By Jim McCoy, D Co, 1st BN, 1970-1971
July 19, 1970 was my first day in "THE BUSH". After joining the Army in December of 1969, I received basic training at the Fort Ord Training Center in California. The next assignment was eight weeks of Infantry Training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, then on to Panama for jungle school. My final assignment was serving with the 101st Airborne Division, Company D, 1-506 Infantry Battalion.
Upon the fourth day in the Viet Nam jungle, eighty-six of us were to have flown into what was a mission to support another battalion. Before my chopper was within three hundred feet from landing, we were being fired upon. As we descended toward the LZ (landing zone), a large cloud of red smoke swirled past the chopper's open doorway. SGT Mueller was sitting next to me and yelled over the roar of the turbine engines, "Do you know what that red smoke is for !!? It means it's a hot LZ" (the choppers are being fired upon). Both the door gunners started firing their machine-guns as we descended closer and touched down. You cannot believe the incredible noise that occurs inside these helicopters with the door gunners firing and everyone screaming "GET OUT" "GET OUT" as we hit the ground running. I scrambled out the right side of the chopper, and for the first time, I heard A-47 fire as my chopper lifted up into the air. I ran up the facing embankment and hit the ground. Seconds later I heard someone yelling "Over here! Over here!" I looked up to see who was shouting and noticed my captain (we call him "Ranger") waving at me and shouting and motioning for me to run and join everyone else on the other side of the landing zone. I later realized I was the only one to run off the chopper and up the hillside that was occupied by the North Vietnamese. DUH!
We set up temporary positions at the base of the mountain on the south side of the LZ. I set up and assisted one of the M60 machine-gunners whom I was humping 200 rounds of ammo for. We new guys were referred to as "Cherries," and we had to carry the extra machine-gun ammo needed for our company. The Cherries' rucks (back packs) were always heavier due to having all the extra stuff dumped on us by the old timers and also due to not knowing what to carry while humping in the bush. I don't recall anyone helping me load the first ruck, but even after I had some time in country, it generally took two guys to help you on your feet when moving out after bring re-supplied.
A small squad was sent out on a patrol (or "RIF" as we called it) up the mountain side where we received AK-47 fire from when we landed. Suddenly machine-gun fire erupted in the direction of the RIF, and then a strange thing happened. I heard yelling and screaming along with cheering, almost as though someone had scored a touch down! "What is this all about?" I asked Brian Redfern the machine-gunner whom I was assisting. They just killed a Gook!" and that was my first mental taste of war. I guess that was how to react when you killed "Charlie". It was like a Big Game hunting I guess. Redfern and I set up the machine gun on a main trail that ran down the side of the mountain. As I looked up the trail that wove its way through jungle, something caught my eye. I saw something or someone moving our way but couldn't make out what it was. To my astonishment I saw the top of a "Boonie Hat" on the run towards us. I wasn't sure if it was Charlie or not and shouted to a nearby Sergeant "Do we have any friendlies up there? There's someone running down the trail!" Redfern jumped down on the machine gun and began firing up the trail. "FEED ME!" he shouted, and I began assisting the belt of ammo being pulled into the machine gun. By this time everyone was firing, but Redfern suddenly stopped firing and opened the machine gun's top strap. He quickly grabbed a small tube of the white lubricant, and much to my surprise, began oiling the machine gun in the middle of my first fire fight! Lying near Redfern and me was Tommy Smith, who had stopped firing too. His eyes were as wide open as they could get, and he appeared to be out of ammo. I threw two magazines of M16 ammo at him, and he just laid there in a state of shock looking wildly up the jungle trail. Redfern started firing the machine gun again, and I was back to feeding it ammo. As soon as it started, my first fire fight was over. None of us were sent up the trail for a body count (we would normally send out a kill team to make sure Charlie wouldn't fight again). I ask Tommy Smith (or Smitty as he was finally named by more senior "Grunts") why he stopped firing? Smitty gasped and said "my gun was jammed; I could of shaken hands with them they were so close!"
