CHAP5 Hopelessness Reigns

    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. I remember writing home to my mother around this time and telling her how senseless our missions seemed to be. For an example I mentioned how we would move from place to place all the time and leave things pretty much the same as they were when we arrived. We were on Highway 13 now and 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, one day 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 booby trapped. It looked to me like there was only one booby entrapment and it wasn’t the enemy. It was “good ole” Sargent Rook continually doing his bad impersonation of “Sargent Stryker” from the movie "Sands of Iwo Jima". “Anyone with half a brain should know that there were at least a hundred better ways of booby trapping us than by booby 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" being careful to not let him see us.

    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 of 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 way be to forcibly remove that person from the land their family had farmed for centuries and from the only way of life which they had ever known, then place them in a holding pen somewhere else along with their water buffalo? 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 what in the world were they suppose to do with these water buffalo now that they had no land to farm? For those readers who may not know, water buffalo were used to plow the rice fields. Common sense cannot help but tell anyone who has 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 lost the war because these people could not have been replaced. I don't know if I believe that or not. It is true that the North would not have been able to easily replace them but the South Vietnamese government, which we Americans were propping up, was extremely corrupt, making outcomes much too complicated to predict. As soon as Operation Cedar Falls kicked off, this diabolical cadre of "dyed in the wool" murderers of the inalienable rights of mankind 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 allowing them to return with impunity and that is exactly what happened. 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 "Cedar Falls" had scared these enemy leaders into literally "heading for the hills". There was no one left in the immediate area with the wherewithal 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 West of the Iron Triangle, looking for any enemy units which could have been displaced and hiding in places like the Hobo Woods. I didn't realize it yet, but I would soon be getting a grunt's eye view of an enormous enemy tunnel complex. That experience has forever left me with the following impressions.

     The major impression which sticks with me is how little our military leaders understood the important contribution which tunnels were making to the enemy war effort. Militaries have and always will be more impressed with bright, shinny metal and high tech tools of the trade than they are with dark, dirty and low tech stuff like hand-dug tunnels, as they should be in most cases. However, Vietnam was not most cases. Therefore, the tunnels had now given this insurgency enemy an enormous advantage in that it provided a potent tool to counteract the efforts of a high tech foe. To deal with tunnels affectively it was going to take a much more comprehensive plan than just training a few "tunnel rats" and then giving them a "forty five" and a flash light. It was going to take a plan which would erase the motivation for digging tunnels in the first place. That plan would have had to start by cleaning house in the corrupt government of South Vietnam and that never happened. I realize what I have just said is a few dots too far apart for most people to connect, but its true nevertheless. As a matter of fact all tactical plans for winning different challenges of the war were always based on being able to come up with a strategic solution for this problem of government corruption. To add even more velocity to these corruption headwinds, the influence of Judeo-Christian values was and is declining in America. As the nation's pool of people who have little or no respect for these principles grows so does the pool of elected politicians who have little or no appreciation for these values as well. When politicians make decisions, without regard for these principles, bad things happen. I can give the reader two great examples of this. A contractor named Brown and Root made a fortune working on various construction projects during the Vietnam war. President Johnson's family owned a major part of that company. Johnson and the people supporting him benefited greatly from this and a multitude of other money making endeavors that are necessary to conduct a war. Did he break any laws? No, I really do not think he or they did. Did this cloud his thinking to be able to objectively make better decisions regarding the war? Yes, I absolutely believe that it did. A similar thing happened when Vice President Chaney's oil service company was chosen as a major contractor to service the oil fields of Iraq. The wisdom necessary for becoming successful at everything we do in life, either personally or running a government, does not come by just being obedient to the laws of man. It comes from gaining a deep appreciation for the principles espoused in the bible, which teach us how to be self reliant without becoming self serving.  

    Now, as I get back to telling my story, 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 that ancient book, the bible. 

    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 a couple times 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 ahead 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 too 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 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 position 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 could have only been perfected over many years of hunting 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 in a 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 into 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 like me who were close by hit the dirt.

