"Get 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.
It finally 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.
"City 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.
Suddenly 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!"
Dan grabbed 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 had begun.
We grabbed 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!
The night 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.
Within a few weeks after the start of that cross-country offensive we were told that we would be pulling out--destination unknown. Our crew was ordered to "button" up the radar and transfer all equipment to the temporary runway on LZ English to sit and wait. To move an Army division containing thousands of men is a major undertaking, even for the 1st Air Cavalry, Airmobile. The only picture that I can conjure up to illustrate this experience is a multi legged, belly crawling slug that flails all its legs around but really moves on its gut in a "hunching along" series of motions. The head moves by stretching its self out to its maximum where it's forced to stop while waiting for the tail to catch up. The "dance" is then repeated until achieving its destination. Anyone who has been in the military is ever so familiar with the slogan "Hurry up and wait!" The night that we got our orders to move our section was spent on a rainy runway, under our two-ton radar, after being "Hurry Upped" for the prior two days. Finally, at first light, a wave of what seemed like 150 "Hooks" (Chinook twin bladed cargo-carrying helicopters) settled down amongst us. The waterlogged warriors ducked under the whirling blades, scrambled up the rear cargo ramps and were lurched into the clouds.
I was the last person on our "bird" because I had pulled the short straw that trip. The effect of this draw placed me on top of the radar while 20 tons of helicopter hovered above me on a hurricane-force column of air. From that position I had to attach the radar's sling cables to the hook under the belly of the helicopter (one of the origins of the nickname "Sh-- Hook"). Now came the fun part--climbing through the moving hatchway above me and past that damn hook. Every "slinger" knew that as soon as you touched that hook you became the ground for the static electricity generated by the two whirling blades. The resulting megajolt that passed through you made your legs buckle but there was no way of avoiding it. It was the only way in. (You can see why we drew straws for the job.) I could smell scorched hair for days.
On the flight we learned that we were on the way to a ominous place called Khe Sanh, an infamous on-going battle that had become the obsession of LBJ, the Brass and the world wide media. The actions of North Vietnamese Army had convinced the generals that this battle could be THE major turning point in the war and that we must win it at all costs, (which include sacrificing my a--!). The NVA were pounding a Marine combat base located in a mountainous region at the extreme northwestern corner of the country. This was the Ho Chi Min Trail's entry to South Vietnam and the main route that they used to infiltrate troops and supplies. The ensuing battle had become one of the fiercest of the war so the 1st Cav was sent in, of course.
I don't remember how long we flew with our radar slung under our "Hook" but we put down once, spent the night, rehooked and roared back into the sky the next morning. This time it was for real. Within an hour I saw the column of Hooks ahead of us lining up on a hillside, quickly liberating their cargoes and spewing troops out of every door. The surrounding hillsides arched out bursts of tracer fire, spewing out death wishes at our choppers while rocket impacts tore at my future home with regularity. My "bird" finally flared out over the hill as the crew chief guided the pilots as they lowered the radar into position. The chopper jerked upward as it released its load and our million-dollar machine hit the ground, hard. Now it was our turn. Bullets were coming through the floor and the Chief lowered the aft ramp while yelling "Get the f--- out of here! We are taking hits!" I looked down into the area that he was pointing and I saw a 50ft drop into waves of elephant grass. (The pilots in the nose of the chopper might have been close to the ground but the tail was hanging its a-- over a nasty cliff.) "Bull sh--!" I yelled back. "I'm not going out that way!" and pushed him aside as I drove my way to the front and over to the side of the door gunner. There was space to exit behind his bucking machine gun position and I looked down into my immediate future with a fatalistic mental shrug. My mouth was dry with dread but it was my reality of that day and I dove out, praying that the bullets wouldn't cut me in half before I hit the ground. I pushed off and fell the 15-ft. towards the awaiting arms of the razor sharp grass--and into what ever was hidden within.
