reprinted from Red Clay, Newsletter of the Veterans who served at Khe Sanh Combat Base,Hill 950, Hill 881, Hill 861, Hill 861-A, Hill 558 Lang-Vei and Surrounding Area
Since late December '67, the 325th and 304th North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had been deployed from east to west across the DMZ and had been transporting supplies from depots north of the DMZ to caches north and northeast of Khe Sanh. At least 114 short tons of rice had been moved, and 200-300 tons of rice were transported, enough rice to feed an entire division for one month. In addition, at least 41 tons of ammunition, the equivalent in weight of a basic load for one division, had also been moved. To one 304th squad leader, Tran Dinh Ky, this continued supply buildup indicated to him that plans of a coordinated offense designed to seize and hold key objectives were being implemented.
Prior to the 7th Battalion's attack on Huong Hoa Subsector, the 9th Regiment, 304th Division sent one platoon to occupy the Ku Boc road junctions. One other platoon was to occupy high point 471. Orders were to hold these two features at all costs. One battalion being placed close to Highway 9, prepared to attack any relief forces that might approach Huong Hoa Subsector overland along Highway 9, from Tan Lam and Ca Lu. And to counter any attempt to insert relief forces by air assault in the area south and southeast of the Ku Boc road junction.
The Ku Boc road junction is located approximately 1,000 meters north-northeast of the recorded crash site of Blackcat tail number 61027. It appears that PAVN account authors used the name Ku Boc to refer also to the Old French Fort (a.k.a. Delta 5). It was here that the 1lth Company laid in wait in deep trenches, undetectable from the air. There was no need for the NVA soldiers to question why they had come. The bad news of fighting to live was there for them to see, almost close enough to touch.
It was here that Tran Dinh Ky and his squad laid in wait. Ky had been given his orders. He was to get his squad into position to support the occupation of the Ku Boc road junctions by the l1th company, of the 9th battalion of the 66th Regiment. Ky himself would carry a most powerful weapon on his own back; a B-40 rocket propelled anti-tank grenade. It did not make him feel immune to the "bronze candy," NVA slang for enemy bullets.
Meantime, CIA man, Robert Brewer, the Quang Tri province senior adviser, had organized a council of war. According to John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe, authors of "Valley of Decision," "The group that met included ARVN province chief Colonel Nguyen Am, ARVN tactical operations center director Major Tuyen, his U.S. advisor Major Sanders, economic development adviser James R. Bullington, psychological warfare adviser Marine Lieutenant Colonel Jean T. Fox, intelligence adviser Air Force Captain Warren Milburg, and Regional Forces/Popular Forces (RF/PF) adviser Army Major John B. Oliver. Brewer himself and his deputy, Army Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Seymoe, plus his special assistant, John M. Uhler from USAID, rounded out the group.
Brewer's conviction carried the day, and the group agreed on the need to reinforce Khe Sanh village. With the approval of ARVN 1st Division commander Maj or General Ngo Quang, Colonel Am provided one of his best RF companies for the mission. A helicopter unit from Danang provided nine UH-1E ships to carry them. The slicks lifted off from Quang Tri City at 5:10 P.M. on January 21 with the 256th RF Company.
Brewer's deputy volunteered to lead the relief mission. Given the shortness of time and impossibility of extensively briefing the pilots, the CIA man thought it might be good to have someone along who knew his plan, so Brewer approved the inclusion of Seymoe. The deputy, originally from the Air Force, was a brave man who held a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions in the Korean War. He had been grounded because of injuries, however, including some loss of hearing, and then transferred to the Army. Seymoe's poor hearing had fateful effects on the relief expedition.
In addition to Seymoe, Brewer sent along a forward air controller (FAC) on his staff, Captain Cooper. Flying an L-19 observation plane, Cooper was to mark the orchard of coffee trees so that fixedwing aircraft could blast down the trees to create the LZ for the relief force. Instead there was a classic foul-up. Brewer tells the story best in a video interview he gave in 1989:
When Cooper got up, there was another L-19 in the vicinity. It was a Marine Corps FAC, but Cooper couldn't get him on the radio. So he's chasing around the sky, trying to tell that guy to get down, get out of the way. And meantime he radioed the oncoming choppers lumbering in: "hold up, we couldn't get the fighter strike in yet."
