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 Vietnam Primer (Part 5)

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PostSubject: Vietnam Primer (Part 5)   Mon Nov 08, 2010 3:07 pm


Procedures used in forming the defensive perimeter vary greatly along
with their effectiveness from unit to unit. There is uniformity within a
brigade or a battalion when command at these levels continues to insist
upon it and inspects to see that the work is properly done in the field.
Left to his own devices, the young company commander, most of the time, is
careless about perimeter organization. That the unit repeatedly deploys
without contact tends to lull the unit into a state of indifference. This
the attitude prevails, "If we got by last night without digging, why dig

To some extent, all infantry units try to follow the tested and proved
principles and techniques of defense taught at the service schools. But
too many do not try very hard; if they did, there would be fewer losses due
to failure to dig in deep, or to dig at all, when there was time for
digging and the men were not physically exhausted.

The record shows conclusively that the unit disciplined to follow the
rules has never suffered a serious tactical disarrangement and invariable
sustains relatively light losses when considered against the volume of
enemy fire and the intensity of the attack. Its production of fire is
steadier and better controlled than that of the unit that has failed to
make the best use of ground. The movement of weapons and ammunition from
the less-threatened sectors of the perimeter to the foxholes under direct
pressure, when ammo runs low and weapons are being knocked out, is
systematic, not haphazard.

We have cases in the book in which the rifle company was so lax about
elementary precautions in organizing for defense that there appears no
other explanation of how it escaped destruction in the fight that ensued
except that the average enemy soldier has no real skill with the rifle and
other had weapons.

There are far more examples on the bright side. Representative of
them are company actions out of the 4th Infantry Division's experience in
Operation Paul Revere IV in late 1966. Yet these units were having their
baptism of fire. The NVA attacks ranged from company-size to assault by
the reinforced battalion. Some of the attacks were supported by heavily
concentrated mortar fire, so accurately placed as to suggest that the
weapons had been preregistered on the position. One mortar barrage on a
single position in a fight of less than one hour was reported as hurling
between 500 and 700 rounds; through group interview of the unit, the figure
was subsequently scaled down to 300-350 rounds. Yes, the unit under this
fire took heavy losses. But in view of the powerful barrage that struck,
it came through splendidly. "We had dug in right up to our chins," one
sergeant said. Close questioning of the men established that this was no

The mortar barrage had been set to disorganize the defense preparatory
to a battalion-size assault that under cover of dark had already closed to
within approximately 200 meters of the position. Its repulse was total.
Not only did it fail to break the perimeter; it did not get close enough to
trade volume rifle fire with the defenders. There can be no doubt that
deep digging, and one other tactical precaution to be discussed later,
saved this rifle unit and the supporting artillery battery. A general rule
now being followed in Vietnam is to stop moving early enough to allow for
sufficient daylight in which to establish a solidly organized, well-dug
defensive perimeter.

The ROK forces have had similar success on the defense since their
first major encounter with NVA troops in the rice paddies of south Tuy Hoa
(Hill 50) in January 1966. Two battalions of NVA tried to overrun two ROK
marine companies. The fight went three hours; when it ended, more than 400
enemy dead lay outside the ROK perimeter, while inside it the losses were
light. ROK units have never taken a reverse while on defense in Vietnam.
They employ no defensive tactics that are peculiarly their own; there is no
secret to their success. What they do has been taught them by U.S. Army
advisers and can be found in our manuals. The Korean soldier works at his
position like a mole. The holes are dug deep and reinforced with
protective overhead over. Tactical wire is placed to the front and
interlaced with trip flares, mines, and other anti-intrusion devices.
Outposts are set along likely avenues of approach, far enough from the
perimeter to provide a sufficient warning interval. Patrols are dispatched
to scout possible sites for enemy supporting weapons. (The enemy normally
prepares such positions well before the infantry attack comes on.) The
position prepared, it is then manned by an alert and well-supervised
soldier. Usually, one-third of the defenders are at the ready, listening
for noise of the enemy. Noise, light, and fire disciplines are sternly
enforced. "Stand-to" is conducted at dusk, dawn, and, when keyed to
intelligence, in the middle of the night.

