by Ski Ingram
Date: July 1971
Place: RVN (Republic of Viet Nam)
Unit: N Company 75th Rangers, 173rd Airborne Brigade
We were cleaning up after typhoon Alice when we discovered our movie projector at the bottom of a pile of wood that used to be the Ranger club and movie theater. Without a movie projector of our own we had to go into the 4th of the 503rd infantry’s area to see a movie. The problem with that were the fights. Every time we Rangers went into their area a fight broke out. I don’t know why that was. It could have been that we (Rangers) were allowed to dress in camouflage fatigues, and they weren’t? We wore black berets’, and they didn’t? We went on very dangerous missions, and they didn’t? We considered ourselves superior to them and they didn’t like it and when we went to the movie, we kicked everyone out of the best seats so we could watch the movie? Well, whatever the reason, the Rangers needed to get a movie projector of their own.
One day in June I drove Major William Shippy, the Ranger company Commander, to Phu Cat Air Force base. As we drove onto the Base we were stopped by an MP at the gate. He wanted to confiscate the Major’s gun as an illegal weapon. He carried a Swedish “K” fully automatic weapon with a silencer that extended the barrel about 8 inches. It was a formidable looking weapon and lots of fun to shoot. Anyway this “idiot private” wanted to take it away from the Major. The Major wouldn’t let it go, after all it was a fine gun. I don’t really remember what was said, but I do remember what we did. I got out of the driver’s seat of the jeep and walked over to the passenger side where the MP was talking to Major Shippy, who was still seated in the passenger seat with the barrel of his weapon pointing at the Idiot. Before I knew it Captain Hancock, who was sitting in the back seat of the jeep was out and standing near me. We had the idiot MP surrounded. All three of us were wearing camouflaged fatigues and Black berets. With our weapons pointed in the direction of this stupid MP listening to Major Shippy explain why he wasn’t going to give up his gun.
A short time later another officer came by and took the MP away. I then got in the jeep and drove Major Shippy to his appointment. As we drove down the street Captain Hancock asked Major Shippy what he planned to do if the other officer hadn’t come by. Major Shippy said without hesitation “I don’t know, but he wasn’t getting my gun.”
Later that day, while Major Shippy and Captain Hancock were in their meeting I ran into an Air Force Master Sergeant named Langston who was stationed at Phu Cat. I don’t know how it happened, but I found out that he had a few extra movie projectors lying around, so I asked him if he could let me have one. He told me that he couldn’t do it then, but that he would call me later in a month or so and let me know if he could get me one or not. I walked away thinking he was blowing smoke up my “you know what” and left.
A few days later I got a package from home. In it were about two hundred balloons. Who sent them and why I don’t remember, but here they were. Now, what to do with them? A few days later it was July 4th. To celebrate, the Rangers were having a Bar-B-Que. I don’t remember what we had to eat except for the turkey and the eggs. We didn’t have any charcoal, so we burned scrap wood that was lying around the compound. We began to Bar-B-Que the turkey and boil the eggs, all 144 of them. When I tasted the turkey, I realized that the green paint of the boards we used for fuel was lead paint and spit out my first bite. Many of the other guys were pretty drunk and didn’t notice that the turkey tasted bad.
After the party really got going someone got a hold of my balloons and filled some with water. After they threw a couple at someone the fight was on. Before we knew it, we were all throwing water balloons at each other. Even the Major and the other officers got into the act. The only problem was there was only one water point, or place to fill the balloons. It was the Major’s idea to call a halt to the fight until everyone could get their balloons filled with water. Somewhere along the way someone started throwing hard boiled eggs. It was a free for all, officers and enlisted men tossing water balloons and hard-boiled eggs at each other. It was great fun and quite a sight to see. Here was a whole company of Airborne Rangers, men trained to kill with their bare hands, having the biggest water balloon and hardboiled egg fight of the Viet Nam war.
