In the Summer of ’67

Medic’s friend Peter Sablock was drafted in August 1966. He took basic at Fort Dix and AIT at Fort Knox, where he was a proud participant in the Vietnam indoctrination course, which culminated in a ground assault on a mock Vietnamese village during a driving Kentucky snowstorm. In Vietnam Pete was a Scout Observer with Bravo 1/10 Cav, 4th Infantry Division, Central Highlands, ’67-’68.

Today I made it to 6 months—180 days and I’m out of this fucking place. Before I walk to the mess tent for powdered eggs and canned bacon, I write the letters“FVN” with a big black marker on my helmet. So long as we don’t spell out “Fuck Vietnam,” the officers and NCO’s let it slide.

Today is a great day. The first time in three weeks the platoon has no sweep security, no convoy escort, no jungle busting, no strong points. But now I have to figure how to avoid shit burning detail. You know, burning the GI shit in the barrels under the jerry rigged outhouses because there is no plumbing. What to do? You burn it.

Problem solved when Short Arm tells me 33 is going to the Oasis today to fill the water trailer, and they could use another gunner cause Bobby ate something bad and is shitting his brains out. The crew on 33 are good buddies. Last night we got blitzed and trash talked and joked half the night listening to pirated records that Hunt brought back from Taipei on R&R. The battery powered record player is worn out but it all sounds good, but not when Bobby sings along.

Short Arm is the best driver in the platoon, and the Oasis is like Disneyland – a big engineer firebase about 30 klicks east with everlasting hot showers, cold milk and ice cream. What a day! I grab my 79 and a bandoleer of grenades and leave my pistol—no need to take it. The Oasis is just as I hoped. Plus, we are able to walk off with a cooler, fill it with ice and real beer and Coke-a Cola, not the shit we get for free–six to a sandbag Ballantine Ale and Dr. Pepper. I glug down five glasses of milk and a dish of soft serve and Jesus it tastes good.

Around 3 P.M. we head back, towing a big water trailer. When we clear the gate an MP gun jeep comes up alongside, says he’s going to roll with us, along with the truck he is escorting, to our little firebase. Off we go, jeep in front, trailer, truck in the rear. It’s so damn dusty Hunt decides to ride up on the drivers hatch and I sit up on the back hatch—sitting up high is the only way to get a bit above it. You’re a better target up top but we are moving. Besides, there is always the chance the road has been mined and I’ll take my chances getting blown off the track rather than having my legs shattered like Harry did.

The engine on 33 is pretty worn out. It burns oil when Short Arm puts his foot on the pedal and we struggle up any little hill trying to haul the ton and a half trailer. I cough as the black oily exhaust hits me in the face. A few klicks down the road we pull over to where a couple of mama-sans have set up shop. We barter for trinkets and a little pot and set off for the final stretch. We pass by White Bread Village, more on that fucking place some other time, cross the little bridge, and head up the hill into our area of operations. Well, time to change to our troop radio frequency, so I jump down into the track behind Short Arm, bend over, grab the mic and punch the preset.

A blinding yellow light fills my world.

The next thing I know I’m laying against the opposite wall of the track, seeing as though a veil is being lifted from my eyes. Finally, my hearing comes back. Maybe it’s not a veil. Maybe it’s dust settling. Oh shit. We hit a mine! Hands and knees to find the mic and call in to troop. Then I hear the crack of an AK on full auto. Jesus. It’s an ambush. The rounds are hitting the gun shield, jerking it, silence for a second, then a clang against the gun shield followed by a loud explosion. Fuck. That was a grenade. If they land one in the hatch I’m dead. I grab my 79, drop a round into it, stand up in the hatch and look right at a VC fucker with an RPG on his shoulder. He is probably thirty feet away and I am going to send him to goddamn hell. We look at each other for what feels like forever and I realize that my 79 won’t shut. I can’t chamber the fucking round! I reach for my pistol but it’s not there. Another VC with an AK stands up and starts to point it towards me. Shit! What to do? This is not my track, I don’t know where anything is. Fuck Fuck Fuck.

I grab a smoke grenade off the gun shield, pop it and lob it just a few feet away to try and hide us while I figure a way out of this fucking mess. I hear screaming outside the track. I think, okay, open the rear door, jump out, hope the smoke hides me, jump over the trailer hitch, run as fast as I can to the jeep. The M60 is sitting on the mount unused. The two pieces of shit MP’s are hiding in the ditch behind it. I’m screaming at them, losing my mind.  When I jump up and start to dismount the gun the MP sergeant says, “You can’t do that!” Oh yeah. Fuck you!

I take the gun and a belt of ammo, jump down, run across the road, up the berm and into the waist high grass. I start walking to where the VC are, spraying as I walk. I’m walking slow, telling myself “Don’t let them get around you,” but can’t help walking fast. I’m screaming. I’m so fucking mad I’m just screaming and yelling, making no sense at all.

I crest a small rise and look down into the valley we just climbed out of. I see four or five heads moving fast, disappearing into the jungle. Son of a bitch motherfuckers are going to get away. I move towards them firing at where I guess their path is. I’m not thinking. I’m running towards the jungle. I just want to kill them.

