By Manuel Beck
We stopped to RON around 2000 hours. Sometime before daylight, we heard a firefight to our east. We didn’t know what team it was, but it had to be one of ours because there were no other U.S. troops in Cambodia. A few minutes later, we heard the FAC flying in the area, and we could hear the firefight still going on. I got on the radio to see if there was any radio traffic about the firefight. I could hear Jerry Cottingham on the radio talking to the FAC telling him they needed to be extracted because the One-Zero (American team leader Jim Perry) and the Zero-One (SCU team leader) had been wounded. The FAC told Jerry he had another team in contact, and he had requested Fast Movers and helicopters to assist them, and as soon as that team was extracted, he would help him.
The other team also had wounded personnel. Jerry said they had set up in a bomb crater, and he felt they would be in deep shit if they didn’t get help soon. Ed told me to tell Jerry we would be moving in his direction to help and for him to hang on.
We had no idea how far away the other team was from us, but it couldn’t be that far by the sound of it. We started moving toward the sound of the firefight, hoping it was Jerry’s location and not the other team that was being extracted. As we got closer, we could hear the firefight but not the sound of helicopters, so it had to be Jerry’s team. It was very difficult trying to move through the twisted trees and dark jungle, so we decided to move out to the craters because it was much faster, and there was a full moon to help us see.
I told Jerry what we were doing and told him to shoot a pen flare if it would not compromise his position. He said, “They know where we are. Get here as fast as you can.” He shot off a flare, and we could see that he was much closer than we thought.
Jerry said he had NVA to his south and west, but nothing from his north yet. I told Jerry we were coming in from the west and for him not to shoot in that direction. Jerry told me he was receiving fire from the west, but most of the gunfire was from the south.
As we got closer, we moved away from the craters back into the jungle. I told Jerry to throw a White Phosphorus (WP) grenade to his west so we could see if we could locate the NVA. The white phosphorus burns fiercely and can cause severe burns or death. It also creates an enormous amount of light at night.
When the WP grenade exploded, it lit up the area. We could see muzzle flashes coming from the treeline to our south and east. I told Jerry to put out as much gunfire as he could to the south to mask the sound of our movement as we moved behind the NVA on his west. He did, and we ran as fast as we could to get close to the NVA. We got close enough to tell that only three NVAs were firing at Jerry and his team. All three were close together, standing behind trees firing their weapons. We crawled to within fifty feet of them before we started shooting. We killed all three in one burst of twenty rounds from all five of us, plus two rounds from our M-79 grenade launcher. I also threw one hand grenade just to make sure.
I informed Jerry we had taken out the NVA on his west and not to fire in that direction. Our point man Pham crawled up to the three bodies to make sure they were dead. He came back with their weapons and ammo. We knew this must be a small force of NVA because they had not advanced onto Jerry’s position. However, that firefight had been going on for an hour, and more NVA would be coming. Jerry told us they were just about out of ammo, and he had three men wounded. He also told us he was not receiving fire from his south, and he thought they were moving to his west. He believed there were about fifteen NVA all together, and he didn’t understand why they had not gotten more NVA to help them.
Jerry said he would throw another WP grenade at them to see if he could start a fire or at least light them up so he could see in their direction. He did, and all hell broke loose. From our position, we could see the muzzle flashes, and it looked like there were about ten different weapons firing. We moved around to our left and started firing at the NVA with our three captured weapons. The NVA used AK-47 rifles, and you can tell the differences from our M-16s and AK-47 rifles by the sound it makes when fired. In addition, the AK-47 had tracer rounds in them. The AK-47 fires a green tracer round where our weapons fire red tracer rounds. The idea was to make the NVA think that their own troops were firing at them, and they wouldn’t fire back in our direction. After a brief firefight, all firing stopped from the west. For several minutes, there was no gunfire from either side. It was dead silent in the jungle. We couldn’t hear any movement from any direction.
I told Jerry we would hold where we were, and he should do the same. We didn’t move until it started to get light, then we moved toward Jerry’s position in the bomb crater. Just as we got there, the FAC came on the radio and told Jerry he was on his way and would be in our area in ten minutes. Jerry told the FAC that our team was with him and that we would need at least two helicopters to extract both teams. The FAC told Jerry to pop a smoke. Jerry did, and the FAC said he had us in sight.
I told the FAC we hadn’t heard anything in the past hour, and as far as we knew, the LZ was safe.
We were lucky because there were two Slicks along with two Gunships to get us out. Before the helicopters landed, Pham went back in the jungle where we killed the three NVA soldiers and searched their bodies one more time for any papers or maps. Jerry’s team went to see if there were any bodies around their position. There were none. We guessed that the NVA force was only two squads (twenty soldiers), and they must have been alone because they were not reinforced during the battle. That was lucky for us.
We were extracted without incident and flown back to that hellhole launch site. On the way back, I took pictures of the bomb craters from the air. I still have those pictures today. Jim had a flesh wound to his back. Jim said he was lying on his stomach firing at the bad guys when a bullet went in at the top of his shoulder blade and exited two inches lower. Both SCUs had arm wounds, and one had part of his ear shot off.
During the debriefing, Jerry said they walked into what looked like a large base camp, and while searching one of the tunnels, they walked in on several NVA soldiers sleeping, and Jerry opened fire. Not knowing how many were in there, they exited the tunnel. The team moved back away from that tunnel and saw several more NVA soldiers coming out of another nearby tunnel. They had a firefight there at the tunnel complex, and that is where Jim and the Zero-One were wounded. They made their way back to the craters hoping to be extracted. However, the NVA must have tracked them to the crater. That was where the firefight continued, and one more team member was wounded.
The first of five teams in was extracted under fire on the first day. They also ran into a small force and had one SCU killed and one wounded. For the next two days, we stood down while the other two teams completed their missions. We were down to three teams until we received replacement SCU soldiers from SIGMA to replace the killed and wounded. The other two teams were extracted after five days. All five teams saw the same thing. That area was one large base camp for the NVA, and from all the trenches and tunnels we saw, it had been there for several years. I told the S-2 how big the tunnel complex was we found and asked him if he knew what the NVA did with all the dirt from the tunnels. He said the NVA and VC used soldiers and slave labor to carry the dirt several miles from the complex and spread it over the jungle floor so it could not be seen from the air or noticed from the ground.
I would pull three more BDAs while at SIGMA.