That Special Forces camp was the strangest place I ever saw. Star-shaped and much smaller than I expected, it was a maze of trenches and
sandbagged bunkers covered with canvas tarps or sheets of corrugated tin and
surrounded by a little ocean of concertina wire studded with claymore mines
and trip flares. In the center of the firebase, two 105-howitzers had
been lowered into holes and ringed with sandbags.
When we entered, Vietnamese
people – men, women and children – some
dressed in rags, others in uniform emerged from the bunkers, leaned on their
M-16s and stared while we struggled to maneuver our heavy machinery in the
confined space. As we shut down, an American sergeant wearing a green
beret stood up on a pile of sandbags and waved.
More like a Wild West town on
the edge of Indian country than a military installation, I was shocked to find
the Americans not dressed in camouflaged fatigues or wearing rank insignia – unheard
of in a combat situation. Three Special Forces guys, Vietnamese girlfriends
on their arms, lived in a bunker, empty booze bottles floor to ceiling and
only a ragtag band of Vietnamese paramilitary between them and the Cambodian
border. If you saw it in a movie, you
wouldn’t believe it. What were they doing there? Surely,
the enemy could take out that camp anytime they wanted.
The team commander,
a captain with thin blonde hair and a perpetual smile, told me they’d
patrolled there several months, but with Operation Yellowstone under way, they
expected things to close in on them very soon. They wanted
to break camp the next day and asked for cover getting out.
morning, I took the captain aside, told him my battery would be back working
that area soon and asked him what he knew about enemy locations and where to
look for ambushes. He unfolded my map and wrote out ten-digit
coordinates. “A huge tree stands alongside the road here,” he
said, “two kilometers outside this camp. On the days you escort
convoys through that area, send a patrol ahead and drop a case of scotch and
a couple cases of beer behind that tree. Do that, and I guarantee you’ll
not get hit.”
For the rest of Operation Yellowstone, every time
we convoyed that road, I took that Special Forces captain’s advice, and
we were never once ambushed. To
me, this was the ultimate irony – in a huge battle for control of a strategically
important area, men fought and died every day, and yet we bought safety with
a hundred dollars worth of booze. I wondered why we fought at all. Why
not just sit down with the Communists and get drunk together?