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In an ongoing fight that began not long after a combat assault out of LZ Jess (III Corps, Tay Ninh Province), Comanche fought an NVA unit that was deeply entrenched in heavily fortified bunkers. Below is a composite of memories from Bob Hutton, who was an RTO with the 3rd Platoon, and Richard "Doc" Bovie, the Senior Medic. Bob's remembrances are condensed from his unpublished book "Gypsies", and Richard's thoughts are from an email he wrote Bob after reading Chapter 44 and 45 from "Gypsies." Bob's recollections are in red, and Doc Bovie's in blue.
If any member of Comanche who was in this fight has additional thoughts, please send them to the Webmaster.
Bob begins a short time after Comanche had landed on a green LZ on December 18. The company had just finished a short break
Bob Hutton: No sooner did we stand up than all hell broke loose. Twenty or thirty enemy soldiers firing their AK-47’s all at the same time, on automatic, put out what can only be described as a “wall” of bullets in a matter of seconds. As soon as the outburst began, we dove for the ground. The problem now was that we’d dived flat on the ground, for lack of any available cover, and there was no cover within easy reaching distance.
I was lying face down, as were the men on either side of me, with my head in the direction of the enemy fire, so that I presented the smallest possible target to them. This was the first time I’d experienced being caught so flat out in the open and it was akin to having your head in a shark’s mouth just before he closed it. Wada lay on my right and Swede to my left, with no more than three feet between each of us.
After the initial huge outburst of fire died away, there were sporadic bursts that came at intervals of seconds apart. It seemed incredible that none of us had been hit yet, with our being so totally exposed. Every few seconds a burst ripped up the ground, starting from in front of our heads and passing down the length of our bodies, in the spaces between us.
After what seemed an eternity of lying there and taking what came, the firing died down somewhat. That was due, in good measure, to the fact that the other men of the company, who hadn’t been caught so out in the open, had begun returning the fire with a vengeance. Immediately, we slid back to the curve of the hill and down the side, out of the line of fire. Now that the shock of the ambush had worn off, the company easily turned the tide of battle in our favor. Within fifteen minutes a Cobra was circling overhead and being given the coordinates for that tree line. The most beautiful sound in the world was when the air was suddenly filled with that huge chain saw sound of its mini-gun pouring rounds into the enemy tree line. Then, after it had completed several passes with the mini-gun, it made several more, firing as many as ten rockets in a single pass.
When the Cobra strike was over, a couple of squads were sent into that tree line to look for dead and wounded. They found the bodies of seven NVA Regulars, but no survivors. The rest of the force had left the area shortly after initial contact was made. Fortunately only two of our men had received minor wounds from the engagement. As soon as they were Medevaced out, the company continued along the original route and crossed the top of the hill, then down into full-blown, steamy swamp. To cross that leach infested, mosquito filled swamp, we were literally walking on the slippery roots of the swamp trees.
(Webmaster Note: Records indicate there was only one contact on December 18th. Most likely, that was the one Bob described above. On December 19th, another brief contact was made with no casualties. The contact Bob and Richard describe next probably took place December 20th.)
Suddenly, when I was about halfway across to where the base of the next hill rose out of the swamp, what sounded like a hundred automatic weapons began firing up ahead, as if all hell had broken loose! I could see the line of men, to my front, stretching up the side of the hill and over the top, but couldn’t see what was going on beyond the crest where the shooting was taking place.
From the amount of fire up there it was pretty clear that the front of the column had walked into another ambush, a major one. Moments after the initial outburst, piercing screams, like nothing I’d ever heard before, filled the air. As many times as the company had had men killed or wounded, this was the first time I actually heard someone screaming in pain, at the top of his lungs, and it was an incredibly horrible sound.
