A 173rd Airborne Jungle School Legend!
Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)
The 173rd Airborne Brigade Jungle School was designed to serve as an orientation to conditions in Vietnam. It introduced us to the enemy and to their weapons and tactics, to booby traps, to the terrain and the heat, and to critical lessons learned, often at great cost. It also was a refresher on U.S. tactics, weapons, demolitions and other combat skills as practiced by Sky Soldiers. We were still FNGs when we left Jungle School, but we were somewhat wiser, more wary, and we had learned to sweat. We had started to acclimatize to Vietnam - to the conditions that we would be living in for the next year.
But Jungle School was never intended to blood us... and certainly not against the tough Republic of Korea soldiers with whom we shared a common fence at the Qui Nhon Air Force Base in May 1969, where the Jungle School had relocated after several years in An Khe.
Jungle School lasted for one week, and we then joined our respective battalions. The highlight of the five day program was a night patrol, where we left the relative safety of the wire and ventured around at night, practicing - no, using - the skills we had been taught. The basic idea was to patrol for six or seven hours somewhere outside and around the base and scuttlebutt was that some other training patrols in the past had made contacts, so we were a bit pumped.
Little did we know that our patrol would make heavy contact, and that despite all of us surviving, our patrol was about to make Jungle School history.
The course had gone routinely. As a senior first lieutenant (if there is such a thing), I was designated the patrol leader and set out organizing the platoon-sized unit for the patrol. The Ranger School's five-paragraph field order rolled easily and naturally off my lips. As a group, we had bonded well enough so squads and fire teams were sorted out pretty quickly, and we focussed on personal and buddy preparations, keen to apply the tricks of the trade we’d been taught. We were ready to hump - and hump we soon did.
Some people learned that they simply weren’t cut out to carry heavy radios or M60 machine guns, and everybody gained a better appreciation of the lean, mean look we’d all seen on Vietnam combat veterans. Compared to them, we still had baby fat, but most of us started finding a groove. Jungle School was working.
Our patrol had us ridge running, and I kept our route below the military crest because we didn’t want to show on the skyline. Now we were tired. Some were close to exhaustion. I saw plenty of much more rugged terrain in II Corps later, but the brush covered rolling hills outside Qui Nhon that we were traversing seemed plenty big enough to me then.
As patrol leader, I hadn’t had any problems - my leaders were doing their jobs. Sure, some water had to be reapportioned, but in the relative darkness of evening nautical twilight things were running smoothly. Then we came under fire... accurate aimed fire... heavy weapons fire.
Everyone hit the ground and looked to me. But I knew little more than they did. My map and compass only showed where we were going, and I could see the hilltop about 500 meters away where the rounds, which sounded like 50 caliber fire, were coming from. And the rounds keep coming close... way too close! Thank God we were on the military crest, because the machine gun was slightly higher than we were and had just spotted our movement silhouetted against the night sky but lost us as we hit the dirt, but we were being spattered with dirt and rocks. I gave the only order I could think of in the situation, to move lower down the crest to get further away from the beaten zone.
Fortunately it wasn’t completely up to me that night. The instructors were immediately on the radio to base, screaming at them to tell the Korean outpost to cease fire. In a short time, they did, and we resumed our patrol, which couldn’t end soon enough.
The post mortem was quickly over for us. We were interviewed
and graduated, and then sent on to our units. Within a few days, I was
with A Company on the Bong Son Plains and had been in my second contact,
third, fourth and the counting soon stopped. They say that you never
forget your first contact - and I’d say that they were right - even
if it happened in Jungle School.
Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin,
Permission is hereby granted to copy
this story to print or