Monday, October 31, 2011

From the Pages - The Battle of Pineapple Forest

The Pineapple Forest
November–December 1967

Having moved into the Pineapple Forest on Halloween, Captain Brown and C Troop, as well as the engineers tasked with flattening the area, operated from a base camp on the north edge of the woods. Rolls of concertina wire were staked around the circular patch of raw earth and more than a dozen tents erected inside: troop tents, mess tents, supply tents, a commo tent, and a tent for the command group, too. The engineers pushed up berms behind which the M48s and ACAVs faced outward at night while guarding the perimeter.

The Chinook that resupplied the base camp each morning delivered not only fuel and ammunition but enough foodstuffs to run a diner: doughnuts, eggs, and cartons of milk and orange juice for breakfast; sandwiches, apple pie, and Kool-Aid for lunch; and for dinner, beer, soda, and steaks cooked to order on field stoves. In addition, the troops plucked pineapples and wild bananas during patrols and went fishing with hand grenades. It was not a bad war in the Pineapple Forest, all things considered. Charlie Troop’s platoons alternately protected the bulldozers as they felled trees—very boring—and, weather permitting, for the monsoon rains sometimes produced mud so thick and deep that armor could not pass, ran missions in those sections of the forest not yet scraped clean. The local-force VC did little more than snipe at the intruders destroying their sanctuary, armed as they were with old carbines and Thompson submachine guns, and obsolete bolt-action Mosin Nagant rifles from Russia.

Specialist Fourth Class Max Pryor sent home a Polaroid in his letter that described Charlie Troop’s first contact in the Pineapple Forest. The photograph showed an ACAV parked in a sandy area. “[T]he two people in black [next to the track] are V.C.s we got today,” explained Pryor. “One man[,] one woman[,] both dead. The woman was their medic. . . . I didn’t kill any of these. I did shoot at one this morning but doubt I got him as I couldn’t get [my driver] calmed down enough to shoot good. He kept moving the track on me.”

From Pryor’s other Pineapple Forest letters:

[Staff Sergeant Coleman G.] Hillman got a V.C. while we were out. Shot him with [an] M16 at about 300 yards. . . . I saw the V.C.[;] he had just one hole in his chest. He lived about an hour. This one had $90 on him [and was, according to papers on the body, a supply sergeant dispatched to buy provisions from a hamlet in the area]. This morning we left the bace [sic] camp at 7:00 A.M. Along about 8:30 or 9:00 A.M. got a call over the raido [sic] [that] some V.C. were spotted just South of us. . . . So we cut out through the boon dock rice fields[,] and what to our su[r]prise[,] up jump 5 VC [armed with carbines, and] running like hell away from us towards the river. We all got on line and start shooting[,] and I do mean shooting[,] all six tracks[,] two guns per track[,] and[,] man[,] the lead was flying. Well[,] when the smoke of the battle lifted[,] one V.C. [was] dead[,] one [was] wounded[, and] one [hiding] in a hole had shed his black cloth[e]s for some fire engin[e] red under wear[,] and tossed his weapon into the hedge row. . . . The wounded one [was] a medic woman[,] had her legs shot up bad. Sent her out on a dust off. Enclosed is a picture of the dead V.C. 35 yrs old[,] hard core. . . . No G.I.s hurt. So far[,] so good[,] but it[’]s hell on your nerves.

In a subsequent contact, C Troop and the crack ARVN rangers participating in the operation killed three guerrillas and captured two. Three dragoons were finally wounded the next day when a booby trap made from a dud 155mm artillery shell exploded under their track. In addition to the damaged vehicle, “[a] lot of the [other] tracks are getting in bad shape,” noted Pryor. “Mostly sprockets. I don’t know how some of them keep running.” The troop maintenance section, which miraculously kept these overworked vehicles in action, posted a cocky sign in front of their shop: “We’ve done so much with so little for so long that now we can do damn near anything with nothing.”

