By Manuel Black
On June 28, 1968, B-56 Project SIGMA’s Recon Company moved forward to our new launch site in the 1st Infantry Division (1st ID) base camp at Quan Loi. We set up operations on the airfield, and we lived in a large hay and rice storage barn at the end of the airfield, when we were not on a mission.
It had been raining ever since we arrived, and I mean raining; it was coming down in buckets. With all the water around the area, the rats moved inside the barn. That barn had more big rats than hay or rice. The first night in the barn, we had two SCU soldiers bitten by rats, and they had to be medevacked to a hospital to start taking rabies shots. The rats were so bad we had someone stand guard at night with a flashlight and a .22 caliber pistol with a silencer. The second night we killed six rats. We were not only fighting the VC; we were fighting rats too.We didn’t pull any missions for the first three days because the weather was so bad the helicopters couldn’t fly. This was one big hellhole of red mud. The mud was ten inches deep in places. Quan Loi was one miserable, depressing place.
There was no place to go or anything to do except fight the rats at night and sleep during the day. I couldn’t sleep at night because of rats crawling over my body and artillery firing all night. The 1st ID had Artillery Batteries of 105 and 155 guns just outside our barn. We were also isolated from the 1st ID. We couldn’t leave, and no one could come into our area.On the morning of the third day, our S-2 major gave us a briefing on our missions.
That was the first time I had pulled a Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) mission. I didn’t know what to expect. In the briefing, we were told the B-52s dropped 750-pound bombs in the AO, and each bomb made a crater large enough to conceal a truck. Each plane dropped forty-two bombs, and there were at least three planes in a formation, or there could have been up to twenty planes in one formation. That could be up to 840, 750-pound bombs in one area. That covered an area of two miles by six miles with bombs overlapping each other.One good thing about that, we wouldn’t have to be worried about finding an LZ in the jungle, because each bomb made an area big enough for a helicopter to land. There were six different areas in our AO that had been bombed. However, we only had four Recon Teams, so each team had their area to do their BDA.On the fourth day, the rain stopped.
It was decided to try to get all four teams in on the same day. The first team would be inserted at 0600 hours and the last team should be in by 1900 hours if none of the teams made enemy contact. I would be going in with Sergeant First Class Ed Brannan and four SCU soldiers. We would be Team Three. The mission was scheduled for five days or until we finished the length of the bomb run.As we flew over the area, I could see the damage from the air, and it was an unforgettable experience to see the devastation below. We were inserted at 1300 hours, and up to that time, the first two teams had not made enemy contact.
As we landed, I thought there is no way Charley could survive this, and we wouldn’t find anyone alive. The helicopter hovered over the center of one of the craters, and all six of us jumped off the left side of the aircraft onto the edge of the crater.The helicopter departed, and we took cover in the crater that was half-full of water from all the rain. It had been at least six days since the bombs were dropped, and it had been raining all that time.
We stayed in the crater for thirty minutes waiting to see if there were any NVA or VC in the area looking for us.As we started to move along the path of the bombs, we could see where someone had walked before us leaving boot prints in the mud. However, the prints were full of water, so it had been some time since anyone had been in that area. I couldn’t believe anyone would survive this and would be walking through the mess. We moved several hundred yards, not seeing anything, but we could smell the stench of death all around us. It was very hot, and steam was rising from the jungle floor carrying the stench.It was getting dark, so we decided to move away from the craters into the jungle and set up for the night. It was hard to believe that this was once a triple canopy jungle with no sunlight coming through to the jungle floor. Now it was open, and you could see the sky. We found an area through all the twisted trees where we would spend the night. After setting out our Claymore mines, we got together to eat and get ready for a long night. The stench was terrible, and I knew there were dead bodies close by. I put it out of my mind and decided to open a can of C-ration peaches, my favorite food.I had just opened a can of peaches and stuck my spoon in the can.
I was sitting with my back against a tree ready to enjoy my meal when something fell from the tree above me and landed in my can of peaches. It was a chunk of something black. When I looked up, I could see what was left of a human body hanging in the tree. That was disgusting, and that was the only can of peaches I had.When I told Ed what happened, he started laughing so hard and loud; I thought he could be heard a mile away. In a few seconds, all six of us were laughing. This is a story I have told before, and I always get the same reaction. I guess that is one of those situations where it is so appalling you have to laugh about it. I was tempted, but I didn’t eat my peaches.
I moved a few yards away from the body in the tree and went to sleep hungry that night. We didn’t hear any movement during the night, and that was good. The next morning I heard the Forward Air Controller (FAC) in the air, so I made a radio check with him. He didn’t say, and I didn’t ask, but I guessed all four teams were on the ground without incident.We started moving along the bombing route leaving behind footprints in the mud, and that troubled me, but there was nothing we could do about that. Ed and I didn’t like walking in the open around those craters, so we moved inside the jungle a few yards. That was rough going because of all the twisted trees and undergrowth.We moved for a few hours and didn’t see anything of importance. We could still smell death all around us.
