When the 3rd Battalion 39th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division slipped into Long An Province to the south of Saigon during early February 1967, as the first 9th Infantry Division force to dwell there, the area was undisputed Viet Cong territory. As soon as the battalion planted their flag at Rach Kien, they came under intense harassing fire by long range VC 51 caliber machine guns and VC 82mm mortars. Any platoon or company that moved outside the firebase could count on a good size fight.
A long termed operation labeled ENTERPRISE was initiated by the 3rd Battalion 39th Infantry and joined by two infantry battalions of the 60th Infantry. Casualties suffered by the 3rd Battalion 39th Infantry during several good size battles resulted in many KIA and countless WIA during the first half of 1967. On March 8, 1967 Company A suffered 6 KIA, March 11 Company C with 11 KIA, again March 20 Company A 12 KIA and April 15 Company B with 13 KIA. Six months of hard combat in the Rach Kien’s adjacent countryside scattered the Viet Cong but they still continued to travel at will.
Lieutenant Colonel William Anderson the 2nd CO of the 3 Battalion 39th Infantry, organized battle tested Sergeants and formed a “killer patrol” under the third CO of Company A, Captain Donald Price. August 16, 1967 the battalion’s Company made a large sweep of the rice paddies of Rach Kien. The “killer patrol” landed in the midst of Company A at 1 o’clock that afternoon. Captain Price set an ambush site around a suspected cluster of nipa huts supposedly used by the Viet Cong as a gathering place at night near the heavily vegetated Rach Doi Ma River. The patrol went into hiding while the entire Company A was PZ’d out by several eagle flights to return to the firebase leaving the “killer patrol” behind. At about an hour after dusk, 8 VC, unaware of the hidden patrol, began their movements in the vicinity of ambush site.
The VC leery of the huts, since a large force of American had vacated it, cautiously meandered towards the huts. One large VC about 6 foot entered the nearest hut, walked through and became suspicious of somebody occupying it. He turned abruptly and fired his M79 Grenade Launcher at the nearest American Sergeant, hitting him on the thigh. It failed to explode, since it requires 27 revolution of the grenade to arm itself. Immediately, the Sergeant fired 2 rounds from his M15 Sub Machine Gun fatally wounding the VC in the back.
Everyone in the patrol was set for more VC and a few minutes
later, two approached the huts. When one of the men spotted them, he triggered
the M18 Claymore mine that was placed on top of a coconut tree. The explosion
may have dazed and inflicted wounds (this was verified by Platoon Sergeant
Geraldo Gapol) but they were able to escape from the Americans.
Meanwhile, the Company A Command Post (CP) was worried since no situation report (sitrep) was received all night. Platoon Sergeant Gapol’s 3rd Platoon was alerted to rescue the besieged patrol. Sergeant Gapol could muster only one Squad and a Fire Team for the mission (one Squad was in the perimeter bunkers of Company A sector and a Fire Team was at another ambush site outside the perimeter that night).
Sergeant Gapol took his lightly equipped but heavily armed force to the Firebase main gate where he told the men to lay in the ditch leading out the gate. He coordinated with Company C who manned the bunker by the gate, that he would be leading a force out just before daybreak, so as they would not be fired on at as they left. Sergeant Gapol fast trotted the force out the gate (ranger walked) approximately 2 kilometers, where they turned left and guided them just off the trail. After 1 kilometer the force encountered a three man NVA patrol but did not engage them as they had their primary mission of rescue. The NVA patrol coordinates were sent to the Company A CP, in turn to the battalion tactical operation center (TOC) for further action. They continued their fast pace until a unit of the 10th ARVN (Mech) was contacted according to the paragraph field orders. The force “piggy backed” on the armor and raced to the “killer patrol” ambush site.
Upon reaching the site Sergeant Gapol noticed a group of farmers
suspiciously standing around in a rice paddy adjacent to the huts . He
immediately sent his Fire Team to cover the farmers and advised the ARVN
American Advisor to train their mounted 30 caliber light machine guns on
the farmers and to set up a mechanized perimeter. The Fire Team took the
farmers as detainees. When the squad converged on the huts they saw the
happy faces of Captain Price’s “killer patrol”. The detainees were airlifted
out with the “killer patrol” to the Firebase. Meanwhile Sergeant
Gapol secured the area around the huts and called for “slicks” to take
them back. A bloody trail was noticed, probably from the wounding by the
triggered claymore mine. The 6 foot VC shot in the back, was left behind
after searching the body. A photo of the deadman’s family was uncovered,
which put a human face on our enemy.
SOURCE: Excerpts from the book:
The Rise and Fall of an American Army by Shelby L. Stanton, tells
the true sequences of the rescue mission by former Platoon Sergeant Geraldo
Gapol who was there. Sergeant Gapol was recommended for the Silver Star
and he recommended his rescue force for the Bronze Star w/V device and
the Army Commendation w/V device but awards was never submitted by the
Company A, XO. A trivial action to submit but important to the men who
risked their lives in action.