Now Cooper had four flights of fighter-bombers ready to level the coffee grove, but Seymoe with his bad ear understood that Cooper was reporting that the strike had been canceled. Seymoe then ordered the slicks to land his relief force at the Old French Fort. That place, since the departure of FOB-3, had become an NVA stronghold. The result was a massacre. "The landing force of helicopters had been unable to detect the 1lth company, which held its fire until after the choppers of the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company had touched down. The entire platoon opened fire on the unsuspecting US Army and ARVN soldiers.
Except Ky, who waited patiently under cover for a clear shot with his anti-tank weapon. His target, an American UH-1 helicopter, tail number 027. He stood, took careful aim, and fired. The B-40 round made a direct hit on the gunner's seat, caught on fire, and crashed to the ground, rolling over a slight edge and stopping upside down in flames. No, Tran Dinh Ky was not to be killed in this battle. Instead he was to become a National North Vietnamese war hero because of it.
Tommy Stiner's day had started with a surprise birthday party hosted by members of the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company. And Tom Pullen, pilot of #7 or Tail-End-Charlie, was fighting to keep his own ship in the air when he "went off the end of the LZ and over a cliff about 20 or 30 feet high. I could see an aircraft on the ground directly below me, which was burning, and could see another aircraft hovering just below and to my right. Another aircraft was taking off from the vicinity of the burning chopper, staying low and departing at about a 30degree angle to my right front. There was an American standing in the open near the burning helicopter and appeared to be firing his weapon at targets to my rear (WO Jerry McKinsey). There were two other Americans running towards the long figure, one did not appear to have a weapon (Williams and Elliott).
"I heard an Alley Cat (Gun Ship) warn everyone on the radio to clear the area of the downed ship because they were going to suppress the area, and as I looked up I saw the Alley Cat cut sharp right to keep from flying directly across my path. By this time, I had cleared the side of the mountain and dove into the valley below. Some of the ships went back to look for Stiner, Mac (McKinsey, Sgt. Hill (gunner), Hollingsworth (CB), Howington (CE who jumped from #2 to try to get them out of #1, and then #2 got it's hydraulics shot out and had to leave), Col. Seymoe (passenger in #1, Elliott (gunner from #3 who jumped out to help #1 and then #3 lost hydraulics and electrical system and had to leave). Number Two got Hollingsworth out and then all hell broke loose."
"As anticipated," official NVA war records state, "when we attacked Huong Hoa, they mobilized Unit #258 by air at Ku Boc where they were ambushed by our Unit #11 (of Division #9). Most of Unit #258 were killed on the spot; a few survived, ran toward Lang Khoai (Sweet-Potato Village) and were taken in by our soldiers of Unit #9. Among the prisoners-of-war was the head of Unit #258, Lieutenant Nguyen Dinh Hiep (ARVN officer). At this battle, comrade Tran Dinh Ky, one of our platoon's head, fired one shot of B40 at one helicopter, destroying it along with 12 of them (not specific if American or South Vietnamese); he then lead his soldiers and destroyed another helicopter."
If it looked bad from the air, it was even worse on the ground. Danny Williams had hopped out of his aircraft and ran directly to Stiner to see if he could help. They tried together to free Seymoe, but by this time the Colonel was dead. Stiner managed to crawl to McKinsey's firing position only to see him die, still holding his firing position. Stiner took his carbine and crawled back out of the line of fire to Howington and one ARVN soldier.
They found a hole at the rear of the chopper, an indentation in the earth, and they got down into this hole. Williams would cover Stiner as he crawled out in different directions as far as he could and when he drew fire, he would retreat back into the hole. The NVA had moved in close enough to start lobbing grenades at them. It was time to move or die!
Stiner and Williams decided to run for it. They moved out to the rear, Stiner picking up two grenades and clips for his carbine. Running downhill they encountered a small group of NVA who were so surprised they were able to run right through them. The chase was on when the enemy recovered enough to begin running after them, firing and yelling.
The situation was not good. They had no map, compass, food, water, nor much ammo. The only possible survival meant crawling through leech infested brush and blade sharp elephant grass, running under cover of darkness with thousands of enemy troops attacking civilians and military in the village and the Marines stationed there and in the hills around the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). The two Blackcats, Williams and Stiner, weren't likely to get an assist from the Base. The NVA had scored high that morning with a hit on the ammo dump, killing and wounding, igniting an inferno that not only blazed for hours, but belched gas and pitched lava-red live rounds into the trenches where Marines were fighting off the initial invasion of Tet.
