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War Stories 12
Forget?- Hell No!
by Louis Beam
Even after all this time there seems to be no way we can forget or let Vietnam descend into the past. I for one can not, nor would I---even if it were possible. Why should we?
When we came home they threw blood in our faces, and feces on our caskets. No excuses now will change that. It could have been prevented. But there was no desire to prevent it. It was allowed, encouraged, and even promoted by the very people who sent us over there. Now they think they can bury some poor soul in Arlington National Cemetery, and at the same time bury the guilt along with their conscience. Never! They can erect all the black marble slabs they want, have all of the fifteen year late parades they care to, but it will change nothing. Nothing at all.
There is no relief, and can be none. We are forever trapped in the rice paddies and skies of Vietnam. We can neither go back or go forward, but are suspended for eternity in the place that they put us.
Even now I see the sun shining down intensely upon us. So many thousands. In the distance men sweating in the sun, looking for shade, but unable to find it, never obtaining relief from the oppressive heat, which bakes all, like so many loaves of bread. The choppers drone overhead in their relentless search for Charlie, the sound of the blades mixing with our thoughts. Each of us is alone, yet seeking comfort in numbers.
Young, unknowing, asking few questions, and never the right ones. Going straight to our death with the single hope that the yawning grave will be for another, rather than one's self; thinking that, believing it, praying for it: "Now I lay me down to sleep--I pray my Lord, my buddy to keep." Helicopters, heat, hope, nothing else.
Night, pitch dark, darker than anything you have ever seen. Somewhere out in the blackness there are men. In the air over the jungle I am suspended in an ocean of darkness. A sense of desolation surrounds me, heightened by the fact that the helicopter is fifteen hundred feet in the air. Looking down into the darkness I pray the ship will hold together, somehow remaining in the air rather than fall into the blackness below.
Tracers streak through the sky. F-104's come racing by with their cargo of death. Suddenly we break hard to the right as a phantom jet nearly collides with us. The chopper shakes and bounces up down from the rush of air. What a spectacular night show that would have made for the grunts down below who we have come to help. They could have used it. Someone else's death always makes you feel safer---it means your still alive.
Those poor grunt bastards, all alone in the darkness of an impenetrable black jungle, with nothing but M-60 tracers to light their way. Going into the LZ my stomach begins to tighten. Food, ammunition, cigarettes, and toilet paper. What else can a nineteen year old ask for?
Here we come, and they can say a prayer of thanks that a pilot brave enough to fly us in is at the controls. Down into the mouth of darkness we descend. Receiving fire Sir! From the blackness green tracers streak toward the ship. Am I going to die? "Permission to fire!" Answer me! damnit. Answer! let me kill some of these murdering wretches before they kill me. "Fire at will!" comes the reply. I heat the barrel of my gun until I am afraid it will curl up.
A few seconds later the skids of the ship hit the ground hard, hands grope in the darkness, reaching for the ammo and supplies yanking them off the ship. Pitch dark, the only light is that of bullets and mortars exploding. One of the grunts yells "clear!" The pitch on the blade changes and they grab for hot air, slowly, ever so slowly, the ship rises above the trees. Finally, 1500 feet up and the trip back to the base begins. For the grunts, they now have all they need to live twenty-four hours more, or perhaps, more than they will need.
Later, still in darkness, but this time in the quietness of a hooch laying in a cot, I wonder at the fact I am alive. This is what it feels like to survive. I sense that somehow in the mist of all this I am growing up. Turning older, not in years, but in days.
I can't help but think about the sergeant. I never met him--at least not in whole. I don't even know his name, nor can remember if I ever did. Sergeant Teeth. That's all I know. Sergeant, with the white teeth. While I was flying today a new replacement came into the company. Fresh from the world on the other side of the earth. They dropped him off at the H.Q. building. He walked into the orderly room with his hat in his hand to report for duty. There he stood announcing his presence to the orderly when he ceased to exist. A mortar came crashing through the roof by the front door.
When I got in they told me about the new sergeant. Three days in country, five minutes in our company. I looked at the place where he had been standing. Blood, blood, and teeth. Sergeant Teeth. That's all I will ever know about him.
I flew out to the Fifth Mechanized Infantry, area of operations today. One hell off a battle going on. From the air it looked like we were winning. But when we landed a grunt said the C.O. cracked up, then the X.O. Hot, sweat, blood, always the blood.