My anticipation of that 5-second drop was the purest terror I had ever experienced. I envisioned either being killed by the enemy machine gunners or the explosion of a buried land mine if I made it to the ground at all. Even if I did make it down, I would still be directly under that multi-ton helicopter that could drop out of the sky at any second as a fireball. I held my breath, hugged my M-16 to my flack jacket and fell. My feet hit. I rolled onto my back and dug in my boots so I wouldn't go over the cliff and finally came to a full stop. To my surprise I was looking back up into a surrealistic movie.
The madly whipping grass that surrounded me blocked everything out but the underbelly of that huge twin bladed green "grasshopper" that was suspended over me. I could see orange tracers coming from my exit door. The green tracers of the NVA fire made deadly X's in the sky against them with some disappearing into the chopper. The prop wash from the Hook was hitting me and flattening out my grass wall of subjective security that surrounded me. I was down! I was alive! -- and very relived. The illusion of safety made me want to not move, just lay there, quietly, snuggling my rifle as if it were a favorite toy and maybe everything would just disappear. Suddenly out of that "movie" appeared a very real pair of Dan McCracken's boots as he followed me to the ground--missing me by inches and rolling back on top of me. My moment of relief was quickly shattered as I untangled from the terrified hug of that Washington lumberjack and we pushed as fast as we could up and over the crest of the hill. This put some heavy dirt between the green and orange firefight and us. Momentarily we were safe from harm as the last of our crew hit the ground and the Hook banked left and roared out of the area as quickly as it could. (They were back the next day dropping supplies so I guess they were none the worse for the holes that had been punched into them.)
We were all accounted for and we bent to our job of getting the radar operational so we could locate where those damn rockets were coming from. Only then did we start building a shelter with an equally furious dedication. Our activities alternated between digging the hole and diving into it as the Whine!/ Roar!/ Wham! of the rockets screamed down on us like Hell Fire Banshees. We were terrified but we had to keep working. This became a routine very quickly -dig & dive - dig & dive - but during one dive I caught a boot on something and heard the cartilage in my knee tare as I went in ahead of my legs. The sharp pain was temporarily intense but I had to keep on "d & d'ing" until the hole was deep enough to almost stand in after we surrounded it with sandbags. The infantry strung barbed wire, set out their Claymore mines and machine gun positions while the artillerymen, the "Gun Bunnies", loaded walls of sandbags around their "tubes" and ammunition stockpiles. Supply choppers buzzed in and out with everything from steel plating for bunker roofs to hot chow and Life Magazine photographers.
The entire LZ was in a fever pitch of survival activity because we knew what was coming any moment. I envisioned a swarm of little yellow men in a human wave attack clenching bayonets in their teeth as if in a John Wayne movie. I made sure that I had enough ammo clips and hand grenades while loosening my own bayonet in its scabbard. Was I really going to have to shove that unholy piece of steel into somebody that night or would I never see the rising sun? Could I kill somebody with my bare hands? If I died that night would it hurt or would it be quick? I tried to keep busy and not think about it too much.
As the daylight deteriorated we prepared our equipment for the pure hell that awaited us. (The initial "gifts" that we had been given were only the NVA "Gun Bunnies" getting their range on our position. We awaited their onslaught knowing full well what was instore for us.) The other men on the LZ thought that Shooter Radar could locate the enemy firing positions and then our big guns would knock 'em out, as usual. What they didn't know was the radar was not designed to track flat trajectory ordinance like those damn 122mm rockets but we had to attempt it anyway. The sun faded out, casting a warm glow over the once beautiful valley that was now pounded into a moonscape by the incessant tonnage of B-52 bombs. A high-tension calm flooded the area the darker it got. Even Larry Burrows, the legendary and, I noticed, fearless Life photographer, finally stopped pushing his Leicas in our faces and found his own hole. My six-man unit jammed into our hovel, along with our radar's control unit, and went into our regular two-man screen watching rituals. Tony, the Hawaiian, and I were on the first shift with me on the radio and he on the screen. Everyone else tried to get some sleep in the spooky silence. He swung the machine back and forth looking for the origin of the hell that was about to descend upon us. We knew that the attempt was futile but it was the only defensive weapon that we had. Maybe we'd get lucky, find one of the bastards and be able to give our artillery a "knockout" location. The LZ was in a totally dug in condition, awaiting the inevitable and all praying that we would all be there in the morning--and the next--and the next. The waiting was horrible.
