We moved in to build Illingsworth during March. The site was a grassy clearing. We arrived late in the day and started building gun pits for our mortars, hooches for sleeping, and storage for our ammo. We had our mortars, 105’s, our radar unit, a line company, and our battalion headquarters (TOC). We were told that we could not go to sleep until we had 3 layers of sandbags on our sleeping hooches. It started raining about sundown. Filling sand bags became very difficult. Around 11:00 pm we gave up on the sandbags. I laid down on a cote and placed a sheet of plastic over me. I woke up at first light the next morning and thought I had lost my hearing. Then I realized the cote was holding water which was up over my ears.
The next day we continued to build the fire base. We had been told that we would be firing on targets in Cambodia. Charlie had been moving down in Cambodia and then moving across the border to attach our units. Illingsworth was called a jump LZ. We would be there for a few days and then move to a new location. By about the second day there, six 155’s were moved in. We were getting fire missions several times a day. The 155’s were firing day and night. The 155’s were pounding targets on a regular basis. We were getting so much ammo for the mortars each day that we could not possibly fire it in one day. We were having to stack up boxes of mortar ammo on the ground. At one point we just rolled two pallets of mortar ammo off the mule and let it lay where it landed. After we had been there several days, two track-mounted 8 inch artillery guns were moved to the fire base. You may have noticed that I never mentioned any wire or claymore mines. We didn’t have any. There was nothing between us and the wood line.
A couple of weeks before the end of March Bobby Barker came to me and asked if I would consider letting him go to the rear to get his teeth fixed. He said you know sarge may just a couple of days before I am supposed to go home. Bobby was a great guy, he always did his job, and he had a great attitude. I told Bobby that I would like for him to leave the next day. I wrote a little note the 1st Sgt asking him to send Bobby to have his teeth fixed. I suggested that Bobby should stay in the rear since he only had a couple of weeks left in country. Bobby left on chopper after we all told him goodbye and wished him well.
Near the end of March, a young Lt named Mike Russell showed up on the firebase. He had several months in country with the 4th ID. The 4th went home, but Mike did not have enough time in-country to go with them. The unlucky guy ended up with us. By the end of March, Mike had been there long enough for us to become pretty good friends. He was a squared away guy. A couple of days before the end of March, Firebase Jay got hit really hard. They were located a few clicks from us. The sky looked like it was on fire. I didn’t know any guys on Jay, but I continually prayed during their attack that they would be able to defend against the attach and that we would not get the same dose of medicine.
On the last day of March, 1970, things seemed extremely tense. I saw high ranking people leaving the firebase on choppers. I look up and see Bobby Barker walking in from one of the choppers. Bobby came over to me and said sarge’ I just had to come out and let you see how good I look with my teeth fixed and I wanted to tell everyone goodbye. Bobby gave me a big smile as he showed his teeth and said, “My momma is going to be so proud of me and my teeth.” I told Bobby to go see everyone and get back on a chopper and get out of here. I then said Bobby weren’t you supposed to leave today. He said yey I didn’t get on the plane, I got on a chopper instead to come see you guys.
Ammo for the 8 inch guns was moved on to the firebase all day. They had the same problem that we did only worse. They had tons of ammo and no place to put it. They fired at the wood line a few time during the day. It was truly awesome to see the power of these weapons. Late in the day I saw Bobby was still on the firebase. There was a chopper on the ground. I told Bobby to run out there and get on that chopper. He said sarge’, please let me just stay out here with the guys I love just one more night. I said no Bobby, you need to leave. He walked away from me.
At about 11:30 pm, our radar unit notified Lt. Russell and me that we had a lot of movement on the Red Ball which was just across the border. The border was about 1 click from the firebase. They had determined that the NVA were moving troops down in trucks and turning west into a large field. They would unload the troops and then go back to get more. We fired mortars, 105’s, and 155’s on their position for about an hour. I thought we had wiped them out. We laughed and said they would have the rest of the night to drag their dead out of the area. I laid down in FDC and Lt. Russell did also. At about 2:30 am all hell broke loose. Mike and I ran out into a cloud of dust. There were gooks standing on the berm firing RPG’s at TOC. They were everywhere. I went to all three gun pits and directed the squad leaders to fire charge zeros randomly to the west and to keep it going as fast as possible. Mike and I both ended up in Blue Three which was led by Juan Romero. Juan and the rest of his squad worked to pull down charges to charge zero and Mike and I handled the gun. I was aiming the gun and Mike was hanging rounds. At one time I told Mike that I was afraid I was going to send one straight up and it would come back down on us. Mike said, “At this point, I really don’t think it will make a shit.” Blue One was wiped out with a satchel charge. Luckily, they all got out of the pit. Blue Two was wiped out by a gas stove from our kitchen tent. The stove blew up and sailed through the air leaving a trail of burning gas and landed in Blue Two. As with Blue One, the guys all got out and went to the berm. I saw Bobby running for FDC. I yelled at Bobby not to go to FDC. He yelled out that he did not have a rifle. Bobby disappeared in the dust.
We saw gooks on the 8 inch guns trying to turn them around. The 8 inchers were about 50 yards from us. A barrage of small arms fire erupted toward the 8 inchers.
