A Preview of the Next Book in the Series:
Preview of Destiny of Memories, Book II, Phoenix Rising
By D. Ramati
Service patch of the Phoenix operatives
The Phoenix (Phượng Hoàng) is described in Vietnamese folklore as having the neck of a snake, the breast of a swallow, the back of a tortoise, and the tail of a fish. The Phoenix’s song includes all the five notes of the pentatonic musical scale and its feathers include the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, green, and yellow. This elegant mythical bird symbolizes grace, nobility, virtue, and pride. According to myth, the Phoenix burnt its nest and days later rose again from the ashes, and it, therefore, symbolizes rebirth, regeneration, and survival. It normally hides in time of trouble and appears only in calm and prosperous times, hence it also symbolizes peace. During the Vietnam War, the CIA launched Operation Phoenix in South Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, with the aim of eradicating the Việt Công. To this end, the PRUs (Provisional Reconnaissance Units) were formed.
The jet followed the sun into the West, as the Grateful Dead sang their ancient chants as they pulled the golden chariot of the sun bring a new morning to the torn and bloody battlefields of Vietnam. The Pan American 707 that carried them would make only one stop at Anderson AFB on Guam and after that, on to Ton Son Nut in Vietnam where he would report to MACV (Military Assistance Command V) for his assignment, which he hoped, would be to a new combined action program team.
Far beneath him, the eternal Pacific stretched endlessly; a deep-water purple which, contrasted with the clear blue of the late afternoon sky. He had already traveled this route twice before, once by ship, and again by passenger jet as he had hurried home to bury his mother. Corporal Tim Bratvold, now known only by his “nom de guerre” as the 707 flew over island atolls made famous in the previous wars by the sacrifice and blood of marine heroes that were pulling that golden chariot together with the fallen heroes of this new war. His duty to his mother done, the USMC was sending him to complete the six-month extension that he had agreed upon before learning of his mother’s death, which had made it all seem meaningless. He had intended to leave with Lew, but that last night had turned out differently. Once again, his agile and intelligent mind reviewed the last few days:
* * *
He was drunk, standing on the beach of Monterey, watching the sun go down over the Pacific feeling alone and betrayed. Following the voices of the grateful dead that seemed to be calling from Vietnam; he reached out to them and started walking into the ocean…to drown, or to swim, he didn’t remember which; the only thing he wanted was to get as far away as he could from the darkness he felt covering his beloved America as night chased the chariot of the sun ever westward.
He thought someone was shouting at him from the shore but didn’t look back until he felt a rough hand on his shoulder that spun him around. Acting on instinct, he threw a punch and cold-cocked the shore patrol (SP) who was trying to drag him back to shore. There were two of them, big burly military police, and took great pleasure making him regret that punch. He woke up in the brig, battered and with a terrible hangover. It was already day and, with a sinking feeling, he realized that he had missed his flight out, and that his friend Lew was already on his way to Phu Bai…and more importantly, that now he was in a world of shit.
They left him alone for another day until, on the third day, he had visitor…a visitor he dreaded to see. He was told to clean up and when he finished, his jailer took him to the visitor’s room. He knew before anyone told him that his visitor would be Colonel Hunt; the man who had accepted him into the combined action program sponsored him through two grueling months of language school and promoted him to Sergeant. Now he would have to face the Colonel.
Colonel Hunt sat at a battered desk, his hands folded. There was nobody else in the room, and no chair available for him to sit in, leaving him no choice but to stand at attention and wait for the judgment. He felt the Colonel’s eyes as they scanned his body, and noticed a slight half smile as the Colonel spoke, “Well Brad, you really fucked up this time”.
“Do you have anything meaningful to say for yourself”?
There are no excuses in the Marine Corps. “No excuse, Sir”.
“I thought not. You are accused of being drunk and disorderly and for assaulting the member of the Shore Patrol. Normally you would face a Court Martial, spend some time in the brig, and be broken back to private then maybe even be given a bad conduct discharge from the Corps. I had to raise heaven and earth to get the charges temporarily dropped, you are returned to your permanent rank of Corporal, of course, you still lost a stripe”. The Colonel placed his briefcase on the table and took out some papers and waited for a response.
He felt an overwhelming sense of relief as he stammered, “Thank you, sir”.
“Don’t thank me. I think you should spend the rest of your time locked away somewhere, but, you have an MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) which is critical just now and you’ll be sent to the ‘Nam, but not as originally planned. But one more fuck up—just one—and the charges will be reinstated against you”, he said, slid new orders across the table and then continued, “you won’t be going into the Combined Action Command, at least not at first. For now, you’ll be assigned to the PRUs.” Once again, the Colonel waited for a reaction.
Never having heard of the PRUs, he could only answer, “Sir?”
“Provisional Reconnaissance Units. God have mercy on you if you fuck up again because neither the PRU nor the Corps will. Your ass now belongs to the CIA, until further notice.” The Colonel’s steel gray eyes showed no amusement.
There were no handshakes, and with a sigh, the Colonel gave him one last piece of advice. “Watch your ass, son. Now get the hell out of here. Your flight leaves in one hour.”
“Yes sire, thank you, sir. Aye-Aye Sir.” He said and took the regulation three steps to backward followed by an about face, then walked out the door to the waiting S.P. escort that took him by jeep to the Pan Am 707. He was still in his rumpled civvies (civilian clothes) and was told his kit bag was already on the plane.
* * *
A stewardess broke his reverie by offering him a Jack Daniels, but instead he settled for a Coke with ice and continued to look out the window at the unchanging view of sea and sky. They were making their final approach to Andersen AFB on Guam. Guam…where on December 10, 1941, the outnumbered Navy and Marine defense forces were overwhelmed by superior Japanese forces who held this American protectorate until 1944 when the 3rd Marine Division avenged the disaster of 1941 by annihilating the former conquering Hayashi Detachment to the last man.
‘How much has changed,’ he mused, as he looked down at the B-52’s ready and waiting to deliver their deadly eggs, which would continue to rain indiscriminately on the unsuspecting Vietnamese both combatant and non-combatant alike. After a short layover, they were airborne again for the final leg of the journey. He dozed until he was awakened by the stewardess, “We will be landing in a few minutes.” she said.
