A perfect ambush — Nov. 10, 1970
Although CAP 2 often patrolled there in the daytime, we rarely set up night ambushes in the hamlet of An Tu. The small cluster of houses, outbuildings and treelines was on the western edge of our area of operations — far from the support of our neighbors in CAPs 2-7-4 and 2-7-1. The hamlet was also surrounded with open areas — rice paddies and grave mounds — that made it hard to approach undetected and harder to retreat from if attacked by a superior force.But An Tu was picked for our night ambush on Nov. 10, 1970 — coincidentally the 194th birthday of the Marine Corps. We thought the hamlet was used as a Viet Cong rendezvous and storage area, and we wanted to challenge VC control of the area. CAP 2-7-1 joined us for the operation, effectively doubling our strength.
We waited until the last minute to notify our South Vietnamese soldiers of our plan to visit An Tu. We feared loose lips, or active subversion, among our RFs would endanger the plan. The RFs were reluctant when they heard of our destination, but their officer prevailed and they began to put on their gear.
Marching single file, we moved out at dusk, soon replaced by a moonless night with low clouds. Walking single file, it took a long time for our combined unit to reach An Tu. We used a wandering route with many stops and starts intended to keep any observers unsure of our destination. Once or twice we were forced to stop and wait for RFs who got separated from the main body.
When they realized they were lost, our RFs sometimes crept ahead in what they hoped was the right direction, stopping to whisper cautiously at shadows that might be their friends. Other times they strode along quickly, speeded by fear and hoping not to be shot by mistake.
Reaching An Tu around 8:30 p.m., we set up our night position around a small house near the middle of the hamlet. The house was set in a clearing surrounded by a fence-like barrier of trees, thorn bushes and bamboo. There were rice paddies on the north and west; more houses and underbrush on the south and east. A broad, dirt footpath — An Tu’s main “street” — skirted the north side of our position.
We set up the CAP 2 watch position on the north side of the site, where a gap in the tree line gave access to the footpath. CAP 1 and the RFs set up watch sites on the south and east sides of the compound.
Ken Duncan and I took the first watch, dragging a narrow wooden bench into the deep shadows of the gap facing the footpath and north across the rice paddy. Dunc set his M-60 on the ground between us, his .45 on his hip, while I sat with my M-16 across my lap. We talked quietly to pass the time.
Very few minutes had passed when a dog began barking in a house across the rice paddy directly in front of us. I remembered that dog. He barked at us each time one of our day patrols walked past. I hushed Dunc, and knelt on one knee, flipping my M-16 from ‘Safe’ to ‘Auto.’
“Listen!” I whispered.
Dunc was amused by my sudden alertness.
“How long you been in country, boot?” he chuckled.
I didn’t answer because I was peering into the dark. Moments later I saw movement on the trail across the rice paddy in front of us. The movement solidified into three figures walking quickly toward us in single file. I watched the three shadowy figures as they followed the footpath on a wide curve around the paddy to our right, getting closer and closer.
I thought the hurrying figures were RFs who had gotten lost during our unusually long, disjointed movement to An Tu. But my instincts kept me alert, uncertain. Dunc and I remained silent and motionless as they got closer — the first two only a few feet from each other, the third man about 10 meters behind them.
Finally the leader drew even with us and, instead of continuing straight down the trail, turned abruptly left toward us in the gap. A second later, he saw me kneeling in the deep shadows in front of him and stopped abruptly, barely three feet away.
“Doh!” he exclaimed in a low voice, meaning “Fuck!” in Vietnamese. Then he turned casually as if to say something to the second man, who had come to a halt by his left shoulder. As he turned I saw the distinctive triangular front sight of his AK-47 silhouetted against the sky and I pulled the trigger. A stream of bullets ripped into the first two men, interrupted by the loud blast and orange flash of an explosion. As my M-16 continued to fire, I swept the muzzle down the trail toward the third man. In three seconds I was holding an empty rifle.
Then, at the same moment, Dunc and I leaped to our feet and dashed back into our perimeter.
“GOOKS! GOOKS!” I shouted. “I GOT SOME!” and I knelt facing the shadowy gap in the tree line, fumbling desperately to load a new magazine.
In seconds, CAP leader “Willie” Williams came running out of the darkness, his rifle at the ready.
“WHERE ARE THEY?” he shouted to me. “HOW MANY?”
“THREE,” I shouted. “TWO ARE HIT!” I assumed I had missed the third man.
Other Marines came pelting up as Willie and I crept cautiously back toward the gap in the tree line. Looking through, we saw two bodies lying a couple of feet in front of Dunc’s machine gun. Then several of us rushed through the gap and found the third VC lying about 10 meters down the trail, dead. We put up flares and quickly searched the area, finding nothing more.
Several of us were standing near the first two bodies after the search, when the lead VC gave a slight groan.
“Somebody finish ’em off,” Willie said. I stepped up and fired a short burst into the lead man, aiming for his heart. Then I fired a longer burst into the second man before emptying the rest of my magazine into the lead man.
Dunc had minor shrapnel wounds in one hand. The second VC had been carrying four B-40 anti-tank rockets on his back. My bullets passed through his body and set one off, giving Dunc his second Purple Heart.
We found AK-47s with the first and third VC, but no weapon with the second body. That mystery was solved the next morning by an RF who rolled up his pants and went wading in the flooded rice paddy next to the ambush site. He found the B-40 rocket launcher in the muck.
It was a rare, clear-cut victory in the shadowy, frustrating war we fought every night with the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies. Night after night our enemy contacts consisted of a single grenade or a few bursts of rifle fire exchanged in the dark, followed by a careful, often fruitless search of the area by the wavering light of flares. If we found a trail of blood, an abandoned weapon or pack, we counted it a victory. Often we found nothing.
Our war in the villages was a nickel-and-dime war, though just as deadly as the big operations that got newspaper headlines. Our targets were not large bodies of troops, because there were no such things. We hunted VC traveling singly or in twos and threes, hunting us in turn, each waiting for the other to make a mistake.
That’s why I was elated to get three VC and their weapons with one burst. That and the fact that the ambush could easily have gone the other way. The VC point man had his rifle aimed at my head from three feet away. All he had to do was pull the trigger, but he hesitated, giving me a second to figure out he wasn’t an RF.
CAP 2 usually moved after any enemy contact that revealed our location. But after that ambush, for some reason, we elected to remain in our original position. Later that night I was back sitting on the narrow wooden bench, standing watch alone.
From where I sat, I could see the bodies of the three VC, tumbled into the ditch across the footpath from our watch position. By then I had begun to feel melancholy, reflecting on how much I had in common with my dead enemies. Their government ID cards said two of them were 19, my age, while the third was 18. At that point, I certainly had more in common with the average VC than I had with my high school classmates attending college, or starting their lives back in the States.
Still, it was better to be alive and feeling somewhere between happy and sad, than dead and feeling nothing.
The next morning we hauled the three bodies to the red line where they laid on the shoulder most of the day as a warning to their comrades, then they were buried by the people of our ville.
Willie, our CAP leader, left that day for some minor surgery at 1st Med Battalion, so I was tapped to attend a CAP leaders’ meeting at 7th CACO where I was asked to tell the story of “my” ambush to a group of my peers and the CO.