33 Deuces and a Bunker Complex
by: Hank Ortega, PA/C
(© Copyright, 1998)
“C” Company had been operating around the Veghel Firebase for awhile, and was working in a steep section of country near a river canyon. The weather was rainy and even when not coming down there was a mist that kept things dank.
Captain Westbrook had just gone out with the last re-supply and our new CO was an artillery Captain that had come out to punch his field command ticket in the month he had left.
The terrain was very steep, but we seemed to be topped out on a plateau that was cut by a steep river canyon. The river entered a very narrow rocky gorge, and we followed the rim through the thick forest. Triple canopy towered over head and short palms and philodendrons grew all around us. It was here that I saw the only specimen I ever noticed of a tree that was about 3 inches thick and about 20 feet tall. The entire trunk was bristling with very thick thorns that stuck out at least 3 inches long, for the entire length of the trunk. There were no branches until very near the top where they grew in a cluster. I remember that I thought that I’d like to cut the tree, and fashion a sort of club from it. I thought it would look wicked.
One of the soldiers that was up near the front of the single file had talked to me early that morning about having diarrhea. I had given him a dose of lomotil to stop his cramps, and a bottle of kaopectate to carry in his pocket. He had been drinking from it all morning to no avail. As he kept dropping out to step to the side and evacuate his bowels, the line kept moving past him until I could see him just ahead of me in the mist, leaving the line one more time. He hurriedly stepped into the brush about 25 feet from the trail, and dropped his pants to answer his emergency call of nature. By this time I figured that he had lost quite a bit of fluid, so I decided to drop out with him, check his temp, pulse and b.p. and get an idea if he was losing this battle. We had just had serious contact with the enemy the day before, when we tried to evac a couple of guys who weren’t all that seriously wounded, so we were rather cautious now about calling in a helicopter unless we were pretty sure that it was secure.
As I stood there waiting for the sick trooper to finish, I noticed that he was holding a small sapling for balance as the cramps wracked his body. Suddenly, the sapling came up from the ground, roots and all.
The troop fell to the ground, and the tree fell beside him. I looked at the hole where the tree had come from, and saw there in the half light, wet with the rain, several small logs laying next to each other.
I knew right away that this was not normal and within seconds the entire company was on watchful alert, while several pointmen and sergeants investigated the find.
Almost simultaneously a number of others found similar installations. What we at first thought might be a complex of fighting bunkers deep in the woods, turned out to be a series of storage bunkers, quite deep and elaborate. Each bunker was completely full of cannon rounds in both H.E. and armor piercing, sardine can-like containers of 20 mm anti aircraft shells, small arms ammo and grenades, as well as mines and other implements of war. The sardine cans, some as large as boot boxes, even had a coffee can type key on the bottom for opening.
There had to be 15 or 20 large bunkers, measuring at least 10 to 15 x 20 feet and at least 5 feet deep. They were all heavily supported with tree trunks at least 6 inches thick and walled in the same. They resembled whole log cabins buried right in the forest floor and expertly camouflaged, with living trees and bushes re-planted on top.
The officers quickly decided that there was really an overwhelming amount of ammo here and no way to carry it out. The weather precluded any hope of lifting it out, without slowing down our movement. It was decided after contact with command in the rear that it would be best to blow everything in place. The CO was congratulated by command for his find, and the men went about the business of wiring the whole mess. I worked along side one of the sergeants, and occasionally with the engineer, to speed things up, since the majority of the infantry was keeping security. We figured that the NVA knew where we were most of the time, and that they weren’t going to appreciate us messing with their toys.
After being shown once or twice what the engineers wanted us to do with the det cord and enemy explosives, we worked in pairs wiring up each bunker, while the engineers worked out the sequence of fire that was to take out all the bunkers in one fell swoop. I was continually amazed at the shear immensity of explosives that had been transported and the buried here. We were miles from the nearest road, and each can of ammo, each tank round had to be carried up this river canyon and buried in these well made bunkers one piece at a time. The amount of hand labor that was represented here was astounding.
After about 2 hours of continuous work, the engineers announced that it was time for all the troops to leave. The head engineer said that they would finish up in order to give the men time to get away.
