A true Story of my last combat days in Nam.

My Rude Awakening

I was not always a good kid. In fact, I was very bad when I was young. I started my military service at the age of sixteen. Yes, most kids who served in the Army were eighteen, but there were a lot of kids who were sixteen and seventeen that served to. At one time the courts could order you to serve in the military in exchange for prison time. When that happened, your age did not count. They did what they wanted with you. After all, you were a prisoner. That’s how I got into the military; I messed up and got caught.

I arrived in Vietnam in August of 1973. It was a very hot and humid day, but it always was this time of year in Vietnam. I was among a group of soldiers that had no choice in where we were going. They wanted a bunch of ‘expendables’ and we were it. We were of no use to society, so we were ‘volunteered’.

Our mission was to keep training the South Vietnam Rangers and to wreak havoc on the North Vietnam Army to make them think they were still in the fight as they evacuated all our personnel from Saigon and the rest of the country. This was because we were giving up. Not exactly an inspiring time for us.

December of 1975 consisted of my last combat days in Nam. I was with the Fifth Special Forces. We were attached to a unit that was supposed to be retired—MACSOG (Military Special Operations Group). My nickname was ‘Night Shade’ and our mission for the day was a counter ambush.

That day we were setting up the counter ambush to catch a group of NVA who had ambushed a whole company of SVR and wiped them out. We were up to our knees in a muddy rice paddy, trying our best to move our AB (Ambush Point) with as little noise as possible. However, ‘Stinky Joe”, that was the nickname he got after his first fire fight (you can guess why), stepped on a mine and BOOM!! One minute he was there and the next he was all over the place. We dropped and took cover.

After the blast, I got to my feet and wiped some of Joe off my helmet and started to move out. We were so hardened by this type of thing happening everyday that we were able to just set it aside and go on. We spent the next two hours checking for mines and cleared a thin line through the patty. When we finally got to solid ground we were tired, wet, and worried. If the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) was anywhere around, they knew we were to. We still had to go another three clicks to reach our planned AB point and anything could happen between here and there.

As we moved through thick jungle we stumbled onto a man-made tunnel. We wouldn’t have found it though if ‘Cracker Jack’ hadn’t stopped to take a dump. He went behind some bushes, sat down out of site and disappeared with a loud yell. When we went to see what happened, all we saw was a hole in the ground where ‘Cracker Jack’ was squatting. As we shined a light into the hole we saw Jack lying there in his own shit with a pongee sticking out one of the cheeks of his ass. This was a bad thing because the NVA placed these so we would step on them and get Gangrene. We knew what this meant. This must be the entrance to a tunnel and cave. The NVA used them a lot because the ground is impervious to water and was almost always dry down below. It was to their advantage because we couldn’t find them easily while they moved troops and supplies along underground. Some of these were as big as small towns.

Since I was the smallest, I was volunteered to go in and get Jack out, clear the tunnel, and collect anything that might be useful to the top brass or to us. I dropped all my gear except my .45 and a flashlight and started to crawl down into the hole. Then I noticed a trip-wire going across the entrance. I had no idea how Jack missed it, but he did, and before I could get to him, I had to disarm it.

After inspecting the booby trap, I found a stick and broke it in two. I stuck a piece in each pinhole to make sure the hammer didn’t fly off if I messed up. I held my breath, and then cut the wire. I buried my face in the ground and could smell the dry dust as it stirred up with my every little movement. It was like trying to breath under water. My sweat stuck to me like I was covered in flour, which fit the situation because if I messed up, Jack and I would be fried like deep-fried chicken. I must have done it right, no boom. After a short time, I was able to get Jack to the surface. We administered first aid and sent him back to the LZ (Landing Zone) wit ‘Sure Foot’.

