Soldiers from Co. 'D', 5th Bn., 46th Inf., 198th Inf. Bde. (Americal), move out from Landing Zone 'Bluff' at the start of a short range recon patrol.

SP4 Jacob E. Hawes

War Story: Run For Life

19 April 2007

Charles McDonald

By November 1965, General Vo Nguyen Giap's regular North Vietnamese Army divisions had begun a bloody testing of the American divisions on the battlefield, and large numbers of American troops were becoming casualties. Major unit commanders needed to know what was outside the range of influence of their heaviest guns. As in every war, secret long-range patrols were the answer.
In December 1965, my home was the 5th Special Forces Group long-range reconnaissance unit known as Delta Project.  Our four-man team was given an area recon mission to search for enemy activity.  No information was available on our target area.

After completing our mission preparation, the team loaded aboard a Huey the next afternoon and flew to the AO.  It was late in the day as we approached our area and made a false insertion, before turning north to our actual LZ.  The sun had dropped behind the mountains as we neared our insertion point, now covered in deep shadows.  The chopper had flared and hovered to far out in the field, leaving us with a long run to the safety of the darkening forest.  We jumped into the tall grass and sprinted for the tree line.

We found a slick, well-worn trail skirting the wood line.  Dropping to the ground on line, we lay watching and listening.  As the chopper departed, silence settled over us, reminding us just how alone we really were.  The team was up and running again, crossing the trail as one.

There was absolute silence in the forest.  It would offer us protection until dawn.  We crawled into a thicket on our hands and knees until the brush opened up inside.  It was a well-drained, level spot where a layer of dead, dry leaves had drifted over the damp, decomposing layer that normally covered the ground.  After we set up in our RON, the team leader called the C & C (command and control) ship and whispered that we were all clear.  With the C&C ship returning to base, we were on our own until 0730 hours, the time for our next sitrep – unless trouble developed during the night.

We cleared an area large enough for the four of us, removing any leaves or sticks that would make noise if we had to move around during the night. There would be no eating or smoking.  To do so would only deaden our senses and give off odors that could betray us to the enemy.  We sat back, quietly listening and watching our backtrail.  If the enemy came, it would be from that direction.  Our survival depended on our alertness.

The Search
A warm, gentle breeze blew after dark.  It was refreshing.  I closed my eyes, lifted my head and took a deep breath.  I sniffed the damp soil, decaying vegetation and pungent leaf mold.  The night was our friend now.  Having never smoked, I was more sensitive to odors than most.  Sound carries well in the jungle.  With our vision impaired by darkness, it would be our hearing and sense of smell that would alert us to the presence of intruders.

Two hours had passed since we established our RON.  We were only 300 metres from our insertion point.  My hunter’s sixth sense suddenly came alive.  Something was wrong!  There was none of usual night sounds.  Where were the crickets and other insects?  Everything was deadly quiet.  We were in danger, and we knew it.  The faint barking of a solitary animal in the distance suddenly broke the silence.  It was probably only the diminutive barking deer that lived in the forests of Southeast Asia.  A short time later, we heard several more animals, a little closer this time.  I realized that the sound was dogs barking.  The moon was up now, and we had previously decided not to travel with the moon unless we had no choice.

I reached out and grabbed Bell’s shoulder, gently but firmly.  Leaning over slowly, I whispered that we were going to have company before long.  Those dogs barking in the distance meant that men were up and moving around in some nearby village or encampment.  A single dog barking didn’t mean much – maybe somebody stepping outside to take a leak.  But all the dogs in the neighbourhood barking as they were doing now meant that a lot of people were up and moving.  Maybe they were made nervous by the sound of our helicopter in the area earlier!  What ever it was that had alerted them would cause them to search the area before much longer.

Bell listened for a few more seconds before putting his lips to my ear, “I don’t like the sound of that either, but I hope you’re wrong.”

It was nearly 2200 hours, and it had been quite awhile since we had heard the dogs barking.  We were becoming tense and a little anxious.  About an hour later, we detected a slight rustling coming from the trail.  Our heads slowly pivoted in that direction.  The sound came from the west, the direction of the barking dogs, and it was growing louder.  Then we saw a pinpoint beam of light sweeping back and forth across the tail.  They were looking for us.  Thank God the jungle was dry and there was no dew on the ground to leave sign of our passing.  We began to hear men talking in hushed tones and the occasional sounds of metal striking metal.  Now we knew for certain – the enemy was aware of our insertion.

Bell reached out and touched every man on the team, alerting and assuring him that he was not alone.  He knew it would help forestall the panic that was building in each of us.  We were new with Bell, and, as far as he was concerned, untested.  The hunters had become the hunted.

