by Ski Ingram
February 1971 to April 1971
I first met Randy Jones in Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. We then went on to Basic Airborne Training at Fort Benning, Georgia. From there we moved to Special Forces Training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After all that time together, we became pretty good friends. We really got to know each other during Phase One of Special Forces Training (Green Beret). After Phase One, I went on to Special Forces Medic Training while Randy went on to Special Forces Weapons Training. I lost contact with him until we were both sent to Viet Nam.
Before reporting to Viet Nam, I was given the usual 30-day leave, so I went home to Redondo Beach, California. Being a Specialist 4, and not making very much money, I ran out pretty quickly. Towards the end of my leave, I was out of money, so I went to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California and got an advance on my next month’s pay. The Army gave me $200.00; I was rich. That was a lot of money in those days.
After I was given the money, I asked my favorite girlfriend, Diane Starkey, to go to Disneyland with me. I only had one problem; I was supposed to report to Fort Lewis, Washington that same day. I had to make a decision, go to Viet Nam, the most miserable place on earth or go to Disneyland, the happiest place in earth. I decided not to go to Viet Nam. Diane and I went to Disneyland, and we had a great time. I reported to Fort Lewis six days later.
Needless to say, the Army wasn’t very happy with me. I was chewed out royally and then fined $100.00. Not a bad deal after getting to spend the day at Disneyland with my favorite girl. There was another benefit to being late. On my 2nd day at Fort Lewis, I ran into Randy Jones. I was walking down a street on Post when I saw this big guy wearing a Green Beret walking towards me. When the guy got closer, I could see that it was Joel Randal Jones, Randy. Boy, was I glad to see him. I found out that he was scheduled to go to Viet Nam on the same day I was. He had a bunk in his barracks that wasn’t being used, so I moved in with him and the other 40 guys in his barracks.
A few days later we were both on an airplane on our way to Viet Nam. As it turned out going AWOL wasn’t such a bad idea. I was only fined $100.00, I got to spend the day in the happiest place on earth and I was going into combat with a good friend who I could trust with my life.
Randy and I were lucky enough to be assigned to the same platoon in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. When we got to our platoon, out in the jungle, we were put in different squads, but at least we would be seeing each other every day. The first three months we were in the jungle our platoon was stationed on a hilltop near the town of Phu My (foo me). From our position we would be going on night ambushes and day patrols while also defending our little hilltop.
Our mission, Pacification. The idea of pacification was to keep the enemy movement to a minimum by having a lot of small groups of soldiers stationed all over the jungle. This would make it difficult for the enemy to move about freely. It didn’t work too well; the enemy came and went whenever and whenever they pleased.
In January 1971, the Army gave up on pacification and went back to good ole hunter-killer tactics. We had a new mission, to hunt out the enemy and destroy them. We all packed up our gear and headed deeper into the jungle. We had fantasies of finding enemy base camps and large caches of weapons. One of the most dangerous things we could do was walk through the jungles of Viet Nam. Besides the poisonous snakes, the big bugs, all wanting to kill you and then eat you, there were plants with leaves as sharp as razor blades that would cut you to ribbons if you weren’t careful. Let’s not forget we were in a war zone. The enemy would set up booby traps or an ambush around every rubber tree plant.
By January Randy and I were two of the most experienced men in the platoon. We were also more highly trained than everyone else. Since we had more training than everyone, about three months more, we were made the point team. The point team is the most dangerous job as well as the most important job in the platoon, next to the platoon leader himself.
The point team consists of two people, the point man and the slack man. It’s the point man’s job to cut trail for the rest of the platoon while looking for booby traps. He needs to keep his eyes on the ground and the trail ahead. The slack man’s job is to protect the point man from enemy snipers or an ambush. His job is to look up and around. You can see how the point team would have to have complete faith and confidence in each other. If the point man didn’t trust his slack man and began to look for an enemy ambush instead of booby traps, he may miss a booby trap, and someone may get killed. If the slack man didn’t trust the point man and began to look for booby traps instead of looking for enemy ambushes, again someone may get killed. Trust in each other’s ability to do his job was essential.
Randy and I made a perfect team, I trusted him, and he trusted me. I always walked point while Randy walked slack. We tried changing positions a few times, but it never felt right, I wasn’t a very good slack man. I always felt very comfortable with Randy walking behind me. Like I said, I trusted him. In the months that I walked point, I never missed a booby trap, or if I did miss any, no one else hit one. I once read that a point man’s life expectancy was about 5 days. Well, I lasted longer than that.
In mid-February Randy’s grandmother died so he was sent home to attend the funeral. He was only gone a few weeks, but it was the longest few weeks of my tour. While Randy was gone my slack man was a kid named Jim Morris. I was never real comfortable with Morris walking behind me. When Randy returned from the States, I was the happiest guy in Viet Nam. Randy returned to the platoon in the afternoon resupply helicopter. After we greeted each other and ate lunch we packed up our new supplies and got ready to move out. Randy, as he always did, fell in behind me when I started to walk up the trail.
Morris didn’t like that. He told Randy that he was my new slack man. Randy told Morris that he was going to walk my slack and always would and that he, Morris, could fall in at the end of the line. Morris didn’t like that one bit. He pointed his M16 at Randy and told him to go to the end of the line. I pointed my M16 at Morris and told him that if he shot Randy, I’d shoot him. Morris thought about it for a moment, then lowered his rifle and walked to the end of the line. I don’t believe he ever talked to Randy or me again.
