By Denis Chericone
After I left the north, I was beyond weary. The Siege had taken more than I had. At SF headquarters, the young lieutenant in charge of replacements had been at Khe Sanh for awhile. I didn’t recognize him at first as he wore a clean outfit, but he gave me a friendly, “Hi, Kid,” and then it all clicked. We caught up for a bit and then he asked me where I wanted to go. I asked him to send me somewhere no one else wanted to go. Happily, he complied with a “Got just the place,” and I wound up heading for an A-Team in the Highlands near the Cambodian border. I considered anywhere but Khe Sanh a soft landing.
The Highlands were Montagnard country, lush and rough. There were two large tribes living in the area of the camp: the Rhade (Rah-day) and Jerai, and both were our allies. Around this time, the enemy presence in most of the Highlands was only periodically ferocious, and it would require them to muster a major effort to subdue the Yards living there. They usually laid low, making certain their units escaped detection on their way to more vital objectives further south. Occasionally, though, it became really noxious. If an A-Team was thorough, effective, and managed to catch them when they were vulnerable, the Team then became the enemy objective. A-camps took it for granted that they were marked, and most any border camp was on some NVA hit list.
As our helo contoured the mountains, I felt myself getting excited. I’d been told there were twenty thousand or so Rhade and Jerai living in the bush around the camp. The SF medic responsible for their welfare had gone home, and there was no one to take his place. I was relieved. I could now help people out with a minimum of blood getting in the way.
The camp was in the middle of nowhere. As I looked out from the helo the place seemed to pop out of the bush. The usual: a couple of flimsy prefab buildings, a lookout tower, automatic weapons bunkers, and access trenches. The dispensary, marked with a red cross, sat at the edge of the camp near the entrance. It was all a coarse cut and recently put up. The jungle held tight against the rim of the camp, barbed wire hugging the thick foliage surrounding it. Fields of fire hadn’t been hacked out yet, making it an attackers’ dream: You could creep up to the perimeter without being seen.
I’d been there for three days when we got the call. Initially, the senior medic had looked at me and shook his head. The other team members felt the same. They thought I was a rube because I looked so young. I didn’t say anything about being at Khe Sanh for five months. It wouldn’t have mattered much. Blood’s the only thing most SF guys use as a marker.
A trimmed-down slick showed up to take the senior medic and myself to the carnage site. They were in triple canopy bush about a mile from camp and had been returning from an operation. We hovered just above the top canopy. As the wind washed through the cabin, the senior medic kicked a huge, rolled up rope ladder out of the chopper. He nodded at me sternly. I got it, and down I went.
It began getting darker after passing through the first canopy. After breaking the second one, I heard the screams. It was very dark now; no shadows. When I touched down, a Montagnard ran by me, shrieking, and smacked into a tree. I looked around. Blood, blood, and more blood. A one-hundred-man patrol, three Americans and ninety-seven Yards. A couple of Cobra gunships had strafed them just once, believing them to be an enemy force. Thirty-five dead, forty-seven wounded. One American gone, one dying, and the third waved me off when I approached, nothing serious.
We spent the rest of the day tending to the stricken and putting people in body bags. We had to rough a couple of guys up to bring them back, but we managed to slash out an opening to bring the helo in.
There was only one ship, so it took quite a while to get things done with. We could have been hit at any time by any number of enemy, and it would have all been over. I remember wondering on the way out if the NVA had seen us and decided to let this one go. More than once was just too much, for anyone.
When we finally got back to the camp, the senior medic told me to come with him, and we wound up in his hooch. He broke out a bottle of good bourbon and poured two very stiff drinks. We touched glasses and downed them in a hurry. We appreciated the effect.
“Where were you before here?” he asked a little cautiously.
“I was up at Khe Sanh for about five months.” I answered wearily.
He stared at me for a quick moment, and a wry smile appeared before he looked down at the floor, slowly shaking his head. He was laughing when he looked at me again, “Sorry, kid,” and he didn’t even know my name.