A Voice in the Jungle
Several months, after arriving in Vietnam on Nov. 28, 1967, my unit, the 1st/18th Infantry of The Big Red One Division started night maneuvers associated with some of the larger operations of the war. "Junction City" was the name of one of these campaigns. During the beginning stages there seemed to be a lot of confusion and my unit continually kept getting lost. This caused us to come under friendly fire in at least one instance because we failed to link up with other units at the right location on the map. We were mistaken for the enemy and we were fired upon by other units in our own division. So, when I and two friends were asked to lead the entire battalion during night movements, I was happy to take on that job. It was just the kind of job I was suited for and it made me feel like I was in more control of my own destiny. The officers in charge still shouldered all the responsibility and all I had to do was keep us on the correct course by following a compass reading. I remember the young and dumb part of me thinking, "what a deal". Anyway, I had done this job many times before while walking point for our squad sized patrols. What difference did it make whether I had 7 guys or 300 guys following me? Little did the stupid kid inside me know, that the Holy Spirit was guiding my steps every single minute of every life long day I walked point. He would whisper into the ears of my understanding, words, which would not only save my life, but many other lives as well, while delivering defeat after defeat to the enemy.
Back in the day, I was told that the average length of time that a point man lasted when walking point, before being wounded or killed, was around twenty days. I have no way of proving or disproving that statement. Recently, using the internet, I counted 47 killed in action during my tour of duty (one year) within my battalion of around 400. Many more than that were wounded. I walked point positions many times during my tour of duty, mostly in squad sized security patrols, but as I said before, I also led the entire Battalion on several night marches.
Like I said, the Holy Spirit directed my path, in many different ways, through many different people, at critical times, to preserve me and those around me. I had become a born again Christian at the age of eight, and received the anointing of the Holy Spirit at age eleven. Now, backslidden in my faith, I didn’t recognize his voice or pray a single time as a soldier in Vietnam, but never the less, his presence never left me nor forsook me. Our unit never got lost while Bill Milliron, Glen Bowman and I were on point, leading the way. In one incident, We had to argue against our squad leader, Sgt. Bartee, who wanted to take us in the totally opposite direction, from the course (azimuth), we were suppose to follow. I refused to follow his instructions and Bill and Glen stood their ground and backed me up. He finally gave in when Bill laid a stick down and used it to demonstrate how and when to add or subtract 180 degrees from a reading to go in the opposite direction. Bowman, Milliron and I gained a lot of respect from him, when he finally realized the mistake he had been prevented from making. Sometimes we would move on moonless nights, when it was so dark, it was impossible to see a hand in front of one’s face. GPS did not exist in those days. The only navigation tools available to us were a compass and maps. On one such night, I was challenged by my new platoon leader. He nervously halted the column, looked at his map and then looked at me. He then said, "You say we are at such and such a check point, where, according to the map, there is a large statue of Buda. I don't see that statue. Are you sure we are not lost?" "Sir, I don't know anything about a Buda statue", I replied, "But I know we have arrived at the correct check point". Before the lieutenant could respond to me, a man standing beside him shined his red lens flash light ahead of us and to the left, through the dense jungle under growth. About five yards away covered in jungle vines, looking like something from an Indiana Jones movie, was a large stone statue of Buda. The lieutenant never questioned my navigation skills again. Years later, I bought fifty acres of wooded land to hunt on in East Texas and got lost on it several times in broad daylight. I know now, that only the Holy Spirit could have given me such confidence to lead my entire unit, guiding us through that dark time with such success.
Our battalion performed feats that earned each man in the entire unit a bronze star medal. The feats performed by our unit, time after time, definitely could not have happened, without the incredible command decisions of Korean veteran, Richard Cavazos. Richard later made four star general. Many years later, I learned from a conversation with Dick, that the entire unit received a unit citation equivalent to a silver star. You may find a description of two of these battles online if you goggle the battle at Loc Ninh which occurred in October and early November of 1967. Brig. Gen. James Shelton wrote, what I believe, is a very accurate description of Richard's combat command capabilities in his book, "The Beast Was Out There". You may read this at http://www.iam777.org/cavazos.htm .
The following story is just one of many of those encounters where the Holy Spirit intervened to save not only my life but the lives of others around me.
