My guest is a former Army 1st Cav. platoon leader who is writing a book about his Vietnam experiences in 1968. Today, he shares one of his completed chapters which showed his dealings with a new gung-ho Shake ‘n Bake NCO who wanted to be in charge. It’s well worth the time to read.   

By Robin Bartlett

On May 9, 1968, as a 22-year-old Second Lieutenant, Airborne and Ranger qualified, I found myself on an airplane bound for Tan Son Nhut Airbase on orders to join the 101st Airborne Division. My attitude and the attitude of many of the other officers and men I led was “keep your head down, don’t take chances, serve your year and come back in one piece.” A soldier’s “short-timer calendar” was the most valuable piece of paper carried and we religiously colored in a new number each day. It was the worst of times to be a Combat Infantry Platoon Leader in that God-forsaken land, let alone a grunt rifleman serving in a combat unit. Opinions about the war were changing and it was commonly recognized by junior officers and soldiers alike that this was a war that could not be won and would not end. It persisted for another four years because no President wanted the stigma of being the first to lose an American war.

1968 was arguably the most significant year of the war. It was the height of the American involvement, and because officer casualties had been so numerous from the 1968 Tet offensive, all officer assignment orders were canceled. I found myself at the “repo-depo” reassigned to the 1 st Air Cav Division. The scuttlebutt on the Division was positive. The unit had more helicopter support than any other unit in Vietnam, the soldiers carried lighter packs and more ammo and water because of the ease of helicopter resupply. Immediate support from helicopter gunships and ARA (aerial rocket artillery) was only minutes away to support an enemy engagement. Wounded troops could be medevaced even in the dense jungle using “jungle penetrators.” The downside was that my platoon could deploy through air combat assaults (Charlie Alphas) into hot LZs at a moment’s notice when an enemy force had been spotted – and we were. Thus, it was with extreme anxiety that I made my way to join my company.

At base camp

Promoted to 1st Lieutenant after only one year, I assumed the leadership of the 1st Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry with a call sign of Foggy Day One-Six. Over the next seven months, I led a platoon of 28 men on combat assaults and search and destroy missions. My platoon traversed the lowlands and jungles of I Corps, parallel to the DMZ, from the Gulf of Tonkin on the east to the mountainous jungles adjacent to the Laotian border on the west, in search of VC and Regular NVA troops.

I have visited the Vietnam War Memorial many times. As I walk down the path leading to the apex of the chevron-shaped marble walls, I notice several things: It gets darker. It gets cooler. It gets quieter. The experience always reminds me of the many foxholes I have dug and huddled in. It brings back memories of the months I spent as a Platoon Leader. Many of the names of the men I led are inscribed on the Wall. I do not remember very many of their names because we called each other with nicknames and call signs. I visit “The Wall that Heals” as often as I get to D. C. The memory of “my worst day in Vietnam” always comes flooding back to me. That memory is as alive today as it was 52 years ago, but after visiting the Wall, I come away feeling better. It truly is “The Wall that Heals.”

The officer’s responsibility with a KIA was to inventory the man’s equipment, search the pockets, enter coordinates where killed, fill out and sign the death tag; place one dog tag around the neck and the other tied to a bootlace; then wrap securely in a poncho.

The following is an excerpt from a book I’m in the early stages of writing, it’s a single chapter, titled: My Worst Day in Vietnam. I hope you enjoy my story!

The bullet diameter of an AK47 round is 7.62 mm with a shell casing of 39 mm.  The Kalashnikov 47 was the typical weapon carried by the VC and NVA regular troops when I served in Vietnam in 1968-69.  The round packs a tremendous punch and, when fired, leaves the chamber of the weapon with extreme velocity. When one of these rounds strikes a body, it leaves a very small hole going in, but because of the velocity, it will often pass through and leave a very large hole going out.   The bullet is moving so fast that it can often pass through the first body and injure anyone standing behind.  And, if the bullet should hit bone within the body, the bullet is designed to mushroom and tumble causing intense trauma. 