While this was going on, the scouts had found that the river canyon had sidewalks built into the very walls of the the gorge. At this point the gorge was about 50 feet across, and over 100 feet deep. The rock was black and hard, like basalt. The river was a mere trickle down at the bottom. On the sides of the sheer walls, the Viets had taken limbs and twigs and bamboo and vines and by wedging sticks into cracks in the wall, began to build up a v- shaped platform that was filled with still more sticks. They had even put in a hand rail, at waist level. Some of the company had already gone down the suspended trail and where marveling at how sturdy it was built. I stepped onto the springy surface and had to agree that it was solid feeling. I moved down the sidewalk quickly, only stopping once to jump up and down to check the solidity. Even with a 50 pound rucksack, and a load of ammo, the interwoven bed of sticks felt solid. The trail snaked down the wall at a comfortable angle, and I soon found myself in the bottom of the canyon. I dipped a quick canteen of water, and moved up to the other side, and climbed a duplicate walk way to the rim of the canyon on the opposite side. Topping out on the rim of the canyon I realized that I had not made much linear progress away from the bunker complex even though I had been walking almost an hour. I turned my back on the bunkers and the canyon, and moved quickly into the thick forest. After about 10 minutes of quick walking through rather open forest, I settled behind one of the huge forest giants that grew so tall. These trees were like cypresses with huge smooth trunks, and large buttresses that spread out like walls from the main trunk. Some of the larger buttresses were up to 5 or 6 inches thick at the origin, and blended into the ground some 10 to 20 feet from the trunk in the largest of specimens.
The rest of the company was already hunkered behind trees of their own, and putting their helmets on, and their rucksacks over them for protection. I looked over the buttress that I had chosen as my protection, and could see dimly in the distance the head engineer running for all he was worth. The radio man said “Fire in the hole, out.”
This meant that the engineer had lit the fuse and had radioed that information to the CP, who radioed to the platoons. I watched as the engineer plunged into the canyon. The radio man said that that engineer was going to stay in the bottom of the canyon, and that the other one had already come across, and should be there any second.
At that precise moment, the junior engineer came skidding to a rather abrupt halt at my position. He looked around at us there and in the surrounding positions. In a near panicky voice he blurted out “What are you guys doing here? You’re too close!” The others started to half get up, and I began to reach for my pack. He raised his hands, “No, no, it’s too damn late, get down now!”
We all hunkered back down again and waited for the blast. The young engineer began to mumble to himself about being too close and how this was going to hurt, when the fuse ran out.
First there was a huge explosion, then a ripple of explosions that were just as loud. Then all of a sudden the air around us was filled with exploding ordinance. Sparks and flashes went off all around us, loud bangs and shrapnel whizzing all around, hitting the trees that we were finding all too small and too close to the bunker complex. This show seemed to go on forever, and finally, since no one seemed to be getting hit, we started laughing hysterically, both out of fear and relief. The explosions finally began to peter out, and slowly we began to pick ourselves up. We took a quick inventory, and waited to collect up the last few guys that had sheltered in the gorge with the sr. engineer. They too were impressed with the light show, and referred to the barrage as “4th of July, 3 feet off the ground!”
We gathered ourselves and moved out on line down stream. As we moved down, the canyon got wider, the stream swifter until the canyon opened up into a plain that was not so heavily treed. Off to the right the forest actually opened up a little, while off to our right the ground flattened but remained heavily forested.
Here the water was a full fledged river, running clear and swift, tumbling over granite boulders, disappearing into the forest some 200 yards away where it became triple canopy again. I sat on the edge of the trail, soaking in the sunshine that struck full from an open sky, and looked over the area that we were moving into. I wondered if we would get into contact here or if we would have a few day’s respite. The radio man took a call from someone further down the line, off in the trees ahead on the west side of the river. He looked up in surprise and told me, “They’ve found a couple of trucks!” We hustled forward to the edge of the tree line and saw what the report was about. There in the trees, buried under a large mound was a complete 2 1/2 ton truck. Tires, frame, canvas, everything. Completely buried. Soon, there came more and more reports of trucks buried in the forest down stream from our position. Way further down stream, “B” company had also discovered trucks, some buried and some sitting in line in the forest. All the trucks were intact. We couldn’t fathom what we had found, until, with some thought, we were able to piece some things together.
First of all, the materiel that we had found in the hills had to have come from these trucks. Secondly, the North Vietnamese in a display of primitive engineering and creative determination had diverted the stream at the mouth of the canyon, to flow out across the plain to the east, and then moved the larger rocks from the stream bed, to use the bed for a cobbled road. The river would be left to flow in it’s natural channel between movements. Until they ran into the impassable canyon that we had just come down, they had a free road, covered by triple canopy to drive thousands of pounds of supplies closer to the large cities of Hue and Phu Bai. At this site we eventually uncovered and destroyed in place 54 trucks, including commo vans, and 5 large field cannon, as well as the ammunition mentioned earlier.
