By Gordon Duff and Barry Wendell, originally from April 7, 2008
A reader dug this up and asked to contact Barry. The reader was there during this action. I had Carol look up Barry’s phone number, we don’t talk that often anymore and gave him a call, which lasted about an hour and a half, such things do. Barry was best man when Carol and I were married some two decades ago and he and Patty are doing fine.
So there I was, minding my own business, when everything I knew as normal went straight to hell. It was late march of ‘68 and we were called to take a mountain top where some other outfit supposedly just got thrown off. I’ve just recently learned it was the 173rd. Long helicopter ride; that after a long 130 ride. Other than outside of Kontoom, we hadn’t a clue.
Our platoon was in the first wave of choppers to enter the lz area. The lz was no more than a small clearing on a side-hill, only one chopper big. charlie was firing a 50 caliber at the choppers, but not until they were leaving. Weird. the small arms after we hit the mountain was aimed in another direction. it ain’t hard to tell when an AK is shooting at you. We had landed inside their perimeter and it confused them. instead of attacking them from the front, as they were ready for, we had landed behind them and moved immediately up the ridgeline. There was commo wire everywhere, antennas in trees…
Indian country. In the first 20 steps off the bird, I had already passed 5 poor mother’s sons waiting to be bagged up for the ride home. poor bastards, layin there dead. I wanted to take the time to at least cover their faces but whoever did this to them must still be around here somewhere. must have been one hell of a fight, as the artillery and bombing this place took was real evident. Willie Peter, aka white phosphorous, was in fragments everywhere. We trudged on along the ridgeline to what we ascertained to be the peak, where we began digging in.
Now, the WP fragments made this real interesting as every time the e-tool turned over some dirt, more WP would be exposed to the air and would flare up and stink like hell. Had to do it though, NVA all over the area.
They were letting us have the high ground for some reason, but any forays down in any direction drew immediate fire. More flights were coming in, the entire battalion would be unloaded on this mountain. As other companies unloaded and fanned out along this ridgeline, our perimeter grew considerably until we were holding the highest peak in the area rather comfortably, we thought.
Our platoon area was up next to the biggest tree I have ever seen. Huge. This poor, old tree had been battered and beat up by the air strikes and artillery and had a giant limb just sorta hangin in the breeze up about 150 feet. That first night we were dug in, but no bunker building had yet begun. Most guys just had a trench to sleep in. Big Head, Pete, Settan, Surf and me were camping not 20 feet from this tree, the front side of which was the outside of our part of the perimeter. Tough sleeping conditions anyway, knowing charlie was no more than 200 yards down the hill in any direction with the smell of death and napalm and WP everywhere. Nobody even took the time to blow up their air mattress, just layin’ in the dirt in a trench. At some point during the night a wind kicked up and during my watch it was blowing 15-20 mph.
This shattered limb was just swinging in the breeze, creaking as it swung back and forth on my watch. I stepped up next to the tree, hoping to blend in with it if anybody was watching. Leaning there, straining to see out into the moonlit night, wondering what the bad guys were doing, thinking about all the dead guys laying around the ridgeline, their families and friends. After just a bit it seemed as though something was on my head. I put my hand on top of my head and whatever it was it was bigger than my hand. To this day I assume it was a spider. In all truth, I don’t know what it was. I let out a little yelp, tried to toss whatever it was off me and took off running across the secure area our company was holding. 30-40 feet into my anxiety attack, I was tackled by somebody from the next squad over who had seen me up against the tree, then saw me “freak out.” As we hissed at each other about “shut-up” and such, it dawned on me that whatever it had been was gone. I was shaking and probably so white i glowed in the dark. I ask him if he had seen “it.”
Of course, he hadn’; it was 2:30 in the morning. After a few minutes of composing myself, we went back to our respective posts. But I wouldn’t get up next to that tree again. After my watch, I told whoever relieved me about the “monster” in the tree, and crawled into my trench for some sleep. Around 4 a.m. I was awakened by Pete, & he was saying “Gotta run NOW! Limb falling!”
As I looked up, it actually broke free from the trunk of the tree and was falling. I swear to God, it was like a Hitchcock movie being on this mountain! Big Head was right next to me in his trench.
I gave him a punch in the ribs to wake him and said “Go, go, go!” Then I made about four steps before this thing hit the ground. It was 2 feet through at the big end with a big swale in it, probably 40 feet long, with other smaller limbs broken and blown off from the airstrikes and artillery. One of the other blown off stumps, if you will, was about 2/3 of the way through this swale. It stuck 3 feet into the ground not 5 feet from Big Head, with the swale going up and over him, to where it was stuck some 3 feet in the ground on the other side of him.
