By Richard H. Dick James
55 years ago, April 1966, is a day that will FOREVER remain etched in my mind. I was a Sergeant E-5 assigned to Camp Cai Cai (Detachment A-412), 5th Special Forces Group, near the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta, and on the Cai Cai River, as the Demolition Specialist on the team.
I had returned on the first from a short R&R at the C-Team in Can Tho. I didn’t have long to wait for some action. On 3 April (two days later) I went on patrol toward the Cambodian border with SFC John Noakes (Heavy Weapons Leader) and a platoon of GIDG (plus our “trusted” head interpreter, Sahn). We were going to an objective near the border, northeast of Cai Cai, knowing that the chances of a firefight, initiated by the VC or Cambodians, were extremely high. We loaded onto the camp fiberglass boats, via the wharf on the east corner of camp, and crossed the Cai Cai River. It took several trips, but eventually everybody was one the east bank of the river, at the tiny outpost located there.
We spread out, to not be a tightly bunched target, and headed northeastward. Noakes and I were positioned near the center of the formation, Noakes walking about 20 yards in front of me. We were crossing flat terrain, all the way from Cai Cai to the border area, with just very low-lying grass for ground cover. There were no trees or bushes along our route. We had no choice. The only territory with any kind of vegetation for cover was the border itself, on the Cambodian side of the border, to our front left, where we thought the enemy would most likely be lying in wait. The riverbank also had a lot of vegetation, but it ran north and south, not the direction we were heading. The border foliage consisted of thick vegetation, with low-lying trees and bushes. That’s where we expected the enemy troops to be.
We arrived near the border, our planned destination, stopped and spread out, taking up defensive positions. Noakes came back to my location, pointed eastward, and told me he was going to reconnoiter the border area, by himself, while I stayed with the troops.
“For his own sake and for that of those around him, a man must be prepared for that awful, shrieking moment of truth when he realizes that he is all alone on a hill ten thousand miles from home, and that he may be killed in the next second.” —T. R. Fehrenbach.
Within a few minutes of Noakes’ departure, all hell broke loose. We were hit with rifle, machine gun, and recoilless rifle fire. We were in an open field, totally exposed. Shortly after the initial barrage, mortar rounds began landing in our vicinity. The only cover was calf-deep grass. All of us hit the ground immediately. The bullets seemed to be flying at us from somewhere in the tree line north of us, on the Cambodian border. It was obvious that we were badly outnumbered and out-gunned. We began returning fire, when suddenly, my CIDG troops, our interpreter with them, jumped up, and made a very hasty retreat towards camp, leaving Noakes and I alone, and separated. I yelled at them to stop, but they apparently couldn’t hear me, over the din of the combat action. Suddenly I was feeling very lonely, and in trouble. I didn’t dare follow them, with Noakes still somewhere to my east, by himself. God only knows how many enemy troops had me, and me alone, in their sights, and firing at me. Some of them were getting too damn close for any kind of comfort. A rifle bullet cut the grass between my legs. That caused an immediate dive for cover, looking for at least a thick blade of grass to find cover behind. Heaven only knows why I figured those blades of grass were going to protect my ass. There I was, the only person sticking around in this open field, and I thought I was going to hide behind some blades of grass? Fat chance!
Not knowing exactly where the bullets were coming from, I emptied a couple magazines, firing into the tree line north of my position. I knew I was in a very perilous position. Talk about an understatement! I was out in the open, with nothing of substance to hide behind, in plain view of who knew how many of the enemy, while I had only a vague idea where they were holed up, shooting at my ass. I felt like a rifle range target. I had no idea where Noakes was. I only knew that he was somewhere to the east of me, and I didn’t dare leave until I found him. I didn’t even know if he was alive, wounded, or dead.
As usual, I had the AN/PRC-10 radio on my back, its antenna sticking up, acting as an aiming stake, saying, “Here he is! Here is the man who can call for backup and air support. Kill him, and you’re safe.” I radioed camp for help, asking for covering fire and reinforcements, giving my location and circumstances. I knew air support was not an option. Air support was too far away to do me any good. Besides that, they wouldn’t have been able to help me anyway. The enemy was apparently on Cambodian soil, and the Rules of Engagement (ROE) stated that our aircraft could not cross that border. I learned later that, as soon as my message was received, our CO, Captain Leo M. Donker, and radio operator, SGT Durham, climbed up the ladder to the top of the camp observation tower to direct supporting 81mm and 4.2” mortar fire for us. From the top of the tower CPT Donker could see our location, as well as where the firing was coming from.
