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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Firefight in the Mekong Delta

Firefight in the Mekong Delta
March, 1968 - A story never told. I have always been very silent about my experience in Vietnam. After 47 years, it's time to say something.
My name is Gary D. Snay
I served with 3rd Platoon, Delta Company, 4th Battalion, 9th US Infantry (Manchu), 25th Infantry Division, 1967 - 1968. This is a link to the Delta Company roster with my name on the Manchu Website. I'm not making this story up.
Assault helicopters with their guns blazing, hovered above the water and the troops disembarked. Jumping into the black water, five or six feet above the surface, caused one to sink into the muddy mess up to his chest. We were in the Mekong Delta again.

A miserable place for Infantry. Mile upon mile of flooded marshland, rising and shrinking in depth, according to the ocean tide. There were patches of mud peaking above the water providing some relief when the tide retreated. A thousand small islands, sprouting tall trees, dotted an endless ocean of mysterious filthy water. Endless, if you had to tread the void on foot.

Swarms of predatory mosquitoes, detecting fresh blood, would attack all hours of the day and night. They journeyed in rolling clouds, surging in infinite shapes, not unlike a swarm of schooling fish. Hovering above the soaked and sweating troops, they would dive bomb at random for a meal. Their bites caused welts on exposed skin causing boils full of puss to form. After bursting, your sweat would sting the raw flesh.

This was a favorite hiding place for the North Vietnamese Army. Only Assault Infantry could
tread the Mekong Delta. There were few roads. The swamp made it impossible for Armor or Mechanized Infantry to traverse the dreadful environment of the Mekong. On this day, the
Fourth Battalion, Ninth US Infantry (Manchu), Twenty Fifth Infantry Division would seek out, close with, and destroy elements of the North Vietnamese Army. Many young men would die. In civilian life they called it pre-meditated murder
There were poisonous snakes in every thorny bush that would hiss when you passed too close. Huge alligators lurked in the smelly water with their eyes and noses above the steamy cesspool of stinking, rotting vegetation. Most of the time they would flee if they could get away.  Sometimes they lurched and snapped at you if they felt trapped, however these pests were the least of the areas attractions.

Blood sucking leeches assured nightmares many years into the future. They started out no bigger than tiny little white worms barely visible to the eye. Within half an hour, attaching themselves to your skin, they would swell up to the size of your index finger, filled with your blood.

Dozens of bloodsuckers would cover your body anywhere below the waterline, which at times was a high as your chest. We stopped at least once an hour, whenever we could find a mound of mud rising from the murky water, just to extract the leeches from our skin.

You couldn't grab them by their tails and just pull them off. They would dig into your flesh and penetrated as much as a half-inch into your body, sucking your blood. Their saliva would numb your flesh, disguising their feeding activity.

If you pulled them out, part of their black body (their bodies turned black as they gorged on blood) would break off and remain inside your flesh causing infections later on. You didn't go back to a field hospital with your welts and infections. You could go back if disease from their eggs infested your bloodstream making you sick. Otherwise, you just suffered all the time.

We used alcohol-based mosquito repellent to get them out of our bodies. The leeches, touched by the repellent, squirming in agony, would extract their bloated bodies out of their feeding hole, allowing the chance to squash them. It was fun witnessing our blood spray in all directions after popping their bodies, which had become like swollen balloons. Some of the troops snapped the leeches off purposely in hopes of getting an infection. Six months in a hospital was preferable to enduring the Mekong Delta or taking a bullet.

The Battalion moved through the Mekong in four columns. Each column comprised of a company of about 125 troops. The columns, separated from one another by about 1,000 yards (a click on the map). They headed towards several patches of solid ground, each about an acre in size (some larger) and surrounded by thick cactus hedgerows. The hedgerows were so thick, a tank couldn't get through them. (Not that a tank would be out there, but it made you wonder what purpose the hedgerows had in the past, considering the terrain).

This sanctuary of multiple dry patches of land was a suspected base camp for a North Vietnamese Army unit. Manchu’s job was to kill the young men of North Vietnam who were defending their country from foreign invaders. There would be no mercy.

The NVA never surrendered. They would kill you without hesitation and you would return the favor. This simple rule always prevailed. Very little mercy existed anywhere in the Mekong.

I was depressed most of my tour seeing young Americans die for a cause so unjust. Dying for nothing. I still carry this depression with me. I have never gotten over how useless my service in Vietnam was. The reality of young men, dying in agony and without a cause, still embitters me.

The South Vietnamese government was far more lawless than the Communist troops we were fighting. The people we came to help hated our guts because we were foreigners. The South Vietnamese Army didn't want to fight. If they wouldn't fight for their country, why should we?  It was all very depressing.

