MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., January 4, 2014 – In November 1966, the Third Brigade, 4th Infantry Division moved to the hamlet of Dau Tieng in Vietnam to set up a base camp. This new camp was located in Tay Ninh province, northwest of Saigon in War Zone C. The Brigade was operationally managed by the 25th Infantry Division based in nearby Cu Chi, it would later be officially made part of the 25th ID.
The Brigade had arrived in country on October 12, 1966 in the HMS Walker troop transport and had been moved temporarily to Bear Cat, a 1st Infantry Division camp east-northeast of Saigon. After several weeks of acclimation, training and short forays to the adjacent rural and jungle areas, the unit had had only a few casualties and even less action.
Casualties so far were a soldier felled by friendly fire when he decided to stand up to relieve himself during a night ambush patrol, and an enemy sniper who had been killed during one of the short forays outside the camp.
In Dau Tieng, the Brigade took over an Army Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) outpost that had been heavily attacked throughout the war, as it was located in a main infiltration route for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars. It abutted the Michelin Rubber Plantation, rumored to be the largest in the world at the time.
The scuttlebutt was that it had been overrun several times by the enemy and that the French managers of the plantation had an agreement with the enemy so that they and their property would not be harmed. No evidence ever surfaced of the latter.
The camp was located adjacent to Dau Tieng. Its main entrance was literally next to the outlining huts of the hamlet. The hamlet was estimated to have less than five thousand inhabitants. It had a small airport that was essential for resupply and support. Prominent in the camp was the edifice that, rumor had it, housed the French manager of the plantation and his staff.
We never saw them. Some said they never existed. Soldiers usually gossip worse than a sewing circle. In later months, this residence and its adjacent swimming pool served as a recreational area for officers and non-coms.
Units were assigned areas and most were directed to create defensive bunkers in the periphery of the camp. In the meantime, support units built mess halls, an infirmary, unit command tents, latrines and most importantly a Post Exchange (PX). In the following months as combat units left and returned, the camp became a city with all possible reasonable amenities.
In those early days of Dau Tieng only two events occurred that were out of the ordinary. The first was the accidental explosion of a mine that caused several casualties. Apparently the ARVN had set up defensive mine fields and forgot to retrieve at least one “bouncing Betty”. One of our Jeeps found it and several troopers riding in the back received shrapnel wounds.
The second event was even more dramatic. As we dug defensive bunkers in the camp perimeter next to a dry rice paddy, we spotted a resupply plane heading for the airfield. Since it was the only event that broke the monotony and heat of midday, we all stopped and looked at its approach.
As the plane descended to just above the rubber tree tops, we all heard the sound and saw the tracers of a 51 caliber machine gun. These were only used by the enemy, cleverly they could use our ammunition (50 caliber), but we couldn’t use theirs. Their sound was hollow as the rounds contained less powder that ours. The shooter appeared to be less than one mile from the camp.
While the shooter had had only a very small window through the tree canopy to fire at the plane, he got lucky and hit it. We soon saw the plane lose even more altitude and appeared in danger of crashing in the rubber plantation.
While we stood open-mouthed, unable to move or stop looking, something almost incredible happened. Somehow the pilot was able to skim the tops of the trees while turning. The plane came directly at us to parallel to our defensive perimeter and in a question of seconds, the plane crash-landed in the dry rice paddy in front of us. It seemed impossible that he had managed to land the plane between us and the rubber trees in a strip no wider than a football field.
As emergency rescue arrived, we saw the crew of the plane evacuate the plane. Only two of them were taken away in stretchers. Eventually we found out that everyone had recovered.
We left on an operation that lasted a couple of weeks and by the time we came back the downed plane had been taken away.
After these two events, we became even more vigilant, as we realized that danger was even closer than we assumed.
It is good to be afraid in a combat zone.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist is in Facebook (Mario Salazar) and Twitter (@chibcharus).
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