Hastings At 34, Part 3. (July 20, and 21, 1966)
WHO ARE THOSE GUYS?
A friend called me last night. Said, "I don’t remember that Dak character, but I sure do remember the C-ration incident with the B2’s." We laughed about it, and a couple of other things I’ve covered so far, and then talked about the first few days before the ‘Hill’. Remembering is hard. For some reason, many of the guys of Lima Company have a hard time going there. It may very well be, that the situations that came later in the operation took precedence over the smaller details. I still think they’re important. Even down to the C-rats we were eating, which by-the-way were few. The details trigger memories. (..and may help others remember?)
So, I’ll start with that. Food.
We came charging into one base camp, on or around the 20th of July, only to find that once again we had caught our enemy off guard. Once again, there was a brief, but violent, gun battle. The gooks lost. This time though, along with various pieces of clothing and other paraphernalia, we found food still cooking on their fires. They must’ve been real close. What else was new . . . It was frustrating to be right on top of them (whoever ‘them’ was) and keep finding they’d gotten away.
As usual, I’m mentally trying to calculate how many had been there. Guess who’s coming to dinner? Then it hit me, as if I had been slapped right upside my head. Shit! The balls of the little f***ers! To be eating supper at my table! Where art thou, Goldie Gook? Wait a minute . . . If they’re so brazen to be eating over open fires, knowing full well that we’re not only in the area, but right on their little tails – then . . . Damn! They’ve gotta have more guys than we do! Must be . . . we’re not a threat to them at all!
I mentioned this to someone of importance, but the point gets lost with the excitement of finding all kinds of papers and stuff around. Not to mention more food, because along with whatever it was they were cooking (dirty rice with bits of fish or some other meat mixed in it). There were also some cages with live chickens - and even a couple of pigs. (Several of these items made it to the palates of some of our more rank-conscious brethren later that evening.) I sat down and thought about things for a moment, while the rest of the troops came through. I looked around. Real hard. I bet that it was a staging area. Had to be, with all of the stuff laying around. The paths leading in every direction were well worn. And, there were bunkers dug into the side of the creek bed. God knows what they’d carried off just before we got there. I was starting to piece together what I’d been sensing all along. Whoever they were – they wasn’t VC.
I hadn’t really seen any enemy bodies up to that point (but that was rapidly about to change). Somebody had remarked that these guys had uniforms of a sort we hadn’t seen before. What did they mean? I looked around me. Scattered in the brush was something that caught my eye. I went over and fished the item out from underneath some bushes. A canteen and cartridge belt. They were the first like them that I’d seen. The canteen was made of plastic, I noted with disgust. Ours were made of aluminum. Solid. This one had a red star raised in relief towards the neck. The cartridge belt was kind of like our web gear, but different. Cheaper, I noted again with disgust. Someone found a bunch of pith helmets (in some boxes, I think). They had red stars on them too. We had found some weapons in the last two base camps. They still had packing grease on them (cozmoline?). I carried one for a while, until Gunny Dias decided he wanted it, and relieved me of it. Okay by me, because it was a strange-looking rifle, and I had plenty to carry already. That one looked like it had been stamped out of a sardine can or something. Banana shaped clip and all. In fact, that’s what I called it –‘the banana gun’. (I didn’t know at the time, that it was the infamous AK-47 assault rifle.)
The clothes we found laying around? Well, they weren’t the black pajamas we’d come to associate with the VC. Hmmm . . . I sort of remember that these were an OD-type green and there were some that were khaki or brownish-color. Well, didn’t matter. I’d just be a little more careful when tracking them. Along with everything else, there were plenty of samples of their footwear laying around. It was interesting . . . they looked a lot like tennis shoes. I still hadn’t found any mines or trip wires yet. (That, too, was about to change . . .) Besides, we had them on the run. As long as we could keep them off guard – it would be to our benefit. (That would change . . .) Each time we hit one of these ‘base’ camps, it would slow us down until we could sort through everything and check it all out. Usually we’d go into a perimeter-type defense around the general area. (As if the gooks would be so foolish as to come back for their stuff.)
"Harris! Keep it moving!" I guess I’d been sitting down a little too long. I remember already starting to feel dead tired. I was on point nearly all of the time. If not with the Company, then with our platoon, and that takes a lot out of you. As I got up, I thought about keeping the canteen and cartridge belt as a souvenir. Then, just tossed it back in the brush. Figured the S-2 (3?) guys might need it. They were the ones who were supposed to make heads or tails out of all of this. I noticed one of the guys walking by with some gook money. He gave me some paper bills (piasters, dong?), and I ended up stuffing them in my shirt pocket. I wondered if they got paid as much as us - about $125 a month, with combat pay. I still have some of that gook money laying around in a shoe box in the attic.
