Just A Little Walk In The Woods
with the Delta Raiders
Company D, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile)
by Ray "Blackie" Blackman, 3rd Platoon, 9 Apr 70 - 8 Feb 71
"Okay men, listen up! We're going on a real patrol today, outside the wire, to look for enemy activity in the area. This will be the real thing so stay alert. If you find anything out of the ordinary do not -- I say again -- DO NOT touch it. If you see anything that looks out of place report it to me. I will be walking point. Keep your eyes on me at all times, walk where I walk, and don't bunch up. I won't have a bunch of cherries getting me killed."
This is it. It's my last day of SERTS (Screaming Eagle Replacement Training School) and so far the only new thing I've learned is how spooky the bunker line is at night.
Bunker guard duty at Camp Evans sucks! Everything is black and quiet. You feel like you're out there all alone. Every noise sounds like an enemy soldier sneaking up to kill you. There's a dim flash far away, just bright enough to make you look. The faint shape of a mountain appears on the horizon, green and red streaks bounce around in the sky behind the mountain-mass, flares pop. Then you hear a muffled whooomph, kra-kra-kra- kraack, thdddd-thdddd, poo-poo-poo-pooo.. poo-poo. The guy wrapped up in his faded poncho liner behind me stirs, "Those poor guys are really gettin hit out there tonight aren't they? Keep your eyes open man." Then it got black and quiet again, like nothing had ever happened.
"Listen up men. If I call your name get in that jeep over there. You're going to the 2-501 at Phu Bai. The rest of you will be assigned to a unit here at Evans. You can walk."
During the ride to Phu Bai my mind drifted back... back to Iowa. I didn't really have an opinion about Vietnam before being drafted. Things were going so fast that I hadn't had time to form one. After dropping out of High School I started my first job at a window & door factory, then got married. Most of my older friends were being drafted and going off to Nam. Some came home early, including one with both legs missing. They had all changed. My draft classification was 1-A, and I wanted to know what to expect over there. None of my Nam Vet friends would volunteer any information and I was too scared to ask. Scared of my own friends! They really had changed.
Gary and I hadn't been friends before being drafted together. We lived worlds apart in the same town. He was single and wild, while I was married and quiet. We became buddies during basic and AIT at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Upon graduation he went to Vietnam and I went to NCOCS (Non Commissioned Officers Candidate School) at Fort Benning, GA.
After finishing NCO school, then OJT at Fort Ord in California, I found myself home again. My wife told me that she had seen Gary a few days earlier, but I didn't believe her. The next day we went to fill the car up with gas and there he was, sitting in his blue Malibu on the other side of the gas pumps. "Hey Gary, what are you doing here? You're supposed to be in Nam!" Gary got out of his car and limped over to me, "They got me man. They blew my foot off. I stepped on a booby-trap during my first mission. You on your way over?" "Yea, I leave tomorrow. How'd they get you fixed up so fast?" "Oh man, they aren't done yet," he replied, knocking on a wooden leg with his fist. "This one's only temporary so I could come home for a visit. I'll get the real thing after my stub gets hard." "How bad is it over there?" "It's bad man," he half whispered as he gave me a bear hug, "Whatever you do keep your head down and watch where you put your feet."
"Blackman... Sergeant Blackman!" The jeep stopped near a building where chest high cement-covered sand bags formed a half circle in front of the entrance. "I hope you know just how lucky you are man. You'll be with Delta Company. A good outfit. The rest of you guys stay put. You're going to Alpha. Hard Luck Alpha." The driver went on to explain that Alpha had been hit hard on a firebase and lost a lot of men. The cherries in Alpha would out-number the old-timers. Not ee-ven a good situation to be in. "These guys in Delta, you listen to them. They know what they're talkin about. You'll be all right man."
As the jeep drove off, leaving me standing in a cloud of dust, a large figure of a man came out the door of the building and headed toward me. With a huge smile on his face he reached out to shake my hand, "Sergeant Blackman? I've been expecting you. My name is John Schuelke. I'm the First Sergeant of Delta Company, 2nd of the 501st. Welcome. Come on in and I'll get you squared away."
