Ambush

By Craig Johnson

Shit, it was still raining.  I was so tired of it.  My squad, the Platoon, had been together now for nearly half a year.  We resembled a single organism in many ways.  One of the ways was that the same things weighed on us emotionally at pretty much the same time.  Emotions became contagious.  Social energy, which went undetected “in the World,” really was felt out here by everybody.  I was tired of the rain.  My squad was tired of the rain.  I was tired of being wet all the time.  My squad was too.  The stuff like immersion foot and jungle rot that happens to a human body when it is wet all of the time became secondary to just being wet.

We had walked all day in the rain.  My squad had walked point.  Seabaugh and I traded cutting through the bush.  By the way, puss comes with a rainy, damp environment.  Both Seabaugh and I had pockets of puss, gook sores, all up and down our forearms.  But it was the rain, really, that was dampening.  But we were getting close to calling it a day.

The map showed one stream to cross.  Then we must mount a steep hill to join the Company.  Seabaugh and I looked at the map’s lines of graduation that showed steepness; we wanted a place that was less steep.  There was nothing along this creek cut that wasn’t 15-18 feet or more.  Oh well, a stream crossing and a hill to hump – we could do that.

Our packs were nearly empty anyway.  The Company was cutting an LZ on top of that hill we had to top as we stood looking at this map; then there would be a resupply.  Ten or fifteen minutes later, we came to the stream.  I looked down at the cut and the water.  Fast flowing water was not the norm in Vietnam.  This water was moving right along.  I went to the edge of the cut letting my heels dig into the crappy clay soil that characterized this part of Nam and slid into the water.  I just kept going in.  Crap, my pack was going to fill!  My feet hit bottom with my armpits just out of the water.  I had maintained my balance pretty well.  I didn’t think I had got any water in my M-16.  Everything in my pack was soaked.  It took about eight steps for me to cross to the other side.  Now the cut was significant, going straight up for a good 20 feet.  Shit, what a climb!

I clambered out grabbing a vine to haul myself up the nearly vertical clay bank.  My soles were already struggling for a hold in the mud clay.  I left the water, but there was no flat space for Seabaugh and me to sync up.  I kept going, knowing that he was right behind me.  The rest of the Platoon was back there someplace.  Up I went.  Often on such a climb, my boot would find a root just barely buried under the clay.  As my sole would search for a hold, I would find a buried root riding it like a rail right back into the guys behind me.  If that happened this climb I would not only take out most of my squad, I would end up submerged in that stream just below me.  That thought was on my mind.  I never looked up.  I was very focused on my next move.  Seabaugh’s focus was equally fixed.

Finally, I made it to the top.  There was nothing gradual in this contour.  When I topped out, the ground ran as close to a 90 degree angle as nature is likely to get.  Right there on the lip of the cut – right where I topped out – were footprints.  The prints were newly made.  They hadn’t even filled with rainwater yet.  Someone had stood right over me as I struggled up that cut.  Within thirty seconds, Seabaugh was at my side.  He looked down at the prints.  They were GI boot prints, but small – way small; ARVN perhaps, or one of our scouts from the Company.  We could hear the LZ being chopped out of the secondary growth that covered this flat hill.  Were these prints friendly?

Seabaugh thought so.  There was this tramped down area of grasses and small shrubs.  These guys had been watching a while.  Then there was a trail, newly cut, that ran right in the direction of the Company.  The cutting noise was so close, we knew we were almost there.  Maybe there’s hot food.  That happens sometimes.  Certainly there would be mail and a place to sling a hammock.  Seabaugh’s argument was presented mutely; no word was spoken.  Seabaugh headed for the trail.

I grabbed his arm.  Neither of us said anything.  We had made almost no sound even clambering up the hill.  However, our energy had changed: his and mine.  He wanted to take the trail and be done with the whole day.  I was sympathetic, but I was not going to allow him to take that trail.  We had always made such decisions in concert.  This time, we were definitely not in concert.  He was pissed.  He pulled away from me attempting a step toward the trail, his arm flailing.  I pushed.  Down he went.  By this time, more of the Platoon had come up.

