3rd Field Trip: Central Highlands

Be careful what you wish for!

Soon we did get orders to go back out to the field again, and I was hoping that we were leaving all of that insanity behind us.

Many of the officers were either reassigned or replaced, at all levels, including up to the Battalion command level. I assumed some of the replacements were due to the various personnel failures on base, but I had no way of knowing that for sure. It just seemed like the officers were rotating out a lot faster than we were. All I know for sure is that the morale, discipline, and behavior of some of the personnel on the base were unacceptable.

We were on our way to the field for the third time of my tour, and I would soon be proud of our company for regaining much of its composure and discipline. Not all of it, though, we still had an attitude. But we all did our jobs and worked together and looked out for each other.

For longer distances, the C-130 airplanes were now transporting us around the region, rather than truck convoys for some reason, maybe because it was faster. That wasn’t much fun, though, as I never liked flying on airplanes, especially on the noisy uncomfortable and often nauseating C-130. For the shorter distances, helicopters called hueys transported us from firebase to firebase, and also from the firebases to and from the field. The doors and rear seats were removed from the hueys (sometimes called slicks) so that they were able to transport more troops. It was a fun way to travel compared to flying in a plane or riding in truck convoys or inside of tracks. Flying in helicopters was sometimes like a thrilling roller coaster ride with all of the ups and downs and turns. They would drop us off into an open field or any opening that they could get in and out of quickly, and then, as usual, we moved out on foot from there.

The helicopter pilots were always aware that they were prime targets for the enemy, so they got in and got out of the LZ’s as fast as possible. Sometimes not even landing, only getting close enough to the ground for us to jump out. Not an easy task to do safely while carrying a rifle and an 80-pound rucksack on your back! There was also a similarly quick pace when they picked us up. We ran toward the chopper and climbed on and sat on the floor wherever you could squeeze in. One of the scariest experiences that I had was when the helicopter was taking off before I had a chance to get set. While rapidly lifting upwards and moving forward, the chopper quickly made a sharp bank to the right. I was sitting at the edge of the door opening with my legs hanging out when I found myself looking almost straight down at the ground. Suddenly, I had a fear of falling as I was unsuccessfully struggling not to lean too far forward. The guy sitting behind me grabbed onto my rucksack straps. With my heart in my throat, I turned around and yelled, “Thanks man!” He laughed and yelled, “No sweat man!”

This time in the field, a lot of the older guys (short-timers), including Chief, had been rotated out of the country back to the world. I was still comfortable, though, being there with Jarvis, Coleman, Moran, Mack, and even Bannar. Even though Bannar was still a new guy, he was a good guy who became buddies with Jarvis and me. Now that I was an older guy, I could help some of the new guys, just like Delacruz and Chief helped me in the beginning. I could show them what “stuff” they would need to get together to take with them to the “boonies.” I remembered back to my first time in the field when I didn’t know anything or anyone at all.

We humped up and down the mountains as always, and nothing happened the first week. The routine was quite familiar by now. Beat the bush all day, get tired and sweaty, eat c-rations, set up poncho tents around our night time perimeters, set up trip flares and claymores, alternating sleep for two hours and guard for two hours, and hope that everything remained calm and quiet.

This time out, I had a chance to see some things that I never saw before. We walked single file as always, the point man and point squad breaking the way. My platoon was in the middle this time, and I always liked that. It felt safer back there in the middle of the pack. The trail was trampled down by those walking ahead, making walking less strenuous for us. For some reason, the trampled path oddly took an unusual loop detouring off to the side and then back in again instead of the usual straight line. Guys were quietly pointing into the bamboo, alerting each guy behind them. Soon I could see why. There was a bright green snake, approximately 18 inches long, lying on a bamboo branch. Everyone was steering clear of that deadly snake. I heard of bamboo vipers before but never actually saw one. Bamboo vipers were the infamous “two-step snake.” I don’t know if it’s true or not because I never saw anyone get struck by one, but they claim the snake is so poisonous that when bitten, you would only walk two more steps before you fell dead. Nobody was taking any chances. Thus, the detouring guys were circling out around the snake’s striking distance, all except for Moran, our machine gunner who always carried a big sharp bowie knife on his belt. He unsheathed his blade and walked over to that snake and quickly lopped off his head! He laughed and said, “What are you guys afraid of? That little baby snake ain’t nothin; you should see the size of the snakes back home in North Carolina.” I shook my head in amazement. I thought he was crazy; I would have never gone near that snake!

I never liked walking in or along creeks or streams for a couple of reasons. One reason was, our canvas/leather jungle boots had two ventilation/drain holes near the bottom of each boot, supposedly to let the water drain out and to let your feet air out and dry. However, those drain holes work both ways, allowing water to seep inside also. I guess it didn’t matter though since our feet were wet most of the time anyhow. The bigger problem was the dangerously slippery rocks. When your feet slipped out from under you, with all that weight on your back and rifle in hand, you fell hard on the rocks and almost always hurt some part of your body. Even though I didn’t like it, there were occasions when we did follow a stream for some reason. Those decisions weren’t mine to make; I just followed the guy in front of me, which often was Moran now since one of the brilliant sergeants decided that I would make a good assistant gunner. I never volunteered for anything, but for some reason, they always seemed to pick me for something!