With the average U.S. rifle company in night defense, nominally every
third man is on the alert, and the watch is two hours. Because of the high
mobility of operations, tactical wire is not used, though the unit stays in
the same position two days or more. It would seem prudent to harden the
base whenever any prolonged stay is in prospect, but the practice is not
generally applied. Such a rule should be in order, most particularly when
the perimeter encloses artillery, which is high on the list of enemy
targets. In the fight on LZ Bird, 26 December 1966, already praised here
as a highly valiant and successful defense. American losses would have
been less and the enemy attack could not have impacted with such pronounced
initial violence, had this precaution been taken.

The average U.S. rifle company on defense uses the buddy system, or
two men to a foxhole. The record fully sustains this practice as having,
in this mode of warfare, an added value beyond those of affording
companionship, steadying the individual nerve, and contributing to unit
alertness. We are dealing with a fanatic enemy, capable of acts of seeming
madness and utter desperation. Often, the lone fighter is not prepared to
cope with the frenzy of an attacker thus possessed. Two men can; one man's
courage rubs off on the other. From Paul Revere IV and earlier operations,
the record has numerous entries of foxhole buddies, working together,
manhandling, and at last vanquishing a demonic adversary, where one man
would have failed. Example: The NVA soldier charges directly in and jumps
into the foxhole. One man, tackling him around the knees, wrestles him
down, works on him with a machete, and cuts through the shoulder to the
bone so that the arm dangles by flesh. The American by then is atop the
still-struggling enemy. His buddy, trying to help, but having no clear
shot at the target, puts three bullets from his M-16 into the enemy's legs.
The figure goes limp. The two Americans toss the body out of the
perimeter, thinking the man dead. It lands on the back of a company aid
man who grabs the nigh-severed arm and is astonished to see it spin a
complete circle. The corpse comes alive and struggles with the aid man.
He is killed at last, beaten to death with an entrenching tool.

Some companies use the three-man foxhole; there are sound arguments
for it and the results seem more satisfactory, insuring maximum rest
combined with the required degree of alertness. Terrain -- the possession
of high ground for the defensive position -- has little value in Vietnam
compared with former wars. What is important is that the position be
compact; weakness, vulnerability come rather from overextension, trying to
cover too much ground, thereby shortening the field of fire, and lessening
mutual support, foxhole to foxhole.

Trip flares and other alarm or anti-intrusion devices, including the
Claymore, are not employed regularly and consistently by all units on the
defense, though they are invariably carried along. There is no general
explanation other than lack of command insistence. The Claymore is
employed more than any other fixture outward from the perimeter. Lately
the NVA enemy has acquired the nasty habit of sneaking forward a few hands
in the early stages of a fight who wriggle in on their bellies to where
they can cut the Claymore wires. The Viet Cong enemy frequently improves
on that trick. In January 1967, for example, a platoon from 25th Infantry
Division conducted a small night operation on the outskirts of Vinh Cu and
was attacked while in defensive position. Reports the witness: "I went out
to get my Claymore only to find that the mine had been turned around.
Faced as it was, it could have wiped out the people in four of our
positions had we fired it during the fight." (The battery-powered,
tripwire-type anti-intrusion device has little appeal and goes almost
unused. In all operations, we found only one lieutenant who thought it
worthwhile and strung the wire regularly.)

Outposts, giving way to listening posts after dark, are set generally
and routinely by platoons and rifle companies on defense along each likely
avenue of approach, with about this one exception: a unit rigging ambushes
on trails adjacent to the perimeter rarely sets up outposts as well. Two
or three men usually compose an OP or LP. They do not dig in as a rule.
One man is supposed to stay alert; the others sleep. Though frowned upon,
smoking on OP and LP, and within the perimeter, is common. (An exception
is in Special Force detachments on patrol where smoking is prohibited. The
rule is respected because, among other effects, "smoking makes the sense of
smell less acute.") Sometimes the LP is connected with the perimeter, and
sometimes not; this variation is arbitrary and in no way related to the
distance between the post and the main body. Where there are four platoons
on perimeter, there will usually be four OP'S or LP's. Generally each
platoon sets out one LP to cover the main approach into its sector. When
the RT is used on LP duty, a prearranged signal (so many clicks on the
push-to-talk button) warns of the approach of enemy force and gives its

