Forty years ago September 19, 1969, I spent the predawn hours pulling guard duty at our four-man fighting position in the mountainous jungles of South Vietnam in the general area of Hue & Phu Bai. As a low-ranking grunt, I never knew exactly the whereabouts of my location, and as a low-ranking grunt the need-to-know policy of the United States Army wisely left me out of the loop for my protection and that of my unit. Recently, I found out from an article on the Internet (Unofficial History of D Co. 1/502d in Vietnam) by Lt. Col. Richard Johnson, USA Ret., that our location was shortly to be at “YD 766-074, appx 7 km S of Pohl Bridge and 5 km SSW of Nam Hoa District HQ.” In another Internet article dated March, 1998, and titled Battle of Hue City, Kim Nguyen included information from Professor Douglas Pike that reported our final destination on that fateful day as 10-miles South of Hue. Professor Pike described our destination later that day as an area of double canopy foliage that “… is wild, unpopulated,[&] virtually inaccessible.” I can say without a doubt that the whole area was uninhabitable and no-one could or would live there. During my tour of duty with Delta Company, except for the Lamar Plains Campaign, we fought in uninhabitable and wild areas where the only other humans out there were our enemy, the NVA.
After eating breakfast that fateful day, each soldier collected his Claymore Antipersonnel Mine, collected his loose items, packed his rucksack, and waited for the order to “move out.” We knew our order of march; and when the order came to move out, we fell-in behind the squad selected to be in front of us. We left our NDP (Night Defense Perimeter) as scheduled early on the 19th of September for our daily ritual, the combat force march. I jokingly pleaded with Herbert, who was in front of me in the line of march, that I deserved a mountain goat’s badge as I spent most of my daylight hours marching up-and-down these god-forsaken, rugged mountains of Vietnam. I came from the Prairie State of Illinois where most of the land is flat, very flat; and at the least, the Army could recognize my newly acquired skill and award me a mountain goat badge to wear proudly on my dress uniform next to my expert rifle badge. As we continued our march upward and onward, Alpha Company led the way up Da Mai creek with Delta Company behind, using the creek for a trail to penetrate into the dense jungle before us (Lt. Col. Richard Johnson identified the creek as Khe Ke Creek). With a 50 foot double canopy the jungle floor remained constantly moist and the air humid. The ever present moisture provided the perfect habitat for the dreaded jungle leech that feasted on us as we brushed the wet jungle vegetation on our long marches to nowhere. As sunlight failed to fully reach the jungle floor, a constant state of twilight existed during the daylight hours with complete darkness during the nighttime. The old saying, “It’s so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” actually existed here every night.
As I remember the climb that day, I considered it a modest one. I say that after being hardened by all our combat marches previous to this one, especially our 33-days of non-stop combat marches experienced daily during the A Shau Valley campaign, named Massachusetts Striker. The trails in the mountains surrounding A Shau Valley were steep and seemed never-ending. Moving through the jungle we used trails already present or small creeks. Only once do I remember cutting our way through the jungle like displayed in some of the old Jungle Jim movies. As the enemy and American soldiers used the same jungle trails, booby traps were not a big problem most of the time; however, ambush was a serious problem for us and them.
The swollen stream moved swiftly down the mountainside as gravity and topography guided its path to lower elevation. The water was cool to the touch, cold to the lips, and transparent to the eye. I could see the rocks lining the creek bed, and I noticed the ripples and little bubbles forming on top of the crystal liquid as it moved around rocky obstacles and polished the stones with its incessant, shaping force. As we climbed, my thoughts drifted back home as I remembered fishing, wading, and exploring Bay Creek in the Shawnee National Forest and hoped once more to setup my tent in the campground at Bell Smith Springs.
I felt energized and full of life as we followed the creek that day. I observed the scenic beauty present along the creek bed; I heard vividly the hypnotic sound of the rushing water, and I tried hard not to think about how long I had left in Vietnam before my tour of duty ended—a little less than 5-months. Being assigned toward the end of the marching order that day, I felt secure and invulnerable, an unusual occurrence for me during my tour of duty in South Vietnam. As we marched, my eyes darted left, right, straight ahead, and into the crystal, clear water onto the creek bed as I carefully took my next step. As I surveyed the creek bottom, I noticed something unusual on the creek bed. It was smooth, glaringly white, and looked out of place among the light tan and darker rocks on the creek bottom. I reached instinctively down to take hold of the out-of-place object to inspect it because that’s who I am—a curious fellow, and I wanted a distraction.
