Too Hot To Handle
Thomas Calabrese.. It was April 20, 1968 in South Vietnam and the stench of death and jungle decomposition combined with the stifling humid heat to attack my sense of smell like a sapper squad on opium laced steroids. My Marine Corps infantry platoon had seen action in three separate battlefield operations that kept us in the bush for four months straight. We were in desperate need of a break so when we were assigned to work with an Australian military unit in a search and destroy mission in the flatlands outside Chu Lai, you could have heard the collective sigh of relief echo across the densely foliated mountain ranges of Northern I Corps.
North Vietnamese soldiers were filtering into the area and creating havoc with their well-planned attacks and deadly ambushes. They were also torturing villager leaders as a warning to others, who assisted or cooperated with the Americans. War is a brutal business, but even more distasteful when non-combatants are abused and victimized. I’ve been in country long enough to have hardened my heart to this part of the war, but that had not happened. The fact that I had to hide this self -perceived weakness from my fellow Marines only magnified my feelings of rage and sorrow.
I liked the Aussies; they were friendly and seemingly unaffected by the war, which in itself was enough to earn my admiration. I had seen some hard drinkers during my career in the military, but these Aussies were in a stratosphere all by themselves. They guzzled alcohol beverages like thirsty horses drank water and I couldn’t figure out if they were functioning alcoholics or just had a super high tolerance for liquor.
For some unexplained reason or a supply anomaly, the Australians always had plenty of beer and a surplus of flamethrowers so it didn’t take a military strategist to develop a plan that best utilized both units’ strengths. The Marines would be the tip of the spear and thrust themselves into the heart of the enemy’s positions and the Aussies would then follow right behind us to destroy the tunnels and everything else of importance with incendiary napalm.
We left our firebase just before sunrise and in keeping with their tradition, the Aussies toasted our mission with their customary can of Foster Lager. I later found out that the average Australian soldier in Vietnam drank five cans of beer a day and from my personal observations I would say that was an extremely conservative estimate. Excessive beer drinking seemed inconsequential when compared to the routine atrocities of war so I said to myself, that as long as they didn’t get me or my fellow Marines killed, who in the hell really cared.
We came under heavy fire when we were about a half of a click (five hundred yards) from the village and walking single file across the rice paddy dike so we jumped into the muddy water and lied horizontally while doing our best to keep our weapons dry and our heads just high enough to see and breathe. Platoon Commander, Lt. Glenn Charles radioed in for smoke from the mortar platoon to obscure our position and future movements.
“How come we’re not calling in High Explosives?” Sergeant Myers called out
“We don’t know how many civilians are in there,” Lt. Charles snapped back.
The fact that Lieutenant Charles even considered the safety of the South Vietnamese people when making a strategic decision was just another example of how different we were from the North Vietnamese soldiers who would annihilate an entire village without a second thought if it served their agenda.
It didn’t take long for the smoke to thicken and shield us from view from the North Vietnam soldiers, but it also prohibited us from seeing our adversaries. The smoke was slowly drifting away on a gentle breeze so we knew we had to get out of open ground and find some cover. The problem was that the only cover was where we were taking fire from, so it was either stay where we were until we were picked off one by one or attack. Lt. Charles decided that if we were going to die today then we should go down fighting like Marines instead of cowering in the mud.
For anybody who never tried to run across a rice paddy, you know how difficult that can be. The mud sucks at your boots like a turbo charged vacuum cleaner and don’t forget the massive amount of energy that must be expanded to lift your legs out of the muck. The fact that bullets were hitting around us added to our emotional exhaustion and by the time we reached hard ground, we were thoroughly exhausted. If this was a scene out of a John Wayne movie, it would have been time for the intermission and when the audience returned from getting popcorn and candy, we would have been well rested and ready for battle, but unfortunately life doesn’t always imitate art.
Somewhere in the deep recesses of our souls where the self-preservation instinct resides, we summoned our last remnants of strength and adrenalin and moved out. If we didn’t think things were already bad enough, we were harshly reminded of the first rule of combat; things can always get worse. When we got into the ville, enemy soldiers were popping out of every crevice and hole and the M-16’s, 45 caliber pistols and AK-47’s were making their usual distinctive sounds as Marines and NVA soldiers were firing point blank at each other. The combat got so close and personal that we turned to our K-Bars knives and machetes. I even saw Corporal Santini pick up a large metal pot and throw it at an enemy soldier. We knew we couldn’t hold the enemy off much longer so we retreated behind a pile of scrap metal as the NVA unleashed a barrage of fire in our direction.
