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Sunday Afternoon at the Races

by Stephen John Walker

The first rocket exploded on the airstrip. The next hit in the jungle across the river. Twenty-two year old, Second Lieutenant Rodney Burns Crippen, Mississippi State, Class of ’67, in-country only two weeks and never under fire before, couldn’t stop shaking.

The counter battery barrage from the brigade firebase was more frightening than the enemy’s incoming rounds. Each time the artillery pieces answered the North Vietnamese’s rockets the bunker shook like a violent earthquake. Dirt poured down from the roof. Mixed up in all the mush of his officer training, he knew he was probably safe from anything but a direct hit. Lying in this hole in the ground with six other men—a hole covered with several layers of sandbags and dirt—didn’t make him feel very confident or manly. I’m an officer, he thought, I should be doing or saying something.

“Crippen? Is there a LT Crippen in here?” an excited voice yelled from the bunker entrance. The scream of another enemy rocket pierced the air. The questioner dove headfirst down into the bunker.

“I’m Lieutenant Crippen,” Rodney said as he helped the soldier to his feet.

“Hey, LT the brigade XO wants to see you ASAP.”

“Where is he?” Crippen had arrived at the firebase less than an hour before on a Chinook supply run from Pleiku and didn’t know where anything was, except this bunker. The headquarters clerk who’d met him on the airstrip took a copy of his orders, led him into the fire base’s perimeter, and told him to wait by the bunker. Then the rocket attack started.

“He’s in the TOC (tactical operations center).  Follow me, LT.” The soldier crawled up the sandbag steps to the entrance of the bunker, looked around, and sprinted in a half-crouch across several yards of open ground to the entrance of a much larger bunker. Crippen did the same. They both stumbled down some steep steps and past a sentry, who opened a steel door to a large room.

The brigade’s TOC, several yards underground, was about what Crippen expected from his training: an olive drab, parachute cloth-draped wall covered with maps of the Central Highlands, another with charts and status reports. Along a third wall of bare sandbags sat a row of wooden field tables cluttered with radios. More field desks, tables, and folding chairs filled the rest of the room. Several soldiers worked at the radios or updated the charts. Light from Coleman lanterns, hung from the low steel I-beam and plywood ceiling, cut through the floating clouds of dust and tobacco smoke. It’s much cooler down here, he thought.

“Crippen! Over here!” a voice ordered. Three officers stood in front of one of the maps.  One was short with close-cropped gray hair. Probably the infantry brigade commander, he thought. A taller and younger officer, with a silver oak leaf on his collar, pointed at some terrain feature on the map. The officer who’d yelled at Crippen was a major and a fellow artillery officer.

“Crippen. John Sloan, brigade redleg liaison.” They shook hands. “Welcome aboard. Just got in-country, right? Good. We’ve got a job for you. Over here.” Major Sloan grabbed Crippen firmly by the upper arm and directed him to a map of the valley.

“We’re here.” He pointed to a blue infantry symbol. “We’ve grunt battalions and smaller fire bases to the west and north. This is the Special Forces camp, Polei Pranang, on the hill at the other end of the airstrip. You probably saw it when you flew in. The NVA (North Vietnamese Army) are pounding us with rockets primarily from these two ridge lines.” He ran his fingers over those locations on the map.  “The brigade commander wants you to go up to the Special Forces camp and FO (forward observer) from there.  It’s a perfect location. Any questions?”

“Yes, sir. Uh . . . I’ll need a map and a radio and call signs, and, sir, how will I get there?”  Half in shock, he couldn’t believe that they would send him off on his first assignment without a more detailed briefing. The older, gray-haired officer turned to face him. Crippen saw the eagle on his collar. Grasping Crippen’s right hand in his and squeezing it firmly while gently gripping Crippen’s right shoulder with his other hand, the colonel said, “Don’t worry, son. The ‘3’ will get you a map.  Just tell the headquarters company commander what you need.  Those SF folks up on the hill will take care of anything else you might want. You’ll do a great job. I have confidence in you.” The tall lieutenant colonel went over to a nearby wooden field table and returned with a map. He handed it to Crippen, shook his hand and said, “Good hunting, son.”

