John Wayne, who never served in the military but is revered by all branches of the service, may have said it best: Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.
Courage under fire is something all grunts (infantrymen) thought about in Vietnam. My firefights came in a variety of forms: a skirmish with one or two enemy soldiers walking down a trail; a short but ferocious ambush initiated by our own soldiers or theirs, often resulting in immediate death of those ambushed. There were times when I was engaged in a firefight during helicopter combat assault into a hot LZ. My worst firefights were those that occurred at night. This may have been an attack against a dug-in company’s NDP (night defensive perimeter) or by an enemy using mortars and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Night fights meant fear, chaos, and confusion because of the darkness and uncertainty of enemy movement. And on at least one occasion we defended our fire base against an NVA force. In these types of battles “Sappers” would try to penetrate the perimeter wire and throw satchel charges into command bunkers.
A firefight of any type was always horrific with men certain to be wounded or killed. It was my worst nightmare. Once the bullets started to fly, I would find myself pressed to the ground and unable to see more than 5-10 meters in any direction. The experience could be paralyzing and traumatic. My first instinct was always to give orders to attack the enemy, but equally important was to secure my position placing men in defensive positions to the front, flanks, and rear to guard against being overrun. Then my next challenge was calling our Forward Observer (FO) and requesting artillery support when I was not exactly sure of where I was on the ground. The FO had pre-planned artillery concentrations that I marked on my map, but exactly how close I was to those concentrations was always a big question in my mind. I asked that a smoke round be fired first and listened to where it landed, praying it was not on top of me. Then I gave adjustment instructions over the radio to the FO based on where I heard the round land, always adding extra distance to be on the safe side.
When I was in a firefight and had wounded soldiers, I knew my men wondered what my priorities would be. Would I give orders to continue aggressively attacking, or would I call for a medevac and make saving lives my top priority? These decisions were critical as the soldiers were also asking themselves “what if I was the one who was wounded?”
For me, tunnel vision, adrenaline pumping through my body, intense sweating, and the need to make fast decisions while facing the terror of the moment all happened at once. I prayed that the orders I gave would not get my men killed or further complicate an already perilous situation. Then, suddenly, my training would kick in and I gave orders, directing my men to move and provide covering fire while my medic and I pulled the wounded to safety. I called the FO and dropped the rounds on the target with devastating explosions while screaming at my men to take cover and keep their heads down.
If in deep jungle, Cobra helicopter gunship support was of no help. They could not find or see us on the ground. Popping smoke would only get hung up in the jungle canopy. So, I told my medic to start working on the wounded while I called for a medevac giving the best estimate of where I was. For me, sometimes contrary to how platoon leaders were taught, the first priority was always taking care of my wounded men.
We chopped down trees to open a hole in the canopy. When the medevac was in the area, I spoke with the pilot on the radio and fired a star cluster, like a Roman Candle, through the hole in the canopy in hopes the pilot or crew would spot us. We tied a smoke grenade to the end of a long pole, popped it, and held it high over the hole in hopes the chopper would spot the colored smoke and come in to hover.
The medevac would come in fast and drop a jungle penetrator, a steel cable with a seat at the bottom. The wounded man would sit on the seat and be hauled up. If the man was too gravely wounded, the helicopter would drop a stretcher and we tied the man to it. Again, the helicopter would swoop in, drop the cable, and haul the man to safety. It was then a short flight to the battalion aid station.
After the Firefight
The dead were dead. They weren’t going anywhere. After it was over we all needed to recover from the adrenaline coursing through our bodies leaving us drained and utterly exhausted. Eventually, I would wrap the dead man in his poncho and attach a death card to his boot along with one dog tag. I wrote the man’s name, rank, and serial number on the card and gave the map coordinates where he had died. Sometimes we had to carry the dead for miles before we could reach open ground where a helicopter could land. The incoming helicopter brought water, ammunition, C-rations, and we loaded the dead onboard for the return trip.
What I learned about courage in a firefight was to use all the weapons at my disposal and to aggressively attack the enemy position with as much firepower as I could bring to bear. This included our own unit weapons: M16s, machine guns, and grenade launchers, and calling for added support from artillery and Cobra gunships. I tried not to take unnecessary risks with my men and gave them what I hoped were orders that did not place them at unnecessary risk. And I gave priority to getting my wounded soldiers medevaced from the battlefield as quickly as possible.
There was never a minute that I wasn’t afraid in a firefight, but I reached deep down inside and found the grit to do what had to be done. Firefights were the worst experiences of my life, and some have stayed with me to this day. I look back on those moments and take comfort in the fact that I did not freeze; I directed my men to attack and kill the enemy without unreasonably risking their lives; and I was usually successful in evacuating my wounded.
In The Duke’s own words: I was scared to death, but saddled up anyway!
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