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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

This text, made available by the Sixties Project, is copyright (c) 1996 by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., or the author, all rights reserved. This text may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. This text may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is a collective of humanities scholars working together on the Internet to use electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.

The Rescue, Part II

Dan Barker

Another flare popped above us. To my right I could see a man laying prone, his hands were covering his ears, as if he could shut out the dangerous noise and the horrible world by not being able to hear it. The next think I saw was Sgt. Monk up on one knee, calling for a corpsman. Beside the sergeant lay a man curled into a fetal position, clutching his abdomen, his pain and anguish rippling through the night. The sergeant patted him on the shoulder, then picked up his carbine, aiming and firing it in the general direction of one of the Viet Cong who was firing at the still onrushing burst of men coming out of the tracks. Twenty-five feet away from them was another man firing his rifle in short bursts, conserving his ammunition. His feet looked strangely detached from his legs. He seemed remarkably calm, like the world had slowed down by half, and if that slowing was to be fatal there was no impeding it.

Somehow I reached Sgt. Monk, and the man clutching his own abdomen. "Good to see you, Doc," Sgt. Monk says, his voice slow and measured, and I'm wondering how he can still be alive as tall as he is and as erect as he is holding himself while the fire is coming at us from fifty feet away. "Keep down, there are only five of us holding this line," he says, and two Marines flop down beside us, taking the aim of his rifle as the direction in which to fire. While they fire their rifles into the dark, keeping the ambusher's heads down, I tend to the wounded man at the sergeant's knees. He's got a battle dressing over his stomach, and looking under it in the flare light I see the grey protrusion of intestine indicating a through and through gut wound, maybe the kidney has been taken out, maybe he got lucky and the bullet just entered the gut just below the apron of his flack jacket, bouncing off the pelvis, tearing up the intestine, but that can be fairly easily fixed by a competent surgeon, biggest immediate worry is peritonitis, getting him out of danger and into one of the tracks where he can stop worrying about getting shot while he's defenseless, so I tell one of the just arrived riflemen to scuttle back to the track and get a stretcher and get the man into the track, superseding Sgt. Monk's order to fire on the enemy, and the man scuttles off quickly, and before the sergeant can say anything, I've got a styrette into the man's arm, my hand is soothing his brow and I'm telling him that he is going to be all right the others will be here soon with a stretcher, no I can't give you any water, you're gut shot, here let me put some water on this battle dressing to cool the fire and so the tissues don't dry out, I'll catch up with you later, there are other men here to get you, take it easy, we'll be out of this shit before you know it. But I didn't know. I didn't know how many Viet Cong were over there, or how many were waiting after we killed the ones that had ambushed Wurtz's squad, there was only one thing to do and that was keep going and I'm moving off down the line toward the man with the strange feet. Looking up for a split second I can see Gunny Mead standing over by the lead track, directing men to take positions along the ragged line of wounded Marines, and I can still see or feel the Viet Cong also in a rough line across the field from us, the chaos and the yelling and screaming, the rifles firing confusing beyond description, but the force lines of the fight bringing Marines into the right places, the Viet Cong holding their own with incredible perseverance. I'm not the first man out on the line anymore, there are Marines passing behind me, heading to reinforce the men in the ambushed squad who are still capable of self defense. I don't know what I am supposed to do, I barely know what I'm doing, just moving through the fire zone trying to stay alive and keep the people who've been shot alive and mostly just moving toward the man with the strangely twisted feet.

When I get to him I find him being looked over by Bear, the machine-gunner, the man with the strangely twisted feet is his assistant gunner, and Bear is propped up on his elbows fitting the pieces of his machine-gun back together. He seems undisturbed, like there is nothing more important in the existence of creation than getting his gun back together, and there is no force in existence that can break his concentration. Blood scent and fear scent, cordite and gasoline, shit and urine, red soil and river much, tawny Vietnamese flesh, scents in flare light. Ten men on the line are firing now, shooting indiscriminately into the dark at the Viet Cong, keeping their heads down, maybe they'll get lucky, and there doesn't seem to be any urgency about killing the Viet Cong, only in getting the ambushed squad out of there, if enough Marines are shooting at the Viet Cong there would be little chance that any of us rescuers would be hit, or so goes the unstated tactic.

