August 9-10, 1969
It was evening and I had gone up the hill to the BTOC to research my next mission. As
I read over the intelligence reports and maps of my next mission, I could hear the radio
operator Sgt. Gary Crowder talking to the LRRP teams as they checked in.
"This is Bravo Tango, did Johnson say where he was going?"
My ears perked up as I recognized Sgt. Kurtzís voice on the radio. Johnson was still new in country. I had only met him once but he didnít seem like someone that would step out of sight without letting the rest of the team know. Even if it wasnít a rule, it shouldnít be difficult to recognize the danger of stepping away in the middle of the night. Accidentally waking a soldier with a loaded rifle who believes his only friends are next to him, could be deadly.
"Negative Bravo Tango, I logged your last comm check ten minutes ago." Replied the radio operator.
It was not all that late, but since a LRRP team didnít use lights at night we normally would go into our night cycle of sleep 3 hours and set up 1 hour from the time it was dark until the sun rose the next morning. Sgt. Kurtzís team was already in this cycle. We were required to check in every hour during the night, so everything must have been OK ten minutes ago.
"Itís Johnsonís watch. I woke up and heís just gone." Came Sgt. Kurtzís voice over the radio.
At night we would lay our backpacks side by side on the ground. We would lay out a poncho on the ground and then all four of us would lay side by side, shoulder to shoulder on the ground. The person on watch would set up in his sleeping position. A mere touch on the shoulder would silently wake each team member into action. It was hard to imagine how Johnson could have gotten to his feet without waking another team member.
"Howís your visibility?" asked the operator.
"Weíre in elephant grass." Replied Sgt. Kurtz.
Elephant grass was one of our favorite night locations as a LRRP. The grass would be from four to six feet high. We could walk into it and trample down an area of grass large enough for us to sleep. The trampled grass made a nice mattress. It was easy to understand how Johnson could have gotten disoriented if he stepped into the wall of grass, but how could he have moved into the grass without waking the others.
Under normal circumstances you could flip on a flashlight and call out for Johnson, but advertising your position with lights and sounds could be deadly in this situation. The only reasonable solution was to wait it out and hope Johnson knew what he was doing and would return on his own.
"Did you hear anything?" asked the operator.
"No we didnít hear anything. One of the guys said he thought he heard someone say Ďtiger tigerí, but heís not sure if he dreamed it or really heard it." Replied Sgt. Kurtz.
Tiger! I had seen what I thought was tiger tracks by a stream on one of my missions. On one of my first nights in the field, one of my men shared his tiger story. He was on patrol and woke up looking into the face of a tiger. He slugged the tiger in the face and the tiger left. Later that night, with everyone watching for the tiger, he returned and grabbed and killed a man without anyone knowing when it happened. I was convinced that a soldier had been killed by a tiger. But, I was also convinced the stealthness of the tiger had been exaggerated to make sure a new sergeant in country didnít run short of things to worry about.
I conceded in my mind the team could have been helpless in stopping a tiger from taking Johnson. But, I could not reconcile in my mind how a tiger could snatch one of four men in elephant grass and nobody see or hear anything.
I listened to the radio exchange for another hour. Some parachute flares were fired into the area in hopes of giving Johnson enough light to find his way back to the team. It was getting late, and if I didnít get some sleep I would be putting my own mission in jeopardy. When I left they were discussing the risk of sending out helicopters with search lights on them.
As I walked back down to my bunk, I recalled seeing a new TV show called Star Trek before I went into the Army. In the show, the space ship could just fly over and dematerialize someone on the ground and reassemble them in the space ship. As weird as it sounded, this theory fit the facts better then Johnson walking away or being taken by a tiger.
The next morning I woke up to Sgt. Kurtz dropping his pack by his bunk. I could see in his face he had not slept since I had heard his radio voice the previous night. I quickly sat up and asked him if he had found Johnson.
"Yea, we found him this morning not far from our night location. He was killed by a tiger." Answered Sgt. Kurtz. He went on to explain the condition of the body and why they were sure it was a tiger. I could only shake my head in disbelief.
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