Mortar crew starting fire mission. Bu Gia Map, Vietnam 1969

Men at Work

We’ve choppered into Bu Gia Map, a flat deserted area of scrub and jungle where no hearts and minds will be won today. After years of aerial bombings the village is abandoned, the people scattered like chaf to the wind. A banana shaped chopper, Shithooks we called them, lowers a bulldozer to the ground.  An engineer climbs aboard the hulking machine,and levels the land,forms a berm. A light weapons crew builds a mortar pit; stacks the ammo for easy access. We are here to drop mortars on enemy troops.

“Fire mission!” yells the man who heads the mortar team.

See how the fin tailed shells are quickly passed, how each man readies himself as the mortar, dropped into the stout tube,loudly shoots skyward after igniting a powder charge. A grid has been plotted but no actual targets are singled out. It’s called H & E: Harassment and Interdiction fire. The falling rounds explode with a muffled cruummp, the whizzing shrapnel meant to maim or kill NVA Men at Work 3. Bu Gia Map, Vietnam 1969or VC. But no one knows if the sky arcing shells have struck animals or civilians or enemy troops. It is all a game of fatal chance. Blood trails and body counts– frankly no one cares. It’s hot and dusty–we are tired and bored.

After three days the order is given to burn the ammo crates, slice discarded radio telephone batteries, puncture unused C-ration cans, wait for the order to move out.

“Saddle up,” says the lieutenant.

We hoist our packs. Check our weapons, water, and ammo.

“Alright, move out.”

Hungry and thirsty, we march until dusk.Then foxholes are dug, trips and Claymores staked, we clear patches of ground, cook C-rations, wait to pull two shifts of two-hour guard.  At dawn we’ll slink out on clover patrols, set up an ambush, later take everything down, cautiously depart.

For nearly a week we’ve not walked into them, or they into us. No rockets, or mortars, no everywhere blood. Maybe tomorrow it will happen. Or the next day. Or the next.