Quirt Alerts!

by Randy Harritan

He sits on his haunches in the middle of the trail. Nose held high, bouncing like a fishing bobber, pointing towards the ten o'clock position.

He looks back at Harry but does not move. Waiting for orders.

Harry's senses go into overdrive. Which way is the wind blowing? How hard? Is anything out of order ahead; a turned leaf, a tuft of grass, an overturned rock? A quick glance encompassing all of his surroundings provides no feedback. The jungle opens ahead of him. It’s a perfect place for an ambush.

He can feel the rifle bores pointed in his direction. Silent. Deadly. Waiting.

Harry gives Quirt the hand signal to stay. The dog will not move. His orders given, he sits tall and rigid with an occasional sweep of the area with his nose. Analyzing.

Having no cover Harry, as casually as his internal tensions will allow, meanders back to the next man in line.

At slightly above a whisper he says, "Enemy personnel at ten o'clock."

Afraid of springing the ambush, Harry does not look back in the direction indicated by Quirt but nonchalantly shrugs and looks around the jungle as if taking a break. He can feel the rifle bores pointed in his direction. Silent. Deadly. Waiting. He wants to flop on his belly and crawl away. His instincts tell him run, but he waits.

"Enemy personnel at ten o'clock," relay back man after man. No adlibbing, no changing the verbiage. Repeating what is said until the sound dies out along this snake-like string of men stretching along the ridgeline.

Waiting. The interminable wait.

Beads of sweat run down Harry's back. Pools form in his armpits. Harry hopes the Company Commander is flanking the dinks and will turn the tables taking the pressure from the front. He isn't sure how long he can maintain the subterfuge.

Voices low and mechanical, louder with each new voice, come back up the line, "Move out and engage the enemy."

Harry knows that the Captain is under orders to engage the enemy—but walking into an ambush? Why doesn't he come up here and engage the enemy? Shit, shit, shit!

He turns, recalls Quirt, praises him and again orders him to "search." Quirt will not alert again on these people. He has done his job, at least as far as these people are concerned. Still, it is comforting having him out front.

On shaky legs and at a snail's pace the column moves out; watching, scanning the tree-line, moving no faster than necessary. Each step winds the jack-in-the-box awaiting the monster's release. A hundred meters. No one really wants to make contact but this is the business we're in.

The jungle opens up in a solid wall of fire. Harry and the others are caught in an ambush along their left flank. The noise is incredible. Heavy machine-guns, AK 47's, RPG's, all aimed at the Americans and firing at once. Harry dives away from the guns. The ground slopes downward providing some protection. Quirt, as trained, takes his place on Harry's left side and lays down as close to Harry as he can get. Protecting. Doing his job.

The fighting is vicious. Harry goes through several magazines in a few minutes. Can't stop and conserve ammo. They keep rushing forward. He must continue firing or they will flank the unit on the right. Grass is being cut over his head and falling on him from the enemy fire. They have him bracketed.

Boop, ping. Boop, ping. Boop, ping. The Grenadier to his left is firing 40-millimeter grenades as fast as he can load them. Thank God for him. Helping to keep the enemy at bay. Troops down the line to the left are giving it to Charlie in spades but they are firing in the same direction as he and giving him no cover fire.

Chi-com grenade!

It’s on Harry's left side, just beyond Quirt. He can almost touch it.

Each step winds the jack-in-the-box awaiting the monster’s release.

It lies there. No ticking, no sound. Just a gruesome inanimate object lying in its own cloud of dust. Time stops.

Boom! Quirt takes the full blast. He slams into Harry and then, almost as if in slow motion, rolls over him. They both are suspended in air. He lands and does not move. Harry comes down with a grunt, a loud whine in his ears.

An NVA soldier, a good looking young man with a fresh haircut and clean green fatigues, walks from the foliage thinking he has killed Harry and the dog. He is wearing no hat and is looking over his shoulder, talking to other troops behind him. Harry puts three rounds into his chest and the man falls backward in a heap. Legs akimbo. He is lying there dead no more than five feet from Harry. Harry must move.

To Harry's amazement Quirt rises, and on shaky legs assumes his place again on Harry's left side.

Time to go.

Harry and Quirt move down the mountain, then angle to the left in hopes of linking up the rest of the unit. Harry sees movement and yells, "It's the Dog Handler," on hope it is his guys and not the enemy. There is no answer. He moves closer and repeats, "It's the Dog Handler."

This time a welcome voice says, "Come on in, we thought you were dead."

Harry doesn't know how much time has passed. It seems like hours.

The entire unit withdraws. Artillery is called; the big guns, 155's and 8 inchers. The ground rumbles and shakes. Metal shards cut through the trees. Cutting them in half as easily as a scythe through hay. Hell has been unleashed upon the dinks.

Even now Harry has a certain admiration for the dinks. What brave young men they must be. They know what's coming yet they attack and endure Armageddon. A baptism of fire and brimstone.

Firing stops and the unit moves to mop up. There are pieces of human beings but no whole bodies. They took them. The rancid smell of cordite. Spent brass. There’s plenty of blood and bandages. It's always the same. They try to make the victories hollow. No proof, no bodies. Always an estimation of kills.

They killed one of us. It is absolute. Not estimated. We have one KIA. Shot through the chest. Lying on his back in a pool of sticky red, already congealing, returning to the earth. Some wounded, but not bad. We won. Big fucking deal. We won.

A resupply bird comes in and unloads water and ammo. Harry and Quirt hitch a ride back to base camp with the dead man zipped into a body bag. After landing Harry prods Quirt. He will not move. Can't. He died on the way home. He had no more to give. There are two dead soldiers on this helicopter.

The shock is instant and severe. Disbelief. It can't be. He was fine. Harry knew something was wrong. He knew.

Harry dismounts; cradling a limp Quirt in his arms, and begins to walk with him. His tongue hangs. His eyes are glazed. The crew on the chopper look on with sympathy in their eyes, saying nothing. What can they say?

He talks to Quirt as he always has. Thanking him for his protection.

It is more than a mile back to the War Dog area. Harry will not stop. Will not rest. He pushes on to find Doc, the vet tech. Maybe he can help. It's hard to see through the tears, salty and bitter. Each leaving dirt trails on his cheeks. The heaviness is not his arms but his chest. He thinks he will burst open and spill on the dusty rotten ground. He wants to scream. Run. Run until the hurt stops. Run until all this goes away but his legs won't let him. They are no longer a part of him but simply appendages to move him and Quirt over this God forsaken patch of earth.

Doc meets him at the kennels but Harry won't let Doc have Quirt. He slides down and sits against a wall holding him. The crying is over. He talks to Quirt as he always has. Thanking him for his protection, his dedication and love for over a year.

Time means nothing to Harry. He has no idea how long he's been there but eventually relinquishes Quirt to Doc. A wound has opened that will never heal. Harry heads for his hooch, alone for the first time in Vietnam.

A short time later the War Dog Provisional First Sergeant told Harry that the Battalion Commander of the unit he had worked with inquired about the soldier named Quirt. He wanted to give him a medal for his heroism during the battle. When informed that the soldier was a large German shepherd the colonel simply laughed. Dogs were considered to be equipment. Nothing more.

A month later Harry received a letter from one of his dear friends and fellow dog handlers assigned to the 25th Division near Saigon. He said he heard that a dog named Quirt was coming to the main Veterinary Center near Saigon for a necropsy and immediately knew who it was. There was only one Quirt. He told Harry that he met him at the landing pad and accompanied his body to the Vet and stayed with him. Both his eardrums were completely gone, which Harry already knew. This happened in an earlier engagement but had not been reported.

Harry knew the Army would retire him for this, so he kept it quiet. He also had severe internal damage. Mortal damage. He was given a proper burial, complete with headstone, in the War Dog Cemetery. Pete said a prayer over Quirt and wanted Harry to know he was treated with respect. Another soldier laid to rest. Gone to flowers.

Good-by Quirt; serial number 7A97.

Cristpy Cirtters and Earning Your Stripes

by Steve Tedder

It was almost eerie looking at the sky. A reddish glow radiated from the sun. Sunset wasn’t far off and the contrast of the red sky outlining the green foliage of the rubber trees throughout the base camp was a sight that made me pause in my tracks. I wished I had my camera, this would make a great picture. Later I would think about the old saying, “Red sky in morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight.” Too damn bad I wasn’t a sailor this night.

It had been a long, tiring day. I was walking down the red dirt-road at Quan Loi that  encircled the airstrip, heading to my hooch. We had departed early that morning for the AO and made several insertions. We must have walked several miles through the “bush;” most of it triple canopy and I was hot, sticky, and just worn out. My jungle fatigues were coated in dust caked on by the dried sweat. My hair was still damp under my boonie hat. On top of that I smelled like a wet, mildewed rag.

At least my stomach was full. We had returned just before the mess hall had closed for the evening meal and went directly there after being dropped off the Slicks. Now I was headed to the hooch, still wearing all of my gear and carrying my rifle. My thoughts were centered on one thing and one thing only: stripping off these clothes and getting to the shower before we ran out of warm water.  

Our shower was a simple affair; a small open-sided hut that would hold up to four men with a water tank on top that was filled every morning from our water truck. We didn’t merit an immersion water heater like I had seen at other base camps. We just depended on the hot sun. To conserve the warm water, the first sergeant had banned anyone from taking a shower during the day. The rule was showers were allowed in the evening after chow. No exceptions.

Sunset wasn’t far off and the contrast of the red sky outlining the green foliage of the rubber trees throughout the base camp was a sight that made me pause in my tracks.

Before reaching my sanctuary the siren started blaring and in the near distance several people yelled. I came to a quick stop and just stood there. Now what? The siren was only used in an emergency, which usually was for incoming or if a ship was down. If it was incoming, the siren going off was always preceded by explosions from rockets or mortar rounds impacting. My mind swirled with ideas on why the hell the siren was going off. There were no explosions and I thought all the aircraft had returned with us.  

I decided that I should get to my assigned bunker on the perimeter. But as soon as I started to beat feet in that direction people started running towards me, headed to the flight line. Leading the pack was WO2 Richard Fleenor, “Flea.” He looked like something out of a cartoon. He was soaking wet, wearing his combat boots, wet O.D. green underwear, and carrying his flight helmet. Apparently he had skipped the chow hall and gone straight to the shower after returning from our mission. Before reaching me he yelled that the “Ash & Trash” had called in a May Day and had gone down.

I had flown on many combat assaults with Flea as the pilot and, dressed or not, I wanted to be on his aircraft. I followed his lead and we went to the farthest revetment where a crew chief was untying the main rotor. Flea climbed in the left seat and I took my seat on the floor behind the right seat. We were the first onboard. Flea immediately hit the start switch and the big turbine engine began to whine.

In no time at all the flight line was filled with pilots, grunts, crew chiefs and door  gunners. From my vantage point I could see everyone running full tilt to their aircraft. To an untrained eye it would have looked like a startled flock of birds getting away from a hunter once he’s fired his first shot. In reality it was like a choreographed exercise. In no time at all we had the co-pilot, crew chief, and door gunner strapped in and ready to go. Six grunts from the Aerial Rifle Platoon had also joined me, filling the slick up. There was little organization with the grunts. They just picked a ship and climbed on.

Normally the pilot would run up the engine a minimum of two minutes before coming to a hover, but not this time. I guess Flea wanted to be first. At least he showed that he was in a hurry and didn’t have time. It was just a big assed scramble at this point. Normally the Slicks waited for the Loaches and Cobras and would follow them out. Because of the way the revetments were laid out everything was backwards. We were first off; my crazy pilot had won the race.

As Flea put the nose down, we picked up speed and in no time we were climbing over the southeast perimeter. Through the opposite door I saw the most magnificent sunset of my life. The sky was still tinged in red and the sun sank on the horizon, only the top quarter was visible. I looked over to Flea and was struck by how many pimples he had on his back and how white his skin was. He really needed some sun. I started to laugh but instead just shrugged my shoulders, another crazy sight in Nam. I can still see him there, sitting in the left seat behind the armor plating with his flight helmet, wearing only his underwear.

Normally after takeoff we would climb up to 2000 feet altitude. This was the “safe zone” from small arms fire, unless of course they had either .51 cal. or 37mm’s.  

Our altitude never got that high. Before we cleared the town of An Loc, located four miles south of Quan Loi, we saw it. With the exception of the door gunner sitting in the well on the left side, we all saw it.  

I can still see him there, sitting in the left seat behind the armor plating with his flight helmet, wearing only his underwear.

At first I thought it was the biggest flare in the world. It was such an intense blinding white flame concealing the Huey that it had once been. I swung around on the floor with my legs dangling out of the aircraft, holding my 16 in my right hand. I silently said a prayer hoping that the people on board had escaped.

Looking back for our other Slicks I only saw two Cobras at our seven o’clock who came up fast. I expected we would circle the area and wait for the other Slicks. Instead it looked like we would be going straight in. This was confirmed when I saw the crew chief and door gunner cock the charging handles on their M-60 machine guns and point them outwards.  

My three guys on the center seat scooted down on the floor in preparation to follow us off the skids. As if on signal we locked and loaded our weapons, ready to unass the aircraft. This is when your stomach would tighten up just enough to get your attention. No grab-assing, no talking. Just grit your teeth and concentrate on the job at hand. Just look straight ahead, ready to deal with whatever was to be. We had done this too many times to count and had become proficient.

By now the sun had sunk under the horizon with just a hint of light. The fire from the downed Huey was so bright we had no problem seeing the ground. The aircraft came straight without circling. When we were five feet off the ground Flea flared the nose up, slowing the ship. That was our signal to jump off.

When making a combat assault (CA) we did not actually land. Done correctly the skids never touched the ground. Coming to a complete stop was hazardous to the aircraft and crew. The pilot needed to attain transitional lift and get back up where he belonged. This is also why the doors were locked back on all of our Huey’s, if they had doors. As soon as our feet hit the ground we set up a perimeter around our landing zone (LZ). I immediately knelt and scanned the area after finding a large bush that offered some cover. To my left the Huey was still burning brightly with a thick plume of whitish-grey smoke lifting straight upwards in the black sky. Even now, 45 years later I can still recall that horrible scene. Even though the flames made a dull whooshing sound and it was fully engulfed it was sitting on its skids as if the pilot had landed it there.

One of our two Cobras circled overhead, reflected by the light of the burning Huey. He was no more than 200 feet above us. I could not see his partner but from the sound of it I knew he was flying higher, ready to roll in with his rockets if needed. For the next twelve hours there would be a pair of Cobras from our Gun Platoon circling overhead, protecting us. Just another of the perks to being a grunt in the Air Cavalry.

As I ran over to check the rest of my men I heard the other Huey’s coming in. They too made a beeline straight towards us. I was surprised to see three of them flying in trail. Normally we only had three Slicks with seven men each on a CA, but I guessed that under the circumstances they were bringing the whole platoon. At this point we had no clue what caused the ship to go down. It could have been ground fire or a mechanical malfunction. I assumed ground fire just to be safe.

Standing in the light from the burning Huey, I held my rifle overhead with both arms extended showing the lead pilot exactly where to drop off the men. As soon as everyone was off and the ships had departed I ran over to Sergeant First Class “Happy Jack” Jackson standing with his radio telephone operator (RTO), spec 4 David “Reb” Rutland. They both were staring at the burning ship.

By this time the flames had changed from the bright white to a smaller, orange or yellow color and the smoke had turned oily black, wafting over the ground. It was no longer recognizable as anything made by man. The struts had given way and were completely consumed as was the main body and tail boom.

After reporting to Happy Jack that I had set up a partial perimeter with the men I had from the first ship in, he asked if I had searched for survivors. I replied that I hadn’t and he showed me where he wanted the perimeter using the rest of the platoon. I asked him whose aircraft it was as I was under the impression that all of our ships had come in earlier when we returned from the AO. His reply was that it was ours, that it was the Ash & Trash coming in from Di An. He then took off with the RTO to search for anyone that may have survived.  

Without having to be told, the platoon had already formed a good defensive position around the crash site. Not surprising as this was in our job description. In the past 13 months that I had been in the troop we had secured dozens of downed helicopters. This was different though, never a burning Slick, never with so many men on board.  

After making a head count of how many men we actually had on the ground I made my way over to my friend, Spec 4 Donald “No Dot” Bates. Donny was the M-60 Machine Gunner assigned to my squad. He had been in-country almost a year. He had a twin brother, Ronald “Dot” Bates who was also a grunt in our unit. Ron had been drafted and deciding that where Ron went Don also had to go. He volunteered for the draft and here they were.

Pretty soon Happy Jack and Reb came back to where I was lying in the prone position  next to Bates. He stared down at me and said, “Tedder, come with me, I need to show you some weird shit.” He told Reb to stay and I got up to follow, noticing that Reb stank of puke and seemed a little lost.

I got up and followed him through the dark, passing around the still burning Huey. He asked me if I had any idea where we were and I replied, “Not exactly, somewhere south of An Loc near Highway 13.”

He said, “That’s right, we’re practically on top of one of the old French forts surrounding An Loc.” He said that he and Reb had found a lot of concertina wire and a concrete bunker just past the Huey. He thought that the pilot must have been trying to land it inside the fort as it was pretty wide open.

His body was frozen in the crawling position with his arms extended and one knee bent.

Still following him we passed around the rear of the Huey. As the flames diminished the smoke had turned oily black and was wafting across the ground instead of going straight up as before. Passing through the smoke we both started running to get through it as fast as possible. The smoke carried the smell of burning flesh. It was so thick that it stuck to you, invading your body and clogging your nose.  

We came to the edge of the fort and he stopped. I could just make out the bunker that he had described earlier. He shined his flashlight downwards and told me, “Look at this poor bastard.” He explained that when they had found him earlier Reb had upchucked and that he needed help getting him out of there.

Looking down was the body of one of the guys on the Huey. His body was frozen in the crawling position with his arms extended and one knee bent. He had gotten tangled up in the barbed wire and had burned to death. His back and legs were burned horribly from the heat of the fire. I could tell that he was part of the four man crew as he still had his flight helmet on. It was also partially burned away and exposed his skull. The hair and skin had melted off.

