Southlands Snuffys

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Chapter 28 (v.1) - C'est la guerre

Submitted: May 06, 2015

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Submitted: May 06, 2015

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C'est la guerre

 


“ So that's what they teach them at OCS, stand up, take aim, and every shot will guarantee a dead zipper-head? My ass! Look at the stupid motherfucker bro, out in the open like that. Well, there goes another butter-bar down to Chuck, Hey, what was that dumb fuckers name? ”

 

Corporal “Bayou”Lejeune , death of a “cherry” 2nd Lieutenant, skirmishing action, D-10 Special Zone, South Vietnam,1967.

 


Next to staying alive, good food and good water were the main items on the daily personal agenda for the average grunt fighting in South Vietnam. Sure, when in a City, a main base or large FOB, forward operating base, good food and water were in plentiful supply, and always available. Hell, if you visited an in-country PX there were all sorts of “home comfort” goods to be bought, such as your favorite soda, cigarettes or candy. However, when up-country, out in the “boonie”, there was only C rations or local food. Unfortunately, the consumption of the local water and food could carry dangers for someone partaking of them.

Bad food. The commonest dangers in South Vietnam for grunts eating the local food was the onset of stomach bugs, the infestation of parasites, and diarrhea. All of which were usually due to partially cooked rice, and poorly prepared meat or fish, or if they were eaten raw. In addition, the consuming of uncooked vegetables that had been fertilized using excrement, and melons encourage in growth with the use of urine. Interestingly, Dragon Fruit, Mangoes, and Peppers never proved to be a problem, especially the Peppers, which could help ward off parasites of the gut.

Bad water. The drinking water of South Vietnam had such a vile taste that the guys who had been raised on US City water literally threw up after their first swallow. But others from the more rural areas of the United States, whom appeared to have a more iron like constitution from being used to bore-hole or well-drawn water, just managed to keep it down. However, it was always a fifty-fifty risk when drinking local water on whether or not it had been contaminated in some way, even perhaps by the defoliant agents and insecticides that had been profusely sprayed practically everywhere in the Delta, and then filtered their way into the ground water. There was of course the issued “purification tablets”. However, they didn't kill everything, and they certainly couldn't neutralize any chemical contamination. Unfortunately, it can take just one drop of bug contaminated water to render a soldier unfit to fight.
 
Yep, fresh drinking water, that’s important stuff, helping to keep you alive and healthy in tropical climes. Our problem was that in the Rung Sat Special Zone the Navy SEAL Spike Teams had been ordered to destroy all the water wells, in an attempted to deny the VC drinking water. Which was just one more of the many “boondoggle”, absurd, strategies that emanated from the “Higher-Higher” military minds. Such an ill thought through plan not only denied to the civilian population their traditional source of clean water, making them hate us even more, it also denied it to the very people having been sent to fight Charlie.

The downside of that policy meant drinking water became a premium having to be humped around in the boonie by the fighting grunts, thereby creating its own downside of less ammo, and, or, rations being available to them. For in the military your carry load, what you hump on your back, is a trade-off between what you need to stay healthy, and what you need to kill the enemy.

Marine Corps training in peacetime is still one of training-for-war, so you are trained to have a mindset of concentrating on what will increase your combat effectiveness, which includes the tailoring of your battle load, and what it contains. Importantly, that battle load, in the region of anything between 12 kilograms and 40, at times another 15 kilograms will be added if spare water has to be included, must be so arranged it suits the climate and terrain in which you will be fighting. During the war, a badly arranged ruck cluttered with useless gear, could mean the difference between living or dying.

In jungle terrain, where noise becomes a critical factor, everything in your battle load had to be silenced. Loose straps and weapon sling ends taped down, all items wrapped, or placed in spare socks, and water bottles required filling to their maximum capacity for the avoidance of sloshing. And that's where the “water factor” kicked in, and why you had to hump much more than you may need. During a water stop, and they are all too frequent in the jungle, your section or team supped from one water container at a time, anything left over was then poured away to avoid slosh noise.

Therefore, in South Vietnam, if there was a clean water supply available as you went along it left room in your ruck for spare ammunition, everything else being secondary. However, if you couldn't, then extra water took priority. Not that going short of C rations bothered the grunts, as they detested them with a passion. The average VC grunt could survive on a small pouch of sweet rice, a little flask of fermented fish sauce to pour on the rice called "nuoc mam", and a quarter pint of clean water a day. Whereas our grunts couldn't survive on such a meagre ammount of sustenance, neither they nor the Viet Cong could fight without ammunition for their weapons.

