Final Day

O’Donnel’s proposed operation may or may not have been stupendous but it was certainly large. The whole Battalion minus heavy weapons – mortars and 50 calibers – was going out to sweep the countryside and hopefully persuade Mr. Charles to do the gentlemanly thing and stand and fight. With four companies, over five hundred men, I had serious doubts that Charlie would be that foolish, but he’d have a field day with snipe and run. Why is the Brass incapable of understanding that the other side will generally try not to do what you want and will play by their own rules?

Seventy Huey slicks accompanied by eight Huey Cobras would lift us all into the wild blue at the same time. Fun thing, my personal chopper would be one of the last to land. We were headed for deep doodoo, so naturally, Second drew point for the whole show.

Yippee.

The monsoons skipped their normal morning dance, and the day looked like it would be hot and clear and hot and sweaty and—hot; dusty too. Seventy choppers create a bigger dust devil than you might imagine. I hurried through the haze to O’Donnel’s location at the edge of the clearing.

Lieutenant, head into the trees there,” he pointed, “for about two hundred meters then take a compass heading of 270 degrees and try to set a good pace. Most important, anybody in the trees is fair game. This is ‘Indian Country’. There are no friendlies.”

Sir, does that include the village on the edge of the trees about a mile down?”

Damn right. They know we’re here and they know why we’re here. They’ve got no reason to be in the trees. The orders are to shoot first, shoot second, and shoot third. The hell with asking questions.”

Roger, we’re on our way.” I saluted and waved at Avery to start the parade. As my point went by I joined him and relayed the Colonel’s bidding. I dropped back along the line as we went to make sure everyone understood. By the time I informed all my men, we had covered two hundred meters and turned on our compass heading.

The great thing about rubber trees is shade. Even the tropical sun at full blast can’t make the ground-level light brighter than early dusk. It’s cooler too. The ten degree drop left us at a mere 105. Still hot and sweaty, but who’s complaining.

We set a good pace and settled into the rhythm of the day. Into our second hour and a few hundred meters short of paralleling the village, my point raised his hand for a halt and pointed to his right. Noise was quickly followed by a sighting. A jeep! A genuine G.I. Jeep in the middle of nowhere driven by two Vietnamese men in short sleeve white shirts, dark slacks and black ties.

The vision was too bizarre to even think about the Colonel’s orders, let alone cut loose. We yelled laddymau and waved and in they came.

I had Harry call and advise the Colonel as I walked over to the vehicle. Avery had already secured the jeep and established an outer defensive perimeter. A quick search produced no weapons or anything else suspicious. The Colonel arrived.

He was not a happy camper, but he said nothing to me at first. Through our interpreter, the visions declared themselves to be “Just two guys on a visit to their mother in the village.”

That sounded like a good story to me, not necessarily true mind you, but good. If I were they, I’d stick with it.

Following thirty minutes of frustration O’Donnel turned to me. “Lieutenant, I gave you very specific, direct orders. Why are these men alive?”

I don’t know, Sir. Lucky I guess. They sorta’ caught us by surprise with the jeep and all.”

Not good enough, Lieutenant! Not near good enough. I expect my orders to be carried out as given. My order is there are no friendlies out here. Shoot first. Don’t be surprised. Don’t think. Shoot, dammit! Is that order clear enough?”

Sir. Yes, Sir.” I saluted. I wasn’t intimidated. It was too damn hot for this crap.

A half hour later we were almost back in rhythm when, with a bang and a clang, a truly surreal apparition accosted us. A school bus, a freaking yellow school bus, drove out from the village. The driver spotted us and slammed on his brakes. We shouted and waved at him to laddymau over to us. He hit reverse and backed away.

I moved to have my men hold their fire and send a warning shot.

KRACK!

Cease…”

KRACKITA! KRACKITA! BOOM! KRACKITA!

“…fire!”

My hands had outraced my mind and people were being shot to hell. The bus driver bounced around on his seat as eighty rounds ripped into him.

KRACKITA!

The bullets couldn’t drown the screams. All the bus windows were shattered. Bodies tumbled out the back door.

Cease…”

KRACKITA!

…fire!”

A young girl, maybe twelve, her right arm hanging, blood all over her face and side, leaped from the roof of the bus and disappeared past a tree.

Cease fire! Goddammit! Stop shooting! Cease…,” I yelled into silence. I stared at Avery.

We stared at our men. Everyone stood mutely looking at the mess.

In the silence the bus engine groaned to life, “RRR. RRRR. RRRRR.” Someone shifted into reverse, and the bus backed into the village.

No one of us could find a single word to say.

O’Donnel took care of that as he ran up to me, “Lieutenant, you didn’t shoot those people did you? That is—my God! Tell me you didn’t shoot those people!”

I gazed at this bizarre figure and in the calm, serene voice of insanity said, “Why no, Sir. We were shooting at the tires.”

