Don’t Mean Nutin!
by Donald Miller
“Who opened the peanut butter?” Must be the new guy; “hey newfer, don’t you get that you’re sleeping in a jungle.” “Look around.” “You’re lying on the ground with five other LRRP’s.” Shit all I want to do is get some sleep and here I’m whispering to a newfer. “Damn newfer, you, us, we are in triple canopy jungle. There are snakes, tigers and monkeys all around us not to mention enemy NVA. Plus, and I’m sure your newfer brain may be catching on to this, there are elephants. Hear the falling trees? Feel the ground shaking? That! New guy is an elephant or two or three. Big elephants! Do you know, shit-head newfer, why they may be stampeding right at us? Do ya? You numb nuts; it’s that C-ration peanut butter you just opened.”
We are getting ready to hunker down for the night. Yea, the elephants pass us by. It’s not the first time elephants have given us a scare. It is a very weird feeling to be armed to the teeth but afraid of elephants more than Mr. Charles. Importantly, the new guy or newfer is now scared of me. I have his ass. Being afraid of your Ranger tabbed Sarge, shows that he has some brains. The newfer is from Philadelphia. He has no idea why he landed with me in this hot, mosquito filled jungle. Six months ago his skinny ass was probably throwing down beers on some stoop in the Great North East. I know the area because I’m also from Philly. The Great North East is like a pan handle stuck crookedly onto downtown. It’s where many whites live that work in Philly as cops and fire fighters. I live on the other side of the city going southwest into Roxbourgh. I am salivating as I dream about a Delashandro’s cheese steak. Delashandro’s is located on Henry Avenue in Roxbourgh. Delashandro’s can seat about ten people. Most folks just walk in and say, “Gimme a cheese steak with onions and sauce”. Then they wait about five minutes for the onions and steak to sizzle, then the cheese melts and the spatula scoops the whole delicious mess up into an Amoroso roll and viola’, the best sandwich in the world. The counter girl wraps it in wax paper with a napkin for class and jams it into a brown paper bag. The customer takes the bag and goes off somewhere to enjoy. Delashandro’s sells hundreds of cheese steaks everyday for cash money. Maybe I’ll marry into the Delashandro’s family when I get out of this shit hole. Roxborough is my home town with great cheessteaks, sexy girls walking around and plenty of beer. Man, I want to go home and get some.
“Newfer you have second watch. Lay quiet until Garcia passes you the watch. You will have an hour, and then pass the watch to me. We’ll be awake when it comes around to you again. Nudge me awake if you think there is movement outside our circle. Don’t say shit, just nudge. Stay quiet and stay awake. “
I’ve been out in this infested jungle on Recon missions for some time. My LRRP team is the eyes and ears of the Army infantry. Being on Recon never gets easier or less scary. I’m more scared after 30 missions than when I was a newfer. During my first mission my team leader shot some VC guy. The guy was out in the jungle looking for lunch. No rifle, just looking for food and Sergeant Knight shot him dead. I had no clue what was happening. More startled than scared, I hunkered down behind a tree while the Sergeant emptied half a clip of rounds into the guy. Shoot first and stay alive was my take away from that killing. Right now I’m hunkered down near a tree. I can feel fear’s sharp edge creep into me. Fear can be your friend; it gives you an edge.
“Wake up newfer. No more beauty sleep for your sorry ass. We’re moving out. Harness up your shit and stay near me. “
My instincts tell me Mr. Charles is in the area. I can’t see him but he is here. Sometimes I pick up his scent. Today I can’t smell him. I feel him.