On June 17, 1967, my unit, the 1/18th Infantry Battalion was guarding a large 1st Infantry Division air strip at Lai Khe. During this time, 1/16th Infantry of the same division, the Big Red One, was ambushed by between 800 and 2000 enemy troops of the 271st NVA regiment in what was later called the battle of Xom Bo II. David Hearn, a forward observer, later wrote a book about it. They were hit while the 1/16th and elements of the 2/28th were moving on foot from one location to another to establish an NDP., during a search and destroy mission. The clearing, where the hostile forces waited in ambush had been marked and targeted by supporting fire from their mortars, setting two to three hundred yards inside the jungle curtain. Enemy snipers tied themselves to the tops of huge trees overlooking the clearing in order to shoot down on the Americans.
When word came for my unit to saddle up, we were some distance from the ambushed 1st/16th. We jumped into trucks and headed for the landing strip where Huey helicopters were already lined up on the air strip to take us by squads to the landing zone (LZ). While sitting to the side of my chopper, waiting for word to board, the door gunner jumped out and ran to the back of his chopper to check something near the rear rotor blade, like he had probably done a hundred times before. This time he forgot to duck and the tail rotor blade knocked his head off. In less than five minutes his limp body was placed in a body bag and carted off. Another gunner took his place. A friend in my unit, Dennis Winstead from Norfolk, Va., whom remarkably went all the way with me through both basic training, advanced infantry training (AIT) and then was assigned to the same unit in Nam, extended his tour for a door gunner's job, just to have a clean, dry bed to sleep in at night. Later I found out in a conversation with his daughter that Dennis had been shot down three times while performing his duties as a door gunner. Dennis Winstead was one of the bravest men I knew. His ability to detect enemy treats and eliminate them without hesitation was uncanny. He saved a lot of his fellow soldiers from dying while he was in the infantry and I am sure he saved even more as a door gunner on a helicopter gunship. Dennis died January 18th, 2015.
what seemed like forever, word finally came to board the Hueys.
After we loaded on, each chopper moved up and off the air strip forming
lines not unlike giant droning bees at eight to ten thousand feet.
The sky had never been so blue and the earth below was carpeted with
a rich emerald green. There is a high that comes with flying into a
hot LZ that I can't fully explain. Within minutes a few moving
specks could be seen on the horizon ahead of us. The specks grew
larger as our formation of weather beaten Hueys drew closer. Those
specks soon proved to be the phantom jets that had arrived before
us. Air support was working the area over with napalm, rockets, and
Gatling guns. I will never forget the brilliance of the huge orange
fire balls of napalm contrasted against the green of the jungle and
the blue of the sky.
I immediately dropped the ninety pound rucksack I was carrying, and ran for the tree line straight in front of me. To my left side, my peripheral vision caught a glimpse of soldiers dragging black body bags, filled with the limp bodies of American soldiers, to the center of the clearing and adding them to a neat row that was already twenty to thirty bags long. Inside the tree line I came face to face with only one defender, from the ambushed unit, within my immediate sight. He had superficial cuts on many parts of his body, from flying shrapnel. I ask for an update of the situation. He said he had been receiving incoming sniper fire from one of the big jungle trees in front of us. A few seconds after making this statement, mortar rounds started falling to our right side. One landed no more than ten yards away to my right. When it landed, the 1st /16th soldier and I had already hit the ground at the same instant and crawled behind a large ant hill, which did not offer much protection against flying shrapnel, but it was better than nothing. Soon, several cries for a medic rang out from our right side, which was an indication that some of the falling rounds had found their mark. Through an email in 2016, Fred Watson told me that the men crying for medical attention where in his 3rd squad of our 3rd platoon of B Company. Fred had just assumed the duties of RTO (Radio Operator) for our B Company CO, Captain Brown, or he would more than likely have been among the wounded, if not killed outright. I can say this with some certainty, because Fred has informed me recently that seven men in this, his old squad, were wounded so badly, that they were sent State side, never to return to the unit. Fred remembered the names of five of these men. They were "Porky" Morton, Bianchi, Schotz, Ruiz and Lemon.
The enemy troops didn't keep the fight going for long. Their objective had been to hit fast and hard and then withdraw. Now, they only wanted to keep us pinned down and throw us off guard while they made their escape. They would disengage and attempt to deal with my unit on their terms, another time. Minutes passed after the shelling stopped. Orders came to dig in. My newly found comrade from the other unit disappeared to board awaiting choppers which were now air lifting members of his battered unit back to Lai Khe, I suppose, since that was their home base. The same choppers that brought us in, probably returned to take them away. All enemy activity ceased. Within a short time Chinooks appeared at the center of the clearing with tons of supplies hanging in webbing underneath their bellies. It was obvious we would stay a while. Night pasted without an incident. Next morning word trickled down, that had been at least a regiment sized enemy force which ambushed the 1/16th and that it was probably still in the area. Security patrols started leaving our newly established base camp. Each company in the battalion took turns sending out these squad sized security patrols. It would be my squad's turn in a couple days. Of course anything could happen in two days.
