Always another patrol

It was raining again. We cared, but not a lot. The most annoying thing was our inability to keep our cigarettes lit. Monsoon season is Vietnam was not conducive to a smoking habit as we sat in puddled water beneath plants that poured water almost mindfully down our collars.  “You see anything?” I asked Frank. The water flowing over my face and fluttering from my speaking lips made it sound more like I was trying to imitate a motor boat. It was a lame question anyway. For two days we hadn’t seen any activity at all. It was as if our patrol had been sent to a deserted island. That meant that along with the physical discomforts we experienced, we were also bored.

“Did you say something?”Frank said loud enough to be heard above the white noise symphony of water hitting foliage, the ground, and five unhappy GIs. I didn’t reply. But I did notice movement behind him; someone was heading our way in a crouching run. It had to be one of ours because we could hear a string of expletives coming from the runner that was louder than the other sounds. It was our platoon sergeant.

“We got a whole lot of enemy movement at our 12 o’clock.” he said, looking awfully composed. Frank and I craned our necks and scanned the jungle, seeing nothing. “Can’t you see them? Gotta be at least fifty of them.” said the sarge. “We need to engage, report the contact and fall back. Asking for extraction.” He did a Groucho thing with his eyebrows and then looked up at the waterlogged sky and then back to us.

“Company strength.” I said.

“All NVA.” said Frank. NVA were the North Vietnam regular army. Formally trained soldiers much like us.

“Well, don’t just sit there,” he said. “Defend yourselves and the rest of the squad!” Frank opened up with his M-16 on full automatic, viciously attacking some menacing foliage. The other squad members pitched in, firing both on full and semi-auto. I started pumping frags from my M-79 grenade launcher into the fire zone, adding some explosions to the din. About that time, Ralph, our radio guy trotted over to join us. The sarge yanked the handset from the backpack PRC-10 radio on Ralph’s back. He called headquarters while holding his free hand in front of him making a rolling motion. He wanted us to keep it up. We kept firing.

“Blue One this is blue five.” he shouted into the handset. He got back a dose of static. “Blue One, Blue Five is in it deep. Company strength opposition –maybe more. We’re being flanked and are running short of ammo. We need immediate extraction.” He mumbled map coordinates.

“Be advised air support is currently engaged We can’t get you out for three zero minutes at least. Report casualties.” squawked the radio.

“Intact so far but we’ve having to give ground. Way low on ammo.” barked the sergeant.

“It’s obviously a new movement, try to maintain your ground, and hold for the choppers.”

“Can’t hold!” The sergeant held the handset away and fired his .45 caliber sidearm next to the mouthpiece three times. “You gotta get us outta here!”

“Fall back as needed, but you’re on your own till we can get the choppers to you. Blue One out.”

“God, I hate monsoon season.” said the sergeant. “Okay, listen up everybody. We’re gonna fall back up the trail about a klick and a half. There’s a clearing there that should be okay for a Huey. Keep your heads on a swivel and let’s move out.” Okay, so the sarge was cheating a little. After all, he was coming to the end of his third tour in country and was looking forward to heading back to the world and a peacetime desk job to fill the four years he had to make his 20 years and a pension. Call it creative mission modification. All of us picked ourselves up and started back the way we came, but still looking out for Charlie. We might very well had sent the VC a telegram explaining exactly where we were, one of the reasons our squad leader was anxious to move.

Okay, okay. We were malingering or gold bricking or some other unattractive term, but hell. The patrol was a make work assignment; We were soaked to the bone, we all were covered with leaches that were sucking away our life blood under our jungle fatigues, and even with the heavy rain we were inundated by mosquitoes. All of us were looking forward to getting back to the command post.  Yes, it was raining there too, but we had dry bunkers to rest in, much better food, and we had beer and some other less than approved intoxicants.  We had, such as they were, improvised lights, real latrines, and our cassette recorders with rock and roll, and letters from home to reread and reread again. It was luxury in contrast to where we’d been sent and two full days of absolutely no contact said we weren’t doing any good where we were.

