Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir

Airborne and Airmobile
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Skytroopers in his 1st Cav rifle company look upon him with disdain. Exhausted of energy and emotionally beaten, he somehow finds the strength to fight back Add a foreign enemy he must face halfway around the world and a unique, humor-laced wartime memoir unfolds. Get A Copy. Paperback , pages. More Details Other Editions 1. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. To ask other readers questions about Humping Heavy , please sign up. Lists with This Book. This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Community Reviews. Showing For 50,odd Americans fulfilling such a role at any one time, exotic Asian nature became the new normal: the brilliant green of rice paddies, darker green of palm groves, small boys leading out water buffalo, farmers plodding with the patience of centuries behind ox-drawn wooden ploughs.

At dusk grunts watched the buffalo being driven back home, flanks caked with mud from their wallows, pretty much like themselves. Men were sorely tried by humping a load through fierce heat in tough terrain, even before the enemy entered the story. Each carried a weapon; a steel ammo can, used to keep paper and suchlike dry; at least eight magazines and rounds to fill them; four fragmentation and two smoke grenades; four canteens, which were seldom enough — in dry places a man might think it prudent to start out with 20lb of water.

Some burdened themselves with extra hardware, perhaps a. As for rations, one infantryman took on five-day recce patrols one can of beans and franks, one of spaghetti and meatballs, four of fruit, three small cans of snacks. Another subsisted on peanut butter and jelly on crackers, fruit and cake. It was no wonder that most foot soldiers lost weight, a lot of weight. They learnt that only cowboys draped their bodies in M60 machinegun belts, because exposed rounds became filthy rounds, prone to jamming.

If he did, he had missed the bad places: underpants bred crotch fungus, so that few men affected them. Many Americans, however, were city-bred. It was hard for them to walk easy through thick cover, in which paths were likely booby-trapped. Where visibility was only a yard or two, each man had to keep his eyes intent on the one in front: the careless strayed and vanished. Most Americans moved noisily. A unit that sought to move fast made as much racket as an elephant herd, snapping branches and bamboo.

In heavy and hostile country, a prudent point man might advance only one pace every five or six seconds, ten a minute, three hundred yards an hour. A long-range patrol, religiously dedicated to concealment, could take a day to cover a mile, with the rear man responsible for erasing tracks.

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Though an officer navigated by map and Lensatic compass, an enlisted man was designated to count the paces they advanced. Space — at least five yards between men — was critical, especially in heavily booby-trapped areas: bunching meant multiplying mutilations and deaths. Action seldom started in the middle of a column, which made that a popular place to be. One day up near Chu Lai, a notably stoical black soldier named Davis took a bullet as he hit the ground, but kept shooting back.

You dying, and you know you dying. We hi tailed it out of the area much to my relief and shortly after we heard artillery coming in over us The rest of the patrol was pretty quiet. Most of the time our visibility is less than 10 feet and that includes up. We went for 3 days without seeing the sun. There are leeches all over the place. Every bush and vine over here has prickers on it. Some are 3—4 inches long I am enclosing dollars from my travel pay and you can take any cost out of that or send me a bill.

Steve4 5. Learning My Trade I think I was on about my third patrol out of Phu Bai as an observer and this time I was in the secondary point position. I was there because I was nowhere near bush-wise enough to walk point but I would be able to observe how the point man did his job.

In the rear, they had access to moulage kits to make the 1st aid drills quite realistic. These rubber prosthetic devices could simulate any number of injuries from a compound fracture to disembowelment. They even pumped blood colored water and were very effective. The point man has to be the eyes of the patrol.

The patrol leader tells him generally which way to go and then the point man picks his route based on vegetation and terrain appreciation. He needs to pick a route that offers as much natural concealment as possible while at the same time allowing for the fact that some of the men are carrying larger and more awkward loads than others.

Terrain appreciation is the art of using the contours of the land you are crossing to your advantage. Sometimes the easy way is not the best way. Rather than going straight up a hill, you traverse back and forth. This lengthens the route somewhat but reduces the incline considerably. An area that appeared to have been moved through but had a layer of dust or other natural litter on top would indicate that it has been a while since it was used.

