HERMAN EDWARD SEISER - REMEMBRANCE
Herman Edward Seiser is a former journalist who worked for United Press International and several newspapers in the United States as a reporter and editor. He also worked for a newspaper in the former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in the late 1970s. While there he did some free-lance work for The Associated Press before he was expelled from the country. He later taught English at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Seiser, now retired, had served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam from 1967-1968.
He stared out an airliner's cabin window. Fingertips momentarily touched service ribbons pinned above his coat's breast pocket. A swollen foot and ankle throbbed. A tender scar on his back itched under a worsted khaki shirt. Minutes later, the plane landed on a snow-covered runway.
The cabin was empty when he put on his overseas cap with one hand and eased from his seat, a cane in hand. At the exit he watched the pilot and co-pilot turn off switches, unbuckle shoulder harnesses. Mike Snyder didn't want to be back in Ohio, but he had nowhere else to go. He hobbled forward, using the cane, taking one step at a time down a long gangway.
A cold, mid-November gust greeted him. Snow flurries swirled. He shivered and shut his eyes, recalling it was warm in Vietnam this time of year.
No bands played when he stepped onto the runway apron. No welcoming banners unfurled from the Akron-Canton Airport terminal’s roof. The runway area was nearly empty, except for baggage handlers unloading the plane's cargo bay.
Squinting, Mike gazed around a garishly lighted gate area and saw his parents at the rear of a small crowd. His father, hollow-eyed and haggard-looking, stood beside a pillar with a felt-brimmed hat in hand. His mother, wearing a high-collared, fake-fur coat, nervously rubbed her gloved hands together. She moved toward Mike as the crowd thinned. She stopped inches away, leaned forward to kiss him once on the cheek and take hold of his left hand. Mike’s right hand gripped his cane.
“Oh son, oh son,” she exclaimed, “you’re home at last. You, umm, look pretty good.” Mike didn’t smile.
“I’m, ah, okay.” His entire left side felt like it had been dragged over crushed rocks.
He watched his mother’s small mouth with thin, pink lips wash over the words: “Everything’s the same back home. I cleaned your room and put everything back for you, just like it was. We’ll all be back to normal in no time at all.” Mike gritted his teeth as he freed himself from his mother’s grasp to greet his father.
“You’re a sergeant now,” said his father, placing a hand on Mike’s arm. “You didn’t tell us.”
“Sure, ah, I told you. Maybe it was in a letter you never got.” Mike rarely wrote his parents from Vietnam. He didn’t want to tell them anything about the war. He had wondered if they ever cared about what was happening in Vietnam. They’d rarely written him, and when they did the letters’ contents could fit on a postcard. And they had written only twice when he was hospitalized in San Diego and called only once.
“Son, we can stop to eat somewhere if you’re real hungry.” His mother, at the wheel, keyed the ignition. “But there’s plenty of food at home.” Mike wanted to say he was filthy and exhausted, but didn’t.
“Let me just rest in the back seat here. I’ll eat something when I get to the house, okay?” He loosened his web belt and tie. Soreness in his back and shoulder, foot and ankle eased some. He was off his feet.
Mike’s ride home to a wood-frame house near downtown Canton was much like other trips with his parents before he went off to the Marines at nineteen. They hardly spoke to each other then. And it wasn’t any different now.
Nearing downtown, his mother turned on Tuscarawas Street then went right on Clarendon Avenue. Out the car’s side window Mike gazed at dark soot belching into a cloudy sky from steel-mill smokestacks in the distance. The graying city looked much the same, grimy and dirty. Pain suddenly shot through his foot and ankle as he moved his leg. His back felt like someone had just punched it with a fireplace poker.
Mike shuffled along, dragging his seabag across the living-room carpet and down a hallway. He headed toward the bedroom of his youth at the back of the house. His mother already was in the kitchen. “We’ll have coffee and pie in just a few minutes,” she said. “You go ahead and change. I left out an old pair of jeans and a sweatshirt for you.”
“Ah, okay,” Mike said from inside his room. He was angry, bitter. He wanted his parents to acknowledge what he had been through in Vietnam. The deaths he caused, the deaths he
witnessed, the mangled bodies of his squad at Hue. Other dead Marines, the dead Vietnamese. His wounds.
“Son, that uniform you have on. It looks so nice,” his mother said from the living room. “I’ll take it to the cleaners for you. You should wear it.” Mike came out into the hallway.
“Mom, I’m outta the Corps now. I’m finished with the military. Understand? Take it to the damn cleaners if you want. I don’t care.” He stepped back into the bedroom and slammed shut the door. He took off the uniform, balled it up and threw it in a corner.
He changed into jeans and, one arm at a time and over his head, carefully tugged on the Kent State University sweatshirt his mother had left out for him. He had attended the university before joining the Marines. He left at the start of his sophomore year, hitchhiked to Canton and went to the downtown Marine Corps recruiting station to enlist. Then he hitchhiked home and told his parents, who angrily said he was throwing away his life. He said he wanted to go to Vietnam. His mother and father had asked, “Where's that?”
Mike looked at his reflection in a mirror. Peering closer, he noticed bloodshot blue eyes and red eyelids. The skin on his forehead, nose and neck was pitted with dirt, the red clay of Vietnam. He looked at his scalp’s reflection. Whatever brown hair he had before Vietnam, even with a “high-and-tight” Marine Corps haircut, was gone for good now. He turned off the room's light and slowly maneuvered with his cane across the living room to see his father slurping coffee at the dining table. A half-eaten slice of pie was in front of him.
“Sit down, son,” his father said. “And please try to watch your language around your mother, okay? I overheard what you told her.”
“Yeah, okay,” Mike said. He pursed his lips, clenched his teeth. He wanted to shout but held back. He hung his cane from the back of a chair.
“Anyway, this apple pie your mother made for you is your favorite.”
“I’ll just have, ah, some coffee right now,” Mike said calmly. “I’ll eat something later. I wanna get cleaned up first.” He pushed aside a large slice of steaming apple pie.
His father looked at a nearly empty cup. “So, any plans now that your home?”
Mike stared at his father a few seconds then sipped some coffee. “Give me some space, okay, some time. Just got here today. I need to think about things.” Mike began perspiring. “God, it’s hot in here. You got the heat turned up?”
“You sit tight and get started on your coffee,” his father said, picking up his now empty cup. “I’ll check the thermostat.”
“Oh, it’s probably the heat from the stove.” Mike’s mother stayed in the kitchen moving pots and pans, jars and bowls. She was making another pie and stopping every few minutes to check a pot roast in the oven.
His father returned with a fresh cup of coffee. “Son, I turned down the heat. And you’re right, you need some time. I'll try my best not to bother you.”
Mike pushed back from the dining table. He shoved trembling hands into his front pockets. “Yeah, maybe it’s jet lag, or something. Hey, I’m gonna take a bath now. Then maybe try to catch some sleep before dinner.” He picked up his cane.
Mike paused near the threshold of his room. He saw the uniform: coat, trousers, shirt and tie on hangers, on the door knob. His mother had put it there. Mike grabbed the hangers and haphazardly hung the Marine Corps green outfit in the back of his closet behind some old clothes. About to shut the door, he reached into the coat’s lower-left pocket, touched two medals: a Purple
Heart, a Silver Star. He stepped back and closed the door. He didn’t want to see that uniform when he woke up.
Stripping in front of the bathroom mirror he saw a tanned face, neck and forearms. The rest of his body was a dull white, still pockmarked with dirt despite all the hospital-bed sponge baths. He raised his arms, his left only slightly, and looked at his armpits, saw a few hairs and more imbedded dirt. He stepped on a scale. The marker went back and forth, settled on 140. “Jesus!” His upper body appeared emaciated, without muscular definition. He touched the puncture wound where a sniper’s round entered. He turned to his side, saw for the first time a reflection of the long scar on his upper back where the round exited, leaving behind only torn musculature still painfully healing. Then he twisted his neck, pulled in his shoulder and looked down at his reflection. “Christ, I ain’t got no ass.”
