It was going to be a night patrol but at least a routine one. Several of the pumps in our water system had been sabotaged over the last several days. We knew it was a setup for any patrol who went out to check on them. But it had to be done and it was best done at night. I hated night patrols especially in the rain.
Our mission was to check every pump along a steep ridge that climbed up above the jungle canopy. We left the “A” camp in the twilight with little ceremony. We had a job to do and it had to be done before dawn.
We always followed the same routine. I had the men check their weapons and ammo. I made sure personally that all gear was secured so as not to make any rattles in the night. We moved out as quietly as ghosts.
The first part of the hike was steep and slippery as it had rained. The jungle was lank and humid. Steam rose from the undergrowth making it hard to pick a way up the ridge. Moving stealthily with increased effort so we took a break among a pile of rocks when we finally cleared the trees. Regrouping, I briefed the men on how important it was to reach the stations undetected as it was a perfect scenario for an ambush.
A pale moon lit our way as we neared the first pump station. It had been situated so it’s tin roof was just below the ridgeline. The small building was covered with corrugated metal and had a narrow door, plenty big enough for our Vietnamese interpreter but just barely for me. I took a flashlight from my radioman with the idea of using it when I closed the door behind me so as not to draw sniper fire. A patrol had been ambushed a few nights before when checking another damaged pump station just like this one.
I had my men dig-in, setting up a tight perimeter around the small, tin shed. I felt uneasy as this first station was the lowest and we did not have the high ground. Further, I noticed several holes in the metal which might let light out when I closed the door and used the flashlight to the check the pipes and gauges. But the mission had to be done and I had decided to set an example and do it myself.
I nodded to the interrupter to open the door. I had to squeeze into the tight opening. My canteen caught on the door frame. I squirmed free with the help of the shutting door pushing me in.
The inside of the shed was pitch black. My eyes had grown accustomed to the pale light of moon outside but in was black in this little space. I was regretting my decision that found me alone in this tight, dark place.
I counted several heart beats until my nerves settled and turned my flashlight on. I was blinded at first but as my eyes adjusted I froze as I found myself eye level with a cobra. It swayed, fully hooded at the back of the shed behind a tangle of pipes. It hissed, spitting venom on the front of my flack vest.
I drew my 1911 service sidearm and emptied my magazine. Several pipes burst, spraying water in all directions but the cobra still performed a macabre sort of dance. I heard my men open fire into the darkness thinking we were under attack. The door flew open and one of my men pushed me out of the way. Seeing the cobra, he unloaded his M-16. More water sprayed but the cobra still swayed making slow sideways strikes.
It was chaos. My men fired into the darkness at nothing in particular and the pump station sprayed water in every direction; it’s walls pitted with bullet holes and the door flung off its hinges. I was just reloading when our interpreter stepped forward. Shaking his head, he picked up a stick and dispatched the snake with three dull thumps.
We moved out of the area as quickly as possible as we had broadcasted our position to every unfriendly from Phu Bai to Hanoi. My interpreter muttered to himself as we made our way back to our base shaking his head often.
I could not help but think of the sharp contrast between our efforts that night, backed by our so called advanced technology, and the interpreter’s simple common sense and the use of that stick. Looking back, it was prophetic when thinking of the outcome of the war.
You can probably guess how I wrote my report.