Chapter 3, Nowhere to Go:
Part 3 of a 7 part series about jealousy, truth, and honor among veterans of the Vietnam War.
Yesterday in Brother Against Brother:
In November 1968, Team 24, a group of twelve elite Long Range Patrol Rangers from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, was inserted into a dangerous area of Vietnam called the Ruong Ruong Valley. They successfully ambushed a group of 10 North Vietnamese Army regulars, but soon found out that the choppers bringing them reinforcements and more ammunition were not coming. They were stuck, and their location was known to the enemy.
Written by Heidi Thiess and Kit Jarrell
Positions are seldom lost because they have been destroyed, but almost invariably because the leader has decided in his own mind that they cannot be held.
– From the Marine Corps Battle Doctrine for Front Line Leaders
The men of Team 24 knew they were in serious danger; it was almost noon. They had lingered in their kill zone for far too long, expecting reinforcements that they now knew were not coming. They had violated one of the cardinal rules of the LRP; never remain at an ambush site without being reinforced. 1 “No one had to tell us we were royally fucked,” said Linderer. “The enemy had to be on us by now. We had waited too damn long.”2
The Commanding Officer (CO), Cpt. Eklund, had told Contreros to move the team to a more defensible position closer to the LZ. “There was really nowhere to go,” said Sgt. Jim Bacon, the radio operator (RTO). “To the southwest, it was open; to the east, elephant grass…or up and down the high-speed trail.”3
Sgt. Contreros decided to move the team to a higher position up the ridge to the west and set up a defensive perimeter. He hoped that Cpt. Eklund, in the area of operations (AO) in a Command and Control (C&C) chopper, would be able to direct them to a new extraction point. With the team maintaining a wide defensive perimeter on the hillside, Contreros directed his Assistant Team Leader (ATL), Sgt. Jim Venable, to signal the CO with a signal mirror. Venable picked his way through the jungle undergrowth to a small clearing about 45 feet further up the ridge. As he raised his arm to signal the chopper, enemy troops opened fire from multiple angles. Venable took rounds in the arm, neck, and chest. As two team members, Cox and Souza, dashed to carry Venable to cover, a heavy volley of small arms fire poured down on the LRP perimeter from the direction of their original LZ. They were surrounded.
Contreros radioed the CO that they were taking heavy fire from the enemy and that they needed a medevac for Venable immediately. The CO sent a pair of Cobra gunships to provide suppressive fire for the surrounded team, and radioed for a dust-off (medevac chopper). The double canopy jungle* made sighting the team on the ground impossible for Cpt. Eklund. He radioed the team to “pop smoke” so he could mark their position. The smoke grenade dissipated on the ground before it could penetrate the overhead jungle growth, making it impossible for Eklund to see where the team was on the ground. The CO had to fly in a cross-hatch pattern overhead so that the RTO, Sp4. Bacon, could radio the CO when he was directly overhead. By the time the CO located the team, the Cobras had arrived and were making passes over the team, who was pinned in place on the ground by enemy fire.
Back at Camp Eagle Cpt. “Wild Bill” Meacham and WO2 W.T. Grant, the team’s 101st Airborne Division chopper pilots, were refueling their Huey choppers after divisional troop movements that day. As they were topping off their tanks, they heard over the radio that their LRP team had encountered heavy enemy contact. Within minutes, they had cranked their choppers and were in the air.
By the time they arrived on the scene where Contreros and his team were under fire, Venable was in bad shape and Meacham decided to extract Venable via McGuire rig** instead of waiting for the dust-off chopper. The extraction was complicated by the heavy jungle canopy, which combined with the enemy fire, prevented the chopper from landing. Meacham hovered low into the treetops; the tail rotor just barely over the foliage. The force of the winds created by the spinning rotors pushed some of the foliage away. There was just enough room to slip the McGuire harness, weighted with a sandbag, through the tree limbs. The Cobras made gun runs 50 meters on either side of Meacham’s aircraft, shooting into the thick undergrowth. Distracted by the prospect of downing an American chopper, the NVA had shifted their fire to the aircraft; giving the team only sporadic attention. The men on the ground hastened to strap Venable into the Macguire rig that would carry him to safety, and Meacham carefully lifted him through the trees. With the injured Venable dangling precariously below the chopper, Meacham flew slowly to an abandoned fire base. Once there, they pulled the injured man into the chopper and flew him to safety at the 22nd Surgical Hospital in Phu Bai.
Meanwhile, Grant had stayed on site to monitor the firefight below him on the ground. The fighting continued as the ten LRP soldiers held their perimeter against an ever-increasing enemy using a combination of small arms fire and fragmentary grenades.
When Meacham returned to the airspace over the LRP team, he saw the pair of Cobras and the C&C chopper heading back to base to rearm and refuel. He radioed the CO to ask if the team would now be extracted. Eklund’s response was negative. He still expected a reaction team from the 2/17th Cavalry to be inserted to reinforce the LRPs. In the lull created by the choppers’ departure, Contreros called in artillery from the two nearby firebases, Brick and Spear. Meacham and Grant flew their Hueys four miles to the west end of the valley and entered into a wide orbit, well out of the range of the incoming rounds. For 45 minutes, artillery rained down outside the LRP team’s perimeter. Contreros carefully adjusted the artillery trajectories until the rounds were within 50 meters of the team.
