The 187th, like most units based at the Tay Ninh West Base Camp was assigned responsibility for a section of the overall defensive perimeter. The MPs were assigned control of the main gate and had a large bunker just to the left of it; Bunker #1. Just to the right (facing out) of the main gate was Bunker #2. The 187th‘s perimeter area of responsibility was comprised of Bunkers #2, #3, and #4, with a much smaller bunker tucked in between #’s 3 and 4; Bunker Three-Alpha.
A berm ran the entire perimeter of the base camp. The berm was a raised longitudinal earthwork (made with heavy equipment) about six feet high and more than twice that in width. Beat down by erosion it lost some of its original height over time. The numerous bunkers that provided overlapping fields of fire all around the base were notched into the berm and partly below ground level. The large bunkers offered three levels of firing positions; snug but effectively three storeys high.
In front of the line of bunkers was a line of powerful spotlights mounted on poles facing outward, illuminating three rows of semi-uncoiled and interlocking triple (3×3) concertina razor wire. There were other defensive items arrayed to augment the lights and barbed wire that stood some twenty yards before the berm line and bunkers, such as trip flares and claymore mines. The lights alone were blinding to any potential sappers and we guards sat all night in the high-contrast darkness behind them. Since our section of the perimeter sat opposite the end of the base runway our lights were positioned close to the ground for aircraft clearance on take-offs and landings.
When assigned guard duty we reported to Company HQ for Guard Mount. Guard Mount was a formal inspection of weapons and gear right down to the shine on your boots. If you were first to arrive for Guard Mount you got your choice of bunker assignment but, generally speaking, the Sergeant of the Guard or his superior, the Officer of the Guard had the final say about it.
I have a vague recollection of a story from my earliest school days. It was a lesson in punctuality; something about a gosherd and his flock.
When the gosherd drove his flock through town the last goose to cross the bridge got a whack on the behind with a length of cane. If you were tardy – if you were last to show up for Guard Mount, you would be stuck with Bunker Three-Alpha; a punishment of sorts. And it was a punishment indeed, not just because of the condition of the bunker but because the other bunkers had four guards standing two-hour watches whereas Bunker 3A was manned by only two guards, each pulling a four-hour watch.
In writing this and looking back I can’t recall ever taking a shit on guard duty or even feeling the need for one. It might have been the tension; the hyper-vigilance; the burden of responsibility for guarding the lives of my comrades-in-arms snoozing beside me. To me, the worst thing to happen then was not dying myself but the burden of responsibility for another’s death through my own negligence or error.
I think there was a latrine somewhere behind Bunker #1 but all the other bunkers had no such accommodations.
Guard Duty is extremely mentally taxing. Just beyond the triple rows of concertina wire the earth had been leveled and cleared for some distance. Now suppose you went to an art gallery and sat down in front of a large, dark, jungle landscape painting. You sit there for two hours or more just staring and staring at that otherwise still painting’s treeline – watching intently for movement – the slightest movement.
We had our weapons – and we even had Lima-Lima (landline) crank-to-talk telephones to summon help if need be; but even that gave us little comfort.
I stood guard at Bunker Three-Alpha on three separate occasions, two of which were quite memorable [not that I was a slacker, mind you, but circumstance often dictates]. In one instance I stood the first four-hour watch as usual then laid down on the bunker’s sandbag roof to get some sleep. (Hey, it’s tropical, OK?) The guy I stood guard with (at that point a stranger to me) turned out to be a real Section 8.
He took exception to my trying to sleep. He kept telling me to stay awake – stay awake, which I refused, having just done the aforesaid first four-hour watch. He became hysterical and grabbed me by the lapels and hauled me off the top of the bunker and started screaming in my face about how we were on RED ALERT! I tried to calm him and curtly informed him we’d been on Red Alert for the past six months. As the story went he was a grounded helicopter door-gunner who became hysterical while on a combat mission and was assigned guard duty while awaiting a psych transfer and medical discharge.
