by john harrison
Battle is such a strange place to be. Each time is absolutely unique and two guys fighting right next to each other in a battle can still have totally differently experiences. It is a strange place and an extremely dangerous one as well. Any infantry battle is always intensely personal.
Leonard Cohen wrote the song “Hallelujah” many years ago. It took about 15 years before it got noticed, but now it is among the most covered songs ever. Even as well known as it is though, a good friend asked me the other day, “What is it about?” Like me he has heard it many times; he had even read the lyrics; but still he said he did not understand the song.
I say all this because like the song “Hallelujah”, battle itself is fundamentally an emotional experience. It is not what words in the song say. The song is actually about how you feel when you hear it. Battle is reason unbound and it cannot be fully understood or even appreciated by the rational part of our mind, but you can feel it.
Battle must be experienced in a flash. It is raw emotion. You will get that emotion in full when that first bullet cracks on its way by your skull. But battle is so much more than that first stark realization of merciless, personal, peril.
One night in the Cambodian Highlands we were climbing up a steep hill in thick jungle. It was brutal. Even so, as the point platoon, 2nd Platoon actually had it relatively easy compared to the others in Alpha Company. All we had to do was bust our way through thick jungle while climbing up a 60 to 80 degree slope.
However, as we did that we also broke what is called the surface tension of the ground underneath our boots and doing that released a lot of moisture. The ground itself was red clay, slippery red clay even before it became wet. After a while we were fighting for each upward step, and the guys behind us had to work even harder because each troop’s step made it more and more slippery for the trooper behind as the boots got heavier with each step as more and more mud attached itself to our boots.
As we pushed it, or cut it out of our way with machetes, we also used the vegetation on the mountain to pull our way up. We grabbed it. We stood on it. There was nothing else to hold on to. Soon we had stripped it of its greenery, leaving green slime on the branches. Soon even the thorns were gone, leaving a red slime as well. Then, the bark was gone too, leaving nothing to grab. Then it pulled out of the ground entirely. Then, when you put your boot down, you could actually slid down lower on the slope than where you had started.
We were all carrying probably about a hundred pounds each when you included your weapon, and the ammo strapped around you. The M-60 machine gunners, the grenadiers and the RTOs (Radio Telephone Operators) were carrying even more than that. As you slipped around on the slope that heavy pack on your back shifted as well, unbalancing you each time, and usually at precisely the wrong time.
Then the guy in front of you slipped and you had to stop him, and his pack from carrying both of you back down the mountain slope. People who have not done this may forget that weapons have sharp edges, and triggers, and bullets in them, and that rucksacks have metal frames, until one or the other bang into your shins driven hard by a 165 pound paratrooper still clawing at that slope to stay on that mountain, but losing.
With the sun being down and with the high elevation, it was probably about 70 degrees or so that night, but we were all sweating. Sweat gets in your eyes and it burns. It gets into the cuts on your hands and your arms, and it burns there too. Because of the mountain and your weapon, you can’t even free up one hand to drink some water and anyway it takes two hands to unscrew the top to open a canteen and that was way beyond impossible on that mountain. If you let the mountain go, you fell off the mountain.
So, the saliva in your mouth dries, and it thickens until you can’t even spit it out, and you dream of the water in your canteens. The water that you got from a ditch earlier that day. Six tablet water, brown water, but wet.
But still, you crawl up that damn mountain. You find that the more skin that you can put down on the mountain, the less you slide backwards. You find that if you jam the butt of your rifle behind the sliding boot of the rifleman in front of you fast enough, then he will stay there and will not wind up on top of you again.
You find that you like the taste of sweat. You like the salt in it too.
You can’t complain though. It is a tactical movement. No talking is allowed.
So you scream against the world in your mind. Your muscles scream against the mountain and against your pack. All of it, in your mind. Your blood would scream too, at least the blood moving in your muscles would scream if it could talk. You know that and you literally claw your way up that damn mountain.
And then we hit an elephant trail on the mountain.
“Where does an elephant go in the jungle?” the joke begins.
“Anywhere it wants.” is the answer.
In this case the elephants wanted to go up the same mountain just like we did. When elephants decide to go up a mountain, the first two or three break a trail, and the following elephants follow and step exactly into the places that the preceding elephants have stepped, creating almost stairs, a little more than elephant foot wide stairs all the way up the mountain. It was a three elephant lane highway, just for us.
According to Hal Dobie, my RTO and as a born and bred apple tree farmer from Washington State in the real world and therefore our expert on all trees, broken and cut limbs and plants of all types, the elephant trail had been made too recently to be boobytrapped or ambushed. So we could use it this time, but now we had to watch out for wild elephants too.
Then you realize that even though the steps left by the elephants are too short for your jungle boots, and the risers are way too long, that you love the wild elephants because now you can just climb the rest of the way to the top of that damn mountain standing up. No longer wallowing in the mud and the slime.
You still must pull up the man behind you and push up the man in front of you, but that is so much better that you do not even mind the incredible piles of stinking manure here and there, and there, and the puddles of elephant urine, although you do avoid them both as much as possible. But you can’t avoid all of them. There are too many.
