Sniper in the Treeline
The first time I saw the sun breaking over the mountains of Vietnam was on the dawn of a chaotic day during the Tet Offensive. Our ship was carrying a load of M-48 tanks that were too heavy and too difficult to maintain in the jungles and less than ideal armor fighting terrain in almost every quarter. They were good for defensive positions and for guarding bridges and that sort of thing, but their best tactics were virtually useless in the muddy monsoon season and navigating poor road systems with hard-to-detect non-metallic improvised explosive devices.
The concepts of modern day armored warfare was not a Jungle thing except for the lightweight beestings of the French light armored fighting vehicles or the Russian hybrids of troop transport and swift armored cannon used more for mobility than any other reason. The hills and rice paddies of Vietnam were not for armor but they did make a hell of a racket and impressed the shit out of illiterate civilians more at ease with bicycles and motor scooters.
I got scooped up in a raid on all available personnel in Camp Pendleton right when heavy losses were hitting the ground troops in Central Vietnam. The U.S. Army forces in the south were also caught with their pants down at a time when things were just starting to look like they were coming together after years of slow attrition.
It looked my poker playing days were over to fill days of boredom and they told me I was transferred to a tank unit and relieved of any an all interrogation duties using my newly acquired language training from the State Department school in Arlington, Virginia. Since I didn’t have any family to speak of at the time, it didn’t matter much to me because I did have a love of tanks that went back to a previous hitch in the Army when I got to ride all over Germany. Now, that was a great Armor fighting terrain almost everywhere you looked except maybe right in the highest parts of the Alps.
We were all hot to trot to get off the tank-carrying ship with the hold that was home to about twenty of the metallic monsters that drank diesel fuel and burned oil in gulps that made our supply lines vital umbilical cords stretching all the way back to the port city of Da-nang on the South China Sea. The city was infiltrated by small groups of Viet-Cong that had fought their way almost from the Ho-Chi-Minh trail over by Cambodia to the port city and the American Headquarters for all Marine Corps action in the Central part of Vietnam. They were mostly being led by North Vietnamese Regular Officers who also acted as a political cadre to insure proper thinking along correct Communist propaganda lines with instructions straight from their main office in Hanoi.
I got put in charge of a “Light Section” which in Marine Corps lingo simply meant a pair of tanks. The “Heavy Section” was a trio of tanks. You can get the sense that armor in the Marine Corps was not as plentiful as armor units in the Regular Active Army doubtless due to monetary budgets that insisted Marine Infantry make do with less Infantry support than the better equipped and better supported Army Units. I remember at the time, a lot was being said about the fact the Marines had better Air Support since they had their own Air Wings, but the truth of the matter was that the Air Wings had already been committed to support other priorities deemed more important than close air support for the Marine ground units. Everyone knew that and didn’t expect our guys to come in like a “white knight” to pull our chestnuts from the fire.
The movement from the shoreline to the nearby Tank Park outside the city was tense and exciting because enemy action was anticipated the entire time. In fact, it was a let-down of sorts when it was uneventful. That first night was highlighted by periodic alerts for “rocket attacks” when the enemy hit the center of the headquarters with randomly targeted rocket fire not unlike the “depth charges” used to zoom in on submarines hidden from view. The enemy didn’t have to see us to know we were there. They just had to have a bit of luck in hitting the right place with them firing rockets like a blind man swinging haymakers in a heavyweight bout.
It took me about three weeks to pass through the final line of defense for the Da-nang enclave and get situated out in the countryside for some noisy and visible support for the Infantry elements of freshly arrived from the land of the big PX/BX Gyrenes. I never really fit in well with the armored unit because I saw things from the perspective of actually using tanks as a mobile strike force and not just anchored strong points to bolster a defense. Later on, in operations along the Perfume River, I hated the fact the tanks were used primarily to bring in ammo and other much needed supplies because the troops on the move were not as easy to support as a long standing defensive position with lots of suppressive firepower. There was a noticeable shortage of logistical support by air in the period after the Tet Offensive. This is from a “boot on the ground” perspective and not some after action report typed up for upper echelon consumption.
I followed the trail of our shipload of M48s and was not surprised to see that after only nine months in-country, the original twenty was whittled down to only six in operational status. It was a combination of “sitting duck” RPG attacks and cleverly placed anti-tank mines that did most of the damage but some of it was due to lack of in-depth armor logistical support in terms of spare parts and no real mechanical repair depot to restore functionality to units cannibalized to stay in the field. My memories of where we were sent and how we got there are somewhat hazy at this late date but I remember being demoted to a single tank commander when I supported some black Marines request to NOT fly a confederate flag on the second tank. Actually with five of the eight crewmen on the two tanks being black, I expected some support for my decision that was according to the book and not an emotional response in any way at all. It was particularly ironic that the black company ranking enlisted man was the one that broke the news to me on a morning that seemed rift with terrible omens like the scores of bodies floating down the river bloated from decomposition in the humid tropical sun. In all honesty, I was of the personal opinion the flag of the Confederacy was a romantic and inspiring tradition and not a symbol of oppression that most of the black troops considered to be a signal of “red neck” bullying. But the rules said only American flags and flags of unit identification and that was the “book”.
