War Stories 5
The Zappini Quest
By David Zappini
A Tribute to WO1 Joseph Vincent Zappini Jr. And his fellow brothers who gave their all.
This is the story of the last two days of my search for the exact spot where my brother died in the Vietnam war some thirty two years ago. Every quote is exactly right. Every thought I recount is just the way it went through my mind. Indeed, the reason I wrote all this down was for me, so that I would remember what happened, the way it happened. After all, most of it will eventually fade from memory just like everything else. But the
other reason is because my going there adds one more drop to that sea which is the overall story of the war. The splash may have ended in 1975, but as long as there are people around who experienced or were affected by it, there are still ripples on the pond.
"Part One: The Letter," is an E-mail I sent to "Doc" Daugherty on April 3rd, 2001. Doc is one of the helicopter gunship pilots who served with my brother, Vinnie, in Vietnam in the late sixties. He and several
other surviving pilots who all flew together around that time, heard of my search to find the exact spot where my brother's gunship crashed into a river near of Saigon. All four men in the helicopter were killed, so there
has never been anyone left to tell exactly what happened. For thirty two years I tried from time to time to find any information I could about the last few moments of those men's lives, with no success. In 1999 I began a
twenty month assignment with Disney in Tokyo. Less than one week before finishing that assignment and leaving Japan to travel in China and Vietnam, I began receiving E-mails from one, then another, then another of these men. I don't know how, but one of them had heard about my search for information on the crash and the location of the site, and because they have kept their friendships together through all these years, it was almost like an "alarm" went off. The next thing I knew, I was receiving E-mails from at least half a dozen men who's names I had never heard before, all talking back and forth between themselves by phone and computer, working together to figure out from thirty two year old information, how to get me to the exact spot where my brother died. One of them even remembered that day, and told me a first hand story about what happened, that I and my family never knew. I had not wanted to just fly straight to Saigon, hire a car and go directly to the site. I wanted to make it, for lack of a better word, a "pilgrimage." To spend time in the country first. To get "the feel" of the place. To try and understand what it must have been like to be here then. All for a better level of understanding. After all, going to this site for the "first" time, was only going to happen "one" time. So I spent four months working my way through China and down Vietnam towards Saigon. That lead time turned out to be a good thing, as it was no easy task to convert coordinates from one old military system to another new civilian system. But in the end, only about a week before I was going to arrive in Saigon, I received a fax of a section of map with an "X" on it, and written directions as to how to get to the river that "X" was floating on.
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The reference to "lighters" concerns the Zippo cigarette lighters that were (and are) popular with the men who spent time in Vietnam. There has become a market for these in the States among Veterans and military memorabilia collectors. Doc had suggested I buy the ones I'd seen with individual American's names engraved on them and try to return them to their owners, or in the cases where they might have been taken off the bodies of dead American soldiers, to their surviving families. The "dog tags" were those that a very poor Vietnamese man tried to sell me at the site of our former US Marine base at Khe Shan, near the DMZ, on the day I visited there. The locals still dig up whatever they can find, and try to sell it to anyone who shows up at the small, lonely, one room museum in the middle of what is now a coffee plantation. Then there are the "maps." These are actual US Military, theater-of-operations maps that were used throughout the
country during the war. Vietnam's paranoid government still sometimes tends to freak out at the idea of foreigners from free, democratic, western, anti-communist countries walking around with highly detailed military maps of their part of the sandbox! (Even if they ARE thirty five years old! Like anybody gives a shit!) So what I'm referring to in the letter is the fact that I have been told by more than one long term ex-pat living here in Saigon, I could be "detained" at the airport if they find those maps in my stuff. Maybe, maybe not. You can't predict those things that accurately.
Doc, (if I may?)
I'm so glad to hear from you. Thanks for writing, and thank you for all your time, effort and concern on my family's behalf. Without all the help I have received from you guys, I would have had no choice but to come away from this whole sojourn feeling it was all for nothing. I don't even WANT to think about how bad I would have felt. BUT! Thanks to you, Ray, Ken, Roger and the others, I got to within about 400 yards of Vinnie's crash site yesterday. It was getting dark and I had to quit and ride that motorcycle all the way back into Saigon at night. I don't know if you've ridden a bike around Saigon (or practically anywhere else in Vietnam) in the last few years (since everyone in the entire country has gotten one!) but let me tell you, it's every man (woman, kid, girl, child) for himself! In the first dozen days I was in Saigon, I came across two, probably fatal motorbike vs. truck "grudge matches" (the trucks won), and two bad motorbike-only bouts. (Those looked like draws.) I'll be going back out there tomorrow. (Day time only!) I saw some little, old, piece-of-shit boats tied up at a hut/store (you know the visual) a couple of kilometers away from the site. I'll try to hire one.
