letuanthewriter


Cao Xuân Huy

 

IN MARCH, MY GUN BROKE

(A Soldier’s Diary)

 

Translated from the Vietnamese

by

Lê Tuấn

 

The author and the translator are grateful for the assistance in the editing process by Mr. Nguyễn Ngọc-Minh

 

Table of contents:

 

 

PREFACE

 

CHAPTER I:

THE LAST LEAVE

 

CHAPTER II:

THE LAST DEPLOYMENT

 

CHAPTER III:

THE LAST RETREAT

 

CHAPTER IV:

THE LAST SHIP

 

CHAPTER V:

THE LAST STAND

 

CHAPTER VI:

THE LAST RUN

 

 

 

 

Preface

 

I am not a writer. I’m a soldier, a combat soldier. What I write in this book is a true story related in the written words. I write about things in which we soldiers were directly involved, not in a distant third-person narrative when one recounts the experiences of others. It’s also not from writers who never set foot on a battlefield.

 

I belong to a generation of kids under ten years old who followed their parents in their exodus from the North to the South in 1954. Most harbored no hatred of the Vietcong except for those whose relatives were killed by the VC. At our tender age, we lacked the perspectives or opinions about the Vietcong.

The same thing goes with the children under ten who followed their parents in their migration to America in 1975. They also hate the Vietcong. However, they only follow a ritual. They hate what their parents hate; but their hatred is a shallow, superficial feeling of antipathy.

The tragedy is that, when we grew up and were old enough to adopt the logic and learn from the wisdom of our elders, the propaganda of the South (The Republic of Vietnam) became a “boomerang”  – it was an anti-propaganda rather than propaganda. As a result, upon becoming a soldier, I volunteered for a bona fide combat unit not because I hated the enemy but because of the arrogance of youth, the glamour of excitement and the thrill of high‑risked actions on the battlefield.

In a unit that frequently engaged in battles fraught with dangers, however, I learned to share the peril of death with my friends and my fellow soldiers. That peril created a bond between us; a bond that made us care for one another as if we were blood brothers. Indeed, we did spill blood for one another. I loved my unit, the color of my beret, and the shade of my fatigue. I loved the soldiers under my command, and I respected my superiors. I calmly accepted their sins and vices, as I allowed myself those same sins and vices. Nevertheless, when two of my superiors, the brigade’s commander and his second‑in‑command, committed the crime of abandoning their charges (which consisted of four combat battalions and other supporting units about four thousand Marines) to save their own skin, I felt the real hatred. I killed the Vietcong unhesitatingly but without animosity and without hatred because there was a line drawn on the battlefield dividing us. We had to kill them and they had to kill us. We, soldiers on both sides, pulled all the tricks to kill each other.

 

I lost faith and felt ashamed of those coward commanders – whose orders I had to obey absolutely as I was supposed to respect them – but I could not help hating them. A captain should go down with his ship. A commander should die with his unit. There is something called responsibility of a commander. Someone who has authority but denies his responsibility is a traitor. We did not lose the war because the enemy was stronger but because we had too many traitors and cowards in our ranks. The hatred I had for my superiors’ betrayal and cowardice was so deep in me that the images of the last days, before the collapse of my brigade (and its subsequent capture in humiliation by a mere company of Vietcong at the latter part of March 1975) were etched indelibly in my memory. It is as if these last final disgraceful days had been captured on film; and a simple act of starting the projector would show the images and drama in the theater of my mind.

 

I have lived with this feeling of shame and pain for over a decade through the years in the communist prisons and the months in the refugee camp. Then one day, after coming to the U.S., I read a statement from a former general who said something like, “The loss of our country is a guilt we all share. The big shots bear the big guilt; the little people bear the little guilt”. I translated this remark into something like, “Those cowards who stabbed us low-ranked soldiers in the back are guilty; and we, the low-ranked soldiers who bared our backs to be stabbed by our superiors, are also guilty”!

 

What I want to say in this book is that no one would not look back at the place where he tripped and fell; and also, no one would not look back at the spot where he just defecated. The act of tripping is one’s own mistake and the malodorous feces are one’s own product. Why then, over the years since the end of the war has there been such a reluctance to reflect on the areas where we stumbled, or to look back at the mound of feces we excreted? Instead, all I saw and heard was the criticizing and the blame game putting the onus on someone else. The most courageous act has been one of an ex‑general who accepted the blame on the condition that everyone else had to share it with him! Like the old Chinese saying: “Even an idiot would have a responsibility to his country”.  Well, if an idiot is guilty then who’s not guilty? I plead guilty.

I don’t remember who said this, “Don’t pay any attention to that bunch of courtiers and mandarins of the old royal court. They could not achieve a thing when they were in power, and now, with their power stripped off, all they are is a useless bunch...”

Our country is not a Chinese checker game where when one loses a round, the game is reshuffled to start anew with all the same elements: Generals will still be generals, foot soldiers will still be foot soldiers. In a real war, the chariots, the cannons, the foot soldiers that fell could not be resur­rected to be deployed, to be used to stage a new war, as on a Chinese checkerboard. Those courtiers and mandarins had no brains and were gutless. Their only talent was to misuse and abuse the courage of their charges. They tricked their subordinates into staying back to fight the war they had considered lost, and then they fled. These brave soldiers were left to rot in the communists’ prisons, victims of their leaders’ hypocrisy. And now, those same superiors showed their faces in America, wanting to lead again. To me this is not acceptable.

The present generation might ignore and/or tolerate their odorous and cowardly past, but the history books will not. Yes, they might have the righteousness of the anti-communism label, but those old courtiers who betrayed their people should shut their mouths once and for all and allow the new generation to take up the cause. With a new stance, the words of the new generation will bear the ring of truth. For true words and the real determination to fight for a just cause are the only things that will defeat the Vietcong and will someday reclaim our country. It’s the little people - the foot soldiers, the ones once oppressed - and the new generation, that have the right to speak up and have the credibility to do it.

This book is not a novel. It’s a memoir. In March, we lost our final battle. As for the words My Gun Broke, I want to tell about the pain of the soldiers whose guns have no ammunition left. A gun with no bullets is worth the value of a piece of rotten wood. I led my company into combat armed with only our shouts, desperately trying to stave off the Vietcong force. Our guns broke when there were still chances to re-supply us with ammunition so we could keep on fighting; but nothing came. Who broke our guns?

In March, My Gun Broke is a memoir because I am responsible for the truth on these pages. The names of locations, people, units, are all true. There are no fictitious elements in this story, however small. It’s a fact that I forgot a lot of details, and with my low rank I was not privy to many things that happened. I only write about what I saw and heard, and things I was ordered to do and did. If In March, My Gun Broke had been a novel, I would have had to add the embellishing phrase, “...All the events and characters in this book are the imagination of the author. Any resemblance to real events and people are coincidental...”

My only regret is that I do not have the ability to write everything I feel needs to be told.

 

Cao Xuan Huy

 

 

 

Chapter I

                                      

The Last Leave

 

While the capital was reverberating with the news of the loss of Ban Me Thuot  – first, the town of Phuoc Long and now Ban Me Thuot – we, my friend and I, have been ensconced in the watering holes and bars where you could sit and drink beer and have a female companion from the staff or “beer girl” sit beside you and you were entitled to some heavy petting. I wondered if the government would again shut down for three days all the entertainment establishments frequented by the elegant boys and beautiful girls of Saigon to mourn the loss, as they did when we lost Phuoc Long. But in reality, the loss of Ban Me Thuot and the closing of the entertainment establishments had nothing to do with us. Even if all the beer spots were shut down, there were still the shacks on the sidewalks for us to spend our time and money. Moreover, it was already mid‑month and our salaries had also dissipated at least by half, but the joyful days ahead were sure to continue, so the idea of sitting on the short stools in the cheap sidewalk shacks seemed to be reasonable in both logical and fiscal senses.

To us, a drink was a drink, of course with some edible stuff as baits. We would have a drinking session, and then go visit a brothel somewhere looking for prostitutes. It was simple and easy. The sidewalk shacks and the brothels surely would not be effected by the fact that the capital was mourning the loss of a town located somewhere on the map.

My attitude was the same. Phuoc Long was captured.  Ban Me Thuot

was lost. Pleiku and Kontum were on the verge of oblivion. Those things did not bother me because I had grown up and lived in Saigon and inherited the attitude of “indifference of an Englishman” perfected by the city folks. Thus, the name of a small or a big town announced lost or recaptured did not mean a thing to a city person if it did not involve his own business or his own relatives or his own pleasure spots; it was considered other people’s business. The sound of gunfire was out of everybody’s earshot. Like the song lyrics, “...I still live, I still eat and I still breathe...”

 

I had been stationed in Ban Me Thuot once and had had some light-hearted entanglement with the female gender there for a while. But I did not own real estate there nor did I have any relatives living or fighting there, and the pleasure spots I frequented in Saigon were not in any way affected by its loss. For me, these few days of annual leave I’d earned (for the period of 12 months) – when I could drink and fool around as much as my heart desired, without any responsibility – were way too precious. Why should I worry about something that was not my responsibility? Yeah, Ban Me Thuot was lost. So what? All I wanted to think about during my leaves was hanging around the watering holes and visiting the brothels.

I once wrote to a friend, “In Saigon, all I do is sit and lie, sit with a bottle of booze and lie beside a girl. I know that for the remainder of the year I will not have the comfort or privilege of such luxuries. There is no guarantee I will ever have another leave. There is no guarantee I will be alive the next morning. So, when I am alive, I take full advantage of the pleasures of the moment.”

The only thing I regretted on this leave was that Rex Cinema had just had a special showing of the film “The Exorcist,” as a fundraising event for the refugees; but I didn’t get to see it. The price of the tickets was very high, yet they were sold out in one afternoon – including the black-market tickets that were 3 or 4 times higher than the face value. I came to the theater too late and could not get in. My regret was not because I missed  a  chance  to

contribute to help the refugees but because I had heard that the film was extremely entertaining and I had wanted to see it for a long time. So, it was back to the booze, back to the girls.

 

I had boarded the plane and left Hue later than the date stated on my leave, so when my leave was up I reported to the rear base in Vung Tau to ask for an extension. The Saigon ‑ Vung Tau route had not been safe; so, the inter-base truck traffic between my battalion’s rear base in Vung Tau and the Headquarters of the Marine Corps in Saigon was not as frequent as before. While waiting for my battalion commander’s decision from the front line, I wandered to the beach to escape the gossiping and bickering of the officers’ wives in the rear base housing quarters.

The prices for food and drink here at the resort town were exorbitant. I then made a decision not to wait for the approval from my battalion commander – I knew for sure I would not get it. I also did not want to wait for the liaison truck so I boarded an intercity bus and headed back to Saigon after a drinking bout with some NCOs and privates at the battalion’s rear base. I felt I had fulfilled my obligation by reporting to the rear base to request an extension. In my mind, I was in the clear.

With two grenades in my trousers for safety measure, I sat in the bus but soon fell asleep like a dead man. When the bus reached Saigon, it took the attendant quite some time to wake me.

 

During the extension period and beyond, I went back to getting drunk in the morning, getting stoned in the afternoon, and getting laid in the evening. I was on the “self-approved” leave and had a cache full of excuses for my coming back late to avoid disciplinary action. (One time I had taken 28 days on a 4-day leave, and when I returned to my unit, everybody had to grin and bear it). This time, I honestly did not want to be late, but my commander had unfairly kept me in my unit until after Tet – the Lunar New Year, which was in February – while my leave permission had been sent to the rear base before Xmas. For all my seven years in the force, I had only spent Tet in Saigon once, and even that was unsanctioned. It was at the time that I volunteered to undergo the Muddy Field Training in the military school in Duc My, near Nha Trang, with the intention to spend some time in Saigon during Tet. This time, due to the loss of my glorious time of Tet in Saigon, I thought I would stay a month and a half: My special official bonus leave only gave me fifteen days, but I extended it to one month and another half a month of “self-approved” leave... The absence of one officer in a company that always had a few officers-in-reserve would not make that much difference. There is a saying, “If a girl goes off to get married, the market is still merry...”

 

But the market was not merry. In the afternoon of March 15, I ran into 2nd Lt. Be from the Military Police who had just come back from the Marine Operation Headquarters. He told me that my battalion had been engaged in heavy fighting. My battalion was stationed at Kilometer 23, north of Hue, on National Route 1; its perimeter of responsibility stretched from the north bank of the An Lo River to Hoa My camp. Right next to the An Lo River were two villages, Co Bi and Hien Si, where some of the bigger fights alongside the National Route had occurred. There were some pestering by the guerrillas and sappers but they were mere nuisance, nothing major. Adjacent to camp Hoa My was Dong Lam village where everybody, from the village chief down, was Vietcong. On the east side lay a sand desert. A few months back, a number of refugees from Quang Tri came down and formed a couple of small hamlets there and they seemed harmless. The west side of the perimeter was the arena where we faced the enemy, where lines were drawn, troops were stationed. To the west lay a very important strategic point called Hill 51. From the top of Hill 51, we could observe troop movements as well as other activities of the Vietcong in the surrounding areas. Also from Hill 51, the Vietcong could monitor our troop stations including a stretch of National Route 1. The Vietcong could easily make contact with their guerrillas lying low inside Dong Lam village and an area next to camp Hoa My. If my battalion was engaged in heavy fighting, it had to be at Hill 51. And, according to the troop rotation between companies, I reckoned that my company was being deployed at Hill 51 right at this moment.

As I said before, the loss of Ban Me Thuot did not concern me. The fact that the government was on the verge of abandoning Pleiku and Kontum was of no importance to me. But Hill 51 - an unnamed mound of dirt (the name came from its altitude), a location that the Saigonese had never heard of, a location whose existence or extinction would not change the positions of the arrows or the colors of the crayons used to indicate the war activities on the operation maps in the daily report from the Military Command Center, a location whose existence or extinction would not be mentioned in the Armed Forces Radio’s newscast; a location whose existence or extinction would not be rated as important as the news of a dog run over by a car in national newspapers - meant a lot to me. For that hill, that little bald mound of dirt squatting at the far north side of the Republic of Vietnam, forced me to quit eating, drinking and frolicking in pleasure. It forced me to find a way to go back to it immediately. It knocked out all the reasoning and all the tricks that I was planning to use to pull the wool over my commander’s eyes. Here was a hill where my company was being deployed, and where the fate of my friends, my brothers, my comrades, and my charges was going to be affected; and I already dreaded thinking who among them were still alive, who had been killed.

 

In the morning of March 16, I reported to Marine Corps Headquarters. Here, the 4th section informed me that it would take at least a week to get me on the flight to Da Nang; the Phu Bai airfield was not safe because it was in the Vietcong mortar range. At breakfast on March 17 with Master Sgt. Tuan, who was in charge of the flight list, I succeeded in getting my name on the March 18 flight.

 

In the afternoon of March 17, I said good‑bye to my family. Grandma

hugged me and wept. My mother did not want me to go. My uncle, who was my mother’s brother but had raised me since my birth, advised me to desert. He told me he had learned that the Americans were going to abandon Vietnam. “The situation is not like a few months ago,” he said. “Most of my American friends have left. Only a handful remains to take care of unfinished business. They would be gone soon. I think it’d be best that you stayed home to care for our folks, as you and I are the only men in the family.”

I believed him. Of course, he had not told me everything he knew. He only said enough to give credibility to his advice to me. The fact that he knew a lot of important people made me think what he said was true, and I believed he sincerely wanted me to desert instead of going back to fight in fruitless battles. But I discarded his advice. I did not believe America was going to abandon Vietnam. They had spent a lot of money and shed a lot of blood in this country. They just didn’t want to pour in more aid, but they wouldn’t cut us off altogether. Hadn’t we been fighting the poor man’s war since the cease‑fire in 1973? Besides, my friend Phat, who worked in the Assembly, had told me that we were ready to cede territory to the Vietcong at An Lo or Lang Co.

And what about my fellow soldiers, my charges, and my honor. What was I supposed to say to them if they knew that I, “Fuzzy Face” Huy, of Battalion 4, had deserted when his unit was engaged in battle? Wasn’t it shameful enough to be late in my leave to linger in Saigon while my company was attacked on Hill 51? How could I abandon them and turn into a deserter to save my own skin? All because of some unfounded rumors that the Americans were abandoning Vietnam? I believed my uncle was telling me the truth based on what he had heard from his friends; but I could not heed his advice, simply because I could not see myself as a coward. I told him,    “Uncle, whether I live or die, whether  I  am  happy  or miserable,

it’s all in God’s hand. I don’t want to face my fellow soldiers with shame.”

I was not a hero, but I was not a coward either. I was a soldier of a military branch that accepted only volunteers. I felt I had to be worthy of the color of the green beret perched atop my head, be worthy of the color of the fatigue draped on my body and as a matter of personal pride, be worthy of the rank I wore on my shirt collar. But I was not an exemplary soldier who religiously followed military schools’ tenets, who carried out the eight or ten commandments created by the people from the Political Warfare Department who themselves never followed those very rules. I was an unruly soldier. I gambled, drank, screwed around. But I fought the enemy like hell. Nobody, from my superiors to my subordinates, had ever complained of my conduct in battle.

 

I arrived at Da Nang in the afternoon of March 18 and had to sleep over at the airfield because there was no transportation to Hue. The Operation Headquarters was moving from Huong Dien near Hue to Camp Non Nuoc near Da Nang. All transportations were used primarily to move the units from Brigades 258 and 369 to Da Nang to replace the Airborne battalions which had been called back to Saigon. The busy atmosphere at Da Nang Airfield, with rows of flag‑draped coffins ready to be shipped to Saigon and the refugees evacuated by air from Pleiku and Kontum, was a stark contrast to the rhythm of everyday life of the people in the city. Along with a few friends from the same battalion, I hit the streets of Da Nang in search of beer spots and brothels. The cafes, the movie houses, the dance clubs were all crowded. That night, we even went to a girl high school to see a festival commemorating some heroine in our ancient history. People still dressed to the hilt. People were still screwing around, still having fun. The streets of Da Nang were full of people and its calmness put the refugees from Quang Tri and Hue at ease. The transportation base was still  badly lit , filthy,  and malodorous as always. It was noisy and full of activities, as it never had a tranquil day.  Tired old men and slovenly dressed women threw themselves at the  flag‑draped coffins, crying, screaming feverishly. Those coffins had been brought in from somewhere and had been stored here for some time and no one knew when they would be shipped out. The airplanes did not have room for them and the ships could only accommodate a limited quantity. There were bodies of soldiers from my battalion that had been waiting here for four, five days. Their relatives had arrived from as far as the Mekong Delta. They should have been taken away fast because they had died at least over a week ago. I wondered how the system worked at this base, what the order of priority was, and why these bodies had been kept here for so long. Another thing made me wonder: From the day my division was assigned to Quang Tri, we always had the special flights to carry supplies, the wounded, and the dead... Why did we have to use the transportation means from this base? I was asked to intervene with the authority but to no avail. All I got was promises; and promises were not worth a shit now!

 

We retreated to another shack diagonal to the airfield gate and went back to drinking. We still managed to get something to drink even though all we had left was a carton of Capstan cigarettes to trade for booze. At the shack, I met some Special Forces soldiers who were based in Da Nang. They told me they would be dropped into Ban Me Thuot at midnight. I told myself it would be too goddamn inhuman for some sons of bitches to decide to waste a few more human lives if it was true that those soldiers were going in tonight. I hoped that was not true. Sometimes decisions were needed to sacrifice the lives of troops in battles and a commander’s erroneous decisions could kill a lot of people, but somehow they were accepted. A decision to throw a small unit of soldiers into an area where a whole division had been routed, triggering an evacuation of an entire military corps, was a waste of human lives. Who was responsible for these useless deaths? Soldiers were also people, not toys to be played by the big bosses.

In the afternoon of  March  19, I  arrived  in  Hue.  The  activities  here

were hectic – hectic but not panicky.  It  seemed  that people here had been

used to the scenes of fleeing their homes to save their lives; and the people who tended to get panicky had already left for Da Nang or Saigon. People with some means also had left for Da Nang. Shop owners and street peddlers stayed behind for last-minute purchases by the fleeing crowds.

I also had to buy some odds and ends fast in order to get to my battalion and then to my company before it was too dark. I could not wait until the next day and hitch a ride with the supply truck because the battalion commander had given an order for me to get back and join the operation today – at any cost. Also, I had no desire to watch Hue on its deathbed. I would be better off go fight the enemy.

 

Arriving at the courtyard in front of the battalion HQ, I saw my battalion commander, Maj. Toan (a.k.a. Hitler) standing with another major whom I did not recognize at the 3rd section hut entrance. I saluted. The major who I did not recognize had a red name patch on his shirt, indicating that he belonged to my battalion and his name, Thanh, was printed on the patch. He shook my hand and turned to my commander.

“Is that him? This officer?”

I knew immediately that they had been talking about me – not favorably, of course. I didn’t care. Major Toan did not respond. He turned to me instead.

“Get back to your company right now, goddamn it!”

“Where is my company, Major?”

“Fuck it, I don’t know! Just get out of my sight!”

The swearing was almost inaudible but I knew he swore because his lips moved before he spoke. I saluted and turned away, feeling somewhat elated, telling myself that it took somebody to make “Hitler” swear, albeit almost inaudibly. He had told me to get lost immediately; it meant that I would not have to answer for my coming back late from  leave, that I  would

not be  disciplined.  Upon arriving at  Hue,  I had  learned that the company

that  was   attacked and suffered  heavy  casualties  on  Hill  51  was  not my company. This had lifted a great burden off my chest. My other concern and burden – the fear of being disciplined – had now also been alleviated.

I was told by 1st Lt. Xuan, commander of the battalion commanding company, that Maj. Thanh would replace Maj. Toan as battalion commander and the transfer of authority had already taken place. I was also sure that Maj. Toan had conveyed the nature of my unruly behavior to the new commander.

