Doing a Bomb Damage Assessment after an Arc Light, then nearly getting caught in one ourselves.

6 NOV 68

The CO sent my platoon out on a BDA after an Arc Light to suppress the attacks on FSB 29 and the surrounding area.  We were dropped into an LZ about two klicks from the main bombing area.  We moved along a ridge line, using the well established trail into the bombed out area.  The extent of the devastation was shocking.  Bomb craters 50 feet deep were all over both sides of the ridge.  Almost all the trees were blown down and shattered into pieces. The place looked like a moonscape.  We found equipment and body parts all throughout the area.  One NVA body was hanging thirty feet up a tree, pierced through the abdomen by the only limb remaining on the partial tree trunk. He had been blown in half, with only the upper part of his body left. Weapons with splintered stocks were also found lying around.  There were no whole bodies to be found.  The NVA must have come back and removed them. We found packs, canteens, sandals, grenades, b-40 rocket rounds, pith helmets, and all sorts of personal documents. Most of these we sent back to S-2 for the intelligence value, but I kept quite a bit to use later, when we needed to show contact, without having to lose people trying to get a body count on an unreasonable mission.

We moved back to the LZ to meet a resupply chopper and send the captured weapons and documents back to battalion on it. We then proceeded to  move down into the valley and back up the adjacent ridge line.  At the top, we found another heavily traveled trail.  There were fresh sandal prints and freshly broken vegetation on the side of the ridge facing the bombed out ridge line.  Battalion had us move back across the valley to the LZ and choppers CA's us back to rejoin the company about two ridge lines away.  We were told that they intended to let the NVA use the second ridge line for a few days, then hit it with another Arc Light.  In the intervening days, my platoon and 1st platoon, each with an attached squad from the company minus, carried out a RIF operations in the direction of the ridge to be bombed.  1st platoon had one meeting engagement, but no casualties and no confirmed enemy Kia's. We did not find anything until the second day.  We were traveling along a ridge line, two valleys away from the one to be bombed the next morning, when we found a recently traveled trail going down into the valley.  We moved cautiously down into the valley and at the bottom we found a wide deep and swift stream with a huge tree pulled over across the water to form a foot bridge.  It had hand rails of bamboo tied into place with vines.  It was obviously a major crossing point.  We stopped and set up surveillance over the bridge as we refilled our canteens and ate lunch.  After a 20 minute lunch break, we crossed the bridge and continued up the opposite ridge.  About 50 meters from the top we found a cave about 40 feet deep and 30 feet wide, with a 12 foot ceiling.  It was filled almost completely with ammunition, grenades, explosives, artillery rounds, b-40 rockets.  It was obviously a major ammo cache.  We called in to report the ammo cache and were asked if it could be air lifted out.  We said not very easily, since the slope to the top was very steep, with heavy jungle and going back across the valley was even worse.  They told us to come back to the the LZ on the opposite ridge line and they would drop us some explosives to blow the dump in place.  When we got there they just slung the supplies and lowered them through the canopy.  I was surprised at the amount of explosives they sent out.  There was a 250 foot roll of camouflaged detcord, two dozen blasting caps, a roll of slow fuse, a dozen blocks of C4, and half a dozen electrical detonators.  I LOVE EXPLOSIVES! This was going to be fun. I was shocked to find out that they had just packed detonators in among the blocks of explosives. Especially with electrical detonators on a sling from a chopper that would be highly charged with static electricity! The carelessness or ignorance many people show around explosives is mind boggling. It was late in the afternoon, so I had the platoon set up a perimeter and dig in for the night. I left my platoon sergeant in charge and took a squad along with my RTO and Medic to go back and set an ambush along the river crossing. If no one came by during the night, we intended to set the charges in the ammo dump and blow it in the morning, then wait for the NVA to show up and catch them as they crossed the stream. We took all the explosives with us, including the huge roll of detcord. We wrapped the camouflaged detcord into the supporting handrails of the bridge, blending it in with the vines already positioned to support the rails. We also put four blocks of C-4 explosive under the main tree trunk that served as the foot path. We then put electrical detonators into each end of the detcord and into each block of C-4 and carefully ran the wires back along the side of the trail to our ambush position off the trail and behind a huge boulder. We waited all night and actually heard voices and saw lights along the trail above the ammo dump but no one came down the ridge and crossed the bridge. As soon as we had enough light to move, we climbed to the ammo dump and rigged it with all the remaining explosives and detcord, lighting half a dozen slow fuses to go off about half an hour after we left. Then we hurried down the trail