LP's located at real distance from the defensive perimeter are not
only of vital service to security but invariably safer for their occupants.
At least half the time in Vietnam, according to the record, the defense is
established on ground that permits siting LP'S for maximum effectiveness.
Yet rare indeed is an LP posted more than 50 meters from the foxhole line;
far more frequently, where the terrain and vegetation outward from the
perimeter are clear enough for the men on LP to run back to the main body
the posting is too close to be of much use or there is none whatever.

In the 4th Infantry Division's fight near the Cambodian border in late
November 1966, three men were on LP duty 350 meters west of the perimeter.
They heard an NVA rifleman as he crawled over a pile of logs not more than
10 meters away. Certain they had not been seen, they slipped backward a
few feet to get a clearer view of him and have more freedom of action. All
three then blasted him with the greater part of three magazines of M-16
fire. Their volleying tripped off the enemy mortar attack before the NVA
line had advanced to more than even with the LP. The mortars started,
fired a few rounds, then broke off when the enemy realized that something
had gone wrong. (It is assumed that small arms fire was the prearranged
signal for the enemy mortarmen to begin their supporting fires.) The NVA
line was still far short of closing distance. Thus the attack became
unhinged. The three Americans, going on a dead run for the perimeter, made
it in time to alert the defenders to what was coming.

In another perimeter defense in Paul Revere IV one LP, equipped with a
radio though it was only 30 meters from the foxhole line, was dead in the
way of the enemy line of advance. One soldier got off the warning; it
helped not at all because by then the attack had broken against the main
body, and within seconds the soldier was down and dying and crying for an
aid man. Initial confusion in a sector of the perimeter arose out of
distress over the man and the desire to rescue him. Temporarily, it
inhibited fire in decisive volume from the one platoon that was under the
heaviest and most direct pressure, though it shortly got going,
semireconciled to the loss of the lone man on the LP.

According to the record, this is a not uncommon incident. Something
of the sort happens often enough to warrant raising the question: do LP's
placed at only 20 to 35 meters from the perimeter have sufficient warning
value in this form of warfare to justify their use? The extra danger to
men so placed is hardly debatable. The brief time interval is not enough
to allow the alerting of the armed circle. Time after time, because the
LP's have been overrun, greater jeopardy is visited on the main body. The
command places a certain amount of reliance on them though they have little
chance to do the work for which they are intended.

There is no evidence on record in Vietnam that any U.S. rifle company,
having set up for night defense by perimeter, has been wholly overrun,
though the story was too frequently otherwise in Korea. Many such
positions in Vietnam have been cracked, and others have taken hard
punishment, but the ground has always been held until the enemy withdrew or
the command decision was made that it was no longer worth the fight. The
unit sometimes gets out; none has ever been driven out. The same cannot be
said of platoon perimeters, the reason being they do not have enough fire
power to withstand a hard-pressed attack. They are as insecure as was the
company perimeter atop a Korean ridge. The comparison rather clearly
bespeaks the scale of the war and the relative ineffectiveness of the
enemy, NVA or VC, in the attack. Use of the company perimeter as the basic
defensive element, careful tying-in of weapons, and alertness will beat him
every time.



Policing of the battle field, or tidying-up as the British say, is an
ancient custom in armies, and more of a necessity in Vietnam than in wars
of our past. The reasons are already well known to troops before they
arrive in Vietnam. Not only is the debris of war so repulsive and
unwholesome that having as little of it about as possible is just another
part of good housekeeping, but denying to the enemy anything and everything
that may be of use to him is the interest of self-preservation.

