CASE OF NERVES
The 2nd/8th Infantry knew there was much enemy activity in their area of operation. However, the squad and platoon size patrols and probes being sent out were returning without finding anything. The Commanding Officers had concluded the enemy had to be building up or waiting for the optimum time to make their presence known. In the meantime they were staying low and effectively avoiding the patrols and contact.
The enemy could be very patient for an indefinite period of time. By staying out of sight and showing no evidence of being in the area, they could create a false since of security among the soldiers. These prolonged periods caused boredom and frustration in the soldiers as the searched daily for them, but to no avail, while the enemy was just waiting to spring the trap.
Cpt. Garnett the LRP Platoon Leader and myself conceived our own trap. If the enemy could be that stealthy, we would become even stealthier by creating a two man LRP team, the first of its kind. Generally, LRP teams were made up of four men. The teams were either all Americans or a mix of Americans, South Vietnamese, Montagnards (mountain people), and occasionally a reporter from Stars and Stripe or UPI (United Press International).
Kip and I would execute the mission. We would fly by chopper to the 2nd/8th's firebase. The firebase was made up of an artillery unit guarded by a rifle company on the perimeter. In the center was the battalion command and control where the headquarters personnel would issue and direct operating orders from higher up.
At the firebase we were briefed and coordinated AO (area of operation) call signs, radio frequencies, and made a last minute equipment check. As always before a mission Kip and I made our vows one to the other:
Either we both come out or we go down together.
It sounds a little cavalier but we were LRPS (long range patrol) and had volunteered for the added risk, and understood teamwork and commitment. Why? I guess we all had our reasons. Regardless we had esprit de corps (sense of pride, honor, and commitment) and we still today have that spirit living on for each other and will go to our graves with it.
Kip and I slipped though the wire as discretely as possible. With just the two of us it was pretty easy. We moved with great caution, careful not to make any noise or spoil the foliage any more than we had to. In order to get close to the enemy without detection, we would often take hours to move a short distance.
Finally, we came to a small stream about twenty feet across and hip deep. We found a good place to cross and Kip covered me while I crossed. Like a swamp, water is a dangerous place to make contact. Both across, we stopped for awhile to listen. We moved on and we started a gradual incline upward and found ourselves beneath a triple canopy (trees are three different heights and tends to keep out the light). We could easily navigate through the small saplings at ground level, but it afforded little protection or cover.
We had not gone far when we found a trail. The trail obviously undetected by previous patrols had been heavily traveled, as the dust was so thick it looked like powder. We were careful to not disturb the trail or leave footprints. Like at a street light we looked both ways, found a place and one at a time we jumped across the trial.
We moved up the hill about five yards. Using the few high weeds and saplings for concealment, we sat down close together and started observing the trail. I called in and reported finding the trail along with our location.
It was not long and we had company. Three NVA soldiers appeared on the trail carrying AK-47 rifles. They were careless, as their rifles were balanced on their shoulders with the butts of the rifles to the rear and their hand draped over the barrel to keep it balanced. They looked like a trio of hunters headed in after a day of no luck.
The weeds and saplings we were using for concealment suddenly seemed a little less substantial than they had just a few moments earlier. We felt totally exposed, but they had no reason to believe they were being watched.
I signaled to Kip to prepare to open fire as I raised my rifle slowly and took aim. Kip hit my arm before I could fire and pointed down the trail. I looked to the right and we saw seven more NVA soldiers approaching us with their weapons resting on their shoulder, just as the previous three. I froze in place not wanting to make a sound. I felt both fear and anticipation as my adrenaline was up and my breathing was shallow. I continued to calculate the odds in case we were seen. We had the element of surprise and could put down several before they could get their weapons to the ready. Initial survivors might bolt and run for help, but NVA soldiers were better trained than the VC and may choose to stay and fight. Fortunately for us, they were not paying attention as they paraded in front of us.
I could not in good conscience allow these NVA soldiers to just walk past me with no action on my part. I turned on the radio and gave a quick report and requested gunships to circle near the firebase. As a LRP we had been warned of the many dangers of trying to follow the enemy, but with a team of two we decided to take the risk. Our hope was to catch them in a compromising position. We stepped on to the trail, trusting there were not more behind us. We were cautious as we followed, watching that they had not set up an ambush for us.
Before I got on that trail, I felt no thirst, but now my throat was as dry as dry could be. We followed the enemy for what must have been twenty minutes or more. The trail finally led down to a stream where the soldiers decided to take a break. While they were talking and playing in the stream, I arranged for the gunships to make a run on them. When the gunships were ready, we started throwing smoke grenades as fast we could. The gunships opened up with their machineguns and rockets as they made several passes up and down the stream. The gunships reported some kills and the air assault platoon followed up to do mop up.
The gunners from the chopper dropped us a few smoke grenades to replenish our supply, and we continued our mission. As evening approached, we started looking for a place to stay for the night. In the process we found more paths and signs of troop movement. We decided to hide for the night. To avoid detection and unwanted company we crawled into the thickest stuff we could find.
With just the two of us we decided to not pull guard and trusted that light sleeping and heavy brush would protect us. Light sleeping is not difficult in this environment, but I've been known to sleep through a mortar attack when I was dog tired. I used my poncho to cover myself from the dew that would settle in the night and went to sleep with a grenade in one hand and bayonet in the other.
I do not know what time it was, but I awoke to a swishing sound above my head.
"How in the world could someone have gotten in on us?" was my first thought.
I thought they must be right above me, so I slipped my hand over and pulled the pin on the grenade. I took a deep breath and threw the poncho off my head, expecting to see someone and release the handle on the grenade. If this was the end, my intent was to take whoever was there with me.
Thank God, I held the handle. No one was there, but the wind had picked up and caused a small branch to swish against my poncho. I replaced the pin, got under my poncho and smoked a cigarette to calm my nerves and then fell back to sleep. Daylight came and I called in and we had breakfast. We discussed what we would do and started on our way. Kip seemed a little restless but I paid it no attention. After all, it had been an exciting day and startling night.
We located some trails and we would follow them by walking along in the bushes close to it. There were several trails going in all directions. We could tell the enemy was using the network of trails. We fully expected to make contact at any minute.
The stress of the mission or something got to Kip. I looked around and Kip was pulling at his clothing and crying. I ask what was wrong, but he was incoherent. I noticed knots like the shape of eggs all over his body. I had never seen anything like this before. He pulled a pocket comb out and started scratching himself, even drawing blood. Nothing I could do stopped him.
I got on the radio and called for extraction but was told I would have to wait another day because all available choppers were committed to an air assault. I told them I was in the middle of the enemy with my teammate going what I thought was crazy. There was no way we would survive if we were compromised. They said okay, and ask me to cut and LZ. I said your asking the impossible, but I gave up all sense of security and started cutting as fast as I could. The helicopter arrived but I was unable to make the LZ wide enough for it to land. They lowered ropes and we were pulled out and flown back to the Oasis. From here Kip was evacuated to the hospital and was not to be seen for about six to eight weeks. Kip had a nerves break down. To me, it was nothing to be ashamed of because we were all just a step away in my opinion. This was not the end for Kip as he returned to fight another day.
Kip's name has been fictionalized. Otherwise, this is a true story and reflects the real experience of Ssgt. Bob Smyers while serving with 2nd Brigade LRRP's 4th Infantry Division. This story is to allow others whether they served in the military or not to experience the Vietnam War through the unique perspective of a LRRP/LRP. Bob Smeyers dedicates this story to those who have served our country and especially the ones that fell for it. This story should not to be used without permission from the author.
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