Check link to Alan’s photos of Vietnam at http://www.facebook.com/notifications.php#!/album.php?aid=2034693&id=1573857463.
A PLACE WE OUGHT NOT TO BE
Alan L. Goodin © 2007
7.7.7 [Oct 24.10] 103.520 [87,950] words]
[Note to reader]. Upon completion of this manuscript, footnotes to be
entered as well as actual footage of some events depicted in the story
such as the Kent State massacre, Arc-Light B-52 bombings or related songs,
Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s, “Ohio,”
linked to the online text and retrieved by clicking on the YouTube URL.
At that time the above will be deleted.
A Place We Ought Not to Be, Vietnam, is dedicated to Army Sergeant, [E6] Terry Andree who committed suicide in 2008. Some suggest the cause, his demons, what he always described to me as his memories that followed him back from combat in Nam. Many years ago at the Vietnam Memorial Terry told others and me in our unit, The California Central Valley Vietnam Veterans, a unique and very personal story. His story of betrayal on the battlefield led me to write A Place We Ought Not To Be.
I offer personal thanks to my good friends, Army Specialist 5th Class George Burke, 554th Rangers, 173rd , HQ’ed at Qui Nhon (later Chu Lai) and Sergeant (E-5) Patrick Kelley, 11th Light Infantry, Americal, HQ’ed at Duc Pho,—my part time corroborators on finding great whiskey or vodka at difference places between Bakersfield, California and St. Petersburg, Russia.
To a great extent, this story is especially dedicated to those who earned the Purple Heart with my ultimate respect to those who earned “the Heart” while taking “friendly fire” yry first to those who were abandoned in Southeast Asia by the United States Government. As noted by those who fly the Prisoner of War (POW) flag, its states, “You Are Not Forgotten,” but among us who served is the unspoken promise, “Either bring them home or send us back.”
The Diary of a Dead Man
“Bless ‘Em All / Bless ‘em all, bless ‘em all / The Commies, the U, S, and all /
Those slant eyes Chinks solders / Struck Hagaru-ru / And now know the meaning of U. S.M.C. /
But we’re saying goodbye to them all, / We’re Harry’s police force on call, / So put back your pack on, /
The next step is Saigon, Cheer up, me lads, bless’em all?
Korea: The Untold Story of the War. Joseph C Goulden
Like many Vietnam veterans, many of those of us who survived carry some kind of guilt, an individual burden that each of us own, in a very personal way, and like Kurtz says in the beginning moments of Apocalypse Now, “We surviving veterans are those snails and this wall is that razor, a thin slice of marble, a reminder of what separates the living from the ghosts who haunt us.”
I suspect that many who have come to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. did so to toss off those rucksacks of guilt and leave, hoping we’d discharged those horrific images embedded in our minds and souls; that fog of war equally etched in our minds as are our brothers and sisters names who are etched into the wall.
Also, like me, I suppose many of the vets I passed on Veteran’s Day while walking along the Vietnam Memorial in 1982 were wearing newly purchased uniforms from war surplus stores adorned with the various decorations we’d earned in Nam and other places. Among the various unit citations and medals on my uniform is one I never earned and in that medal is my story, one I want to get off my chest.
In 1970, according to the Department of Defense, I died in the elite service of my country. Above the standard issue of Vietnam service ribbons on my uniform are several posthumously awarded medals for my last mission, 19 March 70, where, I was awarded the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, The Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) and, much to my chagrin, The Purple Heart: the irony of this story. You see, the Purple Heart is the one medal I never earned. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbR-yFXGt10&feature=PlayList&p=0BD337A1494C3DE6&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=17. You see the Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.
If you have been “In Country,” you know when passing “The Wall” you’ll see the names of people you knew: the dead and missing. What you don’t expect to see is your own name, etched in black granite, as dark as a hot moonless night in the jungles of Vietnam. Yet there, reflecting back at me from line 23, panel 12 W was: Dennis Delacroix, with a plus sign next to my name indicating that I remained missing and unaccounted for. Well I was here to tell them that I wasn’t missing anymore and they could take my name off “The Wall.”
