Five Minutes Is a Lifetime
By Edward F. Black, Jr.
Oh shit! I thought before I died.
I saw a green tracer flash through the open door missing the crew chief by inches.
I heard the bullets leaving before I could click my eyes to see the multiple holes in the side
of the chopper between Sisson and Jones. They both bent over after the fact as we began the
erratic, evasive, action of trying to land in a hot LZ.
“In thee O Lord do I place my trust…” is a mantra that I can’t stop playing in my mind.
“Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.”
More hits high up over my head and I hunch over my rifle and hold on as the chopper goes
down…fast. I’m not hit. I have a feeling of euphoria. I want to cheer. I want to let out a rebel
yell. I want to shit myself because I can see mortar rounds impacting in the Landing Zone we are
I’m keenly aware of the smells around me. The chopper’s fuel that smells very diesel like;
the farts; and the fear. That rank body odor smell of fear is predominant; but it’s like the heat. I
silently endure it with everyone else and pretend it’s not there. It’s never mentioned. And neither
is the smell of blood. Blood and fear. The two smells that have been burned into my mind and
tattooed onto my soul. And I’m sure it’s the same for every grunt.
That invisible NVA machine gunner is fixated on hitting the crew chief/gunner who fires his
own orange tracers back along the green tracer stream. My experience had always been that
tracer rounds were yellow orange. It surprised me the first time I experienced the green North
Viet tracers. But after that there was never a mistake about who was shooting at whom.
Out of nervous habit I glance at my watch that sits face down under my wrist, 6:55. We’re
coming in and I stand, more of a squat, hunched over with the rest of the squad as the chopper
drops its tail and we touchdown. This will be a big operation, the entire battalion is landing
For this landing I ended up in one of the old H-34’s that everyone referred to as a
grasshopper when compared to the Hueys. It was familiar to me from training and I am very
comfortable flying in it. But its main drawback is only one door that we all try to get out as fast
as possible; unlike getting on both sides of the Huey. Especially with the load I have.
Along with my flak jacket and pack I have nine 20 round magazines for my rifle and three
canteens on my cartridge belt along with my bayonet, battle dressings and four hand grenades. I
have two bandoleers of 100 rounds each crisscrossed over my shoulders and across my chest
The crew chief pushes my pack to get me out faster and the chopper is back in the air in an
instant. I watch the green tracers following it, and the others as they fly away. The tracer streams
bend in different directions like living snakes; very deadly ones.
There is no feeling lonelier than watching the helicopters leaving me in the middle of a
hostile region where I know everyone wants to kill me. Especially the enemy who never take
infantry prisoners. They kill us in place when given the opportunity because they themselves are
being killed in large numbers; and they have no place to keep prisoners. So we all know that
once on the ground it’s fight and win, or die.
Sometimes, way back in the darkest corners of my mind I want to hide and cry like a little
boy; but know I can’t. I don’t even like thinking about it because I’m a Marine and I kick ass, I
don’t piss and moan about it.
The choppers are gone and I can hear the, “Crump, crump,” of impacting mortar rounds and
see the explosions about thirty meters away.
Let me live God, and I’ll be a good boy, I promise.
The platoon is up and running toward a tree line to get out of the impact area and I run with
them. I know if I get hit no one is going to stop for me. Just as I won’t stop for anyone else who
gets hit now. Instructions are very clear. Never stop when moving through a barrage of
incoming, it only creates more causalities.
I feel like I’m moving in slow motion, everything looks half speed to me. The NVA mortars
have moved from my platoon and have begun dropping onto the Third platoon who are on my
Thank you God.
But I feel guilty because I can see them hitting behind the slowest running Marine over
there. The impacting shells are very close behind him. It’s like watching a football game and if it
wasn’t so deadly serious I’d laugh and cheer.
He’s running as fast as he can looking back over his shoulder at the exploding shells. He’s
holding his helmet onto his head with his left hand while holding his rifle vertically straight out
in front of him with his right hand. The only reason he’s alive, that I can see, is that the NVA
gunners can’t adjust their tubes fast enough. The mortars are bursting where the Marines were a
few seconds before.