Though some of the hamlets in the forest were evacuated and razed at the start of the operation, the ARVN left alone those deemed loyal to the government. Charlie Troop did not make such distinctions: any hootches in the vicinity of a sniper incident were burned down; the fires were started by inserting a lit cigarette into a ball of C-4 and tossing the plastique atop a thatch roof. “We didn’t ask. We just started doing it,” recalls Pryor. “It wasn’t an order. In fact, we were finally ordered to stop burning down the hootches.”

Max Pryor’s letters to his wife continued:

[W]e stop at a hutch an[d] look into the tunnel[,] and we’ve got our self [sic] a real live P.O.W. [Prisoner of War]. So I’m asking him a thing or two[,] but he don’t understand me and I dam[n] sure don’t understand him. So I hear Sag Durst say their [sic] they go across the rice [paddy,] and sure enough there goes six of them running like hell[,] to[o] far away to shoot. So we wrap [the] one we have up and start back in. Well about half way back to the bace [sic] camp[,] Sag Durst[’]s track hits [an anti-personnel] mine[,] scares hell out of him. . . .
Today we had a V.C. to give himself up. . . . Seems as if things are getting to[o] damn hot for him since we started running around through his woods. I wish every dam[n] one of them would give up and then meby [sic] they would let me come home. . . .
If the V.C. don’t get me[,] this boy I got driving . . . is sure as hell going to get the job done by himself. I now have four stitches in the top of my middle fingure [sic] right hand. Just lucky it didn’t break the dam[n] thing. Here’s how it happened. We are about 2,000 meters out of bace [sic] camp. We are crossing a ditch when Sag. Durst calls me and says I better cut a new trail or I may get stuck. So I have [the driver] go right out of the old tracks. . . . Well[,] there is a tree on the other side leaning toward me[,] and this driver hits it like a fool and catches the .50 Cal barrel[,] which swings the gun and mashes my hand against the shield[,] cutting my fingure [sic] to the [bone]. I could have killed him for doing it. I’ll wait until this evening when they get back and eat his ass out real good.

On November 17, Captain Brown was informed that three main-force VC companies had slipped into the Pineapple Forest to overrun C Troop’s base camp. The information came from a VC captured by the ARVN. “This P.O.W. gave the places they were to mass [for the attack],” wrote Pryor; the areas were plastered during the night with artillery fire, after which an ARVN patrol reported “26 dead and blood trails running all over the dam[n] place. So guess they were real[l]y I [sic] after us, but got their minds changed.”

On November 28, a mortar track was firing the nightly H&Is when one of the rounds landed within the perimeter, wounding Staff Sgt. Gabino Montoya and killing Platoon Sgt. Hillard E. Williams. As the story was later told, Williams only dropped to his hands and knees when the mortar men shouted a warning about the short round; for keeping his head up like an NCO while his troops ate dirt, Williams suffered a sucking chest wound. Pryor wrote home that Williams “sure was a good man[,] to[o,] and I real[l]y liked him.”

Pryor noted that his original platoon leader, reassigned as troop exec, had been replaced by 2nd Lt. Ronald J. Wojtkiewicz, “fresh out of R.O.T.C.[,] green as grass. But he’ll learn[,] I guess.” During the lieutenant’s first patrol, a man walked into the ambush set up by Hillman’s infantry squad along a trail. Hillman leapt upon the man in mock fury, screaming like a madman and knocking him to the ground. Hillman put his knife to the man’s throat: “Are you a VC?!” Not understanding it was all a joke, the new lieutenant pleaded with Hillman not to kill the man. “I just about got sick from laughing,” wrote Pryor, noting that the “VC” turned out to have nothing on him except a wad of piasters: “Said he was going to Tam Kỳ to buy a cow[,] a likely story.”

