Going to the Field
My heart rose to my throat when I heard the “thwap, thwap, thwapping” of the Huey helicopter arriving to carry me to meet my new unit. The sound of its approach was enough to send chills up my spine. As it landed, dust and dirt flew everywhere and it was hard to move forward against the windstorm of the rotor blade’s thrust. It was impossible to hear over the roar of the turbine engine and the spinning rotor blades. The door gunner, with his M-60 machine gun dangling in front of him, waved me into the open cargo bay. There was a gunner on each side and no doors or seats in the cargo bay, just a big open space behind the pilots. This was my first time on a helicopter. Although I had seen them from a distance, I had no idea of the awesome power and emotion this mighty war machine could conjure.
I moved unsteadily toward the cargo bay of the Huey. The blast of air from the rotor blades made it difficult to walk. This was both exciting and frightening at the same time. I climbed on board and sat against the back wall of the cargo bay, facing the pilots. The pilot in the left seat turned and gave me a little wave, and then the chopper began vibrating heavily as we lifted off the ground in a swirl of dust. The flight was exhilarating and the view out of the open doors was breathtaking. Vietnam was a beautiful country, with rice paddies dotting the valley and gentle hills rising from the valley floor. The thrill of riding in this helicopter made me feel excited to be alive and on my way to my first real combat duty.
The Huey dropped me at a small outpost somewhere in the middle of the Quang Ngai province. They called it a “fire support base” and as far as I know it had no name. Many of the larger firebases, as they were sometimes called, were given names like Firebase Charlie or Firebase Maggie. Some of the firebases, like this one, were temporary and mobile so they could be set up and torn down quickly. This particular firebase was on the top of a hill overlooking the valley. Two flat spots had been bulldozed on the hill: one for helicopters to land on, and the other for artillery guns, mortars, and a command tent. The perimeter of the firebase was dotted with fox holes, obviously dug by hand. A makeshift tent city was tucked on the backside of the hill. It housed the infantry soldiers, like me, who were protecting the hill by night and running patrols into the valley by day.
I stood on the chopper pad wondering where I should go and where to report. A young man in a dirty uniform, wearing no rank or unit insignias, walked up to me and said, “You must be the new guy. Follow me. I’ll take you to your area.” He led me to the tent city and informed me that my squad (about ten guys) was out on patrol but they would be back in an hour or so. I immediately noticed that the tents weren’t tents at all, but were actually army issue ponchos staked out like a tent over a shallow hole. I ate one of my C-ration meals while I waited for my new squad to return. I was still feeling the high from my first chopper ride and hadn’t had time to feel fear or concern about the enemy. Cognitively, I was aware that I was now in the combat zone but emotionally it hadn’t hit me yet.
When the squad returned from patrol, I met the squad leader, Sergeant Russell, and a couple of the other guys from the squad. I was buddied-up with John, a young-looking blond fellow from Detroit. John had only arrived there a few days before I did, but seemed to know the ropes already. I found out that in Vietnam you either learned quickly or died quickly. Later, I met some of the other soldiers in my unit, and that night I pulled guard duty.
There were two men to a foxhole on guard duty and we were guarding the perimeter of the firebase. The man I was paired with was from a different squad but in the same platoon that I was in. He had been in Vietnam almost two months and he looked like a hardened veteran to me. Guard duty required the use of a radio. In training we had never really used a radio much, so I didn’t know exactly what to say or how to say it. I knew that a phonetic alphabet was used to help clarify communication, and that you had to say “over” when you finished talking. Everyone else seemed fluent in radio lingo, rapidly quipping radio jive back and forth. It seemed that everyone knew the jargon, except me. I didn’t feel scared on guard duty. I felt stupid. By the end of my shift on guard duty I was able to understand some of the terminology, but I had a long way to go before becoming fluent in radio speak. I finished my two hours of guard duty, then crawled into my tent and went to sleep.
The next morning, I woke up and got out some C-rations for breakfast. John showed me how to make a stove out of a couple of used cans and how to use C-4 plastic explosive to heat the stove. Burning plastic explosive in the stove seemed like risky business. John assured me it was safe as long as I used only a small amount and didn’t try to step on it to put it out. The C-4 burned very hot and fast - within a couple minutes my meal was piping hot. I was beginning to see that there was a lot more to being in combat than was taught in training. While we were eating breakfast, the squad leader came by and told us to be ready to go out on a short patrol around 0930 hours.