    In the meantime just before that first grenade exploded, wounding “Porky”, Winstead was taking action. The movement was definitely a man in black pajamas so Dennis never hesitated. In one fluid motion, except for intentionally spilling his plate of food, he stepped clear of the tank and dropped to one knee while at the same time he raised his rifle to his shoulder. The food fell out of his hand and landed upside down in the dirt beside him. That didn’t matter because the business at hand had become much more important than saving a hot meal. He now realized that he was looking at a Viet Cong soldier running fast toward the tank with a grenade in each hand. The Cong also had an M-1 carbine slung over his back which many enemy soldiers carried. A kneeling Dennis Winstead now had the butt of his rifle pressed firmly against his right shoulder with his left hand holding the stock while his left elbow rested solidly just forward of his left knee cap. An appreciation of the quick skill involved in Dennis’s reaction to the threat could have been lost on a casual observer but in reality, it had taken years to perfect. What may have seemed natural was really the practiced craft of handling a rifle in all types of situations while hunting white tail deer in the Virginia back country. Others around him were much slower to react and were somewhat confused at first when he dropped the plate of food because they still had not seen the Viet Cong charging the tank. Would the Cong have made it to the tank if Winstead had not been there? I can’t answer that question but I can say that it was an easy shot for Winstead especially since the man was running straight toward him. Like me, he carried an M-14 that could either shoot one shot at a time or with the flip of a switch it could fire fully automatic. One shot at a time was better. Anyway, it would have taken too much time to change the setting. 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 full metal jacket 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 armored beast as it lurched forward a couple feet. One container bounced by Winstead’s head just as he was rising to his feet.

    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. Later, it would become a well-known fact that tunnels in this area were as much as three stories deep and served as command control and planning centers for all COSVN activities in the region north of Saigon. These nerve centers kept intelligence records, produced printed propaganda materials for indoctrinating the South Vietnamese and were responsible for the coordinated mortars attacks on Saigon which welcomed me to the country as well as the sapper attack which wiped out our mechanized recon patrol on January 9th.    

    As the situation developed we could hear explosions and rifle fire as Cong popped out of their spider holes and threw grenades. Their actions were answered with rifle fire as they retreated back into the ground but not before some of them got their brains blown out. It was a chaotic scene for a few minutes. I laid low and waited as did the rest of the guys in my squad. The enemy had obviously gotten nervous when we accidently camped for lunch on top of them. Whoever was in charge of the Cong had then hastily put together this plan of attack, hoping to cause confusion among our ranks, and it seemed to be working, although I am not sure that it was the best plan on their part. It was highly unlikely that we would have discovered this tunnel complex if the people hiding inside them had just laid low and waited for us to move on. There were no raised bunkers or other obvious signs anywhere that I saw which would have given their location away. 

    There was no standard operating procedures for dealing with the situation we now faced, so Denton was left to deal with this problem in whatever way he thought best. Lt. Col. Denton, was a “one foot in front of the other” kind of guy, who always followed orders. When he had to make command decisions for himself and where there were no orders to fall back on, he drew from his past combat experience. However, his tactical experience was acquired in Korea and Korea was a very different battlefield than the one he now faced in Vietnam. In this particular circumstance the correct decision was to withdraw immediately. It was a straightforward decision. How could an infantry unit hold its present position and fight an enemy which was hidden away in a huge tunnel complex underneath them, with the ability to pop out of the ground wherever they wanted? We needed to move so Denton ordered us to withdraw. Everyone around me started rounding up their gear and prepared to move out, looking suspiciously at the jungle floor around them as they did so. However, just as it had happened before at the enemy bunkers, shortly after making that decision, the fog of war seemed to settle like a thick black mist upon those involved in our unit’s decision making process. I have no idea who came up with the next move, whether that was Denton or someone higher up in Brigade, but it seemed half baked to me and the part that I and a few other random souls played in it really seemed “off the wall” shall I say.     

