Sometimes, I am the beast in the darkness. Sometimes, I am the ghost.
Anyone who knows a Vietnam War veteran has probably heard many stories about the wildlife they encountered during their tour of duty. My friend and fellow author, Vietnam Veteran John Podlaski recently added a story to his website about the critters of the Nam. This is my recollection on the subject.
Vietnam is a tropical country on the edge of a large continent, bordered by an ocean. It has a diverse topography along with many flowing rivers and streams. And there are critters…..many critters.
One thing that constantly amazed me during my tour of duty in Vietnam was the number of critters that were able to survive in that deadly war torn environment. Back home; you crack a twig and every deer within earshot takes off like a rocket. Somehow the wildlife in Vietnam managed to survive, and in some cases thrive; while tens of thousands of firefights, bombing sorties, naval bombardments, artillery missions and chemical defoliations took place. How did they manage?
The place was noisy, very noisy…..and dangerous; nonstop. Yet tigers, leopards, vast troops of monkeys, elephants, too many snakes to mention and even rhinoceroses survived in that toxic environment. It wasn’t surprising that the insects survived….they’re designed to survive under any condition. And hordes of insects occupied Vietnam. Immense rice beetles, mounds of stinging ants, scorpions, spiders of every make and model….and of course the mosquitos that tortured every GI who ever set foot in- country.
Those mosquitos, ever present day or night, rain or shine; would swoop down in hordes getting into your mouth, nose, eyes, and ears. The military doled out mosquito repellent that could strip paint, but it barely slowed them down. After a month or two you just took them in stride. Of course the grunts in the bush all day had it the worst; but the mosquitos spared no one because of rank or station.
My experiences with the “critters of the Nam” are similar to others who served during the war. Although to this day I am not overly pestered by mosquitos, they certainly cramped my style in Vietnam. Sleeping was the worst; some guys obtained mosquito netting to put around their bunks. I found the netting to be very bothersome. (And someone stole mine early on)
All the hooches, and buildings on the Phu Cat airbase were occupied by hordes of large hairy spiders. They looked like a small tarantula and were everywhere. I waged war on them constantly, dispersing the deadly Military grade insect repellent like Agent Orange. It didn’t put much of a dent in their population; but I wasn’t going to let them roll me over.
Rats were another problem. HUGE rats. They also occupied most buildings and structures everywhere. One ran over my chest one night when I was laying in my bunk. No sleep that night. Always short of protein, the ever practical Vietnamese added them to the menu. (Another reason I never dined with them)
Many American GI’s made pets out of the local monkeys. They looked cute, but most of them were meaner than a mother-in-law without a grandchild. They would savagely bite anything other than themselves and I avoided them like the plague; which, by the way, was also present in that unfortunate country.
Snakes were ever present in Vietnam. Cobras were frequently found on base and shot on sight. In one incident I witnessed a hapless perimeter guard trying to shoot a cobra that was approaching him aggressively. He kept trying to shoot the snakes head, but the snake, dodging like Muhammad Ali, kept on coming. Finally a well-seasoned guard casually approached the snake and lopped off it’s head with a small machete. A nearby Papa-San snagged it for a later meal.
Our hooch dog “Noah”, a feral dog we had adopted, became an overnight hero because of a cobra. He had supposedly killed one that had entered the barracks one night, and was heaped with lavish praise. It had been my opinion that Noah found a dead cobra and dragged it into the barracks to eat; but I wasn’t going to rain on his parade. Good for Noah.
Another snake of note was the Southeast Asian pit viper. A small snake of various colors it was referred to as the “two-stepper” because supposedly once it bit someone they took two steps and dropped dead. This snake was more of a problem for the Vietnamese who wore skimpy sandals or went barefoot. American GI’s, with their heavily canvased jungle boots, were protected from bites to their feet and ankles.
The Phu Cat airbase had a large “open” area which was occupied by many creatures; some four legged, some two. A leopard from the area appeared one day and got itself backed into a storage bay at an outside warehousing area. People tried to drive it away but it just sat there snarling and screaming. I was able to see it, and the ferociousness of the animal made an impression on me. Unfortunately it had to be shot, after which many GI’s posed for pictures with the dead body.
Another animal I saw, right on the Phu Cat airbase, made a lifelong impression on me. Three of us were walking down a small road, heading back to our hooch one evening around dusk. A jeep came along and we made way so it could pass. Soon we saw the jeep stop for a few minutes. Then it backed up to where we were. The jeep driver told us to get in. We declined, but he insisted. We got in and he drove to the spot where he had stopped a minute before.
There, hunkered down in some thick brush sat a tiger. With a low growling it just sat glaring at us. We watched it for several minutes. The driver wanted to drive it off so it wouldn’t ambush anyone. (There were twelve confirmed cases of American GI fatalities during the war as a result of tiger attacks)
The driver leaned on the horn of the jeep, after which the tiger let out a blood curdling roar and then quietly backed off, slipping away into the night. We reported the incident to the Apes (air police) who casually brushed it off. They said there were a couple of tigers that traveled on and off of the base all the time, and if they shot it another would just take it’s place. Besides, it had a taste for VC, they told us. I was glad that no one came to harm that night, us or the tiger; it was a beautiful animal.
The critter incident I had in Vietnam which rattled me even more than the tiger event, involved ants. The ants in Vietnam swarmed like bees, and bit like mules. They were worse than the mosquitos. At Christmas time my Mother sent me a care package. In it was a small tinned ham. Two buddies and I quickly devoured half of it, after which I left for about fifteen minutes to attend to some duty. When I returned, the ham was a living mound of ants, now twice the size of the ham itself. I cussed and roared and dispersed the ants with fire, but alas…the ham was ruined. I groused about that for at least a week, and harbor it to this day! 🙂
Send me a note about your critter experience, in Nam or out!