SAN DIEGO — Our initial effort to win the hearts and minds of a group of South Vietnamese had not endeared us to them. First, a sick Vietnamese child had died from an allergic reaction to penicillin administered by a Navy corpsman.
A few hours later, angry South Vietnamese troops wanted to turn against their American allies after two squads of U.S. Marines mistakenly ambushed a squad of Vietnamese Popular Forces troops, wounding one soldier in the head.
In the parlance of military speak, the PFs, as they were known to U.S. troops, had encountered friendly fire. They were victims of fratricide, which, as the Persian Gulf War has demonstrated, is not uncommon on the battlefield.
Both incidents occurred in a hamlet along the An Lo River, in northern Thua Thien Province. A company of Marines from nearby Camp Evans and a platoon of our PFs--led by the U.S. Army advisory team I was assigned to--were conducting a two-day sweep in the area, looking for evidence of Viet Cong infiltration.
Although friendly fire casualties are a fact of war, the cause of this particular incident was especially baffling. Before sending out the ambush teams for the night, we had conferred with the Marine company commander and agreed on the ambush sites and the positioning of the Vietnamese and Marine teams.
The PFs were understandably angry; they were ambushed while approaching a site they were supposed to occupy. Instead, the Marines had arrived first, and it was clear to us that the Americans were at the wrong position.
"How could this have happened?" I asked our team's captain. "We sat at their command post and picked out the sites with them."
"Well, nobody ever mistook a U.S. Marine for Albert Einstein," was the captain's reply.
That unhappy experience occurred in September, 1967, when I was a U.S. Army adviser, assigned with three other Army advisers and one Australian military adviser to the Phong Dien District.
Unfortunately, it was not the last.
Our advisory team was to experience or witness four more incidents of friendly fire--including two near the same hamlet by the An Lo River--in the coming months. In each instance, friendly troops fired on each other--sometimes in broad daylight--because of someone's incompetence or a breakdown in communication between units.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to describe the terror a soldier feels when he is under fire. The cracking sound from an incoming mortar or artillery round seconds before it crashes in a loud explosion, or the whistling sound of a bullet zinging overhead, strike fear every time, no matter how many times you experience it.
But it is more frightening and offensive when these projectiles are fired at you by your own comrades. Friendly fire is a battlefield phenomenon that, like other combat action, begins with fear and confusion. It ends in anger, when the realization sets in that it was your own side that was trying to kill you.
The anger is fed by the possibility of always being able to walk up to and confront the men who almost killed you. You fantasize about exacting revenge, especially if someone close to you was killed or maimed by friendly fire.
Fratricide is personal and never friendly.
There were a few tense moments after the incident mentioned above. Some members of the PF squad ambushed by the Marines wanted to shoot an American in return. Fortunately, the situation was gingerly defused by cooler heads.
Our compound at Phong Dien was an old French fort defended by about 80 PF troops and a South Vietnamese Army artillery unit that manned two 105-millimeter and two 155-millimeter howitzers. The outpost was about four miles west of the Street Without Joy and about 15 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone.
In 1967, the South Vietnamese government's sphere of influence extended only as far as the camp's defensive perimeter. We used to joke about the unknown number of Viet Cong sympathizers among our PF troops. (At the beginning of the 1968 Tet Offensive, we learned that five PFs were actually Viet Cong troops when they disappeared the night before we were attacked.)
But, after subsequent friendly-fire episodes, we joked that the threat came not from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, or from traitors within our ranks, but from trigger-happy U.S. troops.
Some of the other friendly-fire incidents I experienced were more personal and terrifying.
In early 1968, several Army units were moved to South Vietnam's northern provinces to counter a threat by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which was massing for the Tet Offensive. The 1st Cavalry Division occupied Camp Evans, which was renamed LZ (Landing Zone) Evans.
One afternoon, our PF troops conducted a joint operation with other PF troops from nearby Quang Dien District. Planning for the one-day sweep was coordinated with a unit from the 1st Cavalry, which provided a forward observer (FO) to coordinate artillery support from Evans.