The Trouble With Rice

Medic received this excellent story from Vietnam vet Pete Sablock.

I’m pissed off. Fucking angry at a 34 cherry. Standing next to my gun shield, I lean against the back hatch smoking a C-rat butt while Jonesy and Willy load rice into sandbags. Hot, sweaty, pointless work. Earlier this morning, while breaking thru bush looking for Charlie, we found a small hooch in a little clearing. Up on stilts, a woven bamboo wall half-way up the sides, thatched roof: a Montagnard storage hut.

LT drives alongside, looks in, sees it’s filled with loose rice. Right away Jonesy and Willy start to undo a gas can so we can burn the thing down. The LT yells he called it in. “They want us to bag it up for relocation centers,” he says. “Take turns by track. When we’re done, we’ll head back to base.”

Goddamn it. That means we have to fill a million fucking sandbags using our entrenching tools. While the first two-man team starts shoveling the rice into bags we recon the higher ground by the hooch. Holy shit! A couple of small bunkers, completely empty, and nobody’s been here for days. We find a third bunker filled with gear. Older stuff—this is good and bad. No NVA weapons like AK’s, but the weapons are clean, which tells us the VC are using them, which means they’re active in this AO. Got to be careful.

We push out a perimeter around the hooch. Wait for our turn to bag the goddamn rice. The LT must be feeling good. He can say he found a weapons cache and food. Probably wishes we had contact so he could claim a body count too.

Fuck. Sound of an automatic weapon and a scream a few feet away. I spin and drop to one knee, level my 79, see the cherry on the ground, his leg all bloody, his foot about shot off. Doc, on his knees, tying the leg off, tells us to find a spot for a medevac. LT is on the radio. Everyone is behind their gun, scanning the trees around us. The new guy won’t stop screaming. Shit, we can’t find a target. Who shot him?

Doc yells out “Shot himself!”

We take a deep breath. How the fuck did that happen?

Chief walks over, looks and comes back. “That stupid fucking gun he bought from Miller shot half a clip into his leg when he jumped from the track. When I shook it everything rattled, completely worn out. It was old, we said. The cherry didn’t listen. Thought it was cool. Probably had the selector on auto. The safety came loose when he jumped. The stupid fuck. Lucky none of us got hit.” A few hundred feet away, in an open area, 36 and 32 are flattening everything so the chopper can land. A half hour later the cherry is gone.

Everyone’s on edge. First the VC weapons. Then the cherry. We just want this bullshit job done so we can get back to base. By 3 o’clock, when it’s my turn to fill sand bags with Chief, there’s not much rice left. Shit. The other teams got all the easy stuff—the rice at the edges of the hooch. To shovel, I have to reach into the middle. I yell to Willy, “Hey! Keep shoveling for me, you know my shoulder hurts!” He gives me the finger, climbs onto his track, pours a canteen of water over his head. Fuck it. I dig. Chief holds the bag open. Shovel and dump. Shovel and dump. Tie the bag. Throw it in the track. Open a new one. I fill five bags. About 200 pounds of rice. Getting close to done.

As I’m pushing my entrenching tool into the middle of the rice I hit something metallic, CLANG. Then a CLICK, and a hissssss, which definitely do not belong there. I can’t process this fast enough. My brain screams “drop” but my fucking body is not moving. Fuck me twice, I’m going to die in this miserable shit hole. Jesus Christ, do something.

Chief is holding the sandbag and staring at the rice and everything around me is frozen. Finally my brain connects to my legs, I dive from the hooch and scramble across the ground to behind the track. I sit there shaking. Slowly I look up to see Chief sitting a few feet away staring into the sky. Fuck me—we’re still alive. Must have been a dud fuse. I peer around the end of the track. A small dark plume of smoke escapes from the rice. Jesus. That was close.

We pull back, me and Manny hitting the hooch with 79 rounds, boom at the second hit, no one walking away from that one. “Fuck you!” I yell as pieces of rubble and rice fall around us. On the way back to base I’m so mad I piss into three bags of rice.

In the squad tent Chief is quiet but I join the joking small talk. We didn’t know the cherry well, been in-country two or three weeks. We clean his cot to move some of our gear from the floor onto it. We feel bad for him, but, what the fuck, he should have known better. Meanwhile, the more I think about the rice, the more I think that I might not make it out of this place. Too many close calls.

Later I pull myself together for tomorrow’s mission, whatever the hell that might be. Just no more damn rice.


Pete Sablock served with Bravo  1/10 Cav 4th Infantry Division
Vietnam 1967-1968.

Top photo: The driver and gunner on an M113 in the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry as it moves through the Ho Bo Woods in October 1967. (U.S. Army/National Archives)