The point man had to have the tactical knowledge to be able to determine if we were entering a possible ambush site. The presence of an enemy ambush was detectable if the point was very, very alert. Not everyone is cut out to walk the point and a sharp point man can keep people alive. Having civilian experience as a hunter was not necessarily an attribute. The secondary point and the Tail End Charlie had to be equally alert and observant.

Their wariness and bush sense were often lifesavers. I walked secondary point on a number of my early patrols and learned from very sharp Marines. This particular patrol was in especially dense bush. It was thick enough so that we were making noise at least a lot more than was desirable and getting almost nowhere. We came across a trail that did not appear on the map. Major trails that had existed for, probably, generations were on our maps but many of them were under the canopy and could not be seen from the air.

Finding them randomly was common. The patrol leader decided we would cautiously follow it for a while so we could plot some of it for the S-2 people. Yes, we were following a trail and, yes, in this case it was our job. Plotting 5. This one was dirt and fairly well worn-in, indicating frequent use. The point was really pussyfooting now. His pace was slow and his steps were very deliberate. I noticed that he never looked down. He minded his footing with peripheral vision. He was looking up ahead and constantly scanning from side to side.

I found myself doing the same thing and noticed that I seemed to be seeing more detail that way. Every twenty feet or so he stopped and listened intently as he looked around. Foreign smells, like cooking or unwashed bodies, could be detected from time to time, but our own stench sometimes blotted that sense out.

The rest of the team was totally silent and spaced at about eight foot intervals. In cover that is more open, we were usually 20 to 30 feet apart. The air was stagnant, oppressive, and so quiet under that overgrowth that the silence was palpable.

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I do remember hearing dripping noises from the moisture that formed on the leaves far above. It was almost eerie that nine heavily loaded Marines could move without making a sound. It was now abundantly clear why the pre-patrol inspection included a thorough check for noisy, unsecured gear. These are often called trench guns and were patented in More like what a game bird hunter might use. Two weapons of similar bulk plus all the ammo for both would have been a real load. Moving through the kind of terrain and bush that we did could often produce a stumble and we had enough to worry about besides an accidental discharge, let alone someone getting shot in the back.

The light was so diffused that there was no one source and no real shadows Just as we stepped off again, and without a sound, an NVA soldier appeared around the turn coming toward us. Perforated by the buckshot, the front of his shirt erupted as the NVA was bowled backward into the bush. Contrary to Hollywood, great gouts of blood do not fountain forth. The bleeding comes seconds later as the heart continues to pump until it stops I was momentarily stunned at how fast that happened.

The point turned and ran straight at me. We were not out there to get into pitched battles. Our survival depended on getting the hell away before unwelcome help arrived. Immediate action drills are something like football plays that the team executes in certain situations.

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If we are ambushed from the right or left, if there is point-to-point contact, or if we are being followed, there is an immediate action drill to cover the situation. The key word is immediate. There is zero time to formulate and call out a plan when there are just seconds to react. Everyone on the team must know instinctively what to do and not wait to be told. To get to that point, immediate action drills are practiced in the company street on a daily basis between patrols.

Our most effective was the drill we used to break contact. Therefore, if they saw one Recon Marine, they instantly knew whether their own unit outnumbered ours and would try to maneuver around the team and cut them off. It was designated CS gas and was like a strong version of tear gas. CS causes choking, drainage of all tear ducts and mucous membranes, and a burning sensation to the skin.

It can even cause vomiting in heavy doses. We would try to deter- 5. The gooks rarely carried gas masks and the ones they had were very ineffective Russian masks. If we threw CS, they had virtually no defense against it. That wounded or chased off any gooks lingering in the gassed area. As soon as the last frag went off, we high tailed it right through the gas. Especially under the humid and airless canopy, the gas would hang in the air for some time, which discouraged pursuit.

The teams who needed to use this means of breaking contact were rarely chased for very long. We did not drop gas or frags this time because we bugged out so fast after contact and then got off the trail that, pursuit, if any, would have been ineffective. Either way, we got out of there fast! We were extracted, as planned, the next day so it was all very fresh in my mind when we got back to the base. I kept remembering that secondslong event in a series of mental snapshots. This contact happened so fast and so violently that I guess my brain had a little trouble digesting it.

There was the dim, silent trail; the NVA materialized in front of us; he was blasted down; we were running. Four quick images. Back at Phu Bai, cleaning up my gear, and released from the other tensions of being on patrol, the incredible realness of what happened caught up with me. That guy must have realized that he was already dead a millisecond before his chest was torn apart by double-ought buckshot.

I had seen someone die right in front of me! If he had been more alert, he could have killed me! Just a few hours before, we left a man lying dead in the jungle. At least, because he was lying on the trail, he would eventually be found. He would be mourned but almost certainly not returned to his family.

An unmarked grave near the trail would be his version of Arlington National Cemetery. Sitting on my cot, I became totally absorbed by the mental images I fought a rising feeling of nausea but I lost and vomited into the sand at my feet.

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I scraped sand over the mess with my boot. Then I surprised myself by experiencing a feeling of vast relief, I guess because I was now safe and alive. One of the guys walked past me and gave me a biff on the shoulder. Nothing was said nor needed to be. I kept seeing that NVA at the instant the buckshot hit him. In my mind, I could not see the point man in front of me anymore. It was just the NVA and me. Over the next few days, I made a point with myself not to dwell on it. In time, I rarely thought about it anymore. Then I completely forgot about it until very recently when a friend I had told that story to reminded me of it.

Over the following two weeks or so, I tried to recall the smells, sounds, and sights and even lost a little sleep over it. Bits began to drop into place and, though still not crystal clear, it now makes sense to me. I am not haunted by it. I merely remember. Khe Sanh The word was going around that Bravo would be pulling up stakes and heading to a new home.

Unknown to most of us, for a few weeks, a serious battle had been taking place north of us in a little spot named Khe Sanh. These battles were for possession of two major hill masses strategically located west of a remote airstrip and tiny base. The hills, numbered for their elevation in meters above sea level, were Hill and Hill South.

There was another slightly to the north, so to avoid confusion, the two were always referred to as N and S. These hills overlooked the airstrip and provided excellent observation to their west. Small as the Khe Sanh area was, it was a very strategic location and a lot of Marines died taking those hills from the NVA. That battle was to become known as the Hill Fights. The Marines now owned this real estate. A company of infantry was placed on and S and they began working like beavers to fortify them. Oddly, the NVA had barely threatened the main base even though it was the source of supplies supporting the Marines on the hills.

Since most of the battalion that took the hills was now in residence on them, there were relatively few troops on the base. The brass must have felt that the location was going to become even more important, so the 26th Marines, currently in the Phu Bai tactical area of responsibility TAOR , were being moved to Khe Sanh to reinforce. There were, as mentioned, the ever-present working parties, but during that week, some of us were tapped for Rough Rider escort duty.

Rough Riders were convoys of anywhere from six to twenty supply trucks making deliveries to bases north of Phu Bai like Dong Ha and Con Thien. Phu Bai was Division HQ from whence all good things were distributed. Two teams were usually parceled out among the trucks for security. We rode in the back of the open trucks and watched for any nasty little people who might come slithering out to steal our toilet paper or other luxuries.

A very light load compared to a Recon patrol. The convoys were rarely attacked but it was a necessary precaution. Remember I had mentioned how hot it was? For some inexplicable reason, I decided not to wear any socks this day. While bumping along in the truck, my trouser cuffs had shucked up a couple of inches above my boot tops. The sun had burned a bright red band around my legs just above the boots and it was painful!

From his Unit One, Doc Miller produced a magical ointment that helped soothe the burn, but it was a few days before my skin resumed its normal pallid shade. Doc and I had become pretty good friends. This particular convoy was headed for Dong Ha. All along Route 1, there are villages, hamlets and clusters of huts. Anytime we slowed down or stopped, our truck was immediately rushed by several ragged and half-naked kids holding out their hands for whatever they could get.

