MEMOIRS OF VIETNAM
“Mallard Duck? Hell! We’re more like Sitting Ducks!” the Sergeant swore as he threw down the receiver of the field radio. “We’ve been set up guys,” he said almost tearfully, “promise me if any of you guys survive this, that you will tell someone about what happened here today!”
There were no heroes in Alpha Company, no “Rambo’s” to lead or encourage us, and if the truth were known, most of us really did not want to be there. It was too late to change our situation, however; responsibility for our lives was now in the hands of our Company Commander who sat somewhere safely back in Command Headquarters strategically mapping out our destinies over a hot cup of coffee or more likely a cold beer.
Most of us were new to Vietnam, replacements for the many soldiers killed in the TET Offensive of 1968. I was a Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class assigned to the 7th Marines, somewhere around Da Nang. A short time after my arrival in-country, I was ordered to pack my gear and head out to Hill 10. I was to replace a fellow Corpsman who had just broken both of his legs in a fall. I had no idea what to expect as the jeep dropped me off in front of the medical tent of Alpha Company. I noticed a Confederate Flag flying beneath the American flag but gave it little thought as I entered the tent.
Two hours after reporting in, to the head Corpsman, I found myself leaving the compound for an overnight reconnaissance patrol with a sloppily dressed squad of Black Marines. The Sergeant’s only instructions to me were, “Stay 15 feet behind me and don’t do anything stupid!” and then he mumbled to his buddies, “I’m a short-timer and don’t need some fool white guy messing me up now.” They all laughed as we headed out across the rice fields to a small village a mile or so down the trail. There was some discussion with the village chief before continuing our hike to a small river several yards down the trail, where the men dropped their gear and made themselves comfortable.
I sat down on a log in a shady spot near the river’s edge. I was feeling a bit uneasy but tried not to show it. Eventually, the Sergeant came over and sat down beside me. He informed me that we would be staying for a while so I might as well make myself comfortable. His next question explained why I was feeling so uneasy.
“You from the South, Doc?” he inquired, looking me straight in the eyes.
“No Sarge, I’m from Michigan,” I responded, as the sight of the Confederate Flag in front of the medical tent flashed into my head.
“You got anything against Niggers?”
“No, I don’t,” I responded and then told him briefly about my participating in a Sunday afternoon Freedom Walk in Grand Rapids, led by Martin Luther King. Ironically, Dr. King would be assassinated a few days later.
Apparently satisfied with my answer, he began telling me about some of the problems they were having in the company. He said that most of the recent Corpsman in the company had come from the South and this had created problems because no one would go out with them. Then he pointed to two logs a short distance from me and explained that the last time a Corpsman came out with them he had refused to go any further than this point and so after some heated argument he and the squad stretched him over to the two logs and then jumped on him, breaking both of his legs. They then called for a medivac helicopter and airlifted him out before continuing their patrol.
By this time several of the other men had come over and begun telling their stories. They had little good to say about the CO who limited them to only two beers a day and expected them to cover long distances on patrol. “All he is interested in is enemy kills,” they complained and told me about times they had faked firefights and then reported several enemy dead just to please him. They also told me that they seldom covered their assigned patrols but would instead set up in some secure place, like the one we were at, and simply called in their checkpoints.
About an hour before dark we were told to gear up and then we walked about twenty-five minutes to a rocky slope, overlooking a large valley. The Sergeant instructed me on how to use the field radio and told me to wake him up in a few hours unless I saw something suspicious. Then he lit up a non-filtered cigarette and took a drag from it. He handed it to the guy next to him, and that guy did the same. Feeling a bit sorry for them, I offered them my new pack of Winston’s but they only laughed and continued to smoke the one they had. A short time later they were all sleeping soundly.
It didn’t take long for me to master the radio, clicking the receiver twice whenever they called to acknowledge that we were not in any trouble and we were not asleep. I was really enjoying the night vision binoculars but after a couple of hours grew tired and woke the Sarge up and handed him the radio and binoculars. I tried to sleep but couldn’t get comfortable. The mosquitoes were huge and very annoying. I heard the radio come on but the Sarge did not respond so I grabbed the receiver and clicked it two times.
