by Stephen Saunders
My most powerful memory has been on stage since 1967, rerunning behind my eyes in virtual reality. The drama plays on and on in this theatre of recall, a horror show with no finale. Emotion holds the limelight. I was 19 when I killed a man. He was no older. He has the lead role. Once you see war it plays endlessly.Many wince at such a young age for combat. Nineteen was common. A 17-year-old “man” in our rifle company was killed in action. In war boys act like men and men act like boys.
A North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldier was the first man whom I killed for dead certain.In earlier actions, with others also firing, you couldn’t be sure. There was no doubt here. I saw his living face three separate times. The first glance of him was whisper close and gave me a breath-slurping startle. He should have killed me. That lapse was one of my lucky breaks in the war. Minutes later, when I next laid eyes on the man, he was my quarry and I was keen to kill him. I could have given him a pass. We would all die anyway, I thought, and he had provoked it. The last look was eye-to-eye. It was for keeps.
This scene is but one blotch on the picture of Vietnam that stowed away in my gut. The war painted an internal scene, sweeping and jumbled, impossible to brush onto canvas for others to see. Colors blur one into another. Many are faded; others shine bright and vivid, but cast dark shadows.
After I returned to the “world,” I did not know how to feel about my role in the war, and its central rank in my psyche. Its mark bewildered me and was not esteeming. Education, family and career needed me. Vietnam was in the wrong direction. So I buried the experience to rot away unseen, but the grave was shallow and it reeked. I just could not summon a fitting outlook out of my guts to wise up my discerning wits and clue-in my heart in passing.
Unawares, my mind had encased wartime emotional shrapnel like a deep cyst. The killing day was a whirling kaleidoscope of frenzy. Afterwards it froze up in haze. Passage of decades and harrowing reflection brought it closer and clearer. Bits of savvy fell into view. In middle age some of the haywire emotional smear from the war edged into sharper focus at its margins.
Killing is a profound act, most poignant when done close-in, man-to-man. Killing conferred an aspect of otherness in me, a weighty alloy of pride and perturbing sentiment that do not combine well. Death was on parade there. At the time, killing that man felt like I scored a touchdown. After the game when the goalposts came down a numbing pall set in. Only the ordinariness of killing a man made it remarkable. Years and family life have added soulful heft and emphasis to it and its time.
An enemy soldier was a curiosity, an unworldly creature. I offered a prime year, great energy and force of will to kill him and to survive his devoted efforts to kill me. Never have I worked harder. Never have I lived more intensely. Never was life more purposeful. There was no comfort, no safety. Existence was bare-boned. Doing time in a rifle company was a bitter sentence, but I picked up a pride not offered by soft duty. It formed a chip on my shoulder—inside. Our infantry outfit endured day upon day of humping through jungle in searing heat, up hills and in mud; withstood wet shivering cold nights, scores of exhausting patrols and blare-eyed bug-bitten night ambushes––all to kill the enemy. Service in the enemy army was harsher. A North Vietnamese ditty predicted: “Born in the North to die in the South.” We made it ring true. To avoid American firepower, he chose when and where to fight. The NVA and Viet Cong played for the stall. He had time. We rested; he sniped. We patrolled; he ambushed. We relaxed; he booby-trapped.
Day after day we sought him. No cost was too high, no risk too great. Where was this elusive killer? Would he ever stand and fight so we could avenge our anger and homesickness, finish this war and go home? We knew our prey mostly in past tense. Distinctive “Ho Chi Minh” sandal prints on a trail, bloody bandages littering a hideout, and warm cook-fire coals proved his presence. Deadly booby traps proclaimed his purpose. Our noses knew the enemy by his odor of mustiness, strange diet and rural Asia. Foul GI scent betrayed us to them, too. Unlike Americans, he abandoned nothing useful. He even stole away his dead to rob us of satisfaction. Suspecting cached munitions, we sometimes exhumed a fresh grave, only to find a noxious enemy corpse. We regarded enemy dead with indifference, but they were emblems of success––prey run down, sweat rewarded, blood avenged. Were they also mirrors of our fate, effigies of our coming death?
