Chapter 37: Papier Bataille.

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

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Papier Bataille.

“The jungle is neutral as it treats everyone who enters with equal hostility, you, Charlie, every fucker, for all humanity is its enemy.

Finding a route through jungle at times will prove near impossible, humping your gear through it will be agonizing, its myriad of bugs will ensure sleep is torturous and make eating your rations laborious, and body cleanliness will become unrealistic. The poisonous snakes, leeches, biting and stinging insects will make taking a piss or dump uncomfortably dangerous. Other than that I guess it’s as good a place as any to spend your time in.”

Jungle warfare hazards lecture 12, SEAL training staff member, Port Everglades, Florida, 1966.


By mid ‘67 what seemed like war by reality TV was becoming a surreal “must watch” entertainment back in the world, faceless grunts having their life ended in front of millions comfortably sitting on their asses on couches in suburbia USA.  On home TV screens green clad men were struggling to stay alive, killing the other guy before he killed them, and to the average bush-beast that meant the military Joe had become the twentieth century’s version of Rome’s gladiators entertaining the masses.

Besides reports of that reality TV “war sport” percolating down to the snuffys in letters from home, was the news that anti-war voices were growing ever louder back in the world. Stories of old high school buddies, many they once lauded and admired as heroes of the football field using the New Haven underground to get into Canada, running and hiding, shitting their pants at the possibility of being sent off to the “Nam”.  

So all that fucking around back in the world by the reluctant generated a cynical catchphrase doing the rounds out in the boonie, which was “fuck it!”, and no matter what was asked of a bush-beast in the bars and clubs of Saigon and Da-Nang, all that came back from him first off was “fuck it!”. It represented a "Code of the grunt" inspired philosophy, a mind-set if you prefer, of fuck everyone and everything everywhere, for the bush-beasts were beginning to have had enough of fighting and dying in Vietnams Southland for what seemed to them as no good reason.


I was still too far away from where I really wanted to be, and it sure as fuck was not back in that crazy world where those claiming to be anti-war pacifists used violence on those who disagreed with them, and Americans were going around shooting at and killing other Americans over a foreign war.

I wanted to be back in my own world, the one of Mike boats, plying the waterways and ocean, for it was a world where I had at least some control over my destiny. Unfortunately for me I was stuck where I did not wannabe, in a swiftly constructed and makeshift FOB, forward operating base, still helping out the South Vietnamese Marines as they started to take on more and more of the fighting load.

No moon and cloud dampened stars left the jungle fading from color into grayness, then into a blackness, and as the night became ever darker the jungle dissolved into a nothingness. On such a night there was a period where the jungle seemed to just shut down and no natural sounds of any kind was heard, it was an unseen boundary between the day sounds ceasing and the night sounds starting. An almost thoughtful reflective silence, it was also a silence to the bush-beasts that gave over a feeling of menace and great danger.

Darkness was the point where strict noise and light disciplines were enacted, therefore no cigarettes for the smokers, and that withdrawal of nicotine made them irritable, argumentative, and edgy. But I guess those disciplines made everyone a little on the edgy side. For Charlie was out there somewhere, creeping along in the dark like a thief in the night and trying to avoid detection, squatting and observing; just waiting for the slightest chance to get in through the forward defenses of the FOB and create goddamn havoc. 

When being constantly on the alert and listening to crickets chirping their asses off in the pitch blackness, it tended to strain the nerves and fuckup the senses, so those doing sentry just opened fire on anything that moved, shot the crap right out of it, and checked out whatever it was after. If someone had bothered to make a casualty list of the Vietnamese fauna slain by spooked sentries, that list would have been counted in the billions. It may have been classed by some as nervous firing, but it was judged better that than the possibility of a gook sapper crawling through the defensive line of the FOB and blowing the shit out of them or something.

The solo first-coat-green face cam without a tiger-stripe overlay of lamp-black as favored by the Army Special Forces, and the two types of body camouflage gear available to the SEAL grunts, one for the wet season and one for the dry, which was an idea taken from their cousins-in-arms the British Special Boat Service out of Borneo and Malaya, was the Navy SEAL form of “beer can insignia”. It was an insignia that gook commanders knew well and feared greatly. For it was quite common that the last thing an NVA or VC commander ever saw in this life was the shocking, and unexpected appearance of a SEAL grunts green painted face looming over him.

