Copyright - Ron Heller 1999
During my time in Viet Nam the ambush was the major form of
operations used in my area. In the early part of my tour company and platoon
operations were the norm. By the time I left the typical day would find my
company broken down into five man ambush patrols. It took a lot of fun out
of being a company commander when you rarely saw them all together.
- The ambush patrol was honed to a fine art in Ranger School and I was well
prepared for this kind of warfare. The thing that made it different in Viet
Nam (other than the real bullets) was the fact that we did it day and night.
- Most people would probably think that a soldier on an ambush in a real war
would have trouble falling asleep. Wrong! It may be true on your first 'bush
but pretty soon you have the opposite problem. It is extremely difficult to
stay awake after humping all day. The typical ambush might have 100% alert
until midnight, 2 people plus radio watch until stand to some ungodly hour
in morning when you would go back to 100 percent.
- It's pretty scary when you wake up to find everyone asleep. Occasionally I
would fire a signal flare to wake everyone up and incidentally scare the
shit out of them. Its easy to imagine that you see movement in your kill
zone. Then you quietly wake everyone and get ready to detonate your
claymores. False alarm. You don't know whether the troops are mad that
you woke them or glad that they avoided a fire fight. One night I kept
imagining that I heard music. I crawled over to my radio watch to find that
he had a transistor radio stuck in his ear. I'm afraid that I violated noise
discipline when I broke the damn thing over his helmet.
- The jungle can be a noisy place at night. I remember spending most of a
night shaking a bush to silence a cricket. He chirped so loud, I couldn't
hear a thing. Two other interesting sounds were the "Re-Up" bird
and the "fuck you" lizard. Re-up is GI slang for reenlist. When
the bird's comment was answered by the lizard, the troops were always amused
and generally shared the sentiment.
- I remember a few memorable ambushes. Soon after I joined Delta Company at
Ft Apache an ambush almost resulted in my being physically assaulted by the
mess sergeant. I had set up a textbook ambush about 500 meters from Apache.
After a few hours our starlight scope picked up a Viet Cong to our
rear. Damn! I guess that he didn't read the same textbook that I did.
- The only real problem was that Ft Apache lay in the line of fire. There
was a lot of pressure on us to produce a body count so I decided to give it
a go. I called the radio watch at Apache and told him to warn everyone to
get down. A few seconds later I told the machine gunner to fire a burst. My
first confirmed kill. The next day we marched back to Apache for a rest. I
was eager to present my trophy to the company commander and claim the
accolades due the conquering warrior. As we approached the gate I saw the
mess sergeant with his hands on his hips.
- His eyes were wide open and he was obviously overwrought. When I pulled up
next to him, I heard him babble something that sounded like, "Goddamnit
EL TEE, (LT or Lieutenant) didn't they teach you at Fort Benning not to
shoot up your Goddamned mess hall. I thought he was going to strangle me.
Mess deflated my euphoria somewhat and I began to wonder if I had done the
- I went in the corrugated metal building where the CO and the platoon
leaders bunked. CPT Blue seemed in a fairly good mood. I only later found
out that he had scratched his butt sliding on the rough concrete floor
trying to put on his pants. He was too gracious to point out the new bullet
holes in the 4 x 8 sheet of plywood that served as a company manning chart
just by his bed. The other LT on ambush that night discovered a hole in his
gas mask that had been in a duffle bag in his bed. He was not as gracious as
the CO. The next day Mess showed me the several bullet holes through the
walls of the mess hall, just above the oil drum riveting and a few feet
above his bunk. I guess he didn't trust himself to say anything. I kept
- A favorite ambush was one where nobody got hurt, in fact, our intended
victim literally felt no pain. New Year's Eve, 1968,found us on the
inevitable ambush, this time near a small village. My men laid out the
ambush with practiced dispatch and we settled in for the night. Around
midnight, I heard some singing. We could see fairly well, perhaps because of
the moon. I don't remember. The singing grew louder and louder. We were all
awake and ready to kill. In a few minutes, a skinny old man on a bicycle
weaved his way into sight. He was taking swigs on a bottle he was carrying
and singing. My finger tightened on the clacker of my claymore.
- As he reached the center of our kill zone, he fell off of his bicycle. He
sat there laughing and singing. He tried to get back on his bike only to
fall again. He kept laughing and singing. I heard other laughter around me
as my men couldn't hold it back at the comical sight. Pretty soon we were
all laughing. I didn't have the heart to kill him. The next morning several
men came up to me and said they were glad I let him go. So was I. Hell! He
was probably the local party secretary.