Xuan also told me that Capt. Pho was being trained on the job as head of the 3rd section (in charge of operation) and would follow Maj. Toan to Battalion 18; Company 3 (of Capt. Hieu) had gone to Battalion 14 and the newly formed company headed by Capt. Chieu was becoming Company 3 on the account that Company 3 had lost half of its troops at the battle of Hill 51. 2nd Lt. Sang, assistant commander of company 3, was killed along with his troops. Amongst the fatalities was my favorite underling, Pfc. Hieu. When the new company was formed, I was almost sure that I would be appointed commander, so I sent Hieu there first to avoid the hassle of paperwork. But it turned out that Capt. Chieu was named commander and 2nd Lt. Sang his assistant. I’d asked Sang to take care of Hieu. Little did I know that I had sent Hieu to his death.

I was also told that the reason my company did not take the assignment at Hill 51 was because it lacked an assistant commander (me), so Company 3 had taken the assignment instead. It seemed that my leave had spared my life and half of the troops in my company. But by the same token, my absence had caused the death of Sang and half of his company. Company 2 had recaptured Hill 51 the next day and also rescued a squad stranded on the hill. They had recovered all weapons minus a sighting device of a mortar piece and taken in a lot of weapons from the Vietcong. The few missing bodies were considered MIA. 2nd Lt. Sang’s body, shirtless

and without his dog tag, was identified by his omnipresent skintight pants

 and the unusual belt buckle that had the empty frame and no plate.

Sang and I came from two different units. We had trained together at

Rung Cam (Forbidden Jungle), the Marine Corps  training  camp .  We were

assigned to the same company on the same day. Each had his own platoon but we usually joined forces in battles. He and I were close drinking buddies. Sang, Thien, (who had been transferred), and I were called “The Three Drinking Pits”. Sang had worn the rank of sub-lieutenant for a long time – 4 years – for no reason. He also had held the longest tenure as platoon leader in the battalion – over 3 years – and been promoted to assistant company commander after only a couple of months wearing the rank of 2nd lieutenant. He had had a difficult military career, even though he had been a good and well-disciplined soldier, not unruly like I was.

The promotions he got, albeit belatedly, had given him hope for a brighter future in uniform. It turned out that his newly raised salary had not even been collected and his appointment to the position of assistant company commander had not been duly filed for the records when he died. I was told when his unit was overwhelmed by the enemy on the hill, he had asked artillery support on the radio to shell on top of his head using no codes, no passwords. His last words were sharp and terse: “Goddamn it, too many of them. Just drop it on my head.” The big guns had shelled directly on the hilltop, and two attack aircrafts had also dropped their bombs where he had told them to.

It was a brave death and an anonymous death. Maybe it was supposed to be that way. The heroism and the sacrifice of this squad, surrounded and overwhelmed by the enemy firepower, had only been acknowledged in passing, in distant and muted whispers. To me, that was a cruel indifference; for everybody knew a pat on the back, a sympathetic gesture would mean a lot more than a million Psy-War propagandist slogans. I did not know if this valiant squad was just the heroes of Battalion 4, or of the Marine Corps, or of the entire armed forces? Perhaps only the top brass who died or acted valiantly would be considered heroes. As for the actions of 2nd Lt. Sang or of the squad  who’d  dug  in  on  top  of Hill 51,

they didn’t mean a fucking thing. Our armed forces did not lack the kind of valor that “didn’t mean a fucking thing”, yet suffered a chronic shortage of heroes. I thought about the outstanding soldiers who were delegates to the National Congress of Outstanding Soldiers in 1973. One member of the delegation was a guy representing my battalion who had always been stationed at rear base, who never had a chance to hear the sound of bullets aiming at him. Hail to the heroes!

“Where is my company, mate?” I asked 1st Lt. Xuan.

“Same old place. Turn left at the railroad tracks,” he told me.

 

I left the battalion command post, crossed the National Route 1, headed north, and went past Dong Hoa market, or what was left of it. I remembered having sat here drinking beer, waiting for the bus at the start of my leave. Now, less than a month later, all that remained was a few half-burned platforms and the felled concrete walls pocked with artillery shells. I turned left to the red-dirt road that led to the foothills. This road, which had been so familiar to me, did not seem so anymore. Even the first landmark, the beer shack of schoolmistress Huong and her mother’s, was not the same. Its tin roof had collapsed, pulling down the rotted walls that had been erected with the wood from artillery shell boxes. The barbershop next to it was devoid of any vertical structures. The whole block bore the same resemblance to the destructive sight at the marketplace. The deeper I went, the more ruinous the scene, the results of the terrible artillery and rocket shelling.

I passed the downtown neighborhood around the marketplace, sloshed through a huge pothole full of mud, and arrived at the inner area. It was called the “inner area” because it was separated from the marketplace, or “outer area,” by the huge pothole full of mud. There were only a few squalid homes here, which were somehow unscathed. As I approached, an old Buddhist nun emerged from one of the houses.

 “Why are you here at this time, all alone, young brother?”

The question stunned me. The sun had gone down. There was enough light for me to see people’s faces but only by the reflection of the sun. My  company  was  still  some  distance  away. I suddenly realized that

there was no civilian around. Most of the homes were burned down or destroyed. And the scene was definitely not the same as before I left on the leave. I looked down at the rifle in my hands and goose bumps started running amok on the surface of my skin: the ammunition magazine was absent.

In a nonchalant gesture, I raised the gun, held it against the ammo pouch – also empty, of course – and turned sideway so she would not see the hole on my M-16 where the magazine should have been. I managed to recover quickly.

“There are troops coming to get me. Why are you here by yourself?” I asked her.

“I’m just a nun. You should be careful, young brother. Those guys often come out at this hour.”

I started to walk. My mind did not dwell on Sang, on Hieu, on heroes, on cowards any longer. It was only me in my thoughts. I had been so careless. I had not inquired about the current situation, not taken along a couple of full magazines, and not radioed my company asking for escorts. It was an unacceptable carelessness. This mistake would only need the help of a little bad luck to assure that I would not be alive to repeat it. My pace was brisk but I tried not to look anxious. My eyes cast quick and nervous glances, like the eyes of a thief. I also tried to watch my back. The gun in my hand was in the ready-to-fire position even though it was empty, the absence of the magazine well concealed by my holding the gun close to my body. With such bravado, I walked. The air was not cold, yet I shivered. The air was not warm, yet I sweated. My right palm was dripping with perspiration, yet I dared not lift it off the gunstock to wipe it dry. I had to maintain my ready-for-combat stance hoping to fool some guerrillas hiding

in the bushes somewhere. I tried not to think  about  the  fact  that  if  those

guerrillas were armed, they would be in good position to fire a single bullet at me anytime despite my valorous stance. I reasoned that my ready-to-fire position would make them suspect that behind me were more troops and I was only an advance man, and this would cause them to hesitate. This was a life-or-death bluff in a poker game where my face cards were just a pair of deuces. The calmness in me, which was just an instinctive reaction, increased with the shorter distance to my destination, but decreased with the dwindling rays of sunlight. The lie I told to the nun earlier became a fervent hope: I hoped for the encounter with the troops as they came to meet me.

A problem was awaiting me when I reached the railroad tracks. There was a road cutting through the tracks. When I left my company’s position was on the right, and I was supposed to turn left at the railroad tracks as per Xuan’s directions, yet he told me that my company was still at the old place. I silently cursed him for having given me directions that could cause me troubles. I also cursed myself for having not studied the map before leaving the battalion HQ. And I cursed my company commander for having not sent troops to meet me, even though he knew I was on my way back.

I did not know what to do, but allowed myself no time for indecision.

The longer it took me to decide, the more dangerous the situation would become. I could not climb to a higher ground because there was not enough light for me to make an accurate observation of the surroundings; yet there would be enough light for my body to cut a shadow against the sky and therefore exposing myself to a sniper’s bullet. The distance was about 30 meters from where I was to the intersection, and I calculated in my head that it should not take more time than some hasty 30 double steps.

I had the options of going to my battalion’s old position or following Xuan’s confusing instructions and turning left at the railroad tracks, but my training told me to opt for a move based on the terrain. If I crossed the railroad tracks, I would have to pass through the barren sloping hills and I would make a good target for a sniper lying on the low ground. If I turned left, I would have to embark on the narrow, twisting dirt path surrounded by heavy foliage, a known unsafe area even before I had left.

As there was no clear winning choice, I decided to turn left. If I took the hills and ran into the enemy, I would take a bullet. Even if I had spotted him first, I had nothing to fight and draw blood from him. Mine would be the only blood that would soak the hilltop. I would take a bullet since I had none. This way, by turning left, if I ran into him, or if he spotted me first, I would still have a chance to dive into a bush somewhere alongside the road and try to escape.

I took very careful steps, probing, listening, watching while I passed the corners, and ran fast on the flat, straight stretches. At the last bush, I stopped and looked at the hill blocking my path. There was an upward winding road at the bottom of the hill. To my right, there was nothing except a few small bushes, not large enough to shield me from being seen by the group of people sitting and standing on the road to my left, on a slightly higher ground. In this light and from this distance I could not make out the identity of the group. I could not tell whether they were friends or foes with my eyes. Therefore, I used my ears. I tried to listen to their conversations. Of course, from where I was, I could only take in a few words. Actually, I did not need to listen to their conversations, only their accent. If they spoke with a Southern accent, it would be like music in my ears and all would be fine and dandy. If they spoke with the accent of a Northern peasant or with a Central regional inflection, it would be time for me to backtrack and I would sure have to spend the night in the bushes, offering my blood to the jungle mosquitoes and wait until the morning.

I summoned my entire pool of energy and channeled all my senses into my hearing. I waited and listened. But no words drifted out from the group of people on the hill-slope, only the sounds of insects and the blowing of the wind. However, I was strangely calm. This was the calmness of  a  soldier on  the  battlefield  who  had  the  targets  canvassed  and  the

enemy’s positions  pinpointed ,  who  had  been  exposed  to  the  sound  of

gunfire, who no longer had the anxiety of being hit by the enemy’s first bullet before he could hear the shot. I would no longer be a candidate of a fateful sniper’s shot. I was calm because what would happen next was laid out to me clearly: if my judgment was right, I’d live; if I was wrong, I’d go to hell…

Suddenly, someone up there said, “Goddamn it! Why does it take so long?”

The voice was low, but loud enough to reach my ears. The cadence of the Southern inflection was like the sound of an angel’s song. The soldier’s uttering of profanity brought the potential danger around me to an end. These guys must have been troops from my company, setting mines at an outpost.

With the gun rested on my shoulder, I leisurely started out on the dirt path. I whistled the tune of a familiar Marine Corps marching song to broadcast my presence to ward off any surprise and misidentification from the group on the hill. Some of them stopped working and looked at me. Still, none said a word when I reached the foothill path. Thinking maybe they hadn’t recognized me in the dark, I said loudly.

“Who’s there?”

There was no answer. I asked again.

“Is this Company 4?”

“Goddamn it, where did you come back from at this late hour?”

I was annoyed and thought, “This is not the way to acknowledge an officer.”

“Where’s the company?” I asked harshly.

“Oh, boy, you just came back from leave? Go straight ahead. Hurry up; other squads have probably finished rigging ‘the toys’ already.”

“You guys got a radio? Call and tell them I just came back, tell them to wait a little bit.”

“No.”

The word “no” was terse and seemed disrespectful .  I was  annoyed

but smiled inwardly, thinking of an incident in the past. In 1972, I was wounded, lying in the battalion HQ waiting for the chopper to take me to the field hospital; a soldier, also wounded and waiting for the chopper, lay next to me. He asked for a cigarette and made small talk.

“Goddamn, you’re wounded too?”

He looked very young, may be in his late teens, and had a gung ho attitude of a combat soldier. I mumbled an answer. He continued.

“What platoon?”

“Two.”

“Me too. What squad?”

“Platoon’s command post.”

“Goddamn, how did a ‘clerk’ like you manage to get hit?”

“I am the platoon leader.”

He was embarrassed.

“Oh, Chief... I didn’t know...”

Of course, he didn’t know me. It turned out that he had just been sent from Rung Cam training camp. He had reported to the battalion; the personnel section assigned him to the company; there, the first sergeant sent him to my platoon where my deputy received and assigned him to a squad, while the platoon was on maneuvers. He had come to the platoon in the afternoon; I was shot in the evening. He had no way of knowing I was his platoon leader.

There was another funny story, also in 1972. My battalion commander at that time was Lt. Col. Quang. His radio code name was Quang Trung, after the heroic emperor, but we called him “Quang the Strangler”. This nickname was enough to define his characters and popularity among the troops. The battalion was stationed on the bank of the Vinh Dinh River and my company was assigned to protect its flanks. One day, the Vietcong managed to get in between the battalion and Company 2’s positions.  We kicked them out to  the  rice  paddy  the next morning and

they became shooting targets in a wide-open field for  our  troops .  “Quang

the Strangler” grabbed an M-79 and fired like a mad man; we all stood aside while he fired; nobody said a word. Sub-Lt. Chiem, who had been in OJT (on the job training) duty in the company, came along, saw a guy wearing a T-shirt firing the M-79 with utter abandonment. Chiem charged up and wrestled the gun away from Quang.

 “Fuck it! You fire as if you are jerking off! Let me show you...” he yelled.

Those were just a few samples of mistaken identity within the ranks. But it should have been different here: Someone in that group should have had recognized me. Not counting the time as platoon leader, I had been assistant commander of this company for over two years. That was a long time. Why hadn’t they known me?

I started to run. It was a mad dash to reach my company before the troops finished laying mines and rigging grenades for the night. I ran about 200 meters before I reached the hill where the company was stationed. I saw a couple of soldiers on their way down while I was climbing up. When we passed each other on the narrow path, they stood to the side to make room for me. They looked at me with faint surprise and I at them. All the faces belonged to strangers.

“Are you from Company 4?” I asked.

“Yeah. 4.”

Another soldier stepped out from a tent up on the hill and asked down.

“What’s happening there?”

I left the soldiers and started up again. The soldiers looked at one another, then at me, then at each other again. They continue their descend when I passed the sentry guard and approached the soldier on the hill,  who was an old master sergeant. I looked closely at the name patch, it was pink. So this was Company 4 of Battalion 7. What a drag!

“Can I see your company commander, Sergeant?”

The old sergeant stared at me uncomprehendingly for a moment then

told me to wait. He went into a large tent at the center of the compound. He was confused but I was not. I knew I had come to the wrong company. Now I had to ask the company commander to communicate with my company with a request for escorts. While the danger had dissipated, it would still be a risk and an effort getting back to my unit. The old sergeant came out, holding a flashlight attached to the battery pack of the field radio PRC-25. Another man was behind him. I recognized Minh, a friend of mine.

“Eh, Minh. Let me talk to your commander.”

The old sergeant stared at me again. He didn’t know what sort of guy would dare talk this way (I didn’t have any sign of my rank on my shirt). But he didn’t say anything and silently went away when Minh spoke to me.

“Goddamn it, what the fuck are you doing here at this hour? Come in for a cup of coffee, other things can wait.”

I followed Minh into the tent but asked him again.

“Let me talk to your commander first. I don’t care about coffee.”

“Take it easy... He’s busy.”

“So, you company commander does all the duties himself?”

“No. The deputy does it.”

“So what the hell is he doing now?” I pressed.

“He’s entertaining a guest.”

“Goddamn... So you’re commander here.”

“Who the fuck else?”

While having coffee, I told Minh what I had gone through. He laughed.

“Goddamn, you got guts and lucky as hell. The VC have been making quite a few appearances around these hills lately.”

“It had nothing to do with my guts. I just didn’t know a damn thing. Not until it was too late... I had already climbed on the tiger’s back,” I said.

I asked Minh to call my company on the radio but he did not have its frequency because we were from different battalions. I had to settle for a few rounds of  ammo  and  two  grenades  to  take  with me.  He also sent a

couple of soldiers along as my escorts.

 

Arriving at the position where my company had been stationed, an advance unit that belonged to the recon company had taken its place. I sent Minh’s men back and asked to see the recon unit’s leader. This officer was very young and he talked to me in a reserved manner since we did not know each other. I had to dig out every piece of identification – my military ID card, my active status certificate, even the leave permission signed by Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong – to convince him who I was. My only request was for him to contact his company and have someone take me to meet with his commander. It sounded like a broken record, once again: Let me see your company commander---

I heard the commander’s voice on the field radio very clearly. It was Captain Luc. I knew him.

“Goddamn it. Don’t trust any bastard. There are a lot of fake IDs around. Just tell me whether he’s Northern or Southern.”

It was funny. Earlier I had used this tactic to distinguish friends from foes. Now I was the subject of the same tactic. And that was bad news: I was born in the north and still used the northern dialect with its distinctive accent.

“He is Northern but kinda looks like ours.”

“Take him over here to me,” responded Luc.

Taking me over here meant they would take my gun away and me in custody as if I were a prisoner. Goddamn it. This is me, not some VC; you can’t take away my gun that easily. Suddenly I was outraged.

“Hey, Lieutenant. Don’t humiliate a fellow officer like that.”

He told a soldier to take me to the recon company HQ. Captain Luc opted not to receive me. He made me stand outside with the duty sergeant and questioned me from inside his tent.

“What’s your unit?”

“Company 4. Battalion 4.”

“What’s your position?”

“Assistant company commander.”

His voice seemed softer.

“Who’s your commander?”

“I’m not your prisoner-of-war to have to stand out here to answer your

questions.  All I’m  asking you  is to contact my company  so  that  I can get

some escorts to get me back there.”

“Goddamn it, contact is easy but I have to know who you are.”

“My company commander is 369. All you have to say is 520 is here.”

About two minutes later, his voice came back again, not at me, but at the sergeant.

“Get somebody to take this officer to where… [I don’t remember the name of the guy] is staying.”

The master sergeant left to get his soldiers. Captain Luc then emerged from inside the tent. He walked over and shook my hand.

“Gat [my company commander] sent somebody to meet you a long time ago. I’ll have my men take you there.”

I thanked him then followed the soldiers out.

The soldiers who came to meet me were right where my company used to be. This was the position occupied by the recon advance unit, where Minh’s soldiers had taken me to not too long ago. If my troops had come a little earlier or if I had stayed with Minh a little longer, I would not have had to recite my bio to these current gatekeepers.

 

Sergeant Khang said his team had traversed Dong Lam village to reach the National Route and waited for me there. They were afraid if I walked alone through that village full of VC’s sympathizers, they would kidnap me. After having waited for a long time for nothing, they walked to the Battalion HQ to inquire about me and 1st Lt. Xuan told them I had gone to the company’s old position. Then they received orders via radio from my company commander to come to the village and wait for me.

“Where’s the company now?”

“Behind Dong Lam village. They’ve been shelling  us so  much  it  felt

like a rain of fireworks.”

“Anybody hurt?”

“Only one round hit our position and broke a tent, the rest fell outside, way out. We’re not putting up tents in day time, lest they see our position.”

We took a short cut to the company’s position just as the guards were changing for the next to last shift.

The following morning, March 20th, I received an order from battalion HQ to report for the promotion ceremony. I borrowed the “showcase” uniform from Sgt. Dang, the staff sergeant, and sewed my name patch over his. I tagged along the team that went to receive supplies by truck, traversing Dong Lam village to the National Route. From there, I walked alone to battalion HQ.

Two second lieutenants, Dieu, assistant head of the battalion 3rd section, and I, were affixed the rank of first lieutenant at the same time. It was a hilarious scene. The battalion commander, Eagle 816, a.k.a. “Hitler,” affixed the new rank on Dieu’s shoulder, talked to him in a very cordial, fatherly tone then shook his hand and gave him a pat on the back.

Then it was my turn. I stood at attention, my right hand parked on my forehead in a salute. Maj. Toan cursed while affixing the new rank on my shoulder.

“Goddamn you, fucker! I know you did well in battles, but it was not all your doing, you know that, don’t you? Why the hell did you come back so late?”

Perhaps this was the only case in the Armed Forces when someone received both the promotion and the curse from his superior. “Hitler” had issued an order forbidding all officers in the battalion to report to the rear base in Vung Tau at the end of their leave. He knew that was a ploy to buy more time to linger in Saigon. He only allowed NCOs and privates to play that game. Officers had to report directly to the Marine Corps HQ to be back

in position on the field the day after the leave expired.

I did not expect to be chastised now. So I had to improvise.

“Major, I went to Ba Ria to get engaged.” Ba Ria was close to Vung

Tau.

“Get engaged… my dick! Fuck you!”

I  recalled  that  once  before  I  had  also  faked  the  story of  getting

married in order to get an extra week in Saigon. In 1972, I was wounded and got to spend some time in Le Huu Sanh Hospital in Thu Duc, near Saigon. Due to the heavy amount of casualties taken to the hospital, I was discharged to convalesce at home, coming back to the hospital once a week to be checked - a procedure called “discharge with periodic rechecks.” At the third recheck, even though I could only move around on crutches, I was ordered by Dr. Hanh – Nguyen Do Hanh – the physician in charge, to return to my unit. The rumor was that they wanted to show a fewer number of wounded officers on records. Trying to salvage another week in Saigon and to make sure that I could move around without crutches before going back to the actions, I did some begging.

“Please give me another week, Doctor. I’m going to get married next Wednesday. Everything has already been planned.”

Dr. Hanh, a handsome man with a soft, sweet voice, said something that was very unpleasant to my ears.

“Take your duffle bag to Quang Tri and get married there!”

This time I used the same bogus story, but now I got the upper hand. According to the military disciplinary traditions, you were supposed to execute the order first, and then complain later. I had executed the order – my own order; and now it was the battalion commander’s turn to complain.

In the Marine Corps - known as “the military branch whose troops lead a wild, stupid, but never long life” - when the brass lashed out, even the fishmongers at Tran Quoc Toan or Cau Ong Lanh markets would pale in comparison. I had experienced  many  “delicious entrees”  from the brass

in the past, so these items coming from Hitler’s mouth failed to whet my   appetite. Thinking about “entrees” and “food” made me wonder about the booze that I would  need  to  chase  down  such  culinary  delicacies.  While

standing at attention with my hand saluting, my mind drifted to  the question

as to whether the team receiving supplies would bring back the medicated rice liquor as I had asked them to, or would they substitute something less desirable. I also realized that my drinking companions were not going to join me. Sang was dead and ‘Fatso’ Huy was deployed far away from company HQ.

Having endured the strangest promotion ceremony  of  recent  military

history, I returned to the company with the supply truck. We had plenty to eat and drink but little time to celebrate before an order came for me to lead two platoons to reinforce the First Armored Brigade.

