Skirmish at the White Sand Dunes

by Richard Dieterle

NOVEMBER 4, 1967 — In an earlier story I related how we had set up on a pretty landscape and how in the night we were attacked by the Mad 79’er. This time when we set up in the White Sand Dunes it was at a time between the hot season and the monsoon, as I remember that it was cloudy the next morning. At that time I was a member of a rifle squad, probably the Second Squad, humorously referred to as the "Suicide Squad." We set up on a nice ridge with the creek behind us. The ridge declined down to the plain just to our left, and that is where they decided to put the gun. It was about three foxholes away, and to their left the line curved with the newly ascending ridge off to the left and behind us. There were a couple of green bushes about six feet tall spotted here and there in the low area. The hamlet was off to our left and its screen of bamboo was clearly visible. As usual we reminded ourselves that the Mad Seventy-Niner might pay us a visit during the night, so we had to keep a certain level of extra vigilance. Still, we felt very secure and I can still remember how beautiful it was there in the moonlight with the white sand visible in the night and the ribbon of water shining lightly from the pale radiance of the moon. When my first guard shift was over, I fell comfortably away into a careless slumber. I next remember a rude awakening in the dead of the night with a series of loud explosions. A grenade here and there never bothered anyone's sleep, since we usually threw one a shift for H & I - but a series of grenade explosions was a message that even the sleeping brain could not ignore. There was excited whispering as one grenade after another exploded. It was coming from the left, at Wash's position, the low point where the gun was posted. We figured it was some kind of probe, and it might well end in a major attack. On the other hand, it could just be somebody, perhaps even the Mad Seventy-Niner, who was tossing a few grenades at us. In any case the noise soon subsided into an eerie quiet. We got the word that the gun and some gooks had exchanged grenades, and that the enemy had pulled back. No shots had been fired by anyone, which showed good discipline at the gun, since the object of such an encounter is often to get the gun to open up and reveal its exact position. Before the enemy can assault our position with any confidence, they need to knock out the machine gun in order to reduce our firepower to a level that they can overcome. The next day I wandered over to the gun when I got a chance, and we found one unexploded grenade laying in the bushes nearby. At first we surmised that the enemy had dropped it when they had fled, but it became clear that during the excitement one of our guys had thrown the grenade without pulling its pin. At any case, we were very happy that no one had been hurt.

The next day it had clouded up, but there was no rain. We were still milling around our positions when a deputation came from the village. They were mainly old women. It was pretty much my duty to interface with them, although I could hardly say I spoke any Vietnamese. As this small column plodded towards us from the hamlet, it was apparent that they were carrying a couple of things in a hammock-like cloth slung under sturdy bamboo poles. When they got to us, they set down their loads. The officers and I were present to see what this odd visit was all about. Quite unexpectedly, they had brought two young people on these makeshift stretchers. They were both between the ages of 16 and 18, and one was a fairly attractive young woman. Unfortunately, they were both "seriously fucked up," as we would say in those days. They had numerous lacerations and puncture wounds, and at most, they were only semi-conscious. A thin old lady who looked intelligent and who had a kind of ironic hint of a smile, tried to explain in words supplemented by gestures that the two "baby-sans" had fallen victim to our artillery, which we had fired about our positions during the night. This was possible, but most everyone concluded that here were two people who had attacked our positions during the night. I thought it was interesting that they would seek us out for help. I suggested to the brass that perhaps their story was true, as they would not likely send two bushwhackers to us for medical repairs. On the other hand, as I now recollect it over the passing years, what else could they do? These two kids were likely going to die without prompt and expert medical attention. They might as well give them up to us in the chance that we would do something for them. So we called in a chopper - I don't think it was a Medevac - and loaded them into it with my assurances to the woman that we would do our best for them. However, I later heard that when the choppers had gotten out of view, they had thrown the young couple out to their deaths. This revelation left a bitter feeling that has never parted from me.

