Wednesday, October 16, 2013

RVN: Sergeant of The Guard

During my Vietnam tour I spent the majority of time in the First Infantry division.  We were  'in the field' all the time, and during the short periods between actual patrols, we rested in Night Defensive Positions (NDP).  Most of the time, we were 'assigned' to NDP November 2.

Now, this was a more complex facility (although 'temporary') than it might sound.  These were outside of 'secure areas' (read: Saigon) but they were actually large bases.  NDP November 2 might actually be considered a FSB (Fire Support Base) because they had a battery 155mm Self-Propelled Guns.  These were 6" cannons, mounted on tracks, and they looked like tanks except that they had BIG guns and they could elevate the barrels to engage area targets several miles away from the NDP.

The difference between a NDP and a FSB is that the NDP was actually constructed to serve as a field base for Infantry troops.  (We also had elements of the Third of the Fourth Calvery/Tanks working out of the same base.)

"NDP suggests the same kind of situation which was my typical operation; we would go walk through the jungle and every night we would circle wagons and hope nobody found us in the clutter.  The actual term for this small-unit Infantry technique is "Night Ambush".  Also ... "Hold Your Ass 'Til Daylight".  That was the status of our night-time activities, 8 days out of every ten.  We would get an occasional night in an NDP, to rest and clean weapons and re-equip and resupply.  Once a month we would get a night in the Division Base Camp (at Dian), where we had Filipino Dance Bands to entertain us in the NCO club where beer was ten cents a glass and drinks were a quarter .. but that's another story.

Our infantry (1/16th) battalion would be based from this NDP location.  Here we could get hot meals, resupply, clean weapons, and sleep in relatively security.  The base was surrounded by large bunkers, and an entire squad would be assigned to each bunker for security .. although actually it was just a place for grunts to get out of the rain and sleep without having to maintain a guard.

Because we also supplied guard for the entire camp.

One night I was designated as Sergeant of the Guard for the entire base.  This my first and only experience at this task during my entire period of servitude, and I was a little apprehensive about it.

I knew the drill, because I had been trained in Non-Commissioned Officer Candidate school at Fort Benning in the early months of that same year, 1969.

We knew that the guys manning the bunkers were probably pretty high on Jungle Juice and Juju Sticks by dusk, so we had a special detail of  'volunteers' to mount a formal guard.  While the guys were partying and passing out in the bunkers, this guard detail remained alert and sober, usually sitting near or on top of those same bunkers.

My job was to make the rounds and make sure that the guards were doing their job.  And to rotate the watch twice a night.  We would make a sort of parade of the 'ready' guard, march around the inner perimeter, and relieve each guard.  One of the 'ready' guard would replace each guard; the relieved guards joined the parade and when all guards had been relieved they would be taken back to the guard shack and given a 'hot cot' to sleep.  The 'resting guard', who had been sleeping in those cots, would be wakened and put in the 'ready guard' ... awake, and alert, but not actually on a guard post.

That way, everybody got a few hours of sleep and everybody served a post.  When they weren't sleeping or actually guarding, they were armed and geared up, prepared to serve as a 'ready reaction force'.

My job as supervisor was to insure that the on-duty guards were very alert, and the ready guards were also kept awake and aware of what was happening.

Consequently, when I wasn't changing the guards or making my rounds, I would sit and talk with the ready guards.

No Sleep for Sgt. Geek; but I did get the next day 'excused duty', as did all the guard detail.

While I wasn't checking the line, I was talking with the ready guards.  And that was the most illuminating part of the whole exercise; both for me, and apparently for the privates and specialists who made up the guard.

You know how it is when guys get talking in the dark of night.  It's even more intense than the late-night bull-sessions I enjoyed in college.  But at the same time, different.

I had very much the same conversations on each shift.  The guys talked among themselves, but all of them wanted to talk to someone who had a different point of view from theirs.

They asked me questions about army life, army structure, army chain of command.  The one point which ALWAYS came up was:

"Hey, Sarge .. you seem okay.  So, why are the other sergeants so mean to us?"

I guess it's a product of our society, but American youths even way back then were unaccustomed to being given orders and being expected to carry those orders out promptly, without question, no matter what.

Mostly, we talked about "Discipline".

Discipline is generally and unofficially defined by The Drill Sergeant's Creed:  "You do what I say you do!"  These guys in the Smokey The Bear Hats that we all met in Basic and Advanced Infantry Training made that their mantra.  Trainees (and soldiers) don't get much opportunity to ask WHY they have to do .. whatever they're told to do.  They resent it.  They didn't grow up that way.

(But of course, many of them did; their mamas replied to "Why?" with "Because I told you to, that's why!"  The thing is, these soldiers considered themselves no longer children .. they were all over 18 years old, and thought they should have some say in how they lived their day to day lives.)

So, we talked a LOT about why Sergeants made their life miserable by insisting to immediate, unquestioning obedience to orders.

Note that none of the troops in the night-guard were in my platoon.  They were semi-regular posted to the NDP, and they had all pulled guard duty before.  I didn't know their names, they forgot mine immediately after I introduced myself to them at the beginning of the night, and they seemed emboldened by their relative anonymity.

Most of them were not attached to units which regularly patrolled the country; they were stuck in limbo.  They pulled guard duty night after night, with no explanation 'why' and no understanding of the importance of their mission.  Every night, they under the command of a different NCO, and all they knew is that they never got a good night's sleep.  So, their 'ready condition' phase turned into their own private bull session.

