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War Stories

Friendly Fire, an Airstrike and a Quagmire - Early 67

By Colonel (ret.) George Stenehjem, SSG (Ret.) Bill Altenhofen and CW3 (ret.) Rich Williams (Edited by Bain Cowell)

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Even in combat with the smallest enemy force, heavy firepower could be decisive – but the infantry often had to finish the job.

Early in 1967, as fighting escalated in the 25th Division area of operations, U.S. Army vehicle convoys along the main supply route (MSR) from Saigon north through Cu Chi to Tay Ninh provided essential logistical support every day. D Troop had responsibility for aerial patrols and security of the road. The Viet Cong would harass the convoys with roadblocks, booby traps, mines, and small arms fire.msr

About midway up the MSR, near the village of Trang Bang, was a swampy patch of woods surrounded by rice paddies, from which local VC insurgents repeatedly fired on our trucks and armored vehicles as they passed by. One day in March, perhaps seven VC under those trees were sniping at one of the Third Squadron, Fourth Cavalry’s armored troops, which requested the Centaurs’ help to suppress this threat.

Flying in the Centaur 6 command-and-control helicopter over the area, MAJ George Stenehjem quickly radioed a Forward Air Controller (FAC) of the U.S. Air Force who was assigned to support D Troop operations. The site of this particular action was just a few minutes’ flying time from Tan Son Nhut airport, the biggest Air Force facility in Vietnam. As often happened, fighter aircraft were returning to the base with unexpended ordnance. The FAC in his light spotter plane redirected the jets by radio to bomb the oasis; he also requested that my unit do a bomb-damage assessment (BDA).

Soon B-57 Canberra medium bombers began dropping their 15,000-lb. payloads of bombs and firing their 20mm cannons. I vividly remember a B-57, which could dive vertically for accuracy, hitting the island of palm trees dead center. The mission was accomplished after only a few minutes.B57

For the BDA, the Centaurs’ AeroRifle Platoon had a Blue Team of about 28 infantrymen who were trained for just this sort of air-assault operation into a hot landing zone, supported by Centaur gunships and the division’s artillery. These ground troops landed by helicopter in a rice paddy just before the airstrike began, took up a position along the outside perimeter of the oasis and came under fire. 

The rear squad, led by SSG Bill Altenhofen, suddenly heard a machinegun on the left flank and saw tracers and bullets glancing off the ground in front of the squad. They were so close that Altenhofen tried to crawl backward keeping his face on the ground. He yelled at his men to get back if they could. The bullets’ impact shifted to a dike on the left flank, then passed overhead and hit the dirt on the right. He wondered where that VC got all those bullets. Then the firing stopped.

The platoon leader, 1LT Gerrie, yelled at Altenhofen to get back, and the rest of the platoon joined them in a ditch. The airstrike, instead of hitting the location of the machinegun as was expected, came in uncomfortably close and bombed the hell out of a patch of swamp and trees in front of our AeroRifles. It took about 30 minutes for the bombers to drop and fire all the ordnance. What an air show! After the strike, the riflemen sloshed through the quagmire of debris in the oasis. The trees were all covered with between six inches and two feet of mud, and we could not see where the trees were; sometimes we would get lucky and hit a limb in the mud. If we missed the trees, we could sink up to our shoulders in the mud.  We would hold out our rifles for any soldier who was in trouble to get through it all.

Following the sweep, we reported that the oasis had been totally destroyed. We found out later that the machinegunner who had fired at us was assigned to one of our own tracked vehicles. A close call with friendly fire!

Thanks to our rapid and decisive response, the convoys never again took harassing fire from that place.