1st Field Trip: Central Highlands, An Khe

The next morning, carrying our rucksacks and our rifles and ammo and some other equipment as well, we climbed onto the back of big two- and one-half ton trucks that they called “deuce and a half’s.” Before long, I was on my first convoy, headed north on Highway 1. Along the way, I had a chance to see a lot of the countryside and had my first real look at the civilian people and where they lived. As a new guy, it was something to see, quite a culture shock. The country was beautiful in a lot of places. We passed rice paddies that were geometrically cordoned off by dikes, and some areas even had an exotic tropical look, with palm or coconut trees, but the people looked dirty and poor. Many of them lived in shacks made out of any scrap materials that they could find, even cardboard. There were many villages along the way where the kids lined up and waved to us as we passed by. Some of the guys would toss candy or c-ration cans off of the back of the truck where the kids would all scramble to gather them up. Then, not wanting to slow down, the truck driver behind us would start blowing his horn and yell at the kids to get out of the way and get off the road. We saw a lot of women (mama-san) and children (baby-san). I hate to say it, but they were not the most beautiful women. Many were skinny, bony looking, with scraggly hair and black teeth, or missing teeth, or no teeth at all. And some of the younger kids didn’t even have enough clothes to wear; some wore only a shirt or only pants, and some of them were naked. The men we saw were older frail-looking men (papa-san) or disabled men, usually missing an arm or a leg. The guys told me that all of the rest of the adolescent boys and adult men had either been killed or were serving in the Vietnamese army.

A Vietnamese village next to the rice paddies.

The convoy slowly worked its way northwest for a little over one hundred miles to An Khe. Several hours of riding on the back of the trucks brought us to the firebase, where we spent the night sleeping on rows of cots in big canvas tents.

The next morning the C.O. called us all together into a large sandbag bunker. Among the many things that he discussed, the one part that I clearly remember went something like this:

“Men, I’m giving you the day off today so that you can rest up for our next assignment. Right after chow tomorrow morning, we will be going out into the field on a “Search and Destroy” mission that will last 3 to 4 weeks. There will be a Vietnamese holiday coming up while we are out there, and there has been a cease-fire declared for that one day. What that means to us is: If we make contact and kill the enemy on the day of the cease-fire, then we won’t call in the body count until the following day. Any questions? Enjoy your day off, get your shit together, and be ready to move out tomorrow morning at 08:00!”

Central Highlands around An Khe.

A view from a helicopter

The next morning, after a hot breakfast, the last hot meal that we would have in a while, we loaded up into armored personnel carriers (APC’s). I hated the claustrophobic feeling of being closed up inside of them and not being able to see where we were going. We were escorted by some other vehicles with guns on them. I’m not sure what they were, but we called them “tracks.” The long, loud, rough ride seemed to last forever until they finally stopped and dropped us off. They didn’t hang around long, and neither did we. The APC’s turned around and immediately headed back to the firebase, leaving us out there all alone, and we immediately started walking. So there I was, the new guy out in the middle of nowhere, in a mountainous jungle that they called the field, or the bush, carrying a heavy rucksack on my back and an M-16 rifle in my hands, with a bunch of guys that I didn’t know, except for the few that I had just met three days ago.

M-42 Duster

The area that we were working in was called the Central Highlands. It was a mountainous rain forest with rough terrain. The tracks could only take us out so far then the rest of the way was on foot. We “humped” up and down those mountains the entire time we were out in the field. That is when I learned that you don’t merely walk through the jungle; you hack your way through with a machete’. We rarely walked on any trails because it was way too dangerous. The risk of being ambushed or hitting booby traps wasn’t worth it. So, more often than not, we machete chopped our way through the vines and the bamboo. It was physically exhausting; therefore, they rotated the point man frequently, as well as the point squad. Infantrymen are called “grunts.” They say the term comes from the sounds that a soldier makes when carrying that heavy rucksack. It must’ve weighed about 70-80 pounds, but it felt like 300.