“Wake up you guys!” the voice whispered over the radio. “The other patrol just spotted over 100 gooks coming your way. Do you copy?”
My heart was pounding as I clicked twice on the receiver to acknowledge that I had heard him. I wanted to ask him for his advice on what I should do but the radio went dead and there was nothing but silence all around. Frantic, I shook the Sarge and told him what I had just heard. He sat up and thought about it and then responded, “We’re not where they think we are so don’t worry about it doc. If you see anything however let me know.”
In the following weeks, I became acquainted with most of the men in the company. I felt accepted on both sides of the racial barrier and was beginning to feel like I belonged. Only one thing was missing, I had yet to prove myself under fire. Some of the patrols had seen action, but never when I was with them. Most of the action was along the trail known as “Booby Trap Alley”. One of the Corpsmen had been through it three times in one week and on each occasion, his squad had been hit. The next time he drew the assignment he refused to go and I was asked to exchange my easy riverboat outing for his patrol. We were halfway through the Alley when we picked up the distress call from the ambushed riverboat patrol. There were several casualties and the Corpsman suffered a mental breakdown. We however completed our patrol without an incident.
Upon returning to the compound one afternoon, we noticed a lot of commotion around the canteen. The bar had been closed and a note on the door explained the problem. Our Captain had volunteered us to be a Roving Company. In three days, we would be moving to Command Headquarters on Hill 55, where we would be on call to fight wherever there was action. Some of the short-timers knew exactly what that meant and were not too happy about it. One soldier walked into the medical unit and asked if it were true that if he were missing his trigger finger he would get out of combat duty. When we confirmed it, he put his finger on top of his gun barrel and fired it. When we finished bandaging the hand, the MPs came in and arrested him for the destruction of military property.
On the following day the Sergeant, I had met on my first day with the company, was mysteriously wounded in the buttocks and had to be airlifted from the field. The Captain was irate and demanded a full explanation but no one seemed to know anything about it. I found out later that the squad had piled their fragment jackets around him, leaving one small area exposed. A grenade was then thrown behind him. It took three attempts before a piece of shrapnel finally hit its mark. The Sarge made a quick recovery but never returned to the field because his combat time was nearly up.
The move to Hill 55 was completed in just one day and to me, it seemed like an improvement. Warm showers, good food, and the canteen was opened all day long with entertainment in the evenings. We had only two patrols in the daytime and an occasional night patrol. We also had to guard part of the perimeter in front of our tents. I had still not seen any real action and in fact, the only blood I saw was from a head wound that one of the black perimeter guards received when a white Marine threw a rock at him. It was part of the ongoing racial disputes that intensified after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
There were a few tense moments on Hill 55 when the enemy would charge the perimeters at night. There were only a few of them and they never got very far. In the mornings we would pass them as we left for our patrol. Their blood-soaked bodies, tangled up in the barbed wire rolls that surrounded the compound. They appeared young and not very well-armed. I often wondered what motivated them to give up their lives for such a hopeless mission.
The Captain called us together one evening and told us that we would be going out in the morning and that it would be a good idea to write a nice letter to home. It seemed like a strange request at first until I saw the look in some of the old timer’s eyes. Only then did I realize that for many of us, it would be the last letter our families would receive from Viet Nam.
After breakfast the following morning, we were called out for inspection and then marched down to a large open field. We stood in long lines for nearly two hours and there were rumors circulating that the operation might be canceled. A short time later, however, the heavy-dull-throbbing sounds of the large helicopters, could be heard in the distance. They hovered over us for a short time and then began their descent in pairs, staying on the ground only long enough for the designated number of men to run onboard, then lifting off while others took their places. It was hot, dusty, and noisy on the ground but once we were airborne the air became cool and refreshing.
We landed on the top of a large bomb crater. The force of the wind generated by the blades of the helicopter pushed us into the large hole as we jumped to the ground. There was no enemy fire so we all regrouped at the top, as the choppers made their departure.
“Okay men, listen up!” the Captain shouted. “They are calling this mission “Operation Allen Brooke and its purpose is to locate and destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail.” He pointed to some mountains in the distance and added, “We will be going through some heavy jungle so watch out for Charlie but also keep an eye out for wild animals and snakes. They say it is full of them.”
