THE OTHER WHITE MEAT:
We also had C4 Plastic explosive with which to blow up stationary things. It was great for clearing a circle in the jungle for a helicopter landing (although we usually just had to hack out the jungle with machetes). C4 always reminded me of a block of modeling clay. It was moldable and you could break it apart, choose the amount you think you needed (and add 10%, as any good cook might do to a recipe) and then stick it to or wrap it around anything you wished to destroy. It needed to be set it off with a blasting cap and an electrical detonator. I did not trust myself to play with this stuff. Still, on one level, it was really safe. Even if shot by a rifle it
would not explode.
If you lit it with a match, it would just burn. I suppose if you wanted to have a campfire in the jungle (we didn't) this would do a good job of getting it started. Moreover, you never had the fear of having a pin pulled accidentally. The best use that I ever made of this stuff was to cook up a pot of "Jiffy Pop"
popcorn back in base camp.
THE GIANT BULLET?:
Ah, but the grenade launcher's 40mm projectile grenade
looked very formidable and fearsome as it looked to all the world like a giant bullet. This 40mm grenade would only explode upon impact and could spray over 300 fragments out to a lethal radius of up to 5 meters.
There was something very satisfying thinking of an enemy, out to kill me and my friends, being turned into Swiss cheese. Our grenadiers started out at the beginning of the year with the stand-alone M79 grenade launcher,
although, and I am not sure of my memory here, but I think that by the battle of May 15th, some of the grenadiers had since converted to an early version of the M203 grenade launcher. This
newer grenade launcher was essentially an over/under affair with the grenade launch tube attached below the barrel of an M16 rifle.
Later version M203 over/under.
The over/under (or 'clip on') grenade launcher
had its own separate sighting system insofar as the M16 sight was not matched to the launcher.
But, no grenadier I knew ever took time to use his grenade launcher's sight. Rather, they would simply raise the weapon to an angle, mostly closer to 45 degrees than level, and then point it in (what to me, seemed to be) just the general direction of the target. As casual as this method seemed, however, grenadier had had plenty of practice and became pretty darned good at this (practice makes permanent). Although we did tease the grenadiers by pointing out that they only had to get their grenade to explode within 5 meters (16 feet) of the intended target to be lethal. But, generally, with their ample training, these guys were grenade launching specialists and were very good at what they did. The best thing about this weapon, from my view, was that the grenade launcher was designed with grooves in its barrel, which caused the projectile grenade to spin. Much like throwing a football, the spinning stabilized the grenade's flight. But, to my mind, a better effect was had as the spinning centrifugal force engaged small weights inside which armed the grenade, but only after about 30 meters of flight. This, of course, precluded any need of a pin to be yanked out in order to arm the grenade and accordingly prevented a loose projectile grenade from becoming activated by some bloodthirsty jungle plants. Loose 40mm grenades were also safe from an untimely detonation from a knock or fall …or from being struck in the butt
end by a bullet.
CHARLIE, THE SHORTSTOP …AND THUMPER:
As I mentioned, at one point I
found myself lying behind the dike next to a grenadier. During a lull in the battle, this grenadier leaned over to me and pointed out a particular lone bush that he had been watching.
The bush was maybe 75 meters from the tree line, but somewhat off to the left. It was perhaps only 200 meters from our position. He had thought he had spotted movement in the bush and he wanted to know what I thought. There were occasional lone bushes here and there, but I could easily see the bush he was speaking of, although I could discern no movement.
I told him that I could not tell
if anything was moving, but, "What the hell, why not just pop a grenade in the bush just in case?" So, the grenadier decided to fire on the bush; he used no sight, but relied on the traditional "Kentucky windage"
method of firing. My apologies to my friends from old Kentuck, but I swear the grenadier had his tongue sticking out as he was aiming. Perhaps testing the wind?
As I said, this was during a lull
in the battle and it was very quiet by this time. These grenade launchers made a very unique sound when fired.
I am not sure I can describe this sound in print, but perhaps it was somewhere between a pop and a thump …maybe a little like a deep throated "Bloop." Some may take issue with this description of the sound, but all will agree that it was a very recognizable sound, very unlike other sounds you might hear on the infantry battlefield. It was because of its unique sound that this weapon earned the nickname "Thumper".
When the grenadier
finally fired his launcher, we could see the grenade traveling up on its trajectory arc.
