combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2006


          Ah, that evening, in the Spring of 1969. Indelible. The air languishing over Saigon was really saturated with some weird pyrotechnics that night. Ribbons of crimson heat spewing out from the Cobra gunships and Huey helicopters; parachute flares, red tracers and some green ones too; throw in the furies fired off from an A-1 Skyraider or two and you've got the fixin's for quite a light show. And the sounds: whap-whap-whap, whoosh-whoosh, ratta-tat-tat, thump, thump, thump, boom, boom, boom, zip-zip-zip ... a whiny din, to say the least. Then there were the smells: acrid, oily, metallic, graphitic, phosphoric, fecal ... the halitosis of war.

          They didn't have much of a chance, those kids in the NVA; the North Vietnamese Army thought they could sneak down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and surprise fortress America. They were even supplied with P-38s, those little can openers for C-rations. Apparently they had been told by their superiors that it would be a piece of cake ... that they would be celebrating their victory by dining out on U.S. beans and franks.

          How Sherman ... so anonymous that I never knew if that was his first or last name ... was able to spot from his bunker, in almost total darkness, the NVA troops out on the berm that night remains a mystery. But spot the enemy he did. Maybe he used the Army's brand new night vision scope. What a gadget. Look through it out into the inky darkness and everything out in front of you can be seen bathed in a chartreuse glow. Anyway, he put in the radio call to the base Tactical Operations Center, who then relayed the alert down to the air base. That's all it took. By morning, it was just about over. Only some mopping up to do out beyond the concertina wire.

          Sergeant Jacks was from Memphis. Specialist Fourth Class Jillson, a lanky over-zealous teenager, was from Pocatello, Idaho. The sergeant said that I had to go along. The three of us were to accompany a small unit of South Vietnamese Army soldiers out to the area where whatever was left of the NVA was scattered about. The ARVNs would be looking for any documents, maps, orders, or any other military intelligence still left intact on the bodies.

          "Over here, cherry." Sergeant Jacks was a steely-eyed, tobacco chomping lifer with a barrel chest, red-haired flattop, and a face cratered like the moon. I was the cherry; the new guy in country. The virgin.

          "Jesus," he said, looking me over. "You don't need all that gear. Leave the rucksack, the web belt, and the M-16. You're not going out on patrol for Christ's sakes. We're just going to check out the dead. Here," he handed me a forty-five caliber automatic pistol, "take this, just in case."

          "Just in case? Just in case of what? What am I supposed to with a little forty-five?"

          "Do you speak French?"

          "What?" I answered.

          "French ... as in coup de grâce. You know. One bullet to the head ... to put anyone out there who needs it out of their goddamn misery."

          "Come on Sergeant, why me? I don't think I can ...."

          "Shut up. Lock and load," Sergeant Jacks said. He then motioned to Jillson. "Over here, Jillson. You ready? Got all your stuff?"

          Stuff? What was Jillson carrying in his weighted-down rucksack?

          "Let's go," said Sergeant Jacks, leading us through the perimeter gate. He was unarmed. All he carried was a Panasonic AM-FM portable radio. It was tuned to the Country-and-Western hour on Armed Forces Radio. He loved his Ray Price ... for the good times. The tune gets catchy after awhile.

          As we walked down the ravine and toward the clearing where the NVA had been caught the night before, I could see ARVN soldiers, using the muzzle tips of their M-16s to poke around the charred remains of enemy bodies. Every so often, there would be a quick puff of smoke, then a short burst of automatic fire. Coup de grâce. Sergeant Jacks had gotten way ahead of Jillson and me. So we ended up following the mellow voice of Mister Price, the country singer ... lay your head upon my pillow ....

          "Hey, over here. We got one." Jacks was standing next to what, from where I was, looked at first like a heap of dirty laundry. Then the little mound of tattered fabric, of flesh and bone moved. There was not much left of his torso, but the NVA soldier-child was still alive. Fifteen, maybe sixteen, anyway, he looked even younger than Jillson. The kid's head was swaying back and forth as if he were trying to rock himself to sleep.

          For the good times ... crooned the voice from the radio.

          I could feel my stomach turn.

          "C'mon Jillson, hurry up."

          Jillson ran over, gently placed his rucksack on the ground and emptied out his gear. All of it, state-of-the-art I guess it's called today. A brand new camera with all the bells and whistles: lens cap, lens hood, color filter, polarizing filter, tele-converter, cable shutter release, and a bandolier of thirty-five millimeter film cartridges. He loaded the Canon with Kodachrome. "How's the light, Sarge? How about the zoom lens? I'm going to use a new filter. Just picked it up from the PX a week ago. Japanese. The best."

          "Light's good. No shadow, but this gook's fading fast. Look, his eyes are glazing over. C'mon, we don't have much time."

          Put your warm and tender body next to mine ... the serenade went on.

          "What a shot, huh Sarge," said Jillson, as he moved, crouching around for the best angle.

          "Yeh, right. TIME magazine, cover and all. Hurry up, take the fuckin' picture," said Sergeant Jacks, adjusting the tuner on his radio before looking over at me. "Whatta you lookin' so serious about, cherry? Don't worry, you won't have to use that thing," he said, pointing to the forty-five. "This gook is gone already. Come on over here and get in the photo. Hold his dead head up by the hair. A good war trophy picture to send home to the folks. This here's going to be a Kodak coup de grâce."

          "No thanks, Sarge," I said.

          "Chickenshit," the lifer said to me. "Ready to shoot, Jillson?"

          Lay your head upon my pillow ... put your warm and tender body ....


by Leonard C. Costopoulos
... who is a Vietnam veteran and retired teacher, with works published in Odyssey Magazine, Dan River Anthology 2002, and War, Literature and the Arts.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones