A Dangerous Road Trip

     Toward the last of September, 1967 I was offered a temporary truck driving job by a buddy of mine who also happened to be the battalion motor pool Sargent and I took the job. My squad leader, Sargent Bartee, wasn’t too happy about that decision and tried to talk me into staying with the squad but by that point my mind was made up. I was just not a happy camper anymore. For one, my dependable compass man, Bill Milliron, was still State side taking care of family problems and had gotten into a bad car accident, which disabled him from returning to the unit for most of the rest of my tour. That meant I had to shoot compass readings and count paces as well as keep a sharp eye out for danger all by myself. It was a heck of a lot less distracting when I only had to count paces and watch for the enemy, while true blue Bill was there to shoot a correct compass azimuth every single time. Now, with Bill gone, that had all changed. With this change, that little nagging sensation deep down somewhere inside kept reminding me of the guys who were no longer breathing, because they did not pay attention to small changes. Bill, Bowman and I made an excellent team and losing Bill was no small change. Walker was still there and Bowman was there but no Bill to keep me pointed in the right direction. I had also had enough of sleeping in the rain and eating C-rations. Although Walker, Bowman and myself enjoyed each other's company, there is not a whole lot of bonding to be done, setting around in the rain most of the time, covered up in a poncho, not to stay dry, but to keep the mosquitoes from carrying you off. And here's another thing. The only C-ration food I could stomach at this point was the canned peaches and apricots and a fellow cannot live on that for long.

     The second factor that compelled me to leave my squad was my situation with the weapon I was now forced to carry, as platoon sniper. The Army’s sniper program, at that time, which I had volunteered for, was a real half-baked idea. It left me feeling “naked and afraid”. The sniper program planners had taken my M-14 away from me and given me an old M-16 mounted with a four power scope. I would never have volunteered had I known this was going to happen. Back in the first part of June, during my training, it was impossible to get this piece of junk to hold a 3 round, 6 inch grouping, at fifty yards. Worse yet, the scope stayed fogged up in the humidity. My M-14 had been my security blanket through thick and thin. I knew a little about guns because I had been handling guns since my seventh birthday. The small caliber M-16 was and it's decentants still are inferior to the large bore M 14 in most combat scenarios. Here’s why. The M-16 is too inaccurate for long range shooting across open expanses like rice patties and the bullet is too light to penetrate thick jungle undergrowth when the enemy is close in, like the M-14 bullet will do. Sure, supply sergeants could ship more of these lighter rounds to the field, per truck, or helicopter, but that weight savings was somewhat negated by the increased weight of the numbers of dead and wounded American soldiers having to be transported back, who’s fates could be attributed to the M 16’s failed performance. The first M-16 weapon I was given to go into combat with would not shoot, period. Fortunately I was able to trade it for an M-14 with a guy who was rotating back to the States. There is account after account of these weapons jamming in a fire fight, by the soldiers who used them. Outside an urban combat environment or Special Forces usage, the M-16 and its decendants is nothing more than a cruel hoax, played on our combat soldiers by arm chair tacticians who have only been shot at in their dreams, or worse yet, some politician who was and maybe still is getting his campaign funding greased by the arms company that makes the M-16 and its recent look a likes.

     Now, let me get back to my story. My time in Vietnam was getting short and it had been none stop, one operation after another, from the first few days of this long year until now. As one of the oldest men in the squad in time served in Country, I had performed at a very high level in the field. I had been the GPS for the entire battalion and successfully navigated several battalion sized night movements to link up with other units, where one could literally not see his own hand, if he waved it in front of his face, because it was so dark. I had helped come up with a plan which had saved the lives of my entire squad one night, while on ambush patrol near the enemy infested Cambodian border. By listening to the Holy Spirit, I had located the regimental size base camp of those enemy troops responsible for ambushing the 1/16th and the 2/28th at the battle of XOM BO I on June 17th 1967. The resulting air strike, called in by Cavazos, wiped them out. However, I now was feeling a sense of hopelessness that I had never felt before. I felt forsaken and very alone on all sides. Looking back, I cannot remember a single guy in B Company, including myself, ever receiving one compliment for anything we did right, but I did receive an article 15 for missing a head count formation while attending sniper training classes, although Bartee had told me beforehand that I was excused from all formations and details during the training. Needless to say, this was just a final stitch in a long line of disappointing behavior patterns I had experienced with Sargent Bartee. The drugs, the drinking and just the all-around lack of leadership ability in Bartee showed up at every turn. He, represented The United States Army to me. I really wanted to respect him, yet I got nothing back but an empty suite. In the rear, he favored those in the squad who drank and smoked pot with him. I did neither, so I would catch what I thought was more than my share of rear details while we were in from the field. Yet, while in the field, myself, Milliron and Bowman pretty much ran the show. I believe this situation helped create in my young mind a real fear of all military leadership. I can honestly say I feared my leaders much more than I ever feared the enemy. In my immature mind, except for Cavazos, leadership in the officers' corps above the rank of captain also seemed to be rotten throughout. Whether true or not, that was a belief, that I had excepted as fact. However, it was also a belief that Cavazos, himself, had largely helped verified to be true, by simply being the competent commander that he was. His successful command decisions dramatically contrasted the incompetent leadership of his peers and superior officers for anyone with half a half brain to see. Shelton, in his book, "The Beast Was Out There", also confirms what I am saying here, although I don't believe that was Shelton's original intent in writing the book. I may not have had the makings of a good combat leader, myself, but time has proven to me that I knew one when I saw him and I have never thought otherwise of Cavazos. However, there was a lot of rotten wood on that leadership bridge between me and him and as I followed his leading, it took all the survival awareness I could muster to avoid falling through those rotten planks to an untimely death. So, looking back now, and rereading the remarks I have just written, it’s fairly easy to see why I knew I needed to make a change. Yet, I never doubted the righteousness of our cause, just the poorly led prosecution of that cause.    

