Mike Derrig and the Gang That Wouldn’t Shoot Straight

Forty years after the war Medic and M79 man Mike Derrig caught up in Portland, Maine. I met his lovely wife Robyn, stayed a night or two in their welcoming house, the war inside it all but invisible. It was a good visit. I recall the  high school football game, Mike’s quarterback son relentlessly pushing his team downfield. I recall the sudden sight of Mike’s Harley 1200, the machine gun roar of the engine. “Hold on, Doc,” he said, and gunned it on the straight away. I recall the moment we tiptoed around the day Mike got shot in Cambodia, the million dollar wounds his ticket back to the world.

Ten years later Mike came round to telling me how it happened. As an FNG he had point.

“I hated it,” he said. “They might as well have dropped me off from the corner I was hanging out on when I was drafted. I had no idea what I was doing. After a few weeks on point, I’m sitting next to a guy I didn’t know from jack, and he says, ‘Two days and a wake up, I’m out of this shithole.’ I asked him, ‘Who’s going to take the M79 you’re carrying?’ and he says, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ I said, ‘Can I have it?’ and he says it again, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ Log day came, I went to the guy and said, ‘How about the 79?’ The guy removed his 79 vest, handed it and the thumper to me, I gave him my M16. No shit. Just like that I had the grenade launcher. I’m waiting for someone to come up and say, ‘Hey, FNG! I’ll take that!’ Never happened.”

“One day with the launcher, we’re on patrol, I’m second to last in line. A six-foot-four bald-headed soul brother named Buddha is behind me. We stop, and I notice Buddha has his finger on the trigger. I said, ‘Buddha, you got that on safety right?’ He said, ‘Fuck no, Mike. Mother fucking gook’s come at me, I’m gonna be ready.’ I said, ‘But if you trip, you’ll fucking blow me away.’ He said, ‘Sorry, Mike. No safety.’ I said, ‘Buddha, I’ll walk last in line and you walk in front of me. Buddha said ‘cool’ and that was that. I had three blissful months of walking next to last in line. Fucking heaven.”

One fateful day Mike, weighing all of one-hundred and forty-pounds, was handed the twenty-six pound M60 machine gun, and lengthy belts of ammo.

“Fucking bullshit,” said Mike. “The only time I ever fired a machine gun was a few rounds in AIT. A Southern Black E-7 lifer was telling a bunch of us Northeastern recruits how to break down and re-assemble an M-60. We’re all looking at each other saying, ‘What the fuck is he talking about?’ Couldn’t understand a word he said. Anyway that was my one experience with the gun before I got shot.”

It happened in Cambodia on 27 May 1970. Twelve days after LZ Ranch was overrun. That night, we lost five men. Twenty-six were wounded.

“There wasn’t a fucking GI within twenty yards protecting my ass,” said Mike. “Not one of them fired back at the gook that shot me. Cocksuckers. We were a half-assed bunch if you ask me. And that red-haired lieutenant never came around to our squad, not even once to check up on us, to see how we’re doing. He was good with the radio calling in night rounds, but had zero ties with his platoon. At least my squad.”

He meant Lt. Steve Sharp, aka Carrot Top. I said Carrot Top was good in combat, and mostly stayed with the platoon CP, where I got to know him.

Mike asked me the name of the lieutenant who’d ordered him to take the gun too far down that wide gravel road, where he got hit. A few days earlier soul Lt. Steve Sharpbrother Glenn Williams handed off the 60 to Mike—but who ordered the switch? And why Mike, a skinny, one hundred and forty pound white guy from Maine? Guys like Knuckles should have carried it. And when that other fuckhead lieutenant told Mike to go WAY down that gravel road, why weren’t Mike’s ammo bearers with him?

“I never looked over my shoulder to see who was with me,” he said. “I just assumed I wasn’t alone. But after I was hit I heard voices yelling from afar, “‘Fire the gun Mike. Fire the gun.”