As we walked around the cement-bags I noticed a sign hanging to the right of the door. "BE PROUD YOU'RE A GRUNT. DELTA COMPANY HAS EIGHTY PERCENT FEWER CASUALTIES."
Top Schuelke explained that the company was in the field and I'd be joining it on it's next log day. In the meantime there were a few guys in the rear for various reasons that he would introduce me to later. In fact a couple of them were in the 3rd platoon, the one I'd be assigned to. He went on to say that Captain Chris Straub was the CO of Delta Company. Top assured me that Straub was a fine leader who takes good care of his people. After taking me to supply, Top escorted me to a hooch. "Hey... look at that!" "Looks like we got us a new man." "Come on over here and drop your stuff on this cot." "Where ya from man?" "How's things back in the World?" "What platoon ya goin to?" "He's gotta be goin ta third man." "Yea, we been short handed since Re-Up Hill!" "Ya goin ta third man?" "Want a beer?" "What's your name man?"
Upon entering the company hooch I was bombarded with questions as a small group of scrufty looking characters headed my way. They all looked genuinely happy to see me, as though we were old friends who hadn't seen each other for a long time. Three Vietnamese men, who looked very young, sat side by side on a cot in the far corner with puzzled looks on their faces. One had a stupid looking grin on his face, almost like it had been painted there. They seemed very much out of place.
"Hey man, don't worry 'bout those guys.. they're on our side now." Huh??? "Yeah, they're captured NVA. They were given a choice: go to jail or let us pay you fifty bucks a month to be a scout." "They call em Kit Carson Scouts." "They're supposed to walk point and find the booby traps for us. What a crock!" "Ain't no NVA gonna walk point for me man." "There it is!" "Oh well, they never stay around long anyway." "So, how's the World?"
They didn't really want me to say anything. I think they were just happy to see a new face. A replacement. I was fresh from the World and they had almost forgotten what civilization had been like. I could talk later. Top walked out of the hooch saying something about leaving me in good hands.
Jerry Bull introduced himself first, "You'll probably be going to 3rd platoon. Ask for 3rd squad. Thats my squad. It's the best. Let me show you how to pack your ruck. You'll need a frame for this thing. It rides too low without one. Of course we're out of them right now but I'll snatch up the first one I can for ya."
As the huge pile of stuff on my cot started to dwindle and my rucksack looked like it would split at the seams, I asked a stupid question, "Do I really need all this stuff?" "Oh this ain't all of it! You'll need at least two more canteens of water, a Claymore, maybe six frags, a quarter pound of C-4, an ammo can for your personal stuff, and a hunting knife. Can you think of anything else guys?" No, please!! "Yea man, you gonna need some dry socks and foot powder, maybe a towel." "Better get him some bug juice!" "They'll probably give you some 60 ammo or a LAW to carry when you get out there too." Oh no!!
Bull, a big red-headed southerner, had decided to take me under his wing. He was in the rear for two reasons. He'd be leaving for R&R in a couple days, but first had to get the doctor's O.K. at Camp Eagle. He explained that Delta Company was operating in a nasty AO. Third platoon had been sent to re-enforce another company that was in trouble on a hill... a place they named Re-Up Hill, for obvious reasons. Guys from the other company were re-enlisting for an MOS change, just so they'd be taken off that hill, and to the rear to sign the papers. I was told that it had brought about a change in the rules. From now on you can't re-up unless you're already in the rear on stand-down.
Suddenly I don't feel so "Lucky to be with Delta." I'd be replacing a guy who had been wounded in a ambush not too long ago, and the company was still in the same AO, near Firebase Ripcord. This was really starting to get scary!
