Outside the Wire

Tom Hays

As the eerie light behind my shoulder cast shadows on the hand of cards dealt to me, I slowly fanned the cards in suites from ascending to descending order. Six of us gathered around a make shift table in a cramped command post bunker. Yeah, once again I was filling in for one of the regular officers who stayed up with the company commander to play a game of hearts. A ritual that had taken place since Captain Ronald Bishop took over command of Alpha company. Being the senior medic and assigned to the CP it was usually me or one of the other RTO's that risked getting picked to fill an empty seat. I was never really any good at the game. Probably because I could never produce a good offense.

Alpha company 4th Battalion 12th Infantry was in for the night at the Fire Support Base located at Binh Chanh about 15 miles southwest of Saigon. The company was in from the field for one night so that we could regroup, clean up and get ready to go out the next day for routine cordon or paddy sweep operations.

Everybody looked up in startled amazement as Sp 4 Robert F. Shanahan, a radar operator, and a member of Echo Co. burst into the bunker. "Captain, you better come up and take a look at this," said the Specialist. Shanahan was on night duty working the observation tower located on top of the bunker in which we were playing cards. Noting the urgency in his voice, everybody put down their cards and followed him up to the tower, including myself.

The observation post was equipped with a mounted large starlight scope used to turn night into day. It was much larger than the hand held scope used by infantrymen in the field on night ambushes. "Look Captain, right over there!," Shanahan said pointing towards the perimeter. Captain Bishop bent over and peered through the eye piece of the large instrument. Each man took turns peering through the scope to help confirm what the CO was seeing. Through the green tinted backround light of the scope, three Vietnamese men appeared to be setting up something about 400 meters from the fire support base perimeter.

Shanahan reported the situation to the Captain, "I was on the observation tower when I saw these Vietnamese walking towards a hut about 600 meters from the tower. Two of them went inside this hut while the third, began working behind a dry rice paddy," said Shanahan. "I figured he was planting a booby trap at first, so I phoned my findings into the RTO on duty, "The RTO told me to get hold of you real fast Sir."

As I took my turn looking into the scope I saw two come out of this little hut wearing shorts and white shirts, and begin stretching what looked like a wire. The Captain took another quick look through the scope and said, "OK, let's get a patrol together and see what they're up to, I'll lead the patrol and I need some volunteers to go out with me. Doc get your aid bag, you're volunteering, if I'm going you're going, so lets get started," said Captain Bishop.

Oh boy, pressed into service again. I wasn't too thrilled about this assignment. As a matter of fact, I was down right scared. To me it looked like those guys were setting up a command detonated claymore and were getting ready for an ambush. Now the company commander wants us to go walking outside the wire into their ambush. What if we step on something that is pressure activated? The hunters being hunted by the hunters, I thought.

It didn't take long to gather about eight volunteers. Since the Captain himself was going, the first Sargent thought it would be prudent to volunteer himself. This would be the first time I would ever get a chance to see him in action. He was a veteran of the Korean War and worked mostly in the rear making sure the grunts in the field would get an occasional warm beer with the supplies. One time he even managed to get a large block of ice sent out to the field so we could roll our warm beers on it and drink them cold. I was told he went out on an ambush one time and he snored so loud that everybody was afraid Charlie would hear also. As for me, I picked up my M- 16 and as many bandoleers as I could carry along with my aid bag. I took my place in the middle of the patrol and out we slipped beyond the perimeter into the moonless night.

I just knew we were walking into an ambush and all my senses were in a state of over alertness. I could feel the roots of my hair tingling. My heart was pounding, (ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom.) Breathing through my mouth made my throat dry and sticky. I was unable to swallow, even afraid to swallow for fear that my throat would stick shut and I would gag, suffocate, and struggle to the ground. The pucker factor was in full force. Every now and then a peristaltic cramping would take place in my colon. My hair even felt like it was standing straight up and tingling. I was wearing a steel pot and how that could happen was beyond me. As quietly as possible each man inched his way towards the little hut. Every step was lifted and place as silently as a cat stalking a prey. All weapons were pre-set on full automatic. The closer we got towards that hut, the more adrenaline surged and pulsated with each increased beat of my heart.

We must not have been too quiet, or maybe they had heard the thumping of my heart, (sounding like a big bass drum to me being played at a frantic pace), or they must have had a lookout, because by the time we reached the hut they were gone. We quickly searched and secured the area. The Captain got on the radio and requested a full platoon to come out.

The little hut was located next to a berm which concealed a line of vision from the observation tower. Behind the berm sat two 107 mm rockets perched on makeshift bamboo launchers aimed directly at the Fire Support Base. Part of the platoon carried the rockets back to the perimeter while several squads were dispersed into ambush positions with the hope that the Viet Cong would come back to reclaim their military hardware. No such luck. The rest of the night was real quiet. Those guys in the ambush squads were looking for a night off, but it turned out to be another sleepless night of anticipation and hard ground.

Once back inside the perimeter, I shed off all my excess baggage. The down side of the adrenaline rush left me disoriented and tired. I felt like I had gone 12 rounds in a prize fight. As I laid down on my air mattress I grabbed a stick of Black Jack gum. Nervously removing the wrapper and placing the gum in my mouth. I was in hoping that the licorice flavor could reconstitute some form of saliva in my dried mouth. Ed stuck his head inside the bunker. "Hey Doc, the Captain wants to know if you're going to finish the hand."

To this day I don't like playing hearts nor do I like Black Jack gum.

Copyrightę 1998 Tom Hays. All Rights Reserved.


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Added 11/15/98