Just another day in the steaming jungles of Vietnam
|The Lieutenant Wore Stripes
Extract from Daily Journal entry of Staff Sergeant Gene Huff, November 22, 1968
Today, well at least the last twenty-four hours, can best be described as the worse day in my short life thus far. It began when Colonel Hunt called me into the headquarters tent well before dawn. This was an unexpected call as my platoon was on stand-down and scheduled to have the day off - our first full day of rest in thirteen days.
The Colonel informed me that an urgent and very important mission had developed over-night and, as leader of the Reconnaissance Platoon, I was the one best qualified to undertake the mission. Despite my pleading looks and frazzled appearance, he was in no mood to offer pity and consolation.
The mission would be carried out regardless of the fact that my platoon was tired, and resembled a rag-tag bunch of military rejects. The Colonel was well aware that we had fought in four major battles and undertook three long range reconnaissance missions over the past two weeks, and we had yet to receive replacements in men, materials and weapons.
The mission, he explained, was sent down from above, from Division Headquarters. The Division Commander had been informed by G-2, the Intelligence guys, (We call them oxy morons) that a division size force of the enemy, Regulars not Viet Cong, was allegedly hiding out in the Hobo Jungles and waiting for supplies, reinforcements, and ammunition to catch up to them before staging a major attack on our Base Camp at Cu Chi.
I was further informed that all LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) teams from Base Camp were deployed on other urgent operations and unavailable for this vital mission. “Carry-out this mission and I will see to it that your platoon gets a full three-day stand-down in Base Camp when it’s over,” the Colonel grinned.
The truth be known, I had no choice in the matter. What’s that old cliché, “Ours is not the reason why!” Yep, that sums it up nicely.
We had less than an hour to saddle-up, as the old cavalry expression goes. Meaning that I had to issue the five paragraph field order explaining the situation, mission, equipment, command and signal, logistics and transportation, attachments and detachments, and the execution thereof, and, my Platoon Sergeant and I had to bust our humps to get the men ready.
The greatest thing about my platoon is that we don’t have to adhere to the strict regulations that the ordinary line rats or ground pounders must maintain. We wear tiger stripe fatigues, shave only so often, and do not bathe on a regular basis. In reality, we want to smell more like the enemy than our friendly counterparts. It makes a very big difference out in the boonies. After shave, Camay Soap, beef jerky, and beer farts will let the enemy know who you are and where you’re from very quickly.
My platoon of forty-three consists of the greatest guys you’d ever want to know. How ironic that at the age of twenty-two, I am called the “Old Man.” I know it’s an endearing military term for “The Leader,” but there are only two others in the platoon older than me and not by much. Practically everyone is eighteen or nineteen.
I noted 43 in my platoon; I lost six men over the past 8 days, 2 KIA and 4 WIA so I’m down to 37. Bummer! Good men, good friends, brave soldiers. At least two of the WIA’s will rejoin the platoon in a few weeks, their wounds were not that serious, the other two – they’ll be on the freedom bird heading home soon. Some call it, Million Dollar Wounds, but missing limbs and legs are worth more than a million dollars, if you ask me.
Normally a Lieutenant would be in charge of my platoon, however, qualified lieutenants are in short supply and those few available have pulled strings to stay in Base Camp. Base Camp warriors, we call them. This is my third tour of duty in the bush, and I already have enough experience to qualify as a Company Commander. Sergeants are not officers, unfortunately. Our rank system is based on the old European system, wealth, not the Roman Centurion system, ability.
We flew out on an Eagle Flight at six this morning, my 185th flight if I have counted them correctly. Eagle Flight is what we called a string of UH1h Helicopters (Slicks or Hueys) that act as our cavalry mounts and carry us into the battle, or a close proximity thereof. We receive an Air Medal for so many flights; I think I have a bucket full of them.
I selected eleven of my men for this mission, primarily those who appeared more rested than the others; therefore we barely needed two of the adorable choppers. Within two hours we were rappelling down long bumpy ropes into thick jungle canopy. The nearest clearing was 12 clicks (kilometers) away and that would be our extraction point after we completed our reconnaissance.
I strictly adhere to the Army Ranger Code and Ranger way of doing things. After designating our extraction point, our movement to contact was a classic example of maneuver, establish rally points, maneuver some more, establish another rally point, and so on. We established rally points after each mile in the jungle because it is so dense. The reason for them is, if we are ambushed, the patrol will scatter and each man knows to gather at the last rally point and if that is not possible go to the one before that, and so forth.
