Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam


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Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail : nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam / by Richard L. Stevens

Elbows and knees flying, he outflanked the enemy and blasted them with his machine gun, freeing the pinned squad.

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Such a maneuver, under heavy fire, takes more than just raw courage. P-Dog had about 10 days to go before he was due to rotate back to the States. Three of our guys had been picked up smoking marijuana. Could the duty officer come over and take them into custody? That was me. Smoking dope in those days meant a mandatory court-martial and dishonorable discharge.

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Any kid with a dishonorable discharge would lose his GI Bill benefits, and typically this meant also losing any chances for further education. In addition he would never be able to join a union and would therefore never be able to get a decent job. In short, these three kids were had. So much for serving their nation. I left the duty NCO, a career gunnery sergeant, in charge and took the sergeant E-5 who was in charge of the battalion office and a driver along with me. When P-Dog saw me he turned his head away. He would look only at the floor.

I began shaking inside, knowing the consequences that were going to have to follow. Applying military justice to strangers is a lot easier than applying it to a friend. He was giving me an out. I took it. I ordered the three of them into the jeep and took off. We all three walked away from the jeep and stood in the dark with our backs to it. After about a minute or two of muffled scrambling and whispers from the three in the jeep, we all turned around and climbed back in. We arrived at battalion headquarters, which like most headquarters never shuts down.

In full view of the entire staff I ordered the three of them searched. All three were grinning. They started turning their pockets inside out on their own.

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P-Dog, ever the showman, flipped open his last pocket with great gusto—and a joint fell out onto the floor. He handed it to me. No one said a word. Everyone just looked at me. I was representing the commanding officer, conducting an investigation of what was considered a serious criminal offense that had been recorded in the logs of two battalions. In front of at least a dozen witnesses P-Dog had popped a joint out of his pocket. All I could think of was mandatory court-martial and dishonorable discharge. I told the other two kids to get out.

They looked at P-Dog, frightened for him, really saying good-bye, and then scrambled out the door. He was a lifer. These men are the core of the system.


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They love it, and they maintain it with pride, often savagely. He was also a man I respected immensely. I looked him in the eye as square as a young lieutenant can look at a man with 20 more years in the Corps than he. He was with me in the bush. I handed him the joint.

Mission on the Ho Chi Minh Trail: Nature, Myth, and

He held the joint up in front of him. No one disagreed. He handed it back to me. When I saw P-Dog later that night I expected some thanks. Lying, in rare cases, can actually exhibit good character.

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I used the lie as a weapon on other occasions. Shortly after the incident with P-Dog I was flying as an air observer, forward air controller, and naval gunfire spotter. We did a lot of low flying in hazardous conditions. As long as we felt this was justified, such as when troops were in trouble or there were big targets, we risked our necks. There were occasions, however, when we just felt abused. One day we caught a glimpse of something that indicated a bunker complex.

We also knew there was a lovely Navy cruiser off shore. By somewhere I mean to within tolerances of a few meters over distances of miles. This is, by any count, highly accurate. It is not, however, a smart bomb going through a ventilator shaft. It is virtually impossible to destroy a bunker set into the earth with a shell coming in at a low trajectory.

Even land-based artillery, which has a much steeper angle, has to hit directly on the roof to have any effect.

Mission on the Ho Chi Minh Trail: Nature, Myth, and War in Viet Nam

This ship was unlucky. The cruiser plastered the bunker complex. Shell after shell piled in there; dirt, smoke, tree limbs, the whole place was plowed up. We were delighted with the accuracy and told the crew so. Then, naturally enough, when all the shooting was over with, they wanted to know how they did. This is not a trivial request. We obliged, however. It was our job. We took a considerable amount of automatic weapons fire going in to assess the damage. We pulled up out of the danger zone and I radioed back to the cruiser.

Great shooting. Thanks much. The bunkers were dead ducks because we had them totally exposed. The pilot was already radioing in the target to the next air observer coming on station from Quang Tri. He would have enough fuel time, and a fat enough target, to scramble and direct some Marine A-4s or Air Force Phantoms from down south. Then a new voice comes up on the radio. There was another pause.

Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam
Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam
Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam
Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam
Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam Mission on the Ho Chi Minh trail: nature, myth, and war in Viet Nam

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