The fire has shifted back to us and I’m full speed again as I get into the tree line where I join
the rest of the squad setting up a defensive perimeter. Then I cheer with everyone else when a
couple of planes come over and drop napalm where they think the NVA positions are located.
“Yea. Burn those mother fuckers,” I yell, happy to see pain being passed back to the other
side; and I watch the yellow and orange fireballs rising, followed by dense black smoke. I
check my watch. Shit. I’ve only been on the ground a little over a minute?
Corpsmen are back out in the field with some others to retrieve our causalities. I have the
highest respect for them. They go where most Marines dare not. They move into fire that scares
the shit out of me. I wish I had their balls.
Once, after more than a few beers in our base camp I told the platoon corpsman, Doc Jones,
just that. The doc took a long sip of beer and said seriously, “Not me. I don’t make house
“Fuck you, doc,” I replied.
“No, I’m serious. Most guys when they get hit lay and yell for help. Shit, they can move
themselves. The first thing I do is yell,” the doc cupped his hands around his mouth like a
megaphone, “Can you move?”
I snickered at him. “Fuck you, doc.”
I watch the scene for a few seconds taking it all in. The wounded are carefully laid in a
poncho and carried to the trees. The dead are wrapped in one then set to the side to fly out after
the wounded. Only their boots are visible. Thankfully there are only two, but that’s two too
“Man, fuckin Charlie definitely lives in this valley,” said MacDonald, who is in my fire team
and laying on my right scanning ahead of us. I nod. You’ve got that right.
“We’re in the Arizona, brother,” I reply.
Mac grimaces and nods in return.
Marines have a thing for naming enemy base areas and free fire zones after Wild West
locations like Dodge City and the Arizona Territory or other things that mark its personality.
That’s because any man found in these places is usually a gunfighter and fair game in combat.
There’s also the Purple Heart Trail that runs through Happy Valley. Named because it’s a place
of pain, hurt and combat the exact opposite of happy.
Today we all know there are at least two regiments of NVA waiting for us in the Arizona
and they are tough, committed soldiers.
Our artillery and 4.2 mortars are hitting the NVA who are dug into some villages around us.
Their barrage goes on for another minute. During that time I watch my squad leader moving
quickly along our positions. He passed me and said to Hood, who is my fire team leader, laying
on my left, “You’ll lead out. We’re going to attack into that village,” and he indicates the one in
front of us with his thumb. “First platoon will stay here and get the dead and wounded onto the
Medevac choppers. They’ll join us later. Get ready.”
“Right,” Hood replied. The sergeant moved to his next team passing the word.
Hood looked at me. I have the fire team’s automatic rifle. “I’m ready to rock and roll,” I said
before he could say anything. I looked around and can see most of my platoon and the Third
platoon getting ready to move out. Explosions from our artillery are a continuous noise, but very
comforting. It means we’re not alone. Someone is out there to help if we need it.
Hood nudges my arm. “It’ll be good to get some payback on these fuckers.”
“Amen, brother,” I replied.
“Amen, brother…amen, brother…Y’all think you’re a reverend, Timlin,” said Johnson
lying on his back, with his hands folded behind his head, on the other side of Hood.
I look over at him. “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on. Just watch to our front.”
Hood and MacDonald snicker but Johnson doesn’t think it’s funny and sits up.
“Hey, fucker. How ’bout I come over there and smack you upside your head.”
“There’s no anchor in your ass,” I tell him, “if you feel froggie jump on over here.”
Hood snarls, “Knock the shit off. Save it for the NVA.”
The heat is brutal and we’re all on edge getting ready to jump off in the attack. The silence
when the artillery stops feels like deafness.
“Saddle up!” yells the platoon sergeant and we move out into another open field toward the
village about 150 meters away. My fire team is leading in a diamond formation. I can feel the
invisible enemy aiming at me and I brace myself for the impact of a bullet. It’s a real physical
sensation to me that I’ve experienced ever since I was wounded. I’d always believed it was the
other guy who got killed and wounded in combat. The thought always gave me peace of mind
until I was shot after a landing a few months earlier. And even though I wasn’t seriously fucked
up it removed that belief from my head. I realized it could happen to me and it put me into a
whole new frame of mind.
