Story below on the Tunnels of Cu Chi is taken from my The Vietnam War Its Ownself book. Designated Operation Crimp, my battalion launched early January 1966 into the enemy sancturies northwest of Saigon.
An area called the Iron Triangle. No one knew exactly what to be expected… other than we were told to expect determined resistance, with no help from the local villagers, who were all VC sympathizers .
We deployed by helicopter from Phou Lai to a hot LZ in the middle of the enemy area and spent what was left of that first day and night securing a defensive perimeter. I had the 3rd platoon of “A” Company, 1st/28th Infantry, 1st Division. A 2nd Lt Author had taken over the 1st platoon after Ray Ernst was wounded. Joe Duckett, the former commander of the 2nd Platoon had been wounded the operation before Crimp and evacuated to Japan. My OCS buddy Pete had been transferred from the 4th platoon to lead the Battalion recon platoon. “A” Company commander was Capt Jack Woolley. My platoon sergeant was Staff Sergeant Cecil Bratcher. My radio operator was Pvt Gilbert Spencer, a black man from Detroit. One of the men in my platoon was Private Wiler Beck. In the summer of 1965 he was released from the brig back in the states for shooting a man and was scheduled for a Dishonorable Discharge… when, with all the bodies being moved around at the depot he was assigned, he somehow got out of the line to be kicked out of the service and into a line of replacements for the 1st Division.
New to each other and to jungle combat only months before, we were coming more and more together and did not fear what lay ahead as much as we simply didn't know what to expect. Other then we were goin deep into bad guy country.)
“At first light the next morning, we moved straight out into the jungle. Duckett’s platoon, now being commanded by the platoon sergeant, was on my left. Woolley was with Arthur’s platoon in the rear. We were heading toward our Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR), a two-day movement through the jungle, and hoped to reach a midway point near a small village by nightfall.
Duckett’s platoon began to receive sniper fire from its left front during the late morning. Yelling out to the platoon sergeant that I was maneuvering my men around to his front, we soon saw enemy small-arms fire coming from a clump of trees. One of my men fired a long burst of rounds into the trees and the enemy stopped firing. We slowly walked into the strand of trees as we reconned by fire.
No one was there. Strange. I had seen the firing. We would have noticed anyone leaving the thicket.
Beck found two spider holes close to the forward edge of the thicket, partially covered by fallen debris from our fire. The openings were smaller than a basketball rim, barely large enough for a man to squeeze out. A cool, earthy smell emanated from the openings.
“Are the VC at the bottom of these holes, or do these go back to some room or tunnel?” I asked Bratcher as Woolley came up.
I sent men out to the front as security and looked back at the spider holes. Spencer stuck a long bamboo pole down one. It hit bottom after about five feet and then, when Spencer pushed, it went down another four feet. We shined a flashlight down the holes. Both holes curved out of sight to our front.
Yelling “Fire the hole,” we threw in grenades and ducked behind trees. The explosions were muffled, and only a small amount of dust came out and blew away. We walked carefully back to the holes and looked down. I said, “Damn. We either send someone down or we leave and keep on toward our TAOR.”
Woolley told me to send someone down. I called one of the Puerto Ricans, PFC Fernandez-Lopez, the smallest man in the platoon, and told him to take off his web gear because he was going on a little trip. He looked around at us, shrugged, dropped his gear, and started walking toward the hole barehanded.
“Hold it,” I said. I gave him my .45 and Woolley’s radio operator gave him a flashlight. We told him just to go to the bottom of the first hole, see what was there, and come back. He said something in half-Spanish and half-English that I couldn’t understand, but it was a question. He looked at me for an answer. I asked him to repeat it, but I still didn’t understand. Finally, he put his hands over his head like he was diving. “Yes,” I said, “head first. We’ll hold your feet.”
Fernandez crawled on his stomach to the nearest hole and stuck the flashlight over the side. He looked down for what seemed like a long time. Then he turned around, and said something to Castro in Spanish, crossed himself, and crawled over the edge. The .45 and the flashlight were in front of him. Bratcher grabbed his feet and began pushing him. Yelling, “Slow, amigo,” Bratcher gradually pushed him down until his feet were the only thing out of the hole.
“What do you see,” Bratcher yelled. Fernandez’s comments were muffled.
Woolley told Bratcher to pull him out.
When he came out and got to his feet, dirt was caked on his fatigue jacket and on his face where the sweat had run down. Someone gave him a cigarette and he talked quickly to Castro.
