The mountain, Nui Ba Ra, offered a commanding view of the Second Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division AO where 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry worked.
Chapter 44 – River Crossing; Kit Carson Scout
Just before lunch the next day our azimuth brought us to the west bank of a jungle river. I believe it was the Song Dak Huyt (pronounced “soong doc wheat”) or Dak Huyt River. The river drains the southwestern flank of Vietnam’s Central Highlands and the southeastern slopes of Cambodia’s Sankambeng Range. Much of the year it meanders rather benignly through dense jungle, with many turns and loops, in a generally southwesterly direction, eventually joining the Song Be about thirty kilometers or eighteen miles northwest of Nui Ba Ra. It forms the border between Cambodia and Vietnam for most of its length, but our location was nearly ten klicks inside Vietnam.
The Monsoon Season was beginning. Rainfall where we’d been operating, on the jungle floor, had been intermittent thus far, but when we reached the Dak Huyt we realized that the mountains must have been getting much more rain. What we faced was a raging torrent at least 150 meters wide and of unknown depth. Captain Reynolds decided that we could cross it by forming a human chain, linked arm-in-arm. The idea wasn’t a bad one in concept. In fact, this was how Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers led his men across a river in the 1940 classic movie “Northwest Passage.” However, the river crossed in the movie was about 100 feet wide and, well, it was a movie.
The expressions on our faces when the plan was presented to us are difficult to describe. Generally, they ranged from abject disbelief and horror, through the classic deer-in-the-headlights-of-a-Peterbilt, to narrow-eyed skepticism, with a few fuck-it-it-don’t-mean-nothin’s thrown in. The CO decided that it was best to send the largest men out first, reasoning that their height and weight could anchor the center of the human chain while others pushed past them to the far side and began to pull the rest of us across.
It turned out—not surprisingly to the skeptics among us, including me—that even the biggest men couldn’t stand upright in the current as they neared the center third of the river. I assumed they’d reached what was normally the riverbank, because the depth quickly dropped off there and exceeded their heights. Luckily, the men immediately behind them did not lose their grip and were able to pull the two or three who were swept off their feet to the relative safety of shallower water. Captain Reynolds ordered two more attempts before conceding we couldn’t cross the river on foot.
We moved back into the trees and called for helicopters. It took until the following morning to get it organized, but that day we made what may have been the shortest combat assault of the Vietnam War, a distance of less than two klicks to the nearest suitable LZ across the river. No one complained, though.
On this operation, we had our favorite Kit Carson scout with us. We called him Sam, which was certainly not his name. He was rumored to be fifty-four years old, though no one knew for sure and you couldn’t tell by looking at him whether he was forty-something or seventy-something. He had a wiry build, deeply wrinkled face, and thick fingers. But his feet were his most remarkable physical feature. Sam had never worn shoes of any kind. The bottoms of his feet, including his toes, were calloused to a thickness of about an inch and were as tough and impervious to punctures, cuts, and abrasions as any combat boot. There was something likable about Sam. He could only speak a few essential words of English and he never smiled. But he was always friendly, helpful when asked a specific question, and reliable when sent out alone. Sam could go home to his village whenever he wanted, which he did quite often. In fact, he was only with us about a third of the time. I wondered how strange it would be to live a normal life and fight a war within days or hours of each other, over and over again.
Two days after our river-crossing CA, I had the point and Sam was the second man behind me. Suddenly the normal underbrush thinned and almost disappeared. I knew we were entering a large camp, and it wasn’t one of ours. I held up my hand and passed the word back to the LT and the CO. They decided we should move on through. When we had gone a ways, I turned to Sam and whispered, “VC or NVA?”
“NVA,” he whispered back.
I made a low sweep of my hand to indicate the camp area. “How many?”
He looked at me and whispered earnestly, “Beaucoup, beaucoup.”
This confirmed my thoughts. As we passed through the camp, I picked up a few empty cigarette packs—which appeared to be Chinese—and a C-ration can, passing them back to the LT. Finding such things was not normal. The NVA never left traces like that unburied. It meant they’d left in a hurry and not long before we arrived. We spent twenty minutes investigating the entire camp area. We saw no enemy and made no contact, but determined, based on its size and the number of guard positions, that an NVA force of four to five hundred men had used it within the last two days. Discarded items we found had not been rained on, and it had rained two nights earlier. I guessed that our CA had alerted them and they were ordered to avoid contact, which was fortunate for us.
* * *
Thank you, Jamie, for allowing us to read an excerpt of your book. I’m curious now to find out what happens next in the story and will be looking for “Point…” on Amazon. Here’s the direct link if any of you are interested in acquiring Jamie’s book: https://www.amazon.com/POINT-WILDERNESS-VIETNAM-CAMBODIA-MEMOIR-ebook/dp/B07Y5Q4JJS
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