My website is lacking in articles about Americans fighting in both Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War. I’ve recently come across one such story and thought to share it with you here. It’s written by the former company commander of a 1st Cav. unit (C 1/12) and chronicles their seven-week long incursion into Cambodia during May/June, 1970. This article by LtCol Michael Christy (ret) originally appeared on the “Together We Served” website and was included in the June, 2018 edition of their monthly magazine, “Dispatches”. Here is the direct link: https://army.togetherweserved.com/army/newsletter2/22/newsletter.html
If you have a story to tell about excursions into Cambodia/Laos and want to have them published here on this website, please get in touch with me.
I had been in command of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, for four months in late April 1970. We were only three days into a search and destroy mission in Phuoc Long Province, a sparsely populated, heavily wooded area along the Cambodian border 75 miles northeast of Saigon when I received a radio call from the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Norman Moffitt. He asked me to do something I didn’t do that often: go to the “green box,” the military euphemism for secure voice communications.
My radio operator, Spec. Merle “Denny” Dentino, slid a KY-38 encryption device into his PRC-77 radio which “scrambled” our conversation so it was indistinguishable to enemy eavesdroppers.
“The company is to be picked up tomorrow morning at 0900 hours,” Moffett instructed. The only information he provided was the map coordinates for our PZ (Pickup Zone). Curious why he wanted us to move after only three days, I asked, “What is this all about, sir?” But even with secure voice transmission, Moffett was secretive. “I’ll brief you when you get back to Fire Support Base Buttons tomorrow,” he responded before signing off. The time was 5 p.m.
I had the men unsaddle their equipment and prepare to bed down for the night. The mysterious call from battalion spread like wildfire among the troops, giving rise to wild speculation: Was the war over? Were we being sent as reinforcements into a major battle already in progress somewhere in Vietnam? These were the thoughts running through most of our heads for the rest of the evening.
We awoke at sunrise, wolfed-down some c-ration, packed our gear and were humping by 6 a.m. through the jungle to the designated PZ some two miles to the west. It was hard going. The heat was unbearable, and the humidity was stifling even at this early time in the morning. We pushed harder and miraculously arrived 30 minutes before the scheduled extraction and waited. And waited! It wasn’t until nearly 11 a.m. when the sound of helicopters broke through the quiet.
It took 10 minutes to fly back to Song Be but long before we landed, we could see countless C-47 and Huey helicopters loaded with men and equipment flying in and out, forming dust clouds everywhere. There was now no doubt that we were embarking on a massive operation, we just didn’t know where or why.
Waiting for us as we jumped out of the helicopters was the company executive officer, 1st Lt. Dwight Taylor. He cupped his hands and yelled over the roar of the departing helicopters, “You are the last company to come in, Six. I will take the men back to the company area. You are to go immediately to the battalion TOC (tactical operations center) and wait for a briefing.” “Do you know what’s going on?” I shouted. With a shrug, he hollered back, “Not a clue.”
The TOC was already filled when I arrived. I found one of the few folding chairs still available in the back and sat down. The tension in the room was palatable. It seemed everyone had concerns about what was going on. Within 15 minutes Lt. Col. Moffitt came into the TOC and stood before his anxious audience. He looked at his watch, took a dramatic pause before saying, “Gentlemen, approximately four hours ago a massive South Vietnamese force crossed over the border into Cambodia to find and destroy NVA sanctuaries. We leave tomorrow on the same mission.”
The room filled with spontaneous chatter which was quickly silenced by the operations officer stepping in and laying out the operational plan and the sequence in which we were to carry it out. My company was scheduled for a mid-morning lift the next day, May 1. Moffitt finished the briefing by warning each of the company commanders that enemy resistance would be fierce and to expect heavy casualties. With that, we were dismissed. I hightailed it to Charlie Company area to brief the platoon leaders and platoon sergeants. They took the news of the dangerous mission with apprehension, yet with a spark of excitement. Inside I too was anxious and uncertain. But mostly I was energized. Finding the enemy in Vietnam had become more and more difficult but in Cambodia, we would be meeting the enemy head-on.