Sometimes there are mountain people out and about in the deep jungle. This patrol area is a free fire zone. That means we can shoot anyone that moves. I have learned however, that the mountain folks walk through these parts all the time. I really cannot fathom shooting old people or women just because they are walking through a war zone. It gets confusing because the mountain people are not on any side: they are not liked by the South Vietnamese or North but they live here too. One time I let a group of women, older men and children walk free after we had stopped and questioned them. Garcia said to me, “Sarge that was bad shit. Are you losing it? Why the hell did you just let them go? We are in deep shit now.” There was a bit more grumbling that I let the group of mountain people pass. All challenged me that we would all pay for my kindness. They were right. Later that evening mortars landed right in the position where we had been observing. Fortunately, I had been kind but not stupid. We had moved to the other side of the hilly terrain. We slept that night knowing the mountain people had told either VC or NVA that American LRRPs were in the area. The mountain people had to know we were special operator grunts. We don’t wear helmets and are dirty and camouflaged. We also carry an arsenal of unconventional weapons. Even more telling is that there are only six of us on patrol. Everyone knows that you have to be nuts to patrol with only six people.
I raise my hand to stop. I do this often so we all can listen. As I’m listening I check out newfer’s web gear and rifle. I whisper, “Hey newfer keep your thumb near the safety switch”. If you see a dink; fire that pea shooter on semi. Do not put it on Rock and Roll, hear? I think Mr. Charles is in the area. Stay ready”.
As team leader I teach the newfers to be real scared and stay very alert. Yea, they’re scared just to be on patrol but not savvy scared. Savvy scared is when you know that you can die at any second. Knowing that violent death may be behind any tree makes the old sphincter valve pucker and helps you stay alert. Staying alert raises the percentage of living past your teens. The intense fear makes one quick. Shooting first is the key to maintaining all your body parts. Over time I learned this war has nothing to do with God or country. I figure stay close to the ground and make sure the newfer does not screw up the works. I want to survive and that’s that. My combat motto is quick, dead or lucky.
We call ourselves grunts. The Army calls us LRRP’s. All grunts are low on the totem pole. Low on the totem pole, hell we are under the totem pole. As grunts we do the dirty work. Lifer sergeants run the Army and officers dream of glory and medals. Grunts fight and hide until we can go home. We are so disillusioned that we often chant or curse “don’t mean nutin”. We spit out “don’t mean nutin” when bad shit happens. When mortars come into base or a helicopter crashes, we spit out “don’t mean nutin” and watch the rear echelon people run for cover. While in the rear last week the First Sergeant yelled “get the fuck out here Sarge; incoming mortars.” Well I like to take a nap before going out for beers. So I say “don’t mean nutin” and go back to sleep. I could be dead tomorrow from bad luck so why miss my nap. On patrol the mission before the mortar attack Frank’s toes were ripped to shit from a toe popper. It just fucked up Frank’s day and put him in the infirmary for a couple weeks. He at least got out of the bush. When I visited him he had some pretty nurse listening to his stories. He calls me over and shows me his bandaged up foot. The bandage is still showing red three days after getting popped. Frank says, “The docs say this is not a million dollar wound. Doc says I’m back in the bush within three weeks.”
Frank then mutters the summation: “don’t mean nutin…” I think about my response to the incoming mortars; I probably should have gotten out of bed during the mortar attack but I was really tired and Mr. Charles rarely hits anything with his incoming mortars.
“Hey newfer! Get over here next to me. Listen newfer; tighten-up your shit. I hear your C-ration cans every time we sit back in the bush. Tighten up the cans. Put a sock or two or three down in or around the C-rations. Noise get’s us killed out here. This is not loiter corner newfer; your newfer ass is not strolling and hanging in Philly.”
I tell ya, combat sets the stage for unvarnished character assessment. Either you got it or you don’t. I look around at my LRRP brothers. Every LRRP is carrying a weapon off the black market. Vinegar Joe has a Thompson submachine gun and the Mississippi Squirrel hunter has a M2 carbine. Except for Mac, we all carry the most important item for survival; an automatic rifle. Mac, well he carries Sweetness officially labeled an M-60 machine gun. Mac has bandoliers of rounds drabbed all over his body. He looks like a Mexican hombre minus the Mexican characteristics. Mac is a Southern boy by birth and a South Carolinian by choice.
