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Courage Honor and Fidelity Chapters 1 thru 5

COURAGE, HONOR, FIDELITY
By
Nick LaGrulla
“There is no Good or Bad in War, there is only Bad and worse. In war good people are obliged to do bad things because that is the tenor of war”- Author unknown

This is a story of a fictitious character based on true events. The names have been changed to protect the privacy of those Marines involved in this conflict known as the Vietnam War. It is a story of Marines in combat, their deeds, their thoughts and actions. It is written to honor those who took part in, lived and died in this war. The casualties were many and continue to day. Those who fought in this war will relate to the stories told here under one fictional character but that character represents every Marine, Soldier, Airman, Navy man, Coast Guardsman, and civilians who were there. Every one of those who served will recognize a little of themselves, the locations, and actions. Each one had the Courage, Honor and Fidelity represented in this book. Each one deserves the thanks of every American, for they represented this country, right or wrong, and served with honor regardless of history.
Chapter 1
Life is full of surprises and mine wasn’t any different. I had come from Quang Tri to Danang in preparation for my departure from South Vietnam and home where my wife awaited me. I had expected to wait a few weeks and then catch the plane out to Okinawa and then to San Francisco. So far I had been busy going out and interrogating prisoners of war, refugees and local villagers. I didn’t want to get involved in the 1st Marine operations because as I said, I just wanted to get home. I had done my tour with the 3rd Marine Division and this was just a temporary stay until I could get the next plane out. But here I was out in the jungle again once again trying to find the enemy and hopefully stay alive and those that were with me from getting hurt.
I should’ve said “no” last night. I suppose I really wanted to do this. Perhaps it’s why I should go home. I’m supposed to go home today and here I am back in the bush, sitting on my flack jacket, riding a helicopter to another village in search of “Charlie.” A young Lieutenant woke me up at sometime after three o’clock in the morning, yelling that the Colonel wanted to seem. In fact it took him sometime to see the .45 caliber handgun in his face. I thought he was going to faint when he realized how close he came to dieing.
I leaned back in my seat thinking about what the Colonel had said…
“We need you to break a prisoner for us Gunny. We had a go at it but all we got was bad intelligence and six dead Marines. This one is a tough one. We need your help or I wouldn’t be asking?”
“I’m leaving this morning, Colonel.” I heard myself saying as I looked at my watch. It was four o’clock in the morning and my flight was leaving at 1:00 PM. “As it is I’m overdue in-country.”
“I know; and I hate to ask you but we’re in a world of hurt here and you’re the only one that can help,” he answered as he looked straight at me. “I wouldn’t ask if there was any other way”.
“You have to guarantee I’ll make my flight,” I said, turning, not waiting for an answer.
“I’ll send a chopper to get you back on time!” I heard him yell as I walked out of his hootch into the dimly lit area and within seconds I was engulfed by the ink black darkness. Vietnam had the darkest nights I have ever seen.
It was always like this. No matter how many interrogations I had completed, the one ahead always made me uneasy. Most people think you get used to it but you never do. It’s a battle for their mind and hopefully keeping yours sane. The only score kept here is how many dead and how many wounded. If you screwed up, you could get people killed and a lot of wives, children, girlfriends, moms and dads would be getting bad news. If they hadn’t already seen it on the six o’clock news, that is. If you did well, everyone would pat you on the back and take credit for what you had done; maybe even recommend you for a medal. Never mind the poor S.O.B. you put through the paces to get the right information. Nobody, but those of us who do it, realize that when you work on a prisoner of war (PW), eventually it comes back to haunt you. You suffer the same pain, real or imagined. The dragons follow you around forever. Eventually you make peace with them but they are always there.
I knew right away I had made the wrong decision when I arrived at the Med (Medical Center ). The Colonel had left out one small important detail. The prisoner was a woman and she was pregnant; six, seven months, I’d say. A doctor and two corpsmen were fussing around her as she cried and held her distended stomach. There was no time to lose and no time to think. If you start thinking in this job you will die or end up insane. I didn’t cherish ending up either way. The guys who died were better off than those who ended up going home. They suffered fits of depression, ending up in divorce if they were married; beating their girlfriends for unknown reason; committing violent acts, unable to hold down jobs and resuming a normal way of life. Either way they all ended up coming back to the “Nam” or committing suicide. It was the only place where people like us could function.
“God, don’t let that happen to me. I have a beautiful wife waiting for me and at my age I can’t afford to screw it up”, I said out loud not caring who heard me.
“What was that, Gunny?” the shaved tail lieutenant escorting me asked.
“Nothing,Sir. Lets just get to it, I have a plane to catch,” I replied.
“GET EVERYBODY OUT OF THIS ROOM!” I yelled.
The Doctor was protesting and the corpsmen were backing him and I could tell the lieutenant was wavering. Confusion in my situation is not good, not good at all. It tends to make things messy. There has to be a clear purpose and course of action. I drew my .45 automatic handgun from my combat shoulder holster and pointed it at the confused mob.
“GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE! YOU TOO LIEUTENANT! I continued yelling at them.
“But the Colonel said I-----”
“GET OUT!!”
They scattered out the door and I propped a chair against it and walked back towards the prisoner. Her eyes were wide as she stared at me. She was trembling as if she had just felt a cold breeze touch her body. My display of purpose had got her attention and she was a little concerned. She had every reason to feel concerned. Her armor consisting of the confused mob had suddenly been stripped away. I was determined to be fast but thorough. She was laying on a hospital cot with a sheet over her. She had seen people like me before. She had seen North Vietnamese Army (NVA), Viet Cong (VC) and/or American interrogators, one of which had already talked to her. We were all the same, just on opposite sides. Our job was simple. Get the information and don’t let the source beat you. What got or didn’t get usually meant somebody died; theirs or ours, most likely both.
“What is your name?” I asked in Vietnamese with a Hanoi dialect, as I jerked the sheet off of her. Her stark white pregnant belly stared at me as it protruded from her almost too small body. I could see the blue and red veins like secondary roads on a map as they stretched across her stomach; interlaced with tiny ones. Her belly button stuck out from her body like a small thumb. Her sparse pubic hair was almost obscured by her distended belly. She had scars on her legs probably cuts caused by the bamboo grass in the jungle. She also had old and new scars from sores, caused by mosquitoes or leeches, probably both.
“My name is Mai”, she gasped and whimpered, “I am pregnant.”
“Do you want your baby Mai?” I asked her as I pulled her left foot roughly, but methodically and tied it to the foot of the cot and continued with her right foot as I tied it along side the other one. The bottom of her feet stuck out from the metal bunk like white beacons. They had rough calloused skin; caused by the Ho Chi Minh sandals and the rough roads into South Vietnam. The whiteness of the soles of her feet was the result of walking and standing in water.
“Please! Please don’t hurt me! I don’t want to lose my baby. I have told the truth. I don’t know anything else. I am a farmer’s wife and I was in the rice field when the Marines took me. This is my first baby. Please, don’t hurt me!” she sobbed. She knew what was about to happen. She had seen it before. She probably watched as a Viet Cong interrogator debriefed and American soldier. It was a favorite technique, which they learned from the French troops. When carried too far it can cripple the subject. Applied correctly it produces unbearable pain and quick results. The technique leaves no scars but it can cripple a source. In fact, it was an intentional side affect applied by the Viet Cong interrogators to discourage American prisoners of war from escaping.
