Landing Zone Carol: A Memorial Day memory
by C.W. Ullman. Photos courtesy of Sheldon Canter
[This story was originally published May 30, 2016]
Landing Zone (LZ) Carol was like Gilligan’s Island. Our days were spent perfecting our tans and telling headquarters we were winning the hearts and minds of local villagers. LZ was on the tip of a peninsula that jutted out 500 yards into Dam Trao Lake. It was 300 miles north of Saigon and light years away from what most grunts were enduring. We even had our own airboat. We were attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade and we were the Short Range Ambush Platoon (SRAP).
Our mission was to periodically patrol the lake and sweep the village of An Loc on its shore. We were looking for weapons and any signs of enemy activity. Our sweeps never found anything because the outboard motors on our slow, rubber rafts alerted the locals that we were headed in their direction, giving them ample time to stash weapons. When we showed up for our “surprise” visits, the entire village turned out to greet us like we were visiting dignitaries. After we came ashore like MacArthur landing on Leyte, the locals tried to sell us everything from bracelets made from brass bullet casings to conical shaped hats called non las. The villagers had nervous smiles and we wore scowls.
After searching their huts without success, we climbed back in our rubber boats and returned to our LZ. Except every time we were about 400 yards off shore from the village, somebody opened fire on us with an AK.47, forcing us to dive into the lake leaving the rubber boats to slowly motor on with our weapons, radios and our newly purchased wares still onboard. The boats were so sluggish that one of us would swim after the nearest raft, get onboard, and round up the other two pilotless crafts like stray cattle. This would eventually lead to a different outcome.
When we arrived back at LZ Carol, Lieutenant Parsley (LT) told headquarters we had taken enemy fire, which justified our time sun tanning on the lake. After LT filed his report, he brought out a football and we resumed the game from the day before. After the game we readied large, empty food thermoses to be sent back to the rear. Without LT’s knowledge, we sometimes deposited marijuana in one of them for the cooks at headquarters, insuring that we got great food.
We knew it was a cush assignment and did not want to blow it, so we changed into combat gear in time for the two p.m. arrival of the chopper that delivered our hot meals. LT would go off to his pagoda-hooch to nap, someone would fire up a joint, and then we would swing in our hammocks discussing Ayn Rand. We used to say this was the hell of war.
Once in awhile, LT would go George Patton on us and say we were American G.I.s and nobody was “gonna make us look like a bunch of dumbass-shits.” Eventually, he had had enough of the AK.47 firing on us every time we left An Loc. He devised a plan. The next time we went across the lake, a man would lie on the floor of each of the three rafts. Once we docked and the search of the village commenced, the three men would sneak out of the boats and hide in the brush. After the boats left and Charlie opened fire, the three left behind would kill or capture him, and then we could retire to our hammocks to continue our book club discussion of Atlas Shrugged.
If one was not present or late for a briefing, he was usually volunteered for the special duty. Because I was catching up on the latest Beatle song and arrived late to the meeting, I was chosen to lead the assault.
The next morning three rubber rafts left LZ Carol at oh six hundred hours and arrived to a village delegation offering hot tea and some kind of rice concoction. I and my fellow warriors, Roadrunner and McFarland, lay in the bottom of the boats planning to ambush Charlie.
I was 20 years old and Roadrunner, a new arrival, was younger than me. He wore a tattoo of, well the Roadrunner, and he talked incessantly about what a badass he was. Guys new to a unit felt compelled to talk tough. McFarland was a badass and didn’t speak much. He was older than me, but I had more time in country and outranked him. Fifteen minutes after our landing, we left the boats. I carried an M16 with multiple twenty round clips plus a .45 caliber sidearm. McFarland carried the same plus a radio and Roadrunner shouldered an M60 belt-fed machine gun. We quietly entered the tall elephant grass and hunkered down waiting for our unit to finish the sweep.
After two hours, the platoon search was finished, the boats pushed off, and we three waited as the watercraft reached the free fire zone. I stood up to get a better look at their distance from shore at the exact moment our mysterious AK.47 shooter opened fire. However, it was not one shooter but three.They were on the other side of a bush, only four feet from us. I had never been that close to an AK.47 firing on automatic. The shooting startled so much me that I collapsed onto the ground in a fetal position, started kicking my legs, and pissed in my shorts. Seconds passed before I regained my composure and turned my M16 on Charlie’s position. I emptied my weapon into the bush, but missed because the enemy was so close that I fired over their crouched bodies.
They sprinted away from their lair and I wanted to give chase, but we needed Roadrunner with his M60, and he was not moving because he was paralyzed with fear. He said he would lay down suppressing fire for us. Having been in combat before, I knew that when someone said they would “cover you,” it usually ended with someone accidentally getting shot.
Our debate was interrupted when our guys from the rubber rafts thought it would be a good idea to return fire at Charlie, except they were actually shooting at us. McFarland jumped on the radio and yelled at them to stop. When our lake contingent ceased firing, we finally had the opportunity to go after Charlie, but Roadrunner would not stand up.
I had a similar experience in a firefight once, where I was so severely gripped by fear, I could not move. When fear is that strong it literally freezes a person: their body, throat, breathing, and creates a uniquely identifiable tremor in their voice. I did to Roadrunner what a sergeant had done to snap me out of it: I kicked him hard and gave the order to move out.
The three of us picked up and ran through the village. We did not fire because we didn’t want to hit any of the villagers. However, that did not stop Charlie from shooting. We took cover behind water wells and trees while Charlie sprayed bullets everywhere. Charlie knew that if he shot one of us or a villager we would get bogged down providing medical aid and he could make a break for it. In this withering crossfire, Roadrunner pulled a panicked child to safety and held onto him. After the shooting stopped, we had lost track of the enemy. I caught eyes with an old poppy san who pointed to his right. The three of us took off in that direction and caught a glimpse of Charlie heading out into a rice paddy.
