“Do you grunts have any idea just how bad you smell?” the baby-faced tanker shouted over the rumbling diesel. “How long have you been in the bush?”
“Seventeen days!” I shouted back.
“It becomes less repugnant after a couple of weeks!” Chan added.
The tanker looked at Chan questioningly. “They told me you guys stay in the bush two months at a shot.”
“So they say,” I replied.
“Made any contact?”
“We made contact every single day.”
The young tanker turned completely around inside the turret hatch, banging his elbow on his .50-caliber machine gun. He winced, then cursed.
“I must bang myself on this thing ten times a day.” He rubbed his elbow. “Did you say you made contact for seventeen days straight?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Wow! I haven’t seen a Charlie yet.”
I suddenly felt rather salty. Downright pleased with myself. Another cloud of dust from the two tanks ahead settled on us like a brown fog. It stuck to our sweaty faces and turned instantly into mud. I felt like I was in World War II, racing toward Rommel over the desert for a tank battle.
“Chan, do you still have your little camera?”
“Let’s take a picture of the tank behind us.”
“Oh, brother. Look, Baby-san, is it a permanent ingredient of your basic nature to become excited about everything?”
“Just take the picture, will ya? And I want a copy when we get home.”
Chan snapped the picture just as our tank pulled off the road and slammed on the brakes. The gunny jumped off first, shouting as he landed, “Get off! Move it! Move it!”
I jumped down and stumbled into a column already forming.
Freckle-faced Sudsy trotted up to us. “Lieutenant wants to know if you’d mind switching to an M16 for this sweep? We got a gunner with no gun in Third Platoon, and they’re setting up a blocking action for the sweep.”
“He actually asked me?”
“Yeah.” Sudsy blew a small bubble from what had to be an ancient piece of bubble gum. “He said you gunners are a strange breed, once you get used to a gun.”
“Well, I sure ain’t that used to it yet.”
“Ol’ Red sure was,” Sudsy said. “The guy you’re giving it to is up front.” He turned and started back toward the front of the column with Chan and me following.
“What did you mean, Red sure was?” I shouted over the rumbling of diesel engines.
“The lieutenant tried to get the gun away from Red once when we were up at Hai Van Pass and ol’ Red wouldn’t let him have it.”
Lieutenant Campbell looked happy to see us. He was talking to the gunner from Third Platoon.
“Thanks, John. We’ll get your gun back to you right after this sweep. This M16 is going to be a lot easier to carry across that field.” He handed me the plastic M16 as I gave the M60 to the Third Platoon gunner. I felt like I was abandoning an old, trusted friend. The little M16 rifle felt like a toy. The lieutenant held Chan’s rifle while he removed four hundred rounds from around his neck.
“Is this a major operation, Lieutenant?” Chan asked.
“A spotter plane saw a lot of fresh dirt out there. It looks like they may be doing some digging.” He looked at me and smiled. “I bet it feels good to get rid of that gun, doesn’t it?”
“I’m better with the gun than the M16.”
“He’s telling the truth, Lieutenant,” Chan added. “Don’t ask me why. Our instructor at Lejeune said he was a natural gunner.”
“I’ll get it back to you as soon as this sweep is over.” His face looked happily puzzled. He patted me on the back and turned to look for Sudsy.
A few minutes later the sweep started across a treeless field. The huge steel monsters led the way, churning deep paths into the moist earth for fifty meters. Having tanks in front of us was a new phenomenon. Hiding behind a thirty-ton caterpillar with cannon gave me a new sense of confidence.
That confidence was short-lived. We reached a ledge with a twenty-five-foot drop that no tank could possibly negotiate. The tanks lined up along the ledge overlooking a relatively flat, unwooded area. Small ridges of earth covered with brush dotted the terrain like some gigantic gopher had pushed up long mounds of dirt.
We climbed down the embankment, fanned out on line, and proceeded cautiously across the field. Suddenly my foot sank into an ankle-deep hole and I fell forward. I caught myself with my rifle. I realized immediately what I’d done. The barrel of my rifle, the notoriously jam-mable M16, was rammed full of mud.
I wanted to tell someone, but we were past the point of talking. Visions of meeting the enemy, pulling the trigger, and nothing happening flashed through my head. Then an even worse vision of the barrel blowing up in my face flashed across my mind.
One hundred meters across the field I smelled a faint whiff of smoke. I wasn’t sure if anyone else smelled it or not. Chan, looking straight ahead, moved slowly fifteen feet to my right. I looked quickly to my left. Jackson had come to a stop. He was looking down into a large hole in the ground. Ten feet in front of us was the first of the long mounds of dirt, six feet tall and about thirty feet long.
