Incident at Ta Bat

June 27, 2019 at 2:58 am (Uncategorized)

Camp Ta Bat was a primitive outpost in the remote A Shau Valley adjacent to the Laotian border. The Vietnamese 36th Ranger Battalion, advised by an American officer, called Ta Bat home. The A Shau was probably the most wildly beautiful and severely contoured area in South Vietnam. It contained some of the most impassable terrain in Southeast Asia. Elephants were known to roam there, and an occasional tiger sometimes came down from the hills in search of prey.

The South Vietnamese Army maintained two outposts in The Valley, and American Special Forces manned another. Small units of the Viet Cong operated freely throughout the area. During 1964, the opposing forces had reached a virtual stand-off. The Allies enjoyed superior firepower, while the VC were more lightly armed but more mobile.

Allied intelligence indicated that The Valley was a primary infiltration point for the North Vietnamese regulars just beginning to travel south on the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail” in Laos. ARVN and American units relied on a ten to one manpower advantage to deny this route to the enemy. Unknown to Allied command, however, plans were being put into motion in Hanoi that would not only alter that ratio, but would dramatically escalate the conflict from a modest counter-insurgency effort to a full-scale war. The A Shau Valley rested precariously on an anvil of vulnerability, and the hammer was already falling.

It was June of 1964, and I was scheduled to fly out from Advisory Team #3 headquarters in the city of Hue to Ta Bat for two weeks of duty as radio operator there. CHOP (Chief Operator) Kane drove me to Tay Loc airstrip inside the Hue Citadel early in the morning, where a Caribou resupply plane waited on the runway. A squad of ARVN soldiers was loading the cargo: several dozen huge burlap bags of rice, numerous bamboo coops crammed with live chickens and ducks, three or four massive hogs whose legs had been tied to prevent them from moving around during the flight, and a shipment of ammunition for the Rangers at Ta Bat. I was the lone passenger.

I marveled at the crude but effective method of resupply. The birds and hogs would remain alive at the outpost until needed. Then the soldiers would kill just enough to prepare a meal. It was a simple means of storage that negated the need for complex refrigeration systems.

When the Vietnamese finished loading, I climbed up the open tailgate into the plane. There were no seats, so I perched atop a stack of rice bags and hooked one arm through a webbed cargo strap. There were no windows either. I wouldn’t be able to see much, but it was a short flight from Hue to Ta Bat.

The tailgate closed, and the twin props roared to life. The olive green plane taxied slowly to the far end of the runway where it then turned into the wind. As the pilot gunned the engines, the Caribou began rolling rapidly down the strip. We lifted off and rose swiftly at a steep angle.

I glanced across at the rows of bamboo coops. The sudden ascent had alarmed the birds. They now squawked and flapped their wings in outrage, sending swirls of tiny white feathers along the deck of the cargo bay. I chuckled at the sight. Nothing like traveling first class.

Twenty minutes later, the aircraft banked left, floated across a line of green, rolling mountain peaks, and entered the A Shau Valley. By craning my neck to peer through the cockpit windows, I caught a glimpse of the terrain below. Its smooth, billiard table appearance was marred only by some intermittent shell craters resembling open sores on the surface. As the triangular outpost loomed in the distance, the Caribou descended sharply and then headed straight in toward the runway.

The plane touched down on the crude landing strip of perforated steel plate (PSP) laid over packed earth, vibrating madly as the engines roared into reverse. Prop wash sent a sandstorm of red dust swirling in the craft’s wake. The Caribou bobbed violently up and down on the uneven surface as the pilot literally stood on the brakes. He brought us to a halt about two hundred yards from the end of the runway, then turned and rolled slowly back toward the main compound. The tailgate motors began to whine just before the aircraft lurched to a complete stop. The ramp cracked open and swung down quickly to ground level. A blast of hot, dry air swept into the interior. I blinked rapidly as dust peppered my face, then shuffled to the rear of the plane and hopped down into the blinding afternoon glare.

