Ambush in War Zone D
The Vietnam War draftees who fought with valor and saved my life
By Wesley K. Clark
omething touched my foot, and I was instantly awake. I squirmed around to face a dark figure looming over me, the muzzle of my M-16 still directed down the trail a few yards away through the jungle. He projected his voice in a stage whisper:
"It's o-five thirty, sir."
I turned and sat up, my eyes blinking in the dark. My answer was also a whisper.
"Okay, thanks. Get the other platoons on the horn. Make sure everyone is okay."
Other men were stirring around me, and I slowly rose up to a crawling position, stretching my arms and legs. We had been lying on the jungle floor for the past six hours, a platoon of about twenty American infantrymen, strung out some ten meters back in the bushes from the edge of a heavily used path that cut through the thick underbrush. I was a captain and the company commander, but we only had two lieutenants to command our three platoons so I was out with the platoon on this operation. We had arrived at this place just before midnight the night before and assumed an ambush position off the trail. Half the platoon had stayed awake while the others slept for two hours, then they reversed their roles. Fifty percent security was high, but we were in the heart of enemy territory, and maintaining that level of alert was literally a matter of life or death.
I was fully clothed and wearing my jungle boots, which were laced up and tied tight. That was another feature of sleeping in the field during Vietnam: no one unlaced his boots at night. It was okay to take off your helmet before you lay down. Then you just lay out flat, rifle at the ready, and tried to stay awake while staring at the dark and listening to the night. And if you weren't extremely tough on yourself—and everyone else—you fell asleep even when you thought you were awake. You were on the ground like any other animal, save only that you had your rifle in your hands and ready for use. If I ever found someone with his boots off or web gear lying around somewhere—where he couldn't reach into his ammo pouch at his waist and pull out the next twenty-round magazine—I would have had to come down on him. But I'd found that personal fear was pretty good at keeping the discipline taut, and this morning the troops were a little anxious. I knew they all had their boots on.
We were out to find the enemy, to interrupt his movements, to cause him to rethink his attack plans, and to hinder the assembly of his forces that could threaten Saigon. As a mechanized infantry unit, we ordinarily rode around on armored personnel carriers, or APCs. But here we were on the morning of February 19, 1970, hoping that the enemy would make the mistake of coming down that trail into the kill zone of our ambush.
The previous evening we had set up about a half hour before sunset: we just backed into the jungle off the trail and lay down. The flank security hadn't even set up its defenses when I heard the rattle of a machine gun from the left. Two long bursts, and twigs and vegetation began to fall around me like rain as the rounds cut well overhead. Then silence.
Apparently, an enemy patrol moving down the trail had seen movement as the flank security took up their positions, and they had opened fire to cover their retreat. But they didn't hit us, and we never saw them. We had returned no fire, and I was pleased that the troops had maintained their fire discipline. I passed the word to reorient so as to provide stronger all-around security. After darkness fell, I moved the platoon, because I didn't want that enemy force to double back and find us.
We moved a couple of thousand meters up the trail, pulled off, and set up a hasty ambush, waited, and moved again, around 10:30 p.m., to the overnight position. This was real, and the troops sensed it. This time, after I was woken up, I glanced left and right and lay back down. We were at the crucial time, just like hunting: the game would be moving around dawn, and every man had to be ready. The sky was still jet black, and I knew it wouldn't start to soften into gray for another ten or fifteen minutes, when the gray would fade to light fast. Then the sky would brighten above the jungle canopy as full dawn came, almost exactly at 0600 hours.
We waited another hour, to see if we would have any action. But by 0700, there had been no movement down the trail or in the jungle. Every man had been awake and ready to use his weapon for more than an hour, and it was time to move. I stood up, took a last sip from my canteen, chewed on a piece of date nut roll, and motioned to the men on my left and right, ready to move out. We still had a few minutes, and I looked around. All the men were up, silently adjusting their loads. There would be no fires this morning, and no heat tablets would be lit to boil water for instant coffee. As my men drank from canteens or took their last bites from C rations, I went over our operations plan again in my head.