Early the next morning there was a company formation -- for all four of us. We were a sorry looking bunch of guys trying not to wobble at attention. Top informed us that all was well in the field. Delta would move to an LZ in two days for supplies. That's when I'd go out. Bull was sent to Camp Eagle and the other guys were assigned various details within the confines of the Phu Bai wire. After all the shuffling around that I'd been through in the past two weeks it looked like the Army had found a place for me. I was told to write home, send my new address and tell 'em I'm okay. Take it easy today. You'll be pulling guard duty in our sector of the Phu Bai Bunker Line tonight.
Our jeep pulled up to the Raider supply pile near the control tower at the Camp Evans log pad. There were other piles there. They all looked the same. How they knew which one belonged to Delta Company has always been a mystery to me. A steady stream of helicopter traffic whirled in and out. They all seemed to be going to, or coming from, the same general direction, that is, the mountains to the West. A Crane would take off as a Chinook landed. Two Cobra Gunships sat waiting for a Loach to warm up. Slicks landed to pick up their cargo. An amazing sight! Organized chaos! Business as usual in The Nam.
A slick landed near our pile and I helped the supply Sergeant load the C's. A chill ran up my spine when I noticed the door gunner fiddling with his M-60 Machine Gun and ammo. Well Blackman, you really got yourself in a fine mess this time. These guys are serious. There's gonna be real shooting out there. The words of our Drill Instructor at Fort Polk popped into my mind: "and all you 11-Bravo's will be going to the land of the two way rifle range."
I had ridden in a helicopter before, at Benning, but it wasn't the same as this. That Chopper had soft seats and doors, and had landed like a feather in a large open field at our bivouac site. No machine guns were hanging out the doors, and no men were hiding in the jungle wanting to kill you. Oh yes... this was different all right.
As our chopper started passing over the mountains I momentarily forgot about the war that I was rapidly approaching. The vastness and beauty of the jungle-covered mountains helped me overlook the ugly bomb craters and LZ's scattered here and there along the way. The view was breath-taking, and made me feel insignificant. Why would anyone ever have a war in a place this beautiful? It was love at first sight. I instantly wanted to come back some day (under different circumstances, of course). I'd build a log cabin right down there, on that small hill facing the waterfall.
The slapping rotor blades pulled me out of the trance. Colored smoke was rising from a ridgeline with a small bald spot in the center. We started to circle and go down fast. I've never been in a falling elevator, but this must be the way it feels. The trees and mountains quickly grew to full size. The door gunner slowly moved his M-60 back and forth as he searched for the enemy in the jungle below. My heart pounded it's way up into my throat. We're gonna die. They're gonna shoot us right out of the sky.
Hey, wait a minute! I don't see anyone down there. I'm supposed to meet a whole company out here. You guys screwed up bad. We're landing on the wrong LZ. These guys are gonna leave me here all alone...
We touched down. By the time I opened my eyes two guys were running up to the chopper. They had appeared from nowhere. Two more were on the other side. Half the C-Rations were unloaded before the door gunner had a chance to tell me to get out. I rolled over on my hands and knees and slid out backwards. Damn this rucksack anyway!
As I stood there in the middle of the LZ, wondering what to do, I strained my eyes in the hopes of seeing the rest of Delta Company. There was a guy between two stumps with a radio. One kneeling down next to him. Another carrying a case of C's off the LZ and into the jungle. As the slick lifted off someone appeared before me. He was wearing a steel pot, had a bandolier of magazines around his shoulder and carried an M-16. He yelled in my ear, "My names Dotson. I'm the 3rd Platoon Sergeant. You'll be with us. We gotta get off the LZ now. Follow me." When we got to the 3rd platoon sector of the perimeter Dotson introduced me to Lieutenant Bass, then the guys in 3rd squad. I was never referred to as a "cherry." In fact everyone seemed glad to get the extra help.
I was given a LAW and a couple smoke grenades to add to my already heavy rucksack. I only weighed about 115 pounds soaking wet, so just knew that I could not possibly carry all this stuff up and down these mountains for a whole year. Conservatively speaking, humping a ruck was like strapping a 60 pound bag of redi-mix concrete over your shoulders and walking up and down the steps to the Washington Monument for 8 to 10 hours in August. Then imagine also carrying a rifle, fighting your way through thick jungles and swift mountain streams, and doing it every single day from dawn to dusk.
