A Shau

February 23, 2021 at 8:30 pm (Uncategorized)

   Note: This story is an excerpt from my book, The Frost Weeds, published by Hellgate Press.

   Kane was finally promoted to Staff Sergeant, Doug and I spotted him in the hotel dining room the morning after he received the orders granting him another stripe. It was an absurd sight. Chop was seated at a table by himself with a shit-eating grin on his face. He was staring lovingly down at his sleeve, where his new insignia had just been sewn on. Kane seemed oblivious to everything else around him as he sat gently caressing the long-awaited patch. He looked utterly ridiculous.

   I shook my head. “Do you believe this guy?”

   “He must have gone dinky-dau,” cackled Doug.

   We left with Chop still at the table admiring his new stripes.

   A new advisor was assigned to Ta Bat in mid-August, and Yniguez flew out to join him. Shortly afterward, now-Staff Sergeant Kane cornered me in the living room of the commo house.

   “Hey, Oliveri. Major Crittenden’s going out on an operation in the A Shau tomorrow. He asked for you and I said OK.”

   The bastard didn’t even smile. I guess he thought he was finally getting even with me for my practical jokes. Whenever a dirty or dangerous job came up, he was only too quick to assign it to me. I guess even back then my wise-ass nature often got me into trouble. I had been expecting to hear from Crittenden again, so this was no big surprise. And I knew from my experience at Nam Dong that the Green Berets usually lived quite comfortably. This might not be too bad.

   The next morning, I cleaned and oiled my weapons, then gathered my gear. At 1000 hours I slung my new carbine over one shoulder and my bag over the other. Doug drove me to the airfield.

   As we rolled onto the Nguyen Hoang Bridge, a Buddhist funeral procession approached from the opposite bank. Doug pulled over to let them pass. The mourners trudged slowly along, many of them carrying hand-lettered prayer signs. They marched to the halting rhythm of clashing cymbals.

   Several years later during the Tet Offensive, the VC would smuggle weapons into Hue concealed in the trappings of sham funeral processions. Now, however, the mourners passed peacefully on toward the cemetery while we watched curiously. When the span was finally clear Doug stepped on the gas and continued to Tay Loc Airfield.

   Crittenden was waiting on the fringe of the runway with a small group of ARVN soldiers. An empty Caribou loomed behind them with its tailgate down. Most of the Vietnamese troops had already been airlifted to A Shau. This was the final contingent. I said good-bye to Doug and walked over to join them. Catching Crittenden’s eye, I saluted smartly. “Good morning, Sir.”

   Crittenden was a veteran of the battle for “Pork Chop Hill” during the Korean conflict. he returned my salute with a smile. “Hello, Oliveri. Glad you could make it.”

   “Thanks, Major.” I glanced around for his driver. “Did Hiep already go on ahead, Sir?”

   Crittenden frowned. His response was terse and measured. “I guess you didn’t hear. Hiep was arrested. They found out he was a VC collaborator.”

   “You’re kidding!” I was thunderstruck.

   “No, I’m not. He’s in jail somewhere up north of here.”

   I couldn’t believe it. Here I had spent a week with the man and all the while he was a VC. I guess my instincts about the shooting incident at Phu Bai had been correct. I KNEW I hadn’t loaded the carbine that morning. Hiep must have done it. Maybe he had hoped to disrupt the operation with an “accidental” shooting, or perhaps even hit the jackpot by getting Crittenden shot. Jesus, it made sense!

   I sat silently during the short flight to A Shau, fighting back waves of paranoia. If I dug deeply enough, I could think of many seemingly innocent people who might reasonably be considered VC suspects. There was Charlie (wasn’t he aptly named?) the old cyclo driver who cruised the area near the advisors’ compound. He had often pedaled me across the bridge to the marketplace. It was sometimes said, perhaps in jest, that he was a VC sympathizer. And the little barber who cut my hair in the hotel lobby. He never uttered a word as he worked with his clicking scissors and keen-edged straight razor. Razor? Damn, I’d have to give that some more thought.

   I’d always found getting a haircut relaxing, so I usually visited the barber every week to ten days while I was in Hue. Maybe not any longer. I recalled a story I had heard about three VC who had been killed one night near Da Nang when ARVN soldiers snapped an ambush on them. One of the victims was the advisors’ barber. And Bui, the young Vietnamese college student Keller had befriended. He often came down to the house from nearby Hue University, and Ken would help him study English. Who knew what he was really up to? After all, we had confidential information in the commo house. I had never liked him anyway. And… and…

   The Caribou’s sudden descent interrupted my train of thought. I gazed across the aisle. Crittenden sat quietly studying me. The Major flashed me a fatherly smile and nodded his head gently. He understood. I felt a pang of affection for the wise old soldier. Without saying a word, he had persuaded me to forget about Hiep for the time being. There was far too much else to worry about at the moment.

