Dave’s original introduction to the Hammer’s Slammers Role-Playing game rules for Mongoose. The version as printed drops the title and was edited for length.

FIVE FIREBASES

I was very pleased when I got the materials for the Hammer’s Slammers role-playing game. The text had been written by someone familiar not only with my fiction but also with life in the military (which to me is a much more important consideration).

I like the art as well, but that leads to a different question: does it look the way I meant it to? The truth is that I write from the mental pictures I formed in the field in 1970 with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and I wasn’t thinking much about US equipment then. 

An M48 tank (for example) was something I rode on, having generally mounted by climbing the bow slope. I spent much more time looking from tanks than at them. Therefore I write from the viewpoint of people who don’t think much about the appearance of their own vehicles or fellow crewmen, and whose view of the surrounding landscape is primarily concerned with potential ambush sites and whether the fellow with the hoe in the rice paddy has a Kalashnikov hidden nearby.

The art in this booklet is fine. In a way, you’re seeing more of an armored cavalry regiment than I describe in my stories–and more also than I saw when I was a part of one.

I was an interrogator at squadron level (what would be battalion level if we’d been infantry or armor instead of armored cavalry). That meant most nights I was in the firebase with however many of the six self-propelled howitzers (Hogs) were operational, along with Headquarters Troop (which included support as well as combat vehicles) and one of the squadron’s line troops or (more often) the tank company for additional security. (Technically, this was a Fire Support Base, an FSB; I never once heard any term except firebase used until long after I’d left Viet Nam.)

I was very shut down in 1970 (and for that matter, for a lot of years after I came back to the World). I didn’t keep a journal nor did I own a camera (there’s one picture of me at the time, taken by a buddy when I was with 1st Squadron).

You see things in the field that you don’t expect until you’ve been there. Very little got through the mental shields I had up, but I’m going to mention five things that did. You won’t find them or their like either elsewhere this booklet or in my own fiction.

I don’t know where they happened or even in what order they occurred. Some were probably in Cambodia, with the rest after we withdrew into Viet Nam.

1.

Particularly during the monsoon season, the sunsets in Southeast Asia were gorgeous, although they were extremely brief compared to those I was used to in higher latitudes. One evening I was sitting outside our six-man tent, writing a letter. The sky directly above was clear, but there were low clouds on the western horizon and a huge bank of thunderheads in the eastern sky.

As the sun set, it shone through holes in the clouds to the west to throw three enormous keyhole-shaped patches of red on the eastern cloudbank. Then it went below the horizon. The sky almost instantly became blacker than you can imagine if you haven’t been in a Third-World jungle.

2.

We generally travelled by road, occasionally on four-lane concrete highways built by the US government, but we always placed our firebases in undeveloped country. Bulldozers, some with Rome Plow land-clearing blades, cut a path through the jungle and then cleared a circular area large enough for the number of vehicles involved. After clearance, the engineers threw up an earthen berm around the whole area.

The combat vehicles were placed around the berm with their bows facing outward. The command group, the Hogs, the support vehicles, and tents for people like the intelligence section (we had a trailer for the tent and gear but no vehicle of our own) were inside that ring. Everybody was pretty close together.

Each firebase was on bare dirt (generally clay; rain forest soils are very shallow) which minutes before had been a thriving jungle. The local wildlife didn’t vanish, but every new firebase seemed to have a different fauna.

One night I walked out of the tent in the dark to take a leak at the piss tube. This was a metal casing that had held the bagged charges of 155-mm howitzer propellant. Ideally the lower end was sunk into a box of gravel, but realistically nobody worried about that in the field. We displaced frequently, after all.

I could see the path by moonlight. As I approached the tube wearing flip-flops (shower sandals), something jabbed the big toe of my left foot. I yelped and hopped back inside to lantern light: there was a cut an eighth of an inch long in the toe. I was sure I’d stumbled into a coil of barbed wire.

