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
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
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
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
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,