I suppose it saves on diaper changing. Chigarette numba ten! Chigarette numba one, G. The softhearted Yanks usually came prepared to banter and hand out goodies and the kids knew it. If someone actually did throw a cigarette, the victor would immediately produce matches and sometimes even a Zippo and light up. Route 9 eventually winds its way to Khe Sanh and on into Laos. We had just remounted the trucks and were driving toward the front gate when there was a blast and we saw a column of smoke rising from an area about 75 yards away.

The trucks slammed to a stop and we all bailed off looking for cover. After a moment, we looked over to where the explosion had been and noticed people casually walking around. Then someone nearby hollered to us that some engineers were blowing up a dud NVA mortar round that had landed the previous night. Who knew? We got back to Phu Bai without further incident and continued with preparations to move north.

The big day came and Bravo departed for Khe Sanh. I was a little surprised when the convoy of trucks we had loaded with the company property left without us. Were we going to hump all the way to Khe Sanh? The C. I was not looking forward to the torture to come. We left the old company area, now just an empty tent ghost town, and headed in the general direction of Route 1 somewhere in the distance outside the base. We arrived at Route 1 but instead of turning left north , we crossed it and continued toward a number of hooches and Butler buildings.

Sounds of helicopters whacking their way overhead became more noticeable. Be still, my heart! Could it be?

Were we to be saved from some kind of death march? Oh, joy! Oh, rapture! The zoomies had just become my favorite people. We were led around the building and beheld a C running up its engines on the taxi pad. The C is a large four-engine prop-driven cargo plane. Cs are capable of landing and taking off from surprisingly short runways. They are incredibly reliable, tough, and versatile, and are still much in use today. The seats were aluminum frames with nylon webbing, something like a lawn chair but much less comfortable. The seats ran down both sides with another row of seats back to back down the center.

We stuffed as much of our gear as we could under the seats and then fastened our seat belts. The interior walls had no sound insulation. All the C was meant to carry was cargo and Marines so who cared about insulation? I heard a whining noise and looked back to see the ramp closing. Immediately, the plane began to move. Only a few lucky ones could see out because there were only a couple of round windows on each side.

We taxied for a few minutes and then stopped with a lurch. The engines revved up to take-off speed and the plane jumped forward. We bucketed along for only a few seconds and then popped into the air amid much thumping and banging of landing gear being retracted. We were off! About a half hour later it was apparent that we were descending and as soon as the wheels touched the ground it felt like the plane was standing on its nose in order to come to a stop. That was just the way the Herkybirds came to earth. While Phu Bai was situated at sea level, Khe Sanh was in the mountains.

After counting noses and getting saddled up, we formed into platoons and route stepped down a dusty dirt road parallel to the airstrip. Around us were the usual hooches but more often we saw squad tents and a few other small, nondescript buildings. There was clothesline and comm wire strung everywhere between tents and from short poles running in every direc- 6. Khe Sanh 53 tion. Sandbag emplacements were near every building and tent. It had the general appearance of a refugee camp in a war torn central African country.

The tallest structure on the base was what appeared to be a watchtower. It was probably 35 feet tall and had a little roof over the platform on top. I would learn more about that later that night. A ten-minute stroll brought us to our new company area. There was a row of hooches along the road and on the other side of them was a row of squad tents.

The Gunny saw to the assignment of hooches and tents and we began settling in. Khe Sanh was surrounded by higher terrain, especially to the north. A massive ridgeline ran roughly west to east. On the western end was Hill , a sharp hump that stuck up all by itself. There was a Marine radio relay post on defended by a few radio operators and a platoon or so of grunts.

To the east and about midway along the ridge was a bigger, broader hump that was Hill and considered the main observation post of the NVA. In fact, except for Hill the entire remainder of the ridge belonged to the NVA. What kept the NVA from rolling right over was the fact that the south, west, and north sides of the ridge dropped off almost vertically while the only way in to the east side of the position was a ridge top trail only feet wide.

