The Army’s mission in Vietnam was of course to kill the enemy. Duh.... how obvious. On the other hand, it was generally the mission of the line troopers and soldiers just to survive their year in one piece, both physically and mentally. These are very incompatible objectives that became more exaggerated as 1968 moved into 1969. The earlier somewhat gung-ho attitude of “Lets go out and kill all those sons of bitches” was being replaced by one of “Lets not go looking for any trouble’. I had stayed in Vietnam over two years and witnessed, and in fact became part of, this change. Moral was slowly disintegrating.
In December 1968 my platoon had a successful mounted night ambush of our own planning and execution. We were instantly rewarded with a day off and ice cream to boot. This led to the decision to continue our ambushes. The Army of course loved it .We were, on the other hand, just looking to get more days off and ice cream…or maybe real steaks to eat.
Highway 13 runs north from Saigon to the Cambodian boarder at Loc Ninh. Like a piece of red licorice in the middle of lime jello it bisects vibrant rice paddies, jungle and orderly row after row of rubber trees. As the vital artery to the northern provincial capitals from Saigon, it became the focal point of many battles and ambushes for my cavalry platoon and the Big Red One. Everyone called it Thunder Road. From the level paddies around Saigon, through some gently rolling hill country, Thunder Road breaks out onto an immense mesa, stretching from Lai Khe in the south to the provincial capital of An Loc. Here the road is as straight as an arrow, broken only by a village or two, for about 20 miles.
FSB Thunder I, II, and III were spaced about equal distance from each other along this stretch of Thunder Road. They housed artillery to cover the units protecting the road and the platoons needed to sweep daily for mines, outpost the Highway each day and the ‘ready reaction’ forces to respond to convoys being ambushed along the road.
An armored cavalry platoon is ideal for all this. It is all reminiscent of the old movies where the cavalry leaves the fort each day to protect the wagon train route or search for Apache Indians. I don’t doubt that’s exactly the intent of the higher commanders. Military mind sets didn’t seem to have changed that much since the Indian Wars. Obviously it worked nearly 100 years ago and seemed to be working again.
We were at Thunder I in December of ’68, doing the Fort Apache cavalry routine, when out of sheer boredom and inaction we dreamed up and executed our successful mounted night ambush. Trying to repeat the success and get more ice cream proved fruitless. The VC/NVA seemed to have a communications system that might have been technologically primitive but was as highly effective and speedy as the office gossip group.
They were apparently wise to our game in very short order. The “army” thought so too. Either we were too easily spotted or just too noisy to be successful again. But a nasty seed was planted and more bodies was the name of the game. So the army sent out a platoon of grunts to conduct nightly ambushes instead of us.
Needless to say they weren’t all too happy with what we had done that got them there at Thunder I. Since we were the reaction force for them should one of those night ambushes get in trouble, they made no great effort to bitch at us about “looking for trouble with the NVA instead of just minding our own business”, and Thunder I was a relatively safe and comfortable place to be. Besides they had a plan.. A conspiracy between our platoons soon developed.
These grunts obviously knew the score and how to manipulate a situation using the army’s own rules. After two days and nights of intermingling, they presented their plan.
Once any ambush was ‘blown’, that is encountered the enemy, and started firing, it got all the support possible. It would also be retrieved and brought back to base, if at all possible, since its’ position had been given away. This was standard army practice, SOP, and the grunts knew how to take advantage of it. So that the lifers and lieutenants wouldn’t catch on, it was arranged that as we transported the nightly ambush squad or two to their positions, they would tell us at what time that night they would purposely ‘blow the bush’. We of course would come running to rescue them and then bring them back to Thunder I for a good night’s sleep.
It took the thickheads at higher-up two weeks to figure it out. How can there be so many ambush actions without any bodies or at least blood trails? There followed the ‘investigation’. Some Major came out and ‘addressed' us troops, chewed out the lifers and lieutenants and did the 'Spanish Inquisition' thing. But since we knew ‘they’ all thought the line troops had the brains of a grasshopper’s behind, we just did the “I’m clueless, what are you asking?” routine and “I’m sure I saw gooks that night”. ‘They’ weren’t that stupid either and didn’t buy any of it. But what could ‘they’ do? Send us to Vietnam? Put us all in LBJ (Long Binh Jail)? Then who would fight the war? But ‘they’ did have an answer typical of the US Army…. give them the shittiest job in the shittiest place.
Our stay at Thunder I came to a sudden end. We were sent to the rubber plantations north and west of An Loc where bad shit was always happening. I’m sure that Major was sitting back at basecamp proudly exclaiming “That’ll teach those sons of bitches”.
But it didn’t you know.
This material is Copyright of John Sandri (© 2001) and may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of the author. All rights reserved. The author would like to express his thanks to Ms Kathryn Williams for assistance in editing.
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