A Novel of Marines in the Vietnam War

by Dick Camp

Copyright © 2011 by Richard D. Camp, Jr.

1st Platoon, Lima Company

Combat Patrol
0630 12 September 1967
7 Klicks Northwest Khe Sanh Combat Base

The impenetrable triple-canopy jungle formed a green screen, blocking the sun’s warmth and trapping the early morning coolness between the steep banks of the concealed stream. The soothing murmur of the shallow water flowing over its bed of mud and pebbles added an air of tranquility to the jungle stillness, a silence so complete that the drone of an insect disturbed the serenity. Dense undergrowth and stands of bamboo thickets hugged the steep banks, restricting movement to the streambed. Wild boar and deer prints abounded in the soft mud, marking the stream as a pathway for the jungle’s larger inhabitants. The imprints recorded their passage, providing visual proof of their existence long after they had passed through.

Near the branch of a long dead tree, a half-concealed imprint, unlike the others, had attracted the attention of a heavily armed party of men who crouched in the shadows. Barely visible, they scanned the foliage looking for the tell-tale signs of recent activity. Contrasting shades of green vegetation formed patterns of camouflage that played havoc with their surveillance in the soft light. One man emerged from the shadows in a hunter’s crouch, rifle at the ready. He squatted near the downed tree limb, stared intently at the streambed. Just behind and to his right another man shifted into position to cover him with his rifle, an unconscious but carefully choreographed move. Rising slowly, the scout cautiously moved back into cover and made a series of gestures with his hands, which were relayed along the dispersed column. His careful movements telegraph a signal of danger while silently requesting the leader of the patrol to come forward.

Second Lieutenant John Littleton and his radio operator, Lance Corporal Ken Sanders, stepped out of the shadows and moved forward along the column of men. Neither was distinguishable from the other twenty-five Marines of the platoon, except that Littleton’s uniform was newly issued, the mark of a new man. Both wore helmets with a cloth leaf-patterned camouflage cover, gray-green tropical uniforms, protective flak jackets, and rubber-soled canvas jungle boots. They carried similar green packs, except that Sanders’s bulged with a PRC-25 radio, only the handset and cord visible. An old salt, he concealed the radio to keep from being identified as a radio operator. He had even gone so far as to bend its light metal antenna down through loops in his shoulder harness to keep from being singled out by North Vietnamese snipers, who viewed radiomen and leaders as special targets. Neither man wore rank insignia for the same reason, particularly the officer, who didn’t want his shiny gold bars to attract “the eye” of the sniper. Littleton also carried a rifle, rationalizing that a pistol was an obvious leader’s weapon that would single him out. The rifle was a lifeline because he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with the standard Model 1911A-1 .45-caliber service automatic. Its heavy recoil caused him to shoot high and to the right on a pistol target and, much to his dismay, he barely qualified with the damn thing.

As they reached the front of the column, Littleton squatted next to the lead man, trying to place his face with a name. It came to him: Kelly, a tough Irish street kid from south Boston, who was reported to be the best point and bush man in the company. Go figure it. Leaning forward, his helmet almost touching that of the point man, Littleton whispered, “Kelly, what’s going on?”

“Lieutenant,” the rifleman responded, pointing to the tree limb, “There’s a print in the mud on the other side, and it looks fresh.” Kelly waited for his new platoon commander to absorb the information. At this point Littleton was an unknown to Kelly and the men of the 3rd Platoon. They agreed he had more positives than negatives; he could shoulder his load, didn’t pull rank, and was easy to talk to within the bounds of military decorum. Nevertheless, the big question remained: how would he react in combat?

“Do you see anything else?”

Kelly hesitated. “No sir, but it’s damn creepy. The hairs on my neck are standing straight up. “I can feel gooks out there!”

