|Uncommon Bond By John House|
Brown faces, eyes wide in fear, chanted prayers in enigmatic dialects to higher beings. Hands, once busy in dutiful tasks, now shook from their own volition, not in sequence with the steady overhead staccato.
Larger chunks of subsoil fell and Major Duc Phan Thiet, a diminutive surgeon, leaned forward in a desperate attempt to shield the open wounds of his patient. The continued pounding from American bombs shook the floor like an earthquake, scattering precious instruments from makeshift tables across the dirt floor. Men and women struggling to remain upright, found the task impossible and were slammed to the ground by the upheaval of the earth.
The NVA surgeon shouted for his colleagues to return to their duty stations. His words, smothered by the steady crescendo of the man-made concussions, died in the dust-filled room. Wooden legs supporting the surgical table gave way, dumping the unconscious patient onto the floor. In an attempt to grab the man, Duc lost his footing and fell headlong against a wall just as a new blast filled the small underground chamber with more choking dirt, extinguishing the primitive lighting. Renewed screams of agony echoed through the chamber from the occupants who clasped their hands over their ears to stem the flow of blood streaming through their fingers from ruptured ear drums. Injured soldiers in hammocks suspended from the ceiling, fell onto the unfortunate beneath them. The horror continued while maimed soldiers bled out from their wounds, unable to receive lifesaving treatment.
The wave of destruction subsided for a moment. But before the echoes faded, the relentless pounding began anew.
Spitting blood and grime from his mouth, Major Duc crawled across the floor, using his surgically skilled hands like miniature shovels, moving piles of damp soil and wood out of his way. He scrabbled into the adjoining chamber in a desperate search for the Caucasian prisoner of war. Dangling from an iron bar anchored in a corner of the small room, empty ropes hung free, no longer restraining its prisoner. The dawii bacsi, a Captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, a doctor like Duc, was gone. Duc stared at particles of sand reflecting light from a ray of sunshine penetrating the tunnel complex through a hole blasted by the American ordnance. His enemy, Captain David Hanson, who had become a friend, had escaped. But to what? A hell far worse if recaptured by the VC; savages compared to the more civilized members of the North Vietnamese Army. The VC, once simple peasants, had become barbarians driven to insanity by the recurrent bombings.
Six Months Earlier
High over the Pacific
Captain David Hanson turned away from the conversation with his seatmates and stared out the small window of the plane. Previously a cargo jet owned and operated by Seaboard World Airways, it now functioned as a troop transporter. The surge of troops ordered into the war zone by President Lyndon Johnson exceeded the capability of military aircraft to ferry the troops, so commercial jets, leased by the government at great expense, did the job.
Some lucky GIs traveled on carriers like United Airlines and Pan Am where they experienced good meals and in-flight movies, and also the last chance to see pretty â€œround eyes.â€ Other less fortunate soldiers, like Hanson, were crammed into the converted cargo jets where entertainment consisted of a deck of cards and the meals came in a box containing a sandwich, chips, and an apple.
All wasnâ€™t bad, the â€œstewsâ€, young and pretty, treated the servicemen with a special, sweet charm, realizing many of them would not be returning as they were nowâ€”at least not sitting upright in seatsâ€”but more likely in aluminum caskets in the baggage compartment of the aircraft.
Hanson overheard a macabre joke by one of his fellow Aviation Medical Officers and, in spite of his somber mood, a chuckle escaped his throat. He glanced around at the men sitting in the cramped interior of the plane. No first class section or tourist class; no dividers of any type. Six seats across from front to back with the leg room reduced to a minimum.
The airlines, paid by body count, made sure every available space contained a seat. An unofficial dividing line of some sort existed since the officers were seated in the front, followed by the NCOs, and then the enlisted men in the rear. The few officers in the first five rows were recent graduates of the aviation medicine course at Fort Rucker, Alabama, with one exception, a Second Lieutenant, a recent grad from Officer Candidate School.
Assigned as a forward observer for an artillery battalion, he would spend his tour with the grunts in the jungle where he could expect good protection by his fellow troopers. His job was to bring â€œa world of hurtâ€ on the bad guys by calling in artillery strikes. For the same reason, the Viet Cong snipers considered him a high priority target. Take him out, and supporting artillery fire would be less accurate. Both sides knew it.
Hanson stared at the young lieutenantâ€”blonde hair, blue eyes, a baby face with only a hint of facial hairâ€”thinking if he made it home to his momma, he wouldnâ€™t be the same boy she sent to war.
Two stops were scheduled to break up the eighteen-hour flight time, allowing for refueling. After leaving Travis Air Force base in California, the plane flew nonstop, thankfully, to Hickam Air Field in Hawaii. The troops unloaded quickly, searching for souvenir shops, lounges for the last chance to swill down alcohol, and payphones to make calls to mommas and girlfriends. The army planned well, posting soldiers at every exit to make sure the troops didnâ€™t wander out of the terminal.
The second leg of the journey took them to a base in Guam. This time Hanson didnâ€™t see a terminal, so several large tanker trucks took care of the refueling. The soldiers, required to leave the plane during the stop, stretched their legs walking about on the tarmac.
Guam was the home of the mammoth B-52 Stratofortress bombers. Since it was the middle of the night, the BUFFs, affectionately known as Big Ugly Fat Fuckers by the pilots and crew, couldnâ€™t be seen in much detail. The Air Force Air Patrol guarded the area and made sure no one approached the giant aircraft. They didnâ€™t get a chance to see them, but over the span of their tour, the soldiers would have plenty of opportunity to witness the results of the aircraftâ€™s presence.
When the troops reentered their personal transportation, the banter began anew, continuing until several hours later when the Captain of the aircraft made an announcement over the PA system. â€œGentlemen, we are â€˜feet dryâ€™ crossing the coast of South Vietnam.â€ Total silence. So quiet, a gnatâ€™s fart would have reverberated throughout the aircraft. A recording of thoughts of each individual at that moment would have been amazing.
Hanson didnâ€™t need to record his thoughts. Front and center in his mind, he recalled peeking into the room of his two-year-old daughter, watching her sleep with her little legs pulled up underneath her. Choked with emotion, he couldnâ€™t speak and decided not to awaken her. He had lost his wife the previous year, a victim of a drunk driver. His mother and father cared for Annie, and would continue to do so until he returned from Vietnam.
Driven to the airport by his father, they had noticed several other soldiers catching the flight from Savannah to Atlanta where most would continue on to Oakland. He embraced his father one last time, grabbed his duffel bag and entered the terminal. Neither had a clue to the fate that awaited Hanson in Vietnam.
The descent into Ton Son Nhut airport provided an example to all the soldiers that the next 365 days would be different from anything they had previously experienced. To lessen the chance of being struck by ground fire, the pilot deferred from the usual low glide from miles out. Instead, he waited until the aircraft approached the airport, made a steep dive and flared out right at the beginning of the runway. The maneuver, a good wakeup call, got the adrenalin flowing in every man.
The interior of the aircraft cabin felt hot and stuffy, that is until the stewardess opened the aircraft door. As the descending steps rolled into place, the soldiersâ€™ senses were assaulted by obnoxious odors, humidity, and the oppressive heat. Within minutes, khaki uniforms wrinkled from the long flight hung loose on sweat soaked bodies.
The occupants of the plane, tired and grungy, followed an NCO who herded them into an open air terminal covered by a tin roof that did nothing to lessen the suffocating heat. Time spent standing in line during sorting of bags and the review of orders of each soldier compounded the discomfort from the heat. Their pathetic situation wasnâ€™t helped by the presence of troops in jungle fatigues lined up to board the same plane Hanson and his friends just exited.
The plane for the returning soldiers was known as the â€œFreedom Bird,â€ their transportation back to the â€œWorld.â€ They had survived their tour and werenâ€™t kind in their taunts to the newly arrived troops. Cat calls, along with expletives, echoed across the terminal. â€œHey FNG, youâ€™ve got more days to go than I have seconds.â€ The words were answered with visual signs mostly consisting of a single raised finger. â€œFucking new guys, watch your asses.â€
Mutual admiration still existed between the groups; those leaving prayed for the safety of those arriving. The new guys stared in awe at the veterans, wishing they could soak up their knowledge, their secret of staying alive in the â€˜Nam.
The aircraft, once loaded with the departing veterans, leapt airborne while Hanson and the others remained in what seemed to be a stationary line.
Eventually, the troops, packed in buses with windows covered with wire mesh, drove out of the staging area. Word quickly spread that the wire prevented grenades from being thrown through the windows.
