John Puzzo’s Story: “The Lantern”

I didn’t even realize until I was doing it. It was just my turn, I guess. I found myself inspecting the new guy’s’ rucksacks and weapons load prior to a 3 day mission up to the north and west of Kontum. By summer, 1970, the NVA were pouring down the Ho Chi Minh trail at the rate of about 22,000 soldiers per month, many crossing the border into South Vietnam from their base sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. We were going up there to pick a few of them off. The weather was bad, so I told everyone to pack rations for 7 days. I think we were there longer than that.

When we got there the weather closed in right away and it stayed that way, so it was a good thing we packed extra rations. And we were at altitude. That affected the weather. It rained a lot and there was thick fog on the mountain all the time.

We were pulling radio relay for several Hawkeye teams hunting NVA in the valley below, and because of where they were we had to be in a line of sight to get their radio transmissions, which meant we couldn’t move much. The enemy would know that.

At about day three after nightfall, we heard voices in the darkness and movement coming our way. We thought they had found us. I got zero on the net for support and so the good guys could come get us the hell out of there, knowing that finding us at night and in all that soup would be difficult. We were on the outcropping of a ridgeline facing the valley below and had no where to go but down or to fight our way out if they hit us, and there were a hell of a lot more of them.

Then they were right on top of us. And they were noisy. One NVA soldier had a lantern that he shined at us through the thick foliage. He was looking between the rocks and trees right at us but incredibly, didn’t see us. Saunders, who was on his second mission with me, I think, was on one knee with his M-16 about a foot away from the guy’s face while I whispered in his ear not to shoot unless he came through. I was hoping he wouldn’t smell us.

For what seemed an eternity, the NVA soldier whose face I could see in the greenish light that his lantern reflected off the leaves, peered through the dense foliage right into Saunders’ and my face, the rest of the team behind us. The other NVA were talking behind him and poking around everywhere. One of them gave a shout and they started to move away. The guy with the lantern just backed off.

I had Grau and Gomez with me on that mission. It was their first mission as Rangers. They were killed later that year while serving on other teams.

A few days later the weather cleared, the mission was over and we were alerted that the choppers were coming. The Black Jack slicks and Gambler Guns (Cobra gunship escorts) of the 4th Aviation Battalion were in the air coming to get us out.

We didn’t just think they were the best chopper pilots and gunship crews in Viet Nam – we believed they ate at God’s mess hall. The extraction of our team went off without a hitch.

John Puzzo, Team R-6, K/75th Rangers, July 1970


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5 Responses to John Puzzo’s Story: “The Lantern”

  1. Bill Wells says:

    I was flying LRRPS in July 70. I flew the mission from Jan 70 until Sept 70 or so when I derosed…..You guys in the bush was the heros. A Co Blackjack’s was proud to come and get you guys anytime you needed us….

    • John Puzzo says:

      Bill Wells, I might have been in your chopper once or twice, then. On the mission I wrote about, I thought it was BlackJack “7″ who was the lead ship and pulled us sideways off that ridge – anyway, after we got back and cleaned up some, I looked for that crew but no one was around. I did take a picture of the ‘BlackJack 7′ slick. You were our lifeline, Bill. We just pulled missions – impossible to do what we did without you. I have three tours in Iraq (PSD Operator). One thing I couldn’t get straight in my mind there was why more choppers weren’t involved the way they were in RVN?

  2. You need to write a lot more of this.

  3. Gino Cortellino says:

    I was an Army Combat Photographer (’69-’70), spent a lot of time with ‘The Herd’/173d Abn out of Central Highlands/LZ English…some time with the 75th Rangers. I salute all of you. You guys always had my respect, and 42 years latter, still do (obvious?)

    I Salute all of you,
    God Bless.

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