My guest writer today offers readers an opportunity to learn – in layman terms and with some sarcasm – what it was like for the infantry to patrol through the jungles of Vietnam. Civilians might be awed by this revelation, vets will relate and most likely, smirk. Enjoy!
Preston Ingalls is the President / CEO of TBR Strategies LLC in Raleigh, NC. In 1969, he was a member of the 1/50th Infantry (Mech) Bn, operationally attached to the 1st Cav near An Khe and later to the 173rd Airborne. Preston is one of the top submitters on the Quora website and writes mostly of his Vietnam experiences.
So—it is totally difficult to envision if you have never done it. The heat, the humidity, the leeches, the growing jungle rot between your toes and fingers is hard to describe to a layperson. Movies can sometimes simulate the conditions but if you have ever been to the Grand Canyon, you know very well that all of the pictures you saw previously never did it justice. I mean you have to experience it. Movies isolate you from horror, or terror or extremes because we know they are movies, after all.
I served a year with a mechanized infantry unit there. But I was blessed with the fact that I had two MOSs (military specialties or training backgrounds) in communications from Germany, when finally discovered by my commanding officer, who eventually took me from a RTO position in the field to a radio operator in a command bunker. Before departing the field, as an RTO, I always had to be ‘cable-length close’ to the LT (lieutenant). RTOs had a high mortality rate because you want to destroy the communications of the unit and the antenna sticking up off my back screamed, ‘shoot me first’ when we were on dismounted patrol.
I will try to recreate my field time in an analogous manner to relate to. Try to imagine you are walking through the densest woods you have ever walked through for a camping and hiking trip. Now imagine increasing that density with vines, fern, stiff bamboo, palm and thick foliage to the point that walking becomes almost impossible. You can hardly move forward because it is so thick and then it begins to thin out so you aren’t pushing the vines and foliage apart to move forward. A little relief.
There are periodic clearings. You finally can see more than a few feet or so in front of you or the back of the grunt struggling with his foliage.
Finally a clearing. You can see. Ahhh…at last. Double edged sword though. But you know if you can see so can the bad guys and this might be an ideal site for an L-shaped ambush. Your head is nervously scanning from left to right looking for any movement but foliage moves and you are with other guys who are moving. Your M-16 or M-60 (M-79 thumper in my case) has a stiff finger near the trigger guard with the thumb ready to work as well near the safety.
Remember being in the woods camping at night when you heard all the crickets and night critters? Loud? Now amplify that a dozen times over because far more critters live in the jungles than the woods you camped in. You have this constant background of critter racket that makes it difficult to hone in on someone stepping on a bamboo twig and snapping it. Was that twig their foot or one of ours? It doesn’t telegraph the origin.
Let’s talk about this funny little lizard. Named the F**k You Lizard, the weird sound of the lizard’s cry could be heard as f**k you. The f**k sound is quite clear and short in duration, followed by a pause of about half a second and the elongated you. Sounded odd when several were yelling at each other. But maybe they were really yelling at us and were polite to each other when we left. Perhaps it was “”They are gone now…how goes it Dave?”
War never leaves you—it is like grief…you get used to it. It is a scar, hidden by clothing, you wear forever. People don’t see it but you know it is there.
Now imagine walking in the woods near dusk on your camping and hiking adventure. That is what it is like walking through a triple-canopy jungle where the vegetation is so thick, you can barely see the sun on the jungle floor except as patches of light.
If you have ever been to Florida in the Summer, you know how hot and extremely humid it gets. You come out of a building and it is like someone tossed a hot wet blanket over you. That is how you feel throughout the day and tomorrow and the next day. The sweat runs down your brow and into your eyes and the salt bites your eyes like vinegar.
Your jungle fatigues are saturated as if you had gone swimming with them. They cling to you like an old tattoo on an elderly woman poolside.
Your steel pot, mounted on the liner suspended on your head, seems to weigh 30 pounds. But you know it protects you against head injuries and is well worth the burden. I knew I had a hard head but wasn’t sure it was hard enough to deflect an AK round and didn’t want to test it.
Your patrol stops for a break with the fist in the air to motion a halt and rest. You lean against a tree, but only after checking to make sure it didn’t contain any unwelcomed guest that would try to hitchhike a ride. I know those critters preferred imported meat best. The locals weren’t any good—sundried and bush-tenderized. Amazing how high those little fellars could jump when you had to number two—nice and cozy for them—itchy for us.