Thanks for the insight into the lighters. I thought about that. The same way I thought about buying all those dog tags from that guy at Khe Shan that day and trying to return those. But several different points of view kept colliding in my brain, and I couldn't see a clear "do this!" So I didn't buy them. I'll take another look at the lighters. The only thing that makes me hesitate is the fact that I have those US Army maps you guys used, of the area where Vinnie crashed. Those don't show up on the airport x-ray machine, whereas metal lighters will. I'm sure they look for things like those lighters. I don't want to give them any reason to search my pack. Those maps are important to me. But, your point is noted.
The following is a letter I wrote to a Japanese friend last night. It will bring you up to the minute on my search. Feel free to forward it on to whomever you like. (Actually, her name is Yoko, not "Muchacha." Also, I
feel bad about not going back out there today like I told the woman/girl (below) I would. But I just couldn't muster the juice this morning.)
I did not find the site today, but I know I got to within 400 meters. I will go back tomorrow and resume where I left off. Today was the long, hard part. Tomorrow should be a lot simpler.
I got pulled over twice this morning by the communist-police-mafia before I ever got out of downtown Saigon. The first two thugs wanted 100,000 Dong (about $6.50), cash on the spot. I said "no, write me an official ticket, and I will take it down to the police station and pay it there, and get a receipt." Then he lowered it to 50,000! I don't think these guys are use to having anyone tell them "NO!" I paid it, laughed and left. Then, two hundred meters down the same street, two more of them pulled me over again!
These two said I had run a red light. (Actually, I think I did, but I wasn't about to admit it!) So while one of them was repeatedly raising his two foot long night stick as if to hit a poor looking middle aged man in
rags, bullying him over something to do with his tattered old bicycle, I basically argued with the other one in English (which he did not understand, but being Italian, my tone of voice was VERY understandable), and when they saw my American passport with stamps from all over Asia in it (and I think my birth year of 1951), they whispered quietly between themselves, and then let me go. I'm glad, too. Because while I was arguing with the one and watching the other, I decided I wasn't going to let either one of them get away with raising a club at me. JERKS! Then I spent the rest of the day getting out to and around the countryside, and asking people who don't speak or understand a word of English, where this or that road, village, river, or ferry was. By late afternoon it still wasn't going well. Then, just at the moment when I was at my lowest ebb, when I was beginning to realize I wasn't going to find the site today, and knew I was not in the right place or on the right road, and it was going to be dark an hour before I would get back to Saigon, and I would have to ride that motorcycle at night on those deadly roads (which is a letter in itself!), and was struggling to pull my heavy motorcycle out of the ditch I had just crashed it into (!), this beautiful young Vietnamese woman (girl really) I had asked directions from a kilometer back down the road, came and found me. She was looking for me. She wanted to make sure she had understood what I was asking her, where I wanted to go, that I was OK. Well, she hadn't, and I wasn't! So after she helped me pull my bike out of the ditch (all 82 pounds of her!), and we did some more "talking" (this time with a translating dictionary), she led me to the village I was looking for. Then she took me to her house (in that same village), where she, her mother, and about six equally beautiful younger sisters (YEOW!) all had tea. I sat there, about a mile from where Vinnie died, drinking tea with some of the nicest, poorest people you could ever meet. She is going to wait for me tomorrow, and help me again. As I followed her on our bikes, I wondered if she was a angel. It was then that I realized angels are just normal people who sometimes do an angelic thing. It's just that some people do those kinds of things more often than
others, and some never do them at all. I DO think, however, that OCCASIONALLY that rare person actually DOES run into a real one.
It's late. I'm fried. I'm done for tonight.
Talk to you later,
Thanks Doc, talk to you later.
Part Two: April 4th, 2001
Today, in a small, wooden, long tail, Vietnamese boat, I crossed the spot where my brother's helicopter gunship crashed into the Rach Ong Keo River on the day I graduated from high school in 1969. I occupied the same space. Today a circle closed, a ghost vanished, a message was received. Tonight, I feel more than OK. Tonight, nothing can touch me.
Today, I also met "Cookie." A sixty year old, former South Vietnamese soldier from 1961 until the end of the war in 1975. His official title was "interpreter," but I know he was a lot more than that. He worked with our US Special Forces Rangers. He even used the term "Delta Force." I don't know much about it, but I DO now that the kinds of missions and operations those guys went on, is the stuff of "action" movies. Cookie received a Silver Star. For what, I don't know. Maybe some day I'll ask him. But I do know that he operated along the Cambodian border. Which probably means he was IN Cambodia many times. After the war he was caught twice while trying to escape the country. He was put in prison both times. The first time, he escaped. The second time, he served two years. He's now approaching retirement from a career in a specific kind of manufacturing, import and export field. (I have written several paragraphs about Cookie, but due to the very real level of paranoia that still exists in this throw-back regime, I have thought better of putting it out into the digital "ethers." Wonderful people like Cookie and his family can still get persecuted here for basically nothing!) I met him, not in a crowded bar or restaurant in Saigon, on a train, or in an airport waiting lounge. I met him in the middle of nowhere, a mile from where my brother died, while I was standing in a vast, treeless expanse of rice fields, staring at an eight foot statue of the Virgin Mary.
