Case of the Missing Paratrooper
“Keep to the high ground,” goes the adage; and in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, typically we did just that. After all, the ridge line provides for the easiest footing, navigation, and fields of fire. And especially if you are in command of an airborne platoon of 30 or so men, with no direct fire support from anyone, including gunships, grounded by foul weather; solo – that is, not within supporting distance of other airborne or mechanized infantry units, you are going to want as commanding a position as possible. Most especially if you are also out of range of even 175mm artillery; you are really on your own, and I mean on your own. The military crest of the ridge line – where you stand “in defilade,” just below the topographical crest so as to not draw attention, much less fire, where you are protected by less than a straight line of fire to your position – fits the bill as the most commanding position. Which is what I chose for navigation and patrolling, amongst huge boulders and under triple canopy, throughout that day.
Much earlier that day we had received resupply, food, and ammunition, if you can call C-rations and IRPs food, plus supply of a new airborne trooper, a “cherry,” all compliments of “The Jokers,” a name, a.k.a. “handle,” chosen by the helicopter company which provided the Huey helicopter, a.k.a. “slick,” complete with two pilots, two door gunners with an M-60 machine gun each, beaucoup ammo, and plenty of room for the supplies, and the cherry. But that was when the weather provided visibility, and I told the squad leader to look out for the cherry, keep an eye on him, make sure he obeys orders. The sergeant did just that, and on one of our rest stops, told the cherry to stay put in his position just behind a large boulder. And this cherry was obedient, but so cherry, being in country only a few days, that when we moved out again, he stayed put. He did exactly as he was ordered, and his sergeant had neglected to tell him to move out with the unit when the unit moved out. And this being a platoon paratrooper patrol, not a Ranger patrol of five to ten men, I had not required a “send up the count,” under which each trooper accounts for his presence, from end of the patrol to the beginning, by a tap on the shoulder of the man in front of him, and announcing, for example, “five; send up the count.”
So, you already have guessed the beginning of what happened – we begin to laager in for the pitch-black night, not having seen any signs of the Viet Cong, a.k.a. “Charlie,” part of Victor Charlie, the phonetic for VC, and Sergeant John Fitzgerald Quirk, fellow Ranger and a native of Boston, informs me, as he is “doing the rounds,” including relaying to me a head count in his best Sergeant Quirk Boston accent, that the cherry is missing. One of our men is missing in action, MIA. The cherry is, his squad leader believes, right where his squad leader left him – behind the boulder. This is not good. For the unit. For the squad leader. For me. And, especially, for the cherry.
Fortunately, I had every faith in fellow Ranger Quirk; after all, this is what Rangers are well trained to do – in the mountains, jungle, and swamps – during nine weeks of arduous – no, extremely tortuous – Ranger school training: navigate anywhere, day or night, including back to your designated last rally point, a significant terrain feature so designated, periodically, every ten or so “clicks,” a.k.a. kilometers, with 10 clicks being about 6 miles. And I had to soon radio in a coded SITREP, situational report, to company headquarters, which was, by this time, only God knows where, with the SITREP due in about one hour, and if we had one man MIA, I would have to so report. This is not good for LT, Lieutenant Mac. Not good at all.
So, Ranger Quirk, with one man and one radio, two M-16s, and plenty of ammunition, ventures out into the pitch black Vietnam Central Highlands, with no trail to mark the way, utilizing his compass, following the back azimuth, hoping to get back before the SITREP is due. Hoping no VC have followed us and are in an ambush position; and to get back in our small perimeter defenses, he has to know the location of the trip wires so as to not cause alarm to the extent that we let go with the blast of a claymore mine or two. Not to fear; I had every faith in Ranger Quirk. And sure enough, he found the cherry right where his squad leader had left him, and all three returned safely to our laager site, just in time for a SITREP. All was quiet atop this ridge line in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and I slept like a baby.