It finally started with a vengeance about two hours later as the rockets came at us in pairs. They had perfected their aim during the day because more were now landing within our perimeter wire -- within feet of our small bunker!! They kept coming -- pair after pair, "walking" up and down through the LZ. We could hear the screams outside as someone got torn apart by the hot metal. "Medic! Medic!!" My leg is gone!! Medic, help me!!" I desperately wanted to go out and help but I couldn't disengage myself from my helmet. The fear, the unmitigated terror, of being the target for those 6 ft. flying bombs propels your mind to the brink of insanity. Every time one came over we all would coil into as small a fetal position as possible and attempt to get inside our helmets. The perpetual panic of imminent death or dismemberment puts you into an out-of-body experience just to hold on to some sort of sanity. I actually felt that I was a few feet above myself watching as the explosions ripped jagged hot steel into the sandbags over my head. They kept missing but they kept coming. My body was jammed into the corner of the hole where the slide-way opened out to the night sky and I could see the fire trail of the rockets as they kept missing us over and over and over again.
Suddenly, for some reason, there was a lull. We tried to convince ourselves that the attack was over for the night but we knew it wasn't. It was my turn to operate the radar so I switched places with Tony and he became vulnerable at the opening to the bunker. The only light in the hole was the green radar screen, orange cigarette tips and starlight. There were no bad jokes or "City Dump" on the radio now. This was war!
This was reality! Our radar was part of an artillery unit and we saw the daily death that our big guns could dispatch. Now we were on the receiving end. Sand was pouring down my neck from a torn bag. I tried to move away from its irritating drizzle but to no avail. It came straight into my flack jacket and down my back as I swung the radar, hoping to pick up the next group as they came roaring down on us. My heart, beating in my temples, was the loudest noise in the bunker. I could taste the panic and the mounting hysteria.
"Holy sh--! Here comes two more!" crackled the radio and the night turned orange with a deafening roar. The old adage is true. We never heard it coming! Suddenly the world exploded and the hole collapsed around us, half burying me in now useless sandbags and jagged steel. I was stunned and deafened by the blast. It was strange to be able to feel noise but not to be able to hear it. Sounds came back slowly and were distant, like the noises in a dream---but this was no dream!! "My balls! My balls!" came a scream faintly heard somewhere behind me. "They shot off my balls!" yelled Neuy who had also been in line with the open door / slide behind Tony. I lit a flashlight and, pushing the debris aside, crawled over to his side. There was blood gushing out between his legs and from his fingers as he covered the wound, screaming about his manhood. Someone tore open a gauze patch and tied it in the area as we tried to make him as comfortable as possible while the rockets kept pounding and pounding. I helped to push up our sandbag roof a bit so we could look at everyone else and swung the flash light around to count heads. It was then that I saw Tony. He was sitting blankly in the spot that I had vacated just 30 seconds before, blood oozing from every orifice on his head. He was bent over forward and on his side at the bottom of the slide and I pushed my way over to him yelling "Tony! Tony!" and touched his arm. He moved lethargically, looking up at me with a quizzical expression. "What happened? I can't hear anything," he said. The blood was dripping from his ears and I knew that the explosion and the flying shrapnel must have blown out both his drums. I pulled him back over to "my" side of the hole and away from the door / slide to protect us both from the next rocket which skimmed over our heads with the now all too familiar roar. Neuy was moaning and I could tell he was about to go into shock from loss of blood. Everyone else in the unit seemed to be OK but we could not move to get him any help while the tempest roared outside. The radar had been blown off the air and there was nothing to do but climb into our helmets and hopefully survive the night. We yelled for medics but they weren't moving either.