The reaction most guys had after being terrified was to be very angry. Roadrunner was having that reaction and wanted to shoot back, but wanted a better shot from the edge of the paddy some 50 yards away.
As we were running, Charlie moved into the open. When we reached the dirt berm to fire our weapons, we noticed a family in the middle of the rice paddy. Roadrunner was sliding the safety on the M60 to “Off” when I told him to hold his fire.
The family consisted of a woman about 30-years old, her parents and her four children. While I monitored the family, Charlie reached the tree line on the far side and again opened fire on us. Roadrunner was begging to shoot back, the adults in the field were screaming, the children crying and I held my hand on the M60 telling him to wait. McFarland tapped me on the shoulder and said he could run our tree line and get at the shooters from a different angle. However, we were pinned down, preventing any of us from moving. When the enemy finally stopped to reload, McFarland took off running. I watched him run and for a brief moment forgot about keeping Roadrunner in check and lifted my hand off the M60. Roadrunner interpreted that as the sign to open fire and accidentally shot the woman.
Now things became serious because we had to see how badly the woman had been hit. Charlie again had guns blazing and this time fired in the direction of the family as well as at us. I gave Roadrunner the sign to let the dragon out and the M60 came to life, firing tracer bullets that stopped the enemy’s AK.47s. I told him to shoot high so I could low crawl out to the woman.
Our guys from the rafts finally caught up to us. Someone suggested we call in artillery to “rain down hell” on Charlie, who had a 300 yard head start down the beach on the South China Sea.
LT said the problem with calling in artillery was “sometimes they hit the designated target and sometimes they blow up your LZ.”
More suggestions were offered, such as airstrikes, helicopter gunships or Navy bombardment. LT reminded everyone that it was three guys we were after, not a German Panzer Division. LT’s order to chase after Charlie was met with groans, because most of our guy’s physical conditioning was so bad, that they would be out of breath just running across the street.
I reached the wounded woman first. The four children were crying and Poppy San was yelling at me in Vietnamese. While McFarland radioed for a medivac, the wounded woman resisted my efforts to bandage her arm. I yelled at her that she would bleed to death if we didn’t bandage the wound. She did not understand English and I did not understand Vietnamese, but I prevailed by sheer force. When I got a good look at her forearm, I almost puked. The bullet had shredded the skin, muscle, tendon, and bone. Thankfully, Doc, our field medic, showed up and took over the medical duties. The kids tugged at him because they thought he was hurting their mother, so McFarland and I pulled the kids aside.
After we separated the children from their mother, Poppy San started yelling at McFarland, who did not like to be yelled at, so I pushed the old man away from McFarland to quiet him. But, Mama San was pissed that I pushed her man so she started yelling and hitting me.
“How far out is the chopper?” I asked McFarland.
“ETA is any minute,” McFarland replied.
Medivacs came in low and fast, because they were unarmed. It was one of the few helicopters that could barely be heard before they were on top of you. McFarland was told over the radio to pop smoke for identification, so he pulled the pin on a purple smoke grenade. Suddenly the chopper burst over a stand of palm trees, swirling the purple smoke in its tail rotor, circled the field low, and quickly landed. When the family saw the helicopter all hell broke loose.
They huddled around the wounded woman and would not let us put her on the chopper. When a Vietnamese villager was taken away by helicopter, it was usually for interrogation by the Vietnamese National Police. The villager was sometimes tortured and often never returned. Many of the National Police in Vietnam were like the SS during World War II. Our unit previously had a National Policeman whom we sent back to headquarters because the locals were terrified of him.
The pilot yelled at us to put the woman onboard, but her family was clinging to her good arm, her waist and both legs, and would not let go. Poppy San started beating McFarland with a rake. The children pleaded with us as the woman writhed in pain. McFarland was about to hit somebody, the pilot was threatening to leave, and Mama San began taking Mickey Mantle swings at my head with another rake. McFarland came up with a solution to our problem.
He grabbed Poppy San and put him on the chopper. I knocked the rake out of Mama San’s hand and hoisted her onboard. McFarland picked up two of the kids and shoved them inside the aircraft. I followed suit with the other two kids. The wounded woman was the last to be put aboard.
The medic yelled over the roaring engines, “What am I supposed to do with them?” pointing at the kids and grand parents.
“Get them something to eat when you get to the rear,” McFarland hollered.
The pilot yelled, “I am not taking all of them.”
“The hell you’re not, sir,” Doc countered. “This woman has lost a lot of blood and if she dies, it’s on you. She won’t go on the chopper without them.”
The pilot, a warrant officer, looked around the inside of his helicopter, checked with his onboard medic and then his co-pilot. They both nodded and he glowered at me.
“I’m going to have you brought up on charges, troop,” he threatened. “Do you hear me?”
I looked at him for a moment, stepped away from the chopper and saluted.
“Go f.. yourself, sir.”
The medivac lifted off, hovered about 10 feet in the air, turned and then flew away.
I pulled out a pack of Chesterfield’s from my ammo pouch and offered McFarland and Roadrunner smokes. Roadrunner reminded me that I told an officer to f/o and I would probably face a court martial.
“By the time he files the paper work, it’ll be three weeks before anything happens,” I said.
McFarland retorted, “So?”
“I have my DEROS date for home; it’s two weeks.”
The enduring image I have of the experience was McFarland and Roadrunner showing the kids how to hold on in the chopper and the gleeful smiles on the kids’s faces at the prospect of flying in a helicopter. Thanks to the medic the woman fully recovered from her wound.
We never did catch Charlie.
C.W. Ullman is a Manhattan Beach Chiropractor. ER
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