Richard Bovie: I was the company senior medic, but I was traveling with 3-6 to cover for the medic who was on R&R. While you were still in the swamp, we hit the ambush. After the initial burst of gunfire, they called for a medic. When I got there, James King had been hit in the throat. I thought he was bleeding from the mouth but it turned out later that the bullet had gone upwards and his brains were oozing out of his mouth. When I went to treat him and lifted my head, a bullet slammed into King about six inches from my head. I moved back a little bit and fired a clip into the area in front of me - the only time during my year that I did so.
A few seconds later, another burst of gunfire erupted and Larry Fox was hit. His ammo bearer, "Fuzzy", yelled "Doc - Larry's hit!", then a second later, "Doc - I'm hit." A bullet had bounced off his helmet, I think one of the three that that happened to that day. I tried to drag Fox back down the hill. The screaming I remember on that initial contact was Fuzzy yelling that Larry was dead, and for me to let him go. I kept trying to pull him back, but I couldn't get any leverage since I was lying so flat. I have no idea why I didn't get hit. Finally, in crawling backwards, I got my foot tangled in some roots and couldn't move. I panicked, got myself free, and was able to get back to the CP. (Note: 3rd Platoon command post.) A few minutes later, Dellinger got hit in the arm, and Jerry Clark and I went back up to treat and rescue him. He was the one who was removed by jungle penetrator before the first bombing run.
Bob Hutton: The men furthest up had pulled back from the area of contact and were lying, pretty much out in the open, on their stomachs. They were about twenty yards away from us, in a line across our front. A few yards behind them, the medics knelt, working feverishly on the wounded. The man who’d been screaming was a young black guy who had taken several rounds in both of his legs. He was lying on his back with the medics working feverishly over him, and a couple of others, when we moved past, on our way up. At the moment he was quiet because he’d been given a heavy dose of morphine, but I really felt for the poor guy. It was obvious from the tears running down his cheeks and the spasmodic shivering of his arms, crossed in front of his chest, that he was in a great deal of pain.
From the amount of fire that came out of that tree line, it was obvious that this was more than a small enemy squad in a hit-and-run ambush. As this engagement continued, it would become all too clear that a company of one-hundred-and-ten American infantrymen was pitted against a battalion of well seasoned North Vietnamese Regulars. In fact, the ambush we ran into earlier was a small contingent of this same force which was sent out to try and divert us away from discovering their main base at the top of this hill. When they broke off that contact, they must have moved back up here to the main unit. Soon enough we’d discover that they were dug in at the top in what could only be described as an impenetrable fortress!
When we reached the front line, we laid on the ground, on our stomachs, with the men who were up there when the initial shooting broke out. We were immediately filled in on the situation. “We managed to drag the wounded with us when we pulled back, but the three bodies are still up there in the clearing. (Note: Records indicate King and Fox were KIA.) The captain says we’ve got to get them out and I guess they’re having a meeting to decide who’s going up there to get them.”
After two Cobras had expended everything on the tree line, our platoon leader came up to the line and passed the word. “First and second squads, get ready to move up the hill. You’ll be traveling light. The other squads will cover the gap in this part of the perimeter.”
We made our way past the first thin line of trees out into the small clearing where we began to fan out to the left and right. The depth of the clearing, from the thin line of trees we’d just come through, to the dense tree line in front of us, didn’t give us a lot of room to maneuver. There were two large trees about halfway into the clearing, but spaced fairly far apart, with roots that projected out like the fins of a rocket before they disappeared into the ground. There were also the bodies of the three men we’d come to retrieve lying close up against the enemy tree line. The sun beat down mercilessly, without the slightest hint of a breeze, the hot air shimmering just above the ground and, because of our heightened senses, the smell of thick jungle vegetation almost overwhelming.
Finally, one of the men at the center of the row facing the trees took a slow, calculated step forward. Then, as if the devil himself was in there, a hail of shots from thirty or forty automatic weapons blasted out of that wall and sprayed all over the clearing! The men standing out in front squatted where they were and emptied magazine after magazine of M-16 rounds back into the trees in all directions! I, Rick, and the others behind the roots, fired higher up into the trees on semi-automatic, trying to hit individual targets, but, as close as we were to that tree line, we couldn’t pinpoint a single one. It was as if the trees themselves were spitting out bullets!
