Mike Cross knew the war was lost by all the fireworks going off in the night sky above South Vietnam.

The California native thought at first the rockets and flares were a warning that a TET-like offensive was underway around Da Nang that May 19, 1970.

“It was coming from all over ... It was everywhere,” said Cross, a retired Marine Corps colonel living in West Pennsboro Township.

He recalled how the light show extended over the camps of friendly forces across the horizon leading him to believe the enemy had launched a coordinated strike on multiple targets.

A second lieutenant, Cross was in command of a rifle platoon tasked with stopping Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces from setting up rockets within range of Da Nang.

The work involved splitting the platoon into squads to set up ambush points along known walking paths and other approaches to the city. Cross was waiting for the trap to spring when the fireworks went off.

It turned out soldiers and civilians North and South were celebrating the birthday of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader they compared to George Washington.

Knowing that made Cross realize there was no way the United States could win the war when both sides admired the same leader.

Tour

Cross was assigned to the second battalion of the First Marine Regiment for about the first four months of his tour of duty.

During that time he developed a healthy respect for the ingenuity of an enemy that had a knack for using grenades, punji sticks and even dud artillery shells to wound, maim and kill Americans.

“Our area was called Booby Trap Alley,” Cross said. “We didn’t like walking around there. You literally walked in the footprints of the guy in front of you.”

By that time in the war, ambushes set by Cross and his platoon yielded sparse results. “We hardly ever hit pay dirt,” he recalled. “After TET, the Viet Cong were just decimated. It was a horrible military defeat for them but a great public relations victory.”

One night enemy infiltrators triggered a firefight and pursuit that led Cross and his men to a villa on the coast of the South China Sea. There was a sound coming from inside leading the squad to believe the enemy was in hiding. They had it wrong and what followed is a beef that Cross has with the 37th President of the United States.

“I personally blame Nixon for the loss of hearing in my right ear. He declared we would have Vietnamization ... That we had to take with us one Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (AVRN) soldier with each squad.”

The standard tactic for clearing a house was to throw a grenade through a window, wait until it exploded and then jump into the room. The first Marine in would fire his weapon left to right followed by the second man firing right to left. Together they would sweep the room. The trouble was that procedure got lost in translation.

Though Cross went in and fired left to right, the ARVN soldier who followed miscued and also fired left to right. “The muzzle was right next to my ear,” Cross said. “I could not hear anything for three hours. Now I can hardly hear anything at all.”

A farmer was housing a pig inside the villa. The animal came away without a scratch.

Recon

From September 1970 to April 1971, Cross was in charge of Marine recon teams that went out on daylight patrols behind enemy lines to collect intelligence, raid base camps and ambush soldiers. At night, they would hide within the deepest brambles of the jungle.

Normally random chance ruled the battlefield, but one day the war went off like clockwork. It seemed that every two hours a new source of mayhem crossed the path of his Marine recon team.

The first encounter took place around 7 a.m. as the team was walking on a trail down a hill. An enemy soldier suddenly appeared from around a boulder, but the man was gunned down before he could react.

The second encounter took place around 9 a.m. when the team reached a stream. Cross and his point man went over the water to the opposite shore to search for the trail. They could not find it at first, so they walked back across the stream.

They were halfway across when teammates opened fire on enemy soldiers advancing down a hill on the opposite shore. Caught in an exposed position, the point man told Cross to go ahead and make it to safety while he laid down covering fire.

Cross took one step forward, slipped on a rock and fell face first into the stream. Needless to say, it was embarrassing. “Our motto was always better to be dead than look bad,” Cross recalled.

Cross then ordered the point man to run for safety while he provided covering fire. Trouble was Cross had no clear target and was still trying to recover from the fall when the point man leaped over him while firing at full automatic.

“I felt hot brass coming down the back of my neck,” Cross said. “It was like the Three Stooges at war.” Eventually the enemy soldiers were killed.

The third time was a charm for the recon team. It was 11 a.m. and they had decided to rest on the footpath by hunkering down out of sight behind a growth of elephant grass. The men were on alert while Cross used the break to fill out an intelligence report on a base camp they had encountered after the stream.

Suddenly the point man started shooting followed by the other men on the team. “I yelled ceasefire! I thought they were just nervous.” It turned out the commotion was justified.

There was an enemy soldier on the path ahead that was crossing a different stream. The man tried to run down the streambed but was killed in the hail of metal. One bullet went through his hand and into a grenade he clenched in his fist without setting off the explosive.

Patrol

A normal mission involved four days of patrol followed by an extraction by helicopter on the fifth day. Cross once survived a mission that lasted nine days where it rained almost continuously.

The team had landed in the old tennis court of Ba Na Hills, a luxury hotel that had fallen into ruin. Their goal was to use the washed out driveway to descend the mountain. They got part of the way downhill when the radioman slipped and fell off a shallow cliff. His injuries and the weather delayed their descent and extraction.

Cross was feeling lucky on Friday, Nov. 13, 1970 when the skies cleared enough for a Marine helicopter to pick up his team using a special kind of rigging that lifted the men directly out of the jungle.

Normally a helicopter using this rigging would land a short distance away to allow the men being rescued to climb onboard the aircraft. But for whatever reason, Cross and his men were left to dangle by the fuselage as the chopper made the half-hour trip back to Da Nang.

“We were going 90 knots,” Cross said. “We were freezing to death.”

Cross later became a pilot and retired after 30 years in the service. He is married to Barb Cross, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who served as a Cumberland County commissioner.

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com

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History and education reporter for The Sentinel.

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