At some point during the battle, I tried to call FDC on the land line. It was dead. It had been working earlier when I talked to them. They had tried to call a fire mission to us. I had answered the horn. They started calling out the fire mission. I said, “we don’t need a direction, charge, or elevation, we can see them.” Looking back now I realize I should have told them to get their butts out there to help us.
Some time after the battle had been going on for what seemed like forever, the eight inch ammo blew up. We all left the ground. I thought we were all going to die right then. We looked up and saw things in the air that are not supposed to be there. Things like PSP, tree trunks, ammo, and lots of dirt. The problem was that we knew that it was going to have to come back down and it looked like it was headed our way. I will admit that I just about lost it at that point. I had a wife and a two year old son at home that I figured just lost their husband and father. Though we were a short distance from the 8 inch ammo, we did not take the direct blast. The 8 inch artillery guys had left a track mounted ammo carrier and a five ton truck parked between us and their ammo. The next morning, the 5 ton was demolished and the ammo carrier was on its side looking really bad.
We continued to fight off the gooks for some time. At some time around 4:30 am we noticed that everything had suddenly gotten very quiet. For a while we felt alone on the firebase though no one mentioned it. Then we heard someone screaming, “Richards, are you guys still over there?” I had a bad feeling. I screamed, “Yes.” The person then yelled out that the gooks had that half of the LZ and we needed to get the hell out of there. We all went over the blast wall like snakes. In basic training I had been about the fastest low crawler at Sand Hill. I started out crawling along with the other guys and then thought that I should go to FDC to be sure everyone got out of there. I turned left and headed for FDC. As I approached FDC, I saw Bobby Barker laying on a stretcher. He had dirt all over him. I crawled up and tried to get Bobby to get up. I then realized that Bobby was dead. Damn! I said my quick farewell to Bobby and started plowing through the dust to the direction where I had last heard that voice of hope. Thank you to the drill sgts. at Sand Hill that made low crawl for miles. That crawl was easy.
We grouped near the berm. I looked for my guys but could not find them. We had Blue Max choppers spraying their mini guns all around the west side of the berm. They were a beautiful site and sound. Things quieted down and we waited for daybreak. As the sun rose and we could see the LZ, I realized that we had been wiped out, but we survived. I walked around looking for my guys. I walked along the line of wounded guys. I almost walked by Sgt. Huggins. Huggins and I came to the mortar platoon the same evening at LZ Ike. We got hit hard that night too. That’s another story. Huggins reached out and grabbed my leg. I knelt down to talk to him. He said, “I’m the lucky one, I’m going home.” He had gotten a bad wound on his calf. I wished him the best and walked on looking for more of my guys. We had choppers coming in to haul out the wounded. I helped load the choppers.
Those birds were being piloted by true heroes. At one point there was so much blood in the floor of one of the choppers that we threw dirt in on the blood so people could stand on the floor. One pilot insisted that we keep putting people on his chopper because it was going to be a while before another one got back to our location. The pilot told us to pick up on his skids and run with the chopper. He picked up speed and then converted to altitude just before the wood line. I would love to know that guy’s name. I’ll never forget him. He is a true hero. I guess I helped load Pete Lemon on one of the choppers that morning. Pete was a member of the Recon Platoon in our company. The faces were all dirty, bloody, and contorted with pain so I don’t remember any of them in particular. Pete later won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions that night.
After all the wounded had been loaded, I walked over to the dead. I started to help move the bags. On the first one I made the mistake of getting in the middle. Anyone who has ever taken on that position knows the problem I had. I knew Bobby was in one of those bags. I really did not want to know which one. Bobby wasn’t even supposed to be there.
I found Mike, Hutch, Juan, and Terry. We all went back to the mortar area to see what was left. We were amazed that we had gotten out of there alive. At Blue three there was a unexploded rocket buried in the ground two feet from where I had been inside the gun pit. Ammo was blown all over the entire area. There were very large pieces of schrapnal from the 8 inch ammo. There was paper everywhere. We looked at the 5 ton and the ammo carrier. It was then that we realized what had saved our lives. It was just by chance that they had left the units parked where they did. They had so much ammo in their area that I think they could not get any closer to their area.
Some little jerk Captain came in with a group that was to relieve us. The little jerk told us to start policing up the area. Lt. Russell walked over to the jerk and told him that he would have him know that his men had been in a battle all night and they were not about to police up a damn thing. The jerk asked him if he realized who he was talking to. Mike said, “Sir, I don’t give a shit who you are or what your damn rank is. My men will not clean up this mess. They can hardly stand up.” You gotta love Mike Russell. He’s still got that same edge. No crap, no way, no where!
Juan Romero and I went down in the crater created when the 8 inch ammo blew up. It was huge. I believe Hutch made our picture in the hole. We then went out to look at some of the dead gooks. I looked at one that had his left arm blown off. You could see the socket where the ball joint had been. Surprisingly, the guy had about three rounds of gauze wrapped around his shoulder. He had been wounded when we fired on them for an hour. They put a bandage on him and sent him on the attack. I never knew any of our guys who would have done that.
I remember going out to the landing pad to get on a chopper. I looked back at the firebase with total disbelief. The chopper lifted off and we all looked back at the firebase in total silence. I don’t remember anything being said until some time after we got to a rear area that we were taken to.