We'd all heard of rear echelon troops. They were the soldiers in the rear with the gear...guarding some posh hotel in Saigon, cooking for the officers, or enlisted men at headquarters, reading maps of where men would soon die, bartering the supply of fighting men, wrestling with problems of logistics, doing the fighting man's laundry, and doing paperwork. They gave themselves the name, REMF..."rear echelon mother fuckers!"
REMF's were like weekend warriors, who went to nine-to-five day jobs in an office, wearing starched uniforms with spit-shined boots, then after work changed into civvies to party the night away. They were part-time soldiers, and many saw nary a hint of danger...usually no one who shot at them in anger...not close anyway. At the most, the enemy only occasionally lobbed in a mortar round or two, sending them scurrying and worrying, fearing greatly for their lives. What a life...to be in a war in name only, to feel no pressure. Unbelievable!
Compared to grunts who fought 24/7, REMF duty was just like a regular job in any foreign port. Life in the rear echelon was so far off from reality and fear omnipresent in the boonies...after their day-work, they were free to do the town, seek relaxing entertainment, put the war behind them almost, until they reported for work in the morning. We infantrymen could only scratch our heads in bewilderment at such excess.
How much of the war diet you were fed was relative. It entirely depended on your MOS...your job, and your location. Some infantrymen, we heard, would even change into civvies from working fatigues, like they could hang up the war and forget about it while romancing Vietnamese ladies of the evening, or having a hot date with American USO women, or nurses, or carousing in a bevy of enlisted mens clubs, NCO clubs, officers clubs, or private nightclubs, returning from patrolling during the day like they were on a golf junket, like fighting was a hobby. They would return from patrolling the outskirts of Saigon as if from a hard, hot day at the office, coming home to wood barracks with air conditioning, steel bunks, soft beds with mattresses and clean sheets, hot showers, soap and water, hot food...maids.
REMF war stories were always the toughest. They were always embellished with exploits of heroic daring meant to impress the ladies. They had made a real sacrifice, to hear them tell it. Once when I was back in the rear I overheard a GI trying to impress the ladies. He told of how he was busy unloading a truck when a mortar round came flying through the air and bounced on his helmet. He said he looked around dazed for a minute, then laughed when he saw he was unhurt...lucky it was a dud, because it didn't explode. Now, this is an example of rear echelon shapoopi first-class. Anyone familiar with mortars knows very well that if one hits you in the head, helmet or not...just the force of its fall would kill instantly, whether or not it exploded.
We'd heard of animal house antics, dope and beer of REMF's...but hearing about it is the closest we came. Infantrymen who did our time walking "the park" had none of that...not in our area of operation anyway. If REMF's could have only walked in our shoes for even a day, they'd have appreciated their relatively cushy jobs. They would thank their lucky stars. Not that there is anything wrong with a cushy job...hell, I wish I had a cushy job rather than strolling out in the boonies, hunting to kill, or be killed, trying my hardest not to die from hunted animals...gooks that shot back. Whenever one of our guys had to go to the rear for a medical emergency, we heard tell of REMF's bitching about being so close to the war, and so afraid. Whenever we mingled with REMF's, we heard their stories of valor and bravery, told when we went on R & R (a week of rest and relaxation in Japan, Malaysia, or even Hawaii if you were lucky). We'd heard REMF complaints of how rough they had it.
But hell, infantrymen are bogged deep in a life of horror incomprehensible to anyone who was not there slogging through the bullshit beside us twenty-four hours of every day, seven days a week, every hour, every minute, every second. We slept with the killing and being shot at by people trying to kill us...and after awhile it became normal, almost! We ate with fear a constant companion. We breathed it in deeply with every breath...sometimes too deeply! We constantly were looking for the bullet with our name on it, death behind every bush, scouring the tree line for it. Too often, we died from it!
I can't speak for all infantrymen, and what they had available...but my company had nothing but a dose of relative relaxation at a landing zone's sand bag bunkers on the perimeter, betwixt four to six day bouts of walking the park looking for Charlies. Our biggest luxury when not out humping the boonies was a dirt foxhole, pre-dug. Not having to dig your own home every night was a real plus. Our dirt bunkers, strategically placed to guard the outer limits of the base, many times had a sandbag roof to protect us from flak and shrapnel that too often flew our way. Perimeter bunkers were the first line of defense, a hundred or so yards inside the concertina razor-wire guarding a landing zone. You always had to be alert on the perimeter, because the surrounding concertina wire couldn't really stop Charlie. It was meant only to slow down the gooks trying to infiltrate and kill the infantryman’s raggedy self. Wire never stopped a determined enemy.
There were no nightclubs, no civvies, no girls of any persuasion, be they nurses, USO women, or Vietnamese ladies of the evening for us to fraternize with. Seems to me we got the bad end of the war's proverbial stick; all work, and hardly any chance for play...other than what we could find keeping ourselves company.