All was calm for a few hours that afternoon until we decided we were going up our N.D.P. (night defensive position) at the top of the hill we had just observed Charlie at. My company spread out into one long column and inched our way up the mountain side. As we came closer to the mountain's top, movement was spotted by our point man Eloy Valle "Valley" and our slack man (second man in line) Patrick DeWulf whom we called "Little Bit". The forward most squad began firing their weapons, and Charlie returned fire briefly, then left in a hurry off the hilltop. Charlie left in such a hurry he left some of his tools (a shovel and other tools for digging in). When we finally reached the top of the mountain, I noticed a long narrow ditch Charlie had dug across the section of the mountain top .The ditch was so narrow you couldn't fit in it if you were trying to go for cover, so I assumed it was not completed. My company set up a perimeter around the mountain top, and I sat down next to the M-60 machine gun that was facing down a well used trail. The machine gun was always set up at the trail heads to provide the most firepower if Charlie came a creeping, and time and time again, I learned it also gave Charlie the best opportunity to give up his life for his country.
After we set up our N.D.P. it was still early. Many of the guys started to relax and were sitting around smoking and talking with each other. I sat next to the machine gun and glanced down the trail once in awhile. I was still one of the F.N.G.'s (……. new guys) and didn't quite fit in yet. Besides I was really uptight, to say the least, after landing on a hot LZ and being in my first fire fight. It was going to be a long time before I could even start to wind down! I remember thinking as I was sitting there (now by myself, even the machine gunner had walked over to talk with someone) how could these guys be sitting around smoking and joking like that after what we just went thru? I turned and glanced behind me toward the center of our N.D.P. at some of the guys, and as I looked back down the trail ,I again saw Charlie!! I didn't have time to scream. The gook was on his stomach crawling up the trail towards me! My M-16 was next to me, and I pulled it up to my shoulder. As I moved the rifle towards my shoulder, the Gook raised his chest off the ground and looked right at me. My M-16 was on "rock and roll" (fully automatic). At that very moment, and for the first time, I had the first enemy soldier that I actually had eye contact within my sights. (I was to learn as my time in country went on that you rarely actually saw the person that you were shooting at). I pulled the trigger, and a quick burst of semi-automatic fire reported out on my M-16. I then flicked my weapon on automatic fire and finished off the magazine. The gook dropped out of my sight, and Delta Company came alive, firing everything we had down that trail. My machine gunner Redfern ran to my position and fired a burst down the trail. He stopped, then put down the machine gun ,and grabbed a frag (hand grenade), and pulled the pin the released lever letting it "cook off," finally throwing it and watching it explode in mid air (an intentional air burst) over Charlie's head. After stopping to oil the machine gun in the middle of our first fire fight of the day, then cooking off that frag, I decided Redfern had some MAJOR SACK! When all the firing stopped and things had settled down, many of the guy's walked over to me and slapped me on the back. For the first time I started to feel more accepted.
A patrol (RIF) was being formed to go down the trail to see how many Dinks (or Gooks) we had killed. I overheard Sergeant Wise say to Redfern that one of his men on the Machine Gun Team had to go on the RIF. It was going to be either me or Thomas Smith "Smitty" that was going to be sent. Redfern pulled out a coin and flipped it, telling Smitty to call it. "Tails" Smitty called out; the coin fell on heads, so Smitty had to go. Through the rest of my tour Smitty swore that Redfern had cheated, and the coin actually fell on tails, and I was suppose to go on that patrol.