With every screeching rocket came a wave of total and hysterical panic that that almost ripped your soul out the top of your head. "Please God, make them stop! Make it stop! I'm going to go insane if this doesn't stop! Why can't we knock them out?" kept screaming inside my head. It just went on and on, tearing and clawing and slashing wide avenues of death into our exposed and defenseless hilltop. The 1st Air Cavalry was naked and impotent. (We were all so used to demolishing anyone in our way by our ability to launch waves of helicopter gun ships and scorching artillery fire that the helplessness was doubly terrifying.) The rocket launchers were dug deeply into caves on the surrounding Laotian hills and could be protected at will. I flashed on the jets earlier that day as they attempted to lay bombs and Napalm "eggs" into those positions but obviously they had not been successful as wave after wave kept shredding and maiming our location. Whump! Whump! Whump! ...Whump! Whump!
A face appeared at our slide/door yelling, "Stop them! Stop them! I can't take it any more!" Whump! Whump!.. "You have the radar--where the f--- are they coming from?.. Whump!. Stop them!! Stop them!!" Someone tried to pull him inside yelling "What the hell are you doing out there, man? You'll get killed! Go back to your hole!" ...Whump!.. but he shook off the outstretched hands and disappeared , screaming. "Stop them! Stop them! Stop --" ...Whump! We found out the next day that he never made it but we had our own problems. Somehow I had to get out of that hole and get help for Tony and Neuy or one of them was going to die. The rocket barrage slackened down to a trickle and a medic's head appeared at our slide/door. "You guys OK in there? That 122 really messed up your hooch, man!" A bank of flares burst into their ghostly yellow/white glare over the LZ. I first thought that it was crazy to light us up like that but I soon realized that the rockets had stopped and the infantry on the perimeter were seeing movement outside the wire. "They wouldn't be laying rockets in on an area that their own troops are in , would they?" I started to think. "Was this the lull before the NVA came storming across our wire? Was this the night that I was going to kill someone or...". I had to stop thinking about it! I grabbed an extra bandoleer of clips with my M-16, checked my 45 pistol and that awful bayonet that I had been contemplating -- was it only 5 hours ago? -- and crawled out of the hole, helping to pull Neuy out of the collapsed bunker. I knew I couldn't fixate on my fear of a ground attack because I had to focus on the reality of getting the wounded to an aid station. I got on the front end of the stretcher and stood up, hefting the 200 lbs. of my moaning friend and stepped into The Twilight Zone.
I flashed again on being in a movie--our only frame of reference for this war. The hill was illuminated by a never-ending line of flares that were marching across the sky held aloft under little white parachutes and trailing thick clouds of white smoke. Their light was dazzling but cast constantly moving shadows under my feet as each flare passed over me. As I struggled with the stretcher across the hill the shadows kept swinging wildly as each flare popped into life high up in its arc. It would then settle into a searing white burn under its little parachute and, as the wind saw fit, slowly drift off the hilltop, instantly being replaced by another of its kind to repeat the process, over and over. I stumbled through the still smoking craters towards the aid station, unable to get a good orientation on the uneven ground and the moving light. Tony was at my side being guided along, holding the blood into his head wounds with his brown and now badly lacerated hands. Our small band of wounded and bearers crested the hill when Neuy was unceremoniously dumped to the ground as a rocket screeched down on us trying to add to the American body count. It came in too high this time and hooked two of the flares as it roared over our heads, landing in the valley below with the now too familiar thunder. We bent down and hefted Neuy back onto the stretcher but had to hit the dirt again because from behind us came a flurry of explosions and machine gun fire. "sh--," I thought. "Oh no, here they come over the wire!" My worst nightmare was about to be fulfilled and I rolled away from the stretcher and brought my M-16 into fully automatic firing position. The bayonet was already loose and ready to be bloodied as we had been taught in Basic Training. The infantry on the perimeter were launching grenades and setting off their Claymore Mines as they lay down a withering field of fire into the closest flat spot outside the wire. I heard over the din a voice yelling, "There's one--behind that rock--" and the machine guns started in earnest, spitting rocks and bouncing tracers all over the place. I had mixed feeling about the flares that made us sitting ducks but they also robbed the shadowy hiding places from the advancing NVA. This was our first direct contact that I had experienced (except for the "gifts" of rockets).
