Henri Huet, "A radio operator with
a unit of the Army's First Infantry Division, The Big Red One, 1966"
If I hadn’t
been in a military hospital in Japan at the time, I could have
been in it. The photo is of men in my brigade, the 3rd Brigade
of the First Air Cav Division, during the fighting in Bong Son
on the central coast of South Vietnam in early 1966. I had
been wounded in the Ia Drang campaign a few months earlier.
The men you see - sliding,
standing, trembling in a muddy trench - probably jumped out of
helicopters that day or a few days earlier in a clearing close
by. They would have run into bitter resistance immediately
from entrenched North Vietnamese soldiers who’d been living in
the area for a decade, many with their families. The place is
riddled with tunnels, trenches, bunkers, and old men, women
and children, some with the VC and NVA, some not. Makes for
horrible fighting. Sand, mud, jungle, clearings, machine guns,
hand grenades, napalm. Also, fighting among small clustered
villages, among civilians, accidentally killing women and
children. The sort of thing soldiers really loathe.
The enemy was extremely well
dug-in and the fighting was brutal. After the butchery in the
Ia Drang two months earlier (my company, for instance,
suffered 93 percent casualties) you can bet none of these guys
is eager to stick his neck out. Better to jump into a trench
and call in artillery. I'm guessing the guy with glasses
standing and peering out in the middle of the photo is an
officer, maybe the one calling in artillery on the radio
The guys are watching to see if
the explosions coming in do any good. You know they pray they
do, for none wants to leave that hole and run into the
clearing in front. Trenches and artillery are nice. You get a
break. You can collect your thoughts and begin to imagine you
may get out of this one without being killed or wounded.
My company, C 2/7, suffered 16
percent casualties, killed and wounded, during the two to
three weeks of fighting in Bong Son. And that was pretty
typical there. After 15-20 days, one or two out of every ten
guys, hit or dead. Look at the photo. That means one or two of
the guys you can clearly make out in the front of the photo
are probably going to be killed or wounded. Trust me, these
guys know this. Imagine what that does to their minds. That's
why they're in this trench. They don't want to get hit.
My guess from the clothing on
the men is that this is early in the operation. They’re too
clean. They have a couple of weeks left of sliding in and out
of trenches, creeping across sandy fields towards palm tree
breaks, hugging the ground so closely their bodies seem to
disappear into the dirt, and slowly, days at a time, blasting
and shooting small brown soldiers out of bunkers and holes in
the ground. A couple of weeks. Exposing your body to bullets
all the time. Mines and booby traps, too, that you can't see
in the churned up sandy soil and the matted jungle floor.
Praying you'll make it. Stomach churning. Stomach ache. Feel
like you want to throw up most of time. Never relaxed. Fear.
Whatever reasons you thought
you were over there fighting for - killing commies, saving the
South from invasion, pawn in the Cold War, whatever - none of
it matters any more. Fighting sweeps it right out of your
mind. These men are trying to survive till tomorrow. You fight
to stay alive and keep your buddy next to you alive. That’s
what it becomes once the bullets start to fly and smack into
gurgling, screaming friends. The world these men live in has
suddenly become very, very small and simple.
Stay alive. That's what these
guys are doing, trembling and nervously waiting in that muddy
trench. It's war. And it's frightening.
Award-winning former ABC
News Correspondent Jack Smith is now a media consultant and
freelance journalist. He served in Vietnam with the First
Cavalry Division's 2/7th in the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, and
has done extensive reporting and speaking on the war and its
aftermath. Photo by Henri Huet. Museum quality prints of this
photo and others in a series entitled "Under Fire: Images From
Vietnam" are available for purchase from
www.pieceuniquegallery.com This is the second in a series
initiated by combat journalist Catherine Leroy.