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.”