Vietnam: Security Watch

Me and this Marine made the most of the day under this sun shelter.

In addition to weekly platoon patrols, we almost daily went on squad patrols, mainly just for security around our location—hill 52. The patrolling never lasted more than a couple hours, but once in a while the squad leader decided to cheat. That is, we didn’t really go where we were expected to go. I remember, on one occasion we went over the first hill to our first check-point, and just sat there for the entire time. We were always required to call in at every check-point to report. Well, we called in every 15 minutes or so and pretended that we were at the next check-point. I wasn’t in favor of it, but most of the squad justified it, explaining to me that it wasn’t worth the risk of someone getting killed. I could understand their reasoning, but yet it still didn’t sit right with me. And I hated just sitting there doing nothing.

In addition to patrolling—and fake patrolling—we also occasionally just sat and watched. I don’t remember what the exact reason was, but on one occasion 4 or 5 groups of 2 Marines per location sat alongside a gravel road. We sat there most of the day doing nothing. I suppose we were there just to let people know that there were Marine in the area. And it was hot. So, I found a couple long branches and made a shelter for shade out of my poncho liner (pictured). Some of the guys never thought of doing anything like that, but for some reason I was always thinking of ways to make the most of the situation.

Night watch was most important. Whether we were away on patrol or at our home base, it was so important to have at least one guy awake and watching. The enemy would often strike at night when most were asleep. And if the watchman fell asleep, which occasionally happened, that put the squad in grave danger. I remember many a time while on watch, I struggled to stay awake. I often used the time to pray and quote Scripture. Here’s one that I probably thought of:

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).

Vietnam: Large Patrols

Here our entire platoon was getting ready for a major patrol.

I arrived in Vietnam in February of 1970. I had just missed most of the fighting, which mainly occurred during the Tet Offensive in 1968. So, I guess you could say that I was part of the clean-up crew. We were there to mainly watch over the area and stop any insurgency groups. Very rarely were we called on for any major offensive missions, but we went on patrol almost daily, just to look around and kill or capture any of the enemy forces that were still there—many of which were dug-in, hiding in underground bunkers and tunnels.

Our patrols were both by the entire platoon, made up of four or five squads—about forty Marines; and by squads—there were about eight in our squad. The larger, platoon patrols happened less often, maybe about once a week at the most. But the smaller squad patrols went out almost daily.

This is Che taking a rest. We were on patrol in the “Arizona Country.”

The platoon patrol always had more of a mission and sometimes lasted more than a day, and sometimes up to a week. The mission I remember most was when we went to the “Arizona Country.” I don’t know why they called it that; probably because it was always very hot there due to the tall elephant grass that would block the wind, but yet the sun would beat down on you. I remember that a couple guys fainted from heat exhaustion. I think those were the only casualties we had, even though, for a time, the enemy had us surrounded. It was kind of surreal. We didn’t know exactly where they were, because of the tall grass that was blocking our vision. Yet their ak bullets (from the AK 47) were zooming over our heads from all directions. I suppose we could have gone out to get them, but we weren’t that eager—or stupid. So, we just got very low and crawled away to safety.

Now that I think about it, there was another platoon mission that was equally memorable. I don’t remember exactly where we were patrolling, but at the end of the day we stopped at a clearing and were told to dig in. Sometimes we weren’t given the details of the mission; we were just given orders and were expected to follow them. So, the platoon made a perimeter and dug fox holes big enough for two or three guys each. That night we were fired on, but we didn’t see them. And a couple of grenades were also thrown our way, but not close enough to hurt anyone. Strangely, some of the rounds were coming from above, like they were in the trees. In one case we could see automatic tracer rounds coming from one location, but hitting in only one spot. There was only one explanation I could think of: there was a machine gun planted up in a tree and a guy below was pulling a string that was tied to the trigger.

As soon as it was light, the enemy fire seemed to end. So, we very cautiously gathered up our gear to depart. I remember that one guy who was not even in a fox hole, but was lying in the nearby grass, just stood up and stretched as if he was waking up from a deep sleep. We all quietly yelled, “Get down, are you crazy.” The truth is, he had probably been smoking Marijuana and had apparently slept through the whole night not knowing what went on that night.

The only casualty came just before we left. I don’t remember who it was, but he was sitting right next to me; and he stood up, took just two steps, and boom! He stepped on a small booby trap. It didn’t kill him, but the shrapnel cut him up pretty bad. We tried to comfort him by telling him, in between his cries of pain, that he would get a purple heart and would be going home. A metevac helicopter came within about fifteen minutes and took him away. I was so impressed at how fast they came.

Before we left, we called in napalm. That means that an airplane flew over and bombed the area all around us with napalm, which is a very hot incendiary explosive used to quickly burn out the enemy. It was standard practice to use napalm in Vietnam after such missions, especially if we knew that there were underground tunnels around, which we suspected there were.