After that, I was demoted even further but not through my fault, it was because we were losing tanks so fast that we had more crewmen than open slots. Most of the tanks now had five crewmen instead of four as designed for optimal operation. Some of us had extra snipers and such to help us in daylight movements and, of course, the Infantry was always looking for a ride instead of walking from point A to point B.
Eventually, I was reduced to a “Gunner” on a Flame tank. It was the only flame tank in the unit and nobody really wanted to be anywhere close to it in actual combat. The napalm was a ticking time bomb waiting for the first RPG to set it off. I didn’t see it as any different than the stacked cones of high explosive rounds found in the regular tanks which were almost as volatile and certainly as dangerous. A couple of times we ran out of the components for the flame jelly and we were reduced to firing our rifles and the .50 caliber on top of the turret when we were on the attack. It seemed a hell of a way to be using a weapon like a tank but beggars can’t be choosers and the main objective was to shoot anything that moved in front of us.
It was the following month that we got orders from the Headquarters back in Da-nang that officially disbanded our Troop and we were sent in several different directions except to the airfield to catch a flight out of that place. I was sent to a South Vietnamese post about twenty clicks north of the port city to work for some unit called MACV Advisory. It seemed like nobody had ever heard of them and our communications were not all that good at that point in time. One other Corporal was on my little strip of order along with me but he was just as mystified as I was. At least, he was a pretty good sniper, but he told me he worked alone and that I should expect him to get lost as soon as we arrived at our destination. We passed through our lines, if they could be described as “lines” about six clicks back towards the coast and relaxed a little bit because the armed Vietnamese were all in South Vietnamese uniforms and not wearing the bullshit pajamas that could be anything at all including a bunch of bandits that would shoot you just for your weapon.
The outpost was on the top of a sizable hill and I was surprised to see a doublewide Mobile Home on top with a generator and spotlights to light up the concertina wire stacked in a jumble all around the slopes of the hill. It looked sort of haphazard to me, but the signs that warned of the entire area being seeded with mines was enough to dissuade anyone from trying to bring order to the chaos all around.
The guy in charge of this camp was a big man with a pair of .45 caliber M1911s dangling upside down under his armpits. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or to salute him because he was obviously in charge. A Vietnamese female dressed all in black was topping off his drink with a thermos painted red, white and blue in patriotic colors.
“Welcome to our little home away from home, boys. We have no formalities here and please, whatever you do, don’t salute me out in the open. These little nuisances are clever and most of them are true believers but they don’t have their sniper shit together yet. Once we reach that point along with the fucking unbelievable tunnels, they will push out of their country for good.”
I saw my silent companion but “not” a partner stroke his piece like he would like to give our new boss a sample that his shit was together and I hoped the almost invisible bodyguards in the shadows didn’t think we represented any threat to the main man. I turned over our little strip of paper that just listed our names, rank and serial numbers to the disinterested older man and bellowed out in Marine Corps form,
“Sergeant Moran and Corporal Jumping Eagle reporting for duty, sir!”
He simply waved his hand like we were a pair of pesky flies and sipped his drink that I assumed was laden with a whole lot of spirits and very little juice.
The generator took that moment to kick on and Jumping Eagle looked around like a wild man making certain we weren’t under attack. I acted like it was just another Wednesday almost to the end of my thirteen month tour and squatted down along with the Corporal and waited for our orders in this strange place.
“Well, boys, this is your home but I want you both to head out to another place on the other side of the river to help us win some hearts and minds.”
I was beginning to think I was in some comedy War film but kept my mouth shut and listened because he wasn’t drawing attention to my many uniform no-no’s and that I was carrying a back-up sawed off carbine I traded for cigarettes from a probable deserter from the Regional Forces conscripts that spoke a dialect that bore little connection to actual Vietnamese taught in school. When I say school, I mean either one of their French inspired institutions of learning or the venerable State Department gaggle back near D.C.
We got directed to an encampment about three clicks inland that had a bunch of raw trenches for mortar attacks and an old French building that must have been used for government purposes back in the pre-Dien-Bien-Phu days when that colonial power was trying to salvage some of their empire from the debacle. It looked real beat-up and the little guy in black was trying to explain in his English-French-Not Quite Vietnamese lingo that they had been hit hard by the VC during Tet and that they were replacements because the entire previous crew was all sent down river without benefit of a funeral or a burial simply because that was the advantage of being up-river when bodies are getting a bit too ripe.
Some of them wore the Popular Force uniform or at least parts of it and the rest just the black pajamas that meant they weren’t out farming or doing anything constructive to help their gross domestic product.
Our new boss on the hilltop was a supposed Major in the American Army but I had my doubts and figured he was a contractor sent to pacify this corner of Quang Nam Province by whatever means possible providing it didn’t involve too much money or dog tags to send back to Da-nang with a short note of regret. I didn’t think it was any of my business because I had less than ninety days left in my tour and one day was just another day less in my way of thinking.