In December 1967, shortly after turning 27 years old, I volunteered to serve in South Vietnam. The country was at war and I wanted to take part. Young soldiers returning from Vietnam wearing patches, metals badges and ribbons on their uniform manifested the prestige of their status as combat veterans. As an upper level Noncommissioned Officer, with nearly 10 years service and none of them in combat, I had to go to Vietnam. There was no way I could stay in the Army with all the young soldiers who had combat service if I did not. When I enlisted in the army, all the sergeants had served in World War II or Korea, many served in both wars. Only young enlisted men and young lieutenants wore uniforms without a patch on the right shoulder. A right-shoulder patch, is only authorized for combat veterans. I had to have combat service if I stayed in the army.
I volunteered for combat in Vietnam thinking my opportunity for promotion was much better in combat than any other place. I was trained as a Division Military Police Operations Sergeant and I wanted to do my job in combat conditions. After arriving in Vietnam, I learned of such a position at Chu Lui with the Americal Division. I made a few telephone calls, pulled some strings during in-country processing and got the job. Within a few days after my arrival in South Vietnam, I was on my way to the 23rd Military Police Company and my dream job.
I had been an operation sergeant before. It was on the strength of my reputation in the same position with the 4th Infantry Division MP Company at Fort Lewis, Washington that I got this job. This was the job I was looking for. This was the job I was trained for. Most important, this was the job that would give me what I came to Vietnam for: a promotion.
In the early days I was excited to be serving in combat. I had spent my entire adult life preparing to be here. After a few weeks the excitement began to diminish. I began to view my time in Vietnam like a train traveling along two different tracks. One fast track, where the train travels at a rapid pace. At the same time, it appeared to creep along at a snail’s pace. That is why, by mid January 1968, I had been in Vietnam a few weeks and all my military career, at the same time.
In one respect, my days rushed by. I would post one day’s duty roster and it seemed like only 24 minutes passed instead of 24 hours before the next day’s roster needed tasking. Selecting and assigning teenage soldiers to these convoy escorts quickly became the toughest part of my job.
These convoys transported critical ammunition, food, fuel and other supplies as well as replacement troops. Troops and supplies arrived by air and sea to land at the large air base or dock at Chu Lui’s deep harbor. From these ports they were transshipped over land by truck to operational units in the area.
Supply convoys were prime ambush targets for our Viet Cong (VC) enemy. VC ambushes were expected. Anticipating an ambush, made tasking young MPs to the patrols that protected convoys a solemn responsibility. I turned inward and searched deep for a fair method of assigning very young men to escort convoys. I found none.
I would assign nine military police, three teams, riding in three open-top military jeeps to escort each convoy. Each vehicle carried three military policemen, armed with 45 caliber pistols and M-16 rifles. Additionally, each vehicle carried an M-79 grenade launcher and was armed with a mounted, M-60 machine gun. I divided each convoy into three parts: the leading elements, the main body, and the trailing elements. This was shortened by my MPs to: head, body and trail.
I tasked the patrol vehicles to positions relative to the three elements of the convoy. One patrol would take point a floating position that ranged between 100 and 1,000 yards in front of the head of the convoy. The vehicle on point played a crucial role in the security of a convoy. Not only must the MPs riding point lookout for land mines, ambushes and other immediate threats, they have larger responsibilities. They must locate, engage and destroy enemy threats before the main body of the convoy arrives.
The VC were not interested in the vehicle riding point. They wanted the main body of the convoy. They wanted the food, the ammunition, the weapons and anything else that supported their fight. The more they got from these ambushes, the less they needed to bring in from North Vietnam. The VC would allow the point patrol to pass their ambush-traps unmolested, while they waited for the main body.
Once the convoys departed, my twenty-four-minute-days of tasking these convoys would jump to the other time-track. While my people, men whom I personally selected, were on the road in harm’s way, time nearly stopped. Each day from the time I saw the leading vehicle leave in the morning until they all returned in the evening was longer than the previous.
I worried about the point patrol missing an ambush near a bridge and the VC blowing the bridge with half the convoy on one side and the other half with the infantry troops at rear guard, split off from the front. In my mind I could visualize a VC scout, using a radio controlled detonating device, exploding a vehicular land-mine and blowing-up the convoy commander. My military police would be separated. The MPs on point would be cut off, out in front with the threat between them and the main body of the convoy. The MPs at the rear would separated by the blown bridge from the NCOIC and his team at the head of the convoy. Meanwhile, the VC would rush in from the brush, attack the few drivers and their assistants protecting the flanks of the halted convoy. We would lose the convoy and the VC would haul off the ammunition, arms, food and anything else they could carry.
Every morning I would check the First Sergeant’s Morning Report to determine who was available to escort tomorrow’s convoys. As I read the list of the guys on emergency leave back in the States, or on R&R (rest and recuperation) in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Honolulu, Sidney, and Tokyo, I was happy for them. Hell, I was even happy for those poor bastards who were sick and not available for convoy duty. At the same time, I resented anyone who became sick, who shirked their duty, once they were tasked to a particular convoy. And so were my days in Vietnam; filled with the earned pride of a professional soldier doing his duty, and at the same time burdened with conflicts and insecurities.
April came, and I had been in Vietnam for four long months of futility and frustration. I hated my job. I couldn’t continue to send young soldiers out on convoys when it seemed no one but me cared if they returned or not. No one seemed to care if they could shoot their weapons or not. I had been conducting training classes for men who couldn’t shoot an M-60 machine gun. I refused to assign any man to point who couldn’t read a map. Young soldiers aren’t given much training in map reading, I was afraid that someone would get lost. I worried that if they needed to call for an air strike they would not be able to identify the target to the pilot on the map. And it seemed that the senior sergeants and officers always had other things to do at base camp. They practically never went on convoys.
It had been three days since I received the telegram from the Red Cross notifying me that my wife, Gerlinde, was in the hospital. I could have taken an emergency leave, but I decided to stay. I held the telegram for three days. I thought it was my responsibility to stay in Vietnam and continue to do my duty. By now, I had worked out a system tracking the combat escort miles of each man in the company and posting this information on a large chart in my office. It didn’t make tasking convoys any easier, but it at least recognized those men who were exposed to the most danger.
I slept in the same bunker as the 1st Sergeant. Our room was quite comfortable for Vietnam. As we often did in the evening, we would lay in our beds and talk about home. This night he started to talk about going home. He told me that if he ever received Red Cross notification of a sick member of his family, he would be gone at the first opportunity. I knew when I got the telegram that it was a ticket back home, but I felt that I needed to stay and do my job. Now, laying there and listening to my friend and older sergeant with eighteen years service and two ranks my senior, tell me in so many words that I was “foolish” if I didn’t go home, I made the decision to leave my men and Vietnam.
I stayed awake a long time that night thinking about the C-140 Starlifter that was sitting on the tarmac. That airplane was taking cargo bound for Charleston, S.C. and I knew that I would be on it when it took off the next day. I also knew in my heart that I would not be returning to Vietnam. My last night in combat, I cried myself to sleep.