Although night-ambush patrols at fire base Patton offered more than
enough risk, we soon found there was more to watch out for than just the enemy. Our
squad usually contained eight or nine men, including the squad leader. As soon as
darkness fell we gathered our weapons and headed west across the fields. The night
was pitch-black. It was so dark that even the starlight scopes could pick up little
light to see with. We stumbled along until we decided we had gone about a
quarter-mile. Then we stopped and set up our ambush. We settled down behind a
convenient rice paddy dike and laid out our weapons and ammo. Then we set up the
schedule of guard watches. Usually each man watched for one hour, and then woke the
next man in line. Our lives depended on that one man on guard. The rest of us
needed to sleep because we still had our quota of sandbags to fill the next day.
The squad leader took off his watch. He handed it to the first man in line
telling him to pass it along to the next man when his hour was up, and so on down the
line. The rest of us quickly fell asleep. Still it seemed I had just closed my
eyes when I was shaken awake. It was my turn to watch. I did so until my hour was
up, then woke the next man and returned to sleep. When the dawn came, we gathered
our gear and got ready to head back.
The squad leader asked for his watch back - who was last man in line? We looked
around at each other for a moment, but no one spoke. The watch was gone! Out
in the middle of nowhere, with just the eight of us, someone was dumb enough to think he
could steal the watch and sell it to those Vietnamese kids! The squad leader
proceeded to go down the line - "Did you get the watch?" - "Yeah, and I
gave it to so-and-so" - "Did you get the watch?" - and so on down the line
until one man said "No, he never gave it to me!". Two men. That's
what it came down to in the end. Wouldn't the thief have thought of that! By
then we all knew who it was. Both men were ordered to turn their pockets out, and
sure enough, the watch appeared!
No one ever trusted that guy again - on patrol, in combat, or as a friend. He
eventually left our unit and was court-martialed. Which probably explains where my
jungle hat went. You might recall it disappeared just as we left fire base Keane.
I'd figured the hat was stolen by someone who was staying behind. It never
occurred to me it was coming along with me. One day on outpost duty, a couple weeks
after our "buddy" was taken away, I was sitting under my poncho liner hiding
from the sun. A Vietnamese youth came peddling cokes. He was wearing a jungle
hat - I don't know what sparked my curiosity - perhaps it looked familiar, though anyone
who's seen one has seen them all. I asked him to take it off. "La
dai", I said, motioning him to come closer. He removed the hat and there on the
inside rim was my name. We had a few words, his in Vietnamese and mine in English,
but after a couple of dollars changed hands (a universal language) the hat was mine again.