I spoke to her in a soft voice as if we were in church,
“You lied to the other Marine and six Marines have died. What am I going to tell their children, their pregnant wives, their grieving mothers and fathers?” I asked her softly as I looked straight into her eyes.
“I am not going to hurt you as long as you tell me the truth. Do you understand?” I assured her softly as I broke a wooden chair against the cot she was laying on. She jumped a the sound of the cracking wood and I thought she was going to fall out of the cot. I picked up one of the wooden legs that had not shattered and in one motion I struck the end of the bed coming very close to her feet. Close enough for her to feel the rush of air produced by the short wooden club as it whistled through the air.
She was scared out of her wits but I saw her body tense. She had been here, as they say “been there, done that”. Someone had prepared her for interrogation but not for what was about to happen.
I swung the wood club with both hands like a batter with a short bat and struck the bed rail next to her left foot. I swung the club again hitting next to her right foot as the slap of the first hit was still ringing in my ears mixed with her screams. Someone was trying to break the door down and the noise combined with her screams was like a roar in my head. I quickly drew the .45 and fired a round through the top of the door. The pounding stopped and I heard running feet as the “concerned troops” scattered. If she hadn’t taken me seriously before, that did the trick. Mai was choking with fear and her eyes were bulging out; the muscles in her neck like tight ropes twitching against her skin; her eyes glued to the forty-five I held in my hand. The bottom of her left foot was no longer white but bright red. She leaned over the side of the cot and puked.
It was quiet all of a sudden. All you could hear were Mai’s choking and her sobs. I took a deep breath and let it out like a deep sigh as I deliberately swung my arm and brought the hot gun barrel against her feet making an impression on her.
“Okay, Mai, from where the Marines picked you up in what direction are the ambush sites?” I heard myself softly asking. My voice sounded like a Monk’s when he chants his morning prayers in the pagoda and I heard her replies softly and clearly as we went over the questions she had heard before. I knew she would lie again but this time only fifty percent of her answers would be lies and it was up to me to sort out the truth. Her voice droned quietly as she sobbed and continued to answer my questions without hesitation. I tried to separate the lies from the truth as we moved along.
When I finished, I opened the door and told the Corpsmen to get me some pain pills and to wrap Mai’s feet with heavy bandages so her feet would not swell. I hadn’t touched her but her feet would swell as we took a long walk in the jungle. Let them imagine the worse. It was good for the reputation.
The Corpsmen started rushing around and there was no sign of the Doctor. He was probably with the Colonel complaining about my conduct, no doubt. There are those who would condemn me, in fact punish me in jail for what I had just done, but I always ask myself the same question when I may have crossed the line, “I wonder what the mothers of those Marines who will live would say?” Of the point squad, 8 or12 Marines would be killed or wounded. Yeah. I can live with it. Just another dragon I’ll have to wrestle with in my dreams.
I asked for the clothes she had been wearing before the med staff had put her in a gown. It was the standard black pajamas with one exception; this girl was wearing a brown shirt. Brown cotton shirts were standard wear for the Viet Cong guerillas. If she wasn’t a VC she had been cooperating with them. That was the bitch about this war, for the South Vietnamese it was a no win situation; for the American and Allied forces it was also a no win situation. The only ones who stood to win and would eventually, thanks to the American politicians, were the North Vietnamese. I respected the little bastards because they were true to their word. They were going to take over South Vietnam, not matter what. Ho Chi Min had kicked out the French and was screwed out of his country. We told him he couldn’t have his country back. Socialism/Communism was not to our liking. Well, he was about to take it back no matter what. Their cause was the kind you fight wars for. All we were was a big testing ground for American weapons, strategies and tactics. Big business was making money, sitting on the sidelines we were reelecting the politicians, the American worker was working and the economy was booming. A big machine being fed America’s young, America’s future like, so much fodder. Shit, there I go thinking again!
I ripped open the collar open and found some numbers inside. In the flap of the shirt pocket I found a map scribbled on rice paper. I wrote the numbers down and put the rice paper in my pocket. There was time enough in the field for another interrogation if need be. I would compare the map with one of ours and find the locations as written on the map.

CHAPTER 2
I arrived in country in May of ’68. I had been waiting for this war all my adult life and it looked like I had missed everything. The battle for Khe Sanh was virtually over and everyone was saying the war was about to end.
I was born during WWII and was too young for Korea. The recruiter had laughed as I stood there, fourteen and one hundred and forty pounds trying to volunteer for Korean duty. I grew up with WWII heroes and “Welcome Home” parades. I watched movies of American soldiers fight the Japanese in the Pacific islands and the Germans in Europe. I saw “Steel Helmet” five times until they changed the movie. When I enlisted in the Marine Corps I was ready for war. First El Salvador and Santo Domingo in the sixties and now the big one, “The Nam”. The Marine Corps had assigned me to different special assignments beginning with a tour with the State Department where I used my skills as an interpreter and embassy security guard. I was lucky to have been assigned to President Kennedy’s Personal Protection Staff. My work in El Salvador had labeled me a “Terrorist Expert” and then on to Santo Domingo. I had applied for duty in Vietnam but the Marine Corps had chosen to use my skills elsewhere. A short stint with the CIA followed by an assignment at Quantico, Virginia. I continued to apply for duty in Vietnam. A personnel officer in Washington told me that the only way for me to go to Vietnam was to apply for training as an Interrogator and language school. I was willing to try anything. I finished my training at Fort Holabird, Maryland and shortly afterwards I was assigned to language school. My language assignment was Vietnamese, Hanoi Dialect, a yearlong course. The war would be over before I got there. Still it was better than nothing. I finally graduated and was on my way. My wife and I had been married for a year and had lost one child but I was hopeful and would be returning in thirteen months to try again. I left her with her parents and reported to Camp Pendleton in California. I did not worry about her because she came from a Marine family and knew what was expected of her and me as members of the Marine Corps Family.
Pendleton was a brief experience and with my knowledge of the Marine Corps after ten years of training I felt comfortable and was anxious to move on to Vietnam. From Pendleton we hop-skipped to Okinawa and finally to Danang Military Airport.
I have to admit, I was very disappointed when I arrived at Danang Air Base. There were no bombs, no shooting going on. I knew I had missed it all again. The President and the news media were right. The War was coming to an end and I had missed the event of my life sitting on my ass in a language school in Washington D.C.
I picked up my orders from the makeshift green counter and began reading them.
"Where are you headed, Gunny?" I heard someone ask.
I looked up and was staring into a black face with red dirt and camouflaged paint all over it. He was carrying a sniper rifle and a field pack. He had on a Ranger field cap but the rest of him was Marine.
"Dong Ha, looks like," I answered.
"Umm, umm, umm. That's the "V" Ring," he said as he pointed his finger at me gun fashion and he shook his head.