For the next two days we walked through some of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen; tropical rain forest and lush green valley’s that appeared as if they had not been touched since the beginning of time. We seemed so out of place in such a peaceful environment. Our Captain, who carried only a pistol and a canteen, fearlessly led us down the trail. We were not the lead company so there was little danger of walking into an ambush or booby trap. Although we took our time, the humidity in the jungle was intense and by the second day, the men began complaining to me that they were exhausted. Some of them were carrying a great deal of heavy artillery and rounds and were having difficulty keeping up. I spoke with the Captain about it but he only laughed and called them a bunch of sissies.
On the morning of the third day, we were within sight of our objective but were told that the operation was canceled because we had failed to make contact with the enemy. We were ordered to turn around and return to our original landing zone by 1700 hours. It had taken us two days to reach our present position and now we had 8 hours to get back. It seemed like an impossible demand but the Captain only grinned. At times he would have us double time and on the steep inclines he would shout down insulting remarks to those having a hard time. He even threatened to leave the stragglers behind if we didn’t make it on time and we were beginning to think he meant it. Exhausted and breathless we finally made it up the last incline only to find out that the pickup had been postponed until the following morning.
The return to Hill 55 was like coming home. After showers and a good hot meal we were called into formation again and informed that we would be going out again the next morning so there was no need to unpack. When we were dismissed the Captain asked the Staff Sergeant to report to his tent.
I did not know the Staff Sergeant that well; only that he was a family man and was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam. He was more like a father to most of the men and everyone respected him. He carried a shotgun most of the time; he said he only needed something for self-defense and couldn’t hit anything with a pistol. What we didn’t know was that his enlistment had expired and that he was actually a civilian. The Captain told him he would either have to re-enlist or leave the country. He left on the first helicopter out.
The following morning as we stood back in the line-up awaiting the helicopters there was a sudden loud burst of shouting from the back and we all turned to see the Staff Sergeant getting out of a jeep. He had re-enlisted for another four years and although they offered him R&R, he turned it down so that he could be with us. The choppers came in a short time later and this time dropped us off in the middle of the lowlands. It was hot, dry, and dusty as we made our formation.
“Okay men listen up!” the Captain shouted again. “The purpose of this mission is to locate a large group of NVA soldiers known to be working out of this area. They are calling this “Operation Mallard Duck” because we will only be the decoys. All we must do is make contact with Charlie and then we will pull back and let the bombers do the rest.”
Unlike the mountains, the effects of the war had scared the lowlands. Villages lay in ruin from past and recent bombings. In several villages, we were ordered to destroy whatever we found standing. If we found a well, we were ordered to drop live chickens or ducks into it and then drop a grenade on top of them. The blood and feathers made the well unusable for several months and the villagers would have to walk long distances to the river for their water supply.
At times we would pass those who had been injured by the bombings and they would plead with me to help them or their child but when I tried to, the Captain would order me to stay away from them. He told me there would be another team coming in after we left that would help them. I pointed to a child whose arm was dripping blood from the dirty cloth wrapped around the wound and asked “When will that be Sir? This child could die in the next hour if the bleeding isn’t stopped!”
“Leave it alone Doc, it is not your job,” he replied, leaving no room for further discussion.
I saw the Staff Sergeant and walked over to him and asked, “Where are we Sarge?”
He smiled and replied, “Vietnam. Why?”
“I know that, but the North or the South?”
“The South, of course, we are a long way from the North,” he answered.
”So why are we doing this? I thought we were supposed to be helping the South?”
“We are Doc, but these villages are suspected of helping hide soldiers during TET Offensive and this is payback time.”
A short time later we found a young boy hiding in a bomb shelter. He was wearing a military shirt, which he said he found on a dead soldier and took because he had no other clothes to wear. He was taken to the Captain who simply said, “We’re not taking prisoners Sergeant, you know what to do.”
The boy appeared to understand what was about to happen next and looked straight into my eyes. There was an expression of utter hopelessness on his face as they dragged him off behind some trees. I was stunned at what I had just witnessed, and when the men returned a short time later I didn’t even bother to ask what they had done with him. It no longer seemed to matter, because as I stood there in the middle of that burned-out village, hearing the cries of the women and children, my conscience and soul were breaking apart inside of me.