A hatless American officer with dark hair and black bushy eyebrows was standing nearby with the Vietnamese cargo crew. He strode over to me and glanced at my name tag. I tossed him a salute that he didn’t return. “Hello, Oliveri,” he said. “Welcome to Ta Bat. I’m Captain Vincent. Come on, I’ll show you to your hooch.”

I shouldered my bag and followed the captain through the main gate. An ARVN soldier stood inside a log and sandbag guard post within the entrance. Barriers of crossed logs strung with barbed wire had been swung aside to form a narrow passageway. We turned to the left and clomped alongside a meandering trench network that appeared to be about four feet deep. Clumps of spindly trees grew from small mounds of red earth surrounding the ditches.

Vincent led me to a point where two trenched intersected and a dilapidated bunker constructed of wooden logs lay. It had a flimsy screen door, and there were patches of weeds growing from its dirt roof. A battered tin basin rested on an old ammunition box outside the entrance. Vincent pulled the screen open. “Get yourself settled in. I’ll be back for you later. We’re having dinner with the camp commander.”

I stepped inside, swung my duffel bag down, and glanced around. It was pretty grim. The bunker was octagon-shaped, about fifteen feet in diameter, with a dirt floor. Corrugated metal sheets nailed to the roof formed a crude ceiling. Woven grass mats covered the walls. A narrow alcove served as the entrance, with three broad steps of notched logs and earth fill leading down to the interior. The fragile-looking screen door was the only barrier to the elements.

To the left of the entrance was the “radio room”, for lack of a better term. It was just a small area set off by two vertical logs that supported the roof. An “Angry-9” radio sat on a rough plank table against one wall. Static popped and hissed from its receiver. A snake-like power cable led from the radio through a small hole in the bunker wall to a portable gasoline generator outside. A telegraph key and a set of black plastic earphones lay on the table.

A PRC-10 radio was strapped to one of the roof support posts with green web belts. The “Prick-10” was used to contact aircraft and also served as an alternate means of communication with A Luoi, our sister camp four miles to the north. The ARVN 36th Ranger Battalion used the two outposts as a base of operations.

The battalion was split at the time, with two companies of rangers manning each of the locations. Highway 548, an ill-defined dirt road, meandered through the valley, passing close to both Ta Bat and A Luoi. But it was seldom used due to its poor condition. And anyone traveling the road was almost certain to be ambushed. As a result, the two camps were virtually isolated from one another.

Thompson had warned me about the grim conditions, so I was not particularly surprised by what I found. A single cot sat against the opposite wall. It reeked of must. I dropped my gear there beneath a sputtering gasoline lantern that hung from a nail. A battered kerosene refrigerator stood at the far end of the structure. Out of curiosity, I looked inside and found only half a dozen rusted Coca-Cola cans.

Opposite the “radio room” was a small kitchen area. A compact, single burner gasoline stove sat on a rough wooden bench. Beside it was a tarnished coffee pot with a long, dented spout. A white metal shelf above the bench held a collection of unmatched aluminum plates, glass jars, square saltine cans, and tin cups. Several blackened pots and pans hung from nails embedded in the wall. That was about it. Pretty primitive, but I hadn’t been expecting the Hilton.

Vincent returned several hours later, and we strolled across the compound to where Captain Ninh and his staff officers sat beneath a grass canopy. Captain Vincent introduced me to everyone in fluent Vietnamese. Each of the officers smiled and stood to offer a handshake. Then we sat down to dinner as two enlisted men served up heaping bowls of steaming rice, boiled greens, and the foul-smelling sauce known as nuoc mam. I helped myself to the rice and greens, but passed on the nuoc mam, which was made by fermenting fish in the hot sun for weeks.

I marveled at the dexterity of the Vietnamese as they easily shoveled mounds of rice into their mouths with chopsticks. I tried doing the same, but only succeeded in spraying rice across my lap, much to the delight of the group. I grinned sheepishly as a considerate soldier handed me a fork.

Vincent chatted amiably with the Vietnamese as we ate. My knowledge of the language was still rather sketchy, so I just listened quietly throughout the meal. Dai Uy Ninh, the camp commander, and the Bac Si, or medical officer, spoke passable English. They were neat, professional looking, and seemed to be well-educated. I was impressed. As the meal progressed they questioned Vincent about General William Westmoreland, who was in the process of replacing General Paul Harkins as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Ninh asked, “Captain Vincent, what kind of man is General Westmoreland?”