I reentered the cave. The first tunnel was empty, but the second one ended in a three-way split. I put my .45 and flashlight into my web belt to free up my hands. As I went into the middle section of the three-way, I felt the ground give way and I began to fall. I must have fallen about two feet before I was able to wedge my back and feet against the walls of the shaft. I pulled out my flashlight to see where it went. When I looked down, I saw it fell about ten more feet pongee sticks cluttering the bottom. After seeing what was down in that pit, I suddenly had a burst of energy that enabled me to scramble out real quick!

After clearing what I thought was all the tunnels, I hear the sound that every tunnel rat never wants to hear – two loud booms and the sound of a cave-in coming from the direction of the entrance. That’s when I panicked and started for the entrance as fast as I could. I heard something coming from behind me but it didn’t matter at the time because right then I was focused on getting the hell out of there. When I got to where the entrance used to be, I found it had collapsed. I guess I was not as good as I thought in disarming the grenades, somehow they had gone off. I had already cleared the tunnels so I knew I was trapped and there was no other way out. I accepted the fact that I was going to die either from suffocation, thirst, or hunger, so I laid back and let my mind wander to my family back in the states.

Then I heard it again - the noise from one of the tunnels. Man I was hoping it wasn’t an animal trapped in there with me because even a little rabbit could be pretty mean when he’s pushed in a corner. I had the thought they would dig me out and find that a little bunny had killed me. ‘How fitting,’ I thought to myself, ‘But what the hell, if I’m going to die, I’m taking something with me, and if it is an animal I could live off the blood and meat for awhile.’ So I drew my .45, turned off my light and headed in the direction of the sound. It started moving away from as I followed it. Maybe it knew something I didn’t, so I tried to keep within hearing distance of whatever it was. All of a sudden, as I was crawling down a tunnel that I thought to be a dead-end, I heard the noise come from what seemed to be above me. Then I felt the rushing of air moving upwards. I rolled over onto my back and felt the ceiling. The tunnel went up through the roof! I must have missed it earlier while I was clearing it. Slowly, I made my way up. It wasn’t more than five feet tall, so when I stood up I could tell it started to slant upwards. Maybe it was a second way out? I started to follow it and was so excited about finding a possible way out that I hadn’t noticed the sound had stopped.

I crawled for a couple of minutes when the tunnel started to level out. I saw a faint light coming from the end. It wasn’t sunlight, but had the essence of lantern light and I could smell kerosene. As I got closer, I could see it ended in a small cave held up with timber and stone with a table in the middle and a lit lantern on it. I crawled through the opening and saw crates of ammunitions and arms laying everywhere. This cave was bigger than it first appeared. There were lots of papers on the table with some maps and pictures. I picked them up and put them in my pants’ cargo pockets. Before I left, I was going to make sure that this stuff wasn’t going to be used on any of the SVR or us. I found a crate of mortar rounds and I knew what I had to do.

As I looked around the room, I noticed another tunnel in the wall on the other side of the cave leading to who knew where. It didn’t matter. I was going to blow the shit up and if I made it out, so be it. If not, oh well, at least I’ll stop this stuff from being used. I charged a couple of mortar rounds, threw a piece of 550-cord over a rafter just above the crate, and tied one of the armed shells to the cord. My idea was to light it and head out the other tunnel before it burned through the cord and dropped the shell on the others, which would blow them all, collapsing the cave.

As I was setting it up, I turned my back to the new tunnel entrance. Suddenly, I felt a sharp blow to my shoulder, which knocked me to the ground and dazed me. I rolled over, looked up, and saw a young NVA boy coming at me with a machete raised above his head, ready to finish me off. I reached for my .45 but it wasn’t in my holster. It must have fallen out when I hit the ground. I rolled out of the way and managed to kick the machete out of his hand as he was coming for the finale. I jumped to my feet and noticed this boy could not be more than fourteen years old. We began to fight hand to hand but rather than kill him, I intended to capture him. That plan changed when something happened that never happened to me before. I was getting my ass kicked in hand to hand combat, and by a fourteen year old boy! First, he kicked me in the balls and as I dropped to the ground, he kicked me in the head. I saw stars and began to pass out. I was merely semi-conscious when I saw him pick up his machete and come at me again. As I backed away, I tried to get to my feet and felt my knee strike my .45 on the ground. I picked it up and fired, nailing the NVA between the eyes. He dropped like a sack of potatoes only two feet from me. No reaction. It was a clean kill. Me being a sniper when not crawling around in caves, I was proud of the shot.