“Pay attention newfer! This is sunny Vietnam and it is full of bad shit. If you get through one or two patrols you may be worth a shit. We don’t stand a chance out here if the dinks surprise us. So keep the noise down, rifle at the ready and pay attention. “
The newfer carries an M-16 pea shooter. Its Army issue and he will black market trade that toy for a real weapon his first trip into Saigon. Most LRRP’s trade cigarettes, gum and other US Army issued shit for an M-2 carbine. That baby shoots bad-ass 7.62mm/30 caliber rounds.
A 7.62mm round will go through bamboo and remain accurate. In short, if you aim at a dink in the jungle you want a weapon that shoots rounds that go through foliage not a pea shooter like the M-16. The 45 caliber round that flies out of the Thompson is another beautiful sight when your ass is under attack. A 45 caliber plows over a small tree on its way to a dink. That is what ya want.
None of us can figure out what genius selected the M-16. We shoot through bamboo and an M-16 is not up to the job. When we talk about the politics of weapon selection we figure nobody in charge has a clue. You see, an M-16 round is tiny. Sure you can carry a shit load but the damn things are basically worthless in the jungle. I’ve heard regular infantry grunts complain about jams. That’s not what I’m talking about. It’s simple to imagine some REMF officer demonstrating the M-16 on a parade ground with a camera rolling. Sure he lights up the targets real quick with a burst from the shiny black rifle. Everybody goes Oh!!! They think wow no wonder we are so bad-ass. Well the parade ground is about as similar to triple canopy jungle as a bare ass is to hauling ass. It’s hard to explain how inadequate the Army issue rifle is for this war. I guess we just know that nobody gives a shit. We however intend to survive this shit so we go to Saigon and buy or trade for something that works. The hardest part of that savvy is continually trading for ammunition. It’s not like a LRRP can walk up to a lifer E-7 armory Sergeant and say, “Gimme seven boxes of 7.62mm rounds for my M-2 carbine.”
When we are not on patrol life is pretty good. I have my own hooch because I’m a Staff Sergeant and team leader. Some of the other team leaders and men play poker every payday in my hooch. Poker for me is the best psychology course going. For example, Zeke comes in with his pay check and loses often. He calls you even if you have him beat on the table. As Zeke throws down a saw buck he says, “I call ya, I want to see what ya got!” I cannot figure exactly why Zeke calls when he is going to lose. He’s stubborn about other things. Another character I am trying to figure out is the supply Sergeant. He is pudgy and soft. Of course he does not go out on patrol. The supply Sergeant hates my guts because I am a Staff and so is he. He hates it that it only took me a year to become a Staff Sergeant. It’s taken him eight years. One time not long ago the supply Sergeant saw me sneaking back into camp at sun up. I took an unauthorized night in Saigon with an enterprising prostitute. I caught a taxi at day break and bribed my way back into base camp. The supply Sergeant watched me getting through the gate. He alerted the first Sergeant but my team caught on quick and caused a diversion so I could jump into formation before first call. It was close and now I watch that SOB. I wish I could get him into a poker game.
We are all scared, bored and pissed off. When shit happens, blood rushes and you gulp air. Time stands still as bullets buzz with intermittent streaks of green. Dinks shoot green tracers, we shoot red; combat is Christmas lights with a very bad attitude.
I know I’m fodder for the war machine. I’m what they call a newly minted ‘Shake and Bake’ sergeant in the Army Infantry. Some brass saw some leadership potential in me and that same brass gave me some special training then sent me off for a year’s tour in sunny South Vietnam. In basic training the drill sergeants always hazed me for going to college. “Hey, when you were in college did you ever think you’re sorry ass would end up working for Uncle Sam?” In basic training I learned having some street smarts helped me more than any college class. Also, I wrestled and played other sports in high school and college. The drill sergeants did not respect book learning. They did however; tend to smile at how easy it was for me to do 50 pushups. Drill Sergeant Baker would routinely bark “drop down and give me 20”. Being proud I would breeze through 20 pushups. Baker was smart and he was lean and strong. I described him as the black wire man. I swear he was so powerfully built that he looked like someone had woven black cables together to make a drill sergeant. Well I should have shown fatigue to this drill sergeant so that he would not drop me again for another 20. After several weeks of me getting dropped for twenty and then dropped for twenty again a mutual respect moved into the formula. I really admired Sergeant Baker. He was tough but fair. One time I asked why his shirt looked like they once had larger number of stripes. He said, “I fight Charlie and earn E-6 stripes. Then I came home and fought in a bar and lost the stripes. I went back to Nam and earned most of them back again.”
