CHAP 7 Shaping Up

 

     The village and compound faded into the distance behind me, as the entire battalion marched north that day in late February. Our new commander was on his way to join us while on the march. Operation Junction City was getting under way and we were to be the hammer that pushed the enemy north to be squashed against the anvil of other waiting First Division troops placed near likely escape routes that the enemy would use to flee across the border into Cambodia. We were not allowed by President Johnson to follow them over the border. As our journey began, my Company was not in the lead position. My entire company started out walking in the middle of the formation. Our unit snaked through a populated area of tin huts, backyard gardens and dirt streets. There were civilians surrounding us everywhere we looked. Then the terrain opened up into vast rice fields and the area became much more sparsely populated. Sergeant Bartee and his RTO just naturally settled in about ten meters behind me. Then came the rest of the squad with the machine gunner pulling up the rear. As we reached the rice fields we became much more spread out.

     The large flat expanses of rice fields finally turned into gently rolling hills with more rice fields in the valleys and dark green patches of jungle covering the slops. At one point I can remember several companies of the Battalion walking spread out at least a hundred meters on either side of me as we moved down a grassy slope where I could see to our front all the way across a valley covered in neat little plots of watery rice fields. The formation was not very deep but there were still some people in front of me. It was mostly the headquarters people and they were walking to my front and just a little to my left. I believe there were just a few more people to their front but spread out from left to right in a single line. This may have been where I got my first glimpse of Cavazos. If it was, and I am not sure, but if it was, then I would not have been looking at a tall Patrician officer, but a somewhat short stocky “bull dog looking kind of a guy”. We were so spread out that nowhere was the line more than four or five people deep except for this little cluster of headquarters people surrounding an officer looking down at a map, as he walked. This was a very different way to move compared to the way we moved through open terrain while Denton was running the show. With Denton, even while crossing large expanses of rice fields we would move single file with perhaps ARVIN troops strung out along both flanks. That was a good way to move through rice fields to minimize damage to the rice crop but it was an extremely foolish way to be deployed if hit by an enemy ambush. I realize now that there was a very basic tactical reason why Cavazos had us spread out like this as we traversed these vast expanses of open ground in the daytime. Any second year West Pointer should be able to anticipate what I am getting ready to say or at least I would hope they could. On open ground, an advancing troop, which is spread out is able to present a much less opportune target for the enemy to shoot at and at the same time be in a position to immediately bring to bear a much more concentrated volume of fire on any frontal areas where it suddenly starts receiving incoming fire. On the other hand, a very long single file must first deploy to their flanks and move up on line before they can engage a frontal attack or they will shoot their own men. All the while a couple enemy machine guns can wreak havoc up and down that single line while it is taking valuable time to deploy. Cavazos had not attended West Point. He had probably learned how to maneuver on open ground in Korea but I am sure that not a single draftee that day, including me, realized the importance of being deployed as we were. However, we didn’t need to know because we now had a master tactician running the show and in this case that’s really all that mattered. By the way, using this very same tactic was exactly how Sam Houston won the battle of San Jacinto. In our case it prevented a savvy enemy from even thinking about confronting us.

    I could look up and hear the “air shredding sound” of 155 mm rounds as they passed over my head and actually see the black shape of the rounds, themselves, cutting through the sky above me. I could also watch those same shells explode in the dense patches of jungle on the far slopes more than a thousand meters away. Every time I watch the final battle scene in the movie “The Patriot” my brain conjures up this memory. The difference between the movie scene and us, however, was that there were thousands of enemy soldiers visible on the opposite hillside in the movie, while all I could see was an old Vietnamese farmer in the middle of the rice fields directly to our front trying desperately to hurry his water buffalo to the side to get away from being in the direct line of our march.

    Surprisingly, as the operation and our unit moved along, never staying in one place longer than a day, it wouldn’t take long for the entire unit to start feeling that hopeless cloud of depression lift. The commander’s radio call sign was changed from that of a “stiff and obstinate ole lady” called “Duchess 6” to the one that was destined to be known by millions of future American’s as “Dogface 6”. I am prophesying “just a bit” here but then I tend to do that from time to time. No one single momentous event caused that dark cloud to lift from us. Rather it was caused by some simple but immediate actions taken by our new commander and the good fortune to have received some new replacements with the right type of mindset for this kind of war. Sure, the changes Richard made will never make it to the history books and were rather small changes in the “grand scheme of things” but they produced big results for his men and in the final analysis of this war that was really all that mattered.   

    Number one, we started being resupplied with all the water we needed which meant we no longer had to supplement our supply of drinking water by drinking disease ridden water from local streams and rice paddies, as we had been forced to do during Operation Cedar Falls. Since we were not being resupplied with enough drinking water, we had no choice, because a human being will die within three days, without water.

    Pick axes suddenly showed up with other supplies on our resupply choppers. They made it much easier to dig fox holes in the hard laterite ground. One man could now break up a six inch layer of laterite and then take a breather while another man scooped out the broken clumps of earth before switching places again and breaking up another layer. The efficiency which that one simple little tool provided was a very big deal for a soldier, who had to “dig in” after walking for hours with as much as eighty pounds on his back. Not only was it a big deal for our morale, but it was also a big deal because it saved time and energy which we could now put toward other important tasks such as cutting fields of fire and filling sand bags with dirt. I might add, I don’t believe it was an accident that pick axes suddenly started showing up soon after Richard arrived. I would be willing to give good odds to anyone willing to take the bet, that he and his brother, Lauro, wore many a blister on their hands, as they familiarized themselves with one of these handy little tools, while growing up on the King Ranch. Anyone who has ever lived on a farm or a ranch knows that a shovel and a pick axe (Maddox) just naturally go hand and hand. I later learned that other units used C-4 explosives to soften up the hard laterite ground. That is just so dumb in so many different ways that I shouldn’t have to explain the “why” of all those ways. I never saw a single pick axe the entire time Denton was in command. Instead, he was very lax on how we built our defensive positions, leaving it up to us to dig nothing but a prone shelter if we chose to do so. He never personally inspected our positions, not one time. Cavazos did. Fortunately, during the two months that Denton commanded, we did not have to defend ourselves against the human wave attacks which would come later in the year. Cavazos, on the other hand, was strict. No one slept until we finished building our little bunker complete most of the time with overhead cover. With pick axes we could now build these “General Depuy Defensive Positions” as they were named, in about the same length of time as it took to dig a prone shelter with an entrenching tool alone.   