I wasn't part of a liberating army but instead had become an aggressor helping to kill people who had done no harm to me or my family. I began to compare my service to German soldiers invading Poland in WWII. I was following orders, like the Germans, and was a loyal trooper but had become a killer without a cause. Only 20 years old, I lost faith in my country. Religion left my soul and faith became an abstract and confusing concept. I never recovered or became normal again.

I was a squad leader. As my company (Delta Co.) approached one of the dry patches of land, we paused in order to look over our approach and define what we needed to do. My squad was point for the platoon that day, which meant we were going in first. If Sir Charles (that’s what we called the North Vietnamese Army) was present, it meant someone in my squad was going to die.

One of the Battalion’s Companies was already fully engaged on our right flank. A huge firefight
was going on. Machine guns and small arms fire with many explosions shook the ground. People were dying. Considering our right flank, we felt like the North Vietnamese were in front of us. There was nowhere to hide. It was daylight and we would be easy targets. We all knew it might be our last day. This thought weighed on our minds, a lot. 

Suddenly, "Infantry Fear," experienced throughout history, became our reality. It’s not as if we were armed robbers stealing from a bank. Thieves aren't willing to die in order to take what isn't theirs. Someone expected us to give our lives for a cause never defined. People with those expectations were far away and safe. Unknown people demanded we die that were not willing to be with us.

We were young men, engaged in a ground assault, which could kill us. We bonded with the Australians at Gallipoli. Russians assaulting German lines without a weapon had become our brothers. We connected to Roman soldiers fighting the barbarians from the north. They all stepped forward only to die and now it was our turn. What makes men do that?

There was an advantage to being a squad leader. You never had to take Point. Though at times, I took Point when it became obvious one person was doing too much and his probability of dying was getting too high. All I know for sure is I never saw an officer on Point in my squad. There were no Green Berets. They were too busy torturing helpless, defenseless people. Doctors’ sons were not in my squad, nor were sons of politicians. The children of the rich and famous were not in the Mekong Delta for this confrontation.

We were envious of and hated the rich children who could avoid the draft by going to school or running to Canada. Either that or they could fly around the skies of Texas defending America in a jet they weren't qualified to fly, like George W. Bush.  Were they any more special than we were?  

Those of us in the Mekong were about to step forward and give our lives for no apparent reason. We were far better men than cowards like Dick Cheney and those like him, who
thought they were too good to be with us that day in the Mekong. The best of America and North Vietnam was about to perish in the middle of nowhere.

Every squad had a radio and someone would have to carry the radio. He never took Point either. Each squad had two M-48 grenade launchers and the rounds they fired wouldn't arm themselves until they had traveled 30 feet. They couldn't take Point because most of our initial combat involved ambushes, which took place in less than 30 feet. Troops carrying grenade launchers couldn't take point.

Each squad had someone carry the M-60 machine gun and an ammo carrier who carried extra belts of 7.62 mm ammunition for the “gun”. The “gun” was too important to lose if there was an ambush, so the gunner and the ammo carrier never took Point.  If a squad was at full strength, only four guys were available to take Point.

If you were one of the four men, the odds of going home in a box was very good. Almost all-initial contact with the enemy resulted in the Point man dying or becoming so injured he wished he had died. The truth is, we were never at full strength. Most of the time my squad had only seven or eight people because of constant casualties. This caused even greater odds of death for those who took Point.

I brought my squad together behind a big bush for cover. I had to discuss our approach. In the meantime, artillery began to pound the area we were about to go into.  They were using those big 175’s (artillery) and as the rounds passed over our heads, one could feel the change in the air pressure, the electricity. I had heard the 175’s lobbed 200-pound shells, but I was never
sure about that. The explosion of their rounds was deafening.

As the rounds hit the ground, ripples in the water would appear and the feeling of concussion would envelop us. The area was awash with the sounds of combat both nearby and in the distance. The noise was deafening and it became difficult to converse with my squad above the roar.

The power of modern warfare is very humbling. Visions of past friends, just a couple days earlier, their lives snuffed out in the most horrible manner, flooded my thoughts. The enemy was present. They were waiting for me. In a little while, large amounts of my blood and flesh could be rotting in the sun so far away from home.

It’s the fear I remember most, years later, when all alone with my thoughts. Every soldier thinks he will be brave and courageous, but thoughts like that are for children and for people not in the Infantry. Courage is a myth. All the rest of my years are now spent knowing I'm not a brave man.

Many Infantry soldiers, having experienced that kind of sustained fear, become humbled by the experience. I can always tell true Infantry because they never brag or boast. Fear penetrates all your thoughts and will always be present in the future. Once experienced, bragging and boasting disappears. 