I didn’t like the embankment in front of me. I looked at it, then at Jackson, and then back at the embankment.
Jackson turned away from the hole and jumped backwards. Three shots followed in quick succession. I dropped to one knee. Green plastic flew from the hole, followed by a small cloud of smoke. Three men jumped out of the hole carrying rifles. I opened fire as they scrambled over the embankment. My rifle worked! The last one staggered at the top of the embankment then fell forward to the other side. We ran forward, taking cover against the embankment.
I pulled a grenade off my cartridge belt, pulled the pin, and tossed it over the embankment. A moment later Chan did the same. We leaned against the dirt, bracing for the explosions. I put in a new clip of ammo. Suddenly I realized that they could be doing the same thing. My grenade exploded, then Chan’s. I ran around to the end of the mound and fired the entire clip full automatic into the prone bodies of two of the NVA and dove back behind the mound.
I yanked the empty clip out and jammed another full one into the M16. Adrenaline shot through my system. My hands were shaking. I gasped for air like a panting dog. I pulled another grenade off my flak jacket, straightened the pin, pulled, and threw it over the mound. Gunpowder smoke filled the air. My second grenade exploded. I darted around the end of the mound again, unleashed an eighteen-round burst, firing from the hip, and jumped back behind the mound.
Marines were screaming something twenty yards to my left. I pulled out the empty clip and reloaded. My fear had been replaced by the sheer thrill that comes with a life-and-death situation. The thought of getting shot when I stepped around the mound had not even occurred to me until Swift Eagle slid in beside me breathing hard and looking mad.
“Don’t fire that way again! Some of your rounds almost hit the First Platoon. They’re flanking the gooks. Are you trying to get yourself killed, boot?”
“I don’t know what happened, Chief. I just really got into it.”
“You keep playing John Wayne and you’re not going to make it out of here.”
“Cease fire! We’re movin’ in!” Lieutenant Campbell ran over to Swift Eagle and me. “Okay, Chief, let’s see what we bagged.” Swift Eagle turned and shouted, “Give us cover! We’re going in for a count!”
We ran around the mound and spread out. I could see one body but not the other two. I wondered if they got away—but how could anyone survive all those grenades?
“Here’s one, Lieutenant!” Swift Eagle shouted and pointed at a body I didn’t see.
We moved forward cautiously.
“Are you sure there were just three?” Lieutenant Campbell asked.
“That’s all I saw, Lieutenant,” I said, not daring to move my eyes from straight ahead.
“Where’s the third?” I looked to my right. Swift Eagle stood over a khaki-clad corpse. “This one’s been shot. He’s yours, John.” The Indian’s expression didn’t change. Business as usual. “Looks like a kid.”
I walked over to the chief and stared down at the dead man. He was face up. His single-shot Russian SKS rifle lay beside him. It was a grotesque scene. Singularly odd. The skull was split in half, like a watermelon. The morbidly yellow face lay fully intact but separate from the rest of the skull and looking up with a ludicrous expression of almost childish shock. I felt riveted to the ground. I wanted to pull my eyes away but couldn’t. I could hear voices drifting in and out around me. The gray brains of the dead man slid lazily onto the ground, carried by a tiny river of dark-red blood. My mouth tasted like bitter cotton. Sweat streamed out of every pore on my body.
“Quit admiring your work and see if he’s got any papers on him.” I didn’t recognize the voice, but it struck a nerve. I turned around slowly. By the time I faced the voice, tears were trying to force their way out of my eyes. I dropped the M16 and started toward a short, stocky corporal with a thick brown mustache. Someone grabbed me in a bear hug.
“Don’t!” It was Chan. “It’s not worth it!” He turned to the corporal. “What platoon are you in?”
“I would suggest that you take your posterior back to First Platoon before I decide to let him put his foot up it.”
“I gave that jerk an order to check the gook’s papers, and he better—” The corporal stopped in mid-sentence with the help of a pincer-like grip from a large reddish-brown hand now attached to the back of his neck. Swift Eagle turned the corporal’s head toward him like it was a hand puppet. The big Indian nodded his head in the direction of First Platoon, released the corporal’s neck, and stared down at him with his icy black eyes. The corporal slid away like a wounded dog with his tail between his legs. Not another word was spoken.