Great, thought Hanson, these are the people we came to defend.
After a thirty minute ride, the bus dumped them at the 93rd Replacement Center.
Over the next two days, while they acclimated to the climate, they accumulated in-country jungle fatigues, canvas-sided, steel-bottomed boots, and olive drab underwear. They were issued unit patches, cloth insignia, and name tags, then were directed to places where Vietnamese men and women sewed the items in place. Soon after came two duffel bags of crap Hanson knew he would never need, and therefore planned to turn in to the supply sergeant as soon as he got to his assigned unit.
The last night at Long Binh, the home of the 93rd RC, the new Aviation Medical Officers met with the Senior Flight Surgeon in Vietnam to receive their assignments. On one wall in his office, a giant map designating the different combat zones and the units responsible for the areas jumped out at the group of doctors.
Having watched the news at home, the I, II, III, and IV symbols meant something to each of them. Also on the map, multi-colored pins, each representing a location where each individual AMO would be assigned meant even more. The pins matched colored folders given to each AMO when they entered the office. The men stared at the map in awe, realizing they would be scattered from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta.
This night would be the last time together after spending months as a singular group in training. Now they would fly to places most of them couldnâ€™t pronounce and couldnâ€™t find on the map without assistance. Questions about their assignments were answered in turn, and each received a set of orders to follow the next morning since they would be traveling to different areas of the country.
Hanson learned he would first fly by C-130 to a place called An Khe, the base camp of the First Cavalry Division, and then on to another location named Camp Evans, near the DMZ. The one thing he knew about the First Cavalry Division: it was the home of the Seventh Cavalry, the â€œGarry Owen,â€ General Custerâ€™s old cavalry regiment. Not a good omen, not at all.
South of the DMZ
First Cavalry Base Camp
By the second week in-country, Hanson had finally gotten somewhat-used to the heat and humidity. The anguish over being in a combat zone had dissipated to a slight quiver, replaced by hours of boredom. The initial days at Camp Evans included a three-day assignment to â€œCharm School,â€ where instructions included how to fire various weapons, rappel from a one hundred foot tower, and basic first aid.
He walked out on the first aid class and wandered around the tent city looking for the 15th Medical Battalion. His certainty of being assigned there so his medical and surgical skills could be utilized proved wrong.
He did find the Quonset hut housing the 15th Med and met with Colonel Turner, the commander, where he learned he would be assigned to the Division Artillery Headquarters at the Headquarters Battery. In addition, he would serve as Flight Surgeon to the 2/20th Aerial Rocket Artillery Battalion, which provided air support to the infantry and to artillery bases scattered throughout the area of operations for the division. The 2/20th was a branch of Division Artillery, and so fell under his watch.
When he returned to the area of the charm school, his Tech Officer informed him to line up for the rappelling exercise. Standing in line again, he watched men scramble up a wide rope ladder to the top of the one hundred foot tower. When his time came, he appreciated the gloves given to him, certain the rope would cut his hands. Their benefits were proven when he attached the Swiss Seat around his buttocks and waist, looped the rope through it, and backed up to the edge of the tower.
He made eye contact with the NCO assisting him. â€œTell me again why I have to learn how to do this?â€
â€œHell, Doc, one of these fine days you may have to rappel out of a helicopter.â€
â€œPlease tell me youâ€™re fucking with me!â€
â€œNo, sir!â€ he said respectfully, then commanded Hanson to jump.
Once he finally reached his unit, Hanson set up his dispensary in a large, weather-beaten, mildewed tent where red dust pervaded every inch of the place. His first lesson: when the soldiers came to the dispensary, they wanted to see the â€œdoc,â€ a sergeant who knew the ropes and could take care of their problems with a shot. Thus relieved of his medical duties, he took the time to familiarize himself with all the units that fell under his responsibility.
No sooner did he memorize the firebases, orders came from MACV that the entire division would be moved south to act as a blocking force between the Cambodian border and Saigon. The idea of moving a division, the size of a large city, seemed impossible to Hanson.
But it happened.
To accomplish the massive undertaking, MACV split the division, sending administrative, basic medical, and some combat forces by C-130s to establish the base camp at a place called Phuoc Vinh about midway between Tay Ninh and Saigon. The rest of the division, including the large artillery pieces, supplies, and the remainder of the troops came down the coast by ship to Saigon, then by truck convoy to their new home.
Working feverishly, the division got back to full combat readiness. With his medics in place, Hanson again made himself indispensable to the pilots, so he could hitch rides to different firebases. The units he covered had numerous aircraft: troop-carrying â€œHueys,â€ also known as the UH-1C and newer UH-1D; the OH-6 Cayuse or â€œLoach,â€ a small scout helicopter that resembled a bumble bee; and his favorite, the AH-1G Cobra, a gun ship loaded with a mini-gun, grenade launcher, and rockets.
Hanson spent hours studying the locations on maps of the different artillery batteries and ARA units scattered over the entire III zone of the combat command. He spent the first month in his new location visiting the various units to get familiar with the medics under him and to review basic sanitary situations and immunization records.
The medics of each unit took responsibility for the health of the troopers in their unit, part of which entailed the task of insuring each trooper took their malaria pills as instructed. Not an easy task since the pills caused diarrhea. A difficult task for the medics with the artillerymen who remained on the ground, the job proved virtually impossible for Hanson to convince the pilots. He had to beg, plead, and threaten the pilots to take their medication. First of all, most pilots opposed taking any kind of medication, other than medicinal spirits: beer. The second reason: experiencing diarrhea when flying wasnâ€™t pleasant, especially for the pilots in the Cobra with closed canopies.
Hansonâ€™s dual responsibilities, with both ground units at the firebases and the pilots at three different locations, required a great deal of airtime in various types of helicopters. The Loach (Low Observation Helicopter) became his usual mode of transportation. Armed with a mini-gun, when on missions with the Cobra gunships, it served an observation function. Small, fast, and very maneuverable, it allowed the pilot to â€œget down in the bushes with the bad guys.â€ When available, it also served the transportation needs for the chaplain and the doctor to reach the firebases. Because of the frequency of trips by the two men to the various LZs, they knew the area well. The newest pilot drew the assignment to ferry them so he could learn various landmarks of the terrain.
Hanson did the same thing day after day. Though the assignment soon became mundane, the frequent trips by helicopter had its benefits. While in the open-sided chopper, he experienced the cool air at the higher altitudes. Unfortunately, the trips between firebases seldom took more than thirty minutes, leaving him in the scorching heat again.
His medics, who were well-trained, quickly retained how he wanted things done. Hence, when he made his inspections, he mainly reviewed the immunization and sanitation records. This left a lot of empty time to talk with the grunts, the infantry soldiers assigned to protect the firebase, and listen to Chaplain Max give his sermons.
The chaplain stood three inches over six feet and weighed no more than one hundred eighty pounds soaking wet; at first glance, appearing as a stork with a perpetual smile on his face. Not liking Max was impossible. A good number of troops came to his sermons for an hour of respite from digging foxholes, filling sandbags, and hauling artillery shells. The chaplain didnâ€™t care as long as they came. He spoke to those who showed upâ€”one to thirtyâ€”as if speaking to the congregation at the National Cathedral in Washington.
Hanson heard the sermons so many times he could recite them from memory. Still, he never tired of hearing the chaplain speak. The words and Maxâ€™s manner of delivery gave him an inner peace. Back in â€œthe worldâ€ the two of them would be in different circles, but in this hellhole, a special bond developed. Hanson looked around at the kids sitting on sandbags. Even if they used the services for sham time, they showed respect to the chaplain by keeping themselves erect, eyes open and attentive; at least until the day bullets started zipping by.
The grunts and the artillery gun bunnies, having experienced similar episodes, reacted instantly, flattening out on the ground or diving for the nearest foxhole. One of the soldiers dashed forward, taking the chaplain to the ground with a flying tackle.
Odd, no one made an effort to take me down.
â€œSniper,â€ yelled the nearest grunt. â€œDoc, get your butt on the ground. You make a great target sitting up on that stack of sandbags.â€
Someone did care.
Several of the artillerymen crawled across the firebase to the heavy guns. Sergeant First Class Grantham stood tall without fear at the rear of a 105mm howitzer, barking orders to his men who carried them out while in a slouched over posture. â€œFire mission. Eighty-five degrees azimuth. Willie Peter. Range four hundred yards.â€
The men around him performed in perfect sequence, the danger from projectiles gone from their thoughts. â€œLoaded and ready,â€ one of them shouted.