and back across the bridge to our hidden ambush point and waited. When the charges went off you could feel the concussion on your face. The noise reached us a second later, a sort of muffled bass drum sound. Then we moved out to where we could see the ridge where the dump had been and were shocked at the black mushroom cloud and the huge hole left when the entire cave and half the ridge above it had been blasted into the air. We quickly moved into a position where we could observe the crossing and waited for someone to come along and investigate the explosion. About 15 minutes later, we heard voices on the trail behind us. About that time our radio came on and the CO told us that we had to get out of the area fast. It seems that the ArcLight was on it's was into the area and they were targeted on the ridge line just across the valley from us. That meant we would be unsafe where we were, but we did not dare move until the trail was clear. I asked if they could delay for a few minutes and he said they had to drop on time because of fuel loads. We were caught in our own trap. We could not move through the thick jungle without being detected and besides it would take us too long to cut our way up the ridge through the jungle. If we moved up the trail before the NVA passed us, we would have to shoot our way through and we had no idea how many there might be, plus they would be up hill from us. We had no choice. We had to wait for the trail to clear and if we waited that long, we might as well wait a few minutes longer and blow the bridge ambush as well. It was amazing the things that went through our minds in the quiet as we waited for the enemy to pass. Just as they got past us, a FAC flew over and the NVA scattered off the trail, coming frightening close to our position. We were sweating bullets as the arrival of the FAC aircraft meant the B-52's couldn't be far behind. After what seemed like hours, the NVA began down the trail again. As I watched, one approached the bridge alone moving carefully over to the opposite side. I just knew he would spot the detcord and explosives in the morning light, but he didn't and soon reappeared to wave his comrades across. We waited until the lead soldier was just stepping off the bridge with all seven of the others on it, before we blew the explosives. I guess we hadn't thought about the power of the explosives we had planted. When it went up, there was sharp crack from the detcord ending in the boom of the C-4 and a combination of pure white and dark black smoke roiling up into the sky. The bridge was completely gone, pieces of vegetation raining down even on top of us. We stood there frozen in horror and fascination for what seemed like a long time, then I remembered the ArcLight and told everyone to start back up the trail. I ran the fifty meters to the bridge to check for bodies and weapons, but found nothing. No weapons, no bodies, or body parts, nothing but shredded vegetation. I was a little stunned by the scene. Then I ran hard as I could up to the squad, grabbed my pack from the soldier who had been carrying it for me and we all moved at the limit of our endurance back up the trail. About 100 meters from the top we had to stop to catch our breath, when we saw the FAC drop several smoke rounds along the opposite ridge. Moving as one being, we jumped up all fatigue washed away by adrenalin and double timed to the top of the ridge line. When we got to the top, we just dove into the jungle on the other side and struggled about thirty meters down the slope before total exhaustion overcame us. As we lay there panting, sprawled where ever we had fallen, the CO came over the radio. No one, including myself could stop gasping for air long enough to answer him. Finally after his 5th call, I drug myself over to the RTO and took the handset, laying on my back, handset on the ground next to my ear and answered. He was panicked. He wanted to know where we were. I told him we had made it to the far side of the ridge line, then the ArcLight began! We felt the concussion wave first, then heard the thunder. Just as the shock of that was beginning to sink in, the most incredible thing happened that I have ever experienced. As I lay there, the CO still trying to get me to talk to him on the radio, the ground actually moved up and down a good couple of inches, like a wave rippling across a lake. It was terrifying! I felt a momentary wave of dizziness and nausea. My eyes went out of focus. I was totally disoriented. Then it passed and I could hear the CO frantically trying to make contact. We felt many other less intense tremors, but not as bad as that first one. Everyone was dead still and totally silent. We just sat there stunned, thankful that we weren't still over there. I think the totality of what was happening over there began to sink into our minds. I got back on the radio and told the CO that we were OK and let him know about the ambush. He seemed very relived that we were safe and extremely pleased about the 8 KIA's from the ambush. I told him that we would start back to his location as soon as we had caught our breath. The next 15 minutes, we all just lay there, resting, all of us lost in deep thought about the reality of what had just happened. When we finally saddled up and started back to the company, it was a very deliberate, very quiet walk. I think the enormity of that mission affected us all on a very personal level.

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