Chapter 31: Survivre à la Lutte

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

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Survivre à la Lutte

“ Goddamned hammer and nail bullshit bro! CP moral boosting crap about our guys being the hammer and Charlie the nail ! Well, this time the nail has fucked the hammer ! ”

Corporal ,"Bayou" Lejeune, FOB withdrawal action, D10 Special Zone, South Vietnam, 1967.


Tate's Hell, the Blackwater River area, the tidal marshlands and the everglades of Florida all supplied the perfect ground conditions for a budding Riverine Marine to have his stamina severely tested, for that to a Marine must come foremost in his mind before strength.

There is no dubiety within the training regime of any Marine Corps that being a strong fucker isn't a great deal of use if you haven't the stamina to get yourself by speed-marching from say point A to B, in a condition of being immediately capable of covering 200 meters, perhaps more, in a flat-out run with full battle gear, and still be in a good enough physical condition to get stuck in to the fighting when you get there, and more importantly, win against an equally determined enemy.

During the Vietnam War, one test of stamina for the average Marine bush-beast would most likely have come during the swift advance of a frontal assault, whilst under very accurate small arms fire, in murderous humidity or searing sunshine, and uphill. For the guy sitting on his ass in a well-constructed defensive position, that also controls any high ground, has a natural battle advantage which can inflict massive casualties on any attacker trying to pry him out of it. Also, in the majority of cases, your stamina would also have to be called upon to keep you going during the actual breaching of that in-depth position. Then, if you survived the vicious forward trench fighting, complete the fight-through to victory.

At Parris Island, United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot, it wasn't that unusual to see a big, muscle-bound beach hulk lying in the mud on the assault course crying his eyes out, with the shame of being completely mentally and physically fucked, as he watched some skinny runt of a guy race past him thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Most guys who sported weight-trained muscles simply couldn't control their own bulk, and whereas the thin, wiry guy had few problems on the assault course, the “Pumping Iron - beach buddy” type recruit could hardly run any great distance, or drag himself over the course without collapsing.

The assault course at “Sandy Rock”, Parris Island, was considered by recruits as a killer supplied to the Marine Corps by the Devil, and it sure as hell was designed to be a killer, it had to be, for battle fitness is crucial for anyone to successfully take part in an assault action, and still retain any hope of surviving it.

Although first starting off on the assault course in a mild way, and being dressed as if out for a saunter in the sun, it didn't take long before you came to be terrified of it, and understand exactly why the drill staff members were always banging on about something they called stamina. For by the time a recruit platoon was no more than half-way around, their legs were shaking and cramping with muscle spasms, and overworked lungs were making heads swim with the lack of oxygen.

A large number of the recruits would already have dropped well behind the leaders, especially the ”fat bodies”, and the cigarette smokers, who, having given up climbing and traversing the obstacles, were giving a very fine demonstration of a staggering swaying walk, like boozed up sailors. Many were so nerve numbed they never gave any reaction to being screamed at, slapped, punched, and kicked by angry purple faced drill staff, who began making attempts to motivate them by delving out a little friendly administrative pain.

It took in the region of thirty five minutes before the last of the, “maggots”, recruits, completed traversing the assault course on their very first try, not counting any sobbing dropouts who had regurgitated their morning meal somewhere behind them on the course. In punishment for that lack of willpower to keep on going even when, as it seemed to them, the point of death from exhaustion had been reached, they were ordered back to retrieve the abandoned “breakfast pile.” That was done by scooping it up with their hands, and carrying it off the course, whilst all the time being “ear bashed” by the screaming non-coms, and woe-betide any if they dropped even one tiny particle of it. If they had, then another administrative pain session would be issued out to them.

However, what had not penetrated their oxygen starved, and numbed brain matter, was the real bummer of fact relating to the assault course.It was that recruits who reached the end of their initial training at boot camp had to face the harshness of the battle fitness test before they could graduate. Therefore, working with the “buddy” system of rifle pairs, part of that test required covering the course whilst wearing full battle gear, including weapon, in under six minutes, with five being better, and four considered to be such a magnificent and supreme effort it was worthy of a few grudgingly given words of praise from their Gunnery Sergeant.

For those heading for Vietnam, without being put forward for any further “specialist” training, meant that they had to rely on that “wellbeing” feeling which comes with a high level of physical fitness, and the  “overcome anything” Marine state of mind as drummed into them at boot camp. Both of those gave them, at least for a little time, a slight edge over Charlie. However, the average VC grunt not only had an excellent knowledge of the jungle, he was also surprisingly fit despite at times having to live on a near starvation diet.