What do I want? I want my life back and I want to know who and why they killed Dennis Delacroix. Is that all? Hell no, I want revenge. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxU-
U.S. Army records indicate I’d been dead twelve years. Seeing my name reflected in my living image on a marble death certificate is the irony and the reason I have to tell this story; tell people about the most cruel of lies perpetuated about me by the U.S. Government and how it came to be and why no one else can tell this story. You see, all the rest of the people in this story are dead or sworn to secrecy and I have been threatened and informed that an “active measures program,” a CIA hit, is directed at me.
Some people asked me why write a story exposing more of what happened when the United States invaded Cambodia, bombing and killing thousands of Cambodian civilians, a disaster not only supported and encouraged by the US, but some suggest, also provided the means for the coup that overthrew the reign of Sihanouk, the Prince who’d ruled the country most of his adult life and walked a fine balance to keep it at peace. I think, in the movie Apocalypse Now, Col. Kurtz was referring to Sihanouk when, he said, “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor, and surviving.” Being that snail is no easy task when the United States government, in its quest to eliminate all things remotely labeled Communist, is systematically altering global history and two ideological and unarguably different forms of government, the North Vietnamese and the U.S. are using Prince Sihanouk’s country as their back yard to annihilate each other.
The 1984 British film, The Killing Fields begins with an “accidental,” yet massive, B-52, thirty-ton bombing in August 1973, virtually leveling parts of the Mekong River port of Neak Luong, Cambodia killing and wounding hundreds of people, as reported by New York Times reporters Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBHP–a1m4A&NR=1.>.
The Killing Field’s story begins much earlier than depicted in the movie. For me it started the day the Central Intelligence Agency issued the order to “Secure Site 22” where my story begins and why I, Sergeant Dennis “DD” Delacroix of San Diego, California, wrote A Place We Ought Not To Be.
A Place …proved to be a prophetic and grave precaution from Senatorial Advisors in July, 1965 [Karnow, p 343] to President Lyndon Johnson who sought their advice about adding forty-four combat battalions to the small U.S. contingent already in Vietnam.
A Place… is my catharsis. Like so many soldiers I am only alive because of irony, being at the right place at the wrong time or conversely, the wrong place at the right time, but either way, ‘a place I ought not to be.’
Standing before the wall, my eyes closed in dark and horrific memories, and I heard Taps playing and then the unforgettable sound of Huey choppers approaching. I open my eyes and looked up to see four Hueys flying over the Washington Monument towards my position. Suddenly one veers off in the “Missing Man Formation,” the most solemn and dignified aerial maneuver ever seen. I suffer to close my tear-filled eyes. I never liked that formation.
Opening them again, I am in that lone Huey, veering off across a ridge and then dropping down into a jungle-landing zone, an LZ. As we near the ground, swirling red dust fills my teary eyes.
Operation General Delivery
“You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties,
you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty.
We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline.
I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it.
I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way.”
Col. Jessup. From the movie, “A Few Good Men”
The high-flying Huey chopper suddenly dropped down and over a ridge where the Mekong River flowed out of Cambodia and into Vietnam and set down in a small rice paddy. Over my headset, I hear the pilot call me up to the cockpit. He handed me an 8 by 10-inch, sealed, unmarked manila envelope.
“Sergeant, open this and read it now.” I opened the envelope, removed a legal size envelope stamped “Top Secret,” open the sealed envelope and took out a folded sheet of paper, unfolded it and read.
TOP SECRET. 18 Mar 1970. You are to secure Site 22, by 0700, 19 Mar 70 and search for, and contain all evidence showing presence of U.S. Forces. If evidence exists, you are to set the radio in this envelope to frequency 1. If no evidence exists, set to frequency 2.
