* * *
They flew deep into the mountains under heavy clouds to a huge plateau with head-high elephant grass, soggy earth and mangrove swamps. The mission was to search for and destroy VC. If we can find any, thought Wilfred.
Misty rain for endless days. Fifty or sixty degrees. Everyone in ponchos. Slogging through knee-deep water under trees. Oozy black mud sucking canvas boots. Cold. Watching for snakes, slapping at mosquitoes. Leeches clinging and drinking. Making them fall off with overdoses of insect repellent or Zippo lighters. Wrinkled toes and fingers. Itchy places. Sores that won't heal. The perfect place for immersion foot--your toes rot and fall off. What do you do? Take off your boots at night and let the air get to your feet. How can you fight? You don't need boots to fight.
Carrying extra C's in olive drab socks tied to web-gearin case the bird can't make it in. Socked-in. Three C's a day for three days. Ham and eggs. Beans and franks. Ham and lima beans. Applesauce and fruit cocktail...again and again. Balling up white C-4 explosive on wet ground. Lighting it and holding a canteen cup over it. Brilliant white flame. Unquenchable. "Phssssss..." Hot cocoa and coffee.
LRRP (lurp) rations appear one day. The freeze-dried foods were normally saved for long-range reconnaissance patrols, but A Company had been without "hots" long enough to deserve them.
"Look at this, Robbie," said Wilfred. "Goddam lasagne!"
"Just dump in hot water and watch it grow."
"Shit. It's really good!"
"Napoleon conquered Europe because of canned goods, and we'll beat the gooks with lurps."
"We must be grateful to war for technological advancements."
Wet cigarettes. Wet fingers make wet spots on dry cigarettes that become holes that let in fresh air instead of smoke. A nicotine deficit. Starvation.
A group of ponchos and steel pots sitting around, bullshitting in the drizzle. An ambulatory version approaches. It speaks. "Hey, anyone got a cigarette? Mine got wet. Christ, I could sure use a cigarette."
"I got one left. Here, you want it?" Reaching under the poncho.
"Aw, I couldn't take your last cigarette."
"Here. Take it. I don't mind." Fingers carefully unwrapping. Arm stretching out in offering. Supreme sacrifice.
Hungry eyes on the white cylinder. "Jeez. You sure it's O.K.?"
"Yeah, yeah. Take it."
Reaching out. An inch away. "O.K., man, I sure apprecia--"
The giving fingers break the cigarette into pieces. The barest hint of a smile.
"Shit, man. What'd you do that for? I mean somebody could've smoked that thing. That was really a shitty thing to do."
"F--k ya if ya can't take a joke."
The soggy group almost smiles, almost laughs. Everyone feels a little stronger and tougher, a little more in control.
Copyright 2009 Richard Morris
* * *
A Company had bivouacked on a barren piece of rock several ridgelines west of Sang Tran. The morning sun lit the tips of hundreds of mountains to the west. The peaks floated on a frozen sea of fog. Just below them, the mist crept like a glacier down between the ranges forming Valley 809. It was into this flux that A Company moved.
Henry at the fore, they snaked single-file down the path through dense rain forest. At mid-morning, they turned onto another path parallel to the ridgeline about half-way down the mountain.
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It happened suddenly. Henry rounded a bend with characteristic stealth and was face-to-face with a Viet Cong column of five guerillas, not twenty feet away.
"Lai-dai! (Come here!)" the VC woman at the head of the column shouted at Henry. Her hair was bound up beneath a soft brimmed hat, her femininity hidden within a baggy black uniform, behind ammunition-filled web gear. As she spoke, she raised her AK-47 automatic rifle and smoothly chambered a round.
Henry answered with his shotgun, not bothering to raise it to his shoulder.
The woman felt stabs of pain piercing her chest and abdomen, lifting and carrying her back as the explosion deafened her. Blackness.
Henry charged like a fullback, pumping the gun at the waist as he ran and quickly squeezing the trigger again.
The second VC in line felt pellets sting his shoulder as the first blast rang out and watched aghast as his female comrade landed on her back near his feet, her midsection a bloody red mass. When he saw Henry coming, he immediately dove toward the ground. That was all he would know. Before he reached the earth, the second blast tore his head from his neck.
Now the third VC hit the ground, but fearing he would shoot the man in front of him, he withheld his fire for a vital second. Then, as he watched pieces of his friend's body coming toward him, he fired wildly to his front.
Henry had already leaped off the trail and was chambering his third shot while continuing his charge.
The third VC saw too late the movement in the bushes off the trail to his right. As he swung his rifle around and up, he saw a blur looming over him, the shiny barrel tipping down. The circle. The fire. Then nothing. The blast entered his chest through his shoulder, ripping off his right arm, leaving powder burns on his trunk and a foot-wide hole through his heart and lungs.
The fourth and fifth VC had time to be consumed by fear. As they saw the black giant emerge from the bushes over the third VC, they turned and ran. They heard the explosion and the metallic sliding sound. Then the fourth VC felt pain rush through his back to his chest and was thrown down into darkness.
