A Good Ambush
28 May 2005
In the spring of 1963 most of the world, with the exception of France, couldn't tell you where Indochina was let alone pin the tiny nation of South Vietnam down on a map without squinting or being off by a country or two.
The French had lost their bitter colonial war nine years earlier and were still reeling over the painful lessons learned while the U.S. was in the process of taking a more active role in the region. For years America had covertly bankrolled the French in their struggle and now was squarely behind the Diem regime in Saigon in it's opposition to reunification efforts being militarily promoted by Ho Chi Minh. For the United States it wasn't a difficult wedge to drive home since there was little love lost between North and South Vietnam. Traditional anger and resentment were already hundreds of years old, so when the South Vietnamese government requested more than just financial assistance from the U.S., President John F. Kennedy quickly responded by sending Military Assistance Groups or advisory teams from the Army's newly established Special Forces, the Green Berets.
Corporal Richard Keeton was the enlisted half of one of those two-man advisory teams. When he arrived in country, a stocky, leather-faced veteran NCO with two wars under his belt briefed him, offering a few words of advice.
“First of all,” he told the young corporal, “don't think you're going to pump up these people with God and country speeches, except for maybe the Cao Dai who worship damn near everybody.”
“The others, and there are plenty of other clusters of people here, got a variety of Gods and we don't look like any of them. Besides, they've been fighting each other for a 1,000 years or so, give or take a century. Some of the soldiers you'll be 'advising,'” he added in a tone heavy with sarcasm and bordering on anger, “are corrupt, lazy, worthless pieces of water buffalo shit, who tolerate you only because you represent Santa Claus to them.”
“You can buy and sell rank in this army for the price of a smoked ham, and the sad part is that some of these soldiers who are under the Saigon Army command are some of the most gung-ho and well meaning you'll ever find….some,” he added, emphasizing the point.
“The rest, well, besides the ones who don't trust either their own officers or the enemy because they've been fucked over by both sides for damn near forever, like I said, they only listen to us because of the goodies we have to offer; vehicles, weapons, equipment and shit. Not to mention the televisions, cameras and jewellery found in our soon-to-be-built Post Exchanges.”
When you're out on patrol, that is 'If' you can get your South Vietnamese Army hosts to go on patrol in the first place, then watch out for the enemy. Keep an eye on your back, these units you'll be advising are the enemy or have relatives in the Viet Cong.
“Let's see? Have I forgotten anything? Oh yeah, don't expect too much sympathy from the local population either because foreigners have been screwing them over for years too. We're just the latest folks to arrive. Any questions?”
Keeton shook his head, adding, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”
“You got it, Corporal.”
The informal but prophetic welcoming speech followed by a detailed and more formal briefing covering the mission specifics and the roles they would play in it, was straight forward enough. They were advisors. “You advise,” said the briefing NCO. “You try to work with them on strategy and tactics. You tell them which part of a grenade to throw. Hopefully you can get your South Vietnamese Army unit out in the bush and away from their rear area camps, and teach them to take the fighting seriously. No problem for you young studs.”
However, there was a problem and the difficulty arose when the young officer, who was the second American attached to the Military Assistance team, and Corporal Keeton realised the South Vietnamese Army company they were assigned to wasn't exactly thrilled about finding the enemy or winning the war anytime soon.
The South Vietnamese captain in charge of the infantry company seemed to be indifferent about the “advise” proffered by his U.S. advisors, which through his interpreter, a thin-faced, wiry little man who reminded Keeton of a ferret, the captain frequently chose to ignore altogether. Physical fitness was out of the question, as were map reading, jungle training, reconnaissance missions, road marches, small arms familiarization and patrolling, unless that is, the captain wanted to ransack a nearby village or two for booty. Ambushes were also out, which didn't leave the advisors much else to offer.
“Captain say too dangerous,” explained the ferret-faced interpreter. “Too dangerous, he say! Much too dangerous. Too, too dangerous.”
Frustrated and more than a little annoyed after too many ignored suggestions and too much disregarded military advice, the two Americans decided to try another tact.
It was blackmail. Sort of!