I knew what he meant. The "V" ring is the middle of the bulls-eye in a rifle shooting target.
"Get a flack jacket and a steel pot before you go. Steal it if you have to, but don't leave Danang without one. Got to go! Keep your head down," he said to me as he jogged towards a helicopter with his gear.
I waved at him, but he didn't see me. He was throwing his gear inside the chopper as it lifted and almost took off without him. He jumped on like he had been doing it all his life.
I looked around and found a Sergeant by the counter.
"I need to check out some gear. Where is the nearest supply?" I inquired.
"You have to wait till you get to Dong Ha, Gunny," he said as he turned around.
"Sergeant! I yelled as I turned him around. Just point me in the right direction."
He looked at me with a funny look and then he shrugged and said, "Two miles down the road is Dog Patch. You can buy anything you want there. Take a Cab and watch out for the MP's."
He said, "buy". What kind of war was this? I went outside dragging my sea bag and hailed what appeared to be a cab. I got in the back seat and said, "Dog Patch".
The cabby traveled at an unbelievable speed and after a few turns he said, "This is it."
I looked around from the window of the cab and saw a series of shops constructed out of cardboard, tin and packing crate wood. I spotted the one I wanted and pointed to the driver, "There".
He screeched to a stop in front of the shop and a cloud of dust engulfed the cab and me inside. I pointed to and hailed a Vietnamese man standing behind a pile of military gear.
"I want a flack jacket and a steel pot," I said to him in Vietnamese, Hanoi dialect.
He stood there rooted to the ground like he did not understand.
"Hurry up," I yelled at him in Vietnamese once again.
He picked up what I wanted and threw it through the window of the cab. I handed him thirty dollars and he shook his head.
"Hundred dolla." He argued.
"Forty or nothing," I threatened.
He grabbed the money, turned and muttered something about me having sex with my mother.
"Back to the air field," I ordered the driver.
As we screeched to a stop in front of the air field a Jeep with four Army MP's pulled up along side.
"Hold it, Sergeant. You are under arrest!" yelled the Buck Sergeant in the jeep.
"What the hell for?" I asked as I pulled my gear out of the cab.
The cab driver backed his hack out on to the road and took off. The MP's just starred at him.
The MP asked, "Where'd you get that gear?"
"From supply," I replied.
"Well we saw you buy it at Dog Patch and you handed the gook American money. What do you say to that?" he informed me with a smile.
Just then, several Marines had come out of the flight hooch. They were in field gear with grenades hanging from their flack jackets and they were holding the new M16 rifle. Their faces had a wide-eyed look like they could see for miles. Their jungle fatigues were dusty and dirty. Their sleeves were rolled up and I could see jungle sores on them from mosquito bites and elephant grass cuts.
"Better hurry up, Gunny. Our plane is about to leave and we don't want to leave you behind," one of the Marines replied.
It was the way he said it that made me pick up my gear and walk towards them. I slid passed them and kept going towards a C-130 loading up.
I looked at the Crew Chief and asked, "Dong Ha?"
He gave me thumbs up and I got on. The Marine team got in behind me.
"What happened to the MP's?" I queried.
"Assholes," one of them grunted.
That was good enough for me.
I grinned at the them and leaned back as I settled into my web seat and caught some much needed sleep. It wasn’t what I expected Vietnam to be. This was only the beginning of my expectation going to down the tube. It was going to be an interesting tour. I drowned myself in the loud drone of the C-130 and took a power nap.

CHAPTER 3
If Danang had been a disappointment, Dong Ha was overwhelming. I had never really imagined what the war in Vietnam would be like. In a matter of seconds I came face to face with the reality of it.
As the C-130 came in I could see several helicopters on fire spewing red and yellow flames and black clouds of smoke. A fuel truck exploded but I didn’t' hear the explosion. I saw a rain of flames go up and come down at the end of the runway. The C-130 was coming in for a landing and it wasn't slowing down. At that moment I thought I was going to die in a plane crash on my first day in Vietnam. It hit the ground hard and continued at what appeared to be a hundred miles an hour. Mortars began exploding to the left and in front of us. Some shrapnel hit the rear of the plane and a Marine cried out as a geyser of red liquid shot from the side of his neck. The C-130 opened its rear doors, like jaws disgorging all of us and I picked up the wounded Marine in a fireman's carry and went out the back of the plane. The C-130 was moving before we hit the ground and was turning around for departure. Several marines were hustling us to a row of reinforced concrete walls and we all ran in confusion.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Marine Team that had got on with me run for cover to a bunker and disappear behind it. I kept running towards the reinforced walls with my cargo. I could hear him gasping and he was making gurgling sounds as I dropped him gently in a sitting position against the wall. There was a loud explosion against the wall and we were showered with dirt, rocks, and shrapnel.
"Corpsman! Corpsman!" I yelled as I stuck my finger in the wound to stop the bleeding. The Marine was bleeding badly and his eyes were rolling back in his head.
"Don't die on me, goddamn it!" I yelled at him.
"I got him Sergeant," I barely heard a voice next to me saying.
Two Corpsmen put the Marine on a litter and they disappeared towards the end of the wall.
"Alright everyone, get your gear and report to the end of the terminal and someone will help you with your orders," a Staff Sergeant was yelling.
The shelling had stopped and I hadn't noticed it. There was a loud ringing in my ears and my lungs and nostrils were full of smoke. I could smell the burnt powder like someone had exploded sixty tons of firecrackers. I turned around and the Staff Sergeant grabbed me by the arm.
"Are you hit?" he asked.
"No, it's not my blood, thanks!" I answered but he had already started to move.
I went to the terminal desk made of makeshift ammo boxes and handed over my orders, which I had carried inside my fatigue jacket. It was then I realized my sea bag was still on the C-130 on the way back to Danang.
"Second tour, Gunny?" the Corporal behind the counter asked.
" No, why do you ask?"
"I saw your helmet and the flack jacket," he pointed out to me.
"It was a gift from and old man in Danang," I replied.
"Well, you're going to need them and then some. You are assigned to the 3d Marines. They are getting set to relieve the 4th Marines at Dai Do. There is a truck waiting outside. Tell the driver you are going to the 3rd Marines and he will take you to get your gear and drop you off at your unit."
I nodded and started towards the rear of the terminal. I saw Marines in torn shirts with blank stares on their faces; their bodies covered with mud and some type of red sand or dust. Some were waving their orders at the Marines behind the counter and others just sat there staring into space. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into, but I had a feeling it was more than I had ever bargained for.
I looked at the driver sitting behind the wheel of the truck and asked, "Third Marines?"
He motioned to the rear of the truck with his thumb and I continued towards the back. The truck was already full but there was room for one more. As soon as I got on, someone closed the steel tailgate and the truck took off.
Dong Ha looked almost like desert occupied by bunkers and tents of all types but laid out military style in a pattern of columns and rows. The red dust stirred by the truck made it difficult to breath and the heat under the truck's tent cover was stifling. Everything smelled of diesel fuel and oil. Along the airfield and towards the perimeter I could see sandbagged foxholes, barbed and concertina wire everywhere. I could see rice paddies off in the distance and a river, which I would get to know well, the Cua Viet River. A distance away I saw white wash buildings, which appeared to be a small village. I would later learn it was the city of Dong Ha.
