A RECONNAISSANCE MISSION
Just looking at them you could tell they were good.
Doc Betterton — Staff Sergeant Dale C. Betterton, a tall, skinny guy with a quiet manner, in glasses — stood on the platform in the brief-ing room at the Project Delta Forward Operational Base just outside Phu Bai. “We’ll go in here,” he tapped the map with his pointer, “and check out these areas. Primary mission is to locate enemy installations and personnel.”
Taking all this in were five other team members — Betterton was the team leader. The other two Americans, Sergeant First Class Alberto Ortiz, Jr., who outranked Betterton, but was a new man on the Project and would not be given command of a team until he had a few patrols under his belt, and Sergeant John D. Anthony, watched the briefing.
The Vietnamese contingent consisted of First Lieutenant Ton That Hai, patrol leader, and Sergeants Nguyen Van Khan and Hoang Van Lieu.
They all listened with the same air of intense calm.
After listening to the brief-back in English, Lieutenant Hai repeated the information in Vietnamese.
In the rear of the room Major Chuck Allen, a massive crew-cut man, built like a pro football lineman, which he had been, leaned forward in his chair, one hand propped on his knee and the other under his chin. He did not appear to listen so much as to inhale the informa-tion, evaluating and storing it in a mind that tracked and controlled every detail of Delta.
Beside him his counterpart, Major Phan Van Huan, leaned back, his manner detached.
The chopper skimmed over the treetops, sun slowly extinguished by the mountains, throwing long shadows across the streambeds and valleys below.
What is this now? Doc thought. Seventeen, maybe eighteen times in a year and a half. Every time, I’m still scared. That’s good! A scared man is a careful man, and a careful man will live a long time. If I’m ever not afraid I’ll go into some other line of work.
Sitting in the left door of the helicopter, he followed the hills and valleys on his map. The wind whipped his tiger-striped trouser legs and floppy hat, hanging down his back on a homemade cord of parachute suspension line. A CAR-15 was slung over his shoulder by a triangular olive-drab bandage tied to the front sight and collapsible stock, which he would convert to a neckerchief when they reached the ground.
The seemingly endless maze of pockets on his tiger suit were jammed with notebooks, signaling devices, cigarettes, matches, and maps, all neatly folded into plastic bags. In his patrol harness were more signaling devices, a camera, and the ammunition he hoped not to use. On his back was a groundsheet, fourteen days’ chow (long-range reconnaissance patrol rations, LRRPs) and some miscellaneous fruit cans.
The others were similarly equipped, plus two radios: one held by the Americans and one by the Vietnamese. Each was on a differ-ent frequency — to send the same data simultaneously to both the American and Vietnamese headquarters.
The ship started down, and he looked below into the dark space in the trees that was their landing zone. The chopper eased in and he was grateful again for the skill of the 281st Aviation Company, Delta’s own.
Trees rose on all sides; rotor blades snipping leaves around the edges, the chopper inched its way down in the hole. Master Sergeant Norman Doney, the reconnaissance section leader, a handsome, soft-spoken, self-contained man who would stay with the helicopter, rolled two ladders out the door. Doc swung over the side.
His weight swung his feet straight out in front, he being the bottom man on the rope ladder. His heavy gear dragged as Doc started working his way down, all his weight on his arms. Finally, his feet were below the ladder and he hung by the bottom run, eight feet above a bomb crater. He let go. Ortiz dropped beside him from the other ladder and they skipped sideways to get out of each other’s way.
At a dead run they headed for the encircling jungle. Fifty meters into the slapping, snagging brush they stopped. Doc gulped air down fast to silence his panting.
Behind them the chopper sped away. The team lay listening under the brush and palms, fingers digging into wet leaves and dirt while the dampness slowly permeated their fatigues.
When Betterton gave the signal to rise, they slowly crouched and stepped off single file into the jungle, walking with their toes touching the ground first.
They made no more noise than wind sighing in the treetops. Tiger suits and camouflage greasepaint blended them into their surroundings. If one of them sat perfectly still in full view beside the trail, a man might walk by in broad daylight and never see him.
They moved forward fifty meters, stopped, listened, and moved on again. Using the last dregs of daylight the team scanned for a thicket. Spotting a likely place, they glided back on their trail and sank to the earth in firing positions. No one came, so they crept into the thicket and slipped out of their packs.
