Echoes from the Regiment’s Service in Vietnam 1966 – 1972
Don Snedeker, 11th ACVVC Historian
2nd Qtr 2016
The Animals - Part II
Even in the midst of combat operations, the American GI is notoriously a sucker for little babies and critters. Far from the ‘baby killers’ that many in the anti-war movement and media saw, these soft-hearted young men would go after the enemy with zeal. They would protect four-legged animals with equal fervor. Such was the case when the 11th ACR crossed the border into Cambodia in May 1970. In one of the extensive NVA base camps uncovered in the first 48 hours, Troopers found bunkers with two feet of overhead cover – and farm animals. While the cooks accompanying the recon troops and tank companies saw fresh roast meat on the menu, some of the scouts and tankers saw pets. As described in the Pacific Stars & Stripes: “The tanks liberated a Communist ‘farm,’ scattering pigs, chickens and tomatoes. It was ‘quite a sight,’ [reporter SP4 John] Beard reported, to watch battle-hardened troops cuddle some of the chicks they brought back aboard lumbering tanks for pets.”
CWO David Burns remembers the pet spider monkey named ‘Charlie’ kept in Air Cav Troop in late 1967 and early 1968. Charlie’s palate was not especially discerning, as he would eat most anything; he was, however, partial to Winston filtered cigarettes. Mr. Burns was an observant pilot, who recalled the ample flora and fauna of Vietnam. In a letter to a Michigan elementary school class, he wrote: “‘When I fly over the jungle real low, I can see monkeys looking at me, and there are thousands of little parakeets of all colors. Blue, green, yellow, and we have peacocks here, and even the rare ‘birds of paradise.’ Oh, I have seen herds of elephants, and wild water buffalo here, also. It is so pretty; it is hard to realize there is a war here.’”
Speaking of monkeys, ‘Lifer’ was an Alpha Troop mascot cared for by SP4 Wally Walburn in 1969 and 70. As the moniker implies, the monkey was facetiously named for the professional soldiers in the unit, especially the First Shirt. Lifer even had an appropriate haircut – a flattop. In early 1967, newly-arrived Air Troop traded a pig to Bravo Troop, in exchange for a case of jungle boots. The Bravo Troopers promptly named the pig ‘Top’. The Bravo Troop First Sergeant’s reaction is not recorded.
Not everyone was an animal lover, however. And not all of the mascots were tame. Such was the case in 1971. ‘Jo-Jo’ was Golf Troop’s pet monkey, and there was one Trooper who constantly tormented Jo-Jo. In the dark of the Vietnam night, the monkey got even. Fellow Golf Troopers were awakened to a scream, followed by the frantic call of “Medic!” After the dust from the medevac settled down, the story made its way around the tight NDP perimeter. Jo-Jo had ripped an ear off its tormenter.
Boat Person Doug Hunt remembers a somewhat larger, also not-so-tame primate. One night while pulling perimeter guard at Blackhorse Base Camp, he and the others on duty heard something in the wire that surrounded the perimeter. Whatever or whoever was out there was making so much noise, they figured it was not an enemy soldier trying to sneak into the base camp, but they were still getting “‘a little nervous’”. When a couple of Delta Company tanks pulled up and turned on their Xeon searchlights, they illuminated an orangutan with his fur caught in the rolls of concertina. The bright light apparently spooked the beast. “‘He took off running, dragging the wire with him and setting off mines, booby traps, and trip flares. He didn’t get hurt, though.’”
Sometimes, the animals that Blackhorse Troopers interacted with were pests, not pets. And, like the mascots that sailed to the Philippines with Second Squadron in 1902 and to Vietnam with the regimental HHT in 1966, such pests were well remembered by Blackhorse Troopers of these widely separated eras.
In 1902, Eleventh Cavalry Trooper Carl Rickarts told a reporter about the time his unit encountered “a swarm of big Filipino bees, with stingers a quarter of an inch long, which stung men to death.” Those who were stung and survived were in the hospital for weeks. Fortunately, (for the Troopers, not for the bees), the ‘insurecto’ bees died after stinging the apparently unsavory Cavalrymen.
Sixty-eight years later and one week into the Cambodia operation in May 1970, a Lima Trooper was stung by so many ‘NVA’ bees that he passed out and had to be medevacked. The infamous red ants (obviously, they were Communists, being red and all) lie deep in the psyche of anyone who ever encountered them. But there were other pests as well – snakes, leeches, tigers, scorpions, spiders – called ‘sproings’ by some for the way that they jumped. A 1967 Army Reporter article, written by the 17th PID, described one Fox Troop and Hotel Company jungle-busting mission where many of these pests were encountered.
The cavalrymen now found a new foe to be reckoned with, the animal and insect life. Every branch that fell teemed with large, angry red ants. The mosquitoes razed the troopers with the ferocity of a mad dog. Snakes frantically tried to flee trees doomed by the menacing armor. One snake even fell into an ACAV as a tree tumbled to earth under the belly of the relentless tank.
Alpha 6 in 1969 (CPT Paul Renschen) also remembers the red ants.
The worst hazard was red ants. When we were busting jungle, our antennas would sweep through the low hanging branches. The red ants built their nests in the branches where an antenna would not infrequently knock one down. Red ants had an extremely painful venom. When a crew was attacked by red ants, everything stopped. The crew would strip and spray each other with a pesticide that was clearly labeled as not to come into contact with the skin or eyes or to be breathed in.
First Squadron tanker SP4 John Williamson recalls the ambush patrol in December 1967 that almost resulted in the loss of his leg. It was the dry season and they weren’t set up anywhere near water, but all the Troopers on that AP came back with dozens of ground leaches attached to their lower extremities. John recalled he began “to feel that itching” on his legs. He noticed that others were already dealing with the blood-suckers, so he figured he must have them too. Sure enough, when he dropped his jungle fatigue trousers “there musta been 50 of them or so”. A few minutes and a bottle of mosquito repellant later, they were gone. But two days later his leg started to swell and got real sore. The doctors determined that he had a blood infection from the combination of the leeches and the bug spray. Fortunately, they were able to treat him with antibiotics at the 37th Med ward at Blackhorse Base Camp and he was back in the field a week later.
(Part III will appear in the next Thunder Run)