A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
Combat in a war can be like a car crash.
Suddenly violent when, moments before, a peaceful routine prevailed. It's traumatic, regretful and difficult to reconstruct even with the passage of time.
Half a century later, that's my enduring overall impression of the time I spent in Vietnam as a second lieutenant and leader of a platoon in "The First Cav" -- a.k.a. First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) -- a powerful force of 16,000-18,000 personnel and about 450 helicopters for many purposes.
My path to the war was set in some respects when I was young, and again when I decided to study at Virginia Military Institute, where the graduates can leave as commissioned officers with a two-year commitment to the armed services.
Before entering VMI in 1959, I lived in Staunton, VA -- the kind of historic Southern town where I could play on the high school football team Friday night, attend church Sunday, and in between hunt for squirrels and quail with Shenandoah Valley veterans of World War II. So, you might say I was well prepared for the Vietnam War when I got there in August, 1966 after infantry training at Fort Benning, GA plus the Airborne and Ranger schools.
At that point, I also liked the idea of being part of the air cavalry, a new concept then. It boiled down to putting select infantry troops on helicopters and moving them around in a hurry for all kinds of air assault situations and operations.
Being in the First Cav meant risky encounters with a wide array of challenges -- fatigue, fear, heat, wounds, death, cold, boredom and hunger -- in conditions ranging from bamboo thickets to rice paddies to rain forest mountains. But while there, I sensed a widespread feeling of superiority and pride among troops. At age 24, I shared that feeling. We simply thought we were the best.
Even now, some incidents that year remain unforgettable for me for different reasons.
One of them occurred the day after Christmas, when my platoon -- about 30 troops -- was ordered to establish an ambush post on a wide trail. We got to our destination at nightfall in drizzling rain.
As we were setting up, we heard the bark of an M-16 rifle -- POW -- and the sky erupted in red tracers from AK-47 rifles, weapons of choice for North Vietnamese soldiers. Grenades began to arch over bushes behind us.
As my men returned fire, I called for artillery support.
Then, abruptly and quickly, the fighting stopped.
But I hadn't heard yet from a two-man security team, so I sent one of my squad leaders to check on them. One of the security men got jumpy, mistook my squad leader for the enemy and shot him, wounding him badly. When we got him back to our base, he was in shock.
"He's only got 30 minutes to live," I heard as I called for a helicopter to rescue him.
It came in time to save his life, but that was very close to tragedy.
Two days later, we were less fortunate. My platoon got into a firefight with enemy soldiers shooting from a thatched-hut village. Again, it was getting dark and light rain was falling.
As I turned to use my radio handset, I heard the crack of an AK-47 rifle and saw my sergeant fall in mud right next to me. I could see blood streaming from his neck and hurriedly tried to apply a bandage, but it was no use.
He died within seconds.
In the darkness, we made it to a covered position in a rice paddy, where I saw my commanding officer. He had been shot in the shoulder.
Several radio-telephone operators with him had been killed.
When the battle ceased, I went to take a last look at my sergeant and the other dead men -- covered by ponchos with their jungle boots sticking out.
At dawn, we moved in. The village was empty, but there was a "hooch" where some North Vietnamese troops had dumped the bodies of men killed by our artillery.
That evening, as we took shelter from the rain, one of our guards spotted a man in a khaki shirt and black pants moving through scrub brush. My men looked at me, I gave a signal to open fire.
When the shooting stopped, I cautiously made my way closer until I saw the man lying on the ground. Blood was coming out of chest wounds. His breathing was faint.
"Give me a pistol," I told my men.
One handed me a Colt .45. I cocked the hammer and shot the man through the back of the neck.
I knew what I was doing. I had killed an enemy soldier. I wasn't proud. I wasn't ashamed. I was doing my job.
A couple of days after that, I shot another soldier. But this time, as the wounded man was pulled from a protective cover, we all realized that he was an officer by looking at his pistol and the holster.
"Give him a cigarette and try to keep him warm," I said,
I watched my men throw a poncho over the captive and pat him on the back. Then, when a helicopter came for the wounded man, one of my sergeants cradled him in his arms and carried him away before a departure in rain and darkness. I was notified after the war that he was indeed a captain in the North Vietnamese Army.