I was with dismounted elements of the 2nd Platoon of A Company, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry (mechanized), from the 1st Infantry Division, about fifteen infantrymen, led by their platoon sergeant, carrying rifles, grenade launchers, and one of the two M-60 machine guns each platoon had. And I had my command group—my two radio telephone operators (RTOs), one handling the company net and the other the battalion net, plus a four-man element from the company's Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol. This team of seven or eight highly skilled, frighteningly fearless, and completely reliable soldiers—or "Lurps," as we called them—usually operated by themselves as an independent unit while performing various reconnaissance missions for me. They were the best men I had, and, like the platoon as a whole, many of them were draftees. It has often been said, in the years since the war ended and the all-volunteer force was created, that conscripts were inferior soldiers, and that Vietnam draftees in particular couldn't or wouldn't fight. But that wasn't my experience. The draftees I served with fought with great skill and exceptional bravery. They may not have wanted to be there then, but had they not been, I would not be here today.
On this particular operation, I made sure that my four-man Lurp team—Sergeant William Bodine, Specialist Frank Juresh, Specialist John Gonzales, and Specialist Mike McClintic—came along and stayed near me in case I needed their raw courage to get us out of a tight spot. We were not heavily armed, but we were very flexible, mobile, and, we hoped, able to move fast when needed. And on that early morning, as we restlessly girded up for combat deep in the enemy-controlled jungle, we wanted more than anything else to fall on a surprised enemy force, pin it in place, and hammer it.
In the winter of 1969–70, the 1st Infantry Division, commonly referred to as the Big Red One, was deployed as part of a defensive arc north of Saigon. It was expected that, over the next few weeks, large Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army forces would try to make a major attack on Saigon from the north, just as they had done in February of 1968 and '69. If that was their plan, we suspected they would be staging the attack from an area of heavy jungle some twenty miles northeast of Saigon, a plot of ground about the size of Manhattan that had been a Communist stronghold for many years. It was known as War Zone D, and the rough, jungle-covered terrain was not crossed by any roads. Our job now was to try to make contact with a major enemy force by running patrols through the more open jungle just south of War Zone D. Once engaged, we knew we could use our heavy artillery and air support to pulverize them. But this did not turn out to be as easy as it sounds, for making the contact that would pin the enemy in place was not a simple task.
As soon as we moved into the area to the east of Saigon, it became clear to me that the tracked and heavily armored APCs in which our soldiers rode and fought might not be the right way to reach the enemy elements south of War Zone D. In some regions, of course, this was the best way to fight the war, and we ran a couple of mounted operations, with columns of APCs, usually accompanied by M-48 tanks, crashing and smashing through the jungle.
That's how we advanced most of the time. However, I often ended up having to put a dismounted jungle-clearing team out in front, their job being to partially clear our way forward with axes and chain saws. And while it seemed there was almost no jungle terrain that our armored beasts couldn't plow through, and no enemy force that could stand up to their fearsome firepower, the thick jungle often meant slow going. But our vehicles were also loud. Very loud. The thunderous, roaring noise of their diesel engines coupled with the crashing of the trees and jungle undergrowth they smashed through could literally be heard for miles. Since our goal was to engage the enemy rather than scare them away, I thought we might better perform this specific task by conducting patrols on foot. I discussed the matter with our battalion commander, and with his approval that was the way A Company began to operate.
In the early afternoon of February 18, we launched this particular patrol after having dismounted from our APCs a few hundred meters from the main highway that ran through Long Thanh. The APCs were left behind with drivers and gunners, along with the company command post vehicles, while I took the dismounted elements of the platoon and my command group and moved north into the jungle on foot. This meant, of course, that we would be leaving behind both the heavy firepower provided by the machine guns mounted on the APCs and the protection offered by their armored sides. But it also meant that our movement would not be betrayed by the unmistakable noise our armored vehicles made.