After Monday, I took a closer look at the US Army maps of the Nho'n Trach area that I had found at a market in Saigon. As it turned out, I was both right AND wrong in my belief that I had gotten to within four hundred meters of the crash site. Right about getting to within four hundred meters, but wrong about where I was when that happened. I was actually closest at the point where I turned around. Where I dumped
the bike, and little Nhung, the woman/girl found me. Not when I was a kilometer back up the road, where I thought it was. So using a ruler I made out of paper, I measured distances from Pagoda to Pagoda to the spot along the dirt road from which, as near as I could figure, the crash site would be perpendicular. I thought if all else failed, I could at least abandon the motorcycle and, using my compass, walk a straight line through the woods until I hit the river. I even wondered, and I don't think "unreasonably," if there might still be unexploded mines out there in the forest. People and buffalos are still stepping on them, and they DID crash just after dropping smoke on a bunker. But, at least so far, that concern has turned out to be unnecessary. So at nine AM, armed with my maps, a full tank of gas, and wearing the best clothes I have with me (After all, it was going to be a special day. I felt like I was going to church.), I left the hotel and dove into the mechanized madness of Saigon's motorized flesh-and-metal streets. An hour and a half later, I was back at
fork in the road from which I had taken my measurements the night before. From here go two point six kilometers to a Pagoda on the right. It took three passes before I finally found the low, crumpled, overgrown ruins and tombs at two point seven. Now, three point eight to a Pagoda on the left. Ray Charles couldn't have missed this one! Can you say "bright?" Reset the odometer, and one point eight to the spot in the road. At just about one point eight, there was a small, perfectly straight, dirt road, running out to the south at a ninety degree angle towards where I knew the river was. (Strange feeling number one.) I turned and started out across a square mile of open rice fields towards the low line of trees on the horizon thinking, "it can't be this easy!" Now, I usually like being right. However, not always! Because, of course, less than a third of the way to the tree line, the two rut turned into a one rut path, and two hundred yards later it stopped
altogether. But then, straight in front of me, standing alone, fifty yards out in the open rice paddy, dead in line with the road, was an eight foot tall statue of the Madonna. She was exactly between me and where I had figured the site to be, marking the location on the horizon, her body breaking the low band of trees a thousand yards behind her. When I turned off the engine, there was nothing but the silence, the stillness, and the heat. And as I stood there in that huge open space that was mostly sky, I saw in my mind's eye, the image of a helicopter, tiny in the distance, circling above her head, and I almost thought I could hear it's faint thumping just above the quiet.
(Strange feeling number two.) Exchanging smiles with the middle aged Vietnamese woman in black pajamas and conical hat, bending to some task ten feet away from me in the water filled rice paddy, I half expected her to speak to me in plain, central Florida English, saying something profound about life, truth, or death. But she never did. I guess she was only human after all. A few minutes later she left, and I was alone. By now my hopes were beginning to ebb under the weight of my sinking confidence. How was I going to get around this vast, open plain to the distant trees? And even if I could, I knew I would never be able to see this little dirt road to line up on. Oh well, I'll just have to figure something else out, that's all. But first, I'll take a picture. A minute later, while setting up my camera, I turned to the sound of an approaching motorbike. It carried a thin Vietnamese man, nicely dressed in a light blue shirt, brown slacks, and polished wingtips. He seemed out of place here. Too clean. I turned back to my camera as the motorbike stopped a few yards behind me. The man turned off the engine, and for a moment all was still again. Then, I heard a voice in perfect English say, "Lookin for somethin? Can I help ya?" And without looking up from my camera, I smiled, shook my head, and while thinking the words, "Yes, I believe maybe you're suppose to," I said the words, "Yes, I think maybe you can."
At that moment I knew everything would be OK. That I was going to get there one way or another. That I was being "shown," and from here on all I had to do was "follow." So I told him what I was looking for, and a
minute later we were pouring over my maps as if we had been on this trip together the whole time. He said he had a friend living nearby who could help, and while we were looking and pointing here and there, he explained that he and his wife were on their way to a piece of property they were buying, but couldn't find the right road. I mentioned the one where I had dumped my bike and that it was just a little farther up ahead. So we tubed the maps, rode back out to where his wife and her two sisters had been waiting under a tree, and morphed into an eight wheel caravan, Cookie on point. Just past the vast rice field and well before "my" road, he turned to the south on a narrow, red, dirt track, and for the next three kilometers, their whining little "rice burners" and my deep throated motorcycle raced along the tops of narrow rice paddy dikes, over two foot wide bamboo bridges, and through pineapple fields and fruit orchards on canopied trails barely wider than our handlebars, while leafy branches slapped at our faces and hands. I remember trying to fix landmarks in my mind so I could find my way back out, but then giving up and thinking "follow, just follow." As I said earlier, I like being right. Because a few minutes later, up ahead through the trees, I saw water. I knew it was the river. For a few seconds my chest felt tight, and I don't think I took a breath. There it was!
