The Only Good Leech Is A Dead Leech!

 

After our night run-in with the enemy company, most of us would probably not have volunteered for more night ambush patrols.  But this is where the Army was really clever - they didn't ask us if we wanted to go.  They just told us.  And so, tonight, we were going out again.  Intelligence reports told us the enemy force was still holed up, trying to find a way out of the trap they had gotten themselves into.   While other units set up ambushes where we'd been the night before, we were going to walk in from another direction.  No trucks tonight.

By dark we had walked several miles, and an hour later we started descending slowly, and soon found ourselves in foot-deep water.  We couldn't see a thing.  We assumed we were in a flooded rice paddy, though that was odd, because most of the surrounding fields were bone dry.  As we moved forward, the water got deeper.   Soon we were up to our waists, and moving very slowly.

Crossing Deep WaterThe captain was concerned that we were still wading, for his map showed no large body of water in the area we were to be passing through.  He called the lead squad and told them to take a hard right and get up out of the water.  The column turned.   The water got deeper.  It was chest high now - some of the shorter guys were in almost up to their necks!  For fifteen or twenty minutes we went on, but not very fast or far.  Even with all my gear I still could have swum faster than we were walking, but at least the weight kept me from floating.

The captain, really perplexed now, called ahead and told the column to go left again, and we did.  The water level went down as we went up.  But it was still waist deep.  We weren't making much progress.  For the next hour or so we twisted and turned - to no avail.  Everywhere we went there was water!  It seemed as if we were walking in a lake - but there was no lake on the map.

At this point, the Captain was ready to settle for any piece of dry ground, so we could set up for the night.  At last his prayers were answered.  We moved up out of the water onto a flat piece of land.  The platoons spread out and prepared to spend what was left of the night right where we were.  We put Claymores on the far side of a six-inch rice dike just in front of our position.  We laid out our ammo and rifles.   Then we got down to serious business.

Walking slowly through the deep water for two hours had made us unwitting hosts to hundreds of big, black leeches!  I had nearly a dozen of them on me.  These leeches were big ones; even in the blackness they stood out.

Anyone who has traveled in warm, slow-moving water is familiar with these friendly little fellows.  They grab hold and dig in for the duration!  I know of only two or three ways to remove them.  The first is to just rip them off.  Ouch!   Its fast but painful.  And it breaks the skin and blood pours out.  A second, less painful way (if you don't miss) is to touch them with the smoldering end of a cigarette - they curl up and let go instantly - then you just brush them off.  But in a war zone, where an enemy might be watching, a glowing cigarette can be seen more than a quarter of a mile away.  Too risky.  A third technique, and new to this war as far as I know, is to squirt a drop of mosquito repellent on them.  It stings and burns something awful.  And it feels the same way to the leech.

All in all it was just more lost sleep.  We were just settling in about one o'clock when we heard that an ARVN outpost had spotted enemy movement to the south of our position.  Everyone woke up and got ready.  We lay flat on the ground behind our tiny foot-high dike.  We had to wait another half hour, and then, from in front of us, came the soft sound of footsteps.

Our company was set up in an "L" shape, with a ninety degree angle in the middle.  My old Second Platoon was there, with SSgt. Richard Waite in charge.  He was on the right flank of the ambush.  Claymores had been set up,  aimed in two directions.  As usual,  the men placed the mines one rice dike away, on the far side so the blowback would not hit anyone.   We had our backs to the water we had come through and didn't expect any trouble from that direction.

The footsteps got louder.  And then we saw several men approaching.   Silhouetted against the sky, they were moving slowly towards us.  About twenty-five feet away, they stopped.  The enemy point man turned and started walking down the top of the next rice dike just in front Sergeant Waite's position - inside the line of Claymores.   The mines were useless to us now.  Would the enemy trip on one of the wires?   Carefully, the leader felt his way in the dark, and one by one the men behind followed, about five feet apart.

Now we could see that except for the leader, each man was carrying something big on his shoulder.  It was a re-supply column for the enemy unit we'd intercepted.  Of course!  They must be running out of food!  Through their local VC contacts word had gone out to bring in more, and here it came, in the form of big sacks of rice.

