The thought also occurred to me
that by Pete carrying that red smoke grenade, he had saved my life a third time.
The Hueys had completed their pass and were flying off, as
was my red smoke. There was still no firing from the tree line. I looked up to check if Charlie was coming my way - "No, nothing." After that pounding though, I really did not expect Charlie to appear,
much less move out of the tree line. Still, I knew that the VC could build some very strong bunkers. I thought that some VC would have easily survived the rocket attack, if deep in their bunkers, and
some could have been reemerging at that very moment.
I suddenly felt like a curious turkey, revealing myself by sticking my head up over a log, like in the old Sergeant York movie. I quickly went back to prone and reburied my head low behind Pete's body.
MOVIN' ON DOWN THE LINE:
But it was then that I decided
that this actually might be a good time to move on down the line and see if I can find others, but hopefully alive. During this thought, I suddenly hear someone running up to my rear.
It seems that another GI, knowing the VC might still have their heads low in their bunkers, considered that it was a good time to make his move out from behind the dike to come help save some of the other wounded. As he runs up, he shouts at me, "Hey Harvey, stop crying over Peterson, there is nothing you can do for him now." I wondered how he could tell Pete was dead much more readily than I had been able. Was it some extra talent that he possessed which I did not? It was at that point that I surprised myself by becoming momentarily angry with him ...because I had been in full control of my emotions and was thinking and acting logically, not emotionally. Becoming emotional was a sure way to get killed. The emotions would come later, as I was to discover. Nevertheless, at that moment, I did not like the suggestion in his voice that I had lost control of myself and my duty. Although, I quickly dropped all blame because I had decided that I could perhaps imagine what I must have looked like to him, i.e., with me still low on the ground but now a little bit more up on my knees although with my head still buried close in to Pete's back. I was getting ready to spring up and run on to the next poor wounded (or possibly dead) soul. I could also understand that this additional volunteer running in, was acting decisively (and tactically if not tactfully). Of course, tactfulness was not required nor particularly useful in combat. You seldom had occasion to say 'please' and 'thank you' during the heat of a battle. In fact, you say what you mean. Directness saves time and niceties could simply get you killed. It also certainly was not useful for me, as a professional combat soldier, to allow having my feelings hurt in such situations.
Naturally, at that time, out in
the middle of hell-zone, I don't think it struck him that he may have hurt my feelings. He quickly ran down the line to see who else may be alive. It had only been a minute or two after the Huey gunships
had gone. I had guessed that some of the VC could be re-emerging from their well-built bunkers.
My guess was apparently a good one, as it seemed that he had attracted the attention of some of the VC in the tree line and began taking intense automatic weapons fire. Nevertheless, he quickly made his goal and had stopped and dropped, and was talking to an evidently badly wounded soldier who was not ambulatory. Then he somehow got the wounded man partially on his back and was attempting to crawl, I assumed, back to the dike. Their combined speed was pretty slow. A quick look back to our lines gave me the thought this may take them upwards of 15 minutes. Still, it seemed doable, especially if their staying low prevented them from being shot. But, which was better? ...staying low by crawling for perhaps 15 minutes, or getting the hell out of Dodge by running instead? A run might only take 1 minute! However, a crawl might give a VC marksman time to zero in on them. A quick get-it-over-with run could possibly be more effective, although they then would have been more greatly exposed. Was I overthinking again? I decided that I was, but it didn't matter; I had my answer. I popped my head and 'ol trusty up above Pete's body and sprayed the tree line with a full clip, then I did it again with yet another full clip and the VC stopped their fire. Another fishing expedition in my pocket to grab another fresh clip to replace the empty clip in my rifle but this new clip
was not to be used on the tree line, it was for insurance as next I jumped up and
away from Pete's body and ran the twenty feet or so over to these two GI's, the wounded soldier and his rescuer.
Today, as I write this, I do not exactly
recall who this wounded soldier may have been, although, this makes no difference.
Any of us would make the effort for any of the other of us. It was a kind of an unwritten code that went unsaid but we all understood. "All-for-one and One-for-all" meant as much to us as it had for Anthos, Aramis, Porthos, the three musketeers and their friend D'artagnan. The idea was that you took care of your friends and they would take care of you. As I mentioned previously, one thing I found that, during our time in training, the Army was good at weeding out those malcontented individuals whose
personalities didn't seem to fit this mold.
