A Year To Kill


A couple of hours of daylight remained and our platoon leader had us take a position along a road that wound through a rubber plantation located about a mile outside the perimeter of the base. I supposed we were just killing time before we started our night patrol. All we seemed to do was harass the Vietnamese civilians, who for the most part were traveling to and from jobs on the military base. Because I was new to the field, my assignment was to simply stay out of the way and watch.


Everyone who approached was detained and asked to show identification by soldiers in our platoon who were surprisingly fluent in the Vietnamese language. At least, coupled with the civilian's knowledge of English, they appeared to get their points across quite well. Occasionally though, some of the GI's would resort to "body language," when one of the civilians acted as if he did not understand. The Vietnamese were masters of the English language when it was convenient for them, and it was amazing how quickly a boot in the butt improved their comprehension.

Those who had proper identification were allowed to move on, while those who had no ID were taken to a detention area we set up beside the road. There, they were questioned and physically searched. Those who met two conditions: female and pretty, were searched more than once. If the interrogators were satisfied, the detainees were given forms to apply for the government issued ID cards, necessary for unrestricted travel through their own country.

It was on this patrol that I understood why the children had shouted and thrown things at the bus when I came in country. They no doubt had a difficult time determining who the enemy was. The Viet Cong were not the ones restricting their travel, harassing their fathers and brothers, or degrading their mothers and sisters. Those things were being taken care of by the Americans. I wondered how I would feel toward such an insensitive military force invading my country, even if they were supposed to be friends.

As twilight closed in and we prepared to continue our patrol, news circulated that our roadblock had netted a few rounds of rifle ammunition, a detailed map of our base and three prisoners. Perhaps, we had done more than kill time and perhaps, the inconvenience and restrictions we inflicted on the civilians were necessary.

The moon was not shining and the darkness of the night seemed like a shroud around my head, blinding my footsteps. The evening monsoon had drenched my clothing and the combination of fear and a wet uniform chilled me to the bone, though the temperature was probably still in the high nineties.

As we poked our way through the jungle, we did so in standard military patrol formation. Each man walked five meters (the maximum effective range of a grenade) behind the one in front, so if a grenade exploded in our ranks the casualties would be minimal. We also used the standard five man point, which means the primary point man travels in advance of the main column and is flanked on the left and right by two men who maintain a certain lateral distance between themselves and the column of troops. The point men are generally the ones who make first contact with the enemy, so the newest members of the patrol or the guys who become known as "screwups" are generally given the point. When all things are equal, a system of rotation to the point is usually worked out. I wasn't a "screwup" but I was new, so I became a flanker in the point.

Traveling through the jungle at night is a frightening experience, especially the first time and I wasn't quite sure if my teeth were chattering because I was cold or afraid. I tried to ignore the knowledge that I might step in a booby trap or that "Charlie" (the GI nickname for the Viet Cong) might suddenly appear and run a bayonet through my chest. Although we were told they wouldn't stop a bullet, I decided to zip up my flak jacket as I walked and increased my grip on the rifle that had now become my best friend.

In my mind I prayed that if I had to "buy the farm" it would not be tonight, not before I started receiving mail, not before I could tell Annie, "I love you," or read that she loves me, once more.

Each step into the unknown terror of the jungle further excited my emotions of fear, hatred and self pity until the back of my head and neck ached from the tension and my hands cramped from gripping the rifle. The mental toll had physically exhausted me to the point I wondered how much longer I could last when the platoon leader signaled for us to stop. I first dropped to one knee and then being too tired to care, flopped back on the ground, for a much needed rest.

The platoon sergeant seemed to appear out of nowhere, which gave me quite a start. If he had been the enemy..... Stay alert, was the lesson I learned from that experience. He paired us off and said we would be spending the rest of the night at that location. One of us was to sleep while the other was to remain on watch. "Charlie" was thought to use the area we surrounded for a rendezvous point and might possibly appear at any time. He said Claymores and trip wires had been set up all around our position, and no matter what, we were to stay put so we would not be hit by our own weapons.

A claymore is a directional mine primarily used to protect a perimeter or as an offensive weapon in areas of suspected enemy troop movement. It is detonated by pulling a wire and when exploded it propels shrapnel forward, in a fan shaped pattern. It is a very effective anti-personnel mine that can be easily concealed.

The jungle floor is covered with a carpet of rotting vegetation, which during the monsoon time of year is constantly water soaked. As I lay in a prone position, the odor of decomposition wafted up around my nose and made me want to gag every time I laid down my head. I was too scared and nervous to sleep, but my shoulders ached from supporting the weight of my head and steel helmet as I propped myself on my elbows, and occasionally, I had to lay my head down for some relief.

