100% Alert and Then Some!

By Ray Sarlin
Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (Copy permission at bottom)

Webmaster's Introduction
Webmaster's Comments: Some duties in Vietnam were widely seen as dull and boring, while others were exciting, challenging and perhaps even fun! The truth is though that even the most dull and boring task in a combat zone can rapidly become exciting, and often in completely unexpected ways.

In late 1969, I commanded Delta Company, 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade in Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan Province, South Vietnam, the nuoc mam capital of the World. Whether by coincidence or design, the province is also home to many varieties of venomous snakes. In fact, Vietnam is home to some of the world's deadliest snakes such as asian cobras, king cobras, coral snakes, kraits, and numerous vipers and pit vipers.

One snake was called a "Two-step" by GI's, because the word was you could only walk two steps after being bitten before you died. This may have been a myth to keep GI's alert in the bush, because there are no known snakes in the world that can kill that fast. The fastest known killer, Africa's Black Mamba, can kill in about 2-1/2 minutes if bitten directly into a major artery or vein that goes straight to the heart. Generally speaking, though, it takes 15 to 30 minutes before life threatening symptoms appear from a snake bite, and usually a minimum of several hours or even days before death occurs from bites of even very venomous snakes.

But the fact is that over 30 of Vietnam's 140 snake species are poisonous. Even now, about 30,000 people are bitten by snakes in Vietnam every year, and many of them die. So the fact that the term "two-stepper" might be a myth that belongs with the Black Syph Island doesn't mean that snakes shouldn't be treated with respect... and are best avoided whenever possible.

The Army didn't tell us how to tell "good" snakes from "bad" snakes, probably because it fell into the too-hard basket! Maybe they didn't tell us because it would've spoiled the Drill Instructor's best snake joke, "The Nam has a hundred species of snakes: 99 are poisonous and can kill you with a bite; the other one ain't poisonous but will crush you to death!"

In any case, what they didn't seem to want us to know is that if a snake has a round head, round pupils, no fangs, and a double row of plates on the tail, it's probably nonpoisonous (with some exceptions). However, if a snake has a triangular head, huge fangs, elliptical pupils and a single row of plates on its butt, watch out!

See how simple this is? Of course, the cobra is one of the exceptions because it has a round head and round pupils. And the cobra, especially the black Monocellate Cobra (Naja naja kaouthia) that features in so many GI snake stories, was one bad mutha! It's bite can be fatal within 60 minutes without treatment. Fortunately the majority of cases don't result in such extreme systemic poisoning, the area around the bite simply swells up and the tissue all around dies and you get paralyzed, have trouble breathing, pass out and can die later on.

So maybe a fear of snakes isn't so irrational after all. In particular, fear of the Monocellate Cobra seems quite well-founded, because the snake is known to strike multiple times to inject more and more venom.

Cobras are big snakes, with mature cobras four to eight feet long. The King Cobra, which is in a class by itself, can grow up over 5 meters (17.5 feet) long! Thank God they didn't have King Cobras where I grew up in Arizona, or I'll probably be digested by now. When I worked on the Coconino National Forest before Nam, we experimented with Western Diamondback Rattlers to see if the old wives' tale about snakes biting half their length was true. Since our survey range poles were 8 feet long and the biggest rattler was reputed to be 14 feet long, we had a whole foot of pole to hang on to when we taunted them to strike. With one ten footer, I mesmerized the snake with the tip of the range pole, and then without warning the triangular head thrust forward and its mouth gripped the pole at the 5 foot mark, fangs oozing poison. Geez, I can't believe how dumb I was back then!

Anyway I lived to become Delta Company Commander in lovely Phan Thiet overlooking the South China Sea. LZ Betty's eastern bunker line was built on top of the sand cliffs over the beach, thus creating a dead spot along the base of the cliffs to suck in the NVA, but other than mortars and a satchel charge or two, things were usually pretty quiet on that side. The assaults tended to come through the cemetery on the other side, because we would sometimes have trouble getting clearance to fire our weapons there, what with the friendly city of Phan Thiet to the west and northwest.

That's not to say that tower duty on the coastal side was a piece of cake, because it was really just as important as any other side of the Greenline (perimeter). It's just that with the cleared flat sandy ground, our defenses had excellent fields of fire and the claymores and fougas drums were ready for action. On the more populated sides there were always reasonable excuses for Vietnamese civilians to be wandering around in the daytime pacing off distances and observing the defensive positions. On the unpopulated eastern side, anybody seen walking around was likely to receive a whole lot of unwelcome attention.