The unit was due for a re-supply of American goods and equipment, which meant the ARVN Captain would soon have new merchandise to sell on the “black market”, a fact not lost on either advisor. The two Americans couldn't help but notice that when the supplies were dropped off nearly one third of them mysteriously disappeared a day or two later, and that a day or two after that the Captain disappeared for the weekend while his “ferret” appeared to be higher stakes when he gambled.
The key lay in the re-supply mission and the advisors knew it.
“So here's what we do,” explained the Lieutenant to the Corporal. “We delay the re-supply, telling the little fucker that if we don't go out on at least one combat operation then we won't be re-supplied. We'll say our people …no, better yet, our general in Saigon is unhappy with our efforts and that we have to offer him something…a patrol at least.”
“You think it will work?” asked Keeton.
“It's worth a shot, which damn well may be the only one we'll see on this tour!” answered the Lieutenant.
When the American officer explained it to the ARVN Captain through his ferret-faced interpreter, Keeton nodded in solemn agreement to back him up. “He is unhappy!” added Keeton, trying to keep a straight face. “Beau coup unhappy. No mission, no supplies”
Reluctantly and after much discussion between the two Vietnamese, they agreed on a single combat operation.
“One mission,” announced the ferret.
“A night ambush,” added the American officer.
“Day!” countered the interpreter, not missing a beat.
“One platoon,” came the Lieutenant.
“No, the entire company,” screamed the ferret without waiting for the Captain.
“Let me guess…too dangerous?” asked the Lieutenant.
The ferret nodded. “Camp not safe with one platoon gone. Too dangerous. Many VC.”
Okay, but we pick the ambush site added the American officer.
“Okay, you pick but the Captain in charge. He say too dangerous for people who do not know Vietnam.”
Keeton wanted to tell the little shit that maybe they could get to know it a lot better if they could go out on patrol once in a while, but he let it ride. It was as good as it was going to get. Both he and the Lieutenant knew it, so they gave in to this final condition.
“No problem. The Captain's still in charge on tomorrow's ambush. Say…first light?”
“No, too dangerous,” announced the ferret. “Must plan. Next week sometime. After supplies come.”
But this time the Lieutenant held his ground.
“No, before supplies come. No patrol, no supplies. How about the day after tomorrow?”
The ferret sulked, but he knew he was stuck. The two Americans had their answer.
In a makeshift briefing in the Captain's bunker the two U.S. servicemen selected the proposed ambush site-a fork in a jungle trail a few klicks north near a natural ford across a narrow river.
“It's a good spot. It's a main trail that comes out in the open to cross the stream. And maybe, just maybe, we can hide the entire company on this side of the river, not to mention his worship here,” the Lieutenant nodded toward the reflective ARVN officer.
While the Vietnamese interpreter's English was least passable, his sense of recognizing sarcasm had not developed at all, at least not in his adopted language. To the ferret, 'his worship' sounded respectful.
“Captain say okay, but just one patrol…”
“Yeah, I know ….too dangerous?” answered the Lieutenant.
“Now how did I know that?”
So on the day of the ambush, as the warm morning gave way to a scorching afternoon, Keeton and the Lieutenant led the Vietnamese company towards the proposed ambush site. It would take nearly an hour of marching to reach it, and know the Captain wasn't abut to remain the jungle overnight, the ambush would only have an hour or two to prove successful. After that they would have to return to camp.
“Well, at least it's an ambush sir,” Keeton said, trying to sound positive. “And it is a good spot.”
The young officer only shrugged. But the corporal was right. It was a good ambush site. One of the few real likely locations. They both know that the Viet Cong were very active in the area, and it was one of the few natural crossing sites.
A delay of several days, and the failure to get launched during the morning had cost them their advantage. The Americans knew that this had occurred because the Captain wanted to give the enemy every opportunity to he could to clear the area. It was general knowledge that the VC moved in the early morning or just prior to sunset.
By the Keeton and the Lieutenant reached the stream they were far ahead of the others, and they hadn't been in that big a rush. The jungle they found themselves in was surprisingly dense. As they waited for the ARVN company to come up, the two Americans cautiously checked out the immediate area, crossing the stream to see what immediate cover they had to work with. The underbrush was choked with vines and limbs woven together in a nearly impenetrable wall of vegetation. The trail itself showed recent signs of enemy use. Footprints and bicycle tracks were only a few hours old. It was indeed a good spot for an ambush. Satisfied, they sat back to wait for the ARVNs.