I grabbed a hold of the wounded soldier's left arm, and his
previously crawling rescuer grabbed his right arm and we began to run. We were running while dragging the wounded man backwards with
him bouncing on his butt. If you think pockmarked ground was hard to run
on, try to imagine what it must have been like to be dragged backwards over it… the wounded soldier was being bounced hard and making noises in rhythm. I wasn't sure if they were noises of pain, or just the
air being pounded out of his lungs on each bounce.
Part way back, I realized that I didn't know where the wounded soldier had been shot. Maybe he had gotten it in the spine. Maybe we were aggravating a wound, and the bouncing would, in fact, cause him to become par
alyzed ...if he wasn't already. To me this was suddenly mortifying
and this thought prompted me into a foolish move.
I decided that this rough bouncing should perhaps be his decision and not ours; I stopped running to ask him if he wanted to keep going. I had failed to take time to explain my fears of perhaps causing a paralyzing injury to him. Looking back on all of this, I am sure that, in my stopping in the middle of a fire-zone, I created instant confusion to both him and my fellow rescuer. I am not sure if I got my question out, though, as he dropped his head back, looked up at me and yelled loudly... Well, the words were something to the effect of: "Why are we stopping?" And "Let's get going!" (except, these were not the words he used, he was much more intense and animated, and the words he uttered were nowhere near pious). It wasn't hard to guess that regardless of whatever injury he had, he didn't want to stop. Well, I wanted out of there too so off we went again…with him bouncing and grunting, but not complaining. As we approached the rice paddy dike, several GI's exposed themselves when they jumped up from the dike and ran out to take over. I was exhausted, and grateful for their actions, but not surprised. This time I fell over the dike and laid down, panting. Safe again.
After I had caught my breath, I
got ready to run back out there to grab someone else.
This run out was also uneventful insofar as I could discern no bullets being attracted to me, but this time I did a kind of lazy zigzagging run. I had already decided that a "grab-and-go" method would be best for all. "Better to get it over with", I thought. But, by the time I got back out there, I had started to reevaluate the grab-and-go plan; I started to realize that I had been getting closer to the right "angle" made up of the two tree lines, and I thought I could have fire from both directions, the dreaded crossfire.
Years later, in retirement,
during an extended motor home trip around the USA, my wife and I had occasion to visit the great Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.
I recall learning about Pickett's charge. General Lee, the great Southern Commanding General, had ordered a couple of his generals to take their full divisions, nearly 12,000 Confederates, and charge the Union lines This had devastating results for the Confederates. Under Lee's command, one of his generals, General Pickett, lost nearly half of his division that day, nearly 3,000 men. That visit found me standing at a large monument at "The Angle." It was an angle made up by two stone walls where many of Pickett's men died, cut down by the Union troops behind the stone walls. While I certainly can never compare that battle on July 3rd, 1863 with the battle on May 15th,
1967, 104 years apart, I suddenly saw a similarity with our "angle" back in Vietnam...and I cried. I cried then as I had done while visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., just a week before.
But, on May 15th 1967, as I dove in to the area of the right angle formed by the two tree lines, I had thought that VC crossfire might again erupt. I then reversed my thinking and decided that it might be better to stay low and crawl to pull this GI back away from the tree line.
Then, I realized that this was much too slow (and extremely
difficult) and reversed my thinking yet again. Staying out there longer than necessary was a bad strategy. So instead I would try to get this GI up on my shoulders and run back to the dike as best
I could. But, if I ever thought I was strong just because I could carry 50 pounds of weapons and equipment, I was staggered when having to run with the 150+ pound weight of this GI.
