the war known as Vietnamazation. A novel idea had cropped up. Something about letting the Vietnamese fight their own war
(Remarkable that that notion hadn't occurred to anyone before the loss 50,000 American lives).  It was a time when career officers
were hopeful to attain as much combat related rank as possible before the war ran out.

And the only way to get that rank was through a body count.  This meant going after some scary, left alone till then and quickly
diminishing targets, as the Vietcong and NVA troops had started to lie low, sensing that the Americans were searching for a way
out of the war.  Any intelligence about the presence of still active large enemy targets was fought over by those cadre that were
nearing a possible promotion such as Lt. Col.'s or Major General's etc. The war was all but lost politically because of changing
attitudes back in the states and among the American troops still fighting, there was a pervasive feeling that one didn't want to be
the last man to die in Vietnam.

As we were landing in that clearing outside the circle of APCs, men in another part of the clearing could be seen leveling the base
plates of four deuce mortars.  This was accomplished by digging large shallow holes in the ground and then stacking boxes of
perfectly good C. rations in them to make a solid base for the mortar tubes.  The mortars would then be fired continuously until their
firing no longer influenced the trajectory of the round fired due to sinking.

Landed against this backdrop, most of the men settled into conversation among the track drivers and crews, while Lieut. Williams,
Sgt. Mac and myself headed to the CP tent.  There we met the captain of the track units and were given our orders.

On each of the four coming days we were to walk to the wood line in direction X, enter the jungle and hack our way approximately
800 meters inside, before setting up a holding area.  We were to rest in this holding area and then begin hacking a cloverleaf
shaped trail through the jungle pausing at predetermined points on the map, to radio situation reports back to the captain of the
tracks.  We would hack a given distance and then pause to say we were passing checkpoint A, checkpoint B, and so on. Calling in
at these checkpoints as we proceeded through the preset increments of the cloverleaf assured us quick response from the air if we
got into anything heavy.

On the first day (whatever direction that may have been) we would, for instance go east and then on the second day we would go
north and so on. I'm not clear on what direction we actually began with.  Of course the trick was always to find our way back to our
holding area without getting lost.  This was no easy task however.

Normally if we got lost we would use an artillery marking round or airburst fired from the nearest fire-base and powder calculated to
explode over a preset pair of coordinates on a map that we shared with the rear. The white phosphorus cloud it produced would help
us determine where we were, relevant to the map, with the use of a compass quickly directed at the cloud before it drifted off target. 
However, since we were so far from any fire-base that we could possibly call up a fire-mission from and that we were not supposed
to alert the enemy to the fact that we were there, we had to rely on good compass work and pace counting to find our way back
each time.  (Never mind the fact that the sound of the helicopters bringing us into the clearing in the first place and the subsequent
mortar practice, would have been pretty much an indication that we were)

Anyway we muddled through the first day, checking in at all checkpoints and arriving late back at our holding area to report no sign
of recent enemy activity. We stayed in our holding area till almost dusk, allowing just enough time to break back out of the jungle
and cross into the clearing before nightfall. As I remember it, we started to think, even then, that there was no one else in that
jungle in any direction from the clearing.  I had never been in a jungle yet without seeing at least some damp trails, waxed by the
hurried feet of Vietcong patrols.  It just seemed like virgin jungle to us.

The second day as I recall but it doesn't matter anyway, we went north, with the same results and men were beginning to get tired
of  hacking and chopping  arbitrary circuits through the jungle and not finding a thing.

As we were to recall later, on the first or second day, one of the men belonging to the track crews had spotted someone at the
wood line.  I feel like it was on an afternoon, and some guys were sent out to investigate it, entering a few meters into the jungle at
where he had been spotted.  Since they didn't find anything, the incident was forgotten.  I guess that was our only clue that we
were in harm's way but ruefully we ignored it.

The third day started out like the previous two with our humping out in a different direction, meeting the jungle and hacking 800
meters in, to establish a holding area. This time however Lieutenant Williams, myself and Sgt. Mac having already discussed it,
opted to stay in our holding area the entire day, simply calling in fake situation reports at about the same times of the day as we
had on the previous days. This, we felt would save ourselves and the rest of the men, some needless humping since we had
convinced ourselves there was nothing in that jungle anyway, and who wanted to go looking for trouble at the end of a war?  It
seemed like a good plan and maybe it was but we'll never really know because that day we were to meet the elusive NVA battalion
on its own terms.

We think in introspect that the RPG exploded against the tree Sgt. Mac, Lieut. Williams, the medic and myself were leaning
against.  I remember I was reading a water soaked copy of Love Story that was making its rounds through the platoon at the time,
odd what you remember just before a life changing experience.

