A Path Not Takenby Richard Shand
Firebase Bold, Trang Doan, June/July 1969
At Firebase Bold it seemed that we had disappeared into some forgotten part of the war. Our section of Dusters supported three self-propelled 155's who fired in support of allied operations against an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) division in the area. I was informed that the NVA had already attacked all the other allied bases in our vicinity. What follows is a somewhat rambling discourse about events at Bold.
A camp of ARVN's just down the road had been wiped out and we could hear the shooting and explosions and see the green and red tracers dance in the sky. We fully expected to suffer the same fate. The following night, as darkness fell, I stood guard with Dan on the open turret of the Duster. "'Night, man" said Will . "
Our weakness in numbers was not our only problem. First of all, the fighting resolve of the ARVN's was questionable. There were some good units that we worked with, like the Tigers, but I remember one conversation I had at Bold with an ARVN soldier as dusk fell. "Why Vietnamese fight Vietnamese?" he said. "We are brother against brother.". I watched him, thin and small under his seemingly oversized helmet and flak jacket, and could read the apprehension in his eyes.
More troubling than the lack of resolve of our Vietnamese allies was the inexperience of the 155 unit we were supporting. True, their howitzers provided a formidable backup and could shoot beehive rounds with thousands of tiny arrow-like flechettes to shred enemy flesh at close range. But the crew men were green and untested in combat. I was told that the battery had been stationed at Long Binh where they had served as a demonstration team for visiting officers. They had never been out in the field before and their fear was palpable. They relied heavily upon us in the Dusters to bolster their confidence. Dusters had never operated in this area before and the comanding officer of the 155 battery considered us a secret weapon to be kept in reserve in case of a ground attack. Consequently, we were not allowed to fire, even when an ideal target for our 40mm guns presented itself.
I can recall one such occasion . One of the men from the artillery unit who was pulling guard in a nearby machine-gun bunker walked over to our Duster. "One of our guys saw a light up on mountain. Do you see it?" He pointed and I looked out towards the Nui Chua Cham mountain which loomed nearby, black against the fading light of evening sky. I thought I could make out a faint light near the center.
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! The three guns fired almost simultaneously and the mountainside flashed orange as the rounds hit amongst the trees. A few seconds later a rumble echoed down from the mountainside and reverberated in the jungle around us. The lieutenant's voice sounded on the phone. "Give me a correction. How close are we?"
After pulling my four hours of guard duty, I returned to the sweltering confines of the culvert. I lay awake in the darkness and planned what course of action to take in case of a ground attack. I was as concerned about being shot from behind by .50 caliber machine gun rounds fired by panicking GI's as I was being blasted from the front by the NVA. It was clear to me that if I was to survive, I would have to work out a plan. The earthen berm and RPG wire place in front of the Duster would give some initial protection against RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) but eventually the Duster would be hit. Of that I was certain. I decided that if the Duster was knocked out of action and my crew mates killed, I would crawl underneath and hope the NVA would not discover me as they swarmed over the base. Only a week or so before, the NVA had overrun the perimeter of the American base at Xuan Luc. They shot the GI's in the bunkers as they cried and pleaded for their lives. I would be damned if I would let that would happen to me.
Hours later, in a reverie between dream and sleep, I awoke in a cold sweat. I was convinced that something had happened - something profound and disturbing. Reality had split into two branches, two separate universes. In one I had been killed and in the other nothing had happened - I was still alive. And being alive was the only branch I could ever traverse!
The attack we had been expecting for days never came. Oh, there were a few incoming rounds but nothing different from what we had already encountered in other actions. Yet something within me had changed. Although I could not articulate it at the time, I knew that I had passed a turning point and now possessed the certainty that I would make it back home, no matter how dangerous the odds. Perhaps it was hubris (my friend calls it "arrogance of survival"), but whatever it was, it was not bravado nor foolhardiness. It was simply an acceptance of what I felt to be true. (Of course there is the nagging possibility that the branch I now occupy is actually the one in which I died, and I exist here on this plane of travail in a state of delusion along with all the other lost souls.)