“YOU BETTER SPEAK English, motherfuckers.”
We’re looking for a place to hole up near the Perfume River when the challenge freezes us in place. A guy from Charlie Company 1/5 sent us toward this two-story building that looked like it was some kind of factory but we couldn’t find it before dark.
“Christ, don’t shoot. We’re looking for Delta Company.”
A figure forms out of the shadows and we see a grunt with his rifle pointing at our bellies. “You the correspondents? Platoon Sergeant said a couple might show up tonight.”
“That’s us…” Steve names us but it doesn’t seem to mean anything to the sentry. He shrugs and points back into the gloom toward the building. “Company CP’s inside there. First platoon’s pulling security.”
We drift toward the dark and the sentry returns to his post behind a pile of leaking sandbags. “You guys gonna go with us tomorrow?” I can hear the nervous tremor in his voice.
“That’s the plan.”
“But you don’t have to, right? You guys get to decide shit like that and go where you want to go? I got a buddy knows some correspondents and he said that’s the deal.”
“That’s the deal. Somebody’s got to make you famous when you do heroic shit under fire. Just do some heroic shit tomorrow and we’ll get your name in the papers.”
Somebody’s got to make you famous when you do heroic shit under fire.
“Most heroic shit I’m gonna do is get my dumb ass out of here in one piece. Fuck them papers…”
It starts raining buckets while we stumble around in the dark looking for someone in Delta Company to inform that they have two strap-hangers for tomorrow’s river crossing. Inside the shot-up building, we find the Company Gunny and he writes our names and service numbers in his notebook. “You two can rack out with Corporal Martinez over there.” He points toward a dark corner of the building where we see someone moving around with a filtered flashlight. “I’ll assign you to a boat tomorrow when H&S Company is ready to move.”
Corporal Martinez is the guy with the flashlight. He’s in a good mood and even shakes our hands. “Glad to have you with us. I got the three-five rockets plus some spare radio operators and S-2 scouts — all kinds of cats and dogs. There’s plenty of room in here.” Martinez points at a pile of musty mattresses under one of the windows. “We even got mattresses. Just find yourself a flat spot and rack out.”
We pull a couple of damp mattresses off the pile and sit down to cook up a C-ration meal. Grunts on either side of us are doing the same. Martinez returns from checking his sentries and flops down near us. He’s got a wide smile on his leathery face. “We never had no correspondents with us before. How do you dudes operate?” Martinez pulls off his helmet and I note from a scrawl on the camouflage cover that he’s apparently from San Antonio. There’s an intricate and well-rendered portrait of a matador on the back of his flak jacket.
“We’re just glorified grunts, my man. We go where you go and watch what you do, maybe write a few stories, shit like that. When it gets messy, we add some firepower. No big thing.”
We’re just glorified grunts, my man. We go where you go and watch what you do, maybe write a few stories, shit like that.
“So if you write a story about one of us, what happens to it?” Martinez pulls a bottle of Tabasco out of his pocket, pours a healthy dollop into his ration can and offers us a taste.
“Depends on what it is, you know? Sometimes it winds up in the Sea Tiger or Stars and Stripes here in country, other times they send it to the dude’s hometown and it gets in the local rag — just depends on what the Lifers do with it.”
Martinez nods and chews. It’s clear he’s wondering what it might be like to have some say over whether or not he has to risk his ass. We’ve seen the reaction before and it makes us uncomfortable. There’s no use trying to compare what we do with what they do. There’s an enigmatic bottom line to it all. We often see more combat than the average grunt does in a standard tour of bush duty but we can — and sometimes do — avoid the worst shit they face just by climbing on a chopper and heading to the rear. We can rationalize that as part of our duty, but it doesn’t keep us from feeling a little inferior. There it is.
I’m awake an hour after collapsing on the mattress. My silent alarm is ringing. Steve is crapped out on my right. The grunts are crashed and sprawled all around us and I listen cautiously to the standard sounds of fidgety bodies, snores, farts, and ragged breathing. I’m hearing something else that I can’t identify but it sounds like its coming from above us. Maybe the Gunny put some people on watch up on the second floor. Maybe it’s rats scrambling and scratching inside the walls. Crawling off the mattress I step carefully over sleeping bodies toward the staircase leading to the second story of the building.