After several hours in the jungle we located our first group of the enemy. A battalion size force was camped on the west side of a steep jungle ridge using a meandering stream to refill their canteens and to eat their fishy smelling rice. These guys never use purification tablets yet they seldom get a case of diarrhea, which runs rampant with us if we drink unpurified water. I guess their systems are adapted to the bugs.
After a few more hours we located and identified at least three separate brigade size units, the proof that Headquarters needed to verify previous intelligence reports. These were all North Vietnamese Regulars and most had brand new equipment and uniforms indicating they were fresh replacements from the north; mean, lean, full of fighting spirit and ready to eat some GI’s for dinner.
I ordered my Platoon Sergeant, we call him The Jolly Green Giant, to make a run to the North with his four men and meet me at the extraction point afterwards to share his intel with me. I decided to move the other five men and myself to the West to check out that direction. I don’t often split a patrol, however, there was far too much territory to cover before our designated extraction time at twenty-hundred hours and we needed to find and identify the veteran units these new recruits were scheduled to join up with.
Around fifteen-thirty hours we finally found the missing veteran brigades, unfortunately, while trying to extract from the area, we were spotted by one of their forward scouting patrols. The guy must have been hanging up in a tree with a spotting scope or one of my guys let out a GI fart.
All hell broke loose. They sent two or three company size units into the bush to flush us out. After yelling, “Last rally point!” we took off like a bat out of hell or, as if old Beelzebub himself was chasing us, which, in fact, he was. There was no need for stealth, since Charlie knew we were there, speed was our only hope.
When I finally hit the last rally point, one man, Bongo Belly, was unaccounted for. He was a fast runner but he had a tendency to get lost on occasion. Going by the rules, I ordered the patrol to head for the next rally point. We tried to stay together at first, but when Charley started to out-flank us, we had to take to our heels again.
By the time I hit the next rally point, I was the only one to show up. I thought perhaps my men had lost their way, but then I remembered they were Rangers, they never get lost. I silently prayed that the enemy didn’t catch them. Charlie can do some awful things to a person’s body before they beg to die.
I waited for over ten minutes with no one filtering into the area. With all the running and yelling and shooting and tracer rounds coming our way, I finally realized it was getting dark. I was just about to head for the next rally point when a tree next to me exploded. One second it was there, the next it was trying to beat me to death. Obviously, an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) meant for me had hit the tree and the resulting fragments were like wooden shrapnel.
I fell down a slight embankment into a muddy stream, with the bells of Saint Mary’s going off in my head. I don’t know how long I lay there, but, when I came to it was dark and I was almost submerged in the stream. There were lights all around me and I could hear enemy soldiers running and splashing in the immediate the area.
At least I could hear, thank goodness. I could also feel and knew for a fact that I had splinters in my scalp, a pain in my shoulder, and creepy-crawlies covering my body just about everywhere. Just as I squirmed into a sitting position, one of the enemy soldiers screamed and ran in my direction. His flashlight zeroed in on me, and he suddenly appeared with a wide grin and shining eyes, jabbering wildly as if he had won a night with Miss America.
To say the least, he had just ruined my day. I could tell he was a green recruit by the way he held his AK and by the fear in his eyes. He made a lunge at me with his bayonette, but I managed to turn my head enough so that it only pierced my cheek and knocked a few side teeth loose. He was preparing for another lunge when suddenly, he fell backwards in a spray of blood, his eyes wide open is surprise.
Glancing behind me, I saw the Jolly Green Giant standing there with a goofy grin on his face, backed up by a full company of GI’s. Love those ground pounders!
It took a while to bandage me up and get the splinters out of my shoulder and scalp, and all the leaches from the private parts of my body, plus I will be wearing a good size scar on my cheek the rest of my life, but, I’m all present and accounted for.
The entire patrol made it back safely, even Bongo-Belly, and Brigade sent in two battalions to push Charlie into a kill zone where the good old United States Air Force creamed both enemy divisions with a B-52 strike with hundreds of thousand-pound bombs.
My ETS (End of Term of Service) is coming up soon, but I think I will re-enlist. After all, someone has to teach these youngsters and lead them into combat, with all the officers back in Base Camp tied up with, “important things!”
Note: Since this is an old journal entry, I wrote out the Army Acronyms so the non military reader could identify what they meant.
Word Count: 1910