Still, the attitude of combat soldiers towards support troops was sometimes understandable. It was motivated partially by envy and partially by real REMF (Rear Echelon Mother F**kers) who didn't have the common sense to remember that they were there to serve the combat soldiers. There were times when support units failed to deliver the guns and butter that the combat soldier needed to fight effectively. Then there were some who were simply mean-spirited SOBs who demanded respect that they did not deserve. These are their stories as I experienced them.
As I discussed in my posting on the Rules of Engagement, our division headquarters at Camp Bearcat enjoyed the rare privilege of free unobserved fire in all directions at any time of the day or night. However, there was a rubber plantation to the south of us that had been excluded from this free fire zone by senior officers who, rumor had it, enjoyed the society of the plantation's French owners. Their wishes prevailed until we lost a patrol there. The patrol was denied artillery support when they came under attack by a large concentration of insurgents who were using the plantation as a sanctuary.
Our new division commander, a former artillery officer, was not pleased and ordered all division artillery to fire TOT (Time on Target – a tactic where cannons of all calibers fire in a specially calculated sequence to have their munitions arrive on the same targeted area at a specific time). We sat atop the berm surrounding the base camp that day, cheering the flight of rubber trees as they were thrown into the air by the massive explosions. I have no idea if we did any damage to the enemy that day, but it is clear that they were served notice that their sanctuary had ended.
Exchanging salutes is a sign of respect, not only for enlisted men to show respect for commissioned officers, but also for these officers to show respect for the men under their command. The ritual is initiated by the enlisted man or junior officer whenever his path crosses that of a senior officer while not under cover (not under a roof, inside a building or a covered porch).
I never had occasion to reprimand a soldier for failing in his duty, but I was riding in a jeep with a senior Adjutant General's officer at our brigade headquarters at Dong Tam, home of the Mobile Riverine Force, when we passed a young soldier who was the very picture of a man returning from combat. He was not physically wounded, but the scars of battle were clearly visible. He was obviously bone tired, dragging his weapon behind him. His helmet was gone, thus violating the general order that a soldier always be “under cover” when not under cover – that is wearing a regulation hat or helmet when out-of-doors. His flak jacket was open and his web belts were loosely hanging from his shoulder.
It was obvious to the driver and myself that the soldier simply had been unaware of the first passing as he was too focused on reaching his bed or maybe getting a hot shower and a meal. We could only speculate on how many of his buddies had been killed or injured in the action he was returning from, and we were embarrassed to be in the company of a senior officer who could not ascertain these simple facts for himself.
The story of this incident soon became common knowledge when we returned to division headquarters, not that I had any part in spreading it, of course.
Although I served as a staff officer at division headquarters, I had the opportunity to put my training as an infantry officer to good use when I was given command of one of our base camp reaction force platoons. However, before this posting was made, I was asked by a friend to accompany him one day as he led his platoon on a mission. Our company commanding officer (CO) was an infantry officer who had served nine months with one of the division's battalions before commanding the 9th Administration Company. While there, he lost most of his men in an ambush.
My friend had received his commission via the ROTC program and served in the division finance office. He had some basic combat training, however, he knew his limitations when he was called to assemble his platoon and rally with the rest of the company at the midpoint of our southern perimeter. There we learned that two Vietnamese civilians had grabbed a case of ammunition, scaled the berm, and headed for the rubber plantation about a quarter mile away. The guard on duty at the bunker about a hundred yards distant merely observed and reported the theft.
The CO deployed us in two lines facing each other and perpendicular to the berm. One line, consisting of two platoons stretched from the berm to the farthest wire tangle about two thirds of the distance to the tree line. My friend's platoon was positioned about a quarter mile from the first line, also perpendicular to the berm. Let me pause to clarify the deployment – you may not believe what you just read. Yes, we had two groups of heavily armed men facing each other and separated by about a quarter mile. The ground between was filled with concertina wire and barbed wire tangles. The ground was clear of vegetation but shallow trenches could have concealed someone. If anyone popped up between us, the firing would have commenced and many of us would have been wounded or killed by “friendly fire.”
Let me also clarify the fact that, in all probability, the Vietnamese who stole the ammunition had escaped into the tree line long before our deployment – at least I hoped they had because I didn't want anyone to pop up and start the shooting.
My advice to my friend was to keep his men low to the ground and tell them to keep their heads down if the shooting started. Don't shoot back otherwise they would only encourage their own men to keep shooting at them.
Tall grass filled the area around the trees and I led the men in single file through it. I was moving quickly to get ahead of the men we were seeking until I came upon what appeared to be an eggplant growing wild in the grass. I stopped. Suddenly, I realized that I could come upon anything hidden in that grass unexpectedly. It gave me pause, especially considering that I had no radio or pre-arranged support. Oh, what the hell, I continued as soon as the men following me caught up.
We hadn't gone far after that when a runner sent by my friend reached us and said that we better turn back. The CO had spotted movement in the rubber plantation and was bringing the whole company on line to “recon by fire.” Think about it. Do you have the picture? We were that movement.
Thank God, my friend was paying attention and sent the runner. We escaped the fire zone just moments before the whole company, including to M60 gunners, opened up.
I was hopping mad; literally, I was jumping up and down in front of the CO while he stammered some lame excuse about forgetting me and my volunteers. Noticing that I had torn my pants leg and cut myself on some barbed wire during my headlong rush to get away, he offered to recommend me for a Purple Heart. That only made me angrier.
Luckily my friend pulled me away and the CO was soon sent home. One less Mother F***r to contend with.