The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2002
 
   
 

Stay Alive

BY JACK SMITH



Henri Huet, "A radio operator with a unit of the Army's First Infantry Division, The Big Red One, 1966" ©Henri Huet/AP

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 behind him.

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. Always 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.

   

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