19 Feb The Only Vietnam Story I’ve Never Told
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"The Only Vietnam Story I've Never Told"Written by Sam Riding
Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
“Better Run Through the Jungle”
My name is Michael Hasford. I am seventy-two years old and I have terminal bowel cancer. I haven’t told anyone this story in nearly fifty years, the last time being before I was made to sign the State Secrets Act and bound to silence by threat of imprisonment. My doctor says I have around five months at best and although I cannot say I have had a particularly long or happy life, I am ready to die. My life has been longer and happier that it had any right to be and now I will tell you why. I don’t care what the legal implications are, or if whoever reading this chooses to believe it or not, I just have to get this off my chest. To quote a fellow Marine, far more skilled in writing than myself, ‘what follows is neither true nor false but what I know’.
In the summer of ‘66, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps during a fit of idealism. While my friends were tuning in or dropping out, I followed my Grandfather’s footsteps into Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children with a view to combat in Vietnam. Although I had my pick of colleges on the east coast and my Marine recruiter had repeatedly tried to convince me to attend Officer Candidate School, I had made up my mind to join as a rank and file private. I was determined to see the kind of action my Grandfather had. I was determined to make him proud.
So it was that I found myself stepping off a C130 transport plane at Da Nang in early 1967. As part of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion – Fifth Marines, I was in a combat unit that did plenty of damage to the Vietcong in the area around Da Nang and in turn took plenty of casualties. One of the first sights that greeted me as the belly of the transport plane opened and the wave of intense heat hit us was that of the thick, olive-green body bags that replaced us as cargo. They were all full.
My first week or so on base was tough; sleep did not come easy thanks to the scores of mosquitoes and the loud bangs of outgoing artillery. So I was relieved when I received a night’s sentry duty, I needed something, anything, to keep my mind occupied. Little did I know it was nothing but more time for reflection and I was beginning to seriously doubt my decision to enlist. Guys in my platoon on their second tours were talking about the reaction from folks back home. ‘Baby killers’ they called us, ‘Nazis’. One guy said the prettiest girl he ever saw wearing blue and white beads and a peace button spat in his space as he walked down Fifth Avenue in his combat fatigues.
At around midnight, I saw a figure approaching and just about discerned the double shoulder bars of a senior officer. Captain Espera was a legend on the base, an LAPD captain before he joined the corps he was highly respected by the men below him and an excellent combat leader.
“Nice night for it, huh?” I couldn’t make out his face in the darkness, but his warm smile carried on his voice.
“Aye, sir.” I squeaked, a kind of star struck.
“Hasford, old English name, right? Where you from, Marine?” Captain Espera fidgeted with a large, silver ring that glinted on his finger in the low light.
“North Carolina sir, Hubert.”
“I know it, my wife has family there, we visit whenever I get time away from Lejeune. Must have been a wonderful place to grow up, I hear the fishing is spectacular in the spring.”
“Thank you, sir, but I wouldn’t know. Me and my brother spent most of our time shooting squirrels with our B.B. guns.” I couldn’t help but smile as I spoke.
“Ah!” Captain Espera chuckled. “My man after my own heart, I hunt buck up near Willow Creek!”
There was a brief silence and I found myself growing less and less anxious, the Captain had a reassuring presence, a true quality of leadership and something I grew increasingly appreciative of.
“Have you been in combat yet, Hasford?”
“No, sir,” I said, a little embarrassed. “I haven’t had the opportunity.”
“You won’t have to wait long,” he said, producing a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes and offering me one, “but you’ll still have to wait. I’m leading a pretty secretive reconnaissance mission tomorrow night and it’s not cherries, no offense, Private.”
The Captain took a long drag of his smoke and looked up at the moon for a moment before returning his gaze to me. The moon seems a lot larger in that part of the world; whatever power it holds seems amplified hanging thick in the humid night air.
“Keep up the good work, Marine. You make K/3/5 proud now.”
“Aye, sir!” I said, beaming. His mild manner had alleviated my anxieties and I was determined to make him proud to have me in his unit.
A few days went by before word began circulating about the Captain’s recon patrol. I was working in the galley with a young marine from Chicago, Lance Corporal Lincoln Holsey, self-proclaimed ‘soul brother’ and my best friend in the platoon.
“Yo, Hasford, you hear ‘bout the Captain?”
“Captain Espera? What about him?”
“He’s gone dee-dee’d into the bush, man. Motherfucker’s M.I.A.”
“He’s missing? What the fuck, Holsey, how?”
“What do I look like, fuckin’ S-2 over here? How the fuck should I know?”
“You got the Scuttlebutt, Soul Brother. You telling me that’s all you got?”
“Captain left for the boonies with five senior guys and some CIA spook, like, three nights ago. No sign of ‘em since. They been flying choppers over the area searching for they asses, but ain’t no one to be found.”