We moved out to set up an NDP (Night Defensive Position) away from the LZ. I still hadn't seen all of Delta Company, but only part of 3rd platoon. It would be at our first stand-down in Phu Bai, about three weeks later, that I would see them all at once and in one place.
Humping in the middle of the column is boring. I had no idea what I was supposed to do except struggle to put one foot in front of the other. "Your left right... your left right."
My brother and I used to play Army, and not so very long ago. We'd gather up all the able bodied kids in our neighborhood and choose sides. But this is no game, no "Bang bang, you're dead" here. I was always brave then, but wondered would I be brave now?
One time my brother went on a recon mission and hid in the rafters of an old garage being used as the neighborhood enemy Headquarters. He fell and broke his arm. I ran for help. My dad was furious, "Why the hell didn't you stop him?" I'd never been able to stop him before. He was my big brother and should know better. Now I'm an E-5 and in a real war. Why am I thinking about my brother now? He isn't here with me... or is he?
My brother had tried desperately to spare me from going to Nam. He was a Communications Technician in the Navy and put his first transfer in for Vietnam when I dropped out of High School. He would put three more in before I got my draft notice. The Navy refused his request. He was needed elsewhere. Ironicly, my new First Sergeant, Top Schuelke, had taught ROTC to my brother when he was in High School. Maybe a little bit of my big brother is here with me.
In the morning, after I had learned what leeches were, we moved out, down the mountain toward the valley below. After only a few minutes the ruck had kicked my butt. At least we were heading down, which was the only thing that saved me. My squad was on point and I was last man. They would slowly work me toward the front as time went by so that within three months I could expect to walk point.
After reaching the bottom of the mountain we found a river. This wasn't a good place to cross so we turned upstream, trying to stay as near the huge rocks along the bank as possible. A Loach that was following the river passed over us.
CRACK! CRACK!! CRACK!!!
When I was 14 years old the neighbor man and my dad took my brother and me on a hunting trip for pheasants. Two flew up right in front of us. My knees went weak. Three shots fired. No birds fell. "I only heard three shots! Who didn't shoot?" I had instinctively aimed but was unable to pull the trigger. "I'll never take you hunting again!" The neighbor was true to his words and never took me hunting again. My dad had told me not to worry about it. "Lots of guys freeze up the first time."
I was worried now. Would I freeze up over here? There is no way of telling how a man will react in combat until it actually happens.
The guys in front and behind me disappeared behind the rocks along the river as the Loach exploded into a ball of fire. I dropped in place and became wedged between some small rocks and my ruck. I was urged by someone to "take cover man!" "Hey, get over here! Don't lay there in plain sight!" After collecting my wits I struggled to free myself and crawled behind a boulder where two others from my squad had taken refuge.
A squad of NVA was sitting on the rocks across the river from us eating dinner. They were just sitting there big as you please taking pot shots at the bird. They hadn't seen or heard us, and we didn't know they were there till it was too late. In fact our whole platoon had already passed them. Most of my platoon and all of the men in the platoon behind us opened up. The Loach had been the scout of a Pink Team, so two Cobras were already on station. It was over in hour/seconds. I didn't shoot, so earned my CIB without firing a round.
A sweep of the area revealed three NVA killed by small arms fire and one killed by ARA (Aerial Rocket Artillery).
A squad from one of the other platoons broke off and went around us to check for survivors from the Loach. We knew there wouldn't be any.
When the patrol came back I got my first good look at the enemy. One of the men was carrying an NVA soldier on his shoulders. He had been wounded and was crying out in pain. The man carrying him was mad and not keeping it a secret. I later learned that they had found him hiding behind a rock, wounded in the leg. He had a small wooden medal pinned to his shirt. A medal given to him for shooting down a helicopter.
