Beginning of March, 1968: Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Somewhere outside of Kontum, on top of one of many hills.
Seasoned U. S. Army soldier, Robert Roark, a veteran of the February 1968 TET Offensive battle in Kontum as a member of the 4th Infantry Division (Steadfast and Loyal) 2nd. Brigade, 1st of the 22nd (Regulars by God); Charlie Company, and the Elite 4th I. D. Exploitation Platoon; was sitting in the Charlie Company perimeter , in the first platoon area with the other experienced soldiers.
A helicopter approached the small landing zone on the side of the hill. Roark and the other soldiers waited in anticipation, hoping this was the once every three day, resupply run of c-rations, sundry packs, soda, beer and water.
Instead, a brand new Lieutenant leaped from the Huey. The first platoon’s last Lt., Lt. Metcalf, was severely wounded, shot from the top of a tank, during the Battle for Kontum, in February. Medic Jim Murray, received a Silver Star for covering the Lt.’s body with his own between friendly and enemy lines, while rendering medical care.
Roark, looked at the Lt., and remarked to his fellow soldiers , “We are in trouble now; this kid looks like he is seventeen years old.”
The new Lt., reported to the Charlie Company Commander, Captain Larry Konnerman. The Captain was a West Point Graduate, with a degree in Engineering, 26 years old. He was experienced, with a tour in Korea, and a year in Vietnam already, before extending voluntarily to command this Company. He was in command during the Battle for Kontum. He sat the new Lt. down and began to calmly talk; immediately gun fire erupted at an unknown distance outside of the perimeter . The new Lt. grabbed his M-16 tight, and the captain said everything was ok, and continued to speak to the new Lt. like they were in an IHOP in Sioux City, Iowa. Moments later, the new Lt. spotted a very husky African American Lt., Eugene Westbrook, entering the perimeter, out of breath, and with a concerned look on his face, followed by the second platoon that he commanded .
Lt. Westbrook, also rather new to the Company, approached the Captain, and explained that another American unit must have made contact nearby with the NVA, and bullets were flying everywhere, so he moved his platoon out of the way so as not to create additional confusion. The Captain asked him if anyone was hurt, the reply was no, and the Captain told him he did a good job, and to get on the perimeter with his platoon. The Captain then continued to talk to the new Lt. as though nothing happened.
After the initial briefing by the Captain, the new Lt. went to the First Platoon, to meet everyone. The introductions were cut short by 105 MM artillery rounds that evidently had to go directly over our perimeter to get to the unit that was contact with the enemy; this was commonly called fire support.
These invisible rounds were actually breaking branches off some of the trees over the perimeter, this was not a desired situation. None of them prematurely detonated. The new Lt. didn’t know much, but he knew this wasn’t good, and kept diving to the ground, because the experienced soldiers were diving on the ground.
Later, the new Lt. found that his most experienced platoon NCO’s were “short timers”, and would be rotating home soon. Many of the soldiers made hootches out of two ponchos’ and slept two to a “hootch”. The new Lt. was sent to the field with a jungle hammock. One of the soldiers felt sorry for the Lt., and showed him how to set up the hammock on the ground.
The defensive perimeters were set up, according to the terrain, so defensive bunkers were dug along the crest of the sloping terrain to make it difficult for the advancing enemy to spot your positions before they came within range for maximum grazing fire. The three platoons were assigned positions on the perimeter, according to a clock, 10 to 2, 2 to 6, and 6 to 10. The soldiers assigned to the defensive positions put up their hootches right behind it for easy access and took turns on watch. The Lt. would then be centrally located in his platoon area, with his platoon Sergeant, medic and RTO (Radioman). The Captain would then be centrally located in the middle of the Company perimeter, with his HQ element. RTO, senior medic, First Sergeant, Artillery Lt., forward Observer, and Mortar observer. There could be other attached elements depending on the mission, such as an 81 MM mortar squad, scout dog and handler, and engineers.
The new Lt. got himself squared away in his new jungle hammock, making sure the mosquito netting was velcroed all the way around to keep out all kinds of jungle creatures. It is very dark in the jungle at night.
The new Lt. went to sleep easily enough. An unspecified time later, the Lt. saw a bright flash of light through closed eyelids, which he thought was somewhat strange; followed by a very loud explosion, very close to his jungle hammock. Very, very close to his jungle hammock; followed by more flashing lights and explosions which rocked the ground. The new Lt. rolled one way to get out of the velcroed mosquito netting hammock, and hit his head on a tree, rolled the other way, and finally got out and rolled on the ground. A hand from somewhere belonging to somebody, grabbed the new Lt. and dragged him to the platoon bunker and threw him in it.
A couple of other soldiers threw themselves in the bunker. There is no gracious way to enter a small hole in the ground, covered by small tree limbs with earth filled sandbags on top for overhead cover. Especially when you can’t see, and hot metal of different sizes and shapes is flying through the air in an indiscrimate manner at several l thousand feet per second.
The new Lt., not knowing who was in the bunker , started shaking uncontrollably . They wore jungle fatigues, with no underwear and no body armor. The new Lt. stated that he was shaking because he was cold. An unknown voice from within the bunker stated, “You aren’t cold Lt., you are scared.” The unknown and unseen figure in the impenetrable darkness did not say it in a mocking or mean spirited fashion; it was said in an informative fashion.
When the enemy mortar attack ended, everyone came up out of the ground, went back to their hootches like nothing happened, with the exception of the soldiers on “Bunker perimeter guard.”
The new Lt. lay back in his jungle hammock reflecting on his first day in the field, and on other events in his life.
The first thought that came to his mind was, “if every day for the next year was going to be like this or worse, it was going to be a long year.”
I was that new Lt. I was 20 years old.