I never saw combat in Vietnam that remotely resembled the combat I saw on TV or in movies. Still, the Vietnam War did have a great deal in common with theater.
The Americans in Vietnam all seemed to be playing a role in a gigantic movie production with a thousand directors and ten- thousand scripts. We came to the war with character favorites derived from watching decades of action thrillers on TV and in movie theaters. We had numerous John Waynes and Audie Murphy types. The cast included thousands of gun slingers, commandos, Dick Tracys and spies. We even had super heroes--everything from Spiderman to Chickenman. I was a cross between Tarzan, Vic Morrow (Combat--the TV series), Crazy Horse (the Indian), and Peterson (Peter sanh) from the Green Beret movie.
Two months in-country taught me a great deal about the real war. I learned that the enemy was an elusive little rascal that you had to go looking for in order to have a fight; that once you found him, he'd try to run away; that the people I was with weren't looking very hard; and if, by chance, they stumbled upon the enemy, would give chase only in the opposite direction. It was a game of mouse and mouse.
This was not as I had imagined the war to be. After watching the war on TV and after hearing countless first-hand combat narratives from returning vets, I thought I knew what to expect. I pictured combat, John Wayne style, or Vic Morrow's Combat in a jungle setting. The Vietnamese on both sides did not watch American TV news, had never seen an episode of Combat, nor had they seen the Duke on Iwo Jima, nor talked much with American vets. They did not know how to act.
The whole environment was wrong. Gung Ho may as well have been Ho Chi Minh's baby brother. Seasons disappeared; weekends disappeared; puppies disappeared, even the days of the week disappeared. The days of the week gave way to the military date/time group. Saturday night became 12-10-69 1800-2400. Nobody seemed to care what day it was anyway. Ask a GI the date and you would likely get it as "118 and a wake-up." You could then go look up his DEROS date (his date of departure), and back it off 118 days.
The above individual was "short." Anyone with less than 180 days left was on the down hill slope of his one-year tour. He was "short." If you wanted to be somebody in Vietnam, you had to be "short." The shorter you were, the bigger you were.
For laughs, some GI would ask a Vietnamese man for his DEROS date and receive a dumb look. Contrary to popular belief, the Vietnamese were not short people. The Vietnamese were "Long." The Vietnamese were nobody.
Some GIs made a short timer's calendar the day they arrived and would check off each day as it passed. These guys could fire off their remaining days at the drop of a hooker's knickers. "359 and a wake up, pal."
The above individual was a newbie, a nobody. Next to the Vietnamese, they were the longest people in-country. Many newbies were a lot shorter than they thought. They paid more attention to their calendars than to their areas of responsibility. The longest guys sent them home early.
I never knew how many days I had left. I never kept a calendar or kept count. I did not plan on going home. I was a nobody when I left America and would become one again if I returned. I was big in Vietnam, bigger than I'd ever been. Where ever I stood, I looked down on short people.
Even the Vietnamese looked up to me. The Montagnards looked up to me. I was a big man in their eyes. I liked being around people who looked up to me. I liked Vietnam, the Vietnamese, the Yards, warm weather, the jungle, and the exotic wildlife. I liked petit women, rice, a cool rain, free bullets, cheap beer, and the exotic nightlife. I would not go home without a fight. I looked forward to a long war and possibly a position afterwards helping to keep the peace.
At camp A-502, we had fifteen-hundred men under arms in the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) program. Irregular being the key word, most were the dregs of South Vietnam society. We did have one outstanding unit--the recon platoon. The recon platoon consisted of roughly thirty Vietnamese who wanted to fight. Many were ex-Viet Cong, ex-Viet Minh, or locals who lost family to VC terror. They were men with a grudge. They looked for a fight and chased after the enemy like a bar girl seeing green. They accounted for more than half of our enemy KIAs and made contact on almost every mission. Guys that needed a CIB (Combat Infantryman's Badge) went out with the recon platoon.
I ached to get into the fight. My fear was that I'd gotten there too late, and the war would be over before I could showcase my talents and win my share of medals. I wanted action, bullets whizzing past my ears, cordite in my nostrils, brains on my boots and veins in my teeth. I fought hard to get the recon platoon. I got it without much of a fight.
