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It had been pelting rain most of the day, but in the break between squalls, the sound of the rain was replaced by the noise of excited insects, which filled the heavy air, blending into a high-pitched shriek. Though the commotion was aggravating, both types of noise covered the movement of the six American soldiers who threaded expertly through the trees in single file. They were thankful to have the overcast and the noise to cover their movement.
In the trees the visibility was so poor that even twenty feet apart each patrol member could feel the man in front far better than he could see him. Still, the patrol made good progress until the third man momentarily lost sight of the man in front of him. Unrattled by the break, he quickly crouched down to silhouette the lost soldier's outline against the only slightly lighter horizon.
Finding the man in front of him, Jim Hollister, a young Infantry first lieutenant, stepped up and tapped three-stripe Sergeant Camacho on the shoulder.
Camacho, in turn, quickened his pace to catch up with Davis, who was walking point. Davis calmly froze and then settled silently into a squat without turning around. He kept his eyes on the black void in front of him and waited for some word to be passed up.
Once Davis had stopped, each man behind him did the same, falling to one knee and facing outward in a ready firing position.
Hollister moved past Camacho, knelt near Davis and whispered in his ear. Before beginning, he exhaled most of his breath to avoid the hissing sounds of whispering that carry great distances in the damp night air. "Goin' forward to check the ambush site. Hold what you got."
Staff Sergeant Davis, the assistant patrol leader, nodded and looked back to get a feel for where the others were.
"If I'm not here in one five," Hollister said, "hustle back to the last rally point—that burned-out mahogany tree about three hundred meters back. You hear somebody bust caps while I'm out on this rekkie—head straight back to the RP. Don't be a hero. If I make it, I'll find you."
Davis nodded again and replied, "Okay, boss." He watched Hollister as long as his outline was visible and then turned to scan his wedge of the hasty defensive perimeter the team had formed. Satisfied, Davis crawled back to Camacho to pass the word to the others.
Hollister weaved through the brush, his movements silent, slow and fluid, first finding solid footing with his toe, then letting his foot settle while holding his weapon at the ready—high and across his chest. He kept his eyes moving—searching the terrain to the limits of his vision for anything that might be trouble.
Abruptly, the vegetation in front of him ended at the lip of a large bomb crater half filled with brackish rainwater. Before stepping into the clearing, Hollister stopped and dropped to his knee.
For several long seconds he waited and listened. Finally, confident that he could move on safely, Hollister got to his feet and skirted the bomb crater, hugging the tree line to keep from pasting his outline against the skyline.
The Viet Cong platoon leader carried a Tokarev 9mm pistol on his belt. Other members of the nineteen-man platoon carried AK-47 automatic rifles—all except the four who had American M-16s, an RPD machine gunner, and one armed with a B-40 rocket launcher.
Noticing that his men were beginning to tire, the platoon leader poked at some and whispered to others; reminding them to stay alert—American or South Korean patrols could be anywhere in the area.
Detecting motion up in front of him, Davis thumbed his selector lever, ready to drop his rifle off of safe two notches to full automatic. Soon the image took shape—Hollister had returned.
Davis reached back and alerted Camacho, who, in turn, threw a small stick, hitting Specialist 4 Vinson. Eventually the word got back to the last man. The lieutenant was back and they could expect to move out quickly.
Hollister motioned toward the objective. He huddled with Davis and Camacho, then half whispered and half gestured, indicating that he had been to the ambush site and that it was what they expected.
Taking the point, Hollister cautiously moved the patrol forward across the same ground he had just checked out. The order of march was Hollister, Davis, Vinson, Doc Norris, Camacho, and PFC Theodore—the tail gunner.
The closer they got to their destination, the more cautious they became. The last thing they wanted was to be discovered moving into their ambush site. A small patrol was rarely in a position to slug it out with any enemy element while on the move.
They reached the site without delay and held up while Hollister carefully led each man into his firing position. In the darkness it was very easy to get turned around, so he wanted to make sure that everyone knew where the killing zone was and where the other members of the patrol were. Hollister knew of soldiers who had fired on their own patrol members, thinking they were firing on the enemy. He also wanted to make sure he knew exactly where each man was.
Once he had positioned the patrol, the final ambush layout was Hollister, Doc Norris, Davis and Vinson in the center, and Camacho and Theodore well out to the flanks. Everyone was facing south but Doc, who faced north to provide their only rear security.
