Before the mid- 1965 build-up of American troops in the Vietnam War, it could be said with some degree of certainty that "the night belongs to the Viet Cong." But as the American offensive operations mounted, the enemy could no longer use darkness with impunity.
On any given night in Vietnam, American soldiers staged hundreds of ambushes, for the ambush is one of the oldest and most effective military means of hampering the enemy's nighttime exploits. Sometimes an ambush was used to provide security for a defensive position or a base camp, sometimes simply to gain information, and at other times to protect villages against enemy terrorists. During the night of 18 June 1967, ten infantrymen of the U.S. 196th Light Infantry Brigade set an ambush at a point sixteen kilometers south of Chu Lai, in Quang Ngai Province, in the hope of waylaying enemy terrorists. (See Map 1)
As part of Task Force OREGON, the brigade had been conducting offensive operations to assure the security of the Chu Lai base complex. To this end, the 3d Battalion, 21st infantry, was sending out patrols from a battalion base of operations ten kilometers south of Chu Lai and just north of the Song Tra Bong River, with the specific mission during daylight hours of looking for possible mortar or rocket sites that might pose a threat to the Chu Lai airstrip and at night of establishing ambushes near locations of suspected enemy activity. To accomplish its mission, the ad Battalion had divided its area of responsibility into company sectors, assigning to Company A a sector that included two hamlets, Phuoc An (1) and Phuoc An (2).
When a week's search had uncovered no mortar or rocket sites, the Company A commander decided to establish an ambush in the vicinity of the two hamlets. One of his patrols had heard screams and unusual commotion from one of the hamlets and, later, intelligence reports had indicated that aggressive patrolling just might turn up
INFANTRYMAN LOADING AN M79 GRENADE LAUNCHER
something significant. The local Viet Cong, operating in groups of five to twelve men, had been terrorizing villages in the area.
The ambush assignment fell to Company A's 2d Platoon. At 1000 on 18 June the platoon leader, 2d Lt. Truman P. Sullivan, ordered his 2d Squad leader, Sgt. (E-5) Lloyd E. Jones (since it was his turn) to lead the patrol and to use the two fire teams of his own squad. Later, at 1300, he gave the sergeant the details of the mission.
A graduate of the 25th infantry Division Ambush Academy and considered by many in the battalion a highly professional noncommissioned officer, Sergeant Jones was no stranger to ambushes. He, in turn, named his Fire Team A leader, Sgt. (E-5) Walter R. Nobles, who had been with the brigade since its arrival in Vietnam, as assistant patrol leader. All nine men of Jones's squad were to participate in the action, and for four of them it was to be their first firelight.
From a map study of the co-ordinates designated for the ambush
site, Jones determined that the rice paddy terrain in which he would be operating offered no significant tactical advantages to his force. He explained to the patrol members that it was "liable to be," as he put it, "a pretty hairy affair." Simply stated, their mission was to ambush and then capture or kill any enemy moving into the area.
Company standing operating procedure specified equipment to be carried. Each man was to take along four hand grenades. Seven of the fighters were to be armed with M16 rifles, two with M15 rifles that had been issued for test purposes, and two with M79 grenade launchers and pistols. The riflemen would have from 10 to 20 magazines apiece in varying mixes of tracer and ball ammunition, and the grenadiers, in addition to 3 extra pistol magazines, would pack between them 64 high-explosive rounds, 11 canister rounds, and 3 illumination flares. Sergeant Jones elected not to include an M60 machine gun in his arsenal, since three riflemen with ample ammunition, he believed, would provide him with the equivalent firepower without the strain on mobility that a machine gun would impose.
Jones also decided to take along 5 claymore mines, enough, he thought, to cover all trails in the vicinity of the ambush site; 3 smoke grenades; 2 flashlights; and a strobe light. The light was for signaling a medical evacuation helicopter if the need should arise. Spec. 4 Richard A. Jolin, the Team B leader, would carry an unmounted Starlight telescope, a night detection device. Each man would carry water, a first-aid packet, and a small towel for suppressing coughs and sneezes. No food would be taken. Soft caps rather than helmets would be worn. As patrol leader, Jones would have the only map of the area as well as the only compass, along with two star cluster signaling devices. Using a sketch, Jones explained to each man where his position would be and what he was to do. He passed out the patrol's radio frequency and call sign and instructed his men to be ready to move at 1900.