After the squad was formed up Eloy Valle "Valley" was to be POINT MAN followed by his SLACKMAN Patrick DeWulf "Little Bit". They always worked together as a team, and this would be their last day on this earth together. The rest of the squad was to be Bill Browning, Sergeant Wise, John Knott, LT Randy Thompson, and Smitty. The RIF was sent out traveling down the trail that we had spotted the enemy soldier crawling up. The RIF wasn't out for more than a few moments when all hell broke loose. I heard our guys' screaming as AK-47 fire was heard for the second time. More screaming from our guys and the sound of what appeared to be a "Frag" going off came from the area. The RIF had run into a bunker complex, and our point man Valley was the first to get shot. As Valley fell, Little Bit turned and screamed "Valley's Dead!" At that moment the second round of AK fire opened up, and Little Bit was cut down in his tracks, along with Knott. At that point, the rest of the squad began to retreat, leaving our wounded behind. During the retreat, the remaining few stopped momentarily ,and at that moment, Charlie threw a grenade. All three remaining squad members must have seen it at once and lunged for cover. After it exploded at what seemed to be at a very close range, our platoon leader LT Thompson (we called him L.T.) screamed "I'm hit!" A piece if the grenade's fragmentation went through LT Thompson's right arm in the area of his elbow. Not a fatal wound, but the shock to LT Thompson's body was unbearable, and Smitty had to help him back to our N.D.P.
Sergeant Wise was the first to appear as they rejoined Delta Company. I remember the look of terror and aguish on his face as he yelled "Little Bit and Valley are dead!" At that very moment several bursts of AK-47 fire was heard along with a faint muffled scream, and I realized the Dinks were finishing off our wounded that were left behind . . . I will never in my life be able to get rid of that sickening feeling of that moment! The rest of the squad ran back into our position, and our medic who we call "Rocky" looked after the wounds of LT Thompson. I learned later that Sergeant Wise was also hit with some of the grenades fragmentation, along with LT Thompson, and both were flown out on one of the very few Medivacs helicopters that were not shot down during the next two days.
Captain Don Workman "Ranger" sent out another squad down the trail, which included myself and Redfern with the M-60 machine gun. Two grunts (one was to be one of my closest friends Terry Hodges) crawled under our machine gun's fire to see if it was possible to retrieve any of our fallen men. Terry and the other grunt found four dead bodies. John Knott (one of the dead) was found with his 4x4 GI bandages over one of his wounds and had apparently tried to patch himself up before Charlie had come to finish him off. I guess it was that last muffled scream and AK-47 bursts I heard that brought a tragic and horrific end to Knott's young life. I heard that Knott once carried a canned ham he received in a care package (something sent from home) in his ruck sack. Knott was quite a character and was the only grunt I had ever heard of to sleep through a firefight. I guess he was once asleep in the bottom of a fox hole when a brief fire fight occurred. By the time it was over and everyone was checking for casualties, Knott was found to have just awakened and crawled out. We all get extremely tired humping in the bush. After we provided cover fire and the dead were found, a couple of Cobra Gun ships (we called that a "Snake Team") arrived on station, and a smoke grenade was popped to mark our position so we would not be shot by our own people. Redfern and I were left back to provide cover fire for the retreating squad (a machine gun team was always used for covering a squad that was returning to base). Redfern and I both spotted the purple smoke that was marking our position, but the only trouble was that we were still out in front of the smoke! "Let's get the hell out of here!" shouted Redfern, and we both broke on a dead run back up the trail. We hadn't realized we had been left so far behind the rest of the squad! As we ran into the N.D.P. and joined the rest of Delta Company, Redfern had a few choice words for those that left us behind.
The Snake Team worked out on Charlie for awhile. It was always a wonderful sight and feeling for a Grunt to watch those Cobra's work out. We all imagined the sights of Gooks being blown to bits as the Cobra's rockets impacted the jungle. I can honestly say the Cobra and Slick (troop carrier Helicopter) pilots saved my young life by keeping what was later established as one thousand five hundred North Vietnamese regulars from totally annihilating the few of us that managed to survive the next two days.
That evening Delta Company moved out under the cover of darkness and secured our LZ (landing zone) located in the saddle between the two mountain tops. Fire Base Ripcord fired a few illumination rounds from their 155's (a 155 is a large cannon) which helped us keep Charlie away while a Medivac arrived and lifted out our wounded. After we managed to get our wounded out (I remember thinking how lucky they were), we set up our new N.D.P. on the mountaintop on the other side of the LZ. Our F.O. (Forward Observer, a person used to call in artillery when we needed it) called in artillery from Fire Base Ripcord and had them mark a target near us, so if we needed artillery fire during our mission, they would already have a spot to start from (this was done every evening throughout my tour while in the bush.)
