Ain’t Released Me Yet
Memoirs of a REMF
Copyright© 2016 by Robert B. Martin, IV
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission from the copyright owner, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. I have attempted to recreate events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them.
This is My Rifle, This is My Gun!
“A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded sexual and emotional maturity.” ............Sigmund Freud
The third week of training left us very little personal time. I was unable to write home until the weekend, when I told Carol Ann, “This past week has been so busy I’ve only been able to take two showers and I smell rank.”
We finally began going to the rifle range on Tuesday February 25, 1969. Then for the next two weeks we marched and double-timed four miles out and four miles back every day except Sundays.
Officially, there was no training on Sunday but we still had work to do. We had our personal area to take care of, such as polishing shoes, boots, and brass and cleaning our equipment and weapons. On Sunday mornings it was not unusual for our DI to come into the barracks, grab anyone sitting around doing nothing, and have them “GI” (a very intensive cleaning of all nooks, cracks, and crannies) the barracks. One of the things I discovered very early in BCT was that all trainees had the right to attend church services on Sunday. The DI had to allow you to go to church if you wished. Not being stupid I jumped at the excuse to get away from my personal hell once a week, even if for only an hour.
Every Sunday would find me attending service at the 3rd Brigade Protestant Chapel, one of thirteen chapels on post. The church was rather new, very nice, very quiet, and very peaceful. Most of all, there were no DI’s there. It was the only place and the only hour each week that I didn’t worry about the DI, training, or punishment. They couldn’t touch me in there. Going to the chapel was sanctuary for an hour. I would have lived in that church all week if possible. I haven’t attended church that many consecutive Sundays since BCT.
I soon learned the meaning of “forced march.” Most of the other training companies would heckle us as they passed in trucks and busses on their way to and from the ranges. As to the reason our company seemed to have it a little tougher than some of the other companies, I would guess that it had to do with our company commander, Captain Spacek, being new in his job and trying to prove something. Whatever the reason, it was going to end up backfiring on him.
Our personal weapon was the M-14 rifle with which we became very familiar. Later, during the last two weeks of basic, about sixty-five of us (those going into a combat arms advanced training after BCT) trained with the M-16 rifle, the standard rifle of the American soldier in Vietnam.
Much emphasis was put on the ability to quickly dismantle and reassemble our weapon in the event of a malfunction during combat. We were drilled repeatedly and timed with a stopwatch. Every single second mattered. Once we were performing adequately, we were blindfolded and taught to do it by touch and feel. A little frightening at first, but with practice it was possible to do this very quickly. Before the end of BCT, I could disassemble and reassemble the M-14 very fast while blindfolded.
Most of the third week of training was spent becoming intimately familiar with the M-14 rifle and the various firing positions on the firing ranges. We shot a lot of ammo at fixed targets during this period of time. It would have been a lot of fun had it not been so miserably cold.
We took our weapon, not our gun, with us almost everywhere we went. To call it a gun resulted in an embarrassing punishment. The unlucky trainee would be required to run in a circle holding his WEAPON over his head with one hand while grasping his crotch with the other and shouting loudly, “This is my weapon, this is my gun. This is for fighting, this is for fun.”
At the end of a day’s target practice we had to police the range for all of the spent shells, or “brass,” and take them, along with any remaining live ammo, back to the ammo locker. When leaving the range, the trainee stepped up to the range officer at “port arms” (rifle held on a diagonal out in front of the body while at attention) and sounded off loudly, “No brass, No ammo, SIR!” Getting caught with live ammo after leaving the range could cause big problems. One trainee in my company was caught with live ammo after leaving the range. His locker was searched and several hundred rounds of live ammunition were found. He said he was saving up until he had enough ammo to “kill all the sergeants.” He was taken away and we never heard any more about the incident. Have you seen the movie “Full Metal Jacket”? Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?
On a Friday we “zeroed-in” our weapons in preparation for our upcoming rifle qualifications. This required making adjustments to the rifle’s front and rear sights for elevation (up and down) and windage (left and right) until you could place a three round shot group, no larger than a quarter, in the center of the target from a distance of twenty-five meters (not very far, but not as easy as it sounds). I was able to zero-in my weapon after twenty-four rounds, or eight shot groups. It was hard to do because of my constant shivering. Still, some guys did it in only two or three shot groups. They must have been descendants of Davey Crockett.
The next week we were back on the firing ranges every day. We were now shooting at man-sized pop-up targets instead of fixed targets. The targets would pop up for a few of seconds and then drop back down, which meant you had to locate, aim at, and shoot the target as quickly as possible before it dropped back down.
We were being taught not only to kill the enemy, but also to hate the enemy without thinking of him as human. The Vietnamese, we were told, were an inferior race. They were always referred to as dinks, slopes, slants, gooks, or other racially demeaning terms. We learned slogans such as “Kill a commie for mommy”, “The only good dink is a dead dink”, and “Kill them all and let God sort ‘em out”.
On Thursday of that week I had my best day of shooting so far. Shooting from a kneeling position I scored hits on twenty-one out of the twenty-four pop-up targets at distances ranging from twenty-five to three hundred meters, a distance of over three football fields. And no, we did not have telescopic sights. I was very proud of that accomplishment. I’m not sure how I managed, but it did get me a rare pat on the back from the instructor. If I could shoot like that during rifle qualifications the next day I would easily earn the Expert badge, one of three levels of qualification. At the top was Expert, then Sharpshooter, and Marksman at the bottom.