Until my arrival at this outpost I’d always been at much larger base camps, which were much more secure. The larger base camps had barbed wire fences, flood lights, tents, and mess halls—all in fairly secure areas. This place was not, in any conceivable way, secure. There were no barbed wire fences in front of us, just foxholes. Foxholes lined the entire perimeter, and someone had to be on guard in those foxholes 24 hours a day.
When I had arrived the previous day, I hadn’t noticed that these foxholes were manned. During the day there was only one man in every other hole. There was a good field of vision during daylight hours, so the guards were much more casual than at night.
The First Patrol
At 0930 Sgt. Russell came by and said we would be leaving on a short patrol in a few minutes and that we would be “traveling light.” John told me “traveling light” meant we only needed to take our rifle with an extra magazine of ammo, and our canteens. I strapped the necessary gear to my waist, put my steel helmet on, and loaded my weapon. This was my first true realization that I had a live weapon, and that I was positioning myself to fire my weapon in combat. I was preparing myself to do battle against a live human enemy. This was the first time I started to become deeply afraid of being in combat. I began to realize that the enemy could be hiding anywhere and that they could shoot from anywhere, at any time.
We moved beyond the perimeter of the little firebase, walking in a long line down an open trail. Suddenly, the fear gripped me. I was really scared. My mouth began to dry out and I began to sweat profusely. When I couldn’t sweat anymore it felt like my body was on fire. I was extremely hot and couldn’t cool down. I started to shake and felt like my head was coming apart. We had only been walking about ten minutes but every step was pure torture. I was surprised, and relieved, when the sergeant told us to take a short break. I hid in the bushes away from everyone because I didn’t want anyone to know how scared I was. I was hyperventilating and
I had dry heaves; my heart was pounding loudly and I couldn’t control my fear. I thought I was going to die of fright. Never in my short life had I felt so much fear.
The sergeant motioned for the squad to reassemble and we walked back to the firebase. After drinking my entire canteen of water, I calmed down enough to walk back without showing the full extent of my fear. When we got back, I ran to my little tent and hid. I shook uncontrollably. I thought, “My God! I have to endure a full year of this.” We had only gone about two hundred yards outside the perimeter. We were never out of visual contact with the firebase, and were only gone about twenty-five minutes. I couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like to be out on patrol for days or weeks at a time.
John stuck his head in the tent to see how I was doing. He didn’t say anything about my being scared, but I’m sure he knew. We talked about how silly the patrol had been. Then laughed about how much effort we all went through just so the sergeant could take a better look into the valley to gather information for his daily report. As we were talking, I heard a chopper coming in to the landing pad. John said the chopper was probably bringing another new guy to join our squad today. This felt good; it meant I was no longer the newest guy on the team. I felt like I had just been promoted.
The new guy, Hank, was a tall, slim, New Yorker with a big grin and a strong handshake. He was eighteen years old, like John and me, although I suspected that John had lied about his age to get into the army, and was probably closer to seventeen than eighteen. I wasn’t really looking to make friends this quickly, but the three of us bonded almost instantly. From the moment John and I met Hank, the three of us were inseparable.
The next day I learned we would be going out for a longer stint in the field, maybe a week or two. The sergeant informed us that we would be on a company-wide operation, and would possibly be choppering into a hot LZ (any place where a chopper would land was called an LZ, landing zone). A hot LZ meant that there was a good chance that we would be taking incoming fire as the helicopters landed.
Sgt. Russell took the three new guys (John, Hank, and me) aside. He explained that if the landing zone was hot, the helicopters would not actually land. Under those circumstances they would come in low to the ground, and we would have to get out very quickly. He also informed us that we would have to lay down cover-fire so the choppers could get out as fast as possible. This was a very frightening scenario. I remembered how scared I was just walking outside the perimeter of this little firebase. I couldn’t imagine how I would feel trying to hurry out of a hovering helicopter with all my gear strapped to my body, while someone was shooting at me and trying to kill me. My stomach was in knots and I was sweating profusely, but I didn’t want the others to know how frightened I really was. We were all very quiet and I imagined John and Hank were having similar feelings.
