The typical description of combat is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. My experience was more like long periods of exhausting physical exertion underlain with constant tension. I never experienced those moments of sheer terror. My unit never got hit. Or more accurately, I was never hit. So I ended up spending about five months–mid January to mid June 1971–wandering around the jungle, loaded with weaponry and gear, fully expecting the shit to hit the fan. It never did. And then I was assigned to a rear job as company clerk in June. I call that luck beyond belief.
Life in the infantry was amazingly routine. My battalion was assigned to a series of forward firebases. A firebase
was a patch of ground scraped from the jungle. The base had six 105 mm howitzers to provide artillery support, communications, medical, supply, a mess tent and a landing zone for the helicopters. The base was enclosed by a dirt berm punctuated with bunkers and surrounded by triple strands of concertina wire. The battalion’s four infantry companies patrolled from firebase with artillery cover from the howitzers. Patrols were usually three weeks long followed by a week on the base providing perimeter security.
I was always happy to be on the firebase. It meant daily mail, hot meals, cold beer and soda, showers, a break from patrol and the opportunity to smoke a lot of pot (which we never did on patrol). And while a firebase was far less secure than the 1st Cavalry’s main base at Bien Hoa
, I usually felt pretty safe on a firebase. We were never attacked other than a few sporadic incoming rounds. Life on the firebase was typical Army, with work details, ambush patrols and at one base, sweeping the access road for mines and securing the road for the daily supply convoy. Not too bad.
Life on patrol, “in the bush” or “humping the boonies”, was also routine but far riskier. Presumably, we were out to find, engage and destroy the enemy so I lived expecting the world to explode on me at any moment. But that never did happen. Sheer luck–all the other infantry companies were ambushed at least once during my time in the field. That’s where the constant tension comes in–just waiting for something to happen, wondering how I will react, wondering what will happen to me. That’s pretty wearing. It certainly left me uneasy.
But somehow I managed to stow that tension and uneasiness in the back of my mind and concentrate on my immediate situation. I made sure that I followed the guy in front of me. If he hadn’t tripped a booby trap, I had some assurance that following his footsteps would be reasonably safe. I concentrated on keeping up, on walking in the sweltering heat under the weight of my pack, which was about 65 pounds and increased another 20 pounds when I began carrying a PRC-77 radio and two extra brick-size batteries. Never before had I done anything remotely requiring this level of physical effort. In many respects, all that effort probably kept me from being scared totally shitless.
Combat patrol was amazingly routine, at least that’s my recollection 35 years later. At first light, everyone went out to retrieve the trip flares we set up in front of our claymore mines
the night before. After that I fired up a canteen cup of hot chocolate (the instant coffee in the ration packs sucked). I had a little stove made by cutting both ends from a short C-ration can and punching holes around the sidewall with my church key. I could heat water with a heat tab or chunk of C-4 plastic explosive (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C-4_%28explosive%29). Some mornings I might actually heat up some C-ration ham and eggs but mostly I are cornflake bars that came as a side in the ration packs. I packed up as quickly as I could and made a trip outside the perimeter to take a dump. This was one of the most uneasy moments of my day, squatting over a cat hole, pants down, M-16 at the ready. Somehow, I didn’t feel that I would be particularly effective defending myself in that position although I’m pretty sure my bowels would have emptied fast.
Just before heading out, we retrieved our claymores. Then we walked. I never really knew where we were going most days until I became a radio operator. Much of the time I was in the field, the battalion was patrolling an area in the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annamite_Rangenortheast of Bien Hoa. Most days were just walking, walking, walking through the jungel, which looked more like a forest than jungle to me. When I could put aside the effort needed to walk and look at my surroundings, I was amazed at their beauty. Sometimes they reminded me of Virginia’s mountains.
My company avoided roads and trails, so we didn’t have to deal with booby traps. Instead we crashed through the brush. Since I never walked point, enough guys preceded me so there was a bit of trail. Still, it was hard going, especially in the heat with all that weight on my back. Climbing was especially difficult. We did a lot of that in the mountains. We took breaks, either for rest or while the officers and NCO’s tried to figure out where we were. Lunch was something like cold pork slices or maybe peanut butter and jelly on a bread roll (all available in C-rations). Then more walking. Occasionally we set up ambushes or came out of the wood line to Route 1. If we were on Route 1 we were soon visited by Vietnamese selling ice cream, soda and fruit. The sodas were a buck (remember, this is 1971) but they were cold and worth it.
One area we patrolled came to be known as Happy Flour Valley because of all the food caches, mainly flour, we found there. Somebody said that the flour showed how desperate the enemy was since their preferred food was rice. I’ll leave that judgment to historians. When possible, we called in helicopters to haul out the flour. Otherwise we scattered it, turning the jungle and us white. Nothing like a coating of flour on a hot sticky, day
Depending on the day’s activity we would set up our night defensive perimeter anywhere from late afternoon to almost dark. Ideally, the later the better since that gave the VC and NVA less opportunity to fix our position. Regardless of the time, we immediately set our claymores, running the detonator wires back to each squad’s watch point. Then dinner. I usually ate freeze dried dinners that came in LRP rations (lightweight rations originally issued to Long Range Patrol teams but by now available to us regular grunts). They were simple to fix–boil water pour into packet, let hydrate for five minutes–better tasting and lighter than canned C-rations. My bed was an air mattress on my poncho with a camouflage poncho liner for warmth. Some guys strung hammocks between trees, slung low and tight. Second platoon slept on the ground; their LT insisted that hammocks and even air mattresses left them vulnerable to incoming. If we had light, I would read a before turning in.
At dark, we put trip flares in front of our claymores so that anyone approaching our perimeter would set off a flare after which the watch would detonate a claymore on them. After dark, I would listen to radio–the Armed Forces Vietnam Network–through my earplug. Sometime during the night, I stood watch, monitoring the radio and keeping a lookout for trip flares going off. None ever did on my watch but I knew that if a flare went off, I would start popping all the claymores. It would have been a sight.
Surprisingly, I slept well most nights. Aside from waking up for watch, not much disturbed me that I can recall. Well, there was one night (http://unsolicitedopinion.blogspot.com/2006/04/one-night.html) but otherwise I took some comfort that I wasn’t alone in the dark jungle in a war zone. Strange, but I somehow managed to turn the whole combat experience into a routine. I’m sure it would have been much different had I come under direct attack but I never did.
Dawn began a new day that pretty much repeated the previous one.