 

 

Chapter II

 

The Last Deployment

 

 

We sat alongside the National Route waiting for the trucks from the Armored brigade. After awhile, Luong “the Eagle” arrived in a jeep. Colonel Luong, commander of Marine Corps’ Brigade 147, told me that units north of us were retreating and we should not expect help from anyone up there; we were on our own. I understood that this time we might not come back. Our military lives in camouflage fatigues had seen so many cases of “once went, never returned”, so this coming maneuver, with whatever outcome, did not bother me. However, I had to withhold this information from my troops.

Even though I didn’t tell my troops anything, it did not mean they didn’t know that this time it would be very difficult. A half-company’s movement ordinarily would not warrant the instructions from the brigade commander. Moreover, we had seen a few infantrymen running back from the north. One of my soldiers expressed his bitterness.

“Goddamn it, where they couldn’t withstand it, we were ordered to go in. When we couldn’t take it, nobody fucking came.”

Another voice tried to be funny.

“Men never fear hardship, only fear that hardship would not come:”

Sgt. Khang turned to me.

“Hey, Chief, this guy hasn’t seen the coffin yet, so he doesn’t shed tears!”

I tried to change the direction of the conversation, pointing to a soldier.

“This guy is really tough. Fearless. A true hero.”

“Why? Tell me, Chief.” The troops were excited.

“Do you guys know what he tattooed on his chest?” I asked.

The soldiers shouted aloud.

“What... what, Chief?” one asked.

“I think... It’s a skull,” someone guessed.

“A coffin?” said another.

I grinned.

“Nah... You’re all wrong...”

I then recited.

A lone star shines up in the sky,

On earth, I am the sole brave guy.”

The kid with the tattoo on his chest grinned in embarrassment. He said meekly, “Some stupid friends pinned me down and did it to me in the training camp.”

Two trucks from the tank brigade carried us north, stopped at camp Hoa My for a while, and then hit the road again. Along the way, I saw several infantry units running southward in disarray. Roosters are judged by their crow, and we had crowed the loudest. But if others had to run in such large numbers, our little group was certain to face an extraordinary task ahead.

The trucks arrived at the First Armored Brigade’s operation center when darkness was falling. I told my troops to remain on the trucks while I went inside to get my operation orders. The operation HQ was a large underground bunker, very well appointed. The duty officer was a major. He was not aware of our dispatch and told me to sit and wait for the operation center chief.

“Sir, it would be better if you let me see him right now, it’s already dark,” I told him. “If I have to wait, it might be too late.”

He picked up the phone and dialed. About 5 minutes later, the chief arrived. He was also a major. The first thing he said when he walked into the room was, “Goddamn it, you wouldn’t let me grab a bite, would you? Why the fuck did you have to call me for? You are also a goddamn major, are you not? You are just a fucking disgrace to your rank.”

The duty officer hung his head, and did not say a word. I felt

bad for him. The chief turned to me.

“Couldn’t you wait for me?”

“No, Sir. I need to know my assignment.”

He took me to the operation map on the wall; then, as an afterthought, asked me.

“Do you know the empty dirt area near My Chanh, on the left, going up from here?”

“Yes, I do. It’s a marketplace. Chanh Mon village is on the other side.”

“Good. You take your unit over there and stay there.”

“I need to know the situation, my duty, and the radio code list.”

“Just go ahead. I’ll have someone bring them to you later.”

“I can’t take my troops there without knowing the situation and the nature of my assignment,” I demanded.

“There’s nothing serious. Just go over there for the night.”

I turned around and walked out without saluting him. Goddamn him, so careless, overbearing, and authoritarian. Either he was mad because I had interrupted his meal or he was trying to get rid of me in a hurry to get back to his main course. This was a warning to me that we would encounter much more trouble under the command of these “crabs” – the name we had for the Armored units.

When we arrived at our destination, it was completely dark. All the villagers had left. A few dogs were rummaging through the trash in the deserted marketplace. The dogs milled around some stalls but they ran away when we came. Eventually they would make a good dinner for us. I ordered my troops to search the area very carefully before  setting up camp

around the marketplace and alongside the National Route.

Since I had no knowledge of our side’s situation as well as the enemy’s, it took me a long time to decide on the troops’ positions at the perimeter. Finally, I put one group at the northwest side and another one on the east.

The First Armored Brigade told me that my unit would be under the Armored Company 1’s direction. I asked for the radio code list again but the answer was the same: they would bring it out later. They didn’t even have a

radio code list. It was just  unbelievable!

Armored Company 1 radioed me.

 “I need to know your exact position and those of your kids.”

 “I can’t tell you without a radio code list. It’s dangerous. You know approximately where I am?” I answered.

“Yes.”

“Tell me about the situation around here.”

“There is nobody north of you. Same with the east side. I am at either west or south of you.”

Even though not knowing the situation, I had deployed my troops correctly. I reported everything back to my battalion. I also voiced a complaint about the way these “stepfathers” were doing business. Battalion HQ told me to leave a channel open for communication if we engaged in fighting.

Armored Company 1 called again.

“I need to know your exact position to make a report.”

“No can do. I don’t have the radio code list. Well, you know my private house number?” I responded.

“Yes, I do.”

“Good. Use that as Alpha. I am at 27 right of Alpha, going up to 16.”

“I can’t find it.”

“You can’t find what?’

“I couldn’t find Alpha.”

 “Right now we are meeting at your house number, understand?” I tried patiently. “Do you know my house number?”

“Yes.”

“Use my house number as Alpha. Or, better yet, use your house number as Alpha. Can you find it?”

“Nope. Can’t find it.”

I was speechless. Finally, I told him.

“There’s nothing I can do. I can’t let you know my position.”

I put away the radio.

A moment later, they called back.

“I’ve got an idea. Get out your map.”

I got my map out.

“Okay.”

“You see the letter I in the word HAI on the map?”

“Yes.”

“Use that as Alpha. Tell me your position.”

I was furious.

“Hey, what are you trying to do? You want the VC to laugh at your face? It seems that you are not authority. Let me talk to your authority.”

“I am the authority.”

I could not take it anymore.

“Oh, excuse me. In that case, I think you should go ahead and report my whereabouts using your roundabout estimate. I can’t tell you my exact position the way you suggested.”

I wondered if this “authority” was inexperienced or the Armored units did not have to hide their position from the enemy due to the noises of their engines; or was it because they felt safe enough inside their armored vehicles and did not care about the enemy’s mortar. Anyway, even if they did not fear mortar shells, there were still the sappers to worry about.

On the morning  of the following day ,  March  21, my  troops  and  I  were

engaged in the ritual of draining a large bottle full of medicated rice liquor followed by a tasty treat of boiled dog meat as a chaser. Suddenly, a regional unit approached our position in a disorderly fashion, interrupting our brunch. Since this was a large unit in retreat, I felt I had to report it to the First Armored Brigade HQ. The brigade commander himself, a colonel, gave me an order.

“You stop them, and send them back up north. Anyone tries to pass, shoot them on the spot.”

I thought to myself that if all of them just pissed on us, we would have drowned in their urine, how could I stop them or shoot them? I, nevertheless, put the whole two platoons in position across the National Route, stopping them from going south any farther.

A captain from this unit came to me and introduced himself.

“I am the head of the 3rd section of the Regional Regiment 913. In a moment, my regiment commander, a lieutenant colonel, will come to see you. Right now, please keep this unit here for us.”

“Why don’t you stay and have a drink with us, Captain. Medicated booze and dog meat are hard to find these days,” I said.

He hesitated for a moment and then declined my offer and left.

I sat down to sip the dog meat soup and eat the rice in a bowl. There was a saying, “Delicious like dog soup,” but this bowl of dog soup didn’t taste delicious to me, even though it had been cooked by a renowned chef specializing in dog meat from Ho Nai. Either he did not have enough of the necessary seasonings or the events that happened to me since yesterday afternoon had ruined my appetite.

I was trying to get all the meat out of a piece of dog bone when a jeep with two antennas came to a stop on the side of the road. Sitting on the front passenger seat was a fat guy, his uniform impeccably pressed. He was wearing dark glasses, a baton in his hand, his right leg rested on the side of the jeep boasting a highly shine black shoe. I wondered how he could keep the shoe so clean and glossy and I felt sorry for the flies that would fall off while trying to land on that treacherous surface. I knew he was the lieutenant colonel, the regional regiment commander, but I chose not to stand up. The captain who I met earlier was sitting in the back of the jeep jumped down and came to where I sat. I had decided to finish getting the meat out of the dog bone, when, out of a sudden, I had an abject, morbid thought about getting hurt in a battle (we fought as often as we ate breakfast), being forced out of the Marine Corps, and with sheer luck, I could land in the unit of this lieutenant colonel--- Things like that could make life difficult for me. With that in mind, I threw the bone away, stood up, wiped my hands on my trousers, and started toward the jeep. The fat lieutenant colonel took off his dark glasses, dropped the baton, and climbed down.

I performed a half-hearted salute.

“You are in charge here, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Stop them from going any farther south, will you, Lieutenant? If they resist, just shoot them for me.”

“I’ve received the same order from Colonel Huong, commander of the Armored brigade.”

“So, gather them in this area for me.”

It was an outrage. The vague apprehension that I had about having to serve under this fat lieutenant colonel was gone. For him, I only had pity and contempt.

“No, Colonel. They are your troops. Colonel Huong ordered me to stop them. I am only a lieutenant and an assistant company commander. I don’t have the authority to gather your entire regiment.”

“Well, I’ll go see Colonel Huong. Shoot them if they don’t follow your order. I’ll be at the bunker over there.” He pointed to a concrete bunker in the far south.

Disappointed and slightly numb by his demeanor, I picked up the radio  handset  to  report  the  exchange   to  my   battalion .  The   Regional

Regiment 913 had been stationed on the north bank of My Chanh River, in Quang Tri province. I did not know whether they had been fighting or had simply abandoned their post. The unit seemed to be intact, yet the commander had lost his power to command and asked me to do his job for him. What was the world coming to? The regional forces of Quang Tri province had been fighting alongside us during the whole year of 1972. Of course, they had not been able to match our fighting capacity for many reasons, but they were good soldiers, good enough for me not to believe that they had run away without fighting back, that they had ignored an order

from their commander.

The First Armored Brigade ordered me to regroup the Regional regiment and force them to move west. It was not a difficult task but it depressed me. A young second lieutenant, looking impressive, with a pistol on his hip, maps in hands, flanked by two soldiers carrying field radios, approached me.

“If it were not for you guys, we would have continued running. We stopped not because you put your troops across the road over there; you noticed that we stopped before you lined up your troops. I was sure you wouldn’t order to open fire if we had continued to run, is that right?”

I thought to myself, “This guy is not too bad.”

He continued, “We felt abandoned when you Marines withdrew from Quang Tri. The civilians followed you out. All the administrative functions followed you out. It would be suicidal for us to stay. Even I, a Saigonese, was nervous when the population packed up and went away. Think about my soldiers: they are all local boys, they watched their families flee; it’s a miracle that they did not desert outright, let alone stop fighting.”

“Why did you guys stop running when you saw us?” I asked him.

“We thought the Marines were regrouping in Da Nang, which meant Quang Tri and Hue had to have been abandoned--- That was why we ran. When we see you guys here, it means this area is not going to be abandoned.  If  it  is not  abandoned, we  will  not  be  afraid.  That’s why we

stopped.”

After the Regional Regiment 913 had moved to the side near the mountains, I received an order from my battalion to watch over the engineer unit while they demolished My Chanh Bridge. The railroad bridge had not been used for a long time. The pedestrian bridge had been damaged in 1972 battles but had since been repaired. Pedestrians could pass with some difficulties but not automobiles.

I reported back to the battalion what I had observed. The First Armored Brigade ordered me to take a platoon to block the south side of the bridge along with two M-48 tanks. The other platoon was to go and stay with the Armor Company 1 in the mountains.

I finally met the captain - “authority” of the Armored company - who had insisted that I give out my exact position over the open radio the night before. Now I understood his incompetence. He was a graduate of the Political Warfare Academy, class number 2, in Da Lat. He had pulled some strings to get a transfer from a political warfare office post to the position of an Armored company commander. Go figure!

 

In the evening, we followed the Armored company to another location to camp for the night. No sooner had I finished deploying two outposts at the perimeter than I was ordered to move troops again. The reason: the Regional regiment got cold feet when we Marines moved out, so they made a false report to the First Armored Brigade that they had heard noises of tank movements from the west side and asked to have us back to form a shield. It was dark and our two outposts had finished rigging the mines and grenades. It was not easy to undo them in a short time and also very dangerous trying to do that in the dark. People die removing mines even in daylight. And that did not count the fact we had to re-rig them at the new position. I made a decision not to remove the mines and grenades and not to re-rig them once we got to the new location. Instead, troops would have to guard the perimeter in the combat situation:  two  guards  at  a  post, one

would stay up while the other would sleep.

 

March 22 was payday. ‘Fatso’ Huy’s Platoon 2 had gotten paid. I took the payroll department officers to My Chanh Bridge to pay Platoon 1. The houses on the south side of the bridge lay in ruins. There were no signs of the recovery that had been here after the cease-fire in 1973. Very few structures were still on their foundations. The markets were gone, as were the beer huts. Behind us, our artillery was still firing into the north side of the river and we were still being randomly shelled by the Vietcong from the northern bank. We had not been hit, but we should be vigilant; who knew if some “stray” shells might pay us a “visit”. It was possible to be hit by shells aimed at a different target. My experience with the 130-millimeter artillery fired by the VC told me that the shell destined to land at my position usually hit some other spot. On the contrary, one aimed at some other targets could easily get “lost” and drop on my head. The same with the police and members of Self-Defense Force in Saigon: If they fire at you, don’t worry; you are safe; the bullet always hits somebody else. If you see them fire the gun at somebody else, take cover!

While Platoon 1 was being paid, I went to the bridgehead, looking north, where some VC were seen on the road. I ordered my troops to fire at them, but they were fleeting targets, there was no way to know if we had killed any. Then I heard a mega-phoned voice coming from the north: “Don’t fire any more. In a few days, even Hue would be lost. My Chanh is nothing. Stop wasting your bullets.”

Goddamn braggarts! But I told myself that maybe this time they did not brag. I recalled what  Phat, the friend who worked in the Assembly, had told me that we were going to cede territory at either An Lo or Lang Co. If we had to cede Lang Co, then Hue would be lost. I also remembered what Staff Sergeant Dang had told me: “I heard the BBC saying that, at noon on the 25th of March, Hue will be handed over.” Wasn’t the BBC the most trustworthy source of news? But if it were true, it would be humiliating. We fought the VC like grown men fighting little kids. Of course, there were casualties; but for us, the fight was easy. We won all the battles, conquered all designated targets.

The problem we had experienced so many times lay on the fact that we had been told to retreat even before engaging the enemy. Retreating without reason or cause gave little credibility to the leaders, which in turn, caused the troops to doubt our ability. The result was mayhem

The few VC that were left had disappeared, and I was tired of the target firing practice. I returned to the command post of platoon 1 and scribbled a note for the payroll people to take to my mother: “There are skirmishes, but they are somewhere far away from me. The area I am in now has a hellish reputation, but in fact, it is still quiet. Don’t worry about my safety.”

Another day passed with leisure, thanks to another bottle of medicated booze brought to me by the payroll crew, courtesy of our rear base in Hue.

 

March 23. Battalion informed me that my assignment to assist was over. We were to come back to the company, and since there was no transport, we went on foot, Of course, when they needed our assistance, the “crabs” were more than willing to provide transportation; but now, when we were no longer needed, our needs were not of their concern. What irked me most was the fact that they insisted they did not have the means to carry us back to our base, yet Armored Company 1 found a way to transport sugar cane all the way from Hue, so that the privileged members of its unit would have something to chew in their boredom.

The call on the radio came when I was gathering troops in position on National Route 1, near Chanh Mon Village. First Lt. Dieu, assistant head of Section 3 told me to stay put. He would come and get us with trucks.

When he got there, he had two trucks and drivers that did not belong to the battalion.

 

 “Where did you get these?” I asked him.

“I don’t know who they belong to. They were going past our position. Since they were empty, I just stopped them and told them to come to get you,” Dieu answered.

I thanked fate for these wandering trucks. We loaded up and headed south.

Passing the First Armored Brigade HQ, we saw that it was no longer a military base; it had been abandoned. The only visible resemblance of its prior existence was in the lingering smoke generated from the burning dossiers and smoldering objects that could not be carried with the troops. Now, I understood that they had released us from our assignment because there was no one left to use us. I suddenly realized that the Regional Regiment 913 had also disappeared. Only we and Armored Company 1 (commanded by the captain from the Political Warfare Department) had remained. I didn’t know if and when they would withdraw. Maybe their brigade HQ just ignored them, or abandoned them while they lingered on the front without knowing that the whole brigade had retreated.

Dieu told me that Major Thanh had become our battalion commander. Maj. Toan (“Hitler”) and Capt. Pho had gone to Da Nang to join Battalion 18.

 

I received an order to enter Hoa My Camp. This was a very large base used by the Airborne and Armored troops. It now became my HQ, the command post for a first lieutenant with two platoons! I was not familiar with its layout even though my company had once been stationed here for over a month supporting an Armored unit. I chose a place to camp and posted the sentry units for the night.

It was a moonlit night, not real bright but inspiring enough for us to try to finish the rest of the booze. The sentries had been posted; we were in the middle of the preparation for the on-the-field feast when an order came for us to send a platoon to help Battalion 5, which was engaged in battle at Bo River, southwest of the An Lo Bridge. As Platoon 1 was still guarding the My Chanh River all by itself, I sent Fatso’ Huy’s Platoon 2 into action. Those assigned to go, went. The ones who stayed continued with the meal.

While we were eating, I received another order. Now the rest of us had to go.

We passed through the outer defense perimeter of the base where lots of mines had been planted. Fortunately, nobody got hurt when we walked out by following a trail that, in the old days, soldiers had used to sneak out of the camp illicitly to seek a good time. We went across a small rice paddy, made a circle around the outskirts of Dong Lam Village and went deep into the  mountains .  Our  duty  was  to  be  the  connecting  unit

between Hill 51 and the National Route 1. It was a little after midnight when

we reached our destination. I ordered some simple defense measures then got some rest, believing that we would have to move again during the night.

The Ranger battalions of the Ranger Regiment 14 should have been deployed alongside us to form a defense line stretching across the front. They were nowhere to be seen. That left two companies from my battalion sitting atop a couple of hills. There was no one else.

 

 

 

Chapter III

                                      

The Last Retreat

 

 

 

Around four o’clock the morning of March 24, my company received an order to move to Dong Lam Village to watch over and make way for Companies 1 and 2 to retreat from the mountains. It was dawn when these units came to the National Route 1. There, Company 1 stayed back and my company retreated. The villagers stood watching – these VC’s sympathizers certainly were delighted to see that we were retreating.

My company came to Che Hill – Kilometer 23 – where we stopped for Company 1 to overtake us. There were a few guerrillas watching us from a distance. The Vietcong fired rounds of 130-millimeter guns on the National Route 1 to halt our retreat, but the shells landed erratically, causing no damage.

On the move, we had to stop again to yield the road to a Regional Force unit retreating from the east. There were two reasons for that: one, we were supposed to be the last defense unit; two, we tried to avoid the chaos (as it had happened in 1972) when we failed to maintain order among the troops and therefore the VC could infiltrate our ranks.

At noon, my company, along with a Ranger company, which appeared from nowhere, deployed on the north side of An Lo River. The rest of my battalion was on the south bank. At about two o’clock, the Ranger company again disappeared. They had not informed us and also had not crossed An Lo Bridge. I had no idea when they left and what road they took. I reported the situation to the battalion HQ. My company was now the sole unit staying on the north side of An Lo River.

At 4 o’clock, we got an order to move to the south side of the bridge. We stayed on the riverbank right under the bridge. The population here had not all fled as I had thought. There was a pagoda within the area where we were deploying, buzzing with worshipers. I had no idea what religious holiday it was, but the atmosphere was very peaceful. I suddenly felt self-conscious of my presence – a combat soldier armed to the teeth – amid this serene setting. It seemed to me that the villagers on the south bank of An Lo River did not know or chose not to know the events that were unfolding around them, events that could have direct and tremendous impacts to their lives. I couldn’t understand why and what made these people act so calmly.

The sound of gunfire was still coming from Bo River. We had lost communication with Fatso’ Huy’s Platoon 2 since last night, when we left Hoa My Camp. I had no idea what their fate might have been.

Again, I got an order to go and watch the Engineer troops demolishing An Lo Bridge. One of the guards informed me that a jeep had just passed through, followed by an old woman hobbling behind on foot. He was concerned that they would not come back on time, before the bridge was demolished.

My job was to observe and report the demolition of the bridge, not to give orders. I didn’t feel I had the authority to halt the task that would give the old woman and the passengers in the jeep enough time to cross the bridge on their way back.

I told him, “If they don’t come back in time, it’s their fate to stay with the Vietcong. I have no authority to postpone the demolition.”

It was not a successful operation to destroy the bridge. Cars could not get through but pedestrians still could. I didn’t know if the engineers intentionally   planned   to   botch    the    mission    or   if  they  were  simply

incompetent. I called the battalion HQ and asked for another try.

They answered, “The engineer troops don’t belong to the Marines. We can’t give them direct orders. It has to come from the top. They also ran out of dynamite. Even if they received another order, it might be too late.”

I didn’t understand the meaning of the word “too late.” So, I pressed them further.

“If they can’t do  it  today ,  they  can  do  it tomorrow . As  of  now, the

bridge is not destroyed,” I said.

“All right, I’ll put in a request. But I can assure you that we don’t have enough time. It’s useless…”

I didn’t know if their response to my inquiry was genuine or if this was merely a tactic to appease my concern.

‘Fatso’ Huy called around six o’clock in the afternoon.

“520, this is 272.”

“Talk. What took you so long to get on the ‘mike’?” I asked.

“My ‘mike’ was damaged. I had to borrow one from the ‘crabs’,” he said.

“Tell me about your situations. Talk straight.”

“We are gone. There were just a few of us left; but we were ordered to ‘bulldoze’ again. I got hit too.”

