from Uncommon Birth: Dakota Sons in Vietnam
DECEMBER 1968. OPERATION FAYETTE CANYON.
In the mountainous rain forests of northern South Vietnam, not far from Da Nang, Frank Jealous Of Him stood alone looking across the helicopter landing zone called LZ Baldy. The LZ, about a hundred meters in diameter and built mostly of sandbagged bunkers and empty shell boxes, sat on a hilltop cleared from the jungle and overlooked a long range of coastal mountains. The terrain below the firebase ranged from flooded rice paddies interspersed with thick hedgerows on the valley floor to thick brush that covered the lower hillsides. Higher up the mountainsides the cover changed to thick triple-canopied jungle. LZ Baldy sat high above it all, and to Frank seemed perched like a lonely eagle's nest on a craggy mountaintop.
A misty ceiling at five hundred feet shrouded the distant forest floor where two lakes were fed by the numerous streams that cascaded down the steep mountains. Trails, which aided movement for both sides of the conflict, converged amid the thick brush on the valley floor.
Winter monsoons had brought rain every few days, keeping the sky a gloomy overcast, and sent him into dark thoughts of home and whether he would or, better, should go home again. Showers would commence late at night and leave the jungle floor a cool, slippery red mush in the morning that would turn steaming hot by noon.
Fog clung to the lower reaches of the area most days, creating an eerie isolation for the men of the landing zone. At 11OO, in the command bunker at the center of the LZ, Captain Larry Stanford addressed the assembled platoon leaders. As usual, Frank was invited to the meeting by his lieutenant but felt out of place and squatted just outside the circle listening. "Intelligence from chieu hois and our own reconnaissance patrols indicate that NVA and Vietcong are again utilizing Base Area 116 as a hospital and training site.' He indicated a set of circles in the northeast quadrant of the map.
"We have good information that a trail north of Alligator Lake is being used to purchase rice and resupply enemy units." Again the young officer's hand went toward the map. "We know they are getting rice from Dien Ban, Duy Xuyen, and Khe Sanh districts.
"This route gives the enemy access to Goi Noi Island in the northern part of the lake. Sniffer missions and aerial observations have us convinced that the Thirty-sixth NVA Infantry has reestablished their headquarters here at location 9656, while the Thirty-eighth Quang Da Provincial Headquarters are here at vic Bravo-Tango 0254. Our mission for the next two months is to discourage these people from thinking they've got control of this area.' He studied the faces of the men in the half-light of the bunker's interior.
"Company C is to attack and secure position one, here. Company A is to seize and hold objective two over here, while Company D will seize objective three. B Company will secure LZ Baldy, including the immediate vicinity.'
With that Frank slumped against the sandbagged wall, part of him relieved that for now at least life would be easy, but also a little annoyed that his company would see little action from this mountaintop stronghold.
Under cover of a makeshift roof constructed of empty wooden mortar cases, he looked out through the rain, down at the misty world below him. He drew some writing paper from his pack and began a letter home.
We've been moved again, this time further north to a place called LZ Baldy. Lieutenant Chellis who I've been working under is a short timer and will be leaving soon. He says that I am one of the main reasons he will be going home. These guys tell me I'm a pretty important part of the platoon because I'm so good on point. Point means that I'm like a scout out in front of the squad and the rest of the platoon looking for sniper trip wires and booby traps.
When our platoon goes on a company sized operation, I'm what they call point of point. That means I'm point man of our squad, point man of point platoon, out in front of the rest of the company. These guys tell me that the lives of point men usually only last a few days, sometimes only a few minutes or hours before they get blown away.
They think that because I'm an Indian, I'm good at this. How do you tell these guys how crazy that is? "Hey, I'm from the prairie where we can see for miles:' It's kind of weird but I have gotten good at it. It's kind of up to me to see that we don't get lost, that we end up at night where we're supposed to be. Lots of times I don't even look at the maps. I try to feel where I'm going. Sometimes I look for animal trails through the jungle and just like hunting at home, here they kinda go towards water but I don't know really how I do it. The Lieutenant says it's something he calls instinct.
These Vietnamese people over here are all the same. By that I mean, the enemy and the civilians are the same people, so we don't know who is who. Remember I told you about the Chu Hois, they're former Viet Cong who now live with and work for us. They know I look more like them than the guys in the outfit. I feel like these people stare at me. They wonder why I'm even here with these Americans because I don't look like the other soldiers. Sometimes 1 think they are just curious. They never did hear of Indians. Sometimes I feel like they hate me for fighting here at all.
