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The Ambush

My tour in Vietnam began in November 1969 and I was assigned to the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division. As a 1st lieutenant, LT to my men, I commanded a rifle platoon in Bravo Company, 2/27 Infantry, nicknamed the “Wolfhounds.” Our area of operation (AO) was near the Cambodian border northwest of Saigon. 

Our primary mission was to disrupt and prevent the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) efforts to move men and equipment into the Saigon area in an attempt to stage another Tet offensive. 

My platoon had three primary assignments in order to accomplish our mission. Two days out of three we conducted night ambushes along suspected avenues of approach used by NVA units. On the third day we would be picked up by helicopters and moved from place to place to conduct patrols within the AO. 

A group of U.S. soldiers hanging out in the wilderness.

These “eagle flights” would involve multiple insertions depending on results from our reconnaissance and/or contact with the enemy. In the evening of the daytime operations we secured the perimeter of our firebase.

Night ambushes were always a scary and dangerous operation. They never got easier and one never got used to them. It was pitch black and obvious limited visibility. We knew the enemy was moving primarily at night and wanted to get through the AO without engaging us. We, however, were there to stop their movement.

One particular ambush has stuck in my mind over all these years. I replay that memory over and over, focusing not only on what actually happened, but also on what could have happened.

After dark our AO was a free fire zone, which meant anyone outside of the village was considered an enemy and could be engaged immediately. The South Vietnamese villagers had a curfew that confined them to their homes after dark. 

One particular ambush has stuck in my mind over all these years. I replay that memory over and over, focusing not only on what actually happened, but also on what could have happened.

We moved out from our firebase in darkness and into our assigned ambush site. It was along a trail that connected the small villages and hamlets in the area.

Once settled in our position my men were on alert for a period of time, mainly to insure that we had not been followed or in case the enemy fired upon us. After getting a sense that all was well, it was a common practice that one man could rest while his buddy remained on guard. This way half of the patrol was alert at all times.

On this particular night and into the early hours, we heard movement to our front and I ordered everyone up and alert. We remained absolutely quiet with weapons ready and nerves on edge. Soon I could make out shadowy forms coming down the trail. The people were whispering and one had a small flashlight. 

This was rare but not unheard of behavior for NVA troops moving in the middle of the night, especially if they felt somewhat safe. I could also see shapes that appeared to be possible weapons being carried by this small group of 4-5 people.

Tension continued to build in my men and me. At the possibility of “popping” this ambush and engaging the enemy with our M-16s, one M-60 machine gun and the couple of claymore mines we had set up along the trail, sweat poured off of our bodies.

The command to initiate the ambush was mine to make and the signal was to blow my claymore.  The triggering mechanism for that was now in the sweaty palm of my hand. My men were ready and waiting to fire their individual weapons on full automatic.  As I waited for the small group to enter the kill zone, my RTO was whispering softly, “Pop it, LT! Pop it!”  

U.S. soldiers in fatigues, on a beach. Vietnamese children hang out nearby.

I was literally seconds from setting off my claymore when the person holding the flashlight turned around and illuminated the person behind him. A CHILD! Oh my God, they were all young kids! My sweat turned cold and my hand was shaking.

It turned out that they were out hunting rats and the assumed “weapons” were long handled tools.

On my orders, some of the men quietly and quickly left our position and gathered up the young folk and brought them into our ambush site.

With mean looking faces and stern whispers they were told to “sit, not move and shut up!” They obeyed with wide-eyed stares, tears and a few quiet sobs. Now my decision was whether for us to stay in place or move to a second ambush site, as we did not know if this site had been compromised. I decided to stay in place rationalizing that moving with the kids would draw more attention. Staying in place had its risks, but so did moving. 

At daybreak we took the children to their village to share with parents and elders what had happened.  The adults expressed mixed emotions of happiness in having their children returned safely and anger about their dangerous disobedience. 

I still wonder what would have happened if I had set off that claymore. The kids would have been literally blown to pieces by its explosion and the firepower of our weapons. My mild, mostly well-managed PTSD symptoms would certainly have become over-whelming and debilitating.

Why I waited those few seconds, I’ll never know.

Biographical Details

Primary Location During Vietnam: Cu Chi, Vietnam Vietnam location marker

Story Subject: Military Service

Military Branch: U.S. Army

Dates of Service: 1968 - 1971

Veteran Organization: None

Unit: B/2/27, 25th Infantry Division

Specialty: 1542 Inf Unit Comdr

Story Themes: Ambush, Children, Close Call, Fear, Nighttime, PTSD, Reflection, Saint Paul, St Paul

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