Walking point was the most dangerous and most physically demanding job in the platoon. Because of this when the platoon would stop at night and set up an ambush, Randy and I usually got to be the rear guard, which is the least dangerous position. If you were on the ambush line you set up in teams of three men. The rear guard however had four men. With four men on your team, you got more sleep than the teams with three men.
We had two black guys in our platoon named Jackson and Johnson. They were both deathly afraid of snakes, and Randy and I used this information to our advantage. If we were in a relatively safe area, we would request that Johnson and Jackson be with us on rear guard. Every man in the platoon wanted to be on our team at night because of the extra sleep we would get.
When we thought we could get away with it, after Randy and I went into the jungle to set up our Claymore mines and clear fields of fire, Randy or I would pretend to see a snake. One of us would yell “SNAKE”. Johnson and Jackson would then stay awake all night for fear that the snakes would slither into the camp and get them. Randy and I would sleep all night. It always worked. They never caught on to what we had done.
Robert Ramsey was our Platoon leader. We called him Rapid Ramsey because he was always in a hurry to get to wherever he wanted the platoon to go. When I walked to point, I was never in a hurry to move through the jungle. If you moved too fast, you had a good chance of missing a booby trap or walking into an ambush. I didn’t want to do it either.
Around the end of March there was a rumor going around that the war was coming to a close and we would all be going home soon. On the morning of April 1, 1971, we got a call from our company commander, Captain Warnke. He told Lieutenant Ramsey that he was going to send the grid coordinates of where we were to meet helicopters that would take us out of the jungle so we could get ready to go home. Because Randy and I walked point, we were always near the Lieutenant and always knew what was going on before the rest of the platoon. We were all excited about what the CO (Company Commander) told the LT, (Lieutenant Ramsey).
The grid coordinates were sent encoded. The encoded message read: “April, Papa, break, Romeo, India, Lima, Foxtrot, Oscar, Oscar, confirmation, Lima, Sierra.” LT Ramsey decoded the message just as soon as he could. After a little while he called the CO back and said that he couldn’t decode the message, a mistake must have been made. The CO sent the message again, “April, Papa, break, Romeo, India, Lima, Foxtrot, Oscar, Oscar, confirmation, Lima, Sierra.”
After a number of tries, but still unable to decode the message, the CO told the LT to write the message down with a space placed between the “L” and the “F”. After the LT did that, we all looked at what the CO had sent. It read “April Fools”. The joke was on us, and it was a good one. If I hadn’t witnessed it for myself, I would never have believed that Captain Warnke would do something like that. I’m still laughing when I think about that joke to this day.
There was a guy in the platoon named French. He had two bad habits, one, he was a was a know-it-all and the other he couldn’t stay awake while on guard duty. No matter how dangerous it was to go to sleep on guard duty in a jungle war zone, he would fall asleep. No one wanted him to be on their team at night since he couldn’t be trusted to stay awake and keep you alive if you were attacked.
Sometimes when we were in what Randy and I thought was a relatively safe area, having seen no sign of the enemy all day; we would” reluctantly” agree to have French be with us. That would make it possible for both Randy and I to get about six or more hours of uninterrupted sleep. In the morning, after a good night’s sleep, we would yell at him for sleeping all night, but he never changed. He always fell asleep.
On March 31, 1971, Randy and I let French be on our team that night. We put him on guard duty first. Randy and I went to sleep and as always, so did PFC French. On the morning of April 1st before first light, Randy and I woke up. French was still asleep, as we knew he would be.
Our team was the rear guard, as usual. We were facing away from the rest of the platoon looking into the dark jungle just a few feet away. I was laying on one side of French with Randy laying on the other. Randy woke French up from a sound sleep and told him that we heard “gooks” in the jungle. Randy and I played as if we were just a scared as French.
Randy was shaking and saying a little prayer. French was also shaking. I told him to get ready to shoot when he saw anyone in the tree line. I told French to get a hold of himself and handed him the three “clackers” (Claymore mine detonators). He was now shaking uncontrollably. He didn’t know what to do. He was having trouble holding on to his rifle and the “clackers” at the same time. He would put down one and pick up the other over and over again. I could hardly keep from laughing out loud.
All three of us were lying there early in the morning as it got lighter and lighter. Randy and I were pretending to be as scared as French and French was scared to death. It was very quiet. French was shaking like a leaf and didn’t know what to do. After a few moments Randy leans over to French and whispers in his ear “April Fools”. I had never seen French so mad. He was yelling and cussing at us. He jumped up and began kicking anything near him. He woke up the whole platoon. After everyone found out what we had done, they were laughing also. It was a good thing there were no gooks in the area because everyone was laughing so hard, we would never have been able to defend ourselves.
French never talked to Randy or me again. He also never admitted to being afraid or falling asleep that night. When no one believed that he began telling everyone that he had known it was a joke all along.
I don’t want to leave the impression that the war was all fun and games, it wasn’t. The war for the most part was very boring. It was also very scary and at times terrifying. The best thing about the war was the friends I made like Randy Jones. I know everyone has heard the saying “war is hell” and it is, for many reasons, but I would not trade my experiences there for anything in this world.
A true story as remembered by Ski Ingram