“A small force that’s pinned down tends to make numerous adjustments to wherever they’re receiving fire from. When the adjustments are all ten meters, they arty guys know you are working close and get antsy. They’re well aware of the amount of damage they can inflict, and they know it doesn’t take much artillery to take out a whole LRP team.”4
Meacham recalled that Contreros was ‘walking’ the artillery rounds ten to fifteen meters at a time. The enemy had pressed in closer to the team, and that meant the artillery had to get dropped closer to the team to hit the enemy. “Artillery adjustment was an art,” said Meacham, “and I was watching an artist at work.” 5 When the CO radioed that he and two pairs of Cobras were moving back on station, Contreros called off the artillery barrage; allowing the CO to direct the Cobras back into battle.
With five choppers now back on station to protect the team, Meacham and Grant left the AO to refuel. Contreros reported enemy movement all around his team’s position, so the four Cobras strafed the jungle around the LRP team in well-timed box patterns. A couple of hours crawled by while the gunships and artillery, kept a continual ‘ring of fire’ around the beleaguered team on the ground. Though Grant and Meacham were anxious to extract the team, they were told to stand by. The reinforcements from the 2/17th Cavalry were still expected. Grant recalled, “The Cobras were coming in regular intervals now. The artillery had the fire missions down to routine, so they were able to quickly fill any gaps in the Cobra support.”
Meanwhile, Cpt. Eklund continued to radio Division for the expected and desperately needed reaction force. Sp4 John Reid, a door-gunner in Grant’s chopper, monitored the two FM and internal radio transmissions during the ongoing firefight. He recalls overhearing an argument Capt. Eklund had with staff officers at Division level about getting more troops on the ground ASAP. 6 The argument raged off and on all afternoon, and Cpt. Eklund’s mounting frustration7 was obvious to any and all listeners.
Eklund knew his team couldn’t hold out much longer. The remaining ten LRPs on the ground had been in contact for almost six hours and were running low on ammo. It was a miracle that the only casualty thus far had been Venable who was already safely extracted.
It was little after 1500 when Sp4 Art Heringhausen, now defending the east side of the perimeter, shouted that more NVA soldiers were moving up the trail. Contreros ordered the team to pull in their perimeter so he could bring the gunships in closer. The Cobras screamed overhead as the team moved closer together. Suddenly a deafening explosion erupted around the team. The two pilots in the airspace nearby both reported what they saw.
Grant: “The Cobras were making rocket runs over the team in box patterns when suddenly a bunch of vegetation flew up into the air, just under one of the Snakes. It was followed by a dense cloud of black smoke.” 8
Meacham: “…a large part of the vegetation above the team seemed to jump straight up into the air. Then smoke came rolling out of the jungle. What the hell had happened?” 9
Smoke and debris rolled over the broken LRP team. No one was left standing; every man was down. Cpt. Eklund screamed into the radio, trying to raise someone from his team. There was no response.
Next: The Absence of All Hope
1Linderer, Gary. Eyes Behind the Lines, pg 4.
2Linderer, Gary. The Eyes of the Eagle, pg. 181.
3Interview with Jim Bacon, 07/05.
4Grant, W.T. Wings of the Eagle, pg. 237.
5Meacham, Bill. Lest We Forget, pg. 286.
6Interview with John Reid, 07/02/05.
7Six weeks later, Eklund wrote a memorandum to the Commander of the 2/17 Cavalry, and cited this lack of troop support:
All commanders who have LRP teams supporting them should be briefed that the LRP team shall be either reinforced or extracted immediately once engaged or compromised. Failure to do this on 20 November 1968 resulted in X LRPs killed and X wounded from an 11 man team.
8Grant, W.T. Wings of the Eagle, pg. 238.
9Meacham, Bill. Lest We Forget, pg. 287.
* Double canopy jungle = tropical rainforest with trees approx. 50′
** McGuire rig: devised by SGM Charles T. McGuire, an SF sergeant serving with Project Delta; this is an extraction method for when helicopters cannot land, which utilizes the same equipment for a RAPPEL insertion. Originally the RIG “string” was conceived as a stirrup LINE or sling EYE; it was later refined by MSG Norman Donny as a quick connect for the integral Swiss seats to be converted into body loops over existing field gear. Lifted and moved like sling-loaded cargo, the team had to secure the ropes during landing to prevent fowling of the helicopter rotors. Adaptations to the basic technique occurred, such as safety wrist straps and linking arms to prevent spinning. The major defect of the McGUIRE RIG was for wounded or unconscious team members, who were liable to fall out of their hookup. The STABO (QV) full-body harness, invented at the MACV RECONDO School, remedied this problem.Powered by Sidelines