Everything had gone suddenly purple and my ears were ringing.  In the confusion, I was convinced that one of our men had
accidentally blown himself up with one of his own grenades, so deep was my denial that we could possibly be encountering an
enemy force.  Accidents like that were prone to happen all too regularly in the bush.  The mounting small arms fire, I felt, could just
be the reaction of the men to the explosion, firing blindly in panic. My screaming, cease-fire, cease-fire, however seemed to be
having no effect and I remember Lieut.Williams and I looking at each other's faces, pinned to the ground under that tree, suddenly
knowing we were under attack just before full pandemonium broke loose.

The jungle was so thick that you would lose a man the minute he went behind a tree or branch.  I remember going out to set the
OPs on the foreword perimeter with Sgt. Mac and observing that anyone firing from the CP would have no clear zone of fire and
would be just as likely to hit our own OPs as the enemy, the jungle was that thick.  Because the OPs were spread so far apart, as
soon as you placed one set, you lost any reference to the second or any clear understanding of the relationship of any of them to
the CP, so dense were the trees and vines.

Almost from the very beginning I was aware of leaves falling.  This struck me at the time as being so incongruous.  There was no
fall in Vietnam and anyway why were the leaves green that were dropping all over me.  My brain soon linked the falling leaves to the
little dust clouds kicking up around my legs and the blinding sound of constant small arms fire.  I remember feeling more secure
when I had adjusted myself and my radio to line up directly behind these little dust clouds.  This meant squirming around on the
ground like I had ants in my pants with each newly directed angle of machine gun fire coming at me through the jungle.

The following remembered events from that ambush are simply laid down here as events.  Any attempt to be certain of their
chronological order, even on the day after the battle, let alone thirty years later would be impossible to fathom.  I will record the
events here only as that, a record.  I can only say that the images are still with me in whatever form my brain has allowed them
persist through these years.

I can remember it becoming very clear even early on, that we were in the worst battle that I had experienced thus far.  Without the
understanding of what was happening geographically, it seemed like the whole jungle was exploding and no clear plans were
emerging in my brain of how we were going to disentangle ourselves from this hell storm.  Normally we would quickly break contact,
in the opposite direction of march, after screaming for a few minutes with our M16s raised above our prone shaking bodies.

But this felt different right from the beginning.  Right away they seemed to have us in a rapidly developing horseshoe and were
employing textbook grazing fire, which pinned us to the ground, limiting our mobility to almost a standstill.

I remember my assistant RTO had been shot in the foot by then and was screaming from somewhere in front of me and apparently
wouldn't let the medic take his boot off to examine it.

I became aware that I now had the Lieut.'s radio all to myself, he assuming control of my wounded assistant RTO's radio, this
arrangement allowing us to communicate with separate command frequencies.

I was now aware that Bradshaw, our 60 gunner's ammo carrier and assistant gunner had been killed, his back blown out by a
51calibre round that hit him in his chest as he was bringing Benji, our 60 gunner, more ammunition.

I remember asking that all the smoke grenades that could be found be passed back to my position.

I remember Col. Salucci's voice suddenly being on my radio headset as I became aware of him buzzing over the treetops in his tiny
loach helicopter trying to get me to adjust the four deuce mortars, firing from the clearing. I remember initially, deliberately having
them overshoot our position, but found that as I walked them slowly back in again towards us, the small arms fire only intensified. 
Afterwards I was to learn why that was, in exact terms.

When we had set up our holding area, we had unknowingly parked ourselves very close to the mouth of the battalion sized bunker
complex we were searching for. My first mortars were actually cutting of the inhabitant's escape route, landing behind their bunkers
forcing them even more intently towards our position with each dropping round.  The NVA force had used all the time that we were
calling in our phony situation reports to position itself in an eventual horseshoe around us. But they had blown the ambush
prematurely for some reason and the battle was on.  Fortunately we had just called in our last phony situation report, saying that
we were back in our holding area and resting for an hour or so before planning to hump back into the clearing.  So although our rear
knew roughly where we were, no one could get to us because of the thickness of the jungle.

The tracks refused to come into the jungle for the same reason they had initially hijacked us to do their rifting for them.  The jungle
was just too thick!

I'm hit! Taking it in the knee while laying fully in the prone position with what first appears to be the same burst of machine gun fire
that has just knocked down Davis as he tries to change locations, except that Davis is screaming more. I remember that the medic
only had time to cut open my pant leg and drop my own dressing from my web gear on my wound, I having to tie it on myself.  I
remember him scrambling off to attend to another wounded man. He was the second medic we had had and a good one. I think we
called him Doc. Hadder.

