The morning oozed in gray and wet. The monsoon sky at high tide. Clouds so wet, so low that you can feel them cold on your neck.
Push off your cover. A banana leaf. Banana leaf and the clammy rubber spread of your poncho. Up and out of your best friend: A hole four by three. A friend that embraces you each night. “Incoming!” A friend you can depend on.
First order of business — get the leeches off your ankles. A squirming, uncomfortable business that takes the place of toast and eggs in the morning. Breakfast. Ham and eggs in a can. In a can! Yeah, would you believe it? I’m not complaining though. Sure beats the sugar cane you have to depend on sometimes. Good stuff for your teeth.
It’s about 6:30am on what day, what week? Your fatigues are plastered on you from the rainwater that you’ve laid in all night. Ya know, you hear all the stories about the reeking heat and sweat of a jungle. True, but nobody tells you of the cold. Try about 40° soaking wet and there go your images of Wayne with that ever-present sweat-streaked green T-shirt under the broiling sun of Iwo.
The rest of the platoon starts to come to life. An eerie sight in the gray light to watch the cast of this bloody show rising up out of their graves. Excuse me, foxholes. Each morning is like a graveyard come to life. The green clad zombies rise up from their holes after a night of troubled rest. I was a teenage zombie. I was a teenager.
The sounds of a combat platoon making ready stumbling around in the mist. The clink and chunk of equipment. The squelch of a radio. The knocking around of C Ration cans that even sound like their olive drab color. The strong click of ammo magazines secured in the bellies of rifles. The slosh of canvas boots in mud. The diesel roar of a tank engine revved up. The shouts of sign/countersign as the night ambush patrol sleepwalks its way back inside the platoon perimeter. The stink of sterno heating food.
Your mental calendar clicks off another 24-hour check. Another day gone.
You know the schedule; you could set your watch by it as they say. A day (day during monsoon is the sick younger sister of night) patrol of six clicks. Clicks being clicks on a compass. A click will cover a grid on a map. A grid is a thousand meters. Six clicks, six thousand meters (almost four miles).
Get ready to go. Commands are not necessary. We’ve been at this business for some time now. We’re at work. You don’t need to be ordered up to catch your train. You tie your tie, comb your hair, fill your lunch box. Do what you do to get ready for your workday. Your body is on automatic pilot. The gears grind slow but don’t stop.
Load up. You pick up smoke grenades, flares, extra grenades, help with M60 ammo. For you laymen — or is it luckymen? — M60 is the government designation for that good old holder of hills, the machine gun. Get some plastic explosive. If the patrol turns out to be one of the saner ones (a sane one being where no shoulders are torn by bullets, no legs are shattered by mines, no families are subtracted from), where you spend the day only ankle deep in water, you can blow up a few tunnels or hooches that you’ve blown up a dozen times before.
“Squad leaders up!” This was the somewhat formal military announcement that the platoon commander wants to see the squad leaders. The platoon commander, generally a first or second Lieutenant, is priest to our alter boys. A first Lieutenant, Lt. Centers, is our boss. He’s a mustang. An enlisted man who was promoted to officer rank for our little green hoe-down in the Orient. A good man by Marine Corps standards. The Marine Corps is in the business of death, so you judge what those standards are.
He has a large purple birthmark that shades the left side of his face. He is very lean. The birthmark has made his lips protrude and given them a rubbery, bulbous appearance. His face carries a permanent scar. Top hat and tails in a combat zone. He wants to win the Silver Star.
We gather round him in a small bullet-pocked pagoda. A religious building of some kind. A building of bad complexion from the bullet holes. This 7.62 caliber acne seems to have spread to all the buildings in our patrol area.
A different kind of service is taking place in the pagoda. We, the four squad leaders, gather at the feet of the high priest. Believe me, an officer in the Corps is all-wise, all-powerful, and all dry. Lt. Centers and his court have spent the wet night high and dry in the pagoda. Rank has its privileges. Rank also has dry socks and underwear.
Around Lt. Centers are his ranking Sancho Panza. Hate still comes to mind when I think of them. Senior Sancho is the platoon sergeant. For the life of me, I can’t remember his name. I remember for sure that he doesn’t care for my brother. I’ll tell you about this later. He is short and round with black hair. A drinker with a stupid mind. In his green fatigues he had the appearance of an olive. He did nothing to help us. A mortal sin in combat.
Next on the Sancho ladder is the platoon guide. Nameless also. Platoon guide was generally in charge of logistics — getting our food, our mail, all supplies in general. He was a “me-first” type. A hanger on. A coward. An incompetent who was eventually found out and removed. A coward in the sense that he would never help or be counted on for our support in an environment that was made somewhat bearable by mutual courage, understanding and sharing. By courage I don’t mean taking a hill at all costs or pulling out a fallen comrade under fire, which we did, but rather the courage to accept the grind, the grime, the exhaustion, the fear, the hard work, the doubts of day to day life at war.
Last but not least, the platoon radioman. Mordred with radio. A whisperer, a lackey. A man of our rank who did not share our daily discomfort. The easy way out type. He thought himself better than us. The head secretary whose the boss’s power has rubbed off on.
Maps are brought out from trouser pockets for briefing. The briefing will cover each squad’s patrol assignment for the day, what our call signs (patrol designation) will be, if we will be taking a corpsman (if available) with us, if we will take an M60 team with us, enemy activity information, time of departure, expected time of return and various other details pertaining to a squad size patrol.
There are four squads to a platoon. Each squad will have an individual job to deal with. I’m squad leader of the first squad. I am squad leader by process of elimination. Everyone else has been wounded. First squad No. 1 was hit in the back by a mortar on a small scrubby hill near Dung Ha. That’s up north in North Vietnamese Army Country. A bitch of an area. First squad leader No. 2 tripped a booby trap in a hut in the patrol area we are now in. Two miles north of Hill 55. Some miles west of Da Nang.
We all have doubts about his wound. We think he set off one of his own grenades and showed just enough of himself to get a going-away-present wound. You may think that’s a little crazy but I know a guy who shot off his thumb with a pistol to get out of the fight. I used to see guys with open sores putting jelly in them to attract flies. Get them infected and get out of there. War isn’t the senior prom. Strange things are seen and done.
Last we heard of a squad leader with the grenade, he was folding sheets in a laundry in Okinawa. Funny thing, though, even though I’ve been In Country long enough to know my fears and felt my own piss, shit and tears staining me, I don’t envy him. I have a responsibility to my squad and to myself. I’m no hero, but I can’t and won’t shirk my responsibilities. Call it stupidity, call it blind indoctrination by the Marine Corps. Right or wrong, I’m here. My self-pride, my honor, are at stake for sure. Misery loves company. We got plenty of misery. Others can take it. I can take it. I’m a responsible person trying to deal rationally with my responsibilities in an irrational, bone-weary, harrowing environment. Squad leader No. 2 felt he needed to get out and did so. I feel the burning need to get out, but when? When? God keep me safe.
On my map I outline the day’s patrol route given to me by Lt. Centers who received it from the company HQ, who received it from battalion, who received it from regiment, who received it from division, and General Walt begat General Green who begat General Westmoreland who begat General Abrams.
My squad’s patrol will be the day’s long one. The other three squads will split up the short day patrol, the night ambush patrol (watch out you don’t get ambushed yourself — by friend or foe), and the day’s perimeter duty. It is all done on a rotation basis so we all get a piece of the pie, the plum being perimeter duty. You sit in your hole, cook C rats, think of home, mentally fuck a few girls (you don’t go after any women over here after the stories of razor blades, grenades and black syph up their snatch), write a few letters, think of home, watch the patrols drag out, glad you’re not going, watch the patrols drag in, glad you didn’t have to go, think of home. And that’s the duty.