    Not only did we start getting one hot meal a day but we also started getting fresh donuts and dehydrated vegetable beef soup for breakfast. Hot, fresh food stuffs was also something that every single ranch hand had enjoyed all their lives on the ranch where Cavazos grew up. Henrietta King had built a dairy operation on the ranch for the ranch hands and their families. Every single family living on the ranch was supplied with fresh milk delivered to their door steps every morning. The Cavazos family was one of those families. Richard Cavazos had no doubt learned in his early years the benefits of hard working people “eating good”, during his young years on the ranch. It would take several months before we grunts could witness how skilled Richard was at using his artillery and air support to save lives, but almost immediately after taking command we were already benefiting from any number of seeming mundane changes our new commander was making. I might add, these were changes that I am sure did not register with us as being all that significant at the time but added together they made a big difference in helping us become winners “right in the middle” of a losing proposition.   

    Men who had been dealing with sores on their bodies for a while were put on choppers and sent to rear areas to have their infections treated at a medical infirmary. Bill Sullivan in C Company remembered over forty years later how our battalion commander followed through with him. While making his rounds of an NDP one day, Richard noticed that Bill had “jungle rot” on his arms and legs. Bill recalled the story to the historian in the Cantigny Military History Series book named “Dogface Charlie”.  Bill said Richard called in a medic to look at his condition and the medic advised Bill to go to an infirmary in the rear area. However, Bill, like many of us, refused to bring attention to himself and continued to ignore the seriousness of his condition, fearing he would be labeled a slacker by his Sergeant for requesting to leave the squad to get treated. Looking back now, I realize that this was a common attitude for the overwhelming majority of these men whom I served with. When C Company finally got a break and withdrew to a place called Phu Loi, Bill was immediately put on guard duty which lasted all day so the showers were closed down and the clean jungle fatigues locked away by the time he had a chance to get cleaned up. Furthermore, he needed to clean up before going to the infirmary. As it happened, he and about thirty other guys, who had missed the showers that day because they had been assigned details lasting all day were dejectedly walking back from the closed showers when a jeep pulled up beside Bill Sullivan. It was a perturbed Richard Cavazos. He instantly knew something was wrong when he saw his men in their filthy fatigues, slowly walking away from the showers, dragging their feet, with heads down. He wasn’t perturbed at his smelly men. He was perturbed at the situation. It was easy to tell that they had not been able to take a shower and get clean clothes after being in the boonies for weeks. Now, all he wanted to do was fix it. A grunt in Vietnam would never miss an opportunity to take a shower and put on clean clothes. If the average grunt got to do that once a month, he was a very fortunate grunt indeed. Richard knew this. But the match which set him ablaze was when he spotted Bill, the same Bill, with the same sores on his arms, which had now grown larger than ever. It was obvious that he had not gotten medical attention. Richard was now starting to get really mad as he had his driver pull over beside Bill Sullivan. Seeing the commander and before Cavazos could say a word, Bill started to explain his situation and how the showers were closed for the day but Richard stopped him in mid-sentence by shaking his head and abruptly turning to look at his driver. “Showers” was the only word that came from his mouth. Immediately his driver wheeled the jeep around and headed for the showers. As the jeep took off in the opposite direction, Richard motioned with his right arm for the men behind him to turn around and follow. As soon as he arrived at the showers, Richard addressed a Sergeant who was still there and ordered him to open the showers up and give the men clean clothes. When the sergeant explained that the clothes were locked away in a steel shipping container and his "gone for the day" boss, a lieutenant, had the key, Richard didn’t hesitate. He stepped out of the jeep and at the same time spun around and grabbed a pick axe from the back seat. “Have the lieutenant come see me tomorrow if he has any questions about why I busted his lock”, and with that said, Richard walked over to the steel doors of the shipping container and busted the padlock off with the sharp end of the pick axe. The broken lock fell to the ground and the Sergeant, without saying a word to anyone, immediately started dispensing new fatigues to the line of men just now forming in front of him. I would be willing to bet the Lieutenant never went to see Lt. Colonel Cavazos.         

    Perforated steel planking was another thing that started showing up in our resupplies if we were going to be in a certain NDP for more than a day or so. These were used to reinforce our overhead cover. Now, we no longer had to cut small trees or bamboo with our machetes which required a lot more expended effort and was not nearly as strong. This planking made our positions much more safe from the increased number of mortar attacks which we received as we moved farther north.

    A crate of light anti-tank weapons (L.A.W.) also appeared on a resupply chopper one day and I snatched up one to carry with me everywhere I went. What had almost happened to me at the enemy bunker complex in January was still very fresh in my mind. This bad memory reminded me “how nice it would be” to have one of these babies in my hands if I ever ran up against another occupied bunker while walking point.

    On a grander scale, other good things happened which coincided with the good changes Richard was making. One, which had a major effect on my life and which Richard had nothing to do with was the types of new personalities now trickling into my squad as replacements. The nature of that new blood was very uplifting to our overall morale. Here is why I think that was so. Almost every one of these new guys in my platoon had a good attitude and as a general rule the older guys like me had not been there long enough to ruin those attitudes nor had it been long enough for us to forget how rotten we were treated by almost every one of the older guys like Rook, who had now left for good. Good reddens! I forgot their names almost as soon as they boarded the chopper to leave. I am sure they did the same by me. The squad and platoon dynamics were now free to be able to make much needed changes in our squad tactics. The new guys looked up to us for the most part and in return we didn’t look down on them because like I said, we were still new enough, ourselves, to identify with their situation. Actually, as the aggravation of being shot at by sappers increased in the coming days and the random mortar attacks also increased on our NDP positions at night, our entire company and even the battalion “sort of” made the adjustment into becoming seasoned combat veterans together. When I hear someone use the phrase “male bonding” the reader should have no trouble “at all” guessing what past pictures automatically pop into my mind. Of course, the benefits of all these positive changes would soon “go south” for me personally in the next few months, but that is “pretty much” the trend in the lives of all Christians who choose to live in rebellion. Things start looking up and then the walls cave in. God recues them and things settle down and start looking up again and the walls suddenly cave in again and on and on it goes. This cycle continues on a downward spiral leading to a Christian's ultimate destruction if they don't come to their senses. My biggest battle was not with the Viet Cong. It was with God and it didn't seem like even this "hell on earth" was going to make me turn back to God. But for now, things were shaping up as good as could be expected, considering where I was and what we were doing.

