A newbie’s first day in the most dangerous place on a patrol
In April 1968, after arriving in Vietnam as a 22-year-old private first class from Dover, Delaware, and being processed through the 90th Replacement Battalion, I reported to my permanent unit, the 199th Infantry Brigade, nicknamed “The Redcatchers” because it was activated in 1966 to destroy the communists in South Vietnam.
The new arrivals went through a week called “Redcatcher Training,” conducted at the 199th Infantry Brigade main base at Long Binh, about 20 miles northeast of Saigon. During that week we fired the M16 rifle, M79 grenade launcher, M60 machine gun and M72 light anti-tank weapon, or LAW, a rocket launcher.
We had to become proficient with every weapon our platoon would carry. We had done all these things during advanced infantry training in the States, but some of us needed a refresher since it had been a few months. The evening after our last day of training we sat around talking about what it would be like out in the bush.
We knew at some time during the process for breaking in new arrivals we would be “walking point”—out in front of everyone else in the unit.
The point man is the eyes and ears of the patrol. He is the tip of the spear. We had heard horror stories of a point man tripping a delayed booby trap and getting a couple of guys behind him killed or missing the signs of an ambush and walking into it. Point duty weighed on everyone’s mind.
On April 22, about 3 p.m., we new guys in the 199th Infantry Brigade were assigned our battalion and company. I went to Company D of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment. We were going to leave the main base at Long Binh on resupply choppers and fly to a fire support base somewhere on the Cambodian border near Tay Ninh.
There were six of us on a Huey helicopter, and I’m sure all of us had that queasy “butterfly” feeling. To avoid small-arms fire, we flew at about 1,500 feet. Looking down, all I could see was green jungle with few open spots and the occasional reflection of a small river. After about 30 minutes, I spotted a round brown spot. We started circling and losing altitude. I could see artillery pieces, bunkers and a few people moving below. We landed, stirring up a cloud of dust.
The platoon leaders and squad leaders of Company D welcomed us, introduced themselves and distributed us among the units that needed replacements. I got 3rd Platoon, 3rd Squad. Another new guy also went to 3rd Squad. The squad leader, Spc. 4 Manton (I don’t recall his full name), assigned a more experienced soldier to stay with the new guys to show us the ropes.
My mentor was Pfc. Bill Trobledger from New Jersey. Bill’s first remark to me was: “I’ve only been here two weeks so I’m not quite sure why I got the job. I’m just learning what’s going on myself.”
Even with two replacements assigned to 3rd Squad we were still an undermanned squad of six. The squad should have had nine—the squad leader and two fire teams of four men. After a meal of C rations, we set up guard duty. Two men kept watch for an hour. Then we got two hours of sleep while the next two shifts were on. This would last until dawn.
The muggy morning soon became hot as the sun rose high enough to shine through the jungle. We spent the day cleaning weapons and preparing our gear for a night ambush and a three-day sweep that would start the next day, April 24.
About 4 p.m. a chopper flew in mail and chow. Men from the company mess section in the rear brought out mermite (insulated) containers with a hot evening meal. I could tell they didn’t like being in our area. They kept eyeing the jungle around them.
A guy wearing new fatigues and shined boots had gotten off the chopper and was in line in front of me. I introduced myself, and he said everyone called him Tex. He had been with the 199th for nine months and was just coming back from an R&R break. Tex had been approved for a trip to Hawaii, but after landing there he boarded another plane and flew to his home in Texas. He only had about 48 hours with his family, but there was a party for him, and he saw a lot of friends and relatives. Tex told me, “I’m glad I went. In this place you never know what’s going to happen.”
I had now been with my unit about 24 hours. We finished chow, made last-minute preparations and waited for dusk. At dusk two squads totaling 13 men headed out on the ambush. Bill had me walk in front of him.
We set up an oval-shaped ambush next to a trail with everyone facing outward so everyone’s back was covered, what’s known as an “all-round defense.” We laid out our Claymore mines, which are remotely detonated and shoot out steel pellets when they explode. We then got into position behind some cover.
We were to be 50 percent awake, meaning there were two men to a position, one spending an hour sleeping and the other an hour at watch. Then we switched. Bill said he would take first watch. I remember lying back with one hand on my M16 and wondering how anyone could sleep in this place when the North Vietnamese Army or Viet Cong might be walking into our position.
I looked up through the trees and caught a glimpse of the moon once in a while. The next thing I knew a hand was shaking me. I bolted upright with my rifle in hand and whispered, “What’s happening?” Bill said I had started to snore. He warned me to be perfectly quiet. I think that’s the last time that year I ever snored. So much for being able to sleep!