The idea of the daily patrols is to close with the enemy and destroy him. Very prim and proper military terminology. You know what we’ll do on patrol in this area? We’ll work, just work. We’ll walk and walk through the mud, our pack straps grinding into our shoulders. We will be sniped at off and on for a few hours. Maybe trip a booby trap here and there. If we are lucky, no one will get hit. It’s almost as if the countryside is mechanized. Little machines that pop and fire a few rounds at us then pop back down. Seeing Mr. Charles, oh yes, Mr. Charles; when you’ve seen an F-4 Phantom jet drop a symphony of ordnance on a concentration of VC and they come up shooting, you gain some respect for the enemy.
As I was saying, seeing Mr. Charles (the VC are usually referred to as Charlie) is a chancy matter. Closing with the enemy around here is having the good fortune (?) of maybe catching him asleep in a hut or in a shell hole. From there you go into your basic combat formations and maneuvers. The whole squad, be it ten, eleven or twelve men all open fire at once. You quickly turn him or her into something that once resembled a living thing. We caught one in a ditch one morning. He was asleep, his weapon beside him. We shot him with an M79 Grenade Launcher. An M79 fires small hand grenades. He was hit in the chest by it. He blew up and our patrol was a success. One less Communist. One less skinny little guy.
Lt. Centers finishes up the briefing by giving us our call signs. Today my squad will be Alpha 1. Our platoon designation is Alpha. The platoon commander is referred to as Alpha Actual. Actual is defined as existing in reality or in fact. As I’ve said, Centers wanted to win the Silver Star. Anyone with that as a goal was definitely not existing in reality or fact. In fact, existing we were, but not in reality.
The Lieutenant’s morning hot chocolate has been prepared by the radioman.
“Here you go, sir.”
“Oh good, thanks. Everyone got everything right? OK. Move out.”
We fold our maps and stuff them in our side pockets.
“Make sure everyone has on their flak jackets,” are his parting words.
Flak jackets would have been a very in fashion during Neanderthal time. They are a nylon vest with fiberglass inserts. A somewhat doubtful commodity. Brother, if you get hit by a round or trip a booby trap your bones can enjoy come plastic along with the metal. We wear them because we are told to wear them. Sometimes I think that’s how they got their name, flak jacket — from all the flak you have to take from the higher ups about them. Believe it or not, there is a dress code for our war. A rifle must be carried in a certain way. Chinstraps on helmets must be fastened at all times. Grenades must be hung just so. Watch that hair. Can’t have it peeking from under the helmet. We are here to kill! You bastards! Don’t taunt us with the nitpicking of barracks life. We’re worn out, afraid, disgusted. Please don’t have a rifle inspection after we’ve seen a helicopter shot down, a woman’s body float by us in the river. Did our appearance help Kilkenny with no head left? Did Shomoto’s chinstrap matter with a chunk of iron in his forehead? Kraft had his rifle slung just right when he got his leg blown off. Look good troops. Young blood mixing with the brown rice paddy water. “My God, God help me!” Look good troops. “Corpsman, help me, Corpsman!” Look good troops. A bloody stump. Puking. Look good troops.
The time is now about 0800. Time to mount up the squad (get them ready). There’ll be twelve of us. Ten men in the squad counting myself and the radioman. A two-man M60 team will be with us. A little short on corpsmen this week so we’ll be our own doctor. Our corpsmen come to us from the Navy. Something happens to them when they get around Marines. They get juiced up for combat and forget their primary duty of medical assistance. They (the ones attached to our platoon) played at war and suffered the consequences.
The squad is lying in a circle in the courtyard outside of the pagoda. Everyone is propped up against his pack, head nodding. You catch some winks when you can. You average about two or three good hours of sleep a night. What with the rain, the night ambush patrol, perimeter watch, sniper fire, shadows, artillery fire and anxiety, you don’t exactly drift off into dreamland.
“OK, everyone up. Everyone pick up some M60 ammo.” They stagger to their feet. Each man files past the ammo box peeling out a belt of ammo. It goes into packs or across shoulders. The platoon radioman peeks his head out of the pagoda window.
“The Lieutenant says all M60 ammo will be carried in the packs. Nothing over the shoulder.”
“OK, you heard the man” — (“and fuck you too buddy,” to myself).
The twelve of us shuffle around into the positions that a well-rehearsed combat squad knows all too well. We’ve all been to this dance before. We line up in single file. Point fire team (three-man team) up front. Myself and the radioman next. Machine gun team behind us. Another three man team behind them and a two man team bringing up the rear.
Equipment sagging and bulging from all of us. Canteens, ammo magazines (as many as you can possibly carry), hand grenades, smoke grenades, flares, plastic explosive, radio battery, food, compass, map, binoculars, knife. An Army and Navy store that walks. The cherry on top of this green, metal cake is your M14 rifle.
No physical variation between us. We all look pale, about 160 pounds. Just green sagging shapes. Our tools hanging from us. A row of dead, green trees bearing vile fruit.
Did you ever go into an old barn or junk shop and find an old tool chest? The tools always look so old, rusted and tired. Just a mount of metal shapes. Lumps, ridges and edges with no definite character. Heavy and cumbersome. A jumble of hard stillness. No sharp edges. Just blunt points. Our immersion foot (sore from too much time in water), jungle rot, stubble of beard, pale, wet skin is our rust. Rifle muzzle, grenades, ammo magazines, stares, our hard stillness. Dealing in death making us old.
“Let’s go. Move out.” Our platoon is surrounded by a few coils of concertina wire. The concertina wire has a small lane through it that we use to leave and enter the area. Concertina. What a pretty name for barbed wire.
The first fire team moves out past our platoon’s doormat. A dead VC. His intestines are piled neatly on his stomach like pale white balloons. A gut shot. No one has thought to remove him. A north, south, east, west, cong, un-cong? Who knew, just dead. One lone dead body. In this part of the country he’s like an hors d’oeuvre compared to the main course carnage we’ve seen up north. Someone must have shot him during one of our “mad minutes.” A well-named span of 60 seconds when the entire perimeter opens fire, destroying anything that chances to be in front of our position. “Mad Minutes” have made rock apes (found in the northern regions) and water buffalo endangered species.
His body lays there. Our platoon’s grisly trophy.
“Spread it out, keep your distance.” Each man tries to keep five yards between himself and the man to his front. We know from experience what a booby trap can do if we are bunched up.
“Booby trap.” Now there’s a clever little name. What do you think of when you think of a booby? The class ass, right? Dunce cap and all. Ha! Ha! You get the booby prize. You get your thigh separated from your torso so you bleed to death. Finley, you booby, look what you’ve done. You’ve gotten your body torn by shrapnel, naked, lying in the mud, your penis severed. You’ll die in the med-evac (medical evacuation) helicopter. What a booby. Booby trap. A rose is a rose, my fucking ass.
The area we patrol in is a vast liquid patchwork of rice paddies, elephant grass, soaking wet meadow areas and bamboo. Little villages and isolated buildings float like islands in this brownish, green sea. There is constant VC activity in this area. They snipe, set booby traps, mine the roads, make life here an edge of your seat affair. You’re always waiting for something to happen. Usually we are not disappointed. We patrol constantly but they are always there. We’ll patrol a road one day. Next morning an Am-Trak (Amphibious Tractor) will roll over a mine. These guys got guts. All the mechanized power the US can throw against them and they come up swinging in their shorts and pajamas.
