Vietnam: A Platoon Leader’s War

Donald MacPherson
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The Vietnam War was called A Platoon Leader’s War, for the young lieutenants and their troops were often isolated by mountains and triple canopy forests. An infantry platoon is made up of four squads of ten men each; and, like Daniel Boone, the young leaders had independence of thought and action. And for me, like Daniel Boone, it was mostly Indian Fighting, as in the TV shows I grew up on in the ’50s. Trained West Point, Airborne, Ranger, and Infantry, I was gung ho and volunteered twice for Vietnam combat, serving 18 months in 1968-69 as platoon leader and company commander with the famed 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate), the Herd, mostly in the central highlands, but also on the coastal plains and in the rice paddies.

Upon promotion to captain at age 24 I extended six months to command my company of over 100 men and become the old man. This, despite the fact that after two weeks in country I concluded: this crazy war is hopeless. As the Herd was a ready reaction force, I engaged in 50 combat assaults by helicopter. After Vietnam I served as an airborne Jump Master and Special Forces (Green Beret) A-Team Commander with Scuba Specialty, followed by 40 years of civil and criminal law practice, with clients including two governors, three state senators, two CIA operatives, and a Hollywood star.

Jaburg Wilk

I offer the following excerpts from my book, “War Stories,” which illustrate what the war was for our unit. Our biggest fear was being overrun by a pith-helmeted NVA battalion, as seen in the movie “Platoon.” (One of our platoons was overrun, with 11 paratroopers KIA, 14 WIA and 40 NVA KIA.) To avoid such risk, at night we sometimes broke into small elements, only four men together, sitting in ambush on suspected VC trails. Hawk Teams.

My men were affectionately called grunts and boonie rats. Average age: 19.  Race, religion, and color were not the enemy; these line doggies were the ones who got the job done because someone had to. They were not sergeant or lieutenant. They were Garbage Man, Greek, Big G, Quick-draw, Gringo, Blue Grass, Goose, Kid, Pedro, Top, Feather, Professor, Doc, Tex, and Crazy Horse….  This is their story and my tribute to their service….

They were not sergeant or lieutenant. They were Garbage Man, Greek, Big G, Quick-draw, Gringo, Blue Grass, Goose, Kid, Pedro, Top, Feather, Professor, Doc, Tex, and Crazy Horse….  This is their story and my tribute to their service….

Indian Fighting

In command of Charlie Company I had particular luck with what I called Ft. Benning tactics, meaning by the book of The Infantry School in Georgia. On a daylight patrol on a coastal plain we targeted a small group of huts we called hooches. As we approached we heard young male voices and believed VC to be in the area. The hooches were in the open surrounded by a sparsely wooded area. Using the clock system, with our location at six o’clock, I sent one squad of 10 men around to the left, skirting the woods, and one to the right. The company headquarters, which included me, Tex, and two RTOs (radio telephone operators), remained at the six o’clock position. We waited. After an hour or so the chattering stopped, the meeting having broken up, and I heard one crack of a shot followed by a dull thud, as if someone fired a single shot into a tree or log.

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One of my men, on his first patrol, alone at the ten o’clock position, was observing a trail when a male with an AK-47 rifle, accompanied by a female, walked rapidly down the trail. My man kept his cool, took a bead on the male VC, fired one shot, and hit him squarely in the head. The woman fled. My grunt was not sure what to do about the young lady since she did not have a weapon. I explained later that if she was an obvious VC she was fair game, with or without a weapon. If she was with VC then she was VC. Guilt by association. We then closed the noose on the remaining five VC with children. It was getting dark, and fearing a counter-attack or ambush, I pulled back to a small knoll about 200 meters away where we set up a tight perimeter. I left one squad in a dry river bed watching the main trail. After hearing a lot of movement, they became spooked, fearing they were being surrounded. Knowing firsthand the delusional trick darkness can play, I yielded to the request of their squad leader to join us on the knoll, which they did. We watched carefully to see that they were not closely followed, as it was becoming very dark in the woods.

We then closed the noose on the remaining five VC with children. It was getting dark, and fearing a counter-attack or ambush, I pulled back to a small knoll …

I now had only two squads, 20 men, five VC, and a few small children on a small hill in the middle of nowhere with no cover but a few trees. I chose not to dig in for reason of noise security. I felt that while the VC might suspect we were on the hill, they would not know for sure unless we made a lot of noise. We were vulnerable, but our only other alternative was to withdraw to our base camp, some five clicks (5,000 meters) away, or to another location, at the risk of ambush. I elected to remain, spotting our position with artillery rounds. Although the spots, actual rounds placed at my direction thus bracketing our position, ascertained our general position, I felt the VC might be discouraged from attack if they knew of the fire power readily available. But we were in for a long night.

