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~Susan Wittig Albert

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Last Fire Base: by Michael Lansford

Michael Lansford
I remember it was late November, cold and raining. The monsoon season had really set in. Everyone was miserable. Nothing was dry, except our weapons and ammo -- priorities one must have.

I was getting close to my DEROS date of 13 December 1969, when the "new" captain came up with this grand plan to make a raid into the Ashau Valley to stop Charlie's resupply to the south via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Suddenly, through a break in the rain, along came the flying cranes and Chinooks to extract us to some remote tip of a mountain on the edge of the Valley.

We barely had time to grab our weapons. We had no food, rain gear, nothing, as it was a one-day raid designed to catch the enemy off guard -- they said. This was on 1 December 1969.

Well, as things usually went with the new captain, he sat three 155 split trails down on this pinpoint mountaintop that was so small that all three guns were butted up to each other. There was zero room to do anything.

When we started firing the trails, we tried to dig in, but the other guns were blocking the recoil, so we had to improvise. That made for a fun day. Nothing we tried worked and if the firing continued, the recoil would shove the other guns down the cliffs. We had no way to secure them, plus it was raining in sheets by then. It's hard, if not impossible, to dig in to a muddy, rain-soaked cliff side.

The only blessing came from the monsoon, as it suddenly became too severe to even walk, plus we were on top of a mountain with no cover, no food, rain gear, dry clothing, nothing. We had no back up, or air support. We were on our own.

The bad thing about being on a mountain top in a monsoon storm, you suddenly become the target of all that Mother Nature has and can throw at you in the way of torrential rain and lightning -- and we were cold, soaked, hungry, and alone.

I remember it was so cold, and raining so hard, that the only way we kept reasonably warm was by sitting down in the muddy water-filled trench we had dug to protect ourselves in case of attack. That was a hard way to stay warm -- not dry -- just warmer, but those weapons stayed dry, no matter what. Priorities.

About the FNG's, you could always tell who they were during monsoon season. They were the only ones walking around with weapons exposed to the elements and all barrels were facing straight up into the rain. Not a good idea. We always slung weapons barrel-down in bad weather, for many reasons, all self-explanatory. They were little things that could become big things in a firefight.

Lightning was the worst. There was no place to hide or defend from, just pray. It hit so close, it made the hair on your arms stand straight out. You could feel the static in the air. It was a helpless feeling.

As time went on, we waited for a break in the weather just to find a way out of there, as the longer we stayed, the closer the enemy came and we were easy pickings up there. One mortar in the right place and Boom -- we were gone. Our other choice was to get the mission done and really get out fast.

The monsoon had other ideas. We were stranded there until 12 December, when the weather finally broke. In between time, we dodged sniper fire and some mortar fire, which luckily for us the rain helped with. They missed their targets, except for this one lucky shooter who was walking mortars up the side of the mountain removing pieces of the cliffs as he fired.

Our firing positions were dug into the side of the mountain and as the lucky shooter walked the rounds up the side of the mountain, the ground became more and more unstable. All of a sudden, I heard this whishing sound coming in right on top of us. All I could do was close my eyes and pray. I heard the round hit with a loud thud.

When I opened my eyes, a dud round was sitting right there between my legs. There it was, that being in the right place at the right time thing again.

Here I was short and shouldn't even be out there and I was dealing with this nightmare. They had us zeroed, cut off, and they knew it. Easy pickings. Our only advantage was, it was almost straight up the mountain to reach us, which gave us a slight edge. It's hard to fight uphill.

Combat Tactics 101: Always have high ground, no matter how small, or slight. Just have that edge.

Finally, after our one-day raid had turned into a twelve-day and night survival trip, we were getting off that mountaintop. The downside was, the enemy knew our situation as well as we did. We took rounds, it seemed like, from everywhere. Luckily for us, it was hard for them to shoot straight up and the next mountain over was just far enough away to give us even more edge -- plus they didn't shoot well either.

The most dangerous part was the extraction. Naturally, the guns got out first. They couldn't afford to waste taxpayers' money on good weapons. We, on the other hand, were a little more expendable. So what if we lose a few grunts and arty men. No big deal. We'll get some more. There are lots more where they came from anyway.

Finally, we managed to keep Charlie busy long enough for the last of us to get our ride out. We took rounds in the choppers, but no one got hit. I'm still amazed how we got out alive.

We landed back at the fire base we started from, Zon, if my memory serves me, and I had just enough time to grab what little I had, say a hasty goodbye, and I was out as fast as I had come in.

C-130 Vietnam Transport
I turned in my weapons, clothes, and whatever else they thought I didn't need -- no time to eat or clean up. I just caught that C-130 south to Cam Rahn Bay to start processing out. Then I took my freedom bird home ...well, home as I remembered it.

Later, I was told, but can't confirm, that my last fire base, Zon, was overrun right after I left. There were lots of casualties, almost everyone KIA. It gave me an empty feeling, thinking If I were still there, maybe, just maybe, I could have helped. I never heard anything else about it -- that's some more of that ole right time, right place thing again.

Man was I mistaken about home. As we all learned, the war didn't end when we left. Suddenly we had (and still have) new enemies to fight, just with different weapons. It was a fight harder to win than Vietnam ever was, yet I don't think there were many plans to win. It was just business, you know.

Sin Loi, as I said, "Sorry About That" ...

It feels good to be writing about all this and maybe by writing, help someone else deal with our war better. Kind of like the old days, watching out for each other. That part I miss, not being there for my comrades.

Thanks, Mrs. Heck.  We've all carried a lot of stuff around these long many years with no one, or no way, to tell our stories. The public should know the real us. We paid for it.

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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  1. Good job Michael.

    1. Michael LansfordJuly 18, 2014 at 9:48 AM

      Thanks Loyd. I appreciate the kind words. Thanks again, & welcome home.

  2. You were in the same AO as I was Mike - and the Ashau was 110% "Indian Country". May have been "in and out" but we were never able to sustain any permanent residency there. Know when to Hold 'em....Know when to Fold 'em!

    1. Michael LansfordJuly 18, 2014 at 9:50 AM

      I'll bet most of us out there were closer than we ever realized. Ashau was definitely "No Mans Land". Thanks for the comment. Welcome Home also.

  3. ocs ass holes were the worst , the unknowing leading the un willing to do the imposible ? Later Dee

    1. Michael LansfordJuly 18, 2014 at 9:54 AM

      No kidding dee. That;s what I got when my original commander left. This guy thought he was a 1 man "I can end the war" mentality , as long as he wasn't directly involved. Never came out to fire bases but always volunteered us fro every suicide mission there was. Trying to get promoted & was willing to use us to get it at whatever the cost. Thanks for the read. Welcome Home to you also.

  4. Part of C. Co., 1/505, 82nd ABN spent some time on Zon in what must have been early Sept. '68. A thick lingering fog came in and, the fear factor kicked into a higher notch for us as a support unit for what must have been high level activity intel for the 101st on that super spooky jungle hill. Then one night all the ARVIN family members slipped away before dawn, and we thought OH JEEZ this is it. We were all waiting for the worst, but lucked out....and got out of there in a few more days. Some places gave you the Willies more than others, and Zon had that effect on us. "Doc" 1st Platoon (John Rafter)

    1. Michael LansfordJuly 18, 2014 at 9:58 AM

      Yeah Doc. Zon was one weird place. Just high enough to be a hill but still below all the other hills & mountains. Made for an easier target. Almost could roll their mortars, etc down to us. When the fog came it you really got on edge. Charlie knew that all too well. Thanks for reading. Special thanks for always being there Doc. You guys were & still are the best. Welcome Home my friend.


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