The A Shâu Valley

by Richard Dieterle

APRIL 25, 1968 — While we were up in the Đà Nẵng area, there was some talk of the A Shâu [A Sầu] Valley. It was a long and somewhat winding valley, a very odd place that even had its own monsoon season. The enemy was apparently well established there: they had some kind of road running through it and it was said that they had anti-aircraft batteries on the adjacent mountains. The brass had decided that elements of the First Air Cav would seize this valley and cut off this supply route. The First of the Eighth Cav was chosen to assault the key point in the valley. A Company was to land at A Lưới Airstrip, an old Green Beret base that had been abandoned many years ago, and here we were to dig in and set up an LZ complete with bunkers and a renovated landing strip. D Company was to land nearby and proceed up the road. We were briefed on the mission and told that an unusual technique of assault had to be used. The reason that we could not simply fly in there as usual was the fact that the hills had anti-aircraft batteries on them and had actually shot down American planes in the past. To counter this threat, the Hueys were going to descend on "auto-gyration." Auto-gyration is what happens when a chopper cuts its engines off and allows its blades to rotate freely, causing them to act like a parachute. Unfortunately, the chopper tends to spin itself, sometimes so violently that people are ejected from the cabin. To counteract this side effect, we were to link arms in hopes that our muscle power would be enough to offset the centrifugal forces. To make this prospect a completely happy one, they also pointed out that the chopper had a tendency to land rather hard, and that we might expect to find our fillings on the floor, if there still was a floor.

The A Lưới Landing Strip in A Shâu Valley
 
General John J. Tolson
Ass Chewer
 

On April 25, 1968, we marched off to the LZ to catch a flight of Hueys. I can't remember where we took off from, but it was a serious landing strip and not just some open meadow. I was the sergeant E-5 in charge of the Guns. I thought that the virtuous thing for me to do, under the circumstances, was to take a seat by the open door, since the first person to die form auto-gyration ejection would be someone by the open door. We boarded the choppers with much more leisure than usual, as we were also carrying some added ammo and supplies for a longer stay. I got myself established by the right door, when someone of high rank came walking up to our chopper. He was the commanding general of the Cav, a lieutenant general with all three stars shining in the sun. He said something to the effect, "Who's in charge of this slick?" I said, "I am, sir." "I thought the man in charge was suppose to be in the center of the chopper," he shouted over the rotor blades, which were by now rotating at a lazy speed. I tried to explain to this asshole that I had deliberately assumed a position of risk, and in so doing I managed to run out the clock, as the chopper took off while this fruitcake was still babbling about nothing. I felt like someone had stolen my virtue from me, and it left me in a state of bad morale. However, while the man in the center was the last to get out of the chopper, usually the first one killed is the man at the door, as he can be shot at any number of times before the chopper lands. Furthermore, since I had the machine gun in my hands, it is always wise to get the maximum firepower down first so that it can cover everyone else. We climbed to a greater altitude than I could ever remember our flying. We started to come up to mountain ridges, and I began to think, "Soon we will see some ack-ack." I reflected upon my father's experiences in his day as an 8th Air Force bomber pilot, except, of course, we were flying in rickety helicopters and not in tough B-24's. We were told to make sure our ponchos were strongly secured when helicopters came in, since if one got sucked into the rotor blades, it would cause the chopper to crash. Anything that caused the main rotor to get out of sink with the rear vertical rotor would cause these rotors to collide and sheer one another apart. So the prospect loomed that just the slightest graze by ack-ack would tear the rotor system apart while we were thousands of feet in the air without parachutes. While I was entertaining these musings, our flight of choppers suddenly came up upon a cloud bank in the mountains. This was a God-send, as we now descended through it without going into auto-gyration or receiving any AA fire. Soon we were below the clouds and we could see Cobra Gunships firing to our front and the usual violent activity of "prepping" an LZ. There were a good many more of these gunships than usual, and they were ranging far and wide. To our relief, our LZ was not "hot," and we got out without anyone shooting at us. We landed in an area where there was a lot of white sand and there was a creek running behind us. Along this creek was a road of some kind, a rather large road at that. We landed along the road and awaited orders on how to set up.