   The plane touched down, rumbled briefly along the steel-matted landing strip, and coasted to a halt. We disembarked into the brilliant August sun.

   A Shau was a fairly large outpost. The triangular headquarters compound containing the Team A-113 Special Forces command post and the sway-backed ARVN HQ building lay on the north side of the installation, its apex pointed in the general direction of Ta Bat. Fifty yards south of the base of the triangle was another long, rectangular compound. Eight large barracks and half a dozen smaller structures stood within its confines. The Vietnamese strike force called this home. A narrow dirt walkway connected the two emplacements. The camp runway jutted off at a slight angle below the ARVN compound.

   The mountains seemed closer and higher than they had at Ta Bat. Dark green jungle grew all the way up to and over even the tallest of the peaks. Looking west from the camp gave one the illusion of standing at the bottom of a huge, emerald-colored pottery bowl with broken and jagged edges.

   Crittenden and I grabbed our gear and headed up the path toward the command post. A tall American officer with dark crew-cut hair was striding toward us. He was hatless and wore a pair of aviator sunglasses. He grasped Crittenden’s shoulders with both hands. “Forrest,” he said with sincere warmth. “How the hell are you?”

   Crittenden smiled. “Just fine, Harry. It’s been a long time.” He turned toward me. “Oliveri, say hello to an old buddy of mine, Major Harry Ching.” I offered my hand. Crittenden later told me that he and Ching had served together in Korea.

   “Good to have you with us,” said Ching. “We want you both to stay in the team house while you’re here. We’ve got a hell of a cook.

   Crittenden beamed. “That’s damn considerate of you, Harry. We appreciate it.”

   We stepped inside the team building. The interior was relatively dim. I blinked my eyes until my vision adjusted to the light. A stocky master sergeant stood to our right with one foot resting on a cane chair. Several other Americans sat around a metal table. I recognized Sergeant Moore, a tall black man with red hair who had passed through Hue on several occasions while I was on radio watch at Tay Loc. The group eyed us curiously as we entered the room.

   Ching introduced us to MSGT Standing, the team’s intelligence specialist. While Crittenden and Ching chatted, Standing took me aside. “Listen, Oliveri. Patience and Cotter are out in the field. You and the Major can use their bunks while they’re away.”

   After I thanked him, Standing led me through a doorway strung with thin strips of white plastic fringe. He was like a concerned mother hen as he stepped into a cubicle and pointed out a metal-framed bed with Sgt. Patience’s name on it. I stowed my bag and weapon beside it.

   A Shau was beginning to look pretty good to me. The Green Berets even had their own generator to provide electricity, as well as a large refrigerator to make ice and keep their drinks cold. Anyone was welcome to help himself to a beer or soda as long as he dropped a dime into a bucket atop the cooler. The “B” Team back at Da Nang kept the stock replenished regularly.

   Crittenden sent me over to the strike force compound to set up our radio inside one of the barracks buildings. Someone had already erected poles and strung the long-wire antenna. All I had to do was to plug in the correct number of connectors. I tuned the radio to net frequency and called in. There were no messages. I shut down the generator and then looked around. ARVN soldiers were laying down sleeping mats and blankets on the dirt floor. Several others were building fires outside to cook rice. We had brought along two companies, but there was still plenty of room inside. No one was bunking down near my radio, and I hoped that meant it would remain undisturbed. I made a mental note not to leave the code sheets here.

   That evening Crittenden and I ate dinner with the team. The food was excellent. Special Forces units always seemed to come up with outstanding cooks. The Green Berets liked to portray themselves as some sort of super soldiers, and doubtless felt they deserved the best. I secretly questioned whether they were all that good, but they certainly knew how to make outpost duty quite comfortable.

   After the meal, Sergeant Moore set out to fire a harassment and interdiction (H&I) mission from the 81mm mortar pit just outside the team building. Moore’s standard procedure was to launch H&I at random almost every night just before dusk. The team had carefully calculated the distances to some strategic terrain features. Any attack against the outpost would most likely originate from these points. By firing the big 81 at these positions near sundown, Moore and his crew hoped to disrupt any potential assault by catching the enemy troops as they massed.

