Since we were the last infantry division remaining in military region 2 (MR II), we were being sent all over the entire area. We went on short missions to several different bases, including Dong Ba Thin near Cam Ranh and Tan Son Nhut near Saigon, and some others, mostly to help out with base security wherever they were shorthanded. I flew on so many helicopter flights that I lost count. Traveling around and seeing different parts of the country was fascinating. I saw quite a bit of MR II during my tour.
Regardless of where we ended up, most of the time, we were back to the old routine of guarding the bases. Periodically we were also still being sent out on night-time ambush patrols. It didn’t matter what base we were on; the duty was always the same. Ambush was a break from the monotonous boredom of guard duty, but being out there in such a small squad always felt way riskier than guard duty, especially since a lot of the guys now were newer inexperienced replacements, including some new inexperienced young sergeants who were on their first tour. I got along with and liked most of the sergeants, even the lifers. Most of them were reasonable men. However, I had a clash with one on ambush one night.
On our way to the designated ambush location, we came to an open field that we had to cross. That new in-country E-5 ranked sergeant decided that he wanted us to crossover the open area in a wedge formation, that is kind of like a spearhead V formation, with one man at the point and the rest of the men flanked out on each side forming a V shape. Well, that idea went against all of my training and experience. So, I tried to reason with him, explaining that it is not the way we do it here. We always walk single file, it is safer, there may be mines or booby traps in that field, and someone could get blown up! We should walk single file like we always do. He didn’t want to hear it, though, and replied: “If there are mines or booby traps out there, then we are going to find them.” I shook my head and thought to myself that I shouldn’t be questioning or challenging a sergeant, but I had to. I replied: “No way man, that’s crazy!” All of the other guys in the squad headed out across that field in the V formation that the squad leader wanted, but I refused. So, there I was, disobeying orders, carrying the M-60 machine gun, following the point man, like I said we all should do. That night while on ambush, I had plenty of time to think about what happened. Maybe I should have accepted that E-5 promotion and been in charge myself, and even though I know I was right and was acting in the best interest of the men, I was very concerned about the ramifications of what I had done.
Who knows how far that new sergeant would take it? Article 15? Court-martial? The next morning when we arrived back at the base, I immediately went to see the platoon sergeant, a seasoned E-7 lifer. I decided it was in my best interest to pre-empt that new squad leader, who I knew was watching me talking to the platoon sergeant. I explained what happened and made my case. Like I said, most of those guys were reasonable men, doing their jobs like anyone else. I guess the squad leader also had time overnight to contemplate his actions and decided to drop it. Nothing more was ever said about the incident. He and I were friendly after that, and we even had a few beers together on several occasions.
When going off base, outside the wire, for ambush patrols, the truck driver always seemed to be in a big hurry to get to our destination, and as a result, always seemed to be driving recklessly. He would speed through the village on a narrow road that was barely wide enough for the big truck to pass through. The trip on the back of that truck was an adventure in itself. Sometimes the guys would yell at him to slow down. He shook his head and yelled back, “The faster, the safer!” Just like the truck drivers on the convoys, I guess they figured that a faster-moving target was harder to hit. Maybe they were trained to drive that way. One evening we were speeding through that village, and like always, the driver would never slow down for anything, not for bumps in the road, not for bends or turns, not for low hanging or overgrown tree branches, and not even for the people. He would blow the horn and wave for them to get out of the way. This time though, poor old papa-san wasn’t moving quickly enough.
The driver slammed on the brakes, throwing us forward, but the truck hit the elder, likely killing him instantly. The villagers of mostly women and children were screaming and crying. A few of them moved the old papa-san to the side of the road while the rest of them circled our truck, yelling and waving fists at us. Understandably they were irate. We remained quiet, hoping not to escalate the situation, as the people surrounded our truck. I was concerned about the vulnerable position that we suddenly found ourselves in and I also considered the possibility of a potential ambush scenario coming from one of the hooches. The problem always was knowing which of the Vietnamese are friendly and which are VC or VC sympathizers. At that moment, none of them were friendly, and I didn’t trust any of them. The driver was waving his arms, motioning for the people to get out of the way and move off of the road. He had no intention of sitting there. He started moving slowly forward, forcing the people to move. They began angrily waving sticks and throwing things as the truck driver kept moving forward, gradually but slowly picking up the pace. The mob of people was either going to move or get run over. The guys in the squad started to lock and load, pointing their rifles and yelling at the villagers, “didi mau, didi mau,” warning them to move back.
I was nervous but knew that we would have to start shooting if anyone of us would get hit with a rock or anything else that was being flung or thrown at us. It was a scary sickening feeling. Papa-san was already lying on the side of the road, and there were going to be a lot more angry civilians killed if they didn’t back off. As we aimed our rifles at the mob, the driver gradually managed to gain speed, moving us away from the area. That night out on ambush was sleepless, and I was glad to leave that rice paddy when the morning light came.
I didn’t know why, but things seemed to calm down after that. There was no longer talk of going back out to the field, and no more helicopter flights or convoys, and even ambush patrols, became less frequent for some reason. Everything and everybody seemed to be more relaxed and cordial. We stayed put at Tuy Hoa for the longest time. It felt like the war was winding down, and I think it was.
Bannar, Jarvis, and I spent much of the daytime hours together. We would play card games or play chess or go to the PX or EM club. I spent a lot of time in my bunk, reading, and sleeping. I found that sleeping made the time pass by the quickest. We always found it interesting to wander around the flight area, looking at the different choppers. The flight crews and pilots were always nice to us grunts. I think they appreciated what we did for them, providing security for the base, and I know we appreciated what they did for us too.
The pilot let me sit in his Cobra as long as I didn’t touch any buttons!
Jarvis and I spent most nights together on guard duty during December, including Christmas Eve, Christmas Night, and New Year’s Eve, the same as we did on all of the other holidays of the year. There were no Christmas trees, no presents, no colorful lights, no family celebrations. We were family; we were like brothers. From our guard tower, we shot some hand flares up into the sky at midnight to celebrate the holiday. However, we did get one Christmas surprise. Our Unit had received orders to stand down the next month.