I was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment. Our unit was assigned the job of relieving the battle weary 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. They had fought several North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Regiments. The fighting had been point blank shooting and at times hand-to-hand combat. Our job was to take on the enemy and give the Fourth Marines a break. I had checked out my equipment and got ready to go.
We departed Dong Ha Combat Base and arrived at the Area of Operations (AO) while the 12th Marines laid down some artillery fire and the air jockeys delivered some air strikes. As we moved in, the remaining force of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, fell back. We saw some of them as each company moved towards the rear with their equipment and wounded. I looked at their faces as they went by and I knew instantly what they mean by the "thousand yard stare". Our turn had come and I prayed we would do as well as they had. I prayed silently, “God don’t let me be a coward.”
Dai Do was a small village just two miles north of Dong Ha. The terrain was somewhat flat with rice paddies, one after another. As we moved to engage the enemy the artillery fire ceased and the close air support jets left the skies. It was our turn. I couldn't see the enemy and thought that maybe they had left or maybe wishing they had left.
Suddenly, just ahead of us several NVA jumped up from behind a rice paddy and began firing. I saw the barrel flash of their guns and the dirt kicked up around me. I thought I was frozen in place but somehow I was firing my M16 and continuing to walk towards them. Other Marines had dropped to the ground seeking cover behind the rows of dirt. Upon seeing me still standing and firing, they got up too and continued the attack. More NVA popped up. It looked like they were coming out of the ground. I learned that day the NVA were not only gutsy little fighters, but also masters at camouflage.
The NVA was counter-attacking and we held our ground. As we, or they, got closer I could see their faces. I knew then that within seconds we would be fighting hand to hand. As if in a dream, I closed with an enemy soldier who jumped up next to me. I butt-stroked him and fired into his chest. I dropped to one knee and attached my bayonet to the M16 and continued to hold my position. I could smell the burnt powder and the noise was a roar in my ears. I looked to my right and an NVA soldier was running past me with a satchel in his hand. The satchel was already smoking indicating the fuse had been pulled. I fired three rounds into his back and ran towards him, picked up the satchel and threw it in the direction of the enemy line. I dropped to the ground as an NVA soldier slammed his rifle against my back. I rolled on my back and he fell against me as he was thrown by the blast. We rolled on the ground locked together. I had him by the throat and he kept kicking my groin. I felt sick to my stomach and started to lose consciousness but I continued to hold on to him. I reached into my belt with my free hand and pulled my survival knife and stabbed him in the gut as I pulled the knife upwards toward his sternum. He had had the same thought but he was a little slow and he cut me along my left side. My ribs saved my ass. He collapsed and I rolled over towards my rifle. I continued to fire short automatic bursts and reloaded. I was lying behind a rice paddy's hedgerow. I continued to drop enemy soldiers in front of me with automatic fire. The barrel of my rifle was smoking red-hot. I reloaded and laid it in front of me as I pulled and fired my combat forty-five. I quickly loaded another magazine as two enemy soldiers jumped up in front of me but started to run away from me. I dropped the one in front first and nailed the second one as he turned to look at me, eyes wide and frightened.
"Cease fire! Cease fire!"
I barely heard the command. It was yelled out one more time and we held our fire. I immediately checked my weapons and ammunition. To my right I saw a Marine with a large hole in his chest. I could tell he was dead. I crawled over to him and checked to make sure and then I removed his weapons from his frozen hands. His magazine was empty and there were four dead NVA soldiers around him. I removed the rest of the magazines from his ammo belt and took the grenades hanging from his flack jacket. I took out one of his canteens and washed the mud from his face. I made sure his dog tags were tied to his boots and then I lay him out comfortably. I knew he was dead but I wanted to do something for him. I didn't look at his dog tags. I didn't want to know his name. I turned towards the direction of the enemy and waited for the next attack.

CHAPTER 4
“Hey Gunny, the Colonel wants to see you,” a young Corporal was yelling at me. “This way, Gunny. Keep your ass down.”
I picked up my gear and followed the Corporal in a low crouch. We didn’t go back very far. The Colonel had set up his headquarters in a large bomb crater and was looking over some maps.
“I hear you speak Vietnamese, Gunny,” he said to me. I didn’t know if it was a question or a statement.
“Yes Sir, I do. Hanoi dialect,” I replied.
“Well, we have someone you can practice on,” he stated as he motioned to a spot behind us. I couldn’t see whom he meant, but I nodded just the same.
“I want to know who the hell is out there…unit, numbers, weapons and their objective. Find out where their main force is so we can end this quickly. Any questions?”
“No Sir.”
“Good, go to it,’ he ordered. ‘And Gunny next time report to your commander and don’t get out in front. We need your skills so don’t go playing hero.”
“Yes sir!” I replied. Playing hero? Hell I was just dropped off and shit was happening around me. What the hell did they expect from?
The Corporal was still with me as we rolled over the hedgerow. When I turned to look at him he gave me a big grin and said, “I’m supposed to stick with you. From now on, I’m your “shotgun. Bodyguard he continued when he realized I didn’t understand the term. “
I grinned back at him and I asked him, “What’s your name?” as I turned to see what we had.
“McGregor”, I heard him say.
Surrounded by two Marines was an NVA regular. He didn’t look very big. He had a leg wound and the olive drab uniform had been cut to expose it. The wound was not fresh and had festered.
A Corpsman arrived and before he could start treating the enemy’s wound, I said, “Leave him like he is for a few minutes. Just stay close and I’ll call you when I am ready for you to treat him.” He nodded and moved to the rear of the hedgerow out of sight.
I said, “Thanks, Doc.”
I looked right at the enemy soldier as I lit a cigarette. “What is your name?” I asked in Vietnamese. He had a surprised look on his face. After a few seconds he replied, “My name is Hoang Dai.”
“What are you doing in the front lines, Dai?”
“I was an FO (forward observer) but when we counter-attacked I was caught in the middle.”
“Tell me Dai, what is the designation of your unit?”
“I don’t know because it changed when we arrived in South Vietnam.”
“What is your unit’s mission, Dai?”
“I don’t know because I was just a forward observer.”
“Okay, Dai. We are going to treat your wound an you will be taken to the rear to a prisoner of war camp.”
“Doc, come here.” I yelled. “Doc, I want you to work on his leg and lets get ready to move him to the rear.”
I looked back at Dai and he had a slight smile on his face. I knew he thought he was home free.
“Dai,” I said as I gave him a cigarette and lit it for him. “I know you lied to me.”
“No! I….”.. Dai started to say as he shook his head automatically.
I waved my hand at him as it to dismiss a child.
“It’s no use denying it. We already know your unit designation and we have a pretty good idea what your unit’s objective was. I also know you did it because you think it’s the thing to do but the war is over for you Dai. However because you lied, this Doctor is going to cut your leg off instead of trying to save it for you.
