CHAP5 A Bigger Picture

    The month of February was filled with a lot of disjointed memories for me. We were pulling road guard somewhere one day where the jungle had not been cleared away from the edge of the road. Tanks and armored personnel carriers (APC) were going past my position which was just inside the wood line. I could hear them but I couldn't see them. Suddenly, there was a large explosion directly behind me on the road just as an APC went by. I could feel the blast and see foliage drifting to the ground all around me as metal parts from the explosion sliced through jungle branches and peppering the jungle floor all around our position. The APC had obviously hit a mine or had been hit by a sapper with a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) as it drove past my position. I wasn't able to see anything and other people from who knows where responded to the situation, as best they could. Everyone in the vehicle was probably killed and the vehicle, itself, totally destroyed, I am sure. The reason I could not see clearly what was going on around me was because my position was located in thick jungle. All I could do was listen to the large commotion as people cleared the damaged vehicle off the road so traffic could get through while others worked to clean up the mess. I know so little about the details of that particular event, how many were killed, etc. although it happened only a few yards from me. Yet, the memory of it still remains. I have no idea why. One thing was for sure. Death and destruction were now becoming a common occurrence in my life. It was happening all around the little group of men in my platoon. Yet, it never touched us.  

    As I have already mentioned, I remember another day when we were walking through open countryside and since we always seemed to be short of water, we were knocking coconuts off some coconut trees so that we to get the juice out of the coconuts. Very soon, Sargent Rook interrupted us and made everyone leave the coconuts alone. He said that they could be boobie trapped. It looked to me like there was only one boobie who we were trapped by and it wasn’t the enemy. It was “good ole” Sargent Rook continually doing his bad impersonation of “Sargent Ryker”. “Anyone with half a brain should know that there were at least a hundred better ways of boobie trapping us than by boobie trapping coconuts”. Of course I kept this thought to myself, because there was no arguing with Sargent Rook. Walker and I got into the habit of just shaking our heads and walking on when he would start his stupid act.

    Another time, I remember everyone jumping on the “band wagon” and buying hammocks from the young teenaged civilians who came up to us as we walked along the open countryside. The idea of sleeping in a hammock rather than the hard ground really caught on fast. I bought one but only used it a couple times. Why? Well, because one night while many of us were sleeping in our nice comfy hammocks in some dense jungle, bullets started popping by our heads and some ricocheting across the hard laterite ground going everywhere. Several guys were wounded and after that incident was over, orders came down for us to lose the hammocks and start sleeping on the ground again. Of course, I wondered why Sgt. Rook had not said something to us about sleeping in hammocks even before this incident happened, but he hadn’t. However, if anyone was starting to get the idea that he was going soft, the next incident which happened several days later would make us think again and at the same time set the stage for not only the guys in my squad to start thinking differently about Rook but for the entire 1/18th Battalion to start thinking differently about everything we were doing in the performance of our daily combat duties. As a whole, after this happened, never would the men in this unit, at this time, take things for granted again, or halfheartedly drag their feet because some Sargent like Rook had given us an order we didn’t like. A bigger picture was about to emerge in the minds of most of the men of the 1/18th from the officers on down, and it would help to reshape the mindset of each one of us from the officers on down.

    On this day, we had walked deeper into the area just west of the northern most tip of the Iron Triangle. Operation “Cedar Falls had been over for at least two weeks, or maybe more. We were now in a free kill zone which simply meant we could shoot anyone we saw. There were no civilians to be seen anywhere. After studying old maps, I believe now that we were possibly making a sweep through the Hobo Woods on the western side of the Saigon River across from some rice fields leading up to where the village of Ben Suc had been located before it had been destroyed. Ben Suc had occupied both banks of the Saigon River. However, my unit never saw the village or realized that it had even been destroyed. I am sure a few officers may have known exactly what happened but the men in my unit had no idea that the entire population in the area had been relocated since we were further south when all this took place and therefore played no part in the actual removal. As I said earlier, we were acting as a blocking force protecting Saigon during Operation Cedar Falls. Other elements of the First Infantry Division and the 25th Infantry Division were actually involved in sealing the village off, providing security and helping with the removal of civilians.

    Some 50 years later I would learn more about Operation Cedar Falls, which had ended January 26, 1967. I learned that it had rounded up around 6,000 residents in the Iron Triangle in and near the town of Ben Suc and removed them and their belongings from the area. They were relocated about 20 miles further south down the Saigon River to a refugee center near the town of Phu Cuong. Many of these people were rice farmers so the Army moved all their farming equipment including their water buffaloes with them. Ben Suc, the largest hamlet in the area was then burned to the ground and the enemy tunnel complexes located underneath the town were destroyed by dropping the biggest bombs the Air Force had on top of the town site.

