My First Real Battle: Dong Xoai

Michael Do

I have been with the 5th ID, 4/8 Battalion for ten months and have experienced only some minor contact with the enemies until now.

The National Route 13, starting from Saigon, went to Binh Duong, An Loc, and Loc Ninh, then continued to the Snuol district of Cambodia. The alpha base was the last military post of ARVN on the south side of the border. About five kilometers north of Binh Duong, the route split at Nga Tu So. From there, the 13-bis route ran to Phu Giao, Dong Xoai, Bunard, and Phuoc Binh, the capital city of Phuoc Long Province.

Dong Xoai, the principal town of Don Luan District, was about 88 kilometers from Saigon. It was a very important location in terms of military strategy.

On June 9, 1965, a bloody battle happened there when two Viet Cong regiments, 292 and 293, joined by elements of the 9th Infantry, made a surprise attack on the district compound and surrounded the ARVN reinforcements of the 5th ID’s 7th Regiment, the 7th Airborne Battalion, and the 52nd Ranger Battalion. The battle lasted more than ten days, with the enemies and friendly troops interlacing on the larger battlefield.

The enemy left 350 dead. The ARVN also suffered a heavy loss. It was the first time since the first involvement in the Vietnam War that the US suffered the highest loss: eight KIAs, 12 MIAs, and 15 WIAs.

The route from Dong Xoai to Phuoc Long was abandoned for years after the battle. There were small hamlets of the minority ethnic that scattered in the jungle alongside the route. The route’s surface – plowed by heavy bombs or anti-tank mines – was now full of bomb fragments, ammo shell casings among the bushes, and tall grasses.

Only the heavy trucks of the logging farms dared to operate in this area. In the late 1960s, once a month, convoys of civilian vehicles gambled with the death to go on this road. Usually, they waited until the road had been secured by infantry units and followed the convoy of military supply trucks to Phuoc Long.

It was also when the US Army sprayed Agent Orange to clear bushes and trees within 50 meters from either side of the road.

The logs were transported from deep in the jungle to the roadside. They were huge, some 3 feet in diameter. Those were the ideal spots for ambushes. Covered by the logs, you’d feel fully protected from any ammunition – no matter how powerful it was.

It was November 1969.

The 5th ID launched a big operation to secure about 50 kilometers of the 13-bis route from Dong Xoai to Phuoc Binh. Colonel Ty was in charge of the operation that consisted of his 1st Armoured Regiment and our 4/8 Battalion.

I was the XO of the 16th Company to be attached to the 1st Tank Battalion. We were responsible for 16 kilometers from Bunard to the junction of the road and another provincial road that led to Ban Me Thuot on the east. A young American captain was sent to be an advisor to our company. His radioman was Sergeant Davidson, a tall black guy who always had a smile. The captain was a white man who graduated from Fort Benning OCS[1]. He rarely talked and looked not friendly. He had served in the army for less than four years. Once, I told him that it took four years for the cadets of the National Military Academy to graduate with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. He pointed the finger to the head and said: “Because you guys have a small brain!” After some rare conversation, I could feel that he might be racist toward his Vietnamese counterparts.

Most of us (if not all) disliked this guy! When he was assigned to any company, the COs ignored him. They even did not give him a helper. He had to dig a foxhole, make the tent, and carry his heavy stuff when we walked in the jungle. The summer heat caused him to get tired quickly. We kept moving until he could not stand. Later, he showed better behavior and understanding.

We set up our CP on top of the small hill 285 near a  hamlet of the minority ethnic Stieng. The Stiengs had a tradition of filing their teeth to the gum of both upper and lower jaws. Besides, they pierced big holes at their ear lobule as we could see in the movie “King Salomon’s Mines” the people of a tribe in Africa where Elizabeth Curtis (starring Deborah Kerr) and Allan Quatermain (starring Steward Granger) found the cave that stored the diamonds.

Stieng women did not wear top garments. In the late afternoon, we returned to our base from our roadside posts. We went to the nearby stream to watch the young girls from the hamlet swim and wash their clothes.

They were not familiar with the sunglasses. At the stream, as we wore sunglasses and watched, they took off their skirts and washed comfortably until a girl happened to find out that she could see through the glasses!