After 13 hours of pure terror, Stiner and Williams made Ta Cong hamlet at first light on January 22nd. They had wandered into a mine field and set one off. Both were now wounded by shrapnel, and Howington was shot by a Marine guard when troops on the line opened up on them, thinking it was the NVA. But their troubles weren't over, the paranoid Marines of Oscar-3 thought the two were Russian advisors and took them POW, tying them up overnight. When positive identification was made the Marines apologized, "Sorry 'bout that."
Bob Brewer returned to the Old French Fort in April 1968 and recovered the remains of Seymoe. It had been determined that Seymoe died pinned under the chopper; McKinsey died of a bullet wound to the head; Hill died when the B-40 rocket hit his position as gunner; and Elliott continues to be listed as Missing-In-Action, although the Army made a presumptive finding of death (PFOD) after the required seven years had passed.
In early 1999, Mike Teutschman (an old buddy of Elliott's from HHC 212th Aviation Battalion Airborne Pathfinders, prior to his joining the Blackcats) and I, his younger sister, learned that the 55th Joint Task Force Full Accounting (JTF-FA) Team was going back to the crashsite in May '99. There was also to be an MIA ceremony where remains and information was scheduled to be handed over to U.S. officials. Mike and I journeyed to Vietnam and attended the ceremony in Hanoi and later met up with the JTF-FA Team in Dong Ha. Jerry Elliot Photo by Donna Elliot Journal of this trip can be found at: http://www.vietvet.org/donna.htm
In the fall of '99 I was searching through casualty records on reel 139, requested for viewing from the National Archives, and came across two memorandums referring to Jerry:
Case Review Memorandum for Record 20 May 1976 By Gary Koblitz
"Although there were documents in some of the DIA/ACSI files not in the Casualty files..." and another report dated 21 May 1976, "ACSI correlated one report to Elliott but that is was a tenuous correlation at best." - Gary Koblitz
Another report soon surfaced with a subject line reading "Army of the Republic of Vietnam and American Prisoners of War Captured in Quang Tri Province by Elements of North Vietnamese Army Division 304B." A memo typed at the bottom of the title page reads:
"Two PW referred to in par 6 may be Hill, Billy D., and Elliott, Jerry W., lost...censored... Rallir(?) states that two PW captured in Huong Hoa District, southern Khe Sanh area, and at Ut Thoung (ufi) Hill. Hill and Elliot were lost at Huong Hoa, which is in southern Khe Sanh. No further correlation at this time. MAJ C.W. Watson, GS"
What did all these memos mean? How could it be that "some "of the Defense Intelligence Agency/ Assistant Chief of Staff Intelligence files were not in Jerry's Casualty files. The questions have been asked, but not yet answered.
I had learned from reliable sources that the Bru Montagnard village chief of Khe Sanh, who was in power locally on 21Jan68, was still alive and living somewhere in the bush around Khe Sanh. He was in a position to have knowledge of the incident and perhaps if any P.O.W.'s had been taken by the NVA during the battle at the Old French Fort, he would know.
The Bru hate the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese despise the Bru. Since the war, all Montagnards are required to live in restricted areas. JTF-FA Teams are required to have official Vietnamese counterparts with them on every mission, so even if they found the old man, nothing would be learned. Especially since he had spent several years in the politically revised Vietnamese government's "re-education camps."
I had been toying with the idea of returning to Khe Sanh and asking the once powerful but "politically re-educated" Bru chief if he knew anything but was still undecided. The last trip I had made to Vietnam with Mike had been hard on my health, taking months to recover, and giving me reason to hesitate. It was just an idea, until one day, out-of-the-blue, a package comes to my mailbox from Washington, D.C.
Analysts had determined that two Vietnamese War History Books have sections that relate directly to the incident of Jerry's loss. A copy of the original in Vietnamese and a brief interpretation in English are included. Unfortunately, only portions of the document were translated into English. Several attempts at finding someone to do a literal translation of all the pages fail. Most give no reason why, some just didn't respond, but one man raged in his refusal. He would not translate the lies and propaganda of the NVA, in his opinion it would be spreading the evil he and his family and many other Vietnamese "boat people" risked their lives to escape after the end of the war.