I remember cursing Col. Saluchie out on my radio and refusing to continue to adjust the four deuce mortars and at the same time
demanding instead that he get me some Cobra gunships on our position right away. I remember telling him that we had wounded
and that I was one of them.  I remember that produced an attitude change in him.

I recall looking up and realizing the jungle was beginning to thin out to just about the height of a man's shoulders, from the constant
small arms fire knocking the leaves off the trees.  I could see, for the first time one of our OP positions all the way from the CP
group.

Just when things appeared to be their most dismal in terms of our survival, Saluchie came up with a plan! I can still here him,
hollering it into my radio handset!

The tracks were going to come into the jungle after all and be guided to our position with the benefit of Col. Salucci flying over head,
correcting the tracks as they went off course going around large buttressed trees.  The lead track would continuously pop smoke
as the column threaded itself through the trees.

I become aware that Sgt. Merrit has been hit in the hip with a suspected 51 caliper round  which has stayed lodged in his other hip. 
He is pissing blood and in great pain.  Sgt. Mac has been missing for about an hour ever since crawling out to check on one of our
OPs.  He is feared dead.

A story is whispered back from "The Kid ", one of OP's at our zigzag perimeter.  He's alive and had just witnessed a NVA soldier
throw a grenade right at him which subsequently hit a tree, bounced off and blew up the NVA soldier.

Sgt. Mac crawls back in to our huddle alive.

"Spanky", our assistant medic has been shot through the eye and jaw and is being tended to somewhere up near the forward
perimeter beyond where I can see.

I am popping smoke grenades frantically now, trying to keep a steady stream of smoke coming out of the top of the canopy so Col.
Salucci can continue our rescue attempt.

The Cobras suppress the small arms fire while they are on my push but when they disappear to reload, the rate of fire resumes until
the next Cobra gets back to me.  Eventually the Cobra coverage becomes nearly constant all-around our perimeter.  I remember the
hot brass falling through the branches, and I rolling up the collar of my fatigue shirt to keep my neck from being burned by it.

We are now flanked fully on both sides and I feel the hair rising on my neck as I make out quite plainly between bursts of machine
gun fire, the sound of Vietnamese voices yelling across our perimeter planning our destruction.  With no understanding of their
strength I feel we are doomed.

A large tree crashes down covering the CP group including myself.  We scramble out from under the branches to the sound of an
APC's engine roaring and its rear hydraulic ramp opening.

It all ended so quickly for some of us.  Now the adrenaline shakes could start with a vengeance.

Although in Vietnam we had all learned never to ride inside an APC because if it hit a mine, shrapnel could bounce around inside
and kill everyone, and here suddenly was an APC with men pouring out from inside it!  I realized for the first time what an armored
personnel carrier was really supposed to do. I thought these men coming into constant small arms fire were probably glad they
were riding inside now.

It all becomes very confused here.  I don't know if this really happened or not but I remember someone afterward telling me that,
sometime during the battle, my radio had been taken away from me because I had lost too much blood and was not coherent.  I
hardly believe that memory now though, as I remember my wound getting all clogged up with twigs and clotting nicely.  I can't
imagine my having lost that much blood from the wound that I had.

Anyway, I remember that I still had my radio when those men from the track came to gather me up to put me inside it.  I argued
that I wasn't wounded  badly enough to go out on the first load and that I could be more help staying back continuing to
communicate with battalion.  I had assumed full responsibility for communications with Col. Salucci at battalion by then, as Lt.
Williams had his hands full directing our men against what was becoming increasingly clear to be some sort of bunker complex.

The track crewmen would here nothing of it however and insisted that I be taken out with the first load of wounded.  The dead, were
left behind on that first trip, I know for sure.

I had called in more than one dust off chopper I remember, while I was still in the jungle and knew that they would be waiting for us
when we broke out into the clearing.

The ride out of there has some sounds and images attached to it.

I remember Sgt. Merrit and somebody else were down on the floor of the APC between these cots or benches or whatever they
were that I was lying on. And that the ride back took us over the same trees that the tracks had had to knock down coming in. 
This made for a very bumpy ride and my leg kept flying up off of the bench, which was making it more painful.  I asked one of them
laying below me, to please grab what was left of my pant leg and to hold it firmly to the bench which really helped the pain as we
rode back over those trees.

The 50 gunner of the track unit I was in, had one foot on my bench and one foot on the bench across from me, and as we were
driving out of there, there was this huge explosion and again,  these memories are very blurry.  The only image I can really be sure
of is the face of that 50 gunner when I pulled on his pant leg to get him to look down into the hole he was standing through to tell
me what that was.  I remember his ashen face drained of color as he told me not to worry about it, that they were getting us out of
there and that was the important thing.  I learned later that the second track to come after us had been hit by an RPG in its engine
compartment and it was loaded with track commanders and crewmen not just average grunts like us.  I don't even know if I can
believe that that really happened because I didn't see it but I'll never forget the ashen face of that track crewmen looking down at me
through that hole.