     Another overriding factor that weighed on my decision to leave my squad was not consciously recognized by me until years later, but it was definitely the number one influence for every decision I would make in my life for the next twenty years. It is true that I found myself stressed out by the combat situations I found myself in. Oh sure, it would be easy for my natural mind to blame the stress I was experiencing on battle fatigue, but it wasn’t battle fatigue or in today's terms, PTSD. If anything, it was the very opposite. In my case, my fallen nature had come to terms with being surrounded by death and near death experiences and I had even bought into the idea of my own death as a quick ending, which would allow me to escape my miserable wretched world view with some dignity. I had no guilt ridden thoughts about the killing of enemy soldiers who supported Communism, because I believed the Communist ideology was a depraved ideology, wicked beyond all imagination, making our cause a very just one. I still believe that, to this very day. No, my problematic bad attitude did not stem from being on the front lines in Vietnam. The root cause of my problem stemmed more from growing up under the parenting of very dysfunctional parents and even more from completely disassociating myself from God’s influence in my life. That was much more debilitating than anything the battle field could have ever thrown at me. I was one big ball of unexploded distain and hatred, just waiting for a trigger point to set me off in view of all those around me. Simply put, I was not in my right mind and I had not been in my right mind, since I had turned my back on God, at the age of thirteen. In the words of a Satanist I had met in basic training, by the name of Oliver B. Shank, “I would become an excellent combat soldier, but I would always have problems with personal relationships for the rest of my life” and at the time my squad was practically my entire world of personal relationships. More and more, I hated being around them. I started volunteering for Observation Post (OP) night after night just to get away from them. Oliver’s curse was coming true and it would not be rebuked in my life until 1993. I wonder now how many combat soldiers have fought bravely, for the right cause, but personally, for false reasoning dreamed up in their own minds. Lying thoughts can be shaped and then reshaped, causing our false self-talk narrative to imprison us for our entire lives. Many people go through life trading one lying belief for another and for years I was one of those people. However, Christ said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free".  He then went on to say, "God's word is truth". It was not until I was able to allow God's word to wash my sin diseased mind clean, that I was able to make sense of anything in life, not just the Vietnam War. I repeat, a sin diseased mind can go on forever trading one lie for another but a mind that has been set free through the washing of the word is free indeed and is actually able to see and follow the path of truth in any situation, thus dwelling in the freedom that only comes through a relation with Christ. Combat, by its very nature, is a huge compression chamber of life's circumstances coming at an individual in a shortened period of time compared to other envirnoments. Negative circumstances are experienced by the human mind on a unimaginable scale compared to that experienced in a civilized world like America. The human mind was not designed by God to deal with this type of hellish environment. Only God's truth can protect it from breaking down completely under the stress of repeated combat as experienced by all those who have fought in any war, not just Vietnam. God is the only one who can successfully bring a soldier home in his right mind.          

     Yes, no doubt, I was terribly affected by bad leadership but I was also just as terribly affected by my own reactions to that leadership. No doubt, in this instance, this job change would allow me to completely side step my stagnated relationship with my authority figures in B Company but not my problematic attitude. Now, fifty years later, with God's help, I can see a lot more clearly. I can look back and say with much more accuracy, that, at the time, leadership did see me as just a number, if they saw be at all; Nothing more than an ego centric kid who only thought of himself, mainly because that is exactly what I was. I was an ego centric kid, who only thought of himself. I was infected with the same disease of the mind that so many other youths become infected with. It’s called “The Blame Game” where every negative consequence in life is always blamed on someone else, usually an authority figure, while firmly believing that I was justified in what ever I chose to do or should I say not do. Simply put, I was listening to lying self-talk that told me just what I wanted to hear whether it was true or not. Self-destructive thinking like this and bad leadership to boot was a double edged sword which sooner or later was destined to get the better of me, not just in combat but in everyday life itself. The Communist enemy was just a catalyst that could speed up the process. With this frame of mind I had absolutely no aptitude what-so-ever to step into a leadership role of any kind. I volunteered no help, for the new guys, as they rotated into the squad. Believe it or not, I didn’t even bother to learn their names. In Wayne’s World, as it had become, it took less than two minutes for me to place a fellow platoon member under the irrelevant column on my personal check list, and come to think of it now, only Milliron, Bowman and Walker ever made it to the relevant side of the page. Bartee certainly did not. After not stepping up for me during the article 15 incident, I possessed nothing but contempt for him. Winstead and Sargent Chestnut would have definitely been on my relative list, but they didn’t count, since they were in another platoon. There was a West Pointer who came through during the Junction City Campaign, who showed definite possibilities from afar, but he didn’t stay long enough to give me the two minute face time required for my summary judgment to take effect. As I look back, it is really easy to see that this petty self-inflicted attitude pretty much doomed me to the pay grade of a private for the rest of my tour.

