Don Cordle - Alpha 1970-71

Another Day In Paradise

Don Cordle

When I arrived in my unit, the metamorphosis from being “civilized”, to a grunt slowly began to materialize. I started to divest myself of all my personal identity and clothing, anything at all with my name on it. This, I suppose, because if any of us were ever captured, the enemy wouldn′t know who we were unless we told them. That, and the logistics of laundering and delivering fatigues en masse was infinitely easier than it was to try and keep track of everyone′s things. The logistics of that would be a total nightmare. But it was as if I slowly began to blend myself into my surroundings, and become a puzzle piece of a much bigger picture. When I arrived, I had my duffel bag of course, that was filled with my own fatigues, that were adorned with my own name tag, my own boots, an other personal items. The very first thing I was required to do, was turn in all my own fatigues, boots, (brand new mind you) hats, or any other items of clothing I had brought with me. It was turned in to the battalion quartermaster, and I never saw them again. While in the jungle, we would be resupplied with clean, used fatigues from a big laundry bag… many bags of assorted shirts and pants, from which we had to simply pick ones that would fit, and return the dirty ones in that same bag. From then on, I simply blended into the jungle, and became the jungle. I lived, breathed, ate, and slept as a single piece of jungle fauna, and the earth it grew from. After a couple of weeks or so of getting acclimated to jungle life, it mattered not one iota to me whether I slept on the ground, in the mud, on a boulder, or on thick palm leaves. Wherever I parked myself for the coming night, that′s where I lived, and I grew to be perfectly ok with that. Always on the move, weather, or jungle pests, like leaches snakes, huge spiders, or fire ants, had absolutely no effect on our personal performance.. I will admit though… the fire ants would definitely make you find a different place to park yourself. I was a country boy, and for me, that adjustment didn′t take long at all. Others it seemed, had a terrible time of that, especially the young men that had never walked on anything but concrete or asphalt streets.

I was quickly outfitted with equipment, a full layout of field gear, my own M16, which never failed me by the way, and assigned to a line company. A few days later I was in the bush, and carrying what seemed at the time like a duplex on my back. We would go for days or weeks even, and in one case I can remember the number of 93 days without a shower, and 28 days wearing the same fatigues and only a re-supply of canned food called “C rations” and more ammo every 4th day or so. We would also be required to carry our own drinking water because we never knew if we would be close to fresh water.. We tried to keep at least 8 to 10 qts on our rucksack, because we never knew how long until the next refill. Usually, we worked exclusively in the mountains, and most of the time, we stayed on the actual ridge itself, or the highest land point in the area. The high ground is where you want to be in any type of confrontation.

Our day would begin with the physical fatigue from being up half the night pulling guard duty in your fighting position, as there was always someone awake and alert at all times in every position. Least that′s how it was set up, but on very rare occasions, someone would nod off and that simply couldn′t be helped. You would wake up, whether it be for 5 seconds… or 5 minutes, not knowing how long you had been asleep… .but absolutely terrified that you had just done the unthinkable, your heart racing as you try to gather your senses to see if you had missed anything, and eyes as big as silver dollars for the rest of your shift… Sometimes just sheer exhaustion will put your lights out, because most times we operated at the very outer limits of our own physical endurance, and that′s how we lived, always on the edge of what we actually could do physically. These are things a grunt will keep to himself, not only for the embarrassment and pride aspect, but behavior like that could get your friends killed if it happened at the wrong time. It could also garner you a court-martial if a senior officer or NCO wanted to press the issue. Thankfully, this only happened a couple of times in my own position during the whole time I spent in the bush, and no damage was ever incurred because of it.

