June 17, 1969 is a day forever etched in my mind. Although it has been almost thirty years I will try and recount that specific day. It was June 15th that we were choppered out of the bush to Vandergrift Combat Base after sweeping north west of Dong-Ha on search and destroy missions.
On the morning of the 16th we boarded 6x6 trucks and convoyed into Dong-Ha for a day of rest. I will never forget the outdoor barbecue pits they had waiting for us, steaks, vegetables, potatoes, ice cream, sodas, you name it, it was all there.
We were told to get some rest, clean our weapons, and not to leave the compound area. I remember the platoon leaders were called into a meeting later that evening but no word got out as to what was going on. It seemed all to quiet and eerie that night.
That night about 2100 or 2200 hrs; we were told to get our gear together and form up with our platoon leaders. There was a short briefing and after that we went back to our hootches. All I know was that word come down that an unknown size enemy force was building up near the DMZ.
Later on that evening I remember painting our faces and putting small strips of reflection tape on the back of our helmets. We were issued our c-rats, frags, and all the ammo we could carry.
Our Company formed up and were loaded back on 6x6's and mule wagons. What seemed like hours later we finally reached our destination. We started a long trek down some kind of goat path. We moved inland for at least two hours in a westerly direction.
It was pitch black out and if it wasn't for that reflection tape on the back of our helmets we wouldn't be able to see the guy in front of us. We set up a perimeter that night, and were told to dig in. The ground was so hard it was like digging into pavement.
The trip wires and clay mores were set up and we were all on a hundred percent alert. It was during this time a shot rang out from somewhere and I seen it kick some dirt up to my right. I heard someone yelling out to see if every body was ok.
No one was hit... but now I was getting very nervous, I suspected that they were probing our perimeter and we were waiting for an all out attack at any moment. I started seeing things after that.
It seemed like hundreds of images were moving in towards us. I reached into my flack jacket and took out two frags and laid them on the edge of my hole. I had a third one clutched in my hand with the pin half out for some time, just waiting for an excuse to throw it.
I don't know how long it was, but all of a sudden I heard this "POP" and night turned into day. A flare ship had dropped one of those million candle light flares. I started looking around for this enemy but all I saw was a bunch of bushes and tall grass swaying in the breeze.
Dawn finally broke and with all that ground fog some guys were having a hard time trying to locate the clay mores and trip flares that they set up the night before.
I heard another pop. One of our old timers tripped his own flare that he set up and this got some of the guys laughing. After chowing down we started humping north towards a tree line in the distance.
We didn't have to walk very far before we saw an aircraft in the distance diving and dropping bombs into the tree line. Cpl; Pete Tramonte who was in front of me said, "Ohhhh..... looks like were heading into something big!" My heart was pounding, and I started to get a queasy feeling in my stomach.
My Lt. yells out "Let's Go!" About half way there all hell broke loose up ahead. It sounded like a "mad moment", but even worse. We still had no idea what was happening and couldn't seem to pinpoint where all the firing was coming from... seemed to be to the right and left of us.
It never occurred to any of us that we were walking into a very large ambush. As we advanced forward a sniper opened up on us from the tree line. We started firing in the direction where it was coming from. Whoever was sniping at us had a good bead on Pete and I.
The rounds were kicking up dirt just a few feet from our faces. I thought that any moment now one of us was going to get hit. During all of this I had a flashback of my family, my home, and my girlfriend. It was so vivid and lasted only for a millisecond. I will never forget it.
The NVA that was firing at us was finally taken out by an M-79 round. Our Lt. yelled for us to shed our gear and form an assault line. We got up and started moving forward. I clicked my weapon on full automatic as we started towards the tree line. We finally hit their first line of defense with little resistance.
There were a number of bunkers and a couple of our guys ran around checking each one out and throwing frags into them. The Lt. and the squad leaders were being briefed while the rest of us set up a perimeter to make sure the NVA didn't flank us.
"Guns" were told to set up in an open field with very little cover. I was told to cover them and to wait until my partner showed up. Our job was to move up towards another tree line to observe and report any kind of movement. I ran over to my position and tried to fit my 6 foot frame into a small mortar hole behind a bush. That bush turned out to be an ant hill and they were eating me alive.
Suddenly a couple of AK's opened up again. Those rounds were just missing the "guns" and snapping by my head. I tried to get as low as possible but could not move. The NVA had us pinned down good and "guns" couldn't open up because they didn't know where all our men were.
I had to hold that position until my other FO (Forward Observer) showed up so we could move forward. There was so much chaos that it seemed nobody knew where anybody else was. RPG's and Mortars was peppering the area. All I could do was to wait it out.
It seemed like hours before the firing finally stopped. I heard someone yelling to me from the tree line to my left to see if I was ok and if I had enough ammo. The first thing I noticed about this guy was the red bandanna around his neck. He yelled out to me to go back to the CP area. I found out later that he was our CO, Captain Mike Riley.
Apparently he was running up and down the lines, making sure ammo was distributed where needed, reassuring his men, and doing a thousand and one things. I was thinking, this guy is really amazing. Exposing himself to all this enemy fire and running around to our positions checking up on us to see if we were ok or needed anything. I would serve under this Marine Officer any day.
The other FO that was assigned to me was told to stay behind until they could sort everything out. Our CO had radioed for tanks, and air cover. I remember looking over to where the KIA's were. It looked like a dozen men were lying side by side like a stack of cordwood. I watched as the Corpsman lifted the ponchos off their heads to ID and tag them.
Walking back to the CP area I come across all this gear stacked up from our KIA. I noticed a flack jacket with the name "PELKEY" written on the back of it. I said, "Oh God No, Oh No, not Roger too." The tears started to stream down my face. We were pretty close friends. We had signed up together in Bangor Maine, stuck together all the way through Parris Island, Camp Lejeune, Camp Pendleton, up until that very moment. He was in second platoon.
My other FO (Robert Witty) was ready to join me and we started towards the tree line. I traced my way back to my first position while guns covered us for most of the way.
As we started wading into some waste high brush into an opening in the hedge row, there was a burst of AK-47 rounds clipping the grass all around us, and I was hit. I didn't realize it, but so was Witty...
Within only a minute, OOMPH! , a firestorm hit us with such force that it threw me back some distance. A jet had dropped napalm just the other side of that hedgerow into the NVA... but we were so close, that the flames and smoke covered us also.
I don't remember to much after that, I was gasping for air. I remember trying desperately to get out of that area which was covered in black smoke and fire. My flack jacket, hair, and jungle fatigues were smoking. My back was killing me, and my right leg felt like someone had hit me with a sledge hammer. I was helpless...
I was dragged back to the CP area and loaded into a re-supply chopper and flown back to the rear. I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks then flown out to Yokosuka Naval Hospital in Japan.
I was very lucky to be alive. I found out later on that my other FO (Robert Witty) was KIA. While I was in the hospital I heard that they had called in some naval gun fire. After the guys were dug in good a ship fired a round right in the center of our perimeter.
I owe my life to Chaplain Dolaghan and a Marine who were the first to get to me and carry me back to the chopper. Doc Hoppy had his eyes on me, but they were closer, and grabbed me.... Doc carried the Marine he was working on back to the chopper too. Witty was also sent out .... but he was already gone.
I'd like to say to all our Corpsman, you're the best!
God Bless each and every one of you.