It had been a few days since we sailed away from the non too romantic Naval harbor of Saigon, heading up the Saigon River to meet up with and collect a fairly large SOG force, a Studies and Observations Group, of the Special Mission Force who had formed part of an effort trying to find out what Charlie was up to after his latest infiltration. CIA Intelligence information had pointed towards a buildup of VC and NVA forces covering a massive area. Starting from the Tri-Border, the point where Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia meet, to the Iron Triangle.

With Saigon being only 40 odd klicks from the Cambodian border, effectively the main water route into the Rung Sat, and as Charlie used the “one slow, four quick” fighting technique of Preparation, Infiltration, Attack, Fight-through, and then Withdrawal, it was imperative to keep on top of the intelligence. For knowing which of the first two phases he was actually in, and the intended targets for the remaining phases, meant that an effective response could be designed and then enacted.

SEAL operations were both “active”, ambushes and raids, and “passive”, observation and intelligence gathering. On the other hand, SOG operations were in the most part “passive”. They were in essence a LRRP, long range reconnaissance patrol, which could require them to be out in the boonie for weeks, even months at any given time, but it didn't mean they did not fight Charlie. On the contrary, any contacts they had with the VC and NVA were often spontaneous, short in duration, and brutally violent. 

Our Mike boat had eventually left the main river and pushed its way through the usual maze of shallow waterways and choking reed beds into the deepest recesses of a remote, steaming, unhealthy side swamp that was haunted by many diseases. Rain, misty light at first, then heavy, then light again before even heavier downpours that gave off thunderous roars. A sudden broiling sun showed us its power, making the humidity rocket to an even more unbearable level, then it started raining again.

Unfortunately, those sporadic bursts of heavy rain lasted no more than a couple of seconds, making it impossible to have one of “god’s showers”, or catch no more than a sip worth to replenish our boats ever dwindling supply of drinking water. So we all stank of mildew, and that nose-wrinkling fried onion smell of body odor. Our saturated fatigues slowly rotted away as they hung on bodies that were going exactly the same away, and which had taken on a satin look due to a layer of body slime. When we moved we left a faint smell of human decay as if we were walking corpses, but no one noticed, no one cared, it had all become quite normal when out in the boonie.

My body ran with rivers of sweat in the humid, oppressive heat, every carefully taken breath felt as if my head was thrust inside a steam filled boiler, red hot air laced with red hot moisture. Stupidly, I allowed myself to be tortured with a sudden thought of swimming naked in a cool, spring fed bubbling brook, laughing and splashing with the sheer joy of it.

It had been a fleeting, self indulgent, crazy thought, and taken along with the smell of unwashed bodies flitting the air, made me feel even more depressingly hot, sticky, and faded. We could of course have bathed in swamp water, but that was a heaving alphabet soup of bacteria, and with foot sores, crotch sores, bug bites, scratches and nicks on our bodies for any bacterium to use as an open gateway to enter our systems unchecked, making it better just to stink than risk getting some sort of rampant infection.

I had been carefully watching our latest “NFG”, new fucking guy, who was a short, skinny, reddish haired kid with a sad face, and came from New Jersey. He still had the remnants of a “white-sidewall” boot camp haircut, which had started to be replaced with carrot-colored cotton like fluff sprouting from the side of his head, and an insane looking thick clump of hair adorning the top. Unfortunately, his pale complexion hadn't taken well to a tropical sun, which had burned it bright red like a lit port navigation lamp.

The kid was suffering from a sunburn that had caused severe skin blistering and blotchy peeling to his face and forearms, making him go a little “dinky dau”, crazy. Earlier, he had suddenly decided to jump into the swamp water in an attempt to get some relief from his discomfort, as if thinking he was at Liberty Lake day camp. He was stopped by my buddy, who laid him out for his own good with such a hard punch to the chin Cassius Clay would certainly have reeled under it.

The sparked-out kid sure as hell didn't look like any recruit poster Marine, not being granite-jawed with bulging arm muscles that were trying to burst their way out of an overly-tight blues uniform, exceptionally few Marines ever did look like that. But although being thin he was wiry, and a lot stronger than he looked, and like many before him had a stormy time when at boot camp, so stormy even he thought it not short of a miracle when he achieved graduation.

