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September/october 2008

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By Philip Caputo

In print now for more than thirty years, it’s easy to take Philip Caputo’s Vietnam War memoir A Rumor of War for granted. Don’t. Powerfully written, painfully eloquent and precise, Caputo’s book is a classic.
We asked the former Marine lieutenant if we could run an excerpt from his book. It follows. We also asked him to write an essay especially for The VVA Veteran. Look for it in the November/December issue.

Dust spots appeared where bullets pecked the earth, and then a whorl of gray smoke rose from behind the ridgeline, followed immediately by the flat explosion of an M-79. The runner led me to Peterson, who was standing with studied calm next to his radio operator. The skipper told me to put my platoon in defilade beside a hill that stood at a right angle to the ridge.

This we did. Tester’s platoon was in front of mine, strung out in a long file against the hillside. Hot and winded, we squatted to wait while 1st platoon made a frontal assault, that quintessential Marine maneuver. It was nothing like those choreographed attacks we had practiced at Quantico or on Okinawa. The marines were more or less on line, bunched into knots in some places, spread apart in others. Some men were falling behind, some pushing out ahead and firing from the hip. A few seemed to be scrambling hand over hand where the slope was very steep. My imagination persuaded me that I saw the Viet Cong on the ridgeline. If I did, I did not see them for long. Several greenclad figures suddenly appeared on the crest. Then I heard a rhythmic popping that recalled the sound of a rifle range.

The company radioman said that the VC had been driven off and were now fleeing across the swamp. Lemmon wanted to hit them with mortars before they gained the cover of the jungle on Hill 270.

Sergeant Johnson’s 60-mm mortar crew ran out into the middle of the LZ, and, quickly setting up the tube, put three rounds in the air. “Right five-zero!” someone called out. Johnson, a Korean War veteran with a face as seamed as a well-worked mine shaft, relayed the correction to the crew and three more shells hissed over the ridge to burst with a succession of dull crumps in the swamp beyond.

Peterson ordered Tester’s platoon and mine to start moving up; we were to sweep around the guerrillas’ flank, then move into the marsh and mop up. We would be covered by an artillery barrage, which he would call in on Hill 270 in case another VC force was dug in there. While Johnson’s mortars continued to fire, we started up the hill, Tester’s platoon in the lead. It was slow, hot going through waist-high stands of elephant grass. An occasional ricochet sang past us, but the action had slackened to desultory exchanges between Lemmon’s machine-gunners and some snipers up on 270. Then our ears caught a faint, vibrating hiss, which in seconds became a sound like canvas tearing, followed by the most godawful noise I had ever heard, a screech such as a millsaw makes when it strikes a knot. It was the artillery, 155-millimeters, and because the target was close, we felt as well as heard the shell-bursts. The ground quivered, the shock wave slapped like a gust of wind, smoke and clods of earth boiled up from the swamp and 270’s forward slope. At that range, there was a good chance of a round falling short—that is, falling on us—and we crouched as low as dignity would allow. Listening to the 155s rending the air with howls and roars, I could only wonder what it was like to be under the bombardment, to be one of those Viet Cong, naked against the blast and splintering steel of one-hundred-pound shells. And for a moment, I pitied them. I doubt that I have any more compassion than the next man, but in those days, I tended to look upon war as an outdoor sport, and the shelling seemed, well, unfair. The runner had said there was perhaps a platoon of guerrillas on the ridge, meaning twenty or twenty-five men at most. We were two hundred and, to add to our numerical superiority, we were dumping a ton of high-explosive on them. But this was early in the war; later, I would be able to see enemy soldiers incinerated by napalm and feel quite happy about it.

The bombardment lifted and C Company was ordered to move down into the swamp. We were to clean out any remaining pockets of resistance and look for enemy corpses, the number of which would be the measure of our victory. According to the tactics manuals, this phase of the action was the “pursuit.” The word suggests an exhilarating chase, but in this case it meant a vicious, mudbound manhunt. The swamp, a great pool of rust-red mire about twice the size of a football field, was broken by islands of thorn bushes and razor-sharp grass that slashed the skin and tore our uniforms. The mud was waist-deep in places. It tugged at our boots, almost pulling them off when we lifted our feet to walk; and with each step the rotten-egg stench of escaping marsh gas rose into our nostrils. All of us were soon covered with leeches, black things as big as a man’s thumb.

In the maze of thickets, it was impossible to keep any kind of formation.

Units got mixed up; platoons disintegrated into squads, squads into fire-teams, until the company had no more organization than a crowd at a train station. It was also difficult to find the bodies. Some had probably been entombed in the mud. A few wounded VC, judging from the blood trails they left, appeared to have crawled into those nearly impenetrable thickets; we left them there, to die slowly or to rot if they were already dead. One or two may have been blown apart by the artillery: here and there, bits of flesh and tattered clothing hung from the underbrush. After fifteen or twenty minutes of searching, the first body was discovered. Two marines, each holding onto an ankle, dragged the corpse away, its brains spilling out of the huge hole in its head like gray pudding from a cracked bowl.

