The following occurred during a Sixty-seven (67) hour reconnaissance patrol carried out April 13-16, 1969, by members of Team Serviceman II in an area known as “Antenna Valley,” located in Quang Nam Province, Vietnam. Our Recon team had eight enlisted Marines, and one Navy Corpsman. We were part of Alpha Company-First Platoon, First
Reconnaissance Battalion, Camp Reasoner, Danang. My name is Ed Rowland, I walked point. Second in line was PFC Paul Draegert. Next was our patrol leader, Sergeant, George Crouch, and following him in our patrol order was PFC Chester Jarmolinski. Chester was our primary Radioman. Next was our Corpsman HM2 Terry
Coffin. Sixth in line was PFC Steve Dockery the secondary
radioman. In the number seven spot was PFC Charles Goldmeyer, our Deuce Tail-end Charlie and last walking in the tail end Charlie position, PFC Robert Gill.
Observations and memories vary amongst individuals, especially during periods of trauma and stress as well as the passage of time. The information will not always seem uniform and consistent, This is how I remember the events of my 13th patrol.
Let me start by saying it is important to note the core group of this team had conducted several successful patrols together and felt a strong sense of camaraderie and confidence.
Sgt. Crouch had joined recon only a few weeks earlier and had taken over the duties of Patrol Leader. He had previously done a tour in Vietnam with the “grunts” and had graduated from Drill Instructor School. There was no question about his being a Marine’s Marine, but he had not served in recon and was viewed by the team with some anxiety.
And then there’s the fact, he was replacing an outstanding patrol leader highly regarded by the team members know as Ski.
Our previous patrol leader was Sgt Bill (Ski) Garczinski. Ski recently finished his tour and returned home, back to “the World”. Ski was known to be very serious, skilled and cautious. He got the job done, but without unnecessary risk.
The first patrol we took with Sergeant Crouch was about 10 days earlier. He caused some concern for Paul Draegert and myself on the first day out. He was overtaken by the heat and started throwing up. The problem was, he simply stopped without letting Paul and myself know and we kept moving forward. We briefly became separated from the team.
All the while we were busy trying to find a safe route away from the LZ since the area had been prepped with napalm along the sides. Also, on the last night of that patrol. He elected to harbor right along a trail running along a ridge line, causing alarm. It had always been our practice to avoid trails like the plague unless planning an ambush or prisoner snatch. We had not planned either.
Our mission that 13th patrol was to Establish an Observation Post to monitor enemy troop movements and arms infiltration near THACH BICH VILLAGE and the
SONG THU BON River, utilizing air support and fire missions on targets of opportunity.
PATROL 13 Day One
Superstition was not something that would normally enter into my mind, but the fact we were about to embark on what was to be my 13th patrol, there was this feeling of uneasiness. We had joked about it coming, but now it was here. Being the 13th of the month also didn’t help, nor the fact the chopper taking us to the bush bore the number 13. Otherwise, it was just another hot and humid day in Vietnam.
We left An Hoa for another routine patrol, flying toward our pre-determined landing zone (LZ). We dropped quickly into the LZ and started exiting. Myself, the deuce point and PL had exited when we began to take small arms fire. Several Marines returned fire and we rapidly jumped back on the chopper and lifted off. Though we had a secondary LZ, it was expected we would simply return to An Hoa for the night and try it again tomorrow. Much to our surprise, we flew about 200 yards up the finger and dropped into another LZ. We quickly exited and the chopper and it lifted off. The escort gunships remained in the general vicinity briefly in case we encountered enemy contact, but soon left us behind.
Sgt. Crouch pointed the direction he wanted to go and we moved quickly to put distance between us and our first LZ. After traveling a short distance, we encounter a well-used trail and Crouch decided we should risk taking the trail to allow us to cover more terrain rapidly.
After approximately 15-20 minutes, we veered off the trail into the vegetation to look for a possible harbor site. PFC’s Gill & Goldmeyer did an excellent job in covering our entry point and trail. We soon found an old bomb crater that had some low vegetation and surrounded by thick elephant grass. Unfortunately, the elephant grass was only about 5 feet tall. We settled into the thicket, remained low and listened intently for any enemy activity or movement. The adrenaline was still flowing and the anxiety level high. Eventually, it seemed safe enough to for us to settle in and eat, so we took turns chowing down and beginning to feel more at ease.
An hour or so passed and we began to hear movement in the area. Very slow and methodical, but heading in our general direction. This lasted for some period of time and seemed to be all around us. We readied ourselves for a fight, figuring any moment the enemy was going to slip thru the bush and into our harbor site, resulting in a major fight for survival. The movement then began to fade and move away from our position. Once they had moved away, we began to hear
shouts in English of “Recon Go Home” and “Recon You Die”. This lasted into the twilight and nightfall.