Mike was yanking the bolt and pulling the trigger again and again but nothing was happening. An AK round went through the gun and disabled it. “I mean, the guys weren’t even near me. What the fuck? And no return fire from our guys until how many minutes later? WTF again! It wasn’t malice, just pure incompetence. I mean FUBAR for sure,” he said.

The fact that nobody was with him, that there was no return fire, had bothered Mike for fifty years. “What do you think happened, Doc? Lt. Sharp never would have handled the situation like that.” As I patched him up, Mike recalled saying to me, “Doc, I have a little weed in my pack, take care of it for me. Don’t know what’ll happen if they catch me with it in the rear.”

He hoped to take his ruck with him on the medevac but two grunts stole the valuables while he we carried him to the chopper.

“Oh yeah,” said Mike, “one of the guys who was there saw the gook stand up from the tree—he was looking to finish me off. If that’s the case, why didn’t somebody shoot his fucking ass? That shit bothers me, Doc. I need to decompress. Next time, I’ll tell you what that fuckhead lieutenant said to me that day.”

I felt bad for Mike, and deeply regretted kicking up old dirt. I said the man who sent him out that day was Lieutenant Herbert Green. A country boy from Nebraska. Every morning Green bugged me to spread zinc oxide on his nose—to protect it from sun-burn. “You might remember his white nose, his big, eager, dumb as shit face, his Leave It To Beaver hair cut.” I said Lieutenant Green seemed unaware that no one in the platoon liked him. The guy was a doofus, and never fit in.  The company records show he didn’t last long in the unit.

Why did Mike get put on the 60? Chalk it up to bad karma. I said Green was a fuck up unfit for combat. I said Carrot Top would have done things right.  As would Captain Hyslop, who loved combat. Lived for it.

I reminded Mike that morale in Cambodia was piss poor, and recalled a patrol that walked seventy  meters into the jungle, sat for fifteen minutes, then trudged back to the CP, our squad leader telling Carrot Top, “Nothing out there, sir.” Another day, a couple of FNGs on ambush froze when a group of NVA walked past. I couldn’t believe it. But that’s what you get with shitty morale in the enemy’s back yard in a dumb fuck, half ass war.

“Mike, I understand your anger,” I said. “In those first seconds, when you were desperate, no one fired or rushed forward. I can’t imagine what that was like. But see it this way: poor morale, lousy training, those guys were scared shitless. Maybe it’s too strong, maybe not: they were cowards. Either way, no leader pushing them, they hung back. Michael, listen to me. If there was one brave grunt in those first moments, trying to fire the busted 60, trying to fire it, it was you. Afterward, wounded, shocked out, you had no chance to shame the men who failed you, abandoned you, when you needed them most.”

I found info online about Lieutenant Herbert Green and showed it to Mike. Green had gone to prep school, college, made a career of the Army, worked his way up to light bird, became an insurance executive, volunteered at the American Legion, retired. “A conventional success,” I wrote “but in fact, a fuck up.”

“Doc,” he said, “You hit the nail on the head. It never occurred to me they were scared—because if I had shot an NVA troop, I would have fucking blasted away with glee. Unbelievable, Doc. It’s a relief to finally have some closure on that day. You’re also right that Lt. Sharp would have handled it completely different. Fuck me. I have no idea who my ammo bearers were. Where was Sharp, was his tour over? Was he back in the rear? This is turning into a stream of consciousness, Doc—so I’m going to keep on going.”

“I only had the 60 for a few days, that’s why I don’t remember my bearers, and my encounter with Green was the one and only time I talked to him. That asshole was standing smack in the middle of that gravel road giving orders. We all know never to stand or walk on a road or trail, but there he was, fucking blabbing away. Doc, this has been eating at me for fifty years. He told me to set up my 60 way down the road, probably seventy yards away. I said, ‘Sir, way down there?’ He said, ‘Don’t me give any shit. Go where I tell you to.'”