“How about the wounded?”

“I asked for evacuation but the ‘Black Eel’* (Nickname for ‘Black Dragon’ Battalion.) told me to go self-service...”

“Why didn’t you ask 324 direct?”

324 was Major Tien, Battalion “Black Dragon” 5’s commander. He had been deputy battalion commander of my Battalion 4 just last month. He also had a reputation of an “all-for-my-troops” commander when he directly led us in the battle at Cua Viet on the cease-fire day in 1973.

 “324 knew already,” ‘Fatso’ Huy answered. “ He told me, ‘You guys try to hang in there. Win this one for me. It’s my first battle with the new battalion’.”

“All right, then, let me ask our battalion to take care of you. Now go and regroup. Do not engage in fighting any more. That is my order. Is that clear?”

“It’s clear, 520.”

I called my company commander and asked for help; he could not do a thing. I called the battalion HQ, they promised to intervene.

Around 7 o’clock, I called the battalion once more  to  ask  for  help for

Platoon 2 immediately. They told me they could not do anything. I radioed Platoon 2 but never got an answer.

At 8 o’clock, still trying to get in touch with Platoon 2, I was called to a meeting at the company HQ.

The commander told me, “You tell the kids to carry light equipments, very light. We are to reach Thuan An at any price before 6 in the morning. Anyone  late will be dropped. There is only one ship to take us to Da Nang.”

I now understood the meaning of the words “too late” that the battalion HQ had told me.

“What about ‘Fatso’ Huy’s platoon?” I asked.

“Drop them. The whole company has only one set of maps, I can’t share it with you. Go back to your position and wait for my order and then go.”

“The words ‘drop them’ seemed easy to you, uh, 369?” My voice was bitter.

“You know any other ways? All we can do right now is taking care of those within our reach. You go back and get ready.”

I walked out almost in tears. Some hard-boiled grunts had come up with this saying: “Friendship in the military is like love in a whorehouse!” No body gave a shit about ‘Fatso’ Huy and his troops anymore; and I couldn’t do anything for them.

From Bo River, the sound of gunfire still reverberated. I didn’t know if ‘Fatso’ Huy had obeyed my order to get out or determined to keep on fighting. If I knew him well, he loved to fight.

My company was equipped very light. Each mortar came with 10 shells; each machine gun with 100 rounds; each M-79 carried a belt of 6 rounds; one magazine for each M-16; 2 grenades per soldier; one bag of instant rice; one can of meat. Everything else was dumped into the river, including clothing, blankets, and tents.

I tried again to contact ‘Fatso’ Huy but to no avail. If fate played a role in this, so be it. I hoped he was able to cling to Battalion 5 in retreat.

At nine o’clock, I  received  an  order  to  start  moving .  My  company

brought up the rear of the battalion. When I passed by the company HQ, the company commander had already left.

I tried to contact Platoon 2 again. And God answered me; the voice of Sgt. Khang, the assistant platoon leader, was on the other end of the radio.

“Let me talk to 272,” I said.

“520, wait.”

“Uh, don’t bother to fetch him. Just tell 272 to take all the kids out to the National Route, right now. Is that clear?”

“Yes, 520.”

“Try to take all the kids to National Route and follow the caravan down to Hue.”

I felt better. I did my best to take care of Platoon 2. Their wounded would rely on their leader and the help of the healthy ones. If I had not tried to contact them, they would probably have made the move anyway. The sad thing was that none of their superiors gave a damn about a unit crippled and abandoned.

 

There was an M-48 on fire right on the National Route. On the road lay the bodies of the unfortunate soldiers in numerous positions. The caravan kept on moving, hasty glances were cast toward the dead. The procession of people grew larger. My company was lost amid the human waves moving south. Occasionally, a group of guerrillas would come out and shoot at us, creating a scene not unlike that of the Boulevard of Terror back in 1972. But

this time it was not like the chaotic debacle of 1972. Even though it was not easy to give commands as under normal circumstances, our unit was not thrown together with those of the Infantry, or the Regional Force, or with the civilians.

There were some other units and a few civilians running with us, but at least, our unit was still with its commanding officers. The guerrillas were not able to stop us at their checkpoints. In this kind of orderly retreat, even if there were VC infiltrators, they dared  not  pinpoint  our  position  by  smoke

grenades or by radio transmission like they had done in 1972.

I, however, was a selfish commander who only thought of his unit. I had subtly hinted to them that the faster they ran the better. Therefore, I kept a very loose rein on them. Sometimes I even looked away when some of my troops passed me. The company was gradually dispersed. Finally, there were only a few very close subordinates and I staying together.

Sgt. Khang radioed to tell me that they had met with the commanding company of the battalion whose mechanized transports had taken the wounded on board. I had peace with myself about Platoon 2.

I walked faster and saw Company 1. It was a magnificent sight considering the circumstances. The whole company was walking in single file on the side of the road. The officers walked abreast with their units. The company commander, Capt. Tai, a tree branch in hand, walked up and down, screaming, yelling, and sometimes lashing out at the buttocks of the troops who missed a step or were out of position. Company 1 was moving as if they were in a marching formation in training camp. There was nothing to indicate that they were in a hasty retreat to catch an evacuating ship. When he saw me, Capt. Tai asked.

“Goddamn it, where’s your company?”

“It is in a chaos now, Older Brother.” We always called him Older Brother? Older Brother Tai.

Tai shook his whip at me and said, “Goddamn it, you should get five whips as punishment.”

I grinned at him with embarrassment, “You can whip me when we get

on the ship. Now, let me pass you, Older Brother.”

“Try to regroup your company once we get to Hue. You smart ass!”

Passing through the An Hoa intersection close to midnight, I tried to gain more distance in a well-lit area before stopping to rest. The light also helped to regroup the troops. Half an hour later, with close to twenty men who had caught up with me, we continued to walk.

We came to Bach Ho Bridge. I saw a local militia in full combat gear, standing guard at his post near the bridge. I was surprised.

“What are you standing guard here for, old boy?”

“I didn’t get any other order,” he responded.

“Fuck the order. Where’s your squad leader?”

An old soldier ran over with a gun in his hand.

“That’s me.”

 “Hue has been abandoned, Pop,” I told him. “There is nothing here to guard for. I am a lieutenant, and I give you an order to dismiss your troops. Tell them to go home and take care of their families. Tell them to move fast.”

“Yes sir.”

I could not understand how their superiors could be so heartless in leaving their charge and fleeing while the situation was not that critical. Platoon 2 and ‘Fatso’ Huy had been abandoned by their superiors; but this militia unit was tricked into staying back. There must have been numerous episodes of similar situations under the control of such incompetent “superiors.” There must have been countless numbers of small units that were still performing their duties all over Thua Thien and Quang Tri provinces while their own superiors had fled to Da Nang or Saigon. Let us ask the Armed Forces to pin the Medals of Valor on the chests of these “superiors”! Well, actually we didn’t have to ask; as medals were usually got pinned on the chests of the bastards who rarely saw combats. Let’s give thanks to those decorations!

An old woman was standing in front of a shack next to the wall of Phu Van Lau citadel. One of her hands was holding a kerosene lamp; the other was used to wipe tears away repeatedly. She stared at us.

 “Why aren’t you running, Mom?” I asked her.

“I have no money to go anywhere, son.”

“We give you some money. You want to go with us, Mom?”

“It’s too late now, son!”

 

Hue was a dead city. It was also wide open. The whole city had maybe two or  three street lamps that were still lit. Vietcong’s artillery, aiming at Truong Tien Bridge and Huong Giang Hotel, came regularly. Here and there, people used the three-wheeled carts and cyclos to transport things left behind by people who’d fled.

The New Bridge would have been a safer choice to use, but I chose to cross Truong Tien Bridge even though mortar shells were still landing on it. Maybe my decision was based more on emotion than logic. I wanted to cross this bridge one last time. An M-48 tank lay at the bridgehead, its engine still running, but there was nobody in it. At the middle of the bridge, I turned toward my troops’

 “Take one last look at Hue. We are not going to fight to take it back, I am sure.”

As sadness came, I didn’t cry but tears welled up in my eyes. For this god-forsaken first line battle zone of South Vietnam, how much hard work had been done? How much blood had been spilled? How much tears and sweat of my friends, of my fellow soldiers had been shed, how many men had fallen? I had been wounded twice in this region, shedding my blood here. How could I not be angry and bitter? Goddamn the bastards who were responsible for the abandonment of Hue. History will rub grime and dirt on their faces. Where were the bastards who raised their voices claiming they would rather die than lose Hue? Tragically, those who fought the war from the rear would  always be the first  to  flee;  but they happened

to be the ones with power. They had power but not courage. The consequence of their actions became the tragedy when their people fled in front of the enemy like an army in defeat. But we were not defeated, for we had not yet fought. We were just abandoned. The supplies and ammunition stored in Mang Ca Camp would be enough for our brigade to keep fighting for at least three months. Why didn’t they allow us to enter the Inner Citadel? What was the point of staying here to die when the superiors had abandoned us and fled to be with their families and clung to the dollars and the gold they had amassed in the past years through corruption? What was the point to stay to fight and die if it would be in vain? At best, some people would shed crocodile tears for us, or give us some posthumous and meaningless medals and citations… You bastards!

 

We ran into Capt. Chieu, commander of Company 3, at the bottom of the bridge. He had in his hand a large bottle of wine, the neck of another bottle of brandy stuck out from his fatigue trousers’ pocket.

He saw me and shouted, “Hey, Huy. Come here and have a drink.”

All the anger, bitterness, sadness went out of me like a bullet propelled from the barrel of a gun. We sat down and formed a circle right at the middle of the intersection on the south side of Truong Tien Bridge. With no meat as bait, no ice as “fire fighter,” we drank straight - “vegetarian” style. The conversations were as noisy as the sound of firecrackers at Tet. A couple of soldiers with a rickshaw full of Ruby cigarettes and military-issued beer came to join us.

I grabbed a beer bottle, smashed its neck, and gleefully poured the liquid on my head. I had never had a beer shower before. And I realized my stupidity not long after that: the beer became sticky on my skin and made me miserable.

My company commander came while we were in the middle of the drinking orgy. He told us that the rendezvous point had been changed. It was now the ferry dock at Tan My. Thuan  An  had  been  crippled from the

fires and explosions at the ammunition and gasoline depots. We didn’t know if it was the result of VC’s mortars or sabotages. The new rendezvous point would be Tan My ferry dock.

Some of my troops suddenly appeared with a number of brand new weapons: M-16, M-79, M-60 machine guns, even a set of field radio PCR-25 but without the battery pack. I told them to go get more. My company commander said no.

“It’s only increasing our load, nothing else,” he said.

“We are going to board the ship with them,” I protested.

He was firm.

 “I said no. Let’s go before it’s too late. No more time to collect weapons and drink booze! Go!”

I stood up reluctantly. I would rather have stayed and drank. When and where could you sit and drink right at the center of an intersection of a town like this, watching people run in panic?

I walked past Huong Giang Hotel – the Vietcong’s shelling had stopped here – then came to Dap Da and finally reached the red dirt crossroad. This crossroad was the converging point of the caravan of people coming from Hue and those who had been quick to have reached Thuan An and now had to turn back. They all now headed toward Tan My ferry dock.

My company commander told me to stand at the crossroad to wait for our troops coming from both directions and show them the way. Then he joined the column of people.

I met 1st Lt. So, Company 2’s commander. He, along with Sang, Ho and I had joined this battalion on the same day. He was also waiting for the late birds from his company. We sadly talked about Sang’s death. After about half an hour, he also went.

 

Around 3 o’clock in the morning, as the caravan of people became thinner, I moved on. Twenty minutes later, we came to a fork road with the “Y” shape,

with both branches equally wide; and the group in front of us was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t know which one to follow. Among the people around me, I was the highest-ranking officer; I also had a radio. Everybody seemed to rely on me.

I radioed my company commander.

“I am now at the ‘Y’ road. Tell me which way to take.”

“Just go straight ahead.”

Goddamn it, why do I have to ask him, as both ways are “straight ahead”?

I asked him again, “Tell me what direction I have to take.”

“Head south. Aren’t you all heading south?”

I did not want to ask anymore. The left branch of the ‘Y’ went southeast, the right one southwest. I chose the left because I was sure it would lead to Tam Giang Lagoon. We started again. After about 2 kilometers, a jeep came up from behind us.

I asked, “Is this the way to the dock?”

“Yeah. We’re approaching the lagoon.”

Confident that we had chosen the right road, we continued. About 15 minutes later, the jeep came back from the opposite direction. Without having to be asked, they told us.

“We got to the lagoon. There was nobody there. Go back.”

We looked at each other and sighed. I called my commander.

“369. This is 520.”

“Talk.”

“I’m lost. It would take a lot of time if we had to double back. I need you to fire three shots so I can make out your position.”

Silence.

I called again.

“369. This is 520.”

“Talk.”

“Why didn’t you fire?”

 

“I did.”

“We didn’t hear anything. Could you fire again?”

Again, a silence. I called one more time.

“369. This is 520.”

“Talk.”

“Have you fired yet?”

“Yes. Fired already.”

“Then we are a long way from you.”

“Try to catch up. Whatever you have to do.”

I was angry and said sarcastically, “Thank a lot, 369.”

We doubled back. Among the forty to fifty people who had been following me, only two were my soldiers. We had lost more than one hour and gained some fatigue and aggravation. When we got back to the “Y” road, of course, I didn’t hesitate nor I had to ask for directions.

The column of people behind me got thicker and thicker. A large number of them overtook us. Many vehicles were passing us. I managed to stop a jeep that was not spilling over with passengers. My two soldiers and I climbed aboard. I told myself that I was just too tired, let the driver take me anywhere. I didn’t care. I fell asleep.

I slept soundly until the jeep arrived at Tan My ferry dock around six in the morning. There were a lot of people around but there was not a single vessel to take them to the other side of the lagoon. I had enough to worry about, it was not my job to be concerned about the fact that all the vessels were at the other side of the lagoon.

While waiting, Major Thanh gave an order for all officers of the battalion to congregate so he could formally introduce himself.

“I am Major Thanh, Dinh Long Thanh, your new battalion commander. Our ship has been waiting for us off shore. You should count your troops. Disregard the losses of weapons and equipment. We’ll be re-equipped once we got to Da Nang.”

It  was somewhat ironic  that  the  new  commander  would  introduce

himself to us only after the battalion had been running like a bunch of cowards. My company was missing about ten soldiers but more people were still arriving from the road. ‘Fatso’ Huy’s Platoon 2 had also made it, including the slightly wounded. The more critical wounded ones I did not see but assumed that they were safe somewhere.

It was around eleven o’clock when we finished crossing Tam Giang Lagoon. The only thing I knew about this location was that it was surrounded by water. On the north was Thuan An River Mouth. The south faced Tu Hien River Mouth. On the west lay Tam Giang Lagoon, and the ocean bordered the east. It was a very narrow strip of land surrounded by water. We were told to take up positions at the houses along the main dirt road of the village to rest and eat.

There were a few more soldiers from my company arriving late. They told us that there had been some skirmishes between the troops behind them and the Vietcong.

Past noon, we were ordered to get to the beach. Climbing up a sand dune next to the village, I saw a large navy ship that bore the number HQ-801 waiting offshore. Apparently, it had been there for some time, and in my estimate, it was big enough to carry the whole brigade. I told myself that once aboard the ship, our fleeing would end. The VC, once they got here, would only see an empty beach. However, on the other hand, getting ourselves on the ship would also mean the disgraceful and illogical end of the terrifying struggle of the last few years to retain Quang Tri and Hue; and it would also mean that I would never return to these parts of the country where many memories, good and bad, had deeply etched in me.

Surfs seemed high so the ship had to anchor about 50 meters offshore. The refugees and troops from other disbanded units were converging on the sand. They had been following us on the roads from Quang Tri, Hue and the surrounding areas.

The brigade HQ ordered each battalion to group  into a bloc,  with our

backs to the ocean. In my company, each platoon stood in a single file.

Company’s command post personnel formed a shorter file. In reviewing and counting our troops, my battalion caught a VC who had infiltrated our ranks wearing Marine uniform. He was caught because of a small mistake. He had on his shirt a red name patch, the color of my battalion. But the patch must bear a number that had been assigned to each company and his did not. It meant he belonged to the Commanding Company of the battalion. Yet, he stood among the troops of Company 2. Catching a Vietcong in this kind of circumstance, however humane we tried to be, we could not keep him as a POW, and the only solution was to give him a one-way ticket to hell...

Earlier, on the other side of the lagoon, I had received report of troops counts from the platoons’ leaders. Now, after the incident of the VC infiltrator, I assigned myself the task of identifying each and every one of my soldiers – even in my own platoon! I had taken over the leader position of Platoon 4 when Sang was transferred. Since I was also busy with the position of assistant company commander, the job of running my platoon fell to Staff Sgt. Ba, my assistant platoon leader. So, I was terrified when some of the soldiers, bearing the correct patch with the correct number of the company, looked like total strangers to me. One of them even had a young girl who was trying to hide behind him, green as a leaf. I asked him.

“What company?”

“Company 4, sir.”

“What platoon?”

“Platoon 4, sir.”

“Who’s your leader?”

“You, sir.” He pointed at me.

Sgt. Ba came to his rescue.

“He’s ours, Lieutenant.” He pointed to some others. “Over there, too. They came to the company when you were on leave. Once you got back, you went to My Chanh right away. Didn’t have a chance to meet them.”

 “Who’s this girl?” I continued to ask him.

The girl panicked, “I’m his wife.”

“Are you sure, boy?” I turned to the soldier.

The soldier hesitated then mumbled an answer.

“You just came from Saigon a couple of days ago. How come you have a local wife?”

The girl burst into tears, then confessed.

“I’m not his wife. I’m from Hue. I’m a second year student at the Faculty of Letters at Hue University.” She showed me her ID and student card. “I’m not Vietcong.”

And then, suddenly, she dropped on her knees and started bowing in front of me as if I were her dead ancestor.

“Please let me go with you, Lieutenant. I have no other way to go.”

“You students were anti-government. Why don’t you stay with the Vietcong? Why do you run with us? Or maybe you were told to tag along these ‘orphan soldiers’, huh?”

The girl cried aloud in despair. She put her hands together in a praying gesture and moved them up and down toward me.

 “My family has already gone ahead,” she pled. “I stayed back to take care of unfinished business. I had not been able to get anything done and now find myself left behind.”

I told Sgt. Ba, “Check out her papers, and then frisk her to see if she carries anything suspicious.”

I was not the type that would go soft with a woman’s tears. I also was not the trusting type. But here, a girl thrown into a war‑torn scene, alone and helpless, with no one for her to turn to but us. Even if she was a VC, I would not have been too concerned because we had her under our control. If she truly was a refugee depending on our help to get away, our refusal to help would only aid the Vietcong’s cause. In 1972, I had witnessed the plight of the people of Quang Tri who were stuck in the VC controlled territory. When we fought back and  recaptured  the  area  in  Bich  La  and

Trieu Phong hamlets there had been many people who braved the dangers

 to come to be with “our own troops” – as they said. Some groups had started with about three hundred people. After three, four days of running during the night and hiding in the day, they were down to about one hundred when they reached us. One group left with around one hundred people, managed to stay intact on the road, but on the last night before reaching us, they had run into a minefield planted by one of our platoons at the perimeter. A number of them were killed. Then, the screams from the wounded and the shouts of people in pandemonium, with the inflec­tion of the central region, had been mistaken by us as the attacking noise of the enemy. We started firing and lobbing grenades at the civilians who had not a shred of war experience. By morning, when we recognized them, the group was down to less than fifty people including the wounded. One group came to us during the day; a man in the group was so happy in seeing us that he charged up, embraced one of the soldiers, lifted him up in the air crying, “Now we meet our own troops, we meet our own troops. I’d die happy. I’d die happy.” Then he jumped into Vinh Dinh River. When we dragged him from the water, there was nothing for us to do but dig his grave. I assumed his spirit was now happy in heaven. Images of the past forced me to let the girl student stay, but under watch by two soldiers in the command staff. My power and capacity did not allow me to help everyone waiting to get on the ship. There were just too many of them. But for a single girl, I thought I could do it.

The whole brigade stood with its back to the ocean from noon until four o’clock while the ship HQ-801 was floating offshore, apparently waiting. Why, for what, and for whom, I didn’t know. I assumed that only Col. Luong “the Eagle” and a handful of officers in the brigade’s staff would know.

As for us soldiers standing in formation, we had no idea.

Some Marines, defying orders, had taken a few sampans lying on the beach, paddled to the ship along with some infantrymen and a few civilians. Among them, I saw Sgt. Chau, Cpl. “Shorty” Nam and a couple of other soldiers in my company. I looked at them with indifference, not wanting to judge their action.

The last missing Marine in my company had  finally  shown  up.  He

was Pfc. Tuan. Even with his left arm torn to pieces and his uniform caked with blood and wet mud, Tuan still had the M‑60 machine gun straddling on his right shoulder along with half of an ammo band.

 “A lot of them had come to the other side of the lagoon,” he said. “I got shot after the sampan left the shore. There were a lot of our troops stuck on the other side, still fighting.”

We received orders to move while the medic was tending to Tuan’s wounds. Much to our unhappiness, we were ordered not to go toward shore to board the ship or to put up another defense line, but to move in single file, hugging the shoreline, heading south. And it was also not an order for us to retreat to another rendezvous spot. It was an order for us - battalion after battalion, company after company - to take a stroll. Let me repeat, we took a stroll along the shoreline.

While we walked, a helicopter flew in from the ocean, circled over our heads and then dumped maybe a dozen bags that contained dried pre-cooked rice and canned meat onto the beach. Chaos oc­curred when people tried to fight for the food. One bag was dropped right on the head of a soldier, knocking him out cold. What a pity for us soldiers. We were not even that hungry. After losing all of our possessions and now on the verge of losing our lives as well, the sight of a pitiful assembly of soldiers scampering for, and being bombarded by, bags of rice added a bizarre and surrealistic quality to the realm of our mission.

