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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 I

Dan A. Barker

I'd lay in my bunker at night, staring up through the torn poncho roof into air dense with the sulphur scent of illumination rounds, and listen to the men settling into their night defensive positions, having one last cigarette hiding in the bowl of a helmet, getting quieter, turning the squelch knob down on the Prick-10, putting a round in the chamber. And out beyond the wire the lamps in the villages would grow dim until there was only shadow black in black, the stucco ruin ghosty grey in starlight residue. The insects and centipedes would start moving around then, the mosquitoes and fire ants, and I'd hear their crisp metallic chirps among the slithers of habu and kraits, cobras and bamboo snakes. Night was when the mongeese and the V.C. hunted.

Despite my magic, the war was getting worse, whether I was able to realize it or not. The radio crackles and the urgent grasping voices from on top of the hill would sound well into the night. More and more frequently the sudden jolting snaps of rifle fire would unleash the fears, were they coming this way? how far? ours? ARVN's? how many? another trooper trips over his dick? can they handle it, will we have to go? to the tighten-up boys, he's out there for sure, you bet your life. Just because the hill had never been assaulted in force didn't mean that the N.V.A. didn't have such plans for it. We'd been seeing them more and more, too, reports that some other outfit had killed two or three in full uniform; pith helmets, gold star buckles, AK-47s. And we'd even seen some of our own troopers carrying the spoils of fire fights, scowls of envy, not even the officers could dare to claim weapons won in battle from men so dangerously serious.

And as many patrols as Lt. Wurtz had personally gone out on, and as many times as he had sent his platoon out on ambush, not once had he killed a Viet Cong, or been shot or blown up. The enemy were all around us, but he was charmed, fated it seemed, to never enter into the supreme conflict, to test himself against the death that the enemy was ready to bestow upon him. He would volunteer for every mission the C.O. would assign. His was the hardest working platoon in the company, he was out to get his reputation, to get some blood on his soul, and his men were his tools toward that end.

Wurtz was determined, well schooled and well-trained, blond, fit, with blue eyes that were constantly searching for the advantages of terrain. He was always ready, like his blood ran pure adrenalin. Even in the hottest parts of the days of patrol, he'd never even take off his pack, his stamina a constant intimidation to his men. I was up on the hill visiting my friend jim, the company radio man, when I heard Lt. Wurtz talking to the Skipper.

"We gotta get over across the river if we're gonna get some kills, Captain," Wurtz said, like he was convincing a priest to do a bank job. "And I don't mean any daylight patrols when they can see us coming and sky out. I mean, a night assault. Catch those dink mutherfuckers with their pants down."

The Captain was cautious. The men didn't like moving around at night. They sandbagged the ambushes, he knew, but they were out there to serve as warnings if the enemy ever decided to mass an attack. Indian Country was a different story, though. Across the river was indisputably theirs, they told us so every time we went over there, and this last fiasco with the wounded women was a further reminder that Charlie had the high ground. The red dots on his maps said, so, Christ, the red dots on the maps said they were everywhere!

"Of course, you're right, lieutenant, but I don't think so. Be patient, they'll come to us, you watch," the captain said, showing receding gums with a reassuring smile. But Lt. Wurtz wasn't satisfied. The point of being a Marine officer was to charge the hill, to go where angels fear, to tread on the wily little yellow fuckers, to go out looking for it as long as there was one atom of strength left in one fiber of muscle. In the crackle and hiss of the radios, in the light of the dial monitors and the radium watches, he persisted.

"We ain't been getting shit, Skipper. These chickenshit assholes sandbag the night ops. We haven't even seen a V.C. on this side of the river for weeks. Regiment wants bodies, Skipper. I mean to get them some."

Sensing his lieutenant's irresistible drive, his commitment to duty, to the good of the Corps, his willingness to relinquish any credit for kills to the reputation of the company, the C.O. humored him.

"And just how are you going to do what we've been unable to do?" he asked.

Wurtz was ready for his challenge. "A night op. We'll get some rubber boats, sneak across the river, set up an ambush right outside the village, and cream their asses."

"We don't have any rubber boats, Wurtz. Rubber fucking boats."

Ridicule was OK, it wasn't no. Valiant action, dreams, Sneaky Pete in the dangerous dark, kill the evil fuckers and steal their women, the Captain was a man, after all. "Another diversionary maneuver, then. Choppers over, we'll lay chilly for a day, and work up on them at night."