For the rest of the day, the base bustled with activity as men were taken to CONEX containers where they exchanged worn and dirty equipment for new. The weapons were recalibrated, and test fired for accuracy and reliability. While some troops joked nervously, most were quiet, filled with their own idea of what horror they might encounter once we crossed into Cambodia.
The first leg on our journey into Cambodia began the next morning. Shortly after 11 p.m., a single Air Force C-130 cargo plane landed, loaded the troops from Delta Company and took off. A second landed with the routine continuing until all of Delta Company was on its way. It was then our turn.
We were only in the air for maybe six minutes when FSB Snuffy’s airfield near Bu Gia Map came into sight. With another couple of minutes, our C-130 dropped precipitously, basically reversing the technique used when it took off. But with wheels inches from the ground, the pilot reacted to a single shot fired on the ground in the troop staging area. He quickly pulled back on the yoke, sending the aircraft straight up at a 60-degree angle. I thought it would stall. It didn’t but it came within feet of hitting the trees at the end of the runway. One careless shot and a nervous flight crew nearly got a planeload of us killed – before we even set foot in Cambodia.
Later that afternoon, Delta Company was taken by Huey helicopters into Cambodia. Our company was to follow within an hour but that didn’t happen. I was radioed by battalion that the “system” was overburdened and no helicopters were available until the next day, May 2.
Our unexpected stay overnight created more tension among the men. They’d been prepared mentally and emotionally to already be in Cambodia. Now they had to wait one more day before jumping into what we all believed were the ‘jaws of hell.’
Early the next morning the fully loaded company assembled along a tree line bordering the airstrip. In the distance, a 105 Artillery barrage and F4 fighter jets were pounding what was our LZ. Within minutes 20 helicopters swooped in with absolute precision: just the right distance between each bird. Moving quickly from the tree line, the entire company jumped aboard the aircraft. Once aboard, the command from the flight leader was given and like a slow-motion dance, all the helicopters drifted off the ground in unison, hovered for a few seconds, then headed straight ahead toward our LZ just five kilometers inside Cambodia. Charlie Company was finally part of the biggest air assault on record.
The helicopters flew low level, maneuvering around and above irregular growths. Tensions were mounting and became more heightened when we spotted two very surprised NVA soldiers scattering for cover as we flew over. One second, they were there, the next they were gone. No shots were fired.
Moments after the 105-artillery barrage was lifted, Cobra gunships peppered the LZ with rocket and machine fire then remained in the area as our helicopters landed in a large field surrounded by what could be called a tree line but unlike any we had seen in Vietnam. These trees were skinny and tall, widely separated from each other. We moved off the LZ into the skimpy tree line and set up security. We were on the ground safely and uncontested. The adrenaline rushing through my veins slowly subsided. I saw the same was happening with most of the men.
Once the company was assembled and prepared to move, we headed north. Within an hour, the point element spotted five enemy soldiers on the trail coming out of a wooded area. I motioned everyone to take cover in the tall grass and wait for them to get closer. But one of the men got nervous and opened fire with his M-16 Rifle. Others followed. The enemy soldiers instantly turned tail, running back in the direction they had come. Not one of our bullets found its mark. We moved through the open spaces of Cambodia for the rest of our first day without incident.
Around 4:30 p.m. we found a grove of trees ideal for an NDP (Night Defensive Position). Two squads went out a couple hundred meters looking for trails coming into our area on which they could set up automatic ambushes. The automatic ambush was a reasonably simple, but extremely lethal device. We’d connect commo wire to Claymore mines positioned at foot level and to fragmentation grenades hanging in trees at head level. The wire was then connected to a radio battery that connected to trip wire that we’d place across the trail. If one person or half a dozen hit the trip wire, they’d be blown away. The automatic ambush turned out to be the best night defensive weapon in our arsenal.
