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This memoir on the Vietnam War completed by Robert R. Amon Jr. is currently awaiting a publication date.

 

 

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Chapter 5

To Hell in a Handbasket

 

JUNE 9, 1969

Diary Entry:

Operation to WR179853.L Negative contact, except with one VC who was running away. But three civilians were killed and three wounded by our own U.S. gunships. Very bad day.diary

June 9th was a very bad day indeed. I left the outpost early with Binh and Sgt. McFadden (Mac). Hogan, Parson, and Winters were back at the teamhouse monitoring the radio and packing things for our move to Vĩnh Thanh. Someone ordered the use of five helicopters, including a pair of U.S. Army Cobra gunships. I had not been apprised of that decision, and the arrival of the heavy-duty gunships surprised me: I didn’t think we needed them.

The helicopters came in low and buzzed right over the top of us, raking fire into the woodline to our front. They looked menacing, obviously trying to elicit sniper fire. I was concerned about some Popular Forces we were using as point men and I didn’t want my black pajama-clad PFs being mistaken for VC and being shot by the now aggressive-maneuvering choppers. I searched for their frequency on my radio and finally found a major in charge. I told him of my concern and received a somewhat dismissive reply. He reminded me that he was in charge of the operation.

I decided it was safer for me to monitor the helicopters' frequency as opposed to staying on my own frequency with my men back at the teamhouse. By doing so, I had the option of switching back to our advisor frequency to reach Winters, who was monitoring our radio.

operationAt about 9:30 a.m., a solitary Vietcông in a distant woodline to my right began firing single shots at one of the UH-1D helicopters. The 398 Company opened up on him but couldn’t hit him because of the distance. We could see him running away for all he was worth; we tried to pick him off, but he jumped back into the thick jungle further up the woodline. The enemy soldier accomplished what he set out to do. He managed to shatter the Plexiglas on the front of the helicopter, which necessitated it’s return to Cần Thơ.

I was still listening to the conversations among all five helicopters. The ship flying back toward Cần Thơ reported to the commander that they had a “Whiskey India Alpha” on board (Wounded In Action). It later turned out that a speck of the Plexiglas was flying around in the wind on the inside of the helicopter and became lodged in the eye of the co-pilot. He was the “Whiskey” on board, the WIA.

Four choppers still remained on station at that point. They began pouring intense fire into that woodline. We knelt down in the middle of the open rice paddy and were afraid to go any closer. We were concerned for our own safety as the choppers buzzed and swarmed like angry bees overhead. I got back on my regular frequency to give Lt. Winters a “SITREP,” a SITuation REPort.

During that brief period of time, I lost track of the choppers, who were buzzing everywhere. The men flying them didn’t know the extent of their fellow pilot’s injuries; none of us did. They imagined all sorts of things, I’m certain. I finished up my conversation with Winters and started flipping channels to get back onto the frequency being used by the helicopter pilots.

While accomplishing that, I heard explosions and automatic weapons fire over toward Hóa Quản Village. I looked back over my right shoulder to see smoke rising from the open paddy west of the pagoda, and the same angry bees swarming over that area now. On the radio, I heard conversations amongst the pilots about "nailing" some Vietcông.

I checked back with Winters, who told me there weren’t any VC near the outpost, but that he was aware of a lot of helicopters shooting and exploding ordnance in the vicinity of the pagoda.

Winters and myself were wondering the same thing, given that our patrol had passed the pagoda while leaving Hóa Quản just a while ago. And we hadn’t encountered any enemy. What the hell was going on at the pagoda?

I got back on the helicopter frequency and got the major on the air, who was now obviously annoyed at my calling him for a second time on his own frequency, where I didn’t belong. I told him I had just combed the pagoda area on foot a short time ago and had not encountered any Vietcông. The only solitary sniper we already knew about was at our present location, which was considerably west of Hóa Quản Village. He gave me no reply.

I again keyed the handset and blurted, “What are you firing at by the pagoda, over?” “Roger, we’ve got Victor Charlie in the open here, over,” he replied, the noise of the whining engine in the background, accompanied by the whirp, whirp, whirp.

“That’s impossible,” I said. “We were just there a short while ago, and you’re too close to the village. Are you sure they are Victor Charlie, over?” I said.

“That’s a Rodge,” he replied (slang for Roger, meaning affirmative, or yes).

Binh was excitedly shaking my shoulder now. As I looked up, one of our PF platoon leaders was out of breath, telling Binh of something tragic, something gone terribly wrong, and he was pointing over toward Hóa Quản. The soldier had just come from there, running to us at a full clip across the open rice paddy.

Fear and disgust struck me as I heard Binh’s announcement: “Trung Úy, stop the shooting! Helicopters are shooting down civilian farmers at Hóa Quản! Must stop now!”

Now I had to have that major. By the time he answered his call-sign, the shooting had already stopped, probably because he himself had taken a closer look, maybe had some doubts, and decided to back off.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” I screamed, over his own frequency. “I have a problem with your targets. Do you copy, over?” With the rest of his pilots listening on the radio, he had no choice but to defend his position.

“They were Victor Charlie, over,” he said again.Operation

“I have an eyewitness right here who says they are civilian farmers from Hóa Quản,” I told him.

By now, he was pissed that a lieutenant on the ground, a know-nothing “ground-pounder,” would have the audacity to speak to a major this way on his own frequency, which was undoubtedly being monitored by his own pilots!

