In the Recatchers, Cherries had to walk point within the first few days of their arrival. It was part of their breaking-in period and learning the ropes. The pointman was the eyes and ears of a patrol. It was a dangerous duty and weighed on everyone’s mind. Read one soldier’s account of his first day in the most dangerous place during a patrol.
By Tom Brooks
On April 1968, after arriving in Vietnam as a 22-year-old private first class from Dover, Delaware, and being processed through the 90th Replacement Battalion, I reported to my permanent unit, the 199th Infantry Brigade, nicknamed “The Redcatchers” and activated in 1966 to destroy the communists in South Vietnam.
The new arrivals went through a week called “Redcatcher Training,” conducted at the 199th Infantry Brigade’s main base at Long Binh, about 20 miles northeast of Saigon. During that week, we fired the M16 rifle, M79 grenade launcher, M60 machine gun, and M72 light anti-tank weapon, or LAW, a rocket launcher.
We had to become proficient in every weapon our platoon would carry. We had done all these things during advanced infantry training in the States, but some of us needed a refresher since it had been a few months. The evening after our last day of training, we sat around talking about what it would be like out in the bush.
We knew during the process of breaking in new arrivals we would be “walking point”—out in front of everyone else in the unit.
The point man is the eyes and ears of the patrol. He is the tip of the spear. We had heard horror stories of a point man tripping a delayed booby trap and getting a couple of guys behind him killed or missing the signs of an ambush and walking into it. Point duty weighed on everyone’s mind.
On April 22, at about 3 p.m., they assigned us new guys in the 199th Infantry Brigade, our battalion and company. I went to Company D of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment. We were going to leave the main base at Long Binh on resupply choppers and fly to a fire support base somewhere on the Cambodian border near Tay Ninh.
There were six of us on a Huey helicopter, and I’m sure all of us had that queasy “butterfly” feeling. To avoid small-arms fire, we flew at about 1,500 feet. Looking down, all I could see was a green jungle with few open spots and the occasional reflection of a small river. After about 30 minutes, I spotted a round brown spot. We started circling and losing altitude. I could see artillery pieces, bunkers, and a few people moving below. We landed, stirring up a cloud of dust.
The platoon leaders and squad leaders of Company D welcomed us, introduced themselves, and distributed us among the units that needed replacements. I got 3rd Platoon, 3rd Squad. Another new guy also went to 3rd Squad. The squad leader, Spc. 4 Manton (I don’t recall his full name), assigned a more experienced soldier to stay with the new guys to show us the ropes.
My mentor was Pfc. Bill Trobledger from New Jersey. Bill’s first remark to me was: “I’ve only been here two weeks, so I’m not sure why I got the job. I’m just learning what’s going on myself.”
Even with two replacements assigned to 3rd Squad, we were still an under-manned squad of six. The squad should have had nine—the squad leader and two fire teams of four men. After a meal of C rations, we set up guard duty. Two men kept watch for an hour. Then we got two hours of sleep while the next two shifts were on. This would last until dawn.
The muggy morning soon became hot as the sun rose high enough to shine through the jungle. We spent the day cleaning weapons and preparing our gear for a night ambush and a three-day sweep that would start the next day, April 24.
About 4 p.m. a chopper flew in mail and chow. Men from the company mess section in the rear brought out marmite (insulated) containers with a hot evening meal. I could tell they didn’t like being in our area. They kept eyeing the surrounding jungle.
A guy wearing new fatigues and shined boots had gotten off the chopper and was in line in front of me. I introduced myself, and he said everyone called him Tex. He had been with the 199th for nine months and was just coming back from an R&R break. They had approved Tex for a trip to Hawaii, but after landing there he boarded another plane and flew to his home in Texas. He only had about 48 hours with his family, but there was a party for him, and he saw a lot of friends and relatives. Tex told me, “I’m glad I went. In this place, you never know what’s going to happen.”
I had now been with my unit about 24 hours. We finished chow, made last-minute preparations and waited for dusk. At dusk, two squads totaling 13 men headed out on the ambush. Bill had me walk in front of him.
We set up an oval-shaped ambush next to a trail with everyone facing outward so everyone’s back was covered, what’s known as an “all-round defense.” We laid out our Claymore mines, which are remotely detonated and shoot out steel pellets when they explode. We then got into position behind some cover.
We were to be 50 percent awake, meaning there were two men to a position, one spending an hour sleeping and the other an hour at the watch. Then we switched. Bill said he would take the first watch. I remember lying back with one hand on my M16 and wondering how anyone could sleep in this place when the North Vietnamese Army or Viet Cong might walk into our position.