    My job in the squad changed at some point during the period just before Rook left but I cannot remember the details of that transition. I started out in this new job of walking point, I believe, while Sgt. Rook was still our squad leader but "for the life of me" I cannot remember how that happened. Did I volunteer or was I told to do it? Typically that wasn’t a job that a squad member would be ordered to perform. Usually people were not ordered to walk point by the squad leader without some careful consideration on his part. And the first time is definitely not something that most people would forget. The job was unforgivingly dangerous. It was also very tedious. The reason it was so dangerous was obviously because the point man was usually the first man to come in contact with the enemy just because he was first in line. The major reason the job was so tedious was because a point man needed to know exactly where he was located within a few yards at all times. It was very easy to get lost in the jungle terrain. One clump of bamboo looked just like any other. The stress could be overwhelming for almost anyone trying to navigate through this thick mess and at the same time keeping everybody with him from getting lost. Most "normal people" wanted no part of it. Stressful situations in life are usually easier to remember than those which are are less stressful. That’s why the first time should have been very easy for me to remember but "not so" in my case. As I said, I have completely forgotten how I started doing that job. I do remember this much. When Operation Junction City started there was no one else, but me, walking point full time for my squad. Surprisingly, the fear of either getting shot or getting lost did not overwhelm me. It concerned me, but it didn’t overwhelm me. Here's why I believe that was so.

    You see, there was no G.P.S. in those days. All we had was a compass and a map. If a point man could read a compass according to the coordinates on a map and count paces correctly he would never get lost, but that was a big “if”. Consistently getting an accurate pace count was really hard in jungle terrain. However, my father had taught me how to do some of that stuff when I was a child. He had put me in situations deer hunting where I would have to walk alone in the dark Virginia woods to get to a certain spot in hopes of ambushing a buck at dawn. Yes, judging distance by counting paces in the jungle was really hard but it was really not that much of a stretch for me. By the time my father died, I had not come to my senses enough to thank him for those valuable lessons he taught me. There is no doubt in my mind that they contributed greatly in not only saving my life but the life of my squad members as well. My father committed a lot of terrible wrongs to his family but the irony is this. I wouldn't be around now to remember those wrongs if he had not taught me these skills as a young teenager. Christian, go think on that for a while. I believe now that one reason I don’t remember my first time walking point was because it was just not that much of a big deal. From the very beginning it always felt right. The bottom line is this. I will always believe that it was a very easy job for me to transition into, because I was guided by the Holy Spirit. Future events would dictate that if I had not been in that position a few months from now, while on a certain patrol, my entire squad would have been killed or captured. I’ll talk more about that later.

     However, for now, let me say this. If a point man could not keep an accurate count of how far he had gone in a certain direction then he probably was not going to be running point for very long, which, by the way, as I have already said, was no big disappointment to most people. Keeping on course was important for several other reasons besides just getting lost. For one, artillery gunners needed to know our exact location when providing artillery support for our patrol. Also, if a patrol got hopelessly off course, the patrol would sometimes call in a “spotter round” usually fired from their mortar platoon. The patrol point man would then judge the distance and direction of the known impact location by the intensity and direction of the sound of it as it exploded. This could give an experienced point man a pretty good idea of their own location. But the enemy might be listening too, and doing a little judging of his own. For example, calling in a random artillery round in a quiet area would almost certainly alert a nearby enemy that a patrol may be in the area and their sapper teams were extremely skilled at causing big trouble for our patrols if they knew they where they were. Since I was extremely good at never getting lost, my patrols could better avoid calling in spotter rounds in the first place. While moving through the Virginia woods back home, my dad had taught me the importance of becoming a ghost, and now my entire squad was learning how to be ghosts.

    No one taught me a single thing about running point. It’s as if I was transformed into "Kit Carson" and born for that position. As I have already explained, I had spent most of my teenage years training for the job already. However, before Rook left, I do vaguely remember rotating that position, at first, with a dark- skinned, tall, lanky guy who didn’t like walking point but was made to do so by Sgt. Rook anyway. He complained to me about it, saying he was married and had children and that he felt like the Sergeant should have picked unmarried guys, like me, instead of him for that position. He was really quite open and honest about expressing his feelings on this matter and since he was so honest about it and was also such a good soldier in so many other ways most of the guys in my squad agreed with him, including me. Rook, as I remember, did eventually allow him to switch jobs. On his new job, he was shot in the leg one night and bled out while a "Dust-Off" crashed trying to get to him. His death has always been particularly troubling to me.

    I would be surprised if Sergeant Rook discussed any "particulars" about the squad with the new Sergeant Bartee when he arrived. More than likely they never met because of the sloppy way things were done in the Army "back then". Rook also left without saying so much as a goodbye to any of his men. However, a fresh breeze was finally on its way after so many months of one heart breaking disappoint after another. It was clear from the very beginning that Bartee was going to look at everyone in the squad from the perspective of a clean slate and also basically as equals. Quite frankly, he was our first little gust of fresh air. Bartee's most welcomed attribute, immediately felt by the squad, was also one which became invaluable in saving our lives in the next few months. That attribute was his capacity to listen to his men and to trust what they were telling him. The best point man in the world was of little value if his squad leader second guessed everything he said or did. Until I left the squad the following September, I missed only five days of performing the duties of point man. Those five days I missed were missed because I was forced to take an R & R in Bangkok. Sergeant Bartee was with me for that entire time and I can remember only one time that he second guessed me. Looking back, I believe my squad would have been hard pressed to find a better Sergeant than Bartee to lead our squad through those upcoming months. In my opinion I was now the best point man in the Battalion and the rest of the squad was the best at what they did but none of that would have mattered much at all if Bartee had not been the best squad leader, not because he was a tactical genius, but because he listened to every suggestion his more experienced men had to give in critical situations and then acted accordingly. Most of the new guys just naturally kept their mouths shut but not Bill Milliron. Almost immediately, Bill felt comfortable giving input and was also very quickly accepted as one of the unspoken leaders in the squad because he gave good input. I believe he was able to pull this off because at 26 he and Bartee were about the same age.    