Never did I envision the enemy as men like us with a personality, ability and a heart. They were evil phantoms without persona. Our war was deadly and personal. Empathy had no place. Enmity did. Rarely did I see the enemy alive except as POWs. To see them armed, lethal and mad to kill us was spellbinding.
Even an on-the-scene exception could not challenge anonymous hatred of the enemy. Our platoon kept an NVA prisoner with us for many days. He was affable and pet-like. Someone named him “Max.” Though he spoke no English, signs and expressions made do. As combat soldiers, our lifestyles had more similarities than differences. Max endeared himself to Platoon Sergeant Jose. He dug foxholes, cooked chow and served as bivouac handyman. One night Max acted as makeshift interpreter and wrangler of civilians in our charge. When automatic fire sprayed into us, he calmed and corralled them in defilade inside our perimeter. Unarmed, Max was disarming as he lost the essence of “enemy.” Familiarity unmasked an enemy’s human face. Then word came down of a combat air assault and, naturally, Max could not go. We filled his rucksack with as many C rations as he could shoulder and released him to his fate. Moving to the helicopters, the platoon filed by Max one-by-one. Each man shook his hand in turn. We had to shoo him off like a fed stray puppy. He was an NVA again, but never to be our hated enemy. Chances of his survival were slim. For decades I remained blind to the light cast from this warm sketch of irony. Our unusual acquaintance with him is a heartening symbol of a natural empathy among fighting men. That cue is clear in the light of old-man ease and safety. In hard-edged combat mode it lay camouflaged inside the black hole of a gun barrel.
Headquarters ordered me to lead a one-week three-man “pony team” to stake out a remote valley in the highland wilds of Binh Dinh province. A flinty Master Sergeant spread a map of the area on artillery shell crates to explain the mission. His open-air sandbagged enclave on the hilltop firebase jolted with successive shocks of nearby outgoing howitzer fire. The whine and whop of helicopters filled the intervals. I carefully marked artillery reference points on the map and recorded essential radio frequencies and the “shackle code” for encryption of map coordinates. The abruptness of this call-up was typical. Seldom was there time enough to ready all details. Shit did not just roll downhill. It bombed down straight, loose and nasty, and buried those of us in the base gutter of war.
Our task was to hole up to watch for and report enemy activity in that faraway valley, miles from any friendly force. Our mothers could hang a gold star in the window if the enemy spied us out there. That was unlikely if we were careful, but Fate held sway. Besides, the mission offered a break from unending humping the hills and paddies, recon patrols and night ambush duty. Months of exhaustion and monsoon misery had numbed body and callused spirit. Short fitful sleeps brought little rest.
Boxes of canned C ration meals lay at my feet. Each meal included a wad of toilet paper and five cigarettes, food for the body and a treat for each end. It was far too much to carry. We gorged on our favorites, stored some cans in sock tubes for our packs, and left the rest. The order directed concealment and observation—avoid a fight—so we declined extra ammo and Claymore mines. The priority was our lifeline, several PRC-25 backpack radio batteries.
The incident revealed below lingers outside of time, happening once upon a time and forever. It stands alone, a stray oddity dangling from my real life, but the event became a point from which my inner life hinged—or was catapulted. Each day my mind wanders to it.
The helicopter hugged the treetops as it raced over miles of hostile highland forests and patchy fallow lowlands flashing past our worried eyes. I inched back my rifle bolt for a reassuring peek at the brassy glint of a chambered round. Two empty sham choppers trailed us in line. As the pilot closed on the landing zone, he dropped our craft into a slow-moving low hover over that small clearing. Ski, Hays, and I leapt to earth then the chopper shot back to height, tail end in line, with no obvious break in stride. It all happened in seconds. This ruse masked our drop from all but very close enemy eyes. Elsewhere it sounded and appeared that three helicopters flew continuously one behind the other.
