By Sp4 Chuck Colgan / John Podlaski
A husky, blonde haired soldier rises from his air mattress, quickly shedding his nightly cocoon, a damp, green camouflaged poncho liner, from around his body. He scratched vigorously at a multitude of mosquito bites and then brushed off several biting red ants that had found their way inside. He looks over the rest of his body, pats down his pockets and scrutinizes his boots for additional creatures that might be hiding there. Comfortable with the results of his inspection, the soldier sits on a nearby log, powders his feet and inserts them into his damp boots, making sure to tuck his fatigue pants into the tops before tying the laces – a preventive measure to keep leeches and ticks from crawling up the legs. Satisfied with the task, he mutters to himself, “One hundred sixty-eight days to go – more than half-way there.”
The sun works its way through the damp and chilly early morning mist which clings tightly to everything in the jungle. Assorted birds and insects thrive in this environment, and as if on cue, begin chattering, clicking and singing – ready to get on with their day.
“Damn varmints” he grumbles, draping his wet blanket over a couple tree branches to dry then started on a regiment of short stretching exercises.
“What are you griping about now, Tennessee?” Asks another soldier, who sits on the top of his steel pot at the next position. A scent of hot cocoa permeates from his canteen cup as it simmers on the top of a converted C-Ration can / stove; a heat tab burning inside the small stove glows steel blue in color, as the fire grows, fingers of yellow and red flame dart upward, lapping against the bottom of the metal cup – some are attracted to the large triangle shaped air holes punched into the sides of the can and flicker through – like the tongue of a snake, in an attempt to escape from their raging prison. Staring at the flames of the burning stove can sometimes mesmerize a person enough to put them in a hypnotic trance. Ever happen to you?
“Them critters kept me awake for hours last night,” the blond soldier complained, “between them mosquitos buzzing in my ears and feeling things crawling over me, there was no way my brain was going to let me get some sleep.” Tennessee whined, squeezed a small amount of toothpaste onto his index finger and used it like a toothbrush on his teeth, gums and tongue, spitting out the white foam residue onto the ground next to his lean to.
“Boy, I thought you southern boys were used to shit like this,” his neighbor crowed.
“It ain’t nuthin like this back home in Tennessee – only a dead person can put up with this kind of shit every night!” The blond soldier stated then rifled through his rucksack, pulling out a can of peaches that he’d been saving for a bit. He took the treasure and sat back down on the fuzzy green covered log, rocking a small opener around the top of the can. Before the top was fully disengaged, he stopped, folded the lid back and sipped at the sweet nectar inside.
The man next to him raised his canteen cup, blew into it a few times and took a nervous first sip. The metal was still hot and he’d tried hard to avoid burning his lips on the rim. “Want some cocoa?” He offered.
“Nah, man, but thanks for asking,” Tennessee closed his eyes, chewed slowly on a single wedge of fruit, savoring every second of this special treat.
The platoon leader was making his way around the perimeter and briefing each team leader about the mission for the day. He saw Tennessee glowing and grinned as he walked toward him.
“Morning, Tennessee!” His voice was overly cheerful. Tennessee quickly scrutinized his face, looking for any telltale signs that he might be the bearer of bad news.
“Morning, L-T!” He answered respectfully.
“Looks like you’ve died and went to heaven the way you’re carrying on with those peaches,” the L-T chuckled.
“These are the best, sir. Most guys here would trade their sisters for a can of peaches,” he raised the can toward the lieutenant in a toast and took another sip, smacking his lips loudly and smiling broadly at the officer.
The lieutenant nods and pulled a neatly folded map from his pants side pocket and takes a seat beside the young smiling soldier on the moss covered log. “You’re pulling point today, right?”
“Roger that sir!”
“Good! Here’s the plan for today. Alpha Company captured a Chieu Hoi a couple days ago who alleged that the VC have a large rice storage point and some bunkers here,” the lieutenant pointed to a position on the map, “and higher-higher wants us to check it out. Other than giving us the location, he also mentioned there are only two guards covering the stash and they share a single AK between them. “
Tennessee looked up into the L-T’s eyes with an incredulous look upon his face.