On the speaker he heard the command, “Everyone remain seated until the people assigned to the United States Military Assistance Command have exited.” That was his group of eight, some in uniform, and others, like him, in civilian clothes.
In accordance with his orders, he reported to the Marine Liaison officer who sent him to the Duc Hotel. The humidity and temperature struck him a hammer blow when he left the much cooler 707, and he was covered in sweat by the time he entered the lobby of the hotel and registered. After registering, he went up to his room, turned on the ceiling fan, stashed his kit bag, then returned to the bar to wait.
Two Jack Daniels and half a pack of cigarettes later a Vietnamese officer, wearing their typical dark sunglasses and sporting a tiger-striped camouflage uniform, introduced himself and said to follow him. He tried to ask where to but the only answer he got was a cryptic, “You will soon see.” This accompanied by a humorless smile.
The noisy city street was crowded with people, cars, trucks, mopeds, carts, bicycles, and stray animals. Every driver seemed to be fighting for position and had one hand on the steering wheel and the other constantly honking the horn, which was cheerfully returned by a myriad of other drivers who contributed to the cacophony of noises, which is Asia. He recognized the typical Asian smell of Saigon…the odor of sewage, and dead fish left to dry on the hot tin roofs of the shacks that made up the majority of dwellings for this overcrowded wartime city. Graceful young girls in black and sometimes white pajamas rode bicycles or mopeds, which darted daringly in and out of the traffic. The pants legs ended in large bell-bottoms, which, in need, their cousins in the rural areas could easily be rolled up as they squatted to relieve themselves at the roadside or in a convenient ditch.
One of them pulled alongside the Jeep and gave him a shy smile. He smiled back and waved as she sped away to become lost in the mass of people. His Vietnamese escort just said, in very good English, “This time it was a smile, next time…maybe a bullet or a grenade.” There was no need for a reminder…but his few months in America had made him less aware, and now, back in Vietnam, the combat instincts were returning. Still, he had never been in a city this size before in Vietnam and it fascinated him.
“So, what do you do in a situation like that?” he asked.
The answer was swift and without rancor, “We die.”
They turned off and parked in the courtyard of an old French Villa, which, his guide told him, was not far from the Presidential Palace. People were going about their business and most were in civilian dress, which made him wonder what the place was really all about. It was the siesta time when most Vietnamese took a three-hour nap to stay out of the heat of the day, but the inside of the villa was a beehive of activity. His escort shepherded him up the French Colonial stairs that led to an equally busy second floor and directed him to a room with the curt order, “Wait inside. Don’t come out until you’re told to.”
The room had a desk, file cabinet, and the ever-present ceiling fan. A louvered shuttered window kept out the afternoon sun. The low-wattage fluorescent light gave the room a Hitchcockian feeling; projecting dark shadows that receded into unused and dusty corners, conveying a sinister expectancy that seemed to fit the occasion.
The door opened and a middle-aged somewhat overweight man walked in, a cigarette dangling from his lip. He was dressed in a sweat stained short-sleeved white shirt, and his pants held up by black suspenders, projecting an image of an overworked city newspaper editor. Taking the chair behind the desk, he placed a large battered attaché case to his left, and said, “OK. So, you’re the new guy.” he took a stapled document out of the case and continued, “OK, new guy, I see you like to be called Brad. You can call me whatever the hell you wan. Any questions?”
Even though he had a thousand questions he knew better than to ask so just shrugged.
“Good for you…correct answer on your first try. I am going to interview you…I ask the questions, and I don’t give a fuck about your answers. If I’m satisfied…we have a job for you killing Viet Cong and NVA. Want some payback, Brad?”
He thought a while and then answered, “I heard what happened to the marines in the Combined Action Command. I was briefed before I left the States. From what I was told over seventy-thousand communist NVA supported by VC launched a surprise attack into more than a hundred cities and the CAP platoons were overrun and the Marines slaughtered trying to defend their hamlets.”
“Throw the man a fish. But did you know that they were betrayed by the very people they tried to defend; deserted, tortured to death if they survived the attack, and when we retook the villages their heads were stuck on bamboo pikes with their cocks and balls stuffed into their mouths.”
“Yes.” he answered.
“So, Brad, what do you want to do about it?”
He knew the correct answer, “Make them pay.”
“Another correct answer,” he smiled for the first time and began a three-hour interrogation.
He was questioned about the first tour in Vietnam, where he had fought, and what units he fought with. He began to think of his interrogator as “Nameless” as the man would pause, read what was in the file and then ask another series of questions. “Nameless” paused and grunted, “You were a forward observer, good…we need your skills. Then suddenly went on to ask, “I don’t understand one thing, Brad.”
“What?” he queried.
“Your Stepfather. Why didn’t you kill the son of a bitch for shooting your mother?”
So many people had asked him the same question since his mother had been killed. He thought about it for a while and then answered, “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do, Brad!” Nameless slammed his hand on the desk, “You didn’t want to go to jail.”
He stayed silent not knowing what to say and waited for Nameless to continue.
“That showed us you were smart, Brad. Here we have different rules.” Nameless shoved a card with his picture on it encased in plastic toward him. It had his picture on it. “Do you know what this is?” Nameless asked.
Picking up the card he read, “The person who is identified by this document is acting under the direct orders of the President of the United States. Do not detain or question him. He is authorized to wear civilian clothing, carry unusual personal weapons, transport and possesses prohibited items including US currency, pass into restricted areas, and requisition equipment of all types. If he is killed or injured, do not remove this document. Alert your commanding officer immediately.”
“I heard rumors…this is the ‘Get out of jail free card?” he said.
“Exactly. What it means is don’t fuck up, but if you do, they won’t be able to arrest you for it. You belong to us now, we own you and will always own you from this moment on. You might survive to leave the Corps but you can never leave us…and survive. Read this tonight.” Nameless said, and handed him a pamphlet, “It’s your homework for when you meet the Brass tomorrow. These are the correct answers to what they will ask you tomorrow morning, memorize them, repeat them in the final interview, and they’ll ask you some shit about the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice). When that subject comes up just be a good field-marine and say ‘yes sir!’ like you were just born-again and crawled out of the baptismal waters, then forget it ASAP.”
