Walking Point in Vietnam
Many of you know John L. "Johnny" Payne. He has been a fixture in the religious, military, civic, scouting, business, and athletic activities of Laurens County for most of his life. Those years he wasn't living here and contributing to our community, he was nearly half way around the world, serving our country in the jungles of Vietnam. What you may not have known is that his job was one of the most dangerous an infantry soldier could be assigned. He was the
one walking in front of a jungle patrol, the one likely to make contact with the enemy first, he was walking point."
When Sergeant Johnny Payne was walking the point, he saw green, and more green. His eyes scanned the thick jungle paths of central Vietnam for venomous vipers, slithering serpents, essentially invisible booby traps, and the elusive Viet Cong, all the while enduring horrendous eat and monotonous monsoons, not to mention the loathsome leaches.
A once famous psychic, Jeanne Dixon, predicted that Payne's unit would be wiped out in Vietnam. That very same unit had been wiped out, some ninety four years earlier. That outfit, Bravo Co., 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, fifth platoon was previously commanded by General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. "We did have some contact that day, but there were no deaths, not even any injuries," Payne remembered.
"I was very fortunate to have been born in Dexter and Laurens County, hunting and fishing," Payne asserted. " I could have had all the college degrees in the world and I could have been very skilled at reading maps, but that skill set of knowing your senses and the senses in your body came in good, " in commenting on how he was able to cope with the stress being the lead man in a jungle patrol.
As a platoon of less than thirty men moved out along trails or simply through dense trail-less jungles, one man was responsible for walking point. In Johnny Payne's platoon, the average life expectancy was from seven to ten days. The point man was usually the first person to make contact with an enemy sniper, a deadly mine or a booby trap.
Payne considering himself blessed, professed, "I wouldn't follow a trail, but we as a platoon would work off the old French trails which had a lot of movement on them." He always tried to walk through the dense jungles, stopping every once in a while to untangle himself from a "wait a minute" vine, which entangled in his uniform, his gear or his exposed skin.
"I really wanted to walk point because I felt comfortable doing it," Payne, two to three years out of high school, recalled. Walking point didn't make him proud, but he was more comfortable in the fact that some of his comrades came from New Jersey, the Bronx, Colorado and other places. Some had never fired a weapon. "I had an advantage. I walked point on my own for about five months. I pretty much volunteered," Payne added.
Crossing streams was especially difficult. At the point where the patrol was crossing, they were the most vulnerable to enemy fire. "When we got to a stream, we would never have more than one or two men in the stream when we were crossing it and then we would fan out right and left," Sgt. Payne believed as the reason his unit's casualties were kept to a minimum.
Payne soon realized that the hardest thing his unit could do would be called in to aid another unit in an existing firefight. He learned to instantly recognize and differentiate the reports of an AK-47 and an M-16. "As you got closer to the firefight, with the helicopters overhead, with the artillery support from an artillery base in the jungle or off the coast, you had to put all that into your perspective. Your senses and your ability to listen is just amazing," Payne
"Life in the jungle was a struggle, you didn't know if you would live to see the next day," Payne said. His unit would go out on patrols lasting from fifteen to twenty days, sometimes twenty-five days without a break. The unit was re-supplied every four or five days with food and if they were lucky, with treasured letters from home.
Every soldier had to adapt to the lack of sleep and the lack of food. Walking guard duty at night was expected of almost every member of the patrol. "We worked as a team, never in the same place every night," Payne said. "Once we hit the ground, your rank didn't matter. When the unit got to a camp site, everyone took part in setting up trip flares and Claymore mines along the perimeter, as well as guarding the forward and rear areas," he added.
Being in the jungle itself presented natural problems. "It rained every day at 4:00 p.m. During the monsoon season, it rained twenty-four hours a day, all week long," Payne recalled. He saw all sorts of animals that he never saw in the swamps of Rocky Creek back home in Dexter. There were cobras and bamboo vipers, too. He saw one of those little green bamboo vipers lying on his stomach one morning after waking up from a night's sleep.
Decent food was a treat. Payne remembered the Chinook helicopters dropping "Gaines Burgers," military lingo for some type of mystery meat molded into a burger. "I weighed 160 pounds, but while I was in Vietnam my stomach shrunk. When I got home, I am afraid that I disappointed my mama. She cooked a big bowl of chili. I was only able to eat half of it. I think
she died believing that she had burned it or something," Payne recalled.