Our favorite entertainment relied on things like pitting a black scorpion and a snake against each other in a helmet...you know, seeing how they got along. To make it real exciting we might even make it a threesome, maybe even throwing in a "fuck you lizard" to make it real interesting. Yes, they really did make a sound like they were saying that! I'll never forget that first night out there in a foxhole in "the park," when all of a sudden I heard something out there cussing me. I couldn't believe it. I thought Charlie has really gone off his corker this time. I'll likely never live down the laughing the guys had at my expense when I said something about somebody out there speaking awful profane...somebody that oughta get a bullet for his trouble.
You really want excitement, a regular fireworks show...there's no beating the excitement of a mad-minute. That's when the whole camp opens up into the boonies outside the wire, with everything they've got. Too often though, we just played poker with M-16 bullets for chips, before it got dark.
Of special comfort were the artillery pieces at an LZ that gave Charlie something to think about besides killing you. Yes, spending time at an LZ was the life. It was almost a vacation from the war, with hot meals served from insulated cans seeming like a once-a-week luxury, providing a nice change from C-rations. Our vacation gave infantrymen the chance to take our boots off and change our socks, sometimes for the first time in weeks...whether they needed it or not! During these respites, we could sometimes take a bath in the South China Sea, maybe even as often as once a month, or every two weeks if you were lucky, whether we needed it or not.
Infantrymen could also pick up a recycled, clean uniform at the laundry...if we were at LZ Betty, and not LZ Judy, LZ Virginia, or some other isolated LZ.
That's how infantrymen of 2/7 1st Air Cavalry would unwind...but walking "the park" is where we spent most of our time, pounding the bushes, looking for someone to kill, fighting, bleeding, dying. We never had any real destination other than forays out into the boonies, and then coming back in to the LZ's. USO was a foreign word to us. I never saw a USO show, or anyone like Bob Hope out here. They say Martha Raye came out in the boonies to do a show, but I never saw her out here. Unless we ended up in a hospital, wounded or sick, we never even saw a Red Cross donut dolly...in fact, no female American of any persuasion...ever! Our only constant companion was Death, too often too close for comfort. Death was never a stranger!
Shoot said it best... "Them rear echelon mothahs are in heaven. We're in hell."
Bravo Company once again assembled on the hot tarmac of the landing zone, saddle gear all ready for another Eagle Flight. Soldiers, waiting for God-knows-what, but knowing we'd find out in a few minutes, tried to ignore the tension. We stood around with faces chalked up, waiting on scout helicopters buzzing the skies like swarming gnats, trying to locate heavy concentrations of enemy troops, so they could pick us up and drop us on top of them. But before we could be picked up, what infantrymen called a "flying banana," a double-propeller Chinook helicopter, dropped in first. The Chinook was also called a shit-hook, so named because it was always hooking gear, howitzers, or large water bladders to its hook and moving it from place to place. Out stepped a general, with Captain Trenery in tow. The captain excitedly announced that the general was here to offer up a medal for our dearly departed Lieutenant Joshua Pike.
"He'd best hurry on then," Shoot snarled. "Got me a hot date with Charlie...an I don't wanna be late."
"In honor of your platoon leader, First Lieutenant Joshua T. Pike,” croaked the general, reading from a green clipboard, and obviously affected by the heat coming off the tarmac in the hot Vietnamese sun, “I hereby award this Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, posthumously to First Lieutenant Joshua T. Pike." And then, reading from a citation he had pulled from a large envelope, he continued, “Lieutenant Pike did, in the face of withering enemy action, take charge and gallantly direct the forces in his area of responsibility against a well-armed and fortified force of Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army regulars. Finding his platoon pinned down by deadly accurate machine gun and automatic weapons fire from the enemy, Lieutenant Pike, at great peril and disregard for his own safety, in the finest traditions of honor and selfless duty, took the initiative. He moved from his position of relative security to single-handedly assault well-entrenched, bunkered positions of the enemy. After personally killing several enemy with grenades and small arms fire, Lieutenant Pike was fatally wounded. For his heroism and devotion to the cause of duty that day, I hereby award Lieutenant Joshua Pike the Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, posthumously. I'm also recommending him for the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry in action in the Republic of Vietnam. Lieutenant Joshua Pike exemplified the finest attributes to be found in the United States Army."
We all looked at each other, stunned. "I don't remember it that way," whispered Richard Allman, standing at my left elbow.
"I heard it was a grenade got him in the middle of the ‘palace guard,’" said Earl Bass, “but there was never none of that other stuff."
"That's cause it never happened that way," I said simply. "From what I've seen, awards always embellish a man's dying, but the brass don't care, long as they make themselves look good."
"War needs its heroes," Ottel whispered glumly. "This is just PR for the folks back home watching the Ten O' clock News. Some of the medals may have been earned, but many of them are worth about as much as a prize in a box of Cracker Jacks."
"Yeah," I moaned, "but the people back home need something, because back there the war isn’t as popular a ditty as it once was. Still...how can they say all that? How can they just make things up like that?"
Ottel shrugged. "Pike came from a well-connected Philadelphia family with lots of clout...had a father in the Pentagon. Enough said!"