At 0841, switch radio ON until you have a steady green light and stand by for pick up. Return the orders to the envelope and the envelope to pilot.” Colonel Russell Clyde, MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observation Group).
I took out the cigarette pack sized radio, wrapped with olive green tape except where the antenna stuck through, extended and retraced, it and tested the two switches, “On,” the other for “Frequency.” As usual, it worked while it was dry. I took out the batteries, wrapped everything in a waterproof bag, and put it in my rucksack.
I enclosed the order and returned the envelope to the pilot. “Thanks for the lift.”
“Rendezvous tomorrow, Site 22, 0841,” he replied.
I turned to the door gunner. “Gunner, I need a couple more baseball grenades.” Looking back at the pilot, I noticed he was not wearing any rank on his uniform. I looked at the co-pilot. Same-o-same-o. Like the pilots, the gunner had no rank on his shirt but his helmet bore a 3rd of the 17th insignia and stickers on his helmet that read: “Bomb Saigon Now” – “Bomb Hanoi Now” – “Bomb Disneyland Now” – “Bomb Everything.” Sometimes I wondered who was flying me in on these missions but then, did it really make a damn if it was the Army, the CIA, or even President Nixon? All that mattered was the mission. The gunner lobbed the grenades up in the air a few inches and out to me on the skid, just missing the swirling chopper blades. He put two fingers of his right hand up to his head in a half salute and smiled.
“Good Luck, Sergeant,” the pilot said. While putting the grenades in a canteen pouch with four others I silently wondered if this were a routine mission or would I have to fight my way out of the jungle again or was fighting my way out of the jungle a routine mission. It didn’t matter. Only the mission mattered.
It was what SOG did and I was ready. Extraction by a Huey had become routine, but doing it in a hot LZ wasn’t as adventurous as it had been before because I was ninety days to “the world” and frankly, I was tired of the Nam and getting my ass shot at. I snapped the clasps on my canteen case and looked back up at the pilot.
“Thank you, Sir.” I unholstered my .45 automatic, popped out the magazine, checked and reinserted it and placed it in my holster. I turned and stepped out on to the Huey’s skids and jumped off. Hitting the ground, I heard, “Red Horse 6, clear to lift off.” I took off the headset and lobbed it back to the gunner, faced the pilot and saluted. They were gone is seconds, up and over the horizon and I was alone. The choppers blades and force the tall grass around me down but as they lifted off, it rose and enveloped me in a maze of green swirling grass. I looked down at my compass, then out in the direction of where Site 22 would be, some thirteen kilometers away. It was 1645, time to put some distance between the LZ and me.
In the afternoon shadows, I began inching through the red dust and into chest-high, razor edged elephant grass growing alongside the Mekong River. It made paper-cut slashes on my arms. I didn’t care. Something else was on my mind but I didn’t have time to think about it. It was dark, quiet and hot. I liked the dark and quiet but I never liked hot. It was Wednesday evening, 1944 according to my Lord Elgin.
Operation “General Delivery” marched step-by-step through my mind as I walked through the night. “Sgt. Dennis Delacroix, one: secure Site 22, by 0700, Search for and contain all evidence showing presence of U.S. Forces. Two: If evidence exists, set the radio to frequency 1. Three: If no evidence exists, frequency 2. Four: 0841, Switch radio ON until you have a steady green light. Stand by for extraction.”
Extraction and Intel operations are what the Army’s Studies Observation Group does, or SOG as we call ourselves and Intel meant a ‘man on the ground.” Some of the many things we did were avoiding contact with civilians, and dressing up as if we were anything but US Army, in fact sometimes, dressing as the NVA, the North Vietnamese Army Regulars, ‘black ops,’ what we called ‘dirty tricks,’ and most importantly, not engaging the enemy. That was what I’d been trained for, but what was on my mind was why, for nine months, had my orders been Secret and suddenly this mission was TOP SECRET. What changed? Don’t think about it Denny, only the mission matters.
