Days were devoted to patrols, nights to ambushes. Dawn always came
too soon, for the short hours allotted for sleep were interrupted by guard duty. By
six we were up to shave, brush teeth, eat something. Then we loaded our rifles and
checked our equipment.
At 7:00 o'clock we started out. Forming a single file, we walked past the coils
of concertina wire surrounding the base. As we reached the fields beyond, the
command rang out, "Lock and load!" We pulled the arming handles on our M-16's and rammed a round into the chamber. From then on we
were in enemy territory. Of course, we were always in enemy territory . . .
Today we turned toward the wooded area west of Dragon. Spread out in a long,
straggly line, we marched through the thin blond grass, until the undergrowth changed to
patches of thick, gnarled brush. Clumps rose three or four feet from the ground,
with thin pale green leaves. The bark was rough and pitted. Solitary trees
announced the edge of the forest ahead. We went on, eyes darting back and forth,
watching for anything out of the ordinary. The warm morning air began to turn hot as
the sun climbed higher.
The scent of an enemy presence slipped into our nostrils as we approached one
particularly thick patch of bushes. How can I describe the smell? It was
foreign, and a bit musty. Perhaps it came from unwashed bodies living too long in
the tunnels. Perhaps it came from outdoor toilet facilities and the peculiar aroma
given off by their diet. Or it may have been a subtle odor clinging to the foliage
from their cooking fires. Some men never learned to distinguish it, but once you did
it set off an alarm bell in your head - instantly you knew the enemy was living nearby.
Cautiously we skirted the area, scanning the bushes for movement. We saw nothing.
There were enemy nearby, without a doubt. However, they would choose the time
and place for us to meet.
We moved on into the trees and started down a gently sloping hillside. The forest
was an open, airy place, not like the thick jungle kind we found elsewhere. Tall
trees rose above us, with thick vines hanging to the ground. Leafy green bushes
covered the soil, and young saplings stretched upward toward the open sky above. The
shade provided a welcome refuge from the sun.
As we walked we scanned the open hillside opposite us. Occasional patches of bare
sand peeked from between clumps of grass and short bushes.
Then we sighted another of our units moving parallel to us on the opposite ridge.
We stopped for a moment while the lieutenant tried to radio them, but there was no
response. As we stood there, invisible in the shadows of the forest, we also saw a
lone figure moving ahead of them. It was an enemy soldier, perhaps setting
booby-trap trip wires. Suddenly a burst of black smoke appeared in front of the
point man, followed seconds later by a loud explosion. We held our position until a
Medevac chopper came to remove the casualties. Then we continued down the hill, and
crossed the grass-covered marsh at the bottom. We started carefully up the opposite
hill, mindful of the incident we had just seen. Booby-traps usually came in bunches.
The rule is to literally step into the footsteps of the man in front of you.
If he got through unscathed, then you were safe too! But in real life it is hard to
step onto the same spot - we each have a different set of legs, and besides, we kept
fifteen feet between us when on patrol.
As we climbed slowly up the hill, I drifted slightly off the path to one side. In
that same instant the ground gave way beneath me. My left leg went down, and me with
it. Instinctively I threw my weight away from the hole and stretched my arms to the
side. It was enough. My leg slid down the side of the pit, but the full weight
of my body landed on the firm ground beside it, preventing me from falling in.
Quickly, several men reached out and grabbed my shirt and shoulder harness, dragging and
pulling me away from the opening.
I had barely missed becoming the victim of a VC punji pit. A bamboo lattice-work
had covered the hole, with a thin layer of sand concealing it. The hole beneath it
was four feet square and about five feet deep. Tall sharpened bamboo stakes were
implanted in the bottom. They stood straight up, waiting to impale the unfortunate
victim. The pit appeared to have been constructed years before - the bamboo stakes
were faded with age. And the enemy almost always used explosives now. Still,
age wouldn't have made much difference if I had been a bit more careless. If I had
stepped just a bit more to the side, I would have tumbled in, my weight driving me onto
the stakes. As it was, the tough sole of my combat boot had pushed the first stakes
to one side, leaving my leg free to drop down the side unharmed. A single rip in my
pants showed how close I had come to disaster. It was a closer call than I liked.
By now it was 11:00 o'clock. We continued forward until we came to a path up the
ridge. It was the same trail the other unit had come down earlier. We turned
to search the area where we had seen the enemy soldier. Spreading out in squad-sized
units, we scanned the ground for signs of the enemy. We poked at the stubby bushes,
and looked for freshly turned dirt. As we searched, we found a small hole hidden
behind a bush. Our Chieu Hoi scout slipped into the tunnel, and disappeared from
Being six feet four inches tall, I only went into two tunnels in Vietnam. Most of
the tunnels were so small I couldn't even get through the door!
