By Jim Morris
Excerpted from War Story, Paladin Press, 1983, Chapter 32
EDITOR’S NOTE: Read “Project Delta: Part One” and “Part Two: Project Delta In Action” in the December 2021 and January 2022 issues of the Sentinel.
Our ship flared out about thirty feet up and settled slowly to earth. When she was about five feet off the ground, Ken Nauman hitched the seat of his pants and dropped out of sight. I barrelled out after him, jumping off the skids; landing bent over, running for the edge of the LZ where a perimeter was starting to form. I hit the ground behind a dirt bank covered with dry reeds and looked around.
The choppers lifted off, whipping rotors pulling them skyward. Vietnamese Rangers ran in 360 degrees to fill in a good defensive perimeter. Rotors blasted dust into the air, into our hair, teeth and eyes and down the backs of our necks. The gunships went around again; rockets whooshed and cracked, machine guns chattered, miniguns bu-u-urrped out their streams of fire.
When the dust settled everything was still. There was no firing. I got up and looked closely at the gentle hills, the lush green jungle. There was no movement.
Ken sat about ten feet away, looking bored, next to the Vietnamese carrying his radio. He took the handset and said, “Crusade Zero-five, this is Zero-six. Over.” There was a pause and he said “This is Zero-six. You in position? Over.” Another pause. “Roger, out.”
Ken was of medium height, and generally looked bored. He had big, soft, baggy eyes. He was twenty-nine but looked far older. Three tours in Nam had aged him. He got up and started to stroll off, head down talking into the handset, radioman trotting along behind.
We walked over a dugout dirt bank and came up on a Vietnamese lieutenant kneeling, talking into his own radio. He was getting positions from the Vietnamese commanders. Ken explained he was Lieutenant Linh, commander of the first lift.
The lieutenant wore his helmet cocked back, chinstraps dangling on either side of his chubby cheeks. He looked like a younger version of Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. Ken went over and knelt beside him for a moment, checking to see if they were getting the same information over the radio. Then he nodded and walked away.
I stayed and shot some pictures of the lieutenant talking into his radio.
A three man sixty millimeter mortar crew hustled around under Linn’s direction, trying to keep their tube out from under the trees. They fired handheld, the skinny mortarman moving his little knee-high olive drab pipe proudly, with great precision. When he was satisfied, they’d drop two or three rounds down the tube and then shift again.
After a few minutes I wandered off to find Ken.
He stood on the edge of the LZ looking out across it. There was a huge B-5 2 bomb crater to our right front and another one further to the left front. And to our immediate left front, about thirty meters away sat a UHID, a Huey helicopter.
I nodded toward it. “What’s that doing there?”
He shrugged. “Shot down,” he said.
No bullet holes were visible, but it sat still and empty. It looked dead.
“Everybody get out all right?”
He nodded. “Uh huh.”
“When’s the next lift coming in?”
He pushed his hat back on his head and said, “It’s overdue now. I hope to hell it gets here soon. We’re just sittin’ here waiting for Charles to get his stuff together. We’re not making any money here,” he said, jerking is head toward the trees. “Let’s go get in the shade.”
We walked off together, Ken, the radioman and I, automatically keeping five yards between.
In Lieutenant Linn’s shady nook we crashed under the trees. There was a little bit of breeze and the shade. Everything was quiet. The mortarmen were flaked out around their tube, eating rice and fish. I opened my pack and got out a long range patrol ration. Chili. Slitting the heavy OD envelope, I took out the plastic bag inside, filled it half full of lukewarm canteen water, then stirred the dry crumbly red mess with a plastic spoon. Five minutes later it looked like real chili, complete with beans. It was a little bland but not bad.
“Hey, Ken,” I said, waving the bag, “you want half of this chili? I can’t eat it all.”
He lay under a tree, head on his pack, hat over his eyes, smoking a cigarette. “No thanks. Babe,” he said, not moving, “not hungry.”
I finished the chili, lay down, lit a cigarette and mashed my own hat down over my nose. Bright sunlight turned all the tree leaves around us to pale translucent green.
