A light rain began to fall as the LSSC turned south into the Rach La. From his position on the right side of the boat, Northcutt signaled the crew and his squad to get ready for insertion. Each man pointed his weapon over the side, with the safety off.
The canal was wider than most in the area; in fact, it was wide enough to turn the LSSC around in, but no one wanted to be caught in an ambush at that range. The canal banks were only seventy-five feet away.
The rain, coming down harder now, was both a friend and foe. It would help to hide them as it darkened the sky and muffled what little noise they made, but at the same time it would also mask any sounds the VC would make setting up their ambush. The rain also reduced the visibility so the SEALs could barely see the canal bank on each side.
Skillfully, Hanley maneuvered the LSSC along the canal to the insertion point and eased the bow into the bank. Quickly, but without a sound, the squad went over the bow and set up a security perimeter in the mangrove trees. Hanley pulled the boat away from the bank and pointed the bow back the way they entered. Cutting the engines, he and the other two crew members prepared for the long, dangerous trip back as the current carried them toward the mouth of the canal.
Up on the bank, Kirby was listening for sounds of the enemy and waiting for the night jungle noises to return. They had been inserted two klicks south along the canal. He, like the rest of the SEALs around him, was already soaked from the rain. The sound of the big drops spattering on the leaves made it hard to hear anything else.
As the night jungle sounds gradually returned, Northcutt softly snapped his fingers twice and motioned for Kirby to move out. Kirby led the squad east, away from the canal, to check out the area before looking for the crossing point. No co-ordinates had been given for the ambush site because there was no intel on exactly where the VC would be crossing. All the squad could do, after checking the area, was to patrol near the bank until they found the tracks that would indicate that the spot was being used as a crossing.
Kirby patrolled two-hundred meters and stopped to listen. The rain seemed to be letting up. Looking back at Northcutt, he indicated they should turn south. The OIC gave him the “okay” sign and Kirby shot an azimuth with his compass.
Paralleling the canal as they moved south, the entire squad was ready and loaded for bear. They figured that the hit squad would probably be made up of eleven or twelve heavily armed men. If the SEALs spotted the VC first, they could easily wipe them out. If the Viet Cong spotted the squad first, then it could lead to a real ass-kicking contest, which was something they wanted to avoid. Everyone aboard Seafloat, including second squad, was depending on them to eliminate the hit squad before they could set up and launch an attack.
Kirby led the squad south for another two klicks. He and the six other green faced men ignored the rain as they moved silently through the mangrove trees. Kirby’s movement was slow and deliberate as he checked up ahead for booby traps.
When he was sure they had covered the two kilometers, Kirby motioned to Northcutt that they should head west toward the canal to look for the crossing point. Northcutt nodded his head slowly. Kirby made a quick check of his compass and began moving toward the canal.
Patrolling behind Kirby, the squad was ready for anything. Each SEAL covered his assigned sector. Their weapons pointed wherever their eyes looked, safeties off, fingers poised above the triggers.
On point, Kirby held up his hand and squatted down. The rest of the squad did the same. To his front he could hear something moving along the jungle floor but could not tell from the sound what it was. Then, ten feet to his front he saw the body of a large python as it slithered along in search of food. Kirby watched the twenty-foot long snake until it disappeared to his right. He had never seen a snake that big before and hoped that it did not come back while they were laying in ambush. The snake made him realize the SEALs were not the only hunters out that night. When he was sure the snake had moved on, he signaled Northcutt that everything was okay and resumed patrolling toward the Rach La.
A half hour later, Kirby turned and signaled that he had the canal in sight. Northcutt motioned the squad to get down and went forward with Kirby to check it out.
Silently, the two men crawled through the heavy growth, carefully moving vegetation that might make noise or catch on equipment. Five feet from the canal bank Kirby heard a noise and froze in place. Seeing his pointman freeze, Northcutt did the same. At first Kirby could not tell what the noise was, then realized it was the sound of heavy breathing coming from down in the canal. Turning slowly to face Northcutt, he held up a clenched fist and pointed to the canal. Northcutt just grinned, exposing his white teeth for just an instant, then shook his head from side to side.
Kirby nodded yes, made a fist, pointed to the bank and then to his ear indicating that he heard the enemy down in the canal.
Northcutt just shook his head and crawled past Kirby to the edge of the bank. Motioning the pointman forward, he pointed down indicating something in the mud.
Thinking that his OIC had lost his mind, and that any minute the VC in the canal would open fire, Kirby cautiously slid forward. Peering over the bank he looked where Northcutt was pointing. At first he could not make out what it was that his OIC was trying to show him, but at least he did not see any Viet Cong. Finally, his eyes focused on a strangely shaped fish that was stranded on the mud bank by the receding tide.
Northcutt leaned in closer and whispered directly into Kirby’s ear. "Lung fish. Sounds like someone breathing," was all he said.