All of a sudden, Pham, the point man, stopped and hit the ground. We did the same. Ed crawled up to where Pham was, and then he motioned for the rest of us to come forward. When I got up to them, I could see foxholes, a long trench line, and bunkers. I could also see body parts everywhere.There were several hundred boot prints in the mud. Again, they appeared to be several days old. As we moved through the area, we found more and more bunkers and trenches.
We also found several underground tunnel openings. We stopped to see if we could hear any movement. After a few minutes, Van, the tail-gunner, said he wanted to go into one of the tunnels to see what was down there. That was fine with me because I didn’t want to go in. Ed gave Van his flashlight and pistol and told him to be careful.A few minutes later, Van came out and said we needed to go down and see what he found. Ed told the other three team members to set up a defensive position in the trench and take the radio with them and if they heard gunfire coming from the tunnel to get on the radio and call the FAC.
We crawled down a two-foot-by-two-foot tunnel entrance for a few feet; then, there were several steps going further down. This led into a room about ten-feet-by-ten-feet with a six-foot ceiling. There was a bench and three chairs in that room. We could see electrical wires on the wall with a light attached. However, there was no power to it. At the end of that very dark room, there were four steps going deeper, and they led to another room about fifteen-feet-by-twenty-feet with tables and chairs in it. That room also had wires running along the wall. At the end of that room, there was a short hallway three-feet wide and four-feet tall.At the end of the hallway, there was a room about ten-feet-by-twenty-feet. That was amazing because, in the middle of that room, there was an operating table and cabinets along the walls.
There were all kinds of electrical wiring running everywhere. This had been an underground hospital, but most of their equipment had been removed. There was another hallway leading somewhere, but we were not going any further. We decided it was time to get out of there. The smell of death hung throughout those rooms. We crawled out of the tunnel and started taking pictures of the area.We could tell this was the back door of the tunnel complex, so we decided to move in the direction we thought the tunnel was running to see if we could find the front entrance. We walked a few yards and found more small holes in the ground. Ed thought they must be air holes to supply fresh air for the tunnels. We also found more bunkers and trenches along the way.
We saw all kinds of trash and equipment, like canteens, empty backpacks, web gear, and clothes. We found several pieces of white cloth used for bandages with blood on them. We followed the trail of bandages to another entrance of a larger tunnel. However, that entrance was made so you could walk down into the tunnel standing up. This was the entrance to the hospital. Just outside that tunnel, I saw part of a boot sticking up from the ground. When I checked it, I found a corpse attached to it. This was a hastily dug shallow grave. As we looked around, we found several more shallow graves.Each of us quickly uncovered the bodies to see if we could find any papers or anything of importance. Most of the bodies had NVA uniforms, but some had nothing on. We didn’t find anything on the bodies. We found several more tunnel entrances, but we only checked a few to see what was inside. Three were used as living quarters, one was an office for someone, and one was used as a Como bunker. We could tell it was a Como bunker because we could see where antennas had been tied down to the ground with wires leading into the tunnel.
Not far from the hospital, we found signs on the ground indicating several vehicles had been parked there, and several electrical wires were on the ground. This was where they had their generators set up to run power to the camp. We also found an area they were using for a Mess Hall and an area where they had been parking trucks and other vehicles.This was a large base camp. I don’t have any idea how big the tunnel complex was, but it was too big for six people to check out. Ed wanted to see if the launch site could send in the Rifle Company to search the tunnels.I got on the radio to see if the FAC was up. I didn’t get a reply from him. I had to wait until the evening radio check. That camp was not close to the area I had been in before, but it was close to where other teams had been, and those teams made contact with the NVA as soon as they hit the ground. I knew part of that camp had been hit by the bombs, but the main portion was intact.It was getting dark, and we moved outside the camp to find a place to Rest Over Night (RON.) I wouldn’t want to be in there if the NVA decided to come back to their home.At the evening radio check, I informed the FAC on what we needed and gave him the location. Because we didn’t have a company at the launch site, it would be at least two days before a company could check the tunnels. We stopped to RON around 2000 hours.
We stopped to RON around 2000 hours. Sometime before daylight, we heard a firefight to our east. We didn’t know what team it was, but it had to be one of ours because there were no other U.S. troops in Cambodia. A few minutes later, we heard the FAC flying in the area, and we could hear the firefight still going on. I got on the radio to see if there was any radio traffic about the firefight. I could hear Jerry Cottingham on the radio talking to the FAC telling him they needed to be extracted because the One-Zero (American team leader Jim Perry) and the Zero-One (SCU team leader) had been wounded. The FAC told Jerry he had another team in contact, and he had requested Fast Movers and helicopters to assist them, and as soon as that team was extracted, he would help him.
The other team also had wounded personnel. Jerry said they had set up in a bomb crater, and he felt they would be in deep shit if they didn’t get help soon. Ed told me to tell Jerry we would be moving in his direction to help and for him to hang on.
We had no idea how far away the other team was from us, but it couldn’t be that far by the sound of it. We started moving toward the sound of the firefight, hoping it was Jerry’s location and not the other team that was being extracted. As we got closer, we could hear the firefight but not the sound of helicopters, so it had to be Jerry’s team. It was very difficult trying to move through the twisted trees and dark jungle, so we decided to move out to the craters because it was much faster, and there was a full moon to help us see.
