The Longest Night

For those of you that have just started reading this collection of war stories or my tales from Vietnam, I want to remind you that I was just a kid, not yet 21 years old when most of this happened.  I was really book smart and only half way street educated when it happened.  I am not sure if I had enough smarts to realize how dangerous my duties were.  In the story about being in a Bird Dog, I realized that I didn't talk about the silver and green tracers coming up off the ground as we flew over.  I can promise you that being shot at in an aluminum  air plane was a damn good way to get shot down and killed.  I tell people that I have been mortared, rocketed, shot at ambushed, sit on and hit, but missed by the stuff that could have done the real damage.    I want to share with you a tale about what I called the longest night during my stay in Vietnam.

As a General Support Artillery unit, the 1st Bn, 92nd FA had no assigned forward observers.  From time to time, The FA Bde headquarters up on top of Artillery Hill would realize they were a Forward Observer short and task us to provide an officer.  Once the ASP resupply in Dak To was finished, they had little need of me daily and I found myself doing odd jobs as well as the assigned Ammunition Officer.   I would fly as an Aerial Observer once or twice a week, and a couple of times I took special teams out beyond the wire of our base camp and set up listening posts.  One of the worst times was during one of these assignments.

The 3rd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (aka 173rd Abn) had a Forward Observer from Augusta, Kansas, about 15 miles east of where I grew up in Wichita.  His father had a heart attack and they asked us to provide a replacement observer for two weeks while he went home.  I was the person chosen and I flew clear down by Saigon to join up with them.  they were in blocking positions north of Saigon and trying to stop the resupply the NVA were giving the VC.    Although the unit was listed as Airborne, we were mostly just humping rick sacks around in the hills.  the enlisted guys all called me Leg because I wasn't jump qualified.  I told them that it would have taken orders for two giant guys to throw me off the plane as the only thing I saw falling out of the skies was dead birds and bird shit.  They were told to call me Red Leg (an artillery term) or LT Leg.  My recon sergeant and I sat down one night and compared our pay.  He was drawing jump pay, combat pay and separation pay and made about $100 more a month than I did.  Oh well, money talks and BS walks.  We were just out in the mud, the blood and the beer (minus the beer) until  relieved of that mission.

About the end of the second week, the Company Commander called me over and told me that the Forward Observer they sent home came down with Malaria and I was stuck with them until a replacement arrived.  I guess I didn't have enough smarts to know better or any fears to make me want out so I just stayed doing the job I had right in front of me.

Each day we would move about as far as an American Infantry Company could make it in one day.  It was fairly hilly so on the ground it was only 4 or 5 miles.  Up and down, not like that damned crow it could be as far as 15 to 20 miles.  The exception to this rule was every third day, we would take midday off and resupply.  The supply Huey's would come in and all sorts of good things would arrive.    There would be a big ball of clean uniforms, C-rations, ammo and water cans.  Every man would be given 9 C-ration meals and we would sort them down into what we needed to carry and throw throw the rest in a hole.  For some reason I could not seem to get enough to eat and I lived on the Beef Steak and Potato ration as much as I could.  I would use hot sauce and pepper to spice them up and I stayed alive eating that heavy meal.  I could trade pound cake and applesauce for three or four Beef Steak and Potatoes.  The Beans and weenies were also a good trade.  No one wanted the Ham and Lima Beans except for the ham part of the meal.  The  Lima beans were called MF's for some reason.  They were hard as rocks and not my favorite even if they had been cooked by mother. These hadn't.

Somewhere in the middle of the third week, we had humped all day and settled down into what was to be a night position.  Somewhere I heard a voice say, "Snake" and I heard a machete striking the ground.  Just a few minuted later, someone else hollered "snake" and then the word went out that we were on a hill of young bamboo and there were those damned green bamboo vipers all over the place.  I think the final count before we moved was about 20.  Because it was by then getting dark, we didn't move but just a few kilometers down the trail we were on.  It was one of the worst positions we could have found but that's where the leaders decided to stop.  The company set up along the trail with everyone on one side.  Unfortunately the side we picked was the downhill side and I hated it.  As it started to get dark. I fired the defensive concentrations (Def Cons) that I would use as targets to shift from if we were in a ground attack.  To confuse any trail watchers the VC might have I also fired the Def Cons up by the old position.  I settled in for the night and I think we were all watching for more snakes.  

Each member of the Headquarters element pulled an hour of radio watch during the night.  That meant that for an hour, we would check with the outposts and maintain radio contact with the battalion TOC.  About each five minutes we would ask the outposts and ambush position for a radio check.  They would push the talk switch on the radio and it would break squelch and make a click sound.  They would not say anything but that went on until it was the next guys' turn on the radios.  I had the Midnight to One shift and was about half way through the check when all of a sudden one of the ambush patrols down the path started firing their machine gun and M-16's.   Boom, a hand grenade went off and then the flares on the trial lit up.  The outpost or ambush patrol had come in down the trail and set off the trip flares.  It was just by luck that the platoon we had guarding that trail didn't shoot them as they didn't use any passwords they just came running in.  About the time they got back to our position, that whole side of the perimeter started reporting movement and several trip flares went off.  

I could not see a damn thing so I just got on the log roof of the command bunker we had dug that day.  I had my radio on and had artillery up and firing very soon.  We fired as much as we could get for about 10 minutes.  Then a 155mm battery came up and asked if they could fire.  Damned straight they could.  I had every battery moving rounds around the jungle and when a 175mm battery got hot and fired a couple of rounds on the old position, it got so quiet that you could hear a fart for a mile. I had no idea how long we had fired or how many rounds we had used.  What I was proud of was that we had only one person wounded and no US Soldier killed from fire from any source  "Check fire but stand by" was my order.  The Company Commander called the Platoon that had the ambush and had the leader and  those guys in the ambush  report up to our position. 

Not one of those guys could say what they had seen, only a trip flare had gone off.  When they were asked about the radio and the machine gun, no one had brought them in to our position.  The commander right there on the spot ordered the Platoon Leader to take his platoon and go get that equipment, "Right Damned Now!"  One of the guys was bleeding from a cut on his hand.  One guy  threw a hand grenade and didn't tell the other guys that he had. The guy next to him stood up to shoot his M-16 and was wounded.  The medic patched his hand up and he didn't go back out with his platoon.

The Platoon leader called in about 10 minutes later that the radio and the machine gun were right where they were dropped and there was no sign of any enemy.  I stayed up the rest of that night and fired one round about every 15 minutes.  The next morning at first light I asked the Commander if I could go out with the platoon to see what the hell had happened.   He was reluctant to let me go but he finally gave in and as soon as we got to the ambush position, it was pretty clear what had happened.  A troop of monkeys had come down the trail and accidentally tripped one of the flares.   We had managed to fire a whole boat load of ammunition and managed to kill about 15 monkeys.  

The only thing that made it all worth while was that the Company Commander sent that platoon back to the old night position and it was pretty clear that someone had dug up the cat holes there and the round I had fired on that position had wounded someone.  We spent the rest of the morning waiting for that platoon to follow the blood trails to some graves.  There were a couple of VC's in a grave and there wasn't anything to identify who they were or their unit.  I did report the dead VC as a part of the after action report but I left out any mention of  the monkeys.

MUD - Monkey Killer Extraordinaire


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