Hill Number 1136
“Life shouldn’t be so cheap, Gary.”
Gary and I stood at the edge of the plateau looking down the hill at hundreds of charred bodies of the Vietnamese that had been attacking us a few minutes ago.
“You’ve seen it before Nick”
“Ya, but somehow I can never get used to it.” We had lived through the I Drang valley battle where the 1st Cavalry won its colors back, from when they lost them in Korea, a few snipers, and seen the devastation that Puff could bring.
* * *
Somehow you managed to do your job when you had to in order to survive. You never had time to see the results of your actions until after you had survived. Your feelings and emotions would hinder getting the job at hand done and your survival. It was just easier to keep your memories and feelings in an imaginary box in the back of your mind and put an unbreakable lock on them. We had survived. We were alive.
It had all started earlier that morning. Maybe it was the day before when we got word that the North Vietnamese had overrun hill 1136. That was one of our Artillery outposts. The 105 cannons could cover a fifteen to twenty five mile area with friendly fire. That is as long as you knew precisely where you were on the map. This was the main reason you had to be absolutely sure of where you were at all times. It was one of the reasons the North Vietnamese worked so hard to take out artillery emplacements. If you were off in your map readings of one degree, calling in artillery, you could call the devastation in on yourself instead of the enemy.
Puff was short for Puff the Magic Dragon. At that time it was a slow flying DC3, or as the Military called it a C47. It did not look very menacing, but it could spit what looked like liquid fire out one side. It got its name from the dragon like fire that came from its large mini guns that spit out six thousand rounds a minute. It could devastate an area one hundred yards wide at over one hundred miles an hour. There would not be a building or living thing left. Not even a spider.
The artillery we had at the time was mostly 105 cannons. They could hit a fifty five gallon drum at over twenty five miles. Not much would escape a well placed artillery barrage.
We had an adventurous day the day before, and would have been late getting into an attack position. We had stayed about half a mile back into the heavy jungle and Captain Mallory had called “Saddle up” a long time before morning. We started walking toward hill 1136.
We walked for a couple hours in the dark and arrived at the east side of the hill just as dawn was breaking.
Captain Mallory called a halt and all the platoon leaders and RTO’s to his location. He told them where he wanted each platoon at the bottom and how to set up when we arrived at the top. In a very short time each platoon was in position and quietly started up the hill.
We were no more than a quarter the way up when we heard someone on the top raise the alarm. Then we all cut loose at once. We had rifles firing, M 79’s thumping off and hand grenades going off. Before we knew it we were on top and Charlie (North Vietnamese) was gone down the other side.
A couple guys wanted to keep chasing Charlie, but they were called back.
All of the artillery cannons and ammunition were gone along with all the equipment that should have been there. The only thing left at the top of hill 1136 were a lot of 55 gallon drums that were for helicopter fuel.
“Each platoon to its designated area, now. Mortar Platoon set up on that knoll in the center. Lieutenant Strong, Steve come over here and set up the CP (Command Post).” Captain Mallory was in command.
It was sergeant Rollin that said, “That was too easy.”
“That was a long hard run up that hill with a radio on,” I said.
“Do you remember anyone shooting back at us?” Sergeant Rolling was looking at Lieutenant Ragger with a puzzled look on his face.
“No, I don't Sergeant. Nick, get six on the horn.” He was looking at me with an urgency that I didn’t feel yet.
“Six, this is three six India, my six would like a talk. Over.”
“Three six India, get your platoon set up, and I will call him to my location. Call back when you are set. Six out.”
“I heard, he knows. Sergeant, are all the squads in position yet? Have the men dig new fox holes as soon as possible and don’t use the ones that are here. They probably have them all targeted for mortar fire already.” The lieutenant was hurrying down one side of the line and the sergeant was working the other.
The lieutenant had me digging a new fox hole about fifteen or twenty yards from a perfectly good one. The ground on the top was like clay, but after you broke through the first foot or so it was mostly sand. I used my knife to break the top and then I could use the entrenching tool as a shovel. We had been on the hill for less than three minutes. I still had not caught on to why the sergeant and lieutenant were so worried and in so much of a hurry.
The smell of Vietnam was worse or stronger when you were digging. It seemed to saturate the ground itself. It is hard to describe but something you can never forget. In the jungle it was like wet dried out old hard wood that was rotting from the inside out. The jungle itself is so damp it will not burn even when in contact with a flamethrower.
The hilltop was approximately two hundred and fifty yards wide by six hundred yards long, or about the size of thirty football fields, and what seemed like a thousand feet high. It was over three quarters of a mile up the sides. It was really too large for a company of two hundred men and officers to hold under any type of coordinated attack.
The lieutenant had been called back to the company CP and sergeant Rollins was helping me dig when the first round hit. It landed directly in the fox hole we would have been using if the lieutenant had not made me dig a new one. Both of us would have been killed. I really hate digging fox holes, but I was glad I dug this one.
Sometimes there is a reason the people in command are there.