The assistant gunner is Morton, a friend of Dale's, and he recognizes me, saying, "Glad you could make it, Doc."

"Where are you hit?" I ask, still watching Bear put his M-60 together, still feeling the Viet Cong looking for a position from which to fire not fifty feet away from us. I can feel him crawling, towing his weapon behind him.

"I'm shot through both ankles."

"Bleeding much?"

"I'm all right," he says, calm and clear, almost glad, "bullets went right through. Can't walk, but I ain't bleeding."

I see two men reach Sgt. Monk with a stretcher, and yell at one of them to get over to us as soon as they can, letting them know our position, stupidly letting the Viet Cong know exactly where we were too, as if they didn't already know. Bear has the gun together by then, and he's putting the belt into the feeding mechanism, pulling back the slide, sighing like it's about fucking time, and I'm saying to Morton, "Let me get a dressing on those ankles."

"No point Doc," Morton says, kind of dreamy.

"Doc Wilson already get to you?" I ask.

"Naw, Gunner Bear got his kit, gave me a jolt already. I'm OK. You better get to LeFever, he's all fucked up." And I'm about to move off, and I lift my head for a second and not thirty feet away I see the tight muscular curl of a Vietnamese man untuck for a moment, lift his AK-47 to take aim at the three of us and I let out a scream as the tracers and bullets stream just over our heads. Bear ducks slightly, like he was impenetrable, like he could tell the trajectory of the bullets and knew even before the Viet Cong soldier fired that we would not be hit, and he pulls the M-60's slide back, the belt is started and without aiming triggers the gun, loosing a burst of bullets that hit the Viet Cong in the chest, blowing his upper body apart, killing him instantly, sending him flying back like he'd been hit by three huge fists, the force of the rounds entering his body rending him asunder. He doesn't even have time to scream.

Bear is still calm, and I don't have time to even see what has just happened, I must get on to LeFever, there are several Marines running up behind me, one of them catches up to me and asks me what to do next and I send him back for a stretcher to pick up Morton, and tell him to tell the other two to reinforce the machine-gun, I'm not even thinking, more just moving. Further down the line, near the tracks, a grenade explodes. Bursting crump. No screaming. A dozen men are running behind us now, and there are rounds being fired into their midst by the Viet Cong, but they are poorly aimed, as if they have come to sense that if they start shooting at us with deadly accuracy they will so infuriate us that we will neglect our wounded and hunt them down and kill them no matter how many of us it took, we'd blast their village, women and children, into nothingness, they were outnumbered and outgunned, the two tracks had four machine-guns between them, lights and mobility. If they dared back off the very air itself could suddenly fill with violent fire and steel. Sensible men would have given up the fight when they first saw the Amphtracks coming across the river, but not these Viet Cong. No. It was their women and children we'd dropped the mortars on, and we would pay. They were sticking, fighting to the death, but staying cautious and low, prescribing what death and maiming they intended us to absorb.

I can see LeFever's long lanky body laying still and pain wracked a few yards away, and feel the bullets going over my head and at the Marines running behind me, I scuttle over to him. The Marines behind me hit the deck, catch the flashes with their eyes and start firing, barely missing me. "Hold your fire!" I yell, my voice automatic, unthinking, the blood doing all the talking. But it works, and I hear a voice slightly hoarse and shamed say, "Sorry Doc."

LeFever was unconscious. The gunner said he'd taken a round in the leg, so he couldn't be dead, I thought, but checked for a pulse at the jugular just to be sure. Slow and thready, he was in shock, he stirred when I checked his body for wounds, flinching when my hand located the battle dressing the gunner had applied to his leg. The bullet had torn through the large muscle of his left thigh, but there was little blood, no arteries had been severed. No tourniquet needed. He was out, I only had one and one-half styrettes left, the corpsmen on the tracks could dose him if he came around, there was nothing more I could do for him but get the Marines behind us to come to his aid, to protect him, the Viet Cong were readying themselves to fire on us again, I could feel them moving behind their grassy mounds in front of us, taking position. There were still two more clumps of men I had to get to.