I noticed the jungle floor contains flecks that glow in the dark like a firefly's tail, when the top layers of humus are scraped back. I began to scratch around, fascinated by the discovery I made. I later learned the glowing particles were phosphorus, left behind by the decomposition process. This slight diversion took my mind off the constant itching and crawling feeling I had over my entire body. I really did not know if I felt that way because I was wet, or if insects were having lunch on me.

I remembered the stories some of the vets told about vipers and adders that were capable of inflicting death in a matter of seconds and liked to crawl up next to warm blooded animals for warmth, at night. I slowly bent my knee and reached behind my back to feel if my pants were tucked in my boots. My mind was not the only one running wild, I felt the guy next to me check his legs also.

Suddenly, the silence of the night erupted with the sounds of an explosion and the cries of human anguish, followed by the unmistakable sound of an M-16 on full automatic.

The M-16 is a very lethal instrument. With a rate of fire in excess of six hundred rounds per minute, it will empty a twenty-round magazine in less than two seconds. It fires a nominal twenty-two caliber bullet at such tremendous velocity that the bullet explodes on impact giving it the capability of literally blowing off an arm or leg or producing a hole in a body, large enough for a man's fist. It is light, dependable, accurate and gives each soldier the advantages of a machine gun without the added weight or awkwardness. It is the finest, close-combat, assault rifle ever used in a military operation. And it has its own sound.

The M16 Rifle

The fear and apprehension I was experiencing only moments earlier suddenly disappeared and the instinct to survive overtook me. My partner and I both swung our rifles toward the noise of the explosion and screaming, to lay down a base of fire in short controlled bursts. I expended one magazine, reloaded, released my bolt and held ready to continue firing. The sound of rifle fire had ceased but the screams of human suffering continued to penetrate the night.

The screaming sounded like that of a woman and continued in sporadic, uncontrolled cycles for at least a couple of hours. It was as if the person screaming was lapsing in and out of consciousness. However, not sure what had happened, nor to whom, and remembering what the sergeant said, I for one was not going to crawl out there and investigate. As the night wore on, the screaming was unnerving to me and apparently to some of the others, because an occasional burst of fire would sound, as if someone was trying to permanently silence the screamer. Finally an unmistakably American voice cried out, "shut up bitch," followed by a three or four round burst of rifle fire and the silence of the unusually dark night again engulfed us.

The morning's first light found me anxiously awaiting its arrival. Time to think had become a real nemesis to me, and I did plenty of thinking, during the remainder of the night. I imagined myself completely surrounded by VC with my entire platoon wiped out. Therefore, I was very relieved when the sergeant appeared, telling us to fall in for a sweep of the area.

Even in the still dim light it was easy to see what had happened. A VC patrol hit a trip wire that detonated one of the Claymore mines our guys set up. Apparently, most of the patrol did an about face and headed back the way they came, not even bothering to help their fallen comrades. The man and two women, dressed in black pajamas and armed with AK-47 rifles, who were caught in the initial blast, had received their discharge. They would not participate in any more patrols-not in this war.

My stomach was already queasy because of my nervousness, when, as the light of day grew brighter, I noticed large red ants trailing in and out of the wounds on the bodies, carrying pieces of flesh. My mind raced to the events of the night before and I wondered if the ants were the cause of the screaming the woman did. Was she being eaten alive, while we listened? The vomit was in my throat before I could stop it. I leaned against a tree and heaved.

Breakfast that morning was a box of C-rations. Combat rations or C's as we called them, consisted of a supposedly balanced meal, packaged neatly in non-perishable form. Each pack contained a can of the main course, a can of fruit and a sealed plastic bag that was more fun to open than a Christmas present. Inside the plastic bag were personal hygiene items such as toilet paper, a chocolate candy bar and what I was wanting badly, cigarettes. I chain smoked the four cigarettes provided in rapid fashion, hoping to calm my shattered nerves, while I munched on the chocolate bar. I had drawn a can of scrambled eggs for my main course, which I did not bother to open. The mere thought of cold, canned, scrambled eggs again caused my stomach to want to rebel.

Having received no satisfaction from trying to eat and being bone tired from the night's activity I leaned against a tree and closed my eyes hoping that sleep would give a few minutes release from my ordeal. How could this be happening, I wondered. Look at us, grown men wallowing around like animals on the ground, playing a game of cat and mouse with deadly consequences. Surely, this nightmare will be over when I awaken.

"Wake up," he shouted, as he kicked my boot, causing me to immediately jump to my feet. "Time to move out," the sergeant said. I was wrong, the nightmare was not over, it was only starting and I had nearly a year of it left to live.


A Year To Kill © 1989
Other Content © 1999
by James F. McColloch