Returning to his hotel room, he paged through the booklet, which was more or less a repeat of what his Vietnamese language instructors had told him in Monterey. One paragraph made things crystal-clear and helped to put away his doubts about this next stage of the war, which was becoming so unpopular at home:
“To halt opposition to these communist programs, would not, as has often been suggested, bring an end to the long suffering that has been the plight of the Vietnamese people. Considering the integral part terror plays in communist social change, it does not follow that the quick and sure route to peace, to a moratorium on death, is to permit the communists to assume power.” Jet lag finally took its toll he slept with the manual still open on his chest:
* * *
He was calling home to his mother…and could hear her but she couldn’t hear him. He became angry and shouted into the phone, “I’m here can’t you hear me?”
And then the phone disconnected and he couldn’t remember the number to call back…the only number he remembered was Stella’s number in San Francisco, so he called…but she couldn’t hear him and only repeated their last conversation, “Listen to me, if you run now we can hide you and then there’s always Canada. I have a new guy now, he plays in a band and we’re living together, but I’ll leave him. I’ve written everything down and I’m sending it to Dennis, and if you get back, Dennis will see you get it. I saw everything go down that night and I didn’t want to tell you because I don’t want to be forced to talk about it at an inquest…I left it alone, and let Karma take over. Live, Brad, and read the letter when you get back and if it is meant to be, you’ll find me or someone better than I am. I’m going to hang up now, don’t bother to call back, we won’t answer the phone until we know you have left.”
* * *
He woke up in a cold sweat despite the heat and humidity in the stifling hotel room, which the slowly rotating ceiling fan refused to dispel. The hot water wasn’t working, but the cold water was warm enough for a shave. He took a lukewarm shower, dressed, went down stairs to the lobby, and waited until the same humorless Vietnamese officer picked him up and drove him to the headquarters. He was shepherded upstairs to the same room the interview had been held in, and nervously sat down and waited for developments. Within minutes, Nameless entered and took him to a larger, much cleaner office, where two officers in civilian dress welcomed them. It was clear by their ramrod straight posture and haircuts they were marine officers. He guessed that one was probably full bird colonel and the other, his assistant, held either the rank of Major or was probably Lt. Colonel.
While the conversation was informal, it still had a hidden bite of cold steel, which matched the eyes of the two marine officers. The Colonel ended the introduction by saying, “You will be assigned to PRU Hue or Quang Tri City where you’ll join and assist an 18-man PRU unit. They are currently without an observer. He was wounded and evacuated back to the states, which was a good thing, because he pushed the limit of the law and we were considering relieving him. I don’t want to relieve you, so keep in mind that if I find you do anything to violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice or are involved in anything immoral or illegal, I will personally see you are given a dishonorable discharge and a long jail term. Is that clear?”
He caught the half smile on the face of Nameless who gave him a partial wink and said, “Sir, yes Sir.”
“Good, Brad. Don’t let us down.” The Colonel said and extended his hand. They shook hands and Nameless escorted him out of the room.
When they returned to Nameless’ den, he offered a shot of whiskey and said, “Not too bad. Forget what he said, you work for us now. Let me tell you about Hue and Quang Tri City…you just missed that little fight we had during the Tet offensive. We had Team 3 stationed I Hue and they were primarily supposed to give fire support and logistics to the 1st Division of the ARVN whose province headquarters is just a little north of the MACV compound.”
He cut in and said, “Yes I remember driving past it when we moved north from Phu Bai and passed through Hue. MACV was not far from the Hue University just south of the Perfume River and I always wondered what they did for a living.”
“Throw the man another fish!” Nameless said. “In Hue, many of them died for a living. It was renamed the Frank Doezema compound after Frank was killed while fighting from a key defensive position on the North side where the NVA and their VC allies were trying to overrun the compound. He got the DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) for saving the compound. Frank was one of the bravest of the brave. He didn’t have to be where he was when the NVA struck the MACV compound. He was just completing a tour in the Thua Thien Tactical Operations Center and should have been safe in his quarters. Instead, he discovered an unmanned guard tower and from that location, he engaged the attackers head on with nothing more than his personal weapon. It was largely due to his heroism that the compound was never penetrated by the enemy, but I doubt that anyone will ever how much is owed to him in the defense of the perimeter. This is a secret war, but I for one will never forget him. What happened to the city is something I want you to remember. I am taking you there, partially because you are familiar with the way it used to look, and partially because I want you to get good and mad before you get some payback for both the Vietnamese and for us. Just a month or so ago, in February, the communists moved into the city. This, more than anything else, would shock all the liberals at home who demonstrate against the war. They came into the city during the night of the full moon, during the Tet cease-fire, 12000 trained and well-equipped NVA with VC contingents. They stayed in the city for 26 days. We found mass graves for 5,800 civilians who were charged with collaboration with the capitalists. Ask them…ask the survivors…you know enough Vietnamese now…ask them. They will say, there was no demonstration, no impact on the so-called conscious of the world, no war crimes tribunal to take the evidence of the survivors…they will tell you that the world does not care, but you and I will show them that we DO care. We will hunt down and bring to justice those that did this to them and their city and the Uniform Code of Military Justice be damned. The people of Hue buried them, the unidentified victims of the massacres…those who were too tortured and chopped up to be identified by their families…there is a place called Nui Ba Vanh…do you recognize the term? No? Well, it doesn’t matter. Roughly translated it is “Three Hills Ringed” and it is like the tomb of the Unknown Soldier for them only this time, for civilians.”
He let his mind drift for a second back to the last time he passed through Hue.
* * *
The convoy had stopped next to a Vietnamese cemetery located just outside Hue. A funeral was taking place and, curious, he asked an English-speaking ARVN what was going on.
“The family members are sending him into the next life,” he was told.
“The next life?” he asked.
