Fort Polk – Tiger Land

by Jerry Prater

The twelve or so of us who had just completed our basic training at Company E, 4th Battalion, 5th Training Brigade earlier in the morning of Friday, February 24, 1967 were the first to arrive at our Tiger Land company area because we had a short ride on the back of a deuce and a half truck.

Fred Dunlap
A Deuce-and-a-Half Truck Entering Tiger Land, 1967

Three of us, Larry Nunn, John Heflin and myself, grabbed bunks next to each other and starting discussing how depressed we were for being assigned the MOS of 11 Bravo, light weapons infantry. Edward House was one of the others who arrived from his basic training site a day or two later, and he took a bunk next to us. The four of us became very good friends and were always there to support and encourage each other so all of us could make the best we could of a lousy situation.

Imjin Scout
A Tiger Land Sign

During our first formation, Captain Emerick, our Company Commander, welcomed us to Company E, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Training Brigade and informed us of the scheduled training during our nine weeks of infantry training. Colonel Roper, our Battalion Commander, then spoke to us briefly about military courtesy. He also advised us that no civilian clothing or privately owned vehicles would be authorized for any member of the battalion. He also informed us that all members of the platoon would have to take three PT tests, and the score of the third test, which would be taken during our seventh week of training, would be recorded in our file. First Sergeant Frederick told us of some of the things that would be expected of us for the next nine weeks of infantry training. Some of the requirements were that, when we were not in the barracks, we would always wear our steel helmets with camouflage covers and run everywhere we went, and we had to growl like a tiger as we ran. He informed us that six of us would pull KP daily, and each soldier in the company could expect to pull the duty twice. We would also have to pull fire watch each night because, just like basic training, the wooden barracks were build hurriedly at the beginning of World War II and, if one caught fire, it could burn to the ground in less than an hour. We were also told that if any of us thought we were going to be stationed in Germany after we completed AIT, we should get that out of our heads because all of us were definitely going to Vietnam. He really shocked me with his last statement, which was “If you don’t yell at me, I won’t yell at you. If you don’t cuss at me, I won’t cuss at you.” That set a very positive tone for me. He was true to his word, we were rarely yelled at, and we were treated with a lot more dignity than we were during basic training.

The Army Flight School
A Tiger Land Sign Portraying the Viet Cong Enemy

Reveille at Tiger Land was at 0530 hours compared to 0500 as it was in basic training. We would have a 0600 formation then go on a one mile run prior to breakfast. One of the young drill sergeants would lead us and call a totally different cadence than I had ever heard before. He would call the normal cadence, left, right, left, right, I, 2, 3, 4 as we marched and, when we were all in step, he would have us double time. Then, he would begin his cadence of “here we go, all the way, all the way, airborne, airborne. Gotta kill, VC, gotta kill, gotta kill, VC.” To me, this cadence was just another way for the drill sergeants to condition us to the realization that we were being prepared for our upcoming duty to kill enemy soldiers in Vietnam.

Nolan Preece / Altered Landscapes
A Confidence Building Sign at Tiger Land

Another difference between Tiger Land and basic training was the way cadence was called while we were marching. In basic training, the Drill Sergeants would use the “Hut, two, three, four, left, right” to get us in step. Once we were all in step, they would use the “Jody” cadence, such as “You had a good home when you left,” and our left foot must hit the ground as they said “left.” We would reply “you’re right” as our right foot hit the ground. The cadence would continue, “Your girl was there when you left,” “You’re right.” “Jody was there when you left,” “you’re right.” At Tiger Land, First Sergeant Frederick would call cadence, “left, right, left, right, 1, 2, 3, 4” to get us in step, then he would sing “Around her neck she wore a yellow ribbon, she wore it in the winter and merry month of May. When I asked her why the yellow ribbon, she said it’s for her soldier who was far, far away. Far away, far away. She wore it for her soldier who was far, far away.” He would sing this cadence once or twice, then he would have us double time in step until we reached our destination, and we double timed every time we marched to every location.

Around Her Head She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

I got my first look at the M-16 rifle, the weapon most commonly used in Vietnam, on Tuesday, February 28, 1967. At first glance I thought it was some type of toy gun because it was shaped so differently from the M-14 we fired and qualified with in basic training. The M-14 weighed 10¾ pounds with a loaded magazine, was 44½ inches long, and had a maximum range of 3,725 meters. The M-16 weighed 7¾ pounds with a loaded magazine, was 39½ inches long, and had a maximum range of 2,653 meters. The difference in weight was primarily because the M-16 used fiberglass instead of wood on the stock and hand guards, and aluminum instead of steel. The shorter and lighter M-16 was much more suited for the mountains, jungle, and heavily foliated areas in Vietnam compared to the M-14. 

Fred Childs, C 1/22 Infantry
Tiger Land, Birthplace of Infantrymen (1967)

My introduction to the feeling of having bullets fired in my direction occurred during our third week of infantry training while we were qualifying for the M-16. The AIT firing range was very different from the qualifying range in basic training, which had silhouettes that popped up automatically and were knocked down by a direct hit or ricochet. The targets for the M-16 qualifying range consisted of targets that were set up by a trainee who was squatting down range in a round, reinforced foxhole. I was chosen to handle a target for a short portion of the qualifying. I got into the foxhole, placed the target upright so the shooter would have a good view for his shots, and squatted down so I would have no possibility of being hit by a round. When a trainee would fire at the targets in my firing line, the first thing I noticed was the gunfire sounded different when it was fired towards you than when you were behind the shooter. Then, I heard the popping sound the bullets made when it went over my head, and the piercing sound when they hit the target. Those were frightening sounds, but the much more frightening thought was that people would be shooting at me for the entire year I would be in Vietnam. After the shooter emptied his clip, I would pull the target down, count the hits, call the scorer on my walkie-talkie to report the number of hits, paste a patch over the holes, put the target back up, and wait for the next shooter.