Littleton made up his mind. He told Kelly and Sanders to cover him as he went out to look. He eased out into the middle of the stream and bent down, feeling totally exposed, as if in the middle of a bowling alley. “Jesus Christ,” he thought, “What the hell am I doing here? I’m going to get my ass blown away.” With that encouraging thought in mind, he quickly examined the mud and spotted a fresh print. The damn thing looked like a tire track, puzzling him until he remembered the North Vietnamese often wore sandals made from cut up car tires, using inner tube strips to hold them on their feet, creating a poor man’s Birkenstock-type flip-flops. The troops called them Ho Chi Minh Sandals and drolly claimed they were good for 100,000 miles. As the realization hit him that a North Vietnamese rifleman might be aiming in at this very moment, his muscles involuntarily tightened and a surge of adrenalin hit his bloodstream. His head snapped up, eyes wide, trying to pierce the uncertain visibility. “Get the hell out of here, you dumb shit,” his brain screamed! It was all he could do to keep from jumping into the shadows, but he forced himself to slowly pull back into cover.

“Christ Kelly, you’re right,” he whispered. “That’s a tire track, and there’s no damn car in the middle of this jungle!”

Staff Sergeant Brown, the platoon sergeant, suddenly grabbed the officer by the shoulder and heatedly whispered, “Christ, Lieutenant, what the hell are ya doing,” his voice full of accusation. “You shouldn’t be out here, you’ll . . .” and left the rest of the sentence unspoken. But there was little doubt in Littleton’s mind that he was going to say: “fuck it up.”

“What the hell’s wrong with this guy,” Littleton wondered. “This isn’t the first time he’s gotten on my case and embarrassed me.” He felt a flush of anger, but kept it in check. This wasn’t the time to get in a pissing contest with the impertinent SNCO. At the same time, it couldn’t continue. There can only be one commander. Littleton suspected Brown resented him because he had been the platoon’s temporary commander until he arrived. Brown didn’t want to give it up to some snot-nosed second lieutenant. It wasn’t the first instance that Brown had questioned his judgment, but this time he had gone over the edge, right to the verge of insubordination. Littleton knew that Brown was a pre-war Regular with more than twenty years’ service, and that he was probably at his terminal rank. The word among the officers was that the man must have screwed up big time to remain a staff sergeant at a time of rapid promotion. Most of his contemporaries were either temporary officers or in the top enlisted pay grades. Littleton had tried hard to establish a professional relationship, but Brown had rebuffed his attempts to form a closer rapport. He sensed the men were scared of Brown and welcomed the change of commanders.

“What’s a footprint doing in the stream,” Littleton asked, ignoring Brown’s insubordination because he needed the veteran’s input. Brown misread his intent and thought the young officer was slow to grasp the importance of the discovery. Instead of offering advice, he replied cuttingly, “Lieutenant, you better notify the Skipper,” implying that Littleton didn’t know what to do and should ask the company commander for help. Exasperated, Littleton realized he wasn’t getting through to Brown, but he did recognize that the man had a good point, so he turned to his radio operator. “Sanders, get the skipper on the horn, I’m going to let him know about this.”

Turning back, he looked Brown in the eye and, in no uncertain terms, directed him to move a machine gun team up behind the lead fire team, in case they needed more fire power.

Brown locked eyes for a moment and then grudgingly nodded assent, adding sarcastically, “Lieutenant, I don’t like this place one damn bit. A Girl Scout troop with a BB gun could knock hell out of us.” In a final act of insolence, he spit out a stream of tobacco juice, and stalked off to bring the M-60 machine gun team forward.

“Lieutenant, I’ve got the Skipper on the horn.” Littleton took the handset. “Lima Six, this is Lima One Actual. Over.” Immediately the company commander’s voice filled the earpiece: “Roger, One, I’ve got you loud and clear. What’ve you got?” As usual, Captain Anderson was direct, without all the military formality of some of the other officers in the battalion.

“Lima Six, we’ve found a fresh footprint in a streambed heading northwest. Over.”

“Roger. Understand. What’s your position?” With a start, Littleton realized that he didn’t have the coordinates and had violated one of the Skipper’s key tactical principals: know where you are at all times.

Almost by reflex, he reached into the cargo pocket of his utility trousers and took out the acetate-covered 1:50,000 tactical map. He traced the patrol route from the company’s night defensive perimeter, out along the ridgeline, down its slope to the streambed. The hump down had been a ball buster. More than once, men had slipped on the steep slope, crashing through the vegetation, making a hell of a racket. One time, a helmet had gone flying through the column, almost braining a trooper on the lower slope. Hands and arms had been cut from raking them on the saw-toothed grass.

