Excerpts From THE KILLING GROUND
by Dick Camp
Copyright © 2013 by Richard D. Camp, Jr.
Chapter 1: Intruders
The feeding marauder jerked a bloody snout out of its victim’s belly, rose on hind legs, and tested the air. An unfamiliar scent filled its nostrils. Sensing danger, it instantly dropped to all fours and scurried into the undergrowth as larger predators invaded its killing ground. The rustle of the rat-like creature startled the intruders, who froze and searched for the source of the noise. For several long heartbeats, they remained motionless, and then, satisfied there was no immediate danger, began their silent advance up the ravine’s game trail.
Defense Sector Red
0130 2 January 1968
Halfway through his two-hour watch, Lance Corporal Mike Redmond couldn’t keep his eyes open. He was bone tired and couldn’t remember the last time he had gotten a good night’s sleep. All he wanted to do was close his eyes for a second. The urge was overwhelming. He struggled manfully to stay awake but gradually gave in to the impulse. His eyelids grew impossibly heavy; they fluttered up and down before finally closing. For a few seconds, Redmond’s head remained upright, then it abruptly slumped forward, striking his chest and startling him to wakefulness. “Christ, I’ve got to stay awake,” he groused. He thought about waking one of his men but decided against it; they were just as tired as he was. And besides, it was his turn on watch. He forced himself to take another look around.
His eyes swept over the ground in front of their hiding place, trying to pierce the darkness. Scattered clouds obscured the quarter moon, but occasionally it broke through the cover and bathed the shrubbery in a pale light that formed bizarre shadows that often took on the appearance of skulking intruders. The damn shadows played hell with Redmond’s imagination. At one point, he frenziedly pulled the pin from a hand grenade when moonlight played on several man-sized shrubs swaying lightly in the breeze. As he struggled to replace the cotter pin, he felt foolish and vowed not to let it happen a second time.
As he continued to move his eyes back and forth, a shadow appeared at the head of the gully. He smiled. “I’m not going to get caught again,” he thought. “It’s just this tricky light.”
But this time he sensed something different. A ghostly figure materialized out of the darkness. Adrenalin surged through Redmond’s system, and he was instantly wide awake. He broke out in a sweat, his heart thumped wildly, his mouth went dry. Fear threatened to overwhelm him. Other shadowy forms emerged out of the ravine, almost invisible as they crept silently from shrub to shrub. “Gooks! Gooks!” his mind screamed as he reached out to alert his teammates.
Redmond and the two other Marines of his fire team comprised the 2nsd Platoon’s listening post—scouts positioned in front of friendly lines to give early warning. Redmond’s team, radio call sign “Lima Two,” lay hidden in a small clump of scrub growth some sixty long meters from the safety of the Lima Company perimeter, near an old dead conifer dubbed the “hanging tree” because of its odd-shaped, bent-up limb. Their concealed position overlooked a narrow ravine that emptied out directly in front of Lima Company’s foxholes. The gulch formed a natural pathway, providing the enemy with a concealed avenue of approach. It was Two Two’s mission to detect the enemy if they came. Now, five hours into their watch, the enemy was here, and the young team leader had a job to do.
Redmond whispered a quiet warning to his men, praying that they didn’t make any noise. Then he alerted his platoon commander over the PRC-25 radio that he had painfully jammed into his ear to muffle its static hiss.
Faint man-sounds grew closer, and he struggled to keep his imagination in check. A slight breeze rustling the grass sent a shiver of fear down Redmond’s back. He imagined a rifle-toting Vietnamese springing out of the darkness. He fought to bring himself back from the edge of panic. “Calm down,” he silently intoned several times. By sheer force of will, he regained control of his emotions and reached out to briefly grip the arm of the Marine at his side. The human contact steadied him even more.
He returned his full attention to the movement in the gulch. A ghostly form emerged out of the darkness and crouched down beside a bush, becoming invisible in its shadow. Redmond thought for a moment it was a figment of his imagination until other figures appeared, moving stealthily in a hunter’s crouch, rifles at the ready.
Suddenly, the radio came alive, startling the hell out of him. At that moment he would have gladly smashed the damn thing to pieces, along with the operator who wanted a status report on the sighting. “Christ,” Redmond thought, “If the gooks get any closer, I’ll put ’em on the radio and they can answer themselves.”
Redmond’s heart thumped wildly. He was certain the North Vietnamese soldiers could hear it. They squatted in the grass only a few feet away. He could smell them—a combination of wood smoke and fish. A veteran of several close and personal encounters with the North Vietnamese, he immediately recognized the odor for what it was: gooks!