The wheels of the howitzer bucked off the ground and a circle of smoke belched from the barrel of the big gun. Four hundred yards down range, an airburst spread hot white phosphorus, completely saturating the thick canopy.
The firing from the sniper ceased.
â€œGot that fucker,â€ a soldier shouted.
â€œNaw,â€ answered the sergeant. â€œToo slow. He was down from the tree and in his spider hole before the round hit. Expect to hear from him again.â€
A young infantry captain hustled up to the sergeant. â€œThink I should send out a search and destroy team?â€
The sergeant looked almost embarrassed for the officer asking advice openly from a sergeant. Recognizing it was the officerâ€™s first week in combat as the CO of the company of infantry on the firebase, he decided to give him some slack. â€œNo, sir. We scared him. Donâ€™t think we fired in time. We need to practice more and speed up our reaction time. If we did get him, heâ€™s nothing more than a piece of charcoal.â€
Hanson, eavesdropping on the exchange, grimaced at the thought, thankful he wasnâ€™t one of the recipients of the massive firepower the Americans could bring to bear on the enemy. That he would ever be in such a situation never occurred to him. The sniper fire brought an early end to the chaplainâ€™s service. It wouldnâ€™t be possible to get the troops to sit in a group again, even if they could be rounded-up.
Hanson sat with â€œMajor Maxâ€ as he called the friendly Protestant minister, discussing the recent action. â€œIf a trooper is ever hit by sniper fire during one of my services, the commander of the firebase will pull the plug on my gatherings.â€
Hanson passed a lukewarm can of Coke to Max, shaking his head before he spoke. â€œHe wonâ€™t do something so drastic. A move like that would invite a â€œcongressionalâ€ from some soldierâ€™s mother.â€ Hanson referred to an investigation by the staff of a congressman whenever a mother or anyone else from their state complained their precious offspring were denied their rights. Most commanders dreaded a congressional investigation more than anything else. Seldom did anything good come from such a time-waster.
Max downed the beverage in a few swallows, belched loudly and flattened the can under the heel of his boot. â€œLetâ€™s pray nothing like that happens to these boys while worshiping God. Everyone prays to God when under fire, but I feel my services actually make a difference to the mental preparation for the patrols.â€
Hanson bit off his reply, recognizing his bitterness toward God at this point in his life would not lead to anything good. Heâ€™d admitted to his bias against religion since the death of his wife. An angel, sheâ€™d always helped others, only to be killed by a drunk driver who survived the crash. In private, Hanson had railed out at God, questioning His â€œgoodness.â€
The situation worsened when Connieâ€™s parents filed suit for custody of Annie. The battle became ugly. They tried to use the fact Hanson worked eighty hours a week and often left in the middle of the night on emergency surgical cases. Thankfully, his parents stepped in and convinced the judge they would care for Annie. When the judge learned Annie had a tight relationship with her paternal grandparents, he ruled in Hansonâ€™s favor. It created a sour relationship with his in-laws from that point on.
Before arriving in Vietnam, Hanson supported the war, certain his country fought to preserve democracy for the people of South Vietnam. However, in the months since his arrival, his attitude changed and he developed resentment over the waste of Americaâ€™s youth. Micromanagement of the war by the Pentagon and timid generals in high command who protected their careers, had led to disaster. Fighting a war of attrition with a race that had no respect for human life didnâ€™t work, would never work. Inflated body counts might have advanced someoneâ€™s career, but it did little to bring North Vietnam to its knees.
â€œMax, explain to me Godâ€™s viewpoint on this war.â€
â€œMy friend, you are placing my relationship with God on a level a little higher than it actually is.â€
â€œOkay. What about your personal thoughts on the war?â€
â€œIâ€™m a minister and a servant of God. As such, I abhor violence of any kind. Iâ€™m also a man and understand the need for large, advanced countries to come to the aid of poorly developed countries; be it war, famine or disease. In this case, itâ€™s to defend South Vietnam from falling to communism. I wish a peaceful way to do it could be found. Obviously, thereâ€™s not, and so we have war. I chose to practice my ministry in the armed services because these young men need guidance during these turbulent times. In their training, they are taught to hate their enemy and to kill them. My job is to be a buffer. They must be taught not to hate all people they consider their enemy. The boys on the other side, and they are boys, just like our troops, probably donâ€™t understand why they are ordered south away from their homes, and, in most cases, will never see home again. Is it to defend their country? Not likely. Itâ€™s because they are told to do so, and to refuse is unthinkable; actually no different from our own troops. We have demonstrations, destruction of draft cards, and flag burnings, and some of our young men are leaving America and entering Canada. Not an easy decision since they donâ€™t know if theyâ€™ll ever be able to return to their families.â€
Hansonâ€™s back stiffened. â€œGutless cowards.â€
â€œNot really. Is the fear of death in Vietnam enough to make a man leave his country forever? Most of the ones who choose to go to Canada arenâ€™t mature enough to think rationally. Often their parents encourage them to leave home rather than risk losing them in the jungles over here. What about your feelings? Are you here because you are a patriot?â€
â€œIn the beginning, without a doubt. I graduated from North Georgia College, a small school in Dahlonega.â€
â€œIâ€™m familiar with the school. Military, isnâ€™t it?â€
â€œItâ€™s the senior Military College in Georgia. I received a commission as a Second Lieutenant and a deferment so I could attend medical school. The majority of my classmates immediately went into the army. The most popular branch then was Infantry, and most wanted to go to Airborne and Ranger School. A great bunch of guys; intelligent, brave, and ready to defend their country. Most of us knew very little of Vietnam.â€
â€œWere you able to maintain contact with them?â€
â€œA few. My best friend became a member of the 82nd Airborne. By the time I heard from him, his unit was entrenched in a war in the Dominican Republic. My studies and hospital work took up so much of my time, I didnâ€™t know a war existed, much less one involving my classmates. I finished medical school and two years of surgical residency before the Army voided my deferment and sent me here. My classmates who remained in the Army after the two- or three-year requirement for their commission found themselves in Vietnam for a second tour. I entered basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas along with a thousand other doctors, dentists, and veterinarians. Experienced officers came around and offered some of us the option of going to Fort Rucker, Alabama for the Aviation Medicine School. We would be there for eight weeks, which would extend our obligation to Uncle Sam for the same amount of time. I didnâ€™t want to live in a hole in the ground on some firebase, so I signed on.â€
â€œAre you happy with your choice?â€
â€œI guess so. I travel about the country in helicopters, visit a lot of those very firebases I mentioned, and meet great people like you. As for the war, I think itâ€™s a waste of men, money, and talent that could be used for better purposes for the world.â€
â€œSo, you donâ€™t think we should be killing the enemy?â€
â€œDidnâ€™t say that. America isnâ€™t accomplishing anything except reducing the population of both North and South Vietnam. But if thatâ€™s what it takes to get out of here, Iâ€™ll kill every enemy soldier I can.â€
â€œAnd what happens if you come face to face with someone like you? Someone who hates this war, hates to kill, is trained to save lives, not take them? Would you be so anxious to kill him?â€
Hanson stood and walked in circles around the sandbagged area. â€œWe both know thatâ€™s a hypothetical question. Whatâ€™s the odds Iâ€™ll ever meet the enemy on the ground?â€
â€œLife is strange, my friend. We never know what is coming.â€
Hanson removed his â€œsteel potâ€ helmet, a requirement in the First Cavalry Division, placing it under his left arm, and knocked at the door of the Division Artillery Commander.
â€œCome in, Doc,â€ Colonel Munsford commanded.