     Oh sure, factors like the individual rotation order, after one year in country, had a negative effect too. It meant that the older guys in my squad left me, one by one, which tended to lower morale for not just me, but every soldier in the unit, because we continually lost experienced people whom we had just built a combat relationship with. At the time I decided to leave my squad, if I wasn’t the oldest guy in my platoon, I am sure I was in the top 2 or 3 and still in the personally degrading position of having to perform menial tasks, which even those just one pay grade higher (Spec 4) didn’t have to perform. My field performance said I should, by now, have been at least a Buck Sargent but my interpersonal skills said that I should stay a private. I was an adolescent 190 lbs., which years of lifting weights had built into solid muscle, molded into a six foot wiry frame. Yet, my mind was awash with faulty reasoning. It constantly told me that I wouldn’t be bullied by strips and bars forever. Truth was, I was becoming unable to distinguish between bullying and the tuff demands made on my tactical leadership by the extremely lacking components of wise strategic planning, at the higher levels of command, including the president himself. Officers and NCO’s at a tactical level were all required to work within those half-baked and sometimes out right crazy parameters set by the higher-ups, in the chain of command. The only person I ever knew who could make that “walk-on-water” move, required to successfully operate consistently under this nutty combat command structure was Cavazos. As for “little ole me”, more and more I took pride in the fact that I was not a lifer. I definitely looked upon every NCO I knew in the unit as a looser, except for Sargent Gerry Chestnut of D Company. I don’t know anyone who was around him for more than a week who would have regarded him as anything less than the resurrected John Wayne character of Sargent Stryker. Like Stryker, he paid the ultimate price for that honored position. Deep within, I knew I could never be, nor did I ever want to be a Gerry Chestnut. No sir! No charging out into the field of fire, alone, as I had seen him do time and time again and definitely no falling on hand grenades for me, which, just to be clear, I never saw him do either.

     So now, I hope I have given the reader a fairly decent description of my mindset with the gigantic chip resting on my shoulder, as I moved into my new job.

Small Truck in Vietnam
This is what the truck looked like that I was driving that day.

     The job was unbelievably simple. I was given a small ¾ ton truck with fold down bench seats in the back so it could transport around eight people or a squad sized group of soldiers with all their gear. However, my job was not to transport fighting men. My primary function was to transport the mess hall equipment from place to place as needed. Once a day when the battalion was in the field I would take hot food and the utensils necessary to serve that food from the mess hall to a landing trip where it would then be loaded on a chopper and flown to the boys in the field, along with a couple cooks to serve it. This was my primary function now and it took less than an hour a day of my time. No more sleeping in soggy fox holes for me for the rest of my life. I slept where the cooks slept and the cooks were always provided with elongated screened-in tin roof huts, which Brown & Root and Lady Byrd Johnson made a fortune building, for the military. If a hut was not available, we were at least provided a heavy canvas World War II era tent, which was just as good. Fold up canvas cots were also part of the décor along with electric lighting. To use the vernacular, I thought I had just arrived in “Hog Heaven”. Never again for the remainder of my tour did I have to eat meals from tin cans carried in my spare socks, which were tied to my rucksack. The mess hall was always well supplied with “Good Ole” down home makings from the normal grocery list of meals that Americans enjoyed back home. Ham, steaks, pork chops, frozen fruit, potatoes, green beans, corn, spaghetti, mac and cheese and all the garnishments that came with these food stuffs were at my fingertips. Many times, at the end of the day, several of the cooks and I would prepare our own gourmet dinner and top it off with some strawberry short cake and ice cream.

     While settling in to my new life style, I do not remember thinking about my old squad leader, Sargent Bartee, much at all. As a matter of fact I don't ever remember seeing him again. As Kevin O'Leary of "Shark Tank" says, "He was dead to me" and I most certainly never ever considered him a friend in the first place. As the years have pasted, I have come to realize how really self-absorbed I was back then. Now, fifty years later, I would get on a plane and fly anywhere to see him but I am sure he has long since succumb to his own self destructive thinking. In the rear, I was friendly, but I was never a friend to anyone. I did visit with some of the people in my unit during their rare breaks from combat missions, but they didn’t get that many opportunities to take breaks from the field anymore after I left them. Elevated diversionary activity by the enemy, which was a prelude to the Tet offensive, was requiring them to spend more and more time humping the boonies.  