Hill was so pointed and small that there was very little room for a resupply chopper to land. Beside each hooch or tent in our company area was a shallow ditch surrounded by sandbag walls about two feet high from ground level. We would use these bunkers in case of artillery, rocket, or mortar attack. Khe Sanh was a little, shall we say, rustic. There was one bare bulb hanging from the overhead and one outlet on each side wall. One novel thing was that the light was wired to a switch on the door so that when the door was opened, the light went off.

This was so that minimal light escaped at night. The other end of the tent was pretty well screened by many other buildings and tents across the base. It was a tiny concession to their ranks and responsibilities. Corporals and below stayed with their team. There was a wall between the two sections, so that left only one entry-exit door to each part.

It turned out that I was to stay with the team I had been with, which was in the second platoon under Lt. When it gets dark in Vietnam, it gets dark. The nearest civilization was the village of Khe Sanh, a couple of kilometers away. There was not much electricity in the Ville that I know of, so there was no glow of neon or any other light in the night sky except stars.

It was just dark. It was also very quiet. You could hear the occasional conversation hundreds of feet away. Any John Wayne fan knew that sound. It was something unpleasant falling out of the sky! The explosions sounded some distance away but in seconds, we had our boots on and, with little else, scrambled out and dove into the bunkers. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

Somebody was actually shooting things at me and they were coming closer! After a few minutes of sporadic incoming, the rounds stopped. It turned out that these were mortars and I was to learn that each type of incoming round had a distinctive sound and that sound indicated how close to me they would drop. The siren wailed again and people began emerging from bunkers and trenches.

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The siren had come from the watchtower I had seen that afternoon. The sentry would then crank the handle on a siren indicating incoming. When it appeared that the barrage was over, he would sound all clear. A crude system, to be sure, but it was better than nothing. Mortars and artillery whistled as they approached, while rockets shrieked. The longer you could hear the sounds they made, the farther away they would 6. Khe Sanh 55 hit. A short whistle, or worse, no whistle at all, meant it was coming down close. Someone said that the ever-watching NVA had probably seen a bunch of Marines come in on the C and then the convoy arrived, so they decided to send us a little housewarming barrage.

It made sense to me because anyone on with a set of binoculars had a great aerial view of the base. I was too keyed up to sleep much for the rest of the night. I realized how vulnerable we were and it occurred even to me that the bunkers outside our tents were far less than adequate. Now I knew why the old hands had looked askance at them. After breakfast, the company fell in for morning muster and Colors. Colors formalities are observed at A. All personnel, wherever they are, stop and render appropriate salutes during this period.

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After Colors, the C. It was apparent to all that the bunkers we had were way too shallow and needed roofs over them. Reinforcing the bunkers would be our number two priority right after doing what we were there for Another lesson learned, he said, was that immediately following any attack, the base SOP required a physical nose count to determine if anyone was missing. Not doing that could mean that someone might be lying somewhere wounded and unable to call for help. The sandbags and dirt arrived shortly and we got busy. This was to get a good look at the terrain, compare it to your map, and select potential LZs.

The vegetation on the ground did not always match the vegetation indicated on the map. Many of the maps we had were years old and even had notations in French. There were two CHs sitting on the pad and as we approached, the rotors began slowly turning. Even sitting still, there was a fair amount of vibration. As the pilot began to lift off, the vibration became worse. I looked around and no one seemed concerned at all. Directly above our heads were two horsepower turbine engines. Just behind the cockpit were the crew chief and a gunner.

Each of them manned a. As soon as we were airborne, they were both very intently watching the ground. Khe Sanh is small enough so that anything in the air above the base is still well within range of enemy heavy machine guns outside the perimeter. The barbed wire, concertina, and other obstacles extended outside the trench lines surrounding the base by about 50 meters.

Patrol Preparation 57 The vegetation had been cleared away for about another meters past that but it still left the whole rest of northwest South Vietnam for the bad guys to hide in. As we gained altitude we could see down on hill S.

