One Day in a Life by writerwannabe
“Target, three-zero-zero, two-four-five degrees.” The tinny voice whispered in my earplug. A second later, I heard Echo Two, Corporal Mike Williams, respond, “Roger.”
I looked to my left and quickly spotted the column of North Vietnamese Army soldiers. I was Echo Three and I relayed confirmation that I’d sighted the unit to our team leader, Staff Sergeant Juan Perez.
He came right back with another message, “Wait. Echo One, out.”
The tree in which I was concealed overlooked a vista of elephant grass, weighted down with the ever falling rain, sluggishly waving in the stiff, early morning wind. I was cold. I couldn’t stop myself from shivering and that was not good. I was also sick of this **** rain. I’d been in country almost three months and not a single day had gone by that it hadn’t rained at least part of the time.
Eighty-four days, thirty-six missions, twenty-eight confirmed kills. I kept count.
“Echo Three, Papa Oscar, middle. Echo Two, Charlie Oscar, front. Acknowledge.”
I pulled my XM21 tight against my shoulder and looked through the scope. Identifying an officer in the NVA was no easy task. They wore identical tan or green uniforms as their soldiers; and their rank insignia, if they wore anything at all was hard to see at a distance.
There were some things, though, that gave the officers away. Firstly, most of them carried pistols instead of rifles, although many carried both. Secondly, you could usually identify them from their position in the column or their actions during a break or in an encampment; and thirdly, the soldiers seemed to always leave plenty of space between them and their officers.
That’s how I found my political officer. He was walking off to the side of the column about midway from the front. He wore only a pistol and was walking with his hands behind his back.
There’s a fourth identifier; they all exuded arrogance. I know, how the hell could I tell arrogance from a distance? I can’t tell you, but I recognized it when I saw it and I was never wrong. Secretly, I figured they all went to some kind of school and learned how to be arrogant **** but, what their school didn’t teach them was - how to hide it. Standing still, walking, sitting – it didn’t matter, they always looked like **** and, I’d yet to see a political officer that didn’t spend a good deal of his time with his hands clasped behind his back. I had no problem spotting the guy, but I was going to have a helluva problem shooting him. I couldn’t stop shivering.
“Echo Two, ready.”
****. Perez would be waiting for my confirmation that I’d locked on target. Both of them would be waiting. We fired together. It was harder for the enemy to determine our location and its “surprise” effect was greater.
“Negative.” I couldn’t tell him anything else. I was shaking so badly that I wasn’t going to be able to hit the broad side of a **** barn at fifty meters, much less a five foot-three, skinny political officer at three hundred!
Staff Sergeant Perez was a great team leader. A great sniper. He had infinite patience, especially with me, the F.N.G. He treated me with respect from day one, even though I obviously, as the **** new guy, didn’t know my **** from a hole in the ground.
The only thing I was good at was shooting. He acknowledged that and went to work making me good at the **** load of other things I would need in order to survive thirteen months of hell.
I hated to let him down, let the team down; but, I was not going to be able hit my target. “Echo One, Echo Three. Can’t lock on, shaking too bad.”
Silence. Ten long seconds passed. Juan Perez was no dummy and I was certain he needed no further explanation; he knew what my problem was and he was evaluating an alternate course of action. Finally his voice came through my earpiece, “Roger, Three. I’ve got PO. Break. Echo Two?”
Perez’s .50 Cal was the only weapon I heard. For one thing he was between me and Mike; and, for another, that thing he carried was a **** cannon compared to the modified 7.62 mm rifles Mike and I used. The .50 Cal had a range of well over a mile and was effective up to about three-quarters of a mile; at least in the hands of someone like Perez. It was modeled after the old .50 Caliber buffalo rifles that decimated America’s buffalo herds in the 1800’s and in the Nam, it was illegal as hell.
No big deal; we were illegal, too.