Passage from the ground floor has been completely blocked by rubble and layers of shot-up sandbags. It seems odd. Unless there’s an exterior stairway, there’s no way anyone is going to get up those stairs with all the crap blocking the way. I’m on my way back to the mattress when a burst of AK fire sends everyone on the ground floor scrambling for weapons and cover. There’s another ripping burst that echoes off the walls and everyone flattens on the damp floor.
“Who the fuck is shooting?” The Company Gunny is pointing a red-lens flashlight upward. In the dim beam of light we see concrete dust explode from the ceiling as another burst of fire erupts. Whoever it is, he’s up above us on the second floor and shooting down through his floor and our ceiling.
The Gunny snaps off his flashlight and screams for everyone to stay put. He heads for the blocked staircase as a stream of green-tinted tracers plunges downward in the dark. “Martinez, you got any people up on the second deck?”
“Fuck no, Gunny! You said leave it alone when we moved in here. There’s all that shit blocking the stairs.”
“It’s fucking gooks up there.” The Gunny flinches as another stream of green tracer plunges through the ceiling and ricochets off the concrete floor. Grunts are all hugging the walls, staying as far away from the beaten zone as they can get. A couple of them shoulder their rifles and fire bursts up toward the ceiling where the enemy fire is raining down on us.
“Cease fire, goddammit!” The Gunny looks around at the grunts changing magazines and sprints across the room. “Martinez! Get me a rocket team — in a fuckin’ hurry.”
There’s a scramble at the rear of the room and I recognize two Marines fumbling with a 3.5-inch rocket launcher and digging for ammo. A nearby grunt with a sick sense of humor begins to sing a line from a Paul Simon tune in a nasal hillbilly register. “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor…” He gets a rewarding wave of chuckles from the twitchy grunts waiting for the situation to be resolved.
“One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor…”
Another man across the room tries a Rolling Stones riff. “Hey, Gook, get offa my cloud…don’t hang around ’cause two’s a crowd…”
A couple more grunts with an under-developed sense of humor fire up toward the ceiling. The Gunny screams for sanity and leads the rocket team toward the blocked staircase. “Martinez, get some rifles and stand by…” While Cpl. Martinez musters an assault team, the rocket gunners kneel in position at the base of the stairs. The assistant gunner twists a round into the tube and locks the electrical connection.
“Firing the three-point-five!” The A-gunner taps his gunner on the shoulder and checks to the rear of the weapon. “Clear the back-blast area!” The armor piercing round impacts the pile of rubble blocking the stairs and the resulting detonation sends everyone prone. Martinez shoves four grunts through the opening and follows them storming up the stairs. There’s a single round fired as the lead man hits the second floor landing. He tumbles back cursing and holding onto a bloody spot just above his right knee. As a Corpsman rushes to his aid, we hear the crump of a frag grenade on the second floor above us. It’s followed by a volley of mixed AK and M-16 fire. It lasts only seconds and the last echoing reports from the second floor are clearly M-16s on semi-automatic. In the shocking stillness we even hear expended shell casings spattering onto concrete.
Two dead NVA troopers tumble down the stairs like wet sandbags. They are followed by Martinez and his surviving grunts. “All clear up there, Gunny.” Martinez steps gingerly over the dead bodies, stretches and checks his watch. He heads for his mattress, shucks out of his gear and collapses. There are still three hours until daylight and he’s not the kind of grunt who lets a little firefight disturb an opportunity to crash in comfort. Delta Company grunts all around us follow his example. There’s time to restore and replenish the adrenaline supply. Lots of that will be needed tomorrow when 1/5 crosses the Perfume River. And we’ve got one last good story from the Southside of Hue City.
Witness Marine veteran Dale Dye relive his brutal experience fighting in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive in his critically acclaimed debut novel Run Between the Raindrops, available for the first time in ebook format.