About a month after that, one of our helicopter pilots was killed in a crash. It went down in rough country on a day with no sun and no rain.
Our entire company was airlifted in and my platoon was told to secure the crash site. The pilot's body was removed before we got there, so we took positions to protect the helicopter.
I was in a boulder-strewn crevasse. Within minutes, a North Vietnamese soldier began to shoot AK-47 tracer rounds at me. He was inside a cave. Glowing red bullets whined and ricocheted off the crevasse walls next to me.
It was very scary, and soon more helicopters were landing nearby. A sergeant and I started to slowly inch down a steep rock face toward the cave.
Suddenly, the soldier with the AK-47 shot my sergeant in the right chest. He started to fall. I grabbed his gear and hung on while my men pulled him up the slope.
As soon as he was safe, I threw a grenade into the cave, told one of my men to give me his pistol, and emptied all the bullets into the mouth of the cave.
POW, POW, POW, POW. My commander eventually called off the fighting.
The next morning, a flamethrower team burned the whole cave.
Since then, I've wondered at times what I would've done if that sergeant slipped from my grasp and fell. Would I have tried to save him, or not? I'm still not sure.
Two weeks later, we were out of the mountains and down in rice paddy country near the South China Sea. It was a warm and sunny Valentine's Day.
My commanding officer told me without explanation that I would be switching positions with another lieutenant right away. I was to get his platoon and he'd have mine. So, I said my good-byes, greeted my new group and waited for further orders.
Before long, I was informed that my former platoon went out on a mission and was ambushed while approaching a village. In the distance, I saw signs of the battle -- some rocket-firing helicopters and screaming fighter-bombers.
A second platoon was dispatched to the scene, but I had to stay with my new group -- just watching and listening to radio transmissions. I could do nothing to help.
In a letter home, I told my family that seven of the 31 men in my old unit died in that battle and 10 more were wounded. I never found out for sure what happened, whether there was a mistake and if I might have done things differently.
The following months brought other memorable events.
One morning, I shot at two people in black pajamas as I saw them run through nearby palm plants. I missed, but my men also fired., hitting one target. The other stopped.
After moving in cautiously, we found an old man, bloody, lying in the sand with a young lad, probably his grandson, kneeling beside him. The youth turned to me and yelled, "No." We called for a helicopter to take them away. I never learned their fates.
That "no" stayed with me a long time, as I saw photos of U.S. troops burning huts and children running naked from napalm explosions.
Another standout came in late May, when we were on an unusual night-time seaborne assault mission and I got separated from my men in the dark. I was alone, unsure where the others were.
It was one of the few times when I really was scared... I seemed lost and worried about doing something that would lead my own soldiers to shoot me by mistake or cause the enemy soldiers to capture me. I was lucky to reconnect safely with my men.
Finally, in August, I was sent home.
My fighting was over.
Perhaps you're wondering what I thought of the war and my involvement in it when I was there. Some friends and relatives asked me about that before and after I got back from Vietnam.
It was hard to answer then, and still is. It's been so long. But I don't think I've changed my mind.
When I went to Vietnam, student/activist/media disgust with the war was erupting, and U.S. soldiers were being killed there at an increasing rate every week. I was well aware of all that.
Moreover, I was an educated warrior at that point. I had just earned an advanced degree from Johns Hopkins University in international studies and I had knowledge that I used later while a diplomat for the Foreign Service.
But once I got to the war, priorities changed abruptly. I had no energy left for sophisticated politics when I was in the midst of a monsoon and on a night ambush mission.
Imagine trying to stay alert if you're exhausted and worried about being hit by bullets from an AK-47 in the dark.
And I was troubled by the way the war was unfolding.
Winning was our job. As Americans, we were expected to succeed in Vietnam after others failed, especially if we also had lots of tactical and material advantages. Yet we were not winning.
So, if I were asked what I thought of the war then, I'd recall the crackling sound of an urgent radio message to warn of "choppers incoming" and remember grabbing my rifle and making sure my men were saddled up -- and I'd keep going. That would be my answer.
Will Crisp was a platoon leader in the Vietnam War, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, a business consultant in Europe and finally a university professor.
"There was a feeling of superiority and pride among the troops. I shared it. We simply thought we were the best."