The weather was scorching and humid; we sweated profusely. We had to drink our water sparingly since we tried not to drink any water other than from the known good source that we carried with us. Most of the guys carried at least 4 or 5 canteens (approx. 4-5 quarts). That’s not a lot since we were only re-supplied every 3 or 4 days. Just before nightfall, the C.O. would choose a location to set up a nighttime defensive perimeter. It always felt good to stop and take off the rucksack and sit down to rest for a little while. Then we would spread out and form a circular perimeter where we would set up small tent-like shelters that we made out of rain ponchos. We snapped together a couple of ponchos and then draped them over a tree branch or a rope, and that is where we slept.

There were usually two guys per tent because only two guys at a time could fit inside a double poncho tent. However, if there were an odd number, sometimes three guys would join together and use the third poncho to make a dry floor. That worked out okay since one man had to stay awake and sit up on guard outside of the tent at all times while the other two guys slept inside with their rifles. After we set up the tents, when it was closer to dusk, we would set up claymore mines behind tripwire activated flares out in front of our positions. Claymores were incredible anti-personnel weapons, made up of a plastic case containing 700 steel balls that were propelled by 1.5 pounds of C-4 explosive. A handheld clacker generated an electric spark which detonates the explosive, spraying the steel balls outward in a 100-yard killing radius toward the enemy. Nothing survives in front of a football field-sized claymore blast.

We took turns guarding the camp perimeter, alternating two-hour shifts watching and sleeping. Night-time is exceptionally dark in the jungle. You literally cannot see your hand in front of your face, so you sat there and listened to the dark and hoped that no one out there could see or hear you either.

In the morning, we packed up our gear and resumed searching. Fortunately, my first week in the field was uneventful as far as enemy contact goes, and that was fine with me. The second week seemed even harder than the first week since it rained so much. I remember being wet 24 hours a day for several days at a time. The ground was soaked and slippery, creating an even more difficult challenge. I hated sleeping in wet clothes. We humped up and down more hard steep mountains, even steeper than the previous week. I was grateful that I was physically fit and able to keep up.

One day we came across a small grass hut village. I couldn’t believe that people actually lived out there in the middle of nowhere. Their bamboo and thatch hooches were well built and elevated up off of the ground on posts. There were no people evidenced in the immediate area. So, since whoever resided there had all disappeared into the jungle, you have to assume that they were not friendlies; however, we didn’t know for sure if they were Montagnard or Viet Cong (VC). We searched the village, checking for booby traps, and then confiscated whatever belongings the people had left behind, sending them back on the re-supply chopper to HQ. The guys wanted to burn the grass hooches, but for some reason, the lieutenant (LT) declined, saying, “no, leave them standing.” As we departed that empty village, I turned around to look back and saw the huts on fire with huge flames and lots of smoke billowing up through the thick tree canopy! I guess some of the guys didn’t agree with the LT’s decision; after all, this was a “search and destroy” mission, right?

When we stopped for the day, I paired up with Chief to set up our poncho tent, our claymore mines, and our trip flares as usual. We had our usual horrible hard to swallow C-ration meals before taking turns sleeping. I liked Chief; he was a Native American Indian, and one of the older guys in-country, with a lot of experience. I was the new guy in the unit and appreciated that he taught me a lot out there during my first month in the field. For example, I remember one time when I was walking point and came across what looked like a dirt trail. I didn’t know if we should cross the path or turn and follow the trail, so I called Chief up to the front and asked him what we should do? He asked me if I checked around for booby traps and also asked if I checked for footprints before I walked on the trail.” I shook my head and shrugged, replying that I looked around a little, but didn’t see anything. He said, “They shouldn’t be making you walk point yet. I’m going to walk up here with you.” Chief was a great guy.”