“Jesus Christ, man. What do you think happened to ‘em?” I was in disbelief that anyone as salty as the Captain could just up and go missing, least not without leaving some trace.
“What happens to anyone ‘round here? Fuckin’ Mr. Charles got ‘em. Or he got smart and he’s on his way to Vancouver as we speak.”
“Mr. Charles? The Vietcong?”
“Brother, you gotta respect your enemy, or you screwed. That’s why I call ‘im Mister, I call my enemy sir before I send ‘em back to the Stone Age. Now xin loi, my boy, but I gotta go see Gunny Hathcock about my ride home next month.” Holsey laughed and swaggered out of the tent into the sweltering afternoon sun.
That night, a few of us sat around the barracks, bored out of our skulls yet incapacitated by the relentless heat and humidity. Shirtless Marines sat round cleaning their rifles, writing letters, reading or just chewing the fat. I had just eased off my new jungle boots, still uncomfortably unbroken when our platoon sergeant near booted the door open. His thick Cajun accent was almost undecipherable, but that night we heard an urgency in his voice that bordered on terror.
“Gitchur cowboyass outtayur bunks, raht nah!” he screamed at us, pointing and barking at rifles, throwing boots at Marines. Through the unintelligible tirade of cursing and the hurling of insults, we made out the undeniable cadence of “furst-fuckin-combat-mishn.” Faces paled and eyes widened.
I was still buckling up my flak jacket as we assembled at the helipads, the rotor blades of the Hueys just starting to spin as the pilot gunned their engines and the air was filled with the loud whine of moving machinery. The young Lieutenant commanding our platoon arrived, briefly exchanged words with our purple faced platoon sergeant and turned to us, shouting over the din of the aircraft.
“Marines, many of you will have heard of the disappearance of Captain Espera’s reconnaissance team a few days ago near the village of Lo Tranh. Well, tonight I have some good news for you, the team’s radio set is sending out a signal, its weak but our signals guys are picking it up in bursts. Whoever’s doing it is keying the handset, trying to send a message in Morse code. Whatever their saying is garbled but we have managed to triangulate the transmission and get an idea of location. We believe the team to be alive, now hows about we get on these birds and bring our fuckin’ brothers home?!”
“OORAH!” screamed the platoon in unison.
“Embark!” screamed Sergeant DeL’eau and we raced to the helicopters, full of purpose and vengeance. It was disturbingly inspiring to see such a display of raw power as the weapons-laden helicopter rose, banked and then raced through the sky into setting sun.
After a short flight, the helicopters grouped together over a clearing in the jungle and then took it in pairs to land their load of troops before racing off back to base to refuel. We waited until the beating of their rotor blades had faded into a distant chatter and the bush, whipped up from the downdraft, had calmed and returned to stillness. The Lieutenant stood up and waved us off; the platoon of twenty-six men began snaking through the bush. The Jungle is a terrible place to be at night, most of its animal inhabitants are nocturnal, so the plethora of howls and screeches that usually emanates in the daytime become all the more sinister after dark. A whole new element comes alive when the moon penetrates the canopy in silver slivers. So after an hour or so of humping our stone-heavy packs, some of the men began whispering to each other in the line. I didn’t notice anything at the time, the heat was so intense and my heavy pack caused aches in muscles I didn’t know I had, my mind was elsewhere, the fear, the sheer fucking stupidity of it all.
It was silent. A dreadful silence hung thick in the air and my heart sank when I saw the looks on some of the old breed’s faces. These salty old devil dogs, who’d eat their own guts and ask for seconds, they looked like they’d just stepped out of their own graves. I suppose I didn’t even realize at the time just how impossible it could be that such dense jungle could be so eerily quiet during the nighttime, but I can tell you right now I knew it was going to be bad. Just how bad, I never could have imagined. We moved very slowly and for a while, very aware of the loud crunches our footfalls made. Most of us had switched our sixteens to rock-and-roll and when ‘8-Ball’ in second squad clipped on his bayonet, I struggled not to follow suit.
Suddenly a Marine ahead of us growled and a violent rustling began as he dragged something heavy from a patch of elephant grass. It was silently wriggling.
“Get ahta there, shitbird!” he seethed with his New England twang. He had what looked like a teenage boy in his grip, the boy wore black pajamas and rubber flip-flops that looked like they could have been made from truck tires.
“Lam urn mau su chet, lam urn mau su chet!”
“Shut the fuck up!” someone spat, a rifle butt whipped across the boy’s cheek.
“Corporal!” spat the young Lieutenant, bounding up the line. “Do not abuse that prisoner!” He turned to the platoon sergeant and asked is anyone in the platoon spoke Vietnamese.
“Ain’t nobody here spoke no fuckin’ gook, L.T.,” spat a wiry Texan in disgust.
