This particular day was the first day of a new mission where the grunts will go out and search the jungles for an elusive enemy. There is a ritual most will follow in preparing themselves for the patrol. My friend, Keith Nightingale, contributed another great piece. This one takes us step by step through the ritual.

By Keith Nightingale (photos added by the admin)

He had formed on the company street with his ruck and awaited his turn to shuffle through the arms room and gather his weapon, several bandoliers of ammo, and six grenades. He took this and went to his ruck on the street and began to organize himself.

Previously, just after breakfast, back in the hootch, the platoon sergeant had issued a case of C rations to every two men. He and his partner flipped the case over and performed a lottery pick with each alternately taking one unknown meal to discover its contents. Attendant positive or negative noises ensued from the choice. He tried to remember the approximate positioning of the better meals but to little success.

With his pile of choices, he went through stripping out the sundry packs and placed them on the cot. He then chose what main meals to keep as well as the other options. Fruit, pecan rolls and pound cake were particularly prized. Satisfied with his process, he then slid the main meals in one black boot sock. The other cans he placed in another. These were knotted and tied to the top of the ruck frame. He jammed the sundry packs into the large side pocket on the ruck.

Soon, the center of the hootch was piled with unwanted ration contents, empty boxes, container, and wires. These would be rifled through by the hootch maids and eventually be placed in the company burn pit.

He had cut one side of the C ration case and slid it into the frame so it was between his back and the frame. This would somewhat cushion the metal points of contact. He knew from experience that with sweat, rain and constant friction, the cardboard would be good for about four days. With the log cycle that had the hope of a replacement in the field, not always realized.

The hootch had several extra foam mattresses. These were cut into strips and provided additional cushioning. One strip was coated in duct tape and attached to the bottom of the ruck frame where it would rest on the top of his butt protecting it from the overloaded frame. Two other smaller strips were taped on the ruck straps where they met his shoulders. 

In that this was the dry season, he had filled his three canteens and a five-quart. The five-quart was tied to the top of his ruck and would also act as a handy pillow in the NDP.

The inside of his ruck was filled with items he thought were worthy of the weight. Several prized LRRP rations-Chile and Chicken Stew; deflated air mattress; A paperback God Father-big enough to occupy down time; a worn Playboy; stationary; mosquito net; poncho liner; OG 107 fatigue shirt; jungle sweater; shaving kit; several bags of M&M’s; soap in a plastic container and a carton of cigarettes. He would carry his home with him.

Lastly, he arranged his prize OD Drive On towels. One he would place in a plastic bag placing it in top of the interior cargo pocket. The other he would knot loosely on the ruck frame.

He loaded his magazines with a stripper clip, being careful to only put 18 rounds in each. More would jam the weapon-not a good thing. He placed the magazines bottom up in an alternating pattern which allowed him to quickly finger grip each as needed. One extra he laid flat across the top. Once closed, the canvas held one more than the manufacturers conceived. A good thing. His squad leader had given each man two extra bandoliers, bandoliers, which he placed just under the top flap of the ruck. The edges were exposed under the nylon where they could easily be accessed.

He carefully checked the safety wires on each grenade as he attached them to the sides of his front ammo pouches. The grenades were the residue of several operations with peeling paint and suspect wires.  In one case, he used a piece of C ration box wire to achieve a level of confidence.

Each platoon had a pile of additional items to be distributed. Smoke grenades, radio batteries, Claymores, flares, C4, det cord, machetes, a VS17 panel, and machine gun ammo. The squad leaders each took the items and distributed them, adding to the burden, but essential for combat. He had taken his share and loaded the ruck. Two M60 belts were placed under the ruck flap with his M16 bandoliers. Two hand flares were fixed to the sides and the spoons of three smokes were hooked through the ruck frame.

He sat down, back to the ruck, slid the straps through his shoulders, took the weight, did a slow roll to his knees, held the butt of his rifle to the ground and used his arms to stagger to his feet. Now reasonably erect, he shifted the ruck to the least uncomfortable position, took some exploratory steps, noting the friction points. Satisfied, dropped to his knees and released the ruck. He was ready for the day.