Since the grenade traveled on a high, but very slow, trajectory, I could immediately see that this shot would not be one that represented their legendary accuracy. This was possibly the worst shot I had ever seen a grenadier make – instead of his grenade heading for the bush, or anywhere near it for that matter, it was heading far far right of the bush. In truth, just as he fired, he was accidently nudged by the grunt lying on his other side. Nobody was that bad of a shooter. Just as the realization of this error hit me, a VC suddenly jumped up from the bush in question and headed off in a dead run for the tree line. The grenadier exclaimed "I knew it!, I knew it!, there was a VC in that ol' bush". At that point in time, in my view, the still arcing grenade suddenly took on the appearance of a baseball just hit into a pop fly by a batter. And the tree line that the VC was running toward appeared as though it was the rear wall behind left field in a baseball park and Charlie who was now the shortstop, was running back out into left field to make the catch. I wondered, "could this really be acted out this way?" Well, it turned out that Charlie had position on that pop fly perfectly, but as he hit the warning track and …well, I don't think he put his glove up... I do think we were somewhere in the 7th inning on that day. "Shortstop Charlie" would not be playing in the 8th.
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.
I had decided
that this was one of the more amazing sights I had ever seen. Later, we concluded that since it had been so quiet at that time, it may have been possible that Charlie, the shortstop, had actually heard the
distinctive bloop of the launcher firing, figured out that a grenade might be inbound for him and his bush
and thus chose to jump out and run away from his bush, not realizing grenadiers can occasionally miss too.
RIDING THE SUPERSTITION TRAIN:
Well, after that bit of baseball fun it still seemed to be
My old trusty M16 still fired, but she was certainly harder to aim. Nevertheless, I was not about to trade ol' trusty for another though. That would be like divorcing my wife just because I found out she was disfigured in a car accident. It would be bad form …and maybe even bad karma. At any rate, ol' trusty seemed to me to be at least some sort of a good luck piece, as I was still unhurt. I always prided myself to not be superstitious. I even had chosen the number 13 for my high school basketball and track jerseys. I began to regard black cats crossing my path as good luck not bad. The irony here is, that this was still a kind of a superstition. Or maybe you might call it reverse superstition. I suppose that if I had been capable of rational thinking, I simply would have ignored the black cats and such. But mocking these old superstitions was fun and, I was eager to employ the power of positive thinking, from Dr. Peale's book towards any superstitious event that presented itself to me. Whenever you hear the phrase "When life hands you a lemon, make Lemonade", they are quoting Dr. Peale. Even today, when driving and I miss my turn, I figure that the 'fates' must have some special sight or adventure in store for me that they thought I would otherwise miss had I stayed on my original route. Funny thing is, whenever I start my detour in order to backtrack to my intended route, I start looking for my special surprise. …and I always find it. The power of positive thinking in action.
Of course, I also knew that there was such a thing as
random good luck. Sometimes things just fell your way regardless of what you did or did not do. On the latter part of that afternoon however, I started to think that I had to have some magical powers of good
luck and, superstition or not, I didn't want to jinx it. Hell, Charlie couldn't kill me that day even though I had given him a few good chances to do so.
Although, I was actually confused by all of this at the time, I knew that to some extent, I had some power to make my own good luck as I had back in Junior High typing class. However, I knew that I did not have a magic wand to just
do anything I wanted with impunity. Good luck required good decisions.
I believe that you could increase the frequency of good luck events if you worked at it.
I then guessed that I had fallen into
overthinking mode again and decided that I would resolve it all later, when Charlie wasn't around. I did resolve, though, to maybe think twice before I next do anything too overly stupid by taking long odds on
my chances. Like the black cats, I too seemed to have nine lives, except I wasn't sure how many I had already used up.
IT'S THE LAW:
In the meantime, I still had Pete's LAW hanging around my back. The M72 Light Anti-tank Weapon
is an interesting weapon. It was shorter than the 90mm or Bazooka, think yardstick, and it weighed only about 5 pounds. Still, it was no poser, and as its name implied, it had been designed to actually fire on
tanks. However, in the Mekong Delta, the LAW was used by the infantry primarily as a "bunker buster." Besides being lightweight, it was watertight, and discardable after firing. It popped open like a
telescope with simple sights springing up ready for use. It did not require a crew to operate, it was just shoulder fired by one man. It was like a miniature Bazooka except it was actually more powerful.
It was about this time that
Sergeant John Young came up to me and asked me to come over to the right side dike.