Reduced to a trembling crybaby, the memory of those fearful days never leave your consciousness. One becomes silent. Bragging to others, years later, is so un-manly. Telling stories no one understands is a waste of time.

The enemy is waiting for you. He has a big gun and he knows how to shoot it. He will kill you and no prayer in the world will help you. Go ahead, take the next step. Get up, step forward. Be a brave man, draw near to him. He is waiting for you. He wants to kill you. Later, you will not brag because you never forget how afraid you were.

We were all Flower Children. The North Vietnamese Army wore flowers on their straw helmets and had “Ban the Bomb” symbols all over their clothing. Both sides flashed the peace sign in their everyday lives.

Once, on the Cambodian border, our company was moving on the edge of a tree line and there was a big opening between our tree line and the tree line across the field. Suddenly, looking on the other side, we saw a column of North Vietnamese troops following the edge of trees on their side. We looked at one another in a frozen stare, not knowing what to do. All of a sudden, they all flashed the peace sign at us.

We gave the peace sign back and both columns turned into the woods not having any further contact that day or night. North Vietnamese and American Hippies saying hello to each other in a combat zone. The Age of Aquarius spread quickly throughout the world. Such a powerful movement.

Artillery had changed the type of rounds they were lobbing into the assault zone. They went from HE (high explosive) to White Phosphorus. To this day, I'm not sure if White Phosphorus was legal to use back then or if it is legal today.  All I know is that there are horrible consequences with White Phosphorus.

Once it touches your skin, it begins to burn white-hot and if a fragment gets on your arm it will burn completely through in a matter of seconds. It can burn holes through a steel helmet and continue through your skull. It is a horrible weapon.

When white phosphorus rounds began coming in, my squad began its push towards the enemy. All the other squads from my platoon were assaulting as well. We were still in the flood waters of the Mekong as we approached our target. The only thing we could see were the thick hedgerows. Dry land wasn't visible yet.

We were all firing our weapons but no fire came back at us. It reminded me of those practice assaults back in Germany firing at an imaginary enemy, using blanks. The only difference being our use of live rounds. There was a reason for enemy silence though. The reason goes to the nature of the North Vietnamese soldier. In my opinion, his toughness and discipline were without equal.

Sir Charles knew if he engaged us from a distance, we would simply pull back and pulverize his location with artillery, gun ships, and Phantom strikes dropping napalm. He was too smart for that to happen so he would wait for you. Getting very close eliminated our supporting fire and it became a “one on one” fight for life. Up close, you could see the face of the man killing you. If you got him first, you remembered his face all your life. It was very personal and very close. We may as well have been using swords.

In truth, we didn’t know if Sir Charles was directly in front of us or not. Other units were in contact on both our flanks but had no meaning as to what was in front of us. The enemy would stay silent right up to where he could see the whites of your eyes. He would be so camouflaged you couldn't see him five feet away. Then, with no chance of missing you, he would end your life.

To my squads left, another squad was pressing forward just to the front of us. We had begun to hit dry ground (more like thick mud) as we closed in on the hedgerows. The phosphorus rounds created an extremely bright flash of light and even in daylight, the brightness of the flash, silhouetted figures of assault troops moving forward.

Then in a brief moment, while lying on my stomach, I saw an image, which would surface later in my life. In fact, the memory has surfaced as I write this story. I now understand what they mean by the term “Delayed Stress Syndrome”. Writing this story makes me remember details I have forgotten for the past 47 years.

It seems bad sleep habits are part of my entire life. Waking up several times during the night not knowing why. Getting nervous, pacing around in the dark, worrying about things and not knowing what the problem was. Sometimes, people who have slept with me heard a low barely audible crying sound come from me. Upon awakening, I would not remember anything.

Writing this story is like a therapy session. After all these years, I’m beginning to remember things. One aspect is that I can finally tell the story because it would be a shame to let these memories disappear upon my final demise. On the other hand, these memories are now with me whenever I’m awake.  I have now become obsessed with the memories all days and nights.

As I was saying, in a bright flash, I saw the silhouette of a soldier moving forward, half crouched down, firing his M-16, orange/red tracers spewing out and green tracer fire passing by him in the opposite direction. Like a branding iron, the image scorched my mind forever, retrieved only now.

I never knew what happened to the assaulting soldier. Too much was going on around me to see if he had made it. I have remembered that brave soldier. He will stay with me all the rest of my life. It took great courage to do what he was doing.

Years later and in present time, people disparage and insult the Flower Children. Its a criticism not deserved. Even today, the very people claiming to believe in Jesus chastise and ridicule people calling for peace and love. Is there something wrong with peace and love? The movement changed the world forever. However, like all social movements, the most radical participants defined the Age of Aquarius.