“I know! I know! I don’t believe it either,” the lieutenant nodded, “gunships fired on the area some yesterday, and artillery supposedly tore it up overnight. If Charlie is still there, he should have a major headache by the time we arrive. And with you pulling point, we should be able to get there by lunch – providing we get an early start—so plan to leave in 45 minutes. Any Questions?”
“None, sir,” the point man answers.
The lieutenant handed the point man a much smaller version of map, “here’s your copy – our current location and the storage point are both marked in grease pencil.”
Tennessee nodded in appreciation and began to scrutinize the map – paying special attention to the area in between the two dots.
“Okay then!” The L-T stood, patted the man on his shoulder a couple of times then walked away toward the next team leader.
The platoon leader has a great deal of confidence in Tennessee, whose friends claim that he is the best point man in the company. Months of experience have taught him to be sharp and listen to his sixth sense – the latter, saving his men on numerous occasions. When he’s up front, his eyes continually search out any irregularities in the terrain – picking up on things as simple as a broken twig or a turned over leaf on the trail – either is sufficient to alert him of an enemy presence. His ears analyze every sound heard from the jungle and his body is ready to respond in a micro-second if he senses danger. He faces booby traps, punji sticks, snipers and ambushes every minute they are on the move. Tennessee is an excellent map reader, uses the compass regularly and understands tactics in the event something goes awry. Pick out the coordinates on a map and Tennessee will lead you safely to that very spot.
When a new troop joins the company, he is advised by those around him to watch Tennessee. “The sooner you learn what he knows, the better your chances are of getting out of here in one piece,” they all recited at one time or another.
A 21 year old medic, who looked more like 18, was making the rounds. He passed out malaria pills and salt tablets to everyone on the perimeter, stopping occasionally to inspect cases of jungle rot, athlete’s foot, boils and addressing any other maladies the troops might have.
“Today is big pill day.” he said when reaching the point man. Doc was holding a large orange pill and a small white one in his right hand. Orange pills are taken every Monday and the white ones daily to guard against the two most common strains of malaria. Some guys purposely tossed the pills hoping that it was better for their digestive system. Besides, contracting malaria was a way of getting out of the bush for a while and shamming in the rear until it passed. Little did they know how much a person suffered from this disease. Many never find out, but those who do…quickly regret their earlier decisions.
“C’mon Doc, I’m walking point today, and you know what that pill does to me. It seems like I just took an orange one yesterday.” The most common side effect of these pills are diarrhea and severe stomach cramps which hit so fast that a soldier seldom had time to step off to the side and drop his trousers. Accidents were common place.
“Yeah, time flies when you’re having fun. Just take it and don’t hassle me, man. Give me your hand!” Doc extended his arm toward the blond soldier, both pills held between his thumb and forefinger. Tennessee conceded, accepting the pills without another word. Doc smiled briefly, nodded his head in appreciation and walked toward the next twosome.
When the platoon was together like this, the men talked more about those things they left at home than of the war. Popular topics centered on wives, girlfriends and women they fantasized about, followed closely by cars, other toys, family and topics so personal even the family was unaware. They’d laugh at every opportunity! Thus, maintaining their sense of humor to block out the darkness of war.
The shortest men in the platoon (time wise – within a few days or weeks of going home) went to great lengths letting everyone know they were going home soon. It’s a bragging right they’re entitled to and a personal goal everyone hopes to reach; some of their phrases were hilarious. The following was copied from another article on this website:
“Hey man, I just broke fifty – I’m short.”
“That ain’t shit man, I got twenty-five and a wake-up. I’m getting so short I have to play handball against the curb.”
“I’ve got ten left and a wake-up. I’m so short, I have to look up to see down.”
“I’ve got one left and a wake-up. I’m so short, I don’t have time for long conversations.”
My favorite was in the movie Platoon when King was assigned to the “shit burning” detail with Charlie Sheen. King said something like this, “I’m so short, I could smell the fresh mountain air of Virginia and that fine aroma from the girl I left behind. I can’t wait!” Then he looked over to Charlie Sheen and said, “how many you got left, three-hundred and fifty what?” Kind of puts things into perspective.