After a restless night, I awoke the next morning at first light and finished a can of fruit cocktail from assorted cans of C-Rats. I walked down over the side of our position on the hilltop to relieve myself. As I walked back to N.D.P., Delta Company became alive with the sound of a wake up call from Charlie. Someone yelled "In coming!" after the sound of a mortar tube going off in the distance. I hadn't heard a mortar tube before, but I followed everyone's lead diving to the ground for cover. The mortar hit the ground, and an explosion erupted right near the spot I had just relieved myself at. Suddenly the mortar tube was again heard. The second mortar found its mark right in the middle of our position, and for the second time in many days, I heard GI's screaming, but this time we all were right in the middle of it. I remember several of our guys yelling for a Medic." This guy is hurt pretty bad over here!" someone yelled. Charlie must of heard the screaming, and knowing he had found the target, began pumping in the mortar rounds.(We call that fire for the effect"). As the mortar rounds fell on our position, you could hear them buzzing down through the trees. There was nowhere to go, and the only thing I could think of doing, was to put on my ruck and curl up into a ball. We hadn't dug in and were all lying down on bare ground. After the second volley of mortar rounds impacted, everyone became hysterical. The Medics were running from patient to patient. I noticed there was a guy lying down in front of me screaming "I'm hit". I crawled up to him and asked him where he was hit, not seeing any wounds in his upper body area. "It's my arm, my arm!" he yelled. I found a bloody hole in the lower left arm, and pulled out my 4x4 bandage and secured it around the wound. Just as I completed securing the bandage he said his foot was also hurting and I looked down at his feet and saw another bloody hole in one of his boots. I reassured him that he was going to be OK, and his wounds weren't life threatening. I found out later he received what we call a "million dollar wound" and went home. Amid all the terror and confusion John Millard (who was badly wounded) got Ranger's attention by yelling "Let's get the F_ _ _ out of here!" With that, Ranger finally realized that Charlie had zeroed in on us, and we were being blown to pieces with each volley of incoming mortar fire. Everyone stood up, and the handful of us that weren't wounded, started carrying out those that were hit. I still had my ruck on my back and was moving towards the trail ahead when I heard someone yelling "Jim! Jim!" I looked across the hill top and saw my dear friend John Millard hobbling towards me yelling, "I'm hit Jim! I've been hit!" I hesitantly stopped as John approached. I hurried over to him and saw blood running down his legs. His fatigue pants were shredded and on his back was the remains of a PRC-25 radio that was now in large chunks. The radio had been hit by mortar fragmentation. When John and I met, he threw his arm around my neck and at that moment ,I told him to get rid of that radio. "It saved my life!" was his reply. And I assisted John and the radio out of the impact zone down the mountainside. As we started down the mountainside, whoever our point man was had to beak down the Mechanical Ambush someone had set out the night before. A Mechanical Ambush is a series of Claymore mines that are triggered by a very sensitive a trip wire. The problem we had was that the soldier who set out the Mechanical Ambush was either dead or wounded and wasn't able to take it down. We had all stopped on the trail ,and while we waited, the sound of mortar rounds headed our way. Much to our relief, the rounds impacted the hilltop that we just left. I later discovered we had left several of our guys back up there on that hilltop that were dead or wounded. The Mechanical Ambush was taken down by our point man, and we moved on, heading down the hillside finally stopping at the bottom. As we stopped, I heard the soldier behind me mumbling that his bandage fell off. I turned to look and saw this young black man looking at me and holding a 4x4 bandage to the side of his face. I stepped back to him as I put my hand up to his face. The bandage came away exposing a large gaping hole that exposed some of his now broken teeth. I tried not to grimace, as I could hardly stomach that ghastly wound I saw on his face. After trying to secure his bandage for him, I told him that he was going to have to hold it himself until we were in a position to take the time to secure it better.
