It was the end of the day. The bloated bodies of the dead Vietnamese soldiers baked under the cruel equatorial sun and littered the jungle highland’s hillside surrounding Captain Larry’s position like rotting clumps of jellyfish spit up on a hot sandy beach.
Larry’s battalion had left on a reconnaissance mission early that morning. But starting around noontime his battalion had been engaged in a series of firefights with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Sometimes under such circumstances the senior South Vietnamese (ARVN) officers suddenly became sick, got lost, mysteriously disappeared, or in some other way managed to separate themselves from the battle. In the process they ripped the officer’s insignia of rank off their fatigue shirt collars and threw them away because the NVA usually tortured and killed captured ARVN officers.
Now Captain Larry was three miles out in the jungle clinging to the top of Hill 867 along with a pitiful remnant of ARVN soldiers and a few, brave ARVN lieutenants and sergeants. Larry and his ARVN were grossly outnumbered, surrounded and the NVA were tightening the noose.
Miles away back at my Command Post (CP), the radio barked to life. Captain Larry’s muffled voice cut through the heavy static. “Can’t hold on much longer,” he said his voice urgent but controlled. “They’re killing us with 82mm mortars and B-40 rocket-propelled grenades!”
Reaching out I grabbed the radio telephone handset and mashed down hard on the push-to-talk switch. “Larry,” I said in what I hoped was my calmest, most professional, most reassuring voice. “Just hold on … we need a little more time to get you out of there.”
“We’ve lost them,” Colonel Vy the ARVN South Vietnamese Regimental commander sadly concluded. Suddenly it was dark.
Sick inside I stepped out of the rusty, corrugated tin CP into the open night air. Glancing up at the radio antennas silhouetted against the moonlit sky and leaned back against the rough bark of a Palmetto tree. I knew that deep in the jungle where Larry and his men were fighting for their lives, precious little moonlight was filtering through to their jungle graveyard.
Near the command post dug into the clay-like earth was a sleeping bunker I had borrowed from another U.S. advisor who was on R & R in Bangkok, Thailand. Ducking under the dusty burlap curtain that separated the office-sitting room from the sleeping area I knelt on the concrete bunker floor and prayed that somehow God would give me wisdom, show me a way to save Larry and his men. How long I knelt there I don’t know, but at last I felt that everything was going to work out land I thought I knew how.
Scattered across a several mile area were six U.S. and ARVN artillery battalions. In the CP I gathered the ARVN officers and U.S. artillery advisors around me and pointed to a red pin stuck in the map on the campaign table that was believed to be Larry’s position. “Let’s plot a horseshoe-shaped, one hundred meter thick wall of artillery fire around Captain Larry and his men and fire a time-on-target.”
A time-on-target meant that we would fire each artillery tube at a mathematically calculated moment, so that each round would explode on target at the same time. Just the concussion alone from the exploding artillery shells would shatter the eardrums of the dazed and confused enemy survivors. Those who were not killed outright would be left bleeding from their ears and noses. Hopefully in the noise and confusion, Larry and his men could fight their way out of the open end of the horseshoe.
This would only work if we knew precisely where Larry and his men were. Unfortunately we could only guess at Larry’s location so the artillery would be firing blind. Without thinking Colonel Vy said, “Yes, it is very risky.”
“Risky or not there’s no other option,” I countered. If we do nothing they’ll be overrun and killed.” Raising my voice for effect I loudly declared, “Let the record reflect that I advised Colonel Vy to fire the artillery. If any of our friendly forces are killed, I am to blame. It will be my fault, and mine alone.”
These were brave words, but more Hollywood than reality. The facts were that if the artillery killed Larry and our troops there would be an official inquiry and I would not be given the benefit of the doubt. It would be clear that I had knowingly over stepped my authority and my military career would be terminated under the klieg lights of the evening news.
Vy furrowed his brow, nodded absently, then in a formal voice said, “Thank you Colonel Curry. Your advice is noted for the record.” Turning to his officers he snapped, “Do whatever Colonel Curry tells you to do.” Then drawing himself up to his full military height he squared his shoulders and, without looking back, strode from the CP into the jungle night.
With the responsibility-and-blame question temporarily set aside, the ARVN artillery officers quickly plotted the horseshoe-shaped artillery fire. Over the radio I urged Larry to be patient. “We’ll get you out of there … I promise.”
“You gave me that crap a half hour ago, Colonel,” he threw back at me. “We can’t hold on any longer … it’s now or never!”
Somehow I had to tell Larry in which direction to lead his men once the firing started. If I gave him instructions over the radio in the clear, the NVA would hear them and when our guys tried to fight their way out of the horseshoe they would be butchered.
I couldn’t encode the information because Larry would be shot the second he snapped on his flashlight to copy down and decode it.
Again I picked up the radio handset. Larry’s voice was faint, the machinegun and mortar fire louder. Briefly I explained the plan then asked, “Do you remember the Bible story about the birth of Jesus?”
“Of course I do,” he snapped. “Men are out here dying and all you can do is tell us Bible stories.”
“Do you remember the star when Jesus was born?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Do you recall the direction the star came from,” I continued?
“Yeah … you bet,” he confirmed, the timbre of his voice lightening.
“That’s the side of the horseshoe that’s open,” I shouted over the sound of exploding mortar shells. “
Fight your way out in that direction.”
“Give me five minutes,” he stated more than asked. After what seemed an interminable wait Larry’s voice broke through the static, “We’re all set!”
Turning to the ARVN artillery officers I commanded, “Fire!” Thunder boomed out across the jungle battlefield as a myriad of artillery tubes belched fire and death into the night. In the distance, the sky glowed pink, yellow and white as tons of explosives churned the earth. Cold sweat trickled down the inside of my camouflage fatigue collar.
As abruptly as the barrage started, it stopped. Impotently now the sound hung in the air. Then came the hard part, the waiting. In war there is much waiting. particularly when the outcome of a battle is in doubt. Larry and his ARVN soldiers still had to painstakingly pick their way through the jungle blackness to safety, all the way maintaining radio silence to avoid giving away their positions.
For seemingly a thousandth time I anxiously looked up at the eastern sky and asked myself, “Where is Larry? Is he dead, or captured, or laying wounded on some vermin-infested hillside?” Finally it was time. Stiffly I stood, brushed the dirt and bugs from my fatigues, belted on my .45 and Randal killing knife and walked through the calm of dawn to my waiting Jeep. Colonel Vy’s Jeep swung in behind mine and we lurched forward sucking along behind us as cloud of red dust. Finally, our Jeeps lurched to a halt near an old rope bridge that was strung across a sluggish, mud-colored river.
Larry’s jubilant voice burst from the radio, “We’re almost to the river!” For what seemed like hours but was probably only minutes, Colonel Vy and I stood at the near side of the rope bridge watching and waiting.
Suddenly, with a shout Larry sprang from the wall of green forest at the far end of the bridge. An Irish grin distorted his perspiring, mud smeared face and he waved joyfully. Wearily plodding along close behind him came the exhausted, but happy, ARVN soldiers.