Turning to us, Castro said Fernandez didn’t like going down the hole.
“Well fuck him, what did he see?” Bratcher asked.
“A lot of hole. Just hole. Some spent casings, but just the hole going on out that way,” Castro said pointing to our front.
“They are ahead of us,” I said. “Waiting.”
“They’re tunnels here. Maybe that’s why they’ve been so successful in this area,” Woolley said.
We ate lunch before moving out. A short time later, we received sniper fire. At mid-afternoon, one of Arthur’s men, behind us, stepped on a mine and blew his foot off. He was evacuated, and we were on our way again within the hour.
For two days, we patrolled west. We encountered more mines and snipers; sullen, menless villages; and more spider holes leading down into tunnel complexes. There was a different sense to the jungle here than we had experienced in other places. It was quieter, and it seemed more deadly. When we stopped occasionally to get our bearings or to rest, we heard no sounds — no birds flying or chirping, no insects humming. We felt that someone was watching us all the time.
As we moved into a company defensive perimeter around a small field the third night of the operation, Major Allee arrived on the supply helicopter with small revolvers, field telephones, and spools of wire. He told us what we had already realized — we were walking over an extensive network of tunnels. They were unexpected and had not been part of the intelligence package for this operation. The spider holes were openings to these tunnels, and Allee told us to investigate them wherever we found them. They were enemy sanctuaries. We were to send down a small man, a tunnel rat, with a pistol, flashlight and telephone. Someone was to feed the wire down as the tunnel rat explored. The man in the hole should send back situation reports every five minutes or so. He could find his way back by following the wire.
Pete led his recon platoon by our area the next morning on their way to a village off to our south. He stopped for a cup of coffee and said that a group of men from the colonel’s battalion headquarters group had gone down a hole the previous night. They had run into VC in the tunnels and had a running battle. They got back by following the telephone wire; however one man had not returned. Pete had no idea what had happened to him.
“Tunnel ratting, is that infantry duty?” I asked.
Pete stood up after finishing his coffee and told his men to saddle up. I told him to be careful. He turned toward me and smiled.
“Your mother said that, be careful, I heard her,” I said. “Me, I’d rather have it the other way. You die, I’m a rich man.”
“There’s something on that insurance policy we took out on each other I need to talk with you about, when we have a chance,” Pete mumbled.
“What?” I asked, suddenly uncomfortable. I was the one who needed to talk about the insurance; I had yet to find the change of beneficiary form.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said, and then he was gone.
Company A continued sweep operations that morning. Snipers pinged at us, and we encountered mines, and more tunnels. Cu Chi was not friendly.
The battalion came together at mid-afternoon with plans to dig in and spend a couple of days licking our wounds. We had been on the move almost constantly for three days and had slept very little. The men were grouchy with fatigue. We welcomed the opportunity to rest, receive mail, and eat hot food.
When my platoon tied up with Arthur’s on the left, Spencer, Bratcher and I sought a central position in the rear to drop our gear and dig a small hole. Woolley came up as we were removing our packs and asked me to take a few of my men and do a “clover leaf” patrol — make a short circle out about five or six hundred meters from the perimeter — to ensure that we hadn’t inadvertently camped next to a VC position.
The men grumbled as they dropped webbing that was not needed for the patrol. I left a few men behind to begin digging in and the rest fell in behind Lyons, who was followed by Beck and King. We moved out to a small clearing a hundred meters to our front. The setting sun cast long shadows and made it hard to see the opposite side clearly, so we skirted it.
The jungle woods were not thick and Lyons walked along briskly but cautiously. We were all anxious to get back. Suddenly, Lyons stopped and raised his hand. Because the area was so open, most of the men dropped to one knee. Beck with his M-79 at the ready continued to walk forward beside Lyons. I remained standing several men back in the patrol, but I could see the two men squinting ahead in the jungle.
Finally, Beck turned around and said in a loud whisper. “Looks like a plane.”
I scowled as I walked to the head of the column. However, I could see something metallic reflecting off the setting sun in a bamboo thicket ahead. It was long and cylindrical and covered with vines. Incredibly, but clearly, it was a small plane, minus the wings.
Lyons, Beck, and I approached the thicket one slow step at a time. The plane could be the bait to a trap. When I could read the number on the tail, I called it out to Spencer to report that we had found an old spotter aircraft apparently shot down some time ago, but we were moving on and would come back and check it in the morning.