Doc had already cleaned the outside of the wound and was holding a small scalpel in his hand. He said, “ Gunny tell him I have to cut the wound open and clean it out before I can treat him. I am going to give him a shot of morphine to kill the pain.”
I said, “Dai, the Bac si, Vietnamese for Doctor, is going to give you a shot of a truth serum and then he will cut your leg off. That way you will be able to tell us the truth anyway but you won’t have your leg.”
Hoang Dai’s eyes were opened wide and bugging out of his head.
“No, wait! My unit is the 320th NVA Division. We have two Regiments on the line and another is waiting in reserve across the Cua Viet River. Our objective was to cut the Cua Viet River at Dong Ha and attack your position!”
He was talking so fast I didn’t have time to get it all.
“Wait a minute Doc. Just give me a minute, here,” I said to the Corpsman.
“Dai, we are going to give you the drug anyway just to make sure. I asked the Bac Si to clean out your wound while the drug takes effect. If you lie, he is prepared to take your leg and bury it out here. Do you understand me?” I asked him.
“Yes, yes,” he answered pleadingly.
“Okay Doc. Do your shit,” I told the Corpsman.
Buddhists believe that they have to be buried with all their body parts and if they are missing any parts of their body when they go to heaven they won’t e allowed in.
Doc gave him a shot and Dai’s eyes rolled back into his head. The Doc cut the outer flesh and stuck his hand in the wound as he massaged the muscle to extract the maggots that had moved in to eat the infected flesh. As he continued cleaning out the wound I continued asking Dai questions about his unit, and his unit locations. He told me he had a map sewn into his uniform. I tore his jacket and found a crude map drawn on rice paper. Since I knew where we were, it wasn’t difficult to pinpoint the units facing us. Dai had his eyes closed and he acted as if we had really given him a truth serum or something. I talked to him for about a half an hour getting details on weapons, ammunition, morale, supplies, training, and tactics. When I finished I told the Marines guarding Dai to put him on a chopper back to the Division interrogation center.
I briefed the Colonel and he seemed surprised that I was able to get that much out of the PW. He requested some air recon and he sent out several recon patrols. When it was all confirmed what Hoa had given us he called the Division Commander. The Division Commander requested support and the US Army 3d Battalion of the 21st Infantry Brigade was deployed in our area. Together we pursued the enemy to keep him from reaching the Cua Viet River. The enemy regrouped and launched a counter-attack. This time they meant business and they charged en masse, screaming like banshees, running towards us and firing from the hip. We were shooting at each other at point blank range. Before we knew it we were fighting hand-to-hand again. They fought hard but we fought harder. Pretty soon we had them on the run again. We continued the attack as the 1st Battalion of the Army’s Fifth Cavalry joined the fight and helped us push them towards the DMZ. The enemy retreated leaving behind his equipment, his dead, and pockets of small units that fought to the death and sometimes after death. Their comrades would leave their booby-trapped bodies behind killing Marines who turned their bodies over and stopped to pick up souvenirs.
The fighting was made tougher because of the terrain. The rice paddies would bog you down and when we hit the sandy areas the sand made it difficult to move. The air was like a thick humid blanket, which smelled of decay and rotting life. The sun bore down on all of us, making us perspire even more and we were unable to decide if it was fear or the heat. Our own death was not in our minds. Survival occupied all the brain cells and everything we had learned about survival, and we were picking up minute by minute helped us as we survived yet another fire fight. Survival took permanent occupancy in out minds.
Battles raged around us. The NVA fired mortar round after mortar round followed by mass attacks by their remaining forces. The U.S. Army’s 21st Light Infantry Brigade gave better than they got containing the flanks, and eventually forcing the enemy to consolidate their forces along the Cua Viet River. Our forces continued to pursue the enemy forcing them to regroup and counterattack. I can’t remember a moment that did not involve moving out to pursue the enemy or standing our ground to repel their counter attacks. The fighting continued at point blank range and hand-to-hand combat. The acrid smoke of the spent rounds, and the bursting flames of the air strikes followed by our artillery fire seemed to engulf us without respite. The enemy was so close that at times we felt the heat of our own artillery. I felt sorry for those poor bastards. I had learned to respect them as tenacious, gutsy fighters. The enemy we met at Dai Do was well trained, able to force march fifty kilometers and engage the enemy. Their courage matched ours in every way; our resolve was steadfast.
The nights were ablaze with flares and explosions from incoming and outgoing fire. The NVA weapons fire lit the night with green tracers and our return fire was a stream of red tracers. It was so unreal that at times it was hard to comprehend that human beings were being killed between each exchange. If the day battles were hell, the night battles were the dark pit of hell. The enemy had resorted to night attacks and they had learned a few tricks of their own. In order to crawl through our lines the NVA soldiers had to weave their way through trip flares, hastily set up booby traps and the most dangerous infantry killing machine; a Claymore anti-personnel mine. The claymore mine is a directional concave explosive device. It can be tripped manually or automatically. It has a killing range of twenty-five to thirty yards and a maiming range of about fifty to seventy-five yards depending on the density of the jungle and the angles of the terrain. The experts back home gave it a larger effective range but from where I sat in the foxhole, that was my best guesstimate.
The enemy had learned that if they could manage to turn the claymores around, the mines would explode in our direction thereby killing us instead of them. It didn’t
take us long to learn what they were doing. We started placing the claymores further out than usual to avoid any unforeseen accidents and turning them to point our direction. We watched them closely and allowed the enemy soldier to reach it and turn it around. Imagine the deadly surprise.
It was hard to take turns sleeping at night. The noise would keep you awake not to mention the fear of getting your throat cut or stabbed through the stomach with an AK-47 bayonet dipped in human feces. The NVA did that knowing that a less critical wound would soon get infected quickly turning you into a casualty. A wounded casualty required care from the corps and at least to stretcher bearers not to mention having to call in Medical Evacuation Helicopters, commonly referred to as MedEvacs.
Eaten by scavenging tigers was my worst fear. The tigers usually came out to feed on the dead at night after a battle. I heard that several Marines had been dragged out of their foxholes by tigers. I couldn’t bear the thought of my wife being notified that a tiger had eaten me. At this time I didn’t realize that the tigers did not roam the lowlands where we had been operating.
In the lowlands like Dai Do the nights were hot and damp. The mosquitoes were as big as horseflies and bugs of every kind came out to feed on your body. There was no moon that I can recall and when you looked out over the top of your hastily dug foxhole it was like looking into a black pool.
The day had been exhausting. We had continued to pursue the enemy at a double time pace stopping only to fight small pockets of resistance. I heard that the Army’s 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry continued to harass the NVA as they fled towards the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The DMZ was the line that separated North Vietnam from South Vietnam. The Ben Hai River accentuated the line. For the first time I had hoped that we could sleep tonight and get some rest before we got into the “shit” again.