“Yes, but not today. These ceremonies can go on for years,” he paused and then continued, “and we will be placing food gifts into his mouth since he will soon be a respected ancestor. Lots of feasting, songs, and monks.” Then, with a certain sadness, he added, “Death is not a final ending of life but only a step into the next stage. Still, the family is sad, since it is last time the soul will be here, next to its loved ones.” It had been the first time he understood the Vietnamese reverence for the dead; a reverence, which somehow conflicted with their apparent disregard for life—the dead were only in transition; they would live again. The Vietnamese had souls!
* * *
Nameless continued, “You will be spending a day or so at MACV until get things sorted out, then we will see to it you get to your destination farther North. The city is solely reserved for the CORDS intelligence section (Civil Operations and Revolutionary (Rural) Development Support).
“I was supposed to ship out with a friend of mine. He went on before me.” he said.
“Yeah, Sergeant Sage your buddy who behaved and didn’t get busted back to Corporal. He is in one of the new Mobile platoons, all Marines except for an ARVN scout-interpreter, that replaced the old Combined Action Groups.” Nameless paused and then continued. “You won’t be seeing him, or at least you better hope you won’t. Part of the time, you’ll be moving around in VC black pajamas. We couldn’t take him for the PRU operations.”
“Well, Brad…he has family in the State Department and he, unlike you, is not expendable.”
He let it sink in for a while and then queried, “So I’m expendable?”
“We hope you’ll do fine, but you were chosen because you have no one who would miss you or make a fuss should you not make it back. Just telling you like it is, Brad. And I personally liked the fact you cold-cocked that Swabbie MP…you have a lovely disregard for authority.”
“Telling it like it is,” he echoed and felt the resentment slowly beginning to build, “and if I don’t like it?”
Nameless sat back and smiled, “Better to be pissed off than to be pissed on…believe me, we are very good at pissing on quitters. Chill-out buddy, it grows on you…you’re about to start on an adventure, do some good for your country, and get some payback for all the shit that happened to you.”
“You know that you’re one fucking asshole?”
“Yep. It comes with the job,” Nameless snorted, “and now that this is behind us let’s get on with your indoctrination, and get you the fuck up North to continue your education on how to kill bad guys.”
Nameless sat back and pulled a little stainless-steel flask out of his pocket, took a swig, and offered him a drink. He accepted and felt the strong brew burn its way down his throat. “Brad, like all Marines, you’ll always be one, but for the next few months, I want you to remember you work for me…for us…you are now a Company Man. If you survive long enough to go home, you never knew me, worked for us, or ever did a second tour in Vietnam. Personally. I hope you’ll enjoy this tour so much you’ll…as you Marines say…ship over for another. This short tour of duty will never be recorded in your Service Record Book, it will read that you never left the states. We will, however, reserve the right to call you back to the colors anytime we need you; anytime for the rest of your unnatural life.” Nameless waited to let the idea sink in and then continued, “I want to explain the chain of command. Bob’s the head-honcho who runs the entire operation. Below him we have yours truly, he smiled, and an ARVN Lt. Colonel. We operate several teams out of the provinces, and you’ll be assigned to one of them to do some O.J.T. (On the Job Training).”
“Do you have a name,” Brad asked.
“Well, I guess you can call me Sam-The-Man…but you already have a nickname for me, don’t you Brad.”
“I like it. So just call me Nameless or Sam,” he paused to enjoy the name and then continued, “you’ll be doing “snatch and grab” operations, usually at night. There will be collateral damage if the target puts up a fight…you may have to kill his entire family if he chooses to use his family as a shield…well, as you Marines say, “Sorry ‘bout that shit”. We either take him alive or leave him as a warning to others. We are the United States Mother-fucking Vietcong using their own tactics to destroy their infrastructure. Try to leave the killing to your team, they’re all good at it and know the cowboys from the Indians…most of them were born in the area. They like to get creative with the VC and NVA if you catch any, so if you are investigated sometime in the future just say, ‘the local’s got out of hand. Sorry ‘bout that’. Our job is to keep you officially out of trouble, not that you even exist in the first place, but DO get in as much trouble as you can. Not much to worry about because you won’t have officially been in country anyway…not even in the same area…you are officially in the Fleet Marin Force Atlantic…but we’ll save that briefing for later if you ever go back. It’s easier for the bureaucracy if you end up in a body-bag. Any questions?”
“Nope Nameless Sam,” Brad said, using his commander’s new nickname as a taunt. But Nameless Sam didn’t rise to the bait, just took a swig, and offered him another slug from that battered flask and then said, “Take the night off…get laid, get drunk, and tomorrow morning you and I will be flying first class to Phu Bai airfield, courtesies of Air American.”
He was paranoid of the diseases that he could catch from the bar girls, and getting drunk hadn’t been very profitable for him the last time, so he just went back to his room and sacked out, trying to adjust his body for jet-lag. He watched the fan as it whirred softly and cast strange shadows on the ceiling, and mesmerized, this time he fell into a dreamless sleep.
* * *
Phu Bai Air Base hadn’t changed much since his last tour. Still in civilian clothes, they drew the attention of the Vietnamese civilians waiting in long lines, the ARVN special forces and “Kit Carson Scouts” lounging in the shade not far from a group of Marines in “hurry up and wait” mode.
The chill of the monsoon was giving way to the sweltering heat of summer, but the remaining humidity caused their lightweight short-sleeved shirts to become soggy with sweat. Back in Saigon, they had relieved him of his kit bag, all identification other than his get out of jail free card, and only left him is beat up jungle boots when he had protested that they were his ‘lucky boots’. They were the only evidence that he was anything other than another American bureaucrat. Nameless was outfitted as an American official with light brown trousers, suspenders, a short-sleeved white shirt, and a ridiculous Brooklyn Dodgers Cap perched precariously on his balding head. He carried a Browning 9mm pistol tucked into his pants, without a holster. Brad hadn’t been issued any weapon yet and felt naked and out of place still dressed in civvies.
