By Spec 5 Dean K. Phillips
(from rendevous with destiny, Fall 1968, 101st Airborne Division)
Article in Fall 1968 issue of rendevous with destiny, published by the 101st Airborne Division; submitted by Gene Overton (C Co, 1st BN, 1967-1968)
There was no brass band, no pretty girls waiting ... but Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 506th Airborne Infantry was coming home after 58 days in the field.
In the short span of two months, newcomers became combat veterans, and boys became men. In a series of vicious firefights northwest of Saigon, near Cu Chi, the battalion killed more than 250 enemy and Charlie Company collected more than their share.
There was a closeness about the men--an inner pride. Even the most casual observer could tell they had been through a lot together. Men that face death together daily have that look. They are called "11 Bravos"-- the men that must face the enemy and kill or be killed.
The paratroopers walked in two columns down the dusty road, with swirls of hot dirt enveloping their boots, muddy from two months in the swamps and water-filled rice paddies.
One smiling soldier sported a canteen with a hole in its side. He shook it and a metalic rattle revealed a spent AK-47 round inside.
The infantrymen eyed their "smoke bringing" First Sergeant with a new respect ... the kind of respect men acquire for each other while only under the most critical situations.
Streaks of mud and grime partially hid the face of an 18-year old machine-gunner from California. Less than a year ago his biggest worry in the world was whether or not the Dodgers would win the pennant. But a year can change a lot of things. A year can be a lifetime.
The young soldier was initiated into one of the the eldest fraternities of mankind--that of the infantryman. These "11 Bravos" can be spotted quite easily by anyone who has been in the Army and Vietnam for any length of time.
"When they get back to their base camp for a short rest, they look almost like anyone else once they clean up and change their uniforms," explained a helicopter crew chief. "They even seem to relax, but their senses are wound tight as a steel spring, and their ears pick up the slightest unnatural sound. But they won't bat an eyelash when outgoing artillery or mortar rounds tear over their heads; of course if you accidentally step on a twig--they will tense up real fast."
Fear and the infantrynian are no strangers. Fear is something the "11 Bravo" must live with everyday. It is something that transcends all rank, all colors of skin, all religions. Fear is the equalizer that draws together the brotherhood of foot-soldiers.
"Without fear, there would be no such thing as courage," said a young machine-gunner who felt like he finally knew what courage was all about. "How can you consider a man brave if he has experienced no fear? The brave men experience fear, but they have the courage to overcome the grip fear has on lesser men."
Infantrymen have various theories about death. "When it's your time to go, there's nothing you can do about it as it's all over," said a squad leader as he took a long pull on his canteen.
"I don't think so," said another NCO. "Some people die because of their own mistakes. In many cases it is not up to fate alone--a guy makes his own breaks."
A majority of infantrymen adopt a school of thought that seems to combine that of the above NCO'S. Fate may play a part in deciding who will lose his life, and at times, even the best soldiers may die, but more often, good training and leadership can make a big difference.
A Division infantryman spends a countless number of weary days in the field. Their hours ebb into many days of a continual cycle of torrid sun, driving rains, stinking mud, unrelenting mosquitoes and sleepless nights.
"In a matter of a few seconds, the sky can come crashing down on you when you least expect it," said a l9-year old grenadier. "We hadn't had any sizable contact for many days near Cu Chi, but suddenly during a 'routine sweep,' we saw more action in 10 days than we had in eight months."
The young soldier went on to explain what happened. "Alpha Company" hit a bunker complex manned by a full battalion, and we tried to out-flank the enemy and take some of the pressure off our unit. The NVA and Viet Cong were waiting for us in a line of bunkers and opened up on us as soon as we entered their sights. It was one hell of a battle that followed--a two-way wall of steel. When it was finally over, we counted 64 enemy bodies and our company only sustained four killed.
"A few nights later, an NVA unit tried a suicide attack at the wrong time for them. We were in a battalion night defensive position (NDP). They crawled up as close as they could get, and then they charged. Our whole battalion opened up. They managed to drag off some of the bodies, but in the next 24 hours, we found 48 of them.
"Two or three nights later, however, they got us where they wanted us, and we almost got into hand-to-hand combat as we fought off a human wave attack. Our company was down to less than 60 men, and we were set up alone in the middle of a large rice paddy. I noticed the villagers were all leaving the area, and everyone had a feeling that something big was going to happen.
"We braced for the ground attack that we knew would follow. They charged us and we gunned them down--sometimes when they were right on top of us. Three dead NVA soldiers fell into our foxholes, but we held our ground.
"I think that this was the turning point for us in our operations around Cu Chi. From then on, the NVA and Viet Cong would not tangle with any 101st Airborne Division unit unless there was no other way out.
"I learned one thing that night," said another Private First Class from Ohio. "That was not to judge a man's abilities and courage too hastily. One guy who didn't impress me much when I first knew him turned out to be one of the bravest fighters I've ever seen.
"I found that out eight months ago at Song Be when an ordinary looking Vietnamese mother saved our platoon from being caught in the 'kill zone' of an NVA trap. I saw her run out and grab our pointman. He didn't believe her at first, but she stayed there, pulling at him until an AK-47 round cut her down. She knowingly gave her life so that we could live. I'll never really know why."
Risking one's own life to save others is an everyday action for "11 Bravos" in Vietnam. For MEDEVAC pilots . . . it is their job. The Division's infantrymen recognize the pilot's dedication and hold the men who fly the fragile machines in the highest esteem.
"I'll never forget the time I got it in the arm and chest near Cu Chi," said a young pointman. "The rate of incoming and outgoing automatic fire was unbelieveable. I couldn't move. Then, almost out of nowhere, a medic appeared and dragged me back to cover.
"I heard a MEDEVAC chopper coming in. An enemy .50 caliber machine gun opened up, and I could hear the rounds slam into the chopper. They sounded like sledge hammers. You know something, that pilot never wavered. He kept right on coming in through that sea of tracers. I'll never forget that sight as long as I live. It was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen. The MEDEVAC pilots put us before everything else ... even their own lives."
The life of the "11 Bravo" is occasionally filled with incidents of extreme humor. On one occasion, a 3rd Brigade reconnaissance element was engaged in a running gun battle with a much larger enemy force. In a desperate attempt to get precious ammunition to his troops, the brigade commander had his command and control (C&C) helicopter pilot fly right into the heat of battle, where he kicked out the precious ammunition crates himself. A startled young second lieutenant looked up to see the familiar face of his brigade commander pass by.
He instinctively did what any "good young airborne second lieutenant" would have done. He snapped to attention and saluted.
The tired infantry battalion got a few days rest at the brigade base camp before their next operation. After a shower and a change of clothes, a group of young infantrymen headed for an outdoor movie a half hour early so they would get a good seat.
All of the troopers felt it would be as good a way as any to take their minds off the war for awhile. But they were in for a surprise because the movie that night was a hollywood combat film. The local Viet Cong didn't like it very much either, because they lobbed in some 82mm mortar rounds, with the first one landing about 100 meters to the right of the screen.
So goes the life of the infantryman in Vietnam. He never escapes the war as it follows him every where he goes. Many Division "11 Bravos" will be returning home with one thought in mind--Vietnam is very easy to leave after a full tour on the line, but it is so hard to forget.
Article submitted by Gene Overton (C Co, 1st BN, 1967-1968)