CAMBODIAN BORDER MORTAR ATTACK
(Death, Politics, and Heroism )
I decided to write about this incident to have on record one of the many reasons why the military was not allowed to win in Viet Nam and how bravely soldiers fought and died for their country when it called them to duty. We knew that Viet Nam was not a "popular war" but I do not know of any war that was called a "popular war!" As Americans, we have a duty to protect one country from imposing its will on a weaker country by military force. Most if not all combat soldiers in Viet Nam had one if not two clear objectives:
(1) to allow the South Vietnamese people to decide on what kind of government they wanted even if it was a corrupt one.
(2) To stay alive and hope the 12- month tour goes by quickly.
American national security was not really threatened but certainly, the democratic process that the USA encouraged all countries to adopt was in extreme peril in South Viet Nam.
This tragic and frustrating military action took place on December 11,1967 within sight (3 kms.) of the Cambodian Border where the North Vietnamese Army kept large amount of war supplies, weapons, ammunition, and fresh troops. This was called Operation Yellowstone The Cambodian Border was literally a large enemy staging area and base of operations for the war in South Viet Nam. As we patrolled along the border, you could stand on a high hill and "actually see" military storage buildings covered with shiny tin roofs that glistened in the sun. However, we were not allowed to "cross over" to Cambodia (a neutral country) to destroy the enemies' supplies or food. You could actually see buildings with no doors but only two trap door openings at the top. It did not take a rocket scientist to know these were not some poor farmer's house but rather a military storage building for food (probably rice) and possibility a ammo dump. How can you win a war if you can not destroy the enemy when you locate him? In WWII, if the enemy was in another country , the US military was allowed to destroy the targets but not so in the VietNam War.
It was late in the evening on 12-11-67 when our patrols along the Cambodian Border ended and we were instructed to dig in for the night. As we began digging out an open foxhole, we dug up numerous tail fins from 82-mm mortar rounds. Since the 82-mm mortar was the VC and NV A' s weapon of choice, we knew this area had been mortared many times before and probably already had all the coordinates for accurate fire laid in. However, due to darkness coming, we had no choice but to dig in at this suspicious open area.
The terror began at midnight with a deadly accurate mortar attack. The all too familiar sound of whomp-whomp-whomp was heard as mortar rounds were being dropped down the firing tube. However, this was "very different" in that you could hear aloud explosion as the round left the mortar tube. You do not hear actually a mortar this loud unless you very close to the mortar that is in action. This meant the North Vietnamese were within visual sight of our perimeter and could watch as the rounds hit. Their 82-mm mortar rounds fell with deadly accuracy patterns as they walked a series of volleys up and down our positions for 3 to 4 different series of mortar attacks. It took a very long time for the rounds to hit after they were fired which was an indication that they were firing almost straight up to achieve a high trajectory to hit a close target. .I huddled down in my foxhole waiting for the rounds to hit and then would hear the hissing sound like a snake as they plumpled down on top of us. The rounds hit so close to my foxhole that I could see the flash of the explosion and feel the concussion simultaneously. There was dirt and derbies being blasted down on Sgt. Jack Connell and me that stung as if being shot by a BB gun. As the rounds were walked past our foxhole, we heard more terrifying sounds. You could clearly hear the sounds of the mortar being readied for another volley. Since sounds seem to carry farther at night, it seemed the enemy was only 30 feet away from our position~ the mortar actually sounded as if was being fired from inside our perimeter. You could hear the ..click-clank" ofmetal hitting metal as more and more rounds were being dropped down the mortar tube. Then the long wait for the rounds to hit; then the hissing sound; then the explosion and concussion. I felt more helpless to defend myself on this night more than any other time in Viet Nam. I was literally just waiting to die and that is the most helpless terrifying experience anyone can ever experience.
Since we were so close to the Cambodian border, our artillery or gun ships were not allowed to lay down suppressing fire to stop the mortar attack. The policy was that not even a bullet or piece of sharpel was to land in Cambodian or it was a violation of their "so called Neutrality." Lt. Colonel Henchman actually had to wait and "get permission" to fire back at the enemy mortar as we were getting blow to pieces. This is one example of the flawed Foreign Policy from Washington that the Viet Nam Soldier had to deal with. So we had to just lay there and wait to die without being given the means to fight back at the enemy that was killing us. Finally after the third or fourth volley of mortar rounds, someone with an M-60 machine gun opened up and some with M-40 grenade . launchers began to return fire. The Mortar position was so close, it was within the range of a rifle; so as soon as we began to return fire, the attack ended and the North Vietnamese packed up and went back to their safe sanctuary in Cambodian where they could not be touched.
This particular night we had a medical physician with us, Captain Daubek, MD; which is very unusual since a medic is almost always the only medical personnel that patrols with a combat unit. Captain Daubek crawled from foxhole to foxhole treating the wounded even as the mortar rounds were still falling. Captain Daubek was wounded twice by shrapnel himself but did not stop trying to help the wounded and dying. Captain Daubek refused to be lifted out on Dust Off until the last Manchu casualty was on a helicopter headed back to a medical hospital. Captain Daubek was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery, which he well deserved. Even though I was badly shaken and totally terrified because of the numerous mortar rounds that almost dropped in my foxhole (there were two craters within three feet) ofmy position~ I did not know how much I had to be thankful for. The position next to mine with two of my squad members did not answer when we asked, "Is anybody hit?" A mortar round had scored a direct hit into Spec.4 Frank Essig and PFC Pete Melann's foxhole. As I looked down into the foxhole I could see Pete laying face down but not Frank. As we pulled Pete out we knew he had died instantly because of the large wound that went through the back of his flak jacket and then out the front. It was then that we saw Frank Essig lying motionless on the bottom of the foxhole. We pulled Frank out and he had major entry wounds to both sides ofhis chest. A medic, Doc Durphy or Spec.5 "Doc" Ruble (medic) came out of nowhere and immediately began to work on Frank. I had great respect for these two medics~ they were with me at the Battle at the Horseshoe, Song Saigon River (8-30-67) and always were the first medics to get to a wounded solider. I thought there was no hope and that Frank was dead or nearly dead. Somehow, they and I think, Dr. Daubek brought him out of shock and Frank began to moan from the pain. In a example of great compassion and courage, Lt. Colonel John Henchman called in a dustoff, for Frank who was barely hanging on to life, in the middle of the night with possibility of another mortar attack or maybe even an anti-aircraft gun waiting for an opportunity to down a chopper. Lt. Colonel Henchman was the most outstanding Battalion commander during my tour because he cared for every single solider in the Battalion and took each loss personally. Lt. Colonel Henchman was truly a 'Soldier's Commander." I would have followed Lt. Colonel Henchman anywhere because he would not hesitate to engage the enemy but would not recklessly sacrifice American soldiers~ a philosophy that not all commanders followed. I cannot begin to imagine how frustrating it was for a field officer to fight with so many restrictions imposed by the policy makers in Washington. The night of December 11, 1967 is hardly a footnote in the Viet Nam war but a classic example of things that prevent victory at the cost of many lives.
Bill Fitch, Alpha Co. 4/9 (1967-1968)