Suddenly small arms fire erupted out of the darkness from two sides and the stretcher and Neuy had to be forgotten for a moment as I took up a defensive position inside a crater. The whistle of big incoming shells went over us and I thought that the barrage had started all over again but then I realized it was coming from the wrong direction. Someone had called in artillery fire from the Marines.
The incoming was friendly fire, finally. Whump! Whump! Whump! The gunners and the spotters walked the rounds along the ridgeline that was less then 100 yards away from our wire. I could hear the screams of the Vietnamese as the impacts tore up the NVA positions, causing secondary blasts from the explosives that they carried. As the enemy fire slowed down I hefted the stretcher again and yelled to someone "Grab it! We have to get these guys to the medic now and out of this fire fight." NVA tracers zipped through the night around my ears and our machine guns answered in kind, hopefully spewing death to anyone in front of them. We couldn't stay out in that "weather" 'cuz all of us might be cut in half by a well-placed rocket or barrage of bullets. So, keeping as low a profile as possible, we stumbled around the shell casings and boxes of ammunition that surrounded our big artillery guns and into a bunker that housed the medical crew. It was another surreal place. Other stretchers -- all filled with bloody and moaning soldiers were jammed into every available space.
The medics were working like MASH, going from man to man with a serious but lighthearted attitude trying to keep everyone's spirits up. Our big guns were shaking the bunker with each round that they pumped out into the night and NVA small arms fire tore at the sand bags over our heads. Each concussion caused moans of agony and fear from the men on and off the stretchers. I huddled next to Neuy and Tony to wait it out with my useless bayonet and 45 pistol jamming into my back. I think we were there for about a half-hour when abruptly it became totally silent. It was almost as if a movie director had yelled "Cut!" and everything went into an eerie suspended moment of paralysis---our guns as well as the enemy's. Everyone remained tense-- anticipating the next incoming rocket or a rush of screaming crazes at the wire but the silence lasted and lasted until we all believed that it really was finally over.
The medics continued on their rounds, looking again at Neuy and adjusting the bandages around Tony's head and triaging the new arrivals. I was in the way and so I moved outside, constantly being aware of the nearest hole to dive into when the next rocket arrived. The flares were still floating overhead as I headed back to our collapsed bunker, dazed and shivering from the now cold early morning air and the constant pounding we had taken. As I got closer to "home" I tripped on what was left of the two inch cable that connected the radar itself to the control unit in our bunker, sprawling into the still warm hole left by the rocket that had come so close to ending my life. The cable was tattered from the direct hit and clusters of wires stuck out in multiple directions in jagged clusters of reds and greens. The rocket had missed us by less then 6 feet!
The dawn was just starting to brighten the sky over the Marine base out in the valley and a stillness had enveloped our hilltop like a layer of cotton wool, disturbed only by the hum of generators and insects that were impervious to the carnage around them. My adrenaline level must have abruptly dropped at that moment because suddenly I began to shake and a wave of hysterical tears racked my body as I lay curled up into that smoky / earthy / damp smelling crater. I cried for Tony and Neuy, for my own reality, and for the fear of things to come. All the fears and horrors and regrets in my life just gushed out of me there --temporarily flushing away the immediate terror of the moment. I couldn't have been in that state for more then a few minutes when the sounds of cameras slammed me back to the present.
A hand was touching my shoulder and someone was saying, "Are you OK?" while a gaggle of press photographers were recording my micro drama. "Yeah, Yeah, I'm OK." I said and, embarrassed, grabbed my M-16 and stood up trying to regain my macho composure. The photogs immediately lost interest and went off to record someone else's pain while I went over to the radar to check it out. I wiped off the muddy tears, lowered the radar's now Swiss-cheese-looking reflector screen to make it a smaller target and silenced the generator that was pumping electricity to nowhere.
