Close Calls

by Richard Dieterle

One of the many things that makes the combat Infantry an adventure is the numerous close escapes from death. Here I list the most dangerous first:

1. During the battle at Đại Đồng on the 8th of December, 1967, the Brass planned a massive artillery barrage to prepare for our upcoming sweep of the area in front of yesterday's battlefield. I and another man were in a shallow depression with a reasonably high front end, but almost ground level at the back. We were told to expect the barrage to come up close to us, which usually meant about 20 yards or so. Since my rifle was on a bipod, I set it in front of the depression with the barrel facing out. Off in the distance we could hear the howitzers faintly firing on LZ English, which was not too far distant. Soon the whoosh of incoming rounds could be heard and the thunderous crash of their explosive shells. However, the sound was not as intense as a massive bombardment where the shells all land at once. This was a "walking barrage." This means that one shell followed another in a left to right line, and at a certain point, a shift was made to another line just behind the first, so that the explosions seem to walk across the battlefield. The idea was to hit every square inch of real estate. We felt reassured that when our assault began, there would be nothing left standing in front of us. We kept our heads down as the barrage rolled ever increasingly towards us. I heard the strange buzzing sound of shrapnel as it passed overhead. I thought to myself, "This is getting a bit close." Then I looked up at my rifle. Just then, a small piece of spent shrapnel hit the bipod. "Jesus," I thought, "they've dropped this barrage in too close!" Then I heard to my left another line of impacts ... boom! Boom! BOOM! I looked to my left and saw a line of explosions walking right towards me. I saw one shell after another explode, each moving in a direct line towards where we were practically lying out in the open. Then it came right up to us. I realized that we were now going to be blown to pieces. I yelled "Hey!" and with my open hand hit the back of the guy lying next to me. At that moment there was no doubt that I was going to be ripped apart. Yet it never happened. Of the 4,000 rounds fired in the barrage, the last one that I saw was the last one fired. This might have given someone PTSD, but from my point of view, it was deliverance. I smiled from ear to ear, and stood up. Someone from the APCs yelled, "Are you alright?!" I answered in the affirmative. Then I paced the distance between our depression to the middle of the last shell crater. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. Then I paced off the distance from that crater to the one before it: One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight! The immanence of our death was no mere impression, but a demonstrable fact. I don't believe in miracles, but this was as close as it gets. One guy from another platoon was not so lucky. A shell landed on the edge of his foxhole and blew his intestines out.

2. Number two on my near-hit parade occurred one day when we were doing a sweep of a village. It was a nice sunny day, and our mission promised to be uneventful. In a sweep, we form a line, in this case each individual was posted about 15 feet from the next, and the whole line moved slowly forward through the village. The idea was that every inch of the objective would be examined and cleared. One purpose of such an exercise was to discover booby traps, although it was a rather risky way to do it (as if there was any other way). We were walking along at a very deliberate pace, not too fast, as the aim was to check the area thoroughly. As I was moving forward, off to my left I caught a strange sort of glint in my peripheral vision. I immediately stopped. When I turned my head to check what this glint could be, I discovered that it was a long piece of translucent nylon fishing wire. I yelled, "Booby trap!!" Everyone immediately halted in their tracks. I looked down the length of the wire, tracing it in my direction, and much to my horror, my shirt was just touching the nylon string at chest level. Lt. Church was just two men down. I told him that I was right up against the trip wire. Everyone backed off while I remained as stationary as I could. Then I eased myself backward ever so gently, making sure that no button hooked the wire as I delicately drifted off it. Once I had cleared it, needless to say, I felt greatly relieved. I believe that we disposed of the booby trap grenade by just tossing one of our own grenades at it and tripping the wire so that we had a double explosion. The grenade had been affixed to a sapling right at chest level. The drawback to this placement is that the trip wire is more easily spotted, but the advantage is that you get an air burst where the grenade detonates at chest level where it is certain to be lethal to more than one man in a normal formation. I had come just millimeters from killing myself and everybody in my immediate vicinity.

3. In our first assault at Đại Đồng, I was in the right column behind our APC, with two men ahead of me. I just happened to be looking in the direction of the right arm of the man ahead of me (Tewkesbury) when all of a sudden a red stripe instantly appeared across the right side of his arm. He reacted with a bit of a start as if he had been stung by a bee. At the same time I heard the strange Doppler pitch of bullets hissing by on my right and left. The bullet that grazed Tewkesbury's arm must have gone under my own left arm just to the left of my trunk, missing me by only a few inches. It had been shot at an angle from our front, from somewhere a little to the right. Had I been just slightly to my left, the bullet would have hit me in the left lung or heart. At the time, I thought nothing of it, as in the infantry one learns to take the view that "a miss is as good as a mile."