There was a rumor that General Bui The Lan, the Marine Corps Commandant, was on the chopper on an inspection tour and he had taken the occasion to give us some food. I did not believe this rumor for two reasons: first, the general could not have come here under the circumstances; and second, if he truly was in the chopper, I was sure our “Eldest Brother,” would have given order for us to  board  instead  of having

us walk in this leisurely pace. It only took a private first class – i.e., a soldier with less than a year of fighting experience - or a military ignoramus who had not even gone through a squad‑leader training course to understand that we should have boarded the ship as soon as possible. The longer we lingered, the shorter the distance between the VC and us became. Col. Luong “the Eagle,” our brigade commander, surely knew this. But, why weren’t we given orders to board?

In the snake‑like, single file formation along the beach, we were ordered to sit down. The ship had moved farther from the shore and “waited” for us out there. Of course, it could not have waited forever while we took our leisurely walk without showing any intention to board it. Our two superiors, Col. Luong and Lt. Col. Tong, were calmly visiting with another big shot, Col. Thiet, commander of a Ranger brigade. I had no idea what transpired in those three heads; what kind of funny jokes they were telling; what kind of strategy they were discussing. I only knew and saw that they were very much at ease and occasionally laughed aloud, as if one of them had just told a very funny joke.

Col. Thiet was from another unit, and moreover, he had no troops left under his command; so, of course, he had neither power nor responsibility over us. For me, he was just like the girl student from Hue University who had to cling to us. As for Lt. Col. Tong, the deputy brigade commander, with the presence of his superior, he also was not in the position to give us orders. But Col. Luong, who wore the highest rank and wielded the most authority here, who was responsible for our retreat, who was called “the Eagle” by us, gave no indication that he had an ingenious strategy for this dire situation. Or maybe he was planning a modern-day tactics of “facing the enemy and the water”* based on the battle plans of a famous general in ancient Chinese history(*)?

I was at a loss. The Chinese have a saying: “Of the 36 schemes to deal with a bad situation, fleeing is the best scheme.” We had abandoned Quang Tri, deserted Hue; we had shed our personal as well as company’s equipment and fled here. But we were not told to board the ship, when we still could do so, in order to escape. But it was now too late. To where could we flee from this “fire pocket” surrounded by water? The only means was that ship, but it had departed without us.

Hesita­tion would mean death. If we could not retreat anymore, we should advance; but advance to where? We were out of ammunition, we had no food. We were at one side of this islet, and yet, we were still sitting here enjoying the sea breeze instead of setting up a defense line. This was neither a retreat nor an advance. This was neither a defense nor an offense tactic.

The disbanded Infantrymen and the civilians who had been following us must have been much more bewildered than we were. They gathered in groups, staring at us. And we – their last hope – were sitting there, taking in the sceneries... If we didn’t know what we were doing, how could they? We sat there until close to six o’clock in the evening when we got an order to set up the defense perimeter for the night. 

My company commander told me, “You take the troops and go over there, set up temporary camp. Wait there until I come back from the briefing.”

My company had been sitting in single file along the beach. I gave an order for them to stand up and, with the same formation, spread out and move inland. Out of nowhere, the sounds of bullets buzzed above our heads. And the philharmonic orchestra of various types of guns started in earnest. The barrage came from the clumps of willows atop the sand hill.

The whole brigade was in turmoil. The huge mass of people started to run north, then south. A few M-113 APCs (armored personnel carrier) opened fire erratically, not aiming at any particular targets.

My company had moved  about  a hundred  meters  inland  from  the

terrified crowd when the firing started, so we were not sucked into the turbulent reactions.

With the spread‑out formation, I led my company charging up to the

clumps of willows atop the sand hill where the firings had started. We charged, we yelled, we shrieked, we shouted, we howled. The result was encouraging. The Vietcong, about a platoon, were driven from their position by the stormy “Oral” attack of our troops. Attacking “Orally” did not mean that we hid ourselves and fired into the air while shouting. Attacking “Orally” did not mean charging up and firing blanks under the directions of instructors in simulated battles in military training camps. This attack “by mouth,” meant that we did charge up, seize the target in real sense. The Vietcong were driven out, but none of them was killed or wounded; when we were charging at them we did not fire a single shot, we only shouted the battle cries.

Having finished setting up camp, I made a tour around the company. I was told that our ammunition supply was down to more or less ten rounds per Marine. There was no way we could defend a perimeter that was rather small for the number of troops in a company, but quite large considering our ammo resource. I decided to shrink the perimeter.

One of my troops was killed when we shrank the perimeter. It was the first time in my unit that we could not retrieve a fellow Marine’s body, even though he lay very near. The simple reason was that we did not have enough firepower for such an endeavor. Dear Tri “the Clerk”! Wherever you might be in the other world now, please understand and forgive us.

Setting up camp on top of a sand hill made it easy for us to dig trenches and foxholes. We finished the task very quickly. The Vietcong were still sticking by.

The company commander came back from the battalion HQ and told us that the first bullet the VC fired had killed Capt. Chieu (To Thanh Chieu), commander of Company 3; and the next bullet had hit Maj. Nam – Nguyen Tri Nam, the deputy battalion commander – right on his forehead, while he was giving instructions to company’s commanders about their respective defense perimeters.

 

The ship had moved farther, much farther  out  in the  ocean.  The beach was

deserted. Our brigade formed a semicircular defense perimeter on a portion

of the shore. The soldiers who had left their units and the civilians were hiding somewhere. The sun also set. There was an eerie emptiness in the waning rays of a day near its end. Staying with us were the sound of gunfire and the illuminated streaks of bullets fired in the dark. We restrained our movements inside the hastily dug trenches, passing to one another a few rounds of ammunition we had found on the beach.

A Ranger first lieutenant with a Colt pistol on his hip and a shovel on his back appeared from nowhere. He crawled toward me and said in a low voice.

“Lieutenant, let me come with your company,” he said and patted his pants’ pocket. “I have more than a hundred thousand dong, we’ll go out to drink and eat when we get to Da Nang.”

“A blatant bribery act, huh?” I told him. “I’ll let you come with my company if you bring a gun and ammunition; I don’t give a damn if you have money or not. And I would stress that you should have the kind of gun to fight with, not a just-for-show gun like this Colt.”

“Let me go and find one.”

He crawled back toward the beach, and disappeared behind the sand dunes.

The shells from the 61-millimeter mortars exploded very close to our position. Landing on the sand had reduced quite a bit of their effectiveness. Also, the Vietcong had not been able to pinpoint our positions so the shelling was erratic. Nevertheless, the explosions and the sparks in the dark stretched our nerves taut. Occasionally, we tossed a grenade from the trenches. It did have some comforting effects for our shattered morale.

The soft sobbing from the girl reverberated in the night, accompanied

from time to time by her wailing and praying. In no mood to listen to her wailing, I told one of my underlings.

“Hey, Buoi. You go over there and ask that bitch if she wants to broadcast our position to the VC. Tell her to stop crying.”

Buoi crawled away a little while then came back, grinning.

“She’s crying her eyes out, whimpering for her mom, her dad, her Buddha... She’s bowing like crazy, but all I can see is her ass pointing to the sky. And there’s more, Chief. There’s a couple smooching in the trench, right here.”

“What? Gee, why didn’t you kick them out?”

“I don’t think so, he’s one of ours.”

“Ours, who’s it?”

“Not our company. Commanding company of the battalion. He came with 1st Lt. Xuan.”

“Is Xuan here too? I’m gonna  go check.”

Xuan was commander of the commanding company of the battalion. How could his company stay in the same position with mine? I had to check it out. I crawled along the trench but I didn’t have to where the sand dunes were tall enough. I made the rounds exhorting and checking out the troops. Then I came to where Xuan was staying.

“Why did you come here?” I asked him.

“Staying with you guys is safer than staying down there.”

I didn’t really understand his answer.

“Who are these people?”

“My underling. His wife came from Saigon to see him and now she is stranded here,” Xuan answered.

I crawled away. The girl from Hue University had tried to muffle her sob, only a hiccup‑like sound was heard sporadically. I felt sorry for her but couldn’t help her, and there was no one with a little spare time to console her. There was another woman nearby, but she was so terrified that she clung tightly to her husband like a leech.

The Vietcong continued firing. We continued returning fire politely. The company commander sent down a helmet full of M‑79 rounds and grenades. I took upon myself the task of going around checking and distributing the new ammunition.

The Vietcong started their first attack. Used to this kind of fighting, we

turned back the probing attack very quickly with no casualties. However, the question was how many more attacks we would have to deflect during the night before we ran out of ammunition?

Then, an order came for us to fight through the enemy’s positions to get to Tu Hien River Mouth. We called this kind of maneuver “open a bloody road.” How could Col. Luong, the brigade commander, not know that this would be a fruitless action? How long would it take to open that road? How far would the road stretch? How much blood would have to be shed to open the road to Tu Hien River Mouth? How many dead bodies would it take to form a bridge connecting Tu Hien and the ocean gate? One thing was for sure: we did not have enough ammunition to open that bloody road. Why didn’t they enlarge the defense perimeter to secure the safety for the ship’s landing, bringing ammunition and food? That action would have created the conditions in which a safe landing zone and evacuation area would be established to move smaller units out to the sea, one at a time. If this tactic had been used, we could have saved at least two battalions. The order to “open a bloody road” to Tu Hien Gate was an order that defied logic and was useless, utterly useless. It was only a futile wriggle of a fish on a chopping board.

Oh God! Were we not the Marines? Were we not those battle-scarred Marines that “awed and dazzled the enemy,” as the lyrics of the Marine Corps marching song say? Have we become the senseless bodies, the robots under a command that defied reasons? We were the Marines who did not fear death. We were the Marines who obeyed orders unquestioningly. But should we obey this order? We had not been allowed to board the ship when there was still time because of a few small surfs.

We had not been told to set up defense lines when we could have chosen the more preferable positions. We were thrown into battle almost as an open target, under the worst fighting conditions. We were surrounded in a closed pocket, without food, without ammunition. We had no strength left; our morale had ebbed to the lowest tier. And now, we were ordered to “open a bloody road.” This would only thrust us into a hard and laborious death, instead of letting us stay, fight, and die here.

There was no tragedy that could be comparable to our predicament. People tried to find life in a desperate situation, because, at least, they had some hope to be alive; however small was their hope. A hope remained a hope. A small piece of rotten wood floating in the ocean was hope. As for us, even that small piece of rotten wood was nowhere in sight. We were not disappointed. We were not desperate. We were hopeless. We, the healthy, life‑loving, blithesome young men, were wishing to be allowed to stay put at this spot, to fight and die at this spot. We did not wish to “open a bloody road” to be killed one by one, and the survivors would probably meet with death at the end of the road. That kind of death really was no fun.

I thought about “opening a bloody road.” I thought about having to move in futility only to die at the end. But the order had come for us to prepare and soon it would be time to go. I was exasperated. I did not want to obey this order but I could not disobey order. The solution was, therefore, for me to die, right now, at this spot, so I would not have to follow that order. I did not wish to burden myself further in order to live a few more hours. I started to go around in the trenches to check on my troops. This time, I walked with by back straight. With my back straight, I walked under the eerie illumination coming down from the flares in the sky, elongating the fleeting shadows of the clumps of willows. The flares dimmed, and then died. Then the sky was lit up again. The shadows of the clumps of willows sharpened, got shorter and then stretched longer and vanished.

All of a sudden, I was hurled down on the ground and everything went

black.

 

My first reaction when I came around was to put my hand to feel my head. The head was still there, but the helmet was not. Convinced that I was still

alive, I tried to stay calm but the reverberation of the shock shook me. The

bullet that knocked the helmet off my head also knocked any thoughts off my mind. The will to die at once also deserted my mind. Opening or not opening “the bloody road” was no longer the question. My mind was empty, dull, and in total inertia. It must have been one or two o’clock in the morning when I regained consciousness. What mattered most to me, right at this moment, was the desire to sleep. With my back to the wall of the trench, I slept. A tired, fitful sleep amid the sound of gunfire. I did not know how long I slept.

Buoi woke me up.

“Hey, Chief. Battalion 7 came to share the perimeter with us. 369 told you to shrink back,” he told me.

Battalion 7 had been transported by trucks from Quang Tri with full gears, and its soldiers were in better shape. I went to meet the commander, divided our respective perimeters, and then begged him for ammunition. I was also more confident about my company’s ability to defend our position due to a smaller responsible area. I, however, was still haunted by the order to “open a bloody road.”

 

Dawn, March 26. The sea was serene, the wind calm. The sky was barely visible in the fog. I received an order to take the wounded to the shoreline for the ambulance ship to pick them up. 1st Lt. Xuan had vanished along with his radioman. I spoke to the girl student from Hue University and the couple whose husband was Xuan’s underling.

“There will be a ship to evacuate the wounded. Why don’t you guys go to the beach and get on board with them. It’s still dark. Not too dangerous to go from here to the water line.”

The three of them followed each other, running from one sand dune to another, and then disappeared in the fog.

The big, black shape of the ship had come close to shore. I thought we would get more supplies from the ship. But the wait was in vain, for the ship had taken to the sea a long while and we still had not received order to

go get ammunition. We, in fact, did not get any supplies at all.

The gunfire, which had tapered off somewhat, now returned to full force. The darkness of the night had provided cover for the ones who had fled. We had not taken advantage of the night to run; we now faced the dangers, and the difficulties, which increased as darkness withdrew.

The fog had lifted. The sun was not up yet but the horizon was lit in the east. There was enough light for us to see the smaller ships passing by on the open sea.

The company commander had someone call me over.

“You are to transfer the rest of the perimeter to Battalion 7.”

“So, we are not to open the bloody road?” I asked.

“To hell with the bloody road. You sound eager to do it!”

“Give me a break. I am up to here with it,” I said with my hand raised over my head.

“It had been canceled.”

And I put the questions to him.

“Why didn’t the ship come to get us during the night? And how come it didn’t bring us supplies when it came to evacuate the wounded?”

“You think I know more than you do?”

“What are we doing next after handing the line to Battalion 7?”

“To the rear. That bastard Xuan left his unit and got on the ambulance ship. Lt. So also took his whole company aboard. The battalion HQ called and told you to come and take over Company 3 for the dead Captain Chieu. And then you are to take Company 3 to fill in the hole left by So’s company.”

“When will I go to Company 3?”

“Battalion called you since last night, but I didn’t want to let you go.”

“Why?”

“Company 3 was shot to hell. Nothing you can do to it right now. You would probably get hurt if something happened.”

Do you mean what  you just said, 1st Lt. Gat?  “Get  hurt  if  something

happened.” I don’t think you meant it. Company 3 had been recently formed; its commander was dead. Lt. So was the deputy and the platoon leaders were mostly sub and second lieutenants. They had a reputation of being hardheaded, hard‑nosed and hard to control. It had been some kind of tradition in forming a new unit: its members usually consisted of the unruly ones, who wore the stigma persona non grata and had been “kindly” cashiered out by their commanders.

Company 3 was the grouping of Marines rendered “useless” by other companies in the battalion. It was now also a snake with no head. My assignment to become its commander was to stabilize it, not to lead it into battles. It was clear that I was to take Company 3 to fill the hole left open by So’s company 2, and that was to cover the rear of the battalion. The reason 1st Lt. Gat did not want me to go would probably be connected to the fact that nobody had been named his assistant to replace me. And according to our Marines tradition, the assistant company com­mander was the one who led troops into battles. You fear for me or you fear for yourself? You had taken away my chance to become a company commander. Should I thank you, 1st Lt. Gat?

After finishing the transfer of perimeter, the company commander summoned me again.

“Goddamn it! We were abandoned,” he barked angrily.

“What order have you received?” I asked.

“Order my dick! Eagle Luong went aboard the ambulance ship; he took along his deputy and that bastard Col. Thiet.”

“Then who the hell gave us the order for Battalion 7 to take our place?”

“Major Cang, the Battalion 7 commander.”

I was saddened but not angry as 1st Lt. Gat was. Anybody would want

 to save his ass under the circumstance. 1st Lt. So was the case in point. He had not only made it but also taken the whole company with him. 1st Lt. Xuan was a coward in abandoning his  unit.  But  he  was  only  a  company

commander; his infamous action would probably be known only within the Marine division. The worst instance involved the brigade commander and his deputy: A colonel and a lieutenant colonel. A Marine brigade commander and his deputy had deserted before the enemy. I was not a judge in the martial court to try them. I was also not one of the higher‑ranking officers who would order their execution in front of a firing squad according to the martial law. But I remained a Marine; and how would I bear the shame and humiliation when people from the other branches of the armed forces talked about this. How could the top officers of the Marine Corps have been such cowards? It was so sad.

I did not want to linger my thoughts over this shameful wound on the Corps.

“After the transfer, what the hell are we doing in the rear?” I asked 1st Lt. Gat.

“There will be more ships to come to get us. Our battalion will go first, then Battalion 3, then Battalion 5. Battalion 7 stays back and will be the last to leave.”

“Who set up this order?”

“Major Cang.”

“When will we decamp?”

“When the ship comes. Battalion 7 will cover so we can get to the beach.”

I went back to my position.

The distance from here to the water line was about one hundred meters and the sand was dry. Although it was a short run, it might not be too easy. I gave an order for the whole company to take off their boots, making it easier to run on the sand.

The sound of gunfire  became lighter and then  stopped. The sky was

bright. We sat facing the sea and waited. We did not have to worry about the defense line behind us. Troops from the beach perimeter gingerly showed themselves behind the low sand dunes. On the open sea, the ships slowly passed by.

The silence seemed to weight down on the already leaden atmosphere of the battlefield. Perhaps it weighted upon the Marines of Battalion 7 the most. Were they aware of the scheming of the Vietcong? Were they aware of their last‑to‑be‑evacuated priority? Would they be proud of the actions of their courageous commander?

The one-hundred-meter distance to the beach was like the water gate for the sea bass to leap through. Life or death came at the mercy of the strength of one’s feet. The faster one ran the farther one got away from the grip of the Angel of Death. But actually, the strength of the feet was only the secondary force in determining one’s life or death. The primary force lay with one’s individual fate. Try your best to get away from the death on this sandy stretch, yet stay calm to accept your fate. I willed myself to carry out the motto I had learned from the essayist Nguyen Manh Con: “Do your best, and then be at peace.”

I tried to do my best, but the inner peace did not come. With a little glimmer of hope of being rescued by the ship, I began to feel the fear of dying. If I died when I was in the heat of the battlefield, that death would be easy because it was not in my mind, because I would still be sanguine, my blood running hot. Now, we would be dropping our guns, turning away from the enemy, running like a swarm of ducks, all the while waiting for a bullet to pierce our backs. This kind of death would be pretty heavy, pretty chilly. Life and death, therefore, were not depending on my strength and my ability. They were dictated by fate and luck. If your number was up, you went. And in this contest, where I would try my best to prevent my number from  being  called,  I  had  to  pin  my  hope  on  somebody,  someone who

did  not  reside  amongst   the  humankind.  But  alas,  I  was  an  atheist;  I

worshiped neither Jesus nor Buddha; I went to church just to court Jesus’s

female sheep; I went to pagoda just to flirt with the Buddha’s female adherents. Why should Jesus or Buddha let me pin my hope on them?

I suddenly thought of my maternal grandfather whom I had not thought of  since  his  death  more  than  ten  years  ago .  I started  to  pray:

“Please, Grandpa, please save me. Please save me, Grandpa.” Hadn’t my grandma been telling me: “When you are in danger, call grandpa. Every night I burn the incense sticks to pray him to protect you.”

My eyes suddenly sparkled at the sight of a ship heading toward shore. My heart beat violently. My body temperature rose as if I got a fever. My mouth became dry. My stomach tightened in heavy knots. Amid all these reactions, plus the sound of my clattering teeth, I still managed to pray incessantly: “Please, save me. Grandpa. Please, save me. Grandpa.”

The sound of gunfire from the Vietcong’s positions had started. Battalion 7 had also returned fire. I looked up and down, checking, exhorting my troops for the last time. Then, a shout sprung from my lips.

“Let’s go... o... o... !”

The entire company started to run.

The gunfire increased with all sorts of weapons. The bullets came faster, the barrage thicker; all aimed at us, the moving targets. I tried to run fast, the prayers to my grandpa never ceased on my lips; but somehow, my body seemed heavier, my feet seemed to sink deeper into the sand, my frame larger, and my move­ments awkward. I drenched in sweat; my ears were muffled; my eyes saw the exploding stars. It seemed that I heard a lot of screaming, that I saw many falling bodies. It seemed that the destination was so near, but the time it took to get there an eternity. It seemed that Buoi was still running behind me, holding me to keep me from falling. It seemed that Khai, the radioman, was still sticking close to my side. It seemed that I heard someone yell, “We got to it! We got to it. Get down to the trenches.”

I did not know who shoved me down to a trench. I did not know whose hands I hung on to. I dropped heavily, my back crashed against the sand wall. My mouth was agape,  grasping for air;  all the while,  the prayer to my

grandpa was still on my lips.

The sound of gunfire started to abate and then stopped.

Getting myself together, I stood up and looked back at the path I had just  crossed .  The  bodies  of  my  company’s  Marines  littered  the  sandy

beach. I averted my eyes away quickly to avoid having to recognize them, avoid having to count the dead. And I wept. I did not know if my tears were to rejoice the fact that my life had been spared, or to mourn my subordinates whose lives had been abruptly and unjustly shortened. It was too heavy a price to pay for so short a run. It was too staggering a debt we had to pay for our superiors’ sins. Why did we have to run for our lives in broad daylight like this? I stood there, with tears streaking down my face, para­lyzed.

Buoi tapped on my back. I started.

“Chief, 369 calls.”

I found my voice.

“Where is he?”

“Over there,” Buoi said and started pulling me. “Our company is grouping behind the sand dune over there.”

My company was now down to the number of a platoon. Where was the rest of my troops? Were they lying out there or scattering around trying to put their bodies and souls together?

My company commander, 1st Lt. Gat, declared, “I don’t know if the ships are able to come in to get us out. I’m giving up my command. From now on, you are on your own.”