Vincent thought for a moment and then said, “Well, Dai Uy, I don’t know too much about him other than he’s known as a more aggressive soldier than General Harkins. And he certainly looks like a general.”

Ninh held his chopsticks poised over his bowl as he contemplated that. “Do you think more American soldiers will come to our country?”

Now it was Vincent’s turn to reflect. He knitted his brow. “I believe that would depend on your government’s wishes, Dai Uy.”

Ninh nodded in understanding and scooped more rice into his mouth. The Bac Si glanced up from his bowl. “Tell me, Dai Uy Vincent, what do the American people think of our war?”

“Well, Theiu Uy Tranh, I honestly don’t think many of them know much about it. The ones who do assume my government must know what it’s doing.”

Tranh pursued the point. “My father fought for the Viet Minh against the French. I know the determination of the Communists. Even now they are building up their strength in the South. Do you think America will stand by us if the war grows?”

Vincent pondered this momentarily. “That is a difficult question to answer. I think yes, but I cannot be sure. In my country the people tell the government what to do. They will make the final decision.” Tranh seemed satisfied with that answer.

As we finished our meal, the mess boys brought several pots of strong Vietnamese tea. We drank it plain from small china cups, and the conversation continued in a lighter vein. “Dai Uy,” said Ninh, “in Vietnam very few have automobiles. How many Americans do?”

“I’d say just about everyone.”

The group seated around the table murmured in admiration. Bac Si Tranh seemed skeptical. “And how many have television?”

Vincent answered, “Again, just about everyone.”

Ninh sat wistfully with his chin resting on his hand, mulling Vincent’s reply. “I think that this America of yours must be a truly wonderful place.”

After dinner I returned to the bunker to settle down. My first day in Ta Bat had been fairly pleasant. “This won’t be so bad,” I said aloud to myself. I had no idea how wrong I was.

Two mornings later I had just cranked up the generator behind the bunker and turned to head back inside. Suddenly I heard a CRAAACK! and dirt shot up from near my feet. Someone was shooting at me! I took off running with bullets raising dust at my heels, and dived into the trench, crash-landing with a thud and wrenching my shoulder. My white t-shirt was smeared with mud. For some strange reason I found this hilarious and roared with laughter despite the fright and pain of my injury. I guess you never really know how you’ll react in a situation like that until it happens.

I had left the generator running, so I limped into the bunker and sent a message to Hue about what had just taken place. Captain Vincent wasn’t in camp, so I knew he wouldn’t be coming to check on me. But what amazed me was that NOBODY responded. The Vietnamese must have figured that the shooting was just some soldier taking target practice at the small firing range nearby where we occasionally went to test our weapons. I still shake my head in annoyance when I think about that. I could have been lying badly-wounded in the bottom of that trench with no help coming. Unbelievable. I sent the brief report to Hue, but never heard anything back, which wasn’t unusual.

I waited about half an hour before venturing tentatively outside to shut down the generator. There was no further gunfire. Whoever had taken the potshots at me was probably long gone by then. My shoulder ached for several days afterward, but I had learned a valuable lesson. Never again would I step outside the bunker wearing a white, easily-visible t-shirt.

After a week, I began to settle into a regular routine. There was little to do other than to send or receive an occasional message or just listen to chatter on the net. Sometimes the enemy would try to jam us by transmitting on the same frequency. It was almost impossible to complete a message under those circumstances, but we continued on anyway to make the culprits think that they weren’t affecting us. Then we would simply re-send traffic later when the interference was gone. I spent most of my day reading one or another of the paperback novels stored in a box under my bunk. When I got bored of that, I took a walk around the camp. That soon ended as the weather deteriorated.

Most mornings started out sunny, but angry black clouds often boiled up by midday. Wild thunderstorms punctuated by violent flashes of lightning swept rapidly down the valley. Sheets of blowing rain fell for about an hour and then abruptly ceased. The camp soon became a sea of mud. It was eerie, almost supernatural. The A Shau Valley was truly the most primeval place I had ever seen.