At dawn after a second uneventful night, we headed back to our fire support base. When we arrived, guys were already packing everything and rolling up the barbed wire. We were moving. Most of the company, including my platoon, was headed on the three-day sweep trying to find an NVA base camp reported by intel to be in the area. Everything happened quickly. CH-54 Tarhe cargo helicopters, nicknamed Skycranes, picked up the artillery pieces, and Hueys were being loaded with equipment. Drums of fuel were opened and dumped on the ground rather than being hauled out.
At midmorning Company D moved on foot in the opposite direction from where it had patrolled on a previous three-day sweep. We were heading into territory we hadn’t covered before. It was still dry season and hot as hell. Everyone was soaked with sweat after 15 minutes. The 1st Platoon had point. There was no trail.
At times the point man had to use a machete to hack out a path. Once the machete sliced right through a big wasp nest. The point man threw down his weapon and swatted the wasps, which made them angrier and brought on more. Someone tried to help him but got swarmed too. Soon men were running everywhere. I had always heard that if you stay still and keep from swatting them, wasps won’t come after you. I backed up against a tree and popped a smoke grenade, as did a couple of other guys. We were not stung. However, the point man sustained so many stings that he passed out and had to be carried on a stretcher until we reached an open area suitable for a medevac helicopter to land.
Afterward 2nd Platoon took over. The walk got easier as the jungle thinned out somewhat. We were able to cover more ground. Although I did not know it at the time, the company commander was expected to cover a certain amount of ground each day. The amount was designated by some higher-up sitting behind a desk in an air-conditioned office in the rear. We stopped for a break sometime after noon. By then, everyone was drinking out of his second canteen and opening C rations.
When we got moving again, it was 3rd Platoon’s turn to go on point duty. That day we new guys were getting broken in, and we knew everyone was watching.
Shortly after we reached a well-worn trail, it was my turn to walk point. I was a little apprehensive to say the least. I thought I might come face to face with the bad guys around the next bend and knew I had to look out for booby traps. I was thinking: “If I screw this up, I could get someone else killed.” Although I remembered my training, this was the real thing. The mental concentration required while walking point, especially in the jungle, is intense.
I had hardly been on point 15 minutes when I came to a bend in the trail and stopped. I put my hand up to signal the men behind me to halt. I then stepped off the trail to the left, and 1st Lt. Harvey Hutchinson came forward with his radio operator. I didn’t need to tell him why I had stopped. Just past the bend was a lean-to covered with a canvas roof. In front of the structure was a fire with a cooking pot over it. The lieutenant talked quietly on the radio to the commanding officer, Capt. Don Zimmerman, who was behind us with the command section. Meanwhile, we kept our weapons trained ahead. The lieutenant told me to move back and assist the machine gunner. He then brought Bill up to the point position.
As I moved back, I saw 1st and 2nd platoons moving off to the right and coming up even with us. When the three platoons were lined up, we began moving forward. The 1st Platoon, on my right, was visible, but thick jungle obscured 2nd Platoon. Moving ahead, I heard the 2nd and 3rd platoons reporting on the radio that they found some small living quarters.
Just a couple of minutes later, a giant roar of enemy gunfire and the “karump” and boom of North Vietnamese B40 rocket-propelled grenades filled the air on my right, followed within seconds by the reply of American M16 rifles, M60 machine guns and exploding grenades. I heard rounds snap through the trees. We were ordered to halt and watch the area forward and to our left so that the NVA couldn’t come around us.
I could not see what was going on, but I sure could hear it. It seemed like we waited a long time. I opened a can of peaches and slurped them down. One of the new guys asked, “How can you eat at a time like this?” I replied that I didn’t know how long it would be before I had another chance.
Less than 10 minutes later, the call came to move forward with caution because the NVA was nearby in fortified bunkers. We moved forward and slightly right to make sure we weren’t separated from 1st Platoon. The first thing I saw was a medic working on a couple of guys.
One of the wounded was leaning against a tree with a tourniquet around his stump of a leg. The other end of that blown-off leg was sticking out from a boot that he held his hand around. He laughed at us, saying he had a “million-dollar wound”—he would go home after his leg was sewed back on, and we would still be out here in this shit. He had been shot up with morphine and evidently was feeling it.
We had gone less than 50 feet when we entered a slightly more open area. As we moved in, we were hit with full automatic fire from an AK-47. I heard the rounds whizzing by and thumping into the trees behind us.
Someone yelled: “They’re in the trees!” Our machine gunner sprayed the trees. I heard a series of crashes as an enemy soldier toppled down through the branches, hitting the ground headfirst like a rag doll just 30 feet in front of me.
As we continued forward a short distance, we saw 1st Platoon to our right exchanging fire with the enemy. Suddenly there was fire aimed right at us. We all dropped for cover behind trees. The guys in the back moved up to join us and took firing positions. The gun smoke was so thick that it created a haze in the air. But I could see in front of me two guys lying on the ground, apparently wounded or dead. One was Bill.
