Consequently, as it turned out,
due to the broken, pockmarked ground, there would be no new world record set for the 100 yard dash that day, but maybe I could have at least matched my best high school
time. "Maybe", but not with the extra weight of the damned extra ammo!! I suddenly questioned my strategy of carrying a lot of extra ammo. I especially started to reevaluate this extra ammo strategy when I noticed that my buddies were well in front of me… and quickly expanding the distance between us.
It was at this point, though, that
rather than depend on random luck, I would try and make some luck of my own. It dawned on me that running in a straight line was not in our training. In these situations, we had been taught to zigzag,
although zigzagging was perhaps counter-intuitive when you had a very great desire to have the shortest travel time possible between two points (which I definitely did).
Yet we were taught to zigzag just to be sure we at least made a more challenging target for an enemy shooter. I should note here that my decision to zigzag was more of a reaction to our training rather than a conscious thought... practice makes permanent again. My method was to picture myself as the VC shooter, taking a bead on my running body and pulling the trigger. I would mentally try to calculate the VC shooting timing, and zig a
hair-of-a-second before imagining him pulling the trigger.
But then I started thinking, "what if the VC is a bad shot, and as he fired a miss, would I suddenly zig right into his bullet, which would have passed by me otherwise? Was this another Catch-22? Was I overthinking this?" I decided that I was. In any case, I kept zigzagging. I'll never know if this method worked that day, but it certainly seemed worth trying. I do know that I wasn't shot.
Crazy stuff to be thinking about,
but it didn't end there (I guess if we think at the speed of light when we are in dire situations, you can get a lot of thinking in with a half a minute worth of seconds on your hands).
Zigzagging, I fell further behind my buddies, but I decided to continue my strategy.
Please understand that, at one point in my run, I had become very sure that I was going to be shot. I thought that I better start preparing for it. My first thought was: "OK, if I do get shot, I must be prepared to mentally continue to propel myself to keep going all the way back to our lines, no matter what". I had seen guys shot in the leg in a firefight yet never realized it until the action was over. Wild stuff, that adrenaline! I hoped that, if shot, it would happen that way to me. But, if I did feel any pain, I was going to employ the power of positive thinking to create sort of a 'self fulfilling prophecy'. I created an image in my mind of me continuing through the finish line looming far up ahead at full speed and not dropping down until then.
"Well, if shot, perhaps it will be just a leg
wound; let's hope it's not a head shot or a spine shot or… a heart shot".
Then I imagined my glibbilyguts falling out of my stomach. I quickly put that out of my mind… self-fulfilling prophecies were better when they were positive. It was then that my thoughts went to the ammo can that I was carrying on my back.
I realized that I had that ammo can positioned just about over my
heart area. I next wondered if the ammo can, and the many shells
contained within, could stop a bullet?
"Well sure they will", I answered myself. "They're pretty tightly packed. But, oh! oh! Which way are those bullets facing? Let's think… if facing out, I might be saved from a heart shot, or a spine shot, but if facing in … wow". I wondered if a VC bullet could hit a shell on the butt end and set it off, sending a bullet right through me thus with my very own ammo killing or perhaps paralyzing me. I decided that it could, but I still could not remember which way the shells were facing, out or in? Well, since which way the shells were facing now took on a very high level of importance to me in preserving my life, I'd better make a note for the next time that I put an ammo can up on my back …if there is a next time. Why don't they put this stuff in the manual? Wake up, I'm overthinking again. Time to zag.
Part way back to our main lines, I
soon found myself coming up to a rice paddy dike where my buddies, instead of running all of the way back to the rear lines, had chosen as a fortification to stop and return the fight to the VC.
This effectively and instantly cut my run in half. "Hey, I might just make it." I looked and noted that most of the others had made it over to the other side of the rice paddy dike. I looked around though and I saw that I was actually not the last one! There were actually two others behind me. Well either "I still have some speed left in me", I thought, or these two others behind me were zig-zagging more often than I had. Then I realized that it's more likely that they stayed at the tree line longer than I had, firing their weapons to suppress the enemy fire. I later concluded that these two guys might have been very instrumental in me not being shot in the back. In other words, their bravery in staying longer at the tree line saved my life.