Before long the camp became a sodden mass of red mud. Were it not for the steel matting on the runway, no aircraft could have landed at Ta Bat to resupply us.

I seldom saw Vincent now except when he had a message to send. The captain spent most of his time with Ninh and then bedded down in the command bunker at night. I began spending more and more time in the commo bunker, living on the C- rations that Doug kept sending out. I hauled drinking water from the nearby stream in five gallon jerry cans. You had to treat it with a handful of iodine tablets before it was safe to drink.

Personal hygiene was another problem. The ARVN soldiers used an open slit trench as a latrine. They simply squatted over the narrow trough to do their business. I found this to be very uncomfortable. Americans, after all, were used to sitting down to take a crap. Someone had left a battered toilet seat beside the latrine. It was filthy and repulsive, but I decided to try it.

The only way to use the seat was to place it flat on the ground with the hole centered over the trench. As I lowered myself awkwardly onto it, I lost my balance and sat down heavily. I reached out reflexively to break my fall and thrust my hand into a pile of loose shit.

“Ahhh, Christ!” I gagged in disgust and jammed my hand into the trench dirt in a vain attempt to cleanse it. Glancing around to see if anyone had witnessed the humiliating incident, I pulled up my pants with my left hand. My face burned with embarrassment. I slinked back to the bunker where a bar of soap and a water can awaited. From that point on, I used the latrine only when absolutely necessary, and then it was in the Vietnamese manner.

I did my bathing in the stream. Ta Bat was situated on a small knoll overlooking the tiny Roa Loa River. A series of log and earth steps led from the barbed-wire perimeter down about a dozen feet to the water. The stream was about eight feet wide at this point, and perhaps two feet deep. Twin strips of perforated steel plate stretched across the two banks so that the rangers could reach mid-stream to fill their water cans.

A machine gun nest overlooked the water point. Several weeks earlier, the VC had snapped an ambush on a ranger water party in broad daylight, killing one and wounding two others. Since then the nest was always manned during the day. Somehow that gave me little comfort.

One morning when I could no longer live with myself, I went down to the stream to take a bath. Four rangers in faded green fatigues were already there, washing clothes or filling water cans. I stripped down to my shorts, then walked out onto the steel mat furthest upstream. I laid my towel on the makeshift bridge and stepped off into the gently gurgling water. The stream was icy cool and crystal clear. Oddly, it arose in the hills somewhere to the east, tumbled down past Ta Bat out into the lush, green A Shau Valley, and then turned westward into Laos. It struck me that the VC probably drank from its waters as well.

I had just begun to lather myself when one of the Vietnamese troopers whistled softly to catch my attention. The soldier made a drinking motion with his hand. When I realized what he was trying to tell me, I nodded in understanding. Apparently they took their water from this position and washed downstream. I snatched my towel and moved over to the other steel plank to finish my bath. The ranger flashed a good-natured smile. I winked at him.

I was developing a liking for the Vietnamese soldiers. Most were polite and somewhat shy, unlike many of the young civilians I had encountered in Hue and Saigon. In their over-sized American helmets, they reminded me of little boys playing army. Most of them seemed in awe of the huge Americans. I wondered how such benign and passive men could become competent soldiers. Yet, the 36th Ranger Battalion enjoyed an impressive reputation among the U.S. advisors.

When I had finished bathing in the chilly stream, I dried myself with the towel and then trudged back uphill to the bunker. As I dressed, the radio crackled. “Frost Weed Charlie, this is Frost Weed Alpha. I have one routine. Over.”

I dashed outside to crank up the generator. Returning to the bunker, I keyed the handset. “Frost Weed Alpha, this is Charlie. I’m ready to copy. Over.”

A short coded message followed. I copied it, rogered receipt, and decoded it using the current shackle sheets. Someone back in Hue wanted to know how many Americans slept in my bunker. What the hell kind of question was that? Without giving it much thought, I responded to net control. “Frost Weed Alpha, this is Charlie. The answer to your inquiry is one… I spell, Oscar-November-Echo. Over.”