Soaking in lukewarm, soapy water left behind a gray film on the bottom of the tub. Mike quickly scoured it clean, refilled the tub and sat there for another twenty minutes. After scouring the tub again and drying off, he went to bed, pulling a blanket up to his neck. He was drained, exhausted.
Mike woke up, startled by a knock on his bedroom door. “Dinner’s ready. Come on, son,” his mother announced. He was pissed. He glanced at an alarm clock. He’d been asleep about fifteen minutes.
The roadside tavern’s garish neon lights proclaimed ten brands of beer. Trucks and a few not-so sleek, large fin-tailed autos were parked in front of the Blue Bell Bar. Old-timers called it the Triple-B or the Three-Bees, while the younger, shit-kicking crowd referred to it as the Blue Ball Buster. The bar, about three blocks down Schroyer Avenue from the vast Republic Steel Works, was on the edge of downtown Canton. The plant was where Mike’s father worked as the Steelworkers Union Local shop steward, a promotion after twenty years of pouring molten steel from huge blast furnaces into iron ingots.
Mike pulled his father’s Chrysler between two rusty, ramshackle pickups. It was chilly outside. He tossed his cane to the back seat and slipped on a well-worn, black-leather jacket over the Kent State sweatshirt he’d worn at dinner. Before he left the house he’d wanted to tell his parents about the weeks of painful recuperation spent at naval hospitals in Japan and in San Diego. But after a dinner where no one spoke a word, his mother had quickly washed the dishes and went to her bedroom and shut the door. His father had grabbed a bottle of beer from the refrigerator and sat down in his easy chair in front of a console television set to watch an early evening game show. Mike went to his room and rummaged in his closet to find the leather jacket. In the kitchen he found the house and car keys hanging on a hook near the gas stove. He tossed them up in the air a couple times. “Hey pops, can I use the car to get outta here for a while?”
“Ah, no, I don’t mind.” It was the first words from his father since shortly before dinner. “Be home early. Drive safely.” Mike shook his head. His parents seemed mired in the dull, do-nothing days and the boring, don’t-say-a-word-about-anything nights of the '50s.
“Okay,” said Mike, wondering if his father had any further instructions. “Well, see ya.” He pocketed the keys, picked up his cane and left.
Stepping through the bar’s front door, he was assaulted by a blast of stale beer, body odor, cigarette smoke, cheap perfume, country music and raucous voices. His eyes squinted against the smoke. Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” blared from a juke box in a corner. Mike sat on a stool at one end of a dark-stained, wooden horseshoe bar and ordered a shot of Jack Daniels and a mug of Budweiser draft. Into the beer he poured the shot, a boilermaker. After the first gulp, he shook his head. He hadn’t had a drink since, when was it? He couldn’t remember.
People near him were shouting. Cue balls exploded on a pool table. Mike tried to tune out the noise with more boilermaker gulps. He ordered another while fumbling for matches and a pack of cigarettes, Lucky Strikes, the brand he started smoking in boot camp. He took a couple quick puffs before the juke box went dead. The crowd, as if on command, moved in unison toward the bar. Suspended over beer mugs and whiskey bottles a color television set came to life. Walter Cronkite’s mustache twitched out of focus, his face shaded pink and green and blue, the suit coat chartreuse.
“In South Vietnam today,” Cronkite announced, “a military spokesman said several companies of Marines and Army Rangers captured a hill in a bloody fight near the old imperial city of Hue. The spokesman said that 351 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed –– ”
A loud cheer rose up from the crowd around the bar. Someone yelled: “Kill the bastards. Way to go.” Then a woman screamed: “Kick ass.”
“Only twelve Marines and seven Rangers were reported killed in action,” Cronkite continued. “There were 39 Marines and Rangers reported wounded.”
It was surreal, Mike thought. Technicolor war sponsored by the Ford Motor Company transmitted on a broadcast signal to your favorite neighborhood saloon. He felt sick but managed to take a last gulp and stomp out a cigarette before he pushed his way through the crowd and headed for the door.
Outside, frigid air hit him. He gasped as he bent over to grab the top of the Chrysler’s rear bumper with his right hand. He spread his legs and vomited, expelling the undigested remains of dinner. His stomach tightened, dry heaves overcame him. He spit out bits of partially digested food particles. There was a bitter, sour taste in his mouth. Mike limped back into the bar and headed to the men’s room near the front door. He washed out his mouth and splashed his face with cold water. His whole body ached. A pain shot through his ankle; back and shoulder muscles tightened.
In the parking lot, standing by the Chrysler, he gazed skyward at the stars and found the constellation Orion, the archer. “I ain’t no murderer,” he shouted.
Mike raided his father’s liquor cabinet. He mixed a little orange juice into a tall glass nearly full of vodka. On the back porch he sipped the drink and lit a cigarette. But he quickly tossed it into the neighbor’s yard before finishing the Screwdriver.
He went to the garage and carried out a half-filled can of gasoline used for the lawnmower. He set the can in the middle of the back yard. Inside his bedroom, Mike grabbed from his boyhood closet the Marine uniform on hangars and opened his seabag, pulling out a pair of spit-shined shoes and the Marine “dress blue” uniform he’d received as the top graduate of his Parris Island boot camp platoon.
In the backyard brick fireplace, uniforms blazed. Coats; trousers; sergeant-striped shirts; web belts; garrison, dress, overseas caps; black shoes; and khaki ties burned in a heap, melting a layer of snow. Flames easily consumed the Silver Star ribbon, the Purple Heart ribbon and medal, then the Vietnamese Campaign, Vietnamese Service, Presidential Unit Citation and Good Conduct ribbons and medals and a shooting badge.
The Silver Star medal was next to be thrown on the pyre. That bit of silver-nickel-tin alloy and colored cloth was the final connection to Tony, Rocco and the rest of his Delta Company squad. Mike palmed the medal once more and then underhand, tossed it on top of the flaming pile of clothes. Its cloth blackened, its star twisted, glowed for a few seconds before it melted and fizzled into a blackened glob. Rising golden-orange embers danced in chilled night air.
Mike pulled out more from his seabag. On the living-room floor were civilian clothes: two very wrinkled and sweat-stained short-sleeve dress shirts, white and blue, and a pair of moldy and smelly blue jeans. There also were a few sets of Marine Corps green underwear and T-shirts, black boot socks and a pair of scuffed and scratched Marine dress shoes. He threw the underwear, socks, shoes and civilian clothes on the still smoldering pile in the backyard fireplace. He poured on more gasoline and tossed in a match. Mike jumped back. He rubbed his hands together for warmth and stared at orange-blue flames.
Inside the house he checked the seabag once more. He turned it upside down and shook it vigorously. A towel covered with sticky, gray-green mold and mildew dropped to the floor. And did it smell. It was rolled up tightly with a long strand of black wire wrapped around it several times and tied in a knot. Mike got a pair of scissors from his mother’s sewing cabinet and cut the wire, unfurled the towel, exposing more of its discolored whiteness. Across its center was scripted
in faint, blue letters: Oceanside Beach CALIFORNIA. It was Tony’s, who’d shared it with Rocco and Mike during their last liberty together at the beach before they shipped out to Vietnam.
Encased in the towel’s final fold was a flattened wad of plastic sheeting. Inside that he discovered a folded piece of heavy, light-gray paper, about a foot-and-a-half long and a foot wide. Mike turned it over. “Oh, Jesus.”
It was a series of sketches done in pencil on grade-school construction paper. All nine of Mike’s Delta Company squad, only their head and shoulders, were depicted. In the bottom right-hand corner were the initials A.E.S. Antonio Emiliano Sanchez.