In truth, the movement was very conservative in nature. Peace and love are not some wild-eyed Liberal dream. It was an undertaking based on the teachings of Jesus. It wasn't until all the Midwestern and Eastern whack jobs invaded the crusade and corrupted the spirit of the movement. That’s when things got out of hand. In the beginning, drugs were not part of the circle. Outsiders brought in drugs and spelled doom for the children of Jesus.

The Flower Children of America bled out on the battlefields of Viet Nam and gave their lives while not knowing why they paid such a high price. In the past, America’s war always had a clear cause. There was a reason to die. Survivors back home were consoled with the fact that their loved ones gave his/her life for a reason. In the “Nam”, we didn’t know what the cause was. Back home, mothers and fathers were burying their children and didn’t know why.

My squad was not receiving any direct fire so laying on my belly I yelled out over the roar of the battle, it was time to go in. There was a small opening in the hedgerow just to our right and I headed towards it on my belly with my squad following.

Artillery was laying down white phosphorus just on the other side of the hedgerow and I swear some of the white-hot particles were falling all around my squad. Fortunately, none of the fragments hit any of us.  I had a bad feeling about what lay around the corner and beyond the hedgerow but there was no choice. Only twenty years old, afraid to die, I pushed my squad forward.

Earlier I had picked who would take point. This would be the person entering the opening in the hedgerow exposing himself to whatever was over there first. I had lost two point men in the past and I remember their faces to this day. The first one occurred when there was no contact. It was quiet, the wind was blowing the leaves on the trees, and it was a beautiful day.

The forest was very thick and my point man had to hack a path through the jungle using a machete. The thickness of the woods created a furnace of heat and humidity so stifling it became hard to breath. A heavy load of grenades, ammo, a mortar round and a bandolier of M-60 ammunition, along with my own weapon, caused red raw lesions on the skin where straps and sweat met.

There were no birds singing and the insects had gone silent. I knew something was going to happen. Out there, in the woods, you connect to nature. There’s a moment of clairvoyance, and you know something is about to happen. I took the safety off my rifle and began to crouch down.

Suddenly, out of nowhere a single shot rang out.  A sudden rush of fear and adrenalin rushed through my body and before I hit the ground, I almost emptied a clip of bullets on full automatic.

You learn very quickly, if caught in an ambush, your only chance of survival was to fire as many bullets as possible. It didn’t matter if you hit anything. The act of putting out large volumes of fire could disrupt someone shooting at you just long enough to make him jerk his rifle. The sound of automatic fire was horrendous and it would scare him into missing you.

If you could see a target, you had less than a second to hit him before he hits you. In this particular instance, while falling to the ground, I saw the muzzle flash of an automatic weapon aimed at me less than ten feet away. In the time it took me to hit the ground, I hit him first. I’m writing this story because I won and he lost. A split second was the difference among whom lived and died. It was just plain luck.

The kid I had killed was about 18 years old. I buried him and prayed for his soul. He was a great deal like me. You carry something like that all your life. I haven’t forgotten him all these years. I wish I could apologize to his family.

On that quiet day, my point man was less than 20 feet away when he went down. It became obvious we were not in a heavy ambush. No machine guns or explosions or the rapid crack of bullets broke the sound barrier. I could see my point man writhing on the ground in silence just in front of me.

I crawled up to him and found a bullet had entered his right side just under his rib cage. The bullet exited out his left side through his shoulder, nearly tearing it off. Shot low, the bullet had traveled upward through his body. His face, covered in blood, the blood vessels in his eyes bursting. He was spewing vomit and blood all over his chest and the ground.

It took five minutes for him to die. I sat there helpless and watched, shedding tears. He didn't hear a word I had said. He was in his death throws. He was my friend. He told me once he was still a virgin. He could only grow peach fuzz on his face. Harsh conditions develop close friendships very fast.

Now, we were in the Mekong and I had to pick another point man. This time, a different location and the garish thunder of combat all about us. This time we knew Sir Charles was there. The odds were good for ambush. This time we knew whoever went around the corner of the hedgerow first, would possibly stop breathing. It was very hard to pick a point man in those circumstances.

Odd how I remember the eyes. When you look at someone and tell him to be point and there’s a good chance he will die, I remember the eyes most. The eyes always descend to the ground. There is a look of terror, then sorrow. However, not one of my three dead point men, refused to go. No one argued or put up a fuss. Each one took point, and then died. I’ll always remember them. They took point knowing they would die, and did.

The Platoon leader was screaming over the radio to move forward. I remember thinking how brave of him to sit far behind us, out of harm’s way and tell us to move forward. It’s easy to tell someone over a radio to do something that will kill him. I never saw an officer on point with my squad. I guess I needed orders to press forward because common sense said don’t do it. I wonder, if the officer was just a rifleman in my squad, would he have moved forward?  He
Move Out!
probably would have. We were all that way.