“Roger, Charlie. Thank you. Out.”

The peculiar request puzzled me. One of the problems with being an outpost radio operator was that you seldom got any feedback on your messages. I knew that the information went back to the intelligence section at the Citadel, but I had no idea what became of it after that. I shrugged. Well, if didn’t seem very important.

I went outside to shut down the generator, and, out of boredom, kept walking along the camp perimeter. “Old” Ta Bat was gradually decomposing into the red clay of the valley floor. The rangers had begun construction of a new camp on the opposite side of the airstrip. In fact, the two 105mm howitzers had already been relocated there. When work was completed, the rangers were scheduled to abandon “old” Ta Bat and move across to their new home. For now, the original camp still contained most of the enlisted men’s quarters as well as two 60mm mortar positions and the single 81mm mortar pit.

I strolled through the open main gate out onto the landing strip. The air was heavy and still. I recalled Lansing mentioning that he liked to take late afternoon walks along the runway, but I wasn’t feeling that adventurous. This was still VC country, and it seemed a bit foolhardy to tempt fate, especially after the incident at the water point. I felt badly exposed and isolated away from the safety of the camp. I paused to study the heavily-jungled hillsides in the distance. They appeared ominously quiet. Was anyone out there? If so, were they planning to come for us soon? The longer I remained in the A Shau, the more I came to fear its almost supernatural presence. A chill swept down my spine. I shook my head and turned back toward the bunker.

Vincent stormed through the screen door the next morning as I was preparing a cup of tea. “Goddammit, Oliveri… Did you tell Hue that you were alone in here?”

I glanced up in surprise. “Yes, Sir. I did. They called and wanted to know how many Americans were in this bunker. It seemed like a strange question.”

Vincent was livid. “You caused me a lot of grief. I got a message through ARVN channels ordering me to move back into this bunker. Dai Uy Ninh is mad as hell.”

I was stunned. “I’m sorry, Captain. I didn’t realize it was anything important.”

Vincent grunted in disgust and then left, slamming the screen door behind him. He returned later carrying a small bag of his personal gear, and tossed it on the spare cot. From that point on he spent his days across the runway at “new” Ta Bat, returning each evening to our bunker. Our relationship remained frosty. We only spoke when necessary. It was a very uncomfortable situation.

One evening soon after, just at dusk, a twelve man ranger patrol slipped out of camp through the main gate and headed north off the end of the runway. I watched from atop a mound of earth outside the bunker until they disappeared into the gathering gloom. Then I returned to the bunker, where the Coleman lantern hissed softly on the table. I pumped up the gas tank, and the lamp flared higher. Vincent was still across at the new camp. Rummaging through the box of paperbacks, I found a recent best-seller and lay back on the cot to read.

Moments later a burst of automatic fire shattered the evening calm. I bolted upright. That was close! A fusillade of rifle shots followed almost immediately. I recognized the sharp crack of carbines and the huskier bark of M-1 rifles. The automatic fire had come from at least two Viet Cong AK-47 rifles that were trading rounds with the rangers.

I rushed outside and scrambled to the top of the trench. Just to the north of the runway, red tracers criss-crossed with green ones in the darkness. Three grenades exploded with vicious thumps and brilliant bursts of garish white light. Suddenly a wild round snapped by my head. I leaped back into the trench, raced into the bunker, and snatched up my .45 pistol. On the way out again I grabbed my steel pot and slapped it on my head. I didn’t realize until later that I had it on backward.

A Vietnamese mortar crew had already reached the nearby gun pit. They slid an illumination round down the tube as I watched. The shell thunked skyward in a shower of sparks and exploded overhead, bathing the perimeter in a lurid yellow glare. The gunners in the pit waited impatiently for further orders. After what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only a few seconds, the word came at last. “Ban! Ban!” (Fire! Fire!)

Three high explosive rounds rocketed out of the tube in rapid succession and burst in a tight pattern around the ambush site. The exchange of gunfire slowed almost immediately.

