MISSION: FIRE SUPPORT BASE CHARLIE
PHOTOG: 1ST LT. BRUCE WESSON
LOCATION: HIEP DUC VALLEY REGION, NORTHWEST OF CHU LAI
UNIT: 3RD BATTALION, 82ND ARTILLERY (105MM)
DATE: DEC. 1967
When we arrive, the press camp non-commissioned officer (NCO) in charge was waiting for us with a set of new classified orders he had received from our contact at MACV headquarters at Tan Son Nhut. We had been redirected to another assignment. The location was in the Hiep Duc Valley region, northwest of Chu Lai with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.
It is December 1967. The Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) Army A Team arrived at the Chu Lai, South Vietnam press camp around noon. There were four of us: myself, Bruce Wesson, team leader; Bill Foulke, senior mopic cameraman; C.J. Nash, mopic cameraman; and Jim Dennison, audio recording. We were on our way to Nui Thanh to film an assigned story about Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) training of new recruits.
Fire Support Base (FSB) Charlie, 3RD Battalion, 82ND Artillery (105)
Welcome to FSB Charlie
The night before there had been a rocket attack on the fire support base (FSB) Charlie of the Third Battalion, 82nd Artillery (105MM). The fire direction and command center took a direct hit from a Soviet-made 140mm or 122mm BM-21Rocket. The unit commander and two NCOs were killed. Three others had been wounded and evacuated. The range of these rockets is up to 11km and they were probably fired from the hills overlooking the FSB. In the background of the photo above, troops are erecting a new tent and rebuilding the destroyed command center. Also in the background, a 105mm howitzer is firing in support of 196th troops in an operation to the south of the firebase. A damaged, yet-to-be-recovered helicopter in the foreground has been pushed into a breech in the fortified perimeter.
Platoon Perimeter Sweep
With the loss of life in the attack the night before and an increasing amount of enemy activity in the area, 196th Brigade headquarters ordered a platoon perimeter sweep to search and clear the area of enemy.
With the loss of life the night before and increasing enemy activity, the 196th Brigade HQ ordered a platoon perimeter sweep to clear the area of enemy.
Our boss at MACV wanted us to accompany the platoon and take footage and stills for a feature story. I decided that I would go and take only our senior motion picture (mopic) cameraman, Specialist 6th Class, Bill Foulke. The patrol was to be 8 kilometers out and 360 degrees around the FSB. It would take three days, assuming there was no significant contact.
When we reached point where the patrol would begin its sweep, the platoon leader confirmed coordinates of our position and drew a circle on his map from that point with the FSB at its center. That was to be our route. We were in a flat valley covered with rice paddies and the civilians farming there were considered pacified. The troops did, however, check papers, search and question a number of them as we moved along. The squads separated, with two walking levees around paddies and the others further out along the base of the hills rising from the valley floor. There was no sign of the enemy.
About an hour before nightfall, a defensible position was located and a perimeter established. We ate, some cleaned rifles, checked gear and eventually, one-by-one, began to bed down. Lookouts rotated in shifts through the night.
1st Lt. Bruce Wesson with troops of the 196th Light Infantry. Brigade in background.
The Sleeping Process
Going to sleep on the ground in 100-degree heat in a combat zone in a jungle teeming with flying, crawling and other slithering things is not for the uninitiated. By now I had developed my own method. First, slather with industrial strength Army bug juice. Do not get in or around eyes, on lips, or most important, any other body part if you get up in the night to answer nature's call. Second, lay your poncho flat on ground. Third, lie on it and grasping one edge, roll until you are encased in rubber-coated canvas and resemble a large human burrito. The object, I suppose, is to become so intolerably uncomfortable and soaked with sweat that unrolling and lying on top feels pretty good and to heck with the bugs and things. Just be sure and remember to plug your ears with cigarette filters to keep out the ants. Sleep is fitful at best.
Going to sleep on the ground in 100-degree heat in a combat zone in a jungle teeming with flying, crawling and other slithering things is not for the uninitiated.
Brigade bushwhacking down the slopes of the highlands; if you look carefully, you'll notice a second soldier on the path ahead.
The next morning we headed up the high ground. The higher we got, the more difficult walking became. The terrain was covered with rigid, dense, shoulder-high brush so dense that it was necessary to maintain visual contact with the guy in front of you. In the photo at left, you can see why that might be difficult. Can you see the second soldier in the photo? Losing sight of him and heading off in the wrong direction would be a big mistake. We still had seen no sign of enemy activity.
