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Vietnam P.o.w.s Tell Their Stories
By Zalin Grant
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The radio message came at 7:01 Friday evening as I was writing a school classmate to tell her I would be home in two months. A battalion commander asked brigade to send a couple of gunships to assist a rifle company under small-arms and mortar attack southwest of Happy Valley. There was nothing unusual about the request. I'd answered dozens of a similar urgency during my tour. This time, though, I felt a little uneasy when the word first came down from the tactical-operations center. I thought maybe it was because I'd just gotten back two days earlier from a Bangkok R 'n' R. I knew of cases where pilots took a week off, dulled their reflexes, and made mistakes when they returned. My copilot, who was new in-country, had done the flying all day. To become an aircraft commander it was necessary to be checked out by the old hands in the platoon; and I was the only one he hadn't flown with. I dreaded night flying, especially on a rainy night. But I decided I had better take over. When we reached the helicopter, I slid into the right-hand seat.
On the way to the valley we were shot at by a 50 caliber. The tracers looked like reddish-yellow baseballs coming up at us. The North Vietnamese had green tracers which I don't think they liked to use because we immediately knew it was them. The reddish-yellows we might confuse for friendly ricochets. I turned off my running lights and asked Lead if he wanted me to try to get the gun. "Negative," he radioed. "Let's see what C Company's got out there."
Charlie Company's commander had been killed. The artillery forward observer, a lieutenant, was on the radio. "My unit has been overrun," he said as we made contact. I could tell from the pitch of his voice that he was very scared. They were being hit by mortars—we could see the muzzle flashes. Friendly 105-mm howitzers were firing close-in support from a nearby hill. Lead radioed the lieutenant to shut off the howitzers so we could get the enemy mortars. We didn't want to get knocked out of the air by our own artillery.
"Firebird, this is Goblin," the lieutenant replied. "Negative. Repeat, negative. We may be attacked again. I'll keep it going a few more minutes. Then I'll turn it off and you can come down and get them."
We pulled off to the south and orbited over the river. We drew small-arms fire and climbed higher. Forty minutes passed. It was getting darker. We were running low on fuel. Loaded with ammo we were good for about an hour and three quarters. It was fifteen minutes out and fifteen minutes back to brigade headquarters. That meant we had committed all but thirty-five minutes of our flying time. The battalion commander was on a hill several miles from Charlie Company. The radio frequency was busy with requests for flare ships, more artillery, and ground reinforcements.
Finally Lead called the lieutenant. "Goblin, Goblin, this is Firebird. Look, we're running low on fuel. If you want to use us you'll have to do it fast."
"Firebird, this is Goblin. Roger that. Wait one."
The artillery stopped abruptly. The lieutenant called us down. Two red flares were to mark the edges of the company's perimeter and we were to hit outside the lights. We rolled in. Lead saw both flares but I could get a fix on only one. I ordered my crew not to fire. No help to blast our own troops. Lead made his pass through the area and broke right. As I followed I received quite a bit of ground fire, judging from the flashes. Just as I turned I heard a loud "Wham!" and the ship lurched to the left.
I glanced at the Christmas tree, the console between the copilot and me. If anything goes wrong, the bank of lights flash on. I thought we had taken a bad hit, but no indicators were showing. I radioed Lead that I had to return to the base. He said, "I want to get those bastards," and wheeled to make another pass. A wingman's job is to follow his team leader. I followed but I didn't intend to go low enough to use my rockets. He rolled in, worked his machine guns and rockets, and broke right again. As I turned out behind him, my hydraulic warning lights flickered on. I smelled the heavy odor of leaking fluid. Without hydraulics a helicopter maneuvers like a ten-ton truck.
My controls were freezing, and as I began a slow turn to the right the whole world opened up. I would say two hundred soldiers with AKs and three machine guns were working us over. In thirty seconds we took thirty hits. I made a mistake by trying to turn left to get out of the fire. This took me west toward Laos, and the sky was filled with tracers. We were not returning the fire. My door gunners' weapons had jammed. In our unit some door gunners' guns never jammed and some's always jammed. Lewis, my crew chief, had the reputation of a jammer. Pfister, the other door gunner, was flying with me for the first time.
A helicopter with a crippled hydraulic system has a tendency to pull to the left, then tuck and roll. Three times it started this nasty maneuver and my co-pilot helped me pull it back. The controls were functioning at about 20 per cent. The helicopter lost altitude—we were holding it at barely four hundred feet. I tried to find my way out of the valley. I came up to the mountains and couldn't get over. I knew I would have to set it down.