Littleton estimated the patrol had humped about a thousand meters. He located where he thought they were on the map. The problem was that he couldn’t be sure, so he got a little panicky. “Where the hell are we?” he thought. “Calm down,” he cautioned himself. “You’ve humped the hills before and found your way home. Of course, that was at Camp Pendleton, where there had been great terrain features to help orient the map. In this jungle, there was nothing but dense undergrowth and triple-canopy forest.” As he studied the map, the brown contour lines gradually made sense. He could see in his mind’s eye how they related to the actual ground the platoon had traversed. He gained confidence, realizing instinctively that he was right.

Using the company’s simple code, a four-digit coordinate designated by a car model, he keyed the handset: “Lima Six. From Ford, right four, up six. Over.”

Captain Anderson repeated the coordinates and said, “Wait. Out.”

Littleton pictured the captain hunched over his map as he translated the code into a location. The code was a simple but effective method for encrypting coordinates, for without the four-digit base it was impossible to decipher a location. As a further safeguard, any model car could be used. The platoon commanders derived great pleasure from using obscure manufacturers until Captain Anderson clamped down after a radio operator misspelled Dusenburg and almost called in artillery on the jokester. The company usually had three or four base coordinates, and Lord help the radio operator who sent them in the clear. The Old Man believed the NVA monitored the Americans’ radio traffic for just such a screw-up.

Littleton’s reverie was interrupted by the muffled sounds of movement. Looking up, he spotted the machine gun team coming toward him. The man in front was a hulk, well over six feet, with a huge chest that was barely protected by the extra large flak jacket. His biceps were so large he had to cut the sleeves out of his blouse. Two fifty-round belts of linked 7.62mm ammunition were wrapped around his chest, Pancho Villa-style, and he carried the twenty-three-pound M-60 machine gun like it was a toy. Several tubes of gun lubricant were stuck under a piece of rubber inner tube wrapped around his helmet. His assistant gunner, a much smaller man, was drenched in sweat and struggling to keep up even though he only carried a rifle and two boxes of ammunition. His newly issued utilities gave him away as a new man, not yet acclimated to the heat and humidity. Littleton told them to stay behind the first fire team and be ready to support if the riflemen ran into trouble.

The big man nodded and, in a low confident voice, replied, “Don’t worry, Lieutenant. We’ll be there when you need us.”

There was something about the big machine gunner that impressed Littleton. “What’s your name, Marine?”

“Petrovitch, sir,” he responded, looking directly at his assistant. “I’m Irish,” he said, the hint of a smile on his broad Polish face. With that, he moved to his position.

Shaking his head and smiling despite himself, Littleton marveled at the chutzpa of the man.

Sanders passed him the handset. “Lieutenant, it’s the Six,” he said. Littleton keyed it and said, “Lima Six, Lima One. Over.”

“Roger, One, I’ve got your position. Go ahead and follow that track, but be careful. The gooks might be using the area as a base camp. I’m moving off the ridge now to support you, but it’s going to take time to get there, so watch yourself. Out.”

Littleton flipped the handset back to Sanders, looked over at Kelly, caught his eye, and gave him a head nod.

Kelly rose from a crouch and slowly moved forward along the left fork of the steam. Here and there, others rose from the shadows and moved out, maintaining a five-meter spread along both sides of the stream bed. As the last man of the first fire team came by, Littleton and Sanders stepped in behind, only three men back from Kelly. He knew Staff Sergeant Brown would disapprove of this exposed position, but, what the hell, he needed to see what was going on. In the back of his mind he could hear his tactics instructor stressing that a platoon commander should be where he could best control his unit. The instructor, an old Korean War veteran, had cautioned the class that a lieutenant’s job was to lead, not fight as a rifleman. That lesson, Littleton remembered, had been taught in an air-conditioned classroom, not in the hot damn jungle. And, besides, he had no intention of getting his ass shot off.

Littleton watched Kelly move slowly along the stream bed. The point man seemed to glide along, noiselessly, his head and eyes constantly moving, searching for man-made signs that disturbed the pattern of the jungle. His partner, on the opposite side of the stream, acted in concert, ready to cover Kelly with protective fire. Both men had their M-16s on full automatic, safeties off.