Sgt. Young was the consummate soldier. He had started out as a raw recruit along with all of the rest of us back in the beginning of our training at Ft. Riley but ended his training by being formally recognized not only as the most outstanding trainee in Charlie Company, but also as the most outstanding trainee for the entire Battalion. Believe me, this was no easy feat. I know this because, in the beginning of our training, I wanted this for myself and worked hard on it. I had a very good start. As a raw recruit, I had been given acting sergeant stripes and my own private room while all of the others slept together in the barracks. At one point, I excelled so well in map reading that I was sent on to a special advance map reading class full of 2nd lieutenants. I was the only enlisted man in the class. I had been complimented for my assertiveness and leadership and boy did my head ever get big. But along the way I had made some mistakes, well lets call them errors in judgment. Here positive thinking went too far and I thought my excellent performance record would allow some forgiveness on the part of the NCO's who were training us. At that time I was so confident (over confident?) of this that I decided that I could get away with sneaking into the movie theater which was off limits at this point in our training. I got caught and not forgiven. I guess I rested on my laurels and John, my competition, passed me by. In truth, he passed me by because he was the better soldier. John took soldiering seriously and rather than produce sour grapes, I greatly respected him for that. He personified the soldier with whom I would most like to go to war. In short, I trusted him. I said earlier, back in basic training, when I was first assigned to Charlie Company, that I had ended up with the best-of-the-best.
Sergeant Young asked
me to look out in the distance and tried to point out a certain haystack. We did a little verbal dance as I was having trouble seeing his haystack.
Gene: "Do you mean that area under that tree that looks like a giant monkey with long arms?" John: "No, it's more to the right; see that brown patch?" Gene: "Ok, is it over closer to where the tree line ends?" John: "Yes, kinda' near that coconut tree." Gene:
"Ok, I see it now, whaddabout it?"
He explained to me that he had
seen two VC jumping into an area underneath the "haystack" …and could I put a LAW warhead into it?
I studied the target; I could see what appeared to be a little dark opening at its base. And, I could also see what I thought were 'aiming sticks'. Aiming sticks were used by Charlie from their bunker openings. It was a simple method; first, the VC would discern, days in advance, where the enemy (us) might approach them. They put a little white stick out in front of the opening, and then they would put a second stick a little farther out where it would then form a straight line. Next, they would aim their weapon down the line formed by the two sticks and would do a test firing. Lastly, they would watch and see where their rounds hit, off in the distance. Thus, if any American GI's subsequently moved in front of the line of the aiming sticks, Charlie would have already predetermined where their bullets would hit. I guess it was kind of a poor man's rifle scope for extreme long distance shots. Aiming sticks or not, I would try the
shot with the LAW.
I don't know if Sergeant Young knew this, but
recall that, back in Ft Riley, the larger 90mm recoilless rifle was my main weapon. I had done some marksmanship training with the 90; we used to go out to what I called the "Bazooka range". While we did
fire the newer, more powerful 90 in practice, we actually practiced more with old WWII style Bazookas.
Bazookas were recoilless in one sense, but like the LAW, they used rocket propulsion rather then the brute force of the simple detonation of the mighty 90mm shell. I guessed that Bazookas were cheaper and that perhaps the Army wanted to get rid of their inventory of them anyway. During training, the Army told us that the Marines didn't have 90's and were still issued the older Bazookas, poor bastards. I was never sure if this was true or just a ruse to make us glad we were not Marines. They didn't know that I was already glad that I wasn't a Marine; they were up in the northern
provinces of South Vietnam, some near the DMZ where the real bad fighting was taking place. Hah!
Well, after the bazooka practice,
which was supposed to simulate the 90mm, the Army would also give us boxes full of LAWs with which to practice.
I thought it was because they were even cheaper than the bazooka. For some reason, we would be left alone with boxes and boxes of LAWs to play with. We had a lot of fun with these on the range. The LAW had an effective range of 300 meters, but we soon learned we could coax quite an extra bit of distance beyond this. In addition, we learned that when we worked with the sight, the LAW was very, very accurate. There were old bombed up tanks and trucks and such out on the range which we would shoot at, but I grew some soldier devil horns and decided that my favorite target was a large sign farther out, supposedly beyond our reach. The sign identified that this was an Army firing range, or something like that. It certainly was not an official target, and we were certainly not supposed to shoot at it …but, when left alone, I tried hard to hit that sign. I got it once, although it didn't fall over. That's what
the Army gets for leaving me alone with boxes of LAWs.