I radioed Goblin to give me a light to guide me to his position. The lieutenant answered, "Firebird, this is Goblin. Wait one. Wait one." I began a slow orbit. A C-47 flare ship flying above was dumping out parachute flares, inadvertently illuminating me for the enemy gunners on the ground. I was functioning pretty coolly. But I sympathized with my co-pilot. He had nothing to do but sit there, and he was in sheer terror.
I called the lieutenant again. I reminded him his position already had been given away. "They know where you are, so give me a light and I'll come right in on it."
He didn't refuse my request. He kept saying, "Wait one … wait one."
I was practically begging him to fire a flare. I got no response. Finally I said, "I can't wait any longer. I'm going to land."
He said, "Don't land there, it's enemy."
I said, "Sorry about that."
When we got down to a hundred feet, I turned on my searchlight. It made no difference—the enemy could see me anyway. My co-pilot was yelling above the din, "We've got to land! We've got to get this thing on the ground!" Pfister and Lewis were quiet. We came down, down, and at twenty feet I suddenly saw nothing but rice paddies filled with mud and water. That was a lucky break—but we were coming in the wrong way against the horizontal run of the dikes. I radioed my team leader that we were landing in a paddy, a big one, hoping he would try to pick us up.
We skimmed a dike, plopped down between two, then bounced. I blacked out for several seconds. When I looked around I saw the chopper was on its side. My co-pilot and crew chief were hanging upside down. The co-pilot began to yell, "Fire! Fire!" It was a false alarm. But when he yelled we started scrambling out, not thinking about our weapons. The crew chief pushed me out the open side door. I fell into the muck of the rice paddy. We were trained to stay close to our ship after a shoot-down. That's the best place to get rescued. The co-pilot and I ducked down. Pfister and Lewis went fifty meters ahead. My team leader started a low approach toward the field. A machine gun opened up. It looked like he took a hit. He lurched and broke off.
I checked for my .38 pistol. I had lost it when we hit. We lay for ten minutes unmoving. It was quiet except for the sporadic firing of artillery. A round landed nearby and shrapnel cut into the helicopter. A lamp flamed in the distance. I saw a hootch about thirty meters in front of us, and heard voices. A group of old men and women and kids cautiously made their way out to the ship. They began to remove C rations, our cameras, and personal gear, anything they could find. After twenty minutes they went away.
"What do we do?" my co-pilot asked.
"We've got to get farther away from the hootches," I said.
We started crawling through the paddies. Four Vietnamese headed toward the helicopter. I couldn't tell whether they were Viet Cong or North Vietnamese, but I could see the banana-shaped clips of the AK-47 assault rifles they carried. My co-pilot saw the soldiers and whispered, "They're going to get us!" He took off his wedding ring and watch, pulled his wallet out, and buried them in the mud. Then he stood in a half crouch and ran across the paddies. It was an act of panic. I burrowed deeper into the paddy bank, certain that he would be caught. I never saw him again. He was picked up several days later by an ARVN patrol, and taken back to friendly lines.
More Vietnamese crowded around the helicopter. They seemed to know the rhythm of the artillery fire. Several minutes before rounds began to fall they retreated to safety on the other side of the paddy; when the fire lifted they returned. Flares dropped by the C-47 dimly lit the area and I saw shadowy figures running to my front and rear. I stayed where I was the rest of the night. At 6:25 the sun rose to treetop level. I could see through a thin drizzle of rain that the day was going to be very cloudy. Rescue helicopters would never get through the thick cover.
The Viet Cong soldiers must have realized the same thing. They began to search the area. I spotted three uniformed men, one stood at the edge of the field covering the other two. They found my helmet, saw where I had crawled through the mud, but didn't try to follow the trail. As I wondered why I felt a presence over me. A Vietnamese in black pajamas stood on the dike six feet directly above my head. He walked away, stopped, looked around, came back again. As he started to turn away once more he looked down.
His expression didn't change. He motioned with his AK for me to get up. I thought he was going to shoot. I jumped up and began to run. I had been lying in water for ten hours without moving; my legs buckled on me before I got three feet. The Vietnamese clambered down and grabbed me, saying, "No, no, no." He tied my hands behind my back with rope and led me across the paddy. Helicopters circled above, my own gunships. They had broken through. As we passed into a woodline across the paddy, the choppers rolled in and blasted the area near my downed ship.