"Can't do that. We're spread thin, lieutenant. We're down to almost half strength , as you oughta know. Besides, we send you over there in a helicopter it'll be like you wearing a neon sign that says 'shoot me.' I'm glad you're gungy, but there's no reason to be stupid."

It still wasn't no. Yes was closer, and good men got what they wanted. "You know, and I know, they are over there. Only way we are going to get them to engage is to go over there and force them."

The Captain wasn't listening anymore. His mind had slipped into commando fantasy, and he was stroking across the Song De in a rubber boat, knife in his teeth, eyes that could cut down trees.

"So, what is your plan?" he said, exasperated, like he was granting his brash lieutenant a huge huss and he would be expecting repayment.

It still wasn't yes, but Wurtz could feel the approval of his daring warming in the Captain, knowing the keen weight placed on aggression. Nothing was more highly prized than the willing courage to engage and kill the enemy. Even if it went bad and got people killed. The Captain couldn't say no. All he needed was a workable plan.

"Well, we sure as hell can't wade the fucker. We go down to where Charlie crosses, he'll be waiting for us, for sure. We'll take some tracks over. We'll jump out just as they come up on the bank and slow down, lights off, then the tracks will go on further downstream, and we'll already be in place. Slick." His voice was a zealous whisper, the moments of setting up the ambush and readying the men, and squeezing off the death forming in his mind as certain and solid as a stone, the thrill like a crystal seizing his blood. The muscles at the sinuses tighten, the kidneys switch from urine to adrenalin, you couldn't bleed if your own daughter needed a quart. And, just at the moment of decision, Battalion called for a situation report, distracting the Captain. Taking the handset from Jim, he looked sternly at the brave young lieutenant and said, "Just a squad, Wurtz. No point in squandering men."

And that was all the permission Lt. Wurtz needed. He had difficulty not running down the hill to his platoon's portion of the perimeter, instead, striding purposefully and smiling.

Seeing him coming one of his men said to another, "Better watch it, Wurtz has a hair up his ass."

"I wonder what we volunteered for this time? Anderson's platoon has the ambush tonight."

"That fucker looks dangerous. I'll bet we're going someplace special."

"I don't want to go no place special. We're short, man. That lifer mutherfucker can't do no shit to us."

"I wanna go home. I wanna go home. Oh Lord I wanna go home," another man sang.

Most of the platoon had been sitting on top of their bunkers, silently looking out into the gathering dark, but gravitated toward Wurtz by habit and attraction to his zeal. When he had their attention, he looked at each of them, saying, "We're going across the river."

"Tonight?" a man asked, stricken by the idea of wandering around in Indian Country at night.

"Right now." Wurtz said, tolerating no further questions. "This is a strictly volunteer mission. First squad, you just volunteered."

"Oh, thank you, Lieutenant," a lance corporal mocked.

"Knock off the shit," Wurtz replied. This was not a discussion. Lives depended on the men getting his word.

"We will get into one of the tracks, cross the river, and get out just as we come up on the bank. The track will proceed further down the bank on the other side, then come back. The gooks will be watching it, not us. We'll move on in toward the village, set up an ambush, and nail whoever goes out to take on the track. Now get your gear together, no noise, no smoking, be ready to saddle up in five minutes. We are going to kick some ass tonight. No doubt about it. Doc Wilson, you stick with the sergeant. I'll take the lead." End of message.

Wurtz didn't wait for assent, but moved further down the road to make the arrangements with the track driver. First squad was complaining, "That dipshit is gonna get us greased, man, I can feel it."

"He's got his commando bullshit going again. Swear to God he shoulda gone re-con."

"What are you people bitching about. Isn't this why you came? We're just gonna go for a little moonlight walk and grease some gooks, no big thing, no sweat. Be home for a midnight snack," the sergeant chides. But for his bravado everyone knew he was just a talker; he'd never killed a bunch of gooks on an ambush. None of them had.

"I got a bad feeling about this one," the machine-gunner admitted. He was a big, powerful Cherokee who seldom spoke. His admitting to a premonition was an omen, a good reason not to go. But he had his machine-gun and his orders and there was no possibility of refusal.

The nine men met the lieutenant in front of the Amphtrack. There was the gunner, Bear, and his 'A' gunner, the M-79 man, the young black corpsman, Wilson, and five riflemen, counting S/Sgt. Monk.

