The Attack Of The Peacocks
by: john harrison
It was Lt. Len Liebler’s first contact with the enemy, and we watched the whole thing unfold. Len’s 3rd Platoon was moving in column formation across a draw when he made contact. The rest of Alpha Company was still up on top of the mountain that Len had just walked down from. We were in a climax forest up in the mountains near Cambodia. It was too high for jungle and the light underbrush of a climax forest made movement easy.
Second Platoon, my platoon, was acting as Alpha Company CP (Command Post) security and as a reaction force while the other three platoons of Alpha Company did clover-leaf patrols out from the mountain top where we had spent the previous night. Len’s platoon, first out, had headed east, down the ridge and then through the draw until the shooting started.
When Len’s point man saw movement in front of him, he had immediately fired a long burst, an entire magazine on full automatic from his M-16 into the brush in front of him. The slack man immediately faded right and followed suit with another long burst of fire. Meanwhile the rest of 3rd platoon had rapidly moved up on line to engage the enemy. It looked like textbook perfect Infantry battle drill in a combat situation.
Even from where I was on top of the mountain, about a football field and a half away, I could see flashes of what looked like bent over, dark forms, running low and fast through the brush; perhaps as many as 5 or 10 of them, darting quickly, back and forth, across the front of Len’s platoon which was by then already all up on line, firing at them. Watching Len’s platoon flow smoothly from a platoon column formation into a platoon on line was strangely attractive, almost elegant, if you like loud, violent, very dangerous, but nonetheless beautiful things.
I did not know it then, but it was really rare to actually see the enemy in a firefight. They were good at their job and the VC, like all good infantry, knew that what you can’t see, you also can’t shoot. Seeing them moving, even just in flashes through the brush should have told me something.
Then, I heard Len on the radio asking Captain Tom Gaffney for gunship support for an assault. Like me, Gaffney had come over to look when all the firing started and he too was standing near me on the military crest of the hill looking down on the draw. His RTO, (Radio Telephone Operator) was right beside him, just as mine was standing near me. We could all hear Len against a background of gunfire blaring loudly from the radios as he talked and also a little less loudly from the firefight a ways down the hill in front of us.
Gaffney and I watched as the action progressed below us. Since we were in a climax forest at the top of the mountains, rather than the jungle we had crawled through to get to the mountain’s base, we could see Len maneuver his platoon. Both of us were trying to figure out exactly what was going on. What had Len’s platoon run into? I turned to my platoon and yelled:
“Saddle up.” so that we would be ready to move if necessary.
When I looked back at Len’s platoon in action, it appeared to me that there were even more bent over, dark forms running around in front of Len now. Had he found some of the the famous black pajama clad, hard core, VC guerrillas?
I remember actually feeling a little twinge of jealousy that Len had gotten into them first. All the Alpha Company platoon leaders were very competitive, very aggressive.
However, Tom Gaffney and I were way to far away to be sure what was going on below us in the draw. Neither of us carried the Army’s almost useless but nonetheless heavy, 6 power, field glasses. So we just stood there Tom and I, and stared.
In truth, we were both still trying to figure out what was going on below. What had Len gotten into?
And then, I saw Gaffney begin to smile. So, I turned back to look where he was looking, but I did not see anything to smile about. However, Gaffney had lived in these mountains for months at a time on his last tour in Vietnam as a Green Beret, so he had experience that we did not yet have. This was Alpha Company’s first search and destroy mission after our short orientation in country at Phan Rang. It was even our first set of clover-leaf patrols. Except for Gaffney and a few of others, we were all still green, very, very green.
Gaffney told Len “No” on the gunships and ordered him to advance immediately. A few minutes later, an obviously deflated Len called in to report that he had successfully attacked a flock of peacocks. Gaffney immediately corrected him and said:
“This is 6. A group of peacocks is called a cluster, and that is a good start for a word describing what just happened.” Gaffney said evenly, but he was smiling broadly as he talked into his radio handset.
“How many did you kill? Over.” Gaffney asked.
“This is 3-6. A lot, over.” a now completely crestfallen Len replied.
“Good battle drill 3–6. Finish your patrol. Alpha-6, out.” Gaffney said, still smiling.
Tom turned, took a sip of coffee from his steaming canteen cup and walked back to the top of the hill, his RTO trailing behind him.
After hearing that, in spite of all the dead birds laying about I’ll bet that Len was smiling too because Gaffney was very careful in giving praise. If he said the battle drill was good given his extensive combat experience as a Green Beret and earlier in the Korean War, there were few alive better able to judge it than Captain Tom Gaffney.
I found out later that a peacock can be over four feet long even without considering the length of the tail and it can weigh about fifteen pounds. They are really big, and more important they looked like even bigger birds.
After seeing them running through the brush from a distance, particularly the darker hens, I was glad that it was Len that had encountered them first. I would have attacked them too. No question. Of course, that did not stop us from harassing Len about it. Nothing could stop that.
And, it had been good battle drill, not so good for the peacocks though.