A Time to Kill
Edited by Denny Roy,
Grant P. Skabelund, and Ray C. Hillam
[p.221]Pat Watkins, Army Special Forces, Vietnam
We used troops that were mercenaries; they weren’t Americans. We had language barriers, ethnic barriers, and a lot of problems that the average soldier in combat with people of his own country doesn’t have. I was a little worried about the situation and rightly so. I had to prove myself to them. Most of these people had been fighting all their lives, and here I was, a basic novice, coming in and having to take them out on the ground and perform operations. I was more nervous trying to prove myself to the people I was out there in combat with than I was of being afraid of dying or being in combat. I wanted to prove myself.
It took about three months in combat before I started to get the attitude that I knew what I was doing and that I could keep us alive. It was a learning experience. The areas that I went through with the troops were especially the first and last parts of an operation when people tended to get lackadaisical. I constantly trained; I worked hard. It was a job to me. I considered myself a professional soldier. It wasn’t like I was a draftee over there, just trying to make it back in one year. My whole mission was to keep my people [p. 222]alive and to keep myself alive. I really worked hard at it, and I think I had a pretty good reputation for doing so.
Werner Glen Weeks, Army helicopter pilot, Vietnam
I had quite a cross-section of personalities in my squad, and I wanted to be sure that my men were well informed. Each of my men knew I’d be fair. I ran a duty roster from the first day, and every man knew who he’d follow in performing extra duties that came. It was somewhat the luck of the draw as to where they’d be going and what they’d be doing, some duties being worse than others.
On a particular afternoon, a fellow by the name of Sheradon, a Southern fellow, quite mouthy and immature, was assigned to pull all-night duty as the “CQ” runner. CQ stood for charge of quarters, and this trainee was assigned to be the errand boy for the officer in charge. The duty ran from five o’clock at night until five o’clock in the morning. Very early that day I informed Sheradon it was his turn and told him to be sure that he was physically and mentally prepared to report for duty at 5:00 p.m.
We’d be released from daily training usually about 4:30 in the afternoon. That was when everybody would finally have the opportunity to let down. Soldiers would invariably go to the PX and buy sodas, or, more often, beer. I specifically warned Sheradon that he not get drunk before reporting for his duty. It would be quite hazardous to his career. He disregarded my instruction, and at about ten minutes to five, he came into our barracks to inform me that he was in no condition to pull duty. I said, “Sheradon, you know it’s your turn. I feel it unfair to send anybody else in your place. It doesn’t matter to me what condition you’re in at present. I think you’ve made your own bed. Now go lie in it.”
He walked out the door, suggesting that he’d probably be rejected for duty. Within three minutes he was back in the barracks, his mouth going quite loudly, threatening that he was going to kill me. The company commander, on [p. 223]seeing his condition, had restricted him to the company area for the next month and reduced his pay. Of course, all of this was my fault, which he quickly let me know.
Sheradon told me that he’d kept a live round in his gun from the rifle range, and since we were sleeping with our weapons as part of our training, he was going to use that round and put me away forever. Fortunately he was at the far end of the barracks bay. Fourteen men of the squad lay between him and me. That night as I went to my knees before going to sleep, I was very troubled, and my prayer went something like this: “Father, I’m worried. Sheradon said he’s going to kill me tonight. If he comes my way, please wake me so that I might be able to defend myself.” As I closed my prayer, my head hit the pillow, and I’ve never enjoyed a more restful night’s sleep in my life. I literally slept like a baby.
As morning came, I awoke and checked myself to see that I was still alive. During that day, the greatest tribute ever paid me came to my attention. Six of the other fellows in my squad privately approached me to tell me that they’d lain awake during the night waiting for Sheradon’s foot to hit the floor. They were going to give him a “blanket party” if he tried anything. A blanket party is earned in the service when someone refuses to fall in line. His contemporaries throw a blanket over his head and work him over to try to get him to conform. Fortunately Sheradon had gone to sleep quite quickly that evening.
Liem Quang Le,1 South Vietnamese Army Airborne, Vietnam
I had command over twenty-four people. That was [p. 224]really hard, especially for me. Most of the guys underneath me had a lot more experience than I. Some of them had been in for ten years. And then I came in and had to tell them what to do. Oh, it’s hard. They give you one hell of a time. You know that they might even kill you some day. But you must be tough on them. One reason I like the airborne is because they rule like steel. That means if the men don’t listen, I can take out my .45 and shoot them.