I had already made the major decision.  I was not walking point down that trail.  So would I continue to cut?  This was the only mission I had been on in which we had a dog team.  This was not a tracking dog.  The dog, a big shepherd, was trained to walk point.  I called for the dog and his handler.  Seabaugh had disappeared.  He was pouting.

If it had taken too long for the dog and handler to make it up the bank, my decision to use the dog team to walk point would not have held.  It was just a simple walk of five minutes.  Everyone wanted to get to the LZ.  If Wright had said “Take the trail,” I would have told him to walk it himself.  I would be his second.  But it didn’t come to that.  (There had been one or two other times when it had come to that … and Wright walked point: a fact that he beats me up with every time he breaks out the scotch bottle now.)

The dog handler came up.  I pointed to the trail.  Seabaugh was still nowhere to be found.  The guy behind Seabaugh who would take Seabaugh’s role was brand new just in from the Big Red One.  He was an absolute unknown.  For that matter, so were the dog and his handler.  We headed out.  Dog, handler, me, and the kid from the Red One.  If there was going to be a problem between here and the Company, the four of us would be those exposed.  There would be no one else involved.  From the moment we entered that trail, we would be swallowed up. Still, no one had said a word.

The handler bent down picking a leech out of his dog’s nose.  That done, he gave the hand gesture for his dog to head out.  The leashed dog started out.  It was the dog’s show, the dog and his handler.  As I said, I had never used a dog team before.  I really don’t know what happened next.  All I know was the dog went down in a hail of BAR rounds (damn things make an unmistakable sound… particularly as close as we were).  The handler went down about the same time.  I didn’t spend a lot of time sightseeing, but I could see by the damage that the dog was dead.  I hit the deck.  Someone was throwing hand-grenades at me, one right after the other.  My weapon was on the ground next to my ear where I had dropped it.  I tucked my chin.  My hands pulled my helmet over my face.  My face was bleeding.  I couldn’t figure out whether I was hit anywhere else.  Where the fuck is Seabaugh?

It turned out it was Seabaugh who saved my ass.  The kid from the Red One had frozen.  Seabaugh had led the charge – classic stuff.  Big Mike came up with his M-60 pouring rounds down range.  It was over.  My God.  I nearly cried.  But the kid that had the dog – what about him?  I half crawled to him tearing open his shirt.  Big as life, a sucking chest wound.  The good news was that I could identify the bubbles of blood coming from the kid’s chest.  Ergo, he was breathing.  The bad news was that he was hit bad: one through the lung, one in the gut, two more – one on each side just missing heart and lungs.

As I write this, I realize that I can’t compress my narrative enough.  Big Mike had not gone through his 100 round belt by the time I made it to the handler.  He called for me to direct him.  I pointed in the direction of the BAR.  Mike moved to stand right over the kid and me, pouring lead out.  He had not let off the trigger for the entire belt.  Hot shell casing came raining down on the two of us – the handler and I – falling into the kid’s open shirt.  I pushed Mike away.  And then quiet.  Quiet.

Quietly was how we started, to absolute craziness with grenades exploding and a cacophony of weapons firing, to …. quiet.  Again, words fail.  I had produced none of the sounds of the conflict.  My weapon had jammed.  It wouldn’t have matter.  I was too intent on being small; I could not have gotten any smaller.  Doc knelt next to me.  Adrenaline began to pulse as I helped roll the handler onto his side so we could locate the exit hole to find and plug the back, enabling some breath.  God, I do love adrenaline.

A guard was set.  Bamboo was cut.  A poncho stretcher was fashioned.  I realize now that even caring for the severely wounded was routine.  The little toothpaste vials of morphine were pinned into the handler’s shirt collar.  Pressure bandages were in place.  The handler was awake breathing with labor.  No one spoke.  It was routine.  I now marvel that this process could be routine.