    Although I was really good at what I did, in my mind, I was a looser. When one thinks of themselves in that way it is hard to give one's self any credit for anything done right. However, as crazy as it may sound, walking point smoothed out the troubled waters of my mind and temporarily stilled many of my bad thoughts which “second guessed” almost everything I did in life. It also gave me a sense of freedom like I had never experienced before. What I am saying here is a very sad admission about a very insecure and emotionally fragile human being. The sense of being in control while walking point was false, but my disturbed mind had no way of knowing that? There was also an inexplicable feeling of relief which came with being in front and having to deal with only one of the varied personalities following alone behind me, Sergeant Bartee. I was living my life completely by feelings and human feelings are so untrustworthy. Tom Mercer, a point man in C Company later summed up the psychological “makings” of a good point man as well as anyone when he said the following. “Point men were a special breed of men who were a little crazy but smart”. I fit that layman's psychological profile to a tee. I had learned a very practical skillset which I had taught myself by becoming an avid hunter in my early teens. As I said, my father encouraged this instead of organized sports which he had no interest in, himself. He taught me to read a compass and to also walk the woods at night. Looking back, I now realize that hunting was the only extra-curricular activity that my parents approved of. On Saturdays throughout high school I would get up a couple hours before daylight and meet my high school buddy, Bill Guilford, who was even more crazy than me and loved to hunt as much as I did. We hunted squirrels on a fifty acre tract of woods which would eventually be cleared to build more subdivisions. Sometimes we would go into the marshes near our subdivision and hunt Muskrats. Vietnam was not my first time to wade through swamps. I had planned on majoring in forestry and wildlife in college and I have already explained how that worked out. I believe it would have been extremely hard to find a single guy in the entire unit who liked to hunt as much as I did. Looking back now I realize it was a fixation, an obsession, to avoid the frustrations of living with my emotionally unstable parents. It had become an obsession, in part, because it was basically the only approved past time which my controlling mother had no problem with. Even more extreme and rare was the way Bill and I hunted. We used laminated recurve bows which had not really become popular yet. We read every article Fred Bear and Ben Pearson wrote. Fred Bear was a famous bow hunting contributing editor for “Outdoor Life” magazine. I dreamed of hunting Kodiak brown bear with a bow one day just as he had done. Here is why I mention hunting with bows. Using a bow required us to develop our stealth techniques to the max. Those skills just naturally carried over when I started walking point for the squad. I could slip through the thick jungle almost as quietly as any mouse and those jungle boots were the single greatest piece of equipment the Army had ever come up with for walking point. It was just as natural as breathing for me to watch the placement of every single step and count every single stride I took. I find myself still doing that today if I happen to walk through a patch of woods. My eyes had been trained from childhood to notice the slightest movement of a grey squirrel’s head peeping around the limb of a tall tree. If something made the slightest movement, even in my peripheral vision, odds were, I would see it. I also had trained myself to be aware of the slightest pressure pressing against my body as I maneuvered through thick underbrush to avoid getting stuck by briar bushes which covered the Virginia woods. All this was great training for walking point and avoiding boobie traps. Now that I think back on those times, walking point was comparatively peaceful compared to having to deal with so many varied situations arising from close proximity to so many other human beings at once, day after day. Of course it is always the most peaceful for any Christian as he floats downstream just before going over the waterfall. Navigating an azimuth and counting paces was something that didn't require teamwork or trust in my fellow man. It was all me and the mechanics of it was as easy as taking my next breath. “Yep”, looking back, I can honestly say, Tom Mercer nailed it, when he described the “makings” of a good point man in Vietnam. “I was crazy alright”, but the Holy Spirit of God was not crazy and He knows how to straighten out Christians who are, if they will only let Him do that. Here is the "rub". Almost every Christian in God's eyes is "crazy" when they are first born into the Kingdom of God. Sadly, many of them stay "crazy" for the rest of their lives.

    The “Junction City Operation” brings to my mind a collage of varied pictures with a lot of blank spaces in between. It lasted for almost three months and at the end I would be wearing the same clothes I had worn when I left the compound. Near the end of the operation I was having to lace up a large tear in the right leg of my pants with Como wire. The tear went from my groin to my knee. Seven men in the unit lost their lives during this operation but that was an unusually low count compared to what we had been experiencing before Cavazos showed up. Given the size of the operation and the length of time it spanned, that number was extremely low. Actually, two of those seven men were killed in accidents and another was murdered while away from the unit in a province far to the north, where our unit never operated. Already, Cavazos was delivering a better safety record in the largest operation of the war then the unit had ever experienced before. One of the most decisive life-saving actions that our new commander did to keep casualties down was to make us start digging in, chest high, as soon as we paused our marches. Sometimes that meant digging in twice in one day. It was a lot of hard work but it saved lives. Guys that slept in hammocks were ordered to get rid of them and sleep on the ground with the rest of us.

    As we moved into areas covered in larger expanses of thick jungle growth, sappers would sometimes mortar our night defensive positions with a few rounds. This happened so often that after a while hardly anyone became rattled by it. Our defenses protected us. Actually this enemy action worked to strengthen our combat resolve. While in our various NDP’s after marching all day, it was rare for a night to go by without having one of our ambush patrols make contact with bands of roving Viet Cong. Sappers would sneak in close to our listening posts in front of our NDP and try to turn our claymore mines around on us or set up their own claymores and then wait for dawn and some hapless soul to wander too close while looking for a place to do his business. When a successful ambush patrol returned in the morning, it was easy for me to recognize those with "blood lust" glowing bright in their eyes. They were always the ones who savored every opportunity to describe the gory details of that night’s kill to anyone who would listen. Of course I didn’t understand anything about spiritual discernment or what I was sensing in the souls of these men until years later but I did eagerly listen to their stories. Oh, how I listened, and oh how my demonically controlled soul longed for just a little taste of that blood, myself. Yet, time after time my ambush patrols would come up empty. The Holy Spirit was doing His part to prevent the feeding of my “blood lust” mindset, a mindset which is very different from that felt by most soldiers whom I have known. Most of the men around me killed because they had to, but infectious “blood lust” causes one to kill because he wants to.