Hanson walked briskly to the front of the commanderâ€™s desk and popped a sharp salute. â€œYou sent for me, sir?â€
â€œStand at ease, Doc. I need you to fly up to Quan Loi. Half the pilots in C Battery of 2/20th and their crew chiefs have the â€œruns.â€ Canâ€™t expect a man to fly for hours in a helicopter while heâ€™s sitting in a pile of shit.â€
Hanson loved the commander and his country-style language. â€œNo, sir, I canâ€™t imagine his co-pilot would be too happy, either.â€
The colonel laughed. â€œNot that they wouldnâ€™t do it. Good bunch of pilots. Those young warrant officers are fearless. Theyâ€™ll take on the VC and the NVA in a minute, but they prefer to at least start out with clean drawers.â€
â€œSorry I havenâ€™t been on top of this situation, Colonel.â€
â€œNo way could you have been. I just got a call from Major Berry, the battery commander. Iâ€™m sure you remember Ralph. Nice black guy, former football player from some small college in Maryland. Said the culprit is bad chow. Some of the grunts who shared the mess hall got the trots as well. The medics are stumped. Grab some magic pills and head on up there and see what you can do to get my pilots back in the air. Those grunts out in the jungle get a little nervous when they donâ€™t have the ARA backing them up.â€
â€œDo I need an order to take to the flight line?â€
â€œAlready taken care of. WO Baker will fly you up. He needs some familiarization time. Check with the chaplain. He might want to go as well.â€
â€œYes, sir. Shouldnâ€™t take me more than fifteen minutes to get my gear together.â€
â€œGood deal. I knew I could count on you to be at the ready. You might need to check out the sanitation in the mess hall. We donâ€™t need a repeat. Any questions?â€
â€œGood. Check with me when you get back. Dismissed.â€
Hanson found the chaplain in his small office, surrounded by books. â€œGood morning, Major. Feel up to a trip to Quan Loi?â€
â€œIâ€™m up to traveling anytime. Is it possible to get the pilot to deviate from his flight plan and drop me off at LZ Jamie? I havenâ€™t seen the boys at B-2/19th in weeks. How long you plan to stay at Quan Loi?â€
â€œThe answer to your first question is â€˜yes.â€™ These new pilots will do anything I ask, until they learn I donâ€™t have the power they think I have. As far as the stay, it shouldnâ€™t be a full day. Need to check on some sick pilots and leave some medications with the medics. Iâ€™ll be glad when the new flight surgeon gets assigned to C Battery. Iâ€™ve been spread thin the last two weeks. How much time you need at LZ Jamie?â€
â€œNot a lot. I donâ€™t mind hanging around there until you finish your work and swing back by. Itâ€™ll give me time to visit with the troops that canâ€™t make it to the service.â€
â€œThatâ€™ll work out fine. Iâ€™ll drive by the flight line and make sure the newbie is okay with the change.â€
After leaving the chaplainâ€™s office, Hanson stopped by his aid station and loaded up on Bismuth, antibiotics, and Lomotil. If he couldnâ€™t cure the guys, at least he would make them more comfortable. It was unlikely he would find the source of infection, and like most patients with intestinal problems, they would be over the illness before he finished his investigation. Still, he wanted to be thorough to please the colonel. It wouldnâ€™t take much time to take a few culture swabs in the mess kitchen to make sure it hadnâ€™t been contaminated with Salmonella or Shigella.
He sought out his medic NCOIC, told him the plans for the day, and requested a drive to the flight line, picking up the chaplain on the way. Hanson considered it good fortune to have a NCOIC like Sergeant Clay. The man knew his business and did all the administrative work, allowing Hanson to focus on medical care.
WO Baker stood alongside the small Loach having completed his pre-flight check. His flight helmet rested on the left seat along with his â€œchicken plate,â€ the chest protector many pilots preferred to sit on rather than wear in the customary position. He scratched around the collar of the NOMEX flight suit, a special fire-retardant suit required for all pilots to wear, along with NOMEX gloves. Despite the potential life-saving features, the crews disliked wearing the equipment because of the extreme heat.
Hanson approached the helicopter from the open side of the bern, the L-shaped revetment offering protection on two sides from rocket and mortar fire. â€œMr. Baker, you ready to go?â€
â€œRight on, Captain,â€ replied the young Warrant Officer.
â€œDrop the rank thing. Doc is my handle and I prefer it.â€
â€œYes, sir. My first name is Joe. I answer to about anything.â€
Hanson liked him immediately. â€œJoe, have you met Major Max, our chaplain?â€
Baker turned to the gangly man whose arms were loaded with books. â€œFirst time. Pleased to meet you, sir. Iâ€™ve heard tales about you and Doc. Heard you two have seen more of our area of operations than anyone.â€
Max laughed, â€œWeâ€™ve flown all over the AO and to all the LZs. Thankfully, no one has shot at us.â€
â€œBaker, erâ€”Joe. Been to Quan Loi before?â€
â€œOnly once, sirâ€”uh, Doc. Iâ€™ve studied the flight map thoroughly with some of the other pilots and they pointed out landmarks for me. They told me you and the chaplain would show me others.â€
â€œDid they happen to show you the location of LZ Jamie on the map? We need to drop off the chaplain there before we head out to Quan Loi.â€
â€œNot a problem.â€
Hanson slipped on his flight helmet, pulled at the crotch of the NOMEX suit, and climbed into the right seat. The LOH had a single cyclic for direction and maneuvering, and one collective that controlled the angle of the blade, allowing for ascent and descent. With only one set of controls, whoever rode right seat was a passenger, just like the two seats in the back.
Hansonâ€™s voice took on a serious tone. â€œLandmarks are helpful. Not worth anything if we get socked in. Did you check the weather report?â€ Hanson had been in-country long enough to know the weather in Vietnam could change quickly especially late in the afternoon. He also knew the LOH possessed minimal navigational instruments.
â€œCome on, Doc. Give me a little credit. Iâ€™m new in Vietnam but Iâ€™ve been flying for a couple of years. I know how to prepare for a flight.â€
Hanson displayed a sheepish grin when he gave the pilot thumbs up. â€œSorry â€˜bout that. Iâ€™ve experienced rides in this little plastic bubble when the weather closed in. Iâ€™ve sucked seat material up my ass several times looking for the mountains around me. Iâ€™d rather not see them close up at a hundred miles an hour. Know what I mean?â€
Baker laughed, watching the chaplain strap down his supplies in the back seat of the LOH. â€œI heard the story about Nui Bai Din,â€ referring to the massive mountain located in the middle of the flat plains, normally visible for miles around. Word circulated that the Americans controlled the base and the top, and the VC owned the middle, perforated with caves and tunnels. No amount of firepower could drive them out, and direct assault would be suicide.
The look on Hansonâ€™s face changed to one of disgust. â€œThe asshole pilot who pulled that stunt has been on my shit list ever since. I make him come to the aid station twice a week for stress evaluation, which Iâ€™m allowed to do. I make sure it takes up all his free time.â€
â€œDid he really put your life in danger?â€ Baker asked.
â€œHell no, but I didnâ€™t know that. Iâ€™m sitting right seat, staring into the thickest mass of clouds Iâ€™ve ever seen, and suddenly this huge damn mountain is right in front of us. Iâ€™ll admit, I screamed. The prick purposely left the mike open so all his buddies would hear. We were a couple hundred feet from the mountain, but it appeared we would smack right into it.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t think itâ€™s funny, now?â€
Hanson strained to suppress a smile. â€œYeah, but donâ€™t tell him. He considered it routine indoctrination to the FNG. They didnâ€™t do it to the chaplain. He would have brought down the wrath of God on them.â€
â€œBuckle up, Major Max.â€ Baker checked over his right shoulder to make sure the chaplain had hooked the belts properly. â€œTime to crank her up. At least we wonâ€™t go near Nui Bai Din on the way to Quan Loi.â€
â€œFunny, Baker. Absolutely hilarious. Keep it up and youâ€™ll start your tour with twice weekly stress examinations.â€
The pilot laughed and motioned for his two passengers to plug in the â€œpigtailsâ€ from their headsets so they could converse while in flight. Hanson and Meir knew most of the landmarks in the area of operation, and Baker planned to take advantage of their knowledge.
Ten minutes into the flight, Hanson relaxed. Baker knew his stuff and handled the â€œbirdâ€ with professional skill. Crossing the plains and the rubber tree plantations at five hundred feet, they enjoyed the luxury of cool air. Able to converse through the headsets, the men chose to fly in silence, enjoying the beautiful landscape below them; at least beautiful in the areas not blasted by B-52 bombing runs.
Hanson stared in amazement at the side-by-side triple paths of massive destruction wrought by the huge bombers. Everything within the borders of the bombing tracks was blasted to sticks. Giant trees uprooted like saplings and displaced huge rocks revealed evidence of collapsed tunnels.
God help anyone under that, Hanson thought.
It was not his first experience with the devastation of the bombing attacks. A month earlier, a raid occurred fifteen miles from his aid station causing tremors so violent all the containers of medication in his storage room fell to the floor.