It was pretty difficult but the two of us managed to push down the old rusty wire using our boots and pull him out by his arms. We discovered that his face, chest, and stomach were untouched after turning him over. He had compound fractures on both shins. We discussed how he must have been fairly high up when he jumped out to avoid the fire. The weight of his chicken plate, the laminated armor plate worn by Army aircrews to protect the chest and back, had to have helped cause the broken legs.

Happy Jack removed the chicken plate and pointed his light at the name tag above the pocket on his shirt. We knew who it was, Green.

“Do you know him?” asked Happy Jack.

“Oh yeah, he was a crew chief, hell of a nice guy.” Of course we always spoke in good terms describing those we lost but I meant it in this case. I had been his platoon sergeant for a short while and had gotten to know all the guys in the Lift platoon. Vernon Green was an extremely nice guy. A lifer like myself.

After wrapping the body in my poncho we carried him towards the front of the now smoldering Huey and placed it on the ground. Happy Jack and I were joined by SSG Middleton who suggested we do a perimeter check.

At some point while checking my squad I discovered that no one was near the area where the stinking smoke was blowing low over the ground. No big deal, Bates M-60 had a good field of fire on one side and the other side was covered as well.

During my check I came upon the number one screw-up in my unit. Spec 4 Schrader. Schrader was out of position, not surprisingly, and was talking to one of the FNG’s, a new guy. I heard Schrader telling him, “Yeah, we do this all the time, you think this is the first bunch of crispy critters we’ve pulled out?”

That hit me like a load of bricks. I had never heard that term before. Crispy Critters? The only other casualty they had pulled out burned was my friend Flieger who had been killed two months ago. Was he talking about him?

I had never cared for Schrader, he was a screw-up and a worthless piece of shit. Without giving it any thought I reached down and grabbed him by the arm and stood him up.

“Come on Shithead, I need you over here.”  I then pulled him along to the area where the smoke was still rolling. I yelled, “You will stay right here and you will not move. If you do I will personally blow your goddamn brains out!”

I returned to my position next to Don Bates and he asked me why I had done that with Schrader. I replied, “Because I could, therefore I did.” He laughed. Not long after Happy Jack came over and asked the same thing. I told him how Schrader had been out of line and trying to impress the new guy with his being a badass. I also reminded him about the incident with Schrader’s mom and the Congressman. He agreed and PFC Schrader stayed there. Luckily for him the smoke finally dissipated to nothing.

Even though it has been 45 years I can still recall that awful night. Once we had recovered Green we all just laid there on the perimeter waiting for daylight. You couldn’t see more than five meters. Once the fire had burned out it became extremely dark. Clouds rolled in from the west masking the moon and stars. As the fire was still burning I could see large black lumps inside being consumed by the flames. You knew that you were looking at all that remained of your comrades. Comrades who were no longer human.

My thoughts turned to the guys around me. I was worried that some of my other friends had been on the Huey. It had only been ten days since the ambush when Kipo, Dien, and Captain DeCelle had been lost along with 12 other men wounded and medevaced out. Several had returned, even Bruce Dykes “Tennessee” who still wore a cast on his leg from being shot in the calf and foot. He just up and left the 95th Evac Hospital and came back, to be with his “family.”

Half of the guys in my squad had been in-country a year, well past their normal twelve-month tour. They were draftees and had decided to extend their tours for a few months in order to get an “early out” to sooner return to the “world.” The other half was mostly FNG replacements for the guys lost ten days ago. But even with all that had happened lately we had responded like soldiers when the siren went off. One minute, I was walking to my hooch thinking about a shower and 12 minutes later I was jumping off the skids into this little piece of Hell. A Hell complete with flames and brimstone.   

One minute, I was walking to my hooch thinking about a shower and 12 minutes later I was jumping off the skids into this little piece of Hell.

As soon as the sun came up a Huey landed in the center of our perimeter. Major Rafferty, the troop commanding officer, got out and SFC Jackson and SSG Middleton saluted as he approached them. I was too far away to hear what was said but Sgt. Middleton yelled for a few guys to help the crew unload the cargo. The Major had brought out a few cases of c-rations and a bunch of body bags. Not surprisingly, no one touched the rations. Many of the guys had emptied their stomachs during the night. We didn’t know it but the horror was going to get worse.

Sgt. Middleton came over to me and said, “Tedder, we are about to earn our stripes. Happy Jack wants the NCO’s to get the bodies out. He doesn’t want the men to do it. We can spare them that.”

I followed him over to where Major Rafferty and Happy Jack were and the Medic joined us, carrying a back board used when extracting wounded men with broken backs. Unbeknown to me he had requested that Happy Jack radio in to Quan Loi that it be included with the body bags. I was about to learn just how smart a medic he was.

We also learned from the Major that no one from the Rifle Platoon had been on the aircraft. The pilot was WO1 Goelz and WO1 Bennett was the co-pilot. I had flown many insertions with them and knew both pretty well. The four of us, Jackson, Middleton, Doc, and me were given repelling gloves to wear and set to work. Doc also passed around a tube of mentholated crème to put on our upper lips to mask some of the smell. It didn’t quite do the job.

The three guys that had been sitting in the cargo compartment had been crushed by the engine and transmission when the walls had given way. The four of us had to manhandle them off. The three were stuck together and we used our hands to pry them apart. The door gunner was the easiest as he was still lying in what had been the left well behind his M-60.

Mr. Bennett and Mr. Goelz had to be pulled out of their armored seats by hand. Surprisingly, they still were in human form. Though unrecognizable, you could tell they had once lived as men. Goelz’s right leg made a popping noise as we were lifting him out. His leg just plopped out of its socket. One minute I was holding both legs and the next the damn thing came off and I had just the one leg.

As soon as the last bag was zipped we stacked them on top of one another in Major Rafferty’s Huey. A few minutes later the Hueys came in to carry us back to Quan Loi. Upon reaching my hooch I stripped off my uniform and gave it all to Mama San, telling her to burn them.

I stayed in the shower a long time, ignoring the cold water and using a lot of soap. I even washed the inside of my nose and mouth but it would be a while before I could no longer smell it. It would be even longer before it no longer bothered me, especially at night.

Aftermath

by David Aldridge 

The big double-bladed Chinook helicopter was still at 1000 feet altitude when we banked left and started flying counter-clockwise in a huge circle. The .50 caliber gunner poured a steady stream of rounds into enemy soldiers on the ground. Looking out the porthole, I couldn’t see anyone. I was looking at the wrong angle. Mortar rounds exploded on the earth underneath us, but I couldn’t see who was firing. Bullets slammed into the Chinook and ricocheted off the metal hull. My breath came in short gasps. After firing at least 200 rounds, the gunner looked at me to proudly explain, “Gooks in the open! Fucked ‘em up real good!” He smiled as he chewed his cigar, a wild look in his eyes. I nodded as if I understood and this was just a common everyday experience for me. It wasn’t. It slowly sank in what he meant. A fifty-caliber round will punch a hole in you that you can put a fist through. It is normally fatal.

Down below was LZ X-Ray. My imagination ran wild with images of carnage and the wounded. The inside of the helicopter was covered with blood, but it wasn’t my blood and it wasn’t the gunner’s blood. I was the only passenger on this flight. All the blood came from the previous passengers. The blood was on the seats, floor, ramp, and even the walls. The Chinook had been used as a Medevac all that day as dead and wounded troops were picked up from the battlefield and dropped off at our base camp. Fresh troops were loaded and carried out to be inserted into the battlefield. This had been going on for six hours.

My Battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the 28th Infantry Regiment in the Big Red One, had been in the long-lasting battle that day, along with the 1st Battalion 16th Infantry, as they fought off an estimated 2000 North Vietnamese. It was June 17th, 1967. Later it would be called the Battle of Xom Bo II, but that day it was simply called the Battle of Billings. Our two battalions had 189 casualties that day, killed and wounded. The 1st of the 16th had so many casualties they were taken out of the battle in the middle of it and the 1st Battalion 18th Infantry was inserted in their place. LTC Dick Cavazos was their Commander and was nominally in charge on the ground at our NDP. He had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in the Korean War so most of the officers deferred to him and his greater experience.

The big Chinook leveled off in the dimming light of dusk and dropped quickly to the ground. The ramp was lowered. I staggered to my feet; my rucksack weighed me down. I slowly walked down the ramp. I almost slipped on all the still wet blood. Four soldiers rushed past me with a body bag. They laid their cargo on the floor of the chopper. My eyes weren’t accustomed to the dimming light yet. I bumped into a soldier. I asked, “Which way to Bravo Company, 2nd of the 28th? I am supposed to report to Captain Turner.”

He said, “They’re over there,” indicating a group of soldiers, “but I wouldn’t fuck with Captain Turner right now. That was his RTO, Spec 4 Morrow, who they just put on the chopper. He was just killed in a mortar attack three minutes ago.”

I was the only passenger on this flight.

Oh my God. I saw Morrow’s smiling face in my mind’s eye immediately. Oh Jesus. Morrow was the only person besides CPT Turner who had been nice to me since I came up from Saigon. Most of the guys in my company had been very hostile to me. They all acted as if their lives were now in great peril because of my presence. Some had outright hatred for me that they weren’t shy about expressing as they called me the “Fucking New Guy” or “Fucking Twink” every chance they got. It had been Captain Turner who told me to report to him when I got to the field, so I trudged over to where the soldier had pointed. I found some men sitting around a foxhole. “Captain Turner?”

Slowly, one of the soldiers turned to look up at me. It was Captain Turner and he seemed to be in pain. After a pause, he recognized me and said, “Aldridge! Welcome to the field.”

I offered, “Sir, you said to report to you when I got to the field and I just arrived.”

Captain Turner barked, “First Sergeant! Aldridge is here. Put him with the 3rd Platoon. They had the most killed and wounded today.”

Not knowing if I was supposed to salute or not I just said, “Yes, sir!” I wanted to say something about Morrow, but I couldn’t get the words out.

The first sergeant had me follow him over to the perimeter where a bunch of soldiers dug foxholes. “Staff Sergeant Jimenez, this is PFC Aldridge, a replacement, who volunteered to come to the field from Saigon. He’s in 3rd platoon now.” There were all sorts of hidden meanings in what he said but I didn’t allow myself to begin deciphering them. SSG Jimenez didn’t say anything to the first sergeant, who walked back toward Captain Turner.

Then SSG Jimenez said, not even trying to hide the disgust in his voice, “A fucking Twink! Jesus Christ! You can stay in this foxhole with Clinger.” He indicated a foxhole about 15 feet away. “Hey Clinger” Jimenez hollered, “Here’s a brand-new guy for you.” 

I walked towards the soldier near the foxhole. He said, “You can throw your shit to the side and grab a shovel.” I put all my equipment behind the foxhole and looked around the encampment. Lots of soldiers smoked openly, their cigarettes burned brightly when they took a puff. 

I asked Clinger, “Okay to smoke?”

He said, “Hell, yeah. Can I get one from you? You’re the guy that volunteered to come to the bush, right?”

I offered him my pack and said, “Yeah, I volunteered to come out to the bush. After today I’m questioning my own sanity.” We both laughed. I asked, “How did you know I volunteered?” He said that the word had gotten around the company after I signed in three weeks ago. He asked if I finished CIC School. CIC School was the Combat Indoctrination Course everyone was required to go through and which was run by the 1st Infantry Division. It was a basic course to teach brand new guys how to do Clover Leaf patrols, what to look for out in the jungle, how to set up an ambush, and how not to blow yourself up with the Claymore Mines or hand grenades. The course lasted six days and probably saved hundreds of lives from accidental deaths.

When we were both smoking away he told me about the battle that day. He had never heard such gunfire in his life. He added that the noise was probably what it had been like at Gettysburg. Clinger said there had been a thousand rifles firing, hand grenades and claymores going off, mortars landing and exploding, with machine gun fire and .51 caliber fire screaming in every direction on top of everything else. Here he made a deep guttural sound like the big caliber machine guns, “Doot—doot—doot—doot!” He said then the artillery started coming in and the jets dropped napalm. He said that there may have even been a few short rounds that hit our boys with the artillery.

Afterwards, we settled in to a nice rhythm of taking turns digging deeper and making the foxhole bigger in case of attack. I told him about my job in Saigon and why I had volunteered to come to the Big Red One. I discovered that Clinger was from Pennsylvania, his first name was Guy, but his family called him Mick. I told him my middle name was Martine and most of my family had called me Marty growing up. Clinger walked point and he told me about the kinds of things a point man encountered: things like snakes, bamboo with poisonous thorns, and wait-a-minute-vines. He told me about leeches and how to check for them after you cross a stream. He mentioned that you have to constantly look for booby traps of every kind like punji-pits, and trip wires, and Bouncing Betties.

As he was telling me all this, I distinctly heard someone out in the jungle say, “Fuck you!” I jumped over to where my rifle was and got back down in the foxhole, ready to kill the invading hordes.

Clinger started laughing and said,

Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! That’s not the enemy! It’s a Fuck-You Lizard.

I could hardly breathe. I said, “You’re pulling my leg!”

Still laughing, he said, “No. It’s true. There is a lizard that makes noises like it’s saying Fuck you!” I was embarrassed as well as flabbergasted that one of God’s creatures could sound so much like a human being. It was eerie to say the least.

All I could think to say was, “It’s a good thing we‘re not out on ambush because I would have fired everything I had at it!” We both laughed and got back to taking turns digging. SSG Jimenez came around at 11:00 p.m. and said that we were going to get a B-52 strike around midnight so stay in the foxhole for safety.

Right on time, the B-52’s began bombing the area around our two battalions. Clinger and I were both thrown out of the foxhole several times as all of the earth around us made a huge undulating motion. As we were thrown out we would scramble back and drop into the foxhole, just to be thrown out again. After about two or three minutes of silence we were rained on by huge amounts of dirt and debris from the pulverized jungle. Clinger and I grabbed our helmets in case half a mahogany tree came crashing down. We stayed awake all night. I had not slept the night before either so that was two nights in a row. We made our foxhole into a nice-sized bunker and filled enough sandbags to cover the roof. Now all we needed was some engineer stakes and we would have overhead cover against mortars and hand grenades. Dawn came slowly, and I could see that the whole area had been transformed into neat little bunkers and orderly packed sandbags everywhere within the night defensive position (NDP).  

I peered into the jungle beyond my bunker. Noises that emitted from it were cause of concern to me and kept me constantly on alert. I couldn’t tell what kind of animals or birds were calling out, but there seemed to be ten different species vying for attention as the sun gained the horizon. Each shrieking call or whistle was cause for me to pull my rifle closer and take it off of safe. The bird calls and high-pitched monkey shrieks seemed to be a warning device and an objection to our presence. I was hyper-vigilant, expecting enemy soldiers to come bursting forth from behind the nearest trees.

As more light refracted through the leaves on the highest trees I had to readjust my eyesight to distinguish one plant from another. The jungle looked dark and ominous. There were palm fronds three feet long and other bushes and leaves with thorns on them. The whole scene was as foreign to me as a lunar moonscape. I saw trees as tall as any eucalyptus in California. Vines hung down as if suspended from heaven itself and gently swayed to and fro. I could see spider webs high up in the trees that stretched from one strange tree to another. Birds flitted from one tree to another so fast I couldn’t tell what kind of birds they were.

The color of the foliage was ten shades of green from an effervescent emerald green to a dark green that was almost black. No artist could replicate all the various shades of greens, browns, blacks, and grays. The jungle was in varying stages of life from new growth to rotting and putrefaction. The smell of rotting leaves and vines from the jungle floor was mixed with an oxygen–rich aroma that was invigorating and uplifting. During the previous night Clinger and I had stood watch and seen a kind of bioluminescence that illuminated the jungle floor. Clinger said it was like a trillion lightening bugs had died and fallen to the jungle floor, but in daylight they were not to be seen. I was left breathless and in awe at the verdant beauty of the primordial splendor I faced.

After breakfast, SSG Jimenez came by and said we were going on a sweep of the area and to get saddled up. I wandered to the headquarters command group area and found a case of hand grenades. I emptied them out of their cardboard sleeves, making sure none of the pins would pop out accidentally. The killing radius on each of the grenades was five meters. Then I loaded both of the side pockets of my jungle fatigue pants with five grenades each. I already had 20 magazines of ammo and five other grenades, so I figured I was armed enough for the day. A helicopter, escorted by two gunships, flew over our NDP and landed. Four soldiers in starched fatigues got out to shake the hands of LTC Cavazos and our Battalion Commander. There were also a couple of civilians with them; one carried a big movie camera.

After a few minutes of waiting we were told it was General Westmoreland and a CBS Camera crew. The order to move out was given and our platoon, which consisted of five guys, was told to fall in on the right flank behind the point platoon. It was only 8:30 a.m. but the heat was already oppressive. I was glad I had brought four canteens of water with me. Within 30 minutes one of the canteens was empty. As we swept along through the area where most of the battle had raged the day before, we started finding more and more bloody bandages and North Vietnamese equipment. We discovered unexploded ordnance everywhere, blocks of C-4 were placed close to the hand grenades and mortar rounds with a long fuse sticking out of them. The fuses were set to go off five minutes after the last guy had passed by. The whole company hurried along to make sure no one got injured from the explosions.

After about an hour, the CBS crew demanded to be escorted back to the NDP where Westmoreland waited. We were finding hundreds of fresh footprints on the trails. The CBS guys were spooked. Captain Turner had no choice but to accede to their wishes. He had the point platoon escort them back. The 3rd platoon was called to the point and told to check out a hard-ball trail that had been discovered. We moved forward to the trail. Clinger was on point with a black guy named Sergeant Glover right behind him. Clinger had told me Glover was a hell of a soldier and was supposed to go to the West Point Prep School in a week or two. Behind Glover walked a tall blond guy, the RTO (radio man), followed by SSG Jimenez. I was told by Jimenez, “Just follow me, and shut the fuck up.”

