In the Hot Seat

I feel something touch my arm and I awake in an instant. It’s my buddy, Mark. I recognize his voice in the darkness. “Staff, Staff, you awake?” he whispers. “Yeah, I’m awake,” I reluctantly reply. As I come out of the fog of sleep, I realize I’m a bit irritated because Mark interrupted a nice dream. “You’re on in 10 minutes,” he says.

I can see Mark’s dim, mostly covered flashlight as he shuffles out of the tent and heads back towards the radar van, some 100 feet away. I push the mosquito netting aside and swing my feet over the edge of my cot, then grope around for my flashlight. Sandals or boots? My feet are covered with open sores from my ill-fitting jungle boots, so I take every opportunity to give them a chance to heal. Sandals win. I sling my M-16 over my shoulder, wait a few moments, then stand up and start for the tent door-flap, keeping my fingers over the lens of my government issue flashlight so only a trickle of light hits the ground.

Once outside, I breathe in the fresh night air and glance up at the stars. Millions of stars. About the only time I ever saw so many stars back home was when we went camping in the Sierra Mountains. I marvel at the stunning beauty of the night sky, even in this war-torn country.

The generator is singing its faithful tune in the background, somewhat muffled by the surrounding sandbag walls. As I approach the generator I give the 55-gallon gas barrel a push to one side to check its weight. It feels about 1/4 full, so we’re good for a few more hours before swapping barrels.

As I stroll along the path to the van I can see parachute flares off in the distance, plus some occasional bursts of red tracers arcing through the night sky. Off towards the Cambodian border I can see some large flashes, followed by the “fratch” sound of exploding artillery shells. I sometimes wonder how I manage to sleep through such crap. Am I really sleeping? I’ve lost count of how many times I’m awakened during the night. I guess after a while you get so tired that you just don’t care. You do what you have to do. Exhaustion wins out.

Moments later, I climb up some steps and then open the van door. There’s a switch rigged to the door, so the moment the door starts to open, the interior lights go off. Once inside, I close the door and the lights return. I squint in the seemingly bright light. Thanks to the many electronic equipment boxes inside the van, the air temperature is hotter than 2 hamsters farting inside a wool sock. Heavy cigarette smoke lingers in the air despite the two small ventilation fans whirring away near the top of the back wall. Camels. Unfiltered Camels. I smoke them, too.

“Get any targets?” I ask. “Is a frog’s ass water tight?” Mark replies sarcastically. “OK, OK, I get it. I’m still waking up. Gimme me a smoke,” I reply. Mark points to some new grease pencil marks on the plexiglass covering the area map and then shows me the new entries in the logbook as he hands me a Camel, followed by his Zippo. Busy night. The guys have hit 7 targets since my last shift. Mark makes a successful commo check after punching the new codes into the encoder/decoder at midnight; the encoder/decoder I signed for and subsequently chained to the van. There are millions of possible combinations, so punching in the codes can be problematic. I’m glad it worked the first time tonight. I had that chore last night.

Mark bids me goodnight and reaches for the door handle. I wish him sweet dreams and not to worry about Jody hitting on his girlfriend back home. I think I spotted a finger just as the door opened and the lights went out. I guess I can’t blame Mark for his sarcasm at times. Perhaps some of it stems from our extravagant Army pay. We make about $8.00 per day, which includes $2.00 Hazardous Duty pay. The Army views this as a 33% increase in pay. We view it as $2.00 a day.

I settle into the metal folding chair, if that’s possible. I look left to the logbook and review the recent targets again. We make it a habit to monitor previous targets during the night, on the chance of catching some possible stragglers. Next, I check the elevation on the radar antenna and bug light under the map, and then begin the all-too-familiar search routine along the Angel’s Wing portion of the Cambodian border, just a couple of miles away. I decide to search just a bit south of the previous targets. After cranking the antenna around, I switch the radar to automatic and sit back and listen while studying the scope. I light up another Camel and take a few, deep drags. I don’t see or hear anything unusual, but decide to stick with it for 10 minutes before selecting a new sector. Then I catch something. It was just a split second audio hint in the back ground noise. I move the mode switch from auto to manual, then make some small adjustments in range and azimuth while focused on the scope. I listen. Bingo! Movement!

I move the range gate to the leading edge of the target and watch and wait. I estimate 40 people, all in a well spaced column. The column is moving due east. I reach up and mark their position the bug light has illuminated under the map and plexiglass. After recording the coordinates, strength and direction of movement, I pick up the mic and make the report to TOC (Tactical Operations Center) back at base camp. The coordinates I provide are where I predict the target will be in 8 minutes; the time it takes to put rounds on target. TOC knows the routine. Minutes pass, then TOC acknowledges that this target will be fired on. A few minutes later TOC calls, “Shot!” I acknowledge, “Shot, out!” Moments later, I see the blooms on the scope. Six HE (High Explosive) rounds hit the target right on the button. I report, “Rounds on target, fire for effect.” Several more volleys follow. Scratch another NVA platoon. Or at least most of it.

After adding some additional details to our logbook, I light up another cigarette, hoping to relax for a moment. It’s amazing how absorbed and focused one can get during a fire mission. I well understand what just happened out there in the darkness, just a couple of miles away. I also know that they would do the same to us without hesitation. In fact, they try frequently by lobbing mortars and rockets at us. Then I recall what happened back at our base camp a few weeks ago when sappers breached the perimeter wire and berm. They got into a guard bunker and slit the throats of 4 sleeping soldiers. Yeah, there were only supposed to be 3 asleep. One guy fell asleep on the job, so 4 died. I have no regrets regarding what we just did to the infiltrators.

I swing the radar antenna to a new sector, then move the mode switch to automatic and begin the search routine once again. There will be more infiltrators. A lot more.