ALIVE AND GOING HOME - short story
Memorial Day is a time set aside for Americans to honor those members of the armed forces who lost their lives while serving our country. The following story is loosely based on some of the things that happened around me while I was in Vietnam. It's dedicated to Sandy, and Hassle, and Tony, and to all the others who won't be enjoying the day off with their families.
The painting is titled, Dustoff: Angels of Mercy by William Phillips. The name of the model in the photo is unknown. Heck, the car isn't even a Chevy. But then, I bet you didn't care either.
Alive and Going Home
by Bill Fullerton
The explosion sent twenty-four soldiers sprawling. Dust and acrid smoke filled the air along with the sound of men cursing and scrambling for better cover. There were no screams of pain.
As he hugged the ground, Sergeant Mike Floyd told himself there were better places to be and things to do. His first choice being in the back seat of his car with Mary Beth Riser.
He was tired of death; tired of trying to kill unknown men who were doing their best to kill him. He wanted peace, and life, and Mary Beth.
Today’s plan called for his recon platoon to leave the shelter of a jungle-like wood line and cross a large expanse of dry rice paddies to a village. The word was it might be a staging area for the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army, maybe both. If everything went right, the infantry company and the troop of armored personnel carriers left back in the wood line would then move out and join them.
For the officer in charge of the operation, the plan had the advantage of protecting the men in his own company while risking a handful of troops. Vietnam was a numbers war. Should recon get shot up, the casualties wouldn’t be figured against his unit’s body count.
It was a scheme Mike and the other men of recon knew all too well. They were the eyes and ears of the battalion, experts at operating alone on intelligence gathering operations. Ambushes, snatches, tracking, manning listening posts at night and observation posts during the day were all considered good missions.
No one thought today's assignment, serving as scouts for a regular infantry company, was a good mission. They were now under the direct control of another unit's commanding officer. Whenever that happened, they became expendable.
Halfway to the village, everything started going wrong. A sudden, high-pitched shriek ended in a sickening explosion and a geyser of dirt, smoke, and death. Unable to tell where the fire was coming from, they dove for the only available cover. After that, it was a matter of praying they had put rice paddy dikes between themselves and a body bag.
The platoon began checking in. "What the hell was that? Where's the son-of-bitch? Is everybody all right?"
"Hardcore" Harding, the unit's platoon sergeant, yelled over from a nearby rice paddy. "That thing's gotta be a goddamn recoilless rifle, Lieutenant."
"Roger that, shit. You got any idea where the hell it's firing from?" Lieutenant Lester never stopped scanning the surrounding terrain.
"Can't be sure, sir. But they've probably got it set up on that hill over there on our right flank."
Mike forced himself to lift his head and look at the hill. There was a second explosion followed by an eruption of small arms fire from the village. But he’d seen a flash.
“I think Hardcore’s right, Lieutenant. I spotted something looked like a small back-blast. Probably about two-thirds the way up the hill, just left of that dead tree.”
Dale Lester studied the hill and then the surrounding terrain. His platoon, a group he and Hardcore had molded into a first class recon unit, was pinned down in the open. Meanwhile, Delta Company and the supporting armored personnel carriers were back in the safety of the wood line and didn't seem anxious to risk exposing themselves by providing fire support. "Looks like it’s command decision time, Bear.” Mike, whose size had earned him the nickname, wiped sweat and dirt off his face and nodded.
"If we stay put and call for help that recoilless rifle will pick us off," said Lester. “Heading towards that automatic weapons fire is out of the question. Going back’s not much better. So that leaves….
His words were cut off by another incoming round. Mike had an idea, but wished he hadn’t. “Lieutenant, my squad’s closest to the hill. What if the platoon lays down covering fire long enough for us to shag ass over there? If it’s just the weapons crew, odds are they’ll ‘di di’ when they see us coming.” What he didn’t need to say, what both he and the Lieutenant knew, was that if the crew didn’t leave and the position was defended, the squad could be in a world of hurt.
Lieutenant Lester glanced at Mike, then surveyed the situation. “Okay. Go get your squad moving. We’ll do our part here.” He looked away and began yelling orders to Hardcore.
Mike rose into a crouch and started running in a zigzag pattern toward first squad, his unit. The sound of another incoming round sent him diving back for cover. It exploded along the base of the dike being used by second squad, the squad of Sergeant Andy Andrews.