"Don't need to know any more?" Allman said with a crooked grin. "I remember once when this gook sniper shot a couple of grunts. When we managed to put a cork in his future, we found it was a girl...a babysan! A few minutes after the firing finished, as we were just standing around looking at her wriggling in the dust in her last minute of life, some bird colonel comes blasting out of his helicopter and bam-bam-bam, finishes her off. He got a Silver Star for his bravery."
Ottel just nodded. “Captain Trenery has had me write up several flowery battle citations...fiction mostly. Boys firing back defensively in gut reaction, not knowing what they were doing, suddenly glorified for posterity...posthumously when they got their heads blown off. I just heaped on words like, 'in the face of enemy fire, extreme bravery and devotion to duty, without regard to his own safety, in the highest tradition of gallantry,' words like that. I think Trenery roped you into writing a few of those award citations too, didn't he, Jacob?"
"Yes! I'm a pretty good writer, and somehow I made the mistake of letting Trenery know it. He said it would be easy, and gave me the formula. I had been beside those boys doing the exact same thing they were doing, only it was their turn for glory, if one of them happened to pop his head up a little too far. Like you say, Ottel, war needs its heroes...and the officers always look like they're doing a better job if medals are coming to men under their command. It makes it look like they did something."
No sooner had the general left in a cloud of dust, than the Huey's arrived to take us for our morning ride to the war. Again the quiet was heavy on us as the rotors whirred loudly as we soared above the rice paddies, not knowing what awaited us on the ground.
We were dropped in on LZ Hook near Pleiku, two miles from the Cambodian border. Earl Bass had been on a helicopter that landed the same time as mine, and once we had jumped out, he ran four feet off my left shoulder till an explosion of dust and flying shrapnel cut him off at the knees. He was just laying there with a grin on his face, still laughing, bleeding from the leg and chest, where shrapnel fragments had gone up and out of his body. One leg was blown away above the knee, the other just below the knee. "I didn't even see the trip wire," he said between screams, and then he began to spasm. "I don't feel anything! I don't hear anything! What happened?" Seconds later he was gone, hollow, deep-set eyes still wide in disbelief, a sneering question still on his lips.
Lieutenant Reggie ran out ahead of us and was pointing to a spot to set up defensively, when he was cut down by automatic weapons fire. He never knew what hit him...but he had gone far beyond the bet O'Neal had made...weeks beyond.
Documents taken from a captured prisoner found hiding in a cement culvert revealed that three NVA battalions were on the ridge above the LZ. Another NVA division was at the Cambodian border a few miles away. We'd set down smack dab in the middle of an NVA infiltration route into South Vietnam. By that afternoon we were under heavy attack from automatic rifle fire, mortar and recoilless rifle fire by what we figured to be at least four companies of NVA.
"Carrots on a stick,” Egg whispered as a rocket whistled over his head, “that's all we are, carrots on a stick. Might as well have a big target with a sign on our chest that says 'shoot here.'"
"Whatta you talkin’, mothah?" Nigel's eyes got big and white, so you had the feeling you could almost see right into him.
Egg's eyes showed terror. "Don't you get it man...we're bait, thass all. Just bait! The Army has us draw Charlie into the open, so the Army knows where he is, and can get to'm with air strikes and artillery before he reaches Saigon. Man, we're carrots on a stick."
Sergeant Morgan crawled up to us pinned in by enemy fire in a little gully running behind an eight-foot anthill. "This is a boiling pot LZ boys, or don't I need to tell you that?” he chuckled sardonically. Seeing no one laugh, he went on. “Just keep your heads low. Time to find out if you're soldiers or cowards."
"You mean this ain't just company dropping in to play a little poker?" Allman said dryly. "I was just going to deal the cards, Sarge. You don't mean that's out?"
"Nobody better call me a coward," Ottel grimaced as he sprayed the tree line with withering machine gun fire, "but I don't call myself a soldier neither...just temporarily insane...just temporarily here."
"Chit, you jokers, chit," Gutcheck hugged the ground behind the anthill, feeding the M-60 ammo to Ottel over his head.
"What have I gotten myself into?" Georgia scowled, "I could have gotten out of this, if I'd known. I could have skipped to Canada. My wife said she could be packed in an hour when I got the call...why didn't I listen? Why didn’t I..."
I ran up to another ditch perpendicular to the first one, and Sergeant Morgan followed, ducking like he was afraid of getting wet in a sudden shower. Yet it wasn't rain, but fire that was in the air. "Radio says First Platoon’s in danger of being overrun by vastly superior VC forces. They're isolated off there somewhere," he yelled as he pointed off in the distance. "Be ready! We may be called to make an attempt to relieve them. That's why we're here, girls and boys."
"Just let it lay," Shoot growled. "No way we're gonna get to'm through this. Order comes down, I'm not home. Count my black ass outta this'n."
"This nigger don't commit no suicide," Nigel nodded. "Gonna save my black ass if I can."
Sergeant Mulenburg gestured a retreat back to where the perimeter had formed. We just made it over when a ten- or fifteen-man wave of yelling, hollering Victor Charlies, laughing like they were high on something, closed under the blistering whine of their mortars for hand-to-hand combat.