It is a small price. The elephants had supped well that afternoon. That at least was clear from the still steaming piles of dung on that damn mountain.
Why do I say all of this, because that is what you did for 12 long hours right before the battle began. You are filthy. You are tired. You are sleepy because you spent most of the night crawling up that mountain. Then the bullets fly. That is when you must go to work, because you are infantry.
Your hands are so dirty that if your rifle ever stops firing during the battle and you have to take the bolt out to clean it, touching that bolt with your filthy hands will only make it dirtier. You are not your standard Hollywood hero with a small smear of telegenic light brown dirt across your brow, or on your jaw. You are covered with it.
You stink. You are filthy beyond description. You are soaking wet in your own sweat, and you are so thirsty. Your uniform is torn. Your hands and forearms are bleeding from infected cuts from wait-a-minute vines too many to remember, much less count.
You are not wearing any underwear, either because you never put any on, or because the underwear you did put on has rotted away. The socks you put on a month ago, have rotted away.
Then early in the morning of the very next day, right before breakfast while you are still scraping caked dirt off of your hands with the razor sharp edge of your K-Bar fighting knife so you can eat, the Captain gets called to the radio. It is the Colonel. Breakfast is over before it began and the company immediately moves off of the top of the hill we had just worked so hard to climb. The Company must get to an LZ. Charlie Company is in trouble. The movement to the LZ is as fast as you can make your tired men move.
So you go down hill to an LZ. It is a seven ship LZ and the choppers will have an ACL (Allowable Combat Load) of six troopers each. When the crew chief approaches to tell you that, and to tell you to tell your men to roll down their sleeves before they get on the choppers because of the risk of fire, you can see him wrinkle his nose in disgust. He decides he does not want to talk to you at all. He holds up six fingers and goes back to his position as door gunner where the still rotating blades of the chopper blow your smell away.
So you fly to an LZ near Charlie Company, and when you arrive, there is another hill to climb because Charlie Company is on top of that hill, but at least it is day time. At least it is only a 40 degree or so slope on the ridge you will walk up.
Then you draw some fire from the front, up above you. They are spread out on the ridge in front. The enemy waits for you there, just like they did for Charlie Company, but now they are between you and Charlie Company. They are dug in, fields of fire cut, grenades, magazines, belts of machine gun ammo laid out and ready, waiting.
Battle is always a “Come as you are.” affair. No time to dress, or prepare, ready or not, battle starts now.
So the platoon automatically deploys on line and returns fire. The rest of the company is in back. They seek cover. The curious watch, carefully; the rest just wait. They will look when the noise stops.
This is the 2nd platoon’s fight. This ridge is only wide enough for one platoon to deploy. They will not be allowed to leave. It will be hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle, fire and movement. Currahee!
How’s your guts this morning? Feeling feisty? They have interlocking machine guns and a lot more than that just waiting for you.
However, Tom Gaffney has another idea. We will advance under cover of a rolling artillery barrage. This is World War I stuff. The idea is that the strikes of the artillery shells will be in a moving box in front of the infantry. The key for the infantry is to stay very close to the explosions, but not too close. If you do it just right, and if the artillery does it just right, you will be standing there among them when the enemy emerges from their holes in the ground after the thundering artillery barrage passes over. Then you can kill them.
Behind a large rock Tom gives me about a 60 second class on how to do it, while Bob Richardson, our artillery FO was huddled on the radio with two 105mm batteries setting up the barrage. It is a complicated order for the artillery but like all calls for artillery it starts with the phrase:
“Fire mission. . .”
I have never done it before. I wonder if our artillery have ever done it before as I listen to Tom describe what 2nd platoon is about to do.
We move into a double assault line across the top of the ridge. As soon as the artillery starts, pounding them with fire and hot steel, we move forward. Standing up, walking right behind the explosions as they too move slowly up the ridge. I push it too close at first and one of the guys, I think it was Patterson points to some shrapnel landing behind our first line.
“Not good, L-T.” Pointing at the dust from some shrapnel strikes.
So, I slowed it down a little. According to Tom it is better to risk some shrapnel though than be standing there in the open in front of them rather than among them when the enemy comes out of their underground bunkers to fight. It is a balancing act in a place that is itself unbalanced.
It does not matter what you want to do that day, you must fight, or they will kill you. Worse, they will kill your friends, the man to your right, or the man on your left, or all three of you. So, fight you will. It is time for training to take over. To react as fast as you can. No thought now. The time for thought is past. We are among them.
Again and again.
18, drop magazine.
Lock one 18 round magazine, load.
Target acquisition. . .
Until there are no more targets.
Quiet. It is so suddenly, so perfectly, quiet.
And then finally, you realize that this battle is over, and that you are still alive, and the chorus sings but with your sound shattered ears you cannot hear it wafting across the mountain top battlefield—Hallelujah—Hallelujah—Hallelujah!
All file photos are from Google this time. But I think they fit. Leonard Cohen, author of Hallelujah, died recently but his songs still live. Look him up on You Tube. You’ll be glad you did.