    After assembling together with the rest of my platoon, Sgt. Rook, walked up to me with a stony look on his face. He was returning from a little distance away, where he had been in a huddle with our platoon leader of the week. Rook now singled me out for a second time in one day. The first time turned out to be a good call. This time he had personal reasons for choosing me although I will never know what those reasons were. Whatever his reasons, this would be the last time, while in the service of my country, that I would be singled out again by anyone wearing strips or bars or oak leaves or birds or for that matter, stars. It’s possible that the Holy Spirit had noticed that His little blind sheep was being picked on just a little too much for his liking and that’s something He will never tolerate. You see, mature Christians are able to handle levels of persecutions which would crush little blind lost sheep like me. However, I am not sure that Rook picked me because he wanted to persecute me. He may have thought that I was the best man for the job. What I am sure of, is that this was without a doubt the last time in my military service that I would be given an assignment that was not part of the routine duties of every other member of my squad as well. Here is something else that I know for sure. Those, who by rank or privilege, choose to engage in the persecution of one of Christ’s little ones would do well to stop that sort of behavior because we continue that kind of activity at our own peril. 

    Shortly after this incident, my individualism would be restored even as I continued to reside as one of the lowliest members of the most conformist institution in the entire world, the 1967 United States military. It is important that I let my Christian readers know what I mean when I use the word “individualism” here. It is more than individualism. Every Christian who has ever lived on earth is a sovereign being under Christ which means we answer to no one but Him. Now, before my Christian reader goes off half-cocked, thinking they now have enough evidence from my own mouth to certify me as a bona fide megalomaniac, here is the other side of this great truth. While living in these natural bodies here on earth, although we are sovereign, we are also commanded by Jesus Christ to put on the attitude of a servant in everything we do and with every other human being whom we come in contact with including our enemies. Now, after clarifying myself with this statement, I am sure the same readers who were beginning to think that I was a megalomaniac will not think that anymore. Instead, most of those readers will now think I am just down right crazy. Why? Because, how in the world is a Christian going to be able to maintain the attitude of a servant with everyone he or she meets, especially those Christian soldiers who are placed in the position of having to kill other human beings on a battlefield? The answer is simple. We can’t. My last statement which I so emphatically made is just impossible to do. However, what is impossible for mankind to do is possible with God. As a matter of fact all things are possible with God.

    Had the Holy Spirit really had enough? I don’t know for sure. I do know that I was nearing the end of my rope. Another little neat thing that I have learned about my Father is that he always intervenes for those who will at some point turn to him with their whole heart whether they have done so yet or not. In my prodigal years I would come to the end of my rope more times than I care to count and He always made a way of escape.  Now continuing on, I was told by Rook to report to the area were several tanks had gathered and follow their commander’s instructions. As I remember the tanks were setting pretty much in the same place where they had been setting when the shooting started. The rest of my fellow squad members disappeared with the battalion as it withdrew and I now found myself standing in the midst of a little group of no more than 20 11B10 riflemen like myself who were total strangers to me as well as each other. They had also been singled out. We were told by a buck sergeant, whom we had never seen before, to line up in a single line about a 100 meters wide and wait until the tanks ran over and mashed down the jungle growth in an area about the size of a football field in front of us. So, that is exactly what we did. It was an easy job for the tank and APC crews because they were heavy enough to smash down jungle growth and bamboo groves which consisted of nothing larger than 3 or 4 inches in diameter. It was also a relatively safe job for them because we kept close enough to them to draw and return fire on any Cong who would decide to pop up out of their spider holes and engage us.   

   As we spread out in a single line perhaps 60 or 70 meters long, and waited on the armored vehicles directly in front of us to mash down the jungle growth to our front, I had plenty of time to think about the situation which I now found myself in. This was the second time under Denton that I had been separated from my squad while on an operation. The first time was while pulling road guard duty which I have already talked about. No combat soldier likes to be singled out to go into combat with complete strangers. This is a given. It was true then and it is true now. I was beginning to trust the members of my squad in the field to respond in a predictable way. Although I was still very much the introvert, my working relation with the others in the field seemed to me to be coming together. I cannot stress how important that feeling of trust is to men in a combat unit. I had never been a part of any organized effort of any kind as a high schooler. Therefore, I had never had to trust my peers for anything. My parenting had encouraged me to become a loner and I was a good one. Now this growing trust in the guys in my squad was the only good feeling I had left in the world. It had been hard, but I was finally breaking some ice. Many nineteen year olds who have no relationship with God act on feelings alone. My feelings were now finally telling me that I could trust the other members of my squad and that is the only good feeling which I had in the entire world at this point in time. I never expected to see any of them after this was over because deep down inside I never expected to live long enough to be able to form bonds other than these combat related ones. The deadly experiences which I had already encountered did nothing but magnify the importance of this feeling I was now forming for my fellow squad members. It was a gigantic step and one that didn’t just happen over-night. The bottom line for me was this. This developing feeling of trust was really the only good thing I had left. Now that feeling had instantly been shattered and as I stood there listening to diesel engines and the crunching of jungle foliage under the tracks of these armored vehicles a dark hopeless feeling began to flood over me. I had no idea what the guy on my left or right was going to do if we ran into trouble and he had no idea what I would do. Would he hesitate too long pulling the trigger if a Cong popped up to shoot at us or would he be too trigger happy and shoot me if a Cong ran between us? These where the kinds of questions running through my head as I am sure were also running through the other guys’ heads who had also been singled out for this detail. 

