The canvas of Spec-4 Sullivan’s harness and the frame of his ruck dug into his back and he clutched the shotgun in his left hand. He cut through the jungle.
The insects dug into his skin, he had the sleeves on his jacket rolled up. He was on point. He was waiting for his turn to be over. Half the platoon was thinking the same, only “their turn” meant their short time.
He saw something shift in the bush. They were on a rough trail that ran up and down a mountain. He raised his hand with the machete and the platoon halted behind him. The LT stood up—Sullivan knew Krebs, the Top, the first sergeant, was giving the LT a dirty look—and came over to Sullivan.
“What is it?” the LT asked.
It continued and a gook with a bicycle came out of the bush. Sullivan dropped the machete and raised the shotgun.
“Get on line, now,” the Top said. He spoke with a measured voice. He never had to yell so much as just project his voice. People hated Krebs. “We’re not taking any chances again. I’m not having anyone sent home in a damn body bag.” Krebs turned to Sullivan while the men tried to hunker down in the thick bush on either side of the trail. The slope seemed to tense up when he saw Krebs’ broad frame approach.
“Sergeant Krebs, I’ll take this, get on line with the men.”
“Alright sir,” he said. He fell in but stayed close enough to the LT, Sullivan, and the Vietnamese man. “Sullivan you make sure I can hear exactly what this mother fucker is saying.”
“Yes sir,” Sullivan said. He kept his weapon trained on the Vietnamese man. He had one arm across his chest and stared at the ground.
“Don’t keep your gun pointed at him, Sullivan,” the LT said.
Sullivan bit his lip and complied. He picked up the machete and sheathed that, too. “Where is your ID paper?” he said to the man and he told him.
“Fuckin’ waste him,” one of the short timers said.
“Shut your damn mouth, private,” Krebs said.
“He says he doesn’t have it,” Sullivan said. “Says he’s heading up to the provincial capital to get a new one.”
“Where’s he from?” the LT cut in.
“A village up this path, he says they’ve had VC and NVA moving through on the Cambodia side, but they’re gone.”
“Shit,” Krebs groaned. “Connors, check out what he’s got hooked up to that bicycle.”
The soldier went up and rifled through the sacks on the bike. “Just rice, sir.”
“Look again,” Krebs said. He seemed to sweat more than the others, Sullivan thought. He did not know why. Krebs would be the one to make it home.
“Uhh got a pistol here, sir,” Connors said. It was a Russian Makarov, a small handgun.
“What is that for?” Sullivan asked in Vietnamese.
Krebs looked around at the men, formed up in a rough oval. “Keep your eyes out. What the fuck is the gun for?”
“He says personal protection,” Sullivan said.
“Let’s not be too quick, Sergeant Krebs,” the LT said. “These people have just as many problems with the VC as we do.”
Krebs stared at him.
“Ask if they’ll let us come into the village. We can get a chopper to come in with doctors and do inoculations,” the LT said.
Connors checked the other sack. “Just rice.”
“Will they let us into the village?” Krebs asked.
“He says yes, they have some sick people.”
The sun was beginning to set.
“We’ll stay here for the evening, Sergeant Krebs, and then head down to the village in the morning,” the LT said.
Krebs stood up and lit a cigar. “Alright sir,” he said. That was his response to the LT every time.
The gook told Sullivan the village was on the other side of the mountain, in the next valley. There was a river and the ground was good for growing rice.
Krebs ordered Sullivan to tie the Vietnamese man up. He strode past him and spoke to the LT, who looked at him with this odd half-smile. Most of the time, Sullivan thought, the LT’s face made it seem like he wasn’t even in Vietnam. The LT always had a science fiction magazine folded up in his butt pack, sealed in a plastic bag.
The platoon took turns eating and watching their little perimeter. Krebs sat up against a tree. He had a map and marked it with a charcoal pencil. Sullivan watched him, thinking the sergeant looked like a terrible Buddha. The Vietnamese man kneeled on the ground in front of him.
The LT approached him and took the shotgun from Sullivan and gave him back his M16. “Good work with the interpreting, Specialist,” the LT said. He wiped the fog from his glasses. He patted Sullivan on the shoulder. “Keep it up.”
“Thanks, Lieutenant,” he said. Sullivan went back to watching Krebs, focused on his map. Krebs looked up at him. He may as well have shot Sullivan. “While you’re looking at me, you’re not watching that man. Get yourself straight, Sullivan.”
“Yes, yes sir,” Sullivan stammered.
The gook sat down and spread his legs out. He stared up at Sullivan.