For the past six months I’d been tracking missing soldiers, MIA’s, downed pilots, lost soldiers, and deserters and brought them in, usually by chopper, but sometimes I’d turn them over to “friendlies” or someone going to an air base. At times, with my .45 Colt, I felt like the ‘gentleman bounty hunter’ Paladin, of ‘Have Gun Will Travel’ TV fame.
Most of the soldiers and pilots I’d tracked had been pretty cooperative except for one black pfc. up around Laos. He smiled at me, threw up a peace sign and said “go fuck yourself sarge,” adding, he was married to a Vietnamese girl, had a baby and wasn’t going back to “the world,” a “world that didn’t like his black ass. Sarge, I ain’t no nigga here. I’m da man. I got respect and you and you’re honky army ain’t going to take it.” He said his name was Fly and then introduced me to his wife and their beautiful baby. I told him my assignment and all he said was, “Here’s my dog tags. Report me as MIA (Missing in Action), where about, unknown and make up some story about how you came into possession of my dog tags.” I had no argument for that man and started to walk off. He seemed happy and I sensed trying to get him out would result in a major cluster fuck. He asked me if I wanted to stay and eat with them. I said no thanks and walked off into the mosquitoes and heat.
Walking and watching filled most of the night, paralleling the winding Mekong River through dense brush, rich with ferns and tall grass around rice patties. At other times the land lay completely barren, deforested and defoliated. I avoided those places. There was no cover and my continuous curiosity as to why, but I knew why. Agent Orange, a couple chopper pilots had told me, saying it was one of the so-called “Rainbow Herbicides” and code name for Dow Chemical and Monsanto’s powerful defoliants used in the Pentagon’s ‘War on Trees’.[cite] If this was where they sprayed it, I could report back that its effect was considerably effective.
[According to Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities, and 500,000 children born with birth defects.  (The Globe and Mail, June 12, 2008. ‘Last Ghost of the Vietnam War’). The most affected zones are the mountainous area along Truong Son (Long Mountains) and the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. The affected residents are living in sub-standard conditions with many genetic diseases. (Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs – [http://www.mofa.gov.vn/vi/tt_baochi/nr041126171753/ns050118101044 Support Agent Orange Victims in Vietnamese.)
A few times I felt I’d been spotted, as we all knew Charlie (Viet Cong-VC) controlled the night. Whenever I heard movement around me, I quickly lay down against a tree pulling rotting branches and palm leaves over me, trying to Out-G the Gs. That night a VC patrol walked past me, only missing me by a couple of meters. I laid there another twenty minutes giving them time to move on before starting to hump it again. Even skirting around everything I’d probably covered eight kilometers, a good distance considering most of it was without a trail or on old trails, not overgrown, but lacking footprints and looking as if it hadn’t been used for days, maybe a week.
About 0200, the usual rumble of distant artillery shook the ground. The rumble was soon followed by a thick silvery white lightning bolt slashing like a sword through the triple layered jungle canopy starting a vicious downpour. Taking refuge under a palm frond and covered myself with poncho, up and over my head and sat motionless, watching a bead of water flow off the frond’s tip. Meditatively, I crossed my arms over my chest, holding myself while staring down at my watch, not caring much about the time, but simply watching the second hand tic-tic-ticking around while noticing each second was equal to my heart beat, calm and steady. I felt as if I were in a watery cocoon or womb, seconds matching heart beats and water dripping, lulling me into deep sleep.
Incoming fire blasted me out of my slumber or so I thought. Seconds later, a series of lightning bolts slashed through the darkness, illuminating most everything within my view with brilliant green flashes and cracking sounds where fragments of trees and bamboo were thrown about like smoking matchsticks. Like a signal, it was thunder left over from the passing storm. Rays of light began to poke through the canopy. I looked at my watch. It was 0606.