The Russian Truck Captured By D Company, 1/8 Cav
Bob Witt, A/227 Assault Helicopter Battalion (by Permission)

While we were there, a whole squad from D Company came down the road on some civilian-looking deuce-&-a-half, yelling, "Yea!" and similar huzzahs. It did us some good to see them in such a good mood, but it was not entirely clear just what was going on. Finally, someone with a radio told us that D Company had captured this vehicle, a Russian truck, when the enemy got out and uncharacteristically fled. The surprise was too much for them, I guess. Not only that, but the Cobras had blown up several enemy tanks using their aerial rockets. While this was good news, we were not used to encountering an enemy that had tanks and traveled about in trucks. We walked sometime along the road. I had never seen a road like this before. It was made entirely of logs with ordinary mud used as mortar. A road like this would give good traction during the monsoon season, which was presently active in this valley (although nowhere else). The sky was gray, but there was no rain, nor did any ever fall to my recollection. Yet the sky seemed almost always gray. The Air Force came in with fighter-bombers. There was a conical shaped mountain directly in front of us in the direction that the creek and road were heading. It was quite steep and covered in jungle. The jets dove to its base and released their bombs one at a time. This all sounds rather routine, except that they were flying directly at the mountain. They would pull up and fly right up the front of the mountain at what looked like treetop level. How they ever cleared the mountain was a mystery.

Then they distributed us around the area on which we were going to set up. Much of it was on a miniature plateau rise. Where we were at (Gun 1), which looked toward the conical mountain, was a bank that fell fairly steeply for about 15 feet. This is where we planted the first gun. The second gun was quite some ways up, although not more than a half-dozen foxholes separated us. Each foxhole was separated from the other by a rather large distance, a fact of which I loudly disapproved. I decided to sleep with the first gun, as I was getting along better with its crew than I was with Gray's crew. The earth was not too hard to dig in to, and we dug our usual wide gun-style foxhole. The prone was dug to its right, which was a bit unusual. In addition, since I didn't want all our eggs in one basket, and didn't like the distance between foxholes, I had another single-man foxhole dug very close on the left of the gun's hole. This way the ammo bearer or myself, as the case may be, would not be too far from the gun. My own prone was relatively far back. On our left was a quad-fifty, which is four .50 caliber machine-guns mounted in a square, two on top and two on the bottom. It was originally designed for anti-aircraft fire, but we were using it for anti-personnel fire. I figured they would go for that first in the event of a major attack, and that took some pressure off the gun, which was no doubt placed where it was to defend the quad-fifty. Our position overlooked a large plain covered in yellow elephant grass. The enemy could approach our positions unseen at night, but they had little or no cover from the intense fire that would have fallen on them from the quad-fifty.

I had to go back and forth from one gun to the other to make sure that they were digging in properly. The shortest route from Gun 1 to Gun 2 was a diagonal shot. When we were setting up we walked this way. I had gotten part way out into this white sandy area, when someone shouted that we were walking through a minefield. Someone told us that if we stepped very carefully, we would be able to feel the kind of mine that had buried without causing it to go off. I don't think today that this technique was correct, but we proceeded in a very careful manner thinking that pussy footing would save us. At first everyone walked in the footprints left behind by the first people through (myself and a few others), but soon we became incautious and a regular path was beaten through the area, although people at least had the good sense to avoid leaving the path.

The next day the platoon sergeant was out with us cutting down the tall elephant grass in front on the first Gun's position. This was called, "clearing a field of fire" since it enabled a clear view of what was in front of us, giving us a clear field of fire should we be attacked. The sun was coming out intermittently, and there was enough heat to make the work a bit uncomfortable. In time, though, we had a good deal of it cut down, which made our position a whole lot safer.