As I approached the rice paddy
dike, I made a final giant leap while I seemed to still be many feet from the safety of the dike where the others had turned to fight.
As I launched myself, I again felt the weight of all of my gear and I suddenly feared that my leap was possibly a bit to hasty. I intuitively understood that my premature leap came from my great desire to have this run finished, but I might just end up on the front side (or wrong side) of the rice paddy dike. This could be another mistake with possibly deadly consequences. Yet, it turned out that my leap was a leap of faith, literally, as I was determined to fly through (or perhaps over) the finish line ribbon and then hopefully roll to a stop. We had done a similar type of thing in high school track, sticking our chest out, or leaning forward a bit at the instant of crossing the finish line. The idea, of course, was to try and win by a nose (so to speak). We did this even when making a solo run for time. We desperately wished to record our fastest possible time even if it meant that we might only reduce our run by just a tenth of a second. As I made my run away from Charlie I decided that even reduction of only a few hundredths of a second would be welcome.
It seemed to work out as I made
it, albeit a bit more dirty that I was a moment ago. No Catch-22 here, the trade-off of making a dirty, rolling landing in order to save an extra few fractions of a second worked for me. At such times, one
does not consider how dirty one might personally be. However, there is always concern about how dirty you weapon and ammo might be. But there was no mud here so I did not give dirty weaponry or ammo any real concern.
As you might imagine, I was happy
at that time.
The endorphins were flowing. I don't think it was a 'runner's high' that gave me a feeling of euphoria at that moment of landing. It was the thought that I would perhaps live to run again …or at least live long enough to give some payback to Charlie. Before we arrived in Vietnam, I had always considered that if I was to die in war, I would have liked to have had taken out at least one enemy, to make things at least even as it were. This had already happened in one earlier patrol. My personal score stood as: Gene -1/Enemy -0. I then decided that two or more enemies would have been the proverbial icing on the cake. I suppose that this was one way that I knew if I was winning the game.
I didn't know it at that time, while I was lying there
behind the rice paddy dike, that later that day I would get my wish.
SAFE BEHIND THE DIKE …FOR THE MOMENT ANYWAY:
"Find the machine gunner; get
Off to town the M60 goes answering the VC clatter from the, now distant, tree line. The training kicks in again and I quickly link up a loose ammo belt. For all I knew at that point it was possible to expect a direct assault from the VC. Payback!, although I did not want to see the whites of their eyes. I was going to shoot them at whatever distance they choose to display themselves. But, it turns out they are not as stupid as us. I then have thoughts of our earlier move up to the tree line like British Redcoats advancing on the Colonial soldiers behind their earthen fortifications on Bunker Hill. The only thing different was we were not wearing red …but we may as well have been.
Then, I hear that we had left a
few of our guys back there in front of the tree line.
What had happened? Did they maneuver and fire at the time that I had(?) …but decide to stay longer to save others(?) Did they not hear the order to retreat(?) I didn't know. Maybe they were safer out there staying low(?) Maybe they found another, albeit closer, rice paddy dike and were safely ensconced behind it for the moment(?) Well, I knew if there were a large VC assault, those few guys could be flat run over. They needed to get back - with us! Maybe they've been wounded and are no longer ambulatory, or worse, bleeding out(?) Maybe they're dead (?)
That is a lot of maybes. But
all of these 'maybes' were situations which, to me, called for getting them back to us ...except, I supposed, the last 'maybe'.
I later figured out that, on our
initial approach to the tree line, the guys to my right were closer to the right angle made up of the two converging tree lines
…and Charlie was bunkered in both tree lines so as to create a very fine crossfire on those GI's closest to the right angle corner which I simply called "the angle."
"Well", I thought, "no time to think this through any longer"… a quick look to see where they were …and to check that there was, in fact, no VC assault underway. But, I immediately looked around and quickly felt that I was in a pretty good place (well, a good place relative to where I had been anyway). The rice paddy dikes were about 18" tall or so and were constructed in the same right angle as the tree lines we had just left. At this point, we could easily duck low if we wished to avoid bullets, which was what I could do and still keep the M60 fed. The gunner had to keep his head above the dike to do his job. Remember, me as the Assistant gunner, besides hooking the ammo belts together, also had a duty to help the gunner by
keeping an eye out for targets and keeping the gunner thus well-informed. However, we were not being
assaulted by Charlie; they were still hidden in the tree line, safe in their bunkers. So, I guessed that, for the moment, I could dispense with that target-locating-help-the-gunner thing and simply restrict
myself to the duty of keeping the M60 fed while lying low behind the dike. I quickly became a little ashamed of this action, though.
