I was in graduate school working on a Master’s degree in geology in 1969 when the first Vietnam draft lottery was held. Having already graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I no longer had a 2-S deferment from the military. My draft number was 38 and I was called up to the military shortly after the lottery in December. I believe in our country but didn’t believe in what I considered to be an absolutely senseless war. Because of this, I declined repeated offers to go to officer’s training school. I went instead to basic training and advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, Louisiana and was on my way to Vietnam by the summer of 1970 as a private. I spent just short of six months in the boonies patrolling the Jolly Trail system near the Cambodian border. During my months in a “free fire zone” I made 52 combat assaults out of a helicopter, earning an Air Medal and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, for both of which I am very proud. Amazingly, I was neither killed nor wounded. Since I was and still am a crack typist—a skill that serves me well now that I’m a writer—I got a job back in the rear as a clerk-typist when an opening came up. After coming home, many years passed before I told anyone that I was a Vietnam vet. This is because Vietnam vets were all thought to be drug-crazed baby killers and all manner of other nasty things. I don’t know, but I think this was also true for both World War II and Korean War vets. I’m so glad that the perception of people serving in our military has changed for the better. Whatever, I was proud to be of service to the country that I love. Just remember that freedom isn’t free.
I watched a program on the cable channel Encore about Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies. On the show, he played a song called Machine Gun, and it evoked a memory of
that I hadn’t thought about in years. Vietnam
I went to Vietnam in 1970 as an infantry mortar man. For a while, in addition to my M16, I humped the base plate of an 81 MM mortar in the mortar platoon of an infantry line company. I was in Charlie Company, 1st of the 8th Cavalry, First Cavalry Air Mobile. We were operating off a hill bulldozed bald amid a jungle of green that could literally swallow you whole. The Cav had just made their first sanctioned incursion into formerly off-limits Cambodia, and we had dealt a near-mortal blow to Charlie. For the following months, Charlie played a game of duck-and-run while we tried desperately, and with little luck, to finish him off.
After several months of fifteen days in the jungle, five days on the firebase, and almost no success in encountering the enemy, Brass devised a new tactic of having us fly around in helicopters until we started taking ground-to-air fire. Once we did, the choppers would swoop down and drop us off in hopes of making contact—something that rarely happened because of Charlie’s weakened state.
During this time, Brass also decided the 81 MM mortar was too unwieldy for rapid deployment, and all of us in the mortar company suddenly became infantry foot soldiers, grunts, 11-bravos; also known as 11-bullet-stoppers. I was given a twenty-six pound M-60 machine gun to carry since I already had experience toting a twenty-three-pound base plate. I had never shot an M-60, even during basic training at Fort Polk in Louisiana. This is because mortar men weren’t ever supposed to use the gun.
Around this time artillery began shooting sophisticated listening devices into the jungle using specially designed 105 MM rounds. Intelligence mapped the locations of these devices, and we soon had a good idea of where there was movement—of a military nature—in the jungle. The devices weren’t always correct, and we once found a large family of monkeys instead of Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars. This wasn’t always the case.
Reports of intense enemy troop movement in a nearby swamp had the Brass salivating. My company was soon loaded into choppers, flown to the area and dropped out of the birds. I mean this literally. With no landing zone cut into the jungle for us to land and deploy from, the choppers hovered 10 feet or so above a large swampy pond while we jumped out. This was no easy feat while carrying 100 pounds of gear.
We soon found ourselves in a maze of trails and something very anomalous— there was movement all around us. Charlie wasn’t even trying to cover it up. This could only mean one of two things: Either we had caught the enemy very much by surprise, or else they had us outnumbered and knew it. We were all pretty nervous because one thing we had never really done was catch Charlie by surprise.
Our company had about 100 men divided equally into four platoons. We set up a camp, and then my platoon started out on patrol. Soon as we were out of sight from the rest of the company we began hearing even more movement. After months in the boonies, we were all attuned to sounds of the jungle. Now, there was no doubt in my mind that there was a large number of enemy soldiers very close to us, and that they were paralleling our movement through the jungle. This bothered me and everyone else because we were on Charlie’s home turf—likely smack-dab in the middle of a large enemy camp and staging area. We could hear movement in every direction, and if I told you that I was anything but piss-in-my-pants scared, I’d be lying through my teeth.
Jungle warfare is like no other. You can be 10 feet from the enemy and never see him. You have to rely on your nose, your ears, and your wits because otherwise, you may as well be blind. My nose, ears, and wits told me we were about to have the living shit kicked out of us and I expected, any minute, to be shredded by AK 47 bullets. The platoon leader decided on a quick ploy.
I was the machine gunner, the “Gun.” When Super Sarge tapped my shoulder and pointed to a slight concave just to the side of the trail, I knew my time had come. We quickly prepared for what we called an instant ambush. Charlie was following close behind. My assistant gunner and I set the M-60’s bi-pod and started stringing every round of ammo we had into the gun’s chamber, locked and loaded, ready to kill—and just as likely, I knew, to be killed. It didn’t matter that I’d never pulled the trigger on an M-60. What mattered was that I was getting ready to. Just as quickly as the sergeant tapped my shoulder and motioned what he wanted, he left the two of us alone on the trail to mow down anyone coming up from behind. From the sounds we heard, we wouldn’t have long to wait.
I could tell you that we ambushed Charlie, wiped most of them out and sent them dropping their weapons and running for cover. That didn’t happen. What did happen is almost as strange but still true. It was monsoon season in Vietnam. Every day the skies would part, and rain would fall in torrents—almost like being under a waterfall. My finger was on the trigger of the M-60, my heart in my throat when it began to rain. My assistant gunner and I lay there on our bellies for an interminable time, rapidly flowing water soaking our fatigues. When the rain stopped, there was no sound. I mean none. Charlie had taken the opportunity to clear out, and we never heard him again.
That night we camped in the middle of the swamp, mosquitoes, and leeches sucking our blood. It rained so hard that Charlie could have gotten close enough to cut our throats and we wouldn’t have seen him. The next morning the Captain let me shoot the M-60, for practice, while we waited for the choppers to extract us. We stood single file, knee-deep in a wide pool of stagnating water. With five-hundred rounds locked and loaded, I stood like Rambo, the big gun at my waist, and began mowing down vegetation across the pond. I didn’t take my finger off the trigger until the sound of imminent death finally ceased and the pungent odor of spent rounds wafted up into my nostrils.
It was the first and last time that I ever shot the big gun, though I’ll never forget the sound it made or the power of life and death I felt, and that will never leave me for as long as I live.
Tonight, while watching the piece on Jimi Hendrix, I remembered that sound and that feeling, and it chilled my soul.