Darling, First Air Cavalry
Khe Sanh Valley, 1968
shot is facing Laos and Cambodia and was taken because
there was a B-52 Arch Light in process in the middle
of the light area in the center of the frame. The
man on the left of the frame has his back to me
because he is watching the source of the earthquake
level rumble that we could feel even up on our hill.
The target was a suspected staging area on the Ho
Chi Minh Trail and where the NVA were tunneled in
for the Khe Sanh siege. The whole area around the
Combat Base looked like the moon because of all
the bombs. (Marshall Darling)
the hell out of here!" the door gunner yelled to his
pilot. "We are taking incoming fire!" as tracers
flashed past our "Sh-- Hook" helicopter. I sat on
my helmet, instinctively, so I wouldn't take a round up my
a-- and watched as the M-60 shell casings from our answering
machinegun bounced off my boots. A hot one stung my hand and
I just stared blankly at the welt as it blistered. I wasn't
there! I was 12 years old and half way around the world in
Andover, Ma, running through the fields with my friend, BG.
What was all this noise around me? Did a bee just sting me
on a hot summer day? My brain was in terror overload and I
couldn't focus on my reality as our Hook thundered away from
that hellhole, LZ Tom, above the Khe Sahn combat base. It
was all a movie, wasn't it, but in this one I was one of the
unwilling players. I watched myself looking down at the moonscape
cratered hill that had been a North Vietnamese Army (NVA)
bulls-eye for my last 3 weeks, with me at its center. I could
see the flashes of the AK-47 fire as they tracked us away
from the place that has haunted me ever since. The door gunners
sprayed tracers at the receding NVA troops who had been so
close last night that I could smell them -- that rotten fish
paste. (We could hear them moving, talking and setting up
their weapons brazenly as if they were coming over the wire
at any moment. Luckily...). The choppers literally pulled
us off the hill that next morning and flew us to someplace
that was, thankfully, far away from Khe Sahn.
flared out into a hover like a maniacal darning needle and
gently dropped our radar set onto a secure " LZ Someplace?
(Jane?)"--- then settled down into it's own dust storm
and cut the engine. What was left of my crew shuffled down
the rear ramp, found a shady oil drum and curled into a temporarily
safe and quite space-staring out into nothingness. My ears
and nerves were still ringing and sweat drained from every
orifice. I flashed on a World War II Life Magazine photo of
a shell shocked infantryman--filthy dirty, the "1,000
Yard Stare" from hollow unseeing eyes, and clutching
his only reality -- his rifle. "My God!" I thought.
"I'm like one of the guys in that picture!! I can't believe
this is happening to me." I was now living a college
dropout's worst nightmares about Vietnam. Just a few weeks
before my war had been relatively safe -- hell, almost boring
-- until the First Cav. was sent to LBJ's obsession -- the
Khe Sanh Valley where 40 to 50,000 hardcore North Vietnamese
Regulars surrounded the Marine's fire base.
Dump!" - I keyed the mike and spewed the inanity into
the quiet January night over the First Air Cavalry's artillery
Fire Direction Network. We were disgusted and bored. Christmas
was past and we were in a cease-fire for the 1968 TET holiday.
The radio chatter was reduced to inanities, unneeded communication
checks and requests for flares from the infantry as they imagined
moving shadows outside the wire. Dan McCracken and I had pulled
the 11 to 7 AM shift on Shooter Radar. Our job was to locate
the occasional incoming VC mortar rounds that were lobbed
into LZs English and Dog in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
It was a very quite night; no snipers, no normal "Whump!
Whump's!" of artillery impacts in the hills-only bugs,
bad jokes and the monotony of staring at the clutter on that
radar screen. The only "action" was the continuous
stream of tracers that streaked skyward from the drunken South
Vietnamese troops who were bivouacked about a mile away.
the radio screamed, "Shooter, this is Birth Control 8!
We have impacts inside the wire! Where the f--- is it coming
from? Over --- Shooter, come back, Over---Are you guys awake
over there? Give us a location, now! Over!"
the radio and yelled, " We don't show any incoming! I
don't know where it's coming from, over!" I frantically
swung the machine in an arch, trying to find the mortars that
were pasting their position. Nothing showed on my screen!
It wasn't rocket fire. (We later learned that it was Viet
Cong suicide squads who had tunneled into our LZ and were
throwing satchel charge bombs into bunkers.) The TET offensive
our M-16 rifles and woke up the rest of the unit. They fanned
out into a perimeter around the radar to repel any attackers
but luckily the action was concentrated on the big artillery
guns far away from our position. The Viet Cong had breached
our wire through the floors of the shops and whorehouses that
had grown up around that side of the base. So much for the
"friendly" Mama-sans with their toothless grins!
finally turned into dawn and the firing stopped--the entire
enemy's force either dead or melted back into the village
population. The wire around the artillery positions was littered
with dead VC, some in pieces. The dirt road that passed by
the base had the "leftovers" of the night's firefight.
Everywhere there were scattered dead children and other civilians,
blooded faces, severed arms, all strewed in the dirt like
unloved and discarded dolls. The dogs licked those broken
faces, disturbing the flies. People walked by, afraid and
unseeing, and to the eyes of this fresh faced American "boy",
uncaring. In time the carnage slowly disappeared from the
road but I will never forget that child that lay frozen in
her death scene for three days. I wanted to stop and...but
I drove on by like the rest of the world, afraid to do any
thing in that hostile environment.
My war took
on a radically different direction after that day. I had spoken
with my family a few months earlier on Thanksgiving and my
younger brother, David, had asked me if I had seen any action?
"Have you killed anyone?" he asked? I had told him
"No" because my area was considered "pacified"
that fall of '67. Except for a sniper or those occasional
mortar rounds, it was mostly quite--but TET changed that forever.