Mike Derrig and the Gang That Wouldn’t Shoot Straight

As an FNG he walked point. Forty years after the war Medic and Mike Derrig caught up in Portland, Maine. I met his lovely wife Robyn, stayed a night or two in their welcoming house. It was a good visit. Ten years later Mike came round to telling me how he got shot in Cambodia, and the million dollar wounds that were his ticket back to the world.

“I hated it,” he said. “They might as well have dropped me off from the corner I was hanging out on when I was drafted. I had no idea what I was doing. After a few weeks on point, I’m sitting next to a guy I didn’t know from jack, and he says, ‘Two days and a wake up, I’m out of this shithole.’ I asked him, ‘Who’s going to take the M79 you’re carrying?’ and he says, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ I said, ‘Can I have it?’ and he says it again, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ Log day came, I went to the guy and said, ‘How about the 79?’ The guy removed his 79 vest, handed it and the thumper to me, I gave him my M16. No shit. Just like that I had the grenade launcher. I’m waiting for someone to come up and say, ‘Hey, FNG! I’ll take that!’ Never happened.”

“One day with the launcher, we’re on patrol, I’m second to last in line. A six-foot-four bald-headed soul brother named Buddha is behind me. We stop, and I notice Buddha has his finger on the trigger. I said, ‘Buddha, you got that on safety right?’ He said, ‘Fuck no, Mike. Mother fucking gook’s come at me, I’m gonna be ready.’ I said, ‘But if you trip, you’ll fucking blow me away.’ He said, ‘Sorry, Mike. No safety.’ I said, ‘Buddha, I’ll walk last in line and you walk in front of me. Buddha said ‘cool’ and that was that. I had three blissful months of walking next to last in line. Fucking heaven.”

One fateful day Mike, weighing all of one-hundred and forty-pounds, was handed the twenty-six-pound M60 machine gun, and lengthy belts of ammo.

“Fucking bullshit,” said Mike. “The only time I ever fired a machine gun was a few rounds in AIT. A Southern Black E-7 lifer was telling a bunch of us Northeasterner recruits how to break down and re-assemble an M-60. We’re all looking at each other saying, ‘What the fuck is he talking about?’ Couldn’t understand a word he said. Anyway, that was my one experience with the gun before I got shot.”

It happened in Cambodia on 27 May 1970. Twelve days after LZ Ranch was overrun. That night, we lost five men. Twenty-six were wounded.

“There wasn’t a fucking GI within twenty yards protecting my ass,” said Mike. “Not one of them fired back at the gook that shot me. Cocksuckers. We were a half-assed bunch if you ask me. And that red-haired lieutenant never came around to our squad, not even once to check up on us, to see how we’re doing. He was good with the radio calling in night rounds, but had zero ties with his platoon. At least my squad.”

He meant Lt. Steve Sharp, aka Carrot Top. Carrot Top was good in combat, I told Mike, and mostly stayed with the platoon CP, where I got to know him.

Mike asked me the name of the lieutenant who’d ordered him to take the gun too far down that wide gravel road, where he got hit. It wasn’t Carrot Top, he said. A few days earlier soul Lt. Steve Sharpbrother Glenn Williams handed off the 60 to Mike—but who ordered the switch? And why Mike, a skinny, one hundred and forty pound white guy from Maine? Guys like Knuckles should have carried it. And when that other fuckhead lieutenant told Mike to go WAY down that gravel road, why weren’t Mike’s ammo bearers with him?

“I never looked over my shoulder to see who was with me,” he said. “I just assumed I wasn’t alone. But after I was hit I heard voices yelling from afar, “‘Fire the gun Mike. Fire the gun.”

Mike was yanking the bolt and pulling the trigger again and again but nothing was happening. An AK round went through the gun and disabled it. “I mean, the guys weren’t even near me. What the fuck? And no return fire from our guys until how many minutes later? WTF again! It wasn’t malice, just pure incompetence. I mean FUBAR for sure,” he said.

The fact that nobody was with him, that there was no return fire, had bothered Mike for fifty years. “What do you think happened, Doc? Lt. Sharp never would have handled the situation like that.” As I patched him up that day, Mike recalled saying to me, “Doc, I have a little weed in my pack, take care of it for me. Don’t know what’ll happen if they catch me with it in the rear.”

He hoped to take his ruck with him on the medevac but two grunts stole the valuables while he we carried him to the chopper.

“Oh, yeah,” said Mike, “One of the guys who was there saw the gook stand up from the tree—he was looking to finish me off. If that’s the case, why didn’t somebody shoot his fucking ass? That shit bothers me, Doc. I need to decompress. Next time, I’ll tell you what that fuckhead lieutenant said to me that day.”

