issue 4

october 2016

issue 4 - october 2016

Ambush - James Howell

At dusk on 3 May 1970, Delta Company moved into its ambush positions on the Vietnamese side of the Cambodian border. The three platoon-sized ambushes were about four hundred metres apart in this rice farming area northwest of Saigon. Starting two days before, other American and South Vietnamese units had gone into the North Vietnamese Army’s former sanctuaries on the other side of the border. Our job was to welcome any NVA that were flushed out.

As the company’s artillery forward observer, I was part of the command group. The other members of the command group were the company commander, his two radio operators, the company medic, the artillery reconnaissance sergeant, and the artillery radio operator. The seven of us were rear guard of the centre platoon ambush. We set up on slightly higher ground in an expanse of dry rice paddies. The spot had once been a farmstead, and was mostly surrounded by thin hedges of bamboo which are a cooler source of privacy in the tropics than the thick walls of a house. The rear guard set up twenty or thirty metres behind the main ambush, which was strung out behind the hedge closest to the border. Two big bomb craters between us and the main ambush explained why the house site was bare.

The moon was two days past new, so the night was going to be dark. The low clouds from horizon to horizon indicated that the night would be especially dark, and probably rainy.

About ten o’clock, a thump noise came from the right end of the main ambush, just where the hedge ended. Three or four streaks of yellow light skimmed away from the hedge, low and parallel to the ground. They were a star cluster from a 40 mm grenade launcher, and indicated that we had customers. The whole hedge line began to sparkle and roar with M-16 and machine gun fire, and the detonations of claymore mines. Because of where we were, everyone was tense and alert, with fast reactions.

I got on the radio and started 155 mm illumination rounds coming on one of our pre-planned defensive targets. The time fuse of these forty-four kilogram projectiles ignites the magnesium parachute flare and blows it out of the base of its steel canister, at a point 750 metres above the target. The flare free falls for 150 metres then drifts down the remaining 600 metres over the course of a minute. So, by firing one round per minute, an area the size of a rugby field can be lit up continuously with a garish orange light. The deeply pitched whistle of the big shells coming in will make the hair stand up on the most hardened.

The bottom of the dense clouds was far closer to the earth than 600 metres. For about half of their drop, the flares were only providing a dull glow in the clouds, Halloween colours of orange and black. The lighting effect, combined with the red tracers arcing toward Cambodia and the roar of massed small arms fire made a perfect scene from hell.

In a few minutes, off to the right, we heard one of our other ambushes greet our surviving visitors.

When things had settled down, I asked the Fire Direction Centre to turn out the light, just in time for the torrential rain to begin.

At first light, we examined the area to figure out exactly what had happened in the night. Our ambush killed six men. The second ambush killed three. Of the dead men, two stand out in my mind.

Because the night was so very dark, the NVA single file column had been on top of the right edge of the bamboo when the first shot from the grenade launcher was fired. An M-16 round brought down the second man in their column, right at the feet of one of the infantrymen, who emptied an M-16 magazine into his head. In the morning, after the blood was washed away by the rain, his head looked like a truck had run over it: a flattened mass of white skull fragments and pink brains. He was face down in a position of prayer, with his knees drawn up under him and his arms flung out to each side. Walking in the dark, his jandals had been a tripping hazard. That morning the jandals were still slipped over his wrists, where he had put them for safekeeping. The man who killed him reported that he had smelled a peculiar odour all night. In the daylight, his shins were covered with brains, the source of the smell. I wonder if the American infantryman ever dreams about that smell. He had to wear those pants for three more days in the heat.

The initial star cluster had been fired by the platoon sergeant, who had been sitting cross-legged at the right end of the hedge, and of the ambush. When a North Vietnamese lieutenant appeared in front of him at a range of about a metre, the sergeant shot him just below the breastbone. The star cluster went completely through the man and functioned on the other side.

The lieutenant had been carrying a big back pack, which had held him up in a sitting position through the night. His legs were V-ed out in front of him. He had a large hole in his abdomen, through which some viscera protruded. At the time of his last breath, his hand must have been in front of his middle; all that was left of it was a couple of tendons hanging from his wrist. His rain-washed face was flung back onto his pack so he looked up into the sky, and into my face. I will never forget looking at him and thinking he looked like a decent sort of fellow, who in different circumstances could easily be a friend.

Contributor's Note

My wife Janet and I are both native Texans who migrated to New Zealand in 1999. Our daughter and two grandsons live near us in Cambridge. I am a retired drilling vessel construction consultant, and have worked in Northern Ireland, Denmark, Azerbaijan, South Korea and Singapore.


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