    Before I was forty years old, I must admit that I had very little “common sense”. However, after turning my life over to God on my fortieth birthday, one the first things which The Holy Spirit started doing was to develop some “common sense” in me. Now, thirty two years later that “common sense” begs to ask the following question concerning the planning of Operation Cedar Falls. What would be one of the quickest way to turn folks into lifelong enemies? Wouldn’t at least one to do that be to forcibly remove that person from the land they had farmed and from the only way of life which they had known for generations and then place them in a holding pen somewhere else along with their water buffaloes? Yeah, you heard me right! The U.S. Army loaded up their water buffaloes which they used to farm the land and shipped them out with these farmers. Now this raises just one more little “by-the-way” question which I can’t help but ask. Why ship their water buffaloes with them when it is completely obvious that there would now be no use for them and no way for these families to even feed the poor things? Common sense cannot help but tell anyone who half a brain that 6,000 completely dependent people on government handouts will now have nothing but time on their hands to think about how to get even with the people who did this to them. I feel very fortunate that God shielded me and the other men in my unit from becoming involved in that part of the operation.

    Also, there was a very small cadre of top Communist leaders operating out of this area around the Iron Triangle using these tunnel complexes as their base of operations planning for the takeover of all South Vietnam. They would move from complex to complex in the area as needed to avoid capture and thus maintain continuity of command. It is now thought that if this very small number of top Communist officials could have been caught or killed that the Communists would have been dealt a severe blow in the war. The North would not have been able to easily replace them any time soon. However, as soon as Operation Cedar Falls kicked off, this diabolical cadre of killers of the free will of humankind moved from tunnel to tunnel down secret trails toward the safety of Cambodia to sit out the entire operation. They knew the Americans would pull out as soon as the operation was over with any thought given whatsoever for the long range security of the area. For the time being, however, the men of The Big Red One would enjoy the month of February, making sweeps like the one I was a part of now, without having to worry about walking into large ambushes because the brains of the enemy operations had literally headed for the hills. There was no one left in the immediate area with the skills necessary to plan the larger attacks which we would experience later in the year.   

    Now, fast forwarding, it was probably more than a month since Operation Cedar Falls had ended and on this particular day our unit was still combing the general area, looking for any enemy units which could have been displaced and hiding in places like the Hobo Woods. I don’t believe our leaders and military planners fully grasped the dangers of halfheartedly addressing the problems which were stemming from allowing these networks of tunnels to continue contributing to the Communist insurgency efforts in South Vietnam. I would rather think this than to think that our country’s leaders just really didn’t care in the first place as long as they able to keep satisfying those lobbying interests who were getting rich off this war or any other war for that matter. The Communist had been digging and expanding these tunnels for years. There were actually thousands of miles of them and enough hollowed out chambers below the ground to provide cover, housing and storage to provide the logistics requirements for a large segment of the entire Communist operation in the South. This included storerooms for rice, storerooms for weapons, hospital facilities and even weapons manufacturing facilities. They had been continually expanded since the 1950’s when the Viet Minh were fighting the French. The youth in the area were made to work on these tunnel expansions and were required to meet a digging quota of three feet a day by the Communist shadow government controlling things in the larger communities throughout South Vietnam. The youth of these villages like Ben Suc and Cu Chi were also made to attend political indoctrination classes. Today some of those same tunnels around Chu Chi have been turned into tourist attractions. However, I will not be one of those tourists. Domestic or foreign, a communist will always be my enemy. That’s not to say that I don’t love my enemies and certainly do not purpose that we go to war with every enemy we have in the world but nevertheless when a fellow American loses the ability to know the difference between an enemy and a friend he or she is in sad shape. When enough Americans fail to recognize enemies from friends, the entire country is in for big trouble. By the way, there are basic criteria for being able to recognize a friend from an enemy and that criteria is written down for us in an ancient book called the bible.  

    Getting back to my timeline, on one particular day, instead of guarding a road all day long, we were making a sweep through an area where there were only small trees and a lot of thick dense bamboo and other smaller jungle growth. An armored unit was with us, following along behind as we cleared the woods in front of them. I believe it was elements of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. This was slow hot work but although I had started walking point for my squad patrols my platoon was not in the point position on this day. So, today, I was in the middle of the formation which made it a little easier because the guys in front of me were breaking a trail head of my squad. It was extremely hot so we were glad to stop and set up a perimeter around noon. Word came down that we were getting a hot meal flown out which was really good news since we had been eating C-rations for several days.    