In open country, a small infantry unit moves while spread out in a formation shaped like a roughly elongated circle, with plenty of firepower available front and rear as well as to the sides. But in the jungle this tactic usually wasn't practical and was seldom employed unless enemy contact was imminent. If we had used such a formation, we would have had to move cross-country through the jungle, and that would have been not only slow, but also very difficult and noisy. In order to move effectively, therefore, we had to walk staggered out single file on one of the many trails made by the woodcutters in the area. And that became our common formation on patrol. While moving through the jungle, we usually spread our column out so that there were about ten to fifteen feet between men, with more space added if the vegetation thinned out.
Normally we moved with a couple of men up front, the first being the point man, who walked "on point," and a backup to reinforce him, known as the slack man, who was supposed to "take up the point man's slack." After this point team came a few riflemen, followed by the platoon leader and his RTO. If I were along, I would be somewhere in the middle of the column, behind the platoon leader. But in this case, we had no platoon leader, so I moved close to the front, and I used my company sniper team as our point team to guide us through the jungle. They were the top soldiers in the company, and they often traveled with me.
When we went on our first patrols on the trails south of War Zone D, we were all tense, ever alert to any noise or movement that might seem unusual. But unfortunately for us, we didn't make much contact with the enemy. And although we walked on many trails that seemed to be heavily used, we had only fleeting contact with enemy soldiers: a sighting through the jungle, a burst of fire exchanged, and then nothing. This was frustrating, to say the least, but we were doing better dismounted than mounted, so we decided to continue the dismounted effort. That was what we had done the previous day, and we had moved steadily northeast on a large trail for some three hours. But our movement had been rather slow, and I estimated we were only five kilometers north of our start point, information I relayed to battalion when we stopped for the ambush. Now we were another three kilometers north and ready to move again.
My company RTO carried the twenty-five-pound radio in addition to his other gear. It was always turned on, and he kept it tuned to a frequency used by our battalion back in the tactical operations center (TOC), a logistical nerve nodule where our battalion commander was positioned with his field headquarters and staff, and that would be the source of air and artillery support should I need either or both. As the men swallowed the last hurried bites of their breakfast, we were ready to go, and I had to keep the TOC informed of our location so that they could keep artillery fires registered in front of us as we moved. I fumbled in my jungle fatigues for the CEOI—the communications-electronics operating instructions. I kept it tied on a lanyard attached to my uniform. It was classified—and under the new system, we changed call signs every twenty-four hours, aware that the enemy could monitor our nets. That day, my random call sign was something like H6A for the company, and as the commander I was sixty-seven. I held the handset up to my ear, pushed the broadcast button, and spoke softly into the microphone.
Battalion knew only our approximate location, but if we got in a jam and needed artillery support, the first round fired would be white phosphorous, whose bright flash could be more readily seen than those of high explosive rounds. While from beneath the jungle canopy we probably wouldn't be able to see the bright flash these rounds made, I had been in this situation before, and was confident that, just from their sound alone, I would be able to use the radio to adjust the impact of artillery fire until it hit on the enemy positions. It was already a beautiful morning—bright blue sky, low humidity—Vietnam during the dry season. That was a strange feature of the weather in Vietnam: near the equator, full daylight lasts almost exactly twelve hours each day, and there are only fifteen or twenty minutes of gray dawn or dusk before the sun comes up or after it goes down. That balance holds steady through the whole year, whether the season is rainy or dry. One of the few reliable truths we could depend on, I mused, was the sun's regularity all year round. Of course, during rainy season, the bright sun was regularly obscured by everything from light clouds and mist to heavy thunderstorms.
But we were in the dry season now, and as my men fell into their Indian file formation, ready to move down the trail, I felt good. We had made contact, we had moved, we were on to something in this area. The mission was: find the enemy. We moved down a wide, hard-packed trail, sunlight splashing green all around us. I had told the point man to stay on a main trail headed generally to the north, and we passed intersections with other wide trails. Was it only woodcutting in this area, I wondered? I looked at the vegetation for signs of movement, and looked down for footprints. But the trails were smooth, and broad enough for four men to walk abreast. We moved patiently, slowly, everyone on high alert, stopping every few hundred meters to send riflemen off to either side and check for enemy presence in the jungle around us. But there was nothing.