Redheaded, freckle-faced Anderson Andrews, Mike's friend and fellow squad leader, son of Mr. and Mrs. Carl P. Andrews, brother of Paul and Joyce, Kim Irving Andrew's husband, and father of their three month old daughter Kacey, was killed instantly when members of the North Vietnamese Army manning a recoilless rifle on Hill 87 scored a direct hit on his position.
Before Mike could get back to his feet “Hassle” Castle was rushing to Andy’s motionless form. The expert grenadier and Andy had joined the unit the same day. They were very tight.
Everyone knew to avoid the junctions of rice paddy dikes. They were prime spots for booby traps. Hassle knew better. But maybe all he could focus on was his friend’s body.
There was a small bang and a can filled with tiny steel pellets shot into the air, then exploded at chest height. It was hard to believe how many holes that "Bouncing Betty" drilled into Hassle's dark, wiry, young body.
The recoilless rifle fired one more round while Mike’s squad was racing to the base of the hill. After catching their breath, they formed a skirmish line and began moving up the steep hillside toward the unseen gun position. The heavy brush and small, low trees made it impossible to see more that a few feet ahead. It was a very hairy climb.
That may be why they got careless. The well camouflaged firing site was undefended and deserted. For the squad, the danger seemed over. They relaxed and instinctively moved closer to talk and check out the scene.
Mike was on the radio with Lieutenant Lester when he noticed what the men were doing. With an impatient gesture, he motioned for them to move away. “Don’t cluster fuck. Spread out and watch for….” He never finished his last command. There was an explosion. Tony Doughty a big, pug-nosed, good-natured guy from Tennessee—so new to the unit he still didn’t have a nickname had stepped on a booby-trap. His large body was now dancing in mid-air as a sheet of flame, laced with white streaks, raced toward Mike. It was the last thing he'd see clearly for months.
When the force of the explosion slammed into him, Mike struggled to stay on his feet. He’d heard other explosions and didn’t want to risk falling onto another booby-trap. Then his knees gave out and he crumpled to the ground.
After spitting out a mouthful of something, he made a quick, unsuccessful search for his rifle. Reaching for his canteen, he discovered his pistol still in its holster. Knowing he had the .38 Special made him feel better. It was common knowledge the VC seldom took prisoners and when they did, the captives were tortured to death.
He remembered to check his body for wounds. There was something warm and wet around his groin. The growing sense of panic passed when he discovered it was only urine, not blood.
The blast had caught him from the waist up. There were tiny pieces of metal and gravel in his arms, chest, and face. Raw powder burns covered his face and he couldn't see. But even with all those injuries, Mike knew he'd been lucky. He was alive.
The cries of wounded soldiers replaced the sound of exploding booby traps. In front of him, someone was moaning, "Crotch, crotch, crotch." Grabbing his canteen, Mike rinsed out his mouth and then started crawling toward the moans.
The casualties soon turned into statistics. Tony was dead. Three more, including Mike, would require a medevac. The immediate danger of an ambush was over. Now the wounded needed moving to a flat, open spot for quick loading onto the “dustoff” helicopters.
Somebody linked Mike up with "Cowboy" Thompson. The low-key, reliable fire team leader had gotten his right leg messed up. "Cowboy" could see, but couldn't walk. Mike could walk, but not see. The lame soldier and the blind soldier linked arms and prepared to help one another down the hill.
"Helluva way to spend the day ain't it, Bear?"
Mike’s mind flashed on an image of Mary Beth Riser stretched out nude and luscious on the back seat of his old Chevy. In his pocket was the letter she'd just sent—the one with the photo of her leaning against the side of his car and looking at the camera with that little smile she reserved for him.
He was blind, had lost two buddies and the new guy. But for the moment, shock, and being a survivor, overwhelmed feelings of remorse and loss. Those would come later. Now, he struggled to handle the reality that he was alive and going home, back to peace, and life, and Mary Beth.
"Damn straight, Cowboy. Guess we’ve both had better days. But it could be worse. We’re beat-up, but still standing. What you say we catch the next dustoff out of here and head for home?"
As the two men began walking away from their war, a ragged version of "Homeward Bound" floated over the scrub brush, dirt, and newly filled body bags.