I got to my feet and took the machete as a souvenir. Then I lit the candle and placed it just below the cord and ran like hell for the new tunnel entrance. I crawled through it as fast as I could and hoped it was the way out. After what seemed like an hour, but was really more like a couple of minutes, I saw light up ahead.

As I broke into the sunlight I yelled, “Fire in the hole!”

I wasn’t sure how close the others were and I didn’t want them to get caught by the blast. I knew it was going to be a big one with all the munitions down there. As I hit the ground, I heard a low grumble in the earth, and then a blast came out of the exit tunnel. Lots of smoke and dust followed it. The ground shook as if an earthquake had hit and then sank about two feet. I knew this meant the cave had collapsed-just what I wanted.

When I stood up, I thought about how close I came to getting myself killed by that NVA boy. I looked at the machete and noticed it was very dull, but it still should have cut me. Then I saw the suspenders on my web belt hanging down. He must have hit me on the shoulder and it was too dull to cut through the web belt, suspenders, and me to. So it just stopped short of cutting me. This made me rethink all my years of martial arts training. There was a lot I was going to change if I ever got home to do it.

When I returned to my team, we spent an hour or so debriefing and got one of the SVR that was with us to take the information I found back to the LV for pick up. Then the medic put a stitch and a patch over my right cheek. It must have gotten cut in the fight. No biggie. We got ourselves together and moved out toward our AV point. When we finally reached it, we set up an ambush position called “the wedge”. This was meant to funnel the NVA into the wedge, driving them forward towards the point where the most concentrated firepower could be brought to bear. Then our SVR could close the door on them, trapping them in to a “wedge of death” with no way out. We placed claymores and grenades all along the only path they could take so when we opened fire, they would dive for cover and BANG! Set them off.

Now the waiting game started. My main job was pathfinder and sniper, so I found a big tree at the point of the wedge and climbed it. I had a great view of our AB position. I could see 360 degrees, so I settled in for the wait. My job required me to take out first, any radio operators and then leaders if I could make out who they were. I’d drop them as they tried to get away. The most important job though was to cover the whole operations’ back and keep an eye out for any sudden changes that might put either our team or the SVR team that was with us in danger. I knew from here I would be able to do a really good job.

Our intelligence told us we were facing about forty or so North Vietnamese regulars—men, women, and children. Something had been on my mind from the start of this mission though. How could a group of rag-tag Vietnamese have taken out a whole SVR infantry unit by themselves? Well, it didn’t matter now. They were about to come to justice. We were a bunch of bad-asses and the hundred or so South Vietnamese Rangers were trained by us, so we knew they were bad to. Suddenly, I saw movement at the end of the wedge. It was about to start. I hand-signaled the Sergeant and he readied the rest of the men. I was thinking, ‘This is going to be too easy. They won’t know what hit them.’ As they reached the center of the wedge, we opened up. As expected, they dove for cover, setting off the booby traps. BANG! There were body parts flying all over the place. Then they moved towards the point of the wedge and our SVR closed the door behind them. It was working as we planned.

I got off about five shots when I noticed movement in the jungle to our left flank. Shit! This was a set up! A whole company of North Vietnamese Regulars was moving in to take us by surprise. This must have been the same thing they used on the SV infantry unit they slaughtered. The little group was sent to keep us busy while a company of NVA could move in and wipe us out. As usual, CIA Intelligence was wrong…again.

