|F Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment, U.S. Marines in Vietnam
|The 3 South Vietnamese Popular Force
soldiers ("PF's") with me inside a
Combined Action Platoon compound
worked as farmers by day and soldiers by
night. Quang Nam Province, Vietnam,
|People from the village by the South China Sea
prepare a fish they have caught. Photo by Pete Angus.
The moment every combat soldier hopes for has just arrived for me. Four unsuspecting enemy soldiers have just
entered the killing zone of our ambush. They are now about 40 feet to my right-front, almost within hand grenade
range. I can get a grenade off and then deliver an 18 round fully-automatic burst from my M-16, probably more than
enough to cut them all down before they can respond, especially since they are at this moment wading knee-deep
across a 50-foot submerged sand spit in the South China Sea. Reaching into the right kangaroo pocket of my jungle
pants I find an "egg", bring it up silently alongside my body to my chest, roll the spoon into the web of my right hand
and, grasping the ring of the pin with the middle finger of my left hand, extract the pin. I know that I have to make the
most of the element of surprise and allow them to get closer to insure maximum effect of the grenade.
It is 2:00 a.m., January 30, 1968, the beginning of the Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet. Celebrated with
reunions, feasting and firecrackers, Tet begins with the new moon in January. In most locales a moonless night would
make the four approaching figures nearly invisible, but here the low, rainless clouds reflect lights from the Chu Lai
airstrip, some six miles to the south, onto the calm sea and the cream-colored sand. I am in a tennis-court-sized
grove of scrub brush and pine trees with two South Vietnamese popular force soldiers ("PF's") and one other U.S.
marine. We set up here on the beach just after dark as a tripwire outpost, about 1 mile north of our small Combined
Action Platoon ("CAP") compound situated in An Wa, a fishing village of some 500 people on the seacoast. Since
anyone entering our village area from the north must come through this isthmus, this is a frequent patrol area of ours.
Tides here run from three to five feet, and the estuaries extend for miles, so we often go out on a patrol dry-footed
and return hours later waist-deep in brine.
On our outpost tonight we are standing 50% watches, with one PF and one of us marines taking turns staying awake
together. We are spread about 15 feet apart in the brush. Since on patrol we sleep in the prone position cradling our
rifle, I cannot tell if my PF counterpart, Vann, has inadvertently dozed off or is intently observing the approaching
figures as I am and is preparing to fire. In these situations, the first one to see something takes his best shot; the
others wake up soon enough and join in.
My mind is racing. Before I take four lives (perhaps more; perhaps lose mine - what if these four soldiers are the
point of a 200-man company following a few footsteps behind?) I'd like to be sure. What makes me so cautious is
that these four are visible. (Lines from a western movie: New Lieutenant: "I saw a few Apache on my way here".
John Wayne: "Lieutenant, if you saw them, they weren't Apache".) I'm early in my second tour in the Nam, having
just come back from a month's leave a couple weeks ago. In my first year as a "grunt" (infantryman) I fleetingly saw
enemy Viet Cong ("VC") soldiers maybe three or four times, and that was when we were operating in the jungle
many miles from any compound. The way of the VC is to remain virtually invisible through stealth and the use of
warrens of tunnels and hiding places. In the grunts I've been in firefights lasting for hours on bright, sunny afternoons,
where 5 or more marines in my platoon were killed, and never seen the enemy.
My heart is pounding in my ears. My breath is short, my mouth is dry and I am trying to steady my hands. What to
do? There are many shades of friend and foe about, even at night. It wasn't two months ago that I was on the
receiving end of a "friendly" ambush. On a night patrol, six of us split up into two groups of threes. I went with two
PF's to set up an outpost some half a mile from the compound, while Smitty, a quiet, red-haired corporal from
Alabama, stayed at another location several hundred yards closer. We planned to rejoin about 4:00 a.m. to return to
the compound. Unknown to us, Smitty's group "broke noise discipline" (made an unintended noise, like coughing or
sneezing, possibly alerting the enemy), and this necessitated their silent relocation. At about 4:00 a.m., the two PF's
and I began our return through the dark to Smitty's group. The night stillness was broken by the crack/bang,
crack/bang sound of a M-16 on full automatic ("crack" like a whip above your head as the bullet passes you at
supersonic speed; "bang" as you immediately thereafter hear the retort from the firearm; identification of the weapon
aimed at you begins with your first firefight and lasts your whole life). The three of us went diving into the sand and
rolling down an embankment. Not caring if every VC in Quang Ngai Province heard me, I shouted, "cease fire" at
the top of my lungs. I don't know who was more shaken by the miscue: Smitty, who at first thought he had hit one of
us (he didn't), or myself, being shot at by a fellow marine with an M-16 ("the football-shaped rounds begin a
tumbling, tearing action upon first contact - they can enter an arm and come out the chest!" - Nam required reading).