Since he and I had some semblance of cover, little as it was, we continued to fire, trying to give the others, out in the open, a chance to pull back. It was at this point that we witnessed an incredible sight. While everyone else was ducking low, trying not to get hit, our M-60 machine gunner, one of the men who was out front, stood up in the center of the clearing, with his weapon on his hip, and began spraying bullets back and forth. For an incredibly long time he stood there firing, rounds zipping all around him, as the rest of us scrambled to pull back down the hill. When we were all safely away, he took off running and made it back down himself. It was nothing less than a miracle that he could have stood out there for so long without being shot to pieces!
No one had been hit, but, at the same time, we hadn’t been able to get the bodies out either.
From the Activities Report, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division (AM) at LZ Andy (Quan Loi), dated 20 December 68: Item 118 "2/5: C co, 1150H, 940060. Received sniper fire from unknown enemy element force in trees & bunkers. Engaged with Arty, ARA,& A/S. Results: US - 02 MIA & 01 WIA. The missing EM are believed to be KIA but due to enemy fire power, bodies could not be recovered. At 1420H, C Co again made with estimated company size element in bunkers. Engaged with ARA & A/S, Results (US) 01 MIA and 06 WIA. The MIA is believed to be KIA but again the fire was too great to extract the body. Contact broken at 1630H, No enemy assessment.
Again, the Cobras were called out to pour everything they had into the top of the hill. When the Cobras finished their runs, the captain called for the third platoon to send squads up the hill. He was determined not to leave those bodies behind.
This attempt was almost identical to the last one in that, when the men approached that tree line, all hell broke loose and they had to retreat back down the best way they could. Their platoon lieutenant reported that the enemy had dragged the bodies in front of their machine-gun positions knowing that was what we were after. They were using the bodies as bait to draw us in front of those positions!
During the early afternoon a call came over the radio that it was supposed to be Charlie Company’s turn to go in and see the Bob Hope USO show. But because we were engaged with the enemy, rear command decided that only two men would be allowed to go in. Before it was decided who that would be, it almost looked like a comedy routine with just about everyone in the company raising his hand and proclaiming, “I’ll go! I’ll go!” The two, one from the first platoon and one from the fourth, were chosen fairly, by lots, and left on a supply bird that came out to drop off more cases of ammunition down at the edge of the swamp.
After the two attempts at trying to get up the hill, and being blasted back down, the captain called in the Air Force for a strike. At first, Snoopy, (Note: Snoopy was the Air Force Forward Air Controller. Flying in a small propeller-driven aircraft, his job was to direct the jets with the ordnance.) seeing our situation from the air, said that we were much too close to the enemy for his jets to drop their five-hundred and thousand-pound bombs with any degree of safety. In an unusual move, indicating the desperation of our situation, the captain took the handset from his radioman and talked to the pilot directly. He told him that he would assume full responsibility for whatever happened.
Suddenly, a tremendous roar ripped over the top of us as the first jet passed just above the treetops. Then, an earsplitting crack shook the ground like an earthquake. A few seconds later, a sound like the giant chain saw I’d heard when a Cobra fired its mini-gun, tore past directly overhead. Only, this time it was so loud and powerful that it was more like the roar of a huge tiger. These were the forty-millimeter cannons on the jets. They were similar to the mini-gun, in that they fired thousands of rounds a minute, but the rounds were so large that they’d go deep into the ground and explode like individual bombs!
After they made their last pass, Snoopy came on the radio to tell the captain that they’d expended their loads and were returning to base. He also said that two more fully-loaded jets were on their way out. We spent most of the day with squads from the first, second and third platoons taking turns, in rotation, going up the hill and trying to penetrate that miserable treeline. And each time we were beaten back down. Then the Air Force would pound the top again.
