Mission Along the Border

October 16, 2021 at 12:07 am (Uncategorized)

Note: This story is an excerpt from my book, “The Frost Weeds”, published by Hellgate Press.

The afternoon following the bombing in Laos, I was busy in the bunker playing chef. I had taken some K-ration sausages and thrown them into a battered frying pan with a large can of tomato puree, then dumped in some spaghetti I had cooked earlier. The entire concoction was now bubbling softly atop our tiny gasoline stove. It looked like paint and smelled like motor oil. My first attempt at making a spaghetti dinner didn’t seem all that promising at the moment.

A commotion at the top of the steps caught my attention. I put down my spoon as Walsh stuck his head into the doorway. “Hey, Ollie!” he shouted. “You finished cooking that mess yet? We have a guest for dinner.” I had no idea who the hell he could be talking about.

Walsh clomped down the log steps followed by a stranger. “Say hello to ‘Mister’ Callison,” said the big Marine, purposely stressing the ‘Mister’.

Callison had short blond hair and pale, watery eyes. He was dressed in khaki civilian clothes that looked as though he had worn them for days. There was an unusual submachine gun slung across his shoulder. I recognized it as a Swedish “K”, and immediately realized who our visitor was. Only the CIA carried the Swedish “K”. But the most conspicuous feature of the man standing before me was a jagged scar extending from above his left eyebrow down across his cheek and under his chin.

I almost laughed. This was like something out of a grade “B” movie. What was next, a villain with a handlebar moustache and a trench coat? I guessed that Callison had somehow been involved with the previous evening’s bombing mission, but the look on Walsh’s face convinced me to say nothing.

The agent shook my hand, and then glanced across at the table. “Say,” he murmured, “is that spaghetti? It’s been a while since I had a hot meal.”

I grinned. “You must be hungry if you think this crap looks good. Pull up a chair. I’ve been waiting for someone with the nerve to try it.”

Walsh and I joined him, and as we ate we talked about the war and what was happening in the area around Lang Vei. Callison said nothing about his mission, and neither of us questioned him. He was the only one who took seconds of the spaghetti. After the meal, he thanked us profusely and prepared to leave, hoping to get back to Khe Sanh before dark. 

I was still curious about why Callison was there, but thought it better to mind my own business. After more than ten months in Vietnam, I had already seen too much. I suppose Callison’s mission could have had something to do with the Laotian captain we had seen at Khe Sanh. Perhaps the intelligence boys had gotten some interesting information out of him- information important enough to attract the attention of the CIA. I’m sure there was a common thread running from the Laotian to Callison to the bombing mission we had witnessed, but I had neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to learn more. To be frank, I was more interested in thinking about going home.

Shortly after Callison’s visit, Captain Davis sent his Green Berets on a brief patrol along the ill-defined boundary with Laos. In order to ensure their own security, the Special Forces troopers needed to know what was going on across the border. Davis assigned the job to Lieutenant Abernathy and one of his strike force companies.

Captain Davis also solicited ARVN participation. Dai Uy Dinh, the camp commander, asked permission from his superiors to support the mission. They authorized him to transport a 105 howitzer to the border, but not to cross into Laos. Abernathy’s men stepped off just before dusk. The ARVN troops, accompanied by our advisory team, were scheduled to move out at first light.

A high, dark overcast and an intermittent drizzle ushered in the dawn. Dai Uy Dinh’s artillery unit, protected by a company of infantry, rolled out of Lang Vei in a small convoy, pulling the big howitzer behind them. We rode in the middle of the column with Walner at the wheel of our jeep. I sat in the back with the radio and Corporal Troung, our Vietnamese aide. It was only a couple of miles to the border, but by the time we got there the rain had stopped and the skies were considerably brighter. I had often heard that the weather was always better in Laos than on the Khe Sanh Plateau. Apparently there was some truth to that rumor.

We arrived at a cement milepost that marked the border. On one side, painted in large red letters was:  VIETNAM, DONG HA, 83km. An arrow pointed to the east. The other side indicated:  LAO, SAVANNAKHET, 245km, with another arrow pointing in the opposite direction. Our convoy halted just short of the marker and began deploying into a small open field.