With the mud, heat, leeches, and clawing thorns, and the risk of a wounded VC lobbing a grenade from his hiding place, the mood of the company turned savage. This was especially true of 1st platoon; they had done the actual killing, and once men begin killing it is not easy to stop them. So we were not surprised or outraged when we learned how that first Viet Cong—the one with his brains blown out—had died. Though badly wounded in the fire-fight, he was still alive when a search party found him.

Without warning, one of the marines, PFC Marsden, a grenadier in Lemmon’s platoon, shot the man in the face with a pistol. The summary execution apparently surprised Marsden himself: the moment after he fired the shot, he looked at the pistol as if it had gone off by itself and said, “Now what did I do that for?” There were two other versions of the incident: that the enemy soldier was already dead when Marsden shot him; that the marine had fired in self-defense when the VC tried to throw a grenade.

Whatever the truth of the matter, in that dangerous swamp it seemed a perfectly natural thing to do. And given the order General Greene, the Marine Corps commandant, had issued on an inspection tour of Vietnam the previous month, it seemed the approved action. Addressing a group of marines, Greene had told them they had a single, simple mission to accomplish in the war: “You men are here to kill VC.” Well, that is what Marsden had done; he had killed a Viet Cong, wiped out one small part of the Communist forces. He had accomplished his mission.

The mop-up continued. A second corpse was found. With PFC White, a 1st platoon machine-gunner known as Pappy because he was a venerable twenty-nine, I was on the trail of a third. A sliver of blood, flecked with bits of flesh and intestine, led into a patch of brown marsh grass.

“He’s got to be in there, sir,” White said, cradling his M-60. “We flushed at least a dozen of them off that ridge, and I know we hit one of them right around here.”

I drew my pistol and we pushed into the stuff. The grass was nearly head-high, making it difficult to see more that a few yards ahead. The blood trail grew thicker, splashed like fresh red paint on the brown grass, which was flattened where the wounded man had crawled through it. We followed the trail for several yards, then stopped to listen. Hearing nothing but the muffled rattle of a rifle some distance away—probably a marine clearing a thicket before searching it—White and I went on. Stumbling forward, I almost tripped over the VC. He was lying on his back, with one arm thrown over his chest, the other out at an angle, his eyes wide and staring at a sky he did not see.

“Knew we got one of them around here,” White said.

The enemy soldier appeared to be about eighteen or nineteen. He had been hit in the worst, most painful place a man can be hit, in the place that is the center of so many aches, the ache of fear, of hunger, sometimes even of love. We feel so many things in our guts, and that is where two 7.62-mm bullets had caught him. Judging from the distance he had crawled, a good thirty yards, he had had ample time to feel pain and perhaps to realize that death was not decades, but only moments, away. It was surprising he had lasted that long. A modern, high-velocity bullet strikes with tremendous impact. No tidy holes as in the movies. The two in his belly were small—each about the size of a dime—but I could have put my fist into the exit wounds in his back. An enormous amount of blood had poured out of him and he was lying in it, a crimson puddle in which floated bits of skin and white cartilage.

There was nothing on him, no photographs, no letters or identification. That would disappoint the boys at intelligence, but it was fine with me. I wanted this boy to remain anonymous; I wanted to think of him, not as a dead human being, with a name, age, and family, but as a dead enemy. That made everything easier. Two marines came up, collected the VC’s gear—a carbine and a web cartridge belt with a canteen attached—then dragged the corpse away. “He’s heavy,” one of the riflemen said. “You wouldn’t think a little dude could be so heavy.”

By this time the company had reached the base of Hill 270, and patrols were moving up its slope in an attempt to make contact with the remnants of the enemy platoon. Rifle fire chattered a short distance away. Some of my marines were running toward a column of smoke rising from the underbrush at the fringes of the swamp. “Hey, lieutenant,” one of them called, “over here.”

The smoke came from a burning case full of papers. Apparently one of the VC had remained behind long enough to destroy documents. We stamped out the fire but failed to salvage anything. The guerrilla had been hit, however; there were bloodstains on the bushes nearby, and we followed them to a dry stream bed that led up the hill. When I saw the dim, evil-looking jungle farther on, I decided that this was not a job for a small patrol. For all I knew, a hundred-man ambush lay waiting up there in the luxuriant growth. So I assembled the platoon, and the forty of us started up the stream bed.

The bottom was strewn with boulders, moss-covered and slippery, and ribbons of dark water trickled between them. Fresh bloodstains, red against the green moss, speckled the rocks. The platoon moved slowly, stopping every few yards to listen for the sound of breathing or the rustle of underbrush. But we heard only the rattling of our rifle slings and the grating of our boots against the rocks.

The stream bed grew deeper, its banks rising several feet above our heads. A gray-green twilight filtered through the jungle canopy. Plant life grew in snarled profusion along both banks; tree branches, vines, and tendrils were locked together, trying to strangle each other in a struggle to climb out of the shadows and reach the sunlight. Water oozed from the sides of the ravine, and the dead air was thick with the smell of rotting wood and leaves. It seemed as though we were walking through a sewer.