So far everything is quiet but I can still sense the invisible enemy aiming at me. The field is
surrounded by trees that seemed to be property markers and ahead I think I can see the bamboo
tops of bunkers like interlaced fingers sticking up from the ground. I’m very concerned that
more incoming will come down on us as our two platoons sweep forward on line very quickly,
almost at double time, toward the village.
I can see a main trail leading into the village under the trees on the right and hear the squad
leader say, “Guide right to the trees.”
So far, so good.
I carefully enter the trees and look down the trail toward the village.
“Set up here for a minute,” said Hood and we set up a quick perimeter as the rest of the
platoon moves into the trees. Then the first squad leap frogged past me to hit the village. The
squad leader motions to follow them.
The first shot passes us as I watch the squad in front of mine when they move around the
first hut, further into the village.
What the fuck was that?
I hit the deck along with everyone else. The detonation is huge. Its overpressure sweeps
over me as debris and body parts from the point men, along with their gear, rain down on us
as we lay there. A hand drops not far from me and I can’t stop staring at it. On a bush nearby a
string of intestines is draped like garland on a Christmas tree.
Please God. Help me stay alive. The little boy is back in my mind and wants to cry for
someone to come help him.
As the dust settled I hear the “rat-tat-tat-tat” and the supersonic “Crack! crack, crack, zzzzz,
zzzzz,” of incoming AK fire passing very close. Along with the green tracers from a hidden
machine gun firing from in the village. The tracers make a “pffitt” sound as they pass close by
We all began a brisk return fire into the huts and where we can see the traces are coming
from. I hear multiple calls for “Corpsman up!” as we get onto our feet and double time into the
village. Still attacking.
I see Doc Jones kneeling, seemingly unconcerned with tracers flashing by him, as he
carefully works on a wounded Marine. The incoming firing is continuous. It clips tree branches
and kicks up dirt to my side; but I kept moving.
The mantra begins again: In thee O Lord do I place my trust…
At times I bend almost in half trying to make myself a smaller target. Tracers continue to
flash by me and they set the dry grass and weeds on fire. One or two shoot straight up through
the trees at a 90° angle after hitting a rock or whatever.
Fate…sometimes it helps you and sometimes in kills you. This time it helped. The NVA
got nervous with our fast moving attack and sprung their ambush too soon. Thankfully the
majority of us were still outside of the kill zone. Now…we were entering into the center of
their prepared fortified positions through their own trench works.
I was shocked to see that between the trail and the mouth of the trench was a barbed wire
emplacement reminiscent of World War I that stood six feet high and was set in a “Z” pattern. It
forced anyone entering it to zigzag through under fire to get into the dubious safety of the trench.
I watch as some troops ahead of me move through the wire. Several get hit and fall,
creating more of an obstacle. I rub my sweat-streaked face and glance at my watch. 7:05.
Hood points at Johnson, then at me, and finally at Mac. We moved as quickly as possible. The
grass on the other side of the gate is burning along with at least one hut sitting along the trench. I
hear the “Crack, crack, crack” and “zzzzz” of bullets, and the “pffitt” of the tracers flashing by
I’m dripping with sweat and I can hear my heart pounding in my ears. Mud runs down my
arms in rivulets from the sweat cutting through the dirt.
Please God…keep me alive.
Johnson goes into the wire. I’m only a few steps behind him. It seems to take me hours to
run five meters to the first forty-five degree angle, trying not to get stuck on the wire and step over a dead Marine. There I turn right another five meters and over another body. He’s still alive but
seriously wounded and mentally elsewhere. I can see his lips moving in a conversation with
someone. I make it to the next angle. Then I turn left to the trench. I feel like I’m in a dream
where I want to run fast but some invisible force is holding me back.
Johnson moves into the trench.
I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna make it.
“Crack, crack, crack, crack.”