Clinger started down the trail. In front of him it curved to the left and then back to the right. Everyone followed a few paces behind the guy in front. Jimenez and I were still close together when I heard a very distinctive metal on metal sound, like someone jacking a round into the chamber of a rifle. I asked Jimenez, “Did you hear that?”

He spat out, “Shut the fuck up!”

I heard another round jacked into a chamber and I said, “There it goes again.” Why didn’t anyone else react to the noise? Jimenez started to tell me to shut up once again when he was cut off by a loud burst of continuous automatic weapons fire. Simultaneously there were several hand grenades that went off to my immediate front. I felt the heat of the explosions on my face and rounds zipping past my head. I tried to figure out which way to go. The small arms fire was joined by several machine guns adding to the terror confronting us. I never heard one round of return fire up to that point. I danced around on the trail, trying to figure out if I should go left or right. Finally, I decided to go to the right of the trail and plopped in the middle of knee high grass. I had absolutely no cover to get behind. No trees, no rocks, no ant hills.

Jimenez came running by me and said, “I’m going to get help!” He disappeared the way we had come. 

I raised my head and looked to the right. A flurry of hundreds of little whiffs of air flashed by my nose and eyes. I felt the same thing on my left. I thought in a panic, “Oh my God, I landed in a bee hive! I’m in a firefight and I landed in a fucking bee hive!” Again, to the right, I felt what I thought were hundreds more bees flying past my head, ears, and eyes. Those were not bees. A lot of people were trying to shoot me. All of my muscles locked up and immediately cramped. I was seized with an ungodly fear that I had never felt before. I lost control. My heart beat wildly. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. My blood pressure skyrocketed, blood thundered through my arteries and veins, and my entire body jerked with every powerful beat. I was afraid I would pass out. I had to force myself to breathe.

The scene in front of me jerked constantly left and right with each heart beat. I grabbed my head with both hands and jammed both elbows into the earth to steady my eyes in case someone walked up on me. I began a conversation with myself: “Don’t lay here and die like a coward, goddamit! Do something!” I fired my M-16 in the direction of all the noise. There seemed to be at least a platoon of soldiers trying to kill me. I pulled the trigger, one round fired, then the rifle stopped. I pulled and pulled on the trigger. Nothing happened. A round got jammed. I tried to get it out by ejecting it but couldn’t. I had a cleaning kit for my M16 on my rucksack and I had to pull it around to get to it. I pulled out the cleaning rods and put them together. All the while the North Vietnamese firing at me never let up. Hand grenades exploded all around me. I put my cleaning rod in the rifle barrel and pushed out the empty round in the chamber. I jacked another round in the chamber and fired. It jammed again. I used the rod to clear it again. It jammed once more. I changed magazines thinking that might help. It still jammed. I remembered the hand grenades in my pockets. I pulled one out.

I was seized with an ungodly fear that I had never felt before. I lost control.

It was a World War II grenade called a Pineapple and it was heavy. I wouldn’t be able to throw it very far if I just lay there in the prone position, so I quickly got to my knees and threw it straight in front of me. The enemy fired at their new target with a vengeance. Hundreds of rounds whizzed by my head. The grenade rolled into the wood line just past all the grass in the little field I was in and exploded with a WHUMP! I got back down. That stopped some of the firing. The smell of gunpowder and cordite filled the air. I fished out another grenade, one of the newer baseball-type grenades. I threw it high enough to get an air burst out of it as it came back down in the thick jungle in front of me. I threw four or five hand grenades in quick succession, using them like mortars. The firing was considerably less now, with lots of groaning out in front of me.

Another soldier from my company came up behind me and said, “Captain Turner says to pull back.”

I said, “What about Clinger, Glover, and the RTO?”

“I don’t know but the captain said to pull back, so come on!” He clearly didn’t want to stay in the area as we were still receiving fire. A steady Pop, Pop, Pop was the sound I learned to be the peculiar noise an AK-47 makes. I followed the soldier. I felt like I was abandoning Clinger and the others. We were quickly back with the rest of the company. Jimenez stood off to the side looking sheepish, avoiding eye contact. I told the captain that Clinger, Glover, and the RTO were still up at the point and I had heard lots of groaning. I added that my rifle was useless and kept jamming. He asked for volunteers to go back up and get Clinger and the others. Three soldiers who I didn’t know volunteered to go back up.

The captain said, “Aldridge, you go show them where everyone is.” Fear struck me again, and my legs turned to rubber. My right knee buckled. I disguised it by acting like I was trying to get a better stance and stepped forward.

I said, “Yes, sir. I’ll go.” I paused a little to get strength back into my legs and to take a deep breath. Thankfully one of the soldiers took off down the trail first. I followed. My legs didn’t shake as bad after a few steps. It felt better being with others as we walked back down the trail. As we neared the place where I had first heard the metal-on-metal sound of a round being loaded, I told the others to slow down. We all crouched and listened. We could hear moaning in front of us.

The guy in front yelled, “Glover? Can you hear us?” I told everyone that this was where everyone got hit and we should throw some hand grenades out in front in case the NVA are waiting on us. Everyone agreed and we all pulled out grenades and pulled the pins.

I said we should throw them to the other side of the little opening one after the other for maximum effect and get Clinger and Glover and the RTO out of wherever they were hiding. I threw mine first then the guy in front threw his. They both exploded in the underbrush twenty meters in front of us. The others quickly threw their hand grenades and after they exploded we all rushed forward whispering loudly, “Glover, Clinger?”

Sergeant Glover and the tall blond RTO came out from hiding and joined us hurriedly. The RTO said, “Clinger’s dead.” The RTO’s left arm was hanging by a few muscles and tendons. The wounds on his arm had been cauterized. There was nothing to put a tourniquet on. Glover had a huge bandage around his face and part of his jaw was hanging down. They were both covered in blood. We turned to go back to the rest of the company. Someone had popped yellow smoke at the edge of the company position and we had to walk through it.

As soon as we got back to the captain we told him that Clinger was dead. He said, “Jets are coming in. Get down.” As soon as he said this we lay prone and we heard the jets begin their strafing runs with their 30 MM cannons. It sounded like the world’s biggest fog horn when they opened up. Empty cartridges fell on all of us laying there. My neck got burned from the super-heated cartridges. I rolled around on the ground frantically trying to get them off. After five passes the jets dropped two bombs each.

Someone said, “Those are the 250 pounders!” Once the jets expended all their ordnance, word was passed around to get ready for the artillery.

The captain said to everyone, “Stay down! They’re going to bring it in close!” The rounds cut through the air; the first hit a tree 50 meters from us. A Spanish guy named Moreno was lying next to me on my left. He had his sleeves rolled up and his very large triceps were exposed. When the first round hit the tree, a large piece of shrapnel sliced through Moreno’s triceps to the bone and sprayed me with blood. His arm had only been a few inches off the earth and next to my head.

Moreno got up and started running in circles, screaming, “Medic! Medic!” I tried to bury my face and whole body into the jungle floor. I was inhaling dirt through my nostrils when more rounds exploded in quick succession, throwing leaves and debris over us. Finally, someone tackled Moreno and a medic tried to bandage him. After ten minutes of walking the artillery all around us, the barrage was called off.

The captain asked for volunteers to retrieve Clinger’s body. Three soldiers stepped up and once again he turned to me and said, “Aldridge. Take them back up there and show them where Clinger is.”

I didn’t want to go but I said, “Okay captain, but does anyone have a rifle that doesn’t jam?” Someone handed me their rifle. I said thanks and gave up my useless weapon. This time I walked point as we all returned to claim Clinger’s body.

If I didn’t bury my emotions, I would crumble under the weight of so much tragedy.

When we got close to the area of the firefight, I told the other three guys that we were going to recon by fire as the NVA may have come back into the area after the artillery stopped. They all agreed and when we got to the place in the trail where we could see Clinger laying we all stepped forward, threw hand grenades, and fired one magazine each into the jungle. We crouched waiting for the grenades to go off and then, after reloading a fresh magazine, rushed forward to grab Clinger. One soldier stayed with me as we went past Clinger and fired our weapons into the jungle foliage low to the ground. The other two grabbed Clinger and started dragging him back. I grabbed his rifle and helmet as we backed up. After moving only ten meters we realized it would take the four of us to carry Clinger. It was still a struggle. I caught a glimpse of Glover and the blond guy and it was clear the medics had worked on them and their wounds. Glover’s whole head was swathed in blood-soaked bandages and the RTO’s arm was bandaged to his torso. I silently prayed that they had found a way to tie off the arteries on his arm. Our company began the walk back to the NDP. Westmoreland and the CBS crew were long gone, but I’m sure they were in time for the Five O’clock Follies back in Saigon.

All my water was drunk when we arrived back at our bunkers. I re-filled every canteen. It was already 1 p.m. I hadn’t urinated since before breakfast. SSG Jimenez said I was to go with Sergeant Colombo and ten other soldiers on an ambush at 1700. I looked around the 1st and 2nd platoon areas until I found SGT Colombo and introduced myself. He said to eat some chow and be ready to go at 1700 hours. I told him I needed to take a cat nap because I hadn’t slept in three days.

He very kindly responded, “No problem. I will wake you up in three hours and you can get ready then.” It took me ten seconds to fall asleep. When he shook me awake at 1600 hours I felt refreshed like I had had eight hours of restful sleep.

I was worried about my rifle. I had switched out mine with the good soldier who had loaned me his to go back to get Glover and the RTO. He came and got it as soon as we were back in the NDP. I needed to get mine fixed. The unit armorer was back in Lai Khe. I asked SGT Colombo what I should do, rather than Jimenez. SGT Colombo led me to another bunker and pointed at an M-79 and a large bag of HE rounds. He said, “You can carry the M-79. Make sure you have 50 HE rounds, and you can take as many of the canister rounds as you can carry. Also bring hand grenades.”

I found some canister rounds and said to him, “Doesn’t look like this could do much damage.”

SGT Colombo said, “Believe me. This is like ten shotgun shells with double-aught buck shot in it.” I loaded up as he directed and ate some C-rations. I waited by his bunker for the orders to move out. If today was any kind of measure, tonight was going to be pure hell.

The horror of Clinger’s death and the horrible wounding of SGT Glover and his RTO, who I learned died on the way back to Long Binh, filled my heart with immeasurable pain and my eyes with tears. If I didn’t bury my emotions, I would crumble under the weight of so much tragedy. So, I gritted my teeth, breathed deeply, and forced myself to push all the emotion I was feeling back down inside. I wiped my eyes with my dirty hands.

Anonymous

by Jack Frazer

Load up the troops; move them on out.

Boots on the floor; fear in the air.

No place to hide.

No thanks for the ride.

Holes in the fuselage for our trouble.

 

Load up ammunition; move it on out.

Bullets on the floor; freight in the air.

A critical resupply,

without it some die.

More AK holes as an encore.

 

Load up bodies; move them to the rear.

Blood on the floor; pain in the air.

One soldier dead, two still alive,

no way to tell who will survive.

Our flying ambulance at your service.

 

Unload them quickly; triage is here.

Gurneys on the ground; questions in the air:

graves registration or battalion aid?

Don’t ask me that; it’s above my grade.

I’m not a medic; just the pilot.

 

Hose down the floor; wash away the blood.

Red stains on the ground; death smell in the air,

need a drink,

too tired to think—

don’t know their names, nor they mine.

Thunder III

by David Aldridge 

The five Hueys from the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company, the “Robin Hoods,” brought our company of infantry into Thunder III 25 men at a time. After four lifts, the whole company was assembled at the resupply pad and the resident first sergeant began showing us which bunkers were assigned to us. My company was Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment with the First Infantry Division, also called the Big Red One. I told our company commander which bunkers my platoon would occupy and began assigning them to my platoon of 30 men. In total, my platoon had nine bunkers that spanned 150 meters of the perimeter. I made sure that both bunkers with machine guns had an extra guy. The extra guy always came in handy during a ground attack. They could link up more ammo, load up empty magazines for our M-16s, or give covering fire while more ammo was being loaded into the gun. They also could help change the barrel out when it got red hot and couldn't fire anymore for fear of melting. Machine gunners were the biggest targets in a ground attack so the extra man on the gun was a practical necessity.

As platoon leader, I was on my second tour and would stay with whatever bunker was most in danger of being hit by the North Vietnamese if they attacked. I chose a different bunker each night to sleep in. It was January 1969, and the Vietnamese New Year, called Tet, was coming soon. We wanted to be ready this year. As soon as everyone was assigned to their bunker, I went around inspecting them. Some needed sandbags replaced. Some needed to have the area around the bunker policed up from trash the departing unit had left behind. No matter how good a platoon leader, or platoon sergeant, the fact is soldiers always leave a trail of trash when they vacate someplace. Additionally, someone had to check each bunker for jungle rats and cobras. The rats were notoriously ferocious and would send a good-sized cat scurrying for safety. The cobras controlled the population of rats and other small animals and were sometimes found in the bottom of the bunkers. I used a good flashlight and a borrowed .45 caliber pistol from my machine gunner to take care of this last task. One by one I cleared each bunker. Thank God I didn't have to engage in combat with any rats or cobras. This time.

A previous company commander had once been in the bottom of a bunker trying to read his maps by flashlight when he noticed movement on one of the sandbags. It was a huge rat. The captain pulled his .45 caliber pistol and fired a quick six rounds at the moving target. He missed, and the bunker was vacated a couple of seconds later by both the captain and the rat. The whole company had grabbed their weapons upon hearing the gunfire and were finally able to breathe easy when the captain announced, "I missed."

After I gave the “All clear” for all the bunkers, everyone got busy filling new sandbags and using poncho liners and engineer stakes to set up sun screens against the relentless heat of the sun. When it wasn't raining, it was normally around 100 degrees Fahrenheit with astronomical humidity. Sweat poured off anyone making any sort of exertion in those conditions. After filling 25 sandbags, the mess sergeant put out the word that it was time for our hot lunch. The resident first sergeant who was with Headquarters, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry (Mechanized), told me we could start sending our troops up to the makeshift mess hall in the middle of the Fire Support Base, one man at a time from each bunker. I hollered out to everyone to take their weapons with them and to wear their steel pots, army issued helmets, when they went to get some chow. Everything went smoothly and within 20 minutes we all had a hot meal, served on the finest paper plates, for the first time in two weeks.

Hot meals were always an improvement over our normal C-rations. We had had a bad time in the bush for the last 45 days with two ground attacks and countless firefights with three of our soldiers killed just recently. Two of our soldiers had been killed in November 1968 at FSB Cantigny, and another killed during a ground attack on December 1st, 1968, at FSB Junction City III. These deaths were still fresh in everybody's mind and were spoken of frequently. A hot meal was just what the doctor ordered. Our morale improved immediately. As Bonaparte is alleged to have said, 

An army marches on its stomach.

After a hot, well-cooked meal we were ready to march to Hanoi. In the Infantry we were always grateful for the efforts of our cooks and thanked them profusely for such a great meal. For entertainment most of us had small transistor AM/FM radios we carried with us everywhere. When we got back to the bunkers, we pulled out the radios and tuned into our favorite local radio program. After a short rest, we began to fill sandbags again to improve our bunkers.

The Big Red One had its own radio station called Radio KLIK (Kay-El-Ay-Kay) and was located in the Division Headquarters village of Lai Khe. The village was part of an old rubber tree plantation about 25 miles north of Saigon on Route 13, sometimes called Thunder Road by the G.I.s. The Thunder came from the many bombs and booby-traps that exploded on the road, almost daily, all the way up to Bu Dop on the Cambodian border. From Lai Khe to the border the First Division had built ten small Fire Support Bases, called “Thunders,” which the many units of the 1st Infantry Division could retreat to for a stand-down whenever they had a hard time in the jungle, or after a particularly rough combat action in which they had lost men, killed or wounded. That was our situation, and we were going to enjoy our short respite from the war as long as we could at Thunder III. I was elated that no one from my platoon had been killed in the last eight months but, even in a relatively safe place like one of the Thunders, you could never let your guard down completely.

On our most recent operation we rescued a Bird Dog pilot after he was shot down. We had been in four firefights over a five-day period and in one of the firefights the plane had been shot down. We raced to rescue the pilot before the NVA could get to him. When I approached the pilot, it was almost sunset. He came out from his hiding place on rubbery legs and shakily said to me with tears in his eyes, "I have never been so happy to see another human being in my life! Thank God you're here!"

I told him, "The day ain't over, sir, so let's get out of here," as I led him back to a landing zone for him to get picked up.

A Bird Dog pilot was an Army or Air Force pilot who flew a Cessna or a Piper Cub airplane, usually outfitted with rockets on its wings to pinpoint where the big fighter jets should bomb or strafe. I had been walking point when each of the firefights took place and we had racked up a lot of dead enemy. It takes its toll on you. We were all more than ready for the break that being on the Thunders would give us until our next operation into The Iron Triangle or War Zone C.

Thunder III and was located near the village of Chon Thanh, which was about 15 miles north of Lai Khe. It was relatively peaceful and the kids who swarmed down Route 13 from Chon Thanh were all friendly and full of life. I had known them from my first tour with Delta Company back in 1967. They all called me by my Vietnamese name, Anh Hai, which means Number Two Brother, or Second Brother. I simply loved all those children. It lifted my spirits every time I saw them, and I couldn't wait to see them again as soon as our bunkers were fixed up.

My platoon of Infantrymen was in tiptop shape and we had the bunkers repaired in no time. We made sure that our fields of fire were all cleared, placed our Claymore Mines out by the perimeter barbed wire, and led the attached wires back to the bunkers. We were set for the evening. I asked my machine gunner, Ray, if he wanted to go say hi to the kids, who I knew were waiting for us out by the front gate, and he said, "Yeah, let's go."

My machine gunner was from Great Neck, Long Island in New York. He had been a weight lifter and body builder who had worked out with Lou Ferrigno before Lou became an actor. Ray had also been a part time burglar before he was requested by his sentencing judge to go serve his country in the army. After his discharge, Ray told me he would go back to the same judge and request his record be expunged. All he had to do was get an honorable discharge and the past would remain in the past.

