Mike Paestella, Bravo’s Soft Spoken RTO

In November 2019 Medic emailed Mike Paestella, Bravo 1/7  First Cav ’69-’70, about flicks of LZ Compton, and especially LZ Ranch, the 1/7 fire base in Cambodia that was overrun. Mike replied with half a dozen flicks. We traded emails. A few weeks later we talked by phone.

Mike said he arrived in country in June ’69. With Bravo Company, he walked point, cleared bunkers, was a fire team leader, and RTO. In March he lucked out. No more humping the bush–instead, under Colonel Everett Yon, he monitored battalion radio traffic, and gave support as needed to company RTOs. During his tour, Mike was on Compton, Francis, Ranch and Corral. He DEROS’d in June ’70.

In a soft, almost gentle voice, Mike told me how Bravo 1/7s twenty bird CA–the biggest he’d ever seen–flew from Bu Dop to Cambodia. Ten gunships constantly circled the formation, the choppers landing in the beautiful wide open field. “Million shipper’s” we called them. Mike said there were two lifts–thirty minutes each, an hour apart. He and other battalion RTOs rode in the first.

The battalion radiomen, said Mike, set up their radios and long antennas near trees in the middle of the future LZ, and dug in. Shithooks, right behind Hueys loaded with troops, dropped off construction material and equipment, a backhoe, and bulldozer. When the 105s and 155s, and ammo came in, the arty crews set up their positions. After the engineers arrived, they began excavating the hole that would become the TOC. If the firebase came under attack, Mike and the other S2 RTOs were assigned to defend it.

Nothing happened that first day and night. My company, Delta 1/7, and Alpha 1/7, had also landed, spread out, and the next morning each company sent out a patrol. At some point they walked into each other. Before anyone realized what was happening, the grunts began shooting at each other. An “All American,” firefight. Mike and I both knew that no one was killed, but I noted that Leon Gunther, from my platoon, had been hit. When Leon emerged from the wood line, he walked over to me. “Doc, I’ve been shot,” he said. And I patched him up.

In his soft voice, Mike asked if Gunther had been shot in the hand. I was stunned. “How did you know that?” I asked. Mike said he was monitoring the radio traffic between Delta and Alpha, and had called in the medevac. As they say, small world.

Mike wrote this story to accompany the photos he sent.

LZ Ranch was built at one end of a very large field. It was bigger than our normal fire bases. Brigade or division didn’t like the size of Ranch, or how the berm was too close to the jungle. Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Everett Yon was ordered to move the perimeter back, and make the base smaller.

Two bunkers, located near each other, were built near the TOC. One for the battalion radio operators and forward observers, the other for a few headquarters personnel. Near the RTOs’ bunker was a Conex with radios and commo equipment.

The NVA began hitting Ranch with rockets and mortars right after it was built. One of the rocket attacks came from the far end of the field. These were 122’s; the launchers were found after the attack. They fired mortar rounds at Ranch almost every day. We watched them hit outside the berm. One time, the NVA fired rockets the size of small garbage cans; they were mostly duds.

On the night of May 16th 1970, with Delta Company on perimeter guard, Ranch was hit by an NVA sapper attack. After getting past the perimeter the sappers took over several bunkers, and began throwing satchel charges and hand grenades into them.

When the attack first began, I was in my bunker, and left it to head for the TOC. That’s when the bunker next to mine was hit. The blast knocked me down–I took a small piece of shrap in my upper lip. Getting up, I ran to the TOC, where Colonel Yon had me and the foreword artillery observer guard the entrance. The FO called in arty support around the LZ perimeter. Bravo Company, out on patrol, was put on alert to return and defend Ranch. Later, that order was canceled. One of Delta’s officers came into the TOC. He was told to make a sweep of the perimeter. I was ordered to go along with him. He rounded up a few grunts and we started checking the LZ for sappers. We found several dead NVA around the bunker where we lost some of our S2 troops. One of the NVA, lying on that bunker, had been shot in the face.

By sun up Ranch was cleared. Patrols were sent out. They found a couple more dead NVA, and enemy bunkers that had been used during the attack. I went back to my bunker. This is when I had my lip looked at and cleaned up.  And I learned what had happened to the guys in the second bunker, hit by the sappers.

We were later told that the sappers had mistaken our S2 bunkers for the TOC. In fact, that night our bunker was wet and hot, and some of the guys had thought about sleeping in our commo container. It would have been a big mistake. The conex took two RPG rounds. The entire inside was destroyed.

There was a story going around that one of the sappers had a map of Ranch showing our bunkers. I’m not sure of this; I never saw that map.

I can’t remember too many things that happened on Ranch after May 16th. We stayed for awhile, then the battalion left it, and built LZ Corral. Colonel Yon was still battalion commander when I left Cambodia on June 10th, 1970. I heard that he was relieved, but I’m not sure of this.*


* Medic has learned that Colonel Yon was indeed relieved of command.

See more 1/7 First Cav grunt accounts of Ranch being overrun here.

Chief of Section Mike Dunn, B Battery 1st/21st Field Artillery, has written his account of Ranch overrun here.

Top photo: Mike Paestella with captured enemy mortar tube. LZ Compton, An Loc, 1970. photo: collection of Mike Paestella