One Step from My Grave!

By Ray Sarlin
Copyright 2003: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (Copy permission at bottom)

Webmaster's Introduction
Webmaster's Comments: One of a Combat Infantryman's worst fears was not of being killed, but of being maimed. Because of mines and booby traps, it happened all too often in Vietnam, with an estimated 60% of Purple Hearts won by mine and booby trap casualties. Many of our battalion's casualties were from mines and booby traps; in fact, the author took over Charlie Company when his predecesser was severely wounded by one. Here he writes about a day in the field when he found himself "one step from his grave."

  Even so, one step from my grave,
I believe that cruelty, spite,
The powers of darkness will in time
Be crushed by the spirit of light.

(Boris Pasternak, Selected Poems)

The exact date is a little hazy in my mind, but some of the events of that day in Vietnam early in 1970 are as clear today as they were then… and as likely to send my pulse rate soaring. I don't dream about them much anymore… there are other memories in more vivid Technicolor to haunt my sleep… from before or after that day… tied together not so much in chronological order as in a complex tangled web of priorities that my conscious logic cannot interpret. At 19 or 20 or even 25, time has a very different meaning than it does in one's fifties.

I was the "Old Man" of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry, leading my 150 or so heavily armed U.S. Army combat Infantrymen on a dismounted patrol through the foothills of the Truong Son Mountains in the southern portion of the II Corps Tactical Zone, otherwise known as the Central Highlands. At 25 years old, I really was the "old man" in the field, because only the mortar platoon sergeant at a ripe old 26 was older.

Patrolling was what we did in Vietnam, searching for the enemy or even for any signs of the enemy. We looked for caches of weapons or ammunition or military gear or medical supplies or food… we sought anything of possible value to the enemy. We'd normally patrol during the day and set up ambushes at night, although sometimes we'd work the other way around. Our only pattern was to never set a pattern. We were consistently inconsistent to deny any watching enemy scouts intelligent intelligence about our movements.

Because we were Mechanized Infantry, we had three primary modes of getting into an area. M113A1 Armored Personnel Carriers outfitted with extra machine guns and gun shields (called "ACAV kits") were our primary method but we also conducted airmobile combat assaults (CAs) by helicopter and dismounted operations, which is just a fancy way of saying "on foot". Looking back, we probably did all three about equally, because I can't remember one standing out above the others. The mode was basically determined by the terrain we would be operating in.

There were a lot of enemy in our area; we'd been told by the S2 that we were up against at least two NVA battalions although we didn't see them in larger than company strength until a few weeks after this story. We would often make contact with the enemy, sometimes two or three times a day. Some would be fleeting with a few rounds or rockets or mortars fired, others would seem like million dollar minutes, and still others would have your heart in your throat and seem to last eons. The worst contacts from the standpoint of morale were the mines and booby-traps.

We were operating in a free-fire zone (FFZ) which meant that anything that we saw that moved was fair game. In fact, we weren't just in any old FFZ; we were operating in the enemy main transhipment area between the fertile coastal plain and the rugged mountains that Charlie considered his by right. We couldn't move without one of our guys finding another ton or so of hidden rice. We dug up a lot of graves, too, looking for caches of weapons or ammo… as often finding freshly killed enemy from our contacts as older corpses. Of course, whether caches or corpses, whatever we found was usually booby-trapped.

David H. Hackworth [1] has observed that, "… almost sixty percent of U.S. casualties -- 240,000 soldiers -- came from mines and booby-traps…. They didn't always kill…, but they were always physical and psychological disablers…. The effect mines had on fighting spirit was devastating. Mines clobber morale because they are unseen, and there's no way to fight back."

As a unit, we were pretty good at spotting and neutralizing mines and booby traps, especially when we were dismounted. We had some point men with uncanny senses, and often had a Kit Carson Scout assigned to each platoon who was usually also sharp. One in the Bong Son area had formerly worked as a NVA soldier in our AO and insisted on walking point so that his "new friends" would not get hurt; the cynics amongst you might think that he was just trying to steer us away from his true friends, but if you'd been there you'd appreciate him even more.