We double timed up the trail, semi-crouching and every man was dousing the man behind him as he let go of branches and bushes they pushed out of their way. All except me. I was bringing up the rear. I was simply getting slapped with drenched leaves. We were close to the clearing, maybe only another 200 yards when we heard the gunshot. We fell the the ground like synchronized swimmers and tried to make out where the shot originated. A second round was fired and then a third. The sarge signaled us into a line formation and had us extend away from our next guy. Spreading out reduced the ability of the enemy to take out multiples of us easily. It also allowed us to focus in on the location of the shooter and create a pincer movement with a kill box that didn’t have us shooting as our own guys. We all swung in place to find ourselves on the perimeter of the clearing that had been our destination. Standing almost squarely in the center was a Vietnamese boy who couldn’t have been more than 11 years old. He was trying to drag the pig he’d just shot and having a touch time of it. The pig must have weighed in at 200 plus pounds, the kid maybe half of that. The rifle he was carrying was old and longer than he was tall. It fought his attempts to drag the pig as much as the weight of the cumbersome pig.

The boy finally looked up and took in his surroundings, and seeing us he immediate dropped his rifle and put up his hands. “No VC! No VC!” he shouted in terror. We tended to believe that. We helped him pull his pig to the side of the clearing when Ralph’s radio rang an incoming message. It was the pilot of the helicopter dispatched to extract us. One of our guys tossed a green smoke grenade into the clearing and moments later, a Huey made a low and fast pass over the position, looking for any resistance he might encounter. Seeing none, he cruised in and touched his skids to the ground as we ran out to hop aboard. A moment later we lifted off, waving goodbye to the boy.

“I wonder how far he’s gonna have to drag that pig?” Frank yelled over the din of the helicopter. I looked at him and shrugged. Our sergeant overheard this exchange and got a pensive look. He stepped to the front of the helicopter and leaned to the pilots ear. He said something and the pilot nodded his head and banked the helicopter around into a U-turn.

“Just where did that kid come from?” hollered the sergeant. “He couldn’t have come from too far away and we haven’t seen any signs of anybody for two whole days. So where’d he come from?” The squad members scooted over to the doors on each side of the helicopter and looked out. There had to be a village or something like it. There was.

It was as if the ground started shooting at us. We could see the tracers coming our way and we could see muzzle flashes on the ground. What we couldn’t see were any structures or people. At least for a moment. The helicopter passed over the area and as we looked down, it was like the bushes came alive and started moving. We’d managed to run into a really well hidden installation. There was no doubt that the area was rife with tunnels, harboring God only knows how many VC or NVA troops. The helicopter had taken a few hits from the small arms fire directed at us as we made our pass but apparently it took little damage because it was still flying okay and nobody had been hit.

The sergeant got onto the radio and called in for artillery. The command post had a cluster of Howitzers set up for exactly this kind of fire mission. With the helicopter standing off our sergeant got the big guns to fire a few rounds, zeroing in on where he figured the majority of the troops would be. Since they were underground, it was going to take some hammering. As the squad sat in the helicopter we couldn’t help but smile as the earth seemed to explode over and over as high explosive artillery shells pounded the area. Mud, foliage and shattered trees flew into the air and smoke began to obscure the target. The artillery barrage fell silent and the helicopter took a careful pass over the area of ruin. What had been brush, grasses and trees was now a pocked mud pit. There was little movement, but we could see that the attack inflicted casualties.

The helicopter ferried us back to the command post where our sergeant reported in. The bullshit story he had prepared to justify our return forgotten, he explained what we found. We don’t know if they sent more guys back to the site to mop it up and see how effective the artillery really was. Tunnel complexes are pretty resilient and can take a beating.

We got a night to rest up and then it was back out on another patrol. There was always another patrol.