Some explanations are in order. A platoon consists of about 35 men. A company consists of three platoons plus a command group or about 125 men. A battalion could be any number of companies but for us it was four companies. I started out as a platoon medic in charge of about 35 men. I eventually became the company head medic with three platoon medics under me. Later I was assigned to the battalion aid station at the firebase. I reached the highest rank possible for my job.
Each battalion had a fire support base (Firebase) that provided artillery support for the infantry companies. The routine was three of the four infantry companies were in the field while the fourth guarded the perimeter around the firebase. So normally we spent three weeks in the boonies and one week at the firebase.
In early October 67 Charlie Company was guarding the firebase. In the middle of the night the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacked. At first they fired in mortars and rockets and later rushed the perimeter. I was sleeping in a small tent next to a bunker when the initial attack occurred. I sat up just as what sounded like someone had thrown sand on the tent and my shoulder burned. It was shrapnel from a mortar. Four of us dove in the bunker. The platoon sergeant stood up in the opening of the bunker as a rocket hit. The concussion knocked me on my all fours and I saw everything in shades of red. I don’t know if I was ever unconscious but the sergeant’s screams brought me around. I tried to treat him. It was pitch dark and I was trying to get my mind to working. I pushed sarge up against the wall. His blood ran down my arm and because it was so dark I couldn’t find where he was wounded. I eventually got him stabilized and the attack was turned back. He was medevac’d and probably lived although I think he may have lost an eye. The saying was if you survive the first firefight you have a chance to make it home. I had survived my first but my outlook had changed.
The area where we patrolled was along the Laotian and Cambodian borders where the Ho Chi Minh Trail comes into Vietnam. I have walked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail when it was as wide and smooth as a highway. We were fighting against an organized uniformed army that was well-trained and experienced in jungle warfare.
The people of the highlands were not the traditional Vietnamese that most people envision. The Montagnards (the mountain tribes) looked and lived more like African natives. They lived in huts on stilts with thatched roofs. They did not dress in the “pajama” like clothes with the cone-shaped hats that most people associate with the Vietnamese. The Montagnards were mostly naked or wore only a loin cloth. Quite a culture shock for a country boy from Texas.
The Yards, as we called them, were second class citizens in the eyes of the Vietnamese (North or South). They were severely mistreated. We would surround a village and go in to search for weapons and interrogate the villagers about NVA activity. As a medic, I went in the villages with the search teams. The village chief would usually give us a welcome party. They would cook us food and serve us rice wine from a large vat with long hollow reed straws coming out of the top. They would share the wine with us by passing the straws around as we sat in a circle. The rice wine had a pretty good kick.
The Montagnards would eat anything that didn’t eat them first. They would cook a bird, feathers and all, on an open fire and pass it around—take a bite and pass it on. There was also meat on a stick like a shish-k-bob. We couldn’t dishonor the chief so we took a chunk of meat and passed the stick on and then take a long sip of the wine to wash it down. On one occasion I was told that we ate dog meat. I had no reason to doubt it.
We treated the Montagnards with respect. The NVA, however, would use force and create fear. They would often kill the village chief’s children or other family members to maintain control. U.S forces were considered murderers for the few instances where civilians were mistreated. The NVA committed atrocities on a regular basis with little publicity of their actions. In every instance where I was involved with civilians—Vietnamese or Montagnards—our unit treated them very well.
In mid-November while on patrol Charlie Company was ambushed. My platoon was at the back of the line when the ambush occurred. We were separated from the main group. We missed the brunt of the attack. When the NVA broke off contact my platoon rejoined the main group to set up a defensive position. We lost three men that day. This was a normal ambush. The NVA in concealed positions would fight until airstrikes arrived. Then they would retreat into the jungle. The remainder of 67 was uneventful for us even though the Battle at Dak To raged for most of November not too far from us.
People have often reported about the sights and sounds of war but for me one of the keenest memories is of the smell of combat. On November 17 during the ambush we had made a small defensive position, a circle with the best cover we could find. We expected that our group would be attacked since there were so few of us. When the conflict ebbed we rejoined the main group. To do that we had to pass through the ambush site. That was the first time I remember that odor. It was a combination of gunpowder/cordite, body odor, and blood. The smell made an imprint on my memory. In my mind I can still smell it today.
Wars have a philosophical goal. In the case of Vietnam it was called the domino theory. If one small country falls to communism it would cause others to fall like a row of dominoes. In combat there are unit objectives. Take a hill or a village. When the shooting starts, however, a natural instinct takes over for individuals—survival. The immediate reaction for any person isn’t some grand philosophy or some strategic goal. Staying alive is the first reaction. I have witnessed many, many acts of heroism where a person overcomes that instinct of self-preservation to risk his life for someone else. Soldiers protected me numerous times—we took care of each other. I was interviewed by a TV news reporter in 2008 when our veteran group met in California. I was questioned about why our group was so special. My reply was that I had friends who would send me money if I called. I had friends who would loan me their car. I had friends who would do just about anything I ask. This group is special because we did put our lives on the line for each other time and time again. Our sentiment runs deep even though we had not seen each other for many years. That’s what being in combat together will do.
Charlie Company operated along the border with Laos and Cambodia. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was heavily used in that area. Many times while patrolling on the trail we would pass through areas where we could smell the NVA. They had a smell of burnt wood, body odor, and their food which usually consisted of dehydrated fish. When on the Ho Chi Minh Trail if we encountered that smell everyone knew what the odor was and the hair would stand up on the back of the neck. No one spoke but we didn’t need to everyone would be on alert.
If we could smell them I expect that they could smell us as well. Every time we took a break at least thirty men lit a cigarette. In the jungle the smoke from American cigarettes could be detected for miles. It’s no wonder that we seldom caught the NVA off guard.
Continue to Chapter 7