Mike sobbed as he sat down in his father’s easy chair and popped out its leg rest. He held the now-sacred memento on his lap. None of the images smiled. They all looked as if they knew something was about to happen. Mike’s image at the top was the largest. The other eight bordered the sides and bottom of the paper in a rough semicircle. He wiped spent tears from his cheeks and sniffled. His right hand moved across the drawing. In no particular order his fingers softly touched each illustration.
Moments later, Mike peered out the front window. Light from a street lamp at the corner flickered. A slow-moving dump truck passed by, spewing a mixture of sand, rock salt and ashes down the middle of Clarendon Avenue. He glanced at the kitchen clock and realized the day-shift whistles at the steel mills soon would sound. A gray and bleak early winter cloud bank was spreading over Canton.
He placed the sketch on a side table and grabbed his jacket and cigarettes. He went out back and turned on the patio light. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. Life and death in a blackened ash pile smoldered under a thin layer of new snow. After taking a long drag, he tossed the glowing butt in the direction of the fireplace.
Back in the house he kicked off his shoes and let his jacket fall to the floor. Mike picked up the sketch and dropped back into the easy chair. The images of T.J., Rocco and Tony were next to each other, directly beneath his portrait.
After a confusing, deadly firefight outside DaNang Mike had hugged T.J., so relieved he’d survived in one piece. “You gonna kiss me, motherfucker?” T.J. looked dead serious. “What’s all the hoes in Motown gonna say when they hears about this?” But T.J. planted a wet kiss on Mike’s cheek. “God almighty, I’s happy as shit to see your lily-white ass, my brother.”
There was another near-fatal moment Mike vividly recalled. It would have spiraled out of control if it hadn’t been for Tony and Thomas Jefferson Walker.
It was Christmas Day 1967. Mike was brushing his teeth inside a barracks tent at Division Headquarter’s base camp at PhuBai. Around cots was the rest of his Delta Company squad. T.J. was spinning a record at low volume on his battery-powered 45-rpm record player. He was snapping his fingers to Diana Ross and The Supremes. Tony, Rocco and the others dozed, read paperbacks, wrote letters home or cleaned their weapons and gear. Mike wanted to get back to a Graham Greene novel he was reading, or sleep. Less than an hour before the squad had returned
from an uneventful night on perimeter duty.
After a search-and-destroy mission two weeks earlier, Mike had obtained authorization to transfer two privates caught smoking dope on patrol. Today, they burst into the squad’s tent. T.J. stopped the record player.
The pair’s M-14 rifles, safeties off, were aimed at Mike’s chest. Rocco grabbed his M-60 machine gun, slapped in a 100-round bandolier, aimed it at the two. At the same time, Tony, T.J. and six others picked up rifles and pistols. Magazines were snapped in, safeties switched off.
“What’s y'all splibs doin’?” T.J. waved his M-14 at the intruders.
“Fuck, T.J., stay out of it!” Mike was in the middle, a frothy toothbrush still in hand. Rocco moved to Mike’s back. But T.J. and Tony scooted in front of Mike and stared at the two.
One intruder stepped around T.J. and shouted at Mike: “Yur ass’s mine, honky.”
“Who you callin’ a honky?” T.J. swung his rifle butt into the chin of the intruder closest to him. In an instant Tony slammed the other one to the floor, disarming him. T.J. kicked both of them in the ribs and shouted: “Now, who’s the fuckin’ honky?” He turned around to Mike. “Yous gotta knows how-tah handle these here low-class muthafuckers.” He smiled at Tony.
Rocco, T.J. and Tony marched the two to a battalion provost office where they were placed under arrest. On their return to the tent, Mike told them and the rest of his squad that “I shoulda got rid of those goldbrickers a long time ago. They ain’t never pulled their own weight.”
Tony slapped T.J. on the back and laughed. “You muy loco, Motown man. You got huevos muy grande.”
“What’s that shit you sayin’, little Mexican?” T.J. started up his record player again. It was Billie Holiday singing “Them There Eyes”.
“You one crazy guy with very big balls,” Tony said.
“You got that right, bro’.” T.J. rubbed the top of Tony’s head. “Damn straight on that one. But whats about you, little wetback bro'? Yous fucking crazy yousself. Ya knows, I coulda handled 'em both. Jus' fuckin' assholes.”
“Had to help ya, manito,” said Tony, smiling at T.J. “Wanted to make sure they were down and out. Didn't want anything to happen to Mike. He's almost a wetback himself, you know. He had to cross some river to get born in Ohio.”
“Hey,” Rocco yelled. “Merry fuckin’ Christmas.”
“Over dah fuckin’ side, jarheads,” a Navy boatswain’s mate shouted into a megaphone from a bobbing landing craft. “Grab dah fuckin’ net. Hold on. Hold on. WALK IT DOWN. WALK. IT. DOWN.”
Hundreds of Marines stood in five long lines, “asshole-to-belly button,” on the main deck of the USS Lenawee. They were awaiting their turn to swing over the side and “walk” down cargo nets into floating, bouncing-on-the-waves landing craft.
Each shouldered a nearly eleven-pound, loaded M-14 rifle, safeties on. Added to that was about twenty-five pounds of C-rations, underwear, socks, full canteens, a rolled-up poncho and a tent-half, a helmet, a flak jacket, 7.62 mm ammunition, grenades and a bayonet on their backs, on web-belt suspenders, strapped to their hips, stuffed in utility trouser cargo and jacket pockets.
“Good thing nobody’s shootin’ at us.” Rocco yelled from behind Mike, “or we’d all fall off dah fuckin’ net an’ break our fuckin’ necks.”
“Yeah, just like John Wayne storming the sands of Iwo Jima,” Mike cried out while smiling for a French television news crew. “Last one over the side’s a rotten fuckin’ swabbie.”
“Hey, wait for me, Cisco,” Tony hollered at Mike. “Pancho’s here to save your lily-white asses from the mean and nasty Cong.”
“Oh shit, the fuckin’ little wetback.” Rocco slapped Tony on the top of his helmet. “Keep your brown-ass hands off my white ass.” Tony reached up quickly, snatched a pack of cigarettes inside a water-proof container strapped to the side of Rocco’s helmet. With his other hand, he pushed Rocco into Mike. “Hey, brown ass, give 'em back to me!”
“I seen your ass,” Tony said. “You dagos are brown like us Mexican wetbacks, dragged through shit to get –– ”
“Hold it, hold it,” Mike said, laughing. “Will you two children get serious? Stop your grabassin'. We’re supposed to be Marines here.”
“Yes sir, Cisco.” Tony gave Mike a mock salute and tossed back the pack of cigarettes to Rocco after taking one.
“Let’s go, you kids.” Mike raised one leg over the ship’s railing, then the other, grasping with one hand then another, one step at a time “walking” down about thirty feet of rope netting into a nearly full LST. Rocco and Tony stepped into the landing ship transport moments later.
“Didn’t want ya to miss me, Ohio boy,” Rocco said to Mike. “Great ride on that boat. Great ride. Got a lotta sleep, and great chow on that cruise. Love those Navy chefs.”
“I especially enjoyed the beverages. All that wine and champagne served in our staterooms,” Mike said, huddled with Rocco and Tony on the craft’s port side.
A convoy of ten LSTs motored through a channel that cut through the breakwater and approached the small island of TanMy. LSTs crested the beachhead and dropped their ramps in staccato-like loud thuds. “MOVE IT. MOVE IT,” a coxswain screamed. “We gotta go back an’ get more of ya jarheads.”
Marines from Headquarters and Supply and Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta companies walked off the LSTs to get into formation. Ahead of them were a line of six-wheeled trucks, six-bys with canvas tops removed, that would carry them, their gear and weaponry to a new Marine base at PhuBai. It took about four hours to get the rest of the Battalion Landing Team with all its gear to the beachhead from the Lenawee and other ships.