Near the Stieng hamlet was another hamlet of the people from some provinces in Central Vietnam. In 1957, President Diem started the Land Development program to relocate poor people and minority ethnic groups into the unused land to develop new settlements for both long-term economic and strategic purposes. That explained the existence of the hamlets in this remote region.

 Not far from our position, there was a  camp of Special Forces Team A-344.

As usual, we warned the soldiers of the danger of the relationship with local women. We hardly trusted the girls in the hamlet since they had lived a long time in an unsecured area. In the past, there were cases where some soldiers went to the rendezvous with local girls and did not return to the base. The following day, people found their headless bodies displayed on the side of the road.

Every day, whether there was a convoy or not, we went out in the early morning and did not return until sunset.

When the sun still hid somewhere at the eastern horizon behind the dense jungle, the M-41 tanks of the 1st Armored Battalion began to roar and formed four groups of 4. Aspirant Nguyen Van Mau, the 2nd Platoon leader, ordered his men to get ready at the side of the tanks. The company staff went with the 1st Platoon of Aspirant Lo Duc Tan, then the heavy weapon platoon of First Sergeant Vong A Pau; last was the 3rd Platoon of Aspirant Phuong. 

We started to move.

When we saw the signs of the dirt on the road disturbed, two men jumped down to scan the surface using the mine detectors. The infantrymen then spread out along the sides of the road to prevent an attack.

At every four-kilometer interval, a platoon stopped and stayed with APCs or tanks of one armored company. At about 10 a.m., we could report to the CP that the road had been secured.

During the daytime, the temperature might go up to 100 F. But in the late afternoon, it dropped to the mid-60s. It was late Fall, and there was a hint of winter in the chilly air. Muon cooked a cup of coffee for me, and I shared it with Aspirant Tan, whom I considered my combat mentor. PFC Muon has been my helper since my first day with the company. He could do the cooking even when the formation was moving. Besides Muon, I had another helper, Nguyen, a deserter laborer. Nguyen was a man of about 50 who originated from Bui Chu in North Vietnam. He deserted when serving with the RF[2] and was sentenced to a long term of hard labor at the battle units. Deserter laborers worked day and night as hard as slaves. They carried ammo, dug trenches, built bunkers, and did many other hard works. Among them might be some former officers or NCOs. They wore old uniforms with the collar and sleeves removed and the letters LCDB[3] painted on the front and the back. If they were killed on the battlefield, their families would not receive any benefits from the government.

I had requested Lieutenant Loc to form a squad of six to eight volunteers from the deserter laborers. I trained them to be skillful and used them as an assault team. They were equipped with AK-47 rifles captured from the enemies and were led by 1st Sergeant Khai. They had my word that if they were good, I would recommend ending their term, and they would be converted to regular soldiers. Rumor had it that Lieutenant Loc was about to be transferred to an RF unit in Gia Dinh Sector. That’s why he seemed to be less devoted to the company affairs. I had to be prepared to replace him when my time came. Loc treated me very well. I did not know why the officers in the company did not like him. Once, Loc told off Aspirant Tan for some minor mistake: “Your leadership is like a dick!” Tan only smiled and said, “Now, I learned that a dick can lead!”

We ate twice a day with instant rice. When in operations, each man was given the so-called “Khẩu Phần Xây Dựng Nông Thôn” which meant the meals distributed for the Rural Construction Program. There were two plastic bags of ready-cooked and dried rice, each weighing about one pound. Soldiers only added the hot or cold water to the red line printed on the bag, waited for about 5 minutes (in hot water) to 10 minutes (in cold water), and ate canned meat and canned fruit. The meat can contain three slices of ham. The fruit can contain either peach or pear. The cans were part of the American C-ration supplied to the ARVN.  

Soldiers, mostly from rural regions, were not familiar with American taste. They preferred dried fish (khô sặc) and fish sauce (nước mắm) to ham or turkey. In mid-1970, the ARVN Post Exchange Department introduced cans of pork and chicken cooked in Vietnamese recipes. Each meal included one dried hot pepper in a small paper bag!