The VC persisted in probing our position. It was now pitch black and we could see nothing but did hear movement. Without definitive targets and not knowing the size of the enemy, I had the men hold their fire, lest we give away our firing positions. Our noise security was compounded by the men, women, and children we held captive. The adults each had their hands tied behind their back while I trusted that the children would remain with their parents. I felt that restless children would grow more restless if their hands were tied. We had no interpreter and learned that much of the prisoner commotion was due to the calls of nature. We were humiliated no less than our prisoners by their urinating within a few feet of us, the captors. I could recall no Infantry School textbook which dealt with that issue. Dawn came none too early, but we remained cautious. After sweeping the area with one squad, I moved the patrol to a clear area, called a chopper, and evacuated our catch. Our mission now: more of the same, clear more hooches by what we called on the map the blue line. The stream.

Point Man

So here I was in the vegetated stream bottom. Point Man. For just the four of us, company headquarters, as I had the two squads approaching another hootch area on the high ground. Inching my way up the parallel trail, watchful of booby traps and expecting VC dashing my way any second. Hauling ass. Capping up. I was carrying a CAR-15, which is a short barreled version of the M-16 plus a telescopic stock. I had chambered a round long ago when we left the base camp and now quietly and carefully moved the safety switch from semi-automatic to the fully-automatic position. Quick a-go-go. Nothing like a spray of 5.56 millimeter to ruin a guy’s day when his objective is fleeing down a trail. I was all eyes and ears, now in a crouched position. Slowly. Take it easy. No hurry. You’ve got all day, Captain Mac.

Donald MacPherson Military
Major Donald MacPherson

Behind and covering me as slack man stalked Tex, behind him my two RTO’s, back a ways so that any radio transmissions would not be heard at my location on point. I had two radios so that I could simultaneously effect communication with my company elements and battalion headquarters. Within minutes I could have available artillery or helicopter gun ship support. The second RTO walked cautiously backwards as rear security. The first RTO was responsible for the flanks.

The hairs on my arms were on end. Antennae. I could sense the enemy. I was now committed on the trail and at the highest level of concentration. I am a cat. I was made up of nothing but eyeballs and ears. The hairs on my arms and neck were more than antennae now; they were feelers, feeling even the difference in density of air. It was all an illusion, of course, but it was the power of my mind. I allowed the illusion to become reality.

He first appeared on my left flank above me on the hillside. I froze. Just as expected, just as we had planned, as my elements moved in from the north and east, their presence was detected and this gook, at least, was fixin’ to dee dee (run) Sierra Whiskey (southwest). The blue line, running from northeast to southwest was the most logical choice as an avenue of escape for it provided the best available cover and concealment from an enemy approaching from the north and east. He moved with purpose, but slowly, quietly and cautiously down the slope. How many more? My eyes darted: left, front, right. Left, front, right. A small gurgling from the stream to my right flank was the only sound. I seemed to stop breathing. My heart was not pounding. Has it stopped? With the adrenaline soar, I presently had no fear, only anticipation. No time for fear. I knew from experience that fear would dictate its own time and come readily when VC and NVA shot at me.

As he continued at an angle down the slope I remained frozen and had not yet drawn a bead on him, concerned my movement would give me away. At the point on the trail at which I crouched there was little concealment afforded by the underbrush and trees, and less cover in event I was fired upon. He had not yet faced me, and appeared to be looking for something. I watched in anticipation for a weapon. None. He stopped, turned his back to me, now a mere 25 meters away. I could hear him breathing forcefully, from fear, not from his movement which had been purposeful but slow. What is he doing? Cache on the side of a hill?  A small cave? Probably his AK or a Chi Com carbine.

I watched in anticipation for a weapon. None. He stopped, turned his back to me, now a mere 25 meters away. I could hear him breathing forcefully, from fear, not from his movement which had been purposeful but slow. What is he doing? Cache on the side of a hill?  A small cave? Probably his AK or a Chi Com carbine.

 I could read Tex’s mind. Though his breathing, like mine, seemed to have stopped, I could sense his presence behind me. Let’s blow the gook away and ask questions later. I sensed the RTOs had frozen about fifteen meters back, and from lack of any sound of the radio rushing noise, I knew they had turned off the radios. At least I hoped they had turned off the radios. Take no chances with noise discipline now. It took but a few seconds to turn a radio on; it took far less to take a bullet.

