In 1967, 1968, and 1969, heavy casualties and death was the constant companion of all the Marines of Hotel Company 2/5 as we patrolled the rice paddies, the booby-trapped dykes, the muddy trails, the bomb craters, and the mountains beyond the Arizona Territory, southwest of Da Nang, north and northeast of An Hoa.
It was late February 1969 when I volunteered to walk point whenever our platoon or our company was on an operational sweep through the rice patties, tree lines, and small farm villages in the Arizona Territory. Our company’s mission was to find and engage the enemy, whatever the price. Sometimes the enemy was the V.C. (Viet Cong) traveling in smaller groups, but most of the time it was facing the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) in company and battalion-size groups.
On this particular day, we had come down off the mountains again having survived Operation Taylor Common. We were assigned to sweep the enemy and push them back into Golf Company which was waiting for them. We engaged an NVA battalion-size force shooting at us out past Phu Loc. Several Marines from my company had to be medivaced both wounded and two dead. After that battle, after the medivac helicopters were gone, a real sense of peace came over me. I had only been carrying the radio for three weeks now as a squad radioman. Our point radioman was one of the ones medivaced.
I told my platoon leader that I believed in God’s sovereignty and His protection over me while being a grunt. I told my platoon commander (PC) that if God wants me in His presence today, tomorrow, next week, or whenever, I was ready for it. But, if He wanted me to return home after the war, so be it. God was in control, and I had no one else to fear. So, I certainly was not going to fear death. I remembered Psalms 23:4 “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”. I rationalized that this war was evil, that the enemy had to be destroyed, and God called me to walk through this valley, this trial in my life, and strengthen my faith. So, trusting in God, I said a prayer or two, or three, and asked God to walk along with me as I volunteered to walk point. Like every Marine, I didn’t come to Vietnam to die but to serve my God, my fellow Marines, and my country, and kill the enemy.
The point man was the lead person of his unit as it moved through the hostile or unsecured territory and was responsible for the early detection of enemy ambushes, booby-traps, and reactions to sudden meeting engagements with enemy forces. The point man was the eyes and ears of the lead squad as they moved forward, and this involved rapid multitasking. He was supported by three other Marines who made up the point squad of four Marines.
Directly behind the point man about 10 – 15 yards was me, the radioman. Directly 10-15 yards to my left was a rifleman usually carrying an M79 blooper gun, and directly to my right 10-15 yards was a machine gunner. We moved in unison together, never losing sight of each other and never getting too close to each other in case one of us set off a booby trap. Usually, 20 to 30 yards behind us would be our platoon or our whole company, usually walking in columns.
My experience walking point for six weeks was that the enemy usually didn’t shoot at the point man initially unless he had discovered them first and started firing at them. I was the first target because of the radio. They knew our tactics and if they could eliminate the radioman first, then they were safer from immediate mortar incoming and air bombardment. We would walk and move through open fields, rice paddies, dikes, worn footpaths, and tree lines. All four of us in that point squad were responsible for observing, and reporting what was in front of us.
It only took me a short time to learn to use proper hand signals and waving, jesting, and body movements whenever we spotted the enemy or strongly suspected trouble directly ahead. We kept on eye on each other while observing what was ahead of us and were always communicating without a sound to what we were seeing and observing ahead of us. It was my job to interpret the silent communication from my point team guys and communicate with my radio to my platoon walking behind us what was happening but doing so without making any sound. I would click the handset to make a squelching sound, a series of clicks with the handset, etc. to mean different things. For example, 1 click = enemy seen, 2 clicks = danger seen ahead, 3 clicks = all clear, 4 clicks = moving ahead, and 5 clicks = rush a fireteam up to us immediately, and so on. Sometimes, I would hold down the handset and use a clicking sound softly with my tongue to mean certain things. I’ve forgotten the signals we used from those times back then.
Whenever we got to a tree line and there was open territory in front of us, the two guys on each side of me, would move up so all three of them would step out into the open area together at the same time in a straight horizontal line. I would follow 10 yards right behind them. Three of us stepping out of a tree line at the same times was frightening to them and confused them as to which one might be the point man. It was effective. If we didn’t take on any fire, we’d reposition ourselves back into our regular triangle formation. I was always grateful those three guys were always protecting me. At the same time, those three guys were trusting me to communicate correctly and swiftly over the radio when needed.
When walking and observing, I had my M16 in my right hand, and my handset in my left hand. When I didn’t have to communicate on the radio, I kept the three-foot antenna pulled down against my body, so it wasn’t sticking up. The end of the antenna was also in my left hand with the handset. I’d let go of it and it would spring up when I needed to use the radio.
