Place: Hill 52, SW of Da Nang, South Vietnam
Time: Summer, 1970
India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division was scheduled to go from Hill 65 to Hill 52 for approximately 30 days. L/Cpl Bloom and I would be going with them to provide the necessary artillery support for their operations. Hill 52 was the western most base of operations for the 5th Marines TAOR (tactical area of responsibility). The reputation was that most of the exciting things would probably take place on or around this hill. “Charlie” found this area to be one of their favorite places to infiltrate because it was at the end of several extensions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There was another unit that would be leaving there so we inherited whatever fortifications that were there. Those consisted of fighting holes, concertina wire and a great view of Charlie Ridge, the Arizona Territory and the Song Vu Gia (River).
We arrived on a warm and sunny Sunday morning. The skipper set up a headquarters’ tent and got the “comm.” up and going. Everyone was looking at what they had inherited from the unit leaving and trying to make it fit what they wanted. We had the standard 60’s, 81’s and M-60’s, but we also had a 106 recoilless rifle that was put on the topographical crest of the hill. We did this so the “back blast” area would go out into the air and not do any damage to anyone or anything. The back blast area of a 106 was quite significant and could do some real damage.
The skipper and I started taking a tour of the perimeter to see what was there and what we needed to do to improve things. While we were on the north end of the hill, we heard an explosion up on “Charlie Ridge” and we saw a puff of smoke. I commented that I wondered who was firing up there. For some reason, I thought it was an out going round, but in about 20 seconds, we heard the typical sound of incoming right before the impact explosion. We both knew that we were the targets and Charlie was just welcoming us to Hill 52.
Well, I got L/Cpl. Bloom to get the “big” guns at An Hoa up for a contact firing mission. The concern was that we were on the gun-target line and that was not a comforting feeling. The skipper asked if we could fire the 106 at them. The max range of the 106 was about 3200 meters and I estimated the target at about 5000 meters. I said the only way we might be able to reach it would be to try firing it in a “high angle” position which the 106 was not meant to do. We decided to give it a try. I gave the order to crank the tube up and load a “HE” (high explosive) round and aim it in the general direction of where the round was fired from. I never gave a second thought of how the back blast area would change. As we cranked the front of the tube up, we were lowering the back blast area. Well, when the round was fired, the back blast took out the skipper’s tent. He just stared at me and I decided that we should stop firing the 106 in the high angle position. It was the look that he gave me that has stayed with me for a long time. There were no more incoming rounds, but we sure did fire a lot of “175” rounds all over that part of Charlie Ridge. I did not realize the impact that fire mission had until a couple weeks later. It deterred the VC and NVA from firing an indiscriminate round at us because of the way we returned fire. I was talking with an ARVN senior officer and he told me that “they fire one round and you fire “beaucoup.” “Charlie no like that.” That made me feel good.
There was one humorous thing that happened to us a few days after we arrived. The Song Vu Gia (River) ran between Hill 52 to the south and the Arizona Territory. There was a rule with the local river traffic that if you got more than half way across, you would be considered a bad guy and be free game for us to fire upon. Well, one day there was a two man “sampan” moving west on the river. It kept getting closer and closer to the Arizona side of the river. I kept watching it and I finally decided we needed to get their attention in some manner. I yelled down to the 81 pit and told them to put a “willie pete”(white phosphorus) round on the southern bank just about where they were. When that round went off, I think you could have water skied behind that sampan trying to get back to the middle of the river. The troops on the hill really enjoyed watching them go!
There was an unintended benefit from the firing of that mortar that resulted in a fire being started on the south side of the river in the Arizona Territory. It started out small, but before long, it turned into a fairly large fire that covered a lot of acres. It burned for the remainder of the day and into the night. The following day, I went and request to do a VR (visual reconnaissance) of the area so we could determine what damage the fire did for allowing Charlie to sneak by us. It was impressive.
Things kind of became a sort of routine for a while. The biggest attack that we had came and went (see story dated March 16, 2010). Sometime during the stay there, I got assigned to go to Hill 55 for a few days because intelligence believed it to be a “high threat target” and they want additional help in case things got bad. I was to man the tower there and function as an artillery F.O. for the hill itself.
The time there was brief, but there was one memorable thing take place. There was a 105 battery on the hill, but they could do little with close targets. It was best to fire from Hill 65 or An Hoa on targets that were closer to Hill 55. The tower had a very powerful set of binoculars and well as a BC (battery commander’s) scope. It enabled me to see clearly for quite a distance. About 2 clicks southwest of Hill 55 was the northwestern area of a place properly named “Dodge City.” It was an enemy stronghold area and they had a very clear view of Hill 55. Charlie knew how the Marines did things so I could not fire from Hill 55 because as soon as they had seen us getting ready they would be gone. I watched for 2 days in a row a group of VC walking down the same trail. I could see them for about 1 minute and then they were out of sight. I knew that if I fired a mission, by the time I got clearance and the fire for effect data, they would be history. So, I decided to set a trap for them. Later on it the day, I started firing missions at random in the general area. Charlie was used to that. However, on one of the missions, I zeroed in on where I had seen the VC the last two days. When I was on target, I told the battery to “record as target” and keep that information for future use. I talked the battery CO to give me clearance for a period of time for the following day and have a platoon of guns all set up with the data ready to fire, on my command, with HE (high explosive) with a fuse mixed for ground and aerial bursts. The next day, as I had hoped, here come the VC “didi bopping” down the trail and I calculated the time of flight of the rounds where they would arrive while I had clear view of the situation. I have never forgotten what happened next.
When the VC were in the middle of the kill zone, the rounds hit as planned. I remember seeing one of the VC get picked up by close to a direct hit and fly above a small tree. Just watching that body move through the air has left an image in my mind to this day. It was a very successful mission. The VC did not use that trail any more while I was there. After a few days, I headed back to continue the fun and games on Hill 52.
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter