05 June 2009

A MEMORABLE TREK

The war didn’t stop for casualties. Charlie 2 moved through a ville, finding an 82 mm round hidden in a bunker under a hooch. They set the hooch on fire, resulting in a detonation of several hundred rounds of rifle or machine gun ammunition. The inhabitants of the ville were rounded up and interrogated, but, of course, they denied any knowledge of the source of the ammo.

We moved on out to a new objective which would be our night position. As we approached the objective, the tree line looked suspicious. We called a Huey gunship (UH-1 helicopter) to work over the tree line, which erupted in small arms fire. An aerial observer called in artillery, followed by an airstrike using 500 pound bombs and napalm. We checked out the area, but found nothing. As you can imagine, the bombs and nape had really torn up the area.
We proceeded to our night position, and as soon as we set in, we were resupplied.

Our First Sergeant, First Sergeant Robert Lee, was a real troop leader. A black man, he had been a pioneer in the newly integrated Marine Corps of the late 1940s. He was famous to the troops for his maxim that “I don’t have white Marines and I don’t have black Marines. I have green Marines.” (When now-Senator Jim Webb wrote his classic novel Field of Fire—which many consider the best novel of the war—he based it on 1/5. The onl character whose name was not changed was First Sergeant Lee.)

In 1/5, the First Sergeant and the XO manned the alternate command post in the rear, and the Company Gunnery Sergeant was the Skipper’s senior enlisted advisor in the bush. This was necessary to ensure that there was genuine senior leadership in the rear, although technically, the First Sergeant being senior, he should have been with the Skipper.

At any rate, First Sergeant Lee would send out little surprises whenever he could—a bag of onions, a couple of bottles of hot sauce, or some similar item to add zest to the blandness of C-rations. I remember eating a quartered onion like an apple! On this afternoon, he had sent out four one-gallon cans of dill pickles, one for each platoon and one for the CP group.

Before I would allow Bob Henson to open the can, I went over and asked the Skipper, “Are you sure we are staying here until tomorrow night? I don’t want to waste the pickles if we are moving tonight.”

“We’re here for the night,” he assured me. I went back and we opened the pickles. The lid was half-way open when my radio operator said, “Skipper wants you, Sir.”

I walked back to the CP. Frank had a sheepish look on his face. “Did you open the pickles?”

“Oh, please tell me that…..”

“Break out your map.” Damn! “I just got a frag order.” (A fragmentary operation order is one that includes only the mission and execution portions of the standard five-paragraph operation order .) “How good are you at night land navigation?” Double damn!

“I can find may way around pretty well.”

“OK, we need to be at 846494 by 0500 tomorrow.” I looked at my map. What the order called for was a 5000 meter (3 mile) night movement across ground that we had not yet covered.

“Do I have time to conduct a route reconnaissance?”

“Nope. You’re gonna get to do this the old fashioned way.” Wonderful!

“Aye, aye, Sir.” I returned to my platoon CP and grabbed a hand full of dill pickles. Then I broke out my map and compass and began to figure the route to the objective.

Night navigation over long distances is tricky. The usual method is to calculate a magnetic azimuth from your present position to the objective and to then set that azimuth on your compass, having first taken into account the difference between grid (map) north and magnetic north. You then follow the compass, staying on course and counting paces for distance.

The problem in combat is that you must maintain point and flank security and light discipline is absolutely essential. I made sure that the red lens was in my flashlight, because I was going to spend a lot of time under a poncho that night.

We moved out at midnight. Of course, Charlie 3 was the point platoon. On this night, I had one Marine in front of me, followed by me, my radio operator and the rest of the platoon. The
necessity of staying on course meant that we would move slowly. The slightest deviation at the start of the march could throw us far off course 16,000 feet later. I would send the point man out as far as I could see him (about 40 meters), shift him left or right to get him in line with the objective, and then move up to him. We repeated this all night.

The ground was rolling and we had to cross a couple of dry stream beds. Climbing out of those made staying on course particularly difficult.

The Skipper asked for sit reps every hour, then every half hour. Finally, at 0445, he called for a halt. I could hear him stomping up to my position as I looked around trying to figure out where I was. I was huddled under my poncho looking at my map when he got to me.

“All right, Mac, we have 15 minutes to be there. Now, just where the [universal adjective] are we?”

I looked around frantically. “Uh, Skipper. You see that little rise about 50 meters to our right? That’s it.”

He looked. “You are shitting me" He looked. "Well, I’ll be goddamned if it isn’t. Well done, Mac.”

Fifteen years later, I was reviewing my fitness reports when I came into the zone for promotion to lieutenant colonel. In the fitness report for March to June 1969, the abttalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Reilly (who I idolize to this day), wrote “Lieutenant McCarty has developed into a fine rifle platoon commander. His land navigation skills are superb. During this reporting period, he led his company on a five kilometer night march using over broken terrain only a map and compass. In a remarkable feat, he arrived less than 50 meters from the assigned objective.” I have to admit that I am pretty proud of that report!

We were getting a little frustrated, because we had not been able to locate the NVA units that we knew were operating in the area. That afternoon, Charlie 1 sent a patrol out to our west.

We had recently been issued the first generation of starlight scopes. Compared to the scopes our troops are using now, which are attached to their helmets, this was a monster. It was about three feet long and weighed about 15 pounds. Charlie 1 had it that night and spotted 5 NVA standing together about 150 meters south of their lines. They opened up with rifle, machine gun and grenade launcher fire and then moved into the area under 60 mm flares, but found no one.

The next day, May 30, was some sort of Vietnamese holiday and there was a “cease fire” until 1800. At about 1100, we moved into a village, Charlie 1 in the lead, flushing an NVA. We could not open fire because of the “circumstances of the day.” However, when he reached a nearby tree line, he opened fire and we returned fire, but he apparently got away.

That afternoon, Charlie 2 apprehended a woman VC, carrying documents. She was sent in for interrogation.

The next day, Charlie 2 found two dud 500 pound bombs and a dud 155 mm artillery round. The engineers destroyed them without any problem. As May ended, we had spent a week engaging in a long hot walk in the sun (and rain). We had taken casualties and had probably inflicted some, but we had not made the contact that would allow us some payback.

That was about to change.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

I was pretty good at night land nav too. Of course no one was shooting at me and it was training, so...

Best I ever did was complete a 5 click course at night. They gave us a map, a compass, and three hours. There were 5 objectives and a code written on a pole at each. We were given the coordinates of each objective. Naturally they were all at a maximum distance from one another. While everyone stomped and groped around in the dark, I sat down under my poncho and plotted a circular, point to point route. I was finished in under an hour. It was a hoot.