FIRE BASE SANDY - Outside this fire base east of Hue, paratroopers of the 1st Bn., 501st Inf. cordoned a deserted village and removed its year old Viet Cong death curse.
In what was likely a staging area for enemy battalion size units that attacked Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, troopers of Co. A cleared and destroyed 112 bunkers and 176 booby traps. They captured 15 pounds of secret documents, 5,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, 10 Chi-com grenades, assorted clothing and equipment, and 15 ready to fire RPGS. More recently, the village, just 200 meters from the fire base perimeter, had been the daylight haven and night time retreat for local VC and infrastructure cadre. An increase in light contacts with enemy small arms and RPG fire had brought the abandoned village to the attention of 2nd Bde. officers, who planned the operation.
Three companies of the 1st Bn., 501st Inf. were deployed to the village with two companies of the lst Bn., 502nd Inf. and a company of the lst Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, acting as a blocking force.
"The nature of the light contacts pointed to the likelihood of finding a very heavy booby trap concentration," said Capt. Jerry R. Fry C.O. of A 1/501. Early in the afternoon of the first day, the third platoon of the company encountered the first boobytrap, a grenade rigged with a trip-wire in a hedgerow that slightly wounded three men.
"We didn't take any chances," said Fry. "We walked slowly. Our forward progress was slow, but we cleared one inch at a time and didn't lose any men that way."
"The first two days were experimental," explained Lt. James C. Judkins, a platoon leader. "In the evenings, we'd review the various methods used in the day's clearing operations."
The suggestion of using bangalore torpedoes was the key of success in the operation. "We reconned the virgin area with M-79 rounds like a miniature artillery prep," Judkins said. Then, the bangalore torpedoes were carefully shoved into the suspect area and detonated. This cleared an area for safe advancement, and the slow progress could continue.
More than 300 cases of bangalores were used in the operation.
"It had the same effect as a defoliating agent," said Spec. 4 Dennis B. Kramer. "The explosion would knock the leaves off the brush and either expose the boobytrap or blow it in place."
A pattern in the VC plan began to be evident. Sometimes a sock or rag, some shred of cloth tied to a tree, would mark the presence of a bunker. Punji stakes would be pointing outward from a heavily camouflaged bunker with only one entrance marked by a change in the pattern of stakes.
"The bunkers were not the usual kind found near hootches all over Vietnam," said Judkins. "These were sleeping, fighting, and storage positions at least four feet underground. They were built with deep flower pot entrances and several air holes made from illumination flare casings."
A captured VC had told how his comrades lived in these bunkers two to seven months at a time. The first bunker discovered contained freshly cut melon inside and two American magazines less than a week old.
Maj. Gen. Ngo Quan Truong, commander of the lst ARVN Division, visited the area just after the operation's end and said that without the new tactic of clearing with bangalore torpedoes, the operation might have cost his unit 150 lives.
At an impact awards ceremony at Eagle Beach, Maj. Gen. Melvin Zais, 101st Airborne Division commander, awarded two Bronze Stars and seven Army Commendation Medals with "V" device for acts of heroism by Screaming Eagles in the operation.
"At least 21 VC have been killed or captured directly because of this operation's success," he said. "Being forced out into new and unfamiliar territory throughout the area of operations, these enemy were eliminated because their longtime haven was gone."