Around 1130 we found a small clearing, large enough for a small helicopter to land, and I radioed in the location. That day I was to have lunch with the battalion commander at his operations center, get the update on the big picture from battalion, and review my plans in detail with him. The flight out and lunch were uneventful. A couple of hours later, I rejoined the platoon and my command group in the clearing in the jungle, and we began to move again. I planned to move a few more kilometers and then call the M-113 armored personnel carriers that were the company's main transportation and weapons platform, to pick us up in late afternoon. That was the advantage of mechanized infantry, and I intended to use it—in and out, short foot patrols, and then back to the tracks. It kept everyone alert and avoided the kind of monotony that could lead to a fatal distraction. But by 1600 I was getting a little concerned; we still had more than three kilometers to go to the linkup point, and we had less than two hours of daylight. I was the fourth or fifth in the column when we crossed a three-foot-wide bamboo footbridge over a beautiful little stream. Then the point man halted and turned back toward me, beckoning with his hand. I moved up the column, and was standing next to him as he turned and pointed forward.
"Sir, the trail just ends right there."
He was right. Suddenly, the big broad trail vanished. There was thick jungle all around us.
"It just ends right there, huh?"
"Yes, sir, looks that way."
"Hmm." I looked forward into the vegetation. Nothing. I looked down at the compass in my left hand. We hadn't drifted off azimuth. Okay, I thought, we'd just stay on course. We were bound to pick up a trail somewhere up ahead if we kept moving in the same direction. I didn't want to backtrack, and the jungle floor was flat. It wasn't going to be hard to simply move forward. I turned around toward my left to get the rest of the column moving, but as I turned, I sensed that I had dropped my rifle and suddenly became aware of a loud buzzing noise. I was confused. I never dropped my rifle. Not ever. Cardinal sin! And the buzzing must be hornets. Had I hit a nest? As I turned back to get my rifle, I saw something small and white on the back of my right hand, and glimpsed a dark stain on my jungle fatigue trousers right below the right knee. It was like my brain had been bypassed.
"I've been shot!" I shouted, still in the act of reaching down for my rifle.
"Get down!" Specialist Mike McClintic shouted back as he dove at me. He hit me hard, and I went down. As he knocked me out of the line of fire, a spray of bullets ripped the air above us, and I realized that he had literally just saved my life. In that instant, this young man from Michigan, drafted after his college deferment ended, became my hero for all time: without his raw courage and quick reactions in the face of fierce enemy gunfire, I clearly would have been killed right then and there. Flat on my face I scrambled around and down the slight slope toward the bamboo footbridge. I was alive and I was moving, though I couldn't feel or use my right hand or my right foot. My overriding attention at that instant, however, was focused on survival as bullets were zinging overhead and ricocheting off the hard-packed earth. But a few heartbeats later, my training came flooding back and my responsibilities as company commander took over.
"Get the machine gun up! Set up a base of fire!" I had to shout the commands, and of course that attracted more enemy fire. Sergeant David Bodine, the point man and head sniper, and McClintic were with me, McClintic a few feet in front and farther up the slope. They were returning fire, and as I watched, a right angle flap opened up on McClintic's jungle shirt, torn by a bullet as it grazed his back. I scanned left and right, hoping the enemy wasn't maneuvering around us. I could tell something was wrong with my foot: it wasn't moving right, and now I could clearly see the broken bone sticking out of my hand. I wasn't in pain, but I really didn't want to be right here, right now—not like this. For an awful instant I remembered my three-month-old son at home, my son whom I hadn't even seen yet.
No, it wasn't going to end like this, and I suppressed the thought. Focus. Fight. Take charge.
"Get that gun going!" I shouted again, as I looked back under my left arm and saw the first troops come across the little footbridge. They were here. And they came running. Those peace-symbol-lovin', foulmouthed, cussin', war-hatin', draftee American soldiers came, right into the firefight. They rushed right into the smack of the bullets, and the whine of the ricochets. They were called forward, and they came! God, I loved them!