Sudden solitude and a haunting dead silence gripped me in foreboding. Jungle mountainsides dominated the lowland quilt of lush bamboo and cane, barren ancient rice terraces, and wild swaths of elephant grass. We moved to high ground in hurried stealth until a deserted NVA base camp metastasized from the graying light. My eyes swept ground to treetop, left to right, above and ahead as we crept into its heart. Recent enemy sign stood my neck hairs on end like antennae sensing the somber air. Makeshift bamboo tables, straw mats, hammocks, cold coals and fighting bunkers came into view as we snaked silently through the ghost encampment. It was as eerie and still as a crypt. We climbed on and soon went to ground for the night.
A narrow trail and stream, nerve and vein of the valley, threaded its length. At first light, the open areas fell under our eyes spying from high ground. Wispy low-slung clouds dappled the facing massif across the valley. Smoky incoming marker rounds set up artillery reference points for ready fire support.
One day I glassed a distant enemy file tramping up the valley. After a radio summons to “Slashing Tiger,” the call sign of our artillery battery, high explosive blasts smashed into them. If any died, who was the killer? Me, the observer––who voiced the grid coordinates and adjusted the fire––or was it the anonymous gun commander miles away who supervised the fire mission? Was it the artillerymen who threw the shells into the howitzer breech and struck the lanyard? Who gets credit? Who bears the responsibility? These questions were not born yet.
We moved our position each day at first dark. The sun never appeared. Dulling boredom and sodden discomfort pressed hard. Periodic downpours battered us, then cool skies wrung out drizzle. GI lore held that you are not wet until the first drop slides down the crack of your ass. We qualified. At times it was a waterfall. A warm drying fire was an impossible dream so I dialed in the “hunker-down and take it” mode on my attitude adjustment. Waterlogged filthy skin broke down and opened virulent cankers of jungle rot and itchy oozing ringworm. My crotch was a raw sore. My feet were rancid. Even so, for me this cold and wet was better than summer heat and mouth-parching thirst. Misery is relative.
After a few days we moved down into the valley––sliding into the heart of darkness, tipping at the edge of grace. At the new site, very near the intersection of that mid-valley trail and stream, our ears would see enemy activity day and night. Our trio resettled on a narrow sand spit of reeds tucked between the shallow creek and a four-foot bank. Atop the bank, knee-high vegetation enclosed a trail coursing beside the stream until the path crossed the water 40 meters upstream.
Sopped and dreary, we crouched and hooded cigarettes against the wet to cop a few deep drags. A week into the mission, headquarters extended it for three more days. Our chow was gone. Physical distress was no stranger, but the hunger piling up in my stomach was new.
On January 25 the boredom burst. The enemy caught us with our pants down—to the ankles. We idly sat cross-legged in a close triangle between stream and bank. Moments earlier, Hays and I stood there while Ski snapped a photo of us, blank with tedium. Now Hays leaned against the trail bank next to the radio. I sat facing him. Ski lounged to my right. A faint rhythmic swishing sound whispered from the trail. Something disturbed the coarse knee-high grass bending in from both sides of the footpath and over it.
As my eyeballs rolled up, a khaki-clad NVA soldier with a rifle walked by four feet in front of and above me on the trail. It was a sock in the guts. His feet tread within two feet of Hays’ head. We sat point blank from the hereafter. My M-16 rifle lay the wrong way across my lap for quickest action. Thoughtlessly, I had placed it that way it after the photo shoot. Surely, that intruder heard the pounding of my pulse. My eyes tracked him as my fingers tiptoed to the weapon. Neither of my men saw the danger. “Nobody cough or move,” I screamed silently inside. Fright augments perception and petrifies memory. I would recognize that face on the street today. Then another North Vietnamese passed by holding an AK-47 “Airborne Killer” assault rifle at the ready. Holy shit! Only two in a recon or combat patrol was unlikely. Surely, he was the second of a two-man point element. An eyes-right by either of those bushfighters, then a quick AK burst or grenade toss and we three were dead. Hays and Ski read my body language. The NVA walked on. Abruptly, a bestial survivalism overcame wrenching panic as I filled with the fatalism of a matador and readied for the next moments.
Sometimes it is easier for a young man to die than an old one. Death held little dread for me back then before I built a stake in life. Death hovered always and everywhere, a storm cloud winding up to wild pitch a bolt of random homicide, or worse. I was hardened to it. Were we doomed? Likely. What if any of us were hit, cut off, miles from friendlies? No one would be left behind. It would be over fast. But maybe we could bushwhack these first two in or near the creek and stall the rest. I wanted to kill them, but it was risky—anything was risky. Wasn’t action called for? The war wisdom of my avuncular stateside squad leader, SSgt. Oliver, a Korean War combat paratrooper, came to mind: “You’ll never get out of this world alive.” The choice was an impossible one. My gut knew the odds were long, but hope had its way.
A heavyweight life-altering event can blind-side you with a sucker punch anytime. Slapdash survival footwork must do. Possibilities are ill-considered. Desperation obliges instinct. Action displaces doubt. Options sorted through in an instant while I moved to the inevitable. It was ass backwards––action preceded thought, answer fronted question. A good offense was the best defense and a reason to kill. Suddenly, all choice left and the only thing to do was just let it all happen. Somebody would die.If the two NVA were point men of a force coming on the trail, tactical sense called for a flank guard paralleling it in or near the creek. Surely, the flanker would uncover us and we were dead, or much worse—captured. Should we ignore these two, just quail against the bank and clutch to hope? The Master Sergeant had directed that we avoid engagement, but the bare vulnerability of these unsuspecting lead NVA aroused my aggression. Desperation to somehow halt the oncoming main body before they hit us spurred it.
No professional or personal decisions since then have had such import. None has been formed in such haste. It was all mindset and nerves––no heart. Like sunlight focused through a lens, all I had ever learned or experienced converged upon that moment. It was a fulcrum of self-knowledge, a continental divide in life. I had to get back on my toes. This was the test.
I was game. We would dry-gulch the fuckers in the water, or die with pluck in the try. Life’s most invigorating and intoxicating feeling electrified me. Was I focused! Hays stayed put with the radio and covered the rear. Gripping his single-shot M-79 grenade launcher loaded with a buckshot round, Ski fast-crawled with me along the sand spit to a good ambush point near where the trail crossed the creek upstream. A screen of bamboo obscured the entry point. Reeds hid us 30 meters away at a jog in the stream. Our field of fire over the water was clear.
Raw luck had been our benefactor. Misery, monotony and hollow stomachs had dulled our survival edge. Carelessness should have cost us our lives. On patrols we had surprised clusters of the enemy just like we had been. They died. These two NVA missed a good chance. Now it was our turn. I cranked my M-16 rifle’s selector switch to full automatic, “rock-n-roll” we called it. An extra magazine sat tight just a grab away. Ski quickly laid out 40mm grenade rounds. They might follow that shotgun round into the breech of his grenade launcher, but in the stream only his first round had time to score. The 27 heavy double-aught buckshot in there would sieve a man at this range.
Ski and I lurked, bellies to the sand, weapons set, eyes zeroed dead center on the green growth where trail met stream. Seconds were minutes. The stream gurgled and bubbled as if to mock my hammering heartbeat. At last, the thicket gently trembled. My trigger finger tensed. Then the leaves shook. Hands carefully split the foliage then a head peeked out. The NVA’s head pivoted upstream then down, right at us. My eyes took a snapshot. Years later my mind would print it in ever enlarging image. The man gazed into eternity. My body tightened and froze like a viper poised for the strike. He stepped clear, committed a sandaled right foot into the calf-high creek and steadied. Egg-sized stones underfoot offered only a slight distraction. In went the left foot. Inexplicably, the NVA’s rifle slung barrel-down from his right shoulder. A dozen dulcet splashes sounded above the riffling water. For balance his elbows winged out like a vulture. Such flat-footed exposure stirred my blood lust. I expected him to reach the other bank and cover the crossing of his buddy, just as his buddy now stood watch for him. If we dropped only the second man with our initial burst, his automatic AK-47 would be out of the game. Then, in a shoot-out with the first man, no one would have cover, but surprise would be an edge for us. We had more firepower; he had only a semi-automatic SKS rifle with a ten-round magazine. The ambush would halt the main force, I craved.