    Our daytime security patrols would sometimes receive a few incoming rounds during a security patrol, from sappers, hoping we would return fire and give away our exact location. The new guys watched us "older" guys hold our fire and they were quick to follow suite. We "ole guys" had learned by now that a large volume of returning fire from a small patrol like ours would not only give away our exact location, but by wildly firing back, it would waste ammo and also tell the sappers that we were relatively inexperienced and scared. These were incredibly experienced people that we were dealing with. They rarely missed a trick, but what would rattle the living "day lights" out of them was when they knew we were out there somewhere, and yet they were not able to entice us into shooting back. They didn’t have X-ray vision. They couldn’t see through the thick jungle foliage any better than we could. That disciplined tactic of not shooting back turned us into ghosts. We became ghosts which "down right" spooked the crap out of them because they knew we were there but we weren’t responding as they expected. You see, sappers were very good at sizing us up. They continually assessed their chances of running ahead and setting up a quick ambush site to catch a naïve patrol off guard, shoot a few of us and then quickly melt back into the jungle. However, if they couldn’t figure out exactly where we were or in which direction we were likely traveling then it became a lot harder to pull something like that off. It was some real cat and mouse crap and we were always thinking of ways to be the cat instead of the mouse. Bill Milliron and Glen Bowman were especially quick to pick up on how to play this deadly game. After incoming fire ceased, we would quietly sneak away from the direction of the incoming rounds. Then, we would reshoot our compass bearing and continue on, making sure the new course took us far enough around the area where we had been receiving fire in the first place. It was amazing how quiet 7 or 8 guys could be as they caught on to how important it was for everyone to be sneaky. I really excelled at getting us back on track after having to circumvent a dangerous area or after skirting around thick patches of jungle to avoid making a lot of noise, by having to chop our way through it with machetes. We were “cats” but we learned to move as quietly as mice. Each time we navigated from one check point to another correctly, it built Bartee’s confidence in his squad. It didn’t take long at all for him to get on board with the fact that it wasn’t worth the risk of a full-fledged engagement to take out three or four Cong who were obviously firing for the likely purpose of finding out more about us. If we had run up against an overwhelming force, it would have been a different story but that only happened one time and I will explain more about that later, a lot more. Looking back now, I can really appreciate how smart this particular group of guys in my squad really were.

    Bartee's willingness to listen to our ideas was a real gift from heaven but it also helped to have a new, but older and very personable grunt like Bill Milliron in our squad. He was the perfect man to bridge communication barriers between Sergeant Bartee and me. Here is how that worked and why that bridge was so important. I was a natural at coming up with the best way to accomplish an assigned squad objective and live to tell about it, but Bartee needed to hear what I had to say in order to put those tactics into motion. Without Bill that was never going to happen and here’s why it would have never happened. Although I was great at spotting and avoiding dangerous situations, I was very inept at communicating in a palatable way that could be accepted by anyone in leadership, no matter how willing they were to listen. To make matters worse, the normal psychological maturity gap which a 26 year old like Bartee wielded over a 19 old person like me was huge. That factor alone was enough to shut down any feedback whatsoever from a guy like me. However, though Milliron was a lot older too, he was new to the terrifying aspects of combat, so he listened intently to every word I said when I was sizing up a situation just like I had listened to every word that came out of Charlie Bell’s mouth when I was new. Bill latched onto me like Velcro, but on the other hand, partly because he was the same age as Bartee and partly because of his innate self-confidence, he was better able to help me bridge the communications gap between the new squad leader, and myself. Milliron would echo important input from me almost verbatim, but it reverberated from his mouth to the tune of a song which became music to Bartee’s ears instead of sounding like a few off-key notes from a very insecure 19 year old teenager. Milliron was really gifted that way. If he had not been there to do that, my backward, rebellious and very withdrawn mindset with its built-in disgust for all authority would have made it very difficult for me to consistently communicate with Bartee long enough to build the much needed trust between us so the squad could survive the upcoming events of the next few months.

    There was also another dynamic at work here, which was making all this come together. Remember folks. I had received the anointing of the Holy Spirit when I was eleven years old. Now in these dire circumstances, I automatically obeyed the Holy Spirit, even though I was unaware that it was Him speaking to me. When He said jump, I jumped "even though" I did so without realizing the "how and why" of it. The Holy Spirit already knew what it would take to get me through this mess and He also knew I would listen and obey his warnings and instructions or he would not have bothered placing the right people around me to make a way of escape for me in the first place. Christian, are you hearing what I am saying here? My part in the matter was to be willing to listen, when He spoke and to then do what He told me to do. In every life threatening situation I faced in Vietnam His voice would over-ride the thoughts in my own rebellious mind. He had placed Charlie Bell there just at the right time. He was now placing Milliron there also, just at the right time and the new squad leader had also come on board at just the right time. He used Bill so that the “all important” bridge of trust could be built between me and Sergeant Bartee because he knew there would come a time when Bill would no longer be there to echo my input. That meant that I would have to become comfortable enough to keep communications going between Bartee and myself without Bill Milliron being the "go between". The Holy Spirit also knew that Bartee, unlike Rook, had the right temperament to be able to listen and trust the input from his men. Rook drowned out all those important communications between himself and his squad with his demagoguery. Bartee would always listen. That willingness to listen, instead of constantly “lording” his will over us came at just the right time to make him  just the right squad leader for the perils we were about to face. Of course, if I had listened to the Holy Spirit and then obeyed Him earlier in my personal life, before things got this bad, I would not have found myself in this position in the first place. Again, are you listening Christian?

    With things shaping up nicely on a squad level, we still had some fine tuning to be done at the battalion level although Cavazos had brought us a long way already. The need for that fine tuning raised its ugly head as soon as we started making night marches through thick jungle arriving near a place named Lai Khe but before I tell the reader how that situation evolved, and in keeping with my time line I am going to go off on a bit of a tangent. So bear with me because at the same time this tangent will be very revealing.

