By dusk we’d be ready to move out. We liked the darkness for its relative cool, the quiet, and for the concealment. The bugs were worse, but then they’re pretty bad most of the time. We, who had no place to go, could take our time in the darkness and move almost silently. They, who had a lot to do and only a few hours before dawn to get it finished, lacked that luxury.
Preparedness was something we took for granted, in each other and in ourselves. This man might spend a couple of minutes putting a final edge on a Ka-Bar or Randall. That one might re-tape his magazines. Another might hurry to finish the last few lines of a letter home. Everyone, as a matter of course, checked and made any necessary repairs and additions to his harness, the pouches, the medical dressings that everyone carried, other equipment, weapons. Then he would check over a buddy, taping or tying anything that could make noise. The other man would do the same for him. Those who carried 12-gauge shotguns would long since have finished waterproofing the pasteboard shells, dipping them in paraffin heated over a K-ration heat tab, quickly wiping off the excess, and setting them nose down to harden. Tiger-striped faces seemed streaked with blood in the dim light from the shaded red bulbs.
Darkness falls suddenly in the tropics, and as soon as it was complete we’d head for the boats, feeling our way along familiar paths in the gloom, cursing casually about small things to relieve the tension. Most of us would cup last smokes carefully in our hands, trying to suck down enough nicotine to last for several hours. You don’t smoke out there. The movies show guys hit by snipers shooting at the glow of a cigarette, but that’s not why. A non-smoker can smell it from hundreds of meters away if the air is moving slowly–and in Vietnam, outside the monsoon season, it doesn’t move much after dark. Then too, smoking puts carbon monoxide in your blood and that reduces night vision. Finally, there’s no practical way to keep your butts–either kind–dry on a night stroll in the delta.
The boat crews would crank up the big diesels and away we’d roar, usually in a direction away from the area where we’d be operating. We’d ride the noisy inboards to a predetermined point, then shut them down and lower the 50 horsepower, specially-muffled outboards. Running at low rpms and unheard–we hoped–we would move in the direction of the night’s objective. That was usually an intersection of waterways in the maze of mangrove-covered islands comprising most of the “dry” land for a dozen or more klicks in all directions. Someone would have determined that Charley was using a particular route for moving supplies into the delta region, a mangrove and scrub wilderness, criss-crossed with innumerable channels and canals and dotted with small camps used by the Vietcong for a couple of days before they moved on. Trying to find them “at home” was a fool’s errand. The name of the game was to try to disrupt the flow of supplies.
The truth of the matter was, Charlie could survive for weeks in the delta without supplies, subsisting on a small supply of rice supplemented with crabs, oysters off the mangrove roots, an occasional fish or snake, and drinking water from seeps hand-dug in the mucky soil of the higher islands. The idea of starving a native out of one of the most productive ecosystems in the world was obviously conceived in the land-locked brain of some brass-hat from Kansas. Any low-country boy could have told them differently, but they never asked.
You can see surprisingly well at night, even without a moon, once your eyes become adjusted. The trick is to look a bit to the side of what you want to see, and be satisfied with impressions rather than precise images. Night vision isn’t acute, but different levels of light are easily discerned. Early on, all warriors learn a technique of de-focusing and staring into infinity. This makes your eyes more sensitive to movement. Combine that with a willingness to keep your eyes moving and not stare, and navigating in the near-dark is easier than you’d think. The ingrained habit of gazing with unfocused eyes, used day and night by all experienced hunters, is the source of the famous “thousand yard stare” that civilians remark upon. To an operator, it looks perfectly normal.
We’d try to get into position by 2200 or thereabouts, depending on the moon. If the tide was running in the direction we wanted to go, we might allow the boats to drift until we found a place where they could be concealed in the shadows of overhanging mangroves or brush. Otherwise they’d drop us into the water at a shallow spot, then make their way off a few hundred meters and stand ready to respond with additional firepower when needed. If we could, we’d stay in the water at the edges of the mangroves. We’d be mostly submerged, lowering our heads into the water from time to time to minimize the bugs, communicating by touch as needed, holding our weapons clear of the black water when possible. We’d tie condoms over the muzzles, and the chambered rounds sealed the barrels pretty well, but water in the works can cause malfunctions or worse, so it pays to be careful.
Each teammate knew his field of fire and other responsibilities–who would pop the flares, who would cover the flanks, who the rear, who would direct fire on target. The squad leader would have communicated, with a few hand signals and perhaps a whisper or two, the direction of withdrawal, where to meet the boats for pickup in the event we had to leave on foot (or swim), and the direction to move if we got lost. We all knew that, regardless of the circumstances, our buddies would get us out. That knowledge alone–that the men around you would treat your life and wellbeing as their own–made the silent waiting, the wondering, and the flights of fancy a lot more tolerable.
Sometimes you’d see the shadow of a sampan as it moved toward the center of the waterway when rounding a bend. Sometimes the first warning would be a tiny sound, or the smell of nuoc mam, the fermented fish sauce that is a staple of the Vietnamese diet. A ripple, catching starlight, might give them away in the calm water. If the boatmen were very good, they would just appear out of the night. Whatever the case, you knew no law abiding citizen would be sneaking around the delta in an unlit boat in the middle of the night. After insuring that the entire team was aware of the target, the leader would poke the guy with the flare, who would fire it into the air, if possible in a direction that would leave the team in shadow and the boat illuminated. The pop of the flare launcher was the signal to fire.
A second flare would follow the first as quickly as possible, bathing the waterway in a wavering blue-white light from the burning magnesium that dangled from the parachutes. The team would direct fire into the sampan, and while reloading would check the surrounding area for more boats, men in the water or in the mangroves. Firefights seldom lasted more than a minute–in fact, were seldom really fights. Usually, by the time the boats got there, all the VC who were able would have hit the water and faded into the mangroves. They knew that the pintel-mounted .50 and 7.62 machine guns on the big watercraft rendered the trees no cover at all. The only escape was to disappear. When the diesels growled the battle was over, nine times out of ten.
We tried to take prisoners, but rarely found survivors. On occasion there would be weapons to gather up. If the sampan was already sinking, we’d back off and the .50 cal. would finish the job. If it could be boarded safely, we’d check for any materials that might provide useful intelligence. Checking carefully for booby-traps, we would pile up any ammo and supplies–rice, clothing and what have you–on top of a block of C-4. Someone would stick in a couple of 2-minute detonators, pull the igniters, and clamber into the boat. Two minutes and a few hundred meters distant we’d here the flat bang of the C-4, then sometimes a secondary explosion. Either way, the sampan, supplies and ammo would take a lot of gathering up before they were of use to anyone. The coxswain would make the big diesels roar all the way back to the hootches that, after a night in the brackish water, even seemed something like home.
I don’t think anyone wondered, at the time, if what we were doing accomplished much. We operated, we survived, and we were one day closer to the end of that tour. The wondering–the anger–would come later for some; for others not at all. But back in those days, it was just another walk with our buddies in the delta night.
For all those who came home determined to change things,
and in memory of those who came back in aluminum boxes.
May it never happen again.
©William E. Webb, 2006 – all rights reserved