One of the reasons that the US Army switched from the M14 to the M16 rifle in Vietnam was the weight of the weapon.  An M14 weighs in at just under 14 lbs. and an M16 at just over 7.  But it was the high velocity of the bullet and capability to fire off 18 rounds in 2.5 seconds when set to full automatic that made the weapon a favorite among GI’s.  (Even though the magazine would hold 20 rounds, we never loaded more than 18 in order not to fully compress the magazine spring.)  The M16 cartridge (.223mm) is only slightly larger than the common .22 round and was commonly referred to as a “pregnant .22.”  Ammunition for the M16 was lighter than the M14 and it was easy to strap two M16 bandoleers (20 clips) around your waist and provide an extra layer of protection to your mid-section.  (An enemy bullet striking one of your magazines would still cause serious injury, but it would slow down the velocity and make the wound survivable.)  The M16 provided American soldiers fighting in Vietnam an ideal firearm for close combat firefights.  My experience was that ambushes and skirmishes with the enemy most often took place within 15 to 50 meters. 

About halfway through my field tour, my platoon received a replacement by the name of Sergeant Ron Roberts.  He was an FNG (Fucking New Guy) and had been in-country for less than a month.  He joined us one morning flying in on the supply chopper bringing in water, C-Rats, and ammo.  He was sweating profusely, wearing both a jungle fatigue blouse and a T-shirt.  His skin was ashen.  When he reported to me, he saluted, introducing himself as Sergeant Roberts.  I returned the salute and told him to sit down and cool off.  The man was extremely nervous about his first day in the field.  I instructed him to make the salute he just gave me to be the last he ever made in the field.  There was to be no saluting of officers and, in the future, I was to be addressed as One-Six and not Lieutenant or Sir. (“One” was for the First Platoon and “six” for the Platoon Leader.)  The man was carrying a ton of equipment and clearly no one had shown him what essentials were needed when humping the boonies.  This was quickly remedied.  I assigned Roberts to work with my most experienced Squad Leader and told “One-Three” to get him squared away.  There was no way that he should be dressed the way he was and carrying as much equipment. 

It was our company and battalion policy to have all FNGs walk within the platoon for many weeks before being assigned to a leadership position.  Roberts was a Sergeant E-5, a Squad Leader, whereas my other Squad Leaders were SP4s and Roberts had seniority over them.  However, I was not about to assign an FNG sergeant to a squad leader position until he was thoroughly vetted, acclimatized and mentally prepared to assume responsibility for a squad.  I explained this to Roberts, but it didn’t sit well.  He wanted to know when he would be assigned as a Squad Leader, which was his right as a Sergeant E-5.  I told him to “walk along, observe our procedures and get to know the men in the squad and platoon,” and I would assign him as a squad leader when the time was right.  He kept pressing me to know when this would happen, and I told him “I will make you a Squad Leader when I see that you are comfortable and competent enough to lead a squad.”

My own introduction to my platoon followed a similar path.  My Company Commander, a Captain, recognized that I was very new and needed some adjustment time to feel more comfortable and prepared to lead a platoon.  Furthermore, the Platoon Sergeant in the First Platoon, the one I was to be assigned to, was an “Instant NCO” (Non-Commissioned Officer) and inexperienced.  (Instant NCOs were also called “Shake and Bakes.”  The need for NCOs was so great in Vietnam, that the army started an Instant NCO Program.  Select Squad Leaders, E-5’s, underwent a 90-day training program back in the World and were promoted to E6 upon successfully passing the course.  Typically, an E6 in a regular army unit would have at least 5-6 years of experience to earn that rank).  My CO wanted to make sure that I was fully prepared to lead my platoon before allowing me to take over.  Consequently, I was assigned as the Mortar Platoon Leader for about three weeks so that he could observe and allow me to develop the confidence that I could lead a platoon in combat.  I appreciated this adjustment period and when I was assigned to the First Platoon after about a month, I felt comfortable and prepared to lead my men and to implement the tactics we would follow, depending on the terrain and conditions.  I explained this to Roberts and he acknowledged that a few weeks spent “learning the ropes” would be good for him as well, but that he wanted to be assigned as a Squad Leader just as soon as possible.