George E. Morse, Army Special Forces, Vietnam
I saw a lot of young officers that came to Vietnam out of officer candidate school. They’d wear their butterbars and they’d make a big thing about their rank. They’d say, “How come you guys aren’t standing at attention? Get into a position of attention when you talk to an officer.”
It took me a little while to understand, but I’d take those young officers over behind a tree and tell them, “Sir, let me tell you a little something about this country. You see those pretty gold bars you have on your collar? If you want to put black ones there, that’s really neat, but for the rest of our sakes, would you take those damn things off? You aren’t back in the States now. We understand your responsibilities. But let me tell you something, sir, until you’ve been here six or eight months, if we can get you to live that long, and you’ve been in the field with us and have let us teach you how to survive, you might get out of here as a captain.” Some of them would listen to me and some of them would not. Some of them wanted to be the leader, “Forward ho,” but they didn’t know what they were doing and they were killed.
Robert M. Detweiler, Air Force pilot, Vietnam
When a fire broke out in the cockpit, my co-pilot, who was only twenty-two years old, just froze—absolute panic. He started crying and saying, “I’m too young to die.” I said, “Just fly the damn airplane. I’ll do everything else.” But he just completely collapsed. He was trying to fly the [p. 225]airplane and he almost stalled it out. He was listening to that flame and he just kept saying, “I’m too young to die.” I said, “Just sit there. Don’t touch anything.” I flew the airplane with my knee and one hand and did everything else, including calling on the radio for a steer back to the base and talking to the crew to get them ready. If you have that sort of a situation with a crew member and he happens to be in charge of the airplane, the result is you lose the whole crew. You lose a dozen guys because of the ineptness of one person.
Freeman J. Byington, Army field artillery, World War II
I ran into Generals Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Walker at the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp on 12 April 1945. Sometime later during our “end run” going behind the lines down toward Austria somebody had fouled things up. Parts of the U.S. Third Army under Patton’s command were crisscrossing each other. It got so bad that Patton stationed himself in the crossroads to direct traffic. It was a bit unusual to see a four-star general up there on top of a tank directing traffic.
Jerry L. Jensen, Army Spedal Forces, Korea and Vietnam
As a sergeant I was assigned as a liaison to an Ethiopian outfit that was in Korea. It had an American unit on both flanks. One was an army unit, Twenty-fifth Infantry, and the other was a marine unit on the right flank. I was assigned there because I understood the American tactics. The Chinese hit us again; that was the second mass attack I was in. This one got pretty hairy. They hit the Ethiopians full-bore, just like a pile driver. They hit us, hoping to break through and come in and encircle the two American units. They misjudged the strength of the Ethiopians; they were tough. The flank that I was on started to falter. The lieutenant that was there, an Ethiopian, was killed. The Ethiopians, much like the British, had to have an officer to tell them what to do. I just stepped in, not for any heroic reason, but [p. 226]strictly because I wanted to stay alive, and started commanding the Ethiopian sergeants who were there in our counterattack. It got down to hand-to-hand fighting. Before it was over I was bayonetted through the hand. We finally looked around and there were more of us than there were of them. We held.
That day, just about an hour after the battle finally subsided, the major in charge of the Ethiopian unit came up and asked who was in command of that flank. An Ethiopian sergeant who was there said, “Sergeant Jensen was.” I was called forward and I met the major for the first time. He congratulated me for taking over. He said, “You should be an officer.” The next day I was. They swore me in as a second-lieutenant. An American general did it.
Lawrence H. Johnson, Army Air Forces bomber pilot, World War II
After we’d left the target and were well out, we headed toward China, way out away from Formosa, and then made a dog-leg turn to the left and headed down toward the Philippines. Everything was quiet on the airplane. We were flying back all by ourselves. My navigator, Kirk, was a fellow from Virginia, a very gentle, tall fellow. Kirk was deathly afraid of the co-pilot, Carnahan, who was an Irish type who was vindictive and could swear a blue streak. Kirk came up and stuck his head through the crawlway space there and said to me, “Larry, can I talk to you without Carnahan hearing?” And I told him sure, that Carnahan was exhausted and had gone to sleep.
