Vietnam: Night Patrols

During the day in the village, life was pretty good. But at night things were different: we went on night patrol almost every night; and when we didn’t have night patrols, we usually just camped out in a perimeter outside of the village. When I say camped out, I don’t mean we pitched a tent. We always just sat on the ground somewhere out of sight. Sometimes we would hide in the middle of a rice patty in a foot of water and stayed there all night under the stars with the mosquitoes. And we were not to swat the mosquitoes or use repellent. Our purpose at night was to guard the village and also to intercept any enemy intruders. We were to hide ourselves and stay out of sight. We didn’t want the enemy to see us, hear us, or smell us. If they came through, we wanted to surprise them. We would capture them if possible.

Actually, we didn’t have many encounters; I suspect they knew we were vigilantly on guard and so they stayed away. But one night we did encounter someone. While we were quietly sitting in the dark, soaked in a rice patty, he walked right into us. He was so surprised that, as soon as he saw us, he just took off running. We put up a flare and saw him for just a second, and he was gone. We suspected that he was either a Vietcong that was coming to the village to steal some food, or perhaps he was a VC sympathizer (someone in the village that would bring food out to the Vietcong because they felt sorry for them). And I can understand that, because the Vietcong were just doing what they were ordered to do and sometimes they were barely surviving out in the jungle without much at all.

Our unit, as well as our patrolling, was different than a regular Marine unit. A regular unit, like where I was previously, on hill 52, had bunkers and barricades and was generally more visible; and most of our patrolling was during the day.  But in the village unit, we tried to be invisible. We had no bunkers or barricades and we tried to blend in with the Vietnamese people. All our patrolling was at night under cover of darkness. Our mission wasn’t to seek and destroy; it was to guard the village and to secretly catch enemy invaders by ambush.  

And sometimes it was so dark and quiet that when we heard anything, we were a little uneasy. I will never forget the time when I was scared out of my boots. We were set up in the village in between a couple hutches, and I heard something. So, I drew my 45, and creeped around the hutch looking for whoever it was. I didn’t see him the whole night, yet I heard someone. It was like chasing a ghost. That morning I discovered that there was an ARVN (a Vietnamese military person) at home on leave moving around in the hutch we were guarding—and he had a weapon with him. I don’t know if he knew that we were there, but if he would have gone outside carrying his weapon, I might have shot him. That was a crazy war, and many times the wrong people were shot.

Vietnam: Transferred to A Village Platoon

This is where I stored my gear and shared meals with a Vietnamese family. It was your typical bamboo hutch. I never slept here though. Every night we went on night patrols, and that is where we slept–under the stars.

The more I thought about what was going on down below in the village—how they were under attack every night from the Vietcong (Communist guerillas)—the more I wanted to be down there to help out. And I have to admit that it wasn’t just my compassion and good will showing; it was also my desire to fight. I had been in Vietnam for almost six months and I hadn’t been in a good battle yet. I wanted more out of that war. Maybe I was guilty of being too aggressive and a war monger. But then, I think God has gifted some of us with that war-like desire—in order to fight the enemy.

So, anyway, I prayed about it; and I felt a peace to put in for a transfer from where I was, at hill 52, to the Marine unit below us in the village. And to my surprise, my transfer came through very quickly, in about a week. I don’t remember how I got there, but I probably just walked; the village was only about one-half mile away by the main road (a gravel road).

The Marine unit in the village was a lot different than on hill 52. They weren’t all dug in and they didn’t have bunkers or barricades of any sort. Most of them were living in their own make-shift shelter in the middle of the village, and a few of them were scattered around among the village people.

While I was pondering where I would unload my gear (the little I had), a young Vietnamese girl grabbed my hand and started to pull me. She wanted me to come to her hutch. I could see that there was no objection among the Marines to go where I wanted, so I followed her to where she lived. There I met her mother and father and they gladly welcomed me. It was immediately apparent that they wanted me to stay with them. Communication wasn’t the best with the older folks, but I surmised that they felt comfortable having Marines living with them; maybe they felt safer. The little girls name was Sum. She was friendly, but at the same time very shy. Her mother and father were also very friendly and welcoming; but, unlike Sum, they hardly knew a word of English.

Since servicemen, both Marines and Army, had been in Vietnam for about ten years, the kids knew English almost as well as their own language.  All the older folks didn’t bother to learn English; but of course, they had the kids to translate for them. We also depended on the kids to help us communicate to their parents. And that was helpful when we needed to relay important messages to them, like when we needed them to stay in their homes at night and not to go roaming around. That was critical, especially when we knew that the enemy was close by. We didn’t want any of the villagers to be hurt. And that was the main function of our unit—to protect the village.