It appeared to the men of Charlie Troop that they had taken control of the Pineapple Forest. “When we first got here[, the villagers] were afraid of us [and] would hide,” noted Pryor. “They [now] tell us where the V.C. are[,] how many of them[,] and what kind of weapons they have.” The village children beamed at the GIs, which “real[l]y makes you feel good,” noted Pryor. Why had the villagers turned against the VC? “The V.C. come into there [sic] homes,” explained Pryor, “and take there [sic] food[,] and we come in and give the[m] food [and] medical care and treat them nice.” The enemy was demoralized: “The wives of the V.C. that live not more than 2,000 meters from this Bace [sic] Camp are trying to get them to quite fighting and give I [sic] up.”

Actually, the main-force VC scattered by the artillery barrage were still in the area, preparing to complete their mission.

The moon did not rise over the base camp the night the troop exec was in command in the temporary absence of Captain Brown. No stars shone through the low clouds. The troopers on watch, one per vehicle, literally could not see their hands in front of their faces. They also could not see the company’s worth of guerrillas stealing into attack positions north and northwest of the perimeter. Moving with cat-like stealth, the unseen guerrillas went unheard, too, as they wrapped tape around the strikers of trip-flares and snipped paths through the concertina with wire-cutters. The crews of a mortar and recoilless rifle readied their pieces: the instant they opened fire, the assault troops were to dart through the breached wire and overrun the base camp.

The shelling began fifty minutes after midnight on December 3. Specialist Fourth Class Gary L. Henspeter, manning the .50 on C-21, immediately began raking a sunken creek that ran into the base camp from the north, an obvious avenue of enemy approach. Henspeter was alone on his track, which was positioned behind a berm to the right of the creek. Max Pryor’s track on the left side remained silent: the man on watch had just ambled into the platoon’s troop tent, and his replacement had not yet ambled out to the C-20 track.

Startled awake, Pryor “could see flashes of light everywhere,” he wrote, and rolled off his cot “towards the sand bags we have around the tent[,] and lay there for a few seconds[,] trying to figure out what in hell was going on.” Realizing that the mortar fire was probably the prelude to a ground attack, he grabbed his helmet and rifle, then moved to the doorway of the tent. There was a pause in the barrage. “I break for good old 21 track[,] never run so fast in all my life. Opened the back door and get behind the .50-cal. Well[,] about that time[,] the dam[n] V.C. start laying it on our young asses again. I’m looking[,] but I can’t see where the little bastards are at[,] can’t see a thing[,] is blacker than hell out.”

Private First Class Michael L. Colicchio was peppered in the buttocks with shrapnel when a mortar round blew down half of one of the tent’s sandbag skirts. Unconcerned about the wound, Colicchio was very concerned that the bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling would attract the enemy like moths to a flame. Indeed, one of the guerrillas who had penetrated the perimeter under the barrage lobbed grenades at the glowing gap in the sandbags.

Colicchio screamed for someone to shoot out the light. Private First Class Michael D. “Duck” Newland, lying on his back, emptied his M16 at the light bulb but succeeded only in ventilating the roof of the tent. Colicchio pointed his .45 at the light bulb as he kept screaming for someone to shoot out the light and then, feeling like a fool, took aim himself and pulled the trigger. The tent went dark, and Colicchio, gathering his wits, counted to five, jumped through the hole in the wall, and sprinted to C-21. Amid the shouts, curses, and commotion in the shrapnel-ripped tent, meanwhile, Staff Sergeant Hillman, who’d caught a fragment in the back, died in the arms of a fellow GI.

Climbing aboard his track, Colicchio handed up four boxes of .50 ammo to Gary Henspeter, who had been wounded himself by then, then manned one of the M60s. By chance, Colicchio’s first burst ignited three trip-flares, suddenly illuminating the perimeter, “and[,] by God[,] there is Charlie himself,” wrote Pryor: the flares revealed a squad’s worth of Việt Cộng in the creek bed between and directly to the front of C-20 and C-21. Caught in the sudden glare, the guerrillas tried to duck, but Henspeter, up high in his command cupola, immediately “had his 50 on them[,]” continued Pryor, “and is shooting there [sic] guts out[.]” Pryor dipped the barrel of his own machine gun toward the enemy, “and we both blaze a path on them. I look to my left and see some I [sic] there[,] so turn the gun on them and shoot the hell out of two of them.”

