On that long ago day, Sergeant Johnston had come over to me, carrying a bottle of Christian Brother's Brandy.
Our infantry company was set up in a daytime position in the Rocket Pocket - a remote, uninhabited section of Quang Ngai Province. Our location was in the middle of what, at one time, had been a rice paddy. The jungle had intruded around the small clearing. The paddy was overrun with elephant grass. In comparison to the thick jungle surrounding, our position represented a clearing - but not much of one. A trail, atop an ancient paddy dike, ran diagonally across the clearing.
Sergeant Johnston handed me the bottle and said, "Heat some water and I'll show you how we drink coffee - New Orleans style."
I didn't know Johnston very well, as he wasn't in my platoon, but I accepted his offer and started a small fire with a heat tab and put water on to boil. There was not much to do; so we sat, monitoring the radio by the Command Post. Our Company Commander was out with a patrol.
Boredom. Blistering heat.
Suddenly someone whispered, "What the hell is that?"
I looked up from my task to see a squad of soldiers approaching our position along the paddy dike.
At first glance I thought they were Americans. Our patrol was due back, but no one had hollered, "Friendlies." In another instant I realized these soldiers in strange uniforms weren't Caucasian. South Vietnamese? They were so close that their facial expressions could be seen. I even thought I saw a smile and a nod. They looked straight in our direction - no more than 50 feet from us.
Our daytime laager was typical - noisy. We were in full view. I watched in disbelief from the center of the perimeter as Farney and Brown, without hesitation, hoisted an M60 and M16 respectively. Their burst of fire, only a handful of seconds after I first looked up, tore through the squad. NVA pith helmets and tan uniforms scattered. How could they have failed to hear or see us?
I stood frozen. Thieu Trung, our Vietnamese Kit Carson Scout, screamed at the top of his lungs. I looked over to him as he held a clenched fist high over his head. Screaming. Wildeyed. Fierce.
In my own confusion I thought he was shouting, "No."
Rather he screamed repeatedly, "Go!" He waved for us to follow.
I grabbed my rifle and bandolier and joined the others - who were sweeping through the tall grass.
My vision was focused on the spot where I had seen an NVA soldier fall. My heart raced as I approached the spot. I was sickened to see the badly wounded soldier vomiting rice. He was doubled up in extreme pain. Blood stained his black shock of hair. Fearful eyes. I hollered for a medic.
Along the trail, I stopped momentarily to fix one of my sandals. I searched to see where my comrades had gone.
"Get down," one of them shouted.
I looked over to see Farney, Helmick, and Harrison in a small bomb crater. Confused, I bent over and ran to their position.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"There's a dink in that bush right there."
I peered over the top of the bomb crater. In front of us Thieu lay dead. Spreadeagled, with his shirt pulled up, his abdomen showed a tiny bullet hole. He looked at peace. I thought it strange. On the other side of him, ten or fifteen feet in front of us, was a large bush where one of the retreating NVA soldiers was hidden. We opened fire on the bush.
After a short pause, Sergeant Johnston came up. I saw him out of the corner of my eye as he crouched down across the paddy dike trail - 15 feet to our right. At the very instant that I turned to warn him, he raised up to shoot his 12 gauge. A burst of rifle fire from the bush ricocheted off the trail. Small puffs of dust. Johnston fell backwards. The stunned look on his face seemed to tell of a sense of foolishness. We hollered for the medic.
I pulled a grenade off of my flak jacket and lobbed it into the bush. We ducked before it exploded. Farney hosed it down with his M60. Harrison and Helmick fired their M16s. Buck dropped into the crater with us.
"Give me your grenades," I told him. Someone else handed me more grenades. I threw one, then another. And another. And another. We fired magazine after magazine.
Reluctance. Could he be hidden in a tunnel or spider hole?
"Let's pull back, and call in the mortars," someone suggested.
"Nah. Ain't accurate enough," I said.
The whole damned thing was puzzling. We knew that, soon, we were going to have to face the man in the bush.
A couple more guys jumped into the crater with us. We decided that it was time. We got up and stood on line. We pumped fire into the bush as we slowly approached. We discovered the thick bush was concealing another small bomb crater.
"Where the hell is he?"
"I can't see him."
"There he is," I said. I saw what appeared to be the man's spine.
Harrison reached down, grabbed the man by his belt, and dragged him onto the trail. The back of the man's head was missing. His face was like a floppy piece of paper with eyes that stared.
I watched as Harrison cut open the dead man's pockets. He searched for intelligence information. It was not long before he was covered with the dead man's blood.
"Someone help me," he said. I turned away.
Buck knelt down and tried to close Thieu's eyes. A tender gesture. Each time Buck closed them, they slowly opened once again.
Though his last minutes of life depicted a hard charging warrior, Thieu had been a gentle, quiet man. We placed his body in a poncho and four of us carried him, through the tall grass, back to the perimeter.
A dust off had already come and left with the wounded enemy soldier and Sergeant Johnston. Another chopper was on its way. It would take Thieu to his family in Chu Lai.
After what seemed like hours, I returned to my position. The heated water in the canteen cup was ready for drinking. A bottle of brandy lay next to it.
Copyright 1997 Thomas E. Dier All Rights Reserved