    Now, years later, here are some personal thoughts on this particular maneuver which we were getting ready to initiate. It was just one more thoughtless maneuver amongst a host of thoughtless maneuvers made by those in command. The order to assemble strangers from the far flung corners of the battalion to work together under the command of a cavalry unit instead of at the very least sending a unified squad or platoon had to have been approved by Denton. It was his battalion to command so for years I have wondered why Denton allowed this to happen as I have also wondered why he allowed a similar situation to happen when individuals from different companies and platoons of the battalion were also picked to work with engineers as road guards while they were clearing portions of highway 13 which I have already talked about. Was Denton deferring his command decisions to someone in brigade? I have no idea. In any event, every grunt in the unit could sense deep in their bones that something was wrong. While the cause of that wrong eluded our young brains the wrong itself was breeding an atmosphere of mistrust of leadership which now hung over the entire unit like a black cloud. It was a feeling not unlike the reader would have if he or she was trying to get somewhere and at the beginning of each journey the reader would be directed by the traffic cop to drive down a one way street in the wrong direction. Now here we were again getting ready to travel down another one way street the wrong way.

     Gone now was my security blanket which I had been knitting for the last few months and it was time to just suck it up and start putting one foot in front of the other as someone finally gave the order to start walking on line toward our front. It wasn’t easy. We had to climb over and under a tangled mess of broken down bamboo shoots as well as other small trees and bushes which had been squashed by the big tanks and APC’s. I almost immediately heard a burst of gunfire coming from the right end of the line but I knew better than to turn my head to take a closer look and risk the danger of not seeing in time any threat coming from my front. So, I just continually scanned an area from the man on my left to the man on my right and about ten yards out. I did not break my focus to take time to turn my head to observe one of the armored vehicles to my rear which had now taken off in the direction of the gunfire but I could hear it moving in that direction. On a gut level I now knew it was imperative to keep scanning the area to my front while using my peripheral vision to stay lined up with guy who was about twenty five yards to my right and twenty yards to my left. We all slowly moved forward and had gone maybe fifty yards when it happened. A dark human form popped out of a patch of flat ground about ten yards in front of the guy to my left. It was a Cong. He slung two grenades upward into the air. They landed between this guy and myself. While the grenades were still in the air and half of the Cong’s body was still exposed, this guy to my left instinctively let loose with a three round burst from his M-16. There wasn’t enough time for me to turn and shoot. I barely had time to dive face down on my belly to minimize the effects of the blasts from the two hand grenades when they exploded. As I was falling forward, I saw one of the bullets from the M-16 strike the Cong in the face. I saw a little piece of something flying from the back of his head. He fell backward into the hole which he had just popped out of. In those days we weren’t taught to continually shoulder our weapons while investigating a threatening area so this other soldier had shot from the hip. I am sure that it was purely coincidence that he hit the Cong while firing like that.  

    Now, the tank behind us saw the action and started moving toward the uncovered spider hole. When the driver got within about 10 yards the tank commander traversed the big gun downward and fired into the mouth of the hole at point blank range. I have always thought that was a really dumb move but what do I know about tanks? I do remember that there was no explosion as the shell hit the top of the ground close to the entrance of the spider hole sending red dirt flying in all directions. The tank then spun around again and again tearing up the ground where the spider-hole entrance was located and covered up everything so that it was impossible to tell where the entrance had been. 

