The Gang That Wouldn’t Shoot Straight

Medic met Gary Rafferty at a William Joiner Center Writer’s workshop in 2000. Recently Gary and Medic sat down to discuss his war memoir. What follows is an excerpt from “Nothing Left To Drag Home: The Siege at Lao Bao During Operation Dewey Canyon II–Lam Son 719, as Told by an Artilleryman Who Survived It,” forthcoming from Maddog/Redleg Press.

When I got back to my unit from R &R I noticed a huge sand pile, about 40 feet long and 10 feet high, which went from the edge of the battery to its perimeter. I asked around; no one could tell me who put it there, or why. I certainly couldn’t figure it out. As we were standing there mulling things over the lieutenant came by. With Captain Mixon on R&R the lieutenant was in charge; it was not lost on him that this was his moment to shine.

“I’m gonna put the fifty cal at the end of that berm.” he said.

Now, the lieutenant is not a bad guy, but after the powder-truck-on-fire-incident, where he sought to make us sacrificial lambs, let’s just say he’s not the brightest bulb on the tree.

Loud and clear, I say, “ Sir, that’s just plain dumb. The fifty cal is a standoff weapon. There’s no reason to put it out on the berm. That’s way too close to the wood line.”

“Well, Rafferty,” he says, “That is were I’m putting it. And that’s final.”

What came next was a Mexican standoff. There is no fucking way any of us are going to sit out there all night in spitting range of the jungle just because this dufus LT thinks it’s a bright idea. The air grows tense. Who will make the next move? The lieutenant, who doesn’t want to order us to do it? Or us, who’ve figured out how to refuse an order without getting busted.

Luckily we’re saved when the Chief of Section arrives with three FNGs still pissing stateside water. He hands off the new men to the lieutenant and departs. The lieutenant seizes this golden opportunity.

“You three,” he says, puffing out his chest. “One of you pick up that fifty cal. One of you carry the tripod. And you, grab two cans of ammo. Ready? Follow me.”

The four of them head into the gathering darkness to where the berm meets the jungle. As they march off we shake our heads, figuring, “Oh well, that’s the end of those three dim wits. Better them, than us.”

You must understand that Nam was like that. You feel real sorry for someone in the shit. But not sorry enough to take their place. As the Vietnamese would say, “Sin loi,” which means “too bad” or “sorry about that.”

All that night from deep in the jungle, darker than the inside of a shoe, the NVA fucked with us. Angry single shots; surprise AK bursts. Never an all out attack, mind you, but for sure it was not quiet. All fucking night. And not a single shot fired from the lieutenants fifty cal.

From out of the damp gloom a shaky voice pierced the dawns grey mist. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! We’re coming in!”

The three FNGs fall into our hole shaking like dogs shitting razor blades. I had never seen anyone so thoroughly scared. Their hands shake so hard we have to light their cigarettes. None of us wants to ask what happened. The FNG’s don’t want to relive it. Quite frankly, we’re more than embarrassed for these poor bastards being out there all fucking night.

Corporal Brown comes over. He looks at the shaking men, asks, “Why didn’t you guy’s shoot the fifty cal?”

The FNG’s look from one to the other trying to decide who should speak. The one on the left says, “You wouldn’t believe us.”

“I don’t know about that. I’ve been here ten fucking months and I’ve seen some weird shit. Try me,” I tell them.

“We had a tug-of-war over the machine gun.”

“A tug-of-war? With who?” the corporal asks.

“With the gooks! Who the fuck else!” says the FNG.

Corporal Brown, clearly not buying this says, “Let me get this straight. You and the gooks had a tug of war over the fifty cal?”


“Why didn’t you let them have it?”

“We figured we’d get in trouble if we did.”

That kind of answer could only come from an FNG. I mean, here you are, in a hole in the dark with the NVA, wrestling over a machine gun, and you’re afraid you’d get in trouble!?! Jesus-Christ-Mother-of-God how much more fucking trouble could you possibly be in?

“Why didn’t you shoot?” asks the dumbfounded corporal.

“Because, says the FNG, “it was so dark they were IN the fucking hole before we knew they were there.”

Silence. Finally, the corporal scoffs, “That’s bullshit! You were just too fucking scared.”

The second guy, the smallest in the group, stands up, angrily flicks his lit cigarette off the corporal’s flack jacket, near tears yells, “Yeah? Well, fuck you too!”

He turns to his buddies. “I told you they wouldn’t believe us.” He turns to us, sneers, “And why did you guys let the lieutenant put us out there anyway?!”

Now we’re really embarrassed. This one, smart and feisty, may have a future in A Battery.

“Hey,” I tell him, “the lieutenant wanted to put it there and you guys showed up at the wrong time. Shit happens. You’ll get used to it. But I believe you, kid. The gooks probably thought you were ARVN and couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t help them carry that fucker to Hanoi.”

Corporal Brown, brushing the sparks off his flack jacket, stomps off muttering words foul and unkind. Fast forward fifty years. Somewhere a Vietnam vet is telling a story about a tug-of-war with the NVA over a fifty cal and no one believes him. No one but me.


top photo: An 8 inch howitzer emplacement of the 2nd Battalion 94th Field Artillery at Camp Carroll, Cam Lo Vietnam. The gun itself is named ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’ 1970. (Photo by Robert Whitaker/Getty Images)

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