Banner for Shake ‘n Bake school in Georgia

I could tell that Roberts was a very aggressive 19-year old.  He was gung-ho and fresh out of NCO school.  And, like many of the young men who were aggressively trained by the Army, he wanted to get into a fight and get his first kill.  As we talked, I explained to him that our tactical philosophy was to avoid close contact with the enemy and to seek, find and fix a large enemy concentration to bring all the incredible resources of the 1st Cav Division to bear.  This included ARA (Aerial Rocket Artillery – Cobra helicopter gunships) and traditional 105mm, 155mm and 8-inch artillery.  It was our policy not to avoid a fight with the enemy, but to make sure that we always employed a superior and overwhelming force against all enemy positions when encountered.  My final words of advice to him were: “Watch, learn and keep your mouth shut.”  (This was the same advice my CO had given me.)

For the first couple of days, I checked in regularly with “One-Three” to see how Roberts was getting along.  My Squad Leader said that Roberts was asking lots of questions and challenging the tactics and techniques we were using.  He had also questioned a lot of decisions that the Squad Leader had made.  Roberts had refused to give up the extra and unnecessary equipment he brought to the field, and consequently was carrying a very heavy pack.  I asked if I needed to speak with Roberts again, but “One-Three” told me, “No, give him some more time to make the adjustment.”

At about two weeks into Robert’s tour, we made a combat assault into a suspected enemy location.  My platoon was assigned to lead the assault, and it was the third squad’s turn to go with me in the lead bird.  As we prepared to be picked up, One-Three came to me and said that Roberts was insisting on being on the first bird with me.  My Squad Leader wanted a more experienced man to be on the lead bird, but Roberts was starting to pull rank.  I told the squad leader to have Roberts report to me.

The day I traded packs with my RTO (only once)

I was very busy getting ready for the choppers to pick up my platoon and had only a moment to speak with Roberts, but I told him bluntly that regardless of his rank, he was to follow “One-Three’s” instructions.  If he was told to ride in the second or third bird, then that’s what he was to do.  I asked if he understood these instructions and he told me that he was just anxious to “get into the fight.”  I told him that he still had 11 months to go and there would be plenty of time for him to get into “the shit.”

The assault went smoothly and without incident.  Our LZ was green and my platoon set up a perimeter to protect the next round of the helicopters as they carried the rest of the company into the landing zone, four helicopters at a time.  Once the entire company was on the ground, my platoon fanned out to secure our assigned sector of the LZ.  We spent the rest of the morning searching our sector for enemy troops but found nothing.  (Note that when a combat assault is performed, the landing zone and surrounding area is peppered with artillery fire and then, once lifted, the Aerial Rocket Artillery, Cobra helicopter gunships, come in to spray the area with rockets, grenades and minigun fire. Therefore, it is unusual for an enemy force to be able to survive such an assault and if there is an enemy force present they are typically killed or learn to rapidly evacuate the area as the bombardment begins.)

Prep of landing zone prior to combat assault

As we searched our sector of the new AO, we did find some blood trails, but no enemy force.  As we patrolled, we also evaluated possible sites for that evening’s ambushes.  (Each platoon would put out one ambush of about 10 men each night).  Knowing that Charlie was always watching us, we would make a fuss over several possible sites so that there was no way for him to know exactly which one we would choose for that night’s ambush.  It was an extremely hot day (over 100 degrees) and we returned to the CP at noon, ate our noon meal, drank water and rested.  Everyone was still on edge because of the combat assault and the intelligence briefing that indicated the enemy had been sighted in the area, as well as the blood trails that had been discovered.