    Shortly after this incident happened, our single line advance suddenly halted, although I heard no orders from anyone to do so, I followed along. The grunts from both ends of the line started walking toward the tank which had now come to a standstill about ten yards to my right. I followed suite and joined the rest of these soldiers standing around the tank. Several APC’s then also positioned themselves around the tank and we were given orders to get aboard. After everyone was aboard and sitting on top of the carriers, away we went, traveling a few miles down a dirt road and arriving at a high walled compound in the center of a large village. No one said a word while we were being transported to our destination. From the leader of this little motley pack to the lowest ranked soldier, the feeling was the same. It was an anticlimactic feeling which was betrayed by a generally blank matter-of-fact stare on each of our faces as our bodies rocked back and forth going down the rough road. We grunts were covered in the smears and smells of red earth on drab uniforms resembling a picture not unlike that of a bunch of earthy convicts riding their farm equipment back to their jail cells for the night after toiling in the hot sun all day on personally pointless labors which did nothing to advance an inmates position in life except for time served. Just like them, we were retiring from a day of vain toil while our sentences would now be reduced by one more day. Reduced, that is, if we didn’t get blown up on the way home.

    The Communist shadow government in the South would soon return to use these same tunnels and others just like them to hide in while they carried out their three prong tragedy for taking control of South Vietnam. The first prong of that strategy was military force. The second was the use of political initiatives which included every type of life threatening terror imaginable. The third was educational indoctrination into the ideology of the godless communist party for the village youths, with certain labor duty assignments thrown in for “good measure”. One of these labor assignments was to demand that these youths dig three feet of tunnel per day in support of the cause. Today some of these same tunnels have been turned into tourist destinations where the tour guides brag about the history of these tunnels. There wasn’t a single grunt riding down that road who didn’t sense that our leaders had just gotten us involved in something that they really didn’t understand. We couldn’t articulate what that “something” was but we felt it nevertheless. There was a much bigger picture here than any of our leaders wanted to admit existed. Frankly, I felt like I had just experienced becoming a character in another episode of the twilight zone where the natural order of things no longer applied. Why had our lives been put at risk for a bunch of tunnels that we were now going to just abandon without any further ado? We grunts had no idea what the next logical step would be, but it wasn’t very hard for even the brain of a nineteen old to understand that there were still enemy soldiers hiding in this massive complex of tunnels and we were now just driving off and leaving them to their own devices. Years later I learned that COSVN high command used tunnels just like these as their command headquarters to make a final push into Saigon. On this day the murderous General Vo Nguyen Giáp, himself, could have been hiding just below our feet but we will never know whether he was or not, will we?        

    I remember feeling a little claustrophobic as we were driven through the gates of this compound where we were reunited with our individual platoons and squads. The compound gave me that feeling because it was completely walled in by at least a twelve foot high wall with Constantine wire on top. However, that depressing feeling was quickly offset by some incredibly great changes which had taken place in my brief absence. The first uplifting surprise hit me square in the face soon after jumping off the idling clickety-clack APC which had brought me to this place. I immediately discovered that everyone of the old guys were gone now and a crop of new guys had taken their place. Good riddance! Best of all, Sgt. Rook had vanished too. Alleluia! I never found out what happened to him and to be honest, at the time, I really didn’t care enough to ask. In his place was a five foot nine, sandy haired, blue eyed E-6 with a pleasant smile on his face. His name was Sgt. Bartee from Roanoke Virginia, which was just a few miles down the road from my Grandfather's farm. Also, in the twinkling of an eye, Walker and I had now become the oldest guys in the squad for time served in country. Our squad leader, Sgt. Bartee, unlike Sgt. Rook, had not been transferred from another combat squad. He was a completely "fresh as a daisy" “new to combat sargeant”. This fact instantly elevated us to a position of respect with him which would never have happened while Sgt. Rook remained squad leader. Beyond that, we would soon learn that Bartee just naturally had a much more easy going way about him, then did Sgt. Rook. I instantly liked him and I never liked Sgt. Rook as the reader may have guessed by now. As time went by those feelings for the two men would somewhat reverse themselves but for now I felt as though things were really improving. There were also hot meals prepared by "Tiny", himself, and make no mistake, our cooks were highly respected by us grunts in the 1/18th Infantry Battalion. There were showers and clean clothes to boot so let the good times roll.  