A couple hours later one of our platoons received a "Hoi Chanh" without a weapon.
After the wounded NVA prisoner and the Hoi Chanh were evacuated we moved away from the river. The guys talked little about the firefight. I couldn't understand it. A Loach crew had died, we had killed four NVA soldiers, taken one prisoner and had another surrender to us, yet very little was said about it. It was as if it had been "all in a days work." Would I become this callous as time went by? Were their hearts made hard from combat, or was it a natural protection against insanity?
At first light the next morning a quick burst from an M-60 interrupted my breakfast. A single NVA with an AK-47 had been bopping down the trail near our NDP site, until one of our machine gunners nailed him cold.
A little later, before moving out, one of the machine gunners test fired his M-60 after repairing it. Immediately after the test fire there was a loud Whoosh....WHOOMPH!, as the first of about 40 60mm mortars started dropping on us. I had seen and heard mortars fired during training, but had never been right under them when they impacted. I scrambled to a tree no bigger around than my leg in an effort to avoid being killed.
The only time I can remember feeling this helpless was when I learned how to swim. The method my brother had used was common. He drug a screaming little brat out from the safety of the shallow water in the swimming area at Lake Mannawa, and left me. Then, I would either sink or swim, die or live.
I survived the mortar barrage but was one scared puppy. Two Raiders had been wounded during the attack. Artillery and ARA were called in on the suspected NVA position. It's gonna be a long 10 months and 20 days. Yes, I was already counting my time left in country.
When the smoke cleared we moved out, but later doubled back and set up an ambush around the NVA that we had killed during breakfast. We would NDP around his body. I can't recall if it was a company or platoon size ambush, but do remember where I was to sleep... head to head with the dead gook. I avoided looking at him for awhile, but later decided that I'd better make sure he was really dead. I had this funny feeling that he wasn't, and didn't want him to get up and slit my throat in the middle of the night.
First I took two quick glances at his body. The third glance turned into a long stare. While looking at him I wondered if he had a wife and family. I know we had been trained to think of the NVA as the enemy and not human beings, but I couldn't help it. I had seen dead people before at family funerals, but this was different. He was laying there all full of holes and his family didn't even know he was dead yet. In a strange sort of way I felt sorry for him. I got little or no sleep that night.
The next morning we started humping up a big hill. The jungle was thick and dark, hotter than hot, and I wasn't used to my ruck yet. The straps were digging into my shoulders deep and every time I tried shifting the weight it felt like my skin was on fire where the straps had been. Everyone was drenched in sweat and you could hear muffled grunts and groans along the column. That's probably why they called us Grunts.
We were about half way up the hill when the whispering among the 3rd platoon guys began. They seemed nervous and much more alert. "This is it man. This is the trail to Re-Up Hill." "Are you sure?" "Yea, I'm sure. The ambush was right over there man. They're gonna make us go back up there. This is one bad place." "Keep your eyes open man, we're goin back to Re-Up Hill." "They better not make us NDP up there." "There's dinks here. I can feel em!" "I don't need this crap at all. I'm gettin WAY too short!"
The weight of my ruck and tender shoulders were forgotten.
After reaching the top of Re-Up Hill we circled the filled in foxholes. Only an occasional whisper could be heard, "There's the place Bull got hit." "The RPG's came from there." "This hole took a direct hit." Re-Up was eerie. You could feel that men had died here. We NDP'd on the hill that night. Nobody in 3rd platoon slept.
The next morning we left Re-Up Hill and went to an LZ. We were to be CA'd to an abandoned firebase called Gladiator. Our job was to secure it so Artillery and Mortars could be installed. It would be my first Combat Assault and I was extremely apprehensive. None of the old-timers knew much about the new AO (Area of Operation) but we all hoped it would be more quiet than this one. After the last few days I just wanted to catch my breath.