   I wandered over to the pit to watch the mission. Moore struggled with the heavy steel tube, grunting audibly as he manhandled it into position. When he was satisfied with the placement of the mortar, he crouched down and sighted the weapon using the pre-positioned aiming stakes embedded in the perimeter of the pit. Moore studied some numbers written in a small brown notebook and adjusted the elevation knob to correspond with them. The ARVN mortar crew stood nearby, armed with several deadly-looking shells. When Moore was ready to fire, he stood straight up over the mouth of the tube. The crew passed three of the steel-finned projectiles to him, and Moore slid them down the barrel in rapid succession.

   POWK! POWK! POWK! The mortar spewed streams of yellow and white sparks up toward a darkening sky. The shells soared along a parabolic arc to the target, a grassy clearing about a thousand meters, or one kilometer, west of camp. If the VC were planning an attack, this would be a logical jumping-off point.

   WHOOM! WHOOM! WHOOM! The roar of the impacting shells reverberated down the valley. Moore finished resetting his sights even before the echoes died away. This time the target was a protruding tree line just over fifteen hundred meters to the northeast. The enemy force would almost certainly place its heavy weapons in there. Moore dropped three more rounds into the gaping mortar. Once again, the shells arched skyward.

   By now the twilight had deepened considerably. When the rounds landed, the flashes were clearly visible. Three more explosions boomed ominously across the valley floor. I winced, imagining the shards of hot shrapnel ripping through the vegetation. Those blasts would probably have flattened anyone moving inside the tree line.

   That was the end of the mission. Had there been enemy troops in those areas, they would surely have dispersed by now. If so, the H&I fire would have served its purpose. Unfortunately, we would probably never know for certain.

   Twilight descended quickly upon the camp. To the west, the setting sun sank behind the surrounding peaks, briefly bathing them in liquid gold. In contrast with the deep purple shadows at the base of the mountains, the effect was startling. I paused to admire the sight. Vietnam is really a gorgeous country, I thought. Too bad death doesn’t appreciate beauty. A slight smile curled my lips. Doug would call me a half-assed philosopher for thinking that way. I pulled myself away from this surrealistic scene and moved off to the team house.

   At A Shau, every American shared guard duty. During a two-hour shift, we were responsible for walking one complete circuit of the perimeter each hour to check the guard positions and the general integrity of the defenses. The Green Berets had little faith in the ability of the Vietnamese to perform this task. ARVN soldiers had a well-deserved reputation for sleeping on guard duty. This was especially so among the ranks of the A Shau strike force, second rate troops recruited from the local populace. They were unreliable at best, and the Americans refused to trust their personal safety to them. I drew a shift from 0100 to 0300. I turned in early, hoping to get a few hours of rest before going on duty.

   Ten minutes before my watch began, Standing tip-toed into my cubicle and shook my shoulder gently, being careful not to disturb anyone else. “Rise and shine,” whispered the team sergeant. Most of the others lay sleeping quietly in their racks. It was silent except for an occasional grunt or the squeak of a bedspring. I lifted a hand to acknowledge Standing, and he shuffled back to the kitchen.

   I pulled on my boots and then stepped out of the sleeping bay. Standing had poured two cups of coffee from the battered pot that usually bubbled all night long. I muttered a grateful thank you, impressed with the treatment we were receiving, and slumped onto a wooden kitchen chair. I spooned some sugar into the steaming brew and sipped it. Bitter and extremely strong. I reached for the sugar again. Standing leaned against the refrigerator, absently watching me.

   “Pretty quiet tonight,” offered the chief non-com. “But keep an eye on that north bunker. Those humps have been missing the gong.”

   I nodded. I knew from experience that each guard position was equipped with a metal hoop strung from a bamboo pole. The guards at the main gate rang their gong roughly every fifteen minutes. The soldiers at the other positions were supposed to return the signal sequentially to confirm that they were awake and alert, and all was well. Apparently, the machine gunners in the north bunker had been missing their cue. This was not an uncommon experience. The Americans found it maddening.

   I gulped the last of my coffee and rose laboriously from the chair. I strapped on my pistol belt and then slung the carbine over my shoulder. Nudging the screen door open with my foot, I stepped out into the darkness. A swarm of mosquitoes, attracted by the lights of the team house, buzzed annoyingly around my head.

   It was a fairly clear, moonless night, but visibility was relatively good. With no city lights to eclipse them, thousands of stars twinkled brilliantly in the black sky. Their vast numbers and startling clarity were stunning. To the west, a few high clouds hung like a thin shroud above the horizon. In another five or six weeks, thick clouds associated with the rainy season would begin to roll into the valley, obscuring the skies for extended periods. Eighteen months later, the VC would take advantage of the cloud cover’s ability to limit air support and attack A Shau. The camp’s defenders would hold out for three days against an overwhelming force before finally abandoning the outpost. A Shau would never reopen again. The area would become a prime infiltration route for North Vietnamese forces entering South Vietnam.