“Little bastards shittin’ his pants, man. I never seen anyone so damn scared,” giggled a Marine near me.
“It ain’t us that’s scarin’ him,” murmured Tiny, his voice so deep it seemed to come from the earth below us.
“The fuck you talkin’ about?” a Marine said in the darkness. “You tellin’ me this motherfucker’s lookin’ at enough firepower to invade a European country and he ain’t scared? Get the fuck outta here, dumb fuckin mook.” The platoon shifted a little at the sleight. Tiny stood at seven foot three, had to be two seventy at least, this guy was huge. He just carried on looking off into the darkness.
“You know what I’m talking about, man.” His eyes betrayed his terror. “There’s something here, something else.”
Flashes and loud cracks had us throwing ourselves into the dirt for cover. Somebody was firing a weapon very, very close to us and the bullets were traveling just inches from our ears. ‘Ambush’, I thought and braced myself to feel the cold punch of lead. Maybe it would rip out an elbow or a knee cap, maybe a glancing blow to the calf that rips muscle away from bone, or a dead center that pulverizes the jugular vein and leaves you dead in an instant.
“CEASE FIRE!” screamed the young Lieutenant. “CEASE FIRE, GODDAMNIT!”
The Vietnamese boy was laid at his feet, thick, dark blood pooling beneath his limp form. The young platoon commander’s face looked pale and clammy in the moonlight.
“Wha-What did you do?!”
“He went for your pistol, Butterbars! He was about to fuckin’ waste your ass!” hissed the Marine who fired.
“You killed a child, Lance Corporal!” retorted the Lieutenant with authority.
“He wasn’t no goddamned kid, asshole. Motherfucker was a fighting age male. If I hadn’t of acted, you’d be tiger chow. There it is!”
“Lance Corporal, I will personally see that you do time in Leavenworth for this. You are gunna be climbin the walls trying to re-”
“He wasn’t tryna kill you, Lieutenant Goldsmith,” rumbled Tiny again.
“Say again, Marine?”
“He wasn’t tryna kill you, Lieutenant Goldsmith, sir,” Tiny repeated. “He was tryna kill himself.”
We kicked some dirt over the body of the dead communist and moved on. After a while I could make out a clearing in the canopy about two hundred meters ahead of us, it’s hard to tell in the pitch blackness. The Lieutenant sent a few men ahead to recon the area, it wasn’t long before one called out. It was more like a shriek than anything.
The husky Cajun bolted forward, weaving and bounding his way through the trees. I was near the rear at this point, with the light machine guns moved to the front and rear of the column. We were expecting an ambush any second. Any Vietcong in the area would have heard the shots that killed their comrade and were surely on their way to avenge him. So whatever unfolded between the Lieutenant and the Platoon Sergeant is unknown to me to this day, but they concluded that we were to carry on with our mission. Maybe out of some sense of duty, maybe a sense of survival, maybe a dash of both. But when my part of the line passed the moonlit clearing, shifted step and peered into the long grass. I’ve never forgotten what I saw. Torn off at the elbow, streaked with black clots of blood was a human arm. In rigor mortis, it gripped a radio handset in white knuckle vice. I just kept walking.
The last place we stopped before it all fell to shit was this cave, or tunnel. It was a little of both I guess. A few guys flicked on their torches and at first it actually felt a little safer inside the ever-narrowing passages. But when some of the guys started pointing out the unnatural patterns on the roof of the cave system, people started to get really fucking jumpy. The few pieces I could make out in the torch beams showed nightmarish carvings of animals and people, twisted and smiling, there were other figures in the carvings too. Now the tunnels descended incredibly steeply, with some of the platoon slipping over in the darkness.
“-the fuck, Avalo? You fuckin’ spit on me?”
“Nah man” a voice quivered
“Then what the f-?”
“Keep fuckin quiet”, growled the platoon sergeant.
I remember my ears popping, like they did on the airplane over there, so we must have gone down a long fuckin way before we came to the crack in the rock. I’m no geologist but it looked like it could have run down into the center of the earth, like a giant knife wound in the layers upon layers of condensed rock. Impossible I know, but that’s what it looked like. Tunnel rats were summoned, small wiry men born to crawl tunnels, and they eased their way through the cracks.
We waited, for what seemed like an hour, and then the voices came. At first I thought it was the returning scouts, a faint whispering of voices echoing through the tunnels. But the sound just grew louder, the voices multiplying.
“What the fuck is that?” the other Marines were hearing it too.
“We gotta get the fuck outta here man, we gotta go, this is fuckin BAD, man!” another squeaked.