My brother happened to be on one of these Am-Traks one day, which relates back to my platoon sergeant not liking him. My brother Bob was a sergeant in what’s known as radio relay. The name speaks for itself. They would pick up a radio signal and through their equipment transmit it further along. He decided to pay me a visit at the patrol base camp that I was operating (“Nurse, hand me my fragmentation grenade’) from. During monsoon, all the world is mud. Imagine existing in a world made of jello and you have monsoon mud. The only vehicles that could operate were these land bound sea vehicle Am-Traks. Each day one would come down from our battalion base camp, Hill 55, to resupply us. Bob hitched a ride on one coming down. This particular day my squad was scheduled for the long day patrol. I begged off with the excuse that my brother, whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, was paying me a visit. Our platoon sergeant had to take out the patrol. It gave me a chuckle to see that fat shit having to finally bust his ass. He was pissed and I loved it. Well, it turned out that my brother never made it. The Am-Trak he was on got blown out from under him by a mine and he was pinned down by sniper fire all day. Another Am-Trak and some Otters (other amphibious vehicles) came down and got everyone back up to the hill. A chancy social life below Hill 55. Believe me, I wasn’t too broken up about not seeing him. Getting out of that patrol was reward enough.
Our food came down on these resupply runs so you can see how that sugar cane I mentioned came in handy sometimes.
The point fire team leads out in file. The area to our immediate front is a clear grassy area approximately 200 yards across. Beyond it is a grove of bamboo. Real, Oriental bamboo. The only bamboo any of us have seen was on the menu of a Chinese restaurant.
The bamboo is not too thick. You can see beyond it to the open expanse of rice paddies where we will be traveling.
As the point fire team moves out into the open area they spread out into a sloppy inverted V or wedge formation. A formation to keep a good interval between ourselves. Interval will limit a sniper’s targets. He or she will get somebody but by that time the rest of us will be cheek to earth. It’s a sinister lottery we play on patrol. Someone out there is staring down a rifle sight at you. You walk and wait. Someone is going to get it.
The thing I remember most about someone getting wounded was not the pain but rather the surprise on their face. It’s me, I got shot. Oh God, I’m hit, me, I’m hit! You know there is always a chance, but you never expect it to happen to you. You see someone else go down. You’re sad and elated. You feel bad for his wounds but you feel relief that it wasn’t you. No matter how close you are or how much you have come to depend on and respect each other, it will always be better him than me. His face is shot away. That can’t happen to me. A friend, yes, but I’m still whole.
The lead team has reached the bamboo as the rest of the squad has fanned out in the field. We move like a caterpillar. The whole body in motion but moving in sections.
The lead team clears the bamboo and waits on the edge of the first rice paddy. They are sitting on a dike, their backs to me. I move up with the radioman to their position. I pull my map out from my trouser pocket. The map is covered in plastic to protect it from the water. I should be so lucky. On the map in black grease pencil I have the patrol route marked out. The patrol route has been drawn out on the map the night before the patrol. The route is set by compass azimuth and map coordinates. It should go something like this. “Follow 230 degrees to coordinates such and such. From there follow 160 degrees to coordinates whatever.” The degrees are followed by the use of the compass. The compass allows you to plot your exact patrol route on the map.
The route we will follow on this patrol forms a box with an open bottom. Straight out, over to the right, then straight down to the right.
From our position on the rice paddy dike I shoot the azimuth with the compass. I move the compass till its needle is resting on the degree reading we want to follow. Of all responsibilities of a squad leader, this is most important. You must be on your pre-arranged patrol route. Your greatest weapon in this war is the armament you don’t carry with you. It is the artillery and mortar emplacements situated in rear support areas. Our support area being Hill 55. You must, must be able to pinpoint your location and be able to direct their fire to a target. Artillery saves your bacon so you better know how to prepare the skillet. You have got to be proficient with that compass. You get a lot of on-the-job training. When someone is trying to blow you away, believe me, you learn to use that little tool. If I had a lucky charm, it was that compass. A satanic tool. With it and of course the radio, I could call on all the destructive technology of war. Artillery, naval gunfire, jets, gunships — you name it and this little tool could bring it.
A satanic tool that could deliver up an angel. The compass kept you on course. You had to be where you should be when this angel came to get you. An angel. The med-Evac helicopter. St. Michael the Arch Angel, St. Joan of Arc. An angel in battle dress that would come to us in our most desperate hour. Our hour of wounded. Somewhere I think someone once said that, “So few never gave so much to so many.” To all helicopter crews, my thanks. They rescued us from blood and fear, exposing themselves to both whenever, however or wherever we called on them. A courageous group. I know you’ve heard stories of helicopters firing on their own troops. True, I’ve seen it. Listen, war is not choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Mistakes are made. Ask the US Congress about the Tonkin Gulf resolution. My thanks to angels who delivered us from evil many a time.
I fold the lid of the compass over its glass face. I place it back in its carrying case that hangs around my neck. I make a sighting for the point team. “See that old, burnt out hooch beyond the elephant grass? Head for it.”
Off the dike and into the ooze of the rice paddy. A rice paddy leech, long and brown, slithers by. “Please don’t ever let one of them get on me,” I think to myself.
The point team gets out about 20 yards ahead of me and forms their inverted V. The radioman and I move into the water. We’re in the open now. The M60 team has replaced us on the dike. It’s like leap frog. One unit moves ahead, the next moves into its position. The burnt out hooch we’re headed for is about a half mile away across wide, open, wet ground. We’ve been sniped at in this area before. We move forward till the entire squad is in the rice paddy. When I see that the entire squad has cleared the bamboo I yell for a halt. We all kneel in the water. I notify the platoon commander that we’re out and moving.
Behind us runs a curtain of bamboo that ends at a river off to our left about two miles. There is a small town on the river. It is another platoon’s patrol responsibility. Beyond the river a mountain range is barely visible through the rain. To our right about a mile is Hill 55 (so named for its elevation), battalion headquarters. Anyone on the hill to the right can look down and watch our little parade. Below the hill to the right we can make out the SeaBees at work on a new bridge that will enable our battalion to expand our patrol area beyond a nameless river. I don’t envy them. And believe me, when you don’t envy someone in a combat zone, they got it bad. As the bridge expands, they decrease. They are perched high on their bridge, sitting ducks for snipers. The bridge moves ahead. So do the casualties. Both sides do their work well. To our front is an expanse of rice paddies dotted with patches of elephant grass, broken by an island of bamboo with a group of huts fenced in by the bamboo. We have been this way before, so the terrain is not new to us.
There is no sense of enjoying the countryside visually. The countryside is lethal. You endure it, you don’t enjoy it.
There are paths that will lead you around the rice paddies but you’re just asking for a bamboo spike in your foot if you travel one of them. At times we will walk along the rice paddy dike. This is usually done out of exhaustion. Constantly walking in mud and water will get to you eventually. We’ll get up on them and keep our fingers crossed. A dike is what its name implies. It’s a low wall of earth that encloses the rice crop. The rice paddies are all interconnected by these dikes. They can make for a nerve tingling causeway.
“OK, move!” Up and moving towards the first checkpoint. The hooches behind the bamboo. Checkpoints have been prearranged on the map. Checkpoints are of course what they say. You make radio contact, informing the platoon commander that you’ve reached a certain point.