“What are you doing here, really?” Sullivan asked in Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese man did not answer at first. Sullivan thought about the pistol and started to get angry. He forgot about the spook the Top had put in him. He glared at the prisoner and who did the same to him.
“Going for a look,” the Viet said.
The specialist nodded. He gripped his weapon tighter.
Sullivan felt smoke on the back of his neck and glanced behind him. Krebs stood there with the cigar still in his mouth. He’d taken his ruck off and carried his carbine in his off hand. He knelt next to the gook and looked at him. He called over for someone else to watch the gook. “Get some water and food in you, Sullivan. Then sit with me and tell me what this man told you.”
Sullivan ate his rations and drank down a whole canteen. He took off his ruck and read his book, a beat to shit paperback copy of Don Juan.
“What are you reading?” one of the short timers asked him. They sat in a circle with their food.
“Poetry book,” Sullivan said.
“What the fuck are you doing reading a poetry book?” the short timer was a Californian named Baker who suck around with the black soldier from LA in the platoon, they called him Watts.
“Why you talk so weird?” Watts said.
“From Massachusetts,” Sullivan said.
“Oh. Baw-ston,” Baker said. Watts always laughed at his jokes. “How many days you got left, Sullivan?”
“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Watts said. He took Sullivan’s Don Juan out of his hand. “Maybe I’ll use this when I need to wipe my ass.”
Sullivan glanced at the LT, who was using the radio.
“Fuck you, Sullivan. Going to tell on us? What, you went Hah-vad, that why read books all the time?” Baker said.
“Yes, I went to Harvard. I left to do this.”
Watts shook his head.
“Sullivan, finish up,” Krebs called. He strode over to the circle, helmet on and carbine in hand. “The fuck are the rest of you doing? Get on line. Don’t smack your damn lips at me, Watts. Put that book away Sullivan.”
The specialist nodded and got up. He went over to Krebs’ tree. Krebs took his helmet off again and set his carbine down. “What did that man tell you?”
Sullivan told him the details, the man’s name, his village, his job—farmer of course—and what he was doing going to the provincial capital, the things he had said when they first captured him. Krebs took it all in, smoking one of his cigars. Sullivan stared at the weathered bowie knife the Top kept rigged to his harness.
“And do you think he was telling the truth, Specialist?”
“No sir, I think he was some sort of scout. He said he came for a look.”
Krebs looked over Sullivan’s shoulder at the prisoner. The LT was giving him water and the chocolate discs out of his ration.
“Keep an eye on that fucker and tell me if he says anything else.”
“You a short timer, Sullivan?”
Krebs paused taking a drag on his cigar.
“Don Juan, sir.”
The Top blinked at him.
“Lord Byron, sir. It’s a long poem.”
Krebs blew out cigar smoke. “Now go tell the good Lieutenant what you told me, Specialist.” Krebs put his helmet back on. His blue eyes had this glow to them under the brim, Sullivan thought. The sergeant stood up and put his map away. Sullivan lingered. Krebs cut his eyes at him. “Go on now, Sullivan.”
The LT sat in the middle of their perimeter, still with the prisoner. “Sir, I think this man’s a scout for some VC hold up in the village on the other side of this mountain.”
The LT squinted through his glasses. “We need to confirm it.”
“Where did you go to college, Sullivan?”
“I dropped out of Harvard to do this, sir.”
The LT cocked his head. “What program?”
“Bachelor of Arts, sir, literature.” Sullivan wanted to fall in line with the rest of the men for once.
He looked at Sullivan as if he’d suggested they let the prisoner run free. “Why would you study that?” He shook his head and walked away. The LT had been an ROTC graduate from one of the West Coast universities, something science related.
Sullivan took over watching the prisoner. He had fallen asleep. Sullivan pulled the worn Russian pistol from the sack of rice on the bicycle and stuck it in his belt. He leaned up on a tree and kept his rifle trained on the tied up Viet.
The LT was reading his pulp magazine. Krebs went around their perimeter, whispering to the others. He came over to Sullivan again. “This fucker moves, smoke him.”
“Yes sir,” Sullivan said.
Night fell and the specialist strapped his ankle to the gook’s. The insects kept drilling into his skin. Nights in the jungle made him shiver. He had to roll down his sleeves and put his poncho on.
The prisoner stirred and Sullivan barely made him out in the scant moonlight that came through the canopy. He shifted his leg and Sullivan aimed his rifle at him.
Sullivan heard footsteps and saw the muzzle of Krebs’ carbine. He squatted down next to the prisoner. “Japs were like this too,” Krebs said. “Silent, good at sneaking up on you.” The sergeant looked at Sullivan. “You married, Spec? Got a girl?”
