Chap 12 Tree of Life


      For the next few days, after Haig's big battle, things for us didn't change much. We continued to provide road security for route 246 and took turns running ambush patrols at night. As I have already said, night ambush patrols were used by combat units in Vietnam primarily as early warning of enemy activity. In "free kill zones" like War Zone C, we were at liberty to kill anything that moved, especially after dark. Our battalion leadership said nothing to us "mushrooms" concerning the battle at LZ "George". Bartee, himself, had to know some details. He had access to a radio, at all times and though it probably wasn't tuned into the most revealing frequencies, he still was much more aware of what was going on around him than were we grunts. Go figure! It seems to me now, that at the very least, leadership would have seen fit to let us in on a few of the major details. Surely the Army possessed the organizational capability to understand that a few details would help draw the more uninvolved souls in the unit, like me, into the loop. At the very least, it seems that it would have been a motivating factor which would have given us a better understanding of how serious our business was. However, its abundantly clear to me now, that the 1967 Army did not think that way. If they didn't, however, the communist sure did. They critiqued every battle with the participants of that battle every single time.  

      A few days later, on the 4th of April 1967 it was my squad's turn to go out into the jungle about 500 meters and set up one of these nighttime ambush positions. This was the first ambush patrol, which my squad had been assigned since we had arrived at "Thrust". There was no question in anyone’s mind about this being a very dangerous undertaking. There was a very good chance that we would get into some trouble.  Sergeant Bartee was nervous as “all-get-out”. Heck, we all were. Everyone else, who had patrolled this area, had ran into trouble. Why should we be any different? As a matter of fact, we had already experienced a brazen daylight ambush, on this same road, just outside the wire.

      As we "saddled up" and started out, we skirted the perimeter, until we got to an A company bunker, and then took a right turn straight into triple canopy jungle. We then would follow an azimuth, which led us beside our left side of the road and twenty-five meters inside the wood line, off the road, itself. However, just before making the turn, to enter the jungle, I noticed a soldier standing "dead still" on top of that A company bunker. He stared straight into my face and mine, alone, although there was a line of men, following close behind me. His name was Willis (Lonnie) Matthews and I have never forgotten the concerned expression on his face, for over fifty years, although I did not know his name, until recently. He continued to silently fix his gaze on me, until I turned away to enter the jungle. One reason I have remembered that face all these years is because "Lonnie" had one of the kindest faces that I had seen, since I arrived in Vietnam. Unlike me, I could tell, by one glance, that he was at peace, with himself. Yet, at the same time, I could see the concern in his eyes. I now realize that concern was for us, not for himself. Just before I turned from him, he waved his hand at me, as if he wanted to say something, but he never uttered a word. No matter. We both knew what he wanted to say. Lonnie was waving, what he thought could be a last goodbye to us here on this earth. The strange thing about this short encounter was that I could feel Lonnie's ability to be concerned for other soldiers who were complete strangers. That was rare. Most often soldiers were only concerned for themselves and those whom they had come to know in some personal way, which is only natural.    

      As we moved quietly toward our assigned ambush position, the jungle around us was quiet. Everyone knew that this time it would not be good enough to set up as usual. Enemy patrols in this area had been heavy and there was a real possibility that they would outnumber us. Before arriving at "Thrust", quite frankly, past ambush patrols had been boring. We usually waited for dawn, counting the long hours, as we maintained a one-man watch, per every three, until it was time to go home. However, this time, things were different. Bartee sensed the difference. Milliron sensed it too, as did Bowman and me. I honestly don't remember what Walker was sensing. For some unknown reason, he seemed very passive toward the rest of us. It was a passiveness which seemed to come over him after that day, when we were preparing to storm those enemy bunkers. Since then, Walker just seemed to go with the flow. It could have had something to do with the amount of respect he had managed to garner, bit by bit, from every man in the squad, black or white. Maybe that respect had freed him from having anything to prove. In 1960s America, respect from whites for a black man was a rare commodity, indeed. Yet, Walker had become one of the most respected members of the squad from Bartee on down. Still, no one really knows what another man is thinking, without the revelation of the Holy Spirit. I don't know why Walker never voiced his tactical input on any situation, which I can remember. However, it really didn't matter. He didn't have to. He was probably the best "thump gunner" (M40 grenade launcher) in the entire division. Given clear space, he could put five thump gun rounds on target down field at 100 meters, before the first round landed. I was in awe the first time I saw him do it. After that display, I remember jokingly saying to him, "Goodness gracious" Walker, that sure will look good on your job resume, when you get back to the world (U.S.)”, but then I remembered that he was self-employed. Walker was a pimp from Ohio. Anyway, here on a branch of the Ho Chi Minh trail, Walker was a great asset, and man who commanded respect from the rest of us, whether he voiced his opinions or not. There were guys who came through my squad, and I don't even remember their name, because they just didn't matter to me that much. Yet I will never forget Walker, or Bowman or Milliron or Bartee. Of course, everyone is special in God's eyes, but I am not giving God's viewpoint here. I am giving my own flawed self-centered perspective at the time.

