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“Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it till the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes.”
Carl Sandburg, December 14, 1954
DATE: 18, 19 August 1967
TIME: 180400H to 190830H
COORDINATES: YS074634, 077644, 083643, 086639, 086633
UNITS INVOLVED: Foxtrot, 1st Squad, MST-3 (Mobile Support Team)
TASK: Reconnaissance patrol and overnight ambush
METHOD OF INSERTION: LCPL MK-4
METHOD OF EXTRACTION: LCPL MK-4
TERRAIN: Defoliated swampland, mangrove swamp
TIDE: 0905H Low, 1309H High, 2023H Low
WEATHER: Cloudy with rain
SEAL TEAM PERSONNEL:
Lt. Meston, Patrol Leader/Rifleman, M-16
Lt. Gill, Ass’t Patrol Leader/Rifleman, M-16
RM2 Smith, Point/Rifleman, Shotgun
MM2 Funkhouser, Automatic Weapons, M-60
BT2 McCollum, Grenadier, M-79
HM2 Brown, Radioman/Rifleman, M-16
ADJ3 Bucklew, Rifleman, M-16
AZIMUTHS: 000 degrees-500m, 045 degrees-175m, 035 degrees-350m, 090 degrees-500m, 135 degrees-500m, 180 degrees-800m
ESCAPE: 180 degrees
PHASE LINES: Tijuana, San Diego, Los Angeles
CODE WORDS: Challenge and Reply—Two numbers total 10
This was it—Foxtrot Platoon, our first mission. We had a good bunch of guys in the squad, but we were all green. We were untested. Still, we were ready. This is what we’d been training for, and now the time had come.
I was keyed up and excited. If I was scared, I didn’t notice it. My excitement overwhelmed all other emotions. As I glanced around at the others, none of them looked scared either. Of course, their faces were covered with green-and-black camouflage paint, but even that couldn’t hide their eyes. And their eyes looked clear and confident.
Personally, the fact that a SEAL had never been captured made everything black-and-white for me. No SEAL had ever been captured, and I wouldn’t be the first. I would never surrender. I would fight to the last breath. I would never leave my platoon; rather, I’d stay, and if death came, it would come to us all or to all who attempted to kill us. Do or die: That gave me courage. Knowing I wouldn’t allow capture, and consequent torture, took away my fear of the unknown. I’d make it back alive from this mission, or I’d flat-out die trying.
Since this was our first time out, Lieutenant Gill had agreed to come along to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid, like getting killed. He was experienced and was finishing up his tour of duty. He’d advise our OIC (officer in charge), Lieutenant Meston. Mr. Meston looked a bit like he needed some help. He wasn’t scared, but seemed unsettled. I’ll keep an eye on him, I thought; the jury’s still out on what kind of platoon leader he’ll turn out to be.
Seven of us went out in the dark. That seemed like a lucky number to me. Seven. Maybe that was a sign this tour would go well, or at least this first mission. I hoped so. But where we were going wasn’t a place swarming with luck. It was the Rung Sat Special Zone, swarming with Communist forces. The Rung Sat was a thirty-by-thirty-five kilometer area of mangrove swamp located on the northeastern edge of the Mekong Delta and contained some of the most toilsome terrain in Vietnam. It was a haven for the VC and NVA, who used the area as a resting place after operations. The Vietnamese called the area “The Forest of Assassins,” due to its history as a hideout for pirates, outlaws, and contrabandists. And now we SEALs were invading the territory, ambushing the enemy in his own backyard.
It was just past 0200 hours when we boarded the LCPL MK-4 that would take us to our insertion point off the Quan Quang Xuyen, which was a tributary of the Soirap River. The LCPL was a thirty-six-foot-long, V-bottom, steel-hull landing craft, which sat low in the water because of the armor plating on the outboard sides, therefore affording us protection and a low silhouette. The boat was powered by a 300-horsepower turbine exhaust diesel engine. There was a four-man crew, including two gunners, whose job was to drop us at the correct insertion point, and not two miles off course. Once we jumped off the boat and into the jungle, we’d march to our own drummer.
As we sped along down the middle of the river, the early morning air was cool and invigorating. An occasional spit of rain slapped me in the face. Once, I spit back. Eat it, Vietnam.
I stood behind the coxswain and the two lieutenants, who were using radar to pick up any enemy boat traffic and to monitor terrain features. All the others were seated aft on the steel deck with their weapons pointed toward the black jungle. I held Sweet Lips, my Ithaca model 37 pump shotgun. The point man generally got his weapon of choice; on this mission, I was point, and Sweet Lips was my choice. I’d sawed off the last few inches of her barrel, making her one evil little lady. I’d loaded her with six rounds of 00 buckshot. No one had looked down her hole, yet, with his last gasp and his heart throbbing in his mouth, but, I thought, today might be the day.
The moon was full and I saw its smiling face every few minutes when it promenaded from behind the dark clouds. I didn’t like its big face, though, right at that moment. It was not my friend when it lighted up my platoon for enemy eyes to see. I pointed Sweet Lips in the air as a silent warning for Mister Moon to disappear. Funny, but in a few moments, he did.
One of the men took advantage of the blackness and got up and urinated over the side into the river. He must really have to go, I thought. Sure enough, he was at it a long, long time, which told me he was excited. Either that, or he hadn’t relieved himself since the eighth grade.
Lieutenant Meston told me to pass the word that insertion would be in fifteen minutes. That meant it was time to get mentally prepared and to run one last check on equipment. I wore an H-harness and web belt with two ammunition pouches attached on my left side and two more on my right. Each pouch contained fifteen rounds of 00 buck, giving me sixty-six rounds including the half dozen already loaded. A K-bar knife was taped, handle down, on the left shoulder strap of my H-harness. Taped on the knife sheath was an MK-13 day/night flare. Two M-26 fragmentation grenades hung from my web belt. A full two-quart collapsible canteen was attached to the H-harness high on my back. A quart canteen was hooked on the web belt over my right buttock, and another over my left. In the center of my back, a small, nylon backpack containing C rations and a first aid kit was attached.
Finding everything in order, I looked through the dark at the men behind me. Funkhouser patted the belted ammo for his M-60 machine gun. He looked at me and grinned, indicating that he, too, was ready.
Finally, the coxswain cut back on the throttles and Lieutenant Meston signaled for us to lock and load. The LCPL, with its engine now just above idle, glided closer to the ominous shoreline. I climbed onto the bow and crouched down at the starboard side of the boat. Lieutenants Meston and Gill and Doc Brown gathered behind me. Funkhouser, Bucklew, and McCollum assembled on the port side of the bow.
I looked down at the reflection of the moon in the water. Small waves rippled as the bow sliced through. Just ahead, the water lapped at the beach. A peacefulness hung in the air. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the moment. This can’t be war, I thought. My thoughts drifted with the current.
A second later, I snapped back to reality. This is war, dummy, I censured myself. Life and death. I had to get my head on straight and do my job. These guys were depending on me. Wake up. The enemy had the element of surprise during insertion, and here I was, daydreaming.
I watched the bank as the bow nudged into some ghostly black snags. I jumped onto the muddy shore. As the others followed, I heard a splash. Someone had jumped short of the bank, but I didn’t look back. My eyes and concentration had to focus on the ground ahead. Still, I wanted to snicker at the mental picture of a comrade falling in. Of course, I couldn’t snicker; strict noise discipline had to be maintained. Sounds, especially talk, carried incredibly far in the jungle, as I had learned in Panama only a few weeks earlier. I wondered now about the sound of the boat motor: Had it been heard by any bad boys? I squeezed my bad girl a little tighter.