We move across the rice paddies pulling our boots from the wet mud. I wonder who these fields belong to? Will they mind us trudging through their harvest? I feel a certain shame about tramping on other people’s property. Who tends these fields? Women, children, old men? This is a foreign planet we are on. Evolution is from child, to woman, to old man. A whole race begat by femininity, extreme youth, or extreme age. No young male adults. Young male adults are like vermin. When they appear, they are to be shot. To be exterminated. They are the deadly ones. They carry the pox. Is there romance here? Is there love? Do families plan and save? Do men boast while women primp? Is there life or just some strange sterile creation?
The lead fire team reaches the first patch of elephant grass. It’s about 60 yards through it. We’ll wait till they clear it and come out the other side. Elephant grass is so named because of its size. It grows to well over six feet. It’s yellowish in color, straight, thick and sharp. It always reminded me of the palm you’d receive in front of the church on Palm Sunday. Walking, or rather, tramping and hacking your way through elephant grass was like trying to go to out via an “in” subway turnstile that’s been sharpened. It was a bitch. It sliced up your hands and face. It tugged at your equipment. It grew up out of the mud and water. You slogged in the mud pushing and shoving your way through it. It sucked up your energy. It hid the enemy.
We can now see the first team on the other side of the grass. They are kneeling in the water catching their breath. The radioman and I are up and moving into the grass. The first ones through do the work. A path for the rest of us is open in the elephant grass. The grass has been forced down into the water. It makes the going a lot easier. It’s like a mat that supports us.
As we come out of the grass the three man team up front is just stepping up from the water onto dry, packed ground of the hooch area. They are about 30 yards ahead of us. They sideways themselves through a row of bamboo that acts as a natural fence around the hooches. Stay off the paths. We’ve patrolled this area before. We foolishly used the paths with no problems. Us veterans learned a lesson not too long ago.
We were on a platoon size patrol through a village area. The terrain forced us into a single file walking in a small stream. Joe Kraft was leading the squad. The squad ahead of us had moved up to their left out of the stream through an opening in the bamboo. It led into the courtyard of a stone house. The opening in the bamboo was like a gate in the fence. The first squad passed through it OK. We bunched up hurrying to get out of the water. Joe stepped up into the gate. He stepped on a “bouncing betty” mine. A mortar shell that bounces in the air and explodes. I was at the rear of the squad. I heard the thump of the explosion and the black smoke. Then the screams. One man wounded in the chest, one man dead, another would die and Joe lying in the courtyard dying. We all remember Joe screaming to his God. We see his boots sticking out from under his poncho shroud. Joe was a good guy. We stay off paths.
I turn around to make sure the rest of the squad is moving up OK. The M60 team is into the elephant grass. Through the break in the grass I can see the remainder of the squad kneeling in the paddy water waiting to move up. I keep an eye on them. I’m in charge. I give the orders. They respect me. I respect them. I direct the patrol route. I direct the artillery fire. I call the helicopters. I clip the dog tags from around their dead necks. I have killed. I can fight. I can run. I’ve acted boldly. I’ve cowered. I flunked and frolicked with the class of ’64. I was too shy to get laid. I had a crew cut. I’m a corporal going on sergeant. I’m different. I’m 19.
The radioman (a black guy named Raby) and I step up out of the water onto hard ground. There are three hooches on this small island. One off to our left. One to our front and one off to our right. These hooches have circular dimensions. The roof is a thatched material, probably bamboo or elephant grass. There is a circular supporting base of poles that support the roof. The thatch material used on the roof is interwoven between the poles to make the walls. They are generally sparse and clean on the inside. Straw mats on wooden frames for beds. A table and some rough wooden chairs make up the furniture. Oil burning lamps furnish the light. Tools and a few handmade decorations adorn the walls. Straw baskets for rice are scattered around. Straw or bamboo, I’m not sure. The general neatness and cleanliness of these hooches is luxurious compared to the mud and the filth of the holes and bunkers we live in. The ground here is packed hard. It feels good under our feet. Your whole body breathes a sigh of relief. Feels good to be on something solid after the liquid hiking we’ve just done.
The hooches rest atop a mound that perches them above the rising monsoon water. Only one of hooches is habitable. The other two have been scarred up by artillery fire. We’ve been this way before.
No one is around. Eating utensils are out on the table. Bowls, a fire-darkened pot and a few cups. When we first arrived in this area there were always a few women and kids in these hooches. We’ve been sniped at from here. Where haven’t we been sniped at? These hooches have paid the price of the sniping. We come, they go. Can’t say as I blame them. We ain’t the Avon lady. We’re not bringing them Bob Hope. When we open fire, we don’t discriminate. Anyway, they may be the ones sniping at us.
People say you can get used to anything. Can you? We’re here for a year and it’s a ball buster. These people are here. Hey Jap, hey Frenchy, hey Joe! We’re just another in a deck that continually deals them a bad hand. The people we meet are two kinds. The ones we are killing and the ones we might. The old, the female, the kids receive us with s stoic complacency. Practice makes perfect, I guess. They stare at us. They sometimes nod or bow, automatically reaching for their government ID cards. There is no dialogue. A grim fairy tale. I was lost in the land of mime. Oh sure, the kids will jump and shout, yell for candy, cigarettes or C rations. Rats will squeak in a garbage heap.
Servicemen located in rear support areas such as Da Nang deal with the population in a totally material and erotic atmosphere. A combat platoon deals with them in a suspicious, confrontational relationship. We gape at each other. Oriental and Uncle Sam manikins in the show window of our non-war. We live it for a while. They live it. How?
Raby and I clank down on a small plank bench in front of the hooch. With all the equipment we carry, you don’t exactly sit down. You kind of begin the process of sitting down and let the weight of your ammunition, water, and pyrotechnic accessories drag you down onto your ass or back. I take off my helmet, my flak jacket; remove my binoculars and compass. Even with the rain, my back is soaked with sweat. Raby struggles out of the radio and places it on the bench between us. The radio is draped in his poncho to protect it from the rain. The handset is wrapped in clear plastic for the same purpose. Raby pulls an orange from his trouser pocket and starts to peel it. The M60 team is just coming through the bamboo fence. I yell to them to watch out for the sharp points of the bamboo. I’ve got a slice on my forearm from a jagged edge of bamboo when Raby and I squeezed through. It will match the one on my other arm real well.
The courtyard of the hooch is about 20 yards across. The M60 team moves across to the bamboo that fences off the far side. The gunner snaps open the bipods on the gun and lays it gently on the ground. Machine gunners treat their weapon with respect and affection. Dragoon with sabre. He pulls off his pack and flak jacket. He lays them on the ground and sits on it. The M60 is pointed through the bamboo to the open expanse to his front. The A-gunner (assistance gunner) does the same, then snaps a belt of ammo into the breech of the gun.
The lead team is checking out the hooch to our left. As I said, we’ve been through here before. No sniper fire generally means a quick look around before we move on. “Fire in the hole,” is yelled by one of the team. We hear a dull thump as a grenade goes off in a cellar underneath the hooch. We do this in case there is someone in it, which there usually isn’t. Also we’ve become used to the sounds of war we can create and our ability to destroy. Anyway, we carry enough ordnance to make the Continental Army drool so why not use it?
I call in the first checkpoint.
“Alpha Actual, this is Alpha One.”
“This is Alpha Actual.”
“Be advised that Alpha One has reached checkpoint one.”
“Roger Alpha One, this is Alpha Actual out.”
“Alpha One out.”
I talk to the platoon radioman. I can see him with his back propped up against the pagoda wall drinking a cup of hot chocolate and eating a piece of C ration pound cake. I hate his guts.
