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David Snider, Delta 68/69

The below is a reprint of a letter to Joe Kuchta, brother of Empire State team member John Kuchta. John was killed in February of 1969 and Joe was trying to gain information on a Walther P-38 that was returned to him with John's personal effects.

Patrol members were Lt. Mann, Cpl. O'Campo, Cpl. Mundorf, Lcpl. Kuchta, Lcpl. Contraras, Lcpl. Cuenca, Lcpl. Martinez, "Doc" Snider, and Lcpl. Molina.

Patrol insert Jan. 7 69

The then current members of Mayfly/Vesper Bells and Empire State had always operated in the mountains and this patrol was the first time that we were asked to operate in the lowlands, specifically in the rice paddies. Dodge City in the Arizona Territory was probably the worst patrol area we could have drawn. It was a huge area and was heavily populated with VC and frontline NVA. The area had numerous villes and contained the famous Go Noi Island. You are aware that the patrol was comprised of Marines from both teams. The most seasoned were chosen for this patrol due to the different nature. I recall that we were told that we were the forward elements of a regimental sized operation, operating about 2-3 days in front of the op. However, I noticed in the patrol papers that we were used in support of the 1st Marines without specifically mentioning an operation name.

We originally were supposed to walk in after fording a river. We were trucked out of Camp Reasoner in covered 6X. We carried an m-60 (Molina) with 1000 rounds of ammo (I humped 300 rounds for him), Cuenca carried the M-79 as well as his M-16 along with 40 rounds of HE. I truly remember these amounts of ammo because afterwards we were astounded that we had not 60 rounds or 79 rounds left. We managed to fire them all up. The rest of us carried M-16’s with anywhere from 20 to 30 magazines apiece. I carried 27, 4 magazine pouches and 7 in a bandoleer. We also carried 4 frag grenades each and each a claymore mine. I do not recall the 4 laaws mentioned. When we got to the river we had to sit around most of the afternoon, as we were not supposed to kick off until nightfall. This was another change from our usual patterns, as we were going to move across the paddies at night and lager up during the days. Our mission was to find and map all bunker systems, enemy concentrations, ammo stashes, etc. When we were fragged for the patrol, we all felt that it was something out of a Hollywood grade “B” movie. It certainly was a different snooping and pooping than we were accustomed to.

Long about dusk we started out and immediately met with failure. There had been recent rain and the river was swollen. Our point, I think it was Ocampo, went under and we had a devil of a time pulling him out. We dinked up and down the river looking for a better place to ford, but were unsuccessful. We radioed back to Bn and they came out and picked us up. The next day we were trucked out to a ROK camp (Republic of Korea). The Koreans were super friendly to us and treated us well as we again waited for nightfall. They gave us Kim Chi, which is fermented cabbage that is extremely hot, as in peppers. If I recall, it had a milky juice. I must admit that I didn’t have the courage to try more than a mouthful. We again waited until nightfall to start the patrol. I want to say that it was after 9 when we kicked of. As a diversion, the ROK’s had a fireX from their lines and we snuck out and headed towards Dodge City. The first night out, several clicks from the ROK’s, and I’m surprised this wasn’t mentioned in the patrol notes, Ocampo hit a trip flare on one of the paddy dikes. We all froze and used good discipline until it burned out. We were scared shitless, but nothing came of it. Apparently, it was an old grunt trip flare that was never taken in. We found numerous bunker complexes, fighting holes and bivouac areas. This was the first time any of us had seen this type of fortifications. We were amazed. During the day, we holed up on small hillocks (unsure of spelling, but the little rises in the paddies that were usually concave inside). It seemed that everywhere we looked we say VC or NVA. Many were dressed in what appeared to be new uniforms. They had web gear and their equipment well taken care of. The physical appearance suggested that they were well fed and rested. Certainly they walked around the area without fear.

