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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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