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A Bronze Star Story

By; Bob Neener Golf 2/9 13 Sept 1965

We would occupy many villages during our lengthily stay in Vietnam, and the occupation program was a good working program, at least in theory.  

In 1965 the occupation of these key villages proved to be very useful to both the U.S. military mission and to the security of the average Vietnamese Peasant, who just wanted to farm his rice field and provide for his family. 

The problem with this occupation program was that there werenít enough of us Grunts to go around. We would occupy a village for a few days, or in some cases weeks, using day and night patrols to clean out the VC, and then leave to go on to another problem area. In order for this occupation program to work in reality, we would have had to simultaneously occupy every village in Vietnam. 

So instead, we chased the VC around the countryside from village to village, we would clean out the VC and move on, and the VC would move right back in behind us. Many times we would find ourselves recognizing the area and remembering that we had been there before, shed blood there before and lost brothers there before. The An Trach area was one of those hot spots that was hard to forget.

It was 13 September 1965, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division was performing squatting duty in An Trach(1). (I say squatting duty because thatís what we were doing, squatting, occupying this village. I believe that 2/9 was occupying this entire triangle area of villages, although I never ran into any of the other companies during this time. 

An Trach(1), Yen Ne(1) and Le Son(4), form a triangle group of villages that share and farm the same rice fields. An Trach and Le Son both butt up against the western side of the SONG YEN River, and are about a mile apart. Yen Ne is located about a mile west, near the railroad tracks. 

Yen Ne, had a Catholic Church with a steeple that stood way up out of the trees and could be seen for several hundred meters away. An Trach is located almost a mile between the other two. (Click to SEE MAP) These three villages were approximately 3 miles north of Hill 55 and 10 miles south of DaNang and maybe 2 miles from Cam Ne and Dong Son. 

We had our platoon CP set up in an old mortar schoolhouse; this schoolhouse was small, but made a real good CP (command post) and was used by many, to get in out of the afternoon monsoon rain that poured down late every afternoon. 

On the morning of Sept 13th our platoon leader, 1st Lt Charles Sherwood, informed us that we were going on a platoon strength, daytime patrol. We would begin in An Trach and follow the perimeter of the rice field to each of the other two villages and back, it would be a complete circle. 

We started out about 10:00 and expected to be back by 17:00. Our first leg was eventless, but as we left An Trach for Yen Ne, we drew sniper fire from a treed area in front and in the direction we were traveling. (This rice field was peppered with clumping trees almost completely covering its western perimeter between An Trach and Yen Ne. We were moving just inside the tree line, using it for cover). 

Two or maybe three VC were taking pot shots at us as we crossed the openings in the bamboo. We drew more sniper fire as we moved forward, and this time the shooter was very near by. 

As we moved into the rice field, my squad leader ( a real life SGT Striker) nailed one of the snipers in the back as he was running away from us, with one shot from his .45.  That trusty old .45 will knock you down every time, and thereís no getting back up. This was the first VC I got an up close and personal look at, the first dead enemy I had seen. 

(I had been in Country for 2 1/2 months and I had seen a few shot, but by the time we would get to where we thought they should be, they were gone, and we were second guessing out marksmanship) 

This time we finally had our selves a body. He was just a kid no older than I was at the time, but I didnít reflect on that back then. He was just a dead enemy, the only good enemy! 

As we continued on our approach to Yen Ne, we spotted several people in black pajamas running across our forward position carrying AK 47's,  moving in the direction of our next objective, Yen Ne. 

With the ďCANíT SHOOT - TILL SHOT AT" Rule strictly enforced, we all hesitated to take action without direct orders. This would prove to be an error later on. 

(This rule was imposed in early July 1965 to help circumvent the accidental shootings of South Vietnamese ARVN troops by U.S. troops). 

Accidents happen in war, friendly losses are one of the many ugly byproducts of war, this Rule was another command error that would cost us dearly, it was hard enough on U.S. troops, without any inept rules of engagement that actually aided the enemy and helped contribute to our casualties! 

A half hour later we saw another group of armed VC running across the rice field and Lieutenant Sherwood alerted someone to fire a couple of 40mm M79 grenades in the direction of these VC. They were clearly carrying AK 47ís, and we had just been under fire a half hour earlier, so the Lt determined that we were under attack and reacted. Clearly following the rules of engagement as closely as he could decipher them. 

The M79ís did the trick, the VC immediately abandoned their attempt to cross over to our front and disappeared, so we continued on our mission.

As we reached the outer perimeter of  Yen Ne, we began making the turn from the most western portion of this triangle back to the south and east towards Le Son. Yen Ne was on our left flank as we passed the Catholic Church with the tall steeple. 

