05-21-96

WATCH the POINT MAN


by
ARVN Special Forces
Former Sgt. Nguyen Cu’ van

1972, Cu’ van: At this time we are working out of the Citadel air strip located inside of the Vietnam Imperial City at Hue. It is a very high security place, nobody see us come or go. The compound where all the Special Forces teams live is really not there at the air-strip. The government has taken over a hotel/motel on the south side of the `Perfume’ river in Hue. It has a gate, a wall around it and guards. When we move to the air strip or return, they take us in plain, unmarked, closed trucks.

This morning at our mission conference (briefing), our officers tell my team about a NVA-Ho Chi Minh trail supply dump. Our mission will be to look to see what is there and to plant satchel charges with time delay fuses.

As usual we are a six man team, only this time our team leader is an officer, a `Trung Uy’ [1]. He is a good officer and has as much experience as any of us.

They take us to the air strip in the closed truck to meet our UH-1H `Slick’ that is waiting for us. There is a second

UH-1H for our Command and Control, six UH-1D Gunships, that are each armed with 14ea 2.75 folding fin rockets and two 7.62 m/m mini-guns, the leader’s L-19 Bird Dog and two F-5 fighter bombers from the Hue/Phu Bai air base.

We got our chutes on, weapons, back packs, and the explosives. It takes a little time, but we check each other out, running down a check-list. When that is done, we get on board, three on each side, sitting on the cargo deck and with our legs dangling over the side, the slick lifts off into the cool morning air. (Tony; just like beginning another day at the office.)

The commander have given us the usual little piece of map that includes our Drop Zone and our 2k search area. Somebody ask me, “Where did you go?” We don’t know, only that it is maybe 1 hour from our base and there are mountains and triple canopy jungle.

The VNAF helicopter pilot, he know where we going, but we only know what on our map. That way we can never tell anything if the enemy catch us. The other reason is that they do not want us to get out of our two Kilometer square that is marked on our map, so we don’t need a bigger map.

We arrive at the DZ, low level, 200 feet over the tree tops. The helicopter never slows down. It continues flying at the normal speed. The enemy must think of us as just another passing flight when we make our static line jump, 1–6, all out. After we land, get our chutes and ourselves down out of those trees are 75 to 100 meters tall, we bury the chutes, have a radio check in with our leader in the L-19 and we are on our way to the target.

We have two kilometers to travel to the NVA supply dump.

Our team members take turns walking at the head. We always stay away from any of the communists’ well used trails. Our training is use the jungle for cover, it is slow and hard going, but nobody can see us. We can see the enemy before they see us. This idea works only if everyone is always watching the `Head’.

Normally we keep about a 30 meter separation on the trail. That way if I go down, the others still have time to escape.

When we are separated like that, each man have watch the man ahead as well as what on each side and behind. The man have to keep his head and eyes moving all the time in a automatic action.

To signal each other we have to be silent, we use our hands to make signs just like the American Special Forces and Rangers. Every hand-sign mean the same as their’s do. When we are with Americans on a job, we can talk to each other even if they can’t speak Vietnamese or we not speak English.

Any man behind the point-man is supposed to pass the hand signals back to the ones following. That is an important thing to save ourselves. Sometimes we have to slow down and wait for the man in back get the trail cleaned up. We never want to leave any sign that we had been along there.

Later, three and half days on our way, I take the “head” (point) at the front of the group. The other men on the team follow me at 30 meter spacing most of the time. At this time, there is one friend following me, then the `Trung Uy’ and then the rest the team.

When we are four days into the mission we are at what I would call the gate to our target, almost inside. We had slowed the pace to let the other men catch up. The first three of us are closed up to about 10 meters separation, but still moving, waiting for the others to catch up.

We are almost ready to get things back to normal, when from my point position, I see a large group of NVA coming toward us. They are maybe 150 meters away. Quickly, I signal my team. I raise my hand, I point ahead, then point to my eye, then I make a sign like `0′ with my thumb and forefinger. This means that I see something coming in the direction that I point, and the `0′ means many. (If I hold up one finger, the means one man, if I hold up two fingers that means two men, but `0′ , that means more that I can count.)

Well, the `Trung Uy’ missed the `eye’ and the `0′. Maybe he check the rear at the wrong time. Like maybe he turn his head when I make the signal back for the `enemy’ and the `how many.’

He make a mistake, in Special Forces you cannot make any mistakes when you are on the job. I never know what went wrong, because everybody dead. We ain’t got no time to explain. Everyone supposed to be watching me all the time. Just like I have to be watching to see what is going on ahead and behind me, you know, cleaning the trail or something. I don’t want to get too far ahead either.

My friend behind me, he see my signal, he know what happen. He jump one side into the jungle and I go into the other. I make it away as far and as silently as I can.

In that time, after the Communists kill the other four men in my team, we can hear the enemy soldiers crashing around the nearby jungle looking for signs of anymore of us.

It is a hard time for me, because the lieutenant and the others are like my brothers. I want to throw myself on the enemy and kill as many as I can. But I have to keep control of myself, I cannot let anger or sadness rule. I fight to keep my heart from breaking. I have a job to do for my country, that’s the most important thing now.

