In 1966, we arrived in Vietnam with PRC-10 field radios that we carried on our backs. The batteries were so old, we often carried several that had never been used for back ups when we went on patrols, ambushes, recons and field operations.
The idea was that if one battery was dead, maybe one of the spares worked.
On one night patrol, all three batteries failed and that almost got us killed. I was a field radio operator so I carried the radio and was responsible to call for supporting fire, an extraction for wounded, artillery support, etc.
This patrol went out in the dark and we came back several hours later right before dawn. Because our hill had been hit every night for weeks, we were all nervous and on high alert. The Vietcong would hit and run—fire a rocket, a few sniper rounds, a shoulder fired rocket, or toss a grenade inside the wire and then melt away. One Marine had his head torn off from a rocket that was fired through a bunker’s firing slot. The other Marines in that bunker survived but they watched their buddy get beheaded when the rocket hit him in the face but didn’t explode.
As the radio operator, it was my job to make the last call just before we returned from the night patrol and let them know we were on our way in so they wouldn’t shoot at us.
But when all three of the batteries were dead, there was no way to call in. We had to go in cold.
The sergeant in charge said we couldn’t make a sound, because we had to get close enough to the wire so his voice could be heard.
There was a spring on the other side of the wire that fed a creek and we walked in that creek careful to make not one sound. Then one Marine tripped and as he hit the ground made a loud clattering noise. A heart beat later, we were all sucking that creak water.
Without hesitation, the bunkers on the other side of the wire inside our base camp opened fire on us with fifty calibers. We lay in that stream as the tracers shot inches above our heads. The sergeant shouted “cease fire”.
“How do we know it’s really you and not a trick,” the reply came. “Why didn’t you use the radio?”
“The batteries are all dead,” I called. “Call the communication bunker and ask for the name of the radio operator who was assigned to this patrol. How would the gooks know that?”
“And what is your name?”
I called it out and a few minutes later we were given the okay to stand up and walk one-by-one inside the wire.
The PRC-10 was first used in 1951 during the Korean War. The AN/PRC 25 replaced it in 1962, but the Marines were usually the last to get new equipment. We had no idea how old those batteries were but we were eating C-rations that were stamped 1945 so I think those batteries were probably from the early 1950s and had been in storage for almost fifteen years. Before I was rotated out of Vietnam in December 1966, the PRC-10 was replaced with the 25 that was several pounds lighter and had much newer batteries.
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Lloyd Lofthouse, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran,
is the award winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition].
His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.
And the woman he loves and wants to save was fighting for the other side.
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