A young girl, perhaps seven or eight years old ran out of a thatched hut and was headed directly into the line of fire and we immediately sensed how dangerous that was for her.
“Cover me!” Lt. Charles yelled out and charged at the young girl with enemy rounds nipping at his heels. He picked her up in his arms without breaking stride and used his body to shield her from the bullets as he hit the ground.
In war, the concept of time is a contradictory element of existence to a combat Marine. It has the unique transformational ability to stand still or move at the speed of light and in this particular battle; it was doing both for me in rapid succession. I also saw with clarity why we were fighting in Vietnam and the futility of being there at the same time. I wasn’t concerned about Communist intrusion or political malfeasance, I was only fighting for the Marine next to me and the innocent villagers,my mind would not accept or comprehend anything beyond that.
Just when I thought all was lost, I heard the sound of armored vehicles moving closer and when I looked up I saw the Australian soldiers coming to our rescue. Their machine guns were blazing and the flamethrowers were spitting napalm. They diverted the attention of the North Vietnamese soldiers just enough to escape our death trap. The Aussies could have easily waited in safety, but chose to put themselves in harm’s way to come to our aid.
I ran to the armored vehicle at a full sprint with several of my fellow Marines right behind me. An Australian soldier reached down, “Need a hand, mate?” and hoisted me aboard. I repeated the same courtesy to my fellow Marines and in a matter of seconds we were lying next to the Australians and firing away at the enemy. I thought it was only appropriate that there several cases of beer strapped to the top of the vehicle.
The battle raged on for two hours and when it was over, the medivac choppers came in and picked up the dead and wounded and those of us who were not injured searched the area for any remaining enemy soldiers. Afterward, the supply choppers came in with cases of c-rations and ammunition.
The second rule of combat is that it doesn’t take much to put a smile on a Marine Corps infantryman’s face; sometimes it can be as little as a dry pair of socks after humping through the bush or seeing that your best buddy is still alive after a firefight. The Aussies unloaded their beer and the grateful villagers cooked up pots of rice and vegetables. I got lucky and ended up getting beans and franks in one of my c-ration boxes and pound cake and pineapple bits in another for desert. How lucky can a guy get? One of the women from the village brought me a small bowl of rice and I mixed in the beans and franks. I can’t imagine anyone being as happy as I was at that particular moment as my thoughts drifted home for Sunday dinner with the family.
Corporal Santini called over to me, “You going to eat that or stare it to death?”
“Don’t rush me, I’m savoring the moment,” I replied with a big smile.
“Take all the time you want, brother.”
When I looked over, I saw Lt. Charles sitting with the young Vietnamese girl that he had saved, they were sharing his rations and it was obvious that they had developed a special connection. An elderly Vietnamese woman and man sat on each side of me with their bowls of rice and gave me toothless grins and exposed their gums that were stained jet black from years of betel nut chewing.
An Australian soldier handed me and the two elderly Vietnamese, cans of beer and proposed a toast, “It’s a good day, mate.”
I popped open the can and took a long swallow of warm beer and responded, “Damn good day.”
This battle will never go down in history with Bloody Ridge, Mount Suribachi or Pork Chop Hill, but it will forever be etched into my memory. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to properly share what really happened on this day with anybody else…too much would get lost in the translation from the emotional and spiritual to the verbal and written. If I’m still around in forty five or fifty years, I’ll probably just say, “It was good a day to be alive in the Nam’ on May 7, 1968.
When I looked over at our allies sitting next to their armored vehicles as the sun began to rise in the sky, I saw a golden glow reflecting off the rice paddy as the morning heated up. The thick humidity that was clinging to the foliage and elephant grass had turned to steam and from my vantage point, I’d swear the Australians were smoldering, like beacons of hope and light in a time of hopelessness and darkness. They were often called the men from “Down Under”, but today “Above and Beyond” was more appropriate.