The body was partially hidden by foliage but a single bare foot hung out, a blue-shite beacon in the green. McClaren had the point and saw it first, pointing two fingers at his own eyes and then pointing to the body. The rest of us stopped and squatted, reducing our profiles, and looked at the foot. McClaren just turned twenty, hailing from Denver Colorado. Just under six feet, he was lean and easy going. He moved from the quasi-trail we were following and approached the lifeless form. We could see him bending over the body and doing something with his hands before he straightened and crouch-jogged over to where the squad had bunched up. Mora, our own Italian woman expert, faced himself away from the direction the rest of us were looking. This to keep watch. The Viet Cong could be anywhere –as could the North Vietnamese regulars so Ralph was acting as rear guard.
“It’s a civillian, leastwise there’s no uniform. I took his wallet.” said McClaren, holdig it out. As squad leader I took it. Inside were identification cards, a driver’s license, some photos of, I assumed, family, and a few piasters, which was about ten bucks worth of Vietnamese dollars. There wasn’t anything else. The ID cards weren’t printed in english so we had no idea who issued them. They looked official though. The guys let me peer at the items for a couple of minutes and then Pearson, a thorn in my side for his steady bitching broke the silence.
“So, we aren’t gonna have to carry this stiff anywhere are we? I mean, you know, the freakin’ guy’s dead and gross. Shot in the head gross. Probably has diseases..” he complained.
“No, we’re not carrying him anywhere. We’ll take his ID and turn it in to the intelligence people.” I told Ralph to mark the position of the body on our map. He did, reminding me that the maps we usually got weren’t very accurate. They were all we had so that’s what we used. I said so. Ralphi shrugged and made a big deal of covering his eyes and stabbing a finger onto the map. “Bite me,” I said laughing.
McClaren took his place ahead and we started out again. It was a typical patrol; view and evade the instructions in play. We were supposed to go cover an area about 5 klicks square and had three days to do it. We’d been dropped in by helicopter, a UH-1D ‘slick’ ferried us to the embarkation point and then hovered a couple of feet off the ground as we unassed the slick. We fell into typical squad formation, one of the six of us guarding about a 60 degree swath in a circle around the helicopter. When it rose and departed, we broke for the trees nearby the rough clearing we’d arrived at. We’d been humping it and doing our search thing for three hours when McClaren spied the body. Our investigation of it had taken us a half hour, but we were back on our way again. For all of about three minutes. McClaren signaled us and pointed to the side before shrugging. A closer view revealed three more bodies, these too in civillian clothes. They’d also been dispatched by a single shot to the head, as evidenced by the black holes weeping blood from their temples. McClaren searched the bodies while we watched, once again Ralph guarded our backs. What we ended up with was pretty much exactly what we found on the previous boy. ID written in Vietnames (we believed), some personal materials and in two cases, a few bucks more in piasters. One of the victims was a woman. Vietnam was a gender tolerant place; it would kill men and women both.
Ralph stood up and signaled for us to look in another direction. We all took a sharp intake of breath at the sight. It was a small pile of people, stacked as though lumber at a drying yard. Two people side to side were laid down and two more laid 90 degrees to the first two. It repeated that way the thickness of five people tall. About 4 feet. Neither the three bodies nor the ‘stack’ were hidden, unlike the first body found. I was starting to wonder if the body wasn’t purposely hidden, but tossed into an accommodating brush. We now had a total of fourteen stiffs, a fact I decided merited breaking the general radio silence observed by patrols. I called Mickey over, he was our radio man. On his back was a PRC25 comm unit. He raised the Tactical Operations Center, or TOC and I spoke with the duty officer.
“We have a mass execution scene here, over.”
“Roger, roger. You say they all appear civillian, over?”
“Affirmative. They’re all carrying some kind of ID, but none of us can figure out what it says. We can’t tell if it’s north or south Vietnamese or what kind of –or if these people were intelligence or what. That’s why we called it in, over.”
“Roger that, Slice One. Remain on location. We’re sending a bird to fetch you and the bodies back to the TOC. ETA 50 minutes.”
“Understood. What of our patrol?” I asked.