So there is nothing novel or unreasonable about the requirement put
upon troops that they strip the scenes of action and the routes over which
they move of everything that the enemy might turn to a fighting purpose or
use to help his forces in any other way. Every dud grenade or unexploded
artillery shell left behind is a gift to the Viet Cong. Any discarded C-
ration tin can be transformed into a booby trap. The enemy is good at such
tricks, and nine times out of ten he will return to the field to look for
free items he can add to his bag soon after we depart it.

A fundamental consideration in any discussion about policing the field
is the soldier's load, for it goes to the heart of the problem. Why does
the field get lettered? Even though the soldier's load has been discussed
and analyzed by experts perhaps more than any other subject in warfare, the
record in Vietnam still shows that the average infantry soldier crashes
through the jungle weighted down like a pack mule. When he finds the
enemy, he must always unload the rucksack or the heavy pack in order to
move more quickly about the battlefield. It is not uncommon to find
soldiers saddled with five days' C-rations, which weigh about 15 pounds.
Their commanders proudly report, "Five days' rations give my men freedom
from resupply; they can move with the speed and stealth of a guerrilla."
In actual fact, mobility is decreased because of these heavy loads and the
soldier is physically worn down by midday. Fatigue affects alertness,
making him vulnerable to the enemy's designs.

The good commander takes a hard look at every item that his soldiers
carry. What they do not absolutely require he eliminates. At all times it
should be a main aim to lighten the load of his men. For the soldier in
Vietnam like the soldier of World War II and Korea will throw away or lose
anything he does not need, or thinks he may not need tomorrow -- and before
another day has passed the enemy will have picked it up.

These lines from a book published by the Department of Defense should
be read again by unit commanders in the light of our Vietnam experience:
"Extravagance and wastefulness are somewhat rooted in the American
character because of our mode of life. When our men enter military
service, there is a strong holdover of their prodigal civilian habits.
Even under fighting conditions, they tend to be wasteful of water, food,
munitions, and other vital supply. When such things are too accessible
they tend to throw them away rather than conserve them in the general

Because of this fault in our makeup, combat leaders in Vietnam have to
keep prodding their men to police the premises before quitting the
perimeter and moving on. The distinguishing feature of this discipline is
the heavy accent that has to be given it because we are fighting a
guerrilla enemy and no piece of open country is likely to be held by our
people for very long.

What is new and different about the war in Vietnam is the emphasis put
upon the tallying of enemy dead at the same time that the field is being
policed. Where circumstances permit and members of the unit are not
subjected to additional jeopardy, they are required to tally the manpower
losses of the enemy as conscientiously as they are required to set about
possessing the weapons that he leaves on a field from which his forces have

These two requirements need to be discussed and understood in one
context. The heavier burden put upon troops adds up to a somewhat onerous
task and not one they would undertake of their own volition. Like so much
of war's drudgery, however, it is still acceptable, so long as doing the
job does not subject the men to extremes of risk.

None but a foolhardy soldier would voluntarily charge forward against
fire from an enemy rifle line so that he might wrest an AK47 or SKS from
Viet Cong hands to claim it as a souvenir, though he would be denying the
enemy that one weapon. Body count is governed by the same principle that
underlies this negative example. It should not be ordered when there is
clearly present the prospect of increased risk for the unit or the
likelihood of more casualties; nor should it be ordered when there is a
more pressing military object immediately to be served.

Time and tactical opportunity wait on no man. Take one example. A
U.S. unit in perimeter defense clearly witnesses the temporary withdrawal
from the immediate vicinity of the enemy force that has been pressing the
attack. Given the choice in the breathing space of one or the other, only
an unthinking commander would put the counting of bodies outside his lines
ahead of possessing the weapons scattered there. The enemy may swarm back
and, by pressing home the attack again, manage to extract the bodies. But
if the weapons are left there and he recovers them, they could help him
overrun the position. The bodies do him no good; they merely burden his
withdrawal. And all we lose by letting him get away with them is a
comforting statistic.