Where I’d placed five large palm fronds on the ground to collect water, I had enough to fill two entire canteens. I poured in some lemon flavored Kool-Aid and a Halizone tablet in each canteen and drank half of the first one the refilled it and took a Dexie (Dexedrine). Feeling refreshed I stood up, removed my poncho, stuffed it in my rucksack and started walking the remaining five kilometers, ‘klicks’ as we called them, towards where I hoped was the Cambodian border.
It was easy hiking what seemed to be seldom-used trails, yet a was always on the lookout for land mines and trip wires, constantly in a highly-alerted stage, overly cautious, as we knew the NVA frequently used this area as a sanctuary. Lucky for me there were no footprints in the muddy trail so I double-timed it for the next hour.
At 0713, the trail widened into a clearing where my calculations would have put Site 22, My thoughts were to a make camp, but this was simply a small clearing where the brush and vines had been cut away for a trail in and out to a stream that ran out into the Mekong River.
Like so many of the places I’d been inserted, Site 22 was full of long hanging green and purple snake-like vines, trees with enormous root systems, tall, razor-sharp grass, snakes, the incessant buzzing of armies of blood sucking insects and large thickets of bamboo, so dark and dense, I could barely see into them. I double-checked my compass, watch and hand drawn map, and intently looked around taking everything into account. Everything logical was there, down to the last fire ant. Yet something seemed out of place, like me. Looking down again at the map and compass heading, I nodded to myself, yes! Either this was Site 22 or someone had made a huge mistake and SOG doesn’t make mistakes.
A brief flicker of light caught my attention. It must be my target, a signal mirror, shining out from the small thicket of bamboo. Crouching, I walked towards where I’d seen it. It wasn’t a mirror. Inside of a bamboo cage, hanging around the neck of a singed corpse hung a dog tag. The bloating body of a tall man, probably American, with both arms tied behind his back hung on a meter’s length of bamboo between his elbows, with vines hanging down from the top of the cage. The half face, half skull was charred and full of maggots. I gasped as the sight and smell overwhelmed me, like a slaughterhouse in the desert in the middle of summer. I pinched my nostrils and vomited, half falling towards the ground.
Regaining my balance and standing up to look away, I saw another corpse, and then a third, too small to be American, all hanging in a row, all bootless, two in fatigues, burnt from the waist up and all three missing their left ear. The second one in fatigues had a dog tag around what had been his neck. On the big man, hanging next to the dog tag, was one black star on what had been a collar. “Jesus!” I shrieked. Was this one star corpse an American General? Operation General Delivery was starting to make TOP SECRET sense.
Repulsed, I stepped back, pulled out my neckerchief, and placed it over my nose while trying to catch my breath. I wanted to run, run far away—but where? Rule number two is, nobody runs in Nam unless they’re running up or down, out, and away or into a ravine or one of the thousands of 500-pound bomb craters that marked our Pentagon’s futile attempt to halt the flow of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and materials down the Ho Chi Minh trail. Running made you a target. I looked around and checked the site. These stiffs weren’t going anywhere, their souls long departed and I needed a lot of fresh air.
I dropped my rucksack and walked about thirty meters over burnt and decayed branches, then over short grass, down to the riverbank. I knelt and washed my hands and face while taking time to reconnoiter the territory on both banks as well as up and down the river. While looking up the river, I soaked the handkerchief in the water and while looking down the river I placed it over my nose and mouth and tied it behind my head. I glanced up river again. The trees were so thick and green it seemed as if I were wearing mist green sunglasses. Nothing but flies and mosquitoes moved. Only the sound of the river meandering along its bank broke the stillness in the air where a green mist floated gently above it.
Kneeling there, I tried to make sense of what I’d seen. A dead general, a dead soldier, and an Asian man in civvies with no ID. But SOG teams were trained: there are no civilians. So who was the little man? Sitting down, I leaned back and looked up between the trees lining the river’s banks into a small slice of blue sky. Something was terribly wrong or was this what they call shock? I looked at my watch, something that was real. It was 0800.
