Sunday, January 15, 2006

Body Counts

Body Counts
by D.B. Merritt
There was a lot of controversy about 'body counts' during the Vietnam war. People just couldn't believe things like "Two hundred Viet Cong soldiers died in a battle at Song Be last night. The five Americans wounded in the fight were med-evaced to Saigon early this morning and one American fatality was reported."
"Two hundred to one?", folks said, "Damn Army! Lying again. Just what are they covering up?" and it did seem preposterous. People got pretty worked up about it sometimes. The tendency was to blame the Army for lying but I think the real problem was a fear that they weren't. After all, how scary is it to think you are fighting an enemy that can take those kind of loss ratios for literally decades and not show any sign of slowing down. I know it would have scared the hell out of me if I hadn't thought they were lying.
I expect that there was tendency to push the body counts sometimes. I'm sure the temptation to counteract the undeniable loss of 10 GI's somewhere by saying that they killed 200 of the enemy, when the actual count was uncertain but more like 75, was occasionally too much. But there was a lot more truth in those numbers than the people back home would have liked to believe.
I was not, technically speaking, a combat soldier. I was a radar repair technician. Specialist 4 when I went over and Spec 5 when I came home. Not only that but I had incredible luck. I saw bodies after but was never anywhere around when they were made dead.
We were attached to Headquarters Company and operated the air traffic control system at Phouc Vinh, which was a pretty large base and a big airstrip. The base was big enough that we could sit on top of our bunkers and watch mortars come in and blow holes in the Cobra gun ship squadron which was housed about a quarter mile away across the runway. It was 'common knowledge' that the Cong did not bombard our side of the base because there was nothing there worth hitting, and to the best of my knowledge they never did hit our side during the year I was stationed there. They did not hit anything at all but the ground most of the time. It was pretty hard for them to get good equipment close enough to a base like Phouc Vinh to do any persistent or accurate shelling. The story was that they were carrying in rockets without launchers, which were bulkier and harder to hide than the rockets themselves, and then the Cong would prop the rockets up with hand made bamboo launchers and set them off. As I said, they never hit our side of the base which was good, but also indicates that they were pretty good 'gunners' with lousy equipment. Every silver lining has a cloud.
The largest part of our unit's work took place further out in the boonies ,though. A team of 3 or 4 operators, 1 generator man and 1 radar technician would take a radar unit out to some established LZ and guide helicopters at night and in bad weather. Those were the choice assignments. Headquarters Companies had too many officers, shaves, haircuts, and worst of all guard duty. There was considerable competition among most of us to get out on one of these 'detached duty' assignments as much as possible.
My first chance to get out of headquarters came after about a month 'in country'. I was to go out to Song Be, another fairly large outpost on Sunday afternoon. However due to some annoying snafu, I couldn't get a chopper ride until Monday morning.
We got to Song Be about 10 or 11 on Monday morning in the midst of a 'Royal Hubbub'. There had been an attack during Sunday night that had gone on till nearly morning. It was a major attack to. I spent the next while getting the story from our crew.
According the scuttle butt, the first anybody knew of the attack was when a sergeant on guard duty at a bunker a little down the line from our guys had stepped outside to have a smoke. He was standing in the doorway just about to light up when he saw a Cong come down off the berm which surrounded the base and go right by him toward the artillery units in the center of the base. The sergeant shot that one, and nine others, with his 45 as they came by, one by one.
Of course the shots alerted others and when the flares light up the sky over the wire out beyond the south side of the berm, everybody watching just about died right there of shock. The field of concertina wire was alive with enemy soldiers crawling toward the camp. Then the shoot was on. Apparently quite a few of the enemy did make it into the camp and they headed right for the artillery and armored personnel carriers. One APC was destroyed, more or less, by a rocket grenade, but none of the guys sleeping in it were hurt.
It was a strange thing! Most of the enemy were carrying RPG(Rocket Propelled Grenades) which are accurate and effective at quite a range. There was really no need for them to come into the base at all. The one fired at the APC I mentioned, was fired from such close quarters that it went through one side of the APC and out the other before it exploded. Scared the billy bejesus out of the guys inside but did not hurt any of them. In fact, it seemed that very few of the grenades were used at all and there certainly a lot of them stacked up that had been removed from the dead.
Our crew woke up with all the shooting but had no idea what to do so they stayed in their bunker until some sergeant came and got them and put them out on the berm in their section. They were smart boys and quickly figured out that anything sticking far up enough over that dirt wall far enough to see what was on the other side could be seen from the other side also. So they all adopted the simple tactic of sticking their rifle over the berm, firing off a clip on full auto and then bringing it down to reload and repeating the whole process.
They got pulled off the line shortly after they got put there. They weren't sticking their rifles far enough over the wall to point them down and when the gun ship copters coming up on the enemy from behind complained that friendly fire was in danger of knocking them out of the air, the same sergeant that put them out got detailed to get them back off the line. The guys said he was a trifle disgusted with them. Anyway none of our guys were hurt at all and reports were that half a dozen guys had been wounded and one (1) killed.
I certainly did not count bodies, but I did see two deuce-and-a-half trucks loaded full to the tops of the side racks with dead VC and there were still dozens clearly visible hanging off the concertina wire out in front of the berm by our hootch. Had to be 'hundreds' dead!
I was at Song Be for around 4 to 6 weeks and not another shot fired at or from the base, though patrols around the area got into firefights regularly. I remember seeing a really exhausted platoon of grunts coming past our bunker one day. The kid at the end of the line was obviously in shock, tears streaming down his face, as he repeatedly asked the guy in front of him "Why? Why did they do that? Why?" Nobody answered and I don't think he would have known if they had.
I found out later that this particular platoon had gotten pinned down and called in Cobra gun ships for support. Somebody on one end or the other goofed the positions and the gun ships rockets ripped into our guys. Dying is stupid enough. Friendly fire maybe makes it worse?
The only other dead people I ever saw were ours. After about 8 weeks at the LZ where we built 'The Best Hootch in 'Nam", I went on R&R and was gone for two weeks. We had never taken any incoming while I was on the LZ but, when I got off the chopper coming back, there were a half dozen body bags lined up on the helipad. It seems that the very night of the day I left, and everyday for the two weeks I was gone, they had started taking incoming sometimes even in the daytime. The chopper I came in on was the first non-emergency bird that had come in in that whole time. I was there another 6 or 8 weeks before they packed the whole thing in and we never took another round. I wonder how things would have gone if I had stayed around, instead of going to Hawaii?. Well none of our team had been hurt, anyway. And the Colonel went home. On a stretcher sans legs though. Every silver lining has a cloud.

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