COMPASS AND A CAMERA

          A YEAR IN VIETNAM

 

Experience the Vietnam War through the candid personal observations of a young infantry soldier whose favored gear was his compass, his camera—and a dry pair of socks.

 

 

© 2018 by  Steven Burchik                                   Book published by: Sharlin-K Press

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Go in the Field

 

The following is an excerpt from the book Compass and a Camera.

 

             The door gunners on both sides of the helicopter checked their M-60 machine guns one more time as we dipped toward the field.  They were ready to spray the fields with their guns at the rate of 500 rounds per minute to discourage the enemy from raising their heads.  It turned out that we did not need their help.  Another platoon had landed there just before ours and signaled the pilots with smoke grenades on where to land.  The area appeared to be secure, so we were able to land in relative safety.

 

            Our ride had lasted only fifteen minutes, although it seemed much longer.  We then touched down on the first rice paddy I had ever seen in my life.  The landing took place even faster than the boarding procedure.  The chopper slowed down as it approached the field and hovered briefly, just barely touching the ground.  We quickly jumped off, exiting both sides of the helicopter. Then we raced the thirty yards or so to the outer edges of the field.  Once again we bowed our heads to avoid the spinning blades and squinted to try and see through the storm of straw, dirt and moisture that was being stirred up.  By the time we had reached the perimeter, the helicopters had taken off at a steep forward angle and climbed away into the safety of altitude and the sky.

 

            The procedure for starting the ground patrol was always the same.  After quickly confirming that everyone was on the ground safely, the platoon proceeded to move out of the field in the direction that we had been assigned to cover for the day.  An experienced member of the platoon, who was assigned to be the point man would start moving forward.  We all followed quietly, observing noise discipline and trying to maintain a safe distance so that we did not bunch up and create an inviting target.  Conversely, we did not want to lose contact with the lead elements of this patrol so we were careful not to get too far behind.  As one of the new guys, I was assigned a position in the middle of the file where I was less likely to miss something or get lost while I was learning how to function in this new environment.

 

            During the missions we worked in areas consisting of rice paddies lying under six inches of water, as well as tall grass and jungle located along the river banks.  Moving through a rice paddy was slow, tedious, miserable work.  It was bad enough walking through water, but underneath the water there was twelve inches of mud so that every step was like pulling a suction cup off the bottom of your foot.  The best analogy was walking with twenty-five-pound weights on each foot.  Every time we stopped moving, we had to get down and sit, squat, or kneel in the mud.  In order to cross from one paddy to another we went through a canal roughly six feet across and five feet deep.  We held our breath, lifted our weapons up in the air, and waded across.

 

             The extremely flat terrain in this part of Vietnam created a frustrating visibility problem.  As we moved through a field, the tall grass, sometimes tall enough to be named elephant grass, made it hard to distinguish fellow soldiers moving through the same field.  The fields always seemed to be surrounded by thicker and taller bushes, palm trees, and other vegetation, since they were closer to streams or rivers, making it impossible to see into the next field, where danger might be lurking in front of us or on the left or right of us.  Small groups were sent out to move parallel to us on our flanks to warn us of an impending ambush.  We proceeded slowly and cautiously.

 

            We crossed four or five rivers that day.  In the beginning I’d sometimes sink into mud up to my chest, and a couple of times it took two men to pull me out.  The more experienced troops seemed to move more smoothly and not get stuck as often. I gradually got better by avoiding the straight muddy slopes and searched to the left and right for some stiff bushes or tree roots to provide support through the gray muddy muck.  I had thought that I was in good physical shape, but found myself exhausted by mid morning.

 

            Half an hour after getting out of a mud hole, I brushed through some bushes and disturbed a nest of red ants that attacked my back, chest, arms, and face.  Those damn things bite!  I ripped off my gear and my shirt and killed the ants on my chest and face, while a buddy got the ants on my back.  Fortunately, there was no permanent damage, no scratches or marks, just a sharp, intense memory of the fact that I had invaded their space.

 

            We took frequent breaks of a few minutes' duration throughout the day.  It was an opportunity to swallow another salt tablet or take a couple of sips of water.  Our dark-green canteens were made from a stiff plastic, probably cheaper than metal canteens, but more important, they did not make any sound if a rifle butt brushed against them while on patrol.

 

            We moved continuously throughout the day, with a stop around noon for lunch after setting up security facing out in all directions.  The C-rations were packaged in small metal cans painted an olive-drab color.  Our trusty P-38 can opener, a small (inch and a half) item, did its job effectively...

 

            After lunch, we policed the area, buried the used cans in the mud, and picked up all wrappers and any evidence of our presence at this location.  We continued the patrol for the rest of the day.  We did not find any evidence of VC activity on this mission.

 

            In the late afternoon, the commander received word that the choppers would be half an hour early.  Everybody moved over to the pickup zone, but our squad leader forgot to tell three of us, who were still on the outer perimeter of the field.  He finally realized that we weren’t in the pickup zone, and he yelled across telling us to get over there in five minutes, because the choppers were heading in.  Well, we ran, plodded, slopped and crawled across that field and made it just in time.  We were pissed at the squad leader, but he just shrugged it off.  We boarded quickly, and the choppers took off.  It was a quick ride back, and we returned to our hootches at the water plant.