The second fire team has moved up onto the hooch mound. I motion to them to go down to their right and check out the other hooch. The two-man team trailing the squad splashes up out of the rice paddy. They squeeze through the bamboo. They strip off their equipment, take a seat and face out back the way we have just come.
We’ll be here a few more minutes as the second fire team checks out the other hooch and I check the compass reading on the map. This reading will steer us to our next checkpoint.
Raby has his orange peeled. He pulls it in two and consumes it in two bites, washing it down with some water from his canteen. I’m eating a Hershey bar that I also wash down with water from my canteen. Generally you carry two canteens with you on patrol. The extra canteen adds some extra weight to your already heavy load but believe me, the extra weight is worth it when your body is forever yearning for water. The water has a chemical (from the purification tablets) and rubber taste (from the rubber canteen) but it’s Chateau Rothschild on each swallow. Even in the wet season you consume oceans of water. You dehydrate quickly in this climate so next to your ammo, water is your body’s best medical insurance. I’ve seen guys go on patrol with a five gallon fuel can filled with water strapped to their backs on a pack board. If you run out, you drink water from the rice paddy. Your body craves it constantly. You can’t be picky. Bathwater (used type) is a mountain stream compared to some of the water we drank. You notice that I didn’t say forced to. Believe me, there were times when a puddle in the road not only looked but tasted just fine. War is hell alright, but war is also crap. The crap you eat, the crap you drink. You decide whether you want to eat and drink shit or turn into a heap of pale, exhausted, malarial shit.
The two fire teams that were checking the hooches move back into the courtyard area. Thumbs down from both fire team leaders. They move into line right and left of the M60 team. They don’t bother to take off their packs. We’ll be moving shortly. They get down into a position so the pack will push up off the ground and relieve the pull on their shoulders. It looks like someone lying on a chaise lounge with an M14 for a fan.
“Saddle up. Let’s go. Second fire team, take your point.” The squad pushes themselves to their feet pulling on their gear. I walk down behind second team. The lead or point team now will be changed. The fire team that had the point will now move in behind the M60 team in the squad formation. The point team is where all the fun is. We like to make sure we all get a chance to get shot at or blown up first.
I shoot the azimuth. Through the binoculars I pick out a burial mound slightly to our right front. Here the bodies are buried above ground and the earth piled on top. I guess it’s because the ground is so wet most of the time. An unusual method. I’m an American so of course anything that’s not American is unusual. Not natural but unusual. That’s the cheeseburger, football philosophy.
“OK guys, let’s go. See the farthest burial mound just off to the right? Head for it.”
The team files out through the bamboo. They cross over a path and step onto the grass. The area we will now be crossing is an open grassy area. This is an area not being used for rice cultivation. It’s more like a meadow. There are burial mounds spaced throughout. A large open cemetery I guess. A fitting backdrop for our funeral procession. The mounds offer good protection from sniper fire. God, what a loathsome feeling to know that all around you, be it animate or inanimate, is war. Trees, rivers, clouds, day, night, faces all seem fixed in an attitude of soreness, weariness, disconsolation, suspicion and fear. The face of war. What’s behind that tree? Do we dare to cross the river here? The night hides the enemy. The day brings him out. Are these friendly faces? Are they the faces of the enemy? All about us are props in our Asian tragedy.
Across this grassy area the footing will be better. It will be much easier going. There’ll be water but not what we have just come through in the rice paddy. It will be good in case we have to run, forwards or backwards. Running in any kind of water is not exactly the Indy 500. Did you ever see those basketball jocks walking around with those weights hooked on their ankles? Imagine having them all over your body and trying to run. Steve Austin you ain’t. The finish lines you strain for under fire are the nearest cover or the nearest helicopter door.
As before, the point team heads out into the field and forms a sloppy inverted V. One man out front. One man to either side or behind. This fire team carries an M79 grenade launcher with them. A handy little item for keeping a sniper’s head down while we get some artillery down on top of him.
“Raby, call Actual and tell him we are now proceeding to Checkpoint 2.” Raby delivers the message in his pronounced black inflection. He sounds like a male Aunt Jemima. Uncle Jemima? His radio transmissions always give me a little smile. Subtle prejudice? I guess you could call it that. I was prejudiced. The blacks in our platoon were a constant disciplinary problem. Away from it now I can’t blame them. When we got on that plane in Da Nang our war was over. Theirs was starting all over again. Their foreign war was over. Their domestic one was still going strong.
Raby and I wait for our spacing then head out into the meadow. The M60 team waits behind us. They are hooking an assault pouch onto their gun. It is much like a rifle magazine that fastens onto the side of the gun. It will feed ammo into the gun much more efficiently. We’ve had trouble in this area before.
The point team passes two burial mounds. The rain has just about stopped. Nothing is falling, but the air itself is still wet. The point team is far enough now so that the entire squad is now spread out in the field. I yell up ahead for a halt. I want to make sure of my compass reading. Down on one knee checking it out. The rest of the squad down. A wave of the arm to the point team and we’re up and moving. Radio traffic from our other squad. They’re calling for a fire mission. Receiving sniper fire, need a chopper, wounded.
The far off crack, the whine, down, water soaking your chest and face. Up and running with the radioman, yelling to the M60 team to come. Bobbing, weaving, stumbling up to the point team.
“Where did it come from? Did you see it?”
“Yeah, I think. See that bamboo row off to our left about two hundred yards? Maybe from there.”
Another crack, the whine whizzes close by.
“Fuck. See if you can get some 79 rounds in there. Get some fire in there.”
The M60 team crawls ahead of the lead team. The gunner pulls off his pack. He snaps open the bipod legs. He rests the gun on the pack, the A gunner lying next to him. He slams the bolt home and lets out a burst. The rest of the squad lays flat in the grass. Crack, whizz, a small splash to our right. Get the compass. Shoot an azimuth to the suspected area the sniper is shooting from. Shoot a back azimuth (an azimuth back to the checkpoint we just left). These two azimuths will join at our present location. Pull out a map. Check the coordinates on the map for our location. Grab the radio handset from Raby.
“Hotel One, Hotel One, this is Alpha One, fire mission.”
No response. Two more splashes near us.
“Alpha One, this is Hotel One, switch to secondary frequency, Alpha Two on your frequency.”
In the excitement I had forgotten about our other squad’s fire mission. “Raby, switch frequency.” Raby reaches over his shoulder and turns the frequency dial. “Hotel One, this is Alpha One, fire mission.”
“Alpha One, this is Hotel One, Go.”
“Position (ours), up four over two.” (On their map they count up four grids and over two to get to our position.) “Azimuth 160 degrees, back 240 degrees.” From training and experience, they will know that the first azimuth will be the one from our position to the target and the second one will be the back azimuth which will help them to pinpoint us on the map. “Receiving enemy small arms fire. Request one round Willy Peter (white phosphorous). Hold up on your fire,” I shout to the squad.
“Alpha One, on the way. Wait.”
Two shots from the bamboo. “Damn, these suckers got guts.” I turn to the right to look at Hill 55. The mortar battery is above us to our right rear. We see the round puff out of its tube. We hear it go over us. It impacts in a white cloud about 150 yards to our front. “Hotel One, this is Alpha One. Come left 50 meters, up 100 meters.”
“On the way. Wait.” Another puff over us, a white cloud impact.
“Hotel One, this is Alpha One. Drop 50, H.E. (high explosive), fire for effect.”
“On the way. Wait.”
Four pops from the hill. They whistle as they fly over us. Four quick thumps in the bamboo. Gray, black smoke billows up.