The next morning Johnny Vaught and I were the only sober people on “Ranger Hill”. We woke up to find hard boiled eggs cooking in the hot Vietnamese sun. We also found that everyone else were either drunk or sick from eating the turkey or both. It fell to Johnny and me to clean up the mess.
Johnny Vaught and were talking about hand grenades and smoke grenades one night. We knew that if you put a smoke grenade fuse in a hand grenade, the grenade would blow up immediately, after pulling the pin and letting go of the spoon, instead of waiting the 4-5 seconds it normally took. This was very useful when setting up booby traps.
The enemy would use American hand grenades in their booby traps. They would pull the pin and then slide it into an empty can which would hold the spoon in place. They would then tie a string or wire to the grenade and the other end to a tree. Anyone walking by and not seeing the thing and tripping over the wire would pull the grenade out of the can thus allowing the spoon to go free, thereby releasing the striker and arming the grenade.
You then had 4-5 seconds to run as fast as you could away from the booby trap. It was very effective in scaring everyone, but not very effective as a killing devise. Then someone thought up the idea of arming the grenades with smoke canister fuses. This worked great because as soon as the spoon was released the grenade blew up without delay. The booby trap became very effective as no one was able to run to safety when the grenade was pulled out of the can.
What Johnny and I wanted to know was, if you put a hand grenade fuse in a smoke grenade, would the smoke come out in one big poof like when a regular hand grenade blows up? Many times, when you tossed smoke, it was to create cover, something to hide behind so the enemy couldn’t see what you were doing. It would be very helpful to have the smoke released immediately instead of having to wait for it all to flow out of the canister. After all it could take up to a whole 60 seconds for the smoke to be released.
One rainy night Johnny and I took a fuse out of a hand grenade and tried to screw it into the smoke grenade, but it was too small, so we taped it in. We then pulled the pin and threw it into the night. After waiting the 4-5 seconds, the fuse blew in one of the loudest explosions I have ever heard, but we didn’t see any smoke. The next thing we knew someone had yelled “gooks in the wire” and Rangers, ready for a fight, were running into our hooch from all over the compound. We pretended that we didn’t know what happened and grabbed our rifles like everyone else. After a short while and not seeing or hearing anything more, we all went to bed.
The next morning, very early, just as the sun was coming up so we could see, Johnny and I got up to collect and hide all evidence of our crime. Fortunately, the rain had washed away all of the smoke powder. All we could find was two halves of the smoke canister. To this day, not one other person who was there that night knows what happened.
One of the Ranger teams was sent into the jungle on a radio relay. They were a man short, so I was sent with them. Rangers being the “eyes and ears of the commander” were many times sent deep into the jungle to see what the enemy was doing. Rangers were sent so far into the jungle that their radio could not communicate with our radios back at the TOC (tactical operations center). Because it’s so dangerous to go into the jungle without communications, we would send another Ranger team to set up on a hilltop. That way the ranger’s way out in the jungle would be able to talk to the team on the hilltop. Then the team on the hilltop would relay the message from the team way out in the jungle to the TOC. That’s what my team was sent to do, be the “voice” for the team who was sent out to be “the eyes a. ears of the commander”.
We were on the top of a very high mountain that was pretty close to another mountain, a little bit shorter than the mountain we were on. One side of this mountain had a cliff about 500 feet down. We all felt pretty safe after all we were up there with a whole mortar platoon. When we were shown where we were going to live for the next two weeks, we realized we may not be as safe as we thought. We were to stay in a hole that was dug near the center of the compound. It was covered with one layer of PSP metal planking. It didn’t even have a layer of sandbags on top of it. If we had a mortar attack and even one mortar hit our position it would kill everyone in the hole. Before even setting up shop we ordered more PSP and more sandbags.
We set up shop and went to work relaying the messages from the team in the jungle to the TOC. We had 4 of us on the team and rotated the radio duty every two hours. Not too bad, 6 hours of rest for every two hours worked. There isn’t much to do when not on the radio, however, it’s a pretty boring duty at best. We were there for two days when we got a little excitement, we were mortared. The big problem with that we hadn’t gotten the PSP or sandbags we had ordered, so we hadn’t been able improve our position.
