Lucky 13

Jack Hill, USN

I hated combat missions in the jungles during the Vietnam War; they were not a safe place to be. But I was a Navy Corpsman, a doc, and everywhere the U.S. Marines went, corpsmen accompanied them. So as usual, I was in the middle of a company of soldiers trudging along the winding footpath from the highlands to the lowlands. Our progress was slow, cumbersome, and noisy. Laden with weapons and equipment, we advertised our location with every step we took. Weary from a two-day battle with the Viet Cong that had kicked our butts; we were a sad sack, testosterone-drained assemblage of young men, many of us barely out of our teens.

The rain finally stopped, but water dripping from trees cartwheeled off man-size leaves around us. The sun’s intense rays sliced through the jungle canopy, contrasting in patches of light against dark shadows. Recycling the rain, slivers of sunbeams spawned a thin fog that materialized out of the damp ferns and mosses, hovered near the ground, and circulated through the undergrowth. The weight of my knapsack hung heavy in the small of my back, and its straps chafed my neck and shoulders, raw. My utility belt dug into my scrawny hips: the aftermath of dysentery. The climbing temperature and humidity were merciless, and my helmet trapped them like a greenhouse. No matter how much I drank, I did not pee; instead, sweat oozed from my every pore but did not evaporate. Like a second skin, my wet uniform clung to me. I stank and needed a shower.

Along the trail, a small stream followed the descending contours of the narrow valley, snaking around exposed tree-roots, cascading over rocks, and gurgling into tranquil pools. The fog briefly lingered above the cool waters before vanishing into the dense foliage. In another time, the jungle would have been a mysterious yet beautiful place to visit with its flowing water, singing birds, tropical plants, colorful flowers, and strangling vines–just like a Tarzan-movie set–but at any moment, we expected to encounter the Viet Cong, hidden and waiting for us, and the jungle could be as much our enemy as they were. In places, it was so dense it could hide an army a few yards off the path and often did, so our weapons were poised for action.

We rounded a bend in the trail, and the jungle canopy opened up exposing massive rock formations rising from the valley’s floor, narrowing it to a gorge. Exotic vegetation grew from their base and overhung their peaks. Vines clung to crevices wherever roots could find a foothold. Grayish boulders, bright sun, blue sky, and white clouds framed a peaceful picture. It was postcard perfect–“Wish you were here,” written in fancy lettering–except, I would rather have been anywhere but here. The gorge was a perfect place for an ambush.

Caution was the byword.

The line halted. We knelt as quietly as we could.

Sweat dripped off my forehead. The incessant buzzing of flying insects–darting in and out, escaping my swatting hand, and dining on my exposed skin–was maddening. The ground hemorrhaged soft mud, consuming my boots. The smell of decomposing vegetation filled the sweltering air.

Near the front of the line, the point Marines moved through the undergrowth, positioning on both sides of the gorge, weapons at the ready. Around me, the click of ammo pulled into rifle chambers stiffened my neck hairs. I gripped my weapon with nervous anticipation. The Sergeant hand-motioned and several Marines crossed the stream and blended with the shadows.

We waited.

The line’s collective sixth sense knew something was about to happen.
The message, “There’s trouble ahead,” filtered down the line.
“Keep it quiet,” whispered the Sergeant in a calming voice.

I froze, trying not to make a sound. The atmosphere was filled with tension. I could see it in their faces: eyes darting here and there, lips twitching, and mouths praying.
“Damn this, let’s get it on,” whispered a Marine near me, spitting on the ground.
“Shut up. Keep a lid on it.” This time, the Sergeant’s voice was edgy but firm.
The jungle no longer stirred emotions of mystery and beauty; it aroused feelings of danger and peril. For now, all was quiet except for the ubiquitous sounds of chirping insects, the babbling stream, singing birds, and the croaking of amorous frogs seeking one-night stands. But we sensed the quiet wouldn’t last long; it never did.

I heard confusing and indistinguishable shouts from the head of the line.
In an instant, the jungle erupted in a barrage of incoming rifle-fire echoing in the gorge. Several yards ahead of me, the point Marines returned a salvo of sizzling lead toward the enemy’s locations. Like a well-rehearsed drill team, Marines rushed to provide cover and support for the forward positions. Overlapping, automatic-rifle volleys from the left, right, and point joined the attack. In the distance, the enemy’s rifle-fire echoed in return.
Back and forth, the battle raged.
A mortar exploded, sending shock waves reverberating up the valley.
“Incoming! Take cover!” The line dove for cover, embracing the ground, and melting into the smallest of depressions. Explosions thundered through the gorge. I felt the ground tremble beneath me.

The sound of our semi-automatic rifle-fire was unnerving yet reassuring. Tracer bullets left their lethal trails in the dense foliage. Rocket launchers sent waves of explosives toward suspected enemy locations. Blinding light, booming explosions, and mangled foliage marked their targeted areas.
Then as quickly as it began, the symphony of battle ended without applause.
I was unaware of the sounds around me except for the ringing in my ears and the thumping of my heart. Acrid smoke wafted up the valley, burning my mouth and throat. The taste of battle lingered long after the last rocket exploded and the last bullet was fired.
The Corporal moved up and down the line.
“Is everybody okay?”
“Get on your feet.”
“Keep it quiet.”
“Get ready to move out!”
But the line didn’t move.
A call rang out. “Corpsman, send a Corpsman up!” I grabbed my first-aid bag and hurried up the line.
“Over here, doc, Marine’s been wounded.”
In the thick undergrowth, a kid not much older than I was, lay bleeding from a head wound. Another corpsman joined me by his side. “Get back,” I yelled. “Give us room.”
“Okay Marines, give the docs some room,” ordered the Sergeant.
We removed his helmet to bandage his head. I held a bandage in my hand and placed it on the wound expecting to meet the resistance of his skull. Instead, it met none. It felt as if I was pressing against over-cooked pasta. He groaned but did not move.
“Do you feel what I feel?”
The other Corpsman put his hand on the bandage and pressed. “Yeah, the back of his skull is gone. His brains are oozing out,” he whispered.
“Hey Sarge, get these Marines way back,” he said. “We got a badly injured man here. There’s nothing to see.”
“Okay Marines, move it. I’ll kick the butt of anyone gawking around.”
We bandaged his head the best we could but knew it was hopeless.
“You think it was friendly fire?”
“Probably. No other way he’d get shot from behind,” said the other Corpsman.
“You gonna say anything?”
“No, can’t tell who shot him, anyway.”
“Me neither. He’ll die soon. Let’s just wait him out.”
With our hands and uniforms covered in his blood, we knelt beside the fallen Marine until he died.
~ ~ ~
Many Marines and corpsmen went on missions and never returned alive. Over the course of a year, one by one, the original fifty-three corpsman assigned to our combat battalion dwindled to thirteen. At the end of my tour of duty, I was among the fortunate who came home physically sound, yet the experience changed me. I am haunted by the memories of the sights of blood and death and of the sounds of agony and pain. But unlike some, I have managed to keep those memories locked away in the securest corridors of my mind, although I pay them a quick visit from time to time.
Huey helicopters still raise the hair on the back of my neck. Loud noises cause me to flinch, but I suppress the urge to dive for cover. My God, after all these years, I can close my eyes, and I am transported back there, in full combat gear, marching single-file, along a muddy trail, through a nameless jungle. And I relive those events again, and again.