Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book
Volume 5 Number 1-4
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 Major Won the Croix de Guerre, Part II
If you spread your hand out, wide out, the distance from thumb to little finger covers about eleven kilometers on a 1:50,000 scale tactical map, the approximate range of a 105mm field gun. Combat officers have a habit of plopping a soiled hand across the operations room map like that. To see if the fire base can support their operation, to see if they are operating outside the fire-support fan and therefore at biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig risk. Greunwald--who has never seen combat--loves to splay his thick red fingers across the tactical maps in the Operations Center. He dreams grandiose dreams of flinging his battalion far behind enemy lines, of scoring daring coups with his raiders, of "bringing the enemy to his knees," as he will say, "by denying him the use of his rear." On such occasions, his eyes will glaze as if fixed on distant battlefield vistas and a harumph! of suppressed desire will sometimes well up from deep inside him, gurgling like the gush of oil struggling up from deep inside a lie of petro-shale.
And so it is that under the spell of this wistful ambition, Major Greunwald succeeds in persuading the Old Man to let him conduct what he names ominously a S.L.A.M. (Search, Locate, Annihilate, and Monitor, as he later reveals to those of us chosen to share the adventure with him). His plan is to dump a "kick-ass detachment," or so he lordly announces in his briefing, onto a main artery of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and block traffic. "We'll dig in on the road at night. By dawn we'll have trucks backed up from here to Hanoi." Gestures vaguely at the map. Greunwald peddles this concept with such vigor that one morning two weeks after the Major's briefing, the RTT spits out an operations order tasking A Company, 11th Raider Battalion (Indigenous) to "take up a blocking position along the LOC [Line of Communication] designated 538 and detain, deny, or destroy all vehicular traffic attempting to negotiate said LOC."
Steinhagen and I are stuffing C-rations into our rucks. Loading magazines. Steinhagen is grousing: "'By dawn we'll have trucks backed up all the way to Hanoi!' By dawn we'll have every Nguyen, Dinh, and Dong who can carry a piece down there to blow us off that roadblock." We fall out the Company on the chopper pad, and as the lumbering, thup-thupping H-34s set heavily down, Major Greunwald strides out in full panoply: sunglasses, shoulder holster, and the shiniest, newest, unfiredest M-16 we have ever set eyes on. The sections clump over to the aircraft, sagging under the exceptional load of ammo and grenades. I squeeeeeeeeeeze through the hatch and crash down onto the deck of one chopper with a clatter of canteens, smoke grenades, bandoleers, magazines, strobe, Kabar, radio, ration cans, and extra batteries like a trout in a fishing creel, flopping helplessly around. Greunwald appears in the doorway and from a great, meaty red fist drops a chainsaw into my lap. "For my bunker," he announces, then disappears as the big Sikorsky heaves, roars, grunts, and is airborne.
Down on the jungle floor, we have no trouble locating the "artery": it's forty feet wide, crowned, and flanked by foot-deep drainage ditches. Machine-maintained and welllllllllllllllllllllllllll-travelled. Some trail! The 'Yards set to planting mines and digging in on both sides. Greunwald beckons to me and Steinhagen, points out into the jungle behind the roadblock. "My bunker will be two hundred meters that way. Two feet overhead cover. Before dark." Sullen, we snag the montagnard platoon sergeant, and the three of us cut off into the jungle with the chainsaw and our entrenching tools to dig the Major in.
We sweat, we puff, we grunt, we curse under the steaming, oppressive canopy to hack out a six-by-six in the fetid, black, root-tangled soil. Each slice of the E-tool into the fragrant ground sends up a sweet exhalation, the breath of the jungle. Bathed in sweat, gasping from exertion in that heat, we suck at a canteen and then lie back onto the cool, damp diggings to gaze up at the thatch of vegetation overhead. Oblique shafts of sunlight pierce the dense foliage, intersecting at crazy angles to illuminate odd-shaped patches of leaf-strewn, overgrown earth.