The net result of all this inequity in guard duty, of course, was that pulling guard duty on the coastal side could actually be kind of pleasant. Each tower had a big bunker on the ground where the relief crew could sleep when not on shift, and the bunkers each had a decent fighting position on the roof that doubled as a sun deck during the day and a great place to watch the brilliant colors of a Southeast Asian sunset reflect off the serene waters of the South China Sea. Of course, the sun actually set behind you unless you were Hamchuk in the film "The Green Berets", but you know what I mean about watching the colors of the sunset on the waters. It was quite peaceful and serene.

But "peacefulness" and serenity were not the prescription for maximum alertness on the Greenline. Quite the opposite, in fact! They were recipes for disaster, because they were the prescription for slumber. And that is why Officers and NCOs were created!

As a Company Commander, my job description didn't exactly have me pulling the Officer of the Day inspections of the Greenline bunkers, but Ranger School had taught me to expect the unexpected whenever on the defensive. That lesson was particularly useful in Vietnam! So I would unobtrusively circulate around the Greenline where my men were assigned at night even when I wasn't required to, just as I would later on go around the fighting positions in the field late at night and chat with the troops when the military situation allowed.

The protocol was to use the landline to let people know you were on the prowl, and then approach the bunker on foot by the road. We'd chat a bit with the guys on top of the bunker, and then possibly climb the tower to spend a few pleasant minutes from that vantage point and maybe check things out through the Starlight scope (AN/TVS-5 Crew Served Weapon Night Sight) mounted on the .50 cal machine gun in the tower. I suspect that there would have been a long line for this duty if there had been something like nurses quarters or an apartment block within 1,000 yards, but it was still pleasant to watch the gentle white water of waves in the green light, as well as to check out the occasional water craft outside the line of floating barrels that marked the no-go zone.

As it was, checking the guard gave me a chance to chat informally in a non-threatening environment with the men I was assigned to support and look out for. It was a way to get a feel for that elusive concept "morale", and a chance to exercise a little "leadership". And who knows, you might actually learn something that you needed to know before things blew up in your face. At the very least, you could hear a decent joke or two.

It was probably about 0200 (2 a.m.) one night when I strolled up to the bunker, expecting to chat with one or two guys there and work out whether or not to climb the ladder. I spotted the tell-take embers glowing in cupped fists on top of the bunker, and walked straight towards the ladder by the bunker door.

"Sir, sir!" I heard urgently hissed down from on high. And then a loud whisper said, "Don't go near the door! There's another ladder on the side. And be quiet!" and another loud whisper said, "Shhhh!" Then several others also said, "Shhhh!"

I stopped and did a double-take... instead of only a few men on the roof of the bunker like I expected, it was everybody on duty other than the man in the tower! My mind was working in overdrive, and in microseconds (nanoseconds weren't invented yet) I thought, "L'see, they're on 100% alert at 0200 and they're whispering! Geez, they must have some enemy in the wire!" Of course, the cigarettes and using the side ladder didn't compute, but there were enough clues to know that we were going to see some action!

"Shhh!" came again, which was a bit rich, I thought. I hadn't so much as breathed out!

I combat walked over to the side ladder like I had been trained in Ranger School and Jungle School, heel-to-toe, heel-to-toe. I was as stealthy as a black panther stalking its prey. The air around my body was still, undisturbed. And then I reached the ladder and started to climb, slowly, stealthily. There was no school for climbing ladders in combat, but as an experienced Seattle Mountaineer I had mastered the three-point contact rock and ice climbing method, and oozed up the ladder silently, not even casting a shadow in the still evening nautical twilight.

Still someone had the poor form to shush me again before I topped the crest of the sandbagged revetment. I expected to see troops kitted out in flak vests and helmets, weapons pointed downrange beneath keenly alert, narrowed eyes engaged in target acquisition. Instead, it appeared that I had interrupted a poker party, because the hands were laid out on a mortar ammo case with some MPC scattered around. Make no mistake, though, the men were wide awake and alert, so it wouldn't have been a good time to try to palm a card.

"Uh, Captain, we got a visitor downstairs." The story emerged in a rush with most of them talking all at once. It seems that everything had gone along normally and the relief split up to go their separate way down below into the bunker to get some shuteye, while the duty guards settled in for a normal shift. An alert guard on top of the bunker spotted a large snake heading for the bunker and sounded the alert. Quick as a flash, the position went to 100% alert! Despite that, the snake went into the bunker and refused to leave... so the men on duty were content to wait until daylight to try to get the snake. Equilibrium reigned on the Greenline until I came along!

When I became aware of the full significance of what I had been told, one of the options that seemed attractive was spending the rest of the night bonding with my troops, but then my little voice suggested that there were better options and that I had a job to do.