On my stomach, I looked very carefully around the corner of the hedgerow. Moving too quickly, attracted attention. If you weren't there, you would have a hard time envisioning the hedgerow. It was at least ten feet high and another ten feet deep. It was made of cactus sporting two inch spears hard as steel. There wasn't a way to enter the cactus, hide in its cover and see into the clearing.

It was like looking around the edge of a solid wall. Scary, because my head was an easy target for a sniper beyond the wall of spikes. I was scared my brains would mix with the mud. I could see that the clearing inside the square hedgerow was not dry ground. The ground was above water but composed of mud about half of a foot thick. I saw no movement or obvious presence of the enemy.

I looked and looked as long as I dared, and then told the point man to go forward through the opening in the cactus, veer along the right side of the hedgerow, others to follow. I had to yell at members of my squad to get up and follow into the opening. 

 If I hadn't yelled and cussed, I'm not sure they would have all gone through the opening. There was an overwhelming fear engulfing us all. When the last man went through, I finally stood up and entered the opening.

I hadn't taken ten steps when two enemy soldiers opened up on my squad. There was a small clump of thorny cactus about twenty feet inside the clearing, in the open and separate from the rest of the hedgerow. The cactus only stood about three feet high but two North Vietnamese soldiers had dug themselves into the roots concealing themselves. They were below ground level and had perfect cover.

Later, I reflected on the shear tenacity and hard-core nature of those two North Vietnamese soldiers. Digging into that thorny bush, into its roots took a toughness I didn’t possess. Laying in that position for an eternity, while enduring heavy artillery fire had to be excruciatingly difficult to endure. What they did amazed me and I later realized they were tougher than I was.

The enemy had the nine of us (including myself) in the open, without cover, standing up and only about 15 to 20 feet between their guns and our bodies. One enemy soldier had what appeared to be an AK-47 and was firing full automatic, while the other person had a Kalashnikov belt fed machine gun, firing full auto as well. It was murder. It was too easy.

Both their guns swept left to right from their perspective, almost as though they had rehearsed what they would do in advance. They were both firing all green tracers and I could see their bullets hitting members of my squad. Their guns sweeping toward me with perfect clarity. Several members of my squad opened fire towards the entrenched enemy, including myself. None of us hit our target.

I emptied a full clip in about five seconds towards the enemy but in my panic and in my fear, I didn't hit anything. Before my M-16 went empty, I ran to my left, back to the inside of the hedgerow to what looked like a hole from an artillery shell.

Green tracers passed by the right and left of me. I heard the sizzle of a couple bullets pass by my head. Later, after it was all over, I noticed what looked like bullet holes in my shirt and a sizable nick in my helmet. They never touched my skin. It was sheer luck.

I dove head first into the artillery hole filled with thick mud and lined with those spear like thorns
t was very muddy
from the hedgerows. In the process, both my arms suffered slash wounds from the thorns and caused several piercings all over my body. In an adrenaline rush, I didn’t notice anything until much later.

Completely submerged in mud, eyes blinded and thrashing about, I had difficulty finding my helmet.  It took a few moments to wipe the sludge from my eyes just to see. When I dove into the pigpen, my rifle went in first, rendering it useless. Any attempt to fire a round would have exploded the barrel. The rifle, clogged with mud, needed clearing or I would die.

Have you ever had a dream where you were running in sand but couldn’t get anywhere? It felt as though I were in quicksand as I groped for my cleaning rod, trying to find a cloth swab caked in mud, breaking open the breach, and pushing the mud from the barrel. The two ambushing soldiers were still firing their weapons. I couldn’t see what had happened to my squad because blocking my view and just in front of me, Skip (a soldier in my squad) must have had the same idea I had, and was diving for cover with me.

Skip didn’t make it. He took at least one bullet and only an arm’s length from me I could hear him moaning in between the bursts of fire from the enemy. I could touch his head with my hand. Looking around his body, I could see both enemy soldiers sitting up waist high above their holes, carefully taking aim and firing single shots. They were executing the squirming wounded members of my squad. I could do nothing. My gun was still jammed. 

By the way. In the military you never call your rifle a "gun". That's a sin in the military.Your rifle is a "piece". What the heck, it's 47 years after the military and I'm a civilian now. I'll call the thing anything I want now.

Finally, I managed to ram the cleaning rod through the barrel pushing out the mud. Closing the breach, I had to get the empty magazine out of the rifle but mud clogged the release button. After several tries, the magazine ejected, falling into the sludge. Reaching into my muddy bag and wiping mud off the magazine, I was able to seat a round into the chamber. It was too late.