I made up my mind that I was going to die. I totally resigned myself to this. The knowledge brought an inner calmness. I was as relaxed as had I been home looking at television. We moved about fifty meters down a trail. My guard whistled. The whistle was returned by a sentry. We moved farther till we came to a house of stucco and brick. A number of Vietnamese were around the house. Artillery shells started falling around us. The Vietnamese jabbered at each other in high-pitched singsong voices. I laughed and said to no one, "Don't worry. It won't hurt you." They jumped into bunkers dug beside the house. I was left standing outside. A Vietnamese popped out of a bunker and pulled me back in with him. An artillery round hit the house with an ear-splitting explosion. As soon as the fire stopped the Vietnamese hurried from their shelters.
I was led down a trail through the woods. After ten minutes we came to a small clearing that was crisscrossed with wires. Two young girls sat in a shallow bunker talking on field telephones. Other girls armed with rifles stood around. I must admit that even in my condition the sight of girls carrying weapons made me a little happier. During my tour I had sometimes thought that what we helicopter pilots were doing was maybe terrible. Were we killing women and children? Who could tell? As far as I was concerned, an armed woman was the same as a man.
A guard handed me a card with one side written in English, the other in Vietnamese. It said: "Do not try to escape. You are a prisoner of the Liberation Armed Forces. We will not harm you." Pfister and Lewis arrived at that moment. The guards kept us seated awhile, not allowing us to talk. Then one of them ordered us to take off our boots and start walking. He spoke broken English.
"I can't walk without my boots," I said.
"You walk fast," he said, "I give you boots back."
"No," I replied. "I cannot walk fast without my boots." He returned the boots to me and I put them on. Lewis took out his Zippo cigarette lighter and flicked it several times. The guard ran over and slapped him in the face.
"You signal planes."
Lewis said, "No, I'm trying to see if my goddamn lighter still works." The Vietnamese had yet to search us.
At 7:30 we started walking, moving west up the side of a mountain. After an hour we came to a set of natural caves. The VC put us into separate caves. The questioning began. They took Pfister and Lewis before me. I was astounded when the intelligence officer walked in. He looked like a Frenchman and spoke idiomatic English. He was about five foot eight, much taller than the average Vietnamese, had rounded eyes, a light olive complexion, and a sharp nose. When I looked closer I could see he was a half-breed, but the Caucasian features predominated.
"You speak English very well," I said after his greeting. "You were educated somewhere in an English-speaking country."
"Maybe," he replied, smiling. He ordered me to sit at a small table. "What is your unit?"
"That's a lie. What unit of the One Hundred Ninety-sixth Brigade do you belong to?"
"I'm not in the One Hundred Ninety-sixth," I said.
"Don't be silly. I have all the answers."
"Then why do you ask me?" He ignored this and asked another question about my unit. I told him I couldn't answer.
"You are in the Seventy-first Assault Helicopter Company," he snapped. "Your radio code name is Firebird." He gave me our radio frequency, the location of my home base, my commanding officer's name, and other details of the unit.
"That's pretty good," I admitted. "One of the other men told you."
"No," he said. "I know everything. I will show you." He pulled a U.S. Army map from a small leather carrying case. On it, marked in red and blue grease pencil, were the company positions, fire support bases, artillery units, and radio frequencies of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. It was as precise as the map carried by any U.S. battalion commander.
"Last night we used a three-pronged attack to hit this position." Frenchy pointed to where Charlie Company had been wiped out. "Tonight we will hit here."
Delta Company was directed to garrison the battalion's fire support base on January 5. We spent most of the day moving through the valley to the hill. It was hot and very sticky, a day when it was difficult to perspire and swallowing salt tablets didn't help. Several guys in my squad fell out with heat exhaustion, and we had to split up their gear among us, which caused a little grumbling.
The hill had been improved since we'd last been on it. Then it had been just a cleared, muddy hilltop spotted by shallow holes with a few crumbling sandbags around them. It was still muddy, but now a neat bunker system encircled the top, surrounded by a triple-strand concertina wire system interlocked with flamable fu-gas explosive, with Claymore mines and trip flares on the perimeter outskirts. Every third bunker had a sensoring device to pick up enemy trying to move up the hill. Besides staying alert, all we had to do was go out each evening and connect the Claymores, then return the next morning to disconnect them so nobody would accidentally get blown away coming back from patrol.
At 7:00 Friday evening the fireworks started. Three of us were in my bunker. We looked out and saw parachute flares swaying in the sky. The 105- and 155-mm howitzers on the other side of the fire support base began booming. Below in the valley we could see a gunship working out, tracers drifting down in a red stream, others arcing up at it. It would have been a lovely sight if you didn't know people were getting killed and it could be you.