“Hotel One, on the money. Give me four more.”
“On the way.” The smoke of the first four rounds is just lifting as the next four crunch into the bamboo.
“Hotel One, this is Alpha One, up 50, come left 50, fire for effect.”
“On the way.”
Four more thumps.
“Hotel One, Alpha One. Come left 50, fire for effect.”
“On the way.” The four rounds fly over and crash into the bamboo.
The sniper fire has ceased. We figure the sniper, after having fired at us, is up and moving. I’m moving the mortar fire to the left hoping to catch the sniper on the move.
“Hotel One, Alpha One, come left 50, fire for effect.”
Four staccato thumps further along the bamboo fence. Gray smoke mixes with the dark sky.
“Hotel One, Alpha One, end fire mission.”
“Roger Alpha One.”
“Raby, switch back to the primary frequency. Alpha Two, Alpha Two, this is Green Giant, let’s see some smoke.”
“Green Giant, this is Alpha Two, look for some red.”
“OK, Alpha Two, we got you, coming down.”
Our other squad has someone wounded, or dead. A chopper is coming down to pick him up. “OK, Raby, stay on the frequency.”
We are still flat on the grass. Close your eyes, catch your breath, stand up. Nothin’. “Everybody up, let’s move.” The squad rises together, water running off their equipment. Targets in a shooting gallery. No fear-irritation, anxiety-professionals. “Let’s move, step it out a little.”
We won’t leave our patrol route to check out the area we were sniped from. It’s too far off our patrol route. We know from experience that chances are we won’t find anything. Who are they? Where do they go? People you can’t see or touch trying to kill you. Yeah, trying to kill you. Ever have someone trying to kill you? How can I ever be what I was in the US of A? Three months ago a couple of us were drunk in the Marco Polo Hotel. It’s across the street from Disneyland! Got me a ticket to Adventureland. Got me a ticket to War Land. One way? They want to kill me and I don’t mind killing them. Ninety days ago I was throwing a football on the beach of Oceanside, California. A few days ago I blew apart a VC. A guy about my age. I did it easily, without remorse. How can that be? Trying to get a bus to Hollywood. Trying to get the pin out of a hand grenade. Cheap cheeseburgers at the USO. “Get that bastard, get him, blow him away.” Long distance California collect to Mom and Dad. Body bags for a helicopter crew?
We move a little faster now. We want to get out of the open area. We’re not quite running and not quite walking. When you pick up a little speed with all your equipment on, a squad sounds like a convoy of tinkers’ wagons.
No fire. We keep moving. About 200 yards to go to the burial mound checkpoint. “Hey, Hughes, wait. The fuckin’ battery fell out of the radio.” Raby is kneeling down pulling the radio off his back. He pulls it around in front of him, holding it against his chest. The bottom section of the radio holds the battery. It plugs itself into the radio and is held in place by a metal container that snaps onto the radio frame. The snaps are open and the battery has popped out. “Asshole,” I say to myself. The M60 team has caught up to us.
“Go ahead, keep moving. Let’s go Raby. Hurry up.”
I can feel a rifle muzzle staring down our backs. He pushes the battery into the socket, snaps the clamps shut. He squeezes the handset to make sure we hear the squelch.
The lead team is now about 40 yards from the mound. Radio traffic!
“Alpha Actual, this is Alpha Two.”
“This Alpha Actual.”
“Alpha two had one Whiskey, India, Alpha (WIA — wounded in action). Enemy small arms fire.”
“Roger, Alpha Two. Copy one Whiskey, India, Alpha.”
“Alpha Two, out.”
“Alpha Actual out.”
Beyond the mound we are approaching is another fence row of bamboo. Through the bamboo we can see a stone building. The area we are in is a patchwork quilt of rice paddies and fields with these bamboo rows acting as the seam or stitches that hold them together.
The lead team has reached the burial mound. They move to the far side of it, out of sight. The M60 team moves up and prop themselves against the near side. One of our other squads set off a booby trap here so we treat this area with contemptuous respect. Raby and I reach the mound and drop down beside the M60 team. A little out of breath from the quickened pace we just set. Canteens in the mouths of us all.
“John, hey John” — (fire team leader).
“OK, move in, but be cool and stay out of the building. Let’s go.”
They splash to their feet and head into the bamboo. The booby trap, a Chicom (Chinese Communist) grenade was rigged up in one of the rooms of the building.
We move around to the other side of the mound. The first is through the bamboo into the courtyard of the building. The radio frequency is clear now.
“Alpha Actual, this is Alpha One.”
“This is Alpha Actual.”
“Be advised that Alpha One is now at Checkpoint Two. Received hostile fire from coordinates up four over two.”
“Roger, Alpha One. Alpha Actual out.”
“Alpha One out.”
Raby and I push through the bamboo into the courtyard. The team is across the courtyard sitting on their packs. The stone building, a large house, is yellowish in color. It’s made of a plaster that feels like chalk. The plaster is chipped and bruised from shrapnel and small arms fire. There are five rooms in the house. All the rooms are bare. No one dares live here now. It has occupants from time to time but their stay is short. Their rent is paid in empty shell casings. This is an area where meeting one’s neighbors is not the healthiest thing one can do. The welcome wagon is a bullet through the head.
This house must have been a comfortable place at one time. It has a stone veranda that makes a square around it. It has a good drinking well to its rear. A pink colored frieze adorns the front wall that supports the roof. The roof is red tile, much like the roof of a southwestern home in the States. There’s blood on the wall in the front room. Dirty, blood-caked bandages lay on the floor of the veranda. It may have been the home of the local boss for this rice harvest area. Who knows? It’s where we stop to eat.
The rest of the squad has spread itself out in the courtyard. “We’ll be here awhile if you want to eat. Russell, grab the canteens and fill them up, huh.” Oranges, crackers, cheese, cigarettes, fruitcake appear from trouser pockets and gas mask bags. We’ve been told to carry gas masks just in case. There is no “just in case” when it comes to being hungry. We leave the gas mask behind and fill up the carrying pouch with food. A good lunch pail. One or two of the squad will take the time and chance to heat up some C rations. The chance being that who knows what will happen or when. Many times I’ve had to rush away from the table unexpectedly. No punching out for lunch hour. You fill up on fruit, cake, cheese, pepperoni, and anything else you can gulp down. God, I wish I had a nickel for every stick of pepperoni I ate. The government sent us ammo. Our parents sent us pepperoni.
Our parents. God bless ‘em! With their tape recorded voices, their advice to be careful, the mail-crushed boxes with their chocolate chip rubble.
“We think we saw you on television!” So much tuna fish they sent. So faraway. “We miss you.” How naïve we kept them.
Russell goes from man to man dropping off a full canteen. A softer clatter fills the courtyard. Not much talk.
“I wonder if we got that cocksucker sniper?”
“I wonder who got hit in second squad?”
“Find out when we get back.”
Anybody got any fruit they don’t want?”
“Ha, what? Are you kidding?”
Canned fruit is sweet gold. It’s sweet, wet and different tasting. One guy calls a can of peaches his wife’s vagina. Well, he didn’t call it vagina, but you can guess. A can of fruit. Hard to come by. Think of constant thirst. Think of a daily diet where canned spam is a delicacy. Meatballs and beans in a can is succulent. A mountain of crackers and cheese consumed. Canned cake. Canned bland. Get the idea?
We’ve been in the courtyard about 20 minutes. The rain has picked up again. Another reason not to try to heat anything.