Chan released me from the bear hug. I walked back over to the dead face. For a moment I felt sick, but it passed. I leaned down to search his pockets, holding my breath to keep from getting sick. I found a thin brown wallet wrapped in green plastic. I tossed it to Chan.
“Check this out.”
I took a deep breath and searched his shirt pockets. They were caked with quickly drying blood. From inside his left shirt pocket I pulled out a scratched-up Timex watch.
“He was only fourteen,” mumbled Chan, still looking at a paper from the dead man’s wallet.
I didn’t have to turn to see who made the next remark. “Well, at least you know there’s someone in this war younger than you are, Baby-san.” The coarse laugh that followed identified Sam the Blooper Man.
“Hey, Doc!” shouted the gunny. He was leaning over one of the NVA. “Get over here. This one’s still alive.”
Doc jogged over to the gunny. I wandered over to see how bad he was. He was shot through the back and out through the chest and stomach. One ear was shot off and bleeding badly.
“He might make it if we medevac him.” Doc peered down under his glasses at the bleeding NVA. He sounded disinterested. His Massachusetts arrogance showing itself again. He’d made no secret of the fact that he joined the Navy to stay as far away from Vietnam as possible and to avoid being drafted into the Army. He considered himself a genius and Marines cretins. In all his genius he neglected to discover that the Marines don’t have medics. The Navy provides corpsmen for that duty. It felt good to see the arrogant snob as dirty as the rest of us.
Chan strolled over to the wounded NVA, bent down on one knee, and checked his wounds. “He can make it, Gunny. If we hurry. The wound’s not sucking.”
“Thanks, Chan,” Gunny said. He turned and looked up at Doc. “You better watch it, Squid. You don’t want to get on my bad side. Sudsy! Let’s get a medevac in here ASAP!” He spit a shot of tobacco on Doc’s boot. “Sorry.”
“Check this out!” Jackson appeared from the other side of the mound holding something in the palms of his hands. “I went down in that hole to see what was smokin’. These guys were smokin’ dope!”
I’d never seen marijuana before except for a couple of goofy movies in high school. Sam forced out a hoarse laugh.
“Now that’s a bad trip, man!” An odd smile spread across Sam’s pitted face.
“Hurry up and get that medevac in here, Sudsy!” Gunny shouted.
“He’s on his way, Gunny.”
Jackson flipped the marijuana into the air and did a quick-step over to one of the dead men’s SKS Russian sniper rifle. He laid his M16 down and snatched up the bolt-action Russian rifle.
“Who gets the rifles, Lieutenant?”
“John gets one.”
“Can I have one? There’s three of ’em here.”
“I guess so. Make sure you tag it before that chopper gets here.”
My eyes drifted back to the dead face. It looked even more yellow than before.
“Hurry up, John. Tag the SKS you want. It’s single shot; you can bring that dude home when you rotate.” Jackson’s voice sounded far away.
“He doesn’t feel well,” Chan said. “I’ll tag it for him.”
“Fourteen. It’s a shame, isn’t it?” Someone put his hand on my shoulder. I managed to pull away from the dead face to see who was talking. His name was Jack Ellenwood, a corporal with the Third Platoon. He stood a good four inches taller than me. His face looked round but he wasn’t chubby. Just the slow soothing tone of his voice calmed me. He sounded honestly regretful, as if he knew exactly how I felt. “You probably shouldn’t stare at it any longer, John. As it is, I imagine you’re going to remember this scene the rest of your life.”
“How did you know my name?”
“You took over Red’s gun, didn’t you?”
“I’ve heard you’re going to be as good as he was.”
“No way. Red was a Marine’s Marine. I could never be as hard-Corps as Red.”
“I had a good friend who looked exactly like you when he got his first confirmed. Only difference was he puked. We came over together. I named my new baby after him. Want to see a picture?” Jack didn’t wait for an answer. He took his helmet off and produced a thick black wallet. His face was already beaming with pride and he hadn’t even found the picture yet. “Here. Here it is.” He patted me on the back and gave up fighting back a giant grin. “Isn’t he something?” It was the usual: a fat little baby on a blanket looking up.
“Yeah, he’s great. What’s his name?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Finally I managed the only word that made any sense.
“Are you married?”
“No,” I said.
“That’s good. Kamikazes shouldn’t get married; besides, you don’t look old enough.”
“I’m not. Why ‘kamikaze’?”
“That’s what I call gung-ho gunners. All you’re missing is the plane.” He laughed. A hearty laugh. The kind that makes you feel good just to hear it. Then I felt a solid slap on the back of my flak jacket.
“Are you okay?” It was Chan.