We had settled in for the night and the ritual of field cleaning weapons and loading extra magazines and clips had been accomplished with lightning speed and efficiency. The scouts were out, the passwords had been established and our areas of fire designated. I had laid out my dinner for the evening. Tonight I would feast on a can of ham and mother fuckers (ham and lima beans) and some John Wayne crackers. I had chosen for my desert a can of fruit cocktail, which I had been saving for two days since the battle started. It doesn’t get better than this unless you are talking about ham and eggs and pound cake. None of which I had. I intended to top it off with a chocolate bar and a cup of cold instant cocoa.
I ate and slept for a while. It was one of those sleeps that lie between wakefulness and “just resting your eyes” type of slumber. I woke up startled. Something had awaken me but I wasn’t yet sure what it was. I carefully looked around, going over the terrain that I had memorized before I fell asleep. I looked over to the closest foxhole to my right. I could see two figures lying there. I stared for what seemed minutes, but it was only a few seconds, when I noticed one of the figures slide out of the hole towards our rear. Something was not quite right. The figure was wearing a loincloth and a skullcap and was dragging a satchel behind him. SAPPERS! Suddenly someone was rolling into my foxhole and I felt a stab in my leg. I grabbed the hand by the wrist and pulled the knife out. I reversed the arm and broke it at the elbow. He grunted and I felt his other hand close around my neck. I punched his face with the heel of my hand in a sharp upward motion and drove his nose cartilage into his brain. His body jerked like a fish out of water and went limp as I pulled his hand from my throat. I grabbed my forty-five and fired at the other figure crawling towards the rear. I saw his body jerk up and I knew I had scored a hit. How bad, I didn’t now. I didn’t have time to think because two more bodies jumped into the foxhole. I shot the one to my right in the chest and quickly shot the other one in the face but not before the little bastard stuck me with his bayonet in my left arm. I could tell the wounds were not serious but I had to stop the blood flow or I wouldn’t be around for breakfast call. I tied a field dressing around my arm and my leg. Over to my left two bodies wrestled in a depth grip. I wanted to help but I couldn’t leave my position. I waited a split second and made up my mind. I fired at the one I thought was wearing a skullcap. It was a good choice!!
“You dumb son-of-a-bitch you almost shot me,” I heard someone yell at me and it was followed by “Thanks”.
I sensed danger and decided to move out of my hole towards my left and lay there. No sooner had I moved than two bodies jumped in and stabbed the two bodies I had just shot. I fired my M16 on full auto killing both of them. Firefights were everywhere. Suddenly the whole area was lit up. Our artillery and mortar platoon had laid some flares and the whole world was lit up like it was high noon. I saw the enemy soldiers stand up and charge towards our lines. There were too many I thought. They were upon us before we knew it and again we closed at point blank range. None got close enough for hand-to-hand fighting but it was close enough to hear them grunt and scream. At times I though I heard them breathing as they fell in front of me.
“Cease fire!” “Cease fire!” came the order.
I heard my heart thumping in my ears and then a ringing sound like a high pitch whistle that only dogs are suppose to hear. The smell of sulfur and cordite was in my nostrils and my lungs were full of it. It was like an aphrodisiac pumping adrenalin. My eyes were stinging from the smoke but they were wide open. I pushed the bodies out of my field of fire and stacked the other four bodies in front of my foxhole forming a barricade. In doing so I got blood on my hands and arms. It had a sickly smell that made me shiver and break out in a cold sweat. I wiped it off on my fatigue pants and rubbed dirt on my arms and hands. I could still feel the warmth of the blood and I started choking like a nervous football player before the game. I heard somebody laughing and realized it was I. It was more of a hysterical combination of giggling and laughing. I settled down and watched my field of fire. I loaded several empty magazines and reloaded two empty clips for my forty-five. I took out the clip from the handgun and loaded a full clip and reloaded the one I had taken out. I checked my survival knife and unsnapped the sheath. I was ready once again. My wound began to ache but they were superficial and not life threatening. The sun was trying to come up and all would soon be awash with its warm light.
Funny how the fire fights gives you an adrenalin rush. Probably the biggest high a human can experience. At first you think it’s the exhilaration of being alive but the depression that follows forces you to seek the same high over and over again. For some the depression turns to fear. There is no cure for it. You either get killed because you are too careful or end up in the rear living in a bunker until it’s your turn to rotate back to the world. I was one of those that became addicted to it and would soon find myself looking for it again and again. The depressions were like a downward spiral plunging you into a deep depression. The only way out is to find that high again.
The next day we counted our dead and wounded and the enemy dead. The night before we killed 243 of the enemy. No estimate on the wounded but we found numerous blood trails where the enemy had dragged their wounded away. We lost 45 Marines that night. We would later learn that the enemy had lost a total of 1069 in seven days of fighting. At the end of the battle for Dai Do the enemy would loose 1800 soldiers. Our causalities were termed light, which meant forty- percent casualties, dead and wounded.
Our unit, 1st Battalion, Third Marine Regiment was allowed to step down and other elements of the Third, Fourth, and Ninth Marines took over the job of pursuing the enemy along the Cua Viet River towards the DMZ. The Army’s 5th Cavalry continued containing the flanks forcing the enemy to run or stand and fight. My unit moved into Camp Carroll near the village of Cam Lo and I went to DongHa’s Delta Med. I spent three weeks in the rear healing my wounds and listening to war stories.

Chapter 5

I reported to my old unit where I was informed that I was being assigned to “C” company, 1st Battalion, 3d Marines. The Headquarters for the 3rd Marine Regiment was Camp Carroll. Camp Carroll was an outpost by the DMZ Between Dong Ha, Vandergrift Forward Fire Support Base, and points north and west. It was located in a hill which overlooked Con Thien, the Cua Viet River, and Cam Lo. Unfortunately for us it was the bulls eye for the North Vietnamese artillery units across the DMZ and Laos. It was not unusual to receive 300 to 800 rounds of artillery fire every night and day. We would spend hours in our reinforced bunkers hoping we wouldn’t get a direct hit. There was nothing we could do. Fortunately, the popping sound of a cork sound would alert us to the first incoming round and we had seconds to seek cover and protection in our bunkers.
. My job was to help the company commander in the round up of suspected Viet Cong and VC supporters in the Cam Lo and Con Thien area. The job was for the most part uneventful. I was able to practice my Vietnamese to the point that I was speaking like a native. I talked to a lot of the villagers, especially the children. It was not the war I had been looking for but I was thankful for the break. Most of the times I spent dealing with the local Vietnamese that were caught in our trash dumps scavenging for food and other useful items. I found the Vietnamese very resourceful and would use every bit of trash we threw out. Some of the Viet Cong would use these groups of innocent civilians to infiltrate our area, hide near by and attack our positions at night. Often times the civilians were treated harshly by the Marines guarding the dumpsite. As in every war the innocent civilians took the brunt of it. They were deprived of their lands, the choice to make a living and treated badly by both sides. The Viet Cong would force them to help hide, them. provide food and spy on any American unit in the area. In addition and much to our dismay, anger and hate, they used the children to place grenades in our jeeps gas tanks, bury mines on the roads and poison the ice they sold us with ground glass. We in turn distrusted them and treated all of them like the enemy. They would get no quarter from either side. I made it my mission to enlist the Colonel’s help and struck a deal with the Village Chief of Cam Lo. We developed a system by which all members of the village of Cam Lo and surrounding area which came under the jurisdiction of the Village Chief could safely enter our area. He would select the different groups and under our supervision and control we would allow a number of the villagers to come into the area and go thru the trash site and collect whatever they could use. For his help the Village Chief exacted a “tax” to those using the trash site and we had better control of our area. There were those who complained that it wasn’t right for the Village Chief to profit from this arrangement but it was a good arrangement for us and the people of Cam Lo. They were able to collect their wares from our trash under safe condition s and we sorted out the Viet Cong from the group. It was not unusual for a villager to surreptitiously point out a Viet Cong to me and I in turn would separate him from the group and we would capture him and assign him “PW” status.