Coming in on the ChiLang road the convoy rolled past several stone pagodas and an Indian mosque. It soon approached the southeast corner of the Royal Citadel.
“Fuckin’ beautiful,” Mike said, gazing at moss-covered stone structures hundreds of years old. Outdoor markets were busy satisfying the needs of daily shoppers looking for motor scooters, plastic pails and shoes, rice, dried fish, monkey meat, cooking oil and laundry detergent. Children wearing several wristwatches and bracelets on both arms were hawking the jewelry and soft drinks to milling crowds.
From the back of the six-bys came catcalls directed at strolling, young Vietnamese women. They were dressed in the traditional ao-dai – a body hugging, almost sheer, pastel long-sleeve, close-necked blouse and ankle-length, split-skirt combination over flowing black-silk slacks – and high-heeled shoes. “Gorgeous,” said Rocco, elbowing Mike as he pointed to two similarly attired women, each with long black hair walking arm-in-arm. Mike was smoking a cigarette, smiling at the view.
“Hey, got another one?” Tony asked.
“Yeah, sure.” Mike tapped out a Lucky Strike from a nearly full pack.
“Here, take one of mine, you little spic,” said Rocco. “Don’t take any from the boss.”
“Thanks, you little whop,” said Tony.
“What did I tell you kids? Behave, will ya?” Mike jokingly waved an index finger at Tony and Rocco. “And I bet neither of you little shits have any matches, let alone a lighter. Right?”
“Right, boss man,” said Rocco.
“Si, si Cisco,” Tony said.
“Okay, now take turns with my Zippo.”
The city of Hue passed by as the convoy turned south and started over the PhuXuan Bridge that traversed the Perfume River. An aggressive foul smell emanated from rotting fish carcasses and human waste floating by on the river’s surface. A slight ocean breeze helped dissipate rising odors and heavy heat and humidity. Crossing with the convoy were cyclo drivers and men and women on motorbikes, scooters and bicycles.
“What lovely freedom of motion and travel,” Mike said, “and we have to come along and fuck it all up. What the hell are we doin' here? I don't get it, man. Communists? Haven't seen one yet, and I don't see any here. Hell, I don't even know what they look like.”
The convoy crossed onto Route Number One that stretched north about 430 miles to Hanoi and some 645 miles south to Saigon. There were more street vendors selling rice and fish cooked over small charcoal fires on the side of the road. Children ran up to the slow-moving convoy. “Marine num-ba wahn! Marine num-ba wahn! Hershey bar! Hershey bar!” Some Marines tossed cigarettes. Cries of “Marine num-ba tehn! Marine num-ba tehn!” followed.
The dropping sun left its reflection on rice paddies outside PhuBai as the first trucks of the convoy reached the base’s main gate, south of Hue. A few hundred feet into the encampment the trucks rolled to a stop. Their passengers lined up in formation outside a mess hall.
Mike’s squad, among others, was ordered to stand perimeter duty in less than an hour. “I’m with ya man, all the way.” Rocco slapped Mike on the back and nodded to Tony. “Come on, little Pancho.”
“Hey Cisco, wait for Pancho!”
Mike initially had seen Tony only as a “little fuckin’ wetback” when he met him at Camp Pendleton in the late summer of 1966. He’d never said that to his face though. He’d recalled a warning from his father not to trust and always stay away from “them greasers, Negroes, Chinamen, spics an’ all those greedy Jews.” But during long sea voyages from San Diego to Okinawa, to the Philippines for maneuvers and then on board the USS Iwo Jima to the Mekong River Delta, he’d found he and Tony shared similar interests. The two would discuss novels Mike had read or was reading. Both loved to read. Tony had decided to major in English at California State College at Los Angeles before dropping out and joining the Marines.
Tony had sketched portraits of villagers, panoramic scenes of water buffalo trolling through rice paddies, Marines firing artillery pieces, Marines in foxholes and Marines dying. He’d make use of any scrap of paper he could find. Mike and Tony, with T.J. and Rocco close behind sweet-talking some Vietnamese women, once had cleaned out the DaNang Base Exchange of its supply of sketch pads, only nine or ten left at the time, and enough drawing pencils and ink pens to last at least a few months. Oil-based paints, watercolors and charcoal sticks were not available. Rocco and T.J. had scrounged around for cardboard mailing tubes so Tony could send his better sketches, the ones he hadn’t given away, back home to his mother in East Los Angeles.
Mike scratched his chin and noticed a peculiar odor coming from his hand. He brought the sketch close to his nose, sniffed it. There were scents of Vietnam’s dampness, its heat, its rot. He closed his eyes. He also smelled the stench of death.
At daybreak, Mike rolled up the sketch inside wax paper and found a rubber band to wrap around it. He placed it under his bed.
He walked back to the garage and found a shovel and an empty garbage can, into which he shoved the foul-smelling seabag and Oceanside beach towel. Mike shoveled the embers of the blackened mound of uniforms and medals from the fireplace into the can. He dragged it to the street in front of the house for the city’s sanitation workers to dispose of its contents.
Then Mike made a beeline to his bedroom. He shut the door and locked it before slipping off his shoes. Still fully dressed, he collapsed into bed. He was asleep before he could pull up a blanket. He had been awake nearly forty hours.
Three bodies. Blood covered.
A young Vietnamese woman’s naked body rises up and turns. Half her skull missing. A long, blood-caked knife falls from the back of her neck. With a hand she shoves her tubular intestines back into her abdominal cavity. She picks up her child who suckles her bloody breasts. Another woman, with blood-spattered, stringy gray hair, wipes blood from her lips and kisses a child’s pockmarked forehead.
His broken body streaked with blood.
Lower legs wrapped round and round with a belt-suspender strap. Blood drips from a hole in his back, from a smaller one in his chest.
Marines in top hats, white ties and tails sing: You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.
Lifted to the top of a tank’s fender. Into a med-evac chopper. Pilot, navigator and gunner belt out Walk Like A Man.
Off-loaded on to the deck of a hospital ship. Doctors and nurses dance around his hospital bed. The bleeding stops. Days pass.
Choppered to DaNang. Air-lifted to Japan for weeks of painful surgeries and rehabilitation. Geishas tend to every need. Feed him, bathe him and wipe his ass.
Air-lifted to California. A sunny naval hospital. Blinding light for weeks at a stretch. More dancing doctors and nurses. More pain, more surgeries. More painkillers. Dry mouth. Loose
bowels. A stinging catheter shoved into his penis. A nurse yanks it out.
No more pain.
Graham and Buttermore shake and jive in mid-air. Their body parts once shredded are sucked away into a vortex of gunfire.
Adams and Briggs march down a blood-spattered emerald road to the Land of Oz with a little girl and a wired-hair dog in their wake.
Miller roller-skates to the tune of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
An impaled T.J. at an Apollo Theater microphone croons I Heard It Through the Grapevine.
Rocco rises from a bloodied coffin and gasps for air. A large hole, the size of a pie pan, spreads across the middle of his chest. He steps from the coffin and instantly drops into a Cadillac convertible. The car blasts off from a 155-millimeter howitzer cannon headed for a billboard that announces: Welcome to the Promised Land.
Antonio Emiliano wearing a sombrero sits astride a white horse. He leads his men into battle up the Chalpautepec hill to the Halls of Montezuma. American Marine forces drop their weapons, welcome the conquering hero of Mexico City. General Sanchez is feted, praised and honored. He slips off his horse, walks to a park bench. A sketch pad rests atop an ornate desk in front of him. A watercolor set, pens and different colored inks appear. The general draws a por-trait of Michael Snyder. And then another, of the artist A.E.S. Antonio Emiliano picks it up.
“Vena aca.” Come over here, Sargento Mike. Mira aqui. Look here. Solo quedamos tu y yo. It’s you and me. Estamos juntos. We’re together, para siempre, forever.”