    Very soon, the sound of a helicopter could be heard descending into a clearing somewhere nearby. Everyone stopped what they were doing and immediately perked up. A grunt could fall asleep almost anywhere during a five minute break but at the sound of that beating blade sleepy eyes became wide awake. A couple guys who had been lying on their backs and completely “napped out” immediately jumped to their feet when they heard the chopper. Why? Because that sound meant that a hot meal had arrived. However, I never flinched an inch. I just kept leaning back at a 45 degree angle against my ruck sack which was allowing me to stay propped up enough to look around but inclined enough to bow my head and shut my eyes if I wanted to. My M-14 rifle was cradled in my right arm with the butt touching the ground between my legs and the end of the barrel pointing over my right shoulder. For brief stops while on the march I always took my steel pot off my head and sat in it to keep from being stung by the black ants, but not today. Today, it seemed as though we were going to be in this location for a while. It had also been a long hot walk getting here. Therefore, I was willing to chance a sting or two from black ants before I would be willing to give up this more comfortable position. After the bunker debacle, I had added an M-72 rocket launcher to the other stuff which dangled from my ruck sack as well as a very welcomed poncho liner which actually had come through resupplies several weeks before the bunker incident. All this plus an entrenching tool and a machete made this affair look like the strangest pillow in the entire world.

    Our squad Radio occasionally crackled and popped nearby and loudly blared its distinctive electronic voices, in short verses, which sounded much too complicated for me to ever begin to master. My perfectionist mindset had already determined that the humiliation stemming from the multitude of glaring errors I would most surely make if I had to communicate over one of these things would be just too unfathomable to imagine. The gigantic inferiority complex which I had carried around with me almost from birth could never have handled the stress of saying the wrong thing over one of these olive drab boxes, especially since I was smart enough to know that I would be heard by a multitude of the most judgmental people in the universe, people who held my life and death in their hands. I ignored the radios completely and now years later I realize what a big mistake that was.    

    I said all that to say all this. At this instant in time I had absolutely no intention whatsoever of heading for the chow line and getting caught up in the crowd. Not me. I had it all figured out to a tee. I was quite comfortable and if I waited until I could be one of the last ones in line I could have a much better chance of talking the servers into giving me a double portion because what was left over would have to be thrown out anyway. It was a great ploy and one which had consistently worked for me in the past. However, I suppose Sargent Rook had been taking notes on how well it had been working for me too and since he was especially bred on another planet somewhere far, far away from earth and raised for no other purpose than to put the finishing touches on making this miserable life of mine even more miserable, why should today be any different? “Wade”, he yelled, “Go get in line”! Although there were several other guys still milling around near me this was a shot over my bow and my bow only. There was no, “Hey guys, go get in line”. There was simply just one sharp blast aimed directly at me. I responded by putting on the best pretend voice that I could muster so it would sound like I was completely unfazed by being singled out by him. In my best calm voice act while my inner voice was screaming its lungs out, I explained how I didn’t mind holding down our position while the rest of the squad went to eat. To me, this very adult argument for not obeying his first command just sounded so unselfish. How could he not change his mind and come down off his high horse? Even a crazy person like Rook should be able to see what a model squad member I was trying to be by offering to go last. “Wade”, he now yelled, “I am not telling you again. Go get in line!” He sounded really angry this time. How embarrassing, as I faced him now with those words hitting me full bore in the face. There was nothing left to do but roll over off my ruck sack pillow, stand up with my rifle clutched in my right hand and start walking in the direction of the chow line. At the same time I was at least able to calm my ruffled feathers by reminding myself of two things. Number one was that my sentence would be shortened by one more day if I made it through today and that Sgt. Rook was truly a Neanderthal so he really didn’t know any better than to act like the fool he was.

    When I arrived at the end of the chow line the insulated food canisters had been placed on the tracks of a parked tank and people were helping themselves. This was great! I could help myself to double portions without having to ask. That was already taking away some of the agitation caused by Sgt. Rook’s rude behavior. It only took a couple minutes to get my food and head back into my squad area to continue my sojourn with “the good ole” Sargent, but not before I was able to take this opportunity to scope out the area were the tank was parked with a line of maybe three or four APC’s parked behind it. The tank’s gun was pointed down what looked to be a recently cleared path which was a little wider than the tank itself. I instinctively glanced down the length of that cleared pathway for any signs of movement. It’s just something which I had learned to do while hunting game in the Virginia woods and something I did subconsciously. Interestingly enough, it was bred from a very dysfunctional mindset, at least for the century I was living in at the time. Maybe I was the Neanderthal and was to naïve to realize it.  