There was a binjo ditch (Natural Irrigation Conduit) running parallel to the tree line and church that made a 90-degree turn back towards the church. When the entire platoon had reached this ditch, all hell broke out. We were getting bombarded with rifle and machinegun fire coming from the southern most portion of Yen Ne at our forward position. 

Everyone took cover in this binjo and the first M60 Machinegun team set up on top and began returning fire. Moments later the Gunner was hit and then his assistant gunner got hit while trying to take over the M60. 

LCpl Bob Lamke and myself were the forward 3.5 Rocket team, Lt Sherwood ordered us to take out the enemy machinegun. So Lamkee and I ran from the binjo ditch to a grassy, dry area to our right front, far enough away from the rest of the platoon so that our back blast wouldnít hurt any of our guys. 

(The 3.5 Rocket Launcher is a recoilless weapon, open on both ends, and uses an electric magneto switch that generates 1/10 volt to fire its 11 lb self propelled rocket round. When fired, it sends a back blast, scattering rocket propellant and anything else in its path up to 150í). 

As an ďAĒ Gunner, it was my job to load the weapon for the gunner. Because I had previously been a Gunner, Lamkee usually conferred with me as to our choice of targets and distance. 

We were spotted by the enemy while taking our position, receiving small arms fire as we ran out to set up. The VC were waiting for us to show our selves again and we didnít know where the hell the enemy machinegun position was, so we took turns looking around over the tall elephant grass, to assess the situation. 

There was the tail end of Yen Ne to our left front at about 300 yards, there was a clump of small thatched huts to our right about 150 yards and there was the Catholic Church to our left about 100 yards. 

It was clear the enemy machinegun was somewhere to our front as was most of the other enemy fire, rounds were hitting around us everywhere, we were sure that there were enemy flanking us as well. 

We were in plain view from the Huts on right, but it was all quiet there. We were also in plain view of the Church Steeple, which had a bell tower that would make a perfect snipers nest, but it was also quiet there also, and you donít blow up a Catholic Church without a real good reason, so we decided to concentrate on the Huts in front and to the left of us. 

The 3.5 rocket rounds came in aluminum canisters, each gun team carried 6 rounds. (3) HEAT, High explosive rounds and (3) WP, White Phosphorous rounds. The ďAĒ Gunner always carried one open and the rest we kept in the canisters on our backpacks, until we needed them. 

I loaded the HEAT round that I had been carrying for about a month, and suggested that we blow up this clay walled Hut in middle of the tree line in front of us. There were several Huts in this tree line but only one was constructed of clay and mortar. I figured that if Lamkee could drop one right in the window or door opening, the place would blow up from the inside out. I was sure that there would be enemy in there because of the protection it would provide them from our small arms fire. 

Lamkee didnít think he could be accurate enough to hit the window or door opening and we argued for a moment about the range. He thought it was 300 meters and I thought it was closer to 275. 

We agreed on 275 meters and he set up and FIRED, or should I say squeezed the Magneto trigger, but nothing happened?  No contact, so I removed the Round and tried to clean the copper band with some sand. I got it all nice and shinny and reloaded the rocket tube and again Lamkee set up and tried to fire, and again nothing happened, We had a DUD round and we also had given away our position and began to draw heavy enemy fire. 

We moved several more yards to the right by crawling through the tall grass. When we stopped crawling, I opened a WP canister to get a new round; I figured that the copper band on the HEAT round was damaged or something was interfering with contact and besides the WP is a better anti personnel device because of its wide coverage of burning White Phosphorus. 

I loaded the tube and Lamkee took aim and again we had a DUD. Now weíre in big trouble. We had a DUD Rocket Launcher; it was a bad Magneto switch, probably corroded contacts from the daily late afternoon monsoon rains, we cleaned the damn thing every evening, but the humidity was just awful in South Vietnam during the Monsoon season.

We were pegged by the Cong and we had to get back to the ditch and fast, so we took off running, Lamkee first, then me. As we neared the edge of the ditch and safety, the enemy machinegun began tracking us and all enemy weapons were trained on us. We were the only clear target that the enemy had, and just like in the Movies, we were only a foot or so ahead of this mass of bullets hitting the ground behind us. 

Lamkee dove head first into the ditch and I was right behind him, one round (with my name on it) had narrowly missed my head, creasing the shoulder pad of my flack jacket as it whizzed passed me breaking the sound barrier with a big crack. 

I dove into the ditch but, the one that almost got me, made me turn my head for just a split second, and there it was, a smoking machinegun, on a burial mound about 250 meters directly in front of us, and right in front of the clay Hut we had targeted just a few moments earlier. 

Now we were mad as hell. The entire platoon is pinned down in this ditch, we've got wounded that need to evacuated, we have a clear target, and our Rocket launcher is a DUD.