     As I settled in to my new support job now, there was just too much “distance of the mind” between that of a former grunt like me, who had experienced combat conditions on a regular basis, versus the conditions experienced by support troops, to develop a buddy relationship with anyone in the rear and a buddy, in my mind, was a lot lower on the relationship rung than a friend, so that should give the reader some indication of just how closed off I was emotionally. That’s not to say that I did not appreciate support troops. I really looked up to them in many ways. I was self-centered but I was not stupid. Anyone with half a brain could see that without the tireless efforts of these guys and gals, grunts like me would not have survived ten minutes in the jungle. For, example, when my truck engine gave out one time, a mechanic showed up out of the blue and had it towed close to a tent where he was staying. It was getting late, so he told me to sleep in his cot while he put a new engine in my truck. When I woke up the next morning my truck had a new engine and so did an APC, which was setting beside my truck. The mechanic was caked in red clay mud from the top of his head to the tips of his toes because he had been repairing these two vehicles by himself, all night long, in the pouring rain, laying in the mud most of the time while I was warm and cozy, fast asleep in his bed. I have never forgotten that moment in time nor that mechanic.

     During this time period, I remember our unit operating mostly along Thunder Road (Highway 13), North of Di An, around Lai Khe and as far North as areas around Quin Loi. I now know that during this period the North Vietnam leaders were amassing men and materials in hidden strongholds all over the countryside to within just a short distance of Saigon in preparation for the Tet Offensive. Di An was located very near Saigon. Enemy base camps were strewn all along Thunder Road and were resupplied by trails branching off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, itself, running from the North along the border of South Vietnam and Cambodia. The Viet Cong largely exerted control over villages at night and melted into the populace during the day giving us Americans a false sense of security all the way around, right down to the lowly little truck drivers like me.

     It was not unusual for some supply Sergeant to approach me to help him with an errand he needed to run to pick up something in another town somewhere and off we would go. Actually, I found this new sense of freedom to be quite exhilarating. When traveling through the countryside, dodging lambrettas and clumps of pedestrians along the way, I felt as though I was in control and I had no one eye balling my every movement. On the contrary, the person I was helping out was always very appreciative and congenial. I would pass American soldiers, tanks and other supply trucks along the way and sometimes I would get a glimpse of the Koreans who were called Rock Soldiers. They were some bad Dudes. Everyone, including the enemy respected their fighting abilities. All this gave me what I now realize was a sense of false security. If I had known how many enemy combatants were all around little “Ole” me as I drove blissfully through the countryside, I am sure I would have immediately begged to be returned to my old unit as soon as possible. I read on the internet, Joe Boland of C Company's account about him driving a truck to pick up some supplies one day. As he was driving along, out of the blue a group of maybe 20 or 30 men dressed in black pajamas crossed the road in front of him, all carrying AK 47’s, following single file. He waved to them and they waved back and kept going. The Arvin’s wore green and did not carry AK’s. So, there is a 99.9% chance that this was an enemy patrol crossing the road in front of his truck. He believed that it was an enemy patrol and I too believe it was. I believe not only because of what Joe has recanted, but also because of what I was about to experience, myself, in a very dramatic way, a little later in this story. The ugly truth about the average American in Vietnam was that we were much more naïve about what was happening around us than the average Vietnamese. This was the first insurgency war that the United States had fought. These Insurgents were quite comfortable operating around Americans. If this was an enemy patrol, they knew quite well that there was very little threat from an American supply truck passing up and down their roads during the day unless it was accompanied by combat troops. These killer patrols were tasked with a mission to perform. They were not just out roaming the countryside for fun and they were not going to compromise their mission by taking out a lone supply truck. Usually that mission task often included bringing terror to other Vietnamese who didn't agree with their enslavement ideology. 

