Southlands Snuffys

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Chapter 35 (v.1) - Sans Sentiment.

Submitted: March 17, 2016

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Submitted: March 17, 2016

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Sans Sentiment.

 

“Traditionally Marines are not seamen, but with the correct training they can become both”.

 

Prefaced first words, Marine River Force, the “Riverine” training course, Port Everglades, Florida,

1966.

 

 

All military service people out of war regardless of ethnic or cultural differences have to live with their bitter memories, and although most memories can be blunted by the passage of time, the bitter ones never seem to be.

Some of those bitter memories are of regret, or shame, others perhaps guilt. In normality, a human being can’t watch the anguish of others without experiencing at least one out of the three, perhaps all, of those emotions. Yet, having said that, there are some who can see people being killed and crippled without having any lingering emotions whatsoever. An arm being blown off here a leg there, bodies torn and shredded, for them there would be no bitter memories attached, and in that there is a form of sadness.

However, to the vast majority who has fought in war that time of conflict can feel as if it was from another world. Nevertheless, any day from that time can stand fresh in the memory, as though it were only yesterday.

The sunshine smashed down then reflected back from the surface of the ocean, and heated up the wind to near the temperature of a blast furnace. It was incredible the way the weather had changed, from warm torrential rain one minute to oppressive sunshine the next. The humidity was incredible, and a hot unfavorable wind blew straight into our faces searing the skin as we crawled along parallel to the coast heading towards the repair facilities of our home base. On our portside was klick upon klick of empty rolling sea, on the starboard side nothing more than klick upon klick of hostile land.

Staying as close inshore as we dared it had taken what seemed like an age to cover the few nautical miles from one river estuary to another. Not only had we lost a propeller, a rudder, and had smashed a gearbox beyond repair, the bottom hull plates were bashed and buckled. In addition, we were taking on water at such a rate from a dislodged propeller shaft stuffing gland the guys had to hand pump the motor room bilge to help out the motorized pump, otherwise the flooding would have threatened the remaining good diesel motor which also had issues.

Under a relentless tropical sun a lively sea produced white crested rollers with deep troughs that made our converted landing craft pitch and roll heavily, thus making it difficult to walk normally on the deck area, so a strange penguin style swaying walk was required to traverse from one end of the boat to the other. Also, we had to contend with wild water leaping over her in a white torrent every time she fell with a spine jarring jolt into a wave trough which also made the hull bang and creak. However, wave tossed and crippled as she may have been it seemed that our boat had a charmed life, escaping once more Charlie’s avid determination to destroy her.

Our Mike had become another mine victim when cruising down a main canal after escorting an under tow string of gravel barges. A well placed command detonated bottom mine had exploded just off our port stern quarter, and had we been sailing just a few yards closer to the canalbank the mine would have detonated beneath the hull with a terminal blast for the boat.

It had been luck in one way, but as always with the military unlucky in another, for although the damage had knocked the boat out of the war for a little time, any hopes we may have nurtured regarding loafing around the boat yard, or heading for the flesh-pots of Saigon, was dashed to pieces by a swiftly issued order for an advisory and support attachment to the Vietnamese Marines. That order heralded in the most dangerous phase of my tour, and also gave me my one and only regret of having volunteered for the Marine Corps, for the Corps didn’t believe in any form of idleness

Movement orders for Riverine non-coms, at least at that time, seemed to be written-up using intelligently crafted semantics bordering on the devious. They gave over an impression that the recipient had somehow volunteered for something by the power of goddamn telepathy, and were therefore always look on with great suspicion. In addition, they also tended to contain a very vague hint of a possible promotion on the horizon, of course on a proviso that there would be no fuck-ups. That part worked exceedingly well as a motivator, for all the drivel ever told about military people not wanting promotion is just so much hot air, for I have never known, nor ever heard of, any service professional not to crave promotion. The cliché of “It’s better to be a hammer than an anvil” defines that craving perfectly.

From late evening into the early morning scudding rain clouds had been gathering, getting ever thicker until finally they burst in a magnificent downpour. That was of course great fortune for the rice growers and their paddy fields, but misfortune for any bush-beasts out in the boonie chasing and fighting the VC and NVA.