Their calendars were different versions of colorful pictures comprised of 365 small boxes – each day, one box was colored in, those remaining blank signified the number of days, hand carved walking sticks were popular in rear areas. One thing for certain about this war was that every soldier in Vietnam counted down his days, knowing exactly – at any given time – how many more days he had left in country.
The grunts exited the night lager position in a single file and follow behind the veteran point man. Their heavy rucksacks feel like dead weight hanging from shoulders, most grunts have a tendency to lean forward at the waist when humping and occasionally bounce the rucksack to ease the pull of numbing shoulder straps and shifting the weight around. Heads scanned the surrounding jungle and weapons held at port arms.
It’s still early in the morning, the troops haven’t moved two hundred yards, and yet they were already drenched in sweat. Green towels draped over their shoulders had double duty – cushioning under the ruck straps and for wiping sweat from their eyes and faces.
Following eight feet behind Tennessee, the next soldier carried an M-79 grenade launcher with a beehive round in the chamber (similar to a shotgun shell with buckshot). He wore a vest with multiple pockets that individually held a mixture of beehive, HE and smoke rounds which were easily accessible. Before joining the Army, this ‘thumper man’ drove trucks for a living, so the men were quick to tag him with the moniker, “Cannonball”, a nickname he liked very much.
Cannonball was currently training to walk point and taking guidance from Tennessee for the next few weeks – an informal style of OJT without textbooks. Tennessee prefers that his slack man, Cannonball in this case, carry an M-79 to back up his M-16, claiming that if ambushed, the two weapons together would keep Charlie’s head down until the rest of the platoon moved up. As the two of them moved along, Tennessee pointed things out to Cannonball without saying anything: each time, the thumper nodded in recognition. Tennessee was impressed and thinks to himself, ‘He catches on fast—he’ll be good on point.’
The platoon made good time at first, but now, Tennessee found himself facing a massive wall of extremely thick green foliage.
“Okay,” he said to Cannonball while dropping his ruck, “pass the word back to take a break. Keep your eyes open and watch the trees,” he cautioned, “I don’t like making all this noise, and if Charlie was nearby – he can hear it too.”
Cannonball nodded again and shifted his gaze upward scanning through the trees.
Tennessee pulled a machete from a scabbard on his ruck and momentarily held it up like a Roman Gladiator’s salute, then attacked the seemingly impenetrable hedgerow. It didn’t take him long to disappear through the narrow tunnel, the hacking sounds fading as he moved further away.
Finally, he stepped out from the thick vegetation and found himself standing on a narrow hard packed trail; it followed the contour of the thick vegetation, hugging the edge of the jungle as it continued westward. On the opposite side of the trail and only a few feet away, head- high elephant grass and bamboo thickets filled a moderately sized clearing no deeper than the length of a football field. The point man squatted on his haunches and silently scanned both the trail and the terrain on the other side; periodically taking azimuths with his compass and referencing the small map he carried. Satisfied, Tennessee retraced his steps to the platoon and called the platoon leader on the radio.
“I found a trail that looked like it’s been used within the last week. It skirts alongside the jungle – invisible from the air and looks like it heads toward that knoll you mentioned earlier. There’s a clearing on the other side of the trail but it’s covered with elephant grass and clumps of bamboo. I’d feel more comfortable following the trail for a couple hundred steps and then we can cross over into the jungle again.”
“Roger that!” The lieutenant replied, “just don’t stay on it for too long.”
The trail snaked through the jungle and soon came to a blue line not far from the objective. Giving the men another short break, Tennessee moved upstream to find a safe point for the platoon to cross over.
By now, the sun was directly overhead and bearing down upon the men; salty sweat continued to flow from every pore, aggravating their many scratches and sores – all trophies of living in the boonies.