After lunch, Muon hung a hammock in the shade of big trees. While Sergeant Khai and the assault squad went on patrol and set up the sentry post, the tanks parked, making a half circle about 50 meters from my CP, and machine guns pointed to the jungle. I sat down, smoked, and chatted with Nguyen.

“You know,” Nguyen said, “I left my family and joined the Bao Chinh Đoan[4] when I was 17. We fought fiercely against the commies for years. After 1954, we moved to the south. Bao Chinh Đoan was converted to Bao An[5], then Địa Phương Quân.”

“The RF were relatively safe, close to your home. Why did you desert the RF to suffer this ordeal?” I ask.

“I didn’t mean to desert the unit,” Nguyen said sadly, “My only son left home and went along with street boys stealing things and doing drugs. I overstayed my leave and was reported as a deserter.”

It was quiet; there was no report on the enemy’s activities. Convoys of civilian vehicles moved almost every day without incident. Lieutenant Loc let me take care of most of the company business.

One late night, a faint voice was heard from the speaker of the PRC-25 radio.

“61, this is 11, over.”

“11, this is 61, over,” Lieutenant Loc answered.

“Request permission to Zulu[6]. There are noises of moving VC. Many, many. Very close, over.”

“OK. Do as you wish, over.”

That was the squad laid for ambush each day at a spot in the rice paddy as the company retreated from the day’s activities. We sent the signal to get the company ready in a fighting position.

About 15 minutes later, we heard the sound of grenades and gunfire.

“61, this is 11, over.”

“11, this is 61. Spit, over.”

“We are in contact with Charlies. It is too dark. We can not see. Don’t know who friend, who enemy, over is.”

“Romeo[7] back, asap, over.”

The voice was interrupted by the sound of gunfire and the scream and shout. The ambush squad was back.

“They are numerous, Lieutenant,” said Sergeant Tri, the squad leader.

“How many?” Loc asked.

“Maybe a hundred,” said Tri, “They ran after us. Some grabbed us by our legs. We fought hand-to-hand. I don’t know if we killed any of them.”

“Why didn’t you call for the flares?”

“We had no time!”

We were reported that some men were missing. Loc reported to the Armored Battalion Commander and sent a platoon to search for the missing. The APCs switched on their headlights and shone on a vast area ahead. I went with them.

We reached the empty field where rice had already been harvested. At first, the soldiers detected the enemies’ movement and estimated the company’s size. The outnumbered enemies scared the soldiers. Both sides were in an unexpected situation. When our men retreated as ordered, the enemies fired at the formation. Our men fired back. In a hurry, some of them hit the remainder of the rice plants and fell. They again were knocked by another soldier who was in the same situation. That was the reason that caused the chaos in the dark of the night.

Sporadically, the missing men showed up tattered and scared. We found two enemy dead bodies with captured two rifles. The enemies wore brand new uniforms of the NVA regulars. I checked their pockets and found one guy’s ID card. His name was Đoàn Văn Son from Bac Ninh Province, northeast of Hanoi. They were of the NVA[8] division that had recently entered South Vietnam. The presence of the NVA big units in this area was a sign of imminent danger to us.

There were no casualties of our soldiers except for some minor scratches.

The next day, as we resumed our road security job, we saw the dead bodies on the roadside. It turned out that the farmer did not bury them but moved them to the roadside. The bodies were in the same gesture as when they lay dead but now stiffened; the skin color changed from yellowish to brown. 

We passed and observed the bodies change every single day. The smell of the corpses was horrible. We rubbed our noses with menthol oil and covered them with scarves. Still, we could not stand the filthy smell that lingered for hours.

In about three weeks, the smell was gone. The corpses turned to skeletons covered in the garments now hardened in the sun. The skin dried up at certain parts, but the flesh underneath melted and evaporated. I ordered them to be buried at the edge of the jungle.

At times, during the operations in the secret zones, we found skeletons of NVA troops scattered by the bomb craters or lying along the paths. Nobody bothered to bury them and gave them a headboard with simple identification. They were sons, husbands, and fathers whom the Communists in North Vietnam sent to invade South Vietnam. Their families would never know their whereabouts or their fates. Once, I picked up a piece of bone – the lower arm – and attached it to my dog tag chain. I had mixed feelings about it. Was my act sympathetic or inhuman? I did not know.