As we approached the front gate of Thunder III, we saw dozens of kids milling around and talking with the G.I.’s standing with them. Some of the kids were selling Coca-Cola, and some were selling Bier 33, the French/Vietnamese Beer. It was called Ba Muoi Ba, which translates as "Three-Ten Three," or Thirty Three.

As soon as the kids saw Ray and me they stopped what they were doing and ran over to us screaming with joy, "Anhhai! Anhhai Oi," they sang. What they were all saying was translated as “Second Brother, Oh!” The sounds of their joy spilled into my heart and I laughed as the smallest kids tried to jump into my arms at the same time. I led the kids away from the gate to the side of the road and we chatted back and forth for awhile in Vietnamese. Ray showed them his biceps and he struck a Mr. Universe pose. As he held that pose, two kids jumped up and started swinging on his arms like he was a child's playground and his arms the monkey bars. We were all laughing and yelling at each other when I looked north along Route 13 and saw a huge cloud of dust in the distance coming inevitably our way. It appeared to be at least two kilometers down the road still, but I yelled at the other G.I.’s and the kids to get out of the road, to come over to where I was. I had a bad feeling and I didn't know why.

This huge cloud of dust moving down Route 13 could mean simply that a convoy was coming through. That was bad news for anyone on a slow walk down Thunder Road. Route 13 was not paved and was made up of red laterite clay. Laterite is a type of reddish soil, found in tropical or subtropical regions that has been leached of its soluble minerals. When it is dry it produces huge amounts of dust. If you were riding a motorcycle or bicycle you could possibly get hit or knocked over by one of the vehicles, and the convoy wouldn't even slow down. If you were a driver of one of the hundreds of cyclos or Lambrettas traveling on the road, the red dust from the convoy could temporarily engulf you in a cloud and blind you so that you had to pull off the road until the way was clear again.

A cyclo is a modified motorcycle that could carry extra passengers. Sort of a motorcycle taxi for three to five passengers. The Lambrettas are small open-air vehicles with just three wheels, like a trike, with enough room for eight or ten passengers to sit. They are powered by a motorcycle engine and also had a roof rack where they carried crates of chickens, ducks, pigs, and other assorted cargo from village to village.

All the children stayed behind Ray and me as the ominous cloud of red dust came closer. I still held two of the kids in my arms as they clung to my neck. Suddenly I realized who it was and yelled, "It's the Cav! Get back! Get back!"

They all called me by my Vietnamese name, Anh Hai, which means Number Two Brother, or Second Brother.

The cavalry units were mechanized infantry units that loved to race along Thunder Road heading south, and then hang a right turn at the village of Ben Cat and head towards the Iron Triangle along the Saigon River. Then they would swing north towards the Michelin Rubber Plantation where they would race through and catch Viet Cong and North Vietnamese enemies by surprise. They were very successful at this and had fought many battles in the large rubber plantation that way, but the way they roared down the road was reckless and dangerous to the South Vietnamese. They certainly didn't win any hearts or minds by running these people off the road all the time.

The cavalry unit roared towards us. I put the kids down and started motioning with my arms for everyone to get back away from the road. The Americans that were on the road moved back inside the safety of the fire support base and I stayed with the kids to make sure none of them got hurt. As the column of armored personnel carriers (APC) approached our position by the gate, I could see that they were doing about 30 to 35 miles per hour with three or four soldiers riding on top of each APC. This was normal because everyone called the APC a metal coffin, and never wanted to ride inside of one. There was only a slight westward wind that day. The second APC was only about ten meters from the rear of the first APC, which didn't give time for the clouds of raising dust to blow to the west side of the road. The APCs needed much more distance between them for the following driver to be able to see the road with any kind of certainty. The APCs didn't slow down as they roared past us at the front gate of Thunder III. Instead, they seemed to pick up speed.

I watched carefully as they came—one, two, three, four—until the fifth APC hit a small depression in the road and its back end went into the air. When it went airborne one of the soldiers on the topside of the APC flew up into the air and came down, missing the top of the vehicle and landing in the road. Ray and I immediately jumped in front of the next APC waving our arms frantically to try to make them stop. They didn't see us or the soldier in the road and drove on ahead as Ray and I sprinted back to the side of the road before being crushed ourselves. We jumped out again and again as the next two APCs roared through. Finally, the horror of what had happened caught the eye of one of the APC commanders sitting on top, and he radioed the convoy to immediately stop. 

Finally, the cavalry convoy came to a stop and Ray and I rushed to the soldier. I was praying he had fallen between the tracks of the APCs and had not been run over. When Ray and I got to him all I could do was scream, "Son of a fucking Bitch! Goddamit! What have you guys done?" It was clearly too late to save the soldier.

Ray reacted too with, "Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus!" The soldier had died a terrible death under the tracks of at least three APCs. His face was unrecognizable. One of the cavalry guys took out the dead soldier's wallet and looked at the military ID inside and started wailing as he passed the ID to a lieutenant who walked up. Other soldiers started crying as they realized they knew the dead soldier.

I told the Lieutenant, "We tried to get you guys to stop but none of the drivers could see us because of the dust." Not knowing what else to add, I simply said, "I'm sorry, man." One of the cavalry non-commissioned officers (NCO) ordered a driver to lower the back ramp on one of the APCs. It slowly came down and after rolling the soldier in a poncho they put him inside. The ramp was raised, and the convoy started out again, perhaps a little slower than before.

Please be careful on Thunder Road.

Ray was swearing under his breath and fighting back tears as we walked away from the middle of the road. Shaking my head, I walked back to the kids who had a look of horror etched onto their faces. Some of the kids were crying openly. I hugged them to me a little tighter than before and I told them to please always be careful on Thunder Road. They promised me they would.

Rain

by Richard Geisel

Fatigues are glued to my skin, rain of a thousand years, rhythms and waves.

Fatigues are glued to my skin, rain of a thousand years, rhythms and waves. I am sitting on my helmet, towel around my neck, and a Cambodian green rubber sheet covering me. This is my silent waterproof armor. The issued poncho is noisy, as water striking a galvanized roof, shielding the necessary sounds of oncoming danger. Was it designed to say, “Here I am, come and get me?” Doesn’t anyone know? Who’s in charge? Nothing can touch me with my cone of safety.

Tears glide along the channels of the leaves, cascading, forming pools and streams around my helmet. My butt is dry for a couple of hours. This is the third night of the weeklong ambush. Some genius decided to keep making the teams smaller, so more can be deployed, four to five men depending upon availability. The code name is Shotgun.

Shotgun teams are the ambush d’jour; small teams scatter, more chance to meet the enemy. The Captain can’t contain his excitement, “The first man that gets a kill wins a bottle of scotch.” 

I try to control my enthusiasm. Let’s see; less sleep, fewer men, outnumbered by your opponent, opportunities for advancement. Advancement, maybe I could win a Purple Heart or a Med Vac. The briefing includes ambush coordinates, pickup dates and aerial photos of the site.

“Are there any questions?” Are there any questions? Who thought up this shit? Are you crazy? Does the Captain qualify as a kill?

The choppers are waiting. I’m running across the field holding my helmet and gear. I know the blades can’t hit me but I squat as I run. Legs hang out the side of the door and off we go.

The pilot motions to me that we are approaching the site and to get ready. The chopper comes in high and starts a quick descent. The serpentine trail was cut into the bush with a scythe and disappeared at ground level. The photos of the site were perfect and I can see where X marks the ambush position. The pilot gives me the signal to jump.

I look down as the bush is fanned by the blade wash. It is not opening up to see the ground. We must be 20 feet above the bush and who knows where the ground is. I am not having my men jump 30 or 40 feet into the unknown just so a pilot can get home early. I yell for him to put it down. I can’t see his eyes under the flight helmet but he can see mine.

He turns and yells, “This is it, jump!”

Well, this might be my chance to win the scotch. I lean forward from the door towards the pilot, my whole body and M16 pointing at his helmet, “Put us down, now!”

I didn’t win the scotch that day and didn’t worry about being reported. What were they going to do, fire me?

We have hike 500 yards to get to the site. Claymores and trip flares set, small tight perimeter facing the trail. There is no grass growing on the trail, this must be a small artery off of the Ho Chi Minh funneling NVA south. I have three men; no talking, no moving, cold meals. Silence is the command. After three days of quiet, heat, humidity, and rain I can hear a Loch coming toward the position. No communication on the radio, but sure enough it is circling and then starts to touch down 50 feet in front. Thanks a lot. My well-orchestrated ambush is now public knowledge. I know at any moment all of the NVA in the world are coming to lunch.

The Loch settles on the ground and out pops a general who must have arrived from Abercrombie & Fitch trying to perform his best Patton impression. I walk out to meet him in my best torn fatigues. In his hand is a map, “Do you know where you are son?” 

I thought about that for a second, trying to keep the scotch out of my mind. “Yes sir, I do.”

“Son, you’re supposed to be 500 yards that way.”

“Sir, do you know where you are? That chopper is sitting in front of my claymore, and at any moment the static from the blades is going to blow you and the chopper away.”

There was no further instruction about my map skills and our meeting adjourned as quickly as it had started.

Dusk creeps and the tears from the ski start to fall. It is time to cocoon with my gift from Hwan, my Cambodian scout, and sit on my helmet.

Guardian Angel

by Robert Waldruff

Tom loved being with the Marine grunts of India Company. He enjoyed their raw expressions of fatality; tough characters with big hearts.

Word came for India to move to the bush on a company sized operation. Destiny headed them to the Arizona Territory, a dangerous area of jungle, hedgerows, and endless small villages always contested and full of bad guys. With no desire for medals and souvenirs, Tom knew all the fools were dead. This opportunity to get some war stories and talk shit in the officers club with fraternity brothers was exhilarating though. Initiation time.

At 0430hrs began the ritual of organizing stuff, filling canteens, checking ammo, and eating as much hot chow as possible with C-rats on the menu for the next several days.

Stay close, pay attention, and you’ll be fine.

Grunts trudged to the pad, bitching about the dangerous and nasty Arizona, and why the fuck did India Company get this mission? Moaning and groaning was a Marine tradition. Birds landed to fill up with men and equipment. India Company headed out with more than a hundred riflemen, dressed in flack jackets and steel helmets, carrying all types of hand-held weapons to inflict maximum death and destruction. With his .45 holstered and M16 in hand, Tom gritted his teeth and slowly nodded. Like a rock! Lock and load, let’s get some!

Tom boarded the third chopper with the company commander and his staff. Last night the CO briefed officers and NCO’s that the mission required providing security for peasants of My Hiep village as they harvested a huge and vital corn crop planted by VC and their NVA advisors to resupply rations stored in their mountain sanctuaries. Not sharing this bounty with the locals, made possible by Marine protectors, offered the potential of a tremendous psychological victory. The skipper cautioned of enemy resistance but not to worry due to the presence of our awesome firepower. Afterwards, the CO grabbed Tom, “I know you’ve only been in country five weeks and this mission will be OJT, but it’s no sweat. We all start this way. Stay close, pay attention, and you’ll be fine.”

Tom fluttered over the Vu Gia River watching it meander and knife through thick canopy. Huge bomb craters scarred the earth—memories of recent battles. Tom stared at the endless vistas of beautiful lush green crisscrossed with open wounds of devastation; fields filled with dead trees covered in the thick powder of Agent Orange’s malignant death. The juxtaposition of natural beauty and man’s ugly destruction recalled Greek tragedy.

Tom landed, checked radios, pulled out maps and compasses, and got oriented. Soon all the Marines disembarked, formed up, and the long green line slowly moved to My Hiep. Tom and India Company followed a winding narrow trail overrun with brush. Sniper holes from long ago ambushes punctured the trail, slowing the march. The company labored to its destination, walking through a furnace of July heat and humidity. Harassing sniper fire, concealed by endless hedgerows and thick canopy, tracked them.       

At My Hiep straw huts circled the compound, a poor man’s subdivision. Several large huts for social and political events stood in the center. Peppers and other vegetables, fermented fish, and rice dried on racks of twigs and bamboo. A single well supplied water. Small people shuffled around purposely, chattering softly. Things seemed calm and routine. Outside the village sprawled the cornfield bordered by large open spaces and long rows of 10 feet high hedgerows.

The menacing jungle enclosed this checkerboard. The An Bang Mountains, sanctuary to the VC and NVA, rose in the distance.

Resting from the long, sweaty hump, Tom’s helmet and flak jacket fell off. Four canteens emptied long ago, he eagerly accepted refills. Radios hissed and crackled as the captain positioned his platoons to form a 360 perimeter. All eyes followed the FNG, trying to act like assault. Tom faked boredom, giving the grunts a grin. He noticed every Marine dug a fighting hole so he sheepishly unstrapped his e-tool and began digging a deep hole. Dusk crept in and the LP’s were set. Darkness fenced them in.

Next day the villagers fanned out into the cornfield to harvest bushel after bushel of the corn. Tom plotted the map, identifying locations of possible enemy infiltration, and locked in coordinates. He talked of home and families with the CO, ate C-rats, fought the malaise, and tried to stay alert. Night returned, this time filled with sounds of movement reported by the LP’s. The skipper didn’t seem concerned. For sure the VC knew uninvited guests occupied their neighborhood.

The third day, at 1000 hours, the battalion staff chopped in with resupply, got a sitrep from the CO, and filled their bird with fresh corn for the colonel’s evening mess. The S-3, fearing the VC marked the chopper’s position, ordered the captain to shut it down and relocate across the cornfield. The staffers boarded and flew to safety and hot chow. Word came to break down camp and saddle up; time to move out.

With fighting holes filled and flank security called in, India casually formed up. Grunts milled around the large open area separating My Hiep from thick hedgerows, checking packs for unnecessary weight, bartering C-rats, and bitching about humping in the noon heat to set up a new perimeter. Helmets and flack jackets laid on the ground.

Hedgerows erupted in a cacophony of terror. Tom hit the ground, pawing for protection from his just covered fighting hole. A hurricane of sound and fury howled through the kill zone. A VC Battalion moved into heavily fortified emplacements at the tree line behind the hedgerows to ignite an ambush—a cauldron of destruction. The next 20 minutes lasted five seconds. Under continuous gunfire, marines lay unprotected in the kill zone. Maximum firepower was urgently needed to get on these killers; fear and inaction were not options. Tom jumped up, zig-zagging madly through the tempest. He flopped next to the two-man 81m observer team. 81’s, less powerful than the 105 howitzers but light and nimble and able to get out rounds fast, were first up. Bullets pounded the ground. The two marines froze with eyes wide as saucers.

Fear and inaction were not options.

Tom grabbed their handset to shout target coordinates to the battery with no time to adjust. He had to execute with precision; there were no second chances. Tom then grabbed the handset from his own radio operator to call fire missions to the company’s artillery battery.  Smoke rose behind the hedgerows. The 81’s came out fast and landed exactly on target. Get some!

The CO formed a counter attack leading Marines straight at the hedgerows with breathtaking bravery. Brothers started to fall, seeping blood. The hailstorm pelted their unprotected position. Sniper rounds struck around Tom and the FO team. Young village women got caught in the crossfire. Tom tried to drag them to safety, but the VC bullets cut them down. The 105’s bullied their way into the brawl. Huge explosions tore open the VC emplacements showering metal, tree limbs, and debris into the sky. Tom, coordinating this onslaught of mortar and artillery rounds filling the sky, called mission after mission. The VC finally surrendered to the continuous artillery barrage, retreating to their mountain caves. The only gunshots were Marine rifles. Captain yelled cease-fire and called for medivacs. Tom rushed into the field to comfort the wounded and help the corpsmen gather the warriors for extraction.

Clean-up finished, Battalion air lifted. A Husky, a tracked vehicle mounted with a .50 caliber machine gun, provided more firepower. Seemed everybody got the message. For sure the VC did. The captain signaled to move out and pointed to Tom, “Good job Lieutenant, proud of you.” Confidence soared; he had stared into the eye of the gorilla and not blinked. Initiation successful, the sacred brotherhood offered acceptance; so, it happens like this.

Tom humped the corn field and through thick jungle into a cemetery filled with tall dirt mounds, elevated vaults to protect the dead from monsoons. In this sanctuary for the dead, the skipper decided to spend the night. The command center set up next to the Husky. Exhausted by today’s action a perimeter quickly formed, deep holes were dug, and sleep shifts were organized. Tom registered H and I targets on likely avenues of approach and slipped into his hole for rest.

Around 0100 hours an RPG hit the Husky, exploding into a rainstorm of shrapnel in the darkness. A hunk of ragged metal, motivated by decades of conflict and hate, blew open Tom’s gut, releasing blood and intestine in a torrent of gore. Other chunks tore holes in his arms, legs, and sliced open his head and ear. Drifting into a long corridor of brilliant light while feeling a wonderment of calm and peace, Tom’s eyes suddenly opened. Screams, yells, and gunfire filled the night. Hell was in session. Seemingly from a long distance, the captain screamed, “Hold your fire, hold your fire!”

With order temporarily restored, the skipper asked, “Everyone alright?”

Feeling a slimy wetness, Tom calmly said, “I think I’m hit.”

Gunny shined a light, “My God Lieutenant, corpsman up! Get a medivac.”

After several agonizing minutes, “Captain, Marble Mountain’s ordered a stand down of all birds for the night.”

CO grabbed the handset and screamed, “I’ve got a Lieutenant that needs a chopper right now, losing a lot of blood. Sir, yes sir, understood, will do, roger, out. Mission too dangerous and too far. Colonel says not til dawn. Doc how long does he have?” 

“They’re bad wounds and he’s losing a lot blood, maybe 2 hours. Fuck! Do what you can!”

Unimaginable hurt swept over the wounds. Tom struggled for comprehension through the unrelenting pain, “Doc, morphine!”

“Wounds in the abdomen and head, can’t do it.” Helpless, self reliance abandoned, groaning in pain and begging to be saved, screams rose from a hopeless soul pleading for life.

“Captain, there’s an Army Warrant Officer on our frequency. He says he’s two clicks out. He heard our medevac call—saw the explosions and tracers. He wants to come down to extract.”

