[March 10, 2021] “When you’re about to go into combat, you do what you gotta do. Expect the unexpected and ready yourself.” Sitting on Jonny Hancock’s porch sipping whiskey and smoking cigars, we had a conversation like no other. Jonny was giving me some leadership advice, ‘keep a bullet in the chamber [of your rifle],’ he said. In other words, be prepared.
Combat is the ultimate test of manhood. It is an age-old fact that humans are stretched to their limits when faced with an enemy intent upon killing them. To survive contact with an enemy, complete the mission, and bring your soldiers home, means that a leader must simultaneously ready his men for the physical and psychological impact of death and destruction. Still, he must also keep his head and not panic.
Sometime in early 1972, Jonny’s long-range patrol unit was part of the First Battle of Quảng Trị (part of the Easter Offensive). Unexpectedly, his patrol was cut-off and surrounded by elements of a North Vietnamese regiment. Outnumbered and outgunned, it was a desperate fight. Up to that point, the American and South Vietnamese military made progress against North Vietnamese regular units, frequently destroying them in one-sided firefights. This time it would be different, and Jonny knew it.
Jonny was new to the team but played a pivotal role by carrying an M79 grenade launcher. It was the fact that his Lieutenant had failed to do proper mission planning (the radios wouldn’t transmit in the terrain) that led to the situation unfolding that would get most of his men killed and wounded. Fortunate for his team, Jonny had taken plenty of grenade for his launcher. He was ready.
The team always traveled with extra ammunition, frag grenades, and radio batteries. Despite traveling light by taking little food and no equipment other than their weapons, ammo, and a PRC-25 radio, there was no escape from the trap set by an experienced enemy. Luckily, a South Vietnamese Marine Division saved the patrol from total annihilation.
This taught Jonny a lesson he would never forget. Be prepared. Be ready, know the basics, be ready to step into a leadership position that you may have to fill, else your men will die. Warfare does indeed test our very limits. It can consume those who live through those times with fear or, like in the case of Jonny Hancock; it can teach us that we can achieve more than we think we can. But only if we keep a bullet in the chamber.