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First NVA (North Vietnamese Army) Regimental CP Entry by Chinese Bandit Recon 1st Bn (ABN) 8th Cav 1965-66 written by RANGER Jerry Conners
First NVA Regimental CP entry by Recon 1st Bn (ABN) 8th Cav near Cambodia border (SW of Pleiku) on January 8, 1966 by RANGER Conners (Chinese Bandit 13) On January 5, 1966 the 1st Bn (ABN) 8th Cav air assaulted into LZs near the Cambodia border of Vietnam. The planned assault into Cambodia to pursue the fleeing NVA that were encountered during the battle of the Ia Drang had been cancelled. The operation was restricted to a hilly and heavily forested area immediately adjacent to Cambodia where the route of the NVA withdrawal had been detected by reconnaissance aircraft. The rifle companies and the Chinese Bandit Recon Platoon conducted patrols around the LZs where caches of rice and an abandoned NVA field hospital were located by the Recon Platoon on January 6. The hospital consisted of two main open bamboo framed buildings having thatched roofs. Two rows of single raised bamboo beds were constructed in each of the buildings that were approximately 30 foot long by 15 foot wide. Several other smaller huts were located near the larger buildings. The compound was located at the intersection of three trails and covered by dense tall trees that concealed the site from the air. One of the trails lead towards the border and was one of two trails that showed recent heavy foot traffic. A large knife was shoved into the roof thatching of one of the hospitals with only the handle exposed. A close examination of the knife revealed batteries that were taped together and a trigger device connected to several American 2.75 inch FF aerial rockets. Helicopters overflew the site while we conducted our inspection and we were instructed to burn the buildings and return to the battalion LZ Stallion. We did not remain in the area after setting the fires but hastily departed the area and did not hear any detonations during our return. Early the following morning, the Chinese Bandits were notified to prepare for patrols to the south west in the area along the Se San river which formed the boundary with Ratanakiri Province of Cambodia. SSG Robert Grimes was serving as the acting Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant and spent the morning studying the maps and aerial photos with his three scout squad leaders. A route was selected which followed a trail that had been discovered the previous day by one of the rifle companies and was believed to lead towards the river. The trail was not depicted on the detailed topographic maps that we were provided. Warning orders and operations orders were given to the squads in the afternoon and equipment was readied for an expected contact with a large NVA force that was believed to be on one side of the river or the other. The patrols were expected to extend beyond the available 81mm mortars located at the battalion LZs and pre-arranged fires were planned for using ARA and tactical air support only. Our patrolling skills had continually improved since our arrival in country and we were capable of accomplishing the tasks assigned; however, the excitement of the anticipated action kept most of us awake and talking late into the night. In the morning, we donned our equipment and ranger patrol caps and began the slow advance to the border. Second Scout Squad, Chinese Bandit 12, was lead by SSG “Ranger” Terry Lawson and was the first in the order of march. His squad followed the trail for about half a mile before deciding to move along the treed area parallel to the trail and continued along the trail until the terrain dropped off towards the river. We stopped at the point that Lawson first saw the river which was one to two hundred feet across and as depicted on the aerial photos. Grimes and the other scout squad leaders linked up with Lawson and were informed that there were NVA boot prints on the trail a few hundred meters ahead where his point team had discovered them. While we were discussing our options a flock of birds landed in the tall trees overhead, we could not see them but heard them and they flew off towards the river a few moments later. We were concerned that the birds have given our position away. Lawson suggested that he rejoin his two-man point team and that we slowly advance towards the river. Grimes agreed and also directed that his 1st Scout Squad move forward from the rear and take the place of the 3d Scout Squad in the order of march. We moved slowly down the hill with each squad paralleling both sides of the trail until the trail became closer to a stream on our left where the vegetation was dense and the tree height much less. Lawson and his point team detected disturbed and what appeared to be cleared vegetation on the hillside on the other side of the steam and had stopped. We were about a half a mile from the river. Lawson withdrew to where Grimes was located and the other scout squad leaders had assembled. “Can you smell it?” he asked. Before we could respond he stated “Cooking fires, people, not sure.” We had not noticed. He said, “When you get further down by the creek, you will notice it.” Lawson described shallow dug holes and a network of trails located on the other side of the stream that he had seen using his