AFTER SIXTEEN WEEKS of Army training over a brutally hot summer in the red-clay hills of my native Georgia, you could say I had mixed feelings about the Army. I always hated physical exercise so it required the Army’s rules and single-mindedness to force me into fitness. I went in at 208 and came out at 170. The first weeks of Basic were hellish, but by the time I was finishing MP School I could do an unreasonable number of pushups and hold my own hand-to-hand with a giant NYC cop in the judo pits.
But I had always thought the Army’s purpose was to produce trained killers. I was bitterly disappointed. I knew more about killing before I got there and learned nothing of value. Rifles and pistols were confined to formal target practice on immobile targets. Attempts to train us to spot hidden targets in the brush were a joke to a veteran whitetail hunter.
The night we were supposed to run a compass course through the booger woods I learned two things: one, city boys believed the woods were literally paved with poisonous snakes. Two, the designated navigator had no clue that bracing his compass on his rifle barrel would affect its bearing. Only after he admitted he was lost did I learn the problem. So I read the compass against the rifle and then away to determine the margin of error, found a dry creek bed at right angles and led us across the base of an imaginary triangle to the correct course, and we got where we were supposed to be.
In our sixteenth week, with graduation from MP School looming, our last exercise reinforced my hope none of us would wind up in hostile territory facing real killers.
We were to have a night combat exercise with blank ammunition. The platoon sergeant, a wit, handed me a Prick-Six, a walkie-talkie radio, saying since I was a famous writer I could afford to pay if I broke it. We marched into the Georgia night with rifles instead of .45s because we were playing soldier not cop. Hidden cadre popped smoke grenades to disorient us and threw in shrieking artillery simulators that banged as loud as cherry bombs. My private thought was at last we were having some fun.
We scattered into smaller units under the barrage, until there was maybe half a platoon with the sergeant when he led us up a small heavily treed hill. The game was capturing the flag, he told us. We were on defense, and would be attacked by others representing guerrillas. Our job would be to secure the hill, at the top of which he would plant the target flag. He issued passwords before he deployed the men in a perimeter around the hill, in case anybody needed to move out of position. He told us the flag always got captured, which showed what we were up against in Vietnam.
I was assigned to a listening post outside the lines with my walkie-talkie. I liked being by myself, able to pick my own spot. It was like a hunting trip as soon as I was alone. I found what would have made a good duck blind at a juncture of two sandy roads.
Since I wasn’t hunting ducks I slipped in under the brush prone, and removed my steel pot because every time I turned my head it scraped on the branches. I chose the spot where I could watch the roads because city-boy guerrillas wouldn’t lose their fear of snakes when they wrapped a rag around their head. After the night settled down from all the artillery simulators, and the smoke dissipated, it was quiet and still, with a bright moon.
And here came the “guerrillas” sneaking down a sandy road in the moonlight, six or eight of them. The white rags would have made head shots easy.
The night was so quiet I was afraid they would hear the buzz of the radio carrier wave so I turned it off. They kept coming. Eventually they stood so close I literally could have reached out and untied one’s bootlaces. They were muttering they must be close to the perimeter by now. At which point our veteran sergeant felt compelled to walk the line of defense behind me on the hill, telling everyone to be ready and remember the password was…whatever it was. I don’t remember. But his voice carried plainly. Did you get that, one of the men standing on top of me said. Can it be that easy? Suppressed chuckles. Then they eased on up the hill.
I heard a sentry sing out a challenge and one of the raiders answer with the password. Then nothing. I turned the radio back on and raised the line. I said the squad that just came through using the password is the bad guys. They heard you saying it up there. Turn around and take them from behind; they won’t expect it.
The gunfire erupted soon after. Of course they were blanks. One of the raiders must have played guns as a kid. (I got you! Did not! Did too!) Because he came galloping back down the hill through the brush making his escape. I waited until he was too close to sheer off and rose out of my hide and fired for center-mass, close enough to smear powder from the blank on his fatigues. He yelped like he was shot for real and kept running; asshole.
He obviously told his buddies who were waiting back, because suddenly the artillery simulators started falling all around me. They fell so close I put my pot back on and cowered. I’d seen what cherry bombs can do. The barrage relented after a while and I expected them to try me again. But they didn’t.
Later I heard a walkie-talkie command to make “the final push.” There was more shooting on the other side of the hill. Then the sergeant called us in, saying the exercise was over.
The walkie-talkie command was explained when they told me the guerrillas had captured other LPs and confiscated the radios. They failed in their final push because they tried the password trick again but word had passed around our perimeter. That was the gunfire.
The sergeant was pleased because we’d held the flag. I wanted to inspect the prisoners for one with a powder-stained shirt but he said get serious. I was serious; I wanted a confirmed kill. I was back in my play-gun mindset.
After that exercise I learned I was going to Germany not Vietnam. I breathed a sigh of relief because I had a hunch the VC didn’t walk openly in the moonlight.