Flamethrowers, Pole Charges, and Thinking of a Way Out

By Paul Becker

A tow-truck operation just off the shoulder of the south-bound Palasades Interstate Parkway free-associated me to a memory of a tow-truck operation along Route One just North of Camp Evans in the Republic of Vietnam during early March in 1968. It must have been on March 4th, and my squad-sized platoon had been detailed to provide security for the daily mine sweeping operation on Route One between Camp Evans and some hamlet four or five klicks up the road.

I had sprained my ankle, and it was quite painful; so I rode in a jeep most of the way which I'm sure pissed off my men who had to walk along side the road. No doubt they were thinking to themselves that I was just a goddamned officer pulling his rank and riding easy while they were out there humping it in the dust! My chest hurt, too, having put a lot of strain on my pectoral muscles while exercising with a pick and D-Handle shovel while digging into gravelly terrain.

About two klicks up the road from Evans, a Deuce-and-Half truck hit a mine. It wasn't a very powerful mine. It blew the left front tire off and broke the axle. The truck veered off the road. The driver wasn't hurt nor was anyone else. No ambush occurred.

Half of my platoon (about the size of a fire team) was ordered to remain there and provide security for a tow truck which was being dispatched from Evans to retrieve the truck. I stayed there and used the waiting time to reflect on the quality of my life in country and, in particular, about my future there, which still had another nine months to go.

We had just finished fighting the battle of Hue. We had been fighting that battle before it officially began, and we were still fighting it after it officially ended. I hadn't taken my boots off for the entire month of February! It hadn't really ended for us until two days ago when we finally returned to Camp Evans, having walked the entire distance from Hue in a somewhat roundabout way.

The night before, the battalion comander had called a meeting of all the officers in the unit. An "officers' mess," he had called it: a hot meal and some beer. We all went to it thinking he was going to say some nice words and offer praise about the job we had done during the last month in the battle for Hue.

When he addressed us, however, what he expressed was his disappointment with us. The battle would have been over much more quickly if we had used proper bunker assaulting techniques. If we had been trained in the use of flamethrowers and pole charges we would have been able to break through that NVA bunker complex rather than having been stonewalled by it for three days. Therefore, in just a few days, training would commence in the application of these weapons and the tactics to employ them.


Pole Charges!

Hell! Why not fixed bayonets, too!

Whatever happened to nice clinical airstrikes and artillery and rocket-launching gunships and tanks!

Why all this John Wayne crap?!

Do you know how much a flamethrower weighs? What the life expectancy is of the guy who uses it?

And how effective flamethrowers and pole charges are against interlocking bunker systems?

And where might we first put these to use? Why, Khe Sahn, of course!

This was sheer, fucking madness!

So, I thought to myself, how the hell am I going to get out of here alive! Maybe I should shoot myself in the foot. No, that would be messy and too obviously intentional. Maybe my chest pain was something more serious than a pulled muscle, maybe the early stages of tuberculosis or lung cancer. Maybe my ankle was more than just sprained; maybe it was really broken.

My ankle! That was it. Hell, maybe even my leg! That's how I get out of here alive. I'd break one or the other or both of them.

I developed a plan on how to do it.

My bunker on the Camp Evans perimeter had a drainage ditch that ran from inside the bunker and underneath the sandbags and then down a slight slope for about twenty feet. Because the soil there was dense and gravelly, the ditch had very well-defined edges, almost as if it had been chiseled into the ground rather than dug. It was about six inches across and about nine inches deep.

I figured that if I took a walk outside the bunker at night to take a leak and walked in front of it, I could put my foot in the ditch and some how or other fall sideways. My foot would be caught in the ditch and my leg would break just a little bit above my ankle.

It was a great plan. Just a little accident. No appearance of intention. No weapons involved. An act of pure dumb luck!

When I got back to my bunker at Evans, I cased out the event. It would work. I was sure of it. I would do it that night.

It was a quiet afternoon. Mail was delivered. I wrote some letters which gave no hint of how grim I was feeling. I read a copy of Ferlingettie's CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND. Where the hell had that come from?

One of my men scrounged up a case of beer. We drank. I got to feeling much better.

I took another look at the ditch and considered the many options of death in country: by bullet, hand grenade, mortar round, artillery shell, RPG, land mine, satchel charges...friendly fire. If I had to choose any one of these, which one would I choose? Friendly fire, I decided. Being consumed in the red-rolling fires of a napalm blast! Yes, that would be the best.

Wait, I thought, why haven't I considered just being maimed? Isn't that what I'm planning to do to myself?

I've survived two months here. I should really be dead. It can't get any worse. So what the hell. Just put up with it. I'm a goddamned survivor. Nothing's going to take me out. Things can never get so bad that there isn't room for them to get worse. There is no fucking limit!

Anyway, if I'm dead, it won't make any difference.

But if I break my leg I'll have to live with it for the rest of my life.

How simple a decision.

Two days later, I began training my men in squad fire, maneuver, how to make pole charges--lashing C4 to the ends of 12-foot-long bamboo stalks, how to ignite a flamethrower and refill it, and how to zero in an M-60 on a bunker aperture.

Just one day at a time...

We developed into one hell of a crackerjack, bunker-assault team.

We went to Khe Sahn.