Diem Diem, aka Jim Dumb, Kit Karson Scout. Tay Ninh, Vietnam 1970

Photo Jim Dumb

It’s early morning in dry season and third squad sits cross-legged on a leafy carpet of bamboo.The men burn chunks of C-4 plastique explosive which boils water in less than a minute;stir in powdered coffee,sip the bitter brew from metal canteen cups.

After a tiLSMFT = Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobaccome we pass C-ration cigarettes to our Kit Carson Scout. His name is Diem Diem but we call him Jim Dumb. Seventeen,thin,wiry,dark-complected,on patrol Jim walks third in line. An NVA defector,retrained to work with American’s he is sent to us. Kit Karson’s can spot the tell tale for signs of ambush,booby trap,bunker complex.

“Beau coup NVA, ”says Jim,pointing to week old foot prints.

His skills are pitiful but we trust and like this harmless young man.

D’wee was better. Short,tense,muscular, his raised clenched fist meant imminent danger. But D’wee is dead. Now there is Jim,who likes American food and cigarettes and laughs at jokes he cannot understand.

“Here,”I say,tossing him what he craves. Jim slips the five butt cigarette packet into a clear plastic bag filled with Newport Menthol’s,Winston Filter Tips, No Filter Camels,Lucky Strikes,a half dozen Army matchbooks. He crimps the bag shut,plucks the cigarette lodged behind his left ear,strikes a match,inhales.

“Tanks, Duck,” he says. He means Doc. How can you not like this harmless young man? I take out my camera and shoot him.

“Now me, Duck,” he says.

“Sure.”

I hand him my camera and pantomime “Finger. Look. Press.”

“OK. OK Duck,” he says. “Now I take you pikta.”

“Shoot him!” jokes the lieutenant.

Suddenly, behind us, there is a loud hissing noise, then a dazzling light. Jim Dumb snaps the picture then slams himself down. Every man does the same. Seconds later the claymores explode. Fifty meters west second platoon’s automatic ambush has detonated. As the trip flare burns out the lieutenant leaps up.

“Move out,”he says.“ C’mon, move out.”

The ten of us run,sway,crouch through the jungle,do not feel the razor-like cuts from the bamboo,the sharp thorns of wait-a-minute vines. We ignore the leeches that drop from trees and run and run until we see it.

Three NVA, their legs sheared off by the blast,howl in agony. From ten meters excited GIs take pot shots while someone quietly weeps.

When the killing is done the men scavenge the corpses for souvenirs then pile the bodies together. Insects,drawn by the scent,swarm to feast. Jim Dumb booby traps the hideous pile with a short-fused grenade. A trick he has learned from the RTO.

The lieutenant checks his topo map.

“Call in a body count. Say we killed nine” he tells the radio man.

“Roger that,sir.”

“Alright then. Let’s clear out.”

We strap on our gear,check our weapons,march past the cruel heap. The eyes of the dead do not blink. Their mouths  are frozen mid-scream. Their rictus limbs are fixed at spectacular angles.Ten minutes later Jim’s grenade explodes.

“NVA,”he says,dragging a finger across his neck.

We march two hours,lay down our packs,form a perimeter,dig fox holes,stake the trips and claymores,break out the C-rations and C4. Another day,another automatic ambush. Time to eat before it’s time for guard.