***

The sentry at the T.O.C. entrance showed Crippen the location of the headquarters company bunker. During a lull in the rocket fire, he ran across the open ground. The brigade commo chief outfitted him with a radio and the necessary frequencies and call signs. And transportation.

“Here’re your wheels, LT,” the sergeant said as he and Crippen knelt down behind the sandbag revetment that protected the brigade headquarters’ vehicles. The captain in charge of the headquarters company told Crippen he couldn’t spare anyone to be his driver. Besides, he was only going up to the SF camp anyway, less than a mile away. Crippen hesitated to admit that he didn’t know how to drive a stick shift—his family always had cars with automatic transmissions.  During ROTC training atMSU, he was told that the Army would provide him with a driver; officers didn’t need to know how to drive. Humble and embarrassed, he explained his predicament—he didn’t even know how to start it. The sergeant understood, just chuckled a lot. After a quick lesson, Crippen drove a manual shift vehicle for the first time, but only in second gear.

He drove out of the perimeter and onto the airstrip as a rocket angled in from the east and hit north of the fire base near the river. The fire base’s howitzers turned and fired directly over his head. None of his artillery officer school training had prepared him for this. He slammed on the brakes—almost killed the engine. He sat there, ears throbbing from the salvo, and watched the impact of the counter battery fire on the jungle-covered ridge. Another rocket wobbled in from the north and hit in the jungle west of the fire base. God, it’s hot! He took a drink from his canteen and almost gagged on the warm water. What I wouldn’t give for a cold beer right now. What I wouldn’t give for a cold anything.

Crippen looked down the runway. The entrance to the Special Forces camp was, maybe, a thousand yards away. Can’t stay here. He had the strange feeling that other eyes were watching him. Maybe the brigade commander. Oh shit! Do I drive straight for the entrance or zigzag to avoid the enemy rocket fire? “Fuck it! No guts, no glory!”he yelled, and raced straight down the airstrip in second gear, the engine howling in protest.

***

“Hey, Dai-uy, What’s that clown doin’?”  Sergeant Miller’s question jerked Captain Patrick Palmer back from the beginnings of a very pleasant daydream; the image of his wife in her yellow bathing suit had just started to take form. Relaxing on the aluminum and plastic chaise lounge he’d bought at the PX (post exchange) in Pleiku. He thought, what a lovely war. You could buy state-side lawn furniture at a PX, but had trouble getting spare parts and ammunition. These Sunday afternoons were a welcome break from the daily routine. But not from the war. There were no breaks from this war.

Palmer, the Special Forces team commander, picked up his binoculars and watched the jeep race down the runway from the fire base and stop at the camp’s gate. Only a driver. Could be the artillery forward observer, he thought. The brigade commander had said they’d send up a FO when they could spare someone or got a replacement in.

“Northbound freight coming in!” Miller yelled. “The runway this time. Just a buck. Any takers?”

Palmer raised his binos to watch the NVA rocket arc in from the south. He hoped it would hit the runway and not the Montagnard village.

“Five bucks it takes out Mama-San’s whorehouse,” another team member answered.

***

Crippen skidded to a stop in front of the two sandbagged bunkers at the entrance of the Special Forces camp, without killing the jeep’s engine. He sat there trying to catch his breath. Made it. Thank  you, Sweet Jesus. A barbed-wire barricade blocked the road up the hill to the camp’s interior. Off to the northwest another rocket hit in the jungle across the river.

A short, stocky, olive-skinned soldier—not an American—in a black and green-striped “tiger-suit” camouflage uniform walked out of the bunker on the right side of the gate. Armed with a submachine gun, the soldier wore rank insignia that Crippen didn’t recognize, and over his left breast pocket were three faded and tattered ribbons. The soldier didn’t salute. Crippen looked at the bunkers on either side of the barricade. Both had tripod-mounted machine guns that were manned and pointed at him.