Our government, at the time, insisted that our Army did not employ snipers except as part of a regular Infantry or Armor unit. The USA did not do assassinations. Of course, I was never of the belief that “our government” really knew everything the CIA was doing. Those guys and gals back at the Farm had their own deck of cards and playing rules.
The problem with the .50 Cal was that it was a very slow moving bullet. Buffalo never knew what hit them. They’d hear the bang and heads would snap up. Nothing would happen and then, about the time they lowered their heads to graze again, one of them would simply fall over. Buffalo hunters, working their way from the outside of the herd inward and firing from almost a mile away would never create enough alarm to stampede the herd.
People, especially soldiers, would take cover the instant they heard the bang and if they were far enough away, their reflexes fast enough – they sometimes survived. At three hundred meters, though, they wouldn’t be able to take cover fast enough.
I kept my scope trained on the PO and, though still shivering, my sight picture wandering all over the target; I saw the hit. A .50 Cal bullet is a big, heavy slug. The PO was looking our way when the bullet hit him between the eyes. The entire upper half of his head disintegrated.
Instantly, I rolled left onto an adjacent limb putting my body behind the tree trunk. Not a second too soon. Thousands of bees invaded the trees we were in. I could hear the “pap-pap-pap” as bullets hit nearby tree trunks including the one I was hiding in; and the softer, but no less deadly sound of thousands of leaves stirred by the passing projectiles. The NVA soldiers didn’t know exactly where we were, but the forest opposite the elephant grass plain was the most obvious place for us to be and four hundred soldiers, all firing automatic weapons, can dispatch a helluva lot of stinging, deadly bees.
The barrage lasted only about fifteen seconds, or so; but, it seemed liked hours. We knew it would be coming and were prepared for it. We also knew that as soon as those soldiers fired up their magazines, the mortars would follow and we didn’t want to be there when that happened. Trees are scant protection against mortar rounds.
Hitting the ground, I turned and ran to the right just behind the tree line. Echo Two, Mike, would be going left. Staff Sergeant Perez, previously in the middle of our team could go either way and I wouldn’t know which until we rendezvoused at a predetermined location two kilometers behind our current position.
Escaping straight back into the forest was not an option. Expecting us to do just that, the NVA mortar men would start lobbing their rounds three to four hundred meters behind the edge of the tree line and work their back to the elephant grass plain. Running deeper into the woods, we would be running into the barrage.
I was hearing impaired, had been my whole life, I guess. I never knew it until I got to the Army Reception Station in San Antonio, Texas for my entry physical exam. It took me five times to pass the damn hearing test. On that all important fifth attempt, the medical sergeant told me it was now or never. I guess I must have given him a sad look or he knew my situation – something, because he said, “Look, I’ve already gone way past the limit - three. You don’t pass this time, I’ve got no choice but to send you back home.”
Failing the hearing test meant that I would be ineligible to join the Army and that meant back to the Corpus Christi county jail and a trial that would put me into the Huntsville State Penitentiary for three to five years.
I stepped into the hearing booth, set the headphones on my head and watched the Sergeant through the glass window. He spoke into a microphone, “Ready?” I signaled thumbs up. He leaned toward the glass and said, “Pay attention.” He blinked really slowly, gave me a long stare and said, “Got it? Pay attention.” I nodded. I thought I “had” it. I hoped I wasn’t imagining the sign he’d given me.
In the first four tests he’d always started with the lower tones, first the left ear and then the right. I had two buttons in my hands. I heard the first low decibel tone in my left ear and hit the button in my left hand. The sergeant closed his eyes. The tone stopped, the sergeant opened his eyes and I lifted my thumb off the button.
Yep, I’d “gotten it”. I wanted to kiss the guy. The only tricky part came when he got to the high tones, which I couldn’t hear, and they switched from the left to the right ear. It was only a split second, though, as the Sergeant gave me a quick eyes closed, head shake and I switched from left to right button.
I mention the hearing impairment because I didn’t hear the “krumpf” of the mortars as they left their firing tubes, nor did I hear the high pitched whine of the incoming eighty-eight millimeter rounds. No, I got the **** kicking, pee inducing blasts as teeth jarring surprises. Even though I knew they’d be coming the surprise of the explosions was breathtaking - literally.