We saw no signs of the wings, wheels, or propeller. Beck guessed that the plane had crashed somewhere else and had been hidden in the ticket. I pointed out that the fuselage looked intact and there didn’t appear to be any signs of a crash landing.
Beck said he was going to look inside, but I told him no — too much of a chance that it was booby trapped and we had only a few more minutes of daylight. If we didn’t move on, it would be dark before we got back to the perimeter. I motioned the patrol around to the right of the thicket. As King came by, Beck and Lyons fell back in at point.
A small clearing was behind the thicket, and a berm ran out of the jungle along the east side of the field. Spencer was coming up the column to walk behind me. King was turning around as he walked and asked me what the hell was a berm doing coming out of the jungle like that, when an automatic weapon opened up from our right. Rounds zinged between King and me.
Everyone hit the ground. Manuel was carrying the machine gun, and I yelled at him to start shooting. Short bursts of fire continued to come at us from over the berm. We crawled forward. Bratcher was at the end of the patrol. As I reached the berm I yelled for him to move out, flanking whoever was firing to the right, we’d cover him.
Bratcher yelled for Sgt. Ollie Taylor, Jr. to follow him. I told Manuel to bring the machine gun up to the top of the berm. He stood up and fired from the hip. The rest of us slung our guns over the top and fired.
Beck fired his M-79 grenade launcher. The round hit an overhanging tree limb and bounced back. It landed squarely in his lap. Beck screamed, expecting the grenade to go off.
Bratcher was maneuvering in from the right. He yelled for us to stop firing. He and Taylor advanced, firing as they went. Bratcher yelled, “We got him. I saw him go down.”
As I was waving the men over the berm, King turned to look at Beck. His mouth open and eyes wide, Beck was staring at the grenade in his lap.
“You lucky motherfucker,” King told him scornfully. “The round has to travel fifteen yards to arm itself. It didn’t go fifteen yards. It ain’t armed. It ain’t going off. Pick it up and put it on the ground beside you.”
From the other side of the berm, we could see that the firing had come from beneath a couple of shelters, each just four posts holding up palm-frond roofing and no sides. Bratcher and Taylor were moving in from our right, and the rest of us came straight in, with Manuel occasionally firing the machine gun.
We saw that the ground under the roof of the larger shelter had been excavated, leaving a pit perhaps five feet deep by fifteen feet wide by twenty feet long. A trench led from the main shelter to a similar pit under the smaller one.
Expecting to see the VC lying in the bottom of the hole, we covered the last few feet very slowly, guns at the ready.
Behind us, Beck was telling King, “Maybe, maybe, maybe, the round’s only gone fourteen yards and something. Maybe I pick it up and, and, and, that’s enough.” He was trying not to breathe hard for fear of disturbing the round lying on his stomach. He took short breaths and talked as he exhaled.
“Help me, Sergeant, help me move it.” Beck looked up at King.
“Nope,” King said, leaning against the berm. “You can do it as well as I can. You either slap it off and roll out of the way quick, or you reach down very carefully and lift it off.”
“Tell the lieutenant to come here,” Beck said.
King looked over the berm in my direction. I was easing up to the shelter. The sun was almost down, and it was hard to see into the hole. Bratcher and Taylor reached the edge first.
“He’s gone, the son of a bitch, down a fucking hole,” Bratcher said.
A pool of blood lay next to the forward edge of the hole under the main shelter. An AK-47 assault rifle was nearby amid some empty casings and dark green cotton pouches holding AK-47 magazines. A blood trail led over to a spider hole located in the corner like the drain in a sink. Taylor, standing by the smaller shelter, said that he saw another spider hole there.
“He’s down in that hole, probably down in a little room between these two shelters. Wounded. Without his gun,” I said.
The radio on Spencer’s back squawked as Woolley asked what all the firing was about. From the far side of the berm, I heard King call out, “Lieutenant, you got a minute?”
I told Spencer to tell Woolley that we wounded a VC and that we were going to try and ferret him out of a hole. Didn’t know how long it was going to take.
King called again, insistently, “Lieutenant.”
I told Bratcher to see what King wanted and told De Leon and Ayers to move out to a guard position near the small field. After sending some other men to protect our other flank, I walked over to the smaller shelter, where Taylor was shining his flashlight down the spider hole. It led down and away. We tied a small piece of nylon cord to the flashlight and lowered it down the hole.
Meanwhile, Bratcher had walked back to the berm. King nodded toward Beck, who was sitting awkwardly with the M-79 grenade round in his lap and a sick look on his face.
