Betty and I have been listening to a stack of oral interviews taped in 1968 concerning the siege of Khe Sanh. Cooks, truck drivers, Major Generals, Privates, ammo techs, armorers, artillery gunners, forward observers, grunts, Captains, Lance Corporals, intelligence staff, First Sergeants, Second Lieutenants, mortarmen, M-79 men, machine gunners, Corpsmen, radio operators, Lieutenant Colonels, and recon marines.
Listening to those voices from forty-two years past I ponder what they tell me now. I lived my own personal hell through the blasts and flashes, the shuddering felt through my own two jungle-booted feet anchored to the damp bottom of the trench, but after hearing these chilling tales, I realize there was more than one way to endure the siege. Trying to make coffee and pastries for the officers at Regiment while incoming pounded around you, wrecking your gas ranges. Trying to pull mortar rounds out of the ammo pit while incoming slammed into the adjacent ground, threatening to light up the whole ammo dump. Trying to call in artillery while bullets snapped by the side of your head. Trying to keep tires fixed after shrapnel has shredded them. Keeping the undetonated incoming enemy rounds cleaned out of the gun pits so your guys could shoot your big stuff back at the bad guys.
Betty and I listened to rationales for tactics, strategies, not saving this patrol, that position, why it was okay for some men to die for the greater good. Like those recon patrols that ran out from Khe Sanh before the siege began. Eight-man teams, no helmets, light weapons, a radio, a lot of tools to signal someone if you were in trouble. Out to our bastion on 881 South then into the jungle, maybe by chopper, maybe in a larger patrol of grunts , maybe by sneaking out at night, onto a trail through the head-high jungle grass that loved to find exposed flesh and slice, slice, slice.
A testy business, recon, running into large groups of the enemy and having to try and hide, or run away, getting shot in the back, leaving comrades’ bodies behind for another day (that’s a bitter salt tablet to bite into), sitting in tight 360s back to back to back to back firing away at the onrushing North Vietnamese soldiers intent on murdering you.
We ventured up to the spiny ridge on 881North (not 881 South where we lived in muddy bunkers, but 881 North, which was never occupied by the Marines) a number of times in my tour. I always seemed to be on point as we approached, the refuse of the big battle fought there in May 1967 evident. Maws of shell holes and bomb craters, the bush stunted. Snaggle-toothed trees on top of the ridge which reminded me of a razorback the way it cut at right angles to our search and destroy missions. On the demon’s spine, I knew, knew, knew, Charlie the Killer hid there, his machine guns, his AK 47s aimed right at my Adam’s apple. I could feel it. But no, they never raked us with enfilade fire. They stayed secluded in their spider holes like tarantulas, waiting. The sky was usually dotted with clouds and the place smelled of mud and mold and damp. A lot of men died on 881 North and the adjacent hills and valleys. I just patrolled around it, over it, climbed it, set up perimeters on it, ate beefsteak and potatoes cooked over a heat tab on it. Smoked Lucky Strikes and Camels and maybe Pall Malls on it. Got soaked.
The last time I was up there was on a patrol on Christmas Eve, 1967. The day started foggy but broke clear. We patrolled up 881 North, down the backside and in the direction of the DMZ. I drank water out of a creek that slithered over tiny flat rocks. The corpsman threatened to write me up for not using Halozone. “You’ll get liver flukes and they’ll eat your liver up.” I drank more and cursed him under my breath. I drank more just to show him—show him what? I don’t know.
We walked around fresh bomb craters with red mud shoved up as if giant subterranean dinosaurs had been at work. The trees hung over the trail and the jungle grass attacked us the same as every other day. No rest for our wicked butts, no rest because of Christmas. The same every day, patrols, patrols, fog, rain-soaked utility blouses, red mud stains on the skin, rain-soaked toes, mist. I wished for a cobra, a krait to show up in the trail and threaten one of us, maybe me. Some life . . . some life besides the deadly boredom of waiting, waiting for the surprise, waiting to die.
That night, Christmas Eve, back on 881 South we stood 100-percent due to a red alert even though there was a Christmas truce. Charlie the Killer probed around outside the wire. Fog choked the black morning after midnight and we couldn’t have seen Charlie if he’d been sitting ten feet from us.
Christmas day arrived magnificent, like Jesus coming out of His tomb, shards of dawn raking the grove-mottled ridges, the trees with their tops blown off. I led a five man fire-team-sized patrol down around the west side of Hill 881 South along the creek that bubbled and sang in the canyon. An easy patrol, only the imprints of unfamiliar boots in the mud, and here and there unusual ammo pressed into wet, red, muddy spots. Not like the times we patrolled in floods when men were swept down the canyon caroming off boulders as big as stateside houses, or the time the Hueys mistook us for Charlie and pinned us down as they circled around and around like voracious raptors intent on making a kill. They fired rockets and hot snaps from their nasty little mini-machine guns that brrrrrped, brrrped at us as the tracers lit up the dark spots beneath the bluffs. Mr. Dillon on the radio screaming “Cease fire. Cease fire. We are friendlies. We are friendlies.” Hidden beneath the lips of huge stones and roots as old as the Renaissance, we did not miss the balky, twisted humor there—friendly fire. But not this Christmas morning patrol . . . just a heated argument between me and Sergeant Deedee about grids and coordinates and clicks and trails and how best to follow the map from checkpoint to checkpoint.
After we struggled through the slick mud and ascended 881 South, hot chow arrived from the cooks at Khe Sanh. The choppers (our friends this day) whap-whapped onto the LZ with just-cooked turkey and ham, and mashed potatoes and gravy and dressing and green beans and hot rolls and pie and ICE CREAM (even though it melted by the time we got to eat it).
We left Hill 881 South the next day, after our two month stay up there, and dreamed of never having to ascend Hill 881 North again, and not long after this, Recon started getting their butts kicked out there on a daily basis. Ones, and twos and threes, they died out there in thick copses of tall hardwoods and the head-high jungle grass and the big red bomb craters. And with their dying, way down where one cannot deny what one knows, we knew it would not be a surprise. But we didn’t want to know it, so we acted like we didn’t. And ate our chow, and went on patrol and waited for . . . what? The greater good?