Southlands Snuffys

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Chapter 17 (v.1) - Pieux de Renseignement

Submitted: July 15, 2014

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Submitted: July 15, 2014

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Pieux de Renseignement

 

“Top priority must be given to capturing Eastern block and Chinese advisors. Remember, they are of great intelligence value to the agency, so don’t go killing them if it can be avoided, but if it can’t we still want the body!”

 

CIA Directive, US Embassy, Saigon, Vietnam, 1967.

 

 

The CIA’s contemporaneous intelligence based war had become more complex. Units would be put together for specified tasks, those that proved successful were given more work, those that didn’t were disbanded and their members dispersed amongst the more successful units. It was an innovative approach and extremely effective.

Mirroring a British Second World War concept, and using their excellent training facilities in Malaysia and Hong Kong, local tribesmen and other minority groups within Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were recruited and trained in behind-the-lines warfare to form a secret army, eventually reaching numbers in excess of 60,000 by the time the South Vietnamese were abandoned to their fate by the US Congress.

And it was into this clandestine war within the Delta, and many times beyond, our boats were slowly drawn, by ferrying, supporting, and resupplying various counter-infiltration groups in the way of heavily armed Fire Force teams.

On one such detail a Fire Force team had been after a North Vietnamese sapper unit, part of the D65 group, who were known for their expertise with land mines and booby traps. The area map was covered in red dots marking out previous mine explosions, and needless to say everyone feared mines and booby traps. The NVA and VC were no different than any other grunts when it came to either of those nasty devises, for when involved in a firefight there was an even chance of survival, but not when it came to mines!

If you had set a mine off anything might have happened, but the best that could be hoped for was to only lose a foot. Unfortunately, Charlie’s mine layers had a real dirty little habit, for they buried together with a mine glass bottles and jars filled with all types of disgusting material, such as human or animal feces, urine, and putrefying flesh. They had also been known to fill them with gasoline, diesel or acid. Not only did this practice possibly increase the mines kill radius, it also reduced the victim’s chance of survival through secondary infection as glass was hard to detect with X-rays. D65 sappers had also been known to crawl into our own defensive minefields and change the shape of them by expanding the boundaries and closing the safe lanes.

During the previous night there had been a confused contact, then in the early hours there was another with the NVA sapper unit, that time it was short but vicious, just a flurry of rounds, but enough to leave one of the Montagnards wounded, and blood trails to follow. There was something wildly unreal about those short battles; some lasted but a few seconds and others minutes, but none ever longer than ten minutes, during which time a phenomenal amount of ammunition could be blasted off with practically no result in the way of seriously wounded or killed for the rounds spent.

When following blood trails you had to keep the pace to a slow steady walk, but too slow and Charlie would have time to set a stay-behind crossfire ambush, or melt away. Too fast and you would quickly catch up with him, and end up in an unknown number firefight. There was only one way to learn the correct pace, and that was on the job practice, so only the most experienced acted as a pace-man, and led the group who followed the trails.

The primary aim of any military advisor is to survive, but the one the blood trails led to hadn’t managed it. He was found lying partially camouflaged by hastily cut fauna on the edge of a track, and in life he must have been tall and smartly dressed, but in death he looked like a battered scarecrow. Beside the corpse lay a West German made Heckler & Koch HK4 pistol, which was an unusual find to be had on an Eastern block advisor as the Nagant M 1895 revolver was their normal sidearm choice, and although rounds for it were hard to find during the Vietnam war it was still highly prized by our grunts, for the heavy 7.62 mm round was a true “man stopper” of the same quality as was our Colt .45 automatics.

However, the advantage any revolver has over an automatic pistol is that it has few working parts, thus making it practically devoid of stoppages and consequently far more reliable in a close combat situation, where one pistol round can make the difference between your survival, or oblivion. It truly was an impressive revolver, for due to the Nagants sturdiness it could still fire in the harshest of conditions, even underwater!

I did consider keeping the H&K pistol, but that would have opened a massive can of crap to be poured over my head if the agency ever discovered such a move, and in truth they undoubtedly would have, for they had an uncanny ability when it came to uncovering those with devious intent.

Unfortunately, having to follow the CIA’s protocol of recovering all dead enemy advisors meant it was late in the evening and darkness had fallen by the time the one we had found was placed in an Agency supplied special container, for his journey on to Saigon. Our accompanying Tango boat had taken an unusual length of time to embark their Fire Force troops, and it was going on midnight before the boats started on the long sail back to the forward operating base.

A harvest moon shone through thick dark clouds giving an eerie look to the canal’s surface, and the landscape around us. The crew and I were bone weary; there was a lassitude about us, for we had been on continuous details for several days, being heavily involved in various Fire Force actions. The task of navigating a Mike along a boat-width canal was hard enough in daylight, at night when exhausted was terribly difficult, and the passage of time seemed to stretch into infinity as we burbled along with the motors at low revolutions, and a heaped on burden was trying to do it inconspicuously. Unfortunately, two seventy five foot long diesel driven boats, cruising along a narrow canal, couldn’t possibly hope to blend into the natural environment.

