Monday, August 9, 2010

Fighting to Defend the Fulfillment of a Dream

I have returned from the fires of war... well kind of. I have returned and there was a great deal of firing, but it was not actually a war. Though it sure felt like it was much of the time. I suppose that is the purpose of a reenactment, to create the essence and feeling of the war without actually killing anyone. That is certainly what happened for me this past weekend as I served in the first squad of the 199th Regiment in a reenactment of events that took place in January, 1968, just before the Tet Offensive. Only I participated in said events between August 6-8, 2010 and I was in Southern Virginia, instead of Vietnam.

The journey began with a metro ride across the entirety of DC and all the way out to the end of the orange line in Vienna, Virginia, where I met the other three temporary rangers like myself that would be joining me in my quest. We in turn arrived at the home of park ranger Mark Ragan who was taking us down to the event. I knew Ragan does a lot of reenacting and has an impressive collection of both attire and equipment, but when I beheld it first hand I was truly in awe. He has so much stuff that his entire basement is given over as a display/storage area. He gave us a proper tour of his kingdom when we returned on Friday and it was like I had entered into the most amazing store/museum that has ever been created. He has all the uniform pieces (pants, shirts, coats, boots, belts, underwear, socks, etc.) hats/helmets, and other gear and accouterments for a US army soldier in every war that America has been involved in from the revolution through Vietnam. By every war I mean the American Revolution, War of 1812, Mexican War, both Union and Confederate for the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He also has the same for the marines for most of the 20th century conflicts. Add to that his Irish collection, including a variety of different uniforms from different periods of Irish history.

He doesn't stop there though. He also has a full French impression for WWI as well as German, Polish, Croatian, Czech, Finnish, Dutch, Italian, and Russian from WWII. I am pretty sure I forgot a few. I was a bit overwhelmed! Oh yes, and then there are the weapons. He opened the closet and showed us the gun rack and my jaw dropped. He has reproductions of a brown bess musket for the revolution, the musket used during the Mexican war, a musket produced at harper's ferry just prior to the Civil War, and an 1861 Springfield, which was the most common musket used during the Civil War. Those four are reproductions. Everything else in the closet is an original gun produced and used during the appropriate time period, from the Indian Wars through Vietnam. There is at least one for every impression listed above including a German luger, machine pistol, and mouser from WWII. I was in paradise! It was, without contest, the most amazing basement I have ever seen!

Once I recovered enough from being in such a basement I helped the others load all the gear for all five of us into his hummer, yes I did say hummer, and we drove down to the site. He had us change before we left so when we stopped at subway for lunch we went in as an army private, and army corporal, an army sergeant, and two army nurses. We attracted some attention! We were dressed entirely in period attire all the way down to my undershirt, boxers, socks, and dog tags, all military issue from the Vietnam era. The dog tags are imprinted with my name, soc sec #, blood type, and an accurate service number if I had been a volunteer from Arizona. It was about as precisely accurate as it could possibly be. 

As we drove down the dirt road approaching our site the anticipation was building and when we turned a corner and encountered it firsthand it was an impressive site to behold. I was looking at a Vietnam base camp complete with a barbed wire compound fence, a guard shack just inside the fence with an M-60 machine gun pointed through the gate, a three hole latrine (yes that is what we used on site), a command post, and several large tents. We helped to set up two additional tents, erected a radio array, and helped get things in order. A few hours later when muster was called about 35 GIs reported for duty.

Each man set up camp under one of the tents with period gear including cots and sleeping bags, or in my case a poncho liner because I did not have a sleeping bag. They asked for 6 volunteers to go out on a reconnaissance mission that night so I naturally raised my hand, which meant that I soon found myself leaving camp just before dark with five others, wearing the complete webgear and helmet, and carrying an M-16 at the ready. We achieved our goal of reaching the river undetected just as it got too dark to see, which meant we were unable to find a ford across the river, which was our primary objective. We decided it would be best to head back toward camp, but it was so dark that we could hardly see the man in front of us and we quickly lose the trail.

