CHRISTMAS 1969

1st_splash

Erick W. Miller

The Bob Hope USO show was coming to Camp Eagle. My company was in on stand-down. We already had our allotted three days rest and our time was up. We got sent back to the field to make room for other troops who deserved a rest too. This was the beginning of a thirty-three day mission for us, my first one. I was brand new to the company, still trying to make friends. These poor, tired soldiers all looked so much older than me. Everyone looked right at me and right through me like they knew something that I didn’t. They did and they were right, but I didn’t find out just what that was until a little later. I think their look was called the “thousand yard stare”.

We were loaded onto cattle trucks and driven from Camp Eagle to an unpopulated destination south of Fire Base Tomahawk. We were still closer to mainland China than we were to Saigon. It was the heart of the monsoon season in Thua Thien Province. Everyone was soaked before we got off the trucks. We began wending our way through abandoned rice paddies and untended cemeteries on foot with about eighty pounds of freshly resupplied gear, chow, and ammo. It was my horrific baptism to humping a full ruck. I weighed about one hundred thirty-five pounds naked back then. To quote Gilda Radner’s character on Saturday Night Live, Roseanne Roseanna Danna. “I thought I was gonna die!” She was exaggerating, I wasn’t.

That day, as we humped along the military crest of a low hill, I found a human skeleton. It was assumed to be that of an enemy who had fallen prey to aerial artillery. We were in some fairly open terrain and were spread out so as not to draw enemy mortar fire. Soon we were back to flatter ground and paddies. We took a break in a cemetery just after dark. We used the circular grave mounds to support our rucks as we sat with our backs to the mound. There wasn’t a smiling face in the bunch. We made it look like we were settling in for the night. We’d already walked several kilometers, about half of that was through paddy water which was sometimes waist deep. I remember seeing a leech swimming alongside of us that was six inches long. The break was very much needed by all. I was considered extremely strong for my size. I’d always lifted weights and carried shingles, but I wasn’t ready for this ordeal. Mister, if you ain’t humped a full ruck, you’ll never know what we went through.

Our CO, Captain Feliciano, was too smart to stay the night amidst the graves after we had just passed through all that open terrain. After about an hour of rest, we moved out. The CO wanted us on a piece of high ground under the cover of the jungle to set up a defensible perimeter. We were headed to the mountains, which were invisible in the rainy darkness.

When we reached the foothills, we set up a perimeter in the dark. Our destination was the top of Hill 801 near Bach Ma. We still had a long way to go, back downhill and across more flat and swampy ground. It seemed like forever, but on about the third day, we came in sight of our destination. It was covered in a dark rain cloud which seemed only arms reach overhead as we stood on the flat ground of the low lying terrain. We climbed up into the cloud and entered the most dense jungle imaginable. It looked like my mental picture of Green Mansions. Vines bigger than a man’s waist grew everywhere. Their weight would overwhelm the trees they climbed, making them fall into the tangled mass of the rain forest. When we came upon a fallen tree, we would have to sit on them, leaning against our rucks, and swing our legs over.

The trees were so tall, any daylight that reached us was filtered through the lattice work of leaves, making the air itself appear green. Unless it was pouring, we never knew if it stopped raining since the trees were constantly dripping.

The feeling of dread as we were swallowed up by the impenetrable vegetation was overwhelming. Even with a full strength platoon of forty-four men, one could feel very much isolated from the real world of television, automobiles, and air conditioning. We were dwarfed and humbled by the vastness of this ancient
jungle.
Machetes were necessary to carve our way through and ever upward to the summit. Exhaustion was a constant companion to everyone. Eventually, we did make it to the crest. It was so foggy that we were in no danger on the open hilltop. We were able to fill canteens on the way up from the myriad miniature waterfalls on the steep climb. I was amazed at and had no explanation for the occasional small fish that would inhabit the little pools formed by the waterfalls.

We were “socked in” on that mountain. That is a military term for being cut off from air support of any kind including resupply. We were quite literally inside the clouds and visibility on the ground was sketchy after about fifteen yards. We were completely invisible from the air.

This was Christmas day, something we were all aware of, including our captain. We were told that resupply was impossible. Pretty dismal news to a bunch of hungry grunts on Christmas. Thanks to some very brave and kind hearted chopper pilots, Captain Feliciano managed to get dry socks, clean clothes, and hot chow delivered in the fog. It took forever to bring in the choppers by sound with the use of flares.

For the record, I’ve had much better Christmas’, but I’ve forgotten most of them.

Erick W. Miller Copyright   1997 and 2003