Then I next thought, "what if it was me that was stuck out
there close to Charlie's tree line?" I was already frightened by the events so far but the worst of that was over, at least for the moment.
To be still out there though, I would have been terrified. In my mind, I next 'pictured' myself as one of the guys still out there…
and it was then that I felt that I could sense their terror. Subsequently, I then imagined, in some sort of nightmare-ish dream, that I was, in fact, still out there with them …but my nightmare faded when I 'imagined' that somebody would be coming back out to rescue us. This is something I knew that my team mates would do for me. I knew this as I knew anything. This helped to further subside the terror in my mind and actually swung me back, beyond being merely frightened, all the way to elation.
I then came back to reality; I realized that I was one that wasn't still out there but had made the full run back …and without being shot …at least not yet.
Who was still out there?
OH GOD, my good buddies. Don Peterson was still there.
He was the squad leader. Don was one of the best of the best. Of all of the many men I had trained with, he was on the top of my list for likeability. We were both California guys inducted in LA on the same day. There were a few who were special, and Don was one of them. Some called him "Pete" for a nickname, as did I, others called him "Bug" because, back in Ft Riley, Kansas, due to his poor marching skills he was often put into the "Dying Cockroach" position by the drill sergeants. The drill sergeants would holler at him "What are you Peterson?" to which Pete would respond, "I'm a bug, drill sergeant, I'm a dying bug". For the uninitiated, the 'Dying Cockroach' is a form of Army discipline where we were made to lie on our back and hold our arms and legs up in the air. Often, punishment for a small mistake might be for the trainee to hear the command to "drop and give me twenty (pushups) soldier". Twenty pushups were achievable, but the 'dying cockroach' is a position that one could not easily hold for more than a few moments as the blood rushed down from the extremities, leaving one's arms and legs weaker and weaker, and in some pain too. Pete, it seemed, had more practice at this than most. I supposed that since he could easily do the pushups, the drill sergeants assigned this more difficult task. Rather then just complete a goal of twenty pushups (or even thirty or even more), the drill sergeants could simply have him maintain that awful position until they could observe the suffering was sufficient.
Understand that the moniker
"Bug" only came out of a kind of sophomoric mockery young men used only when they liked someone. We all made fun of each other. Besides, back in training at Ft. Riley, it was about the only entertainment we had.
Pete was no bug
though; he was a large handsome, muscular bull of a young man with an endearing personality. Like Will Rodgers, he seemed to never meet a man he didn't like. What's more, he was married and he had a new baby back home. He had shown me the pictures of them that he so proudly carried.
CHOICES AND ALTERNATIVES:
Thinking of Pete, and his baby, a
sudden fearful realization struck me like lightening. I needed to get back out there to Pete and the others and I needed to go now!
Looking back at that instant, I
think I had a "kairos" moment. Let me explain this. The ancient Greeks actually had two words for time, chronos and kairos (pronounced keros). Chronos refers to time as we moderns understand it today. Essentially, chronos or chronological time refers to sequential time that is predictable, rhythmic, and orderly. Chronos time just keeps moving along, never stopping. Kairos time, on the other hand, approaches the metaphysical, except I believe it to be something that is actual and real. Kairos was the ancient Greek god of the "fleeting moment". It is a moment where one gets a chance to make a decision that takes advantage of constantly changing circumstances. But, it's deeper than that. It refers to the time 'in-between' time. It lies in the midst of ordinary chronos time. It is an uncertain period of time where something special happens. It's a favorable opening to an opportunity that appears which one can only pass through with great power and force if one expects to take away any advantage from it. Such moments must be quickly and firmly grasped or the moment will be gone and might never reappear. In concept, it is similar to what lies behind the famous Roman/Latin phrase "Carpe Diem" or "Seize the Day". My habit of overthinking wouldn't work with kairos time any more that it would have worked with my deciding to run away from the tree line earlier. But, a 'snap' decision also wouldn't work with kairos time, it requires something more. And, it is not quite the same thing as making a decision from intuition either, but it's close. The best definition of kairos is that it is an accurate assessment and judgment of sudden opportunities that arise and then not missing the expedient course of action.