4. One evening in Bồng Sơn area, out in the boonies, we had finished setting up and were settling in for some shut-eye in our improvised poncho tents. It was easy to dig in, as the soil was sandy to the point of being rather whitish. I lay on my air mattress on my stomach and surveyed the scene through the opening of our tent. The night was well lit by the moon, and it was pleasant to look out upon the white soil as it was illuminated by the pale light. We had little to worry about, since this night belonged to the defence: anyone trying to approach our perimeter could be easily seen from afar off. As a result, I felt relaxed and carefree. Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere the sound of a distant machine gun could be heard, and right in front of me I saw tracer bullets. Amazingly, they were falling vertically from the sky, but like a giant sewing machine, they were punching through the fabric of the ground in a straight line walking right towards me. I said, "Jesus Christ!" just as the rounds punched their way in a new direction, skirting around our tent. Then, just as suddenly, all was silence again. We had set up in a "free fire zone," an area where anything that moved after dark was subject to being shot. A Huey had flown overhead, and its door gunner, seeing someone below rather indistinctly, had opened up. They, of course, were supposed to have known where we were so that friendly fire incidents could be avoided, but given the ubiquitousness of human error, they had simply not gotten the message. Although it had been quite a shock, my placidity returned, albeit somewhat more slowly than it had fled.

5. One day up in the I Corps area, after spending a day humping the boonies, we came to a nice spot to set up for the night. There was still plenty of light, although the sky was rather overcast, this still being the monsoon season. The area was covered in white sand which made it easy to dig in. There was a lot of scrub, each plant a couple of feet wide, but not more than a foot or so tall. I was starting to dig in when all of a sudden everyone in my vicinity started running like Groucho Marx. I looked up in the direction from which they were scurrying away, expecting to see an explosion from an unheard incoming shell. Instead, there stood R., holding a black object in his hand. "Deacon, what's this?" he said. I replied, "Don't move a muscle! That's a booby trap!" The black object had been an old Marine 61 mm. mortar shell with a bright, thick gauge aluminum wire attached to its nose. I walked up to him and seeing close up the thick trip wire attached to its tip, I wondered how in God's name it had not detonated, killing a dozen people in the process. I also reasoned that the shell was probably defective, likely enough since it had failed to detonate when it was originally fired, and now again, when it was being yanked at the end of a strong trip wire. Nevertheless, we very gently set it back down on the ground, and then carefully backed away. We later destroyed it with a claymore which was positioned next to it, then exploded. Since I was R.'s squad leader, some people faulted me for not having educated my squad on such matters, and it had indeed never occurred to me that someone might actually pick up an artillery shell with a conspicuous shining wire attached to its point. This was an event in which perhaps a dozen people should have been killed, me included, since I was not too far away; but it is in the nature of Fortune to be capricious in her favors.

6. When we landed in the A Shâu [A Sầu] Valley, we took up positions at an old airstrip called A Lưới. We were told that the area had once been a Special Forces camp, which had to be abandoned due to the overwhelming strength of the enemy in this part of the country. They had a rough idea where mines had been planted, and unfortunately, the area in which we were going to set up was accessible only by going through a likely mine field. Normally, you would go through a mine field, if at all, by getting on your hands and knees and gently probing the earth in front of you with a bayonet. We didn't have time for that. I gingerly walked from the first gun emplacement to the spot where the second gun was to be set up. The soil was loose, pale gray, and very sandy. I foolishly thought if I were very careful and stepped lightly, I could feel the mine before it blew up. At first I went with great caution, but as I got used to the idea, I became a bit more reckless. I told people to follow in my footsteps, which they did at first with commendable good sense, but in time, the feeling was that this area was probably not mined after all, and soon a regular path had been trampled into the ground. They probably should have had a mine detector present to sweep the area. The danger was quite real, as about a week later, the CO and a sergeant from another platoon were in an area nearby, and the sergeant stepped on a pressure plate to a mine, killing himself and wounding the Captain.