We are pointing out only that body counting at the wrong time, or at
the sacrifice of real tactical opportunity, can be both dangerous and time-
wasting. It is not a task or object of such transcendent importance as to
warrant taking additional casualties, though any small-unit commander may
make it such by getting confused about his priorities. Emphasizing body
count until it obscures the more legitimate interest of security and
mobility is ever a mistake on his part. In its possible consequences it
differs in degree from the requirement to police the combat field. When
the young commander, having won his fight, pushes out his tidying-up
patrols before he has done a proper job of reconnoitering for enemy
presence just beyond the foreground, he is wrong, dead wrong.

Examples that make the point dot the record. Item. A fight is not
even halfway along. Pressure on the unit leader is mounting by the minute.
But already higher command is putting additional pressure on him to police
the field and get the bodies counted in the proper time. It is his duty to
bear with it: he is still the judge of the right time and circumstance.
Item. A U.S. rifle company in a good defensive position atop a ridge is
taking steady toll of an NVA force attacking up hill. The skipper sends a
four-man patrol to police weapons and count bodies. Three men return
bearing the fourth, who was wounded before the job was well started.
Another patrol is sent. The same thing happens. The skipper says, "Oh, to
hell with it!" Item. In Operation Nathan Hale three men working through a
banana grove were hit by sniper fire. They were counting bodies.
Item. In Operation Paul Revere IV a much-admired line sergeant was killed,
two other enlisted men were wounded, and a lieutenant barely escaped
ambush, when the four together were "tidying up" the field. They ran into
a stay-behind party planted in a thicket on the morning after the fight.

Small-unit leaders have to understand that the requirement, though
urgent, is not that urgent. Body-counting is of lesser moment than the
chance to kill and capture still more of the enemy in the hour when
effective pursuit is possible. As Marshal Foch said, "If you reach the
stop one minute after the bus is gone you miss it." One of the comments
often made by Americans fighting in Vietnam is that the enemy has greater
skill at breaking contact than any soldier ever engaged by our forces. A
unit commander only adds to the enemy's reputation when he rates keeping
contact and maintaining pursuit as secondary to counting bodies simply
because such tallying is a duty on his checklist.

No solution to fit every possible variation of this problem can be
recommended. A few suggestions are put forward to assist the small-unit
commander in arriving at his own solution. He is the man on the spot and
the best judge of the situation, and it is his decision that will cure or
kill. To him belong the options involving the immediate safety and best
interest of this command, in the light of what he knows about the
situation. If he believes that a present, but unmeasured, danger forbids
body counting or that a more urgent military object should come first, he
need only have the courage of his own convictions in coming to that
decision. No one may rightly press him to trade lives for bodies.

Out of data based on more than 100 actions by rifle companies and
platoons, it can be fairly estimated that the physical and tactical
difficulties besetting a unit in the hour when the fight ended precluded
the possibility of a body count at least 60 percent of the time. Still
more significantly, and with very rare exceptions, where a body count had
been reported and was therefore entered into the record, analysis of what
really happened in the fight leads to the conclusion that the enemy
actually lost more dead than the number reported. Overall, what was
claimed and reported, on the basis of the data afforded by the fight
itself, appeared to be an understatement of the casualties inflicted on the



Our mistakes in Vietnam are neither new nor startling. They are not
something we can blame on the mysteries of the warfare. They are the same
problems that have been haunting small-unit commanders since before Gideon.
The mistakes we are talking about will not likely cause a unit to take a
beating. But they will inflict on it needless casualties. In peace or war
these errors spell the difference between professionalism and mediocrity.

Many young leaders, enchanted by the Hollywood image of war, approach
combat with the good-guy-versus-the-bad-guy attitude. But there is no
similarity between what John Wayne gets away with on the screen and the
hot, hard facts of the fire fight. A small-unit leader in combat cannot
afford to have a film hero's devil-may-care attitude toward training,
discipline, and basic soldiering.

In the recipe for battle victory, well-led and disciplined soldiers
are the main ingredient, soldiers who have been conditioned by thorough
training to react by habit when confronted with the searing realities of
engagement. The habits learned in training -- good or bad -- are the same
habits that move the soldier in combat. A leader, then, must insure that
each of his soldiers is well trained and has developed good habits --
habits so deeply ingrained through correct reaching and intensive practice
that even under the pressure of fear and sudden danger each soldier,
automatically, will do the right thing.