That completed any immediate duty requirements so I just stood there, watching the sunrise over the battlefield and the valley below, breathing the lingering cordite smoke of the gunpowder. I was numb, just Being There, trying to come to terms with the experiences of the night and the certainty of a repeat performance that would come at any moment. "Why was I unhurt? Why had I moved out of that slideway at that exact moment prior to the impact?" If I hadn't, then I would now be in the medical bunker instead of Tony. I felt terrible guilt -- the shakes and tears returned -- wave after wave hysterically racking my body - until I was drained and exhausted. The sun boiled back into the sky and the final flares burned out while floating off into no-man's land. My legs just gave out and I plopped down, leaning against my mortally wounded radar. Suddenly I had a revelation that has stayed with me for the rest of my life. My fear of dying had left me. I had come out of that night with minimal physical damage because God had decreed that it was not my time. No, there was no loosing the dread of hot metal exploding into your body or the ensuing agony that would follow if you didn't die instantly but the actual act of dying no longer held it's familiar panic. I knew I was spared for some other purpose--either that or it was "The luck of the draw, Marsh" as Tony said to me 20+ years later when I was reliving it and crying with him over the phone. Many people said that there is no reason or order to the universe but from my little spot on that "blasted heath" in Vietnam I couldn't believe that. I still had about six months to go but I'd make it through -- and stay alive somehow. I would take every day one at a time, mark off every one on my helmet and complete this ordeal! Afterwards I would try to savor each day and do with it the most that I could. There had to be some reason for God's keeping me alive.
The heat of the day began to build again and the familiar sounds of war returned to my ringing ears and brought me back to the tasks at hand. A line of choppers was on final approach at about 1,000 feet above the valley floor. They were closing fast and were coming in on the purple smoke that someone had popped to give them the wind direction. As they flared out into the open space cleared for them I saw the red crosses and I hurried back to the medical bunker to say goodbye to my friends. I had no idea if we would ever see each other again. Tony leaned on my shoulder as we made our way under the whirling blades of the MediVac chopper. The last memory I have of him was his vacant, deaf expression as the overloaded bird came up into a hover and, turning on its axis, dropped off the hill to speed off over the valley. I can still see him holding on to something next to the door gunner with his muddy boots and OD clad legs swinging loosely into space. I returned to the bunker to find that Neuy had already been taken out and so I waved at the receding choppers and return to my bunker. We had a lot of work to do get ready for tonight's onslaught. We had to reinforce that hooch with more sandbags and reset the steel plating over our heads. Was it going to be all in vain? At least it gave us an illusion of safety.
"Hey, man - look where you are going!" yelled the front man on a litter that was hurrying to load a man on the next chopper. "Sorry" I said as I backed out of the way and instinctively looked down to see if I knew the guy whom they were toting. I flashed on the face in the slideway from last night! He had been imploring us to find the location of the rockets and "Make it stop!" then disappears into the night, screaming as he was torn apart by the next rocket. I was glad that he was still alive even though he was wrapped in a plethora of bandages and blood was soaking through the wrappings on the stump of his leg. They passed by quickly and something struck me as out of place. As I turned to watch their path to the helipad, I realized that the severed leg was strapped to his chest - still with its boot on! My reaction was a controlled shock and a shrug of my shoulders, thanking God that I had not been out of my bunker, screaming for nothing.
The daily butchery had finally become "normal" to me. I was finally a "hardened" solider, ready to kill and gut the enemy. I watched the bouncing boot all the way to the chopper and then turned and trudged back to my short-handed unit. The other guys were working on filling and rebuilding walls so I joined in, reporting on the two guys whom I had just seen off. We filled, built and talked about the happenings of the night. Would we ever see our two friends again? An unspoken, "Would I go out in a body bag?" was never far from our thoughts, I'm sure.
I crawled into the bunker after about 5 hours of rebuilding - exhausted and ready for sleep. Curling up in a perceived safe place while getting out of the beating sun was heavenly. It was hot in there but still I was able to begin floating over the fields of Andover when a screaming banshee went over my hooch. It jerked me erect and scrambling for my helmet again. "Oh sh--! It's started early today." I thought, when suddenly I realized that this was not the sound of an incoming rocket. Kaboom!! A huge explosion shook sand from the overhead bags but this was coming from outside the wire. I struggled up the slideway just as the F-14 made another pass over me, zeroing in on some target in the valley. One of the Infantry on the wire told me that they had found a tunnel complex out there and the jet had been called in to burn them out. The jet had banked away to the south after dropping his first "egg" and had come back over us at about 300 mph to release a silver cigar shaped tank from under the belly of his plane. I watched in morbid fascination as the cylinder slowly fell, turning end over end like a poorly punted football until it finally impacted the ground in a swarthy of orange flame and industrial strength black smoke. It was a Napalm run.