Unfortunately, with face painted green and dressed up to look like a tree or bush and therefore perfectly blending into the jungle could at times have some serious drawbacks, especially when approaching a friendly FOB unannounced, and keeping radio net silent.

An hour after the night disciplines were enacted there was an exchange of gunfire, and much shouting. A sentry had spotted movement, did not challenge, but immediately opened fire and received some back, wounding him. But it was not Chuck that had done the damage to the sentry but a SEAL hatchet force who’s “wheel” was the most pissed-off dude imaginable, so apoplectic with rage I thought he may suddenly take a seizure and drop dead due to one of his “Yards”, an interpreter, having been killed by the sentry’s wild firing, but even worse it was his very own interpreter and a close ally

Once calmed to just a simple fuming the “wheel” stormed off to the CP, and reported the find of a previously unknown and strong NVA bunkered position with a large command and control structure. Saigon was immediately notified, and it did not take long before an order to attack, secure, and destroy was received. The main criteria of the “ball game” was intelligence gathering, for the intel guys hooched-up in Saigon’s Thong Nhut street wanted to know what General Giap had planned for the NVA and VC in that particular “AO”, area of operation.

A dirty gray dawn found us as usual taking breakfast in a funeral like silence, drinking the night’s cold black C-rat coffee which had a bitter taste similar to that of battery acid, but coffee was coffee and it was all that we had. Some of the guys looked feverish, which was probably the onset of malaria, others had skin spotted with mosquito bites that were already starting to fester, and a few with hollow cheeks looked genuinely ill, most likely from the shits, dysentery. But ill or not, everyone had to take part in the planned “ball game”, action, for we were few when arriving, few when there, and would be even fewer when we left.

Whereas all our guys were going by default due to having a peculiar title of “assisting force”, the Viet Marines were hand-picked by the SEAL “wheel”, and who would have command of the assault, but overall command was retained by the CIA in Saigon as it was to be an intelligence led operation.

Rather than using what was considered by the snuffys to be a suicidal tactic, the frontal assault, which was unfortunately preferred by the more enthusiastic, perhaps even reckless, of those commanding, the “wheel” decided upon another less sacrificial, and more  by guile way to clear the jungle fortified position. It was to break his assault force down into smaller groups of four man teams, which were more workable than larger numbers, with each team assigned to a particular log and soil constructed bunker.

Tactical protocol requires that any military actions, other than raids and any designated as spontaneous, have to be carefully planned, modeled, and then every planned phase of the operation has to be checked and rechecked, before the initializing “O” group, orders group, briefs the field subalterns and non-coms. They quickly scribble down the timings and detailed orders in their notebooks, and then they in turn do the talk-through and walk-through with the grunts who will actually execute the action. Nothing ever seems to be left to chance but perhaps chance itself, the unexpected; it is the one thing that no one can ever plan for.

Hunched up and squatting to keep their profiles low, the four-man assault groups of Viet Marines were taciturn as they fingered their rifles. Some had the light of battle in their eyes, keen to get at Charlie, others however had their stomach muscles going into spasm, starting to knot-up from pre-combat apprehension as they imagined Charlie’s gunners peering at them through bunker slits.

Then rippling pockets of muzzle flashes as the bunkers marked themselves with bursts of ball and tracer rounds coming out of their machine-gun slits. At first the gunfire was intermittent as one fired, and then another, and another came into play, until an almost continuous volume of gunfire made the air itself seem to vibrate with the noise.

Experienced grunts knew that with every new action the odds were stacking up against them, so no one ever wanted to be the first but someone always had to be, and if the first grunt got shot to shit no one else would want to follow, understandable.

As the gook fire slackened just a little the first of the four-man assault groups were ordered forward, one pair moving to the left of the gooks located in their assigned bunker, and the other pair to the right. We watched as they dodged from one small clump of bushes to another, scampering over the uneven ground, and all the time trying to avoid any direct contact with the bunkered up gooks spraying the area with their machine-gun.

Not realizing the deadly predicament he was suddenly in by getting into the machine-guns “dangerous space”, the point between the first graze, bullets strike the ground, and the first catch, where the bullets strike the top of the target,a Viet Marine grunt screamed shrilly as he was stitched from chest to groin. The ground leapt and spurted around him from impacting rounds, and his buddy trotting beside him lost his face, it had been completely torn away to leave a steaming blood spurting hole where just a second before his mouth had been. The sight of such a horror made you want to heave, and inspired within those looking on both feelings of pity and disgust.