The first leg of the trip went off without a hitch. Baker learned a great deal from both Hanson and Major Max who took turns indicating points of reference which Baker jotted down in a small notebook strapped to his right thigh. Following a picture perfect landing at LZ Jamie, Max unloaded his few supplies while Hanson checked in with the medics. In short order, Hanson re-entered the chopper and Baker promptly lifted the bird in the air. They zipped through a cloudless sky, passing several LZs, some active and others abandoned.
The green canopy below resembled a continuous carpet broken in places by the devastation from B-52 bombing paths. Impressed at his first exposure to the massive damage, Baker clicked on his microphone. â€œDoc, mind if I drop altitude. Iâ€™d like to see the destruction up close.â€
Hanson, reluctant to build on the story of Nui Bai Din, agreed to the pilotâ€™s request. â€œOkay. Keep it above two hundred feet. Donâ€™t get too focused on what you see and lose your direction.â€
Ignoring the instructions, Baker cut back on the throttle, dropping the chopper to fifty feet. His passenger, enthralled with the sight below him, didnâ€™t object.
â€œUnbelievable!â€ Bakerâ€™s comment and rapid breathing came over the head set.
Hanson silently agreed. He had never been this close before and the obliteration of everything in the triple swaths blew him away. Giant trees resembled matchsticks. Pits blasted in the earth reflected a bluish-green color from rain water mixed with minerals in the soil. A line of trenches, apparent networks of collapsed tunnels, stretched over a hundred yards. Arriving at the end of the ruination, Baker pulled a one-eighty degree maneuver and started back over the same terrain.
â€œNo,â€ screamed Hanson, grabbing Bakerâ€™s arm. â€œYou never fly back over the same route!â€
â€œJust for a minute, Doc. I saw something. I want to get a picture.â€ He pulled a small compact Instamatic camera from the side pocket of his flight suit. The chopper swooped down toward the ground, pulled up, and hovered over a series of the collapsed tunnels he saw on the first pass.
â€œBaker, you damn fool. Donâ€™t hover. Get the hell out of here.â€
Baker held the cyclic between his knees, using both hands to snap one picture after another. Returning the camera to his flight suit, he shoved the cyclic forward and grabbed the collective. Before the aircraft gained altitude the left side of the windshield exploded into Bakerâ€™s face. The bird nosed over, rapidly descending toward the ground.
Hanson leaned toward Baker, knocked his hands from the cyclic, and pulled back, and the chopper flew forward rather than down. The angle of the blade in the hover position kept the aircraft level until it reached higher terrain and then impacted with the destroyed earth. Immense pressure from the chest harness and shoulder straps dug into Hansonâ€™s flesh. His head snapped forward and then back against the seat. His world went black.
Emerging from the darkness Hanson was unaware of how much time had passed. His world had turned upside down, literally, as he hung head down, restrained by the harness. Bakerâ€™s body slumped forward below him. Struggling to free his own trapped arms, Hanson immediately regretted the action. Intense pain shot through his right shoulder and arm. He maneuvered to get his left hand alongside Bakerâ€™s neck. No pulse; not that he expected to find one with the back of the pilotâ€™s seat covered in blood and the helmetâ€™s face plate totally destroyed. Baker never felt a thing; his tour in Vietnam was finished. Using his left hand, Hanson freed the shoulder harness and the lap belt and then clung to the straps to prevent falling over Baker through the shattered windshield. His attempt to grab the edge of the door frame above his head failed. The severe pain made his right arm useless. Using his left arm, he pulled up out of the seat and squirmed under what was previously the bottom of the door. Changing his grip, he lowered himself over the side to the ground. The odor of JP-4 jerked his mind into gear as he realized he stood in puddles of the highly flammable fuel. For some reason he hadnâ€™t been consumed in a fireball. His .38 caliber pistol had remained in the holster around his waist, unfortunately resting over his right hip. Didnâ€™t matter, he couldnâ€™t hit anything with it even if in his hand.
A quick exam revealed no other injuries other than the pain in his shoulder. Maybe dislocated. He moved in a crouch away from the chopper, his action driven by the very real possibility of an explosion and fire. The area around the crash site, decimated from previous B-52 strikes, offered no hiding places. He recalled a film shown to his class at Fort Rucker about escape and evasion. Get away from the crash site, find cover, hunker-down, and await rescue.
The nearest brush, more than a hundred yards away, offered the best concealment. He selected his target area and started across the uneven ground, taking care not to fall and suffer additional injuries. He reacted to every noise, jerking his head from side-to-side, taking in as much as he could. Every bush seemed to hide an enemy soldier. His mind see-sawed between the urge to return to the crash site and await rescue or run flat out away from the downed chopper.
Get your head out of your ass. The chopper didnâ€™t come down from its own will. It was shot down. There are people around you who want to kill you.
Suddenly the pain in his arm wasnâ€™t as bad as before. He crouched low, running faster than he thought possible. Entering the dense brush, he dropped to his knees and sucked air in deep gasps, attempting to slow his pounding heart. Theyâ€™re out there. The reality finally hit him. He turned his head like an antenna, attempting to pick up any noise that would give him a clue as to their location. After a minute, he stood slightly bent over to remain below the tops of the brush and took careful steps deeper into the wilds. He lacked a sense of direction, but what did it matter? Without a way to communicate, he had to rely on a rescue party to find him. For some reason, he pictured himself dashing across an open field into the welcoming open doors of a Huey with door gunners blazing away at the pursuing enemy.
After traveling for what seemed like hours, he dropped to the ground. His mind raced with crazy thoughts. For a minute, he wished the chaplain was with him, then he chastised himself for even thinking such a selfish thought.
Glancing frequently at the sky, he imagined sounds of helicopters searching for him, but his eyes found only collections of dark clouds. He took in his surroundings, pleased he had subconsciously dropped into an area of excellent concealment. He thought about his situation. No way would I outsmart the enemy. This is their country where theyâ€™ve been fighting for centuries. His only hope was to stay concealed until help arrived. Sooner or later, someone will spot the wreckage and investigate. Thatâ€™ll be my big chance. It was a pipedream.
Voices grew louder to his back. He turned to face toward the crashed chopper and saw the barrels of rifles held high. The enemy had found his tracks and were closing in.
Maybe theyâ€™ll pass by without seeing me? Maybe God will pluck me out of the brush and deposit me back in America? His vision, distorted from the shock of the crash, played tricks on him. Uprooted tree trunks appeared like men coming at him from all directions. He left his place of concealment and stumbled forward for about fifty feet before being slammed to the ground by black pajama clad men wearing Ho Chi Minh sandals.
He remembered pictures and movie reels of VC, but now he faced the real thing. Small in stature, the AK-47s they pointed at him made them appear as giants. He understood little of the Vietnamese language, but their gestures indicated he was to raise his arms. He lifted his left arm and pointed to his right shoulder. Apparently they understood. The sing-song demands stopped. He remained motionless while they removed his weapon and belt, and then his boots.
He quickly became thankful for his heavy boot socks when prodded to follow the VC away from the crash site toward the jungle. After a hundred yards, even the socks couldnâ€™t protect him from the jagged sticks. The cloth material stuck to the bottom of his feet, blood-soaked from multiple cuts. His eyes searched the sky where only moments before there had been safety. His quick look did not go unnoticed.
â€œFly boys no help you,â€ one of the enemy said.
He looked back over his shoulder at the ruined LOH. He said a prayer for Baker. Youâ€™re the lucky one. My hell is just beginning.
Jungle West of Quan Loi
Hanson lost track of time. The sun, directly overhead, signaled the beginning of the afternoon. Counting the time it took to drop off Max, at least five hours had passed. The last four hours, the small group tramped over and around the destroyed landscape, and through sparse trees and brush. Hanson repeatedly scanned the sky, his dejection increasing by the minute at the absence of aircraft, which seemed impossible considering the number of flights the Americans put in the air each and every day. Surely the flight line at Quan Loi would have reported we were hours overdue.
Once the band of soldiers entered the double and triple canopy of the jungle, Hanson stopped looking. Even if a helicopter hovered directly overhead, the pilots could not visualize anyone on the ground. He had never felt more alone in his entire life, yet refused to show weakness, even when his eyes moistened considering the possibility of never seeing Annie or his parents again. Even worse, they would never know his fate; just another statistic in the MIA column.
