Friendly Fire

 

There's something about the sound of bullets snapping past your ears that makes you lie down and listen.  And it doesn't much matter whether the rounds are being fired by the enemy or by your own men.  While I was in the field we had five or six encounters with our own troops.  These were times we accidentally opened fire on one another.  We called it "friendly fire".  It's a crazy name, isn't it.  Believe me, there is nothing friendly about it!

The first time I was exposed to "friendly fire" was on a heliborne flight out of Keane.  Two gunships were scouting ahead of us, looking for action.  They spotted a small group of VC, and gave chase.  The enemy disappeared into dense brush atop an eight-foot high dirt wall or dike.  The gunships circled the area while our choppers maneuvered for a landing.

We came in low over nearby trees and descended for the drop-off.  Our landing zone was a flooded rice paddy.  Long thin shoots of grass lay on the surface of the water, and there was no telling how deep it was.  The chopper pilots played it safe and came to a stop, hovering four feet over the surface.  One by one we jumped off the landing gear into the water below.  Splash!  I hit the water and sank to my waist.   The choppers lifted off and headed away, leaving us to fend for ourselves.  As we stood there in the water, the gunships moved in along the dike, flying back and forth raking it with their miniguns and firing rockets into the brush.

For the moment, no one was firing at us.  If they had been, we would have been sitting ducks.  The lieutenant ordered us to move out toward the dike in an assault line.  I tried to take a step forward and couldn't move my foot.  Both feet were stuck in the mud!  It was a soft, oozing mud, soaked by the water covering it.   The force of our landing had driven my feet into the goop, just as a pile driver pushes a pole into the ground.

Each time I tried to pull one foot out, it just pushed the other foot in deeper.   I tried moving my feet sideways to create a gap in the suction.  No luck.   Then I tried twisting them, and finally got some leverage.  One after the other, I pulled them free.On Line, Through Water And Mud

I started toward the dike, slowly pulling each foot out of the muck and putting it in again.  Before I had gone fifty feet, I was worn out.  My gear - gun, water, grenades, and 300 rounds of machine gun ammo - was weighing heavily on me.  Each step became agony.  Soon I had to rest after each one, gathering energy to take another.  Even when I got within a few feet of the dike, I wasn't sure I could make it.  But at last I got there, exhausted.   If we'd been ordered to storm the dike, I'd have told them to go on without me.   I collapsed at the bottom, sitting in the water, trying to catch my breath.

Now that we were at the dike, the gunships pulled back and stopped firing so as not to hit us with stray rounds.  No sooner were they gone than a hail of bullets flew from the top of the dike, and we returned fire.  We couldn't see who was doing the shooting, but there was sure a lot of it.  The only thing to do was put out a heavy volume of return fire and try to suppress the enemy fire - make them duck into their holes.  The shooting went on like this for several minutes.  Then the lieutenant called the gunships to get an assessment of the situation.  From the volume of fire we were drawing, it seemed certain we had cornered a major enemy force!

It was then that the gunships let us in on a little secret.  We were slugging it out with one of Delta company's platoons, one of our sister units.  We should have known.  Charlie wouldn't waste ammo that way.  As near as anyone could tell, Charlie was sitting tight on top of the dike waiting for the shooting to stop.  They weren't dumb enough to step out into that wild cross fire.  There would be plenty of time for a casual exit when the shooting stopped.

As soon as we discovered what we were doing, our officers called a quick cease fire and decided to pull back to give the choppers another crack at the enemy.  We pulled away from the dike and started out into the mud again.  The short rest at the dike had helped a lot.  At least my legs were working again, though just how long they were going to last was in question.  The mud was relentless, pulling at my feet, holding them back, sucking in tight as I put them in.  It wasn't long before my legs felt weak again.  It's an awful feeling, being unable to move.  At each step I paused, gasping for breath.  My mind was saying 'go', but my legs were saying 'forget it'.  If Charlie had come running out and put a gun to my head, I couldn't have moved out of the way - I was that exhausted.  I am grateful that the enemy was preoccupied with other things that day.

It seemed to take forever, but finally we came to a halt, about where the choppers had dropped us off.  Since there was no cover to hide behind, we just lay down in the water and hoped no one planned to shoot in our direction.  Actually, the water itself protected us, for any rounds coming towards us at a shallow angle would ricochet off, and any that went under the surface would be slowed quickly.  The only target above water was our heads.

Again the gunships swept over the dike.  One by one they made rocket runs.   Coming in a hundred feet off the ground, they raced toward the dike.  In a flash of fire, rockets streaked from their pods and into the dirt bank.  The explosions threw clouds of dirt into the air.  When they ran out of rockets, they used miniguns to strafe the dike up and down, searching out Charlie's hiding places.

Soon the gunships retreated to hover nearby.  Taking advantage of the lull, Delta opened fire again.  Some of the bullets splashed into the water around us.  A small geyser erupted between the two men next to me as a round bounced off the surface of the water and continued on.  I took a deep breath and put my head under.  Better safe than sorry.  Safe as long as I could hold my breath, I hoped the lieutenant was brave enough to keep his head above water and call Delta to stop the shooting.  For five minutes the water sparkled with dancing bullets as occasional rounds bounced on by.   Then, the lieutenant got through to Delta and the shooting stopped.  Under cover of the gunships, we started back toward the dike.

For the third time, we made the slow trip back through the mud.  When we finally reached the dike, we lay there resting, too tired to go on.

The platoon leaders and gunship pilots held a conference over the radio, sizing up the situation.  We had seen no activity on top of the dike since our arrival.   Finally our platoon was chosen to mount the dike and search there for the elusive enemy.  Cautiously, we set up covering positions and climbed up.  We found that Charlie was indeed gone.  Only the fighting positions remained.  A few empty shell casings littered the ground.  The foxholes were about four-feet long and two-feet wide.  Except for entrances the tops were covered to protect the men inside from helicopter fire.  Each position had two gun-ports, one to face each side of the dike.  It was a perfect setup.  The enemy could fire in one direction, then move over a few feet and fire in the other.  Buried in the thick growth, the foxholes were almost impossible for the gunships to spot.  They were difficult for us to approach from below, because men climbing up the bank moved right into their fields of fire.

Alpha had been lucky.  No one was hit on our side of the dike.  We learned later that there were two Delta casualties - perhaps by us.  There was no way to know.  Multi-unit operations were difficult to coordinate.  As for Charlie, he could easily slip between two of our units and open fire, causing both units to fire upon one another.  But as I said earlier, it didn't really matter who was doing the shooting.  To the ones who were hit, it hurt just the same.

 

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Friendly Fire:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Last modified: March 02, 1995