Don’t Shoot I’m Short
“Don’t judge me unless you have been tested as I have.”
When I was in basic training going to Vietnam was on my mind daily. I recall sitting down with a drill sergeant who had recently returned from a tour in Southeast Asia. I asked him as many questions as he could stand and he said, “When I was young I watched my life unfold, I thought I could do anything, be anything, but now I know I am nothing and will never be able to be anything. I’ll be living with this war for the rest of my life. In college, I thought the party would never end. But this war taught me differently. Many of my friends are in the cold hard ground. Countless times I heard people say that “war is hell,” But I didn’t know what hell really was until I went to Vietnam and if I was given a choice of returning or going to hell, I would gladly go to hell.”
It was February 14, 1968, Valentine’s Day, about one month before the egregious My Lai massacre. Guys were writing home to their girlfriends telling them they loved them and missed them. I didn’t have a girl so I was just sitting around enjoying the beautiful day. One month earlier, we experienced the best the North Vietnamese could throw at us, the TET Offensive and we kicked their ass, killing millions of the little gooks as they swarmed like locust through the rice paddies and villages of South Vietnam and down into Saigon before we sent ‘em home packing.
We were on the Dong Nai River, outside Bien Hoa, about 30 km northeast of Saigon. The sun was shining and it was a pleasant day. I was short, under five days, and we just received a couple of FNG’s, fucking new guys, as replacements in our unit and our company commander, Captain Smedley, was bringing them up to snuff and letting them know what to expect.
When you first arrive in a new country you are aware of the sights, smells and, sounds of a different culture. You are lost and you are nervous, aw hell, you are scared.
“Men, Smedley began,”memories can’t be bought. You have to live them and I can damn sure guarantee you are going to be living them the next 365 days. I don’t want you to be smug about your mortality until you have had it tested, do you hear me? This war you boys are playing in is like no war before it. It’s a war without front lines. We fight the enemy in their homes, in the jungle, and in the villages, A lot of these villagers harbor guerrilla fighters, the VC, Viet Cong. If you can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, you have to weed it out. If you can’t, shoot ‘em all and let God sort it out, otherwise, you ain’t making it home to that sweet little girlfriend of yours. Unless you are willing to be as unreasonable and as brutal as them, do not engage them because they will win. At night the Gooks plant mines and booby traps and during the day they plant rice. There are no innocents in this war. Only, as they say, the quick and the dead. Don’t be the dead.
These people eat different foods and smell different,” he continued. “If you want to kill them, you have to smell like them, or, like a wild animal, they will smell you and kill you. So, send your Old Spice home for your girlfriend’s new boyfriend. He’ll thank you and you may just live to see another day, and that is what it’s all about.”
“This sounds like it’s going to be fun, Captain,” a turtle, one of the new guys in the back yelled out.
“You know it will. Get ready for tomorrow as we are going to search and destroy! We will be out the door by 0530 hours.”
The next morning the bird was on time and soon we were loaded and on our way. As we banked away from our firebase, we could feel the ground drop below us and then in no time at all it rose back up and smacked us. The landing zone was about three clicks from the village, My Khe, we were going to engage. The wind from the blades of the Huey bent the tall elephant grass, exposing our LZ. Off to the left of the LZ, we noticed some civilians walking along the road about 15 meters away. We knew the area we landed in was filled with VC, even if we couldn’t see them, we could feel them. They were all around us, most likely hiding in tunnels underground.
We confronted the civilians and checked their ID’s and then everything opened up. All hell broke loose as they hit us with everything they had, AK-47’s and RPG’s, rocket-propelled grenades. We found ourselves in a real cluster fuck. There was no cover to be taken, only grass. Those who were wounded or killed were hit within the first ten minutes of the ambush when we got out of the bird. All we could hear were people screaming “medic” and there was nothing we could do because the medic was behind us. He was dead. He got shot right away as we dropped from the bird.
We dropped and returned fire. Then the Cobras came in and fired a couple rockets on the enemy’s position, before opening up with M-60 machine gun fire and ’79’s. It wasn’t long before ol’ Smokey came around. Smokey’s a chopper used to cover withdrawal with thick white smoke. He made four passes, and then the gunships came by again, dropping CS, tear gas, on the enemy’s position.