“What the hell?” Mike turned his head toward the bedroom window and opened his eyes. He yawned. The sheets and pillow case were soaked. He rolled over and sat up, dropping his feet to the floor. He whispered, “Tony?”
Mike looked up at a mirror on the opposite wall. It suddenly ballooned in size and covered the entire wall. He shook his head, looked at the mirror again. “Shit.” In a smoke-filled blur Tony’s mangled and bloodied body was lying in the detritus of Hue. Mike buried his face in the pillow.
Mike and Tony waited in the noisy and congested hangar deck for Jake Borger to return to the USS Iwo Jima, a helicopter carrier steaming in the South China Sea off South Vietnam's Mekong River Delta. Jake, a door gunner, had flown in to pick up a squad of Marines participating in Operation Deckhouse V, a ground and aerial assault on suspected Vietcong strongholds in the Delta's BenTre peninsula.
The ship's large, wide elevator went up, but about ten minutes elapsed before it descended from the flight deck. Marines scrambled around the helicopter as the elevator leveled with the hangar deck. Body bags appeared, hauled from the gunner’s side doorway. The helicopter’s fuselage skin was heavily damaged, punctured with hundreds of shrapnel holes no bigger than a nickel. Slippery blood smeared the chopper’s deck. Jack’s face and what was left of his torso were visible only for a moment before the body bag was zipped closed. Grunts quickly carried it off the elevator deck, along with seven others leaking blood and viscera.
They were stunned. Tony closed his eyes. “Ay, Dios mio,” he muttered. To Tony it looked like the aftermath of a street gang shootout in East L.A. Mike became nauseous. Stomach bile rose to the back of his mouth. He bent over and threw up on the deck. Tony grabbed his arms, held him up and walked him away from the chopper.
A couple hours later, Mike's and Tony's battalion commander told them the co-pilot navigator of the low-flying chopper carrying Jake had spotted a lone Marine roaming near a river bed. The lost Marine had three or four grenades clipped to his belt-suspender straps with regulation cotter studs removed. They had been replaced with diaper pins. When he was pulled up through the chopper’s open side door, two fused grenades fell to the deck. The near-instant explosion obliterated him and mortally wounded Jake and six others on board the Sikorsky H-34. The pilot and navigator somehow had managed to stabilize the aircraft, lift off and fly back to the Iwo Jima.
That night, the Mike and Tony walked around the nearly empty hangar deck numerous times. They stopped near the ship’s large cold-storage locker. Its eight-foot-high and four-foot-wide gray steel door was unlocked, slightly ajar. Comforting cold air breezed through the opening. They pulled back the door and peered in. It was dark. Mike struck his Zippo, raising it above his head. He could see his breath. In front of them, to their left and right stacked on pallets four high, were shuttered aluminum coffins. Jake’s was there somewhere. Mike and Tony stepped back, pushed to close the heavy door and twisted its handle to seal the lock.
No one was around. They were alone. They only heard the ship’s engines and the slicing sound as the ship made its way north. The sea was calm. Mike covered his face with the palms of his hands and cried. Tony embraced him, held him, let Mike cry on his shoulder.
In the few days since Mike returned to Canton, he had become repulsed by his mother’s irksome pestering and lack of emotion. And he couldn’t take any more of his father’s cold and distant aloofness. They didn’t understand where he’d been. They didn’t understand his loss. And they never would understand the day-to-day fear he'd experienced in Vietnam, the terror that always came without warning.
“Oh son,” his mother and father announced coming through the front door from Sunday Mass, “we’re back.”
“Michael, did you eat the breakfast I laid out for you?” she said, taking off her black pillbox hat with a veil.
“Breakfast, yeah, I did,” Mike said. “Thanks.” He watched his father and mother hang up their coats and place their hats on a shelf in the front closet. His mother walked by him without a word and went straight to the kitchen. His father turned on the television set to a football game and plopped into the easy chair after rearranging its frayed cushions.
“Son, you wanna watch a game with me? It’s the Jets against the Chiefs. Should be a good one.”
“Nah, I don’t think so,” Mike said. “Hey, does Jimmy Regulo still have his car dealership over on Market?”
“Oh, yes. Why? You lookin’ for a car?”
“You can use ours anytime you want,” his father said. “You know that.”
Earlier, while shaving, Mike had decided to leave Canton. “I’m gonna take a trip. I’m going to Los Angeles.” He had to leave his boyhood home on Clarendon Avenue. The bedroom of his youth was filled with horror and ghosts. The house was filled with elusive phantoms.
“You’re leaving? Going to California?” His mother came into the living room. She carried a dish towel in her hands. “You just got here. Don’t you want to stay? You have everything you need right here. And what about Thanksgiving and Christmas? Oh my.”
“You have-tah finish college,” his father said, still seated in the recliner. “You said you would. You promised before you went to the Marines. I don’t understand.”
“Okay.” Mike muted the volume on the TV set. He looked at his father. “Just listen, please.” Then turned to his mother. “They got colleges in California. I’ll finish out there. I'll get a job. And I got some money saved up. I sent an allotment each month to an account over at First National. I’ll get it tomorrow and buy a used car.”
“But son, you can’t do this,” his mother pleaded. Her hands dropped, the dish towel fell to the floor.
“I really have to,” Mike said, turning back to his father. “I gotta find somebody, a Marine Corps buddy I was with in 'Nam. I gotta do this now.”
“But son, California’s so far away.” His mother was crying. “Please stay. Please don't go. This is your home.”
“If it doesn’t work out, I’ll be back. I promise.” Mike lied. Once he left Canton, he vowed never to return.
“But what if something happens to you, or happens to us?” His mother crossed her arms, her lips quivering. “What are your father and I going to do?”
“Don’t worry. Nothing’s gonna happen to me.” He’d never driven further than Cleveland or Pittsburgh by himself. The prospect of driving across the country scared him. He was afraid of getting into an accident and dying alone. He was only twenty-two.
His father got out of his easy chair and walked over to the TV and shut it off. “Son, get your coat. I’ll take you down to Jimmy’s and see if we can get you a deal, even on a Sunday.”
“Huh?” Mike couldn’t recall any time before his father had disregarded his mother’s wishes. But it was too late now to make amends, to correct the past.
His mother picked up the dish towel and returned to the kitchen without saying a word.
Mike left Canton two days later. He had nearly two-thousand dollars in his pocket. He cruised north out of town along Market Avenue in a 1965 forest-green, Pontiac GTO two-door hardtop. With his father’s influence, Jimmy had sold Mike the car for eight-hundred dollars and chipped in a free tank of gas. Once on the Ohio Turnpike, he drove west to Chicago. Inside a small suitcase in the car’s trunk was Tony’s sketch, rolled in wax paper.
In two days Mike was in Middle America, southwest of St. Louis on U.S. Route 66. He whizzed past farms and small towns as he skirted the southeastern edge of Kansas heading into Tulsa, Oklahoma on his third day. He ate and gassed up at truck stops and slept only a few hours each night at cheap motels along the way. On the fourth day Mike headed out of the deserts of
Arizona into southern California: Barstow, San Bernardino and finally the outskirts of Los Angeles County. He'd stop when he saw the Pacific Ocean, twenty-five hundred miles from Canton.
Crossing the Arroyo Seco, Mike gazed at the distant Los Angeles city skyline. He stuck his hand out the Pontiac’s open window, cupping it to funnel warm air into his face. In stop-and-go traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard west of downtown he drove through Hollywood and Beverly Hills. He turned left onto Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica and stopped at Olympic Boulevard, the end of U.S. Route 66.
It was cooler in Santa Monica. Only a few blocks from the ocean, Mike sniffed the salt air. He entered a line of traffic heading west to Ocean Avenue, where he parked the dusty and dirty Pontiac. He slipped on his leather jacket over a gray Cleveland Browns T-shirt. With his cane he crossed the street to Santa Monica Pier.