“Halfway to where he said to go, I said to myself, fuck this—and took the gun off my shoulder. The gook probably thought I saw him and he opened up. I didn’t hear anything, but I saw the muzzle flash—and I knew that wasn’t right. Didn’t even knock me over. I just jumped into the jungle and tried to return fire. But one AK round went through the meat of the gun, the second bullet literally stuck on the skin of my stomach, and the third round nicked off the top of the gun, went through my forearm and landed about an inch into my elbow. The gun was totaled. That’s when my brave compadres started yelling ‘Fire the gun mike! Fire the gun!’ Really? That’s what I was trying to do! And no one returned fire for a long, long time. I mean minutes. What the fuck!”

“So the gun wouldn’t fire, and I feel warmth on my arm. I look down and I see a bullet in my elbow and a bullet on my stomach. Still no return gunfire. I yelled ‘Medic!’ and Doc Levy shows up in a jiff. Thanks, Doc. You said to me ‘You’re awfully calm for getting shot,’ and I don’t know what I said in return. Maybe something about cleaning out my ruck in case I had to take it to the rear. The medevac dropped a litter through the jungle and hoisted me away to a hospital in Saigon. I’m a lucky guy. Doc, many years ago you gave me an after action report and whomever, probably Green, had the sniper being 70 yards away. Total bullshit. He shot me from maybe half that distance. I hope that incompetent, feckless prick reads this. That cocksucker almost got me killed.”

I couldn’t locate the report, so Mike asked about Glenn Williams, and Rudy Estrada and Ed Torres. I said Glenn was hit the same day Bill Williams was shot. One night an AA [automatic ambush] exploded; the next morning the platoon reconned the area. Six or seven guys, cluster-fucked, were in front of me—as they walked down a hill the surviving NVA opened fire. Someone called for a frag—I tossed one up. Mike Wilson or Larry Roy threw it. Everyone ducked at the fiery blast. Someone yelled “Medic!” I crawled forward and found Bill Williams lying on his back, staring at the sky. “Bill, it’s Doc. Where you hit?” He didn’t move. Didn’t blink. I saw dark blood dripping from the ugly gash in the back of his head and patched Bill up. Two grunts helped me drag him down the hill, back to the company.

Head medic Roye Abbott gave Bill mouth-to-mouth with a plastic tube. I went over to Glenn, who’d been shot in the leg. He was groaning in pain. After I bandaged Glenn up he yelled, “Give me a fucking morphine, Doc!,” which I did.  Then he hollared “someone give me a fucking joint!” And they did.

Everyone liked Bill Williams. He was older, more mature than the rest of us. A college graduate, engaged to be married, he’d already been wounded, had a rear job typing casualty reports. But when the brass told Bill to lower our casualty figures, and increase the enemy body count, Bill said, “No—can’t do it.” They warned him. When he refused orders he was sent to us. Bill died a few days after he was shot. Head wounds are like that.

I liked Ed Torres, but the curly-headed Mexican pointman from California almost killed me during a break on patrol. I was seated across from him, back against a tall tree, when Ed’s shotgun slipped or fell and blasted a hole in the bark a few inches above my head.  Years later I couldn’t locate Ed. I wrote to Glenn and Rudy, but never heard back.

Mike said he really appreciated all the time I’d spent listening to him. He’d shared this stuff with his sons, who learned things about him they never knew. Reflecting on our talk, Mike said he finally had some closure on the guys who didn’t step up for him in combat. He had no bitterness toward them. At least not like on 28 May 1970.

“The same goes for Lt. Green,” he said. “Now that I know what happened, I’m okay with it. If you’re interested, I have a few more good stories to tell you.”

I said, “Sure, Mike. And glad to help out.”

We both understood that whatever you did in war will always be with you.  Always.


Top photo: Mike Derrig with his beloved M79. Tay Ninh, 1970.

Read more about Mike Derrig in The War…On Drugs