Being in a rifle company in Vietnam was a tough job, one that Charlie and all of the other members of his unit had to do, regardless of whether or not they wanted to.
I’m living in the woods, jungle. I’m in the infantry. That means I’m a foot soldier, the kind in the movies. Most of the army is made up of the support troops—those are the guys that drive and work on trucks and helicopters, cook the meals, fire the big guns, fly planes, and generally support the troops in the field. The straight legs, or foot soldiers, are the infantry.
I sleep out every night, no matter the weather. I have to get up when my turn comes to be the perimeter guard Then I sit with my ‘steel pot’ on and watch the dark jungle around the camp. We stay at one camp for three days to two weeks. Sometimes in the morning, we put on our packs and ammo pouches, fill our canteens (three per man) and ride slicks—ten man helicopters—to a clearing in the jungle where they hover just above the ground while we jump out. We patrol that section of the jungle, and are picked up in the evening and flown back to camp.
The camp is called a fire support base, because the perimeter that the infantry unit sets up is actually a ring of guards around an artillery unit that shoots the big canons. We dig holes and fill sandbags, which are used to build bunkers. Right now I’m at my bunker with a tank parked on each side of me—everything faces outward, for protection. Helicopters deliver food, supplies, ammo, even trucks and cannons here. Everything is moved inside for protection. Rarely do fire support bases have roads to them, so everything must come in by air.
Being in first platoon meant hard work. The fire support base had to be maintained and protected. In the field, first platoon was faced with mortars, machine guns, and booby traps. The oppressive heat would hit over 100 degrees as soon as the sun came up. The jungle was full of fire ants, hornet nests, bugs, and leaches. Wet rice paddies threatened tender feet.
And, of course, there was the Viet Cong, which the infantrymen were constantly seeking out in the hostile jungle.
It’s three hundred meters to the woods. Flankers are out 40 yards or so. They’ll work back, close in, as we reach the tree line.
About a hundred meters from the tree line, Lehman pauses. Like telepaths, we sense this and freeze. Everyone drops to one knee. Sgt. T motions back in the file. One radioman with a PRC-25 [field radio] on his back, and a rifleman with an M-79 grenade launcher move up to the squad leader’s position. Lovick (from Texas), Carl, me, one rifleman, one M-79, Lehman, and the radio operator rise, and we advance.
It’s a ragged line, twenty meters between us, converging to ten or less as we approach the trees. About ten meters from the dense jungle, we pause.
Lehman points at Lovick and then at me. He motions ahead. Good leadership—we’re the best qualified, and we know each other. The others go prone and slither into covering fire positions. Lehman moves up next to me.
No voices now. No eyeball contact, either. Lovick moves when I move.
There is a brotherhood in the infantry. Initiation is simple: do your job. Today Lovick’s job is to follow me. And my job is to lead him. Another day I might be following him, but it doesn’t matter. This is today, and neither of us would go without the other.
Somewhere near the Cambodian border in a flyspeck of a country, on a flyspeck of a planet, in a flyspeck of a galaxy, a guts-and-glory Texan and a Michigan potato head get to knock on the door of the North Vietnamese Army.
This was the life of the straight legs.
One day, while relaxing after being in the field, someone from the unit found Charlie, and told him to go see the captain. Charlie had been in the field for a two months, in country for three. He had walked point or flank for 63 consecutive days.
Somehow, the captain had seen Charlie’s file, which listed his previous occupation in the States: “photographer.”
"I went to see the captain, and he asked me about my photography experience; I piled it pretty deep! Anything sounded like a better gig than walking point." Charlie embellished a bit, fabricating journalism experience with a college newspaper. "The captain told me to get my gear and put it in the S-1 shop [the administrative office of the battalion], and report to the Colonel. It was a great feeling. I went down through the middle of Dau Tieng base camp on a plank walkway, and I was five feet off of the ground! I had something other than an infantry job!"
Upon reporting to the Colonel, Charlie was informed that the battalion photographer had been badly wounded and sent to Tokyo. Charlie was to be the new battalion photographer; but he was given a very specific set of instructions:
"You are not a combat photographer; this is a morale operation."
The Colonel told Charlie “If I pick up the papers, and I see pictures and stories about the guys in my outfit, then you can do anything you want—run your life in Vietnam.”
Charlie was given a piece of paper with the Colonel’s contact info. If anyone gave Charlie a hard time or questioned Charlie’s authenticity as a photographer, they were to call the Colonel.
With that, Charlie was given the opportunity to get himself out of the dangers of point and flank, out of the hostilities of the Vietnam jungle.
Charlie had something other than an infantry job.
This short account of Charlie’s experiences in Vietnam contain original material written by Charlie while deployed. The first excerpt comes from a personal letter written by Charlie to a friend in the states; the second comes from a non-fiction account of walking point with first platoon.