Patrol mission into NVA territory

On 5 January 1966, the 1st Battalion (ABN), 8th Cavalry air assaulted into LZs near Cambodia’s border with Viet Nam. The planned assault into Cambodia to pursue the fleeing NVA encountered during the battle of the Ia Drang had been cancelled. The operation was restricted to a hilly and heavily forested area immediately adjacent to Cambodia where the route of the NVA withdrawal had been detected by reconnaissance aircraft. The rifle companies and the Chinese Bandit recon platoon conducted patrols around the LZs where, on 6 Jan, the Bandits located caches of rice and an abandoned NVA field hospital.

NVA compound
The hospital consisted of two main buildings, approximately 30 by 15 feet, with bamboo framing and thatched roofs, and each building contained two rows of bamboo-constructed beds. Several smaller huts were located near the larger buildings. This compound was located at the intersection of three trails and covered by tall, dense trees that concealed the site from the air. One trail led towards the border and was one of two that showed recent heavy foot traffic.

While we conducted our inspection of the compound, helicopters flew overhead and the only notable thing we found was shoved into the thatched roof on one of the hospital buildings: the exposed handle of a large knife. A closer examination revealed batteries taped together and a trigger device connected to several American 2.75-inch FF aerial rockets. When we finished our inspection, we were instructed to burn the buildings and return to the battalion LZ Stallion. After setting the fires, we hastily departed the area and didn’t hear any detonations on our way out.

Early the following morning, the Chinese Bandits were notified to prepare for patrols to the southwest in the area along the Se San River, which formed the boundary with Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province. SSG Robert Grimes served as the acting Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant and spent the morning studying the maps and aerial photos with his three scout squad leaders.

The route selected followed a trail discovered the previous day by a rifle company and was believed to lead toward the river, but it wasn’t depicted on the detailed topographic maps that we were provided. Warnings and operations orders were given to the squads that afternoon and equipment was readied for an expected contact with a large NVA force that believed to be on either side of the river. The patrols were expected to extend beyond the reach of available 81mm mortars located at the battalion LZs and pre-arranged fires were planned for using ARA and tactical air support only.

Since our arrival in-country, our patrolling skills had continually improved and we were capable of accomplishing the tasks assigned; however, the excitement of the anticipated action kept most of us awake and talking late into the night.

In the morning, we donned our equipment and ranger patrol caps and began the slow advance to the border. Second Scout Squad, Chinese Bandit 12, was led by SSG “Ranger” Terry Lawson and his squad was the first out. They followed the trail for about half a mile before deciding to move along the treed area parallel to the trail, and continued until the terrain dropped off toward the river. We stopped at the point that Lawson first saw the river, which was 100 to 200 feet across and as depicted in aerial photos. Grimes and the other scout squad leaders linked up with Lawson and were informed that there were NVA bootprints on the trail a few hundred meters ahead where his point team had discovered them.

While we discussed our options, a flock of birds landed in the tall trees overhead and then flew off towards the river a few moments later. Concerned that the birds had given our position away, Lawson suggested that he rejoin his two-man point team and that we slowly advance towards the river. Grimes agreed and also directed that his first scout squad move forward from the rear and take the place of the third scout squad in the order of march.

We moved slowly down the hill with each squad paralleling both sides of the trail until the trail became closer to a stream on our left where the vegetation was dense and the tree height much less. About a half a mile from the river, Lawson and his point team detected disturbed, and what appeared to be cleared, vegetation on the hillside on the other side of the stream and had stopped. Lawson withdrew to where Grimes was located and the other scout squad leaders had assembled.

“Can you smell it?” he asked.

Before we could respond he stated, “Cooking fires, people, not sure.”

We had not noticed.

He said, “When you get further down by the creek, you’ll notice it.”

Lawson described shallow dug holes and a network of trails located on the other side of the stream that he had seen using his binoculars. Grime’s RTO sent the report on the battalion command net and notified LTC Mertel, the Battalion Commander, that we had stopped and were attempting to observe at a distance.