That same day (April 26), I was near the first Gun's position and a C-130 came low over the end of the runway. I thought he had taken off from our landing strip, but he had come in low and slow to drop cargo from the air. The C-130 Hercules is an elephant of a plane, and it was always a wonder to me how it got off the ground. This one slowly roared its way down the runway. The runway was pointed directly at a fairly large mountain, so planes going in that direction had to quickly turn away from the mountain dead to their front, and build up speed and altitude as they went down the length of the valley. This was rather awkward for a C-130, as it was barely airborne when it had to turn. So it was when this one passed by. It lumbered straight toward the mountain, but then made a rather steep turn. Just at that moment, the enemy fired on it from the mountain to our front. I didn't see any ack-ack, but they hit one of the engines on the left wing which billowed out dark black smoke. The plane pitched just slightly down, its remaining engines running for all they were worth, but despite all, the plane never gained altitude or speed, but slowly sank from the sky at a gradual incline. Soon it splattered parallel to the runway, everything dissolving into a fireball and heavy black smoke. Some of our guys went over there, but they came back later to report that no one survived.1

Scenes of the Crash of the C-130
Photographs of Vietnam 1/12 Cavalry, Ashau Valley April 26,1968 (12th Cavalry Regiment Association Website)

The Fireball that Erupted when the C-130 Crashed
Photographs of Vietnam 1/12 Cavalry, Ashau Valley April 26,1968 (12th Cavalry Regiment Association Website)

One afternoon Martini, the assistant gunner, went down near the airfield on a duty assignment. At that time they were dropping supplies by parachute. Some of these were huge crates full of ammo or food supplies. Given their weight, they could come down rather fast. Martini later told me that one such giant crate come down right on top of a guy, and crushed him like an ant.

       
Air Drops at A Shâu Targetted on White Smoke

 
A Swarm of Ants
Later in the evening, I was with a group of our people near the runway. As you looked down the strip, you could see far off in the distance a little black cloud right near the ground. At first I thought it was something being burned, except that it didn't quite look like smoke. It seemed blacker and lacking in haze. Then I noticed that it was not only getting bigger, it was drifting right towards us. "What the hell is that?" I said pointing down the landing strip. Nobody had any idea, but right about then a few flying ants began landing around our web gear which was strewn out on the ground. Then they became more and more common. "Look at these little bastards," someone said, "they're all over the place." Then it dawned on us what that black cloud was: it was an aerial army of flying ants headed right our way. This is something that no one had ever seen before. Soon they were upon us. It was so dense with ants that we scrambled to put on our gas masks, for fear that just taking a breath would mean sucking in ants. We buttoned the top buttons on our shirts, and did our best to keep brushing the hoard of ants off us. Soon it was over, and the ground was strewn with ants, dead and alive, that had fallen from the aerial host. In the travel brochures, they never mentioned anything about being buried alive in a giant swarm of flying ants; but then the A Shâu wasn't exactly a tourist attraction.

When we first set up at A Shâu, I used to be helpful by pulling a guard shift, even though I was privileged as a sergeant to sleep the whole night through. After we had been there for about a week, I was sitting on the left side of our very wide Gun foxhole, and about 0200 hours, a very small pebble hit me on the helmet. This was somewhat alarming, as it was said that sometimes the enemy would toss a pebble; but more usually it was someone from a neighboring foxhole who was trying to make sure that you were awake. The area was fairly well lit up, so visibility was good. I was certain, nevertheless, that the pebble came from the front, not from the quad-fifty to my left. Someone earlier in the evening had said that there was going to be an OP from another unit out there, so I hesitated to even toss a grenade. I was really puzzled as to why anyone to my front would toss a pebble at me rather than, say, a grenade. I felt insulted that I wasn't worth killing. The least they could have done is to shoot me in the head if only for auld lang sine. Over the years I have concluded that it was someone from the neighboring quad-fifty, for want of any other plausible explanation, even though they swore up and down that they were innocent of the charge.