The heat and humping continued to take its toll and the stream was a blessing in disguise. Excessive sweating and extreme thirst prompted many of the men to scoop up water with their helmets, dumping it over their heads – enjoying the temporary chill and reprieve. Others temp fate and filled their canteens from the waist deep stream, throwing caution to the wind, hungrily drinking the lukewarm water without first using iodine tablets and waiting the mandatory half hour to kill bacteria; they’ll be dealing with the consequences soon enough.
As Tennessee neared the objective, he noticed that portions of the triple canopy jungle were missing – holes just appeared randomly in the overhead canopy offering him a glimpse of the far away clear blue sky. Dozens of trees and branches lay haphazardly across the jungle floor, scattered about like a handful of dropped toothpicks; small barren craters littered the area, their contents having erupted – covering everything in a layer of foul smelling residue. Many of the larger trees were shredded but remain standing – shrapnel in various sizes and shapes are clearly visible, the imbedded steel sunk deep into the trunks and limbs – remnants of the rockets and artillery rounds that pounded the jungle the night before. Now, it was an obstacle course!
“We’re getting close,” the point man whispered to Cannonball. “See those three rocks shaped like an arrow head in the trail?” Tennessee pointed them out and saw his student acknowledge. “It’s a marker telling Charlie to stay off the trail because of booby traps. So, this is as far as we go!” The point man dropped his rucksack and secured his trusty machete for another trek into the unknown. “Pass the word back for everybody to take a break and keep quiet. also call the L-T and let him know that I’m checking things out and will be back in a short.”
Tennessee broke from the trail and traversed the obstacles in his path – climbing over some and then crawling under others. After cutting a path through a clump of bamboo and working his way through fifty meters of destroyed jungle, he spotted the small staging area about a hundred meters away. It’s unscathed and sitting intact under the natural camouflage and overhead vegetation.
When he returned, Tennessee called the lieutenant on the radio, “that’s right! I can see six huts and two bunkers which are still intact – the nearby jungle isn’t even touched. I also saw several chickens moving about in the open area near the huts strutting around and pecking at the ground like this was a normal populated village out on the side of the road.”
“Okay,” replied the platoon leader, “remain in place and I’ll come to you so we can get some gunships to work over the area.”
Fifteen minutes later, a light observation helicopter (Loach) arrived and hovered at tree top level. The L-T guided the small chopper by sound only because of the thick overhead canopy. It maneuvered overhead – changing direction periodically then stopping once the L-T was confident its position was directly over the objective. A thousand feet higher, two gunships were circling in a lazy clockwise orbit awaiting instructions. The LOH pilot dropped two smoke grenades into the canopy below and moved away. Now that the target was clearly marked, the gunships received permission to proceed.
Not one soldier on the ground saw the helicopters through the overhead foliage, but once the attack began, the cacophony of sound got everyone’s full attention. A sightless opera began; rotor blades popped and continued to change in pitch when diving at the red smoke filtering through the treetops. First one bird swooped in and then it was immediately followed by its wingman. This background music continued in a low hum which was punctuated by the sound of rockets launching and exploding and the sound of a buzzsaw, ‘bzzzzzzzzzzzzt’, as mini-guns fired. A split second later, thousands of rounds ripped holes through the jungle canopy and created a symphony of their own!
After expending their ordinance, both gunships broke away and headed back to base. Moments later, another pair arrived and remained in an orbit above – standing by until the LOH’s issued new orders.
The lieutenant informed the LOH pilot that his grunts were moving in to check the area and would keep them advised. The pilot acknowledged and told the L-T that they’d hang around for a few in case they were needed.
He then turned to the blond point man, “Tennessee, take two men and scope out the damage. Move to the knoll and wait there until I give the word to move forward. I’m moving the rest of the platoon on line so we can sweep in behind you.”
“Wilco!” Tennessee responded, and then led Cannonball and the RTO into the obstacle course. They soon arrived at the knoll and were greeted by the sight of damaged bunkers and burning huts, the smell of cordite and wood burning hung heavily in the air. The trio remained vigilant and awaited the call to move forward.
“This is one part of this job I can do without.’ Tennessee whispered to the others, “my gut tells me that Charlie is still there; it’s just too damn quiet.”