There is no magic formula or sweatless solution by which one can
achieve this goal. Leaders may approach training for combat only with
intense dedication, accepting as gospel the timeless truth that better-
trained men live longer on the battlefield.

No military unit is ever completely trained. There will always be a
weak area that requires additional time and effort. The wise commander
uses all available time to train his unit; he never says, "Good enough."
In Vietnam he can continue to train constantly -- in the assembly area, in
the reserve position, and during the execution of the mission. Leaders
must accept the old but absolute maxim: "The more sweat on the training
field, the less blood on the battlefield."

An alert leader constantly stresses essential battlefield arts and
skills: fire and maneuver; marksmanship; camouflage and concealment;
communication; maintenance; noise, light, and fire discipline; scouting and
patrolling; woodcraft; mines and boobytraps; and field sanitation. And he
makes on-the-spot corrections with the same precision as he does in
dismounted drill.

If a soldier is firing from the wrong side of a tree, the leader tells
him what he is doing wrong, and why. If the soldier is wandering around
without his weapon during an exercise, the leader tells him that he is
being fired on by an enemy sniper and that he should take cover and return
the fire. When the soldier looks at him dumbfounded and says, "I can't
because my rifle is over there," then the leader tells him he is "dead" and
makes him lie where he was "killed" for a couple of hours.

The good leader forms a checklist habit. Combat is too serious a
business to permit easy excuse of even one mistake. If a unit is going on
a patrol, setting up an ambush, establishing a defensive position, or
conducting an airmobile assault, he should pull out his checklist and
insure that every point is checked off. Many checklists are available
throughout the Army and in Vietnam, but in the main they are far too
complicated and tend to fog up the issue with unnecessary details.

A simple checklist which underscores the salient points of the
operation at hand will stimulate recall. Battle experience has
conclusively proven that fatigue, fright, and preoccupation with the
routine tend to cloud and distort the memory.

The good leader practices giving a five-paragraph operations order.
He is never so much of an "old pro" that he can do without the tried and
proven form. He makes sure his people use it too, and he listens to
subordinates issuing their orders. If he knows his business, he will know
whether they are following correct troop leading procedures and whether
they have heeded their lessons. To plan his operation and issue his orders
in the same detail and with the same precision as if he were taking his
first ATT (Army Training Test) and an umpire were breathing down his neck -
- that should be the object. The voice of experience might well say to
him: "Never quit checking. Check everything all the time -- weapons for
cleanliness, aidmen for supplies, sentries for alertness, and the camp for
field sanitation."

Many young leaders in Vietnam think that if they will it, the thing
will be done. Seldom did we find one who adequately checked to see if his
orders were being carried out. The order-giving process has three main
elements: (1) formulation; (2) issuance; and (3) supervision. All are
interrelated and act upon one another. The successful leader will look to
all three elements and make sure they are in balance before he concludes
that his unit has been readied to the best of his ability for the impending



A more bizarre, eccentric foe than the one in Vietnam is not to be
met, and it is best that troops be told of his peculiar ways lest they be
unnerved by learning of them for the first time during combat. He may blow
whistles or sound bugles to initiate the assault; or he may trip the fight
with a flare or the beating of a bongo drum. But he does not come on in a
"banzai charge." That description of him, for example in stories about
Operation Attleboro, is a bit of press fiction. The "banzai charges" in
reality amounted to about 50 men walking forward in line against a two-
platoon front. They did not yell; they screamed only when they were hit.
Then meters from where they started they were mowed down or turned back.
In the second "banzai charge" only 30 men so acted; the third time there
were 12.

It is in many small ways that the enemy in Vietnam deviates from what
we consider normal, sometimes to the stupefaction of our people. Nerves
get jangled when in a fire fight joined at close range men hear maniacal
laughter from the pack out there in the darkness just a few feet beyond the
foxhole. Catcalls, the group yelling of phrases and curses in English, the
calling out of the full name of several men in the unit -- such
psychological tricks are likely to be trotted out at any time.