I looked up through the trees and glimpsed the moon once in a while. The next thing I knew, a hand was shaking me. I bolted upright with my rifle in hand and whispered, “What’s happening?” Bill said I had snored. He warned me to be perfectly quiet. I think that’s the last time that year I ever snored. So much for being able to sleep!
At dawn after a second uneventful night, we headed back to our fire support base. When we arrived, the guys were already packing everything and rolling up the barbed wire. We were moving. Most of the company, including my platoon, were going on the three-day sweep trying to find an NVA base camp reported by intel to be in the area. Everything happened quickly. CH-54 Tarhe cargo helicopters, nicknamed Sky cranes, picked up the artillery pieces, and Hueys were being loaded with equipment. They opened drums of fuel and dumped them on the ground rather than being hauled out.
At midmorning, Company D moved on foot in the opposite direction from where it had patrolled on a previous three-day sweep. We were heading into territory we hadn’t covered before. It was still dry season and hot as hell. We were soaked with sweat after 15 minutes. The 1st Platoon had point. There was no trail.
At times the point man had to use a machete to hack out a path. Once the machete sliced right through a big wasp nest. The point man threw down his weapon and swatted the wasps, which made them angrier and brought on more. Someone tried to help him but got swarmed too. Soon men were running everywhere. I had always heard that if you stay still and keep from swatting them, wasps won’t come after you. I backed up against a tree and popped a smoke grenade, as did a couple of other guys. They did not sting us. However, the point man sustained so many stings that he passed out and had to be carried on a stretcher until we reached an open area suitable for a medevac helicopter to land.
Afterward, 2nd Platoon took over. The walk got easier as the jungle thinned out somewhat. We could cover more ground. Although I did not know it, higher-ups expected the company commander to cover a certain amount of ground each day, while they sat behind a desk in an air-conditioned office in the rear. We stopped for a break shortly after noon. By then, everyone was drinking from his second canteen and opening C rations.
When we got moving again, it was 3rd Platoon’s turn to go on point duty. That day we new guys were getting broken in, and we knew everyone was watching.
Shortly after we reached a well-worn trail, it was my turn to walk point. I was a little apprehensive. I thought I might come face to face with the bad guys around the next bend and knew I had to look out for booby traps. I was thinking: “If I screw this up, I could get someone else killed.” Although I remembered my training, this was the real thing. The mental concentration required while walking point, especially in the jungle, is intense.
I had hardly been on point 15 minutes when I came to a bend in the trail and stopped. I put my hand up to signal the men behind me to halt. I then stepped off the trail to the left, and waited for 1st Lt. Harvey Hutchinson and his radio operator to arrive. I didn’t need to tell him why I had stopped. Just past the bend was a lean-to covered with a canvas roof. In front of the structure, he saw a cooking fire with a pot hanging over it. The lieutenant talked quietly on the radio to the commanding officer, Capt. Don Zimmerman, who was behind us with the command section. Meanwhile, we kept our weapons trained ahead. The lieutenant told me to move back and assist the machine gunner. He then brought Bill up to the point position.
As I moved back, I saw 1st and 2nd platoons moving off to the right and coming up even with us. When the three platoons were online, we moved forward. The 1st Platoon, on my right, was visible, but thick jungle obscured 2nd Platoon. Moving ahead, I heard the 2nd and 3rd platoons reporting on the radio that they found some small living quarters.
Just a couple of minutes later, a giant roar of enemy gunfire and the “karump” and boom of North Vietnamese B40 rocket-propelled grenades filled the air on my right, followed within seconds by the reply of American M16 rifles, M60 machine guns, and exploding grenades. I heard rounds snap through the trees. They ordered us to halt and watch the area forward and to our left so that the NVA couldn’t come around us.
I could not see what was going on, but I sure could hear it. It seemed like we waited a long time. I opened a can of peaches and slurped them down. One of the new guys asked, “How can you eat at a time like this?” I replied that I didn’t know how long it would be before I had another chance.
Less than 10 minutes later, the call came to move forward with caution because the NVA was nearby in fortified bunkers. We moved forward and slightly right to make sure we were within sight of 1st Platoon. The first thing I saw was a medic working on a couple of guys.