Checking my map

At about 2 p.m., my CO brought all the Platoon Leaders to his CP and told us to send out another patrol that afternoon for a second search within the sectors that had previously been explored.  He suspected that Charlie might try slipping back into the area after we cleared it and he didn’t want the company to be caught by surprise.  I returned to the platoon and told the first squad to get ready to go out on a search mission.  At this point, Roberts again presented himself to me and requested to go out on patrol with the first squad.  He told me that he wanted to learn and observe as much as he could and going out with a different squad leader would be a valuable experience for him.

Taking a call from my CO

I spoke with One-One to see if he was OK with having Roberts accompany his patrol.  The Squad Leader said that he was, if Roberts clearly understood that One-One was leading the squad. Roberts said that he did, and I gave the OK for him to go along. I checked each man before they went out on the patrol to make sure they were carrying enough ammo and water and not making clanking noises.

About an hour into the patrol, we heard a series of rifle shots, followed by machine-gun fire and a grenade explosion.  Everyone scrambled into foxholes and grabbed their weapons.  I told the second squad to saddle up and be prepared to move out with me in support but to hold until I received orders to do so.  The firefight lasted for about 5 minutes during which time the CO was on the radio to One-One trying to get a sitrep (situation report).  One-One told the CO that they had encountered what was thought to be a single enemy sniper and that they had suffered a KIA.  The Squad Leader reported that the enemy had retreated and given a direction of suspected movement.  Our FO (Forward Observer) dropped some artillery into the area beyond where the contact had occurred, but the squad leader could not see the rounds land in the dense jungle and it was impossible (and dangerous) to try to adjust the fire by the sounds of where the artillery landed.  The CO ordered the squad to return and bring the KIA back to the CP.  The KIA was Roberts.

About an hour later, my squad returned, and four men were carrying Roberts, one man holding each arm and leg plus his weapon and equipment.  A cloth had been placed over Roberts’ face.  There was a small hole in his forehead about the size of a dime, but most of the back of his skull and brains had been blown out the back.  The man was placed on the ground near where my platoon CP was located.

My Squad Leader came over, sat down, drank some water and smoked a cigarette.  His hands were shaking as he told me the story.  As the squad had moved cautiously through the dense jungle, the point man alerted to a noise.  The squad moved up even with the point to support him.  They laid down a base of fire in the direction of where the point man had heard the noise and had received return fire from what was thought to be a single enemy soldier.  The Squad Leader directed four of his men to move to the right flank to come in on the side of where the suspected enemy was holed up.  The men were in the dense, hilly jungle, so it was impossible to see more than about 20-30 meters in any direction.  The four men moved out while the rest of the squad continued to lay down a base of fire.  Roberts was among the four men moving to the flank.

As the four riflemen began to approach the suspected enemy position, Roberts suddenly stood up and ran forward of the men coming in on the flank and threw a grenade at the suspected enemy position.  After the explosion, a single shot rang out and Roberts fell dead, shot in the head.  The men crawled forward, pulled Roberts back from where he had fallen, and the squad regrouped.  Eventually, the squad moved forward and cleared the area where the enemy sniper had been holed up.  There was no sign of the enemy and no blood trails to follow.

Roberts’ body lay on the ground next to me.  My medic came over with a 3 x 5 card with a hole punched through one corner and a string tied through the hole.  He reminded me that it was the officer’s responsibility with a KIA to inventory the man’s equipment, search the pockets, enter coordinates where the man had been killed, fill out the boot tag and sign the card.  One dog tag was placed around the neck and the other tied to a bootlace, then the body was wrapped in a poncho.

So, I proceeded to do that.  I had one of my men prepare an inventory of his equipment (he still was carrying far too much stuff). I went through his pockets to see if there was anything that might be incriminating, and I put all of Roberts’ personal items in a plastic bag and placed the bag on his chest.  I filled out the card (death certificate) and conferred with my Squad Leader, looking at my map, to determine as closely as possible the exact coordinates where Roberts had been killed.  It struck me that for the first time in history, the Army was attempting to record the exact location for every soldier killed.  I filled in the rest of the information and tied the card to Robert’s boot.  I took one dog tag from around his neck and tied it to his bootlace.  Then I had three men lift Roberts and we slipped a poncho underneath and I wrapped it around him. 