No one disputed me, and we stood quietly with our own thoughts of eternal damnation while the Colonel sputtered and spasmed. He finally determined an exploratory visit into the village was needed. In we went.

Boiling oil could not burn as hot as the hatred flaming at us from the villagers. Justified hatred I knew. I also knew this could not be made right.

I listened as a middle-aged, sweating, Vietnamese, in fear for his life, desperately told the Colonel, through our interpreter, that he had been driving the bus.

Colonel, not that it makes much difference, but he is lying.”

Based on what, Lieutenant?”

Based on, that the guy driving the bus had sixty or seventy holes in him.”

What! You said your men were shooting at the tires.”

Yes, Sir. That’s what they were shooting at. I never said what they actually hit.”

The bus sat five meters away; not a window shard intact. The driver’s seat, visible through the door, was soaked red. Kick the bullet-hole-free tires, however, and you’d find they were still good for that long, slow drive to hell. Which I’ll be taking soon, no doubt.

My eyes locked with O’Donnel’s. The gauntlet was clearly thrown and only death would satisfy the challenge.

The Colonel’s eyes shifted, looked over my shoulder, and a tight, mean smile formed on his face.“Lieutenant, take a couple of men and check that thicket out.” He waved and I turned to see a‘thicket’ fifteen meters high and a hundred meters wide that even Brer Rabbit couldn’t love.

The enemy could have an entire base camp in there. We need to check it out.” O’Donnel was nearly drooling at the thought of getting rid of me so easily.

Let’s see how you deal with disappointment. “Yes, Sir.” I saluted. With no further comment, I walked over to Avery.

Get Alexander and pick another man who can fight and run. I’ve got to take two guys and go check out that thicket.”

I’ll go with you, Mickey.”

Love to have you, Man, but you have to take care of the platoon.” I turned to Harry,

Give me that Prick-25, Harry. I’ll need it for this.”

Ain’t I going with you, Sir?”

Not this trip. You stay close to Sergeant Avery and keep him out of trouble.”

Five minutes later, I stood at the edge of the thicket with Alexander and Private Grissom. The Colonel wants us to check for unfriendlies in the bramble-bush.” I held up my hand. “Save it, Alexander. We’re not checking for shit. You guys spread three meters to each side. As soon aswe get far enough in to be out of sight, I’ll give the word and we run. Get this straight. We’ve got probably five hundred plus meters to get through. Run as fast as you can. Don’t stop for anything. If something or someone bothers you, shoot but don’t stop. If you get shot at, don’t stop. If you get hit, don’t stop. Do not stop to help each other. We do not stop. We run to the other side. You guys got it?”

They nodded. We spread out and moved into the badlands. Four steps in I looked back at a solid green curtain, breathed deep and hissed, “Move out.”

I ran. Alexander and Grissom ran. They were good combat troops and followed orders. They ran and looked for nothing but a path through. I ran, slightly behind, and did my best to keep an eye on both of them.

At fifty meters the run became a slow jog.

We slipped around bushes, slashed through waist high grasses. We did not stop. We ran.

At a hundred and fifty meters the slow jog became a fast walk. We did not stop. We ran.

Insanity is a marvelous thing for enhancing clarity of thought during times of great stress. As we plunged through the greenery, I found the kind of mile eating pace Edgar Rice Burroughs had described for Tarzan. We ran.

The landscape was a simple blur of greens with no single leaf identifiable as a separate entity.

Burroughs was a hack! We ran.

We staggered more than ran. A hack, yes, but he could tell a damn good story! We stumbled into the open together and collapsed in a small depression a few meters beyond the edge of the thicket. Without a word, we each pulled a canteen out and emptied about half down our throats and the rest over our heads.

When our coughing, gasping and hacking for breath slowed, I picked up the Prick-25.

Operation Smoke, while we recover. Nothing found fifty meters at a time, right?”

Mickey, hold on a sec.” Alexander gasped. “I saw one.”

What?”

Saw Charlie, black PJs and all, sitting down, eating from a rice bowl. Mickey, he only stared at me and blinked, and I was gone. But, Man, they are in there.”

Yeah, I’m sure they’re in there. The fuckers are everywhere. Thing is, it’s Operation Smoke, or we go back in and probably don’t come back out.”

I looked from one to the other. Grissom shrugged. Alexander grinned, “Smoke ’em.”

I called every fifteen minutes for fifty meters. We rested for the next hour and a half, then reported we had emerged from the other side.

All right, Lieutenant. Come back into the rubber trees and rejoin the Battalion at the rear. Then work your way back up to your company.”

Some temptations can’t be resisted. “Roger, Sir. Do you suppose you could pass the word we are coming and tell everyone that not everybody in the trees is fair game? I’d hate to have to duck friendly fire, ya know?”

Sputtering, the Colonel agreed, and we moved out. Round one—a draw. I had bloodied him, however. More importantly, all my men were alive.

