Mike & H&S Companies
Third Battalion, Fifth Marines
by Mike McFerrin
SSgt Blackman had joined the company as third platoon sergeant in October of 1968. He had served a previous tour in the bush in Vietnam and quickly established himself as a lifer who would follow the book but also knew the Vietnam book very well.
Shortly after he arrived, Mike Company had attempted a night movement on a trail that had been reconned by a day patrol made by my platoon. We had noticed the many eyes that had watched our patrol that day. Many villagers had watched from the villages and fields. Too many. The recommendation was made by our platoon commander, Lieutenant Moore, to the company commander, 1stLT Hudson, to alter the route used by the company when it moved that night. 1stLT Hudson understood but had received orders for the company to be in place across the stream by first light of the next day as a blocking force for a two company sweeping force. He did not want to be late for any reason. Taking an unknown route at night would probably take longer so he nixed the changing of the route.
Since my platoon had done the recon, we had the point. At the time, I was a fireteam leader and my team had point for the platoon. I had two men to command in my fireteam so one, PFC Putnam was on point in front of me and the other, PFC Lewis, was behind me.
We had moved about 500 meters and were on a trail that ran along the edge of a rice paddy on a piece of high ground that had a village at its center about 50 meters from the paddy when we heard some noises from the area of the hut closest to us, off to our left and up the slope. We were continuing to move but all had turned their heads to the left to see what may have caused the noise. As I looked to the left, straining my eyes to see even dim outlines in the darkness, there was a large explosion that totally engulfed PFC Lewis in a flash of light right behind me.
I dove into the rice paddy and twirled my body around in the mud so that the my head was covered by the foot or so of elevation to the footpath and so I could look over it to see the enemy. I yelled to PFC Putnam to see if he saw where they were. I heard PFC Lewis say he didn't know where it came from either. I was surprised to hear him. I asked where he was hit. He said he wasn't hit and I didn't believe him since I had witnessed the explosion being generated from the area of his feet. It took two or three verbal exchanges with PFC Lewis to convince me that he truly wasn't hit.
The explosion was from a Chinese Communist grenade, a Chicom for short, that was usually a less than perfect grenade that often had weak points in its metal container that would cause the blast of the explosion to be focused in a single direction, limiting the damage caused by it. This design defect in the enemy grenades was probably responsible for many American lives being saved, including my own.
More Chicoms were flung at us from the darkness. We fired a few rounds at no particular target and then ceased firing. We were waiting for more weapons to open up on us at any second to reveal the enemy positions. As the Chicoms were exploding around us, we heard SSgt Blackman yelling at us to fire our weapons. His voice was coming from behind us. There he was in the paddy, strolling back and forth, fully exposed, in a full upright position and exhorting us to fire at this shadow or that. For us, it was a dramatic exhibition of guts and leadership that was rarely seen in a staff NCO or officer.
The concentration of fire from us either killed or scared the enemy off because there was nothing returned at us and the column was ordered to continue to move. But the warnings to the company commander about the route being dangerous were now obviously correct so we were ordered to make a deviation. It was decided to get away from the high ground that offered concealment and we took a 90 degree right turn and headed across the paddy on a dike.
As the point of the column got about three fourths of the way across the paddy, the tail end of the column was just passing the area where the point had been ambushed. Another ambush was sprung by the enemy using both rifle and grenades and inflicted six casualties on the tail of the column.
The battle lasted about 15 minutes and another 20 was spent moving the casualties out of the kill zone back to a suitable site for a medevac helicopter landing zone. It took 10 or 15 minutes for the medevac to arrive. We were behind schedule and the company commander wanted to make up the time. He passed the word up to move faster now. The problem was that everybody else understood that the enemy knew our route regardless of a few meters change to one side or the other and had obviously prepared surprises for us. This dictated that other tactics should be used. My point man, PFC Putnam, was scared almost to the point of refusing to move anywhere much less quickly. I talked with him explaining that we had to move anyway since we were sitting in the middle of the paddy without much cover and that he should disregard the "move quickly" order and proceed across the paddy with caution and that I was right behind him to cover him. If anybody wanted him to move faster, they could walk point and show us how it's done.
We proceeded across the paddy to the high ground on the other side that bordered the stream we were to cross. We had crossed the paddy on a dike that was only about 50 meters away from and parallel to the original route that we had used that afternoon. As we came onto the high ground we veered back towards the original route to circumvent the natural obstacles of vegetation and tree stands. We crossed the original route and then paralleled it to the other side about 10 meters.
We were crossing through a graveyard on the high ground when the word was passed up to me that the column was broken. Somewhere back in the second squad in my platoon, somebody had lost sight of the man behind him in the darkness. I halted my team in the graveyard and we took cover behind grave mounds. The last man in our section of the column was sent back to retrace his steps to find the column. He found them at the intersection with the original route moving along that one. The column was corrected but there was an entire squad missing. The word was passed to me that the column was found but there was a squad missing somewhere behind us. We were not to move until the word was passed.
