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Tiger Tiger - Bill Feight 1965-66

 It was hot that morning, but then it was always hot, or at least it had been since we had gotten in country.  We had been in Viet Nam for a little over a month and with the exception of a couple of snipers, (that turned out to be no more than kids not yet even teenagers) we had yet to see any real action.  Captain Ketterly had been our company commander state side.  He had been an enlisted man in WWII and also in Korea, but had worked his way through the ranks in the reserves. When reaching 2nd Lt., he requested full active service.  Now he was in S-2; that was Army Intelligence.  Most of the enlisted men considered that moniker, a misuse of the English language, or at the very least a contradiction in terms.  Today we would consider it an Oxy-moron.   None-the-less, every man in the company, if not battalion, held him in high regard.  

   We really were not in a hurry to see any real action, but that would come soon enough whether we wanted it to, or not.  LZ Xray and LZ Albany was still a couple of months ahead of us.  We were the Black Knights and supposedly, the sister battalion to the Seventh Calvary, General Custers battalion.  There had been some friendly rivalry between the 2 battalions but I don’t think anyone but the officers took it too seriously.

 radio man  I was a radioman (RTO) and usually the first man the enemy looked to kill or wound.  That made sense because if a leader cannot communicate with his troops, he has nothing to command or lead.  Each company has its own call sign, and the battalion has its own somewhat related call sign.  Screaming Eagle might be the call sign of a battalion that had bird names under it.  Something like Red Hawk, or Owl Hunter etc.  We had been trained to lay wire for telephones and keep the wire out of sight of the enemy.  We were never trained in Morse code or anything like that, but we had the Prick 25 (PRC 25) radio that we carried, and most communication was done through that.  There was also the PRC 10 but that was old.  Most of those were left over from Korea and did not work well.  They only had a range of about 2 or 3 miles at the best.  You could talk in plain English on the Prick 25, and it had telephone type hand set that was simple and easy to use.  The frequency was set with 2 knobs on the top and anyone with a 2nd grade education could set them.  If there was a problem with the Prick 25 it was that it weighed 25 pounds and was rather bulky to carry around.  92It could adapt to several types of antenna, but the one we used the most was about a 3-foot whip antenna that stuck up behind you on your right side.  That usually made a good target for any enemy soldier or sniper.  On an earlier patrol through Happy Valley (Song Cong Valley) the first man in our company to be shot was the radio man of the 2nd platoon.  I was the 3rd platoon radioman, and my antenna had disappeared from view before he finished his message.  All he said was “6 this is 2-6 India. I’m shot over”

   Let me explain that message.  We were on our own frequency that day and could not call in Med Evac without changing frequency. As a unit, we had to get permission before an individual radio could be taken out of the system and put on a separate frequency.  Almost every unit over there had their own frequency they operated on. (Those changed daily or weekly.)  If you were working in a platoon unit you would have one frequency and if you were operating as a Battalion you would be on a different frequency.  Think about it. It just makes sense.  Six (6) designates the commander of the unit, and anything before or after that designates something under the command.  At that time we were the only company on that frequency therefore, 6 was our captain or command.  Two (2) indicated the 2nd platoon, and India indicated that particular command’s radio operator.  Everyone in the company knew that the 2nd platoon radioman had been wounded.  It was really a simple system.

One nice thing about the Prick 25 was that you could get almost any frequency of any unit in the whole country and listen to what they were doing.  That could be a bad thing also, because “Charlie” (Victor Charlie, Viet Cong, NVA [North Vietnamese], Enemy) could also listen in if he had a captured radio and frequencies. Often, they did.  Now you can understand why we changed frequencies so often.  The other thing the Army did, was talk in codes.  Instead of asking for a hamburger and fries you might say I need some cats and dogs.  Instead of hand grenades you might ask for tulips.  Those codes changed daily and weekly also.  I think you can understand why.