It sounded like a hundred thousand people whispering right through the cracks, that’s the only way I can describe it. The sound seemed to penetrate you, my eyes watered and my stomach cramped up, other guys in the platoon vomited. I don’t know what they were saying; I didn’t recognize the language at the time and I’ve not heard anything like it since. Besides, at the point I stopped pissing my skivvies and tried to really listen, all I heard was screams. But these were distinctly human. Of the three men sent ahead, only two came wriggling through the cracks into our torchlight. They were so scared; they seemed to lose their humanity. There was no effort to articulate themselves, just howls and breathless grunts, and their eyes, Jesus Christ, their eyes. Those men were like animals. One had his shirt ripped from his back and the other was covered in blood, but bore no obvious wounds.
The whole platoon bolted. We scrambled up the steep tunnels, some men firing their rifles into the darkness behind us. Men were screaming out that they saw things in the tunnel behind us, that they were climbing the walls, that they were everywhere. When we reached the mouth of the cave men sprinted into different directions, I remember hearing our Platoon Sergeant screaming to keep together and some of the men completely ignoring him, disappearing into the thick jungle. A few of us grouped together and took a defensive posture in a thick patch of bush, I couldn’t make out our Platoon Commander but it was definitely our Sergeant giving orders.
“Kip y’r hedson swivel nah,” he whispered and turned to our radioman, signaling him to pull the plug and call in our emergency evacuation.
A few minutes went by before we heard something shuffling through the jungle. I flicked my safety catch off and aimed through the darkness at the sound. My heart began racing. Hairs on my arms and neck stood to attention. It was to my infinite relief that I heard a fellow Marine call out a name in recognition.
“Davis? Davis, that you?” the shuffling continued, Holsey reached for his field torch.
“Nah man, that’s th-” the torch flicked on; and for the brief second, before Holsey was dived upon and torn limb from limb by the attacker, a familiar yet horrifying sight was beheld.
Every man still with us opened up on the figures rolling around on the deck, spilling blood and intestines into the grass. We were still firing blindly into the darkness as we ran towards the sound of the approaching helicopters. Branches and thorns whipped at my bare face and arms, men tripped, fell and were set upon by unseen forces, their deep, guttural screams turning into rabbit’s squeals as heads were pulled away from necks. We broke through the tree line into the moonlit clearing just as the Hueys were touching town. We dashed for the blinking red lights in the troop compartments, screaming at the door gunners to open fire. They refused, looking at us with horror and confusion.
“There’s nothing fucking there! No fucking targets, dumbass!” one screamed as we piled on. The feeling of lifting off into the night sky brought tears to my eyes, in darkness and the confusion I couldn’t work out who had made it out and who hadn’t. But I did roll over in time to catch sight of the tree line before we turned and sped away.
They kept me in isolation at Da Nang for nine days after that and I never once heard of or spoke to any of the other men on the rescue mission. Twice a day I was interrogated by two CIA agents in summer gear fit only for the beaches of San Diego. Their tourist attire made them all the more ridiculous when they began to become increasingly hostile, as I told them again and again that I knew nothing, saw nothing. After a while, I was flown back to the U.S and was told I was to be honorably discharged from the Marine Corps under the grounds I was mentally unfit to serve. I put up no resistance as they placed the long forms in front of me at Camp Pendleton and made me sign them. I listened as they reeled off the conditions of my release and displayed no emotion when the potential penalties were read out, “seizure of assets, indefinite imprisonment”, it went on and on. It was a Vietcong ambush and a tragic loss of young American life, simple as that. Only it wasn’t.
I’ve had nearly fifty years to think about my time in Vietnam and the events of that night and I’ve come to a few conclusions. It’s these conclusions, and I use that word deliberately as they are definitely not just theories, that I feel I must warn you all about.
UFO sightings, Roswell, the Moon Landing, every god damn cheap assed B-movie about Martians or meteor strikes or solar flares. It’s all a distraction; the idea of Space, of life out there on other planets has captured the human imagination so much that we’ve neglected the space beneath our feet. They’re not going to come from the sky; they’re going to come from below. From the caves and caverns and underground rivers they’ll come for us and we’ll never be ready for them, never.
But that’s not what keeps me awake at night, what has me jolting awake covered in cold sweat, sheets soaked. Signing the State Secrets Act is not what’s really kept me from telling this tale; it’s what I can’t reconcile about that night that’s kept me silent. The thing that attacked us in the jungle as we fled, I did catch a glimpse of it as it pulled down the terrified Marine and plunged its limbs into his chest. The face was completely mutilated; lips ripped away, baring broken teeth, with empty eye sockets holding shadows in the dim torchlight. The ragged cloth that covered its torso was caked in dried blood and dirt but I saw something tucked away in the breast. The wrists were broken inward with sharp, jagged, broken bone protruding from open wounds. But again I saw something on one of its twisted fingers, it was a Carolina State University ring and tucked away in the rotten cloth I glimpsed a flash of red and white text. ‘Pall Mall’, it read. We had found Captain Espera after all.
See you soon, Soul Brother.
CREDIT: Sam Riding
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