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.
“Boy, I wish I knew what was going on.”.........COL Henry Blake, M*A*S*H*
August 12, 1969, my second day in the 2/11th, was also the day chosen by the VC and NVA to begin a new offensive. It was three days before the Woodstock festival would begin in New York. I was sleeping soundly that night when the loud wail of a hand-cranked siren jolted me into consciousness. This was the signal for a “Red Alert” and, unless it was a drill, meant that we were either under attack or that an attack was imminent. As I sat up and struggled to shake the sleepiness from my head I noticed everyone else in the hooch was quickly putting on their flack jackets (a heavy fiberglass-filled vest worn for protection from shrapnel), helmets, and grabbing weapons and ammo.
Being a brand new cherry and not knowing what I was supposed to do, I jumped up and began copying their actions. When they all raced out of the back door I was hot on their heels. They jumped into the back of a “deuce-and-a-half” (a 2 ½ ton, 6 x 6 diesel cargo truck) with me right behind them. There were other guys already in the truck, all in full combat regalia. Someone shouted “GO!” as soon as we had jumped into the back of the truck and it began racing (if possible for a deuce-and-a-half) off into the night. I had no idea where we were going or what we were supposed to do when we got there. Since I had been the last to climb into the truck I was sitting next to the tailgate. After a couple of minutes, the truck braked hard but before it could come to a full stop a sergeant slapped my helmet and told me this was my spot and to get out. I don’t remember what I said but it was probably something stupid. He pointed to a hole in the ground just behind a row of concertina wire (coiled barbed wire with razor-sharp barbs) and told me the hole was my position. Before I knew it, I was standing in the dark and the truck was on its way to the next drop off. That is when I first realized that I was out on the bunker line, the camp perimeter. I quickly jumped into the hole, which turned out to be a one-man fighting hole. I was thankful it was deeper than the two-foot hole my partner and I dug in BCT. I made sure that my M-16 was locked and loaded as I stared through the wire into the darkness, waiting to see what was going to happen. I don’t remember being afraid. More a feeling of detachment, as if it wasn’t real. I could not hear or see anyone else. It was very quiet. I waited for something to happen. Fortunately, nothing happened and after about ten minutes the “All Clear” siren sounded followed by the truck returning to collect me.
On the ride back to the battery area one of the guys asked, “Why did you go out there with us?” I explained that I didn’t know what else to do so I just followed them. They laughed and explained that they were members of the Ready Reaction Force, a group of volunteers whose purpose was to reinforce the perimeter during an attack. I didn’t have to go with them after all, but in the rush and darkness no one had noticed who I was.
It took a while for a “cherry” to develop the sixth sense that seemed to come so naturally to the “short timers.” That sixth sense allowed you to hear an incoming round and dive for cover while the cherry was standing there with his thumb up his ass wondering, “Where did everyone go?” Until that sixth sense was developed it was smart to watch and mimic those who had been in-country for a while.
The VC didn’t attack Camp Eagle that night but they did attack about one hundred and fifty other locations throughout South Vietnam. However, a few days later Camp Eagle did receive in-coming. We were hit by more than twenty 122mm rockets on the 16th, 23rd, and 28th, of August 1969. It’s like Charlie was welcoming me to Vietnam! On those nights I did not repeat the mistake of running out to reinforce the perimeter during the attacks. Instead, I grabbed my gear and headed for a bunker.
The Chinese/Soviet-made 122mm rocket was about six and a half feet long, about five inches in diameter, weighed about 100 pounds, and delivered a high-explosive warhead from three to eleven miles. They were cheap, which meant the NVA/VC had plenty of them. But they were also heavy and had to be carried from North Vietnam, which meant they were used more in the northern portion of South Vietnam than in other parts of South Vietnam. Camp Eagle, being less than forty miles from North Vietnam, got more than its fair share of them.
A 122mm rocket made a nerve shattering screaming noise as it traveled through the air. It was a very scary thing to hear. Because of the scream and not knowing where the rocket would hit, they were excellent terror weapons. However, when a 122mm rocket did hit its target the resulting damage was extensive. The explosion of a 122mm rocket was deafening and caused the earth to shake. The explosions always seemed to be much closer when you were hunkered down in a bunker during a rocket attack and dirt was falling on your head from the explosions.
Evening chow was a favorite time for the VC to launch rockets towards the mess halls at Camp Eagle. They were trying to hit the mess halls when they were full of soldiers. One did hit the Division Artillery mess hall but it was not a direct hit and I don’t believe anyone was seriously injured. Of course, if you heard the explosion you were OK. You wouldn’t hear the one that had your name on it.
A line of bunkers ran parallel to and perhaps fifteen or twenty feet out in front of our line of hooches. There was approximately one bunker for every two or three hooches. The bunkers were dug into a dirt embankment and reinforced with timbers and sandbags. As did the bunker at SERTS, where I almost shot the Officer-of-the-Guard, our bunkers had blast walls making an “L” shaped opening to prevent direct access to the bunker. Bunkers were not assigned to anyone. You simply ran to the closest one when you heard the siren or in-coming rounds. You might end up in a bunker that was very crowded or one that sheltered only a small number of people. I suffered from claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) and would come close to having an anxiety attack if pushed towards the rear of the dark bunker. I could just imagine the VC tossing a satchel charge into the bunker, killing us all, and me not being able to do anything about it.
When it was necessary to take cover in a bunker I tried very hard to remain up front, near the entrance, which helped stave off the claustrophobia. I thought that by being near the entrance I would be able to get out of the bunker quickly if necessary, plus I would be able to shoot any bad guy appearing in the doorway with a satchel charge. I kept my weapon ready just in case. We had no idea what was going on outside of the bunker or what might happen. I will admit that I was excited each time we had to go to the bunkers. I would get the “fight or flight” adrenaline rush and become almost euphoric. The “fight” state seemed to be the automatic default state since “flight” was not really possible. It is amazing how fast one can adapt to a dangerous environment. I would not have hesitated to blow away any enemy appearing in the doorway (recall the time I was on guard duty at SERTS). It was a weird feeling, almost wanting to shoot someone. I was not ready to die and would have had no problem in shooting first and asking questions later. As General Patton said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor bastard die for his country.” That was why the training in BCT was so tough. We were taught to react without thinking about it. That’s one of the ways you knew you were a soldier.
Continued in Chapter 27, Looking STRAC