The next morning, I awoke just before dawn. As men began to stir, I prepared some coffee and was lacing it with dry cream and sugar when the blast of an automatic ambush shattered the calm. Minutes later, Spec. Rodney Young radioed, “You guys have got to see this to believe it.” On the trail, we found a dead North Vietnamese still on his bicycle, both hands clutching the handlebars, one foot on a pedal caught in mid-motion, his transistor radio still blaring with Vietnamese music. One of the riflemen quipped, “It’s like the show ‘Laugh-In’ where the guy rides a tricycle around and just falls over.”
The following evening, the company was setting up our NDP when I received another encrypted radio call from Moffett. He said an ‘arc light’ (B-52 bombing strike) was set for 0800 hours the next morning. “The target is a suspected enemy battalion,” he said. “I want you to conduct a BDA (bomb damage assessment) immediately after the strike,” I confirmed the mission, ending the call.
The next morning at 7:45 a.m. everyone got on the ground, placing whatever they could find between them and ground zero. At precisely 8 a.m., we heard a steady whistling of bombs dropping from an empty sky. Within seconds my ears were deafened by the loudest explosions I’d ever heard. The violent shaking of the ground and the massive strength of the concussion blast hit us like a tidal wave. Among the wows and holy shits, I got the company up and moving as quickly as we could.
The fast hump through the dank, humid jungle to the bomb zone was hard. Around 11 a.m. we began seeing the destruction. A few trees were down, along with some fresh dirt clumped in small mounds. The closer we got to ground zero, the greater the devastation: trees shattered at their base and huge bomb craters 20-30 feet deep in every direction. It looked like a hurricane, a tornado and an earthquake had combined their brutal and deadly force to render a thick jungle into a lunar-like landscape. Yet among all this destruction we found no evidence of the enemy: not one body or piece of equipment, not even a single blood trail. Either the intelligence was wrong, or the enemy had left the area, tipped off by enemy agents known to be scattered throughout the South Vietnamese command.
During the next five days, we ran into several small enemy forces, killing seven NVA while suffering no casualties. Our early success took away some of the edginess we had been feeling since the invasion began.
Every four days was “log day,” when we got resupplied with water, food, ammunition, radio batteries, mail and other essentials. On one log day, I sent 1st Lt. Billy Shine’s 2nd Platoon to find a landing zone while the rest of the company scoured the immediate area for signs of the enemy. After about an hour, Shine radioed saying he had found the “mother lode of caches” and was standing in the middle of a huge truck park and maintenance shop.
We hustled over to Shine’s position and spread over a quarter-acre were cargo trucks, pickups, and several Land Rovers – one with only 730 kilometers on its odometer. A veritable parts department loaded with bearings, brake shoes, axles, transmissions, batteries, pistons and more were scattered about, along with a large generator, welding tools, barrels of gasoline and cases of oil. In addition to the motor pool, we found underground sleeping quarters with electricity, a mess hall with live chickens and pigs, a recreation area complete with a ping-pong table, a first-aid facility, 50 tons of rice and lots of personal belongings.
I reported the find to the battalion. I was told to drive any serviceable vehicles to FSB Evans, some four kilometers away. Of the 33 vehicles, only 12 were drivable. Getting the vehicles running was no problem. We had Spec. Tom Hirst, the medic from 3rd Platoon. He had worked for a car dealership in Baltimore and with the precision of a car thief, hotwired the vehicles. In a couple of hours, men of 3rd Platoon mounted 10 vehicles (we kept 2 to carry our backpacks) and headed down the road toward Evans. Once there, they immediately flew back in helicopters to the site of the NVA motor pool.
It took us two days to get all the rice out by C-47 Chinooks and to blow up or burn everything of value to the enemy. I was anxious to get out us of the immediate area but by the time we finished, it was too late to travel far so we set up our NDP in a thick clump of trees and underbrush about 300 meters from the now destroyed NVA motor pool. A perimeter was set up and several automatic ambushes were put in place on trails leading into the area. We then settled in for the night, completely satisfied with our three day’s work.