Regardless of there being a clear sense of worry and tension over the orders, it had seemed such a simple affair at the time, when in lashing rain four Mike ATC’s, armored troop carriers, had dropped off two companies of Vietnamese Marines who were down to around 80% of their normal strength so had been bolstered by a fighting contingent made up from a curious mix of guys from boats undergoing repairs, which included a trio from my own boats crew.

The chosen start point for the operation was three klicks downstream from an abandoned coconut plantation that had been serviced by the river and one of the very few dirt roads in the area. The intention was to execute a limited sweep and stop mission against Charlie, but less than an hour into the sweep a sudden burst of machine-gun fire jerked every head up as one, and a frightened voice on the “prick -25”, PRC-25 standard field radio, told that their reconnaissance team had run head-on into more than three companies, possibly a battalion, of the opposition made up of both VC and NVA regulars about a half klick west of the main river where the stops were situated, and the boats were waiting.

By the time the rain clouds had receded and the main force of Viet Marines reached the stop area with the intention of supporting their recon team, regretfully that team had already been decimated. The planned stops, armed with M60 and M2 “Ma-Deuce” machine-guns and rifles, having set themselves up along a watery monsoon ditch covering the dirt road, were engaged in a desperate struggle for survival.

Veterans from other foreign wars have said that you only truly get to know the ground upon which you fight is when you dig into it. In the most Southern part of Vietnam, the Delta area, even in the so claimed “dry” season, you couldn’t dig into the ground without your fresh diggings filling with smelly, bug infested muddy water within a minute or so, which meant that shell scrapes or defensive trenches had to be dug relatively shallow and bolstered with whatever came to hand. That was a downside, but on the upside Charlie had exactly the same problem, especially if trying to construct his now famous tunnel complexes, which were in the main nonexistent in the Forest-of-Assassins area.

It had been the five-man fire teams’ second attempt to cross the road and outflank Charlie, so they had tried to work quickly by squad rushing across this time, hunching up against the gook gunfire streaming out of their fire positions behind a berm-style roadside banking, their rifles primed with triangular bayonets ready for some close action fighting. Those bayonets were terrifying hardware as they left extremely difficult to close wounds, meaning that any victim from a stab by one normally bled-out regardless of the best efforts by a corpsman to stem the bleeding.

The sheer volume of gook fire forced the fire team to abandon the idea and run for it, creating a shower of mud and stones as they skidded back into the watery roadside ditch, and mighty lucky they had been to make it back unscathed. The very second the team were safely back in cover two M60 machine-guns opened up on advancing gooks, who on a tuneless bugle blast, and with their normal unbelievably bold suddenness of attack, had left their positions to advance on the ditch.

Wincing under the machine-gun fire Chuck’s grunts struggled to keep some form of rank spacing’s as the M60’s blew great gaping holes in those ranks, with many getting no more than a few paces from their positions. But the gooks, as usual, didn’t give a fuck how many of their numbers were smashed into oblivion; they were out for blood, thirsty for some, craving it. Our guys in the ditch began shouting to the Viet Marines to kill any gook that wasn’t already dead, so M16 and CAR-15 rifle rounds started to pepper the gook wounded as well as the advancing hoard. If a gook went down he was immediately riddled with holes like a goddamned colander just to guarantee his death.

Viet Marine M-79 “Bloopers” started banging off grenades and a few CS gas rounds left over from an earlier bunker clearance, the wet air helping to keep the gas where the canister rounds had burst; it made a writhing wall of sinus-irritant along the dirt roadway, and to reach the ditch Charlie first had to breach that wall without the aid of gas masks. The first gooks to appear through it were finding it painful to breath, gasping for air they looked like fish out of water, and with their eyes streaming they were downed by volleys of rifle and machine-gun fire, dead before they even hit the ground. Quick bursts of just to make sure gunfire made the corpses jump as if still alive.

A squad of gooks tried to flank-out past the gas wall by running across the road about two hundred meters from the east end of the ditch, was spotted, and shredded by M2 “ma-deuce” machine-gun fire. However, as the gunner tried to clear a blockage of the weapons feed tray another squad of gooks made the dash safely, moved in closer, and began to engage the gunner, who was killed along with his buddy, both having been shot through the head by sniper fire.