binoculars. Grime’s RTO sent the report on the battalion command net and notified LTC Mertel, the Battalion Commander, that we had stopped and attempting to observe at a distance. Mertel instructed Grimes to pull back if NVA troops were spotted and that ARA units were being alerted and to remain on standby. All three scout squads moved slowly further away from the trail and the lead scout squad attempted to place themselves in positions to observe the trail and other hillside. Lawson was able to advance to where the trail formed an intersection and three pieces of six-inch diameter bamboo formed a footbridge over the stream. He withdrew after examining the area for about half an hour and returned slowly to where Grimes and the other scout squad leaders were waiting. “It’s a bivouac site of some type. Will hold at least two hundred troops. But I don’t think it is occupied.” Grimes again reported the situation to LTC Mertel who immediately instructed the Chinese Bandits to withdraw and join him at LZ Stallion. We arrived at the LZ late in the afternoon. Grimes and the battalion commander discussed the options and a decision was made that the Chinese Bandits would return to the site that was now believed to be a NVA regimental CP at night and establish ambush sites along the trails leading into the bivouac site. Everyone ate and planned quickly and we were ready to depart again in an hour. The Chinese Bandits advanced along the same route that was used earlier and reached the area overlooking the suspected NVA bivouac site by 2030 hours. Lawson’s 2d Scout Squad took up positions near the bamboo foot bridge, 1st and 3d Scout Squads remained along the trail where we had been earlier in the day. During the preparation for the patrol a few hours earlier, a tentative plan was made that Lawson and one of the other Scout Squad Leaders would enter the bivouac area after darkness to determine if the site was occupied by NVA troops. As darkness fell and the ambush sites were established and readied, the plan to scout the bivouac site was discussed with Grimes and the scout squad leaders. The decision was made to enter the site and determine its boundaries and if it was occupied. Lawson and SGT Jerry Conners, 3d Scout Squad Leader moved slowly upstream where the vegetation was less thick and were able to cross the stream and drainage without much difficulty. They proceeded downstream along the base of the hill and quickly came to the perimeter of the bivouac site. Both men moved slowly and low crawled uphill remaining about 20 feet apart. It was dark under the trees but the river opening provided a backdrop where any movement a few feet above the ground could be observed. No enemy troops were heard or seen. When reaching the southern limit of the bivouac area they discussed the size and spacing of the shallow trenches and erected corner poles that were located near most excavations and determine the site to occupy about 400 feet along the river and about two hundred feet from the river. The number of holes indicated that about 500 men and therefore, a NVA regimental CP used the bivouac site. Other members of the regiment would occupy sites that approached this central location. Both men decided to stand and walk back through the bivouac site towards the Chinese Bandits that were occupying the ambush sites. After linking up with Grimes, he decided to lead the 1st Scout Squad through the bivouac site and locate another ambush site along the trail on the opposite south side of the unoccupied regimental CP. The Chinese Bandits remained in position without enemy contact until the following morning when three NVA troops walked into Grime’s ambush site and were captured about one hour before sunrise. Grimes and the scout squad leaders met one more time at sunrise near the northern edge of the regimental CP where Grimes gave a radio report to LTC Mertel. Mertel directed that Grimes and the 1st Scout Squad would return to LZ Stallion and the 2d and 3d Scout Squads would continue patrolling separately south and north of the NVA regimental CP. Later in the morning water buffalo were observed tethered to stakes driven in the river on the Cambodia side of the Se San. The trails were well used but no additional enemy contact was made and the two remaining scout squads returned to LZ Stallion using separate routes. Regarding this operation Colonel Kenneth D. Mertel would later write in his book Year of the Horse:Vietnam 1st Air Cavalry in the Highlands 1965-66 “they (Chinese Bandits) had tremendous pride and spirit…found the largest enemy target, the regimental bivouac…” and captured the attention of senior Department of Defense, MACV, and 5th Special Forces commanders and staff responsible for long range reconnaissance operations. S.L.A. Marshall, General (Retired) stated that he initially selected the Chinese Bandits for inclusion in his book Battles in the Monsoon as a result of this operation and the later DOD/MACV directed long range reconnaissance patrols along the Cambodia and Laos borders that were conducted by the Bandits in the spring of 1966. General Marshall’s book includes an entire chapter entitled “The Long Patrol” which depicts the Chinese Bandits performing their routine battalion reconnaissance and combat roles.
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