The last man heard this blast, then footsteps and thrashing, coming his way. He ran faster, but the thumping came closer. In desperation, he turned toward Henry, flinging away his rifle, shouting, "Chieu hoi! Chieu hoi!." He saw the shiny black face, brown and yellow eyes afire, giant nostrils flared, open mouth sucking air. "Khoung (please)," he pleaded, arms upraised. Then the flash and the pain. Sailing backward. Void.
In less than thirty seconds, all five Viet Cong were dead. "All clear," called Henry, menacingly. "All daid."
Wilfred followed the bodies to Henry. The lieutenant's shocked eyes burned Henry's with respect and not a little fear. "That makes...fourteen...if I'm not mistaken," Wilfred said.
"Yessuh," came the crisp reply.
"For Christ's sake, you don't have to win this war all by yourself."
"Se'f defense, sir. Jus' se'f defense."
Wilfred noticed the opened chest on the last corpse and the rifle in the bushes and recalled hearing some "Chieu hoi" cries. "This one, too?" he asked.
Now Henry's eyes glared. "This's one gook'll nevah kill no mo' us...Ri'?"
Wilfred paused in thought: Pre-emptive self-defense? "Right..., Corporal," he said, turning his back on the situation and instantly promoting the black private, not condoning as much as understanding. You can't just turn off fear and anger like water from a tap, thought Wilfred.
3. The Bunker
When they landed at the airstrip at German, Wilfred found Sgt. Washington who had dismounted minutes before. "We're supposed to go over there," Washington told him. "But the sergeant says they just had a big explosion. He doesn't know if it was incoming or what."
"Christ," said Wilfred. "What next?"
"Think we should wait a while before we go over?" Washington asked.
"I don't know. Have you heard any other explosions?"
"Well, let's go over. Maybe they need some help."
The platoon walked in a bunch across the airfield and arrived at their sector. The men in the platoon they were to relieve seemed to be wandering around in a trance. Each carried a sandbag. Near the center was a rectangle of sandbags within which some torn and broken bags lay scattered. Not far away a group of three half-full bags, their sides wet and red, rested on the ground. Wilfred noticed a platoon sergeant with a bag in his hand looking all around the area and approached him. "I'm Lieutenant Carmenghetti," Wilfred said. "We're supposed to relieve you."
"You'll have to wait," the sergeant snapped.
"The mortar bunker blew. We're picking up the pieces."
"Where's your C.O.?"
The sergeant spread his arms, looked around through a screen of tears and shrugged. He seemed disorientedlost. Then he pointed at the three red bags and shook his head in bewilderment.
"How many were killed?"
"Don't know. Five, maybe. Don't know."
"Was it incoming?"
"Don't know. Don't think so."
"Need any help?" asked Wilfred, but the sergeant shook his head "no".
Wilfred returned to his men, kneeled and in a low voice told them what had happened. "If it had happened ten minutes later, it would have been us," he said. They looked away from the scene, but the policing troops clung to the periphery of their minds and vision with relentless inertia.
After a while, a captain came up, talked to the sergeant and came over to Wilfred. He was a big man with blonde hair and a round tan face. His eyes were blinky and his voice shook.
"They'll be done soon," he said, and he turned and left.
A deuce-and-a-half pulled up and the sergeant told his men to load the remains. Some were in bags, others in ponchos, but all of the loads were small--smaller than legs, arms, trunks.
Wilfred closed his eyes and turned away, but then he saw Private Smith's face leering at him in mirthful madness. He quickly opened his eyes to drive away the vision and as he looked around, the thought of taking over the post began to nauseate him.
Then he thought of Henry. Where was he? Dead in a ditch from a sniper's bullet? Captured? Tortured? He thought sure the point man would head for his girl in Sang Tran, but did he make it? And what was in that letter to set him off? Henry didn't get much mail, so it could well have been something important. All Wilfred knew was that he had to find Henry, and fast. He was sure Henry needed help.
"It's all yours, lieutenant," shouted the sergeant. His men were collecting in the center with their packs and rifles.
Wilfred assigned his squad leaders to different areas and told them each to send two men back to help Kaslovski rebuild the bunker.
Copyright 2009 Richard Morris
4. The Supply Chopper
A signal grenade popped in the middle of the field and the green smoke puffed and churned and rose like a genie toward the high but overcast sky. In came the bird with a gale and a roar.
Even before it settled down, Sgt. Washington and two of his men were running at a half crouch toward its open doors. With smiles and shouts, they grabbed the cases of food and beer and the cans of water which the door gunners slid their way, set them on the ground and reached for more. In twenty seconds the soldiers backed off a few yards, crouched and shielded their eyes, and the bird lifted, tipped forward a bit and raced up to the top of the line of palm trees at the edge of the field. The men on the ground looked up as it barely cleared the branches.
But no. It didn't. A thrashing sound, and the tail with the small propeller went straight up, then down. They watched the machine hit the earth and heard the sound of breaking glass and tearing metal. They listened to the boom of exploding fuel and watched a ball of fire engulf the craft.
