Tuesday, January 11, 2011

From the Pages - Road of 10,000 Pains

From April to June of 1967, U.S. Marines engaged the North Vietnamese is a series of bloody battles in South Vietnam's Que Son Valley. Dubbed Operation Union I and Operation Union II, the operations were designed to wrestle control of the strategically important region from the enemy, giving U.S. forces a larger permanent residence in the area.

In the following excerpt from Road of 10,000 Pains, author Otto Lehrack and several Operation Union II veterans from the 1/5 Marines recount their initial contact with the enemy moments after setting foot in their landing zone on May 26, 1967.

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A MACHINE GUN OPENED UP AND SENT the Marines to the ground. They lay there in a trough of indecision and taking casualties until Lance Cpl. Gordon Seablom stood up, waving his .45, and urged the Marines on. Fields, being in the gun team, set his gun up next to a mature stand of bamboo and sent bursts of fire into the enemy position. Corporal Charlie Crump was showing Fields where to shoot when a mortar round exploded right next to him, blowing Crump’s life away and throwing his body on top of Fields’s legs. Sharp, hot steel punched into the ground all around Fields, but good battlefield luck was with him that day, and he was not hit except for a piece that grazed his knee.

For Pfc. Fred Riddle, mortar man and FNG, it was the first time being shot at.

Pfc. Fred Riddle: The feeling can’t be explained unless it has happened to you. We were given the word to move out, and it really didn’t have a lot of meaning at the time, because I still was unaware of what this whole thing was about. When we landed I found out, and very quickly. There was heavy ground fire and mortar fire everywhere.
       We moved up out of the paddies to a small house with some trees and bamboo bordering it. Captain McElroy was on the radio, but even though I was around the CP, I had no idea of how things worked. We started to move out, and in a split second everything around me changed. I heard the mortars coming in, but you could not act that fast. Two 82mm mortar rounds landed right in the middle of our group, and Marines were down everywhere. After the initial shock of the event—it seemed like hours, but I know it was just seconds—I got my senses together and noticed the Marine in front of me was holding his face. I asked if he was OK, and he said, “No, I’m not,” and that’s when I noticed the blood. He got his face torn up and part of his right shoulder. I looked at my right shoulder and noticed that my shirt was torn, and I was bleeding also. I looked around and found several wounded Marines on the ground. I found Rocky, but he was killed, so I looked for Harold. We had become friends, and I had an urgent need to see if he was OK. I saw a Marine that was halfway in an air-raid hole on the side of the paddy dike. He had his arms up holding onto the dirt wall, but something didn’t seem right about it, as there was no movement. I yelled to him to see if he was OK but got no response. I pulled him back and removed his pack and started to check him, and it was Harold, my friend, the guy just minutes before I was talking to and sharing my thoughts and my fears about the whole thing, and he was gone. He feared mortar fire more than anything, and almost got to cover, but one small fragment entered through his back and right through his heart. I was in shock.

       After we carried the wounded back to the tree line and the dead to another area, we set up a perimeter. We couldn’t get the wounded out by chopper because of the heavy fire, so the corpsman had to do what he could for them. Because the rest of the mortar section was either KIA or WIA, it didn’t exist any longer. I was all that was left, so I was put in 3rd Platoon and assigned to the perimeter on the left side of the trees.

PRIVATE FIRST CLASS RIDDLE’S BEWILDERMENT was short lived. He was no sooner reassigned to the 3rd Platoon as a rifleman than he looked over the battleground and figured out where the enemy mortars were located. FNG or not, he knew enough to leave his position, find the forward air controller, and help him call in strikes on the enemy guns. 

Lance Corporal Steve Lovejoy was a radio operator with the 2nd Platoon, Mike Company. He was down in the dirt and hit when burning debris from a white phosphorous round landed on his pack and set it on fire. The pack was full of flares and ammunition, and he was more terrified of the blazing pack than of the enemy gunfire. He was sure he was going to be burned alive and had to stand up in the middle of the fight to get the pack off his back. Lance Corporal John Lobur thought he could smell flesh burning and figured that Lovejoy was dead.

At 1600, India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, attacked to come up on the flank of the enemy and relieve pressure on Lima so they could retrieve casualties. The Marines struck the enemy with air and artillery and enveloped the position after much hard fighting.

Cpl. Tim Hanley: We hit a lot of resistance and tried flanking them from the north and really ran into another whole unit. It was a heavier force than we thought it was. India Company was on the point of 3/5 and got pinned down; the gooks were entrenched in the tree line, and we sent 3rd Platoon under Lt. Kenny Moore. He ran into another entrenched NVA unit. We were taking a lot of fire and mortars. We assaulted through this tree line and got the gooks on the run, and it was a Marine’s dream come true. There was a down slope on the backside. And the NVA hauled ass down the slope. We could only get a few guys in there to shoot, but there were thirty, forty bodies by the time we finished. We had problems with the M16, so we had our cleaning rods assembled and stuck down the sling swivels.

DURING A SEARCH OF THE AREA, an attached engineer, Cpl. David Mollenkamp, peeked into a cave and had a meeting engagement with an NVA whom he outdrew and shot down. He then blew up the enemy ordnance he found in the cave. On his way to rejoin the other Marines he encountered and killed two more of the enemy.