Charlie now had a solid fire foothold on one of our flanks, and was taking full advantage of it by firing directly along the roadside ditch. More gooks made the dash safely, bolstering their firing group, meaning there was now a clear and present danger that Charlie would trounce us by overwhelming our precarious position by numbers.

Supporting fire was being laid down by the depleted platoon at the east end of the ditch for a squad that had been cut off between the gooks doing the firing and the ditch. They were still being effective in suppressing Charlie but were beyond any other help and had to fend for themselves. Their only saving grace being Charlie’s love for the chi-com “chest rig”, which was great when upright patrolling but damn useless when rolling around in the shit. Not only did they raise a grunts ground profile, made spare rifle mags and grenades hard to get at, were uncomfortable when firing from the prone position, and by digging into the ribcage it also affected the wearers weapon aiming. Fixed bayonets were also affecting their aiming, as it takes considerable skill to fire a weapon accurately with one in place.

However, Chucks volume of gunfire, accurate or not, was producing results which could be measured by our mounting casualties. Corpsmen ran the gauntlet of gook gunfire to get at the wounded, their fingers already bloody from tearing at the clothing of other casualties to check or to tend their wounds. Gook grenade splinters shrieked through the air, chi-com SKS carbine and AK rifle rounds whipped past them and they didn’t even flinch, as they crouched beside each casualty making instant decisions on who they considered were beyond immediate help, and those perhaps in with a chance.

During a fighting situation like that people have only so much courage they can call upon to sustain them, when it leaves a kind of helplessness of mind sets in, but those corpsmen must have had boundless courage to call upon. Many of the casualties were too severely wounded to move, but that didn’t matter, for there was now becoming insufficient unwounded numbers left in the platoons to carry them away even if the situation allowed it.

Four quick salvos, a mix of RPG and mortar rounds, fell and exploded, instantly killing some Viet Marines who were upon the rim of the ditch returning fire. Geysers of blood enriched ditch water, mashed body parts, mud, road dirt, and shrapnel shot into the air. Such heavy and devastating salvos made it obvious to all that an attack by Chuck at the east end of the ditch was imminent, and when that impending attack came the shock of it was appalling.

Firstly, on the cessation of the heavy mortar and rocket fire, a large flurry of type 67 chi-com stick grenades sailed in, exploding near simultaneously, those were immediately followed by RPD light machine-gun fire, ribbons of bright green tracer streaked along the ditch from a .51 caliber machine-gun, and Charlie was suddenly right there in among the defenders screaming like madmen with bayonets stabbing. Pistols and rifles banged, their rounds tearing into the bodies of explosives deafened and dazed defenders, who started to fall back under such a fierce onslaught.

It became a pitched battle where lying at the bottom of the ditch in slimy liquefied mud the dying was being trodden on, and others lay sprawled in various attitudes of death, just wiped away wrecks of men well beyond caring what the outcome of the fight would be. Surprisingly quickly, the defenders came out of the initial shock at finding the gooks in their midst and were rallied by a Corporal, for all it can take to turn a battle is one brave soul who is prepared to stand his ground come what may.

There was heard many a harsh cry of pain and anguish as the press of rallied men and reserves began the process of driving the gooks out of that foul smelling ditch with a wildness of spirit that bordered on madness. Just a few more seconds of hesitation and the chance to force Charlie back would have been lost, but the fight was settled to the satisfaction of the Viet Marines within bloody minutes.

When grunts get killed in war it isn’t at all as portrayed in the movies, none of all that dramatic staggering around shit, clutching at a wound and pouring out long rambling strings of bullshit words. For those who were marked for it in the battle for the ditch death tended to come fast, there one second and fucking gone the next, and apart from the odd twitch or groan they just lay there and quietly expired.

A battle knife or bayonet can end your life just as quickly as any bullet, so you can’t let your guard slip for even a moment when trench fighting, and that ditch was acting as a trench for the defenders, even if they hadn’t gone about constructed it themselves.

The very basics of trench warfare lie in defense, and an offensive determination of spirit that can be directed at the total and complete destruction of the attacking enemy, with a minimum loss to your own side. Any offensive action required will be dictated by your ability to keep the enemy out of that defensive position, and at a killing distance. However, once an enemy has breached your fixed position, even one as lowly as a line trench, your offensive action has to be enacted swiftly and with a maximum of aggression by using what was once termed as hand-to-hand combat, a term which under no circumstances can describe the sheer barbarity involved when having to evict an enemy.