What the Army also got was a guy who became very, very proficient with the use of the LAW. I don't recall if they had "expert" badges for LAWs, but I was a LAW expert shooter! I was a LAW specialist. There, at the rice paddy dike, Sgt Young wanted to know if I could drop a law rocket into that haystack off perhaps only 100 to 200 meters. Piece of cake! I uncapped that puppy, 'telescoped it', and proceeded to take a prone position behind the dike to fire on the haystack. However, something was wrong. While its big brother, the 90mm recoilless rifle, could be shoulder fired, we practiced firing it from the prone position. But, I had really only practiced firing the LAW from the shoulder while standing. Well, I certainly wasn't about to stand up (regardless of how much good luck that I apparently possessed)…but I thought I would be steadier if I could just sit on the dike, like a chair, with my legs dangling off the other side. "Ah yes, this is much better. Ok, let's get that sight into action." Unlike grenadiers, who never used their sights, and my casual usage of the M16 sight, I had learned that using the sight on the LAW, as it was designed, improved my accuracy greatly. I understood though that the grenade launcher's sight was cumbersome, and that the M16 sight was slow to adjust, but the sight on the LAW popped up automatically and was very simple to use. "OK, let's sight it and fire." …A quick check to see nobody in my backblast area, "OK, steady, steady… oh! oh!, I am being shot at again!" I assumed that the VC in the haystack had spotted me setting up my shot on them. The previously steady sight on my LAW then went into a small warbling motion, as though I was trying to scribe out an infinity symbol or some sort of crazy sideways eight (∞) in the air. I guess, after being shot at, I became nervous knowing that I was a bit overexposed sitting up on the top of the dike. "Do I try to get a quick shot off or should I just roll over backwards, behind the safety of the dike?" It seemed a shame to waste the shot, but that damn sight was still skewing back and forth. I couldn't seem to make that sight stand still. But then I managed to keep the sight on the right plane, per the little red line inscribed on the clear plastic sight. In other words, I could keep it level but I still could not stop the sight from wandering left and right. Accordingly, I had the elevation (distance) okay; I just needed to keep the damn thing pointed straight. But I was then becoming even more nervous and the sight just kept drifting left and right. Well, I cannot keep this up or I soon will be shot. In my despair, I decided that my only alternative was to try to
press the fire button as the moving sight would start to go by the target on its left-to-right or
right-to-left pass. If I couldn't keep the sight steady, maybe I could time my shot with the motion.
If I missed, fine, I needed to get this over with. "Waaaiit for it… waaaiit for it…. Fire!"
"It's clobberin' time!"
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.
If there is one time where
my memory does serve me well it is when I think back at the next moment and recall that I heard actual cheering from my buddies that had been watching all of this.
How could I forget a moment of triumph like that? It was as though it was at the end of the ninth inning and I had perfectly fielded a long ball and rifled it into home base to win the game. The damned rocket went straight into the haystack and blew the shit out of it, and the two VC along with it. Leastways, their firing at me came to a halt. When Gene fires this weapon at the enemy, the enemy must die, "It's the LAW!" I guess the Army method of training on LAWs really worked. It had probably been half a year since I had last fired a LAW. Practice does make permanent. My personal score, now at five months of combat, went up from: Gene –2/Enemy –0, to Gene -4/Enemy -0.
Timeline – May 1967
Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees hits his 500th home run.
I still don't know if I was more lucky than good. Except, now at this point I want you to remember that this was Pete's LAW.
Sure, I was fortunate enough to have put it to good use, but I still prefer to think that it was Pete who guided that rocket into the target that day.
"PAYBACK!" And, "Thanks Pete, let me see, I think that was the forth time you saved my life today.
Donald Martin Peterson
C CO, 4TH BN, 47TH INF RGT, 9 INF DIV
Army of the United States
26 November 1946 - 15 May 1967
Santa Maria, CA
Panel 20E Line 003
We honor his courage, sacrifice and devotion to duty.
THE CHERRY ORCHARD:
Later in the afternoon, many of
us had used up most of our M16 ammo, although nobody was fully out of ammunition, especially me, since I had carried a lot to start with. However, this seemed to not be a real great problem since a lot of the
VC had seemed to have been driven off a bit to our right by some of the support forces. I was unaware at the time but my friend, Jim Dennison, tells me that it was at this time that our platoon lieutenant
ordered a small squad of men to charge the wood line (and presumably the VC bunkers within).
At that time, this small group had very little ammo with which to do the job adequately. Among this group was Carl Cortwright. It was reported that Carl only had 10 bullets remaining in his rifle at that time. Asking Carl, a fresh replacement, to join this charge with so little ammo was probably analogous to asking him to attack a Tiger with a knife. He would not be much of a match when comparing his weight class to the Tiger's, but even less of a match when comparing his 'ammo' of one single knife to the Tiger's 'ammo' of
twenty large and sharp claws.
The popular term for a new replacement was
"Cherry". The name was not meant as a derisive term but more of a description of their experience.