I stop our patrol again. We listen. Nothing. The men gather around for a look at the map. Vinegar Joe stays standing as a look out. “Command says we need to set up an ambush. They think that NVA is moving through our area. I want to check out this ridge to see if there is a trail. Newfer, you stay close to me and stay alert. Move out.”
In Nam, it is luck and survival instincts that determine if I live or die. Shit, I’m 23 years old and all I think about is getting out of this mess. I’m in this jungle with five other grunts that would rather be home. My fate lasts second to second. I didn’t even know where this place was while I was in college. Now I am deeply aware and vigilant even while sleeping.
I get to thinking about the men with whom I’ve shared this hell. I knew sergeants who were fierce fighters. Santos Costa was a warrior. On our worst mission together Santos took over after Bill was killed. We blew the claymores and all hell broke loose. Santos jumped out into the ambush trail and slaughtered the remaining NVA. I, on the other hand, stayed behind a tree, firing my weapon infrequently. To my credit I called in gunships to mop up and to chase the remaining NVA Company far back off the trail. During that mission we all learned that not all small groups of NVA were unattached. When we sprang our ambush, it was on five NVA soldiers. After two claymores and forty rounds of ammunition the trail claimed five dead NVA. Bill, our twenty year old team leader was dead from a sunken chest wound. As quiet descended on the recently chaotic and noisy jungle the five of us heard agitated NVA talking. The gunship pilot said we must’ve hit the point element for a company. That just is not a good thing for six LRRP’s out in the jungle with lousy communications. Three of the team was able to fight and run. The two wounded laddered up into a Huey. At first the Huey pilot refused to take Bill. I guess he just wanted to grab the wounded and fly out. A dead man takes longer. Santos said to the chopper pilot, “Take him or your going down”. Bill took his last chopper ride in a body bag.
“Hey Newfer”, I whisper. “Set your claymore here. Yeah, that’s right. Put it up against the tree facing down the trail.” Vinegar Joe places his claymore shooting the other direction. Mac’s Sweetness covers the center. “Set up here newfer. Stay low with your eyes on the trail. If the dinks come, click your claymore after I fire, not before. Out here I decide, not you.”
These ambushes are usually boring. We set up and wait and wait. At night we go to our pre-determined rendezvous site. Usually I pick a site with plenty of cover and some big trees. Hiding six LRRP’s in the jungle is much easier than a platoon of grunts. Also, we’re very quiet and never smoke. Not smoking is my team’s rule. Garcia is the first to bitch. He says, “Com’on Sarge let’s have a smoke.” Or on his more verbal days “Sarge you know the Army issues us smokes. Why the fuck do you think they do that? They do that so we will smoke’m.” I say, NO! The dinks have problems seeing us but sometimes they smell other teams and platoons smoking. Quick, dead or lucky, who knows?
Damn, here they come, three dinks with rifles slung over their shoulders walking real fast. I spring the ambush with a burst at the first soldier. Newfer does his job and clicks 700 ball bearings at the other dinks. They go down. They’re moaning and crawling for cover; some quick bursts from Sweetness and the actions over. We collect weapons and a satchel of mail. Hopefully with all this noise we can get out of here. We move out single file. I say to the newfer, “Hey Vince, stay close sometimes there are more NVA back down the trail”.
Donald Glen Miller served as a team leader, 75th Rangers/LRRPs, M Company, Vietnam 1969-1970. Glen has been writing about his combat experience to communicate and more fully heal. It is Glen’s hope that short stories may provide a more realistic feel for the fear, doubt, courage and honor that coexist during and after combat.