We bivouacked (Army-speak for “camped out”) at the rifle range that night to practice night firing. One piece of gear that we carried in our packs was a shelter-half (one-half of a small two-man tent, also known as a “pup tent”). The two halves were buttoned together to make a two-man shelter. Each half had either buttons or buttonholes so it was necessary to find a partner whose half was a “mate” to your half.
It was bitterly cold, as usual, but bivouacking at the range would save us eight miles of marching the next day, supposedly allowing us to be well rested for Saturday morning’s rifle qualifications. At least that is what our leaders told us. We ate our cold evening chow and waited for dark. There was no moon that night and we sat around in the freezing dark doing nothing for about an hour to make certain that we had acquired our night vision.
It was very difficult, sometimes impossible, to see a target at night, especially if you looked directly towards it. You had to use your peripheral vision because the bundle of optic nerves at the back of the eyeball creates a blind spot that blocks a portion of the image formed on the back of your eyeball. Of course, the muzzle flashes from the first few shots would destroy any night vision you had acquired. I think all we did was point our rifles down range and shoot until told to cease-fire. I never even saw a target. Fortunately, we were not graded on the night firing.
After we completed the night firing exercise, around 2300 hours (11:00 PM), we were allowed to erect our tents for sleeping. We were issued air mattresses because the ground was frozen solid and an air mattress insulated the sleeping bag from the cold ground. The sleeping bags were nothing more than a canvas bag lined with wool army blanket material. It was not made for cold weather. We slept as best we could in our two-man pup tents. I woke up about once an hour shivering violently from the cold. My air mattress had a slow leak so that it took about an hour for all of the air to leak out causing my sleeping bag to come in contact with the frozen ground. I would blow the thing back up and be good for another hour. When I wasn’t doing that I had guard duty. I had to walk around our camp from 0300 hours (3:00 AM) until reveille at 0500 hours (5:00 AM). By that time my feet felt like blocks of ice.
That morning we shot for qualification. I did not shoot Expert as I had hoped. Instead, I earned the Sharpshooter badge. I was very disappointed and wrote home, “I got nervous and couldn’t seem to get comfortable in any of the positions we fired from. I got a little upset and starting rushing shots, jerking the trigger, and breathing wrong. I was just a bundle of nerves, like when I had to give a piano recital.” I was down on myself when it was over. I should have done a lot better. The fact that I had slept very little the night before didn’t help either. Perhaps if my BCT had been in the warmer climate of South Carolina I would not have had the shivering to contend with and might have qualified Expert. Then again, if I had shot as well as I had the day before when I hit twenty-one out of twenty-four pop-up targets I would have easily qualified as Expert. At least I did better than Marksman.
As it turned out, our entire company scored lower than most of the other companies. I told you earlier that our “extra” training was going to backfire on the Company Commander. Surprise! I’m sure the lack of sleep, the freezing cold, poor morale, no weekend passes, and running to and from the ranges while the other companies rode had nothing to do with our relatively poor performance on the ranges during rifle qualifications! Our poor showing on the rifle range pissed off all of our DI’s and the Captain. Their initial reaction was to make us run the entire four miles back to the barracks. It seems that all of the “extra” training provided by our leaders had not paid off as they had expected.
The M-14 was not the only firearm training we received. In addition to the orientation those of us destined for one of the combat arms received on the M-16, we also received quite a bit of training with the M-60 machine gun. It was a lot heavier than the M-16 but a lot of fun to shoot. Although our M-16’s could fire on automatic, we were taught to fire no more than three-round bursts at a time. The M-16’s magazine held twenty rounds, but we only loaded nineteen rounds per magazine. This was supposed to keep the magazine spring from wearing out and causing the weapon to jam. Nineteen rounds did not last very long with the selector set on automatic.
The .50 caliber machine gun was a beast. To keep it from getting away from us the barrel was chained down so that we could move it no more than a few inches left, right, up, or down. We were only given the opportunity to fire a short burst.
The M-79 grenade launcher was similar to a sawed-off shotgun but with a larger diameter barrel. It broke open at the breech and the shell was dropped in. The projectile was a grenade with a powder casing that propelled it from the weapon. It was often called a “blooper” because it made a “blooping” noise when fired. It was fired similar to a mortar in as far as you aimed it up and lobbed the grenade in an arc so that it would, hopefully, drop on the target. These were common infantry weapons and easy to shoot but would require a lot of practice if you expected to consistently hit your target.
The M-72 LAW (Light Antitank Weapon) replaced the old WWII vintage bazooka. The LAW was a one-shot disposable weapon that fired an armor-piercing projectile from a short fiberglass tube. The projectile was essentially an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade), which had a hot exhaust so you had to make sure no one was standing behind you when the rocket ignited. Our targets were junked trucks down range but due to the weapon’s expense (the only cost figure I could find was $2,244.72 each in 2005), each trainee fired only one.
Any of these weapons were capable of damaging a person’s hearing after repeated firing. Rubber earplugs were included as part of our standard gear. To keep from losing them, each plug was tied to one end of a string and the other end tied to the top buttonhole of our field jackets. When not in use they were kept in the field jacket’s chest pocket.
To be continued in Chapter 12, Killing with Bayonet and Boot….