The picture below is our combat photo team senior mopic cameraman, specialist sixth class Bill Foulke. He is filming the platoon leader and platoon sergeant checking coordinates to determine if the ridgeline in the distance fell within our patrol boundary. Recent aerial reconnaissance indicated that just beyond that ridge was the suspected location of a battalion size concentration of NVA licking its wounds and reinforcing. That sounds like an easy target, but they generally only exposed themselves when it was on their terms. They were experts at concealing themselves in camouflaged bunkers and mazes of tunnels containing headquarters, hospitals, bunks, staging areas food stashes, and more.
The terrain was so dense that it was necessary to maintain visual contact with the guy in front of you. Losing sight of him and heading off in the wrong direction would be a big mistake.
After checking with the FSB, it was determined that the circle drawn on the map was accurate and we did not have to venture over that line. Bushwhacking up and down steep slopes all day, we eventually reached open meadows. Spaced groups crossed to safer ground while the rest positioned themselves to provide covering fire if necessary. Once again, at day's end we went through the same routine of digging a few holes, eating C rations and eventually bedding down.
Spc. Bill Foulke filming the platoon leader and platoon sergeant checking coordinates.
Encountering Enemy Fire
We were ready to head out before dawn the next morning. It was the last day of the patrol and there had been no trace of the enemy. The terrain was level and walking was easier, but the Platoon leader told me that this was the most likely stretch in which we could encounter NVA snipers or patrols. Also, this is probably the area where rockets had been launched. (It should be noted here that these rockets could be fired from highly transportable tripod mounts. They can be set up, fired and taken away in a matter of minutes.)
Cracks, Snaps and Ditches
The meadows were crisscrossed with deep drainage ditches. They were narrow and 3 to 8 feet deep with standing water. That afternoon, walking along one of the deep ditches, telltale snap and cracking sounds whizzed over and around us. This is the sound bullets make before the report of the guns firing them is heard. Their velocity breaking the sound barrier is responsible for the snapping sound. The squad leaders yelled for everyone to take cover in the ditch and return fire toward the tree line in the distance. The sniper fire stopped and the platoon leader decided that we would continue in the ditch to the edge of the meadow.
Telltale snap and cracking sounds whizzed over and around us - the sound of bullets before the guns' report can be heard. The bullets' velocity breaking the sound barrier is responsible for the snapping sound.
Weighing the OptionsDrainage ditches were good cover for troops but provided limited visibility and the threat of booby traps. This leg of the patrol leapfrogged with point men walking the bank above the ditch. The plan was to continue until we reached the edge of the jungle where would find the upper end of the cultivated valley that would lead back to the FSB. The ditch did provide great cover but there was a potential hazard. It was not unusual for the NVA to determine a unit's direction of travel and plant booby traps ahead in its suspected route. Then a sniper would crank off enough rounds to force the troops to seek the closest cover - the ditch. That is where the booby traps would be.
Soldiers search for trip wires in the ditch.
The Dangers of Canned Grenades
If you look at the picture again, you will see both GIs looking down as they wade. They are looking for trip wires leading to "canned grenades." The simple recipe for a canned grenade is: a discarded tin can, a length of string or wire and a hand grenade. Tie the can to a bush next to or over the path, pull the pin on the grenade, shove it into the can without releasing the safety lever and tie a long string to the grenade. Stretch the tripwire in the path of the approaching enemy. Tripping the wire pulls the grenade out of the can, releasing the spring on its safety lever. Thus armed, the grenade has a killing radius of up to five meters.
The simple recipe for a canned grenade is: a discarded tin can, a length of string or wire and a hand grenade. Tie the can to a bush next to or over the path, pull the pin on the grenade, shove it into the can without releasing the safety lever and tie a long string to the grenade.
In our case, the string could be stretched just beneath the surface of the muddy water and impossible to see. It is real, real important that when walking under this threat you try to step in the same place as the guy in front of you. That's the big deal with the guy in the ditch. He was less than 20 feet in front of me and I was trying to walk where he walked but, even so, if there was a wire and he missed it I might trip it. Or in another scenario, if he tripped it I would be six feet closer when the grenade exploded. Either way, if that had happened, you wouldn't be reading this.
The Return Trip
We walked back through the FSB wire just before dark. We got good film and stills and had the fire base radio the 196th Brigade information office to get a chopper headed out to pick us up the next morning. When we got back to the press camp we spent the day getting cleaned up and writing the text and captions for the film and stills we had shot. That evening specialist Foulke took the film and documents to the Chu Lai airbase and sent it to the Pentagon in a classified pouch on a Pan Am airfreight 707. The next day all four of us left the press camp and spent the week filming the ARVN training story in Nui Thanh. Then back to Tan Son Nhut to pick up the next list of assignments.
"The Vietnam War," directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, airing Sept. 17-21 and Sept. 24-28 at 7 each night.