When I was assigned to an infantry company in February 1968 it was Charlie Company 1/6th 198th infantry and we patrolled areas west of Chu Lai. Typically, we travelled in platoon sized units consisting of up to thirty guys. We would have a second lieutenant, a staff sergeant or sergeant first class, a radio operator, a medic and the rest of the unit was comprised of riflemen.
We would usually break camp in the morning after we had consumed some food and coffee and the second lieutenant would give us our plan for the day identifying where we would be going. The lieutenant would then pick out the guys who were going to be out on the flank. Once they were in position on each side of the main unit, but several yards away, we would begin humping to our destination.
Each guy carried a ruck sack on his back that included everything he hauled with him out in the field from C-rations to extra socks, ammunition, towels, a toothbrush, pen and writing paper and anything else he needed to exist out in the jungle. A small shovel, called an entrenching tool used to dig foxholes, was attached to the back of the ruck sack and the weight of the ruck sack was likely sixty pounds or more. Besides my ruck sack, I also carried a medical aid bag with bandages, creams, pills, morphine, tape, etc. Each of us also carried an M-16 and several magazines with 17-18 rounds packed in each one so we were weighed down with equipment, ammunition and supplies.
While we humped through the boonies, it was not a silent march as we talked about everything that was going on in our lives. We talked about our girlfriends, our favorite sports teams, politics and we constantly pissed and moaned about the situation we found ourselves in. We complained about the Army, the food, our leaders, the leeches, the mosquitoes, the heat and humidity, the terrain, the distance we had to hump and anything else that bothered us. This was not an infrequent situation as it was constant.
The ranting would continue and on occasion we would forget we were in a war and it seemed more like we were marching from point A to point B. It was impossible, as hard as we tried, to remain vigilant every minute of every day because sometimes we would go days without any action. We would seemingly by the lack of enemy activity get lulled into a false sense of security and it happened not once, but several times in our tour.
Invariably, or so it seemed, when we let our guard down we’d be humping somewhere and we’d be pissing and moaning and without any warning, loud bursts of enemy gunfire would be fired at us from close range. We’d immediately drop to the ground and throw hand grenades and fire our weapons including machine guns in the direction of the enemy gunfire trying to fight ourselves out of the position we found ourselves in. Some times the ambushes would be short and others were prolonged periods of engagement when helicopter gunships would have to be called in to help us out.
It’s difficult to explain, but in these situations, at least for me, everything seemed to slow down and my senses seemed so sharp as I could easily detect the smells of the pungent jungle and the gunpowder and hear the bullets piercing the air. It was also so loud because of all of the gunfire and grenades and people yelling. The experience was terrifying and exhilarating but it usually happened when you least expected it so you had no time to think about it. We just operated on adrenaline and on our training and pushed out as much rifle fire as we could muster until we overpowered the enemy or created an alley we could escape through. I survived several ambushes during my tour, including three in one day, and I wouldn’t wish these experiences on my worst enemy.
I expressed the fact that warfare could be exhilarating at times and I don’t mean to infer in any way that it was anything we enjoyed. It was a high that we experienced during this turmoil maybe just because we survived it. And it’s a high I have never spoken about or written about or shared with anyone before. And that high feeling we experienced in our youth for the majority of us has likely been unmatched since that time despite the fact we have been searching ever since for a similar feeling. And we are as of this writing, fifty years removed from the war.
Many years after the war, Al Torsiello, Ricki E. Bellos and I wrote a song called “Ambush” and a Canadian performer and buddy of mine on Ft. Myers Beach Dave Collaton performed the lead vocals. A snippet of the song can be heard at: www.vietnamthereandback.com