Epilogue. As I now write this epilogue in the 69th year of my life in 2014, I am surprised to discover, after the passage of 47 years, that there is more to be learned of this story despite the great expanse of space and time that has intervened. Not too many years prior, the Army declassified the Daily Staff Journals of the 1/8 Cavalry. Each Journal was a kind of diary of all that happened to the units under the command of this battalion, arranged in chronological order. The whole set for the years in which we served in Vietnam are preserved by the library at Texas Tech University. Naturally, I acquired the whole set (q.v.). As I made my way through this collection up to Nov. 4, 1967, I read of a nightime fight with some VCs. It seemed unfamiliar until I reached the point in the narrative where they mentioned 5 old women with a young injured couple. Then I knew that this was very skirmish that I have related here. It contained some very interesting information.

I was shocked to discover that after the initial contact with my platoon which I've described above, more grenades were thrown. First, three men were injured by grenades that came in at 0445 in the morning.1 Later that morning at 0515 hrs., two grenades were thrown from the east into the western perimeter and as a result, three of our guys were killed.2 Of these death, I knew nothing at the time, nor indeed until now. The dead were from another platoon: Robert Albertson, Jimmy Ray Baggarly, and David Herendon.3 The rumor that the two young people were thrown from the chopper may have been wishful thinking, or even an instruction imparted by the agrieved, since we thought that this couple was surely responsible for some of the night's grenade tossing. There were three wounded from the Second Platoon, but they were not so serious that they had to be flown out at night. The next morning we discovered three unexploded grenades that had landed inside our perimeter, and it soon became clear how the enemy had crawled up from the village to within feet of our western positions. Then the journal tells us that at 0850 hours,

A Co coord 886110, 5 older females carried 2 Vietnamese inside their perimeter, 1 male age 20 yrs. wearing green, wounded in the head, face and shoulder; 1 female age 20 wearing blk pjs, wounded in hand, chest and leg. Both had good medical treatment with splints and fresh bandages. The older 5 women had fresh clothing for both wounded. 1/8 will attempt to extract these 5 women, and 2 wounded will be medevaced. Medevac requested. They were possibly wounded by A Co last night.4

I remember how charming the older women were as they tried to explain in pantomime how artillery had come in and injured these young people. They were very kind old ladies who were hard not to like. They were willing to put their trust in us, even though it had to have been we who had wounded them. My thought then was that the young couple were indeed VC, and that they had not been wounded by artillery, but by grenades. It turned out that not only had this couple been picked up, but that the five women who had brought them in were also taken out to accompany them. I am certainly glad that they were not forced to remain behind wondering what had happened to their loved ones. Often over the years, it has given me a pang of grief to reflect on what a sad fate had overtaken their grandchildren, and how the women must have been heartbroken; but all of this turns out to have been false. The young people were taken to the hospital, initially at LZ English. Later that morning they were looked at by an unsympathetic doctor:

Female classified IC stated she is a refugee and was working in the field when artillery hit, because she thought it was due to the US type round. The doctor claims the wounds are knife wounds and that she is of an age to be a guerrilla and could have been worked over by the VC. The male claims he was hit by artillery and was just a poor unfortunate. Classified as UD at this time.5

The sarcastic tone of the report indicates the general frame of mind concerning these two. One wonders if the knife wounds were not an attempt to cut out schrapnel. However, in the afternoon we learn,

From Bde: Readout on 5 detainees from A Co 886110: All classified as IC. They [other people] came from the refugee center this morning and found the 2 Vietnamese WIAs and helped nurse them. They knew the female WIA but did not know the male. They state that 2-3 guerrillas are still alive in Lieu An (2).6

So a number of refugees had come in and recognized the girl as one of their own. It is highly unlikely that she was working with the VC that night, although her initial care may have been given by the NVA in the area. The two of them were then reclassified from Unclassified Detainees to Innocent Civilians. Their wounds seem not to have been life threatening, and indeed, they may yet be alive today. This revelation lifted a burden of regret from me, and cleared us of the imputation that a war crime had been committed by the Medevac crew.

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, Item 10 for 0445 hrs., 04 Nov 1967 (3690128004).
2 Daily Staff Journals, Item 11 for 0515, 04 Nov 1967.
3 Jumping Mustangs website, Alpha Company Rosters, A-D, E-J.
4 Daily Staff Journals, Item 32 for 0850, 04 Nov 1967.
5 Daily Staff Journals, Item 39 for 1045, 04 Nov 1967.
6 Daily Staff Journals, Item 52 for 1356, 04 Nov 1967.

Liêu An (2) — for this village and the White Sand Dunes area, see the map, The White Sand Dunes and Liêu An (2).