I realized that when the helicopter came in to pick up the body, that the poncho would be blown about from the downdraft – always a dangerous thing.  I took some cord from my pack and tied the poncho around his feet, waist and above his head, creating a cocoon.  His boots protruded from the bottom of the poncho so that the toe tag and dog tag were visible.  Then we all stood around his body and said a silent prayer for Roberts.

Roberts had only been with us for a couple of weeks and no one had gotten to know him.  He had been so gung-ho and aggressive and wanted to assume a leadership position and get his first kill.  It was understandable to me and my men how his death had happened.  In his enthusiasm, Roberts had charged the enemy and had completely exposed himself to the enemy sniper’s fire.  While possibly a somewhat heroic act, it was not an intelligent tactic to have followed and it cost Roberts his life. The supply chopper came in a few hours later to unload C-Rats, ammo, water and supplies and we loaded Roberts on the departing bird along with his equipment. 

We finished digging our foxholes, put out Claymores and trip flares and set the first watch.  The rest of us pulled on our shirts, buttoned our collars and sleeves against mosquitoes and lathered up with insect repellant. I sent the second squad out on ambush detail that night with my Platoon Sergeant because the third squad had led the morning’s combat assault and the first squad had taken the afternoon patrol.

As I went to sleep that night I thought of what I had done to prepare Roberts’ body for his long trip back home and how I had tried to be as exact as possible to record the location where his death had occurred.  I thought about tying up the poncho with the cord that I carried in my pack, our brief silent ceremony before we loaded him into the supply helicopter.  I thought about my conversations with Roberts and how I had tried to get him acclimated and ready to assume a leadership position.  I was 22-years-old, and it was truly the worst day of my life.

Roberts was my first KIA, but he was not to be my last.  I had to wrap several more men into ponchos in the months that ensued and followed the same routine each time.  The activity got to be a little bit easier each time.  It was the officer’s responsibility to prepare the body to be returned to the rear and each time I tried to do it with efficiency and respect.  My men did not want to be involved nor did they want to touch the body.  Perhaps it was simple superstition as I’m sure they were afraid that this might happen to them – the next time.

I did not allow myself to become emotionally involved in the process.  I simply removed my mind and emotions from what I was doing and did what needed to be done as quickly, efficiently and respectfully as possible.  The days when I handled KIAs were my worst days in Vietnam and Roberts, being the first, was certainly the worst of all.  After the chopper had removed Roberts’ body, I asked one of my men to take a photograph of me so that I would always remember how I felt on that day.

Photo taken on my worst day in VN – so I would never forget

Those events live with me still and it is rare that I don’t think about the men in my platoon who were killed and what it felt like to prepare them for their final trip home.

Postscript

After the Vietnam War was over, a group of volunteers started the “Gold Star Mothers Program.”  This program, designed to help bring closure to a family’s grief, takes a group of mothers, sisters and daughters to Vietnam accompanied by volunteers from the same unit as the deceased soldier.  All expenses are paid by the organization and the group conducts a memorial service for each fallen soldier as close as possible to where the soldier fell.  This is one reason why recording the coordinates where the death occurred became so important. By the time all members of the party have memorialized each soldier’s death, they became very close.  Before returning to the US, the group conducts a final ceremony, usually at Cam Ranh Bay and a wreath celebrating all the soldiers’ lives is floated into the ocean.  Local Vietnamese have become aware of these ceremonies and come to observe them respectfully.

A short film inspired by the short story written by Robin Bartlett. A story based on the writer’s life experience, walking “point” on the trail while patrolling during wartime in Vietnam.

*****

Thank you, brother, for your contribution to this website. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading your completed book. Let me know when that happens and I’ll post the purchase link here at the end of the post. Good luck!


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