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Nam at Night

By Pat Lisi

            There was nothing quite like night time in Vietnam.  When the sun went down each day, which was something you sometimes wished would not happen, everything changed.  Without a ‘night sky’, that is if clouds, rain, fog or jungle canopy covered the stars and moon, it was extremely ethereal.  Sitting in the pitch black you could only imagine what or who may be creeping up on you and your fellow warriors.  If everyone with you practiced 100% silence, it was a very calm yet eerie sensation.  All you could hear was the sounds of the night critters or perhaps the soft whisper of the cooler air as it settled across the terrain out in front of your position.  The blacker the night the quieter it became.  You could hear your own heart beat if you really focused, and I did.

 

            Some nights there was activity around your perimeter.  Maybe not right up by your lines, but sometimes it was just outside the row of foxholes that were carefully dug prior to nightfall.  Out in the far away distance you could easily detect the sound of rifle gunfire even if it was just one shot that rang out.  But the BOOM of an artillery piece could be heard from miles and miles away, and I could hear their muffled explosions a few seconds later even if the shells were going in the opposite direction of where we hid in the blackness.  I always counted, “One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three,” to determine how far way the arty was from the target; each second of time represented about 1,000 meters.

 

            Some nights would find you hugging the earth in a ‘listening post’ (LP).  You didn’t dare present a silhouette to the enemy! This duty was hazardous in that you might be out in front of your own lines with only one other soldier.  These LPs would head out after dark and as far away from the main body of men as 500 meters, which is a long ways from help if the enemy figured out what you were doing and where you were.  On those assignments the two or three of you needed to be perfectly still, the only thing you moved all night was your head and the “starlight” scope (night vision) as you scanned the countryside from the prone position in your ‘hide’.  You did not sleep, because the inkiness of the night enveloped you as a constant reminder that to fall asleep could very well prove fatal to your buddies half a click away in their night defensive positions.  You also stayed awake fearing that the ‘gooks’ might pick out your position and then easily overrun it with a few soldiers.

 

            Night ambush duty was scary as well, but at least you felt a slight advantage especially if your crew was able to settle in with as little confusion and racket as possible.  Then, it was pretty much a waiting game.  Sleep was arranged in shifts but most of the time all of us stayed awake the entire night in anticipation of a fight.  Just like in the movie, “Platoon,” every simple sound or any movement out front whatsoever made the hair on the back of your head stand straight up, and your body tensed until the ‘threat’ was gone.

 

             Most of the time it wasn’t the enemy out in front, but you never really knew for sure if no one laid eyes on whatever else it was.  If it was human, all holy hell would break lose and the night calm would turn into instant turmoil for a short time.  After the ambush was sprung everything would turn back into a dead quiet, unless you had wounded to lift or carry out.  It was important that each of us knew what our role was after the ambush and that we regain our composure as quickly as possible.  Ambushes are mere moments in time and are very insane.  It is helter-skelter on a level that no one can appreciate unless they’ve experienced one for themselves.

 

            Night watch was long and tedious most of the time and that’s just the way you wanted it to be, unless you were on an ambush of course.  Some guys didn’t relish activating an ambush on the enemy, but on the other hand we were there to eliminate NVA soldiers and Viet Cong; in my mind it was part of the job to hope that an enemy patrol walked into our trap and, as long as none of us were killed or wounded, it was always a pleasure to make an ambush actually work out.  It broke up the tedium if nothing else, and gave us bragging rights when we returned to the main body of the company the next morning.

 

            Yet, most of the night watches I stood were completely uneventful and I was for the most part glad of that.  It made me think about home and loved ones and what I’d like to do when I returned to the states after serving my time in Nam.  I liked looking at the stars and watching the night sky change as the minutes and hours drifted by.  It helped to look up once in awhile, because simply staring out into the black abyss caused you to start seeing things that weren’t really there.  If the moon was bright you didn’t dare look up too long, though, as this would destroy your own night vision and it would take a few minutes to get it back when you looked away. 

 

            We also conducted night patrols.  These were not always by design, by the way.  What I mean by this is that many times we ended patrolling at night simply because we did not get to our pre-designated ‘check points’ in the daylight like we had intended to.  So, instead of setting up for the night in an unfamiliar place, or in an area where there might be ‘harassment targets’ for firing upon that evening, we just chose to keep moving to our designated rally point.  This would take longer in the dark, naturally, and we were not able to do this quietly, so sometimes we would be the ones to come under ambush.  Our tactic was to ‘charge’ the enemy with a command like, “Ambush right!” or “Ambush left!”  This seemed to break up the enemy line quickly and it saved lives.  At that point we would have to set up in a ‘hasty perimeter’ to defend ourselves and call for choppers to lift out the dead and wounded; if we were all safe we would try to move out another 500 – 1,000 meters and set in for the remainder of the night on full alert.

 

One day in the Que Son Mountains our platoon ended up patrolling into the perimeter after daylight had disappeared, because heavy fog fell upon us so densely that we had to slow down to the point that it caused us to be hours behind schedule.  As we approached the summit where our company was dug in, we had to be guided in the dark by the sound of someone on top of the hill banging on the lid of a garbage can.

 

            South Vietnam was and is a very beautiful place, and on nights of the full moon when there were no sounds of gunfire and everything was quite peaceful, you could look out over the landscape and get a feeling of relaxation and tranquility.  Yes, it seems odd but that’s the truth.    This was especially so in the mountains.  Imagine sitting up at midnight with full moonlight, overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains in America and just being thankful for what you are visually taking in.  The feeling was fantastic!  It didn’t make me feel glad that I was in Viet Nam but it did make me realize how lucky and privileged I was to be alive. 

 

            Unfortunately, the worst battles I fought in were all after nightfall.  This was the time of the day that the enemy felt more at ease for moving about and attacking the Americans.  We would use illumination canisters shot out and overhead from the artillery battery back at the base camp, but we did not waste these rounds unless we felt an attack was imminent on our positions.  The NVA also used the cover of darkness to move soldiers and equipment, so you had to be very careful where you stepped and what you did the next day if there had been enemy movement around you during the night time.  But, I must say sadly that many of my fellow combatants were killed or wounded during night attacks. 

 

            Night time in Nam could be your best friend or your worst nightmare.  It was what you made it.  I spent roughly 380 nights in South Viet Nam and each one was different.   It was a love/hate relationship, but I managed it.  I’m guessing that any Nam Vet can still see in their mind’s eye those night time scenes.  The peaceful times and the nights of stark terror are all vividly implanted, forever, and to that I can only say, “Good night, Vietnam.”

 

 

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