Lieutenant Linh sat crosslegged under a tree, one arm propped up on his radio, eating sausage. He held out a slice to me, smiling.
“Da Khong, cam on Chung ‘Uy,” I said.
He ate that slice and cut himself another. Breezes blew, tree limbs waved, shivering the translucent leaves. We sucked down cigarette smoke and the day grew hotter. We waited. The sun burned through the trees and the shade drifted away with the sun. I took off my hat to wipe the sweat from my forehead and the inside of my eyelids turned red.
“Hey!” Ken said.
I pushed my hat back a little and looked at his inert form. “Huh, what?”
“How’d you like to have one of those cold cokes we were drinking before we left?”
I smiled cruelly. “How’d you like to have a big orange drink in a tall waxed paper cup, so full of ice you crunch on it for half an hour after you finish your drink?”
“Why you rotten son of a bitch,” he muttered, without moving.
I glanced at my watch. “We’ve been here almost four hours now,” I said. “The longer we wait, the more trouble we’re going to be in when we move.”
Ken stirred uneasily. “What I’m afraid of is that we’ll get moving late and get in a firelight about six-thirty, just when we don’t want it.”
I pushed my hat lower, dimly hearing some sounds in the distance.
“Incoming!” Ken said.
Without consciously moving I found myself face first in the dirt, M-16 in the firing position. Four B-40 rockets exploded out on the LZ and there was the sound of four more being fired.
When Ken saw they didn’t have the range on us he sat back up and got on the radio, talking intently into the microphone. “Falcon, this is Crusade Zero-six, Zero-six. Over. Falcon…Roger Falcon Two-two…Oh! Hi John. Good to have you out. What’ve you got? Over.”
A little Air Force 02B aircraft buzzed around, front and rear propellers outlined against the sky. It was Falcon, the Delta Forward Air Controller.
Ken looked up and said, “Keep low. We’re gonna have some F-105’s in here in a minute.” He looked at Linh. “Chung ‘Uy, you get adjustments from the companies over your radio and feed them to me. I’ll keep adjusting the aircraft.” Then back into the microphone, “Hey John! You see the high ground about a hundred meters north of the LZ. Put your marking round in there.”
Calling In Air
Two flights of F-105’s appeared over the horizon. They roared in low over the LZ and swung, clean, sweptback and beautiful into the sky. The little FAC dropped over in a tight 180 and buzzed the hill mass Ken had indicated.
Crack-whoosh-WHOMP! went the marking round, leaving a plume of white smoke hanging over the target.
“Very good!” Ken said. “Bring your first round in right there.”
It was very quiet after the marking round. The B-40’s quit falling.
The fighters came around and the first one came in on the target.
“Hit it!” Ken said and fell to earth.
I sat up and watched. They hit. The entire landscape jumped and I picked a jagged piece of hot steel off my lap. I decided after that to do what the man said.
“That was pretty good, John,” Ken said. “Put ‘em in on that ridge line right there.”
The jets peeled off one after the other and came in. The arc of the falling high-drag bombs was slow. We hit the ground a fraction of a second before they struck and were all right. Ken put in napalm too. We didn’t need to crouch for the huge orange and black blossoms ballooning across the horizon.
When the aircraft dumped their loads and headed for home it was quiet again. The FAC kept buzzing around, and for that or other reasons Charles left us alone.
A few minutes later we heard the whop-whop-whop of returning helicopters. I cradled the rifle under my arm and got out my camera, walking down to the edge of the LZ.
Two gunships circled the LZ. Apparently the other had been hit that morning. A cloud of slicks whirled in to dump their troops, UHID’s from the 281st and Marine CH-46’s.
Two and three at a time the slicks landed. Tailgates on the big CH-46’s dropped, troops poured off the ramp and the choppers clawed back into the sky. One limped in smoking and the crew barreled out with the troops.