Another flare washed the field in stark white light. In my peripheral vision I can still see Gunny Mead directing the operation from his position beside the Amphtrack, the twin .30s are putting out sporadic fire to keep the Viet Cong's heads down, Marines are still running to take up protective positions beside the wounded men, and I can see men heading with stretchers toward LeFever and Morton is being carried back to the tracks. Sgt. Monk is still kneeling beside the man with his intestines hanging out, Monk is firing into the grassy mounds. Several Marines on the line are firing, single shots, unsure, firing to make the horrible thing stop.

I could also see several Viet Cong crawling into positions behind the mounds, towing their rifles by the slings, sliding over the grass like serpents, like vicious black mouths about to eat us. But I was so intent on getting to the next men who might need me that the thought of getting out my pistol to shoot them simply did not occur. Some prescient personnel officer had me pegged, oldest son of a broken home looking for God, and while I was aware that men around me were being killed and wounded, that I was in profound danger, that we all were in profound danger of losing our lives or being maimed, my killer instinct was not awake, the others would make the Viet Cong stop, they had to, we had to get these men to medical help, they had rifles and grenades, it was their job. I had my own work to do. I could trust them. I moved on to the next two men, both were lying prone, scoping the mounds, waiting for movement before they fired.

"Either of you hit?" I asked, seeing the tension in their bodies as a sign that they were still intact, still whole and worried, defending themselves, tied into each of us, knowing the Viet Cong only as the enemy to be stopped and killed, as the enemy who had done this outrageously horrible thing of ambushing them in the heaving dark, shooting them without warning, killing them without the courtesy of honor, vile and loathsome, deserving death. But that cut both ways. Only one thing to do in a firefight and that is to stay alive.

"We're OK. You better check Washington. He took a hit, he's over there somewhere," was all the information they had for me, enough to get me moving toward the moaning sounds coming from thirty feet away, the supine form of his body trying to lay as still as he could so the pain would cease. It was my friend Washington who thought I was crazy but followed me with his rifle after the Viet Cong kid who later sniped us, ready to defend me. But it didn't really matter if I knew him. He was a man down, the complete and utter purpose of my being. I felt a few rounds fly overhead, heard the pops of an SKS, heard the two men I just left open up with their M-14s. I ran my hands over his body, he was still conscious, checking for broken bones, bullet holes, cold where the blood no longer flowed, hot and sticky where it did. His respiration was labored, his pulse strong and regular, his eyes in the flare light beseeching, those of a child both terrified and angry, something horrible had inflicted this terrible pain in him that stopped him from moving, from even defending himself, making him lie still on top of the hole in his hip that he didn't want to explore with his fingers, he didn't want to know how much damage was done, that if he moved the pain would explode through his nerves like yellow lightening.

I could see where the blood had crusted in a jagged blotch on his hip, showing blacking green in the flarelight. I touched his hip, and he winced, moaning low and saying, "Not there, man, don't touch me."

"Gotta get in there, man, gotta see it, gotta know," I said, deciding to use my next to last Morphine, his breathing was OK, the pain rippling through him in waves. I jabbed the needle through the sleeve of his fatigue jacket squeezing the tube empty, talking to him, telling him it was going to be OK, that the men with the stretchers would be here any second to take him away, don't worry, nothing more bad will happen to you, making promises I couldn't keep, the grunts didn't call us witchdoctors for nothing. I don't know if he was even aware that we had come to rescue him in the tracks. When the Morphine took hold, I rolled him over on his back.

Then I found the hole where the bullet had entered, and with two fingers, tore open the fabric of his trousers. In the stark shadows I could see a neat hole filled with torn tissue and bruise blue blood. Simply touching around the wound sent the man into a spasm of excruciating pain. Under my fingers I could feel the fragments of bone move. The bullet had smashed into his iliac arch and was lodged there, hard and stubby.