"They are going to step in it tonight, you watch," someone watching them assemble prophesied. Someone else said, "This is the dumbest dumbshit thing I ever heard of. Don't that fool know who is over there?'

"He's mad because they won't come out and play."

"Anderson did that shit to us, I'd leave him there all alone," someone else said, but all the grumbling in creation couldn't change Wurtz's mind. He did know what was over there. He was possessed of the invincibility of immortal youth. He was Marine Corps officer, as good as any ten gooks. He was a leader of men, a scion of a rich family and it was his genetic destiny to perform the national duty of conducting his part of the war with inviolate pride.

The patient men waiting in the dark for him and his squad suffered no such illusions.

The dozen Marines loaded into the track, and the huge green vehicle rumbled down the hill and through the wire. We heard the track's engine noise fade into the night, and we waited, smoking in the dark.

An hour passed before we heard the track returning.

"I guess they made it over, all right," a man said, his friend answering, "Don't mean shit. If I was mister dink, I'd pick 'em off on their way to town. I mean, it ain't like there is anywhere else for them to go over there. There's the hills, the paddies, the path and the ville. Now just where would you expect a bunch of Marines to go?"

The track roared up the road, spun on one tread and parked. We went over to ask the driver how it had gone, and he said it was no sweat. A few rifle shots sounded down by Iron Bridge, none of our concern. Another hour passed. I went inside my bunker so I could smoke and register the sense of Wurtz's patrol. I didn't know the men very well, but they were friends who would die for me, and I for them. Wurtz's stupidity didn't disrupt the fact that the squad was part of us, and some intuitive connective tissue was tracking them. Something horrible was going to happen. It was preordained by the structure of our lives, our being in that place at that time. We went looking for it. It was going to find us, and Wurtz was looking hardest of all.

We were safe inside the wire, and I was safer inside my bunker, and they were out there, across the river, in the breathing dark bristling with menace, walking through country that was pure trap.

First there was a short burst of AK-47 fire, the reports sounding to us through the dense air from across the rivermaybe a click up from the village. For a second in the pause just after the firing I think, no, not ours, but the burst is too short to have done much damage, their guys get nervous too, hope nothing bad has happened. It can't be bad, the tracks haven't even been back ten minutes.

But the pause only lasts a couple of seconds. Four more rifles start firing simultaneously, the AK has signaled them to start the ambush and there are four, five, maybe six rifles firing, some on automatic, some single shot, the firing lasts for at least an excruciating minute, it is one-sided, different weapons, theirs. It's too far away to hear human voices screaming but I feel them in my heart. There is another longer pause, then several M-14s open up on automatic, but it's only three or four men firing, the sound feels desperate, unaimed, terrified. But it is enough to keep the V.C. quiet for several minutes. I am waiting to hear more firing, more firing would mean that some of them were still alive, that they hadn't all been killed our wounded to stillness, though silence could mean that the V.C. broke off the ambush and left Wurtz's squad to bleed and die.

Part of me is insisting that nothing bad has happened, that it was all just a big mistake, that even men as angry and dedicated as the Viet Cong would not be so murderously bold as to kill Marines in an ambush, especially an ambush of men I knew, I'm taking it personally, ego and self tied by love and paranoia to every man around me, including the V.C., to ambush Marines invited massive retaliation, napalm, mini-guns, helicopter gunships swooping out of the night sky, freezing your eyes in a halogen spotlight while the 20mm cannon blew your body apart, how the little yellow fuckers with their small arms could hope to withstand such onslaught bewildered me, such guts to get in close and kill us straight on from fifty feet away, the willingness to take on overwhelming odds, two to one, three to one, ten to one, to almost certainly die behind their courage, was so stunning in itself that to go against them was both enormously courageous and like killing your own noble reflection. The difference between ground pounders and flyboys is how intimately you know your enemy.

But it was night, there were no gunships in the air, the firing was close in, there would be no rescue from the air. In the pause between firings the men on the hilltop were screaming orders. The mortar pit launched several illumination rounds, and as they lit over the ambush site, more firing came from both sides. The fire is sporadic, aimed, they've got each other in their sights, there is more firing from the M-14s, desperate, urgent, each trigger squeeze feeling like a little boy calling help me. The AKs and the SKSs felt like enraged punches to the mouth that drove your brain into the ground, splintered teeth and skull, the last knowing moments, sky and vengeance.