It was 1930 and still daylight when, having cleaned and testified their weapons, the ten infantrymen left the base camp perimeter in a squad column formation, fire teams abreast, Team A on the left and Team B on the right, forty meters apart. Sergeant Jones shot an azimuth with his compass and struck out directly on it for the ambush site, which was in plain view, 1,300 meters away to the southeast. Except for one small creek bed, it was flat open rice paddy all the way, with almost unrestricted observation. Since the dry season had just begun, movement was not difficult.
By 1955 the patrol had reached the staging area that Jones had designated, less than a hundred meters short of the actual site. Since he had never been there before, and because it was the way he
operated anyway, Jones moved forward for a better look with his team leaders, Nobles and Jolin, and his radio operator, Spec. 4 Jim Montgomery. What he saw confirmed his map reconnaissance.
It was a clear comfortable night, with the temperature in the mid-seventies, a gentle breeze, and a three-quarter moon. The ambush site the lieutenant had selected was slightly to the northeast of Phuoc An (1) and southwest of Phuoc An (2), in a rice paddy within five hundred meters of each hamlet. A trail connecting the two, with another branch splitting toward the southeast, ran through the paddy. West of the trail was a wood line and farther westward was a slight rise in the ground no more than twenty meters high that ran parallel to the trail. Contiguous to the trail was a trench which appeared not to have been used for some time, a fork of which intersected the trail almost at its juncture point. Underbrush on either side of it partially concealed the trench. The ambush site was also bounded on the south by the trail's southeasterly branch. A paddy dike running north to south further defined the location.
To Jones and his assistant, Nobles, the logical spot for the ambush was the trail junction. To avoid having a village at their backs, they chose positions in the northeastern angle of the junction, just inside the rice paddy. Jones positioned his men in four groups, two groups of two men and two of three men.
On the eastern flank he set one of his three-man groups as a security force. It included Jolin, whom he instructed to emplace two claymores along the trail, one covering the village situated to the southeast flank and the other twenty to thirty meters from his position, on the trail. With Jolin were Spec. 4 Victor M. Quinines, armed with an M79 grenade launcher, and Pfc. James H. Lee, who carried an M16 rifle. Jolin had also given the Starlight telescope to Lee, instructing him to check everything around the site in all directions.
Jones placed another three-man security force, commanded by Sergeant Nobles, on the right flank. Nobles set a claymore mine fifteen meters to the right front along the trail to cover his right flank. It was to be used only if the Viet Cong approached from the right, out of the wood line, or from the south on the trail. With Nobles were Pfc. Thomas L. Robinson, armed with an M16 rifle, and Pfc. Douglas G. Carter, a grenadier.
Pfc. Roy J. Grooms and Pfc. Vernon E. McLean, both M16 riflemen, composed the two-man team closest to Nobles' group. Grooms had the additional mission of providing rear security. For this purpose, he controlled a claymore mine, which was emplaced to the rear at the juncture of the two rice paddy dikes.
Sergeant Jones and Specialist Montgomery made up the command group. Both were armed with M16's and Jones had placed a claymore where it could cover most of the trail junction and trench, just two and a half meters away.
By 2010 the ambush party was ready, occupying a position that measured about forty meters from flank to flank with roughly six to eight meters between each group of men. (Map 7) Jones passed the word by radio to company headquarters.
The men had not long to wait. Less than forty-five minutes later Private Lee, scanning westward with his Starlight telescope, detected six men moving single file from the slight rise of ground eastward, directly toward the ambush killing zone. He alerted Jones, who could now see the men walking along in the moonlight, following the edge of the trench. As they continued toward the trail junction, talking and laughing, with no apparent regard for danger, the men in the ambush force tensed for action.