“Anytime now would be nice!”
Keeton whispered to the young officer at his side. The Lieutenant only nodded in response, staring back across the stream and down the narrow trail. He had intended to save the world from communism, beginning with Southeast Asia, but lately he was beginning to wonder if he lacked the necessary patience.
“Think they'll show?” asked Keeton.
“They'll have to if they want us to lead them back to camp” the officer replied. The jungle began to moan and ooze under the heat of the afternoon sun.
Suddenly, a loud 'crack' caught their attention. The two Special Forces soldiers whirled with weapons ready, scanning the jungle for whatever had made the sound. Tense seconds later, a large lizard croaked close by. They relaxed and let their guard down a bit.
As the day wore on the heat rose even higher, turning the jungle in to an oven as the two Americans waited for the ARVN company to arrive. It was nearly forty minutes later before they heard Vietnamese voices announcing their arrival.
“It can't be the Viet Cong,” Keeton quipped. “They don't' make that much noise..”
“...nor are they stupid enough to move this late in the day,” added the Lieutenant.
As the first South Vietnamese soldiers cleared the bend in the trail, he spied the two Americans. Throwing up his hand, he waved at them and grinned. The soldier behind him was looking back over his shoulder, busy in conversation with someone else. All of them seemed oblivious to the threat of combat.
The second Vietnamese soldier carried his rifle in what could only be described as “the luggage grip,” and scratched his ass absent-mindedly when he finally spotted the two advisors waiting on the other side of the river.
Like a 'Keystone Cops' parody unfolding, several soldiers walking directly behind the point man his back up, bumped into each other, then bunched up on the bank of the slow-moving river.
After a lengthy discussion, one soldier used his rifle to test the depth of the water at the crossing only to fall in to the river, spitting and sputtering as he surfaced. Laughter erupted immediately from his comrades, as Keeton and the Lieutenant could only shake their heads.
“Come on!” the Lieutenant called.
The expressions of mirth on the faces of the ARVN soldiers changed to looks of annoyance as they realised they would have to wade across the river. The soldier who had fallen tried to climb up the stream bank only to slip at the top and tumble back in to the river.
A second volley of laughter was short lived as the first rounds of a VC machine gun ripped through the trees above the ARVNs.
The gunfire was coming from the same area that the two Americans had spotted the lizard, which was a pretty good indication that it wasn't the reptile that had snapped the twig. The suddenness of the VC small arms fire sent the South Vietnamese soldiers scrambling for cover as they returned fire in a totally disorganized fashion. Within minutes Keeton realised that the VC had quietly slipped away, leaving the ARVNs to shoot up a now empty jungle. For the tow Americans the tick now was to stay down and try to avoid being hit by “friendly fire.”
Keeton and the young officer began yelling for the South Vietnamese to ceasefire.
“VC GONE! VC GONE!” Keeton shouted over the sound of the firing until the ARVNs finally got the message and the small arms fire subsided.
“VC gone?” they yelled back as heads peeked out slowly to make sure the enemy had in deed left the area. The South Vietnamese point man stood up slowly and waved again, but refused to go anywhere near the stream bank again.
“Come on!” The Lieutenant yelled, motioning the South Vietnamese soldiers forward in pursuit of the fleeing VC.
“No,” answered the hidden ARVN interpreter from somewhere back in the jungle across the stream. “Too dangerous! Captain say, you come back.”
“Unbelievable,” Keeton growled, shaking his head as he looked around the ambush site. “Think we'll ever get them back out on patrol again?”
“Maybe with a crowbar. Still, at least the VC agreed with us that this was a good ambush site…”
“Yes, sir, and they did a damn good job sneaking up on us too. Real professional. Now, if only they had stayed a little longer…”
“Uh-huh, and spread out in an L-shaped…”
“…and concentrated their fire…”
“That's right Corporal. Then they would have had one hell of an ambush”
“You think maybe the French for got to tell us something?”
“You mean, like which side actually gives a shit about winning?”
“Yes sir. Little things like that”.
“Oui,” said the Lieutenant. “Come on. Lets go before the Viet Cong figure out they screwed up more than our guys did.”
This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.
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