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.
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..........
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?