Night Battles

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By Richard H Dick James

55 years ago, 22 March 1966, I was a Sergeant E-5 assigned to Detachment A-412, 5th Special Forces Group in Camp Cai Cai, near the Cambodian border of the Mekong Delta, and on the Cai Cai River, as the Demolition Specialist on the team. I was also the acting FDC (Fire Direction Control) for our 4.2” mortar. “Nothing is more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.” —Winston Churchill.

On 22 March our new medic, SSG Ed Passmore, and I went on a patrol. Passmore was the replacement for SSG Stoll, who had been reassigned. I got to pick the patrol we’d accompany, which naturally was a location I figured would be the best chance for combat. I was supposed to “show him the ropes.” I showed him the ropes alright. The patrol consisted of the two of us, an interpreter, and eight CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group, aka “mercenaries”). I had picked a squad that was scheduled to patrol near the Cambodian border. Near the border we were hit hard by the VC. I immediately called in for support. We held out for half an hour before a hundred-man relief force arrived from camp.

The firefight lasted another two hours, with the LLDB (Luc Luong Doc Biet, aka VN Special Forces) aspirant (a Vietnamese Army officer rank that was between that of a student officer and a second lieutenant) leading the relief force, ending up being badly enough wounded to require evacuation. We had VC to our north, east and west, virtually surrounded. We began a retreat. Every time we began moving, the VC would fire a volley at us. That caused the Vietnamese CIDG troops to hit the ground and not want to move. I had learned, shortly after arrival at Cai Cai, that the CIDG did not want to be responsible for an SF being killed or wounded. Anytime I had troubles getting the troops to move, my tactic became to stand up in the open, until they would move. It always worked, the CIDG fearful of me being hit. In addition, the VC apparently became too excited about the fabulous target, namely me, to get off accurate shots. In Vietnam, life was a matter of inches, and I was relying on the fact that the VC would not be able to find the inch they needed to get me. The results on that patrol were the same. I had to remain standing when they hit the ground, to get them moving again. I heard some close bullets, “cracks,” but none hit. I was living first hand, the fact that there is a 300 yard per second difference between a bullet strike and the sound of the rifle firing. When you heard the rifle report, it was too late to duck; the bullet would have already passed you by or hit you. Somewhat similar, is the fact that if you hear the whistling sound of an artillery or mortar round, it has already passed you, or is off, fairly far, to your side, so there is no need to duck. It’s the ones you don’t hear that are the scary ones. Surprisingly, besides the VN LLDB aspirant, we had no casualties among my group. When we returned to camp, SSG Passmore immediately reported to the team that I was “crazy.” Funny thing is, a lot of team members agreed with him. I guess I was lucky not to garner the nickname “dinky dau” (Vietnamese for crazy, pronounced “dinky dow”). One of our favorite sayings if we thought somebody was acting nuts was “beaucoup dinky dau,” (pronounced “boo-coo dinky dow”), meaning very crazy. Oh, well! At least my method of getting our strikers to move worked. I guess it’s kind of an ego thing. You don’t want somebody to get hurt on your watch. During the firefight the camp 4.2” mortar supplied supporting fire for us, which drew return fire from the Cambodian outpost. One of the Cambodian rounds landed just outside of camp, wounding a CIDG. The VN Special Forces CO was not a happy camper. Besides everything else that happened, this day, he was now without any other VN officer. His first lieutenant XO (Executive Officer – second in command) had gone to Saigon the day before to visit his “sick mother.” His next junior commander, the aspirant, was leading the relief unit that came out to help us. A Vietnamese aspirant was basically the same as a U.S. Army warrant officer. He was wounded by a bullet during the firefight, badly enough to be medevaced (medical evacuation) from camp that day. That evening one of our outposts was fired on, putting us on alert.