And then I get lucky.

The 60 jams. I know what it is – a link caught in the ejector, a five second fix. But this is enough to break my craziness. Suddenly I realize I’m all alone, with fifteen to twenty rounds left, chasing a VC squad into the bush. What the fuck am I doing?! I’m completely panicked, and slowly back up, firing to let them know I’m ready—scared shitless, but ready. The screams still come from the track. My legs are heavy. I’m tired all over.

Back at the track I see Hunt lying in the road. He’s the one been screaming. His  face is gone, I mean gone, pealed like a fucking orange. I jump up on the track to check on Short Arm. Oh fuck. Goddamn it. I just keep staring at him. He has no eyes. Black soot rings his mouth, eye sockets, ears, nose. His heads thrown back, eye sockets staring at the sky. I look down the hatch and see his pink and carbonized guts spilled on his legs.

I hear noise and realize the troop has arrived. There’s a slick landing in the grass. The captain walks over, tells me I radioed an accurate call for help—location, enemy force size, all that shit. Asks if I’m okay and gives me a funny look. I turn to the LT and ask him what the fuck is the captain talking about. He says the whole platoon heard my call and were rolling out the gate in less than a minute. I don’t remember making the call.

Doc bandages Hunt. He shoots him up, comes over to me. He asks if I’m hurt and I show him my left arm. I tell him it’s no big deal. He looks in my eyes, says I should probably go back to a med unit on the chopper with Hunt. Before he leaves he hands me his canteen and towel and helps me wash my face. “You’re covered in blood and stuff. Let’s clean you up.”

Ambling to the chopper, I look back and see them trying to pull Short Arm out of the driver’s seat. It’s messy. They roll him up in a poncho, put the poncho behind the pilots, lay Hunt next to him. I sit on the seat. As the slick takes off and banks, part of Short Arm slides out from the poncho onto the steel floor. During the flight I can’t help but stare at the two of them.

The medic at the hospital uses tweezers to pull bunches of once molten aluminum droplets, and bone shrapnel from Short Arm’s rib cage, from out of my left arm. He tells me I’m lucky to be alive. No shit.
I’m grimmer now. Not gung ho. It’s gonna be a very tough trip, the next 180 days.

The wake ups pass into weeks and I live for the end, whatever that might be. I still laugh and horse around but the icy cold lurks beneath the surface. After a time, from jungle busting, we have a different mission. Around 6 P.M., after a long, wet, muddy march along a cart path leading down into the Ia Drang Valley, we circled the tracks on a small hill in an even smaller clearing. All day long we’d taken sniper fire and figured it came from NVA scouts who were tailing us. We’re here to help the 1st of the 8th Infantry, who’d been pounded by an NVA regiment good at ambushing grunts. Starting with ten tracks, we’re down to six; the rest sit along the path–guarding a breakdown the crew will work all night to fix.

The jungle, dripping wet, is close around us. The tall trees block any real light; the monsoon rain and dark clouds only make things worse. Willy and I pass the time talking about home. The World we call it—Willy about his girlfriend, me about mine. By midnight were talked out. It’s quiet.

Still, we’re on full alert. The noisy engines run off and on to charge the batteries;  the diesel exhaust fumes make it hard to breathe; we’re slapping at clouds of mosquitoes.

At 3 A.M. the captain calls in artillery to break up any NVA who might be gathering near us. The sound of the explosions, the whirring shrapnel crashing through trees–it’s ear shattering. A short round sends a shock wave across us. I feel it hit my chest.

Finally it’s morning and our grim mood lifts. With daylight it’s our turn to be gods of war. After a short talk with the LT we recon the jungle around us. It’s pretty busted up—trees knocked down, the earth torn up where the shells made it through the canopy.

With the rest of the squad, Willy, Jonesy and I walk another forty meters into an open area.  I nearly stumble on a torn up NVA. He’d been hit by shrapnel and pieces of him are missing. His eyes are open. He’s moaning softly. Wheezing. Is he dying? Maybe. Or maybe not. But then I thought of Sweet Pea, Short Arm, Hunt and Junior. I switch the 79 to my left hand and pulled out my .45 pistol. I’m thinking “Fuck you,” and I shoot him in the head. Willy runs over and grabs his blood soaked belt. Jonesy is pissed he missed it, but all his  gear is missing. We continue the sweep.

Later that morning I sit by a log to eat C-rat beans and franks. While I’m eating I look behind me and see a dead NVA. His insides are torn out and covered with flies. For some reason I can’t smell him, but his skin is white and starting to turn gray. I finish my meal and toss the empty can into the pile of guts. I watch the buzzing flies rise and circle down. It’s all just garbage, mind you, might as well add to the pile. In the distance I hear the sound of tank and M113 engines as the rest of the troop joins us. I don’t yet realize that I’m a profoundly broken human being, who will one day beg for mercy.

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top photo: Pete Sablock stands behind an M113 gun shield with the M60. He is wearing really uncomfortable headphones under his helmet so he can monitor additional radio traffic. His trusty smoke grenade hangs off the gun shield in case the crew loads a beehive round while busting through jungle.