If I were to characterize the Republic of Vietnam in just a few words,
those words would be hot sunshine, endless miles of rice paddies, and water. Perhaps
not as flattering as a travel brochure would paint it, but you have to remember this
author's perspective. I had to walk out in that hot sun, wade through that water
again and again, and it seemed that all I ever saw were rice paddies, night and day.
On this particular day I had already seen enough of all three. We left fire
support base Patton early and walked until mid-morning. Going east, we crossed the
gentle ravine between us and the village of Trung Lap. At the bottom was the
inevitable muddy stream, which we waded waist-deep. We climbed to the level plateau
of farmlands on the other side, and then turned and cut catty-corner across the rice
paddies, full of water and green with foot-high shoots of rice.
Our objective was a string of small villages, with suspected Viet Cong activity.
When we finally reached the villages, we were tired. The area was heavily forested,
with thick undergrowth all around. Here and there, farmers had opened clearings for
their gardens and livestock, and erected modest mud homes. The forest was an island
in a sea of rice paddies. We walked slowly along the path between the hootches. We searched for signs of an enemy presence, but
found nothing. No weapons, no ammo caches. That didn't mean there was no
enemy, but that we weren't going to find them today.
After an hour of fruitless
searching, the Captain announced a fifteen minute break. By now, the company was
well spread out along the trail. We took our rest in small groups. Some lit
cigarettes. Others broke out C's for a quick snack. With three others, I
entered a hootch to get out of the hot sun. Inside, I sat down on top of the family
bunker. It was about seven feet square, and three feet off the ground.
I took off my radio and set it behind me. Placing my rifle beside it, I removed
my heavy ammo bag and the harness carrying my grenades and water. With a big sigh I
shrugged my shoulders to ease the aching muscles. Then I took off my boots. I
peeled the soaking wet socks from my feet. My feet had been in water for nearly four
hours and looked like albino prunes. I squeezed the water from my socks, wringing
them until they were twice their original length. Just in case, I put the socks back
on, and slipped into my unlaced boots. Now that we were out of the water, the socks
and boots would dry quickly. They were built to do just that.
Suddenly, shots rang out somewhere back toward the end of our column. Then more
shots. A grenade launcher opened up. I grabbed my
harness and fumbled into the shoulder straps. I threw the ammo bag over my shoulder,
and grabbed the radio harness and hand-phone with one hand. With the other I grabbed
my rifle, flicking the safety to full automatic. The four of us ran out of the
hootch to see what was happening.
Back up the line, the sporadic shooting increased. There were shouts and curses,
and they were quickly coming closer. Over the radio I caught confused fragments of
commands, exclamations, and more curses. But through it all, loud and clear, one
voice after another shouted "Here he comes!"
It was easy to guess what was happening. We knew there were VC living on the
farms in this village. When we entered the village they exited ahead of us, passing
the word along to others as they went. When we searched an area we usually kept on
moving. We would normally have left by now and be in the next village. One of
the enemy soldiers returned too soon. He did not see us resting inside the hootches
and under big shade trees. When he realized his mistake, he chose to make a break
for it rather than surrender. To his misfortune, the only easy line of escape was
down the trail. He unwittingly chose to run the gauntlet of our entire company.
Only two things were keeping him alive. First, we weren't ready for him. We
were as surprised as he was. Charlie wasn't supposed to just walk back in while we
were taking a break! And second, he was a born sprinter. I'm certain he had
never before in his life run so fast. Bursts of M-16 fire
only made him pick them up and put them down faster than before. The M-60 machine gun opened up. A full fifty round belt chattered
away. And still the shouts came nearer.
And then, there he was, breaking out of the leafy brush along the trail at a dead run,
heading straight for us. We had just come out of the hootch, and were still
struggling with our gear. My boots were untied, the laces sticking out in all
directions. The radio hung at a crazy angle from the crook of one arm, my body
tilted to get the handphone to my ear. I brought the rifle up level, my finger on
the trigger, my other hand holding the handphone and yet also trying to steady the front
stock of the M-16. Ready or not, it was time to open fire.
Then he saw the four of us. His eyes opened wide. It looked like the end of the
line for Charlie. Then, without breaking stride, he made a sudden left turn.
His bare feet fanned the dirt as he clawed for traction, sort of like a road runner
cartoon where the characters stand still for a second, their feet a blur, and then with a
streak of animation, are gone. In a split second he was headed away at a ninety
degree angle, his feet going faster than ever. I pulled the trigger back, and
nineteen rounds snapped out of the barrel. Two other 16's and a grenade launcher
joined in. And in that moment he reached the wall of forest, made another turn, and
disappeared from sight.
What he had just done defied the laws of probability. In a few short minutes he
had run past more than fifty heavily armed soldiers. All but the first few had
forewarning that he was coming. Each of those men had emptied their weapons at him,
but none had hit him. You know that he must have been scared to death.
Especially at the end, when he saw us blocking his path. It is my firm belief, that
as frightened as he must have been, somewhere, even today, he is running still!