2nd Field Trip to An Khe

Periodically each company was rotated in and out of the field, and now it was Bravo Company’s turn again. This trip was different. I was familiar with the drill and knew all of the guys, and that made things so much easier. I had been in the country for a little more than three months now and was promoted to specialist 4th class (Spec-4) and was no longer considered a new guy.

We were given the night off from guard duty to rest and get ready to go back to An Khe the next morning. Everyone was enjoying the rare time off, mostly relaxing and taking it easy. Just for fun, I was playing around in a mock fight with the sergeant. The guys were standing around, watching, and laughing. I pulled my folding knife out of my pocket and was dancing around, waving it. I took a cutting swipe at him, being careful not to get too close to him, but not careful enough to miss a nearby sandbag. The blade hit the sandbag and closed up hard on my right forefinger, cutting it pretty deep. I was able to stop the bleeding and then taped it up. The next morning on the convoy, my finger was thumping with pain. When we arrived at Firebase Action, I saw a medic who then decided that I should be sent over to Firebase Buffalo to see the head medic for stitches. The rest of the Company remained at FB Action for a few days before heading out into the bush.

I received a couple of stitches and a big fat bandage on my finger. I’m guessing that if I had cut any other finger, I probably would have immediately been sent out to join my company in the field. However, a grunt isn’t much good to anyone without a trigger finger. So I missed some time in the field until the medic thought I was ready to go with a smaller bandage. I was then sent out on a re-supply chopper to join the company.

 I soon found out that while I was away, we lost one of our guys from the first platoon. He died of gunshot wounds while out on ambush patrol. That may have been his first time going out into the field. He was always working around the barracks in the company area and was known unofficially as the “company carpenter,” who usually remained back at Tuy Hoa, taking care of the maintenance and handyman needs around the base. I suspect that because we were so short of men, the C.O. had decided to send out every available body. They said that he had left the night ambush site for some unknown reason, without telling anyone. Another guy in the squad woke up and heard something moving around outside of the area in the darkness, he opened fire, killing one man and wounding another. They call that friendly fire. Chief’s words popped into my head, “If you ever hear anything move out there, don’t hesitate, kill ’em!”

We were in the Central Highlands again, and this time we found a lot of caches. A cache is a place where the enemy would hide food, or weapons, or supplies, or anything of value to them. Caches could be buried in holes in the ground or stashed in crevices under or around large rocks. Some of the guys out ahead of us uncovered some weapons and ammo, while we discovered clothes, food, French coins, and jewelry, including bracelets and necklaces, made out of beads. There were more hidden caches to search for, but it was late in the day, and the C.O. wanted us to keep moving down the mountain and get set up for the night. I assumed that we would go back the next day to continue searching the area.

French coins found in the caches

Beaded necklaces found in the caches. I sent these home to my sister.

Once we had the nighttime defensive perimeter set up, my buddy Coleman and I decided to go back up the mountain on our own to go treasure hunting before it got dark. We made sure that a few of our other buddies knew that we were going out so that they didn’t fire us up when returning to the perimeter, but they were to keep it quiet and not tell anybody else. Coleman and I were up on the mountain looking around but didn’t find a damn thing when we heard the first incoming round. The explosion was deafening as it landed dangerously close. We had no idea that the C.O. was going to call in artillery and blow up that entire area to destroy any remaining caches. We immediately took off, running back down the mountainside. I never was an outstanding runner, but I never ran so fast before in my life. Coleman was way ahead of me, gone in a flash; he was taller and able to run much faster than I ever could. Soon he was out of sight, and I was praying that I didn’t get lost all alone out there. A few minutes later, the entire barrage of shells started exploding behind me and all around, one right after another. I think the few minutes delay after that first marker round exploded was just enough time to escape being hit. While I was running down that steep trail, I saw a black pajama-wearing VC out of the corner of my watering eyes. I pulled up my M-16 to shoot him, but he was gone just that quick. He may have only been an illusion of my fear, but then maybe not, maybe it was his caches that we had stolen. I never stopped running, and neither did he. When I arrived at the perimeter, I was so relieved to see Coleman and our buddies there waiting to let me back in. The artillery blew up that mountainside, never knowing that we were up there. I’m sure we barely escaped alive. That foolish excursion is, without a doubt, one of the scariest and stupidest things that I have ever done in my life. I swore that I’d never go back out into the jungle alone again!

The summer monsoon season was fully upon us now. It rained daily, and we were wet all the time. The 95+ degree heat and humidity were oppressive. Even when it stopped raining briefly, the humid conditions never allowed us to dry out. The wet bug-infested jungle was a ripe habitat for mosquitos and dozens of other types of stinging or biting insects. We carried bug juice (insect repellant) in the band of our steel pots (helmets), but I don’t think that potion worked very well. The smell of it was terrible, and your sweat rinsed it off soon after application anyhow, so I tried not to use the stuff except when the bugs became entirely unbearable.