In addition, even though for many of the Viet Cong locally recruited grunts their actual military skills were extremely rudimentary, a religious fervor style political motivation, and the personal driver of receiving an extra ration of sweet rice for every three “Yankee invaders” they killed, meant they would take on our grunts in an impressive direct defiance to their larger physical frames, and available firepower.

However, Charlie’s greatest asset when it came to battle motivation lay in the understanding of a well-known military fact that any invader, then come occupier, can’t stay indefinitely, for no matter how long they chose to remain, eventually they have to leave. Unfortunately, in the interim, whilst politicians make long rambling speeches full of patriotic drivel, the grunts, regardless of which colors they serve under; always have to do the fighting and dying.

Therefore, whereas nothing can be done about a politician’s ability to produce enormous amounts of inane verbal bullshit as they attempt to build monuments to their own egoistical vanity, a grunt on the other hand, can certainly do at least something towards not dying in a battle area by keeping fit-to-fight, and retaining that hard to achieve, and possibly lifesaving, stamina.

To enter a Lion’s den, and come out again unscathed, is said to take great stealth of movement, for make a noise, or anything that alerts the beast, well then, you are fucked. So it was in Vietnam, when Special Forces operated against the NVA once they started to appear in ever greater strength all over the Southern Provinces. Whereas, the Viet Cong worked the guerrilla tactic of fluidity, where small numbers are always on the move, which made them hard to pin down and eliminate, the NVA were a regular army and therefore trained as such, and in the most part used many standard infantry tactics.

Although the most used tactic for the NVA, and at times the VC, was one of “weight of numbers”, another used by their “hero units”, Hanoi’s most dedicated, in which every basic grunt in a unit held a coveted title of “Intrepid Fighter First Class”, was one of closing with our forces to a point where neither a fire mission, nor air support could be called upon, before Charlie launched an actual full out, bayonet charge assault upon them. Little green clad, yellow faced men, screaming out their battle cries, would flood a position, and at that point a “Broken Arrow”, we have been overrun signal, would be given. In which case, subject to the commanding rank having big enough balls to call for it, supporting fire would rain down on our own guy’s heads in a desperate attempt to force the NVA, or VC, to withdraw.

Whereas our guys looked on death in battle as perhaps the worst of all the war’s ills that could befall them, the NVA and VC grunts took on a different view, in that it was simply part of the cost to be paid for driving the ”imperialists” out of their country. In essence, they accepted death just as easily as they accepted the phenomenal numbers of casualties, for Charlie’s grunts believed that personal sacrifices always had to be made for the greater good of the people, and their brother unit.

That warrior’s philosophy could also be taken as perhaps an unofficial motto for Special Forces, as it is akin to their thinking. For Special Forces are trained to have a state of mind designed to ensure that the success of a mission is more important than the individual, it has to take priority over all things, meaning that they develop a near insane self-determination for success of the “Mission”. In addition, to ensure that they get where they are going, and hopefully back again, they have to achieve a level of stamina that seems to stretch beyond human.

Although working alongside Special Forces certainly had many perks, there were times when doing so it seemed as if our boat and her crew had been given a suicidal deployment. Another downside of being given the “honor”, and that is exactly what it is considered to be, of working alongside any Special Force is that they don't particularly like having “strangers” imbedded within their ranks when on a mission. Very understandable, for to make their highly trained, tightly knitted little unit work effectively they have to trust each other unequivocally. 

Unfortunately for those who had been ordered to be part of the small numbers of support troops with a SEAL Force, whether liking it or not, they had to adopt SEAL “SOPSs”, standard operating procedures, which included the ability to keep on going with a determination usually only found in those who are quite mad. In addition, before any operation was initiated the SEAL “wheel”, commanding rank, would closely question each one on their military skills, scrutinize every minute detail of the answers given, and where and when necessary refuse to accept anyone lacking in what was considered the critical military skills required for the task in hand.

Once satisfied with his weeding, the “wheel” would give out a standard, and stark, warning order to those found acceptable. It was brutally simple in content, in that there would be no stopping for any sick, lame or wounded. Dropouts would be left to their own devices, to fend for themselves, and if lucky enough, dead or alive, recovered later.