There laid poor old Big Head, with this giant fucking limb stuck in the ground on both sides of him, and it had made a terrible CRUNCH/THUMP when it hit the ground and he’s not saying anything.
The whole platoon is awake and into it by now and we’re all just standing around looking down at Big Head and he says, “Can we all just go to sleep now?”
He had just lay there and watched this huge limb that surely would have killed him had it hit him, and he was a little put out that it was interrupting sleep!
It took the guys several tries to blow that tree away in the days that followed. I would love to talk with other guys from other outfits on that hill that night as to their memories of that mountain.
I doubt if my chronology will be worth a shit but i will recount some other things from that particular vacation spot. We stayed there several weeks, built a hell of a firebase and lz. Ended up with a 4.2 platoon and then they really teased Charlie with a quad .50. I’ve even seen pictures from after we left when they turned it into a 105 mm firebase. Great idea. My memories of that place are as “medivac mountain,” as I swear to God we didn’t go more than two days without a dust-off in the 4 weeks or so that we were there. We even had two guys from A or B comp get in a fist fight. The loser fell over a log onto other debris and broke his back! That fucking mountain would just eat people!
A week or so into this foray, we had a pretty good bunker system ringing our mountaintop. Things hadn’t changed as far as Charlie goes. He really didn’t like us going more than just a couple hundred yards down in any direction. Amazingly, it seemed we could go back & forth along the ridgeline and he didn’t really mind. Some nites we could hear him out there on the ridgeline we had walked that day, hacking at trees and such, digging. The direction our company seemed to be responsible for showed signs of “improvements” almost daily. More foxholes, pre-dug graves, markings on trees made with machetes…It just looked like Charlie was setting something up, but how do you destroy a hole in the ground or a mark on a tree? This went on for weeks. No contact along the ridgeline, plenty down the hill.
Then one afternoon, the 4.2 guys were on a fire mission that seemed to go on for hours. Our squad bunker was actually the closest to the 4.2 pits. It was decent enough weather, no activity in the immediate area, we were pretty relaxed, layin around writing letters, finishing up another layer of sandbags here or there, many of us (me) even barefoot. I was leaning up against our bunker watching the 4.2 guys, as that really was my MOS. They had a good routine going except they were supporting a platoon that had taken fire so they were really pumping the rounds through them tubes. Some of the charge bags had slid back into this one pit. Sure enough, I watched as a cinder came floating out and got on some of the loose charges laying around and before anybody could do anything about it, a group of charges went off next to a case of H-E rounds. Then that case broke open and more charges started going off, more rounds started going off, semi-naked people are running for their lives.
I dove into the next bunker, finding it already full, more H-E going off not 40 feet from us. I jumped up out of that bunker, trying to get to the next one maybe another 15 feet away. It’s full too. Then the WP cases of 4.2 ammo joined in the party. Barefoot, no shirt, no weapon, no radio, no fucking nothing, and I was running from bunker to bunker looking for someplace safe. As a case of those rounds would go off, and scatter, now rounds are exploding from different directions. Shrapnel whistling through the trees we’re hiding behind, WP going off and creating more fires, involving the whole batteries ammo bunker. That night and the next, we had 14 rifles and two radios for a whole company of men. We lost everything: weapons, radios, personal belongings, clothes, helmets. Needless to say, Charlie stayed away from that mountain top for awhile! Probably thinking: “These crazy fucks will even blow themselves up!”
I remember the paperwork that ensued to replace all the weapons and gear. Like we sold the shit or something. The first thing that got to us, the red cross actually sent paper, envelopes and pens so we could write home as nobody wanted to have blanks in a writing schedule or the people back home would get real nervous. but it was at least three days before any choppers could get to us without worrying about our own stuff knocking them down. Medivac mountain. Nice spot.
I honestly don’t remember any casualties from that other than some burns from the guys actually in the pit that started it and some WP burns here and there. No, there were a few guys with shrapnel wounds but they just had to tough it out with the rest of us until a chopper could get in.
It was days! All I had on was my pants. Nights got plenty chilly, we’re a mile high. Other comps around the perimeter chipped in as they could, but you know ain’t nobody giving up a radio or their gun! We gathered up enough poncho liners to get through the nights, plenty of ham and little motherfuckers (lima beans) were donated to us, and after a few days of tension, things calmed down, EOD guys went in and took care of things and life as we knew it on “Medivac Mountain” sorta returned to “normal.”