We were heading straight for the it. Then fifteen feet before the edge (at the exact spot where I later learned there had been a VC machine gun bunker), the trail, and we, took a hard right. We sped along the bank. The orchard on our right, and a row of coconut palms and the river on our left. A hundred yards later we came up on a small, open air, thatched roof structure built half out over the water. Cookie turned in and stopped, with me right behind him. As I shut off the engine, I noticed a short but strong looking shoeless Vietnamese man in long dark pants and white shirt, standing by a table in the middle of the hut's wide planked floor, smiling. There were three hammocks strung in the shade of this third world gazebo, and
behind everything was the backdrop of a sun washed tropical river. THE river!
For a minute there was nothing but that image, and the "sandy" sound of a thousand palm fronds sliding against each other in the breeze.
Meet Mr. Bai:
In the five days I've spent with Mr. Bai (as of this writing), neither one of us has spoken two words in the other one's language. But I truly believe that we know each other on a level that normally takes two people a long time to achieve. (He calls me "anh em," which in Vietnamese means "brother.") In six months I'll be fifty. I've lived, traveled or worked in every state but Alaska, and about twenty five foreign countries. I've met a few people in that time. But in all of it, I know there hasn't been anyone who surpasses Mr. Bai and his wife in terms of simple goodness. I have both read and heard it said several times during my two and a half months of travels through Vietnam, that the people here are "so friendly" because they are "so poor." Well I don't know about that. I've seen plenty of very poor people I wouldn't turn my back on. Especially in the cities! But I have to admit that in my experience, it's often the very poor people, living very simple lives, in very rural settings, who will go the farthest out of their way and share the largest percentage of what they have to help you. Mr. Bai and his family certainly support
Cookie had brought me to his friend's house. I don't think he planned to go there, because we were well over a kilometer away from the property he was buying. He had taken me there so I could get help. (By now I almost feel as though I'm being "carried" to the site.)
After some bilingual introductions and some Vietnamese-only small talk, I could tell Cookie was explaining "me" to Mr. Bai. I always know when whoever is translating gets to the part about my brother being killed in the war. The smile on the other person's face instantly turns to a look of sad recognition. As if hearing of my family's loss reminds them of their own. (About three million people from this very small country died in what are known here as the French and American Wars. It's hard to imagine anyone over the age of thirty five who didn't lose somebody.) So a minute later the maps had reappeared, and once again fingers and faces were pointing this way and that, and soon the decision was made that, after tea, we would all overload a small, wooden, long tailed boat and head up the river.
On April 4th I wrote that " a circle had closed, a ghost was gone, and a message had been received." It was while riding in the boat that I got the message.
When I first realized the plan was for ALL of us go together, I thought "no, that's not how it's suppose to happen, this isn't a picnic! I'm going to where my brother died!" I had always pictured myself being alone, or maybe with one guide when I finally reached the site. Not as just another character in a surreal Vietnamese version of a Renoir "good times in Paris" painting! (Complete with umbrella!) For a minute I almost didn't get on the boat. But then I remembered "follow, just follow," and I climbed in. Mr. Bai's son (looking very Vietnamese in his conical hat), pulled the rope crank, the little engine coughed to life, and we were off. And as I was slowly chugging my way up to the spot where the biggest life-changing tragedy of four families occurred, with six people I had just met, all pointing, talking and laughing as if this was just another normal day, just another fun outing, I wondered why they felt the need to accompany me on this trip. Didn't they realize how personal this was? And I felt the beginning of a disappointment I knew I'd never get over, start to creep in. After all this time, I was going to have to "settle" for something far short of what I wanted it to be. I even wanted to apologize to Vinnie. Say I was sorry I blew our time together right here at the end. And then it started to hit me. It WAS just another normal day and fun outing for these folks. They were doing just what they were suppose to be doing, living! And what about me? I had not come here to find death. I had come here to get past something in order to live better. Hadn't I? Wasn't I here to find answers? Lose some questions? Lighten the load? Hell yes! And right there in front of me was the counter-balance to the dark side of this place. Life! These were people looking to find a special place to start a new chapter in theirs. And I realized on a deeper level than I ever had before, that there's a time for both ( turn, turn, turn). I'm sure that Vinnie and the others are handling their after-life just fine. I need to handle my existing life as well. While I'm living it! That's when I nodded my head, and said to myself, "OK, I get it." Less than a minute later, we crossed right through the splash zone their helicopter made when it hit the water.