Jesus, Kirby thought, giant snakes and fish that breath. Vietnam sure is a weird place.
Motioning Kirby to stay where he was, Northcutt moved to get the rest of the squad. When he returned, he signaled Kirby to begin patrolling south. Kirby was just inside the trees, one-hundred meters south of where he heard the lung fish, when he spotted some tracks in the mud on the opposite bank. He quickly brought his hand out to his side, palm down, fingers extended straight out, and made slow a up and down movement. The rest of the squad saw his signal and went prone, blending into the undergrowth. They were so skillful at blending in with the jungle that an enemy two feet away would not have seen them.
Slowly, he crawled to the canal bank and looked over. Just to his left were more tracks on his side of the canal. Pushing himself back, he crawled into the undergrowth and signaled Northcutt that he had found the crossing point.
The OIC quickly positioned the squad in the foliage. The VC crossing ran directly into the center of their ambush. Claymore mines were placed to protect the rear and flanks.
For the next four hours the SEALs did not move anything except their eyes. All around them the nocturnal sounds of the jungle continued. The rain stopped, but water still dripped from the canopy. Huge swarms of mosquitoes descended on them, yet they remained motionless.
Above them the night sky cleared and moonlight filtered through the trees. A steamy mist began to rise from the jungle floor and canal, giving everything an eerie look.
Without warning, the jungle noises increased, getting louder and louder. Kirby’s instincts told him the increase in noise was another way nature had of sending a warning that something was approaching. He strained his eyes, trying to see movement across the fifty-meter wide canal, but the mist made it impossible.
To Kirby’s left he barely heard the sound of voices above the jungle noise. They did not seem to be getting any louder after a few minutes and he realized the hit squad was going to use a different crossing point, further south of the SEALs position.
Kirby snapped his fingers twice and got Northcutt’s attention. With his hands he signaled they should move the ambush south. The OIC agreed and the claymores were quickly retrieved. In patrol order, they moved one-hundred meters back into the jungle. Patrolling south, Kirby moved almost three-hundred meters before he estimated that he was even with the enemy position. Turning back toward the canal he cautiously led the squad forward and stopped just short of reaching it. He and Northcutt then inched their way forward on their bellies.
The ground in front of them formed a small rise before it dropped away. Kirby crawled in behind the small hump in the bank and Northcutt followed. The hump they were taking cover behind ran south for another twenty meters. Carefully looking over the top, Kirby spotted a crudely built foot bridge that was exposed by the low tide. The bridge intersected the canal bank thirty feet to his left. Looking through the mist he could barely make out the drag marks on the opposite bank.
Checking his Rolex, Kirby knew the tide was just starting to come in, which meant the VC would have to cross soon or the bridge would be underwater. The increase in noise from the other side confirmed that he was right. The VC were getting ready to cross.
The light touch of Northcutt’s hand on his shoulder startled Kirby. He looked over and saw the signals that told him to remain in place while Northcutt got the rest of the squad. Kirby motioned for him to hurry and got an “okay” sign in return.
Moving as quickly as he could without making noise, Northcutt made it back to the squad. Crouching down next to O’Shea, he took the radio handset and called for the two OV-10 Broncos standing by at Binh Thuy to launch. He advised them to circle six or seven miles north of the ambush site until he called for them. If he did not need their mini-guns and five-inch Zuni rockets to eliminate the hit squad, he could use them to destroy the bridge. Giving the handset back to O’Shea, he motioned the squad to follow him.
Back at the canal Kirby was hoping the rest of the squad would hurry up. Knowing that he might have to engage the VC before the others arrived, he placed two hand grenades beside him on the dirt mound where he could get to them quickly if he had to.
His plan was simple. If the VC began to cross before the rest of the squad got to him, he would open up with his Stoner, then throw the grenades. By that time the squad should be able to reach him. If not, he would hold out until he ran low on ammo then break contact and escape and evade to the last designated rally point.
The only reason he could think of that the squad would not be able to get to him was if they were pinned down by the same fire. Even then, he knew they would do everything they could to get him out. It was part of the SEAL tradition that no member of the teams had ever been left behind on a mission. These thoughts gave him confidence as he checked his weapon and grenades one more time.
The muffled sound of the squad approaching was a relief. Northcutt quickly placed them to his left along the bank with O’Shea facing the rear. The ambush position cut directly across the near end of the bridge and the hump in the ground provided excellent cover and firing positions. Wanting to keep movement to a minimum, Northcutt signaled the squad not to set up the claymores. He knew he was taking a chance, but did not know how much time they had before the VC would cross.