As I ran back, half carrying, half dragging this poor soul, I thought that I was about to get help when another volunteer approached coming from the dike. But, he passed by us going out while we were coming in. Well, this was OK as there may be more wounded out there. But, I was becoming winded. However, as I approached the dike, I was again greeted by a bevy of our guys who had jumped over the dike to assist. This time they came out much sooner and met us when we were still about 50 meters away from the safety of the dike. Once alleviated of the weight, I thought I would turn to go out again, but I was spent. Besides, I reasoned (and was relieved by the thought) that someone else had just passed me going out to look for those GI's that remained out there by the "angle". Short on breath, I elected to shuffle back to the dike; the run was then made much easier without the heavy weight of a wounded man. I made it back ahead of the group that took over, but I was not surprised when I found that they were right on my heels. The team it appeared, after a few laterals, scored another touchdown.
THE SHOOTING GALLERY:
Once again, I found myself
behind the relative safety of the dike (I didn't know it then, but I would be there through the rest of the afternoon); I took up a position close to the machine gun.
The ammo bearer was at the side of the gunner, helping to feed the hungry thing, so I got my old trusty M16 pointed outwards, and looked for targets. This time I could see some VC targets clearly, again off to the left. I knew where to look as this was in the area where I had been earlier confused about the uniform. Although I was at this time, even farther away, I by then, had a better perspective as to who was who, and who was where. These targets were Charlie! Except, they were now somewhere out at the 300+ meter range, and I did not have a sniper rifle with a telescopic sight. No matter, I could do this. This time there was no confusion or doubt.
Apparently, the machine gunner had no doubt either as he had
his M60 smoking, literally. Rather than, say, a series of, say, repeated 6 round bursts, the machine gunner was apparently 'in the zone' and was producing 20 or 30 round bursts into the tree line (the purpose
of the shorter 6 round bursts was to allow the barrel to cool a bit between firings… too many long bursts could "burn up" the barrel). Although the gun could and would hold up to sustained fire of perhaps 100-150
rounds in one long trigger pull, it would soon become close to overheating it barrel by that point. Shorter burst were much recommended as the short span of time between the bursts did wonders to keep the barrel
from getting too hot.
Shorter bursts were also recommended as this made for greater accuracy in aiming as the gun tended to bounce around a lot when fired. Long bursts just made for shooting wild. However, the gunner wasn't altogether wrong to hold the trigger for longer bursts when needed. This was anticipated by the gun's designer in the form of having the assistant gunner carry an extra barrel (along with that asbestos glove). It was then, though, that the gun barrel started to turn a little red and in some places it was a lot red, maybe even a little white. I am not sure, but I even think that it started to curl up a bit. The barrel was smoking all along its length, thus I was then introduced to the irony (and now double meaning) of the M60's reputation for "bringing smoke" The M60 machine gun had been overworked and overcooked and it stopped functioning. No matter, the last bullets traveling through the barrel were probably no longer going straight anyway and besides, the gun barrel was easily replaceable ...except we didn't have an extra barrel that day (in fact, for some reason, back in the swamps we never needed one and thusly rarely carried extra barrels). Nevertheless, I immediately scolded myself for not looking harder to find that extra barrel the night before. This was my job and I had let the team down. I had fumbled the ball, except this time there were lives at stake. I felt worse then about almost anything I had ever felt bad about up until that time.
It was at this time that I looked
over and could see Gary Maibach, our 1st platoon medic (we never called him Gary, he was "Doc" Maibach …all medics were called "Doc").
Doc was patching up Dave Jarczewski. (Was Dave, the guy I had just brought in? ..I can't recall) Dave, I discovered, had a "sucking chest wound." I had first heard this term in Kansas, in training, except that I had heard it incorrectly. I had inadvertently (and innocently) replaced the "s" with an "f", and created a more profane rendition, but one that I thought was equally descriptive. Still, training had taught us that a sucking chest wound occurred when a bullet punctured the lung and upset the normal breathing function. The lung would then try and breathe by taking a shortcut directly in and out through the new bullet hole. The solution was to put a "wound pack" or wound dressing over the hole, but to first use the pack's plastic wrapping, turning it inside out to ensure the sterile side was placed against the skin. The gauze wound pack then served only as a binding to hold the plastic "seal" tight against the bullet hole in the chest. I watched Doc do this expertly. In watching his skill, his calmness in action, I was reassured that if I were to be shot that I would still have a damn good chance of staying alive. [As a side note, I should mention that I had always been fascinated with the fact that Doc was a Conscientious Objector or CO ..you know ..for religious reasons, I guessed. However, as a pacifist, he did not 'go to Canada' but there he was in Vietnam, doing his duty for America. Also, to Doc's credibility, he did not carry a weapon. This was due to, I supposed, his opposition to committing a homicide, even on an enemy on the battlefield. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Doc Maibach was the bravest soul out there that day and every other day for that matter. And though, even if Doc did not carry a 'musket', in our outfit he was still one of the Rice Paddy Musketeers].