Standing up slowly, always looking around, I walked back to the site, reached into the cages and lifted the tag and chain off the soldier and then pulled off the burned collar and star off the general, then grabbed the broken in half tag sticking out of the General’s chest, turn my head away and yanked it out. With it, came something else. Without looking, I knew my hand was covered with blood and maggots. While walking back down towards the river I glanced down at my watch: 0840.
Crouching by the riverbank, I washed the tags and my hands. The soldier’s tag read: William Alan Fix, Protestant, and Type O-Positive. I slipped the soldier’s tag and chain over my head and walked back to the cages, removed the radio from my rucksack, installed the batteries and set the frequency to 1 and turned it on, and knelt in front of the cages. Despite my orders to be at the site at 0841, the stench became far too repulsive so I double timed it back to the river, waded across, and crouched down in the tall grass, always looking left, right and down. The area was too low for a clear view so I scurried up a rocky ridge about a klick from where I could spot the approaching chopper.
I squatted in some tall grass facing the site. That’s when I felt things clawing on me. Lifting my shirt I saw these ugly beasts, leeches attached my skin, bleeding me more than mosquitoes attacking the blood. I painfully tore them off, quickly knowing this was one dust-off I was not going to miss and Charlie could kiss my sweet ass “adios.” Being on time was what I loved about the Army, as well as their slogan, ‘There the right way, the wrong way and the Army’s way.” Walking down the hill I realized being on time was what today was about, I had a time and from my position on the low ridge, I could see where the chopper would be coming from.
Then I saw them; two, three, and then from out of the tall grass walked an entire a squad of heavily armed North Vietnamese Regulars (NVA—North Vietnamese Army). Quickly I lowered my head wondering if they had seen my path, bent grass, fresh boot prints or anything I might have dropped. It quickly dawned on me, it didn’t matter why they were here, they were here!
My adrenaline went into overtime. Sweat ran down my forehead then dripped into my eyes. I put my hand inside my T-shirt and like a glove, wiped the sweat off my face. Think Denny. Think hard. They are NVA, trained. Disappear!
I pulled out my .45, checked the magazine. It was full. I quietly reinserted the clip. Raising my eyes an inch over the grass, I counted eight visible and guessed maybe three or four looking into the bamboo cages. I crawled only a meter when the sound of jet engines caught my ears. I hoped it was my pick up, but what if it was and they dropped in, right on Charlie. I rolled over on my back, quickly pulling out a few smoke grenades and starting popping them every which way, as far as I throw them, hoping so much smoke in so many places would confuse the chopper pilot and he’d abort and hopefully come back for me later.
In seconds and from behind me, two Phantom fighter-bombers screamed over me, each dropping two napalm canisters precisely on the radio’s position, inflaming everything in front of me to the cages and beyond, all in bright red and yelling yellow flames, and then a burst of orange belching black diesel smoke sucked all the remaining air out of the sky and me. Red streaks of fire turned the emerald green rainforest into an incinerated wasteland. Screaming sounds caused me to look towards the Site and my eyes looked in disbelief as soldiers on fire ran into the river while others simply melted. I laughed, because I had one less squad to put up with. Then a different burst of reality struck me.
“What in the hell was going on?” came shouting from my mouth. I quickly realized I’d just announced my position, if there was anyone out that heard me. Suddenly, when for an hour nothing made sense, this “In my face” mini-Hiroshima pulled the plug on everything I thought I knew, putting me way outside my training and placed me light years beyond the “Twilight Zone.” Those assholes nearly killed me and next, as if jumping on a grenade, it hit me. This was no accident. There was no chopper, and there wouldn’t be any extraction. The seemingly impossible just happened. Site 22 and I were the targets.
Stunned beyond belief, I sat there watching the flames, as if I had a front row center seat at the Met. It dawned on me; I wasn’t the only one in the audience. Every NVA and VC for sixteen klicks had probably just thrown up a day’s ration of rice saying, “What the hell was that!?” Not having to think about it, if I sat there one more minute, I’d be history. My new mission was simple: disappear. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IC4tpeN6pj4&feature=related.