      Shortly after settling into my new found utopia, I met Tex the donut man. Rumors were that Tex had been assigned to a combat squad but he had freaked out early on, so, the “powers that be” found a place for him with the cooks, making donuts. His sole job was to make donuts for the battalion 7 days a week, I guess, until he finished his tour in Vietnam. I can’t remember his real name but since he was from Texas, everyone called him Tex. Now, I loved donuts so I started getting up at 3:00 am in the morning to help Tex make donuts so I could get those hot delicious treats just as they came out of the frying oil. Yum, yum! Man, they were good. However, it didn’t take very long for me to realize that Tex was a bully. He was about 5 foot, 9 inches tall, with a great physic to match his height and he weighed about 170 lbs. His favorite trick was to slip up behind one of the cooks and get him in a headlock. He would hold them there, crying for mercy, for what seemed like the longest time. It was very embarrassing and demeaning to his victims, who included all the cooks except Tiny, who weighed almost 300 lbs. It didn’t take Tex very long to turn his bullying behavior on me. As I remember, most of the time it happened when no one was around to see the scuffle in the wee hours of the morning while I helped him cook donuts. Now I was 6 ft. 1 in. and weighted 190 lbs. and for the last 9 months had carried a 90 lb. rucksack through the jungle with ease. I carried it with ease because much of my spare time since I was fifteen was consumed with lifting weights, swimming and hiking. I could have put Tex down the very first time he attacked me, but my mama didn’t raise any fools. I would like to remind the reader that there were no Dunkin Donuts in Vietnam and once my only source of fresh hot donuts was gone, there would be no replacement for it. If I put Tex down, I was smart enough to know that his ego couldn’t take it. He would never let me help him cook donuts again or at least this is what I thought. So, I appeased him, thinking he would soon get the bullying out of his system. When he got me into a headlock, I would jokingly demean myself, declaring how strong he was and how he should let a weakling like me go. I did it with such a comical demeanor, that there could be no sane reason under heaven why he would continue this childish behavior, but he did. Not only did he continue, but he attacked me and the others more frequently. He was most definitely beginning to see himself as the king of his domain and it was becoming very apparent that nothing short of force was going to stop this juvenile “Lord of the Flies”.

     Sometime around mid-October, the support troops which I now was a part of, found themselves in Quan Loi, pitching the mess hall tent in the rubber trees just off the air strip. Red mud was everywhere and everyone had been wearing the same fatigues for weeks. The showers made out of the hollow shells of bombs had not been filled with shower water in who knows when. Even if there had been water for showers, we would have had to put the same dirty clothes back on because there were no re-supplies of clean jungle fatigues. Now, one day, soon after my old battalion returned from the field, for a few days rest, some old members of my squad came running up to me and my truck near the mess hall tent. “Hey Wade”, one of them hollowed. “The showers are full of water and there are clean fatigues for everybody”. Now I knew what everybody meant. It meant that if you wanted to get the right size fatigues before they run out, you better get to the showers ASAP. People started piling into the back of my truck without fanfare. We all knew we could make the trip to the showers which were located off the other end of the air strip a lot faster doing 40 miles an hour then the mob coming behind could do on foot. Off I went. When we got to the showers, everyone jumped out and started stripping. Some, even stripped on the way to save time. I cannot tell the reader how good it felt to have the red dirt of Quan Loi washed off my body and to then experience the heavenly feel of clean fatigues rubbing against my body. Thinking back on this experience, it now makes me think of a cartoon I saw one time of three dog’s drinking out of a toilet bowl. One of the dog’s was looking at the others and saying, “Gee, it just doesn’t get any better than this”. Years later, I can see myself driving back to the mess hall tent in the same frame of mind that dog in the cartoon was in.

     As I brought the truck to a stop, people started jumping out and forming a little conversation group with one of the cooks, Terry Andrews, who was a friend of many of the grunts including me. Terry was catching up on some of their latest exploits. The cooks loved to hear our war stories and we loved to tell them. I headed toward a couple of my old squad members, being careful to skirt a watery area that was in my path when “Wham”, my legs suddenly came in contact with another person’s outstretched leg, and at the same time, as I stumbled to catch my balance, I was pulled around, on one shoulder, by the hand of that same person, causing me to fall on my side into the pool of water that I had been trying to walk around. As I looked up, I saw Tex standing over me with a goofy smile on his face while at least twenty or thirty people looked on. I stood up and then looked him straight in the face.  As we starred at each other for an instant, a demonic smile started to form on my own face and at the same time the goofy smile faded from his. In its place, he tried to put on a stern face of intimidation. I could feel my soggy wet fatigues clinging to almost the entire lower part of my right side and it made the angry demonic smile on my face glow even more. This caused Tex to back up a couple steps, as he continued to face me. I had not shown “good Ole Tex” this side of me ever before, and I am sure it was a little disconcerting for him. As I stood there, dripping wet, I very calmly and deliberately started speaking to him in a tone, which I am also sure he had never heard coming from my lips. It was a tone devoid of all emotion, with an air of certainty about it. It was not unlike that of a judge, explaining his decision to a guilty defendant, concerning the upcoming punishment he was preparing to mete out. However, in this case, it was not going to be anything that good “Ole Lord of the Flies", Tex, could have ever anticipated. I had done such a believable con job on him, when he had gotten me into all those head locks, while nobody was looking on, at three in the morning that Tex. truly believed he was super man when it come to the ability to dish out torment to me. However, now he had crossed the line and people were watching. An example had to be made of dear "ole" Tex, donuts or no donuts.