I felt bad for Mike, and deeply regretted kicking up old dirt. I said the man who sent him out that day was Lieutenant X. A country boy from Nebraska. Every morning X bugged me to spread zinc oxide on his nose—to protect it from sun-burn. “You might remember his white nose, his big, eager, dumb-as-shit face, his Leave It To Beaver hair cut.” I said Lieutenant X seemed unaware that no one in the platoon liked him. The guy was a doofus, and never fit in.  The company records show he didn’t last long in the unit.

Why did Mike get put on the 60? Chalk it up to bad karma. I said X was a fuck up unfit for combat. I said Carrot Top would have done things right.  As would Captain Hyslop, who loved combat. Lived for it.

I reminded Mike that morale in Cambodia was piss poor, and recalled a patrol that walked seventy  meters into the jungle, sat for fifteen minutes, then trudged back to the CP, our squad leader telling Carrot Top, “Nothing out there, sir.” Another day, a couple of FNGs on ambush froze when a group of NVA walked past. I couldn’t believe it. But that’s what you get in the enemy’s back yard in a dumb-fuck, shit-ass war.

“Mike, I get your anger,” I said. “In those first seconds, when you were desperate, no one fired or rushed forward. I can’t imagine what that was like. But look at it this way: lousy training, low morale, half-ass lieutenant, those guys were scared shitless. Michael, if there was one brave man in those first moments, trying to fire the busted 60, trying to fire it, it was you. Afterward, wounded, shocked out, you had no chance to shame the men who failed you, abandoned you, failed to retaliate when you needed them most.”

I found info online about Lieutenant X and showed it to Mike. X had gone to prep school, college, made a career of the Army, worked his way up to light bird, became an insurance executive, volunteered at the American Legion, retired. “A conventional success,” I wrote “but in fact, a fuck up.”

“Doc,” you hit the nail on the head,” said Mike. “It never occurred to me they were scared—because if I had shot an NVA troop, I would have fucking blasted away with glee. Unbelievable, Doc. You’re also right that Lt. Sharp would have handled it completely different. Fuck me. I have no idea who my ammo bearers were. Where was Sharp, was his tour over? Was he back in the rear? This is turning into a stream of consciousness, Doc—so I’m going to keep on going.”

“I only had the 60 for a few days, that’s why I don’t remember my bearers, and that’s the only time I ever talked to Green. That asshole was standing smack in the middle of that gravel road giving orders. We all know never to stand or walk on a road or trail, but there he was, fucking blabbing away. Doc, this has been eating at me for fifty years. He told me to set up my 60 way down the road, probably seventy yards away. I said, ‘Sir, way down there?’ He said, ‘Don’t me give any shit. Go where I tell you to.'”

“Halfway to where he said to go, I said to myself, fuck this—and took the gun off my shoulder. The gook probably thought I saw him and he opened up. I didn’t hear anything, but I saw the muzzle flash—and I knew that wasn’t right. Didn’t even knock me over. I just jumped into the jungle and tried to return fire. But one AK round went through the meat of the gun, the second bullet literally stuck on the skin of my stomach, and the third round nicked off the top of the gun, went through my forearm and landed about an inch into my elbow. The gun was totaled. That’s when my brave compadres started yelling ‘Fire the gun mike! Fire the gun!’ Really? That’s what I was trying to do! And no one returned fire for a long, long time. I mean minutes. What the fuck!”

“So the gun wouldn’t fire, and I feel warmth on my arm. I look down and I see a bullet in my elbow and a bullet on my stomach. Still no return fire. I yelled ‘Medic!’ and Doc Levy shows up in a jiff. Thanks, Doc. You said to me, ‘You’re awfully calm for getting shot,’ and I don’t know what I said in return. Maybe something about cleaning out my ruck in case I had to take it to the rear. The medevac dropped a litter through the jungle and hoisted me away to a hospital in Saigon. I’m a lucky guy. Doc, many years ago you gave me an after action report and whomever, probably Green, had the sniper being 70 yards away. Total bullshit. He shot me from maybe half that distance. I hope that incompetent, feckless prick reads this. That cocksucker almost got me killed.”

Mike said he appreciated all the time I’d spent listening to him. He’d shared this stuff with his four sons, who learned things about him they never knew. Mike said he finally had some closure on the guys who didn’t step up for him in combat, that he had no bitterness toward them. At least not like on 28 May 1970.

“The same goes for Lt. Green,” he said. “Now that I know what happened, I’m okay with it. If you’re interested, I have a few more good stories to tell you.”

I said, “Sure, Mike. And glad to help out.”


Top photo: Mike Derrig with his beloved M79. Tay Ninh, 1970.

Read more about Mike Derrig in The War…On Drugs