June 5, 1968 - 1st Recon Battalion Area
Just one day in this time, and it wasn't a rest day either. It started out with a battalion working party, which meant that we had to pick up trash for most of the morning around the battalion area.
Just before noon chow we got our orders, a five day patrol to Charlie Ridge. That is one of those geologic fingers which protrudes from the high, jungle covered mountains, to point accusingly toward the sea. There is very little vegetation on Charlie Ridge, a lot of rock formations and it is not very high, rising from only 50 feet or so in the east or seaward end to some 4,500 feet in the west as it disappears into the jungle coverage at the base of Ba Na Mountain.
I have been assigned a special weapon, the M-79 grenade launcher, as my primary weapon. It looks like a sawed-off shotgun and shots a 40mm round of either high explosives, shotgun pellets, CS gas (tear gas), or illumination canister. I have trained with the M-79 before and am comfortable and proficient with it. Along with the M-79, I will be carrying a Colt .45 pistol for personal protection.
In the afternoon, I was assigned to help a FNG (fucking new guy) to get his gear ready for this patrol to Charlie Ridge. Unlike the razing which I got just before my first patrol, I was straight forward with Mickey (the FNG) and didn't bullshit him at all.
At 1500 ( 3 p.m.) we had physical training, gym exercises and a run. As we finished the run, returning to the landing zone (LZ), we stopped to catch our breath. One of the perimeter guards walked up to us and said, "Guess what! Kennedy just got shot!" They were exactly the same words I had heard once before, but I was in the wrong place now. I was supposed to be in freshman English in Gwinn High School in Gwinn, Michigan. Why was I here? It's too hot, it's supposed to be cold, with snow on the ground. Where is the English teacher? My momentary Deja Vu ended abruptly when I understood that this was Bobby Kennedy, not John F. Kennedy. Now the reality and chronology of events returned to me. It was 3:05 p.m. June 5, 1968 in Vietnam, it was 4:05 am June 6, 1968 at home in Annandale, Virginia. The concepts of time, space, history and their continuum washed over me with a chill. Had the world truly gone insane and I was being swept along in the tide of madness? Once again, Marine training resolved the issue and we broke for a shower, chow, final packing and final patrol briefing.
Early to bed so we would be bright for the bush, or what there would be of it.
June 6 - 11, 1968 - Roving Patrol - Charlie Ridge
We were in the air at 9 am this morning. We circled and circled over the LZ (landing zone) in and endless spiral then quickly dropped like a hot rock to the ground. We were out and on our bellies, facing outward to protect the second helicopter's landing. It came in, hovered briefly right above my head and then side slipped into the center of the LZ before setting down. We had been inserted at the upper, western end of Charlie Ridge, so named because it usually belonged to Charlie (in the military phonetic alphabet, the Viet Cong were referred to as VC or Victor Charlie, Charlie for short).
After the helicopters departed, we moved off cautiously and steadily downhill for about an hour and a half. We then stopped to set up an observation post (OP) for the rest of the day. In conference, we decided to move early in the mornings and late in the evenings but sit in OP during the heat of the day due to the lack of ground cover.
At dusk, we moved a couple of hundred meters to our harbor site for the night, nestled in a circle of rocks. During the night, unknown artillery fired 3 rounds very close to us. The shrapnel whistled overhead and the concussions jarred us where we lay. Charlie must know that we are on his ridge, he saw the helicopters put us here and now he is sending us a calling card.
Next morning, before dawn, we moved out and "humped" (walked with heavy packs) over a "click". A click is one increment of movement on an artillery piece, it covers the distance of 1,000 meters, therefore a thousand meters is referred to as a "click". We set up an OP on a knoll in the middle of the ridge line. A very open and very dangerous position because of it's high visibility. We must remain very alert and cautious. Tedium and heat are our enemy now. We have seen nothing and just sitting has us soaked in sweat. The slight breeze stirs the heat a little, but it's like stirring molasses with a straw.
The afternoon was a mirror image of the morning. We moved at dusk, some 100 meters to harbor for the night. I have drunk 6 of my 8 one quart canteens of water. Tomorrow, we will try to find a stream where we can refill.
In the pre-dawn glow, we headed down the side of the ridge, intending to intercept a stream. What looked like a low grass meadow from our observations of yesterday is actually elephant grass, some 6 to 8 feet tall. We moved through it cautiously and found the stream. Like spooked animals, we took turns filling our canteens while the rest stayed at ready guard with weapons ready to fire at the slightest provocation. The reason being that, as animals, we know that the predators watch the streams for the prey to come to drink.
We moved off without incident and returned to near the crest of the ridge. Our journey of three clicks (3,000 meters or about 9,000 feet, about a mile and a half) took us 4 hours. During the journey, the seam of my camouflage pants ripped wide open. An asshole to belly button rip and I will have to live with that until we return from patrol, and remember, we don't wear underwear due to heat rashes.
Now sitting at our next OP with a little shade to protect us from the afternoon sun. Around 3 p.m. we were hit by one of those freight train thunderstorms, so we used it's cover to move once again to our harbor site for the night. I'm soaking wet and refreshingly cool, eating cold beans and franks from the C-ration cans, then a last smoke before the sun goes down behind us.
I had a front row seat last night to watch "Spooky" the gunship work out in the valley to our south. He worked for almost an hour and the red line of tracers seemed to be a string which tethered him to the ground. I'm glad I wasn't on the receiving end.
It's only 10:30 in the morning and it's already hotter than blazes. Watch, watch, watch and still we have seen nothing. Late in the afternoon it rained again and the clouds are so low that they are flowing along at the same altitude as Charlie Ridge. We caught a cloud on the ridge and "walked it" to our harbor site for the night, close to our extraction LZ.
A peaceful and quiet night, almost pleasant. We ate chow and broke camp to set up a perimeter around our LZ. By 11:00 we were set up and waiting, but the command radio said that there were no helicopters available to extract us. Sit and wait, hurry up and wait, wait, wait, wait.
Late in the afternoon, command said that the "birds" (helicopters) were on their way. GREAT! But, so is the fog, damn it. We can see the fog rolling in from the sea, faster than the birds will be able to get to us. And so it was, we were socked in by fog, could hear the birds circling overhead, but without visibility, they could not pick us up. Another day, another night in the bush, in Vietnam.
The morning broke clear, with that familiar orange dot rising quickly in the East. The hill is enveloped in an orange glow, and as the sun gets higher, the glow turns to gold, then to lemon, then to bright yellow, followed by a pale yellow before it is lost in the heat haze of the day. Well, GOOOOD MOOORNING, VIETNAM!, and a very merry birthday to me. It's June 11th and I am 20 years old. I cannot legally drink in any state in the nation. I cannot vote in any state in the nation. But, I can be here and the government will let me drink on their military bases, so that is what I will do tonight, if we get in.
While we wait for the birds to come and get us, we got a radio call that an infantry company, the "grunts" were coming up the ridge and would be passing through our position. The heat became immediately oppressive and before 9:30 am, the grunts were here and the temperature was at 120. The grunts had a heat casualty and we took him with us when the birds picked us up. Riding up in the atmosphere, with no windows in the helicopter, it was cool, fresh and clean.
By noon, I had been debriefed, had a shower, had a shave, put on trousers without a hole in the bottom, and drank a beer. The rest of the day and night I devoted to getting plastered, I deserved it. Happy Fucking Birthday to me.
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