The first round fell in the middle of the afternoon. I was inside our hooch resting when I heard the round hit. I also heard Chaos, a lot of running and yelling. I was inside a hole in the ground about 4 feet deep with only one layer of PSP to cover it and provide protection. We had only one small doorway and no windows. Rounds were falling all over the hilltop, many of them very close to us. As I waited for one to land on the roof and kill all of us, people began crawling into our hole as fast as they could. Before long it was so crowded, I was forced into a small corner in the back of the hole. I then began to hear screams for help from outside the hole.
Someone had been hit and was screaming their foolish head off. I waited for someone to rescue the poor soul, but no one was, or if they were he didn’t know it because he kept yelling for help. I decided since no one else was saving the poor schmuck I would. I began to crawl over all the other people hiding in our little hole. As I was doing this, I came to the realization that all of these people were closer to the guy than I was, so why were they not crawling out into the line of fire before me?
When I got to the “doorway” it was jammed with about 5 more people than it was possible to fit in the doorway. I had to push people out of the way in order to get outside. When I finally did get out, I found out why I had such a hard time getting out, there were people still trying to get in. Now remember that this “injured” person was still yelling for help and mortar shells were falling all around where we were. Oh, and don’t forget the Chaos, it was everywhere. I finally got outside and ran over to where the guy was laying in pain.
As I knelt to assess his wounds, I looked over at the headquarters hooch and saw a Command Sergeant Major looking back at me. It was CSM Gergan. I’ll never forget it, I could see the gap in the CSM’s face where my First Sergeant, “Top Moore”, had knocked his two front teeth out in a fight at the NCO Club. He was just looking at me, making no attempt to help even though he was only a few feet away. At that moment I was very happy that Top Moore had kicked CSM Gergan’s butt. I picked up the wounded guy and ran back to my hole. As soon as I got there I realized that it was a big mistake, even bigger than crawling out of the hole in the first place. I couldn’t get back in, it was too crowded. By now it seemed as if everyone on the hill was in my hooch but me and the guy I was trying to rescue.
I ran with the guy to the closest hooch to me and found it to be completely empty. As we fell inside, I could see that it was big and deep and had about two or three layers of PSP with lots of sandbags on top of them. It could have taken 2 or 3 direct hits from a mortar and not even hurt it. I wondered why everyone had run to our poorly constructed hooch. It wasn’t 30 seconds after falling in the hole that the shelling stopped. It was then that I found out the guy I had risked my life to save only had a superficial wound to his little toe. It was so small that he wasn’t even medevacked.
After that little fracas the job got boring again. Late one night we decided to do something to liven it up a bit. One of the guys got up on the roof of our hooch and yelled “gooks in the wire.” He then started shooting his M60 machine gun towards the side of the position where the cliff was. I started shooting my M16 and tossing hand grenades over the cliff. Someone else shot off a few hand flares. The whole camp was awake by now and again there was chaos. Eventually those guys did get it together, however, and started firing their mortars back at the other hilltop. After they realized that they weren’t really being shot at, the firing stopped. It was great fun. We did it at least two more times before our assignment was over. Those guys never did find out it was the Rangers who started the shooting only to keep from being bored.
While I was on that hilltop, I started to get a carbuncle (boil) on my right bicep. By the time I got back to LZ English my arm was pretty sore. Doc Short lanced the wound, drained it and then packed it with gauze that was soaked in Vaseline. It hurt like hell, and it had to be done twice a day. After hearing me complain Doc Brent said he had a sure cure. The problem he explained was the boil’s core was deep inside my arm and as long as it was there the thing would never heal. It had to come out.