I would love to hear Charlie’s side of this story, as he surely had to be as nervous as we were because nobody knew when or where the next round would go off, or what kind of round it would be.
It was Easter Sunday, as I remember it. A Company or B Company, or maybe both, had gone over the side and got quite a ways down their side of the mountain when they were horseshoe ambushed. It was a horrible mess. Lots of WIAs and KIAs. Some of us were sent down to help carry the needy and the lost back up the hill. It was raining steadily. We needed at least one hand to help just getting yourself up the hill. Slipping. Horrible. I personally had a guy die before me and Big Head could get him up far enough for a dust-off to get him.
Dust-off pilots made some really heroic efforts to get in close enough, trimming trees with their main rotors. just had to go all the way up to our perimeter before it would work. We made three trips, as i recall. Up and down that God-forsaken mountain in the rain. Nobody I “helped” made it out alive. Miserable. I haven’t had a good Easter Sunday in 32 years because of that day. Again, would like to talk to some other guys that were on that hill at that time. I recently have made contact with a couple of guys from my platoon. They have very vivid remembrances of our own problem on April 15th, but none of them, except Big Head, seem to remember the problem A and B had a week or so before us. Hang in there, we’re gonna get to April 15th…
Not long into our stay, maybe 10 days, a lt. dewitt from the first platoon of D co, i think, took a squad & an f/o(forward observer) out on the ridge, all the way to the next high point on the ridgeline. they were there to allow the f/o to get some coordinates, bring in a few illumination rounds & a few h-e rounds for when we were gonna be out there in trouble. everybody knew it would come, just didn’t know when. anyway, second h-e round doesn’t clear the trees, these poor bastards take an arial burst damn near directly over them. lt dewitt lost an arm up to the elbow. listened to him on the radio tellin capn d’avignon “my arms gone!” they were very close. medivac mountain, what a spot. & we ain’t been there 2 weeks. several to go. this seems to be turning into a novel. wasn’t supposed to. just lookin for some closure.
i remember one afternoon, things had been almost calm for a couple of days, cleaning weapons, writing letters, gassing with the guys, off on another ridgeline, we can see charlie sending some 122 rockets into fsb popcorn, or polei klang or whatever it was called. helpless feeling. we were many miles away, tried to get to the artillery guys at polei klang on the radio with our f/o for some return fire. before anything could be set up, we knew charlie had split. damn shame. down the ridgline away from our area, maybe 1 klick, we had a smaller one company “perimeter”. it’s name came to be lz incoming. we could watch daily as those guys got mortared & rocketed. in one 3 day period, they took over 300 mortar rounds. incoming. same ridgline. when a company would “rotate “ back to the “security” of lz milehigh, they would have to be choppered back & forth. so many enemy between us & that little peak that we couldn’t walk it. i don’t even remember anyone trying.
at some point on this peak, i took over platoon radio. what a blessing! seriously, that prc25 ended up eventually getting me out of the field. sorta. that’s another story. swear, 2 daze later they changed our call-signs. now, i kinda been after the radio, had the call signs down! that day, we went out on a patrol. we actually used some of the tunnels thru the brush that the nva had made. didn’t know another way to get out on the ridgeline. way too thick to cut our own way. not much doubt who built these trails. closest village was maybe 8 miles.
8 miles of impassable brush, bamboo, & three or four canopy forrest. except for these trails. just past the last crouched down passage, it was real evident that we had movement in the bamboo & brush on both sides of us. 2 platoons of us as i recall. 35-40 guys. we snuck down the ridgeline a couple hundred meters, still got movement on both sides. there’s either a whole bunch of ‘em or they’re stalking us. nobodies shooting, we’re being as quiet as 40 guys in full battle gear can be. goin slow. never have figured out why they let us have the higher ground. this “movement” is only maybe 20’ off the trail we’re on. can’t see a thing. cudn’t get permission to fire without being able to identify a target. we went out there, several hundred meters & back with nva on both sides of us & nobody fired a round. coming back thru the brush-tunnels, i couldn’t remember the new call signs. shit-house rumor wuz there were either too many of us for what they had set up, or not enuf of us for what they had set up. either way, it was a temporary reprieve.
