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Behind the Wire


Old Guy
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I'm writing -- slowly writing -- a memoir of my time in the army and my Vietnam service. My daughters and granddaughters have been hassling me about getting the thing done. This is a brief account of an experience I had when stationed at Cu Chi in late '67. Nothing earth shaking about it. I just thought it provided a glimpse of what it was like as a REMF prior to Tet '68.

Behind the Wire -- Bunker Guard at Cu Chi

Those of us assigned perimeter guard gathered in the Orderly Room. Not much was said. Very little was explained. We were given bunker assignments; three men per position. My bunker was less than two hundred yards from the Operations hooch. I was in charge of two other soldiers by virtue of my exalted rank -- buck sergeant. I wished to be led by someone with real combat experience -- even if the man was a private. No professionals were in evidence. Guarding the perimeter was evidently simple enough that even cooks and clerks could do it.

The two privates assigned to me waited expectantly. I decided honesty was the best policy. "I have no real idea what we're supposed to do out there tonight."

One shrugged. "Somebody will tell us."

Such optimism. I'd been in the Army more than two years and I suspected that no one would tell us anything unless we asked. I asked. The duty officer barely glanced up from his battered skin magazine. "Whoever has the duty at battalion will be around to brief you."

There was nothing to do but drive on. We slung our weapons and left the hot, humid Orderly Room for the equally hot and wet afternoon. But that goes without saying, I suppose. Daytime Vietnam was sultry. At night it was hot and sweaty. The only thing nice about nighttime was the absence of a tropical sun boiling your brains.

We walked across an old Vietnamese graveyard to reach our bunker. The tombs were all above ground and in poor condition. I didn't think too much about omens or anything like that -- we were too busy watching for cobras. Several had been killed in the graveyard in the few weeks since the company moved from Bien Hoa to Cu Chi.

Not far from the cemetery a couple GIs were burning shit. Each latrine had cut down fifty-five gallon drums inserted under the seats of honor. Every day or so whoever had incurred the wrath of the First Sergeant was given shit burning detail. The containers were dragged a few feet away from the latrines and topped off with diesel fuel. Then the mixture was torched off. Black clouds of burning shit and the sound of helicopter rotor blades are universal memories for Vietnam vets.

Braving drifting clouds of vile smelling smoke and dripping with sweat, we made our way across the graveyard. No cobras made an appearance. We arrived at our bunker unscathed. Sandbag walls -- here and there leaking sand. Timber roof covered with two layers of sandbags. It was completely ordinary. I'd seen hundreds more or less identical. This one, however, was ours for the night. Somehow that made it special.

A fence consisting of steel posts and several strands of barb wire marked the inner edge of the perimeter. Bunkers had been constructed every hundred meters or so just inside the wire. Beyond the fence I could see several more fence lines interspersed with coils of concertina wire. Single strands of barb wire had been strung very close to the ground between the fence lines. Rusting tin cans dangled from equally rusty wire. According to rumor, the area was heavily mined.

We didn't feel secure, though the bunker was solid enough to protect us from mortar rounds or rocket propelled grenades. GI legend had it that VC sappers could move through wired and mined perimeters like water through a sieve, set their satchel charges wherever they liked, and cut your throat on their way out. I didn't believe that crap. Mind you, I didn't disbelieve it either.

We unloaded our gear inside the bunker and did what US soldiers do wherever they happen to be: we took pictures, recording ourselves for posterity. I posed with an M-79 grenade launcher, which I had never been trained to use. One of my companions knelt in the dust, holding one of the unit's many puppies. The other man had an M-16, which he held in a casual manner. I didn't ask if he'd fired it recently. I hadn't put any rounds through mine since qualifying with it at Fort Benning. We swapped weapons and the pup for additional pictures.

Just before dark a staff sergeant drove up in a jeep. He provided a few boxes of C-rations for us, along with a couple claymore mines, and told me how to contact the command post if that became necessary. Other than telling us where to place the claymores, he had no specific information. As he drove away I made my first command decision: "Set up the claymores. Run the wires inside. Then we'll eat."