     I believe there were over 20 Battalions involved in this operation so there were other battalions on our flanks, pressing north along beside us although we hardly ever saw them. That was partly because we were in thick jungle most of the time and partly because these battalions were so spread out from one another. I remember my Battalion finally arriving at a huge open area composed of at least several hundred acres with no civilians around. It was mid day, the sun was like a blast furnace in a steel mill and we were being told to dig in immediately. My squad just so happened to be the last squad in the line of march for my B company that day, with the forward elements of C company following along behind us. So, when we started digging in, the lead squad in C company just naturally linked up with my squad to form the perimeter for our NDP. Every single person in my squad, including Bartee, was exhausted. We kept looking for Chinooks to show up over the horizon to bring us ice and cold soft drinks. While we were waiting, to make matters worse, the temperature of the drinking water we did have was the same one hundred degree-plus temperature as the air around us. But there was another reason why the Chinooks needed to show up besides bringing us ice and cold refreshments. The main reason they would be coming as they always had, was to bring the extra supplies we needed to properly defend our NDP in case it was attacked in the middle of the night. Almost everybody began to get a bad feeling when the Chinooks never show up. That could only mean one thing. We were not going to be staying here for the night. Everyone knew we would soon be filling in the very same fox holes which we were now digging and moving to another location. Never mind how tired and hot we all were. We would then have to dig in again before anyone could get any sleep. As these depressing thoughts settled in on our entire B Company, the lethargic pace of our digging slowed down even more. Bartee soon returned from his brief meeting with the other leaders in our platoon to confirm that the situation was even worse than we were imagining. Instead of moving to a new location just a little distance away we would be moving out at dusk and walking most of the night to link up with another battalion at an undisclosed location, undisclosed at least to those personnel at our level. When that link-up was established we would then be digging in again which meant that everyone in the entire battalion would be working through the night and all day the next day without sleep. All this for a little over a hundred bucks a month and a "shot" at never growing old. Wow! What a deal.

     Now, with that incredibly heavy work load ahead of us, it's no wonder I have remembered this day for so long, but just in case a 36 hour work shift was not enough to keep me from forgetting this snapshot in time fifty years ago, let me continue to paint a word picture of other aspects of this grueling day, which pretty much assured that it would become an indelible memory for as long as my brain can think. I remember looking over at Bartee as he dug his fox hole in slow motion. The voice of his RTO digging away beside him was the only human vocal chords making a sound in my entire squad. I think he was feebly trying to verbalize his complaints about our entire situation, but it came out of his mouth as nothing more than "mumbling" when it reached my ears. With this lull in vocal distractions on the home front, because my physically exhausted squad members were just to tired to talk, it was easy to be drawn to the sounds of normal conversation coming from the direction of the C company fox hole. So, as I was digging ever so slowly I turned my head in that direction. There was a buzz-work of blended conversations that were audible enough for me to realize that they had a real upbeat tone to them. Unlike us, these guys were chatting away as they labored in the hot sun like factory workers on a Friday afternoon just before punching out for a long Holiday weekend. Had they not gotten the same memo as us about our weekend off being cancelled? Had they not walked the same distance we walked that morning in the blazing hot sun? Were they not getting ready to fill in the same fox holes they were now digging before dark and then walking with eighty pounds on their backs in the black of night just like us? To make matters worse for my demoralized mind, walking toward the C company fox hole like he was on a Sunday outing in the park, holding a pick axe in one hand, was a tall lanky guy with his shirt off and a big smile on his face. How could this guy be smiling? As he walked toward the C Company fox hole, he was saying something in a jovial fashion to one of his guys standing there in the half dug fox hole in front of him. In contrast, my own fox hole was less than a quarter of the way finished. As I continued to work halfheartedly on it, I couldn't help observing these guys out of one corner of my eye all afternoon. Although, many times, companies in a battalion went on the same operations and fought in some of the same battles, individual soldiers from those different companies rarely became acquainted with each other. I didn't know a single guy in C company and furthermore I didn't care to know a single guy in C company. Yet, throughout the afternoon, I couldn't help but notice that the tall lanky guy had an engaging way about him as he interacted with other members of his squad. Now, I had a real talent for spotting popular people. Many self-loathing people do possess that talent. The Devil knew that "popular people" added to my misery so he encouraged me to recognize those who were more popular than me every chance he got. You see, I too, longed to be popular but I knew that would never happen no matter how hard I tried. There was just too many things which I hated about myself to believe that I could ever become popular like those whom I deemed to have their "stuff together". It wasn't long before one of the Sergeants from C company talked to a Sergeant in our company and the grapevine came to life with just the right kind of information about this tall lanky guy in C company to fuel my jealousy. Naturally, the grapevine reinforced my already negative opinion of this guy because I had already noticed that he walked and talked like one of those people who had their "stuff together". Now, jealousy is another negative trait that all self-loathing people have in common. People like me quickly became extremely jealous of anyone who they perceived to be more popular than them, especially if that person was one of their peers and the grapevine said this guy was my peer. The grapevine said he was not only popular with the men in his squad and platoon, but he was also a rising star with the "brass" in "Division", although he was a draftee just like me, who actually had less time in country than I did. His fox hole was only about twenty meters from my fox hole so after hearing all this, every time I glanced his way during the afternoon, the top of my head would start burning. That burning was not coming from the sun. It was caused by jealousy in its purest form. Amazingly, it would be almost fifty years before I was able to put two and two together and come up with the name of this guy. Although I can't be absolutely sure, after all this time, I believe he was Pat McLaughlin. Years later, after reading Pat's story and seeing his picture in a book called "Dogface Charlie" I learned that he made Sergeant after being in country less than three months. I believe he also made staff Sergeant before he finished his one year stretch in Vietnam, which was a feat that was almost unheard of at that time, especially for some one as young as Pat. Pat became one of the best combat squad leaders in the Army at that time, but he didn't stop there. After coming home, he finished college, got a law degree and went on to become the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. Everything the grape vine said about him that day was true and even to this day I still have that burning when I think of him. However, its no longer in the top of my head but nearer to my heart.