When it was time for me to fire my qualifying rounds, one of our drill sergeants handed me a magazine and instructed me to fire bursts of three rounds at each of the targets. He also told me that the magazine only had enough rounds for me to fire bursts of three rounds at each target and that I should use caution so I would not run out of ammo before I fired at each target. After I had fired my three round bursts at all of the targets, the drill sergeant yelled at me to keep firing. I thought my magazine was empty but I pulled the trigger and, sure enough, my magazine had more than the allotted number of rounds and I continued firing until it was empty. Even with the extra rounds, I only hit three targets above the minimum and just barely qualified with the M-16. I just couldn’t learn how to aim a rifle.

During our fourth week, we spent the first two days in familiarization firing with four different weapons. We fired the .45 caliber pistol at a human silhouette that was about 50 meters away and, as usual, I had a lot of trouble hitting the target. We were able to fire about three bursts with the .50 caliber machine gun, and that was a weapon that really impressed me with its destructive capabilities. The next weapon we fired was the M-72 LAW anti-tank rocket, which is basically a one shot, disposable bazooka. The fourth weapon we fired for familiarization was the M-79 grenade launcher. This weapon basically fired a grenade for a distance up to approximately 350 meters and had an effective killing range of five meters when the grenade exploded on contact with the ground or an object. The round has a spin-activation safety feature that armed itself after it had traveled approximately 30 meters. We spent the other three days that week firing and qualifying with the M-60 machine gun. For some reason, I learned how to correctly aim the M-60 and hit my targets consistently. As a result, I scored 160 out of a maximum of 184 and qualified as an Expert.

Van Barbre
Close Combat Course, Ft. Polk (1965)

We spent our fifth week on bivouac, during which time we learned such things as how to make tents by combining two of our ponchos, and how to dig a foxhole according to army regulations, which included digging a grenade stump in the bottom corner of the hole. During the sixth week we did range fire and spent a lot of time firing live rounds at targets as we were walking and crawling through various obstacles and training courses. We spent a lot of time firing live rounds so we could see how accurate or how far off target we were as we were firing at various targets.

Our seventh week was spent being trained on evasive tactics, and ways to avoid being captured by enemy soldiers. We spent time learning how to read maps, and how to use a compass. We were also told about various vegetation that was edible, and we were divided into groups of four or five and given a live chicken so we could wring the neck, chop off the head, pluck it, cook it, and eat it as our evening meal. This training was completed on Friday evening when the entire company was taken to a desolate location approximately three miles from the company area. We were divided into groups of four, given a compass, and told of the compass heading that would direct us back to the company area in the dark. We were also told that several soldiers who had completed their training and were awaiting orders would be stationed at various locations and serve as enemy soldiers who would try to capture us. We were ordered to surrender without any resistance if we were detected by these soldiers. As it turned out, my group was detected and we were loaded on a deuce and a half with some other members of the company and sent to an area that served as a prisoner of war camp. A group of soldiers at that compound were acting as enemy guards and interrogators, and their favorite tactic was to take mud from the ground and put it inside our uniform. Sometime after midnight we were taken back to our company area and First Sergeant Frederick held a company formation and critiqued us on the results of the maneuver. We were informed that the “enemy” soldiers were posted only in the out of bounds area, and the only members of the company who were detected and taken as prisoners were those who were on a compass reading that would not get us back to Tiger Land.

The eighth week was a field training exercise. Captain Emerick ordered us to go to the barber shop and get our hair cut as short as it was when we were first drafted so no insects and ticks would get in our hair during the week. I thought about the haircut and I disobeyed an order for the first time since I had been drafted. I decided that I wanted to have some hair on my head when I went on leave in less than two weeks. I didn’t want my bride and my parents to see me as a skin head during my two week leave before I went to Vietnam. After we returned to the barracks from the field training exercise I took a really good shower and was happy to see that I had no insects of any kind anywhere on my body. 

AIT Graduation
April 28, 1967

All in all, we were treated very well during our infantry training at Tiger Land, the cadre seemed genuinely interested in us, and did their best to prepare us to survive the year in Vietnam. From time to time, they would tell us that one of the soldiers who had been in one or two cycles before us had been killed in action. They did that, I believe, to make sure we were taking our training very seriously, and that we should learn and comprehend as much as we possibly could. 

Our graduation ceremony was on Friday, April 28, 1967, and my bride, my parents, and my two brothers attended the ceremony. None of my family attended the basic training graduation ceremony because I would remain at Fort Polk, and would not have had the opportunity to visit with them. My parents met and became close friends with the parents of John Heflin, one of my closest friends, at the ceremony. 

Before we left Fort Polk to go home for our leave, John Heflin and I made plans for my bride and I to visit him at his parent’s house in Arlington. We traveled from Garland to his house on the day we had planned. I knocked on the door, but no one answered so I went and knocked on the back door. Nobody answered there, so I went and knocked on some windows, but still no one answered. After knocking on the front door again with no response, my bride and I traveled back to Garland. When we got back home, I called John and he told me he had been at home the entire day, and we must have arrived while he was taking a nap! I never saw John again because he was assigned to the 25th Infantry, and he was killed on September 2, 1967 when he stepped on a land mine. He had just turned 20 when he was killed.