I was stunned. God Almighty! Hell Almighty! Goddamn it! How could he make that kind of statement at this hour? This was the time the troops needed directions and guidance the most, and he was giving up his command. My company had been dispersed, it had suffered heavy casualties, but it still could be regrouped, it was still a company. Why, 1st Lt. Gat?  Why  did  you  desert  your  unit  in  such  a  cowardly  manner ? You

declared  that  you  were  giving  up  your  command, but you still kept your

loyal underlings sticking close to you. The scheme of saving your own ass and those of your underlings was not worthy of your position. And why did you have to make such a statement? Why didn’t you take your underlings and flee instead of going before us to say such shameful words?

But it was okay. From now on, as you wish, you are no longer a goddamned, cocksucking member of this company. Fuck you, 1st Lt. Gat! Get out of my sight!

“The commander has given up his command. You can go as you please. Whoever wants to stay with me, stay,” I told my troops.

Everybody came to me. 1st Lt. Gat took his underlings to another spot, whether out of shame or satisfaction, I had no idea.

‘Fatso’ Huy was so mad, he burst into tears and cried out, “Goddamn you, I was wounded, I didn’t want to be evacuated by the ship. I wanted to stay with my troops, to live and die with them. Why are you such a coward, why do you stoop so low, Lieutenant?”

 

 

 

Chapter IV

 

The Last Ship

 

 

The ship had come very close to shore but had not been able to find a place safe enough to drop anchor. It was now moving back and forth along the beach. The civilians and troops from other units had gathered into a huge mass. They now also moved back and forth, as the ship did.

Major Thanh, the battalion commander, appeared. I liked and respected this officer. He had just come to the battalion, had not had the opportunity to meet all the officers let alone know their characters and abilities. A few days into his stewardship, we had started to run. We had lost the deputy battalion commander, lost a company commander, lost an entire company; a company commander deserted; another company on a ship somewhere on the sea, the fate of Capt. Tai’s company unknown; my company considered dissolved. Yet he was still buzzing around, pulling together troops that had the red patch on their shirt – symbol of Battalion 4 – ­telling them what to do, letting them know what was going on, boosting their morale. He did not use the excuse of the collapse of the battalion to make his exit. I wish that our armed forces had more commanders the likes of Maj. Cang and Maj. Thanh.

“You take the troops over there and wait,”  Major Thanh told me. “Do

not waste your time running with these people.”

It   appeared   that   we  did   have  a   spot  already  prepared  for  the

evacuation. I saluted him and led my troops away.

The news of a spot already prepared for the evacuation, which I thought a secret shared by us Marines only, turned out to be a widespread knowledge. The ship had been reserved for Battalion 4, but there were already a few thousand people waiting – as many as the number of people who have been running back and forth, following the ship’s moves – when we got there.

It was a fairly small‑sized ship. I would say its capacity was probably over a thousand people, standing room only. And I would also say that the number of people who wanted to get on the ship was about ten thousand. It would probably have to boil down to a muscle contest, and the contestants would have to shed their blood, or lose their lives for the prize: a place aboard the ship. A contest without judges, without referees, only the contestants who tried to get away, risking their lives to not fall into the Vietcong’s hands.

I shuddered. I had thought that by having been replaced by Battalion 7, having dropped the guns and taken refuge in the rear, we would be safe and ready to board. But hardship remained, dangers abounded. The only difference: Then we were still holding our guns to fight the enemy; now we fought amongst ourselves and against the people. The price we had to pay was not cheaper at all; we would have to accept the fact that we were going to compete with our own people to secure a spot among the one‑tenth who would make it to the ship. The price of failure would be our own corpses lying face down in the water. There was no other choice other than being captured by the Vietcong.

Still armed, we easily secured a place right in front of the crowd. Nobody protested. Nobody shouted. They were afraid either because we were armed, or they wanted nothing to do with this ragtag group of Marines. In this situation who cared what other people thought? The pressing matter at hand was to get on board that ship, at any price. Other matters could be dealt with later.

 

The ship moved slowly to the rendezvous spot. We were pushed forward by the crowd behind. A huge mob fighting within itself surged toward the sea, farther and farther from the shore. The water came to my knees, then my stomach, then my chest; higher and higher.

The surf elevated the mass. The surf broke them up, pushed them down to the bottom. The surf sucked them and carried them out to the sea, and then the surf elevated, broke them up, pushed them down. Then the surf sucked them and carried them out to the sea. The motions were repeated, again, again and again.

I was now away from the shore, but also far from the ship. Surfs and water would not let me swim straight to the ship. There was a lot of seawater already in my stomach yet my mouth kept supplying my stomach with the salty liquid every time I was engulfed in the water. And every time a wave hit me, it also carried me away from the shore a little, and away from the ship a little. What a time to thrash around in the sea! Battalion 4 with its nickname “The Whales” should be at home at sea. I was a whale in the open sea, frolicking in the surfs; but my limbs were weary, leaden and my stomach was getting bigger, bigger as I swam. “The whale” was drowning in the sea!

Like a sleepy head who got lucky finding a mat, an inflated duffle bag drifted toward me. The bag was soaked but could still float. I hung on tight to it. I could not hook it over on my back because the strap had come loose. Clutching the bag, I floated and my life floated. I floated, waiting for death to come to take me away. And I was calm. I did not panic. I did not quake in fear as I was when waiting for a bullet to pierce my back a moment ago. I was feeling a little envious at the people who had climbed aboard the ship, and a pang of regret when I caught a glimpse of the people still on the beach when a surf lifted me to its crest. The water kept pouring into my stomach. My strength ebbed every time a wave pushed me down. I had no notion of time anymore so I had no idea how long I floated on the water.

Then, out of a sudden, somebody appeared  next  to  me.  I didn’t pay

any attention to him; he must have been one of the people who were trying to brave the water to get to the ship. But there was something on his face that told me he might be a danger to me and that I should get away from him. He looked at me with his pleading eyes, looked hungrily at the duffle bag that I was holding. He tried to say something, to project his voice so it could reach me. The sound of his voice was muffled by the wind, the waves; it came to me in bits and pieces.

“Please, take me to the ship. I can’t swim anymore.”

The impact of his request hit me like a hefty dose of high voltage electric current. I suddenly panicked. This guy must be the Angel of Death coming to get me. An angel of death with a human face; an angel of death who is toying with my life. I tried to talk, hastily, and made sure that he heard me.

“I am not going to the ship. I am going back to the shore.”

But no matter what I said and did, he proceeded to cling tightly to me, turning me into a buoy just like I did with the duffle bag. I thrashed around, I kicked, I fought; still his heavy body clung to me, dragged me down with the bag which could not possibly sustain the weight of the two of us. And just like that, the three of us – he, I and the bag – ­sank.

At that particular moment, a huge wave rose from underneath, lifted us high, very high and then tossed us back down into the water. The guy disappeared. The bag also disappeared. I was there, alone, stupefied in the water tow reaching only to my chest. I was only a dozen meters from land. The huge wave had saved my life, had tossed me back on shore. I had no idea if the other guy – the angel of death – got the same treatment. I rode on the small waves to the shore.

There were a lot of  people  who  had come  back  to  shore,  like me,

discouraged,  despondent. But  there  were still  other  people who eagerly

swam to the ship.

I dragged my feet heavily on the sand, not knowing what to do.

I ran into 2nd Lt. Si – Lam Chi Si – from Artillery Battalion 2. His clothes

were dry, his long hair blowing in the breeze, the “Mona Lisa” smile forever on his lips. He was ablaze with booze.

 “Hey, ‘Fuzzy Face,’ come have a few caps with me,” he beckoned.

I landed quickly, took five or six canteen caps. The booze was strong, enough to warm my belly, but not my entire body.

“Where the hell did you get this?” I asked him.

He pointed to a Marine wearing the uniform of his unit, sitting next to him.

“From this guy, Loc. He commanded a sub-sector in Gia Hoi. He took along with him 4, 5 liters.”

“Why didn’t you guys try to get on the ship?”

Si laughed. The kind of laughter you’d see in the traditional drama, loud and pretentious.

“And you, why didn’t you try to get on the ship?”

I grinned at him, shaking my head.

“I almost drowned.”

“What a pity, my son,” he declared. “You tried to get there, almost drowned, and then finally landed back here. Look at your daddy here. I sat here, drinking, watching the likes of you drown. My feet didn’t even get wet.”

I sat back, drinking, watching the spectacles.

Plenty of people had found their way back to shore. All of them soaked. Some cried over their failure of getting aboard the ship. Some happily laughed for having escaped death. Some walked around like zombies. Some sat or lay down on the sand, oblivious of the surroundings.

The ones with their clothes still dry seemed eager to try their luck in the water, but then held back. The special people were the Marine Corps medics.  They  did  not  sit  on  their  hands  to   weigh  their options but put

themselves to work. And work they did. They formed the rescue teams to care for the people who came back from the sea, giving them shots, putting

on bandages, resuscitating, hauling stretchers from one end of the beach to

the other. These medics had my utmost respect and admiration.

In the water, the ship seemed loaded but still did not move. It looked as if it wanted to stay as long as possible to allow more people to get aboard. The tonnage did not seem important. At this moment, the brave attitude of the crew and the number of people the ship could hold in her womb mattered most.

The ones already aboard were trying to haul up others who dangled from the sides of the ship. The ones without any helping hands tried to purchase a grip on the ship to haul themselves up. Some succeeded; some fell back into the water. There were people who plunged back to the sea, pulling along their would‑be rescuers.

In the hundred meters from the shore to the ship, the color blue of seawater had disappeared. In its stead was the black color - the bobbing black heads of the people who were trying to swim out to the ship.

The ship now looked full; the successful one‑tenth seemed to have reached their destination. On the beach, the returnees had become a huge crowd. In the water, many people swam away from the ship. The contest, however, was not ending; for the number of people trying to get to the ship still outnumbered those who swam away. The crowd surrounding the ship got thicker and thicker.

The landing platform on the ship was now being raised. The people who clung to the platform were also elevated from the water. The luckier ones fell into the well of the ship, others into the sea. The platform was on its way to the closed position until it could not go any farther. And it was not closed either. Lying between the side of the ship and the edge of the platform was a body whose upper torso lay inside the ship, the lower part sticking out in the air, legs kicking wildly for about half a minute then stopping. But the motionless legs of the unlucky man became useful for the people in the water. They grabbed the legs and tried to climb up. The pants’ legs soon disappeared, and then the legs themselves snapped. Still people

clung to them. The dead man’s legs had helped  at  least a dozen people to

board the ship. And perhaps many more people if...

The ship, with its smokestacks billowing, slowly turned toward the sea.

Its propellers pushed some people away. They also slashed and killed many more.

The impact of the turning of the ship crushed heads, shoved people down under its bottom.

How many people died because the ship turned?

The ship continued to turn and would not stop until it made a full circle. It came back to its old position.

The propellers killed more people.

The impact of the turning of the ship crushed more heads, shoving more people down under its bottom.

Why did the ship make such a move? Dead bodies were now floating amid the live bodies who were trying hard not to become dead bodies.

The ship again stood there, silently beckoning.

We were now at least half a kilometer from the battle zone. The sound of gunfire was far away, yet the dead toll here was a hundred times worse.

Lo and behold! People were jumping into the sea from the ship. Was I seeing things? Was I drunk? Not one, or two, but several. My eyes did see people jumping from the ship into the sea, some hesitatingly, some just vaulting over the ship railings and landing in the water.

I rubbed my eyes vigorously several times, not wanting to believe what I saw.

 “You see people jumping down to the sea?” I asked Si.

He shared my bewilderment.

“Goddamn, it’s weird.”

We stared at one another but did not have time to dwell on it. Two M-113 APCs full of people aboard coming from the direction of the battle zone

were charging up on the beach, crushing   people who  had just came back

from the ship and now lay on the armored vehicles’ path. They also hit the people who were not fast enough to duck to the sides. We also spotted 2nd Lt. Ngo Du, a platoon leader in my company, coming out from the water and on the verge of collapsing. Si and I rushed over and pulled him back from the path of the M-113 APCs. The tanks missed us by a whisker.

The two M-113 APCs hit the water on their way to the ship.

Their chains climbed over and crushed the heads of the people still in the water. The two M-113 APCs, upon reaching the ship, its passengers disembarked, returned to shore. On the way back, they climbed over and crushed the heads of more people. The tanks stopped on the beach. From the driver pit, a head popped up, looked around and hollered.

“Who wants to get out to the ship, come on up.”

People seemed unsure, suspicious of the offer, and then a few climbed up. The tanks stood there for about fifteen minutes, but still there were not enough passengers. The head popped up again.

“Hey, you guys, hurry up. This is the last trip. We are not going to come back.”

More people took up the offer.

I was indecisive, not knowing whether to climb up or not. I asked Si.

“You wanna go?”

Si shook his head.

“I don’t want to escape by climbing up and crushing the heads of those people down there.”

His answer prompted me to reach a decision.

“Goddamn it, with you and me on the tank or without you and me, those people would still get crushed under these chains, no matter what. Don’t try your hypocritical philosophy on me, son.”

Si was still stubborn.

“I didn’t say anything different,” he said. “But I’m just not going.”

“Okay. Then help me get Du up there with me.”

Si and I hauled Du up and put him on a tank. Before climbing up, I

gripped Si’s shoulder.

“Hope to see you in Da Nang,” I said.

He grinned at me.

“Goddamn. You are a real sentimental kind, aren’t you? Get the fuck out!””

The two M-113 APCs again churned the water on the way to the ship. This time I saw the chains crush people’s heads up close. The engine noises and the sound of the tanks’ movements in the water drowned out most of the screams and maybe even the sounds of heads being crushed. But the torn pieces of clothing and the red blood in the wake of the moving tanks were hard to ignore. They stayed with us in that one‑hundred‑meter distance. They bobbed up and down amid the foam trailing behind the tanks. Yet, I felt so calm, so indifferent, as though the people killed right under my feet meant nothing to me. Maybe I was callous and cold hearted. Maybe I had turned into an animal. Maybe I had seen so much death during the day. Maybe I was content with my safety on the way to the ship. And as for Si, either he was so faint-hearted, could not make himself see this scene, or he was courageous enough to stay back, accepting the fate of a Marine fallen into the hands of the Vietcong. Anyway, I hope to see you again, Si.

The two M‑113 APCs moved close to the side of the ship.

Most of the people on the ship were Marines. A number of them from my battalion. The transfer from the top of the armored vehicle to the ship was facilitated by people on board. Du and I were helped by a group of my underlings. I was struck with raw emotions when I spotted Pfc. Van – Nguyen Van Van – among the group that helped me get on the ship. Van was from Vung Tau, a seaside resort. Coming from a poor family, he never had a chance to go to school and had to sell newspapers on the street to make a living in his young age. He, then, became a horse‑drawn‑carriage driver catering to the tourists; but his main income came from his role as protector  for  the  prostitutes  and  beer-girls.  He  was  a  well‑known  gang

member in  Vung  Tau.  Some time ago,  I  disciplined  him for  a really bad

conduct. I had him spread-eagled on the ground, limbs tied to the four posts I had erected, and punished him for bad behavior by lashing. The first of his superiors to lash him with ten strokes was the assistant squad leader, and then the strokes would be multiplied by two at each higher rank and on and on. Every time he fainted, the medic would give him a shot and splash water on his face to wake him so the lashing could continue. Even before my turn came, he had fainted three times. After the punishment, we had to take him to the brigade infirmary, where he had to stay for ten days after pissing blood. I never paid attention to the ill will coming from my troops after I punished them, but I also did not expect that Van was the most helpful among my subordinates in getting me on board.

On the ship, the air was heavy; not because there were too many people, but because of the menacing, nerve‑wracking atmosphere permeating the surroundings.

‘Fatso’ Huy shoved a pistol in my hand and advised me.

“A bullet is already in the chamber. Be careful.”

“What’s left for us to do now? I don’t need this.”

“Keep it, just in case. You’d never know.”

Just about that time, a shot rang out.

Two Marines bent down, scooped up the body of an infantryman who was just shot dead and tossed him into the sea. Another Marine put his gun against the temple of an Infantry lieutenant.

 “Goddamn it, are you gonna get off or not?” he ordered.

 “I beg you... Let me stay,” the lieutenant stammered.

“Goddamn it, I’ll count to three. If you don’t jump to the sea, I’m gonna shoot.”

“I beg you, don’t make me stay behind. I’ll do whatever you want, just don’t make me stay behind. I beg you.”

“Goddamn it, one.”

“I beg you, I don’t have any relative out here.”

“Damn it, two.”

“God Almighty, we are fellow soldiers, have pity on me.”

“Goddamn it, three.”

The moment the word “three” was uttered, he fired. The Infantry lieutenant’s head snapped back and he slumped down. An M‑16’s bullet had pierced his skull. His body was hauled up by two soldiers and dumped into the sea.

The killer casually turned toward an Infantry major cowering on the ship’s floor, put his gun on the major’s head, his face full of menace.

“How about you, fucker. Are you gonna get off or not?”

The major, who was in his middle age, shook violently with fear, his face green as a leaf.

“Please spare me. Please, brother, please spare me.”

“Goddamn it, one.”

“Let me, let me get off.”

With great efforts, he dragged himself to the railings, and then turned to beg one last time.

“Please spare me. Have pity.”

“Goddamn it, two.”

Knowing his entreaty was in vain, the major wept then jumped into the sea.

All the while, shots rang out at several other locations on the ship.

‘Fatso’ Huy explained to me.

“The ship was overloaded and ran aground. It had tried earlier but could only manage a 360-degree turn. Can’t move until we have a lighter load. The ship’s captain said the ship is reserved for the Marines only, and then asked others to get off. Nobody did. The captain requested that the Marines solve the problem. The troops used the guns.”

“Then why did you shove a gun in my hand and make me keep it?”

“You think all the guys in the camouflage uniform are Marines? And not all Marines on this ship know you. In this kind of bedlam, you’d be better off taking care of yourself.”

The shooting continued sporadically on the ship. Bodies were thrown

overboard. People jumped off the ship in tears. Guns were pressed against the infantrymen’s heads. Shots rang out.

Where was humanity?

Where was comradeship of fellow soldiers?

I stood there, watching, feeling despair. I was impotent before this terrible, heartbreaking scene.

Major Thanh, my battalion commander, was also present on the ship although I did not see him. I guessed he would share my helplessness.

I ran into 1st Lt. Nghia – Hoang Trong Nghia – from Company 1. The two of us went to a corner behind the command tower. He also felt guilty for his impotence.

 “They killed in cold blood. Find somewhere to sit so we don’t have to witness this,” he said.

A soldier, clad only in a pair of camouflage trousers, his eyes glassy, his face bewildered, extended his arms to the front in a pleading gesture as if he was afraid that people would not believe him. He was babbling.

“I told you, I told you the truth, my wife is dead, she’s dead in the sea; I told you the truth, my wife is dead, she’s dead in the sea.”

A girl, totally naked, probably knew that her hands could not be big enough to cover the parts of her body needed to be covered, sat numbly; the horrors visibly etched on her face; her eyes opened wide, tearless. She probably no longer possessed a conscious mind to be ashamed of her nakedness, and tears to grieve. A soldier handed her a pair of pants, another a shirt; she absently took them.

I told Nghia, “I say we let whatever comes, come. We’ve boarded this ship; there’s nothing we can do now. It’s coming down to one own’s fate.”

“You think fate killed those Infantrymen?”

“They have their own fate,” I tried again. “If their fate says they have to die, they die.”

The number of people on the ship had come  down  quite  a  bit.  The

ship got lighter, but the  tide had  receded  faster  than  the  pace  of  people

jumping off, so the ship was still aground. In addition, one of the engines had somehow died, the mechanic had shaken his  head;  the only  recourse

was to have the ship towed by another.

Everyone was antsy, nervous. The crew ran around, hollering at one another. Shots rang out intermittently. The weeping, the laughter, the yelling, the cursing coalesced into a kind of noise that I could not come up with a name for it.

The ship’s captain was an old sub‑lieutenant, his name was Tan. He was busy trying to prod the mechanic to fix the engine and, in the mean time, tried to contact other ships in the area for rescue.

Any kind of waiting seemed longer than the actual elapsing time.

One of the ships turned toward shore to rescue our ship. The crew – actually only the captain, the mechanic and 3 or 4 sailors – was assisted by some Marines to ready the tow cable.

          But the rescue ship could not get close enough to us. A heat‑seeking AT‑3 rocket launched by the Vietcong hit it while it was about a hundred meters from our ship. The wounded ship then turned around, heading back out.

Our would‑be‑savior had left. Our hope had just flown away.

Until now, no one had thought that we were still in the Vietcong’s firing range.

That startling, terrifying thought was realized all at once by everyone.

We already were like the fish on the chopping board. A fact that had seemed all but forgotten. The only thing that had mattered until now was to fight, to struggle among ourselves, even to kill to obtain a seat on this “chopping board”. But we had painted ourselves into a corner. And as the Vietnamese would say: “Keep scooping up the water if there’s any left”, the

old captain kept trying to contact other ships but either the radio system of the navy had broken down, or their radiomen were taking a nap. He tried for over an hour in vain. With a broken smile, he told Major Thanh, my battalion

commander, “I can’t talk to the other ships out there anymore. I’m sure they heard me but chickened out, didn’t want to respond. Now, Major, please call on the Marine’s band to see if they would be willing to do something.”

Major Thanh entered the command tower. He emerged half an hour later.

“There will be another ship coming to tow us,” he said. “ But it will not come near. We have to bring the tow cable out there and hook up.”

A dinghy was lowered into the water. A big Marine who was healthy and a good swimmer was appealed to and chosen to go down to the dinghy, paddling it out to take the cable to the other ship.

The tide was still receding. The wind had stopped blowing but the sea was choppy. Everyone’s eyes glued to the dinghy braving the choppy waves, slowly heading for the open sea. A ship had already turned its bow toward our direction but judging by the speed of the dinghy, it would take a long time for the cable to get hooked up with the rescue ship.

Kaboom!

A colossal explosion deafened my ears, blinded my eyes, and numbed my jaws. My lungs were stricken by the compression caused by the explosion. I gasped for air.

The command tower was hit.

On the ship’s floor, people ran together from one side of the ship to the other and back. Everybody wanted to find an escape route. But there was no escape route. People got tramped, jostled, hit, kicked, every time the mob moved.

People screamed, shrieked, howled, and cursed.