While we were there it gave us a much needed break to wash a few socks, rest and fix more elaborate c-ration meals, and bathe in the river. Each position sent one or two men at a time over several days to get cleaned up while the rest maintained security. Division asked us to clear a landing zone to lift out the cannon, which was accomplished over several days. We received a re-supply of food including lrrp rations, and PX boxes of candy and cigarettes. We also got blessed mail from home.
During this welcome lull in the action the CO did not send out scouting parties or patrols to check the routes into the area. He especially neglected our back trail, upon which we had much contact, just prior to finding these caches.
After we had been there about 3 days, the CO, his radio man, and I were bathing in the river. I sat on a submerged rock up to my chin in the clear rushing stream, lathering and re-lathering. I luxuriated in the feeling of being clean. I must have washed my hair about 10 times. I used a sock turned inside out for a wash cloth, and had slipped a bar of real Dial soap inside. I was just thinking of going to my position to put together a fishing line with some suture silk and needles with c-ration cheese for bait, when the perimeter was hit by heavy rifle fire from the mouth of the canyon, originating from 3 sites: down close to the water, as the point probe, and up on both sides of the canyon slopes as fire support. The attack was supported by heavy repeated rocket fire into the trees that were in the middle of the company perimeter. Credit goes to the guys on the perimeter for fighting so hard in response to the attack, because they were able to turn the attack away in a matter of minutes. I jumped up from my rock and ran up the bank, completely naked, streaming water. The radio man ran just ahead of me. Half way up the slope at the edge of the trees there was a bunker that had been enlarged by the guys from the original enemy bunker that they had found there. I dove head long into the bunker entrance, only to find my way blocked by legs, feet and butts, as about 5 or 8 guys tried to force their way into a bunker meant for 3. I had grabbed my pistol from the rocks at the edge of the water on my way up, and looked over the top of the bunker to where the fire was coming from. At this point most of the fire was going into the perimeter facing the canyon, and not into this area, that was facing the stream.
I fired a few shots at the muzzle flashes at the opening of the canyon, then jumped up and began running into the interior of the perimeter again. I was covered with mud, naked, carrying a .45 pistol and running for all I was worth to get to my position where I could at least grab my boots and a pair of pants.
Ahead of me ran the radio man, also naked and soaking wet. Between us and around us, sparks flew from the B-40 rockets that were exploding on the trees that sheltered us.
I thought how ludicrous this would be, how mortifying, to get shot by a enemy while running through the jungle buck naked, with the radio man. I dove into my position, and scooped up my fresh pants, and boots. The area was receiving heavy rifle fire and rocket hits, because of the enemy overshooting the perimeter. This spot was untenable. I quickly ran to the next position, which happened to be in the pit under one of the big trucks we had uncovered. I dove headlong into the pit, landing in a heap under the truck. As I pulled my pants on, struggling to get them up over my now muddy legs, I could hear the shooting rise and fall. I saw LT Christian go out to the part of the perimeter that was being most heavily hit, so that he could call in artillery to suppress the enemy. It only took seconds to hear the rounds come whistling in exactly on target. The enemy began to pull away and break contact. Our perimeter was also being probed from the northwest, from the slope that bordered the large landing zone that we had cut. As I raised up to go back out to the perimeter, I saw one of two scout dogs that had been out with us, running out to charge the enemy. This was a white German Sheppard, a dog who had been running perimeter security, and who knew his area well. The big animal had broken loose from his handler, and charged out into the open. Before he could make it to the tree line, he leaped up into the air, Snapping at his side, where he had been hit by enemy fire. I could see him leap one or two more times, as he continued to charge the enemy, before he was finally cut down. I finished my run forward to the edge of the perimeter, and set up near one of the positions where I could get to anyone who might get hurt. In the next few minutes, maybe a half hour, the firing dropped down to a halt.
The enemy never came back to try to take their toys from us again. The whole time we were there, we extracted equipment and burned trucks with impunity. I bathed in the river one more time a day or two later but washed today’s mud off with water in my helmet under the truck near my position. One of my longest desires is to go back to that river to try the fishing.
The next day, Albie and Hise asked me to join tigers as their medic, but that is another story.