Under the Canopy

Fred Steen’s combat tours are etched in his soul. Recollections of fighting the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong guerrillas in the valleys, jungles and flatlands of Southeast Asia with the 1st Air Cavalry are vivid: stifling subtropical heat, poisonous snakes, bloodsucking leeches, a crafty and vicious enemy, and the mental strain of “old Death,” as Steen calls it – always present, always threatening to send a comrade home in a body bag or rain down on an enemy bunker.

The scenes, screams and odors of jungle warfare remain fresh in the mind of Steen, now 82 and living in Germany with wife Heidi, where he spent much of his noncombat military career. Since retiring from the Army after than 30 years in, Steen has written two books about his Vietnam War experiences, one of which is a novel classified as fiction only because he changed some names, dates and locations, he says.

His prose in “Black Knight Alfa: The Most Feared Infantry Company,” is not so much about battle plans and execution, nor does it contain stereotypes of disillusionment among U.S. troops, as do so many accounts of the war. It’s about an attitude of confidence, discipline, pride and success among smart, well-trained soldiers of multiple races fighting a common enemy in unfamiliar territory. Steen’s stories illustrate U.S. battlefield victories in a war he says “the NVA and the Cong did not win. The American soldiers sure as hell did not lose that war.”

An older noncommissioned officer at the time he was deployed to Vietnam, Sgt. 1st Class Steen was known as “Top” among the younger men, who included some of his officers. He had entered the Illinois Army National Guard several years earlier, in the twilight of military segregation, and fondly remembers singing “Jodie” with other black soldiers in a training environment that was far from colorblind. In the regular Army, he says, he pulled KP even though he was a sergeant. Combat in the Vietnam War, Steen explains in “Black Knight Alfa,” did much to change perceptions:

We had to stick together or old Charlie would be more than happy to hang us separately. Our common goal was to live, and we had a common group of enemies who were trying their best to kill us. Out there in the bush, old Death made us either brothers or dead bodies ... We were all soldiers – white soldiers, black soldiers, brown soldiers, red soldiers. The binding word is soldier.

Steen’s tours included combat leadership of a LRRP (long-range reconnaissance patrol) team that penetrated deep into enemy-occupied regions early in the war. Later, as a platoon sergeant, he learned to convert fear among his men and within himself into a resolve to beat the enemy at his own game. He remembers those men with respect and gratitude he frequently expresses in his book:

When any of my men hurt, I hurt. When one of them died, I died. We walked through hell together, and I would do it again and again if necessary. May God bless them all, wherever they are today.

More than 40 years have passed since Steen came eyeball to eyeball with the enemy he refers to only by nickname, but his opinion of North Vietnamese forces remains the same as it was when he was in theater. “My thoughts of Charlie then and now are unprintable,” he said in a recent interview with The American Legion Magazine. A member of Post GR06 in the Department of France, Steen discussed his wartime experience and why he felt compelled to write about it.

You describe “Black Knight Alfa” as a novel based on true stories. What percent is true, and what percent is story?
All of the stories are true. The story part relates to providing the reader with the (fictionalized) names of the main characters.

From the time you entered the Army, you had a desire to go straight into combat. Why?
I had stood with my soldier brothers in the sunshine during training. In the war, I was determined to stand with them in the shadows, if that was God’s will. I had to go to Vietnam, and I was determined to stand beside my brothers on the line.

At that time, did it matter to you that acceptance of black combat soldiers was a breakthrough in the military?
My lifetime wish was to be a soldier. From the beginning of the war in Vietnam, my soldier brothers were going to join the fighting. We, the black men, had always fought for our country. Remember Crispus Attucks, March 5, 1770.

The rapidly growing freedom movements were taking place back home in America, and those of us black soldiers were fighting like hell to
stay alive.

The timing of the fighting back home was very difficult for all of us at that time. We were already fighting. During the early civil rights movement, the black soldiers were still undermined, enslaved in a way. This was an untruth perpetrated by racists: that a colored man could not be a good soldier, that he was dumb, incapable of being a true man and a good soldier. Our old detractors had raised their voices, trying to keep us down. We had long ago proven that they were not telling the truth. And so the war in Vietnam was the right time for Katie to bar the damn door – the time for the black soldier to take his rightful place in the strong line right behind the call to glory ... duty, honor, country.

But I guess folks were hearing what they wanted to hear, even though it wasn’t all true. I was in more than one company and led a LRRP, and we did not smoke pot through the barrels of our shotguns or any other way. We were truly brothers in arms. And if we wanted to stay alive, skagging was not the way. With us, my life depended on the soldiers on the line beside me. We didn’t have time for doing drugs. We spent our time together staying alive.

What about the anti-war movement during your time in Vietnam and after?
American public opinion and opposition to the war did not trouble me at the time because I was a soldier, dedicated to the government of the people, by and for the people. I took an oath, and I stood by that oath, all the way up to this very second. But yes, it does hurt whenever I hear someone bad-mouthing us Vietnam vets. That’s why I wrote “Black Knight Alfa.”

What is the image that comes to mind when you think about your wartime enemies?
Charlie was not incompetent in battle and killed a lot of Americans. In truth, his competence was based mainly upon his being able to hide behind the skirts of women. And yes, our incompetence in not being able to find him in his underground ratholes. The truth is that Charlie did not win the Vietnam War.

So much of your recollection of the war is set “under the canopy,” where some horrific fighting occurred. Why?
Sometimes it was damn spooky, constantly dark, and we had to hold onto our minds to keep from blowing what little we had left all to hell. We had to trust each other and our ability to fight and, most importantly, to win.

We knew it for sure that old Charlie was just as restricted as we were. And, yes, in most cases he had the advantage because the damn canopy was his, in his jungle. Old Charlie had read our manuals and knew the restrictions about having mask clearances before shooting our mortars. He didn’t know how we had perfected the use of our thump guns. When they jumped us, we continually came up with new ways to make them back off or to run like hell.

We learned to make the canopy work for us, to use the eerie darkness on our behalf. Sometimes the heat or humidity was our worst enemy. Under the canopy was where trust and teamwork stood out for us. And it was proof positive that we could fight old Charlie and beat him at his own game. He couldn’t scare us into submission. Teamwork and the unbreakable will to survive was our mainstay ... oh, and I cannot forget that magnificent little Claymore anti-personnel device. We tried real hard not to do the same thing over and over again. Sometimes we simply disappeared just like old Charlie was said to be able to do. In our case, we had it down to an exact science.

We were in contact or firefights with Charlie almost daily, nights included. During those times, all of us had accepted the cold hard fact that “I” could be next on that medevac flight out of here. And so our frame of mind was adjusted to that fact. I was not a stranger to old Death. I had learned the dignity of our troopers and, yes, I was asking God to let me go out with the same dignity.

When you were in Vietnam, experiencing all this, why did you make a vow to one day write about what really happened?
It seemed that most books about the American soldiers fighting the war were written by officers and civilian reporters. I was only a sergeant first class, and without a diploma for anything. It appeared to me that some kind of diploma or higher education was required, and I was fresh out of diplomas. I just wanted to tell our stories to the world ... about all of our American soldiers, of those proud Americans who stood together and held the line.

All of my stories and work come directly from my road and my will to leave a scratch on the wall of my cave. In my heart, I only wanted to set the record straight and to say that my troopers were, and still are, the best ever.

My country allowed me to walk through the valley of death with the best men this world has ever witnessed. I am blessed that I knew them.

Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.