In September of 1970, Company A started off on a mission from Firebase Hill 4-11 by foot. As I passed through the west gate of Hill 4-11, I loaded my M-16 with a magazine of ammo, released the bolt, and closed the dust cover. From the west gate we headed north towards the river. We spent most of the day walking and taking breaks underneath the hot and humid sky. Late in the afternoon when we were about 5 kilometers from Hill 4-11, First, Second, and Third Plattoons went off in different directions while the Weapons Platoon, my platoon, stayed with the Command Post (CP).
The CP and Weapons Platoon set up a night logger (another term for night defensive position) within the perimeter of an old dry rice paddy that was partially surrounded by a bamboo thicket. To the west of our position was an old Vietnamese graveyard. The graveyard was on a small hill, and each grave was marked by a huge mound of dirt. Just to the south of our position, there was a large water-filled bomb crater. A few meters to the northeast there was a couple of tunnels that we had discovered earlier in the day.
Because we thought it wasn't going to rain during the night, the two grunts I was hootching with and I decided not to put up our poncho tent (hootch). In other words, we decided to sleep close together under the stars. After everyone in the platoon had their usual C-ration meal, we put trip flares and Claymore mines on the west side of our perimeter where there was a large open area. The CP set up a guard position in the northeast corner of the rice paddy while the Weapons Platoon set up one in the southwest corner in an area between the bomb crater and an opening in the bamboo thicket.
At the time, almost everyone had an air mattress to sleep on. Before I took my turn at guard duty, I inflated my air mattress and fixed the position where I was going to sleep that night. As the sun moved down over the mountains in the west, I went over to the guard position to pull the first watch. After two hours of straining two of my most important senses, hearing and seeing, I woke up the next man whose turn it was to stand guard. After I was sure he was in the right position, I went back to my air mattress, layed down, and prepared myself for some long wanted sleep. As I closed my eyes to go to sleep, I heard a slight rustling sound in the bamboo thicket which was less than three meters from my feet.
My first impulse was that I was just hearing things in my mind. I tried to go to sleep but couldn't. I lay awake listening for the sound again. Very shortly, something started moving slowly through the bamboo thicket. Adrenaline began to fill my bloodstream, and my heart started pumping like hell. I was scared to death!
Very carefully, while trying not to make the air mattress squeak, I grabbed my M-16 rifle and prepared for the worst. I pointed it towards the bamboo thicket and layed on my air mattress waiting to hear the movement again. Visions of sappers coming through the bamboo thicket started racing through my mind. I put my M-16 on rock'n roll and told myself that if I heard the movement in the bamboo thicket again I was going to blast it all to hell! Sure enough, something moved, I pulled the trigger to my M-16, and nothing happened. My M-16 rifle had misfired!
Very slowly, I checked my M-16 to find out what was wrong with it. I opened the dust-cover and discovered with my right index finger that the bolt had double fed two rounds into the chamber. I knew I could't clear my M-16 without giving my position away, and I couldn't move off the air mattress without making a lot of noise. As a last resort, I grabbed my steel pot which was nearby for protection. I started to get real scared. I wanted to scream out loudly that the gooks were coming in but couldn't. Opening my mouth would have been certain death for me. My eyes were straining so hard to see what it was that was coming through the bamboo thicket that I thought they were going to pop out of my head! Whatever it was it kept coming towards me. I began to say my last prayer because I knew this had to be the end-of-the-line for me.
It kept coming. When it was out of the bamboo thicket and less than five feet away from me, I was able to see the outline of what it was. It was a huge black panther! I sighed with relief. This enormous cat had smelled some discarded C-ration cans and decided to stop in for a late night snack. With all my might, I threw my steel pot at him. I think I hit him. But I know one thing, I scared the hell out of him because he took off like a black streak of lightning. On his exit out of our perimeter, the panther jumped over one of the grunts who was laying near me.
The next day I decided not to tell anyone about what had happened during the night. Had there been gooks coming through the bamboo someone probably would have died because I had not checked my weapon after I had loaded it. From that point on, I was determined not to make any more foolish mistakes.