Well, boot camp aside, he sure was having an equally stormy time on the boat, being constantly having his asshole torn for all sorts of irritating, and idiotic military misdemeanors. Such as not wearing his helmet or flack jacket in a fighting area, and removing his shirt when told not to, as his maggot-white body stood out like a goddamned here-we-are flag pinned to the reeds. Movement catches the eye, and something white even more so.

One troubling incident with our NFG came along on our way up to the SOG RVP, when the boat had to stop for us to clear her props of river gash, and there, on the riverbank, had been a rough dug grave, which barely held its occupier. Out of the shallow grave a partially covered bloated and putrid face looked up at us with liquid pools that were once eyes. A hand protruded from the soil, the fingers gnawed by an animal, making the bones stand out starkly against a carpet of greenery. It was a sight that made our stomachs queasy, and I thought we might vomit our breakfasts. However, our NFG just couldn't drag himself away from the horror, and stood there staring at it as if in some form of trance, with his helmet dangling from a tightly clenched fist. His small figure seemed almost crushed by what he saw, as tears welled up in his eyes, and that out of place emotional display had me thinking he was by far too soft for what lay ahead, and what could be required of him if the rounds started to fly.

I already knew he had become highly strung and nervous from listening with other “Cherries”, not yet having killed, to returning combat experienced grunts on his flight into Da Nang Ariel Port, who were yakking away in what must have seemed a strange foreign language to the cherries. Those bush-beasts had tried to pass on the “code of the grunt” to them, and it was an extremely important learning curve for any NFG. It was quicker to learn from the errors made by others, rather than risk not surviving their first self produced one. Unfortunately, going from the ever growing casualty lists, it seemed to me that many of them didn't really listen to the lesson given by those teachers.
 
As we had waited for the SOG force to appear, keeping a strict silence discipline on our steel island in the swamp, conversation and orders were held to the minimum, and even then they were whispered, for in such a noise suppressed environment even a fart could sound like a pistol shot. With that in mind, I decided to keep our NFG out of further trouble by giving him the one duty on board not required, keeping an aircraft watch, simply because Charlie did not have any in the Delta. However, that didn't mean our own “Birds” were always friendly. Anyway, little Cessna O-2 observation aircraft out hunting for Charlie had been coming and going above us, and occasionally one would turn back and circle around for a little time, its curious pilot looking down on our boat as if he had suddenly discovered a new species of weird water beetle.

However, there came one real heart-stopping moment when there was the rhythmic thumping of an approaching helicopter rotor, which eventually  produced an overly curious Huey “hog” decked with Air-Cav markings. It began hovering nose-down not far from us, with its crew chief hanging out on a machine-gun pintle-mount for a better look. The Air-Cav had a notorious reputation of firing on our people without using due diligence, but even so, the grunts always had a sneaking respect for the boys of Air Cavalry. However, that ariel visit really pissed us off, as it was hard enough trying to keep a low profile and not be compromised, without flying dumb-asses making Charlie wonder just what the hell they were looking at. Normally, we would have told them on the radio in no uncertain terms tofuck-off, but we had been ordered to hold communications silence when at the RVP, and I had absolutely no intention of breaking it.

In the late afternoon, a few hours after the Air Cav visit, a hint of smoke from the burning of camphor-wood, possibly a campfire, accompanied by a babble of voices before what sounded almost like kids excited laughter, and the sharp yelping of a small dog carried across the fetid swamp air, which announced someone was around. The voices and dog barking had put us on an instant alert, for Charlie used dogs as “stags”, sentries, as they were hard to eliminate, unlike the human variety where training and skill could make their takedown relatively easy. In fact, the killing of such canine sentries is how the SEAL silenced pistol earned its nickname of “ the hush puppy”.

Later, far off, a bugle blared briefly and disturbed my thoughts and the silence, making me wonder if somewhere Charlie was making yet another of his futile charges into oblivion. Shortly after, a staccato burst from a heavy machine gun threw up broken spray in a patch of open water quite a way off to starboard. Then the firing began in earnest, whipping across the top of the reed beds, and at first I thought we were under fire, but it was not in our direction, more towards where the mysterious bugle had blared.