I've had quite a bit to do with poisonous snakes in my life, just don't ask me to tell you their scientific names or their mating habits. I've killed 'em and skinned them and eaten them... and even have a personal story about the sighting of the largest ever recorded snake, an Anaconda in the Amazonia region of Brasil which had just finished ingesting a cow. But that's a story for another day. So I'm not especially afraid of snakes, even large mean ones like we seemed to come across in Vietnam. On the other hand, I'm not reckless around them, either. I have a healthy respect for them, even if it doesn't work both ways. In the end, when my heart beat returned to normal after working out who was shushing me, I decided to regain the initiative and go look for Joe Snake so that the life of my troops could return to normal.

With a red-filtered flashlight, I peered over the sand-bagged parapets and confirmed that the snake was either still inside the bunker or had escaped under the wire and was hopefully terrifying any sappers that were reconnoitering the LZ. The coast was clear as I retraced my steps back down the ladder and then combat walked around to the bunker entrance, my left hand holding my red flashlight out in front like you see in police movies these days, with my M16 ready to unload on any creature unlucky enough to encounter me that night.

Finally, I was facing the black rectangle that led into the dark, foreboding bunker. Nothing stirred. I moved closer to the opening, shining my light ahead and then took another step. Suddenly there was a flash of red several feet off the floor as the light reflected back at me... and then another reddish flash... and then the outline of an alerted cobra slowly congealed from the darkness. He had me in his sights, and he knew it!

The sinewy creature was swaying softly, tongue flicking past his ready fangs, waiting for a taste - for a banquet - of human flesh. Give him his tiny moment of fantasy, I thought, it will help for him to become overconfident.

Time for me to size him up. He appeared to be over two meters long which immediately posed a problem, because that was double the length of my M16 rifle, eliminating my trusty Arizona trick used with so many rattlesnakes. Although cobras are reputed to be relatively slow on the ground, their strike is as fast as lightning.

Still, all of my old snake experience could still be put to good use, and I noticed that the cobras fearsome head undulated in synch with the rhythm of my quavering M16's flash suppresser."Hmmm", I thought. "I wonder if...." Sure enough, the cobra seemed to have a death wish or else was supremely self-confident, because it kept the barrel of my weapon pointed right at its head. I gently shifted the muzzle back and forth and sure enough he swayed in time with it. Ah, here was my enemy's fatal weakness, the flaw that would see to its demise.

Shifting my rifle to my left hand while keeping the cobra mesmerized, I slowly unholstered my trusty .45 caliber pistol, this particular snake hunter's weapon of choice. I could imagine the crafty beast dodging a spinning .556 round or, worse yet, having it blast through him like a hot knife through butter to make him really angry, but I couldn't see even the hardiest snake shaking off a .45 round in the kisser. The problem, of course, was getting one in his kisser, but it looked like the snake himself would help compensate for any aiming error on my part.

Now the task was to shift his attention from barrel of the M16 to the business end of the .45. I would lose one advantage of the M16, maintaining the distance between us. Another advantage of the M16 I would lose was the ability to spray a magazine on full automatic at him if he attacked and then run like hell. A further disadvantage of the .45 was that if a slug actually hit the snake, there'd be a need for a good cleanup before the bunker was again habitable. Still, these disadvantages were outweighed by the pistol's stopping power.

So I moved to Plan B. Plan B was to lure the snake out of the bunker and either nail his butt outside of the bunker or wave Aloha as he slithered off to the east. This meant using all my cunning to fool the snake into thinking that I was removing his remaining obstacle to freedom (myself) while luring him into the killing zone outside the bunker. Heck, this strategy had worked well with skunks when I was in the Forest Service, when we used to herd them with flashlights into the tents of campers who gave us problems.

In this case, Plan B meant slowly moving back and to the right, turning my body's center of mass so that I continued to face the alerted cobra. It worked, and he started moving forward cautiously out of the bunker and to my left, getting ready for his dash to cover. I started moving with him to keep him cautious and forestall his sprint to safety. Everything was going according to plan.

Then to my right as I passed the bunker doorway, eyes focused to my front on the escaping cobra, I heard a "Shhhh!" coming from the bunker. I must've jumped so high that I could've stepped onto the top of the bunker. Quickly reverting to Plan A for Snake B, I unleashed a withering fire from my .45 into the hapless second cobra.

Actually, the cleanup wasn't as bad as anticipated. My only regret is that the first one got away; perhaps the moral of this story is to never look a gift snake in the mouth.

Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin.

Permission is hereby granted to copy this story to print or
on web pages at no charge provided the line below is included:
Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website http://www.ichiban1.org/
( web sites should make the url a link or may also just link to this page )