I watched an enemy soldier turn his rifle toward Skip and in an instant, a green streaking bullet penetrated Skip’s body exiting his right side, just missing me. I heard Skip give out one last moan and taking his last breath, he was gone. Just two seconds earlier, I could have taken the enemy out and maybe Skip would be alive today. I would never know. Because of revived memory, I now wake up just before finding out if Skip would have lived.

Skip’s body must have covered me from eyesight because the enemy never saw me. In his adrenaline rush, the enemy had not observed carefully enough, missing me entirely.  He was turning his rifle towards someone else to his left when I hit him square with a bullet midway up his rib cage on his right side.

I had to be less than thirty feet from him. It was impossible to miss. I found out later, the bullet had gone clean through him, exiting his left rib cage with a large gaping hole. He looked around trying to see where the bullet came from but he never saw me. He was confused and very surprised. I put another round into him just for good measure.

It’s hard to say this now but I remember well the feeling of having killed someone. In retrospect, I think it was a combination of being scared and angry all at once. I was in the midst of the enemy and I remember resigning myself to the idea that I was about to die. I think once someone believes they are about to die, fear begins to subside and anger sets in.

I remember being glad I had killed someone. There was a sense of ultimate conquest and revenge all at once. I’m ashamed to admit today how a feeling of power descended upon me. It was the ultimate conquest and the absolute highest emotional sensation I had ever experienced. Revenge and anger made me glad. The rest of my life would never reach such a peak. Since that day, life has been boring.

However, having experienced the sensation of killing someone, a feeling of shame also hangs around my neck like an albatross that I can never shed. I know now that killing is not natural to people, if you are normal. The word “normal” being the operative word.

When all this happened, I was only 20 years old. My entire life, up until then, dictated never kill, ever. Abnormal people kill without regret. Killing without regret is a sickness many carry all their lives. When they get back home, their sickness becomes your next-door neighbor.

I think if confronted with the need to kill someone today, I would hesitate before killing once more. I have come to believe the advice of Jesus and might turn the other cheek. The shame has been so great. As I approach the day when the judgment of my actions are upon me, I wonder if there are sins, for which there is no forgiveness. I won’t know until judgment day. I will not come back and tell you of my discovery either.

In some small way, I hope there isn’t a God because if there is, I’m in deep trouble. It would be easier to die and cease to exist than to spend eternity in Hell. There is a great fear within me, should I ever meet God for judgment. If there is a God, I will not be able to hide how pleased I was for killing a kid. Being happy about killing someone has to be a sin.

Don’t give me an unsubstantiated claim stating that no matter what I have done, I can go to Heaven. All I need to do is profess my love for Jesus. Love Jesus, and God will tell me everything is all right. Good boy, go lay down in green pastures with toothless sheep and lions. You killed someone and was glad. So what! You profess your love for me and I forgive you. You Son of a Bitch, I forgive you.

It’s a nice way for horrible people to feel better about themselves. Very comforting for those of great sin, to believe they will go to heaven anyway. Talk about living a lie.

The other enemy soldier dove back into his hole under the cactus before I could take him out. Fifteen minutes had passed as I continued to pin him down with very close fire on his position. On one occasion, my victim put his gun outside his hole and fired fully automatic in random trying to hit me. He wasn't even close. I'm positive I was able to hit his hand with a bullet. He must have been scared to death.

If he tried to flee, he was dead, however, the standoff was taking much too long. While concentrating on him I was very aware I was smack dab in the middle of the enemy’s lair. I saw movement across the opening in the hedgerows but only for a moment. I kept firing my rifle, keeping my target down but the only thing this accomplished was to let everyone know my location. I knew the enemy would soon be maneuvering, trying to get in position to take me out. My time was limited.

Suddenly one of our Huey gun ships flew over my position and out of nowhere, a helmet fell to the ground, hitting Skip on his chest. Gunners on choppers wore a helmet with attached communication gear and this helmet clearly had a bullet hole coming out of the back. Inside the helmet, blood and hair filled the inside. Another American had died. I never found out who the dead gunner was and I never knew his helicopter unit.

The helmet blocked my vision keeping me from seeing the enemy soldier I had pinned down. I reached out and tossed it to the side. However, it told me something else. There were more enemies in the immediate vicinity because the fellow I had pinned down didn’t shoot at that gun ship. 

Someone else killed the gunner. I was in extreme danger and I needed to get out of there. Except for the enemy soldier in front of me, the whereabouts of other enemy soldiers was a mystery.

I had just three grenades on me. Struggling in the mud and keeping my rifle on the enemy soldier, I struggled with each grenade. My whole body was under the mud. Only my head and rifle were exposed, which concealed me pretty well. Shifting on my side, reaching under the mud, fearful my movements would alert someone as to my position, I struggled to extract a grenade.