I took possession of the unknown object and brought it up through the surface of the water into the daylight. As the water dripped from the object back into the stream, I inspected my find quickly and recognized it as an adult skull as white and clean as if it had been taken off a display case in a medical school lab and dropped into the creek for safekeeping. Without much thought I placed the skull on the tip of my M-16 rifle barrel, raised it high into the air and yelled at the soldiers in front of me, “Look! Look this way! See what I found!” I turned then to my rear and yelled the same thing. Quickly quelling my excitement, none of fellow soldiers in front nor back of me paid much notice to my clarion call to take heed of a perfectly preserved, pristine skull. I carried it a little further up the creek, and without notice placed it carefully back onto the creek bottom from which it came. I felt relieved in doing so, despite the fact that I didn’t find it unusual to find a human skull during wartime. I figured a lone, enemy soldier may have been killed close to the creek getting a drink of water and/or filling up his canteen. I suspected the heavy jungle rains and swollen creek moved his skull down to the place where I discovered it. While I didn’t take time to inspect the skull carefully, I figured the person didn’t die of a head wound, but I wouldn’t put any money on it myself.
A little farther up we left the creek to take advantage of some easier marching on the bank as the ground leveled off some and the foliage became less dense there. As we continued, I observed some canvass tennis shoes and outer garments, either pants or or a pullover shirt, partly buried, but mostly on top of the ground. A little bit farther I noticed more clothing sticking out of the ground. It still had not occurred to me the implication of finding the skull and articles of clothing in the middle of nowhere. Shortly thereafter, orders came to halt our march; so we unburden ourselves by taking off our rucksack and using it as a back prop, always keeping our M-16 rifle close at hand. While this halt wasn’t unusual at first, we began to wonder as more and more time elapsed without the “Let’s go!” command by our sergeant. We always appreciated the chance to stop, unburden ourselves from our heavy rucksack, and take some time to rest from the dreariness of war. As typical for us grunts, as we called ourselves, we waited and we waited without receiving any information as to our extended rest stop, but gradually bits & pieces of information found its way to us near the rear. We learned that a slaughter had taken place here and many civilians were executed and left by the creek unburied and hidden by the jungle. As our position in the march was toward the rear we saw only the beginning trail of the human remains slaughtered by our enemy. During my time in South Vietnam, we fought mainly NVA regulars, well equipped, trained, and motivated to stand and fight. I just figured the NVA committed this atrocity as I knew nothing else. I’ve recently learned that the NVA probably wasn’t personally responsible. Professor Pike stated that a local communist unit took possession of the captives from a communist commissar; and after several days of meandering about the countryside, moved the group 3.6 miles (6 km) into the tangled jungle where they executed them and left them on the bank of Dai Mai creek.
We remained at the sight of the massacre for several days to provide security until the South Vietnamese and/or American authorities collected the remains for later identification and proper burial. Without a proper burial some animist among the Vietnamese, as well as a few other Asian nationalities, believe that the souls of their loved ones will roam the earth as tormented ghosts and will receive no rest until properly buried. While the previous idea sounds primitive, people I know, both foreign and domestic, desire to bury their loved ones properly and grieve greatly if unable to do so. At the time I remember the rumor that 300 to 350 people were executed along the banks of the creek. I didn’t know it at the time, but newer information leads me to believe our mission from the beginning was to find the killing field at Dai Mai Creek. The 101st Airborne Intelligence had received information from three communist defectors that they had witnessed the killing of several hundred people at Dai Mai Creek. The atrocity took place about five days after the capture of Hue during the 1968 Tet offensive.
According to Professor Douglas Pike 428 individuals were identified as victims of the Dai Mai Massacre. Some were shot execution style in the back of the head with hands tied behind their back while others were killed by a heavy blow to their head by a blunt instrument. After the recovery of the victims and a proper burial, the citizens of Hue honored the 1st Bn., 502 infantry for returning the remains of their loved ones. I never received any information of that nature before, so I hope it’s true. I want to believe that it is true. While no army is ever perfect, I am proud of the men with whom I served.
Wayfaring Stranger: garland dale