I had to deal with another hysteric on another occasion but that was at Bunker #2. He was an MP all of six-foot-eight. He became so agitated he pulled his loaded .45 cal. pistol out, waved it about and started poking me in the ribs with it. Near as I could figure out he was upset with me for being too placid, which seemed to him to be incompatible with his combat-ready, hysterical state of mind.
To me, the three scariest types of people are drunks, psychotics and hysterics because, quite simply, they cannot be reasoned with. They are in a state of mind beyond any rational or logical reasoning.
The term “monsoon” is a misnomer when applied to Vietnam. The monsoon sweeps across India but plays little direct role in the weather patterns of Vietnam. Instead, Vietnam has one very dry and one very wet or rainy, season.
The most memorable night I spent standing guard duty at Bunker Three-Alpha occurred during the rainy season. The rain usually swept in every afternoon around 2:00 PM. You could almost set your watch to it. At times the pouring rain lasted all afternoon and far into the night. So it was when we arrived at Bunker Three-Alpha. The whole area was a mud pit and Bunker Three-Alpha was actually flooded.
My bunker buddy immediately went on Sick-Call and never returned and the bastards never replaced him. That night I did a full eight-hour watch on Bunker Three-Alpha. I did most of the first four-hour watch standing outside the bunker in the rain, waiting for my relief that never came.
Bunker Three-Alpha was a notch cut in the berm with a roof over it. Built of heavy wooden timbers and roofed with alternating layers of PSP and sandbags. It was your typical, every-day, run o’ the mill machine gun nest equipped with a bi-pod M-60 machine gun resting on a thick plank. The bottom of the bunker was well below grade so one could stand while firing the M-60. The gun port was protected with some chain-link fencing to ward off tossed grenades and incoming satchel charges. The gun port afforded a ground-level view to the treeline; the field of fire overlapping the other bunker’s.
Since Bunker Three-Alpha was mostly built below grade (ground – level) it had a short sloping trench leading down to the entrance. This too, was flooded. A large half-pipe of galvanized corrugated steel culvert formed a half-assed roof over the deeper portion of the trench. The half-pipe stood proud of the bunker roof, affording a small crescent-shaped opening through which the treeline could still be observed, with the view howbeit, restricted.
The sloping trench was boot-top deep in murky water and the bunker itself was already waist deep. Of course I didn’t enter. I could hear a large critter splashing about in the darkness of the water-filled pit. I didn’t know whether it was a Re-Up Frog or a Fuck-You Lizard and neither did I care to find out.
I wore a water-proof poncho the while. Being water-proof also rendered it breathless as well. I realized early on the poncho was altogether useless. In the 90° heat and 100% humidity the poncho just retained my own body heat. I was drenched on the outside by the rain and soaked to my socks in my own perspiration in. The rain ran off the hood of the poncho, pestering my face. The torrential rain roared loudly on my poncho and even more so on the half-pipe culvert. Eventually I sought shelter beneath the culvert. From time to time the wind whipped the pelting rain horizontal alternately entering from either end of the half-pipe. The sloping trench was filling fast and getting boot-top deep from one end to the other. Wearing the breathless poncho, I straddled the trench; placing my butt on one side and bracing my feet on the other, my knees were bent, nearly pressing my chest, and my loaded M-16 lay across my lap. There was hardly any headroom to begin with and I stooped low just to sit, but by tilting my head to the left I could still see the treeline through the arch of the culvert. I figured the NVA or VC had more sense than to attack in weather like this; and in point of fact the attacks on the base camp came almost entirely during the dry season.
Toward morning the rain finally passed, but between the rain and my own perspiration I was still soaked to the skin. That long night on Bunker Three-Alpha taught me an important life lesson. By its very absence it gave me a full eight hours upon which to meditate on the true and carnal meaning of the word shelter.
Shelter is a place where one can simply stand erect, sit, or lie down at ease without being physically stressed or mentally perturbed by any pelting rain, howling winds, oppressive and exhausting humidity, or hyperthermic heat; or shivering, life-threatening, hypothermic cold.
Shelter is a condition of homeostasis wherein one’s mortal body is not stressed; not burning an excess of calories shivering or losing precious water to cool itself in order to survive.
Only those bereft of it can truly appreciate shelter.