Ideally when in “positional defense”, that position must have “depth”, multiple defensive positions with each capable of supporting the others, if your guys are going to repel any sustained attacks. However, if it is “shallow”, a hurriedly prepared single position such as that ditch, then any penetration by the enemy could speedily lead to disaster for the defenders. Another critical factor that can affect the outcome of any battle is reserves, for if you have few or no reserves and a superior strength enemy manages to break into the position you are defending, in the majority of cases you will be fucked.

It was no time to dwell on the mounting casualties, for the disaster of being cut-off from the river and the waiting boats was a threat ever growing. The only immediate reserves available, and few in number, had been used to what best effect they could in outing Chuck from the ditch, but that small victory didn’t alter the cold hard fact that it was but a matter of time before the opposition launched another attack, and cut-off any possible escape route. For that was one of Charlie’s favorite tactics, the removal of your line of withdrawal which gave him tactical control of the fight, and leaving our guys scrambling to find a breakaway from it.

From a tactical point of view we were in the shit right up to our necks from being bogged-down in such an insecure position without any heavy weapons support. Ammo was becoming so dangerously low that some of our people had taken to using Chucks discarded weapons. In addition, thirst was becoming a serious problem, as all of the remaining chlorine tainted canteen water had been confiscated by the corpsmen for the wounded, including the weird tasting water found on Charlie’s dead. Among us there were those who if pressed much further by raging thirst would have happily drunk the disgusting slosh in the bottom of the ditch.

With the ability to defend rapidly deteriorating by the minute the options were limited to just one and that was to make an immediate break for the river and the waiting boats.  

As any fire mission by artillery was well out of range there had been only one possible manner of support available, and that was air power. However, bombs or napalm were completely out of the question, as were attack helicopters, for Chuck was too many in number and just too close. The only thing considered suitable and with sufficient armament punch to quickly get us out of the shit was the use of a “Spooky”, AC-47 Gunship.

The called-in converted “Dac” came in as low as it dared following the dirt road, preparing to open fire. Charlie responded with massed small arms weapons fire directed at the bird, trying to force the flying fixed wing gun platform to a higher altitude and be engaged by proper 57mm and 37mm anti-aircraft weapons. But the pilot held his nerve, maintained his attack ceiling, and pumped thousands of rounds from three fuselage mounted minigun pods into Charlie’s positions. The pods spewed out 6000 rounds of ball and tracer rounds a minute, with on average each round hitting a one foot square piece of ground. Therefore, any enemy grunt unable to get clear of the birds killing area in time was well and truly fucked.

The “Spooky” intervention accomplished what we couldn’t with four fifteen second bursts of its armament. By its second burst, the gooks were already in formational disarray and everyone on our side and still capable was out of the monsoon ditch and heading for the river.

A large group of wounded had gone out first, the walking casualties helping the corpsmen carry those who couldn’t, the dead and expectants were left behind. Those casualties were a poignant reminder of just how close Charlie had come to his objective of defeating us.

It had been a desperately hard and wearying day, no doubt about that, and although it was unknown to me at that time there were many more to come. Trying to survive had proved to be a goddamn frightfully near thing, especially when Charlie managed to breach the ditch. However, I hadn’t received any wounds other than cuts, abrasions and bruises, and at least it was another day to strike off on the three hundred and sixty five day DEROS, calendar. When “E” grade guys serving as bush-beasts in South Vietnam broke their deployment year down into three hundred and sixty five days on a calendar, it made their hearts pump faster knowing that survival could only be taken as one day at a time.

Every man lost on both sides in that “ball game”, action, had been an individual, with their own thoughts and aspirations for the future. But to the war historians they would simply be part of an unconfirmed casualty number for a little foot-note action of absolutely no significance to the outcome of the politicians “grand plan”.

It was the worst of all worlds to be confronted by an enemy who seemed not in the least bit fearful of their own destruction, and driven not by conquest but in the dedicated defense of their homeland. During 1967 it ensured that somewhere within the Southland of Vietnam the sound of gunfire, explosions, and agonizing screams could be heard every minute of every day, and for those fighting there death came in many guises.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2017 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.

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