War Story: A Shau Meatgrinder (Isaako Malo)

If you’re a six-man reconnaissance team deep in enemy territory, everything has to go right. When it doesn’t, brave men die. This is a story about things going terribly wrong for a recon team of the 101st Airborne Division’s famed Lima Company Rangers.

The mission began on 23rd April 1971, when a six-man Ranger recon team from L Company, 75th Infantry (Ranger) was inserted by helicopter on to a ridge top on the eastern side of the A Shau Valley in western I Corp, Republic of Vietnam. The A Shau was a bad place even on a good day. This was a bad day, and team leader Sergeant Marvin Duren and the rest of his patrol knew it. Their mission was to act as a radio relay team for a full Ranger platoon from their company which had just gone in to the valley to lay anti-tank mines along Route 547A, a dirt highway that ran across the valley’s floor.

It was unusual for the Rangers to operate in a platoon configuration, but the mission called for unusual measures. Enemy tanks were a rarity even I Corp. But intel. had put them there on several occasions. Other recon teams and 2/17th Cav. aerial scout had reported NVA tanks and tracked vehicles operating along Rt. 547 over the previous two weeks.

The implications were frightening. With the U.S. involvement winding down, no one wanted to face enemy armour at this stage of the war.

The recon team’s insertion attempt at their primary LZ had been aborted due to enemy ground fire, so Duren made the decision to go in on the patrol’s secondary LZ – a saddle in the ridge flanked by steep slopes. He was glad his team was on the high ground acting a relay team. Those poor bastards down below could be in a world of hurt real quick if Mr. Charles got his act together – and in the A Shau, Mr. Charles always had his act together.

But radio relay wasn’t just another walk in the sun, no way, Jose! Just 11 months earlier, Lima Company had lost an entire six-man radio relay team up near the abandoned Marine compound at Khe Sanh. Transmitting too long in the same location had gotten the team triangulated by the sophisticated Soviet radio directional locators employed by the NVA. A brief flurry of enemy had grenades destroyed the entire team before they could fire a shot. No, radio relay could definitely be hazardous to your health.

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