After awhile, I decided that I had had enough of sleep deprivation, and stopped pulling guard, as was my prerogative. This did not go over too well. On top of that, I was spending almost all my time at Gun 2, neglecting Gray's Gun, another cause of resentment. During the day, I went over to Gray's bunker and found it completely empty! This left a giant hole in our perimeter. So I rather frantically went looking for any member of the crew. I finally found them bathing in a giant water hole. I angrily asked them what the hell they thought they were doing leaving a hole in the perimeter. They generally seemed annoyed, and suggested that I was being unreasonable. I was surprised to see Lt. Church who happened to be there bathing as well. Having completed his field tour, he was now assigned to HQ. He spoke up for me and said some nice things about me even with me standing there, which I really appreciated. As to Gray, I talked to our current lieutenant, Ewing, and persuaded him to have him transferred to a rifle squad. I then shuffled the personal of the two Guns. Bullet Bouchard later stopped by. He too was no longer in the field, but happened to be assigned to this LZ. He gave me a pseudo-fatherly lecture about how some of the guys were saying that I had become a "prick." This was far from true, and it must be said, when an entire Gun deserts its post leaving no one behind at all to watch its sector of the perimeter, the immediate indication is not excessive authority, but a total lack of it.

Up to this time, we had been pretty good about wandering around where the minefield was thought to be. However, I suspect some people were beginning to think that this minefield was a myth. We had, after all, walked right through it, and at last check, we had all our feet. The CO and the new platoon sergeant, from the Third Platoon, I believe, were about surveying things and checking on how they might adjust or augment the perimeter. They wandered out a bit too far and discovered the eternal truth that legends are usually founded on a kernel of fact. This kernel blew up when the sergeant stepped on it. Someone said that it was a "Bouncing Betty," but that couldn't be correct. They took me to see where the incident happened. On the ground lay a boot with its heel completely blown off. That belonged to the sergeant, and as it happened, this was the very sergeant who had laughed at me when I told him not to kick what turned out to be a cheese can. It looked to me like he kicked one cheese can too many.

Off to our right from where we were set up was a giant wall made up of stacked lurp rations. These rations were an order of magnitude better than C-rations. They were light-weight food stuffs packaged in an envelope to whose contents you merely added water. We had thoroughly explored the many delights of C-rations, and had long ago exhausted the menu. Here before us was culinary deliverance, a temptation hard to resist. Of course, we would not take the food going to lrrps, they were infantry with a particularly dangerous job. But these delights were destined for the rear echelon corps, including officers that we agreed were fundamentally unworthy to hoard this treasure. So we resolved to "liberate" a fair quantity of these supplies on the simple grounds that we were the ones fighting the war and they were suppose to be supporting us, and what better support could they offer us than their own food? I thought that this would be a beau geste on their part even if it was involuntary. I am not sure whether I broached this matter with Lieutenant Ewing, but if I had, I clearly had not been met with moral outrage. Consequently, we raided the Great Wall that night, and walked off with about ten cases of lurp rations. They were indeed worth the trouble. Many of these choice items we had not tasted since coming to the 'Nam. It was like being back in the World.

Not surprisingly, an investigator showed up to look into the matter of the missing rations. He was a lieutenant or captain, and wore a helmet without the camouflage cloth over it. He introduced himself, and made reference to the fact that some of his inventory was missing. There was a rumor about that it had been "lifted." Might we not know something about this, he inquired. We had taken the precaution of stashing our ill-gotten gains someplace out of view, so we had "credible deniability." Then in a strange change of subject, he broached the matter of Lt. Ewing. Lt. Ewing happened to be black. Not only that, but he was the only black officer any of us had ever seen. He was apparently quite notable for this fact. He was an excellent officer, rather like Lt. Church, and was easy to get along with. In stealing the lurp rations, we certainly did not want to get him into any trouble. Everyone present just happened to be white, so the investigating officer felt comfortable in bringing it up. "Now I want you people to feel free to speak your mind on this: what do you think of Lt. Ewing? Is he measuring up? You know, some of us have our doubts about whether blacks ought to be in such a position." This resulted in an awkward moment of silence. Then I spoke up and said he was an excellent office. Instead of climbing down from his position, this officer merely pressed the matter, trying to get us to say something — anything really — that he could use to discredit Lt. Ewing. Others spoke up and we made it clear that we thought he was excellent in every way. We were all taken aback by this episode. However, we shouldn't have been too surprised, as the Army was pretty corrupt. Hell, there were even people out stealing lurp rations.


