Almost a Friendly Murder

by Richard Dieterle

Ponchos Used as Tents

After a day "humping the boonies" we set up at an unremarkable place where it was, at least, easy to dig in. It was nice and flat with good visibility all around. We carried the standard Army issue bluish ponchos, which had snaps running down the edge of two sides. This made them convertible into tents — just snap together two ponchos and elevate them on a couple of sticks at each end, and you had a perfectly good tent. They were good at keeping out the rain. In Vietnam it generally either rained all the time or not at all. We were in that season where rain was not an issue, and it must be said that the heat wasn't too bad either. We had our usual discussion about who had first choice as to guard shift. Since there were three of us we could pick first, second, or third shift. By taking just an hour a shift, we would do two shifts in a night. I wasn't pulling first shift that night, so I settled in. The tent that night was erected over a rather shallow "prone." A prone was like a foxhole except that it was for sleeping, so it was designed to be occupied by a person lying in the prone position. Since there were usually three of us, sometimes four, it was dug rather wide to accommodate everyone. In theory, if there was a mortar attack, being below ground offered some measure of safety. As tiresome as it was to dig a prone, it was an ironclad SOP to do so every time we set up. In addition to the ponchos that we erected over the prone, each of us carried an air mattress. We would blow that up and it would be a very comfortable cushion on which to sleep. I stretched out on my air mattress and tried to "get some z's" as we used to say. I rolled over on my stomach and looked out the back of the open tent. You could see some way out, as there was a fair amount of light from the moon and stars, and the white sandy soil looked luminous in the light. I was actually feeling secure and relaxed, when all of a sudden there was a distant rattle of machine gun fire, and just as suddenly I saw tracer bullets coming straight down. They were quickly "walking" right towards me. It looked like a giant sewing machine needle, stabbing the ground in rapid strokes, swiftly coming in a perfect straight line to where I was lying. I didn't even have time to react, but just as it was about to "sew" me to the ground, the stream of bullets suddenly veered to my left, and passed around the tent. "Jesus Christ! What the hell?" was all I could say. I had just escaped being shot a dozen times right through the back.

We were in a free-fire zone, which meant that if anything moved after dark, it got shot. We later learned that a helicopter gunner whose ship happened to be flying over, saw one of our guys move, and applied the principle in what, if I may venture to say so, was an overly liberal interpretation. Fortunately for me and God knows who else, he managed only to puncture the sandy soil. Had I been drilled, I would have gone down as a victim of "friendly fire," a bizarre oxymoron still in use to this day (2014). For the brief moment that I thought I was a dead man, it seemed rather more like murder to me, however friendly it might be.