We dropped back a couple of clicks and took cover behind a berm.We didn’t have gas masks with us so we had to dip a towel in water to keep from ingesting the gas. It didn’t matter, we ended up coughing and choking before the smoke cleared anyway.
When the bird returned we loaded up our wounded and dead and took a head count. We had lost half of our men and we were mad as hell as we approached My Khe Village.
To those fighting this war, there was only one meaningful reality and that was life and death. Everything else didn’t mean a thing.
We secured the village and began our mission to search and destroy and it wasn’t long before we were finding all kinds of VC shit under the hooches in the village. We found rice and various foodstuff, along with a cache of AK 47’s, RPG’s, and other weapons. Now all the My Khe villagers were suspect.
Vietnam taught us that there is no simple road between dark and light. Everything was gray.
As we gathered up the weapons, a woman approached us from the village. She was wearing a simple black ao dai, a cotton dress, and non lai, a conical straw hat. She smiled, exposing her teeth, blackened from years of chewing on betel leaves.
“Chan lai, halt,” Cpl. Smethers yelled.
She kept coming and smiling and nodding her head up and down.
“Chan lai, chan lai” Smethers repeated, continuing to step back.
“She knows what you are saying, Smethers,” Sergeant Mason said, firing a quick burst of four shots in the air.
She kept smiling and walking and nodding her head.
The villagers were caught in the middle, between the VC and us. If they turned in the Viet Cong, they would return and burn their village and, more than likely, kill them all. If they didn’t talk to us, they were considered collaborators with the enemy and we would burn their village and maybe kill them all as well. They were considered collateral damage in this war. We didn’t fight for terrain to control it, we just fought to kill the enemy.
Mason yelled “Chan lai,” once again, but she kept coming, so he stepped forward and grabbed the woman’s upper arm tightly and crushed his hip against her pubic bone and blocked her free arm with his elbow. He cupped her small breast and squeezed. It was painful and she cried out, dropping the grenade concealed under her left armpit.
Mason picked it up and threw it into her hooch. It exploded, throwing rice bowls and cooking pots and various pieces of clothing out the front door.
The woman turned and ran. Mason lifted his M16 and fired, hitting her three times in the back.
“VC,” Mason yelled. “Move ‘em out and then burn this shit hole down!”
Later we sat quietly in the tall elephant grass in our LZ, sweating and waiting for the bird to come and pick us up. Nobody spoke as we watched the smoke from the former village of My Khe, lazily drift into the sky. We found seventy-five AK-47’s stashed away along with twelve RPG’s and numerous handguns. We were able to add a little to our colonel’s body count, with six enemy KIA’s, killed in action, including the woman with the hand grenade, helping him in his quest to get his first star. We lost five of our friends and had six seriously wounded. Once again, the brass was the only winner here.
Our entire squad felt like we were lost; like there was no good in us. What we did makes life difficult to bear and as my drill sergeant told me all those many months before, “I’ll be living with this war for the rest of my life.”
Tomorrow, four days and a wake-up. I hope I make it.
Vietnam War Statistics:
“Bomb them back to the stone age.” — U.S. General Curtis LeMay during the Vietnam War
The amount of ammunition fired per soldier was 26 times greater in Vietnam than during World War II. By the end of the conflict, America had unleashed the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs on Vietnam.
US aircraft carried out bombing campaigns in South and North Vietnam that over time exceeded the tonnage dropped by all nations in all theaters in World War II. By 1968, the United States had more than 500,000 troops in South Vietnam fighting a variety of wars in different regions.
The Vietnam War was like no war before it. It was a war without front lines. We fought the enemy in their homeland, in the jungle. Many villages, willingly or under duress, harbored guerrilla fighters, the Viet Cong, or VC. To the GIs, civilians were often indistinguishable from guerrillas and thought to be in league with them. In a guerrilla war like Vietnam, the distinction between warrior and civilian was often blurred.
And then there was the My Lai massacre.
And to show you what our military had to endure from our government on the home front, after 1965, one top official with no apparent sense of paradox described what the United States undertook as an “all-out limited war” in Vietnam.
As Tom Clancy put it; “What the government is good at is collecting taxes, taking away your freedoms and killing people. It’s not good at much else”