Pryor continued firing to the front, unaware of the VC to the rear, one of whom trained an RPG on the back hatch of his track. The explosion blew the hatch in half. Regaining his senses, Pryor found himself sprawled inside his track, surrounded by smoke. He thought the vehicle was on fire and meant to evacuate the thing when “two more [mortar] rounds come in so close I think I better risk the fire on two on[e] than the lead out side.” There was no fire, however: instead, shrapnel had ignited a smoke grenade. Pryor reached to turn on his radio, but there was no radio: it had been blown away. “Then it dawns on me that I got some thing running down the back of my legs. Yep[,] it[’]s blood[,] but we are still having a hell of a battle. Well[,] we shoot two more and everything stops coming in. What a releaf [sic][,] I ain’t kidding you one bit. My Mouth is so dray [sic] I can’t spit nothing[.]” As the attack fizzled, Pryor hailed his buddy Newland, who’d been “helping the wounded boys in the tent and getting them out. . . . Duck and I get to shooting some at nothing.”

Tanks blasted the night with canister as the exec requested artillery, gunships, and a flareship. When the radio went dead, 1st Sgt. Richard F. Williams and two men pushed the troop commander’s radio-jeep to the command track so that commo could be reestablished. Caught in his skivvies when the attack began, Williams wore only helmet, flak jacket, pistol belt, and jungle boots as he tightened up the defenses and directed that the wounded be moved to the helipad. However astonishing his appearance, the troops were reassured that Williams had taken control of the situation: their tough but fatherly topkick was a veteran of both Korea and a previous tour in Việt Nam.

In the silence that followed the enemy attack, the first round of supporting artillery could be heard rushing through the night air: shockingly, the 155mm shell exploded in the center of the base camp. The exec called for a check-fire. Gunships circled the base camp instead, machine guns blazing. Pryor told Newland, meanwhile, he thought he’d been hit in the ass. Newland struck a match to confirm the injury: it looked like Pryor had taken a blast of birdshot to his hindquarters and the back of his legs. Shaken, Pryor asked for a cigarette. Newland ripped open a carton of C-rations for the pack of Kents inside, then sent Pryor to the helipad. “I get there,” wrote Pryor, “and[,] boy[,] it’s a mess.”

Specialist Fourth Class John A. Davis and Charles L. Motin, two of the medics patching up the wounded at the helipad, had themselves been wounded. Total casualties for Charlie Troop: two dead, thirty wounded. Max Pryor saw that the crotch of his driver’s pants had been cut away and a big white field dressing secured around his genitals: half the head of the man’s penis had been removed by a chunk of shrapnel. The medevacs landed by flare light. Pryor ended up on his stomach on a gurney in an evac hospital at Chu Lai as a doctor whose white tennis shoes had turned black with dried blood plucked the shrapnel from his buttocks and legs, flicking it to the floor. The casualties would have been worse had the attackers not been throwing the homemade potato-mashers known as Chicoms, modeled as they were after the grenades produced by the Chinese communists: twenty-five dud grenades were found by morning’s light, along with four bangalore torpedoes, an RPG launcher, and five AK-47s.

The body count from the sweep of the perimeter: twelve.

The number of probable kills claimed by Charlie Troop: twenty.

Not one to take things lying down, First Sergeant Williams had words with a one-star general who helicoptered into the base camp at first light. The general allegedly pointed to the battle junk littered across the area and demanded to know why there had not yet been a police call. Another version of the tale has the general raising hell about a tank whose engine, or pack, had been pulled for repairs before the attack. The two-ton deck plate had not been replaced, as it should have been, and, as a result, an incoming mortar round had exploded inside the empty engine compartment, damaging the interior of the M48.