Nameless ushered him through the terminal to a waiting Toyota Land cruiser and introduced him to the driver, “Brad, this is Pineapple…he’s a Philippino who is working for us on a three-year contract. Pineapple served in the Philippine Corps of Engineers here in the ‘Nam as a demolitions expert. After his tour in Vietnam, he volunteered to work with us,” Nameless Sam explained, “and now he is going to get US Citizenship…right Pineapple?”
They shook hands and Pineapple said, “Good to meet you. Another year and I will be an American Citizen in the land of the big PX.”
“Congratulations Brother,” he said, “I look forward to buying you a large one back in the states.” He wondered if Pineapple would live through another year.
“Let’s move out Pineapple,” Nameless said.
“Right you are, boss!” Pineapple answered as he pulled away from the airfield in a cloud of dust.
Driving north out of Phu Bai, they passed what had been the Mercenary camp and he noticed how changed it was now after his first tour. There had been a disagreement between the Mercs and the Vietnamese government about being paid on time, and the result had been a firefight between the Mercs and the local ARVNs. They were paid promptly after that. Most of the mercenary force had been made up of Nung Chinese, who were paid killers and received U.S. dollars based on body counts. To this end, they often executed entire families of VC cadre and charged the government for the service. He would soon find out that “collateral damage” was the new euphuism for a lot of behavior not mentioned in either the Geneva convention or the UCMJ.
Pineapple drove like a typical Vietnamese, swerving to avoid children perched on the backs of water buffaloes, and old women trudging stoically carrying bananas and other products balanced on carrying-poles longer than their own height, digging cruelly into their shoulders at each step. There were the ever-present bicycle taxis, and overcrowded minibuses traveling between the small agricultural villages that dotted the road, people with troubled expressions, knowing that a land mine could put an end to their trip at any time. The bicyclists pedaled on, leaving him with the impression that they were part of a human chain linking one end of the country to the other; Phu Bai to embattled Khe Sahn and Dong Hoi, where cargo planes attempting to resupply Dong Hoi had to contend with the North Vietnamese 176 mm long range artillery and rockets, which harassed each flight, both landing and taking off.
Traveling north, they entered Hue, the scene of brutal battles a few months before. Nameless had been mostly silent until then but now spoke up, “”What happened in Hue was crazy, a Marine colonel was caught looting bodies, and got his sorry ass arrested and shipped home. I was sickened by what the North Vietnamese had done in the city. From what we now know, had lists of all the people who had collaborated with the US and stood them against a wall, tree, or anything they could find then shot them. We found the mass graves of hundreds who had been buried alive…I don’t think I will ever forget or forgive the bastards.”
He paused, took a swig from his flask and continued, “A pal of mine, Hard Ass Bill, was the CIA officer in charge of Hue during that time, and when the fighting slowed down, he made sure that the known list of VC cadres was taken care of when they fell into Marine hands. He took a small team of five or six people, crossed the Perfume River into Hue, and went directly to the interrogation center, where the NVA and VC bastards were interrogated, identified, fingerprinted, and executed by the ARVNs. Well, after that SNAFU we got a green light to fight fire with fire, and here you are, Brad…and here I am.”
They pulled into the MACV compound located just south of Province HQ, which was located near what was left of the Hue University so changed from the peaceful university city of French half-cast beauties and endless flowers and colonial houses. They were to spend the night in the compound, which was in an area approximately one city-block square on the south side of the Perfume River in the New City of Hue.
A three-story former hotel dominated the west corner of the compound. Solidly built of concrete, the structure was used as an officer’s billet. The dining hall on the first floor also served as a meeting room where movies were shown on an irregular basis.
Running northeast from the hotel was a two-story annex with about 20 sleeping “suites” (two rooms — front and back — and a bathroom). This was where they quartered for the night. The rooms were screened, but had and with a fan and a mosquito netting frame around the beds. He was surprised to find the luxury of a small refrigerator.
Behind the annex were three rows of single-story open bay “hooches” (the generic term for any small dwelling) which seemed were more substantial than the standard canvas, wood and corrugated metal structures found on most of the Marine bases he had grown used to in his last tour.
They stored their gear and walked over to the local slop-chute (Marine for club, usually the NCO club) for some beers.
As they settled down to some serious beer drinking Nameless cautioned him, “Don’t get too comfortable here. In a day or two, you ship out for QuangTri City.”
He finished his beer and ordered another.
Nameless settled back and lit a cigarette and then continued, “I am going to tell you a story…it might even be true. Names aren’t important, but the gist of this story is about a Marine that I have had the honor to work with until he rotated back to the states. He was a NCO in 3rd Recon when we recruited him back in ’66.” Nameless paused and he flashed his predatory smile and then continued. “Well, he didn’t exactly volunteer. We spoke to his CO and asked for someone to help form a special unit. From what I was told, his Commanding Officer called him in and when the guy asked him why he had been chosen, the reply was “Because you’re a Marine” and that was the end of it. You Jarheads are like that.”
He chuckled and took a swig from the cold brew, winked and then went on, “He was one of the first Marines assigned to the PRU Program and served from around October 1966 until May 1967. From my records it was around that time when you volunteered to transfer to 3rd recon along with some of your gun-grunt buddies, who knows, he might even have been there in Phu Bai for the interview.”
* * *
He remembered it had been in February 1967. A month earlier or so earlier, right after Christmas 1966, they had disembarked Marine style from the troop transport and into landing craft, hitting the beach by Da Nang where a group of them had been taken aside and rudely informed that their MOS had changed and they were attached to Hotel Company, 12th artillery and would be expected to learn the intricacies of the 155 towed Howitzer and take over the perimeter defenses of Phu Bai airfield. They were a mixed group of infantry grunts, combat engineers, and two trained Recon Rangers, when they arrived at what they would soon call HUMM Battery and filed into sandbagged tents, wet, hungry and demoralized. They were met by section chiefs who had agreed to extend for another 6 months to get the 30-day basket leave, the Battery CO who was trained artillery, and the FDC (fire direction control) team that still had another 6 months to go in country before being rotated back to the states. That same night they were sent out in the rain to firing positions on the perimeter wire where they spent a sleepless night, drenched in the Monsoon rains, and with the coming of dawn, they started firing their first H&I (Harassment and interdiction) fire mission. The next month consisted of endless real fire missions and digging the 155 towed guns out of the Vietnamese mud. He made friends with a large black dude named Corporal Spooner from New York City who was one of the misplaced Recon Rangers, and they discussed ways and means of getting off the damn guns. They were assigned direct fire support for the 3rd Recon Bn. and Spooner went AWOL to hook up with friends he had trained with at the Recon school in Camp Lejeune. He returned with good news, their CO needed more bodies and he might be able to get them in. They snuck out and the interview went well, but when they returned their Arty CO put the brakes on the plan and in the end only Spooner was allowed to transfer.