"You GI, numbah ten...you GI," they'd yell, as they kept coming. "Dinky dau, GI! I kill you two times, GI."
I hit one of them head-on with my "trusty" M-16, rising up out of a ravine, but the other one kept coming till a thrust with my rifle butt put him on the ground for good. Another charged, and it was like I was shooting blanks, for all the good it did, until finally he stopped, whirled around, and I saw big blood stains speckled on his back as he tottered two or three steps and fell. Even after he fell he was still laughing. "Has to be on something," I thought.
As the noise decreased to a dull din after a few minutes...had it only been a few minutes? ....Allman poked at a dead VC with his M-16, then turned him over with the toe of his boot. Too late he saw the eyes and the bullet coming right at him. The damn gook wasn't dead. After three rapid-fire shots, we heard a click-click, as the AK-47 firing pin banged on an empty chamber. I raised my weapon high over my head like a gorilla in the mist, too astonished in the fever of battle to be angry or scared, brought it down toward his head, and connected.
I saw his head swing back, but then he got up and was still coming, swinging his AK-47 at my head, knocking my helmet into the blood-caked dirt at his feet. As we came together, I swung back at the NVA's head as hard as I could, till I thought my rifle stock would shatter. I stroked the solid butt like a baseball bat going for a home run, again, and again, oblivious to everything swirling around me like in the eye of a hurricane. All I could hear was the harsh, grating sound of my own breathing, and each grunt when my M-16 drove in another run.
I leaned exhausted back onto a tree once the bloody formless enemy lay at my feet. "Shoot the gook!" Nigel groaned from where he lay in a heap with mortar fragments in his arm, neck and leg. "Shoot the damned gook, Jacob," he ordered again. I put a bullet into the fallen pulp, then turned to administer to Nigel's wounds. The call "Medic," still clung in my throat as another wave of Charlies were fast upon us.
"I wish I had their stash," Shoot yelled, as he blasted one right out of his tire tread sandals with the butt of his rifle, putting him on the ground with a one-two smashing return blow to the head. "They just gotta be high on somethin'."
They came in straight up, right into our field of fire till the nauseating scent of blood and smoke lay like a thick pall saturating the air. Grime and blood were thick on our hands; still wave after wave kept coming. All day and into the night they kept coming at intervals. We were about out of ammunition. I couldn't believe they'd come in that way, rockets and mortars blasting in from out of the hills, raining terror erupting all around, without notice. Our artillery flares, called in from some distant firebase provided a light show in the sky.
"Hell, Francis Scott Key would love this shit," Ottel grimaced as he kept firing at the charging line of VC like ducks in a row in the carnival midway, till the barrel of his M-60 glowed red and he needed a rest.
"This sure enough would give some new Star-Spangled Banner verses," I answered, breathing heavily. I could hear the growling trucks out there, as the VC roared through the back roads around Hook, driving men and equipment into place for the assault. Strange, but I didn't think the VC had trucks, always figuring the edge in mobility was ours. Hook became a killing field, men dropping on both sides, VC bodies so thick we couldn't see to fire. One guy was killed staring right at me...his face frozen in a grimacing yell, his eyes always looking right at me, locked on me, seeing everything I did. When it became quiet, I sneaked out and rolled him out of the line of fire...turning his damning eyes away.
Suddenly the whole tree line exploded like a rolling thunder of blistering light, moving and billowing orange-red across the ground like an enormous carpet unrolling. "B-52's," Mulenburg grinned. "Napalm!" The shock of it stopped the attacks. The smell of it, gas, burning flesh, the world around us, was nauseating...
"Let Charlie chew on that one awhile," Egg shook his fist at the glowing tree line, a maddened grin etched on his face.
Ottel was down. Looked like he'd taken a dozen shrapnel wounds from all the blood. He'd been manning his machine gun till the B-52's gave dawning to a new world. I told him to just lie quiet, but Ottel never could stop talking. Said he figured he'd been hit early on when he felt warm and sticky inside. "My machine gun was blazing hot and I was sweating. I felt something trickling down my shirt, but I knew it wasn't sweat. Funny I didn't feel it! I don't feel it now...just cold...so cold. I didn't do anything, Jacob...nothing special."
"That's all right. Just lay back and take it easy," I said.
"I do believe those gooks were trying to kill me, Jacob," Ottel spoke, with a touch of laughter still in his gurgling voice. "I guess I've done my part, Jacob. I've paid my dues. I'm sure somebody's happy as hell about that! I hope to God somebody's happy. Maybe now they'll let me go home; probably lucky at that. I get to make the last air assault on Landing Zone Travis with my eyes open...not closed up in a body bag like Nigel there."
Nigel's mouth and eyes were wide open in a perpetually silent scream of primeval agony as he lay in the foxhole, a scream only stilled when we zipped him in the body bag. Ottel kept protesting when we made over him. "How much guts it take to keep wiggling your trigger finger?" But when we moved Ottel aboard the medevac we saw he couldn't move much else.