“Five minutes then saddle up.” Saddle up. Listen to me. I used to hear Lt. Rip Masters yell that at Fort Apache. I tell you what Lt. Rip. Ole Rinny would have been roasted over an open spit over here.
“Let’s get ready to move.” The two men who were trailing the squad will now take the point. They’ll be ahead with a fire team between them and myself. Behind me the M60 team and a trailing fire team.
The area we head into now is somewhat different. It’s a more narrow, confined area. It’s small rice paddies. It’s like a box that we will be walking through the middle of. To our front and both sides are bamboo screens. They are about 100 yards off. The courtyard that we are in now is what once was probably the headquarters or official residence of a larger village area that we will now be passing through. Paths lead to village areas to our left and right. To our front four inter-connected rice paddies. We see two women at work in the far right one.
Smoke can be seen above the bamboo screen to our left. Ahead of us we can see a few dogs running around. Activity usually means less chance of sniper fire. Usually.
The river that was off to our left at the start of the patrol winds itself to where it is now running about 200 yards behind the village area to our front. There is trouble here and we know it. We’ve been sniped at from here. Automatic fire. They’re tough, gutty nuts here. We’ve been introduced to them. So has our hospital in Da Nang.
Stay off the paths as much as possible. The lead team will walk the dikes of the paddies angling off to their left into the village area. We have to check out the village itself. This one has inhabitants. We have to show the colors.
“Move out!” The lead team leads out onto the dike in single file. We keep about five yards between us. We squish through the mud on the dike. Dogs are barking. Our other squad’s radio traffic coming over the radio.
“Alpha Actual, this is Alpha Two.”
“This Alpha Actual.”
“We are approximately 75 meters from your perimeter preparing to come in.”
“Roger, Alpha Two, will notify the perimeter.”
This last communication is done so the squad on the perimeter won’t fire at the incoming patrol.
“Alpha Two, this is Alpha Actual.”
“This Alpha Two.”
“Come on in Alpha Two.”
“Roger, on the way.”
We are all spaced out on the dike now. Along the path to our left a young girl in black walks by. She is carrying two large baskets. They dangle from each end of a pole balanced across her right shoulder. The wood of the pole is cut to a thinness that makes it flexible yet strong enough to carry the weight of her load. She has on a straw hat that covers her features. She is small. Her feet are bare. A Manet in black silk. She walks quickly without giving us a glance. She is strange to me. I am familiar to her.
We’ve been told that this village area has an ARVN platoon stationed it. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam. They act as the local militia. They are an amazing bunch. From what I have seen of them, their training consists of tuning in Da Nang radio stations, loafing and giggling. We’ve been on public relations patrols with them. Comrades in arms sharing a united front. Allies, hand in hand crushing the communist threat. SEATO (Southeast Asian Treaty Organization) in action. Yeah, right! We’re the ones in action and they’re on the Seato their pants. We play the dumb heavyweight contender to their unconcerned, high living manager. We take the blows. They enjoy the show.
Today the platoon is nowhere to be found. This has been the case for the past two weeks. Where are they? The VC have been giving us a lot of trouble here recently. That probably explains their absence.
We expect no help from our allies. We are never disappointed. They’re toy soldiers. They’re useless. I say that from experience long before the world will see them swamping boats and dangling from helicopter runners in their to the rear march.
The point fire team is now on the path the young girl in black just took. They turn to their right and head for an opening in the bamboo. The opening acts as a gate into the village area. The village consists of four thatched houses and one stone house. We’ll wander around here for a while. This is standard procedure. We ask a few of the women for their ID cards. They squat in front of their hooches chewing betel nut. They nod and smile at us. Their smiles are black. Their teeth are stained from the betel nut. No words are exchanged. We all know the game by now. Older men stare at us from inside the hooches. We enter a few of the hooches. We lift up mats, check the walls, peer into cellars. An old woman picks up sores off the head of a baby. A young girl pulls a bucket up from the communal well. A boy pokes a stick at a water buffalo. An old man offers us his ID card. A woman stirs the ashes of a cooking fire. Chickens scratch the ground. A rusted bicycle leans against a wall. The wet wind flaps the banana tree leaves. Is it true? Do these people really care who runs their government? Does the rice harvest really govern them? I don’t know. They don’t say.
We are done with our inspection. “Let’s move out.” We form back into file. The rest of the village area will be checked out by someone, sometime. Right now, we just want to get this day over with. “Russell, you lead out. Out through the back of the village then head for the river.” A nod of the head and we move out.
We’ll move out of the village then across some more rice paddies to the river. At the river we’ll make a right turn. We’ll follow the river for about one and a half miles, make a right turn then head back across a rice paddy, elephant grass area to the platoon perimeter. You may be asking yourself why we spend so much time of the patrol out in the open. The foot soldier in this war is the bait. We dangle ourselves on an open line. We get the enemy to commit themselves. The foot soldier is the worm and hook. Jets, artillery, gunships are the net and creel. They get hung up on us and are caught. Unfortunately, the black pajama fish sometimes gets away with the bait.
We are out of the village and down into the rice paddy. I’m scared now. The river is to our front. Across the river is bad news. We’ve taken a lot of fire and a lot of casualties here. I’m afraid to cross the river. Death is there. We all prefer to avoid. The more we stay out of his way, the better chance we have of making it to our rotation date. If we are forced to fight, we will. We all know that within a certain number of days, weeks, months we will be leaving here. Watch your ass. Don’t look for trouble. Me is what is important. We all come with great ideals. Combat is just an extension of our routine training, right?
Wrong, so very wrong. My first night in a firefight was like the gates of hell being thrown open. The devil’s smile filled the night sky. Red tracer rounds stitched the night. Screams of agony in the dark. I killed my first man that night. I think. There was a body a few yards beyond my hole and my rifle magazine was empty. I killed him? I howled like a banshee. Blind fear. Your ideals leave you quickly. You fight because you are afraid to die. You know when you can leave. That date is stamped on your mind. If you live you leave. I killed that night. I’ll kill again. I’ll kill to live. What a sad thing to say, to realize. No crusade, no causes, no banners, no rewards. Kill or be killed, period. To hide, to run, to charge, to live, whatever it takes, we’ll do it.
We spread out in the rice paddy and head towards the river. The river is our third and final checkpoint. We cross the paddy with no problems. The lead team reaches the river and turns right. We all make the turn and are now in single file along the riverbank. The river is about ten feet below us. Across it is an old church. The church is made of stone. It’s white. It has a stone steeple with a cross at the summit. Rows of tall, thin windows minus their glass run along each side. Two stone pillars support an awning on its front. Black scars from napalm and shrapnel discolor it. The ground of the churchyard has been tilled by the devil’s spade. It is all heaps and lumps of thrown up earth, sprinkled with gray dots of shrapnel. Funeral masses are the order of business in this church.
We walk along in the rice water along the riverbank. We go a few yards, stop, kneel down and face the church.
“Alpha Actual, this is Alpha One.”
“This is Alpha Actual.”
“Alpha One has reached checkpoint three.”
“Roger Alpha One. Alpha Actual out.”
“Alpha One out.”
I pull the map out of my trouser pocket. I make sure of our position and shoot an azimuth to the church.
“Hotel One, this is Alpha One, fire mission.”
“Alpha One, this is Hotel One. Go.”
“Coordinates, up five, over three, azimuth 240 degrees. Suspected enemy activity. Request one round HE.”
“Roger Alpha One, on the way. Wait.”
This fire mission is to scare off any VC across the river who may have plans for us. Mortar rounds are a good calling card.
The round whooshes over us and impacts about 100 yards beyond the church.