Finally, late that night or in the early hours of the next day, the yelling stopped. Many thoughts rambled through our heads about what was going on. Had we actually succeeded in eluding them? had they simply stopped looking? Had they left some enemy behind as listening posts? Or had they actually pinpointed our position and were busy planning an ambush or an attack? We remained on guard and took turns trying to get some rest. However, we knew we were facing uncertainty and danger with sunrise.
Crouch had a pretty good idea as to our location and the direction we needed to head to get to our intended Observation Post (OP). It was decided the best course of action was to gear up and head out before dawn. A stealth like move away from our harbor site toward our OP. Cautiously, we exited our position and quietly moved out to the trail, crossed over and headed toward our target.
As dawn began to approach, we started to descend down the side of the finger toward a ravine which the map indicated could be a stream bed. We had little vegetation for concealment, but decided to take a break before venturing on down to the unknown. There was green Vegetation down by the ravine, leading us to believe there either was or had been water in that area. Suddenly, we began to hear a number of voices and determined it to be enemy troops moving thru the ravine. Our intended OP required us to cross over the ravine and ascend the adjacent hill. The terrain was steep and had little vegetation, leaving us no possible cover and concealment and totally vulnerable with our backs to both the ravine and the area from where we came. The footing would also be poor with the risk of causing rocks to slid down the hillside toward the ravine. It was clear we had no other option than to proceed, taking advantage of what little darkness we had remaining. We managed to get thru the vegetation along the ravine and discovered a well-used path in what appeared to be a dry stream bed. We watched momentarily and then followed a choreographed plan to cross and begin our ascent. Again, Gill and Goldmeyer took great care to ensure we left no sign of our presence. Of course, that was only part of the puzzle, we still didn’t know what, if anything, awaited us atop the hill.
Upon arrival at the top, we quickly moved over the crest to the side opposite from where we had spent the previous night. There was some vegetation, but only about 4 feet high. There were also old cardboard pieces from C-ration cases, indicating the “grunts” had probably spent some time on the hill. Sadly, there were no old fighting holes, so whoever had been up there probably hadn’t stayed long. The good news was the hill did give us an excellent vantage point to monitor the valley below as well as view parts of the Song Thu Bon.
Sergeant Crouch and the primary radioman PFC Jarmolinski began scanning the area with binoculars, while the rest of us figured out the best location for our harbor site and watched for any enemy combatants that might be searching for us. Once that task was completed, we took turns on watch and sleeping. The adrenaline had subsided and we were all totally exhausted.
As the day wore on, we took turns with the binoculars to watch for enemy troop movements. Whenever we had sightings, Crouch was given the task of deciding whether or not to request a fire mission. He did happen to call in two or three and eventually an O-V 10 Bronco came on station and either thru direct or indirect radio communication, Crouch handed off the fire mission duties since his aerial view was superior to ours. In addition to fire missions, the Bronco expended some ordinance as well. Eventually, the activity tapered off and we began to focus on securing our indefensible position, just in case of an attack.
One of the biggest concerns was a trail running along the crest of a hill and saddle adjacent to us and leading directly toward our position. There was a rather large rock positioned in close proximity, so we placed a claymore to give us the best coverage of the trail and yet in tight to our harbor site. We positioned it in such a way as to deflect as much back blast as possible.
The remainder of the afternoon passed without incident. Once darkness fell over the area, we heard small arms fire and the yelling of “Recon Go Home” & “Recon You Die” coming from the same area we had harbored the previous night. The enemy then proceeded to light the entire area on fire while continuing to yell and fire small arms. Crouch got on the radio and was able to get “Spooky” on station.
Spooky then hosed down the area where all the activity was
occurring. The remainder of the night passed, but we all knew this patrol was far from over and water was becoming an issue.
The sun rose and it was another day closer to our extract. The temperatures rose quickly and we remained without shade. Crouch decided to tie off the corners of his poncho liner to the vegetation in hopes of getting some break from the direct sunlight. By midday he began to feel ill and mostly remained under the liner.
Little activity was observed and I don’t recall any fire missions being called that day. This fact alone caused us concern that our location had probably been compromised. We simply sat baking in the sun.
Water was beginning to run low, however, we had been led to believe we would likely be one of the earlier extracts come morning. Concern was beginning to be expressed about how long we had remained in this one location, knowing we were being hunted. We were clearly in a vulnerable spot and the general consensus was to move, even if a short distance. We observed a cluster of trees about 75-100 meters away and thought it would be worth moving there to at least get out of the sun and perhaps harbor for the night. It was close enough we could return early in the morning to be extracted.
“Doc” Coffin and I approached Crouch about making the move, but he was resolute in staying put.
The afternoon light began to fade and all canteens were empty. Exhaustion was beginning to takes its toll and discipline had already begun to slip. Whenever a breeze blew, guys would open their tops and rise us as high as they felt safe to try to cool down. As darkness settled in, the clouds gathered and raindrops began to fall. Convinced the darkness shielded us from being spotted, we stood up and held a dust covered poncho open to capture the water.
It ran down into the hood and we were able to begin filling the canteens with small amounts of water. Finally, some relief from the thirst brought on by the heat, humidity and blazing sun over the course of the day.
