The Soui Cai was one of the more prominent landmarks in the Battalion's AO. The valley ran for approximately twenty kilometers on a north south axis roughly parallel to Route One and was located about five kilometers southwest of Uplift. At its northern most point, the Soui Cai intersected the "506" Valley, which ran from this point of intersection to the west. It's southern end expended into a wide plain that ran down to the Village of Phu Cat and nearby Phu Cat Air base, about thirty kilometers south. We spent most of our field time in either of these valleys. When we weren't patrolling and setting up nighttime ambushes along their many trails, then we were frequently assigned , as a pacification unit, to any one of the hundreds of small villages that dotted the land in the surrounding province.
The mountains surrounding us in the Soui Cai were a little like the Blue Ridge or the Smokey Mountains in Virginia or Tennessee. They weren't especially high or necessarily steep but were covered in vegetation with many ridges, small valleys, streams and trails running throughout. When the area was viewed from the air, it was a peaceful, almost serene place with lush greenery and the geometric patterns caused by old rice paddy dikes and gently rising mountains from the narrow valley floor. But, once on the ground, actually down in the valley, everything changed. The lush greenery was still there but also included was heat, humidity, and insects.
On this stand down, our platoon was first in rotation as the "ready-reaction" platoon for the battalion. We usually spent stand down resting and trying to blow off a little steam. We could get hot showers on most days and clean uniforms when on the LZ. This was a real treat, when we were in the field we usually used whatever water was available for washing and only received clean clothing occasionally on re-supply day. We could also find a relatively safe bunk or bunker for sleeping. The LZ had a statehouse too, with plenty of beer, steaks, fried chickens, cheeseburgers and french fries. If my memory is correct, a case of Budweiser was $2.40 and a large steak with a ton of fries was about $1.25.
The guys were usually scattered all over the LZ when we were on stand down because the First Sergeant was always looking for guys to assign to his never ending list of details. We spent a lot of time avoiding his details and frequently slipped off the LZ and hitchhiked down Route One to Phu Cat Air Force Base. The Air Force had almost everything in Vietnam that they had in the states; swimming pools, PX's, steam bath's in-door movies, NCO and EM Clubs, hot food, and some pretty good USO shows for entertainment. It was almost like getting home for the weekend, but not quite. At night, back on the LZ, we could usually catch a movie on an outdoor screen, but most of us wound up pulling perimeter defense on the bunker line surrounding the LZ. This was typical of a day on stand down and was probably the case on that Thursday afternoon in November, 1970 when we were called to grab our weapons and field gear and head over to the TOC (Tactical Operations Center).
By the time we got over there, the Hueys (UH-1 helicopters) were sitting on the pad next to the TOC with their rotors turning. We learned that a unit of "E" Troop, 17th Air Cavalry, had been running a mission near the southern end of the Soui Cai. During their mission, one of their Light Observation Helicopters had been shot down. The 17th Cav had their own small reaction force but they still needed assistance securing the area of the helicopter crash where, as it turned out, both crew members had been killed.
Initially, when we arrived in the area of the crash, there didn't appear to be a great deal of commotion. We established a perimeter and set up security for the LZ. As the afternoon wore on, choppers continued to come in with additional troops or material and the Cav's gun ships continued to fly close cover over the ground where the actual crash had occurred. It wasn't too long before we could see a small group of men coming in from the jungle to our west. It was the Cav's reaction force. Two or three of the guys were shirt-less and carrying a single improvised stretcher with the badly burned remains of the two pilots. All of the guys coming in with that small group were visibly upset; some of them were in tears. Their unit was small and as a result, probably a pretty close-knit group. Losing the two pilots was like loosing a brother.
After the pilot's bodies were recovered the Cav withdrew their force, leaving our platoon in the area. It was too late in the day to get us pack to Uplift so we set up a night defensive position and stayed in the area. We were pretty disappointed to be left in the field. We had just begun stand down before being called back out to support the Cav. We figured that being left out in the boonies instead of returning to the LZ probably meant that our stand down was over and our next fifteen-day mission was commencing. As it turned out, that's what happened.
Our position that night was on the western edge of the valley floor, at the foot of the slopes that swept up into the mountains surrounding the valley. The floor of the valley in this area had previously been cultivated. Evidence of the old rice paddy dikes still existed. Near the edge of the valley the heavier jungle vegetation and steeper terrain began. We found what we felt was a pretty defendable position and set out trip flares and claymore mines. We had our backs turned to the rising terrain so that we could face out towards the valley floor. We set up the watch schedule and settled in for the night.
Thursday, 20 November, 1970
The next morning, the skies were gray and overcast. The Monsoon Season had just ended but heavy clouds were still causing a gray overcast and had done so since late September. Platoon Sergeant Via chose us to run a quick reconnaissance of the area just outside of the perimeter. These recon patrols were usually a quick check of the area closest to the perimeter and only lasted about 30 minutes.
Staff Sergeant Bill "Flea" Bishop was the Squad Leader and took the lead that morning, walking point. "Flea" was rather small in stature, hence the nick-name. I believe he was from Florida and had only recently arrived back in country for a second tour. I, Sgt. Lee Wilkerson, was a Fire Team Leader. I was twenty years old, in-country about eight months and was originally from Virginia. Specialist 4 (Spec.4) Santos Marino was our RTO (Radio Telephone Operator). Santos was Hispanic with a real expressive face, a real affable guy, always ready to laugh. He'd been in the Nam for almost a year and, I believe, was from Texas. Spec. 4 Williams was our M-79 Grenadier, was an Afro-American that not been in-country more than a few months. Dennis was our M-60 Machine Gunner. I considered Dennis a friend even though I didn't know him very well. We'd arrived in the Nam about the same time and even though we were in the same platoon, we were in different squads. Consequently, we weren't together every day and as a result didn't share the same closeness that we had with others. I remember Dennis' height and smile and the close friendships that he seemed to have with other guys in his squad. There were two other riflemen who were members of our squad but time has erased their names from my memory. I do remember, however, that both were new guys.