In the end he translated only one paragraph, but it was enough..." a few survived ran toward Lang Khoai were taken in..." Taken in, not killed, but taken prisoner. Oddly enough, this was one of the paragraphs the powers that be in D.C. did not translate.
It was time to bite the bullet! Empty the piggy bank, travel for days and nights, deal with an unfamiliar language and lifestyle, fight the heartbreaking but never-ending beggars, survive crossing the streets and cyclo rides, chance the food, live in hotels where geckos hang off the walls and a real toilet is a luxury. It was time to go back to Vietnam.
I had been networking with Khe Sanh Combat Marines for quite a while. I learned a lot of details from their third-person accounts. Volumes more than DoD ever shared. I communicated frequently with Glenn Prentice, Jim (Jimbo) Wodecki, and Jim (Doc Jim) Armburst. When Glenn invited me to join him and three other returning Khe Sanh vets, I leapt at the opportunity. It was perfect, no plans to hire a guide, giving me the freedom I needed. A lone American woman really sticks out in a foreign country; they would be the ideal cover for what I had in mind. I was determined to find the old Bru chief and ask him some questions without Vietnamese or American officials present. I also wanted to protect the former RVN soldier, as he had spent many years in political prison and was still suspect. The only problem I could foresee would be finding him, if he was still alive.
My traveling companions as described by Glenn Prentice, prior to meeting them in Los Angeles: "Paul Knight from H & S Company 3rd Bn 26th Marines Stress--Hill 861 Forward Air Controller/Medevacs (He is bringing his son, Jeff Northcut); Dennis Mannion, Charlie Battery 1st Bn 13th Marines--105 Battery Forward Arty Observer attached to Kilo Company 3/26; Bob Arrotta, H & S Company 3/26 Hill 881 South Forward Air Controller (Bob and Glenn were only 19 out of 300 Marines on Hill 881S that were not KIA or WIA, the few that made it.) David Kniess, a camera guy and Mannion's former student.
Prentice on himself, "Survivor's guilt--last day of siege, let my friend (Sherrition) take my place as radio operator FO team Arty up 881N--KIA sniper through the heart. They know about your purpose-that's why I'm splitting off with you so they will not get in trouble. Especially Mannion--he is a school teacher. Some may come along; if not, they will come back if we get into trouble. I know them, all good Marines, excellent fighters, best jungle/map readers you will find. That was all that we needed to call in the shit--via maps. Never got lost!"
As I checked for references (I'm not totally nuts), I found that these men were highly regarded by their fellow veterans. Jimbo said I "couldn't be going with better jungle rats than Glenn and Dennis." Even the noted Rev. Ray Stubbe, who served as the Lutheran chaplain of the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines at Khe Sanh Combat Base, gave them high praise, "You'll be safe with them, they are good men."
As word got out about our trip back to Vietnam, advice began to come from every direction. Mostly I was advised about what to take, bug juice being the main item, but I got plenty of warnings about tigers, rock apes, lizards, rabid rats and snakes. Jimbo even sent me a recipe for cleaning and baking large snakes to serve twelve. Doc Jim and I had several conversations about the leeches. I was more apprehensive about the leeches than the snakes.
The main ingredient that Glenn told me to bring was, "Guts. It will be hot. Do not wimp out on me! Good spirits--help others--good words--understanding of others even if they are jerks." Sound advice!
Travel plans were simple enough: "Leave LAX 6 July 12:30pm, Flight #18 Class Q---Arrive Seoul 7 July 5:05pm. Leave Seoul 7 July 7:50 to Ho Chi Minh City 11:20pm 7 July. Then to Vien Dong Hotel." I rode by car for three hours to the Little Rock, Arkansas, airport to board a plane to Dallas and then onto Los Angeles, arriving late afternoon. I stayed overnight in LA to rest before the two-day flight to Saigon. We would spend one night in Saigon, fly to Hue, purchase tourists permits and arrange travel for Khe Sanh. Spend one night in Khe Sanh Village and jump off into the bush for a few days and nights.
Our tentative route to our first stop, Hill 861, would be walking from the ville up the road towards the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), bypass KSCB and follow downhill about two clicks. We would be passing through a small village to the left and hitting the trail to 861/861A, carrying our own water and food, and sleeping on the ground that night. The following morning we would go back down the hill through the ville, up the hill halfway to KSCB, then head North/lefthand movement. This would take us to an old logging road, which we would follow to the 689 ridgeline. There, we were to wind round to Hill 881S, then two clicks to 881N, follow the same way back to 881S, then follow ridge back down to Khe Sanh.