The impact of the bullets turns Johnson around. I see him go down a few feet inside the
trench and I can tell he’s dead instantly. My problem is he’s laying on his back blocking the
trench. I’m as low as I can get. Mac is pushing at my legs trying to get out of the wire. The smell
of fear is everywhere.
The trench itself was dug to Vietnamese standards – very narrow for me and the other
Marines. If I stand up my canteens will touch each of the trench walls. In fact, I have to turn
sideways to even lay down in it.
The fire overhead is extremely heavy forcing me to stay well below the lip of the trench and
I have to crawl over Johnson to continue on. As I crawled over him, more like swimming a side
stroke in those narrow confines, I look into his face. His eyes are open and two tears have formed
at the corners. I’ve seen it before but only on those killed in battle. It’s a phenomenon referred to
as dead man tears.
Johnson’s mouth hangs open and his throat is a black hole that seems to go down to forever.
I’m sorry they killed you man. Forgive me for crawling over your face. I continued forward,
followed by Mac and Hood and everyone else.
I’m moving forward, ready for anything. The NVA have dug small individual shelters in the
walls of the trench. The ground is littered with NVA helmets, letters, family photos and pieces of
gear. I can see long smears of bright fresh blood along those trench walls on both sides and know
that we’re getting them too.
Dirt walls and red blood. Funny the shit that sticks in your mind.
“First squad out of the trench, second continue down the trench,” yells the platoon
commander, and the Marines in front of me quickly climb out. I’m the point man now and
suddenly two NVA sneak around a slight bend in the trench both of them bent over to stay
below the lip. They must think we all got out.
I fired a full twenty round magazine into them and quickly reload. It’s messy crawling
over their bloody torn up bodies; but better them than me. I can hear the NVA yelling back and
forth to each other outside of the trench on my right.
Fuck. They’re circling around us.
“Mac, grenades!” I yell. He and I both throw a grenade at the sound of the voices and are
rewarded with a short yell and then someone crying. A critical-hurt crying.
“Everyone out of the trench, pass it on,” yells my squad leader from somewhere behind me.
I’m still in the point so I jump out of the trench as fast as I can and look for some cover.
There are a number of NVA bodies lying around and a bunker is furiously burning. An NVA
was killed as he tried to crawl out of it. His partially charred body is frozen in the push-up
position with his head thrown back looking into the trees. Another charred body is laying several
feet away and a loose pig is feeding on it, unconcerned with the fighting going on.
“Move out, we’re gonna push them down toward that bunker line ahead of us,” yells Hood and I get up looking for my next position of cover and move forward. An NVA jumps up out of a spider trap a few feet in front of me. I don’t think he realized how close I was. I shoot him in the cheek beside his nose. His eyes look sad as the back of his head flies off like a big divot.
Now I can see other NVA jumping out of fighting holes and running away toward their next
position, some dropping their packs. We all begin shooting them and I can plainly see the dust
jumping from their clothing with the hits. Some of them drop immediately. Some stagger before
they drop. And some keep moving and make it to the bunker complex that is clearly visible.
Our attack has slowed down. We pushed them out of this trench line and a few bunkers and
are taking a breath to get ready to continue on. I don’t want to think about attacking those next
bunkers. I get behind some cover and take a drink from my canteen. At the same time I squint at
my wrist watch. The lens has condensation and is heat-frosted from my exertions. I make out the
face and I’m surprised it’s 7:10. Only five minutes since I went into the wire. Fuck, it feels like a
Mac and I get up to continue moving.
“Crack, crack, thump, smack.”
My helmet is knocked off and somehow I’m on the ground. I can hear Mac screaming for a corpsman, yelling his leg is off.
Where is my rifle? I see it and crawl forward to reach it. An NVA appears from a spider hole I didn’t notice.
Our eyes meet for a microsecond….
Edward Black is a retired law enforcement officer living in Pennsylvania. He writes science fiction to keep busy. He served in the Marine Corps from 1962-67 and was a Grunt in RVN, 1965-66, with both 4th and 1st Marines. He has two Purple Hearts.