After you clear the cobwebs from the previous nights escapades, you try and find out what′s on the agenda for the day, how far we would have to “hump”, and what the objective was for that particular day. A quick check of your water supply, and then maybe a hot cup of coffee in your canteen cup, black of course, but most times for myself, it was just plain water because it was already hot in the jungle and the later in the day we got, the hotter it would get. Personally, I couldn′t drink hot coffee on a hot morning, as that would just kind of set the tone for the day. You could either heat your coffee water by either a “heat tablet“ or a small piece of C4 explosive. C4 worked the best and was a lot hotter, but it was frowned upon because is was more expensive than a heat tab, and a lot of times had way more important uses than to heat your morning coffee. You also didn′t want to step on it when it was burning. Amazing stuff, and the best I can describe it is “Play Doh” with a kick. You could either light it and burn it, or play baseball with a handful, and nothing would happen, but if you ever added both elements at the same time, heat, and shock, then you got a very nasty surprise!! This is the explosive type that was used in the claymore mines also.

After checking your weapon and ammo supply, and for me personally, making sure my radio was in good working order with a fresh battery, we would don that Volkswagen, I mean rucksack, and start the days hump. We mostly were kept in the dark about where we were unless we really pressed the issue. Information was at a premium, and the officers would only tell you enough to appease you, and never a complete story. That is of course, only if you were the lowest in the pecking order, which I usually was. The people who occupied the Command Post, whether officer or enlisted, always made sure that their friends knew exactly what was going on, but if you didn′t have a connection, you were simply out of luck as far as information goes. Having had to carry a radio for my squad leader meant I was almost always in close proximity to him. I was his voice to the higher ups and a lifeline to any support that we needed in the way of air or artillery support. Mostly, the artillery was called in by a forward observer who traveled with the company commander in their little command CP, and the air strikes only rarely were used by anyone lower in rank than a platoon leader or higher. But being on the company frequency with my radio, I was privy to a little bit more than the common rifleman in the squad.

Tom Brennen, "Hutch", Kit Carson Scout, Don Cordle

This morning, we started our daily hump down the mountainside, knowing full well, that later in the morning, we would really catch hell trying to walk back up the other side when it was a lot hotter, and wouldn′t stop for a break, unless a firefight broke out, or we reached the high ground up the other side of that mountain. If a fire fight happened to break out, I had my rucksack set up so that all I had to do was pull two straps and that ruck would fall to the ground, leaving only my radio and my four bandoleers of ammunition attached to my body. Each of those bandoleers held seven magazines, with 18 rounds in each. The magazine could actually hold 20 rounds, but usually jammed at the most inopportune time when we did that so we kept it at 18 per each. Fast movements with all that weight was impossible for a grunt, and sometimes speed and quickness meant life… or the lack of it meant death. One time, after a fire fight, I returned to police up my rucksack from the trail, only to find it was a bit lighter than before. Reason being, one of my canteens had a bullet hole through it and I was missing 2 quarts of fresh water. I couldn′t tell if the fire was friendly or enemy… but the hole was there nonetheless.

It was slow going, even downhill, as it was so steep that you really had to watch your balance, and in some places… a gentle scoot down the bad spot on your backside was the easiest way to negotiate it. Trying all the while to stay a few meters away from the man in front of you, so if anyone tripped a mine or a booby trap it wouldn′t kill us all, and only maybe get one or two of us. This is how we traveled, slowly, methodically through the jungle. The point man was usually experienced in what to look out for, and used hand signals to relay anything he saw. Many times… he wouldn′t see anything, but it was eerie, sometimes it was like a sixth sense, he could feel something was there. A lot of times, he′d be right on the money. I can vouch for this behavior as I′ve seen it firsthand.

