I’ll never forget that day when Melvin Bernstein arrived in Cambodia. It was our first day over the fence. We were attacked by the NVA and the smell of death, mixed with cordite, napalm, crispy critters, and human waste was oppressive.
Before we arrived, we had been operating around the Song Be area in Vietnam and the Viet Cong rarely moved in groups larger than four or five soldiers. Once inside Cambodia, we were in for a surprise as they moved in groups anywhere from 20 to 100. The NVA were in the thousands.
It was the beginning of Monsoon season and it rained constantly with the humidity over 90% and the temperature at 96 degrees with a heat index of 130. We were dusting off a lot of guys due to heat exhaustion.
By that afternoon, the rains started to lift and the sun sparkled off the green vegetation surrounding Brown. It almost had the appearance of a well-kept golf course, almost.
Captain Smedley had ordered an RIF, Recon in force, at first light and we had finished field stripping our weapons. We were drenched in sweat from just walking across the firebase.
Sarge finished his meeting with the Captain and was starting to field strip his M16 and clips and had the pieces and springs spread out on his poncho and we were passing the time away by talking about a CBS News correspondent we met in Saigon a few weeks back who was walking around in his correspondent’s suit, what he considered his combat zone attire, trying to impress all the Red Cross girls and, of course, about going home.
“What’s it now, Sarge?” We didn’t have to say what “it” was, he knew what we meant. We all knew.
“Fifty-two and a wake-up.”
“What’s the first thing you are going to do when you get back to the world?”
He thought for a moment before replying, “I’m gonna fill a tub full of hot water, as hot as I can stand it, and dump a full bottle of my little sister’s lilac bubble bath into it and I am going to lie there smoking a cigar and sipping whiskey and count my toes.”
“You’re going to need someone to help you count all them toes, Sarge. Take me with you?” Robbie our RTO, Radio Operator, said.
“Hell, I got someone else in mind to help me do the counting, and it ain’t you, Robbie.”
“Hey, look at the boot. I do believe our turtle has arrived,” Walter Wilson, our 60 grunt said, pointing in the direction of a small GI covered in sweat, walking across the firebase wearing new fatigues and a steel pot. His M16 was pointed toward the ground and he was bent over from all the gear he was carrying on his back. “No way that cherry boy can hump a 60. Shit, no relief for me. Wish the Black Mamba was still here. That beast carried everything and never broke a sweat.”
The FNG, fucking new guy, stepped in front of Sarge with his head down and in a soft voice said, “I’m PFC Melvin Bernstein, sir. Captain Smedley told me to report to you.”
“What did you call me? Don’t you ever call me sir again, those ring knockers back there,” Sarge said, jabbing his thumb back toward the direction Bernstein just came from, “It’s them you call sir, not me. You call me Sarge, dick head, or whatever, but don’t call me sir. You understand, Private?”
“Yessir, I mean, Sarge,” he mumbled in a voice so soft we could hardly hear him.
“You a Heebee?” Wilson asked.
Melvin didn’t look up but nodded his head.
“Damn, I guess that makes us one big melting pot. We had us a real live Apache Indian and a couple of blacks, Swenson is a Swede, Perone is an eye-talian and Jablonski is a Polack and now we have us a Jew,” Wilson said.
“Shut up, Wilson, where are you from, Melvin?” Sarge asked.
“You go to college?”
“Yess.., Sarge, Georgetown.”
“Ewwwee, we got us another college man too, Sarge. What’s your degree in?”
“That’s good. It will help you survive your little vacation here.”
“Why don’t you get Melvin here settled in, Robbie?”
“ Come on, Melvin, I’ll show you around Palm Beach. Did you take your big orange CP pill?”
“Big orange CP pill? What’s that?”
“Birth control, Melvin. If Charlie catches you, he is going to get your cherry and you don’t want to end up pregnant. We got good docs here, but none of them has any experience delivering little baby sans.”
Berstein stared at Robbie, with his mouth open.
“It’s a malaria pill, Melvin. Don’t listen to him,” Wilson told him. “Get your shit together and get back here most ricky-tick. You’re a boonie rat now, Melvin. You are going to earn your CIB, combat infantryman badge, but you better hide that if you ever get back to the states. Those assholes back home hate us almost as much as the slants hate us here.”
Robbie took Melvin around introducing him to all the squad members. When he got to Frankie Perone, Robbie warned, “He’s a double veteran. He went dinky dau so just keep your distance.”