Steinhagen rises up painfully, hand to the small of his back: "OK. Overhead." We amble through the timber, lugging the chainsaw, thumping trees to cut for the Major's overhead cover. Nhiao, the chef de section, knows all the local wood types. "Pas bong, z'ef," he hisses, thumping now this trunk, now that. "Pas bong, ce'ui-là": "Him no good." Absently, I point to a tree with coarse, greyish, shingles of bark, about eight inches in diameter, more or less straight. "Moyen ce'ui-là?" I ask, trying to help: "How 'bout this one?" "Paspaspaspaspaspas bong, z'ef," comes the reply: "Veryveryveryveryveryvery bad, sar'n." Piqued--and bored--I use a word I have learned only to utter with circumspection: "Why?" Nhiao walks over to the tree, balls a gnarled brown fist, and thwacks the trunk. A fat, wriggling shape drops to the ground with a plop! Then another: plop! Steinhagen and I look down at the things. Centipedes. "Brak drahak," corrects Nhiao, citing the local name for them. "Bestiole beaucoup salope-là. Piquer toi, toi beaucoup mal le chien." "Nasty critter," that is: "Bite you and you get sick as a dog."
Steinhagen pounds one of the trees. Plop! Plop! Plop! Two or so inches long, striped orange and purple unlikely enough, these little guys sport long rows of wiggly legs and two pincers at what we guess is the head. Nhiao points to the pincers, then spreads his calloused hands around his leg: make you swell up. Steinhagen nudges one of the plump, coiled sausages with the toe of his boot; in a wink, it uncoils and strikes with the pincers. Aggressive little buggers! He looks up at me. A magical moment.
A smile of ineffable and beatific satisfaction spreads slowly across Steinhagen's sweat-caked face. I feel the salt and filth dried on my own features crack as they mirror that unashamed, imbecile grin. Greunwald! Greunwald must atone with the forces of the earth. Greunwald must placate the nature he has presumed to reorder. Greunwald, who would spurn the insistency of the real--of the irretrievably real--and hurl feeble human beings against actuality, must pay! Death in combat is not inevitable. Boredom, brutality, shame, imbecility, fatigue, banality are ! Greunwald, who will not respect degree, the delicate equilibrium between men and risk, must expiate! Greunwald, who wants to be of the fight but not in the fight, must redeem his insolence. Greunwald! The montagnard cannot fathom why the discovery of this annoying little beast should so tickle the two big dumb bou mis.
Chainsaw! Gloves! To work! Gingerly we line the bunker with sections of trunk from these trees, being oh-so-careful not to dislodge any brak drahak in the process. We lay longer lengths of the stuff across the top of the hole, then pile and pack the dirt from the hole over them, leaving a small opening to squeeze through. Steinhagen cuts off the sputtering chainsaw just as darkness settles over the arena of this night's activity, and we offer our creation up for Greunwald's inspection with justifiable pride. Greunwald harumphs a grudging "Well done," and stalks off up the trail. He has "other things to do."
About an hour after dark we hear the first truck in the convoy laboring up the hill in low gear. He clears the crest--no lights--turns the sharp bend, and probably spots the roadblock just as his right front tire springs the mine. Ba-whoooom! Tire blows off, sailing somewhere up into the night sky to come crashing down through the jungle canopy off the road with a racket of snapping branches and parting vines. We can hear it roll off into the bamboo. Down the road a kilometer or so: ba-whooom! One of our squads has blown the last truck in the convoy. Doors slam. Drivers jump out, scurrying off into the underbrush in a terror. Now the 'yards run amok, up and down the file of stalled vehicles, joyously despoiling--mostly drums of rice this trip--the cargo beds and setting charges inside the engine compartments. A chain of explosions announces that this phase of our S.L.A.M. is complete. We hunker down into our foxholes, awaiting the inevitable riposte.
We don't have long to wait. Within the hour, we hear bamboo knock and vegetation rustle and the familiar whump! of mortar rounds on the way. The first detonations are wide of the mark. Then the gunners begin to fine tune and scour the perimeter beyond the roadblock. At the first explosion, Greunwald has lit out like a banshee for his bunker, from which site, we suppose, he is howling into his radio for tactical air support, and remembering ruefully that hand splayed out across the map with its ominous portent. Steinhagen and I smooch down into the damp earth, bury our faces in it, wriggle and writhe as incoming rounds chew up the dirt around us and explode in the trees, showering our backs with fragments. We can hear Nhiao from the other side of the perimeter: "Putain dgieu de merde de bordel de dgieu de merde de merde et merde... dix mille fois!"
After a while, the intruders expend their initial load and have to hump back for more or wait for somebody to hump it in. Steinhagen and I crawl around to the other positions to check for casualties. No one hit. By common accord we slither back down behind the roadblock to where we have left Greunwald, pausing outside the bunker to listen.
