Leading a patrol in Vietnam where some of the soldiers are high on pot.
|The Pot Party
It was my second month in Vietnam. I was a rifle platoon leader. The daily grind was beginning to set in and take its toll. It was the unrelenting and oppressive fear that was wearing me down, not the type experienced in a fire fight, characterized by terror, "slow motion," and the "fog of war," but rather the daily struggle to search and clear all day, move several hours to ambush in the dead of night, or insure the soldiers stayed awake.
In addition to these conditions, that everyone suffered, I had to to constantly bear the additional emotional weight of ensuring the unit stayed spread out, remained attentive to mines and booby traps and other forms of enemy activity. This involved a lot of "Shouting," since the men were prone to day- dream and not always concentrate on what they were supposed to be doing. The term "beating a dead horse," comes to mind in that there was no end to the protracted exhaustion of twenty-four hour operations. It took a deliberate and ongoing, consciously exerted effort to be a platoon leader, over and above the physical and psychological burdens that everyone had to deal with.
We were occupying a fortification called a "Hard Spot." This was a circle of twelve bunkers, with concertina wire out front. We had built it the previous day after inserting with an Eagle Flight into an area that was known to be strongly contested by the Viet Cong. The Platoon had spent the previous day filling sandbags and erecting bunkers with wood beams and perforated steel planking. That night we had gone three thousand meters towards a location on the outskirts of Rung Tre. The night had been stressful as it had been particularly dark, and about one O'clock in the morning the monsoon had broken loose in sheets of rain, soaking everybody to the bone. The following morning, upon returning to the Hard Spot, I told the cadre it was our turn to guard the base that night. It was as close to a stand-down as we ever seemed to get.
"Get the men going on maintenance," I told the Platoon Sergeant, "Especially weapons cleaning and the machine guns."
Late that afternoon, just before dusk, the Company Commander informed me that instead of remaining behind the wire that night my platoon was going to set up an ambush near a distant crossroads. Intelligence reported, a large enemy unit had passed that way the night before. I informed the Platoon Sergeant, about the change in plans, and he replied it would not be possible for us to comply. He took me over to where one of the squads was set up. They were giggling, high on pot.
"I don't care what their intoxicated state is," I said, "We're leaving in an hour... have them lined up and ready to go."
This led to a heated emotional exchange in front of everyone. He called me a "Glory Boy," "LIFER" and "Butter-Bar," among other things, and I called him a "Sorry Excuse for an NCO," among other things. We were nose to nose and I expected it might come to blows.
I ended with ... "You heard me, that's an order!"
As I walked away someone said in a low voice, but still loud enough to be heard, "It's time somebody FRAGED that bastard."
I got my map out and went over to the Fire Direction Center to begin making the necessary coordination. This included setting up registration points for artillery, plotting the legs to the objective, and doing a through map recon of the terrain. When I finished I went to the TOC and brought the Company Commander up to date on the situation.
"How do you intended to handle it," he asked?
"I intend to do the mission."
He shrugged, (The gesture connoted ...It's your platoon, your problem, deal with it. Our CO was not someone long on words.)
Returning to the CP, I met up with my Radio Telephone Operator (RTO). He was was worried.
"Are you really taking us out ?"
"What you gonna do if nobody shows up?"
"Well I guess then..., I'll just have to go by myself."
It was no bluff. I remember my state of mind and that was exactly what I intended to do. I went into the bunker and picked up a claymore bag with some extra magazines. When I came out I was alone. It took a moment for my night vision to set in and begin working as well as it ever did on those dark and oppressive Vietnam nights. With a clutch in my stomach, I girded my resolve and set out for the perimeter. A few minutes later I got to the opening through the wire and was joined by my RTO. When he walked up I assumed he had discussed my intentions with the Platoon Sergeant. As we made ready to depart, my nemesis showed up.
"If you can hold your water a little longer, the rest if us might want to join you."
His sarcastic deep throated anger conveyed that he was pissed beyond words. Slowly the platoon members arrived and began milling around. Some were still giggling, but most were not amused, and becoming more sober by the minute as the full realization dawned that we were actually going forward with the patrol. The Order was short and abbreviated as I addressed the men."
"We're going to ambush a trail tonight, about four kilometers from here. (There was a groan as the distance sank in.) Last night a battalion sized enemy force was reported moving through an intersection North of where we'll be setting up. I'll be walking between the Two files, point men keep visual on me. When we get to the objective Osborne and I will do a recon. First and second squads, will form the line. Third squad will be behind on rear security." It was the same drill we'd done dozens of times before.
What most won't understand is, that these were the days of a conscript army in an unpopular war, where the majority of soldiers were interested in one goal. That was putting in their time and getting on the "Freedom Bird" alive and in one piece. I was the last person in the line of authority committed to accomplishing the mission which most everyone else viewed as an impediment to staying alive. It was a no win proposition and largely responsible for the bad rap on Lieutenants, that continues to this day. It was much easier for the soldiers to disparage their junior officers then admit their own fears and unwillingness to stand up and "Soldier." By now I was used to how the men vented their fears and laid them at my doorstep. It was much easier to blame or label me as an ass-hole, incompetent or glory seeker than admit to any lack of personal fortitude or reluctance to manfully do their duty. It was only peer pressure, the gloved threat of dishonor or fear of disciplinary action that kept the system operating. Without junior lieutenants, the job would never have gotten done as the career professional NCOs were long gone from the system. The Army had by this time in the conflict resorted to promoting, off the street, graduates from Advanced Individual Training who were the best in the class..., to squad leaders (E-5s) and platoon sergeants (E6s) with less than a year's time in service. The friction of leading the "Unwilling" in this often terrifying environment was one more layer of resistance a junior officer had to overcome.