I was unable to get a message to the Sergeant. He was too busy so I took a few shots towards the SVA Company moving in to stop them for a minute, jumped from the tree, and made my way to him. I informed him that we were the ones being trapped. He gave the signal to retrograde, this meant to fight in an orderly manner as we backed out of the area, back to the LV. It was about that time the NVA closed in on us and we went from an orderly retreat to a flat out run for our lives. Up to this point we had taken out about seventy of them counting the forty we started with. No losses of our own, but that was about to change.

As we ran for our lives, ‘Hotshot’, the rear sniper, and ‘Dragons Breath’, the .60 Cal man and myself started a “suppress and retreat movement” to try and keep some of the flak off the others so they could make it to the LZ for extraction. Suddenly, I saw ‘Cream Jeans’ go down. He was too far for us to get to him and two NVA grabbed hold of him o drag him away. At that moment, he looked into my eyes. Even from that distance, I knew what he wanted me to do. You see, there were rewards out for any MACSOG, and if they captured you, they would keep you alive for weeks just to watch you suffer. When they did decide to kill you, one of the ways they would do it was to beat you below the head until you died. I couldn’t let that happen to him. I took aim and sent a prayer with the squeeze of my finger. It was an instant kill. The two NVA holding him stopped in their tracks and looked back in shock. So for ‘Cream Jeans’, I dropped them to.

We did what we could as the rear guard. The NVA were like ants at a picnic. They kept coming—hundreds of them. You didn’t even have to aim. Just point and shoot and someone would drop. We got up and ran, firing as we went. By the time we got to the damn rice fields the NVA was everywhere. Running through the fields put us in the open though and that’s when they stopped chasing us and start firing RPG’s (rocket propelled grenades) and mortars. They opened up with everything they had. Between the NVA and the mines we hadn’t cleared, we lost half of our SVR unit. When we finally reached solid ground I knew we couldn’t make it to the LV so I had ‘Big Ears’ radio HQ for SVA gunships. I knew they wouldn’t make it in time, but I hoped they would hear our call and show up as the NVA were picking over our bodies and so they could blow them to shit.

We wanted to remain behind and fight to ensure someone made it back to tell our story. Now it was down to eleven verses, well, who knew? We took cover and decided to take as many as we could with us. What the hell! It’s funny how brave you can become when you know you’re going to die. Now we were the ones under cover as the NVA came screaming out of the jungle into the fields. We opened up on them. They were falling like flies but they kept on coming. I was thinking something funny (and yes you can do that even in a fierce fire fight), ‘If we had more ammo we might actually beat these guys!’ We were in a great cover position, but the truth was, all of us were nearly out of ammo and I knew it was the end.

‘Hotshot’ ran out of ammo first so he pulled out a grenade and rose to throw it. He must have been hit six times before he fell next to me. The only thing I remember was hearing the explosion. Upon waking after the blast, I remember standing there looking down at my own body; face down in a rice patty full of water. My right arm was almost blown off. There was an NVA kicking me to see if there was any movement and I could see there was none.

I laughed and yelled, “I beat you after all you assholes!”

They checked to see if anyone was still alive. If so, they would kill them unless they thought the person might live long enough to be tortured. They were stripping off all the uniforms and gear they could use, but mine was blown to pieces so they left me alone.

I suddenly began to panic, ‘If I am dead, was God and the afterlife real? And if it is, am I going to hell? Did I screw up enough in life to be sent there?’ I noticed all the other dead soldiers from both sides walking around and interacting, but when I tried to communicate, they acted as if I wasn’t there. ‘Oh no! Did I screw up so bad I was doomed to purgatory? Would I see others but never be able to communicate with them?’

I yelled, “My God, why me?” Of course I knew why. I was never a very good person when I was alive. I probably deserved this.

I sensed someone behind me and jumped around in a defensive posture. I was face to face with an entity—or perhaps I will say a strange-looking person for lack of a better word. I could feel a strong power coming from it and knew in a second it was not human. Its face, if you could call it that, was so peaceful. I felt calm and in a state of total euphoria. I no longer cared if I was dead or not.