As I said above, we were expecting something big and violent that I had never experienced. The area we were operating was surrounded by dense jungle that expanded to Phuoc Long and the border of Cambodia. Under a thick tree canopy layer, our enemy could hide tens of thousands of troops without being detected from the air. They could move, sing, and dance, but we would never know! From there, they could mobilize regiments, even divisions, to attack and overrun the ARVN bases and retreat to their sanctuary before we could send reinforcements.

Another day, like any day!

Vehicles and buses sometimes paused, and passengers gave us newspapers, magazines, and food. We loved the bread stuffed with BBQ chicken or pork. Sometimes, we got beers. The Armored soldiers were lucky; they had APCs that could carry small fridges or ice chests, and they had cold beers all year round. 

We knew from the papers that people were shopping for Christmas which was soon coming. I missed the atmosphere of the holiday season when young folks in beautiful garments were walking up and down the streets, when the multicolor lights were glittering above, and holy music filled the air. I was not a religious man. I learned and practiced the teachings of Jesus or Buddha. But I did not want to be bound by any rules or rituals. I missed my happy time at Quang Tri last year when I was with my wife, hand in hand, observing the celebration at Quang Tri Cathedral.

I sat quietly on high ground at the curve. From here, I could see very far from both directions of the road. Around ten, an M-41 that carried soldiers of the 1st Platoon almost reached their daily post, and then all of a sudden, we heard two explosions.

Boom! Boom!

The first B-41 rocket hit the tank at its right chain. The second hit right at the turret. Soldiers were thrown off to the ground. The tank commander and one rifleman were killed instantly at the scene.

Others suffered from minor to severe wounds; none were life-threatening.

The firefight that began at that spot gradually escalated. The whole formation of tanks and infantrymen was trapped in the enemy’s ambush. There was shooting everywhere. One more tank was down. Lieutenant Log jumped in an APC. I ran to a big log and waved my assault squad to follow. From there, I carefully watched the enemies’ moves.

In front of me, across the narrow road, the enemies dug in a mound right at the curve. They hunkered down behind a big log and dominated a vast area around them. Not far from them were other spots where enemy fire was coming. Cannon shells from the tanks exploded at targets but could not silence them. We requested the .50 caliber heavy machine gun to cover so we could leapfrog closer to the enemies. We exchanged fire for thirty minutes but failed to move farther because the enemy’s fire was increasingly violent. They were in a far more advantaged position than we were. We got more casualties.

“The big logs protect them from any kind of ammunition,” I said to Loc and the American advisor, ”we may need air support with napalm.”

“Where do you want the bombs?” The adviser asked.

“Here and here,” I said, pointing to the spots on the map.

“It is too close to friendly forces. We could only drop the bombs as far as the jungle’s edge.”

“Let me call the Big Red One artillery first.”

Loc ordered the men to back up a distance and take good cover. In a moment, a barrage of 155mm landed right on the targets. First from the jungle edge, then moved to the enemy’s positions we located. The ground was shaking like an earthquake. My body seemed to be thrown out of the hiding place. The loud explosion caused me to go instantly deaf.

As the shelling stopped, Aspirant Mau led his Platoon to run forward. The enemies opened fire, killing one of his men. The Platoon was pinned down within the firing range of the Charlies.

I crawled inch by inch toward Mau, carefully not to raise my head to be the target, though the bullets kept scattering around. Mau put a helmet on a branch and lifted it up and down several times. The enemy’s fire helped me to see their exact spot. I jumped back to the Armored commander,

“Look at that log! About two-thirds from its left, give an accurate shot right there.”

“It is too close to your men. The fragments may hit them.”

“Do it as I make a sign, please. One or two would be fine.”

I leapfrogged back to the bank of the road. I whispered my plan to Mau. He agreed.

The gunners from the tanks started to fire both .50 caliber and .30 caliber to the desired target while Mau and his men got ready to charge.

Boom! Boom!