Cherries did not get a half year of training as we had. Cherries were sent to Vietnam not long after they popped (pun intended) out of eight weeks of basic training with perhaps a few additional weeks of weapons training. Once they arrived in Vietnam, they were assigned to a replacement battalion where they were sometimes sent to "Cherry School", before being assigned to a specific combat unit. Cherry school didn't add very much in the way of real combat skills, they just mostly taught the new replacements to avoid VC punji sticks and diseases given by Vietnamese prostitutes. While there were some of both of these in the Mekong Delta, we really had very little peril from either. The dictionary defines a punji stick as follows: "A very sharp bamboo stake that the VC conceal at an angle in high grass, in a hole, or in deep mud, often coated with excrement, and planted to wound and infect the feet of the American soldiers. …. As to the punji sticks: -it was simply too wet everywhere in the delta and the punji sticks simply rotted away after a short time. There was one occasion where I had made a leap over a small wet ditch and discovered punji sticks waiting for me on the other side. The trouble was that I did not notice them until mid-flight of my leap. They were very cleverly placed by the VC. No matter, I was committed and had no option but to make the landing with both soles of my Army "jungle boots". But these normally very hard and stiff bamboo shoots just collapsed under my weight. Had this been in dry terrain I
may have been in trouble. …and as for prostitutes: - while these ladies could be found in the
cities, very few practiced their craft deep in the rural delta.
This marginal training for replacements was never enough to bring them up to the speed of the veteran combat soldiers. It was another classic Catch-22, Cherries wouldn't (and shouldn't?) be depended upon in combat until they got some experience but they couldn't get the experience until they faced and fought the enemy. Thus, there was a view, in some outfits, that Cherries were always treated with contempt by the combat experienced soldier because of the fear that an inexperienced soldier might get them killed. This was not necessarily the case with Carl but I guess it happens. As I recall, our group saw the advantage in helping a Cherry along so that they learned what was needed sooner than 'too late'. Besides, we were the new and modern-day musketeers. All-for-one and One-for-all In the real world of combat, ones life may, in fact, be someday placed in the hands of a replacement. You would want him to have as much ability to fight the enemy as you could introduce.
It's a biological fact that the
cherry tree and its fruit are part of the rose family. We just needed to get our Cherries to grow the necessary thorns.
Nevertheless, in my opinion,
one thing you shouldn't do to anyone, but especially not to a fresh replacement, is to send him to charge a tree line with only 10 bullets left in his rifle. During this very brave movement on the treeline,
Carl was shot in the spine and was paralyzed instantly. He now uses a wheelchair every day of his life.
Strangely, I was not to learn of this event
until after I had reconnected with Charlie Company veterans at a reunion on Veterans Day in 2008. I now look back on this and wished that I had then been able to give up some of my extra ammo clips to Carl and
this brave group. I don't have any idea how communication may have broken down at that point…fog of war, I guess. I do know that more often than not, our teamwork would mostly optimize any situation in which we would find ourselves. It appears, though, not every time.
THE RUNNING BACKS:
At that point in time though, we
did have plenty of empty M16 ammo magazines.
Later, thanks to some of some other brave lads who had run back perhaps some 300 meters across open rice paddy fields, to the company CP (Command Post) in our rear …and back again bringing us plenty of loose M16 ammo as well as other needed supplies. It was then that some of the 'walking' wounded went to work refilling the empty magazines for the shooters who manned our perimeter formed by the rice paddy dikes. I never heard one complaint of pain from them. I even think one of the guys was wounded in the hand, bandaged, but he was still jamming those 5.56mm rounds into our empty magazine clips with no complaint. This was but one example of how we worked together, as a team, for the common good.
We were thankful for having this
connection, however tenuous, to those in the rear.
Besides needed ammunition, it was also necessary to move some of the more severely wounded back to the Company Commander's (Captain Rollo Larson) CP to effect a dustoff. A dustoff was the term we used when a medical evacuation helicopter would come in to fly back wounded on out to a hospital.
I had mentioned earlier that a soldier should
never place himself out of reach of his weapon.
Actually, there was one exception to this rule. This was when a soldier would volunteer to handle one end of a stretcher in order to convey a wounded soldier over and onto a dustoff (med-evac) chopper. On other, earlier patrols in the Rung Sat, I had occasion to man a stretcher for this very reason. Whenever you take on this volunteer duty you realize that you will need both hands to manage your end of the stretcher and you effectively give up the use of your weapon during this time. As a machine gunner, I always felt that, although I was momentarily away from my M60, I perhaps did not feel as naked as some of the other
volunteers. I, at least, had my 45 pistol with me during the run.