He said, “I don’t know where we are.” And I thought he was kidding. He said, “No. I got so scared during that run, I didn’t take any times at any place. I don’t know where we are.”
I said, “Well, can’t you do a dead reckoning and give us an approximate position?”
And he said, “Well, I’ll try. I’m not sure I can even do that.”
We were headed back to the 90 percent Japanese-[p. 227]held Philippine Islands, and supposedly we were going to try to find a landing strip that was going to be blacked out, and they wouldn’t dare turn on a radio beat for us or anything and wouldn’t even dare talk to us because of radio silence, and we didn’t even know where we were. I just said a little prayer right then, and I had the best comforting feeling come over me. I did a fast little sketch, and I put a mark on the map, and I said to Kirk, “That’s were we are.”
He said, “How do you know that?”
And I said, “Unless you’ve got something better, take us from there and see how we’re doing.” Never had a worry. He went right in and hit the base right on the head.
Howard A. Christy, Marine infantryman, Vietnam
I was given command of a company in the vicinity southwest of Da Nang, and I got into a dreadful mess the first day. We’d been sent into an area that I didn’t know anything about. My company was in one battalion, but we were pulled and attached to another battalion to beef it up for a large-scale search and destroy mission in the region of the southern boundary of I Corps.2 We of the forward element exited the aircraft and established a temporary company position right at the airstrip, and I checked in by radio with my new battalion commander. We hadn’t been on the ground an hour when elements of the battalion became engaged in heavy combat with a strong Viet Cong force, and we were alerted to move to the point of contact as soon as ground transportation arrived. We loaded onto amphibious tractors (amtracks) and headed north across a wide, shallow river, where we were dropped with orders to form a blocking position through which the units [p. 228]engaged with the enemy could withdraw safely once contact had been broken.
We arrived in the late afternoon, and the platoons went into line and started to dig in along the river bank while elements of the battalion filtered through our position and back across the river. We were soon alone, with no machine guns, no mortars, nothing to really protect ourselves close in. Before we had a chance to prepare much more than very shallow prone holes, just at dusk we were attacked by mortar fire by an unseen Viet Cong force. I was so confused as to what was happening that my first impression was that we were receiving short-round fire from our own artillery. I got on my tactical radio net back to the battalion and called for a cease fire. The operations officer of the battalion told me that the “friendlies” weren’t firing; rather, we were taking enemy fire. I should’ve realized that because I’d been in intelligence long enough to know that most enemy mortar attacks occurred at dusk, which is a confusing time because it’s hard to tell where fire is coming from. So there we were, green and inexperienced, with no support units, taking deadly incoming fire. Within a minute or two, we had two killed and seven wounded, and we hadn’t even seen any enemy yet.
After the firing stopped we received orders to pull back. Then transportation arrived. It got dark, and it started to rain. It was about 8:00 p.m. when the amtracks showed up. I ordered that a careful muster be taken before we loaded up. A four-man intelligence team from the battalion that I hadn’t met had been attached to me before we deployed so hectically a few hours before, and there was no one from the command post group to watch over them. We couldn’t find them and I ordered a search. We were extremely vulnerable to attack as we milled around in the dark looking for those men. The amtrack commander, knowing the danger we were in, frantically enjoined me to load up immediately. I hesitated, unwilling to commit the worst thing a marine can do, which is to abandon any of his men.
[p. 229]I was a captain and the amtrack commander was a major, yet we both knew that I had the decision-making responsibility as the tactical unit commander on the field. Finally, knowing we were tempting fate, I ordered the withdrawal, hoping that the intelligence team was somehow with us. It was. As it turned out, the men had crawled into a corner of one of the amtracks, oblivious to the dilemma they’d caused.