     I had had this guy’s number from the beginning. The only thing that had saved his little fantasy was his position in life as Donut Man. Looking around, I pointed to another mud puddle much muddier, than the one, where we were standing. “Tex, do you see that mud puddle over there?”, I said, as I nodded my head toward it. “That’s where you are going to go, Tex.” Now, to defuse my firm proclamation, in front of all his peers, before he got himself into a humiliating situation, poor “Ole” Tex was forced to reach down inside of himself for the courage he knew he didn’t have. Words started stammering from his mouth, as he clinched his fists in somewhat of a boxer’s stanch. “I’m serious, Wade”. “I’m not playing around here”. “I can box”, he said”, as he waved his clinched fists, while taking somewhat of a boxer's stanch. Quick as a cat, I moved toward him and simply scooped him up like a sack of feed, my right arm between his legs and the left one around his neck. How embarrassing it must have been for Tex, as I carried him kicking and screaming helplessly toward his new destination in life. When I had positioned him over the sticky red clay mud, which had about the same consistency as chocolate pudding, I lowered him down as gently as a mother would, her baby into his bath water, making sure he was submerged enough for the gooey stuff to flow up over his chest. I don’t remember how much of this mess I got on myself while giving Tex his new dose of reality and I also don’t remember speaking or hearing from Tex again. I do remember that my stock with the other cooks went up quite a bit after that incident, though. They let me raid the food supplies at will and now they even cooked for me, instead of letting me do it myself during after hours after the mess hall had closed. However, I never again had fresh hot donuts for dessert. As for my former squad members, who had been looking on at the shenanigans, I am sure that they thought no more or less of me for putting Tex in his place. Our wartime opinions, which had already been formed under the instance heat of combat could never be reshaped one way or the other by an incident as trivial as this. I had many times over already gained their respect if not their friendship.

     The red faced complaining guy that had been with me during our dangerous times on the Ho Chi Minh Trail had been looking on also at the dethroning of Tex. He was the one, whom Colonel Cavazos had lined out while digging a fox hole. Little did I or he know at the time, that he was fixing to become my human guardian angel. I really wish I could remember his name but it is gone forever; Well, maybe not forever.

     This meeting of the minds with Tex must have occurred toward the middle of October, and my unit had come in from the field, after making contact with the enemy in an ambush, in what I now believe was the battle of Da Yeu. In this enemy ambush, my old Company Commander, Captain Watts Caudill had lead my B Company out of a most dangerous situation, while being directed by Battalion Commander Cavazos. Watts saved a lot of lives that day by swiftly prosecuting his tactical instructions while under very heavy enemy fire. Anyone who has ever been in a similar situation will know that this was no small feat. Years later, in a phone conversation with then retired four star general, Dick Cavazos, Dick ask me who my Company Commander had been during this time. When I said Watts Caudill, The General simply replied, " You had a good Commander. He did everything I ask him to do". Anyone who knew Dick, knows that this was high praise coming from The General's lips. Most officers who have served under him, I am sure, would agree that they would rather here those words spoken by him than the pinning of another medal on their chest. The B Company First Sargent was Korean Veteran Pink Dillard. He was fairly new in the unit and some of my old squad members were quick to point out to me that he had headed for the rear as soon as the shooting started. His quick retreat didn’t leave a very good impression on some of the oldest members of my old squad. They seemed to think he was a little yellow around the edges so that is the seed they planted in my impressionable mind. Now, years later, I realize this opinion was very wrong. Pink was a Korean combat veteran. He was no novice. A combat First Sargent’s primary duty is to use his experience to help stabilize a combat situation and that usually does not include allowing himself to be caught in a position to be the first man killed. Anyway, First Sargent Dillard, approached me near the mess hall tent, one evening just after supper and curtly commanded me to round up the women helpers in the mess hall and take them home, adding that he did not want them staying overnight in camp. Then he turned and just walked away. His order hit me like a ton of bricks. There was only about an hour of daylight left. I knew that all patrols and road guards were returning to their posts inside the perimeter for the night. The road I would have to travel, to complete this errand, would now be a no man’s land, where the enemy could and did roam at will.

     I felt as though I had just been thrown to the wolves and for good reason. Enemy regimental size units surrounded Quan Loi, which, itself, was located just a few miles from the Cambodian border. On July 11, 1967, the enemy had launched a fairly large raid on Quan Loi, itself. I had been on numerous patrols around Quan Loi before I accepted the truck driving job, so I had seen with my own eyes the enormous amount of evidence of enemy activity that surrounded Quan Loi. Enemy patrols practically roamed at will through the rubber trees and jungle surrounding Quan Loi air strip.

     There were three girls that needed a ride home. The first lived just out the perimeter of Quan Loi.  There would be no problem or much danger in dropping her off. The second lived just a mile or so down the road from there, but the third girl lived in the town of An Loc which was about seven and a half miles from Quan Loi. This would mean that I would be driving into a large town which was known to harbor lots of enemy activity. Every American soldier, who had been in country as long as I had, knew the Americans ruled by day and the Viet Cong ruled by night in towns like An Loc.

