Stamps And Silk Stockings

 

This time our night ambush patrol started with a truck ride.  We loaded up outside fire base Emory on deuce-and-a-half trucks sent out from Cu Chi.   What a treat!  Riding sure beat walking and we hadn't done much riding lately.   We headed down the blacktop road toward the area we had worked the night before.

But our free ride ended all too soon.  Within thirty minutes the trucks pulled to the side and it was time to be infantry again.  The trucks swung across the road and turned back towards Cu Chi.  The drivers had done their bit for the war effort.   They were heading home for a hot shower and a real bed.

The company formed up and headed north and west, just opposite the direction we had gone the night before when First Platoon went astray.  Our captain was a wise man, or at least a quick learner.  Second Platoon led the way, with First in the middle accompanying the command group.  Third brought up the rear again.  This time we were putting experienced men in the lead - no getting lost tonight.

The Second was my old platoon.  Since I'd become company RTO, most of the men I'd known in Second Platoon were gone - either as casualties, re-enlistees, or men who'd transferred back to the "world".  But the platoon leader, SSG Richard Waite, was an old friend, as was Barbera, the platoon RTO.  Tom Barbera had started me out as a squad RTO.  Sarge had more combat experience than anyone else in the company.  For several months he had been the platoon leader - a position usually reserved for a first or second lieutenant.  Sarge was good at looking out for us.   He had taken us in and out of fights on single-platoon operations in the Ho Bo Woods.  He was young and capable, and it was good to have him in the lead tonight.

Two hours after dark we reached the drop off point.  Just like the night before we were to split up into squad-sized ambush groups, with each of the three platoons going off on a different tangent.  Barbera called to tell me that Second was heading off.   The command group sat and waited for thirty minutes, then we rose and started off.   For twenty minutes we moved slowly through the dark.  There was no overcast tonight.  Though the night was not bright, it was light enough to see outlines and shapes.

We paused for a break.  I radioed Second Platoon to check their progress.  At first I couldn't get any answer. I adjusted my flexible antenna and moved over a few feet.   A faint voice answered, but there was too much static for me to hear clearly.   The signal faded, then returned.  Now for a moment I could hear Barbera clearly.   All O.K.  They were still moving forward toward their ambush position.

Suddenly someone whispered, "What's that!"  We all turned to look.   Less than one hundred meters away, silhouetted against the night sky, a column of soldiers was marching parallel to us, going in the opposite direction.  No one moved.   It was absolutely quiet, except for one GI who had taken advantage of the break to heed nature's call - in the sudden stillness it sounded as loud as Niagara Falls.

I renewed my efforts to call Second Platoon.  Like a nightmare, last night seemed to be happening all over again.  Yet could it be my trusted Sarge, who always knew his way, who always managed to get us back, had gotten turned around in the dark?  It seemed so, for in the silhouettes ahead there was the inevitable rifle thrown over one shoulder like a shovel - the trademark of some GIs.  And the big guy in the middle surely had to be our machine gunner.  If we could only yell out to them in the dark.

The radio was useless.  I couldn't reach them.  Bits and pieces of conversation went back and forth, but I couldn't keep their signal long enough to tell them what was happening.  The captain was not a man to use strong language, but he was cursing now.  It wouldn't be proper to print what he was thinking about Sarge at that moment.

Then, just as a clear voice came over the handset, the last of the men moved out of sight.  The captain took the handset and told Second to turn around, they were going the wrong way.  Sarge must have told him it wasn't so, for the captain began telling how we'd just seen them pass going the other way.  Then, as the captain spoke, a second group of silhouettes appeared in front of us.  Silence reigned again.  At that moment I think we all sensed the truth - wherever Second Platoon was, it wasn't here in front of us.  The enemy was.  And in much greater strength than our command group.

The second group passed, and a third appeared in its place.  At this point our intention was to avoid a fight, for we were clearly outnumbered.  It was time to call in air support.  If the enemy column had not had a flank group running interference, we'd have let them pass without challenge.  But as we huddled watching the enemy file past, three men appeared out of the darkness right in front us.  Safeties clicked.   A dozen M-16's fired on full automatic into the enemy.   Yellow-red flashes illuminated the three as they fell dead to the ground.  Now we turned and fired at the column in front of us.  They immediately returned fire, and a hail of bullets snapped over our heads.  It is difficult to shoot accurately at night - there's no target, just flashes in the dark.  The distance is hard to calculate.  So round after round may go high or too low.  If we had killed as many enemy as we had fired bullets, there would probably have been no one left alive in all of Southeast Asia, North as well as South Vietnam.

Wham!  Ten feet in front of us a rocket propelled grenade exploded with a brilliant flash of light.  Unseen in the dark, a three foot high rice paddy dike had saved us from a direct hit.  I slapped another magazine into my rifle and fired bursts at the enemy.  I was standing directly behind the captain, and with each volley of shots, the captain's head, just beneath my muzzle, dropped another foot.   Wham!  Another rocket blasted the dike in front of us, showering us with dirt.   The captain ordered everyone to pull back and take cover, and started off in a low crawl towards the rear.  He had my handset gripped in his clenched fist.  Pulled off my feet as the handset ran out of cord, I stumbled and crawled to keep up with him.

We weren't getting anywhere very fast - I was crawling right on top of his legs (Hey, there are only about five feet of cord!).  We laughed about it later, but at the time we were scrambling as fast as we could.  We reached the security of another dike, higher than the first, and took up defensive positions.  The captain called for the Third Platoon to move up on the right, so as to avoid the firefight and yet reinforce our position.  He had Second find cover and set up for the night.