“What do you mean, a double veteran going dinky dau?”
“FNG, you don’t know shit, do you? Double veteran is a crazy mother fucker. He killed a woman after he fucked her. Sarge was real pissed. She was a VC. Perone’s Dinky dau- crazy man, don’t you know? Stay away from him. This place is in his head, man. If he makes it out of here, his mind will stay here. Ain’t right in the head,” Robbie said, tapping his right temple.
We all had a lot of fun at Melvin’s expense. We did everything we could to disrupt his morning rituals. He began each day by sitting up and placing one hand under his chin and the other at the back of his head and he would twist his neck until it would make a popping sound. Next, he would pluck any nose hairs that he could see protruding from his nostrils and then he would squeeze out a strip of toothpaste exactly the diameter and length of his toothbrush and brush his teeth. After a few minutes of vigorous brushing and swishing of mouthwash, he would slowly and deliberately shave his face of all facial hair. He was the only member of our squad who did not sport a mustache.
“Come on, Melvin, Mr. Charles awaits us. Quit your fuckin’ around and let’s go!” Wilson yelled.
After all his preening, Melvin still looked like shit and we let him know it every day; every day that is until Sarge got it. Sarge was at 39 and a wake-up.
“No boonie hats, guys. Put on the steel pots and your frag vests.”
“Aw, come on Sarge, really? Those fuckin’ pots are heavy.”
“You heard me, Smedley’s orders and each of you pack five frags. Also,we’ll be wearing two bandoliers each with seven clips. Put only nineteen rounds per clip. I don’t want any jams. Make every fourth round a tracer. If you are upset about wearing your pots, you’ll love this. Everyone will be wearing a bandolier of 60 ammo. M16’s don’t fire through this bamboo and we are going to be in the middle of it. Wilson, do you think you can carry a thousand rounds for the 60? We’ll be shootin’ a lot of sticks before we can get at Charlie.”
“I got it, Sarge.”
“Swenson, you got the thumper, the M79 grenade launcher, and the extra barrel for the M60.”
Swenson wiped the sweat from his face and nodded his head. The sun wasn’t up yet and we were already sweating.
“Okay then. Kit Carson will join us today. Perone, you got a Thumper too and you take point with Kit and Melvin, you’ll be walking slack. Make sure we don’t leave no evidence, no footprints, no tall grass pushed over, no litter on the ground, no nothing, you got it?”
Be ready to move out at 0500 hours. That’s it get outta here and saddle up.”
“Fuckin’ A, Melvin, we are going to mix it up with Charlie again today. It looks like it’s beans and dicks for dinner again,” Robbie laughed.
At first light, we were already humpin’ it looking for signs of Charlie or the NVA. The temperature and humidity were over ninety degrees and it had been raining all night and all morning with no sign of a let-up. We were all covered with black leeches that seemed to be everywhere.
Our Kit Carson Scout was worth his weight in gold. He was a former VC guerilla who changed sides and was trained under the Chieu Hoi, open arms program. He was on a vendetta. He wanted revenge. He was a committed warrior. He was familiar with the terrain in Cambodia and understood VC tactics in setting ambushes and bobby traps. He also knew what VC bases and assembly areas looked like and where they might be
We crossed a red ball, what looked like a main road, and followed a blood trail to a spider hole and Sarge turned to our Kit Carson and said, “Didi mau,” – go quickly, and take the mighty mite and shoot some gas down that spider hole before you drop in.”
Our Kit went in. Soon we heard a burst of M16 fire and Kit emerged, dragging out a dead VC.
We booby-trapped the body with a couple of finger charges and left it lying in the middle of the trail for when his buddies came back for him. We moved on.
The jungle was very thick, a triple canopy; nothing compared to Vietnam. Sores and bamboo cuts were all over our bodies and feet and sweat continued to pour
into our eyes. We tried to stay off the trails but the thick bamboo kept forcing us back to the well-beaten paths.
“I can’t take much more of this,” Robbie said. “Please God, get me out of here alive.”
“Cradle your M16 and flip the safety off just in case,” Sarge commanded in a harsh whisper, as we slowly and deliberately moved forward. We hit a gully that ran next to a river and we continued to the top of a knoll. Then we all froze. Up ahead, just a few yards, we saw what looked like a small footbridge over a creek. There was a sign that looked like it had been written in blood. It read, “My Chet.”
“What does that mean, Sarge?” Melvin asked.
