Wednesday, July 17, 1968
The prisoners spent the night locked in the Club. In the morning they were each given one of Reb’s pastries and a cup of coffee. They didn’t seem worried or concerned about their situation.
We put them into the backseat of the Jeep and followed the Admin truck on the same route as the day before. I pointed out to Captain Cavagnol the spot of the first stop yesterday and explained how I had mistakenly moved on.
As we approached the scene of the explosion, we were stopped by a patrol; engineers were repairing the road. The exploded rockets had left a crater, making the road impassable. A TD-15 tractor was filling and grading the new surface.
As we waited, Cavagnol noticed a huge “crop circle” caused by the blast. It had flattened the rice fields in a quarter-mile diameter. He said, “This is bad; we’ve ruined their crop.” After some checking, he found the owner of the land, an older Mama-San. He apologized for the loss and offered to help replant a new crop. She was surprised and agreed to have a plot ready by Friday.
After the road was repaired, we headed to Division Headquarters with the captive Vietnamese. We turned them in to a G-2 officer, and I was told to wait outside. Cavagnol advised me to hang loose until he returned, and he took off in the Jeep. After waiting for about ten minutes, I was summoned inside where I gave my account of the capture. A Major repeatedly asked about the first stop, and he seemed to be disputing the location. He took me to a map and gave me a pin to mark the place. I put the pin on Route 4, a click east of Dai Phu, and he blew up.
The ox cart had passed through four separate checkpoints manned by the Popular Forces (National Police). It meant there had been a breach in security and that the local government was allowing weapons and materials to traverse freely toward Da Nang. He thanked me for the information and said, “You’re Dismissed.”
I hesitated long enough to get his attention and he said, “You have a question?” I asked about the prisoners, and he explained that they were “Indigenous Vietnamese” and would be released. “They are non-combatant porters.” I was outraged and replied, “But they were hauling rockets.” The Major cut me off, “YOU ARE DISMISSED!”
I waited at the intersection for Captain Cavagnol, and we headed for the 11th Marines Regimental Headquarters. Inside the Regimental Office, I sat in a waiting area next to the Sergeant Major’s desk. There were officers talking behind a partition, and I could hear laughter. I was fidgeting as I waited, and the Sergeant Major asked, “Are you OK?” I answered, “Sir, am I in trouble?”
He smiled and said, “Hold on,” and knocked on the Commander’s door before entering . . . more laughter. I was invited into the Colonel’s office, and Captain Cavagnol introduced me to everyone. The Colonel praised my performance and said it was unfortunate that “porters” weren’t considered POW’s. Luckily, we had uncovered a flaw in security, and it would be corrected. One of the officers was Captain Smotherman who was going to be the new Kilo Battery Commander. Since Cavagnol was rotating to CONUS on Friday, Smotherman would ride with us back to Hill 65.
The return trip was quick. Cavagnol drove fast, and the dirt road made it a rough ride. Smotherman had a new flak jacket and helmet and looked like a “new kid on the block.” I wondered how long it would be before there were bags under his eyes. Lack of sleep and stress would take some pounds off his already thin frame.
Next Edition: Change of Command Ceremony