Strange Feeling Number Three:
After crossing the site, Mr. Bai's son steered for the only clear spot along the shore. Although much of the surrounding area has been turned into farms, most of the river itself probably still looks about the same as it did thirty two years ago, wild. We landed in a small clearing with a VERY third world looking dwelling up against the trees on one side. A young mother in rags and two small children in nothing shyly stood half inside the dark, door less opening. As I heard Vietnamese exchanged behind me, I began taking panoramic shots of the river as artfully as I could with the sun in the wrong place, while the image of a Huey, upside down, just above the water burned itself into my mind's eye. I'm an artist. A painter. I've been
one all of my life. I see images very clearly in my mind. But the picture of that helicopter just hanging there, perfectly still, in that unnatural pose, was the clearest I've ever seen any image in my waking life. Then, without my participation, it would switch to motion. From vertical, with nose down at seventy five feet, all the way to the end of the splash. I even heard it.
Needless to say, I wasn't paying much attention to anyone else during all this. But eventually I finished, and began "returning to the living." I noticed that Mr. Bai's son, the woman and two children were the only ones around. All the others were gone. The ever present language barrier prevented me from asking where. So I waited. About ten minutes later, they all came shuffling back, engaged in conversation. As they arrived, Cookie stopped next to me and said, "it's more than we really need." I said, "what's more than you need?" He said, "the property." And then I realized what had happened. They weren't accompanying me, I had been accompanying them. They had just picked me up along the way. And out of a thousand square miles around Saigon, the three and a half acres he was buying, were on the very bank of the river, fifty feet from the exact spot where they crashed. Coincidence?
Follow, just follow.
Since that day I've been back out to Mr. Bai's farm three times. One time for an overnighter. And I'll be going again before I leave the country. I've gotten together with Cookie and his family several times. I even
dropped by Thrung's house the afternoon I found the site, as I felt bad that she had probably waited for me the day before. I've swum in the river. I've walked the land. I even slept on the ground by the water with only a
mosquito net canopy between me and one of the half dozen most beautiful, cloudless, full moon nights I've ever seen. That evening at about midnight, in moon light you could read by, I got up and rowed a small wooden boat down to the spot in the bend of the river. This time I was alone. Only the quiet swirl of my paddle, a few crickets, and the occasional bark of a far away dog broke the absolute silence. And after all these years, I finally got to have that conversation I've pictured a thousand times. It's contents are private, but I'm sure similar to those of anyone else's if in my place. It was perfect.
Shortly after Vinnie was killed, I had a very powerful dream. It was one of those you remember as clearly thirty two years later, as you did the moment you woke from it. I was paddling a small wooden boat in a quiet bend of a very peaceful, tropical looking river, at night. (Until now I had always thought it was in Florida.) Next to the boat, a whirlpool began. It grew until the boat was helplessly circling the expanding black hole in the middle. A moment later, I was in the water trying to hang on to the boat. Then I was torn away and pulled down into the blackness. For a while, all was quiet as I hung weightlessly in the dark. Then, the blackness slowly began to fade. I could see light coming towards me. It grew and grew until it seemed I was moving through it. Nothing was clear. It still felt as if I was under water. Then a hazy figure appeared ahead. As it came closer, it got clearer. It was Vinnie. At about ten feet, he stopped, gave a quick little smile, said "OK," turned and led me out into the normal daytime world, and then he was gone.
I think it was in the science fiction classic "Dune," where I read the example of a woman touching two spots on opposite sides of her apron together to illustrate the concept of faster-than-light space travel. The
warping of time/space. I don't know if I understand that, and I don't claim to know what's on the other side of death. But over the decades I've pared a lot of thoughts down to a few ideas I'm basically comfortable with. One of those is that if time on the physical plain could be described as a "line." Then time in the spiritual realm could be more like "volume." An infinite number of lines in an infinite number of directions. It's being
comfortable with that idea that allows me to be comfortable with the "fact" that a dream I had thirty two years ago, of something I did just last week, which told me the same thing then, that I told myself a few days ago, but didn't know it until now, could happen. Do I believe Vinnie played an active part in all this? Yes I do. Do I believe there was some big supernatural occurrence here? Not really. This story isn't anything "Ripley" wouldn't believe. That's not the point. I just think if, first, there was really some "orchestration" from "outside," then to me it would mean that, second, everything "is as it's suppose to be." And in the end, that's the point. On April 4th I also wrote that a circle had closed and a ghost was gone. The closing of the circle was not just me coming to the place where they died. It was also the touching of the apron. The past dream and the present reality coming together. The "bending" of thirty two years. And the ghost? Well, there was no ghost. The "haunting" turned out to be the "not knowing." There's a lot I'll never know. At least not in this lifetime. But now, there's also a lot more I DO know. And it feels great! So when it's all said and done, the question has to be asked, "was it worth it?" The answer is, "you bet."
Consequences Of War
by- James Webb
Mr. Webb was a combat Marine in Vietnam and later secretary of the Navy. His next book, "Lost Soldiers," will be published by Bantamin September.