Finally reaching the mountain ridge next to the one we had left that morning, we were all but spent. The heat and the humidity along with physical fatigue, had done their dirty work. Sweating all morning had also dehydrated some of us, and we welcomed big gulps of tepid water from our canteen, even if it did taste like metal or plastic. We were all ready for a short break, some chow, and it was a welcoming bit of information to know we were stopping and awaiting further orders. Whenever we knew we were going to be there for longer than 5 minutes, we would set up our defensive perimeter, with someone watching our backs at all times. Now was the time to get out from under that ruck and enjoy your favorite C ration, or at the very least, whatever you had left in your ruck. We were all ordered to carry the standard issue steel pot helmet that the army issued, and when we would stop, sometimes it became a dandy little stool to keep your tired ass off the actual ground. If any part of you touched the ground, or the vegetation around you, the leaches would know you were there, and would come running for a meal. Speaking of leaches… if we had traveled through any creeks or rivers, rest assured you would be removing a few, and this was common practice by grunts every time we crossed any water, or at the end of a long day′s hump. Funny thing is… we could be on the top of a mountain, and we would still get the little devils by the droves. They were all over, and you could not escape their wrath. All this, and I mean all of it, while under the very real stress of knowing your life could end at any minute from an ambush, or a booby trap. Sometimes we got by without anyone getting hurt at all, but sometimes, sometimes, it turned out very badly. No need for the gory details, as those have been expounded upon by so many others more times than I care to read, but the stress of not knowing when, or how it would happen, and always having to be prepared for it is why it′s so tough. You can go a day or two, or three, and nothing happens at all. It could be a daily, or an hourly thing, you simply didn′t know how or when it would all go down. You always had to have your guard up, and be ready because any type of hesitation or delay, in some cases would get you killed, period. This was the mindset that sets a grunt apart from anyone else. It′s not like you know when something will happen… or you have the knowledge that this is “your” day and you march into it knowing full well what will happen, you simply had to adjust your thinking to be ready for anything. The minute you started thinking about your personal comfort and welfare..that is the thinking that would get you hurt.

Oh… .and by the way, this is only a midday break, we still have a half a day′s hump left, and we still need to get to a new location to set our Night Defensive Perimeter. We also need to set out a few ambushes to catch anyone trying to follow us, or anyone trying to set anything up for us to walk into… not to mention pulling guard duty exactly like we had done the night before.

OK, so we′re finished with a quick meal, and we′ve made it to a new ridge line. Now, we get the word to get ready and move out. Everyone has assembled back into a single column, 5 meters apart, and ready to restart the day′s hump. Word comes down, that there′s enemy in the area, and my squad is picked to pull an ambush. How we will do that, is that we will remain in our location while everyone else leaves. We will be hidden in foliage off the side of the trail to see if anyone is following our platoon. Our enemy was very adept at using anything at hand to make a weapon or a booby trap. This also included anything at all a GI would leave behind during a break, and we were notorious for that also. Sometimes something would fall out of a rucksack, or a GI would leave behind something he didn′t think was important, and it would come back to haunt him. I′ve seen an empty C ration can become a little house for a hand grenade with the pin pulled attached to a trip wire. The GI kicks the wire, pulls the grenade out of the can… it′s a bad day. Or I′ve seen an old radio battery become a detonator for a blasting cap attached to some type of makeshift explosives. The trip wire had a clothes pin attached to a tree or a bush, with one wire attached to either side of the cloths pin. The only thing keeping the two contacts apart would be a plastic end of a C ration spoon. The plastic spoon would have the trip wire attached, and when the GI kicked the trip wire, he automatically pulled the plastic from the cloths pin, thereby making contacts with the two wires attached to the used radio battery, which would in turn send an electrical charge to some explosives… the result, a bad day. There were countless other ways unsuspecting GI′s could get hurt, and these are but a couple of them.

Our ambush was set up off the side of the trail and we had pretty good concealment, with the M60 machine gun pointed down the trail from where we had came earlier in the day. Our 7 or 8 man squad had no more than settled into a defensive posture, when the M60 gunner cut loose with a barrage of fire that literally ripped apart the serenity the of the jungle and made almost everyone, including myself, piss themselves a bit because it was so unexpected. I fired several rounds in the direction of the trail, grabbed a claymore clacker and set off a claymore mine we had pointed at the trail, and the whole barrage lasted no more than 45 seconds to a minute. It started that fast, and just as quickly, it ended. Now of course… everyone and their brother, friendly and enemy alike within a half a mile, knew exactly where we were, but that′s ok, because we accomplished our objective. We had killed an NVA trail watcher, and saw a blood trail, where another had disappeared back into the jungle. Life and death in the blink of an eye. He had no clue we were there and did not know this would be his last day on earth. This is also how many of our own soldiers died. Every day in the jungle, you pray to God that this isn′t your day, and smile to yourself when it isn′t. After scouring the pockets of his fatigues for any paperwork maps, or info… .we left him there in the trail with our calling card (a 101st Airborne shoulder patch), and moved on. We returned to our platoon element, and started the afternoons hump, only this time, we were all keenly aware of what might happen. Our whole squad, you could see it in our eyes that we were just waiting for the other shoe to fall, because in our hearts we knew something else would happen that day. Of course, we all had extremely light rucks for the rest of the day, as that shot us full of adrenalin, and for some reason, we weren′t a bit tired when we stopped for the night.