“Yeah, I guess so. Chan, do you know Jack Ellenwood?”
“Third Platoon, right?”
“That’s me.” Jack stuck out his hand and Chan shook it
“Thanks for talking to Baby-san.”
“Pay no attention to him, Jack. Chan is my A-gunner and built-in big brother since boot camp.”
“His mother asked me to take care of him.” Chan’s smirk nearly made me laugh.
“You know what’s really bothering me?” I asked.
“What?” Jack said.
“I’ve been wanting to get my first confirmed. I mean, I wanted it like it was a game or some sort of competition. I wanted to kill another human being, and now I have, and he was all of fourteen years old.”
“John,” Chan said calmly.
“No, Chan, I mean it. I wanted a confirmed like I always wanted a touchdown and never got it. But that’s not the worst of it. I just don’t feel as bad about killing a kid as I should.”
“How bad do you think you’re supposed to feel? He’d have blown your brains out and bragged about it all the way to Hanoi,” Jack said, then spit as if the thought had angered him. Chan slapped me on the shoulder.
“Why don’t you get over there by yourself and read your Bible? You have to pray about it.”
“Right now I don’t feel like I have the right to open that book,” I said.
Chan put his arm around my shoulder and walked me a couple of steps away.
“In Philippians God tells us to ‘be anxious for nothing but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ ” Chan paused and looked me in the eye. “Look, buddy, I’m not trying to preach at you, but the word of God is the only thing that’s going to help you.”
“I don’t want to hear that stuff right now!”
I couldn’t believe I was actually barking at Chan when deep down I totally agreed with every word he had spoken. He looked at me patiently.
“Later,” he said with a pat on the shoulder.
“Saddle up!” the old gunny bellowed like he meant it. “Let’s get a perimeter around this position. Choppers comin’ in!” Gunny turned toward me. “Johnnie-boy, go get your gun.”
“Don’t call me Johnnie-boy!” I snapped. Immediately I was sorry. I liked the gunny, I wasn’t mad at him. I wasn’t sure what I was mad at, but I was angry enough to fight. The gunny looked shocked, then the leathery wrinkles tightened.
“Move it, PFC!” He turned back to the wounded NVA. I wanted to say I was sorry but I couldn’t seem to force a friendly word out.
By the time I returned with my M60, the whirring rotors of the medevac chopper were bending the knee-level saw grass. A moment later the three bodies were loaded and we moved in column back toward the road. Four deuce-and-a-halfs sat waiting for us with engines running. The tanks had split up, with two leading the convoy and two bringing up the rear. I had no idea where we were going, but the general hope was Phu Bai.
The ride was bumpy and dusty. There wasn’t much conversation. Nearly everyone in my truck had closed his eyes. Sometimes the tired faces of my comrades frightened me. They all looked so much older than they were, harder than they should have been. I was glad I couldn’t see my own face. It no longer felt like the face of Baby-san.
We finally reached Truoi Bridge. I started getting my gear together, but the tiny convoy didn’t stop. Streams of Vietnamese carrying everything from chickens to bicycles scurried off the road and out of the way. They were all headed south toward Da Nang. Probably refugees from Hue, I thought. It had to be over 110 degrees, yet some of the Vietnamese wore coats and shirts on top of shirts.
Soon Phu Bai was visible up ahead. If we didn’t pull in to Phu Bai our other choices looked grim. Hue was a few miles farther up Highway 1, then Quang Tri, Khe Sanh, and a couple of other meat grinders I least wanted to visit. The convoy turned. A couple of the men sighed out loud. Then the excitement of civilization brought on some serious thoughts.
“Women and beer!”
“Yeah, I heard there’s a USO show at Phu Bai.”
“Yeah, I heard that too from a corporal in Third Platoon. Australians!”
A few minutes later we piled out of the trucks in front of the same tent in which Chan and I had first met Big Red. Seemed like years ago, I thought. A group of ten boots, still dressed in stateside utilities, stood in formation nearby. They gawked at us like we’d just stepped off a spaceship. I remembered being on the other side of that look. It was frightening, yet thoroughly exciting.
I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t rather impressed with myself. I looked hard—so hard, in fact, that my baby face was barely noticeable. A grenade hung off every available space. Four hundred rounds of machine-gun ammo crisscrossed my flak jacket, which was no longer green but beige from the sun and dust. My NVA pack stood out among the tiny Marine Corps packs. A .45-caliber pistol hung low on my right hip. It was balanced by my K-bar on my left hip. Last, but anything but least, was the gun. It added that final homicidal ingredient.
“I look pretty bad, don’t I?” I asked Chan.
“No worse than usual,” he said with a smirk.
“No. I mean I look pretty hard-Corps, don’t I?” I said chuckling.
“Surprisingly hard-Corps for someone who couldn’t kill a cow.” He started laughing.
“It wasn’t a cow. It was a water buffalo!” I said.
“Hard-Corps.” He smirked again.
We stood gabbing in formation for a solid two minutes before Sam the Blooper Man spotted the boots who couldn’t take their eyes off us. He couldn’t resist the old ear routine. I knew it was coming when his eyes lit up like a vampire in a blood bank. I gave Chan a nudge and nodded toward Sam. Chan’s Snoopy-like grin stretched into place as we waited for the reaction.
Sam strolled casually over to them, put his M79 under his left arm, and asked for a cigarette. The boots seemed to back up a step or two like they didn’t want to be too close. I realized why. It was the smell. We stunk. One of the young boots handed Sam a cigarette. Sam got a light from another, took one big puff, then removed his helmet. He unpinned the sun-baked human ear from his helmet cover and held it out to the boots, asking anyone if they wanted a lick. The young Marines all took another step back. They frowned as if they were about to get sick, then looked at Sam in wonder when he shook off the flies and put the ear in his mouth and sucked on it.
“Listen up!” Lieutenant Campbell shouted. “That means you, too, mister!” he shouted at Sam. Sam put on his helmet and walked back to our formation. He pinned his ear back on his helmet. “I don’t want anyone getting lost. Stay in the area. You’re allowed to hit the enlisted men’s bar and chow hall, or sick bay, of course. There is a possibility that we might have to saddle up quickly, and if you ain’t in one of those places then you’re AWOL. Leave all frags with Sudsy. Dismissed.”
“Chan, have you got any money?” I asked.
“I’ve got one American dollar, but we’re not allowed to spend American money.”
“I don’t believe it!” A strong slap on my back followed the strangely familiar voice with the Boston baritone. “You two are still together?” I turned to see who I wasn’t having a conversation with. Chan recognized the freckle-faced back-slapper first.
“Mike Flanagan?” Chan asked in disbelief.
“One and the same,” he replied with a hearty laugh. Flanagan was a good-natured Irishman we’d known in boot camp.
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“In Alpha Company?” Chan asked.
“Yep. I just got assigned to Second Platoon.”
“That’s us!” I said.
“Yours, I presume?” asked Chan, pointing to a 3.5 rocket launcher Mike held under one arm.
“Yep, she’s mine. Well, I should say ours.” Mike stepped aside to introduce his A-gunner. He looked a lot like Doc. Round glasses made him look like a professor. His face was pale, his mouth small and tightly closed like it was hard for him to speak. “This is my A-gunner, Lance Corporal Benjamin Allen.” Benjamin said nothing. I nodded hello. “And these two are buddies from boot camp.”
“And Camp Lejeune,” I said.
“It’s great to have you on board, Mike. But tell me something. Why would they send you out with that primitive tube?” Chan asked, pointing at the bazooka. Mike looked insulted.
“Yeah, why don’t you stay with mortars and avoid this crap?” I asked.
His freckled face lit up as his voice lowered. He looked around to make sure no one else heard. “Scuttlebutt says they might send you guys tank hunting!”
“What?” said Chan in total disbelief.
“No, I’m serious. They knocked out a couple of Russian T-34s just this week south of Da Nang.”
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“It’s true,” said the nonspeaking A-gunner with the professor face. He caught me off guard. I was beginning to think he couldn’t speak at all.
“Well if we suddenly move toward Da Nang, I hope you guys are accurate with that tube,” Chan said.
“I’ve got to have a drink at the Animal Pit before some fool says, ‘Saddle up!’ ” I said and gave Chan a pat on his helmet.
“Okay, Baby-san. I’ll go with you to make sure you find your way back.”
“Let’s go, 3.5 rocket team. But you’re a pro runner, aren’t ya, Mike? Are you still trying to stay in shape?” I asked.
“Sort of, but this is a special occasion, and my next Boston Marathon is a long way off.”
“Chan doesn’t drink much either, but he’s drinking with me this time.”
The bar sat about one hundred yards from our tent. I’d never seen it before, but all we had to do was follow the dust of most of the platoon. The building had sandbags up to a tin roof. A sign out front read “101st Airborne.” It didn’t surprise me. Any small luxury I’d seen so far always belonged to the Army. The Marine Corps prided itself on giving back to the Pentagon half its allotted funds. That’s why we still used Korean War–era helicopters, World War II packs, and bazookas.