On the morning when we first made contact, I was asleep when I heard the M-60 clatter. Molina was standing up firing the 60 from the hip. We had been in a 50% watch and the other watch members started opening up with their 16’s. When I got to the berm of the hillock, I could see 2 NVA running like the devil around 50 meters away. I recall that they were beating feet towards a tree line just to the front of our position. All 8 of us were shooting and I swear we did not kill one of them. I can only think that Lt. Mann was doing the body count thing. But then again, memories are dangerous things.

Following this initial contact, we called Bn and told them of the contact and asked for an emergency extraction. We were told that all choppers were tied up supporting the ground operation behind us and that we should just change our position. We proceeded to move approximately 2-300 meters across open paddies and away from the tree line the NVA escaped into. We found another hillock to hide in which was shaped like a peanut shell. The hillock was concave and ringed with small scrub trees. There was nothing in the center of it. Myself, Molina, Marinez and Mann were at the end closest to where we had come from. John and the rest of the team were at the other end. After being there for about 1-2 hours, John’s end of the hill erupted in firing. Someone called for me to get my ass over there. I crawled to their end and slid down the side of the hill into the paddy. I crawled over to where John and one of the other team members were crouched over 3 bodies. One was already dead, I recall that his chest was totally ripped open, but two more were alive. Later we were told by John that these three just waltzed across the paddy and into our position. I immediately started to work on the two wounded, they were both officers and we were excited about taking them as prisoners. During this time Mann again was calling for an emergency extraction and was again told that it was not possible. I rolled one of the NVA officers over to look for other wounds and he was lying on the P-38. As was our custom, the shooter gets first dibs on any captured weapons. I recovered the pistol and handed it to John. I remember thinking to myself then that “what in the hell was a gook officer carrying a Nazi weapon”? I wasn’t thinking too well or too worldly to remember that area had known war for centuries and that WWII wasn’t that long ago. I got both of the NVA patched, IV’s started and moved them to the center of the hillock. About an hour after this we started taking fire from the tree line we had originally vacated. It was sparse at first, but soon picked up in volume and tempo. Again, I distinctly remember Mann calling for an emergency extraction and being denied. He called for a fire mission but was told that we were too far out and that there were no batteries that could reach us. This is no shit Joe, I can’t figure out to this day how we were “too far out”. Who knows? Mann was now getting mad and screaming at the radio. We started returning fire to the tree line just to keep their heads down. About an hour after this, I now think it was late afternoon, 1500 - 1600 hrs, the amount of incoming was terrific. The tree limbs and leaves were falling down around us, some of the trees were cut down by the incoming. Mann was getting near to a panic and was demanding extraction. Again we were told that there were not any choppers available for use, as they were all being used to ferry 1st Marines into battle and picking up their medevacs. We were told that there were no gun ships available for support either. I remember Mann yelling something over the radio to the effect that they didn’t give a fuck about us and were going to get us all killed.

Sometime later, we were told that they had gotten us air support, 2 OVH-10 Broncos were available. These were neat planes used by the USMC to do spotting. They were slick aircraft with twin tails. In a way they reminded me of the WWII P-38 Lightning. One would be on station and then be replaced by the other. In this way they could rearm and refuel.

