By: Jerry Barksdale
Lt. Joe Rogers received orders to replace the artillery Forward Observer in the field who was going home. It was a dangerous assignment. He would be humping through the jungles with grunts on search and destroy operations. When the enemy was encountered, he would radio the coordinates back to the Fire Direction Center, and within seconds, big guns would be belching steel toward the enemy.
After being issued an M-16 rifle and flak jacket, Rogers boarded a “Log Bird” (supply helicopter) loaded with ammo and supplies and lifted off. From above, the triple canopy jungle appeared serene, but he knew better. Beneath the beautiful green were poisonous snakes, tigers, monkeys, swarms of biting mosquitoes, stinging insects, ants, leeches that sucked a man’s blood, and most dangerous of all, North Vietnamese soldiers bent on killing Americans. “Before landing, we were shot at a few times,” says Rogers. “That was my first baptism under fire.”
The chopper landed and Rogers jumped off and met the Company Commander. They had been ambushed the night before and several dead and wounded soldiers were loaded aboard for evacuation. Incoming mortar rounds began falling, trying to knock out the chopper. Rogers looked for cover. He spotted a large ant hill about eight feet in circumference and ran behind it. “Every time a mortar round fell, I moved around a little bit further to get away from the impact.” When the firing ceased, he was told to prepare to move out.
“Get rid of that flak jacket. It weighs 20 pounds and you’ll sweat off 40 pounds while you are here,” he was told. The seasoned grunts were bare from the waist up, a bottle of mosquito repellant attached to their helmet for easy access and dog tags tucked inside their boots to prevent rattling. They moved out through the thick jungle where visibility was often limited to eight feet, sometimes crossing fields of tall elephant grass with sharp blades that would slice a man’s skin, never knowing when a sniper’s bullet would find it’s mark. Later, Rogers would trade his M-16 for a pump shotgun.
Near sundown, they halted in the jungles, put out a defensive perimeter some 500 meters from the encampment, and dug in. Sand bags were filled with the excavated dirt and stacked around the hole. It was stifling hot, and the men usually slept on poncho liners on the ground near their hole. Chinch bugs came out at night, making a creepy sound and crawled beneath the men. Mosquitoes feasted on their blood. “Everything was out to get you,” says Rogers. “If you sat down, it would probably be on a thorn or a snake. I leaned against a tree and a thorn stuck in my head.”
They rose at daybreak, the ambush perimeter was called in, and everyone breakfasted on C-rations. No one liked a cold breakfast. Ingenuity kicked in. Composition Four, a putty like explosive, that is detonated by electric shock, was set fire to heat the rations.
After emptying the sand bags into the hole, the men moved out, single file through the jungle, searching for the enemy. The Point Man was out front acting as the eyes and ears of the company. Near the back was the Company Commander, a black officer from Texas who had a gold front tooth. His call sign was “Gold 6.” They were walking through tall elephant grass when the Point Man radioed Gold 6. “Sir, we just crossed a log on the trail.” They usually didn’t follow trails because enemy scouts would be watching.
The log was suspicious looking and the men stepped over it. A few minutes later, Gold 6’s radio crackled again. “Sir, the log is a snake!” A large python about ten feet long was lying in the sun digesting a wild pig. “Sir, what are we going to do with the snake?” “Send it to the rear,” replied Gold 6. “If we tell someone they won’t believe it.” The snake was shot. Rogers tried to stuff it in a duffle bag, but it wouldn’t go. “We cut it in half and the ‘Log Bird’ took it back to the rear.”
The United States had long suspected that China was assisting North Vietnam. Chinese weapons had been found, but China steadfastly denied any involvement. Rogers and his men proved otherwise. “We found a Chinaman and killed him,” says Rogers. “He was about 6 feet tall and weighed 180 to 200 pounds. That was proof that Chinese were in Vietnam. The corpse was getting ripe and smelling and we buried him. Everything rots, rusts or reeks in the jungle. Everybody had to come and see him, including the Southern Pacific Commander, headquartered in Hawaii. The Press had to come see the corpse too. We buried that dude and dug him up three different times. He smelled. Wow! We finally buried him and left him.”
The men were always on the move, searching for the enemy in underground bunkers, never staying in one place unless they discovered a bunker. The bunkers were large and cleverly concealed, usually chocked full of munitions and supplies. While moving through the jungles, they saw a parrot walking around in a circle with a string tied to one leg. Nearby, smoke was coming from the ground. The smoke was being vented through an underground bamboo pipe from a bunker located a half a mile away. When the bunker was taken and searched, it contained a hospital, morgue, mess hall with cook stoves, a barracks and a training room with chalkboard and bamboo seats. “On the chalk board were pictures of U.S. aircraft,” says Rogers. “They knew the capability of our aircraft. They went to school underground to learn.”
Rogers rescued the parrot. “He was shell shocked. He’d walk around a bit and fall over.” A few days later, the men were flown back to Palace Guard (LZ Nancy) for rest where the parrot lived in peace with Rogers. “We’d swap out with someone to take care of the parrot. One of the Medics adopted him. He still had shell shock and would fall over.” Rogers was due for 10 days of R and R and flew to Hawaii where he met his wife for the first time in 7 months. While there, he purchased a parrot cage at Sears. “I lugged that cage all the way back to Vietnam; hitchhiked back to my unit, catching rides on different helicopters. Along the way everyone as curious about the cage,” says Rogers. “When I got back, someone had turned the parrot loose. All that time and trouble I went to, and the parrot was gone.”
Rogers returned to operations in the jungles. “Battles were furious but often short, and we took a lot of casualties,” he says. “Things were hairy, frightful and every emotional. You couldn’t see in the jungle, you responded to what you could hear and felt. Most soldiers developed a sense of smell. It was survival of the fittest. My walking Bible was the 23rd psalm. When going into combat assault, I quoted it. It was the last thing I did. And there was also slack time when the men looked for entertainment to divert their minds from the reality of death that was always lurking nearby. Ant fighting was popular. Red ants and black ants were natural enemies. They lived in bags hanging in a tree, similar to bag worms. We’d take the black ants and put them in a tree with red ants and stand back and watch the fight,” says Rogers. “They’d fight to the death. They killed each other off and ate the remains and took all the fragments back to the colony for the other ants to eat.”
Morbid entertainment, but the men were living near death each day. And then there was bridge playing. If they happened to remain in one location several days “light discipline” was put in effect. No lights at night. A lighted cigarette could be seen a mile away. “We’d get under a tent at night and using a flashlight would play bridge. We were out in nowhere in combat and playing bridge. We’d play with MPC (military pay certificates) called funny money. Everyone sent their real money home except for about $50 bucks a month. There was nothing to spend it on.”
When Rogers was sent to Vietnam, he was told many times, “Don’t make close friends. It will affect how you act as a soldier.” He knew it was true, but didn’t heed the advice. Consequences bore fruit soon after a new Company Commander whom the men called “Beetle Bailey” took command.
To Be Continued…
By: Jerry Barksdale