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Burnin’ the Shit

An incident occurred about halfway through my tour of duty in Vietnam with E Co.-Recon, 1st/501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division that at the time was both serious and comical in nature. Occurring about halfway through my tour would’ve put it at around May or June of 1968. Due to attrition and other reasons I’ll not get into at this time I had been promoted to the temporary grade of Buck Sgt. and put in charge of a Recon team consisting of 7 or 8 men.

The previous 2 weeks or so had been an especially rough couple of weeks on us and we were brought out of the bush supposedly for a “stand-down” or rest. As was generally the practice, we were assigned the duty of guarding one of the bridges along Hwy 1 crossing one of the numerous rivers flowing out of the mountains west of the area between Hue and Quang Tri. I don’t recall which river it happened to have been but it wasn’t a large river by any means but at least large enough that the bridge crossing it needed security against possible sabotage by the enemy.

Bridges of any consequence usually had defensive positions constructed around them consisting of 4 to 6 heavily fortified defensive bunkers or fighting positions surrounded by a perimeter or two of concertina wire barracades interlaced with various defensive weapons such as trip flares, booby traps and claymore mines. The amenities were generally from very crude to none at all.

I was rather amazed when we occupied the positions at this particular bridge to find that in addition to the four bunkers there was a well constructed 2-hole shitter….wow! After having been out in the bush for several weeks straight this was quite a luxury. These were similar to today’s “Port-A-Potty” with one main difference….there wasn’t any “honey-pot” truck that was going to come and pump it out periodically. Standard practice was to open the trap door in the back, pull out the halved 50 gallon drums from below the seats, pour an ample amount of diesel fuel into them and…..burn the shit.

Needless to say this is quite an undesirable chore and being as my team just happened to draw the first rotation of this chore I approached it very democratically….I had my men “draw straws” as to which day it was their responsibility to….burn the shit. This being taken care of, we went about the duty of defending this bridge against possible enemy sabotage.

All was going very well and although we did still have to maintain a constant state of readiness it was less strenuous than the pressures experienced while in the bush.

On about the third day the man who’s day it was to burn the shit, a black man from some place in Alabama (and a helluva good soldier) named Arnold, came strolling up to me saying “S-S-S-arge”….he talked with a stutter….”t-t-the d-d-diesel fuel’s all out”. I said “Well Arnold, why don’t you just stop one of those P.O.L. (petroleum, oil and lubricants) trucks coming through here all day and have them fill up all the jerry cans. Shit man….they’re always stopping here anyway and partaking of our protection to have their smoke breaks”. He says “O-o-okay, S-S-Sarge” and saunters off to collect up all the 5 gallon fuel cans.

I figured that was taken care of so I turned my attention to some other concern and was at the opposite end of the bridge when all of a sudden….ka-a-woosh! There’s this horrendous explosion at the other end of the bridge right by that beautiful 2-hole shitter. At first I thought….damn, charlie zeroed in his mortars on the shitter! Then I realized….that wasn’t no mortar round. There was a huge fireball with thick black smoke just like napalm….only there’s no aircraft about. What the hell?

It turns out that Arnold stopped one of the P.O.L. trucks alright….only it wasn’t carrying diesel fuel it was carrying JP-4 Aviation fuel. I guess poor old Arnold didn’t know the difference and the driver didn’t bother to tell him. So Arnold pulled those two half-drums out, poured a bunch of fuel into them and fired up a chunk of paper to light them with. Now diesel fuel is rather slow starting kind of like charcoal lighter fluid….but JP-4. When he touched that shit off both cans blew about 20 to 30 feet in the air and Arnold about the same distance back on his ass.

At the time it wasn’t all that funny as he had some pretty nasty burns on his face and hands and we had to Med-evac him for treatment. But in a couple of weeks when he came back….then’s when we gave him some shit. He had big white splotches where he had temporarily lost his skin pigment, especially at his eyebrows and where he used to sport a pencil-thin mustache….looked like a pinto….funniest thing you ever saw and we let him know it for quite some time afterwards.

Sure would love to see him again….and perhaps tease him a bit.

Sgt. Michael “MadMonk” Bradshaw
E Co.-Recon, 1st/501st Infantry
R.V.N. Dec. 1967 to Dec. 1968

This writing was extracted form our old website.