As I start to get up and move out,
I then think, "Perhaps that positive thinking that brought me back here to the rice paddy dike can get me back out to them." But, as much as I might have thought of myself as a 'thinking individual', I also knew
that some of the better thinking of an individual says that you should work as a team if and whenever that was possible.
As an individual, I had made up my mind that I was going back out to my buddies, no matter what…. but as a team member I also thought it wise to better first notify the Lieutenant (and hopefully also get his permission) so my actions could at least be coordinated with everyone else. This communication to the lieutenant, I hoped, was going to be passed around to all of the other players and was done mostly so I could perhaps have a little extra insurance in avoiding being mistakenly shot by one of my own guys. Permission or no permission, either way I was going.
Permission granted. This time, no ammo
can would be weighing me down nor would there be any threat of being shot by my own ammo on the return trip (Yes, I had decided that there would be a return trip, if I did it before, I could do it again.
I had already hooked up one loose bandoleer of M60 rounds to the machine gun, so I was relieved of its weight. My pockets were full of M16 magazines though, but that weight was fine with me. I very well might have a need for all the M16 ammo that I could carry. Although I did consider that, there might be more M16 ammo out there with those guys if I needed it. Also, because of the weight, and because they flopped around too much when running, I decided to additionally leave behind my green army sock full of C-rations along with my web gear including all of my grenades, my 45 and, of course, the full ammo can. I laid the other loose bandoleer that still hung from my shoulders on top of this pile for whoever would be taking over as the A-gunner... probably the ammo bearer, I guessed. But, I didn't really know who it might be nor did I care. I had a new focus and I needed to leave now!
Note on all maps: Soldier icons are not to scale; Soldier icons do not represent
full number of men. 1 inch equals approximately 100 meters.
I then went up and over the dike,
and started my run out.
At first, I pulled out my previously successful zigzag method again. This time though, no dust at the feet, no little flying jet airplanes breaking the sound barrier next to my head. So, I decided to change to a straighter (and quicker) run. I would zig-zag again after and if I detected any bullets coming near me again. So far, so good. Maybe Charlie was not shooting at me because they saw John Wayne bearing down on them all by himself …and were preparing to run away. Hey, this positive thinking thing worked pretty darn good. God, did the VC even know about John Wayne? I doubted it. And, I doubted that the VC were actually running away from this crazy, lone GI attacking the tree line by himself. Positive thinking aside, I wasn't John Wayne, and I knew it. I knew it because I was again scared nearly out of my wits. Moreover, I wasn't attacking the tree line; I was running for a touchdown where the end zone was about 50 meters short of the tree line, where my friends were. Still, my very good luck seemed to be holding, as Charlie hadn't been shooting at me on the run back out, maybe they had gone.
"OK, I'm coming up to one of our guys", I thought "Gosh he is very still, maybe unconscious. Do I have my wound dressing pack with me? Check my pocket, yes; my training did not let me down. Drop in, check in. Who is it? It's Pete (Donald Peterson)." It was easy to tell since he was a big guy, not fat big, but muscle big… with more of a wrestler's body. He was lying on his side, facing the other way, towards the tree line. Call out his name, check for response. No answer, follow my training, check for obstructed airway, then next, for bleeding (that always seemed counter-intuitive to me. Intuition told me that if I saw blood gushing that it was critical to stop the blood flow. But, my training taught me otherwise and I got it. Mostly, your odds of dying sooner were higher with a lack of oxygen than a loss of blood). Roll him over; he's heavy. "Pete!", "Pete!", I shout again but louder this time. I roll him back a bit, lean over to see his face, not easy, he's not helping, and God he's heavy. His eyes are closed; I cannot tell if he is breathing. Can't see any blood yet though. Roll him over farther to check his airway.