That evening we helped each other pack our gear and prepare for our first “combat assault.” Guard duty seemed less demanding than previous nights and I was beginning to catch on to the radio jargon. Sharing these experiences with my new buddies made being in the war zone a little less intimidating.
We all assembled on the chopper pad early in the morning. I was really nervous but not as frightened as the day before. What worried me most was doing the wrong thing, or screwing up and getting someone hurt. I wanted to be a good soldier and fit in like “one of the guys.” I was impressed with the way the veterans calmly prepared for battle and seemed to know instinctively what to do.
I could hear the choppers coming in from the north. The sound of the rotor blades made my heart pound loudly in my ears. The sight of a dozen choppers coming across the hills was inspiring. It gave me a sense of power that I hadn’t felt before. Suddenly my fear was replaced by a sense of pride, a sense of teamwork. Working together with a large group of men, in a coordinated effort, utilizing high tech, modern warfare equipment gave me a feeling of invincibility.
We were divided into groups of eight and instructed to get on our assigned chopper as soon as it landed. John, Hank, and I were in the same group, along with Sgt. Russell. The sergeant told us to keep an eye on him and he would tell us when to get off the chopper and where to go once we were on the ground.
The helicopter flight was exhilarating. The adrenaline was pounding through my veins. I looked at the faces of the men around me and felt a sense of unity. This is what I trained for. I was now a real combat soldier just like John Wayne. I was fighting for my country and I was honored to be in the United States Army. I believed I was fighting to prevent the spread of communism and to make the world a better place to live. The army had filled our heads with a lot of propaganda about the war, they made us believe we were on the side of good and the enemy was evil.
A Strange Noise
The sergeant instructed us to jump from the helicopter, stay low and run for the cover of the trees. I was so nervous that my legs felt like rubber. As I jumped out of the helicopter, I landed in a wet, muddy, rice paddy. I tried to run, but my feet were stuck. As I freed them and began running, I heard a strange noise. “Splat, splat.” “Crack, crack.” It didn’t take long to realize the noise was the sound of bullets landing all around me, splashing in the water. The crack-crack was the sound of the bullet breaking the sound barrier. I couldn’t see or hear the muzzle of the weapon that fired the bullets, only the crack-crack sound the bullet made afterward. It was such a foreign sound.
In training, I didn’t remember the bullets making a cracking sound. It was an odd sound, much different from the sound made when firing the bullet away from you. There’s an old saying, “Ya’ never hear the one that gets ya’.” There’s truth to that because you never hear the crack of the bullet until it passes by you. It was in this rice paddy that I began to understand that this was no summer camping trip, accelerated Boy Scout adventure, or game. This was serious business, and very dangerous. This was war. Even in my moments of shock and terror, I was in awe of the power of war.
No one had been injured in the helicopter assault and the enemy had stopped firing at us as soon as the helicopters left. I was surprised that I was able to overcome my fear. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about my first few moments of combat. As I proudly moved to where the rest of my unit was gathering, I looked down and felt a little sheepish as I realized I hadn’t taken my weapon off safety.
We regrouped by the tree line and began moving down this little valley. I could see men moving ahead of me, but I was quite far back in the line and couldn’t see the front. Pretty soon, I heard gunfire again. This time I could hear a lot of shooting going on but no bullets were coming close to me. I hit the ground, rolled and found cover. Then I heard one of the guys up front call “Medic!” and I knew someone had been hit. What I didn’t know was that someone had been killed.
The shooting stopped and a medevac helicopter came in to pick up the dead man. By the time I passed by where he had been, the body had been taken away. It was an uncomfortable feeling. Since I didn’t actually see the body, I didn’t really feel much. I remember thinking, “Well, I didn’t even know him” and then I felt slightly guilty because deep inside I was relieved it was him and not me.
The Beginning of Acclimation
As the week went on, the days seemed to blur together. We moved along on our daily patrols of the valley. Our unit was shot at a couple more times, but nothing serious happened and no one was hurt. When we finished the operation we were choppered to LZ Liz, the firebase our company used as a base of operations when we were not in the field. LZ Liz was a fire support base a few miles north of LZ Bronco, our battalion headquarters. It was much bigger than the outpost we were on when I first went to the field. Liz was a base of operations for two companies of infantry, a mortar unit, an artillery battery, and a communications unit. The perimeter had permanent bunkers made of sandbags, corrugated metal sheeting, and wooden planks. There were several supply and operations buildings within the perimeter. The infantry soldiers lived in the perimeter bunkers and took turns on guard duty twenty-four hours a day. We also ran daily patrols around LZ Liz to make sure no booby traps had been set and no Viet Cong activity was nearby.