It was nearly midnight, and we had not heard the enemy in awhile.  A FAC (forward air controller) was on standby alert at some distant air base, but he wouldn’t be on-station until after first light.  Then he would circle off in the distance in case we needed him.  It was always comforting to know he was out there, but then that didn’t help us now.

Later in the night, we again heard the dull thuds of men walking the trail between us and the clearing.  They began randomly firing rounds into the surrounding jungle about 15 seconds apart.  They were close enough that we could see the muzzle flashes of their weapons.  Bell leaned close and whispered.  “They’re trying to make us give away our position.”

The movement of the enemy soldiers through our area was erratic.  The seemed unsure of where we were.  It was at least a platoon-sized element, broken into small groups.  They hadn’t worked up enough courage to come into the thick stuff after us. Daylight would give them the courage.  We decided for the moment to remain in place.  Moving at night could give our position away, and we were a long way from help.

In the early hours of the morning, I sensed Bell stiffen.  I reached over and gently but firmly squeezed his leg.  “You awake?”  I whispered.  Bell answered quickly, “I heard it, too.  We got visitors again on the trail.”  I felt sick.

Time to Move
The moon had set, and the darkest hour of the night had come and gone.  It was now Before Morning Nautical Twilight or BMNT, the time when you are first able to see to your immediate front, the time we had dreaded through the night.  There was just a hint of a grey predawn light coming from the east.  We knew the enemy soldiers had not returned the way they had come; we could only assume they had checkerboarded off the area and were waiting for us to move.  If we didn’t flush, it would only be a matter of time before they would sweep the area for us.

I could now make out the face of each man on the team, and I knew the fear I saw was only the reflection of my own.  There was also an anxiousness that came from the realization that we had to move…wanted to move.  To stay was to be discovered, and to be discovered was to die.  We had survived the night, now we would have to survive the day.

My mouth was dry, my hands sweaty.  Fearing dehydration, I swallowed a couple of salt tablets, and drank a little water from my canteen.  There would be no time to do so later.  The others did the same.  We brushed the leaves we had removed the night before back over the flattened areas where we had spent the night until we were satisfied that it looked natural. My heart picked up a pace as the adrenaline began to surge through my system.  It was time to move.

At 0700 hours, still a half hour until sitrep, Bell directed me to take point and move east, crosswind, on an 80-degree azimuth for 100 metres.  Then I was to turn due north into the wind and maintain that general direction.  Tightening the sling of my rifle so it wouldn’t drag, I made my night setting on my compass.  I sensed Bell watching me.  I knew what he was thinking, but I had always used a night setting, even in daylight.  It made it easier to maintain a known direction while on the run.

We rose quietly as one, emerging from our brushy den.  Our eyes scanned everywhere, trying to take in every detail as quickly as possible.  It was time for us to face our fears and make them work for us.  We moved out, maintaining a staggered patrol formation – five-metre intervals between each man.  With our weapons at the ready, we moved cautiously, covering our individual areas of responsibility.

The Ambush
I moved forward on hands and knees, trying to avoid outlining myself while being able to see under the brush and watching for booby traps.  The enemy would look for men moving upright.  It would give us an edge.  The four of us crept along stealthily, careful not to rustle the vegetation.  Bell followed me in a crouch, his eyes at a level a little above mine.  I stopped every few meters to watch and listen.  There was no sound: no insects, no birds, nothing.  Even the wind had laid.  There was no movement among the trees and brush around us.  It was as if the jungle itself was watching, waiting.

We were certain the enemy was there.  I can’t tell you why, but we knew.  Bell stopped me with a hand signal.  It was time for a sitrep to the FAC, and to report our contact with the enemy.  He knew our operations centre would be monitoring our commo, and would soon have our helicopter crews preparing to launch if needed.

When our transmission ended, the radio operator unscrewed the long antenna, folded it and put it into its carrier.  Bell tapped his rifle, a signal for me to move out again.  Before I could start, a movement just ahead, under the brush, caught my eye.  I froze.  A dozen birds flushed just ahead, flying past us as if we weren’t even there.  We remained still, sensing danger close at hand.  Slowly, I flattened myself against the forest floor, peering ahead through the vegetation, trying to locate what had frightened the birds.  There was nothing.  But everything was too damned quiet.  We waited and listened for what seemed like hours, but it was probably less than five minutes.  The mood in the forest around us changed, turning back of my neck crawl.

Bell leaned over and whispered almost inaudibly, “What do you think?”  I stared back over my shoulder at him, then whispered, “I think we’d better change direction…right now.”