    Almost instantly after meeting the new guys, the mood of the entire squad started changing for the better as well. I have already said, that a big reason for this change was because Walker and I, simply by virtue of being the oldest guys, set the tone which ushered in a level of respect between all squad members that had not existed before. I now believe that before this day there had existed just too much of a gap between old and new. They had seen too much and we had seen too little to be able to come together in any cohesive way. Individual personalities were also involved in the mix. Just the simple respect that one human being should have for another was completely missing in the squad before today but all that was changing fast. There was a new Platoon leader, a West Point graduate, who took over our third platoon. He had a very uplifting manor about him, more so than any officer I had ever come in contact with until now. I cannot remember specific examples of how he handled things, because he was only with us two weeks before taking over our unit's long range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) platoon but I can remember him being instantly liked by almost the entire platoon, including our sergeants. The demeanors of our NCO's changed remarkably while he was with us. They displayed a much improved disposition, as they passed down routine orders. For the first time the new Lieutenant addressed the entire platoon with a very upbeat pip talk. My nineteen year old mind was feeling the joy. Rook was gone. I was feeling good. Everyone else in the squad was feeling good too. To top things off, another very friendly older draftee named Bill Milliron from Santa Barbara, California was among the new recruits. He was twenty six and way ahead of the rest of us nineteen year olds in his ability to manipulate his circumstances to favor himself instead of the Army. I would soon learn that the wheels were always turning in Bill’s head even when the rest of us were napping. I instantly liked him and so did everyone else. It really was quite amazing how morale in the unit could turn on a dime.

    Not only was everyone including me liking the personnel changes but we also liked the hot food, showers and clean clothes. The showers were rigged under some hastily installed water tanks made from bomb shells. We also got sundry supplies and letters and packages from home. I got an applesauce cake from my mother. The next operation, “Operation Junction City”, would last from February 22nd until May 14th so the showers and clothes would have to last us almost three months. "Junction City" would go down in history as the largest ground operation of the war. The Communist spies in Saigon already knew a lot about it before it ever got off the ground. For now, however, clean clothes, hot meals and no perimeter guard was as good as it would get for my squad as well as the entire battalion for the rest of the year. 

     During this down time, it didn’t take very long at all for Sgt. Bartee and Bill to “buddy up” to one another. They had three things in common which helped speed up that bonding process. They were both about the same age. They both loved alcohol and they also loved "pot". Because they had these three things in common I suppose it was only natural for Bartee and Milliron to hit it off right away, but the friendliness between them was extended to the rest of the squad too so I don’t think any of us saw this as anything other than a good thing. Another one of the new guys, from Kentucky named Glen Bowman was quiet and stuck close to me at first but after a couple days at this compound he started really warming up to the gregarious Milliron. So did everyone else in the squad, including me. Glen was my age and quiet. He was every bit as withdrawn as me but with one exception. When the affable Milliron would say something pleasant about his home town of Santa Barbara or his wife or his family, Glen would break out in an easy going smile. Now, a smile makes all the difference in the world, but it would take years for me to realize that simple fact. I never smiled. It wasn’t because I didn’t feel like smiling sometimes. In my case, not smiling had a lot to do with having extremely crooked teeth and I was very ashamed of the way they made me look when I did smile. Little did I know that not smiling sometimes made people feel uneasy around me. Smiles are important and can have a powerful calming effect on others around us if used properly. They should never be used in a sneering or mocking way.

