Tuesday, July 16, 1968
The Admin truck to Da Nang was ready with PFC Wilson driving. He was a veteran driver of Convoy Road and knew every mile of it. As the Marines got on board, I visually checked each one for the proper gear, and the Gunny was eyeballing them as well. There were six Marines, including PFC Jepson, who I knew from Thuong Duc. He was a cannoneer from Sergeant Bivens’ gun #1. His small stature was deceiving . . . he was able to dead lift 90-pound rounds with one hand, by the eye bolt. I knew he was a capable Marine.
We headed out as the road was cleared and passed Dai Phu village school at the bottom of our hill. After traveling about a half mile, I noticed two Vietnamese men pulling an ox cart toward Dai Loc. Something didn’t seem right, and I asked Wilson to stop the truck ahead of the cart.
The cart was fully loaded with layers of banana trees, and I got out to inspect it. The men kept saying in broken English . . . “Market, Market.” The Marines in the truck started whining about being delayed. “Sarge, you’re going to ruin our day, let’s get out of here.” I gave in to their pressure, and we moved on toward Dai Loc. After making the turn north toward Da Nang, I realized the roadside market wasn’t open until Thursday. My decision to move on and not check the cart further was eating at me all day. I had allowed these young Marines to influence me, and I regretted the hasty decision.
We stayed as long as we could in Da Nang, leaving enough time to get back to Hill 65 before dark. As we headed south on Convoy Road, I spotted the two Vietnamese pulling the ox cart, and Wilson stopped again. This time I was more forceful, “Lock and load, cover these men while we check the cart.” The Marines followed my orders as we emptied the banana trees. Under the trees was a heavy layer of thick leaves, and stashed underneath were two 122mm rockets . . . Even I was surprised.
I yelled, “Secure the prisoners.” All of us had trained for this scenario in Staging Battalion. The detainees were searched and put into the truck. Jepsen had them take off their black pajama shirts, and he cut the sleeves off to tie and blindfold the prisoners.
Wilson refused to allow the rockets to be loaded into the truck. I asked for his grenade, and he retrieved it from behind the driver’s seat. I decided to make a long tripwire and blow the rockets from a safe distance. The truck had a winch, and we pulled the steel cable out as far as we could (about 50 feet). Wilson offered a bundle of paracord he had for tying down loads, and I tied it to the cable. It was too stiff to tie to the grenade’s ring so I told one of the Marines to remove his boot laces. After securing the laces to the paracord, we lifted the rockets slightly and placed the grenade under them. The boot lace was attached to the grenade ring. We estimated the makeshift tripwire was at least 150 feet long.
With everyone in the truck, I straightened the pin in the grenade and we got a rolling start. At 150 feet, the ring was pulled from the grenade, and we had an additional seven seconds to clear the blast area. There was a bright flash and explosion. My ears were ringing . . . there was no shock wave because we were inside the shock perimeter. Wilson managed to drive the truck out of the blinding dust, and we could see a massive cloud of debris over the detonation. He stopped the truck, and we retrieved the cable and paracord before moving on.
It was just before sunset when we arrived at Hill 65, and the situation became a circus as we unloaded the prisoners and told our story. Captain Cavagnol ordered the prisoners to be separated, and he interviewed them individually in the Enlisted Club. Each Marine on the truck was debriefed, and Top Culverhouse wrote out statements regarding the incident. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
Cavagnol came to our hooch to inform me of his plan to take the captive Vietnamese to Division Headquarters the next day (I would accompany him). He looked around our quarters and said, “Nice digs.”
I had made a miscalculation regarding the 122mm rockets. Normally the rockets would have burned off all the solid fuel before exploding at the target. The combined fuel in the rockets was nearly 100 pounds, and this became additional explosive material in the blast. It had the effect of exploding a 150-pound bomb two feet above the surface of the road.
Next Edition: The Interrogation