Ranger had set up a defensive position at the bottom of the hillside in sight of our new LZ we arrived and would leave on. Word was sent out to dig in, so we all grabbed our entrenching tools (shovels), and attempted to dig in. I had a new type of entrenching tool with a metal spade and collapsible handle which broke off with my second thrust into the ground. I then had to hold the spade part in my hand and paw at the hard jungle floor with what was left. I tried my best to dig a hole, but had to give up on it with the useless tool I had to dig with. Had I known the two air strikes that came in on us during that day were going to be so close you could feel the heat from their jet engines and have trees falling down on you from the exploding nearby bombs, I would have dug with my fingernails if needed!
Ranger called in for Medivac's in an effort to get our wounded out, and as they flew in and attempted to fly out, they were all shot down. Most were close enough to the ground (some were still on the ground) when they were hit by AK-47 fire. The first bird in was loaded up with several wounded, and as it took off, one of our Medics ran out to the helicopter, grabbing onto its skid as it lifted off. He was taken up a hundred feet or so when the Medivac was hit by gunfire and started losing power. The medic dropped to his death as the helicopter went down.
A total of six helicopters were shot down on or near our LZ through out the day, leaving enough room for one bird to land at a time. While all this was taking place, Ranger told one of the few remaining squad leaders to form a squad and go back up the mountain to our old position in an effort to get our dead out. Prior to all this, we could hear Charlie finishing off any survivors that we left behind on that hilltop. When the Sergeant walked around and started calling off names for that patrol, I suddenly heard "McCoy!" I have to admit he had to call me twice as I reluctantly picked up three bandoleers of M-16 Ammo and joined the already formed up squad. We all knew that Charlie would be up there, and we were walking into a certain death trap for some or all of us. The element of surprise wasn't there, Charlie knew where we were and would be waiting for us.
We slowly walked up the hillside through the jungle, and our point man spotted movement up ahead on the hilltop. We stopped as the Sergeant talked on the radio. Word was passed to spread out abreast of each other and form an emergency ambush. We all quickly assumed that position, and on the Sergeant's command, we started firing up the hilltop (this maneuver was referred as recon by fire). Much to my surprise after that, we formed up and went back down the hillside back to the rest of Delta Company. We would normally send in a kill team after an ambush was blown to get a body count, but Ranger decided against risking the few of us left.
After we returned and got settled in, one of our Lieutenant Colonel's flew into our position in Loach (a Loach is a small helicopter used by the brass to oversee field operations, they were also extremely maneuverable and a very small target). We overheard him and Ranger talking. Ranger was pleading for him to get us out. We were down to about 14 people, and a few of them had minor wounds. Finally Ranger stood up and yelled "If we get hit again, it's everyone for themselves." Any hope I was still clinging to of getting out of there was suddenly lost with that remark from Ranger. The Lieutenant Colonel's bird flew in, and he was picked up, and he was gone out of this Hell hole in a matter of seconds. (A few months later I was sickened to read in the Stars and Stripes that he was awarder a Silver Star for risking his life by flying in and out of our position under heavy enemy fire. I'm sure he put himself in for that award).
Several Snake Team and Air Strikes kept Charlie from overrunning us that day. As the chopper pilots flew into our position to perform their missions, they reported to Ranger of all the hundreds of Gooks they spotted in out area. It seemed so overwhelming to those of us that managed to luck out and not be wounded to hear the reports of the number of Gooks in our A/O (area of operation). As the Phantom Jets dropped their payloads nearly on us, you could hear AK-47's firing at them as they made their bombing run. As we heard the jets approaching, we would lay as flat as we could on the ground. I was as afraid of being killed by our own, as by Charlie. After all that we had been through, it would have been tragic to be killed by our people. The air strikes had to be close to keep Charlie away. It was a very frightening when our jets came in on us.