I knew my vets as soon as I saw them in the Los Angeles airport, although we had failed to set an exact meeting spot. Actually, they looked like any group of men traveling casually, but there was an air of excitement and determination about them that invited me to walk up and say, "Are you the group of Marines returning to Khe Sanh, Vietnam?" Someone asked, "Are you Donna?" Handshakes and greetings all around, and then Paul gave me a really neat KSCB vet T-shirt and a Marine water bottle. I didn't feel like the FNG, but part of the group.
It was the same long, boring, cramped trip over on Korean Air that I remembered from the year before. I was disappointed that all the guys were seated together and I was many rows away, but I slept most: of the way and didn't feel neglected. I was still burnt from the Ride For The Wall Rolling Thunder XIII Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C., two weeks earlier. But the experience was awesome and had inspired me to do what I had to do...go back to Vietnam when I really didn't want to.
I both dreaded and beckoned what I might encounter in the bush. Hardships I expected; hot, sweaty, dirty, thirsty, hungry, bug bitten, leech sucked, and pain. Being dead lined was a very real possibility I feared because of health problems. I knew that I wouldn't be the leader of the pack in the beginning, but I didn't want to have to fallback. I was praying hard not to interfere with the impact the return to Khe Sanh Combat Base would have for Bob, Dennis, Glenn, and Paul. They had waited long enough for what might be healed by confrontation.
The days in Saigon and Hue before we went to Khe Sanh are already fading. We went many places and met many faces. Only a few things stand out for me now: Jeff's face as his cyclo driver suddenly stopped playing chicken and turned about-face before the local buses ran them over; seeing The Requiem Exhibit of Vietnam War era photographs through the eyes of American vets; the Pick-YourOwn-Snake restaurant; and Bob being dumped on the steps of the Vien Dong Hotel by his cyclo driver. I recall the almost boyish excitement of four men who were retracing the steps of their youth, trying to close the gap between innocent youth and combat veteran. I recall all too clearly the night we met a former NVA officer in a restaurant. He told me where two of the men on my list of Vietnamese (who might have knowledge of Jerry) lived, one in Hue and the other in Hanoi. I was excited with the two new leads, until Glenn repeated a portion of the vet-to-vet talk he had with the former enemy.
Glenn sat down beside me and bluntly stated, "He just told me that your brother is dead, Donna." "Oh my Lord, he did know something!" crossed my mind as my breathing stopped and the blood ran cold to my toes. Glenn went on to say, "It was NVA policy to kill all members of chopper crews."
Suddenly I could breathe again and I asked Glenn, "Is that all? Because he said it was policy you don't believe there's any chance of finding Jerry?"
Glenn sadly shook his head no, his mind made up and unchangeable. I felt so sorry for the messenger but did not believe the message. How could I base the truth on a lone NVA soldier's comment about military policy, signaling the death of my brother, when I had official American and Vietnamese documents that indicated he was taken alive, not shot on sight. It was a crossroad and the others and I began to focus on the same path of travel for different reasons. Tension was mounting as we got closer and closer to Khe Sanh.
ED NOTE: Nice going Glenn, real tactful approach. Like a gunny falling out the troops and telling them "all those with Mother's take a step forward," then adding, "Private Elliott Stand Fast."
It was early morning and we were seven piled into a van with stacks of luggage, when we made a stop to pick up Lan Anh, a very likeable young Vietnamese woman who would be translating for us. She was like a breath of flesh air, her little white hat with the decorative pin that had only a few stones missing and that big contagious smile. Her family owned the restaurant we had eaten at the night before and now her father was allowing her to travel with us. She was going only to translate and see a part of her country that was unknown to her, the family honor declared there would be no charge. And I admit I was damn glad to have another female along! Lan Anh and I would become very close over the next few days, woman to woman, while the guys treated her like a little sister.
At last, we were on Highway 9 headed towards Khe Sanh. A very different road now, paved almost to Laos, with Mom and Pop shops selling half-cold Coke and Pepsi out of the front room of their homes. Motor scooters carrying everything from families of four to pigs and ducks, bicycle riders and pedestrians, loaded with kids or farm produce, all fighting for a piece of the road. Many old bunkers still stand, pockmarked with old bullet holes, used for shelter now. The jungle canopy begins to thicken as the mountains become steeper, and all eyes are glued to the windows of the van, trying to take everything in at once. Comprehending all the shades of green is impossible, better to let it all flow into one panoramic scene.