One afternoon, while walking upstream, we came across a refreshing pool of water. It almost looked like a big swimming hole. And swimming was just what we had in mind. Well, the pool wasn’t exactly big enough to swim in, but LT did let us stop there to take a rest and get cleaned up. It must have been one hundred degrees, and we were all hot and sweaty. Half of us stripped and took a bath in the creek while the other half stood guard. Then the other half had a turn to bathe also. It felt great to cool off and feel clean for a change. Farther up that same creek, we came across a beautiful mountain waterfall in the jungle.

Jungle Waterfall

A day or so later, we came across a small village. The presence of food and animals told us that this was an inhabited village, but once again, the villagers had disappeared. We never saw anyone out there, only the places where they had been or the places where they lived. And maybe that was a good thing for us too. As the lead squad searched the village, the rest of us sat around and rested on the trail. That village had a cornfield nearby, and they also had a big fat pig roaming around the area of the bamboo thatch hooches. Since there was no way we were going to leave a live pig for the benefit of Charlie, and it made no sense to leave its dead carcass to rot in the heat, the Captain decided that we were going to take the rest of the day off to have a pig and corn roast. Several guys surrounded the big pig, pointing their weapons at him so he couldn’t run away. I thought to myself that if they all open fire on that pig, someone is going to get hurt. The Captain must have been thinking the same thing when he said, “Whoa, hold on men! Just one shot to the head is all it takes!” I never did get to taste any of that pig, but I remember sitting on the trampled trail and boiling corn in my steel pot to eat with my c-rations. So far, this trip to the field had been a good one.

We continued searching the mountains for the enemy, but everything was nice and quiet. Searching for Charlie was like searching for ghosts. We knew they were out there somewhere, and they knew where we were, but we never knew where they were. I always wondered if the lifers believed that they could march 100 guys through a jungle and think that nobody knew we were there. The villagers always knew, so I’m sure Charlie knew as well. There had been no contact at all this time out. We still had to deal with the heat and humidity and the bugs and everything else, but no enemy contact is good, and the C.O. wasn’t pushing us hard at all. The worst thing that happened up to that point was crossing through a big field of elephant grass. It didn’t seem like that should be a problem, but it was hot inside the tall grass because of no breeze or air circulation at all. The grass field was thick and tall, but the large blades were flexible enough to brush aside with my hands and arms effortlessly. When I came out of the other side of that field, I was sweatier than ever, and both arms were bloody. The grass blades were sharp enough to cause dozens of little cuts similar to paper cuts on both arms. And you can imagine what that felt like with the sweat soaking into the dozens of small bleeding slashes. Lesson learned: no matter how hot it is, roll your shirt sleeves down next time!

That false sense of relaxed security ended one afternoon when we came under automatic weapons fire from out in front of us. The word came back the line that we were to stay down, lay still, and keep quiet. We laid there for the longest time, pinned down. Every once in a while, I heard a single shot, or a short burst and a “psssssst” sound through the tree branches, but luckily, no one got hit. At some point, the C.O. or LT decided to call in artillery to hit the area out ahead of us. I was glad about that. It was the easiest and safest way to get rid of the snipers. The first artillery round came whistling over top of us, and then the loud explosion occurred. I knew from experience that it was too loud and too close. I flashed back to the last time when I was almost blown up by the incoming friendly fire while searching for caches. Within seconds of the explosion, I heard the whizzing sound of shrapnel buzzing through the tree branches right above us and all around us. The radios began to chatter. Somebody had made an error in calculating coordinates. I don’t remember being scared as much as I was pissed off because a lot of men could have been killed that day by the incoming artillery. Eventually, someone figured out how to adjust fire and resumed the shelling, blowing up that hillside out in front of us. After the action ceased, we continued our trek and pushed on until evening. There was no more contact for the rest of that day, but I know I didn’t sleep much that night.

The best feeling ever is getting a letter from home and especially from Diane. She wrote often. Any day that you received mail was a great day, but even more so when you were out in the bush. The letters from home were brought out to us on the re-supply choppers every four days. The Army was smart regarding that one thing at least: They knew what a morale booster a letter from home could be, even if you were sitting out in the middle of the jungle in Vietnam reading it. I clearly remember the day I was sitting on the trail, leaning back against my rucksack, rifle in my lap, taking a relaxing break while reading a letter from Diane. Thinking about her, I was missing her a lot when I read one line that I’ll never forget. She wrote: “The local newspaper published a list of this year’s selective service draft lottery numbers. Your birthday drew number 326, but I still love you!” (I could almost hear her laughter.)

That was my real draft lottery number, the one that counted now that I was 19 years old.

326!… I would have never been drafted into the Army!

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