Every time you left camp on a patrol, you knew that you were going to encounter situations which you had not seen or experienced before.
The least desirable of those new experiences was, of course, dying. This is one of those new experiences.
Going on patrol was always scary
As I mentioned before patrols usually consisted of numbing boredom and physical hardship -- punctuated by stark terror. Sometimes the winds
of fate blew in your favor -- and not just literally.
I need to digress for a moment and explain [nuc mom]. The Vietnamese used a fermented fish oil called [nuc mom] on their food. (As the brackets
indicate, I do not know how to spell these Vietnamese words so I have spelled them phonetically.) It may have been the best tasting ingredient
or condiment in the world -- but to a westerner, it had an absolutely horrible smell. I mean, the smell of this stuff would almost make you
wretch! THAT's how bad it was!
We were on one of those typical patrols. We had not seen much in the way of enemy activity. We broke camp early this particular morning and
started on our way. It was barely light enough to see. I think Lt. Carter smelled it when I did... the unmistakable smell of [nuc mom].
At that point we knew we had company in the jungle. None of the CIDG could figure out why we stopped the patrol. They were so used to the
smell that it either didn't dawn on them or they just didn't smell it.
Using our sense of smell we carefully guided the patrol towards the smell. We were actually following the smell of the nuc mom to its source.
It didn't take long until we came to one of those small (three-foot wide) streams. The smell seemed to parallel the path of the stream. Slowly...
carefully... we edged our way up stream. We soon came to a twelve-foot tall water fall. Nestled at the base of the waterfall was a small
covered pavilion. Three VC were seated on the floor -- enjoying their breakfast. Lt. Carter quickly deployed the patrol on a line -- first to
the left and then to the right.
At some point we made slightly too much noise, as the VC grabbed their weapons and began firing. Our left flank returned fire as did the Lt.
and I. The VC bolted out of the pavilion and scrambled to climb the cliffs behind the waterfall. You could hear the rat-tat-tat-tat of their
larger caliber weapons over the cacophony of the CIDG M-1 carbines. I spotted one of the black pajama-clothed VC as he scrambled over the
top of the cliff. After squeezing off four or five quick rounds I took off after him. Scaling the slippery cliff was difficult but I made
it with surprising quickness. A couple more rat-tat-tats. As I crested the cliff, I looked around... looking for signs showing the direction of
their flight. I found a blood trail and followed it for twenty yards or so and then pulled up. Running off into the jungle -- alone -- not a
very bright thing to do.
Upon returning to the pavilion were looked over what the VC had left behind. A few food supplies and some papers. Strange... the VC could
always seem to get by with so little supplies. The Lt. scooped up the papers and we reformed the patrol. It was at this point that the CIDG
understood what the Lt. and I had been doing... following the smell of the nuc mom. By our estimate we had followed the smell through the
jungle for six or seven hundred yards.
Perhaps these were new VC recruits -- unseasoned in jungle behavior. When we were on patrol, we were careful not to draw attention to
ourselves. We 'field-stripped' our cigarettes (we even burned the end with the brand name first!), did not build fires which created smoke
(and smells), and certainly didn't eat sauerkraut for breakfast. I'm sure the VC could have followed the smell of the 'kraut... just as we
followed the smell of that god-awful fermented fish sauce.