The heat and humidity trapped below the giant trees steadily sapped his strength. His legs buckled, sending him to his knees several times. At first, the VC impatiently prodded him with sticks to get him moving. After several such falls, the jab changed to aggressive whacks with the sticks across his back. The NOMEX flight suit, designed to be fire-retardant, retained heat and prevented evaporation of sweat. Hence, he was a walking sauna within a sauna. With his chest heaving, he struggled for every breath, each more shallow than the one before. His blurred vision, a sign of insufficient oxygen getting to his brain, caused him to stumble more frequently. Soon he could no longer get up, no matter how much they beat him. One of the VC snarled at him, pulled a sharp machete from a cloth scabbard, and waved the blade menacingly over Hansonâ€™s head, making a series of short chops, stopping inches from his neck.
â€œDi Di!â€ the VC screamed.
Hanson raised his head from the ground, his eyes first focusing on the feet of his tormentor; noticing the Ho Chi Minh sandals and the absence of two toes on the left foot. He looked up at the scowling VC. â€œFuck you. Slant Eye.â€ Near his limit in patience and stamina, Hanson didnâ€™t care if the maniac struck him or not.
Another soldier pushed the VC away, barking orders at him. None of the menâ€”at least they all appeared to be menâ€”wore insignia or rank, making it impossible to identify the leaders. The man who interceded appeared to be one because â€œBad Ass,â€ as Hanson named the man who threatened him, moved away. The scowl on his face told Hanson their business with each other was far from over.
The supposed leader knelt and poured water from a plastic container over Hansonâ€™s parched lips and chapped face, then a small quantity of the lukewarm water in Hansonâ€™s hands. Looking around, he stood upright, motioned for the others to squat, and the entire bunch enjoyed a brief rest. Too brief for Hanson. It couldnâ€™t have been more than five minutes before the leader grabbed him under his armpits and lifted him to his feet. He grunted several words Hanson didnâ€™t understand. But it did not matter, his gestures were clear: donâ€™t stop again.
The cluster of men continued their journey into the night. Hanson, unable to see, followed the noise the man in front made as he knifed his way through the brush. When Hanson lagged, the VC behind him jabbed his ribs with a stick. Considering the darkness, the pace was incredible. The point man slithered through the heavy growth like a jungle cat. Hanson jumped when a hand grasped his injured arm. When he grunted in pain, the man quickly let go, shifting his hand to the top of Hansonâ€™s head. From the direction of the pressure, Hanson understood to sit, and so he did with much relief.
He heard, rather than saw, movement around him. Moments later, someone grabbed his hand, forced it open, and filled it with a ball of a sticky, cold substance. When he brought it up to his mouth and took a tentative bite, he recognized the texture and bland taste of rice. He devoured it in a few bites, immediately regretting his action.
The small blob increased his thirst. Someone knew that would happen. In minutes, a small metallic cup touched his hand, which he grasped desperately. Without hesitation, he raised the cup to his lips and drank the water, finding it cooler than the water offered earlier. Someone took the cup and pushed him flat on the ground. He correctly assumed he was to sleep. Without delay, his mind and body shut down.
The division artillery command center hummed like a beehive twenty-four hours a day. Men at their assigned station received fire support requests, plotted the locations, and relayed the missions to batteries of 105mm and 155mm howitzers at fire bases throughout the area of operations.
Day or night the missions continued with little let up. Whether the calls came from Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols suddenly exposed and surrounded by overwhelming numbers of the enemy, or from platoon-sized missions out on ambush, the fire missions meant a difference between life and death.
In combat situations, especially at night, the requested artillery had to be immediate and on target. Men spent hours each day plotting coordinates to impact areas on maps. Many LRRP teams owed their lives to these dedicated men.
The man ultimately responsible for the division artillery branch sat at his desk, his head in his hands. He looked up in response to a knock at his open door. â€œCome in, Major Davis, and stand at ease.â€
The soldier quickly entered the room, gave a sharp salute and assumed a relaxed stance.
Dreading the answer, Colonel Munsford hesitated to ask the question on his mind. â€œThe report from the â€˜Bluesâ€™?â€ He referred to a special platoon from the 1/9th Cavalry inserted by helicopter into crash sites to search for survivors.
â€œThey located the pilotâ€™s body at the scene, apparently shot in the head while airborne. It appears Captain Hanson somehow managed to soften the impact by flaring the bird just before it hit. A Chinook hooked out the badly damaged helicopter. The team searched the area thoroughly and found a trail that led into the jungle. Appeared to be a party of eight to ten men. Sandal prints only. No boot prints. The enemy obviously stripped Hanson of his boots. No blood trails.â€
â€œThe team is positive Doc Hanson was taken prisoner?â€
â€œThatâ€™s their assumption. If dead, they would have left him there with the pilot after they stripped him.â€
Munsford dropped his head, pressing his temples with his fingertips. â€œAny suggestion of enemy type? NVA or VC?â€
Major Davis shook his head, then realized the Colonel wasnâ€™t looking at him. â€œUh, no, sir. The absence of boot prints makes it likely a roving band of VC.â€
Munsford grimaced. â€œBad news. The NVA would move him into Cambodia and eventually north to their prison camps. The VC might keep him in their own brand of hell here in the south for years. This is new territory for us. Not many of our personnel are captured since the artillerymen remain on firebases. How long do we search before we notify his family?â€
Davis paused, pondering his answer. â€œIâ€™m not privy to that information, sir. Iâ€™ll get with the S-1 and find out.â€ He paused again. â€œSir, the men are pretty shook up. They thought a lot of Doc Hanson.â€
â€œUnderstandable. I liked the young man as well. Iâ€™ve questioned myself on the decision to send him to Quan Loi to investigate the illness there. I couldâ€™ve asked the battalion surgeon in one of the infantry companies up there to check on the pilots.â€
â€œDoc Hanson wouldnâ€™t approve of it. Heâ€™s touchy about the care of his pilots and itâ€™s reciprocal. They wonâ€™t accept treatment from anyone other than him. Maybe Iâ€™m out of line to say this, but I think the blame lies more with the new pilot. From the report, it appears he had his bird too close to the ground. Certainly not something Doc Hanson would have ordered.â€
â€œYouâ€™re right. Doc was too savvy to pull a stupid stunt like that. The pilot is dead and canâ€™t defend his actions, so letâ€™s not heap too much on him. Iâ€™ll talk to the CO of the infantry battalion presently assigned to the rear for rest. He might be willing to send out a couple of companies to do another sweep. Not likely to do any good. Those little buggers in black pajamas only need a few hours head start to completely disappear in those damn tunnels.â€
Davis came to attention and saluted again. â€œAnything else you need me to do, sir?â€
Munsford returned the salute. â€œGet with the chaplain. He can circulate among the men and give them a chance to talk. Thanks for the report. Dismissed.â€
He watched Davis leave the room before turning his attention to the pictures on his desk. His eyes focused on the picture of a young man in uniform, a plebe at West Point Military Academy. â€œGod, please let this godforsaken war be over before my son graduates.â€
Jungle West of Quan Loi
The birth of the next morn was like nothing Hanson had experienced in his previous twenty-nine years. The rays from the brilliant sun barely penetrated the overhead canopy, casting a grayish hue over the surrounding foliage. He could barely see his own hands and the face of his watch. My watch. Why do I still have my watch? The VC took Bakerâ€™s watch, boots, and practically everything else they could carry from the helicopter. Other than my boots, the VC took none of my personal possessions.
Searching the deep side pockets of his Nomex pants, he discovered the waterproof notebook in its usual location. He had received the vinyl covered pack, as had all the troopers, the first day he reached his unit. The outside cover was emblazoned with the crest of the First Cavalry Division and the inside contained clear plastic sleeves with zip lock seals designed to keep his pictures and papers dry. He carried nothing of importance except his ID card, his shot record, a picture of his parents, and another of his deceased wife holding his daughter taken several months before the event that took Connieâ€™s life.
He also had about a thousand pilasters, equivalent to less than two dollars of American currency. The VC had looked through the notebook and returned it to him, and was a bit interested in his waterproof, shock-resistant diverâ€™s watch, but didnâ€™t remove it. Nor had his hands been tied at any time since capture.
Do they consider me incapable of escaping? When he took a second to think about it, he understood. Where would I escape to? He didnâ€™t have a clue which direction to run. He couldnâ€™t see the sun, eliminating any possibility of determining east and west. If I did get away, how would I find a friendly unit? With all the stories about poisonous snakes, tigers, and booby traps, he might be better off remaining a captive than on his own; at least until he became better acclimated to the jungle.
Since the day they whacked him to force him to get up, no one had touched him in a violent manner. They had little food, yet shared the little they had with him. Did his medical insignia carry so much significance? Certainly not his captain bars. He had heard stories that the VC and NVA treated enlisted men better than NCOs and officers.
