War Stories

A Formidable Foe

by Ray Gleason

Excerpted from Grunt-Speak: A Devil's Dictionary of Vietnam Infantry Terms by Major (Retired) Ray Gleason, formerly of A Co, 2/35 INF, June '68-January '70 (To Be Published Fall 2009 by Unlimited Publishing, LLC, Indianapolis, IN)

81's. These were the M29 & M29A1 81mm mortars. Each rifle company had its own 81 section of three tubes. The 81's shot mostly HE, smoke and illumination.

Although the 81's could deliver HE out over three klicks, a good 81 section (and these guys were really good) firing max elevation, minimal charge during FPF could drop a round right in front of the bunker line...an unmistakable invitation to the bad guys to go away and leave grunts alone.

I spent a couple weeks as the "guest" of our company's 81 section. I was coming back to the field from the hospital after getting patched up from the firefight where my helmet got killed. The company was out humping the bush and the 81's were on a firebase outside Duc Lap with the battalion TOC.

That's about as far as I got. I came down with a slight case of dysentery. That's the problem with shamming in a hospital...too many germs. When I went to the aid station, not only did the battalion surgeon give me some stuff for my case of Ho Chi Minh's revenge, but he also decided I had ringworm. So, the old man decided I should stay back with the mortars until I stopped leaking.

Since I wasn't trained as an 11C, a mortar grunt, the section chief put me on radio watch. The mortar guys had built an underground, waterproof FDC where we worked and slept. I would have felt I was in heaven if it hadn't been for the constant trips to the latrine, the nausea, diarrhea, dehydration and the chalky crap with three quarts of water the Doc was making me drink every couple of hours.

There was one other problem...the rats had found us.

Rats eventually always became a problem on a firebase. No matter how good the food and garbage discipline was, these rodents always seemed to think they were better off living with grunts than out in the bush. The fact that grunts are pretty grubby, eat a lot of C-Rat cheese, and spend a good deal of the time underground, might have made the rats think we were related in some obscure way. Once the rats did arrive, there was no getting rid of them. So, most grunts and rats tried to work out some modus vivendi with each other...you don't bite us, we won't kill you. But, sometimes the truce broke down and a shooting war resulted.

We had rats in the FDC. For the most part, we were all ignoring each other and going about our respective businesses until the night one of the rats decided to get a little too chummy. It was late and I was off shift, all snuggled up with my poncho liner and air mattress in a bunk behind the radios. I was just about asleep, when I thought I felt something creeping up my leg. But I convinced myself I was imagining it because of all the rats in the bunker. Besides, rats don't crawl into bed with humans. Whatever I was imagining seemed to crawl up and settle into the crook of my arm and stopped. So, I imagined I had two choices: either a rat had just snuggled in with me for the night or I had a bad case of rat-induced heebie-jeebies. I opted for the latter (who wouldn't). But just to confirm my assumption, I suddenly flung my arm out across the bunker. Then I heard a thump, a squeal and the radio guy scream something about a flying rat!

It took us a little time to get things settled. The rat of course immediately disappeared. But the radio guy was a bit jittery and had this idea that I was throwing my rats at him. But I soon convinced him that if I had any rats to throw, I'd throw them at the Chief of Smoke, the top-kick of the FDC, who not too many guys liked that much.

Now we had to decide what to do about the rats.

Phase I of the rat counter-offensive was not successful. We located their tunnels into the bunker and sealed them off. But the rats just dug new ones.

Phase II was a bit more aggressive. We got some rat traps down in the village and baited them with unwanted C Rations. We soon found out that what grunts won't eat, neither will Vietnamese rats; they just ignored the bait. So, we baited the traps with peanut butter; no rat can resist peanut butter! We were right. The rats took the bait, but didn't spring the traps.

We were obviously dealing with super NVA sapper-rats!

So we upped the ante and started shoving pieces of mortar charges and C4 into the burrows in an attempt to burn them out. Again, this had no appreciable effect on the rats...except they were now eating their food hot. The fumes certainly ran us out of the bunker a few times.

The rats were winning and we had the honor of our species at stake...to say nothing of sleeping in a nice, warm cozy bunker instead of out in the mud.

So we took one the FDC guy's 45 and emptied out the magazines. We popped the slug and charge out of each round, replaced it with a BB from a claymore and sealed it with wax. We tested the new anti-rat weapon on a paper target and soon got pretty good with it.

Now we had to solve the night warfare problem. The rats only came out when it was dark in the bunker, so we couldn't see them to shoot them. So, we opted for a high-tech solution. We borrowed a night vision device, a Starlight scope, from battalion.

Now we could sit on our bunks in the dark with the scope and the anti-rat 45, and snipe at the little buggers as they infiltrated through their tunnel system.

Just to assuage the animal lovers out there...we didn't do much damage to our little rodent buddies. The 45 was wildly inaccurate, the BB's didn't have much power and the damned rats soon learned to avoid the whole set up. Like good grunts, they learned not to bunch up, stay under cover and do their little three-second rushes across the bunker to get at our food.

I don't know how that war ended. My problem finally "dried up" and I was back out to the field. And none too soon...I was getting a bit too squirrely over this rat thing; one night, I was sure a rat had Chieu Hoi'd to me.