Home Was Never Like This

 

Our truck left the security of Cu Chi and turned west on highway TL8A, a major paved road.  We passed clumps of mud and thatch houses, and went through a larger village.  Then we turned onto a gravel road and continued onward to the south and west.  Before we realized it we were there.

I climbed to the ground and looked at my new surroundings.  Fire support base Keene was built on a slight mound, with a ragged line of dirt walls and sandbag bunkers circling the base.  A single stucco building dominated the center, the remnant of some former wealthy landowner's estate.  The ground was lumpy, uneven. It was carpeted with a well-trampled layer of grass and weeds, with generous patches of ruddy charcoal dirt showing through.  The bunkers had a weathered, lived-in look.   Soldiers wearing nothing but trousers sat or lounged beside most of them.   Three 105 mm howitzers were strategically placed in a triangle on one side of the rise.  Beyond the walls lay stacked coils of concertina wire to help keep out the riffraff.

105 mm howitzer at FSB KeeneA sergeant came over to greet us and guide us to our squads.  One by one he dropped us off at the bunkers, until it was my turn.  With another man, I was assigned to Second Platoon, Alpha Company, Third Squad.  My new family. Well, I guess its the same in the Army as in real life, you don't get to choose your relatives.   The squad was a mixture of new men and veterans, big men and little, educated and high school dropouts.  For the next couple of months we would eat and sleep together, bathe together, go everywhere together, and occasionally fight and die together.

And "home"?  Home was a sandbag bunker.  The main enclosure was five-feet high and about eight-feet square.  There was room inside for perhaps five or six men to sleep.  Our squad contained eleven.  Attached to the right side were two additional storage structures, each about three-feet high.  These were stuffed full of packs and ammo boxes - no room there for a six-foot-four body to squeeze in.  So where was I supposed to sleep?  I had never before slept under the open sky.  Oh, sure, I had been on boy scout camping trips as a teenager, but at least then we had tents!  Here, there was nothing!  They hadn't told us about this back in Basic.

We spent the rest of the afternoon listening to the veterans tell their "war stories", the highlights of their months in the field.  There's nothing like newcomers to set the old hands to talking.  It's a chance to pull out the tired, worn-out tales one more time.  I was to hear many of them again and again.  The ground attack on Keene a month before, when the squad was on night patrol and an enemy force walked right past them twice - once going and once returning.  The daily rocket attacks from "Rocket City" over toward the Cambodian border, which came regularly about dinner time.  And the night the VC had crawled through the wire in the wee hours and knifed two of the sleeping guards, before another GI spotted them and opened up.

That evening, as I ate my first meal in the field, the company commander climbed the steps of the old building to address us.  He informed us that recently our sister-company, Delta Company, had walked into an ambush.  The point man and the two men immediately behind him in line were hit.  The company was under heavy fire.  Their captain called forward to ask if the men were still alive.  Since they were not moving and no one could get to them, the reply came back that they were dead.  The company was ordered to pull back, and air strikes were called in.  After the jets exhausted their bombs, they made several napalm runs.  When the planes were finished, the company faced about and returned to their base.  Early the next morning, at the fire base, a sentry spotted movement outside the wire.  One of the three men left for dead, now wounded and badly burned by the napalm, had crawled and stumbled all the way back.  The captain reminded us, that no matter how tight the situation, no matter how thick the bullets, we were to remove our dead and wounded if at all possible.   [There's more to this story - see the firsthand account below]

As night approached, I beheld the first of many glorious sunsets.  The Vietnamese sky turned a blazing pink and orange in the west.  For nearly half an hour we were treated to a celestial light show, and then darkness dropped suddenly upon us.  Time for bed.  We would be up and moving early the next morning.  I wrapped myself in a thin blanket and slid under the canopy of one of the low-lying bunkers.  Within minutes I was dripping wet.  The confinement of the narrow quarters and the lack of a breeze made the bunker a sauna.  I finally decided to sleep on the open ground, hard and lumpy as it was.  Before many weeks passed, I "inherited" an air mattress, and from then on slept well.

But those first few nights cost me quite a bit of sleep.  I still remember the sight of the large Vietnamese rat climbing over the face of a sleeping buddy.  And the feel of occasional hungry mosquitoes, rousing me from a deep slumber.  And ever-present was the worry about what I would do if we were rocketed or attacked.

A personal account of the Delta Company ambush, March 25, 1969:

We hit a hot LZ and headed for a treeline.  My platoon was in the lead.  When my four lead men were about 15 meters from the trees the enemy opened fire.  The point went down instantly.  We had walked right into an ambush, an L-shaped bunker complex,  and they had us.  We worked to recover the four point men and got one, but could not reach the rest.  They had us pinned down under heavy fire and tried to flank us.  We later found out we were facing a  reinforced company of NVA regulars.  The Battalion C&C (Command and Control) chopper came on station overhead.  They called for one of our sister companies, Bravo,  to move in to help us.   They came in and drew heavy fire, and soon they were pinned down too.  They lost a lieutenant right off the bat, along with several of his platoon.  The medevacs that flew in to get our wounded drew heavy fire and could not land.  The C&C called for more ARTY and F-4's.  We spent all day trying to reach my three remaining point men.  We could get within 20 or 30 meters, but no closer.  They did not respond to any calls or signals.  I lost one of my best platoon sergeants and several other men trying to get to them.  At dark the Battalion Commanding Officer ordered us to pull back and establish a NDP (Night Defensive Perimeter). Later that night one of our listening posts popped a claymore and dragged an NVA in brand new clothes and web gear into the perimeter.  I remember one of my point men making it back to the NDP with napalm burns.  He told me the other two were killed in the first few minutes of the fight. The next morning the enemy was gone, and we went back in and retrieved the other two.

Lt. Howard W. Mitchell, 3rd Platoon Leader, Delta Co., 2nd Bn/14th Inf.


The four men killed in action on March 25, 1969:

SSG Gary Michael Brannon Delta Company
SSG Lewis Eugene Sampler Delta Company
Sgt. David Allen Weber Delta Company
1Lt. Jimmy Dale Bean  Bravo Company

 

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Home Was Never Like This:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
105 mm Howitzer Picture Copyright 1995 Peter Riker
Last modified: March 02, 1995