Around 8 p.m., the 3rd Platoon sector reported seeing several flashlights and hearing muffled Vietnamese voices. Suddenly one of the automatic ambushes went off, a few minutes later, another automatic ambush and a trip flare went off. Everything went silent outside our perimeter. Minutes later a dreadful moaning and crying of a badly injured enemy seared the quiet night for the next several hours. Finally, around midnight, we heard a single shot, and then silence. Nothing more happened that night.
At first light, we went out to check the area. Just 100 meters from our perimeter, we saw the torn and bloody bodies of nine North Vietnamese scattered about – one with a rifle in his mouth and a toe wrapped around the trigger. Hidden in some tall grass was a wounded soldier, who offered no resistance. The medics treated what appeared to be relatively minor wounds, and a helicopter came to take him away for treatment and an intelligence debriefing. We later heard that the prisoner died in the chopper.
We loaded our heavy backpacks onto our two NVA trucks and moved out “light” in open terrain to find more enemy. Three days later we hit heavy jungle, however, and had to ditch the vehicles. Reluctantly, we poured gasoline over our trucks and tossed torches on them. With the truck hulks smoldering, we slipped on our backpacks and moved off into the jungle. “Man, I sure got lazy with those trucks schlepping our gear,” one of my riflemen muttered. Yeah, I thought, so did I.
A few days later, we were following a river when we came upon a large waterfall cascading down a mammoth rock formation – a beautiful wonder of nature smack in the middle of a war zone. Behind the waterfall was a cave that housed an NVA hospital complete with surgical tables, oxygen tanks, a respirator and all the instruments needed for serious surgery. Nearby were cottages, shower stalls, enclosed latrines and a large covered dining hall but no enemy. We smashed the medical hardware and burned everything to the ground.
As we continued our mission, we discovered numerous bunker complexes and enemy caches. In one we found some 400-brand new SKS carbines, still wrapped in oilcloth, and enough ammunition to supply an NVA battalion. In another, we turned up tons of rice, mortar tubes, machine guns and boxes of AK-47s. During this time, we killed ten North Vietnamese and had yet to suffer any casualties.
In early June we found over a hundred 50-gallon barrels of oil under camouflage nets. Most barrels were marked “Dutch Shell Oil.” Battalion sends in enough C4 plastic explosive, blasting caps, detonation cord and fuse igniters to blow it all up. I gathered three others plus myself and wrapped the barrels with det cord and TNT. We set the fuses and ran like hell toward the rest of the company much further down into the jungle. Before we got to them, the oil barrels blow up, sending us to the ground. No one was hurt. Flying close enough to see the explosion, the brigade commander said it looked like an atomic bomb had gone off.
On June 13th we’d been in Cambodia for 42 days. We had accomplished much. We had killed 25 enemy soldiers and found and destroyed incredible caches of weapons and food without having any men killed or severely wounded. I hoped our next 17 days would continue the same but the mission I had been given for the following day sounded perilous: check out a very large and occupied enemy bunker complex spotted a day earlier by a helicopter crew.
We begin early that morning and by mid-morning, we ran across a hard-packed trail – a good sign we were getting close to the bunker complex. Spec. Tom “the Black Prince” Johnson, the company’s best point man, was in the lead with Spec. Tony Harper when they spotted several NVA preparing to ambush us. Both Johnson and Harper opened fire, spraying the enemy location. Instantly the jungle on three sides erupted in heavy AK-47 machine gun fire and B-40 rockets. Spec. Lester “Uno” Langley, the second man from the point element, brought up his M-60machine gun and cut loose. Most of the 1st Platoon was pinned down and fired frantically at what seemed to be the center of the enemy ambush. The 3rd Platoon spread out in battle formation attempting to roll up the enemy’s left flank. The 2nd Platoon at the rear of our column attacked the enemy’s right flank.