As soon as I heard the fire I was out of the bunker, bolting into the dark like the rest of the men in my platoon perimeter, hearing the gunshots, lighting up pensively, automatically putting on web gear and flack jackets, getting ready, the motions more dictated by unity with our brethren than expecting orders. A runner came down the hill, moving fast, followed by the X.O., Gunny Mead and the company corpsman, HM-3 Broad. By the time the X.O. and the Gunny reached us, Lt. Anderson had already passed the word for the platoon to saddle-up.

Seeing the three of them I was expecting the senior corpsman to go along with us. It was clear that we were going to load onto the tracks and cross the river and get the men who'd stepped into the ambush, it was our duty, our singular and unit obligation. If we would leave no dead for the enemy to mutilate, we would more certainly risk and spend our lives to save the wounded and the living. But Broad came up to me as I was heading over to the waiting gape of the tracks, stopping me, saying, "This is a volunteer job, Doc, you don't have to go."

And for a second I felt enormously relieved, I didn't have to go, I knew that we were about to enter into extreme danger, the firing had not stopped, and I didn't have to go if I could find the flimsiest excuse not to. I could leave it to the other corpsmen, saying it's too late, I should stick around in case we were about to be overrun, it was another platoon, there was no loyalty bond, my back hurt, I had a sprained ankle. "I'm staying here to coordinate the medevac," Broad said, effectively cutting off any decision that gunfire might have inspired in me.

"I'm on my way, man, who else is coming?" I said. Scared down to your bones, so what, you are those men suffering out in the dark, you will go, there was never any real question about it.

"I knew you'd say that. That's what I already told the C.O. You, Corry, and Bob Planter. They'll stay in the tracks. You go out and do triage. Good luck, man," and he gave my flack jacket a pat like I was going out to win one for the Gipper, but I didn't feel like I was going out to play some silly game. I'd won the honor of being just like the Marines, about to go out and throw myself in front of machine-gun fire. One her, hardly; dozens and dozens.

Approaching the waiting tracks, I asked some sergeant, "What's happening?" Verbal tic, getting a reply that summed up the Marine Corps approach to disseminating pertinent information. With as much cool as he could muster the sergeant said, "Squad stepped in the shit, we're gonna go get 'em." Like we were about to go get some groceries. Obedience means action without understanding, like you don't have the right to expect to come out of it alive.

Everyone wanted to ride on top of the tracks, a way to hold the high ground, to shoot from a moving platform. But the sergeants insisted that we all ride in the belly of the beasts, mouths shut, weapons on safety, no smoking, no information. It was an urgent matter at hand, even if few of us understood completely what awaited us, so there was little of the usual grousing.

Clamor of gear and boots on steel floors, the ramps winding shut, engines thrumming, we're loaded in the tracks and the tracks are rattling down the road, sharp left turn, further down the road, then out across the dry paddies, heaving humps over the dikes, then into the green silt-laden ooze of the river. Inside, we are defenseless, incapable of action, disconnected from our sacred earth, sitting ducks to a rocket or a big mine. Muscles and imaginations are tightening. Everyone has a different version of the story, no one in charge has deemed to tell us what has happened. Maybe Wurtz's squad was ambushed, maybe they sprung an ambush and had one backfire on them, maybe there were wounded, maybe there were wounded and dead, maybe they were all dead and the Viet Cong were just sitting over there in huge numbers waiting to slaughter us as we ran out the doors, just like the Japs. Everyone has different expectations of what will happen once we get there, and what is expected of them. It will be up to each man to figure out what they are supposed to do once the tracks stop and the ramps open and we go rushing out, into what, no one is saying.

We're in the wash of the river, water churning under the spinning tracks, the walls of the compartment cooling and condensing our rapid breathing, no longer faces of boys looking frightened, but the faces of reconciled men, just as frightened but absolutely resolute. When the ramp came down we would be out the door, no sergeant would have to kick our asses. The only way to defeat the enemy was to kill him first.