* * *
Snapping back to the present he realized that Noname was waiting for a response. “Yeah, I got turned down, but my friend returned to Recon and I never saw him again.”
Noname shrugged. “Their loss our gain. Hanging around Force Recon is a good way to get zapped, Brad. With us you get hard work and no glory, but the good side is…well, there isn’t a good side, but what the hell.” He raised his glass in a toast. “Here’s to tomorrow when I get rid of you and send you north with Sergeant Nguyen to a little shit-hole next to Quang Tri City.”
“Half the Vietnamese in the ‘Nam are called Nguyen.”
Noname rolled his eyes, “What’s in a name? A Gook by any other name will smell as sweet. It’s all you need to know”
“Lam co ngu!” He said, both because Noname irritated him and he wanted to show off.
“Not bad…your accent is horrible, but your point came across that I am acting like an asshole. Throw the man another fish. But keep your knowledge of Vietnamese to yourself. Let your translator do the work and just keep an ear open to see if he is selling you out. They will relax around you if they think you don’t speak much Vietnamese, and you’ll have an edge if things go bad.”
“You’re brimming over with trust.” he said.
“Yep…which is why I am still alive. Well, you have a busy day tomorrow, Nguyen should be here by noon, and in the mean time we have a meet with the Vietnamese province PRU commander.”
They returned to their room, which would soon seem like undreamed of luxury, and threw themselves into their racks. Nameless was asleep instantly but he stared at the ceiling fan and reviewed everything that had happened since he landed in-country. He was surprised when the realization set in that what had happened in America had receded into the mist, as the familiar landscapes of Vietnam crowded out everything between the chaplain telling him his mother was dead landing once again in-country. It was still there…the wound would continue to bleed, but scars were forming. They say, he thought, that scar tissue is stronger and thicker than regular skin. He certainly hoped that was true. Then, he fell into a drunken dreamless sleep as well.
They were both up early the next day nursing hangovers and staggered to the mess-hall for coffee and something to keep the beer and Jack Daniels from coming back up. Pineapple shook his head sadly as they climbed gingerly into his vehicle, and they made the short ride to the Vietnamese province chief’s headquarters. Like most administrative buildings, it was heavily fortified and smartly uniformed ARVN MPs stood on either side of the entrance, covered from the roof-top by a machine gun emplacement.
The province chief was a lieutenant colonel, spoke very good English, and had traveled widely, “Welcome Sam…and?”
“They call me Brad.”
“Welcome, Sam and Brad. Would you care for tea or coffee? Something stronger?”
Noname answered for the both of them, “Just coffee…no sugar.”
Their host smiled sympathetically. “You should stay away from alcohol Sam, it will kill you someday.”
“From your mouth to Buddha’s ear.” Noname said, “It’s a lot better than ending up dead from a NVA AK-47 and rotting out there in this miserable country.”
The Lt. Colonel seemed much amused and he realized that this sort of banter was their well-rehearsed opening. “Don’t worry, we will find your body and give it a proper Buddhist burial. That way you can stay here forever.”
They both chuckled, and Noname Sam added, “Just remember to say Kaddesh.”
This elicited a thumbs-up from the Colonel who said, “Ho Chi Min offered to create a Jewish State here in Vietnam when he met with David Ben Gurion just before you Jews got your state in Israel. If he had accepted you would probably be fighting on one side or another today as a Vietnamese Israeli. You Jews kicked beaucoup Arab ass last June.”
Noname made the classic Vietnamese gesture meaning ‘fuck you.’ They both laughed.
The Colonel’s aid brought in three cups of startling black coffee, a plate of fruit and a jar of honey. There were cherries among the fruit and he dipped it into the honey and said, “I remember having this back during Tet 1967, with some lovely ladies at their home just outside of Phu Bai on the road to Hue.”
“I know of this place. It is, of course, no longer. Yes, it was a good year…not like this last Tet.” He said. They fell into a moody silence which was broken by the Colonel as he reflected somewhat philosophically, “But this year’s TET was even worse for the communists. But enough of that, let us as you Americans say, get down to business.”
Nameless started, “Brad will be snapping-in (A Marine term for preparing for action, used mainly on the firing range) with Nguyen and staying with the team near Quan Tri City. He is an experienced artillery forward observer, and can also give close support for Nguyen’s team.”
The Colonel nodded appreciatively, “Nguyen is in charge of his team, he speaks very good English and is a fine soldier. Your job is to support, train if needed, and observe. Sam and I share the information you bring in, and while Sam is your direct superior…so am I.”
Noname raised his eyebrow and rolled his eyes as if to say, let the man think what he wants.
The Colonel paused as if to let the chain of command sink in and then said, “We want information, so since we get no information from dead men, please try to get them back alive enough to be interrogated by our people.”
Noname Sam chimed in, “Snatch and Grab and maybe an ambush once in a while, but we learned from Tet the value of verified and timely info.”
“Will we be working with U.S. forces, like the Recon or Rangers?” he asked.
“They can request the PRU teams at any time for any reason.” Noname said, “But it usually doesn’t work out well. The PRU are very independent and don’t play nice with others.”
The orderly returned and whispered something to the Colonel who said, “Excellent. Nguyen has just arrived. I have asked him to join us.”
AS Nguyen entered Brad stood up to shake his hand. Nguyen was tall for a Vietnamese, equaling his own 5 feet 11 inches. As they locked eyes he instantly knew that this was a man he could trust with his life…one of the old breed. They exchanged pleasantries and Nguyen sat down while the orderly brought him tea.