Notes

 
C-130 Air Drop at A Shâu
  12th Cavalry Regiment Association Website

1 The following account is by Sam McGowan of the US Air Force. "Twelve C-130 missions had been set up to begin the drops at A Luoi, with five C-130As and four C-130Es loading at Cam Rhan and four C-130Bs coming out of Bien Hoa. Fighter escort was supposed to be provided by the F-4 wing at Da Nang. ... A Luoi airstrip lies at 1,900 feet elevation on the northwest end of the A Shau Valley. Within five miles to the south are 6,800 foot peaks while the terrain to the north rises to 5,800 feet. Immediately northwest of the drop zone the terrain starts rising to 4,000 feet. And on the day the airdrops began, the entire valley was filled with clouds that were solid from 8,000 feet all the way down to the valley floor! There was no form of ground guidance into the valley, though the combat control team had a light-weight radar beacon to help the C-130 navigators pinpoint the drop zone. The airplanes were to approach from the northwest, fly down the center of the valley to the drop zone, then depart with a climbing right hand turn. The only form of course guidance available to the crews was each airplane's Doppler. ... That was getting into the valley. While the approach was scary enough, it was what was waiting below the clouds that represented the real danger. For the North Vietnamese around A Luoi were very well-armed with antiaircraft guns, including some as large as 37-MM, not to mention scores of 50-caliber automatic weapons. Each NVA soldier carried an AK-47 and had instructions to do everything possible to shoot down the airdrop planes that the North Vietnamese knew were sure to come. ... At about three in the afternoon a crew from the 29th TAS at Clark, commanded by Major Lilburn R. Stow, a popular pilot in the 463rd wing, approached the drop zone. They broke out a little further down the valley than most of the airplanes had, and were exposed to enemy fire for a much longer period. No fighter had made an appearance in the valley. The men on the ground at A Luoi watched as the C-130B began taking hits from 37-MM and 50-caliber fire. All radio transmissions were silenced as the enemy shells knocked out the radios. As the airplane came over the drop zone, the crew could be seen trying to jettison the load, but it would not release. As the C-130 passed over the drop zone, the combat control team could see holes in both wings while one engine was streaming either smoke or fuel and smoke flowed from the open cargo doors. Apparently, the load of ammunition had been set fire. Major Stow attempted to make an emergency landing, but as the airplane made a descending turn toward the runway it struck trees and exploded. All six crew members and two USAF combat photographers who were aboard to record the mission were killed. After the loss of the C-130, the remaining drops for the day were halted."

Those killed were, Maj. Lilburn R. Stow (BNR), Capt. James J. McKinstry, Maj. John L. McDaniel (BNR), TSgt. Russell R. Fyan, SSgt. Beryl S. Blaylock, Sgt. Daniel J. O'Connor, Sgt. Larry R. Todd (BNR), A1C. Kenneth L. Johnson.


Operational Report – Lessons Learned
Headquarters, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)
Period Ending 30 April 1968 (U)
By Col. Conrad L. Stansberry, Chief of Staff

§I, 1. Operations, A. General, ¶2. The A SHAU valley Operation was air-mobility in its finest hour. A dashing assault into an enemy bastion long denied to US Forces and against modern anti-aircraft defenses enabled the 1 ACD, entirely supported by air, to roam the valley at will for a period of almost 30 days.

§I, 1. Operations, B. 1st Brigade, ¶2. On 24 April, the Brigade began a reconnaissance in force in the A Shau Valley with one battalion conducting an air assault into the A Shau Valley and establishing a battalion fire base at LZ Cecile, west of A Luoi. On 25 April, a second battalion of the Brigade air assaulted into A Luoi where LZ STALLION was established. The third battalion and the brigade CP were then airlifted into LZ STALLION.


A Lưới Airstrip — see the map, A Lưới Airstrip in the A Shâu Valley.


Charlie 1/8 site on A Shâu