I was sitting in a foxhole about thirty meters in front of a ditch that had a small stream and lots of bulrushes or reeds or something like that. It was hard to tell because it was dark. Across the ditch and about forty-five degrees to my right there were lights; I couldn't tell what they were, but there seemed to be a town or village or something there. It was New Years Eve, 1965, or more accurately, wee hours of January 1, 1966. I was in this foxhole looking out over the sights of an M60 machine gun (a weapon I had never fired before) and shivering with a mix of adrenalin, fear, cold, and anticipation. About an hour earlier someone had fired into our compound and we went on "alert", drawing weapons and manning the defensive positions. I had arrived in-country (Vietnam) one week earlier; yep, I got there Christmas Day and was on guard duty that night.
Our compound, the 69th Signal Battalion, was in the middle of a huge Air Force Base, Tan son Nhut, and right on the edge of the city of Saigon. I didn't know it at the time, but the lights that I could see from my foxhole were the lights of an area called "the Strip" where there were a lot of bars and cathouses. I was billeted in a barracks with one of the "trouble crews", the signal repair people who responded to outages and other signal emergencies at all hours of the night and day. They were a busy lot, and I rarely saw them. They were also a surly lot because the Viet Cong had learned how to disrupt commo by cutting power and cables. Their latest trick was to cut a cable and stick around to ambush the repair crew when they showed up. The repairs had to be done and the MPs were reluctant to provide security, so the trouble crews started doubling up with one team doing repairs while the other provided security. This was a good system but it wreaked havoc on their sleep time. In any case, they were gone a lot and when they were in the barracks they mostly just slept. I don't know why I had to spend a week there; my gaining unit was not that far away. Every day I reported to the S-1 (administration) and every day they said maybe tomorrow. I had no duties to perform, nowhere I needed to be; I didn't even know where I was.
When the gunfire started and bullets were hitting in our area, the trouble crew flew into action; one of the sergeants grabbed me, literally, and pushed me along to the arms room and then placed me in the foxhole. He did some things to the machine gun and told me that it was all set; all I had to do was point it and pull the trigger. And there I sat. Alone. No idea where I was or where the next foxhole was. An excellent "avenue of approach" (learned that in Germany from my squad leader...it means the direction the enemy will come from) to my front. Just my and my machine gun and whoever was in the ditch making the reeds rustle ever so quietly.
At first I thought it was just the breeze but after a few minutes it was clear that something was in the ditch moving reeds and causing a change in the sound of the little creek at the bottom of it. It was the only sound in the world. Nothing else penetrated the wall of concentration I had erected...I was focused on a spot about forty yards to my left-front. I couldn't see anything more that vague silhouettes of the reeds, but my hearing was excellent and I had blocked out everything else. Again...motion: stealthy, quiet, slow...but definite motion. I swung the barrel of the machine gun over to bear on my spot. Quiet. The only sound was blood rushing through my ears, the explosive pounding of my heart, and my breathing. Beads of sweat popped out on my upper lip and forhead. A trickle of sweat ran down my side. Quiet. Motion: sneaking, quiet, motion. I put the butt of the machine gun up to my shoulder, looked out over the barrel, prepared to shoot...but when? Would I get an order from...who? How? It was me and Mr. Sneak with diminishing ground between us...how would I know when to open fire? I learned from my training in Germany that the machine guns are supposed to hold their fire until an actual attack so as not to give away their positions. But how long should you wait for someone else to start the show?
Suddenly the night was bright and noisy and the reeds were being chewed to pieces by a machine gun about twenty yards to my left. People were shouting and rifles started up and there was little hope for whoever was in the ditch. My mind was suddenly full of things my sergeants in Germany had drilled into my head. Things like "Fire Discipline" and "Conservation of Resources" and other things about probing fire and other ruses the bad guys could employ. So I turned away from the action and watched the ditch to my front and rightfront. It only lasted a couple of minutes. There were shouts of "Cease Fire" up and down the ditch. Then it was quiet again. No one went out to see what was left of our intruder until the sun came up.
Just after dawn, the sergeant who had put me behind the machine gun came to my foxhole and told me the alert was over. He took the machine gun and told me I was free to go back to the barracks. When I came up out of the foxhole I saw a few guys looking into the ditch: some of them were laughing and others were looking a bit sheepish. I drifted over that way to see the results of all that firepower. A sergeant was ripping one of the soldiers; I gathered from what was being yelled that the recipient was the gunner who had fired in the night. I stayed on the fringe of the group, not wanting to become a recipient myself. I couldn't see much at first but edging around closer to the ditch I noticed some blood splatter, then - a mess. If you have been conditioned by Hollywood , you have no real notion of what a bullet can do to flesh, especially when accompanied by a hundred or so just like it. That poor dog didn't stand a chance...it was barely recognizable as a dog.
Later that day, New Years Day, I woke from a nap to overhear some of the trouble guys discussing the early morning activities. If they had the straight story, and it turned out that they did, what happened was that the Air Force boys a half a mile or so away from us were celebrating, imbibing, and providing their own fireworks by firing their pistols in the air...it always looks good on TV but on TV they never deal with the old gravity thing; them bullets always come back down. On this night they came down on our compound.
I was sort of disappointed that no one noticed that I had performed like a true professional. I didn't start shooting when the other gun did, maintaining fire discipline and concealing my presence. I wasn't distracted by the action on my left, I maintained vigil on my assigned area. I was ready. The only comment that was vaguely directed my way was one of the trouble guys sneering and said "...probably curled up in the bottom of his foxhole scared s***less..." He probably meant me.
A couple of weeks later it happened again. I was settled into my new unit in Gia Dinh. It was Tet, the Chinese new year, and the Vietnamese soldiers in an area called Tent City B near the end of the runway at Tan Son Nhut were firing their rifles into the air and the rounds were coming down all over Gia Dinh. Fortunately, in both cases no one was seriously hurt. A few got scratched up.
Turned out that 1966 would be a very "interesting" year, I would learn a lot. About life and death and fear and controlling fear. But how could it not be a great year...considering how it started?