Not daring to make a sound, he willed himself to remain motionless despite the myriad of nighttime insects that snacked on his face and arms. He desperately tried to slow his breathing, but the adrenalin pumping through his system demanded oxygen. Sweat covered his face, stinging his eyes, but he didn’t want to run the risk of wiping it away; the tiniest movement might cost him his life. And, to add insult to injury, his rifle lay by his side. He couldn’t get it without moving. “What a fucking mess,” he bitched to himself.
“Lieutenant Littleton,” the radio operator whispered insistently at the poncho-wrapped figure curled up in the bottom of the foxhole. “Lieutenant Littleton.” The form stirred and sat up, hastily throwing off the poncho liner.
“I’m awake, Peters. What do you need,” the officer replied groggily.
“Sir, Lima Two’s listening post reported movement and now we can’t get them on the radio,” the operator blurted out, his voice tight with apprehension.
The news brought Littleton fully awake to mull over the terse report. He was worried. If the gooks were out there, the listening post was in big trouble, and he needed to do something pretty damn quick.
Littleton sorted through his options and decided the number-one priority was to establish contact with the missing men. “Peters, keep trying to reach the listening post and notify the reaction force. I’ll be right there.”
The radioman disappeared into the darkness as Littleton quickly slipped into his jungle boots, grabbed his web gear and rifle, and followed him to the communications bunker, a four-foot-deep hole in the plateau’s red clay soil covered by a light-proof plastic tarp. He slipped into the pit and was momentarily blinded by the light of a Coleman lantern that burned with a hypnotic hissing noise as it hung from a beam. “There goes my night vision,” he mumbled as he squinted in the brightly lit interior. Several radio operators and the senior company corpsman sprawled around a bank of PRC-25 tactical radios. One of the radiomen handed him a handset, “Skipper, I can’t reach the listening post either.”
Littleton grabbed the handset and spoke into it, using the listening post’s call sign: “Lima Two Two. This is Lima Six. Over.”
No response. All he could hear was the swish of the radio circuit. He broadcast again, with the same result.
“Okay,” he thought to himself, “if I was out there all by myself, surrounded by gooks, would I talk on a radio?” Answering his own question, he radioed, “Lima Two Two. If you can hear this transmission, key your handset twice.”
Littleton held his breath as he waited for a response. Suddenly there was a break in the squelch. Then another.
“Roger, Two Two,” he instantly transmitted, “I understand you can hear me.”
The news brought a moment of relief, but it still begged the question: “What the hell is going on!”
Littleton got back on the radio and, with a couple of questions, verified his suspicions. The listening post had spotted gooks, and they were close. He passed the handset to Peters, telling him to monitor the radio. Then he climbed out of the pit.
The humid outside air was refreshing after the stuffy bunker. He took the opportunity to suck in a deep breath as he finalized his plan.
The three listening-post Marines froze, hardly daring to breath, as the Vietnamese crept by, close enough to reach out and touch. The phantoms glided silently through the ankle-high kunai grass, appearing as apparitions in the uncertain light. When one of the infiltrators looked directly at their hiding place, the Marines tensed, ready to shoot, but their luck held and the Viet moved on.
Redmond counted six Viets, noting they wore black trousers and shirts instead of the usual green NVA uniforms. It was an extremely effective camouflage, rendering them nearly invisible in the darkness. They were traveling light, without packs, but several carried what looked to be cloth bags suspended from shoulder straps. Only two carried AK-47s, the standard Soviet-designed 7.62mm assault rifle.
As they disappeared from sight, Redmond heaved a sigh of relief. He cupped the handset and whispered a terse report, unwilling to embellish it with detail. Even a low voice carried in the night stillness. He pressed the handset closer to his ear and listened, expecting an order to withdraw to the perimeter. Instead, he was told to hold in place. “Shit,” he muttered silently. “What the hell’s going on?”
A knot of men gathered around Littleton outside the company communications pit. These eight ammo humpers represented Lima Company’s entire reaction force—the team designated to eject an enemy penetration. Ammunition carriers for the 60mm mortar section, they didn’t carry the infantry MOS but in the Marine Corps, every man is a rifleman, so they got the head nod.
“Corporal Webb, I want you to take your men and report to Lieutenant Jacobs,” Littleton ordered the squad leader. “You’re going out to reinforce the listening post and knock off the gooks that are sniffing around the perimeter.” The news instantly sobered the men, a couple of whom were still half asleep and hadn’t gotten the word about the trouble outside the perimeter.