He got a Coke bottle and heated it up by holding a flame at the opening. He then pressed the opening against the boil’s opening. The bottle was hot, very hot and it burned the skin around the opening to my boil, but as it cooled down, I could feel the suction pulling at the core. I could feel it pulling at two cores. I had two canals going off on each side of the bone in my arm. After a bit the suction stopped, but the cores were still in there. Doc Brent again heated the bottle’s opening and again pressed it to my arm. My arm was already burned pretty bad from the first go at it, now I was being burned on top of the first burn. I could barely stand the pain and wanted to pull the bottle away when I began to feel the two cores being sucked out again. This time, however, both cores came out with a pop. To this day I have a burn mark on my right bicep in the shape of a circle. I should have been given a Purple Heart for that one.
A few days later I got a call from Master Sergeant Langston. He called to say he had an extra movie projector he could let me have. I told him I’d drive to Phu Cat as soon as I could and pick it up. I talked Major Shippy into letting me borrow his jeep to make the 40 mile drive up highway QL1 to Phu Cat Air Force base.
It was a hot, but a clear day when Johnny Vaught and I set out to drive to Phu Cat. Driving north we passed by LZ Uplift where I spent my first months in the country. I stopped for a little while to show Johnny a one-armed Vietnamese guy who could change 2-and-a-half-ton truck tires better and faster than any two-armed person I knew. We then continued to drive north. We stopped in the little village of Phu Me and bought a “Coke” from a street vendor. The Street venders sold “cokes” in 12-ounce bottles just like in the “World” only these were bottled in Saigon. Continuing our drive north we passed the school where I was ambushed one day and couldn’t shoot back because of all the kids in the school that our ambushers were hiding behind.
Sometime later, as we drove north, a convoy of 5 tons trucks began to pass us as they drove south. Now QL1 is only two lanes, one going north and the other going south. It was a little unnerving driving on that small road with all those trucks so close to us. It was even more unnerving when we realized the convoy was made up of Koreans. These trucks were doing about 25 miles an hour and we were doing about the same. We were going around a large curve when we saw a 5-ton gun truck, with twin 50 caliber machine guns on it, in our lane attempting to pass another slower truck. I had no place to go so I drove off the road. It all happened so fast; the next thing I knew the Major’s jeep is parked inside a grass shack. With the grass roof falling all around us, I looked up to see a mama san cooking over an open fire and breast-feeding baby San at the same time. Johnny jumped out of the jeep to help the startled woman. I yelled at him to get back in and we drove away as fast as we could. I’ll never forget the look on that poor woman’s face as we drove into her house and then backed out of it.
Major Shippy’s jeep was damaged pretty good. The right side of the windshield was caved in, and the canvas roof was flapping in the wind as we raced out of there. As soon as we dared, we stopped and put the top and the windshield down before continuing on our journey.
The jeep looked as if it had been hit by something on the right side of the windshield. We didn’t know what to tell Major Shippy. We did know that he would never let me borrow his jeep again. We limped into Phu Cat Air Force base trying to fabricate a story to tell the Major. After picking up our new movie projector, Master Sergeant Lanston told us about the base wrecking yard. He told us that we may be able to find a replacement windshield. We drove over hoping beyond hope that we would. At least we would be able to fix what we had damaged.
Miracle of miracles, we found a windshield! We threw it in the back of the jeep with our projector and took off for home. This time we got back to LZ a lot faster since we didn’t have to dodge 5-ton trucks or make tunnels through mama san’s house. In the time it took to drive back we came up with a pretty story to explain what happened. Before we drove in the front gate of LZ English we stopped and put the windshield up. With Johnny Vaught sitting behind it, the bent part looked pretty awesome. Of course when we drove through the gate on “Ranger Hill” everyone wanted to know what happened to the Major’s jeep. We told them that as we drove through one of the passes on the way to Phu Cat, we were ambushed. We were lucky to get out alive and the only damage was from an RPG rocket that hit the jeep and fortunately for us failed to blow up. We were the talk of the company for weeks. We had survived a rocket attack, secured a new movie projector for the guys and even had the presence of mind to find a new windshield for the Majors jeep. Gee after thinking about, I don’t know why we weren’t given a medal.