Back when we had been in country less than a week, the radio personnel from the company had a meeting with the company XO (executive officer).  While we were waiting for Lt. Strong, we got a call from 2-6 India requesting some ammo for the M16s and M60’s.  We did not recognize the voice, but he had all the codes right, and was using proper radio rules.  Problem was that I was looking at 2-6 India and his radio.  That meant it was Charlie calling wanting some ammo or just setting up an ambush for some newbies.  We had the 4th platoon radioman with us also.  The 4th platoon was a mortar platoon (a mortar is a tube 2 to 5 inches in diameter into which you drop a self-propelled grenade round that explodes when it comes back to earth. An experienced mortar squad can hit a 50-gallon drum over a mile away. They are very heavy and a platoon will have 3 or 4 tubes and as many base plates, which are heavier yet.)  After getting the co-ordinates of the fake 2-6 India the 4th platoon simply sent a mortar round to that location.  There was an explosion some distance away, and we never heard that voice on the radio again.

That was when the radiomen in our company got together and decided on a code of our own.  We had all trained together stateside for over a year before being sent to Viet Nam and all knew one another fairly well.  That was true of the whole battalion for the most part.  When President Kennedy was shot we all received our draft notices right afterward.  Most of us were US numbers as opposed to RA numbers.  A US number designated a soldier that had been drafted while an RA number designated a soldier who had enlisted.  A drafted soldier had an obligation of 6 years--2 years active military, 2 years active reserves (monthly meetings and 2 weeks a year in training someplace [weekend warriors]), and 2 years inactive reserve. (While inactive, you could still be called into active service).  We were about 60% draftees and 40% Regular Army (RA).  The RA or enlisted soldiers had 3 years active service and 3 years active reserve.  As we had trained together for more than a year after basic training and AIT (advanced infantry training) and knew each other well, we decided in the company and later the battalion to set up our own code.  If you were talking to someone in the company we would talk in codes that we had used stateside, not the ones that you had given to you for that day or week.  It was understood among us that if you answered in the same code you would be considered Charlie and if you gave your location you would be fired on.  It was real simple. If you did not know all the codes we had used stateside, you could not talk to us and be considered friendly.  If you figured out the code the person who was talking to you was using and you answered with that code and not another one you were not one of us and would be considered the enemy.  It worked so well for our company, some of the other companies in the battalion started using it.  When you were talking to battalion or brigade or higher you had to use the current code that they had passed out for that day or week.  It was a real simple system as long as you had trained with us for the past year or so.  You knew all the codes and were considered friendly.  The first time I used it, the Lieutenant about had a fit, until I explained it to him.  He wasn’t real sure how it would work, as he was a newbie to us and had been assigned to the platoon when we were in-country.  The platoon sergeant understood it, and knew the reason for it, so we continued.  A lot of the officers we had trained with moved up or around to different jobs both in the battalion and brigade when we got in country, so many of the officer’s left in the unit were new to us.  Not that they had not been trained to a standard past excellence, they had, and were very good at their jobs.  They were just not the ones that had trained with us and it took a few minutes to know their names and get used them.

Lt. Strong was our XO, and was one of the few officers we had that had been in that position state side.  He was a by-the-book officer, who was looking to make a career out of the army.  He was well respected by the enlisted men under him, if not well liked.  He was a good training officer, and tolerated few mistakes.  If you were not paying attention or horsing around in one of his training sessions, he would call you out in a heartbeat.  He did not tolerate any mistakes, not even the first one, and he was not real friendly with the enlisted men.  That changed the day we got in country.  At least the perception of those officers who had been like that, changed.  They seemed friendlier and we, as enlisted men, tried to give them more respect.  There were several reasons for that, not the least of which was that we all knew that we were dependant on each other to stay alive.  The officers had to make the right decisions at the right time, and the enlisted men had to carry the orders of the officers out without question.  An officer did not have the time to tell you why he was asking for something, and by the time you would have questioned it, you could both wind up dead.  It was no longer the game that it had been state side.  Now you were playing for your very survival and that of the people you had trained with for the past year to year and a half.

