Sucking Chest Wound
The medics went to work around us; cans of albumin blood expander coming out, hypos going in. Two guys brought in a Marine helicopter pilot and laid him beside me. His flight suit was blood splattered and torn and his face waxy, yellow and blank. Doc Taylor put the albumin in. In the arm, I think.
Thompson dug a cigarette out of his pocket. Now I could see the blood on his shirt. “I hold the world’s record for the forty yard low crawl with a sucking chest wound,” he said, starting to chuckle. The chuckle ended in a wheeze and a grimace of pain.
I shook my head in disbelief. “Don’t tell me,” I said, “it only hurts when you laugh?”
“It hurts all the time,” he replied. “It hurts bad when I laugh.” He grinned again, but was careful not to let his body shake.
Meder came back in and said, “That redheaded guy you were trying to pull out was John Link. The other guy was named Merriman.”
“Did you get them up?” I asked anxiously.
He nodded. “Yeah! Link’s got three slugs in the back. He’s unconscious. Merriman’s got three in the legs.”
“Oh Jesus! Are they gonna make it?”
He unbuttoned Thompson’s shirt to see if his bandage was still airtight. “Merriman will,” he said. “We’re not so sure about Link.”
I leaned back on my good arm and shook my head, leaned up again and fished a cigarette out of my pocket with my left hand.
“Lemme give you a light!”
I shook my head. “Naw! I can do it myself.”
Ken Nauman strolled back into the little grove, more cheerful than usual. His radio operator chugged along behind him, scared and winded.
“You wounded too, Jim?” he said, sitting down to light a cigarette.
“Uh huh!” I replied, leaning up. “Where you been?”
He looked over his shoulder. “Checking the perimeter,” he said.
I could imagine what a hellish project that must have been in this mess.
“You mind if I make a suggestion?”
He grinned. “Shoot!”
“The next time you have to use multiple lifts like this, use more than one LZ and link up on the ground.”
He laughed, reached for the radio and said, “Falcon Two-two. Crusade Zero-six. Over.”
Pretty soon we had another air strike.
I couldn’t sleep that night. It wasn’t the B-40’s falling around, because none of them were coming right into our little pocket. The other wounded were quiet. But there was the pain in my right arm. It was only a dull ache. But when I tried to quiet down and get some sleep the pain was all there was. “Awwwww dammit!” I muttered, thrashing around in frustration.
After a while Doc Taylor materialized at my side. “Sir, I better give you something for that pain. You got any morphine?”
I got the small box of morphine syrettes out of my ammo pouch and gave him one. He jammed the needle straight into my leg and squeezed the tube dry. I barely felt it.
Three hours later pain woke me up. It was dark, but there was a moon and I could see Doc working on the helicopter pilot. I didn’t want to bother him so I just watched. He worked for quite a while, feverishly. Then he stopped and sat down on the ground in the dark, his arms draped over his knees. He lowered his head and slowly shook it from side to side.
I didn’t want to bother him then either, but the pain was really getting bad. “Hey Doc!”
He didn’t want to give me morphine again that early, so I got a shot of Demerol. A few hours later he did give me enough morphine to last the night.
In the morning my right hand was swollen up like that of a three day old corpse. I lay looking at it for a while and then started to get up. The bandage broke loose and bright red blood mixed with the dried maroon stuff already on the bandage. “Hey Meder!” I said. “This mother broke loose.”
He cinched up the tourniquet and started to rebandage the wound.
“Ush!” I said.
Meder looked at me like it hurt him worse, and said, “Sorry, sir.”
“S’okay,” I replied. “You do what you gotta and change that bandage, and I’ll do what I gotta and whimper.” I started whistling, toneless and dirgelike, while he worked. Once I’d made up my mind it didn’t hurt so bad.
“Hey Ace,” I said, “am I gonna get to keep this arm? I’ve sort of grown attached to it.”
He looked at me levelly and replied, “If we get you out today probably so, if not, probably not.” He finished rebandaging the wound. “Want a shot?”
“Not if we’re going to move,” I replied. “As long as I’m doing something my mind is off the pain.”
We needed an airstrike to cover our withdrawal, but it was too overcast. B-40’s kept coming in and Charles ran probe after probe on the companies on the perimeter. We took more casualties.
Ken was on the radio the whole time, checking with the FAC on fighters, checking with the companies. About ten o’clock he looked up from the radio with a look of undisguised glee. “Hey, Jim,” he said, “we got a prisoner.” The project had been looking for a prisoner to give them concrete information on what was in this valley for about three weeks. “Listen,” Ken said into the microphone, “if anything happens to that prisoner, you’re going to have to answer to me.”
A few minutes later we got another call. Preliminary interrogation of the prisoner indicated that our two companies were engaged by two companies of NVA troops and another battalion was on its way down the road. Oh joy!
It was after eleven by the time Ken could bring an air strike in on the NVA positions. He brought in 500 pounders and napalm. One napalm went right in on the spot where the machine gun had been the day before and I hoped to God the gunner fried in it.
Men started moving around and picking things up. We began to get in some sort of formation to go. Ken kept the strikes coming in. I got up and immediately became so lightheaded from loss of blood I had to sit back down again. Then I pushed my way off slowly and floated off toward the head of the column, figuring if I couldn’t stand the pace I’d drop back slowly and still get there with everybody else.
The NVA prisoner came by with two Rangers escorting him. He was a young kid, somewhere between fifteen and seventeen, wearing OD shorts and a fatigue shirt about three sizes too big, and khaki NVA tennis shoes. His fatigue shirt flapped around his skinny body. He grinned and his walk was almost a skip. He was out of the fighting and had caught on that we weren’t going to hurt him.