I had been here before. There was a tiny ARVN listening post about one click (kilometer) east of the border on the Vietnamese side. Squads of infantry manned it on a rotating basis. The position was badly exposed and very vulnerable to attack, but the occupants could give early warning of any trouble coming down Highway 9 from Laos. It could be scary duty, but most of the time it was just boring and lonely. Very little traffic crossed the border at this point.

Two platoons of infantry fanned out to form a loose perimeter around the convoy. The gun crew quickly set to work manhandling the 105 into position, while another squad began uncrating ammunition. Before long, rows of heavy shells rested on wooden boxes within easy reach of the gunners.

I raised the jeep’s whip antenna and picked up the handset to make contact with the patrol. For this operation, my call sign was “Boat Crane”, while the Green Berets were “Red Lance”. If the patrol needed artillery support, Abernathy would contact me, and I in turn would relay the necessary information to the gun crew through an interpreter provided by Dai Uy Dinh. It was a cumbersome arrangement, but Lieutenant Abernathy felt more comfortable with an American on the radio. I squeezed my mike. “Red Lance, Red Lance… this is Boat Crane. How do you hear me? Over.”

The response was almost immediate. “Boat Crane, this is Red Lance. I hear you 5 by (loud and clear). How me? Over.” Judging by the strength of the signal, I guessed they were no more than a couple of kilometers away.  Considering how ill-defined the border was at this point, I thought they might even be INSIDE Laos.

“Roger, Red Lance.  I hear you the same. Be advised that we are now setting up. Over.”

“This is Red Lance. Request you call again when ‘Long Tom’ is ready. We may want some markers. Over.”

“That’s affirmative, Red Lance. Boat Crane standing by. Out.”

I put the handset down and walked over to where Walsh, Walner, Kiesel and Troung were watching the gun crew prepare the howitzer. I told them what Abernathy wanted. Walsh nodded and turned back to the 105.

An ARVN crewman had removed the breech-block from the gun, and was sighting it in by aiming through the barrel at a tree on the distant hillside. A second soldier peered through a device resembling a periscope that was attached to the top of the weapon’s armor shield. When the images coincided, they replaced the breech-block. Other soldiers were busy imbedding the twin spade-like braces on the rear of the carriage into the heavy clay earth. The entire procedure took almost half an hour before the artillery lieutenant signaled that they were ready.

I strode back to the jeep accompanied by the interpreter, and called Abernathy again.  “Red Lance, this is Boat Crane. ‘Long Tom’ is ready. What’s your pleasure? Over.”

There was a brief delay before Abernathy broke squelch. “Roger, Boat Crane. Give us three ‘Willy-Peters’ (white phosphorous) at coordinates Yankee Delta three-six-niner, seven-eight-two. Let me know as each round is out. Over.”

“Roger, Red Lance. Three ‘Willy-Peters’ on the way. Stand by.”

I turned to watch as the interpreter shouted instructions to the gun crew, reading the coordinates from notes he had scrawled in a small memo book. Two computers- soldiers trained to calculate the information needed to aim the gun- worked feverishly beside the tube, then called out their numbers to the firing crew. One man slid a shell into the breech while loaders stood by with two more rounds. Another soldier adjusted the elevation and direction. When all this was done, the lieutenant raised his arm and then yanked it sharply downward. “Ban!”

The howitzer recoiled violently as the shell rocketed out of the barrel. I could actually see the round silhouetted against the slate gray overcast as it soared skyward. I clicked the handset. “Red Lance, this is Boat Crane. Number one fired. Over.”

I turned to watch the 105. The crew inserted another shell into the breech. The big gun bucked. I shouted into the mike. “Two fired!”

“Roger,” replied Red Lance.

The gunners repeated the sequence. “Three fired!” I said. Red Lance rogered again. The howitzer crew stepped back momentarily and waited.

The sudden quiet seemed greatly magnified. I could hear a large insect humming in the distance. Then squelch broke again. “Boat Crane, we see them. Come right 300 and add 200. Over.”

“Roger. Stand by.”

The interpreter relayed the new instructions. The gun barked and I bellowed into the mike. “On its way!”

I imagined the round arcing toward the target. Contrary to popular belief, an incoming shell doesn’t arrive with a high-pitched and descending whistle as portrayed by Hollywood. Rather, I knew from experience that the sound is more like the rushing noise of an approaching freight train, gradually increasing in volume as it draws closer. It’s not a pleasant thing to hear, I can tell you, particularly if you’re on the receiving end.