The three soldiers moved to the remains of the first hut, it was smoldering sparking cinders blew through the air. Suddenly, the ominous quiet was shattered by three unmistakable cracks from an AK-47. Tennessee instinctively slammed to the ground, unhurt, but from the corner of his eye, saw the RTO slump to the ground. The point man heard the lieutenant’s voice calling over the radio, but the transmission was unanswered and seemed a thousand miles away.
His body now on auto-pilot from the many hours of training and months of experience, Tennessee moved into action. He’s unsure of where the enemy fire came from, but instructed Cannonball to fire some HE rounds at the bunkers and jungle beyond. Tennessee fired small bursts into the tree line to his front, sweeping the area from one end to the other. The rest of the platoon soon arrived and followed their point man’s lead and also fired at the nearby bunkers and into the surrounding jungle. It turned into a “mad minute” as the platoon members reconnoitered by fire before moving forward to physically search the area.
Tennessee crawled toward the wounded RTO and was half-way to him when several Ak-47’s opened up on the American patrol from the distant tree line; rounds impacted near the point man resulting in puffs of dirt erupting from the ground all around him. He moved like a racing serpent toward cover and the shot soldier. He noticed a lot of blood on the RTO, but was relieved to find him still alive, both wounds not looking too serious.
Tennessee shouted above the clatter of automatic weapons, “Medic! Medic!” and then spotted the man on the other side of the clearing trying to get his attention. Seeing a man hurt, the medic tucked his bag under his arm and darted straight across the clearing.
“Dammit!” Tennessee cursed. “ Doc…Doc…get down!” He hollered. The medic failed to heed Tennessee’s warning and luckily arrived unscathed – skidding to his side like a baseball player did on a close play into home plate. “Talk to him Tennessee, we can’t let him go into shock,” the medic instructed, dropping to his knees beside the injured soldier and ripped open his shirt.
“Boy, you’d do anything to get some sham time!” Tennessee stated nonchalantly to the wounded man, not really knowing what to say. The RTO was obviously in pain, and tried to force a smile. By now, most of the firing had stopped, and Cannonball repositioned himself to where the other two soldiers were focusing on the wounded man. He glanced at the man lying on the ground, thankful to see that he was still breathing and then squatted and faced the tree line – standing guard and watching over them while Doc performed his magic.
Tennessee continued talking to the fallen RTO, “Hey man, you’ll probably get a medal for this.”
“For…what?” The RTO’s voice was now a strained whisper.
“Uh…,” the point man thought for a second, “for being brave—what else do they give medals for?” He quipped.
The hurt man tried hard not to think of his wounds. Doc had his chest bandaged, an IV running and was nearly finished bandaging his upper arm. Tennessee continued to talk and even though the man didn’t answer, the point man saw that he was listening. When the medic bent the man’s arm, he grimaced and sobbed in pain.
“Hell, pal, don’t sweat the small stuff,” Tennessee asserted, “by this time next week you’ll be back on the block with a CIB, Purple Heart, and Bronze Star. Why, I’ll bet they’ll even have a parade for you.” Once again, the wounded man forced a weak smile.
Tennessee and Cannonball carried the wounded man to the platoon command post and set him down next to two other soldiers, both casualties during the short melee. A medivac chopper soon arrived and hovered forty feet above the CP, a small metal seat on the end of a cable (jungle penetrator) snaked its way through a small opening in the overhead foliage and stopped when hitting the ground. One at a time, each man was lifted aboard and were on their way within minutes to a top-notch medical hospital.
As usual, a sweep through the area didn’t come up with any dead enemy soldiers or discarded weapons. They did, however, uncover a stockpile of bagged rice – enough to feed the local VC for months. It was a huge find and made the higher-higher quite happy.
Once the cache was destroyed, the platoon leader had his men hump to a finger of land not far from the enemy complex. “We’ll set up here for the night,” he informed the platoon members and then assigned areas of responsibility to each of the team leaders. “Get your positions finished quickly and then start clearing an area for a chopper to land with supplies. There are things we need before it gets dark!”