It was almost two hours before we reached our Company. Ryan did not seem thrilled to see me.

Damn it, Mickey. The Colonel has chewed my ass good. You’ve got to stop writing your own play. This shit is getting old.”

Understood, Captain, but, tell me, aside from shooting up that bus, what would you have done differently?”

Unfair question. Ryan’s a good guy. “Question withdrawn, Sir. With apologies. What’s up next?”

We’re going to move about half a mile to where the trees drop back, set up a perimeter and bring in re-supply by Chinook. The bulk of the Battalion will move into the trees to establish a defensive position for the night. I’m putting you on perimeter. Hopefully, that will keep you away from the Colonel.”

Suits. Ready when you are.”

Apparently the Colonel wasn’t ready, so we cooled our heels in the fine hurry up and wait tradition of the U.S. Army for most of an hour. Finally, we moved. Soon, I had all twenty- four of my men, including two FNGs who were on their first field operation, set in a circle that was marginally large enough to land a Chinook.

Shit-hook ho!” Avery shouted, as the ungainly chopper appeared, coming in high. Chinooks are big, twin rotor choppers designed to carry a lot of men or boo koo supplies. They have two drawbacks. First, they are generally lightly armed. Second, they are always a pain when they are above you because those huge rotors create a small tornado. Gentle can be found nowhere in their description.

The Colonel popped a yellow smoke, and we were soon all ducking from the sandstorm of the landing. The massive tailgate dropped and unloading proceeded apace. We grinned and watched.

The Colonel turned and headed back into the trees improving my mood even more.

The pilot took off to fetch a second load. The pussy must have been afraid of taking a few sniper rounds because he hit nearly full power straight up. I think he left us with a Force 3 tornado.

Bastard!

An hour later, I popped a red smoke, and the ’hook settled in again. Off-loading moved quickly.

The Cargo Master yelled, “Back soon. We got another load for you.”

I waved. The beast roared off amid the swirling clouds. I coughed.

Avery sat down next to me, wiping the sweat and grime from his face and said, “Getting late for another run. I already can’t see into the trees a hundred feet.”

Uh Huh. We’ll be tight getting back to rendezvous. Make sure the guys are paying attention.”

Right.”

An hour later, the third load was being offloaded. I was making a worried survey of approaches when Avery yelled.

Mickey, Come over here. You ain’t gonna’ believe this shit!”

I hustled over.

Look, at this,” Avery pointed.

I looked. 81MM mortar rounds, fifty caliber ammunition, blocks of ice, and beer, freaking beer, lay on the ground. The Chinook roared again and scooted for home.

Harry, get the Captain for me.” I couldn’t even shake my head. This bizarre day seemed never ending. “Six, couple of questions. Do we have the eighty-one mike mikes with us?”

Damn it, Mickey. You know we don’t.”

Okay, then do we have the fifties with us?”

What the fuck are you talking about? You know we don’t!”

Okay, okay. One more question.”

What’s that?”

Uhh, would you like a cold beer?”

Jezoo criminies! What are you gibbering about?”

Not gibbering, Captain. The last load brought ammo for the mortars and the fifties, blocks of ice and cases of beer. You might want to advise the Colonel. Don’t think he’d care to hear it from me.”

The Captain advised O’Donnel, and, in an amazingly short time, he was kicking the blocks of ice and mouthing unpleasantries. To my relief, he grabbed the radio and was soon chewing the ass of the REMF Captain in charge of re-supply rather than my delicate posterior. The tone of the conversation was loud and clear. It included such phrases as: “Bust your REMF ass to private”…“Put you on point carrying a block of ice,” and the priceless, “Shove a can of beer up your ass, pull the tab, and fire you at Charlie….”

This delightful conversation completed, O’Donnel waved me over. “Lieutenant, the chopper is headed back to pick this stuff up. You’ll have to hold this perimeter and join the Battalion when the clean-up is through.”

Okay, Sir. But it’s already dark in the trees and bound to be dark here before the chopper gets here. How do we land the chopper with no strobes, and how do we re-join you in the dark?”

Landing is the pilot’s problem. Light a fire or something. As for getting back to us— we’ll set up a line of sentries to bring you in. Now, I don’t need any more shit. Carry out your mission.”

Sir,” I saluted. He turned and left. I resisted shooting him in the back. Barely.

Full dark beat the chopper by ten minutes. By then, we had figured a way to bring him in. Unlike most of the other platoons, we had saved a few of our M-79 flare rounds. Second squad blooper fired a flare round straight up, and the pilot settled on the ground as the light extinguished.

I stood with the Cargo Master and kept an eye on the left side while Avery covered the right side.

The loading was slow. The Cargo Master was a wee bit worried.

Damn, Lieutenant, does your asshole Colonel know how stupid this is? We make a hell of a target.”