"Wow, Charlie apparently was not
gone"; he again makes himself known as I hear a single bullet fly by. But this time the bullet went by high overhead. A millisecond later, I hear the report of his rifle from the tree line. I was not so
far from the tree line, still maybe only 50 meters off. Does that mean they were not good marksmen, not good shots if they miss from this distance? They might not miss, though, after getting
with that last shot. But the firing stops. Time to put my attention back to Pete; he still does not appear to be breathing but his airway seemed fine, no obstructions, and no swallowed tongue. "What was that lone bullet? Maybe Charlie was not even shooting at me. Maybe they've got a sniper shooting at our guys behind me way back at the rice paddy dike. God, I hoped that Charlie was not using a scoped sniper
rifle. So, after a couple of seconds of thinking about that, I resolved, through more hope than fact, that Charlie didn't have a sniper rifle. Since I was now in the thinking positive mode I decided to also resolve that it was even possible that Charlie did not even know that I was out here in the middle of the field. After all, nobody had taken any shots at me on the run out. But still, that lone bullet told me that Charlie was still there, somewhere in that treeline. I couldn't decide what this all meant for my next move. "Stop it Gene", I said to myself, "you're overthinking it again!"
I put my attention back to Pete.
It looked as though the VC may have some sharpshooters after all: There they were, three or four holes in Pete's chest right at his heart. This was what we called a 'tight grouping' when we were consistent in where we hit the target in rifle practice, regardless if we hit the bull's eye or not. This VC shooter had both a tight grouping and also had hit the bull's eye. I guessed though, that the grouping was likely caused by an automatic weapon, probably an AK. I am no doctor, but I surmised Pete did not suffer much.
Then something that
sounded like a "thump" came from an area where Pete's legs were. Was that a bullet strike?
The "thump" seemed distinctive. Again, I hear a rifle report from the treeline. This time I was ready to listen and decided that the rifle noise came from far to the right, somewhere closer to the angle of the two merging perpendicular tree lines. That would have put the shooter closer to 100 meters away rather than the 50 meters at the part of the treeline that was the closest to me. I felt that the VC were getting zeroed-in though. Better to duck down behind Pete's body because there was no dike out here that I could see. Strange, although it's possible that Pete was shot in those first moments before we began our retreat back from the tree line, I also consider the possibility that he was shot after staying behind, making suppressive fire, and in so doing may have saved my life, and others, during our run back to the rice paddy dike. Knowing Pete, I determined that it must have been the latter. Pete probably deserved a medal. I did not know it at that moment, but if he had stayed to make suppressive fire - in so doing - it would be only the
first of several times that day that Pete saved my life. The second time he saved my life had come as I then lay hidden behind his large ample and protective frame as more and more bullets came flying over and in!
I continued to speak out-loud to
Pete as though he were still alive even though I knew the awful truth.
When I say that I was speaking out-loud, it was really more of a mutter. While my voice was audible, it was barely audible. My voice didn't have the volume for anyone more than a few inches away to actually hear
me. I don't know why I was doing this. I hadn't deceived myself that Pete wasn't dead.
Perhaps it was that I thought his spirit was still hanging around and he could still hear me but could simply no longer answer. Perhaps I thought his spirit could still help me in some unknown way. Somehow, it just seemed to be right for the moment. I guess that it seemed, in some way, more respectful too.
Strange as it turned out, Pete was still able to help me. As I mentioned above, Pete by lying there so
still, continued to have the power to protect me from VC fire, to save my life.
Muttering out-loud, I again speak to Pete: "What's this stuff you're carrying, Pete?"
Pete's carrying a LAW (Light Anti-Tank Weapon). "Gotta' grab that from you buddy. What else do you have on you that I can use, my friend? - Oh, a couple of smoke grenades. I guess you squad leaders get this extra tactical stuff. Well, Pete, I've got to get out of here now. I guess I'll see ya' again some day, my good friend. Thanks for the protection and thanks for the stuff".
"What the hell is that noise?