We still heard nothing, and then we lost the trail. Perhaps the VC’s wound had clotted. Or perhaps he had crawled into the bush and was waiting up ahead, waiting to take a few of us with him. He could do it, too, and without much trouble. Confined to the narrow corridor of the stream bed, the platoon was in frontal enfilade: this meant that the enemy’s line of fire, if he was in front of us, would come down the length of the column; a single burst from an automatic rifle would topple the first four or five men like bowling pins. Where are you? I said to myself. Where are you, you little son a bitch?

It was odd; I had begun the patrol with the idea of capturing the guerrilla, but now all I wanted to do was kill him. Waste the little bastard and then get out of that dank, heat-rotted ravine.

Rivera, the point man, held up his hand and dropped to one knee. He signaled me to come up.

“Look over there, lieutenant,” he said, pointing at a sampan that rested atop a platform built into one of the sheer walls of the ravine. Several square, rusty cans, filled with rice, were stacked beneath the platform. There was other stuff—clips of small-arms ammunition, cotton bandoliers, canteens, and cartridge belts. A few yards farther up, the stream bed made a sharp bend.

“He ain’t far if he’s around,” Rivera whispered.

I wiped my hands on my trousers and fought the urge to light a cigarette. At that moment, I wanted a cigarette more than anything in the world. My imagination—that cursed imagination of mine—conjured a vision of the VC lying in wait just around the bend. If only that damned bend had not been there. Rivera looked at me with an expression every infantry officer, at one time or another, has seen on the faces of his men; it was an expression that asked, Well, what are you going to do now, mister officer? In the end, I had two choices: to turn back or go on, at the risk of running into an ambush. I chose the latter, partly out of the “spirit of aggressiveness” the Marine Corps had inculcated in me, partly from curiosity, and partly out of pure personal ambition. I have to admit that; I wanted to get into a fight, I wanted to prove myself the equal of the other officers in C Company. Lemmon had seen the lion’s share of action that day, and I envied the tough little Texan. He would probably win a letter of commendation or maybe a medal. I wanted to win one myself.

“Listen,” I said to Rivera, “I’ll get a fire-team and we’ll check what’s around that bend. You take point. If you see that VC, blow his shit away.”

“Yes, sir.”

Six of us crept up while the rest of the platoon waited. The bottom of the ravine, covered with moss and worn flat by the floods of countless monsoon seasons, was as green, smooth, and clammy as a lizard’s skin. Rivera slipped around the bend, raised his hand in the signal to halt, and pointed his rifle at something ahead. My eyes caught a patch of yellow in the surrounding foliage, then the outline of a hut. It was a small base camp, the hut elevated on poles over the stream bed.

We moved in, nervously checking for trip wires and booby traps. The camp could have accommodated a few men at most, with beds made of tautly woven reeds, built on top of each other like bunk beds. The mosquito netting was ratted and torn. I felt an admiration for the VC: it took a lot of dedication to live in a place like that where you could hardly see the sun, where the air was dense enough to cut, and mosquitoes rose in clouds from the stagnant pools.

Odd bits of equipment and many documents were scattered around the camp. It appeared as though the guerrilla—assuming he had come through there—had been hurriedly searching for something. On the other hand, he might have strewn the stuff around to turn our attention from pursuing him. If that was his purpose, he had succeeded. The jungle looked even thicker ahead, and the ravine as dark as a cave. My aggressive spirit faded. I was not going any farther. Charlie would live to fight another day, or, if he had been badly wounded, would crawl into some thicket to die.

We started to sift through the documents, among which were a large number of notebooks with neat, numbered paragraphs written in them. They looked like operations orders, which led me to wonder if we had stumbled upon the headquarters of a small unit. I was about to congratulate myself for making a valuable intelligence find when one of my marines said, “Hey, lieutenant, look at this.”

It was a small packet of letters and photographs. One photo showed the VC wearing their motley uniforms and striking heroic poses; another showed one of the guerrillas among his family. There were also several wallet-sized pictures of girl friends or wives. The notes written in the corners of these were probably expressions of love and fidelity, and I wondered if the other side had a system, as we did, for notifying the families of casualties. I hoped so. I did not like to think of those women, dreaming of returns that could never be, waiting for letters that would never come, wondering at the lack of news, imagining a dozen reasons for it, all but the one they feared the most, and their growing dread as each long day without word darkened into longer night.

A small group of marines gathered and stared at the letters and photographs. I don’t know what they felt, but I was filled with conflicting emotions. What we had found gave to the enemy the humanity I wished to deny him. It was comforting to realize that the Viet Cong were flesh and blood instead of the mysterious wraiths I had thought them to be; but this same realization aroused an abiding sense of remorse. These were men we had helped to kill, men whose deaths would afflict other people with irrevocable loss. None of the others said anything, but later, back at base camp, PFC Lockhart expressed what may have been a collective emotion. “They’re young men,” he told me. “They’re just like us, lieutenant. It’s always the young men who die.”

From the Book A RUMOR OF WAR by Philip Caputo,
Copyright ©1977, 1996 by Philip Caputo. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

 

 

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