In one of the company fights in Paul Revere IV, a voice from a bamboo
clump not more than 10 meters from the foxhole line shouted, "Hey, how's
your company commander?"

One American, not at all jumpy, yelled back, "Mine's great; how's

The voice replied, "No good; you just killed him."

During the hottest part of the defense on LZ Bird, with the NVA in
large numbers inside the perimeter, the Americans still in the fight were
astonished to see enemy skirmishers break into their tents, emerge arms
laden with fruit cakes, boxes of cookies, and sacks of candy, then squat on
the fire-swept field and eat the goodies.

In that same fight one U.S. rifleman, not in anyway hurt, feigned
death when an enemy party came upon him. The NVA took none of his
possessions and did not try to roll him. The soldier lying next to him,
already wounded, was shot dead and his pockets were picked clean.

In Operation Paul Revere, an NVA soldier walked into a U.S. outpost of
two men after dark, sat beside one of them who was half asleep, and started
talking to him in perfect English. The interloper even leaned on the
American, who in his stupor thought this was his buddy who was sprawled out
sleeping several feet away. The monologue went on several minutes. By the
time our man finally became aware of what was happening, the North
Vietnamese was strolling away. He made it clean without a shot being

In Operation Cedar Falls, enemy soldiers hid in water holes along the
creek banks like so many muskrats. The entrances were below the surface.
Our skirmishers could hear their voices a few feet away but could not find
them. In the same fight, within the Iron Triangle, a party on ambush at
night sensed a particularly pungent smell in the air which only one man
could identify. "I know it," he said. "That's pot [marihuana]." It was a
first warning of enemy presence.

In one of the mad scenes in Operation Irving, more than a platoon of
enemy vanished into subsurface water holes along a river bank. Bamboo,
bored through to form a pipe, serves as louvers for these chambers. U.S.
cavalrymen spotted the telltale signs, stripped naked, got down into the
stream, and fished the NVA out of the holes.

On a long patrol in January 1967, a Mike Force led by Special Force
personnel, was shadowed for 10 days by one Viet Cong. He kept a copious
diary, relating that he could not understand what the column was trying to
do or where it was heading because of its zigzag movement. But along with
his diary entries he had carefully written down the plan and maneuver to be
used by several enemy battalions gathering to envelop the Mike Force. On
the eleventh day, making one false move, he was shot dead. The diary was
found on him, and the column walked away from the trap.

Another snapshot from Operation Cedar Falls. Nine Americans were in
an ambush position. One group of 14 Viet Cong kept circling the ground for
two hours. Then one of their number walked to within five feet of the
muzzle of the machinegun, knelt down, and lit a candle to look at a wounded
man struck down by the same gun a few minutes before.

An ambush patrol from 1st Infantry Division, based at Di An, was in a
night operation near War Zone D. The men had already made a killing, and
because their leader had an intuition that the Viet Cong were out in force
that night they rapidly shifted position to stronger ground. The leader
asked for illumination and Smokey the Bear (a flare ship) came over. When
the lights popped on, instead of having a view of the river banks 250
meters to their fore, the men were "dazzled by an array of shining objects
that seemed to be moving" between them and the stream. This dazzling band
was about 100 meters wide and six feet tall. Feeling themselves
threatened, for want of anything better to do the troops opened fire with
M-16's and machineguns. The shining objects began falling. Then fire came
against the Americans. At last they understood. These were Viet Cong --
several platoons of them. The VC had been advancing, each one carrying in
front of him a sheet of roofing tin that screened his body wholly. Why?
No one ever found out. It was just another mystery, wholly baffling to the
Americans. One of them said, "It was screwier than Macbeth."

There are these tales and many more about our odd foe. The full
measure of his strange nature is yet to be taken. We will continue to
endure it in its military manifestations so long as the fighting goes on.
To accustom the American soldier to expect the unexpected may be too much
to expect, but he can be braced to the probability that when he engages the
VC or NVA the most unlikely things will happen. Getting to know them
better is a large part of the game. INDEX

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Vietnam Primer (Part 5)
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