When I turned away, my eyes were moist and clouded. I felt angry! While the medics attended with first priority to the living, I watched my buddies disappear over the horizon. Suddenly I didn't feel so good. I had to sit down or fall down. I wanted to cry, but I couldn't. “Why can’t I cry?” I asked myself, as I looked back toward the tree line, suddenly wanting them to come. They wouldn't disappoint us. If we thought the napalm was going to stop them, we were once again very mistaken.
Muley saw it all, and just grinned, a sick sort of grin, "Ain't no use't being sick. Won't be no relief for y'all lessen you got'n arm'n a leg blowed off, or y'alls temperature's 105 and rising, come with malaria, or something. Don't hold no sick call on a hot LZ, young troop. I remember the Ia Drang, every man-child in the whole company that had one't swing, was swingin' it in line."
We had time to dig foxholes before the VC rockets and mortars started raining again. We heard things moving in the burned-out tree line.
"Lord, I sure wish that was rabbits we hear ovah theah," Muley opined, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a grenade was tossed into our foxhole. Egg jumped on it, or stumbled trying to throw it out of the way...but fell on it or something, just like in a John Wayne movie. We stared at him, unbelieving, as he shuddered all over and little puffs of smoke and dust came up around his edges. Then the VC were all around in the night, yelling, screaming. Empty magazines littered the fighting hole floor we'd hurriedly scraped as we were erratically shooting and ducking.
Egg wasn't wasn’t killed outright. He died grimly, and agonizingly slow. He didn't go all at once, but hard. Between weeping and groaning and crying, he managed a smile. "Guess this egg isn't as hard boiled as I thought...got a crack in it nobody can fix." He grimaced once, then again, his eyes wide-open pools of terror and pain. He trembled, then he was gone.
A few gooks got into the perimeter and had to be weeded out. I shot one who looked like no more than a kid, but I took pleasure in it. I felt angry for Nigel, for Ottel, for Egg. I was strangely happy each time one of the gooks fell before my weapon, no longer bothered by gnawing fear. I was long past caring...no longer human. It was now all about survival. We held on through the rain of incoming and outgoing artillery, for in the end, after all the ground soldiers could do, it was the inevitable superiority in artillery, and the big bomber's firepower, that saved the day. That, and "Jolly Green Giants," and armored helicopter gunships blistering salvos of rockets into the fray.
The main battle was over, and "A" Company was moved into the area to support our beleaguered Company. After several days of intermittent back and forth fighting, the enemy broke contact, and there was nothing to do but patrol and take grisly body counts. I watched the macabre census between our foxhole and the tree line with a bad taste in my mouth, tossed between the black horror of it all, fear, and guilt, because I hadn't been killed, and so many others had. I had an eerie feeling prickling at the back of my neck. I didn't know what it was, then it hit...this killing field stretching before me, with dead and dying on both sides, was a teenage graveyard! Many of the bodies looked like children, resting and muddy from play...till you turned them over. Vietcong were stacked like cordwood, barefoot with scrawny teenage legs and skinny teenage faces. The American dead and wounded were still being "dusted off," but the gravekeepers who passed amongst us weren't any different from those they were attending. The men who came in on the medevacs to pick up the corpses were solemn, impassive teenagers with barren eyes, that had seen more than anybody ought to see. Their faces were glazed over with teenaged expression at the weekend's work spread before them. They were boys who had grown too old too quick, their faces carved with dirty lines running down their features with sweat and blood. Grotesque death was so dismally commonplace all around, but they went about their work with no more passion than if clearing away litter after a football game.
Sergeant Nelson Morton from A Company was supervising Larry Friscot as he moved a dead VC, dispatched on his way to the great beyond during the first hours of battle. Now the VC lay decaying and stinking in the Vietnamese sun when the battle was over. When Friscot rolled him over they saw that the dead VC was clutching a booby-trapped grenade, but they saw it too late. I heard and saw the explosion, killing Friscot instantly. Sergeant Morton's hands flew to his face, screaming like he'd been dipped in scalding water, blood oozing between his fingers.
"Can't trust damned gooks," Shoot growled as the Battalion Commander's observation helicopter buzzed overhead like a gnat, an eye-in-the-sky overseeing the production. "Even when the damned gooks're dead...they're not dead." Shoot became agitated when the colonel again buzzed high overhead. "Get down here and get in it, you bastard. Get in it! You can't smell the blood up there, you crazy honkey mothah. You wanted this shit, you got it." He suddenly cocked his M-60 and let go a burst in the general direction of the helicopter. He watched with grim satisfaction as it dove, swooped and beat a hasty withdrawal over the tree line.
Shit really hit the fan. The radio squawked with a high-pitched whine, popping and sputtering like popcorn. Officers and NCO's flocked around the area wanting to know who had fired. All of our squad gave "dumb grunts don't know nuthin'" blank stares. Shoot was leaning back with only the slightest hint of a smile, as he watched the parade of NCO and officer hornets buzzing around working up a lather.
But when all was said and done they had no idea. "What they gonna do, punish us by sending us all to the front?" Georgia said.