We slung the dog on a pole like a returning Raj would sling his trophy tiger.  This arrangement took some conversation.  Someone wiped the blood from my face.  Seabaugh, sheepish now, came back to walk second.  Now we took the trail into the LZ.  (Seabaugh is still sheepish about this event 45 years later.)

I took us into the LZ with Seabaugh, my constant benefactor particularly today, walking second.  For a brief moment, we had not been one organism.  Our brotherhood had broken.  I knew we were now restored.

My story is not quite over.  The walk took perhaps five minutes.  I was not worried about being ambushed again.  However, as I approached the LZ clearing, I felt this strange, alien energy.  I had to turn a corner around some thick shrubs to get into the clearing.  There stood a Lieutenant Colonel.  He was attempting to maintain composure, but it was clear he was one very frightened man.

He even had his rank displayed, which was not very smart – truly.  I had never seen a field grade officer in the bush.  I pulled out of the line of movement.  Blood had begun seeping into my eyes.  I needed to get to my towel.  The Colonel was the source of the energy on the trail back there.  He was so frightened.  This guy had the juice to call a chopper to get his ass out of this madhouse.  He didn’t.  I can imagine that he stood with some other officers from Headquarters during the noise of the attack.  It was a mad minute – crazy time.  By the time I walked into the clearing, all he saw was some grunt with a face full of blood closing in on him.  Then the slung dog came in.  There were two other dog teams right at that spot in the clearing.  Those dogs went nuts when they saw the dog carcass.  The dogs snarled and drove at the dead animal.  Then the handler was carried in with our Doc still working on him as he was carried.  We must have been a very disconcerting sight.  The Lieutenant Colonel stayed to do a Mass and a Protestant ceremony in the next few hours.  I was a Catholic that day.  The Colonel’s Mass actually made the Stars and Stripes with pictures and three columns of description.  Movie star or not, this man stood his ground.

About 7-8 days later, I received a letter – well, a quickly scrawled note on a legal sheet of yellow lined paper.  I didn’t need to see the handwriting.  I knew it was from my closest friend in college.  He was doing graduate work, getting his PhD.  All the note said was, “Are you alright?”  If it hadn’t been raining, I would still have that yellow legal sheet with his three words on it.  How did he know 25 or 26 hours away that I just had a major brush with the ultimate human moment?

It is interesting to have the perspective of 44 years to look back on.  Two years ago, I was in an auto accident.  A not very alert young lady struck me going 65 miles an hour while I was at a dead stop waiting to merge onto another freeway.  A year later I was still dealing with a back problem as a result of this collision.  An MRI was ordered.  For an MRI, the fundamental question is, “Do you have any metal in you?”  “No,” I answered.  The technician began the procedure.  Within 10 seconds a buzzer went off.  The table stopped its roll through the doughnut.  I was taken off the table. I was told that I, indeed, did have metal in my leg.  Within an hour, I was given a CAT scan.  Two weeks later, Bonnie and I were shown the results.  As we looked at the screen showing bone and marrow, muscle and tendon, the physician consulting with us said, “Now watch this.  There is a piece of metal in your thigh.  It will come up on the screen right about now.  It is not subtle.”  And there it was.  The clarity was amazing.  There was a beautifully outlined 30-06 or 7.62 round – something of that size.  It was either an AK round or a BAR round.  It might have been a large piece of shrapnel.  It was hard to tell.  I am betting that it was a BAR round that bounced into me during this ambush.  Considering my pants never came off for 30 days or so unless I was relieving myself, the improbability of not knowing I had taken a round becomes probable.  There it was on the screen.  Undeniable.  It is slowly working its way out.  One day, I might have a more definitive answer: BAR, AK or hand grenade?  Yet somehow, it really doesn’t matter.

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