The Somber Year-End Days at Loc Ninh

Michael Do

Lieutenant Nguyen Van Quoc, the Operation Officer of the 8th Regiment lifted the poncho that covered the bunker to look at the sky. Although it was almost noon, the fog descended more and more by the time and caused a thick blanket that obscured the view of the base area. Seeing the head of the S-2 Intelligence Officer peeking out at the next bunker, Quoc grumbled,

“What the weather! How do the soldiers fight in this bad condition?”

“The enemies are in the same situation!”

“Maybe they are fucking their bitches in that forest! Who knows?”

The two officers dressed up and walked to the TOC, continuing the chat.

For more than a week, the sky had been covered with dark gray clouds and a thick layer of fog that we could not see the objects at a distance of two or three meters. The air seemed to condense and the time seemed to pause. All military activities had been interrupted: there was no air cover, the units were immobile, and vehicles were not running. All roads were slippery with red mud.

The 8th Regiment started this operation in the first days of October 1971. Its battalions were deployed in a vast area along the Vietnam – Cambodia border. The Regiment Command Post was stationed in a plantation southwest of Loc Ninh. We shared the lots around the house to settle. Fifty deserter laborers worked day and night to build the two big bunkers for TOC[1] and the officer mess hall and a smaller one for the Regiment Commander. The bunkers were built three quarters underground, 4 x 6 yards in the area, constructed with 6 x 6 inches beams, PSPs, and 5 layers of sandbags. Their tops were covered with big tents. They were strong enough to stand the 122 mm rockets. My HQs Company settled next to the 105 mm Battery at the second perimeter. I had a heavy weapons platoon with .50 caliber machine guns, 81mm mortar, 75 mm, and 106 mm recoilless rifles. Thanks to my position, I could use the deserter laborers to build two tiny bunkers from the wooden shell crates and sandbags, one for me and the other for Major Huynh Van Tam, the acting Deputy Commander of the 8th. . The outer perimeter was defended by one battalion and the elite Reconnaissance Company.

After the battle of Snuol, I stayed with the 4/8th Battalion for another two months then I was appointed Commander of the Regiment’s Headquarters Company in early June. I was waiting for the approval of my petition to be transferred to the Special Forces. Unfortunately, the Special Forces were about to disband. The JGS[2] decided to transfer me to a newly established unit of the Air Force.  Major Tam did not want me to go.

“You won’t have a future in the Air Force,” he persuaded, “Stay here. I will support and promote you to move up.”

“Give me a break! Move up? Where? To the altar soon!”

To the altar was the slang we used each time there was a soldier killed in action.

Thanks to the dense fog, the daily briefing was postponed until 9 o’clock. When in operation, the busiest guy was the S-3 (Operation) Officer.

Lieutenant Quoc had to stay almost all night beside the radios to follow up on the moves of each battalion. I was the second busiest man because I was in charge of the Regiment activities from the defense to daily miscellaneous things such as meals for officers.

It was somber and boring to live at Loc Ninh during wintertime. In the daytime, we could go to the market, wander around the coffee shop, and chat with the school teachers or young ladies who were working at the district administration office. In the evening, we got together around the makeshift table and played cards or chatted about a thousand various topics.

On Tuesday morning, a stray dog ran into the base. It sat in front of the TOC and howled ghastly. It was in a strange position as if it saw something invisible to our eyes.  Its tail curled back between his legs. It was scary as if it was facing a ghost! Just looking at it and hearing the howl gave us the heebie-jeebies. Aspirant Nguyen Sung, the security officer, chased it away with a broom. The dog ran around and came back to the same spot, continuing howling.

Some of our men talked about the bad omen that might be followed by the deaths! I pulled my handgun, pointed it at the dog’s head, and


“God damn it! Stop your superstition! Dog howling in winter is not an abnormal phenomenon. We are soldiers in an operation, not in a picnic. Soldiers die every day. Don’t you know?”

But I could not help recalling many cases I had witnessed in my life. It happened at the Polwar College where I attended. Days after the fall of the flagpole, a series of incidents occurred that resulted in the death of two cadets and wounded six others. Not long after that, the school was under heavy attack from the enemies. They infiltrated and killed a dozen cadets and student officers. People believed that the fall of a flagpole was a bad omen. I could not say whether I believed the omen or not. Yet I was a little scared!

Several days later, the rain stopped. The fog dissolved. The mud on the roads hardened and vehicles could move safely as usual. Convoys of supply and artillery hauling trucks resumed their normal works. The base became more active.

In the TOC, men came in and out in a hurry amid the noises of a dozen operators who were sending and receiving messages. Outside, in the sky, there were sounds of whirling blades of the helicopters or the buzz of the observation OV-10 Bronco.

I hated most the noise of 155 mm when the shell departed or when it flew overhead – the noise that could toss you up and throw you out of your bed.

Quoc flew on a C-n-C chopper every day, in the morning or the evening. Each time, it took him about one or two hours to observe and keep track of the friendly force’s movement. I had known him since my first day at the 4/8 Battalion where he was the S-3 Officer. He made a big leap to be S-3 of the regiment. Normally, S-3 officers of a regiment were chosen from the experienced battalion commanders. Quoc was a good man, single and easy-going.

In five sections of the regiment staff, only S-3 was the busiest. The second was the S-2 (Intelligence) and S-4 (Logistics). They were always present in the operation to assist the commander. The S-1 (Personnel) was only needed at the daily meeting to report the change in the number of the troops. The S-5, instead of being important, was less of our concern. The Polwar officer and NCO never showed up at the meeting and nobody bothered to ask. Actually, they had nothing to do except for distributing the magazines once a month! Even the magazines never reached the combat soldiers.

