ASHAU : The grave for Cong
Dedicated to those who participated in
Operation Delta 35 & 36 in Ashau Valley, 1968.
Based on the true account of Lieutenant Nguyen Hien,1st Platoon Leader, 5th Abn Rgr Co,
81st Airborne Ranger Battalion.
Tet Offensive, 1968. Communist NVA’s had occupied Hue for a month. The US Marines and the ARVN units were staking them out while the Delta and the 81st Airborne Rangers were launched into Ashau Valley along the Vietnam-Laos border in an effort to cut off the NVA ‘s reinforcement to their troops in Hue. According to intelligent information collected by Delta ground and air teams, a Viet Cong convoy loaded with food rations and a fresh supply of ammunition was moving from Laos into Ashau Valley to re-supply VC rebels who had taken over Hue. This fresh supply will be used by the NVA for a second wave of attack to secure Hue. Operation Delta 35 & 36 was the allied effort to stop that offensive from occurring. Our orders: ambush and destroy the convoy. The Delta Operation Center mapped out the attack plan as follows:
- Lt. Liem, 1st Company Commander, was to take his company to LZ at YZ; then moves to
set up an ambush at A to E.
- Lt. Bich, 5th Company Commander, was to take his company to LZ at YZ; then take the high ground at hill J to set up an ambush along the trail.
The UH1B aircraft airlifted all companies to LZ, somewhere along the Vietnam-Laos border.
We quickly dispersed to take our positions along the ridge to prevent any surprise attacks
by the enemy. We moved silently in the dark of very dense terrain, cold winds discouraging
us from moving deeper into the jungle. Everyone was alert, every heart thumping at the
slightest sound as we searched blindly for that tiny trickle of ground through the forest
known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Under the camouflage of dead leaves and branches, we found a wide trail. As Binh’s platoon crossed the road to the North to secure the area, a sudden “crack” broke the silence.
I heard Binh’s soft voice echo on the breeze, “Oh god! What went wrong?” I was right behind him. In the dark, Binh turned around and all I could see were his white teeth. He was smiling nervously, relieved of the near-death experience we all escaped from at that moment. The “crack” was a stifled cry of a jammed gun, pulled by the nervous finger of the point man that thought he saw someone moving on the trail. Lady Luck jammed the gun; otherwise we would have revealed our position and jeopardized not only the mission but also our lives. We were more cautious after that incident.
We moved slowly along the trail, feeling our way using lime light from above and some illuminations laminations from the dead leaves on the ground. There were many gasoline barrels placed about 100 meters apart from each other. We arrived at a riverbank; the water is not very rough, but looked deep. At one section along the river, we found the enemy had built an underwater bridge for their vehicles to cross. What a clever idea! You cannot detect this bridge from a distance.
We crossed the river and moved to the ambush site. The area is now engulfed in total darkness. It was so cold that we had difficulty arranging a perfect ambush formation, but Lt. Bich maneuvered a good formation.
Technically,5th company, positioned at the slope right below the trail, would be at a disadvantage to engage in fighting, but it was the only choice at this section of the road. Company #1 had a better view because they were positioned on a high ridge at the upper slope looking down the road, so they could give us some support.
As we were about to settle, we heard a buzzing of gunfire from the direction of 1st company. PFC Du reported that 1st company just had an exchange of fire with the enemy. I ordered my men to be ready.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow approaching me at great speed. I shouted, “Who?”
The reply, “One!”
My mind flashed. . . 1st Company is distant from us, and we are the 1st platoon of 5th Company - which “One” is this? I didn’t have time to think twice; I squeezed the trigger. In a burst of fire, I saw a shadow slam to the ground and heard a loud thump.
I then heard Sfc Do Ngoc Tien, a medic; yell at me, ”You misfired at 1st Company!”
I shouted back, “At this moment, I don’t care if ‘One’ or ‘Two’!”
Tien crawled to where the figure had fallen and reported that it was one of them who wore “Ho Chi Minh sandals”. Suddenly, more figures lunged at us out of the night. This time, there was no thinking or discussion; we all opened fire.