Bell pointed out a new direction.  I adjusted the night setting on my compass once again.  While my eyes probed the surrounding jungle, trying to observe everything at one time, I dry-thumbed the fire selector switch on my weapon, reminding myself of its location.

We moved again, our senses screaming their violation.  If we were hit, we would try to break contact and run.  But we would fight if we were cornered.  I grew more anxious.  I felt like we were moving around in a box…with hundreds of people on the outside looking in.  Huge trees limited our visibility to about 30 meters.  We made a very little noise, but each crackle of a dead leaf, each snap of a twig, echoed through our minds like a cannon shot.  My heart beat faster.  Subconsciously, I began to breathe in short, rapid gasps, nostrils flaring.  Then I smelled something different.  It was the odour of our sweat, of clothes saturated with incense, and the unwashed smell of those who feast on a diet of fish oil.

The Vietnamese were hidden around the base of three abandoned anthills rising from the forest floor.  On a silent signal, several anti-personnel mines detonated.  We were already face down in the dirt.  I felt and heard a rushing sound.

When I could hear again, the sound of automatic weapons firing and bullets churning the air where we had been standing only moments before told me where the enemy lay hidden.  There was little cover between the enemy and us.  To stay meant death.  As the smell of cordite filled my nostrils, my lower lip began to quiver.

The team recovered from its initial shock.  Bell yelled over the din of enemy high-velocity rounds, “Grenades!”  When he saw that each of us had one in hand, he shouted for us to pull the pins together and on command to lob them at the enemy positions.  The anthills disappeared in a blinding flash.  The grenades were on target.  As the shooting stopped, we were up and running.  We could hear the nervous chatter of Vietnamese behind us as we broke brush.  Stealth no longer mattered.  We were running for our lives.

I lagged well behind the rest of the team and had to catch up.  We were having a difficult time maintaining the pace, but it was putting a lot of distance between us and the ambush site.  Ahead of us lay dense forest.  I lowered my head and dug in as hard as I could, trying to catch up with my team-mates.  I was near panic, almost of losing sight of them on more than one occasion.  We moved through the forest at a ground-eating lope that worked our upper bodies as much as our legs.  I knew I was using precious energy, pumping my arms like I was, and I would surely pay for it later.  I fought for breath, ignoring the gripping pain in my side.  Rounds were still popping over our heads, as the confused enemy soldiers fired blindly in our direction.  Bark flew from a tree next to me.  Bullets dug furrows in the ground at my feet.  They were in hot pursuit.  I jumped to the right to put a large tree between and me.  I had to get out of their line of sight.

I saw Bell, running in front of everyone, stagger as his rucksack blew up on his back.  An enemy round had hit him centre-mass.  He stumbled momentarily, then was up and running again.  The contents of his pack had stopped the bullet.

As we ran deeper into the forest, I expected every step to be my last.  A lot of weapons were being fired at us from behind.  Death was in the air all around us.  Suddenly, Bell, still running ahead of everyone else, ran straight into a large tree. He bounced backward, smashing into the ground flat on his back.  Amazingly, he was back on his feet in a second, running as if he had run into a hay pile instead of a tree.  More bark tore from a tree ahead as enemy bullets bracketed me.  We ran like the wind, and the gap between the enemy and us widened.

We moved now in unison, setting a blistering pace.  We had to stay together.  The only sound I heard now was my own gasping and the blood pounding.  My chest began to feel painfully tight.  My heart felt like it was in my throat.  My legs grew heavy, and I began to realize that all of us were beginning to settle into a slower pace.  Each man seemed to know that we would have to back off to continue our escape.  Our initial burst of speed had put some distance between ourselves and our pursuers, but we would not be able to maintain it.  This new pace was more comfortable, and we could maintain it for a long time.  The enemy fire dissipated as we ran deeper into the forest.

Finally I saw the rest of the team stop ahead of me.  They were trying to make contact with the FAC and report that we were in contact and trying to evade.  The short antenna failed to get out, so the radio operator hurried to replace it with the long antenna.

While struggling to get my breath, I watched our backtrail for any sign of our pursuers.  Soon I spotted movement among the shadows of the trees.  They were coming, trailing us.  Unable to make contact with the FAC, we set off running again.  I began to believe I could outrun them.  I just had to focus my concentration to help my body work better.

