Medic sitting on well-used trail. Song Be, Vietnam 1970


Third platoon sits by the eKnuckles, Glenn Williams, Gary Williams, Rudy Estrada waiting for choppers near LZ Granite. Song Be, Vietnam 1970 dge of a grassy field waiting for choppers to fly us away. We’ve been lucky so far. No contact in more than three weeks. Lulled into laziness, we haven’t there’s set up a perimeter, no trip flares or Claymores have been staked in the ground. No sees the well used trail. Instead, we read or play cards.  Jacks or better. Trips to win. At the sight of pith helmets and green uniforms every man opens fire.

“Doc, where’s the fucking new RTO?” yells short wiry Timmy Day. “Where is that motherfucker?” Without the new radio man, Timmy can’t reach the lieutenant, who can’t call in gunships or artillery. Without the new radio man the LT is blind.

On patrol, Timmy walks first into the silent green jungle. He knows that every step might be his last. Behind him,a string of grunts, the machine gun team, the lieutenant, the RTO, the medic, more riflemen.

Derrig, wearing a vest filled with fist-sized 40mm shellscarries the single-shot grenade launcher.

“Gimme that,”says Timmy.

He grabs the weapon, stands it on end, angles the barrel to lob its shells high into the air to drop like mortars.

While the other men shoot wildly, the lieutenant, thirty meters away, stands, deliberately aims his M16, fires off the tumbling rounds. One by one the enemy drop,the lifeless bodies trapped in thickets of dead bamboo.

Five grunts circle and kick the corpses: in the belly, the face, the balls. Crazy Frank lifts one corpse by its bushy black hair, lets it fall with a thud, stabs the torso to make it bleed.

“Nice shooting, sir,” he says, quickly stowing his knife.

The missing RTO, a tall husky man, steps out from behind a large tree.

“Christ, what you got there?” he asks, wandering toward us. “Christ almighty, what you got?”

But no one is fooled by his fakery. Least of all Timmy Day.

“You fucking pussy,” he shouts. “You fucking coward. I oughta waste you, man. I oughta waste your fucking ass.”

The smaller man punches the RTO in the mouth. Pounds his fists on the big man’s chest. Throttles him. Throws handfuls of dirt into the frightened man’s face.

“You fucking coward. Fucking coward.”

We surround the new man. He does not move.

Suddenly, in the distance there is the steady thuup thuup of whirling rotor blades, but the lieutenant continues to pilfer the dead. “Birds inbound,” he finally yells. “Saddle up!”

He turns to the RTO. “That best not happen again, you understand. Now get out there and pop fucking smoke.”

The radio man runs to the field and tosses a green canister that hisses, sputters, then billows thick clouds of yellow smoke. When the birds land we scramble aboard. The trembling choppers lift us away.

Inside the Huey, the RTO wipes the dirt from his face. “Red Baron…Red Baron, “he shouts into the radio hand set, “We have four confirmed kills. I say again…”

The lieutenant holds up one of the documents plucked from the dead. He nods to the new man.

“What is it, sir?” asks the RTO.

“Gook intel. I think we killed a fucking—” 

A burst of rifle fire rakes the chopper. Timmy throws himself on the lieutenant. The pilot banks hard, skims the tree tops until the danger has passed.

“You queer, GI?” asks the lieutenant, pushing the point off him. Even the door gunners laugh.

When the bird touches down we jump out, dust ourselves off, trudge to the bunkers. But the RTO hangs back. Palms to his face, we hear him weeping. Is it for Compton’s promise of fresh uniforms, hot food, cold showers, the relative safety of reinforced bunkers? Perhaps. But he sobs like a child hoping all is forgiven. Sobs for quite some time.


top photo–Medic sits on a well used trail. Song Be, 1970