A Firefight with the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

A Firefight with the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

Above Photo: US Mortars fire in support of troops in the Iron Triangle, Vietnam. (Ron Middleton, 212warriors.com)

SSG Arnold Krause C 2/12th Infantry was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK 

It was December 14th, 1968, and we were making a company combat assault just south of the village of Sa Nho, Vietnam, almost due east of FSB Pershing, about 5 clicks. The evening before, the Lieutenant had briefed us that it would be a two platoon lift (Eagle flight) and the S-3 (Air Operations officer) scheduled 10 choppers for the mission. Lift off would be at 1400 hrs, and our field strength was approximately 60 men.

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A good example of the terrain where this firefight took place – you can see the dried out fields and the lack of cover, then the transition to a woodline. (Dennis Buckley 212warriors.com)

We were to sweep south east, then rotate north hitting our checkpoints along the way. Intelligence (S-2) said that there had been enemy movement spotted in the area.

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Soldier in a rice field (C. Schoonderwoerd, 212warriors.com)

Right after landing in an area of rice fields, the company formed up into two columns. Our platoon (3rd) had the point (meaning we had to walk ahead of the rest of our force). SP4 Jim McInvale was leading us, with Sgt. Conlin right behind him. I sent out flankers as we began to move out to our first checkpoint.

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Viet Cong fighters pose with an AK47 and an RPG.

The terrain where we’d landed was mostly dry rice fields mingled with dense wooded thickets and hedgerows.  From the landing zone, the company was about 200 meters from the wood line.  As the column neared the hedgerow area, we started taking heavy automatic and machine gun fire, and we were pinned down out in the open. The rice paddy area afforded us some protection because of the dikes that were built to hold water, but it made maneuvering difficult.

Sgt Richard Conlin went down with the first burst and we couldn’t get to him. He was about 15 meters to my front. As soon as the shooting started, we automatically recoiled into a defensive position, finding any cover we could.

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US Soldier takes cover-from Viet Cong fire in a watery rice paddy. (© unknown)

SP4 Jim “Big Jim” McInvale was leading Sgt Conlin when he got hit not 5 feet behind him. McInvale was also hit in the opening volley, in the side under his left armpit. Close by is Darrell Kuhnau, a rifleman who is screaming and out of control.

McInvale tries to reach Conlin but knows he’s dead. He continues to fight using his M-79. My squad and 1st squad spread out and return fire. Sgt Price and Sgt Buckley move the M-60’s up to the front and we start laying out a suppressing fire along the tree line.

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Viet Cong fighters fire weapons at US troops.

The VC continued to return fire. They are about 40 meters to our front Bullets were kicking up dirt and dust everywhere. You could hear them whistling by, sounding like mad bees. I could see muzzle flashes from VC rifles at three or four points to my front and settle my sights on one of them.

PFC Ed “Wally” Wales from New York, and SP4 Jesse “Taco” Tostado, who hails from SoCal were dropping high explosive rounds from M-79 grenade launchers into the wood line. We were getting no word from command about what to do. No effort was made to try a flanking movement to the left and into the tree line. Any attempt to move to the right with no cover would have been suicidal.

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A US soldier with an M-60 machine gun in the Iron Triangle. ( Vaughn Banting, 212warriors.com)

We were without an officer since 1LT James Merrett was killed two days previously. SFC John Partee wants to call in a C.S gas drop using one of the planes from Cu Chi equipped for that, and asks Buckley about it. Buckley retorts by asking him if he’s crazy because none of us have gas masks with us. Then Partee starts talking about bring in an air strike, but that thought gets no traction. I ’m burning through my ammo pretty quick and others up front are also. I send a runner to the rear to get us more ammo.

Our C.O, 1LT David Riggs seems paralyzed and can’t figure out what to do. He was our platoon leader prior to being elevated to the company C.O, but he looks like a deer in headlights right now. The F.O. (Forward Observer for artillery) who is sitting beside Riggs calls for a fire mission and within a minute there is a White Phosphrous round landing in front of us. The F.O. adjusts fire with a second round, then radios “give me six rounds and fire for effect” and within a few minutes we started peppering the tree line with 105mm high explosive shells. That’s all good for now, but we’re still stuck out in the open. The F.O. continues to adjust the artillery fire and is slowly walking it closer to our lines. Soon, we are being hit by the shrapnel.

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A Viet Cong squad prepare to attack US troops during the Vietnam War.

I ask my R.T.O. (radio telephone operator) SP4 George Toto to contact the F.O. to adjust fire, but for whatever reason the artillery fire does not get adjusted and the rounds continue to pour in.

Right now, I’m afraid that someone in the platoon is going to get hit. Again I ask the R.T.O, to get the C.O. on the horn and to cease fire. The firing continues so I jump up and race back to where Riggs is, zig-zagging as I go to avoid fire.

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Artillery shells with timing fuses wait to be fired at an Iron triangle firebase. (212warriors.com)

I yell at him and ask what the f*** is going on. No reply. He is not in good shape and is trying to light a cigarette but his hands are shaking so much he can’t hold the lighter still enough to hit the end of his cigarette with the flame. I look at the F.O, and tell him what is happening up front. He finally issues an order to lift the fire. I race back to my position turning my ankle in the process.

The action continues on for a few more minutes and then the incoming fire ceases. Kuhnau is still yelling up in front of us like a crazed man. We tell him to stay put and stay down.

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Another photo of a Viet Cong squad in Vietnam, training to attack.

The platoon stops shooting as well and we sit and wait and catch our breath. The sweat is pouring off of us and we are all thirsty for a drink of water. When it looks like the enemy has retreated we rush in to get McInvale, Kuhnau and Conlin. “Big Jim” has been hit pretty bad and needs help fast and a dust off. Tostado hoists Big Jim up and we pack him out of there.

Kuhnau is not hurt, but is really shaken up. There is no urgency for Conlin; he is gone. He took a burst across the chest. A call for a dust off is made and Jim McInvale, George Toto (I think he got hit with shrapnel from the artillery) and Conlin’s body are loaded on the chopper.

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Artillery fires in support of US troops in the field, from a firebase in the Iron Triangle (212warriors.com)

We searched the area for bodies and found 4 dead VC but no weapons. We deduced that the VC had been camped in the area and we had landed on top of them, rather than they were waiting to ambush us or had assembled once we’d landed. Not long after this, we were picked up by Hueys and returned to our night laager at Pershing.

Once we made ‘contact’, all bets were off and the rest of the mission was usually scrubbed. With our lack of command leadership, we would not have been in good shape to remain there and to establish a NDP, which is why we headed back to Pershing for a pretty somber night. Conlin had been with us for about 4-5 months and was well liked by the guys. And, anytime you lost someone, it became a fairly quiet night.

Later, McInvale was given the Bronze Star for Valor along with a Purple Heart for this action.

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Back safely. (Jesse Tostado, 212warriors.com)

Our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.

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See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. 

For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:

Approximate location of the Iron Triangle Area in red circle

© Peter Alan Lloyd

BACK Parts 1 and 2:

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Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

 

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