I was as bored as they were.  And almost as confused. But I did have the luxury, if you could call it that, of having spent just barely enough time in the field, and in a command position, that I knew why I had to rely on my men.  And I was still enough of a civilian that I understood their confusion.

We talked about what would happen if the base camp got hit by a VC or NVA assault .. surely of larger than company size, probably battalion-sized assault force, at least.  It was a big camp.  IT had big problems.

I described the scenario:

All of our first-level defenses, barbed wire and sensors and external patrols and sentries and bunkers, would probably already have been neutralized by sappers before we learned we were under attack.  That means, all of their friends were dead, all of their support people were dead, and we were under fire from mortars.  Things were exploding all over.

Vietnamese allies had been infiltrated by NVE and VC sympathizers, so they knew every inch of the grounds.  The Tactical Operations Command (TOC) bunker had been taken out first.   There was no command structure beyond the man standing next to you.  There was no first, second, or third Line of Defense standing.  The VC were inside the wire.  They were attacking the bunkers from the back door. They were running freely through the base, trying to reach every level of command and definitely targeting The Guns.  And any man standing was a target.

The Ready Reaction Force was the only armed, awake, alert reliable forces available to beat back the attackers.  They were confused, in shock, and slow to react.  They were not accustomed to combat, and they needed Leadership to coordinate the effort which would, hopefully, beat back the assault.

Push had come to Shove, and they were the only people who were immediately prepared to SHOVE back the infiltrators.

The officers were murdered in their cots.  The only command they had was Sergeant, this stranger that they had known for no more than a few hours.  Unless they were prepared .. they had the Discipline ... to react immediately and effectively to his commands, they would never see another dawn.

That is why Sergeants were so mean to them.  They had gone through both Basic and Advanced Infantry training specifically to learn to obey orders without question.  They didn't have enough information individually to react appropriately and effectively.  They had the training, they had the courage, but without Leadership they were unable to coordinate their actions to meet the most dangerous threats first.

Yes, I would direct them to protect the officers, even though their buddies in the bunkers were being slaughtered.  Their friends couldn't call for outside support; they didn't know how to call in artillery, or an air strike, or call for a Ready Reaction Force from outside the NDP.

Their job was to hold the line until relieved; without the communications provided by their officers, they could not hope to defend the position against overwhelming odds.

I asked them:  Do you know where the radios are?  Do you know what the call signs are?  Do you know how to coordinate relief efforts from Army, Navy and Air Force?

They didn't, of course.  I admitted, I didn't know that either.  I didn't live there, I was just a guy who was stuck on guard duty, just like they were.

The difference was that I knew what I didn't know.
The difference was that I knew how to do MY job .. which was to hold off the enemy and give Our Side time to mount resistance to an assault.

It was a lot more complicated than that, of course.  We spend hours talking about what we should be doing if an attempt was made to over-run the base.  We discussed what we would do, individually and as a group, in the (unlikely) even of an attack.

Some of the men had some good ideas.  They were unworkable, sometimes, but they began thinking for themselves.   By the end of the shift (all three shifts) they had a general idea about the tasks that needed to be done to react to an assault.

And so did I; I admit, I never told them that I hadn't thought through the problem very well.  As usual, I learned as much from them as they ever learned from me.

It was strange, that all three shifts on guard duty had much the same questions, much the same responses.  Combat is pretty much intuitive, given a standard problem there are standard reactions.  And all the men grasped the problem quickly, after the questions had been defined.  Who goes where, when and why.  What are the priorities?  (Alert the base, protect the leadership, resist infiltration, roaming guards through the interior, quick reaction to nodes of infiltration .. etc.) 

These men were not stupid; they were just uninformed.

They viewed their duty as a personal inconvenience.  They didn't see it as an End Of The World exercise.  They didn't know that their personal survival, and the survival of everyone they knew within a few hundred yards radius, depended on them.

The last question came up on every shift:

"Why didn't anyone ever tell us this shit?"

I didn't have an answer to this question.

Well, I did.  It had never occurred to me that these men .. privates, PFC's, Specialists, Expendables ... had never been informed of the importance of their duties.

I had been "in-country" for months, working with men who were in the bush every day for weeks at a time.  I thought that every infantryman understood the principles of Duty, Honor, Courage, and fighting for their brothers.


Some months after .. I had been transferred to the 25th Infantry Division ("Tropical Lightening", rather than "The Big Red One") and I was stationed "Back in the Rear with the Gear".  My company "Re-Up NCO" had the obligatory chat with me in the mess hall.  He offered me an immediate promotion to E-7 (Sergeant First Class) if I would only re-enlist for another four year tour.

I performed the obligatory function:  I laughed in his face.  There was no way I was going to serve in this army for another four years, with no hope of a promotion for the next decade.  I would have already had four 'advanced promotions'; from Private First Class to Corporal to go to Non-Commissioned Officer School, then awarded Staff Sergeant rank (E-6) skipping Sergeant (E-5) as an Honor Graduate.  Then I would have been jumped to SFC (E-7) by merely re-enlisting for another four years?

And I had only been in the Army for less than two years?  I didn't know squat, but they were willing to make me a Senior NCO?

As Groucho Marx once famously said: "I would never join a club which would have me as a member".

Still, even while I was refusing what I considered to be a somewhat dubious honor, I was thinking back:

"Why didn't anyone ever tell us this shit?"

How the Elephant every got into my pajamas, I never knew.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for serving, and for giving those who have not served an insight into life in the infantry and in a combat zone.