On other days I would be assigned to our reconnaissance units and we would go into Con Thien a now empty village where Viet Cong guerillas or infiltrating North Vietnamese soldiers could be found at different times. I hated going into the Con Thien
area. It was full of booby traps left behind by a retreating enemy or put in place by the Viet Cong forces operating in the area. Somebody always got seriously hurt and we would wait for a MedEvac helicopter. Then we would continue our search, engage and destroy mission. When we came upon an enemy machine gun or sniper position, artillery fire would be called in and then we would proceed to see if anybody had survived the barrage. Usually there were no survivors. At other times we would walk into an ambush and a short but lethal firefights would erupt. It was definitely not a good place to go.
From the dead enemy I would collect,and read their letters and learn of enemy movement and about their families. Like us they were all hoping for a quick end to the war. One major difference existed between us; we knew when we were going home, they didn’t. Our tour was thirteen months; theirs was for the duration. The poor bastards were told by their government the South Vietnamese people would greet them with open arms, like brothers; that they could walk around without worry. They were told that American soldiers had no stomach for a good fight and we would be going home soon because America was involved in an unjust war.
On other days I would visit with other Interrogators working at Vandergrift Combat Base. We exchange intelligence about the enemy and the area and exchange war stories.
On the way to Vandergrift we would pass by the “Rock Pile” an ominous looking mountain of rock. At the top was a bald spot occupied by Marines. Their job was to observe enemy movement throughout the Cua Viet valley. It was the target for enemy artillery and assault by Viet Cong guerillas at night. It took a while for the Viet Cong to realize that the assault on the Rock was fruitless. Marines were landed on top and re-supplied by choppers. The climb was hard tedious and almost impossible. There was no cover advantage and certainly no protection. The enemy was no match for the Marines on top. It was their real estate and they defended it with tenacious deadly intent.
The danger in traveling to Vandergrift was that the road had literally been cut from the side of the mountains and having to cross a lightly defended bridge which spanned the Cua Viet river. From the sides of the road which were higher than the trucks that traveled it the Viet Cong guerillas would drop grenades on top of the traveling troop trucks. The “shotgun” for the traveling convoys was a mobile artillery known as the “Quad Forty”. Four guns spewing death from 40mm rounds. It was able to rotate, drop and elevate from its position and it required one operator and a vehicle driver. Once the Quad Forty opened up, it cut down everything in its path; huge rocks, trees and could also tear thru the side of the mountain. The Viet Cong soon learned that to incur the wrath of the Quad Forty and its expert handler was sure death. Still, when we rode in the troop trucks or jeeps the tension was high and the adrenalin flowed. In the earlier months it was not unusual to dismount hurriedly and engage a squad or company of Viet Cong and chase them down as they tried to flee towards Con Thien. We suffered many casualties before the Viet Cong was finally cleared out of the area. Vandergrift would become the jump-off point to Khe Sanh, Laos, and the DMZ.
Our next stop was Leatherneck Square. So named because that was the Marines’ Tactical Area of Operations and Responsibility (TAOR). We went into Lai An, a little village near the DMZ. It was no longer a village since we had evacuated all the South Vietnamese and resettled them in the Cam Lo area. Our scouts and recon teams reported a large concentration of enemy troops and we went in to clear them out. We encountered heavy resistance and before we knew it we were engaged in a fierce battle. Unlike Dai Do, the battle at Lai An was not a point blank range nor hand-to-hand combat. It was a typical battle where we were aided by air strikes and artillery barrages. The enemy fired rocket and artillery attacks and it rained hot metal all day. We drove into them with our firepower and pursued them with fierce determination smashing through their lines and forcing them to cross the Ben Hai river. The result of a week of fighting was 230 enemy dead and our casualties were termed as “light”. Which usually meant we lost about 45 men, dead and wounded. We destroyed their bunkers and a series of tunnels and underground fortifications.
We came upon a tunnel and blew the entrance away only to find another larger tunnel. I volunteered to check it out.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Gunny?” I heard the Captain asking me.
“Yes sir. I speak Vietnamese. If there is anyone in there I may be able to get them out without somebody getting hurt”, I replied.
“Okay, but be careful. Remember to look for trip wires and punji sticks,” he reminded me.
I handed him my backpack and took my flack jacket off. I continued taking my fatigue jacked off and held on to my forty-five, my survival knife and a flashlight that someone handed me. I slid into the hole silently and immediately began to breathe rapidly. I closed my eyes to adjust my vision to the darkness and took long silent breaths. I slid further in headfirst and crawled a few feet before stopping to listen. The darkness had engulfed me and all I could see were color spots before my eyes. I could smell the earth and I detected a foul smell. The smell was of rotting flesh; there was no mistake about it. You smell it once and you don’t forget, ever. A dead body somewhere down the line, I guessed. I turned on the flashlight using the red lens cover. It cast an eerie red look about the tunnel. I peered into the red darkness and saw the tunnel veer to my left with a side tunnel going towards my right. I crawled slowly until I came to the juncture. I looked to my right and immediately was startled to see an enemy soldier sitting there. I let a startled yell as I thrust my arm stabbing him with my survival knife. He fell forward towards me and I smelled the putrid smell of rotting flesh hit my nostrils like a punch in the face. He had been dead for a few days. I was gagging from the smell and the body fluids spilling out all over my hand. I turned the flashlight and shined it on my hand. I felt a rush of panic as I saw thousands of maggots crawling all over it. As I attempted to crawl backwards I shined the light in the opposite direction and just caught a glimpse of a body moving down the tunnel away from me. I saw the person dart down another bend in the tunnel.
“Stop, or I’ll shoot,” I yelled in Vietnamese. Whoever it was did not respond and continued to move down the tunnel. I did a fast crawl in hot pursuit and as I turned into the tunnel where the body had gone I found myself starring into the blue steel barrel of a P-38, Chinese Communist automatic handgun. I hit the arm with my flashlight and the gun went off. I remember hearing the loud retort as I slashed and stabbed with my survival knife. I felt the knife hit bone and cut to the right of the enemy’s body. I heard a gurgling sound and the body went limp in front of me. I shined the light into the face. It was a woman! I had killed a goddamned woman! She was dressed in black pajamas and was wearing Ho Chi Min sandals. In her other hand she was holding a potato masher, a Chinese grenade. Her hand opened and the grenade rolled out. I crawled quickly backwards and into the other tunnel from where I had just come. I made it around the corner when the grenade went off. It was a loud “THUMP” like sound and I felt the dirt drop heavily on my back and knew instantly that I was being buried alive. There was dirt in my eyes and in my nose and every time I breathed in, dirt went into my mouth and nostrils.