The mortar crew fired off another illumination round before resuming its bombardment. Three more heavy shell bursts effectively ended the fight. Within minutes I could make out a line of ghostly shadows approaching the end of the runway. It was the ranger patrol, and they were carrying a wounded comrade. I began to make my way toward the main gate with a squad of heavily-armed Vietnamese. We met three rangers hauling the injured soldier, who had been shot through the hip. Several of us grabbed on to the casualty and helped carry him through the barbed wire gate and down into the dispensary. We hoisted him onto a table.

A medic slit his trousers with a pair of surgical scissors, squinting in the feeble glow of a single lantern. The enemy bullet had drilled a neat round hole through the soldier’s pelvis. A thin stream of blood trickled from the bluish circle.

The medic leaned closer to examine the wound in the dim light. A second corpsman tapped me on the shoulder. He pointed to the faintly hissing lantern and whispered with some urgency, “Same-same?”

I nodded and set out for the commo bunker, followed closely by the corpsman. Once inside, I picked up the glowing lantern from beside my cot. Hell. It was almost empty. I handed it to the medic and we raced back to the dispensary.

To safely refuel a Coleman lantern, you were supposed to wait until the white-hot mantle cooled down. In retrospect, if I had given it any thought we might have avoided what happened next. But there was no time for delay. The wounded ranger was in terrible pain and might die if we couldn’t get some light on him. The corpsman grabbed a small can of gasoline from beneath the table and began pouring it into the base of the lamp. Suddenly there was a dull FOOMF as the fuel ignited. Burning gasoline splattered across the back of my left hand. I screamed in agony.

One of the rangers leaped forward and beat out the splash of flame on the bunker floor with a blanket. I was doubled over, gasping with pain. A corpsman appeared and took a look at my blackened hand. He smeared a dark, greasy ointment on it, and then wrapped it in a loose-fitting bandage. Satisfied that he had done all he could, the medic returned to treating the wounded ranger.

I reeled back to my bunker and sat heavily on my cot. The pain was so intense that I couldn’t sit still. I rocked back and forth in a vain effort to find relief. After a few minutes of this, I heard footsteps approaching down the trench line. Captain Vincent stepped into the bunker. He looked concerned. “Are you OK?”

I nodded wordlessly.

“The Bac Si, sent these over. They’ll help the pain.” He held out a couple of white capsules. “You know, we might be able to get you a Purple Heart for this since we were in contact with the enemy at the time.”

I was hurting too much to give a damn about that and just groaned in reply.

“Well, there’ll be a medevac in here first thing in tomorrow morning,” he said. “You’ll go back with the wounded ranger.”

I grimaced and mumbled a simple thank you.

Vincent left. I gulped the pain killers and stretched out on the cot. The hand seemed to hurt less if I held it on my chest. The capsules eased the pain enough that I could sleep for brief periods. When the throbbing became unbearable, I sat up and raised the hand over my head. This went on most of the night.

Shortly after dawn a UH-1B “Huey” helicopter swung down the valley and settled onto the runway just outside the main gate. The wounded soldier was loaded on board. I climbed awkwardly in beside him. The sight of the wounded man made me feel a bit embarrassed. He was obviously a lot worse off than I was.

The soldier had an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. A book of matches lay on the stretcher beside him. I fumbled with it and clumsily managed to light one. I held the flame to his cigarette. “You OK!” I shouted above the whine of the rotors. “Number one!” I patted his wrist and glanced down at the bloody bandage around his hip. He simply stared at me, his eyes glazed over from the combination of pain and medication.

When the “Huey” set down at the airfield in Hue, a Vietnamese ambulance whisked the wounded ranger away. The American crew chief helped me step out of the craft and then handed down my duffel bag. CHOP Kane was sitting nearby in the commo jeep, waiting to drive me back to the compound. I threw my bag in the back and then climbed into the passenger seat beside the chief operator.

Kane smirked. “Well, Oliveri… you may be a hot-shot radio operator, but you sure as hell ain’t much of a field soldier.”

I was too tired and in too much pain to let him provoke me. “Thanks, CHOP. You’re a real class act.”

We drove off to the dispensary in the advisors’ compound. My first contact with the enemy had ended, but not the way I had expected. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be my last.

Advertisements

Permalink Leave a Comment