One of the wounded was leaning against a tree with a tourniquet around his stump of a leg. The other end of that blown-off leg was sticking out from a boot that he held his hand around. He laughed at us, saying he had a “million-dollar wound”—he would go home after they sewed his leg back on, and we would still be out here in this shit. They had shot him up with morphine and evidently was feeling it.
We had gone less than 50 feet when we entered a slightly more open area. As we moved in, they hit us with full-automatic fire from an AK-47. I heard the rounds whizzing by and thumping into the trees behind us.
Someone yelled: “They’re in the trees!” Our machine gunner sprayed the trees. I heard a series of crashes as an enemy soldier toppled down through the branches, hitting the ground headfirst like a rag doll just 30 feet in front of me.
As we continued forward a short distance, we saw 1st Platoon to our right exchanging fire with the enemy. Suddenly, there was fire aimed right at us. We all dropped for cover behind trees. The guys in the back moved up to join us and took firing positions. The gun smoke was so thick that it created a haze in the air. But I could see in front of me two guys lying on the ground, apparently wounded or dead. One was Bill.
Out of the haze walked a medic holding up our squad leader, Manton, his arm dangling with purple oozing out—probably muscle. It seemed everyone but me kept shooting. After a short time, the firing died down. Spc. 4 Frank Nixon from Virginia crawled forward to check on the two guys down. He rolled the first one over, but the guy jumped up and ran back with us. He had only been playing dead. Nixon then rolled Bill over and dragged him behind us. He called for a medic who started working on him.
About that time the firing had died down. I stood up and tried to look around the tree to see what everyone had been firing at. So far the only enemy soldier I had seen was the one who fell out of the tree.
As I looked around the tree, someone said: “Hey new guy, get down before you get shot.” I answered, “I’m just trying to see what you are firing at.” Then he said: “Do you think we can see anything? We’re just firing in the direction it’s coming from. They’re in well-camouflaged bunkers.” He was soon to become my good friend Pfc. Ray Robinson from Boston.
The medic working on Bill asked for some help with the plasma bag, so I crawled back to hold it while he found a vein and inserted the needle. I could see Bill was conscious but couldn’t speak, probably because he was too weak. As I helped him, I thought that it could have and should have been me lying there. I was point man, but they didn’t trust the new guy yet, so they called Bill over.
Bill kept mouthing the word water, but the medic said: “Don’t give him any. It might choke him.” I took my canteen out, wet my fingers and dabbed Bill’s lips with some moisture. He mouthed, “Thanks.”
I crawled back to my position, still hearing occasional rounds coming our way. A few men behind us tried to blow down trees to make room for the medevac coming to pick up the dead and wounded. One guy climbed a tree to cut back branches that would impede the chopper blades. He was a perfect target for the enemy, yet got his work done without being shot. He was another soon-to-be buddy—Michael “Moon” Mullins from Indiana.
Someone said they needed men to pick up ammunition that was about 100 feet behind us. I didn’t know there was more ammo. The heavy gunfire around me had drowned out the sounds of a chopper that came in and kicked out a resupply. I volunteered to help get it. At the helicopter drop site, a few men opened the boxes and handed out M16 and M60 rounds.
There were also poncho-covered bodies lying there. One of them was Tex, the man who had just returned from R&R. I later learned his name was John M. Weatherford, a 21-year-old staff sergeant from Mesquite. Tex was one of nine killed that day.
A new guy I recognized was just sitting there among the wounded. I asked him if he was wounded. He just looked at me and didn’t answer. He left on the medevac with the wounded being transported to the brigade’s main base. He told people he couldn’t take it. Somehow he managed to get a job in the rear. We had no problem with that, but he lost our respect when we heard he was in the club bragging about his time in the bush—a grand total of two days.
I and the other ammunition carriers returned to the line and were distributing the ammo when we were told to pull back a short distance and pop smoke to mark our positions.
Huey helicopter gunships were on the way to attack the NVA positions. I heard them approaching but couldn’t see them. The jungle was too dense. The sound that followed was unbelievable—like a hundred chain saws running wide open.
The first words out of my mouth were, “Holy shit! What was that?” The guy next to me said it was the sound of the helicopters’ mini-guns. “I’m glad they’re ours!” I responded. Debris and shell casings rained down on us. Pieces of wood and leaves drifted in the air. I didn’t hear a shot fired at us after that.
It was getting late in the day. Dusk was approaching. The last of the wounded and dead were loaded onto the medevac. That was the last time I saw Bill. (Although seriously injured, he survived his wounds.)