   Now, however, I walked to the main gate and nodded to the guards. The Vietnamese were clad in tailored camouflage fatigues and brown berets. They seemed reasonably alert. Both had M-1 carbines slung on their shoulders. I jiggled the chains on the gate and found them tightly padlocked. The only keys to that lock were safely hung in the team house. “Number one!” I exclaimed pleasantly to the guards.

   “OK! OK!” The guards grinned happily, pleased with the simple compliment. I started to move away from the gate. If all went well, I should complete a full circuit of the camp in about fifteen minutes.

   Walking A Shau’s perimeter in the dead of night was a nerve-wracking experience. Shadows darted ominously. Every sound seemed amplified by the extreme quiet. Dry red clay crunched beneath my boots with every step. I felt painfully exposed. My mind conjured up images of gun sights targeting on my back. It was an extremely uncomfortable thought. Although the night was cool, dampness began to spread from my armpits as I passed behind the concrete generator building.

   CLANNNNG! I crouched reflexively at the sound of the gong at the main gate. I glanced around sheepishly, hoping no one had seen. I noted with annoyance that the north bunker directly ahead hadn’t responded. I swore softly and quickly covered the remaining twenty-five yards to the log emplacement.

   The position sat on a slight rise at the very apex of the triangular perimeter. It had an unobstructed field of fire northward in the direction of Ta Bat. The .50 caliber machine gun inside could pivot in a wide arc more than 240 degrees left and right. I stepped cautiously down into the sandbagged entrance. The interior was deathly quiet. I paused momentarily, waiting for my vision to adjust to the stygian blackness. Then I noticed the outlines of two bundles sprawled in a corner of the bunker. Jesus! Here they were supposed to be on guard. And instead, they were curled up in sleeping bags!

   “Hey!” I hissed. “Wake up!”

   A sleepy murmur responded to my outburst. One of the bundles began to stir.

   “Number ten, dammit!” I kicked at the other figure. The two Vietnamese scrambled out of their sacks. They looked embarrassed. “Now stay awake in here,” I growled. I’m sure they couldn’t understand my words, but they knew what I was saying. Both nodded their heads vigorously.

   I grimaced in disgust, then spun around and groped my way toward the doorway. I knew they’d probably go right back to sleep as soon as I left. I made a mental note to tell Standing about it. Maybe he’d report them to the camp commander, who’d probably do nothing. What a joke.

   The compound outside seemed relatively bright compared to the interior of the bunker. I resumed my trek, moving steadily south along the wire. I passed behind the team building and then cut across to the main gate again. All was quiet. I trudged back to the kitchen and stepped gingerly inside, careful not to disturb the sleeping Americans.

   I used the half hour remaining between rounds to write a letter. When finished, I dropped it into a wire basket that held outgoing mail. Incoming letters also went in there, but they never remained very long unless the recipient was out in the field.

   My second tour of the camp was uneventful. To my surprise, the north bunker responded promptly to the gong, so I didn’t bother to check on the occupants again. I awakened Sergeant Moore, my relief, at 0250. When I was certain that he was up and around, I went back to bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

   The next night I drew the first watch from 2300 to 0100. Rather than trying to grab a little rest first, I stayed up chatting with the team members until most of them had drifted off into the sleeping bay. With little else to do, I decided to start my first tour a bit early.

   I made a quick circuit of the perimeter, and finding nothing out of the ordinary, returned to the team house. Only Jones, one of the medics, remained seated in the kitchen. The young sergeant, just a year or two older than me, was writing a letter to his parents. He was wearing only a pair of fatigue pants cut off at the knees and rubber sandals. We conversed sporadically as he wrote.

   Just after midnight, I picked up my carbine and headed out the door again. I went directly to the front gate. Where everything seemed to be secure. Then I turned to begin the now-familiar trek along the wire.

   CRACK! CRACK! Two shots rattled from the northeast corner of camp. I halted in my tracks. What the fuck was going on now? I spotted muzzle flashes near the perimeter as two more reports echoed across the compound. I started to move cautiously in that direction, then hesitated, not quite sure what to do.

   Jones bolted past me, sandals flapping as he ran. He gestured madly with his weapon. “Watch the gate! Watch the gate!”

   I whirled and leveled my carbine at the entrance. I could see nothing but the two guards at the gate, staring wide-eyed into the darkness behind me. Inching sideways, I finally bumped up against the sandbag wall surrounding the mortar pit. I still had no idea what was happening.

   Major Ching burst from the team house, roaring for his interpreter. “Ho Chi… Find out what the hell they’re shooting at!”