Shortly after I got it, I knew we would lose the war. My team members did not share that opinion, and I don't think the South Vietnamese people believed the North could defeat them. It did seem improbable after the Tet of '68 debacle. The North blew a bugle, and the Viet Cong came out of the woodwork. They made a big commotion; but essentially, they jumped up, tripped, stumbled, farted, and fell. They got squashed like a bug. After Tet, we could drive the roads with impunity from the Delta to the DMZ, from Nha Trang to Pleiku. The VC were short--very short.
In the face of all this, I knew the North would win. It was not a premonition or even an educated guess. I had no crystal ball. I did have the word of a man I trusted to know, and I believed him. His was Trung Si Quan.
Quan was in a position to know. In his late thirties--an old man in the ranks of the CIDG--he fought the French with the Viet Minh and remained when the Viet Minh became the Viet Cong. He had been wounded nine times. He defected after Tet. Quan hated the North for squandering his men but had no love for the South. War was all he knew. He was just a warrior, and his allegiance was to his men. In late November of '69, I took over as advisor to the recon platoon and became one of his men. I did no advising; I was there to learn.
Quan was an amazing man. In battle, he was without peer. He knew the enemy better than the enemy knew himself. In a fire fight, he would stand up in order to clearly see what was going on. He carried only a pistol, and that pistol was for anyone who failed to follow orders. He didn't need it; no one ever failed.
Quan told me to do less shooting and more looking. He taught me how to read trail markers. He taught me how to survive a near hit from a 750 pound bomb, how to control a large group of men in combat without radios, how to arm a 60mm mortar round without dropping it down a mortar tube. He said the South had no leaders, the U.S. had no stomach for a long war, and that the North could not and would not stop fighting. He told me he would not live to see it, but the North would win. Quan was right about everything.
I quickly earned my Combat Infantry Badge, then helped nearly a dozen other men win theirs as they took turns strap-hanging on our missions. Being close to the flagpole, A-502 had a steady stream of temporary duty people assigned to our team. Most were there for less than a month, either awaiting DEROS or waiting for a top secret clearance to be run prior to going on to the special projects. For those about to go home with no CIB, A-502 was their last chance; the recon platoon, their only hope. Few went home empty handed.
Lt. Roush arrived a month after I got the recon platoon. He came from CCC recon, a MACV SOG operation. Roush was a real hero, a staff sergeant made lieutenant, the winner of almost every valor award, many, several times over, numerous purple hearts, and awaiting word on his Congressional Medal of Honor. They sent him to A-502 for his last thirty days to try to keep their hero alive.
Roush was cool. He actually looked the part of a Green Beret war hero. He was tall, ruggedly handsome, and had a heavy scar over his left eye that gave him a perpetual menacing look. He wasn't just cool acting; he was cool personified. He was Mr. Recon. He was my hero. When I grew up, I wanted to be just like Lt. Roush.
Roush liked the recon platoon and took a liking to me. It may have been my obvious hero worship, but he and I were together like bubble gum on a sweater. Roush decided that A-502 needed a SOG style recon team. He argued for it; argued for me to run it; and argued for total autonomy for the one zero--me. Roush got what he wanted and spent his thirty days training me and my hand- picked team. I had a recon tutor.
He taught me the ins and outs of small team recon. The man knew the business, and I was a good student. I was like Moses getting the law from God. He also taught frame of mind--attitude. Remaining cool and calm under the most dire of circumstances was at the heart of Roush's training. "Never get excited; never lose your cool. Go out dead. If you come back, you have cause for celebration; if not, you got what you expected." There was nothing to get excited about.
He constantly tested me in an attempt to get me to lose my cool. He once tossed a grenade on my bunk as I tried to catch a quick nap. He had rendered it inert. I calmly replaced the spoon and pin and returned it.
He liked to drive jeeps through the local villages. I rode shotgun for him. Once, after a heavy downpour, the floorpan on my side was full of water, the drain being clogged. Water sloshed and splashed about and this irritated me. I felt for the drain and cursed the fact that I couldn't find it. Roush stopped the jeep. While I felt around, bent double, an explosion rang my left ear and water drenched me. I remained in place as water dripped from my face, staring at a 45 caliber hole in the floor where water swirled out in a tight vortex.
