Monday, February 11, 2013

AN UNLUCKY NIGHT

August 15, 1967 found the Buck Sergeant staring out across a narrow piece of open ground surrounded by large craters with broken trees on the edges.  A huge hole in the ground caused by a bomb lay fifty feet directly in front of him. He marveled at the diameter of the thing, and the depth.  It had been raining for three hours and the pit would be full of water in another couple hours.  The rains always seemed to start at this hour and all he could do was hunker down next to the embankment and withdraw as far as he could into his rain poncho.  He was keeping watch for the next four hours while his platoon caught some sleep as best they could.  They lay in disarray seventy five feet behind him just inside some trees that were still standing.  He carried an M16 rifle and kept it covered just under the bottom edge of the poncho, his left hand on the pistol grip at all times.   The M14 which fired a much bigger round was his preferred weapon but was replaced with this shorter, lighter rifle that fired a much smaller round of  5.56 X 45mm.  He only heard from others that it was a formidable weapon as he had not had to fire it in combat since it's issue.  The weapon came with a 30 round magazine and he soon learned to tape a second magazine upside down and alongside the one in the gun to up his fire power to sixty rounds.  He practiced releasing the magazine, flipping it upside down and inserting the second taped magazine into the rifle over and over until he could do it in a split second.  Most of the guys in his unit were proficient at the magazine change-out.  Ammo was cheap so why not do it?

Darkness was falling and a dense fog rose up from the ground like smoke obliterating the landscape to the front and sides.  Everything was wet and he cursed his luck at having to be out here in these conditions.   Gone were the sharp outlines of trees, bushes and boulders.  Even the cavernous shell hole disappeared in the thick mist - and still the rain fell.

Suddenly he heard a splash off to his right a short ways, as if a rock had fallen into a water puddle.  He listened intently but could hear nothing more.  The falling rain made it impossible for him to zero in on the exact direction of the perceived splash.  He suddenly realized that his body was very tense - so tense that his shoulders twitched and his jaw ached from the crushing pressure of his teeth tightly closed together under extreme pressure.   His fingers clutched the the grip of the M16 so tightly that his fingers started to tingle.   How he wished it wasn't raining.  He really wished he was back home.  A deep breath was taken and let out slowly and a state of relaxation was forced upon himself.  The poncho was doing a lousy job of keeping out the water.  He listened to the patting of the rain on the rubber hood of the poncho and felt the tiny rivers of water flowing down the sides of his face and working their way along the base of his neck to run down his back.  He was soaked.

The sound of someone falling down followed by a grunt came from his right.  Probably one of the guys had to go and tripped on the broken limbs that lay all over the ground.  They shouldn't be this far away from camp.  That didn't make sense.  It was a good 75 feet at least, maybe more, back to the encampment.  He turned and faced to his right and gazed through the rain and fog but could only make out the unclear shadow images of tree trunks and bush tops.  He rubbed the rain out of his eyes.  Something that sounded like barely audible conversation came to his ears.  No - it was nothing, only the rain beating on the ground and foliage.  Still, he wasn't sure.  Something had changed over on the right.  There was a small bush that he didn't remember when the fog moved in.  His mind was playing tricks on him.  Of course it was there.  He just didn't notice it.   He turned his head to the left and then looked behind him.  Everything was gray.  The rain fall slowed down a bit at last.  It didn't add much to his comfort but it was something.  Suddenly the rain stopped and all was quiet.  It was un-nearving.   He wished he had a companion with him to share this alone feeling he felt.  
There it was again - the sound of very soft, unintelligible human communication.  He turned and stared off to his right.  He noticed that the bush wasn't there anymore.  He heard the tip of a tree branch brush the pant leg of someone - out there.  Fear was replaced by a heightened sense of awareness.  His training instantly kicked in and took over his mind, clearing his senses and causing total rational focus on the situation.  Who and where and stay hidden was all he cared about.  Was it his pals, lost away from their camp or was it Charlie, silently creeping through the night on their way home to their tunnel unaware of the platoon of American's just off to their right.  He wasn't sure but, someone was coming and he had the edge.  Friend or foe - they didn't know he was there.  His finger pushed the safety off the M16.

Two forms slowly appeared through the fog like shadows.  Their movements appeared so slow that he had to concentrate on them to realize that they indeed were actually moving.  They truly looked like shrubs with pointy tops through the heavy, white fog.   He was just inside a line of bushes with a short embankment to his right that should allow him to blend into the nothingness of the night and fog.  They obviously were walking along the edge of the foliage in order to avoid the open ground where they would be more exposed.  He wanted to blast em immediately but, his senses told him to wait and be sure.  Could they be American?  He couldn't see.  He had to be certain - just had to.  Closer they came until he could almost make out their outlines.  He saw the shape of their pith helmet head gear and the shortness in their stature.  They were  fifteen feet away when he flipped the switch on the rifle to full auto.  He slowly stood up and raised the rifle chest level and pulled the trigger.  The staccato sound of rapid fire filled the quiet of the night and the two enemy soldiers no longer were silhouetted against the white fog.  He released, inverted the clip and jammed it home into the magazine of the rifle and crouched, immobile for a few very brief moments before slowly standing up, all the while casting glances left and right to assure there were no more assailants near at hand.  The noise of his comrades to the rear could be heard as the platoon came to life, reacting to the weapon firing.  A twig snapped and the sound of a foot being lifted from the mud was heard.  He turned completely around and came face to face with a third viet cong who was just as surprised to see his enemy before him.  Both men looked into each others faces, eyes locked momentarily while each simultaneously pointed the muzzles of their weapons at the other and pulled the trigger.  The Sergeant  held the trigger back until the clip was empty and the flashes to his front blinded him for an instant.  He was thrust backward, tripped and fell to the ground.  The Vietnamese was nothing more than an inert shadow on the ground - a lump of something unidentifiable laying there in the darkness.  The Sergeant got to his feet, took a step forward and fell to his knees, his strength fading.  A slight pain in his right chest was growing in intensity.  He looked down but darkness hid the evidence.  He moved his left hand to his chest and pushed on the point of pain with a finger and felt the depression and the moisture.  It was then he knew the truth.  It was then he realized he was about to give his all for his country - and so he did.  Such is war.