Lieutenant Ragger came running back. Reaching our fox hole, he grabbed the radio and jumped in with the sergeant and me. By then the whole company was under attack. All the platoon radios were talking at once. The captain was calling brigade for artillery support, and ammunition. Way off you could hear what sounded like artillery rounds going off, but they were a long way away and not close to us at all.
This is one of those times I should have been scared as hell, but I had too much to do to feel any emotion. I was talking to Company Headquarters, trying to call any gunships in the area, and setting up places where we would call for colored smoke.
By then it had dawned on me. It seemed we were being attacked on all sides of the hill. Charlie had simply vacated the hill to the other side, and let us take the top of the hill. Then the North Vietnamese simply surrounded the hill while we were on the top. We did have the high ground, but Charlie had taken this hill a couple days ago with the same plan, and was sure he could do it again with fewer men at the top. We had walked or rather run into a well planned ambush.
Our mortar platoon was popping out rounds as fast as they were given locations to hit. The thunk of a round leaving a mortar tube has its own almost metallic sound. Now some of the mortar tubes were getting warm from all the rounds going off. We had three tubes and they all had several missiles in the air at once. You could see the smoke coming out of a tube while the next shoot was being dropped in. Those guys had a lot of nerve to do their jobs while being shot at, and hoping we could keep the enemy away from them.
The M 60 machine guns were pumping out more than six round bursts, which meant that they would need new barrels before long. An M 60 barrel will glow red and can get so hot it will droop under its own weight. A six round burst will usually give the gun enough time to cool off between bursts.Not an easy thing to do under life and death conditions.
The fire was intense on all sides of the hill, and we only had what we had brought with us. That was not really enough to rebuff the full scale attack we were facing now. The captain had called for more ammunition when he called for artillery and we still hadn’t got it.
Off in the distance two Chinook helicopters were coming in our direction They came in about fifteen or twenty feet off the ground over the company CP and each pushed out two large crates. They never even slowed down. One of the boxes broke open, and there was ammunition spread all over the ground.
The captain called for one man from each fox hole to the company CP and get as much ammunition as they could carry back to their location.
Parts of the first and second platoons, who were facing east, still had the sun in their eyes, and you could tell they were firing as much at sounds as targets. We had attacked from that direction to get the sun in the enemy’s eyes. Now it worked in reverse.
After the drop we had plenty of ammunition, and new barrels for the M60s. The machine guns coordinated the changing of the barrels so as not to have a large area that was not covered by machine gun fire. It takes a minute or less to change the barrel of an M 60, but in the situation we were in, that could be several lifetimes.
The M 79’s were sending out rounds as fast as they could be reloaded. By now each fox hole had a couple boxes of hand grenades and were using them up rapidly. The sun was rising in the sky, but for some reason time was standing still.
Every once in a while when I got a chance to look up from the radio, I could see body parts flying and rolling back down the hill. Now and then I thought I could see an enemy soldier stick his head over the crest of the hill and then fall back. There must have been thousands of them.
I think Battalion or Brigade had called for help from the Air Force, but that would still be hours away. The haze and smoke of battle was in the air and the outcome did not look favorable for us.
We were holding our own for now, but it would not be much longer and we would be running out of ammunition again. Several squads sent runners back to the CP for more ammunition of all kinds. Some of the M 79’s were putting out smoke grenades to mark where they wanted gunships to fire.
The helicopters were coming and we wanted them to know where the enemy was. We really didn’t have the gunship helicopters like those that came later. These were more like the transportation Huey helicopters with M 60 machine guns strapped in the open doors with bungee cords. It worked. This arrangement was very effective in landing troops in an open area and suppressing enemy fire, while dropping troops on the ground. The gunners would usually target an area and not specific targets. It did manage to keep Charlie undercover for a while though.
I think it was Paddy from the second platoon who asked loudly, “What in hell is in those fifty five gallon drums?”
Someone shouted “They must be empty.”
“Did anyone check?”
Captain Mallory sent Lieutenant Strong to check. He ran back reporting that they were all full of jet fuel for the choppers.
It seemed like it took about an hour, really only five or ten minutes to get a drum of jet fuel to each foxhole. Word was passed to use an entrenching tool to poke a large hole in an end of the drum at your fox hole and roll it down the hill. Soon there were bouncing drums spraying everything and everyone downhill with jet fuel. The word came to light the fuel with a hand grenade or an M 79 round.
Jet fuel is more like fuel oil than gasoline. It tends to soak into something while it is burning. In a very short time all sides of hill1136 were deep in black smoke, yellow flames and more screams than I have ever heard before or since.
All gunfire ceased. The smell of burning flesh and rancid vegetation on fire filled the air. The captain called all the platoon leaders to the CP for a meeting. Sergeant Rollins was checking the platoon to see how many killed and wounded we had. Our platoon was unhurt. Maybe a few blisters from digging foxholes so fast. We got word from the captain that everyone that started up the hill was alive and well.
I climbed out of the not yet completed fox hole, lit a cigarette, and wandered over to where Gary was.
“Life shouldn’t be so cheap, Gary.”