Doc's job was to
patch us up, but my job was to shoot Charlie. I looked back towards Charlie, off in the distance, flipped the switch on my M16 back from full auto to single shot, took careful aim, and punched out a round.
It's funny, the things you learn
beyond training; On May 15th, I learned that if you shoot at a guy at 300 meters distance, you might miss, but if you are a good shot you may not miss by much. I was a fair shot with the M16, probably no
better than most, and certainly not as good as some. I missed.
I figured this out in two ways: One way was that when I fired, the target was on the ground extremely fast. In fact, he dropped so fast it was as though he flat disappeared from view, not unlike magic, I thought. He didn't fade away like a ghost, but rather vanished or evaporated.
The second clue that I may have missed was the clincher though.
It was when he got up a few moments later and took off running again!
Note on all maps: Soldier icons are not to scale; Soldier icons do not represent
full number of men. 1 inch equals approximately 100 meters.
The next thought I had was I wondered if he was zigzagging? "Now the shoe is on the other foot", I thought. However, it was hard to tell if he was zigzagging, though, as he wasn't running away from me, but rather running from my left to my right, not unlike those electric, light-beam sensing targets at those shooting galleries of my youth. No matter, the next time that I took aim, I made sure to lead the moving target just a bit, then raised the rifle a bit to adjust the sight for the distance (I never used the windage nor elevation adjustment on the rear sight, it just took too long); I took a breath, exhaled and held it to steady myself. Parts of the Rifleman's Creed came to mind again:
I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than
any enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will!
My rifle and myself know that what counts in this war is
not the rounds we fire, the noise of our burst, nor the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit!
I then became one with the bullet and I fired again.
Unlike the vanishing act he performed earlier, he did
something like those electronic shooting gallery targets: These shooting gallery targets were little men (or were they ducks?), that would move left and right on a track. They had light sensors mounted in
their shoulders; when shot by a light gun they didn't fall down, but simply turned 180 degrees and went back in the other direction.
This time 'running Charlie'
stopped and spun around, back in the other direction from which he had come. It was as if my next shot might make him change direction forward again.
I supposed that if I was a real good shot I could have him turning back and forth, back again … and forth again. As long as I could keep hitting him then I could keep the cycle up just as I did as a kid at the electric shooting gallery. Not that my chances of hitting him multiple times from 300 meters were very realistic though. It did not matter; I did not have to fire again. After spinning around and facing back from where he came, he just seem to stand there momentarily and then he very slowly fell over (hopefully clutching his heart). This act on his part clearly demonstrated that when they drop fast, you missed, when they drop slowly, you didn't. My personal score went from: Gene –1/Enemy –0, to Gene -2/Enemy -0.
We continued to have occasional targets, but
not very many, really.
Most were being driven from the left across to our right; I think possibly that they were being flushed out by Bravo Company. These running VC looked as though they were perhaps trying to connect with the larger VC force in the tree line, in their bunkers, in front of us. They were so far away, I don't think my shooting score was very good during that time. While there were some "maybes", nothing confirmed. I had to assume my earlier kill was more luck
LIGHTING AND THUNDER:
When you shoot at anyone, and miss, the first thing that
they hear is the sound of the supersonic bullet making a little noise as it breaks the sound barrier past them. This noise, in concept, is caused by the same force which creates the sonic boom from an airplane
flying faster than sound ...except, because a bullet is so very much smaller than an airplane, it makes a smaller sound, more like a sonic 'craak' than a sonic boom.
