The Great Ambush

by Richard Dieterle

OCTOBER 25-26, 1967 — I'm calling this war story the "Great Ambush" because it was the largest ambush in which I ever participated. I don't mean to suggest that this was large by the standards of the Vietnam War, let alone by the standards of other wars fought on a grander scale; but it was very atypical in my company, as it was the practice of A 1/8 to send out squad size ambushes, or even to use OPs for opportunistic ambushes.

I Get a Couple of Special Treats. That morning in 1968 we were comfortably set up on LZ Mustang, an old French fort which we remodeled after our own fashion. We had a big bunker with a moat in front of it, although we did not attempt to fill it with water. This was not too very long after I had been to language school, since I carried a Vietnamese dictionary around with me still. I wanted them to make time for me to study so that I could build my vocabulary, but Top would not hear of that, and didn't have much use for people who fancied themselves endowed with superior intelligence. He made sure I had plenty of obnoxious work to do instead. We had pretty well built the place up into a dandy little fortress, and felt pretty secure from attack. What bothered us was that we were in the middle of a valley, the An Lô Valley to be exact, which by its nature was flanked on either side by ridges of mountains. On patrols into those ridges we had found crows nests set up in trees by the enemy to use as OPs. The enemy had a pretty good view of us, and we were certain that we would never surprise them with anything we did there. On the other hand, if the enemy dragged artillery pieces up into the mountains to destroy our LZ, we could always land a force down the way on the ridge and sweep them off it. We could also simply abandon our little LZ without the effect of Điện Biên Phủ, although I don't think abandonment was in anyone's plans. Nevertheless, we had a real problem with ambushes in light of the fact that they went out before dark (to avoid being ambushed themselves) and could therefore be observed and avoided. This was important to the NVA, since our LZ cut the valley in two and made it difficult for them to communicate with forces stationed on the opposite ridges. Consequently, the brass was busy thinking of how they could send out an effective ambush in order to make our daytime bisection of the valley a nocturnal reality.

It was not too bad a morning. The sky was thinly overcast, but sometimes the sun would come out. I was alone in the bunker most of the morning and fell into a feeling of grief over the losses we had sustained at Willy Bridge during my absence in Language School. I particularly missed Archuleta from whom I had hoped to learn Vietnamese by practice. During the afternoon, we had a particular treat: they had made up some fried chicken for us at LZ English and shipped it out to our LZ. We ate it on paper plates. However, about an hour later I dug a small hole and upchucked. Unfortunately I had not been blessed with botulism, just the odd piece of bad chicken. By now the word was out that there was going to be a big platoon sized ambush sent out, and it was likely going to be First Platoon that would go. I still wasn't feeling too good and thought I would try to duck out of this one, but "Bullet" Bouchard was enthusiastic about it and talked me into going along. The plan was to leave before sunset in the certain knowledge that we would be observed by the enemy not only as we left, but as we set up. After dark, we would pick up and move to a new location some ways off, and this would perhaps catch the enemy by surprise. The day had been so lazy that I think people were anxious just to get out and do something, although as a rule most of us had ambushes high on our list of undesirable activities. One of the chief reasons for this was that an ambush of squad size usually had about 7 men with one machine gun, and if we made contact with a large unit with such a small number of men, the results could be catastrophic, or as we used to say, "It could ruin our day." OPs were even worse in that respect, as there were only three men detailed to one of them, and no gun. If you were sent on an OP the person bearing the news would usually conclude his remarks by saying, "Sorry 'bout dat, GI" or Xin loi, which means the same thing in Vietnamese. A platoon size ambush, on the other hand, was an ass-kicking proposition, with two guns and their complete crews, scores of hand grenades, and maybe a few anti-tank rockets (l.a.w.s) for desert. Under these circumstances, the normal tincture of insecurity did not seem to color our idle speculations on the matter. However, as the day progressed, a negative "what-if" had crept into our communal mind set: what if, when we picked up and moved, the enemy ambushed us? "Well," I thought, "at least it isn't my turn to pull point." While I was musing on this happy state of affairs, Bullet came back and announced, "I talked to Lt. Church and told him that me and The Deacon would pull point for this thing." "What?!" I exclaimed in disbelief, "you volunteered me for point?!" He told me to look on the bright side: at least I wouldn't have to pull point again for some time. Just the same, my day had been ruined.