However, on this day, we in the
1st Platoon did not have to make this effort as some of the guys from the 2nd Platoon came through the open field from the CP area behind us to collect our wounded and to haul them back to the dustoff area behind
My friend, Bill Reynolds, was one such 2nd Platoon volunteer. At one point, he and three other volunteers from the 2nd Platoon came into our rice paddy dike area with two stretchers along with a fifth volunteer whose job is was to trail along with his M16 on hand so as to have at least one soldier in this group who could be weapon-ready. He was their guard for the run.
These trips were long runs, and during one
such run back, this group had to drop into the protection of another rice paddy dike system to our rear when a VC shooter decided that these weaponless; closely grouped runners made for easy targets.
Thankfully, it turned out that the VC shooter was not able to add to the wounded count among their small group. After the VC fire subsided, this stalwart group took off again on their run. At one point, they had to move through some low jungle growth where they were confronted, at close hand, by a VC who popped up out of the low brush. Instantly, and in unison, the four weaponless stretcher bearers shouted to their lone M16 carrying 'guard' like some sort of deranged church choir group frantically chanting: "Shoot-em!, Shoot-em!, Shoot-em!". At which time their 'guard' dutifully responded with
a burst of full automatic fire from his M16.
The wounded men made it to their dust off chopper thanks to these "rescuers".
Suddenly it was late afternoon - Tempus Fugit, as it were. At that point,
I was anxious for sunset to arrive in order to give us a chance to get out of the middle of the rice paddy field and back to our main force. However, 'time' was not flying by but seemed to be just strolling. I
had been taught in astronomy class in college that twilight on Mars is longer than on Earth, lasting for up to two hours after sunset; but here on Earth, on that night, it also seemed to be taking a long time for
daylight to wane. Suddenly, I felt that I could be on Mars, but perhaps for more reasons than one.
But eventually we finally moved back to join the CP behind us. As night fell, we set up a line along what seemed to me to be some sort of road or path, which ran along the side of the rice paddy field. Some of our guys were setting out Claymores.
The M18 Claymores were forward-firing, directional fragmentation mines used as close-in protection against an infantry assault, in this case a VC assault. Essentially, Claymores were a block of C4 plastic explosive embedded with a bunch of ball bearings and were effective out to 50-100 meters or so. Each mine was probably capable of stopping a dozen attackers in their tracks depending how closely grouped they
were. They were referred to as "command operated", meaning that they did not depend upon the enemy setting it off by stepping on it or tripping a wire, but rather it had a set of electrical wires that were
routed back to a trigger device held by the soldier who could set it off at the optimal moment of an enemy attack. Although Claymores could be set up with a trip wire, like the VC booby traps, we never did this.
Additionally, Claymores had little scissor-like stakes to stick into the ground, which allowed them to be set up on end so they could be fired outwards. We always got a kick out of seeing the embossed letters
on one side that instructed "FRONT TOWARD ENEMY". We wondered who could make the mistake of setting it up backwards, we were simply not that stupid. To us, it was like having a plaque on your rifle instructing you,
the shooter, which end the bullet would be expected to come out. However, I guess the Army was aiming at the lowest denominator amongst us and I suppose, at some level, we understood and appreciated the Army's
helpful advice. Although we found it funny that the Army included this caring guidance, that night it wasn't funny any longer. That night, with Pete gone and things having become very quiet and me
currently alone in my thoughts, nothing was funny anymore.
I then started overthinking
again. "Could we actually expect a night assault by Charlie?" I thought of the possibility of Charlie trying to over-run us like I had heard about up north with the North Vietnamese Army Regulars. Or maybe
they would try to sneak up on us at midnight?
In either case perhaps this might mean hand-to-hand combat, but I quickly dismissed the thought. Someone with a starlight (night vision) scope would spot Charlie before he got close. Besides, we could light up the battlefield with parachute flares if we chose. We had been out at night plenty of times, so it wasn't the night that bothered me, it was the concept that there may be more of them than there were us. Now fully immersed in my 'overthinking' mode, I began to dwell on this too much. "Stop the overthinking Gene!", I told myself. "Time to make some lemonade", I thought. Before it became full-on dark out, I took a good look around to mentally prepare myself for whatever may come my way. How many GI's did I have to my right, to my left and rear? I tried to get a good mental picture of other physical surroundings, trees and ditches or whatever. I was mentally preparing myself for any contingency. I had learned that sometimes this pre-thinking, or pre-planning could save precious milliseconds that would give you a slight edge. It was no different from the defensive driving techniques that I learned in high school Driver's Ed. All that was necessary was to envision any likely outcome (from other vehicles) that could manifest themselves, and then be prepared to take the necessary evasive actions, if and when needed. I guess this was another adaptation of the Power of Positive thinking. And once again, I was able to employ the concept that you could often make your own luck, instead of just being lucky.
