Erick W. Miller
The events about to be described will sound familiar to men who served with me. The situations and ensuing decisions will ring bells in the minds of many troops and start memories opening up in others. Sometimes, this was the way it was. I’m not writing to cause embarrassment or guilt, only to remind all of us that the system was not, and probably never will be, perfect.
The name of the system was “Search and Destroy” which sounded so repugnant to the Draft dodgers of the Vietnam era, that a protest was raised against the simple name of our method of prosecuting a very complicated and confusing war. Domestic politics caused the confusion. International politics caused the complications. At any rate, we, who carried out our nations wishes were caught in the middle and not every decision made on the battlefield was conducive to winning a war in an aggressive manner. You know, like they teach you in boot camp, “When you’re in the kill zone, CHARGE!”
The first event that I recall which made me question authority occurred in the low lands near Hue during my brief two week foray into this less terrifying area of operations. Not to say that the low lands weren’t dangerous. Booby traps were more common around the more populous coastal plains. Also, the open, flat ground was a sniper’s paradise. I will always believe that the mountainous jungles were more frightening. I think that anyone who has operated in both types of terrain will agree. Triple canopy and dead space like in narrow valleys are truly intimidating. Infantrymen know this.
On one patrol that I was pointman for most of my squad, about eight of us, walked across a large open area through a tree line, then across another open field to check out a patch of single canopy jungle in our area of responsibility. I led the small column of men along the undisturbed perimeter of this dense patch of foliage until I discovered a trail leading in. The trail was quite open and fairly straight, wide enough for carts. I halted the column at this juncture to discuss our next move with the squad leader.
The opening to the trail had a pile of dried branches blocking it. As I pointed this out, some men drifted to the front to see why we had stopped. That was their first mistake. “Spread out! One hand grenade could kill you all!” I could still hear the echoes of my Drill Sergeants hammering that bit of wisdom home.
The nosy troops took it upon themselves to begin the fools task of removing the branches. I told them to stop in a loud voice, which they gratefully did. The squad leader was at my side. I explained that the branches were placed there as a warning device for whoever lived at the end of this trail. “They are almost certainly booby trapped,” is what I said. At the very least, the noise from moving the dried brush would be loud enough to tip off anyone hiding in this patch of jungle that company was coming. The enemy could choose flight or ambush.
Eyes were opening and light bulbs were appearing over the idiots heads. I assumed we would chop a path from one side or the other to rejoin the trail at a safer place so we could continue to “Search and Destroy” like we were being paid, however meagerly, to do. Suddenly our walk in the sun had taken on a more ominous aspect.
Temerity seemed to dominate my squad leaders soul for he chose to let sleeping dogs lie and not explore what I thought was a VC hideout. All that was lacking was a mailbox with the name “Victor Charles” on it to make it official. I was disappointed to say the least. No, I don’t like to kill, but an enemy behind you is more dangerous than one to your front. That day changed my opinion of my squad leader. No one questioned his decision either. Today, as I write this, is possibly the first time this event has ever seen daylight.
Still in the lowlands another task we performed while patrolling during the day was to pick a good place to set up an ambush after dark. The selection of that site was the squad leaders call. I wasn’t on the X-ray, or patrol that day, but I was chosen to go on the ambush that night. Until then, every ambush I’d ever been on had been out doors, not this one. Our selected ambush site turned out to be inside an abandoned building. Our element was fairly large for an ambush to my experience. There were about a dozen of us. It was literally pouring rain, miserable to say the least. In other words, we were in Vietnam. Oh, hey, jog any memories?
The building had no windows and only one door that I remember. It was, plain and simple, a trap. Mr. Temerity had all of us squeeze into this building for the night. He probably thought it would be a popular decision among us, his charges. Myself, I’d rather be wet from the rain, than from my own blood. I was very afraid that night. We were a target if anyone guessed where we had set up. The Lord let us live through the night, for which I thanked him in the morning. No one blew the whistle, and the squad leader continued to mis-lead us.
By the middle of 1970, Vietnamization had reduced field strength considerably. Our division was operating at less than 70% of the book definition in every unit of troop measure. If one looked at the paperwork, we had the same number of companies, with the same number of platoons, each with the same number of squads. The country hadn’t shrunk and the job remained the same. Even the NVA refused to give in to troop reduction and still fielded every man they had available. We were the fools.
I have a letter which I sent home from that awful place, late in 1970, telling my father, “When I got in country, my squad had fourteen men. Now my platoon has fourteen men and we’re not getting any replacements.” Did that sound like whining? It was, I was afraid, that’s all. Less men spread out to cover the same amount of square kilometers. You’d whine too.
So, there was my platoon, still numbering in the mid twenties at the time, split into squads to patrol and ambush the valley beyond Fire Base Veghel up to the mouth of the Ashau. At that time, Veghel was the last occupied outpost along 547. Less men, less fire power, same job. The first day, no one wanted to carry the machine gun because we had to walk 11 clicks (kilometers) along the road in the open. Lots of walking, prime sniper target. In the open, walking point was meaningless. Carrying a radio or machine gun was scary. That day, for 11 clicks, at a scrawny 118 pounds, I carried a machine gun.
Everyone was nervous, including our platoon leader, a second lieutenant. That night, instead of setting up three separate ambushes as ordered, we gathered the squads and the whole platoon climbed up on an abandoned Fire Base, either Cannon or Zon, maybe Blaze. Anyway, whichever one was 11 clicks out of Veghel. We set up our perimeter in the dark, no hutches (poncho tents) were allowed to be erected. They would shine in the open making prime targets.
The lieutenant called in three bogus grid coordinates to represent three ambushes. Never once did he let TOC (Tactical Operations Control) know that we were all on this barren hilltop. Every night, helicopters would fly without lights using infrared heat detectors looking for enemy approaching base camps or fire support bases. One of those choppers flew directly overhead and hovered. The experienced pilot did not fire us up because he could tell by the way our perimeter was laid out and how big most of us were that we were GI’s. The lieutenant was more frightened of getting in trouble than he was of getting killed by our own gun ships. Either that, or he was too stupid to realize that we were in imminent danger of that very thing. HE NEVER CALLED IN TO SAY IN THAT THE HELICOPTOR WAS RIGHT OVER OUR HEADS! The wise chopper pilot’s decision saved all of our lives.
That was the second, second louie that I witnessed put out to pasture during my 11 months and 9 days there. The higher ups did us a favor. Thank you whoever got rid of that fool. So, there you have it. Three quick examples of poor leadership. Sadly, only three of many. This is not to say that my company didn’t have it’s fair share of excellent leaders, but they are not who this particular story is about.
Copyright 17 November 2003 Erick W. Miller