Early Saturday morning we got our gear together and started moving off the hill. A change of orders had come down. We weren't going to pull fire-base duty after all. The terrain was rocky. One man broke his leg going down. We made a litter and carried him to level ground; the company commander called a medevac helicopter to pick him up. Word was passed to get ready for a combat assault. We assembled in groups of six in an open paddy. We waited for two hours before the choppers arrived. The ship I drew was weak, it could only take four of us, and almost didn't get up at that.
The helicopters took us on a short hop and hovered over a swatch of tall elephant grass on a hillside. We slid out the open door and stood on the chopper's runners and then jumped down. I rolled over as I hit the ground and flipped my M-16 off safety. The combat assault was dry—no enemy fire. We joined another company on the ground and moved along the ridge into the valley. We stumbled on some stragglers from Charlie Company. They looked like sleepwalkers. C Company had gotten resupplied shortly before dusk the night before. The men had received Christmas packages that had been delayed reaching the field. They were opening the gifts when the Viet Cong hit them.
We saw Anton's chopper, its tail boom high in the air like the hulk of a sunken ship. It had been booby-trapped with grenades. Someone had marked the places with pieces of white cloth. Just looking at them made my palms sweat. The Vietnamese were artists at making mines. Women and children buried them along trails leading to villages. A mousetrap, hidden with twigs, rigged so that when pressure is applied by a footstep a .45-caliber bullet fires straight up; a shoe box, staved with wooden pegs, filled with explosives, the tiny electrical detonator, the only metal in the mine, fools our best mine sweepers; dud mortar and howitzer shells, our bombs—all were used against us.
The worst, I guess, was the American-made bouncing betty. If you were lucky, you might see the three tiny steel prongs sticking maybe an eighth of an inch above the ground. If you weren't a shotgun shell kicked the main part of the mine balls high, where it exploded. ARVN troops in Da Nang fought a brief internal war among themselves in April, 1966. An ARVN ranger battalion abandoned 1,400 bouncing betties. We got them back one by one.
A week before Christmas my platoon had been on a nearby hill. That morning we were supposed to get resupplied. We policed up the area of sticks and other debris that might get sucked up in the helicopters' rotor blades. I hadn't bathed for nineteen days and I got myself placed on the water detail so I could wash in the stream below when we took the canteens to fill. The choppers had finished the resupply when I got back. Some of the men were returning to our area with cardboard cases of Cs, and I saw Smitty waving a pair of new boots. I stood there, helmet off, waiting for him. Suddenly I heard a sharp ringing in my ears. Smitty screamed. I blacked out. When I came to I grabbed my back, then touched my head, and saw that my hand was covered with blood.
The medevac arrived in a matter of minutes. The pain started. For the first time I lost that distant idea of death I carried, and I was scared as a pup. We were taken to the battalion aid station. The medics were casual with us. They had seen many people die, and I knew from their attitude that my wound couldn't be serious. The X-ray machine wasn't working properly. They sent me to Chu Lai. The doctors suggested I leave the shrapnel in my head instead of trying an operation to remove it. I get headaches when I sleep on the left side. Smitty was lucky; the booby trap had settled with the rain. Last time I saw him he was on crutches.
We found a flight glove near Anton's helicopter. A tracker team was brought in. The dog sniffed the glove and took off across the paddy with us following but soon lost the trail. A river flowed west to east, bordered by rice paddies which were cut by hedgerows of stunted bamboo and tree lines of slender coconut palms. The rest of the day we checked the hootches in the area, then set up our night logger positions to the east of Anton's chopper. When it was time to pull guard duty, I sat in the drizzling rain, feet over the trench edge, watching the shadows in front of me, trying to keep my imagination under control. Everyone was jumpy. The men assigned to listening posts beyond our perimeter didn't want to go out. Nobody had much respect for our platoon leader. He was fresh out of Benning Officer Candidate School and arrogant. He was not at all like the company commander, whom we called Black Death. Black Death knew many of the men personally.
Next morning we split up in platoons and moved out to search our assigned areas. In a nearby hamlet, a cluster of hootches, we found some women and children huddled in a bomb shelter. It was the same old story. We couldn't communicate with them. I remember writing my family when I arrived, wondering how these people lived, where their children were being educated. I thought of a village as a place with schoolhouses and churches and shops. Here I was seeing gray water buffalo, thatched roofs, dirt floors, rice cooked over wood fires, people who looked malnourished and dirty. The old women in particular looked repulsive. Their teeth were snaggled and black; they spit a red juice wherever they went. As I understood later, the betel nut they chewed was as common in parts of Asia as snuff used to be in America, and it had a numbing effect on teeth that had never been treated by a dentist.