Even so, I had generally thought
of myself as an infantry specialist, but then I began to feel that I might be out of my league, to use the game analogy once again. Here is a non-game analogy but perhaps more apt …I felt kinda' like a duck, hired
as an accountant, doing deep sea diving to count the number of sharks in my part of the ocean… totally and fully out of place.
At this time, nobody was
absolutely sure if the fighting was over. Actually, it turned out that it was over; the VC had demonstrated a unique ability to break off the fight and disappear into the night. The VC could come at us
if they wanted… or they could disappear if they wanted. Fortunately, that night, they apparently wanted to disappear. Maybe we outfought them after all.
There would be bigger battles for Charlie
Company and the 4th/47th in the upcoming months, and sadly, with a very great number of American deaths.
However, on May 15th 1967, it was reported that there were 27 wounded-in-action Americans from the entire two-battalion Army and Navy operation; 14 of the 27 were from Charlie Company. Incredibly, Pete was the only American to have been killed in the entire battle on that
date of May 15th 1967.
In the chronicles of all of the
great battles throughout history, or even the great and honorable battles of Vietnam, including the very much worse and dreadful battles our battalion had participated in throughout the remainder of 1967, this
battle will likely not be one that is considered special or unique nor will it be especially well-remembered. This battle, despite Pete's death and those wounded, was not an apocalypse of violence. But, it
will always be unforgettable to those that were there that day - and their families - but as we, the young soldiers from that battle on May 15th, 1967, grow older and leave this world and all of their battles behind
them, this event may prove to be little more than a small footnote in history. In the greater context of all history, it may be altogether appropriate that this is so. In truth, we were only a pin on a
map for just a day. One pin amongst the millions of pins of history.
- Before God I swear this creed. My rifle and myself
are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life. So be it, until victory is America's and there is no enemy, but Peace.
It was later
determined that, in the overall battle that day, over 90 VC were killed that day. The men of the 4th/47th were given credit for 61 of these.
We made it through the night
without incident. I finally got to eat thanks to some helicopters that brought in very much-needed supplies. These pilots did this in the dark, landing in the jungle by flashlight!
I think I previously mentioned that I thought those chopper pilots were crazy. Did I mention that I also thought those guys were heroes? Later, I also actually got some sleep in at one point.
The next morning we moved
out. I got it in my head that I wanted a view of the haystack that I had hit the day before with Pete's LAW, as I thought that we might head in that general direction, but I couldn't remember exactly where it
It also struck me that I perhaps couldn't even see it anyway anymore as I guessed that it really no longer existed after that LAW rocket had its way with it. I had thought, though, that there would be some remnants of it. However, it wasn't important enough for me to wander around, off by myself, looking for it. That day, I would stay safely with my group, my buddies.
Later, I would learn that
Pete's body was recovered, and that my friend, Bill Reynolds, was lifted out by a chopper that day due to a cyst that rendered him unable to walk.
Bill was to discover that his chopper also carried Pete back to base camp. Bill reported the following:
"- while flying back on that chopper, I
clearly remember looking down at Peterson with tears streaming down my face and thinking, what a huge loss for us and his family.
When the poncho covering Peterson instantly blew out as our chopper lifted off, exposing his lifeless body, I thought, oh my God, if they can get Pete we're all in big trouble."
I left Charlie Company for good
just a few days later. I took the transfer (and the two extra years of Army life) and was sent off on my own to make my way to Saigon. I caught the first thing I found smoking leaving from our base in
Dong Tam heading for Saigon (in this case a Chinook helicopter). I was assigned to the 4th Transportation Command in Saigon whose duty was to move the military supplies and equipment arriving into the port of Saigon.
Saigon duty also turned out to
be another series of extraordinary experiences for me, most of which I will save for another day. However, there is one Saigon experience which I must report here in the context of my former combat experience.
My most profound Saigon experience simply had to do with being transformed from a soldier trying to kill the demon enemy to now living and working with and amongst the Vietnamese people. I found myself garrisoned in a hotel in the middle of Saigon and was given my own Jeep with which to make my commute to my 'office' down at the docks. I also found myself making Vietnamese friends, shopping in their stores and eating in their restaurants. I went into their homes to meet their families and was even invited to, and attended, one Vietnamese wedding, the only American there. At times, it was just unbelievable that I had a former life as a infantry combat soldier. Please don't misunderstand, while on search and destroy, I understood the purpose of my weapons and my duty. Nevertheless, at some point during my new life in Saigon, I soon came to be made very sad that there were those who had to die at my hand.