Most of us live on a continuum of expectations for physical and mental outcomes. Coincidence intervenes but, ultimately, things are reasoned and accounted for. Spiritual wonderments occasionally occur, but are explained in our context of experience and intellectual relativity. What causes an army warrant officer at 0130 hours to fly solo in a Chinook into a Marine TAOR? Certainly the army didn’t authorize a night joyride in Indian Country. Why get involved? Common sense requires self-preservation. Marines in the shit and a hot zone. Surely this pilot had family and loved ones desperately needing him, no need for glory, just a cadre of scraggly Marines to appreciate any act of courage.

“Get me the biggest piece of open land you can find and pop some flares to mark. I’m coming down.” 

Captain screamed, “Pop some flares. Mark the space between those two mounds.” 

What do you say to a man risking everything to save your life?

The vessel of mercy slowly drifted down into the madness. From the back of the perimeter a firefight erupted, the VC firing at the unprotected hovering angel. An RPG sailed over the propellers challenging, “Go home, seek protection.” The angel refused and circled the death trap.

“Pop some flares closer to the perimeter and lay down some fire. I’ll get in. Prepare him.” 

Captain whispered, “It’s suicide.”

More shots missed their target. The miracle continued, comprehended only through appreciating the source. A brave soul not seeking glory labored to save a fellow traveler, his courage and mercy changing Tom forever.

What do you say to a man risking everything to save your life? Don’t underestimate the grace of your fellow man, it will amaze and bring love to your heart.

The Cong punched through the perimeter, creating mayhem and chaos. The angel landed in the midst of a Cong-Marine slugfest. Bullets ripped at the hull as the angel patiently waited while Marines placed Tom on a poncho to deliver him to his salvation. The vessel, with agonizing slowness, clawed its way through darkness seeking light.

The marines screamed, “Go! Go! Go!” No one shot at this vulnerable and fragile silhouette. Finally, the ship and the two strangers reached calm waters and set sail to safe havens.

This guardian angel had rescued Tom, revealing the veil of salvation. Suffering and abandonment of earthly things brought a transformation. He had been saved and he surrendered to the promise of The Cross. 

The need to talk shit in the officers’ club vanished. Home, just born daughter, and a new life beckoned. 

Valentines Day 1969

by Jesse Lockhart

On February 14, 1969 I’m not sure I was even aware that it was Valentine’s Day; much less thinking of flowers and candy. But this story is not about me, but a friend who gave his life for me, 1st Lt Gary Lee Miller.

 I only knew Gary for about a month before he died. He was born and raised in a small town in the western part of Virginia, Covington, almost on the West Virginia state line. Gary graduated with honors from high school and attended Virginia Tech. At Tech he joined the ROTC program and graduated with an Engineering Degree and 2nd Lieutenant Commission in the United States Army. After commissioning Gary went to the Infantry Officer’s Basic course at Ft. Benning, Ga. I don’t know what his first duty assignment was but he ended up in Vietnam assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry (named the Black Lions) in Company A.

I’m sometimes asked by kids if I’m a brave person. I tell them no but I knew and served with some brave men.

This is where I met Gary. I was Mike Platoon leader. The time was late January 1969 and although I had only been in Vietnam three months, through attrition, I was the senior platoon leader (which in retrospect was really scary considering the lives I was responsible for at the old age of 21 years old). Gary showed up just as we had lost two platoon leaders,,1 killed,1 wounded and Gary was assigned as the replacement to Lima platoon. I was assigned to “mentor” him until he was ready to operate on his own.

It’s now February 14, 1969; Lima and Mike Platoon were on a joint mission and had been on patrol for three or four days without any contact with the VC/NVA. Our ambush site that evening was a trail junction with the main trail going north- south and an intersecting trail going east- west. The trails weren’t that well used, they looked like any cow path you see in a pasture. I told Gary to set his platoon up ambushing the main trail going north- south. We usually set up our ambushes in a straight line boxed off at either end. The main section of the ambush was covered with claymore mines and the boxed ends were manned with M-60 machine guns.

I set up my platoon (Mike) facing the east –west trail. I didn’t expect any activity that evening and was looking forward to some sleep. Well, that didn’t happen. About 3 AM I was suddenly awakened by claymores being exploded and rifle and machine fire going off. My platoon lay in their ambush positions waiting for movement in front of them (like a a football offensive line waiting for the snap). I got on the radio and asked Gary what was happening. He told me that his platoon had seen movement on the trail and had set off the ambush. I remember thinking that I hope they weren’t trigger happy because I would be the one to explain to the CO why they screwed up. It was pitch dark so I called for artillery illumination rounds andwalked about 50 yards over to Gary’s position (that was probably not too smart because the guys had just popped the ambush and would still be jumpy) I was yelling my call sign and telling them to cease fire. I found Gary and could see three or four dead Viet Cong laying in the “kill zone” no US causalities . Since this was Gary’s first ambush, I let him call it into Headquarters giving the details and body count.

This is where the mission began to fall apart. The Battalion XO (Executive Officer) wanted a body count confirmed.  Gary and I could see three or four bodies but the BN XO ordered Gary to sweep (walk) the “kill zone”. At this time I should have told Gary to wait 5 minutes and report a standard operation reply 5 VC dead carrying AK’s and rice, but I didn’t, hell, it was 3 AM in the morning and the bodies would have been there at sunrise. What was happening was; in the Army information flows up and down the “chain of command” and the Battalions report to the Brigades who report to the Division for their 6 am General’s briefing  on to the Corp Headquarters, and this is where the good folks back home got their daily body count for the six o’clock news. Gary and I lined up a squad from our platoons to sweep the kill zone. As the men were searching for bodies, artillery illumination flairs were the only light we had and that wasn’t very much. You could barely make out the profiles of the men, I certainly could not identify which platoon was which. Gary and I were standing together discussing how stupid this sweep was when out of the darkness I heard a couple of rifle shots. The shots sounded like an M-16 and I thought the shots were from our men so I yelled “cease fire” to keep someone from getting shot from “friendly fire”. The next few moments happened very fast, but over the past 46 years I’ve slowed them down and replayed them hundreds of times in my mind.

hell, it was 3 AM in the morning and the bodies would have been there at sunrise.

have to understand the only light was artillery illumination and the terrain was thin grass about three foot high; there was confusion/talking about the recent ambush. The men’s adrenalin was pumping as we searched for additional dead VC. This was not a training exercise; this was combat and people get hurt/killed if they’re not careful. As Gary and I stood talking about how stupid this sweep was and what a mistake theBN XO made while he was 10 miles away in a safe bunker… something suddenly hit me in the chest. It reminded me of my baseball days and felt like I had missed a catch of a baseball from a kid and bam it hit me. Next I yelled something to this day I don’t understand why other than training and instincts kicked in.  I yelled “grenade” and dove to my right. There was an explosion but it was not loud it was kind of muffled. I felt something on my back, a burning sensation. I remember later thinking being wounded didn’t feel like I thought it would. It felt like a cut with a sharp knife. My survival instincts kicked in and I immediately started looking for my rifle and through the dirt and darkness I couldn’t find it. I looked over at Gary, he wasn’t moving. I touched him and immediately knew he was dead.(Gary had covered the grenade with his body)  I yelled for a medic and when I turned him over, I could see his shirt was blown open and my rifle lay under him. The Doc looked at Gary and shook his head. I picked up my rifle and saw that the magazine and receiver were blown up. I grabbed Gary’s rifle, checked it out, put in a new magazine and started looking for the VC who threw the grenade. I knew he was close because he had just tossed a grenade at me. I was crawling on my stomach when I saw him. Luckily for me his attention was directed at the men on the sweep. I stood up took care of him.

I went back to Gary knowing that he had just given his life for me. Emotionally his death didn’t really hit me for a couple of days. I’ve often wondered why I reacted the way I did  but in retrospect I had been calloused by all the death around me and I had had a job as a leader to regroup the platoons to prepare for a counter attack. We didn’t know what was out there in the darkness. I had the men gather up the VC’s weapons, and both platoons formed a defensive position and we moved Gary’s body to my CP. In about an hour or so the sun started to rise and I started talking to the Battalion CP and requested a dust off for Gary’s body. The dust off came and we loaded the AK’s and Gary on the Huey. Lima platoon’s men were shaken because they had lost two platoon leaders in less than a month, so I had to remind them that we were still on a combat mission with a job to kill VC’s.

Gary was written up and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1978 working for B.F. Goodrich, I was transferred to Richmond and I wrote Gary’s Dad a letter asking if there was anything I could do for them. He called me and said that he and his wife were OK.

Every year on the last weekend in April the First Infantry Division has a “Black Tie” dinner in Washington for the officers who served with the division in combat. In 1993 I asked Gary’s Dad if he wanted to be my guest at the dinner. He agreed and my wife and I drove to Covington and carried him to Washington. On the drive to DC he quizzed me on the death of Gary wanting to know all the details. I found out that Gary had been honored at Ft. Benning by naming a building after him. The city of Covington named a school and a park in his honor. Gary had been the younger of two sons.

To this day I go over that night playing “what if” and how things could have come out differently. I get chocked up knowing that someone gave his life for me and I live with that every day.

Gary’s Dad passed away and the funeral was 10/3/15. I didn’t find about it until mid-day that Saturday and could not attend. 

In those two days February 14 and 15, 1969 in the Army’s infinite wisdom I was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star with “V” and a Purple Heart. I had one piece of shrapnel come to the surface in the late 80’s and removed. I still have a couple of pieces in my back and memories that forever linger. 

I’m sometimes asked by kids if I’m a brave person. I tell them no but I knew and served with some brave men.

 Medal of Honor orders for Gary L. Miller

Medal of Honor orders for Gary L. Miller

 

 

            

The Village

by Randy Harritan

Harry and Quirt were working a platoon size operation to sweep a large area around a Vietnamese village. An American Major General was to visit the village and deliver a speech regarding strategic hamlets and the value the Americans placed on cooperation against the northern soldiers. This village, in the eyes of the Generals, was doing a good job of assisting in the war effort.

They were to be accompanied by members of the Army of The Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers. This was Harry’s first time working with the ARVNs and he was apprehensive about how Quirt would react to them. Later he would find out this was not a worry.

The village consisted of huts made from straw and bamboo woven together. Some were partially made from beer and soda cans with the tops and bottoms removed then straightened into colorful thin shingles. The smell of burnt wood from the cook fires rode on what little breeze there was.  Human and animal waste was used to fertilize the rice paddies nearby. It provided its own aroma. This mixed with the wet pungent odor of fires being put out with dirty water and re-lighted over and over again. A strong odor of Nuoc Mam, a fish sauce made of rotting fish, was on all the villagers’ breath. It could be smelled yards away. A smell that Harry thought must be driving Quirt crazy but he didn't seem to mind. After all he thought a dog's ass smelled good.

This was Harry and Quirt’s first village search. Quirt was first into each hut with his nose held high. Sniffing each item and giving his approval. He would circle the interior and come out very proud of himself. With no booby-traps the grunts would completely up-end the hooch.  Cook-pots were knocked over. The food inside thrown to the ground. The fires themselves were stirred looking for tunnel entrances. No stone was left unturned. Harry did not participate in the searches. He thought they were heavy handed but it was not his call. The Vietnamese people were stone-faced and showed neither anger nor resentment. Harry guessed this was not new to them and any show of emotion to the wrong person could lead to dire consequences. Like salmon they all knew when to swim upstream.

The Vietnamese were afraid of these big dogs. Their dogs were small and cur like, walking with tails tucked under. Not tall and proud like the Army dogs of the Americans. They gave these animals a wide berth. Never made eye contact with Harry. Faces always turned down, humble, supplicant, hiding something. Sneaky little bastards. There was a conspicuous absence of young men in the village. Only women, children and older people.

As the jungle was getting thicker, the men closed up somewhat so as to not lose contact.

The ARVN soldiers, in contrast to the Americans, were dressed in fatigues creased and clean with no sign of wear. They looked like a Boy Scout troop out for a jamboree. Wearing maroon berets they strutted like bantam roosters. Very cocksure and superior. These skinny little soldiers holding M-16 rifles that were too big for them looked like something from the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. A bad casting of actors in a B movie.

A young woman, a teenager, standing by the doorway to one of the hooches, was being interrogated by a morose ARVN officer. Holding a baby that looked to be only weeks old she protectively held it close to her. Her hand gently cupped behind its small head. Harry couldn't tell if the man was angry because all Vietnamese dialogue seemed to be loud and challenging with lots of clipped tones and harsh sounds.

In the blink of an eye he raised the butt of his M-1 carbine and smashed it into the face of the young woman. She went down immediately as blood gushed from her face. The baby went flying, his little arms grabbing for something, anything. He skidded along like a toy doll being discarded. His head bent at an odd angle. He made no cry nor protest. Its mother crawled over to the child and cuddled him in her arms moaning and wailing like a wounded animal. Not words, but guttural sounds formed with the absence of lips. Her lower jaw, unhinged, hung askew and her tongue protruded grotesquely from the side of her mouth.

The unmistakable rattle of rifles being brought to bear. Nearly every American pointing his firearm in one direction as if ordered to do so.

The platoon leader screamed "Nobody move!" and scrambled to stand guard over the ARVN animal who just hit the woman. Afraid that one of the Americans was going to shoot that asshole, the Lieutenant loudly reminded them that "this was their country and you must not interfere." He also stated "you men were briefed on this prior to the joint mission." Even Quirt cowered and stood behind Harry. These dogs weren't afraid of anything! Harry was shaken. It was all he could do to not put a bullet in that son-of-bitch or at least pop him in the mouth. The conversation between the two people was a mystery, but if he ever saw the guy again, in the proper situation, he would kill him.

As the platoon was making preparations to move out Harry told the Lieutenant that Quirt needed to smell all the ARVN so he wouldn't alert on them. "Don't worry," said the Lieutenant "they aren't going with us."

"What the fuck! You mean we're going to leave this village in their hands while we go out and do the grunt work?" Harry was still trying to deal with what he had just seen.

"Life sucks," said the Lieutenant and they moved out. The Lieutenant seemed to be a squared away guy and Harry was glad to have him aboard. This type of patrol was normally run by buck sergeants. Clearly more horsepower was needed today.

Harry was on point with Quirt leading the way. They were working a three man front, one left, one right with Harry and Quirt slightly forward in the middle. Quirt was "off-leash" trained and moved out 20 meters in front of the troops and set a slow and steady pace. He and Harry were so tuned to each that "search" was the only command needed. Quirt was on duty and would be until Harry released him. The rest of the platoon were staggered behind in threes with the Platoon Leader and Radio Operator (RTO) somewhere around the middle of the group. They would go approximately two kilometers (clicks) from the village then turn and sweep a large circle around the village hopefully ending up where they started.

It was about 95 degrees with the humidity at 100 percent. Harry was happy he didn't have to wear a helmet like the grunts in back of him. This would come back to haunt him. Special units could wear whatever headgear they wanted as long as it was military. A boonie hat qualified. Harry wore his turned up on both sides like a cowboy. He wasn't trying to make a fashion statement but that seemed to afford him the best view from under the hat.

About one click out they came upon an ancient pagoda, multi-tiered and covered in vines.  Harry, a history buff, was intrigued. He would have loved to study this old artifact but gave it a wide berth. These things were hundreds even thousands of years old but were notorious for being booby-trapped. The Vietnamese visited their ancestors there but Harry didn't want to visit his.

On day two they kept the same formation and continued to make a huge left hand turn around the village when the stillness was broken. A whish in front of Harry's face like someone throwing a stick and missing. Off to the left, a noise like hitting a brick wall with a hammer. Then the rifle report. An agonized cry and a man went down. Everyone hit the dirt and began firing into the trees hoping for a lucky hit. The M-60 began firing. Comforting! The deep base staccato sound of the big gun was like the bugles of the Calvary. The medic crawled up and bandaged the trooper’s leg but couldn't locate the man's kneecap. There was just a gaping hole where it had been.  Harry knew where the shot was intended. If he had taken another quarter of a step, or if the wind had been blowing at him instead of from his back his brains would be where that kneecap was. Thank God for morphine and medics. Medics would have a special place in heaven. Maybe he would rethink wearing a helmet.

By the time they got him medevac’d it was lunchtime, so everyone enjoyed a savory c-ration. Harry pinched off a piece of C4 explosive and heated a can of ham and lima beans followed by apricots, which were his favorites. Quirt had a dry dog biscuit which was made to look like a hamburger paddy. Did he care?

The food was good and they enjoyed every bite. Quirt finished his quickly and lay down next to Harry. It was too hot to stroke him so Harry just let him rest. Death calling but letting go made simple things wonderful. Eating, drinking, smelling the air. It was good to be alive and Harry sat back under the banana tree and tried to take in all the sights and sounds around him. He watched the other men and realized they were all special even though he didn't know any of them. They were all so young. Full of life with toothy smiles. Each and every one some mother's son.  He prayed for their safety for the rest of the patrol. He hoped he and Quirt could do their jobs. No mistakes. Self-doubt rearing its ugly head.

Saddle up was the command and they headed out again. The sniper was hopefully long gone.  They were moving into heavier jungle so the sightlines would be greatly reduced. Quirt would now stand a better chance of getting his scent before he could see us if he was still around. Harry was aware of the wind. It could be friend or foe depending on the direction. Wishing would not change that.

As the jungle was getting thicker, the men closed up somewhat so as to not lose contact. Purple beautyberry, asian maple and perigone vines along with bamboo, always bamboo, had to be pushed through. Aromas from strange plants endemic to Vietnam wafted through the air providing a treat for the senses. Even hell must have some beauty. Nightfall brought with it the usual animal calls found in the jungle. The "re-up" bird with its high pitched call annoying the troopers with it constant message to re-enlist. The "fuck-you" lizard that seemed to answer most of the birds pleadings with an alto cry that shortened the first word and stretched the last for several beats. Harry liked the fuck-you lizard.