We had worked the villages of the valley many times in the two months I had been in Viet Nam. A North Vietnamese regiment supposedly was operating in the area, trying to set up on the hills surrounding our fire base to get in rocket-firing distance. Our mission was to make contact with the enemy, and to check for any men of military age. It was constant searching. The enemy had the ambush, the element of surprise was theirs. We had massive air and artillery support at our call.
We operated in teams. Some soldiers surrounded and secured the village, others took the villagers to an interrogation point. We had a Vietnamese soldier along with us as the platoon leader's interpreter, although he spoke practically no English. It was his job to decide whether someone was a Viet Cong suspect. We picked up mostly old women and children. Our Vietnamese was limited to three words. One was the translation for I.D. card, which we always demanded of any Vietnamese we saw; the second was "di-di," which meant go or get out of here; and the third was "dung lai"—stop! Anyone who ran was considered a Viet Cong.
A sergeant, a short-timer with a few weeks to go on his tour, was assigned to my squad for a while. He was nervous and irritable. When we entered a ville he grabbed the girls holding babies and shouted at them, "Where's papa-san? Where's papa-san?" Papa-san and mama-san were not Vietnamese, but slang imported from Japan and the Korean War. The girls would indicate with terrified eyes they didn't understand him. I complained to the squad leader about the sergeant. It did little good. He was with us once when a group of Vietnamese ran as we approached to check their I.D.s. The whole platoon opened up. The Vietnamese hit the ground and crawled away before we got there. We saw blood trails and later discovered some freshly dug graves. The company commander told us to check them for dead Viet Cong. We found a baby.
My platoon usually set up in a ville in late afternoon. The platoon leader took a hootch in the middle of the ville, the squads slept in hootches on the outskirts. We pulled perimeter guard by having one guy from each squad sit in the front door of his hootch. In one ville my squad set up in a hootch owned by an old man with a wisp of a white beard. As we walked in he was sitting on what looked to be a red casket; it's important to the Buddhists to have a proper burial. Tex said, "Look, he's perched on his coffin, ready to fall in." He started giving the old man a hard time, his idea of fun. He offered him a cigarette and as the old man reached for it Tex jerked it away. He was telling him in English how stupid he looked. The old man kept smiling and nodding. The other guys were laughing. I walked out.
It was in this same village that a GI became overly fond of a thirteen-year-old girl. I don't think he actually put his hands on her; he wanted to badly enough. I never saw anyone molest the women, but there were always comments and leers. I was disgusted. Put a man in an anonymous uniform and give him a weapon, send him to a country he holds in contempt out of ignorance, and he sometimes acts like an animal. There's always that small percentage.
That night I slept on the old man's casket. The rest of the squad rolled out ponchos on the floor. I had pulled my hour of guard duty and was trying to get back to sleep when I heard the thump-thump of M-79 grenade rounds going off. The short-timer sergeant yelled, "Get back! I'll get him!" More firing. Then it grew quiet. The platoon leader called on the horn to the next hootch and asked what was going on. A guard said he thought he had seen a man moving up on us and thought he had got him. At first light we swept the area around the ville and found a dead cow. The villagers were upset about the cow. It was the only one they had.
That's one of the first things you noticed about Viet Nam. There were always big, dumb-looking water buffalo, used to plow the paddies, and chickens and ducks, and even a few thin pigs, which were taken to the market in bamboo baskets tied to the backs of Honda motorbikes; but there were few cows around. And in the country village you saw no bread or other things normally considered part of a healthy diet. They ate mostly rice and fish, if they could get it, and some sort of leafy vegetables.
I didn't understand the Vietnamese. It was hard not to feel superior to them. We had everything, they had nothing. But it hurt me to see them caught in the middle of a war they didn't want. I saw leaflets warning the people to get out of the area because it would soon be bombed. We had no business bombing villages like that. If there was enemy activity in the area, we had grunts who could have gone in. And if we operated the way we had been trained, we would have taken few, if any, casualties. We came to an abandoned ville one day. It had been hit by an air strike. A mama-san and her kids sat on top of a charred bunker. She was picking lice from their heads and cracking them with her teeth. I gave her a can of ham and limas. There was nothing else I could do.
On Sunday we continued to search the valley without making contact. The following morning we crossed to the south side of the river. At half past noon the platoon took a lunch break. I opened a can of peaches. Before I had time to finish eating we were ordered to join another part of the company which was moving back across the river. Someone had heard a weapon fired on the north bank. A hamlet of ten hootches was directly across from us. We got on line, threw two grenades apiece to the other side, and waded across the waist-deep water, with men alternately firing and moving. The ville contained nothing but women and children in bomb shelters.
- On Sale
- Mar 22, 1994
- Page Count
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- Da Capo Press