At midnight, somebody shook my shoulder, waking me up.

“What happens?”

“1/8 Battalion was attacked.” My Company NCO whispered in my ear, “its outpost team was in contact with enemies. There is no further information.”

 “Where did it happen?”

“Near Alpha base.”

Alpha was the outpost of the ARVN next to the border, by National Route 13. It was always defended by an infantry battalion. Away from the base, there was the Bu Dop camp of the Special Forces A-134 team. We were at the transition where the US troops began to withdraw from Vietnam, passing the burden onto the ARVN. The 5th Infantry Division now had to cover the large region that had been covered by the powerful Big Red One and some other big units. At the same time, North Vietnam sent more troops to reinforce the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. The enemy outnumbered the ARVN three to one in terms of strength.

I put on my field jacket and rushed to the TOC where I saw Major Tam sitting beside the radio.

“How is it going, Major?” I asked softly.

“We lost a whole platoon. The battalion lost the connection with them for an hour.”

Half a dozen men in the room held their breath to listen to the conversation from the square speaker on the table. Lieutenant Quoc was trying to make the connection with the S-3 officer of the 1/8 Battalion. Many times, he had to shout to make his voice heard. Colonel Mach van Truong – who had just assumed the post recently – could not hide his worry. He was restless in his armchair. He turned his head to the S-2, then turned back to S-3 in an angry manner,

“So they all were in sound sleep and did not notice until the enemies were close?”

“I have reminded them to set up claymore mines,” Quoc said.

“They (Viet Cong commandos) are very skillful in detecting and removing the mines.”

Vietnam through the eyes of the strategists was a battlefield to test new weapons. Both sides competed for not only the weapons but also the skills in using them. That was the ability to survive. Any new weapon would be fully effective when it was first used; then the rival would learn and soon find out the way to overcome or deactivate or at least, minimize the effect of the weapon.

We were still talking about the loss of a platoon last night, then came the news that two F-5 fighters of the 3rd Air Division collided in the air while they were providing air support to our forces. The witnesses said that they saw one plane hit the tail of the other and burned in fire then exploded in the air. The plane that was hit dived its nose into an orchard and exploded. Only one pilot ejected. The soldier said he saw the parachute not far from our base. We sent out a rescue team to search the area and saved the pilot before the enemies could get him.

Lieutenant Quoc looked unrestful and anxious. Bad news came rapidly at high frequency. The atmosphere at the dining table was heavy. Everybody kept quiet. Nobody chatted even a few words. After dining, we went back to our tents.

That night, I was talking to my men and Quoc appeared at the curtain. His face was pale, sicky, and emaciated. He did not enter but said,

“Hi! After this operation, if you go to Saigon, please, bring this guitar and give it to my Mom.”

“What the hell are you saying? We are in the middle of the op!”

“OK then,” Quoc insisted, “just remember,”

He left. We were very surprised by his behavior and saying. We looked at each other and held our thinking about a bad omen.

Less than ten minutes later, Quoc reappeared.

“I put the guitar in a corner of the TOC. Hai is borrowing it. You don’t forget, do you?”

“You keep repeating the thing. Is it your dying wish?” I blurted out. I felt sorry right away for my loose tongue, “go back to your bunker and take a good sleep. Tomorrow, everything will be fine.”

“You guys are so happy. You have nothing to worry about,” Quoc said, “I don’t know if I can survive these continuous troubles.”

“Go, go,” I rushed, “take good care of yourself or Miss Nhan would not recognize you when she meets you after this operation.”

“OK, good night.”

The American 1st ID withdrew, followed by the 1st Cavalry. From then on, the Vietnamese Air Force helicopter squadrons handled almost all support to the infantry. They carried the troops to the battlefield and provided medevac and C-n-C flights. At our TOC, there was a FAC team who worked 24/7 with our men. Each day, there were two or three helicopters ready for the infantry commanders to use as C-n-C flights.  Vietnamese pilots were as courageous and conscientious as American pilots I had ever flown with.

The next day, Quoc was flying on a C-n-C chopper and was ordered to drop an artillery officer who would be attached to the 8th Recon Company. Lieutenant Hung and his 8th Company moved to a small grassland amid the forest and secured a landing zone for the chopper. There was a certain problem that the order was not consistent. Hung and his men had been at the LZ and were told to abort. And then, a new order was sent out to resume the dropping.

“Fuck it!” Hung complained, “fuck the order, fuck the guy who gives order!”

The 8th Recon had left for a while and could not return in time when the chopper descended.

From the helicopter, Quoc could see the soldiers running to the edge of the forest. The artillery officer unlocked his seatbelt and was ready to jump out of the bird, then

B. O. O. M!

A rocket just hit the side of the chopper, making a loud explosion. Two men were thrown out from the side doors and lay immobile on the ground. The chopper crashed and burst into flames. The gunner died instantly. The pilots got out and ran to the forest. Quoc was trapped in the seatbelt and could not undo it. The flame covered his whole body. He screamed and bestirred himself like a tiger chained in a cage until he gave up, stopping moving.

There was a second explosion. People were shocked and stunned by Quoc’s tragic death.

A week after that incident, I received a call from Lieutenant Lo Duc Tan, the  Regiment S-1 Officer, telling me that my transfer order had been signed and reached his desk. Tan then prepared the paperwork for the Regiment Commander to sign before I could say goodbye to the regiment.

I joined the S-5 officer who escorted Quoc’s coffin to his family in Saigon. I kept my promise, handing the guitar to his mother who embraced me and cried unceasingly.

[1] TOC Tactical Operations Center.

[2] JGS Joint General Staff