A good soldier, upon hearing the craaak of the bullet passing by, was trained to listen for the report of the rifle that fired the bullet. Because a bullet travels faster than sound, it gets to you before the actual sound of the rifle report is heard. Thus, if the shooter misses you, it's sometimes helpful to quickly listen for the noise of the rifle because you can determine from which direction the bullet came. Knowing the shooter's general location was very good information indeed. If you're really good, you can even ascertain the distance by mentally measuring the time between the supersonic bullet and the sound of the rifle. I guess it's kinda' like thunder and lighting: The sound of thunder, traveling at 767 miles per hour, takes a lot longer to reach your ears than the flash of the lighting reaching your eyes traveling at approximately 661 million miles per hour. It's not hard to calculate how far the storm is from you by counting the different arrival times between the two phenomena. You can even tell whether the storm is coming your way or retreating from you.
I understand that modern soldiers (and police)
nowadays have electronic shot location technology. I guess it's some type of an acoustic device that can listen and triangulate, and can even send GPS coordinates to a soldier's PDA. Impressive, but in 1967, we were just using the "old school" method.
This bullet/rifle sound technique was a method that I had used to
my advantage a couple of times back on some other/earlier patrols as well as just a short while ago when I had heard the bullets whizzing over Pete and I as I hid behind Pete's body.
But on this May 15th battle, I don't know if any of the VC that were way downrange off to our left did any of these calculations on us when we were firing on them, but I think one of them did toss a bullet back at me. I think this may be true because, as I spotted two VC's running together, I took a shot at Charlie #1. I then moved the sights to my right just a bit to take a long bead on Charlie #2. But, before I was able to pull the trigger on Charlie #2, my M16 was jerked to my right, almost out of my hands. I had no idea what had just happened, but there were still targets out there. I aimed again… "What is this?" My rifle's front sight and part of its left sight-guard were gone! It was apparent that the rifle had been struck by an incoming bullet. All that remained was a small bit of the left sight guard and a full, undamaged, right sight guard. The rifle's sight assembly was totally left without its main piece, its center sight post, the main component in which to assist the aiming process.
I estimated by the shape of the
damage that the bullet came from about 10 o'clock. I could see that the bullet had destroyed most of the left sight-guard and the sight post itself and I presumed that the bullet, by then drained of a good bit
of its energy, struck the right sight guard and bounced up and over my head.
Perhaps this was a return shot from the first
target, Charlie #1?
If he did the math, he would know where to return his fire …and he was just about in that 10 o'clock direction. Who can know? It just as easily could have been a wild bullet. And, who can know if my rifle saved my life, or was it just another near miss?
I cannot say… but I did give the credit and thanks that day to ol' trusty, and I just somehow feel good to
continue to do so to this day.
Back, during our training at Fort Riley, Kansas, we were
to be given the experience of what a jet fighter-bomber, making a low-level ground attack, might sound like to prepare us for that experience in combat.
One thing that impressed me was that the jets were very, very loud when they came in flying close to the ground. I was also impressed when I discovered that we had somebody there in Middle Kansas using a radio to call in these jets from NEBRASKA, a half state away! I may be wrong here, but I seem to recall that these jets were at our location in Ft Riley in only about 15 minutes or so. It's no wonder they called them "fast movers" to differentiate them from the bird dogs (propeller observation planes) or the Hueys.
But, on that day, in Vietnam, in the rice paddy field, we suddenly had jet
fighter-bombers rocketing in over the treetops, again from behind us, firing their ordinance into the tree line.
I think my memory tells me that they were F-4 Phantoms; I don't know which service sent them in, Navy, Marine, or Air Force, but they were a treat to watch. It was kind of like being at a great air show with seats on the 50 yard line, if I can be allowed to mix the metaphor.
Note on all maps: Soldier icons are not to scale; Soldier icons do not represent
full number of men. 1 inch equals approximately 100 meters.
It was then that my
thoughts went to my dad back in California.
He had been stationed on the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier, in the Pacific, during WWII. He was a 'plane captain'; he had the job like the guy in the war movies that you've seen helping the pilot get secured in the cockpit before he closes up the canopy. He was the last face the pilot saw before launching off the deck. I didn't know if these jets were Navy planes or not, but I did know that the USS Intrepid was still in service as part of the US Navy's 7th Fleet and was stationed off the coast of Vietnam when I arrived in country. I don't know if the Intrepid was launching these jet fighter-bombers or not, but I took pleasure in mixing up the two wars by picturing my dad setting these jet pilots off on their mission that day …to help his infantryman son. Thanks for your service, Dad.