As we were leaving the village, a woman with a small child in her arms, stood defiantly on the dike in front of us. She was forced to one side to wait in the knee-deep water until we passed. As I came closer to her I smiled compassionately and sensed that she understood that I was not the same as the others. She fixed her eyes directly on mine and then spit in my face.
As I was wiping the spit and tears from my eyes I became nauseated, not because of what she had just done, but because I realized that I had become the enemy, without even changing sides.
The following day we met up with the NVA soldiers. They were waiting for us in ambush, along a dense line of trees. Thanks to a nervous Corporal with a grenade launcher, however, the ambush was set off early and although we took several casualties, our air support came in swiftly and put the enemy on the run. To our surprise, the Captain gave orders to retreat. We expected to hear the sounds of the big support guns, but there was only silence.
Trucks were waiting for us at the camp. Ice-cold beer and cold cut sandwiches with potato chips were served on large platters and more important there were several Porta Pots available for those of us who hadn’t used the bathroom for a while. About an hour after we had eaten our fill we were called back into formation.
“I want you all to know that I am very proud of you guys and I know that you are all tired so I will make this short.” the Captain started. “We found the hideout of these bastards and they think we ran but we are going to surprise them. Tonight at 2400 hours we are going to go back and surprise the Hell out of them!” There was some murmuring in the group but the Captain ignored it. “So get your gear ready and then get some sleep. Sergeant, lead the men in singing the National Anthem and then dismiss them.”
We were awakened about 30 minutes before midnight with instructions that there would be no talking, no lights, and no smoking. We fumbled around in the darkness for our gear and left right on time. In silence, we walked in the moonless night, hardly able to see the man in front of us. After several hours we rested in some tall grass until daybreak. As we continued our advance in the early morning hours, we received some sniper fire but were ordered not to respond.
We made camp early that evening and as soon as we settled down we heard the sound of our own heavy artillery going off in the distance. “Someones got some action going.” the Sarge said as he stirred his hot cup of coffee. A moment later he jumped up and pushed me into a foxhole while he shouted “INCOMING!” Someone had called in our position and our own guys were bombing us. A frantic call on the radio stopped the guns from firing their second barrage, but could not cancel the damage of the first. Several of our men were dead or wounded and needed to be medivacked out.
Sniper fire continued throughout the night and on two occasions we received incoming mortars from enemy positions, but because we could not see any flashes, it was impossible to return fire. The following morning we discovered why. In anticipation of our coming, large holes 10x10x 20 feet deep had been dug in the ground and concealed. During the night the Viet Cong had come in through tunnels to fire the mortars undetected, just a few hundred feet from our perimeter.
Fighting escalated that day, as it appeared that the enemy had us surrounded. We lost a whole squad in just a few minutes when one of our Lieutenants gave orders to charge what he thought was a single machine-gun bunker. It was in actuality a whole company of NVA, waiting in ambush. It took nearly an hour before we could reach the bodies because air support was slow in coming. As I tried to identify the bodies, I came across a bag containing only the bottom torso of a man and so I searched the pants pockets where I found a wallet that contained a picture I knew well of my friend and fellow Corpsman and his new wife. The Captain left the field that day for a strategy meeting with the General.
Five companies of men had started out on the operation. Our company had 160 men but when we regrouped that evening around the Staff Sergeant, who was now in command, there were only 13 of us left. He did his best to encourage us. “I am quite sure they will pull us out in the morning, guys. All we have to do is make it through the night.”
Three mortar rounds did hit close to us that night but no one was injured and at the break of dawn we were up making breakfast, waiting for our orders from the Captain in headquarters. When he finally called, they were not what we had hoped for. Another company was supposedly bogged down and we were supposed to flank them. The Sergeant reluctantly gave orders to gear up. We started to cross a large field with high grass and within minutes were fired on by enemy machine guns. The corporal went down with bullet wounds to both legs.
