Smoking is Hazardous to Your Health

by Jerry Prater

While serving my two years in the army, from December 12 1966 until December 11, 1968, we weren’t necessarily encouraged to smoke, but it was made very easy and convenient for us to light up on a regular basis.  While at Fort Polk for basic training and Tiger Land, butt cans were prominent in the wooden barracks in which we could flick the ashes and throw the butt away.  During all our training sessions, we would get a 10 minute or so break every hour and the training cadre would tell us “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, bum ‘em if you don’t”.  While I was in Vietnam our C ration containers included a pack of 4 cigarettes.  Also, when our log ships delivered our supplies and other logistical items two or three times each week, several cartons of cigarettes were included.  I don’t know how many cartons were sent to my platoon, but I never ran out of my “brown filter” smokes!

During the summer of 1967, the 1st platoon of A Company had been pulling search and destroy missions almost every day.  Each morning after eating a C-Ration delicacy we would leave the location where we had spent the previous night and begin our mission for the day.  Barring any enemy contact or change to our orders, we would arrive at our destination mid to late afternoon and set up our perimeter for the evening.  We dug our trench to provide a small amount of safety, and set out our trip flares, hand grenades and claymore mines.  We would then pull guard duty from dusk till dawn. 

Periodically we were assigned the task of cordon and search missions. After setting up for the evening, we would saddle up at about 0200 (2 o’clock in the morning) and move very slowly in single file for an hour or more until we reached our designated area.  While we were moving we had to stay very close to the soldier in front so we would not loose contact and get lost in the dark of night.  This was always a three or four platoon mission because it was impossible for one or two platoons to completely surround a village.  These missions were very dangerous because three or four platoons were moving from separate locations in the dark of night to a specific spot outside the village.  One of the primary concerns was a platoon might arrive at the wrong spot or wrong time and create the possibility of a friendly fire incident because one of the platoons might believe they had made contact with enemy soldiers and open fire on them.

After the village was surrounded we would pull guard duty, with an emphasis of not allowing anyone to leave the village.  We had to be very alert because of the possibility of enemy soldiers attempting to break out of the village to avoid capture.  Sometime after daybreak elements of the South Vietnamese National Police would be air lifted to the village by Chinook helicopter.  They would conduct a thorough search of the village, looking for enemy soldiers, as well as weapons and food that could be used by the enemy.  We would continue to surround the village until the Police were extracted and returned by a chinook to their headquarters.  Shortly afterwards we would leave the village and begin our mission for the new day.

 As a result of all these daily operations, everyone in the platoon, including myself, were very tired because we were getting no more than four hours of highly interrupted sleep each night. But somehow, we had to find the energy to keep going so we could complete the missions assigned to us each day.

After completing one of our search and destroy missions, the platoon arrived at our designated area and set up our perimeter for the evening.  We dug our trench to provide a small amount of safety, and set out our trip flares, hand grenades and claymore mines.  Then, just before dusk, we were told to saddle up and move to a different location because we had either set up at the wrong place or we were ordered to move to a different location.  So, we had to retrieve our trip flares, hand grenades and claymore mines and travel at dusk to the correct destination. 

Upon arrival at the new location, we had to again dig our trench and set up the flares and claymores.  The place where I was assigned had a drop off of three to four feet straight down. The ground behind me was flat and partially sandy, so digging the trench was quick and easy.   I wasn’t happy with my location because a group of three or four trees were about thirty meters straight forward of me, and I had no cover at all while I was pulling my guard shift because the ground beside and behind me was very flat.

When it was my turn to pull guard, I sat on the ground and had my legs, from my knees, hanging down the incline.  That was the only position I thought that would keep me awake.  I tried squatting, but that hurt, and I couldn’t stay in that position very long.  I considered getting in the prone position but discarded that idea immediately because I was really afraid that I would fall asleep.  So, I just sat down on the ground and let my feet hang down the incline and hoped we would have no incidents while I was pulling guard.

All of a sudden I was startled because I was sitting on top of the incline with my Zippo cigarette lighter fully lit!  I instantly figured out that I had dozed for four or five seconds and, for some unknown reason, I lit my cigarette lighter.  Then, I immediately put out my lighter and fell flat on my back.  Just as my back hit the ground, a burst of gunfire came from the group of trees directly in front of my position.  Three or four rounds went directly over and very close to my head.  I then crawled on my back a couple or three feet to try to find some cover.  Another couple of bursts were fired that went directly over my head again.  I crawled on my back another couple of feet until I reached a small trench that gave me some cover from the gun shots.  One more burst of about four or five rounds went directly over my head again.  I just laid in the trench for several minutes until I thought it was safe to raise my head again. 

The enemy soldier had a direct bead on me because I had given him a clear target when I lit my Zippo lighter.  He was bound and determined to kill me and emptied his magazine in that attempt, but I didn’t want to become a notch on his AK-47. Fortunately, the rest of the evening passed with no other incident.

An Khê — maps: An Khê and Vicinity, An Khê (Camp Radcliff), Detailed.

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