In Advanced Infantry Training we had received the word about snakes.
We were told there were 100 species in Vietnam. The first 99 were deadly
poisonous - one bite and you had just minutes to live. The 100th would crush you to
Snakes in Vietnam came in all sizes. Cobras were the largest we saw.
Fortunately for us, the cobras we met were not fast on the attack, but it could be an
unnerving experience to meet one face-to-face as you walked through chest-high grass.
Still, to the alert GI, M-16 at the ready, the cobra was
just one more target to dispose of.
We encountered snakes most often as we walked through wet, overgrown areas near rivers
or streams. The grass came up to our chins, so it was difficult to see far ahead.
We just kept walking 'til we got to higher ground. Suddenly the shape of the
grass just ahead might change - one blade would appear considerably larger than the rest,
and it would bob and sway. Suddenly that unique cobra-shape would leap into focus.
It seems enormous at close range! The beady eyes glared coolly at you - time
seemed to stand still. Just as quickly as the cobra materialized, an alert point man
would fire a full magazine at the mass in front of him. Sometimes, if the snake was
especially large, we would take a rough measurement. The record-holder was almost
fourteen-feet long and four-inches thick.
At Cu Chi, a black cobra lived under the narrow
boardwalk that went from our hootch to a supply hootch. It was over thirteen feet
long. The boardwalk was snake's only shade for traveling from one building to
another - he used the bottom, we used the top. His secret was safe until an
inebriated GI stumbled across him one night while the snake was hunting. In a few
short minutes a posse was formed and the outlaw hunted down and beaten to death.
However, it had never harmed any of us, and had probably done us a favor by keeping the
rats under control.
The big snakes might startle us, but at least we could see them coming. The
little ones were a different story! Our trainers back in AIT had warned us that the
most lethal snake in Vietnam was a green viper less than a foot long and no thicker than
your little finger. It was called a cigarette snake - not for its size, but because
its bite was so deadly you had only time to smoke one last cigarette before you were gone.
I met my first and only cigarette snake on a warm afternoon walk through the paddies
near our fire base. We had been walking all day. We were tired. We had
marched through dozens of flooded paddies with the mud sucking at our feet and sapping our
energy. We had been through several villages checking for suspicious activity or
signs of the enemy. Now it was good to be heading home. The still water of
this paddy was broken only by the ripples we made as we walked from one side to the other,
a distance of about 100 feet.
Halfway across, I noticed we were not alone in the water. A small snake was
swimming parallel to us, gradually gaining on the front of our column. It was like a
large earthworm; it was small both in length and diameter - and it was green. My
Advanced Infantry training kicked in - it had to be a cigarette snake! Then I
panicked. With my foot I splashed water at it to make it go the other way. I
should have known that anything as deadly as a cigarette snake hadn't gotten its
reputation by being bullied around. This snake had a reputation to live up to!
Without slowing a bit, it turned and came straight at me. I had visions of
its climbing my leg, or just biting into it. And I wasn't a smoker - I wouldn't even
get to enjoy my last minute!
I turned and ran. Galloping through the water, I headed for the nearest dry land
on the dike between the paddies. One of the first rules we followed (after avoiding
cigarette snakes) was to avoid dikes - Charlie loved to plant booby-traps in them.
The rules be dammed. I stepped up onto the narrow dirt ridge and began stumbling
The snake wasn't interested in anyone else, just me. It
raced across the surface of the water and slithered up onto the dike after me. I
couldn't believe this was really happening. Who ever heard of a snake chasing
anything, let alone something a hundred times its own size. I was scared, I'll admit
it. I don't know if it could really have hurt me or not, but I wasn't willing to
The story might have ended differently, but a buddy now came to my rescue. He had
liberated an adz-like tool from the last village. It had a thick bamboo handle and a
broad hardened digging edge. He raised the tool and brought it down on the snake,
cutting the head off. Perhaps it wasn't a cigarette snake - I'll never know for
sure. But I'll tell you this. I never, ever kicked water in the face of a