One thing Vietnam had plenty of was bugs! Spiders, ants (red and
black, big and little), centipedes, scorpions, flies, bees and wasps abounded. There
were pink ones, green and yellow ones, blue and white ones, spotted, dotted, black and
mottled ones. The hot humid climate was ideal for them. Most of the time they
left us alone. But it wasn't always possible for us to leave them alone, and that's
when we got into trouble.
Take the little ants, for example. They are no bigger than a minute - perhaps an
eighth of an inch long, if that. Thousands live together in large colonies.
They often build their homes into the walls of rice paddy dikes. During the rainy
season when the paddies are flooded, their homes are surrounded by water on two
sides. You'd think the ants would build on higher, dryer ground - but when you're
that little, maybe its hard to see far enough to know what's higher!
I know only too well where they live because of a certain night patrol. We set up
our ambush on flat land with dry rice paddies stretching in all directions. The rice
dikes were ten or twelve inches high. Just the right height to rest your chin on, as
you lay on the ground and peered into the dark searching for enemy soldiers. Which
is just what I did. I leaned my M-16 against the dike, and
put my ammo bag beside it. Then I folded my arms on top of the dike and rested my
chin on my hands.
It takes a few minutes to get accustomed to the night shadows and patterns.
Suddenly I noticed the ants. How did I see them in the dark? I didn't.
My chin, neck and upper chest were suddenly on fire. And just that quickly I guessed
why. I sat bolt upright and began rubbing the burning area with my hands, brushing them
off and crushing the rest into oblivion as fast as I could. I ripped my shirt off
and yelled (in as loud a whisper as I could manage) "Look out for the ants!"
But by the sudden movements around me I knew the warning was too late. I
continued to rub furiously until I could feel my skin was rid of the little pests.
It's true they were there first, and it was I who invaded their territory . . . but I sure
wish I could have told them I didn't mean to! The next morning I surveyed the
damage. My chest and neck were red and slightly swollen from hundreds of tiny bites.
The little ants made a lasting enough impression, but there were also big ants in
Vietnam. Big black ones and big red ones. After a single encounter, the red
ants were the ones you'd never forget. Their color is striking, but it's their
pincers that make them memorable.
We usually encountered red ants in brushy areas, such as a hedgerow of low bushes and
bamboo clumps placed between two open fields. Sometimes we spotted them first,
scavenging for food on the leaves or twigs. But usually we didn't. After all,
we were more concerned about booby-trap trip wires and Viet Cong waiting in ambush.
When inadvertently disturbed, the ants dropped from the leaves onto our uniforms, or
into the olive drab bath towels we wore around our necks. Perhaps half the column
would make it through the hedgerow in apparent safety. Then suddenly the lead men
would be galvanized into frenzied action - something resembling a native fire-dance
accompanied by loud cursing and shouting. That was our clue we had hit ants.
As soon as you'd brushed away all the ants that were biting,, another one would venture
out of hiding and attack, and then another. We'd strip off ammo, towels, and
shirts. We'd shake every item of clothing again and again. But it was almost a
law - you always missed one. It bided its time, crawled out and took a death-grip on
your skin. I learned to pay attention when I went through heavy brush. We
didn't get shot at nearly as often as we got bitten!
I had a theory about why they bite. Several times I noticed that ants nearly
blown off a leaf by the wind grabbed hold of the leaf with their pincers to keep from
falling. Grabbing hold of things seemed to be a natural instinct, and not revenge or
self-defense. The only flaw in my theory was this: why, when no longer in danger of
falling, did they sneak out of some fold of cloth and launch one last kamikaze attack?
I came to believe in a corollary to the theory - they did it for revenge, pure and
With all the variety of insects and bugs in Vietnam, the last we expected to have
trouble with was bees. We were patrolling the rugged country near a large river.
We climbed out of the chest high grass of an abandoned rice paddy to enter a
forested area. The point man started in. The next man followed, five steps
behind. They moved slowly, watching for booby-traps. One by one, the column
disappeared into the forest.
Six men had
slipped from sight when there was a wild scream, followed by the sound of branches
breaking and bushes rustling. Not knowing what to expect, we scattered like quail
running for cover, our rifles ready to fire at the first target. The last man to
enter the forest scrambled back out at a trot. The next man followed close
behind. Then the third and fourth, vying for first place. With the last two
came a thick, black cloud of infuriated bees. Those of us nearest the trees turned
and ran for deeper water. The point man dived from the bank into the tall grass and
water to flee his tormentors.
It was like a scene from some silent comedy, with grown men running through tall grass,
flapping their arms and diving into the water. But it was all too serious. The
point and his backup received so many stings that we called a Medevac to fly them to Cu
Chi for treatment. Later, when things finally quieted down, we started forward
again, being careful to choose a different direction.