Swimming to Cambodia. Some time well before sunset, we began to saddle up. We started out with me in the lead, and wound our way out of the perimeter of LZ Mustang, and began walking down the dirt road. It was quite wide, and made of well compacted yellowish dirt, which at the time was quite dry. We wanted the enemy to see us walking bigger than life down this thoroughfare. After walking a ways down this highway, we turned off onto a big green formed of short grass. We began to set up there, thinking that this open area would be readily visible from the mountain ridges. It was in fact a very pleasant area, the kind of place where a civilian company could hold a picnic. The area, though, was rather vulnerable, as there was no good cover and we were not digging in. Finally, darkness set in and when it was completely dark, we saddled up again and prepared to move out. This time we did some serious walking. I started down towards the river at a slow and steady pace. The moon was full, so we could easily see where we were going, but the enemy would not be able to see us from the mountains. Eventually, we got to a point where the lieutenant said we should cross the river. As far as anyone could tell, this was not some known fording point, but just "far enough down" to cross. I looked out on the river, which was unusually beautiful in the moonlight, covered as it was with a pale white sheen. It looked to be about 50 yards wide at this point. I found my unique bipod convenient at this juncture: I put my M-16 on my shoulder and held it by the bipod and tentatively stepped out into the river. Now this river was fast moving, but generally very shallow, usually not more than 3 feet deep and had something of a rocky bed to it. However, as I stepped out into it the bottom was sandy and the current was strong, the farther I went out the stronger it got. With just a couple of steps I found that the water was past my knees; two more steps and it was up to my chest. The bottom still had a nice soft feel to it and I kept moving out slowly but steadily. I had my left hand on my bipod and my right hand on top of my gas mask holder, which I always put on top of my head when I crossed a stream. Now the water was so high that I had to take my rifle and put it on top of the gas mask, holding the barrel in my right hand and the stock in my left. The water was now up to my neck. Then I began to feel this strange weightless feeling as my left leg started to simply float away. I leaned a bit to the right and forcefully drew my free-floating left leg back over my right leg, which was also about to give way with the current. Foolishly, I felt no fear, thinking that I could recover myself if I started to float off. Fortunately, my feet found higher sand and I could start moving out towards the center, which was, oddly enough, much more shallow. The river bed was now more solid and it was an easy matter wading through to the opposite side. I took it all in stride, since I had been in water up to my chin before, although I must say that this was the first time that I had encountered such a current. In fact, had I lost my footing, I would probably have drowned, just as two men from the Second Platoon were to drown but a week or two in the future. All that was past me now as I climbed the gentle bank on the far side of the river. After getting out through some tall grass growing up along the shore, I paused to wait for the lieutenant's instructions on where to go next. As far as I can recollect, we had no particular plan except to find a good place some ways distant to set up. After a bit, I came to a corn field, which was a little strange, since no one had lived in the An Lô Valley for some years. I imagined that the enemy had planted it to serve as a source of food when they deemed it safe enough to come down and harvest it on some moonlit night. The corn was taller than me, but Bullet and I plowed right through it creating a path for everyone to follow after us.

Left to Right: Jerry Prater, Heath, and Joe Washington  

Hello. Is that you Charlie? Then we came upon some abandoned rice fields which were planted in that short "putting green" kind of grass. We came up to one that looked like a good place to set up our ambush. The rim around the paddy was about a foot tall, not really tall enough to feel comfortable about incoming fire, but a lot better than nothing. We did not want to dig in, because that would make an enormous amount of noise, and this could make us the victims rather than the predators. We spread ourselves out around the perimeter of the rice paddy. I was facing down river, which I think is east. The closest ridges were to the south. In that direction, just a little beyond the rice paddy was a curtain formed by a bamboo hedge row. Otherwise, the country was pretty open, except to the north near the river, where there were a lot of trees. Our guys were outside our perimeter putting out their claymores. Claymores are small blue land mines that looked like miniature Cinerama screens, and have two sets of spiked legs by which they can be thrust into the ground. A detonator cord was attached to them and run back to our positions. With a squeeze on the stapler-like detonator handle, the C-4 in it would receive a charge of electricity and explode, firing outward about a score of round, quarter-inch, steel ball bearings. Since the blast was like a giant shotgun, having claymores out at an ambush was de rigour. The CP was set up in the middle of this perimeter. People were coming back and forth through the perimeter as they put out their claymores. Everybody on our east side was back so I looked over my shoulder at the CP and I could see Lt. Church and 2-7 Mike (the artillery observer) scurrying about like Groucho Marx. Then I heard as clear as a bell, "Lai dai!" ("come here"). I turned to Giddings who was just on my right, and said, "They must be getting gooks over the radio." About three seconds later we could hear a grenade go off and see its flash, then the gun on the south side opened up. After that, there was dead silence. Needless to say, this caused some tension. I looked back over my shoulder and could see 2-7 Mike's frightened face and although he was trying to whisper, I could hear him clearly say, "We're surrounded!" He was looking in our direction when he said this, so I quickly turned my head back and opened up with a burst of about four rounds, as my M-16 was up and mounted on its bipod. Giddings said, "What are you shooting at?" "Hell," I replied, "I don't know, we're surrounded aren't we?" Then I felt no small measure of embarrassment, as no one else had fired a shot. I could hear Lieutenant Church say, "Somebody go out there and see if he's dead." The silence was deafening. The requisite fool was not forthcoming. Finally, Lt. Church said, "Arthur, go out there and see if he's dead." Arthur was the only person, beside 17 year old Lawrence, who was known by his first name. He was a nice guy, but most felt that he scored low on the machismo scale. His value now suddenly became zero. So he courageously crawled out there in the dark to see if the man laying on the grass was really dead or just pretending. If it was the latter, or if his wounds were not too severe, we would find out that he was still alive when he killed Arthur. My own approach to this problem would have been to pump a few more rounds into his head, then check him out. But Arthur crawled right up to him and gave him a poke. We could hear him say out loud, "Are you dead?" Fortunately, there was no reply, and not from bad manners, but from the kind of honesty only the dead can muster.