The Vietnamese government is happy to trot out witnesses from the supposed atrocity conducted by Bob Kerrey's Navy SEALs at Thanh Phong. It is doubtful that they would be so cooperative if questions were asked about Communist killings in places such as My Loc.
In April 1969, the Marine rifle company to which I was assigned was operating in the An Hoa Basin of Vietnam, west and south of Danang. In addition to our routine of long-range combat patrols and defensive
positions along a vital and heavily contested road, it was decided that we would provide security for a "town meeting" hosted by the South Vietnamese government's district chief, who had been criticized for living in the distant and more secure confines of Danang. Over the space of a few days, visits were made to nearby hamlets, where 30 delegates were chosen to attend the meeting. After that, the district chief and his senior aide were brought in on the morning convoy.
A thatch-covered "hooch" at the bottom of our perimeter, about the size of a typical American living room, was chosen as the meeting place. Shortly after the meeting began, a Viet Cong assassination team raced through the thick foliage, hit the hooch, and fled. My rifle platoon was returning from a combat patrol as explosions rang out to our front. In seconds a Viet Cong soldier sprinting down the trail collided with my point man. I can still see his young face, adrenalized and madly grinning, as he was captured. And I remember the sight of the others as we reached the hooch.
The floor inside was covered with an ankle-deep mix of blood, innards, limbs and bodies. I and several others waded into the human mire, emptying bodies from the hooch and finding medical care for those who had survived. Nineteen people were dead, including the district chief and his aide. The aide's right arm was blown off near the elbow, its tendons like slim white feathers, as if he had been reaching to catch a grenade.
Nearby an older woman sat motionless against a wall, her face stunned and her dark eyes piercing, untouched except for a small, square hole in her forehead. I thought she was alive until I grabbed her arm. The wounded squirmed on the floor, reaching past dead bodies as they crawled in the muck, covered thickly with blood and twisting among each other like giant fishing worms.
We cleaned out the hooch, evacuated the wounded, washed at a nearby well, and went back to our war. By the next day this incident was over, a little piece of history in the long and ugly journey of a combat tour. But in the coming months as I reflected on them, the killings at My Loc raised an important distinction, which has become even more relevant with the media firestorm over Bob Kerrey's ill-fated SEAL patrol in the Mekong Delta.
Civilians have a terrible time in any war zone -- fully one-third of the population of Okinawa was killed in 12 weeks of fighting on that island in 1945. But in a guerrilla war, the support or control of the local population, rather than the conquest of territory, is the ultimate objective. Civilians become enmeshed in the actual fighting, inseparable from it. They fight among themselves for political dominance of a local area. They form an infrastructure and quietly support one side or the other when it moves through their village. They suffer greatly when battles are fought on top of them, and when emotions overcome logic and troops snap, as at My Lai. But the villagers of My Loc and others like them, clearly noncombatants, were killed purely as a matter of political control, for having met with a South Vietnamese government official and given some legitimacy to his authority.
Any American who directed a similar slaughter, or participated in it, would have been court-martialed. This distinction was basic to our policy in Vietnam, and it seems to have been lost by many over the past week. The body language and word choices of many media commentators indicates clearly that a larger issue -- how history will judge our involvement in Vietnam -- is still very much in play, and a big part of that issue is to continue to demean the American sacrifices in that war.
Words like "atrocity" and "massacre" are routinely being thrown about, with some even calling for Nuremberg-like trials for American war crimes in Vietnam. Aggressive reporters have played "gotcha" with every Kerrey statement. How could he say it was a moonless night when the charts say it was a half-moon? (Try clouds. Or canopy. Or vegetation.) Did he take one shot or many shots at the first outpost? Did he kneel on a guy when his throat was getting cut?
For many who went through extensive combat in Vietnam, such parsing brings back an anger caused by memories not of the war but of the condescending arrogance directed at them upon their return, principally by people in their own age group who had risked nothing and yet microscopically judged every action of those who had risked everything and often lost a great deal. Combat in a guerrilla war requires constant moral judgments, in an environment with unending pressure, little sleep, and no second chances for yourself or the people you are leading when you guess wrong. Were we perfect? No. Were we worse than Americans in other wars, or our enemy in this one? Hardly.
Which brings us to the recent attention given the Kerrey patrol. There is much in the New York Times magazine story to make one uneasy. The key "witness" from the village where the incident took place is the wife of a former Viet Cong soldier, who now has told Time magazine that she did not actually see the killings. She and the other Vietnamese witness, who was 12 at the time of the incident, live in a communist state where propaganda regarding America's "evil" war effort is one of the mainsprings of political legitimacy -- not the best conditions to produce honesty in cases with international implications.
The one member of Mr. Kerrey's SEAL team to allege extreme conduct did not pass the credibility test with Newsweek magazine when the story was considered there. CBS's "60 Minutes," which co-sponsored the investigation, seems to have an affinity for stories about Americans committing atrocities, having rehashed My Lai as the best way to remember the 30th anniversary of 1968, the year that brought the worst fighting, and highest American casualties, of the war.
