From my first days in country, and after being assigned to my unit, I heard the phrase: “Charlie owns the night.” Our ground forces…Army, Marines, South Vietnamese Army, Aussies, and assorted other allied troops ...we ruled the day light hours. But Charlie, the Viet Cong irregulars, Charlie flourished in the darkness.
This idiom was in the back of my mind when a week or so into my tour my squad was sent out on ambush. Ten or twelve of us, lead by our sergeant, were going out beyond our forward firebase’s concertina wire and set up before darkness in a likely spot, perhaps a path through the jungle, or a natural opening. There we’d settle into position, an L-shaped configuration usually, in the hopes of surprising Charlie, the Viet Cong, as they moved through the darkness…catching him off guard, blowing claymores, and raining down shit on him.
Leaving our rucksacks and steel helmets behind, we wore only our soft boonie hats, ammo bandoleers, combat suspenders and pistol belt with a canteen, extra loaded magazines and fragmentation grenades; rifles, an M-79 grenade launcher, extra belts of ammo for our machine gunner, some claymore mines, and a PRC-10 radio (phonetically referred to as the “Prick”). For my first ambush I was picked as the radio man.
We should have already pushed off. It was getting close to dusk, and you don’t want to be humping the boonies in the dark. But we were waiting for “Doc”, our medic. He showed up 20 minutes late, reeking of weed. We pushed off.
We were about a klick, a 1000 meters, outside the wire when darkness started to close in. The sergeant took point and following his nose he lead us through tall elephant grass looking for a place that was close by and advantageous for the ambush.
As he came around a curve in a trail, which we wouldn’t have been on had we left earlier and it had been lighter, he shouted “HALT!” (an involuntary ejaculation I suspect since shouting halt in the jungle is not SOP and rather absurd), and immediately opened up with his M-16.We would later find out we had walked head on into a unit of North Vietnamese regulars, exact strength unknown.
In what seemed to be an instant hundreds of green hornets were streaming over our heads (they shoot green tracer rounds to track and adjust their rifle fire, we use red). The stream of bullets were cutting the tops of the elephant grass over our heads as we all struggled to get on line and make ourselves as low to the ground as we could, then lay down return fire in the direction of the enemy.
The guy next to me wasn’t firing. He was mumbling something I couldn’t understand between all the shooting and my sergeant yelling orders at the top of his lungs. “Gimme the fucking Prick!” That was my queue to crawl over to the sergeant with the PRC radio.
It was about fifteen yards but felt like a mile. When I had almost reached him I realized I couldn’t find the handset to the radio. I started to panic until Doc, mildly bemused in spite of the shit storm all around us, gestured to me that the handset was attached to the radio and was trailing behind me on the handset cord. Oh…yeah! The sergeant snatched the radio and started calling in artillery support from our firebase. I crawled back to my position next to the mumbling kid.
He was still mumbling, and hadn’t seemed to have fired a shot as evidenced by there being no empty magazines around his position. Then I heard it. In between my changing magazines and over the din of the shooting I could hear “…who art in heaven hallowed be…”. He was praying to Jesus….and crying.
In short order our artillery was dropping high explosive shells about 75 to 100 meters to our front, and lighting the sky with flares…better for us to see any enemy movement. Eventually the enemy fire stopped. We set ourselves up in a tight perimeter in the event we were being flanked and to fend off any attack. None came. It got quiet. No one slept. The kid next to me was still praying in between sobs. I must have heard “Jesus” mumbled in his southern drawl about a thousand times that night. I came to hate that kid as much as the word “Jesus.” The next morning the NVA were gone. We counted three NVA bodies; took their weapons and their assorted effects, and made it back to the fire base.
The praying kid was transferred to another platoon. Three or four months later he was killed in action.
I always wondered about that night. About what would have happened if every guy on the squad was praying and not focused on returning fire. About if that kid thought the reason he survived, that we all survived that encounter, was owing to his prayers and Jesus, and not because of ten or eleven other guys doing their duty, the sergeant’s cool head and experience, and the artillery support. I also wondered if, when he was killed, he was he still praying and not returning fire; if he may have contributed to his own demise…and the deaths of two other guys in that later action because of his dependence on his nonexistent God.
I’ll never know the answers to those questions. I still wonder about it, almost a half a century later. But I know one thing for sure - that Jesus and any other imaginary friend - is worse than useless in battle.