    Neanderthal or not, it would have surprised me if there had been any other guys, besides me, in our entire unit who would have been able to better maintain their situational awareness in the woods. But then I am sure most guys in my unit had never idolized Daniel Boone growing up the way I had. I am also absolutely sure that very few had even heard the name Jack London, who had written my all-time favorite book, “Call of the Wild”. This wilderness mindset, no doubt, was responsible for causing me great hardship later as I struggled to make the transition to a functioning adult man living in twentieth century America but for now it was exactly the quality needed to help me stay alive. From childhood I had taught myself to spot the slightest movement in the woods around me, or for that matter, the tiniest object which seemed out of place. I was so sure that I was the most prepared guy in the entire unit when it came to situational awareness that I would have bet a month’s pay on it. I would have bet on it, that is, if that list of other guys excluded the name Dennis Winstead. Dennis also had also grown up with a love of hunting wild game back in Virginia. He was a great shot with a rifle and was in great physical condition. He and I had breezed through basic training and as I said before we were the only two people in our training platoon to be picked to become 11B10 riflemen. I now believe that was because we both listed camping, fishing and hunting as our favorite pass times. We also had excelled in every aspect of our field training at Fort Jackson. His situational awareness in the woods was as good as it gets. Yes, I would definitely have had to leave his name off that list before taking that bet.

    I moved through the serving line quickly after getting a double serving of everything and then headed back the way I came. This would be the only meal that I would eat today and actually the hot meals we got in the field were excellent. As I returned to my position where I had left my ruck sack lying on the ground, I now pulled off my steel helmet and laid it upside down beside the ruck sack. I then sit down on top of it and began eating. I was sitting in my helmet to make absolutely sure that I wouldn’t be interrupted by a stinging black ant in the middle of my meal and taking a chance of spilling it all over the ground while fighting the ant. After finishing most of this hot meal and then reminding myself that there was no ambush patrol scheduled for my squad today, I was starting to feel pretty good. I finished the last bits of food, grabbed my entrenching tool and looked for the softest spot close by to dig a swallow hole to bury my paper plate. Several other guys saw what I was doing and robotically walked over and dropped their trash in also. This could very well be the makings of one more very hot, tiring and boring day with the hot meal being the highlight of that day and I was finally learning how to appreciate a day like this.

    In the meantime, Winstead, who was in a different platoon, and who didn’t have a Sgt. Rook to hurry him along was just now heading for the chow line. At about the same time that I had just finished my meal and buried my trash, Dennis had worked his way through the line to the front and was now standing at the front right edge of the tank. I am sure his mouth was watering and just as sure that he couldn’t wait to get back to his positon inside the wood line so he could start enjoying his meal but that wasn’t to be. Winstead didn’t know it yet, but he would be eating C-Rations today instead of the hot meal he had in his hand.

    While the other guys in the line behind Dennis had been intently focused on scooping food from the canisters and nothing else, Dennis noticed something else. Like me, he had been conditioned from childhood to continually be “checking his six” so that is exactly what he was doing as he turned with his plate of food to walk away from the tank. Any skilled hunter will tell you that he or she instinctively checks his or her six all the time whether actively hunting or not. What does that mean exactly? It means that Dennis was using his peripheral vision to detect movement in a radius as far out and as far around him as possible, and not just looking behind him. That awareness which can only be perfected over many years in the field was about to pay off big time. His peripheral vision detected movement about a hundred meters or so down the cleared path in the direction the tank’s big gun was pointing.

    At the same time that Winstead noticed movement and I was in the process of squatting down beside my ruck sack after burying my trash, another man in my platoon, but different squad, named “Porky Morton” was about to get the fright of his life. He was sitting in his position with the rest of his squad around him and no more than thirty meters from me. While blissfully chowing down on his hot meal, it happened. About fifteen feet away to his front he actually saw two arms rise out of the ground and each arm fling two little black objects in the air in his direction. Of course, “Porky’s” plate of food went flying as he jumped to his feet and turned to run. Everyone else who saw it did the same.  The black objects were chicom grenades and the blast lifted “Porky” off his feet and propelled him forward causing him to land flat on his face. One piece of shrapnel went through “Porky’s” ample right buttocks. Other than that, he was okay. The Explosion was heard by everyone. People who were close by like me hit the dirt.