Nui Hong Cong was a mountain just to the west of Ahn Khe.  That is where we built ‘The Golf Course.’  That was a runway for both fixed wing and rotary wing (helicopter) aircraft that we had built the first week we were in country.  The reason it was called The Golf Course is because we built it with entrenching tools.  That is a short shovel that folds and can be carried at your side in a case.  It can be straightened out like a regular shovel, or turned 90 degrees and used like a pick in hard ground.  When you are using it like a pick, it almost looks like swinging a golf club.  Well not really, but that is how “The Golf Course” got its name.

We had been on short patrols to the south and to the east of our base camp.  It was not really an army installation yet. That would come later, in fact after most of the drafted personnel were gone back to the real world.  Someone decided that we needed to send a patrol out to the west, and one to the north along Malaria Valley.  How Happy Valley and Malaria Valley ever got those names I have no idea, but I can guess.  Happy Valley is close to where the Viet Minh defeated the French.

So it was that we went out, bright and early on a cool Monday morning. It was only 85 or 90 degrees and Lt. Strong took the 2nd and 3rd platoons on a stroll north through Malaria Valley.  I was not very happy about this, as I had been up the night before enjoying some Tiger Beer. It was a French beer with the picture of a Tiger on the quart bottles that it came in. I was listening to Andy from the 2nd platoon play his guitar until well after midnight.  It was now almost 5:30 AM (0530 in military terms) and I was not in the mood for a morning walk carrying a 25-pound radio along with 140 pounds of equipment and rations.  Hell, I only weighted about 130 pounds at the time.  At any rate, we had finished a breakfast of scrambled eggs, SOS (if you don’t know what SOS is ask anybody that has been in the military) and greasy bacon. We were now starting north out of camp with 2nd platoon and 3rd platoon the ‘lucky ones’ that morning.  The patrol was scheduled to go north to the point where the mountain to the north west of Nui Hong Cong and then along the north side of that mountain as far as the mountain went.  It seemed like 40 or 50 miles or more when you were walking.


 

We were a little over half an hour out when Lt. Strong called “Tiger 6 this is Tiger 5 commo check over.”  Tiger was the company’s call sign.  It had been state side, and would continue to be the whole time I was in Viet Nam.  If you think you know where this story is going, you might be right.  The reply came back “Tiger 5 Tiger 6 India, loud and clear out”.  We walked and we walked.  This was an area of Viet Nam that it seemed nobody really wanted.  It was jungle and more jungle.  You could not see the sky and any trees seem to have been eclipsed by the vines that grew around them.  It smelled and steamed and was very slippery.  It started out as one of the sloppiest patrols I was ever on.  We were not in a circle, but all seemed to be in a line . We were hacking a trail that almost seemed to be there, even after our chopping and cutting.  It was a good thing our Machetes were sharp.  It seemed like every step forward we took, the jungle pushed us back two.  We had all heard the local stories of a valley that was populated by thousands of Cobras, and we were hoping that this was not the one.  About 2 hours into the patrol, something on the trail up ahead that we could not yet see, sort of moved.  The point man was in front, followed about 50 yards back by a small squad. Then came Lt. Strong, his radioman, our Lt, Cones and myself.  We all stopped and looked.  About 300 yards out in front of us the trail was being crossed by a large yellow and black striped something with a very long tail.  We did a quick commo check back to the camp and discussed the situation for a minute or two amongst ourselves.  It was decided that the Tiger must have been hunting, and was not very likely to bother us if we didn’t bother him.  It did manage to take the “tired” out of us though.  From that point on, we were a lot more military and walked in a way to cover each other even if it was a lot more difficult.  It was a lot less noisy around us and you could hear the sounds of the jungle around you now, too.  It was not half an hour later that someone in the back of the patrol called a halt.  We all looked back just in time to see a very large yellow and black animal with a very long tail crossing the trail behind us in the other direction.  Lt. Strong grabbed the radio hand set and said in a very clear voice “Tiger 6, this is Tiger 5, what should we do if we encounter a Tiger? Over.”  Captain Branson himself replied rather curtly “You are Tiger.”   “No no,” answered Lt. Strong, “This one has yellow and black vertical coloring, is alive, and is very large. Over.”  “Just a minute 5, I will get back to you shortly.  Tiger 6 out,” was the response.  We all just looked at each other for a few seconds when the radio broke the silence.  “Tiger 5 this is Tiger 6, over”  “Tiger 5 here, go ahead, over.” Said Lt. Strong.  “We have decided that the M16 has not been field tested against a large animal, and may make it angry.  We suggest if needed to subdue said large animal you may consider the M79 if you do not have an M60, over,” was the response from Captain Branson.  “We don’t have the M60. Good advice, thank you. Tiger 5 out,” was the Lt.’s answer.  Each squad had at least one M79, and they were already pretty well scattered throughout our patrol.  The word was passed to everyone not to use the M16 on the Tiger, but try the M79 if possible.

