A Good Soldier!
Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)
You might think that memories would dim after more than 30 years, but some memories won't go away. One was the night of January 19, 1970 when I sent John Murl McDaid to lead his squad on a patrol in the bush in Binh Thuan Province, Vietnam. I was John's company commander, and had held the position for just over a week, but had already determined that Sergeant McDaid was someone to rely upon, a good squad leader. Squad leaders hold perhaps the most important position in the Infantry, because they lead by example, by day-to-day and second-to-second life and death decision-making, by personal influence, by pushing and pulling... and they are responsible for everything that their people do or fail to do. There are higher ranks and broader responsibilities, but no one is closer to the action. No one.
I was more than a click (1,000 meters) away when the contact started. It started sharp and heavy like all contacts tended to do in Nam, with a burst of fire and then a grenade blast followed by a heavy volume of automatic weapons fire and more explosions. The event unfurled like this, we would place ambushes out each night in a variety of ways, being careful to never set a pattern. Although we didn't know it at the time, that contact was to be the first of nearly two weeks of heavy contacts as North Vietnamese regulars tried to chase us out of the area because we were hurting them so badly. An ambush patrol would set up a temporary location, and then relocate after dark to another in case they had been seen.
John was leading his small patrol of some eight to a second
site, travelling carefully in single file down a trail through tall
elephant grass that reduced visibility and masked movement. John became
aware of other movement behind his group, and signalled for them to
cut 90 degrees off the trail to the left and set up a hasty ambush.
They silently moved into the thick grass and hunkered down as the first
NVA troops moved by along the trail that they had been on. John quickly
saw by the way the NVA were arranged that the unit was at least a platoon
(some 30-40 men) and maybe more, so he signalled his squad to hold their
fire. But the situation was tense, with help a long ways off and heavily
outnumbered, but then things took a turn for the worse.
Judging the enemy force to be at least a company (100-150
troops), our mechanized infantry reaction force set out to close the
gap within minutes, and found our pinned down patrol under heavy fire
but giving plenty back. The heavy firepower of our Armored Personnel
Carriers changed the tone of battle, but the enemy had 51 caliber machine
guns and rockets to fire back. It was a fight to the bitter death, and
then the U.S. Air Force came on station, diverting airstrikes and, more
importantly, Spooky to our aid. As our reaction force reached the patrol,
John was holding on but past pain. We had already called for dustoff,
the medivac chopper, and it came up on our radios asking for directions
as it looked down on a battlefield alight with crossing red and green
Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin,
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