War Stories

The Tigers of Mary Etta

by Joe Farmer

The Tigers of Mary Etta

By Joe Farmer

On December 7th, 1968, B Company 1st of the 35th flew into an old LZ on Highway 613 about 5 KM from the Cambodian border and 2 KM south of Se San River. We were told it had been several years since there had been Americans in this area.

The troops on the first slick to land reported that as they were landing, there was a tiger and 2 cubs that left the LZ. When we all arrived and secured the area, we proceeded to build bunkers, clear fields of fire, set tripflares and Claymore mines. The LZ was named Mary Etta for the wife of our 1st Sergeant, William Coleman. Over time, in after action reports and operations reports, the LZ was incorrectly called Maryetta and Marietta.

From the first night there, we would have movement just outside the perimeter. Occasionally a tripflare would go off and we would see a tiger bound away from the perimeter. This occurred often enough that nobody was surprised to see the tiger.

Because of out proximity to the border, the river and Hwy 613, which was a dirt road, we stayed at Mary Etta for quite a while. Rotating recon patrols and ambushes, it was pretty good duty. We did not mind not humping every day and digging in at a new location every night.

I believe the date was December 31st, 1968, but I am not sure. This is from memory rather than any notes. Everything seemed to happen around holidays. TOC was concerned about a major NVA movement across the border, into Vietnam, because of the New Year's holiday. Third platoon was assigned to set up an ambush position near where the road crossed the river. My squad, 3/1, was walking point. There were 9 of us in the 1st squad at that time. We did not walk on roads or trails. As I recall the forest was not too thick. The point man was not having to cut his way through thick brush.

The squad that was bringing up the rear called and said that they were hearing movement to their rear, as if we were being followed. 1Lt. Kelly had me move my squad off to the side and take up positions where we had both cover and concealment. Then the 2nd and 3rd squads walked on through. We waited to see what or who was following. It did not take too long until we heard the movement also.

We waited about 30 minutes, but the whatever was making the sound never appeared. 1Lt. Kelly had me continue on with my squad. The rest of the platoon reached their night position and set up their ambush positions. I believe that they had crossed a tributary of the Se San River. This was not the main branch of the river. I believe this because the platoon was not able to cross the actual Se San at the location selected by TOC.

First squad did not close with the rest of the platoon. It was approaching darkness when we came to the tributary of the river that the platoon had crossed. It was in a location that was about 200 meters wide. It was also shallow, about knee deep and the current was slow moving. About halfway across there was a small island which was overgrown with thick bamboo and trees. It would provide both cover and concealment and the river gave us clear fields of fire if needed.

1Lt. Kelly had me take my squad to the island. We set up 3 positions of three men each. We set the watches to have 1 man awake, on each position, until daylight. When the moon came up it was bright and almost full. We had very good visibility of the river in all directions.

Sometime after midnight, those of us who were awake heard what sounded like someone crossing the river. The sound came from the same direction which we had come earlier. We looked across the river and there was a tiger heading right for our location. It was not in a hurry.

The tiger came up on the island and walked to within 10 feet of Pete Arceo, who was sleeping. The tiger laid down. That left us in a quandary. The 3 of us who were awake slowly pointed our rifles at the tiger. This was a big tiger. It was paying no attention to Pete or to us. I thought that nothing good could come of shooting it with an M-16. Fortunately, the other two who were awake were of the same mindset. Those .223 rounds would probably just make the tiger mad, and, for sure, it would give our position away to whatever NVA units that were coming over the border from Cambodia.

If the tiger had started toward Pete, or any of us, plan B would go into effect. We did not have a plan B. Nobody made a sound. But plan A, live and let live, was working fine for now. I was praying that Pete would not wake up or move in his sleep. Fortunately, he did not. After a few moments, that seemed like an hour, the tiger got up and went back across the river the way it had come. In the morning we rejoined the rest of the platoon.

I don't know if this was the same tiger, which had probed our perimeter at LZ Mary Etta, but after this occurred, we no longer saw that tiger again.