I considered opening fire with a spray of bullets, with the result one VC KIA. Or a single shot through the head. Crack, thump. Just like dead wood. It is no wonder they call it dead wood between the ears, I thought. Whoever started that one knew that a bullet directly into the head sounds like one into a tree stump. But if I fired, there were risks. I would give away our position and be caught in a draw with little cover and concealment. Return fire by other VC could ruin my day. If this gook moved north or northeast back up the hill, he would fall within our net. If he proceeded south or southeast down the hill, I would move forward and converge on him on the trail with still, I hoped, the element of surprise. If he came toward me, well, we’ll see….

The VC pulled a ruck sack from the small cave and began moving down the hill toward me, backwards. The ruck appeared full, and from the way he was carrying it—heavy. No doubt now. VC. Twenty meters, fifteen, then ten. He still doesn’t see me! He was watching for the enemy from the direction of the hooch he had left. Or is he watching for his comrades to link up? No time for me to decide. He has moved backwards down the hill to the trail and stands with his back to me a mere five meters now. He breathes heavily. Too late now for any further thinking, for I know he will have to turn my direction to move down the trail. I slowly rise, bring my CAR-15 to my shoulder and take a bead on his head, my finger relaxed but pressured against the trigger. He turns, sees the barrel in his face, drops the ruck and shakes like an autumn leaf in the wind. He is too shocked to shout initially, to run, to do anything but to shake. My God. It’s a kid about 12 years old, unarmed but obviously VC. While I consider the trigger, Tex reacts quickly, for which I thank him later. He jumps past me and with one sweep covers the boy’s mouth and knocks him to the ground. I start to draw my knife quickly from its sheath, my other hand on the gook’s throat, CAR-15 now by my side, and the kid begins to panic, trying to scream. Rather than draw the knife, with my free hand I help Tex cover the boy’s mouth. The lad’s attempts worry us and cause us to be only stronger with our grip and more purposeful. The first RTO, Professor, watches the trail ahead, though he has moved no closer. Tex, the boy, and I remain on the ground. Observing the universal sign for silence, our forefinger over the lips, he quiets when I withdraw my hand from his throat. If we can keep him quiet now, no need to kill him. God, a 12-year old boy and I almost blew him away at point-blank range. No one would have blamed me. He is no doubt the enemy. While Tex holds the boy down, covering his mouth with one hand, I advance forward. The boy, no longer fearing immediate death, has relaxed a little. By hand signals I tell the others to remain. We have said nothing. I make little commotion. I sense more VC ahead.

I inch my way up the trail, close to where it crosses the stream. On the other side is the trail and banana groves plus elephant grass in a thick marshland. The southern route, though slower, provides the greatest concealment for the enemy. It is impossible to run through elephant grass without leaving a trail, but the trail can become a maze of trails, any of which may bear a booby trap, punji stake pit, or spider trap, which is a VC in a hole with a thatched, hinged roof ready to spring up and fire. I do not like the thought.

As I continue to inch my way in a silent low crawl, I hear whispers. I then observe through the bush across the creek which seems like no more than ten feet away but must be farther: two VC with AK-47s. Grown men. Damn. I imagine I can reach out and touch them. They are preoccupied and do not see me. Probably discussing which way to go if the enemy soldiers in fact come upon the hooch, as would be indicated by the chickens and dogs. Perhaps they are waiting for the boy. A rendezvous? I am back to square one. Same predicament. Shoot or wait? Are there more? Wouldn’t it be nice if my other elements arrive at the hooch and five or ten VC decide to run down the trail and right into me? I’ve got 20 rounds locked and loaded, and my CAR-15 can fire at the rate of…? That’s how many seconds to fire 20 rounds? I estimate I’ll hit three to five with the first bursts and lock and load a second magazine while remaining close to the ground. Chances are any shots taken at me by the remaining VC will be high. Grenades? Damn, I’m in the lowland. Any VC at the hooch has an easy grenade target.

 I contemplate my fate and that of the VC as I remain frozen. Minutes slowly go by. My eyes dart: left, front, right. Left, front, right. The VC are to my right flank. No. Wait—they’re gone! Where in the hell did they go? They were so close. Are they moving in on me?

 Noises now in the hooch area. Whistles and other bird sounds. I recognize them as my men and, with some hesitation, signal back with whistles. Slowly we link up. The trails lead through the swamps to the south and southeast. For reasons stated, I decide not to pursue. Chances of catching the VC in a maze of swampland are slim to nil. I climb the hill to the hooches. Women and children only. The requested chopper comes for the boy. Through interrogation we learn later that he is indeed VC, trained by NVA in the area. His father and uncle have escaped. How they disappeared before my eyes I still have not determined. This much is certain: He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.