Upon recrossing the river, matters became even more complicated. We received a coded radio message to immediately commence an extended patrol to a position about ten kilometers distant, where the company was to hold up and await further orders. I was dumbstruck. Again, there we were, in a hostile area cut off from viable outside support and without our organic support or weapons elements, in the dark and in the rain, with two killed and seven wounded, green, and exhausted. To be ordered out into the night in totally unfamiliar terrain known to be occupied by a dangerous enemy seemed ludicrous, if not potentially suicidal. With great trepidation I picked up the radio and asked to speak to the battalion commander personally. I was taking a desperate chance in asking a senior officer I’d never seen to rescind an order he may have given personally. The colonel came up on the net, and I explained the situation and requested withdrawal to the battalion area to reestablish control—and hopefully to be joined up with all elements of my company before once again being deployed. The colonel was very understanding and calmly ordered the company to remount the amtracks and fall back to the battalion area. I don’t think he knew of the night patrol order I’d received. The order was probably concocted by an operations staff officer as a “routine” mission. By training and instinct I thought so, but I also feared that the requested withdrawal would be considered cowardly or an indication of my weakness under pressure. It was a terrible start. My first moves could well have been my last. Fortunately, the battalion commander respected my judgment—and in time that judgment proved to have been correct.
[p. 230]The second day was nearly as bad. We were once again ordered out on patrol, and our headquarters and weapons elements still hadn’t arrived. It was obvious that, in addition to the shock of the day before, the troops were ill-prepared for combat. Both the junior officers and the men were tentative, scared. They seemed to be waiting for me to tell them every step to take. I ached for my first sergeant and gunnery sergeant, experienced men who could take some of the burden.
Suddenly I was struck with dread that the company would possibly not be able to stand up if ambushed or otherwise attacked. I knew that once bullets began to fly there would be little I could do if each subordinate commander—platoon, squad, fire team—didn’t assert control in his own sector of responsibility. When firing begins, every individual must respond almost instinctively. In the initial confusion and furor of fire received and returned, the company commander can do little. It’s too late to hold school. It was terrifying. I wanted to escape it so badly that I began to fantasize that were I to step on a mine or be shot—wounded sufficiently so as to be evacuated—I could honorably be relieved of the crushing pressure.
The word “honor” is very important here. The pressure experienced by a combat commander is in large part owing to a strongly felt need to perform honorably. In this case I desperately wanted to get away, but I just as desperately wanted to quit honorably. The clash of these feelings nearly unnerved me. It was the severest test of my life.
The third day the company, now at last at full strength, was again ordered on an extended patrol, this time back to the very river bank where we’d been the first afternoon. There we were ordered by battalion to hold up for a period. I ordered all hands to dig in, expecting immediate compliance. Surely no one would need to be reminded of the deadly mortar attack we’d suffered only two days before. Yet, many of the men approached the task half-heartedly. One squad leader seemingly didn’t even pass the order; he [p. 231]and his men just stood around, smoking and talking. I was furious. I grabbed the marine, a young corporal, and shook him like a father would his child. He fell to the ground. Choked with rage I relieved him of the command of his squad and placed the next senior man in charge, completely ignoring the chain of command by first demanding compliance through the corporal’s platoon commander or through the company gunnery sergeant. Those who observed must have begun to wonder. That night I wept from exhaustion, self-doubt, rage, anguish over men who had already been killed, and dread that the company wasn’t competent enough to survive the days ahead.
The company gunnery sergeant stepped in to where I was and, seeing the state I was in, quietly asked if I wished him to prepare the necessary marching orders for the next day. I said yes and thanked him for his thoughtfulness. He prepared the order, called in the unit leaders, and read them the order, explaining that it was my order but that I was sick and had asked him to deliver it for me. Although we didn’t discuss the matter further, I believe that he offered to prepare the order for more than one reason. We were good enough friends that he probably sympathized with how badly I felt, but as a professional he also knew that the men might not understand the truth of the matter, that they might think of me as being a weakling, or possibly beginning to crack under the strain. Indeed, he may have wondered if I was in fact beginning to buckle. Whatever the case, it was best to keep it quiet, at least for the time being.
Then my “answer” came. The next morning I arose convinced that our collective survival depended upon me alone and that if the men didn’t fear the Viet Cong enough to be disciplined and alert, they’d learn to fear me. From that moment until my relief weeks later, I drove the men relentlessly and humorlessly, relieving of command or otherwise punishing any who failed to maintain strictest discipline. The approach was successful. That is, the company [p.232]did survive, even to the point that it won considerable respect throughout the battalion and regiment as a disciplined and hard-fighting unit. That success, however, was gained at the cost of nearly unanimous and lasting hatred on the part of my men. Few could see the need for the discipline which at least at first was so coldly forced upon them. I think that most were too young, too sanguine about life, to see the terrible danger they were in. And none carried the burden of responsibility that so heavily weighed upon me.