I tried raising battalion but could not establish radio contact because of the thick jungle around us. Desperately, I stood behind a tree on a small hill and pulled Spec. Tom Thon up with me, ordering him to place his radio as high above his head as possible. He didn’t like it, but he braved it out. Several B-40 rockets smashed into our tree, showering us with bark and small pieces of shrapnel. Bullets cracked all around us, but Thon stood his ground. Although it was a faint signal, battalion acknowledged my request for immediate artillery support and Cobra gunships.
I got on the radio to Lieut. Richard Friedrich for a situation report on the 3rd Platoon. He said he was meeting heavy resistance and that Sgt Mickey Wright had been killed while charging a bunker. I ordered him to disengage and pull back into the perimeter as artillery was on the way. I also called 2nd Platoon to move into the center of the perimeter. A second or two later I heard Johnson scream, “I’m hit!” I saw him a few feet away on his back, fully exposed to the enemy fire raking the ground around him. Seeing Johnson trashing around on the ground, Spec. Larry “Doc” Stanberry rushed out into the open, flopped down beside Johnson and applied emergency aid. In a matter of seconds, Stanberry was joined by Specialists Nat Green, Rodney Young, Robert Delaney and Steve “Doc” Willey. A few returned enemy fire while the others pulled Johnson safely behind a large tree.
I was laying down fire on the enemy positions when Sgt. Wall, our artillery observer, tapped me on the shoulder. “Arty is cranking up and should be on target in three minutes,” he said. As promised, the artillery barrage was on time and on target 100 meters behind the enemy positions. The steady 10-minute barrage ended when the gunships arrived. They fired mini-guns and rockets directly in front of the company perimeter until they had fired their entire payload. When they flew off, the jungle became eerily silent. We carefully advanced toward the enemy positions. Trees and brush were ripped apart. Timbers on enemy bunkers were crushed or opened like smashed pumpkins. No enemy casualties were found, just a bunch of blood trails.
A medevac helicopter used a jungle penetrator to lift Johnson out, but not Mickey Wright. Policy dictates that medevac helicopters could not transport bodies. For the rest of the day, we carried Wright’s body in search of a suitable landing zone. We found one just before dark, but we’d have to wait until morning to start Wright’s final journey home. The next day is a long day, we remained at the LZ for our resupply. I had kept the automatic ambush in place from the night before as added protection. As the resupply helicopter was about to land, the automatic ambush went off. The pilot of the resupply helicopter aborted his landing and took off toward the cloudless blue sky, remaining overhead.
I grabbed a radioman, machine gunner, assistant gunner and four riflemen and headed for the ambush site. Bent over, weapons at the ready, we inched closer to what now looked like bodies lying in the trail. We found three dead North Vietnamese, two carrying AK-47s, and the other, a B-40 rocket launcher. Each was laden with extra ammunition and hand grenades. We felt a sense of elation that we had gotten some revenge for the death of Mickey Wright. Too bad there weren’t more. But, the next day as we headed out of the area we found 10 fresh graves. We had struck a mighty blow upon our comrade’s killers after all.
On June 28th, I received a secure radio call from Lt. Col. Moffett, informing me that President Richard Nixon ordered all U.S. troops out of Cambodia a day before the previously established June 30 deadline. He then told me that Charlie Company was designated to be the last company out, and, to chronicle the historical event, a group of journalists and TV reporters would accompany us back across the border.
We broke camp early the next morning, moved to the LZ where the journalists would be dropped. Within a half-hour, two helicopters landed, discharging more than a dozen journalists, photographers and TV reporters, each eager to cover “the last American fighting unit out of Cambodia.” For three hours we moved toward the Cambodian-Vietnam border without incident, leaving behind 38 dead enemy.
Around 2 p.m., we came across a large tree that had fallen across the river, providing us with a convenient bridge into Vietnam. The first few troops who crossed had left a thick coat of mud from their boots on the tree, making it perilous for the rest, a few of whom slipped off into the leech-infested river. Nevertheless, the entire contingent was soon across the river, giving the company a sense of relief. In some strange way, we had come home.
