It hit me when one of my young grandsons asked me about the time of Veteran’s Day, “Pop, did you ever shoot or kill anyone?” A completely innocent question for an old soldier that I answered very poorly with “That’s something I do not wish to talk about.” The “something” was that while war is terrible thing, it is a defining experience for most men who live through one – yet most all try to put the violence, fear, guilt, and reality of it behind in a small corner of our lives. We usually grow too old to remember or we pass on without the telling. I wrote this years ago as an attempt to answer his question better at the request of my son, his Dad.
I was back in-country from my late in tour R & R trip to Hawaii in May 1971. We had been on FB Rifle for some time with a rotated infantry company in support – no US artillery as this base was being built for ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops eventually. The road to QL1 was open and fairly quiet as the Rome plow had cleared the brush for almost 100 meters on each side and harassing enemy fire had apparently disappeared.
We were just about to finish the “new” Fire Base portion and perimeter on the west hill of the saddle formation for the ARVN.
There had been some disquieting events in the previous nights – trip flares going off around our positions at odd hours, but our guys on the guns had seen nothing. In any case, we had been in place on the east side of the saddle for quite some time and things had gotten routine. We were unfortunately lax.
My two platoons of combat engineers had a part of the northern and most of the eastern part of the perimeter on the east end hills of the saddle. The infantry company had the rest – about two thirds of the hill. My platoon’s M-60 (machine gun) position was just below my bunker with another foxhole firing position just to my left. Over the crest of the hill were infantry bunkers and positions. Our bunkers were temporary structures consisting of a hole dug by dozer or backhoe with a large metal half culvert as a roof. The roof was covered by at least two layers of sandbags to handle 61 mm mortar rounds that the NVA normally carried. Each end was open. My platoon sergeant and I shared one of them and actually had room to put in two cots. The protective barbed wire was really a joke on this part of the hill as we were planning a move shortly – no more than single strands of concertina razor wire. We were pretty vulnerable.
The day of 21 May was a bit tense between my platoon sergeant and me. We were about to move the next day to the “new” bunkers and fortifications on the west end of the saddle we had constructed. They were dug in deep and built out of sturdy lumber and covered by many inches of sandbags and soil. A first class set of positions if I did not say so myself. That was going to be a big day for the job. There was a monthly NCO call in the rear the next night and my platoon sergeant had wanted to go in a day early to kick back, but I had told him I needed him. Besides if he left the next day, he would still make the NCO call and get together. He missed the last logistics bird flight to the rear, but he really was annoyed at me for missing an extra night of clean clothes and a shower – not to mention the drinks.
We also had our battalion’s Protestant chaplain visiting us, CPT Jimmie L. Young. He had held a small “service” that day. He was a very gregarious man and a bit old for a new chaplain. I think he was some sort of universal Christian denomination.
I checked the guard assignments, checked the men and equipment and went to sleep with few words spoken. It was hot so I removed my shirt and boots and slept in my jungle fatigue pants on my cot. This night has returned to me in different forms many times after I got home, and once when coming out of a surgical procedure and sedation – Mary Ellen was there to wake me most times. However, I have not had flashbacks for some time and decided to actually write about it several years ago.
About midnight all hell broke loose. We were awakened to loud explosions all around and men yelling. For some reason, the sky was lit by a flare. We lay there for a moment and my platoon sergeant said, “I sure do not want to die in here,” and crawled forward. I was scared and stunned. I agreed in my mind with him and had that same thought as mortars, explosives, or RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) exploded on the hill. I pulled on my boots, threw a bandolier of ammo over my shoulder and grabbed my M16 putting on my steel pot (no shirt – quite the “Rambo” look, I guess).
My sergeant dove to the right and into the M60 machine gun position. I dove to the left and into a two-man firing position as a third man – a bit crowded.
In the light of the flares, we could see the enemy running all around. My heart was beating like crazy, and the fear was driving my adrenalin through the roof. The sergeant was shooting the M60 with the soldier supposedly on guard at that position crouching down in the hole — passing him ammo as fast as the belt could go into the breach. He was yelling “Get ‘em, Sarge!” This was strangely ironic and significant because this particular guy had some resentment towards the sergeant the weeks before for riding him hard. It was the old “hate the ‘lifers’ syndrome” – but not under fire, it turned out.
I saw a gook dive behind a log about twenty feet from me. I emptied a clip at him, and his head split open. Later, we would find his body hit by at least 40 rounds. I was not the only one firing at him, so I really do not know if my rounds actually killed him to answer my grandson’s question – but in my mind I have always felt and, in a way, feared I did.