Music! It's a tragic opera in that bunker. An aria, an exquisite, airy ululation of heart's agony rises, thin and wispy. We can hear thumps and crashes, grunts and slaps, percussive counterpoint. Now and again--do we really hear it?--a solitary, an ethereal, a divine... plop! Greunwald is at close quarters with the brak drahak, who for their part are apparently giving as well as they get. The swatting and slapping reaches a fever pitch. We can hear the Major slamming them in the darkness with the butt of his M-16, clomping them with the heels of his jungle boots, pummeling them with those great red fists. But he won't get out of that bunker. And still they come: plop! plop! We listen, breathless, in the darkness for minute after exquisite minute, not daring to move, savoring the symphony. Now and then a pause, as both adversaries regroup, the silence punctuated by heart-rending harumphs of anguish. Then back to the bashing and plopping. Ecstasy.
But all things end. The mortars let go again, and Steinhagen and I skitter back to our hole to burrow into the darkness. There, side-by-side, huddled together in the night, breathing in a common rhythm, we bear nevertheless aloneallalone the ageless solitude of soldier's fear.
For two days we remain in contact, doused with mortars and RPG's, raked with 12.7 mm fire from another hilltop a kilometer distant, scrambling in and out of our foxholes, desperately directing air strikes all around us, patching up wounded men as best we can between barrages. Steinhagen, catches an 82mm fragment right in top of his head. It bounces off his thick skull but parts the flesh, sending rivulets of blood down his face. Howling and cussing, he tries to slug me while I sit on his chest and swaddle a dressing around his head in the dark only to wind up wallpapering his eyes and winding it across his mouth. "Thunuvabith!" he spits out through the gauze.
In the flushing sunlight of the third morning: silence. They have got tired of messing with us and have diverted their traffic along some other leg of the trail. We can hear the trucks running a kilometer or so away. Here, though, we have the jungle to ourselves and stand in dubious glory astride Route 538. The gutted chassis of six 1948 Chevrolet stake and platform trucks bear wordless testimony to our interdiction. We lug our casualties out to an LZ, booby trap our roadblock, and--at long, long last--fish Major Greunwald out of his bunker. A great, bulky, ballooning tomato, he emerges into the daylight. His red skin crosshatched with scratches and welts, face bulging out in grotesque excrescences, fingers swollen and puffy, he lolls vacantly in an improvised stretcher, sucking in glucose through the clear feed tube of an IV draining a wrinkled plastic packet one of the 'yards holds overhead as the medic, biting his lip, thumbs in vexation through his manual in search of a classification for this particular injury: "anaphylaxis," he settles on, scribbles out a toe-tag, and waves the litter off in the direction of our extraction LZ.
A week later, the Battalion stands at attention as the Commander reads out a citation for the Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart awarded to Major Ernest T. Greunwald, 045-35-4675, 11th Raider Battalion (Indigenous), Vietnam, Republic of, this 25th day of November, 1968, for heroism shown and wounds received in ground combat during protracted operations in denied and enemy-controlled territory. The Major, his face still distorted from swelling, his legs still unable to support him without crutches, his skin now painted in bizarre, swirling patches of a bluish ointment, erks and harumphs his gratitude. He will, he announces on this proud occasion, be going down to Saigon where, evidently as a result of impact produced by his seminal
Report of Excremental Activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and his bold and personal execution of the S.L.A.M., he has been asssssssssssssssssumed into the bosom of that enormous, churning operations complex, an appropriate theater for the deployment of his gifts and vision. There, with the willing complicity of computers and graphs and readouts and charts, amid the comforting companionship of Order, Method, Efficiency, and Consistency, removed from the sordid world of Things That Happen, Greunwald will spend this war, tranquilly dreaming dreams and gathering patiently... data!
Out on the East wall of the compound that afternoon, filling sandbags with a dozen 'yards under a cloudless sky, Steinhagen and I plump down the heavy sacks, smeared with sweat and sand, warmed by a benevolent radiance of sun and survival once again. We peer off into the distance, toward Cong Tum, where a C-130 is lumbering off the strip, nosing South. Greunwald. Steinhagen takes off his salt-stained patrol cap, fingers gingerly the spikes of sutures along the top of his head. The 'yards point and chatter among themselves in so dang, which even after all these months I cannot understand, though this day its seems to me they are whispering to each other "brak drahak." I heft another sandbag, toss it to Steinhagen, who plants it on the wall with a whump! "Enlisted men," he spits. "Like little children."