Mertel instructed Grimes to pull back if NVA troops were spotted and that ARA units were being alerted and to remain on standby. All three scout squads moved slowly, farther away from the trail and the lead scout squad attempted to place themselves in positions to observe the trail and other hillside. Lawson was able to advance to where the trail formed an intersection and where a bamboo footbridge was built over the stream.

After examining the area for about half an hour he withdrew, returning slowly to where Grimes and the other scout squad leaders were waiting.

“It’s a bivouac site of some type. Will hold at least 200 troops. But I don’t think it is occupied.”

Grimes again reported the situation to LTC Mertel who immediately instructed the Chinese Bandits to withdraw and join him at LZ Stallion.

A new plan
We arrived at the LZ late in the afternoon. Grimes and the battalion commander discussed the options and a decision was made that the Chinese Bandits would return to the site, which was now believed to be a NVA regimental CP, at night and establish ambush sites along the trails leading into the bivouac site. Everyone ate and planned quickly and we were ready to depart again in an hour.

The Chinese Bandits advanced along the same route that was used earlier and reached the area overlooking the suspected NVA bivouac site by 2030 hours. Lawson’s second scout squad took up positions near the bamboo footbridge, while first and third squads remained along the trail where we had been earlier in the day.

During preparations for the patrol, a tentative plan was made that Lawson and one of the other scout squad leaders would enter the bivouac area after darkness to determine if the site was occupied by NVA troops. As darkness fell and the ambush sites were established and readied, the plan to scout the bivouac site was discussed with Grimes and the scout squad leaders. The decision was made to enter the site and determine its boundaries and if it was occupied.

Lawson and I moved slowly upstream where the vegetation was less thick and we were able to cross the stream and drainage without much difficulty. They proceeded downstream along the base of the hill and quickly came to the perimeter of the bivouac site. Both of us moved slowly and low-crawled uphill, remaining about 20 feet apart. It was dark under the trees, but the river opening provided a backdrop where any movement a few feet above the ground could be observed. No enemy troops were heard or seen.

When we reached the southern limit of the bivouac area, they discussed the size and spacing of the shallow trenches and erected corner poles that were located near most excavations and determined the site occupied about 400 feet along the river and about 200 feet from the river.

The dug-in holes were enough for about 500 men and, therefore, it was determined that a NVA regimental CP used the bivouac site. Other members of the regiment would occupy sites that approached this central location. We decided to stand and walk back through the bivouac site toward the Chinese Bandits, who were occupying the ambush sites.

After linking back up with Grimes, he decided to lead the first scout squad through the bivouac site and locate another ambush site along the trail on the opposite side of the unoccupied regimental CP.

The Chinese Bandits remained in position without enemy contact until the following morning, when three NVA troops walked into Grimes’ ambush site and were captured about an hour before sunrise.

Grimes and the scout squad leaders met one more time at sunrise near the northern edge of the regimental CP where Grimes gave a radio report to LTC Mertel. Mertel directed that Grimes and the first scout squad return to LZ Stallion and the second and third scout squads continue patrolling separately south and north of the NVA regimental CP.

Later in the morning, water buffalo were observed tethered to stakes driven into the river on the Cambodia side of the Se San. The trails were well used, but no additional enemy contact was made and the two remaining scout squads returned to LZ Stallion using separate routes.

Regarding this operation, Colonel Kenneth D. Mertel would later write in his book, “Year of the Horse: Viet Nam 1st Air Cavalry in the Highlands 1965-66,” “they (Chinese Bandits) had tremendous pride and spirit… found the largest enemy target, the regimental bivouac…” and captured the attention of senior Department of Defense, MACV, and 5th Special Forces commanders and staff responsible for long range reconnaissance operations. General S.L.A. Marshall (Ret), stated that he initially selected the Chinese Bandits for inclusion in his book, “Battles in the Monsoon” as a result of this operation.