     By the time we filled in our fox holes, saddled up and moved into the wood line to begin our night march it was almost pitch dark. My company was in the middle of the pack in the order of march. At one point when we halted our march for a little longer than usual. A couple guys in my squad busted up a bioluminescent rotted log with their entrenching tools and handed out the green glowing splinters to the rest of the squad. Each man slipped the wood fragments under their elastic camouflage band at the back of their steel helmets. The idea caught on quick in the single column of soldiers as others followed suite throughout the line of march which stretched well over a mile. My guys had learned this trick "some time back". Sometimes it was so dark we couldn't see our own hand if we waved it in front of our face, but we could always keep track of the man in front of us by following the bouncing green glow on the back of his helmet. It worked great.

     It was well past midnight when we stopped for the last time that night. I know that we had three companies in the Battalion at this point and I believe we were all together that night, but I know for sure that my B Company and C Company were there. I am not sure if A was there or not. Sometimes one company would be held in reserve, guarding nearby base camps or roads. However, since the Junction City operation required us to make such a long march I believe the entire battalion was together this particular night. Word came back from the front that we were getting ready to deploy into a NDP for the night but things were moving awfully slow. While waiting for my squad to be told where to start digging in, red tracers started popping by my head coming from about fifty yards or so to our left flank. It wasn't just a few incoming rounds. The volume of fire was tremendous and it was a miracle that no one was hit. All we could do was "lay low" and take it, until orders were passed down to do otherwise because the tracers were red, which was the color we used. The enemy used green tracers most of the time.  Within a few minutes, communications was established with the other battalion which had opened up on us and they quite shooting. During that night and the next day word filtered down that the reason the other unit opened up on us was because we were not where we were suppose to be. In other words, whoever was running point for our battalion that night had gotten the entire battalion lost.

    This incident had now become the biggest life threatening event that the battalion had faced since Cavazos had taken over command and it was an American battalion shooting at another American battalion, not a Company, or a platoon, or a squad, but an entire battalion. This was not good, not good at all. I can only guess what was going through our new commander's mind after this happened, but I know for sure what wasn't going through his mind. Richard was not going to "thank his lucky stars" that no one had been hurt and then forget about the whole thing. Nope, that wasn't in Richard's DNA. Here is what I now believe Richard did to correct the inherent navigation flaw within the battalion which caused this major "friendly fire" incident. I believe during his next briefing that he put the word out to his seasoned company commanders to pick their best point men who had a track record of never getting lost when they went on their various small patrols. This would have been a very easy screening process to perform. Here's why. For one, when patrols got lost, everyone who cared to pay attention to their radios would have known about it. Calling in spotter rounds from the mortar platoon would have alerted even more people to the fact that a certain patrol in a certain unit was lost. This would have made it easy to develop a short list of point men who never got lost. "Truth is", if they had walked point for more than two months, there probably wasn't three point men in the entire battalion who hadn't gotten turned around or confused about their location at some point in time. I walked point for the better part of 8 months and even to this very day, though I never got lost, I still vividly remember the 3 incidences when my patrol's location came into question with my superiors. Two of those times occurred when Bartee first took over as our squad leader.

    The first time happened just after we came under fire from a sapper team looking to "draw us out". I believe it was the first time our new Sergeant had ever been shot at. Laying low until the shooting stopped, we were then ordered to withdraw 180 degrees in the opposite direction which would have taken us back the same way we came.  Bartee became confused on whether to subtract or add 180 degrees to our present reading which immediately upset me because the ability to do something like this was so basic. In my unforgiving mind, if he couldn't do this how could we depend on him for anything. In those days I really would throw the baby out with the bath water in a heart beat. When a minute or so had passed with he and I arguing back and forth, I remember telling him that he could go in any direction he wanted but I was going to take the correct azimuth to get me back home. Thank God, Milliron was there to talk to him in a calm voice. Milliron finally laid a stick down on the map to visually show him that he was wrong. I never considered the fact that Bartee was under tremendous stress, having just had his squad shot at for the first time while he was our squad leader. I also never considered that he had listened to me all the other times and that this was maybe just a one time lapse in his ability to trust anyone, not just me. Perfectionist just don't think like that. They never give anyone the benefit of the doubt and when it came to perfectionism I was the "Grand Mullah" of all perfectionists but perfectionism was also the reason I was such a good pace counter. Command knew nothing about the confusion and we made it home okay. Another time, soon after this first time, while on a security patrol, Bartee decided to call in a spotter round" because we had done a lot of zigzagging in and out of our azimuth on this particular security patrol. Accurate pace counting was in question when something like this was done but I didn't get mad at Bartee this time for second guessing me. To avoid obstacles in our path, we had intentionally gone off course so many times I too was second guessing myself just a "little bit". We called in the round on a map coordinate 50 meters in front of where we thought we were and the round sounded like it landed exactly where it should have landed, verifying that we were on course. After that, we went on many patrols together, but Bartee always let me, Milliron and Bowman drive the car while he sat in the back seat and kept quiet. It was a beautiful thing. That's a big reason why I say Bartee was the right squad leader for us at the right time.

     At some point during our push north and not long after the friendly fire incident, we arrived at Lai Khe. I will never forget sitting in the shade of a rubber tree when Bartee walked up to me after just returning from a big "battalion level" meeting. He had a rather excited look on his face as he squatted down beside me. "When we move out, they want us to walk point for the battalion", he said. This meant my squad would be the lead squad and my platoon would be the lead platoon and my company would be the lead company. I am sure now, if any of these elements of the Battalion had been deemed weak links by Cavazos or weak to any of those leaders in the chain of command under him, then another squad would have been chosen instead of us. Never mind all that. I had given very little thought to how the chain of command functioned in those days. All I heard was, "The Army was recognizing me as its very best point man in the entire battalion".

     Now, my "Army involvement quotient" had suffered a severe deficit way back when my platoon training Sergeant had loosened the front sight of my M-14 rifle in basic training the night before we were to qualify on the rifle range. He did it so he wouldn't have to pay off the $100 dollar bet he had made to anyone who qualified with a perfect score and I was the top contender. That deficit increased when my "private first class" stripe was withheld from me in "advanced infantry training" because I had made the training Sergeants stay up all night looking for me on the "escape and evasion course". Seems like I took that course a little too seriously for their liking. Finally, my "Army involvement quotient" suffered a huge deficit shortfall when I saw men in my own company being forced to make a suicidal attack on those enemy bunkers. However, Now, for the first time in my short military career, I found my emotion driven nineteen year old mind gaining a huge boost to the plus side of its emotional ledger as I now received the news that I was being chosen for this important assignment. It was the most emotionally rewarding time for me since I had been drafted. Finally the Army was giving me a chance to do something I was really good at doing and that would also allow me to make a positive contribution. Years later, I no longer believe it was the Army. I believe it was Cavazos who had a hand in picking me to lead the battalion that night when we left Lai Khe. One of the most important abilities of a great leader is to be able to place the right people in the right job. He was now exercising his skill in doing that. The unit never suffered another friendly fire incident under Cavazos. At that time and for many years afterward, I really did believe that I was the best point man in the business. Recently, I have read too many point men stories in "Dogface Charlie" to any longer believe that is true.     