After another short pause, Abernathy came back on the air. “Boat Crane, that one was right on. Please stand by for further instructions. Out.”

I put down the handset and climbed into the front passenger seat to wait.

The afternoon dragged by at an agonizing snail’s pace. All was quiet except for the soft whooshing sound emanating from the Prick-10. I hadn’t heard from Abernathy

since we fired the last marker round several hours ago, but didn’t bother with a commo check. I knew he’d call if he needed us.

Several ARVN soldiers were building small fires to cook their mid-day rice. It was extremely humid, but thankfully, not very hot. The others had gone off somewhere with Dai Uy Dinh, so I sat alone in the jeep, bored to death. I struggled to stay alert, but I was feeling drowsy. My head began to droop.

A sudden, urgent whisper jolted me upright. “Boat Crane, this is Red Lance. We have movement on the trail. Please acknowledge by breaking squelch twice.”

Whatever Abernathy was looking at must have been close. He was speaking so softly that I could scarcely hear him. I snatched the mike and squeezed the speak bar twice. The insistent whisper resumed. “Roger. Stand by with Hotel Echo (High Explosive).”

I caught the interpreter’s eye and frantically waved him over. He paused just long enough to alert the gun crew, then came on the run. I quickly explained the situation. He shouted instructions to the members of the howitzer team, who bolted for their stations, leaving their rice pot boiling on the fire. Once there, they waited in tense anticipation for further orders.

A barely-audible murmur droned from the speaker. “We have enemy supply column in sight. Request pattern of Hotel Echo at coordinates Yankee Delta three-six-niner, seven-eight-zero at your command. Acknowledge by breaking squelch once, and twice when rounds are fired. Over.”

I squeezed the bar so hard that my hand hurt. I had scribbled the coordinates on a scrap of paper, and handed it to the interpreter, who dashed over to the gun crew. There was a flurry of activity around the 105 as the gunners prepared to fire at a real target.  When they were ready, the lieutenant reached up and yanked an imaginary chain.

The big gun belched three times in rapid succession, lofting a trio of whirring shells westward into Laos. My pulse hammered as I awaited a response. The seconds passed in excruciating slow motion before Abernathy replied. When he did, he was no longer whispering. “Come left 50 and fire for effect!”

The interpreter barked once more. The gun crew began to put out a nine shell concentration. I clicked the handset twice. After the third shot, the Green Beret lieutenant came back on the air. “You’re right on them, Boat Crane!” he roared in jubilation. “Pour it on!”

The gun crew continued to work in a controlled frenzy. After the ninth shell, the radio crackled again. “Cease fire and stand by!”

The ARVN gunners stood up and wiped the sweat from their faces. I spotted my fellow advisors running hell-bent for the jeep. Then the radio hissed again. “Great shooting, Boat Crane! We count six Kilo-India-Alpha (Killed in Action) on the trail, and the rest have scattered. Moving out to confirm.”

This time I responded vocally. “Roger, Red Lance. Good show!”

This was weird. It was almost like some Saturday football game, except we were cheering people getting killed instead of scoring touchdowns. Yet, I found it strangely exhilarating. I’m not proud to admit it, but that was just the reality of the situation at the time.

The interpreter relayed the news to the waiting ARVN, who erupted in a ragged cheer. We remained in place after Abernathy’s troops moved out in case they needed additional support. They didn’t. The surviving VC eluded the strike force, and there was no further contact. It was now late afternoon. Walsh and Dai Uy Dinh, the camp commander, held a brief conference after which the big Marine returned to the jeep.

“Dai Uy Dinh wants to keep the gun here tonight instead of doing this all over again in the morning. His troops will camp here and stand guard. We’re gonna stay at the listening post.”

I nodded. We packed the jeep as the veiled sun began to dip behind the mountains.  Walner drove the short distance to the tiny outpost and parked inside the single roll of barbed wire that surrounded the narrow compound.

