FOTO: by Keith Nightingale, War Zone D, 27 June 1967.
His appearance was indiscernible from his men. He wore no rank and his uniform was a carbon copy of theirs. Moreover, his shoulders ached with the biting grooves his ruck had cut into his body despite a large wrap of foam rubber and 100 mile an hour tape. Sweat poured off his face and into his completely soaked uniform. His Drive On towel was as soaked as his fatigues and now useless as for its intended purpose. Time to halt. Both his men’s condition and the waning light told him that.
He raised a Halt sign and dropped his ruck. He showed a 10 minute flash with his hands which brought the entire column to a sudden, near explosive drop. The immediate area reverberated with the collective drop of rucks, weapons and bodies. The area seemed to expel one collective wheeze as the troops settled on the ground, momentarily unmindful of what may be lurking beneath their exhausted bodies.
Platoon patrol bases, operating in daylight, would fan out and identify enemy trails. These would be programmed for mechanical ambushes with artillery concentrations covering them. In this way, the company could extract maximum return for minimal risk. The company commander was very aggressive in these techniques and kept the men constantly moving as aggressive locusts in a wheat field-the wheat field being a major piece of a deep primordial triple canopy jungle.
For the most part, the troops did not mind. They largely avoided all the spit, polish and bullshit of the firebase. They also enjoyed halts at chosen intervals rather than have to respond to the orders from 5,000 feet that were separated from ground reality.
The company, reacting to silent signals from the NCO’s, began to disperse to best positions alongside reasonably substantial trees and avenues of observation. The squad leaders placed the LMG positions to best advantage and tapped personnel for the night OP mission to their front. There would be less than an hour of useable daylight.
The SL moved out with the OP and selected the best position as well as the placement of the Claymores and trips. Insofar as possible, he tried to find a large tree or rock outcropping that he could place the OP in front of. This would protect the OP from outgoing friendly fire should the NVA ignite a flare or fire into the position. The OP was to remain in place regardless of circumstances. Experience had shown that attempting to re-join the perimeter in the midst of a firefight was a very bad idea. For the moment, once disposed, the troops began a very low murmur of conversation as they quietly ate what C rats they wished and arranged their gear for the night. The SL’s went amongst them establishing the sleep schedule and radio watch. It was the period between the establishment of the perimeter and dark that the greatest amount of smokeless tobacco was consumed. By morning, empty snuff cans marked the troop locations. The company commander quietly read his map while the artillery FO set his Defensive Concentrations (DEFCONs). They would be set but not fired. The unit had so far avoided contact during the day and wanted to stay that way.
“Squeak, Beep. Beep.Beep. Beep. Beep.”
“Dragon Control. Roger. Out.” And so it went.
The night quickly descended with its velvet black shroud over the company, wrapping each individual in his own mental and physical cocoon. Here, both the human sensors and the sinews of the mind took hold.
The jungle, hitherto silent, began to dominate. The millions of insects, grubs and other members of the primordial, constantly recycling population, began their movements in search of food and mates. Small phosphor trails began to make their presence known. Green dancing lines suddenly appeared then disappeared. Small flashing green and blue dots danced in the air. Small indecipherable rustles, snaps and buzzes rendered the silence moot. High pitched wing beats assailed the men in search of the liquid of the eyes, the inner recesses of the ear and other orifices.
Deeper, a tiger might roar or pigs and deer begin their nightly rooting and mating calls. To the soldiers, now hunkered behind their rucks, watched and listened, attempting to discern threat from acceptable companions.
The deep silence was occasionally broken by the intermittent noises of a nation at war. The deep rumble of a B52 arclight, the high squeal of a Puff with its red spiraling message and the rhythmic thunder of artillery rolled through the perimeter. For those in the position to see through the canopy, the green spiraling flares of a distant action would mark the dark blanket of the night.
On the OP’s, the NCOs had paired vets with Cherries to insure maturity and appropriate response in an isolated position. New units in-country were easily identifiable by nighttime filled with shots at shadows, imagined infiltrations and simply the plain fear of firing to somehow assuage the utter loneliness associated with the unknown. This would not happen with this company. Their independent survival depended upon stealth and secrecy. An inadvertent Claymore blast or a shot at shadows could compromise the entire unit in a deeply resourced NVA enclave. The phosphors would have to show a rubber-soled foot or a pith helmet to warrant a response.
On the OP, the sense of isolation and fear was pronounced. Separated from the main body by a good distance, the two occupants were truly in No Man’s Land and on their own until dawn. No retreat to the perimeter would be allowed for their own safety.
The two on OP found a small space, ideally with some form of rock or log protection and a decent amount of viewing distance in front. They arranged two aligned sticks to indicate each Claymore and Trip Flare location. It could suddenly be very busy and the sticks would recall what the nervous and reactionary soldier might forget.
Each soldier would soon be lost in his own thoughts as the darkness and its denizens achieved sensory dominance. “What’s out there? What’s that? Do I hear footsteps? And so the night passed. If a quiet night. How many more to go?
The morning light creeps through the Deep Green as cat paws in a cornfield. Subtle, indiscernible and suddenly on top. When the light was visible enough to see an entire platoon line, the NCO’s moved along waking their men and directing the usual SOP work.
Wipe the weapons with an oily rag. Regain the Claymores and Trips after alerting the perimeter. Pack the jungle ponchos and rain gear. Fix the straps on the ruck. Eat what you can and do it NOW.
Heat tabs would emerge with individual and paired C ration stoves. The perimeter immediately groaned, exhaled and cursed as “bad tabs” wafted half-burned gasses across their immediate companions. Coffee was quickly heated with the more adventuresome employing a small ball of C4 vice the heat tab. The company commander had tolerated this and had always ordered a number of C4 blocks on log day for general distribution to remove the temptation of taking C4 from the back of the claymores. This gained him immediate credit points in the mind of his troops. In his mind, C4 was far less discernible in the bush than heat tabs. No point in tempting fate at Stand To.
The “Sun Gun” as it was called, was complicated to arrange, especially for large fingers and distracted minds. Accordingly, it usually took two or three tries by different members of the CP before the welcome “Buzz. Bounce. Squelch” was heard from Dragon TOC.
For a brief moment, the unit was resting before the day’s endeavors and intuitively honored this pause. Coffee was drunk, gear was cleaned and packed and some just did nothing. The Captain sank into an introspective mode. He could see the hills well beyond him. The steaming green was releasing visible vapor as a breathing giant. He knew the Green was a huge living organic machine absorbing liquid, digesting nutrients and expelling the detritus of its exertions. It was into this living corpus that he and his men trespassed. If they did not exert their available resources, they too would be recycled within the giant and expelled on some isolated mountain slope, invisible to the onlooker but appreciated by the processes under the fetid canopy.
This reverie took less than five minutes when the CO alerted to the day and signaled to prepare to move out. Slowly, the long winding centipede of soldiers raised themselves from the ground, slung their rucks over tired shoulders and with the help of others arranged the heaviest of rucks to a reasonably portable position on the back.
Served: April 1967-May 1968 52d BDQ. & Jan 1970-Mar 1971. D/1-502, G2 Ops HHC 101st.