By Harold Wayne Hamlin
Part 10 of a 12-part series sharing the very personal and boots on the ground account of one Green Beret’s time in Vietnam.
For a moment it appeared that the bombs had exploded into an empty jungle.
I saw the movement of three trucks before the sound of their engines drifted up to me. One truck had the back canvas cover burning as it raced down the road toward the east. They covered the ground at their top speed, and I thought they would make it to the next turnoff road and the safety of tree cover.
An F4 Phantom jet came in fast and low. With its guns chewing up the south side of the road and stripping vegetation from trees and plants, like confetti released at a New York City parade.
The F4 Phantom had been hanging back in the sky like a tiger shark hangs in ocean current waiting for prey He came in so fast that by the time I had turned my head to follow him, he had finished his strafing run and was riding his afterburners back into the sky.
I had just enough time to see the three trucks come to a rolling halt with the bodies, as in human bodies, riddled with holes.
I heard the scream of an A1 Dive Bomber but did not have time to look for him. The Vietnamese Lieutenant tapped me on my flop hat and I followed the man ahead of me; just inside the tree line as the One-Zero moved fast up the mountain.
I was so relieved because it was getting late and I wanted badly to be extracted, to end this… my first mission.
Then… BOOM-BOOM. The A1 Dive Bomber had released his bombs. I was learning.
The sound of the bombs faded away. Then… Rattt-Rattt-Tat tat.
I hit the ground at the first sound of the One-Zeros CAR-15 weapon opening up.
I focused at a full three hundred sixty degrees around me, expecting to be charged at any moment by hordes of NVA. Nothing. Then a single shot. The HIT-HIT-HIT of the bamboo sticks from the east, at a distance. That was followed quickly by more hits of bamboo higher up the mountain and to the east at a farther distance. Then… bamboo hits to the west, close enough that I was gripping my CAR-15 so tight I thought I would break it in two
At the sound of the low raddle of the whistle, we all moved to the One-Zero position at the head of the line. We gathered in a loose circle around him. He held up three fingers and pointed to a spot about 40-yards down the mountain to the ravine with the bamboo field we had crossed earlier. He then pointed to the Vietnamese Lieutenant and waved his open hand around indicating the men.
The One-Zero, with three upheld fingers, told us he had shot three men about 40 yards down the mountain near the bamboo. When he pointed to the Vietnamese Lieutenant, he indicated he wanted him to go check to see if anyone was alive to take as a POW. By waving his open hand he indicated to pick men to go with him.
From the east below us. HIT-HIT-HIT!
After a moment, from higher up to the east… HIT-HIT-HIT!
That shocked me into the fight or flight mode. I had been so focused on the bamboo and the dead men there that I was not aware the One-Zero had sent a signal to the other trackers. Everything was alright; for now.
The One-Zero may be a chain smoker but he damn sure knew what he was doing.
The Vietnamese Lieutenant pointed at me then, in a crouch, headed at a fast pace toward the dead men. With me behind him and me praying I would not be shot by friendly fire. We covered the distance quickly. The Lieutenant hit the ground and I did the same. He paused a few seconds then crawled to a body and started searching it for papers. I crawled forward and seeing a body started searching it. The Lieutenant crawled to a third body to search it.
He motioned to me and I watched to see want he wanted. He took one of the grenades from his web harness, rolled the body up and placed the grenade in a secure place against the ground. He then rolled the body over on the grenade checked it well then pulled the pin of the grenade; the weight of the body firmly holding the release leaver in place. I did the same to my dead body as he did the third body.
I then followed him up the mountain back to our team. He held up three fingers confirming three killed. He held a closed fist up then quickly spread his fingers indicating that the bodies were booby-trapped.
The One-Zero lit a cigarette. I looked at the One-One, the assistant team leader, to watch him take a drink. He read my mind and mouthed, “Kaput… Finished”.
People do things to relieve stress: cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, etc. Me? Well, I chewed gum on all future missions. Sometimes I would chew that gum so fast. Faster than an attacking F4 Phantom when the stress was through the roof.
The One-Zero, Team Leader, finished his cigarette and pointed to the Vietnamese Lieutenant then me and each individual in turn in the order he wanted us to travel.
I was the Damned New Guy, but I was getting suspicious. It was late and I had not heard any radio traffic nor aircraft in the past 30 minutes or so.
The One- Zero answered… HIT-HIT-HIT!
Where were the extraction slicks? The Huey choppers stripped of weight so they could carry the team out. I was not liking this at all. Then it dawned on me. We were not going to get extracted tonight.
Stress levels started to rise.
The Lieutenant led us at a good pace along the tree line taking looks over his left shoulder toward the bamboo and the road. He went a 100-yards or so, then stopped. He glassed the road below then moved 25-yards along the tree line to a much better spot to view the road far below.
He looked at me, smiled and motioned me to sit down. He then pointed to the man who had been behind me and motioned him to move back into the trees away from the tree line.
The rest of the team followed, and I could see them moving around as they settled down to rest.
It was about this time I realized that because the team leaders were on their last mission before returning to the world, they were leaving all my OJT (On the Job Training) to the Vietnamese Lieutenant since he and I would be spending the coming year together.
I was signaled to eat. Yeah right, like I was hungry! I was again signaled to eat. I realized the Lieutenant was going to watch as I ate then I would watch as he ate.
I held out my hand for the glass and let him eat. He was hungry as he ate two bags of food. I was watching the road and the village that had been bombed. I saw nothing on the road, but people were beginning to return to what was left of the village.
A lot of innocent people are killed in wars.
To be continued next month.
Submitted by Harold Wayne Hamlin, Lubbock, TX. Harold was a Sergeant in the US Army during Vietnam, serving 16 missions with as Long Range Recon Green Beret while serving with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) and Command and Control North (CNN); where he was awarded a Purple Heart. Harold is also a retired Lubbock Fire Fighter.