I pulled on my boots and took care of my business, but the next morning I checked for the obstacle. There wasn’t any barbed wire, but large ants had worn a visible trail in the clay (which here had a purple cast like no dirt I’ve seen anywhere else). The trail went all around the berm.

I followed it with a can of insecticide, squirting each ant I came across. It made as much sense as anything else I was doing while I was In Country.

3.

One of our firebases had rats. Our tent was very crowded, with three cots the long way on either side and our personal gear (generally packed in boxes that had held mortar shells) underneath them. Nobody mentioned a rat coming through the mosquito netting onto him, but at night they’d crawl over the boxes, forcing their way against the canvas where the cots sagged with the weight of our bodies.

We weren’t fastidious but this was pretty unpleasant, so we set rat traps (ordinary spring traps, but much larger than the mousetraps I was familiar with). It didn’t do any good, but one afternoon while we were playing cards a trap snapped. (Banged, actually; these were big.)

We checked it. It had flipped upside down, but there didn’t seem to be anything in it. It was back in a corner behind lots of gear, and because the interior of the tent was sunk two feet down for protection we couldn’t get at it from the outside. We didn’t bother to reset it, figuring the wind had blown netting into the trigger.

Normally the squadron displaced every week, but we remained at this site three or four weeks; for all we knew, we’d still be there when we DEROSed (Date of Estimated Return from Over-Seas). Nobody tells the guys in the field anything.

The tent started to smell musty. Then very musty. We weren’t, as I say, fastidious, but very musty. Eventually we took everything out to find where the smell was coming from.

We found nothing until we removed the last item, that overturned rattrap. Beneath it, in a liquescent pool, were the delicate, still articulated, bones of a rat’s severed tail. Apparently it hadn’t been netting that set off the trap after all.

4.

One of the firebases was full of wolf spiders with leg spans of three inches and more. These spiders run down their prey like, well, wolves: they don’t use webs like most spiders or hide in holes like tarantulas.

Three of the six guys in the intelligence unit went by Mitch, so I won’t embarrass anybody by saying that Mitch said he was really afraid of spiders. I thought, well, who isn’t? I sure was.

An unusually large spider ran across the dirt floor of our tent. We all–except Mitch–jumped to our feet and shouted. Mitch froze in his folding lawn chair.

The spider ran up the inside wall of the tent, onto the sloping roof, and then stopped–directly over Mitch. We laughed. I said, “Better move, Mitch. He’s getting ready to jump on you.”

Then I realized Mitch was crying and mumbling, “Please, please. I’ll die. Please.”

I grabbed my steel pot–my helmet; they weren’t Kevlar then–and swiped the spider to the floor, then crushed it. Mitch thanked me, but I felt bad about joking. I’d never met anybody face to face with a full-blown phobia before.

5.

During the days in the field, I often sat outside the tent reading or writing letters. It was the closest thing to privacy I had at the time. There were people and moving vehicles all around, but nobody was likely to bother me. That was good enough, because it had to be.

One firebase had many praying mantises in it. I was reading a book on the roof of a trailer of some sort–it wasn’t the stake-bed that held the intelligence section’s gear, but as I said above, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to our own equipment in the field. I was probably as high a point as anything for twenty yards around.

A mantis at least six inches long landed on my left shoulder. Her body was bright green, but her wings were brown and barely translucent. I turned my head to look at her, but because of the angle I had to close my right eye to focus on her with my left: otherwise I got a headache.
She cleaned herself and waited. Eventually I went back to reading. It was painful to try to look at something so close, and nothing much was happening. She flew away after a few minutes.

So; there are five memories I brought back to the World with me. When you prepare your campaigns, keep in the back of your mind the fact that each setting has its own unique natural features. They’ll come to you even if you’re not looking for them.

I wish the only vivid memories I had of that time were those involving the natural phenomena of Southeast Asia.

–Dave Drake, March 2009