GRENADES 'R US:
A little later in the battle,
things had eventually started to go a bit more slowly as the early afternoon rolled on.
We were behind the rice paddy dikes, but still stuck out in the open fields. I knew we had the Command Post behind us. I also thought that we had a larger US force behind us in the trees to our rear from where we had come earlier. I felt good about that, but I had determined that we might have some trouble if we tried to move back to them in the daylight. No, better to stay where we were, I thought. We had relatively fair protection thanks to the rice paddy dikes. Most gunfire had stopped and things were getting quieter. I even think some of the guys had time to open up a c-ration can or two.
At one point, while looking out and over the rice paddy
dike, I found myself lying next to a grenadier. These guys got to carry a fun weapon, the M79 Grenade Launcher. The Grenade Launcher looked like a sawed-off shotgun with a huge barrel. Like some
shotguns, it was a shoulder fired, break open, breach loaded, single shot weapon that was solely dedicated to shooting the 40mm grenade.
Our grenadiers could coax 400 meters out of the grenade's trajectory and they were very accurate up to 200 meters. But before exploring additional particulars and subtleties of the Grenade Launcher, which beat the hell out of the 30-meter distance in which I could toss my hand held / hand thrown grenades, I would like to give you an overview of the hand grenades which we carried.
The hand tossed M61 time-delay fragmentation anti-personnel grenade could cause casualties up to a 15-meter radius, but as I mentioned, went only as far as one could throw. I had learned, as a freshman in high school, that I had what could be generously referred to as only a modest throwing arm. I could never be a good baseball pitcher (or fielder for that matter), so I joined the track and basketball teams instead. Although, it did seem to me that the trained method of grenade tossing was more like a basketball shot… which worked best if there was a nice high arc dropping into the basket from above. Therefore, we were trained not to throw an elbow first fastball over home base laterally as if from a pitcher to a catcher, but rather to swing the thing from behind in a kind of overhead straight-armed half circle, then letting go at the peak of the swing. In other words, we weren't supposed to go for the strike; there was no batter here and if it was intended to blow up somebody, it might be better if he didn't especially see it coming.
I did not like the idea, after
pulling the pin, the grenade would become armed just by releasing the safety lever.
Of course, you were supposed to release the safety lever at the top of your swing, as you freed the grenade from your grip. You hoped that you would get a full toss and didn't just drop it in front of you, or perhaps bounce it back into yourself by accidentally throwing it against some bamboo bush or some other jungle obstruction, etc.
Then there was that whole
3-second delay thing: Time-delay grenades have some significant disadvantages; in some fuses, the delay time could vary from two to six seconds.
But, there was a bigger problem in that they might give the enemy an opportunity to pick it up and throw it back at you before it explodes. Anyway, I'd seen it happen in the war movies; I really didn't know if this was possible in real life, but I still did not warm up to the point of ever really liking this weapon.
However, I had a better reason for not liking
these grenades... I had always feared that some jungle growth along some narrow jungle trail would someday reach out and snag the safety pin out of the grenade without me knowing. Also, while never a design intent, grenade safety levers had long been used as a convenient carrying hook, hung over our web (equipment) belt. I likened the web belt to be a little like Batman's utility belt, except, I knew that Batman had no actual superpowers and would not be amused should a grenade explode while still hooked to his belt. Additionally, I also knew that I sure as hell did not possess any superpowers either (with the possible exception of my steel helmet, flak jacket and an apparent ability to generate a tremendous amount of good luck). Overall, though, the safety pins were secured pretty tightly, and so you needed to make a pretty good effort to pull it out of the grenade. I had seen the WWII movies of some GI yanking out the safety pin with his gritted teeth. I expected that if I had tried this, I
would surely end up with broken teeth.
Still, these grenades had a good side as anyone who has ever
seen one used in a war movie would understand. They would blow up the enemy.
Most of the time, in Vietnam however, they were often merely used to blow up a cache of rice or other parts of any hidden VC jungle camp which we would occasionally run across during a patrol. Despite the fear of a surprise detonation, I always carried at least two grenades with me.
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