"You're gonna be all right, man. That ain't sh. Hurts like a mutherfucker, but it ain't gonna kill you. Home, baby, home to the World for you."

I stuck a battle dressing over the hole, telling Washington to hold it in place, there was nowhere to tie it to, and yelled to the men next to us to get the word to the men in the tracks that we had a wounded man here, need a stretcher, get moving. I get to my knees to start moving off, remembering that someone along the line of the wounded had told me that the lieutenant was somewhere in back of us, badly wounded, maybe dead, and I had to get to him next.

Something sharp whipped past my ear, then two more. I know they are bullets but there is nothing I can do about them. I'm moving toward the lieutenant, there is nothing that can stop me and therefore I can ignore the bullets. I hear the rifle fire coming at me, and turning toward the rifle flashes, eyes drawn to danger, drawn to light, I see a Vietnamese man less than twenty feet away. His face is contorted into a mask of profound anguish. The muscles of his arms stand out bunched and taut, and his aiming eye is focused on me, I can feel it see me. He was ignoring Washington, I was moving, Washington was already down and gone. I can see the Viet Cong's finger tightening on the trigger of the old M-1, the muscles of his arms and shoulders contracting to pull the trigger and I know he is going to kill me but there isn't anything I can do about it, there isn't even enough time to duck or dive away. I am going to be dead in the next split second. I can already feel the great black emptiness getting ready to swallow me. I can feel the hint of unutterable peace. It doesn't matter if I am a good man or a bad man, a good Doc or a vile enemy. I will simply end. I see the Viet Cong's face explode. Two more bullets smash into him while I'm seeing him come apart in pieces. Then I see the bright yellow-white rifle flashes register in the air just past my left field of vision, and feel the Marine who is rushing toward my left side. He is going down on one knee and firing again. I am not dead.

It was Wilks.

"You better learn to keep your head down, Doc," he said. He was smiling. "These people ain't fucking around." And he is happy, looking at the product of his work in the fading flare light, seeing the black blood smashed clump of man flesh totally inert. "Fuck man," I said, not fully understanding what I'd just seen, the readiness to die still coursing through my brain. Wilks' posture is solid, carved out of absolute flesh, he is inviolate, pure, the supreme ruler of his piece of ground. "You better check the lieutenant, Doc, he's back behind us," Wilks commands. Other voices were still shouting orders, some directing the fire, but none were calling for help. I was almost done.

"That's where I was headed."

"Get going, your ass is covered," Wilks said, and I move off again, more bullets snapping past my head, several Marines returning fire. But I feel protected, like nothing horrible can happen to me. A grenade detonated behind me in a burst of white light. A piece of shrapnel seared into my left arm. I kept moving, ignoring the pain, maybe not even knowing that I was hit, not caring, just keep moving, if you are moving and working you are alive, forgetting that I'm hit until the metal works out eleven years later burnished smooth as a streamstone by my blood. Moving toward the dark shape that is laying still as death behind the ragged line of men I'd just left, moving toward the an so motionless, so devoid of divine presence, a kind of blackness seeming to hover over him.

Even as still as he was the thought that he might be dead refused to enter my mind. He was apart from the fight, his face relaxed, his eyes rolled up into their sockets and showing the whites. His web belt was on backwards, the gunner had already been to him and dressed one of his wounds with his battle dressing. I felt under the flack jacket for the thick wet of blood on the body cavity, but found none. He was so still though, his body temperature was dropping, he was closing in on death, the wounds had to be in the legs like the wounds of the others, the flak jackets were worth their weight in diamonds.

A Marine flopped down beside me while I was palpating the lieutenant's legs, feeling the give in his left femur where a bullet had cracked it.