I nodded, silently noting that Georgia wasn't a twink anymore. "Anything they can do would be a vacation, compared to this."
When the call came, "Saddle up, girls, we're gonna dee-dee this place in ten minutes," I stared unbelieving. How could we so easily give up what so many fought, bled, and had given their lives for? When the Chinooks lifted the howitzers, and I watched them become dots in the distance and disappear over the horizon, I turned to stare at the VC bodies stacked like railroad ties. I stared at the ground around our fighting holes, and I still see the blood there, dark red and sticky in the dust.
Somebody let out a frustrated yell, "Why?" I was surprised. I looked around to see who yelled, but my buddies were all looking at me. Then it came to me that I was the one who had yelled. Muley was passing by and heard it, and cocked his head. "Something't matter, young troop?"
"Why, Sergeant?" I asked, suddenly quiet, speaking slowly, intensely, with a perplexed and frustrated voice. "I really want to know, so tell me, why is this place so damned important to put us here with our lives hanging over the line? Tell me why we had to fight and die and spill our guts for this...for this! Tell me what's so important here, if we're just gonna pick up now and dee-dee like it don't mean nothin'. This isn't nothing! Good men died here. It isn’t nothing! Are we gonna just leave this sacred ground paid for with my friends' lives, just because some damned Pentagon general's damned dart hit another damned spot on his damned map in his damned office, just like it really was nothing? Our lives have gotta be worth something. Don't tell me Egg and Nigel died for nothing...and Ottel...Ottel." I was too tired to cry, but I could feel the tears welling. I hoped Mulenburg couldn't see them as I turned away.
"Gotta see the big picture, young troop," Muley sputtered, but his eyes had that open, frustrated look too. "Fact be known, I don't know either. I don't know fer sure why't happens, but it happens. But the brass must know what they're doing, don't you think? Surely this 'ere be part of some bigger plan."
"No! No! Hell, no. This has gone on too long for me to believe any of those eye-in-the-skies behind their comfortable desks back in Washington know what they're doing. The Pentagon big shots with their damned field topographical maps and damned war boards've got to either fight this war to win, or get us the hell home! They can't go on letting us die in vain, without real purpose."
"Chit, fat chance of that chit," Gutcheck said as he passed by.
Sergeant Mulenburg opened his mouth, but an answer wouldn't come. It couldn't come. It couldn't come, because he agreed with me. He could only lower his eyes to the ground and nod. When he did look up, I could see the torment there. He too had a pain there, a pained soul that hurt like hell.
"Sergeant, I'm tired. I’m real tired! If I die I want it to mean something...and this doesn't. This means nothing! I know there are bad guys around, and I'm ready to step up to the line and push them back, but I look round, and I see we're not going anywhere. We're just going around in circles, playing in the park, trying to kill more Charlies than he can manage to kill of us. We're not trying to win! We're just playing someone’s stupid chess game. I'm tired of this stupid war."
"Can't help't, young troop, I jes work here, and hope't hell God will surely take me't home."
"God," Shoot glared. "God don't care 'bout none of y'all. He's jest up there enjoying the light show," he said, shaking his fist at the heavens. "I heard Nigel praying last night, 'Oh God, help me get outta this.' Damn, whut good did it get him. 'Help me get home,' he pleaded. Well...he's home. He done got out of it."
"Chit, used to believe in God, goin'ta Mass ev'ry week. My mama says her rosaries all'a time...but I can't say I believe in 'im now."
Georgia tossed his steel pot into the foxhole hard, like he was hoping to see it shatter and break up. "No God could abide this! Religion's nothing but superstitious ballyhoo used by kings and presidents to get ordinary schmucks like us to stand and take this crap."
"Hell," Muley said, "I believe in God...got to take't, if'n y'all think a better life's rewards be coming t'ya. We gotta stop'm commies before the South Pacific falls, then the commie hordes are in the New York Harbor."
I felt an angry shudder like I was shrugging off a burdensome yoke hanging around my neck. "Hell, can you see Vietnamese commies coming up the main streets of Dreamlight, Arkansas? Balderdash!" I thought of Ottel smiling as he said his favorite word, chubby squirrel cheeks puffed out like they were full of acorns. The memory made me turn away, but there were no tears.
"Nothing inspiring about this damned war," Georgia growled. "Why'd God allow the generals to get us over here in the first place? I been thinking on it. I been thinking a lot in this hurry-up-and-wait-war. Prayer's nothing but a modernized chant from some ancient hunter, asking the favor of gods of rain, thunder and sun to smile on him. It's superstition. Nothing but wishful thinking and superstition!"
Shoot snarled, "What them prayer boys think, there's some Uncle Tom up there with a list, list'ning to whut they say? 'Oh, he asked for My exalted hand to protect him. Take it down in the prayer book, angels. Oh, he asked Me to watch over him, so give'm a little of this and give'm a little of that. But that guy in the nex' foxhole, he didn't pray. We gotta teach that boy a lesson, yes sir...so send a mortar his way. That oughta humble him...make 'im tahnkful for the Lord. Let's see now, that one asked to keep the faith...that's bitchin' he remembered the flesh and the blood. Okay, angels, got an order going out, an make this an express manifestation. Uh oh, would you look at that. Nobody prayed for Nigel. He didn't ask Me for my almighty protection, so his ass is grass...jackshit."