   More shots crackled along the wire. By now the camp was filled with running men who jabbered in excitement as they darted about. Minh, the interpreter, now stood in the center of the compound comically dressed only in his undershorts. He called out to Ching, “He say he hear a noise and he shoot at it!”

   The Major reacted with exasperation. “Well, tell him to knock it off!”

   Minh chattered a shrill phrase and the shooting stopped. Ching turned to the men milling about the area. “Anyone see or hear anything?” Nobody had.

   I continued to cover the gate while some of the others checked the guard positions. Ten minutes later, after finding nothing, the group began to disperse. As far as we could tell, there had been no incoming fire. Jones shrugged as he walked past me on his way back to the team house. “Sometimes these characters get a little trigger happy.”

   At first light, the mystery was solved. The guards on the northeast wall spotted the carcass of a water buffalo just beyond the outer perimeter. The animal had evidently wandered into the wire from the nearby village during the night. It had somehow managed to avoid the minefield outside the fence, but the nervous sentry’s bullets had found and killed it. There would be hell to pay with the villagers this day. Sergeant Jones later referred to the incident as “a goat fuck.”

   I joined several other team members at the breakfast table. We chuckled about the buffalo while we enjoyed a meal of crackers with Australian butter topped off by lots of hot coffee.

   Standing came into the room. Major Ching wants a weapons check in twenty minutes.” He glanced at me. “Here’s your chance to fire an AR-15.”

   Ching was clearly concerned. The previous night’s incident had proved to be a false alarm, but the Major knew that the installation at A Shau was badly exposed. Harry Ching wanted to be sure that his men were ready for anything.

   We assembled in the northwest corner of camp with a wide array of weapons. Besides their personal AR-15s, the Special Forces soldiers had a vast inventory of BARs, Thompsons, light machine guns, and M-79 grenade launchers. Major Ching even brought along the team’s 57mm recoilless rifle. They threw some cans and bottles outside the perimeter and then began firing at them. Standing handed me his rifle. “Here. Try this.”

   Only the U.S. Special Forces carried the AR-15, later known as the M-16. The little black rifle was light, had a modest recoil, and was quite comfortable to shoot. It had a well-deserved reputation for causing devastating wounds with its tiny, high velocity ammunition. I looked forward to firing it.

   I took aim at one of the cans and squeezed off two rounds. Both passed harmlessly above the target. I glanced down at the weapon. The AR-15 had unusual raised sights. I realized that I would have to aim lower than I might have with my carbine. My next few shots sent the can spinning wildly across the ground. I really liked that little rifle. It made my weapon seem antiquated by comparison. I removed the magazine and inspected it more closely. Glancing up, I noticed Ching watching me. He had the recoilless rifle on his shoulder. “Wanna take a crack at this?” he grinned.

   I shook my head emphatically. “No thanks, Sir. I think I’ll stick to these popguns.”

   He laughed heartily and then turned back to the perimeter. One of the team members loaded a shell into the 57. Ching pointed the barrel westward, peered intently through the eyepiece and pressed the trigger. A tremendous thunderclap erupted from the weapon. I was momentarily stunned by the powerful concussion. The round rocketed off toward the hills, where it exploded with a distant thump. The big rifle’s violent back blast stirred up a huge cloud of choking dust that swirled wildly around us.

   A stentorian voice rang out despite spasms of dust-induced coughing. “JEE-ZUS CHRIST, Major! Please don’t fire that mother-fucker again!”

   We all roared with glee despite our discomfort. When everyone had finished firing, we cleared and inspected the weapons before carrying them back inside the team house.

   Later that morning I walked over to the ARVN barracks for a radio check. Hue had no traffic for us, so I returned to the team house. Crittenden and Ching were seated at the table engaged in a quiet discussion. The Major gave me a brief nod when I reported that there were no messages. I sat down on the bamboo couch and began flipping through a magazine.

   Sergeant Monaghan, the demolitions expert, swept through the plastic fringe and clomped into the kitchen. He spoke softly to Ching and then glanced over at me. “Hey, Oliveri… I’m taking out a short patrol. Wanna come along? We’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

   I turned to Crittenden. “OK with you, Sir?”

   The Major casually waved his hand. “Sure. Go ahead. There’s nothing else happening anyway. Just be careful. I don’t have another radio operator.”

   I rolled my eyes. Well, at least he was concerned for my safety, even if not for the reason I might have hoped.

   Monaghan grinned. “Come on… get your weapon. You got any canteens?”

   I shook my head. The stocky sergeant went back into the sleeping bay and returned with two canvas-covered water bottles. “Here. Put these on your belt.”

