Erick W. Miller
This is not about water beds or some great Bob Seger song. This is about the most frightening times for the infantry in a jungle war. Moving at night always requires a good deal of prayer on the part of the point man and hopefully the rest of the element. It also requires faith that those prayers will be answered.
Moving at night is usually done in platoon or company strength. This makes the bogeyman seem a little less ferocious. In fact, it just may frighten him away. At any rate, it’s always murder on a point man’s nerves.
In 1970, the 101st Airborne began operating in smaller groups. Too small to be anything but expendable bait. The mission was the same, search and destroy. Naturally, the smaller the element in a night movement, the greater the terror. Some of the ingredients of terror in Vietnam are poisonous snakes, incredibly large insects and spiders, tigers, and of course, the enemy who lived there.
We were all aware that there were worse things than dying. Dying would be a blessing compared to being taken alive. In the lower ranks, we had no value as prisoners. We did have value as entertainment to bored sadists who might vivisect a man or emasculate him placing his genitalia in his mouth while he either bled or choked to death. I repeat, there are worse things than dying.
The evening that I’m about to describe is about a night move involving four people. This was during Operation Texas Star, a rather busy time for the 101st. We were moving in company strength which was unusual. Evidently our higher ups were expecting something big. I was walking point for the whole company. I had grown used to this position and had reached the point in my tour where I needed the thrill just to stay awake. I was exhausted all the time from the adrenaline draining my strength and it seemed like an addiction. (That was in 1970, before the term ‘adrenaline junkie’ was coined.)
The company had stopped for evening chow. After this break, the captain ordered an x-ray (patrol) sent out to find a suitable place for the whole company to camp for the night. Our destination was a hilltop about 600 map meters distant. The field first sergeant was in charge of this six man patrol. We took our rucksacks assuming we would be staying on the hilltop to await the rest of the company.
I was on point, as usual, with my regular slack-man Travis, as usual. We reached our objective without incident and dropped our rucks at the trail head where we entered this fairly open hilltop. Almost immediately, I found a spider hole or fighting position. We spread out to the fringes of this open area and soon, everyone was finding spider holes. It appeared as if the entire hilltop was ringed with fighting positions. It appeared that the enemy had abandoned this complex.
Before we could explore further, we heard movement approaching from the opposite side of the hill. Abruptly, the field first and his RTO took off running back towards the main element. That left four of us to face whoever was coming. Thank God we had the radio.
The rather noisy departure of our two heroes tipped off the enemy that someone was sleeping in their beds and eating their porridge. The four of us had retreated to the pile of rucksacks (where the bulk of the ammo would be) at our point of entry. The enemy has the same problem that we do. We both know that someone is there and neither knows the strength of the other. We are assuming the worst due to the numerous fighting positions. So there we were in our tense Mexican Standoff.
Darkness is falling and our little bluff can’t last forever. I got on the horn to the captain to plead our case. He has to know our dilemma by now since John Wayne and Audi Murphy have surely arrived at his safe location. That unsympathetic jerk, (I mean this from the bottom of my heart) refused our request to return to the safety of the company perimeter. Hung out to dry is the applicable expression. We were ‘written off’ by his majesty. “Sit tight” is what he said. He didn’t say, “Reinforcements will arrive soon,” or “God be with you” or “Escape and evade!” He said “Sit tight”.
Being obedient soldiers, we sat tight. Very tight indeed did we sit. The sounds of movement are increasing from our friends, the NV A, at the other end of the hilltop. They must have gotten brave after our long silence and were impatient to sleep in their warm, cozy spider holes.
That does it. It’s pitch black, we’re scared and the bluff is obviously over. So I get back on the horn and I’m not taking “No” for an answer.
“We’re coming in and we’re starting now,” is what I told our fearless leader. Now that was not a question and did not require an answer, but he put his two cents in anyway. I’m afraid that I had to cut the old boy short since my situation was more urgent.
Oh, what he was going to do to me when I got back. “Leavenworth” was the nicest thing that he said to me. Thank God! He made it sound like I was going to live and have hot chow every day. It gave me something to look forward to. First I had to get us back. We still had the problem of finding our way in the dark. Not the kind of dark that people normally think of. This was triple canopy, cloud covered, Vietnam dark. Since some of my readers might not understand, I’ll illuminate (joke) further. Try pulling the shades down some night and getting ‘under’ the covers and closing your eyes. It was darker than that on that trail that night. Believe it!
There was the added problem of the Field First’s rucksack full of shackle codes, maps, and other sacred ‘stuff’ that couldn’t be left behind. No problem. Travis is a gorilla. He loosened the straps and pulled it on over his ruck. Now comes the longest 600 meters in recorded history.
We couldn’t sprint like the first two heroes who had no rucks and plenty of daylight. We couldn’t even walk. I said it was dark and it was. And, it got worse as soon as we moved off the relatively open hilltop. We had to crawl on our hands and knees touching the ruck of the man in front.
The only way I could see the trail was the phosphorous from the crushed vegetation. All the way we could hear animal noises on both flanks. Large animals. Very large animals. Thank God there were no sounds of pursuit. Eons later, I could ‘sense’ the presence of the main element.
Back on the horn with my good friend the captain, “I’m close enough to hear you guys breathin’. Don’t shoot! We’re coming in.”
He had to try one more time so he said, “Don’t come in! My men have trip flares and Claymores out!”
I took offense to that reference to “His men” since he was the new guy and most of those men (the ones without the brown noses) had been my friends for several months. To make along story short, my friends were listening on the radio to the whole affair. Of course they hadn’t put out trips on our avenue of approach. They were as glad as we were that their four friends had made it back safely. They also knew a Field First and a Captain who should take my place at Leavenworth.
Here is where the story takes a tragic turn and I mean that sincerely. Shortly after that incident, the Field First was killed by a hand grenade. I was on R&R in Sydney and heard the story upon my return. The men were set up at night when the sergeant heard movement and threw a hand grenade. It hit a tree and bounced back and killed him.
My first question is, “Why would someone throw a hand grenade in the dark with all those trees around?” My next question is, “Did he commit suicide, or was he murdered?”
After all, his only crime was being afraid. Weren’t we all?