US Infantry in Vietnam; Ambush Patrols Part One. The recollections of a Veteran of the 1st Infantry Division, RVN.

Ambush Patrols

AP's (ambush patrols) were  rehearsed by the squad NCOs, members and attached M-60 LMG team and RTO prior to actually going out and doing it.

Squad Leader was notified by PLT LDR or PLT SGT earlier in the day if the platoon had been fingered (now there is a phrase that had a double meaning for GIs - it came to mean more than just selected, it came to mean FINGERED - the digital signal that is universal in the Western World with its European heritage) for AP duty that night.

Squad Leader was then responsible for getting the fire team and LMG team leader together for a meeting to look over the map coordinates for the site, find out if there were any problems inside their teams he did not know about (generally health, equipment, ammo, etc). Ammo and other stuff needed or anticipated was listed here and submitted to the PLT SGT for acquisition. If there was time, Patrol Leader would get a fly over the site and surrounding area in the BN CO's LOH or Loach. This was usually not possible. So a map look was all you got.

The patrol members were assembled and told that they had the job for the night and to get ready for it. At some point, the entire patrol was assembled, briefed, shown the site on the map, told about landmarks to use if they became lost (this is a bad joke unless there is a terrain feature like a road, river or mountain - jungle is jungle and EVERYONE DOES NOT HAVE A COMPASS AND A MAP!!!!!!!!!! JUST NCO's have maps and compasses, and the point man is carrying one of the compasses). The patrol does a rehearsal of who goes where in the march column and at the AP site. A password is given out for use if needed (and you hope it is not needed!). Get chow and get rest as you can, write letters, then another last minute briefing for all and a check of everything. As soon as it gets dark thirty, move out! Single file, about 3 feet between bods, no flankers (might get lost), no advanced point (might get lost), and no detached drag (might get lost). The move out is along a compass course. Usually in a straight line, but sometimes with a zigzag.

March security is point man watches the front. Next guy watches out for him, then, alternating down the file, soldiers and NCOs watch the right and left flanks, squad leader is busy having ulcers watching everybody, the RTO has the radio handset jammed against his head, watching no one but listening for a call, the LMG is next in line with gun closet to patrol leader, then the rest of the patrol, watching left and right as above, and the last 3 guys are a fireteam leader, then a slack man and the drag man.

Compass at front, middle and rear of the file. The compass heading is checked constantly. The distance is by pace count (by guess and by God we called it). Pace is counted each time the left foot hits the ground, and is approximately a yard. Sooo, since this is the tricky part, just getting from A to B, squad leader, fire team and gun team leaders are all counting as well as 1 or 2 others. The total each has is checked periodically, and when the numbers are bang on, you are there! More than likely, the numbers are close, or the majority of the numbers are close, and you are there, or near there, where ever there is!

If you have no terrain feature to ID, this is worrying. The patrol makes frequent halts, assumes a state of security, and waits in the dark. Listening, watching and smelling the palpable darkness all around. You are checking to see if anyone is bird dogging you (on your trail). About 50 meters from the AP site, patrol halts and squad leader and a pair of soldiers move out to look it over. Hopefully the trail, stream, track, road, or whatever is there where it should be without any NVA/VC hanging about waiting for you. If all is good, then the patrol moves up and everyone deploys to his spot and sets up. The rear security element(2-3 men) sets up facing the rear within arms reach (so much for field manuals!) of the guys facing the flanks. The majority of the patrol is deployed facing front in a line. After everyone is setup, then 2 at a time the guys go out and set up there claymore mines, bring the wire back with them. All the mines are rigged for independent fire (early) or salvo by the patrol leader (later). Being paranoid, mines were set up to fire front, sides and rear - there was NO GUARANTEE THEY WOULD COME FROM THE DIRECTION THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The most common formations used were the line, the L-shaped line, the box, and the circle. Patrols set up much closer together (arms reach) than field manuals specified. It was safer, and allowed a touch to alert the guys on either side. As many as 6 out of the 15 men are detailed to face the flanks and rear.

All of this (since leaving the NDP) is done with zero talking, zero light and radio squelched down. Hand signals - official and unofficial - are used. Every other man can doze but no snoring, Piss in place, and no drinking. No movement at the AP site. Just tough it out until after dawn when you head back. Constant radio contact with the NDP (CO HQ) and Sit Reps by breaking squelch every half hour. Negative report - break squelch once. Positive report - break squelch twice.