One of the rewards for walking point all day was no guard duty. He and Quirt cuddled up. Harry in his poncho and Quirt touching him with some part of his body. He always maintained contact. Harry felt a warmth spread over his body. Of comfort. Of safety.  He felt sorry for the other grunts. Harry never had any trouble sleeping in the bush. Asleep at dark and awake at dawn with no dreams in between.  As he lay there he noticed that his hands were shaking. A weird shaking from the elbows down. Adrenalin bleed! It would pass.

Day three, the last day of the patrol began uneventfully. By noon the sun was up in its full glory and the heat was merciless. The jungle was thinner now and allowed the full force of the sun's rays to hit them. Water was useless as a thirst quencher but necessary none the less. It was warmer than the surroundings and tasted like hot piss. In fact, piss may have been cooler. Harry thought about the water fountains at home. Push a button and cool water would flow endlessly. His mind wandered. He dreamed of drinking his fill, then letting it run over his face, then ducking his head and letting it run down his back. Cooling his..........

Quirt alerts!

 Harry took a knee, turned his head and quietly said to the man behind him "get the Lieutenant up here."

"What's going on?" asked the Lieutenant assuming a position beside Harry.

"Alert at 11 o'clock. Based on Quirt's alert I don't think it's personnel but don't take any chances." His mind flashed to the sniper yesterday. It was uncanny how Harry and Quirt could read each other. Six months of training together in the States and now already three months in country. Harry signaled Quirt to stay. Hand and arm signals were just as effective as voice commands. Quirt would not move.

"1st Squad, check it out!"

During the wait Harry sat beside a tree and kept his Car-15 pointed in the direction of the alert. Using his hands he signaled Quirt to come. No use leaving him in the open to roast in the hot sun. Quirt knew he had done a good job. Harry praised him and let him lie down.

Ten minutes later a PFC came back and reported a sizeable food and weapons cache hidden very well in the jungle up ahead. It was underground but covered with a thatched bamboo roof. The camouflage was close to perfect. From the sky it would be invisible and even from the ground it wasn't readily apparent. So well camouflaged it wasn't even booby-trapped.

As they uncovered the cache tons of rice were found, a hundred weapons, thousands of rounds of ammo along with explosives. It was called in and they waited until two choppers and a crew of men came to deal with the booty.

 They were to proceed with the mission. Harry and the guys were never told whether the contraband was to be destroyed or recovered but they didn't give it much thought as they still had to give the jungle some more of their life. Someone else would take credit and probably be thrown a party back in base camp. Maybe even get a medal.

They arrived back at the village by late afternoon, set up camp at the edge and settled in for the night. The ARVN were gone. Probably left immediately after the patrol. No word about the girl. Probably in one of the hooches convalescing. No one asked. Quirt was congratulated by the men and was treated to extra chow in the form of c-ration meat. Harry had to limit the amount he was given because neither man nor beast could handle much of that stuff. Harry had a can of spiced beef with lots of Texas Pete to hide the taste and pound cake with peaches.

The next day the platoon formed a loose ring around the village and watched as the American and Vietnamese flags were installed in great abundance. Two bright shiny helicopters brought many dignitaries, including the General.  All the inhabitants of the village were scrubbed, dressed and assembled. The General waxed poetic about allies, cooperation and the value of friendships. He thanked the villagers profusely and promised more aid and protection, mounted his bright shiny helicopter and rode away.

Harry and the guys knew that the rice and weapons cache just outside the village was being serviced and maintained by the villagers for use by the enemy.  The sniper, also, was undoubtedly one of the little men who smiled so broadly for the dignitaries. The General droned on, through a translator, for a while. Then stopped and bobbed his head as he turned back and forth while surveying his kingdom, all the while with a stupid smile on his face. An exalted head of an exhausted people. He didn't bother to learn any Vietnamese. Not even a word or a simple phrase. Why should he? If he spoke slowly and loudly enough they would get the message that he was their protector and benefactor. Wouldn't they?


Iceman

by Glenn Miscikowski

Didn’t know how I was going to handle combat with the aftermath of casualties and death. The mental pictures were vivid; reality was on hold.

I watched the freedom bird accelerate down the Cam Ranh Bay runway with the lucky bastards heading back to the world. Nam is my home for the next year. Walking to the first formation, my jungle shirt was already soaked, clinging to me. Cam Ranh Bay was an inferno.  The military base reminded me of a small metropolitan city bustling with activity; the war was not evident. 

All I could think of is why the hell did I volunteer for the draft, my deferment number was over 300.  I’m a pacifist at heart.  College was becoming boring, my girlfriend and I split and family life was abrasive. A change was necessary, but did I need this?

Cam Ranh Bay was a transition base for soldiers; new orders are processed for their next destination.  My MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was 11B40, light weapons infantryman.  No delusion about my ultimate destination; I conditioned myself to accept my fate.  Chopper pilot was my objective; but after finding out I was color-blind, dreams died fast.

Daily formations plus infantry classes were required for the new cherries. Bumped into Sgt. Phil at an infantry class; he was from my Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) school at Fort Lewis Washington. We are listening to an NCO explain how to rig a claymore.

Sgt. Phil and I called Milwaukee our home. We had mutual friends and visited the same hangouts. As hard as we tried, our conversations were strained and terse; but bumming with him was better than dealing with my thoughts. 

Didn’t know how I was going to handle combat with the aftermath of casualties and death. The mental pictures were vivid; reality was on hold.

Second day in Nam, a GI named Bill initiated a casual conversation; his cot was close to mine. He asked if tomorrow I would share a drink with him. My first comment was what the shit. Bill explained his wife is pregnant with twins and after he phoned her from the Red Cross office, his wife thinks tomorrow will be the day.   I told him it would be a privilege to toast the twins.  

Curiosity got the best of me; I questioned Bill about any recourse available to him. Bill indicated the Red Cross is working with the Army in getting his orders changed to stateside duty. The change would take another thirty to forty-five days before new orders were cut.

Night two was suspenseful, alarms went off. A rocket attack was happening; the pops were distinctive and far off.  Everyone was scared and looking for shelters.  I bumped into Bill. He was getting his boots on. The activity outside the tents had a herd of cherry GI’s running nowhere and cussing for the sake of cussing.

The alarms blared for two minutes. Just as quickly as the alarms started, they stopped.  The depressed reset button put everything back to the way it was before the rocket attack.

Cam Ranh Bay provided a false sense of security; the conflict, the death, the suffering was outside of the perimeter. The Grim Reaper waited for any soldier crossing over the concertina wire. I was seeing a resort town surrounded by a war zone.

Bill grabbed me as I entered the tent and said, “Don’t forget.” My reply was, “Just let me know.” 

Sgt. Phil and I received our orders at the morning formation.  Orders were cut for me to board a plane the following afternoon to Da Nang; Duc Pho was my final destination. 

Around 1830 Bill approached me. He was shaking my hand; I asked if the wonderful event happened.  Bill replied, “I am the proud father of two baby girls, Judy and Janet. We had the names picked out. The Red Cross told me mother and twins are doing fine.  I went to the city and purchased a bottle of Johnnie Walter Black Label for the occasion. Would you like a drink?”

I reluctantly declined; told Bill a number of Wisconsinites and AIT guys are getting together at the NCO club for a few beers. I invited him to join the group, he declined. Reassured him I would not forget to have a toast with him this evening.    

Sgt. Phil and I met the NCO’s at the bar; they all had their orders.  The beer bottles were stacking up; I was feeling no pain.  Talked to the group about Bill and his plan for new orders stateside; no one seemed to give a damn. They were facing their own demons. The jokes were loud and crass, but the underlying feelings were subdued; everyone looking at each other as to who will be the winners and losers.

After 2200 we wished everyone good luck; Sgt. Phil and I headed back to the tent.  A group of GI’s were looking at something near the tent; a soldier was on the ground.  The soldier was dry heaving, puke all over him.  Looked again at the soldier lying in the fetal position; Bill looked like shit. He continued to dry heave. A low moan was audible.  A bottle of Johnnie Walker was next to him.

I forgot all about my promise to have a drink with him. “Shit.”  My head was spinning and I just wanted to get back to my cot. 

Sgt. Phil and I lifted Bill onto a cot.  The medics were summoned. One medic arrived. After doing a cursory inspection of Bill; the medic indicated it best to let the fool sleep it off.  I asked the medic if Bill should be taken to the medical tent.

The medic gave me a quizzical blank stare and left.

Flopped on my cot and I don’t remember the next few hours. In the wee hours, I heard a commotion and thought it was GI’s with nightmares. 

Next morning I woke up.  My head was pounding and my mouth felt like sandpaper.  My duffel bag was packed and ready; the flight was not scheduled until 1500. I wanted to make sure Bill was OK; his cot was empty.  A soldier informed me around 0300 two medics with a gurney left with Bill.  I must have had a real buzz on not to have heard all of the commotion.

I wanted to tell Bill good luck with his family and reassignment. The medical center was a short distance from the tent.  I met a medic who was on duty last night; he wanted to know why I was interested in Bill.  I told the medic, I just wanted to say hi and bye. 

The Medic said Bill was operated on last night; he died on the operating table.  The whiskey he was drinking was thirty percent battery acid; the acid dissolved his stomach.

Walking back to the tent, I met Sgt. Phil and informed him of Bill.  We said nothing to each other. We shook hands and wished each other good luck.

Everything was in place for Bill to leave Nam and get reassigned stateside. 

I wondered what the Red Cross was going to say to his wife.  The birth of the twins was a time to rejoice. Now Bill’s wife had a tragedy to face.

I walked away from the tragedy with a sad heart, thinking about his two daughters who will never see their father. What really pissed me off was that he was dying as he toasted his daughters.

 He died but not because of enemy fire. But what’s the fucking difference; he was a casualty of war. I realized life is not always fair; the Grim Reaper won this round.    

The tragedy was a life changer. A piece of my heart got chipped off.  I didn’t want to feel this type of pain again.

The Iceman went to Duc Pho. 


Vacation

by Richard H. Geisel

A break in the routine was coming. I had been working 7/24 for months. Just think of it, new clothes, hair cut, regular hours, majestic sunrises, palm trees, gourmet meals, single man about town ready to howl at the moon.

I had been transferred from leading a hunt and destroy squad to nurse maiding a platoon of armored personnel carriers. They were having down time at the base but I had to carry on, they had the vacation and I just kept patrolling. 

The lights went out. Some vacation. Instead of walking point now I have a 3 man team walking out of the gates of the support base. This Shangri-La, in the middle of rice paddies forming waves with the wind, herds of water buffalo grazing silently and buffalo dung. Buffalo dung everywhere, especially in my nostrils. Every time I hear the virtues of organic, I smell the dung and see the fields being organically prepared for someone’s table.

For eight months my life had been a world of silence, listening for sounds not in my hearing frequency.  I have no doubt my ears are growing larger. Rustle of leaves, limbs out of joint, ants marching across dry leaves, voices and the piercing sound of silence. It’s hard for me to believe but “yes, I can hear ants”.

Picking my steps through the bush became a ballet of movement; my sounds could not become a disguise of the sound of danger. Sounds used to be beautiful and I would search for them. Now sounds are my enemy.

My ears hurt. I must hear something, but it is better not to hear anything. It is dangerous to hear and not to hear.

Now, I am assigned as a grunt squad leader to protect the APC’s. Silence; there is no silence. The men talk and scream trying to be heard above the diesel engines. The metal tracks clang along the earth, shaking it, cutting into it and chewing up all under the metal. I couldn’t be a larger target than if I were a clown with a bouquet of rainbow balloons in a one ring circus. I am going to die.

My job was to search and destroy, kill people, silently and efficiently. Now the hunter has become visible. There are no discussions, no committee meeting; an order comes down, my life changes.

“Okay, the orders for the night are; set up an outpost 500 yards from the fence and watch for any gooks.”

As I reached the coordinates I called back to base and the lights were turned on to protect the base perimeter. We were the early warning of menace. The 500 yards we crossed had been exfoliated with Agent Orange and the CAT dozers had stripped the trees aside. The pastoral scene had been violently exorcised by machines. The undulating terrain makes for a good dig in for the night.

After we set up I radioed in and said it was alright to turn the lights back on in my sector.

“Okay, we’ll have the normal night rotation and radio check.  I’ll take the first watch.”

There was no moon and the stars were a blanket across the sky. There are stars in the States but not the same stars that light your way as in Vietnam. These are a cold white, larger more brilliant. The terrain was barren with a few tree stubbles. I had a clear field of fire. In the daytime the rules of engagement were different than at night. Nighttime was a free fire zone. I had always lived in free fire zones, day and night.

The other posts started to call in with hourly observations. Post 1 clear, post 2 clear, post 3 clear. I radioed in the same. “I think we are going to have a quiet night.” I thought of my German ancestors who would say “don’t jinx yourself.” Well, I did.

Through my scope I could see something in the distance, three spheres close to the ground.

“Here, take a look with the scope.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“Look again, right in front, 200 yards.”

“Nope.”

“Give me that.” Sure enough; I could see just the smallest top of three heads. There was no movement, but they were there.

“Try again.”

“I see them this time, very small, close to the ground.”

“Base, I have several gooks 200 yards to my front, please confirm.”

“We don’t see them.”

“You got to see them. We see them. Call the other posts and check for movement. They’re coming.”

“The other posts don’t have any sightings nor are there any sightings from the perimeter.”

“Okay, we’ll keep watching ‘em and let you know of any movement.”                  

“I’ll call in the coordinates for the target.”

More posts checked in; still no sightings from other sectors. My gooks just stayed where first spotted; no movement.  Hour after hour straining for any movement, nothing.

“Stay alert. They could start running at us anytime.”

I see movement but they’re not moving forward. What’s going on? Do something!  Movement as wheat swaying in the wind is taunting. To get a better view I raise up from my position with the scope.  One figure gets taller.  What are they doing?  Must be scouts for the main body.

“Base, can’t you see one of them now?”  “Nothing there” comes back on the radio.  I slowly get back to my position and my nemesis gets smaller.  He can see me.  What we have here gentlemen is a conundrum.  I slowly raise my arm and wave it.  My nemesis also waves.  What?

We are the enemy.  Those are our shadows projected out in the field. We’re lit up like ducks in a shooting gallery… see the ducks, shoot the ducks.

My ears hurt. I must hear something, but it is better not to hear anything. It is dangerous to hear and not to hear.

“Base, turn the lights off and leave them off or I’m coming in!”

“It looks like it’s gonna be a quiet night.”


Taking Fire

by Steve Tedder

TAKING FIRE! TAKING FIRE! I’M HIT! I’M HIT! MY OBSERVER’S HIT! MY OBSERVER’S___!!!

Those words come back to me at the damndest times. Not every day but often enough. At times I recall them while driving, cutting the grass or simply lying in bed before falling asleep. I don’t consciously bring it up, it just happens. Here is a little background on who said it and why.

It had been 19 months since I had arrived in Viet Nam. Except for my brief stint with the 334th Assault Helicopter Company I had served the entire time with the Silver Spurs, A Troop, 3rd Squadron 17th Air Cavalry Regiment. I had been a “Grunt” with the Aerial Rifle Platoon, Door Gunner/Platoon Sergeant with the Lift Platoon and a Scout Observer with the Scout Platoon. A man of many talents you might say.

All of my time up until now had been down in the Delta located in III Corp with a few months in IV Corps at Soc Trang. The Delta had a few mountains but the vast majority was jungle and rice paddies. My new home would be much different. Not only would I be a member of the famous 101st Airborne Division but now there would be mountains and valleys to fly around.

I reported to A Troop 2nd Squadron 17th Air Cavalry on October 1, 1971. Upon turning my orders over to the Company Clerk the First Sergeant came out and welcomed me to the Troop. He glanced over my orders and said that I would be assigned to the Blues (Infantry Platoon). I told him that I had extended my tour for the second time specifically to fly scouts and that I had over 300 hours flying scouts down south.

He then explained that since my MOS was infantry, and that they needed experienced infantrymen I was going to the Blues. He was determined that I would not be flying with Alpha Troop and I was just as determined that I would. After all, I had already spent 19 months in-country and the first 9 months had been as a Grunt in the Blues. I told him that if they didn’t need experienced Observers please send me back to where I had come from. I did NOT extend for another six months to be back in the infantry.

At this the First Sergeant left and disappeared towards the rear of the Orderly Room. He returned a few moments later and told me to follow him. We went to the rear office and was introduced to an officer who happened to be the Troop Commander, Major Teddy Allen. Major Allen asked me how many hours I had in Scouts and when I answered him he asked why I had wanted to transfer to his unit. I explained that I had heard of Alpha Troop and wanted to serve in such a great unit like the 101st. I was dismissed and told to return to the Orderly Room later.

Not having been assigned a hooch I just hung around the Orderly Room talking to the clerk. A few hours later I was called into the C.O.’s office and introduced to Captain Robert O. Baker who was the Scout Platoon Leader. Captain Baker grilled me on my experiences in Viet Nam and after answering several of his questions I was dismissed and told to wait outside.

Afterwards Major Allen and Captain Baker departed and the First Sergeant called me back inside. He told me that Captain Baker wanted me in his platoon on a trial basis. He would take me out to the AO and if I passed muster he would keep me. He also told me that he didn’t know what kind of unit I had been in but Grunts did not fly in Alpha Troop. Therefore, if I was going to fly my MOS would have to be changed to Crew Chief. I had never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be a Crew Chief.

The Crew Chief was actually the most important person in the crew when the aircraft was not flying. He was the only person actually assigned to that particular aircraft. When flying he acted just as an Observer. When not flying he was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the ship. After every flight the pilot would fill out the logbook noting the condition and state of readiness for the next flight. Once a mission was completed and they returned to base the pilot would report to the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and complete his after action report. Then he would usually mosey over to the Mess Hall or the Officers club where he would regal the other officers about his exploits.

The Crew Chief would tie down the rotor blades, disarm the ship, check the write- ups in the log book and note if fluid checks were up to date.  He would also take any necessary oil and fuel samples, clean the air filters and generally keep the ship in flying condition. He would take time for chow but it may be hours before his job was done and he could leave the flight line. In short it was HIS aircraft in every sense of the word.