Where? Instinct took over. Break the rule. Run. While crawling down and away, then standing, I pulled the map and compass from my pocket, saw the blue line, the Mekong River and ran. Cambodia was north, about ten or twelve more klicks and maybe less than forty or fifty more to Phnom Penh.
Anywhere but here was my best bet for survival. I also knew I’d have plenty of company, some NVA, the VC and the locals and they’d all look the same to me, the Lone Ranger. I been scared plenty of time but the bar had just been raised to some Herculean notch and I set out to beat the NVA Gods, Buddha and Charlie. My heart was pumping out of my soaked shirt. ‘Run Denny, get small, real small and disappear.’
My thoughts turned to The Art of War, Master Sun said, “In War, with forces ten to the enemy’s one, surround him; with five, attack him; with two, split in half, if equally matched, fight it out; if fewer in number, lie low; if weaker, escape.” Escape: my only alternative.
In the back of my mind I heard, “What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times… and you are there.” Damn straight I’m here and Walter, this wasn’t like any other day.
At the bottom of the ridge was a trail that looked half-used, cleared, but with little tuffs of grass growing in damp places. It paralleled the east side of the Mekong River. I half ran and walked off the trail, then back through brush, returning to the trail only when the brush was so thick I couldn’t move. My plan was to keep going, always north-northeast; constantly aware that Charlie was everywhere. It was no secret they were fierce warriors; tried, tested and undefeated over the past thousand years. Rule number 1, following a trail can get you killed. When I came to creeks I’d walk up them about 100 feet, then turn 45 degrees and walk back towards the trail. That’s when I smelled it.
About two klicks up the river was a chopper blade, with the acrid odor of singed paint. Not wanting to stop but overwhelmed by the scent, I ran ahead, maybe 200 meters where I came to the burned out shell of a Huey and the heavy scent of oil emanating from it. Hurried, I looked along the tail boom with a Green Hornet insignia painted on it and then at the rotor area, full of holes fired by a 20mm cannon. Unable to control my curiosity, I entered through where a door ought to be and into the cockpit. Seeing the bullet holes had come through and out the other side I wondered why would there be 20 mm sized bullet holes in a Huey?
Phantom jets carry 20mm cannons. Christ? Did someone accidentally shoot down a general in a Huey? Had the general and the others been in this Huey? There must be some good explanation but if there were one, it was not in any training book I’d gotten at Fort Bragg. A chopper downed by friendly fire, a dead general and…this was not going to be easy to explain back at Company.
Jesus, what was I saying? Explain my ass! Some flyboy gunned down a general and two others flyboys eliminated the evidence. I hadn’t studied law but I had two of the three parts required to make a crime: means and opportunity. While looking left, right and down, I kept a third eye up, into the sky while my mind tried to come up with the third component, “motive.” My guess was the NVA saw the chopper go down, pulled out the general and his buddies and put them in the cages until they either died or they talked and then killed them.
Inside the cockpit I looked for a logbook or an ID number—knowing good old Uncle Sam had inventory numbers for everything. On the top of the instrument panel was a metal tag with numbers on it. I popped it off with my knife and pocketed it along with the general’s star and half dog tag. Then something I smelled made me stop. It wasn’t bodies or paint.
Following my nose, I turned. Behind me, in a heap, lay a melted glob still smoldering like burnt tires. Things that looked like melted metal zippers hung down one side, as if neatly stacked, with similar looking metal strips hanging down and over the whole pile. They reminded me of a pile of melted inner tubes or the huge black bladders that held chopper fuel back at company, only smaller, maybe a cubic foot when they weren’t burnt but now reduced to eight or ten round inches of glob. While the odor was nothing like rotting bodies, I didn’t need it and it hastened my exit back on to the trail, running, on and off and then walking as the humidity became overwhelming.
