This is dedicated to the
courageous troopers of Bravo Company who walked point during the most
hazardous period of the Vietnam War, 1967-68
Walking point was the most dangerous front-line combat duty in Vietnam. The point man was the lead person of his unit as it moved through hostile or unsecured territory and responsible for early detection of enemy ambushes, booby-traps and reacting to sudden meeting engagements with enemy forces.
The point man was the eyes and ears of the lead squad as they moved forward and this involved rapid multi-tasking. The point man had to check the area in front of him for trip wires, scrutinize the ground ahead for any suspicious signs of disturbance, examine the foliage for freshness and signs of tampering, and scan the area to detect camouflaged enemy positions. There were no standard operating procedures for point man duty and squads and platoons developed their own flexible procedures for accomplishing this task. There was a frequent rotation of those walking point at the squad level, platoon leaders rotated the order of march of their squads and the company commander rotated the order of march of the platoons. Some squads operated with a two-man point team, one in the lead and the other providing cover. The point man communicated by a mixture of hand signals and finger talk.
A skilled and seasoned point man had the instincts of a hunter, was able to spot the many warning signals used by the enemy, was an expert at detecting danger and he could sometimes even smell the presence of enemy soldiers hiding in the nearby jungle foliage. Prior experience as a hunter or outdoorsman was a valuable asset for this demanding task. When we operated in Bong Son and before moving north, we often used a dog team consisting of handler and dog, These dogs were not good at locating buried mines, but their keen senses of smell and hearing made them very effective at detecting concealed enemy.
Because of our special airmobile capabilities, our unit moved frequently to different regions to combat large-scale enemy formations and this meant that we often operated in heavy jungle and mountainous terrain where we were not familiar with the terrain or the enemy. This was a significant disadvantage and in many situations our movement in dense jungle and mountainous terrain was restricted to using the narrow trails which our enemy cunningly exploited to ambush or maim us with booby-traps. These frequent deployments to different regions placed great demands on those who walked point.
In some units walking point was considered a punishment, while in others the point man was highly respected for his special skills and his role in protecting his buddies. Perhaps this diversity had something to do with the esprit de corps of the unit and it is a well-known fact that the units of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) had a high esprit de corps. And many who walked point were proud of it, for example, Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense 2013-15, often walked point for his squad during his assignment with the 9th Infantry Division in 1968.
In Bravo Company our point men received on-the-job training under the supervision of the old pros. New arrivals were not assigned point duty, many volunteered to walk point and sometimes the enemy situation required the special skills of battle-experienced old-timers. Not all missions were the same and some were more dangerous than others. In the very dangerous missions, it often happened that the old pros stepped forward and took over as point man. In fact this is what Chuck Hagel sometimes did after he became squad leader and here is his explanation from an interview in 2002: “You know what happens to a lot of point men, but I always felt a little better if I was up front than somebody else.” This was the attitude of many of those courageous troopers who walked point for Bravo Company.
Here are some personal accounts from Bravo Company troopers who walked point.
•Being a hunter before my service certainly helped when walking point; keeping a light step(noise control), careful movements, reading the terrain, listening for sounds, etc.
• I liked being on point. It gave me a better sense of control and it was a boost to my ego....I felt a sense of pride that I had been selected to be in a position of trust and that I was no longer just a newbie, but an integral part of the squad.
• Perhaps fear is one of the first emotions that those walking point would highlight, but a bit of fear can certainly heighten one's senses and increase his "situational awareness". I think I feared more about losing my arms, legs or eyesight to a booby trap than getting shot and killed.
• The stress level is certainly increased due to the personal danger, but also because one feels a sense of responsibility for the safety of the guys behind him. His decisions or lack of ability could lead to injury or death of his buddies, and that failure could be quite a burden to carry in life.
• One thing I didn't like was wearing a helmet on point. For me it distorted sounds, and the front brim reduced overhead vision and I found myself removing it frequently to improve my hearing.
• Having a reliable back-up was extremely important.
• Cutting a trail with a machete was hard work and all the noise added to the stress level.
• My own personal feeling while walking point was that if I can stay out of trouble then the company can stay out of trouble. I just needed to see trouble before it saw me. It was an act of self preservation.
• Important to emphasize that the point man relied heavily on his support members (his squad/platoon).
Prepared by Peter O’Sullivan with input from Jim Beck, Bob Hall and Gene Hedberg.
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