But maybe that's how I survive. I try to think like them. Like Crazy Horse fighting the cavalry soldiers with his mind instead of having the best weapons. That's how these Viet Cong are always having to outsmart the U.S. Army.
The guys in my outfit still call me "Chief" even though I tell them that I'm not a chief. I guess it's because I'm an Indian.
It's pretty rainy up here so when we're out on patrol our fatigues usually don't last long. I took to just wearing an olive drab towel, split down the middle, like a poncho over my head, instead of a shirt. Now all the other guys are doing that too. It's kind of become our uniform in the bush.
I think a lot of these guys are really scared, and they think that I'm going to get them home alive. I guess that's why I take point so much. Nobody orders me to, in fact we're supposed to rotate on point, but some of these guys are so bad at it that I figure they'll get killed or get the rest of us killed. Lt.'s calling me.
So much for now.
Tell Congo that it's a good thing he's not old enough to be here. Say hi to Bernice and give the girls a big hug. I miss you all a lot and think of you all the time. I sure look forward to the letters I get from the Hollow Horns too.
See you in the funny papers!
LZ Spec 4 Frank W. Jealous Of Him
The next seven days were light duty except for occasional patrols in the vicinity of the landing zone. B Company enjoyed the meager comfort of the firebase, including sun-warmed showers and a steady supply of C-rations.
On December 22 Lieutenant Chellis called together the platoons of B Company. "We're ordered on a reconnaissance in force patrol at the base of Baldy tomorrow at sunup. Sniffer patrols say activity has been stepped up, so get some rest, we might be out for a while.”
. . .
Because the platoon lieutenant was a short-timer, the pace of the patrol the next day was cautious. The first night the lieutenant sat reading a map. He called for Frank to join him in the command post at the center of the laager. What he did not need right now was to run into the enemy: "Frank, tomorrow I want you back on point. If you see or hear anything unusual, I want to hear about it first. Right now I'm one superstitious and nervous bastard and I'm putting my faith in you to get my tired ass on the Freedom Bird."
"You got it, sir,” was all Frank had to say, and the lieutenant relaxed a bit.
The next morning, after coffee and beef chips, under a gray sky, Frank moved slowly ahead, down through the triple canopy, studying the ground. He didn't have a map, but as usual sensed where the location of that night's laager should be. With total concentration he took it all in: the matted jungle floor, the low-lying branches, and the trees had become his textbook, and he was an A student. The deer in these woods were tiny; the noise of the war in their mountains had made them rare and elusive, but they left tiny trails and in his heart Frank thanked them as he crept forward.
At noon he sat near a buddy named Carl Schofer. Both were reading letters from home. Frank's letter from Clynda carried news about school and volleyball. It spoke of Christmas and his dad's church and Bernice being pregnant again. All of it made him smile. He read parts of it to Carl, who had come in country not long after Frank. The two shared almost everything.
By 1300 he was out on point again. A sixth sense made him edgy, told him to stay on his toes. At 1400 he stopped, crouched, then raised his hand for the squad to halt. Chellis and his men froze. Lying on the dim jungle floor only a few feet ahead was an intact American C-ration can, looking for all the world like a discard. Only somehow Frank knew it wasn't. He had found the source of his intuitive nervousness.
His eyes studied the jungle ahead and to the sides and then went back to the mysterious tin. After a pause that unraveled the nerves of the men behind him, he turned slowly around and grinned at the lieutenant and pointed at the can. Sure enough, a fine wire was stretched tightly between the can and the trunk of a sapling. He signaled Chellis to come forward. The lieutenant moved up quietly and crouched nervously behind his point man. Frank said in a whisper, "Sir, I think I got something here you might want to see." He pointed to the can.
The officer stepped up beside him and returned a nervous whisper. "What is it, Frank?"
"It's a can of chipped beef and gravy, sir! The Vietcong must have good intelligence:' he said chuckling.
"Why's that?" the officer asked, a little confused.
"Because they wanted one of us to pick it up! If it was ham and motherfuckers, the booby trap wouldn't work:' Frank laughed. Then he signaled the lieutenant and his men back. Stepping back quickly himself, closer to the squad, he pulled a pin from a grenade and tossed it toward the deceptive tin. A muffled blast and a spray of earth were followed by a loud explosion from the right side of the trail, toppling a small tree. Chellis signaled the squad to move quickly away from the noise, knowing every Vietcong in the area now knew exactly where they were.
Later, two klicks away, the RTO radioed in a situation report to base camp. Frank walked over to the lieutenant. "Wouldn't want you to miss that plane ride, sir!" he said, slapping the officer on the back. The other man shook his head and forced a nervous smile.
Mark St. Pierre