They were kids, too. Perhaps an illusion of security on home ground lured them to fatal error, or the trailing advance of their buddies pushed them to haste. Before the leader even reached center stream, the second man sallied from the foliage, his AK-47 ready for business at port arms. He toed the water. What luck! This set up was book perfect. Both NVA had wet feet and were focused on the stream, unwary. By instinct, the leader was mine. Buckshot is a close-in killer, so Ski took the nearer second man. This was a free throw. As in a one-sided ball game, though, points on the board really mattered only to the shooters on the line.
It was as ruthless as a gangland hit. There was no justice here. The law of the jungle reigned. It was real life. My index finger tweaked. Automatic fire erupted. Beside me—silence. Why didn’t Ski fire? Was he shot from the rear? Was the main force on us? Not yet. Ski’s lone shotgun round was a dud––Murphy’s Law in play. With no time to crack open the grenade launcher and reload, Ski swore, grabbed his .45 pistol and wildly blazed away. The dud startled me for a nanosecond and interrupted my fire. Four NVA feet churned water like piranha in feeding frenzy. My 20-round magazine emptied in three bursts. Before I could slap in another, both NVA reached the bank. Slack-jawed, the lead man dropped his rifle at water’s edge, stepped a few paces, and tumbled into a heap. The second man got across and went down, but scrambled into the bush. Ski fired grenades after him. If the runaway still had breath those 40mm blasts walloped skedaddle into him.
Reflex spun my mental-mode dial from killing over to survival and locked it in. Adrenaline gushed through vein and capillary. Those bastards had friends on the way I agonized, scurrying back to the radio. Within minutes of my desperate call for a pre-plotted fire mission, covering shellfire crashed close in around us, then I walked it down the trail.
The lead man lay upon his pack in the streamside grass, one knee jackknifed erect like a tombstone. I plucked his rifle from the water without breaking stride as Ski and I scrambled to him. Screening artillery slammed in close about. I have no memory of where my bullets struck him. His unblinking eyes, stuck wide in terror, stared like black marbles and seemed to fasten on mine. The mouth opened and closed repeatedly, gnawing at the uncaring world like a caught fish. Out pumped a bloody cud. Then it quit, gently closing for one last time as he really did pass to the other side.
Then I touched death. And death touched me. His warmth and sweat tagged my fingers as I scavenged his pockets. I remember his smell. In fresh death his floppy arms and limp neck muscles held no suggestion of their panicked contractions minutes ago. Nervy tension and strain goaded Ski and I with feral desperation. Ski drew his knife to slice the straps of the NVA’s rucksack to pillage its meager booty. I grabbed stripper clips fat with SKS ammo and switched a camouflage parachute panel from his pocket to mine. It would shield my sleeping face from ravenous mosquitoes for months. His head had rolled aside when Ski cut the ruck and I snatched up the NVA bush hat beneath it.
My eyes scanned his image like a sculptor and buried it deep inside, out of sight and out of my way. Time and tranquility exhumed the likeness and I stumbled over it. I would see that face forever and look upon it with attitudes that changed with life’s seasons. He was a North Vietnamese Army regular, “hard-core” we called them. He looked fresher than our dirty, unshaven and wrung-out look. His coal black hair, thick and straight, was well-trimmed high on the sides—a good military haircut. Like the rifle, his khaki uniform was clean and new. No whiskers sprouted on his amber chin. It was the tender look of youth—an infant-ryman.
Big trouble and trauma distort time. Only minutes had passed since my first eyeful of him. It was an age. Now, again, it was our time to be killed, but not like this––shot down off guard, without a fight, to choke on our own blood. When the artillery fire lifted, we ran flat out up the valley like frantic fugitives and ducked into a large cane patch. The daylight hours passed quietly, except for Hays’ pneumonia cough, which we muffled into a wadded-up poncho liner. The night seemed to last for days as nocturnal NVA searched for us. Afraid to talk, I communicated with headquarters by clicks of breaking squelch on the radio handset. Light beams along the trail sliced into the black night. A flashlight? Dogs barked. Hays hacked.