   I carried the canteens back to my cubicle and hooked them into the eyelets in my pistol belt. Then I added two thirty round magazines for the carbine and three clips for the .45. I buckled on the entire conglomeration, grabbed my cap off the bed and went out to rejoin Monaghan.

   The sergeant was waiting by the mortar pit with several nungs and a squad of Vietnamese soldiers. When he saw me emerge from the team house he turned and waved his arm like a cavalry officer.

   We began to move out down the path to the Vietnamese compound, passing through to the airstrip. Monaghan led us to the right and followed the runway to the end. We then marched steadily west toward the ridgeline, gradually spreading out until there was a five- yard interval between each man. The nungs moved up to take the point. Monaghan and I dropped back until I was fifth in line, directly behind the Green Beret sergeant.

   We carried a lot of firepower for a small patrol. Most of the Vietnamese had big M-1 rifles hanging almost comically from their tiny shoulders. One carried a Prick-10 radio. Although he hadn’t said it, I guessed that Monaghan may have asked me along because he felt that I could take over as radio operator in an emergency. Another soldier had an M-79 grenade launcher. Near the rear plodded a two-man machine gun crew. Monaghan was armed with his AR-15 rifle as well as a big .357 magnum pistol. I was carrying my automatic carbine and the .45. We were really loaded for bear.

   We soon reached the base of the hills and began climbing. It was hot on the hillside, but not excessively so, I thought. Within minutes, however, my shirt was soaked through and my eyes stung from perspiration. My legs began to cramp painfully. Too much time behind the radio, I mused ruefully.

   Monaghan glanced back at me. “You OK?”

   I nodded grimly. There was no way I was going to let these guys know that I was hurting.

   About halfway up the hillside we reached a small trail running parallel to the ridgeline. The point man stepped cautiously out onto the path and veered to the right. The rest of us followed. The going got easier once the trail leveled off and we stopped climbing uphill. I reached for one of the canteens. After swirling some tepid water around in my mouth, I spat it on the ground. Then I drained half the bottle. Damn, it was hot! I wiped the sweat from my brow with the back of a forearm.

   The vegetation formed a triple canopy overhead. Dense elephant grass interspersed with other underbrush rose to chest height. Taller shrubs and small trees reached up to about twenty feet. Still larger trees topped out about forty feet above us. It was deathly still along the trail. The only sound came from the soft buzzing of some insects. I was instinctively aware of the need for noise discipline. I found myself whispering whenever I needed to converse with Monaghan.

   We caught occasional glimpses of the camp through small gaps in the emerald wall of vegetation. I was astonished to see how every detail of the outpost was clearly visible from this point. When we passed behind the team house, I looked down again and saw someone, obviously an American from his height, walking across the compound. No wonder we’re patrolling up here, I thought. Can’t just sit back and let Charlie watch everything going on below.

   We continued steadily along the trail. Monaghan kept glancing back to check on me. My legs trembled with fatigue and there was a distinct coppery taste in my mouth. But I stubbornly nodded my head to let him know that I was OK.

   The nung on point suddenly held up his arm and we halted. Monaghan motioned for me to get down. I scuttled crab-like into a small hollow beside the trail. It stank of rotting plant matter. I pointed the carbine up the trail but saw nothing.

   I was impressed with the discipline being shown by these soldiers. No one appeared overly excited. There was no talking or coughing. They just dropped in place and waited. I used the opportunity to drain my first canteen while Monaghan edged up forward to see what had halted us.

      There was a shell crater beside the trail directly ahead. It seemed relatively fresh. Probably from one of Moore’s H&I missions, I thought. The jungle had an astonishing ability to quickly overgrow artillery damage, much as we would replace a divot on a golf course. This hole would disappear before long, yet now it showed no signs of healing. But there was something else. The lead nung knelt beside Monaghan and pointed out a splash of earth that had been ejected from the crater. It contained a partial sandal print. Someone had been up here, and not long before.

   My senses sharpened as quick jolts of adrenaline coursed through my veins. I forgot about my fatigue. Monaghan motioned for us to proceed, but cautiously. We inched slowly ahead, weapons held at the ready. My palms were moist, so I alternately wiped each one on

My pants legs. My eyes scanned the damp jungle as we moved. I hoped that we weren’t walking into an ambush.

   We continued without incident for about fifteen minutes. Finding nothing further, Monaghan decided that we had gone far enough and should return to camp. After a brief rest, he got the patrol turned around and we began working our way back down the hillside. It was much easier going downhill, and we reached the end of the runway in less than thirty minutes. As we walked along the airstrip, Monaghan slapped me on the back and chuckled. I guess he was as relieved as I was that we hadn’t run into anything further and were now apparently out of danger.