Just as abruptly as it started the gunfire ceased; the jungle returned to its ominous silence. A large NVA unit must have surrounded us. We knew a firestorm was coming. We held our breath and waited, our heart pounding against our chest. The temperature dropped as the night advanced, the chill seeping slowly under our skin. Two American advisors took cover behind a big tree across from me. We could not see each other’s faces clearly, but we shared the same thoughts: it would be a hard, brutal wait for us all.
Soon enough, we heard the faint sound of vehicles approaching from a distance. Then, a huge explosion broke the silence of the night. Gunfire rang out from the depths of the valley where 1st company had stationed themselves earlier. Lt. Bich quickly ordered everyone to stay-put and to prepare for hand-to-hand combat, using hand grenades if necessary.
From the direction of 1st Company, the shouts, explosions and gunfire increased. Sounds of helicopters overhead cut through the silence of the night. The situation worsened when one of our own helicopters misfired on our position. An American advisor went down and another of us was killed. Bullets flew everywhere as we panically called to report our position. No acknowledgment on the other end of the radio. Meanwhile, bullets and flying rockets continue to strike more of us down. The echoing chaos continued till about midnight; then everything abruptly subsided. In the uncomfortable still of night, the cries and moans of the wounded bled through the thick air.
Next, footsteps could be heard crunching along the road and a searching beam of light wavered along the path. They came close to our position, but we were ordered to stay quiet.
A voice cried out from behind the yellow light beam, “Identify yourselves! Why did you misfire at us? We are “yellow star div.” soldiers. You guys have to be aware of those Airborne Rangers; they’ve come to spy on us.”
They repeatedly shouted the same thing in a very mechanical tone as they trod along the path.
When they got closer to us, Lt Ngo Tung Lam, the company XO, shouted back at them, “Would you just shut up, comrade! There are many enemies here; you should keep quiet. Go back to your position! We will take care of those Airborne Rangers tomorrow.”
To no surprise, they got quiet. Cloaked by the dark shadow of the night no one could tell their friend from their enemy; we were all mixed in that cesspool of blind war and blind judgment. Our eyes, which were made to see, could not see. Our hands, made to feel, deceived us -- we were ordered to take off our helmets to fool the NVA who tried to identify the Rangers by touching the helmet. We also disguised our voices by mumbling or grunting incoherently when they touched our heads in their attempt at detection. In that darkness of war, we meshed our identity and became like the enemy in order to deceive the enemy.
At daylight, guns came alive again. About 15 meters in front of us, the NVA camouflaged with leaves and branches ran up and down the road evacuating their wounded. Wreckages of Molotova vehicles were strewn along the road like dismembered metal corpses. We opened fire on the NVA who were fishing up their wounded. They counter-attacked and pinned us with a machinegun cross fired at us from some high ground. I heard heavy fighting from the direction of 3rd company.
Finally, we were ordered to retreat quickly to extraction LZ so that the B-52 bomber will finish the task from the air. We had drawn a large number of enemy units to the area. The ground mission to ambush the enemy convoy had come to a close. We destroyed 8 Molotova vehicles and it supply source and disable countless NVA.
As the order of withdrawal was pronounced, the battle at my area was still very intense. We were pinned by heavy crossfire from NVA machinegun. Y and Binh charged forward, but were pushed right back. Suddenly, I heard a loud “boom” and saw Binh fall to the ground, but he sprung up quickly and charged in the direction of the enemy machinegun.
The B-52 air raid operated on a timing schedule, the order had been given for us to break out way out. We understood the critical timing, so our Company made a final attack by all standing up and charging to turn the enemy away. I was hit on the buttocks with a bullet from an AK. They dragged me and the other wounded soldiers to the LZ for evacuation.
Operation Delta 35 was considered a success; we destroyed a NVA convoy of 8 vehicles and caused heavy casualty to a NVA mobile regiment. This battle, however, is only one of many . . .
Story is recalled by Lt Nguyen Hien (Oakland, CA) 1st Platoon Leader/5th Company/81st Airborne Ranger Battalion
English version by JC Chu
Lt. Nguyen Hien was hospitalized after this Delta 35 Operation in 1968. But the 81st Airborne Ranger returned to Ashau shortly after in Operation Delta-36. This time, they confronted a larger NVA force. Four Airborne Ranger companies encountered the enemy right at the LZ where they just landed. Five UH1B slickers were shot down within the first few minutes . . . Ashau is not the safest place for the invasion forces of the North! The continues . . .
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