Tree of Life

A Tree of Life

   Night ambush patrols were used by combat units in Vietnam primarily as early warning detection of enemy activity coming close to a unit’s location. In America’s Vietnam War it was common for a squad of around 10 men to go out no more than a 1000 meters or so in front of the Battalion night defensive position at sundown and stay all night. It was my squad’s turn to go out on ambush patrol down the same section of road in which we had been ambushed, ourselves, just a day earlier. There was no question now in anyone’s mind about this being a very dangerous undertaking. Sergeant Bartee was nervous as “all-get-out”. Heck, we all were. There was a good chance that we would make contact with the enemy. Everyone else who went in that direction had. So, no one and I mean no one in our squad thought we would fare any better. We were given orders to go out parallel to the road only about 500 meters this time and set up close enough to the road to be able to shoot anything coming down it that night. Other squad sized ambush patrols were going out also from other sections of our NDP but ours was the most dangerous, because it was on that branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail headed in the direction of Cambodia. There was nothing out there in front of us but thousands of enemy troops in staging areas around the border.
   As we started out on the patrol, we passed a soldier, who I now believe was William Cossa. He was sitting on top of a large bunker on the perimeter, and I will never forget the pitiful look on his face. He waved his hand at me, and as our eyes met, he looked straight on into my eyes for some unknown reason. Maybe he focused on me because I was the first man in line since I was the squad point man but I just don't know. However, to this very day, there is no doubt in my mind as to what he was thinking. He had watched at least one other ambush patrol leave the safety of the NDP at this very same spot, just to be shot up later that same night by special killer teams of NVA roaming the jungle close to our lines doing what they did best. Kill Americans. He also had a ring side seat to observe the fire fight that had happened just the day before between my platoon and the enemy ambushers who had positioned themselves between our returning patrol and his side of the perimeter. I never knew William Cossa, which wasn't unusual at all and he never knew me, but I could read his mind and sense his pain and yes I know what he was thinking as his eyes met mine. I read his thoughts as plainly as you are reading this and that hopeless look on his face has been seared into a patch of my brain until this very day. “You poor guys", he thought, "I wonder how many of you will be alive and in one piece in the morning.” However, in that instant, as our paths crossed for the last time in this world I am not as sure that he was able to know what I was thinking as I waved back at him, although I am sure the reader does. Quite frankly, I was thinking, "I would sure like to be sitting where you or sitting for the rest of the night instead of where I am going to be sitting."
   As we moved quietly toward our assigned ambush position, everyone sensed that this time would be different and much more dangerous than other times. It would not be good enough this time just to set up as usual, like we had done on so many other ambush patrols and then count the long hours of maintaining a one man watch per every three soldiers until dawn broke. Bartee knew it would not be good enough, Milliron knew it, Bowman knew it and I knew it. The only other man in our squad whose name I can remember was Walker, a former pimp from Ohio, who, quite frankly, knew it too, even if he would never say so. He would never voice his tactical input on this or any other situation, for that matter, but he was a keeper. He was extremely focused and simply concentrated on being the best thump gunner (M40 grenade launcher) in the entire division. Given clear space, he could put five thump gun rounds on target down field at 100 meters before the first round landed. I was shocked the first time I saw him do it. I thought to myself, "Goodness gracious Walker, that sure will look good on your job resume when you get back to the world (U.S.)”, but then I remembered that he was self-employed. I may have even joked around with him at the time about his rare talent. Anyway, here on the Ho Chi Minh trail, Walker was a great asset, and man to remember. While he and I were polar opposites, we had become bounded by the same combat bonding that has happened to so many other soldiers. It is a bonding that I have never heard anyone adequately explain. There were guys that came through my squad and I don't even remember their name because they just didn't matter to me although they were with me day in and day out for months on end. I felt that same empty feeling about every single one of my platoon leaders except one who only stayed a week or so. Go figure. This officer was obviously from an upper middle class environment and Walker was from the ghetto but they were both special enough for me to remember 50 years later. Of course everyone is special in God's eyes but I am not relating this story from God's viewpoint but from my own flawed perspective at the time.
   When we arrived at our plotted ambush spot, there was a tree similar to the one in the picture above, standing directly on the spot that was pinpointed on the map to be our ambush site. That tree was to become our tree of life. I don’t know who voiced the idea first, but the idea was embraced immediately by everyone. Us "ole guys" were already very aware that we did not want to wait for the bullets to started flying, before we hatched a plan. I remember standing in the inner circle close to Sgt. Bartee with his radio man, with Bill Milliron and Glenn Bowman standing beside me, while we discussed our plight. The others silently looked on. Okay, I guess I was somewhat of a leader after all but only in extreme circumstances like the one we faced now. Each ambush patrol that had been sent in this general direction from our NDP, previously, had made some type of contact with enemy patrols during the night. Nobody had any allusions that our night would turn out any better. With that unsettling prospect sticking in the bottom of each of our stomachs, it wasn’t hard to look at that tree and