A Night in the Field in Vietnam
By Rodney H. George
When I think back to life in the field with an armored cavalry troop in Vietnam, the first memory always is one of bone numbing weariness. Unlike the infantry companies which normally were in base camp a third of their time in country, the Blackhorse stayed in the field until after some weeks accumulated vehicle maintenance forced a return to a secured area for repairs. Even then there was little rest, as the crews on the combat vehicles carried out many of the repairs that in a peacetime army are done by maintenance units.
In the field the four troops making up the cavalry squadron would usually move through the rubber or elephant grass or jungle a few kilometers apart. Three clicks is close enough to support each other if one troop got into a heavy contact, but far apart enough to sweep a broad area through western III corps. We tried to keep moving until late in the day to give Charlie less chance to plan an attack on the night defensive position in which we would laager. An ideal NDP would have room to circle the vehicles around a clear landing zone for the resupply helicopters and clear fields of fire for each tank and ACAV. Unfortunately the few ideal NDPís in the area were as well known to Charlie as to us, and their locations undoubtedly had been plotted with great precision by the NVA mortar crews. We sometimes were receiving incoming mortars even before the engines were shutdown. Still, a Cav troop on the move consumes an enormous amount of fuel and ammunition each day, so placing the NDP at an LZ big enough for the Chinooks to land their sling loads was often the only option.
In the perimeter a tank needs to go behind any slight fold in the ground that might shield the hull from direct fire without blocking the guns. The first thing to do after getting into position for the night is get the trip flares out into the grass at the far edge of the field of fire. The trip wires go across likely routes of approach to the tank in the dark. Next claymores go out in front of the vehicles. A claymore is a command detonated antipersonnel mine, essentially a block of C4 explosive on a little tripod with metal fragments attached to one face. It is fired by squeezing a trigger mechanism that sends an electric charge down a wire to the claymore. For the intelligence impaired, one side says "This Side Toward Enemy" in raised letters. On my tank we usually placed three mines, leading the commo wire from each back to the tank commanderís cupola and fastening each to a separate clicker. We tried to cover any dead ground in front of the tank with a claymore, figuring Charley would use these routes if he tried us on that night. Machine gun ammunition links tied to the detonator wire identified the mines by location, one link for the left most mine , two for the next and so forth. You can count the links by feel in the dark. Next we unloaded the big rolls of concertina wire from the APCís trim vanes and stretched out the barbed wire in front of the tanks. The wire needed to be staked down every few feet, or Charlie would prop it up with short sticks so he could crawl under it. With the wire in place, a half dozen trip flares fastened to the wire would hopefully give us some warning if someone tried to slip under the wire. Empty C ration cans with pebbles in them augmented the trip flares as ornaments on the wire.
By this time the first chopper has usually left its sling load of ammunition, replacement parts and C rations in the center of the NDP. If the load was small, the pilot could put it down on top the first sergeantís PC, but most days the resupply would be dropped in a cargo net in a heap on the ground. Whoever was currently on the first sergeantís black list got to hoist it onto the lowered ramp of his PC. 90mm tank rounds come packed two to the wooden box and weigh 60lbs each, 130lbs to the case. .50 caliber weighs 22lbs to the box, four boxes to the case. An M48 tank carries 63 rounds of ammunition for the main gun, ten boxes of .50 cal and 20 boxes of .30 cal ammunition, plus smoke, CS and fragmentation grenades, parachute flares, M16 ammunition and 40 pounds or so of C4. With fifteen tanks in the company, each of which might fire away a quarter of its basic load each day simply doing recon by fire, it often took several trips by the PC to shuttle all the ammo resupply from the dump point to the tracks. At each tank the ammo would be stacked on the rear deck to be stowed in the ammo racks by the crew. The empty wooden ammo cases were stacked on the sponson boxes and fenders of the tank around the turret. It gave the tanks a rag/tag appearance, but the empty boxes, plus a layer of spare track blocks, water cans and the duffel bags containing the personal gear of the crew all tied to the turret might cause an incoming RPG round to detonate prematurely and thus not penetrate the turret armor.