I asked, knowing the answer already, “Are you Death?”

It answered in my mind, “Yes, I am here to let you know it is not your time. And I was told to show you what to expect when it becomes your time.”

Boy was I excited! I had always wanted to know if there was an afterlife. The next thing I knew we were floating through a long tunnel towards a bright light. The tunnel was spinning around us as we floated forward. It was made up of millions of multi-colored lights. When we reached our destination it was as though we had always been there because there was no sign of the tunnel.

The first thing I noticed was the indescribable beauty of the place. There were cities, towns, forest, oceans, and mountains. It was perfect in every aspect. The light came from everywhere, not one particular place, just everywhere. Never had I smelled such clean air. The temperature was perfect to. The people were all healthy, happy, and spoke the same language, no matter what the race or ethnicity. Everyone had a task and was doing it happily, singing and smiling together. After some time we reached a line of people that stretched to the horizon. I could not see the end. I saw people standing along the path interacting with others in the line. They were saying things like, “Nice to see you here. Good luck! I thought, “Good luck?”

I asked Death, “Are we not in Heaven?” It replied, “We are in the second level of Heaven. This is where the ones who complete their test live. Here reside those who were not among the 144,000 who were so perfect they sit at the right hand of God.”

“You mean everyone does not dwell with God”, I asked.

Death replied, “No, anyone here can see God anytime he wants, but only the perfect dwell with Him on the highest level of Heaven. Even the Angels do not dwell there. The Angels dwell on the second level.”

We finally reached the foot of the stairs and Death led us off the path. As we stood there, a being that I felt was an Angel handed me a piece of bread. I knew this was what Death wanted me to seem, so I paid close attention. I saw the staircase wide and tall, climbing into the sky and ending beyond my sight. I saw many small landing leading off the main stairway. On each was what I felt were demons, but not as we are led to believe. They were beautiful. Some would have been worshipped as gods themselves. Death said many unknowingly are still prayed to as Saints.

As the first person reached the stairs I felt a strong hunger pain-so strong I was sick. Then I remembered the bread, but before I could eat it, I saw an old man lying on the first landing. He was starving to death. You could see every bone in his body. I could not bring myself to eat the bread knowing that he needed it more. In that instant I was no longer hungry. I noticed that a few people passed the old man by and ate bread. When they did, they vanished. There were many other tests on the stairway—too many to go into, but I understood what Death wanted me to. That only the true in heart would make it into Heaven. Not the perfect for there are none. Not the good in life, for there are many, but few are truly good in life and in spirit. These are the ones who will pass the final test at the gates.

I asked Death, “Why don’t the others learn from the one in front of them and not make the same mistakes?”

He replied, “When each person puts their foot on the first step, the test becomes their own. They can see no one else.”

He allowed me to ask as many questions as I could think of. Only a few would he not answer. I asked, “What religion is true?”

He said, “The one in your heart. There is no true religion. For it was made by man to rule man. Not by God. All teachings have truth; we must allow ourselves to find the truth in them. Remember this and it will guide you to the truth God is all that is good. If the teaching tells you something you know in your heart is wrong then it is not of God. God would never ask you to kill for him, for he wants you to come to him of your own free will, not from fear. He would never condemn anyone, for all are equal in his eyes. Hate for any reason, killing without just cause—they are all wrong so they are not of God. God does not put man over woman. Man wrote this.”

You see how easy it is? There are many paths to God, but all are clouded by man’s writings—just as God has many names, teachers, and prophets. Of course, there are none that are true that live today.

When I could think of no more questions, I heard choppers landing and remember my body being moved. I woke up in a South Vietnamese Mash Unit in Cambodia. That was my last day in Nam. I had almost lost my right arm. It was the hardest fight of my life, and it change me forever.

Rocky Emily

Submitted: November 06, 2011

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