Claymores are command-detonated mines filled with plastic explosive and hundreds of small steel balls. Placement is simple. You position it with the curved side pointing in the direction you want it to cover. When fired, it blasts the steel balls out in a pattern guaranteed to cause lethal problems for anyone in the way. To aid in proper placement, the curved side is labeled: THIS SIDE TOWARD ENEMY.

We positioned them where, in our vast experience, we thought might be effective, then ran the detonator wires inside and hooked them to the firing solenoids, which we called 'clickers' for no other reason than they made a sharp click when squeezed.

By that time the sun was setting. The transition from daylight to dark was quick -- no fooling around with long sunsets. Just before dark I took some more pictures of my companions silhouetted against a firing port. One held an M-16. The other posed with the grenade launcher, cigarette dangling from his lips. It was very dramatic looking. Then we cracked open a couple grenades, extracted the explosive and used it to heat some C-rations.

The only dangerous part of disarming a grenade is unscrewing the firing mechanism. Once that's out the actual explosive can be dug out with a C-ration spoon. We tossed the firing mechanisms out into the wire entanglements of the perimeter. Out of sight, out of mind.

Your eyes play tricks on you in the dark. Look at a shadow and it seems to move. The Army taught us to use our peripheral vision. The method may have worked. When I stood outside the bunker gazing out across the wire, shapes that seemed to move when looked at directly held still when I turned one way or the other. The net result was to make the shadows move and stop, crouch and lie down.

I wished mightily for a Starlight scope, then the cutting edge in night vision technology. Very few of them were around and lowly bunker guards were not equipped with anything so useful. We took turns trying to sleep. One man watched out the forward firing port and one huddled at the rear of the bunker, keeping an eye on the empty spaces between our position and the bunkers on either side. It seemed all too likely that Charlie would slip across the perimeter well clear of a bunker and simply walk in from the back and beat our stupid brains out.

Shadows lurked. The wind rose and died away. Some fool down the line kept calling for illumination every half hour or so. When we heard the illumination round pop, we tried to save our night vision by not looking at the bright white flare of light. It didn't work, mainly because the flare was suspended below a small parachute which bobbed and swung as it descended. The effect was to set the creeping shadows dancing. It was impossible to avoid staring out across the perimeter, trying to decide which dark shape was a shadow and which might be a sapper. Naturally, when the flare died away we were essentially blind until our night vision recovered.

At about 0200 another idiot decided some of the shadows were becoming too fresh by half and cranked up his Ma Duece, ripping the night with strobing ruby light. I got on the phone and listened to a terse conversation between the command post and the shooter. The firing stopped.

We discussed the episode and decided that our trigger happy comrade might have seen something out there and might have prevented an attack. The idea was far-fetched, but we were in a combat zone. Rumor, fact, and fiction were part of daily life. One thing we were sure about: if we had been equipped with a machine gun we would have joined right in. We thought it was criminal of the Army not to have provided a heavy weapon for each bunker, along with unlimited ammo and instructions to fire at every suspicious shadow.

Eventually dawn arrived. The staff sergeant drove along the line collecting claymores. He told us to return to our units. No one relieved us. Evidently sappers and other bad guys only worked at night.

Thus ended my stint at guard duty. The only worthwhile thing I'd done was learn how to heat rations using C-4 taken from a grenade. I hadn't fired my weapon, repelled no attacks, and got hardly any rest. Guard duty was boringly similar to most everything else that happened in the rear echelon. In my first three months in Vietnam I had not been mortared or shot at. My experiences were limited to alternate periods of mud and dust interspersed with the usual annoyances encountered in any army. The common thread running through those months was boredom.

It was mid-November, 1967. My life would be filled with unremitting boredom until the end of January, 1968. From then on things would be different.

JRH

PS: I should explain to you lads that my actual rank at this time as SP-5, Specialist Five, equivalent to a three stripe sergeant. The rank no longer exists in the Army and it's difficult to explain the difference to anyone not familiar with military rank, so I just refer to myself as a buck sergeant.

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Very good read OG. Gives a feeling of "being there".........not easy for a guy like me who has never been to the tropics or done anthing closer to military service than instructed cadets :)

I look forward to more.