An MP stood out front to guard a row of weapons.
“No weapons allowed inside.” The Army MP made sure we knew the rules.
We set our weapons down and walked in. Three Marines from our platoon sat at the bar. Army men sat at tables. It could have looked like any bar back in the world if the grungy-looking Marines weren’t part of the scene. Jimmy Hendrix blared from a red and blue Wurlitzer in one corner. A pinball machine with an assortment of bells lit up another. A large brown, white, and blue Schlitz sign on the back wall provided most of the light for the dimly lit bar. Two black and white blowups of President Johnson shaking hands with Army generals hung behind the bar. Swift Eagle sat at one end of the bar by himself, separated by five chairs from the other Marines. We positioned ourselves there.
“I hate going to bars with this little turd,” Chan said to Mike, referring to me.
“I beg your pardon,” I said indignantly.
“Why’s that, Chan?” Mike said with his Boston accent showing.
“The last time I made this mistake I was thrown in jail in Tijuana.”
Mike bellowed out a laugh and choked out the words, “Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious,” Chan said.
“Now wait a minute, you guys,” I said. “There’s a reasonable explanation for these accusations.”
“Yes. And the reasonable explanation is that he struck a giant Mexican bouncer with a chair,” Chan said. Mike started laughing harder.
“Now wait a minute. You’re only hearing one side of the story.”
“That’s right. After that, he managed to involve the entire bar in his brawl, got us arrested by the Tijuana police, the Navy Shore Patrol took us from them, then Marine Corps MPs took us from them, and we’d still be in the Red Line Brig in Camp Pendleton if we hadn’t had orders for Vietnam.”
“Are you finished, Chan?”
“No, but the details are too painful to remember.”
Before I could properly defend myself, Sam the Blooper Man pulled up a stool next to us and bought us a round of beers. He wore a smile that only his mother could love. Showing off those rotten teeth should have warned me that he was up to something.
“Bartender! Here’s ten bucks MPC. Drinks for every Marine in the house!” Sam shouted over my shoulder. He pulled up a stool next to Mike. “Who’s your friend, John?”
“Sam the Blooper Man meet Mike Flanagan and Benjamin Allen, our new bazooka team.”
“3.5 rocket team,” Mike corrected.
“So that’s your bazooka out front?”
“Yeah,” Mike said.
“See those five Army guys sitting over at that table by the pinball machine?” We all turned to see the Army guys and turned back to Sam. “Well, they were just out front laughin’ at the Corps over that bazooka.” Mike looked back at the table.
“I wonder how hard they’d laugh if I tore that ‘101st’ sign off the wall and broke it over their heads.” Mike spoke dangerously loud.
Things were beginning to look like Tijuana all over again. With twenty to thirty M16s right outside the door, a bar fight didn’t feel like a real smart idea to me.
“Don’t worry about a thing, Mike.” I didn’t like the way Sam said that. “The Army has these new blooper rounds that I been wantin’ for months. They got all kinds of ’em. Some explode and send out hundreds of steel ball bearings and some are flares. All kinds of new stuff, and naturally the Crotch won’t see any of ’em until the next war. Bartender! Another round for every Marine in the house!”
“Does that mean them, too?” Our overweight Army bartender pointed at four Korean Marines who were seating themselves at a table behind us at that very moment.
“Are those ROKs?” Sam asked loudly, as though the first three beers had done the job.
“I think so,” the beer-bellied bartender answered.
Sam raised his glass. “Give ’em a drink!”
“Are they White Horse Division?” Mike asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
“I’ll ask ’em,” slurred Sam. He jumped off his stool, walked up to the Koreans’ table, and slapped one of them on the back like he was an old friend. A few seconds later all four stood up and walked over to us, with Sam leading the way.
“I want you guys to meet my friends.” I wasn’t sure who Sam was talking to. As a matter of fact I wasn’t sure Sam had any friends. “This is Sergeant Kim. He speaks perfect English.”
The short, stocky Korean bowed politely then stuck out his hand. He caught us by surprise. No one moved to shake hands with him. I reacted just as he was prepared to remove the offer.
“Sorry. I didn’t know Koreans shook hands. My name is John Clark.”
The sergeant bowed again then stepped aside to introduce someone else. “This is Master Dong Keun Park. He is very famous master of Tae Kwon Do. He is here to train South Vietnamese troops.” A short Korean in the center, even stockier than Kim, bowed politely. I found myself bowing back. Tae Kwon Do is a Korean version of karate.