The first exploded a couple of hundred meters to my right and then, in the space of about five seconds; ten more rounds went off ahead and behind me. I shifted my running to a higher gear. I had to get to the edge of the forest before those “surprises” started landing in my lap.
Obviously, I made it and when I got to the rendezvous point, Mike and Sergeant Perez were already there. With nothing more than a nod of acknowledgement to my survival, Sergeant Perez turned and began trotting down a small path in an adjoining forest. Mike and I followed. We had four clicks to go, the far side of this forest, to reach our designated LZ.
Sergeant Perez called in and while we waited for the chopper that would pick us up we surveyed the area around the small clearing. None of us saw anything amiss; no one was waiting in ambush. When we heard the “thwop, thwop, thwop” of the rotor blades, Mike popped a green smoke canister and threw it as far toward the middle of the clearing as he could. The smoke served two purposes. It indicated wind direction to the pilots and the color green told them that the LZ was “cold” or “clear”.
The chopper was still twenty feet above the ground when we broke cover and started running across the clearing, abreast with about five feet between each of us. I was in the middle. We had about seventy-five meters to cover and we were moving fast. Even though we hadn’t seen anything, or anyone to worry about; the sooner you got clear of an LZ, the better. We were still fifty meters away; the chopper was firmly on the ground, when the machine gun opened up.
You’ve seen the movies, watched lots of gun battles, I imagine. It was nothing like that. Oh, these days, with the high tech computer imaging and special effects guys holding PhD’s – gunfights appear realistic enough; but, until you’ve actually been in a firefight, really and truly been shot at – well, it’s a whole different thing.
I think it’s probably not so much a visual difference as it is trauma to the other senses like the hot, coppery smell of fresh blood and cordite. Your vision plays tricks on you, slowing things down and burning from the sweat running into your eyes. The sounds of bullets – both those that are buzzing by your ears and those that are impacting a body; it’s a very definitive smack / thump sound and, of course, the screams of those hit.
I had my fortune told when I was sixteen. Everything that woman told me has come to pass, everything, that is, except for the final pronouncement. Among her predictions, I was to be a hairs breadth away from death on “several occasions”. Now, almost forty years past that day in Nam, I can recall that this was the second of those near death experiences.
All of these brushes with death were inexplicable to others as to how I alone survived. This fateful, hot and humid day was especially hard to believe.
The North Vietnamese Army was outfitted, mostly, with Russian made weapons, bought by China and shipped south. The most common machine gun in their inventory was the RPD Light MG that fired 7.62 millimeter rounds at a rate of 650 rounds per minute. In a sweeping arc, this weapon will place a bullet every three-quarters of an inch.
We didn’t have time to “hit the ground” as we were taught, and most people will do instinctively. The bullet array hit Mike, to my left, first. I can still hear the three distinctive “thumps” as the bullets stitched across Mike’s chest. He wasn’t wearing a Flak jacket, none of us were – we never did.
I remember squenching my eyes closed in anticipation of burning death penetrating my chest, but instead heard Sergeant Perez scream as he was hit by three or four rounds and collapsed in the grass.
The rest was a blur. I stopped and tried to pull Mike and Sergeant Perez to the chopper. The helicopter pilot had lifted off the ground and his door gunner was engaging the enemy gunner.
The next thing I knew, one of the chopper crew was pulling me to the ship while two other’s picked up Mike and Sgt Perez.
A medic was working on Sgt Perez, but soon gave up. Both he and Mike were KIA. The medic turned his attention to me. He searched in vain for a wound. I had none. His eyes held disbelief, astonishment.
I don’t remember much after that. I fell asleep on the flight back to our base camp. Yeah, I did. Hard to believe? Maybe, but that’s the way things were.
What happened after we got back to camp is another story.
'One Day in a Life' statistics: (click to read)