I was starting to get to know some of the guys, and I was starting to settle in to the war zone. I was adjusting to the humid climate. The heat and the hostile environment were as stressful as being in combat. It wasn’t just the enemy that made the environment hostile. There were insects and snakes that could kill just as easily as a man with a weapon could.
On my second day at LZ Liz, I was standing near my bunker when I noticed a group of Vietnamese men carrying an old woman up the hill. I notified a couple of guys in my squad that they were coming, and we walked down the road to meet them. The woman had been shot in the mouth and her face was badly torn up. It bothered me. I thought, “Who would shoot this old woman in the face?” The men didn’t speak English so we couldn’t understand exactly what they were saying. I knew they wanted help, but I wasn’t quite sure how to treat them. They weren’t dressed as soldiers. They were just a few old men and an injured woman. We had learned in training that the Viet Cong often played on the sympathies of American soldiers and used women, children and the elderly to lure them into deadly traps.
We had been taught that they weren’t real people; they were just gooks, the enemy. In training we were taught to think of the indigenous people and enemy soldiers as something less than human. The drill instructors had called them “gooks”, which I later found out was a Korean word meaning “man”.
This scene was not congruent with the battles we had fought. This woman was a casualty of war, but not necessarily a combatant. She wasn’t dressed in soldier’s fatigues, but indeed, to me, she was the enemy. It was an odd sensation. Seeing this dying woman, I wanted to be compassionate and do something to help her. On the other hand, I had to be very wary of a trap which could cost us our lives. My buddies seemed cold and indifferent. They scuffed, “So what? She’s an old woman, let her die.” They had no compassion, and I could afford no compassion. It was too much risk to stay around her, and too much risk to bring her onto the firebase. I couldn’t see her as a person, she was the enemy. In the end, we sent these people away without rendering any aid. In my heart I was shocked at my behavior. I wanted to feel for her but the risk was too great.
I was beginning to recognize that there was a psychological and emotional struggle going on inside me. In my heart I was still an innocent young man, but in my head I was a highly trained, combat infantryman. I wasn’t sure how to handle this battle between my heart and my head. My heart was heavy, and yet my head was still able to justify my behavior.
Later that day Sgt. Russell stuck his head in the bunker where John, Hank and I were on guard. He said, “I found some gear down by the chopper pad and thought you new guys might be able to use it.” When we looked up at him he tossed three brand new rucksacks into the bunker. We were ecstatic. This was our initiation into the ranks of the veterans and indicated we had proved ourselves as worthy soldiers in combat. This was Sgt. Russell’s way of rewarding us for a job well done.
Within A Heartbeat
The next day I went out on patrol with a small group that included John and Hank. I felt better about being on patrol, but I was a little nervous because I didn’t know the area. Since the newer guys weren’t experienced enough yet, we were not asked to walk point. I was in the middle of the pack, walking behind John. We were walking along a trail in what was thought to be a fairly secure area and I was laughing and joking with John. We weren’t talking loudly but, since we were out in the open and could easily be seen, there was no need to be perfectly quiet. Inside I was still scared, but I had learned to put on this false bravado so no one would know how scared I was. Within a heartbeat, I heard crack-crack, crack-crack. Just two shots passing me, and that was it. Everybody got down and waited. It was suddenly very quiet. All I could hear was the pounding of my own heart.
Suddenly, someone yelled “Medic!” This time I wasn’t far from the front and I saw my first dead G.I. It was Sgt. Russell. I realized I barely knew him. I stared at him lying on the ground in an awkward position. There wasn’t a lot of blood, but he was dead. He still looked the same but the life had gone out of him. It was so strange. I wasn’t shocked at what I saw but I had an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. I thought, “I should feel something. I should feel bad; I’ve never seen a dead person before.” It was surreal. He had just been walking along with the rest of us, on a routine patrol, and now, he was dead… in a heartbeat.