“I need to go up to the camp.” Crippen said, pointing toward the top of the cone-shaped hill. Its steep slopes had been stripped of all vegetation and were covered with bamboo pungi stakes and barbed-wire. Near the top of the hill, he could see other bunkers, two towers, and a pole flying the South Vietnamese flag.

The pug-nosed Montagnard Civilian Irregular Defense Group corporal looked the young, black American officer up and down, and then he pointed to a field telephone attached to the bunker’s wooden door frame.

“Team House. You call,” he ordered.

Crippen remembered to put the gear shift in neutral and to set the hand brake. He got out of the jeep and walked over to the bunker. He held the handset in place with one hand, turned the crank on the side of the telephone with the other. When he raised the handset to his ear, the CIDG  corporal grabbed him by his pistol belt and pulled him roughly into the bunker. A rocket hit on the south side of the airstrip. Several large pieces of shrapnel pinged off the runway’s steel planking in front of the bunker.

Holy Shit! That was fucking close. He turned to thank the corporal, but the Montagnard pointed to the telephone’s handset that dangled near the ground. Crippen grabbed it and started to crank the phone again, but an American voice on the other end of the line said, “Team house. What ya need?”

Crippen told the voice on the other end of the land line who he was, but before he could explain his mission the voice said, “Wait!”

His eyes adjusted to the darkness of the bunker. The native soldier who’d pulled him inside didn’t look like any Vietnamese he’d seen. In a back corner of the bunker, two young girls sat by a small brazier. One stirred the pot on top while the other fed sticks of charcoal into the fire. They’re dark-skinned, almost as dark as I am, and that guy looks old enough to be my grandfather. The machine gun and other weapons in the bunker are all World War II or Korean War relics, and there’s a woman breast-feeding a baby! And what is that awful smell? What kind of war am I in?

***

The field telephone rang. The voice said, “Come on up, LTLet me talk to the Yard MFIC (mother f– in charge).” Crippen held out the handset to the Montagnard NCO, who listened for a moment, then said “Okay, Trung-si.”

The NCO placed the handset back on the telephone, turned to Crippen, smiled, pointed up the hill, saluted and said, “You okay, Thieu-uy. You numba one. Go now.”

The NCO shouted an order in his own language. Three soldiers came out of the other bunker and pulled the barbed-wire barricade to one side.

The road to the top of the hill was wide enough for one vehicle. Crippen felt like he was entering a medieval fortification. He passed row after row of single-strand, tangle-foot barbed wire filled with thousands of sharpened-bamboo pungi stakes and walls of triple-stacked concertina wire. From somewhere behind him, he heard another rocket, but he put his head down and kept driving.

He drove through a third and final belt of concertina wire and into an open area. On both sides were single-story, tin-roofed buildings with bamboo walls, sandbagged half way up from the ground. Large white circles with red crosses in the center were painted on the roof of one building. Behind the last belt of barbed wire was a low line of bunkers extending in both directions. He was surprised by the number of soldiers standing on top of the bunkers—out in the open—watching the rocket attack on the fire base. Not just soldiers, but women and children.  There was another jeep and a ¾-ton truck parked by an interior log and sandbag wall. Crippen parked next to the truck. He forgot to engage the clutch. The jeep’s engine bucked once and died.

An American, wearing a tiger-striped camouflage uniform, but without a helmet, flak jacket or weapon, walked through a gap in the wall. He wore no rank insignia on his uniform.

“Welcome to Polei Pranang, LT.” He extended his right hand—the two copper bracelets on his wrist clanged together. He didn’t salute. They shook hands.

“Grab your shit. I’ll take you to see the Dai-uy,”

What the hell’s a Die-We? Crippen thought as he reached into the back of the jeep for his radio. He froze when he heard another rocket. Out in the open and no place to take cover, he thought about crawling under the vehicle. The SF soldier calmly watched the rocket pass overhead and explode near the fire base.

“No sweatie-da, LT, Charlie’s not shooting at us today.”