The missions we flew were extremely hazardous. When flying you didn’t give much thought to the ship’s maintenance. You simply relied on the aircraft to do what the pilot told it to do when he told it to do it, no sudden vibrations, no warning lights flashing at you. It had to perform flawlessly every time. It was the crew chief that assured us the ship would handle and perform this way.

To be an Army helicopter crew chief meant you had completed Army Advanced Individual Training at Ft. Rucker. Eight weeks of intense training that taught you not only how to keep your aircraft up but also the task of manning the M-60 machine gun and the XM-203 Rifle/Grenade Launcher.

I had never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be a Crew Chief.

Here my new First Sergeant was telling me that I was now a crew chief. No training, no experience whatsoever.  Poof, I now pronounce you something you’re not. Little did I know what a crock that was or how it would change my mind about a career in the Army.

Early the next day I reported to Captain Baker at the flight line. He introduced me to Sergeant Tom Mundell, who would be responsible for teaching me my job as a crew chief. At that time Tom and I armed the Loach while Captain Baker performed his pre-flight. Tom explained that they had plenty of real crew chiefs and that my only responsibility would be taking fluid samples, cleaning the air filter and arming the aircraft. I was absolutely NOT to do anything else. That was okay with me, the same duty as in my last unit.

Captain Baker must have been okay with me in the AO. Nothing much happened that day. I didn’t even get sick from his wild gyrations ten feet above the trees. When we returned that evening he shook my hand and welcomed me into the Scout Platoon.

I flew a lot with Captain Baker after that. Over the course of the next month I got to know him pretty well. It was always Captain Baker or Sir, nothing informal. But it turned out we had a lot in common as far as the Army was concerned. We formed a bond, as much as an officer and an enlisted man could in the Army. He was one of the best role models a young “lifer” could have.

He was from California and had enlisted soon after graduating from high school in 1963. He was also a Mustang which meant that he had signed up as an enlisted man with an MOS in Armor. After a few years he decided to make the Army a career and volunteered for OCS. Upon graduating he again volunteered, this time for flight school. Upon graduation he was one of that mythical breed of men known as Army Aviators.

In January 1971 he had been assigned to Viet Nam for his second tour. He had been the Platoon Leader for the past six months. I asked him once if he was married and he responded that he was, to the Army. Looking back after all these years it makes it all seem so sad and oh so wrong.

For the next month I had many interesting experiences flying with Alpha Troop. It was so different from what I had been used to. I saw Fire Support Bases on the very tops of mountains and we went into some LZs that could only be described as strange. Some could only handle one helicopter at a time, having literally been carved out of the jungle amidst boulders the size of semi-trucks. 

The morning of November 5, 1971 started off like any other day for me. Chow in the Mess Hall at 0530 hours. Go to the flight line at 0600 to arm the aircraft while the pilot performed the pre-flight. Then off we’d go. We would lift up, maneuver out of the revetments, hover over to the air strip with the two Cobras behind us and the C&C Huey following. The take-offin itself was a thrill, all that power going up into the air, looking for Mr. Chuck and ruining his day. Actually, hopefully, to end it. We weren’t called Hunter-Killer Teams for nothing.

The first mission was outside of the old Marine base of Kha Sanh, snooping along the many trails running towards the Laotian border. After two hours we hadn’t found anything so we returned to Phu Bai to refuel.

After refueling we formed up and headed west. We were headed to the A Shau Valley. The A Shau was the main infiltration route favored by the NVA.  We had found beaucoup activity there over the past couple of weeks and would normally have one or two teams working there every day. Mr. Todd had even found large D-9 size bulldozers hidden there. A few days before Lt. Green found a truck park camouflaged next to a large stream. Yep, the A Shau was the hottest place in all of Nam.

We were flying at our normal cruising altitude of 2000 feet actual. As soon as we arrived to our assigned area Captain Baker cork screwed the aircraft down to the deck. While going down I pulled the pin on a white phosphorous grenade and placed it in an empty can that had the top removed. I then held it outside the door with my left arm extended ready to drop it if and when we found a target. The Cobras would automatically roll in on the smoke and kill whatever was there. I cradled my XM-203 automatic rifle/grenade launcher with my right hand pointed out and down with my finger on the trigger.

We spiraled down over a brushy grass area with a beautiful rock strewn stream on my side of the aircraft. The green grass reminded of the pictures you see of Ireland, just a beautiful bright green glade. The stream really stood out also, not muddy but so clear you could see the bottom. I was looking down at the water rushing over the rocks looking for a trail or some signs of Charlie next to the stream. We were flying uphill about five feet above the scattered trees when we popped up over a small ridge doing about 50 - 60 knots.

I’m still looking out my side door when out of nowhere Captain Baker yells over the radio “I’ve got Gooks in the Open, Gooks in the Open, COMING HOT. I jerk my head to the front just as he opened up with the mini-gun. The mini-gun is mounted on my side of the aircraft less than three feet from my seat. It makes a hell of a noise and I saw something we could only dream about. Less than 50 yards directly in front of us were about fifty NVA soldiers wearing pith helmets and khaki-green uniforms. Some had camouflage and they all wore small packs. We were close enough that I could see the shocked looks on their faces with mouths gaping wide. They had been in the process of crossing the stream when we popped over the small ridge and caught them completely off guard.

Captain Baker kicked the pedals and made the Loach fishtail as he continued firing. This made the stream of bullets spread out and the carnage was both terrible and beautiful to see. Bodies were disintegrating right before my eyes. Body parts, blood, weapons, packs, tree limbs and dirt were flying everywhere. An ungodly amount of blood sprayed over it all. Then the craziest thing of all happened. Captain Baker banked the Loach to the right directly over their position. He was looking down at them and I was looking up at nothing but blue sky. I couldn’t drop the Willie Pete or fire my weapon accurately. This certainly was ass backwards!!!

This lasted for just a small moment but to me it was an eternity. I tossed the Willie Pete out and away. Even though I did not have a target I started firing my 203 emptying the 30 round magazine with one continuous burst. Then the shit hit the fan for real. The NVA didn’t lose any time coming out of the shock of us blowing their column all to hell.    

It sounded like an entire company lined up at the firing range firing all at once with everything they had. The only problem was we were the target now. The gunfire was so loud I could barely hear Baker yelling on the radio. The first thing that registered in my mind was the incredible amount of tracers coming up and flying through the open door on his side flying in front of my face. I swear that they were mere inches from my nose. Not one or two, it seemed like hundreds. Maybe even a thousand. At the same time I heard the zap zing pow of rounds hitting the right side.

Then I swear someone hit me in the ankle with a sledge hammer. My foot actually jumped to the left. Captain Baker had already started yelling on the radio, “TAKING FIRE, TAKING FIRE, I’M HIT, I’M HIT, MY OBSERVER’S HIT MY OBSERVER’S___!!! That’s all he got out before the radios blew apart sending metal and plastics shards all over my arms and chest. He got us out of there just before my white phosphorous blew up. I had immediately reloaded another 30 round magazine and fired it off. A tremendous rage came over me when my foot flew to the side and the bullets were flying.. KILL ME?, KILL ME? YOU BASTARDS, YOU THINK YOU CAN KILL ME. HOW DARE YOU!!! WATCH THIS YOU COCKSUCKERS!!! Somehow later on we found three empty magazines lying on the floor of the ship. I was amazed that I was able to get that many rounds out. It all just happened so fast.

We were not out of trouble yet. We climbed up to altitude and Baker made gestures with his hands asking if I was okay. I looked down and only two small holes in my left trousers leg with a little trickle of blood. There was also a small shard of metal sticking out of my right boot at the ankle. All I felt was a small sting. I gave him a thumbs up yelling that it wasn’t bad at all. Remembering his yelling that he was hit I asked him if he was okay and he in turn gave me a thumbs up. Then he reached over, smacked me on the top of my knee and yelled“Good Job, Good Job”. That kind of stunned me, I certainly couldn’t recall having done much.

Soon one of the Cobras came up alongside us. The pilot, Captain Bob Karig communicated with Baker by hand signals that he would check us out. After maneuvering all around us Karig gave us a thumbs up. I guess he was telling us we weren’t leaking fluid or had anything falling off. At about this time I reached down and pulled the metal shard out of my ankle. I stuck in in my shirt pocket as a souvenir.

As soon as we had come upstairs Captain Baker pointed us in the direction of Camp Evans where the US Army18th Surgical Hospital was located. Soon afterwards the Cobra disappeared and was replaced by our C&C Huey which took up station at our six o’clock. Having heard our last transmission the other pilots quickly figured out we were headed to Evans and why. Following along behind us the Huey pilot, CWO2 Robert Segura radioed that we were coming in with wounded on board. Now the comedy begins.

We came straight in, no circling the helipad, just fast and straight. While on short final to the helipad with the big red crosses I saw a scene straight from MASH. There was a group of people standing there with two stretchers holding a hand above their eyes looking up at us. They immediately started jumping up and down waving us off. Captain Baker and I immediately reached the same conclusion, Shit, they must have mass casualties coming in and we’d have to wait. Baker veered off and started to circle around the way we came in. The Huey naturally followed us and then we realized just how stupid assumptions can be.

The doctors and nurses had seen the Huey and since Medivac Helicopters were normally Huey’s they assumed that it held the wounded. In fairness to them most wounded soldiers did not fly themselves in. Realizing their mistake when the Slick followed us in the turn they quickly put their arms up in the universal sign to land.

The Huey followed closely and before the skids touched down the crew chief, a fellow I knew as Dago, jumped down and ran over to my side of the aircraft. He grabbed me with both hands and tried pulling me out. The big problem here was I was still securely buckled into my seat and wasn’t moving. Realizing what the problem was Dago quit and stood there laughing. I handed him my weapon, unhooked the safety harness and climbed out. Then they all tried helping me lay on the stretcher which to mean seemed ridiculous. I pushed them away and limped off to the hospital entrance.

Once inside I was directed to the operating room where I was helped onto the table. The nurse wouldn’t wait for me to roll my pants leg up. She cut them open all the way to my crotch. A young Captain, who looked like a kid with longer than regulation hair, introduced himself as a surgeon and asked me if that was the only wound I had. I replied that I had pulled a piece of shrapnel out of my ankle. I then pulled it out of my pocket and showed it to him. That was the first time I had looked at it closely and I realized it was the copper jacket from a bullet. It must have been one of the ones that hit the radios and in passing through the jacket had been stripped off and struck me with enough force to punch through the leather of my boot.

Upon examining my ankle the doctor proceeded to give me an ass chewing for taking it out. What if I had pulled and it had cut an artery? I didn’t say anything, just agreed that it was stupid and I would never do that again. As he was stitching the graze on my left leg Major Allen came in and watched the doctor for a minute. He then looked at me and said” Hell son, that’s just a scratch. You are both were very lucky. At that he walked out and soon thereafter Captain Baker came in. 

I followed Captain Baker out to our Loach where a crowd of people were looking it over. There were a lot of oohs and aahs being said. One of the guys told me that they had counted twenty-seven bullet holes. All were underneath the right side and behind the pilot’s seat. While bending down having a look Captain Baker came up to me. He told me that several rounds had hit the armor plate under his seat with enough force to think that he had been hit. Amazingly the fuel cell located on the bottom of the aircraft had not been hit. Amazingly a lot of important things hadn’t been hit, like our heads for example.

After catching a ride back to Phu Bai with Mr. Segura, Captain Baker asked me if I was game for another mission. I thought a moment and answered sure, why not. To tell the truth I was feeling pretty damn lucky right then.

The next mission was in the same area but the NVA were long gone and we turned up nothing. The Cobras had worked it over hard with rockets. Big guns, 155mm and 8 inch howitzers had also done a number on it. Funny when you think about it, how good the NVA were as soldiers. Our Cobras had made a few gun runs, another Hunter-Killer Team had come in a half hour or so after us and except for a bunch of craters and a lot of blood puddles it looked just like it did before. All the bodies, weapons and packs were gone.

After returning to Phu Bai at the end of the day I asked Captain Baker why he slapped me on the leg and said “Good Job”. He just said that I had reacted exactly in the right way. Not only by returning fire but also by tossing the grenade. He told me that he was looking right into the face of a gook armed with a RPD machine gun that was trying to kill us when he saw my grenade sailing through the air. He didn’t see it explode but it definitely took that guy out, and a lot of his buddies.

I liked that. I had not only done my job but I did a Good Job.

A week later I learned that I was receiving a Purple Heart. I didn’t think that I had actually earned it and I asked Captain Baker if I could refuse it. He calmly told me that he could understand my feelings but that he and the CO felt it was right. Even though I hadn’t lost much blood I had been wounded by enemy fire.

At the award ceremony one of the other pilots made an off color remark about it being a scratch. I kept my mouth shut and didn’t respond. The next day that same pilot regretted his words. Karma’s real and Karma can be a bitch. His name is 1st LT Larry Palma and that’s another story.


Dawn

by Richard H. Geisel

Stars dim and rotate, moon slides to the earth

Grey marches after dark, grey morphs to white pinks

Shadows grow, weaving across the flora

Here, the waltz of death

Buds awaken, petals catch dew

Fauna stirs, dampness rises to sticky humidity

As far as I can see, As far as I can smell

As far as I can hear, My world grows

Three nights and waiting, senses piercing

Are we the only people on earth

Eat, drink, sleep, watch, listen

Does anyone know we’re here

Squelch of the radio, morning check

All quiet, no count

Claymores not tripped, flares at the ready

Breathing pinpoints me, eating is a cacophony

Wait for movement, wait for resupply

Chatter at the bridge outpost below

There, the smell of life, the music of living

Here, the waltz of death

I reach out, my hand and arm cut by the grass

I bleed, I am real, I am here

A parallel world holds me, protects me

The distance is measured in blinks

My soul has not made the trip

Unlearn, learn

Coldness, darkness are my companions

Is this the morning, is this the day

Will random fates meet

The ultimate gesture, curse or reward

Can there be a good day to die

The long low sound of a 747

Freedom Bird from Ben Hoa, disturbs the air

No time to wander, no time to drift

Start the dance

Bender

by Jess Lockhart

Time:  Summer, 1969

Place: A/1/28th Inf Company Headquarters, Lia Khe Viet Nam

Mike Platoon was just finishing a scheduled 3 night – 2 day R&R after a month of patrol missions.

I told the Platoon Sergeant to form the platoon in front of the Company Headquarters. I stood in front of the platoon looking at a bunch of guys that could have been character actors in a hobo movie. They had ammo bandoleers, claymore mines, and socks filled with C-rations hanging all over themselves. As rag-tag as they looked they were my men and brothers. We had mostly arrived in country within a few weeks of each other and had learned our trade together, and we were pretty good.

I yelled in my best 22 year old command voice “Report”.

The Platoon Sergeant answered: “14 men present – 2 on R&R – 1 in the platoon tent”.

I went over to the Platoon Sergeant and asked in a low voice “What do you mean 1 in the platoon tent?”

He replied “Bender refuses to come to the formation.” I told him to take charge of the platoon and stomped off to the platoon tent.

I opened the flaps of the partially lit large tent and saw Bender sitting on the edge of his cot staring at the walls. As I approached Bender I told him, “get your gear and get out in formation.” Bender replied, “I ain’t going”.  I sat beside him and asked him “What?” He told me that he had had a dream the night before and if he went on this mission he was going die. I tried to explain that we all had moments when we were scared but we worked through it and this was just a dream. Again “I told you I ain’t going”. “Do you know that you could get Court Martialed for missing a movement?” Again, “I ain’t going.”

I went to the Company CP and told the 1st Sergeant that Bender was in the platoon tent. I returned to the platoon to board trucks and load on helicopters to be inserted somewhere on an unnamed trail to start our 14 day mission.

After we got settled in our ambush site I ask my RTO what was Bender’s problem? He told me that before I took over the platoon they had almost gotten almost annihilated, only 6 men survived, 2 of which were wounded. What had happened was, a man on watch fell asleep and the VC walked up on them and sprayed the men as they slept, killing 10 men. Bender was 1 of the 2 men wounded. He got an AK round in his butt and was in the hospital for 3 months. Bender was the last of the survivors left in country and he had only 2 months left in his 12 month tour.  

After 7 days we were resupplied and I got a note from the 1st Sergeant that Bender was up on charges to be Court Martialed. Two months earlier I had written Bender up for a Bronze Star with a “V” for pulling 2 wounded men back to the medic during a fire fight. So here he was getting Court Martialed and he had a CIB, Bronze Star with a “V”, a Purple Heart, an Air Medal (for 40 + air assault missions) plus the other Viet Nam medals. This guy was not a coward, he was just a 20 year old kid who got scared.  

Bender refuses to come to the formation.

I later found out Bender did get Court Martialed and was sentenced to spend the remainder of his tour in LBJ (Long Bien Jail) and received a Dishonorable Discharge.

The next time I saw Bender was at the Platoon’s reunion in 1995. During the reunion, I got him off to the side and asked him how were things going? He told me that he finished his tour in LBJ and come back to the States where he was discharged. He returned to his old neighborhood in Newark where he had gone to school and grew up. He was ostracized by his neighbors and he was deprived of a soldier’s privilege of telling war stories showing his medals that he had earned, plus he couldn’t get a decent job because of the Dishonorable Discharge. Bender finally found a lawyer and he got the discharge upgraded. He continued on with his life but with this shame hanging over him. In his mind he felt he had let his brothers down and was a coward.

That night back in the motel room I told my wife that Bender had broken my heart because I felt I had let him down. I should have done something that morning rather than walking away and leaving him to face a Court Martial. I considered myself a good combat leader but as a 22 year old the Army had not prepared me to cope with the psychological challenges of an Infantry Platoon Leader. After Viet Nam the Army recognized PTSD as a disease and trained leaders in identifying and helping soldiers with those symptoms, rather than simply kicking the soldier aside and possibly ruining his life.