Suddenly the shotgun rider gives a hoot; there stands the mighty Rockpile. It is a rugged mountain with steep and rocky trails to the top, but if you know the history, the sight makes you want to stand tall and salute the men that fought there. Behind the
Rockpile is Razorback Ridge, another story. They both remind me of Arlington National Cemetery, although no guard drills here, there is both honor and dignity.
The road curves alongside the river for many miles before Khe Sanh, clear and beckoning. Each time I pass this way I want to stop and fish, maybe take a canoe ride. I consider a swim and then remember the leeches. Here and there are Bru Montagnards villages that are not restricted to visitors, only a few included in tours of the area. The women wear brightly embroidered long skirts and the old women smoke pipes of betel nut, turning their teeth dark brown. Not many of the men are seen casually walking on the road, but are in the fields tending to the chicory coffee plants from first light to dark. The Bru walk tall, under suppression.
The van is quiet as we ride into Khe Sanh, some see old remembrances, some see new sights; we all see the end of a long trip. On the edge of the village we take a right off Hwy 9 down a chunky rock road solid with baked red clay. A few miles later we turn right where a red and white marker says, "Di Tich Lich Su Ta Con Khe Sanh," or "Historical Vestige of Tacon Combat Base Khe Sanh 500m." Turn right and walk the muddy red clay road to hell.
A small building houses what is loosely termed the Khe Sanh War Museum. For a small fee a visitor can see and touch weapons and other articles of war. Black and white pictures of very unhappy American soldiers line the walls. A single wood chair and a simple wooden table indicate the most precious item in the room: the guest book. Visitors from all over the world have left their stories and signatures in the bound book over the last three decades.
The only marks left on the landscape by the years of unrelenting battle is a depression in the red clay where the ammo dump once stood. Cast about like old pieces of junk are live rounds of ammo, ready to blow at will. The ammo dump was hard to find in the elephant grass and small trees; the children acted as guides for us through their playground. A quiet place surrounded by beautiful tree-covered mountains, wondrous small plants that fold up when lightly brushed, and possible death hidden under every footstep.
The returning KSCB vets scrambled to find old locations, calling out events and names across the way, sweat dripping and tongues hanging from the heat. After all the exploring was done, we had to walk the couple of miles back to the government guesthouse in Khe Sanh. More than a few red faces and both my shoulders proved the sun powerful and strong. Which did nothing for my disposition when I saw the room Lan Anh and I would be sharing. Two shabby beds with mosquito netting filled the entire room, but they put in a couple of chairs anyway. Gritty tile floors led to a bathroom that boasted unscreened slats for windows, a sink, and a real sitdown toilet.
Felt like paradise for a moment compared to other places I've stayed in Vietnam. I had a sudden desire to throw cool water over my face to rinse the dust off, so I leaned over the sink and splashed running water up...but it came down onto my feet! The sink had pipes, but they only ran into a metal pan under the sink. Real shock effect! We quickly learned not to leave the lights on in the bathroom, considering insects and small animals had no problem scaling the wall and sliding in through the slats. I kept waiting to turn the light on and see a damn snake draped across the toilet or curled up in a boot! We were very lucky to have one of the few Class A rooms and were most thankful we even had a bathroom since none of the guys did. I'm no sissy about surviving in the woods, but I would have fought about walking down a flight of steps to go to the bathroom behind the building with all the other guests in the dark, in the rain.
It rained all night and was still coming down steady the next morning when we loaded in the van for a ride to the base, our starting point. Standing in a group, everyone checking gear, the road shiny like red ice, we cheered, "All the way!" in the drizzling rain.
I quickly remembered my sunburned and raw shoulders when the weight of my pack and all of my gear rested on them. Shift and slide was my game. I fell behind while the road was still level. Kids were coming out of homes on both sides of the road to say hello and watch our ragtag group move out. The road was less traveled when we turned to the left and walked past farmhouses with coffee beans drying in colorful piles and dogs barking. Then we hit the real trail.
