by Keith Nightingale – posted on FB Group VietnamWar History Org and printed here with his permission.
Col (Ret) Keith Nightingale, served in infantry, Ranger, and Special Operations forces during his 29-year career in the Army. He served two tours in Vietnam, first, as an adviser to the 52nd Ranger Battalion during Tet and then as a rifle company commander in the 101st Airborne during 1970-71. His career spanned assignments with the 75th Ranger Battalion, the Iran Rescue Task Force, and an assault force commander in Grenada. He is retired and lives in California where he raises limes and kills gophers.
Most any commander, at any level in combat, both senses and experiences a moment in his unit’s life cycle where personal judgment overrules traditional restraints or customs. This was such a moment for me as a company commander, Company D, 1st Battalion, 502d Infantry, 101st Airborne. The moment was in 1971 in a potentially very lethal portion of Vietnam.
The A Shau is both a beautiful and deadly place. Much like a black widow spider, it has the appearance of shiny beauty but that camouflages the venomous interior—an interior that watches, waits, and pounces with great and deadly effect.
The unit had been in working the spider’s lair for more than three weeks. Its log days were fitful at best-this being the extreme dry season with the hills subject to dense early morning fogs causing a four-day resupply cycle to be closer to six days on average. The unit had been somewhat detached from its mother battalion and was moving as an independent actor. This was somewhat of a self-imposed role as the unit leadership on several levels was extremely adept at sniffing and smelling the enemy and studiously avoiding contact when it did not have a distinct advantage. Our primary kills had been with mechanical ambushes-the Vietnam-era version of IEDs. Claymores with all sorts of exotic and imaginative trigger devices were emplaced on likely avenues of movement. Invariably, these bagged a clever and crafty enemy. In fact, by the end of the third week, we had more confirmed kills than the rest of the brigade combined. It was convenient to leave us working so as to provide a constant source of favorable statistics.
Regardless, the element had suffered two killed and 11 wounded in random encounters over the period. No replacements graced the log birds. The result was that the unit had a palpable sense of extreme exhaustion, mental and physical. Even the two dog teams, one a scout dog and the other a mine dog, informed me that the quality of the dogs had become almost nil. The dogs had subsisted almost totally on USAF dried meals mixed with a minimum of precious canteen water. The medics reported that instances of ringworm, rot, and infected boils and cuts were ubiquitous.
I could both see and sense a steady erosion of performance and decided to move to higher ground. Though tortuous physically, the move would get the unit off of the active enemy trails and provide some options for badly needed rest. Perhaps the lack of kills over several days would stir the higher’s to extract us for a few days to recover our physical and mental well-being..
Accordingly, we set a course up a long finger reaching up to several saddles before the very top. Perhaps we could rest there in relative safety from a chance encounter. For the better part of the morning, under fierce mottled sunlight and seemingly layered contour lines, the unit pressed toward the vertical. Under the canopy, while there was some escape from the sun, the humidity was overwhelming and sapping of whatever residual strength the soldiers retained. The ground, after the first few passages, became wet and greaselike. Boot soles quickly became clogged as the thin line snaked up the side. Troops, burdened with rucks, radios, rifles, and machine guns, pulled themselves up by grasping branches and vines, pausing a moment to rest their boots on a root crotch before proceeding. In this manner, the element gradually, tortuously moved off of the valley floor.
The soldier’s heads were deeply bowed as if in prayer. The uniforms completely wet and deep green with sweat. The boots were caked in the greasy laterite of the jungle interior. Pain from the rucksack and TA 50 bore deep inside the neck and shoulders. White streaks of caked salt mottled the external straps. Steam rose from under the helmets even in this fetid environment. The radio operators, carrying the heaviest burdens, were assisted by others who alternately pulled and pushed them to the next root mass for a moment’s rest.
The point, with the scout dog, suddenly found itself on relatively level ground. The squad leader, just behind, passed a Halt signal. The team moved less than 10 meters when it broke clear of the jungle and came astride a small flowing stream with scattered black moss-covered rocks along its side. There was no sign of other human incursions. I came forward and viewed the stream.
I did a quick eyeball survey and signaled for the remainder to fill in and align to the left and right of the stream. As if given a new burst of strength, the sinuous line achieved the higher ground and quietly moved into position. Now exhausted to the core, they lay down with their rucks to the front and rifles poised forward. I had learned on my first tour, reinforced on my second, that the enemy always located near water and so ordered two squads to reconnoiter up and down the stream to at least 100 meters. I had the remainder of the perimeter make water parties to refill the exhausted canteens and five quarts. No smoking or noise permitted. The dog teams were permitted to send their charges forward to lie in the creek and recover-shepherds having an unusually difficult time in this climate.