Brad sat back and lit a cigarette. “They tell me your English is very good, he said, which is fortunate since my Vietnamese is almost nonexistent.”
Nguyen looked down a bit shyly and then answered, “I was an exchange student when I was younger at one of your great schools in America. When I returned I was honored to teach English at Hue University. I will be happy to help you with your Vietnamese.”
“Thank you.” He said, and noticed Nameless looking on in approval that he had played his ignorance of Vietnamese card appropriately.
Nguyen continued the briefing, “Our 18-man team is equipped with various uniforms, weapons, and equipment. Mostly you’ll dress either in black pajamas or tiger-striped utilities. In your case we may use North Vietnam Army uniforms because white men have been accompanying their teams since and even before Tet. The Russians are expanding their influence and, like your country with the PRU, they have placed their special forces with NVA infiltrators.” He paused to let this sink in. Nameless was very interested and leaned forward slightly from his chair.
Nguyen paused, took a sip of his tea, and then continued. “We use a lot of different weapons. Our arsenal includes M-16 rifles, Colt 45’s, M-79 bloopers (grenade launchers), and M-60 machine guns. We make good use of captured weapons, and they were plentiful when we threw them out of our country after Tet. We will teach you to use ChiCom AK-47’s (so called because they were manufactured in China and were considered inferior to the Warsaw Pack issue), and RPG grenade launchers. We use the green tracer rounds so any communists watching our firefight will confuse us for a team of their own.”
He glanced at Noname. “Sam and his friends made this a problem. by finding some way of sabotaging AK-47s and ammunition in their own stockpiles, causing the rifle to explode when fired, so you might be extra careful using any AK that we haven’t checked out first.”
Noname smiled, “The company looks after its own and we have a world class supply system with access to just about any ammunition required for our PRUs…nothing too good for our boys. We store “inventory” in ConEx boxes just about everywhere. You’ll find quite an arsenal waiting for you when you arrive at the camp. Nguyen currently stocks Browning 9-mm automatic pistols, a few 38-caliber Colt revolvers, Browning automatic rifles (BAR), M-2 carbines, some sweet Swedish K submachine guns, and four British Bren guns. At least that is all I know of. Anything I missed Nguyen?”
Nguyen smiled broadly but didn’t answer. He began to understand this strange cat and mouse dance going on between the CIA and the ARVN Special Forces. “You forgot to mention our modern transportation. We no longer ride into to combat on the backs of water buffalos…the American government has provided us with “requisitioned” commercial light trucks and motorcycles formerly the property of Vietnamese civilians, who were, of course, generously compensated.” His voice contained gentle yet barbed sarcasm.
The Colonel, who had maintained an amused silence for this exchange, brought everyone back to the business at hand. “I have arranged for you to be flown from Phu Bai to the Ái Tử Combat Base, which is where Nguyen’s team lives and patrols from.” He walked over to the tactical map and use his walking stick to point out the general location of the base. “For your information Corporal, this base was located on Highway 1 approximately 8 km northwest of Quảng Trị City and 8 km southeast of Dong Ha, which I understand you are very familiar with from your previous vacation in our beautiful country. It is right next to the Thạch Hãn River, which is convenient if you need to infiltrate by water.” His pointer cracked against the map as he pointed out the landmarks and Brad thought that no matter what military, all Colonels behaved the same when they get a stick in their hands.
“What happened in Quang Tri during Tet?” he asked.
“Let me fill you in, Brad.” Noname Sam said, “I guess we could say things started with “Operation Osceola” which ended before Tet toward the end of January. We should have expected what was about happen by the number of NVA killed. The 3rd Marines replaced the 1st Marines right after that, and Operation Osceola II was launched on 20 January with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines responsible for protecting the base supported by artillery from 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines. You might remember 3/12, that was your old outfit that sent you into the field as a forward observer.” Brad nodded assent, and Noname went on, “I was there for part of that last operation with Nguyen and Pineapple. They started hitting us with 122mm rockets and mortar fire, and then, they hit us with the opening of the Tet Offensive. The NVA and VC launched coordinated attacks as the 812th NVA regiment attacked Quảng Trị City. The CAC teams in the small villages were overrun and executed. We couldn’t give them much help as the Marines had only one Battalion at the base they remained to defend the base while the 1st Cavalry Division south of the city was sent to reinforce the ARVN 1st Regiment 1st Division defending the city. There was nothing to match the fight in HUE and by February we heard the pitter patter of little feet and it was Ho Chi Min in full retreat, having lost over 900 killed. The 1st Cavalry took over Operation Osceola II and the 3rd Marines resumed responsibility for the base. Here is where you come in. 3/12 is still up there, and having a guy who worked with the artillery unit in the past will come in handy.”
“Think any of the old guys are still there?” He asked.
“Nope. Most rotated back to the states or Okinawa just before TET and there were a few who, like you, extended to join CAC but as far as I know they’re all dead.”
“Hotel Battery, 3/2, The Long Arm of the Magnificent bastards (2nd Battalion 4th Marines).” he said. “I’ll miss them.”
“So, what’s next?” he asked.
“A chopper will pick you up and drop you off at Ái Tử Combat Base. You can get settled in and we play it by ear from there. I will be visiting you from time to time.”
Pineapple drove them back to Phu Bai where they boarded a Huey for Ái Tử. “Good luck, guys, I’ll see you in the Big PX.” Pineapple called as they ran bent over to the Huey for the short flight. Brad flashed him a ‘thumbs up’.
They lifted off and as soon as they were over rice paddies the door gunners fired short bursts to make sure their M-60’s were-good-to-go. Neither he nor Nguyen was given headset helmets like the crew, so conversation was impossible. He spent his time looking down at the beautiful countryside as it flashed by, deceptively so innocent, with black pajama clad farmers sheltered by white mama-san conical hats, working in the paddies, the water-buffalo, with the ever-present kids riding on them, walking with measured strides down the dirt trails, some of them pulling carts. It was late and most of the villagers would be returning home to rest during the heat of the day, returning to their fields to work until sunset. He half expected to hear the ping of AK-47 rounds hitting the chopper, but they passed over VC controlled territory without incident.