Grenades have a safety pin preventing the handle from flipping up and setting off a five-second fuse before detonation. The safety pin has two stiff prongs and I bent one of the prongs to prevent an accidental extraction of the pin when going through heavily wooded areas. Not bending a prong would allow easy removal of the pin. This safety precaution became a problem in the mud.

The manufacturer of the grenades used a very stiff metal for the pin making any bending of the pin very difficult. I used a bayonet to bend the prong in the first place. Now, all I had was my bare finger covered in mud. The pin needed straightening or it would resist extraction.

Resting my rifle barrel on Skip's body, keeping the barrel from re-emerging into the mud and using both hands on the grenade I struggled with the pins, puncturing my finger each time. In the meantime, my target kept placing his gun just outside his hole and sprayed automatic fire randomly. He got pretty close to me once.

Lying flat on my stomach in the mud hole, I put my arm and the grenade down by my side and in a windmill motion, heaved the grenade towards the hole my enemy was desperately trying to escape. The first two grenades were much too short and some of the shrapnel hit the cactus around me. It also seemed to me I was taking fire from somewhere, though I couldn't be sure where it was coming from.

The crack of bullets was breaking the sound barrier close to my head and I could see what looked like the impact of bullets in the mud all around me. I couldn't tell where the fire was coming from. Looking everywhere for possible smoke or a flash from a gun muzzle, I couldn’t see anything.

The crack of a bullet going past your head sounds more like the pop of a firecracker. Most of the time you don't hear the “report” of the gun shooting the bullet. The “report” being the initial sound of the gun firing the bullet. Multiple cracks of bullets breaking the sound barrier makes it impossible to tell which direction the bullet comes from. The din of explosions and multiple guns going off conceals the whereabouts of direct fire.

Constantly watching the hole, where a known enemy was, I threw one more grenade and it luckily fell into his hole. It went off immediately. Even throwing a grenade is scary. American grenades detonate about five seconds after pulling the pin, releasing the safety handle and setting the fuse into motion. The ideal way to throw a grenade is to do a three-second count then throw the grenade. That way the grenade doesn’t arrive too soon giving the target time to throw the grenade out of the hole.

However, stories bounced around the trenches about manufacturing defects, describing a grenade going off much sooner than designed, killing the thrower. Popping the handle and waiting three seconds before throwing the grenade had its own level of anxiety. I would like to have been able to time the detonation so the explosion would go off in the air, above his hole, creating an airburst. Easier to kill your target that way. This is premeditated murder in its purest form. I didn't have the guts to do the procedure though. I just counted to three and threw the thing.

Jumping up, I turned around and crashed through the cactus waiting for a bullet to go through me. All I knew was that if I stayed in place, I was dead. I had no idea who was shooting at me or where he was. My self-preservation instinct took over and said get out of there.

With the fire coming in on me and not knowing its origin, I decided to save myself. I felt the others were dead. No sense adding me to the carnage. I couldn’t have done anything more for my squad.

Somehow, I crashed through the other side of the hedgerow and into the clearing. Amazing what an adrenaline rush will do for you. A tank couldn’t get through the hedgerow but I did. Later I would discover I had shredded my skin in several areas and considerable bleeding had occurred but in my panic to get out, I noticed nothing.

Immediately I began to feel guilty about leaving my friends inside the hedgerow. Even though some had survived the initial ambush, I had witnessed their execution before I could do anything. Mixed feelings of relief to be gone and guilt for having left took hold.

How would I ever explain why I was the lone survivor? It’s funny but I was feeling guilty for being alive. My friends were dead but I was alive. Forty-seven years later, I still feel some guilt. My dead friends were better than I was.

Looking around, I was alone. There was no sign of anyone else. I was in water up to my waste, the sound of combat still came from the hedgerows and I was alone. I had no idea where my unit was. 

 Looking back on the moment, I was probably in some kind of traumatic shock. It was all too horrible to deal with in such a short period. I make no claim of bravery or heroics. I'm alive because I am a coward.

I have come to realize, forty-seven years later, my mind had completely forgotten the ambush in the Mekong Delta, up until now. This story started as an attempt to describe the horrible conditions in the Mekong Delta. It has evolved into a long-winded description of a battle, long forgotten. 

The more I write, the more detail emerges. Now, in my old age, the memories are as fresh as the day they occurred. I have resisted telling stories all these years. Why have I started now? Mortality must be peeking at me.

I didn't know where to go. A lone infantry soldier becomes lost when others aren't around. Then I saw one guy about 100 yards away. Relieved, I began to wade through the muck as fast as possible but on the way towards him, I noticed he kept falling into the water, and then stand up again. Maybe, I thought, he’s just tripping in the water as we all did at times.