I heard a low rustling and looked in front to where PFC Putnam was ducking behind his cover grave and turning his M-16 to the right. He made several pointing gestures in that direction. At the edge of the graveyard was a bushline and just the other side of it was the silhouette of a man with a rifle. Then there were silhouettes of several others moving to within a few feet of that one and stopping. They did not appear to know we were there. I crawled to PFC Putnam, told him not to fire until I gave the word, and then crawled back to the other edge of the graveyard and passed the word back for the machine gun team to come up.
In a few seconds, LCpl Nava arrived with his M-60 and his assistant gunner. I told him what I had and sent him to a particular grave to set up the gun and wait for me to fire first. I returned to PFC Putnam and told him the same and then returned to my cover grave. There seemed to be a conference going on amongst the silhouettes, probably determining how to set up their ambush. They were bunched together making an easy target. One of the silhouettes stepped away from the bunch. This was it. We would attack before they could spread apart. As I aimed in on the one stepping away from the group and began to squeeze the trigger, a giant flash rose up on all sides of my target and blinded me as an explosion shook the earth. All of the targets disappeared. In the graveyard, we were stunned and unsure as to what had happened.
Then the night was pierced by a shriek, "Oh God! Help me!" It was in English. It was suddenly clear. It was the lost squad and they had moved up beside us on the original route. They had realized they were lost and had stopped to decide what to do. The trail had been booby trapped with something large, probably made from a dud American artillery round, in anticipation of our coming and the second squad radioman PFC Day had stepped on it. He lost both of his legs but survived. All the other six in his squad were also wounded severely. The irony of the bush. Within a fraction of a second of an ambush about to be sprung on them from 10 meters away, these horrible wounds probably saved their lives.
PFC Day and some of the others were in such pain that they continued to scream. All were worried that it gave away our exact position and kept yelling at the corpsman to give them morphine. It seemed to me that the explosion itself let the enemy know where we were at and what had happened. But after two ambushes and the booby trap within a two or three hour period everybody was on the edge of mental breakdown. The platoon guide was running around yelling about things, any thing, and breaking into crying jags every few seconds. The troops, especially PFC Putnam on point, were wondering aloud if the company commander had the guts to tell the colonel that our route of movement had been compromised and that if it was not already disastrous would probably become so by daylight if we continued to try to move in the current direction at the necessary pace.
A medevac helicopter was called. It took an unusually long time before one arrived, perhaps one to two hours. While we waited, SSgt Blackman came by and talked to me. He let me know that caution was to be my primary concern on point even though no word had yet come from the company commander regarding further movement. In doing this, SSgt Blackman demonstrated that he understood the folly of what we were doing and did not want anybody else to die if the command structure continued to pursue its original objectives. For a lifer in the military this was a bold move.
When the medevac helicopter arrived, it was the oldest kind in Vietnam, a CH-34. We anticipated enemy fire but received none as the helicopter spiraled down between the trees into a small clearing. The helicopter was not designed to carry the weight of all seven wounded men. The pilot was willing to try because of the severity of their wounds. All of the wounded's gear and extra ammo were tossed out of the helicopter. It attempted to lift off but could not get more than a few feet above the ground. Again it tried and again it failed. Then the pilot began to bounce the helicopter off of the ground. With each bounce, the helicopter was able to get another 5 to 10 feet in altitude. Finally, it cleared the tops of the surrounding trees and began a slow circle to gain more altitude before departing the area. Still there was no enemy fire.
The word came down from the company commander that we were to proceed with haste to the stream a hundred or so meters away and to cross it at a bridge that had been blown down but still offered a foot crossing. From there we were to follow a compass heading that would take us straight to our destination. PFC Putnam was in the same mental condition as everybody else, only worse because he was on point. He did not want to move. Again I reasoned with him and told him that the booby trap had been set on the path that we had used during the daytime patrol and that we were no longer using it. In the end, I had to assure him that I was as afraid as he was but could still go on by putting my hand on his back to show him that I was close enough to be killed by any booby trap that he hit.
We went at a snail's pace and finally arrived at the stream about 25 meters down from the bridge. PFC Putnam refused to cross the bridge and this time I agreed that we should look for a place to ford. The company commander wanted to press on but was convinced by SSgt Blackman and Lieutenant Moore that we should at least check for booby traps first. SSgt Blackman came to the front and had us take turns checking for booby traps. Nobody moved very fast. It took at least 30 minutes.
After crossing the bridge, it was about 3 in the morning and my squad was rotated out of the point position. The rest of the move was uneventful. We did not reach the objective by sunrise but we were close so we set in on some high ground overlooking rice paddies so that we could still serve as the blocking force for the sweep which would just have to go a little further. The sweep and block operation caught nothing.
In one night, SSgt Blackman had established himself as a gutsy and caring leader. The word spread quickly through the company about the third platoon sergeant.