Crippen and his guide walked through a z-shaped gap in the five-foot high wall that enclosed the upper portion of the hill, and into the inner perimeter of the camp. He followed the soldier up toward the top of the hill. On his left was a circular mortar position. Beyond it stood a low, single-story building with a tin roof: sandbags half way up its sides and screened windows up to the roof overhang. Over the front door hung a sign: Team House – USSF A-249. Behind the team house, up against the backside of the inner wall, was a tall wooden tower with sandbagged positions at the top and at the base. Another tower was on the high ground at the top of the hill. There were two native soldiers in each tower. Crippen saw the long barrel of a .50-caliber machine gun sticking out from under the sandbagged roofs.

At the top of the hill, four Americans sat in the shade of a tin roof supported by wooden poles. One reclined in a wooden lawn chair. He wore shorts made from jungle fatigues, unlaced tennis shoes, no socks, and no shirt. He had a can of Bud in his right hand. To his left, in an Adirondack-style chair, sat a tall, muscular and well-tanned soldier in a tiger-suit shirt with no sleeves, a red bathing suit, and bare feet. A New York Yankees baseball cap rested on the back of his head, and a can of Schlitz sat on one of the chair’s arms.

In an aluminum and plastic chaise lounge, to the right of the wooden lawn chair, was a man with blonde hair, somewhat older than the others. He was drinking a Pepsi and wore tiger-suit trousers, a gold University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt and shower shoes. The only one of the four that almost looked like a soldier sat on a bamboo barstool behind the others. Wearing a camouflaged bush hat, black T-shirt, tiger-suit trousers, jungle boots, and aviator-style sunglasses, he held a white porcelain coffee cup in one hand and dunked a tea bag in it with the other. He was also the only one of the four who was armed. But even that was unconventional: a semi-automatic pistol—not an Army-issue Colt—in a cut-away, quick-draw holster worn reversed on his left hip. He looked like a gunfighterOther chairs were arrayed in the shade around the top of the hill. From the stenciled markings, Crippen knew some of them were made from ammunition boxes.

Standing there, in full battle gear with a radio in one hand and his M16 rifle in the other, Crippen felt over-dressed. The man in the University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt spoke first.

“What can we do for you, LT?”  Before Crippen could answer, another rocket launched from the ridge to the northeast behind the camp. He looked around for shelter, considered jumping into the mortar pit, but the others didn’t move—just sat there and watched the flight of the rocket.

“Hundred fuckin’ dong it hits the runway,” said red bathing suit.

“No way, Jose!  Five bucks Gringo it goes into the bushes,” said the guy with the Bud. Three of them picked up binoculars and watched the rocket arc in north of the camp and explode in the river.

“Nice shooting, Charlie,” said the blonde. “Should have fresh fish for dinner tonight. We’ll send a squad down to the fish traps below the ford.”

The artillery at the fire base responded with a salvo.

“What a goddamn waste!” said the gunfighter. He threw the tea bag over his shoulder, got down off the barstool, and walked toward the machine gun tower. “Those crazy, dinky dau redlegs must’ve shot a half million bucks worth of ordnance at a two-bit piece of scrap iron. Dai-uy, I thought you told those clowns that Charlie fires those things from at least a half mile away?”

“Roger that, Dutch, but what can I say? I’m only a lowly Dai-uy.” said the blond. He took a drink from his Pepsi and looked up at Crippen.

“LT, Why don’t you make yourself comfortable, have a cold one, and tell me the purpose of your hurried visit to our little camp.”

Before Crippen could say anything, red bathing suit asked, “Like a beer, LT?” Without waiting for an answer, he walked down the hill toward the team house.

“You’ll have to excuse our lack of manners, LT. We don’t get many visitors, especially on Sundays. That’s when Charlie does a lot of his target practice. I’m Captain Pat Palmer, team commander of this detachment—A-249.”

Crippen immediately saluted, but Palmer didn’t return the salute. He just smiled and said, “We don’t stand on ceremony here, LT. Being saluted can get you shot. It tells Charlie who to aim at. Why don’t you take off some of that gear and sit down?”