So there I was, stumbling through the wilderness, carrying my M-16, part of a reconnaissance patrol in Vietnam. We did finally get back to the trail and then back to the main road, but it was rough going in the dark because we didn't want to use light and give away our position. It was well we didn't because shortly after we regained the road I heard a gunshot and saw a flash on the road in front of us. I reacted naturally by diving off the road, finding a good spot behind the tree and looking toward out unknown assailant down the barrel of my gun. We remained crouched in the dark for about 4 minutes before there were three more shots, much closer to us. The men in front of me began to return fire so I followed suit. I was number five in line and unbenounced to me or the guy behind me the other four decided to move forward. I discovered this when the road ahead of us erupted in fire as they were gunned down by the vc. As soon as I saw the muzzle flashes I began targeting them, firing at least 25 rounds straight at said flashes. Had they been actual bullets I am confident I would have got at least a couple of them before they came after us also. 

I should clarify that everything that we were using was accurate and period correct, with the exception of the fact that we had blanks loaded into our clips. The cartridges were the same, only they did not have bullets in them. I carried seven clips of 20 cartridges for the M-16 and had to switch clips in the dark twice during that engagement. If it had been real all six of us would have been killed, or at least captured, but I would have at least taken a couple of them with us before we went! 

That was quite the wakeup call as to what it would actually be like to be out on a patrol when at any moment we could be ambushed by the VC, and it didn't end there. I awoke the next morning at 6:00 AM when aroused by one of the sergeants. The man next to me went to leave the tent between my cot and his own but paused when he felt something against his leg. He has stopped just short of a trip wire rigged between the edge of my cot and a tent pole, set to blow a charge directly under where I was sitting. Had he tripped it both of us would have been killed. I discovered a second charge rigged to the door of the latrine and a third stretched from my jungle jacket (draped over a tent line) and a tent stake. Thankfully we discovered and cut each of these lines before they were tripped. The girls were not so lucky. One of them set off a trip wire on their tent, which would have killed both of them. Apparently we were not as vigilant as we should have been!

That day we were sent out in three squads on what would become an interlocking series of missions, taking us all over the property. I was on first squad, which meant we led the way out of camp. Only 15 minutes after leaving our point man caught site of something and we dropped to the ground just before the shooting started. Our squad was sent forward and I charged with the others, leapfrogging over bushes, logs, and other foliage to try and attain cover from the enemy. I consistently spotted at least two VC in front of us and kept pushing toward them as we were ordered to do so. Ultimately I was lying on the ground behind a log with my gun pointed straight at a spot where I had just seen one of the VC pop up. Three times he popped up again and each time I shot him right in the head. The final time he must have caught on because he fell back and died. 

That is the hard thing about what we doing. Because we are not actually firing projectiles you don't know when you would be hit, so you have to pay attention to where fire is coming from and if someone clearly has a shot at you and takes it or gets the jump on you, you go down and "die" for the remainder of that engagement. At the end everyone resurrects and participates in the next engagement. So pretty quickly I had my first kill. While we were engaging those two VC the other squads pushed behind them and were successful in taking the VC village and capturing five of the VC in the process. 

My squad was sent out to secure the perimeter and I ended up on the far edge where I lay on the ground for about 20 minutes watching the area beyond our position. After waiting quietly for that amount of time I spotted two VC in the trees beyond and immediately called in their position. It was very exciting to receive that kind of reward for my vigilance! We continued moving forward as a squad and I was 2nd in on the right as we spread out moving in a line through the trees. Suddenly I heard gunfire to my immediate right and saw a VC soldier behind a rock where he had just fired four shots straight at me. I fell to the ground, out of the engagement, in the one instance in the entire day in which I was killed. I was soon joined by several other members of my squad as we pushed forward, but luckily for me we stopped after about another 10 minutes and I got to resurrect. 

We spent the next several hours continuing to push the VC and succeeded in executing a brilliant series of maneuvers in which we trapped six of them between two of our squads. Squad three ended up pushing into them at an oblique angle to a position held by my squad so that as they fell back from 3rd Squad's assault they fell right into our hands. We were, in effect, the anvil upon which the hammer fell upon them. 

I should mention that although we were not in the jungle we were in very heavy foliage and it was much the same effect, especially as it was rather hot and humid, though thankfully not nearly as hot as it has been recently! 