I told Jerry what we were doing and told him to shoot a pen flare if it would not compromise his position. He said, “They know where we are. Get here as fast as you can.” He shot off a flare, and we could see that he was much closer than we thought.
Jerry said he had NVA to his south and west, but nothing from his north yet. I told Jerry we were coming in from the west and for him not to shoot in that direction. Jerry told me he was receiving fire from the west, but most of the gunfire was from the south.
As we got closer, we moved away from the craters back into the jungle. I told Jerry to throw a White Phosphorus (WP) grenade to his west so we could see if we could locate the NVA. The white phosphorus burns fiercely and can cause severe burns or death. It also creates an enormous amount of light at night.
When the WP grenade exploded, it lit up the area. We could see muzzle flashes coming from the treeline to our south and east. I told Jerry to put out as much gunfire as he could to the south to mask the sound of our movement as we moved behind the NVA on his west. He did, and we ran as fast as we could to get close to the NVA. We got close enough to tell that only three NVAs were firing at Jerry and his team. All three were close together, standing behind trees firing their weapons. We crawled to within fifty feet of them before we started shooting. We killed all three in one burst of twenty rounds from all five of us, plus two rounds from our M-79 grenade launcher. I also threw one hand grenade just to make sure.
I informed Jerry we had taken out the NVA on his west and not to fire in that direction. Our point man Pham crawled up to the three bodies to make sure they were dead. He came back with their weapons and ammo. We knew this must be a small force of NVA because they had not advanced onto Jerry’s position. However, that firefight had been going on for an hour, and more NVA would be coming. Jerry told us they were just about out of ammo, and he had three men wounded. He also told us he was not receiving fire from his south, and he thought they were moving to his west. He believed there were about fifteen NVA all together, and he didn’t understand why they had not gotten more NVA to help them.
Jerry said he would throw another WP grenade at them to see if he could start a fire or at least light them up so he could see in their direction. He did, and all hell broke loose. From our position, we could see the muzzle flashes, and it looked like there were about ten different weapons firing. We moved around to our left and started firing at the NVA with our three captured weapons. The NVA used AK-47 rifles, and you can tell the differences from our M-16s and AK-47 rifles by the sound it makes when fired. In addition, the AK-47 had tracer rounds in them. The AK-47 fires a green tracer round where our weapons fire red tracer rounds. The idea was to make the NVA think that their own troops were firing at them, and they wouldn’t fire back in our direction. After a brief firefight, all firing stopped from the west. For several minutes, there was no gunfire from either side. It was dead silent in the jungle. We couldn’t hear any movement from any direction.
I told Jerry we would hold where we were, and he should do the same. We didn’t move until it started to get light, then we moved toward Jerry’s position in the bomb crater. Just as we got there, the FAC came on the radio and told Jerry he was on his way and would be in our area in ten minutes. Jerry told the FAC that our team was with him and that we would need at least two helicopters to extract both teams. The FAC told Jerry to pop a smoke. Jerry did, and the FAC said he had us in sight.
I told the FAC we hadn’t heard anything in the past hour, and as far as we knew, the LZ was safe.
We were lucky because there were two Slicks along with two Gunships to get us out. Before the helicopters landed, Pham went back in the jungle where we killed the three NVA soldiers and searched their bodies one more time for any papers or maps. Jerry’s team went to see if there were any bodies around their position. There were none. We guessed that the NVA force was only two squads (twenty soldiers), and they must have been alone because they were not reinforced during the battle. That was lucky for us.
We were extracted without incident and flown back to that hellhole launch site. On the way back, I took pictures of the bomb craters from the air. I still have those pictures today. Jim had a flesh wound to his back. Jim said he was lying on his stomach firing at the bad guys when a bullet went in at the top of his shoulder blade and exited two inches lower. Both SCUs had arm wounds, and one had part of his ear shot off.
During the debriefing, Jerry said they walked into what looked like a large base camp, and while searching one of the tunnels, they walked in on several NVA soldiers sleeping, and Jerry opened fire. Not knowing how many were in there, they exited the tunnel. The team moved back away from that tunnel and saw several more NVA soldiers coming out of another nearby tunnel. They had a firefight there at the tunnel complex, and that is where Jim and the Zero-One were wounded. They made their way back to the craters hoping to be extracted. However, the NVA must have tracked them to the crater. That was where the firefight continued, and one more team member was wounded.
The first of five teams in was extracted under fire on the first day. They also ran into a small force and had one SCU killed and one wounded. For the next two days, we stood down while the other two teams completed their missions. We were down to three teams until we received replacement SCU soldiers from SIGMA to replace the killed and wounded. The other two teams were extracted after five days. All five teams saw the same thing. That area was one large base camp for the NVA, and from all the trenches and tunnels we saw, it had been there for several years. I told the S-2 how big the tunnel complex was we found and asked him if he knew what the NVA did with all the dirt from the tunnels. He said the NVA and VC used soldiers and slave labor to carry the dirt several miles from the complex and spread it over the jungle floor so it could not be seen from the air or noticed from the ground.
I would pull three more BDAs while at SIGMA.