Having narrowly missed suffering the same fate as the pair killed, the remaining duo were surprisingly steady as they waited until their grenade arming handles released before posting the grenades through a side firing slit of the bunker, like mailmen delivering letters, a couple of exploding letters that said “ Hey Chuck, have a real fucking bad day!”, had been delivered. A two second delay before loud sharp bangs, and a flash of bright, bluish flame shot out of the bunker slits as the fragmentation grenades detonated, and the bunkers machine-gun stopped chattering, and the gooks holed up in it stopped living.

Their success started the commencement of the full assault, and more explosions were heard as clearance teams began working their way up the shallow rough slope, flushing out each bunker in turn by leapfrogging forward. As one team completed their grisly task they gave covering fire as the next moved forward to complete theirs.

Some of the teams were taking much too long by working at their own pace and in their own way, and seemed to be taking their own damn good time over the task of clearing out Chuck, but other teams were showing more boldness and audacity, and sometimes it was hard to judge whether a guy was acting bravely or was just insane. However, the order was that it all had to be done and dusted before night arrived, and that made the messages coming in on the Prick 25 field radios from the “wheel” become more and more angrily demanding.

That dude was obviously no sentimental jingoist, he was more a walking contradiction to the notion that hearts and minds can win wars, and like many farther up the command crap-pile believed that every Marine was no more than a uniformed hard-on sent forth to skull-fuck the enemy. Exactly how a Marine went about achieving it was his own damn business so long as he got it done, and swiftly.

 But the Viet Marines were not having it all their own way by any means, for Charlie’s grunts on either flank of the bunkers were in single-man fighting holes, with the digging spoil from each hole spade-packed in front about one-foot-high to form a rifle rest. And it sure didn't take very long before the NVA gooks in the holes began to engage the clearance teams with extremely accurate gunfire and within minutes there were dead and wounded Viet Marines lying around in the bunkers killing area.

About a dozen of the opposition’s grunts, who had been laying down fire from fighting holes on our right flank broke cover further up the slope, and ran a short distance before ducking into an already cleared large command and control bunker. The two pairs of Viet Marines who had cleared that bunker ran back and threw fragmentation and phosphorous grenades into it, and as soon as they detonated poured automatic gunfire through its observation slits, and suddenly the whole place stank of charring humans from the phosphorous grenade bursts. Shrill cries and a sour cloying smell mingled with a greasy thick vapor started to pour out of the bunkers slits as the log structure, and those within it, caught alight.

And much to the annoyance of the “wheel”, the main intel target, the command and control bunker was soon well ablaze and the air filled with the sound of crackling timber, flying sparks, and the nauseating smell of burning flesh. Breathing in that grossly unsavory odor which clung to gear and clothes made some feel tainted by it, as if it would remain with them for the rest of their life, and for many it has.

Showers of whimpering rounds of varying calibers mixed with the sound of grenades exploding, both the sharp crack of our lemons and the duller thump of Chuck’s chi-com type, all which were a shock to the ears. But luckily there were no proper snipers as the Viet Marines carefully worked their way from bunker to bunker, and each bunker seemed larger and even more threatening than the one before.

As a bunker was cleared they shot up Charlie’s corpses with a single tap to each, and always to the head. The Riverine SEAL trainers, who were very practicable people, had said that firing shots into corpses may seem a little on the crazy-assed side, but it made sense to avoid the chance of an apparently dead gook suddenly springing to life and opening fire on you. Therefore, so long as it was not done with any enthusiasm it was a generally accepted practice for self-preservation.

Most of the teams were already passed the point of no more corpses when it turned out they had inadvertently missed a playing dead gook, for there came the familiar rattling sound of a AK47 rifle firing. Its rounds impacted on the back of a Viet Marine lieutenant making him stagger and fall. A couple of corpsmen rushed over and knelt beside the Lieutenant, who was badly wounded and could hardly speak. Nervous but vigilant, the Lieutenants squad of Viet Marine grunts stood by ready to fend off any sneak attack by Charlie as the corpsmen set about doing their work.