Modern American ranks are a bit of a mystery to me. I am used to older British/Commonwealth ranks that generally go like this: ( Private/Trooper/Guardsman etc depending on the outfit) Lance Cpl, Cpl, Lance Sgt., Sgt, some units have Staff Sgts, WO2 ( Warrant Officer 2nd class - often the Comany Sgt Major, WO1 - Warrant Officer 1st class - various godlike duties culminating in Regimental Sgt Major. Then you start at officer rank beginning witth a lowly subaltern- 2nd Lt.

I have no idea what all these SP 5 things are. I grateful that you use the term Sgt :)

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Let's hear more, OG. I love the "You are there!" feeling of your writing. The everyday life of a Vietnam grunt seems to be sadly lacking in todays literature. Maybe it's the "If we ignore it, the Vietnam war will go away", eh? Now it's the turn of the Afgahanistan war and related Theatres, I guess. Be nice one day if we could say "Ya' know, we haven't had a decent war outside our borders for years! Ain't that great?" And definitely thanks for your Service, OG!

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The NVA and VC had been tunneling all along the border since the early days of the French Indochina War, if not earlier. We knew there were plenty of tunnels in the area. Troops out in the field encountered them all the time. I don't know if they actually had any under the base camp. During the attacks of Tet, '68 and '69, the sappers entered through the wire, not from tunnels. If they'd had tunnels I'd think they would have used them.

In '69 my old unit, the 242nd, was hit by sappers, who used satchel charges to destroy nine Chinooks and damage three more. One member of the unit was killed by an RPG during that attack.

Archie, at the time Army enlisted ranks ran as follows: Private E-1 and E-2 (slick sleeve), PFC, Corporal/Spec-4, Sergeant/SP-5, Staff Sergeant/SP-6, Sergeant First Class/SP-7, Master Sergeant/SP-8, Sergeant Major/SP-9. In actual practice the Specialist grades never really worked out. I never saw a Specialist higher than SP-6, although there were some in depot jobs and such. Specialists were treated the same as the equal rank NCO for most things. The difference was that a regular NCO (Corporal, Sergeant, etc.) was intended to be a command position while the specialist grades were supposed to be assigned to skilled technicians. The problem was that Specialists, like me, ended up in command positions regardless. I was a tower chief at Dong Tam and a section chief at Vinh Long -- both positions that should have been assigned to a buck sergeant. If I had cared enough to make an issue of it, my CO would have converted my rank from SP-5 to Sergeant.

The only Specialist grade remaining in the Army is Spec-4, which is equal to a Corporal, although not generally considered a command slot. PFCs usually become Spec-4s by serving the requisite time in grade and where a Corporal (also an E-4) is considered an NCO capable of leading a squad, the Spec-4 is often just a rifleman. That being said, it is also true that Spec-4s do lead squads and command other small units for the same reason Specialists wound up commanding men in Vietnam -- at that level the system tends to produce its own leaders with actual rank a secondary issue.

The Marines have a somewhat different rank structure, but I'm sure Gunny would agree that the actual leaders in small units are not always the men wearing the most stripes.

OG

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SPC has also become the enlistment grade for someone with a four year college degree or who already possess job skills learned in the private sector. They hold the SPC grade until through their basic training and until they are accepted into officer candidate school. For a PFC who has not passed the leadership development course or has not otherwise been given duties as a low level supervisor, the SPC grade gives him or her a promotion route after two years of service. To me, this does make sense if the soldier is only going to stay in for a 3 year enlistment.

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GAH ! ......still very confusing :)

I liked the way the Brits used to do it ...not sure if they still do though......a fellow would be, lets say, a L/Sgt ( 3 hooks) and if he was an expert in anything he would have some sort of insignia to denote that.....but his rank was still Lance Sgt.

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Welcome to the friendliest Forum on the 'Net, cabtech! Pay no attention to a couple of far-out Leftists that occasionally drop in, but they're good for a laugh. Mostly we're pretty Conservative, and we have a great Forum Fuehrer who occasionally kicks us into line when needed! But we're mostly self-policing, with Donnie the Fart handing out tickets to those who need 'em. Enjoy.

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