That question was answered a few moments later when the first of the enemy appeared out of the mist on the far bank. He was armed with an AK-47 and wore a chest pouch full of magazines. He cautiously looked around as he moved out of the jungle. More VC appeared behind him as he slid down the muddy bank. The second man was similarly armed, but the next three carried B-40 Rocket Propelled Grenade launchers over their shoulders. On their backs they carried special khaki colored packs that held four rockets each.
The dark night made their green uniforms look black. The first two men wore floppy bush hats, but it was the three men who carried the RPGs that gave the SEALs an idea of who they were about to ambush. They wore the distinctive pith-type sun helmet of the North Vietnamese Army.
From his concealed position, Northcutt observed the professional way each man moved through the bush and alertly approached the bridge. A sixth NVA, carrying an AK-47, emerged from the mist and slid down the bank. He followed the other five across.
Smart, Northcutt thought. The NVA had split the hit squad so that all of them could not be ambushed at the same time. Slowly, with a minimum of movement, Northcutt signaled DeBenedetto to cover the far bank with his M-60 when the ambush was initiated.
Sighting over the barrel of his M-16 Northcutt waited for the six NVA to reach the middle of the bridge before pulling the trigger. The rounds from his weapon struck the first NVA in the chest and slammed him backward into the man behind him.
The squad opened up on full automatic; the NVA were caught with no where to run. With his Stoner, Kirby raked the bridge with three round bursts. Within seconds the six NVA were dead.
Suddenly, the jungle on the far side lit up with the muzzle flashes of forty or fifty NVA weapons. Two RPG rounds streaked across the canal and exploded in the trees behind the SEALs. To the left of the squad, a gook opened fire with a belt-fed RPD machine gun. Green tracers were flying everywhere.
The SEAL squad shifted their point of aim from the bridge to the jungle, firing at the muzzle flashes. Kenner began firing forty-millimeter high explosive rounds at the NVA’s machine gun. DeBenedetto and Anderson raked the far side with M-60 fire, while Northcutt shouted over his shoulder for O’Shea to call in the OV-10 Broncos, then yelled for Kirby to mark the bridge.
Kirby quickly pulled a Tierra luminous marking grenade from his belt. The grenade was the same size and shape as a smoke grenade, but the white smoke cloud it emitted glowed in the dark. Pulling the pin, he threw the grenade into the water on the north side of the bridge. The grenade sank and detonated underwater, sending a phosphorescent cloud to the surface. The incoming tide carried it to the bridge, silhouetting it perfectly for the strike aircraft.
Taking the handset from the RTO, Northcutt called the OV-10s.
"Wolf Pack, this is Sting Ray, over."
"Sting Ray, this is Wolf Pack Lead. What can we do for ya’ll? Over," radioed the lead pilot of the two-plane flight.
"Wolf Pack, we need you to hit the west, repeat, west bank of the canal where you see the light. There’s a bunch of NVA in there, so hit ‚em with everything you got! Over."
"Judging from the number of tracers we see, I’d say you all ain’t lyin‘ none," the pilot’s southern accent came back over the radio. "But don’t you worry, we got ya covered. We’ll be makin‘ our runs from north to south along the west bank. Over."
"Roger, north to south. Sting Ray, out," Northcutt said into the radio then returned the handset to O’Shea.
While Northcutt was on the radio, Kirby had been putting out rounds. Every time he saw a muzzle flash, he fired at it. The number of flashes from the other side of the canal was decreasing, but not fast enough.
Directly across the canal from Kirby, an NVA came to a kneeling position to fire his B-40 rocket. Kirby immediately pumped five rounds into his chest. Another NVA ran to his fallen buddy to retrieve the rocket launcher, and Kirby nailed him too.
On the left flank, Russ Anderson was in a machine gun duel with the RPD gunner. The gook fired a few rounds at Anderson, then Anderson fired a few rounds back. The duel continued, until Kenner got an idea.
"Next time you fire a burst, make it a long one. I think I’ve got him spotted. If you can, keep his head down for a few seconds, I think I can get him with an airburst round," Kenner yelled over the firing.
"Okay, get ready," Anderson shouted, "Now!"
Anderson swung the muzzle of the M-60 over the dirt mound and held the trigger down. Next to him, Kenner popped up and fired the forty-millimeter airburst round. The long, oversized bullet flew across the canal and exploded directly over the NVA machine gun position, spraying the gunner with shrapnel and destroying the weapon.
Seconds later, the Broncos made their first run. The lead aircraft strafed the west bank with it’s mini-guns, while the second OV-10 fired pairs of Zuni rockets. The mini-guns fired so fast that the tracers formed a solid red stream from the plane to the ground. Bright flashes from the high explosive warheads on the Zuni rockets lit up the jungle.
On the opposite bank, Kirby watched in fascination. This was better than any fireworks display he had ever seen. Red and green tracers filled the air, punctuated by the loud bang and flash of the exploding rockets. It was nothing short of spectacular.
