Typhoon Kate and the flying Noah’s Ark
The CAP 2 AO was bordered on the south by the Song (river) Thanh Quit, and on the west by a broad swamp that became a virtual lake during the monsoon season. The South China Sea lay only a few klicks to the east, and most of our territory was only a few feet above sea level. The storm surge and rain of a major typhoon guaranteed heavy flooding.
Unfortunately, we didn’t know any of that in those days. All we knew was the clouds got dark and low and it began to rain and blow. The rain got heavier and the winds got wilder. Finally the trees were cracking the whip, and the rain was roaring by in sideways sheets. Thick stands of bamboo creaked and groaned in the gale.
Rick “Doc” Doggett remembers trying to sleep on a grave mound in the torrential rain during the first night of the storm. “Every time I actually fell asleep, I would roll off into the cold water,” Doc said. “After a few hours of that, I said ‘to hell with it’ and just stayed in the water for the rest of the night.” By morning the Vietnamese villagers were barricaded in their houses. After surveying the screaming wind and rising water, we joined them.
We were pretty cosy at first, hanging our clothes to dry and heating water and food on the family hearth. But the rain was falling at an amazing rate, hour after hour, and the water in the rice paddies kept rising. None of us Marines had ever seen anything like it. The rain beat so hard against the corrugated tin roof, that it was hard to talk — sometimes impossible.
We watched as the rice paddies disappeared under water, then the dikes between the paddies and then the footpaths beside the paddies. The rainswept brown water inched across the courtyard to the steps of the house we were sitting in.
I think it was then we decided to move to higher ground — a house beside the raised berm of Highway 1. Donning our gear and shouldering our weapons, we waded, heads bent, through the pounding rain, gingerly feeling our way through water that was still only knee deep on most of us. Our short, slender Vietnamese troops were sometimes up to their waists.
Our new haven was a solidly built masonry and concrete house with a tile roof fronting on Highway 1. We moved in, buying ourselves a few hours, and the storm continued to roar through the night. By morning, the flood was lapping at the foundations and looking west through shrouds of rain we saw mainly rooftops and treetops, and an occasional boat.
A few hours later we were clambering on top of furniture and chinning ourselves into our hosts’ rafters among the tobacco leaves hanging there to dry. A couple of feet of water ebbed and flowed in the house. At one point I remember looking down and seeing a 5-foot, black snake swimming powerfully across the room. That caused a lot of excitement and speculation that it was a cobra. The snake soon swam out the door and disappeared.
Doc also recalls seeing rats swimming around, and “… perching on top of a big stack of mud/straw disks where it was dry and you could actually lie down, almost like on a stack of hay bales.”
The radio hissed and word came that a chopper was on its way to airlift us to higher ground. Half-reluctantly we clambered down into the cold, dirty water and slogged out again into the rain.
Trouble is, by that time the water was deep, even on Highway 1 — the highest ground for miles. I remember standing in water up to my breastbone, and I was 6-feet-1. And the water was moving. Small waves and invisible currents tugged us in all directions, carrying litter and debris. Our short-statured RF troops were most in danger of being swept away and drowned. The fear showed plainly on their faces. We supported them the best we could and, at one point I had RFs clinging to my back and both arms. At least all the weight reduced our chances of being swept away.
A CH-53 helicopter orbited overhead and the call came to mark our position. The chopper circled lower, but saw no place to land near our group — 30-35 men huddled together on the submerged roadway.
Finally the pilot eased his truck-sized bird into a hover and slowly let it sink until his rear ramp was only a few feet above the water. His turbines whined and the huge rotors roared at something close to full power. Spray flew in all directions. We waded forward, and tried to climb aboard by a “rope” ladder that hung over the ramp. The ramp itself surged up and down as the pilot fought wind gusts to stay in place. Sometimes the ramp was 10 feet overhead and other times it actually touched the water.
I tossed my M-16 onto the chopper and helped thrust a heavily laden man up onto the ramp where he was dragged aboard by chopper crewmen. Another man managed to clamber aboard despite being burdened by many pounds of waterlogged gear. The “rope” ladder was actually made of thin steel cable, with solid aluminum rungs.
One of our smallest men, the Chieu Hoi Gia, was struggling on the ladder when a strong gust of wind staggered the chopper. Fighting for control, the pilot applied full throttle and lifted away, roaring up a hundred feet in a few seconds. And there was Gia clinging to the swaying ladder in mid-air, 20 feet below the chopper. We watched anxiously as the chopper made a couple of orbits at several hundred feet, fearing the small bundle would come tumbling down at any second.
Then the pilot spotted a “dry” patch of Highway 1 the size of a living room, near the river bridge a few hundred meters away. He radioed that he was going to land there. We watched from a distance as he gingerly hovered, then slowly landed — careful not to put Gia down too hard. Meanwhile, the rest of us began slogging down the red line towards the chopper, half-dragging our smaller comrades.
“Doc” was inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than me. He estimates the walk to the chopper was at least a klick, “… and it seemed like miles.” He also recalls some of our team “… jettisoning anything that was too heavy, like ammo, claymores, grenades, etc., to make it easier to walk.” During that trek I began to feel naked without my M-16, so I drew a .45 I was carrying for someone, and I waded along looking like John Wayne. If there were any VC nearby, it’s likely they were more worried about surviving the typhoon than killing us. But paranoia is never out of place in a combat zone, so I kept the .45 in my hand. It occurred to me then that I was having what my civilian self would have considered an “adventure.” It also happened that I was cold, wet, tired, hungry and in imminent danger of drowning.
The water shallowed as we approached the LZ, and loading was easy with the CH-53 motionless on “dry” land. We got aboard quickly, joined by a dozen Vietnamese civilians from our ville. Some of them clutched chickens or ducks under their arms. I was reunited with my M-16 and Gia, bedraggled but breathing. Moments later we lifted off and headed south, to be deposited for several days of rainy boredom at a sea of mud called “LZ Baldy.”
“Once at LZ Baldy,” Doc says, “we got to take showers and then got thrown out of several of the enlisted men’s clubs. We ended up being barred for the duration of our stay.”
Doc thinks LZ Baldy was HQ for the 6th Regiment, 1st Marine Division. The Command Chronology for that month says we “received outstanding support” from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines at Baldy. I remember the REMFs considered us CAP Marines an unwelcome pain in the ass — and an unplanned drain on their supplies of food, soda and beer. I described our chilly “welcome” at LZ Baldy in a letter to my parents dated Nov. 2.
It wasn’t all bad at LZ Baldy, though. We saw a USO show, and I found a large ammo bunker that was left unguarded and unlocked. It was stuffed with C-4, det cord, TNT and other goodies for making loud noises. I helped myself and we cooked with C-4 through our visit to the rear and for many days afterwards. I also stole a nifty little wooden box designed to hold 10 blasting caps, each in its own little felt-lined slot. I had been carrying my blasting caps in the cardboard box they came in, stuffing in toilet paper to keep them from banging around. I still have that little wooden box.