     It’s been fifty years now since this incident occurred and for the life of me, I cannot remember how I was able to get more fire power to go with me on this very dangerous mission, but I did. For years, as I replayed this day in my mind, I just assumed that members of my old platoon just stepped up to the plate voluntarily. However, now, in thinking back, I realize that each one of them were manning perimeter positions around Quan Loi, while taking a break from field operations. That’s just what a 1/18th Infantryman did when he was in the rear unless we were at our home base at Di An. That meant that they would have had to have gotten permission from their platoon leader to go on this road trip with me. They couldn’t just leave by their own volition. In looking back, more than likely, First Sargent Pink Dillard had said something to my old platoon leader about getting volunteers from my old platoon to join me. However it happened, it happened, and five soldiers from my old platoon went with me. Not only did they go with me but they were very willing to go, which is why I have thought, until now, that they did so by their own initiative. In reality, as I said before, that could not have happened.  I will repeat one last time, that there is no way those men could have gone with me and we could have taken all that hardware to boot, without the knowing approval of Pink Dillard. Years later, having come to understand this fact, I am starting to feel the love again. It’s one thing for a combat leader to send his men into harm’s way. That is a very necessary reality of war. It is quite another thing for a leader to send those under him on a suicide mission unless they volunteer and I certainly didn't volunteer for this trip. For years, I have labored under the false perception that First Sargent Dillard callously sent me on a suicide mission when, in fact, he simply sent me on a dangerous trip but also armed me to the teeth.

   One of the soldiers, who joined me, was the red faced guy. His wife had left him and he had developed a really bad “devil may care” disposition, which he wore on his sleeve. It was just the kind of attitude that was suited for a road trip like this. I remember him grabbing a 12 gauge shotgun from somewhere and a bandolier of number five buck shot, which was not worth a darn in the jungle, but it was perfect for a run like this. Now, that I think about it, I also believe one of the other men brought an M-60 machine gun. Someone also had a M79 thump gun. I remember that for sure. Everyone carried their M-16’s, including me, although a lot of good it would have done me, since I was driving.

      After the girls loaded on the truck, off we went, through the gate and down a little bank to a little village area not a half mile outside the air strip. I don’t think it was even a village, just some scattered huts on each side of the road. As we approached, one of the Vietnamese girls started hollering to be let off. She hollered even louder when she realized we were not slowing down. This was her stop. The fear I sensed in her cries was just more incentive for me to punch the gas pedal to the floor and keep rolling. Several of the guys riding in the back tried to explain to her that she would be making the trip all the way over and back before she would be allowed to get off at her stop. We had made the decision before hand to use the girls as an extra insurance policy against the enemy starting a fire fight with a lone vehicle, which had absolutely no military significance at all. She continued to protest vehemently for a minute or two and then everything got real quiet in the back of the truck.

     My red faced companion who was riding shotgun now pulled a cigar out of his fatigue pocket and lite it. It was quite a scene, watching him take his first puffs on it as he turned to me and grinned real big. He was definitely feeling suicidal over the loss of his family back home and the wild eyed expression on his grinning face, looking like something out of a Steven King movie, was clear evidence of that fact. He took his first couple of puffs on the cigar with one hand, and clutched the barrel of the shotgun, securing it across his lap with the other. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking at that very moment but whatever it was, it definitely had something to do with a feeling of complete and utter helplessness. I have never felt before or since as helpless as I felt at that very moment in time. Yet on I went, driving through the rubber trees and squeezing everything the “ole” truck had, out of it, while listening to the gears whine, as the “ole” horseless wagon topped out at a little over fifty miles per hour. It seemed a lot faster on this narrow red clay road with rubber trees wheezing by on each side of us.

     We were completely alone on the road now and about three miles from Quan Loi and about the same from our destination of An Loc. I saw no one walking, no bicycles, no 3 wheeled lambrettas, no buses, no human presence whatsoever. It was eerie. Seeing no one on this road was almost always a bad sign. I knew any enemy patrol would be able to hear my lone truck coming a mile away, which would be plenty of time to set up an ambush. To say that I or anyone on the truck was fearful, though, would be a misnomer. We were all “Ole” guys to combat which means that each one of us had many times over been pushed beyond the limits of fear to a place in our minds that is hard to understand but is felt by everyone who has gone through and survived repeated exposure to combat. It’s a place that allows a hardened combat soldier to do his duty, while shutting down all normal thought processes in the brain of home, family, allegiances and friendships and yes even the mind numbing fear of living or dying. My eyes scanned the last three miles, first to the left into the trees and then to the right just as I had scanned the first leg of the journey. Continual scanning of my surroundings was just something that had been ingrained in me, first as a boy, riding the back roads of the Shenandoah Valley, looking for deer and then as a point man for almost nine months of my one year tour of duty.

     As we entered the outskirts of An Loc, the road from Quan Loi snaked to the right and down a slight incline, before it opened up into a large market square. Vendors were selling food stuff from all types of vegetable stands mingled with other structures loaded down with local merchandise. To the left there was a wide island running down the center of the road. To the right were mostly single story huts with corrugated tin roofs. I am sure they doubled as permanent residences as well as store fronts for their occupants. The high pitched whining of the truck gears took on a lower tone as I slowed and down shifted into a lower gear, coming down the incline, and entering the market square area. True to the Cavazos Dogface radio call sign, the men in the back caught a “something doesn’t smell right” scent and came to full alert, with weapons at the ready. I did not need eyes in the back of my head to know that they sensed danger. I also tensed up.