I don’t think it was more than a couple hours later, that I was coming around a bend in the streambed, and all hell broke loose. I’d just been admiring the beauty of the place. The tall trees were almost dusty looking as rays of light filtered down into the shade of the streambed. I was wading upstream in the water trying to be quiet, and at the same time staying off the trail. Pieces of the tree next to me started to fly by me, almost before I heard the noise of the automatic rifle. But I’d already started a dive for cover. How is that? I thought about it afterwards, and surmised that already my senses were so keyed into everything around me, that the slightest thing out of place registered ‘real quick’. Survival instincts – that’s what I called them. I began to trust that sixth sense or whatever it was that made all of my senses combine to 100% alert. That saved my can more then a few times. And they stayed with me long after the war. Have you ever had someone startle the hell out of you unexpectedly by coming into your peripheral vision? Happens all the time with me. It can be downright embarrassing at times, let me tell you.
I let off an instinctive shot, as I dove into the water behind a boulder, spotting a muzzle flash in the tree line to my left. And, damned if I didn’t hit the little f***er! No kidding! I just couldn’t believe it – probably the best single shot I ever made in the Nam. The guy just flipped to his side as if he’d been hit by a frying pan. But, the thing that really scared the living shit out of me was the guy behind me about a hundred feet. He let go of his M-14 automatic. (He was one of our guys!) Tracers went zipping past my head. I almost swung around and shot him too. That was it . . . I was done for the day. I asked for someone else to take my place at point. I didn’t even bother going over and looking at the gook. The other guy claimed the kill anyway. I was shaking like a leaf. Geez, that’d been just too damn close (both of them). Had I blinked, I’d have died. (It wouldn’t be the last time. Not by a long shot . . .)
Later, after the sun had slipped down behind the hills, we dug in for the night. I drew Pfc. Robert Stewart for a fighting-hole partner. Man, did we luck out. Captain Tatum must’ve been aware that we were all dog-tired or something. Because, instead of climbing the highest hill around for the night (which was his typical thing), we found a little knoll which stretched into a small meadow just before ending at the tree line. My platoon (3rd), dug in about one hundred yards from that tree line. For the first time on this operation, the ground was soft and easy to dig. Fine by me, ‘cause I was dead tired. Stewart and I dug a really good hole. It was deep for a change, and had a grenade sump and everything.
While I was rummaging around in my pack and setting the last of my C-rats out on the edge of the hole, Bob crawled over to the fighting hole next door and began to barter his stuff for some good (better?) rats. It was almost dark. Then, suddenly, there was a burst of automatic weapons fire, just as the dirt of our hole started kicking up. Several of the cans we’d set out went flying. To this day I don’t know why I wasn’t hit, because the can I’d set directly in front of me hit me in the helmet covering me with ham and limas. As I instinctively squeezed down into the whole, puckering my little you-know-what into the size of a peanut – Bob comes flying in landing right on top of me. The ensuing, rapid exchange of words and gunfire went something like this:
"Jesus f***ing Christ, do you always have to land on me like that!!?"
(As if this happened all of the time. . .)
"Didn’t realize I was so hungry!" he quips, letting off a burst with his M-14 on automatic.
"Well, dinners shot!" I said with disgust, wiping off a hunk of lima bean with my sleeve.
We both open up, but can’t see a thing. I liked Bob. He always displayed a sense of humor – even in the damnedest of situations.
Later that night, we got mortared. The shrill sound of incoming projectiles was the first I’d ever heard. I hoped it would be the last. Most of the rounds landed behind us in the CP area. One guy was killed, and a couple more wounded, before the terrible screaming stopped. I learned to dread that sound more then just about any other in Vietnam. (Remember, this was still early in the war. We hadn’t yet gotten to hear the rockets that became even more of a terror.)
To this day, I can’t stand those whistling Pete’s, or whatever they are, around the 4th of July.
JULY 21, 1966
I started the day out tired again. After the initial automatic weapons fire from the night before, we’d been placed on 100% alert (everybody stays awake). And, who could sleep through mortars anyway?
I was placed on point again. For most of the day. To me it was an honor to be on point, although to this day I cannot explain why. Guess I felt like I was good at an important job or something. Being able to see things that others couldn’t. At least hoping you could see things . . .
My squad leader, Cpl. Bill Troy, first noticed that I had a gift on Okinawa. We were up in the Northern Training Area (NTA), on a night maneuver, moving along the same kind of creeks we were dealing with now. After trudging along for most of the night, or what seemed like most of the night, I say to Troy, "Are we supposed to get ambushed tonight?"
"No, you idiot. Why?" He whispers back at me in the dark.