Mounted, it was a bit harder to spot some mines. Fortunately, although mines could be utterly devastating, they weren't always that effective against our APCs, especially some improvised mines. I twice rode my APC when it ran over a mine; both times it was thrust up into the air and enveloped in a massive acrid cloud of smoke and dust and noise… and then bounced back down to earth. In both cases, men had to be medivaced for burst eardrums which might take an hour or so to show up; on the second occasion, everybody but me had to be dusted off.

Mines came in different types and forms. The main types were anti-personnel (AP) mines and anti-tank (AT) mines. They could either be military issue (primarily U.S., French, Russian or Chinese) or improvised. Anti-tank mines are typically made to detonate under a minimum pressure of over 125 pounds or so. Of course, they were often booby-trapped or connected to AP mines, so they could detonate at a much lower pressure.

Improvised mines or booby-traps are normally made from any materials available at the time. They might consist of regular munitions like grenades, unexploded artillery rounds or air-dropped bombs rigged with a trip wire, pressure switch, command detonator or other means. Alternatively, they could be non-explosive, like a punji pit or swinging spiked log.

Anti-personnel mines are intended to kill or wound personnel with shrapnel or blast. In fact, wounding is often the goal, because it takes more men out of combat to look after the victim. There are numerous varieties and they are designed to operate on the lowest pressures. There were three main types of fragmenting AP mines used in Vietnam, bounding mines (Bouncing Betty), directional mines (Claymore) and basic fragmenting mines (Soviet POMZ-2 mine).

Most of the AP booby-traps that we faced were improvised - things like grenades in discarded C-ration cans. Anything could be booby-trapped, rice caches, graves, even sticks. The enemy in Binh Thuan and Lam Dong Provinces didn't seem to have many claymores while we were there. That was a huge relief because a barge carrying M18 Claymores had sunk in the Bong Son area where we operated before and enough showed up during operations to know that some if not all had been recovered by the wrong people.

The Bouncing Betty, though, was a constant threat. It was first employed early in World War II when French patrols on the Siegfried Line began to take unexplained casualties. The came from the German "S" mine developed in the 1930s, the first Bouncing Betty, which the French dubbed "the silent soldier." The mine has two charges; the first shoots it up 3 or 4 feet off the ground to about waist height and the second then explodes and sprays the area with shrapnel. Bouncing Betty can maim as well as kill, and that's the demoralizing thought that can turn a brave man's blood cold. Most soldiers become fatalistic about death, but not about losing limbs or, worse, our balls, and surviving. We just had to put that thought to the back of our minds.

We'd been patrolling for a week or so and were dog-tired from lack of sleep, but we still faced enough more days so that the troops were still focused as we trekked between shoulder high ant mounds through the sunburnt waist-high elephant grass. There wasn't a breeze to offer relief from the dry, dusty heat. It was one step after another as we followed in the tracks of the man in front to avoid trip wires, punji stakes or the dreaded triple prongs of the Bouncing Betty. As a Chinese proverb says, "One false step can bring everlasting grief."

The tactical map showed a disused French road that led through the hills into the mountains to our west. We were patrolling parallel to that supposed track two hundred meters or so south trying to spot any signs of the enemy, but it seemed for all the world that we might have been the first people to ever see that desolate place. Not long before, a grass fire had swept through the area and our passing boots stirred up a black ash dust that filled our nose and throat and burned our eyes. The ash was a positive sign, though, because any trip wires or booby-traps that had survived the fire should be easier to spot. So we trudged onwards, carefully stepping over fallen trees and debris, trying to stay in the tracks of the man in front.

I had my command post with our first platoon. We were in a single file with flanking squads out to both sides. I was intent on not only what was around me, but also on my map and the next moves in our tactical plan. Suddenly, the point man waved us down. "There's an old barbed wire fence up ahead. Stop while I check it out." As we paused in place, the men automatically turned outwards to provide 360° security. This wasn't a break. We would often pause during a patrol while something or another was checked out. I passed a grid coordinate to an RTO to call the fence location in to battalion.