Let me do some explaining, here.  The M16 was the rifle carried by us in Viet Nam.  It was of small caliber, but packed one hell of a punch.  The weapon itself was about 7 or 8 pounds instead of the 12 pounds of the M14, and the 15 or 16 pounds of the M1.  The M16 got some real bad publicity in the press, but in our unit we did not have any problems with it. It was a lot easier to carry through the jungle and on a helicopter than an M1 or and M14, especially when repelling out of the helicopter.  We had all qualified with both the M1 and the M14 in basic training and AIT.  There were some that preferred the M14 to the M16, but really did not want to carry it in the jungle.  The M16 ammunition is also half the weight, so you can carry a lot more of it.  The M60 is considered a light machine gun and fires a .30 caliber round.  It weighs more, and the ammo is heavy. We did not have one with us on that patrol, which was really unusual.  The M79 is more like a shotgun with about a 2 ½ to 3 inch bore and it is only about 30 inches, or so, long total.  The round it fires can vary from a smoke grenade to a white phosphorous grenade.  The round usually carried was something like an M5 (hand grenade) but a lot more powerful.  The effect on the business end was just short of a mortar round.  It could be very accurate to a distance of over 300 yards.  Close counts in horseshoes, but close was deadly with an M79.

Back To Our Patrol

We walked for another two hours or so, fighting the jungle all the way, when we came to the base of the mountain we were suppose to patrol along the far side of.  It had been a difficult morning, and the Tiger we had seen earlier was all but forgotten.  In fact a few of us joked about telling our grand kids about it if we ever got back to the real world.  It was even suggested that it might be fun to come back someday any hunt them after the war was over.  I thought it might be fun to get one on camera.  I always had a camera with me and took several pictures while in country.  For some reason I did not have it with me that day, I don’t remember why.

Because the mountain would be between the patrol and the base camp, we had to set up a relay station for communications between the patrol and base camp.  I volunteered, because I was tired of walking or crawling through the jungle by then and I really had not gotten enough sleep the night before.  You never really got any sleep in Nam, you just closed your eyes, but you still heard everything that was going on around you.  You learned to catch a little sleep standing up when you were stopped for any reason if you were not directly doing something at the time.  One person always had to be awake and listening to the radio at all times.  Steve Mack from St. Louis and Gary Leatts, from Toledo, who were both at the guitar session the night before, also volunteered to stay with me.  I think Andy would have liked to stay also, but three was supposed to be sufficient for a relay station.  That way you could each get at least 4 hours of rest during the night if we had to be out overnight.  None of the three of us thought about being alone in the jungle over night until after the rest of the patrol had left.  We found a spot that was not quite a clearing four or five yards in, about 10 yards or so off the almost-a-trail and settled in.  You really could not see ten yards in any direction, but the sounds and smell of the jungle covered about anything we would be doing.  I set the radio on the side of a stump and we each found a spot to sit about five or six feet from each other. We all sat down and relaxed for a few minutes.  It was only about twenty minutes or so, and the radio the patrol had with it could not be understood by base camp. We finally became useful.  The patrol would check with us about once an hour and we would relay back to base what and how they were doing.

I could not imagine that Charlie (the NVA) could be anywhere near us.  Who would want to be out here in a jungle that closed in on you like the dark woods in some “Grimm’s Fairy Tale”?  There was nothing out here except snakes, spiders, monkeys, birds, and an assortment of other things I never saw or even wanted to see.  The jungle was really thick.  Why Charlie would even want to be here was beyond me.  I would learn the reason later in my time in Viet Nam, but this was not the time, thank God.