It isn’t true that you suffocate right away when you are buried alive. Most people think you go fast and there is no pain. Not true! You live for an eternity. There are pockets of air trapped in the soil and in the spaces created by your body. It keeps you alive unmercifully forever. The world tuned dark and there was no tunnel with a light at the end as so many people report, just a deep sleep settling in and then I felt no more.
“Wake up! Wake up! God damn it,” I heard someone yelling. My chest felt like someone had hit me with a sledgehammer. I felt a great pain in my lungs. I started coughing and the pounding on my chest stopped. Someone was sitting me up and I tasted mud in my mouth. I opened my eyes and saw dirty boots, dirty fatigues and an extremely angry face staring at me. It was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.
“How do you feel?” I hear the Corpsman, asking me. I later found out his name was Adam Riley. He was a Navy Corpsman who upon graduation from medic school requested assignment to a Marine unit. He was good. He could take a bullet or shrapnel out, sew you up and put you on a helicopter before you could give him your name, rank, and serial number.
“Okay, I guess Doc,” I replied still coughing, my voice raspy.
“We thought you were dead when we dug you up but Doc here wouldn’t give up. If you have any bruises on your chest or broken ribs, blame Doc here. I thought he was going to kill you if you weren’t dead already,” the Captain was telling me with a grin on his face.
“Take these, and just sit for a while. Don’t try to get up just yet,” Doc Riley said as he handed me a couple of colored pills.
My chest and rib cage started to ache, a lot. I felt a headache coming on. My breathing was still a little ragged but I felt a whole lot better. I took a couple of drinks of water and rinsed out my mouth. After a while I was able to focus a little better and noticed the Captain was still hunkered down in front of me. He was grinning as he watched me recuperate. I heard the radio crackle.
“Charlie One three, this is Six three, over.”
“Roger Six, this is Charlie One three.”
“You still need that MedEvac? Over.”
The Captain looked at Doc Riley and Doc shook his head. I guess I was going to live.
“Negative, Six three, over,” the Captain replied still grinning.
“Roger, Charlie One Three. Six three out.”
The Lieutenant handed the radio back to the Marine radioman, Garcia. He turned to me and asked, “Feel like telling me what happened down there?”
I nodded and coughed.
“I found a dead NVA about ten feet from the entrance. I didn’t know he was dead before I stabbed him. I saw movement to the left and there was another tunnel leading towards my left. I saw a body moving down the tunnel and I followed and encountered an enemy soldier. It was a woman. She tried to shoot me but I knocked the gun away and I stabbed her and cut her throat but not before she detonated a grenade. It was a Chicom (Chinese Communist) potato masher, (so called because it literally looked like an old-fashioned potato masher.). I managed to shimmy backwards before it was detonated. The explosion caved in the tunnel. I never killed a woman before. I didn’t have any choice. I killed her before I realized she was a woman,” I explained apologetically.
“It’s okay Gunny. The NVA use them as guides, nurses, cooks, and ammo carriers. They are well-trained fighters. They are Viet Cong cadre and usually more dangerous that the male Viet Cong and the NVA. You did all right. Don’t worry about it,” he consoled me as he put his hand on my shoulder.
“Did you see anything else, Gunny?” he asked as he turned to get up.
“I don’t think so. Let me think a minute. YES!” I started to yell excitedly.
“THERE IS A TUNNEL BEHIND WHERE THE VC WOMAN WAS.” Whatever the Doc had given me was working. My adrenalin was up and I couldn’t wait to get up.
I got up, a little unsteady and walked wobbly towards the entrance of the tunnel. I saw the hole where they dragged me out and another deep depression where the VC woman was probably buried under. I took a few steps past the spot and said, “It must be about here.”
The ground gave and I was through a hole in the ground. I felt a cold fear gripping me. A fear like I had never felt before. I felt a rifle butt touch my arm and I grabbed the sling and swivel as someone pulled me up. I really hadn’t gone down that deep but the ground was giving around me.
“Jesus, Gunny, stay out of there. Let us have some fun too.” I heard someone say and there was laughter around the group.
I walked away from the area about twenty feet and waited for them to do their work. I felt exhausted.
Two Marines started laying down explosives hurriedly but efficiently around the area of the depression. Everybody was taking cover. Somebody grabbed me and pulled me down behind a fallen tree trunk. It was Garcia the radioman.
“Thanks,” I said and he just nodded.
The explosion rocked everything around us and showered the area with dirt, rocks, roots, and tree limbs. My ears were ringing and I smelled the cordite as a cloud of dust surrounded us. Everybody moved forward slowly as the air cleared and we discovered a neat hole that revealed a large underground bunker. There were tunnels leading from the main bunker. Marines dropped to the bunker and began moving into the tunnels without anyone ordering them or giving them instructions. They were men who knew their work well, fully aware of the danger but confident that they would persevere. They were the best. They were methodical, efficient, and brave. They each jumped into the bunker following each other eagerly, afraid they would miss out on the fight. My chest filled with pride and admiration. It was almost as if they didn’t want to be left out of the fight.
I heard small arms fire coming from the tunnel and then the return fire of M16s. Someone screamed and Marines continued to drop into the vacant hole hurriedly. The sound of grenades exploding reached our ears. It was difficult to tell if they were theirs or ours.
I sat at the edge of the hole, covered with dirt, holding my M16 cradled in my arms. In the tunnels the fight continued. I was afraid. For the first time in my life that I could remember, I was afraid! I tried not to let it show but Doc Riley and Lance Corporal Garcia knew it. I looked at them and they smiled. They understood. They had seen it before. Doc Riley offered me some water and another pill. Garcia talked into the radio and hollered for the Captain. The Captain tried to get out of the hole and slipped. I reached out of habit and helped him up. It seemed to snap me out of my fear and suddenly I was back in the Nam again. I started to get into the hole and he yelled at me,
“Stay there, Gunny. I don’t want you in there. I’m going to need your help in a minute.”
I saw him nod his head and say, “Yes Sir, I understand. Charlie One out.” He handed the radio back to Garcia and turned to me.
“Gunny, there’s a chopper coming for you. They captured four NVA in Hotel company’s area and they need you to talk to them. The Colonel wants you out there immediately. The S-2 will be on the chopper and he’ll brief you on the way. You okay with that?”
“Yes Sir, I am okay.”
The Captain walked towards the tunnel entrance, stopped and turned towards me again. “Gunny, thanks. Keep your ass down.”
He gripped my hand for a second and turned and jumped into the tunnel. I saw him disappear into one of the tunnels. There was no time for goodbyes. Maybe, with a little luck we would see each other again. I scrambled for my gear as I heard the chopper rotors approaching. I looked for Doc Riley but he was no longer there; Garcia was busy with the radio. I tapped him on the shoulder as someone popped green smoke and the chopper started descending. I headed for the makeshift LZ. I didn’t look back