Kelly stopped, squatted down, and closely examined something at his feet. Standing, he glanced toward the left, looked ahead, and then did a double take. His eyes grew wide, a look of horror on his face. He threw himself against the opposite stream bank, M-16 spitting fire, shouting, “Gooks! Gooks! Bunkers! Bunkers!”

Suddenly he collapsed in a heap as a high-velocity 7.62mm round tore through the front panel of his flak jacket and shattered a bone in his right shoulder. The explosive power of the steel-jacketed bullet shredded flesh and muscle, and propelled the misshapen slug through the back panel, spraying blood as it exited. The terrific force of the blow lifted Kelly off his feet and knocked him unconscious, face down in the streambed, with tendrils of blood staining the water.

The next man in the column, Lance Corporal Tommy Ward, was momentarily stunned by the sudden violence, but he quickly recovered and emptied his magazine into the undergrowth. With the last round, he threw himself against the bank and frantically clawed at his ammunition pouch for another magazine. Suddenly, he heard a loud crashing in the underbrush. A North Vietnamese soldier rolled off the bank and fell at his feet. In a blind panic, Ward swung his rifle and clubbed the NVA in the head, again and again, before he realized that he was beating the shit out of a cadaver.

Ward fell back against the bank. His whole body was shaking from fear and the adrenaline rush. As he lay there, he heard the distinctive snap of AK-47 rounds breaking the sound barrier as they passed close overhead. The third man, Private First Class Steve Rito, dove into cover without firing a shot, his instinct for survival overcoming his training.

As soon as Littleton registered the shouts and gunfire, he stepped into the middle of the stream, hoping to see what was happening. He eyes focused on Kelly just at the moment of the bullet’s impact, the ghastly sight indelibly etched in his mind. He clearly saw the strike of the bullet. A puff of dust erupted from the flak jacket and the blood sprayed as it exited. He would always remember the way Kelly’s face grimaced with the shock and pain of the wound.

For long seconds, Littleton stood glued to the spot, oblivious to his own safety. He was totally focused on his wounded Marine, lying helpless a few yards away, still under fire. “It isn’t fair,” he thought. “Stop shooting at him; he’s hit, out of the fight.” A rage filled him and, without conscious thought, he ran to the wounded man and straddled him while firing his M-16 on full automatic. Rounds thudded into the bank and snapped through the air around him, but he wasn’t hit.

Suddenly, off to his left, the M-60 machine gun opened up and 7.62mm rounds scythed the undergrowth in front of him. “Petrovitch!”

The big gunner was an awesome sight as he charged down the streambed, machine gun spitting fire, every fifth round a red tracer. He swung the muzzle back and forth, firing controlled bursts into the NVA position. The stream of bullets tore at the vegetation, raking the ground and hitting several log-reinforced bunkers. By chance, one round entered an embrasure, striking an NVA rifleman in the face, blowing his head into the faces of his two comrades. Their cries of terror unnerved another soldier who was hiding in a spider trap overlooking the two Americans in the stream. He ducked down. With the two positions out of the fight, there was a noticeable drop in fire. At the same time, Petrovitch ran out of ammunition and took cover against the stream bed. He quickly fed another belt into the gun and opened fire into several bunkers that he could see beneath the trees. His assistant gunner joined in with his M-16.

Rito overcame his fear and started firing while Ward crawled up the bank to try to spot other bunkers.

Brown ran forward just behind Petrovitch, gesturing and shouting to the men around him, getting them into position to return fire. Littleton spotted him and, in that split second, realized that that’s what he should have been doing. “Christ,” he thought, “I’m that riflemen the old vet warned us about, and now I’m going to get my ass shot off.” The thought became a prophecy as a stick-like object sailed out of the undergrowth and landed with a splash at his feet. “What the hell is that,” he wondered. He heard Brown yell “Grenade!” And then it came to him: the thing was a Chicom grenade. Paralyzed, like a deer in a headlight, he waited for it to explode. “Oh shit, this is going to hurt,” he mumbled, but nothing happened; the damn thing just lay there. It was a dud.