It’s hard to explain what my friend and I must do. Our team had been moving west, when we made contact with the enemy patrol at the edge of the NVA supply dump. At my signal, he and I dive into the bush, he goes north and I go south. We each still have our compass and our copy of the small piece of map. We know exactly where our team got hit.

In our training we learn to do nothing without a plan ahead to fall back on. When my friend and I split we each know how far we will be able to move in that kind of jungle within 30 minutes. We can make it 50 meters, one hour is 100 meters. We have to move silently and invisibly. We cannot make any kind of sound.

After five hours, each of us begin to circle back away from the `gate’. We know exactly where we are in relation to the contact point, we must keep to the same distance as we circle toward our original track. This is only 500 meters but in that heavy jungle it is as good as 5 kilometers.

Imagine, we must conceal our movements from the NVA soldiers in there and at the same time look for each other. You know if we hide from the NVA, we are hidden from ourselves.

It takes about two hours and we find each other. This is only possible because of our Special Forces training. (That’s why they call us “Special.”)

We find a `hide’ and lay low. The NVA there are looking for us the rest of the day and all that night. We lay there for two days before we move.

The NVA are not too far away from us because where they caught us, is right next to their camp. My friend and I work our way back toward our drop zone. We cannot call our Leader until we get far enough away to a safe place. He is up there all the time. I call on our handi-talki to our Leader in the L-19 to tell him what happened. He ask, “How are you.” We say, “We OK, but the others are dead.” Then we tell him what happened.

Our leader tell us that the `job is still on’, our commanders have another `Band’ ready and they will be put in later. I tell the Leader that the area is too `Hot’ right now. The communist know that we were there and that maybe some of us left. If we try to do anything then, they will be ready for us. We have to wait until everything cool down a little more.

Our leader in L-19 listen and then check with our commanders When he come back, he tell us to find a good `hide’and lay low. He tell to let him know when everything quiet down. The other Band is ready to start anytime that we think is good. We must stay and help them. We wait three days, then call our leader. He say, “OK the `Band’ is coming bringing the new team to be put in. He give us the spot where we are supposed to join up with the other team.

My friend and I meet up with them and begin to work our way back in toward the supply dump. We have to be very careful and watch every move. If we did not get caught on that first time, this would have been a easy job. But now we know that the enemy hasn’t forgotten what happened a few days ago. Things are cooler now but the communists do not think that they are as safe as they did before they caught my team on the trail. They are alert and are looking for anything different.

This place is like a big warehouse under the trees. They have everything there. The communist have built shelters and camouflaged bunker like storage places. Some places are dug out down to ten feet and have the overhead built up of timbers, trees and covered with earth. They even have small trees and bushes planted on top. There are stacks of food, medical supplies, uniforms, weapons, ammunition, explosives, trucks, fuel, just all kinds of war material.

Some shelters are places where they just pull the trees over and tie together, then they weave in more branches to make it tight. For the men that work in there, living quarters are built like that. I never know exactly how many NVA work in there, but that base is big. Maybe 300 to 500 men would be my guess. This is a main depot, a stopping place along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

My friend, the new team and I work for all the next day and through the night to set up the explosives and the timer fuses all over the base. The timer fuses are in place, but not activated. Then we let our leader know that we are ready.

We have to wait for the word from our leader to tell us when everything is just right. You know, he have to think about the weather, the time of day, anything like that. He can’t afford any mistakes. Men like us are too valuable to lose no matter what the mission. If we have to wait in hiding for two or three days, that’s what we have to do.

Every time the `Band’ get ready to go on a mission, they take off, fly over the ocean to test fire all of their M-60s, mini-guns, rocket pods and everything. Then they come back into the base to rearm and refuel. These men are all VNAF, Vietnamese Air Force, but they work close with us just like they belong to us.

When our leader knows that everything is ready, he calls for the Band to come in. When the exact time that they get there, we set the timers and fuses for all over the base. We got 30 minutes.

When the `Band’ come in, they have the UH-1C gunships, and

F-5s with them. The F-5s and the gunships are roaring up and down, back and forth over the target area, but never shooting. Our pilots are trying to make the NVA think that the jets don’t know where the camp is and are looking for it. The NVA lay low and don’t fire. That way they think that they are safe by not giving themselves away.

That’s our idea about how it is easy for us to run out, hook our survival vests carabiners to the cable and the slicks pull us out right from inside the NVA base.

Thirty minutes later, the whole place blow up. The enemy never even know that we had been there until it was too late.

We are still in the area, so the `Band’ fly us back over for our leaders to see what we done good or not. Where the NVA depot was, there is nothing! It is all gone, just a large clearing in the forest.

I lose four good friends, but we got payback, it was a good mission. But I think, “No, it’s not really payback. There is nothing that can payback for the lives of my friends.” I never forget, but I must not let it bother me in my decisions when I am on a job. I have to always remain cool to be at my best to be able to save myself, my team and finish whatever job that I am given. Most of the time when one of us get killed, it’s because someone make a mistake. You can never make a mistake in our kind of job.

[1]`Trung Uy, 1st Lt. rank insignia is two gold flowers on his shoulder tabs.