“Listen, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he accused. “And you’re not in charge! I am! And you don’t belong on my frequency!"

“Just don’t fire anymore, CEASE FIRE! I want to find out more about this,” I replied.

“Listen son, you don’t tell me Jack Shit! Got it? I’m in charge of this operation. Am I making myself clear, Lima Tango (LT)?” he screamed.

By now, others were arriving, pointing and telling Binh six men had been shot by the helicopters' rocket and machine gun fire. Some were members of our own People’s Self Defense Force, the ones we had worked so hard to train!

I completely lost it, and not giving two shits about how much the man outranked me, I blasted back into the mouthpiece:

“Listen, you fucking asshole," I shot into the handset, "I want to know your name. I’m going over there right now, and I want to see your fucking Victor Charlie for myself. And if they’re not, you’re in deep shit. You better hold your fire. I’ve got a lot of friendlies on the ground down here, and we’re going over there right now!”

“Fine,” he retaliated, “go see for yourself, dud. You’ll see they were VC. They even had rifles and ammo containers with them. But we’re oughta here anyway, and I intend to go back and fill out paperwork to have your God-Damned Ass Court-Martialed! ... OUT.”

I looked at Mac and he just replied with uplifted eyebrows. “Shit,” I said to myself, "I’d better be right." We beelined back over to the scene of the shooting with the Dai Úy.

The villagers were out at the edge of the rice paddy and thankfully, the helicopters were gone. Some of the men and women from the village related with tears streaming down their faces how the six farmers were out working in the open paddy when the helicopters went berserk. Three were dead, three were wounded.

I found the “weapons” the major had seen from the air. They were hoes. Hoes used to till the soil. They must have slightly resembled rifles from the air. I found the “ammunition containers” he referred to as well. They were fire-blackened cooking pots containing rice and crab meat which their wives had prepared for them that morning. The pots were still lined up in a row on the rice paddy dike to keep them warm in the early afternoon sun.

I stared at the “ammunition containers.” I walked around, dumbfounded. Mac couldn’t believe it either, shaking his head and mumbling. There were blood trails everywhere on the ground and blood-soaked rags laying in the water. Words cannot describe the sick feeling in my stomach. Suddenly, I was ashamed to be an American.

“Trung Úy,” Dai Úy Hoa was saying, “Chúng tói phi di, bây giò.” I knew what he said, but Binh reiterated that the Dai Úy said we must go back to the outpost now. I asked the Dai Úy about a medivac. I offered to call and ask for special permission in lieu of what happened. He told me the wounded were being taken to Rạch Giá by sampan, and the families had the three dead men at the pagoda now. He insisted through Binh that we leave now, go back to the outpost by circling back along the open rice paddy area instead of the most direct route: cutting through the village past the pagoda where the bodies were. I offered once more to call for a medivac. The answer was still no.Dai Uy and Me

“Trung Úy,” Binh said, “Dai Úy say we must go back now. Not safe here anymore for you. They no want anymore helicopters, want to be left alone. People in village very angry, Trung Úy. They think we do this. Dai Úy and I know you try to stop it. But people in village don’t know and right now you numba ten in village. Not safe here now, we must go. Not safe for you in village. Tell the other advisors.”

Mack and I followed Dai Úy Hoa as he skirted around the village on our way home. I remembered those M3 grease guns we had handed out in the village and the Dai Úy was thinking the same thing: armed villagers with a vengeance to assassinate us with those .45 caliber weapons could do it in seconds if we cut through the village.

It was a horrendous day for me. All of our efforts to date: the MEDCAP, the elections, helping the hamlet chief's father, building the school, protecting the village from the bad guys - all of it. It had all gone to hell in less than ten minutes.

JUNE 10, 1969 Diary Entry:

Night ambush with the company. Village off limits to the whole team.

Letter Home:

Dear Folks, Yesterday I went on an operation and it turned out to be the most discouraging day for me so far in Vietnam. Mac and I left the village with the 398 Company and 770 Company from Thời An. It was a big sweep with about 7 Vietnamese Companies involved plus the U.S. Navy river boats and Air Force Jets on call.

We left Hóa Quản and saw the air power pounding the area ahead. Then 2 helicopter gunships started chopping up the area right in front of us with rockets and machine guns. Our lead scouts were up there entering the woodline, so I called the helicopters. As I’m talking to him to tell him about our scouts, our PF platoon leader runs up and tells me the choppers wounded some civilians from our village.

The guy in the chopper said “the people had rifles and ran away suspiciously, so I shot them.” When I got back to the village there were 3 guys dead and they had no weapons.

An old woman came up to me and asked, “Why do the American helicopters shoot at a farmer who goes to the field to make rice?” I just said, “Khome biet,” (don’t know). Then she offered me a glass of water.

The thing that gets me is, I called up and Major Carney got on the radio and says, “Those people had rifles.” I know damned well they didn’t. When we walked back past the village none of the children followed us and yelled “Okay, number one” like they always do. I don’t think I’ll be going back into the village anymore because Doc and I will probably be the ones going into our new location 5 days from now.

Last Saturday we had another big joint operation and our old 168 rifle company killed 45 VC in an all-day firefight. The major up there didn’t believe one Vietnamese soldier when he told him he personally killed 1 VC, so the guy went back and loped off the Vietcong’s head, brought it back and dropped it on the front steps of the advisor’s headquarters. The 168 is still kicking tail.

Love, Bob

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