Chance Circumstance

Trying to dig a hole was ridiculous. The ground atop the hill selected to be the Tactical Operations Center was hard packed fine gravel and rock. Hitting it full strength with my entrenching tool accomplished noting but sending a shock wave through the shovel all the way to my shoulder that hurt like hell. There was a low overcast sky and rain occasionally sprinkled just enough to keep me we. In the open area that meant the winds brought a chill. I mean, what was this all about? Vietnam was supposed to be tropical. Cold was the last thing anyone was supposed to feel, but it was monsoon season and that meant all bets were off. I figure I should have felt lucky the skies weren’t dumping rain on me in thousand gallon lots.

My Sergeant scuttled over to where I was and asked me why I wasn’t digging. I told him I was and struck the ground with the entrenching tool. A spark flew from where the blade hit the ground but other than that there was no effect. “Can we get an engineer over here to shape charge a hole?” I asked. The Sergeant said no, that wasn’t going to happen. Intimating I was a retard, he sent me over to the other side of the hilltop to join three guys who had a pretty good hole started for themselves.

Of course, the resented my showing up after the major work was done, so I did my best to try and catch up. When the hole was about five feet deep, I filled sandbags with the dirt dug from the hole to build up walls. This settled them down, at least they quit bitching, but I was still and intruder. An interloper who wasn’t part of their squad. We settled into a strained peace as the daylight faded into night.

Our position stood on the side of the crown of the hill. It was a steep angle down to the treeline where the jungle took over from the rocky surface of the peak. While it was still a little light, I worked my way down the steep slope, hacking down the random clumps of brush making a living in the sparse areas were a seed beat the odds and sprouted.  Getting back up was harder. I’d take a few steps up the steep slope only to slide backward a step or two. I called up to the hole and asked them to throw me a rope but I was summarily ignored. I finally got down on my hands and knees and made my way back up to the position, pretty much feeling a similar resentment to them as they did me. The way I saw it, at least I had a reason to be pissed.

I climbed out of the hole and went and found a case of C-rations. I raided the carton, getting the ‘good stuff’ for myself. Beefsteak and potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, crackers, cheese spread, peaches, and cigarettes filled the leg pockets of my jungle fatigues and as I walked I sounded like a gypsy cart drawn by a burro as I walked. “What’s you bring us?” asked one of the guys.

“Oh? Were you hungry? I thought you were busy with your letters and books and stuff. So busy you didn’t hear me asking for a rope after I cleared the field of fire for all of us.” A couple of hands came up, displaying the middle finger. “There’s a pile of new cases up there. The good stuff was still unclaimed a few minutes ago. If you go now, you should make out. Maybe even get the Ham and Lima Beans.” This last was a cheap shot. Nobody liked Ham and Lima. It tasted terrible and had a texture that invoked the gag reflex. Thing is, the cans that Ham and Lima came in clipped into place on an M-60 machine gun as if it was a factory part and helped feed the ammo belt into the gun. This reduced jams. A couple of the guys said they’d check it out and went off on a treasure hunt for C-rats. They returned ten minutes later with a box laden with some choice selections which improved the general attitude in the hole. I even got a thank you for the head’s up that the rations were available.

I dug a shelf and a kind of chair for myself and piled about 10 rounds of grenades up next to me. My current weapon was an M-79 grenade launcher. Settled for the moment, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. It was around 9:30pm and we were sitting two hour watched we started at 8 o’clock. My first shift started at midnight.

I was roused by the sound of a gunshot. My eyes blinked open and I took stock of the situation. The other three guys were on their feet and looking down into the darkness below. They guy closest to me tapped my shoulder then made a gun with his finger and thumb and pantomimed shooting down into the darkness of the jungle. “You see a muzzle flash?” I asked. He shook his head no and said he thought he saw motion. I picked up my weapon and there was a loud explosion on the other side of the TOC, about where I’d first been assigned to dig a hole. The artillery shot a flare that lit everything up and then we could see that the VC were moving quickly down in the jungle’s edge and a few of them were trying to crawl up the steep incline toward us. My three hole mates opened up with their M-16s and I lobbed five or six grenades into perimeter. Bullets whistled and made dull noises where they impacted the ground or hit a sand bag. I dumped a few more boxes of grenades out and yanked the round out and stacked them on my little shelf. I put four downrange before our platoon sergeant was yelling for cease fire. Things quieted down almost immediately. From the few fires burning down in the jungle there were shadows moving that could have been people. I lobbed a grenade down there only to have the platoon sergeant give the back of my helmet a love tap with the toe of his boot. “Hey!” I complained.

“It’s just a probe.” said the sergeant. They’re done now so everyone stand down.” He then moved on to check the other positions and we settled back into a watch rotation.  The rest of the night passed uneventfully.

In the morning we learned that we had one and only one casualty. They had sent a guy to make himself a little sandbag bunker where they’d first assigned me to dig my hole. He’d made a rectangle two sandbags high that was big enough for him to lay in with a little extra room. He spread his poncho over it to keep off the rain, but that was it. A VC had crawled up close to his position. The guy saw him and fired a shot but missed. The VC threw a satchel charge that landed right next to the guy and it blew up, killing him instantly. We realized that was the gunshot and explosion that started off the sudden firefight that ringed the command post.

It wasn’t lost on me that I could have been the one killed. Because my sergeant got annoyed and sent me across the hill, he’d saved my life. I think whoever was in that unprotected position would have been dead meat. My sergeant commented to me later that I’d been right. He should have had an engineer come blow a pit there. But, he’d said, we were only going to be there the one night and it didn’t seem worthwhile to make ourselves too comfortable. In fact, only minutes later the CO called for us to pack it up and moved us to yet another hilltop. I don’t think the sergeant got that guy killed either. I think because of the layout and situation that whoever got stuck with the hard rock position was going to die. Even a pit can’t protect you from a short fuse satchel charge that lands right next to you. If there was any positive it was that the dead guy took the VC with him. The body disappeared in the night, but a few people saw the VC lay all akimbo. But the night was super dark, what with the low overcast, and without a moon, Vietnamese nights were darker than a coal chute to a blindfolded man.

As I recall it today I don’t get any chills or feel blessed or anything. I didn’t feel any of that back when it happened.  The realization was worth a whispered “Jesus,” and that was it. The mind moved on to other things. It’s not like I minimize the soldier’s death. For a lot of us we took time to feel bad, the amount of time depending on how well we knew the person. But then we moved on. We just had to because that was the best way to get back home, and regardless of what brought us to the war, at some point it stopped being about ideals and became fighting to get home.