   When we re-entered the compound, Monaghan went off to report to Major Ching. I’m sure the Green Beret commander wasn’t happy to hear what we had found. The sandal print was an additional piece to the worrisome puzzle that Ching’s team was working diligently to solve. Meanwhile I headed for the sleeping bay where I laboriously removed my gear and stowed it. I was feeling quite self-satisfied for having completed the grueling patrol, but physically and mentally exhausted from the hard climb and the stressful experience on the trail. However, I was extremely grateful that it hadn’t been much worse. I dropped onto the rack and quickly fell asleep.

   The next day we had a very distinguished visitor. Green Beret Captain Roger Donlon, the hero of Nam Dong, flew in to confer with Major Ching. Donlon was still suffering from wounds inflicted the previous month when his camp, the one I had recently visited with Major Crittenden, was nearly overrun by a force of 900 Viet Cong. The word was that the pale and quiet man before us was in line to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions that night. It would be the first of the Vietnam War.

   As Major Crittenden and I entered the team house, Major Ching gestured toward his guest. “Forrest, this is Roger Donlon.”

   Crittenden offered his hand and said, “Roger, it’s a privilege to meet you. I understand you’re up for the CMH.”

   Donlon nodded wordlessly and shook hands with both of us. I was thrilled to meet the man whose actions we had heard about and found so unbelievable. To think that we had played just a small part in the relief of his camp was extremely satisfying. In December of 1964, Captain Roger Donlon received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson during a ceremony at the White House.

   Ching swung a couple of chairs alongside the table and motioned for us to sit down. He then told about the night Nam Dong was attacked. The distant flashes of bursting shells at Donlon’s camp had been clearly visible from A Shau. Ching had ordered a full alert. The team had spent a nervous night monitoring the radio for battle reports and watching the light show to the south.

   Donlon said nothing during Ching’s monologue. We all knew the story of Nam Dong by now, and he had little more to add. But he seemed interested to learn that Crittenden and I had recently been there and asked several questions about the camp. Finally, Ching’s interpreter, Minh, came in and put an end to the discussion. “The Caribou is ready to take off, Major Ching.”

   “OK, Ho Chi,” said Ching. “Thank you.”

   Captain Donlon and another officer shook hands all around. Donlon was scheduled to leave within days for the States. We walked with the two visiting Green Berets to the main gate. Donlon waved and then trudged laboriously across to the landing strip where the two-engine Caribou waited. The crew chief stuck out his hand to help the young captain up the ramp. Once the tailgate closed, the aircraft quickly took off for the return flight.

   During the days following our encounter with Captain Donlon, contact with the enemy was sparse. I had little to do but send an occasional situation report for Major Crittenden. One particular afternoon Crittenden gave me a routine message to transmit back to Hue. When I got to the radio and started sending, I found that the atmospherics were especially bad that day. On top of that, the VC were jamming our frequency, as usual. It was next to impossible to get a message through. I tried putting on a headset and using Morse Code (CW). I began to make some progress that way, but it was awfully slow.

   After an hour passed and I hadn’t returned, Crittenden came down to look for me. When I saw him, I whipped off the headset. “Communication is really bad, Sir, but I’m making progress. I’ll stick with it until they get it.”

   He nodded and headed back to the team house. I returned to work. Eventually Hue rogered, so I shut down the radio and took off. Hoping to avoid boredom and the building heat, I decided to take a nap. I stretched out fully clothed on Patience’s bed. A gentle breeze flowed through the open shutters, helping to cool the room. I soon nodded off.

   Some time later I awoke with a start. I had been having a recurring dream again. My body felt cool and clammy despite the heat. Cold drops of perspiration clung to my underarms. I sat up laboriously and massaged my eye sockets with clenched fists. The arteries in my temples pulsed violently in tempo with my pounding heart.

   The dream had become a nightmare, and it was always the same. First there was total darkness punctuated by wildly colored flashes of light. Then a strong sensation of vertigo followed, during which I struggled desperately to halt my fall by clutching at threads hanging tantalizingly just beyond my grasp. I was sure that the dream signified my death. But how it would take place and when was unclear, concealed in the murky blackness. I guess that bastard supply corporal in Saigon had gotten far deeper into my mind than I realized. Now I couldn’t shake off a growing sense of foreboding. Somehow, I knew that I wouldn’t survive to go home. I sighed heavily and stood up.

   I could hear the low murmur of voices in the team room. The camp seemed relatively quiet, with normal activity restricted by the heat. Two flies were circling just overhead, engaged in a curious buzzing squabble. I swiped at them with my rumpled fatigue hat and they disappeared.

