Under the canopy of rubber trees, obscured in the shade, a mine exploded beneath me. Immediate deafness closed in around me.
As my jeep slid to a halt, breaking glass and dust spatters let me know small arms fire was incoming. As my Sergeant and I struggled for cover, I knew I needed to move fast, but it felt like it took hours to slow motion myself into the crater behind the truck.
I knew we had lost again, and in a few minutes we would most likely be alone. Calling for help on the radio, I knew the escort tank and infantry would be here in minutes. Calling back and fourth, I could tell the truck driver, his shotgun and Sarge were still alive. As dark pajamas moved away in the rubber tree darkness, I squeezed off a few rounds, I knew that luck would be the only way I would hit anything. Mostly, it was a reflex action. Once again "Charlie" had won and I knew it.
In the trees above my head were intestines of someone that had been wearing a bright blue silk shirt. The Lambretta was twenty yards from the road and fragments of human limbs, hair, and heads littered the area. The Vietnamese people had lost again and would blame this as much on us as "Charlie V.C.". After the mine sweepers and infantry had “secured” the area and treated the wounded truck driver, we proceeded to the laterite1 quarry down the road from Quan Loi, past a Montanyard village.
As usual, we unloaded the bulldozers and began to push laterite onto the trucks. Putting two trucks side by side, we could push the water proof clay onto the trucks and drive the bulldozers almost out over the truck cabs. Drawing sniper fire sporadically during the morning, we didn't get more than twenty trucks loaded.
I could tell it was nearing mid-day and I took my dozer down into the lower pit and pushed back the gray soil. Clean fresh water began to fill the hole. I don’t know where the water came from but I knew it would be there. In a few minutes, the children began to gather and banter with me as I warmed my ration cans on the bulldozer manifold. Lee Elder pulled out an old Playboy as we settled beneath the nearby trees. I watched as the children bathed and played in the water and we pitched them a few cans of bread and chocolate bars. They always came to sit with us, but today was different. They with their deep set eyes, seemed nervous today.
Some of the children wanted to see the Playboy magazine so Lee gave it to them . We thought they wanted to look at the pin-ups, but that wasn't what caught their attention. They ravaged the pages. Evidently the naked bodies weren't of their interest, but the bright colors on the pages caught their eye. They rubbed the pages as though the colors would come off on their fingers. They had never seen color prints.
One of the youngest boys that was always playful, sat alone and quiet. I tried to play with him but he began to cry, and was the only child in Vietnam I had ever seen release such emotion. As he cried, he said over and over again V.C., V.C., Number 10, which was all the verbal communication we had outside of a few French words.
I could tell he knew where the Viet Cong were and I called up to the tank Captain above and behind me. He radioed for an interpreter realizing we might gain information from the children. In half an hour, a South Vietnamese squad came in and began to talk with the children who were extremely agitated and only the youngest boy would say much of anything. In the conversation, we learned that his Father had been killed the day before for not cooperating with the North Vietnamese. He told of a tunnel complex under the village close to where the mine exploded this morning.
Looking over my shoulder, I saw a Montanyard man as tall as me, walk out of the jungle. I had never seen any man there in Vietnam as tall and long faced as this Asian Indian. He wore a loin cloth, carried a spear, and a crossbow on his back and I knew he was from the mountains of Cambodia. He motioned to the forest to the west and told of Viet Cong nearby. Our infantry squads out on the perimeter were radioed and they called for reinforcements.
As smoke canisters were set off to mark our location, we began to lay down heavy cover fire for the choppers bringing in troops. Cobra gunships began to strafe the jungle with heavy fire from their mini-guns as the squads moved off to the West to try to engage the enemy. All afternoon, medical choppers came and went as the whine of jets, twenty millimeter cannon fire, and rockets destroyed the hills to the west.
Late in the afternoon, we loaded the bulldozers and headed back down the road to Quan Loi. Along the way, we pulled up just outside the village where the children lived. The Vietnamese interpreter began to question the villagers and one of the young boys we questioned earlier pointed out several hootchs. Soon a tunnel complex was discovered and we began to drop grenades into the openings with many secondary explosions following.
The frightened villagers scattered. We learned many of the villagers had been forced into the North Vietnamese Army and some were killed to keep the village people quiet. You see "we owned the land by day and the enemy owned it my night". In destroying the village, we did not help anything, except to scatter the population, leave them homeless, and still under Viet Cong control at night. We learned that there were as many as thirteen people in the Lambretta that exploded earlier that morning and their body parts were still there that afternoon, in the trees and on the ground. Looking at the crater that I had huddled in that morning, it was strange that the force of the blast had removed the lug nuts from the truck and left them in a perfect circle just outside the crater.
Miles down the road, we entered Quan Loi base camp where the air strip construction was going well. As we followed the road I had built back to our area I noticed the troops around the foxholes and admired the job that Lee and I had done the week before of pushing back the jungle for a field of fire. The Quad 50’s still had piles of empty shell casings around them and the distant trees had been cut down by their fire last night.
After securing and servicing the bulldozer, I walked through the huge ammo dump between our camp and the airstrip. Crossing the air strip, I saw the artillery unit Captain and the two men he had left unpacking and cleaning their equipment and 105 howitzers. He motioned me into the hole I dug with the bulldozer for him the day before and he offered me a warm Korean beer. He was extremely low, but glad to see me. His artillery fire base near An Loc had been over-run a few days before and the unit had moved in here to re-man and re-supply. Occasionally, as we talked, a Medivac chopper would come in to the underground hospital we built, drop off the wounded and fly out again. Keeping himself and his men busy helped to deaden the pain of what had happened to his battery. Like me, he no longer cared about the future, just to get by another day was enough to ask.
We huddled in the lowest part of the hole, waiting for what we knew would come, for the time was near, and then hell and its furry came to visit. Round after round of B-40 rockets and mortars rained in on us, as it had done around dusk for weeks. We knew they were trying for the ammo dump but so far it had just ended up as harassment. Besides, I was a "short timer", nothing could touch me!
n. Geology, red clay formed by weathering of oxide- bearing rocks. lateritic, a. lateritious, a. brick-red in colour.