I ran towards the direction Noakes had gone, away from the safety of our camp. I was finally able to spot mortar rounds exploding, in the vicinity of where I thought the enemy was located. After what seemed like an eternity, Noakes and I finally hooked up and proceeded to exfiltrate as carefully, and expediently, as was possible, through a heavy volume of fire. We took turns laying down covering fire, while the other would race to a new position, hopscotching towards the safety of our camp. Before long, the Cambodian outpost began firing their artillery piece at our camp, once again in support of the VC. As soon as one of the rounds hit nearby, CPT Donker told SGT Durham to send a message to our C-team in Can Tho, letting them know of the situation.
Durham immediately descended the ladder and went to the commo bunker to send the message. Before he had finished the message, one of the rounds exploded right in front of CPT Donker, killing him instantly. As Noakes and I were getting the hell out of our predicament, the report came over my radio that our 01 (zero-one, the call sign for commanding officer) had been KIA. I had trouble comprehending that. Noakes and I were devastated. We finally reached our outpost on the east side of the river, unscathed but shaken. From there we boarded a fiberglass boat, crossing the river back to camp. By that time, the Cambodian bombardment of our camp had ceased.
That evening was the quietest our team house had ever been. Special Forces men were good at quoting a particular Bible saying when they lost one or more of their own. That saying was from John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Nothing could have been any truer of this horrible instance. Special Forces men are known for putting their lives in grave danger to protect the life of a teammate. The entire incident seemed to have lasted forever, but probably lasted no more than 20-30 minutes. We estimated that ten British 25-Pounder artillery shells had landed in camp. Examination of the fragments from the artillery shells revealed that they were 87.6mm shells, which were used with British 25-pounder artillery pieces. Other fragments were also found in the vicinity (within 100 meters of our camp), revealed to be from 105mm artillery shells. Agents had been reporting 105mm artillery pieces just across the border, in Cambodia. In addition, a lot of vehicular traffic had been reported near the border, including five-ton trucks.
After Captain Donker was killed, the weekly shelling of Cai Cai by the Cambodian outpost ceased for a short time. Maybe the Cambodians figured they’d better not tempt us any further, to wipe their asses off the face of the earth. We sure would have liked to have done so, Rules of Engagement, or not. I was incensed about the CIDG deserting us and leaving us at the mercy of the enemy. What set me off even more was a couple days later when a female friend wrote to me, saying that a group of Quakers (I believe that was the religious sect) had returned from a “fact finding mission” in Cambodia, and reported that there were NO VIET CONG in Cambodia. And, she believed them! I wrote back to her and stated, in no uncertain terms, how I felt about that statement. I told her that she should write to my Commanding Officer’s family and tell them that the report of his death had to be untrue, because there were no enemy soldiers in Cambodia. I guess I got nasty in my letter to her, because I never heard from her again. Oh, well! No big loss, I guess. We subsequently received unsubstantiated reports that there were additional artillery pieces in their outpost and that five tanks had also arrived there. That increased our pucker factor quite a bit. We were also informed that we had become one of the highest priority camps in Vietnam. While stationed at another camp later that year, I was told that Sahn, our “trusted” chief interpreter who had been on the patrol with us, and almost every patrol I had been on, had been found to be a VC. No wonder the patrols I was on were in so many fire fights, most of which resulting in us being outnumbered. I’m sure now that he probably told the CIDG that I had ordered them to retreat. A few weeks later I was told by our temporary CO, Lieutenant Doht, that he was going to recommend me for an Army Commendation Medal with “V” device (for valor) for my actions. A couple months later I was informed, by another team source, that I had been recommended for a Bronze Star Medal with “V,” as well as a Vietnamese valor medal. I never received any of them, but it was nice to know I was put in for a medal (if I even was). 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: The Camp Observation Tower / CPT Leo Donker (kneeling) R.I.P. / SFC John Noakes (standing) / Memorial plaque at Cai Cai / CPT Donker’s name on the Vietnam Wall (my photos).SLURP SENDS!