realize that its roots could be used for cover and that's exactly what we needed. We needed what we had left behind at our NDP, which was our fox holes, and this tree could be the answer. In less than two minutes a plan was put in motion and Bartee articulated it to the rest of the squad while pointing out where he wanted the machine gunner and Walker's thumb gun to be stationed. We knew that the ground around big trees like this was soft which wasn't true for the jungle flooring in general. The ground in this region was mostly laterite, which is so hard, that a fox hole took hours to dig using only an entrenching tool. Most of the time we were supplied with pick axes to dig these fox holes on the perimeter of our night defensive positions (NDP). However, all ambush patrols usually had for cover was what cover they could find naturally and they could not afford to dig in because of the noise it would have made. I am saying all this to say that this tree was a "God Send". Without hesitation each man willingly started digging a swallow depression in the soft dirt, underneath a tree root and the entire squad did this around the entire circumference of that huge tree. Now those roots not only allowed us to get below ground level but also provided overhead cover as well. Each man made a space just big enough to slide completely under one of the extended roots. As you can see in the picture there were plenty of those extended roots to accommodate ten men. If contact with the enemy was made during the night, everyone was sternly told to not fire a shot which would most certainly give our position away. Instead, we would detonate our Claymore mines and move as fast as possible in the direction of our base camp. At a relatively safe distance, we would then regroup and radio for artillery support to be dropped behind us on the ambush site we just left. Then, we would wait for further orders from the “Ole Man”.
   That was the plan. However, as everybody knows, who has ever been in combat, very rarely does the plan completely join hands with reality. This plan, we soon learned, would be no different. Night settled in, and a couple hours of silent darkness went by. If an enemy patrol had walked past that tree, they would have seen nothing. We were as invisible as one could become in our individual self-made spider holes with that tree and its roots as our towering protector. As I mentioned earlier, there were other NDP’s nearby who would fire artillery at random, targeting outside the perimeter of our base camp at different times during the night just to keep enemy patrols nervous. These fire missions were actually a little reassuring to me, because they were a sign that we were being backed up by a lot of powerful support besides what we could see with our own eyes. So, when I heard the first 155 mm round land in the direction of our NDP, not only was I not alarmed but I was glad. A second shell landed a little closer in our direction, then a third closer still. It was now obvious that the fire mission was an H and I mission directing artillery fire down the side of the road that our ambush patrol was located on. It was a tactic we described as “walking the road”. When two or three more rounds landed even closer, our radio operator was on the horn (radio) calling for a cease fire. That doesn’t happen instantly. Our command post would have to call the CP of the unit engaged in the fire mission and they in turn would then order their gunners to cease fire. Two or three more rounds landed even closer. Everyone held their breath, and scooted as far up under their overhead covering of roots as they could get. Another and another landed, coming closer and closer and now all anyone could do was wait helplessly, in mortal fear for our lives. The killing radius of a 155 mm shell is 50 meters and we were in the direct line of fire with no indication that the shelling would be halted in time to save us.
Now, shells were landing only fifty meters away. Within just a few seconds, two more exploded in an air burst, near the top of our tree, and well within the killing radius. The jungle flooring around us shuttered as it was hit by the supersonic shock wave from the blasts. Branches from the tree top came crashing down around us. The air we breathed immediately became heavy with fine particles of dust which were kicked up, as the shock wave propelled thousands of red hot shrapnel shards in every direction. The shock wave alone from a 155 mm gun blast can kill anyone exposed to it at this extremely close range but the roots must have given us the protective barrier we needed to survive that blast. If we had been caught in the open, I am sure every man in my squad would have been killed or badly wounded by the blast alone. Now, the air around us hung heavy with a mixed smell of cordite and suspended particles of humus from the jungle flooring which had been propelled upward and suspended in the air around us by the blast. Two more shells exploded 30 meters or so past our position.
   As was often the case, as quickly as this mortal danger developed, it also subsided and an eerie silence took its place leaving each of us to wonder whether the others around him were still alive. A am sure Cavazos was wondering the same thing back at base camp. The fire mission was now cancelled but not in time. It had already delivered a deadly blast along our NDP's perimeter moments before, killing Cossa, the man who had waved goodbye to me and the man with whom I would have liked to have traded places with earlier. Stunned, we started crawling out from under the tree roots. Cavazos was on the horn telling Bartee to bring his men home. In the smoky haze with the sound of the exploded shells still ringing in our ears, every man stood up without a scratch. It was a miracle. Those tree roots had been the instrument of that miracle, which I now believe was initiated by God years before, when that tree first germinated. No doubt those large tree roots and the lower branches, with entangled vines, had absorbed some of the blast and shrapnel that would have surely cut us to pieces if we had been lying out in the more open jungle, as we usually did. It was a tree of life for us. Question is, "How many of those trees of life has God prepared for you in your past and how many has he put in place even now that you and I are yet to discover?

Bartee Roanoke Virginia

Sgt. Bartee