Out of the haze walked a medic holding up our squad leader, Manton, his arm dangling with purple oozing out—probably muscle. It seemed everyone but me kept shooting. After a short time the firing died down. Spc. 4 Frank Nixon from Virginia crawled forward to check on the two guys down. He rolled the first one over, but the guy jumped up and ran back with us. He had only been playing dead. Nixon then rolled Bill over and dragged him behind us. He called for a medic who started working on him.
About that time the firing had died down. I stood up and tried to look around the tree to see what everyone had been firing at. So far the only enemy soldier I had seen was the one who fell out of the tree.
As I looked around the tree, someone said: “Hey new guy, get down before you get shot.” I answered, “I’m just trying to see what you are firing at.” Then he said: “Do you think we can see anything? We’re just firing in the direction it’s coming from. They’re in well-camouflaged bunkers.” He was soon to become my good friend Pfc. Ray Robinson from Boston.
The medic working on Bill asked for some help with the plasma bag, so I crawled back to hold it while he found a vein and inserted the needle. I could see Bill was conscious but couldn’t speak, probably because he was too weak. As I helped him, I thought that it could have and should have been me lying there. I was point man, but they didn’t trust the new guy yet, so they called Bill over.
Bill kept mouthing the word water, but the medic said: “Don’t give him any. It might choke him.” I took my canteen out, wet my fingers and dabbed Bill’s lips with some moisture. He mouthed, “Thanks.”
I crawled back to my position, still hearing occasional rounds coming our way. A few men behind us tried to blow down trees to make room for the medevac coming to pick up the dead and wounded. One guy climbed a tree to cut back branches that would get in the way of the chopper blades. He was a perfect target for the enemy, yet got his work done without being shot. He was another soon-to-be buddy—Michael “Moon” Mullins from Indiana.
Someone said men were needed to pick up ammunition that was about 100 feet behind us. I didn’t know there was more ammo. The heavy gunfire around me had drowned out the sounds of a chopper that came in and kicked out a resupply. I volunteered to help get it. At the helicopter drop site, a few men opened the boxes and handed out M16 and M60 rounds.
There were also poncho-covered bodies lying there. One them was Tex, the man who had just returned from R&R. I later learned his name was John M. Weatherford, a 21-year-old staff sergeant from Mesquite. Tex was one of nine killed that day.
A new guy I recognized was just sitting there among the wounded. I asked if he had been wounded. He just looked at me and didn’t answer. He left on the medevac with the wounded being transported to the brigade’s main base. He told people he couldn’t take it. Somehow he managed to get a job in the rear. We had no problem with that, but he lost our respect when we heard he was in the club bragging about his time in the bush—a grand total of two days.
I and the other ammunition carriers returned to the line and were distributing the ammo when we were told to pull back a short distance and pop smoke to mark our positions.
Huey helicopter gunships were on the way to attack the NVA positions. I heard them approaching but couldn’t see them. The jungle was too dense. The sound that followed was unbelievable—like a hundred chain saws running wide open.
The first words out of my mouth were, “Holy shit! What was that?” The guy next to me said it was the sound of the helicopters’ miniguns. “I’m glad they’re ours!” I responded. Debris and shell casings rained down on us. Pieces of wood and leaves drifted in the air. I didn’t hear a shot fired at us after that.
It was getting late in the day. Dusk was approaching. The last of the wounded and dead were loaded onto the medevac. That was the last time I saw Bill. (Although seriously injured, he survived his wounds.)
I started to light a cigarette, and my hands were shaking. Someone next to me said, “You are coming down off an adrenaline high.” Platoon leader Hutchinson yelled, “Saddle up!” We moved out in a hurry to find a good night position before dark. As we went back through the jungle, our eyes kept scanning both sides of us and to our rear.
About 30 minutes later, we emerged into a large field of elephant grass about 7 feet high. We set up positions along the edge of the field but worried about getting mortared. There was another concern: The height and thickness of the grass made it hard to see if enemy intruders were crawling up on us. We got word to keep 50 percent awake but try to get some rest because we were going back to the enemy base camp in the morning to finish what we started.
So this was Vietnam. I had survived my first 48 hours and first time on point duty. We all found our niche in the platoon. I carried the M60 machine gun for about six months. I liked that firepower.
Luckily, we had guys who preferred to walk point. They felt like they could do a better job than most. V
Tom Brooks entered the Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam 1968-69. In 1970, he was contacted by the Delaware National Guard and received a direct commission to officer. He retired from the Guard as a major in 1993 and lives in Lewes, Delaware. Email: [email protected]
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