“Lift it off, Beck,” Bratcher said firmly. Like King, he saw no value in putting two men at risk.
Beck’s hand shook slightly as it moved slowly to the round. When he lifted it with two fingers, the head of the round rotated downward. Beck opened his mouth as wide as he could, as though he were going to yell, but he didn’t drop the round. Moving it slowly to his right and then toward the ground, he rolled out of the way as he set it down. Quickly, he got to his feet and looked down at the small metal ball.
“You son of a bitch. You goddamned son of a bitch. You nasty little son of a bitch,” he kept repeating as he climbed over the berm.
Beck borrowed Patrick’s M-16 and went back to the berm. He fired most of a clip of ammo at the M-79 round until he finally set it off.
Thinking we were being probed or attacked, I turtled my neck and started to jump into the pit when Bratcher said, “No problem. It’s just ‘Bad News’ Beck.”
Spencer had finished sending the radio message to Woolley and was looking down the spider hole under the main shelter. He mentioned that he could see the light from Taylor’s flashlight shining at the bottom of the hole. Woolley came back on the radio and said that battalion wanted us to take the man alive. They wanted a prisoner. I told him we’d do what we could.
Convinced that a dying VC was beneath us, I told Fernandez that it was time for his starring role again, to get a pistol and to get ready for a trip down the mine shaft.
Fernandez did not take it well. He was angry and mumbled in Spanish under his breath. I told him that I was sorry, but he was the smallest, and he had to go. He pretended not to understand me.
By now, the sunlight was almost completely gone. I told Bratcher to ensure that the men were set up in good guard positions all around the shelters. As I went under the small shelter, we started to receive small-arms fire from across the field.
We ducked down. Looking closely at the spider hole, Fernandez started saying, “No, no, no.”
Sitting with my back against the side of the larger hole, I was suddenly very tired. I wanted to be back with the battalion — eating my C-rations and maybe drinking a cup of coffee. I did not want to be beside the entrance to this hole that led to God knew where. We knew only that at least one wounded VC soldier was down there.
We received more probing rounds from the area near the plane and then some rounds to our front, from deep in the jungle. The VC were all around us.
I grabbed Fernandez by the collar of his fatigue jacket and told him not to get me angry. He kept saying, “No, no, no.”
Finally I said, “Ah shit.” I told Spencer to throw a grenade down the hole under the large shelter, and I took a grenade off my web gear, pulled the pin, and dropped it down the other hole where I was standing. It wasn’t necessarily going to give us a live prisoner, like battalion wanted, but my reluctant Puerto Rican tunnel rat wasn’t going down the hole until we did something.
The grenades went off with muffled thuds. We lowered Taylor’s flashlight down the hole again, and Spencer said that he could see the light shining dimly from the other area.
I looked at Fernandez and said, “OK, friend. Time to go to work. Go down the hole.”
He gave me a long, angry look. Then he took off his web gear, retrieved Taylor’s flashlight, checked the magazine in his pistol, crossed himself, and crawled over to the spider hole. After looking inside it for several moments, he went over the edge and was quickly gone, head first.
Almost immediately Spencer said that he could see the tunnel rat’s light. I kept expecting to hear a shot.
Fernandez popped back up near me. He said something I couldn’t understand and then disappeared down the hole again. Within a minute he appeared in the spider hole under the large shelter where Bratcher and Spencer were sitting.
Occasionally, bullets whistled through the shelters from all sides. They made startlingly loud sounds when they crashed through the palm fronds.
I crawled over to Spencer who was holding a flashlight as Fernandez began drawing a diagram in the dirt of what he had seen underground. The spider hole under the small shelter was connected to the spider hole in the large area and from there the tunnel led away to the west. The blood trail lead down this tunnel. Fernandez said that the tunnel curved and he had not been able to see how far it went, but there was a lot of blood in the tunnel.
The VC probably had sat near the spider hole, perhaps to put a bandage on his wound. He had probably been there when we were talking with Woolley. Maybe he had stayed until we first dropped the flashlight down the hole. Even now he could be right around the edge of the bend.
I told Bratcher that I was going down. About then, Beck came crawling up to the shelter and asked if we had gotten the VC in the hole. I told Bratcher that Beck would go with me. Beck said OK.
Taking off my web gear and steel pot, I took the flashlight and the pistol from Fernandez. I crawled over to the spider hole and shined the flashlight down. It was about four or five feet to the floor of the tunnel. I could see the opening on one side back to the small shelter and, on the other side, the opening as it went down and away.