With his compass, Hollister checked their orientation, comparing it to his mental picture of the map that he had memorized earlier in the day, making sure he had his cardinal directions right. Come time to call for supporting fires, there would be no time for him to get oriented.
While Hollister took care of his highest priority tasks, the others laid out grenades and ammunition at arm's length, then—one at a time—moved forward to check out the killing zone and put out their Claymore mines.
Like moving into the ambush site, it was a very vulnerable time for the team. Their fires couldn't be effective or even coordinated if one of them remained forward when they were discovered by someone in the clearing. Instead of returning a heavy volume of fire, they would have to break contact with the enemy and try to make it to the rally point. Even that effort would be compromised by the lack of a coordinated move.
Once everyone was in position for the night, Hollister breathed a little easier. Still, he couldn't resist taking just one more look. One at a time he checked each man's position, fields of fire, ammo, relationship to the others, and their grip on the situation. He had to know that they knew what was going on. Confusion meant disaster—absolutely.
Satisfied the ambush was ready, Hollister settled into the most comfortable waiting position he could find on the uneven ground. He and the others would not move much until they sprang the ambush or until dawn came.
Although he was motionless, Hollister's mind was running. Details kept clicking by—communications, artillery support, medevac radio frequencies and call signs, return routes, escape routes, rally points. He felt his chest tightening and tried to convince himself to relax—to breathe more slowly. No sooner did he start to take his own advice than he felt his fingers absentmindedly reaching out to reconfirm the location of his M-16 magazines and hand grenades.
The VC platoon snaked slowly through the knots of bamboo that defined the transition from the tall trees of the rain forest hills to the paddy fields in the valley below.
The platoon's level of alertness was obvious in their cautious movement. They were anxious as they approached their objective, but were also sloppy, hungry, and weary. No sparkle of humor or hope crossed any of their faces. They walked like men without a future, only a present.
The rain started to fall again. At first it was light and warm, then cold and drenching. A few of the VC pulled out pieces of nylon, makeshift ponchos that afforded little protection from the rain. They all got soaked within minutes.
The platoon leader pulled on a pair of wool knit gloves. He wore them as if they set him off from the others. In the downpour they were far more symbolic than functional.
The hard rain also fell on the ambush site. It made Hollister feel like a real heel for the hell he had raised back at the base camp. Theodore had stuffed a poncho into his rucksack, but Hollister caught it on the patrol inspection and made him leave it behind. He also gave him an ass chewing, reminding him that the rustling of an army poncho could be heard for hundreds of yards in the bush.
It was always cold at night in the field. In the States, journalists wrote about the blistering heat of the midday sun and the smothering heat of the dark jungle. With more than six months in the field behind him, Hollister knew better. He had never been as cold in a German winter as he had been in the rain forest of Vietnam. The season made little difference. When it was warm, huge billowing rain clouds formed late in the day, then it started raining before dark and continued into the evening. Even though it didn't rain all night, each man would still spend the night wet. As the temperature dropped, the wetness became a cold, biting, and draining discomfort that made the night long and miserable. And in the rainy season it was wet all the time. In the dark it was hard for a soldier to tell what season it was. He only knew there were no comfortable nights in the bush in Vietnam.
Cold or not, everyone knew that Hollister was right in making Theodore leave his poncho behind. Ponchos were for base perimeter duty and occasionally taken on patrols for gear that needed to be kept dry. But rolling around in a poncho while sleeping was like putting up a marker in the night to let the VC know where you were.
Phuc, the VC platoon leader, had not been in South Vietnam very long. He was assigned to his platoon after its leader was killed in a B-52 strike three months earlier. Just thirty, he had been a college professor in Haiphong before being drafted and selected for officer training.
Being called to serve his country was expected. He had often wondered what took them so long to get around to him. He had adjusted well to soldiering. But the adjustment to the physical life was not as easy. He had never been very active or physical—as many of his soldiers had been in civilian life. They had been farmers and laborers. He had been a student for as long as he could remember. When he was inducted into the army, he resolved to do his part and not complain. He had convinced himself that if he were to serve well, he might be able to shorten the war and return to his classroom and the students he loved.
But it had bothered him that not much of his training was in the field skills needed in South Vietnam. Instead, it had been heavily weighted toward the political necessities of providing positive leadership for the long struggle facing the North Vietnamese. Phuc had hoped that the study of field operations could be learned on the job. So far, all of his lessons had been hard-learned.