The word came back from up front that there seemed to be a sign on the fence and the point was moving up to read it. As he neared the fence, he checked it out and found that it seemed clear of booby-traps, but the battered sign on the rusty old barbed wire was blank. As he leaned over the fence to see if there was any message on the other side he suddenly shouted, "Holy shit, it's a minefield!!!" There was a long pause, and then he shouted back, "And we're in it!" On the opposite side of the twisted triangular sign were the words: "Attention! Les Mines," or words to that effect.

I had been so intent on following the footsteps in front and my own planning that I hadn't paid enough attention to the ground off to either side. Frozen in place by the shout, I looked right and left and saw what could have been several sets of prongs protruding from the ground among the partially burned grass stubble… the sign that we were surrounded by the feared Bouncing Betty. The men ahead of and behind me were reaching the same conclusion. We were in the middle of a minefield!

My order to "Freeze" was unnecessary. Nobody moved.

After nine weeks of WWII combat at St.-Lo, Stephen E. Ambrose's 1997 book "Citizen Soldier" quotes LT George Wilson of the 4th Infantry Division as saying, "By now I had gone through aerial bombing, artillery and mortar shelling, open combat, direct rifle and machine gun firing, night patrolling and ambush. Against all of this we had some kind of chance; against mines we had none. The only defence was to not move at all."

But staying put was never an option. Not having any idea where the minefield started, but knowing where it stopped, there was no choice but to move ahead through the minefield to get out of it. We radioed our situation to battalion. We also told flank patrols and advised them to be especially alert for both the enemy and the "friendly" minefield. They set out flank security and tried to define the scope of our temporary prison.

Slowly and carefully, the men resumed moving forward, stepping in the footprints of the man ahead. No matter how much we wanted to be out of the minefield, the rule was never rush, take your time. As some ancient Chinaman also said, "Once you make a false step, a hundred lifetimes cannot redeem it."

As soon as a person stepped over the low fence and was outside, he was allowed a quick deep breath before he joined the security force protecting the others not yet out. Finally, everyone was out of the minefield. It was a huge relief that we had suffered no casualties, although we left buckets of sweat behind. Nothing has ever tasted as good as the quick gulp I swigged from my lukewarm canteen to rinse out my mouth.

Then we moved on again.


We marked out the extent of the old minefield as best we could and called it in to battalion. It might have been a defensive minefield for an old French outpost or a staging area for convoys into the mountains. If so, we never saw any other indication of the base, and our S2 had nothing on record.

Field Manual 5-31, "Use and Installation of Boobytraps", and FM 20-32, "Land Mine Warfare" solemnly intone that, "The best protection against mines and explosive devices is a high standard of training and a keenly developed sense of mine awareness." That's all well and good, but sometimes the best training and keenest awareness won't be enough. That's just part of the insidious nature of landmines.

Per the United Nations [2] , "It is estimated that more than 110 million active mines are scattered in 68 countries with an equal number stockpiled around the world waiting to be planted.… Buried landmines can remain active for over 50 years. The threat they pose thus lingers long after hostilities have ceased."

In response to the threat, a Mine Ban Treaty was devised in 1997 to prohibit all use, production, stockpiling and trade of anti-personnel mines. It has been signed by 141 countries and after achieving the required 40 ratifications in September 1998, the Mine Ban Treaty entered into force on March 1, 1999, becoming binding international law. Countries that have not yet signed include China, Cuba, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Russia and the United States.

No one in the U.S. Government seems to dispute that dumb mines like the WWII-era French Bouncing Betty's that we walked through in 1970 should be banned. But the U.S. military points out another side to the argument… (1) there aren't yet any defensive alternatives that can replace a well-laid mine field, (2) the Law of Land Warfare adequately defines the legitimate placement and marking of mines, (3) and with today's technology, only dumb mines need be banned without compromising a nation's ability to defend itself.

Footnotes: [1] David H. Hackworth, Soldiers Learn by Doing.
                [2] UN, Landmines Factsheet,

Copyright 2003, Ray Sarlin.

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Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website
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