“No sir. Never,”
Krebs blinked a few times. “I’ve been through two, now. Marriage is like being strapped to one of them,” he said, nodding to the prisoner.
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”
Krebs snorted. “You shouldn’t have come here, Sullivan.”
Sullivan felt wounded and looked down at his boots.
“Ask him what’s he thinking about,” the Top said.
The prisoner spoke to Sullivan through gritted teeth.
“He says he wants to go back to his village, and that he has to piss.”
“He can go in the dirt where he’s sitting for all I care,” Krebs said. He took out his knife, the bowie knife. “My grandpa carried this at San Juan Hill and then in the Philippines,” he said to the prisoner. “I’ll use it on you.” Krebs stood up and went back to the line. The jungle was cold and still, except for the loud animal noises. The occasional breeze mad Sullivan’s teeth chatter.
The LT came over to him. “How’s he holding up?”
The prisoner looked at Sullivan. “Says he has to take a piss.”
“Well, let him.”
“Sergeant Krebs said to let him go in the dirt.”
“Sergeant Krebs isn’t in command of this platoon.”
“Untie him and just keep an eye on him.”
Sullivan bit his lip. He felt Krebs watching them. He untied the prisoner’s hands but kept ankle strap on him. Sullivan took him to a spot just beyond the perimeter. He heard Watts and Baker giggle. The prisoner relieved himself. Sullivan went to tie him back up but the prisoner lunged at him and Sullivan stumbled to the ground. His slipped out of his hand and hit the dirt. “No no no,” Sullivan breathed. The prisoner punched him in the face and then tried to loosen the strap on his ankle. “Don’t punch me!” Sullivan yelled, tearing the pistol from his belt. He emptied the magazine at the prisoner.
“Sullivan, get yourself killed?” Baker yelled.
“Gook’s dead, he tried to run.”
“Everyone stay sharp,” Krebs said. It was odd, he never had to really yell. “You hit, Sullivan?”
“No sir,” he croaked.
“Get back in the wire.”
He undid the strap and dragged the corpse back into their perimeter. He got on line next to Watts and Baker. They were silent.
Sullivan felt a pit in his stomach from Krebs, what he’d said. It made him feel like a fuck-up. All Sullivan had wanted to do was come here and prove himself more than college ever could. Maybe that was his problem. He bit his lip. You shouldn’t have come here.
The platoon stayed up through the night. Sullivan slept a few hours between watches. He never fully rested at night, he was always half conscious when he tried to sleep.
In the morning they hiked over to the other side of the mountain. The moisture in the air was so dense at the peak that it made a cloud and Sullivan found it hard to breathe. The village looked like a postcard with the river and rice paddies. Sullivan and Connors took turns carrying the dead Vietnamese man and his bicycle. Sullivan kept the pistol in his belt.
The road into the village, a widened dirt path, was flanked on both sides by rice paddies. A bamboo fence with a gate surrounded it. The gate was open. They stood outside and the LT approached one of the old men on the other side of the fence. “Sullivan, come with me,” he said.
Krebs came up behind Sullivan before he could go to the LT and the old man. “You go up to that old bastard and drop the dead body and tell him what we talked about.”
“Yes sir,” Sullivan said a little uneasily. He went up the red clay path to the village entrance and dropped the body. The old man knelt down and started yelling at him, something about his son.
“Specialist, that was unnecessary. Please tell him we’re coming to do inoculations.” The LT looked at the others. “Men, take a knee.”
Sullivan’s heart pounded. He glanced at Krebs who gave him a dirty look. Sullivan told the old man in Vietnamese that his son attacked him and he had no choice. “We will inoculate your village,” Sullivan added.
“Will he let us come in?” the LT asked.
The Vietnamese man prostrated in the ground, weeping at his son wrapping in a green poncho and oozing blood. Sullivan took the pistol from his belt and dropped it next to the corpse.
The LT looked to the Top. “Can I get the radio?”
The other villagers gather around. Sullivan tensed up—no military aged men.
Krebs smoked one of his cigars and glared.
Sullivan gave up talking to the old man. The women and children gathered around the wicker fence of the village, babbling and crying. Sullivan had to look away and stood on the dirt path with the others.
“Where the fuck are all the men,” Krebs said flatly, stubbing out his cigar.
“Probably VC,” Baker cut in.
“No shit,” Krebs growled.
“Specialist, what did that old man say?”