I didn’t understand my reaction. As I stood there looking at Sgt. Russell, death didn’t seem so terrible. Then for just a brief moment I thought, “I’m glad it was you and not me.” We called in a chopper and a couple of guys bagged him up, loaded him on, and sent him off. We continued on with our patrol, business as usual. Nobody said anything. The next day the chaplain came and we had a memorial service for the sergeant. It seemed like a generic service with the sergeant’s name inserted at the appropriate place in the text. But what did I know about funeral services? I’d never ever been to one. I’d never even thought very deeply about death. Sure it happened… to other people.
Pretty soon, our unit was going on more and more patrols, deeper into the field, and into more intense firefights. We were often picked up and taken by helicopter to hot LZs. I learned that we were now part of a reactionary force that would respond when there were other units in trouble. We would also be sent where there was suspected enemy movement. It was our job to engage the enemy wherever and whenever our commanders felt the need.
John, Hank, and I were forming a strong brotherhood. We fought side-by-side, always providing covering fire for each other. We vowed to always be there to keep each other safe. We ate together, pulled guard duty together, and went on patrols and missions together as a team as often as possible. We had a saying, “In death or just fun these three are but one.” We worked so well together it was almost as if we could read each other’s mind.
Hardening to War
On every patrol now, it seemed that several men died and another four or five were wounded. We’d experienced many intense battles, and had been hit hard on several occasions. After less than ten weeks I had seen dozens of dead and wounded bodies on both sides of the fighting. In the wake of a firefight there were often many dead Vietnamese bodies to be counted and searched. Days and events began to grow fuzzy and I started to lose track of time. My head was beginning to overrule my heart. I was now an experienced combat veteran.
I had quickly become a hardened soldier, willing to do whatever it took to stay alive and accomplish my mission. I felt less and less discomfort about the death, pain, and anguish that accompanied every firefight and I was becoming increasingly focused on my own survival.
The Insanity of War
Although I was becoming more accustomed to the brutality of war, I still had a lot of emotion bottled up inside. Our company commander had finished his tour of duty and had gone home. He was well liked by the men and was a very intelligent leader. The new commander was a captain with a West Point education and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. He came to our company on the eve of a big operation. It was an operation that would take us on a sweep through the Quang Ngai Valley and up into the hills near the border of Laos.
We had only been out in the field a few days before it became clear that this new commander wasn’t anywhere near as astute at soldiering as our previous commander had been. We had marched at a fairly rapid pace and were ahead of schedule. The commander decided to set up a perimeter in the early afternoon and do some search and destroy missions in the abandoned villages nearby. Our squad had been digging a series of foxholes on the south side of the perimeter when the commander called and asked for some volunteers. He wanted a small squad of men to go to the abandoned village in front of our position and search for any signs of enemy activity.
Ron, our new squad leader, was a nice guy who got along well with everyone. He rarely ever delegated dangerous duty without volunteering to go himself. This day was no exception. Ron asked Hank, myself, and few of the others if we would go with him to the village and take a look around. This seemed like a pretty routine patrol.
When we got to the village, which consisted of six or seven straw and bamboo huts built on clay foundations, we found no signs of life. We carefully checked all the huts and looked for hidden doorways or tunnels. When we were convinced that this area had been thoroughly searched and was clear of any potential danger, we rallied in the middle of the village. By consensus we agreed that the village had been abandoned the day before when we had called in artillery to soften the area before our arrival. We decided to take one more look around the outside of the village before returning to our encampment.
We searched along the edge of the village and came upon an unusual sight. There was a dead Vietnamese woman lying flat on her back with an agonized look plastered on her face. Directly between her outstretched feet was an unexploded artillery round. The projectile was half buried in the dirt and must have landed during the previous day’s shelling. It appeared to us that the woman was going down the path to escape the village when the dud round landed at her feet. She must have died instantly of a heart attack when the round landed, because there was no blood or indication of physical injury.
Since she did not appear to be a soldier, we left her body where we found it so her people could identify her and bury her properly. We made our way back to the camp and radioed our report to the company commander, including the discovery of the dead woman. He was quite upset that we hadn’t buried this poor woman.
Even after we explained that it wouldn’t be proper for us to bury her, he ordered us to return to the site and bury her. We were upset with the commander’s insensitive order because we always tried to follow certain ethics regarding the indigenous people. They all had different rituals and we knew that any attempt to disturb this poor dead woman would be viewed, in their culture, as an act of disrespect. Regardless of our concerns we had to follow orders and go back to bury the dead woman.