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The rest of the hill was an ugly, naked, twisted mass of burned and blasted trees and craters. Mountains that we could not see from the base came into view. Some of them were enormous and the peaks of a few of them disappeared into the clouds. The countryside surrounding the base was pockmarked with hundreds if not thousands of various sized craters caused by artillery and mortars from the NVA and us. I could see the Ville, a cluster of small, nondescript structures straddling Route 9.

Closer to the base were a few small groups of huts indicating Bru settlements. There did not appear to be any rice paddies. Most of the area was too mountainous or irregular and the climate did not lend itself to that type of agriculture. Beyond that was green jungle and expanses of elephant grass as Khe Sanh terrain with bomb craters. The lighter color is elephant grass 3 to 8 feet high courtesy 1st Lt. I began to feel very small. They were going on patrol tomorrow and needed to make preparations.

The team I was in would probably go out in about three days and Lt. Pfeltz said I should go with one of the team leaders who were going tomorrow and start learning what I would need to know soon. I had a notebook with me so I could take 7. Patrol Preparation 59 notes on what I saw. First, Capt. Hudson gave each team leader in turn his warning order. Each square has a four-digit number unique unto itself. Each grid square is then broken down by eye into meter blocks, each with a number. A normal patrol zone consists of six adjacent grid squares, which translates to an area of six square kilometers.

We followed the Gunny to the Combat Operations Center, which turned out to be just up the road from the company area. We were approaching a cleared area near the base of the watchtower among the hooches and all I could see was what appeared to be a cluster of various types of antennae sticking up from the ground. Then right in front of me, someone popped up out of the ground. Now I could see a hole about four by eight feet and a steel stairway going down into darkness.

We were going underground. We descended about 10 feet into a concrete structure that had narrow corridors and small rooms branching off in all directions. I never did see how large it was. The ceiling was a bit short here and there so I had to stoop a bit. There were no doors but the entrance to some areas had a curtain that could be closed if needed. The rumor was that it was an underground command center built by the French in the s.

Later I found out it was built by U. Army Special Forces in the early s. There were no luxuries but there were basic military furnishings and electricity for lights and radios. There was, in fact, no particular order involved as long as you went to them all. Besides S-2, there was artillery liaison, air liaison, and communications all working in the same room.

This might seem a bit chaotic but it meant that when the need arose, everybody concerned was getting the same information at the same time and support or comm efforts could be coordinated quickly. There was a wooden frame several feet square on the wall on which was fastened a map covered by clear plastic. The plastic had arrows and other geometric shapes as well as cryptic notations in grease pencil all over it.

The terrain is mountainous and mostly jungle covered but with patches of elephant grass here and there. The map shows two streams, and there have been no recent sightings by Recon patrols. Two other teams will be in RZs such and such but there will be no other friendlies anywhere near your area. Finding out more was our job.

Then we went over to arty artillery where Blum picked four coordinates on his map that looked like possible LZs. In addition, each night as the team sets in to their harborsite, the team leader will pick several places on the map, such as known trails, and any other likely avenues of approach to the harborsite, radio those coordinates back to base and arty would assign registration numbers to them. Next was air liaison. Oh well. The wingers had a more relaxed sense of the passage of time. On the other hand, when it got nasty they busted their butts to support us.

Patrol Preparation 61 machine guns and rocket pods. UH-1Es, also called Hueys a Huey was a Huey to us , were known as slicks because they were without weapons and used for moving troops or medevacs. Fixed wing is any airplane other than a helicopter. We moved on to communications. There, we got the brevity code, shackle code, and radio frequencies.

There were two frequencies, one primary and one secondary. In case the primary was unusable due to bad weather, our location, or for security reasons, we could change to the secondary and hope for better results. If other frequencies were necessary, they could be sent to us using the shackle code.

It was based on a ten-letter word with no repeated letters. Below the letters were the numbers 0 through 9 in any order. Of course, both the sender and receiver had to have the same combinations. Oddly enough, the only example I can remember is Indicating the decimal point in code was unnecessary.

I could do the same with map coordinates or any other number.