As a squad, we were always ready to engage in a moment whenever we began to draw fire. I was always quick to get down on the ground, even with that heavy radio on my back if I needed to open with a burst of fire from my M16. We stayed in constant eye contact with each other and communicated either when in silent mode or after we engaged in the fight by shouting commands at each other. When we took on enemy fire, we would all move a bit closer to each other before getting completely down taking cover. This gave us an advantage not only with firepower but also psychology-wise, knowing we could more easily crawl toward each other if one of us got hit. We were a very effective team walking point together. We were close.
What was it like walking point? Of course, it was dangerous, but someone had to do it. I decided to ask God to walk with me when I was walking point with my team. When not walking point, like when we would settle in for the evening and dig our foxholes in a circled perimeter, I would take my little Bible New Testament out of my backpack and read what the author David would write in the Psalms:
Ps. 140:1 “Deliver me O Lord, from evil men, preserve me from violent men.”
Ps. 140:4 “Keep me O Lord from the hands of the wicked.”
Ps. 141:9-10 “Keep me from the snares they have laid for me, and from the traps of the workers of iniquity.” “Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I escape safety.”
Ps. 144:1 “Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle.”
I read these verses over and over for weeks and weeks, applying them to me and my point team, believing in them, and asking God, in my prayers, to help keep us safe when walking point. He did!
At the height of the Vietnam War, up-and-coming commo guys (radiomen) who wanted to learn the art of radio operation would walk into a classroom and see a huge number five written on the chalkboard. Inevitably, someone’s curiosity would win out and they’d ask what the big number meant. The instructor would then calmly tell them, “That’s your life expectancy, in seconds, in a firefight. So, listen up and you might learn something that’ll keep you alive.” That number wasn’t some outrageous scare tactic. During the Vietnam War, the odds were tremendously stacked against radio operations — and that 5-second life expectancy was, for some, a grim reality. Thank the Lord that He saved me from experiencing this statistic.
When walking point, you are using all five senses, vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. However, you quickly develop a very intense sensitivity to your senses. I believe that the Lord gave me a sense of awareness that is hard to explain. He gave me a keen sense of presence. I could sense trouble, see further in the distance with very keen vision. I looked for changing shadows, or changes in colors, and movement in the bushes, shrubs, and trees. Were there any wild animals moving about?
I listened intensely to all noises, distinguishing between the sound of my breaths and my walking, versus other sounds that were coming from in front of me. I would listen carefully to discern if it was a stream of water flowing or someone walking or running in front of us. Was it the breeze of the air moving the leaves and plants, a gust of wind blowing through the bamboo, or was it someone causing those movements and those sounds?
I learned to pay close attention to the birds. Were they chirping or were they silent? Were they present or gone? If the birds were silent or not present, Charlie was usually there unless there were civilians present like rice farmers. Observing and listening to the birds in the jungles was a great way to determine if we were alone or if we had company present ahead of us on the trail.
I learned to read the landscape in front of us. I anticipated where the enemy might be hiding. When on trails, we looked for broken twigs, footsteps in the dirt, or disturbed dirt on the trail or path. We could spot a sandal footprint in the sand, mud, or dry dust. When sweeping from left to right over the terrain in front of us, we would notice if there was something out of place, or that something just didn’t feel right or look right. We’d usually spot dried leaves, bent grass, or browned-out foliage that indicated a boobytrap or camouflaged spider holes.
When Charlie (the VC or the NVA) would start shooting, our team was good at determining if this was a lone sniper or a sizable group. We were good at determining the size of the enemy, what type of firepower they had, and estimate accurately the distance between us and them. All this information was helpful to relay back to my platoon commander using my PRC-25.
Depending on the direction of the wind blowing, you could at times smell the enemy, whether it was rice cooking in a pot, dead fish, or the smell of beetle juice, recent human waste, or the smell of a dead corpse.
Many guys were assigned to walk point at some time or another. I knew of no one who would just be willing to volunteer walking point, especially a radioman. I wasn’t asking for a death wish. I wasn’t looking for a promotion. I never thought I was crazy or invincible. I didn’t believe in luck. I just saw the need and took the opportunity to serve my brothers, leaning on my faith in God to get me through. I prayed for the safety of these three guys often. While walking point, I was glad that God was walking beside me throughout those weeks we were engaging the enemy in the Arizona Territory.
Larry D. Tyler
1969 Vietnam Veteran