A Huey lifted off, shuddered, started to go down, shuddered, straightened up and limped over the horizon. Another went through the same drill and crashed in the trees about two hundred meters past the LZ. Right where Charles was. It began to occur to me that all the firing wasn’t coming from our perimeter.
When all the ships were gone it was quiet again. There were three ships down on the LZ and I had seen one more go down. That was four. I didn’t know if there were others or not. One thing for sure, everybody wasn’t here yet. I didn’t know if Ken was going to try to bring in another lift or not. He wasn’t there to ask.
Some guys were out on the LZ poking around the first Huey that went down. There was no firing so I went over to see if there might be any pictures. Two guys from the Project sat in the door on the shady side, smoking. A couple of others looked in the pilot’s compartment. The machine guns had been taken out.
I sat down in the doorway, got a cigarette out and gave the interior of the chopper a quick once-over to see if maybe there was any ice water inside. There wasn’t.
“You guys just get here?” I asked, taking a drag on the cigarette.
There was a burst of automatic weapons fire and the dirt kicked up around us. Other weapons joined in and the LZ became a field of little dirt geysers. The guy I was talking to started running.
We ran full tilt toward the bomb crater. I charged over the side and dropped into the slanted dirt on the inside about halfway down, sliding half the rest of the way to the bottom. There were already eight men there, but there was plenty of room for more.
One of them was a big darkheaded wooly bear of a man who worked for me as a photographer, Sp4 Bob Christiansen.
“Hello, Chris,” I said.
He smiled. “Morning, sir.”
I dusted myself off and flicked some dirt off my weapon. B-40’s were coming in on the LZ and it seemed like a hell of a racket had been
going on since that first burst. “How come you didn’t make it on that first lift?” I asked Christiansen.
“Chopper got hit and we had a bunch of wounded. Had to go back,” he replied. He shook his head. “I thought it over quite a while before I came back out.”
I laughed. “You shoulda thought longer.”
A Marine sergeant from one of the helicopters stood a little further up the dirt bank looking nervously over the rim. He wore a forty-five in a cowboy rig and a flak vest. “Look,” he said, “we better get out of here. This old chopper’s going to blow any minute now.
I crawled up beside him. The CH-46 was still smoking badly. The idea of its blowing up didn’t bother me any more than the B-40’s and automatic weapons fire upstairs. Still, we had to leave sometime.
“Okay! Do it!” I said.
Everybody took a couple of deep breaths and looked at each other and then they were over the edge.
I don’t know if dirt kicked at our heels in neat straight bursts as it does in the movies. I don’t know if B-40’s burst around us or not. I did not feel the weight of the 300 rounds of ammunition on my belt, or the knife, or the camera, or the grenades. I do not remember running. I have a memory of red dirt moving beneath my feet and another of the next crater as I blasted over the side and slid down. This one already had about five guys in it.
‘We Better Get Out of Here’
Somebody yelled, “Medic!” from the other side of the crater. I poked my head up just as Meder, the little dark-headed medic with the Bronx accent, started over the rim. He didn’t have to go out. A skinny figure in a tiger suit and bush hat rolled into the crater, rounds kicking up dirt all around him.
“Got hit in the chest!” he said as he crashed into the crater, M-16 in hand. It was First Lieutenant Tom Humphus, one of the company advisors.
Meder tore his shirt open, looked closely at it and said, “In and out pec. Didn’t go in the chest cavity. He’s gonna be all right.”
“What the hell were you doing up there?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Just lookin’ around.”
“See anything interesting?”
“I saw we better get out of here,” he replied.
He was right. We were better off than in the other crater, but still in an exposed position. If one guy got lucky with a B-40 we had all had it.
A few seconds later we were running again, this time straight for the woodline and back to Lieutenant Linh’s old position. As soon as there were woods between me and the NVA gunners I slowed to a walk, chest heaving, barely able to lift my feet. The weight of the ammo and all the running, after ten months in an office, had really got to me. I staggered into Linh’s little grove of trees and collapsed, panting.
