Pieces: Recollections of a Rifleman

Tet Firefight
(A messy business)

The enemy attacked the province capitol during the early morning hours of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. By daybreak, the fighting had spread to the outlying hamlets and villages. 

That morning, Alpha Company was sent into an area southwest of the city. On point was the second platoon. As we approached a collection of shacks and hooches on the edge of a graveyard, gunfire erupted. Enemy AK47 rounds cracked and zipped overhead as we scattered and scrambled for cover. 

We began returning fire. The rattle of our M16s and M60s rose quickly to an ear-splitting crescendo. We poured withering automatic fire into the shacks, hooches and bushes. Our grenadiers hurled M79 shells into the hamlet as well. The enemy broke contact and fled into the hamlet. We followed, pursuing them through the hooches and shacks.

Combat in hamlets and villages was a messy business. Up until Tet, the battalion had operated only in the Central Highlands. In those jungle covered hills the only civilians I saw was an occasional Montagnard villager. Now we were fighting Viet Cong guerillas in populated areas. Many grunts suspected peasant loyalties. These suspicions, along with the confusion of battle, and a soldier's survival instincts, seemed to lift from our shoulders any acute sense of concern for the safety of  civilians. 

If you went in there worrying about women and children, a hardcore grunt say later, you couldn't do your job. The uncertainties of guerilla warfare made the death of civilians, innocent or not, a certainty. While I understood this cold fact, it's different when you see these things up close.

Gaylord Edwards - Machine GunnerAccording to my diary, the first casualty I saw that morning was an old Vietnamese peasant caught in a crossfire at the edge of the hamlet. He was wounded when an M79 shell exploded in his shack. Gunner and I dashed inside after the explosion and found him lying on a dirt floor moaning and babbling with fright. The man's back was peppered with shell fragments. We stayed long enough to bandage his worst wounds, then hurried out to catch up with the rest of the second platoon. 

Minutes later I saw Schultz entering a hooch to check it out.  I heard a shot and ran over to investigate. I entered carefully, calling out Schultz's name. I saw a dead monk sprawled on the floor, blood pouring from a hole in the man's shiny shaved head. He  lay in a spreading pool of blood behind a wooden table on which squatted a small statue of Buddha. Schultz had fired instinctively when he heard a noise coming from behind the table. That's where the monk was hiding. 

Schultz looked grim, but there was nothing to be done. We had to move on, stay with the platoon. Two days later, in another anonymous hamlet, Schultz took a bullet in the chest. He was dragged into a rice farmer's shack were he lay on the floor until medevacked. Inside this shack, on a shelf  was another small statue of the ubiquitous Buddha. George Schultz

Schultz and I left the dead monk and joined Gunner outside. The three of us moved forward through the hamlet toward the sound of increased gunfire. Our nostrils stung with the smell of burning grass and cordite. I passed two more wounded civilians, and heard crying coming from a hooch. I looked in through the  window. On the floor, surrounded by hysterical children, was an old woman shot in the face. This was not how I expected combat to be. I was naive. A dark anger, a rage, grew inside me. Minutes later I vented that rage on a dying enemy soldier.

Gunner, Schultz and I caught up with the platoon on the far end of the hamlet where I passed two dead enemy soldiers. I confess, I was pleased to see their crumpled bodies. I felt no remorse or pity. I thought, at least the enemy is dying, too. 

I passed a captured enemy soldier who had a leg wound. Somebody said he was a political officer. The thin, bareheaded man was sitting on ground stained with his blood, holding his arms straight up. Close by I saw Aguero lying on the ground with a gunshot wound. A medic was tending to Aguero's wound. 

Aguero I was now on a skirmish line with the point squad, moving away from the hamlet toward another part of the graveyard. I could hear sporadic gunfire and explosions from M79 grenades. Suddenly, a bareheaded VC with a shock of black hair emerged from behind a line of bushes. We aimed our weapons at him but held our fire, unsure at first if he was trying to surrender. The VC had a pistol in his hand, but it was pointed at the sky. Grunts screamed for him to drop it. Why doesn't he drop the gun, I thought. Was he too fucking scared to think? When he started waving the pistol, we opened fire. Our bullets tore him to pieces. Machine-guns and M16s blazing away, tearing flesh and bone from his body. He crumpled back, holding one arm straight out, palm out, as if trying to stop the withering fire. 

The assault line moved against the line of bushes from where the pistol carrying VC had emerged. As we passed his bloody body I saw one of his fingers on the ground. We were blasting away at the line of bushes. As we broke through them, I came upon a wounded enemy soldier. He had a mortal chest wound. His fatigue shirt was soaked in blood. The man was about my age, maybe a little older.  

His glazed eyes looked up at me. He was close to death. These were his last living moments on earth and I would be the last thing he would see. A man in a G.I. helmet silhouetted against the sky. He was my enemy. He was an object to me, like a Japanese soldier in those old World War II movies I grew up watching. I told myself I would put him out of his misery. A mercy killing. I was skirting the truth. What I really wanted was to kill him before he died. He was going to bleed to death anyway, but I wanted to be the immediate cause of his death. According to some perverse equation in my head, I figured his death would even the score for the old lady I saw shot in the face. His death would make her death more acceptable. 

I wrote in my dairy later that I shot him five times. He was just an object to me that day, he only became human years later.

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Copyright 2000 Edward Blanco