One day while slowly cutting our way through the bush, a brief but hard rain shower dumped on us. Then when the rain stopped, suddenly, a swarm of white flying bugs emerged from the wet ground. They looked like white-winged flying moths. I had never seen anything like it before. The eggs or larvae must have been lying dormant in the soil when the rain or heat created the perfect conditions and timing for all of them to hatch simultaneously, millions of them! The air suddenly became filled with swarming white flying insects rising out of the soil. The swarms were so thick and so large that we had to cover our faces with tee-shirts or towels to prevent the bugs from flying into our eyes and noses. I was afraid of choking or inhaling the moth-like insects and being unable to breathe. It was freaky, scary as if we were suddenly in a bad science fiction movie. The flying insects were all over us, covering our clothes, in our hair, in our ears, and inside our shirts. Everyone was jumping around, frantically trying to brush them off and swat them away. We didn’t know if they were biting insects or not. The insect swarm only persisted for a few minutes before the monsoon rains resumed. The downpour washed the white moths back down to the ground from where they hatched. As fast as they came to life, they suddenly all died. As I was looking around at the white covered ground, which almost looked like it had a snow covering, I smeared some smelly bug juice all over my face and arms.

The other problem that we had to watch out for in the wet jungle was leeches. We checked our legs daily, especially around the tops of our boots, and sometimes you would find them on your neck or arms also. The parasites would latch on to your skin and suck your blood, and most of the time, you never even felt it happening. Guys were always burning them off with cigarettes. To prevent the leeches, worms, snakes, and other creepy creatures from crawling up our pant legs, we kept our fatigue pants bloused with an elastic band, binding the bottom of the trouser tightly against the leg right above the boot. However, sometimes, that practice would result in jungle rot, where the wet fatigues would continuously rub your bare skin. Other areas of your body that were prone to jungle rot were your feet, armpits, and crotch! We did our best to minimize the disgusting disease, but with no way to bathe, it was difficult to avoid. We took off our boots and dried our feet and changed socks when we could. Many of us threw away our never drying smelly boxer underwear and went without them. I had residual lingering itchy rashes on my legs around the boot line area for several months after returning from the boonies, and occasional recurrences for years afterward. (but that may have been from agent orange rather than jungle rot.) The summer monsoon season was not fun.

The daily routine was a continuation of humping up and down the highlands, and just before dark, the C.O. would choose a location to set up for the night. It was always a welcome time to unload the heavy rucksacks and suffer a can of C-rations and enjoy a smoke, even when you were wet. C-ration meals came with a small four-pack of cigarettes. Fortunately, we carried a plastic cigarette case that kept the cigarettes and matches dry. Falling asleep at night was no problem, as we were always physically exhausted from the daytime treks. One night as darkness set in, strange sounds began emanating from the mountainside.

“wooooo/’whoooo/’woooooooo/.”

I thought they must be from some jungle birds singing or calling. But as the sounds continued, they began to sound more musical. I began to imagine that they were sounds from a bamboo flute, not a bird.

“wooooo/’whoooo/’woooooooo/.”

I must not have been the only one with that thought as others began to realize that those were not normal jungle sounds. Someone was out there, but who? Charlie? And what were they doing? Sending signals? Preparing to attack our position? The whistling flute sounds continued for a long time, and everyone was awake and nervous, laying there quietly, weapons in hand, prepared and scared, waiting for the first shots to be fired. The C.O. decided to call in some artillery, blowing up that hillside, one tremendous loud explosion after another. And then there was silence and stillness after the shelling stopped. And 30 minutes later:

“wooooo/’whoooo/’woooooooo/.”

It was scary! Soon you could hear the thumping of the chopper blades approaching in the darkness of the night. The whistling flute sounds stopped again as a Huey arrived shining huge spotlights down into the jungle, circling around and around with their machine guns firing random bursts, lit up by tracers in the night sky. I don’t know if they saw anyone, but we couldn’t see anything since we were taking cover in the brush and behind the trees. The choppers returned to base and then 30 minutes later:

“wooooo/’whoooo/’woooooooo/” “wooooo/’whoooo/’woooooooo/.”

The flute sounds continued off and on all through the night. None of us slept. We were even more exhausted the next morning, but as daylight arrived, we packed up our rucksacks and continued with our mission on high alert as we never did find the source of those sounds.

I think that it was on that second trip to the Highlands that I saw Montagnard people for the first time. I don’t know the correct pronunciation of Montagnard, but we called them “Mountain Yards.” Who knows, maybe it was them messing with our heads out there at night. And possibly it was their caches that we confiscated and destroyed. We were already down off of the mountain and headed back to the firebase when we saw a group of them traveling in a single file. As they boldly walked toward us, right out into the open, no one fired at them. I wondered how our guys knew if they were friendly and not the enemy. They were primitive-looking people that lived in the mountains. They looked like something right out of an old national geographic magazine. I never had any interaction with them. We watched them come down off the mountain, the same mountain from where we had just returned. They didn’t speak, they didn’t smile, and they didn’t even look at us. They were carrying big bales on their backs in the same manner that we carried our rucksacks. The bundles appeared to be something that they harvested or cut out of the jungle. Maybe they were going to trade whatever they were carrying with the villagers, or perhaps they decided to relocate and move out of our AO. (smart move!) They came hiking out of the area that we had been searching in, and I didn’t understand why we didn’t stop and search them or at least interrogate them to find out who they were and where they were going. But we received no such orders to do so, while the native-looking people kept moving, ignoring us as they walked by.

Montagnard people coming out of the mountains

Montagnard woman walking past us, and she has a rifle strapped to her backpack!

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