River Crossing

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

On May 3, 1968, I was working the area north of Chu Lai with the 1st Squadron of the 1st Calvary (1/1Cav), call sign “Sword”. They were sweeping the low lands just west of the beach of the South China Sea, but they were not encountering any VC. One detached squad (Ranger “B”), with a tank and two APCs (armored personnel carriers) was working farther north of the main force, just south of the Hoa An River. They called me to advise that they may be sending some of their people across the river in search of an ammunition supply stash. They had captured a VC who said he would lead them to the ammo stash just across the river.
Since they would be leaving the tank and the APCs on the south side of the river, they asked me to give air surveillance for their people across the river with the prisoner. About six of our troops swam the river with the VC prisoner, towing their weapons and ammo on some logs lashed together. They began moving north over flat terrain, with light tree cover and several well- traveled trails that ran north and south. As they moved north they continued to advise me that the prisoner kept saying that the ammo stash was just a little further north.
As I monitored their progress, I suddenly observed about twenty armed individuals moving towards our troops from the north. They appeared so suddenly they must have been hiding in tunnels. That was a very common practice of the VC. I advised the patrol of the VC moving in their direction and they immediately reversed their direction and headed back toward the river that was now about a quarter of a mile away.
The ground fire began almost immediately. Our troops got off the trail, took cover and returned fire. The VC gradually closed the distance between themselves and our troops. I advised our people that I would make some low passes and try to get the VC off the trail and when that happened, they could get back on the trail and head for the river where some covering fire would be available from the tank and APCs.
I started the low passes, firing WP marking rockets at the VC on each pass. They started firing at me for the first time, but the white phosphorus rockets started some fires, created lots of smoke and drove them off the trail. Our troops started making progress toward the river. After three passes, I was out of rockets and the VC continued firing at me. After each pass they would return to the trail and move south after our troops.
On my 4th and 5th passes, as I came in low I would put the O-2 into a forward left slip that cocked the nose about 30 degrees to the right (an old San Marcos instructor technique). With the nose cocked to the right, I was able to stick my M-16 out the left window and fire it with my left hand while flying the O-2 with my right hand. On each pass I expended a full magazine of ammo with the M-16 set on full auto. Even left handed, I think I got a few and I definitely got more respect from them than I had on the rocket passes, since they stayed off the trail a little longer. By the time I started the 6th pass, our guys were swimming the river and the tank and APCs had opened up with their .50 caliber machine guns. The bad guys had disappeared (or at least what was left of them).
The guys on the ground decided they would not cross the river for a “body count” on this day. I advised them that I could see about six of the VC on the ground, but the policy in the Americal Division, (contrary to news media reports of inflated body counts) was that you counted the kill if you could kick the body, so no kills were reported this day.
I inquired about the VC prisoner who had led them into the ambush, and they told me he had drowned in the river on the return. Oh well!