I lit a cigarette, and my hands were shaking. Someone next to me said, “You are coming down off an adrenaline high.” Platoon leader Hutchinson yelled, “Saddle up!” We moved out in a hurry to find a good night position before dark. As we went back through the jungle, our eyes kept scanning both sides of us and to our rear.
About 30 minutes later, we emerged into a large field of elephant grass about 7 feet high. We set up positions along the edge of the field but worried about getting mortared. There was another concern: The height and thickness of the grass made it hard to see if enemy intruders were crawling toward us. We got word to keep 50 percent awake but try to get some rest because we were going back to the enemy base camp in the morning to finish what we started.
So this was Vietnam. I had survived my first 48 hours and first time on point duty. We all found our niche in the platoon. I carried the M60 machine gun for about six months. I liked that firepower.
Luckily, we had guys who preferred to walk point. They felt like they could do a better job than most.
Tom Brooks entered the Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam 1968-69. In 1970, the Delaware National Guard contacted him informing him that he received a direct commission to officer. He retired from the Guard as a major in 1993 and lives in Lewes, Delaware.
This article appeared in the February 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine.
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Admin: In the 25th Div. Wolfhounds, we didn’t put Cherries on point. We depended on skilled pointmen who could get us from point A to point B safely. After several weeks in the bush, and when it was time for a Cherry to ‘cut his teeth’ on point, a skilled soldier accompanied him, teaching him what to look for and pointing out meaningful warning signs when found. He wasn’t allowed to go solo until approved by the trainer and squad leader. How did your units operate?
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first time I’ve seen the red diamond patch since they left ft.Hood in 67. I think they went to the DMZ
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He that man in the first photo is my grandfather Alan Fugit. This story encompasses many of the stories he told me growing up.
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Hard to believe. Putting a newbie on point would put the entire platoon at greater risk. Bravo 3/7 did not do that 1969-70. Cannot speak for others.
Gives a fierce sense of what combat was like in that type of situation, and the bravery of the men that were there.
This was a great article i was a member of the 199 company E 2/3 6 7-68
It was really good to find out what happened to those of you who served in Vietnam…My older brother served two tours near DaNang…first time he was an ammo tech as a Lance Corporal..
The second time he was on a hill west of Da Nang shooting artillery into the North… he was a Capitan in the Marines…He did not ever share his experiences of his time there… so it was nice to hear what someone experienced!
Brilliant! That short read gave me the most realistic impression of Vietnam I have ever seen. I am grateful.for this because I am the son of a British soldier killed at Anzio, Italy in 1944. I, on the other hand, am a ‘wannabe’, never having done any of this, and who only began to feel the guilt of that after I had become too old to rectify the matter.
I salute you all.
Thank you and Bless you sir…
I arrived in Charlie Company, 1-20 11LIB AMERICAL in August, 1971, having been kicked out of the MPs after six months in country (long story – read my memWAR at wimgrundy.wordpress.com) After seeing the crowded LBE and packed Alice rucks on my 2 Plt comrades I volunteered to walk point in exchange for a lighter load. Basically, my only platoon load was a machete, glove and 8″ flat bastard file. I also negotiated a noisy air mattress, and excused myself from ambush. It was 1971, and President Nixon was winding the war down. I walked point for seven weeks; eight men behind me were dusted off during that time with wounds from booby traps I must have missed. The AMERICAL stood down in October but I wasn’t short enough to DEROS, so was transferred again further north in I Corps to D Co., 2/502, 101st Abn (Ambl) until they stood down. I did not walk point again, nor was I asked to.
Excellent, to say the least. To those who served, made it or did not make it, all deserves to be remembered.
Jim Daws, as far as I know, Butch Sparks is still around.
that would be us. I was activated out of FT. Benning. Dec 1966 we arrived in vietnam. I was the Rto for my unit. Feb 5 1967 I was severely wounded and after 10days in field hospital I was air lifted to Camp Zama Japan hospital the back to states.
I was one of the original Redcatchers
Robert Arnold from Ohio
Did you know a man named Alan fugit? Aka as old fucker? He is the man on the far right on the first photo. I grew up with him telling me tales that are in this story. Much respect to you sir
Good story and presented just like it was.
Very good . Brought a lot back to me . All of our pointmen were volunteers with experience in the field .
I walked Point in the 199th light Infantry in 69-70 out of LZ Nancy and trying to find some of the people in my Unit. I was in the Recon unit for E Company. Can anyone help me to finding anyone in my unit. I can’t remember names, People came and went, I guess I’ve blocked out a lot of it in my mind.