As Webb led his little band of warriors off, Littleton reviewed his conversation with Lieutenant Steve Jacobs, the 2nd Platoon commander, who was to lead the reaction force to the listening post and join forces, bringing the total strength up to twelve shooters. Once that was accomplished, the men were to get on line and sweep the area. The rest of the mortar section was to launch illumination rounds from the company’s three 60mm mortars, to turn night into day. “Better for us,” Littleton thought. The plan was simple in concept but difficult to execute. It was fraught with danger and its success depended on the leadership abilities of the young officer, plus a healthy modicum of luck.
Steve Jacobs, a tobacco-chewing Midwestern farm boy, seemed to be just the right sort of officer to handle this delicate operation. Unflappable, he led his platoon with a sure hand, earning the respect of the men even though most of the men were eighteen or nineteen, and Jacobs was twenty-one. His imposing physique helped his image. Broad shouldered, with a narrow waist and muscular arms, he looked somewhat pudgy until he took off his shirt. His well-developed chest and back muscles marked him as a weight lifter, not a man you’d want to screw with. He had joined the company following a big fight in September, replacing a lieutenant who had been wounded and evacuated. Over the intervening four months, he had developed the tactical skills of a veteran, which he would need to carry out this dangerously tricky link-up. He had practiced the maneuver, but only in the daytime, and without the threat of six fully armed North Vietnamese soldiers interfering with the operation. “This ain’t like plowing the back forty,” he thought after briefing the reaction force.
Corporal Brady, the mortar section leader, and his three remaining men gathered around the gun, ready for the fire mission. The cardboard illumination canisters were open, baseplates were seated, and the night-firing lights on the aiming stakes had been switched on to show a red dot against the blackness. Brady estimated the range to be less than a hundred meters, so he stripped all but one of the propellant charges from the first two rounds. When the reaction force left the perimeter, he intended to hold the first round in the tube, ready to drop it, which would shave a few seconds off the response time. He felt guilty for being left behind, but he’d do his best to support his men.
Jacobs notified Littleton and Redmond that he was leaving the perimeter, then stepped out in front of the line of foxholes. “This is a good way to get mom’s little boy shot,” he thought, as he took the point and set a course for the hanging tree. He released the safety on his M-16 and moved the selector to full automatic but kept his finger off the trigger. No accidental discharge tonight. It seemed darker and quieter in no-man’s-land, but that was probably his imagination playing tricks with his brain-housing group. He strained to see in the darkness, but there wasn’t enough light to pierce the shadows. The Vietnamese could be right in front of him and he wouldn’t know until it was too late. He experienced a momentary shiver of fear but shrugged it off by forcing himself to concentrate on scanning the ground for signs of danger. His senses were fully alert, sorting through and processing the mixture of night sounds and jungle odors. A gentle breeze caressed his cheek and he caught the faint but unmistakable scent of unwashed bodies. He tensed and swung his rifle toward the danger, his index finger taking up the slack in the trigger. “Shoot,” his brain screamed, but something held him back. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard a low whisper, “That you, Lieutenant?”
Jacobs’s radio operator reported the successful linkup while Jacobs directed the combined force into formation, using Redmond’s team in the center as a guide. He lined them up perpendicular to the front lines and took station behind Redmond, from which point he could direct the line of riflemen.
The tension among the troops was palpable. They made final preparations—zipped flak jackets, fastened chinstraps, checked and rechecked selector switches. They knew the Vietnamese must have heard them and would be waiting. The odds weren’t good, twelve against six. Somebody was going to get seriously hurt.
Satisfied with the disposition, Jacobs took the handset and radioed that his group was ready to go.
The solid thump of a mortar round leaving the tube signaled the start of the second part of the plan. The illumination round burst high above the line of men, turning the blackness into a pale yellowish haze. The flare oscillated beneath a parachute canopy, casting its light in a wide arc, turning night into day.
The skirmish line slowly advanced across the broken ground, aligning center. Twenty meters. Thirty. Redmond stopped, bringing the skirmishers to a halt, and peered at the ground. Jacobs stepped forward to find out why, then heard the team leader’s challenge: “Who’s there?” and “You better say something.”
Two gunshots rang out in reply, the weapons’ muzzle flashes marking the location of the shooters. A heartbeat later all twelve keyed-up Marines emptied their weapons at the source of the fire. Two hundred rounds of 5.56mm ammunition sped downrange in under four seconds, a devastating hail of small-arms fire.
The overwhelming roar of the weapons stopped as abruptly as it had started; the entire force ran out of ammunition at the same time. The Marines all dropped to the ground, fumbling to pull fresh magazines out of pouches. In the process, cohesion disappeared in the mad scramble to reload. Jacobs lost control.
“What the hell’s taking so long,” Littleton mumbled to himself as he anxiously stared into no-man’s-land through his binoculars. The lenses captured just enough light for him to make out the shadowy line of Marines as it swept through the knee-high grass. On edge, he started thinking of all the things that could go wrong, second-guessing himself. “Maybe I should have brought in the listening post.”
