August 14, 1968–Pleiku, Vietnam–the Lowlands
As I awaken this morning, I remember last night’s sultry air seemed denser than usual; the ominous raindrops fell on our plastic ponchos forming our tent, (the rain, always tepid, never just falls, it seems to wrap around us), closing in the tiny space and providing no exit. If I crawled out of this little prison, the threatening, pitch blackness and solemn quietude (except for the rain) would push me back inside. While unable to sleep, I glanced at Wade; his restless slumber was accented by tense muscles forming lines at his eyes and mouth. I knew he must also be apprehensive of our daily unknown destinations. Filled with burdened thoughts I curled up on my air mattress waiting for sleep to lighten the blackness; tiny streams of rain trickled from between the poncho’s snappers, forming puddles that ran into my boot.
Wade had already left our tent and as I get up I see the sun is intensifying, trying to penetrate the dense, grayness surrounding our camp. Next door a small Vietnamese village, thought to be a VC stronghold, is surrounded with green rice paddies, Bamboo trees and grass huts. It is hard to imagine the village inhabitants (Montagnards or Mountain People) are supporting the VC. As I gaze at them working in the rice fields, I can not believe they would freely hide our enemy; someone who could kill me at any time.
Today, I’ll quickly have a can of tasteless, compressed turkey, biscuit and bitter instant coffee, next Wade and I will tear down our tent and help break apart the squad’s bunker; then I’ll dry and oil my M-16, check the battery in the radio, repack the back-pack, grab everything, and get into formation, (our routine is never broken). One person from our squad will be selected as the point man, the rest of us will follow; walking toward today’s unknown destination.
Angelo, a close buddy, calls hello as I join my squad. He says hello rather than good morning; “good” mornings were left back home. A moment later Squad Sergeant Anderson tells Angelo he must pull point, (unfounded guilt rises in me, I carry the platoons radio and never pull point, yet Angelo never expects me to; he knows the radio operator can be as much a target as the point)–walking away he looks over his shoulder, shrugs and says, “Let’s go, all I want is to sleep tonight,”–picks up his helmet and places it haphazardly over a head of wavy, coal black hair. Smiling back at him, I hope his wish comes true.
An hour later the early sun is hidden by the forest’s massive canopy; one by one we follow Angelo hearing the crisp slice of his machete as it cuts through vines and branches. Each of my steps sends my boots further into the shifting, moist earth covered with fallen leaves and moss, smelling of decay: human, animal and vegetable, making me feel like I am in a doorless tomb.
Pop-zing, Pop-zing–I don’t respond, then realize we are being fired upon and quickly drop to the ground–my helmet falls from my head; I desperately reach for the red plastic protective tip on the barrel of my M-16, (Stupid, I’m just plain stupid to cover the tip of the barrel with a plastic cap to keep out the mud). The first round passes through the barrel of the rifle and melts the red plastic tip; I watch in frightened fascination as gooey plastic falls to the ground. The gunfire cracking through the air, pierces my stupor and reality returns. Spectacular bursts of gold, red and blue flash in the trees before me. Between the bursts I look for faces, but none are seen, yet I know they are dangerously close.
I keep the radio receiver close to my ear so that I can hear incoming messages. The Captain is calling for an air strike, (when we are trapped we call the air strike our salvation)! The bursts of gold, red and blue become more intense; everyone around me is yelling, so far everyone is okay. Angelo, still in the point position is followed by Don and Wade. Following me is Sergeant Anderson. I try not to think and tell myself to fire my rifle and listen to the radio, yet a prayer keeps slipping into my mind….”Dear God, help me through this!”
Suddenly I feel an unexpected weight on me and yell “Sarge, get off my butt–move it damn it!” He doesn’t move and I decide to turn and push him off. As I turn, I see on the ground a white bone in a pool of red blood, his arm hangs lifelessly at his side without the elbow, his eyes blankly stare at me and I realize he is dead. Selfishly I panic for a moment when I realize I am alone to deal with the incoming radio messages, rather than being able to rely on Sergeant Anderson for the details.