He looked around for some evidence of his ability to motivate his men. He had tried hard, but they all looked tired and unmoved by his pep talk earlier in the day. He rationalized to himself that it was just time to stop for rest and food. They would be better after some rest.
Holding up the column, Phuc went to his three sergeants to coordinate the final plans for the night's operations.
After the platoon established a hasty defensive perimeter, Phuc found a spot in the center. As he dropped his rucksack to the ground, he resisted the urge to groan. He knew that he should lead by example. If he wanted his troops to endure the hardships, he must do so cheerfully.
After trying one spot and then another to find a decent piece of ground to sit on, he settled on the exposed roots of a tall tree. At least it was free of the rocks and twigs that had made the first two spots unbearable.
From his wet canvas rucksack he withdrew a small packet wrapped in oilcloth. After weeks in the field he was unaware of its smell; everything he owned smelled. His uniform hadn't been washed in weeks and his few possessions smelled musty, smoky, and moldy. He had even stopped looking at his fingernails. There was no way for him to keep them clean, so he had decided to just ignore them. To Phuc, ignoring personal hygiene was a loss of dignity. But he had no choice, and he hoped that putting the energy into fighting for his country would replace the loss of self-esteem that he suffered for being filthy.
He unwrapped the cloth which held a ball of long-cold cooked rice. As he did at each meal, he routinely picked as many of the small insects as he could see from the grains of rice and moved aside the rice that had been crushed under the pressure of his backpack.
The food smelled of the wood fire that it had been cooked over. From a small tin container Phuc extracted a few pieces of dried fish the size of minnows and mixed them with the cold rice to provide some taste. The meal would never satisfy an American soldier, but for Phuc it was one of the simple pleasures of his life, and he appreciated it.
Breaking off chunks of the clammy rice ball, Phuc ate his only meal of the day. As he ate he looked around at the outlines of the others. They were lean and wiry. Their hands were cut and callused from carrying their weapons and making their way through the rain forest. It had been days since they had been allowed to dry out their gear, get some sun on their wrinkled skin, and let the platoon barber work his scissors.
A small pain tugged at the center of his chest. Phuc missed his wife, Ly. He put down the ball of rice and took a cheap plastic wallet from his rucksack. Inside it he found his small photo of Ly. He placed it on top of his gear so that he could look at her while he ate. It was so dark under the large tree that he wasn't sure if he could actually see the photo or if he wanted to see it so badly that he could visualize it from memory. He didn't really care. Either way, he could see Ly.
She wore a North Vietnamese uniform and was standing in front of her antiaircraft gun just outside of Haiphong. Her long, straight, black hair was pulled back into a ponytail, revealing strong shoulders and large breasts. Phuc felt a twinge of excitement remembering the last night they spent together. She was a quiet woman, but her demure attitude disappeared when they were intimate. She loved sex and loved Phuc. He missed her. But worse than his longing for her was the feeling in the pit of his stomach that he would die in South Vietnam and never see her or the child she was carrying. Nevertheless, the small picture took him away for a moment from the rain and the cold and the fear. He stared at it.
He felt his eyes starting to flood, and immediately worried that one of his men might discover his loss of control. He quickly wiped his face with the small scrap of camouflage parachute material that he wore around his neck and looked around, but no one was even looking back in his direction.
Phuc took a last look at the photo and carefully tucked it back into its place of safekeeping. Worrying that he could be accused of spending too much time dwelling on himself and his own selfish thoughts, he pulled out a notebook that had seen many trail miles and opened it to look at a detailed diagram of a tiny farming hamlet. He focused on the details—streambeds, footbridges, vegetable gardens. Even the location of the livestock pens was noted. Phuc studied the sketch as he finished his meal. He tested himself by trying to identify the features by their locations on the drawing, since he couldn't read the notations under them.
The hamlet was named My Phu.
"Comrade Phuc, I would like to request extra time for my men to rehearse our actions at the hamlet tonight," said Sergeant Thanh, a man of forty with small, recessed eyes and long, wispy hairs growing from a raisinlike mole on his left cheek. "I am unhappy with the preparations."
Phuc looked at his watch. "Yes. But make sure you work fast," he said, without glancing at Sergeant Thanh. "I want to be back on the march by midnight."
Thanh nodded in acknowledgment and headed back toward his squad. As he walked, one leg dragged slightly from a permanent limp caused by a bomb fragment that he had taken in the hip six years earlier.
Excerpted from Long Range Patrol by Dennis Foley. Copyright © 1992 Dennis Foley. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted July 1, 2014