Turnabout Is Fair Play?

 

We left the wire about an hour before dark - we had a lot of walking to do.  Tonight we would be on the move until eleven or midnight, then set up our ambush.  We followed the road for a few miles, then headed cross-country.  The land was flat with an intricate pattern of rice dikes.  The paddies were still dry, but the rainy season was not far off.  Dikes of different heights kept the walk from becoming boring.  There were the usual patches of trees, like islands on a vast ocean of brown.  From a distance they gave the impression of continuous forest, but as one walked closer the feeling of a solid wall gave way to open plains with a new wall of forest off in the distance.  Seen from above the terrain was open and flat with forested squares planted irregularly about it.

As night fell it became very dark.  There was no moon out, and a thick overcast concealed the stars that might have provided a modest light.  Now the rice paddy dikes became more than just a feature of the terrain.  Our speed decreased so that we wouldn't find all of them the hard way.

At 9:00, the captain called a halt.  The evening's plans called for First Platoon (now walking at the front of the column), to move out on a tangent to our present course, walk till about eleven, and set up their position for the night.  Then Second Platoon and the command group, after waiting half an hour, would move straight ahead until the scheduled time and set up its position.  Third Platoon was to move out at ten o'clock on a third tangent and assume its position.  When everyone was in place we would be spread out in a wide fan, set up in squad-sized ambushes, to catch any enemy that might be coming through the area.

First platoon started off, and was soon swallowed up by the dark.  As we waited for our turn to leave, I monitored the radio, keeping track of first platoon as they moved slowly away.  Then at nine-thirty the captain gave the order to move out, while third platoon waited behind.  We moved slowly, cautiously out into the dark.

About ten-thirty we got a call from First Platoon.  They had spotted movement.   That told us First Platoon had already set up for the night, and was now using their starlight scope, though in this dark it would provide scant help.  The captain took the handset and talked in a low voice to get the details.

We quickly took up defensive positions right where we were.  The Second Platoon's squads spread out, and planted their Claymore mines.  We called for air support and artillery flares.  Then we scanned the fields around us with the starlight scope, but saw nothing.

First Platoon still had the enemy in sight - they told us they could see them clearly moving right towards us.  The minutes passed slowly as we waited for the inevitable.   Word passed up and down the line again and again as the enemy came nearer.   Suddenly a squad sergeant caught movement on his scope just to our right flank.   Everyone switched their gaze in that direction.

There was only an occasional whisper now, and the busy activity on the radio as the captain worried his sergeants for more information.  But still no one made contact.   Then another squad reported the enemy - running right at us!  They were still just out of range, on the limits of the starlight scope's vision, but there nonetheless.   They should hit any moment.

We tensed for the fight.  The first of the Cobra teams raced in, fast and quiet.   They radioed for us to "light up".  I turned my helmet upside down, and placed the strobe light inside.  That way the beam was hidden to anyone around us but bright and clear to our friends upstairs.  After making one pass the pilot radioed to tell us the situation as it looked from the air.  He had the three platoons identified - the third, still far in the rear, and the two of us in a forward position.  But he reported he could see no enemy as yet.Cobra Gunship

The captain and the Cobra pilot began a lively discussion, with the captain explaining just where the enemy should be positioned based on the planned ambush sites and how he'd better spot them fast as they were just about to overrun us.  Perhaps with two platoons on the ground it was hard to tell just who was doing the talking - the pilot still couldn't locate the enemy.

Impatiently the captain called the squads for updates.  Now came another surprise.   The right most squad had lost sight of the enemy.  The other squads reported the same!  We had to wonder if Charlie was hiding from the choppers - just a few yards away! In the quietest of whispers word was passed down the line again: be ready for anything - make no noise, make no move.

The Cobras swept past us.  The captain radioed to tell the Cobras when they were over us.  Both did a quick circle and flew by again, only to report they saw nothing.   The Cobras decided to sweep further out, with searchlights on.  In ever-widening circles they combed the empty rice paddies looking for a target.  A second team came on station and joined the search near a forest in the distance.   They even sprayed the trees with minigun fire in case the enemy had retreated there.  Nothing.  Not a single shot was fired in return.

The silence seemed to grow, the darkness to deepen.  Tension filled the air.   The inactivity plus not knowing ached like a tooth.  At this moment the enemy could be crawling forward to surprise us.  More than half an hour had passed since the first sighting.

It was almost a relief when suddenly First Platoon spotted movement again.  Right in front of us.  The choppers immediately responded to the new report and started back.  At this point, we were about to open fire whether we could see them or not.   But then the captain, ready to give the word, hesitated, preferring to wait until the Cobras were in position.  Just as he was about to open fire, he got the chopper's report:  no enemy - nothing moving - absolutely nothing!

You can imagine our frustration.  They had to be there, right in front of us, but the choppers couldn't see them.  The pilot asked us to check the azimuth.  The captain replied that the enemy unit was no more than forty or fifty meters directly east of our strobe lights, and that the Cobra was almost over our heads.  The pilot replied, "Due east?  Fifty meters?  Don't fire!  That's your own unit, no more than a hundred meters away!  I've got their strobes right in front of me!"

I couldn't see the look on the captain's face - it was too dark.  But for almost a full hour we had been sighting down our gun barrels at the First Platoon.  Someone couldn't follow a compass.  First had taken the same path that we were on instead of veering off on the assigned tangent.  And they had stopped and set up  ambush an hour before they were supposed to - and then had seen us moving forward towards them.  Where all the sightings of "enemy soldiers running straight at us" ever came from, we never knew.  But it's a miracle we weren't blasted as we set up our Claymores, for theirs were only a few dozen yards from ours.   And when the Cobras arrived, First Platoon had hunkered down just like us, so our "enemy" disappeared at the same moment theirs did.

We had come so close to firing!  On the positive side, when things finally quieted down we got some sleep.  No enemy within miles would have ventured out while those Cobra teams were sweeping the skies.  And, as it turned out, we probably kept the enemy bottled up one more night.   But the very next night we found all the ones we had imagined, and more.

 

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Turnabout Is Fair Play?:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Last modified: March 02, 1995