The little guys usually got that duty. The rough dirt walls closed in around
you. Once started forward, there was no turning back. You kept on going until
you reached a room, or a tunnel junction where the opening widened. If you didn't
have claustrophobia before entering a tunnel, you developed a severe case immediately
And there were other inhabitants of the tunnels. Like spiders. Big spiders!
Black spiders and brown spiders! Their webs covered the ceilings. I
don't know what they expected to catch for food, but they were there, just the same.
After several anxious minutes, our Chieu Hoi reappeared with a smile upon his face.
He raised one arm out of the hole, holding an AK-47 rifle. Placing it on the
ground he disappeared again. Soon the pile of captured weapons grew to include a GI
grenade launcher and a Walthers P-37 pistol with its belt and holster. There were
several ammo magazines, a gas mask, and several sets of pajamas. It was clear we had
found the abode of several men.
We had worked past lunch and it was time for a break. The full heat of the
noonday sun was upon us. I sat down in the shade of a stunted tree and opened a can
of C rations. As I sat there eating, I casually glanced around.
The hillside was covered with short grass. Low, thick bushes spotted the ground,
with a tree here and there. Then I noticed a pile of brush, cut into equal lengths,
just across the trail from the hidden tunnel entrance. I rose and walked over to
examine it. It appeared to be a pile of firewood, but I saw something sparkle near
the bottom. With extreme caution, I lifted the sticks one by one, watching for the
telltale straight line that would betray a trip-wire.
Beneath the sticks was a stack of twenty 60 mm mortar rounds. It was twenty
rounds that had been hand carried all the way from Cambodia, through hostile territory, at
risk of sudden death from American B-52's, ground troops, Eagle flights, and helicopter
gunships. It had traveled by night from one hidden outpost to another. Losing
twenty mortar rounds was a big setback for Charlie. We placed a bar of C-4 plastic explosive beside the mortar rounds, inserted a blasting
cap, and pressed the detonator. The rounds exploded with a boom heard back at
We regrouped and started across the plateau of the hill we had climbed. By 2:00
o'clock we were crossing a grassy field toward a row of big, ancient trees. We
planned to cut through the trees and then turn back toward Dragon. As we approached,
we saw a dark object hanging thirty feet off the ground. On closer examination, we
could see it was a large artillery shell made into a clever booby trap. Big
rectangular wings made of bamboo and thin paper had been fastened to the sides. If a
helicopter flight landed in the field, the prop wash was supposed to knock the bomb out of
the trees, to explode in the midst of the choppers and the men disembarking.
We didn't know whether the contraption would actually work, but
we decided to call in mortar fire from Dragon to get rid of it. At the lieutenant's
order I called our company mortar squad. "Fire Mission! Fire
Mission!" I transmitted our coordinates and the location of the bomb.
When they were ready, I gave the command to fire. From far off behind us came the
muffled "Whump!" of the mortars. A faint whine signaled the rounds passing
overhead. Soon, three explosions sounded, and columns of dirt and smoke erupted
about one thousand meters beyond the target. I radioed back the location of the
first hits, and instructed them to adjust by five hundred meters. We wanted the
mortars to zero in slowly so they didn't hit close to our position. When all was
ready, I again gave the command to fire. The mortars sounded. Again there was
the faint whine, though in a different direction. Wham! Wham!
Wham! The three rounds landed several hundred meters behind us! I yelled into
the phone, "Cease fire! Cease fire!" The way things were going, the next
three rounds might have landed right on top of us!
Heavy artillery in the form of 105 mm. and 155 mm. howitzers was almost always
available, so we seldom used mortars. Our company mortar crews didn't get enough
practice. The men spent most of their days running errands or pulling details.
They occupied those long days filling sandbags, stringing concertina wire, cleaning their
mortar tubes again and again, and carrying ammo from one place to another. The
mortar crew might be drafted for an occasional road sweep, but most of their time was
spent at the fire support base where they were exposed to all the risks of the regular
mortar and rocket attacks. But boredom was their biggest enemy, not Charlie.
We left the bomb right where it was, and started back. Down the hill again toward
the marsh, this time several miles below our earlier crossing. Here the marsh was
wider, the hillside shallower. As we reached the water, we looked ahead to the far
side. Thick forest covered the opposite hill, with an open clearing almost directly
in front of us. The point started forward. One by one we entered the water and
the chest-high grass. We were spaced twenty to thirty feet apart as we neared the
shore. Our point moved out of the water and up into the open field. The meadow
was a rough square, cut from the forest long ago. Tall trees lined the edges on
three sides. There appeared to be a dirt wall or fence at the forest's edge.
