War Stories

His Name Was Roger

by Jim "Doc" Hall

In his collection of "Tall Tales", Dick Arnold presents a story titled "Big Man Sees the Elephant". For those of you not familiar with the term please let me explain. "Seeing the Elephant" was a Civil War euphemism for what was later also described in more extreme cases as "Shell Shock" or "Battle Fatigue" or during Vietnam as "Short-timers Jitters". I can still remember, almost to the minute, the day that I "Saw the Elephant".

In my eighth month in the field I found myself in a position where I was the co-senior man in my platoon. I was the platoon medic and was getting nervous about my environment.

Two others (a squad leader and a M-60 gunner) had come to the platoon the same time as I. Other than this only one man had been with the platoon for longer than two months. Our platoon sergeant was in country for just over a month. Our platoon RTO was with us just under 2 months.

At each evening's night location I found myself in the position of a infantry training instructor. I was showing guys how and where to put out their claymores. I assigned guard positions and determined how best to interlock fields of fire. I helped to choose LP positions. I even showed the newer guys how to make their stoves out of c-ration cans and use C-4 for cooking.

A platoon's "pleasant dream" as well as their "worst nightmare" exited the supply chopper that late August morning. The "pleasant dream" came in the form of a point dog and his handler. These guys were always welcome.

As for the "nightmare"; the fatigues were starched. The gig lines were sharp. And the butter bars (2nd LT) were evident.

A full LZ perimeter tour was his first order of business. "Standing Tall", the new platoon sergeant introduced the new platoon leader to nervous guard positions. Each man stood questioning as if on a parade ground. Weapons were unloaded and inspected. All this within 10 minutes of his arrival. All this during a field resupply!

When they came to me I was reading a book in the center of the perimeter. My M-16 was leaning against a tree and I reached over and switched it to automatic in anticipation of their approach. I was introduced as "Doc", of course. The new LT asked some inane questions and then noticed that my rifle was on automatic so instead of reaching for the weapon to inspect it he asked first if I knew this and if a "round was chambered"? I looked up from my book just long enough to answer "Yea, I always keep it that way" and then went back to the next paragraph. He stood there for a few seconds trying to decide what to do and then walked away. I was tempted to salute him. (You never saluted an officer in the field. It could get him shot by a sniper.)

Perhaps an hour after this someone finally decided that perhaps it would be a good idea to move away from the LZ. We moved out in whatever predetermined direction behind the point dog.

A couple of hours of humping and it was getting close to darkness. We had to find a night location fairly quickly. We came out of some triple canopy onto the ledge of a small canyon. There were large rock outcroppings skirting the edges of the canyon and a narrow causeway that led about 50 feet out onto a mushroom shaped island that jutted up from the canyon floor. Actually the site was acceptable as it wasn't easily approachable except via the causeway. But by the same token, our only way back out was via that causeway and there was lots of cover surrounding it.

This night was worrisome but uneventful. It didn't require any lessons in claymore placement because the entire perimeter, except for the causeway, dropped off sharply about 30 - 40 feet and there was no place for claymores.

The next morning we got a fairly early start. It was a bit tense exiting the causeway and then the next couple hundred feet as we utilized a small shelf of rock and skirted the cliff face before we could reenter the jungle.

The day that followed was exasperating as the new LT was having trouble reading his map. We would start and then halt and bunch up as the LT would try and read the map and the new platoon sergeant would come forward. It seemed that every halt was in the worst of tactical positions (generally on the floor of a ravine with high ground on each side). Confusion and arguments would abound between our leaders until our experienced squad leader would finally step in and convince them where we were on the map. This happened several times that day and the LT and Platoon Sgt seemed oblivious to any dangers.

Finally we emerged from the triple canopy onto a plain of high elephant grass. As we pushed through the elephant grass the dog alerted several times but we could never find any sign of the little guys.

The day was hot in the high grass. Between the dog alerting and the general confusion of our new leadership the tension was oppressive. But finally we popped out of the high grass onto a series of low hills covered with short grass. As we did so, the point dog scraped his shoulder with an old punji stick. It was nothing serious but I cleaned the scratch and we continued a short distance.

It was getting really late by this time and we needed to find a night location and set up our defensive rounds. Just as darkness was falling we found an acceptable position and began to set up. The dog handler came to me at this time and requested that we dust-off the dog. Because the wound was only a scratch and it was nearly dark I told him that I would do this in the morning.

I believe that the dog handler was as nervous about our group as I and he really wanted to get himself and the dog out of there. He wouldn't take no for an answer and went to the new LT who overrode my decision and ordered in a dust-off.

It was full dark as the dust-off came in to pickup the dog. Our position was completely compromised as the dog and the handler disappeared into the darkness. And we still hadn't set up our defensive shots. (NOTE: Defensive shots were fired every night. You started out by firing one at a distance. Often these were smoke rounds -- if it were light out and you could see into the distance- or they were ILL rounds if it was dark or you couldn't see into the distance. After they established the initial safe distance they would ask if they could "repeat HE?" --fire again using high explosives?--and then they gradually worked them in until they were so close to you that they would often shoot fragments into the perimeter so you had to be down and low when these were fired. Almost all of us had been hit by small fragments at some point. You would get them in as close as you could on one side and then work them in on the other 3 sides also. This was called registering the shots. These registrations were marked up by the artillery men at the support base and if you were attacked during the night they could immediately fire shots to these close in positions in support of you.)

Despite the fact that a dust-off had just left our site the new LT and the platoon Sgt were arguing again over our coordinates but they decided on asking for an "I Love Lucy" (illumination) spotter round to a given coordinate and then began to immediately argue about the next shot. While we waited for the ILL round the new RTO decided to join in the argument and handed me the radio mike. At that instant the round popped directly over our heads and I keyed the mike and said "be advised the round popped directly over our location". (Note: theoretically a high explosive-HE- round would land directly under wherever the ILL round popped.)

Incredibly, the voice on the other end asked "Repeat H.E.?" Exasperated, I keyed the mike again and said, "Yea, go ahead. You probably won't kill us all!" And again incredibly, the voice on the other end said "Roger, repeat H.E.". I was completely overwhelmed at that point by the perception of incompetence that pervaded my entire universe. I knew that I had to correct this but I hesitated just a second. From out there somewhere a voice came over the radio literally screaming "Negative, Negative. Do not repeat H.E. Didn't you hear what the man said? Do not repeat H.E." The voice went on for a bit longer giving the artillery guy some hell. It was a breath of fresh air in a world gone putrid. At one time I knew the name of this LT who saved us from my stupidity but I have long since forgotten. He was the platoon leader from another of our platoons. I'd love to thank him one day.

The very next morning we got a call to be ready immediately for extraction to An Khe for a few days stand down before they moved us to a new AO. My replacement came during this period and I did not have to rejoin the platoon when they went back into the field.

I've thought about that defining moment for years and finally after over 30 years I have had the opportunity to nail down some of the loose ends. During a visit to the National Archives I was able to read through the Daily Journals for those days. Thanks to these Daily Journals I can now tell you to the minute when I actually "saw the elephant".

Medical Evacuation Report

26 August 1970

Coordinates: BS 697217 -- Scout dog with cuts on upper extremities and neck. -- Weather: Good Pick-up site: secure Radio Frequency: 5545 Call sign: 6053 Oscar Dust Off completed: 1927 hrs. Remarks: Dog Name "Roger"