It was the end of the day. The bloated bodies of the dead North and South Vietnamese soldiers baked under the cruel equatorial sun and littered the jungle hillside surrounding Captain Larry McNamara’s position like rotting clumps of jellyfish spit up on hot sandy beaches. Larry, a U.S. Advisor to an ARVN South Vietnamese Army Battalion, his American sergeant and about 40 ARVN soldiers were surrounded and trapped.
Suddenly the radio inside our command post barked to life. Larry’s muffled voice cut through the heavy static, “Can’t hold on much longer,” he said his voice urgent but controlled. “They’re killing us with 82-millimeter mortars and B-40 rocket-propelled grenades!”
Reaching out I grabbed the radio handset and mashed down on the push-to-talk switch. “Larry,” I said in what I hoped was my calmest, most professional voice, “I know you’re under a lot of pressure, but you’ve got to take out your compass and shoot some magnetic azimuths. It’s imperative that we triangulate your exact geographical location.”
“I’m laying flat on my face in the dirt,” he answered. Both of my arms are over my head. My compass is in the pouch on my pistol belt. To get to it I have to work my arms down to my waist.
“Across the clearing in a .51 caliber machine-gun with a North Vietnamese soldier hanging on to the end. When I try to move my hands down to my belt, my shoulder blades bunch up and that bastard fires a string of machine-gun bullets right down the center of my back … got any other suggestions?” I didn’t.
Sick at heart I stepped out of the rusty, corrugated tin command post into the open air. Glancing up at the radio antennas bristling against the moonlit sky I leaned back against the rough bark of a palmetto tree.
The moon was full and I could see most of the way across the clearing, but I knew that deep in the jungle where Larry and his men were fighting and dying precious little moonlight was filtering through to their jungle graveyard.
Calmly, after a while, I made my way back to the CP. As I stepped into the room the anxious officers and sergeants searched my face. When they saw that I was no longer troubled they relaxed a bit, but only for a moment. Over the radio I heard the unmistakable hammering of heavy machine-guns, the chattering of AK-47 assault rifles and the deadly whump of incoming mortar shells.
“Let’s plot a horseshoe-shaped, one hundred meter thick wall of artillery fire around Captain McNamara and your men, Colonel,” I said even though I was not authorized to give firing orders to Vietnamese artillery. “Then we’ll fire a ‘time-on target’.”
This would work only if we knew the precise location of all the forces in contact. We knew the precise location of the six friendly artillery battalions; but unfortunately we could only guess at Larry’s exact position; and we had no idea where the enemy units were located. The artillery would be firing nearly blind.
Like magpies the Vietnamese artillery officers chirped to each other and shaking their heads. They were going through the time honored ritual of accepting no blame for an action that might have disastrous consequences. They wanted to clearly and publicly make the case that if the artillery killed our troops, they were not to be blamed.
For me, if things went wrong and resulted in “Friendly Fire” casualties, I would not be given the benefit of the doubt. I had knowingly overstepped my authority and my military career would be terminated under the klieg lights of the evening news.
Finally the Fire Direction Centers had the information they needed; each artillery piece was loaded and the tubes were standing ready; U.S. and ARVN soldiers were standing by their guns clutching lanyards in their hands.
They stared at their stop watches waiting to shout, “Fire number one! Fire number six! Fire number three!” At each command a soldier pulled his lanyard. The timing was exact down to the last second.
Now came the tricky part. Larry had to know in what direction to lead his men once the firing started. If I gave him instructions over the radio in the clear, the North Vietnamese would hear and intercept him and his soldiers and they would be butchered.
I couldn’t encode the information either because Larry would be shot the second he snapped on his flashlight to copy down the code and decipher it. No matter how careful he tried to be, the enemy was close enough to spot him. Darkness was one of Larry’s few friends that night.
Again I picked up the radio handset. Larry’s voice was faint now with the sound of machine-gun and mortar fire louder. Briefly I explained the plan than asked, “Do you remember the Bible story about the birth of Jesus?
“Of course I do,” he snapped. “Men out here are dying all around me and all you can do is tell Bible stories. “
Ignoring him I continued, “Do you remember the star when Jesus was born?”
Pausing for a second, he responded with a little understanding this time. “Yeah, I remember.”
Do you recall the direction the star came from?” I continued.
“Yeah … you bet,” he confirmed the timbre of his voice lightening.
“That’s the side of the horseshoe that’s open,” I shouted over the sound of exploding mortar shells. “Fight your way out in that direction!”
“Give me five minutes,” he hoarsely croaked.
After what seemed an eternity I turned to the Vietnamese artillery officers and ordered, “Fire!”
Thunder boomed out across the jungle battlefield as myriad artillery tubes belched fire and death into the night. In the distance the sky glowed pink, yellow, and white as tons of explosives cruelly churned the earth. Cold sweat trickled down the inside of my camouflage fatigues.
As abruptly as the barrage started it stopped. The sound hung in the air, impotently now that the explosions were spent. Then came the hard part … the waiting.
Larry and his Vietnamese soldiers had to painstakingly pick their way through the jungle blackness to safety. They could be ambushed at any moment and they had to maintain radio silence to avoid giving away their positions.
I found an empty bunker and tried to sleep, but couldn’t. Finally, I made my way back to the CP where Vietnamese soldiers and their U.S. advisors drifted in and out drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and asking the radio operatives over and over, “Any word?”
For seemingly the thousandth time I look up anxiously at the sky. Faintly now the eastern sky paled. It was time to get on to Larry’s agreed on rendezvous point.
Suddenly over the radio Larry’s voice burst out strong and jubilant, “We’re almost to the river!”
For what seemed like hours but was probably only minutes, I stood at the near side of the swaying rope suspension bridge watching and waiting. Finally with a shout Larry sprang from the green forest wall at the far end of the rope bridge. An Irish grin lightened his mud smeared face. He waved.
Larry and his happy survivors plodded wearily across the swaying bridge. They had reason to be happy, not a single U.S. or ARVN soldier had been lost.