First Sergeant Williams was transferred out of the unit within days of his confrontation with the general. It happened that the dragoons had begun an infusion program at that time in which a certain number of troopers were sent to different units across Việt Nam. Those units, in return, sent the same number of their own GIs to the 1-1 Cavalry. Such a mixing of personnel, required of all units new to the war zone, ensured that an outfit was no longer made up entirely of men who would rotate home at the same time, to be substituted en masse by green replacements. The program was universally despised: no soldier wants to be torn from those men alongside whom he has trained and undergone his baptism of fire. Officers argued that the program was not only bad for morale but unnecessary: the normal replacement of casualties would have been enough to stagger rotation dates, especially for those units fighting in I Corps.

Williams might have fallen victim to the infusion program. The timing of his transfer, however, told the men of Charlie Troop that their beloved topkick was being punished for standing up to a general in their behalf.

As it happened, the reassignment was to have fatal results.

The executive officer received the Silver Star, as did Gary Henspeter, whose fire was credited with breaking up the attack. First Sergeant Williams, Mike Colicchio, and Max Pryor were awarded Bronze Stars, along with the medics and those dragoons who’d manned their vehicles despite wounds. To serve the needs of career officers, the number of kills recorded in the squadron log more than doubled in subsequent reports, and the quick, sharp firefight was transformed on paper into a four-hour battle in which C Troop fended off a battalion of VC and NVA marching on Tam Kỳ.

The troop lost one more man during the Pineapple Forest operation: Pvt. 1st Class Michael J. Saunders, driver of C-10, which ran over a mine while pursuing a group of unidentified Vietnamese. The explosion flipped the track over; an acetylene torch was used to cut a hole in the armor so Saunders’ body could be recovered. “Losing a man to a mine, that makes you bitter,” recalls a former Charlie Trooper. “That makes you want to encounter the enemy.”

Max Pryor spent three weeks at the 67th Evac Hospital in Qui Nhơn, during which he underwent additional surgery to remove a piece of shrapnel in his heel. “I wish the people back home could see some of the boys that come in here,” he wrote his wife. “Some are so dam[n] shot up you wouldn’t believe it if I told you. And not a one of them I’ve seen ever complains. Last night they brought in two V.C. shot all to hell,” he continued. “They get the same treatment that the rest of us get. I guess it[’s] only [the] right thing to do[,] but still[,] you get to wondering about it.” In another letter, Pryor commented on another badly wounded prisoner in the hospital: “Meby [sic] he’ll die[,] I hope.”

Though Pryor enjoyed trading war stories with Platoon Sergeant Boyd, also recuperating at Qui Nhơn, he was otherwise miserable—pricked with too many needles and wracked with fever and diarrhea, as well as homesick, unable to sleep, and anxious about returning to the field. Pryor kept his concerns from his wife, who was worried enough with both a husband and a kid brother in Việt Nam. Instead, he opened up to his own brother. “I keep telling myself that you were over here and you made [it] okay,” Pryor wrote to the ex-Seabee. “But[,] you know[,] there ain’t a dam[n] thing a man can do about getting killed. I’ve seen several people over here get smoked and die. It don’t look like there is anything to it. They just quit breathing for good. I keep thinking about all them good times I had back home and how much I’d like to get to do it again. What I real[l]y want you to know is that if I do get it over here[,] it was for nothing.”

The war was futile, thought Pryor, because the politicians in Washington didn’t have the guts to wage total war against Hà Nội: “I think any country that fights ought to either shit or get off the pot. . . . [W]e are the best there is[,] I’ve no doubt about it. But your [sic] held back in dam[n] near everything you do.”

Pryor cautioned his brother that “I’d just as soon you’d burn this up after you read it[,] no one needs to know how I feel. I just wanted you to.”

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