With the ammo stowed, on every third day it was time for each tank in turn to back into the center of the NDP and refuel from the fuel bladder dropped by the second hook. If the M88 recovery vehicle were with us, the auxiliary winch would be used to lift the bladder and let the diesel fuel feed by gravity into the tanks. But if the M88 were still out towing in a dead tank or in use to pull an engine pack from a tank for repair, the fuel would have to be pumped from ground level into the vehicles using a hand pump and a lot of perspiration. While waiting a turn to fuel, there was time for each crew to check each drive track for loose end connectors, clean weapons and clean the turret basket of loose leaves and trash that had fallen through the open hatches during the day. The outside of a combat tank may look like hell, but the insides of turrets are polished and clean. A small twig in the wrong place can jam a turret. Every day engine oil and hydraulic fluids must be checked, air filters cleaned, radio connectors cleaned and track tension adjusted. With the last log bird for the day in, it was safe to have the artillery fire registration rounds for the pre planed artillery concentrations on the likely approach routes into the NDP. If life was good this would be handled by the artillery FO, but usually the CO ended up with the job. As the platoon leader, I plot these concentrations on the acetate case for my map in a grease pencil that refuses to write on the damp plastic, so if things get tight I can just radio for fire support as "Fire concentration Zulu" or "from Echo, drop 200"..
After getting the arty in, my next job is to visit each tank and show the flag. I talk with each crew, find out what they need for resupply, and confirm with them their fields of fire and the importance of maintaining fire discipline that night. One truth of Vietnam is we are going to have to get through the night using whatever resources are now loaded on the tanks Ė there will be no resupply until first light. By this time it is close to darkness and time to get the listening post out in front of the platoon. In bad areas each platoon puts out a two man listening post; two men armed with only a radio, grenades and M16ís who will crouch in a shallow hole a hundred meters or so outside the wire to listen for Charlie. In the event of trouble, they will radio a warning and then try to withdraw within the NDP before we open up. I choose one man from each of two tanks for the LP. Two tanks, because being short a man will mean less sleep for that crew. A two man LP so hopefully one can sleep while the other keeps watch. LP duty is not popular, so I take my turn on LP with the rest of the Snuffies in the platoon. It is lonely out there in the dark.
With the LP dispatched at last light so Charlie hopefully wonít see them move into position, there is just time to read the mail from the log bird before full dark. Most days, it is just bills and junk mail. There is some irony is reading a mailing with this monthís selection from Columbia Record Club while eating Cís sitting on the rear deck of an M48 in Ďnam. At full dark we set nighttime watches. Half of each four man crew will be awake and in the turret all night in two hour shifts. The driver will crank the engine twice during the night to keep the batteries charged and the engine warm. In a fire fight we'll need engine power for the turret hydraulics. One man keeps watch at the .50 in the TCís hatch, the other with an M79 grenade launcher in the loaderís hatch. Night falls quickly this close to the equator, and in a minute it is full dark. Most nights I take the second and forth shifts, so I can attend a leaders call at the COís track before getting an hourís sleep. At the briefing, Ron will share the intelligence fantasies of the squadron S2, and talk about plans for the sweep or road march scheduled for tomorrow. With luck, I can get an hourís sleep 10-11, and then another two hours 1 to 3, before stand to at first light at 5 AM. If Charlie leaves us alone, weíll stand down at 6AM, then pull in the LP, collect the trip flares, roll up the concertina and collect the claymores, then after a gourmet breakfast of Cís warmed over the exhaust manifold, weíll be ready to move out by 7:30AM. Three hours sleep, and a 14 hour day of breaking jungle, sweeping through the rubber or convey security ahead. Most days will see a firefight, big or small. Just another day at the office, one day out of 365, and in fact a quiet day.