Might be able to help, Jim. Give me a call (404-281-0591) and I’ll give you five names. If I don’t answer, leave a message.
Do Dan Kwas, Bob Stickles, Ray Stavis and Dave Wheat ring a bell?
Michael Murphy died about 12 years ago.
I was Platoon leader Recon 199th late 69 early 70. Never used fng on point.
I’m not certain why any responsible leader would risk the lives of many others by assignng a new, inexperienced, and untrained soldier to be point.
Pfc Campbell, 199th Inf. (69/70)
Never heard of Nfgs being point man.
Walked my share of point my first six months, I volunteered to be the demo man for my company the second six months to get off point. Not sure that was a very intelligent decision. B/2/27 68-69 NFOE
Great description of your time in first 48 hrs
I had a friend that was in the 4th infantry division. All he ever told me was it was bad. this was 67/68. I was at cu chi with the 3/4 cav. l think we both got hurt about the same time. We connected at renyolds army hospital in Lawton Oklahoma. We are still friends but live in different parts of the state. Thank you for sharing with me.
it was great. I served with an artillery unit, 2/94th we never had a point man..
Artillery did not go into the bush, so no point men needed. Although their forward observers and RTOs did, some for longer time than the average ground-pounder.
Great, I had problems over there. Wish I could have read and learned more before going over. 9th Div 68-69
At the Jungle Warfare Training Center in Panama, our “VC’ spoke Spanish and we all carried M-14s. My only Vietnamese language “class” was one I took off base taught by the Vietnamese wife of a warrant officer at Ft. Rucker. Some training.
Enjoyed the article. RTO with 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 4th/12th, 199th Infantry in 1967.
Well said ! Thx
I was with C, 4/12, 199th and we didn’t put FNGs on point.
ALL Scout Dog handlers and their dogs constantly walked point for the Infantry elements we supported. That was our job. Putting a newbie on point was about as smart as letting a new pilot Captain and aircraft or a ship.
On one patrol, we had a dog handler release his dog, from the middle of our company column. The dog went into the bush, parallel to the column but the handler neglected to have word passed up to the point. The dog was moving fast through the bush, unseen, when our point man heard what sounded like someone running out of the bush toward him and the column. He fired a short burst and killed the dog. The CO was so pissed off that he had the column carry the dog’s body back to camp.
You got that right. During my time in Vietnam, 30 months, I was both a door gunner and subsequently a Scout Dog handler. I never thought much about danger because those were my job.
30 months, long time, what units and where
Problem was there were nowhere enough dogs with guys like Himrod for the infantry. In my year, I only saw dogs twice and neither time were they working with us. Our point teams were our doggies.
Brings back memories of my days in the AO.
Glad we made it home. Thank you God and my guardian Angel.
C-1/7, 1st Cav (’69-’70), didn’t let FNG’s walk point until they had a couple of weeks experience. Everyone else rotated “walking point.” We did have an FNG volunteer to “walk point” because he said he was from Jamaica and knew jungles. Nobody argued with him and he walked point for 8 months before being killed, May ’70, in a Cambodian bunker complex.
Enjoyed it very much. i servedb with Engineers so appreciate hesring perspective from people such as you. So unfortunate that we just walked away from it all in 75.
Thanks for sharing your ordeal.
We didn’t walk away from it. The polititions screwed everyone involved by cutting funding.
It was pretty much on point. I was with 2nd 35th Recon 66 no newb on point also 1st 18th 67-68 1st Div same there.
Good article. I was wondering what helicopter company was doing the support. Including the gun ships. I served with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company Crusaders out of Tay Ninh during this time frame. I was a crew chief on the Rat Pack gunships of the Crusaders.
Most of the casualties on 4/24/68 were from Bravo 3/7, not Delta Company. The author should have mentioned that it was a joint op. I was in Bravo 3/7 a year later, and we never put new guys on point. I can relate to the feelings of confusion, fear and not knowing what was going on as a newbie. Experience for grunts was acquired by OJT, which I suspect is how wars have always been fought. Living long enough to be jungle-wise was the key.
My scout dog and I were on point when we made contact that day. Captain South and seven others were KIA that afternoon. Your comments are right on about not putting a newbie on point until OJTed with other Infantryman. Be well Roger. Woof!
Good to hear from you. I lost a lot of contacts a year and a half ago when I was hacked, you among them. Did you lose a dog on that day 54 years ago this week? That day was still being talked about a year after it happened when I arrived at Mace.