Probably knows. Certainly doesn’t care, Sergeant. Comes with being an asshole.”

The Sergeant agreed. Misery loves company, but neither of us was eager for the company we were likely to get.

After fifteen minutes, perhaps a third of the ammo had been loaded. The Cargo Master leaned close to me, “Pilot says we don’t work for your fucking, asshole Colonel. We’re out of here. Get your men and back off so we’re clear to didi.”

The Chinook lifted. We crouched. The ’hook rose about ten meters…

KRACK! KRACKITA! KRACKITA!

Fire came in from at least three different locations. Only AKs and aimed at the ’hook not us. The pilot hit full power, Force 8 tornado, straight up. We hugged the ground we were pressed down into and waited for a calm in the local weather.

The winds declined. I tapped Avery’s arm. “Get your side in. I’ll get mine. Let’s vacate while Charlie is still pissed at the target and before he decides to come after us.”

I moved down my side. We assembled at the edge of the trees.

Alexander, point. There’s supposed to be sentries posted to lead us in. Stay cool and take it slow. We don’t need any stragglers.”

We moved into a blackness more total than any nightmare I had ever experienced.

Fifteen minutes in I called a halt. Alexander reported no sentries. I called Ryan.

Six, the shit-hook went home and we’re fifteen minutes off the perimeter, but we haven’t contacted any sentries. Please advise.”

A short pause, “Mickey, the Colonel says you were told to call before pulling up the perimeter, and he would set the sentries out then.”

Are you pulling my fucking chain? I—”

The voices were definitely Vietnamese and clearly only a few meters away. Everyone went to the ground quickly and quietly. To my super-sensitive hearing it sounded like merely a small buffalo herd. Damn! Why don’t we yell, Hey, you goddamed greenies, over here! I see Trail” over there. I see you damn it!

I suspended breathing and used every sense I had to pierce the blackness and find a way out of this nightmare. Nothing. Nature finally required that breathing be resumed.

No way out and no way home. Can’t see two feet but I can feel everybody’s eyes on me looking for direction. Shit!

I pulled the guys on either side closer and whispered, “Pass the word down the line. If any shooting starts, fire a magazine then run and find a hole to hide in until daylight. Pass the word quietly!”

I gripped “One Shot” tightly and lay listening to the whispers being passed down the line. I desperately searched my mind for a better answer, but P. S. C. was not taking any calls at the moment.

Goddamed unfair…ghouls are supposed to glow green in the dark. Aren’t they? Bastards never play by the rules.

Steady. P.S.C. checked in. Steady.

Yeah, But how ‘bout some help outta this shit?

We waited. Time was measured by breaths. Mine were a hundred years apart.

They’re right over there. Waiting to kill us. Just waiting. Bastards! I—bit my tongue to keep from laughing out loud at the vision in my head. I imagined a VC Lieutenant, a mere twenty feet away, whispering to his men, “If any shooting starts, fire a magazine, then run and find a hole to hide in until daylight. Pass the word quietly!”

It is not possible to conceive of a more bizarre situation or a more idiotic way to end this whole insane journey through hell. I only want to get up and walk away.

The lightning bolt shattered my brain. Get up and walk away, stupid. Quietly, of course.

I did not hesitate. I passed the word down the line, and at my signal, everyone rose as quietly as possible and Alexander led us away.

Ten minutes of slow, stealthy hiking passed. I called a halt and buzzed Ryan.

Six, sorry to have cut you off, but we had a close encounter with Charlie.”

Okay, Mickey. Where are you?”

Lost in the fucking woods! Sorry, Captain. Look we’ll find you. Only, please make sure everyone knows we’re out here. I really don’t want my guys wasted by friendly fire. We’ll call when we get close.”

Roger. I’ll pass the word personally.”

I called Avery to my side.

Any bright ideas on how to find the Battalion?”

Damn, Mickey, I think they were on a heading of twenty degrees from where we were, but I can’t even see the goddamed compass to get a heading. We sure don’t know how much we’ve moved. Maybe we should set up a defensive position. Stay here.”

Possibly, but let’s think this through first. They can’t be that far. I—Wait a damn minute, Sarge. How many guys can you sneak quietly through the woods?”

Weird question—five or six at best. It depends—brilliant! Damn smart, Mickey! Five hundred guys can’t keep quiet. We listen for them.”

We cautioned our guys to absolute silence and listened. It didn’t take long to fix a direction. We moved towards the noise. Yeah, light would have been better, but you take what you can get. We moved slow, and stopped every five minutes to listen. Seven stops, and we were close enough to call in.

A few exchanged comments, and we slipped into the battalion line with Alpha company.

Avery, count heads. I’ll let the Captain know we’re here.”

Ryan was to the point, “Stay where you are for the rest of the night. The Colonel wants to see you in the morning. Hopefully, he’ll calm down by then.”

He might be calmed by then. I doubt I will. Avery is taking a long time with that count. C’est lavie, everybody’s safe for the moment.