There wasn't any laughing. We'd all seen too much to laugh.
"Yeah," Shoot agreed, "End this frickin' war now, or take the frickin’ war't downtown Hanoi."
"But that would be immoral," Georgia said with tongue in cheek. "Somebody might get hurt."
"Chit, don't want nobody gettin' hurt."
"Shit on a spoon, boy," Shoot grumbled, "don't be giving me none of that business about whether it's moral or not to mine the frickin’ Haiphong Harbor."
"War's not moral," I said. "People who say they don't want to escalate this war, or whatever they call it, just have no idea. Those that talk high and mighty about us not going past a police holding action where it's acceptable, are full of double talk. How can you find it unacceptable to hit meaningful targets in the North, but find it acceptable for thousands of American boys to die in the rotting jungles?"
"Hell, they got their priorities on crooked," Georgia frowned.
"Hold on boys," Mulenburg said, "we're bombing the North."
"Yeah sure," I sneered. "We're dropping record numbers of bomb tonnage on the North, but there's only one little problem."
"Ain't there always," Georgia said dully.
"A pilot buddy of mine from high school, Jimmy Pate, wrote me a while back. He said most of those bombing runs we're hitting are over rice paddies or empty warehouses. He says, 'I took out a few bridges, but so many military targets are off-limits. Very rarely do I get to hit a target with any real military significance at all.'"
Georgia leaned on his elbows, "If Pentagon and Washington high-ups want to end this war, they wouldn't drag it out forever. You can't go halfway, or have it squeaky clean. War isn't squeaky clean, and somebody ought to let them in on that fact. Somebody wants to drag it out forever, somebody don't want to win very much."
"This war lines too many pockets," I said, knowing I was repeating what Ottel had said. "That's the bottom line. The longer the war goes on, the bigger the bucks."
"Won't be no peace no time soon," growled Shoot. "Don't know why I be knowin', but I jus know it, so gots'ta lay low while the shrapnel's fallin'. Lifers done see this war as their big opportunity to move up and do their thing. They're not about to let it get past them. They gots to seize the opportunity, 'cause this war is what they been training for, an they want it to last."
Mulenburg looked over his shoulder to see if anybody was looking. "The lifers are a scramblin't get in on the war like they think't they gonna be left out. There's them that love this war, they truly do, 'cause't gives 'em a once in a gen'ration chance't ply thar craft."
"Something's got to happen," I said looking out on the battlefield, all black and charred, still with pockets of smoke hanging over it...still with dead bodies stinking in the sun. "These people been fighting for twenty years. They don't know any other life. We do!"
"Do we?" Shoot scowled as he looked over the barrel of his machine gun. "Let the big dogs do what they want, they ain't gonna listen to this nigger...ain't nobody about to help me, but me. Ain't about it give'm the pleasure of see'n me cry or beg neither. Gonna do my tour'n dee-dee this hell hole. I only know I will kill Charlie before I let'm kill me. Y'wanna call that survival, go ahead, ain't no other purpose."
"Chit man, gives me the shakes," Gutcheck shuddered. "Next time might be me out there, chit, can't think about it, just think of Lheena. Her memory's only thing keeps me goin'."
I guess everybody was like me, doubtful and uncertain about who Lheena was...but we were all too tired to care...tired in body and soul! Nobody cared enough to ask who the hell Lheena was. There's a lot of things ambiguous about war. Lleena would just have to be one of them.
Shoot glared. "I can't start studyin' what happened here. What happened, happened, thass all! Shit happens! It ain't gonna change nothing if'n I beat myself up about it."
"But what if we all strike," I said, "throw down our rifles and say we can't come out to play their silly games? What if every man stands and says, 'No more.' What if they gave a war and nobody came? I mean, really, what're they gonna do? What the hell’re they gonna do?”
Mulenburg sat down on a C-rations box. "Won't do no good. Kill Charlie before't he kills you, that's the onliest way yer gonna get outta here...that's the only way't end this war...might even save your cotton-pickin' life."
"I hear that," Shoot said. "Ain't nobody prying this weapon outta my hands...not even when I'm cold an in the groun'. You talk about saving lives. I'm all for saving lives...my own...and not for some raggedy-ass rice paddy in the middle of the jungle, bought'n paid for with blood." The silence for one brief moment was heavy. "But I worry," said the big man. "Ah sees me in them body bags," Shoot snapped. "Ah cain't hardly handle it."
Then, we all heard it, distant at first. Chop-chop-chop-chop, then the noise got louder, a whole lot louder, then ear shattering. Through the dust storm Muley looked at the battlefield with a heavy sigh, and shrugging his shoulders, lowered his head and ran through the whipping dust beat up from the rotors.