Because of this move, and the fact that some of the guys had mentioned being in the Firebase Birmingham and Bastogne areas before going near Ripcord, I asked someone where our permanent AO was. We didn't have one. The 2nd of the 501st had become the Swing Battalion and we could expect to be popped into any AO where extra help was needed, or where NVA presence was suspected. "Oh great!"
Being on a company size Combat Assault from one AO to another with it's long line of Slicks and Cobra escorts is impossible to describe. One has to experience it to know the many feelings involved. It would start with a sense of relief that you were leaving a bad area. You would think that anywhere has to be better than this... or does it? Then you got the terrible feeling that something bad would happen at the pickup zone, especially if we had to cut an LZ. Once in the air you could kick back and enjoy the ride, but in the back of your mind you knew we had to land sooner or later. When the Slicks approached the new LZ you felt a strange mixture of different emotions as the Artillery prep stopped and the Cobras dove in to finish the job. Then you felt the bottom drop out of your bird as it took you into the blessedly cold LZ. Well, at least for a few precious moments.
As our bird touched down red smoke came billowing through the open doors making it difficult to see. The door gunner quickly started moving his M-60 from side to side frantically searching for something to shoot at. Then came the blood curdling cry, "INCOMING!" At the same time the door gunner was repeating, "Get out fast. It's a HOT LZ. It's a HOT LZ."
Now there's a job that I know I couldn't handle. Being a door gunner and going on CA's every day just wasn't my idea of an easy tour. Of course my tour hadn't seemed too easy so far either.
As I slid down the side of the hill where my squad was frantically trying to dig in several mortar rounds impacted all around the hastily set up perimeter. Although digging a hole with explosions going off all around you is extremely difficult, you can do it very fast. Six more mortar attacks rained on our position that day with four Raiders being wounded.
We stayed on or around Gladiator for the next twelve days while it was being built up, and were constantly being mortared. I've never really been much of a fighter but became frustrated that there was nothing for us to shoot back at. We were helpless against the mortars. We could watch for flashes from the tubes and call Artillery in on the suspected locations, but of course the enemy had already moved by then.
During one of those days someone walked up behind me as I was digging 'just a little bit deeper.' "How's it going soldier?" As I turned to see who it was I replied, "Not worth a.. uh.. darn, Chaplain." "What seems to be the problem son?" "Well, sir, we've been getting mortared every day since getting here and there isn't anything we can do about it." By now a Sergeant Major had walked up beside the Chaplain and said, "Well Sergeant, I have to tell you that the reports I have read so far about our activities in this AO have indicated that we are doing very well indeed. As long as we kill ten of the enemy for each of our own casualties we feel that we are winning." I couldn't believe my ears. An acceptable value, or price, of 10 to 1 had been put on each American life. I turned around without responding and began digging again. I don't know how long they stood there behind me, but they must have figured out that our conversation was over because when I finally looked again they had gone.
As soon as Gladiator had been built up, we closed it back down and were flown to Phu Bai, then to Eagle Beach for my first stand-down. We went to Eagle Beach in Chinooks and I didn't like it one little bit. Those big choppers had no open doors to hang my M-16 out of and we couldn't see what was going on.
Soon after arriving at Eagle Beach I learned just how much steam a line company could blow off in a rear area, and why the REMF's would just as soon we never come back for a visit. We considered ourselves special and wouldn't comply with the rear area conduct.
I can't say I enjoyed my introduction into this special group of men called Raiders, but the experience gave me a feeling of confidence, pride, and belonging. They were -- and are -- the very best people I have ever met.
below are links to more
Hill 100 | Delta Raiders Overrun Outpost | Infantry, Arty Chew Up NVA Unit
Going Home | Heavy Fighting Near Bastogne | Hill 805, A First Sergeant Remembers
The Introduction | Across The River & Into... | Raiders "Lighten The Load"
You should know Joe Hooper | Most decorated soldier dies | The List
Airborne Trooper Saves Girl | Flashback | Night Sweats | 'Grunt' More Than A Name
Delta Raiders Ambushed Near Firebase Bastogne | To My Dad on Veterans Day