- Before I took over the Recon Platoon they had an interesting ambush that
some of the participants told me about later. The mission was to stop the
nighttime use of the main road between Saigon and Long Binh. That was kind
of like ambushing I-35. They were told not to blow any holes in the road as
that would slow up the legitimate daytime traffic. After a while they saw a
headlight heading south toward Saigon.
- They opened up on motorcyclist with small arms and M-60 fire. Tracers went
through his spokes and ricocheted all around the rider's head. He wailed on
through until his lights faded in the distance. It was kind of embarrassing,
not the kind of thing to enhance the Recon Platoon's warrior reputation.
Vowing to do better next time, they waited.
- A little while later two widely spaced headlights approached from the
north. The same thing happened. They must have fired half their basic load
at the guy. The sky turned red with muzzle flashes and tracers to no avail.
Their effort was rewarded only by a slight shriek from the rider. The third
guy must have seen what happened because he stopped and headed back north.
He stopped after a hundred meters or so and turned around again. He
approached the area of the ambush and stopped, apparently weighing the
situation. His need to get to Saigon was greater than his respect for
Recon's accuracy and he decided to go for it.
- I don't know whether it was out of respect for the guy's bravery or out of
fear that they would miss again but the platoon leader decided to let the
guy go. I think the guys swore each other to secrecy because I never heard
the story from anyone else.
- Another kind of ambush that was widespread was the "mechanical
ambush. Some unit came up with the idea and got lucky killing almost a whole
platoon of enemy. USARV got word of it and decreed that each ambush patrol
would set up two mechanical ambushes.
- It was really a booby-trap made of claymores daisy chained with detonating
(det) cord. This nasty device was activated by a trip wire. We took a the
handle of a plastic C ration spoon and put a small hole in one end to which
the trip wire was attached. Then we put electrical wire on a clothes pin so
that the ends of the wire touched when the jars were closed. The clothes pin
was attached to a stake and the end of the spoon was inserted into the
clothes pin preventing electrical contact. The wire was stretched across a
trail, the whole thing was camouflaged and only then was the battery
- When the unsuspecting quarry tripped the wire, the electrical spark set
off the claymores and hundreds of small steel ball bearings would mow down
anyone in the kill zone. There were a few problems with the mechanicals.
First of all, since they were unattended, Charlie could (and did) move your
ambush so that the troops retrieving them in the morning would wind up the
victim. Also, you had to be absolutely sure where you were when moving into
your AP location so you did not stumble into a mechanical employed by
another unit. I hope the damn things killed more gooks than friendlies.
- Another interesting ambush happened soon after I joined Delta Company. One
of my fellow platoon leaders had set up an ambush on a main rice paddy berm.
A berm was much larger that a paddy dike and was usually used for traveling
between villages. He had set up a strange ambush with a very small kill
zone. He was in good shape if the enemy came through the rice paddy but that
was unlikely. As it was, only one or two people could bring fire to bear to
the front or rear of the berm. A claymore had been set up at either end of
- It was almost a success in spite of the poor tactical setup. A bad guy
came diddy bopping down the berm. He was picked up by the starlight
scope and the platoon leader got ready to blow the bush. He coolly waited
for the guy to get close so that he would blow the hell out of him with the
claymore. When the guy was in the right place the PL squeezed the claymore
clacker, causing an electrical spark to ignite the blasting cap that was
screwed into the claymore. Instead of a huge explosion there was only a loud
pop. It seemed that someone had taken the C4 out of the claymore and used it
to heat his C rations. All the blasting cap did was blow the back off the
- My colleague swung up his CAR 15 to shoot the guy but only got off one
round before it jammed. It just wasn't his day. The gook shot him in the arm
and disappeared into the dark. I was designated by the battalion commander
to conduct an investigation into what went wrong. I had plenty to write
about. While checking out the area I found a CHICOM pistol, complete with
holster and belt. I foolishly gave it to the platoon leader who had been
shot. I kept the belt and the the plastic pancho that was on the belt.
- Early into the war the M-16 rifle had a reputation for jamming easily.
That problem had largely been solved but not on the CAR 15. Its proper
nomenclature was XM 177, Submachine gun, Commando. It was really neat
looking. It was like an M-16 but with a short barrel and a telescoping
stock. I later got one when I was recon platoon leader. I kept it for a week
or so. One day I decided to test fire it and it would jam every three or
four rounds. I sent it to the rear and asked the armorer to send me out an
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