|Pin worn by C.A.P. Marines
and Popular Force Troops
|Vietnam Campaign Ribbon,
showing colors and design of
South Vietnamese Flag
That's why I'm not sure now. These four men in front of me could be PF's returning from a visit with relatives. So
many people are on the move because of the Tet holiday. No matter that they might be at fault for being in a "free fire
zone" (area off limits to anyone except military on operations), am I really ready to start shooting? It wasn't a month
ago that a 14-year-old boy from our village had entered a free fire zone in these sand reefs and been shot by Elliott, a
lance corporal from New York City. The boy had been trying to catch up with a runaway calf from his grandfather's
herd, and had not noticed that he was getting so far away from the village. The shot at almost 600 yards with an M-1
rifle had gone through the boy's thigh. Sergeant Watson, the senior member of our 10-marine squad stationed here,
had been stopped by Sergeant Tran, the ranking PF, from going to the village to try to explain. "People An Wa
beaucoup talk", Tran reported with understatement. All we had endeavored in providing security, some basic
medical care and help with some agricultural and civic projects in the village had been placed in jeopardy by a
miscalculation of who was friend or foe. Eventually, ranking marine and PF officers had been brought in to calm and
reassure the people of our good intentions. What are the chances of doing so again if I gun down four PF's? On the
other hand, if these four are VC and they penetrate the village and do harm, what will be the response to our failure
to act? Ten seconds have elapsed; the four soldiers are now about 25 feet away, getting close to shore.
Beyond the tactical analysis of the situation, my recent leave back in the States has added to the complexity of the
choices. I realized during my leave, as I hadn't during my first tour here, that, except for people who have an
immediate family member involved, this war is of little concern. One of the guys from my high school class, Barry,
seeing me on the street in uniform, let out a good-natured whoop, "Hey, man, they got you!". For a year after high
school, before I enlisted, we had been classmates and cross-country teammates at a local college. We spent 20
minutes catching up on all we knew about our former team and classmates. As Barry recounted the cross-country
season last fall and changes at the college, I found myself thinking about what I had been doing then - going through a
two-week training in Vietnamese culture and small unit tactics, then being assigned to my first CAP platoon and
coming to the realization that CAP was more like the grunts than the grunts. Even though it had only been a couple of
years, college and sports seemed in the distant past to me, practically another life. Then he asked, "What's your job
I began to explain that I had been in the grunts but last Fall transferred to the CAP program, which is where a
10-man squad of marines lives in a village and works with a 40-man platoon of PF's. I wanted to tell him that,
despite everything, the country and the people there are beautiful. In the sea just out from the village you can look
down 40 feet through crystal clear water and see schools of yellow, red and gray fish gyrating above the sand. In the
village the people make rope from dried coconut husks; their fishing boats are home-made round baskets 4 feet in
diameter; they invite you to eat fish and rice with them in their 10-foot-square thatched houses and serve you the best
they have even though they may go to bed hungry.
|Kids in the village. An Wa,
|People making rope. An Wa,
I wanted to tell him that, having seen comrades give so much to get to this point, I wanted to stay the course, at least
in part for their sake. More than anything, I wanted my presence there to say to the people of An Wa, "Whatever
may come of all this, please know that we meant well."
But before I could really get started, Barry's eyes had shifted nervously to the street. He studied each passing car as
though he wanted to make sure it wasn't going to veer out of control, jump the curb and careen down the sidewalk at
us. I really liked Barry and didn't want to make him uncomfortable, so I had cut it short with, "Well, it's not great but
it's better than having to cram for finals." Laughing, we shook hands again, wished each other good luck and
promised to keep in touch.
Now they are about 20 feet away, within 5 feet of shore. For the past 15 seconds my thoughts have been whirling.
Now I have to act. With the grenade in my right hand and my M-16 in my left, I crawl over alongside Vann. "Cong
San a-dow?" (VC there?) I whisper in my broken Vietnamese, hoping that my rising emotions don't show in my
"Maybe. Maybe not", Vann replies in his passable English. I can tell from his tone that he has been going through the
same anguishing analysis that I have. We are mystified by VC revealing themselves this way.
"Stop! Stop right there!", I shout in English. I've made my decision. A shiver overtakes my whole body. If they are
PF's, they will know enough English to understand, and they will reply.
Instead, they dive for the shrubs 10 feet in from the shore, about 20 feet to our right flank.
"VC on our right flank", I yell, waking up our two sleeping comrades as I toss the grenade. Gunfire erupts on both
sides, but in 30 seconds all is still. None of us are hit. We pop an illumination flare. As it sways down on its
3-foot-wide parachute, we see the immediate area is clear. Masters of the night, the VC have melted into the brush
along the coast. The four of us form a line and slowly sweep through, but they have disappeared.