Ron, Hank, myself, and one other man from our squad volunteered to go back to do the job. We left our heavy steel helmets and bulky packs in camp and walked back to the village. We had no sooner started digging the grave when I looked up and saw an air-support spotter plane circling our position. At first, I thought he had spotted some enemy soldiers in the area and was going to provide some protective fire for us. Then I realized that from the air we probably looked a lot like North Vietnamese regulars. Immediately I thought “Shit! That stupid commanding officer didn’t notify air-support that he sent us out here.”
I grabbed Ron by the arm and when he looked at me I knew he was thinking the same thing. Before we could start back to camp the spotter dropped a smoke grenade on our position to mark it for the fighter jets. Hank and the other guy started running for the perimeter of our camp. Ron had left his rifle leaning against a small tree and went back to get it, so I waited for him. Hank and the other guy were halfway to the perimeter by the time Ron and I started running into the dry rice paddies. I could hear the fighter jets bearing down on us, and when I looked up they had already released their napalm canisters. I motioned for Ron to hit the ground, hoping beyond hope that we would survive the attack. The searing heat from the napalm sucked our breath away, but fortunately the canisters landed fifty feet or so from our position. The inferno of deadly jelly splashed away from us.
I knew the jets would try to make another run on us. This time I was sure they would use their high-explosive bombs instead of napalm. As quickly as I could, I got up and ran for the perimeter. I wasn’t sure I could make it all the way before the jets circled and made another attack on us. About forty feet in front of us, I spotted a rice paddy dike. It was about a foot high, two feet wide and ran the length of the paddy. The dike looked like it might afford some cover when they dropped the bombs. I looked back to check on Ron and saw he was on his knees. He had sprained his ankle in one of the ruts in the paddy. I ran back to him and helped him to his feet. Then I told him we had to make it to the dike before the jets dropped their next load.
We started running but Ron had a pronounced limp. When I tried to help him he said, “Run as fast as you can. I can keep up with you.” I heard the scream of the jet engines and when I looked up the bombs were already on the way down. As I leaped over the rice paddy dike and peered back, I saw Ron only about ten feet behind me. I was sure he would make it before the bombs landed, so I tucked my head down and waited for the blast.
The explosion was loud and I could hear large pieces of shrapnel and debris whizzing over my head. The concussion of the blast tore my shirt and broke my M16 rifle in half. I was bleeding from the mouth and nose and temporarily deafened by the ringing in my ears. As I looked up, I could see that a large piece of metal from the bomb casing had penetrated the dike. The metal was only inches from my head. It took a minute or two after the blast cleared to inventory myself and determine that I was still in one piece. I stood up and looked behind me for Ron, but he wasn’t there.
I didn’t want to look toward the bomb crater, but I had to. There on the edge of the crater were the remains of my friend, Ron. The bombs had shredded his body. The meat was torn from his bones and his guts were spilled out on the ground. I heard a slight moan from him and I ran to get the medics, knowing that there was no hope. But I had to try. Hank must have gotten to a radio and called off the air strike because the jets did not make another pass. As I approached the perimeter, the medics were already on their way. I turned and followed them back to where what was left Ron’s lifeless body was lying. They gave it their best efforts, but there was nothing the medics could do to save him.
Tears welled up in my eyes and I sobbed uncontrollably. Ron was my friend and was a truly decent person. The emotions I had bottled up inside me came pouring out. I hurt more deeply than I had ever hurt before in my life. My entire body and soul ached. As the medevac chopper left with the remains of my comrade, I walked slowly back to the perimeter. My distress over the loss of my friend began to turn to rage. That moron of a company commander had sent us on a ridiculous mission and he had failed to notify air-support that we were out there. I was seeing red and I knew I had to kill that son-of-a-bitch before anyone else was hurt by his incompetence.
John and Hank met me when I entered the camp. I was near insane with anger and kept repeating, “I’m going to kill that bastard. I’m going to kill the fucking company commander, and no one is going to stop me.” John and Hank, being the good friends that they were, knew that I was dead serious and they weren’t about to let me proceed. They got a couple other guys to help and tied me up and threw me in a hole. Hank said, “You’re gonna stay there until you calm down and agree that you won’t do anything stupid.” Then he crouched down close to me and said, “Everybody in the company knows what happened and we‘ll handle the situation. Now shut-up and calm down.”