“You okay?” L-T asked Tennessee when finally reaching him .
“I guess so. Yeah. I’m okay.”‘
“You did a good job today.”
Tennessee nodded, “sure looked like more than two VC sharing a single rifle!”
The officer laughed. “Yeah, I hear ya! It looks like we interrupted one of their local units getting resupplied today. I guessed at least a squad of them!”
“We’ll never know, especially after not finding any bodies or weapons,” the point man declared.
Tennessee shuts down and the lieutenant can see that his mind is somewhere else. ‘It seems like every time somebody is hurt when he’s on point, Tennessee takes it personal. Like it’s his fault!’ the officer thinks to himself, ‘no matter what I say, I’m not able to convince him otherwise.’
“I want good fields of fire cut tonight in case we have to stay here a couple of days – put your men on that high ground over there,” L-T ordered, pointing out the location.
Tennessee nodded and walked away with his team of four soldiers.
The platoon cut an LZ within the hour and soon two Huey slicks landed with a vital load of ammunition, water, C-Rations and the first hot chow the men had in over a week. A red nylon bag garnered the most attention because of its precious cargo: mail from the world.
By the time dusk arrived, all the work was done: claymores and trip flares in place and two-man hooches erected from shared ponchos. Many in the platoon were still reading their mail while a cloak of darkness began spreading over the perimeter.
Tennessee was sitting alone outside the shared hooch finishing a can of fruit cocktail when his bunk mate, Cannonball returned from an earlier task. “Got a minute Tennessee?” He asked.
“Sure, pull up a chair,” the point man said cheerfully – the hollowness in his eyes now gone.
Cannonball sat on the ground, his eyes downcast, Tennessee sensed that something was bothering him.
“What do you think of combat?” Tennessee quickly asked the former trucker.
“I don’t think I like it. It’s sure not like the movies, is it? I was pretty scared and didn’t quite know what to do.”
“Don’t sweat that. You did real good out there. My first firefight happened when we walked into an ambush. I jumped into some bushes and stayed there – listening to those more experienced saved my life. I learned over time and so will you. But, you should know that you’ll always be scared.”
Cannonball looked at him incredulously. “You scared? You were as cool as a cucumber. Did you know we were going to get shot at today?”
“I had a pretty good idea that Charlie was still there – just like I told you earlier. The chickens looked fairly well fed and I saw some fresh-cut bushes outside the larger bunker. Remember when I told you to watch the trees?’”
“What were you looking for?”’
“Snipers, I thought.”
“Negative! I’ve heard of snipers in trees, but I’ve never seen any. It’s too hard for them to get away. But I have seen the VC put booby traps in trees. If a grenade explodes in a tree, it could take out half the squad. Always look for brown spots in a healthy-looking tree. But don’t just look at them… study them. Most of that will come in time.
“If you’re going to be a point man, you need to be twice as good as the other guy. Don’t ever get careless and forget that there’s a man out there who wants to kill you and your friends. You have to get him first. Point is no place for a dud. The CO isn’t picking on you when he asked you to learn my job. He thinks you’re pretty sharp and needs a man out front he can trust. I don’t complain about it because I know that if I told him I didn’t want it anymore, he’d go along and put somebody else there. But then if we got hit, I’d feel responsible.
“You’ll hurt. You’ll get so tired and sore, you’ll want to just quit right there. You’ll get blisters and callouses from the machete, and you’ll be counting the days to stand down, R&R and DEROS.
“Charlie is good, but you have to be better!”
It’s dark now, and the two men sat in the silence for a moment before calling it a night.
It was a long speech for Tennessee. It was a rough day, and he was tired. Mosquitos were already buzzing and biting exposed skin. He wrapped himself up his green, nylon poncho liner and scooted onto his air mattress on the left side of the small two-man tent. Suddenly, the saying, ‘snug as a bug in a rug’ ran through his mind and he let out a small chuckle. Before nodding off, he simply muttered from inside his cocoon, ‘one-hundred and sixty-seven to go.’
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