Wayne A. Warr, Army infantryman, Vietnam
When we set up an ambush, it was very quiet. In some ways it was kind of a break because there was no digging; you just quietly moved in. My troops were pretty well trained and knew the routine, so there would be no talking. We’d just ease into a place and set up the ambush site the way I described it. I’d usually go out with one squad and recon the area so that I’d already know what the site looked like before I went in. I’d lead my platoon into the site because I knew the situation, and then by virtue of training, I’d drop off squads and they’d set up by putting out Claymores.
My platoon could usually occupy an ambush site in about ten minutes and have no noise. We didn’t want to be discovered, of course, so in that sense we were trying to hide. But there you would sit and every noise that you would hear all night long you would think, “I wonder if this is someone coming,” especially if it was really dark. It was very difficult to tell. In fact, if one of my own troops happened to move around or something, he might get shot by my own folks, so it was a little nerve-racking. Often there was a lot of time to reflect during an ambush because we’d have to run several of them before we’d have some kind of activity. So it was peaceful, kind of a break, but the stress was higher.
I’d usually trigger it. As the leader of the platoon, it was usually my preference to trigger an ambush and then [p. 233]pull out with the theory that whatever I was ambushing would soon get reorganized. Because we were so far from our own unit, we didn’t want to get caught alone, especially if they were an overwhelming force. That was one of the worries of an ambush patrol: that you were away from the larger unit. I could get myself into some real trouble, and at night I didn’t really know how big of a unit we were ambushing, though sometimes I did. I remember one instance when I did know and I didn’t trigger the ambush because of the size of the unit. I had twenty-two people in my platoon at that time, and I started counting heads as they came through and at thirty I chose not to trigger it. I estimated about a third of this organization went through this trail at night where I was sitting, so I didn’t trigger the ambush. We sat there and watched them all go through and hoped that nobody coughed or anything.
Don G. Andrews, Army helicopter pilot, Vietnam
The morning of the assault we take off at dawn. I’m flying in what’s called a command-and-control aircraft. I’ve got the infantry commander on board with me—he commands about six hundred to seven hundred infantry men. I’m commanding that element of the helicopters. Well, we are trying to prep the landing zone [LZ] and get it as soft as possible so that we know we can land and aren’t going to get shot up. The first thing that happens is that the air force comes in and strafes the area and bombs it, and we were directing them. This is such a large operation that, in addition to this poor infantry commander sitting there, we’ve also got our boss above us in a helicopter, and his boss is above him, and above him is his boss. This was the kind of over-supervision that was so prevalent in Vietnam. As we are getting the area softened, they are giving us comments like, “You ought to put the air force around a little bit this way,” or “Make sure you get that wood line over there.” Both the infantry commander and I will be getting those kind of comments.
[p. 234]After the air force has hit the area, you figure that nothing living would be there. The last thing that happens is I bring in the helicopter gun ships and they cut right down on the tree tops and they strafe the tree lines next to where you are going to land. And then they give you a report back, such as, “Hey, the LZ looks cold,” which means they didn’t draw any fire. Well, that isn’t the report they made. After making their last pass, they reported that the LZ is hot and they took heavy fire.
It’s crunch time. This infantry commander and myself need to make a decision. We’ve got an armada on its way in and we are about thirty seconds out from landing. It’s going to be very difficult to turn around. Are we going to land or not? I look at him and he looks at me. We’d both love to hear a comment now from our bosses—”Hey, you oughta go in,” or “No.” But there’s total silence. They don’t want any part of making a decision that might go bad. Up to now they’d been second-guessing everything we’d done. “Okay, second guess us again, guys: tell us if we should land or not.” Silence. Nothing.
Ron Fernstedt, Marine infantryman, Vietnam
After Operation Colorado, they evaced me, took a little bit of shrapnel out of my arm, and found out that I had malaria. I was on the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose. While I was on the Repose, we sailed around the South China Sea and stopped in Manila and Hong Kong. Then we went back to Chu Lai. I was feeling pretty good. I was only down with malaria for about a week, and I didn’t have any problems moving around.