Mickey,” Avery’s voice cracked. “We’re missing three.”

My mind splintered. “Are you sure?”

Yes. Three counts.”

Who?”

Grissom and the two FNGs.”

Nothing. No fear. No anger. No despair. Cold enveloped my soul in this “woods of midnight darkness” and I no longer had a way to feel anything. I stood up and picked up my backpack.

It’s okay, Sarge. You watch the ones here, and I’ll go get them.”

Mickey, that’s nuts, even for you. You can’t go back out there!”

C’mon, man. I can’t not go back out there. I’ve got three men missing. I need to find them and bring them back.”

I can’t let you do that.”

You ain’t good enough to stop me. You know that.”

Yeah. But Mickey, what are you going to do? Kill me? You’ll have to. Those guys are on their own. They live or die on their own tonight. First light we’ll go get ’em.”

Logic. Sometimes, I hate logic.

You’re right.” I sat down. “Call Ryan and advise him. I don’t need to discuss this anymore tonight.”

Sure, Mickey. Alexander, Young. You guys sit with the Lieutenant. Make sure he hangs around, huh?”

Don’t you trust me? You fucking bastard!”

I trust ya, I love ya, and I know ya. Try to get some rest.”

Rest? Don’t remember how or ever having had any for that matter. This night I’ll wait, but rest resides in some fairytale. Besides, all those ghastly, green ghoulies keep running around in the trees; calling for me to die and join them. Rest?—a fantasy.

At light’s first glint, which in the rubber trees was the ability to see as far as five feet away, I started after my guys. I was not alone. Ryan had persuaded the Colonel to send Recon Platoon. Officially, I was accompanying them. In reality, they were moving at twice their normal pace to keep up with me. The Recon Platoon Leader was not thrilled, but he knew better than to argue.

We were half way back to the clearing when I saw movement. My hand shot up to hold the platoon as I stepped forward to observe. There! Past that tree. “One Shot” had automatically leaped to ready.

Grissom! You son of a bitch! Over Here!”

He stumbled, recovered and waved, “Mickey! Damn, I’m glad to see you.” Two bodies appeared behind him. They all hustled to join us.

Mickey, I—we—Shit! Man, I’m just glad to be alive!”

Yeah, I’m glad too—Now what the fuck happened? I’ve had a miserable night worrying about you shitheads. You better have a damn good explanation. No bullshit either, or I’ll make you unhappy to still be alive. Talk!”

Uhh—Mickey, we did something pretty stupid. We, uhh—we fell asleep.”

You what? Fell fucking asleep? Damn! I think I will shoot you.”

Now, Mickey, I was exhausted and the two FNGs didn’t know any better. Anyway,”

Grissom hastened on, “we fell asleep under that bush at the base of the perimeter. When we woke up, it was totally dark, and fucking Charlie was all over the place. He was picking up all the stuff left behind, drinking beer, they really liked the beer, and generally having a good time. I think that’s why they didn’t discover us. Anyway, we spent the whole night a few feet from them under that bush. I didn’t figure there was any way to survive. I guess they were too busy to notice us. They finally went home about an hour ago, and as soon as I thought it was safe, we came looking for you guys.”

All three of you deserve to be shot. You know why?” They shook their heads and lowered their eyes.

Look at me!” I snarled.

They did.

You deserve to be shot because you were stupid. You’re alive because you were lucky. You have used up all the luck you will have for the rest of your miserable lives. If you are stupid one more time, you die. Doesn’t matter if you’re tired, or exhausted or not fucking paying attention. Stupid once more and you die. I won’t have to kill you. Charlie will. No charge.Capiche?”

They each nodded solemnly.

Fine. Now get your ragged asses in line and let’s rejoin the battalion.”

P.S.C.: You’re not giving them much leeway on the stupid bit. You’ve been stupid about ten times a day since you got here, and you ain’t dead yet. Is that luck or are you special?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m dead and haven’t had the sense to fall down and lay still. Anyway, leadership requires kicking butt after a foul-up like that. Further deponent sayeth not.

Recon notified the Colonel of our success, and we soon linked back up.

Ryan spoke a mite harshly, “Mickey, I talked the Colonel into waiting a bit to deal with you. Suggested he have more important things to take care of. He didn’t like what I said. I have the sore butt to prove that. However, he agreed. He put us on rear guard to keep you as far from him as possible. I think that’s a good idea. Second’s got the ass end for the day.”

Yes, Sir.”

What? No wisecracks, bon mots. Or whatever?”

Moi? None, Mon Capitan. Except….”

Yes?”

Thanks for taking some of my ass chewing.”

Not to worry, Mickey. I’m sure there’s plenty left for you.”