At the same time an unidentified aircraft kept flying over our camp. We continually attempted to make radio contact with the aircraft on the local air-ground frequency but weren’t receiving a reply. After several passes, we began getting nervous and contacted higher headquarters. We advised them that we couldn’t make contact and our weapons man was in the observation tower manning the .50-caliber machine gun, waiting for the word to fire. We told higher headquarters that we would begin firing at the aircraft in fifteen minutes if we received no information. Finally, close to the deadline, we were told that the aircraft was a U.S. Army Grumman OV-1 “Mohawk” twin seat (side-by-side), twin turboprop engine observation aircraft. It carried camera and heat sensing gear (for detecting personnel movement at night) and had a maximum speed of about 300 mph. It was flying over our camp with no running lights (couldn’t blame him for that) and no radio contact. With the intelligence we had received, and knowing that the Cambodian outpost supported the VC, we were nervous that it could have been a Cambodian aircraft doing reconnaissance on us. A little far-fetched, but not impossible as far as we were concerned. In fact, far-fetched, but true, was part of dealing with that war. In later years a camp was overrun by TANKS. Yes, tanks. They had been reported by a black ops group, but pooh-poohed by MACV idiots in air-conditioned offices. A problem that existed in Vietnam was the many different communications frequencies, and even band widths (FM, UHF, VHF, etc.), being used. Many was the time that, even if we had known the frequency for communications, we could not make radio contact because our radios could not communicate on those particular band widths. There were times in Vietnam that allied units were bombed and strafed by U.S. Air Force aircraft, unable to stop the attack due to the inability to communicate with the attackers. Keep in mind, also, that sometimes we went out wearing black pajamas, trying to trick the VC by dressing like them. That could bring down the wrath of an aerial attack.

Later that evening we spotted some VC just outside our camp. Some noise had been heard by a sentry, so a couple of us went to the wall carrying our rifles, one with a AN/PVS-1 Night Vision Sight, Individual Served Weapon, aka starlight scope (1st Generation), attached. For the first time, I saw and worked with the starlight scope. It was a wonderful night vision aid, attached to an M-16 rifle. The scope was portable, but bulky (17½ inches long, 7¾ inches high, and weighing 6 pounds), battery powered, and used to detect distant objects by amplifying reflected nighttime light from the moon and stars, hence the nickname starlight scope. It could be zeroed in for the attached weapon, thus making the combined rifle and scope function as both an observation tool and a weapon. There were only 25 of the scopes in 5th SFG at that time. We were fortunate to have one of them. Looking through the scope, the primary color was green (LOTS of green), with objects appearing as black. The scope did not magnify like binoculars did, but objects that couldn’t normally be seen were visible if there were any stars and one had a starlight scope to look through. The scope really brought into focus subjects in villages that were lit by campfires, etc. Unlike those of the old Generation 0 era, the 1st Generation units didn’t need infrared light projected, to function. The more light (moon, star, campfire, etc.), the more effective these scopes were. On an extremely dark night (moonless or totally overcast) they were ineffective. Another negative was the fact that the image was slightly distorted. One of the good points of this piece of equipment was that it didn’t emit any light, therefore not detectable by countermeasures. We quickly ran the VC off with heavy firing, which included illumination rounds from our mortars. Illumination rounds were rounds that were fired high into the sky. Approximately at the apex of their trajectory, a parachute deployed and the round popped, becoming very bright illuminating flares. The flares floated lazily to earth, giving off a very ghostly light and causing shadows to dance and sway as the flares swung underneath their small parachutes. Even later, one of our night patrols chased off another group of VC, as did another one of our outposts. It was a very busy day and night. Things finally calmed down at about 0100 hours (1 a.m.). The next morning, we found that the VC had cut the electrical wires to our illumination devices. They had snuck inside our outer barrier of barbed wire. Our illumination devices were also protective weapons, known as fougasse devices. They were 55-gallon drums of home-made napalm, a jellied gasoline-type liquid which when ignited became an explosive weapon and lit the area with its burning liquid. They were ignited by an electrical contact in the camp that set off an explosive charge in the drum. From Book #3, of my four-book set of “SLURP SENDS!” Books #1 (“SLURP SENDS! On Becoming a Green Beret Book 1”). # 2 (SLURP SENDS! Experiences of an A-Team Green Beret Book 2”), #3 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret In Vietnam Book 3”) and #4 (“SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences In Vietnam Book 4”) are all available on Amazon, or from me.PHOTOS: Map showing the relationship of the Cambodian outpost to our camp at Cai Cai / SSG Edward Passmore (my photos) / Starlight scope / Grumman Mohawk (Internet photos).SLURP SENDS!

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