By God's grace we got most of our wounded out on several Medivac's that flew in under fire, while security was provided by the Snake Teams. Charlie would still get off a few rounds at the helicopters, but they managed to get out anyway. After Ranger's pleading with the Lieutenant Colonel to get us out, the next best thing happened. Charlie Company was on its way to relieve us, and soon landed near the hilltop position we had to abandoned. Charlie Company brought down our dead we had to leave behind. As the men of Charlie Company entered our position, I was somewhat relieved until I saw them carrying our dead. One of the dead soldiers had his feet and hands tied to a pole that was cut from a tree branch. A poncho had been draped over his body but had partially fallen off. A odd thing happened when I looked at the dead soldier's body. For the first time in this battle a feeling of calm suddenly came over me. The only way I can explain that feeling is that when I saw our dead men ,I felt that the horror and pain was over for them, and they were no longer involved in this insanity. The frightened look on the faces of those poor men of Charlie Company that were carrying our dead will never be forgotten. I remember telling members of Charlie Company as they carried our dead out to the LZ that there was "BOO COO GOOKS" around. As those words left my mouth I thought, how stupid of me to say that, here were these guy's hauling our dead Americans out, I'm sure they figured out the N.V.A. were somewhere in the area. DUH!
Ranger was going around getting us ready to fly out. Two M-16s were shoved into my ruck, along with any other gear that we didn't want to leave behind. Ranger yelled "Let's go, let's go!" to Redfern and me as we ran over to the edge of the LZ. As our chopper descended toward the LZ, Ranger ran over to me and started physically pushing me into the open LZ. As we all ran out among the downed helicopters, we all wanted to run back into the safety and cover of the jungle. The incoming chopper seemed as though it was coming down toward the LZ in slow motion, and we were all just sitting ducks as we waited for it to touch down. At the moment its skids touched the ground, we all dived in and reached for something to hold onto as it started skyward. AK-47 fire could be heard as we ascended, and I've never prayed so hard in my life. I was lying next to one of our chopper's door gunners, and he opened up with his M-60 machine gun as soon as we left the ground. We all just laid there and waited to be shot out of the sky like so many choppers before us. Finally I felt a hard slap on my back, and I raised my head up for the first time only to see the smiling face of "Cong" one of our Kit Carson Scouts that piled in the chopper with us. I looked over the side opening of the helicopter and realized we were finally far enough in the air to be out of harms way!! We all started yelling, sitting up slapping each other on the backs, cheering and thanking God we had made it out. Just then the door gunner hit me on the shoulder, and when I looked up at him, he pushed his microphone away from his mouth and yelled the "other chopper didn't make it!" I passed the word and our cheering stopped. We landed back at our base at Camp Evans, and as we got off the helicopter Delta Company's First Sergeant James Stubbs came over to me and said (with a big smile on his face) "I guess you ain't a cherry no more". I was so wiped out and in such a state of shock I couldn't even answer him. A few of us stood on the LZ there at Camp Evans and waited for any other choppers to arrive but none ever came. I later learned that Ranger had been killed, and the remaining few members of Delta Company were on that chopper that was shot down behind us. I don't remember anything that happened the rest of that day except some of the guys were sent over to Medical when they discovered they too had been hit by small mortar fragments and needed attention.
The next day back at Evans, I walked down to our hospital and visited some of the wounded guys, including my dear friend John Millard. His legs were bandaged, and his spirits were good. I also told him that there was going to be a funeral service for Ranger and our other soldiers that were killed on that battle. Two days later Fire Base Ripcord was overrun by the N.V.A., and "RIPCORD" would go down as the last major battle of the Viet Nam war by the ONE HUNDRED AND FIRST AIRBORNE DIVISION.
After the battle of "Ripcord" was over, we managed few replacements for awhile. Delta Company now only numbered 33 men and spent the next few months on fire bases out into the jungle being used as a defense platoon.
It took a few weeks for the Army to get most of the remainder of our dead out of the jungle from that battle, and some years later I was told that John Knott from that battle was declared missing in action but wasn't on the latest list of P.O.W.'s or M.I.A.'s I obtained from the Veterans Administration, and I guess he was finally presumed to be Killed in Action, as a few had known from the start.
About twenty years later I visited a replica of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial (THE WALL) in Vista, California. I wasn't ready for the grief and emotion that came over me when I looked up and saw Captain Don Workman (Ranger) and ALL of the names of the rest of the guys who died during Ripcord listed together on "The Wall."