While most of us knew each other, having been in the same platoon, we were not all usually assigned to the same squad. The haste with which we had been deployed to the field the previous afternoon did not allow everyone to assemble before lift off. For this reason, we re-organized ourselves into three squads instead of the usual four.
We slipped out of the perimeter early, shortly after daylight and morning coffee, moving towards the west and the area of the previous day's crash site. We were not looking to engage the enemy on this patrol, we were just trying to make sure that he wasn't sneaking up on us as we prepared to be extracted. We hoped to Uplift. We still held out hope that we could return to Uplift to continue our stand down before re-assignment of another mission.
As we moved away from the main element of the platoon we discovered a well used trail. A short distance up the trail, we found underbrush that had been taken from a nearby slope along the right side of the trail. We took our time crossing this cleared area but chose not to investigate it too closely.
The events of the previous day and the evidence that we were finding near the trail were making us very cautious. We were also hoping that the enemy who shot the helicopter down the previous day had vacated the AO because of our quick deployment.
But, one of the guys accidentally fired his M-16 in the air and startled the heck out of everyone. Certain that this alerted the enemy to our position, we proceeded quietly to a tree that was laying beside the trail. Eventually, we reached a point where the trail curved towards the right, entered the brush, crossed a stream and led up a hillside.
When we stopped and called in a SITREP (situation report), we decided to return to our perimeter. The seven man, ranger-style column extended from between thirty and fifty meters. One side of the trail was the low ridge covered in dense vegetation. The other side was dense scrub brush with a running stream, and to our front the trail disappeared into the face of the mountain defining the west wall of the valley. Our position at this point was probably two to three-hundred meters away from our starting point at the perimeter.
As I turned to signal everyone in the column that we were heading back, time seemed to stand still as I watched a small, grayish-black puff of smoke directly under William's feet. The force from the explosion lifted him up several feet then dropped him flat on the ground. I was stunned as my first thought was that Williams had stepped on a mine or tripped a booby trap. I began running toward him and shouted for Marino to call a dust-off (medical evacuation helicopter). But before I got to him we started receiving automatic weapons fire. Since we were all in the open we made good targets. I remember screaming to Marino to call for help and running for the edge of the clearing for cover. Some of the others were firing now and for a few minutes that's all you could hear. We fired as quickly as possible so sustain a high volume of fire but it was depleting our ammo quickly too. When several rounds struck the ground immediately to my front it occurred to me that the enemy was shooting at me and not just in my general direction.
When I tried slipping further into the bush a few more enemy grenades exploded. I remember thinking briefly that if we lived through this, we'd probably all be wounded or captured. Amazingly, even with all the firing it's believed that none of us ever saw a single enemy. Eventually the firing tapered off then came to a complete halt.
Softly, I called to Marino (the RTO) and told him to request the dust-off again and a gun ship. He's been hit in the shoulder and was loosing a lot of blood. Williams, the first to be hit, was semi-conscientious and not rational. He complained of being hot and wanted to take off his clothes. He was told to lie still until we were sure the ambushers were gone. When I called for the others, Bishop, Dennis and the new guys -- I got no answer. As it turned out, Bishop was okay but thought he still had enemy to his front. The two new guys had run back down the trail and couldn't hear my calling. When the rest of our platoon reached us the new guys were found nearby under some heavy brush. Though the incoming fire stopped I still wasn't sure the enemy was gone. I tried locating Marino but he was either loosing or had lost consciousness. Indeed, he was unconscious laying at the bottom of a hole when I found him. An enemy bulled had ripped through his right shoulder and tore his rifle to shreds.
He was bandaged as quickly as possible. The rest of the platoon came to reinforce us but worried about being drawn into a larger ambush. Finally, Sgt. Tim Blanton from Tennessee appeared and located Marino and me in the hole. I briefed him on the situation then we both climbed out of the hole and began to provide covering fire for the rest of the platoon. The medic checked Marino's dressing then found that Williams' wound was caused by small shrapnel but he was still in a severe state of shock.
The medic and I found Dennis a few moments later -- face down over his gun. When we rolled him over we could see that he'd been badly hit in the forehead. For a moment I thought he was still alive but realize now that at that time he was already gone. The dust-off hovered about five feet over the LZ while we loaded Marino and Williams, then quickly left. We still considered Dennis as wounded so we brought the dust-off back for him. Marino, Williams, and Dennis were on the helicopter.
Later in the morning I recapped the events for Sergeants King and Via and our Platoon Leader. They indicated that they had heard the fire fight develop and could hear Dennis' M-60 firing over the other firing -- and how suddenly they'd heard his firing stop. One of the new guys near Dennis said that early in the fire fight Dennis motioned his ammo bearer for more ammo -- and that's probably when he took a round. Later in the day Sergeant Via confirmed that the Battalion Aid Station had not been able to save Dennis. What I remember most about Dennis is that he was a big man. He was also a brave man and displayed high regard for the rest of us by continuing to provide covering fire from the open -- he died fighting.