Steve, Gary and I had been there through a couple of commo checks when we decided it might be enough past noon that it was time to eat something.  We each took out our “C-Rations” and built a small cooking fire with the boxes.  Nothing in the jungle will burn without being dried out first.  C-Rations were small boxes about two inches by four and one half inches by seven inches or so.  They were left over from WWII, but the food inside was still fit to eat, if not especially good.  There were about six different meals you could get, from Chicken to Ham and Lima Beans.  The Chicken was fairly good and the eggs were eatable.  The Ham and cheese came with pound cake and that also, was not too bad.  The Ham and Lima Beans were the worst stuff in the world.  If you pulled those out of the box you went hungry rather than eat.  Even after you heated the stuff up it looked and tasted a lot like something out of a barn yard.  I couldn’t even stand the smell of the stuff.  We actually had one guy in the 1st platoon that liked the stuff.  He was weird or something, but he never went hungry in Viet Nam.  Beside the main dish, Chicken or Ham or whatever, there was always a desert, and three cigarettes of some kind.  Usually Pall Mall or Camel.  Some even had Lucky Strikes in them.

After lunch, the rifles were standing on a stump or along a vine beside each one of us. We had just relayed a commo check back to base camp and were lighting up cigarettes, when out of nowhere it seemed, this giant head popped out of the jungle.  It was about eight feet wide and at least eight feet high.  I am sure it pushed Steve and Gary out of its way when it entered the clearing.  Its eyes were at least 6 inches in diameter and its teeth had to be a foot long.  It was mostly yellow with black around its eyes and black stripes running down its nose and face.  It had some black around its round ears, and seemed to be drooling on my legs.  Its breath smelled like a Chicago slaughterhouse yard after a hot summer rain.  No, the slaughterhouse would have smelled better.  You may think I am exaggerating, but the thing was so big it could not get all of itself into the clearing with us.  The three of us just froze and it was if we couldn’t move.  It just stood there and looked me in the eye for what seemed like twenty minutes.  It could not have been more than a second or two.  It first turned and looked at Gary and then turned toward Steve.  Then, it just disappeared as quickly as it appeared.  I think it was Steve who said, “We must not smell good or something”.  We talked about it through a couple of commo checks and kept our rifles on our laps after that.  Afterward, we dropped it and never mentioned it again.  The incident was never reported on the radio, and the only reference I ever heard of it again was the Lt. mentioning that the patrol never saw the tiger again.  I simply looked at him and said, “We did.”  To my knowledge it was never brought up again, but I certainly had a different meaning of our call sign in my mind after that.

When the patrol started back from the far side of the mountain they reported in and we passed on the message.  They had got back to our position a later that afternoon.  They had seen no sign of Charlie or anyone else for that matter.  We joined in at our respective positions of the patrol and headed for base camp.  We got back before dark, and the whole patrol went to the mess hall and had a good meal of meatloaf, corn and mashed potatoes (canned).

I heard Sergeant Keatland of the 2nd platoon ask Steve if they saw anything during the patrol.  He had stayed back for a meeting of some kind.  Steve sort of looked sideways at Gary and me and said “Just some local wild life was about all.”   I am sure that Sergeant Keatland was with Captain Branson when the call about the Tiger came in earlier, but as far as I know, that was the last the matter was brought up.

That was in our first month of Viet Nam, We all got a lot older and wiser in the months that followed.  There were many more experiences that followed.  Not all of them good and not all of them bad. But all of us that came home had something to remember from Viet Nam.

About 35 years later I found Gary in Toledo.  I had been looking for him all those years and I think he had been sort of looking for me too.  He was married when we left for Viet Nam as was I.  The business of life and living, kept us apart for a long time.  He has several children, with most of them grown and married themselves.  I think it was the second time I was at his house the tiger thought came to me and I said “Gary do you remember a Tiger-One day?”   He looked at his wife, and said in a very loud triumphant voice.  “I told you.  You wouldn’t believe me but I told you so.”