Red Ants

by Tom Hain

I got an E-mail message from John Gallo, another Mekong Delta vet, about my "Leeches, Mekong Delta" story. He asked if I ever had the displeasure to run into red ants. He briefly told me of a couple of incidents where he encountered red ants while on operations with the 3rd of the 60th. On one occasion he ended up losing his helmet into leech-infested water while he was trying to get the red ants off. They call them fire ants because it feels like you are on fire when you're bitten by a swarm of them. John can testify to that. So can I.

In northern Illinois where I grew up, there were no red ants. They had them in the southern states but not around Chicago. The midwest ants were pests at picnics and they might crawl on you and make you itch if you sat on the ground. There were little ants and big ants but no biting ants. No ants that could make you roll around in the dirt or jump around like a monkey trying to get them off. Midwest ants made you itch, red ants made you hurt. Once red ants have a hold of you they don't let go. They dig their pinchers into your skin and hang on until hell freezes over. If you try to brush them off they leave their pinchers behind to irritate you. The best way to get them off is to scrape them off with a knife, or pick them off one at a time making sure to kill the miserable little beasts so they won't get you again.

The worst encounter with red ants for me was at a bridge near Saigon. Elements of the 9th Infantry and the ARVN's had been in heavy contact with a large number of Viet Cong for a few hours when we were brought in by boat as a blocking force along the river. We off-loaded the Tangos into dense vegetation and waist-deep mud, but not into gunfire. The boats moved to another area along the river to add their firepower to the engagement. We moved in about 50 feet untill we reached solid ground when we were sent scrambling for cover by fire from several automatic weapons. We were bunched up and we couldn't return fire effectively. Our platoon leader had to make some quick decisions. He sent my squad to the left to try to out flank them. There was a path that afforded us some concealment if we dropped our equipment and ran crouched over or crawled on our knees. It wasn't a great option, but seemed like the best idea at the time.

I was the third guy in line that went down the path. We had moved about 50 meters when we walked into more automatic weapons fire from the right. This time when I hit the dirt there was nothing to hide behind, only a shallow depression that was barely deep enough to offer any cover at all. But it was better than nothing. I landed on my back and I flattened out as much as I could. I didn't return fire because I didn't want them shooting at me with no place to hide. It seemed as if most of the fire was being directed to the two guys ahead of me who were returning fire. We were all OK for the moment.

Very soon, my situation took a turn for the worse when I started to feel the red ants eating me. At first I thought I could handle it and I didn't move. I shortly came to the conclusion that I wasn't going to be able to keep still. I had to get them off! I started squirming and swatting and rolling around, and in the process I was letting the VC know where to aim, which they did. When I saw the vegetation around me being cut down by the gun fire, I knew it was time to leave that depression.

There was no way to get to the river from where I was without a slow crawl through waist-deep mud in full view of the VC. The path I was on wasn't an option either, because the VC had it zeroed in. I couldn't go forward or backward and I couldn't stay where I was. In training we were taught to assault the ambush, but I always thought that was stupid. Now it seemed like the only answer. I stood up and put my M16 on sprinkle. I pulled the trigger and took a few steps toward the bad guys through low vegetation, when I fell into a hole about 2 feet deep. It was filled with water but it was a lot better than the hole I just left. I'm sure that the VC thought that they hit me from the way I fell because they stopped shooting at me. The two guys ahead of me on the trail didn't know if I was dead or alive either. In any case, now I could try to get those damn red ants off me!

The water in the hole didn't discourage the ants. It didn't put the fire out either. I started picking them off and didn't pay any attention to what was going on around me. It's funny how something so small could make a guy forget the imminent danger at hand. At that point the VC could have walked up to me and I wouldn't have noticed them. The other guys on the trail started to pull back and called to me a few times before I heard them. I had to go with them or I'd be alone with the red ants and VC. I crawled out of the hole, and when I saw them running I got up and ran with them, still swatting ants.

When we got to a place of relatve safety, and we were all OK, I finished getting the ants off and we laughed about it. Then we got back to the job at hand. That day, the red ants were only a small problem compared to what was to come. But that's another story.

Copyright © 1997 By Thomas J. Hain, All Rights Reserved