September 1970 to February 1971
My first assignment after arriving in Viet Nam was with Charlie Company 1/503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade (separate). The 173rd’s mission was called pacification, which meant we were not allowed to fight the war on an active basis. Our job was to keep the enemy from fighting the war by preventing them from moving about the jungle freely.
I was assigned to the 1st platoon of Charlie Company. The platoon leader was Lt. Fox, a kid from Newport Beach, California. The 1st platoon was assigned to a sector of the jungle with the responsibility of keeping the enemy traffic to a minimum. Our sector bordered 2nd platoon area of responsibility and 3rd platoons area. There was also a weapons platoon which provided fire support with its 81 mm and 45.2-inch mortars.
Near the middle of our sector was a hilltop. That was where we established our defensive position. We called it “being on position.” From there we ran all of the platoon’s missions. The platoon was divided into 3 squads. 1st squad would go on morning patrol while 3rd squad was resting from night ambush. When 1st squad returned from morning patrol, 2nd squad would go on afternoon patrol. Later that night 1st squad would go on night ambush. Duties would continue to rotate like that so that each squad went on night ambush every three days.
While on “position” we lived in bunkers that had been dug into the ground. The hole was about 4 feet deep with sandbags piled about two feet high around the hole. PSP, (metal planking) was placed on top of the sand bags and then more sand bags piled on top of the PSP. Inside the hole we had hammocks strung up everywhere. Hammocks were what we slept in. If you slept on the ground the bugs and rats would crawl all over you, so we all slept in hammocks. It took a little getting used to, sleeping in a hammock. I always enjoyed sleeping on my stomach, still do. You can’t sleep on your stomach in a hammock.
A hammock does have its advantages though. During the monsoon season, when your dugout fills with water, you can raise your hammock a little bit higher so you’re sleeping above the water line. When it rained you were wet. The only place to go to get out of the rain was in your dugout, which was full of water. You would have to step down into the water and wade to your hammock. After lying in your hammock for a few hours you would be completely dry. When it was time to leave your hammock for whatever reason, you’d have to step down into your muddy water-filled dugout and wade to the door. During the monsoons you were always wet and dirty.
Every four days we were resupplied. A typical resupply consisted of combat rations (C rations), clean clothes, ammunition, sundry pack (SP pack containing tobacco, candy, writing paper and pens, toothbrushes and paste), a hot meal, sodas and beer, and a duffle bag full of ice.
After unloading the resupply helicopter everyone would find themselves the largest piece of ice they could from the duffle bag. They would then get a soda or a beer and lay it on top of the ice. They would then spin the soda or beer until the ice was almost completely gone. They would then have one cold soda or beer every four days. It was definitely the best part of the week.
On resupply day everyone got a full case of “C Rats”, (Combat rations). There are 12 meals in a case, just enough to have a breakfast, lunch and dinner for four days, or until the next resupply day. Each case came with spaghetti and meatballs, beans and franks, turkey loaf, boned chicken or turkey, ham and lima beans, beef steak, pork slices, ham slices, spiced beef, beans and meatballs, tuna fish, and ham and eggs. In each meal there was a can of crackers with a candy bar or smaller can of cheese, peanut butter or jam inside. There was also a can of fruit or cake and a packet of hot chocolate mix or lemonade mix and a plastic spoon. If you only eat “C rats” once in a while they aren’t too bad, but if you have to eat them every day, day after day, you get real tired of them real fast. It doesn’t take very long for everyone to become a “C rat gourmet”.
Some of the best meals were fried ham slices with pineapple jam or toasted slices of white bread covered with spaghetti. It was also good if you took the boned chicken and mixed it with the turkey loaf. That way you would get more turkey than loaf. My favorite dessert was pound cake smothered in peaches. My favorite breakfast was hot chocolate and a steamed pecan nut roll.
In each “C rat” meal was a packet containing matches, toilet paper, gum, and smaller packets of instant coffee, sugar, cream, and salt. In order to make really good hot chocolate I would mix one package of hot chocolate powder in a canteen cup of hot water with three packets of sugar and cream. You had to be very careful at night when making hot chocolate because it was difficult to distinguish between the packets of salt and sugar. At night in a combat zone, it’s very dangerous to turn on a flashlight or light a match. In order to tell the difference between the sugar and the salt, we would call in artillery. They would fire an illumination round which would light up the whole area. We could then read the labels on the sugar or salt packets. Hot chocolate doesn’t taste very good with salt instead of sugar. I found out later that each 105mm illumination round cost about $88.00. That’s a pretty expensive cup of hot chocolate.