The VC in charge, Hanson nicknamed â€œBoss,â€ tugged at his arm indicating for him to stand up. Hanson had neither seen nor heard the black pajama clad soldier approach. They truly did blend in with the jungle. He got to his feet, dizzy from dehydration. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs and stared at the VC leader who pointed in the direction he was to walk. No threatening words. No violent movements. Also, no food or water was offered, which probably meant they didnâ€™t have any left. His legs became stiff, cramping continuously after fifteen minutes or so, and he stumbled frequently along the narrow path, but he did not fall. Silently, he prayed for a short march, aware his body couldnâ€™t take much more without food or drink.
Several times, aircraft passed overhead, mostly helicopters, and by the sounds of propellers, he also recognized the piston-engine T-28s and the single engine OV-1, known as â€œBirddog.â€ Knowing his countrymen searched for him improved his dour mood. They would never see him from the air, and the likelihood of running into a patrol on the ground became less by the hour.
He possessed little sense of direction, but reasoned their travel would take them west toward Cambodia. He remembered articles about the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia and emptied by several routes into South Vietnam. Bombed repeatedly, the flow of supplies to the NVA and the VC slowed but never shut down. Men and women worked at night with hand-held tools and wheelbarrows to repair damage done by the heavy pounding from aircraft and artillery.
He stole a quick glance at the sky, unable to see anything except clouds through a few breaks in the dense tree tops. A sudden blow to his back knocked him to the ground.
â€œFly boys not see you. You like piss ant to them. They get too close, they be walking with you. Ha! Is funny, no?â€
Hanson didnâ€™t reply. The greatest insult to Bad Ass was to ignore him.
The hours on the trail passed in near total silence, with occasional interruptions by the buzz of the aircraft above and the swarms of mosquitoes below. Trees became more dense and the ground foliage less so as plants suffered from lack of sunshine and rain.
Hanson noticed the enemy soldiers followed a well-worn trail; obviously one used many times before. The pace increased, each step taking him beyond any reasonable chance for rescue. He almost laughed at the thought. The stories of liberation of anyone other than downed jet aircraft pilots at sea didnâ€™t exist; not that the Americans didnâ€™t try. Other tales of heroism circulated about additional men who died in the attempt to reach downed pilots in the jungles of both North and South Vietnam. This part of the American spirit the enemy couldnâ€™t understand. They thought the Americans foolish to risk the lives of so many to rescue one or two people. But that, in itself, typified the difference between the two cultures.
Hanson kept his eyes trained on the black pajama clad figure to his immediate front. What are they using for landmarks? Everything looks the same. How do they know when theyâ€™ve crossed the border into Cambodia?
His pathetic knowledge of the geography of Southeast Asia left him clueless. The borders of many countries in Southeast Asia came about with the positions of mountain ranges and rivers. He couldnâ€™t recall what he had learned about the border between Cambodia and South Vietnam. Several large rivers empty into the delta, but do the rivers extend this far north? Were they part of the border delineation? It just doesnâ€™t matter.
Not the leader of this expedition, his only option was limited to following the man in front. Escape? Ha! Where would I hide? His only hope was to be discovered by a combat patrol or maybe the VC would stumble into a LRRP ambush. Fantasy. Still he needed to maintain a positive attitude or depression would rob him of the energy to fight back against deprivation, fatigue, and disease. He wouldnâ€™t wish his fate on anyone. Although, if the chaplain had been captured with him, their chances would be better; at least he would have had a closer link to God.
Once again knocked to the ground, he snapped his head around in anger. His fury changed to puzzlement when he saw his attacker, â€œThe Boss.â€
Grabbed beneath his arms by two VC, he screamed in agony from the intense pain in his right shoulder. â€œWhat the hell is going on?â€ His bellowing was cut short by a large hand clamped across his mouth.
Then he heard the sound of a helicopter that seemed almost on top of them. Shoved from behind, he scrabbled on his knees, fighting off the VC trying to pull him along by his left arm. The thought of pulling loose and running toward the sound flashed through his mind. The cold steel of a rifle barrel jammed against the back of his neck ended the notion.
The group burrowed into an isolated patch of deep brush, and remained motionless. Looking back in the direction of the chopper noise, Hanson saw a LOH descend and circle a small clearing, devoid of the massive trees. Downwash from the blades flattened the tall, reed-like grass. After a few circles, a puff of white smoke materialized from the center of the area. The LOH pulled pitch, hugging the top of the plain before zooming upward and over the trees. As obviously planned, a pair of Cobras rolled in, firing mini-guns and forty millimeter grenades in an ever widening circle and then returned to a formation orbiting the field.
In coordinated fashion, Slicks arrived, one after the other, hovering only long enough to discharge their cargo of troops before swooping away. Soldiers sprinted into defensive positions, dropped prone and faced outward from the drop zone.
Before his face was shoved down in the brush, Hanson caught a glimpse of crossed sabers on the front of the LOH when it buzzed around the drop zone. The OH-6A was part of 1st Squadron/9th Cavalry, and most likely the troops were part of an infantry battalion out of Phuoc Vinh. They are still searching for me.
He remembered Chaplain Maxâ€™s words. â€˜Rely on your faith. It will keep you strong. Never give up. God will place people in your path. Help may come from strange places; be open to His plans for you.â€™ The moment of hope dissipated when the troops formed a skirmish line and moved through the tall grass in the opposite direction. He fought the urge to scream, which would have been useless. With the LOH circling overhead, the noise from the engine would drown out his screeching and the VC would probably cut his throat. He remained in position with the others, watching the troopers disappear in the distance.
After what seemed hours, The Boss signaled for them to move out and they slinked away into the thicker trees.
In a trance, Hanson kept his eyes focused on the cadre in front of him, taking one step after another, failing to notice the change in the terrain until he was no longer surrounded by trees. Before him lay the most devastated area he had ever seen, at least from ground level; a result of repeated carpet-bombing by B-52s. Huge craters covered the landscape with splintered trees interspersed amongst them.
The leader signaled for the group to halt. His eyes flicked back and forth, scanning the sky in all directions before he waved the first two VC across the clearing. When they vanished into the trees on the other side, he grabbed Hanson and, with the aid of another VC, they pulled and dragged him to the same tree line. The remainder of the group followed in quick succession. Once all were across, the leader nodded for the point man to lead off, followed by Hanson, the leader, and two more VC. The others remained behind, a rear guard to observe for anyone following them.
After ten minutes, the leader stopped again. He ordered Hanson blindfolded and his arms tied behind his back. Hanson cried out in pain when his right arm was jerked backwards. The Boss lashed the soldier with a verbal barrage and he immediately loosened the restraint. Taking Hanson by the arm, the leader led him deeper into the bush.
The strip of cloth around his eyes smelled of sweat and old food odors. Hanson fought against nausea, thankful he hadnâ€™t been gagged with the stinking rag. The group walked in complete silence. Robbed of his sight, Hanson turned his head from side to side using his ears like radar, praying for the sound of helicopters. None came.
At least another hour of torment passed before they halted again. Hanson heard rocks scrapping and the sound of someone clearing brush. A large hand grasped him behind his neck, forced his head down and pushed him down a sloping descent. His feet slipped on loose soil. Had not the VC behind him maintained a firm grip, he would have tumbled head over heels, but into what? Two things became immediately apparent. A musty odor and cooler air. The blindfold came off accompanied by a shove in the back.
Hanson, familiar with the term, knew to move faster. It soon became obvious the group followed the walls of a tunnel illuminated by candles in cans imbedded in the walls. Someone passed him, grabbed the front of his shirt and guided him forward. The route, a series of short, straight segments, abruptly turned ninety degrees about every twenty feet. Pushed to the ground by Bad Ass, Hanson reacted by slinging his legs like a whip, striking his tormentor on his shins. â€œKeep your goddamn hands off me!â€
Hanson didnâ€™t recognize the term. Bad Ass clamped his hand over Hansonâ€™s mouth and drove an elbow into his ribs. He made his point. Dung noi. Donâ€™t speak. Another learning experience. Hanson knelt as instructed.
One of the VC from the rear passed him, stopped five feet in front, swept dirt from the tunnel floor, and lifted a wooden door at least four-by-four feet. Why so large? The answer came when Hanson was forced into a different tunnel, then followed a sloping trail gradually descending deeper into the earth. After a few twists, he entered a large room. Lanterns hung from poles, providing enough light to see the faces of the people present.
