by Ken Williams
Eighteen years old isn’t old enough. We aren’t old enough to make life and death decisions. Nor are we old enough to understand the mysterious ways of the unknowns of the universe. And how will I handle combat? Where will I find strength in the face of death? These thoughts rumble through my mind while my stomach lurches on a nausea producing roller coaster ride. The chopper I’m riding is skimming tall trees, hugging the mountain ridges, plunging with hurricane force down into the menacing valley below. We’re low flying bait coursing head high over a heavily armed enemy that would pay any price to shoot us down.
The jungle floor is lush, a fusion of deep greens painted with velvet brush stokes—till its not. Splotches of land have been torn up, burnt black, trees splintered into kindling as if a giant had rampaged through the land. But it wasn’t a living giant. It was the inorganic giant B-52 Stratofortresses originally designed to destroy the world with nuclear bombs. Now theses modern day monsters simply use five hundred to two thousand pound bombs—thousands of them at a time to desecrate the land and kill.
I’m new at this. I’ve only been in country—The Republic of Vietnam two weeks. I’m not even nineteen and I’m scared. I’m more frightened than I have ever been in my life. Of course it doesn’t help that we are flying into the Valley of Death: the A Shau Valley—into the meat grinder known as Operation Dewey Canyon.
The stories, the macabre rumors have fed our nightmares, us new guys, Cherries they call us since I first landed in this hellhole. Most of the others on this resupply chopper, a CH-47 helicopter are battled-hardened Marines returning from either R&R or brief reprieves aboard hospital ships. A guy with a severe tic to his left eye brushed me with the haunted look they call the, “thousand yard stare.” It belongs to those who have gazed into the face of Death only to find the Dark Prince staring back. Another guy’s face is covered with scabs which he continues to pick at till they run with blood. Nobody talks. We’re all trapped within our own foreboding thoughts. But one guy catches my eye. He smiles awkwardly. He too is a cherry. You can tell by his newly minted green uniform that holds its color. The uniform of the other grunts are tattered and sun bleached. Rages tied together with perspiration, bug juice and fear. He can’t be much older than me if at all. I look around at the others. They too must be my age but they look so old! How did they get so old so fast? I briefly return the cherry’s smile and quickly look away. I don’t want others seeing me sharing emotions with the other new guy. I don’t want to be tagged by, guilt by association.
The chopper dives and just when I think we will crash onto a rugged mountaintop gut wrenchingly it pulls up and lands—hard. My teeth threaten to shatter. Before I can even move the battle hardened grunts are up and out leaving the two new guys lamely following.
Within seconds shouts of, “incoming” ring out. A ghostly apparition, a gunny sergeant that I swear is Death pushes me and the other new guy into a slit trench burrowed into the ground. Then the mortars hit. The ground shutters. The earth groans. Dirt falls onto me in the dark, cramped casket seize enclosure. I take my first vow of the day. Never again will I be caught underground during an enemy barrage. I would rather die on the surface that experience life lived in a casket buried underground.
The barrage ends. We crawl out of the cave—trench. Us replacements, battled hardened and cherries alike are rationed out to depleted squads of the Walking Dead, the Ninth Marines. Me and the other cherry are put in the same bomb crater for the night. Shows me the multicolor “friendship” bracelet he is wearing. Tells me how his girlfriend made it, “especially for him.” That night more mortars rain down. But they pale to what lies ahead of us. He whimpers. He pleads. He asks God not to die. Tells me he will put a bullet in his leg, he’ll do anything to get out of Vietnam alive. Manically, as if it possess magic he plays with the bracelet.
The next morning breaks with the sound of incoming fire. Then our squad heads out. We are to act as a blocking force to prevent the NVA from overrunning the LZ while the evacuation choppers pick up the rest of the unit. Within a thousand yards we run into an ambush. Quick. Two dead. The enemy vanishes. We don’t have men to spare so we take the dead with us. Someone wraps them up in their ponchos. Fortunately I don’t have to carry one. It’s too hot. I’m beginning not to care.
We set up our thin defensive line, one marine to a position. I have never felt so lonely in my life. And scared. Again enemy mortars fall. Then napalm from our fighter jets land dangerously close. Steel shards shred the air from impacting bombs. I buy my face into the hard surface. When I think I can no longer take it I spot the other cherry across the trail. I’m shocked when he waves to me. This is not the scared man from the night before. He smiles encouragement. “What the hell?”
My bewilderment is brought to a sudden halt when five hundred pound bombs and then napalm land in front of us. The enemy has breached the top of the mountain. My squad leader comes by. Tells me that when I see him running by I’m to jump up and ran like the devil is after me. We will be on the last chopper out. If we falter, if we’re late… The coldness in his eyes answers my unspoken question.
He leaves to tell the same to others. Time creeps by. Then marines, hunched over passes me carrying the body of our two dead comrades. Minutes later my squad leader runs past me as fast as a man can—that is one that has gone without water or food for the day. When I stand and sling on my backpack I almost crumple back to the ground. Tiredness like I have never felt before threatens to cripple me. Would they really live me if I don’t have the strength to keep up? I see the other cherry standing with little effort. He smiles encouragement. Hell, if he can make it. I can make it. I run like the devil is after me.
Through haphazard machine gun and rifle fire I make the LZ. The squad sits, watching the sky for the last evac chopper. The mountaintop is on fire with a lake of napalm. The two bodies rest with us. I can’t believe no one else from the squad has been killed. Wounded are all around but through the mysterious forces of life no other dead. I stare at the bodies wrapped in ponchos. They are someone’s sons. Maybe someone’s husband? This battle will be little noticed except for their families. For them this day will be a forever divide in their lives. Just as the chopper lands panic stabs at me with a white-hot poker. I stand. Tense. Something is wrong? Very wrong. Someone kicks me to get me moving.
I make the chopper. The marines carrying the bodies are slower delaying our departure. Then it dawns on me. I look around. Only exhausted stares look back. The other cherry is missing. Before I can raise the alarm the bodies are unceremoniously dumped next to me. An arm extends from under the poncho. My voice freezes in my throat. On his wrist is the friendship bracelet…