Setting the Woods on Fire
by Robert Goswitz
Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam
June 15, 1972
Private Ed Lansky felt dispirited, seized by a debilitating lethargy. Always afoot on endless patrol his fatigue went beyond the physical; it included a burden of iniquity that accumulated as he walked.
He stood at rest now, looking down at his blackened boots, wondering how much farther he could go. With a shrug of his shoulders, he scanned the burnt prairie grass that covered the foothills in which he waited. His eyes settled on the ground his platoon had just patrolled.
The back-trail brought his entire ten-month tour to mind. Memory took him over the prairies, into the hot flat paddy land, down into the rainforest, then climbing through storms into the fog-shrouded mountains. The faces and places were blurred by the speed of the walk. Exhausting. He needed rest now.
“Hey, Lansky, c’mon, I want to check out our positions and make sure everyone is covered. Need the radio in case it comes in early.” Lieutenant Halvorsen’s order got Lansky moving again.
“They’re never early, never late, and never miss. Always right on the button.” Sergeant Tiny, all six foot six of him, joined Lansky and the lieutenant ambling along the top of the blackened ridge behind the platoon position.
“Think we’re far enough back, Tiny?” LT stopped to glass a tree line three thousand meters away.
“Yeah, we’re far enough away. Don’t worry. No short rounds with these guys.”
They continued their walk. The platoon was spread across the charred ground in groups of two. As Lansky passed his friend Vernon Huddle’s position, he noticed an open Bible on the ground. Lansky knelt quickly and whispered, “Are we at the crossroads?”
“Not yet, I’m just keepin’ my Bible open to the thirty-seventh Psalm whenever I can.”
Lansky was not a Bible reader though now he felt like becoming one. He hurried to catch up with LT. It took all his strength.
“Few minutes to go,” yelled LT. “Don’t forget, keep your head down.” He started walking back toward his own position. “Five minutes! C’mon, let’s get back up to our spot. Five minutes, everyone!”
The men lay prone, helmets on. LT, Tiny, and Lansky joined them.
He positioned himself as low as possible on the barren hill, his arm turned darker each time he moved it across the charred earth.
This area had been torched to deny cover to the enemy. With agent orange banned, igniting diesel-soaked vegetation with M-60 fire became the new defoliant. An accelerant doubled the flames advantage in the dry season. Once lit nothing stopped it for miles.
Lansky tried to tell himself it didn’t matter. There was a time months ago when he might have felt angry about the destruction. But that day had passed. It was more than he could handle at this point.
“One minute,” yelled LT. “One minute to go.”
It was quiet.
Lansky checked the second hand on his watch. He wondered if something might happen, if this might be it, the final rest. The end.
The minute passed. Then another. The men stared at the tree line. Some of them began to whisper, wondering what had happened.
Lansky didn’t share their concern. He just watched the target with his ear resting on his ink-colored forearm.
A piercing white light arced over the western edge of the woods, expanding violently, a massive shroud of concussion, collapsing, gone.
Ejections of brown soil began covering the trees. The ground erupted silently. White light and brown soil billowed across the target.
The earth trembled. A distant rumble became a heavy vibration, the sound of thick fabric tearing. Not on
the surface, but deep within the ground. The hill on which Lansky lay shook with growing intensity.
Soil rose continuously over the target, roiling the air, climbing, forming clouds. The scale of the eruptions dwarfed the countryside.
It was over in a few seconds.
The B-52s had dropped forty 2,000-pound bombs through the middle of the tree line, each bomb placed in a precise pattern of alternating rows.
Soon the earth became still. The rumble faded.
LT sat up. “Ain’t nothing alive in those woods anymore.”
“Not much alive up here,” said Lansky under his breath.
“Whad’ya say, Lansky?”
“Anything from the CO?”
“What’s the matter with you, Lansky? You look tired.”
“I am tired.”
The radio handset crackled.
“Hey, LT, it’s the CO.” Lansky handed the receiver to his officer and stood up, uniform the color of coal.