What had happened? Most of us did not find out until the next morning. It turned out that Lt. Church and 2-7 Mike had a lot to be alarmed about. Two couriers carrying dispatches and rice had walked right up to our perimeter. They were walking in file, and the first one strolled right through our perimeter very near where Washington had set up his gun. He must have seen somebody's web gear lying on the grass, and that was when he said, "Lai dai!" to the man behind him. Then he must have seen Americans all over the place. He attempted to simply walk back out, motioning to the man behind him to go back. He then turned around to walk backwards in case he had to fire his weapon. At this point Wash saw him. They say that Wash's eyes bugged out of his head like a pair of binoculars. This guy was almost on top of him, maybe three yards distant; nevertheless, Wash had enough composure to do it by the book, which says Never open up with the machine gun, as the enemy wants to know its location in order to knock it out. So the usual procedure is to throw a grenade so no one exposes his position. And this is what Wash did, except of course, there was a bit of a problem with the NVA soldier being so close to him. So Wash let the spoon pop off his grenade and rolled it backhand across the green like a game of shuffle board. This made everybody else's eyes bug out. The blast had a murderous effect, but fortunately no shrapnel hit any of us. Then Wash opened up with his machine gun anyway, since the man apparently got up for a moment. He didn't arise a second time. His colleague was also hit, but apparently dragged himself off in the direction he came from.

"Truck" Schmidt, RTO Ricedorf, and Lt. Church

Things that Go Boom in the Night. Now we were in a fix. Our position was known to somebody, no doubt, so we had to move. This was a dangerous proposition in its own right, since if any enemy force were in the vicinity, and the other runner had struggled back to them, they might well be on our trail. We could be the next ambush victims. However, Lt. Church was right to have us move, because our present position was compromised, and we certainly did not want to have the enemy mount an informed night attack on our positions when we were not dug in. So off I went on point again. Bullet and I walked back through the cornfield and then set off in a new direction up river. We found another site rather like the one we had come from. We established our perimeter, agreed on the guard schedule, and those of us who weren't pulling first guard tried to get some sleep. I was happily engaged in this process when, about 0500 hours, I was awakened by a loud BOOM! I opened my eyes and saw a small puff of smoke hovering in front of our western positions. Truck (Schmidt) was sitting upright and looking groggy. We thought that maybe the enemy had thrown a grenade just short of our positions, but we really didn't know what to make of it. We were at least momentarily alarmed. However, the word came down fairly quickly that Truck had sat on his claymore trigger, setting off the mine. Our day had been ruined anyway, so this didn't make much difference. Soon the sun was coming up and we saddled up to go back to where we had set up our first ambush.

Rembrandt, "The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" (1632)

Professor Van Tulp. Once again I led the way back. Now we felt pretty secure, as our firepower, in the Cav especially, gave us complete supremacy in the daylight. This was not good country for a daytime ambush anyway. We soon found the dry rice paddy that we had set up in, and at the south end was a body. We walked over to him and found him turned towards our old perimeter lying face up. His lips were open a bit and his teeth clenched together. He looked like someone who had experienced some pain, but his expression was probably due to rigor mortis. We soon found that rigor mortis had indeed set in. Sgt. Washburn walked up and gave him a good kick which made his body shudder in a strange way. Several guys muttered, "Xin loi!" and "Sorry 'bout dat!" Washburn kicked him a couple more times as we watched the macabre shivers make his body tremble from head to foot. His head was intact, but the rest of him was a mess. His exposed muscles appeared pink and vermilion to me, looking like a botched version of Professor van Tulp's anatomy lesson. We walked around looking at the ground behind him until we found a patch of bloody grass. The other guy with him had clearly been hit and bled some, but he got away, as we could find no body nearby. The dead NVA had a simple cloth knapsack, a rather large one, maybe 6 cubic feet in volume. It was pitch black in color, no doubt so that it would not inhibit their concealment at night. Oddly enough, instead of the usual black "pajamas" that were normally worn in the country, his were a light gray. The pack was full of dried rice and had some dispatches in it as well. I looked over these later and could determine that they were North Vietnamese since they contained the letter /f/ which is not used in the south where the old fashioned /ph/ is preferred (as in "Phú Bài," "Điện Biên Phủ," etc.). One of our people started to pick up the knapsack, but it was too heavy for him to carry by himself. It took two of our guys, Winslow on one strap and someone else on the other, carrying it between them to haul it back to LZ Mustang. We left the body where it lay, and headed back with our trophy. Nevertheless, it must be said that after that we had some respect for the strength of men who could carry loads like that on their backs over such distance and terrain.

LZ Mustang — see the detailed map, LZ Mustang and the An Lão Valley; and LZ Sandra, LZ Mustang, and the An Lão Valley.