My first day on patrol was almost the stuff movies are made of. After we left our position, we walked to the top of the next hill to our east. Being the new guy, Rick Monday our squad leader, had me carry the radio. That way I had to stay close to him and he could hopefully keep me out of trouble. As we reached the top of the hill, we heard gun fire to the north. After walking that way, we could see a firefight between NVA (North Viet Nam Army) regulars and South Viet Nam National Guardsmen. We called them “Ruff Puffs”
After the shooting stopped, we saw three NVA running right below us. Rick Monday radioed back to headquarters what we had just seen and asked permission to “blow them away.” We just happened to have Jim McCullough with us on this patrol. He was the best shot that had ever graduated from sniper school in Viet Nam, Headquarters said to go ahead and shoot them. As Mac was getting a bead on the first one, I got a radio message to hold off on shooting them until we told them what the guys were wearing. I told them what they were wearing, traditional blue shorts and shirts of the NVA Army. Headquarters said go ahead and shoot them. Again, Mac leveled off to kill them, but before he could shoot, headquarters wanted more information.
Before I could answer the last series of questions the NVA had run across a rice patty into a village and disappeared. We called for help from the rest of the company, 2nd and 3rd platoons. We needed to cut off the NVA’s route of escape. Our squad moved to a position on the hilltop so we could direct the others in a position to cut off their escape.
The group from my platoon circled the hill we were on and checked the bodies that the NVA had just killed. After checking the bodies, they moved in from the north towards the village. 2nd platoon moved in from the east, while 3rd platoon moved in from the south. Once everyone was in place, our patrol of six guys moved down the hill in order to seal off the enemy’s escape to the west.
I still remember it as if it was yesterday. I was running down the hill right behind Mac. I watched as he stepped on a trip wire which pulled a U.S. hand grenade out of a “C” ration can. I watched the spoon fly off the grenade. Now a live hand grenade was rolling down the hill between Mac’s legs. We had four to five seconds until that grenade wentr off and killed us all. Mac kept right on running I’m not sure he even saw the grenade. I kept on running as I couldn’t stop. The hill was too steep and the weight of the radio was so heavy that it just carried me down the hill. As I ran, I waited for the grenade to go off, but it didn’t. Don’t ask me way. All American hand grenades go off after the pin is pulled. Why this one didn’t explode, I cannot explain.
When we got to the bottom of the hill, we formed a line side by side and began walking toward the village. As I walked through the rice patty towards my first encounter with the enemy, I couldn’t help but think of all those episodes of Bonanza I’d seen where the Cartwrights are walking down the middle of the street ready to fight it out with the bad guys. It was a very strange feeling.
We had only gotten halfway across the rice patty when the shooting started. The NVA were shooting at the other members of our platoon. I wanted to shoot back at them, but we had no place to hide if they began to shoot back at us. We did the only thing we could, we kept walking until we reached the rice patty dike in front of us.
As I walked and watched the fire fight play out in front of me, I prayed that the NVA wouldn’t notice us. I didn’t want to have to get down in all that muddy “yuck” of a rice patty. It was the first time I had walked in a rice patty and I didn’t like it. The mud was up past my boot tops and the water past my knees. I knew that if I had to get down the water would be over my head, and I certainly didn’t want that.
As we reached the opposite side of the rice patty, we were noticed by the NVA, but instead of shooting at us, they ran. We knew we had the place surrounded and the NVA couldn’t get far, so we stayed where we were as others began to search the village. We searched without success until it got dark. Lt. Fox decided that we should keep the village surrounded all night and continue the search in the morning.
You have no idea how hard it is to sleep in a rice patty until you are forced to do it. I lay there all night for fear of sliding down the slippery bank and drowning in that muddy “yuck.” At first light the next morning we searched the village again. We were still unable to find any trace of the NVA. I was very disappointed. I had come very close to actual combat, but didn’t even get to fire my weapon.
A few days later I went on my first night ambush. Again, I was very excited. I had trained for over a year for this very moment and here it was. I had visions of NVA soldiers, each one carrying an AK-47 assault rifle on their way to raid a group of unarmed civilians, walking into our ambush site. But of course, fantasy is a long way from reality and my first ambush was far from what fantasies are made of.
At about dusk we walked off of our position and into the soon to be dark jungle. We walked until we came to a small hilltop that overlooked a well-used trail. We set up a defensive position overlooking the trail and waited for someone to come by so we could “blast” them.
Being the new guy, again I was given the radio to carry. I was also given the worst time to pull my share of guard duty. As I laid down to get some rest before I had to go on guard duty, I laid down with my head in a small bush full of scorpions. One or more of the little buggers stung me on the top of my head. It hurt like nothing I had ever experienced before. After the pain went away, somewhat, I began to get sick to my stomach. For the rest of the night, I was so sick to my stomach I could barely keep my head up. Being the new guy and not wanting to get a reputation as a pansy, I didn’t tell anyone how sick I was.
I just did my job the best I could. I prayed that I wouldn’t have to shoot anyone that night, I was just too sick to know which way to point my rifle. As it turned out, as was the case with most ambushes, not one person came near to where we were. At the end of the night, we packed up our squad and went back to our position to get some sleep before going on afternoon patrol.
I learned many things that first few days on position. The most important thing I learned was that war is not like what you see on TV or in the movies. It didn’t matter to me however; I knew that I was just starting on the biggest adventure of my life.
A true story as remembered by Ski Ingram October 1989