The ragged column walked over a flat washed out muddy area and then down into a creek for half a mile, jungle covered mountains towering above. We moved single file. I was stronger than I’d expected and since almost everybody else was either walking wounded or carrying dead or wounded litter patients I was about even. Helicopter crewmen had picked up my pack and rifle.
Brush was thick. It was heavy going. Ken was in the rear, bringing in air strikes to cover our exit. I felt very vague.
After about half an hour we came to a hill overlooking a small LZ we had used before. A few Vietnamese troops had stopped to rest. I collapsed against a tree next to Lieutenant Linn and pointed to the small clearing below. “Is that the one?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. I bummed some water from him and said, “You’re a pretty good officer, Chung ‘Uy. You did a good job on this patrol.” It was no snow job. I really meant it.
He looked kind of embarrassed and said, “No, I am number ten officer.”
I smiled and said, “No! You’re pretty good.”
We waited a few more minutes and he said, “You go now.”
I got up and, stumbling over rocks, grasping at trees, followed a couple of his troopers down the hill to the LZ. It was a steep hill and I had to stop twice before we reached bottom. Down there I found Humphus and some others waiting by a bomb crater, ready to jump in if necessary.
Doc Taylor came up with some Rangers carrying wounded hanging in ponchos slung from poles. I asked him how Link and Merriman were. He looked tired.
“John Link died this morning, just as we left out,” he said. “Merriman’s going to make it okay.”
I felt more depressed. Not guilty. Just bad. No, that’s bullshit. I felt guilty.
Ken came in with his radio and the rear guard. “FAC says this isn’t the LZ,” he said. “Says it’s about two hundred meters on further.”
“Oh God!” I moaned.
“C’mon. It’s not far.” He went back to call another air strike on our backtrail.
We pushed ourselves up to crash into the brush again. In the intervals between air strikes B-40’s started falling behind us again. None came near our part of the column. But they indicated Charles was still trying.
Three more times we stopped at small clearings. Each time the FAC told us it was further on. The troops grew more and more beat. I staggered, head thrown back watching the translucent leaves above. All
the trees and rocks stood out in startling clarity, but I felt as though I myself might fade and disappear.
I tried to walk carefully so the bandage wouldn’t break loose again. There was a little seepage around the edges, but not much.
Two Rangers staggered past carrying a corpse wrapped in my poncho liner, great dried blood patches superimposed on the vari-shaded green camouflage pattern of my poncho liner. I remembered giving it away the night before. The corpse’s right hand was two-thirds blown away, extended upward in rigor mortis. The bloody stump waved in my face as they went by. I regarded it with interest.
At times I could see no one in front and no one behind and watched the ground for signs, hoping I wouldn’t take a wrong turn. This was neither the time nor place to get lost in the woods. We walked five kilometers that way.
Light was fading when we finally came to a large open field big enough to take a dozen choppers. Men from the Project were already getting the LZ set up when we came in. Most of them didn’t think we’d get out that night, and said so. If they were right, a lot of wounded would die. And I’d lose my arm.
Rangers started setting up a perimeter. I stood with my mouth open, then finally gathered enough strength to sit down.
Fighters And Gunships
The FAC appeared, and some fighter cover, then gunships. Chuck Allen’s Command and Control helicopter came. I could visualize Chuck in the door, 250 pounds of muscle, graying crew cut and iron jaw, sitting behind his newly installed M-60 machine gun. Larrabee would be seated crosslegged in the door with his scope sighted CAR-15, both he and Chuck hooked in by radio to all the friendlies in the air and on the ground. When I saw Chuck I knew we were going to make it.
Two troopers brought John Link’s body up and put it down about eight feet from where I sat. A grim looking dark-haired trooper I didn’t know came up, knelt beside him and patted the pole his body was slung from. “Well, John old buddy,” he said, “Goddamn!”
He got up, shook his head and walked off, head bowed.
Merriman lay on the ground, his carrying pole off to the side, over there a few feet ahead of where Link’s body was. I pushed myself to my feet and walked over. He was smoking a cigarette. “Hey, listen,” I said. “I feel rotten about leaving you guys like that.”
He shook his head. “Forget it, sir. You had to. I saw what happened.”
That made me feel a little better, but not much. I squatted down. “How long before you got out?”
He looked pained. “Fifteen minutes,” he said.
“My God! That long?”
He nodded. “Yessir, but we had already taken the rounds while you were there.
We just lay quiet and he didn’t fire anymore.”
I smiled at him. “You gonna be all right?”
He nodded, relaxed. Just glad to be alive. “Yeah! It’ll be awhile, but I’ll be all right.”
It was starting to get dark when the gunships set up an orbit and two Dustoffs came in for the dead and wounded. Doc Taylor stood in the fading light, supervising loading, the propblast whipping his sandy hair. I squeezed in beside the left door gunner. Merriman and Thompson were on the same ship. The passenger space was a mound of men, alive and dead, packed in on each other, blood, bandages, litter poles. Ken Nauman came up grinning and gave me the thumbs up sign.
“Hey, Ken,” I called, “When you bringing the battalion back in here?”
“Oh, next week I guess.” He waved us into the air.
At dusk the mountains are beautiful, but it was cold in the chopper and wind from the open doors whipped our clothes. I held my aching arm and wondered if Ken could hold all night.
About ten minutes after we lifted off, a ragged armada of army and marine helicopters came by, seemingly flung across the fading blue-gray sky. They flew hell for leather toward our LZ. Chuck must have scraped and begged all over I Corps for them, but they were going to get everybody out that night.
Oh God! They were beautiful.