We decided that I would take the first guard shift that night; it was especially dark as there was no moonlight at all. It was absolute blackness. You try to get your eyes adapted to the darkness, but when there is no light to adjust to, that doesn’t work. Then your mind starts playing tricks, making you think that you see things moving. You listen carefully; All of your senses become heightened and enhanced out there in the darkness. It was pretty scary!

Maybe the hooches that we looted and burned earlier that day had been VC hooches after all, because later that same night, “Charlie” (VC enemy) tried to penetrate our perimeter at my guard area, on my watch. Suddenly, out in the darkness, there was a brilliant bright flash of light. The trip flare that I set out in front of my claymore mine had been tripped, illuminating the dark jungle. Sitting there with my rifle in hand, trying to see who was out there, I became afraid that the light was also making me visible to the enemy. As the flare burned, the area directly in front of me was as bright as day. As I quickly crouched down to take cover, I could hear running footsteps that sounded like they were from only one or two people. While the flare was still burning, I was trying to see who was out there, but I couldn’t see anyone. All I could see was hazy white smoke filtering through the thick jungle foliage. That was my first enemy contact, and I was terrified!

My training kicked in, and I instinctively knew that I had to blow my claymore mine. I remembered from training that they told us to be sure to take cover before blowing your claymores because Charlie can sneak up in the darkness and turn the mine around facing you, causing you to blow yourself up! I was so scared that while I was hitting the dirt to lay down before blowing the claymore, I accidentally pulled the plug-in wire out of the clacker and had to fumble around to reinsert it. Finally, I squeezed the clacker; the explosion was deafening loud in the silent jungle! Chief immediately came scrambling out of our tent, firing his M-16 into the jungle. I still couldn’t see who or what he was shooting at. I felt so incompetent and green and started blindly firing my M-16 as well, following Chief’s lead, heavily spraying bullets randomly into the bush. We stopped shooting after a few minutes and laid there listening. The radio was chattering, wanting to know what was happening. I just wanted the radio noise to shut up! And then when the flare burned out, the silent darkness returned. I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night, wondering if we got them, wondering if they would be coming back. I kept thinking about what I might find out there when the morning daylight arrived. I didn’t want to deal with that, and I didn’t want to see it.

The next morning, I pretended to search the area while rolling up my claymore wire, but I didn’t search too hard or thorough. I told the sarge that there was no “body count” to report. Even though I performed clumsily, at least I didn’t panic too badly or freeze up. But it still bothers me today that whoever was out there may have gotten away due to the delay caused by my awkward fumbling mistakes. Chief asked me later on why I wasn’t firing my weapon before he came out of the tent. I told him that it was because I didn’t see anyone. He said, “You never see them at night. If you ever hear or even suspect movement out there, fire them up, KILL ‘EM! Then we will figure out who or what it was. Don’t ever hesitate.” We packed up and headed out on patrol again, like any other day, except today, everyone was on high alert. Now we knew for sure Charlie was out there somewhere.

A week later, I was glad when we returned to the firebase. The physical hard labor of working the field, humping up and down the mountains, carrying that heavy rucksack and being wet all the time, the psychological stress of always being alert and aware that we could be hit at any time out there, and those two-hour sleeping shifts night after night do catch up with you after a while. The picture below is blurry, but I think you can see how tired I was as I collapsed the moment we were inside the firebase perimeter. I was filthy dirty, tired, muddy, and needed a shave. I sure looked and felt like a “grunt.”

The 1st thing you do when returning from the field: Sit your tired ass down and drop your heavy rucksacks! Notice a couple of other rucksacks on the ground beside me.

It felt good to be back at the perceived safety of the firebase. There were lots of big guns and tanks and tracks, and it just felt safer to be there. They gave us a day off, so we spent much of our time sleeping on cots in big tents. It felt good to be up off the wet ground. The rest of the week, we went out on occasional day patrols or night ambushes, but we didn’t go out very far or search very hard. We were anxious to get back to Tuy Hoa. You would have thought we were going home.

Another tired grunt, sleeping on a cot inside the tent.

One of the big tents that we slept in at the firebase.

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