Linh was still talking on his radio and firing his M-79. He moved quickly and nervously from one to the other, beads of sweat standing out on his upper lip. I figured he was probably thinking the same way I was. We had to collect our wounded, call in the perimeter and make an orderly withdrawal. Almost impossible without air cover, and for air cover we needed Ken. He might be stuck out there in one of the craters. He might be anywhere.
I was still mulling this over when a big redheaded trooper I didn’t know came up through the woods. He looked to be twenty-three or twenty-four. Following him was a slender, clean cut looking kid with black hair.
“We need some guys to help haul about fifteen wounded out of a bomb crater out here,” the redhead said. I hoped he wasn’t talking about that first one we’d run out of. It seemed almost impossible to try to carry someone out of there.
I followed the two young soldiers through the grove of trees we were in, back toward the area we had come from. We moved parallel to the LZ. The redheaded guy, in front, called to several people, Americans and Vietnamese Rangers both, in old NVA positions to get up and come with us. They stared at him stupidly and didn’t move. Either they didn’t understand, or couldn’t seem to put the request into action.
We came to a spot looking down across thirty meters of flat open country on the first bomb crater we had run out of. We stood on a four or five foot dirt bank above the flat land. Once out of the trees there was scarcely a blade of grass between us and the crater. It had filled up with men again, but I didn’t see anybody who looked too hurt to move. “That it?” I asked. The CH-46 was still smoking.
“That’s it,” said the redhead, and he started down through the trees with the other kid right behind him.
I followed, but watched them and the crater instead of where I was going. Just as they broke out of the woodline and started running I tripped and fell flat on my face in the bush.
I looked up. They were running, halfway to the crater, rounds kicking up dirt at their heels. I didn’t see them get hit but if they weren’t it was a miracle. They weren’t going to get back unless they had some covering fire.
There appeared to be about fifteen men in the crater. Some wore green Marine flying suits. A tall guy in a tiger suit, standing in the far side of the crater, lit a cigarette.
“Hey!” I called. “Where’s that fire coming from?”
He pointed to my right front and said, “In the woods over there about two hundred meters. There’s a machine gun.”
“Okay!” I called back.
“You guys let me know when you’re ready to come out of there. I’ll put down covering fire. Come right through here.”
“Right!” he called back.
I was standing up quite exposed, just a little way back in the woods. It was the only way I could fire over their heads when they came through. My right hand was trembling as I picked four magazines out of the ammo pouch and laid them on the ground. I could punch an empty magazine out and scoop a full one off the grass quicker than dragging them out of the pouch. I hoped he had given me the right location on that machine gun. If I stood bolt upright in only a little bit of shadow and gave my position away by firing at the wrong place the MG could cut me in half.
The guys we had passed coming here were in the woods and over a slight rise, out of sight. I didn’t want to leave for fear the men in the crater would make their break so I called, “Hey!” turning around and yelling into the woods. “We’ve gotta put down covering fire for these guys. When I open fire, fire on that woodline over there.”
I heard no reply. I yelled again and turned my attention back on the crater.
The big guy was still standing there smoking his cigarette.
“Hey!” I called. “You guys about ready?”
“Just a minute,” he called back. He took a deep drag on his cigarette, took the smoke all the way down, flipped the cigarette away, exhaled slowly and called back, “Okay!”
I brought my M-16 down on where the machine gun was supposed to be and bellowed, “FIRE!” squeezing the trigger. The weapon emptied in four fast bursts. I punched the magazine release and almost beat the magazine to the ground, scooping up another. By that time the herd of camouflaged troopers was halfway to the bank. I opened up again.
The ones in the lead wavered for a split second when I fired. Without taking my finger off the trigger I called, “C’MON! GODDAMNIT! I’M FIRING OVER YOUR HEADS!”
The first ones broke into the shade and scrambled up the bank, almost knocking me over. I stepped back. The magazine emptied and I punched it out, scooping up another. As the men came through they kept on going back into the bank and into cover, clearing the way for those behind. Finally there were only two left.
“Let’s go!” I said.