Omigosh! We've got Hueys bearing down from behind our lines." Hueys were the helicopters made famous by the Vietnam War. "Are these gunships or slicks (troop transports)? Did gunships have door gunners? I can't remember." We had already had an incident of friendly fire from helicopters a few months ago. And, I had flown with door gunners in some crazy combat air assault situations. Huey door gunners seemed to be crazy with their crazy antics. I had watched one, while riding along on an earlier air assault, lean out about 45 degrees, taut against his restraining straps in order to drop a grenade on some VC that he had spotted. I don't know why his M60 wasn't good enough; it was too loud in that helicopter for him to hear me ask. Apparently, door gunners were as fearless as the Huey pilots themselves, but sometimes a little overly gung-ho in my view. Don't misunderstand me, Huey pilots and door gunners were all heroes to me; they took chances to save others (the "others" being us). Yet, I decided though, they were crazy air jockeys, and I could be toast here on the ground, far below them.
At this point
though, I noticed some VC running between some trees maybe 200 yards distant, off to my left. I was momentarily confused and befuddled because they looked like what I thought were NVA regulars with official
dark green uniforms. "Wait, maybe they're just friendly American GI's?" so I am not ready to throw an M16 bullet their way.
I was still befuddled by what I saw. I didn't think just two lone GI's were going to attack the tree line off in the distance which, by my calculation, was directly behind where my VC bullet-generating tree line was located.
"Maybe they are grunts from Alpha or Bravo company running back to retrieve some of their wounded from some other adjacent firefight(?)" I couldn't tell. "Does someone know something I don't know? What's with these Viet Cong with green uniforms? No, wake up, they are just black pajamas. …it's just hard to tell at that distance." I was confronted with the thought that I did not really know anything about the difference between NVA regulars and Viet Cong Guerrillas anyway.
But still, Army olive drab green
or black "What must I look like to the Hueys? Maybe they are so high that they are not able to tell the difference between Charlie and me …and I am not with my group back at the dike. I am somewhere
between the rice paddy dike and the tree line… and closer to the VC then my own guys!"
I guessed that, to the Hueys, I could have looked like a VC just by my location. It was then that I hoped that the Hueys would be just as befuddled by me and my location as I had been by the green/black uniformed men I saw just a moment ago.
"Wait, think it
through. The Hueys were probably in radio contact with my platoon lieutenant, right?
He'll tell them to not shoot the friendly Harvey halfway out there, right? Maybe there was radio contact, maybe not; maybe the lieutenant had other problems to deal with besides me." There I went again, overthinking everything. Suddenly, the shooting from the tree line stopped. With the Hueys checking in, I surmised that Charlie was, at that time, diving down into their bunkers. With Charlie hunkered and bunkered I assumed there would, at least, be limited firing from them. As good as this seemed to be, it made me think
that the Hueys were possibly a greater threat to me than Charlie was. Another catch-22, no-win situation.
"OK, think: I'll pop one of Pete's
smoke grenades. Maybe the lieutenant will see this and communicate my location to the Hueys? Hell, was a platoon lieutenant even able to communicate with Huey gunships?" I didn't know. "Well, if
not, maybe this smoke will at least cause some hesitation on the part of the Huey pilots and any crazy door gunners. Any edge I can get, I'm gonna take it."
"Red Smoke!", it sure makes a hell
of a lot of smoke… much more than I expected, and boy was it ever red. "Blood Red", I thought. If every VC in that tree line was not aware of my location, they all knew then (that is, if they had the audacity to
stick their heads up with the Hueys' arrival).
Here come the Hueys, rockets firing, and "Hooray!" - directly into the tree line. "What the Hell?" There has been another smoke grenade popped, this time from within the VC tree line! "Could there be GI's in there?? Nope, that's the VC." I think I had mentioned that they were not stupid. I had heard rumors of American GI's being shot by M16s previously captured by the enemy. I had pictured Charlie picking up some poor dead grunt's weapon in some previous firefight, a thought I had quickly put out of my mind, but today that thought returns. I supposed that it was possible that Charlie had also captured American smoke grenades as well. Damn, Charlie was even able to match the color of Pete's smoke grenade... red. I popped my smoke grenade without any concern for whichever color may appear. It was simply the one that was available. I left it for others to determine its meaning, mainly that it was employed by an American GI… and if you are American, don't fire any weapons at him, please!, thank you very much! I supposed that Charlie, after seeing my red smoke, was trying to confuse the Huey pilots into thinking that there were also American GIs in the trees. I briefly wondered if I had popped a blue smoke grenade would Charlie had then also popped a blue smoke grenade from within the tree line?