In addition, as it wasn’t the policy of Navy SEALs to leave their weapons in enemy hands. Charlie could not, under any circumstances whatsoever, be given the chance of receiving a present of weapons, other than a “lemon”, fragmentation grenade, intended for the personal use of whoever was abandoned, if of course they had the courage to use it. However, the “wheel” would also give out just a tiny morsel of comfort. That being if they could find it within them the willpower, the “heart”, the stamina, to keep on going regardless of encountered hardships; it would be in their best interest to do so.

During one Hatchet Force operation, when just the day before our boat and crew had been loafing along over a gin clear sea that didn’t even have a ripple on it, being beguiled by the quiet tropical splendor of the coastline, we were tasked with taking a SEAL team up a river to drop-off point, and once there to do what was becoming the norm within a sailing order, “assist as required or as directed”.

The first stage to the objective had been covered surprisingly rapid regardless of their being no water stops, nor time-out for catching a breath. However, such a pace, even for a SEAL team, couldn’t last, and eventually the “wheel” knew it was time for an all too brief respite, and called a halt.

That particular “wheel” had more going for him in the Navy than many of his fellows, and being considered a “bright star” had quickly become one of the best SEAL team leaders in the D10 Special Zone.” By stature small, by intellect a giant, a born leader”, had been one senior ranks description of him. He was detailed and meticulous in his planning, rigid in his sense of duty, and had the smile of a mischievous schoolboy, but for some unrevealed reason his dark eyes always seemed to reflect an underlying anger and bitterness within his character.

Every guy in the support section, apart from having his face painted in the distinctive “first - coat- green” camouflage preferred by a Navy SEAL when out in the boonie, was down on his chin-strap with exhaustion, and craving only for rest and the taste of coffee. In addition, all had in varying degrees one of the commonest of the myriad of ills that could befall a grunt when fighting in the water laden land of the Rung Sat special zone, and that was imersion foot, also known as trench foot.

The imersion foot made walking so painfully debilitating it felt as if jungle boots had insoles made from razor wire, and every step taken was over red-hot embers. Also, our fatigue shirts and pants were so saturated with sweat they rubbed us raw, and more so in the crotch area even though we were wearing “hanging loose” pants which were one size larger than our normal issue.

I looked on with great envy at the SEALs Degars, Montagnards, affectionately termed as “Yards”, who often wandered around barefooted, and scantily dressed, even at times with their “love tackle” swinging freely in the breeze. They were completely at ease with, and seemingly quite oblivious to, the leaches, biting bugs, and the harshness of any terrain they happened to be in at any given time.

Then, just as I was pulling on my last pair of dry socks after a personal “foot inspection”, which had to be done in super quick time as those from the west can’t run any great distance over rough ground with bare feet, the sound of an aircraft’s motor made me look up through a break in the tree canopy. With eyes blinking in the sun’s bright glare I watched as a prop driven black silhouette in the sky flew over heading in the direction of the border with Laos.

Charlie, as always never missing out on even the slightest of opportunities to strike back, fired off an unexpected ribbon of green tracer rounds. They snaked out of the jungle canopy, and there was a puff of white smoke as the rounds whipped across the aircraft’s fuselage, making it stagger in the air. Badly mauled by the gunfire it began an erratic flight, for it rose, then fell, and rose again, like a wounded bird struggling to remain aloft. Almost lazily, it went into a vertical climb before stalling. 

Now completely out of control, it began a spinning, spearing dive, before hitting the ground at a tremendous velocity, where it exploded with a near ear shattering impacting bang, which shook the ground and made my limbs tremble. A vivid red, rumbling ball of flame and great column of thick black, rubbery looking smoke rose up, like old vehicle tires burning in a wrecker’s yard.

A section of the dense acrid smoke from the funeral pyre of both machine and it’s pounded to pieces pilot broke away from the main column, and accompanied by the sweet “candy” smell of aviation gasoline that mingling with a hint of charred human flesh, drifted along in the heavy air of the jungle. Almost solid but not quite, before it slowly faded way, dissipated into nothingness, like a ghostly apparition in a haunted house.

We had become reluctant spectators once more, forced to watch another torrid image of war being created by an unknown hand. “The realities of war are always written in blood”, who said it I can’t remember, but that statement has always proven to be factual down through the ages.