The sun would set in less than an hour, he figured. A small amusement park was near the end of the pier: Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and a few other rides and booths all closed and shuttered for the winter. He walked down a flight of steps, one at a time, to the beach. At the last step Mike sat down, rolled up the legs of his jeans and took off his shoes and socks. He stuck the socks inside his shoes and tied the laces together, throwing the shoes over his shoulder. Trudging through sand toward the water’s edge, he looked north and followed the beach as it curved west toward Malibu. He went under the pier and gazed across the ocean. In the distance was Catalina Island. A huge airliner circled and turned west after taking off from Los Angeles International Airport. Another was on approach to land. Mike pictured it coming in from Hawaii or Japan.
He relished the solitude, the peace. He heard only the echoes of rolling surf as he strolled into the water, far enough out for waves to lap at his knees. The sun was at the horizon, the last warmth of the day. Mike closed his eyes, soaked it up and found it healing. He almost was able to raise his left arm above his head. There was less discomfort from his once-broken ankle. A shiver went up his back. He turned around and walked slowly across the sand back to the steps, where he brushed off his feet and slipped on his socks and shoes. He picked up his cane.
On Ocean Avenue was the Georgian Hotel. Mike gazed at its geometric art-deco facade of what looked to be blue-tile panels, glowing from the radiating light of two nearby street lamps. With his suitcase in one hand, the cane in the other, he walked into the hotel’s lobby. On one side were meticulously placed low tables, chairs and a couch facing a fireplace. Small palm trees, potted plants and fresh-cut flowers in tall vases were arranged on the other side on dark-wood tables and on the burgundy-red tiled floor.
Mike’s room featured a bird’s eye view of the ocean through a large picture window. After he’d shaved and had a long bath he slipped naked between the cool sheets of a large double bed. Tomorrow would be soon enough to begin his search for Antonio Emiliano. He immediately fell asleep. Tonight there were no fantastical nightmares of violent death or war.
The following morning, Mike discovered twenty-eight listings for Sanchez in the Los Angeles phone book. No Tony or Antonio Sanchez was listed. Nearly all those he spoke to weren’t able to converse in English. What little Spanish he’d learned from Tony wasn't very helpful. Of those with whom he was able to converse none was related to, or knew, a Tony or an Antonio Emiliano Sanchez. There was no answer at nine numbers he’d tried to call. He checked out of the hotel near noon, looked over a map and drove east from Santa Monica on Wilshire Boulevard. Mike planned to stop at each of the nine homes in East L.A. where he’d let the phone ring at least ten times before hanging up.
The fourth house on his list was a two-story wood frame structure with a wide porch and attached garage on La Verne Avenue. A young woman opened the door before he had a chance to knock. She was carrying a purse and a red-leather jacket.
“Oh!” Mike was startled. He stepped back on the porch, instantly recognized Tony's sister, Angelina, from family sketches Tony had drawn in PhuBai. “I'm Mike Snyder.” He found her beauty nearly flawless: deep brown eyes, a perfectly sculpted nose and full lips softly tinted in a red hue. “I knew Tony when –– ”
Angelina had dropped her jacket and heavy black purse to the porch floor. Sobbing, she gently placed her hands on Mike’s arms, pulled him toward her, embraced him. Tears rolled down her cheeks, falling on Mike’s white shirt. “He has cried often talking about you.”
Mike suddenly felt light-headed, faint. His knees buckled. He was without his cane. His eyes twitched as he drew in deep breaths. She reached around Mike’s waist and led him into the living room, helping him sit down on a couch covered with a blanket in the green, white and red colors of the Mexican national flag. He slouched over, stared at chocolate-brown carpeting before he looked up, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what got over me.”
Sitting next to Mike, she held his hand in hers. Her other hand gently touched Mike’s chin and lifted his head slightly. “Antonio’s in the hospital,” she whispered softly. “He’s dying.”
The corridors of the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles smelled of ammonia and vinegar. But inside the two-man room there was an overpowering odor of urine, feces and unwashed bodies. A man in the bed near the door had lost his nose and the left side of his face. Cross-stitched sallow skin hid eyeless sockets. Part of his left collarbone near the neck was missing. It was covered with a thin layer of iodine-laced gauze. “Oh Jesus,” said Mike.
He pulled up a chair by the window. The name tag on the bed railing identified the patient as Antonio E. Sanchez, USMC. A thin, pale green sheet covered a frail body. Mike could tell how the sheet was stretched over the lower body that Tony had only one leg, the other had been amputated at mid-thigh. A bloody, white mass slowly suctioned in and out of tubing inserted into his nostrils. Catheter tubing from under the sheet ended in a nearly overflowing clear plastic urine bag hanging from the bottom of the bed railing. Perspiration covered his forehead and face, his hair was soaked and matted. Tony needs a haircut, a shave and a bath, Mike thought.
“Angelina, please sit down,” said Mike, stepping to the window. She took a tissue from her purse, then swept her hair behind an ear on one side. Mike opened the window a crack to let some fresh air into the room. He felt a slight breeze. In the distance across Wilshire Boulevard were perfectly aligned rows of white headstones at the Los Angeles National Cemetery. “How long has he been like this, out of it? He must have some kind of fever.”
“Several days,” she said. “When he first got here he was alert. We talked many times.”
“Angelina, I wanna see if I can find a doctor around here.” There was no one at a nurses’ station down the hallway. Mike limped down another corridor, looked into a room and saw what appeared to be a doctor administering to a patient. He waited outside the room until the man in a
white lab coat came out, shoving a stethoscope into the coat’s pocket. “You a doctor?”
“Yes, and what are you doing here?”
“I came to visit one of the patients. Do you know anything about an Antonio Sanchez?”
“Are you family?”
“No, Tony and I were in 'Nam together.”
“I know the patient you’re asking about, but I can only talk to family members.” The doctor started toward the still empty nurses’ station. “I’m the only doctor on this floor, the one above and the one below, and I’ve been here way too long today, nearly twelve hours.”
“His sister’s here now,” Mike said. “You can talk to her.” The doctor and Mike turned around and headed back to room 712. From the doorway Mike motioned to Angelina. In the corridor she held Mike’s arm with both hands.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, Miss Sanchez,” the doctor said, “but your brother, well, how can I say this? You see, after the amputation something caused a severe infection to spread throughout his system. We can’t figure it out. Is there anything else? I really have to complete my rounds.”
“What’s being done, doctor? Is he gonna just lay there?” Mike asked. Angelina’s lips trembled. She squeezed Mike’s arm.
“He’s been given lots of antibiotics, but the regimen apparently has not been successful. When I come back from upstairs I promise I’ll check in on him.” Angelina leaned into Mike’s shoulder. He lowered his head and led her back into the room.
Mike stood at the foot of Tony's bed. “Why you, not me?” he murmured. “This can't be
happenin'. I shoulda saved ya.” He bowed his head, put his arm around Angelina's shoulder. They both cried. She turned and gazed at Mike.
“He loved you very much,” she said, aware her brother's death would come soon.
“I'll really miss him ... really miss him.” Mike also knew Tony would not recover.
Two days later, at age twenty-two and weighing less than one hundred pounds, Tony died. He never regained consciousness. Angelina held her brother’s hand. Mike stroked Tony’s cheek with his fingertips before gently pushing aside strands of long unruly hair. He kissed his forehead. Then he stood back, closed his eyes.
At the top of a low, grass-covered hill was a larger-than-life, white-stone statue of Jesus with outstretched hands and arms. Below it in concentric circles were neat, measured rows of flush-to -the-ground, rectangular stone and metal grave markers. The grass around the edges of each had been meticulously trimmed. Except for a large mausoleum and the markers, the grounds at Resurrection Cemetery resembled a pristine, well-manicured golf course in Brentwood. But this was Monterey Park, East Los Angeles. There were no headstones or gaudy marble memorials. The families of the dead here were poor Latinos.