The ARVN garrison had cleared out one of the crude bunkers for us. It was dingy and stank of stale urine. There were no cots. Troung busied himself in the bunker while I built a small fire near the jeep and heated some C-rations. As dusk fell, we sat around the fire on two logs and ate from the stubby green cans with plastic forks. Walsh glanced at me with a mischievous look in his eye. “Hey, Ollie,” he needled. “Your cooking still sucks!”

I glared at him. “So don’t eat it if you don’t like it,” I snarled.

Everyone chuckled, including Walsh. Back in Saigon, or even in Quang Tri, I would never have talked to an officer like that. But out here we were equals, within reason, of course. I liked that. In fact, we all did.

It was already dark by the time we finished the spartan meal. The overcast had thickened once again, effectively shutting out what little light the stars might have provided. I shuddered to think what it must be like for the squad of ARVN who had to stay out here alone night after night. In the deepening blackness, it would be too dangerous to use a lantern. Walsh ducked into the bunker and prepared to turn in. The roof was so low that he had to hunch over or risk cracking his skull on a crossbar. Walner and Troung soon followed him.

I waited until they were all inside, and then kicked dirt onto the fire. Settling into the front seat of the jeep, I reached over and switched on the Prick-10.  Red Lance’s frequency was quiet. I monitored the radio for a while, rehashing the events of the day.  Now and then I glanced down at the dying red coals glowing in the darkness. The jungle was still except for the occasional buzz of an insect, or an isolated shrill outburst from some goddamn communist bird. Tiring of this eventually, I shut down the radio and made my way into the bunker. Troung had left me a space in a corner. I stretched out on the floor, careful not to disturb the others. I unlaced my boots and yanked them off. As I settled back, I wondered what the hell the next day would bring.

It was a long and uncomfortable night. Every time I finally dozed off, something would scuttle about in the darkness and startle me to wakefulness. It gave me the creeps. I slept little, and was quite happy to see the first pale light of dawn seeping into the open bunker.  I reached across and nudged each of my companions. “Hey… wake up, you guys.” 

Snorts and grunts and a loud fart greeted my efforts. I reached down and shook out my boots. There were big ugly bugs in Vietnam- foot long centipedes, some scorpions. You never put your boots on in the morning without first turning them upside down in case an uninvited guest had taken up residence inside during the night. To say nothing of snakes.  I hated snakes. I smiled, recalling the time a colorful banded snake had slithered down the steps of our bunker, sending three heavily-armed advisors racing outside while Troung and another soldier cornered the reptile and killed it. That sucker probably ended up in somebody’s cooking pot. And Troung laughed about the incident for weeks, much to our annoyance.

We boiled some water and made C-ration coffee. When everyone was ready, we crammed into the jeep again and scooted back up Highway 9.

The ARVN emplacement was a beehive of activity as Dinh’s men prepared to break camp. They had heard that the Green Berets were bringing back the bodies of the VC killed by their artillery, and were anxious to see the results. They didn’t have long to wait.

Two hours after dawn, advance elements of the strike force appeared around a bend in the highway. The little soldiers, uniformly clad in camouflage fatigues, approached quickly with weapons at the ready. The main body was close behind. When they neared the ARVN perimeter, laughter, back-slapping and good-natured hooting broke out all along the line.

A squad of Abernathy’s troopers “chogeyed” in with the six dead VC and dumped them unceremoniously beside the road. Lieutenant Abernathy materialized out of the crowd wearing a green bandana on his head. He spotted Walsh and pointed proudly to the bodies. We walked over to examine the kill.

The Vietnamese gathered around hesitantly. I had a feeling that if someone had yelled “BOO!” they would have all run. The dead communists were heavily-caked with mud, but that didn’t mask the gruesome efficiency of the artillery. One victim had no legs below mid-thigh. Another had evidently been killed by concussion. Congealed blood radiating from his nose and ears had matted his thick dark hair. Flies were already swarming about the stiffened corpses.

I leaned over to look more closely at yet another body. There was a small black hole behind the man’s right ear, but no evidence of any bleeding. Someone had given this poor bastard the “coup de grace” after he was already dead. I shook my head with the grim realization, perhaps for the first time, that brutality wasn’t limited to just the other side.

The gathering around the VC bodies now began to beak up. Trucks soon arrived to transport the strike force and their trophies back to Khe Sanh. My companions and I drove on ahead to Lang Vei. As it turned out, that was to be our last mission to the Laotian border.

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