As I got closer, it became obvious something was wrong. He wasn't just tripping but was staggering. I knew the person as well. It was Ryan ( don’t remember his last name) from another squad in my Platoon. He was a red headed fellow with freckles on his face. Despite his smaller stature, he always carried his fair share of loads. I remember how he always had a smile on his face and never complained.

As I got closer and closer to him, it became obvious he suffered injuries. He fell in the water again and I pulled him up to a standing position only to see clearly, what had happened. When he came under fire, he must have been diving for the ground because a bullet had entered his face at an angle. The bullet had entered his right cheek just below his eye and exited out his lower neck close to his jugular vein, leaving a large hole.

I was surprised he wasn't bleeding to death but there wasn't a large loss of blood. The bullet had proceeded to the rotator cup on his left arm and nearly ripped his entire arm off at the shoulder. In addition, another bullet hit his left arm at the elbow, nearly severing his arm. The only thing keeping his arm attached at the elbow were two small strands of flesh keeping his arm from falling into the black water.

His injuries were so severe, I didn't know what to do. Holding him up, keeping him from collapsing into the muddy water and holding my own rifle up out of the water, I reached for the one field bandage I had in my first aid kit. I placed the bandage on his neck. Taking his field bandage out from his kit, I placed it on his shoulder. 

The injuries began squirting blood as Ryan passed in and out of consciousness. I felt like Ryan was dying before my eyes and I was helpless to stop his suffering. He looked at me but I don't think he knew what was going on. His eyes literally rolled up into his eye sockets.

Events begin to get foggy now as I tell this story. My mind must have begun to reject the memories because I remember little from this point on. I do remember a chopper coming in and hovering just above the water and people jumping out, taking Ryan by the armpits and
It was a total disaster.
putting him in the chopper. I climbed into the chopper on my own. 

We flew only a short distance then landed on a dry patch of land where another company from my battalion was taking a break. They had suffered great loss but no one spoke much about their ordeal. Silence and a vacant glare into the void spoke a million words. Typical Infantry.

 I have met only a few Infantry Veterans in all these years since my ordeal over there. After the exchange of pleasantries, we would both just sit there in silence. Upon getting up and leaving, we would nod at each other. Eyes would meet and a million words are spoken in an instant. We both knew something words could never tell. A simple nod made us friends.

Medics ran to the chopper and carried Ryan somewhere unknown. I never found out if Ryan lived, had his arm amputated, or anything else. I never heard from Ryan again. I remember getting out of the chopper and wandering around for a while but I didn't know anyone. 

I didn’t belong to their Company. I tried to tell people my squad was laying on the ground in the middle of some hedgerows but no one listened. Before long, I said nothing else. Didn't need to speak. They knew.

The sun was starting to go down and a plate of hot food was set down before me. Another troop brought a bunch of empty magazines and boxes of ammo, setting them down beside me. As the night went on, I had loaded 18 magazines with ammo. 

It seems, while in the artillery crater, in the hedgerows, I had fired off about 360 rounds at the enemy who sprang the ambush. I don't remember shooting that much.

The next morning I reunited with my Platoon and we went back where the ambush had occurred, the bodies of my squad taken earlier. I didn't have to witness their bodies, which was a good thing. I peered into the hole where the two North Vietnamese I had killed were still present. They were just young men like me. Maggots were already consuming them and they were quite bloated.

The smell was awful but I managed to dig out a plastic pouch from one of the dead kid’s shirt. Its content filled with pictures of his family back in North Vietnam. From the insignia on his uniform, he was part of the 327th Division, the B Regiment. They were a common nemesis of my unit during my tour.

The 327th had lost many troops and had taken many of us with them. The 327th had participated at Dien Bien Phu during the French occupation. They were a very proud Infantry Division. Tough as a keg of nails.

I have carried the memory of my dead foes all these years. We left their bodies to rot in the hole. They stunk too much for an attempted burial. I don't know if their friends came by later for a proper ceremony or not. It is possible their families never knew where their loved ones perished.

Helicopters landed and picked us up. As we flew away, I looked down on the obscure patch of land, which had experienced so much death. Just a short while ago, this place was very important to someone none of us ever met. No one will pay tribute to what happened. There would be no record for anyone to see. This little story is all there ever will be.

Soon we landed again somewhere in the Delta. More stinking water up to our waist. The insects and creatures were still the same. As we moved forward, artillery had started bombarding a distant point. This time, I didn’t have a squad and I waded through the water alone. Some Commanding Officer I had never met wanted more blood.

Flower Children pressed forward and Flower Children waited for us in silence. The Age of Aquarius was upon us. Where were we, anyway? None of it made any sense.