The next day sometime after breakfast, our new platoon leader walked up to us with a brand new M-16 which had a grenade launcher mounted under the barrel. He had gotten it from the fresh supplies we received constantly by the Chinook helicopters. He handed it to Walker, the man in my squad, who carried the old shotgun type grenade launcher. The new lieutenant became a little upset when Walker refused to trade in his old weapon for the new one. Several minutes passed with the good natured college grad trying every conceivable means of verbal persuasion outside a direct order, to change Walker's mind. Finally the argument was settled when Walker picked out the top of a tall jungle tree over a hundred yards in front of our position as a target, and launched five grenades at it. Five rounds were in the air before the first one hit. All five where direct hits. Our rookie platoon leader just stood there for a few seconds with his mouth open, then said, "You keep your "thump gun" Walker" and turned around and walked back toward the command post (CP) with the new weapon in his hand. I don't think anyone else in my squad knew Walker could shoot like that. I know he surprised me. Needless to say, Walker got to keep his old thump gun for the rest of his time in the field. I made him a cup of hot chocolate from the powdered creamer and cocoa in our C-Rations that evening to celebrate getting to keep his gun. I heated it up in my medal canteen cup over a small ball of C-4. Mum Good!
One of the new recruits in my squad had it in for me. He could just look at me and get mad. I honestly cannot remember anything I did to make him feel this way. Bill Milliron had temporarily gone State side to settle family problems and Glen Bowman was on R and R so I was stuck sharing a fox hole with this guy. After we had been together for several days in this location, I volunteered to go out in front of our position on OP (observation post) just to get away from him for a little while. On the way out to that position I realized I was hungry and stopped short of my destination long enough to eat a can of C-Ration peaches. While sitting down, leaning up against a small tree, suddenly one of the claymore mines, in front of the fox hole the new recruit and I were occupying, exploded. It sprayed 750 buckshot-sized pellets toward the observation post where I would have been, had I not stopped to eat. I ran back to my fox hole to find out what was going on, since there was no doubt that the blast came from one of the claymore mines this guy and I had placed earlier upon our arrival. The new recruit was standing there at our bunker showing the platoon leader a broken safety lever on one of the claymore detonators. He was telling the lieutenant that he had been playing around with the detonator when it accidentally went off. Nothing more was said about the incident by anyone, including myself, but yes, I do think he was trying to kill me.
By the time it was my squad’s turn to go on security patrol, not so much as an enemy sniper had troubled us. The NVA and VC had simply melted into the jungle and vanished. Everyone knew there was a very good chance that a large enemy base camp was located within a very short distance of our location. They also knew that any squad sized patrol, which stumbled across it, would have as much chance of surviving the encounter as a steer in a slaughterhouse. As our patrol left the perimeter of base camp, I walked point at the head of the patrol, as always, but alone this time, since Bill Milliron and Glen Bowman were not there. My squad leader, E-6 Bartee, from Roanoke Virginia, followed directly behind me on this patrol. Next, behind him, was the radioman. The machine gunner brought up the rear as always. Walker was somewhere in between. There were seven of us in all, five old-timers and two recruits. As always we walked in single file, one man behind another. An old timer from the Indian Nations of New Mexico carried the M-60 machine gun. I cannot remember saying two words to him the entire time we were together. He later covered my squad's far right position in the Battle of Loc Ninh and burned up three barrels on his M-60 machine gun defending against an all out assault of hundreds of attackers against my squad's side of our Night Defensive Position (NDP). The next morning, after the enemy assault troops had been practically annihilated, it was really hard to get a proper count of the dead bodies lying scattered throughout the jungle in front of his machine gun position, simply because there were so many. As always, on this patrol, I carried a LAW, eight grenades, and two hundred rounds of ammo for the Indian's M-60, as well as 300 rounds of M-16 ammo for my own weapon. If we stumbled across an enemy base camp, we would take out far more of them, than there were of us, but the final outcome would be set in stone. There would not be enough time to withdraw, or get help, before every member of my squad was dead.