By noon and after several kilometers of slogging my way through the off trail bush, my ass was dragging. What water I had left was sweat and what sweat I had left was steam, and that was being sucked-up by the noonday jungle sun. I disappeared back into a bamboo thicket, sat down, and watched ants work and work and hazard to guess that not one of them had a canteen, a gun, or was earning a 3-day pass. Watching them disappear into their ant holes, like Charlie with his labyrinthine tunnels, while inspiring, it drained me of what little energy I had. My exhaustion took center stage and I drifted off. Every few minutes I awoke, exhausted, but with too little strength to go on. I simply sat, watching the ants and not even bothering to swipe at the bugs and mosquitoes, but thought if the mosquitoes, being Viet Cong, wanted fresh blood I ought to do my part to support the war.
I pulled out my knife, reached into my rucksack, and pulled out a can of C-rations. It was spaghetti: my favorite. How did God know I wanted Spaghetti? He probably has this direct line to the Vatican, that’s what the Pope was having tonight, and by God he thought, this poor S.O.B. ought to eat as good as the Pope on a day like this. Considering all that was around me; heat, red dust, red mud, red ants and drizzle, it made for a gourmet meal. Feeling content, I just sat there.
Looking around at the palms and then up into the trees, the enormous triple layered canopy above me, where not even a patch of blue shown, I wondered, could there be people around here that think the sky is green? I thought after what I had just been through people could think anything they want and they might be right. I also thought about what a day in the jungle was if it was the only life you had even known.
Mornings were the sounds of breezes meandering through the trees, a clicking sound sometimes when tall stocks of bamboo hit against each other. In the afternoons, I heard insects buzzing in and around my ears, nose and mouth while watching them use my hands and arms as pincushions and places to practice takeoffs, landings, and drill for blood. The evenings were best: the temperature changed.
My clothes were soaked making any breeze refreshing. But as night proceeded, the breeze went from warm to cool and at times too cool. At night I could hear a symphony played by the breeze in the trees, insects in my ears, ants on the trail and the eerie silence that makes being alone in the jungle the most solitary moment of your life. No matter what time of day it was, I felt my feet rotting and I knew my socks would be more skin than cotton in a matter of days. Any other sound was real trouble. With all antennas up to the max, I disappeared, with my dark green and black painted face and hands like a chameleon, into the night.
As usual, it rained and rain in Nam doesn’t compare with anywhere else I’d been. Dry season or not, it rained, hard. If I had been Noah, without consulting with God, in six minutes I would have built a bamboo ark and had one of everything I loved onboard and become a sailor going down the Mekong River to the Delta and back to San Diego.
Even sequestered away in the trees, small drops of rain began to hit me. I slid further back, under a banana tree and huge ferns and pulled my poncho over myself to the point where, were it not for the whites of my eyes, I would be invisible except for the stench I carried. Even though I own my scent, I could smell Charlie around me. I sat there wondering how long it would take him to sniff me out, but then I began heard the melodic patterns of the raindrops and my past came to life. The last songs I heard back in “the world” began to play. I squeezed into a place that was small. The longer I sat there, the smaller I got. The jungle is a prison with two choices, live or die and my choice was to survive. I got so small I didn’t exist, when you don’t exist, another reality begins.
Sure, at first songs about ‘It’s Raining, It’s Pouring” dripped through my brain but as the sprinkle turned into a downpour the music in my mind went into the constant beat and my mind settled into the distinct base line of “We’ve gotta get outta this place, If it’s the last thing we ever do, we’ve gotta get outta this place, girl there’s a better life for me and you.” Like a circular cassette tape, the song played over and over. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place, We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” I fell into a deep sleep.
The Trail of Evidence
“You Americans feel you have been fighting this war for seven years.
You have not. You have been fighting it for one year, seven times.”
Tran Ngoc Chau to Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets, (p 186)