So, You’re the New Guy!

by Jerry Prater

All the new guys who report to an infantry unit in Vietnam have to go through an informal, unplanned and unofficial initiation period.  In other words, the new guys got all the shit details, and they had to go out on all the patrols, listening posts, ambushes, etc.  The new guys, the cherries, have to prove they belong with the hardcore guys who have spent time on patrols humping the 70 plus pounds of equipment in 100 plus degree temperatures with 90 plus percent humidity through the thick foliage, up and down mountains, and slogging through rice patties that are filled with water and fertilized with water buffalo dung, and even human excrement.  Then, at the end of the day, they dig a hole to provide some protection in case of sniper fire or an attack from the VC or NVA during the darkness of night.  Two or three of the soldiers are assigned to pull guard duty in shifts of anywhere between one and two hour increments from dusk each evening until first light the following morning.  Then, they get up and go through the same torture the next day, and the day after that, and every day until their orders are changed and they pull some other very dangerous type of missions.  These soldiers get little sleep each night, and rarely get the opportunity to get some rest.  So, they stay in a state of exhaustion, but they survive by the sheer will power of the hope and anticipation of returning home to “The World” with all the body parts they left with, and with a sane mind.

These are the same guys who have also survived fire fights, sniper fire, land mines, and the dreaded punji pits.  They have been shot at on numerous occasions, and some have been wounded with either a gunshot or shrapnel.  They have fired at, and in many cases, killed enemy soldiers.  But, they have also witnessed some of their buddies getting killed by hostile fire.  This is a very traumatic and sobering feeling, not only because they have just lost a comrade in arms and a friend, but it reminds them that they are vulnerable and could be the next fatality.  Because of the strong possibility that members of their unit will get killed, combat infantryman try to avoid making friends.

Jerry Prater
in His New
Jungle Fatigues
  Lt. Pape,
1968

When I first arrived and reported to Lt. John Pape, the platoon leader of the 1st Platoon, Company A, 1/8 Cav, I was intimidated because, here I was in pristine jungle fatigues and all the other members of my unit were in dirty, ragged, torn and scuffed clothing and boots.  I had showered and shaved before I reported to the unit, and the veterans in my unit were filthy because they had not had the opportunity to bathe in two or three weeks, or longer.  I couldn’t wait until I was tanned and caked with dirt, as well as getting my jungle fatigues worn, torn and faded and my boots scuffed and cut.  I wanted to fit in with the veterans in my platoon instead of sticking out as a cherry who had little or no time in the boonies.

My first “initiation” occurred during my first week with the platoon.  We were pulling search and destroy missions each day and setting up a perimeter each evening.  One night, Larry Nunn and I were assigned to share a hole and pull guard shifts with “Hand Grenade” Brown.  Sam Witcher, our squad leader, wanted to put a seasoned veteran with Nunn and I so he could watch over us and make sure we didn’t screw up.  Nunn and I, along with Edward House, had reported to the platoon on the same day.

 
Ed House   Larry Nunn

Since three of us would be pulling guard duty for a total of approximately nine hours, we all agreed to pull guard shifts of one hour, and we would then sleep for two hours.  All three of us also agreed that I would pull the first shift, Brown the second shift, and Nunn would get the last shift.  Brown suggested we use his watch because it illuminated well enough for us to see the hands and know when it was time to change guard shifts.

The night became sufficiently dark between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m. for us to begin our guard rotation.  As planned, I pulled the one hour of guard duty and I woke Brown up, gave him the watch, and I went to sleep.  Nunn woke me up, gave me the watch, and told me it was time for me to pull my next shift.  I struggled to wake up because the two hours of sleep didn’t allow me to get enough rest.  I pulled my second shift, woke up Brown, and gave him the watch so he could pull his second shift.  I went back to sleep and slept until Nunn woke me up for the last shift.  I struggled to wake up again, and I was thinking that I must really be tired because the two hours of sleep just wasn’t helping me to get enough rest.  I pulled my third, and last shift, woke up Brown, and gave him the watch for his last shift.  I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to get up at the same time as everyone else, I was going to sleep until somebody forced me to get up.  I was really tired and needed the rest.

The next thing I knew, Nunn was waking me up again and telling that’s it was about 6:30 and it was still very dark, and that all the other guys were still at their post.  He told me that he had been on guard duty for about an hour and a half, and he asked if I would relieve him so he could get some sleep.  I looked at the watch and, sure enough, it read 6:30.  I pulled another shift and, after I had been on guard for a little more than an hour.  I looked at the watch and it indicated that the time was about 7:45, but it was still pitch dark.  I tried to wake up Brown so he could relieve me, but he wouldn’t get up and told me to get Nunn to pull his shift.  I woke Nunn and he got up and stayed on guard duty until daylight.

After everyone was up, I asked Nunn and Brown if they knew what happened to the watch, and what caused the time to be incorrect.  Both stated that they had no idea why the shifts got so screwed up.  A few minutes later, one of the veterans came over to me and explained what happened.  He told me that Brown always asked to pull guard duty with the young guys so he could take advantage of them.  What he would do was start to pull his shift and, after the guy who had just completed his shift had been asleep for about five minutes, he would turn the time on the watch forward to the time his shift was scheduled to end.  So, instead of pulling an hour long shift three times, Brown had pulled about a seven minute shift three times!  Nunn and I had pulled about two and one half of his three hours of guard duty.  Needless to say, Nunn and I learned our lesson and never let that happen to us again.

My second, and a much more dangerous “initiation” occurred about one week later.  We were still pulling search and destroy missions and we were going through a small village that consisted of four or five hooches.   All of a sudden, we began receiving gun fire from one of the hooches, and we hit the ground and began returning the fire.  After several minutes, the gunfire subsided and somebody said that Phil Gibson had killed one of the attackers.  Then, several minutes later when there was a lull in the gunfire, Sam Witcher, my squad leader, told me that Lt. Pape wanted me to report to him.  I started going behind some cover in the direction of Lt. Pape’s position, but Witcher stopped me and sent me in a direct path, which put me in the line of fire of the location from which we had been receiving gun fire.  I stooped over and walked briskly because I wanted to reach my destination quickly and take cover.  I reported to Lt. Pape, but he just looked at me and said “I didn’t ask to see you.” 

I was confused and didn’t understand why Lt. Pape would say that, especially since Witcher was insistent that he asked for me by name.  Then, one of the veterans looked at me and told me that Lt. Pape had used me as a guinea pig.  All he wanted to do was to see if I would get shot at so he could determine if the shooters were dead, or if we had to remain under cover and continue firing.  That was a real downer.  I went from the ecstasy of being summoned personally by Lt. Pape because he needed me for an important duty to the realization that I was the least important and most expendable soldier in the platoon.