Oooops! I forgot the most interesting part of the patrol aside from actually BLOWING IT or a movement nearby as far as adrenalin flow goes. Registering your friendly company mortars for fire support.

If you are where you are supposed to be, when you call for the ranging fire, you can hear the rounds coming and see the flash/ hear the bang of impact. No sweat!

But if you are off in your count, they may land behind, in front of, or on top of you! Makes life interesting. You may still hear them leave the tube, may still hear them as they come hissing down, and hear the blast, but if you cannot see it, you cannot adjust it! Some times they just explode in the treetops. I have crawled under my helmet more than once, waiting to see if the round was going where I wanted it. Most of the time yep - there she blows! But those times when the round comes hissing down, detonates and you cannot see it - no one can see it- are buttpuckering experiences. And it must be a law of artillery, in the jungle, that the first round almost never goes where you want it. Lots of big white staring eyes and heavy sweat until this is either where you want it or you say - ENOUGH! THIS IS TOO HAIRY FOR ME and call in a cease fire order.

And keep in mind, friends, most people adjusting the fire were grunts with a couple of hours training in AIT and maybe some more at unit level in the States and elsewhere!!!! Real FO's stayed with the NDP, Company and Platoon size units, not separate squads of grunts!

I got my lessons in fire adjustment on the job in the jungle - same with infantry tactics as, aside from a tiny bit of training in Basic, the US Army did not teach MP's below the rank of squad leader how to do this in 1967! And I was an E-4 SP4 with the inherited duties of an infantry NCO.

Hell, I was lucky in that I could read a map, use a compass, and knew radio operations procedure. Yet , my pay grade and time in service (2 years and days) pushed me to the OJT as a buck sergeant , then staff sergeant, and later acting platoon sergeant. Thank God for the guys that showed me how and told me why - the Army never did. I was trained to direct traffic and escort convoys for a European War With Russia - we all were trained to fight a big war with Russia or China, and found ourselves in SE Asia rediscovering everything the US Military had forgotten since the Colonial Wars, Indian Wars, and Jungle Wars in Mexico, Florida, Panama, Cuba, the Philippines, the Banana Wars after WWI, and the huge amount of stuff learned in the WWII Pacific jungle fighting!

Damn! Sorry, I got on my box but it needs to be told - it is the truth, and explains a lot of things that people do not know or understand about the whole mess!!

Each ambush patrol carried a starlight scope when it went out. The patrol leader carried it, with the directive from on high that was the equivalent of the ancient Spartan with your shield or on it!!!!!!!!!!!!! When it worked well, the view was a very light green with a darker green black background a lot like the night vision shots that you see on CNN in war zones. Clarity was better with a full moon and no clouds. It was grainier than the CNN news shots.

But it did not work well in rainy weather, cloudy weather or inside the jungle. Picture was very bad in these circumstances, very dark and very grainy. Very hard to impossible to make out any real details in these conditions. BUT IT WAS BETTER THAN THE MARK 1 EYEBALL. The darkness in Nam is totally unfamiliar to people unless they have camped, hiked, hunted or worked in a wilderness area - and the dark of the jungle is much darker than that of the forest at night. I know - I spent a lot of time in both environments.

Some people have worse night vision than others too, which really complicates life!

Most soldiers could not see their own hand at arms length in the jungle darkness, so a lot of time was spent looking (always shifting your point of vision to avoid the "walking tree" effect) listening, listening, listening, and smelling. Also, laugh if you will but the Army does not, and neither will an experienced grunt, you also use a sixth sense, a combat sense, that helps those blessed with it. Everyone seems to have it to some extent, some have it very very strong. It is a sense of right and wrong, the ability to "feel" the enemy even when you cannot see or hear him, and the ability to "sense" the enemy's weapons and mantraps even when you cannot see them. I paid attention to mine and I am still alive, more or less intact, and able to function. Others did not and they are dead, cripples or vegetables...... It is very real, you can take what I say as true or blow it off as you wish. I know the truth of this, I do not know how it works or why, but I know it does.



1st Infantry Division TAOR (1969)

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