The summer day began with the scolding of birds hidden in the jungle canopy, soon joined by the chatter of waking spider monkeys. We were on a routine four-day patrol of the mountain country in Quang Ngai Province maybe eight klicks southeast of Ba An, walking on a high, open ridgetop along the crest of the dissected plateau separating the valley of the Song Hre from the coastal strip. Though still early morning, the day had already become hot and sticky. Far below, to the east, strings of thin fog lay over the narrow coastal plain stretching inland from the South China Sea. In every other direction were block fault mountains.

With me were the usual motley assortment of irregulars, a dozen Hre tribesmen and a handful of Vietnamese. The other American was a new lieutenant on his first combat patrol. The new Thieu Uy was watching my every move and letting me make all the decisions which was about the best I could expect from green Special Forces officers who got moved around so much they seldom had their shit together.

Despite the rising heat, we were about as happy as we ever got on a combat patrol. Only the lieutenant did not know that we had picked this high ridge route because there was never any sign of enemy activity up there. In Nam we called enemy territory "Indian Country". Everything below us as far as you could see was Indian Country, but the ridge was no man's land. Unlike the Americans, the CIDG did not rotate in 12 or 13 months, but were here for the duration. There was no point in looking for trouble. In the past six months, I had learned not to push it. We were just putting in our time.

On such days you noticed things you ordinarily overlooked. This was about as clear a day as you ever got in the highlands. I thought this had to be the most beautiful mountain country in all Vietnam. All around were timbered summits and impenetrable grassy slopes rising above the remnants of a deeply eroded plateau. To the west, from high on these slopes, you could see a half dozen thick ribbons of white water cascading down and disappearing into swift rivers. The bigger rivers carved broad meandering valleys. That's where the people lived, most of the Hre Montagnyards and, since l945, all the Vietnamese.

We were strung out along a descending ridge. We had tall elephant grass on either side of us and would not see much below. Suddenly, the point man, Dinh Hun, raised his arm and signalled us to stop. Hun squatted low with his weapon ready. Everyone froze. After a minute, the platoon leader, Dinh Ngai, and I worked our way past four CIDG to the point. Hun pointed down the ridge and capped his hand behind his ear. Somewhere down the ridge someone or something was coming up through the elephant grass. We could hear them it making a lot of noise, maybe fifty meters away.

Whoever it was probably didn't know we were there. Intelligence had told us there were NVA in the area. It could also have been a larger force of VC. Since we were beyond the range of accurate support fire from the camp's 105mm howitzer, we wanted no part of a firefight with a unit whose size we didn't know. Small patrols like ours sometimes ran into NVA Battalions and simply disappeared.

The three of us crept forward to the lip of a steep outcrop overlooking the elephant grass. We eased up to the cliff and peered over the edge. Hun grabbed me by the arm and pointed. I tensed up and squeezed the CAR-15, thumbing the selector to full-automatic. But Hun was smiling. "Con Nai, Bac Si", he whispered. Thirty meters below was the biggest deer I had ever seen. It had the body of a elk, except stockier and with shorter legs. The antlers were small, like an ordinary deer back home.

Dinh Ngai let out a little laugh and the giant deer bolted and ran into a timbered ravine draining the grassy slope. The troops relaxed again and I heard some joking. We continued down with me on point just behind Dinh Hun. We picked up the trail of the huge deer and followed it into the thicket, and down into the gorge. Below we could hear a trickle of water.

The steep jungle slope was wet and we held on to vines and slid down the red mud to the bottom of the tiny creek.
The rest of the patrol followed. I found a small pool of water and started filling my canteens. Ngai and some of other CIDG sat down and burned leeches off their ankles with cigarettes. The big deer with the little antlers had crashed on down the canyon. His hoof prints were as big as those of Wyoming elk except the toes of the track were a bit more spread out at the tip.

Again, I heard Dinh Hun call me over: "Lai Day, Bac Si." He was pointing down at something on the creekbed. He uttered a glottal word in Kymer but I didn't know what it meant. I squatted next to the trickle of water. In the mud was the track of a round pad five-inches across. The back of my neck bristled. "Con Cop, Bac Si."

I felt that the air was charged with some kind of energy, that the entire country was suddenly imbued with fresh potential.

A fucking tiger.

Audio

Ready for War
Interview by Scott Carrier: National Public Radio, September 2001 (18:37)

 

Ready for War: Ten Years Later
Interview by Scott Carrier (11:44)

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