This is Leam. What a great kid.

Besides Sum, there was also a boy about the same age (about 10) that came up to me asking if I needed any help. His name was Leam (pictured). He was also kind of shy, but not as much as Sum. I didn’t need too much help, but he did help me wash my clothes and a few other things.  Of course, the kids all wanted to be paid for their work, and I was glad to pay them.

One of the greatest blessings I received from my transfer to that unit and from my stay with Sum and her family, was my fellowship with them at meal time and the sharing of food. Typically, most of what they ate was white rice (which they grew in their own rice patties) and just a very little bit of fish or some kind of meat mixed in a hot fish sauce called nuoc mam. Well, since they have so very little meat, they were quite grateful to me when I offered some of my meat from my c-rations to them. Eventually, I decided to just share all of my meat (whatever it was) with everyone, and they in turn gave me as much rice as I wanted. I felt so blessed to share meals with them.

A Marine getting help washing his clothes in the river.

Vietnam: Glasses, Chaplain and Coke

A Chaplain holds a service in Vietnam.

There was always something to take you away from your regular duties. My diversion was that I needed glasses. I can’t remember what happened to them. Either I lost them, or they broke. Anyway, after going without them for at least a month, I finally realized that I should try to get them replaced—mainly, so that I could see what I was shooting at.  Yea, that might be important. So, I reported my situation to the commander and they sent me to hill 65, right down the road. I don’t remember exactly how I got my glasses, only that it took a while. I was on that hill for about two weeks waiting for them to come.

But while I was waiting, they put me to work. I remember so well what happened on the first day I arrived. An older high-ranking Marine came to me and said, “We need someone to make salads in our kitchen, You’re our man.” He didn’t ask me if I thought I could do it; he just assumed I could. Next, he led me into the kitchen, showed me the weekly menu and what time to have the salads ready. I was a little surprised that he had so much confidence in me, without really knowing me. It was almost like he was commanding me to do it, and at the same time believing that I could. Well, just because he had so much trust in me, I felt motivated and empowered. And you know what? I made some pretty good salads. Every day of the week I made a different kind of salad. Monday was shredded carrots and raisons. Tuesday it was coleslaw. And Wednesday it was something else. Hey, I was a cook! Hard to believe. And no one complained. Oh, by the way, in case you’re wondering, hill 65 was more than your typical fighting unit, hence the hot chow and even a kitchen.

Another memorable experience on hill 52 was when the Chaplain came and brought hot food and a bag of gifts for everyone. The hot food: turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, etc., was so good, but I wasn’t use to it and it made me sick. Everyone in Vietnam had dysentery, but the hot food made it worse. Oh well, I guess it was worth it. I also really liked the gifts the Chaplain brought: a little living New Testament, some stationary, and a few other things. Everyone like it when the Chaplain came. He was like Santa Claus. And they liked it also that his sermons were short.

Another vivid memory was one day when our squad was out in the middle of nowhere on a very hot day on a security detail, and along came a Vietnamese boy on a bicycle with a case full of ice-cold cokes. At that time a can of coke was only about 5 cents, but he was selling them for 50 cents. He was making quite a prophet, especially since it was so hot and everyone was buying them. I remember marveling at his salesmanship and shrewdness. And there were also, occasionally, girls coming by, selling their bodies. Surprisingly, most of the guys gave in, but not me. God had shielded me from that particular temptation.

I want to mention one more memorable thing that was constantly going on within visual range of hill 52: the day time bombing missions in the air, and the evening fire fires on the ground. I remember watching the fighter jets sweep down on a target, and then, when they almost hit the ground, turn sharply at about a 90% angle, and head up to the sky again. It was quite a show. And they were doing that constantly it seemed. But I never knew what they were shooting at. Maybe nothing. Maybe it was all practice, or just to give us a show.

As far as the fire fights below, that was not just a show. We could see intermittent tracer rounds going back and forth across a field (On a machine gun, usually every fifth round was a tracer round: a round that appeared as a red streak, with the purpose of gauging how close you were coming to your target). On one side, to our right, the bullets were coming from Marines guarding a Vietnamese village; and on the other side there was a tree line where the Vietcong were hiding. I often wondered how the Marines were doing, and if they were suffering casualties.