My first flight out of the U.S. was on Flying Tiger Airlines (bought out by Fed Ex in 1989). The plane arrived in Nam on August 23, 1968 after brief stops in Alaska, Japan and Okinawa. The landing at Tan Son Nhut AFB in Bien Hoa was delayed we were told because the VC (Viet Cong) or NVA (North Vietnamese Army) were mortaring the airstrip. A bus ride to Long Binh followed where in-country processing took place. I remember reading in Stars & Stripes about a Yankee sweep of the Tigers, a bright spot in a dismal season. Outfielder Rocky Colavito won a game for the Yankees pitching in relief. In Nam, it was the monsoon season and I recall standing in the rain awaiting orders.
Next stop was Dian (Pronounced Zee-On), the HQ of the First Infantry Division, the Big Red One. After additional processing and a turn at "shit burning" detail, it was on to Quan Loi, the main base camp of my new unit, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry (aka the "Black Lions"). When you think of Quan Loi, you think of red mud. Shortly after I got there, we had a little in country infantry training known as "Jungle Devil School" and there was line guard duty at night. At 22, I was one of the older guys other than officers. Most of the guys were 19 or 20. Quite a few of them had grown up with guns for hunting and maybe target shooting. I had never even held a gun in my hand before I began basic training a little over 5 months earlier.
My first operation out of Quan Loi with Charlie Company began the morning of September 12, 1968. The battalion was taken by Chinook helicopters to an area near Loc Ninh, a village in Binh Long Province near the Cambodian border. After landing, we moved out on foot, my first operation as a grunt (straight leg infantry). I was an FNG, F'n New Guy. I walked flank for a while. We made contact that afternoon. There was a dirt road with ditches on either side. As our guys came out of the ditch to cross the road, shooting erupted. For the first time, I witnessed death in combat. Looking to my right, I saw one of our men lying against the back of the ditch. The left side of his forehead was a bloody mess. I was staring 'til one of the guys asked me what I was staring at. Someone said he was a medic with HQ company. (Death before that for me was an old relative or family friend laid out serenely in a coffin.) We dug in on our side of the road. We didn't carry entrenching tools so I was digging with my fingers. The fear was that we'd be overrun. Yet I never saw even one of the enemy face to face. I guess I was lucky.
Late the next day I heard that Keith Ware, the commanding general of the Big Red One, (see www.virtualwall.org by last name Ware), was killed when his helicopter with 8 on board was shot down. I wonder how far the helicopter was from our position. Most of those 3 days is a blur to me now. I recall contact again at an NVA base camp, seeing the tracers from a machine gun coming from a bunker and squeezing myself against the ground. I prayed Lord get me out of this and I'll be there for every Sunday Mass when I get home.
In basic training when you're told to hit the ground you gingerly lower yourself to the ground so as not to bruise anything. With real bullets flying, it's amazing how quickly you can get down. You could be in the middle of a rice paddy. Doesn't matter. You hug the ground and wish you could disappear into it til the shooting ceases. When you realize you're not hit and where the firing is coming from, you return fire to get the enemy down, that is, if he's still around. Sometimes it would be a hit and run attack, firing off a quick burst and taking off in a hurry ("didi mau"ing). The first firefight at Loc Ninh was no hit and run affair. It was three days of sporadic contact.
For part of the time - the second day I believe - I was an ammo bearer for one of the M-60 machine gunners, carrying 2 metal cans full of machine gun rounds. The cans were very heavy to lug around and strength has always been my weakness. (Speed was my strength but carrying around all that weight negated that.) I recall hyperventilating as I struggled to keep up with those cans banging around, one on either side of me. The area was a bit hilly which didn't help. The next day someone else carried the cans. I never did find out how much those cans weighed, fully loaded. Tim O'Brien's story, "The Things They Carried", mentions the weights of a lot of things we carried - our M-16 rifles (7.5 lbs), PRC-25 radio (26 lbs), hand grenades (14 ounces), claymore mines (3.5 lbs), etc. but not the cans.
At one point we were told to check out a hastily dug enemy grave, see if the dead had any papers or anything else that would be of intelligence value. We started to dig and found the bodies quickly enough since they had barely a thin layer of dirt over them.The bodies were wrapped in some sort of black or dark green plastic (maybe a pancho). The stench was unbelievable and I was practically overcome with nausea. After one of the guys suggested that the bodies may be booby trapped, it didn't take much convincing for me not to argue when he said that he'd just say we checked and found nothing of use.
Shortly after these three days we heard that the battalion had suffered a dozen men killed and 80 wounded. I never did see or hear any confirmation of these totals at the time and I only saw one man who was KIA. I never knew if the 12 killed included the general's group in the helicopter. I also don't recall hearing how many casualties had been inflicted on the enemy troops.
I found out more information a few years ago when a friend told me about the Black Lions website, www.28thinfantry.org. The site has a list for the casualties of the wars they participated in: WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The names are in alphabetical order, followed by the rank, company, battalion (1/28 or 2/28), date of birth, date of death and hometown. For the Loc Ninh casualties, the date of death will be 12 Sep 68, 13 Sep 68 or 14 Sep 68 and the battalion will be 1/28 - the 2nd battalion, 28th infantry does not appear to have been a part of this action. (The general and the helicopter crew were not on the list because they were not part of the 28th Infantry.) I then looked up each man on the Virtual Wall where I also looked up the general, Keith Ware. His page provided the names of the other men killed with him on the helicopter.
Sadly, from the Black Lion's and Virtual Wall websites, it appears that between the grunts on the ground and the general's crew, 22 men were killed, not a dozen, in those 3 days at Loc Ninh. Alpha Company lost 7 men, Charlie 3, HQ 2 and Echo 2 plus the 8 men in the helicopter. Since I was so new to the unit, I didn't even know any of the men from Charlie. I was in Mike Platoon. The men killed may have been in Lima or November Platoon. I have no information on the number of wounded. No casualties for Bravo or Delta companies were indicated so I don't know for sure if they were part of the operation.
It would be interesting to see on a map the positions of each company when contact was first made on September 12, 1968, the enemy positions, and where General Ware's helicopter got shot down on September 13th. I attended a reunion of Mike Platoon in Gatlinburg, TN, in early November last year. Unfortunately, none of the other veterans in attendance were at Loc Ninh so I didn't get to discuss the events there. One was out of the field recovering from malaria and eight began their Vietnam tours of duty in 1969.