It wasn’t long before we made enemy contact and found ourselves in a cluster fuck, a real ballgame, and we really had to buckle for our dust.
Sarge pointed to sandal tracks that slid into a gully. The gully wasn’t that big about an eight-foot drop down a muddy trail. It ran about fifty feet to where it went back up a hill on the other side.The river was on our left. Robbie radioed a report back to Captain Smedley in the command post that we encountered a gully and there is a blue line (river) on our left with a boat load of fresh sandal tracks all over the gully”.
Frank Perone said we shouldn’t enter the gully, but Sarge didn’t listen to him. By the time we started to slide down into the muddy gully, Sarge was struggling in the mud to get up the other side. We noticed an enemy bunker across the river facing right at us. Frank Perone put up his hand to stop the squad from moving further. Robbie dropped back and called Captain Smedley to let him know we discovered an enemy bunker across the blue line pointing directly at us. Then two eight-round-bursts of automatic fire shattered the stillness. Everyone dove to the ground, into the mud. At the first sound of gunfire, you get that sick feeling that grabs you deep inside your stomach while your knees turn to butter and you feel yourself growing weak. Then you make a quick assessment of your body to see if you are hit.
Sarge struggled in the mud to get up the other side of the gully and was unable to survey the area. He turned to lend a hand to, Wilson who was humping our 60 and a thousand rounds of ammo up the hill behind him when an enemy soldier shot Sarge through the back of the head and hit Wilson in the butt. There was total silence. Not another shot was fired for several minutes. During that time we hoped the NVA were running away. They weren’t. They formed a banana shaped ambush, completely covering the gully pinning us down.
Before we could call in support fire, our Kit Carson grabbed Wilson and helped him get back up the other side of the gully where our medic began first aid. Wilson told us he saw eight or nine NVA soldiers on top of the other side of the gully and saw one of them shoot Sarge in the back of the head, He confirmed that Sarge was dead. Everyone was quiet. Sarge was a good friend to all of us. He looked out for us. He spoke of his younger sister often. Even though he appeared older, he was only 21 and barely needed to shave. A sick feeling enveloped everyone. The harsh reality that Sarge was gone hit us hard. We were numb.
It was then that Melvin did something that logic couldn’t define. One of the things you learn in battle is that the difference between a hero and a coward is an extremely thin line; just because someone was a hero once didn’t mean they would be again. Whatever decision they made, they made in a split second with no regard for their own welfare and often without thinking of the consequences. Melvin became a hero. He looked like John Wayne with his M-203A1 on fully automatic he fired a burst and ran to a log and came up behind it firing again. Then, without regard for his life, he threw down his own weapon and ran to Wilson’s machine gun that was left halfway up the hill. Melvin knew we needed an M-60 to get out of there. Sarge was dead and Melvin was going to retrieve our M-60 to get the rest of us back to safety. He didn’t make it. Just as Melvin went to grab the machine gun a North Vietnamese soldier reached down the hill grabbing the M-60 leaving Melvin weaponless. Melvin dove away from the hill and tried to find cover. There was none.
We looked up along the ridge line and realized that the NVA could have killed us whenever they wanted. They were on the edge of the gully above us and we had nothing to hide behind. Shooting up from the gully did not give us a decent shot at them. The few soldiers that we had on top of our side of the gully were still administering first aid to the wounded and Robbie’s radio was jammed.
So the NVA played with us. They started with Melvin. They shot off his trigger finger, then his middle finger on his right hand. Then they started picking away at the side of his face.They took his jaw off, from the ear to the bottom of the mouth.This was over the course of several hours. We thought Melvin was dead. If he wasn’t, he should have been. Melvin made us all proud that day.
Robbie finally got through on the radio and was pleading for an M-60 then for a react, a unit to come to our aid. He finally called in our coordinates so they could rain down holy hell on the NVA and us all in the form of mortar fire.
Finally, the snakes came, the Cobra Gunships, and they took care of business
We ended up with two walking wounded and one wasted, Sarge, and one possible expectant, Melvin, and one with a million-dollar wound, Wilson. He would be going home. We called for a dust off and soon popped some smoke to let the chopper know he was coming to a hot LZ.
The sound of the slick, a UH1 Huey, approaching brought a feeling of relief over what was left of our squad. We loaded our wounded and dead and headed back to Brown.
The next day Sarge would have been at thirty-eight and a wake-up, but he went home early, in a box and he took a part of us all with him.