The Broncos saved our bacon. They alternated on station for several hours. There were several attempts by the NVA to come across the paddy and it was the Broncos that kept them in line. The planes were equipped with WP rockets and 60’s. Dusk was soon upon us and would be totally dark in 20 - 30 minutes when we were told to saddle up for an extraction. We were told that 2 CH-46’s were 10 - 15 minutes out and would be accompanied by 2 Huey guns. When we saw one of the 46’s start their spiral in, we fired up all of our claymores, we weren’t going to recover them or leave them and we headed to the paddy. We had the two NVA in ponchos, I was carrying one with Cuenca , but don’t remember who was carrying the other one. The pilot landed about 50 meters from us and we took off for him. It was about this time that all hell broke loose as the gooks tried to down the chopper. The amount of fire was tremendous. It was then that they fired RPG’s at the chopper, impacting between the bird and us. This was when 4 of us were wounded with shrapnel. None of us were wounded seriously. The fire was so heavy that all of a sudden we heard the engines change pitch and the 46 pulled up and away. We were within 20 meters of the damned thing when this happened. After we were safely out we talked about our feelings when we saw our savior take off. The general consensus was that we all accepted our death at that point. There we were standing out in the middle of a rice paddy with an estimated company of NVA shooting us up. I remember thinking that I was not going to be killed with out taking some of them with me. The scene was total chaos. We were standing in the middle of the paddy screaming obscenities at the NVA, laughing hysterically and having a great ol’ time firing our weapons for all we were worth. I remember Cuenca standing to my left and almost walking into my fire. He turned and looked at me with a stupid grin on his face as my rounds were inches from him. I placed my 16 on the NVA’s head, put it on auto and put an entire magazine into him. The muzzle flash lit up the area and I can still see the red and gray of his brain splattering and blowing into the air. Later I had to throw my trousers away as I was totally splattered with blood and pieces of brain. I regret today, that I wasted him, but at the time it seemed appropriate.

As this was going on, and I’m sure it wasn’t the hours that it seemed, the two gunships swung into position and opened fire on the tree line. They were hanging about 50’ off the deck, not moving, firing everything they had. The 46 rolled in behind them and set down close to us once more. We ran to the bird and the crewmembers jumped off and helped pull us aboard. We started firing our weapons out the windows and I swear the gooks were trying to come across the paddy even with the fire from the gunships. They were definitely pissed and wanted our asses. As our chopper pulled up, it had to fly over the tree line. The muzzle flashes were unreal and seemed like there were thousands firing at us. I know that is not true, but sure seemed that way.

We went to the Danang Naval Hospital and dropped off our last prisoner. We then went to Camp Reasoner and were debriefed. We captured two rucks that the NVA were carrying that were full of maps of the Danang area showing all the military units and their call signs. The amount of Intel carried by those officers was extraordinary and also scary. They had overlays of all the unit positions, call signs, bunkers, machine gun towers. In February 69, the Danang area and specifically the air base was hit by sappers and numerous planes and tank farms were destroyed. This was also the same night that Division headquarters and 11th Engineers were overrun. I was assigned to 1st Med at that time and responded to the Engineers to extract the wounded. It was our opinion that the Intel we captured was linked to this offensive.

After the debriefing, us 4 wounded were taken to 1st Med for treatment of our wounds. Myself and one other were kept for two days due to infections.

Andy Androes, radioman of Mayfly/Vesper Bells had the original roster of that patrol. He would make a sheet with their names, service numbers, weapon numbers, etc. so that if he had to report any WIA, KIA, lost weapons, he would have all the pertinent info. If you recall, Andy was the fellow with me in Philadelphia. I will add the sheets of his notes for this patrol and the patrol he was on that was operating with John’s team when John was killed. There is a 3rd patrol sheet showing a patrol into the Garden of Eden also dated 1/1/69. Vesper Bells was originally slated for this patrol and was totally made up of Vesper Bells Marines. This patrol was cancelled and the new patrol for Dodge City was put together, again as I previously mentioned with more seasoned troops. You will notice that on the cancelled sheet my name does not appear. I had already received my orders transferring me to 1st Med . When they changed the patrol to Dodge City I volunteered to go with it because no other corpsmen were available to go out with them. I wasn’t going to have my team in Dodge City without medical help. The missing name was Lcpl Molina. Also, if you look again at the patrol notes and do the math, it doesn’t add up. Mann lists one POW, which we had, and two KIA. These were the two KIA from the 2nd encounter. If we killed one of the dinks from the first encounter, Mann would have claimed 3 confirmed.

Joe, I hope this meets your needs. I did not embellish anything intentionally, this is how I remembered it. I look forward to hearing the final outcome of this journey and hope that you can finally reach some peace as to John’s record. He was a good Marine, I would and did trust him with my life.

Semper Fi and Pax,