We had been running for an hour still hanging tightly together, moving easily, settling into a pace.  After awhile we stopped again and made another attempt at establishing commo with the FAC.  This time it worked.  I could see Bell talking on the radio.  The FAC was aware of our situation and was moving in over the area to give us better commo.  The team leader turned and gave us the bad new:  there were no suitable pickup sites anywhere in our area.  But the FAC had given us a general direction to head, which would eventually lead us to one.  We had a long way o go.  The good news was that a flight of Air Force A1-Es (SPADS) were already orbiting nearby, waiting to come to our aid.

We were in deep kimchee.  We would have to begin taking evasive action, changing directions frequently, dropping a smoke grenade after each commo check.  Now we would really have to run.  The Air Force SPADS were going to make air strikes between the most recent two smoke grenades as we ran.  Our zig-zagging would have to be on 60-degree angles, so that the SPADS would know where we were.

As rear security, it would be my job to alert the rest of the team if I saw the enemy trying to close on us.  I was to tap my rifle to warn them.  I saw something move and then blend into the dark shadows.  Then I spotted him.  It appeared to be the same man who always appeared first when the enemy closed on us.  He had to be their tracker.  I wanted to kill him.  I tried to get him in my sights, but I was breathing too hard.  I signalled the rest of the team that we had company.  We turned and ran again.  But at least this time we knew we weren’t alone.  We ran on.  The temperature rose, and the humidity took its toll.  I still hadn’t gotten my second wind, and I was beginning to labor heavily.  Mercifully, we stopped again.  I leaned against a large tree.  Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I could see nothing.  After another commo check, we were off and running…but for how much longer?

We stopped again, sooner this time.  At first I didn’t see them, then they were there, gliding like shadows from tree to tree.  I saw one…two…three small, dark forms moving nearer and nearer.  I didn’t wait to count more…and there were many, many more.  I tapped my rifle and we were off again.  This couldn’t go on.  Sooner or later, my legs would turn to cement, and it would be over.  But once again, I kicked in to a gear I didn’t know I had, as the pursuing enemy soldiers opened fire.  Then I felt my second wind.  I began running effortlessly.  I no longer felt heavy.  There was renewed strength in my stride.  The cramping and dizziness were gone.  My breath was coming in an even flow.  The entire team seemed to have gotten its second wind.  I began to feel hope that we would survive.

We stopped again to establish commo.  After talking to the FAC, Bell reported that we were only a short distance from our pickup point.  Our pickup ship, along with the C&C chopper and our gunships were already orbiting the area, waiting for us to break out.  I knew then that we would survive this ordeal.  We would outrun our persuers.  This time when I looked back, I didn’t see them.  We popped smoke and began running again as the A1-Es roared in over us.  Casings from their 20mm guns rained down on us.

I could see the forest lighten ahead of the team.  It was the clearing.  In a burst of speed, I caught up to the rest of the team and dropped to the ground with them just inside the tree line.  Bell turned the radio on, then looked at me and said, “McDonald, get out there a hundred meters in the open and get your panel ready.”  I knew it was my death warrant.

The tall grass waved slowly in the breeze as I crawled out into the field.  When I looked back at the tree line, I felt I was far enough out.  Removing my red/orange panel, I began flashing it.

Soon I could hear the heavy whopping of rotor blades as an approaching Huey came in fast.  There was no other sound like it.  As I lay on my back, arms extended holding the panel, I watched in disbelief as the chopper passed overhead and kept going.  Had they missed the signal?

No, the ship radioed Bell that it had seen our panel and acknowledged our position. I heard the roar of the gunships firing, lifted my head and saw the two Hueys hovering just above the far tree line, covering the rest of the team as they broke cover and ran for the pickup ship.  I looked up as Bell ran past me screaming, “You coming?”  He didn’t have to ask twice.  I was up and running.  We piled aboard as the gunships fired into the forest.  My momentum nearly carried me out the opposite door of the Huey.  The ship lifted, dipped toward the forest as it pick up forward speed, then rose above the trees and was gone.

Sitting in the door looking down, I could see the blinking of muzzle flashes from the woods as the enemy soldiers fired at us in frustration.  Their quarry had escaped. We had beaten them.

After debriefing, I was looking forward to a hot shower, and a cold beer.  My commander, Colonel Charlie Beckwith, stopped me and asked how I felt. I gave him the only macho answer I could think of.  I said, “OK!”  The Colonel smiled and said, “Well, good Mac. You’re going back in tomorrow.”

Charles A. McDonald is a personal protection specialist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He is a retired U.S. Army chief warrant officer and served with the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st, 5th and 7th Special Forces Groups (ABN.) While serving in Vietnam, he was assigned as an advisor to the Vietnamese 7th Airborne Division, Project Delta, and as an advisor in the MACV Recondo School.

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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