Infantry School

AN INFANTRY OFFICER not only has to know his weapons, but also the weapons that his enemy uses. Inasmuch as the Viet Cong were equipped with surplus weapons from every war, officer candidates had the chance to practice with some real antiques. (When I got to Vietnam, I saw even more that I had only read about or seen in old war movies including the .45 caliber Burp Gun, the British Sten Gun, and others.)
Captured Viet Cong weapons
We also had to learn the weapons then popular with Communist forces, most notably the famous Kalashnikov assault rifle – AK47. Interestingly, weapons design seemed to reflect much on the attitude towards the infantryman. The Americans adopted the 5.56X45mm caliber ammunition and a lighter assault rifle so that infantrymen could carry more firepower with less effort. The Communists continued to load their infantrymen down with the much heavier AK-47 and its much heavier 7.62X39mm caliber ammunition, and expected them to carry it without complaint. Although some may argue over the relative ballistic merits of the two calibers, it isn't particularly pleasant to be shot by either.

More importantly, the early versions of the American M-16 suffered from issues that had little to do with its caliber. The early flash suppressor shaped like a three-pronged fork easily caught on jungle vines. Overpowering the ammunition to give it power comparable to the larger caliber M-14 that it replaced as well as the Communist weapons, caused frequent jams during fire fights. These defects were corrected in time, but not until many infantrymen suffered the consequences. Many of the dead were found with their rifles disassembled where they had been attempting to repair them in the midst of fighting. The Communist-manufactured weapons were simple, durable, and reliable. Of course, they had to be. Men who had grown up in more primitive environments didn't have the mechanical knowledge or experience to perform complex maintenance on complex weapons systems. Most Americans were expected to adapt more readily. None of us even had the chance to touch an M-16 until issued one on arrival in Vietnam. We trained on the M-14.

I missed the M-14. I loved that weapon. It packed a real punch and had a much greater effective range. However, as I was to learn later in Vietnam, most fire fights occur at short range and carrying a heavy rifle and an even heavier load of ammunition in the heat and humidity of Vietnam was not pleasant.

One of the more interesting features of the Communist weapons were their lack of safety considerations. This was particularly evident in their sidearms, Whereas the standard American-issued Colt .45 Model 1911 semiautomatic pistol was equipped with three safety mechanisms – half cock, slide safety, and grip safety – the Soviet 9mm sidearm didn't have any.

As surprising as this may seem to those who have never served as an infantryman, gun safety is important, even on the battlefield. It was Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to clear all weapons when returning to base camps from a combat patrol. I moved to the head of the line when we approached our perimeter and inspected each man's weapons as he passed. He had to show me that it was unloaded, the breech was empty, and then dry fire his weapon pointing in the air. Also, there was a sand-filled bucket outside every building and tent where every soldier was expected to dry fire his weapon before entering. These SOPs were ingrained into us during our training.
Weapons design also influenced infantry tactics when using them. For example, most Communist combat rifles had bayonets permanently attached. We carried ours in sheaths and attached them to the ends of our infantry rifles whenever we expected to engage in close combat. Ours could have sharp edges and theirs couldn't. Thus, we could employ slashing motions with our bayonets at the end of our rifles and they could only stab with theirs. 

We also had to learn the effective range and rate of fire for all weapons that we employed as well as our enemy's. Even more importantly, we had to learn how to maintain fire discipline among our men. We heard tales that many fired their entire basic load when the came under fire, and had nothing left to defend themselves when the enemy rushed their position. 

Inasmuch as I trained as an infantry officer early in the Vietnam War, we didn't have many trainers with experience from that theater of operations. During our time at the Infantry School, we watched training films produced by Nazi's who had escaped Europe following World War II and hired themselves out to fight insurrections in other parts of the world, such as the Philippines. We received Vietnam-specific training in dribbles based on early intelligence reports of Viet Cong tactics. Of course, after Tet, when the Viet Cong had been decimated and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began to prosecute the war, I'm sure they had to change the training to adapt to new tactics. I left Vietnam before the NVA had infiltrated as far south as my tactical area of operations in the Mekong Delta. Indeed, the first rocket attack on Saigon occurred the night I left the country. But, that's another story... 


04/28/2012 07:16

I am not a mechanic. I don't have a mechanical mind. I can't fix things. I have trouble with light switches. But in basic training, when I was able to take my M-16 apart and put it back together again, I had achieved far beyond the ultimate of my potential. I even felt better when it fired.


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