Two Days—Four Rifles
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    Cool Two Days—Four Rifles

    Two Days—Four Rifles

    by William A. Doherty

    Reconnaissance (Recon) inserts were a part of everyday life for Marines during the Vietnam War. When the recon teams became engaged with the enemy, the action was usually intense, and the extraction of the team was fraught with danger. In this 13th installment in the series, the author takes us with him on a dangerous patrol near Duc Pho, Republic of Vietnam in March 1967.

    My tenure as an enlisted Marine lasted from September 1965 to May 1969. An inveterate souvenir collector, I have a box of keepsakes to remind me of those 44 months. Some—a helmet, a cruise book, some pictures, the common row of Vietnam ribbons—are a source of fond memories. My favorite souvenir is a beat-up French bolt action rifle.

    During mid-December 1966, newly assigned 1st Division Marines reported to a Quonset hut in Da Nang, and I was back again with them. I had just returned in-country after being hospitalized in the Philippines and Okinawa since 21 September 1966 when I was medically evacuated from Company D, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines with a shrapnel wound to the belly.

    A corporal at the podium at the front of the room asked for volunteers for recon, and I volunteered. I had been with recon Marines in the hospital, and it sounded like a good place to go.

    By March I had made about 14 patrols with 1st Platoon, Company D, 1st Recon Battalion—call sign “Duckbill.” Some patrols were quiet, and some were busy. In January 1967 I had picked up a second Purple Heart—a scratch on the hand—in a firefight on Hill 218. In late February our platoon commander, a mustang second lieutenant who had fought in Korea, earned a Navy Cross in a fight on Hill 163 near Duc Pho. He burst his eardrums in the battle, during which we lost our platoon sergeant (killed in action), our corpsman, and another team member with serious wounds. The damage to the team was such that we stood down for awhile. Then on 14 March we inserted for a 4-day patrol with a new platoon commander. The insert was to be an area recon where we would move around the jungle, as opposed to a fixed observation post (OP). I always preferred the fixed OP. I had confidence that if we were on a hill where a chopper could land, as long as we didn’t run out of ammo, the air wing would get us out if things got too bad.

    The first 2 days were quiet. We moved each day, and I don’t think we saw the enemy at all. On the night of 15 March we set up our defensive positions with claymores out in front. Each claymore had a “mousetrap” under it—a small device that would make a noise if the claymore was moved. This was to counter the enemy’s tactic of finding the claymores and reversing them. If the man on watch heard the mousetrap go off, he would hit the detonator, exploding the claymore in the enemy’s hands. When we left our positions in the morning, each Marine retrieving a claymore would first replace the mousetrap’s safety pin.

    On the morning of 16 March 1967, someone retrieving his claymore forgot about the mousetrap, and it went off. The discharge of a mousetrap would not hurt anyone, but it was loud enough—like a gunshot—to tell every Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldier in the province where we were.

    So we moved, right? Wrong! Remember, I said we had a new platoon commander. He was new but not ready to take advice from the platoon sergeant, who was new in the position but of long experience in the team. We sent two men up trees to observe—the area was heavy jungle—and to stay put. The lieutenant did, however, put out a listening post (LP) consisting of myself and a Marine named Darrell. We moved about 25 to 30 meters away from the harbor site to where the jungle ended in a small clearing. Across the clearing from our position was a field of elephant grass with a trail winding out of it. Jungle enclosed two sides of the clearing. The fourth side was a sheer drop.

    To remain alert even daytime LPs should not be out for extended periods of time. We went out around 0800. By noon we had still not been relieved. The lack of activity the last 2 days had lulled us into a false sense of security. We expected that this patrol would be a no contact ground ball. This false sense of security, coupled with the Vietnamese heat and the ever-present exhaustion from nights of 50 percent alert status, made us somewhat less vigilant than we should have been. Darrell made use of his camera. I napped. At almost 1300 Darrell told me he was going back to the harbor site to get a can of chow from his pack. I sat up and took over the watch. I had been carrying the M60 machinegun on the last few patrols, but the machinegun did not get taken out of the harbor site. For the LP, I had borrowed someone’s rifle, an automatic M14 with the buttplate and sling attachments removed. (We would not get the M16 until later in the month.) I cradled the rifle across my lap to await Darrell’s return.

    He had hardly left when I heard rustling in the elephant grass across the clearing. I was sure it couldn’t be a bad guy, but I decided to squat down and take advantage of available cover.

    I was quite wrong. An enemy soldier appeared just 10 feet away from me where the trail met the clearing. He was in the standard black pajamas. Thank God he was VC, not NVA! Thank God neither he nor his companions had automatic rifles! He held a rifle in his right hand, and with his left hand he spread the foliage out of his way. He stopped at that moment just entering the clearing. We stared at each other. So close! I had never been that close to a live enemy before.