The sound of Northcutt yelling for the squad to break contact pulled him away from the awesome display. Raising his Stoner, he fired a few bursts at the enemy and pulled back twenty feet.
It was squad SOP that the first man would turn and move back, while the others provided covering fire. When the SEALS on the bank heard Kirby open fire again, they disengaged, one at a time, and moved back until they were even with the pointman.
The squad continued to peel back into the jungle, and Tim O’Shea was loving every minute of it. On every op, Tim carried the twenty-five pound "Prick" 77 radio, plus all his ammo, humped it through the jungle, then carried it all out again, without ever getting to fire a shot. In fact, he had only fired his weapon on one other op. Now, he was making up for it. When the squad began to break contact, it was critical for everyone to put out rounds, and O’Shea was doing just that. When he reached Kirby’s position, he fired a full magazine of ammo from his M-16, then cranked off two forty-millimeter HE rounds as fast as he could load and pull the trigger. Slapping a new magazine into his weapon, O’Shea began triggering bursts at the far bank as the last three SEALs ran by one at a time. He fired the last few rounds from the mag, and was pulling another from his front jacket pocket, when he heard the frightening hiss of a Chicom grenade. Yelling a warning to the rest of his squad, Tim threw himself flat on the ground, as everyone braced for the detonation. After a few seconds passed and there was no explosion, everyone checked for the source of the noise.
The hissing sound was coming from Anderson’s UDT life jacket inflating. In his haste to reload his M-60, he pulled a belt of ammo from around his body, and the linked rounds snagged the toggle of the CO-2 firing device. Anderson had not noticed it until O’Shea yelled out and Anderson had thrown himself down on the inflating life jacket. With an apologetic grin and a shrug of his shoulders, Anderson resumed firing.
The squad peeled back one more time, then Kirby began leading the squad toward the extraction point. He had moved north for two-hundred meters when Northcutt made a circular hand motion in the air, then pointed to the ground. The men formed a security perimeter and waited.
The SEALs crouched, weapons at the ready, and listened. The squelch broke on the radio and O’Shea put the handset to his ear. Quietly he said a few words into the handset then turned to Northcutt and whispered the message.
"Wolf Pack Lead says they’re high and dry, out of ammo. Requested release to return to base to re-arm. I released them. Will be replaced on station in five mikes by Wolf Pack Three and Five."
O’Shea spoke so quietly that the SEALs crouching around him could not hear what he was saying.
"When they check in on station, tell them to hit the bridge and the west bank again," Northcutt said just as quietly. "I don’t want the NVA coming across that bridge and following us to the extraction point."
O’Shea gave him the “okay” sign to show that he understood as he crouched down to wait for Wolf Pack to call.
At the part of the perimeter closest to where the NVA were, Duncan squatted on one knee. Cupping his left hand behind his ear, he moved his head slowly from side to side, listening. In the distance he could hear the moans and screams of wounded enemy soldiers. Now that the shooting had stopped, he was trying to pick up the sounds of anyone who might be following the squad. His ears were still ringing from the firefight, which made it difficult to hear if anyone was pursuing them.
Five minutes later, the OV-10s checked in and O’Shea requested them to hit the bridge and west bank of the canal again. Small fires started by the exploding rockets of the first flight marked the enemies’ position. Within a minute, the two aircraft were unloading their ordinance on the NVA who were trying to re-group near the canal. Two pairs of Zuni rockets impacted on the bridge, blasting a thirty-foot long gap, rendering it unusable. When the OV-10s expended everything they had, Northcutt released them for return to Binh Thuy.
The squad stayed in position, listening for movement around them as the jungle began to grow light. Taking the radio handset, Northcutt called the LSSC to extract the squad one klick south of the main channel. Returning the handset to O’Shea, he motioned for Kirby to head north to meet the boat.
Patrolling at a steady pace, carefully placing his foot with each step, Kirby found it odd to be moving through the jungle in daylight. Until now, they had always operated under the cover of darkness, although they had extracted just at dawn several times. He liked being able to use the light to help him spot trip wires and booby traps, which was always a tough job at night.
The SEALs reached the extraction point to find the LSSC waiting for them. Pausing in the jungle, Northcutt radioed the boat to tell them they were coming out. The squad quickly moved down the bank and over the bow of the boat. Each SEAL took up a firing position as Hanley got the LSSC on-step, heading out of the canal.
When the small boat entered the main channel and turned east for Seafloat, everyone relaxed. Some of the tension of the long night began to drain away.
Sitting on the deck with his back to the bulkhead, Kirby thought back to the uncertainty he felt about being a pointman before coming to Vietnam. Now, with eight ops under his belt, he was beginning to feel more at ease. Each time he walked point for his squad and came back without anyone being wounded or killed, his confidence grew. He was beginning to develop a quiet pride in his ability as a SEAL pointman.