At 1700 Lima fell back, leaving one platoon behind to retrieve casualties after dark. 

THE NVA HAD COMMENCED HAMMERING the landing zone at about 1730 with heavy small-arms and 82mm mortar fire, once more taking out a battalion command group, blowing it apart, and killing or wounding nearly everyone. One of the colonel’s radio operators and Sgt. Forrest McKay, the chief scout sniper, were the only ones not killed or wounded by the barrage. Mortar fragments tore Lieutenant Colonel Esslinger’s eye out and killed Capt. James Ayers, the battalion communications officer. Sergeant McKay picked up Captain Ayers, slung him over his back, and looked for cover. Esslinger and McKay staggered toward a hole. Esslinger jumped in first, and McKay, with Captain Ayers on his back, landed on top of the colonel. More mortars hit the LZ, and McKay was wounded in the back. Lieutenant Colonel Esslinger remembers that after he was hit and with the mortars still coming in at intervals, he and several of his Marines dove for the same hole several times. The colonel usually landed on top of the pile, in the most exposed position. He muttered, “Why do I always have to land on top?” A young Marine lying under him said, “That is because you are old and slow, sir.”

Cpl. Bill Clark: When the CP group came in and Colonel Esslinger was hit, I started crawling toward them and finally got so tired with the heat and all that I just stood up in the middle of the fire and walked back to where the battalion was. The first person I saw was Colonel Esslinger with the bandage over his eye. He offered me his canteen. I had just got back to the CP area when we got mortared again.

ONE OF THE MORTAR ROUNDS SCORED a direct hit on Lance Cpl. Robert Daniel, blew him apart, and sprayed the immediate area with a shower of hot, razor-sharp fragments, brown smoke, a pink mist of blood, and bits of flesh.

Capt. Jim McElroy: Down about 150 yards from me, right in the middle of all this fire, were this pilot and a crewman trying to fix their helicopter. They were walking on the top of it like nothing was happening, nonchalantly trying to get it fixed. The aircrew repaired the chopper and flew it out of the LZ at 1800 that evening.

AT 2000 A HELO LANDED AMIDST THE FIRE and managed to get Lieutenant Colonel Esslinger and a few casualties out. The remainder had to wait until the following morning.

By the end of the day, HM3 Glenn Glasgow, Lima Company, 5th Marines, had used every battle dressing in his unit one medical bag.

Doc Glenn Glasgow: We began the day with seven corpsmen. By the next morning there were only four. The senior corpsmen, HM2 John Schon and a friend of mine, HN Mike Carey, were KIA, and Doc Billy Claggett was medevaced to Da Nang.[insert image 41 here]

Cpl. Bill Clark: The M16s were failing. When I was up near the dike, I saw three NVA in the tree line. I got off one round before mine jammed. It looked like the Civil War out there, with all the guys using ramrods. I cleared the jam and fired but only got one round off, and it jammed again. While I was in this exposed position, I could only fire single rounds before having to clear the rifle. I fired a whole magazine that way. I remember thinking that here I am with a single-shot .22, and if they rush me, I’m in trouble. When I got back to the LZ, there was a pile of weapons from our wounded and dead, and I got one of them. It didn’t jam as often.
        Except for me and Scotty, the Lima CP group was wiped out. I ended up with three radios; I had my battalion net radio, Schofield’s company net radio, and the radio that Scotty was carrying before Russo was hit and he took over FAC duties. All of the antennas made a hell of a target. Mel Bellamy casually walked up with rounds flying everywhere and asked if he could have one of my radios because his had a hole in it. He was as calm as if he was on a street at home. I yelled for him to get his ass down, and did he think he couldn’t get hit? He took a radio and went back to his platoon. He was completely unflappable. I ended up dragging and carrying that second radio around with me until I got back to the new CP area later in the day.

SCOTT LOOKED OFF TO HIS LEFT and out about 150 meters saw Cpl. Harry White just stand up and walk toward the enemy tree line by himself, firing his machine gun as he went. He just kept walking and spitting leaden death until the enemy shot him down. Scotty thought that White was dead, but he somehow survived and many years later showed up at a reunion.

Cpl. Lynwood Scott: By two or three in the afternoon I was exhausted and out of water, and someone came up on the net and said, “We are going to take over air from you.” I said, “Roger.” I was so tired and worn out that I just stood up amongst the fire and started walking back like a zombie. I didn’t care if I got shot or not. I saw three Marines off to the right who had been trying to evacuate a casualty with two on one side of a poncho and just one on the other. I ran over there to help out, and we took the casualty back.
       Captain Ayers had been killed already. He was a real genuine and kind person that everyone respected. A M79 round just touched my arm as it went by, and there were itty-bitty pellets in it. A Corpsman came by, and I told him not to bother with me, because there were much more seriously wounded. A Marine came by and said, “Turn Ayers over; half his face is gone.” I couldn’t do it. I was sitting right by him and had just brought the wounded guy in. I sat there and put my hands over my face and cried. I didn’t know before that he was dead. I thought, “What a waste. What a good, good man.” Sergeant Marty “Skip” Pickens, Colonel Esslinger’s radio man, said, “Scotty, get up and go out there and help bring in the wounded.” I thought, “Who made you God?” But I went back out and started bringing the dead and wounded back.

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