I went over the side head first and caught myself with my hands on the bottom. Shining the flashlight down the tunnel, I could see the blood trailing out of sight around the bend. I came back out of the hole and went in feet first. Going down to my knees, with my feet back inside the tunnel toward the small shelter, I bent down and into the tunnel. I was suddenly enclosed in a solid earthen tomb. The sounds from above were muted. I felt as though I were in another dimension. Everything was quiet, cool, and very confined. With the blood trail and bend ahead, I faced the real prospect of a deadly, subterranean confrontation at any moment. Holding my finger on the trigger of the pistol in one hand and the flashlight in the other, I crawled slowly forward. Beck landed with a thud behind me and clawed ahead quickly until one of his hands grabbed one of my feet.
When I came to the bend, I inched around it, pistol first. I expected to see the wounded VC at any moment but about thirty feet ahead, the tunnel came to an abrupt end.
There was no VC in sight.
I laid down and looked at the end of the tunnel. It looked as if people had maneuvered around the area often, coming and going, their bodies wearing off the loose dirt and rounding out the sides. My first thought was that a hole at the end led up and out — the tunnel must be an escape route away from the shelters. Once I reached the end, I might find myself coming out of the tunnel into a nest of VC, or coming out near one of our guard positions and being shot by my own men.
“Where da’ fuck did he go?” Beck said behind me.
“I think up and away,” I said as I got back to my hands and knees and inched further down the tunnel.
The air was stuffy. I could smell my own body odor and Beck’s. I did not like the confinement and wished as I inched along that I had not invited Beck. He blocked any escape and seemed to close off the tunnel behind me. As I moved along, my world became smaller and smaller.
Every few feet, I stopped crawling and laid down to study the tunnel end. As I came closer, I saw that there was no hole going up. The end was a round circle, with no opening at the top. On the floor I saw what looked like a toilet seat, but it proved to be a hinged door.
“No,” I said to Beck, “I don’t think he went up and away, I think he went down.”
I continued to look at the trapdoor, in the hope of divining a course of action that was safe. Why a door? What was underneath? Was it filled with VC? Was it booby trapped? In the flashlight beam, it looked liked the gate to hell. I wished I had more air to breathe.
“What are we going to do?” Beck asked.
The trapdoor was covered with bloody fingerprints, and smeared blood was on the front of the wooden base. Our wounded VC had indeed gone through. The blood was not dry, he was only minutes ahead of us. I felt very close to my prey.
“Beck,” I said, turning to look at the burly soldier behind me, “I’m going to turn on my side, and you’re going to crawl by me. There’s a trapdoor in front at the end of this tunnel. I think you can stand over it. You’re going to take the pistol and the flashlight and I’m going to open that door. You shine that light in and be prepared to shoot.”
“OK,” Beck said with his usual “I don’t give a shit” willingness.
I turned on my side, and Beck squeezed by on his hands and knees. When he got close to my outstretched hands, I handed him the flashlight, but I said I’d hold the pistol to cover him until he was in place. It was a well-intended idea; however, when Beck passed by me, all I could see was his butt. I would have little chance to fire around him if any VC suddenly appeared out of the hole.
When Beck reached the end of the tunnel, he came slowly to his feet. His back was against the top of the rounded-out area overhead, he was standing with his feet on either side of the door. There was a small handle on the top of it.
“You want me to pull it open?” Beck asked.
For a fleeting second I thought about telling Beck to come on, we were going back up. We were still alive, but we might die if we opened that door. My face was only inches from the wet blood.
“No,” I said. “Here, you hold the pistol. I’m going to open the door with my bayonet. You keep that flashlight and gun pointed inside.”
Lying on my stomach, I got the bayonet off my belt and extended the blade forward. After a second thought, I turned the bayonet so that I was holding the blade and tapped the handle on the door to see if the tapping in the eerie quiet of the tunnel would draw fire. Nothing. Nobody home. Sweat dropped down from Beck’s face. Above us, we heard more small-arms fire, a few single rounds as the VC probed and then the return fire from the platoon.
I turned the bayonet around and stuck the point between the trapdoor and the base. Stooping over the hole, Beck had the flashlight and pistol inches above the knife. I lifted the door slightly and Beck moved the flashlight forward to shine in the crack. Lifting the door wider, I raised up on my elbows to look down inside.
The room below was narrow and long, three times the size of the tunnel and filled with olive drab boxes. I saw a pool of blood on some clothes at the end of the flashlight beam.