On a foggy, overcast morning Mike got out of his car and started toward the statue. He was going to pay his respects, alone. The funeral had been four days before on an unseasonably sunny, warm day. Mike was the last to see the body before the casket was closed. He had placed the sketch of his Delta Company squad over Tony’s crossed hands.
It took a minute to get orientated, to make sure he was walking in the right direction. The grave was near the Jesus statue. He was sure of it. Power lines from a nearby substation were off in the distance at the edge of the graveyard, not far from the Pomona Freeway.
Mike looked down, noticed the top of his shoes were wet, probably from the underground sprinkler system that had done its work overnight. He walked along a lush and green grassy trail between two rows of markers, then up a slight rise. At the top of the hill, garlands of flowers were strewn over a mound of freshly turned earth. A small American flag was stuck into the ground near a vase of withered, dried-out wild flowers. It was the only fresh grave near the statue. He leaned over to read an inscription in Spanish painted on a makeshift-wooden cross:
Antonio Emiliano Sanchez
Descansa en Paz
“Beloved, yeah.” Mike sighed. “You'll always be loved.” He dropped to one knee and placed a hand over the top of the crude grave marker. “Rest in peace, Antonio, my brother … rest in peace.” He wiped away tears with the back of his hand.
He picked up his cane and stood up, brushing off remnants of fresh-turned soil from his trouser leg.
A glowing orange-red sky flared over the eastern Pacific at sunset. Gazing beyond the rolling surf toward the horizon, Mike leaned on his cane against the top of a guardrail at the end of Santa Monica Pier.
Surreal, silver-mercury figures marched forward in perfect cadence down a cratered, rubble-strewn street in Hue. “One, two, three, four,” they shouted at the top of their lungs. “Who do we die for? Marine Corps. Marine Corps. One, two, three, four, fuck 'em all.”
Attired in helmets, flak jackets and ammo belts of 7.62 mm cartridges each carried M-14 wood-stock rifles, bayonets attached, slung over their shoulders. They were looking at each other, talking, laughing. They stopped in mid-stride at the sound of a round dropped down a mortar tube, seconds before it fired a concussive burst.
Mike felt the blast’s shock wave ricocheting deep inside. He trembled as he grabbed the guardrail with one hand. He gripped it tightly.
Floating figures catapulted topsy-turvy, in a tumbling swirl above the farthest reaches of
the Pacific that rolled in waves of blood, bone and muscle onto the coastal beaches of South Vietnam. The sunset’s lustrous gleam folded into a metallic, glistening fire-engine red. Sheer white clouds went gray and then transmuted to black.
In a flash, the imagery disappeared.
Mike pivoted in an about-face, his heels together, feet arrayed at a perfect forty-five degree angle. Looking east toward the other side of the continent where his journey to war began at Parris Island, he shouted: “Oh God, help me.” Cane in his right hand he started a slow, hobbled march down the pier’s heavy wooden planks, his injured left foot first. “One,” a tap of the cane, “two,” another tap, “three,” tap, tap, tap, “four” was his cadence call.
At the pier's entrance, Angelina was waiting for him.
Tens of thousands of North Vietnamese Army soldiers and Vietcong guerrillas attacked major cities throughout the Republic of South
Vietnam in the early morning hours of 31 January 1968, the first day
of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Tet Nguyen Dan. The offensive
became the turning point in America's war against North Vietnam.
Under an overcast, early morning sky he lumbered south of the ChieuUng pagoda, its spire broken, teetering. Suspender straps braced a weighty ammo belt, burrowed into his shoulders under a flak jacket. Panting, sweating profusely, he squatted, leaned against a low wall. He shook his stiff right hand, then slipped his finger around the trigger of a M-14 rifle.
Michael David Snyder wanted to be someplace else, not here, not like this. His body shuddered. Helmet tilted back, he gazed at rooftops, left to right, then down to open windows, doors, gates, right to left. Using a hand signal Mike motioned eight other Marines to skirt around the base of an Indian mosque where ChiLang intersects NguyenDu street in Hue, Vietnam's once imperial capital.
Rocco Ciazza and Tony Sanchez on the opposite side of ChiLang road hugged a moss-covered high wall abutting the cratered and narrow, rubble-strewn strip of cardboard-thin asphalt. Leon Miller was about twenty feet in front. Just behind was Motown man, T.J. Walker.
A distinctive AK-47 shot pinged, ricocheted.
“Sniper,” Mike yelled. “Get the fuck down.” The squad plunged for cover: a tree, a wall, an overturned street-vendor’s stall, a charred Citroen full of bullet holes, its tires in shreds.
Mike had leaped into a tight recess of a green-shuttered entry way. He quickly looked over at Walker, on the ground at the base of a wall. Walker raised his hand and flashed five fingers, then two. The seven others in his squad Mike couldn’t see – but Walker could – were still alive.
“Ah shit!” Mike shook his right leg. He'd pissed himself, soaking trousers near stiff with filth. He heard only the congested sound of his own heavy breathing. He whiffed mold-ridden, acrid air. Streaming sweat turned encrusted dirt on his body into tiny rivulets of brown grime.
Incoming mortars imploded rooftops. Shrapnel ricocheted off concrete. A sniper round shattered red roof tiles on a nearby house.
Shoving open a wood gate with his shoulder, Mike entered a tree-shaded courtyard of brown-green shrubs and a desiccated flower and vegetable garden. His eyes adjusted quickly to dusky shadows. He turned around, looked down. A narrow flagstone walkway circled an above-ground fish tank. Several large gold and a few white, gray-spotted fish, probably Japanese koi, floated belly-up. The odor gagged him. “Oh Jesus!”
Mike dropped to the ground, rolled against a pair of closed and curtained French doors. He peered through a small slit between the inside curtain and the edge of a glass pane. Flickering candle light was all he could see. He pushed open the doors with one foot, spun around and crawled inside the graying white-stucco, colonial-style house. He focused on the candles, momentarily mesmerized. Blowflies stormed his face, neck and ears. He scooted on his ass to the
side of a window, stood up and pulled back its curtain. Dim sunlight shot into the room. Blue smoke spiraled from a dozen or more Buddhist altar joss sticks. He held his breath, swatted away flies and an awful stench.
Mike Snyder had stepped into a putrid, bloody hell.
The blood-spattered body of a young Vietnamese woman was sprawled facedown over a tattered, low-slung rattan table. The top of her head was gone, blood encrusted over the wound.
Skull and brain fragments were splattered against the wall. A serrated knife was impaled in her upper back, at the base of what was left of her neck.
Mike dropped his rifle into a blood pool, splattering his boots. Invisible, malodorous fumes from fetid human flesh and excrement nearly suffocated him. He sank to his knees. Stretched out in a corner were the eviscerated torsos of an old woman and an infant. Their throats had been slashed, their ears sliced off.
Gut-punched, Mike was sucked into a dizzying, infernal whirlwind. A short wailing cry followed a long moan. He vomited in a daze before keeling over on his side.
“Holy shit!” Rocco bolted into the slaughterhouse with Tony.
“Dios mio!” Tony grabbed Rocco's arm. “Gotta get him outta here.” The two leaned over Mike, lifted him up and dragged him out of the killing room into the courtyard. They gingerly lowered Mike into a sitting position against the side of the concrete-ringed pond.
“He’s comin’ out of it,” said Tony.
Rocco looked around, spotted a cistern. He pulled a dark-green, sweat-stained towel from around his neck and soaked it thoroughly before handing it to Tony. He removed Mike’s helmet and then wrung out the towel over his head. He wiped off blood and filth as best he could from Mike’s face, upper body, arms and hands. Mike’s eyes opened, blinked. “You okay?” Tony said.