Don Cordle and Darrell Austin - Grand Rapids - 2014

We set up a perimeter around the crest of the ridge like we normally did, had our evening chow, and settled in for the evening. We were all still on edge from that afternoon′s ambush, and that night′s guard duty was especially spooky. You just knew someone was watching your every move, and you started to see things that weren′t really there. Radio chatter of movement in front of the perimeter didn′t help matters either. And so it went all night, no one sleeping much, and everyone trying to get the jump on whoever or whatever it was causing the commotion. Sometime during that long night, an M60 cut loose from the other side of our perimeter, and once again, the stress level was just compounded many times. After a few rifle rounds, and a good burst from that M60, all fell quiet again. Now, I know in my heart of hearts, that it′s going to hit the fan big time… Again… nothing, dead silence. Dawn broke with word from the squad that had opened fire the night before, that they had a body count… .A body count is the term we used to confirm enemy dead. Only this time… we ALL laughed our asses off, from the company commander on down, because the “body count” consisted of one dead monkey. That′s right folks, this group of paid killers, had just scored a dead monkey. Now, to be sure, he wasn′t carrying an AK 47, but I tell you this in all earnest. When you quit laughing, I want you to think about everything we had just been through in the past 24 hours. This is the stress of which I speak, and how you absolutely never know what′s going to happen next. You don′t know when a firefight breaks out, if there′s ONE or if there′s a HUNDRED enemy soldiers, you simply had to be ready (ready as you could be) to stand your ground, and live or die right there. It′s one thing to go through basic training and shoot at targets hundreds of meters away, but it′s quite a different can of worms when the enemy is within 50 feet of you, and you can′t see him until he opens fire.

We all had a good laugh over the monkey, and quite honestly, it was a very nervous laughter, because in a heartbeat, things could not have been a bit funny, and the reality of what we were doing sank in. The laughter was a much needed stress relief from what “could have been” as it was reporting a dead monkey. We all had smiles the next day because, the simple fact was, we had survived another day, and we were just another day closer to going back to “The World”. In short, “It don′t mean nuthin”

This is true to life how we survived the jungle. We simply became a part of our surroundings, melting away our own personality and “self”, morphing into someone that a most of our friends and family would not even recognize if they ever saw us in the middle of all that. Believe it or not, sometimes… .we wouldn′t even recognize our own family. Anyone, and everyone that was not right there with you… would also be so very foreign, and that would take quite awhile to get readjusted to once we made it home. It′s sometimes hard, very hard, to put into language the feelings, and attitudes that one has to adopt while actually living in the jungle. When it “hit′s the fan” so to speak, at first it scares the dickens out of you, but after several times of this, the absolute rage sets in, and you just can′t kill them dead enough. You simply apply overwhelming force to end any and all threats. It′s that “rage” that has bothered so many of our warriors in so many conflicts. It′s a very small room in your mind, that you definitely want to keep under lock and key. Once you return home, you try and compartmentalize that attitude you had in the jungle, because that type of thinking is simply not fit for a civilized society. It just doesn′t work, period. From what I′ve seen in my own life, it′s the young men that are not able to lock that small room, that have had the most trouble readjusting.

Just another day in Paradise!!!

Don Cordle
Alpha Company
1970-71