One of the high points of the day came shortly thereafter. This time I was second in line when the man on point ahead of me spotted something and dropped to the ground. I followed suit but could not see what he started shooting at. He had identified several VC in the trees in front of us and as they gave way we were ordered to pursue at a full run. I had moved off the road to get a better firing position so the man behind me got in front of me before I made it back. It was well for me he did because as we rounded a slight bend the forest erupted in a fusillade of bullets which dropped our front two men instantly. Luckily I was enough behind that I had a split second before they turned their fire toward me, so I immediately dove off the road and rolled into cover. The man behind me was not so fortunate. He two fell victim to enemy fire before our advance stopped. What that meant was that with three dead GIs on the road and the rest of the squad frozen around the corner, I was the only one left alive up in the front. I used a lot of ammunition but succeeded in keeping them from taking me out long enough for other men to move forward and draw fire off of me. I used that opportunity to immediately advance myself and ultimately succeeded in taking three VC out on my own. the third was especially dramatic. He snuck around behind another GI and suddenly charged toward him to bayonet him from behind. I saw him and quickly rotated around a tree and fired four shots, dropping the VC a few feet away from his target.

Throughout these experiences the war came alive in front of me. It was as if I was really there. I have played airsoft and paintball multiple times before but this was completely unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was as if I was actually there, fighting for my life in Vietnam.

The day went on and there were several other engagements, but for the sake of time I will focus on only a few more. As we continued to advance we came to the river and it was decided that we needed to move upriver in the river itself. So into the river we went. It soon came up to nearly waste level and as I was walking I turned and looked behind me. In that moment I was truly there. I was near the front of the line, and behind me were 30 GIs, coming downriver, guns held at the ready or above their heads to keep them dry. It was as if I had been transported back to Vietnam itself. 

When we left the river we soon encountered the enemy again. This time we kept pushing them, never letting up in an exhausting pursuit. We finally called off the chase and collapsed in exhaustion as the command staff gathered together to plan our next move. We did not set up a perimeter. The mistake was soon made apparent when four shots cracked from a bush only ten feet from the command staff. One of the VC has snuck up and was able to take out our entire command staff before we even realized what was happening. In that moment I realized that if that had been real I would have been in command. I was wearing the jungle jacket of a corporal, which made me the highest ranking officer in the field. 

After making it back to camp I learned how to take apart and clean an M-16. We had to do everything that we could to make it as real as possible. All the music playing was music from that era, and much of the conversation was geared toward the same. It was a powerful and transcendent experience. 

But the coup de gras did not come until that night when we were defending a firebase from a VC attack. All the remaining GIs (some guys had to leave) were positioned inside the firebase just as darkness hit. Soon the attack began. It was well orchestrated and very real. They began by firing mortars at us. We could watch them as they approached. I saw one of them coming right toward me and dove out of the way only moments before it struck the exact place I had recently occupied. Another man was not so lucky. One round landed about a foot and a half behind him so he fell, screaming about his leg. As he collapsed to the ground crying for morphine the next round landed squarely in his chest. The one following landed about a foot and a half away from him again. 

The mortars were followed by a series of frontal assaults, grenades, and a variety of other attacks, from all sides, without us ever knowing what to expect. They fired flares to illuminate our positions and then attacked, knowing exactly where we were. Their faces were lit up by the glow of their guns as they came toward us. It was impressively scary and felt very very real. The three guys nearest me all died which meant I alone was holding a huge section of the wall at one of the points of the triangle which we were defending. I managed to position myself such that I succeeded in holding off three assaults upon that point and was gratified to twice have one of the VC make it all the way to the wall and then fall dead over the edge into our defensive line as a result of my fire. It was amazingly intense. The smells of gunpowder, explosive chemicals, and churned earth permeated the air. The sounds of explosions, gunfire, shotgun blasts, yells, whistles, and insults hurled back and forth surrounded me as I clung to my little patch of earth along the wall and frantically tried to reload in the dark and chamber a round before another attack fell upon me. 

In the end I was one of but very few defenders who emerged triumphant. We had held the line, stemmed the tide, and broken the attack. That and the attackers had run out of ammunition! A good thing too because I was down to my last clip and my last 15 rounds, so if it had gone on much longer I would have been reduced to the bayonet! 

All told it was an amazing experience in which I learned firsthand what it would be like to live within the reality of constant combat and uncertainty in Vietnam. I did it for less than two days without real bullets and it totally wiped me out. I can hardly even imagine what it would be like to live in that world in Vietnam itself for a year. 

When next I go to interpret the Vietnam Memorial you can bet I am going to have a completely different perspective than I did before. It was an unforgettable experience, and in some ways a dream come true. I have wanted to be a re-enactor from the moment I became aware of their existence on this earth. And now, finally, in my 27th year I have officially been one. I can't wait until the next opportunity! 

Living in dangerous wonder...

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