A Christmas Hard To Forget

Recently Bob Shearer, who served with Bravo 1/7  First Cavalry in 1969-1970, sent this story to Medic.

For many years after returning home from Vietnam Christmas was difficult for me. One particular memory involved a Michelin rubber plantation in Song Be.

In December 1969 Bravo Company spent a “stand down” on Fire Base Compton. For a few precious days we did not patrol the steamy triple canopy jungle. Instead, we took it easy, cleaned our weapons, performed menial labor, and hoped to celebrate Christmas on Compton, which meant hot meals and relative safety on the small muddy base.

Stand downs were always looked forward to­­­­­­­­­­­–this one especially so. A Christmas cease fire was in effect and we received more letters, holiday cards, and packages from family and friends than usual; even tree decorations arrived in the mail. Cards and letters from strangers and school kids addressed to “Soldiers” contained kind words and handmade season’s greetings.

Just before Christmas, without explanation we were ordered off Compton. Deeply disappointed, moaning and bitching, we loaded up on c-rations, ammo, water, “saddled up”, and walked to the small chopper pad where Huey “slicks” would fly us to our next patrol.

On the late afternoon of December 24th, well south of Compton, as Bravo formed a night defensive perimeter (NDP), five men from 4th platoon moved out to set up an ambush. Due to the cease fire, it was meant to be more of a listening post.

Unlike the jungle surrounding LZ Compton, we found ourselves in an abandoned rubber plantation. Here, row upon row of stately rubber trees stood among tropic grass and low scrub. There wasn’t much cover if we were attacked.

As darkness fell we managed to set up 8 claymore’s attached to 100 feet of firing cord, which snaked back to our position, where we lay in a semi-circle, flat on the ground, each man an arms length from the next, silent and still.

That night, every fifteen minutes, we communicated with Bravo’s head RTO by keying the handset–once for “OK” or twice for “movement,” the enemy was near.

Several hours passed. At midnight, on a lark I keyed the handset and signaled all was not right. “Do you have movement?” asked the RTO. I whispered that we heard sleigh bells, a really dumb thing to say. The RTO called me a “wise ass” and that was that.

Much later that night I heard sounds coming through the rubber, and I saw the glowing tips of cigarettes smoked by enemy troops marching single file right toward us. I woke my men by squeezing their arms and whispering not to fire unless I said to.

It was pitch black but from the many voices, and glowing cigarettes, we figured that a column of soldiers, probably NVA, was approaching from our left flank. Outnumbered, we’d start firing only as a last resort. Thankfully, my men were seasoned grunts who did not panic.

Within thirty-five feet of us the enemy paused, then abruptly sat down. As we lay on the earth, barely breathing, the enemy’s chatter, their nearness, the orange flares of their cigarettes, sent chills through each of us, filled us with dread.

When the commo check came, I held the radio handset close to my ear, set the squelch and volume so as not to give us away, and signaled that we had movement. The RTO did not doubt me.

“Is it close?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” I signaled.
“Do you want artillery support?”
“Yes!” I signaled. “Yes!”

Knowing our exact location, he radioed the 6/27th Field Artillery in Quan Loi, a large base a few miles away, and requested a fire mission. We hoped a few shells would drive the enemy to retreat. For what seemed like hours time stood still. Finally, over the radio I heard “Shot out, one round” and seconds later an enormous artillery shell passed high overhead.

I vividly recall how much louder it was than the 105’s or 155’s fired from the small LZs, and that it exploded well to our left, behind the enemy. A second shell landed closer, but still well away from us. The NVA now chattering loud and fast, promptly got up and began to march. Our greatest fear was that they would trip over the 100 foot firing cord and discover us. Luckily they didn’t and we sighed with relief, but for the rest of the night we stayed on high alert, fearing more troops might be headed our way.

After a time I radioed the head RTO and told him what had happened.  After daybreak, we five talked about what had and might have happened to us. I was thankful for the Bravo RTO, for how my men performed, and for the arty crew in Quan Loi that fired the rounds which saved us.

Back at the NDP I told the company commander what had taken place. He said this was an isolated event–no other Bravo platoons had encountered NVA. I vividly recall him saying that we were “A lucky bunch of guys”.

On Christmas Day, while on patrol near another rubber plantation, we received special resupplies. Along with water, c-rations, ammo, etc, each man got a hot turkey dinner, and we shared several bottles of cold NY State Cold Duck and pink champagne. Two or three non-denominational Christmas services were well attended, especially by me and my four grunts.

Fast forward thirty-four years. While working with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, I finished a meeting with John Zmarthie, a Regional Engineer for NYS Department of Transportation. We had worked closely since 1987. Although I knew he was a Vietnam vet, we had never spoken about the war. As luck would have it, later that day we shared a cup of coffee and talk about Vietnam.

Since our tours coincided, I asked John where he’d been stationed.

“Quan Loi,” he said, “as the Fire Direction Control Officer of the 6th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery.” At that time Bravo company’s rear area was in Quan Loi, a large base a few miles from LZ Compton. The 6th/27 Field Artillery provided arty support to the infantry units in 1/7 Cav, including Bravo.

I asked John if he was in Quan Loi on Christmas Eve 1969. He said yes and that because of the cease fire it was quiet that evening.

“But you did have one fire mission that night, right?”
John was stunned. “Yes, but how did you know that?”

I told him about me and my four guys in the rubber outside LZ Compton. How we set up eight claymore’s, saw and heard the enemy as they advanced, how a large number of NVA sat down so close to us. I told him how the artillery fire saved us. We could have been overrun. Wiped out.

John said that due to the cease fire our request for arty had gone all the way up the chain of command. From Quan Loi, he said, only 175mm or 8 inch shells could have reached us. And they did.

John Zmarthie passed away in May 2006. I often think of him, and the men of the 6/27th FA. I’m forever grateful that they came to our aid that frightful Christmas Eve in the rubber plantation near LZ Compton, miles from Quan Loi, and from home.

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top image: an aerial view of Quan Loi and the surrounding rubber plantation. A large rear base, Quan Loi provided support to infantry and other units. The rubber plantation was owned by the French. Beside Michelin, there were several French latex companies in Vietnam.