The bugs of Vietnam often came in "hatches". Sometimes
it was a heavy rain or a hot spell that would trigger the annual life cycle of some
species. One day you wouldn't even have know the insect existed, the next there were
thousands of them. The big brown flying cockroach was such a bug.
On the "Night of the Cockroaches" I was the CQ, or "Charge of
Quarters", at our company headquarters in Cu Chi. CQ was a fancy name for the
person who got to sit up all night and answer the phone if it rang. It usually rang
only if one of our line companies had gotten into a fight and casualties were on their way
in to the Medevac hospital.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened that evening until well after dark, when the lone
lights of our hootch became a beacon to the lost and lonely members of this wandering
cockroach tribe. At first just a few found their way into the room. They
buzzed on oversized wings around the lights hung from the top of the hootch. What I
didn't know was that these were only the advance scouts of a vast multitude to follow.
By nine or ten o'clock hundreds of cockroaches hovered slowly up and down in the warm
night air inside our hootch. Mind you, we're talking about cockroaches here - the
kind of bug most of us get squeamish just thinking about. They were harmless enough,
just so darn big! They were on my hair, on my shirt, on my face and arms, and I had
to keep brushing them out of my eyes. I kept my mouth closed so they wouldn't
accidentally walk in.
Outside the hootch more and more kept flying inexorably towards the light, to the
screen mesh which made up the walls of the hootch, and then up and down till they found
the six inch gap at the top between the "wall" and the corrugated tin roof.
It was obvious we were outnumbered. If we were going to survive the night, it
was time to call in reinforcements. I sent my runner to break open the supply hootch
and bring back all the bug spray he could find. He returned with half a dozen cans.
As you could have guessed by now, they were painted olive drab (I sometimes
wondered if the scrambled eggs served for breakfast came in olive drab, too!). We
pulled off the lids and launched our attack!
In sweeping arcs we sprayed and sprayed, and hundreds of cockroaches fell to the floor.
But hundreds more took their places. As fast as we cleared one area, it
filled again with cockroaches. The air was thick with them.
Finally, long after midnight, their ranks began to thin as we gained the upper hand.
But it wasn't until dawn that we saw the last of them. With the first light
they disappeared to whatever haunts cockroaches go to (you know the places - under your
sinks, in the basement, to some of your finer restaurants and food stores).
At last, the battlefield was ours. Now we had to clean it up. It sounds
incredible, but the floor was two inches deep in dead cockroaches. This particular
hootch was sort of a split level, with an open hole where the plywood floor in one wing
sat four inches higher than the other. We took a big push broom and unceremoniously
swept their brown bodies into the hole, cramming them back under the floor. When we
finished, the hole was full. Then we sat down, exhausted, and reflected upon a night
I shall remember as vividly as any I spent in combat.