The next thing Littleton knew, Brown grabbed him by his flak jacket and roughly pulled him to cover against the bank, alongside Petrovitch. “Jesus Christ, Lieutenant, you’re the luckiest son of a bitch alive,” Brown growled. And then he crawled over to Kelly and started to pull him to safety. Littleton stared at the wounded man and struggled with his emotions. He felt shame for this weakness and forced himself to grab Kelly’s flak jacket. The cloth was covered with congealing blood and he suffered a moment of revulsion as his hand came in contact with it.

Doc Zimmer, the platoon corpsman, shoved between the two men and started working on the wounded man. He cut through the shirt to expose a mass of torn flesh. Working quickly, the corpsman covered the wound with large battle dressings wrapped tightly to staunch the flow of blood. After tying off the compresses, he readied a bottle of Serum Albumin for injection into Kelly’s arm. He hoped the blood expander would stabilize the wounded man until he could be evacuated, which had better be pretty damn quick. Kelly was definitely an emergency medevac.

Littleton was mesmerized by this drama, oblivious to the shouting and gunfire around him. He shook his head, trying to clear it of the jumbled image of pain and suffering. Things were happening too fast. He was at a loss for what to do. The expression on his face reflected a mixture of shock and disbelief.

Brown saw the look and shouted, “Lieutenant, if you don’t get off your ass, we’re going to be in big trouble.” Petrovitch joined in, “I’m running out of ammo. We better do something quick.”

“Snap out of it,” Littleton chided himself, “They’re depending on you.” He looked around and saw the men waiting for him to make a decision. The realization hit him; he was “the man.” This wasn’t a training exercise, it was live, and in living color. His indecision could cost lives, including his own.

He forced himself to raise his head above the bank to get a better idea of what faced them. For the first time, he noticed the trail leading from the stream up the slope. How had he missed it? The well-worn brown path clearly stood out against the green undergrowth. Just to the left, about five meters away, he saw the bunker, a mound of dirt three feet high with a rectangular firing slit cut into its face. It was so well camouflaged that he would have missed it if the body lying in front of the position had not drawn his attention. Half hidden by foliage, a dead NVA soldier lay face down, a faded green pith helmet still on his head. Kelly probably killed him in the opening exchange of gunfire, Littleton thought.

A burst of automatic weapons fire cracked over his head, forcing him down, but not before he spotted several other suspicious-looking mounds scattered beneath the trees. Turning to Brown, he exclaimed, “I saw at least six bunkers, and there’s probably more further up the slope. It looks like we’re in the middle of a big complex.”

Brown nodded his head in agreement and added, “The gooks’ll shoot the shit out of us if we try to take them head-on. And if we stay here much longer, they’ll try to get behind us.” Littleton realized that the platoon sergeant had stated the obvious without helping to find a solution.

Littleton looked over at Doc Zimmer, who butted in: “We’ll never be able to carry Kelly out. He needs to be evacuated as soon as possible.”

As he struggled for an answer, Littleton saw Ward working his way up the column, hunched over, staying out of the line of fire. His uniform was soaked with sweat and he was breathing hard. Obviously excited, he squatted down and tried to catch his breath. “Lieutenant, I found the flank of the NVA position, and it wasn’t defended,” he panted. “I worked my way through the jungle almost to the top of the ridge and didn’t see a soul.” Littleton listened intently, evaluating the information against what he knew of their situation. His face was a study in anxious concentration as he spoke to Brown. “If we put a squad along this stream bed and set up a base of fire, the other two squads might be able to envelope their flank. What do you think?”

Brown nodded, instantly recognizing that it would be the officer’s ass on the line, not his, if something went wrong. “It’s a good plan, Lieutenant. It’ll split the platoon, but I think it’s the only thing we can do right now.” He hesitated, leaving the obvious question hanging in the air. Who would lead the highly vulnerable flankers? They both knew the Corps’ doctrine held that the officer would lead the two squads.

Littleton settled it: “You take the 1st Squad and the machine gun team, and I’ll go with the other two.”

Brown showed the barest trace of a smile as he sarcastically replied, “Roger, Lieutenant, we’ll keep ’em busy, but you better watch your ass.” Then he turned and shouted for the 1st Squad to come up.