There is Bill! My friend who used to gun on a chopper in our platoon and then decided to return to his old meck unit. He is atop his armored carrier staring into the distance. "Bill what are you doing?" Finally he answers "My buddy was sitting right there" he said, pointing to the front of his armored personnel carrier. They blew his head off and his brains splattered in my face, on my lips. Part of his head--the part that was left--landed in my lap. I've had it. I've got to get out of here. No more, please dear God, no more." "Bill can I help you?" "Help me get out of here." I look toward the hedge line where the RPG's and bullets are coming from, then back toward Bill wondering what to do. A few feet away a turbine engine begins to spin. "My ships taking off, Bill, I'll talk to you later Bill."
Years later, I discover that I, along with thousands of other soldiers, have been poisoned by the chemical defoliant "Agent Orange." The doctor at the V.A. hospital where "screening" is conducted (government gibberish for "your OK son, don't worry about a thing") wants to know if I have trouble sleeping at night. Is he joking? I haven't been to sleep in fifteen years. Post Viet Nam Stress Syndrome. Otherwise know as "PVSS." Sounds like the name of a boat. If it is, they should rename it the Titanic.
There seems to be no end to it all. I wonder if stress can be defined as wanting to machine gun all the people who sent us over there, along with the ones who spit on us when we returned. Or, is perhaps stress something more simple like crying out for justice in the name of the mangled dead, and not being heard? Or is stress more of a mathematical function, like trying to figure out how much blood 57,673 bodies can hold? Let's see: three gallons to the body, times fifty-seven thousand six-hundred and seventy-three equals...
It is not the death and destruction that makes one unsettled inside. It's the death and destruction for no reason. If these political whores who rule in Washington, think that by laying some mother's son to rest in Arlington, while mouthing a few empty words, that everything will be forgiven---or forgotten---then they have less brains in their head than Bill's friend. Forget? Not even if I could.
Twenty years ago today on a hot muggy evening I received my packages from home. Some of the girls in the little community of Lake Jackson, Texas had decided to support the boys in Vietnam. Candy, cookies, and a Christmas card, from two girls whom I had known of back home, but could not remember ever having met.
A nice card, red and white, with bells on the front heralding peace on earth, good will to all, came in a tin full of cookies.
December 20, 1967, my first year "in country" (Republic of Vietnam) was drawing to a close. Since March, I had been hauling supplies, food, water, and ammunition, into small clearings in the jungle, on the UH1D "Huey" helicopter I was a door gunner on. Most recently, we had been hauling out of the jungle clearings, a lot of dead soldiers.
Though I tried, as I held the card in hand, starring blankly through it, I could not call forth "the Christmas spirit." It was of course, nice of the girls to send the card and cookies, but what about the body bag? All I can see is blood running from the corner of the green plastic that encases the dead G.I. The bag is not supposed to leak like that: it is heavy duty government issue. So why does the blood collect in a little pool there on the floor of the chopper? Only to be pushed by the on rushing wind in a long thin line toward the open door. The red thick liquid moves forward and then back again as the wind slacks momentarily. Ripples like you see on the surface of a pond when the wind rushes across.
The "grunts" who brought him must have dropped their burden on a staub, or torn the bag on the jungle undergrowth. This guy is big, really big, over six feet four. Too heavy for two guys to carry far, along with rifles and other gear. I had helped get him in place on the floor. That accomplished, one of the sweating, stinking, filthy--but alive--soldiers looked at me strangely, without speaking, and then at his buddy in the bag. The look on his tired face was one of "Take care of him for us." I looked into his eyes, then raised my hand to signal him that I would do it. Both men wanted to say goodbye to their friend in the bag, but knew it would be useless. Grabbing the canisters of food they turned and ran back into the jungle, for their unit was still in contact with the "gooks" and both were needed on the line.
Food in, bodies out. A "meat run" it is commonly called by air crews. Not because of what we give them, but what they give us. A few lucky grunts out of thousands in the jungle will receive the food in green aluminum containers, still warm usually, just like the guy in the bag. Warm food, for warm bodies, we are the death merchants of the air.
The blood has stopped running now, coagulating as it loses heat. As we fly back toward Cu Chi, leaving the last jungle clearing for the day, I become engrossed in a door gunner's trance of meditation (1500 feet in the air, 80 knots air speed, distant horizon) wondering who this guy is. Is the red gore there by my feet, blood from a White man, or a Black man? Or just a dead man? Where did he live? "What state you from?" is the first question one G.I. asks another when meeting. No answer from the bag. It really does no good to carry on a conversation with him, but I wanted to be nice for the sake of his friends back in the jungle, they would miss him tonight, as they laid down in the mud and filth of the jungle, fighting off the leaches while they rested their weary heads.