A series of quick, dull, whooshing bangs that sounded like grenades detonating in the water, accompanied by the crackling of small-arms automatic gunfire. I thought I heard screams just as the heavy machine gun fired again, it was a slow firer compared to our 60’s, so most probably a chi-com .51 caliber, then another series of bangs, this time sharp in the way fragmentation grenades explode. Finally, a smoking cascade of bright phosphorous droplets sprayed into the air, and all of the gun-firing had stopped.

A great pall of smoke rose up, and I could hear the crackling of flames as  sun-baked reeds were swiftly devoured by a furious flash-fire, obviously started by the phosphorous. Its roaring flames began swirling and dancing skyward as in the way of an Arizona dust-devil. I could feel a sucking pull of air as it rushed in to feed the flames with oxygen, then, quite suddenly, the fire died away as it ran out of fuel, the reeds having burned down to the water table. Anyone caught by that roaring inferno would have been unceremoniously turned into a “crispy critter”, burned victim Thankfully, as reeds tend to burn clean, giving off relatively few sparks, there had been little risk of fire-jump between the one that had flamed and its neighboring beds.

Billowing, eye stinging, choking smoke slowly drifted over the boat, making us couch until our throats felt raw. Then, just as slowly it dispersed, revealing four sampans, the third in line towing the fourth, making their way towards us. Our NFG started lifting his rifle into the firing position, and quickly received another punch to the head, for the sampans were manned by the SOG force, their “Tiger Suits” clearly visible. Anyway, I had already recognized the guy who was standing up in the bow of the lead sampan. We had met in Saigon at Tante Bees “cabaret club”, where he had been face down in a pool of his own vomit, on a table covered with a forest of empty 1 liter "Biere la'Rue" beer bottles.

Three of the sampans were so overloaded with people and gear they had only a few inches of free-board. The fourth had a hole knocked in it which had been plugged with a shirt, and carried the bodies of two people wrapped in ponchos that were oozing blood, and some patched-up wounded “yards”, montagnard grunts. One, his belly having been blown open by a grenade blast, within an hour was dead, despite the best efforts of our corpsman.

Once aboard our Mike the SOG force leader said it had been rough and tough going all the way during their mission, but all had quietened down until traveling up a narrow creek when they saw a head and shoulders rise above some reeds, but before they could open fire the head and shoulders vanished. Seconds later they were hit by a VC ambush started with a short bugle blast, the force leader knew there was only one thing that could counter an ambush, the use of a controlled offensive action. Meaning, that they had to break out of the killing zone by making an immediate, and unhesitating assault into the ambush, so they rammed their sampans into the reed bed, leaped out, and charged!

It was inevitable they took casualties during the first seconds Charlie initiated his ambush, for that is the aim in an ambush, to do the maximum damage in those first few seconds, but the swift action on their part put them among the VC, whom they killed with CAR-15 rifles, preferred by special forces as it had fewer issues than the M16, and “lemons”, M26 frag grenades. Then on withdrawal, set alight the reeds, using a “Willie Peter ,” M26 white phosphorus smoke grenade, as a departing gesture.

In Vietnam the Special Forces constantly rehearsed anti-ambush drills, but that drill was only one of the many others that were rehearsed until such drills became automatic, became conditioned responses. The rehearsing for an anti-ambush action was paramount for the chance to survive it, as there was no time for any reluctance nor hesitation. You had to charge straight in before the enemy could do anything about it, get among them, and kill them. If possible, you ran through the ambush whilst blasting away, then quickly turned and fired like fury. Unfortunately, some guys were always killed or wounded doing it, but far more remained unscathed than would have if they had stayed in the killing zone.

At least one thing was pretty well guaranteed, Charlie wasn't expecting it, being already sure in his mind, he had the upper hand, and those he had ambushed would be squirming for cover, or trying to make a futile break out of his killing zone. Unfortunately, Charlie had his own particular form of ferocious anti-ambush drill, and enacted it many a time on our preset ambushes.

On reflection, I am sure that the inquisitive Air Cav “hog”, albeit unintentional, caused the ambush to happen which in turn resulted in the deaths of the three SOG force guys, and the wounding of others. However, if I took a more objective view it could also be partially blamed on my refusal to break radio silence when first spotting the “Hog”. Either way, it isn't really relevant what caused it, for the dead were dead and the rest weren't, which going by “the code of the grunt” meant, C'est la guerre, better them than us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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