Brown clouds formed an irregular smudge drifting across the horizon. The woods remained obscured.
LT put down the receiver and yelled at Tiny, “Mount up, let’s get on the line and move out. The CO and the other platoons are going to block for us. We’ll drive toward the trees. A LOACH will work out ahead of us.”
The men stood and shouldered their packs. They formed on line, blackened by the scorched earth, arms and faces smeared with charcoal-colored sweat.
As they slipped off the ridge, a small helicopter flew swiftly overhead, then down between the foothills.
It flew below their position, leading the way for the platoon, carving nimble patterns above the ground.
A gunner sat in each hatch, wearing the brown aviator’s coverall, helmet, and black face shield with M-60s in their hands. The pilot flew sideways or banked steeply to keep his shooters at advantageous angles. The LOACH hopped in and out of sight as it covered each of the broad boulder-strewn hills, its gunners sat impassively in the doorway until a possible target was overflown. Then, they leaned into their harnesses and pointed the M-60s into the boulders or trees.
Lansky didn’t watch the LOACH for long.
Being on the move locked his attention on the next hundred meters. His head pivoted slowly 180 degrees.
It always did when he walked.
His boots stirred up the dusky ash of the burnt prairie, adding another layer of soot to his face. His eyes watered, the earth smelled of sulfur, sweat broke out after several hundred meters. Stygian water beaded his arms, catching light like a string of ebony pearls.
Men blackened from boots to helmets marched along, souls of the lost, faces shadowed, inky rings formed around crusty eyes.
This used to be the best time for Lansky. Walking, never knowing what was next, his need for survival kept his mind focused on the present. The next hundred meters the only thing that existed, every faculty occupied, sensing what might lie ahead.
Now, fatigue dulled him, his perception lost its edge, distractions grew. He walked with less focus, but pressed on.
Days were losing their identity. Artificial boundaries of time were broken and blurred. The months that had passed seemed like a long walk. When something happened, he remembered it as where and when he’d been walking.
The M-60 gunners in the LOACH brought Lansky back to the present. Long bursts of machine-gun fire pummeled a rock formation.
The small helicopter banked and turned above the rocks, allowing the gunners to fire straight down as they passed over. Tracers howled off the rocks, bouncing in all directions.
The grunts lay on their stomachs, weapons pointed at the rocks, and watched the LOACH work. The gunners ceased fire.
“Black Dog, this is Gooney-Bird, over.”
“Go, Bird,” Lansky spoke into his handset.
“Rodg, Dog. Had some movement in them rocks. We’ll hang around until you take a closer look, over.”
“Roger, copy, Gooney-Bird, over. Hey! LT! The LOACH driver saw movement in the rocks, he’s gonna wait for us to check it out.”
“Yeah, easy for him to say.”
LT was about to request volunteers.
Sergeant Tiny made that unnecessary. “I’m on my way, LT.” Several men followed. Most of the grunts sat up or assumed a kneeling position. Lansky remained prone. LT looked at him, sensing something was wrong.
Lansky responded to the commo-check from the RTO in Tiny’s patrol. He was behaving oddly but still functioning, cool and professional, so LT let it pass.
Tiny returned after a complete inspection of the rocky area, finding nothing.
On the move again, LT became distracted by the look on Lansky’s face. Fatigue and depression were obvious.
Secretly, LT felt the same. He’d had his bouts with moral fatigue, not as deep as Lansky’s, yet there were days when LT questioned his ability to walk another step.
He looked down at his feet breaking through the burnt stubs of grass and noticed Lansky’s doing the same.
They approached the target area.
Flames waved over the bombed-out woods.
LT was not a religious man but he said a short prayer for the day when their walk would end.
Robert Goswitz served in Vietnam from September of 1971 to August of 1972 in the 196th Brigade, the last American Army infantry unit in South Vietnam. He received the Combat Infantry Badge and the Bronze Star for his service. This story is an excerpt from Robert’s unpublished novel, The Last Man in Vietnam.