Then it was our turn to go up the hill again. There wasn’t a sign of movement that we could detect in there, but then again, there hadn’t been all the other times either. If they were still there, we were no more than fifteen feet away from them.
We stood silently, the adrenaline pumping, until Ron, our squad leader, raised his hand for us to stay where we were and, ever-so-slowly, took that first critical step forward from our line. No sooner did his foot touch the ground than all hell broke loose, hundreds of rounds bursting out of that wall. We ducked in place, firing our weapons, most on automatic, some on semi-, at all points, high and low, in the growth.
A couple of our men were hit, the others near them grabbing hold and dragging them back down toward the perimeter as we continued to empty magazine after magazine into all parts of the treeline.
Finally, we all made it back down, firing as we ran. One of the men who was hit was already dead, a bullet to the head, and the other was seriously wounded. Every time we went up that hill we ended up calling in the Medevac, down near the edge of the swamp, to take the casualties out. Also, each time we came running back down, the captain called in the jets for yet another one of those pounding air attacks, and still the bastards were in there!
Bob goes on to describe setting up a night defensive position as night was falling. According to the field journals kept by 1SG Soloway, Company C, 1st Battalion 12th Cavalry joined Comanche and the entire day of December 21st was spent trying to recover the bodies, but only PFC Hann's could be recovered. Sometime during the night of December 21st, the NVA evacuated their bunker complex. Bob's narrative continues.
Shortly the second platoon was ordered to prepare a squad for going up the hill. There was an absolute somberness among those men when they strapped on their belts of magazines and started up toward the top. They made their way up past the first line of trees and into that deadly clearing. This time, however, the captain wanted a running commentary of what was happening, so it was the first time that a radio was taken along.
It was eerie how everyone in the company could hear the radioman whispering into his handset as he walked. It wasn’t that the radios around the perimeter had their volume controls turned up very high, because they didn’t. In fact, whenever we were in contact with the enemy, all the radiomen disconnected their external speakers, so that the only volume came through the telephone type handsets. But it was so quiet that everyone around the perimeter could hear from one of the radios near their sector.
Whenever the radioman who’d gone up the hill let go of the push-to-talk button on his handset, we could hear the distinctive static hiss that followed each transmission for a second
“We’re in the center of the clearing now and so far there’s no sign of movement.” (hisssst)......
After a few tense seconds, he came on again.
“Now we’re going to move toward the treeline. ”(hisssst)......
A seeming eternity, during which we expected to hear the numbing blast of hundreds of rounds.
“The point man is moving into the treeline.” (hisssst)......
We could each hear our own heartbeats pounding in our ears when they entered that treeline from which we’d been repulsed so many times.
“Everything is still quiet. We didn’t get this far yesterday. ”(hisssst)......
“The point man is through the trees and we’re following him in. ”(hisssst)......
The drama was so thick that you could cut it with a knife.
“We’re still moving in and so far there’s been no resistance. ”(hisssst)......
Almost immediately I felt the wonderful sense of relief that spread rapidly around the perimeter. We realized that if the enemy was still up there, they’d have opened fire long before the point where the second platoon had now reached.
When the third platoon was sent up the hill to assist the second, the rest of the company spread around the lower part of the perimeter to fill in the gap they’d left. We could still hear the transmissions being sent back to the Captain’s CP and they sounded pretty incredible. Our people were moving through a huge complex of massive bunkers that covered the whole top of the hill. Those bunkers contained living quarters, storage facilities and a good-sized armory for holding weapons. They said that the roofs were constructed of tree trunks at least three feet in diameter! No wonder they could withstand the air strikes! They also reported finding more than sixty bodies of NVA soldiers.
Richard Bovie: Its amazing how similar our thoughts and feelings both then and now are about that day. I've also been struck by how quickly someone can go from being alive to being a pile of inert chemicals . . . and you're right there to see it.
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