Place: Happy Valley, South Vietnam
Time: May 1970
Picture this for a moment. You are in the middle of enemy territory; you are with a group of people with whom you have great difficulty communicating; you are being forced to violate just about every rule of combat you have been trained to avoid, and it is getting dark out. Not a good feeling! “Make camp for the night,” we were told. Hey, I thought to myself, this isn’t a Boy Scout campout you know! We need to prepare for the night with some kind of defensive/offensive plan in case the bad guys want to pay us a visit! I asked Captain Bass, who had done this before, about what was happening, and he indicated that this was the way the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) did things. I am sure I gave him the “deer in the headlights” stare. L/Cpl Bloom and I decided we needed to do whatever we could to try and prepare ourselves for whatever was coming down the pike. I contacted the artillery battery to be sure they knew where we were so someone wouldn’t mistake us for the bad guys.
Right after dark, we started hearing some loud noises. I looked around and low and behold the ARVN had started large bonfires and was preparing to cook dinner. That consisted of killing the live chickens and ducks they had brought along, cleaning them (their version) and then cooking them. The chickens and ducks tried to put up a fight, but they eventually lost. The fight they put up could be heard for some distance though. I told L/Cpl Bloom that we needed to get further away from the “cookout” and try and find whatever safety we could. We moved a short distance to the point where we had protection in one direction– dirt, a boulder, and a cave– so we were primarily concerned about what was in front of us. It was the best we could do given the circumstances.
Later that night, we heard a short firefight. It got our attention. A little while later, we heard a little bigger firefight. It also got our attention. When the third and even bigger firefight took place, we decided to really pay attention to what was happening. Now the next thing that happened, I have thought about for the rest of my life. I saw a silhouette of what I thought was a Vietnamese soldier walking in front of our position. I quietly and slowly pulled my 45 out of its holster and quietly cocked it, never taking my eyes off of the moving figure. I pointed it at this individual and in my mind I shot him several times. I did not fire, and I cannot really explain why I didn’t. There was just something different that made me question myself. I am sure it lasted only a few seconds, but it seemed like eternity, but the soldier just walked away. I learned the next day that I had made the correct decision. The ARVN has what they called a “roving guard” that just walks around the area at night. That had to be what I witnessed. I quickly decided that I had no business being there. I had no idea what was happening.
Well, the morning came and there was quite a buzz going around trying to determine what took place last night. Captain Bass told us that an ARNV soldier got up to relieve himself and he tripped an ambush. He was killed. Another ARVN got up to investigate what happened, and he was shot and killed. A fire team-like group went to investigate why the other two did not come back and they tripped the same ambush and two of them were killed. The first night out, we had four friendly KIA’s. WOW! I could hardly wait to see what was next!
We started moving through triple-canopy jungle which was a first for me. That was a real experience. Fortunately for L/Cpl Bloom and I, we were following openings that were made by others. I was constantly wondering what I was expected to be doing. I could see hardly a few feet in front of me, let alone call in artillery missions. Oh well, we just kept moving on.
We started to find a little more openness in the jungle as we came in contact with the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail. There were many of them and I found it amazing. We walked across ravines that had fallen trees with hand rails to get across; we walked up steps, with some hand rails going up and down the small hills; we walked down trails that had obviously had a lot of traffic on them from time to time and every time I saw something different, I kept saying to myself that you should not be doing this. Never allow yourself to get channelized down a path of any kind, but here we go, with over 400 people, doing just what we should not have done. My comfort level was very low. There was one area that I will never forget. It was a place that an obvious major battle had taken place at one time. There were all kinds of debris laying around but the one thing that made me realize that Americans were probably involved was when I saw the extraction cable hanging in the trees. There were all kinds of 782 gear; spent cartridges; C-rat containers, etc. I was sure a major firefight had taken place at some time and it would appear that casualties were taken. It caused me to wonder what had taken place. We found spider holes that we had a small ARVN investigate. We found many bomb craters from B-52 Arc Light strikes. They were huge! Again, my comfort level continued to be very low.
Well, one day we were still walking down a trail and a very major firefight erupted. L/Cpl Bloom and I looked at each other and we both had the same thoughts. He started reaching for the “whip antenna” because we knew artillery would probably be needed. I cannot remember who it was, but someone came to us and informed us that a group of VC had been found on a small hill and they needed more than M-16’s to remove them. We got the 175’s up at An Hoa and fired a contact fire mission on that hill. The hill was fairly close to us so we got a front row seat on this mission. The artillery did a superb job on the bad guys. The fire fight ended right after the artillery rearranged the hill. We were given credit for the kills that day. The ARVN commander was pleased and he wanted to send a message to “Charlie” so he had a couple bodies brought from the hill and he had them buried in a shallow grave in the center of one of the trails just to be sure his buddies would find them. I continued to ask myself, what did I do wrong to get this assignment?