Payne got an unexpected break during one patrol. Carrying the rank of private first class early in his career, Payne began his first tour of duty in Vietnam on September 1, 1970. One day, he was ordered out of the jungle to appear before a review board. Appearing in his jungle fatigues and with no bath in at least ten days, Corporal Payne was examined and sent back to the
jungle that afternoon. "The next thing I knew, I was a sergeant," he recalled.
Losing friends is always hard. Johnny lost his assistant gunner while he was carrying a machine gun. Still today, some four decades later, Johnny gets a lump in his throat as he serves as a master of ceremonies to honor veterans who gave their lives to their country. Payne said, "I get emotional. I know that somewhere out there is a gold star mother who has lost her son."
Johnny Payne returned to the United States a year after he first arrived in Vietnam. He was proud to serve in the infantry. His return to the United States was all too typical of the way veterans from Vietnam were treated. Payne and his fellow soldiers didn't come up to the tarmac after their plane landed.
"There were people standing there. I really had no understanding of what they were going to be saying or doing. They were yelling at us, throwing rocks, spitting at us. It was awful to see that happening," he recollected. Payne was puzzled. "These people didn't know. They were yelling baby killers, which is what they had seen on TV," he added.
Some people were supportive, but it took a while for Johnny Payne to once again be proud of serving his country. Today when he sees a Vietnam veteran with a cap on, he tells them that he was proud to serve with them. "Time has a way of healing thoughts. A lot of people thanked me, although some went to their graves with no thanks, except from their families," he added.
Payne says that our citizens should communicate with returning veterans. He says that all veterans are the same regardless of which war or actions they served in. "They don't want to be treated as heroes, but they do want to be treated as normal people. Don't look the other way, he requested. "The hardest of hearts needs love. It will either come in or come out," he asserted.
Payne says the cost of freedom is high. "It has been paid by so many people and it is an expensive one," he continued. "We had great needs for prayers, letters, care packages, and most of all, love and acceptance when we came home," he added. The mental anguish resulting from a war that was never won was compounded by the way in which Payne and his fellow veterans
were received. "We quietly slipped back into society as quickly as possible. Only members of our immediate families seemed to share in the secrets of our own personal wars that would now begin. Our hearts had been broken and many of our dreams had been shattered," Payne proclaimed as he gave credit to the churches and God himself.
When Johnny Payne looks back on his service in Vietnam, he is honored to have been a part of it. In fact, our country recognized his heroism with the awarding of a Bronze Star for valor, although he does not consider himself by any means a hero.
Johnny Payne was one of the lucky ones. He beat the odds. And, all of us in Laurens County who have benefitted from his deeds of public charity and acts of volunteer service are lucky that he survived.
When walking the point, Sgt. John L. Payne knew that God was there and that he could turn to Him for guidance. "There is no doubt in my mind, that God helped me not to get shot with as many firefights as I was in," he believes. In one of those firefights, Payne's helmet fell off and rolled away from him. Two hours later, he was able to retrieve it. Payne picked up his steel pot with its 19 holes, each put there by a pecking sniper believing there was a living skull
underneath it. "It was divine intervention. God was looking after me for some reason," he said.
Welcome home Johnny Payne! Thank you for your service to our country.
Walking Point (abridged)
His rifle was in perfect order,
he wasn't - fear, fear of not feeling fear,
the heat, mud, and mosquitoes
all addled his brain housing group
as he walked and thought along.
Thou shalt not kill,
that stuff didn't work here,
God must have stayed back
in the real world.
Is any of this real?
Is this a green nightmare
I'm going to wake up from?
He sang to himself as
his senses gathered evidence
of continued existence
His eyes saw, his ears heard,
his heart felt a numb nothing,
his mind analyzed it all
as he studied the trail
He amused himself as he walked along
the old story about bullets, Ha.
Don't sweat the one that's got your
name on it, worry about the one addressed:
To Whom It May Concern.
Movement!, something is moving up there!
Drop to the mud, rifle pointing at the unknown,
Looks like two of them, hunting him.
They have rifles but he saw them first.
Breathe, Relax, Aim, Slack, Squeeze.
The shooting is over in five seconds,
the shakes are over in a half hour,
the memories are over, never.