Reluctantly, he removed his helmet, flak jacket, and web gear. Red bathing suit returned with a six pack of beer and a Pepsi. Crippen sat in one of the lawn chairs, accepted a cold Schlitz, and explained his mission to the team commander.

Another rocket. This time from the ridge to the north behind the camp. It impacted in the jungle south of the runway, close to the village of Polei Pranang.

While Crippen set up his radio, Palmer unfolded the LT’s map and spread it out on the sandbags.

“Tell your boss to spread the wealth around,” Palmer said. “Box the launch site on all sides including the backside of the ridge. No need to hit closer than 500 to 700 yards to the site.   The rockets are usually fired by wire from remote locations. Our Claymore mine ‘clackers’ are a favorite. The chances of hitting anyone are zip, but you might get lucky. There could be a Charlie dumb enough to be sitting on the ridge watching the show.”

Crippen took out his compass and shot an azimuth to the area of the last launch site. He wrote the coordinates and direction on the acetate-covered map. He hadn’t touched his beer.

 I’m in control now. I’m really good at this shit. He set his radio to the brigade fire direction officer’s frequency and made a commo check with the TOC.

“Ten bucks the next one is from the south,” the gunfighter yelled from the tower.

“You’re on, dickhead!” said the guy in the Adirondack.

“LT,” Palmer said, “Dutch is probably right. Advise the brigade to target the ridge line to the south. See that small saddle about halfway down the ridge. Concentrate your fire there.”

Crippen called in the map grid coordinates. The salvo from the fire base hit the saddle as the next rocket was fired. Its flight was erratic and it impacted in the jungle several kilometers south of the fire base and airstrip.

Everyone on the hill applauded. Rodney Crippen was elated with the results of his first artillery fire mission in Vietnam. The joy of the moment ended all too soon when the next rocket flew in from a ridge line to the southwest—this was a new launch location. Crippen and Palmer plotted the coordinates on the map.

“Looks like they’re shooting from the old French Foreign Legion outpost,” Palmer said. “There’s not much left up there for them to hide in, so put your shit on the backside. They’ve probably dug some tunnels and only come out to setup the rockets.”

Crippen called the TOC. The feeling of being successful the first time on the ground was great. He told the brigade fire support officer about the rocket being knocked off course and the old Foreign Legion post. Concentrating on calling in the new fire mission, Crippen didn’t hear the five soft whumps that came from the jungle east of the village. But the others did.

“Incoming!”

 The Green Berets scattered for cover. Two ran to the sandbag bunker at the base of the tower. Another ran toward the mortar pit. Crippen dropped the radio’s handset and followed him. Four of the mortar rounds hit outside the inner wall. Crippen heard the cat-screaming howl of the fifth as he jumped into the pit.

Five more mortar rounds followed the others in quick succession, but the enemy had over-corrected and they went beyond the top of the camp, exploding harmlessly in the barbed wire on the far side of the hill. The camp’s mortars fired a barrage of white phosphorus and high explosive rounds at the enemy’s location.

Sergeant Miller, the soldier in the pit with Crippen, struggled to turn the mortar around to bear on the enemy’s position.

“Give me a hand, LT.”

Crippen didn’t move. He lay face down in the bottom of the pit, a pool of blood flowed out around his head.

“Bac-si! Bac-si! I got a man hit down here!” Miller knelt next to Crippen. He saw the jagged piece of shrapnel sticking out of the side of the lieutenant’s neck. “Damn!”

Bac-si McKay, one of the team’s medics, jumped into the pit. Captain Palmer stood at the edge of the mortar position.

“How bad is it, doc?

“KIA. Severed his spinal cord and vertebral artery. He never felt a thing.”

Fuck! All right, get over to the aid station, Bac-si. We’ve got some Yard WIAs. Get one of his dog tags, Miller. I’ll call the fire base. What was his name, anyway?”

 

 

 

 

Stephen John Walker is the author of  Hotel San Blas: A Caribbean Quest