When we broke through to the clearing, sure enough there were my two birds waiting with their rotors turning and I was about to
have my first and hopefully last, medivac flight in Vietnam.  Funny that I had loaded other people on those ships before but it had
never occurred to me that I would ever be a passenger.  As I recall it, there were two sets of bunks in that modified Huey and I
remember reaching down to grasp Davis's hand and realizing the affirmation that our clasped hands represented. It was that we had
made it!

There were other images remembered from the field hospital.

Of my being embarrassed even in the middle of all that, when a well-endowed young nurse stripped the remnant blood soaked
fatigues from my shaking body.  I remember gurneys passing one another with my friends on them.  It was then that I found out that
Davis had not been shot at all.  In the confusion of the  intensive fire during the first part of the ambush, Davis had broken his leg
while scrambling for safety. But not the leg he was screaming about.  His mind had completely short-circuited.  He was screaming
because he felt he had been hit in the left leg but what had actually occurred was that he had broken his right one.

Some images from those days are not my images at all but over the years have become mine after hearing the stories from others
who had shared experiences brought about by what happened in a jungle on that day.

For instance I know I didn't personally see this particular episode in the field hospital.  I can remember being in the field hospital
and being embarrassed that my wound was so minor against the backdrop of men with missing limbs.  But there was this story of
Col. Saluchie going into see Spanky and presenting him with his purple heart ahead of the official awards ceremony that eventually
presented the rest of us involved in that ambush their purple hearts and assorted other metals.  I'm sure it was meant to be an act
of something, don't really know what, come to think of it, but Spanky summarily dismissed the Col. with a note quickly scribbled on
a sheet of paper.  Missing an eye and with his jaw wired shut apparently, Spanky was in mood to make an even trade for a Purple
Heart.

I remember that there was no crisp closure to the battle. I'm not even sure to this day how many of our men were killed.  There was
a popular euphemism used at that time that "so and so had been sent to Japan",  auspiciously denoting he was recovering from his
wounds where there was better medical treatment available.  But in actuality to my recollection, it was sometimes just used as a
means to break the truth more gradually.  I later found some names on the wall in Washington D.C. that had been sent to Japan.

The battle was declared victory for our side of course as it appeared by the end of it that there was one less NVA battalion to worry
about.  And rumor was that an element of a sister company in the battalion had sent in some choppers in support of us, one of
which was shot down.  But if that had occurred, it was after I was long evacuated from the battle.

There are lingering feelings of regret, not necessarily associated with bad deeds but regrettable just the same.  Bradshaw was a big
lumbering guy but not gifted let us say.  We always teased him because he carried a hatchet on his belt to use for clearing his
sleeping position each night due to the fact that there were never enough machetes to go around.  I felt the teasing went beyond
good-natured ribbing at times.  And yet he died in such an altruistic way, trying to save his buddies by keeping the machine gun
fed.

Another element contributing to the lack of closure after that ambush was the fact that the 25th division quickly broke up and
returned to its permanent home in Hawaii soon afterwards. According to my dear friend Ray Cassidy and member of my same
battalion in Vietnam, that ambush was the last battle fought by any element of the 25th Division in Vietnam.  Men not having served
enough time in country to go home with the 25th were dispersed to the winds.  Some of the men in the 3rd platoon that had
participated in that ambush were still in the hospital when I got my orders to go further north to serve out my remaining months in
country.

Oh, and one last footnote.  Sometime after the battle, whether it was in the field hospital or at the party for the returning Charlie
company, (which included the 3rd platoon), in celebration of the outcome of our battle, I'm not really sure but I was shown the clip-
off battery and housing from my radio.  Through it were two holes that extended well into the battery itself.  This was the radio that I
kept changing the direction of my body behind in response to each newly directed burst of grazing machine gun fire.  It continued to
work perfectly.

I will close with an insight I took home from the phrase, "a change in the ballgame".  In the years following Vietnam I have
experienced several of these "changes in the ballgame", some almost as abrupt and challenging as a jungle ambush, yet others of
them turning out to have been quite needed changes in my life and perhaps even divinely sent.  

My Vietnam experiences have taught me that abrupt changes in our lives, particularly those we don't seek, are just as much a part
of a mortal life as are the changing of the seasons.  I must end this now because we are supposed to be getting some record
setting freezing temperatures tonight and I must see that some changes are provided for the plants.

Vaughn Banting