"Sorry to bother you, Doc," the Marine said. He was so polite. A bone fragment jagged out of Wurtz's right calf. The gunner had used his own battle dressing to cover the wound, remarkable sacrifice, the lieutenant must have been the first man he'd reached, but the dressing was slipping off. Another battle dressing had been applied to Wurtz's upper right hip, that bandage taken from Doc Wilson's kit.

"They're out of Morphine back at the tracks. Sent me to get some from you," the Marine said, his voice is soft and consoling, like being gentle would alter the mood of the violent air. I felt for the lieutenant's pulse, slow, thready, I had to dig deep under his jaw to feel it.

"Lieutenant here sure don't need it," I said, reaching in my kit and handing him my last styrette, saying send some people back with a stretcher. And the Marine took it back to the tracks, even though there were bullets aimed at him, he was running as fast as he could to help ease the pain of the other men; guts, love, a brave act by a loving man.

The firing was slowing, though, not hearing the rifles shooting, not hearing any more grenades, I felt like I had a few moments to work on the lieutenant, he was hurt bad. But I didn't have the slightest clue as to what to do next, except try to make him comfortable even though he was near death and unconscious. Talk about refusing to accept present reality, about not having the mental capacity to understand what I was seeing. I was reverting to hospital care procedures. I tried to cut his web hear away with my bandage scissors, make his breathing easier, but they were too dull.

Two more Marines showed up dragging a stretcher. They'd crawled over to us on their knees. "Glad you're here," I said. "Lieutenant here's got five wounds in his legs, he's got compound fractures. I'm amazed he's still alive. We gotta get him to the tracks and get him back to Regiment, or he's gonna die," I said, and we settle the stretcher beside his prone limp body. There is a large spreading scab of blood seeping below his right leg. I take off his belt and put it around his leg up near the hip and cinch it tight, even though the seep is slowed, his heart not pumping much.

"Easy now," I say to the Marines, but we all know what to do, and how to do it, it's in our brain and flesh. And we carefully lift the lieutenant onto the stretcher in the dark, me cradling his legs against further trauma, trying to keep the compound fractures, the bone sharp, from cutting further into his skin and muscle and blood vessels. Then the two men take off, hauling the lieutenant toward the tracks with me holding his fractured legs between the splints of my arms until they get to the tracks and they take him inside.

Gunny Mead is shouting, "Let's go, people, let's go, get in the tracks, get it moving!" But the men holding the line have already broken off the fight and have started peeling back toward the tracks, the Viet Cong have stopped firing, the men are crouched low and facing into the mounds, a few of them shooting at the mounds just in case.

Inside the tracks I can hear the moaning soft sobbing of men wounded and laying on stretchers, and the murmurings of men bending over them in the dark, soothing them until the rest of the men can be loaded aboard and the hatches closed and the lights turned on so they can see to help them further. To get them back into the comfort of the light.

And the Marines are coming in now, crouching low, backing into the tracks, some of them still firing into the dark, but the floors of both vehicles are full of men on stretchers so they have to climb up on top, and finally the engines start.

But the count is wrong. Two men are missing. Morton and S/Sgt. Monk are still out there, and two troopers are immediately dispatched to go out and get them but there are no more stretchers and someone asks me what to do. No time to devise something, there was no telling how soon the Viet Cong were going to regroup or even if they were, or if any of them were still left. I know I saw two of them killed, I don't know how many others were killed by the other men in the ambushed squad or by the rescue platoon, maybe three, maybe ten, maybe a whole platoon, we'd never know. And I remember the cot that the Amphtrack driver slept on tucked behind his seat, and I say take that. So they do, and I can see their dark forms take the cot out to Morton and Sgt. Monk, and Monk never relaxes his vigil over his man even to help load him on the stretcher, he is absolutely dedicated to protecting his trooper, he is in love with life and his man, and they all four come back, taking Morton into the track. The ramps close, the lights coming on before they are completely closed, but there is no more firing. And the rest of us climb up on the to of the lumbering machines, and it is done. All but the leaving.

"The Rescue" is a chapter excerpted from Dan Barker's Viet Nam war novel, Warrior of the Heart.

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