Sunday afternoon at the reunion as everyone was hugging each otherand saying their goodbyes Bender came up to me and thanked me for letting him come to the reunion. With a lump in my throat, I told him “Bill you were just a 20 year kid who got scared, you have nothing to be ashamed of. We were all scared, you just dealt with the problem differently. The Army handled the issue wrong. You were drafted and served your country, and you didn’t run to Canada or try to avoid the draft as a conscientious objector. You will always be a part of this platoon.”

Bender has come to a couple of reunions afterwards and I always give him a hug.

I’m now almost 70 years old and it’s been 47 years since that morning in Lia Khe and I sometimes wonder what I could have done differently to keep Bender from facing a Court Martial. I knew most of the Officers on that board and I know I could have explained Bender’s frame of mind. I wasn’t there for him and I’ll have to live with that decision. I never judge a veteran’s service, because we’re all brothers and sisters with common thread of compassion that runs through us.  


The Chu Prong Mountains

by Randy Harritan

Harry was to be at the chopper pad at noon to join the 2nd of the 35th Infantry Regiment already in the field. The flight was at tree top level with the skids striking tree limbs. Harry didn't know if the pilot was a newbie or super experienced but this was one wild ride. Upon arriving the pilot flared the bird, then pitched the nose over to a hover. The unit had been in contact earlier in the day and the chopper was none too eager to hang around. At a hover of five feet He and Quirt were encouraged to disembark. This in the form of a combat boot attached to the left door gunner. After a sprawling dismount and a mouthful of dirt they watched the helicopter roar straight up and disappear.

Nothing was stirring. No people. No sounds. Nothing. Had they dropped him in the right place? He had no radio. No way to contact anyone and was seemingly totally alone. What the hell was going on? His not-so-friendly companion, fear, raised its ugly head and panic clawed its way up his goosed-bumped back.

He made his way to the top of the dirt capped mountain. Huge boulders were strewn about like a giant’s toys ringing the top of the mountain. Their sharply angled faces looking everywhere at once. A place for covens to practice satanic rituals. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of this pernicious Stonehenge was a dust covered and tattered soldier hunched over his dead buddy. He didn't look up. The only movement his shoulders undulating with his sobs.

Eventually he looked up at a clean dog handler sitting against a boulder across from him. His eyes were red and sunken. His face streaked with rivers of grief. Speaking as if Harry had been there all along with no indication that that he didn't know him and the dog intimately he said "What the fuck are we doing here?" His voice clear and concise but heavy with grief. He fixed his stare on Harry as if he expected an answer. To be absolved from his pain. To have this instantly accepted newcomer assuage his internal conflict of life and death. Harry held his stare but had no answers.

He looked away from this defeated and dispirited young man only to see a lush green beautiful valley below.

He looked away from this defeated and dispirited young man only to see a lush green beautiful valley below. Rolling hills and winding ribbons of silver. The abundance of life and beauty only seen from the mountain top of a tropical paradise. How could one place, one moment be such a dichotomy?  Harry felt ashamed of his thoughts. Maybe there's a limit to what a man can handle. Maybe a mind has to take a break.

A faint thunk, thunk, thunk. Oh shit, mortars being fired. Find cover. Try to drag man to safety. Won't move. Just sits there. No cover. Harry presses his face against a boulder and gets as low as possible. The rounds impact with a thud throwing dirt, rocks, steel. More mortars being fired, exploding, then silence. The man is unhurt, as is Harry and Quirt. They have been in the jungle for less than a half hour. No wonder the chopper was in such a hurry.

The main body comes meandering up the mountain. Grunts and groans, equipment rattling, heavy breathing from a hundred Infantrymen consolidating their position. Coming back to regroup and make ready to go into harm's way again. Harry was glad to see them. He recognized some of the guys from working with them before. Some he knew from Infantry School in the States. They look tired. One of the guys was a shake and bake at A.I.T. He had another stripe. Good for him. Harry admired his zeal even in training. It's not 1300 hours and yet these guys are beat. Some of their ammo bandoleers are empty.

Harry made his rounds and went through the routine of Quirt smelling everyone and checked in with Lieutenant Bill Burdick, Commander of Bravo Company. The CO informed him they will be moving out in half an hour and to be on their toes. Beaucoup NVA in the area. Had a taste of them this morning with minor contact. Harry has seen the results. The Old Man says there's a regiment of NVA in the area and they are trying to locate them. He tells Harry he will supply a point man for this mission and Harry and Quirt are to follow. Although unorthodox, the absence of presumption and the timbre in his voice did not invite question. His eyes registered desperation and resignation but no hint of capitulation.

It was early afternoon when they got underway and already the stink of men in combat floated in the air. The pace was slow. Much slower than he would have gone. They were walking on cat's paws. The point man, having experienced combat earlier in the day, was in no hurry to ride that wave again. This was Harry's first time following another man. Harry wondered where America found these young men. Brave. Moving through this stinking jungle looking for a fight. Willing to die for each other. Willing to be ordered to kill and be killed. Napoleon said that men were willing to fight and die for a few bits of ribbon on their chests. Harry didn't think so. Where they as afraid as him? Or were they, like him, afraid to be seen as afraid.

“Fox,” Harry whispered to the point man. “I've got an alert. Dead ahead.” The point man was called "Fox" even though his name was Ken Eldridge. He stopped and took a knee as did Harry. Quirt remained sitting on the dusty trail. Nose testing. Probing. Waiting for orders.

Enemy personnel ahead. Close. Was relayed in muted tones back down the column to the Company Commander. The jungle was thick and hilly and Harry could not see past the man behind him and could barely see Fox. He felt alone. Exposed. He and Fox and the young man behind him were the only people in his world. Ahead was a regiment of enemy soldiers. Hundreds of them waiting to fulfill their mission of killing white men. Born in the north to die in the south was their mantra. They wrote it on their canteen covers and pith helmets. Each three man cell protecting one other. Watching each other's back. Ratting the other out if one of the cell wavered from the communist doctrine. All for one and one for all in their maniacal mission.

"Move out." was the only reply that came back up the line. Harry was tempted to send an answer of "bullshit" but knew what his options were. Go now or go later but he still had to go. He approached Quirt and praised him for doing his job and with a shrug of his shoulders told Fox to move out.

In less than a heartbeat all hell erupted. Madness and mayhem spewed from the jungle.  They must have been watching the whole time. They were all firing on automatic, spraying the jungle with rifle and machine gun fire. Harry was startled even though he knew this was going to happen. His eyes big as saucers. He felt as if he had turned to stone and could not move. The noise was deafening but he knew to get on the ground first and then look and find targets. If only he could make his body respond. Fox dove off the trail and in doing so lost his rifle and steel pot. Unarmed and lying in the brush he was defenseless.

The NVA saw what had happened and three soldiers advanced to retrieve the weapon and kill Fox. Harry saw it all unfold as if in slow motion and knew that Fox was a dead man. He had no way to intercept these men from his position lying concealed in the brush. Without another thought, or even a deep breath, Harry jumped up amid all the rifle fire and charged the three dinks firing on semi-auto, one man at a time. Be calm. Look at the sights. One down. Two down. Three down. The rifle didn't jam. Oh thank God the rifle didn't jam. Quirt running by his side, Harry jumped back off the trail and took up a position in a slight gully. Quirt tight against his left side. With Fox spotting for him he engaged the enemy. He could see to the right but had no field of view to the left. Fox would call out "left, on your left" and Harry would fire in that direction, then resume his cover of the front.

Fox yelled, "Do you see the man crawling? He's gonna kill me. He's trying to get position. Do you see him?" Harry could not raise his head. The ground in front of him was erupting in little geysers due to the rifle fire. His face turned to the side looking at Fox, pressed into the dirt. They knew where he was and were unloading on him. Covering for the man trying to flank the Americans. He kept crawling. Closing the gap. Again, Fox implored Harry to shoot the crawler, terror in his voice, but Harry could not. The fire was too intense.

He was as thirsty as he'd ever been. He had water but knew if he tilted his head upward to take a drink he would lose the top of his head. He was stone still. Not praying but looking at Fox with empathy. Fox's face contorted, pleading. The picture of a man who had lost it all.

Suddenly rifle fire from behind. It was an American. Laying down cover fire. Had he been there all along? Why the hell hadn't he been shooting. Or maybe he had. In a jumbled jungle setting time, distance and reality always took a back seat to fear. Now was Harry's chance. He raised his head ever so slightly. The waist high grass to his right front going down like a lawnmower slowly being pushed by an invisible man. Harry could not fully raise up so he gripped the handle of his M-16 like a pistol and fired and continued to fire. High, low, left, right. Die you son-of-a-bitch. Fuck you, you're mother, Ho Chi Mein, you're ancestors, and all you commie bastards. Did he hit him? Did he? He didn't know but the grass stopped moving and never moved again.

Grenades! Now they're throwing grenades. Boom. Boom. Boom. Time to move. Harry raised a thumb and pointed back over his shoulder. Fox responded instantly while Harry lay down cover fire. The soldier to the left rear went with Fox. Time for Harry to un-ass this AO. He sprang up and started down the mountain at full speed until he realized that he was going much too fast. Actually, out of control. His legs couldn't keep up and a tree was looming straight ahead. He threw himself off to one side but his left leg hit the tree and spun him around like a boomerang. Rolling to the bottom of the hill he could hear bullets whizzing over him. Hitting the tree probably saved his life. Pain shooting through his leg. Oh God, please don't be broken. Down the valley was Fox, his head protruding from the mouth of a cave waving for Harry to get inside. Harry and Quirt scrambled inside to find Fox and another soldier hunkered down. Later Harry would discover that this soldier was Michael Boyle and this was his first mission. Unlucky bastard.

The NVA could be seen running back and forth in front of the cave but, as yet, hadn't looked inside. Outside hammocks hung between trees, fire pits and other signs of life having been  lived in relative comfort. Oh Jesus, they were in a NVA Base Camp. The three soldiers and dog had stumbled into the mouth of the tiger.

"Fox, Boyle, Quirt." Faint sounds. Men were calling to them. Too many dinks around. They could not answer. The rescue party would be slaughtered if they came for them. Harry found it interesting that they were calling Quirt and not him. Oh well, they were one in the same anyway. It was comforting to know they were missed.

Artillery was called in. The ground shook with an intensity they had never experienced. They had to stay put. Praying that the enemy would not seek shelter in the cave. Praying the cave would not collapse. There was a whole mountain on top of them. Helicopter gun-ships came next and raked the area with machine-guns and mini-guns. Hearing the rounds hit first and then the guns was surreal. The ripping of the rounds hitting the ground followed by what sounded like the revving of a race car engine. Six thousand rounds a minute. Seven minutes to put a round in every square foot of a football field. The truly terrifying was yet to come. Jets. They came screeching in low dropping five-hundred pounders before igniting their afterburners and peeling off to come around and do it all again. Splitting the air. They worked in pairs so when the noise of one died down another took its place.  They were experiencing Dante's Inferno. The cave filled with smoke and dust and skin cells. The trio was bounced around like bingo balls. Each time checking each other to see if they were bleeding. Noses bled but not ears. Thank God, not ears. The 20 millimeter Gatling guns from the jets were another abomination created by a Mengele-esque scientist to terrorize humans. The explosive contagion of four-thousand rounds a minute followed by the banshee whine of the guns as the jets peeled away. Make it stop. Please God, make it stop.

Silence. Although the high pitched hum in their ears stole the silence from them they relished the calm.  PFC Boyle poked his head out of the cave for the first time in five hours. It was time to go. The three reluctant spelunkers and Quirt slipped from the cave and made their way along the valley floor. Half crawling, always hunched over they traveled several hundred meters before seeing a figure in a bush high up on the side of the mountain. Not a good hiding place, the man's form was clearly visible in his shelter. Harry, again required to kill another human, painted him with the sights of his M-16 and began to squeeze the trigger. Take a breath, hold it, squeeze, be surprised by the report of the rifle. Wait. What if it's one of ours.

"Hey, it's Fox and Boyle and the Dog Handler." The form scurries up the hill like a scared rabbit. Oh Crap, it was one of them. Harry prods Boyle with the end of his M-16. Move. They start crawling. Crawling fast, Boyle in front. He starts slowing down. Exhausted. Harry with his finger in the trigger guard prods him again and orders him to move. The safety is not on but Harry continues to poke Boyle in the back and butt. Move damn it. In later years he would think about how dangerous and stupid that was but he was scared and scared trumps common sense or even training.

It was getting dusk and several figures rush down from the top of the hill. They take up positions below the ridgeline. Well disciplined, maximizing their advantage. The trio does not move but it is clear they are overmatched and outflanked. Harry rolls the dice and calls again to the shadows.

"It's Fox, Boyle and the Dog Handler. Shoot us or cover us but God Dam it say something."

"Come on up, we'll cover yo ass," came the reply from heaven above. They had never heard such a beautiful southern accent in their lives. As they scurried up the hill the dinks opened up on them. They may as well have been shooting blanks because nothing was going to stop these men from climbing that mountain and joining their unit.

One of the Lieutenants had been shot, his life running off the end of a poncho in red rivulets.  He called Harry over and told him they thought them dead after the patrol received no answer. He said it had already been called in. He was badly wounded and could not move so he asked Harry to bend down so he could shake his hand. Harry shook his hand and then bent over and kissed this man on the forehead. He didn't know why, in fact he didn't even know this guy, but he was compelled to do that and felt no shame.


Rocks on the Roof

by Randy Harritan

Neil Banlow, Harry's best friend with whisky on his breath and mischief on his mind, needed a companion. He explained that they should throw rocks on the tin roofs of the other War Dog hooches and yell incoming. What a great idea, slurred Harry. They'd just finished celebrating the platoon sergeants rotation back to the States with whiskey and steaks and it was late.

Banlow, Harry's best friend gave him the moniker Harry. He had been a school principal before being drafted and was uncharacteristically a joker. His girlfriend and some of her friends, male and female, sent full frontal nude pictures of themselves to Banlow on occasion.  He would share them with Harry while providing vignettes of who was who. Banlow waxed poetic about his love for this girl who was, by the way, gorgeous and told Harry that he would marry her when he got home. Harry never asked who the best man would be but the thought made him snicker. Harry, a hay-seed from North Carolina, had seldom ventured outside his hometown city limits before being drafted but was enthralled by his new environment. He'd never seen Paris but, still, you'd never get him back on the farm.

The stoning idea seemed good but first they needed to set fire to the piss tubes. These were plywood enclosures around a half buried pipe thrust into the ground and used as urinals. One for each Dog Platoon. This, in Harry's mind, would make it more realistic.

A full moon watched the pair creep to the motor pool on drunken feet and collect a mixture of diesel fuel and kerosene to splash on the plywood walls. They were lit and rocks were thrown.

Incoming!

All the hooches, except the 50th platoon, emptied quickly with half-dressed guys running to defensive positions. With the crapulent perpetrators giggling in the background, the piss tube enclosures were extinguished and order was restored.

Sherlock Holmes' half sister could figure out the guilty party was from the 50th and only two of those jokers smelled of kerosene. So, as they say, it was elementary. Neither could figure out why they thought this a good idea the night before but the damage was done and someone must pay. They confessed in the true tradition of the United States Army, besides everybody knew it was them.

The punishment was quick and severe. Banlow and Harry were to burn the shit for the next week. This was accomplished by dragging the cut-off drums from under the outhouse, mixing the contents with kerosene and diesel fuel and burning it to ashes. The problem being it needed to be stirred constantly for full consumption. A Papa-San, assigned to do this was paid $30.00 a month, a very good salary. In fact, in the top ten percent, not counting President Thieu or Nguyen Cao Ky, who stirred a different kind of shit.

The next day, with the tropical sun as sultry as Brigette Bardot and the sky as blue as a jazz singer, the crapulent pair sulked off to fulfill their mission.

In pigeon English and sign language the rogue pair told the Papa-Son the Lieutenant was number ten and was taking the man's job and assigning it to them. In the Vietnanese/American vernacular things were either number one, very good; or number ten, very bad. Never anything in between. The Vietnamese, if they were really upset would insert American vulgarities, and call you number hucking ten. They couldn't pronounce F's. They explained they didn't want the job but had no choice.


The Papa-San assumed a defensive stance with his shit stirring pole and wouldn't allow the pair anywhere near the barrels. When the Lieutenant came to check on them, the Papa-San chased him around the hooches until he climbed aboard his jeep and sped away in a cloud of red dust, all the while being pursued by a screaming five foot Dink waving a shit pole.

The next day the Lieutenant confronted the two innocent and cherub-faced men. They stood at full attention, arms at their sides, fingers folded, thumbs lying in the crook of their index finger, eyes slightly elevated in the illusion it made them look more angelic. No one was fooled. A new punishment was meted out for the rock throwing episode. They were to fill the shower barrels by hand for the rest of the week. Certainly they couldn't screw this up. A tank of water was dropped near the shower and the two men were put to work hauling water with buckets up a rickety homemade ladder to the roof.

The company shower was fed from three 55 gallon barrels mounted atop a rudimentary building with pallets for the floor to allow the run-off. They were normally filled by a pumper truck. The barrels had immersion heaters, a device fired by kerosene, designed by the Army to heat water to wash dishes in the field. Hot water being the only thing that would clean the greasy pots. The heaters were normally fired off at 1600 hours.

After filling the barrels only half-full the two decided it was plenty of water for the evening scrub-fest and lit the immersion heaters. It was only 1300 hours but by lighting them now they could take the rest of the day off. Besides, doing it right was never an option. The 50th Platoon was warned not to take showers that night.

Banlow and Harry were at the kennels when the first of the showers were taken. The screams and yells of the lobster colored men coming from the showers was enough to wake the dead. The co-conspirators looked at each other and wondered if they'd gone too far. Hoping that no one was really hurt, they decided to stay with the dogs rather than venture back to the hooches. Discretion being the better part of that scenario. 

The next day the two were ordered to load up and go to the forward fire base and await a mission assignment. The Lieutenant knew that the fire base was the proverbial briar patch but this move was more humanitarian than punishment. He knew that if these two stayed in base camp any longer they might be killed by members of their own unit.