   When we arrived at our plotted ambush spot, "lo and behold" there was a giant tree similar to the one in the picture above, standing directly on the destination pinpointed on our map. I remember standing in the inner circle close to Sgt. Bartee and his radio man, with Bill Milliron and Glenn Bowman standing beside me. We started discussing our plight, while the others just looked on. Each patrol which had been sent in this general direction had made some type of contact, with enemy patrols. Nobody had any illusions, that we might fare better. With that unsettling thought sticking in the bottom of each of our stomachs, it wasn’t hard to start visualizing ways this tree could be used for protection. Just the fact that it was located exactly on our destination check point was a minor miracle, in itself. I don’t know who voiced the idea first, but the idea was embraced immediately by everyone. Of course, us "ole guys" were always in general agreement, that we always needed to not wait for the bullets to start flying before we hatched a plan. We always hatched a plan. However, this time, we knew that plan would need to be better than ever before.

      All any ambush patrol had at its disposal for cover and concealment was what could be found naturally in the immediate vicinity. An ambush patrol could not afford the time or noise it took to dig fox holes. The laterite soil in War Zone C was usually hard, but around these big behemoths, it was extremely soft. It was easy and quick to dig under the huge roots. That would not only give us concealment, but also overhead protection from flying shrapnel. So, it became an easy decision to have everyone get out their entrenching tools and dig spider holes under the huge roots. It worked great. In less than ten minutes, we dug holes which could conceal us below ground with overhead cover from the roots to boot. We strung out six claymores, three along the road and three in a semicircle behind us. Before we climbed into our holes for the night, Bartee picked two men to stay awake at all times, in two-hour shifts, while the rest slept. Everyone was warned one more time to not fire their weapons on contact, but instead pop claymores, and then quickly follow Bartee, me and Milliron to another assembly point. From there we could call in artillery on our original position. There was another thing that most of the "city slickers" did not want to think about. They didn't want to think about what was crawling around under those tree roots with them. All and all, however, that tree was a "God Send".

   We had us a plan, but any combat veteran knows that a plan very rarely joins hands with reality. Night settled in, and a couple hours of silent darkness went by. If an enemy patrol had walked past that tree, they would not have seen or smelled anything. We were as invisible as one could become in our individual spider holes. The tree's roots and towering branches became our life saving protectors.

     As I have already elaborated on, we had other fire bases nearby, who might H & I artillery rounds at random all night long, so it wasn't unusual to hear explosions in the distance. It was said that this was done to keep the enemy guessing. I have already voiced how stupid I believe this idea was. These fire missions actually told the enemy sapper teams where not to look for our ambush patrols. How? Because these fire bases were given our map coordinates, so they could avoid shelling where we were located, and the enemy was quite aware of this. Anyway, when I heard the first 155 mm round land in the direction of our NDP, I was not alarmed, in the least. Then a couple more shells landed a little closer. A third shell landed a little closer still. It was still early in the evening and no one had gone to sleep yet, so each one of us were now starting to realize that this was not normal. Another fire base was obviously carrying out a fire mission and they were dropping rounds down the same side of the road, where our ambush patrol was located. We called this tactic “walking a road”. When two or three more rounds landed even closer, our radio operator was on the horn (radio) calling for a cease fire. That doesn’t happen instantly. Our command post would have to call the CP of the unit engaged in the fire mission and they in turn would then order their gunners to cease fire. Two or three more rounds landed even closer. Everyone held their breath and scooted as far up under their overhead cover of roots, as they could get. Another and another landed, coming closer and closer. Now, all anyone could do was wait helplessly, in mortal fear for our lives. The killing radius of a 155 mm shell is 50 meters, and we were in the direct line of fire with no indication that the shelling would be halted in time to save us.

      Two shells now landed only fifty meters away. Within just a few seconds, two more exploded in an air burst, near the top of our tree, and well within the killing radius. The jungle flooring around us shuttered as it was hit by the supersonic shock wave from the blasts. Branches from the treetop came crashing down around us. The air we breathed immediately became heavy with fine particles of dust which were kicked up, as the shock wave propelled thousands of red-hot shrapnel shards in every direction. The shock wave alone, from a 155 mm gun blast, can kill, at this extremely close range. However, the big tree roots covering us absorbed much of the shock wave as well as the shrapnel. If we had been caught out in the more open jungle, I am sure every man in my squad would have been killed. Now, the air around us hung heavy with a mixed smell of cordite and suspended particles of humus from the jungle flooring. Two more shells exploded thirty meters or so past our position.

   As quickly as this mortal danger came, it also went. An eerie silence took its place. During that silence, each survivor had time to wonder whether the others around him were still alive or not. Cavazos was probably wondering the same thing. Then the jungle flooring around the tree started to erupt, as we zombie look-a-likes began standing up, from beneath the ground. That was quite a sight for no one but us to see. The artillery barrages fell silent. In their place, there was a high-pitched ringing in each man's ears. I still have mine to this very day. We were covered in leaves and dirt particles, from head to toe, which only made us look more like creatures from the living dead.

     It was the 173rd Infantry Regiment, located south of us, doing the firing. The mission was halted but not in time. The first shell fired delivered a deadly blast along our NDP's perimeter just moments before, killing Lonnie Matthews, the man who had waved goodbye to me, and the man whose face I would remember for over fifty years. This beloved son of Nashville, Tennessee would have over 600 people attend his funeral. Cavazos was on the horn, telling Bartee, personally, to bring us home. In the smoky haze,  every man gathered up his claymores and other equipment and we silently started walking toward the perimeter, single file. Not a single man had received a scratch. It was a miracle. I believe that tree was allowed to grow there years before by God. No doubt those large tree roots and the lower branches, with entangled vines, had absorbed most of the blast. That tree had become our tree of life. Baptist boy, Lonnie Matthews had also been given a tree of life, which means that I as well as all those in Christ will have an eternity to share with him. I am very much looking forward to doing that.