The second and third men moved forward, while the rest of us crouched in the water and
grass. A feeling of suspense filled the air. The point walked halfway across
the field, then stopped and looked into the forest around him. Satisfied, he turned
and waved us forward.
When the crossing was complete, we climbed the gentle slope of meadow. As we
approached the woods we could see dark, square openings along the dirt mound. They
were fighting positions! But as our point man had discovered, the site was
abandoned. We found the refuse of battle in the trees behind the bunkers. An armored personnel carrier, its gutted hulk destroyed by a rocket
propelled grenade, rested against one corner of a massive bunker. Shell casings
littered the ground. The bunkers were set three-deep into the hillside, and on all
three sides of the clearing. Huge logs had protected their roofs from Phantom
strikes. What had happened here, we never knew. But the fight must have been
We left the bunkers about 4:00 that afternoon. It was time to head home for
dinner, and we still had another mile or two to go. At the top of the slope we found
ourselves on the edge of the plateau where Dragon was situated. A steep bank was all
that was separated us from the top. It was covered with dense brush. So we
looked for a break in the foliage where we could make the short ascent toward home.
In a few minutes we found our opening - a narrow ravine climbing gently toward the
plateau. We started up. As we neared the top there was a sudden explosion at
the front of the line. Booby-trap! And why not! We had ignored another
rule - never take the easy way, the trail, the rice dike, because those were the best
places to hide explosives. Charlie expected us to take the path of least resistance.
And today we didn't disappoint him.
A mine, similar to our Claymores, had been set to one side of this natural trail, with
a trip wire hidden in the brush. The mine contained dozens of metal pellets, which
had burst outward like a shotgun blast, cutting down the first three men. We moved
forward to help the injured. The first two were not seriously hurt, though of course
their wounds needed immediate attention. I called the base for help, and we soon had
a Medevac on the way.
A FNG (new guy), Patrick McGovern, was on point. He had been in
Vietnam only 25 days, and probably out in the field less than two weeks.
He had taken the full force of the blast. It shattered his M-16, shredding the fiberglass stock and twisting the metal barrel
at a crazy angle. The explosion had also detonated a white-phosphorous grenade
attached to his ammo belt. The explosion had killed him instantly, but
the phosphorous was burning fiercely, eating away at his
flesh, and the grenade was still firmly attached to his belt. We tried pushing the
grenade away with our rifles and with sticks, but it wouldn't break loose.
The heat caused his body to twitch
convulsively, but his eyes no longer contained any spark of life. A
dense white cloud rolled into the sky, and sparks sputtered as the white hot grenade
burned out of control, as it would continue to do for five minutes. The lieutenant
ordered the column back to spare others the gruesome sight.
We used white-phosphorous grenades to pinpoint targets. Their thick white column
of smoke was visible for miles. I always carried one or two. The grenades were
also great for tunnels. The acrid smoke polluted the air supply, killing anyone
within range. But, because of this incident, everyone except the RTOs stopped carrying them.
Soon the Medevac settled, we placed our point in a heavy green body bag and loaded him
aboard, and the chopper lifted off with our wounded, and with our KIA. (Killed In Action).
We picked ourselves up and started climbing the steep gravel bank - we weren't
going any further up that ravine. Once on top, we headed cross-country for Dragon as
the sun moved toward the horizon.
Twenty minutes later we reached the wire. We passed through the opening, removed
the magazines from our rifles and cleared the chambers. We crossed the twenty yards
to the berm, and we were home. At my bunker I took off the radio and the web gear
and headed for the Styrofoam cooler. Half a dozen soft drinks later, I began to feel
human again. All that walking built up a big thirst. Dinner was ready soon
after, and then the sun was down. The sky darkened quickly. There was just
time for a quick note to Sue.
We'd stay awake in the dark another few hours, cleaning equipment and talking, then
drift to sleep. The night would pass quickly except for a turn of guard duty.
Depending on the number of men in the bunker, we would stand guard for up to an hour and a
half. When our shift came, we sat peering into the night from the top of the bunker,
searching for any movement, listening for any sound.
And perhaps between dusk and dawn we would be awakened for a "Mad Minute".
We'd rouse sleepily, load our rifles and flick the safety. Then, for one
minute, everyone in the base fired as fast as he could shoot and reload, into the darkness
beyond the wire. The idea was to catch Charlie off guard in case he happened to be
sneaking in for an attack. It actually worked at one fire support base! Come
the dawn, dozens of bodies were found outside the wire where the Viet Cong had been
massing for a ground attack just as everyone opened up. Most of the time, though, it
was just another ten or fifteen minutes of lost sleep.
And then, too soon, the dawn would break quickly and it would be time to start another
long day of patrolling.