The cannon shells landed precisely at the log that I spotted. I threw a grenade at the target and waved a hand to Mau. We jumped forward while the enemies were not out of shock by the explosion. I sprayed a dozen rounds on the heads I saw behind the log. The brain of a guy splashed around on the log, on the soil.

I kept firing at another guy who had raised his hands to surrender. My finger was at the trigger, and my reaction was so fast that I couldn’t help!

“Too late, guys. Sorry!”

Mau’s Platoon spread out to check other spots. The enemies were stunned by our attack. They seemed to be paralyzed as we approached them. The tanks also moved up the hill and shot randomly into the jungle.

The ambush line stretched about four kilometers along the road. I received good news from other platoons that the enemies began to withdraw. We asked the American captain to contact his superior to request air support to prevent the enemies from re-grouping.

Two Phantom F-4s from the 7th Fleet came in a short moment to fire rockets and drop bombs on the targets. When they were done, the whole company and the tanks advanced to eliminate the Charlies who had not been killed by the air strike. Some of them luckily escaped to the jungle.

They were NVA regulars in new green uniforms and hard hats! In the pocket of one Charlie, I found the letter from his girlfriend sent from Hanoi, attached with a small black and white photo of the young girl. In the pocket of another  Charlie, we found his party member ID card. Their rifles were brand new. Some might not fire a shot.

The fight died down in the afternoon. We did not feel hungry. While the medics were tending the wounded, the soldiers were excited to collect the war trophies and share their stories. Medevac choppers landed to evacuate the KIAs and WIAs.

A passenger bus stopped. People curiously looked out and asked questions. Muon brought me a loaf of bread, a sausage link, and a soda bottle.

The American came to me, saying the praise. Sergeant Khai showed four fingers and said,

“He killed four Charlies; I killed two.”

“Amazing! How many Charlies were killed in total?”

“We are counting. Don’t know yet.”

“Including the ones killed by artillery and air strikes?”

Two weeks later, around Christmas time, the 14th Company of Lieutenant Le Van Bon was ambushed at Bu Noi, near the intersection of the 13 bis Route and the route between Ban Me Thuot and Phuoc Binh. The enemy outnumbered five to one. The whole battalion and armored Regiment were reinforced to save them from being overrun.

Three weeks before the lunar new year, I was shot in an ambush. The bullet went through the pistol belt, punching a little hoe at my belly. It was so quickly that I did not know that I got hit until I felt a little cold in the stomach. I pulled my pants and saw the hole as small as a pea size. I also saw the grayish color of the intestine shown at the hole. There was no blood.

Muon started yelling and crying.

“Medic, medic! The Lieutenant was wounded,” he then held me up in his arms, “Don’t die. Please, master, don’t die.”

“Don’t worry, It’s like a scratch. I am here, going nowhere.” I felt confident.

Usually, the wound with a lot of blood seemed serious but not as life-threatening as the people who got internal injuries.

“You are all right, Lieutenant,” the company medic said after examining my wound, “thanks to the pistol belt, the bullet did not get deeper to damage your internal organs.”

Ten minutes later, the helicopter with the red cross sign at the nose landed. Two American nurses put me on a stretcher and loaded me onto the chopper floor.

I was flown to the US Army 3rd Field Hospital. They carried me to the operation room amid the shelling of the enemy’s 122 mm rockets.

I could only remember the blue eyes of the American doctors around my stretcher, and I fell unconscious after getting the intravenous shot of anesthetic.

The next day, I woke up and found myself in an air-conditioned room in a big hospital. I was naked, covered with a thin cotton sheet. My limbs were tied to the bed. A beautiful American nurse came in and used a brand-new white towel to wash my face and… my naked body!

[1] OCS: Officer Candidate School.

[2] RF: Regional Forces.

[3] LCDB: abbreviation for Lao Công Đào Binh (Deseter laborer)

[4] Bao Chinh Doan: A paramilitary group in North Vietnam prior 1954.

[5] Bao An was the old name of Dia Phuong Quan: The Regional Forces.

[6] Zulu: Radio code for ‘move’.

[7] Romeo: Radio code for retreat.

[8] NVA: Abbreviation for North Vietnam Army.