The Booby Trap

by Richard Dieterle

APRIL 12, 1968 — On the day before we were flown from the field to LZ Stud where we had an easy night. The next day we were flown out one platoon at a time to LZ Sharon where the 1/8 Cavalry had just reestablished its CP. No sooner had the company collected itself together than around noon we saddled up and walked off the LZ for a tour of the boonies.1 Even though it was not much past noon, we were looking for a place to set up. The intention was that half the company would set up in one place, and the other half would set up some ways off. Both elements would be sitting astride a road like giant ambushes. The point element reported back to the CP that there was a little rise of land that had a natural field of fire around it, since the grass there was short. It had been a place where our troops had set up before, and it would require very little work to shape up the foxholes and prones (for sleeping). We were glad to find a place where we didn't have to spend an hour of hard work digging in or cutting fields of fire. However, the standard danger of setting up in such a place is that the enemy was known, from time to time, to set out booby traps where we had been before, since there was a real possibility that we would use such a site again. We had had some unpleasant experiences along those lines in the past, and whenever this happened, we would usually get an order down from Battalion not to reuse old sites. The same was true of walking on paths. When booby traps became common on main trials, Battalion would issue an order for us to avoid them. It is exactly like erecting a stop sign at an intersection only after an accident. In time, the inconvenience of avoiding booby traps made Battalion relent, and we would go back to our old and dangerous practices.

Wall of Faces  
Darrel Bruce Helmke  

So it was here, and we proceeded to set up, each fire team at its designated pre-dug foxhole. The perimeter was rather small so that we formed a tight circle, with the CP as ever in its center. We had a German Shepherd dog with us on the theory that he could give us precognition of an ambush, since he had supposedly been trained to sniff out "gooks." This dog had never been trained to spot trip wires, and one ran along the ground right through the center of this site, where the dog hooked his paw on it. The yank on the cord set off an explosive, probably a grenade or a mortar round.2 Doc was standing right next to it when it went off, yet neither he nor the dog were killed. The explosion was so loud that it perforated at least one of his eardrums. The shrapnel sprayed in every direction and low to the ground, as the booby trap was very near the surface of the soil, and its trip wires ran right along the ground. Someone from our platoon, who was as far from the blast as anyone, got hit and went down. I called out, "Medic!" and pointed to the fallen man. Our medic had been knock nearly senseless by the explosion, so Doc Grey from one of the other platoons went to the rescue. Doc Grey was a Brother of light complexion and of a very calm and cool demeanor. He and the wounded man were off to my right, so I carefully walked over to them. The prostrate figure was a new guy, Darrel Helmke, who was only 18 years old. He was very likeable, so I was particularly sorry to see that he appeared to have been hit bad. I knelt down by Doc Grey, who explained that his first concern would be to clear his air passage. I could now see that he had been hit in the throat. He had been moaning and tossing his head from side to side like all people who are in shock, but now he was quiet and his head stopped moving. He was not a good candidate for survival. He soon died, either from shock or internal bleeding.3

The Captain decided that since there may be more than one booby trap there, that we would form up on one side of the perimeter and make a sweep of the whole area. The problem was that we were in a compact line, which we needed to be in order not to miss anything on the ground. However, the drawback was that we were "bunched up" as the expression had it. Whenever men get into too compact a formation in a situation where explosive ordnance may come into play, the danger is of mass casualties, since the shrapnel as fewer blank spaces through which to transverse. I expressed my misgivings about this procedure to those around me, but we did find ourselves in something of a dilemma. I was standing next to a new Latino platoon sergeant. We slowly moved standing up in a line across the site, carefully scrutinizing the ground for any likely object. The sergeant came across a gold colored piece of metal. Instead of kneeling and making a close examination of it and the area around it, he instead gave it a good kick. "Jesus Christ!" I said, "that might have been a Bouncing Betty." He just laughed and intimated that I was being way too nervous, and indeed, it proved to be nothing but an old discarded U.S. Army C-ration cheese can. He was, I thought, just lucky, and as it happens, this practice eventually caught up to him. We finished the sweep and ran across no further booby traps. After medevacing our casualties off, we settled down into our positions. I noticed that Captain McAndrews, wearing a grave expression, walked back down some distance the way we had come, seemingly to have a moment to himself. Perhaps the worst burden of command was having to write the parents of those killed to explain what had happened to them. It was his call to set up where we did, but it must be said in all truth that there was no one who wasn't in favor of that decision. We just had bad luck.

It was then decided to saddle up and find a new position. We cut across some open country for about half a click, then a few hundred meters up another road. About half past one in the afternoon, the First Platoon, the Fourth Platoon, and the CP set up along the road while the Second and Third Platoons went ahead up this same road, then west down a bigger road to set up about a click from where we were.4 A few minutes later, we once more found a booby trap. This one was big enough that Capt. McAndrews wanted an EOD team to blow it, but Battalion wasn't able to supply one.5 We dug in at this place despite the danger, as other places in this region hardly seemed any more promising.

1 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Division Association Collection, Daily Staff Journals, 1965-1969; Virtual Vietnam Archives, Texas Tech University, Collection 369, Daily Staff Journals 1965-1969, Items 11-16, 23-25, 29, for 12 April 68 (3690204013).
2 Daily Staff Journals, Item 31 for 1252 hrs., 12 April 68, say that it was a 105 mm howitzer round, but the explosion was not large, and was located near the surface of the ground, making it unlikely to be a large shell, since its size would require it to be buried, and buried shells explode in a "V" shape.
3 James R. Schaller left this tribute to David Bruce Helmke:

There hasn't been one Memorial Day that has passed since you died that my thoughts have not turned to you. Each Memorial Day I place little American Flags around the Vietnam Memorial here in Buffalo, New York. I think of you and the good times we had together in the short time we had before you left us. The good times included talk of home and loved ones and dreaming of going back to THE WORLD. I have thought so many many times over the last three decades of contacting your family and letting them know that someone kind and gentle was with you in your last moments and that you were not alone in the jungle. We were all saddened April 12th, 1968, when you were taken from us.

I will miss you forever, Buddy.
A Warrior's Love never Dies

Jim, > David Bruce Helmke.
4 Daily Staff Journals, Item 42, for 1850 hrs., 12 April 68.
5 Daily Staff Journals, Item 34 for 1335 hrs, 12 April 68.

☛ For entries pertaining to "A" Company in the Daily Staff Journals, see "The Odyssey of 'A' Company across Vietnam, Chronology" for April 12, 1968.

"set up" — for a map showing these positions, see Off LZ Sharon, 12 April 1968, and the map from the "Odyssey" series for April 12, 1968.