As the column moved along, we could now count five, eight, twelve men.  More were still coming out of the dark.  We waited for the word to open fire.  The only sound in the night was sandals against the dirt ground, and an occasional muffled grunt.   Then the line stopped.  The leader stood against the sky, looking.  He turned towards us.  Why didn't we shoot!  Then he stepped down off the dike and started right for our line.  Sarge rose up on his knees and fired point blank - a full magazine on automatic.  With that, the spell was broken and we all opened up on the enemy.  In an instant they had disappeared from sight and were probably crawling away at high speed.  We hit the Claymores.   Loud explosions filled the air.  We kept reloading and firing for several minutes.  A few of us threw grenades out into the dark, just in case.

Then the firing died away.  Many of the men were out of ammo - they'd given it everything they had.  The M-16 can fire 650 rounds of ammo per minute.  Since the average GI carried about ten magazines, it didn't take long to run out on full automatic.  The captain called for a re-supply chopper, gunships, and a flare ship.  Those who had it passed out ammo so everybody had at least one more magazine.

Now it was quiet.  When the dark and the night-silence settle back around you after a firefight, it gets lonely and spooky.  You start hearing noises.  Its easy to visualize enemy soldiers creeping up with knives between their teeth.   However long it was before the re-supply came, it would seem an eternity.   Without enough ammo we would be defenseless.

So when the re-supply chopper whirled in, there was a general sigh of relief.  It swept the area with its searchlights, and then hovered over us to unload its cargo.   The men aboard threw out cases of grenades, and ammo for the M-16s, the grenade launchers and the M-60 machine gun.   We ripped the cases open and loaded empty magazines.  Everyone helped themselves to extras.  We were invincible again.  Now let them come!

The flare plane arrived soon after.  One at a time bright parachute flares floated to earth.  They lit up the entire area.  We could see a handful of bodies littering the ground.  The leader was just an arm's length away.  Large sacks of rice stretched in a trail back along the route the enemy had come from.  As many as twenty men had been in the column.  Only a few of them had had weapons.  They may not even have been VC, but local villagers "recruited" just before jump-off time.

Nothing more happened that night.  The gunships searched back along the trail, but there was no firing.  Wherever the rest had gone, they had gone quickly.  When dawn came we checked the immediate area for more bodies.  We found one soldier still alive and immediately a Medevac was dispatched with an interpreter.  Battalion wanted him alive and they wanted information.  We could see in the daylight what had happened in the dark.  The leader had been walking slowly along when he had run into an ancient strand of barbed wire.  He couldn't advance further, and couldn't figure out what it was doing there, so he had turned to go around it.

The biggest surprise of all was behind us, where we had felt protected by the lake.   We looked in disbelief.  There was nothing but level ground in all directions.   Dry ground.  And meandering through it, now turning this way, now that, was a small muddy stream.  It looked hardly wide enough to walk in.  Yet for two hours, we had fully believed we'd found a lake.  Every time we had turned in the darkness, the stream had turned.  We were never more than a few feet from the banks all the way.  The hapless point man was the butt of our jokes for weeks to come.

Packing up our gear, we started to backtrack down the cold enemy trail.  From time to time we came across footprints - I swear some were about five or six feet apart - someone was running hard.  We also found traces of blood - we had hit more than we found.  The trail led into a village, and we spread out to search the hootches.   In the fields just outside the village we came across newly turned ground.  We sometimes dug up the graves we found to see what was inside.  Sometimes they really were graves, but other times they were weapons caches, or even nothing at all.   Fortunately, we skipped it today.  We found nothing else incriminating.   Of the twenty or so men in the column, maybe half had died or been wounded.

The village was just a stone's throw from the highway.  After a short wait the Cu Chi express arrived and hauled us back to our fire base.  You guessed it.  We arrived just before noon.  Time for lunch and our afternoon nap.  What a lazy bunch we were!

 

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The Only Good Leech Is A Dead Leech!:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Last modified: March 02, 1995