Buffaloed Soldiers, Part I. Ambushed!
Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)
Vietnam was a land of contrasts. Nothing shows this better than the simple water buffalo. The nearly 3 million water buffalo that make up nearly half of all bovines and bovids in Vietnam today are largely seen as family animals, subsisting on the marginal land traditionally left to peasants. They help make survival possible as a source of protein, farm labor, fertilizer and family wealth. While not so much a member of the family as pigs are in parts of Papua New Guinea where they are more valued than women, water buffalo are an honoured part of traditional village life.
The native water buffalo in Vietnam are swamp buffalo (Bubalus carabanensis), slate gray, droopy necked, ox-like beasts with massive swept back horns that wallow in any water or mud puddle they can find or make. Well-cared for adult females often weigh 400 to 600 kg and males about 100 kg more, but during the war finding adults weighing 300 kg or less was not uncommon. War has a way of upsetting traditions.
Because the water buffalo represented wealth to poor villagers, they became political pawns in the game being played by the VC. It was not uncommon for water buffalo in a remote village to be killed by the VC as an object lesson for the villagers, which I guess was preferable to their other customary tactic of killing village leaders. Nor was it uncommon for the animals of recalcitrant villagers to be used in other ways, as we'll soon see.
When operating in Binh Thuan Province, the 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry had an aggressive ambush policy, and most often we set up ambushes along trails where we expected the enemy to move at night. They knew this, we knew that they knew, they knew that we knew... and so on; but they never (or seldom) knew precisely where our bushes would be even though they often knew the general area.
One night we had an ambush along a trail in the free fire zone (FFZ) foothill fringes in Thien Giao District, just below the FFZ mountains where we often operated on foot. There have been many other ambushes (we usually had three out each night), but few in such a perfect location for an L shaped ambush... a well-defined and well-used path about 2 meters wide along an old stream with a large berm on the uphill side behind which was an abandoned rice paddy. The berm was covered in brush and small trees. The ground was dry yet easy to dig into, the brush provided cover from observation, the trail took a turn that provided excellent overlapping fire, and the vacant paddy provided good rear security. And there were many more reasons why "X" marked the spot on our tactical maps.
Enter the humble water buffalo, walking point for an NVA patrol of unknown size, and being used as a mine-sweeping tool. The NVA knew that buffaloes are reasonably easy to manage so long as they are used to being handled and are treated in a quiet manner, but they are stubborn and can become quite excitable if handled roughly.
Some of the men on the ambush later reported hearing voices
as the water buffalo was herded into the kill zone, and nobody friendly
would be likely to be out and about at night in a free fire zone. Whatever
they heard, enough noise was being made to fully alert the ambush, and
as the noise entered the kill zone each of our M18A1 Claymore Mines
fired 1.5 pounds of C4 that swept a 60° arc with 700 steel balls.
Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin,
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