“Bullet” Bouchard  

7. One close call worthy of mention was the time that "Bullet" Bouchard tossed a certain kind of grenade. Normally, when you throw a grenade, if you are outside its killing radius of 5 meters, you are probably not at great risk, although the flight of shrapnel is unpredictable, and it is possible to be struck with it at yet greater distances. Nevertheless, the ordinary chucking of an HE grenade rarely ever results in injury to him who launched it. However, there is a notable exception to the general rules governing grenades. This is the WP (White Phosphorus) grenade. It looks very much like a common smoke grenade that does nothing but emit a cloud of colored smoke, usually for the purpose of marking a position on the ground for airplanes to register. The WP grenade, by comparison, is a monster. When a WP grenade goes off, it too ejects a large white cloud, but the constituents of this cloud are a mass of highly lethal chunks of white phosphorus. When phosphorus is exposed to the air, a chemical reaction takes place in which the phosphorus combines with oxygen to burn at enormously high temperatures. As the dispersed chunks of phosphorus descend through the air, they become white hot, and can even burn through steel. The thought is that a chunk will land on an enemy soldier and burn right through his helmet or any other material that may be in its way. Needless to say, it burns rapidly through human flesh and even bone. The only way to stop it is to cut off its oxygen, which in practical terms rarely happens because the agony of its victims make clear and resourceful thinking nearly impossible. Bullet had gotten a hold of a WP grenade, and decided to chuck it in the general direction of the enemy during our firefight at Đại Đồng on Dec. 7, 1967. The normal procedure is to throw the grenade, then run in the opposite direction as fast as is humanly possible, since the kill radius of this grenade is generally greater than the distance that it can normally be thrown. So Bullet gave it a good chuck, then we turned and ran back. We could hear the odd cross between "bam" and "puff" that this grenade makes when it goes off. We turned and looked to see a giant white cloud emerge from the ground. Out of the cloud came streamers of white vapor, and the leading edge of each formed by a blazing piece of white phosphorus. Then we heard the strange "clack, clack" sound of the WP hit as it fell through the palm leaves of the coconut trees. It suddenly became clear that we had not quite run far enough, and the rain of fire began to hit all around us. I was untouched, but a piece of WP hit Bullet on his left forearm. Just as it landed, it expired, so to speak. Bullet started somewhat, then pointed to his left forearm, and said in a very matter-of-fact manner, that a piece had hit him but had gone out as it landed. It left a little black burn mark on his arm, rather like a cigarette burn. That we both weren't drilled through by little chips of this chemical torch is a species of especially good luck.

8. A rather minor case of jeopardy happened when I pulled point crossing the An Lão River out of LZ Mustang. We were headed out on a platoon size ambush and left in broad daylight in the hope of misleading the enemy as to where we were going to set up. We pretended to set up on the north side of the river, but when darkness fell we saddled up and headed upstream. We intended to cross the river, which was relatively shallow farther up, then set up some distance in the interior. We finally came to what looked like a good fording place. As was our standard practice, each of us took off his gas mask and placed it on his head, then put his rifle on top of it to keep it in place and to make sure that his M-16 didn't get wet. At first the water was nice and shallow and I waded right out into the river walking at a reasonable pace along its sandy bottom. "Bullet" Bouchard was a few paces behind me. However, as I approached the center of the river, it gradually started to deepen. I sunk to my waist, then to my chest, and up to my neck, until finally I had reached the point where my chin was barely above water. The current picked up considerably. Then my left foot began to slowly drift away. With a great effort I brought it back and shuffled a bit to my right. Had the current been just slightly faster or my reaction slightly slower, I would have been swept away. I would certainly have drowned, as that is exactly what happened a few days later, when another platoon tried to cross and its point man couldn't keep his footing and was dragged down the river. His friend tried to save him, but both were drowned. I had better luck in finding the right path, stepping very carefully, using my lead foot like a blind man uses his cane. Eventually, I succeeded in leading the platoon across without any loss of life.

Đại Đồng — maps showing Đại Đồng: Bồng Sơn, the An Lão Valley, and Tam Quan.

Bồng Sơn — maps showing Bồng Sơn: Bồng Sơn, LZ English, LZ Two Bits; Bồng Sơn, the An Lão Valley, and Tam Quan.

monsoon — see the highly informative map of the monsoons in South Vietnam: Indochina, Precipitation & Monsoon Air Flow.

A Lưới — see the map, A Lưới Airstrip in the A Shâu Valley.

An Lão River — see the map, Bồng Sơn, the An Lão Valley, and Tam Quan.

LZ Mustang — see the detailed map, LZ Mustang and the An Lão Valley; and LZ Sandra, LZ Mustang, and the An Lão Valley.