april 15th, 1968. three platoons of C co. went out on the ridgeline . out there amongst the foxholes & marked trees, they got ambushed. professionally. as soon as they got pinned down & counted up their casualties, we got the word we were going in to help. saw & did some absolutely incredible things that day! we were almost accustomed to being shot at. and skirmishes that turned into firefights had happened b4, but that day, on that mountain, the nva really impressed me. honest, i had been led to believe we were fighting a bunch of black pajama clad rebels that dug bungy pits & such. even shot at ya now & then. our time around lz baldy was mostly that kind of stuff. now & then catch 3 to 5 uniformed guys half steppin. but on medivac mountain, i learned first hand that this was a well outfitted, well trained, very disciplined army of tenacious fighters.
when they were ready, the nva was an awsome fighting machine. we lost our capn, & 2 good lts. that day, plus a bunch of troops. at one point, i found myself next to our f/o. i’d already heard on the radio that all the other officers had gone down. i told the f/o that he must be in charge as nobody else was left. 2-0 was still out there, but had lost his rto so we didn’t know he was still with us. we had slick gunships above us, had phantoms above them. cudn’t get our position positively located. i personally popped 7 smoke grenades, took a few from guys around me that didn’t need them anymore, f/o threw 2, somebody else threw a couple. none of the smoke made it thru the canopies of the forest. i’ll never forget the look on th f/o’s face as he said “ then let’s get the fuck outa here!” easier said than done.
i remember not being able to crawl past some poor wia or worse’s gun without picking it up & running all the ammo i could find thru it. as i passed a prc25, i shot the shit out of it. i got back to the perimeter with 4 m16’s that day. i don’t think i had any ammo left but i wasn’t gonna leave those weapons out there. hell, my daddy was a marine all my life, i cudn’t believe we were leaving guys out there! once we got to the last of the brush tunnels, we let the jets have the ridgeline from our perimeter as far as they wanted to go. it was impressive to watch but i swear i’ll bet the nva guys had a plan & missed most of that show. the sick feeling from going by somebody who had been in-country a week, another guy had been “camping” with us for some time. just laying there, junk. i’m told that war is an acronym(or whatever) for without any rules.
don’t know for sure if that’s so. ask lt. calley. another story. the hardest thing for me to imagine is if just one of those guys we left out there wuz still alive. overall an unforgettable day. i keep seeing the point man taking a b40 in the chest & just turning inside-out. the screaming & yelling. the variety of weapons on rapid fire from every direction. watching as guys were just plain picked off by them fuckers in the trees. originally had the f/o, the white knight (2 nd platoon 2nd lt), capt d’avignon, & another rto behind that rock with me. except for the f/o & me, they all just sorta wandered off & got shot. i had 5 chi-com grenades laying around the rock i used for cover while trying to organize our “attack to the rear”. don’t know why they didn’t go off. that wud’ve taken one of only 2 or 3 radios that were left, & one of the last officers.
ugly. cap’n d’avignon said he saw the guy throwing the grenades, but he was such a bad thrower, he let him be for fear he would be replaced with a guy that could hit what he was throwing at. the emotions a guy goes thru at a time like that. you’re bad, you want to kick “charles” ass! you want the action! then the bad guys get ya dead to rites, and the excitement, fear, & adrenaline, are incredible! the absolute terror! the insecurity of our perimeter really hit me after we did get back to it. my god, there was definetly enuf of them to really tear us up if they chose. it would be interesting to know the nva side of this time period. damned interesting. try to get your weapon cleaned up as fast as possible. get around a little bit to see who was still with us. trying to verify who got left out there. that is still a very sour taste in my mouth.
should have brought everybody out. need some closure on that, too. a medic that had been there about 2 days was gone. by the time i got back to the perimeter, most of the wounded were gone. lt. esprit took over as c o. seems to me him & the white knight were the only officers left. white knight took the time to put his white gloves on before we got into it heavy. still had them on when we got back to the perimeter. like many of us, he had a m-16 at each shoulder backing up the trail, screaming to get going, keeping us sorta together as a fighting unit. i think i went thru more m-16 ammo that day than all the rest of my field time totaled. i had carried the m79 up till taking the radio. just slamming those magazines thru them guns. had plenty of bandoliers.
i felt no more comfortable inside the perimeter than outside. the perimeter was big. they cud hit it by accident. outside the perimeter was their territory. go out there & step in another bucket of shit. never been that insecure before that day, nor since. wanting to clean my weapon, afraid to disassemble it for fear the nva would choose that time to come on in. trying to find out who-all we had still with us, who had already left on dust-offs. who we had left out there. the end of religion. the absolute end of innocense. i had a wardy surfboards logo inked onto my helmet cover. on it were the letters FTW. F–k the world. this was not real life, why live it like it was? it was never more true or fitting than on that mountain. i left hell on 22 dec, ‘68. had my mind made up to be home for christmas. 8 months before that, i didn’t believe there was a christmas. i couldn’t believe that an all seeing, all knowing, “supreme” being could let different branches of the same species treat each other like that. no way. it was all a sham.
