Veteran Remembers Delta Company, 5th/12th Battalion – The ‘Dying Delta’

Soldiers Laying Down Covering Fire. Vietnam War, 1966.
Soldiers Laying Down Covering Fire. Vietnam War, 1966.

Delta Company, 5th/12th Battalion, became known as ‘Dying Delta’ during the Vietnam War. Specifically, the United States Army unit earned that moniker in 1970 as part of the invasion of neutral Cambodia.  If supply depots and bunkers used by the North Vietnamese army were discovered, their task was to go in, disrupt the enemy’s operations and destroy supplies.

The North Vietnamese Army abused Cambodia’s neutrality by stockpiling supplies on the Cambodian side.

“It was at the end of the Ho Chi Minh trail,” said Delta veteran Robert Pempsell, now 67.  Supplies were brought down on the backs of soldiers, by bike, and in trucks.

Despite air support and artillery, the task was extremely hazardous, he explained.  Soldiers walked through the jungle in a line.  The vegetation was dense enough to obscure the view for 30 feet ahead of a person.  Delta fought its way out of three sizeable ambushes in one month.

They were described as ‘horseshoe ambushes.’ The North Vietnamese would surround a unit on three sides firing from the front, left and right.

In one bad engagement, Pempsell said determined North Vietnamese troops tried to encircle his platoon by tossing hand grenades behind them to isolate the unit from supporting units.

Soldiers on point blundered into an ambush, and when Pempsell heard shots he went to ground. Someone fired at him, only just missing his head.  He looked around, saw a silhouette to his right behind a bush and opened fire.  No more shots came his way.

Cleverly, when artillery fire in support of the troops rained down, enemy soldiers moved closer in a maneuver called ‘hugging the belt.’  They got close enough to the patrol to avoid being hit by exploding shells.  As recourse, Pempsell called in Cobra gunships to lay down a barrage of rockets.  While that occurred, he and the others crawled away from the killing ground.

Delta Company went into Cambodia with 80 men.  When they returned to Vietnam one month later on June 24, about 30 men were wounded, killed, or laid low by jungle illnesses including malaria.

In the various engagements 320 tons of rice, sufficient to supply 20 enemy companies for a year, 450 small arms, 676 rifle grenades, four K-62 radios, and 437,000 rounds of ammunition were captured, The Buffalo News reported.

After returning home, Pempsell found employment at an East Side meat plant, remaining there for almost 40 years before he retired and moved in 2008 to Bennington in Wyoming County to a house on the side of a hill.

Every single day he thinks about the horror of war.  It never ends, he said, but it does get easier with advancing age.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE