There was a lot of repetition during the war. Daily routines included: patrols, many of the same sights and smells, trudging through rice paddies, and performing guard duty during the pitch-black darkness of night. Sleep was hard to come by with all the interruptions and you learned to take cat naps whenever possible. Here’s a soldier’s take on it all.
Preston Ingalls has contributed several articles for publication on this website – direct links are available at the end of this article.
By Preston Ingalls
“Ingalls! Ingalls! Wake up, man.”
“Uu-h-h-h! What?” I groggily woke to someone shaking my shoulders in the dark.
“Ingalls. Your time, dude. C’mon. Guard duty. Let’s go. I’m tired.”
I slowly arose from the canvas cot, and my eyes began to burn. The previous night I had been awakened for guard duty to find my lids swollen shut from mosquito bites. Tonight, I had rubbed mosquito repellent on my face prior to falling asleep, and now it was slowly dripping into my eyes.
“Damn,” I said, dabbing my eyes with the corner of my shirt.
The grunt, Sgt. Ellis, was hovering over me. “Hey, man. I’m sorry, but it’s your turn at guard duty. I’m getting sleepy; I can’t keep my eyes open, man. I did my three.”
I shook my head trying to squeeze the tears out, which only seemed to accelerate the stinging. “No, Sarge. Not you. It’s my damn eyes. I got repellent in them. It’s burning like crap. Jez!”
Ellis laughed and stepped back for a few moments to ensure I was awake before returning to his own cot. It wouldn’t have been the first time someone was awakened for guard duty then fell back to sleep, leaving our position unguarded.
I got up and stretched while I tried to clear my eyes. “It’s cool. I’m up. I’m up. Got it, Sarge. Got it.”
Dang…no rain. Groovy.
I grabbed my M16, propped at the foot of my cot, as well as the steel pot, as we referred to the helmet. We berthed under the stars outside the armored personnel carrier (APC) because it was too crowded to sleep inside. The stench of dirty socks and the prospect of being elbowed at night, along with the chorus of snores, made the interior of the APC unappealing except during the rains, when we would “pack ‘em and stack ‘em.” I had camped out a lot with my family before joining the Army and found it more tolerable to sleep under the sky than some of my comrades did.
Heading for guard duty—daytime—FNG before field assignment
Reaching under my cot, I found my web belt, which held my gear, including a canteen. Removing the canteen from its canvas holder, I tilted my head back to flush my eyes with the tepid water. It brought a little relief.
“I’m awake,” I kept telling myself, as I climbed up onto the top of the track. This was our M113A1, an armored personnel carrier, fondly known as a “track.” Finding my usual favored position, I sat down on top, in front of the TC shield, which was a steel circular turret shield used to protect the Track Commander (TC), who manned the .50 caliber machine gun and provided instructions and direction to the driver. The shield gave me back support while I scanned the darkness in front of our track position.
Guard duty was three hours per night for each of us unless we were on high alert. Then, we had two on post at a time. There was another track to my left about 10 meters, and the local South Vietnamese ARVN headquarters bunker was exactly to my right, about 20 meters. There was movement on the top of the track to my left, track C-21, another Charlie Company track with the motor pool guys. They must be changing over guard duty as well, I thought. I looked to my right to see if there was any movement at the Vietnamese (ARVN) bunker. There was none. Either the guard was patiently scanning the perimeter, or he was steadfastly asleep, a common occurrence with the ARVN soldiers. I hoped it was the former instead of the latter.
It was early August 1969. We were responsible for road and bridge security and were serving as the rapid reactionary response force for the 173rd Airborne. We secured the Tam Quan hamlet at night and swept the roads during first light. Tam Quan had been overrun several times and was the site of one of the 15 bloodiest battles fought in South Vietnam. Occasionally Viet Cong sappers would probe the perimeters to see where the weaknesses were. We had to let them know we were there. They were serious about their mission, and so were we.
Now that my eyes were clear, I gazed at the black blanket of the sky, populated with millions of dots of light like a moth-eaten blanket held up in front of a fire. Because we were so far from the lights of a city, the celestial bodies were far more visible and amazing. Listening to night sounds, I imagined my girl, Cynthia, seeing the same stars at that same time, halfway across the world. I didn’t give much thought to the time difference. It was of little importance to an 18-year-old romantic. The thought of her watching the same stars bridged the vast distance and dissolved the thousands of miles that separated us.
The foreground was a blanket of silhouettes, dark and foreboding with black jagged shapes plastered against a gunpowder gray background. The nightline of swaying palm trees could shelter the stealthy enemy, bent on harm and the termination of my existence. Suddenly, I felt so small in the scale of things, but my heart was large and it was aching. Apprehension was replaced with undying affection. It brought life where death could happen with an eye’s blink. The thought of Cynthia was like a soothing breeze on a hot day.
Opening the case to the right of the TC shield, I lifted the Starlight scope to one eye to view our frontal perimeter, staring through the unnatural green glow of the light amplification device. The Starlight amplified limited light, such as the moon, to make viewing at night possible. The dark silhouettes took on depth, shadows awash in an eerie green hue.
The downside of the Starlight scope was that after your eye adjusted to the amplified light, and you removed it, you were blinded momentarily. This created a vulnerable time for detecting movement in your perimeter. It could be a little unnerving to have thought you saw movement just as you were moving the Starlight scope away. You would have to blink repeatedly or squint to help your eyes dilate to the darkness. What was that? Was that movement? Did I see something near that tree?
I blinked to readjust my vision after peering through the scope, but it only accented the stinging from the mosquito repellent.
The reminder of the mosquito repellent alerted me to remove the small green bottle from the elastic band that secured the camo cover to my helmet. Quickly, I smothered my arms, face, and neck with the smelly liquid to fend off the winged vampires of the night, Vietnamese mosquitoes. I don’t recall seeing our allies, the South Vietnamese ARVN soldiers, swatting at those creatures as the Americans did. Perhaps the indigenous critters preferred imported meat over the local meat, and we provided a feast for the weary roaming bugs. Sometimes the bites felt as if they were grinding their cigarettes out on you instead of stealing valuable corpuscles. A buzzing sound around your ear and then abrupt silence meant a meal was in progress. You would start flailing away until you heard the buzz again. How could something so small create such a nuisance?
The jungles nearby were always noisy. With the clamor of the local livestock, barking dogs and jungle sounds, I was amazed I could fall asleep so quickly after my guard duty. The sounds began to taper off somewhere around 1 a.m. and reignited at sunrise. Jungle birds and insects chirped and sang, interrupted periodically by a village dog. It was strange to sit there and gaze at the remarkable celestial bodies, take in the ensemble of sounds and smell the mix of odors from sweaty GIs and the village while scanning my front for movement by a stealthy enemy trying to penetrate our position.
Sitting on top of the track that night, I thought of driving down the highway on top of our APCs. The striking splendor of Vietnam astounded me on these drives, and I often thought, “What in the hell is a war doing in a place like this?” I made a mental note to return to this country when no one would shoot at me.
Two months later…in the boonies between the coastal city of Phan Thiet and the hamlet of Thien Giao…more of the same.
I was assigned to a track responsible for patrolling and securing the local area of operations with the rest of our unit. We all couldn’t sleep inside the track at night, so after erecting concertina wire around the perimeter and chain link fencing in front of the track to take the brunt of a grenade, B-4, or RPG rocket blast, we always erected a tarp to congregate under in the rain. Although the tarp provided some solace, monsoon rain came in at all angles based on the wind, so a soldier stayed dry only in the dead center. Sometimes monsoon rain can come down horizontally, so even the center was no guarantee.
We took turns sleeping on the outer edges. The hammering rain was merciless at night to those inhabitants of the border. The droplets were weighty and rapid. The staccato battering distracted us from the sleep our fatigued bodies screamed for. It was common to wake up with a two- to three-inch puddle of water in your cot and soaked to the bone. Dry socks were kept in a plastic bag inside the track. Unfortunately, demand was high and supply was low. After a couple changes a day, we ran out. We bartered precious items like cigarettes and Military Payment Certificates (MPC) to acquire more socks. In no time, most of us contracted some form of foot fungus that we took back as souvenirs to the States. I still have scars between my toes.
Guard duty was a real struggle. When a soldier perched on the track for guard duty, the plastic poncho provided some form of coverage, but the face had to be exposed to conduct a 180-degree visual scan of your position. In the States, rain fell in droplets; in Vietnam, it descended in pellets with brute force.
Cigarettes were not allowed during guard duty for obvious reasons, so the only company were your thoughts. Long before I learned to live without cigarettes, the craving for one was strong. I would often argue with myself and say, well, if I close the hood real tight, they wouldn’t see the glow. The challenge was to keep it dry and unobservable. Fortunately, self-preservation and logic were stronger than my nicotine addiction so I avoided smoking when I could. Who wants a small glow to draw a bead from Chuck?
As the rain feverishly struck my face while I struggled to view the area in front of our track, I imagined my girl, Cynthia, sitting there with me. Huddled under that poncho with wet fatigues and soaked underwear, I was dry and cheerful with my thoughts. I even found myself whispering to her. Sometimes I retrieved one of her recent letters from a pocket and drew it under my thin plastic poncho. I inhaled the faint scent slowly with my eyes closed. It was a brief respite from the misery presented on the opposite side of that poncho—a world that held me hostage.
After a few minutes, with great reluctance, the momentary reprieve ended, and I returned to my role as a guard, momentary custodian of security. Grabbing the hood and sliding it down to expose my face, my return to the bleak and wet night was complete. I was then faced with staring intently at the perimeter, struggling to detect movement, all the while being battered by the voluminous pellets of water. Because I wore glasses, it was a continuous battle to keep them from blurring and restricting my vision. I couldn’t see with them, and I couldn’t see without them. Humorously, I reassured myself that the stealthy enemy was pretty bright and had no interest in sliding through the deep rice patties of water putrid with buffalo dung and mosquito larva to sneak up on us. I hoped. Still, it would be an opportune time so caution was the calling card.
When we were not on Search and Destroy maneuvers or pulling guard, I would squeeze a corner inside the track and write to Cynthia. You can’t really describe the wretched conditions of dismounted foot patrols in the rain or the misery of stomping around in the muddy rice paddies rigging up one track to another in an effort to pull out stuck APCs. Sometimes we would have a daisy chain of stuck tracks. It doesn’t take much to mire down a 11-ton fully loaded APC in the mud of the monsoons. Perhaps it was Mother Nature’s eloquent revenge for our warring deeds.
The First Sergeant would yell: “OK, ladies. Off the track and into the paddy. Let’s get these stuck tracks out. Get the cables hooked up. Let’s go! Let’s go! Hubba-hubba. Move it. Shake it, ladies. Move your asses”
When I jumped off, the mud sucked me into the earth like it was consuming me, pulling my body into its womb. I often got so mired in the mud that I would lose a boot while trying to move around. It made a loud sucking sound and then a pop as my foot left the boot. It was a funny and common sight to see guys balanced on one foot while bent over searching for a buried boot with a mud-slathered hand.
Once a dried corner of the track or the center of the tarp was accessible, I mentally blocked out the smell of dirty socks, the invasion of mosquitoes and other small jungle critters, mildew and my buddies’ digestive odors, to write or read letters.
Cynthia’s poignant letters never failed to inspire and lift my spirits. The content of my letters to her were more about how I missed her or something I had read in a magazine recently. It was less about the bleakness caused by relentless rain and the difficulty of wet clothing. The banter was harmless, and I tried to avoid depressing topics.
Dampness was ubiquitously present and clutched to everything like fresh paint. Between the extreme humidity of the tropics and the unrelenting monsoon, the wetness saturated my skin and psyche. In conversation with others or just solo utterances, rain was a four-letter word. It was almost always preceded by a series of colorful adjectives that did not pay homage to H2O.
We often set up a perimeter in the rice paddies during the last part of the day before dusk. There was a lingering, intense smell during the monsoon season. The jungles were nearby and assaulted your sense of smell and hearing constantly; the reeking odor of water buffalo dung in the paddies mixed with cigarette smoke, and the pungent scent of cordite from artillery or mortar rounds, was carried along with the stench of burning C-4 plastic explosives used to heat meals and rancid vegetation from the nearby jungles floor beds. Mixed odors permeated the air and stank like a homeless person you were handing a dollar to. This was occasionally punctuated with the pungent odor of diesel from our tracks. That odor clung to the fabric of your jungle fatigues like a wrinkled tattoo on aging skin.
At night, the critters of the jungle sang their mating songs through clicks, screeching and odd noises, hour after hour. Sometimes on guard duty I would focus on trying to distinguish one sound from another. To pass the time, I tried to envision the animal or insect responsible for that particular sound. It helped to kill the tedious hours of watch. Even timing the intervals between the isolated sounds on the luminescent hands of my watch became an entertaining exercise.
During the day, the sounds were a continuous roar with the bellowing screams of our APC engines, the hacking chop of helicopters overhead, and yelling voices of soldiers sitting high atop the APCs.
As if there was not enough assault on the eardrums, let there be a firefight or recon by fire. ‘Recon by Fire’ happened when we lined our tracks up facing the jungle tree line after the bad guys had been spotted by circling helicopters.
It was electrifying and thunderous. The popping sound of machine guns, M-60’s, M16s, the and the thump-thump-thump reverberation of a .50 caliber spewing rounds was deafening and exhilarating. Then, the sporadic wallop and whooshing sound of mortar rounds from the weapons track blanketing the air. Doop….whi-r-r-r–r….K`BBOOOOOOOOOMMMM!!!!! You can never reproduce those sounds in another setting.
There are no other sounds or smells similar to jungle war. While many of those kids I had gone to school with were having their eardrums blasted by loud rock music back home, my eardrums were peppered by the sounds of explosions and loud weapons fire, which would later result in some permanent hearing loss.
Next night…more of the same. Next day…repeat.
Other stories contributed by Preston Ingalls:
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Should you have a question or comment about this article, then scroll down to the comment section below to leave your response.
If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War and its Warriors, then subscribe to this blog and get notified by email or your feed reader every time a new story, picture, video or changes occur on this website – the button is located at the top right of this page.
I‘ve also created a poll to help identify my website audience – before leaving, can you please click HERE and choose the one item that best describes you. Thank you in advance!