I ran to his aid and applied pressure bandages to his wounds. They were not serious but it was obvious that he could not walk. I had been so busy doing the work that I failed to notice that the Sarge had retreated with the men, not knowing we were still in the field. A crossfire battle broke out over our heads and all we could do is lay as flat as possible. When the Sarge realized that we were caught in the middle, he ordered the men to cease-fire. They did and so did the enemy and for just a few minutes there was silence.
“You okay, Doc?” the Sergeant shouted.
“Yes, I am… but I need some help getting the Corporal out.”
“Hold on, we’ll be there as soon as we get some air support in,” he replied.
Several minutes passed and I was prepared for the big bombs to come in but nothing happened.
“Hey Doc, change of plans, we are going to lob some smoke grenades behind you and then we’re coming in, so get ready to go.”
As smoke filled the air, two men came running in and grabbed hold of the poncho I had placed under the Corporal. As we were lifting him up, an enemy mortar hit close by, knocking us all to the ground. When I recovered, my face was bleeding and there was a sharp pain in my left eye. My glasses were broken and glass fragments had embedded themselves in my eye and face which made it difficult to keep my other eye open. More assistance came and we all pulled back to the security of a large grove of trees. The Corporal had also been hit again in the side but not seriously. The wounds to his legs however were beginning to bleed again.
“Mayday! Mayday! I have two men down and we are unable to advance! I need a medivac now!” the Staff Sergeant shouted into the radio. “Mayday! Mayday! Does anyone copy?”
“Mallard Duck? Hell! We’re more like Sitting Duck!” the Sergeant swore as he threw down the receiver of the field radio. “We’ve been set up guys,” he said almost tearfully, “promise me if any of you guys survive this, that you will tell someone about what happened here today!”
“Sir!” the radioman shouted, “we got a pilot that says he is coming in, but we got to load them fast.”
“Doc, you go with the helicopter. You’ll be no good to us here,” The Staff Sergeant ordered. Then as he started to leave, he added, “Remember what I said.”
They threw the Corporal on the helicopter a few minutes later and I jumped on and sat across from him. I was told to sit on my helmet and as we lifted off, I understood why. Several rounds from enemy gunfire ripped their way through the bottom of the chopper, one hitting the Corporal in the stomach. The chopper medic took care of the superficial wound but had a concerned look on his face.
The smell of oily smoke filled my lungs and flames were shooting out from the cockpit. The last thing I remember was someone shouting, “Brace yourselves! We’re going down!”
I don’t remember the crash, but I later found out that as they were carrying me from the wreckage of the helicopter, the Staff Sergeant and those of Alpha Company who we left behind were being overrun by enemy troops, their position revealed by the touchdown of our rescue chopper. To my knowledge, none of them survived.
It has taken me many years to fulfill my Sergeant’s last request, and history has shown that he most likely was right. Alpha Company, and others like it, may have been sacrificed by the American Government, in the belief that more American casualties would help boost the support of the war from Americans in the States. In looking back, it may have done just the opposite, in which case they did not die in vain.
There have been many stories told just like mine, since the Viet Nam war ended. My only reason for telling you this now is to fulfill my Sergeant’s request, in the hope that he and the other ordinary men of Alpha Company are not forgotten. For with every new day, every new relationship, every new joy, and even every new sorrow I experience in this life, the GREATER I realize, was the sacrifice they made.
In 1968 while recovering from wounds at Bethesda Naval Hospital I wrote this simple poem:
The Sun settled slowly
After a long and costly fight,
And I with the rest of the men who remained,
Pulled back and dug in for the night.
In front of us in an open field,
Lay those we could not save,
Their mangled bodies stiff and cold,
Their life for Freedom gave.
I sat alone on listening post,
But nothing could I see,
Yet across the field at another post,
I knew one sat like me.
I wondered if by chance he too,
Was trying not to cry,
Remembering all the friends he’d lost,
Asking why they had to die?
Then suddenly my feelings changed,
No hatred could I find,
How strange that this my enemy,
Could have feelings just like mine.
I wanted than to meet him,
But would he understand,
If I stood in Peace before him,
And offered him my hand?
Just then I heard a shot ring out,
And I knew it could never be,
For the young man across the field,
He was my Enemy.
And so I put away my thoughts,
And forgot about my friend,
For in the morning we’d probably meet,
And for one it would be the End.