The last ambush

This is the story of the last ambush I had to endure in Vietnam.

At the time of this event I was getting to be what was called a “short-timer”. In fact, I had only 22 days left in country and I was really hoping to make it all the way to the end and stay alive. I had worked hard at it, staying alive, during my year in Vietnam. I had made it to that point with my body still intact. I can’t say the same thing for my mind but that’s another story. I had gone almost all the way without being wounded and I was desperate to stay that way. A combination of skill and luck had saved me up to that point. I always knew where every rock and tree was as we walked through the jungle on patrols. At the sign of the first bullet I was behind that tree or rock. If the first bullet didn’t get me I figured I had a good chance. This awareness and diligence was saving me at the time but would eventually have long-term ramifications for my mental health when after the war I couldn’t turn it off.

I wasn’t the only short-timer in my platoon. There were three others and there was a tradition that short-timers didn’t have to walk point on patrol during their last month in Vietnam so I and the other 3 short-timers were walking at the rear of the line as the platoon moved through the jungle. We still had to go on patrols with our squads but we didn’t have to walk point anymore.

One afternoon our platoon was making its way along the center of a ridge line. It was typical jungle. Thick with trees, bushes, vines, and grasses and hard to see very far in any direction. I and the other 3 shorttimers were walking at the rear of the column. It was late afternoon and the head of the column was beginning to move in a circle to make a night laager as a temporary camp to run patrols from and it would also be our night sleeping position.

The head of the column was moving very slowly and those of us at the rear of the column were hardly moving when all of a sudden from the slope below me to my right a male voice shouted “Hut!” and immediately afterward two enemy hand grenades blew up right beside me. An enemy machine gun opened up and started spraying bullets through those of us at the rear of the platoon column. The four of us short-timers had been placed at the rear of the column so presumably we would be safer than at the front but here we were catching the worst of the ambush! I fired my 30 round magazine directly at the sound of the chattering machine gun. There was nothing to see. There never was. Just the sounds of enemy guns firing at you through the thick jungle. The two grenades blowing up by me had done no damage as the thick jungle had absorbed the shrapnel but the machine gun was mowing down bushes and twigs around my head and it seemed like the gunner was shooting specifically at me. I kept slapping magazines into my M16 and kept up a high rate of fire until my rifle began to smoke. It seemed like forever that the machine gunner kept firing but it was probably only a couple of minutes. A couple of minutes of pure terror in which I expected to die at anytime with a bullet through my head, my time on the planet cut short just when I had just about made it my full year.

The enemy firing eventually ended and we all asked each other if we were alright. By some miracle not a single person had been wounded. The lieutenant radioed our squad leader and told him to do an online assault, which is what lieutenants are taught in school but in reality the brush was so thick it was impossible so the squad leader talked him out of the stupid online assault. We still had to go down the slope and check out the area where the firing had come from so reluctantly I set out down the slope with the other three short-timers and our squad leader. I expected to get cut down at any time but when I got to the area where the enemy had been there was no sign of them, not even any expended cartridges. We looked around carefully for a while but the enemy was gone so we returned to where the rest of the platoon was. I had dodged the bullet once again! I could only hope my luck would hold for another 3 weeks.

I believe this ambush was revenge and retaliation for an incident from the night before. We had set up a claymore mine booby trap in which a North Vietnamese soldier had been killed. I write about this in another short story I titled “the moaning man.” They tried to kill some of us to get even but luckily for us they failed in the effort. They sure tried, though. A few inches to one side or the other and some of those machine gun bullets would have gone through my head.

Terry Coats

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