Turning on the radio, Betterton whispered, “Voyager, this is Lobo, over.”
In the handset a voice crackled back, “This Voyager, go.”
Doc gave their positions in the same hoarse whisper and reported no contacts or sightings, while Hai did the same in Vietnamese. Then they wrapped up in their plastic groundsheets and fell asleep, each man touching at least one other. They still wore their pistol belts and harnesses. If they had to run they could manage without their packs, but not without water, ammo, and other gear on the harness.
With a rock gouging his shoulder blade and his hips digging into the ground, Doc slept fitfully. At 0330 the growl of heavy equipment and trucks snatched him from sleep. The enemy was building a road! Doc scribbled in his notebook.
At 0430 the patrol was up, creeping through the underbrush. Avoiding ridgelines and streambeds, they moved through the jungle on the slopes. Frequently they heard padding footsteps on the trails above, or the tonal ululations of Vietnamese conversation in the creeks below. There was no attempt at concealment on the enemy’s part; he owned the territory and felt no need to hide from anything but airplanes. Again Doc scribbled, and spoke into the handset.
In the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) bunker Chuck Allen and Captain Bill Larabee, his operations officer, who looked like the social chairman of an especially bellicose Sigma chi chapter, sat side by side at a big desk, plotting reports from their recon teams in the field. At a similar desk ten feet away Major Huan and Captain Ton That Luan did the same.
Seated across from Allen and Larabee, Captain Richard Dundee, heavy and dark-complexioned, passed intelligence reports and summaries to major U.S. commands, while Lieutenant Truong Hoang Phi cranked out the same information to the Vietnamese Special Forces High Command.
No one on the patrol spoke a word except into the handset; they had worked so long together than no words were necessary, and silence was the rule. On the third day Hai gestured toward the trail above and made a grabbing motion with his hands. Doc, knowing he meant to try to capture a prisoner, nodded and they crept toward the path to wait.
Three North Vietnamese army regulars, all armed with AK-47’s, came down the trail. They heard others chattering down the trail. No way. Betterton opened fire from five meters, and their “prisoners” shuddered backward as the slugs hit them, and they fell with blos-soms of their own blood splattered across their midsections. The team broke off, one after the other, and dashed over the ridge and down the other side.
The next day Anthony almost walked headlong into another NVA solider. They were both startled, but the kid was still staring wide-eyed when Anthony cut him down. They decided it was time to pull out. Betterton and Hai looked for LZs on their maps.
Allen saw it first. From his command-and-control ship, flying high over the operational area, he picked out the bright blue-white flash of a signaling mirror and spoke into his radio. Gunships, easy to spot by their red tail markings, assumed a clockwise orbit over the LZ, either firing at targets of opportunity or just keeping Charlie’s head down. The air was filled with the whoooosh-CRACK of rockets and the gruff belch of miniguns.
Flying above, monitoring all conversation between his ship, the gun-ships, the TOC and the recon team on the ground, Allen could see it all like a Parker Bros. game. At his command the first recovery ship hopped over a ridge-line and jockeyed down into the hole.
Doc Betterton put the mirror back into his ammo pouch. The others fanned out in firing positions around him. The incoming recovery ship hovered a hundred feet over them in the trees. Although Doc couldn’t see Doney in the ship, he knew who it was.
Three sandbags dragged the heavy, six-foot looped straps of the McGuire rig, escape for three men, down through the trees. Doc waved Ortiz and the two Vietnamese sergeants in, and they grabbed the straps, whipping and writhing in the rotor wash. Each of them sat in one loop and hooked his right wrist in a cuff that slid down tight to prevent falling from the rig, even if wounded, on the way out.
The chopper struggled to go straight up without dragging the men through the trees. This was the period of maximum danger — maximum exposure of the helicopter and maximum exposure for the men. They cleared the trees and were gone.
The next ship edged into position and the straps came down again. Doc, the heaviest of the three, jumped into the middle seat as the others settled next to him. The chopper eased upward and they rose through the trees, branches slapping at their faces and hands.
Then they were clear of the treetops and the ropes streamed to the rear as the chopper surged forward, heading for a safe spot to land and take the men inside. No matter how many times he did it, Doc never got completely used to whipping through the air at the end of a rope, at a thousand feet.