In Vietnam my platoon was asked to test a new technological innovation.
|I remember how it was a lifetime ago, watching as a Huey helicopter ended final approach and hovered over our basecamp. The prop wash threw up a storm of dust and the crew started unloading bundles of supplies. This was our home, a defensive position called a "Hard Spot," located along the Cambodian border, off a map feature called "The Angle's Wing." It was like a Mini-Firebase, except we didn't have any artillery. I noted that a guy wearing a white shirt got off carrying this big cardboard box. One of the grunts, handling resupply, motioned him towards the TOC. A few minutes later I received a message that the CO wanted to see me. It was dark inside the bunker and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust. Beyond the sandbag entrance was a bank of radios and some tables and chairs. The civilian dude, I'd seen earlier, was sitting on a cot underneath the map board.
"Tell the Lieutenant here, what brings you to the far reaches of the Empire," said the Captain.
"Hi, I'm John Cramer from the Army's Combat Development Command (DARPA). I've brought a new product all the way from Fort Benning, for testing.
He opened his box and laid on the table an electronic gadget about the size of a PRC 25 radio. Next he installed a battery and plugged in the head set. "This is an Intrusion Monitoring Device."
Taking out a smaller box he dumped a couple of nuggets on the table that resembled dried up jelly beans. He turned on the electronics box and handed me the earphones. Picking up one, he squeezed it and asked, "What do you hear?"
From inside the headphones I heard a distinct beep. Picking up another he squeezed the second one. "...and now?"
I heard two beeps.
Taking a third he squeezed and this time three beeps and then a final one... four beeps.
"Is this some kind of hearing test?"
He looked at me like I was a bit slow on the uptake.
"This Lieutenant, is one of the Army's latest combat developments. It allows a patrol leader to have early warning of an approaching enemy."
I must have rolled my eyes because he began acting like a salesman closing a pitch.
"How this works is that you sprinkle these sensors along likely avenues of approach into your ambush site. For example, if you are set up on an East/West trail you might sprinkle a handful of the one-beepers to the East and some of the two-beepers to the West. If it's a crossroads then some three and four-beepers to the North and South. Then, all you have to do is listen and depending on the beeps you'll know from which direction the enemy is approaching. These nuggets have been created to give the small unit leader a "Head's Up" when the enemy is coming his way. Nothing like some advanced warning... don't you agree?"
"You want me to test this stuff on my ambush tonight?"
"So, after I get there and get set up, you want me to go for a little walk, North, South, East and West and sprinkle these turds as I go?"
"That's the idea."
"I have an even better one. Why don't you come with me and you can go out and sprinkle the turds. You can then reassure everyone back in the world you personally saw to their emplacement along the most traveled infiltration route in Vietnam."
He missed the sarcasm but my CO didn't.
"I'd like to," John replied, (he seemed sincere) "but I'm not allowed to go on combat operations. "
"What's your take on all this?" I asked the CO.
"Why do you think you're here?"
Realizing it was a done deal, I arose to go.
"Here," John offered, "Let me carry the box over to your bunker."
Before dusk I assembled the platoon and gave the patrol order. The men weren't happy when I got to the part where we were going four (4) thousand meters. That meant that if we "Hit the Shit" we were out on a limb and on our own until daylight. We would be ambushing the main road below a heavily traveled intersection, where we'd been getting reports of enemy activity. The NVA were moving South to shore up the VC, decimated in the TET Offensive of 1968. These were main line North Vietnamese forces who were well trained and equipped. The good news was that while the trek into ambush site was long, it was a one leg straight line. There would be no juking around to avoid the "Tu Dia" signs. These were warnings posted by the VC to mark where they had their IEDs planted.
"We'll be moving in two files," I told everyone. "I'll be in the middle between the point men. Once we get to the "Candy Stripe" (highway on map) we'll set up according to SOP... except for one thing. Osborn and I will planting some sensors on the approaches into the main kill zone. So be advised, we'll be outside our defensive perimeter tonight, moving around while ya'll are getting set up. I'll leave from and return to the M-60 (machine gun) positioned on the left flank. I say again, tonight there will be two of us, out front and it's going to be dark... no moon... don't be getting trigger happy."
Once darkness settled I set off with the Patrol. For those who have never walked a night combat patrol the pace is extremely measured and methodical, like the slow beat on a drum. The march took about two hours before we finally reached the objective. It had been without incident and I breathed a sigh of relief because navigating on a pitch black night always had me stressed out and anxious. The men went about setting up their two man positions. Melvin Osborne, my "go to guy" was a bit slow but dependable in a pinch. I always kept him close. ever since being warned to keep an eye on him during search and clear missions we conducted in the daytime. Melvin liked the Vietnamese girls and needed adult supervision when we passed through a village. Other than that he was a very dependable soldier. So I kept Osborn, day and night, close, and took him with me if I went on recon.
As I saw things coming together the two of us went to the machine gun position and walked out into the road. It was really dark out except for an occasional flare in the distance. I carried a starlight scope but it wasn't working very well. We walked South and put out the one- beep sensors. Then we walked back up the road to the intersection. A hundred meters North we sprinkled the two-beepers. Walking back to the crossroads we turned East and placed the three-beepers. Then it was back again to the crossroads and West. About a hundred meters further we sprinkled the last batch of the four-beepers. Try imagining, if you can, walking around out there, pitch black, just me and Melvin, a stones throw from the Cambodian border. It was nerve wracking, to say the least, and I was relieved when it was all over and we got safely back inside the ambush site.
Now all I had to do was sit back and listen. I told my RTO we would be on a one hour watch schedule and I'd take the first shift. Putting on the head set I settled back. It was almost midnight. Suddenly I heard a series of two-beeps. I alerted, adrenaline rushing into my veins. I listened closely for the next few minutes... "beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep." Then I told Melvin to crawl along the forward line and alert everyone that the sensors were indicating movement from the North. "Tell them to get ready for trouble." After he crawled off I alerted the rear security by radio. "Possible NVA unit, moving South." This was followed by an absolute silence that seemed to drag on forever. I was about to conclude it was a false alarm when the four-beepers began tuning up. "Beep-beeb-beep-beep" sounded the repetitive sequence in my headset. OMG, more are coming from the West, maybe two enemy columns joining up. The beeping continued until they once more abruptly stopped... absolute silence. I searched with my starlight scope, waiting for the faint light of an occasional flare to amplify the image... but there was nothing to be seen, only a fuzzy non-threatening visual in a green tinted background. I took a dexedrine tablet... "This is going to be a long night.
About three o'clock in the morning my RTO shook me out of a stupor. "I'm getting three beeps," he whispered in a nervous voice. I was instantly wide awake. Over and over the three beeps chimed until like before they stopped abruptly. Again, I waited for some ambient flare light and scanned with the night scope. Nothing. I yawned nervously. Looks like another sleepless night before another endless day. "What do you think Melvin," I asked? He shrugged.
At daylight we took a walk to retrace our footsteps from the night before. To the South we found the sensors laying undisturbed as we'd left them. Going North it was a different story. We could find nothing. What the heck happened happened to the turds? Checking to the East we found the same situation. No petrified poop. Finally on the leg to the West we struck pay dirt. One mangled nugget lay on the side of the road. It was in two main pieces and some smaller fragments lay in a pool of green and white bile.
What the heck..?
When we returned to the base camp, John the civilian met me coming through the wire. "How did it go... did you have any contact?"
"No, it turned out to be an uneventful evening... except for on thing."
"What was that?"
I handed him the remains... "The rats ate 'Um."