“American Marines very good fighters!” Master Park said then stuck out his hand. This time everyone reacted. He shook each hand. His chunky paw felt like a club covered with calluses. Master Park spoke in Korean. I couldn’t understand what he said, but it was forceful.
Kim bowed again. “Master Park says Koreans are honored to fight beside American Marines.” He bowed again. Then all four Koreans bowed.
During the introductions I hadn’t noticed that Sam had left the bar. He came through the door just as the Koreans bowed for the last time. He still had that evil smile stuck on his face, but I wasn’t sure what he was up to. We toasted to the Koreans, then they toasted to us so we toasted them again and they toasted us again. Things moved along rather merrily.
“Who stole my M79 ammo!” A large, angry voice shattered the merriment. A giant in Army fatigues blocked the doorway. I leaned away from the bar to get a better view. I thought he was standing on top of something. He wasn’t. “I know it was one of you thievin’ Marines! Who was it? Who has my ammo bag?” Now I knew what Sam was up to. The giant looked impatient. The soldiers in the bar stood up, their chairs squealing against the wood floor as they pushed them aside.
“This is the last time I go to a bar with you,” Chan said in a muffled tone. “I knew this would happen.”
“Me! I don’t have anything to do with this,” I said.
The giant walked over to us like he just got off a horse. I quickly debated in my mind the pros and cons of turning Sam in. Couldn’t do it, not to the Army.
“He’s even larger than the Mexican!” Chan whispered. “We’ll need a bigger chair!”
The giant stood between us and the Koreans. He looked down at each of us, then suddenly reached to his right, grabbed Sam by the throat, and started squeezing him purple. Mike jumped off the stool to help. The giant shoved him down with one hand. Just as quickly the giant’s right leg buckled and he fell to one knee. Master Park snapped his foot back from the giant’s knee, then without lowering it to the ground snapped off a second kick to the side of the giant’s head. His huge head bent sideways from the force of the Korean’s tiny, spit-shined combat boot. The giant dropped over like a fallen redwood. For an instant I thought his neck had snapped. The other three Koreans formed a half-circle, each in a different fighting posture, facing the remaining Army men still standing on the other side of the bar, all with shocked expressions. No one moved. One Army man sat down. Then another. Finally everyone. Master Park knelt on one knee and put his ear to the giant’s chest. “He is not dead.”
“Wow! That was great!” I said.
“Did you see that kick?” Sam put in.
The door of the bar opened wide, bringing in more light than I wanted to see. Sudsy poked his face through columns of dust and light. “Hey! Any Marines in here from Alpha 1/5?”
“Yeah! Come on in, Suds!” Sam shouted.
“Saddle up! We got choppers waiting on us right now!”
“We’re comin’ in on a hot LZ! Prepare to fire as soon as we disembark!” Lieutenant Campbell shouted over the noisy, twin-rotor CH-46 assault choppers. From cozy bar to hot LZ, it felt like a bad dream. The rear end of the chopper opened up like the tailgate of a pickup as we neared the LZ. “Don’t forget, we’re here to rescue those useless Green Berets, not shoot ’em!”
I faked a laugh. My stomach turned inside out. I looked at Chan for reassurance. His face looked like my stomach felt. The chopper dropped quickly. My stomach felt worse. I peeked out of one of the round portholes in the side of the chopper. Yellow smoke swirled up from a muddy rice paddy wedged tightly between two steep mountains.
A bullet smacked through the helicopter. The pilot leveled off fifteen feet above the paddy.
“Get out! Jump out! This is it! Disembark!” the copilot screamed at the top of his lungs. Somebody gave me a shove toward the open tailgate. I stumbled forward under the weight of my gear. The chopper swung left, throwing me flat on my stomach. I looked up. The chopper was empty. I scrambled for the opening, carrying the gun under my right arm. I could feel the chopper pulling away. I held my breath. I jumped. The fall felt endless. Bits of blue sky and green trees shot past me. I could hear the cracking of AKs around me, then I hit. My helmet smashed into my head. Blood streamed down my face. A sharp pain ripped up my spine. I didn’t know if I could move. I wiped the blood from my eyes and looked down. I was in mud up to my thighs that smelled like a sewer. Bullets hit the mud around me with a sucking sound. It felt like quicksand. I dropped the gun and rolled back and forth, then crawled and pulled myself free. Marines returned fire from the edge of the paddy behind the cover of five small trees at the foot of a mountain on my left. I grabbed the gun and ran for the trees. Suddenly I realized I was alone in the middle of the paddy. I ran faster. The mud grabbed at my boots. Chan called from the trees. Five yards from the trees I dove and rolled behind a small mound of dirt. The firing stopped.
