The First Patrol


Author's Note: This is not me in the picture and I did not take this is for reference only. Common attire for a jungle patrol was "Tiger Fatigue's", Boonie hat, M-16 rifle with bandoliers holding extra magazines, canteen, and grenades. This was how I dressed for the numerous night patrols I did during my time in Vietnam.

Having arrived in Vietnam during the TET Offensive of 1968; I received my first rude awakening of the war. When we landed at Pleiku air base; we were greeted by mortar and rocket fire all around us and when the plane stopped moving; we had to get out quick and head for the bunkers. When I enlisted in the Army, I believe the recruiter failed to mention all this…. was I scared…? Damn right I was!!! When I volunteered for military service; I knew I was going to Vietnam; but learned very quickly that the war was real, and I had one year to deal with this the best way I could. As time moved on, you got used to the mortars and rockets and was thankful that “Charlie” was a bad shot sometimes.

Time moved on, and I became acclimated to the not so routine life of a soldier in a war zone. Two months into my tour I had been on a couple of convoys by now and flown in a couple of choppers, but the best was yet to come; night patrol in the jungle!!

An infantry unit was patrolling the area around my area and had encountered the enemy, suffering several casualties. We were ordered to go out on a night patrol the next evening to the same location to recon the area and see if the enemy was still there and call in an artillery attack. Since the TET Offensive was still going on; enemy presence was always a possibility; as well as a deadly encounter.

To get an idea of conditions in the jungle other than the enemy here are a few of the things we had to deal with outside of the mental pressures. In the jungle there was extreme heat, bush snakes, leeches, poisonous centipedes, fire ants, scorpions, and constant heavy extended rain (Monsoon season). It was interesting to note how invisible “Charlie” could be; he may be 10 feet in front of you and you would not spot him. The enemy traveled light and quiet and was extremely adapted to living in the jungle for long periods of time. Oh; and before I continue, let me mention one last thing we encountered. During the monsoon season (3 months of continuous rain), we dealt with “Red Rain” (Agent Orange).

All decked out in Tiger fatigues, M-16 rifle, ammo, grenades, etc., we got in formation getting ready to head out at around 1600 hrs. (4:00 pm). We had a point-man, radio operator, one man carried an M-60 machine gun while another carried the ammo, one man carried an M-79 (Thumper) grenade launcher, and an NCO to lead us. My memory has faded somewhat, and I can’t remember how many normally went out on a patrol; it may have been 10 or 12.

I don’t remember how far we walked across rice paddies and around the outside of a couple of Montagnard villages to reach the area where the ambush had occurred. I do remember that it was hot as hell and as you walked across the rice paddies you hoped you didn’t stumble upon a snake of some sort! Seems as though we walked about an hour and a half to reach the thick jungle where we would set up our outpost for the evening. As we walked through the thick jungle, I do recall being scared; not knowing what or who was out there besides us. We had all received jungle training in the states before going to the Nam, but the real jungle did not come close to resembling our jungle training back state side. It was thick, hot, and hard to make a path through it. You were constantly looking around while at the same time, looking down to make sure you didn’t step in a booby trap.

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the area to set up our ambush patrol. There was still enough sunlight to set up the machine gun, trip flares, and claymore mines. Before settling in for a long night, we ate our “dinner” which consisted of the infamous c-rations. As the night came upon us, it was pitch dark and the night was long and scary. As we sat in the darkness, there were no cigarettes being smoked or idle conversation, just you, your brothers, and the jungle. We sat with our ponchos over us, to protect us from mosquitoes the size of buzzards and to add an additional layer of concealment. You were at your full senses, while at the same time; controlling your fear and emotions to remain at full alert.

Sitting in the jungle that night, I thought about home, my wife, and my family; wondering if I would come home in a metal casket. The jungle was beautiful, but at times you couldn’t see 10 feet in any direction. I never encountered them but there were “wait a minute” vines, which would grab you and could suspend you in air. I sat there with my buddy about three feet behind me looking in the other direction, most likely thinking about the same things. As I looked around the darkness; I became aware of the noises of nature in the jungle, weird and scary sounds. I had heard stories of insects that you had never seen or heard of, snakes, 6-inch-long roaches, and a whole array of critters. There was the possibility of huge spiders, fire ants, wild boar, tigers, and cat sized rats, and then there was “Charlie” aka the enemy.

It was an eerie feeling as I sat there and stared into the darkness for any movement, as I had mentioned earlier; “Charlie” was light and quiet and could move through the jungle without hardly making a sound. Sometime in the earlier morning hours before sun up, the jungle lit up as a member of an enemy patrol tripped one of our flares. I remember the sound of the M-60 machine gun as the gunner opened fire, more flares went off and then the seriousness of all of this becomes a harsh reality. We all opened fired from our positions and those who had the triggers for the claymore mines set them off, destroying members of “Charlie’s” patrol in a most gruesome way. There was a lot of gunfire from both sides, explosions from grenades and claymore mines, screaming and yelling as the enemy patrol was hit and killed. At this point in my story, I do not want to describe the scene as the sun came up and the enemy patrol was destroyed. I cannot bring myself to describe in detail what happened or what I saw that morning; as I have spent the day fighting off flash-backs as I composed this story. Fortunately; we sustained no casualties in this skirmish, and hopefully; any upcoming patrols will be as fortunate.

If I remember correctly, the 4th Infantry Division operated in and around the areas where I was stationed and traveled as armorer for my unit, Pleiku, Dakto, Kontum, Plei jerang, and Ben Het in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Being in an artillery unit, the 4th ID provided support for our base camp and our firing batteries, and it was unusual for us to go out on search and destroy patrols, but I did go on about 8 more during my tour of duty. Things of this nature were common with the infantry soldier, he lived it every day and to me; they are heroes.

We were picked up by helicopter and flown back to base camp for much needed rest and coming to grips with what had transpired during my first patrol. Having been the “new guy” for two months, I had finally earned my keep; so to speak, and had grown up quicker than I had expected. I had no idea that one year in Vietnam would have such a profound and almost devasting effect on my life; 50 years later. I have no regrets for joining the Army and going to Vietnam, and I would do it again if I could. My heart is saddened that we lost so many young men and women in that war and it is the duty of those of us that survived, never let them or their sacrifice be forgotten. Those of us who survived came home with a different enemy; Agent Orange, guilt, and PTSD. Agent Orange has taken so many of us too soon, we are guilty that our name is not on the Wall in Washington, D.C. and PTSD; tormenting us with hellish demons and in some cases; suicide.

As you read my stories, pause and remember those that gave their life in Vietnam, remember those of us who survived; for when we are all dead, if not one person remembers us or the ones that went before us…then we will truly be dead.

Author's Note: For the picture below; this is not me in the picture and I did not take this is for reference only. This is typical of the jungles in my Area of Operation (AOO). I did not take the picture of the dead enemy soldier, it is for reference only. Some died in one piece and some died in pieces.

©Copyright 2019 by Phil “Country” Crowley