Most important, to one practiced in both combat and journalism, a key and possibly determinative piece of information seems vastly underplayed. According to the Times magazine story, archive records of Army radio transmissions indicate that two days after the incident, "an old man from Thanh Phong presented himself to the district chief's headquarters with claims for retribution for alleged atrocities committed the night of 25 and 26 February 69. Thus far it appears 24 people were killed. 13 were women and children and one old man. 11 were unidentified and assumed to be VC."
Given the tone of the story, this radio transmission was probably included because it refers to the Kerrey patrol as having committed an atrocity. But a closer reading would appear to confirm the position of Mr. Kerrey and the five others on the patrol that they took fire and returned it, with the loss of civilian lives an unfortunate consequence.
This piece of evidence is perhaps the most objective account available of the results of the Kerrey patrol, coming as it does from a time near the incident, from a man who was asking for retribution and thus was hardly trying to cover things up. It also coincides with Mr. Kerrey's recollection of 13 or 14 dead civilians in the village before the team left the scene, as any Viet Cong soldiers would most likely have been on the other side of the villagers who were killed, perhaps even using them as a screen while attempting to escape.
As has often been said over the past week, we will never know the exact details of what occurred. But if a seven-man patrol operating independently at night far inside enemy territory killed 11 Viet Cong soldiers after coming under fire, it would seem they hit their assigned target. And the loss of civilian life that accompanied this brief but brutal firefight adds up not to an atrocity or a massacre, but to a tragic consequence of a war fought in the middle of a civilian population.
Accent On Teamwork
One of the chief reasons for the 25th Infantry Division's success on the battlefield in Vietnam is teamwork.
In no other place is teamwork more essential than in the helicopter. The chopper, whether used for troop movement, resupply or tactical support, must be incomplete coordination with the ground activities. Any infantryman knows how good it feels to see gunships pounding the enemy at his front and flanks.
The helicopter, because of its mobility, has been the key to many victories. To get the most out of this mobility, Tropic Lightning forces must work together. Within the helicopter too, teamwork is imperative. A vital member of that team, who supplies the chopper with protection from within, is the helicopter doorgunner.
He is a man with a mission. The two machine guns, one on each side of the chopper, must function perfectly all the time. These guns are often the only friendly thing between the ship and the enemy. Some gunners prefer to mount two machine guns on their side for more firepower.
Each chopper carries a crew of four. Besides the aircraft commander and pilot, there is the crewchief and doorgunner. The crewchief sits behind the gun on the left of the chopper, so he can see the instrument panel better. Working with the crewchief, the doorgunner doubles as a maintenance man of sorts.
He plays a large part in rearming, cleaning and painting the ship. The doorgunner sticks with the ship during the day and between flights. There is plenty of maintenance to pull.
When flying, taking off or landing, the gunner's open position at the rear gives a clear view of any dangerous obstacle or other aircraft, which could damage the ship. His eyes are always open.
In formation flying, gunners on different aircraft work together in harmony with their pilots and each other. Someone is always in a good position to see the enemy. Once suppressive fire is ordered, teamwork and precision displayed gives the appearance of an invisible hand coordinating all.
Once A Grunt
Many doorgunners are ex-infantrymen who become so enthusiastic after watching doorgunners from the ground that they decide to transfer. Many must extend their tour to begin to earn their wings-the waiting list is that long.
“I had a lot of questions and doubts that first day,” said one ex-infantryman turned doorgunner. He knew the M-60 machinegun inside and out, but firing it from a moving helicopter is a lot different from what he had been used to. He wondered how much ammo he should take. And could he even be counted on to deliver effective fire and avoid hitting friendlies on the ground?
“The first thing, the pilot lets me know what was expected of me. When the aircraft was to set down, I was to look to the side and rear to see if he had clearance to land. Then I was to tell him “clear right” if it was safe.
“I was to listen for the pilot's command to begin firing. He'd get the word from the flight leader on whether we'd be using full outside door suppression or firing to the left, right or not at all.”
When a new gunner arrives, the crew chief briefs him fully on his job, part of which is the care of a different type of M-60 machine gun. Butterfly handles replace the familiar butt plate, and the bottom handgrip is replaced with a swivel upon which the gun rotates. The gunner's fingers activate two pull triggers, located between the handles.
A more specialized type of doorgunner is found riding shotgun in the light observation helicopter, the OH-6 Cayuse. This ship, primarily used as a scout, goes in ahead of the heavy gun ships to recon areas of suspected enemy concentration, flying just over the trees.
Riding next to the pilot, the door gunner acts as an observer. His tasks are to keep the pilot oriented on the map, watch the instrument panel and always be ready to take over the controls should the pilot be wounded. If the scout is armed with a mini-gun, he re-arms the weapon. He carries a Car-15 (modified M-16) easily at hand for firing out of the door. His other functions are similar to the doorgunners of slicks and gunships.
