Night Laager Position!

Copyright 2002: Dick Guthrie. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)

Webmaster's Introduction Throughout the time that the 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry served in Vietnam, it was customary for at least two or more of the companies to be operating in the field, away from the relative security of the main bases, landing zones and fire bases. We had to look after our own security as a matter of course because, as Dick points out in this article, nobody was going to do it for us. A former company commander with the battalion, Dick takes us through some of the main considerations that had to be faced each and every night... all the while balancing the sometimes conflicting needs to accomplish our mission, look after our people, and keep the enemy off-balance by never setting a pattern.

A couple of hours before sunset, any commander worth his salt got very serious about first, selecting and second, preparing a place for his outfit to spend the night. Nobody from higher headquarters was going to do this for you; battalion staffs and commanders were in fire bases, protected by other companies out of prepared bunkers, complete with wire, mines, defensive artillery fires already plotted, ready access to armed helicopters should the need arise, and so on. So higher staffers couldn't understand how critical it was for the companies in the field to have the chance to focus on establishing a viable operation for the night, each night. Sometimes circumstances made it so a couple of hours simply were not available, and inevitably the unit's posture would be below standard. At best, that made for an uneasy time between sunset and sunrise.

The first factor in selecting the site was Mission: The main task was to get through the night with no loss of soldiers, no matter what the enemy might do. The site had to be on terrain you could organize and defend, while you continued to look for the enemy. Where the ambushes were going would favor a site that afforded concealed routes to the patrols. If you had been told to expect to get lifted out by helicopter at first light, then you needed a pickup zone which could accommodate the numbers and types of aircraft you had coming in. On the other hand, if you were only expecting a resupply run, then a one-ship landing zone would do just fine, as long as the pad was not too close to the radio antennas and lean-to's that you would be erecting.

The next factor in selecting a site was Enemy. You never had good information on what the other guy had in mind, but you needed to assume he was always watching you, and he never lost the ability to strike when you were at your most vulnerable. Most of our companies got attacked at night at one time or another. It almost always happened when the unit had failed - for lack of time, energy, or know-how -- to prepare a proper defensive position. The soldiers paid in blood for this failure of the leadership. You also needed to assume that the adversary would reconnoiter and booby-trap a position he thought you might come back to reoccupy. Consequently, if other options were available, you often would pass up the most desirable (and previously occupied) sites as being too dangerous. But often there was not much of a choice.

Troops available dictated the size of the perimeter you established. It should neither be too large or too small. The fighting positions that defined the perimeter had to be far enough apart to give riflemen and machine gunners good fields of fire and enable them to use their weapons to best advantage. The position needed to afford enough dispersion so that one well-placed incoming mortar round would not cause too many casualties; at the same time the perimeter could not be so large that the enemy could easily infiltrate between fighting positions.

And Terrain was the final factor to analyze when you selected the site. Although you would have the soldiers dig fighting positions always, you wanted the terrain itself to afford as much cover -- protection from incoming fires -- as you could find. You looked for vegetation sufficient to conceal your troops and positions from observation so that the enemy could not draw a clear bead on your troops, yet you wanted your own gunners and riflemen to be able to observe and direct their grazing fires on likely avenues of approach. Gaps had to be covered with observation posts, anti-intrusion devices, trip flares.

Once the site was selected, the real work began. Making it fit for occupation and spending the night entailed a hundred tasks and activities, all performed while we respected good noise and light discipline.

As platoon leaders deployed their troops to best defend their assigned segment of the perimeter and got work started on digging the defensive positions, the company's Artillery Forward Observer would be plotting defensive concentrations and calling them to his Fire Direction Center. I would concurrently be on the Company radio net to the First Sergeant or Executive Officer in the rear, calling for the resupply bird with munitions, potable water, hot supper, personal mail, replacements, and whatever else we needed.

First in the chow line would be the troops gearing up for ambush patrol. They usually would be headed to a likely position about a mile from the perimeter just after dark, and deserved all the priority we could give them. They would rehearse their important tasks, including their movement and occupation of the Ambush site, actions on enemy contact during movement, and at the ambush site. The patrol leader would spend a good deal of time inspecting his squad for completeness of equipment, readiness of weapons, and quizzing the members to ensure each man knew what was expected of him during the various phases of the patrol.

By about 9:00 P. M. the company would be in position, with as many as three ambushes well away from the main body, Listening Posts a hundred yards out, and fighting positions complete with range cards for all weapons, antipersonnel mines and anti-intrusion devices to the front, and artillery concentrations plotted on all sides of the main and ambush locations.

The standard was that fifty percent the troops in the main perimeter could sleep, but only a third could on ambush. A quick run through the arithmetic shows that most soldiers were sleep-deprived most of the time.

Copyright 2002 Richard Guthrie,

This article may not be downloaded, copied or used in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author.