Miles away, somewhere deep in the 506 Valley, the second platoon was traveling along in an echelon formation. The waist high grass surrounded by the high hills and mountains made the whole place one big danger zone. The troops knew it, the VC knew it and it was just a matter of time before things would happen.
The lead track, E-22, approached a small rise when a large explosion enveloped the track. Then two rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) came from the bushes and hit the side of the track. The vehicle was instantly smoking and flames begin to appear as green tracers shot out from the jungle. The other vehicles pulled up on line with E-22, in an attempt to protect it. The grunts (line infantrymen) of the 3rd of the 503rd, un-assed (jumped off) the vehicles and went looking for cover as they returned fire. E-27, the only Sheridan in the group was just clearing a small burm when an RPG torn into its’ turret. The RPG penetrated the steel and the charge released its’ explosive power inside the tank. It damaged the electrical system and injured the crew. The tank became nothing more then a 19-ton machine gun on tracks. General confusion was taking place as the Cav worked to repel the ambush.
Amidst the smoke, noise and fire, two soldiers approached the burning armored personnel carrier. As bullets buzzed by, a lone grunt from the 3rd Batt climbed up onto the top of the track. The medic with the Cav also made it to the front of the track and started climbing up the front. He was getting the driver out, as the grunt leaped into the burning track and was attempting to help the two gunners. Then the vehicle exploded. The medic and driver were thrown clear but there was no hope for the grunt and the rest of the crew of E-22. With one vehicle in flames and the tank knocked out, the other vehicles on line attempted to semi-surround the burning track as they returned fire. The lieutenant realizing this could be only the beginning of a bad day and made the call for help.
Somewhere north of LZ English, I was helping Pineapple unload some supplies and chow. The good-natured Cherry comments were dying down when suddenly everyone started running to the tracks. Puzzled I just stood there and watched for a second as the engines were all starting and the tracks were getting ready to go. Gunners were locking and loading their weapons as I tossed the box I had in my arms back into the pineapple’s truck and scrambled aboard the 577. Up on top, I put on my flak vest, helmet and sitting with the machine gun across my lap, I wondered, What the F___?.
Soon we were in line and moving out. Since I did not have a crewmembers helmet with the built in communication system, I could not hear what the crews were all saying to each other. I tapped Sergeant Payne on the shoulder and shrugged his shoulders as if to asked, what’s up? As he talked on his headset, he quickly wrote down a note and handed it to. I unfolded the crumbled piece of paper; it read …Ambush - 506.
We hit the main road and headed south. Once all the vehicles were on the black top road, the pace picked up dramatically. Tons of angry steel came roaring through villages. The villagers alerted by the ground vibrations and the noise of tons of moving steel wisely cleared a wide path. However, since tons of steel won’t stop on a dime and we obviously had no intention of slowing down, we took out several ducks, a few chickens and one scrawny dog that stood its’ ground in the middle of the road. Sergeant Payne passed another note. 2nd Platoon in the shit, we are going to try and help pull then out, Be Ready!! I stared at the paper, trying to take in what he was telling me. Ready …Ready for what, I thought?
It took some time to reach the turn off into the 506 Valley. Then we followed the tracks made by the platoon earlier that morning. As we cleared a little hill top area I could see the platoon below on line. Above two South Vietnamese aircraft dropped down into the valley and unloaded a load of Napalm. The jungle erupted in fire and flame. Holy shit, I thought as the big flame erupted as we rolled into the perimeter. Once the jets cleared the valley, a Dustoff appeared. I watched as they loaded four soldiers on board. Living up to it’s name, the chopper left us in a cloud of dust as it headed into the sky. Not knowing what to do I just sat on top of the 577 waiting, taking in all the chaos around me.
The Lieutenant from the second platoon entered the back of the 577 to talk with Sergeant Payne. I was still spell bound by the whole event when green tracers started coming in from the wood line. I dropped low on top of the 577 as everyone opened up. The noise in comparisons made Fort Jackson seem like a pea-shooting contest. I started to return fire in the direction of the traces when Sergeant Payne’s head popped up though the commanders’ hatch. He looked at me and yelled, “Get the hell off!” Puzzled for a second I stopped firing to hear him clearer. “Get the hell off of the track.” Hanging onto the M-60 I hopped over the side just as lines of tracers crossed over our position. Then an RPG flew by. As I hugged the ground beside the track Sergeant Payne appeared. “You OK!” “Yeah’” I said, “You were not kidding when you said this was a bullet magnet.” I pulled my helmet closer to my head as if to climb inside it and hunched down deeper. I was thankful to be hiding behind the 577, even if it drew everyone’s attention. Then two U.S. Air Force, F-4 Phantoms appeared in the sky and dropped another load of Napalm into the tree line, except this time a lot closer. The jungle grew quiet as everyone stopped firing. The smell of weapons fire, napalm and burning diesel from E-22 was an attack on my senses.
After it had been quiet for a while, one by one we came out into the open. No one could approached E-22 as the flames enveloped it and rounds where going off from inside. I watched the flames and hoped everyone got out. Just then, the driver of the tank came over gave the Lt a quick report. “The main gun is out of commission, the radios are shot up and my Tank Commander (TC) and Loader were evacuated out. It’s just me.” The Lt looked unhappy and then turned to Sergeant Payne and said, “We are going to set up a perimeter for the night. Maybe tomorrow we can retrieve the bodies out of E-22. Keep the 577 in the middle and I’ll get the grunts and 2nd platoon to spread out and set up.” “Not a good idea lieutenant,” Sergeant Payne said. “I didn’t ask your permission Sergeant,” the Lt said. “Well you better think again Lt. This ain’t called the valley of death for nothing. At LEAST one NVA division lives in those hills,” he said as he pointed to where the firing had been coming from. “Think again,” he said, as he continued. “You want to spend the night with this giant track, with four big antennas on it …in this valley with few tracks, one platoon of Infantry and a tank that doesn’t work.” Then pausing to let it sink into the Lt’s head he said, “I’ll bet right now they are sighting their mortars, using that as an aiming point.” He pointed to the 577. “I still think the 577 should stay,” he said. “Lt, if you want the 577 to remain here tonight as a way to communicated with command then you can man the radios. I have lost enough guys in my time. The crew and I will be on the perimeter.” The Lt seeing that Sergeant Payne was not going to back down said, “Take the 577 and the damaged tank back to Uplift before it gets dark. Set up there as a relay with the command.” Sergeant Payne shook his head and said, “Airborne, Sir.”