    I recovered more quickly than he did, and I had the better rifle. I shot before he could get his weapon into battery or warn his comrades. I fired a burst on automatic, and then fired a second burst. A shot was fired in return, and I turned to run back to the harbor site, yelling all the way so as not to be shot by a fellow Marine.

    I looked right in his face when I fired. It has been over 36 years but the memory is clear, and I believe even today I could recognize his face in a picture. But once I fired, the next memory I have is of returning to the harbor site. I must have seen the bullets hit him—must have seen him fall—but the memory is just not there!

    We quickly broke down the harbor site. Now we had to run. While I was telling the lieutenant, the platoon sergeant, and a banjo-eyed Darrell what had happened, my squad leader sent two other men out to check the body. We heard a shot. They made sure the skirmish was over, but the shot had been unnecessary. They returned with his rifle—now my rifle—and told me I had walked a burst up his right side, hitting him in the knee, the arm, and the eye. I later counted the rounds in the magazine and found nine remaining. I had fired 11 rounds.

    Returning the M14 to its owner, I retrieved my M60 and my own web gear and took up my position in the column.

    I don’t remember how far we moved through the jungle, or how long it took, but when we set up for the night we were on the crest of a jungle covered hill. A stream flowed by at the bottom of the hill. We found our positions, again set out our claymores, ate a can of chow, and set in for the night.

    At first light on 17 March we broke down our positions, brought in our claymores, and put two OPs up in the trees. The word was passed that around noon we would move toward our landing zone (LZ) for a 1300 pickup.

    Again, the lieutenant put out an LP, and again, I got it. This time I was paired up with my team leader, a Marine named Pat. We moved down to the bank of the stream at the base of the hill and set in with our backs to some rocks. The overgrowth was dense. I could not see much to my left, but Pat could see across my position. Again, we were out for about 4 hours, but I didn’t bat an eye, and neither did Pat. This time I had the M60 with me, with a 100-round belt in the gun and two more across my shoulders. This time I was taking no chances.

    Marine patrol in Vietnam, April 1967.


  2. #2
    It was almost noon. I had just turned slightly to look to my rear and turned my head back in time to see Pat lifting his rifle with a look of horror on his face. He opened up on automatic across my left front. I couldn’t see what he saw, but I knew it had to be bad. I swung the M60 around in the direction he was firing and opened up. It fired two rounds and jammed. While I tried to clear the jam, Pat went through his original magazine, then a second, and began a third. At that point I suggested that, just possibly, it was time to get back up the hill.

    The previous day’s scenario was repeated. We climbed that hill three times as fast as we had gone down—yelling all the way! When we reached our position the whole team was alert. Over the noise of the stream, we could hear moaning at the base of the hill. Several grenades silenced the moans. Two men went down to check the scene. A few more shots were fired, and they returned with three more rifles—one of them in pieces.

    Clearly it was time to go home. We headed across a heavily wooded ridgeline to our LZ. Fortunately the helicopters were already in the air, because the enemy were on our tail. Some shots were exchanged with our rear element, and when the air package of two Hueys and two CH–46s arrived on station, the aircrew told us they could see a swarm behind us.

    The LZ was too far to reach at the rate we could travel, but just before we would’ve had to set up to make a stand, we found a small bare spot on the ridgeline. It wasn’t big enough to land the bird, but necessity being the mother of invention, one of the CH–46 pilots got an idea. He turned his ship aft end to the bare spot, backed up in a hover, and dropped his ramp. We ran down the side of the bare spot and up the ramp as the Hueys made rocket and gun runs over our heads against our pursuers—pelting us with hot ejected cartridges in the bargain. All’s well that ends well. With no one seriously hurt, we returned to Chu Lai with four rifles and a good story.

    When I went home at the end of May I had the premier war souvenir registered with all necessary paperwork. I did not let that rifle out of my sight until I arrived at the Los Angeles (LA) International Airport. It was strapped to me through Da Nang, for the 2 days I was in Okinawa during processing, and it was in the compartment over my head on the flight from Okinawa to LA. I carried it right through LA Airport until it went into the baggage compartment—New York bound. Things were a lot different back then.

    >Mr. Doherty is retired from the New York City Police Force and lives in Floral Park, NY.



  3. #3

    Thank you for posting this...

    That Marine, LCPL William Doherty, was my dad. I still have the rifle and all of the paperwork. And I met all of the Marines mentioned in 1992 at a "Duckbill" reunion. Great men and heroes.

    -William Doherty, Jr.

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