It occurs to me that I really don't know much about this bleeding guy in the torn bag, and nothing at all about the guy next to him, in a green, heavy duty, non leaking plastic body bag.
I saved the little red tin box that the cookies and Christmas card came in. A memento of the ghosts of Christmases past.
After a while all of the villages in Vietnam begin to look the same, shacks we call them in Texas. Tin, boards, chicken wire, and dirt. Yet within the confines of each of these hovels lies the potential of death.
The night mission makes this the most clear. For then the shacks become shielding cover for the man who has trained for the last five years or longer to take your life.
"We have a night mission" says the sergeant as he barges through the hooch door. "Combat Assault: Saddle up!" Military jargon for a night insertion of troops. "Get your gear together and report to your ship." Immediate excitement. Your guts begin to churn as you scramble for gear. Where will it be to?, who's going?, what's happening? All go through your head at the same time, each clashing with the other in an attempt to get an answer. No one, not even the most gungho among the helicopter door gunners like night missions. Blackness and death are all you can think about. But it is do or die, or maybe do and die.
The hustle at the fuel dump is impersonal. Each person carrying out his assigned task while lost deep in his own thoughts about the probable out come of the mission. Green fatigues, JP 4, and everyone in a hurry to finish fueling up so he can light a smoke and relieve some of the tension as it begins to build inside.
Lift off at last. Ten UH-1D helicopters disappear in a long line into the darkness leaving the bright lights of Cu Chi in the distance.
Anxious grunts are huddled in the center of the aircraft, each staring intently towards the dark jungle below, while thumbing the safety on his M-16 rifle. The one question on every mind: will the L.Z. be hot? Everyone, but the door gunner on ship number four, is praying for it to be cold.
The flight toward the insertion point seems to last forever. A constant roar from the turbine engine drowning out every sound but your thoughts. I wonder if the grunt closest to me is scared. 11:30 PM, and he already looks tired on what may be the longest night of his life, or perhaps, the shortest.
The jungle below rushes by, menacing in its forbodding blackness. Suddenly the pitch on the rotor blade changes and everyone's stomach tightens in unison, as if some invisible hand had tied all of our intestines together and then yanked on the rope. I feel an almost uncontrollable urge to urinate.
Throttling back on the turbine the pilot signals our approach to the L.Z. A deafening roar that had just moments before insulated each of us from the rest of the world instantaneously disappears. Night air that you were oblivious to previously now seems very cold. The decent to the L.Z. is quick, from 1500 feet to 200 hundred in seconds, where the plummet slows as each helicopter in the ten ship C.A. lines up for the final approach.
Without warning the sky changes from black to Christmas time. Silent night to unholy night. Red, yellow, and green tracers everywhere. Flashes of gunfire, like neon lights, going off in every direction advertising their message of death. "Full suppression!" comes over the helmet intercom. Now there is no fear as your finger pulls the trigger toward your body. Relief, blessed relief, as we build a road of bullets to pave our way into the jungle. The trigger on the M-60 is like the teddy bear you had as a kid. You pull it closer to you and feel safe and secure. Beautiful! This is the only word that can describe your tracers as they leap from the barrel one after another in orange glory. You follow them with your eyes into the jungle below looking for anything, just a single flash to train the M-60's 750 rounds per minute on. Hoping that your bullets are even now turning some gooks head into dirty jello.
Meanwhile the grunts begin to move about as they do last second checks on their gear. Peering even harder into the jungle than you. For they will have to stay---this is their new home coming up. A Phantom jet prepping the landing zone streaks by on a final bombing run so close that the back wind rocks the helicopter violently. Thoughts of a mid air collision, fire, falling into the blackness below jump through your mind, temporarilly crowding out the enjoyment of shooting your gun.
Flaring of the blades signals touch down. A hard bump and in but an instant the young men who had sat crowded in the belly of the ship are gone, disappearing into the black mist. Moments later the ship starts its slow move forward and up. As the turbine whines and the ship shutters, rotor blades grab for lift from the thin hot night air. It seems like forever for the ship to gather the necessary speed to lift up over the jungle. Each tenth of a second is counted as you wait. Any moment can bring the flash of light from the blackness that signals your imminent death. Suddenly the lead helicopter receives fire from the front left and ten door gunners open up all at once on the same target.