Crazy Horse

Later one of my squads surprised some VC and their NVA lieutenant advisors at a hooch. My grunts shot up a couple of VC, gunned them down with M-16s as they ran. One KIA, the other on his back, dying, when I arrived with our medic, Doc. Here I was, kneeling at a hooch a couple of feet from this elderly, dying VC who had a sucking chest wound. Doc was working on him, there was gunfire all around, and I was talking to battalion on the radio, advising them of the situation. Crazy Horse, one of my lieutenant platoon leaders, an aggressive West Point Ranger, part Indian, was on his way. Anxious. His first squad, which he usually used as point and were the biggest hell raisers, was led by Kid and they were involved in a shootout. Crazy Horse was not about to miss any of the action. But before he arrived, this is what happened.

I am on one knee, on the radio talking to battalion, my RTO, Professor (because he looked like one), is kneeling beside me, his M-16 at the ready. Two feet away lies this dying VC with Doc working on him. The two NVA advisors had fled from the hooch a few yards away, into a banana grove, which was about 10 feet lower elevation. Kid and one of his buddies, Pedro, had chased after the NVA and were scurrying in the dense vegetation. We anxiously waited. Intermittent firing was taking place by other squad members who were chasing more VC into the wood line. The VC were returning fire and there were some rounds overhead, but nothing dangerously close. In any event, there was no cover. The best we could do was take the prone position.

So I continued to talk on the radio, with the sound of all of these shots being heard by the battalion commander and other staff officers, and I am sure they are thinking I have contact with a VC battalion, and I am trying to reassure them with my slow drawl, This is Charlie Six, we’ve got contact, one VC KIA, one VC WIA, request dust off [medivac helicopter]; WIA won’t last long. Some VC fled into the wood line and we’ve got two NVA in a banana grove, just to my November (north). As I am talking on the radio, I am interrupted by one shot in the banana grove and a cry, He shot Kid! Kid is hit! It’s Pedro. With this, as I continue to talk on the radio, Kid’s best buddy in all the world, and the best point man in the unit, Gringo, who is acting as my security along with Professor, kneeling a few feet away, rises, throwing down his M-16. Without as much as pulling a knife, he leaps into the banana grove, scurrying after the NVA who just shot Kid. I continue to drawl into the mike. It all happens in a flash. Next, I see a lot of banana trees taking a beating, hear a lot of cursing by Gringo, yelling for Kid, Where are you? Kid, you okay? Where the hell’s Kid! Unarmed, Gringo is after a guy who obviously has a gun and shot his best friend.

It all happens in a flash. Next, I see a lot of banana trees taking a beating, hear a lot of cursing by Gringo, yelling for Kid, Where are you? Kid, you okay? Where the hell’s Kid! Unarmed, Gringo is after a guy who obviously has a gun and shot his best friend.

I am still talking on the radio, now with this, Break. We’ve got a friendly WIA; make that urgent now on the dust off. I repeat, one friendly WIA; request dust off ASAP. As I continue to talk, I see this young NVA emerge from the banana grove, charging directly toward me with pistol in hand. He is not firing at us. Not yet. His eyes are wild with fear. Gringo is right behind him, barehanded, ready I suppose to break this gook’s neck. We do not have Kid yet. He is still in the banana grove. The NVA is thirty feet away and coming straight for me. Professor raises his M-16 and with single shots starts putting some rounds into him. I am still talking on the radio, and now the sounds of Professor’s M-16 shots are going right into the mike, and I imagine some anxiety on behalf of the battalion commander and the staff officers, who must be curiously listening to our company’s contact.

This NVA keeps coming. He is ten feet away now, his weapon still raised, but not fired. Gringo about to tackle. Professor is methodically pumping rounds into the gook’s chest. No panic. No quick-a-go-go. Just single shots. I continue to talk in my slow drawl. It is as if I am watching a movie, and it is not really happening, and I am just continuing with my business at hand.

Finally, the NVA drops right at my feet, having taken about ten rounds in the chest. As he hits the ground, all firing ceases, the movie including sound track, frozen. A still frame. There is not a sound. The world has stopped. Then there is one gross gasp from the old VC being worked on by the Doc. Doc looks over at me with his hands raised in a gesture of hopelessness. It still seems the world has gone silent, but for the Doc’s voice. Well, he says matter-of-fact-like, the old man’s gone.