The unit loaded on trucks and moved to the large airstrip pickup zone. Though it was only Nine O’clock, the temperature was in the high 90s with equal humidity. Sweat poured off his neck and head as he stood on the semi-asphalted strip and blinding sunlight. The dog tag chain had to be shifted as it bit into his neck and collected a dirty sweaty mud.

The NCOs had organized the men in three-man elements on both edges of the runway as they would load the birds.  The weight of the rucks had the effect of staggering the men. Each bent over using his rifle as a support, head hanging, awaiting the call of Inbound.

The call went out and heads arose, each man now taking the full weight of the ruck, looking anxiously to the incoming birds.  What will happen? Will I be OK? Will I get back? All to be revealed.

As the lead bird swung low under full power and snaked along the length of the runway, a tremendous cloud of dust arose blanketing the men and creating red muddy rivulets on their necks with the coursing of the sweat. Quickly, the birds settled down and each element staggered toward them.

Foot on the strut and a swing backward, he dropped his ruck on the floor and pushed it back sufficiently to allow him seating to his knees which hung out on the edge. He placed his M16 on the floor facing out, holding it with his right hand. His left went behind him and found a floor cargo ring which he held tightly. He knew from experience that a tight turn would have a major G effect on his back and he had no wish to be ejected cargo.

This was his favorite part of the event.  For a brief time, he could somewhat relax and allow the flight to become a giant IMAX theatre of his mind. As the bird rose clear of the dust and nosed upward, he exulted in the cool fresh air that dried his sweat and the rhythm of the rotating blades. He noted the green below with the villages, roads and streams as they passed. Smoke tendrils weaved their way upward toward the intermittent clouds and the glimpse of the sea to the East. The sun was dominant and blazed brightly; the constant rushing of the wind somewhat negated its effect. 

Several of his compatriots smoked cigarettes, leaning into the cabin to escape the rush. He thought this pointless bravado as the wind got most of the tobacco. He chose to look outward, put his mind in neutral and prepare for the future.

He could see the sister birds in a staggered trail in front and behind-at least he would land in the middle of the LZ which was better than either end. For a moment, he thought of nothing and for the first time in the day was calm.

The birds began to drop altitude and power. He looked ahead and could see a column of smoke rising in a straight line to the sky. It was a combination of white and inky black-the result of the preparation of the land. He could now see the aircraft making swooping passes as they dropped their bombs, creating more dust and smoke.

As he dropped down to near tree line height, Cobra gunships appeared on the flank to escort the final run in. Now he was focused for the next event.

He released his grip on the cargo ring, grasped his rifle by the carrying handle and lifted his ruck securely to his back. He reached for the skid with his feet and grasped the edge of the floor with his left hand to steady himself against the pilot’s shifts. The bird shuddered, weaved and wobbled less than twenty feet off the ground as it dropped power and altitude.

On the final swing, huge clouds of debris and smoke intermixed to effectively disguise the scene. The door gunners were shifting their constantly firing machine guns, the tracers lacing the immediate brush and woods.  Between the engine, the firing, the Cobra passes and impacting artillery, the noise was overwhelming and his thoughts were entirely focused on the moment. He could feel the struts touch down as they reflected pressure against his feet. With that instant, he half thrust and half fell onto the ground.

The bird took a full power lift, coating him in dirt and vegetative parts. The front of his helmet had slammed into the ground adding to the sensation of blindness. The weight of the ruck had fully impacted him into the soil. Momentarily stunned, he recovered his senses and waited for the birds to clear the LZ.

As the last passed, he raised himself to his knees using both outstretched hands. With several swinging motions, he got to his feet, pushed his helmet back and pointed his M16 forward. His day was now beginning.


Keith Nightingale is a former US Army Colonel and served in Vietnam with the 1/502nd Screaming Eagles and the 75th Ranger Battalion. He has submitted several other articles for this website. If you are interested in reading more of his work, use the direct links which are provided below:

NOTE: To return to this page after reading an article, please use the “back arrow” at the upper left of this page.

The Cherry:

Hill of Angels:


The Perimeter:

Fort Benning during the Battle of the Ia Drang:

A Night in the Jungle:

The Bush:

A Day Trip to the Ville:

First Daze in Vietnam:

My book review of his published book, “Just Another Day in Vietnam”:


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