Up, everything was straight up, except me, who was humped over in an effort to balance my pack on raw shoulders and a throbbing lower back sending spasm signals into my thighs. Thank God for the rain! It was muddy and slick as red lard but it wasn't so hot my brains were baking, although I was emptying my water bladder way too fast for the terrain. Paul fell back with me and we stopped often to watch Dennis lead the way over yet another hill, the rest of the troops following closely on his heels. Paul knew the trail to Hill 861 so we didn't have to kill ourselves trying to keep pace. As we got higher and higher I could look back and see the small villages and reservoirs nestled in the foothills. It was such a soulful scene that it seemed impossible that war had ever touched this land.
Unknown to any of us, a typhoon was hitting the Philippine Islands, and the hills of Khe Sanh were about to be whipped by the tailwinds. Visibility of the hilltops was nil and dark clouds were rolling in when Paul and I waded through the elephant grass to pull down the red trail marker left for us. When we topped 861 the wind was blowing cold and wet, and a depressing darkness was settling on the horizon although it was still early in the day. All three tents were standing and here and there packs of the new MRE's were perking and smelling mighty good. Glenn had the only new tent, but it was small and only three people fit in it. Jeff, Paul's son, had carried an older tent as had Dennis, whose tent was long but slender. I crowded into Jeff and Paul's tent, trying to fit into a corner, feeling like a third wheel. The tents were laid out on stomped down elephant grass that had stubs so sharp and stiff that they poked holes through the tent bottoms and the foam mats. Our tent had a couple of leaks and we put my poncho on top of the tent to try to shield some of the flow. We also had a giant leech (ED NOTE: it was about a half an inch long!) in one corner, my major dread, which I quickly took a picture of and covered in salt. A little dash around the front of tent wouldn't hurt either. Surely, the worst had to be over. ..wrong!
The rain is coming down hard now and everyone is trying to take cover when Dennis starts screaming like he's snake bit! Lying in his tent, curled up on one end to avoid the massive puddle that is growing, he has developed a charley horse in both legs. We are all miserable, soggy and disappointed we are stuck inside the tents. David and Jeff, healthy young men, could stand it no longer. They decide to go back down the hill and return the next day; the rest of us plan to stay the night.
Pop! The wind has snapped a tent pole and water is streaming in. A few adjustments to the poncho and Paul and I edge closer to the middle to stay dry. The wind is gusting and the tent has an odd tilted angle to it. Pop! There goes the second tent pole and half the tent sags with the weight of rainwater. Paul and I scramble out into the wind and he shouts, "The hell with this, I'm getting back down before dark." "I'm on your heels," I holler back. Dennis no longer has a tent either, more like a slightly covered indoor swimming pool. He decides to crowd into Glenn's tent, and Paul and I start back to the village.
"Hurry, hurry!" Paul shouts at me over his shoulder, "we've got to get down before it gets dark!" Easier said than done. The trail has turned from hard red clay formations with ruts into slick piles of mud with deep streams cutting honeycombs into the path. The wind and the rain are fast and heavy, dark is coming on, and my foot is turning right when my boot goes left...and even I know we have lost the trail. We pick up Jeff and David's ' footprints and skids marks for a while and then lose them in the brush. Paul finds a landmark and we fight time as we slip and slide where animals fear to tread in bad weather, finally making it to the main road. Hey, scooters! Let's hitch a ride!
I hang back in the shadows, poncho covering my hair and face, while Paul wheels and deals with the drivers. They want to know, "Do we have money? Do we have money to pay up front." Paul has a few dong, I have more packed in my gear but I am nervous and can't remember exactly where. A quick surface search turns up nothing, must be in the pack somewhere. The Vietnamese men begin to act a little antsy; Paul pulls me out of the rain up on a porch to help me look for dong. "Find it quick, Donna," he says in a husky whisper, "I think they may be planning more than a ride for us." No pressure here!
Just as I dig a wad of crumpled dong bills from a pocket of rolled up pants, two more scooters roar up next to the other drivers. Words we did not understand were passed in a manner that we did understand. The two new drivers motioned for us to get on the back of their scooters and we didn't hesitate, barely getting settled on the seats before they pulled out. The road was a mess, red mud and big rocks churning under the tires so roughly my teeth were chattering like I was freezing to death. My poncho was of little use in the wet wind and I was drenched as I fought to hold the material closer to my body so I didn't fly off the back of the scooter like a camrobed flying nun. I was one mighty relieved skinny white girl when we bumped into the parking lot of the guesthouse