Now the other men in the squad are out to the wood line, securing our position. By this time Crazy Horse has shown up and is pulling Kid out of the banana grove. Doc is looking after him. Kid has been shot in the stomach and is in bad shape. The dust off we hope is  on the way. We have also captured a second NVA with a pistol. The one who shot Kid. Gringo chased down the wrong guy! They tie the POW’s hands behind his back and sit him by a tree.

With Crazy Horse is another squad. We are still taking some sniper fire from the trees. I continue to talk on the radio. I have some Cobra helicopter gun ships on the way; in a few minutes they arrive. Where do you want ‘em, Charlie Six? the Cobra pilot requests, very nonchalant, as if delivering the Monday morning milk to the backdoor. I have two Cobra ships at my disposal, armed with 2.75 inch rockets, and they can fire with pinpoint accuracy. We continue to take sniper fire from the tree line, only about seventy-five meters away. I radio to the lead Cobra, Sniper in the tree line seventy-five mikes (meters) direct Whiskey. Been a pain in the ass. Roger, says the Cobra. They are flying in echelon. Rockets let loose just over our heads and with, as I said, pinpoint accuracy, the rockets land just where I want them. No more sniper fire. After directing the Cobras for another fifteen minutes, things settle down and we have the area secured and negative enemy fire. We pop smoke for the dust off and they take Kid. Man, is Crazy Horse mad; the two completed Ranger School together.

I am back on the horn (radio) with battalion, coordinating my next move, setting up a CP (command post). Crazy Horse walks over. He has been visiting with the NVA prisoner. The NVA has remained with his hands, and now his feet, tied, seated against a large tree. From his uniform we know he is a lieutenant, an advisor to the VC local cadre. Crazy Horse says to me very coolly, calmly and casual-like, as he pulls out his knife, Sandy, using my childhood nickname, I’d like to have a serious talk with this NVA lieutenant. Too bad if he tries to escape. He might trip and fall on my knife. For us, the war was like the Indian fighting we watched on TV.

Their Only Son

Upon return from Vietnam I was an Assistant Professor of Military Science at the University of Cincinnati, and in addition to infantry teaching assignments I was a Survivor Assistance Officer (SAO), as in the movie The Messenger. SAOs had three types of assignments: (1) be the first to knock on the family home door and inform the wife or parents of the dead soldier; (2) handle all the funeral arrangements and appear at the wake, church service, and gravesite, passing to the next of kin, after the Honor Guard 21 gun salute (three seven rifle volleys), the folded flag, and solemnly stating, From a grateful nation; (3) hand delivering posthumous medals for valor.  I served in all three capacities.

For my last assignment I was given the mission of driving several hours into rural Ohio to solemnly present the parents with a Bronze Star medal earned by their only son who had been killed in Vietnam a year prior. I remembered to stand extra tall after I parked in front of the white, three-story Victorian home, typical of the rural Midwest. I was being watched, I could feel, from the living room. I maintained my military gait up the walk, rang the bell once and was met by father and mother. Norman Rockwell, here is another setting. These folks, in front of their home, should have graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. In my hand was the Bronze Star medal and citation for bravery in action, which I read standing in the living room. They walked me to a showcase separating the front parlor from the kitchen. Enclosed were photos of their handsome son, the ribbons, medals, and written citations for meritorious service and valor. He was nineteen when he was killed. I stayed only long enough to be respectful and polite, not wanting to open old wounds. It was too late, thank God, for a surrogate son. They were dealing with their grief in a different way: a sitting room monument. Also encased was the folded flag, the blue background with white stars showing. Again, the proper fold. Some people have bowling trophies on their mantle. These folks? Well, they just had the memories of their only son displayed in the showcase. God, do I scream or cry? For how long will they maintain this vigil? No doubt forever.

It was a long walk for me from the house to my ‘59 Vette. I was embarrassed by this hot rod which their son should be driving around town, dating high school cheerleaders. I could feel the parents watch my every step. Why should I feel so guilty to be alive and in one piece?

It was a long walk for me from the house to my ‘59 Vette. I was embarrassed by this hot rod which their son should be driving around town, dating high school cheerleaders. I could feel the parents watch my every step. Why should I feel so guilty to be alive and in one piece? Why me, Lord? And Isaiah said, “Who shall I send? Send me, Lord.” And I had gone. But I had returned. Damn you Johnson. Damn you McNamara. You should both see this now and you both deserve to rot in hell for eternity. How could you be so stupid? How could you lie to us so much? … 19 years old. These parents had lost their only son in a war which I knew had been a total waste. I dared not tell them that their son had died in vain. This is his story and my tribute to his service.

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