It was an hour before the column moved far enough for us to actually start walking. Avery and I had personally checked each platoon member to ensure gear was in order – water was becoming scarce, but ammo was okay – and encourage focus on paying attention and staying alive. I had also thanked the powers in the universe that none of mine had died, and reminded them I was prepared to quit and go home any time.

I had also reminded Avery, “I’m really looking forward to getting this operation over and heading to Hawaii on R& R.”

LT you ain’t going nowhere until your replacement gets here. I’m damned sure not taking charge of this nuthouse platoon again. No replacement, no R&R.”

This did not diminish my anticipation. I had always wanted to visit Hawaii.

We moved slowly. After the best part of an hour, we had covered only a few hundred meters. A stench infused my nostrils. Every combat instinct went to full alert.

Everyone listen up.” I spoke loudly enough to be heard without yelling. “We have VC in the immediate area. I can smell them. Left flank up ahead. Stay sharp!”

No one questioned my alert. There is a clear difference between the smell of Americans and the smell of Vietnamese. A lot of guys could detect the odor if the wind was right. I had never smelled such a strong rancid stink, not even at pig farms. This was of concern.

Fifty meters further the left flank hollered, “Got one dead gook on the ground.”

I called it in to Ryan, and within a minute the entire column stopped. Ryan called, Mickey, check it out but move it along. The Colonel is not a happy camper.”

Yeah? Did you ask him how five hundred troops could walk by this and not detect it? Doesn’t leave me feeling secure.”

Fuck your feelings! I am currently more sensitive to O’Donnel’s feelings.”

Shit! I’m more sensitive to keeping my guys alive. I wonder if those five hundred fuckers missed this or deliberately ignored it.

We set a quick perimeter. Avery and I looked at the corpse from thirty feet away where the odor was only over-powering, not deadly as a closer approach would provide.

Avery advised, “We have one, four-to-seven-days-in-the-tropical-oven dead, oriental type person; bloated, stinking, and unlikely to be useful. However, I guess we need to search it.”

Yeah. Let’s throw a rope and see if we can drag him a little. Could be wired with unpleasant boom surprises.”

We dragged the body a few feet. No booms, but ruptures in the corpse intensified the smell. From thirty feet away, every breath I took made me spasm with a vomit reflex. To my surprise, we had a volunteer to conduct the hands on search. Grissom. I guess he wanted to make up for the previous night. Who was I to prohibit a sinner from doing penance?

I agreed.

Grissom knelt by the deceased and searched his pockets, front and back. He tried to hold his breath and work as rapidly as he could. It still took him several minutes of retching with each breath to complete the task.

I reported to Ryan, “Personal papers. Nothing of military value or importance.”

Doc was trying to get Grissom to gargle with a little c-rat salted water to calm the man’s convulsive shudders. I put my hand on his shoulder, “Good job, Man, but we have to move now. Pull it together.”

I turned. “Doc, stick with him, but don’t even think of falling behind.”

The column moved. The Colonel was pissed, so the pace was faster, but you still can’t move five hundred men quickly.

An hour later, the Colonel called a halt and summoned the Captains to his position. We were told to use the time to eat because there would be no lunch break due to, in the Colonel’s words, the unwarranted delays this morning.

Hardly anyone ate because water was in severe shortage. A few lucky troops had cans of fruit with liquid, which they ate. Most shared with buddies. I quietly gave a can of peaches to Doc to share with Grissom. He was okay but definitely resembled your basic whipped puppy.

Shortly, the Platoon Leaders joined their respective Captains to be briefed.

There will be no water re-supply. The Colonel doesn’t want to give away our position.” Ryan stared at the ground as he spoke. “The Colonel thinks we can draw our water from the stream we’ll be crossing in about an hour. He also wants to double our pace. We’ll be moving out of the trees into jungle. He thinks the pace can improve.”

Really?” I tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the derision from my voice. “Our esteemed Colonel truly believes, after making every possible effort over the last twenty-nine hours to advertise our presence, and with the certainty that Charlie knows we’re here and knows exactly, where here is, he can now sneak over five fucking hundred men through the woods? That a few choppers overhead dropping water bags would compromise us, and, further, that we can double our pace without water? Un-fucking-believable!”

Ryan quietly said, “Lieutenant, we’re all too strung out to waste time and effort on fruitless protests. Get your men ready and make sure you keep pace.”

Yes, Sir.” I saluted and turned to leave with the other Platoon Leaders.

Ryan reached out grabbed my arm and continued quietly. “Mickey, everyone agrees with you, but orders are orders. What would you have us do? Shoot the man?”

I stared into his eyes. “Not a bad idea, Captain. Not bad at all.” I paused. “The paper work would be a bitch though.”

He grinned. I grinned, outwardly. Shooting him works for me! I returned to my guys.

We exited the rubber trees in less than an hour. The temperature immediately jumped ten degrees. A toasty day in Hades. At the Colonel’s increased pace, it took another two hours before the point element reached the stream. No one had fallen from heat prostration. I believe the effort to fall was more than anyone was willing to make. At least half of my platoon was groggy. We hadn’t had a drop of water in over an hour.

