Feet in the fire

or the discovery of cinnamon

This is the story of my very first day in the Vietnam jungle when I met what was to become my platoon and company. I hit the ground with my feet literally in the fire.

I and two other guys were waiting on fire support base Mary Ann. We were waiting to go out into the jungle to join our new company in the field, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry. I knew the two guys with me as we had been in the same basic training company and the same advanced infantry training company. In fact, one of the guys was my bunkmate in AIT. He slept on the bottom bunk and I had slept on the top bunk. We were together as the three of us had names which were alphabetically close together and in the Army way that had kept us together all through training and all the way to the jungle. I was glad I had some friends along.

We had been delivered to Mary Ann by a Huey helicopter and it had been an interesting flight over the jungle to get there, the flight giving us an overhead view of just how vast and thick the jungle really was. Company members on Mary Ann had told us we had to wait a while before we would be picked up to go out and join the company in the field. I was expecting a patrol to walk in out of the surrounding jungle and escort us out to wherever the company was. No one had told me any different. I was surprised then when I was told that another chopper was coming to pick us up and take us there.

We waited around for a couple of hours. While waiting I decided to go look around for a while. I noticed a piece of paper posted on a conex container nearby. I went over and read it and discovered that it was a wanted poster with a reward offered for information leading to the person who had killed a first sergeant. Apparently someone had tossed a grenade in to wherever the sergeant was and killed him. After reading that I supposed then that the stories of men being fragged by their own men were true.

Not long after reading the wanted poster I heard a sound way off in the distance. I noticed some tiny dots in the sky and as they got closer I could see that it was three helicopters. Two of the helicopters were gunships and the third chopper looked like a giant dragonfly. The gunships were escort protection for the bigger helicopter which was a Sikorsky Skycrane, a huge helicopter which I had heard about but had never seen before.

The Sikorsky kept getting closer and closer until I realized that it was coming to a hover directly overhead. As it hovered over me I was enveloped in a hurricane of dust and empty sandbags and rolling 55 gallon drums. I quickly found an empty conex container nearby which I ducked into and got myself out of the rotor wash. The wind was terrific and I was almost blind for a while from the dust. I would have found shelter sooner as the machine approached but no one had warned me so I had to find out the hard way. The Skycrane picked up its load, which I remember being an artillery piece, and it then left and the hurricane died down.

After the departure of the Skycrane I and my two companions waited around for a little while longer and then finally someone told us the Huey was on its way to pick us up. It landed shortly and I and the other guys got on board. I quickly saw that it was not a flight just for us. The chopper was also loaded with boxes of supplies. Food and ammunition and maybe some other stuff I don’t remember. We took off quickly and away we went for our first day in the jungle.

I sat in the open doorway with my feet hanging out. It was pleasant and cool in the chopper after standing in the afternoon sun on Mary Ann. As we flew along I observed the jungle. It was actually beautiful. Lots of mountains and tall trees. Rivers and creeks. A beautiful green everywhere. A few grassy patches were dispersed here and there throughout the jungle. I noticed that every time we went over a mountaintop or hilltop the chopper’s door gunner on my side would point his machine gun directly down at the jungle below, a reminder to me that we were now in enemy country. Indian country, as I would later learn everybody else called it.

After flying for a while the Huey pilot made a left turn and began to descend. In my position in the doorway I kept looking ahead to see where were going. I could see the smoke from a smoke grenade marking the spot where the landing zone was. I could also see something else which alarmed me greatly. The landing zone was on fire! Not a small fire but a fully-involved rip-roaring blaze. And we were headed right for it. It was obvious that the pilot was not going to stop but was determined to land anyway and put us out and drop off the supplies fire or no fire. A spark from the smoke grenade had set alight the dried grass.

The chopper landed squarely in the middle of the blaze. I had no choice but to get off and run for it. As I put my boots on the ground flames licked around the calves on my pant legs. I started stomping flames and stomped my way out of the fire as fast as I could. I passed a case of C rations already on the ground from a previous helicopter delivery and I noticed a corner of it was burning. I briefly contemplated grabbing the case of food but nobody else seemed concerned about it so I left it lying there.

As soon as I got out of the blaze someone noticed that I had an entrenching tool on my backback and ordered me to take my tool and go back and continue fighting the fire. I undid the tool from my pack and went back to the fire as I was told. I went around whacking the fire with my entrenching tool and stomping it with my feet. I wasn’t the only one fighting the fire. Several other men were also lending a hand. I don’t know how long it took to put out the fire but I was exhausted when I was done. I was at the time not yet acclimated to the jungle heat and humidity and it just about did me in.

After I was done fighting the fire I left the clearing and approached some men standing at the edge of the jungle. My two friends were with me. We told the men we were new guys and what were we supposed to do next? We were directed toward a knot of men standing together deeper in the jungle and we were told that that was going to be our lieutenant and he would tell us what squad he wanted us to be assigned to and would make introductions. We walked down to where the lieutenant was and reported to him and he said to just stand by and he would get to us in a bit and assign us to our squads. He was conferring with men I presumed to be squad leaders and they discussed which of us should go where.

While the lieutenant discussed with his sergeants where to assign us I leaned up against a tree I was standing next to. I was still hot and exhausted from fighting the fire and needed to cool off but the jungle was so hot cooling off was almost a lost cause. As I was leaning against the tree I began to detect a pleasant aroma. I could not name the aroma and it took me a while to figure out where it was coming from. It turned out to be the tree I was leaning up against and it finally came to me that the aroma I was smelling was the aroma of cinnamon. I was surprised. I had discovered cinnamon! I guess I had not known at the time that it came from a tree and had certainly not thought about it being native to Vietnam. I mentioned the discovery to some men around me. There was also a Vietnamese scout nearby who heard me mention it. I don’t know if he had already known about the cinnamon tree but he went and got another Vietnamese scout and the two of them began to strip the bark from the tree, even going so far as for one of them to stand on the shoulders of the other so they could reach the bark as high up on the tree as they could. I felt kind of sorry for the tree, knowing that the action the scouts were taking would girdle the tree and kill it. I had other things to think about though as the lieutenant soon called us over.

The lieutenant talked to me and the other two new guys and assigned us to our squads. He introduced me to my squad leader and I was taken to a place nearby where my new platoon was and shown where to set up for the night. I dropped my pack and went around introducing myself. And so went the beginning of my first day in the jungle.
Terry Coats

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