Let me preface this post by saying that over 2.5 million U.S. men and women served in Vietnam during the time period of 1959 – 1975. However, only 10% of the total were in the Infantry and ‘humped the boonies’ in search of the elusive enemy, the remaining 90% supported them in various capacities, their tasks, at times, more dangerous than those searching through the jungles. Helicopter crews were held in the highest regard and seen as “saviors” by the infantry soldiers, at times, watching in awe and disbelief while pilots braved enemy onslaughts to transport, rescue, supply and protect those on the ground. Crews were always there when needed – losing many of their own while performing in this role. Other supporting groups, stationed in rear areas or fire bases were also at risk of enemy mortar and rocket attacks, ground assaults or ambushes when traveling outside the base along roads in supply caravans. The ‘grunts’ or ‘boony rats’ had to contend with enemy ambushes and booby traps, sometimes walking directly into well-camouflaged enemy bunker complexes and getting pinned down for hours in the middle of the jungle. It was deadly tour for everyone – no one group was safer than the other! This article will focus only on those Cherries within an infantry unit. Certainly, each military unit received new replacements throughout the war; their indoctrination to war may have been quite different to what is written here.
Imagine, if you will, that most Cherries in Vietnam had graduated from high school within the past year; some never finished and were quickly drafted into the military. In Vietnam, these eighteen year old soldiers were thrust into a hostile environment where they had to do things never imagined in their wildest of dreams or even thought of as humanly possible to achieve. Nineteen year old corporals and sergeants were in charge of squads and twenty-one year old Lieutenants and Captains ran the platoons and companies. Turnover was rampant and a soldier with experience in the jungle was highly respected – regardless of age – and in most cases was a lower ranked enlisted man and not an officer.
After returning from my war, I had an extremely difficult time when trying to explain what it was like as a grunt in Vietnam to my family and friends . Finally, when the movie ‘Platoon’ began playing in local theaters, I relished the ability to have something visual to ‘show’ them. Not that I’m saying the movie portrayed my tour of duty, but I could relate to some of the things Charlie Sheen did in the film – that first hump in the bush (patrol in the jungle) when he passed out from exhaustion because he carried more on his back than what was really needed, filling sandbags, fighting mosquitoes and leeches, and of course, those times we returned to the rear area for stand down after surviving weeks in the jungle.
The average weight of a grunt’s rucksack and supplies was about sixty-five pounds and if you had to carry either an M-60 machine gun or PRC-25 radio, add another twenty-six pounds to your load. Cherries were usually assigned one of the two or walked point.
Humping with all that weight was difficult in itself, without having to mimic a chameleon; eyes continuously darting up, down and side to side, looking for booby traps, snipers and identifying possible enemy ambush sites – always hoping to catch them first before seeing us. The constant stress of tripping any of these took its toll on these young men. Adrenaline continued to pump through our bodies, ready to support us in whatever action we might take against enemy threats. But when none occur during a patrol (which happened often), this extra energy took time to bleed off – adding to our anxiety as the night approached.
I also remember the scene of Charlie Sheen’s first night in the bush when he suddenly awoke and saw the enemy soldiers walking straight toward his group in the pitch-black darkness. When on watch and the only one awake, every sound heard is amplified ten fold, making it easy for our minds and the jungle to play tricks on us. It was a sense of dread that I never overcame.
To understand this feeling, imagine yourself waking up in your bed during the middle of the night; the room in complete darkness – suddenly the bedroom floor in the old house creaks – sending a chill up your spine.
Your mind suggests that a stranger is moving toward the head of your bed – he’s unable to see you but knows you are there. You break out in a cold sweat, your heart begins racing, the beats gaining momentum and pounding loudly like a large drum in the dark quiet of night. You hope the intruder doesn’t hear your beating heart and give away your location. You lay paralyzed, frozen to the spot and too afraid to move your head or sit up to have a look around – let alone get up out of bed to turn on the light (not an option in the jungle). This is real fear! Now multiply that feeling by twenty-four hours a day over three-hundred plus days…You have just experienced how a Cherry felt on his first twenty-four hours in the Nam jungle.
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