It was a bright beautiful sunny day. The jungle was open enough to move quietly through, without having to use a machete. An occasional monkey could be heard howling from a distant tree. Every now and then I could glimpse a mongoose hopping across the jungle flooring. I can't remember the sounds birds made, but I know that they were there, voicing their opinion of our intrusion into their world. However, what could have been a place of wondrous sights and sounds, filled with unbelievable natural beauty, was drowned out in my conscious mind by a continual overwhelming obsession with how best to avoid death. These pervasive thoughts completely destroyed anything that would have ordinarily been a beautiful experience. I kept saying to myself, "It is very important that our patrol stay on its charted azimuths (compass readings). Bill Milliron usually watched compass readings for me but there was no Milliron. Glen Bowman was a second pair of very alert eyes and ears for me but there was no Bowman. This was definitely all on my shoulders; running the compass readings, counting paces and spotting any signs of enemy presence, before it was too late to react. There was no doubt in any of our minds, except maybe the guy who had blown a claymore mine on me, that we were in a very dangerous location that required each and every one of us to keep our wits about us at all times. The guys were following behind me much more quietly than ever before. There really was no room for error. If we got off course and had to call for a spotter round, from our mortar platoon, it would be a dead giveaway to the enemy, because they knew very well how we operated so they most surely would launch several killer teams to investigate. Our plotted course took us up gently sloping terrain. The jungle was relatively open and easy to maneuver without making a lot of noise and this security patrol was somewhat longer than most I had been on in the past. In my mind, this meant that we may be covering ground that our previous patrols had not covered, which was always inherently more dangerous.
When we had reached the halfway point on the second leg of the patrol, the jungle became very quiet. Not even the sound of a bird, anywhere, broke the silence; A silence that seemed like some deadly foreboding. Monkeys that had been howling from the tree tops no longer were making a sound. The backdrop of the everyday sounds of life in the jungle had completely disappeared. This absence of jungle sounds sent a chilling sensation though my subconscious mind. It made the hair on the back of my neck bristle. I became so affected by this dreadful feeling that I stopped walking and turned to look at my squad leader standing five yards or so behind me. He was short, slim, with sandy blonde hair and his red face was dripping sweat as his blue eyes stared intently back at me, looking intently at him. He automatically knew I had something very important to say because he had seen that look before. We stood there facing each other for what seemed like the longest time. I felt the words coming to my lips and being whispered to him, almost, as if I were repeating something someone else was saying to me. "If you go any further, you are going to die" the words said. Yet, there was no proof of that statement in anything I experienced with my five senses. Never the less, to my surprise, Sergeant Bartee believed me, without question. I suppose he readily believed in part because of the many past dangers we had been able to avoid, through our combined good instincts, over the last few months. However, this situation was totally different than that. This had nothing to do with the natural intuition, which came when a point man like me nervously sensed an inexplicable change in the jungle environment, which may or may not have indicated danger. This was an audible voice, bypassing my ears and speaking specific words directly into my brain. This was not me making a judgment call. Simply put, it was the voice of God's Holy Spirit, who had entered my life, when I was a child, and who had been with me, never leaving, or forsaking me all this time. Even now, during some of the darkest hours imaginable and despite the fact that I had decided to throw God away, He was still speaking to me. As long as I live, I will never forget the look on Sergeant Bartee's face, as he just stood there, listening to me, repeating those words. There was not the slightest hint of questioning, whatsoever, on his countenance. To him, what I had just said was the gospel truth, and needed to be heeded, although, in my mind, these words brought indicision, because they seemed to defy logic. My five senses confirmed nothing of what I had just said. Yet, Thank God Bartee immediately reacted to what I said, and not to what I believed, because I really did not believe what I had just rolled off my tongue. However, the real truth is always the truth no matter what one believes or doesn't believe and the truth is always much more powerful than any of the weapons we carried among us. Now, the Spirit of all truth had just spoken. These words of truth were the only instrument of life that would work, at this instant in time, to bring us all home alive and without a scratch. Acting on what I believed, using my five senses, would have most assuredly brought death to me and every man standing behind me. The proof for what I am saying here, came later, but simply put, if I had squelched those words, instead of repeating them to Bartee, each man in that patrol would have instantly been transformed into dead men walking.
Now, the life giving power of Holy Spirit words, implanted into my conscious mind by the one, who said in the Bible, that he would never leave me nor forsake me (Hebrews 13:5)began to set events into motion. Bartee turned and beckoned with one hand for the radio man to hand him his mic. The radio man moved up close to his side so the cord would reach and handed the mic to Bartee. The sound of breaking squelch, by keying a mic could be heard a long way off, so I instinctively turned to the front again, to face in the direction we had been traveling. I strained to see the slightest movement that looked out of place. The conversation on the radio behind me was lost to my hearing. After several minutes Bartee motioned and whispered for me to approach closer to him. "We are withdrawing," he said. The tortured look on his face had turned into one of relief. After backtracking a hundred yards or so, he started explaining to me, that our Battalion Commander, Dogface 6 and now retired four star General Dick Cavazos, had given orders over the radio to mark our position and return to camp. His exact words were, "We don't need to get any of you boys hurt. That's why America makes so many bombs. We'll target the entire area where you are standing for an air strike sometime tonight."
