Posted by: Thomas Drinkard | May 26, 2012

From “Where There Were No Innocents;” Listening to a War Story

Mack Brinson is listening to one of the sergeants a “One-One” who ran Recon Teams as he tells tales about his most recent mission.  Folks these things actually happened, just not to me. The book is not all blood and mayhem. There is quite a bit of humor and a strong love story.


This was Chancellor’s tale:

“The chopper didn’t land—as usual lately—just hovered about five feet above the elephant grass, we got the hell out and hit the ground…”

He paused, getting knowing nods of agreement from others at the table.

“ It was damned nearly dark when we were working through the grass, which was probably eight or ten feet deep. Then, by the time we hit the tree line—about a hundred meters from the insertion point—it was dark.  After all, we’d just gone into double and triple-canopy woods. We stopped for a fifteen-minute security halt.  I checked my compass and started to move the team as best as I could toward the RON (remain over night) point we’d planned.”

He took a sip of cognac and Coca-Cola that many of the troops in-country had adopted.  It was, to my taste, ghastly and probably a leftover from the French days.  I sipped too, but slowly.  I had been invited to sit at the One-Zero Table, and wasn’t about to jeopardize my chances of hearing the war stories told by these men. I’d drink what they were drinking.

Chance continued:

“My team is damned good.  They were good when I inherited them from Markey—when he rotated back to ‘the world.’ Then, after me’n my One-One (Assistant Team Leader/Radio Operator) here had worked with them for a while, we became an even better team.”

Chancellor nodded toward the man, a staff sergeant named Jamison, seated next to him, who smiled his agreement.

“ But, we’d only moved the team for what I’d guess was about a coupla hundred meters in what was damned near total dark when I called a halt.  First off, there was a shot in the distance.  Just a single shot.  And, as you guys know, that sometimes means that NVA (North Vietnamese Army) trackers are on your trail.  Secondly, we were making enough noise to sound like a bunch of elephants on acid.  Then, just as everybody went into a quick perimeter formation, something moved just ahead and off to the right of our line of march.”

He had everyone’s attention.  There were three other One-Zeros and two of their One-Ones at the round table. A Recon Team normally deployed with two Americans and five Montagnards—mountain tribesmen of Southeast Asia—sometimes referred to as “Yards”.  Several teams had Nungs, who were ethnic Chinese mercenaries born in South Vietnam. They didn’t mix with the Yards, though.

Chance, a Sergeant First Class, took another sip and nodded to the Forward Operating Base (FOB) commander, Lieutenant Colonel “Bourbon Bill” Grimm who’d brought the bottle of cognac as his price of admission to sit at the table. The table was exclusively for One-Zeros and those they invited.  The commander read all the official reports, but learned just as much or more from the tale telling at the table. These men: the One-Zeros, and their One-Ones, were the elite of the elite. They were truly the keen edge of the blade.

Chance lowered his voice.  Those at the table leaned forward.

“Everybody froze.  I heard the tiny little snicks of safeties going off.  That was all.  I eased over toward the area where the sound had come from.  I heard it again.  It sounded like somebody crawling through the brush, moving toward us.  I made damn sure that my safety was off. It sounded like only one bad guy, but we were out there trying to find the 325 Charlie NVA Division. And, you know there might have just one clumsy dude backed up by a regiment.  In that kind of darkness, you don’t take chances.”

“ I put my hand on the Yard point-man’s shoulder and, by pressure, told him to move left.  I eased to the right with Jamison behind me.  The movement stopped.  There was no sound except the occasional monkey howl and the buzzing bugs that loved my hide so much.”

He paused for another sip—increasing the dramatic effect with his silence—then continued in almost a whisper.

“We all stopped and strained our eyes as much as we could, and saw nothing.  I couldn’t smell anything either.  You know how, sometimes you can smell the NVA bastards because of their body odor—then I did smell something nasty.  I was picturing a patrol of about ten NVA easing toward our position and felt my nerves zinging, getting ready to fight. About that time there was a big, loud ‘Whuff!’ and this damn hog came running through our position.  Big sonofabitch, probably a boar, but I didn’t have a chance to check for balls!  He didn’t do anything but snort and charge ahead, slamming through the brush right down the middle of the team’s perimeter.  I told you that our team was good! Not one guy popped a cap when he came through.  Turns out that that was really good considering what happened later. I didn’t check closely, but I’ll bet that a couple of our guys damn near pissed their pants.”

He paused and sipped again, winking broadly as he put down his glass.

“ I know I damn near had wet shorts!”

There was general laughter and a freshening of the cognac and coke by Bourbon Bill accompanying the banter by the other team leaders. The unit at Kontum was one of three FOBs in South Vietnam.  The missions these Special Forces men ran were across the borders into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam.  The fact that SOG even had an operational capability at all was classified SECRET.  All missions were approved at the Joint Chiefs of Staff level—and frequently by the White House itself, because of their sensitivity. They were all classified TOP SECRET with a special code word indicating severely limited access. PRAIRIE FIRE was for Laos, DANIEL BOONE was for Cambodia.

“After having the crap scared out of us by the pig…” Chance said.