Roush said, "See it now?" He then holstered his pistol.
I stared for a second, more to catch my breath and calm my nerves, before saying, "Oh, there it is!"
This was all part of his conditioning or testing. When in his company, it was important to expect a burst of gunfire from behind, an explosion, or a grenade at your feet. Reaction was expected, but always without excitement and never with a loss of composure. Being cool was rewarded with a wry smile.
This may appear to be heroic, macho bullshit, but there are sound reasons for promoting this attitude. Contrary to popular opinion, a person does not function better under an adrenalin rush. If anything, it causes rash thinking and un-necessarily snap decisions. Reflexes do not speed up; they just appear to. Keeping cool in combat allows for clear thinking and well-placed shots. The key to survival is making the enemy lose his cool and then exploiting the weaknesses that unfold as a consequence. The Roush method was to move with practiced precision in an environment of absolute chaos. His credo was, "Drill for precision; create chaos."
Quan was a Vietnamese Roush. Although I never saw them compare notes, they followed the same game plan. Quan followed the Roush credo or vise versa. I became a disciple of both.
The A-502 recon team ran missions for three months until the camp was turned over to the Vietnamese Rangers and the A-team disbanded. We ran numerous successful missions without the loss of a single man. We survived a platoon-sized ambush, turning back an attempt at overrunning our position. On one mission, we were surrounded by an NVA company and held them off the entire night while calling in devastating air and artillery fire until they were so badly mangled, they broke off the engagement.
Later, in my second tour, I volunteered to run recon with the special projects of MACV SOG. I graduated from Recon Team Leaders School as the honor graduate, thanks to the training I received from Lt. Roush. I then served six months on a team at CCC. I survived, again, thanks to Lt. Roush and Trung Si Quan.
Lt. Roush did not get approved for a CMH. Most do not. I believe his was down-graded to a Distinguished Service Cross. Three days after he left, we saw his picture on the front page of Stars and Stripes--the overseas newspaper for servicemen. Roush was shouting and shaking an angry fist at protestors marching outside LAX. The caption read: "A Green Beret, his tunic laden with medals, lashes out at antiwar demonstrators."
Lt. Roush lost his cool. It is a good thing Charlie never spat on him.
* * *
A few thoughts on Vietnam style combat:
Vietnam Combat has a great deal in common with an auto accident. Sometimes, two cars collide head on; at other times, one gets blind-sided or rear-ended. It lasts seconds that seem to last hours. If questioned, each party will remember it differently. Each person in each vehicle will have a different version or perspective to relate. Most accidents (and enemy contacts) occur at night, in the rain, or during periods of poor visibility.
Real combat is more audio than visual. In fact, the senses of touch, taste, and smell play a bigger role than sight or hearing. Most Vietnam combat was at night or in heavy jungle vegetation filled with smoke, dust, and debris. With sight already gone or severely restricted, hearing is the second sense to go, leaving a soldier with three senses to experience combat.
Combat has an acrid smell; a bitter, metallic taste; and feels like sudden death. High explosives give off toxic gas and vaporize thin metal casings. Explosions and the impact of small arms transmit their energy through the ground while rounds cutting the air at supersonic speed crack the air which can be felt on exposed skin. It ain't like the movies.
In order to keep a soldier's head down, he must be made to feel the rounds either through the ground or the air. Noise alone won't do it. Firing wildly on full auto won't do it. That only impresses birds and monkeys. Well-aimed, controlled, single shots or three round bursts do the job nicely without drawing undue attention to your position. Grenades and explosives are even better. Tear gas and white phosphorus is better still.
Because of the environment, command and control quickly breaks down while troops are under fire. Communication becomes impossible. The troops can not see or hear in most cases. Confusion reigns. Immediate action drills, staying tight (within reach), the ability to move and act as a coordinated unit, and acts that confuse the enemy insure survivability in the combat environment. For these reasons, small, well-rehearsed groups had an advantage over large ones.
Professional race car drivers know that you can sometimes gain control of a vehicle in a crash situation if you keep your head and remain calm. If you lose your cool, it is impossible.
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, then you obviously have no idea how serious the situation really is...or...you studied the gospel according to Lt. Roush.