It was time to settle in for a quiet and peaceful night and await extract the next morning. Watch was set up with the radio handset to be passed hourly from one Marine to another until morning.
Unbeknownst to us, the enemy had other plans. Moments before midnight the harbor site was rocked by a barrage of explosions. My initial thought was mortars or rockets, but then realized it was grenades. There was a split second of silence. I felt my head hurting and the right side felt like I had been hit by a 2”x4”. Still on my back, I looked over to see Jarmolinski sit up and reach to reel in the radio handset to report “CONTACT!” While doing so, automatic weapons began firing and the muzzle flashes indicated about 5 enemy combatants had gotten on line just meters from our harbor site and were moving toward us. Jarmolinski was knocked to the ground and suddenly there was another big explosion. It was at this point I was momentarily knocked unconscious. I came to and realized the firing had stopped and that Jarmolinski had been hit in the chest.
The claymore had been detonated and the assault team eliminated. We called for “Doc” Coffin and learned he had also been hit along with Paul Draegert, but didn’t know the extent of their injuries, however, they indicated they had their situation under control. I realized during this exchange that my hearing was impaired and everything seemed muffled and hard to understand. It also became apparent that Crouch and Goldmeyer had been injured but still able to
function. Dockery and Gill were unhurt. Dockery scrambled over to Jarmolinski and began to treat his sucking chest wound. Crouch immediately established radio contact to report our situation and to request an immediate emergency extract/medevac.
It was determined we had 6 wounded (3-serious, 3-minor). Although our situation was dire, it appeared we were holding our own at the moment.
We continued to receive some random enemy small arms fire and a few more grenades lobbed in our general direction. We kept return fire to a minimum to prevent disclosing our position. The M-79 grenade launcher was sparingly fired and a few grenades tossed into the darkness.
Anticipating more fighting to come, I was reaching to grab additional magazines and hit an unexplored enemy grenade. It rolled away and I was unable to find it. I let Gill know and he crawled over, found it and tossed it out of the harbor site. Gill then returned to his position. Dockery continued to courageously expose himself while looking after Jarmolinski. It was clear Chet was in serious need of medical attention.
Crouch continued radio contact in an effort to get us support and an extract. Due to our various positions on the hill, I was unaware of what was going on with “Doc” Coffin, Paul Draegert or Charlie Goldmeyer.
We received word that “Spooky” was in close proximity and headed our way. Crouch ordered we prepare to activate the strobe light, so “Spooky” could pinpoint our location and provide fire around our perimeter. “Spooky” began firing and we could hear the round striking the earth nearby and watch the tracers as it fired. A welcome sight indeed. All of the sudden, the rounds started peppering our harbor site and Crouch began yelling into the handset for them to STOP! I heard Gill say he was hit and crawled over to him. I had him cradled in my arms trying to find out where he was wounded and he slipped away seconds later. Now we have a KIA. It was without question a couple of seconds of sheer terror.
“Spooky” remained on station, but held fire in abeyance, pending the extract team.
The gunships arrived ahead of the CH-46 and conducted a series of strafing runs. We felt we were secure at the moment, but had concerns about the chopper being on the ground for very long.
The word was passed to try to get our gear gathered up nearby and prepare to evacuate. “Doc” and Draegert were going to have to help each other aboard the chopper, while Dockery and I would carry Jarmolinski and return to get Gill. Goldmeyer would be security, while Crouch would coordinate with the crew chief and make sure we all got aboard before liftoff. Everyone got on board along with most of the equipment with assistance from the flight crew. We lifted off and headed for the Naval medical facility at Danang.
Upon landing, we were immediately taken for medical attention. First Sergeant, Otis Barker was there to meet us. “Doc”, Draegert and Jarmolinski were immediately tended to. Sadly, we sat there watching helplessly as Jarmolinski drew his last breath while the medical staff worked desperately to save his life. “Doc” was moved to another room and was treated for a sucking chest wound, apparently as the result of shrapnel. Paul Draegert was being treated for a wound in his arm and would grimace in pain as they worked on him and occasionally looked over and gave a “thumbs up”. The staff decided to keep all five
wounded in the hospital, including the three of us with minor injuries.
“Doc” and Draegert were subsequently sent back Stateside via either Guam or Japan. After 48 hours, Crouch & Goldmeyer were returned to full duty and released to the Battalion. I was also released, but placed on limited duty for 30 days with follow up regarding a concussion and hearing issues.
The realization finally set in that the 13th Patrol was finally over!
This account is a composite primarily of my personal recollection of events, review of the patrol debriefs, news article summarizing interview of Patrol Leader Crouch by “Sea Tiger” newspaper and entry in the “Pop a Smoke” website chronology for 1969.
Observations and memories vary amongst individuals, especially
during periods of trauma and stress as well as the passage of time. Thus, the information will not always seem uniform and consistent amongst the various sources.
Ed Rowland Point man for Team Serviceman II