On the ship’s plank, the dead scene was horrendous. Flesh, brain tissues, clothing, and blood were strewn, splattered on the ship’s walls, on the command tower. Blood was everywhere. The cries, the wailing, begging, praying, and moans from the wounded mixed with the yells, the shouts of the ones who were lucky to be still in one piece. There was no way  for  me  to  recognize  people  I  knew  in  that  immense pool of blood.

Except one. He was Pfc. Dung, the stretcher carrier and also my company’s

barber. His body leaned against the ship’s wall, legs outstretched, head split in half; the smaller half, still held by his neck, almost nestled on his shoulder. The wall behind him was splattered with his blood and brain tissues. I recognized him by the untainted name patch, and his hands with fingernails longer than those of a girl.

Maj. Thanh was wounded in the leg and being taken care of by a medic. The old captain – Sub-Lt. Tan ­– was hit in the head, was bandaging himself. The white gauze around his head made him look like a mourner in a funeral.

I used my loudest voice to overcome the noises.

“Are there any guns here?” I asked the captain.

He nodded, his lips moved in an answer. I approached him and spoke loudly because of the din in my ears.

“You get them to shoot at the little temple up there.”

The beach had been deserted. The temple sat about a couple of hundred meters inland. There were a few shadows moving by it. The bushes and clumps of willows were even farther inland. The gun that fired at us must have been positioned in the temple.

Another thing was noticed. The ship now was only about 3 meters from the water line. The whole ship was now lying on wet sand. Major Thanh gave orders to me and to the captain.

“Huy, you stay here and tell our boys to fire at the temple to cover. The captain will lower the landing platform to let everybody down. Once everyone was down, Huy will gather all guns and ammunition and bring them down. The captain will collect all drinking vessels and food to bring ashore.”

The smaller guns started firing from inland when the landing platform

was being lowered.

The people aboard the ship, who had been panic‑stricken by the hit, were now even more so when they saw the platform lowered, depriving them of their shield.

Major Thanh’s voice came from the loudspeaker.

 “Everybody get off the ship. The longer you stay aboard, the faster you’ll get killed.”

We started firing from the ship but could not silence the guns inland.

People started to get hit on the platform. Some died inside the ship. People continued jumping down to the beach. The platform was about a meter above the sand. Once one ceased being exposed on the platform, one could reach safety from the guns, provided by a sand wall taller than a man’s height.

Some did not want to be exposed on the platform, stayed on board and tried to shrink themselves smaller. But they were not safe aboard the ship because the M‑79 rounds started being lobbed in and exploded.

I had tried to pinpoint the enemy’s positions to direct the firing for the guns on the ship, but aside from the temple, I only saw a few VC hiding behind the low sand dunes. The firing continued without much results; it only dampened somewhat the ferocity of the enemy’s fires.

The ship’s bow, with its platform lowered, became the target for the VC’s shooting practice.

More and more people managed to get down onto the beach. Major Thanh had landed earlier. He was now deploying troops on a new defense line.

The gunners and I dropped down on the plank when most people had left the ship and the new defense line started to fire back. We were greeted by the images of a gruesome massacre. The people tramped to death no longer looked like human bodies. The ones smothered to death by the mobs looked the most decent; they looked as if they were sleeping. The ones  shot  dead  were  hit  in the  head,  on  the face,  on the chest,  on the

stomach. They were hit everywhere. They lay dead in numerous positions.

The wounded ones wailed; one, hit in the chest, with his head hanging down, held his hands over the wound where blood squirting out as if coming from a faucet.

There was no thought of bringing those people ashore. It would have made no difference. The huge amount of the wounded did not matter when other people, unhurt so far, were trying to save their own lives.

I saw 1st Lt. Chuc, from Artillery Battalion 2, lying in his bloodied uniform, feebly sucking in air.

I was surprised to see the girl from Hue University sitting, wailing, praying, and bowing to her God, her Buddha. I had no idea why she was on this ship. She should have been on the ambulance ship along with my brigade commander and his deputy floating somewhere on the high sea. But I had no time to dwell on it.

I spoke loudly to her, “Hey, Miss. Try to get on land. Bowing at the ship’s wall won’t do you any good.”

Buoi said to me.

“I think she’s VC. I think she pretends to stay here and cry so the VC know our position. Don’t you remember that she also cried in the trenches last night?”

I couldn’t help myself but laughed.

“You think if she stays to signal to the Vietcong, they would try not to hit her? You think the VC’s bullets know she’s on their side and spare her?”

“Then why wasn’t she hit?”

I had no answer for him... The answer would probably lie with another entity that was not human.

 

 

Chapter V

 

THE LAST STAND

 

 

I landed on the sand. The sound of gunfire had stopped. It was some time in the afternoon, maybe three or four o’clock. We stood in single file along the sand bank. The afternoon sun shone directly on our faces. The sounds of the waves lapping at the sand seemed comforting.

I looked around, trying to find the familiar faces of my company. Five, maybe seven were there. Where was my company commander? ‘Fatso’ Huy, Ngo Du, Khai “Radio,” “Mustachio” Phuoc, Dang... Where were you?

I was stricken with emotions, out flowed my tears.

We had shared so much hardship and misery. We had survived together for a long time. Did we call on one another to come here and then suffer this kind of bitter, wasted death?

Major Thanh was coming from the other end.

“Huy, how’s the condition of our arsenal?” he asked.

“Not much, Major. I already told them to take the guns and wash them in the water.”

A two-and-half ton truck was coming from the south. Major Thanh stopped the truck.

He told me, “You stay here, take care of this defense line. I’ll go get some more guns and ammo.”

The truck  continued  its  journey north.  There  were  only Maj. Thanh

and the driver on the truck.

I walked around the defense line and saw some Artillerymen.

“You guys get on the ship and bring 1st Lt. Chuc down,” I told them.

These words to the Artillery men also made me decide to form a squad of healthy troops to get on the ship and bring the wounded ashore. But only Marines were brought down; we could not spare our effort to help soldiers from other branches.

I also sent some to hunt for ammunition and drinking water on the ship. I was somewhat surprised at the meekness of these troops. They had been ferocious, animal-like on the ship. Now they were quiet and subdued; not all but a large number of them. This ad hoc defense line was manned by troops from various units of the Marines: Battalion 3, 4, 5; Artillery battalion 2, soldiers from Transportation, Signal, Medical, Reconnaissance units... I was not their direct supervisor and they might have had put a bullet in my head after the “goddamn it one, goddamn it two, goddamn it three” on the ship. Now, they obeyed my orders to the letters.

Discipline is the basic element to the strength of an army. When command is lost, people become equal, and therefore, the stronger prevails, or the ones with guns can dictate the life or death of others. When the state of equality ends, command restored, chaos calmed, everybody will start obeying orders again.

It was now my turn to put a gun against a soldier’s head. This guy was big, as big as an American, stripped to the waist, his body – chest, arms, belly, and back – full of tattoos. He sat, holding an M‑79, refusing to join the defense line or give up his gun. I told him.

“Goddamn it, I’ll count to three, if you don’t stand up or give me the gun, goddamn it, I’ll shoot.”

“This is my gun, Lieutenant.”

“Goddamn it, one.”

“I’m just too tired, Lieutenant. Please let me sit here and rest a little then I’ll stand up.”

“Goddamn it, two.”

“Oh, God Almighty, are you really gonna kill me!”

“Goddamn it, three.”

The sound of the word “three” was still on my lips when the soldier hastily handed the gun to me with both hands. He was scared shitless.

“Here’s my gun, Lieutenant. Here’s my gun, Lieutenant.”

I took the gun and gave it to another soldier. Although I did not intend to kill him, if he had not given me the gun or stood up to join the defense line, I would have had no choice. Lucky for him, and for me, too.

I noticed that there was not one Infantry soldier in the defense line. They had fought mightily to get on the ship, but when the time came to fight the real enemy, there was no one but us. Either they harbored a grudge against us for the incidents on the ship or they felt that we were the designated fighters before the enemy.

The absence of the Infantry soldiers enhanced the suspicion circulating among the Marines that the shell which hit the ship’s command tower had been fired by troops belonging to the Infantry Division I. The rumor reached me that the Infantrymen who were forced to jump off the ship, got a hold of a 57mm recoilless gun and fired at the ship.

I did not think it was the truth, because the Infantrymen could not have had the 57mm gun under these circumstances. But the rumors and discussions proliferated to the point that I had to revise my opinion.

The truck’s driver who had taken Major Thanh to search for new weapons came rushing back on foot, shaking like a leaf.

“The major was captured, Lieutenant,” he reported.

“How did you get back here?”

“I drove the major north of here, maybe 2 kilometers, when the Vietcong stopped us. I told them I was a Private; the major said he was a Corporal. They took my truck then told me to change to civilian clothes and go back to Hue. I think they knew the major was an officer. They took him along. I managed to escape and come back here.”

 

The hope of getting more weapons evaporated. My commander was

in the Vietcong’s hands. The guns and ammunition that we had managed to gather would not be enough for us to hold the VC back. After talking with other officers, I decided to abandon this defense line, get away from this useless ship, and move south to join another defense line being manned by the rest of the brigade where we had left earlier to try to get on the ship.

Approaching the brigade’s perimeter, a barrage, coming from a machine gun perching on top of an M-113 APC stationed at the line of Battalion 5, flew over our heads.

Some of the troops from Battalion 5 standing on the tank gave a gesture forbidding us to enter. We put our hands over our heads indicating that we no longer had the fighting capacities then kept on going. This time the barrage was aimed right at the feet of the soldiers walking up front; a few M‑79s were also thrown at us. Four or five men fell down.

From early morning until now (a time span of less than ten hours), we had undergone so much terror. Many had died. A lot of hope had gone. We were now trying to come back to look for shelter from people of the same branch, our fellow Marines. But the door was shut. We were chased out with the barrage of machine guns and M‑79 shells. Major Tien, Battalion 5 commander, who, just a day or two ago, had told ‘Fatso’ Huy, “You guys try to hang in there. Win this one for me. It’s my first battle with the new battalion” – while ‘Fatso’ Huy’s unit had already shattered. Yet, his own soldiers now aimed their machine guns and M-79 grenade launchers at us and fired to shoo us away. Of course, they just followed their superiors’ order.

We ran to a sand bank, about 50 meters from Battalion 5’s line.

Sitting here, it didn’t make any difference to me whether I was outside or inside the perimeter. The Vietcong’s bullets hit everywhere and everyone. In fact, it was more dangerous to be inside, where the enemy’s guns were aiming at. It was only a psychological matter that made us feel unsafe  outside ;  as  we  could  not  defense  ourselves  and  had  lost  the

protection from our fellow Marines.

Those wounded by M-79 grenades had been carried inside the perimeter. The troops were puzzled as to why they were not allowed to go in. Dang, First Sergeant of the company, asked me, “Chief, we are also Marines, not infantry. Why don’t they let us in?”

“We were disbanded,” I told him. “Letting us in would damage the morale of the ones who are still fighting in there.”

“Damage my ass, chief. If we were let in, we would have stayed in the back, hiding from the bullets; we are not gonna stay in front to damage their morale.”

“You have to remember that the news the ship’s failure to rescue us would have lowered their morale considerably. They don’t need us there to tell them more of the story. And also, don’t you see that we are safe here, we don’t need to get in there anymore.”

As soon as I said that, the Vietcong’s fire started, directly aiming at us. They had reached the ship. We ran like a swarm of ducks into the perimeter, chased by the Vietcong’s bullets.

The soldiers on the M-113 APCs waited until we had all gone inside before they returned fire.

Battalion 5 had been attacked only from the west side since yesterday afternoon, where Battalion 7 and my battalion had been at the front. Now, they had another front, to the north.

The battlefield was now a stretch of flat land with no obstruction. The soldiers on the M-113 APCs had jumped down and climbed into the foxholes nearby. We, the ones without fighting capacities, also dug down behind the sampans turning upside down. The sounds of small guns came from the direction of the ship. It sounded like the Vietcong were executing the people there.

This is the second time I had a chance to see – as an observer – the Marines in actions. The first time happened on the 27 of January 1973, the last  evening before  the cease‑fire was in effect at Cua Viet. My Battalion 4

was assisted by two companies from Battalion 2 and an Armored  unit . We

formed a special task force called “Tango” commanded by the Marine Corps deputy commandant himself. Our task was to plant the national flag at Cua Viet before eight o’clock in the morning of the 28 at any price. Our opponent was the Vietcong’s  Regiment 48.

The distance from the starting position to the target was several kilometers. We divided it into several smaller targets to be taken by each company. My company’s starting position was also the target for another company of Battalion 2 to take. We moved easily from the rear. The company commander, 1st Lt. Tuoc – Duong Tan Tuoc – called me over and pointed, “You see the burning M‑48 over there?”

“Yeah.”

“Take your kids over there.”

It sounded like an easy-to-accomplish command; but it was not. If an M‑48 had been hit and burned, the target had been well defended. We came to the M‑48’s position just in time to watch the troops of Battalion 2 conquering their target. The soldiers from this battalion were worthy of the nickname “Crazy Buffaloes” the Vietcong themselves gave them. They charged up and invaded the Vietcong’s defense line as if there was nobody there. Of course, they got killed, they got wounded; but the Vietcong could not stop their advance. One hard‑charging platoon overreached the target, thrust too far into the enemy’s position, and was surrounded by the enemies. Without foxholes, without trenches, with no sand dunes to hide, they became VC’s shooting targets. Yet, they fought hard, still charged up and down, right and left, as cool‑headed as if they were on an exercise at a training center.

When my company came up and freed them from the noose, one Marine grinned at me and said, “Goddamn! We kicked the shit out of them, Chief.”

Now it was the second time. I lay  behind  a  sampan  turned  upside

down, watching the Marines of Battalion 5 fight. This time it was  different.

The furor and ardor of an  attacking  army  were  absent.  We  were  being

surrounded. We had no food; ammo was running out; the escape route nonexistent. We were in the most tragic position both morally and physically. Yet, the Marines of Battalion 5, those “Hungry Leeches,” fought in magnificent spirits. There were two Marines, both helmetless, flak jacketless, bootless; one was holding the barrel of a 60 millimeter mortar insulated by a couple of flak jackets; the other was gripping a helmet used as the gun’s base with one hand, a mortar shell in the other hand. They would fire one or two rounds in one position then moved to another place, repeating their actions while laughing and joking with one another. A bullet hit the one holding the helmet in the chest, the shell fell off his right hand, and the helmet tumbled away. Another Marine rushed over, grabbed the helmet, snatched the shell from the ground and continued to fire. The Marine holding the mortar’s barrel looked at his fallen comrade, grinned as if nothing had happened. He snickered, “Goddamn it, you went too early, man!” The Marine who came later also was hit in the stomach. His body jerked upward and then slumped down. A third Marine came out, helmet in hand. As soon as he reached the gunner, both were hit by bullets and dropped dead. The 60-millimeter mortar lay on the ground, its barrel buried in the sand.

I was fascinated by the actions so much that I forgot that I was hiding behind the sampan, which also had been pierced by bullets at several places, and my head had come up higher and higher to get a clearer view of the actions.

 

The sun had faded, the sea breeze got chillier.

I suddenly felt the cold and startled to notice that I had taken my shirt off; when and why, I had no idea.

Buoi appeared behind a sampan, clad only in a pair of shorts and a flak jacket. We were elated to see each other. He hugged me tightly.

“Hey, Chief, I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“Where did you come from?”

“I’ve been looking for you. Who dug this hole?”

“I dug it all by myself.”

“No wonder.” He grinned.

I grinned back,

“No wonder what?”

“You better come to my place. I already dug a hole big enough for both of us. God forbid, if something happens, all they have to do is to shovel the sand over us. This hole you dug is not big enough to bury you.”

“Goddamn you, you want to put a curse on me?”

“I meant it. But I have to come back and dig a bigger hole.”

“Why?”

“While I was going around looking for you, I found myself some pussy. Took her back to my hole. Kind of cozy.”

“Good looking?” I grinned mischievously.

“Not bad, Chief. And you are not supposed to be choosy this time and day.”

“I’m not choosy, but if she smells bad it’s gonna be tough.”

“Smell she doesn’t; just took a dip in the sea water.”

We winced and grinned at each other. Buoi took off his flak jacket and handed to me.

“You put this on and then we go.”

I hesitated.

“You wear it,” I said.

He would not hear of it.

“Don’t you see they are firing like hell, I run faster than you.”

“You think they can’t hit you if you run fast?”

“It’s kind of chilly too. You got goose bumps all over your body.”

The wind coming from the ocean had kicked up. My teeth started to clatter; my body shivered. Feeling that I had run out of excuses, I donned the jacket and started after Buoi. We ran and ducked  behind the  sampans.

At the last sampan, I saw Khai “Radio” and “Mustachios” Phuoc.

I blurted out happily, “Goddamn, you two still alive?”

Khai “Radio” – he was named after a hero in Vietnamese history, Tran Quang Khai – jumped up and clung to me. He babbled.

“The three of us spread out to look for you. Phuoc and I just came back.”

“Mustachios” Phuoc shouted, “I saw 1st Lt. Gat sitting over there, holding a sandbag full of instant rice and canned meat. He ignored me. Fuck him, I would never ask him for anything.”

The mention of rice and canned meat caused a rumble in my stomach. I had not eaten since yesterday afternoon and, actually, there had been nothing to eat. This morning, when I had a few drinks with Si, there was some food but I had a habit of not eating while drinking, so there had been nothing but booze in my stomach. Anyway, the pain of hunger came and went quickly.

“A little hunger won’t kill you. I’m hungry too. Forget it.” My efforts to fill their minds with bravado certainly was no substitute for a decent meal.

“We’d better go, Chief,” Buoi urged me.

Khai “Radio” said, “Phuoc and I stay here. Give us a holler when you start to move, Chief.”

Buoi and I dashed through an empty terrain, and then came to his hole.

The girl lay in there; a poncho covered her entire body except for her face. She looked kind of pretty. Jumping down, Buoi ordered the girl.

“Sit up, grandma. I have to dig this hole wider for my chief.”

The girl sat up, wrapping the poncho tightly around her body.

Buoi started to widen the hole, using his helmet.

I took off the flak jacket.

“Give you back this, where’s my field jacket?” I asked.

“Lost in the water. I threw it away.”

“Goddamn it, why did you throw it away?”

“When we tried to get on the ship,  I threw  everything  away  but your

jacket.  I  had  it  on the whole  time. That  was  until  it  got soaked - just too

 heavy for me. If I had not thrown it away, it would have dragged me down to the bottom.”

The jacket was my sole legacy in the seven years in uniform. It was an American field jacket, very heavy, with a hood attached. I had tried to find one that fit me perfectly. It was my dream jacket. I only had it for a little over a month. I took it with me on my last leave even though Saigon was hot as hell. Every time the temperature dropped a few degrees at night, I would don it. I mourned its loss more than I did Quang Tri’s and Hue’s. But what the hell, what was gone was gone, I could not blame Buoi; I’d have done the same if I were in his shoes.

The Vietcong seemed to have advanced from the ship toward our direction. The sound of bullet flying was stronger. The firing from Battalion 5 had become sporadic.

Buoi put on his flak jacket and said, “You get into the poncho with the girl. I go look for a flak jacket for you.”

“No, don’t go. It’s dangerous.”

“No problem, I won’t go far.” He dashed off.

I climbed into the poncho with the girl. The warmth of her body made me feel uneasy. Not that I felt bad about her, it was about me. I should have been strong enough to restrain myself, under these circumstances, to preserve my strength. Trying to stay alive was hard enough.

My roving hands started to move under the cover of the poncho. The girl did not seem to object or cooperate, but the warmth of her body gradually turned into heat, and she started to breathe harder, the sound more audible. I wiggled around to find a suitable position for the act that both of us seemed to expect. But there was none. Our bodies were covered with sand in the hole carved in the shape of a hammock; and if we tried to do it on the ground outside, we would take the risk of being hit by Vietcong’s low flying bullets.

I swallowed my saliva, shook my head in  disappointment, and gave

up. The girl had not said a word since I  arrived.  I  also  had  not spoken to

her. My hands were still roaming on her body when Khai’s voice came over from the next sampan.

“Hey, Chief, we’d better run. There’s nobody left here.”

“Buoi is still somewhere looking for a flak jacket for me.”

“Maybe he’s already gone.”

“Maybe not. Let’s wait a while.”

It was already dark. There was no more gunfire coming from Battalion 5, only those from the Vietcong. The sounds of footsteps running southward increased. Khai and Phuoc ran over to my place. Khai hollered.

“God Almighty! There’s nobody left and you are still here screwing?”

“We still have to wait for Buoi.”

“Can’t wait. He might already be dead, or is way ahead of us.”

I turned to the girl.

“Run, honey, run.”

She looked at me, shaking her head.

I stood up and ran after Khai and Phuoc, leaving the girl to deal with her own fate.

 

 

Chapter VI

 

THE LAST RUN

 

 

We ran past the sampans lying on the sand and joined with the crowd running near the water line. We ran by instinct, not logic; I neither knew why nor where to. Lying in the south was Tu Hien River Mouth. I had no idea what we would do once we got there or whether we could get there at all.

Phuoc commented, “I saw many guys commit suicide. Maybe we should do it too.”

Khai added, “I think he’s right, Chief. What the hell are we running like this for?”

I discouraged them, “Nope. You guys are stupid. They ceded territories to Vietcong. It was our fault to get stuck like this. If we were captured, I think it would only be a few months. Then we’d be released as POW. And when we are released---Goddamn it, we’ll fight again...”

“There’s no way we could survive as VC’s POW.”

“Sure we’ll survive. Remember those released at the cease‑fires in 1973? They were held for many years and still survived, like Lt. Bong and Sub-Lt. Nhuong.”

They had stopped firing from behind us but we still had to deal with the bullets shot from inland where the Vietcong held their strategic locations. There were some returning fire, and some grenades were lobbed back. I had no way  to  know  if  those  were  effective  or  not.  On the other

hand, the Vietcong fired freely into our crowd. Many people were hit.

I told Khai and Phuoc, “We run faster on sand but it’s dangerous. And it doesn’t matter whether we run fast or slow. I think we should run in the water; it will be slower but safer. The bullets are gonna hit the ones running inside first.”

Phuoc and Khai ran alongside me, one on each side. They propped me up and carried me when I was out of breath. When I recovered, they released me, and Phuoc got out of the water running on the sand. I was puzzled.

