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TOC Arriving In Vietnam

TITLE: The Night The Sappers Came To Dak TO
Author Ivan Pierce
Copyright, 2000

THE
NIGHT THE
SAPPERS
CAME TO
DAK TO

By Ivan Pierce

The day proceeding the night the Sappers came to Dak To was not unlike any of the other 90 days I spent there. When we woke that morning the temperature was about 50 degrees. The skies were clear, blue and the winds calm.

Dak To had an airfield that allowed C-130's to land. It also housed the headquarters of the 1st Brigade (Forward) of the 4th Infantry Division. There was an ammo dump to supply the three or four battalions in the field, plus their supporting artillery and engineers. There were many revetments for parking the myriad of helicopters moving in and out in support of the infantry and artillery battalions. There was aviation gasoline for the H-13's and fixed wing aircraft, JP-4 for the Huey's and Chinooks, gasoline for the smaller vehicles and diesel for the larger wheeled and track vehicles.

The base was protected by a triple concertina barbed wire fence and a ring of bunkers fifty meters inside the wire. Outside the wire an area 100 meters deep had been cleared of all vegetation. The base was so large that by placing three men in each bunker it required two companies of infantry just to protect the perimeter.

The 1st Brigade SOP (Standing Operating Procedure) called for an infantry company to spend about six weeks in the field, followed by one week of rest either protecting an artillery fire base, or Dak To. On very special occasions a company would be flown to Pleiku, especially if they were to undergo major changes in personnel. On this particular day both of the companies protecting Dak To had been relieved by troops who had been in the field for the required six weeks.

One of the company commanders decided his troops had been doing an excellent job in the field and deserved a real break, so he bought a case of beer for each bunker his troops had occupied. This amounted to 8 cans of warm beer each, and these men had not had a drink in at least six weeks. As the sun set a calmness fell over the camp and the men in the bunkers began their watch. One man remained awake while the other two slept. With the calm and the beer they slept very, very well.

One bunker on the North side of the perimeter had been placed at the head of a draw that was little more than a dry wash that carried off the monsoon rains. As the sun began to set the three men at this bunker started sipping their beer. It didn't take long for two or them to have consumed three or four beers apiece and be very soundly asleep. The third man had only drank two beers and remained on watch. At midnight the one on duty woke another one and went to sleep. Wakened from an exhausted alcohol induced sleep the guard took his post. Their company had spent the previous six weeks walking up and down the mountains of the central highlands in a fruitless search for the ever-illusive enemy. They were all exhausted.

About 2 AM the soldier on watch became a little weary, his eyes began to close and his head began to nod. He was barely staying alert. The only thing keeping him from falling into a very deep sleep was his head, helmetless, fell sharply enough to wake him each time he started to doze. As he stared out into the night he thought he detected some movement in the wash. He peered more intently into the night and reassured himself that there was nothing moving. A few minutes later he felt, rather than saw movement. It took a couple more minutes before he heard footsteps on the loose gravel of the wash. Finally he was able to visually detect the movement. He instantly became more awake and alert. He was able to detect several people moving in front of him. His first thought was that they were sappers approaching the wire. He waited for them to close the distance, wanting to kill them and not just scare them away.

As he waited the movement took on form and then color. They were wearing pink tops and white pants. His apprehension changed to anticipation as his thoughts envisioned a pleasurable night with some local lovelies. As they came even closer he determined that the first three were in fact women. When they got within 10 meters of the bunker he saw that behind the women were men carrying AK 47's and back packs!

Realizing his error, he jumped up to begin firing, completely forgetting that he was helmetless and in a very low roofed bunker. He hit his head on one of the supporting beams in the roof and knocked himself unconscious.

The sappers passed by the sleeping and unconscious men in the bunker and placed four charges inside the perimeter. While they were doing this another sapper came in through the South side of the perimeter and set another charge. The sappers on the North side set time delays on their charges and were back in the wash when the soldier who had knocked himself unconscious woke up. He saw the sappers running down the wash away from the perimeter. He immediately began firing his M-16 on full automatic. Within 30 seconds everyone on the north side of the perimeter was spraying the night with automatic weapons fire.

As the firing on the North side erupted the lone sapper on the South side finished his work. He had dug a cat hole and placed a satchel charge into it. Around the cat hole he had placed four bamboo stakes. Two short ones were closest to the ammo dump. The two back ones were in line with the front ones, but taller. When he placed a piece of steel plate on the stakes, he then had a plane of 30 degrees pointing directly at the ammo dump. Atop the steel plate he placed a second satchel charge with a fuse twice as long as the one in the cat hole. When the first charge on the North side of the perimeter detonated, he lit his fusses and ran.

None of the sappers on the North side were killed or wounded as they escaped into the night. They had captured girls from the local village and used them as shields when they approached the perimeter. The sappers on the North side had placed four charges. The first charge blew up a 5 ton Semi-tractor. The second charge blew up a semi trailer. The third charge was placed against a stack of 105mm Howitzer ammunition boxes. The fourth charge was placed at the back of a small building.

With all the noise and confusion on the North side, the sapper on the South side was running pell-mell for the wire, but something went wrong. The charge in the cat hole had detonated properly and started the steel plate and the second satchel charge on its way toward the ammo dump. Whether he had placed the steel plate too far forward on the stakes, or placed the second satchel charge too far back on the steel plate no one knows. What is known is that while in flight, the steel plate arched back toward the sapper and turned over. The second satchel charge dropped from the steel plate, landing almost directly on top of the sapper where it exploded.

In the action that night several thousand rounds of small arms ammunition were expended. The Semi-tractor was destroyed, but it had been dead-lined waiting for parts for two months. The semi trailer was destroyed, but it was easily replaced. The trailer contained a heavy cargo, but it was the expended brass from 105mm artillery shells. The stack of artillery ammunition boxes was destroyed, but the boxes were empty. The small building was destroyed, but it had been a latrine. One U.S. soldier, the one that had knocked himself out, suffered a mild concussion. The sapper on the South side was killed when the second satchel charge exploded.

The next morning the village chief brought in the three girls who had been used as shields the night before. They were still wearing the same pink and white outfits they had worn the night before. Careful interrogation by the S-2 and S-5 revealed that they had truly been hostage shields used by the V.C.

With such spectacular results, is it any wonder the sappers did not return to Dak To? At least they never returned while I was there.

Author: Ivan Pierce


TOC Arriving In Vietnam

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