    As I said, the finer details of how command decisions were made never entered my nineteen year old mind. All I could think about was the relief which came with being entrusted to navigate the correct path for the entire battalion and never having to worry about the consequences of someone else getting me lost and possibly killed. Finally, someone in the Army was assigning me to a purpose which made sense. They were saying, "Wade, take this group of men and go through the jungle from point A to point B and don't get lost. Now that was a job I could "sink my teeth" into because it was something I had already done over and over again while walking point for my squad. I was smart enough to know that it didn't matter whether I had 10 men following me or six hundred. The job was still the same. And never mind the thought of being the first in line to be shot. I had already overcome that fear while walking point on the small patrols.

    Actually, choosing the right people for the job was just one more example of Cavazos's rare ability to play chess, while almost every other commander in the entire division was still learning to play checkers. Cavazos innately knew how to let a "rook" be a "rook" and a "knight" be a "knight". In other words he could quickly recognize people for their talents and then empower those men to be in positions throughout the unit to better utilize their strengths, from the lowliest private, to his company commanders. I had been quickly tagged for my point man skills and was now being positioned to better use those skills, but Pat McLaughlin was a much better example of this ability at work in Richard. Under any other commander, it would have been doubtful if draftee, Pat McLaughlin, would have ever been recognized for his superior leadership qualities, and then very quickly promoted into a position were those qualities could be affectively used to benefit the entire battalion. Almost everyone, who served under and over Cavazos for that matter, sensed these superior command qualities about him, but few, if any could begin to understand how they got there. Jim Shelton said as much when he wrote, "He was not the average infantry officer. For that matter, he was not really a recognizable product of the Army's officer commissioning and schools system. He had attributes that went far beyond the normal infantry lieutenant colonel". After reading those words and then reading Tom Lea's two volume history of the King Ranch and also reading Lauro Cavazos's account of his and Richard's life on the ranch I was then able to visualize how Richard had acquired those attributes. They were foundational attributes laid during his upbringing on the King Ranch and reinforced in his soul through the steel but loving nature of his father, Lauro Cavazos. Richard's father was, himself, a master chess player in life. As a young cowhand he once fended off a large bandito raid on the ranch though outnumbered 10 to 1. He was a decorated artillery sergeant in the first world war and came home to rise to the position of foreman for the Santa Gertrudis Division of the ranch but he didn't stop there. He was elected Justice of the peace for his district. He was instrumental in developing the only new breed of cattle ever produced in the United States as well as helping to produce the best quarter horses ever breed in the entire country. A boy's default nature is to be like his father in whatever situations in life come his way. One might correctly say, Cavazos was a "chip off the ole block". However, none of this would have taken place if Henrietta had not been there in the first place to preserve the legacy wrought in the King Ranch.  

    When we left Lai Khe, the night became pitch black and my squad was leading the battional. Light rains had begun to come down now in the late afternoons but lasted no more than 30 minutes. A soaking wet Milliron was a little to my left and in front of me most of the time. Bowman was also to my front a couple paces and a little to my right. We maintained contact with whispers as we listened for unusual sounds. Bartee was behind me several paces with his RTO in his hip pocket. The rest of the battalion was strung out behind us for more than a mile. We had a new platoon leader following behind us somewhere, but then we always had a new platoon leader, because they just didn't last very long for one reason or another. The only way I could see Bowman and Milliron was to watch the little slivers of glowing wood bouncing up and down in their hat bands on the back of their steel helmets. On and on we went. I have no pictures in my mind now of leaving Lai Kai or entering the jungle to continue our trek north toward the Cambodian border nor do I remember how long we walked on any particular night much less how many days. Did my unit switch off with other units in taking the lead? I believe that we did. The one thing which I will never forget, however, is how exhilarating the entire experience was for me. The area we walked through was criss-crossed with heavily used enemy foot trails which I am sure led from one tunnel complex to another but we never walked trails, never. It was an iron clad rule to be heeded at all times if a soldier wanted to stay alive in the jungle and it was one that Cavazos religiously enforced.

    After several days of making long night marches through thick jungle, one dark night while my squad was taking the lead, I had reached a check point but there was nothing to distinguish this spot in the darkness from any other. Our new platoon leader came up front to question me personally. I could tell that he was very nervous. Looking down at his map, he said it showed a huge stone statue of Buda at this check point, but there was nothing around us but dense jungle foliage. His RTO shined his red lensed flashlight into my face and the lieutenant looked up from his map and directly into my eyes before turning away again and looking at his map one more time. He then repeated himself again sounding much more accusatory this time. "There is suppose to be a Buda statue in this location", he said, as he turned his head back toward me. There was a definite accusatory tone in his voice and I didn't do well in those days when I thought I was being accused of anything for any reason. That's all it took for me to respond in a little less than a subordinate tone of voice, myself. "Sir, I don't know anything about a Buda Statue. All I know is that we have arrived at the check point on the map". Bartee, Milliron and Bowman just stood there and didn't say a word. By now they had become somewhat used to my socially inapt ways, but the lieutenant's RTO had not, and in those uncomfortable few seconds that the lieutenant and I stared at each other, The RTO felt he needed to do something to relieve the tension. So, he now scanned the area to our front with the red lensed flashlight which he had been shining in my eyes. Now, without the light to obscure my vision, I and everyone else standing there could begin to make out the outline of a 15 foot tall stone statue of Buda covered in vines, looking like something out of an "Indiana Jones" movie. It was about 10 meters to our front and a little to the left of our line of march. This was the third incident which questioned my skills as a point and it was the last.