The shooting stopped as quickly as it had begun.  Now we had to wonder.  Were they coming for us?  Or racing on in the direction they had been headed?   Perhaps they were drawing back the way they had come, thinking the way was blocked.   The captain decided to move back out of the area, and wait for dawn to check it out.

North Vietnam Postage StampWhile he discussed the situation with his platoon leaders and conferred with Battalion, we examined the bodies of the flank team.  Each was loaded with supplies.   They carried bulging backpacks, the kind we used to carry as Boy Scouts.   We inventoried the contents.  These guys were headed to Saigon, no question about it.  Silk stockings, handkerchiefs, presents for the ladies!  We found the usual, too - clothes and food.  Two of them even carried postage stamps.   They were North Vietnamese stamps in different denominations.  The stamps had patriotic designs on them, such as Lenin, eyes firmly planted forward to the future, with heroic soldiers below.

I was surprised to find they needed to pay postage to send letters home.  Ours went free.  The Communist government conscripted the men to send south, then charged them to communicate with their families back north.  What a racket!

North Vietnam Postage StampOur stamp collecting came to a halt as the captain ordered us out.  Quickly we picked up our gear and headed west, away from the battleground.  We moved back for about fifteen minutes, then waited for Third Platoon to join us.  We set up for the night.  The captain radioed our new position to Battalion HQ and asked for artillery support in the areas to our rear.  One of the frustrations of fighting near the inhabited areas was the clearance needed before artillery could be used.  First came the military clearance.  We had to be sure no other American units were in the area.   Next came the ARVN clearance - though unlikely, it was always possible one of their units was on the ground nearby.  And then came the civilian clearance.  Were any inhabited areas within the target area?  When clearance was finally granted, there was often no need to use it any more.  The enemy soldiers would be long gone.

Half an hour after we asked for artillery we received clearance.  Several batteries opened up from the fire bases nearby.  Sector by sector the big shells pounded away, now nearer, now farther away.  Whether they had any effect we never knew - we didn't find any bodies the next day.  After the shelling ceased we settled down for the night, glad for a chance to relax.  The normal night noises resumed their patient rhythm.  The ground was not as dry as the night before.  It was hard to find a bare spot to lie on that was not soggy.  But fatigue can overcome any hardship.  I lay on the damp ground and started to sleep.

Before I had a chance to drift off, a volley of AK rifle shots cracked over our heads.   They sounded close.  Fearing the worst, we didn't return fire - they probably didn't know where we were, and were trying to get us to give ourselves away by shooting.   They had circled back just as we had, and now were caught behind us.  Their whole unit had retreated instead of continuing on.  Too bad.  They'd had it made.  The road to Saigon was open and we had no other forces ahead of them.

The captain quietly called for air support.  Within minutes a Cobra team arrived.   We set up strobes in our helmets, and with our company clearly in sight, the ships opened fire.  They unloaded their mini-guns and then their rockets on the hedgerows beyond us.  When they were empty they turned back, leaving us to fend for ourselves.   The captain decided to hold tight right where we were.  And as it turned out, that was just the thing to do.  It was now three in the morning, and the enemy troops were already heading back to their hiding places, trying to reach them before dawn.   We would have no more trouble with them this night.

I fell asleep to wake three hours later in a puddle of water.  The ground was so soft that I had slowly been sinking into it.  Since the water table was at ground level, I had also been sinking into the water.  I rose out of the shallow hole, about three inches deep.  I left behind a perfect silhouette of the sleeping giant.   Once again I was ahead of my time - using water beds years before they were to become popular in the States.

We had no food with us so there was no breakfast.  As soon as it was light we spread out and began to search for bodies.  We started with the immediate area where the Cobras had hunted.  We checked the hedgerows and found where the shooting had occurred - lines of bullet tracks told the story.  We discovered a cap with a red star on the front - one of the enemy had left it behind in his haste.  But there were no signs of hits.

Ranging further afield we checked the area where the flank team had run into us.   The bodies were still there.  A pickup team would come for them later.   The unseen rice dike which had probably saved our lives was pock-marked from small arms fire.  The two rocket hits had left foot-deep holes in the mud wall, the first about a foot off the ground, the other about two feet.  If not for the dike, the rockets would have landed at our feet, or hit one of us kneeling on the ground - we had been packed pretty closely together in the dark.  Of course the same luck had served the enemy - the rice dikes protected both sides.  We paced off the distance to their position - it was sixty meters away.  They had looked much farther away than that.   But that's because at first we had assumed they were GIs and therefore much bigger - so they'd have had to be further away to look so small!

There was no sign of casualties. The VC and NVA always took their dead and wounded with them, as did we.  But sometimes a trail of blood told us we'd done some damage.

The captain, following battalion orders, turned us down the enemy escape route.   It was going to be another long morning.  We searched slowly back into the brush, looking for indications of the march.  The trail was clear - so many men moving in a column leaves a path of crushed grass and broken twigs.  Before long Second Platoon joined us.  They had reached their assigned ambush position just as the shooting started.  They had held their position all night without seeing anything.

Gunboat Prowls The RiverThinking back on the size of the enemy column, and on our planned squad-sized ambush units, things turned out pretty well for us after all.  If we had been set up in eight or nine man groups when the enemy moved through, there would have been casualties - ours.  We couldn't have massed our firepower. It would have been eight against a hundred or more. Bad odds.

It was ten o'clock when an armored personnel company roared into the area to take over the search.  With them was Charlie Company of our own battalion.  By then we had moved into a swampy area, close to the river.  Their hunt would be a tiring one.  For us, the day was over.  Just a quick hour's march back to the highway, wait half an hour for the trucks, and then home in time for lunch.  And then - sleep!  A good three hours of it.

 

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Stamps And Silk Stockings:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Riverboat Picture Copyright 1995 Bob Lindgren
Last modified: March 02, 1995