“Sir, I’m too weak to make it. You’ve got to pull me up.” It was the darkheaded kid and right behind him was the redheaded guy.
“I’ll try and push him,” the redhead said.
Oh Christ! I thought, if I quit firing…the machine gun? Awwwww!
I reached down, grabbed his extended arm and pulled. He didn’t budge. The redheaded guy was pushing. It was almost a straight pull up and the kid wasn’t moving. “NEED SOME HELP OVER HERE!” I called.
My rifle was on the ground at my feet and the kid wasn’t moving. Four rounds hit all around us in regular sequence. Machine gun rounds. I heard nothing. I wanted to leave, but couldn’t leave them like that. I heard the second burst, saw more rounds hit and something went splat hard against my right forearm.
I looked down and saw a huge blue-black hole in my arm, with bright red blood gushing out in spurts, like the needle spray in a shower.
“Holy shit!” I said, realizing two things at once: (a) I couldn’t pull them up now, and (b) I was dying.
I grabbed the wound, blood spraying my hand and turned running back toward where the medics were. A branch knocked my hat off. I yelled, “Medic! Medic!” and barrelled back over the brim into Lieutenant Linh’s sanctuary, still yelling “Medic!”
There was an older looking GI that I didn’t know in there, and a couple of others, younger.
“Need a tourniquet, fast!” I said.
“Uh huh!” said the older guy, nodding. He tightened a rifle sling around my upper arm. “It needs to go higher,” I said.
He shook his head calmly. “This is where it goes. I know about these things.” He was sandy-haired and looked very competent. That was all the introduction I had to Doc Taylor, one of the best medics in Special Forces. He saved my life. He saved a lot of lives that day.
Meder appeared from somewhere and bandaged the wound, tearing the plastic wrapper off an ace bandage with his teeth, while with his other hand he held gauze pads over the wound.
“We’re gonna put this tourniquet on real loose,” Doc said, “and try to hold the bleeding with pressure. It looks like it’ll be awhile before we can get you out of here.”
“L-listen,” I said, shaking, “I was trying to haul two guys over that bank over there when I got hit. They’re both wounded.”
Doc looked me straight in the face. “They still there?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “Yeah, they’re still there.”
He and Meder disappeared. I sat there feeling rotten for having left them. I couldn’t have helped them if I’d stayed, and I’d have died. But I still felt rotten.
There had really been no other course of action I could have taken. A man will bleed to death from a severed artery in six to eight minutes if it is left unattended, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I couldn’t have pulled them up anyway after I’d been hit, but that didn’t make me feel any better either. You always think that when the clutch comes you’ll emerge from a phone booth in a pair of blue tights with a red towel around your neck and it’s all going to be okay. This was the incident that finally got it through my head. Beret or no beret, we were just guys. There are no supermen and damned few heroes; almost no live ones.
A lot of other wounded started coming in, some limping, some carried. Most were already bandaged, but there was a lot of blood splattered around, some of it dry and some of it not so dry.
Sergeant Thompson from the Delta Intelligence section walked in, all hunkered over and extraordinarily sad looking. He had no visible wounds.
“Glad to see you’re okay,” I said.
He sat down, still hunkered over, and said, “Haw! I got two slugs in the chest.”
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.
About the Author:
Jim Morris joined 1st SFGA in 1962 for a thirty-month tour, which included two TDY trips to Vietnam. After a two year break, he went back on active duty for a PCS tour with 5th SFG (A), six months as the B Co S-5, and then was conscripted to serve as the Group’s Public Information Officer (PIO). While with B-52 Project Delta on an operation in the Ashau Valley, he suffered a serious wound while trying to pull a Delta trooper to safety, which resulted in being medically retired. As a civilian war correspondent he covered various wars in Latin America, the Mideast, and again in Southeast Asia, eventually settling down to writing and editing, primarily but not exclusively about military affairs. He is the author of many books, including the classic memoir WAR STORY. Jim is a member of SFA Chapter 78 and is a former editor of the Sentinel.
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