Id never fired a 60mm mortar in my life. Nevertheless, when I got transferred to Charlie Company 1/5, thats where they put me. Mortarmen didnt carry rifles. They tried to take my rifle away, and give me a pistol. They had too much gear to carry without the added burden of an M-14. It was no burden to me. It was my pal. I didnt make many points with the locals when I flat refused to trade in my trusty rifle. These guys knew Id been in India Company. I figure they just assumed I was borderline nuts by this time anyway so they didnt squawk all that much. I like to think I was the only mortarman in the Corps who carried a rifle. I gotta admit I probably was a bit goofy because I remember my rifle number even today. 1356766 TRW. Scary, huh?
I was a Lance Corporal. In my heart and mind I was still a Private, believe me, so when they assigned me to carry the baseplate and be an ammo humper that was just fine with me. Sgt. Chesek assigned a couple of the fellas to show me the ropes, but on the job training made up the majority of my instruction. Because of my limited duties my ignorance rarely got me in trouble, but occasionally Id learn the hard way.
The mortar was simple enough. Wed all seenem in movies, right? All you had to do was drop it down the tube and, "Bam", out itd fly. It was not quite as simple as that, but close. The mortar round has a shotgun shell type of arrangement at the base. The base has fins on it so it will fly straight. Clipped between these fins are the increments. Four ofem..These increments are little flat charges of C-4 wrapped in cellophane. Less than an inch square. An eighth inch thick. If you wanted the mortar round to go a long way you left all the increments on. If you wanted the round to go a little way you removed one or more of the increments to reduce the amount of power produced. Itd all been worked out on a range card that came with every box of ammo. When we were called for a fire mission wed set up the gun, and the team leader would call out how many degrees the tube would be elevated, and how many increments to pull off. Any increments Id pull off Id stick in my trousers pocket. It only took one or two fire missions for me to feel like I was getting the hang of things, but in reality, I didnt know much. I proved this more than once.
My biggest blunder damn near got my ass kicked. The whole company was on a patrol. Wed been out for a week or so. It was the middle of the monsoon. (Wasnt it always?) We were wet. Real wet. Its really difficult to tell a civilian how wet a fella can actually get. Days of it. You never really get dry. Whenever the rain would stop the whole company would stop, set up a perimeter, and give a halfhearted attempt at drying our feet. Youd at least take your boots and socks off. Youd sorta wince when you peeled your socks off. You were afraid of what youd see. Wrinkled yellow toes. If you were lucky you only had little black holes in the soles rather than big black holes. Rubbing them didnt help all that much, but at least your feet knew you were thinkin ofem.
Most of us had two pairs of socks, the ones we were wearing and the ones we had tucked in our shirt or wrapped around our waist. The ones in my shirt were almost always dryer than the ones on my feet. On this particular day most of the CP group were trying to dry both pairs at once.
For one reason or another the company had stopped and set up their permanent perimeter in mid afternoon. Since I was in mortars I was part of the CP group. Captain Darling always wanted both mortars, two rockets, and an M-60 attached to his CP group. He figured if any shooting started he wanted some serious firepower on hand so he could direct return fire immediately while the platoons were getting the word. Private Holt agreed with his tactics, and slept much better for it. The point is that we had a big CP group.
Though it had stopped raining it was still overcast and damp. Some industrious CP group guy got the bright idea to start a fire in the middle of this muddy clearing, rig up a spit over said fire, then hang his socks up to dry on the spit. Helluva idea! Quite a few fellas participated. They gathered and stacked the only wood they could come up with. All wet and slimey. They attempted to get the fire going by lighting little bits of C-4 under and around the small stack. Everybody had a quarter stick or two of C-4 in their packs. The wood wasnt burning all that well, but the little strip of fire from the C-4 was really getting the job done fine. It was working so well, in fact, that it took no time at all for ten or fifteen guys to be sitting around an ever expanding camp fire watching a couple of dozen pairs of socks dry on this ingenious device. Ive never been sure if the smell was from the smoking wet wood or the steaming socks. Ill forever remember this circle of grunts, sitting on their helmets in the mud, barefoot, watching this line of socks with such intensity. Like kids just before Christmas. (Dry socks at last!)
They were running out of C-4, and the socks just werent quite dry yet. I was sitting off a few yards or so when I heard one ofem ask, "Anybody got any C-4 they can spare?" I didnt want to contribute my last little golf ball sized chunk, but it occurred to me that I did have a whole pocket full of increments from my mortar rounds. Wed had quite a few fire missions in that last week or so. I musta had sixty or eighty increments in the right pocket of my jungle trousers.
I strolled on up to the fire, stuffed my hand in my pocket and came out with about thirty or forty increments, and gently dribbled them the entire length of the small camp fire. I had just leaned over when I heard Sgt. Chesek yell, "No!" at the top of his lungs. Hed been watching me walk over to the fire, but he couldnt believe I was stupid enough to do what he was afraid I was going to do. By the time I stood up and turned toward his shout it was too late.
My problem was that Id been told that the mortar increments were made up of C-4, but nobody had ever (not ever!) told me they were some sort of super C-4. I expected my little deposit of increments to sputter the little fire back to life, then I was going to donate all my other increments to the guys to perpetuate the flame. I really, truly, thought I was doing a good thing.
As I was standing up to turn to Sgt. Chesek I heard the first guy yell. Some ofem knew what was happening. Some ofem didnt, but they all got the picture real quick. My little increments appeared to turn into some sort of tiny atom bombs. Each one flared into an intense fireball about six inches across. Since there were thirty or forty of them, the fire got to be a ball about eight feet across. Hot. Real hot. One guy tried to grab for his socks but it took only an instant before he was in fire up to his eyeballs. He reeled back. They all did. Most ofem didnt even have time to stand up. They just rolled back off their helmets into the mud. Screaming. Yelling.
I turned to their shouts. The fire got so big so quick that I got one of those little purple balls in front of my eyes you always get when somebody takes a flash photograph. I was surprised, but more than that, I was confused. What the hell had happened? Confused or not, I knew that all the screaming was being directed at me. I stepped back from the spectacle a few feet. As Sgt. Chesek rushed quickly by me I saw what was left of the socks, which was not much at all. On the ends of the charred spit were a couple of pieces of a few socks. Smoldering. All these muddy, barefoot, guys were quickly becoming a lynch mob, and I was the lynchee. Sgt. Chesek kept yelling at them, "He didnt know!" "He didnt know!"
You can only imagine how pissed they were. I knew it, but I stood my ground. Id screwed up. Id have to pay. I only hoped they wouldnt kill me. After all my trials with India Company it would be a shame to be killed by an enraged mob of barefoot radiomen. With Sgt. Chesek shouting they slowly walked toward me. Sorta like that movie, "Night of the Living Dead". I must have looked like Wiley Coyote just before he falls down the canyon. I was trying to think of anything that I could say to save myself, but all could say was, "Sorry!"
Id like to have a dramatic end to this story, but there is none. All these guys wanted to kick my ass till my nose bled, but none of them did. Not even a push. I got yelled at some. A lot actually. But no busted nose or broken arms. It took a while, but they all settled down. Some lieutenant eventually strolled by and organized a sock finding team. It only took ten minutes or so for everyone to have socks on their feet. It took a few days for all the CP guys to quit looking at me like I was whale shit. It eventually became just another Private Holt story.
My entire life has been a series of Private Holt stories. No matter what rank I became or how old I got. I like to think that stupid things happen to other people too, but it still doesnt me feel any less guilty for incinerating a couple of dozen pairs of socks back in 67. For as long as I live Ill feel as if I owe a few good men a pair of socks. Im still sorry.