"Well, because there’s been a lot of traffic in front of us for about the past hour."
"What the hell are you talking about?" he sez to me, a little irritated.
"Don’t you see the heel marks on the trail?" I sez matter-of-factly.
"No, I don’t see any heel marks. Show me!"
So, I practically put his face in them trying to point them out in the dark. More touch than see.
"How can you tell how long ago they’ve been here?" he snaps.
"Just look at the grass." I sez. "See how it’s starting to spring back up?"
"Maybe I do. I don’t know. What are you - Daniel Boone or somethin?"
Anyway, I take the lead and we work our way around and completely surprise the fake enemy (our guys). We ended up ambushing the ambush. Troy’s delighted, and I get a second job. And a lot of responsibility.
About mid-morning, I’m at the lead, moving right along. For some reason, I think we were out of the creek and canyon area for a change, and moving through the forest. Tall trees everywhere. Spooky! The trail, like so many of the others, was well worn. There was a sense of urgency, but to this day I don’t know why. It was really quiet. I had a feeling they were watching us. The birds had fallen silent. I was pretty far out in front of the others.
If anything was a problem with being at the point position, it was trying to maintain a distance that would allow the others to stay in step, and yet, not crowd me. I couldn’t get so far ahead that the others wouldn’t be able to see my hand signals. I felt the hair on my neck rise. I was thinking about how much I had loved the woods and forests of my youth. What had once been one of my most enjoyable interests (tracking animals and learning their ways) had now evolved into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the enemy.
Several times that morning, I had come across trip wires leading to booby traps. I’d mark them and keep moving as directed. Let the engineers figure out their detonation devices and explosive charges. Later, I’d hear the yell of "FIRE IN THE HOLE!" followed by a muffled explosion behind me. One thing I’ll always remember (as anyone ever has, who has had the point position), is the fear of tripping a ‘bouncing-Betty’ antipersonnel mine. Of all the many ways of dying, none aroused as much fear in me as much as those damn things. The idea of a mine popping up and leveling me by blowing off my legs, not to mention the family jewels . . . Well, you couldn’t think about it, or it would just drive you crazy. With that thought, my searching eyes became more focused. I never asked what kinds of mines I found during my time over there. (The one that finally got me was identified by the shrapnel that tore into my body…but, that’s another story.)
At one point, as I was starting to duck under a tree that was leaning precariously across the trail, something grabbed me as if it were human. My imagination playing tricks on me. Or was it? Whoa up boy! "Well I’ll be damned!" I muttered under my breath. If I’d never done it as a kid to kill game - it would have gotten me. I gave a hand signal to halt the column, and just stood motionless for a moment. There, just yards in front of me, but so well camouflaged I’d have never seen it in a million years - was a crossbow! Unbelievable! If I hadn’t done the very same thing as a kid, I’d have missed it for sure. And, with the way it was set up, I’d have caught the bolt right in the chest!
I worked my way around the trip wire, cautiously checking to see if there was another trap. The gooks were good at that sort of thing. Give you the impression that you found their booby trap – just to nail you with another. Hence the term ‘booby’. I have to tell you, that crossbow was one of my most prized possessions, until it disappeared into obscurity a few days later, after I was med-evaced from the ‘hill’. It was very well made of laminated hardwoods…almost had a purple patina.
I found myself musing over it after I’d shown the others. I wondered how my obituary would’ve read? Twentieth Century Marine warrior – killed by a crossbow.
Later that day, I was on point again when we topped a hill or a ridge (one or the other). I reeled back as if I’d been knocked over by a sudden gust of wind.
My jaw just sagged with disbelief. In front of me, as far as the eye could see, unfolded a scene of complete and utter destruction. What I saw scared me beyond reason. I don’t know why – except it reminded me of what a nuclear holocaust must look like. Nothing identifiable was left standing of what must have been a B-52 saturation bombing. Huge craters pocketed the terrain like a moonscape, and what may have been trees at one time were shards of splintered trunks and wasted beauty. Huge pieces of shrapnel protruded from anything over six inches high. (The closest any picture, mental or otherwise, has come since - is the destruction of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980.)
I just stared in disbelief for a few minutes while the others got up to where I was standing. I was witnessing something that I hope people will never see. It was indescribable. There is just no way anything bigger than a lizard could have survived. No way. No how. Thank God, the enemy didn’t have weapons like that or we’d be up a creek for sure! (Could this have been the support called in by Kilo Company, 3 / 4 a couple of days before?)
Before the sun would rise to shine on another exciting day, several of the men shuffling by me, would witness yet another incredible sight.
Click on: Next: Hastings At 34, Part 4 (Ambush of July 21-22, 1966 and more)
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