His audience was hot for the rest of the story.

“We waited about fifteen minutes to listen for more shots and to make sure that no one had scared that damned hog into us, and then started moving out. Again though, after having to nearly hold hands and daisy chain to keep track of one another, we were making much too much noise for my liking.  I got on the radio and called back here to the TOC to tell them approximately where we were and let them know that we were going to RON (remain overnight) in place.”

Chance was a medium height, slim man with longish blond hair and an easy grin. He rolled his hazel eyes at the FOB commander and took a quick bird-like sip of his drink.

“The guy on night duty was new.  He’s never been in the bush yet, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.  He said, ‘No, sergeant, you’ve got at least another klick (kilometer) to go.  Press on.’  I thought about telling him where he could press his klick, but finally answered, ‘ Roger. Out.’ and turned the radio off.”

He glanced at Bourbon Bill again and, turning to the other team leaders with a confidential tone, continued the story. The colonel showed no reaction.

“I put the team in a tight perimeter on the best ground I could find close by in the darkness.  All the Yards were in a star, facing out, lying on their bellies.  Markey and I leaned back to back against a fairly large tree trunk.”

Jamison picked up the story.

“Chance was beginning to snore within twenty minutes, and making too damn much noise, so I woke him up and reminded him about the radio,” he said.

Jamison was, like most of the troops in the club, wearing cut off camouflage pants, an olive-drab tee shirt and flip-flops.  He was a short—about five-seven — burly man with black hair cropped in a burr-cut.  His five o’clock shadow was almost as long and dark as the hair on his head.

Chance took over again.

“Yeah, Jamison keeps me straight. He said he’d take the first watch if I’d call the FOB.  So I called back to the TOC and got the same duty sergeant.  I told him, in a whisper, ‘We’re there.’  He came back to me in a whisper—like he was out there with me—‘Roger. Out.’  So I turned the radio off, took a sip of water from my canteen and pulled my poncho liner up around me to catch a few Zs,” Chance said

If the team leader’s story about troubles with his TOC affected the colonel, there was no visible evidence.

“It felt like I’d only just stretched out when one of the Yards started tugging on my shirt sleeve,” Chance said.

“‘Sargie, Sargie!’ He was whispering, and too damned loudly.  ‘Shhh!’ I told him.  Be quiet and go to sleep.  ‘Sargie, Sargie!’ he kept it up.  Finally he got my full attention.”

“Sargie, VC wake me up.  He want me pull guard. What I do?”

Jamison interrupted again, grinning broadly.

“ I’d heard the Yard’s question and slid around the tree just in time to hear Chance say, ‘Oh shit!’  Out loud, too,” he said.

There was general laughter and a couple of low whistles.  Bourbon Bill commented as he broke a grin.

“Chance, that wasn’t in your after-action report!” he said.

More laughter and jibes bounced around the room.

One of the other One-Zeros broke in and asked Chance to finish his story. He had me, too.  As a visitor, though, I was glad for someone else to get him to go on.

“ I told Jamison to get everyone in tight, then told the Yard to go back and tell the NVA troop that he’d take over.  Then he was to come back to me and lead us out over the spot where he was supposed to be standing guard.  I still hadn’t heard or seen anything, but now, maybe because my butt hole was squinched up so tight, I could smell distant cooking fires.  Best Jamison and I could figure, then and now, we’d come into a NVA perimeter and they thought that we were one of their patrols returning. Hell, they couldn’t see either!  Our guess is that we probably had landed on the perimeter of a company-sized unit.  All seven of us!”

Everyone at the table leaned just a bit closer.

Chance spoke as if he thought the NVA could overhear.

“ We moved without making a sound and, so damned slow, that part of my brain was screaming at me —wanting me to get the hell out of the AO (area of operations).  Jamison, who’s damned good with a compass, was up front with the Yard point man.”

He nodded at his One-One and lifted his glass, then continued.

“ I brought up the rear with one of the Yards trailing me.”

“As soon as we finally got clear of the area, I had Jamison take a heading for our primary extraction LZ (landing zone).  Just before daylight, we stopped to catch our breath.  Jamison put the team into a defensive perimeter. I got on the radio and called the TOC and requested an emergency extraction.  The same asshole was still on duty.  He immediately asked, ‘Are you under fire?’”

“Not yet, but if you screw around, we will be soon.  Now get the duty officer to call for extraction now or I’ll kick your ass when I get back!” Chance said.

Grimm interrupted.

“That duty sergeant has been trained in depth and will soon go out with a RT to complete his education.”

The statement brought smiles of satisfaction to the One-Zeros.  Everyone else refreshed their glasses with cognac and hoisted them in a salute.  I skipped the cognac and poured in more Coke before joining the toast.

Chance turned to the colonel.

“Boss, I understand that there was an Arc Light done on the grid coordinates we sent in.  Has anybody done a BDA (bomb damage assessment) yet?  I wonder how many of the little bastards there were out there,” he said.

“I’ve asked Saigon about it, but they tell me that we’ll get to do it if it’s approved. And, you know how that can be.” Grimm said.

Often, men who risked their lives to bring back hot intelligence never knew its worth.

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