In less than 30 minutes, the squad that moved upstream returned. The sergeant was quite excited and animated-a contrast from everyone else’s deep torpor.
“Sir. You won’t believe this. It’s incredible.”
“It’s a huge pool with big granite boulders. No sign of any habitation. It’s incredible.”
I immediately moved forward, joining the squad and asked to see this wonder.
Moving now quickly with a recharged step, we followed the stream to a spot where it suddenly halted its meander to indicate a steep waterfall of more than 20 feet in height. We worked our way around to jungle and moved up the slope to the point where the rest of the watershed was revealed. Taking a quick scan, I was hit with a random thought and directed the squad leader to go to the main element and bring them all up to my location.
The troops, now half unconscious with the effects of the climb, the humidity, and the brief rest, moved slowly and with a marginal degree of consciousness. In a few minutes, the single file of exhausted soldiers crested the rise to join me. What they saw gave each man an almost palpable instant mental recharge that wiped days of exhaustion.
Before us lay a wide calm body of water encompassing more than an acre. It was dark and languid but sparkled with oxygen. The jungle came down to the edge all around but several open spots of ground encompassed the rim. Large black moss-covered granite boulders laced the pool dripping with moss, ferns, and rivulets of water. Further to the north, a smaller waterfall fed the pool. Birds could be heard singing. I could see that several open spaces had small trails leading to them. Clearly, this was a known and used NVA location. But for the moment, we owned it. And for a small period, we would keep it.
Having made a mental decision with potentially mortal consequences, I instructed that two platoons would ring the perimeter-each bisected by the waterfall. The third platoon would drop rucks and equipment at the largest open area and use the pool as they saw fit. Each platoon had 30 minutes and then would rotate with the others. The effect of this place and the water clearly began to unburden all the emotional rucksacks.
Some troops went into the water completely naked. Others wore everything but their rucksacks and submerged themselves for as long as they could hold their breath. The relatively warm but yet cool water had a magic effect on the morale and wiped out days of mental exhaustion.
The dog handlers, not part of any platoon, interpreted the orders to mean they had access rights for the entire period. The dogs, now released from their leashes, eagerly joined the water and paddled around as would children. In a few minutes, the dogs, now together, lay on the shore half in and half out of the water panting with newly alerted eyes.
One platoon sergeant, a wiry man from West Virginia, made his way to the incoming waterfall and noted the deep pool beneath it. On a whim, he checked the area and gave a Fire in the Hole, and lobbed a grenade in the center of the pool. The water boiled and burst to a background of screaming birds and then silence returned. Soon, several large white fish emerged, belly up. The sergeant and another soldier swam out to recover the carcasses. A third soldier dove inside the pool and emerged with two more fish hooked through his fingers. The sergeant immediately cleaned the fish, impaled them on green sticks, and lit a relatively smokeless fire just on the edge of the jungle canopy where it would dissipate underneath. I almost drew a halt to all this but something told me to restrain myself, which I did. I did issue a small quiet prayer on behalf of us all.
The sergeant went to his ruck and extracted a bottle of Heinz 57 sauce-something he had been hoarding for some time. He extracted his weapons toothbrush and swabbed each fish front and back with the sauce. He sat down with an immensely satisfying smile.
I timed my own immersion to the rotation of the third platoon in the water, dropped my boots, and walked into the deep pool by the waterfall. I groped my way along until I was directly under the fall, hooked my boots into a crevice in the rocky bed, and just let the water cascade over my head. I was lost in a neutral brain for the first time in weeks.
Here, the war did not exist. The pains and spirit of endurance-both physical and mental washed away. The pool was as if a giant soothing cloud of good feeling and relaxation cloaked everyone. Soldiers smiled and broke into animated conservations. For a brief moment, everyone had their lives back.
I noted the effect and permitted myself to lapse my professional role and extend the time for so long as I deemed prudent. In time, the fish are now eaten, the clothes freshly soaked and the minds rejuvenated, I ordered everyone to ruck up and move out. Sometimes, soldiers just need a break. It’s a point not fully appreciated until experienced.
Keith’s earlier contribution to this website can be found here: https://wp.me/pRiEw-3yA
Thank you, Keith, for your contribution to my website. Did anybody else experience something similar where a “timeout” was declared?
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 best describing you. Thank you in advance!