The Colonel’s orders were for each soldier to dip his canteen in the stream as he crossed and get what water he could. Full water re-supply would come tomorrow.

Like the man said when the hooker said I love you—“Yeah! Right!”

Everyone stopped and filled every canteen he had whether that was two, three, or six. It was a long hour and a half before we entered the now silt-clouded stream. I filled two canteens for me and three for Harry. Doc was doling out iodine tablets and making sure they were used to kill those little two-step bugs, and their deadly buddies, that play in all the water in Vietnam.

He dropped tablets in my five canteens and helped shake them to let the iodine mix. I pulled out my last two Root Beer Fizzies, considered them for a moment and dropped them into one of Harry’s canteens. I handed that one to him first.

Drink this down over the next ten minutes as slowly as you can.”

He nodded and started drinking. To his credit, the canteen lasted almost four minutes.

I looked around at the mass confusion and did not have the strength to sigh.

Cmon, Avery. Get them in order before Charlie decides it’s time to dance, and we’re caught without our tap shoes.”

Roger.” Avery chuckled. A full laugh would have required too much energy.

We had plenty of time to get organized. The Colonel’s outstanding leadership had left the whole Battalion in a fucking mess that took another hour to sort out.

Radio calls had been bouncing around so wildly that everyone pretty much gave up on them. We finally started moving. Thirty minutes later Ryan called.

Mickey, are you behind me?”

What? What are you asking?”

Damn it, Mickey. It’s too hot for this. Are you behind me?”

Shit, Captain. I’ve been behind you all day. I guess I still am.”

No, that’s not what I mean. Are you behind—Never mind!”

I gave the handset back to Harry. A minute later the column moved. I turned and took a step. The universe went a Tilt-A-Whirl. The trees were spinning with the green and yellow and brown blurring into a funky mosaic … A small, curly green leaf spun slowly down … up? Nothing else is moving. Why …

What the fuck, now?

My head and right shoulder slammed into the ground followed by my right arm and side. A brief moment of eternity later, both of my legs struck the ground together.

OH GOD! AGGH!

I think I screamed. I could not tell, for I could not hear. You never hear the one … Pain. Searing, cutting pain ripped my legs. The small matter of breathing was difficult through my yowls. Then, as always, anger took stage center.

I screamed, “Oh fuck! God damn it to Hell! I don’t fucking believe it!”

A voice, from another world, hit my ears, “Mickey, don’t believe what, Man?”

I struggled for a breath, beat back the pain with my anger, and wailed, “Five hundred fucking guys walk through in front of me, and I step on a fucking mine!”

Mickey, no!” the voice came back. “It’s recon, and they’re still firing at us. You gotta stop ’em!”

KHAWAMP!

The blooper round exploded five meters past me.

Recon! Why? No time! Gotta stop ’em!

I turned with a howl of pain from the movement and looked for my radio.

I stared.

I died!

Harry, my fifteen year old warrior wannabe, was on his back elevated slightly by the Prick-25 under him. His arms were spread – CRUCIFIED! His head lolled back eyes closed. His face, and what I could see of his chest, were painted with the deep crimson of his heart’s blood. Broken. Why Harry, God? Why do I ask? There Is no God. I …

KRACKITA! KRACKITA!

Damn! Recon’s still firing. Got to stop them.

With a scream from the pain, I rolled closer to Harry’s desecrated body. I pulled the handset from his webbing and reached to the Prick-25. I flipped the dial to the Battalion frequency also used by Recon.

I screamed into the handset. “Cease fire you mother fuckers you’re killing my fucking guys stop shooting damn you you cock-suckers fucking cease shooting god damn please don’t fucking shoot anymore fucking quit please—”

Lack of air in my lungs and serious pain shooting from my legs caused me to pause and whimper for breath. I had no hope of the pain stopping—forever.

Mickey, they’ve stopped. You did it, Man. Recon isn’t shooting anymore. Way to go!”

Right. Way to go. You have killed a fifteen year old kid with your fucking unbending ethics. You bastard! You—

P. S. C.: No time for that! Find out who else is hit and deal with it!

Doc skidded into the dirt at my side. He began checking my legs. I grabbed his arm.Doc, Harry. Take care of Harry first. I’m okay.” I pushed, and he moved to Harry.

I shouted, in my best available, angry, command voice, “Okay listen up! Anyone who is hurt and can, sound off. Let me know you’re hit and how bad, if you can tell me.”

Mickey, this is Grissom. Caught some shrapnel in my arm and legs. Hurts but I’m okay.”

Sir, Private Galvin. I‘m hit in my knee. It’s burning real bad, but I think I’m okay.”

One of the FNGs who danced with Charlie last night. Hell of an intro to ’Nam.