Daylight broke open a clear sky. Out fell a swoop-in cavalry rescue. For identification I popped a red smoke grenade as the pilot directed, and the Huey set into a nearby paddy. Two gunships circled and plunged like swallows, spewing suppressing firepower as we bolted to the chopper. After the flight, officers from 2nd battalion headquarters debriefed me in their cozy firebase sanctuary. One cast a larcenous glance at my trophy SKS rifle with folding bayonet. Later he stole it. I rejoined the platoon.
It was as if our lucky pony team had survived a head-on crash without a mark. Yet after crawling from the wreckage, each man cared only about his stomach collapsed against the spine. A chopper brought hot breakfast to the company that morning. We had arrived too late, but gobbled the scraps—breadcrumbs and congealed bacon grease.
This engagement was unremarkable, almost routine, in its context—just one breezy gust in a gale of war. For me the moment melted seamlessly into the next and the one after. There was no musing upon it or notation of its gravitas. Dire months, each filled with a lifetime of risk and excitement, preceded and followed that day. Regret never entered the scene. I was heedless of the dead son’s mother whose heart would spoil with mordant grief over her missing boy. Mementos of the day repose in my den, a tribute of sorts to one dead at my hand, killed in rancor, but dead with honor—relics that celebrate the survival of the young soldier’s killer and highlight the harshness of reality. The mortal outcome that day was so nearly upended. In a strange sense, it validates my living. His spirit seems to walk beside me.
Audacity and killing, rather than cowering in concealment to await death by default, somehow was fulfilling. For decades I harbored a secret regret that I had not killed more enemy than I did that year. They were a hated foe, killers like us, killers of us. No moral or ethical yellow lights flashed in combat nor have I ever seen any in the rearview mirror. But my thoughts ransack the memory bank hoarding that day and its epoch. Day and night dreams inspect each moment in detail and overview. My soul knows them like my tongue audits a broken tooth. You get sore on the sharp points. Reflection gropes after them unconsciously and uncomfortably again and again, but they never dull. Calluses formed against the rawest spikes. My inscrutable hard feelings and their causes refuse to stand up and identify themselves.
A lifetime of dead reckoning has yet to navigate and exit combat’s emotional maze. It all dead-ended; there is no undoing. The ghouls of war cast a shadow across my otherwise sunny path. Any joy or satisfaction of life must always buck against an aspect of otherness dealt out by killing, however justified. Then mismatches with all after. It’s hard to fit in. I ponder without remorse that others would be living if I had been shot dead on that intersection of trail and stream, a crossroads of killing and an intercrossing in life. On all four, I am still climbing out of that fateful valley, head up. I keep watch lest ghosts bushwhack me.
The war is ever-present. Harsh attitudes laid down in that bare-knuckle world of my last teenage year—a dog year—are in stone. Weight of time and silence ossified them. Someday I might crack the code of those old modes dialed in hard and rusted tight. I doubt it. The culture and ethic of Vietnam combat sticks like a birthmark. When suddenly I had to slam on the stateside brakes, I fishtailed and skidded, but kept on the road and left no marks. I sucked it up and it hung out the other end—but I hit all green lights.
The Vietnam War, like all wars, for those who really fought it was another dimension of being. Many, unafraid and dry shod in comfort and secure in righteous purity, snobbishly judged us over sips of Bordeaux and nibbles of Brie, noses aloft in their rarefied air. Shame on them. There are no regrets for what I did, only for what I did not do. My lucky survival struck off a streak of good fortune that is still running. But the experience and its memory cache are the font of wettest tears, tugging relentless swells of sentiment—anger, pride, guilt, and grief—from my depths. And so that familiar face stares out from yesterday, no longer an enemy, but a gruesome reminder of a harsh world of consequence. There are no what ifs—only what was and what is to be.
Stephen Saunders enlisted in the airborne infantry and served in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division in 1966-1967 as a machine gunner and squad leader. In 1975 he graduated from law school and began a 37-year law practice in rural northeast Iowa. He published Breaking Squelch, A Vietnam Introspective, a memoir of combat experience, in 2005. He and his wife have three daughters and seven granddaughters. Steve is retired and lives in Garnavillo, Iowa where he gardens, canoes, and writes about his Army experiences.