Dreams of Mountains

By John Shoemaker

I stared out the tall terminal windows at the Zurich airport in Switzerland and looked down the long runway and then glanced over to the mountains that surround it. The view offered a perspective that brought back vivid memories.

The announcements were loudly declaring it was now boarding time for Flight 64, non-stop to Miami. My long and arduous business trip was over. It’s time to go home.

I settled into my economy class seat with barely room for my knees and or enough room for my shoulders that rubbed against the stranger sitting next to me. He spoke little English. So I smiled and prepared for a long flight. As we lifted off, I stole another glance out the window at those mountains, snow covered and so beautiful. Then I took my Melatonin pills and drifted off to sleep.

These were mountains, but covered in green. I was back in Kham Duc, Vietnam, 1970, near the Laotian border in I Corps and at one of the main entrance routes of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. After two years, our Army battalion had returned to an area that was overrun during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

As the lieutenant in charge of the third platoon, Bravo Company, our mission was to provide security for this old Green Beret air strip. It consisted of one long dirt runway nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains and jungle. I both admired their beauty and feared the potential death that could rain down from them.

While my platoon was out on a routine patrol about a mile out from one end of the airstrip, we heard machine gun fire and explosions behind us. The enemy had sneaked up a river valley and just before dawn attacked the main perimeter guarding battalion headquarters and the M-105 Howitzers positioned just off the center of the air strip.

Fortunately, one of the guards, only days in country, was awake and alert. He spotted movement and sounded the alarm. Some thought the green “newbie” was just scared and giving a false alarm until the flares showed two dozen enemy soldiers running at full speed toward the barbed wired compound.

All hell broke loose, firing point blank with Howitzers using beehive rounds; they caught the enemy in the open and cut them down in minutes. Sappers carrying satchel charges never reached their intended targets.

A few hours later the hulking front end loader, used to clear the air strip of crashed planes and helicopters and smooth the runway, was now using its bucket to collect all the bodies for a mass grave.

I got word from battalion that the enemy was moving in to shoot down the supply planes, mostly cargo planes and Chinook helicopters, as they tried to land with valuable supplies and reinforcements for “Operation Elk Canyon.” I remembered the excitement as three platoons rushed to load onto a dozen Hueys for a combat assault into an area north of the airstrip to patrol and confirm if the enemy was moving in on us.

Pathfinders had cleared a section of the jungle so that the Hueys could come in fast, hover momentarily to drop us off, and then lift off from the landing zone with their engines straining at max power. The pilots scrambled to get out of there before the enemy could react while skimming just over the tops of the massive trees around the edges of the LZ.

Jumping from the vulnerable whirly birds, we quickly moved into the wood line. My “Third Herd,” as we were called, was ordered to lead the march into the jungle with the other two platoons following behind us. Thick jungle forced vigilant map study to make sure where I was going at every step as we moved in one long single file. A navigation mistake here would be unacceptable. I felt incredible pressure to triple check each step forward.

At some points we had to hack and chop our way uphill in searing heat to create a path. We welcomed the brief shower that was enough to drench us but we also knew it would feed the jungle rot on our feet, arms, legs and just about anywhere else on our bodies.

After several hours of getting through this thick jungle growth, we reached the main ridge line that ran perpendicular to one end of the airstrip. I gave the signal and we all stopped, got down to hug the ground to take a moment to double check the map, drink water, catch our breath, pick off the bugs and leeches, and then just listen. The musty smells of the jungle floor were intoxicating while we tried to cool down from the incredible heat and humidity.

Tension increased since we could see the jungle thinned out and the top of the ridge line was somewhat narrow, dropping off on either side. The company commander ordered me to proceed.

In the line of march, I was third behind the point man and cover man so I could direct movement during contact with the enemy. We strained to see what might be ahead of us, peering out from under those heavy, steel helmets.

Maintaining silence was imperative as we skirted around heavy leaves and branches. It would only be a matter of time and we would find them or they would find us. The loser was that last to know.

Finally, the ridge line widened and the trail turned to the left. We followed it for about 50 yards. Slowly walking off trail to avoid booby traps, my point man spotted movement. Every one dropped. Sweat was pouring off of our bodies and eyes widened to see what would happen next. Faces contorted with questions that would not get immediate answers.

Thinking we might have the enemy to our right flank, with arm signals, the entire platoon of 25 young men did a right face movement and prepared to attack. Hearts pounding, fingers poised, and mouths dry, we moved in unison, just as we had practiced back at Folk Polk and Fort Sherman in the Panama Canal Zone. I thought it was a dream.

After going a few yards, both sides opened up at the same moment. The crack of gunfire was incredible.

Our M-16’s and two M-60’s laced the jungle in front of us with hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The enemy AK-47’s report, with a distinctive difference in noise, sliced the trees around us. You could hear and feel the bullets whizz by us.

Yelling was heard on both sides as things went from silent, cautious movement to all out bedlam. We charged as we heard the enemy voices yelling but clearly moving away from us. We were running and shooting as we yelled. The adrenalin rush was unbelievable.

Within five minutes it was over. I checked to see if any of my soldiers were hit. I was surprised to find everyone made it. Not one wounded or even scratched. Unbelievable, I thought to myself. How lucky are we?

We had rushed around the main bunker and foxholes newly built and most unfinished. With several enemy bodies on the ground in positions holding backpacks and weapons in their hands, it was clear they were totally surprised. They tried to grab what they could and make a run for it. Their equipment was scattered everywhere.

But the big prize was the Russian-made, 51 Caliber anti-aircraft gun we captured. It was erected on a large tripod with metal shoulder supports to guide the gunner and with large gun sights, a smaller version of what everyone saw when “Hanoi Jane” Fonda was sitting in one during her infamous visit to North Vietnam.

Later, while my men were policing the area of all weapons and gear, I went to an opening in the foliage and my mouth dropped when I looked down from this high ridge to see the air strip in plain view. At that same moment the unmistakable, thundering noise of a very lucky plane came in flying just over our heads to land. I peered up to see its belly, almost close enough to touch, pass quickly and drop down to the air strip.

The noise from the pilot woke me up with a start as he loudly warned us to return to our seats and put on our seat belts due to expected turbulence in preparation for our landing. Groggy and hot, I noticed my shirt was stained with sweat and my heart was beating.

The gentleman sitting next to me looked worried and said to me in broken English, “You OK? No problem!”

I gave the universal sign of a “thumbs up” with a nod of my head and thought about that other plane landing that day a long time ago. 

I leaned back, smiled and replied, “Oh, yeah, things are really OK!” I thought to myself, life is all about perspective. How lucky am I.