“Sports Three will continue your sweep. Out.”
“Looks like we sit a while. ” I told everyone. They knew, they heard the conversation, short as it was. We were pleased that our patrol was cut so short. We would go on roster again, but at the end of the line. This would give us two and maybe even three days off. “But first, lets take a look around the LZ here and make sure Charlie isn’t there.” The group broke into a line with each of us 10 to 15 feet apart and began a circle around the clearing. It took us about a half hour to complete it and saw nothing remarkable. The radio crackled and Mickey mumbled an exchange into the handpiece.
“Chopper is approaching.” At the same time we heard the whuppa-whuppa noise of Chinook rotors. McClaren tossed a green smoke grenade to mark the clearing for the inbound chopper. The big twin rotor craft swung over our position and circled back towards us, descending as it did so. Suddenly there was gunfire from the thick foliage and the helicopter seemed to stagger as one of its rear rotor blades broke away. From there it made an almost lazy full rotation and then slammed into the ground. On impact, the rest of the rotor blades suffered and flew away, whistling missiles. The rear ramp of the helicopter was open, and first two and then three more people emerged from the wreck, which was beginning to emit dark smoke. An electrical fire maybe?
We moved out to their position immediately, to give them cover and lead them to a less visible area. We expected to get fired upon, but the thick brush stayed mute and benign. Guiding our new charges, we moved to a small rise we’d found in our check of the area. It offered cover in addition to the advantage of height standing about 20 or so feet higher than the average ground level. Mickey called in a situation report. Even as he spoke, the downed helicopter made a whump! noise and then erupted into an orange fireball ten times bigger than the Chinook was. “Effing Chinook just blew up!” Mickey reported.
We were told to change position, an order we agreed with what with the explosion and fire so nearby. When we believed we were safe enough for extraction, another helicopter would retrieve us and the Chinook crew. We beat feet, trading stealth for distance for a mile or so. The bush was thick enough to be problematic, but not bad enough to require a machete to get through. Still, most of us got cuts and scrapes from the plant life. We stopped to reconoider. The maps showed what looked to be a hillock a mile ahead and set out at a more ordered pace. From it we hoped to see a good spot for a new landing zone, usually abbreviated as LZ. We altered our path a few times, just not to be moving in a straight line. When we got to the hillock, we found that it was bare, save for grasses that apeared to give it a burr haircut.
We huddled to decide whether or not this spot was too close to the old one, and speculated on how many VC we had trailing us. “I don’t know how many there are, we all thought there weren’t any. So I wonder if it’s a single guy and some lucky shooting.” I said.
“What, like VC serendipity?” asked Ralph.
“Yeah. I mean, wouldn’t we have seen some sign if there was any real strength to them?”
“Not if they just arrived. They could have just missed us.”
I nodded. “True. Mickey? Call ‘em and give them these coordinates.” Just like that –well, twenty five minutes later we all jogged over the ramp and into the big Chinook. The stranded crew went forward to jaw with their company mates at the controls. The trip back took a mere ten minutes. On arrival, a squad of men carried a number of crates aboard and took seats. Our platoon leader sauntered up and explained who they were. Their job was to go recover the bodies we’d discovered. It was our job to guide them there. “So, what? Do we ride the helicopter back with these guys or what?” I was envisioning laying in a hammock, a cold beer balanced on my chest.
“No, you’ll continue your patrol.” he said, looking at me like I was retarded. “Especially since we lost a bird out there. We want to know who –or what’s out there.”
“Yesser,” I sighed, and waved my guys into the helicopter. We took off immediately, the pilot already knowing where he was going. From when we grounded, it took no time at all to show the recovery crew where we’d found the stacked dead people. When we got to the spot, there was not a soul in sight. No bodies, no real sign they’d ever been there, except for a few blood splashes on leaves.
The crew went back to the helicopter and my squad and I continued our patrol. In our few day circuit we saw no one else. Not even a civillian. Come to think of it, we didn’t even see a wild pig or a water buffalo, both fairly common. Nor did we ever discover who those people we found were, or why the VC had played Jenga with their remains.