Your patrol buds all are sitting down or leaning against trees to check the fatigue. Every one is nervously watching the bush.
You hear the buzzing sound of mosquitos, attracted by the sweating bodies. You swat at them because they will leave mounds where they bite. Some don’t bother biting, it seems they grind their cigarettes out on you…ouch. You snatch your helmet off and grab the little plastic bottle tucked under the elastic helmet liner band and loosen the cap only to realize the olive oil consistency won’t stick very well to your sweaty skin. So you loosen up the folds of your fatigue shirt which is as close to dry in between the folds as you can get and use the shirt sleeves to dry your face and back of your neck. You pour the oil into your hands and slather in on the exposed skin for some protection. Lid back on, fumble with the helmet liner band to get it back under and you are good to go. Refold the sleeves halfway up the forearm.
Cigarette time…yeah baby! You quickly pull your pack of Salem’s out of your breast pocket and grab the Zippo in your pants pocket for a smoke break. I gave up smoking decades ago but was a prolific smoker in Vietnam…go figure. Fortunately. SP boxes are often delivered to the field. SP stands for Supplement Packs which included cartons of cigarettes, chewing tobacco, writing paper, Life Saver candy, Bic pens, and many other goodies for our field rats (grunts). I looked at my cigarette and then down at my M-16 and wondered which was safer to use.
Most advised against smoking on patrol because odor carries but the LT was ok because they could smell our funky BO anyway. The BO…pe-e-e-www. Think putrid vinegar stench mixed with Ca Ca and dirty stinky socks. Really rank…rank like the smell of a panhandler pushing a grocery cart in downtown LA who gets a little too close to you.. Woah—after a while you don’t even notice.
Me with my M-16–1969
It is time for the LT to do a Sit Rep with HQ and let them know our position. I have to be there…’cable-length close’…can’t wander off or go shoot the bull with my buds…dang.
Maybe a quick nibble. The SPs also included an interesting bar snack nicknamed the “Guerilla Bar” but it was formally called Tropical Chocolate Bar. This was a confection made by the Hershey’s Company that masqueraded as a candy bar. We would toss them off to the kids from our APCs and they would literally throw them back at us swearing “Bou Kac..Do Miami… Number Ten Thousand GI.” (Sorry I misspelled to soften the Vietnamese curse words).
The Guerilla Bar was designed not to melt in the tropics…nor in your mouth.
Imagine a piece of particle board that had been saturated in Hershey’s Chocolate Sauce. There you have it…an exquisite culinary item designed as a punitive measure for all our fine fighting men in Vietnam. That will teach them for serving their country…yeah.
Now, remember the dense jungle with the hot humid conditions. I want to add something else to that camping trip you were on. You will have to carry this woman (picture below waving hi) around all day long. Her name is Mary-Kate Olsen and she was one of the twins from the sitcom “Full House”. She has a sprained ankle. Now, she is going to ride on your back all day long…while you walk through that thick awkward to navigate jungle. Once and a while you will have her get off your back when you go take a break. But you will learn to balance her when you are walking….and walking…and walking. And yes, if you have to sprint when there is incoming fire, you will learn to balance her on your back. She is there when you need to take a leak on the jungle floor or tree side. She is your load to carry hour after hour.
See, Mary-Kate weighs about the same as your rucksack, fully loaded; about 85–90 pounds. But where Mary-Kate could at least stand on her feet while you were sitting, you had to hold out your hand to have a bud pull you up with that rucksack burden because the sack had no feet or legs to push.
Oh yeah…by the way. About that camping trip. Imagine you heard there were a large inbred family of serial killers in the woods who have been murdering campers. Now that makes the trip even more challenging and a lot more scarier. Fortunately you are carrying a weapon for such instances.
Well…the LT is ready…his arm points straight ahead. Let’s move ’em out.
Alright, come on girl–get on board.
So. Next time you see that ol’ fart with gray hair and a little excess luggage over his belt wearing a shirt like this or a hat that says Vietnam Vet, keep in mind there are only about 850,000 of us ‘ol coots that actually served in-country left so don’t get on our bad sides cause we were and are bad muthas’.
Thank you, Preston, for sharing one of your fine articles for my readers to enjoy. Mr. Engalls contributed another article on my website worth reading. Follow this link: https://cherrieswriter.com/2020/05/03/my-back-is-to-the-door-attack-at-lz-betty/
If you are interested in reading more of Preston’s writing, please visit him on Quora at https://www.quora.com/profile/Preston-Ingalls-1
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