Looking down at the landscape he began to understand the words of his Vietnamese Culture instructor back at the school: “The Viet Cong are acting in Vietnam’s two-thousand-year tradition of battling for national liberation. Throughout the centuries we have suffered repeated conquest by the Chinese and successfully fought for our independence throwing off Chinese domination. More recently the struggle against the French had lasted almost a hundred years. We fought the Japanese during World War II and to the Viet Cong, America is merely the latest foreign invader.”
The chopper circled the fire-base before landing and he got a good view of the wire, sandbagged tent city, and artillery position. The runway looked in good condition and there were Marine aircraft on the ground. The extra distance from the DMZ and NVAs big guns made this a safer place to land that Dong Ha.
On landing, they were picked up by a battered Mitsubishi Jeep that definitely could use a good washing and an even a more urgent paint-job. Their driver was in tiger striped utilities. Nguyen and the driver exchanged a few words (he was happy when he realized in despite the rate of speech and dialect, a few words were recognizable to him) then they were driven to the CIA armory to sign for his personal weapons; a Swedish K submachine gun, a Browning 9-millimeter automatic pistol, a small 22-caliber Berretta with a silencer, and a used and somewhat battered AK-47 which was clean and well oiled. He was also issued a case of ammunition for each weapon and an additional box of green tracers for the AK. He already had acceptable civilian clothes, and so only drew black pajamas, tiger stripe utilities, and a NVA uniform all of which more or less fit. The mama-san hat he would have to find later.
“What’s this Berretta with the silencer for?” he asked Nguyen.
“It is beaucoup quicker, quieter, and more certain than using a knife. You can always stop and mutilate a body after.” he replied.
“Cam on, toi se nho rang.” he said.
Nguyen smiled tolerantly, “What did you think you were saying?”
“Thank you, I will remember that.”
“I understood ‘thank you.’ So that’s a good start. Not to worry. We have beaucoup time to teach you better Vietnamese.”
He mentally kicked himself for asking the stupid question, but comforted himself in the old adage, ‘there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers’.
Unlike what happens in the world of fiction, using a knife, even if you are superbly trained, can be risky, but a quiet bullet to the eye, or two to the spinal cord in the back of the neck, will bring anyone down with no messy and dangerous hand to hand combat needed. A small caliber pistol with a silencer could fire several almost soundless rounds without significant detection. It was an ideal weapon and he remembered one of the Israelis he met in Bangkok on that R&R from Vietnam the year before, telling him it was a favorite assassination weapon frequently used by Israeli Mossad kill teams.
“We have some time, Brad, so let me show you around.”
“Fine by me.” he said.
The first thing he noticed was that the city seemed to be in much better shape than Hue. He remembered the first attack on the city back in April of ’67 when large NVA units tried to take the city. The North Vietnamese had attacked and occupied the city for a short time. He had been relatively new to the ‘Nam and was still working the 155 towed howitzers as a gunner. They fired until the guns started sinking into the soft earth, pausing only long enough to dig them out, reposition them, and continue firing. There were a lot of casualties, and the medivacs were going in and out under fire without flinching or holding back. In the end, after some intense fighting, the NA regiment withdrew from the city suffering tremendous casualties, but before they did, they managed to free about 220 Communist prisoners from a city prison and caused widespread destruction at ARVN facilities in and around the city. (Quang Tri City was a small market town and the capital of Quang Tri Province, the northernmost province of South Vietnam, bordering North Vietnam to the north, and Laos to the west. Like the old imperial capital at Hue, Quang Tri City is located on Route 1. It is about 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) inland from the South China Sea along the eastern bank of the Thach Han River, 25 kilometers (16 mi) south of the former Demilitarized Zone. Because Quang Tri City was an important symbol of South Vietnamese government authority and was the most vulnerable provincial capital in South Vietnam, it was a prime target of the North Vietnamese during the 1968 Tet Offensive.)
“Back in April ’67, I gave direct fire support to the city during the NVA first attack.”
Nguyen gave him a smile and a thumbs-up. “Beaucoup ass kicking and they dee-dee back across the DMZ. They beaucoup dinky-dow.”
“Do you know of any place near here that I can buy a Non-la (Vietnamese for the conical mama-san hat which was standard dress in the ‘Nam)?” he asked.
“Sure, no problem.” Nguyen took him to a small shop which, as it turned out, belonged to his family. At Nguyen’s suggestion, he also purchased a rather worn NVA pith-helmet, which was olive green with the NVA star. He paid five US dollars for the helmet which, Nguyen said was more than enough. Nguyen’s sister threw in the ‘Non-la’ for free. “Cam-on ban.” he said hoping that it was the right world and properly pronounced.
She smiled and replied in English, “You very welcome.”
She was beautiful and the family resemblance between Nguyen and his sister was very pronounced. He smiled back at her, and without warning, flashed back to the VC girl-soldier he had executed last year.
* * *
She still had her AK-47 (Kalashnikov AK-47 assault Rifle) beside her, but didn’t have the strength to lift it…she glanced at it once, and then back at him. Her lips moved, but he didn’t understand, and as he pointed his pistol at her, she smiled. She closed her eyes to make it easier for him, and he squeezed the trigger, watching her head explode as the 0.45 cal. round burst it into a bloody red mist.
* * *
He staggered back and Nguyen reached out to steady him.
“Sorry about that,” he said, “I have to get used to the heat all over again.”
But it wasn’t the heat…it was like being sucker-punched in the gut and she must have noticed a tear forming in his eye because she said, “I know…” She let the sentence drop and he could feel the gulf between them, there were no words, but she took his hand for a brief moment, and there was a spark of recognition that passed between them; she smiled and said, “Bình an, GI.” (Good luck)
“Cam-on ban.” He smiled sheepishly and let Nguyen lead him back to the jeep.
“Your sister is very nice.” he said.
“Yes, Brad… look…no touch.”