It was beginning to sprinkle as we went through the wire. Not a monsoon deluge, but a light misting sort of rain. That meant it would be a dark night. I went about twenty-five meters and looked to my right and left. I could barely see the two point men who were guiding on me while still trying to stay alert to what was ahead. We began sloshing along moved at a very slow gait that was measured and rhythmic. It took much longer to get anywhere at night than it did in the daytime. Occasionally a flare fired by a mortar or distant artillery would go off and temporarily illuminate the darkness. If it was fired close, I could hear the whistle of the canister as it fell back to earth. It was an eerie sound that gave me the creeps and provided a frightening harmonic to the nerve wracking surroundings.
The route I'd selected was chosen to take us around and through known areas where there were mines and booby traps. Each leg was drawn in grease pencil on my plastic map case, showing a direction and distance. I kept the map in the blouse of my BDUs to protect it from moisture. I had the essential elements memorized, however they were readily available if needed for reference. As I walked I counted pace. One hundred twenty-five steps was one hundred meters. Behind me and to the flanks the patrol followed. Each hundred meters I made a knot in a cord around my neck to keep track of where we were on each leg of the march. To maintain direction I held my compass about chest high focusing on the illuminated dial. From beginning to end of the patrol's movement I was totally immersed in my navigational task. It started raining harder. Occasionally I could hear the static of garbled chatter from the radio. My RTO was slightly behind and to a side. His job was to both monitor the communications net and stay oriented on our immediate surroundings. Step, by step, by step we moved like a centipede, ponderously, into a night so dark it was as hard to see a hand in front of my face. It was a fragile scheme of movement and if a point man ever lost visual on my location the whole formation could separate and split off. If someone in one of the files lost sight of the man in front, a similar situation could develop. It was extremely nerve wracking for everyone, especially me.
At the end of the first leg I halted momentarily and clicked the new direction into the compass bezel. A familiar thought came to mind. How did I ever allow myself to get trapped in the terrible situation I found myself in. I always tried to plan a route through open areas. When this was not possible we had to stop and cross obstacles. This was especially dangerous because while the rice paddies were usually not bobby-trapped, everywhere else was a potential candidate. So it went that night, walking that methodical walk, almost like a ghost dance. Finally we came to the end of the last leg on my pace chord. There was supposed to be a road around somewhere. I always offset my course to reach the objective well to the left or right. In this case it was a crossroads so I was hoping to strike the road below the intersection. This provided an unmistakeable reference point. I can't describe the relief upon finding and reaching the anticipated road. Whew! we made it!
Now, I reasoned, that the crossroads should be up the road a few hundred meters North. If we went to the road and turned right then up that way approximately one hundred some odd meters should be the crossroads. I called the platoon sergeant forward and we set up a perimeter back off the road. I told the squad leaders I was departing from this point and would be returning to this exact point in about half an hour. Returning at night from recon to a patrol base is dangerous. I hope somebody doesn't get trigger happy and open up with his M-16 as I return tot the patrol. It is not uncommon for a patrol leader to be shot outside the envelope of the patrol by somebody not expecting him to appear or someone who had not gotten the word he was out there.
I set out, with a trusted soldier, across the open space and onto the road. Now, my concerns shifted into running into an enemy soldier, walking towards me and seeing him materialize at point blank range. Dear God, let this be an uneventful night. We turned right, proceeded North and sure enough, about one hundred-fifty meters up the road was the crossroads. Fancy that! I stood in the middle and savored the moment. Not bad Bob, 4K in the dark and right on the money! We returned to the patrol base without incident and proceeded to set up the ambush.
The soldiers in my platoon were almost without exception afraid of the dark. I could almost feel their anxiety hanging like a pall around them.
For some reason I did not share the same fear. In an abstract sense I knew the darkness hid and masked our movements. In addition we had night vision devices which gave us a decided advantage over the VC. When looking through one of these starlight scopes the world was a pale green and images otherwise invisible sprang to life.... that is if the night wasn't totally dark. Then they didn't work.
In setting up a linear ambush my location was between two rifle squads, one on my right and one on the left. On the far left and right were the machine guns which anchored the corners. The soldiers were in two man positions spread the length of the line. In the rear was the Platoon Sergeant. He had a group of six to eight soldiers in two man positions behind us. While we always anticipated an enemy force would be encountered traveling down the axis of the kill zone, experience had shown that the enemy could come from any direction and all around security was SOP. Each position would place a claymore mine to the front. Once everything was tied in, one man would sleep an hour while the other stood watch. If somebody saw danger approaching, they were instructed to wiggle a cord running the length of the line to alert the other positions. In this way everybody would be brought to full alert. This was a theory I never saw fully put into practice. In many instances it was not long before everybody was asleep and I had crawl around at night checking the teams out. More often than not both teammates were zonked out. Eventually I accepted this as a state of nature and resolved to work around it as best I could. If the system worked then that was well and good, but there had to be a fall back and that was for me to stay awake as long as I could and depend on my RTO to stay awake on his watch. Later I depended on Melvin Osborne to operate with myself and the RTO. Melvin required very little sleep. Regardless of the situation, I was responsible for initiating the ambush. At the worst, detonating my claymore mine, definitely served to wake everybody up.