We moved on to FSB Thor, the battalion’s headquarters, about 300 meters away from the river’s edge in a large open field surrounded by trees. Invited into the firebase, the journalists left us for cold drinks and the chance to probe the minds of fresh troops. Meanwhile, we set up our NDP close to the firebase. Alpha company was already camped out in another quadrant of the same area. We felt secure, hoping this was a night we could sleep more soundly.
It turned out, sleep was elusive for me, so around midnight I got up to have a cigarette and noticed the heavy fog blanketing us, so thick I couldn’t see Merle Dentino’s hooch right next to mine. I butted the cigarette and determined to get some sleep.
Around 5 a.m. I was awakened by the thumping of mortar rounds hitting the base plate. Moments later two mortar rounds exploded inside our perimeter with a deadly fury, smashing shrapnel into trees, bushes, and sleeping men. One piece smashed through my mosquito net, flying past my face. I fell out of my hooch into bedlam. Wounded men were screaming in pain, others were screaming for medics. Through the fog, ghostly silhouettes moved in and out of the shadows – some in sheer panic, others calmly helping the wounded.
In front of me, Lieut. Craig Troup was clamping the blood spurting from his nearly amputated foot. He looked at me, quietly saying, “Six, my foot is hit.” In that same instant, Doc Stansberry was at his side. A few feet away, the company medic, Spec. Bruce Johnson, was desperately trying to stop his own chest wound. Doc Willey emerged out of the dark, dropped to Johnson’s side and slapped a compress on his chest to stop the sucking and bleeding. Johnson haltingly cried, “Tell my wife I love her.” He was certain he was a dead man.
Before long a jeep load of medics raced up from the firebase and began searching the area for the injured scattered everywhere. We were also told a medevac was on its way, so we scrambled to bring all the wounded to the end of a large clearing, so we could set up a triage. The wounded were still being brought out when we heard the medevac hovering just above the fog. I radioed the pilot that I would set out a ground flare for him to vector in on, but his response left me stunned. He refused to land until he had gunship support. This was friendly fire, I told him, not enemy. He wouldn’t budge, no gunships, no landing. I begged, but he still balked. I went ballistic: “Look, I have your tail number. I know who you are and if you don’t start down immediately, I swear to God, I will find you and put a bullet in your brain!” I think I really meant it and the pilot must have thought so, too. He told me to light the flare, he was coming in.
As soon as the medevac landed, we loaded the most seriously wounded. It had room for six. Doc Johnson was one. Lt. Troup was another. I ordered Mike Waters put on also, even though I was certain he was never going to make it. He died moments after the medevac lifted off.
With all the wounded out, we took a head count. Only one man was missing, my RTO, Denny Dentino. We found him still in his hooch. The same piece of shrapnel that nearly hit me in my hooch had killed him instantly.
Two men were dead and a total of 29 wounded, 9 so severely that they were evacuated out of Vietnam. Ironically, the medevac pilot did put me on the report – not for threatening to kill him but for putting a dead man on his chopper.
The “friendly fire” incident was determined to be erratic mortar rounds, which should never have been fired over our position. The Staff Sgt in charge was demoted and fined $500. We all felt he should have been court-martialed, incarcerated and kicked out of the Army.
Hours earlier, Charlie Company had triumphantly crossed the border as the last American unit to return to Vietnam from the historic invasion of Cambodia. Then, in less than 60 seconds, one deadly mistake tragically killed and wounded many of the company’s brave men than scores of enemy combatants were unable to achieve during our seven weeks in Cambodia.
Lt. Col. Michael Christy’s first tour of duty in Vietnam began with the Delta Project, 5th Special Forces Group from 1967-68. On his second tour in 1969-70, he commanded Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment,1st Cavalry Division for eight months before becoming the 3rd Brigade’s assistant operations officer in Bien Hoa.
Thank you, sir, for a peek into what it was like during the Cambodian Incursion. Thank you, too, for your service and sacrifice!
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