By Justin Stone, Army
Writing Type: Prose
By Justin Stone
The day had been long and hot. I was more thirsty than hungry. Today’s patrol moved us from village to jungle to minefield and, ultimately to this farm.
I would not be hungry. I never was hungry out here. Tonight’s dinner just as most night’s dinner is C-rations. There was one B-2 meal that virtually everyone hated, ham and lima beans. I thought ham and lima beans were the equivalents of manna. I was told, more than once, that either my taste buds were dead, or I was insane. In any event, I rarely had to go a whole day without food. Because nobody on this patrol would eat the slime and filth called ham and lima beans. Today was another one of those days.
The sun has just set, and the purple hours begin. The battalion has settled in for the night. We will move again in the morning. The perimeter has been established and once the purple turns black, the patrol will move out beyond the perimeter. The crickets chirp unceasingly; they seem louder than usual. They will stop chirping when the movement begins. They will be quiet as the patrol deploys itself, and every soldier’s nerves, from the ear to trigger finger, will be waiting for them to begin their song again. If they stop chirping later in the night, there will be no need to wake those who sleep. The cessation of the noise will act as an alarm. God created crickets to protect soldiers.
Tonight, we rest on dry farmland. If the crickets do not stop chirping, everyone except this patrol will get some shut-eye. This area appears benign, but nothing is what it seems to be. The place is deserted. Where are the farmers? Where are the animals? Where did they all go, and why did they leave? Do the farmers know something we do not? The replacements do not see anything, and it is only the old guys who see emptiness as inherently dangerous. I am one of the old guys; I am 20 years old and came over by troopship. The new guys did not sail across the Pacific; they flew across on Braniff International Airlines.
The purple time approaches. The new guys want to do the normal things -- calm down, eat, rest. There will be no calm; it is already too late to eat. They will learn to eat earlier, and there will be no rest for anyone on this patrol. The old guys are uptight, irritable, nervous, and angry. We trained in Hawaii, and it was our recon platoon that proved repeatedly in training that we were most vulnerable during those times just after sunrise and just before dark. I call them purple hours because the natural lighting is dim, and scarlet and purple colors dominate the skyscape. Others call it twilight.
Tonight, I am part of the patrol. I am its radioman. Rank wise, I am fourth in command. That means that all three of those before me must be killed or seriously wounded before I become the leader. I hope that does not happen. As the purple fades, our sergeant quietly tells us to “mount up”. We move out into the darkness. The pace keeper tells us we have reached our predetermined place in front of the line. We deploy as instructed by our sergeant.
It is critically important to know where one is relative to the battalion behind us. From the perspective of the line, we are 5,000 paces out. They do not know for certain where we are, and if they get nervous, we could be killed by friendly fire. From our perspective, we are on a short rise over a large depression and immediately to the left of the route we took to get here. Immediately to the right is a dammed-up irrigation ditch. It is filled with water. I would learn later it was up to the middle of my chest. Its floor was mud, the kind that makes loud sucking sounds as you try to move through it.
One hour and 12 minutes ou,t a trip flare to the left side illuminates the night and reveals soldiers in uniforms different from ours. Our sergeant, after the M-79 guy spotted and fired at targets on the right side of the trail, tells me to get into the ditch and provide cover for a two-man team that will move from right to left, sweeping the enemy into the patrol. My jobias to kill anything that gets behind them.
I’m confused. The trip flare was on the left and it had been tripped. That seemed to me to indicate the threat was on the left. Why are the targets on the right? Why am I on the right? Why is it necessary to push folks from the right to where they already are?
Sergeants run the Army, and they do it well because they know what to do and how to do it. Although I’m confused, my Sergeant says “move,” so I go into the ditch. The ground in front of me is flat and grassy. From my worm’s eye view of the place, it looks almost as peaceful as an altar before a service.
At that moment, I am the only American in the ditch, as well as the only member of the patrol on the right side of the trail. Before I got into the ditch, our duper guy told me he got at least two kills but could not find the bodies with the starlight scope. He is now the closest guy to me on the left side of the route. He is also right and wrong. He hit two of them but killed neither. They were both wounded but not mortally. I was luckier than they were.
I had moved so slowly that even when my eyes and shoulders moved above the top of the ditch. they did not see me. I saw one pair of eyes looking closely but further to my right. Those two men struggled, as if driven by some earthen god, to get into my ditch, kill me and attack the patrol from its right flank. They both failed.
God bless all sergeants.
Notes: My first ambush. It resulted in my remainder in the water all night.