“Just babbling and crying,” Sullivan said. He took a drink from his canteen. Krebs smacked it down. Sullivan went cold. “This isn’t break time, Sullivan. Look alive. Same for the rest of you.”
The platoon formed up on either side of the red clay road, facing out at the rice paddies. The damp red earth smeared the olive green of their uniforms.
Sullivan picked up his bottle and jammed it back in the cover on his harness. He chewed his lip while looking down the sight of his rifle. He slapped mosquitos off his arm while sweating and sweating. He wanted to take off his ruck, the metal frame and straps digging into his back and his harness.
They waited for contact. Sullivan watched the minutes grind by on his Seiko. He had gotten it on his R&R in Japan where he had met a beautiful Japanese girl and he wanted to see her again. She had been very nice to him and shown him around the city. The lieutenant called him over again and Sullivan jumped, broken out his momentary escape.
The villagers had taken the dead prisoner into the village. An old woman stood in front of the gate while the rest of the women mourned.
“Tell her we have a chopper coming with doctors. Ask if they’ll let us into the village.”
He did. The old woman said, “No VC.”
Krebs grabbed Sullivan’s belt and pushed him aside. He drew his .45 and aimed it at the old woman. “Where the fuck are they?”
The old woman stared up at Krebs. Her mouth flapped.
“Sergeant Krebs—” the LT said.
The men began to stir. “Stay where y’all are,” Krebs said. “Now, where the fuck are the VC?”
The old woman said something in Vietnamese.
“What’s he saying, Harvard?”
“Me sir?” Sullivan said.
“Yes, you, Specialist.”
“She says to come with her.”
“Alright. Sullivan, Baker, Watts, come in the ville with me.”
“Sergeant, the medical chopper will be here within the hour,” the LT said.
“That’s plenty of time, lieutenant.”
They went into the village and the women and little kids stared up at Krebs as the soldiers followed the old woman. Baker and Watts watched the hooches and muttered to themselves. The woman stopped in front of a longhouse and pointed at the doorway.
“Specialist, tell them to come out.”
Sullivan yelled into the longhouse.
“Come on out so I can grease you fuckers,” Krebs said.
“Sarge,” Baker said, aiming at a man in black pajamas who came out of a hooch yawning. He wore an American pistol belt with a Chinese holster strapped to it. Krebs raised his .45 and shot him in the head, painting the bamboo hut. The old lady screamed. “Baker, Watts, clear that longhouse.”
The two soldiers dragged out three men in black pajamas. Another man in black came out of a hut with an AK and Sullivan shot him. He crumpled to the ground.
“We clear?” Krebs said, pacing around the village. “Ask them if they have any others, Sullivan.”
Sullivan did and the Vietnamese kept crying or cussing at him and the other soldiers. He noticed the LT standing next to the VC he had shot. His glasses were covered with the blood of the dead man. “Specialist Sullivan, did you shoot that man?”
Sullivan’s heart chilled and he slung his weapon. “Yes sir, I did.”
Watts came out of the long house. “We got some guns in here—”
The soldiers fell quiet, seeing Krebs and the LT look at each other.
“Sergeant Krebs, see to it that these weapons are accounted for and the prisoners are spoken to by Specialist Sullivan.” He walked away, wiping the blood from his glasses.
The choppers came later and it was a big show. It always was, Sullivan thought. A man in slacks and a golf shirt took the captives on one of the helicopters. The captain of their company spoke to the LT. They had to burn the village.
While the hooches burned Sullivan caught Krebs smiling for just a moment. He noticed Sullivan looking at him and sobered.
Night fell and they camped in the corpse of the village. Sullivan kept thinking about the sergeant and what he’d said and did to him.
He came up to the edge of the river and saw someone kneeling in front it. The moon reflected in the wide flowing water and illuminated a bulky figure. Sullivan stopped moving and got on his knee, listening. It was Krebs. His helmet and carbine were off to the side. “Help me get these boys home. They hate me but that doesn’t matter. Help me get these boys home alive. I’ll face judgment for the rest. Just let me get these short timers home. I won’t let Sullivan eat it, either.” Krebs fell silent.
Sullivan became conscious of his own breathing.
“How long you been standing there, soldier?”
“Not long sir, only a couple minutes.”
Krebs stood up and picked up his weapon and helmet. “You a Christian, Specialist?”
“Not really, sir.”
Krebs stared down at him.
“I guess…I don’t know.”
Krebs put his helmet back on. “Better get your shit together then, troop.” He walked back to the camp.
Sullivan started his watch again, looking at the river and the husk of the village.
If you enjoyed this story, please check out my first novel Phoenix Operator, also set in the Vietnam War.