When I left Dong Tam and caught
that Chinook flight for my office job in Saigon, I had to leave "ol' trusty" behind. I never knew what happened to her. I'd like to think that she was given a new sight assembly and put back into service
with my replacement. There she would fight on continuing to provide her good luck to her new owner …and his new companions … my friends.
It was either that or ol'
trusty was soon to become ol' rusty. If so, I now quote another infantry grunt, who said "May she rust in peace".
My reasons for leaving Charlie Company were couched in
rationalizations that I wanted to better myself, to become an officer. At other times, when I was sometimes alone, when I was more honest with myself, I realized that I had become sure that I was, in fact, one
crazy bastard, and that I would possibly continue to put myself at risk in some future battle, and that I would surely die.
This was not my best use of the power of positive thinking, but it sure as hell sounded like it could have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, I had been fortunate.
I believed that the reason that I
knew that I would continue to take risks was because, in a funny kind of way, for a very long time after I left Charlie Company, I found that I missed the action, the thrill of the game. I know, it's a stupid
thought, and I am even a little embarrassed to have to admit this, but I missed the combat contests like I missed playing sports or water skiing and such. However, in my heart, I secretly suspected, no knew, that this was just another case of me becoming disconnected from reality.
It had started to seem to me that
I had gotten somewhat good at what I did, and loved "pushing the envelope" in hopes of getting better at it. Later, out of college, in the '70s and in my snow-skiing days, I would wear a pin on the lapel of my
ski jacket that exclaimed "No guts, No glory."
That pin and a goatskin bota bag filled with some fruit flavored brandy would allow me to attack some of the very steep 'black diamond' expert slopes, which were above my ability at the time. But, there, at that time before Sunny Bono's 1998 (and Natasha Richardson's 2009) tragic skiing accidents, I considered that I was mostly just risking a broken ankle. However, I also thought that if I couldn't break an ankle back in that pock marked rice paddy field, then I probably couldn't break an ankle in the powdery, deep, and soft snow. Moreover, like anyone, I would feel good, really good, and perhaps even more than that, I would be elated when I would conquer a mountain. Sometimes, when you try and you win, you feel better for the trying than for the winning. The rewards for overcoming your fears are great.
I finally had to
admit to myself that there was some strange perverted love in playing the combat game - the ultimate game - whereby when you won, you won big, with the biggest prize of all - you got to keep your life. The endorphins would flow. It was a drug, and I guess I had been addicted.
However, after May 15th,
I went into a sort of mental rehab: I did not want to die, nor did I want to take a risk to die. I was willing to trade an extra two years of Army life for the chance to keep on living. Yet, I
continued to harbor some guilt over leaving my buddies behind.
Nevertheless, I wasn't married to my buddies, and it seemed that I also owed something to my wife, and to my parents. You see, I had made promises to them too, that I would come back alive. Yet, amongst the soldiers of Charlie Company, there were promises to be kept there as well. This was another Catch-22, another no-win situation. Still, I had no recourse but to make the tough decision …and I did …I would miss my buddies, even more than the fun I thought I was having.
I thought of Dr Peale's words, and realized that I wasn't Atlas, and should not have to carry the world on my shoulders. Charlie Company would go on without me.
Another view of my philosophy
could be found in another book which I had read in college. It was Ayn Rand's 1957 novel, "Atlas Shrugged" wherein she presented a view of the morality of rational self-interest. I saw her message as
essentially, and no less than, what makes human-kind successful. It is certainly also what makes America and its capitalistic society so great. It is what underlies our constitutional right to the pursuit of
happiness but only while exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior: Here is a quote from Ms. Rand, and from her book, that summed it up for me: "My philosophy, in essence, is the
concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute". But as complicated as this
thinking first appeared to be to me, I could easily connect my reasons for leaving Charlie Company with what Ms. Rand had described. To put it in simpler words, I saw my leaving not as selfishness but
selfishness translated into self-interest in its most dignified form.
Nevertheless, I had no doubts that
those who stayed to fight and die were better men than me. I am extremely honored to have called them my friends.
© Copyright 2009, Gene R. Harvey, Jr. All Rights Reserved.
All Maps, Charts, and Graphics designed by Eric R. Harvey
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