Bait

Book Summary

by Donald E. Stephen

BaitA Vietnam War memoir by Martinsville, Illinois, farmer Donald E. Stephen who served in Vietnam as an Army infantry platoon leader in 1970-71. Stephen, a Special Forces-trained officer went to Vietnam as a 24-year-old soldier and led men barely out of high school through days of prolonged fighting and uncertainty in the jungles of Vietnam.

He writes about those days in which, if the enemy and the bobby traps were taken away, mere survival in the jungle with the heat, rain, insects, snakes, rodents, leeches and all the attendant problems caused by these conditions would have been traumatic enough for most young men. Contact with the outside world was made through a door gunner on resupply helicopters.

Sometimes weeks would go by with no word from home, and then suddenly, the backlog of mail would be there bringing word of the death of a family member, a Dear John letter or other aspects of life back in the world would add to the homesickness and fear the men felt. Military protocol made things extremely difficult when surviving the jungle was the only thing that mattered.

The Author: Donald E. Stephen

Donald E. Stephen was born and raised on a farm in eastern Illinois, near the small towns of Martinsville and Casey. After high school, Stephen attended college at Southern Illinois University and scuffled with Vietnam War protesters when they tried to force him to sign a petition opposing the war. After serving in Vietnam, Stephen returned to farming in eastern Illinois and has remained active in farm organizations and veteran's affairs.

Read an Excerpt

At 9 a.m., three NVA walked into our perimeter, apparently unaware of our presence. Charlie Kress, Brent Burford, and Jim Stacy fired them up. I crawled over to see what had happened. They said they had killed one and wounded another, but they didn't know about the third one. Although it was hard to tell in the jungle, I could see the dead body just a few feet away.

Several of the men lined up and fired into the jungle, then we threw a hand grenade. I thought there was no way that anyone could have lived through that.

I started crawling toward the body. Sergeant Broussard was behind me, and maybe someone else. When I got within ten feet, the NVA jumped up and emptied his AK-47, all thirty rounds, and cut down a banana tree between my feet and Broussard's head. I aimed and shot the man eighteen times.

We brought the body back to the LZ and reported the enemy KIA. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that there was at least one more dead out there, but I sure wasn't going to look for him. We stripped the body, as told, and sent in all the information. The man didn't have much on him, but we called in everything right down to the color of his skivvies.

It was then I met Ranger. I had heard about him from the time I had come to the battalion. He was on his third tour of duty and had lived through all kinds of trouble. It was said that he was kill-crazy and could never go back to the States. I can attest to that fact. He started kicking the dead NVA, then he pulled the man's shorts down, took out his knife, and was going to cut off his testicles.

"Don't do it!" I yelled, but he just laughed.

"You cut that body and I'll blow your arm off," I told him.

He let go of the genitals and grabbed an ear.

"Sloan, you'd better stop him or I'll shoot," I said.

Sloan talked him out of it, but Ranger pulled his .45 and shot the dead NVA one more time, and then walked away giving me a crazy stare. Sloan said I was crazy to interfere with Ranger.

"And besides, two of my men are dead," he tried to rationalize.

"It doesn't matter how many are dead," I answered. I couldn't watch mutilation of any kind. Sloan didn't like it, either, but he said Ranger was dangerous and he had to work with him every day. I told him he had better send him to a psycho ward because he was bad luck. Some people lived through anything while people all around them were dying. If he had been in my platoon, I would have gotten rid of him somehow.

We finished cutting the LZ, and the choppers were on the way. The five recons got on the first bird, and we lifted the two dead into the second bird. Then we rucked up and left the area, retracing recons' steps toward a higher place. I had come to like high ground because we controlled the air and could defend it better.

About one hundred meters from the battle scene, we found a hilltop that suited us, and we quit early to dig in. Our orders were to go farther, but high ground and deep holes didn't come along very well after dark, and I felt like regrouping for a while.

The men had different looks on their faces; everyone was quiet and very serious. We had lost our scout when the helicopter took the bodies out. At the last second, he had grabbed the bird's skid and crawled in. I knew then that we were in heavy shit, and I had no desire to hunt the enemy until we had time to get over the shock.

While we were digging in, a few dinks were seen in the area we had vacated. A Cobra gunship came in and blew the area away. They reported three killed, and we were supposed to go back and check it out. I told higher we would be glad to. I was asked for a report about an hour later, and I told them the jungle was so thick that we didn't find the bodies.

"If they saw three dead, then they must've seen them from the air," I informed higher. "We saw nothing from the ground."

I figured it would have been pretty stupid to check out the area. I wasn't going to split up the platoon to search for dead NVAs with only twenty-one men. Twenty-one split didn't leave a very big element of firepower. If we had been company-sized, it would have been different. I was always told to let the dead rest, and since they weren't ours, we let them rest. We had credit for one KIA on the records. Helping the career people didn't make sense to me.

I didn't disclose a lot of my thinking to the platoon. If a mission made no sense to me, then I didn't let the men in on it. At that point, none of my men were dead or wounded, so I felt good inside, and that's all that mattered. If something could have been gained for the glory of God and country, I might have felt differently. But my philosophy had been changing.

I had studied several books on guerrilla warfare. It seemed to me that we were fighting a conventional war in a guerrilla jungle. We had everything on our side, by the book, but we were losing men every day.

We were living in the jungle and our mission was to search and destroy. Reconnaissance located the enemy and our superior firepower was to destroy him. The problem seemed to lie in the fact that Americans died when the NVA were found.

Our reconnaissance reminded me of fishing our old pond for yellow-bellied catfish. You had to have a strong pole, very strong fishing line, and a good hook. The ultimate bait for a catfish was a big juicy worm.

If you wanted to be sure to catch some fish, you set out several poles around the pond, and then set up a command post so you could watch all the lines at the same time. If you had a pole in the wrong place, the little schools of fish just nibbled and chewed until you lost your bait. To catch the big cats, you placed two worms on a hook and went to the mud bottoms and waited. Every thirty minutes or so, you checked your bait, and if it was still there, you just moved a few feet and tried again. It wasn't a question of whether you would catch a yellow-belly. It was a matter of when you would catch one and at what expense to your bait box.

After being in the bush for a few long weeks, I had decided that we, the good old American draftees, were the bait. Whether we were nibbled on, chewed, or swallowed whole, depended on where we were dropped in a new place.

There were a lot of big battles fought. More enemy were killed than friendly, but in the jungle it was a different story. Survival was what mattered. Going back to the real world in one piece counted more than anything.

Had I sent men after those dead bodies, I could have lost them. I didn't feel that a few enemy belongings were worth one American finger, let alone a life.

It was hard for me to accept the silly games that were played. For a chopper pilot to get a confirmed body count, a grunt had to risk his life to report them dead. I was sure that by the time it got back to the States, one enemy killed became a dozen.