It took a couple of hours before I was calm enough for them to untie me and let me loose. Even though they trusted me, John and Hank kept an eye on me all night and pulled my guard duty for me. They knew how deeply hurt I was over Ron’s senseless death.
Ron’s death did something to me. It changed the way I perceived the war effort. It destroyed my faith that the army would provide good leadership and keep us safe. From that point on, I believed I could not trust our leaders, and that I would have to make decisions based on my own judgment of a situation. I knew I could trust John and Hank, but that was as far as my trust could go.
As we continued on our mission, the commander led us further into the valley. We were expecting to meet heavy resistance in the next few days and we were all on edge. While patrolling, we stopped for a lunch break in an area that was slightly wooded, and had some hedgerows separating the villages and rice paddies. Hank and I told the platoon leader that we were going to move down the trail about fifty yards, and set up a rear guard while we ate lunch.
Hank and I really just wanted to get away from the rest of the group and relax. We found a shady spot under a tree where we were somewhat hidden but had a clear field of vision. We were eating our lunch and quietly talking when I saw a man dressed in the typical “black pajama” outfit of the rural Vietnamese people and most of the Viet Cong soldiers. The Viet Cong were guerrilla fighters who sympathized with the North Vietnamese regime. The man was walking toward us on a small path that ran alongside a thick hedgerow. Our platoon was eating lunch just beyond the hedgerow, and I was concerned that this Vietnamese man may have a weapon or an explosive device hidden in the hedge. I watched him for a few minutes as he walked slowly and kept looking in the hedge, but I couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing or looking for. Hank and I were facing in opposite directions so he didn’t see the man and I said nothing to him as I watched.
As the man got closer to our position I carefully picked up my weapon. I still hadn’t said a word to Hank. As Hank quietly ate his lunch, I put the rifle to my shoulder and had the man’s chest in my sights. Hank turned toward me and started to say something, I quickly motioned for him not to speak.
I assumed that the man was Viet Cong and had weapons hidden in the hedge. The Viet Cong often came disguised as grandfathers, children, and women pedaling wares and carrying infants. They were civilians by day, soldiers by night. Unlike the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), a well-trained and well-equipped fighting force, the Viet Cong were an underground resistance army, well versed in guerrilla tactics. This made it difficult to know who the enemy was or where they would be hiding. It was one of the most demoralizing psychological effects of this war.
The man was now thirty feet from where we were sitting, and Hank had turned his head to look. The Vietnamese man had stopped and was standing there as if he sensed the danger, but before he could turn and run, I calmly pulled the trigger. As the man began to fall to the ground I pulled the trigger four more times. By the time his body was lying prone on the ground, he was dead.
My first reaction was elation. This was my first direct kill. Although I had been in many firefights, it was rare to know exactly who you hit or if you hit anyone at all. Having a confirmed kill was a big deal for an infantryman. Hank reached over and patted me on the back and said, “Way to go, pal.” I probably would have said the same thing to him if the roles were reversed.
Several of the guys from our platoon came over to find out what the shooting was about. They shook my hand and congratulated me on the kill. By the time I walked over to see the body I was feeling uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure that this was such a good thing I had done.
When I looked at the body of this Vietnamese man lying on the ground, dead from the wounds I had inflicted, I ran to the bushes and puked my guts out. I couldn’t understand why everyone thought killing was so special. It wasn’t special. It was horrible and ugly. I felt ashamed of myself for what I had done. Internally, I was battling a moral dilemma. The army said it was all right to kill but, morally, I knew it was wrong.
The platoon leader said that if this man had detonated an explosive device in the midst of our lunch group, a lot of men would have died. He said I saved lives by killing this man. I didn’t feel like a hero, I felt evil. I thought about this man’s family and friends and how much they would miss him. I wondered if he was married and had children.
I had to ignore my emotions because the feelings of guilt, shame, and horror at my acts were not feelings I could afford to share with the other men. Not even John and Hank were privy to my deepest inner feelings. It was just too much to cope with. I couldn’t afford the time to process or feel my emotions with all the pressure of fighting this war. Each day became more intense than the last and there was no respite in sight.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published September 2016
Size: 229 x 152 mm