“Hey, Phuoc, every time you left me, you run on sand to save your breath or what?”

“No, I’m okay. I run up here just in case a bullet came this way, I could shield you,” he said.

I was touched. Tears welled up in my eyes.

Khai “Radio” had been sent to Saigon in our delegation of Outstanding Soldiers. But he had been in military jail once, so he had never been able to get to the rank of corporal, even though he had been a private first class for at least three years before coming to my company. As the radioman of the company, he had been among the inner circle around the company commander. But now, instead of running with the commander who had rice and canned meat, he chose to run with me – to endure both hunger and exhaustion.

“Mustachios” Phuoc was a corporal. Once, he had been acting squad leader in 72 while wearing the rank of private first class, which was very rare, since in the Marine Corps, a corporal normally attained to the position of assistant squad leader at the most. He was a terrific fighter but a stubborn soldier; so he was recently “invited out” by the company commander and transferred to Company 3. He fought cunningly like an old fox but also knew how to retreat gracefully before the enemy’s fire. And now, he was using his body to shield me from the Vietcong’s bullets even though I was no longer his superior.

The three of us, of course, moved slower than our “running mates.” We tagged along in the rear. But more and more people were coming from behind so we were not among the last group. Every time we ran past a Vietcong’s post, more people were hit by bullets. I guessed the VC bastards had never had such a good time firing at people. A volley usually downed three or four. But while some fell, others kept running.

There were plenty of suicides. These were not the cases when a person committed suicide, killing himself; but a group of people killed themselves together in a collective suicidal act. There was no exhortation, no rendezvous. It was as if they did not know one another. Perhaps they would recognize one another as acquaintances or friends before committing suicide together. From the running column, one person would separate himself from the crowd, sit down on the sand; then another person would separate himself from the crowd, join him; and then another, another, another. They would sit together and form a circle. A grenade would explode at the center.

We kept running.

One person would separate himself from the crowd, sit down on the sand; then another, then another, another. They would sit together, form a circle. A grenade would explode at the center.

We kept running.

A person would separate himself from the crowd, sit on the sand; then another, another, another...

I could not remember how many grenades had exploded inside those human circles. All I know was there had been many, many exploding grenades.

We kept running; the participants of the collective suicides kept forming the little circles. The Japanese army, surrendering in 1945, could not have been more valiant in their death efforts. In all those stories about Vietnam that have been told, there was not a single word  written  about the

valiant deaths of these foot soldiers. But they existed. They  existed  in their

nameless deaths.

We kept running. Passing the Vietcong’s posts, the people hit by bullets kept falling. The ones committing suicide kept popping their grenades. On the open sea, a lone ship passed by, its lights flickered in the darkness.

The people running ahead slowed down, and then stopped. During the time we had been running, my ears had received many sounds: the sounds of footsteps, of people breathing; the sounds of the waves, of gunfire; the sound of grenades exploding; but I had not heard the sounds of human voices. Now I began to hear a mixture of talks around me.

“Goddamn it, why did they stop?”

“Maybe they have reached Tu Hien River Mouth.”

“Tu Hien River Mouth is a long way off. Maybe Battalion 8 has come up to meet us.”

“Give me some water, Chief.”

“Goddamn it, I’m a private, not an officer, why do you call me chief?”

“Then big brother, give your little brother a little water, please.”

“Little water my dick. Where’s your canteen?”

At the mentioning of water, I suddenly felt thirsty. I licked my dry lips, trying to block the thirst off my mind.

But my eyes still looked to the direction of the soldier who uttered the cursing, with a canteen in his hand. I tried to think of the juicy fruits but it was useless, my throat was still parched.

‘Mustachios’ Phuoc sensed my misery, he turned to the soldier.

“Would you give my lieutenant a sip, please?” he asked.

“You sure he’s a lieutenant?” The soldier with the canteen looked at me.

“Oh, yes. He’s my deputy commander.”

The soldier handed me the canteen.

“Just one sip, OK?”

I took a sip before I could speak.

“Thanks, my friend.”

The Vietcong suddenly appeared, guns pointing at us.

“Form a single file and move ahead,” they ordered.

Then another VC spoke up. He seemed to be in charge.

“Hands above your heads.”

          “No way we raise our hands,” someone among us said.

“If you don’t raise your hands and surrender, we are gonna shoot,” a VC said.

Several voices from our ranks rose up all at once.

 “If we get captured, we are prisoners of war. If we put our hands up, it would be considered an act of surrenders.”

We uniformly refused to raise our hands, only formed a single file, and moved ahead.

While we were marching, a soldier took off, launched himself at a Vietcong, and clung to him. A grenade exploded. Both were killed.

Another soldier took off, charged to another Vietcong, and clung to him. Another grenade exploded. Two more bodies hit the ground.

The Vietcong and we were still kind of wary of one another. We had more people but weaponless and commandless. The Vietcong had fewer people but they were armed. I heard one Vietcong telling the others, “Those Marines seem pretty hardheaded. Maybe they still have grenades.”

A Vietcong, who definitely was undercover guerilla, had on a monk robe, his head cleanly shaved. In his hands was an AK-47 instead of a prayer book, and instead of chanting prayers he issued an order for us to take off our clothes.

We looked at each other, not yet responding. The guerrilla monk yelled.

“Stop moving. I told you to take off all your clothes.”

A soldier blurted out.

“If we took off our clothes would it be the same as if we surrendered?”

We laughed. The Vietcong also  laughed.  The  laughter  seemed t o

calm  the  atmosphere.  We  took  off  our  clothes  then  continued to walk.

There were many people sitting on the sand, their backs to the ocean. Apparently, they also had been captured but not told to strip. We were told to sit down. The three of us sat together with the new group. Phuoc told me.

“Chief, tell them you are a Private, okay?”

“Why?”

“So we can stay together, I’ll be able to take care of you.”

“I don’t think it’ll work. They captured the whole unit. If they ask, someone will talk.”

“But you won’t be able to survive in prison by yourself.”

“It doesn’t matter, maybe just for a few months. We’ll see.”

“We request water,” somebody spoke up.

A few more voices were heard, then more and more people chanted, in rhythm, accompanied by handclaps.

“Water! Water! Water.”

We chanted until water was brought out by two female guerrillas.

People gathered around the water and finished both pails in a matter of seconds. When the third one was brought out, more people converged; but only a few drank the water, the rest pretended to jostle in order to get close to the two female guerrillas and squeeze their boobs.

There was a commotion.

The Vietcong standing outside asked, “What’s happening there?”

The water was dumped to the sand and voices spoke up, “Not enough water. Please give us some more.”

The Vietcong gave an order, “I suggest that the two comrades bring more water.”

When the next pail arrived, the boobs‑squeezing scene recurred and when request for more water came up again, the two female guerrillas were nowhere in sight.

When there was no more water and no more women, people got back to their positions. A soldier came and sat down next to me and grinned,

“Fucking unbelievable! Got captured and still got to squeeze VC’s tits.

So much fun!”

After counting heads, the Vietcong herded us to the ground in front of a hamlet’s HQ.

I asked for the time and was told that it was exactly midnight of the 26 going into the 27 of March. The name of this hamlet was Cu Lai.

The 26 of March, was “The Land for the Tiller” Day.

The 26th of March was also the day that an entire Marine brigade was captured alive by about one Vietcong guerilla company.

The unthinkable had happened.

We could ask the heaven. We could ask the earth. We could ask the privates. We could ask the officers. What happened? Who were responsible for this shameful episode of our military history?

I suddenly thought of a couplet:

We men never fear hardship,

Only fear hardship would not come.”

We, the soldiers who had volunteered for the branch of the armed forces that was known for hardship, now became prisoners under the hands of the Vietcong; and the new episode of our lives would surely be full of hardship. I wondered whether the Marine who had tattooed this line on his body ever thought of the 26th of March and the events that were about to unfold.

“Make sure you tell them you are a Private,” ‘mustachios’ Phuoc again counseled me.

 

It was now near dawn.

The Vietcong asked all officers to group themselves in another spot near the gate of the hamlet’s HQ.

At first, only a few showed, but then the group became larger. I looked around, seeing most everybody, except the majors and colonels. I saw  1st Lt. Gat,  2nd Lt. Dzu,  ‘Fatso’ Huy,  and  Du Ho.  I  also  saw  Si from

Artillery Battalion 2. And when I was being tied up with a long electric  cord,

the person next to me turned out to be a classmate from Nguyen Trai High School.

 “Giang, what the hell are you doing here?” I cried in surprise.

“Hey, Huy! Haven’t seen you for ages, man.”

“I asked you why the hell did you get captured here?”

“Me, I am a Marine.”

“Goddamn, unbelievable. You? You got the guts to kill? But why I haven’t seen you around?”

“I just graduated. Came to the Marine Corps about two weeks ago.”

“You, a doctor now?”

“Yeah. Battalion 7.”

 

It was now morning.

A couple of Vietcong guards, holding weapons, paced along the gate. Another one on the sentry post was positioned way up high. The villagers had gathered along the fences, staring at us. Some had already prepared food to sell to us. Sweet potatoes and cassavas.

The ones who were captured before us, not ordered to strip, had money in their pockets. They also were not tied up because they were privates. They now approached the fences to buy foods.

The Vietcong tried to stop this type of impromptu market but it was useless. They finally averted their eyes. Many soldiers came to us and put food in our mouths.

The number of officers amounted to about a hundred. We were tied by a long electric cord, arms to our backs. Some were tied by tin wires as the VC ran out of electric cord. Taking advantage of the commotion, we told each other that if we were taken away along with the soldiers, then it would be OK. But if we were herded out as a single group, heading for the beach, it would mean we were going to be executed. Then we would try to wrestle the weapons from the Vietcong and fight back. We would be dead  anyway.  If we  could  take the guns  from  the  Vietcong  and  fight   back,  we  would

kill some of them too.

Phuoc, Khai and Sgt. Khang came over to me. I told them, sotto-voce.

“Khang, you step back and form a shield. Khai, go beg for a piece of yam and put it in my mouth. Phuoc, you sit here, loosen the knot on my wrists.” And I added, “just loosen enough so I can free my hands if needed. If you made it too loose, they would know.”

By the same tactic, all the knots on our wrists were loosened.

 

The rumors about our commanders started to spread.

“The guy A saw, with his own eyes, Maj. Cang shoot himself in the head.”

“The guy B saw, with his own eyes, Maj. Tien pop a grenade and die with some others.”

“The guy C closed Maj. Su’s eyes after he shot himself in the head.”

“This guy saw with his own eyes...”

“That guy saw with his own eyes...”

The rumors of those heroic suicides boosted our shattered morale, lifted up our prides. The rumors helped us to stay calm sitting there, waiting for the Vietcong to take us to the beach.

But the rumors seemed contradictory in several cases. We started to have doubts. It was unlikely for a man who was reported killing himself by pistol, and then killing himself again by grenade, and then was seen hiding in a house of a villager, then hiring a boat to escape.

I asked a soldier who told me that Maj. Tien had committed suicide.

“Did you see Maj. Tien kill himself?”

“I didn’t see it, but A told me that B saw it.”

I asked another about Maj. Cang.

“Did you see Maj. Cang kill himself?”

“His underling told me so.”

I told myself that the rumors spreading among the soldiers had mostly

been true. But now, under  these circumstances,  true or not,  they served a

purpose, a need. The rumors that were being spread now could only do us good.

At about nine o’clock in the morning, the Vietcong counted us again then told us to form a single line, heading out to the gate.

Before moving, we signaled to one another.

Passing through the gate, we went past a pagoda, and then we were told to stop. We sat in groups, spreading out. The Vietcong said we had to wait.

Wait for what?

The villagers were still meeting with the soldiers at the fences to sell their goods. The soldiers were still making noises. I even heard some singing. Well, they were really carefree.

One of us spoke up, “We request that you return our clothes.”

The Vietcong standing nearby snarled at us.

“What is yours; you said ‘our clothes’? Everything belongs to the people. You have no right to request anything.”

We laughed loudly at his remark, several people spoke, “Oh! Then everybody among the people is a Marine, huh?”

The Vietcong soldier probably did not understand or did not hear us clearly. He barked, “You dare to bring up the Marines to threaten us now? I like nothing better than emptying the whole magazine at you right now.”

Within our ranks, voices came up, “Go ahead and shoot.”

“Why don’t you shoot us right now, now?”

During the commotion, each one of us had withdrawn our hands from the noose but still kept them in the backs.

This Vietcong was very young and seemed nervous when confronted.

He  stepped  back  hastily  holding  the  gun  with the muzzle pointed at us,

babbling,

“You want to riot... You want to riot...”

Another Vietcong, probably a higher rank, emerged from the pagoda.

“What’s going on, comrade?” he asked.

“They tried to riot.”

The newcomer looked at us and said, “I ask you to remain calm. If you want anything, just ask. Do not make noises.”

“We request that you return our clothes.”

“Fine, you just wait. I’ll have somebody go fetch them.”

He then returned to the pagoda and dispatched some more Vietcong to guard us.

The hands that had been withdrawn from the noose, now were put

back in.

A villager carried a large bundle of our clothes that we had shed the previous evening and dumped them in front of us.

“We request that you untie us so we can get dressed.”

The young Vietcong returned to his ferocious manner.

“Untie you then you start to riot?” he barked

“If you don’t untie us, how can we get dressed?”

“I don’t give a shit what you can or cannot do.”

We got noisy again. The seemingly‑higher‑ranked Vietcong reappeared from the pagoda and saw the pile of clothes on the ground.

“Why don’t you give them their clothes,” he said then turned to us, “why are you making noises again?”

“We request that you give us our clothes and untie us so we can get dressed.”

The Vietcong stood there, pondering the request. I waited and also pondered the situation at hand. It seemed that our fate had been decided, and the decision would be known by us with their reaction to our request to be untied. If they did not untie us, it meant we would be executed in a short

time.  If  they  untied  us, it  would  not  necessarily  mean  that we would be

spared, only that the execution could be postponed, perhaps until the end of the day, maybe midnight; or perhaps they would have to wait until they were  ready  to  take us to  another  spot,  faraway, so  our troops would not

know what had happened to us.

The troops inside the fences had also been given their clothes back. The clothes were being distributed to each of us. It seemed we were going to be untied, but they could also retie us after we had put our clothes back on.

I smiled in anguish. If we were untied for good, everything would be terrific. On the other hand, if we were to be tied up again, we would lose so bad since we were now able to free our hands anytime we wished. Once they retied us, the knots would definitely be tighter. And with our hands tied, both realistically and figuratively, the chances were very slim for us to put up any resistance if we were to be taken away and executed.

The Vietcong with the higher rank pondered for a while and finally decided to untie us.

Fortunately, they only untie the first man sitting in front of each row, and then told us to untie ourselves. If they had gone to untie each of us, the loosened knots were sure to be noticed.

We were given the clothes at random so we looked even more like the ragtag army… I, from Battalion 4, got a shirt marked Battalion 3; the guy from Battalion 3 got a shirt from Battalion 5. The one looking like a hippopotamus got a shirt of a midget. A guy who was so short got a shirt so big that when he stood up, everyone thought he had on a nightshirt. We put the clothes on without any attempt to exchange them between us. Then we sat there, looking at each other, giggling like a bunch of kids.

We were tied up again. It was quite a blow to our resurgent scheme, for there was no way we could get the knots loosened again. But, as we had predicted, while the Vietcong let us put on shirts we managed to break the long electric  cord  into  several  pieces,  so  now,  we  were  only tied in

groups of three or four, making it easier for us if we were to try something.

We had lost a round but would try again.

Some started to ask for water.  Some asked  to  take  a  piss; others

needed to take a shit.

The  Vietcong  seemed  aware  of  the  huge  number  of  our  troops,

unbound, watching from inside the fences. They might be wary of the troops’ possible reaction if they treated us badly. So, water was brought to us and served to each person. The ones asking to go to pee or shit were untied and led toward the beach.

We continued the commotion by asking for more water, more peeing, more shitting. The Vietcong shuttled back and forth, fetching water, serving each individual, untying and leading the ones who demanded to relieve themselves, retying them after they finished. All the while, they still had to guard us. Being shorthanded, they left some of us untied.

In the end, a decision came from the head honcho to untie all of us with a condition that we stayed calm and sat in formation. If anyone wanted something, raise his hand.

We were untied.

The guerrilla monk who had captured us last night emerged from the pagoda. Clad in robe, tire‑rubber sandals on his feet, an AK-47 toting on his shoulder, his shaved head covered by a handkerchief tied at four corners. He talked to us with a smile.

“How are you, brothers?”

“Not good being captive,” someone answered.

The monk was very smooth.

“You should not think that you are captives. You should be glad that the people and the liberation revolution have freed you from the war machine instigated by the American and the South Vietnamese traitors. That war was an invasion, against the wish of the people and caused damage to our country.”

Someone  among us  spoke  up,  “You are mistaken .  We  fought  to

defend ourselves, defend freedom. We did not invade anything.”

The monk was still smiling.

“You were not the invaders.  You  were  the  pawns  for  the invaders.

The country is on our side. Now that you have come back to the people, the

revolution has the duty to protect you, care for you  and  help  you.  You will be educated and come back to stand in the rank with the revolution, with the people. You should follow the example of Lt. Col. Pham Van Dinh and his 56th Regiment. The revolution has treated him with leniency, even let him keep his rank.”

The man sitting next to me raised his hand, smiled and said, “Then, comrade, please give me a cigarette.”

The monk, enraptured in his own “sermon,” stopped talking, his face darkened. He viciously snatched the man’s collar, jerked him up several times, and spoke harshly.

“Who is your comrade? You are my enemy. Had it not been for the leniency of the revolution, you would have been gone a long time ago, get it?”

We sat there, winked at each other, and grinned.

The villagers carried rice baskets to feed us. A ration consisted of a small portion of rice and a piece of dried fish wrapped in banana leaves. Even with that meager ration, there was not enough food to go around. The simple explanation was that they had not expected to capture so many of us.

About two in the afternoon, a group of Vietcong’s regulars arrived. They moved all prisoners back to Tam Giang lagoon waiting for the sampans to take us inland.

At the pier, when all villagers were gone, we then became looting victims. Watches, rings, fountain pens and pendants were taken from us. There were some kid guerrillas, about 15, 17 years old, toting M‑16, AK-47, shouting and cursing at us.

“This guy got a lot of pens, he must be a top brass, take all his pens,” they screamed at us.

“This guy got a thick mustache, he must be an officer, take his watch.”

There were many “justified” reasons for  them  to  rob  us.  They even

took the  beaded  metal strands  holding our  dog tags  on the  account that

they had served as war materiel of the enemy.

The officers were to cross the water first.

While we were grouping at the pier, a Vietcong – probably a political cadre – lectured us with such things as: “The people’s army is an invincible force under the brilliant guidance of the party--- You are the lucky people who have been liberated by the people and the liberation revolution from the chains and manacles of the Americans and South Vietnamese traitors---- The Provisional South Vietnamese Government will have a policy of leniency toward the defeated army provided that they repent. ---  Da Nang is under siege from all directions, sea, land, mountains and air.”

One man stood up.

“I would like to ask you a few things,” he said. “First, what’s your explanation for the mass grave at Hue in the Tet Offensive, and the random unchecked shooting of the innocent civilians on the Boulevard of Terror in 1972. Sec­ond, you called us the invaders, but why people in Quang Tri and Hue followed us south to Da Nang and Saigon when we withdrew from those places? Third, what do you say about the actions of the people army looting us on the other side of the lagoon. Fourth, we used American weapons, but you used Chinese and Russian weapons to kill civilians. Fifth....”

The political cadre angrily shut him up and gave an order to his troops.

“Take this stubborn mule out.” He then turned to us again, spoke harshly. “You should know that the people and the party would be lenient toward those who really repent. The stubborn ones will have to pay.” Then he stalked off with a grim face.

We heard a single gun shot coming from the lagoon.

After everyone had crossed, we were led in single file along the winding dirt road leading toward National Route 1.

Earlier, we had been looted on the other  side  of the  lagoon. Now, on

 this  dirt road flanked by rice paddies, bushes, and foliage, we were murdered.

The column of prisoners dragged on. Bam! A body fell into the rice paddy. Bam! Another body slumped down on the side of the road. The man walking next to me was shot in the head, his brain tissue and blood splattered on me. This killing game was kind of enigmatic. Those who were murdered surely did not  know why they were shot. The ones who had not been shot had no idea why they had been spared. Why did the Vietcong shoot this man and not that man? We were confused and scared; but nobody said or did anything. We dragged on in silence.

We were plagued by hunger, thirst, fatigue and the dreadful anticipation of being murdered.

The killing continued. More people were shot dead.

We had removed all the rank insignia when we got our clothes back. So people did not get killed by their rank. The beards and mustaches – symbols of high ranking officers in the Vietcong’s eyes – would not have been the motives, for many people with beard and mustache, including me, had not been shot, whereas many clean‑faced ones were. Why?

We could not understand at all; until later, when we overheard the talks between the killers: They were looking for people wearing the name patch and insignia of certain battalions to kill because they had been beaten badly by those Marine battalions in particular. So, someone wearing the name patch of Battalion 5 would be spared by a certain Vietcong, only to be killed by another who harbored a grudge against Battalion 5. And a Vietcong who did not shoot at those who wore the patch of Battalion 4 would shoot someone with the patch of Battalion 3 on his shirt.

We took off all the name patches and battalion’s insignia.

The massacre lost its momentum, and then stopped.

We were taken to camp La Son for temporary detention. Afterward, the privates and NCOs were taken to their jail at Khe Tre, Nam Dong. The officers were kept at Kilometer 23, (very close to the old HQ of Battalion 4) across from Dong Lam village.

Around mid‑April, we were transported to the official detention camp

for prisoners of war lying north of Khe Sanh, right next to the Laos’ border,

at the source of Ben Hai River.

 

                          CAO XUÂN HUY – LÊ TUẤN

 

 

 



(*) When confronting a much stronger enemy’s force, this Chinese general intentionally led his troops to the bank of a large river. Once there, they could not retreat any farther, and had to turn back to fight. They fought back fiercely and won the battle.

 

Make a Free Website with Yola.