or this wasn’t really happening. both couldn’t happen. couldn’t have the supreme being in charge. not if this is the way he thinks we should treat each other. bullshit! got to reevaluate some very basics. irreverance became the order of the season. no reason for them poor bastards to be laying out there dead. none of them. we knew we killed a bunch of the nva that day. no number of them was worth the terrible price we paid! between charlie company & delta: 9 dead, 48 wounded.
worse, upon getting back & taking stock of things, we found a guy who had decided it was too scary to go out there. when the rest of us saddled up, he went into his bunker & stayed there. ass hole should still be in that bunker. lt. espirit sent the ass hole away on the next thing smoking. we were about to kill him. what made him special? “we” were going out on that ridgeline. more than one reason to spend all that money & all those lost days trying to forget 15 1/2 lousey months. just no way to rationally catagorize behavior like this. any of it! it just didn’t make sense. it changed more than just my life.
and this was one month out of 15 1/2. … going back out there 3 daze later to retrieve those poor bastards, again we had movement on both sides, no shots fired. seemed that as long as we went no further than our dead, gathered them up, checked a few graves from the nva guys & left, that the nva was ok with that. professional. incredibly, the weapons that we did leave behind were still laying there. whole bandoliers of usa ammo just laying around. these guys had a re-supply system so good they didn’t even want our stuff. as i recall, the radio i shot up real good was still layin there but 2 others had been run off with. larry sloan, a black guy that had been around the company since before i joined them, had been stripped naked. robert grant had been dragged away from where i had last seen him during our retreat. our dead were all puffed up from the heat, maggots oozing from the death wounds. as we picked up sloan, half his head fell off & the maggots just came pouring out. we had tried wearing our gas masks as the smell was awful! there is a real difference in smell between a dead vietnamese & a dead GI. when sloan began to decompose in our hands, we had to take off the gas masks due to the retching & puking. what had been 4 good men were reduced to garbage. now & then i get that smell in my nose. sometimes it lasts a few days, other times it lasts for weeks. every breath reminds me of that day. I’ll also never forget the way the guys fell apart in the body bags as we carried them back to our perimeter. you could feel & hear them coming apart in those bags.
research done in the years 1999 & 2000 reveals we had indeed landed on the nva’s communications antenae mountain, right in the center of their corps hq & a division hq, with regimental hq’s scattered around the general area. depending on who’s numbers you use, there were somewhere around 1800 good guys literally surrounded by somewhere between 12,000 to 60,000 nva. a major offensive against polei kleng & kontum had been broken-up. all commanding officers, platoon leaders, even lt col taylor have told me that no one knew how strong the enemy forces in the area were at the time. one clue should have been that they were able to throw the 173rd airborn off! all of this is within just a few miles from lz albany & lz x-ray where the 1st cav got anihalated 2 1/2 yrs before us. wasn’t anybody paying attention? i guess that is redundant, as giap had already written a book on exactly how the taking of south vietnam by the north was going to take place & why. it may have taken longer than giap & the others thought, but eventually it came down just as the man had written. but that should be no mystery. our own gov’t analyzed what was going to happen & even foresaw our defeat/retreat years before the build-up in 67-68. didn’t keep mcnamara & his band of fuking idiots from blundering in. we lost over 100,000 people over there. our own gov’t won’t even tell us the truth about that.
so, there you have the ramblings of one guy remembering one month.
Barry Wendell lives in California and is a 100% Combat Disabled Veteran.
11 years later, he is still here, now in the process of rebuilding a Ford Ranchero to go with his El Camino.
Gordon Duff is a Marine combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He is a disabled veteran and has worked on veterans and POW issues for decades. Gordon is an accredited diplomat and is generally accepted as one of the top global intelligence specialists. He manages the world’s largest private intelligence organization and regularly consults with governments challenged by security issues.
Duff has traveled extensively, is published around the world, and is a regular guest on TV and radio in more than “several” countries. He is also a trained chef, wine enthusiast, avid motorcyclist, and gunsmith specializing in historical weapons and restoration. Business experience and interests are in energy and defense technology.