X marks where I stopped in An Loc
This picture was taken later after a battle had destroyed large portions of An Loc but you can still see the island in the center of the road, from which, the Viet Cong road blockers approached the front of my truck.
    At the same time I was entering a crowd of people and slowing to a stop, my red faced companion to the right rose from his seat, the cigar butt still clinched between his teeth. The canvas tops on my truck had been removed before we left Quan Loi so it was easy for him to stand and position his shotgun, pointing outward over the windshield. Even the girls, who had started chatting nervously, as we approached An Loc, were once again completely silent. Now realizing the immense danger I was driving into, I brought the truck to a complete stop. And there they were all around us; Scores of armed men scattered around on all sides of the truck throughout the market and it was easy to see that they were not friendly to the American ideals of truth, justice and the American way. All were wearing black pajamas and many had M1 carbines slung over their shoulders. Seeing our approach, several had started moving from the shopping areas to the left and had already taken a stand about fifteen yards directly in front of our truck , looking squarely at us like the sinister traffic cops that they were. Another one approached these men from the tin hut area to our right, and took a stand several feet to the left of the others. He gripped an AK 47 in his hands, with the barrel pointed downward. It was quite obvious that these guys were intentionally blocking any forward movement of our truck.

     Now, my red faced companion started traversing his shotgun back and forth from the guy with the AK to the guys with the carbines and at the same time he shouted over and over, “Come on! Come on, just make a move! And I’ll let you have it”! I remember thinking, “What-ever else happens, there is no doubt that this guy with the AK is “fixin” to find out in a very personal way what number five buck shot can do to the human body”. At this point, in sight of hundreds of onlookers, there could be no doubt that there would be no prisoner of war candidates riding in this vehicle.  Fortunately my red faced companion took it just far enough without winking, like Doc Holiday did in the movie, Tombstone”. His actions pushed these enemy road blockers just far enough to make them freeze in their tracks, without causing them to react.

     A girl jumped down from the back of the truck and in less than a second, someone in the back yelled, “Let’s go!”, but I had already started rolling and cutting the wheels to the left to make one of the sharpest U turns I have ever made since. As I straightened out heading in the opposite direction several more armed black pajamas jumped back out of the way to my right. I am sure that my boys in the back made them think twice about doing anything else, which would most definitely have ruined their evening dinner plans. I then gunned the truck for everything it was worth. Kids were now running toward us, throwing rocks and sticks and anything else they could get their hands on, as we passed them. It was a way of showing off to their Viet Cong buddies. During the day, when we Americans occupied the town, these same kids were as friendly as could be. I couldn’t help but think, as I topped the hill, and headed out into rubber tree country again, “What duplicitous little b…..ds they were.

     We left the outskirts of town without a shot being fired, but it was definitely what some used to call a Mexican stand-off. As tensions subsided and the girls who were still on the truck started chatting again, I started pondering what had just happened, or rather what had not happened. I have not stopped pondering that non-event fifty years later. South Vietnamese soldiers (ARVN) did not wear black pajamas so these guys had to be Viet Cong.

     Until this day, I can never forget the sickening way I felt for the four seconds or so that I was setting still, surrounded on all sides by scores of Viet Cong in black pajamas. I remember looking at my hands at the ten o’clock and two o’clock positions on the stirring wheel and thinking this is the way I am going to die, without any chance what-so-ever of getting even one return shot off. Obviously, these were Cong who had come in from the boonies to take a little break and do some shopping and obviously they had timed their shopping hours to coincide with the American withdrawal of daytime security on the roads and in An Loc, itself. Now, years later, it is easy to “arm chair” reasons why we did not have a shoot-out that day.

     For one, they had no idea we were coming so there was no time to prepare an ambush. Number two, if a fire fight had ensued, many children and ordinary citizens would have gotten hit, including the remaining girls on the truck. The collateral damage would have been enormous, for Viet Cong who probably had family members living in An Loc. I also now believe, that there was a third reason why the enemy so coolly held his fire that day. I believe this non-event was a good example of what could rationally be predicted to have happened. For years, the Vietnamese Communists had been dealing with powerful enemies and they had learned a thing or two, which trickled all the way down to the ground pounder and even their children. These committed Communists had not only learned when and how best to terrorize their own nationalist democratic movements, to enslave the general population, but they had learned how to outflank the imperial French, Japanese expansionism and now “good ole” naïve Americans, who believed that people should rule their government instead of government ruling people. Simply put, they had developed an extremely heightened tactical sense of when to shoot and when not to shoot and when to show up at the bargaining table, to get what they wanted. It’s too bad that most Americans have not, to this very day, learned this same lesson.