"Oh, God," said Washington, and as the two forms beside him rose and began running toward the fire, he followed, a step behind.
Wilfred and others heard the crash and saw above the bushes the huge black finger of smoke pointing toward the wreck.
"Get a medevac!" he shouted to Welbourne, and he and others began racing toward the plane.
As Washingon passed the palm trees he saw the left door gunner lying motionless on his back in the grass. The black sergeant kneeled beside him but knew instantly there was nothing
to be done. The head was turned at an extreme angle from the shoulders, the eyes stared emptily, the jaw was slack, and the side of the head was partially caved in. Blood oozed from the mouth and nose. He had been tossed from the craft as it struck the limbs and had landed on his head.
The muffled sound of rifle fire pierced the roar of the inferno and the sergeant yelled "Ge' down!" to the other two men who stood searching the flames and the field, not knowing what to
do. "The machine gun rounds are cookin' off!" As the men started to drop, however, the copilot emerged from the plane and began running away, his clothes on fire, his skull burned bald and red. Even his eyebrows were gone, but his moustache remained.
"Get him down and roll him," shouted Washington, and the three chased him, pushed him over, rolled him in the grass and beat out the flames with bare hands while the exploding shells
filled the air with wild, random projectiles.
"Ge' down!" Washington shouted at Wilfred as he ran up. The lieutenant dropped to his knees beside the copilot who smiled and assured him, "I'm all right. It didn't get my moustache."
While Wilfred and Washington fashioned a stretcher, other men from the platoon found the other gunner on the opposite side of the helicopter. He was on his side, holding his ankle and
moaning. His fall had been luckier.
Soon everyone realized that the pilot was still inside, but they knew that by now he was a charred skeleton. Even the metal skin of the plane was burning, so intense was the heat.
Wilfred helped the copilot onto the stretcher and they covered him with shirts to keep him warm. Welbourne ran up with the radio and told Wilfred the medevac would arrive in ten
minutes, so Wilfred shouted to Rodriguez and Kaslovski to have their squads form a perimeter for the LZ.
They waited in agony as the shooting receded and the flames began to wane. Then the speck appeared and grew larger against the grey sky. Rodriguez popped green smoke which fought to be seen through the billowing black, and the bird circled once and landed in the field.
Two men grabbed the arms of the gunner with the broken ankle and helped him hop to the plane while four others took the ends of the bamboo poles and walked the stretcher to the medics. Two others carried the body of the second gunner.
Wilfred smiled at the copilot as they loaded him aboard the chopper and said. "You'll make it. You're tough."
Then they were gone and all that remained was the nearly-sated crematory fire. Some of the men stayed at the site, viewing with awe the smoldering ruin, but most returned to the bridge in silence. They went through the motions of passing out rations and mail, but little was consumed.
Copyright 2009 Richard Morris
5. Uncle Solomon
"Hey, Robbie. Did I ever tell you about my Uncle Solomon?"
"I don't think so."
"He's got to be the weirdest guy in my family. I mean, this guy is way out. You sure I didn't tell you about him?"
"Nope. So how was he weird?"
"Well, he was O.K. until he hit forty. Then he had this really strange mystical conversion. He started believing that all of life is sacred. He began to identify with different forms of life. Started imagining the pain of other beings and wondering if they have eternal souls. Then he decided that the essence of life in himself and all living things was the samewas God. And he decided he could no longer destroy life by killing it and eating it. He became a vegetarian."
"Sounds like a very sensitive man. But there are lots of vegetarians around. That's not so weird."
"Yeah, but then he decided it was wrong to kill germs. Gave up all medicine and started hating his own antibodies and white corpuscles. Called them murderers."
"You're shitting me."
"Huh uh. But that's not all. The real problem started when he took another step and decided that plant life was sacred too. I remember reading a poem he wrote. He was describing the pain and suffering a plant feels when it gets killed or bleeds or has something amputated. I think it ended with, 'What man be better than the towering oak?'"
"So you mean he--"
"Yes. He stopped eating plants, too. Plants, animalseverything! The only thing he could do was to drink water and eat vitamins and mineral supplements."
"Wow. What happened to him?"
"Well, he got really thin. Came close to death, in fact."
"Then he made a momentous decision. He decided that it would be all right to eat things if he didn't kill them or cause them to suffer. He decided he could eat dead thingsthings that didn't contain any life and couldn't feel pain. He started out by picking up dead animals along the highway."
"Maybe to you, but he was starving."
"I guess so."
"Anyway, then he started rummaging through garbage cans and hanging out at the back doors of restaurants."
"It was pitiful, is what it wasand quite an embarrassment for my mother. It was her brother, after all."
"No wonder. But what finally happened to him?"
"Well, eventually it occurred to him that everything in the supermarket is dead, and he gave thanks for the discovery and invited us all over for a big dinnercaviar, steak, potatoes, brussel sprouts"
"Wilfred. Do you really have an Uncle Solomon?"
Copyright 2009 Richard Morris