Another sudden lurch up the river bank and we're in Indian Country,mud and silt churning out from under the tracks, clumps and clods of riverbank kicking back into the river. We turn, heading east toward the sea, hoping that it would be all over when we finally got there, that we'd find our friends, some of them wounded, but basically OK, and we'd just have gone through the fears, better that than having to go through gun fire. The tracks are moving fast, the one I'm in taking the lead, the driver pushing the huge machine to its limits, engine straining its hulk over the rolling mounds of earth beside the river. The trip is taking so long, if it takes much longer the Viet Cong will have killed any survivors, I'm thinking, gone down and shot them all in the head to make sure, and to humiliate us. The trip is taking so long, long enough for the Viet Cong to gather their strength, regroup if Wurtz's squad was able to defend itself and kill a few of them, long enough that they could be waiting for us. Everyone in the tracks is too scared to talk, to venture a fear would be to invite disaster.

Bullets are hitting the side of the track. They are a harmless noise, strange and metallic, so distant in danger than no one even flinches, a curiosity. I remember thinking, oh good, they're only using twenty-twos, which wasn't true. Two Viet Cong were firing their AK-47s at our track as if mere bullets could halt the lumbering beast and pierce the armor plate and kill all of us men trapped inside. We heard the sudden crump of a grenade exploding behind us. I was only trying to make the threat smaller, manageable, mental magic to help get me out the door.

Soon now, soon. Soon we'd be out the door, there were Viet Cong waiting for us, in their loathing of the great metal beasts they had announced their presence, we knew they were there now, now we would be ready for them, it didn't matter how many they were, we were Marines. If there were more than one platoon they would have brought bigger weapons. They knew we came after our own, they planned, they were patient, they could afford to wait. "Fuck man, if they rocket us, we're fried, man, fucking fried!" a trooper yelled, making us all suddenly aware that the machine's gas tank was in the floor and we were sitting on it. A sergeant told him to keep his mouth shut, but the trooper's warning was just more reason to hit the door running when the track finally stopped.

The driver turned out the overhead light, ducking down under his hatch, steering the machine with his periscope. The driver's gunner started opening up with the twin .30s. There it was, all the information you needed, there were Viet Cong waiting for us out there, we were close, there was only one chance beside staying locked up on the track and running, leaving our men out there to fight for themselves until the Viet Cong killed them, and that was to get out there amongst them, fight, shoot, kill, make the horrible moments stop. Brass is clattering on the steel floor.

Lt. Anderson has the door seat, but he seems incapable of leading, so Gunny Mead stands in front of us, bracing himself against the roof of the track, waiting for us to stop. We hear the other track pull up beside us, more bullets hit the side of the machine. In the dark, the .30s are still firing, he can see in the flare light, but all we can do is hear. Gunny Mead's bulky form is outlined in the orange light. "When the ramp goes down," Mead's strong voice says, "hit the door running." And that is all the information we get. Just an order of what to do in the next five seconds, and we're all standing up in the tracks, except Doc Corry who is hanging back in the back of the track, doing what he has been told to do. The ramp goes down, taking far too long, it's opening and we are vulnerable to fire during the time it takes to get low enough to let us escape.

Finally, we are out the door, worse than getting off helicopters, it is definitely a hot zone, but it is night and there is too much to find and focus on for instantaneous survival. At the split second the ramp hits the dirt the whole squad is yelling, releasing the voices, pouring out the door as fast as their legs can carry them, hunched low, the rifle fire is coming in at us now, the twin. 30s are still firing but none of us has presence of mind to fire back, all we are looking for is a place to hide and find some cover so we can fire back, there are a half dozen rifles firing at us, traces are flying past and above us, leaving retinal after-images I can still see. In the sliver of dying flare light I could see our young faces hardened into fierce resolution. We are yelling the oldest yell in the world, reaching back millions of years, flushing the blood with the willingness to kill and die, making all life but the life here in this moment the only life.

In a strobe of rifle fire flashes I saw a ragged line of prone men strung out over thirty yards in front of me. The other men see them too, and rush toward them. Several of the men laying down are firing at the Viet Cong who are firing both at them and at us. A flare bursts overhead, I can see two Viet Cong hiding behind a mound thirty feet away, two more are teamed fifty feet away from them, another Viet Cong is hiding behind a mound about midway down the line of prone Marines, two more are further down, and those are the only ones I can see. But what I was seeing and hearing, what was happening, was not registering in the brain place that assigns names and meaning. There wasn't time to invent a story. What needed to be done was wired deep in the nerves, issued from the medulla, dictated by human character and immediate event. That I could die out there ceased even to be a comforting whisper. The officers and the trainers can claim influence, but it is the bones of being that do the work.

Continue to Part II

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