Since the LOH is often seen flying just above the trees, darting, twisting and turning to discourage enemy ground fire, the little helicopters see more than their share of action.
For PFC Richard Edwards of the3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, in support of the 25th Infantry Division, one day last September started as did and other, on a reconnaissance mission. Backing up the small chopper aboard which he served as observer, was a Cobra gunship.
On a low level pass over some underbrush, the rotor wash of the scout uncovered a tunnel entrance. As the pilot, Captain Joseph L. Tuck, made a return pass, automatic weapons fire smashed into the chopper, wounding both men. Edwards, an observer, took the controls of the wildly flying aircraft when Tuck was unable to move. He flew until he passed out from loss of blood.
Then Tuck heard the voice of the Cobra pilot talking to him, telling him he could fly the ship to Cu Chi. With the cobra pilot talking to him, the wounded pilot compelled himself to make a safe landing at the base camp, 10 miles away. If it weren't for Edwards, the two men would have surely crashed.
Staff Sergeant Joseph Leyves had his Cayuse spin under him when his pilot was wounded by a burst of small arms fire. The chopper was flying slowly over an area where an enemy soldier had been seen. “I heard the pilot yell,” he relates, “I knew he had been hit. I leaned out the door and emptied my Car-15 at the spot. Then the aircraft began to spin wildly.
“I tried to grab the controls, but we were spinning out of control. We hit the canal on the right side of the ship. I swam to the surface after getting rid of my gear. Then I remembered the pilot and said “Oh my god!” Just then, I heard him call to me from the far side. I swam around, and we both started for shore, both forgetting that he was wounded. Half way there, he yelled again and I helped him reach land where we waited to be picked up. All we had left was his .38 caliber pistol.”
A different type of doorgunner, specialist 4 William Linebaugh, flies on a smoke ship of the 25th Aviation Battalion's B Company.
“We maintain a three-minute alert status,” he explained, “and the gunners are required to stay on the flight line 24 hours a day, rotating the ships and crews every three to four days on the average.”
Linebaugh, who spent nine months with the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, extended to become a doorgunner. “The biggest part of my job is cleaning two mini-guns, the two rocket pods plus the machineguns daily. All of the door gunners pull maintenance with the crew chief, usually painting and cleaning, plus some preflighting,” he added.
The gun ship door gunner has more to do than a gunner on a slick, which has two M-60s for armament. Linebaugh has seen his share of action during his 16 months in Vietnam. He was recently flying on a smoke ship near the town of Bau Trau.
“We were putting low level smoke around the LZ to cover for the insertion of troops. We were coming around a second time, doing 90 knots in a bank, when a .51 caliber 50 meters to our left opened up,” he related. “The crew chief was facing the enemy. As we broke around again, Charlie opened up onus from another position. I put fire on it.
“The pilot was hit as we passed overhead. There were so many bullets going over my head I didn't know where they were coming from. Both the crew chief and I went forward to help him as best we could after we were clear of the enemy.”
Asked why he just extended again, Linebaugh replied, “ I did it to stay with my crewchief, and he did it to stay with the ship.” He said of the working conditions, “They're real good; about the same as on line, close knit. The officers pitch in as much as we do, to get things done faster.” Fourteen of the Sixteen doorgunners scheduled for DEROS elected to extend to stay with the unit.
Why Stick With It?
Why do doorgunners stay on the job? To be sure they like to fly, and the extra money comes in handy. It's an exciting job; something different is just a short ride away.
A main reason why is that they like their unit. In the 25th Infantry Division there are several. In the 25th Aviation's A. Company (Little Bears) and B. Company (Diamondhead), and the Centaurs of D Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry belong atop the division. Hardworking attached and supporting units including the 116th Assault Helicopter Company (Hornets), the 187th Assault Helicopter Company (Crusaders) at Tay Ninh and the 242nd Assault Helicopter Company (Muleskinners) who fly the huge Chinooks as well as the Black Barons of battalion headquarters, all part of the 269th Aviation Battalion.
Then there are hunter-killer teams of the 3rd Squadron, 17th Air Cavalry. The 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry and the 3rd of the17th have their own aerorifle platoons with troops carried on slicks, always on ready status.
Each man feels his is the best unit. They are all correct, for there are no second-class aviation outfits serving the division. Each has a job and each excels in it. Friendly competition is in evidence. All one has to do is put men from different units together to enjoy the roughhouse rivalry. Gunship crews chide the crews of the troop-carrying choppers by maintaining, “slicks are for kids,” and they get a lot of argument back.
No one really minds though, each depends on the other, often for his life. Living and fighting with an aviation unit is faintly reminiscent of World War 1 flying stories one sees in the movies. Is it any wonder that with the old-fashioned “seat of the pants” type of flying brought back by the helicopter in Vietnam that doorgunners are a proud bunch?