This was a high tech flame-thrower with a thousand times the effectiveness of the hand held ones. The cylinder that was dropped laid down a super hot gooey petroleum jelly from Hell that stuck to everything that it touched. Every piece of combustible material had flame coming from it and the inferno shot out from the ground in opposite directions as if it were the exhaust that is differed away from a Shuttle launch. It had been a direct hit and the flame had gone down into the tunnel complex and found it's way out two other exits. INCREDABLE pyrotechnics and sound! It was fascinating from our high vantage point and all the guys watching sent up a cheer for the pilot. Suddenly a running figure appeared out of the middle of the inferno and the cheer stopped as if a radio were turned off. The man was burning from head to toe. It was an NVA solider who had been in the tunnel complex and now was totally engulfed in the Napalm hellfire. We all stopped what ever we were doing and watched a man die.
He must not have been a normal man because he fought the inevitable with all his strength. The jet had done a short vertical loop and was coming into drop another "egg" when the pilot must have seen him and began to lay down a line of machine gun fire that chewed up the ground in a direct line towards the running figure. The all-encompassing flames were sucking the life from his soul when suddenly he stopped, turned and faced his attacker. I was completely flabbergasted at what I saw next - he raised a angry blazing arm and "shot the bird" at the oncoming jet just as the bullets caught up with him and his body exploded into smoldering fragments. AT THAT MOMENT I KNEW THERE WAS NO WAY THAT WE COULD POSSIBLE WIN IN VIETNAM.
I had heard of the dedication and focus of the enemy at all levels but to actually see it and finally to be shocked by an event on the battlefield was more then a "mind blower". It was THE moment in time that solidified my opposition to the position that the Old Men in the government had put us in. We had no prayer of doing anything positive in that country because the enemy was everyone - everyone either hated us or just wanted to be left alone to grow their rice. We should just fold up our money and go home - and preferable before I got killed but ----. I had no control over anything but filling sandbags and covering my a--. I had months to do and I wanted to come out alive. I survived but came home early - in a stretcher - because the knee's cartilage just had to be operated on. I walked on it for 45 days after we were pulled off that hill but finally I succumbed and hobbled to a medical tent for a doctor's advice. I thought I'd be right back.
I was totally embarrassed to be in a frontline MASH triage tent with real wounded all around me. I had a swollen knee and the man to my left had half a face while the old Vietnamese Mama San to my right had taken a chest full of buckshot when she tripped a mine on our perimeter. I sat there and shut my face. A clerk came by and started to the paper work for a Purple Heart and finally a doc took a quick look, said, "Man, am I glad to see a normal problem but you're headed to a rear area for that."
I didn't know how far "to the rear" I'd go. It turned out I'd make 3 stops in-country, one each in Yokahama, Japan, Alaska and Washington, DC before I was assigned to a surgical ward at Ft. Devens, MA. It was all over but the nightmares for Marshall Darling. I never saw my unit again. I was home with a new piece of plastic in my knee and no one that I wanted to tell my story to (no one really wanted to listen, anyhow.) It was too bad a scene for the entire country and I just wanted to forget it all anyway.
This missive is the first time I've ever addressed it in anyway that approximates the whole truth. My Dad saved my letters and I described that night that I just told you about as "a near miss that did little damage to us". They didn't get any reality from the front lines from me. They were scared enough just having me over there.
I made it out alive but I left so much back there and brought so much home with me. The dead eyes, the explosions, the bullets wrapped in green or orange fire will always be buzzing/blasting/knocking inside my head. Even with this "confessional" on paper the dreams and the fear of loud noises and the "loosing it" at my family is always there.