We now know where the target is, all we need is a Rocket Launcher that works. So, Lamkee decides we should go back to the rear of the platoon and grab the 2nd Rocket tube and go back out and frag that machinegun. 

We begin making our way through the ditch to the rear, it was only about 30 meters but the mud is a foot deep and sucking us down with each new step. So we get up on top and do a classic Marine Low run to the rear, all the time the enemy is shooting at us, bullets are still hitting all around and Lt Sherwood is yelling orders to us to get down. When we get to the rear, we jumped back into the ditch and ranted about the target and how we need the other Rocket Launcher. 

Lt Sherwood gave us the green light and the other Gunner was very happy to let us use his Rocket launcher. Now all we have to do is make one more trip back out there without getting shot, and bow up a machinegun nest. 

We also know that they are going to be laying for us, so we low crawl another 150 feet until we are clear of the platoon. Now all we have to do is get the distance correct and weíre home free. 

Well, if youíve been paying attention to this story, you've probably figured out by now that Lamke and I were having a problem agreeing on the target range. 

I guessed 225 meters; Lamkee thought it was closer to 250 meters. I suggested that we go with 225 because if I was wrong, and it was 250 meters, at least the WP would put up a nice smoke screen on our side of the machinegun nest, and we would have time to reposition and take cover before our next shot. 

That made sense to Lamkee so he stands up and takes very careful aim and fires, and this time with a big Bah-BOOM and the rocket round took off flying. 

Now it shouldnít be too hard to figure out what happened next. You guessed it, Lamkee was right, The rocket round fell  about 25 meters short. 

I only brought out two rounds out on this last trip into the tall grass, one WP and one HEAT. So under the smoke screen from our last shot, we repositioned, I loaded the HEAT round and when the WP smoked cleared, Lamkee fired, and Bulls Eye, a direct hit, 86 one Chinese .30 Machinegun and two confirmed dead VC in lots of little burning pieces. 

Once we took out their machinegun, the battle basically ended faster than it started. This whole incident lasted maybe 45 minutes, but it still seems like hours. After we had taken out the machine gun, a forward air observer flying a Cessna, sighted 21 VC leaving via the rear of the village and happily called in a 155 artillery strike.

We reached our CP around 19:30 and Lamkee and I were immediately summoned to the COís HQ. Upon entering, we see LT Sherwood seated alongside Captain Osbornís field desk making his report. We came to attention and Lt Sherwood began to read us the riot-act for disobeying direct orders. 

It appears that when we were going for the 2nd rocket launcher and running atop the ditch, the LT was ordering us to get back into the ditch and take cover, and we had clearly disobeyed him. 

Just when Lt Sherwood was getting the part, ďif this ever happens againĒ the Capt interrupted him and informed us that LT Sherwood had just recommended us both for the Silver Star. 

The Captain then congratulated us and dismissed all of us including the LT, who walked back to our Plt CP with us. Lt Sherwood told us that he was mad that we disobeyed him but that the end sometimes does justify the means in his book, and shook both of our hands. 

*** I am proud to have been awarded the Bronze Star, even though initially recommended for the Silver Star, I guess headquarters Marine Corps or Congress saw things differently, and at the time, Lamkee and I felt were only doing our job. I guess we were downgraded to the Bronze Star because it took us two trips out there to bag that machinegun! 

It was a very strange experience for both of us. Being in Rockets, we didnít get much of a chance to exchange fire with the enemy. This was only the 2nd time we fired the Rocket in 2 months. We were naturally frustrated, every time the shooting would start, we were ordered to hold back until told otherwise.

All Lamkee and I were doing, was joining the game, it was our turn with the ball, our turn to vent some pent up frustrations and exhaust some of our fears. We didnít think about the possibilities, we just went out into no-mans land and blew up an enemy machinegun nest that was putting a serious hurt on the rest of our guys. This was our job, this is what we were trained to do. 

Several months later when I was nearing the completion of my tour of duty, I gained a new respect for what Lamke and I had done that day. 

What Lamkee and I did is likened to a couple of kids on the 4th of July with a Big Firecracker. (You canít wait for the big Boom and you donít care if it is dangerous) Short Timers were by nature, very cautious and methodical. There were times when I would brake out in a cold sweat thinking about my Bronze Star day, it had finally scared the hell out of me!

On 13 September 1965 We suffered (5) wounded but no KIAís. I would return to this very spot (7) months later with Lima Company 3/3, and we lost our CO, Capt De Martino WIA, our Sr. corpsman WIA, and one KIA, PFC Frank Ruch.

 **** The 3rd Marines would fight and die in this area for four years. All of our battles were successful, we never lost one battle in Vietnam.