But they all died within sight of the rally point and the safety of it before they even knew what was happening to them, for instead of gook grunts it was B40 rockets which unexpectedly appeared, snaking through the burning bunkers greasy smoke like serpents and exploded in their midst. It was a hard blow to lose so many in one move during the final stages of the assault, but at least they had died quickly. For had they been captured it was a fair certainty that the NVA would have had them butchered after some painful tormenting, for Charlie tortured South Vietnamese Forces with a passion usually reserved for  our Special Forces.

However, our side was not exactly saintly when it came to intelligence gathering and prisoners. The use of “dry drowning”, now termed water boarding to make it sound more acceptable, red-hot K-Bar knifes held to the testicles, and “free fall”, the practice of throwing one from a group of prisoners out of a hovering helicopter, was but some of many methods used. Such actions may sound somehow inhuman, but if it meant saving our own guys no one gave a fuck how it seemed to others not taking any of the risks.

Little groups of tangled corpses with gray, waxy looking faces and fixed death grins, both friend and foe alike, lay around the killing areas in front of the bunkers, littering the ground like islets in an ocean. They had to varying degrees a mixed covering of red dust, sticky drying blood, and the usual multitude of busying flies. In addition, all the cadavers had a couple of things in common, purification had already begun, and their bladders and bowels had emptied of their contents, so the collective smell made you unsteady, made your head swim with such a horrible stink.

All the surviving NVA had scooted into the jungle, and not in some sort of rag-tag disorder but by proper military withdrawal. That meant all the gook dead and their gear needed to be searched for anything of interest to the intelligence guys in Saigon, and who would be especially interested in any radio net flimsies, letter coms and war diaries. Dead NVA officers were prime targets when it came to sourcing good intelligence paperwork, but the finding of those officers was always difficult as they ditched their rank insignia before crossing into the Southland from the North, replacing same with biro pens in the top pocket of their uniforms, the more pens found on them the higher the dudes rank.

So a couple of our “assisting force” was assigned the task of untangling the groups of cadavers, searching the bunkers, and separating out any of our guys from Charlie. Their faces turned a sickly green color at the news and a breeze inspired sniff of the stink. Then with churning stomachs, and sweating and gasping from the effort, they began pulling the stiffening groups apart.

Although the most likely place for finding paper intelligence had been destroyed, the command and control bunker, one of our guys returned waiving a fistful of extremely interesting documentation and over two kilos of smack wrapped up in banana leaves under his arm that had been found in a bunker used as a makeshift hospital. The coke was not an unusual find, for being always short on medical supplies Charlie used it in the way our corpsmen used morphine. An unfortunate side-effect of its use meant there was many a drugs-reliant gook out and about in the fighting areas.

Our snuffy wanted to know if he could keep the cocaine as a war souvenir, which immediately drew loud crackles of laughter from the SEAL guys. The “wheel” handed the coke over to the Viet Marines corpsmen for its security, but my fairly judged guess was that most of it would find its way onto the streets of Saigon and Da Nang within days, and I still wonder if perhaps the “wheel” had a sneaky feeling that it would, and it was in a way his thanking the Viet-Marines for such a great sacrifice.

When the news of the intel documentation find reached Saigon an unexpected order for our immediate withdrawal was issued, and within a short period of us hurriedly pulling back range and bearings were given. Then the sound of heavy artillery rounds traveling at great velocity shrieked shrilly overhead, and the bunkers and Chuck’s corpses flew into the air as if in defiance of gravity as the high explosive rounds detonated. Within minutes the whole fucking place was laid bare, hours of agonized effort blown away to nothing. It became obvious to all there, that day in that place with its air poisoned by the foulness of death a lot of men had been killed for a fistful of paper.

War can be a confusing business filled with anxiety and danger, and we all understood and accepted that one cannot be won without good and accurate intelligence. But when ordered to attack an in-depth position and succeed, only to then withdraw and watch as the lot is blasted to smithereens with artillery did not exactly instill confidence in the decisions made by some within the Higher-Higher. But our serviceman’s cynicism of the decisions made by others, and any lack of confidence in some of the orders given were dismissed as just concomitants of serving in the military.

Submitted: June 10, 2016

© Copyright 2021 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.


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For once something real and truthful about the Vietnam war, love the book!

Fri, June 24th, 2016 6:45am

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