No one had noticed the old Vietnamese man squatting nearby in the dust.
Soldiers, reacting instinctively, went about the business of forming a perimeter around the hamlet, while our Captain organized a squad to go after the snipers.
Shortly before the snipers, at midmorning, we had entered a small hamlet. It was a familiar place. We had set up a night laager a few days before in this same hamlet and were passing back through - on our way to LZ Stinson.
The hamlet had the familiar smells that one grew accustomed to in Vietnam. Always, when entering a hamlet or ville, there was the smoke from the cook fires. I was barely conscious of the first pungent wisps when, from the distance, there came the sudden rifle fire of the snipers.
My first reaction was to run for cover. I recognized the same hole, which I had slept in a few days before, and dashed for it. In midair, I remembered being told that sometimes the enemy would booby trap old foxholes. Too late, now, to do anything - except hope.
Relief. I peered out for a minute or so, then got up and went about the chore of helping set up our 81mm mortar.
The villagers came back outdoors. Our Captain, having organized his squad, disappeared with them in the direction of where the sniper fire had come.
It was a trap.
Probably at that time, the old Vietnamese man had come back outside with the others.
I looked around at the thatched hooches that made up the hamlet and recognized a little duck pen. I smiled.
During our previous stay in this laager, Bill Blowers and I, while pulling guard in the middle of the night , decided that we would play a prank on Sergeant Christensen, who was sound asleep in his hole.
The duck pen was crude - four sides made of little tree branches tied together with string. We loosened one of the sides and the sleepy, confused ducks poured out. Blowers and I had to hustle in order to herd the 15 or 20 ducks in the direction we wanted them to go.
In vain, we tried to suppress our laughter. We did not want to wake up the unsuspecting Sergeant, yet. The obedient ducks marched along and soon, one by one, vanished into Christensen's foxhole. There was a pause, then suddenly ducks were hurled from the hole. Blowers and I were doubled up in laughter.
Christensen became less confused, and more aware, when he heard our laughter. He charged from his foxhole and grabbed ahold of me. My uncontrolled laughter, by now causing me to crumble and fall into a teary - eyed mess, turned me into a pitiful and unworthy target of his anger. He shook me a couple of times and said, " I oughta kick your ass."
My reverie about the ducks was shaken by a tremendous explosion which was accompanied by a large cloud of dust and smoke. Oh Fuck. The squad.
Faces turned. The cloud drifted.
A couple of men came back for a poncho. Jerry was dead. He had stepped on a landmine - possibly a command detonated, 500 pound bomb.
An hour later, the grimfaced squad returned. A red headed soldier approached, throwing his pack and weapon to the ground.
It was then I first noticed the old Vietnamese man. The furious, redheaded soldier walked up to him and, without hesitation, kicked him square in the face. The frightened old man screamed. Before we could pull him off of the old man, the redheaded soldier had struck him many times with his fists.
The old Vietnamese man lay fearful in the dust.
As we wrestled the red headed soldier to the ground, he screamed, "Sonofabitch was laughin' at me".
I was with Jerry the last night of his life. We pulled guard together. He was our Captain's radioman.
That last night of Jerry's life, someone in one of the rifle platoons called for an illumination round. I got up, set the fuse, pulled the charges, and dropped the round down the tube.
The illumination round descended. It lit up a large hillside. I vividly remember seeing hues of gray green. Jerry and I laughed as hundreds of tropical birds, seeing the glow from the flare, began to chirp and sing brilliantly. It was a bright, new day for them, or so they thought. We could hear the flare extinguishing itself as it descended. A certain amount of disappointment was felt at the instant the illumination died out. The birds, as if a switch had been flipped, stopped singing.
Jerry asked me if I would let him drop an 81mm round sometime - maybe the next time we pulled guard together.
I had answered, "No problem."
The redheaded soldier cried tears of anger after we pulled him away from the old Vietnamese man.
Tears of sorrow.
The madness of war.
Many times I have thought of that day in that little hamlet. For a long time I saw it in terms of black and white only. It was wrong for the red headed soldier to hurt the old Vietnamese man, to be sure. Oftentimes I thought that injustices towards the people we were supposed to be protecting, only drove them into the enemy camp.
The last I saw of Jerry, we were smiling and talking of home.
The last the redheaded soldier saw of Jerry was unspeakable.
The madness of war.
Copyright © 1998 Thomas E. Dier All rights Reserved