    In the meantime just a few seconds before the grenade exploded, Winstead’s keen awareness had already alerted him to movement which turned out to be another threat. He could tell that the moving object was a man in black pajamas. So, Dennis never hesitated. As he stepped clear of the tank and dropped to one knee, his full plate of food fell out of his hand and landed upside down in the dirt beside him. It had been dropped the instant he realized that what he was looking at was not only a man but a Viet Cong soldier running fast toward the tank with a grenade in each hand. He also had an M-1 carbine slung over his back which many Viet Cong carried. In a split second after recognizing the threat, Dennis had dropped to one knee, and at the same time guided his rifle into firing position with the butt pressed firmly against his right shoulder and his left hand holding the stock as his left elbow came to rest just forward of his left knee cap. Except for dropping his plate of food, Winstead’s actions had all taken place in one fluid motion which could only have come from years of practice handling a rifle under all types of situations while hunting game in the Virginia back country. Others around him were slower to react and were somewhat confused at first when he dropped the plate of food because they still had not seen the threat. It was an easy shot for Winstead since the man was coming straight toward him. Like me, he carried an M-14 that could either shoot one shot at a time or with the flip of switch it could fire fully automatic. One shot at a time was better so he left the switch alone. Besides, it would have taken way too long to change it. Breathing out and holding his breath after he quickly lined up the front and back sights on the mid-section, he squeezed the trigger. The man instantly dropped dead in full stride, sliding a little ways across the ground as the thirty caliber bullet passed through his chest and hit the hard laterite ground behind him causing a little spark. This threat was now eliminated but it was not over, not by a long shot. The tank crew scurried up the side of the tank and into the hatches to assume their battle positions. Food canisters went flying off the right track of the beast as it lurched forward a couple feet. One container bounced by Winstead’s head just after he was rising to his feet from taking his kill shot.  

    For the next thirty minutes or so there was sporadic gun fire throughout the battalion area punctuated every now and again by exploding grenades. It became very apparent that we had accidently established our entire battalion’s position directly on top of a massive tunnel complex which had protective one man “spider holes” running throughout the area. These served as protection for the main entrances to the complex, a complex which could have been as much as three stories underground. This accidental find could have very possibly been the command control center for all COSVN activities in the entire region and even the main planning center for insurgency activities against the City of Saigon itself. The man which Winstead had shot came from one of those “spider holes” as had the arms which threw the grenades at “Porky” but there was a number of other incidents which occurred throughout our battalion area which were obviously coordinated to take place about the same time. For us there did not seem to be standard operating procedures for dealing with a situation like this so our battalion commander was left to deal with this problem in whatever way he thought best. Lt. Col. Denton, was not a people person by any stretch of the imagination. He was a numbers guy. (I believe at this time Denton was still commanding but I am not absolutely sure of that because the chain of command was horrible at keeping grunts like me informed of commanding officers’ comings and goings. Actually, I could say anyone’s comings and goings for that matter.)

    At some point I was singled out to stay behind while the rest of my squad began evacuating the area along with almost all of the battalion. I have no idea who singled me out, but I was not the only one. As I was pointed in the direction of the tank, I was joined by a between a squad sized number and platoon sized number of other guys who were all strangers to me and who I believe now were singled out also. We were to support this tank and its crew as it drove around smashing down the jungle growth inside what used to be our battalion perimeter. It was an easy job for the tank crew because the tank was heavy enough to smash down jungle growth and bamboo groves and there were no large jungle trees to get in its way. In the mean time we would take care of any enemy soldiers popping up out of spider holes to threaten the tank.    

    Gone now was the entire battalion and all that was left was this handful of guys and me to walk in single file as best we could, working through the smashed down jungle growth which the tank had already run over. I now believe the unit commander, whoever he was, had quickly settled on doing things this way in order to make a half-hearted show of force. I also believe that he had ask for men to be picked from different platoons within different companies for this very high risk endeavor because he didn’t want to deal with the problems associated with sending in one squad from one platoon when they were all killed. and loosing re-staffing  while also preventing any harm coming to most of his people. In one way it was an ingenious idea because it would prevent an entire squad from getting wiped out if things got ugly. This way only one man would need to be replaced spread over a number of platoons causing no negative ripple effects whatsoever because no one had any idea how many of the enemy combatants were hiding underground and just itching to come out for a fight. For those who may not know, a Mali tuff Cocktail can take out a tank so it always must be protected by infantry soldiers.      .