“Jesus!” Mike took two long breaths. “God-awful shit in there.” He shook his head.
“Yeah, some bad shit,” said Tony, looking at Mike. “Real bad shit.” The rest of the squad had come into the courtyard, exhausted. Some were lying flat out on the flagstone walkway. Others sat down, their backs against the inner courtyard wall under shade trees. Tony told them about the bloody kill zone inside the house.
“Here's some water, man.” Rocco offered Mike his canteen. “It’s the best I can do, what with all this shit goin’ on around here.”
Mike emptied most of the canteen, handed it back to Rocco. Then in a hesitant move, hands flat to the ground, knees slightly bent, he tried to stand up.
“Stay down, sarge.” Tony had his hands on Mike’s shoulders to steady him. “You look like shit.” Mike plopped his ass on the top edge of the fish tank. He needed a minute to figure out what to do.
“Hey, I need a cigarette. Ain’t got any left.” Rocco lit a Lucky Strike and passed it to Mike, who took a long drag on it. Dead fish bobbed in the pond water just below his ass. He knew a sniper was out there waiting to pick off his squad, one by one. And if the squad stuck around much longer, Vietcong rockets and heavy mortars would find them. Then, there were the bodies.
“Whatta we gonna do, boss?” Rocco picked up his machine gun. “We gotta do something, like get the fuck outta here.”
Mike looked around at each member of the squad. “We can’t leave these people here to rot. It just ain’t right.” He wondered if he could convince eight scared, exhausted Marines to do something good in this fucking war. “We gotta bury 'em all. Get it done quick, or we get the fuck outta here now.” Burying the two women and the baby was worth the risk.
Tony had opened a small wood shed attached to the house and walked toward Mike carrying two long-handled shovels and a garden hoe. “Sarge, look what I found, and we got us some entrenching tools. Walker, Adams and Buttermore got 'em. We can do it, man, muy rapido.”
Without any argument, each squad member took turns digging graves in the courtyard near a Buddhist shrine. At its base were small urns containing scores of extinguished joss sticks. One grave was for the mother and her child, another for the older woman, probably the grandmother.
Each body was wrapped in clothing and blankets found in an old steamer trunk.
“You and me, Rocky,” said Mike, “we’re outta this suck-ass war next month, on that big silver bird back home.” But he wondered whether any member of the squad would see nightfall.
“Goin’ home to momma,” Rocco said, smiling, patting Tony on the back, playfully punching T.J. in the arm.
At the same time Mike, Tony, Rocco, Miller and T.J. suddenly turned, Briggs, Buttermore, Graham and Adams locked into fixed, unblinking stares. “Fuck,” Briggs shouted. Facing the outer wall bordering the road, they all heard the familiar “thunk” of Vietcong 120 mm mortar rounds propelled from their tubes. Two detonated outside the courtyard's walls.
The squad, standing in a cluster inside the courtyard, was trapped, ambushed. There was no time to take cover, no time to set up defensive positions. Soviet 122 millimeter rockets crushed the courtyard's outer walls. The house’s red-tile roof shattered. Support beams splintered and bricks exploded.
Rocket-propelled grenade fire showered hot-metal fragments. Graham and Buttermore were shredded. Their blood-covered torsos with ripped and torn muscle and viscera flew in all directions.
Miller aimed a shoulder-firing M-79 anti-tank grenade launcher. AK-47 gun fire obliterated his head and upper body before he got off a round.
Recoilless-rifle fire sprayed across Adams and Briggs. Red-hot shrapnel laced their bodies.
Flying shards of concrete and re-bar decapitated T.J. His jettisoned body impaled on an exposed, sheared tip of a severed, lead water pipe.
In a smoke-filled, dust-laden haze, Rocco had fallen prone to the ground with his machine gun, firing immediately. A mortar round leveled the fish pond and its metallic fountain: a
statuesque, near-naked female figure holding the scales of justice.
Mike ran, tried to find cover behind the house’s rear wall. Pooled blood sprayed from the house’s terra-cotta, tiled floor. Rockets slammed the roof and outer walls of an adjacent two-story abandoned bank building. Packets of piastres of various denominations blew apart. The rice-paper money wafted above the debris, spinning and floating. Deposit boxes flew up, tumbled end over end and bounced, scattering necklaces, bracelets, diamond rings, documents, cash, pearls and gold and silver bars.
Tony stopped feeding Rocco's M-60. The bank building had crumbled on top of them.
Flying debris catapulted the two into shambles of reinforced concrete. Sniper fire from somewhere hit Rocco.
“AH SHIT.” Mike ran from the collapsing rear wall in a zigzag, then dropped to his knees. His hands pushed away concrete fragments and tore into dirt and rubble to dig out Rocco’s body.
Shards of concrete and shrapnel spikes had pummeled and pelted Tony. Blood trickled down the sides of his head and face. He managed to crawl over to Mike, dragging his right leg. He coughed. “I can’t ... can’t walk.”
“I’m comin’ back for ya,” Mike screamed at Tony. Mike lifted Rocco, draped him over his shoulder. He wondered if he’d have the strength to carry him. “Keep breathin’, Rocky.”
He lunged forward to get a foothold in the rubble. Rocco bled profusely. His right arm and upper body hung over Mike's back. Out of breath, Mike began to lose his balance. He stumbled, lost his footing. “Oh God!” Rocco’s body tumbled to the ground behind him. Mike fell and rolled forward. His left boot wedged in a vise-grip of large concrete chunks. His ankle snapped. “Aah, fuck,” he shrieked. His flak jacket flew open.
A 7.62 millimeter brass round from an AK-47 sniper rifle blazed through his left shoulder.
Mike screamed a long cry of mind-numbing agony. Excruciating pain ran up his leg. A fire burned through his chest and upper back. He bit his lower lip and spit out bloody saliva and phlegm. His left arm and hand, covered in blood, were numb, useless.
Mike tried to roll to his right, onto his elbow and upper arm. But his elbow slipped on loose debris. He lost consciousness. His body slid down a pile of rubble.
Groggy and in a daze, Mike was on his back in a puddle of blood, his blood. He faintly smelled a tank’s smoky diesel fumes. He barely heard its engine idling. Through puffy eyelids that blurred his vision he made out a pair of Marine jungle boots.
“This fucker’s alive. I got him,” a corpsman yelled. Mike felt a warm breath on his face covered in a thin layer of dried blood and grimy sweat. “You okay?”
“Ahh, uhh. Aaaaah –– ” Dehydrated, his tongue and lips were swollen.
“We gotcha now, buddy. Gonna patch ya up an’ git ya the fuck outta here, pronto.” The corpsman cut through Mike’s utility jacket, gently lifting its fabric off the chest wound. “That round went clean through. You one lucky bastard.” He cleaned Mike’s upper left arm. A tank gunner stooped down, wrapped his arms around Mike’s waist and lifted him into a sitting position.
The corpsman eased off Mike’s flak jacket and cleaned a gaping wound in muscle above the left shoulder blade. Letting Mike lean into his legs, the gunner held a compress bandage over the wound. The corpsman tied off strips of gauze under and over the armpit to hold it in place.
Sterile gauze plugged a tiny hole, the entrance wound, about the size of a nickel, above Mike’s left breast, beneath the rotator cuff.
Belt-suspender straps were wrapped and tied around Mike’s lower legs, using his right leg, foot to knee, as a splint. The gunner and two other grunts hoisted him on top of the tank’s fender.
Another Marine slipped a bloody flak jacket under his head. He straddled him, holding up a vinyl bag dripping plasma down tubing through a needle stuck in Mike’s forearm.
Four other wounded Marines already had been strapped to the top of the tank’s chassis, on each side of the turret, behind the turret and under the long gun barrel. It slowly trundled toward a helicopter landing zone across the Perfume River, the SongHuong, south of the Citadel.
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