Cordon and Search Missions

by Jerry Prater, with Capt. Tom McAndrews (Company Commander) and Lt. Jerome Church (Platoon Leader)

During the months of June through August 1967, my unit conducted cordon and search missions on many occasions.  The purpose of a cordon and search mission is for an element of no less than a full company to surround a hamlet or village predetermined by battalion headquarters before first light.  We would maintain our position and not allow anyone to leave until a unit of the South Vietnamese Police could be airlifted so they could search the hamlet or village for VC and NVA soldiers, as well as caches of food and supplies to be used by enemy forces.  The primary reason why we conducted so many cordon and search missions was because we were not locating and engaging a sufficient number of enemy soldiers during our search and destroy missions

The chain of command, including Squad Leaders, Platoon Sergeants, Platoon Leaders, and Company Commanders, hated the cordon and search missions because of all the dangers that could be encountered.   We would move for a distance of up to five klicks during the very early, very dark hours of the morning.  This movement made us highly susceptible to walking into an ambush, receiving bursts of gunfire from a sniper, and, since we had virtually no visibility, our chances of stepping on a land mine or into a punji pit were increased exponentially.  Additionally, the movement during the darkness created a high possibility of running into one of the other platoons, which could result in a friendly fire incident.  Also, the cherries, new troopers who had not yet experienced any enemy fire, could overreact at any time.  As a result of these dangerous situations, our orders were to travel with the safeties in the ON position.   

My unit was conducting search and destroy missions on almost a daily basis when I first arrived in late May 1967.  Each morning at daybreak, all members of the platoon would be awake and preparing to embark on the mission assigned to us for the day by battalion headquarters.  We would work our way through all the terrain and obstacles we encountered until we reached the coordinates where we were assigned to set up for the evening.  Depending on the number and severity of incidents we encountered during the day, we could reach our objective for the day anytime between mid-afternoon and dusk.  If the next day’s mission was to conduct a cordon and search, the Company Commander would communicate with each Platoon Leader the Order of March and the specific location each platoon was assigned to cover.  Our Platoon Leader would then meet with the Squad Leaders and inform them of the cordon mission, the Order of March for each squad, and the time the platoon was to saddle up and begin our movement to the hamlet or village that was to be surrounded.  We would then set up the perimeter for the evening, designate our two or three man guard positions, and dig our shallow, temporary foxholes to provide us with some semblance of protection in case we were attacked while we were at that location.  We would then have our meal consisting of that wonderful, nourishing food contained in the C Ration containers!  The two or three guys would set up the guard duty schedule for each foxhole, which would begin normally when dusk turned into darkness.  The person selected to pull the first guard would then get into the shallow foxhole and pull his guard duty while the other one or two guys went to sleep until the time for them to pull their duty.

At the specified time, each member of the platoon would be awakened and we would very quietly break the campsite, saddle up, and prepare to move out.  The time we would leave for the hamlet or village would be determined by the Company Commander and Platoon Leader, based on the distance we would have to travel and the terrain we would traverse, so we would arrive and be in position before first light.  Each of the four platoons would be traveling to the village from different directions, and it was critical for each Platoon Leader to locate the coordinates of the village on their map and look up the azimuth on their compass so their platoon would arrive at the village and link up with the other platoons with no difficulty.  Another very critical factor that had to be considered when determining the route to take was to make certain that no platoon would come near the route taken by another platoon.  If two platoons took routes that would place them in close proximity with each other, they could very easily believe they had encountered an enemy column and open fire, which could result in heavy casualties for both platoons.

Since we would be moving out in the cover of darkness, we would begin towards our destination in single file.  Our Platoon Leader would normally be the third person in line so he could communicate with the point man and keep him on the correct course.  The RTO would be immediately behind the Platoon Leader, and the Platoon Sergeant would be at the end of the column.  Each person would have to remain close enough to the person directly in front of them so they could see them well enough to follow exactly in their footsteps.   This was totally necessary, but a very dangerous way to move because one grenade or land mine could kill or wound multiple members of the platoon.   If you did not keep up with the person in front, you, and everybody behind you, could get separated from the rest of the platoon and possibly be lost.  While moving towards a village on one of our missions, someone ahead of me did get too far behind the person in front of him and we got separated from the rest of the platoon.  All we could do was stop, lay down, and hope the last person in line noticed that no one was behind him and relay that information to the head of the column.  That is exactly what happened, and the platoon made their way back to us after we were lost for about 10-15 minutes.  Being stranded like that was very scary because we didn’t know if anyone would notice that we were separated, and we had no idea how long we would be laying there before we would be rescued. 