Okay! Check your neighbors and make sure no one else got hit. Then set a perimeter so Charles doesn’t stroll in uninvited!”

I flipped the radio back to the company setting.

Six, this is Mickey. I’ve got four hit. Harry’s bad. Grissom and Galvin look not too serious but need evac. My legs are chewed up and I’ll need to fly out too. Please advise the Colonel. Get evac in the air and send medics back here. We need help.”

Roger, Mickey. On the way.”

I dropped the handset and focused on the pain.

No pain! No time! No pain. Hear me, God! No pain. I don’t have the time. You and I will settle later, but no pain now.

Foolish, I know. Thing is, it worked. The pain receded.

I looked at Doc. He was laboring furiously with the kid and muttering words I couldn’t make out.

Even the best medic can’t raise the dead. I would have cried, but no tears were within me. Two medics rushed up to my position, dropped their bags and knelt next to me.

What are you fuck-heads doing?”

It’s okay, Sir. We’re going to patch you up. It’s okay. We aren’t going to hurt you any . . .”

Shut the fuck up! There are two guys down the line who need you first. Get moving.”

But, Sir. You’re hurt worse and besides, you’re an officer.”

What I am is a pissed-off officer. Now go take care of my men first, or I’ll shoot you, and you can join them.”

I looked again at Doc. Still working and muttering. Everything blurred for a moment. No pain! Damn it! No pain. It receded, again.

I blinked and there at my feet, in the flesh Colonel O’Donnel stood legs apart, hands on his hips, and looked left then right. He shook his head and spoke clearly and bluntly, “This,” he waved an arm over the scene, “should not have happened.”

I stared at this evil being for a second. I blinked:

P.S.C.: The charge is Capital Murder in the First Degree of a foolish, patriotic, fifteen year old.

What is the verdict?

Guilty as hell!

P.S.C.: Sentence is Death. Proceed.

I looked calmly at the condemned and spoke as clearly and bluntly as he had. “It damned sure did happen though! Didn’t it?”

One Shot” laid across my stomach where it had been since I landed. I grabbed the pistol grip, thumbed the selector to full auto, glanced at the magazine—Shit, only a twenty rounder. It’ll have to do—and executed the sentence.

Time stretched so every round was visible separately:

Rounds one and two: center mass, lower stomach. He lurched forward.

Round three: his right side, straightening him back up.

Round four: right shoulder stopping his gesture of denial.

Round five: shattering right collar bone.

Round six: right lung. Spit blood, you bastard!

Round seven: left ribs low. Can’t let him go over backward. No escape!

Round eight: right hip

Rounds nine and ten: Center mass again. Hold his attention.

Rounds eleven and twelve: right ribs low.

Rounds thirteen and fourteen: right nut, left nut. No macho manhood left to get other kids killed.

Rounds fifteen, sixteen, seventeen: dissolve his heart. It never worked anyway!

Round eighteen: right eye.

Round nineteen: left eye.

Round twenty: bridge of the nose. Die Motherfucker and take the fucking war with you!

Hell, I’ll probably get off light with temporary insanity. Not that it matters.

I un-blinked.

Doc spoke quietly but firmly, “Mickey, Harry’s going to make it. He’s going to live.”

No! It’s almost done. I’m almost done.

My hand and arm trembled with the immense effort required to keep from exerting a half ounce of pressure on the trigger.

I turned to Doc.

What?”

I said Harry is not going to die. He’ll make it.”

You better be right, or I’ll come back and finish this.” I waved “One Shot” at the condemned.

Mickey, if Harry don’t make it, you won’t need to come back. I promise.”

I lowered “One Shot.” The condemned, his face a strained puke green, did the only intelligent thing ever recorded about him. He turned and walked away without a word.

John Koelsch

John Koelsch

John M. Koelsch served as a Combat Platoon Leader in Vietnam in 1968. An excerpt from his novel, Mickey’s War, won the 2015 Meringoff Writing Award in the Essay. He’s had 4 of his short stories published. His poetry has been published in Clinch Mountain Review (twice), South Carolina Writers Workshop Anthology, Pass In Review, and other publications. He’s received 10 Gold Medals, 7 Silver Medals, and 5 Bronze Medals in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival Competitions from 2009-16. He was invited to the Festival in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2015. He performed his work on stage in 2013.
John Koelsch

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Author: John Koelsch

John M. Koelsch served as a Combat Platoon Leader in Vietnam in 1968. An excerpt from his novel, Mickey’s War, won the 2015 Meringoff Writing Award in the Essay. He’s had 4 of his short stories published. His poetry has been published in Clinch Mountain Review (twice), South Carolina Writers Workshop Anthology, Pass In Review, and other publications. He’s received 10 Gold Medals, 7 Silver Medals, and 5 Bronze Medals in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival Competitions from 2009-16. He was invited to the Festival in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2015. He performed his work on stage in 2013.