Three of the Viet Cong had already entered the killing zone when the entire group halted. The lead man, who was only a few feet from Sergeant Jones's position, said something and laughed.
Fearing the Viet Cong would detect the ambush, Jones quickly detonated his claymore. In a roar and a boiling cloud of thick, black smoke, the enemy point man disappeared. As the smoke cleared, Jones could see that the explosion had almost torn the man's legs from his body.
While Specialist Montgomery radioed to company headquarters that the ambush had been sprung, the other men in rapid response to the explosion of the claymore opened fire. From the right flank security position, Private Carter fired an M79 canister round at one of the enemy soldiers who, when the claymore exploded, had turned and bolted north along the trail. At a range of twenty meters, Carter missed. As the man disappeared into the wood line, Carter reloaded and fired again, eventually putting about seven rounds into the wood line.
Specialist Quinones, who was one of the eastern flank security force, had his back to the ambush when the firing began. He whirled about, grabbed his grenade launcher, aimed it at the killing zone, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Chagrined, thinking that he had failed to load the weapon during the excitement, he broke it open, verified that the canister round was properly seated, and aimed and fired again-with the same result. This time he reloaded with a fresh canister round and fired at the Viet Cong point man, who, even though he was dying, was trying to inch toward his submachine gun. At a range of only ten meters, Quinones nevertheless missed. The wounded Viet Cong continued to reach for his
weapon, finally retrieved it, and was trying to aim it when Montgomery fired an M16 burst into his right side, killing him.
The claymore explosion had also set off enemy fire from the rise of ground not more than twenty-five meters from the trail junction, and a submachine gun was sweeping the trail with sporadic bursts. From the right flank security position, Private Robinson took this weapon under fire with semiautomatic bursts from his M16. In the
adjacent two-man team, Private Grooms also fired one round at the Viet Cong machine gun, then followed the lead of Sergeant Nobles and began to throw hand grenades toward the muzzle flash.
Although contact with the enemy had been reported to higher headquarters, neither artillery nor mortar fire was employed. The rules of engagement set by the local village chief, which dictated that no artillery or mortar targets could be taken under fire within 1,000 meters of a hamlet, were firmly applied.
All enemy firing now stopped abruptly. Jones ordered one man of each team to go forward and police up. As Jolin moved toward Jones's position to volunteer to search the enemy dead, a grenade, American or enemy, exploded and a fragment struck him in the right arm. Undeterred, Jolin moved on into the killing zone, where he found Robinson policing the area. A quick search revealed only the gray-cotton uniformed body of the dead Viet Cong point man. Jolin dragged the body into the trench adjacent to the trail and removed a web belt, an M26 fragmentation hand grenade, and a bayonet, all American equipment. Robinson grabbed the enemy weapon, a Chicom 9-mm. submachine gun. Hearing a noise from the wood line next to the trench, Jolin fired a few rounds in that direction with no reaction from the enemy, who apparently had no stomach for continuing the fight. The two soldiers returned to the ambush position.
Mission accomplished, a pleased Sergeant Jones radioed his headquarters that he was coming in. Before leaving, he told Jolin to detonate one claymore and Nobles to blow his. Lest the Viet Cong send reinforcements to the ambush site, Jones pulled back 150 meters across the rice paddies before checking out his men. He then discovered that in addition to Jolin's wound from a grenade fragment, Nobles had taken a small arms round through the right shoulder. The condition of neither man was serious enough to warrant a call for medical evacuation.
The patrol reached the base camp a few moments before midnight. The return trip took much longer because Jones went more slowly on account of the two wounded and used a different route to avoid being ambushed.
Shortly after daylight the next morning the patrol returned to the ambush site, where the men discovered a second body. Further search turned up an American .45-caliber submachine gun and three full magazines, 120 rounds of ammunition, an M14 bayonet, some time fazes, and a Vietnamese-English dictionary. From bloody clothing found at the scene, Jones estimated that the patrol had probably killed two more of the enemy during the exchange.
There was no further sign of the Viet Cong.
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