by Richard Dieterle
The old CO had moved on but had not been replaced by another captain at this time, so Lieutenant Pape was the acting company commander. The Brass had the brilliant revelation that the enemy moved at night, so they reasoned if we were out and about at night, we stood a better chance of making "contact" as it was oddly called. We called it "hitting the shit." So the idea was that we would do a night operation in an area that looked promising for colliding with the enemy in the dark. Making contact in the dark, by the way, is anathema to all classical military tacticians, since what frequently happens is that troops fire on their own men causing sometimes massive "fratricidal" tragedies. Apparently the Brass needed to learn this for themselves, since imagination was not their strong suit.
So it was deemed appropriate to send us out on a night operation. A new technique was supposed to give us a big advantage. We had at least one German shepherd with us. It's handler solemnly told me, "This dog can smell out gooks." That's a handy talent to have in an oriental country. It's rather like saying that your dog could find chickens if you put him in a chicken coop. I was hoping that his gook-smelling propensities had been refined down to something narrower. This canine of dubious talents was placed well to the front. Our platoon was the point element, and the dog was not too far from me. Our new lieutenant, Rooney, was suppose to navigate.
At some point we finally trudged off into the darkness. We went down a well beaten path, rather easy to see since it was made of yellow sand. Walking down a path was never a good idea since it could be booby-trapped in front of us on rather short notice. However, since we were moving at night, we couldn't simply knock our way through the brush, since it would be nearly pitch dark. At least on a path there were no trees above us obscuring the moonlight.
We didn't go too far when the dog suddenly got spooked. Everything stopped, and we began to share the dog's feeling that things were not quite right. More likely than not, it was the handler who got spooked and communicated this energy to his dog. We passed a whispered message back to the effect that the dog was reacting to something. Per usual, I couldn't make out what was being said. I would say, "What?," and even when the message was repeated it would sound to me like nothing more than, "Whisper-whisper-whisper." We moved on, and at some point we once again stopped, and some whisper was advanced down the column. You had to get it exactly right. If people made mistakes in transmission, it would end up being just a variant of the children's game Telephone. You could start out wit a message like, "Close it up," and it could end up as, "Take your clothes off." The guy in front of me became so exasperated with my inability to make out what he was saying, that he just walked around me and transmitted the message to the next guy himself.
We tramped on down this path for what seemed an eternity. Then we came to a place that looked very familiar. Some of us said, "Haven't we been here before? This looks pretty familiar. Remember that tree and the rice paddy?" We were now beginning to get something more substantive than deja vu. We were now wondering if we had not been to some of these places more than once. Somebody remarked, "Rooney is going in circles." I think this revelation got back to Lieutenant Pape, who was not pleased. Trying to navigate over unfamiliar terrain in the dark accompanied by a neurotic dog may well be impossible for anyone, let alone a green lieutenant.
We reached a point where we were in a "U" pattern as the trail turned in this fashion. A large dry rice paddy lay between the two wings of our column. Suddenly, there was a "Bam!" from across the way. Someone screamed, "Help! Help! Help!" Then I could see a puff of white smoke drift into the open area. After that, silence. Someone had tripped a booby trap. This usually meant the loss of a foot or leg. The palpable fear in the voice of the victim in the quasi-twilight was unsettling, but we otherwise took it in stride, and moved on. There was no Medevac, so they apparently carried him until daylight. I never did learn what had happened to him exactly, as he was a member of another platoon.
As we were moving along in a more forested area, from some distance away we could hear the report of a rifle. A sniper was trying to get a shot at us, but was too far away for nighttime accuracy. He was simply ignored. There had been a time when a couple of our guys had specialized in chasing down snipers, but the enemy eventually realized that they could count on being chased down if they sniped at us, so they set up an ambush for their pursuers. After that, it was deemed too risky to try to run them down. We typically used artillery on them instead.
At twilight we came to a sandy area. Lieutenant Pape called Rooney and gave him new instructions. When he was done, Rooney replied with, "Okay!" Lieutenant Pape came back with, "I need a 'Roger' on that!" Rooney was puzzled: "I said Okay." Everyone standing around snickered. What Pape was demanding was to hear the word "Roger" as that was the proper military response. He was trying to remind Rooney that "Okay" didn't cut it, but that idea didn't get through. Rooney was now suppose to set up a new perimeter. He had a mortar, which had been apparently carried in pieces by members of the 4th Platoon, set up in a large sandy area. They had dug a mortar pit and set up the mortar in it, when word came from Pape that this was not where he wanted us. The mortar crew was very unhappy to hear this. Having realized that he was responsible for the mistake, much to my surprise, Lt. Rooney proceeded to take the entire mortar — tube, stand, and base-plate — and hoist it onto his own back. This was an incredible amount of weight in addition to what he was already carrying, and he humped this for quite a distance. I was impressed. He not only took responsibility, but at great personal pain, relieved the mortar men of the burden of moving their equipment.
In the end, that's what it was all about: relying on one another for help.