Two thirds of the distance into our journey found us approaching an extremely large and deep bomb made hole in the middle of the canal, formed during an earlier B52 strike, the periphery of which had eased an unusually sharp bend in the canal. As we scraped along the canal bank to make the turn there was with startling suddenness, and the strange dreamlike quality which accompanies any sudden violent action, tracer rounds began streaking all around and passing over the boats! At the same time there was a massive explosion which brought down into the canal a couple of towering mature trees!

We were now unable to execute the first rule for those in boats who have been ambushed, don’t stop until you are clear! Then Charlie appeared, running forward out of the dark shouting Communist slogans and firing RPG’s, and short, well controlled bursts of between three and five rounds from their automatic small arms! Which meant our only chance of survival was by the second rule for those being ambushed, an immediate aggressive reaction, in our case it was in the way of an artillery fire mission!

The Fire Forces radio man on the Tango began screaming his lungs out for the fire mission, but as not a trained artillery spotter the first shells sighed overhead and landed in the canal, blasting the blocking trees bare of their leaves, and as luck would have it, out of the way to leave clear passage, which we couldn’t take advantage of due to the Tango coming under intensive machine-gun and rocket fire! Charlie had picked his ambush point perfectly, and knew if he sank the Tango we were trapped like fish in a barrel, and all would be destroyed at his pleasure. A wet peppery stink of high explosive filled the air as the second salvo blew out the canal bank directly in front of our Zippo, flinging clumps of earth, stones, and splintered rock whining like shrapnel in all directions!

Someone on the Tango boat with more savvy on gunnery directives had taken over the radio and gave proper corrections to the distant gunners, thus making the third salvo hit the intended mark, and wrought havoc amongst the NVA and VC, who were cut down by white-hot shards of steel, but still they continued to advance, yet more cautious than before with their lives.

The tide or war turned and ran against them as the shells continued to hammer at their ranks, it seemed impossible men could withstand such an awful onslaught, however, they did, but going inevitably to their deaths! Once they had passed through the curtain of shell-fire, and into the hail of rounds produced within the boats direct fire killing zone, they might as well have never existed.

On the realization and acceptance that their ambush was a fail, Charlie’s survivors melted away like smoke caught by a breeze, leaving their dead and dying on the land and ours on the boats, like pieces of wreckage on a shore. Corpses bobbed and nodded in the canal, and one badly wounded VC, who had made it to within a few paces from our boat, sat weeping on the shell-flayed earth.

Being ahead of us, the Tango had borne the brunt of the ambush assault, and the misplaced artillery rounds. She had great shrapnel and fist-sized punched holes everywhere, lumps of steel had been torn away, a cavernous blast made dent in her hull, and her wheelhouse had been practically flattened by a gigantic boulder, which had proved true the adage of what goes up - must come down. For after being blown into the air by the second salvo it came roaring back out of the night sky like a meteor, and smashing into the Tango with the force of Thor’s hammer crushed her helmsman flat, as a bug would be under a thumb.

Our own boat hadn’t escaped unscathed from the artillery barrage, and Charlie’s valiant, albeit seemingly failed attack, since there were ragged shrapnel holes of varying sizes in the bow door, our hulls portside was riddled like a colander from high velocity heavy machine gun rounds, and I could smell diesel fuel. One of the forward 50’s was missing, including its mounting, a curled-back deck plate indicating where it had been, the crewman who had manned it was lying in two ragged halves. He had lived neat, his allocated space never wasted, personal gear stowage well thought out, and everything was exactly where it should have been. But his ability of living neatly could not help him in those final moments of life, for death in war is untidy, messy, but above all wasteful!

I stared, mesmerized, as our engineer whilst smoking a cigarette, and looking entirely unmoved, calmly stowed the two halves of the bow gunner in a glad bag, body bag, and cleared away the remaining foulness by kicking it over the side. There was something wrong with my left foot, for every step I took felt as if I was walking over broken glass, and blood seeped from a split in my boot, but seeing to it had to wait as we couldn’t rest on our laurels for even one second, and so, with the massively damaged Tango down to the use of one motor, the Zippo hemorrhaging fuel, we had limped on our way, like cripples needing crutches.

At the forward operating base the dead were landed, and the wounded cared for. I was desperate for sleep, and our Zippo badly required boatyard repairs, but it was not to be, for our boat had been given a task, an uncomplicated and straightforward one to deliver the Agency’s container to Saigon. We were not even given the time to eat, nor to flush away with the deck-wash hose the garish stains up forward, just enough for a rushed refuel of the undamaged diesel tank, and an ammo-up. The thought and realization made me angry, but food and rest was not the answer for driving fresh memories to the back of the mind, that would take alcohol, and lots of it!

In balance there was always an upside to look for in every sailing order, and that particular one gave me certain latitude. Therefore, in Saigon, there was a chance of going into the City to purloin some brain numbing booze, but that would all depend on the some good will from the CIA. I just hoped the contents of their damn fancy shipping container would bring some, and prove worthy of the sacrifices, for as in a Greek tragedy, the heroes, and what little glory they gleaned from the action, had not long since departed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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