A Snake Story
by Roger J. Morris
I was a SSG acting Platoon Leader with Cobra Company, 1/327th Infantry (ABN) in July 1968. The company had just returned to Fire Base Veghel for a much-needed week to ten-day stand down.
For the uninitiated, stand down did not mean that you got to actually STAND DOWN. Along with the pleasure of a hot lunch every day came the duties of securing the fire base, maintaining the bunkers and patrolling. Add to that the daily and nightly mortar and rocket attacks; Charlie probing the wire at night, artillery firing over your head around the clock, performing any and all kinds of details anyone of a higher rank could think up (including the much dreaded crap burning brigade), helicopters coming in and out constantly throwing dust and dirt from their rotors, living in dust up to you eyeballs when it was dry and mud when it was wet, rats in the bunkers, and constant well orchestrated bedlam. And you had to shave every day.
You had to really respect those guys who lived and worked there all the time. After a few days I’d enjoyed about as much as I could stand. I was ready to return to the sanity of the sticks where we could find some relative peace. As luck would have it, the commander called me to the CP and gave me a warning order for a three to four day patrol into the next valley about 10 kilometers from the fire base. They had it on good authority that there was at least an NVA regiment and maybe a Division Headquarters operating out of the area. There had also been helicopter and bird dog sightings of enemy activity.
Don’t you love it when they tell you that? Enemy activity in the area. Hell. News Flash! There was ALWAYS enemy activity out there! If you wanted to get your butt kicked, step outside the wire. Anyway, our mission was not to make contact unless we had to, but to see what was going on. Sounded good to me. First Lieutenant Janes, a former Special Forces Sergeant, and we discovered, a damn fine officer, had been assigned to the company as a Platoon Leader of one of the other platoons a few days earlier. He had not yet been into the woods with his platoon and he asked me if he could go along as an observer to get his feet wet. I was impressed with him, and having long held the belief that an extra rifle is always welcome, especially when carried by a former SF NCO, I agreed.
We left the next morning at daylight and moved to the other side of the valley and up into the hills. After a day of uneventful patrolling, and having discovered nothing except recent signs of Charlie wherever we went, I decided to set up a night site on the ridge line with a listening post about 100 yards from the CP on a main road. We moved into our positions just prior to dusk and set up. I pre-plotted fire support and gave the LP strict instructions not to engage anyone coming down the road. They were to observe and report. I in turn would report to the Battalion and call in any needed fire missions. I did not want to give our position away with a firefight before we even reached our objective in the next valley.
We were sitting in undergrowth very quietly eating our evening meal when I looked up and saw a small snake crawl over Janes’ shoulder. I said “don’t move, there’s a snake on your shoulder.” I guess you can’t tell someone that. The first thing he did was move and the snake bit him on the neck. He knocked the snake off and it crawled away before we could find out what it was. We had a quick discussion of our options. Calling in a medivac at night in Chuck’s territory was not one of them. He asked me if I knew what kind of snake it was. I could only tell him if it was poisonous, he might want to get under his poncho before full dark and have a few drags on one of his cigars. He took it well and we all set around waiting for him to either give it up or live.
Janes was still with us early the next morning so we moved off the ridgeline, trying to avoid any trails to escape possible enemy detection. We discovered numerous high-speed trails with signs of recent use in the next valley. We moved down the valley, again avoiding trails when possible, trying not to leave evidence of our passage. I’m talking by the book patrolling. The usual hand and arm signals, sniffing the wind, the usual stuff but with a bit more flare. I guess we were all showing off a bit for the new lieutenant. We had moved approximately 500 meters up the valley when the point detected voices and movement to the front. We quickly went to ground in some thick underbrush and I motioned for the machine gun to set up by a log overlooking a major high-speed trail.
I was just passing a sit-rep to battalion when I noticed the machine gunner back beside me with what I’ll call a worried expression on his face. I finished the short sit-rep and asked him why he wasn’t set up yet. He whispered, “there’s a snake over there.”I whispered back “throw a stick at it.”He responded, “it’s a BIG snake!” I said come on, and being the clear-headed individual that I am, I crawled through the brush to show him how to get rid of the snake. I didn’t see it at first until it moved its head. The head was about 9 inches wide, the eyes as big as quarters and he was staring straight into my eyes, which were as big as saucers, from about four feet away. Sometimes I have been known not to think things through before I put all the facts together. This was one of those times.
I was raised in the hills of Missouri. I hunted both day and night as a way of life. Now to me, a snake is a snake. I didn’t care how big he was. He was in our way and we needed his space right now. I would just have to move him. Right? Played good in theory. I just forgot for a moment what snakes do, even little ones, when you injure them. I raised up on one knee and took my bayonet from my belt. I very slowly fixed it onto my M16. Positioning myself I speared that critter right between the eyes. This is about the time that things came undone.
He came up off the ground, all 14 to 16 feet of him, started knocking down brush, wrapped around my M16, and jerked it from my hands. The voices we had heard earlier suddenly became louder. The snake cracked the foregrip and stock of my M16 and, with crystal clear 20-20 hindsight, I knew that I probably had made a major mistake.
I was finally able to jerk the weapon clear. I had already blown discretion and didn’t have time to think about valor, so I initiated a hasty plan to make a strategic move to the rear. We got the hell out of there. Arriving back at Veghel, Janes and I went to the CP for a debriefing. Janes told the snake stories and said I was crazy. Everyone had a good laugh at my expense.
Maybe we were all a little crazy.
Roger J. Morris