Looking at the “wheel” I could see that even he had been pushed a little off the steady by the unexpectedness of the shoot down so near to us and a goddamned pungent cloying stink, so reminiscent of a seriously fucked-up backyard barbeque. Then everyone froze, statues would have become envious of just how still our guys became in the blink of an eye. For moving in single file, slowly and silently through the tall elephant grass of a small jungle clearing not that many meters distant, was around half a battalion of what seemed to be disembodied NVA pith helmets.

What happened next would, if forming part of a flag waving, all out gung-ho movie, be scripted in as a “win predictable”. Unfortunately in war nothing can ever be judged as “win predictable”, for there is always the unexpected lurking around on the periphery of all operations. In fact, the unexpected was a rock upon which a surprising number of our own and Charlie’s operations perished.

Then, four scenes unfolded in swift succession, so swift in my memory they now seem to have been almost simultaneous. In response to the sudden appearance of NVA the “wheel” shouted an order, but that was lost unheard within the din of a violent explosion, a large tree shattered as if it were made of glass, the atmosphere filled with choking dust and flying debris, and our “KCS”, Kit Carson Scout, lay sprawled on the ground, gasping and screaming in dire agony due to his buttocks having been completely blasted away revealing his pelvis, and was then done a great compassionate service by the “wheel”, who pistol-shot him in the head.

Now, there will be those who consider such an action by the “wheel” to be inhumane, even cruel, and the guy should have been evacuated out, or left for Charlie to find and tend to medically. Well, all I can say to them is this. To risk a “dust off” helicopter and its crew for a casualty that a battalion of the greatest surgeons in the world could not have saved was beyond even consideration, and the only treatment Charlie would dish-out to one of his turncoats would have been packed with much horrendous pain and suffering.

Anyway, there was no way a casualty could have been carried on a pole stretcher, even if we had one, in that type of terrain. Therefore, a 9mm round to the skull was the only humane treatment available to administer.

The craziest thing of all being that the NVA had not spotted us, for they were running in varying directions away from the clearing seeking cover in the jungle, and not in the way some panic stricken mob would, but in the way disciplined troops react to an aircraft attack, by using a well-practiced drill for the event.

However, we on the other hand, now half deaf from the unexpected detonation, eyes gritty and sore from the dust, and no longer playing at statues, were trying to  hightail in the opposite direction by frantically weaving and dodging  in a mob-like fashion, our way through clinging vines and vicious thorns amid the dense undergrowth.

The indicators of where the explosion had come from were a muffled jet roar, heard in ringing ears, and the remnants of a signature black exhaust trail in the sky, glimpsed by grit sore eyes. That smoky trail meant for sure the clearing had been hit by an F-4B Phantom, which in probability had dropped a “snakeye” bomb on, or very near, the NVA column.

Whether or not the pilot of the Phantom had any knowledge of our guys being in the vicinity is at least to me an unknown, but the sight of an NVA column on the move must have been for him well beyond just the tempting. However, Charlie’s grunts would have known one terrifying thing, just like we did, in that the F-4B would have more “snakeye” bombs in its racks, and lots of other weaponry available to pound a target with. For when one or more Phantoms attacked a ground target, whether colored red in earnest or blue in error, it was fairly guaranteed that target would be, “O B F”, ordnance butt- fucked.

Once the “wheel” considered we were far enough out for the Phantom not to prove a further problem he ordered an eight klick “out of contact” speed-march that tested everyone’s stamina to the full. He had broken us down into four-man squads with ten minute moving out spacing between each, just in case as a more noise generating larger group we happened to blunder into an ambush, for in jungle small is considered beautiful, and that certainly includes any moving troop numbers. Then, as the last squad set off at speed we heard the Phantom return to its recent point of activity, and start pounding at the NVA.

At Parris Island, the push for stamina had been consistent and unrelenting as the drill staff tried to build fighting Marines out of young guys who had a natural fear for their future, but also had a sense of pride that they were part of a great fighting service with a mighty reputation for “getting it done”, so they had to develop a state of mind to do just that, get it done regardless of cost.

Unfortunately, such demands on some of those who were initially unfit proved to be beyond endurance, and meant that many never made it to the graduation review parade. Instead, they left the Island as mentally, and, or, physically failed Marines. However, it wasn’t our stamina, training, or pride of service that saved us from the Phantoms “blue-on-blue”; it was a more overriding state of mind called self-preservation.


Submitted: October 11, 2015

© Copyright 2021 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.


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Morse Drury


Your reminiscences of Boot Camp and fighting Charlie are hard hitting and accurate.

Thu, October 22nd, 2015 7:10am

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