Seconds later, though it seems much longer, the ship is up over the jungle and you experience a sigh of relief. Then relaxation, followed almost immediately by exhaustion as adrenalin ebbs from your body.
Two weeks later you hear that you've been awarded an Air Medal for "heroism" for the night mission. Your only thought is wondering what the grunts will get out of it, for they are still out there somewhere, sweating, bleeding, dying.
Have I really made it this far? Twenty years into the future? In utter amazement I reflect that but by a stroke of fate or the Grace of God, I have been carried two decades beyond the time of death.
1967, August, I am flying north of Saigon above the Bo Loy woods. A brilliantly clear day like so many in this part of the world. From my eagles nest of 1500 feet there is a clear view for miles. Below is jungle or what used to be jungle. Busily tearing it away is a Rhome plow making relentless swaths leveling the jungle in its path in attempt to clear the hiding places of the Viet Cong. It seems like a futile effort, for as far as the eye can see there is jungle with only a small clearing here and there inter-spaced in the thickness of triple canopy. Each clearing has trails leading to it and then back into the jungle. I always notice the clearings, for each is a potential landing spot should the motor stop or the ship take a hit and be forced to land.
Flying alone at eighty knots over an endless stretch of sameness Col. Shaw sits a few inches away taking it all in with his field glasses. The radio is silent, nothing but the constant drum of a turbine motor from a UH-ID helicopter can be heard. Always in the background, this steady whine is reassuring and seems to encompass and envelope everything, creating a trance like peace, where life goes on protected by this invisible audio force field. Only when the sound changes, rising or lowering in pitch, does one return from meditation quickly snapping ones head toward the pilots to determine what is about to happen.
I had for some time envied Mike King, the freckle faced, red headed boy from California, turned master killer. Mike's 102 kills were the envy of every door gunner in the entire battalion. He had been the Cols. regular gunner for over a year now, allowing him to get in on more action than any three other gunners combined. Col. Shaw had established his reputation as the hardest fighting Col. in the 25th. Infantry Division. Always to be found in the middle of any action taking place. Had Mike not gone on leave back to the "world" I would not be here now. My regular job, that of door gunner for the Commanding General for the 25th Infantry Division had been making me miss out on a lot of good fire fights. General Tilson, the C.G., is nice, but I am on my second tour in Nam and afraid I will leave for home without racking up fifty kills, either confirmed or probables.
As we head ever further into the seemingly endless jungle we arrive over a place that has been bombed out. The ground around a large clearing looks lifeless and most of the foliage is dead. Suddenly the Col. spots something and motions for the pilot to quickly go down to "the deck." I grab hold of my machine gun in expectation of receiving fire from the underbrush. At no more than ten feet off the ground we begin to cruise around the clearing at less then fifteen knots, while the Col. looks over the terrain. None of the normal covering foliage remains, just dried twisted trees and dead debris. Suddenly fifty feet to my front a Viet Cong clad in nothing but his black shorts, jumps up and begins to run across my field of vision. I shout to the aircraft commander for permission to fire. In the four or five seconds it takes him to reply the gook has leapt into the air as he dives toward a trench line with a tunnel connected to it. Permission to fire! comes through the headphones. I open up on the flying man with my tracers following him through the air into the hole. I run my bullets up and down the trench line and back into the hole again. The Col. looks at me and gives a big thumbs up sign, smiling and telling the Air Craft Commander that I did some excellent shooting.
We circle around and around the hole for several minutes not able to see down into it. Nothing can be seen of the flying gook. I ask to be allowed to go in the hole after him and see if we got him. Permission denied. The A.C. replies that the Col. has already been chewed out by higher ups for jumping out of the chopper and chasing gooks on foot and shooting them with his .45 pistol. I begin to curse to myself about what a lousy way to fight a war this is. Why must I ask permission to fire at a target that can only be the enemy? So many times the dirty little bastards get away. Why won't they let us fight like they did in World War II? I never saw a war movie where American soldiers have to ask permission to fire at the Germans. I brewed for the rest of the day on another lost chance to get a confirmed kill.
Late in the evening after landing back at Cu Chi, the Col. comes up and shakes my hand while saying that he enjoyed my good shooting. I feel like saying that I enjoy getting confirmed body counts, but hold back. What good would it do? He does not make the rules, only follows them, like the rest of us.