“Hotel One, this is Alpha One, drop 50 and fire for effect.”
“On the way Alpha One.”
Four rounds whizz in, crashing just behind the church. We’re not too far from them. We feel the vibration from the impact in the ground.
“Hotel One, this is Alpha One. Come right 50, fire for effect.”
Four more rounds impact. The smoke floats across the river and over us.
“Hotel One, this is Alpha One, end fire mission.”
“Roger Alpha One, Hotel One out.”
Me and Napoleon. There is nothing like cannon. If you’re caught under it, your teeth rattle, your eyes tear, your bowels move. You cringe and pray. If you’re delivering it, it’s a sight to behold. Destruction you never thought possible. An antiseptic way of tearing your enemy to hell. You don’t ever have to get your hands dirty. Say a few words and a red hot rain comes a-fallin. No strain, no pain, no personal contact. Quick delivery, fast food death. Just give them a call and they deliver. And it’s never cold.
“Let’s get out of here.” We move out in file glancing over at the church. Quiet. To our right now is the box area that makes up the village. Up the river half a mile then swing right into another rice paddy area. The far right side of the village will be off to our right.
The squad trudges along in the water. The bridge that spans the river is to our left. It is a cement bridge like the kind you see across small canals in Florida. An inscription is chiseled into the left railing. It must be a dedication of some kind. This is an expensive bridge to cross. The toll paid on this bridge is the heartbreak of families — ours and theirs.
The rain comes down hard now. It pops on our helmets like rain on a tarpaper roof. Raby pulls the poncho cover tighter around the radio. The palms of his hands are pale and wrinkled. Too much time in water.
The lead team steps over a paddy dike and starts to splash across the last stretch of the patrol. The bamboo fence that surrounds the village makes an angle to the right and runs along the lead team’s right. Hill 55 is now to our left. Our platoon base camp is to our right front. The base camp is about three quarters of a mile from us. We can see trucks going up the road to the hill. A helicopter is just touching down. Rows of sand bagged bunkers line the near side of the hill. Smoke drifts up from a few wood frame huts. A Phantom jet headed for the airstrip at Da Nang flies over. The wind and rain churn up the rice paddy into dirty little white caps.
Fifteen, 20 minutes we are all out in the open, splashing our way anxiously across the paddy. We are moving a little faster now. We’ll be back at the platoon perimeter soon. We can flop down and take it easy for a while.
We’ve covered about half the distance across the paddy. We bunch up a little too much. We are in a hurry. The patrol is over. Let’s just get out of this fuckin’ water.
A patch of elephant grass juts into the rice paddy on our left. We skirt it, keeping it just a few feet to our left. We pass by it. The trailing fire team is just going by it. A yell, a shot. We all spin around. I see it in slow motion. A figure, small, brown, jumps from the elephant grass. The figure is in shorts, nothing else. Long, straight black hair. Fickett (last fire team) stands frozen. The figure throws a grenade. It hits Fickett in the chest. It drops to his feet. It explodes. A scream. The figure turns to run into the elephant grass. What? Snap! “Bastard.” We open fire. Six of us. The figure runs a few paces, stumbles with a splash into the elephant grass. Two of us run to the spot. We see his legs in the grass. We put a few more rounds into him where he lays. We walk slowly up to the body. He’s dead. His head and back a bloody mush. We roll him over. The lower half of his legs from his knees to his ankles are torn and bloody. They look like meat bones a large dog has gnawed on. Bone shows in some spots. He had been hit by artillery shrapnel or set off a booby trap. He was lying in the elephant grass dying. He’s a teenager. Fourteen, maybe 15. I look down at him feeling more like 19 squared than 19. He wanted to kill one of us before he died. He died. No, he didn’t die. Die is too clean a word for this. He was squashed like a bug against a window. This is not to die.
“God, God help me.” Fickett lies writhing in the muddy water. His fatigues are splattered with razor cuts. His blood seeps out through them. He has been lifted up and a poncho placed under him. No corpsman is with us. The A gunner pulls open his shirt. He has a dozen small knife wounds on his chest and stomach. “Please don’t tell my mother, please don’t tell her!” He has hold of the A gunner’s arm. “Please don’t tell her!” He is chalk white with fright. He’s been with the platoon for one week. He looks like Arnold Stange. Tears roll out from under his glasses.
“Am I going to be alright? Am I?”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re OK. The chopper is on its way.”
“Alpha Actual, this is Alpha One.”
“This is Alpha Actual.”
“Request medivac chopper 500 yards west of checkpoint three, one WIA, chicom, one Enemy KIA.”
“Roger Alpha One. Stand by.”
The A gunner pulls down Fickett’s pants. His right leg is splattered with cuts. A small piece of black metal sticks out of his thigh. We cover as many of the wounds as we can with bandages. He’s not wounded too seriously. The grenade may have been defective. The water of the rice paddy helped to cushion the explosion. He’s just too scared that he might die of shock. We see a Huey helicopter lift off the hill.
“Alpha One, this is Green Giant.”
“This is Alpha One, Green Giant.”
“Let’s see some smoke.”
I toss the smoke grenade out about 50 feet behind us.
“Look for some yellow, Green Giant.”
“Got you Alpha One, comin’ down.”
Fickett is shivering with cold and fright. The chopper makes a pass over us. He circles out to our rear and heads down. Four of the squad grab the corners of the poncho. We’ll have to lift Fickett into the chopper. The Huey will have to hover just off the ground. He can’t touch down because of the mud and water.
The chopper comes in behind us and drops down to where the door is at eye level. The wind blast from the rotors flattens our fatigues to our skin. Our helmets are blown off. It churns up the water and flattens the elephant grass. The door gunner and a corpsman lean out the door, their arms outstretched. Fickett is lifted up lying in the poncho. He is lifted feet first up to the two men in the door. They grab the ends of the poncho and drag him in. His feet and legs are in. The rest of him is still held by two men on the ground. The corpsman grabs the two ends of the poncho under his head and yanks the rest of him inside the chopper. It ain’t pretty but he’s in. The door gunner says something into his radio mouthpiece and the chopper lifts off in a quick whoosh. A wave to the pilot and they’re gone. The chopper heads towards Da Nang. We’ll never see or hear of Fickett again. No one will ask about him and of course his mother will be told.
We stand in the water watching the chopper disappear. We’re jealous. He ain’t wounded too badly. He’s out of this shit.
Equipment lay strewn out in the water. “Get your crap on, let’s move.” The yellow smoke from the grenade blows around us. A stink of sulfur. Blood from the dead body, sliced into streams by the elephant grass, swirls around our boots.
“Any papers on that guy?”
“Everybody got everything? OK, let’s move out.”
We form up, get our distance and slop ahead to the platoon perimeter.
“Alpha Actual, this Alpha One.”
“This is Alpha Actual.”
“Notify the perimeter that we are about 75 meters from our position.”
“Roger, Alpha One.”
We kneel down and wait.
“Alpha One, this is Alpha Actual, come on in.”
“Roger, on the way.”
I stand up and wave the lead team to move. We cover the last few yards quickly. The lead team is into the concertina. A wave to the men on perimeter duty.
“Who got it in the second squad?”
“Walsh. Who got it in yours?”
The squad is through with fire. They head back to their holes.
“Hey, Tom (second Squad Leader), how’d it go?”
“Not bad, Walsh got one in the right ass, really fucked him up. That new guy Fickett got it I hear.”
“Yeah, gook hit him in the chest with a chicom. Got him a million dollar one. Short one tomorrow?”
“Long one for me?”
“Squad leaders up!”