    For Glen and me there seemed to be nothing to do while staying in this place but eat and sleep. Bill and Bartee were more adventurous than Glen and I. On the second day they disappeared from the squad area for quite a while. When they returned, they had goofy smiles on their faces which I can see in my mind’s eye to this very day. Bill walked over to where I was sitting and laid down in the dirt beside me and then rolled over on his back. During our time together this would become his signature move after returning from each of his little forays into sin. He seemed especially drawn to me for some reason. Most guys his age projected a critical attitude toward guys my age, expecting them to forever be proving themselves, but that aggravating characteristic was missing with Bill. The entire time that I was with him in the squad, he always had a calm easy going demeanor around everyone. Although he would become known as the “ole man” to the rest of us, he never let the natural maturing state of mind of a 26 year old versus that of a 19 year old get in the way. Many times in these relationships, the older guy would use his greater degree of learned experience to try to control the younger guy. Bill didn't do that, except maybe to win at poker. He did seem to win a lot at poker. Yes, everyone liked Bill, including Bartee. Because I liked him, it was somewhat enjoyable for me to listen to him as he kept rambling on non-stop about “little or nothing”. While Bill rambled, Bartee stood beside us looking a little zombiefied. As he stared off into space, I noticed he had that same goofy look that Bill had on his face. Then, without saying a word he turned and walked toward his RTO leaving Bill still lying beside me on his back while Bowman continued to sit quietly on my other side. I had been around drunks before but this was different. A little later Bill explained to me what "whacky tobacco" was. He may have shown me his supply at some point.  I can’t remember. Bill, I believe, was the first person ever to roll one in front of me. I wonder now if he realized how bad I considered that habit to be. I saw it as a human weakness, not from any moral perspective, but from the perspective of a perfectionist who wanted nothing to do with something which would weaken my body or impair my judgment. I thought it very strange that many of these men were willing to do harm to their bodies by getting drunk and high on pot. I never considered even smoking a single cigarette much less pot. However, in a crazy way it did raise my self-esteem just a notch by being around so many others who did smoke and drank. Why? Because self loathing is a horrible sin which actually is soothed when its victim can be in the company of those who have perceived human flaws which the victim does not perceive themselves as having. During these down times I found myself occupying my spare time day dreaming about my family and friends back home and about finding the right girl and finishing college. I had no idea that I would be in my mid-forties when I found the right girl and I would never finish college.

  The lie formed by the Devil in the mind of some Vietnam veterans is that they did not fight for a righteous cause. That is a bald faced lie straight from the pits of hell. American citizen soldiers were called upon by the leaders of a free nation to go to war against one of the most diabolical ideologies ever dreamed up by Satan which is the ideology of communism. All Americans who served in the fires of the Vietnam War fought against that evil. However, though the cause was righteous not all those Americans in charge of doing the fighting were righteous. As a matter of fact very few were righteous and therein lies the crux of the matter. These leaders had blurred vision at best and were completely blind in so many other ways when it came to being able to see the path to victory. No matter how righteous or noble the cause, if one cannot see which way to come at his enemy than he cannot win. Righteous causes are not won just because they are righteous. It takes righteous relationships between God and a nation's leaders to really win in the long run. The Holy Spirit already knew this was not happening in the handling of the Vietnam situation. He knew before the earth was created that America would lose this war because our elected leaders would not follow His direction but He did not react to the bad leadership. Instead, He had already planned for that loss long before the creation of the universe took place. Part of that plan was wrapped up in the person of our next Battalion commander who replaced Lt. Col. Denton. The Holy Spirit of God is very adapt at working outside the box and our next battalion commander would definitely be someone whom the Holy Spirit had prepared especially for a time like this.       

     The phrase, "Hurry up and wait" was used a lot by us grunts. We did a lot of that in Vietnam. Looking back now I realize that while we waited in this compound, big wheels were being put into motion at division headquarters. However, we were just the tread on the tires. When things were put in gear we would “hit the ground running” but as treads on a tire, we would only get a "tread's eye view" of the world around us. From that vantage point we never got to see what the wheel really looked like much less the rest of a big operation. To gain insight into the bigger picture I would have to wait almost a half century for something called the internet to be invented. But what many of us "ole grunts" did see all too clearly was how little our leadership knew or even cared to know about fighting this war. The way we were forced to do things made it completely obvious by now that it would take an absolute miracle for any of us to make it through our tour of duty in one piece. So, as Junction City started we had new replacements who had to learn the basics and we had "ole guys" like me, who knew that those basic ways of doing things wasn't working and no matter how bad things got there would always be a trickle of other guys coming through, like Sergeant Joe Amos in A company, Sergeant Chesnut in D company and a guy named Patrick McLaughlin in C company who marched to a different tune altogether, fearless, pretty much blazing their own trail.