It Happened Quickly

Stupid launcher. I just couldn’t put enough rounds through the M-79 grenade launcher I carried. It took too long, loading it like a single shot shotgun, cracking it open, extracting the spent shell and then feeding another round into the chamber. Our squad was taking AK-47 small arms fire that was relentless and continuous. Shards of leaf matter was flying through the air like confetti and the air was choked with cordite smoke from the tremendous number of rounds expended by both sides. Rizolli was down and screaming just to my left, and we knew it was bad. His whole front was dark with his blood. In fact, we weren’t sure who was still standing. The foliage was just too thick to see more than thirty or forty feet. I got frustrated yanking the 40mm rounds from the bandoleers I had strapped over my shoulders and slung the grenade launcher and started pulling the smooth egg shaped concussion grenades from the cargo pockets of my pants. I could pull pins and throw those a lot faster than I could shoot the launcher, and right about now volume was important.

Our squad was on patrol on the side of a unnamed hill. It was just another of the many humps in the ground that made the jungle undulate. Riding in helicopters above the jungle canopy it looked like a heaving sea, somehow frozen in time. I wished I was in a helicopter right now, beating feet to the rear. But there wasn’t a lot of time to think about leaving, like everyone around me I was too busy doing everything I could to stay alive. Dude McPherson laughed at me back at the command posts as I loaded grenades into my pockets. “Have fun walkin’ with all that shit in yer pockets.” he said.  I didn’t say what was on my mind. I didn’t get along with McPherson and I knew if I said what I was thinking, we’d be going at it in no time at all. So I just made it a point to stuff more grenades into my pockets with an ‘up yours’ look on my face. I was glad I did now. I was able to throw ten grenades so far, and I still had another ten or so to go.

We could see them this time. Most of the time we couldn’t see the people we were shooting at, and who were shooting at us. We fired at movement. But now we could see the greens and tans of their uniforms, reinforcing the knowledge that we were fighting with guerrillas, we were locked on righteous NVA troops. Hard core army, just like us. They were well trained and well equipped, and we were in their back yard, not ours. I could hear more of our guys screaming up and down the thready line we split into when the first rounds came in. We’d been making a trail up the side of this hill in squad formation. It was a typical patrol, we were supposed to be out for maybe six or seven hours before returning to the command and control area we called the TOC CP. The Tactical Operations Center Command Post. A black guy names Deavers came running towards me, he was yelling something and I could see he favored one arm. It was his left and it was dark with blood and flopping around as he ran. Even as he came towards me, he feet kept running but he stopped moving forward, instead, his body jerked a few times and he flew over backwards and landed unmoving.

Someone grabbed my arm and tugged it. When I looked to see who it was, I realized no one was there. I looked down and saw that the cloth on my uniform sleeve was ripped. A round had grazed me. It energized me and I started grabbing more grenades from my pockets, pulling the pins and throwing them. I could see the faces of the enemy, round areas of lightness without expression. That’s how it looked. As I saw them, I also saw the huffs of the grenades I was throwing envelop those faces and obscure them. When the air would clear they were gone. My groping hands found no more grenades in my pockets and I dove down next to Rizolli and took up his M-16. I had to roll him over to get to the ammo pouches on his belt. Half of them were empty, making me more and more frustrated and frightened. I was running on pure adrenaline and the most of what I felt was fear. Rizolli had four magazines on him and I slammed on into the M-16 and cut loose, firing bursts of five or so rounds towards each of the movements or features I could see in front of me. It took no time to expend the ammo and I dropped the M-16 and took up my M-79 again.

But then I realized it was quieter. The fury of the firefight was diminishing and I could hear others in my unit calling out. Some called to join up, but others called for help. Just follow training, I thought. I started to move in the direction that I knew the most of my squad would be. How many of the 14 of us out there were left, I didn’t know. But I knew we would group up and get the wounded out. The dead too. We regrouped in a few minutes and had begun the process of redistributing ammo and weapons. We had four M-60 machine guns and we needed them manned. I wanted to exchange my M-79 for something that would shoot faster, but my squad leader, a big Irishman named Mick Kelley, said we needed the fire weight of th grenade launcher. But he passed me a .45 caliber pistol and a few magazines. I usually carried the automatic, but mine had been handed off to a second lieutenant who thought he was too good for a rifle. We were only part way through our regrouping when they opened up on us again.

Peters and Minton just looked surprised and fell down, then McPherson stiffened and grabbed towards his head. The problems between he and I evaporating in that one single second. We all dropped as a cluster and began to return fire. Someone was yelling to conserve for targets, meaning don’t shoot unless you see something. But I doubt anyone ws doing that. I wasn’t. I was pumping the bullet like grenades toward any movement in the brush. A new sound invaded the din of weapons fire. Between the explosions of RPGs, grenades and the staccato growl of machine guns we could hear the blade slaps of multiple helicopters. Gunships overflew us, their mini-gun pods screaming their hysterical note. Lead and depleted uranium rained so heavily it literally stripped leaves and branches from the trees, pounding the foliage into the ground. It helped to reveal the NVA who began to move backwards away from us as the gunships maintained almost endless fire. As soon as one would pass over, another took its place and repeated the pass.

I heard someone bark out “Follow me!” and I did. All of us moved in the direction we were waved to and moved back. We were still taking fire, but it was relenting some as a rtesult of the helicopter assault that was continuing as fiercely as it began. We backed our way to a clearing and someone had thrown red smoke out. A few slicks, crew transport helicopters were dropping quickly into the field and our leader was yelling at us to mount up. We didn’t need to be told twice. We’d been pulling our injured and dead with us as we moved, and now we were grabbing them by their arms and legs, and running to the open doors of the Hueys as fast as we could.  I could see the helicopter in front of me taking hits. Little pock mark holes appeared in the sheet metal sides of the cabin. The Plexiglas windows of the cockpit suddenly turned red, as if someone blew upa water balloon inside, yet we still piled into it. There was more panic than thought as we threw our cargo in the door and threw ourselves on top of it. Before we could make sure we wouldn’t slide right back out the door, the tail of the ship lifted and then the whole helicopter rose into the air. Looking down, we could see the faces of looking back up at us, sighting us with their AK-47s. I was laying on a body and it suddenly humped upwards, a round finding it through the underside of the helicopter. The aviation guys were special. They came and got us, almost no matter what. Right now I was glad for that. God bless those guys and their stainless steel balls.

And then it was done. It was over. I’m not even sure who was in that helicopter with me. I knew everyone in my squad well, but I just can’t seem to put faces to the people who, like me were huddled and holding on for dear life as the helicopter made its way through the sky.