A Cobra Encounter in Vietnam

By LTC Curtis E. Harper, USAR (Retired)

Reprinted with thanks from:
Copyright 2002: Curtis E. Harper. All rights reserved. (Copy permission at bottom)

Webmaster's Introduction
Webmaster's Comments: Coming face-to-face with a large cobra teaches you a lot about yourself... but very little about the cobra! Curtis Harper writes about an interesting encounter between an Infantry Platoon and a snake. Guess who wins?

In December of 1968, I was assigned to Charlie Company, 3rd Platoon, 1st of the 50th Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade in Binh Dinh Province, South Vietnam. I was an infantry platoon leader and our job was to perform search and clear patrols and set up ambushes for the enemy. Many times while on patrol we would encounter snakes. Some members of my platoon told of snakes crawling over them during nighttime ambushes, having no idea whether the snake was venomous or not. That could make for a long night.
On January 26th, 1969, we were patrolling in the Vietnamese central highlands, southeast of the infamous Mang Yang pass. My infantry platoon was working on a search and destroy mission and it was a cool, sunny morning. We were in a high plateau area that had been fertile farmland years prior, before war had forced the people to move to settlement areas. The area was overgrown with large fields of elephant grass and half acre patches of thick vegetation. The jungle was trying desperately to take back over, but fires started by artillery and bombs held back the growth of grass and jungle.

The area was criss-crossed with feeder trails and bunker complexes that were used by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Our mission was to patrol an area looking for signs of the NVA and establish multiple ambushes on the trails when we did. We moved with stealth, so as not to attract attention to our position, which was difficult with a thirty-man platoon. Imagine for a moment, that you are there with me.
This morning we are moving slowly in a tactical column through a regrowth of elephant grass that is knee to waist high. Our point man is a short wiry individual from Minnesota nicknamed "Shorty". He moves slowly for a few meters, stops, squats down, scans everything ahead, looks back at me, gives a "thumbs up" and moves again. We all hold our breath each time he does this. I follow approximately forty meters behind Shorty, with the rest of the platoon in trail of me. This area has been a hotbed of enemy movement and we are ever aware of their possible ambushes. Also, our nerves are on edge, as we have had numerous scares over the past few days from encountering wild boars, deer, snakes and even a tiger that had walked down a road just 100 meters from one of our ambushes. The difference here is that crying out in surprise can cost you your life.

SUDDENLY - the point man freezes - I hand signal a freeze to the rest of the unit and they automatically disappear down into the grass into prone defensive positions. I am now ready to fire my M-16 to cover our point man. Eerily, he starts walking backwards toward me, not moving his gaze off of his immediate front.

As he gets to me, I whisper excitedly, "What is it"?

Shorty answers in a loud shaken voice, "Snake, big snake!"

Since he is obviously unnerved by this situation, I push him back to the rest of the platoon and signal that I will check out this "big snake". Having dealt with snakes most of my life while growing up in south Georgia, I feel this is nothing I can't handle and move slowly forward checking out the grass ahead of me.

When I have moved about forty meters, the hair on the back of my neck stands straight up as a hooded, Monocled cobra rises angrily out of the grass 8 feet in front of me. With a sound like a high-pressure air hose leaking and its head at the top of the two-foot high grass, the cobra quickly lets me know that I am on his turf.

The rattlesnakes back in Georgia have not quite prepared me for this fearsome display, and since my valor has already retreated, so do I. Moments later I have a quick conference with the platoon Sergeant and we decide to move out in a different direction, giving the cobra a very wide berth. And this time we move out with a different point man.

Some weeks later, the point man "Shorty" went on a 5-day R&R to Hong Kong and was never seen again.

About the Author:

LTC Harper served one tour of duty in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Immediately afterward, he was an instructor at the Florida Ranger Camp at Eglin Air Force Base where he taught, among other things, venomous snake orientation to Ranger students. LTC Harper also wears the Ranger Tab, Special Forces Tab, Master Parachutist, and Combat Infantryman Badge.

Copyright 2002 Curtis E. Harper.

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Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website http://www.ichiban1.org/
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