The first volley from the air strike arrives to far away, filling the air with iridescent red sulphur gas. The damn gold, red, and blue bursts of VC fire continue. Then my radio demands my attention with the Captain calling me from the Command Post , I respond–“This is Alpha Bravo, the air strike is too far away–200 meters to far–you fucking gotta bring it in closer..do you copy?”…….As I await his answer, another explosion bursts in the distance and echoes over the radio; I know it isn’t the sound from one of our Bazooka’s; the echoed sound of the explosion and the quiet radio tells me the command post has been hit. I call once more for a reply, “Alpha, Alpha Command, this is Alpha Bravo–Do you read me?” Alpha Command do you Read?”
A moment later the radio’s infamous squelch is followed by, “Alpha Bravo, this is Yankee Clipper–the Alpha Command has been hit, we need your coordinates for our next round of fire, Do you Copy?” Wade, Don and I confer before I radio our exact location to the Yankee Clipper. The pilot responds, “Alpha Bravo, this is Yankee Clipper, you gotta be kidding—we’ll use our own coordinates to volley the next two rounds!”
During the past twenty eight years, Yankee Clipper’s message has disturbingly echoed in my thoughts. I continually have questioned why the crew of the Yankee Clipper did not believe our location. I remember screaming our location was correct; moments later as I heard ear shattering bombs bursting and throwing shards of metal, trunks of trees, and swirling clumps of earth around us, I knew Hell must be more pleasant. Fear gripped my soul, the sickening odor of nitrites filled my nose, my eyes burned from smoke and dirt; and my heart begged for mercy. I remember suddenly feeling that if I was to survive I had to become a part of the jungle floor. While I attempted to merge by body with the ground I was also desperately calling the Yankee Clippper to stop. Now as I look back, I am sure the crew of the Yankee Clipper felt they were not in error, yet that day I was in shocked disbelief. During the second volley I had turned my head left as I heard the whiz of shrapnel fly overhead. Angelo had been thrown by the volley and was now lying face down beside me–I only remember seeing his wavy, coal black hair on a ravaged body, a picture that still bothers me today–the ragged, deep edges of the wound and the unrecognizable muscles leading to his organs were bloodless, forming abstract patterns over his skeleton.
I recall the following moment was uncannily quiet, to be broken by Wade’s piercing, painful cry for help; a sentinel marking the moment I realized my friends were dead or near death’s door. I am sure it was this realization that let my tears well-up in my eyes and then dry before they reached my cheek. During that fleeting moment I understood for the first time how fragile life is. Even though I was very young I questioned how life could be cut short for some, while others are able to flourish.
By the afternoon we thought our crisis had passed, but we were to find out disaster would return, even more morbidly than it had in the morning. The Med-i-Vac choppers hovered over the desecrated jungle, we survivors and the Med-i-Vac team carefully wrapped Angelo and the other dead in the sinister black bags and placed the wounded on stretchers. Both were then tied into metal baskets attached to the ropes hanging from the helicopters. As six choppers raised twelve baskets over our heads the VC opened fire on the baskets. I remember falling to my knees as I realized they were attacking our dead and wounded, letting us watch in surprised terror…..this time tears began to run freely down my cheeks. Wade was one of those in the baskets; halfway to the chopper I saw an arm fall out of the basket. As I kneeled on the ground crying I prayed he was still alive. Today I still pray he was not hit.
By the time dusk arrived there were six survivors out of a company of one hundred fifty. A relief company had been sent in to secure the area. Even with the relief company’s arrival we did not feel safe. We six survivors huddled next to each other in a darkened tent, not feeling a part of a company or even part of a caring society. Today I feel much the same as I did that night, questioning how our destinies are decided and seeing life as a collection of accidental happenings. I am still as skeptical as I was that night if any one can imagine the torment we felt. I know Angelo and the others would not question why we survived, and if, by chance I had died I would not have questioned that they had lived. Yet, it is still difficult for me to explain why grieving parents must question why it was their son that had to die.
If the other five survivors have been like me their stories have never been told. Now, I think it is time to close the chapter by sharing the tragic irony with you. During our next months, while we waited to finish our tour in Vietnam, we realized the Viet Cong wasn’t our only enemy. Today I firmly believe our survival was determined by the sequence of life’s accidental happenings.