More of Bill’s backstory, and, if it’s possible, I’m beginning to like this guy.
I suspect, for him as well as many others, it wasn’t easy, but in war zones, it’s either hot or cold, but never any pleasant in any weather conditions, and perhaps if there was a possibility of a fine, balmy, day, there would be no time to enjoy it.
Sleep was difficult.
Sleep was always difficult, if not impossible.
Whilst I had lived in barracks, in the tropics as part of my training and acclimatization, it was nothing like this. Nothing could have prepared me for the endless, oppressive heat.
It started from the day the plane had landed on the tarmac at Saigon airport, the crew opened the door to the cabin, and we walked down the stairs. The heat came from above, and from the tarmac below. We were soaked in sweat by the time we reached the buildings.
And it was difficult not to be exhausted, even if you were lucky enough to get a few hours sleep. That constant feeling of exhaustion was the biggest enemy, and what caused many of the unnecessary deaths. In the end, for many, it was just too much. For me, it was training that kept me alive, because of that little voice in my head that kept me vigilant.
That and a keen sense of self-preservation.
Our platoon was still recovering from the shock of seeing the death of two of our mates the previous day. Although in the camp only a week, already it felt like a year. We’d been sent out on a patrol, trying to find a group of the enemy who was responsible for cutting one of the supply lines, and it hadn’t taken long for us to realize we didn’t really know if it was the Viet Cong or the people we were supposed to be protecting. They all looked the same to me, and we had to rely on our South Vietnamese Army liaison to ensure we didn’t shoot the wrong people.
After an eventless day, if you discounted the rain, the heat, and the scares, the Lieutenant ordered us to make camp, just before darkness set in. We had not seen the enemy, and, as I was finally getting to understand, we probably wouldn’t until they were prepared to show themselves.
At that moment of maximum unpreparedness, when our attention was diverted, and after a long and debilitating day, they chose to attack.
I had no doubt they had been tracking us, and for quite some distance. I had that effect of hair standing up on the back of my neck. It actually saved me from getting shot.
The attack killed three of our men and shattered our confidence.
No one slept that night, either from fear the attackers would return, or because we were just plain terrified. I volunteered for guard duty. It was easier to be up and about instead of on a camp stretcher staring at the roof of the tent waiting for the inevitable.
Seeing our mates killed so horrifically, before our eyes, had the desired effect. In the beginning, we expected it to be a walk in the park, with some hoping that we would just stumble around in the jungle for a week or so, then go back to the camp for a well-earned rest. None had counted on the reality of war, or the fact some of us might die. Some were even hoping they would not have to shoot their gun.
All of those illusions had now gone after three months had passed, and as reality set in.
Some had sobbed openly, such was their preparedness. I had to say, I was a little more prepared, but had hoped for a little more time before the battle. And it surprised me how calm I was when all around me it was chaos.
“Bastards,” Killer muttered.
We called him ‘Killer’ because it was the nickname the Army had given him. We were sharing the guard duty and had spoken briefly over the watch, but up till then, the silence had stretched over an hour or so. It didn’t take long for anyone to realize he was a man of few words.
He’d been in the regular army for years and asked for the posting. He’d made Sergeant several times, only to lose those same stripes for fighting, usually after R&R and a bout of heavy drinking. Now assigned to our platoon to lend his experience, the conscripts were expecting him to ‘look after’ them. Other than myself and the Lieutenant, he was the only other regular soldier. Unfortunately for them, he hated both conscripts and the Viet Cong in varying degrees, and depending on his mood there was little tolerance left for the rest of us.
“The people who sent us here or the people trying to kill us?” I asked before I realized I’d spoken.
I didn’t hear the reply, the skies opening up with another torrential downpour that lasted for about five minutes, and going as fast as it came. When the sun finally came up, it would make the atmosphere steamy, hot, and unbearable. It was quite warm now, and I was feeling both uncomfortable, and fatigued.
Killer looked just as stoic as he had before the rain. He looked at me. “Damn weather. Worse than home.”
“Scapa Flow, Kirkwall. I should have been an engineer on ships like my father, but I was too stupid. Joined the Army, finished up here. What’s your excuse?”
“Square peg in a round hole. The army seems to handle us in its stride.” It was more or less the truth. I joined the Army to get away from my parents.
“That it does. That it does.”
The rain came and went, during which the rest of the camp roused and went about its business. It had been a long night for some, still getting over the shock of the attack, and the ever-pervading thought the enemy was still out there, biding their time. It would be, for them, a waiting game, waiting for the conditions to wear us down, and lose concentration as inevitably we would.
Certainly, by the time we were relieved from sentry duty, I felt I was in no condition to match wits with a donkey, let alone the enemy on his own home ground. When I stumbled over to the mess area and looked at the tired and haggard looks on the faces of the platoon, I realized that went for all of us.
Killer and I managed to get about an hour’s rest before the call came to move out, rain or no rain, and after a breakfast to make anyone ill, we left. For hours it rained. No one spoke as we strained to listen over the rain spattering on the undergrowth, all the time expecting the unexpected. That was the benefit of the surprise attack; we no longer took for granted we would be safe.
Water gathered in pools along the trail, hiding any chance of seeing landmines. Rainwater and sweat ran into our eyes, making it difficult to see. Water leaked everywhere, making it very uncomfortable. This was not a war; this was utter stupidity.
I was about to remark on the futility of it all to the Lieutenant, who had taken the lead, when one second he was talking to me and the next he crashed to the ground, a sniper’s bullet killing him instantly. Someone yelled “Contact” and we hit the ground, bullets flying all around us.
Too late, I thought, as I felt the hit of what seemed to be a large rock, then the searing pain in my leg, just as I hit the ground…
© Charles Heath 2016-2021