As each platoon arrived at an area in close proximity to the village, each Platoon Leader had to make certain they were in the area assigned to them by the Company Commander.  This was another very critical movement because each platoon would arrive from different directions and the possibility of mistaking a platoon for enemy forces was a major concern.  The Company Commander usually assigned a password for the company to use during the mission so when they made contact, they could identify them as another platoon instead of mistaking them for enemy elements.  Additionally, each Platoon Leader was responsible for linking up with the platoon assigned to the adjacent position, and the Platoon Sergeant was responsible for linking up with the platoon assigned at the other adjacent position.  The Platoon Leader had to make certain that no huge gaps existed between his platoon and the platoons set up on both sides of his unit.  He must also make certain that there were no large gaps between the locations where the men in his platoon were set up.  A large gap between positions was an invitation for any enemy elements in the hamlet or village to escape the cordon.  This situation did happen during one cordon mission.  We were set up in two man positions and, apparently, the amount of space my platoon was assigned was too large for the number of guys available to cover the area.  As a result, there was a large space between my location and the location to my left.  Shortly after we set up, I saw one man run between my position and the one directly to my left.  I started to fire at him, but didn’t because no one else fired.  I wish I had fired at the target, but I doubt I could have hit a moving target that I could barely see because of the darkness.  However, a short time later, I became the target of a VC, most likely the man who ran between the two positions.  He had me zeroed in because the rounds were hitting very close to me.  I moved to a different location, but he saw me and fired a few more bursts that landed very close to me.  I moved one more time with the same results, he fired a few bursts that hit close to me.  I just laid as low and as still as I could and he either thought he had hit me or gave up and left the area because the firing stopped.

Under normal circumstances, after we would arrive at and set up our positions around the hamlet or village, all we did was alternate pulling guard duty in the two man positions until the South Vietnamese National Police arrived.  They were normally flown in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to the location after daybreak, usually between 0700 and 0730 hrs., to begin their search of the hamlet or village.  We would stay at our position to keep anyone from leaving, and to provide support to the National Police in case they uncovered a group or large number of VC or NVA during their search.  The National Police would fire a lot of rounds as they searched, and sometimes they did not take proper precautions as they fired.  As the police were searching one village, I was sitting on a tall dike in a dry rice patty next to Sergeant Larry Douglas, my Squad Leader.  All of a sudden, I heard a couple of bursts and immediately afterwards I heard the popping sound of the rounds going very close to my head.  I fell flat on the dike as another burst was fired and, once more I heard the popping as the rounds went past my head.  That incident taught me a valuable lesson in the way I needed to take precautions because you can be killed just as dead with an inadvertent friendly round as you can from rounds fired by enemy soldiers.

As the National Police completed their search of the village, choppers would be brought to the location to pick up people who were suspected VC, all weapons that were located, and all food that was determined to be stored for use by VC or NVA soldiers.  Then, a Chinook would arrive and pick up the National Police and return them to their headquarters.  At that time, our platoon would saddle up and leave the hamlet or village as we began the search and destroy mission assigned to us for the day. 

See also, The Bad, The Ugly & The Awful.

The following maps from the “Odyssey” series show cordon operations: 19-25 June 67, 17 July 67, 18 July 67, 19-22 July 67, 24-25 August 67, 28 August 67, 30 August 67, 1-3 October 67, 6 October 67, 7-8 October 67, 2 November 67, 8-9 November 67, 25-26 November 67, 3 December 67, 24-26 December 67, 10-12 January 68, 17-22 January 68, 2-5 February 68, 13-15 March 68.