Place: Somewhere in Western “Happy Valley”
Time: May, 1970
I have often wondered many times why things happened the way they did during my visit to South Vietnam. To this day, no really good answer has been provided. It was late April or early May 1970, when word came down one afternoon that I needed to get prepared to leave the next day for a 5 day operation where I would be the artillery advisor to 3rd Battalion, 51st ARVN during an operation west of Hill 37. Translation, that was on the other side of Charlie Ridge and much closer to Laos. Very few details were given to me other than “get ready”. Boy, how I wish I really knew what that meant! The first thing was to make contact with the battery that had range to cover where we were going to be. It was decided that since we were going to be really out in “Indian Country” that we ought to set up some reference points so we could talk a little more open on the radio without giving up our position. I did that.
What the heck was 3rd Battalion 51st ARVN, I asked? What are they? I was told they were the ARVN unit that operated in the area. Well now, since I could not speak any Vietnamese and I doubted if they could speak very much English, how were we going to communicate? Not to worry, I was told. I said wait a minute, I have also been told that 10% of the ARVN units were VC! Is that correct I asked? It was explained to me that was what the norm. Let’s see now; this battalion was in the area of 476 soldiers so, 10% would be 48 bad guys that got paid a bounty for killing a Marine Officer?? Not good I thought. Did I have a voice in this decision, I asked? The short answer was “no”! There was no long answer. I couldn’t wait to break this news to my radio operator! L/Cpl. Bloom was not excited, but he did get enough food and supplies together that would cover us for 5 days. In our minds, we were ready to deal with the assignment. I did not even have time to send a letter to my wife and let her know that I would not be writing for a few days so she would not worry. It was our custom to try and write daily just to keep our morale up.
Well, the morning came way too soon. I do not remember much about what was happening except L/Cpl Bloom and I were on our own “huey” heading out into the unknown. Bloom was a good Marine, so he did not question what was happening, at least openly to me for the moment. “Stuff” happens, and it was about to happen to us.
Our chopper was piloted by a Vietnamese which did not help us feel warm and fuzzy about this endeavor. We flew west for a period of time. Then for some reason, things started to get a little more exciting. I am not sure what the reason was, but we were going to have to abort the original LZ (Landing Zone) and go to a secondary LZ. Things were getting more tense. Well, we came into the LZ where we had to get off the chopper. Things seemed to be happening quite fast now and I quickly realized that we had to get off the chopper and fast. I could tell from the hand motions of the co-pilot that we needed to move. I saw the rudders were on green so I yelled to L/Cpl. Bloom to get off. He went off one side and I went off the other. We both fell several feet! This was my introduction to “elephant grass”! I thought we were on the ground, but we were several feet off the ground. The chopper took off and we immediately could not see each other. We recouped our bearings and somehow started heading for where the rest of the people were.
There were 5 advisors to this battalion of ARVN; L/Cpl. Bloom and myself; two army officers, Lt. Ogee and Capt. Bass and an Australian W.O. by the name of Bill Jones. It was the first time we had met each other. It was going to prove to be quite an adventure.
We landed in a location other than we had planned so it was necessary to get word back to the friendlies where we were so we would not be the target of some kind of air or artillery attack since we were deep in Indian Country. I had no idea where we were specifically; I just knew the general area. I know that we were supposed to be on a hilltop, but we were in a valley surrounded by hilltops! I was introduced to my ARVN counterpart who I was told was an ARVN artillery officer. We were looking over the map and he kept pointing to a point on the map as to where we were and I know enough about map reading to know he had no clue where we were. He kept pointing to a hilltop and we were in a valley. It did not take too much “G2” to figure out that he was lost. He kept smiling at me the entire time though!
I decided that something needed to be done and done quickly. I had L/Cpl. Bloom get the Marine artillery up and I called in two different 1,000 meter air bursts of WP (White Phosphorus) at specific grid intersections. When the first round went off, I took my compass and shot an azimuth to the burst and then took a back azimuth and drew that line on my map. I did the same thing with the second air burst, which was at a different grid intersection, and drew that line on my map. Where the lines intersected, was where we were. Guess what? We were in a valley! “Happy Valley,” to be exact. I shared this info with the other advisors and they all concurred that my opinion was correct. We then alerted all the proper units as to where we really were so we would not be mistaken for the bad guys and have a mission called in on us.
Everything went downhill from there. We moved a very short distance because the terrain was very difficult to maneuver through. Word came back to us that we were going to make camp for the night. I thought to myself; hey, wait a minute, we are still in a valley surrounded by high ground, and we have no business doing that. We need to be on the high ground where we were supposed to be. We are in Charlie’s TAOR (Tactical Area of Responsibility), not ours, and we are ill prepared to do much damage to him. For some reason, I felt he knew that very well. All of a sudden, I was not very happy with my first trip to “Happy Valley”!