   Stepping into the kitchen, I found Ching, Standing, and another sergeant chatting. I sat on the bamboo couch and picked up a magazine. I had just begun to flip the pages when Major Crittenden stuck his head in the door.

   “Harry… You in there?”

   Ching turned. “Yeah, Forrest. What’s up?”

   Crittenden seemed disturbed. “You, uh, better come down to the ARVN compound,” he stammered. “They just got a message from your patrol. One of your men is down.”

   Ching bolted from the room and dashed off toward the gate. Standing and the other sergeant exchanged apprehensive glances. They had both served for several years with Patience and Cotter, the two who were on the operation.

   A haggard Ching returned fifteen minutes later. “Patience is dead,” he announced grimly. Sniper got him through the heart. A med-evac is on the way now to pick him up.”

   “Goddamn it!” roared Standing. He slammed the table in helpless fury. The usually self-reliant Ching seemed uncertain what to do next. Finally, he turned and trudged slowly out through the door.

   I peered uneasily at Standing. The team sergeant sat quietly with his elbows on the table and his forehead resting on his cradled hands. I exhaled softly and slipped the magazine back into the rack. I felt like an intruder and wished I could be someplace else – anyplace else. It was an awkward moment. I muttered, “Sarge, I’m sorry.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

   Standing looked up in surprise as if he had forgotten that I was in the room. “Thanks, Oliveri.” He dropped his head back onto his hands. After a short pause, he spoke again without lifting his eyes. “You know, me and Patience were good buddies. We knew each other in the States before we even joined this team. Our families are back in Fort Bragg now. I’m gonna have to see his wife next month when we go home.” He paused. “What the hell can I tell her? Damn!”

   I wished I could think of something comforting to say, but nothing appropriate came to mind. “Listen,” I mumbled, “I’ll move out of his cubicle. I don’t think I should be in there now anyway.”

   Standing’s head shot up. His eyes flashed. “No, damn it! You stay there. He’s dead and there’s not a thing you or me or anyone else can do to change that.” Immediately regretting his outburst, Standing’s voice softened. “Stay there, Oliveri. Patience wouldn’t have minded.”

   I stood up, wishing to give the sergeant some time to himself. For want of a reason to leave, I made a pretense of going down to check on the radio. As I stepped through the door, I met Crittenden coming up the path.

   “You heard about Sergeant Patience?” he asked. I nodded. “This operation’s wrapping up,” he continued. “We’ll be going in tomorrow.”

   I can’t say that I was disappointed. I had no desire to stay in the dead sergeant’s quarters. It just didn’t seem right. Someone would have to pack up his gear, and I really didn’t want to be around for that. It would be best for all concerned if we just went back to Hue.

   The remaining team members spent a quiet night in camp. There was little talk, and none of the usual laughter and grabass. Several of Patience’s closer friends sat silently nursing cans of beer, alone with their pain. Some of the others turned in earlier than usual. A Shau itself lay hushed in the tropical darkness. I spent an extremely restless night in the dead sergeant’s bunk, unable to sleep and suffering from pangs of guilt.

   After breakfast the next morning, I packed my bag and then carried it out into the team room. The Otter was due in at noon. I checked the ARVN barracks to be sure that the radio was taken down and properly secured for the trip, something I usually did myself but had delegated to the Vietnamese on this operation. As I returned to the team house, Major Crittenden emerged from the building carrying his gear. I said, “I’ll be right with you, Sir.” He nodded and continued to the airstrip.

   Standing was seated at the table. The team sergeant looked haggard. I said, “Sarge, I’d like to thank you for everything. I hope we’ll meet again.”

   Standing flashed a wan smile. “Thanks, Oliveri. I just hope to hell it isn’t in this God-forsaken place.”

   I walked down to the runway where Crittenden and Ching were standing together. Within minutes the Otter appeared in the distance, its wings waggling in a slight updraft. The plane made one pass over the camp and then glided to a soft landing. The pilot taxied over to where we waited, pausing only long enough to toss out a packet of mail to Ching. The Major winced when he saw Patience’s name on the top envelope. Crittenden and I climbed aboard and waved solemnly to the Special Forces commander. The Otter’s engine roared. We began to roll down the runway. As we lifted off, I twisted around in my seat for a last look at the camp. I would never see A Shau again. What a wild place, I thought. I had met some good people there, but I wasn’t sorry to leave. And to tell the truth. We hadn’t accomplished very much. The operation had yielded only a few stragglers. Our mission would go into the books as a failure, but that was the nature of the war in Vietnam during the summer of 1964.


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