Smitty Steps Up (continued)
So they sent the BLT into LZ Duster on October 1. For the 81s platoon, the landing zone turned out to be hot.
A hot LZ is among the most chaotic environments imaginable. In any landing zone, waves of helicopters must land, Marines must get off them, and supplies sufficient to support a battalion operating in the enemy’s stronghold must be offloaded and moved to safety.
All three of our LZs on this op – Margo, Susan and Duster – were one-bird zones. Instead of being able to land choppers simultaneously, we landed one after the other, stretching the time we were exposed to enemy gunners. Invariably, the NVA had long since registered their weapons to rake every LZ in the area of the DMZ. On Margo and Susan, at least initially, we faced light opposition.
On Duster, our luck ran out. It was the last zone of our operation and was located on a wide cleared NVA pathway that snaked across that part of the DMZ. It was a bald patch in the triple-canopy jungle, just big enough for a CH-46 cargo helicopter to drop its ramp and off-load 20 or more Marines and their gear.
A couple of the rifle companies had landed and, with the BLT command group, had moved down the trace to begin combat patrols in strength.
You don’t want to linger on a landing zone. With the blades whirring overhead, engines roaring and men shouting, it is a scene of frantic activity. Add 130mm artillery rounds coming at you from just across the small river valley, fired by soldiers who were close enough to see the features of their targets, and you have a big, big problem.
The NVA artillerymen were smart. They let the grunts fade away down the trace and waited until they saw men with mortar tubes alight. Our landing zone was far away from the bigger supporting arms, the cannons. If the North Vietnamese took out the 81s -- still potent with four tubes -- it would remove the the battalion's "hip-pocket artillery" from the battlefield.
October 1, 1968: The 81s platoon lands on LZ Duster, the last of our DMZ landing zones. Moments after this photo was taken, the zone took artillery fire and the platoon lost two Marines, with another 21 wounded. Photo courtesy of Eric Smith.
When the last chopper lifted away, with the LZ still filled with men trying to evacuate ammo and supplies down the jungle path that beckoned just off the zone, the enemy artillery opened up.