Bamboo patrol (modified courtesy of Dennis Giddons)
Each forward scout was the eyes and ears of any infantry patrol searching for the Viet Cong. His role was to look for any signs that would indicate current or previous activity of the enemy. These signs could suggest the presence of mines, booby traps, snipers, bunkers, enemy patrols or ambushes. Typical indicators would include: fresh footprints or ox-cart tracks; camp-site latrines, huts, pits or garbage; disturbed foliage or soil; caves or tunnels; movement; unusual noises such as voices, chopping, digging, footsteps, rustling or metallic clicks; unnatural shapes or freshly cut stumps of trees or saplings, usually disguised with a smear of mud. The latter could be used for bunker protection or to provide clear arcs of fire through the undergrowth.
Each section of 9-10 men had one forward scout; three per infantry platoon of 30-33 men. The job of the scout was the most dangerous of all and so was exceedingly stressful as he obviously was the most likely to be first in line to tread on any mine or punji stake, or trigger some booby trap, or be hit by a sniper, or to walk into an ambush. The lives of all 9 men in his section (and his platoon) depended completely on his alertness and abilities to anticipate and detect all available clues.
“Look at an infantryman’s eyes and you can tell how much war he has seen!” - William H. Mauldin in Up Front, 1944.
As I glanced briefly back at him,
A hand signal, as if deaf,
My Section Commander, directing,
His compass bearing veers left.
Oh, how the sweat drains my body!
Flowing, like sap down my face;
Whitish salt stains patch my greens,
As I dream of sleep, back at base.
Was it yesterday, or today,
It all seems to me just the same,
When we set out on patrol,
In this continuous death game.
Humidity on ‘max’ around noon,
Welts from insect bites on my skin,
Humping gear for nigh on 5 days,
Web belt and straps digging in.
Slushing through creeks and rice paddies,
Advance along tunnels of bamboo,
My task is stealth in the lead,
Detection of any strange clue.
Like cut stumps, for a bunker,
Footprint, or an odd looking vine;
Death awaits every instant,
From snipers ahead, above or behind.
Keeping alert at all times,
I’m one of nine, Yanks call a ‘grunt’,
And eight mates are dependent,
On a forward scout, out in front.
* * *
A quick reference check, on our course,
Greens now near black, wringing wet;
A chance to slake constant thirst,
Warm dirty water, soon turns to sweat.
Again, my rifle arcs slowly,
As my eyes search for some sign;
Like disturbed earth or foliage,
Booby-traps, punji stakes or a mine.
My brain paints a clear image,
Would I see a flash, hear a sound?
When the lead hit, would I feel it?
Being blown up, spun around.
A sudden movement! I fire!
“Contact Front!”, yelled to all those behind;
A crescendo of deafening explosions,
Scenes from Hell quickly unwind.
It’s all over in a moment,
A figure lays still, on the track;
A.K.47 clutched tight,
By a phantom, dressed in black.
A brief body-search for papers,
Other than I.D., often none;
And no rituals at the grave site,
Over this deed that’s just done.
Though rain pours down upon us,
As if to discourage this hunt,
I ‘saddle-up’, then continue,
As a forward scout, out in front.