The command to withdraw without spotting the enemy or drawing fire, was, to me, highly unexpected. I don't believe any other commander in the First Infantry Division would have given an order to do that, with no visible evidence of an enemy presence. I was completely surprised, and yet, instantly relieved on several levels. On a subconscious level, it immediately reinstated in my mind a lot of the lost confidence in Battalion Commanders, namely, in one Battalion Commander, Dick Cavazos. We may have just received a pardon from a death sentence but that would remain to be seen. At this moment, the indescribable feeling of relief that comes from the fact that we were headed home instead of further into enemy territory was all that mattered.
That night, while sitting in base camp, drinking a cup of hot chocolate, made from C-rations and heated with a ball of C-4, I didn't worry much about whether or not our patrol had called the shots right or not. We had returned from our patrol alive and that was all that mattered. Whether or not the enemy base camp was located where we sounded the alarm was of very minor importance to my professional pride. After all, I had no professional pride. I was just a twenty year old draftee counting the days until I could leave this hell I had woke up and found myself in.
Shortly after dark, the ground began to rumble. The shaking of the earth around us lasted for no more than five minutes and then it was over. I finished my cup of hot chocolate. Tomorrow my company would return to the bombsite to see if indeed there had been an enemy base camp located close to the spot where my patrol had stopped, but tonight it was just great to be alive.
My entire company moved out early the next morning to survey the results of the bombing the night before. Within the general area of the bombing, the terrain had been devastated. The bombs had left deep craters in the ground. Huge trees had been uprooted and it was hard to navigate through the tangled mess. The first thing that alerted me to the fact that human life had been destroyed, was the uniquely sickening sweet smell of dead human flesh. Unfortunately, I had smelled this odor too many times before. It was impossible to locate the exact spot where we had been standing the day before, because the bombing had changed the look of the area so much. What wasn't hard to determine was the destruction of a very large enemy base camp, which had obviously been located directly in the path of our security patrol the previous day. Large disheveled pieces of bamboo, used as supports for overhead covering, were scattered everywhere. Disassembled bunkers and underground connecting tunnels were exposed for anyone to see. Some of the rather whole human bodies had been flung in all directions, landing in grotesque poses. No doubt, many of these slave victims to tyranny had been resting in a relatively peaceful state before their earthly souls were instantly translated from one hopeless situation to an eternity in hell. Many other bodies and body parts had been covered up by the bombing. It was obvious that the enemy had no clue that they were going to be targeted by an air strike. I believe almost every person in that camp was killed and despite the direct and truthful way I have described what happened, it gives me no solace to see such loss of human life and the potential that each of these lost souls represented. If only they could have found it possible to heed the voice of that same Holy Spirit, who had spoken to me, thus embracing Jesus Christ instead of the devil. My own life is living proof of this one truth. There was little doubt that this was the camp of those responsible for the ambush of the 1/16th and elements of the 2/28th.
In a phone conversation with Richard Cavazos a few years ago, I asked him why he had trusted my unfounded suspicions of a base camp. He simply said, "I always trusted my men". Then I was corrected by him and told the bombers, making that ground rumble were not B52's but Australian Canberra's. Most likely they were from the RAAF 2nd squadron, which had been initially deployed at Phan Rang on April 19th, 1967 to support troops like us, operating in the Iron Triangle and War Zone C.
Now, many years later, I realize that words spoken through the power of the Holy Spirit are much more powerful than any weapon formed by man. The word of God framed the universe. How could it not have the power to save me? I have heeded that voice in my head many times since that dark day so long ago and it has not only saved me from death many times over, but against all natural logic, that voice has made me prosper, as those around me prosper. I have come to take more pleasure in the latter. Him, taking care of me is a given, but seeing others allowing him to bring forth victory in their lives is an indescribably gratifying feeling. (John 1:3) Not a single man was lost in my platoon during the time I was with them, but while I was at Di An processing out to come back to the States, my entire squad was shot to pieces. Not only did every single man in my unit receive a bronze star but my unit also received a Valorous Unit Award, which I was told, by Dick many years later, was equal to every man receiving a Silver Star for their level of heroism in their combined actions during the time he commanded the unit.
The deeper truth is this, for all those who can handle the truth. Many of our political leaders today, are no different than the tyrannical Communists we fought against in Vietnam. They are just different manifestations of the same evil mindset, deceiving others, as they, themselves, are being deceived. To stay the righteous course, we must heed the voice of God rather than the voice of man.