They told me I had to stay on the ship another month, so I went AWOL. I got on a landing craft, went ashore at Chu Lai, went out to Highway One, stuck my thumb out, and hitchhiked up to Hill 54. When I thought about it later, I was totally scared, but at the time it seemed like the thing to do.
I walked into the battalion headquarters and was [p. 235]told, “Fernstedt. Glad you’re here. You’re now a company commander.” They sent me out to an island in the Chu Lai Harbor. It was a beautiful place; on one end was a cliff, and the rest of the island was sand. It had beautiful white sand beaches. Below the missile site and just back from the beach, there was a village in a big grove of palm trees. Down on another corner of the island and right across from the naval base was a village. The other corner of the triangle was Hill 12; that’s where my unit was. It was a composite unit of combined-action squads, security squads, machine gun squads—106 squads. Just a bunch of people dumped there to fulfill a mission: to provide security and to run the combined-action program. It wasn’t a formally-designated company, but I had mortars, medics, and everything else. I had 250 Vietnamese Popular Forces and about 160 American marines. Every night we sent people out to patrol the channels and the other islands, to set up ambushes, and to provide security for the missile site and the Chu Lai base area.
I was able to work with the Vietnamese people through the combined-action squads, which were half marine and half Vietnamese. Because I was responsible for the security of the area, I worked with the elders in the village. I’d get up about ten in the morning, wander out of my bunker, run on the beach for about a mile just to keep in shape, and then come back and swim out to a sand spit. By that time, Mi, my house mouse, would have a palm mat stretched out on the beach and have some cold sodas for me to drink. I’d lie there on the beach and get a suntan for the next four or five hours. During the day, we controlled the world. About four in the afternoon, I’d go in and prepare the overlays and plans for the patrols that I was sending out, brief the patrol leaders, make sure that I had all the supplies they needed, and then I’d go to sleep. I’d sleep until about seven, when the patrols would go out. From then until about three or four in the morning I had to be awake and near the radio to make sure that all the mortar concentrations were [p. 236]plotted and ready to fire. At about three or four, when the last patrol came back in, I’d go to sleep.
Yvonne was Vietnamese, French, and Chinese. She was educated in France and spoke several languages fluently—English, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese. She helped me with my French and Vietnamese, and I helped her practice English. She spoke English quite well. She must have been about sixty years old. She ran most of the whorehouses in the Chu Lai area. She must have had about 100 to 150 girls working for her. She had a beautiful house on the island. It was concrete-faced, with a big courtyard and a hardwood interior. She had a number of servants that cooked and did all the work. Yvonne and I became good friends. We’d sit, talk, and play chess.
We were doing all right there on the island, but then Yvonne’s grandchild became sick; dying, according to my corpsman. I arranged for the child to be medevaced to the hospital at Chu Lai, and the kid recovered. After that Yvonne and I became really good friends. From that time on, the VC couldn’t move anywhere near the island because Yvonne knew everything, and she relayed the information to us. She had her fingers in every pie in the area. With Yvonne’s people, we had an intelligence net that was as good as anything the VC had.
The island changed drastically. When I first went there with my men, the people were scared. They had to be in their houses and quiet as soon as the sun went down. The kids were kids, but they were scared all the time. We went there and the school reopened. We taught at the school, and we worked with the people. One of my men was a rice farmer from Louisiana. He went out and helped the rice farmers through an interpreter. His dad sent him a couple of fifty-pound bags of rice seed. We became good friends with the Vietnamese people on the island, and they got to be pretty good friends with us. We helped dig wells and did some work with sanitation. We also helped with [p.237]the farming. As far as I was concerned, we won the war in that little area.
Jerry L. Jensen, Army Special Forces, Korea and Vietnam
I’m sure that at first the other men had questions until we were in combat together for a while, and then they found out that even though I was religious I was still a soldier. It was only about a week after we were together as a team that we’d go out on a combat patrol and they’d ask me to have prayer for them before we left. We’d have prayer, not that we could go out and kill all kinds of people, just that we could do our duty and be able to do our job the way we were trained to do.
[p.223]1. Liem Quang Le was born 21 November 1955 in Vietnam. He graduated from high school in Vietnam. Members of his family were members of the LDS church when he was serving in the army, but Le did not join until sometime later. After serving in an airborne division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (1972-75), Le immigrated to the United States. He is employed at Geneva Steel in Orem, Utah.