07 February 2009

THE SPOCK NEUTRALIZER

In mid-February, Lyn Pompper was transferred to Headquarters and Service Company at the Battalion Command Post at Phu Loc (6). I was once again moved, this time to become the platoon commander of Third Platoon. Although I missed Second Platoon, I was delighted to once again be a platoon leader. There were differences. In Second Platoon, my platoon Sergeant was Staff Sergeant Gary Beyer. He was about 28, with ten years in the Corps.

In Third Herd, my Platoon Sergeant was Corporal Daryl Levi. He was 20, with about a year in the Corps. The difference in experience was marked.

But he was a warrior. His promotion to Corporal resulted from an action in which his fire team sized patrol (four men) spotted an NVA unit that was estimated to be squad sized or larger. Arranging a hasty ambush, he took the NVA unit under rifle and grenade fire while also adjusting mortar fire onto the retreating remnant. A significant number of NVA were killed, with no casualties to Levi’s fire team. As a result, the Commanding General approved his meritorious combat promotion to Corporal.

Let me add a word about enemy casualties.

I will refrain from mentioning specific numbers of enemy dead unless I can personally vouch for the number. Because of McNamara’s fetish for numbers, the Vietnam War became famous for its emphasis on “body count.” I have heard that McNamara even had folks who would calculate rounds expended per enemy casualty, just to see if we were being economical in the use of ammunition.

Absurd! Another of Father O’Brien’s Murphy maxims is, “If someone is worth shooting, he’s worth shooting twice.” Combat is ridiculously uneconomical. You stay alive by making sure the bad guy is down for the count, and if it takes three rounds to make sure he is out of the game, give him all three. Now, fire discipline is important, and controlling a unit’s fires is one of the small unit leader’s responsibilities. Profligate firing is unacceptable because you may need the ammo later. But limiting rounds just to save money is stupid.

The apex of the body count fixation came a part of the legend of 1/5 in the Fall of 1968. Captain Marty Brandtner commanded Delta Company at the time. (Some may recall him as a Lieutenant General during Gulf War I. He was the J-3 of the Joint Staff and conducted many of the press briefings on the development and culmination of that war.)

General Brandtner was one of only two Marines to receive two Navy Crosses during the Vietnam War. They were awarded for actions only 8 days apart. The citations for those actions are here and here.

At about the same time, Delta Company was assigned to seize, occupy and defend a hilltop position. As the attack commenced in the late afternoon, it was met with heavy enemy fire. Brandtner called in artillery and mortar fire, encircling the enemy position and preventing the enemy from withdrawing. He continued to pound the enemy position with mortars, artillery and air strikes all night. The next morning, the Company walked onto the hill with no opposition. It was several feet lower than it had been the day before.

Almost immediately, Brandtner was pestered with radio requests for a “body count.” In exasperation, he responded, “Look, this place is a mess. There are no bodies, just arms and legs—nothing but meat.”

“Well, dammit,” came the reply, “count the meat!” From then on, 1/5’s unofficial motto was “We Count The Meat.” But the fixation on body count was firmly set in the bureaucratic minds in Saigon and Washington.

When I took command of Charlie 3, it numbered about 25 Marines and a Corpsman. After the normal shakedown period between a new commander and his unit, we were soon in battery with one another.

I joined the platoon when it was at strong points Charlie and Delta. The first afternoon, I went out on a local security patrol from Delta. The route they followed was further west than I was used to, but an earlier patrol had spotted a dud 81mm mortar round embedded in the ground, and we took an engineer, PFC Jimmy Phipps, with us to destroy it. (Dud rounds were potential booby traps--“improvised explosive devices” or “IEDs” in the politically correct lingo of the Iraq War.) This was the first of several “adventures” that Phipps and I had together.

We found the dud just where expected. I ordered the squad leader to proceed with the rest of the patrol on the return route to Delta. I remained with my radio operator, Phipps and a three-man fireteam for local security while Phipps prepped and then destroyed the dud. We then moved quickly to rejoin the remainder of the squad.

We found them about 150 meters ahead, still standing in column, at a two-strand barbed wire fence. About 50 meters away, there was another two-strand fence. The squad leader was about to cross through the fence, and three of his Marines were already spread out at 6 to 8 meter intervals between the two fences.

It took me about five seconds to recognize that these were minefield boundary fences, and three of my Marines were in the minefield. I yelled “Freeze!” Everyone froze, looking at the “new lieutenant” as if I was a madman.

I moved up to the squad leader, an 18 year old PFC, and pulled him aside. “OK, we’ve got a couple of problems. The biggest is that we have to get those people out of that damned minefield before somebody gets killed.”

“Minefield?” He paled visibly.

“Move your people back to the top of that rise where you can cover us, get them down and into a three sixty, and wait for me.

The point man was about twenty five meters from me. I said, “OK. I want all three of you to freeze. You are all right for now, and we’re going to keep you that way. Standing in place, I want each of you to carefully turn back towards me.”

Phipps had joined me. He pointed to a small dirt and grass clump about 10 meters to the left of the third man. We could see that earth had eroded exposing a French “tomato can” bouncing betty type mine. He pointed to another about 3 meters to the right and three or four feet ahead of the second Marine. We could not see any others, so I sent him back to the squad.

I looked at the closest Marine. “Did you walk straight ahead,” I asked. He nodded.
“Then retrace your steps to me. Once your foot is on the ground, scuff the heel of your boot to mark the trail.” He did so, very slowly. Once he was back through the fence, I sent him to rejoin the squad.

The next Marine was about 15 meters from me. “Can you remember where you walked,” I asked? He nodded. Using the same technique, he moved to where the first marine had stood and then “walked on his footprints.”

The third Marine would not move. (I later learned that his best friend was the Marine killed by the mine at strong point Alpha.) I slipped through the fence and walked very carefully to where the second Marine had started to retrace his steps. I was now about 10 meters from my target, and very conscious of the mine to my right! The man still could not move.

Figuring that he had walked straight ahead, I slowly approached him, marking my footprints. When we were close enough to shake hands, I turned in place and led him out.

Rejoining the squad, we moved east towards the MSR and returned to strong point Delta. Things were very quiet. I assembled the squad and gave a hasty lecture on minefields and the indications that a field was present. I then went to strong point Charlie and gave the same class to my other squad.

I was of a mind to relieve the squad leader, but it struck me that he was a young, inexperienced Marine trying to perform a job that was meant for a Sergeant with seven or eight years service. I had been spoiled by Staff Sergeant Beyer, Sergeant McGroary and Corporal Thornton. From then on, I used all available “free time” for training.


“I am endeavoring, ma'am, to construct a mnemonic circuit using stone knives and bearskins.” Commander Spock, First Officer/Science Officer, USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) (City on the Edge of Forever)


During our stay at Charlie Base Camp, we took an average of one casualty per day, all but the three at OP 6 from booby traps. In turn, all booby trap casualties came during the morning road sweep. None that I recall were fatal, but our people were being hurt badly.

The road sweep ended at OP 6, where we met the other sweep coming south from Phu Loc (6). The trash situation at OP 6 had not worsened, because we policed our trash and brought it back to the base camp with us. But we could not get the trash left by 3/5 cleaned up. Nearly every day, we spotted an actual or suspected booby trap in the trash mound left by the last company that had manned the OP.

We were discussing the problem at the officers’ meeting one night. “It’s too bad Mr. Spock isn’t here,” Chip commented. “If he can construct a mnemonic circuit using stone knives and bearskins, he could find a way to neutralize the booby traps.”

Star Trek had premiered on TV while we were all in college. It was being re-run on Armed Forces TV out of Saigon, and we could sometimes pick up the audio on the radio. We all agreed that we needed Mr. Spock, and talked about what a “Spock neutralizer” might look like. The conversation continued for several days.

One morning a few days later, the road sweep dropped off a 55 gallon drum at OP 6. After destroying a suspected booby trap, the trash was pretty well spread out. For the rest of the day, the Marines who were not on watch policed up some of the trash and put it in the drum. At Noon, two marines carried a case of C-Rations down to OP 5. When the road closed for the night, the OP was closed and the troops headed back to the Base Camp. The drum was left in place.

The next morning, we found that the drum had been booby trapped. The engineers blew it in place, spreading the trash, and then dropped off another empty drum. The Marines on the OP followed the same routine for four days, with the same results.

The first day that First Platoon was on the OP for the full day, the engineers blew up the drum from the day before. They dropped off another drum, although if anyone had been watching carefully, they might have noticed that it took four Marines to get it off the truck. This drum was already full. We had packed it with “grade three ammo” (unserviceable ammunition which was corroded, dented, or from lots that had been re-called), as well as several old claymore mines, the remainder of the Korean War era 60mm mortar rounds, frag grenades, two 20 pound satchel charges,some rolls of barbed wire, loose brass and links from the machine gun positions, and other assorted goodies. That morning, it had then been filled with gasoline and sealed, except for a small hole in the lid, through which protruded wires attached to blasting caps inserted into the satchel charges.

The box of C-rations that went to OP 5 was empty except for 400 meters of communications wire that fed out of the box up the sleeve and down the trouser leg of the Marine carrying it. His “escort” walked behind him making sure the wire stayed on the ground.

A few pieces of trash were placed on top of the drum during the day. When the troops left OP 6, an engineer attached the blasting cap to one end of the slash wire. A few minutes later, the Marines from OP 6 met up with the Marines coming down from OP 5. As they moved away, Chip and two Marines remained hidden in the scrub at the side of the road.

About 15 minutes later, they saw a group of 20 or so people leave the ville that was about 200 meters east of OP 6, the same ville into which the attackers on 12 January had fled. At least one carried a weapon. When they were about 2 meters from the drum, Chip hit the hell box and the Spock neutralizer neutralized the bad guys.

I was in a tower at strong point Delta, about six clicks away, when the device was lit off. There was a towering plume of flame, clearly visible to me. The resulting hole was about three feet deep and two to three maters wide. "Fascinating!"

After that, the booby trapping incidents at OP 6 completely died off. I think Mr. Spock would have approved.

2 comments:

Brentwood Presbyterian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reformed Catholic said...

Simple, effective, and economical use of defective ammo !!

Brilliant !!