Suddenly, the darkness blazed with red-orange flashes followed a second later by the roar of automatic weapons’ fire. “Contact!” he shouted, shrugging off his doubt.
Then the firing abruptly died out, instantly replaced by the unmistakable twin report of a “Duster” firing 40mm rounds. Red tracers arched out from the base perimeter, floating gracefully in the dim illumination as the deadly rounds searched for a target.
Littleton grabbed the handset and urgently called the battalion operations officer, Major Jim McGinn, in the combat operations center, the COC.
“Major, that damn Duster in 1st Battalion’s sector is shooting at my men,” he shouted angrily. “Didn’t Regiment pass the word about the reaction force?”
“Wait one, Lima Six. I’m on it.” McGinn’s voice was calm. Ten more 40mm rounds pumped out before the twin guns fell silent. Expecting the worst, Littleton keyed the handset and demanded brusquely, “Lima Two. Report.”
Golf-ball-size 40mm tracers from the base perimeter streaked low overhead, each with a loud crack. Jacobs frantically hugged the dirt, praying the gunner didn’t adjust his aim. “The damn slugs’ll turn us into mice meat,” he mumbled as he keyed his handset. “Lima Six,” he yelled desperately above the thunderous roar, “The Duster’s shooting the shit out of us. Cease fire or you’ll need a sponge to pick up the pieces!”
Jacobs knew something had to be done pretty damn quickly. The patrol couldn’t wait until Littleton stopped the shooting. The offending weapon, an Army 40mm dual-purpose antiaircraft gun mounted on a tracked chassis, was just one of a number of odd attachments assigned to guard the base perimeter. The crew of the Duster, nicknamed for its ability to dust off anything in front of it, hadn’t gotten the word that there were friendlies outside the wire and had opened up in the conviction that the perimeter was under attack. At this point, it didn’t make any difference; friendly bullets were just as deadly as enemy gunfire.
“Redmond, where are you,” Jacobs yelled. He had made up his mind to pull out, the hell with the gooks.
“Over here, Lieutenant,” a muffled voice fearfully responded.
“Pass the word to pull back through me,” the officer ordered. “Stay low,” he added gratuitously before realizing how stupid that bit of advice sounded in the present predicament.
“Right, Sir,” Redmond deadpanned, relieved to be doing something to get out of the rain of fire.
The bright flash of an explosion lit up the hanging tree as a Duster round struck the trunk with a resounding crack. The gunner shifted his aim slightly, sending four more high-explosive, point-detonating rounds into the old tree, shredding it.
Jacobs pressed into the ground and attempted to climb into his helmet. He expected the next rounds to smash into his back.
“Skipper, all accounted for and entering the perimeter,” Jacobs reported, incredulous that they had made it back without any casualties. It had been close-run. Several of the men reported near misses, which became embellished with the telling—and tell they did, babbling excitedly, reliving the action, getting it out of their systems.
A lone figure blocked the path as the disorderly group approached the communications bunker. “Knock it off,” Littleton forcefully commanded, promptly restoring order. “Sit down. I want to know what happened out there,” he continued. “Lieutenant Jacobs, you start.”
The keyed-up platoon commander rapidly summarized the actions of the reaction force up to the moment of Redmond’s challenge.
The NCO took over the narration. “Skipper, I saw these dark shadows all lying in a row. They just didn’t look right, so I stopped.”
Littleton interrupted, “Could you tell if they were human?”
“I couldn’t tell for sure, so I called out, and that sure was a mistake.”
“What happened,” Littleton asked.
“The fuckers shot at me, sir,” Redmond intoned, sounding offended to be singled out as the target.
Littleton stifled a chuckle before continuing. “Then what happened?”
“I hosed ’em down,” the NCO replied self-righteously, “Emptied my whole magazine, all eighteen rounds.”
Jacobs chimed in. “That’s when everybody started shooting, and it got a little hairy.”
“Why so,” Littleton asked, even though he knew the answer.
“Sir, I lost track of the men and then that damn 40mm opened up. I figured we better get out of there, the hell with the gooks.”
Littleton was silent for a moment. Then he said, “You did the right thing. No sense in getting your men hurt.
“Anybody got anything to add?”
No one spoke up, so Littleton wrapped it up with a pat on the back for each man. “Well done. You all did a good job. I’m proud of you. Now go back to your positions and get some sleep.”
He clapped Jacobs on the back as he went by. “Steve, send a couple of men to check out the area at first light.” He knew it was an exercise in futility; the gooks never left bodies behind.