Lieutenant Campbell shouted us into squads. Miraculously our only casualty was some corporal’s canteen. An AK round tore it right off his cartridge belt. Ten minutes later all three squads swept up the steep mountain. An hour later we reached the top. We found nothing.
“All right, let’s check that other mountain!” The gunny’s command made my feet ache.
Five hours and two mountains later Sudsy got word over the PRC-25 that the Green Berets were safe at home with no casualties. The enemy had disappeared too. The men were incensed. Some of the best swears I’d ever heard ricocheted up and down the column. Most swore to deck the first person they caught in one of those stupid green hats. It was all new to me. First chopper assault on a hot LZ. First rescue of Green Berets. Evidently it wasn’t the first time for the salts in the platoon.
“One of these days those suckers in their fag hats are gonna get all of us killed!”
I was so tired I almost paid no attention to the gripe walking up behind me in the column. It certainly wasn’t the first one of the day, but when the voice swore something in a strange language I looked over my shoulder to see who it was.
“Swift Eagle? What’d you just say?” I asked, surprised at his rare show of emotion.
“Nothing important,” he answered without looking.
“How many times has this happened?”
“Why’s everybody so ticked off?” I asked as he moved up beside me.
“It’s a setup.” His piercing black eyes seemed to stare straight through me. “The gooks throw a few mortars into a Green Beret outpost, let them scream for help, then ambush the help. It’s the oldest trick in Nam, but they never learn.”
“I thought they were pretty good, for Army.”
“Ah. they’re good troopers, but they keep putting these clowns out here by themselves where they don’t do a bit of good and get everybody else killed tryin’ to save ’em.”
Now I understood. If the chief said it and was even willing to talk about it, then it must be fact.
“Chief, what’d you think of that fight in the bar?”
He nodded. “The Koreans are great.”
“Have you ever been on an operation with those guys?”
“No. Once, on my first tour in country, my platoon came across nine dead gooks. None of the gooks had been shot, and they looked all beat up. A couple of knife wounds here and there but no bullet wounds. We started searching the stiffs and these eight Koreans came out of the bush.”
“How’d you know they were Koreans?”
“One of ’em shouted to us first so we wouldn’t blow ’em away. He spoke perfect English. Anyway they killed ’em all with Tae Kwon Do and knives. They take less casualties that way than with guns. The gooks don’t stand a chance going hand-to-hand with those guys.”
I had a few thousand questions for the chief now that I had him talking, but we reached the spot for the chopper pickup. We set up a quick perimeter around it. Fifteen minutes later two CH-46s started circling the LZ. Green smoke covered me as the first chopper settled down. Twelve Marines hurriedly filed into the rear of the helicopter. I held my breath, waiting for that first AK to open up from the surrounding mountains. The painfully slow helicopter finally lifted off. Still no fire.
Our chopper landed thirty seconds after the first was airborne. Still no fire. I ran up the small ramp, cringing, waiting for that first shot. I collided with Chan as I lunged for my place on the six-man bench attached to the inside wall of the helicopter. The chopper lifted off. Twelve of us sat facing each other. Each face was strained, anxious to get out of range.
Once we were above the mountains, relief swept over the tired faces in front of me. A bright afternoon sun streaked through the round portholes. I leaned back and looked at Chan.
“Boy, I really hurt my back when I jumped out of this thing.”
“Is that how you cut your forehead?” Chan asked. He leaned back, looking exhausted.
“It’s odd that you didn’t fracture something. I’d like to find out who that pilot was,” Chan said.
I leaned back and closed my eyes. When I opened them we were landing in Phu Bai. My stomach growled.
“I’m starving!” I said.
“Eat some C-rats,” Chan said.
“I’m saving my stomach for real food in Phu Bai.”
“Yes. Let us make an effort to reach the chow hall instead of a bar this time.”
We walked off the chopper and found ourselves facing a big, snub-nosed, camouflaged C-130 cargo plane. At least one hundred Marines were filing into the rear of the big plane.
“All right, I want you men to get in that line over there!” The lieutenant pointed to the C-130. “The regiment is moving to An Hoa!” he shouted over the helicopter engines still idling behind us.
I dipped into my pack and pulled out a can of beans ‘n’ franks.