Shoot gave a cussing grunt, threw his pack over one shoulder, and dejectedly walked for the doors dragging his M-60.
"Chit," Gutcheck said, and followed the footsteps of the big man.
Georgia and I were alone on the foxhole breastworks, staring at each other, staring at the yawning doors of the Huey. We could see Mulenburg, Shoot and Gutcheck staring out. We could see Captain Trenery look out the side door of another chopper, look at us questioning, then turn and growl something inside.
We stared at the ground, twisting designs in the dirt with the toes of our boots, then looked up at each other. "I guess it's true," I finally said, "into every life a little rain must fall, but this one's raining a damned raging cyclone. This is a deluge that washes out the damned bridges and makes your damned heart bleed."
At once we were moving together for the chopper. Before we knew it we were high in the sky, watching Hook become a distant and faded memory. It was a memory soon to be buried with all the other memories. Soon the fight seemed so far away, so distant, surreal almost, a mirage, a nightmare...something altogether unreal as the gauzy wisps of clouds we were bursting through. I looked at the sweaty faces, black with the dirt and the struggle, looking back at me. I saw the tired, tormented eyes, hollow and unseeing, tired of the blood, tired of the killing, hoping for peace but knowing they were not going to see it any anytime soon.
Oh yes, I remembered the fight. I'd never forget it! I had to remember! I owed it to my brothers who fell there. I had to remember for the rest of what I had left of life, or it would all seem in vain...and it can't be in vain! How could I forget the gory sights? The stamp of Nam would stay with me forever, I thought, indelibly imprinted on my retina. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, just for a moment. I was so tired, so tired. I was carried far away. I hummed softly, absent-mindedly, "I just wanna go home. I'm tired and I wanna go to bed...but they won't let me go!" Then in the black of my closed eyes I saw Egg's smiling face, Ottel’s chubby cheeks, the hatred in O’Neal’s eyes. They all started to shrivel, melting grotesquely, maniacally laughing, chuckling quietly, pointing and signaling with wrinkled, bony fingers for me to join them, erupting in fire that consumed everything. Everything was in flames, everything but the laughter. The laughter was all there was.
I woke screaming. I felt a knife edge plunging into my arm, and rolled away, coiled to attack, ready to come back and kill. The ravages of Hook played out and relived in an instant before my eyes, every blasted, dirty scene. But it was just Autrey’s cool hand on my arm as he slept. He recoiled as I burst to come at him with everything in me, but I was able to pull back my raging body before it was too late, to calm the storm and relax...moments from killing him...this time. "God, how many other times will I wake like this," I thought, agonizing.
"Jacob, it's all right, man. It's all right, man; you're having a nightmare." I looked into the hollow, understanding eyes in the grim faces of the gladiators beside me in the cage of the Huey flying us back to Betty, where we could lick our wounds, to await the call to arms for the next fight. My brothers understood the secret devils that raged within and roamed the nights. They understood the firestorm that would come at you when you slept. I couldn’t help wondering if anybody else could ever understand what my brothers did.
I turned away, silent. A darkened mood seemed to be flowing into my brain. It soon covered everything with desperation and anxiety. The days passed in the Nam, each same-same as the last. It didn't seem I could sleep anymore without a triple feature, and always, every night, I'd be fighting hand-to-hand in mortal combat, always with the deep, unrelenting fear I was about to die, fighting for my very life. "Why can't I just die?" I mumbled, but nobody heard me. "I'm afraid to sleep anymore. It would be so much easier if I could just die." Every night angry eyes thrust bayonets at me in the dark. I see them as I roll and toss in my poncho liner on ground still hot from the day. I see angry, red, killing eyes, red tracers of automatic weapons fire. My skin crawls with the redlining bullet tracers, like worms. I see the wide eyes of the Charlie I killed in hand-to-hand combat. I see his eyes bulging, as I strangle the life out of him...staring...staring. I feel his knife edge, sharp and cold against my skin. To save my sanity...to keep on going on, I try not to think about my brothers who died...but every night I see them again.
Pop, pop, pop, suddenly I'm torn from my dream. The air all around is exploding in white and black mushroom clouds thirty-feet out the Huey door. This time I was up where the volleys exploded all around me, watching them helplessly from only a few yards away, knowing somebody from below was still trying to kill me. But I was unfazed by it, umoved, uncaring as if it could not hurt me. Clanging shrapnel banged into the Huey, but the bursts were not close enough for penetration. I see blood, red blood, my blood. Then an explosion. I see yellow, white hot, red, the Fourth of July every night...then all disappearing but the red. It always ends that way. The red covers everything.
"Chit," Gutcheck looked at a torn, bloody sleeve, and picked out a shard of twisted, ugly metal. "I must have got wounded back there and didn’t even know it. Chit!"
"Only a surface wound," I said somberly, watching him fingering the ragged hole in his sleeve. "Doc can take care of it back at Betty...probably won't even get you a week's R and R."
"Not for this puny chit," he said, and started to toss the dark shrapnel out the door, till I stopped him.
"Might be good luck to hold onto the bullet with your name on it."