The machine gun opened up, a long burst, sweeping the jungle, and men joined in with their rifles as the incoming fire continued to pour in. In the deafening roar of battle I hollered for the radio, and my RTO squirmed over to me, maneuvering his load and still trying to keep down. I called the battalion commander, reported our location, requested artillery fire, and asked him to help converge the other platoons on my location. Mass forces. Cut off the enemy's maneuver. We had them fixed. Now we had to finish them.
"Sir, stay still! You've got a sucking chest wound. Don't talk!" Suddenly there was a medic crouched over me, along with my RTO, both trying to hold me still as he wrestled a bandage around my chest. They could see the blood pouring out of my back, and just as they were trained, they were half risen up, risking their lives to try to keep me alive. But I knew it wasn't a sucking chest wound, as I wasn't having any trouble shouting. I pushed them off as they protested.
"Give me water! That's what I need." I gulped half a canteen. I wasn't thirsty, but I knew I was bleeding, and I didn't want to go into shock. This was my command, and I was in battle. The don't-want-to-be-here feeling was gone. I knew we could do this!
There was still no sign of any enemy movement on the right as the incoming fire began to drop off. We had fire superiority now, and the machine gun continued to roar a few feet to my left. I heard the first artillery spotting rounds fall a few hundred yards deep in the jungle, artillery fire that would have to be adjusted by us over the radio so that it fell on the enemy's positions. Then there was what seemed like a long pause in the incoming fire. This was our moment. "Machine gun, shift fire to the left. You men on the right, on your feet, move forward and get them!"
And they did. They really did. They stood up, men from south Texas and the Bronx and Kansas and California, in a firefight in a jungle in Southeast Asia. Men who had been plucked out of their lives, threatened with jail if they refused, some who held master's degrees, others who hadn't finished the tenth grade, they were firing from the hip and shoulder, a dozen men, moving into the jungle to sweep what turned out to be a small enemy base camp. This was my company. These were my men. And I was still flat on my face, struggling to keep the medic off of me so I could direct the fighting. Overhead I could hear the distant whine of the battalion commander's Loach coming in to take a look. He was on the radio, working to get the artillery and reinforcements into the area, while I was running the fight on the ground. This was how it was supposed to work. I could hear the shooting and my men's shouts as they swept deeper into the jungle. Now some thirty meters or more to our front, they began to move to our left front as the enemy withdrew in that direction. After having walked into their surprise fire, we had now gained the upper hand and were driving the enemy before us. And though they were no longer even in sight, the adrenaline unleashed by this firefight was still coursing through my body. I was angry, happy, elated, determined, proud, embarrassed. But I knew I had to shut down the machine gun to avoid hitting our own men.
And then the shooting stopped. It was over.
Soon enough, a medevac bird appeared on station. They let down a "jungle penetrator," no more than a strap on the end of a cable. My RTO and the medic roped me into it and the helicopter hauled me up.
As I rose, I looked down and saw the little piece of jungle we'd been fighting over. Didn't look like much. And I saw the men of my company for the last time as we lifted into the air.
A strange mixture of feelings flooded through me as they waved and our craft rose. I tried to wave back at them, and I felt awful about leaving them behind; they were my friends and family. They were American soldiers. They did what needed to be done, in spite of danger, in spite of fear, and, for many, in spite of not wanting to be in the Army at all. They had saved my life and overcome part of the enemy force. You had to have faith in us, in who we were, and what we could do. Faith against the odds, faith against the wiseass, too-cool attitudes that seemed to dominate in the enlisted ranks but quickly disappeared in combat. Faith. I loved those men, and I missed them already.
As the helicopter pulled around and surged back toward Saigon, a medic began to work over my wounds. I felt the ache and the throbbing, and I knew this could get uncomfortable. But I dared to think again about my family, about my young son, Wesley, and to thank the Good Lord for helping us that day. Even in the worst of circumstances, I mused groggily as the helicopter climbed ever higher, life can be very good indeed.