A wooden table about six feet in length and two feet wide stood in the center of the room. A soldier lay on his back on the table, bare-chested, and adjacent to him, a man wearing a mask and gloves wielded a scalpel, cutting away necrotic tissue from a chest wound. A surgical lamp hung above the patient, powered by a generator mounted on the wheels of a bicycle. A diminutive VC sat astride the bike, his legs pumping rapidly.
Hanson stared in disbelief at the scene before him. Rumors circulated in his unit about underground hospitals built during the Viet Minh war with France. Now, he witnessed what he had believed to be a myth. The doctor, and Hanson was certain the man was a trained physician, never looked up from his work when Hanson, shoved from behind, stumbled past the table into another tunnel.
After moving an additional ten feet, he found himself in a room larger than the first. Sleeping chambers had been dug into the dirt walls, large enough for the small VC to recline. Two of the sites were occupied by sleeping enemy soldiers. Pushed to a corner of the room by Bad Ass, Hanson was thrown to the ground and tied to a pole sunk deep into the floor of the cave. Although apprehensive over his new environment, he welcomed the opportunity to rest.
Leaning back against the pole, he surveyed the rest of the enclosed cavity. At the rear, a small bamboo cage, no more than four foot square, contained three emaciated men wearing the remnants of ARVN uniforms. They lay sprawled atop each other in the confined space.
Bad Ass followed Hansonâ€™s eye movements. â€œWorse than you. They Puppet Soldiers.â€
Hanson recognized the derogatory term for the members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam; hated equally by the VC and NVA. From their appearance, they had been in the tunnel for a long time without food or water. The other thing that caught his eye: the difference in dress in the VC and the NVA soldiers, fewer in number. The VC were dressed in the typical black pajamas, ragged and dirty. Dirty but in good repair, the NVA soldiers wore uniforms complete with caps and boots.
Once Bad Ass left him alone, Hanson slumped, unable to fully recline due to the way the VC bound him; ropes around both ankles, both wrists, and a final rope linking the two. Bad Ass supervised the task and made sure the trussing made him uncomfortable. He succeeded. Miserable, Hanson still managed to sleep.
He awakened to a nearly dark chamber. With most of the lights extinguished, he still perceived a figure above him, watching him sleep. The person knelt and loosened the ropes, allowing Hanson to assume a more comfortable position.
The helpful soldier spoke with a soft voice, in English with somewhat of a French accent. â€œI am Major Duc, commander of this medical unit and a surgeon in the North Vietnam Army. I recognize your insignia. You are a captain and a doctor. What we call dai-uy, bacsi. I assume from the wings insignia you are also a pilot?â€
Hanson knew the Military Code of Conduct. Give only name, rank, serial number, and date of birth. What the hell, he thought, the man isnâ€™t an idiot. He obviously recognizes the meaning of the insignia and also the First Cavalry patch on my left sleeve. Not much reason to play dumb. â€œIâ€™m Captain David Hanson. Iâ€™m not a pilot. Iâ€™m an Aviation Medical Officer.â€
â€œIâ€™m somewhat familiar with the nomenclature of your military. What does an aviation medical officer do?â€
Hansonâ€™s eyes dropped to the floor. â€œI canâ€™t reveal such information to you.â€
Duc squatted beside Hanson. His smile revealed teeth in good repair. â€œI am also familiar with your Code of Conduct. This isnâ€™t an interrogation. Iâ€™m only making conversation, one doctor to another. My contact with educated people is very limited here.â€
Hanson studied Ducâ€™s eyes, recognizing the truth in the manâ€™s words. If a trained surgeon, he probably came from a family of wealth in North Vietnam. â€œI saw you operating on a soldier when they brought me in. The army cancelled my deferment after my second year in surgery residency and immediately called me to active duty.â€
Hanson stopped speaking, wondering why he had felt compelled to relate some of his personal history. Do I feel belittled because of incomplete training? What an absurd notion! Am I losing my mind? Physically, his situation had improved. That is, if allowed to sleep and eat, even if again chained like an animal. Emotionally, he knew he had lost the edge.
Duc maintained his wide smile. He looked forward to conversing with this young man. First, he had to safeguard against any possibility the prisoner would be taken away into the jungle or moved to Cambodia. Either one would eventually result in his death and a loss of immense talent.
Duc considered himself a patriot and supported his country, despite the fact he hated war and what he considered a waste of human life. If the Americans had supported Ho Chi Minh after the Second World War and stopped the continued colonialism by the French, the present war between his country and America and its allies would never have started. Maybe later there would be time for philosophical discussions with this Doctor Hanson.
He stood and nodded to Hanson. â€œIâ€™ll see you get food and water. Our fare is meager.â€
â€œWhat about those South Vietnamese soldiers? They donâ€™t look well cared for.â€
â€œThere is nothing I can do about their situation. The soldiers from the north, and that includes me, must take a backseat to the VC over their destiny.â€
Day after day crawled by with Hanson lashed to the pole by his feet. His hands bound together in front made it easier to eat the rice from a metal bowl and then wash it down with tepid water. Soldiers came to the tunnel complex often; some with minor wounds, others with medical illness. Hanson stared helplessly at the three ARVN in the bamboo cage. He was wracked with guilt each time one of Ducâ€™s assistants entered the chamber with his small portion of rice and water. Thankfully, the starving men turned their heads, otherwise it would have been impossible to eat. One day the soldiers were noticeably absent and Hanson wasnâ€™t aware of Major Ducâ€™s presence until the NVA surgeon sat cross-legged next to the pole.
â€œAre you ill?â€ Ducâ€™s tone of voice expressed sincere concern.
â€œNo, but I have continuous pain in my right shoulder. I suspect itâ€™s dislocated.â€
Major Duc shifted to a kneeling position and leaned toward Hanson, taking his right wrist in his hand. He rotated the arm in one direction and then the other followed by lifting Hansonâ€™s arm laterally up to shoulder level. Hanson winced with pain. â€œNo dislocation. Torn rotator cuff. It will heal with time.â€
â€œHow much time do I have? Will I be moved to Cambodia or Hanoi?â€
Duc appeared taken back by the direct questioning. â€œI do not make those decisions. I will do my best to prevent it. I told them you are too injured to be transported. The soldiers here believe me. They consider Americans soft. Here the soldiers live in horrible conditions with little food or protection from the elements, yet they fight on. Our men rarely get to go home. When they leave their homes in the north to come south to fight, they say goodbye to their families forever.â€
â€œIt is inconceivable so many soldiers from the north are here. Your people donâ€™t have airplanes or helicopters to shuttle people around. How can so many travel to the south?â€
â€œOur soldiers travel in three men cells. They look after each other, physically and emotionally. The urge to return home is great. They know to do so would bring shame to their families and possibly death to themselves because of desertion. One in ten of our soldiers die on the trail before they reach South Vietnam. And once they are here, more die from disease than any other cause, especially malaria. We have little defense against the mosquitoes. They can be more deadly than the American bombs. Be vigilant about them, no matter if you are in the tunnels. Tell me if you develop fever.â€
â€œThank you, Major Duc. Iâ€™m surprised to receive such kind treatment from my enemy.â€
â€œYou and I are not enemies, Captain Hanson. Our countries are enemies. We are no more than common people caught up in the struggle.â€ Without another word, he rose and left the chamber.
Hanson stared at a small folded piece of paper at his feet. He maneuvered his hands to grasp it. Unfolding it, he found two yellowish-orange tablets similar to the Chloroquine-Primaquine pills taken weekly by the troops in the First Cavalry to prevent malaria. They were so similar, they must have been obtained on the black market. He doubted they came from Hanoi. Besides, Major Duc had just told him their troops had no protection from the mosquitoes.
Why is he doing this for me?
He leaned against the pole, his mind reeling from the contradictory opinions he had of the Vietnamese people. The peasants in South Vietnam, while suspicious of the Americans, were friendly and submissive. Those in the cities could be friendly, if the act brought American money to their pockets. A high percentage of the local politicians siphoned off the funds from the American government intended to improve the lives of the peasants in the â€˜winning the hearts and mindsâ€™ campaign. Equipment supplied to the South Vietnamese Army made its way to the black market and often to the enemy to be used against the Americans who provided it. The VC and the NVA soldiers, aware of the graft, bribery, and wholesale theft by the politicians in Saigon used the knowledge to recruit men and women from the villages to join the effort to defeat the Americans and the puppet soldiers.
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