There was no VC. I was suddenly angry. Relieved, but angry.
“Lieutenant, my back is killing me. Let’s do something.” Beck said.
Taking the flashlight from him, I lifted the door all the way and bent down into the room. The blood trail went to the end of the room. Bloody handprints were on the rear wall. I figured that the VC had made his way up the wall to the hold above.
I dropped into the room and could almost stand up. Old carbines and mortar tubes were stacked in one corner. I told Beck to go back and get Fernandez and a couple of more men because we were going to clear all the stuff out of the room. When Beck dropped the door, I suddenly realized I didn’t have a weapon. I opened the door and told him to leave the pistol. I left the door open and went back to the other end of the room. As I suspected, there was a trapdoor in the ceiling above the bloodstains. Aiming the flashlight at the door, I eased it open with the barrel of my pistol.
There was nothing but more tunnel on the other side. I opened the door completely and stood up. With my head up through the door opening, I shined the light down the tunnel. It went to a dead end, but I thought I could see openings off to each side.
Fernandez soon appeared, and I sent him down the tunnel after the VC. He went reluctantly.
Beck joined me in the lower room, and we began to hand out items to Lyons, who was waiting in the tunnel above. They included medical supplies, textbooks, mine parts, clothing — civilian and military — ammo, weapons, maps, letters, pots and pans. The room was the supply cache for a VC cell. On the side of one wall in the dirt was a square area that had been hardened with water and some cementlike agent contained several lines of Vietnamese writing and a small American flag. I had Beck write the Vietnamese as best he could.
When the tunnel rat returned, he said that he had gone down the tunnel to the dead end, taken a right and followed the blood trail until the tunnel got so small that he couldn’t go any farther. The tunnel that led off to the left continued to what appeared to be a cave-in.
Still no VC.
Back aboveground, I leaned against the wall of the hole under the shelter and breathed deeply. The moon was full and the night was surprisingly bright. Bratcher and Spencer were nearby. Spencer handed me a cup of coffee, and, hiding the match in my cupped hands, I lit a cigarette. The pile of material from the underground room lay in the middle of the hole. Occasional rounds whistled overhead.
I called Woolley to report that we had lost the VC down a tunnel but, in chasing him, had come across a small VC supply cache. We were being probed, but I thought we could hold our own until sunrise. No casualties — we were hungry and tired, but OK.
When I finished my report, I leaned back against the dirt pit wall.
Bratcher pointed at the spider hole in the corner and asked, “Do you want us to wake you up if any VC come out of that hole tonight, or do you just want to sleep through it.”
More rounds zinged overhead.
Kiss my bejesus, I thought. Will this ever end? I was so tired that it was difficult to focus on the problem with the hole, but it was clear, once Bratcher mentioned it, that the tunnel was unprotected and the VC could come in during the night and attack us from the inside out. It would be hard to find all the men and move away from the shelter at this hour. Plus everyone was tired and we were surrounded by VC. The easiest thing would be to protect the hole.
I looked at it in the corner and thought that, at any second, a VC could jump out like a jack-in-the-box and start shooting. I noticed that Spencer and Bratcher held their weapons pointed toward the hole.
More rounds zinged overhead. I borrowed Spencer’s bayonet, took a couple of grenades off my web gear, picked up some tape, a trip- flare kit, and went down the hole feet first. After crawling to the trapdoor at the end of the tunnel, I banged on the door with the handle of the bayonet before opening it, but I saw no signs of anyone being there since we had left. I shut the door again and drove one bayonet into the ground on one side of the door. Repeated attempts to get the other bayonet into the ground on the other side failed, so I impaled the blade on the bottom of the doorframe. I taped the grenades to the bayonets, attached the wire from the trip flare kit in the ring of one grenade, and ran it across the trapdoor to the ring of the other grenade. My shoulders were tired when I finished. I laid my arms on the tunnel floor and then brought them back to cushion my head. I closed my eyes and was drifting off to sleep when I heard more gunfire above.
I looked at my booby trap, knowing that I hadn’t straightened out the safety pins. If I hit that wire after I straightened the pins, I was dead, because I couldn’t back out of this tunnel in time. Carefully thinking through every movement before I made it, I straightened the two pins and moved my hands back in front of me. My face was covered with sweat, and I was breathing heavily. Slowly I backed out of the tunnel and joined Bratcher and Spencer.
We were constantly probed for the next few hours. Sometime after midnight, the firing stopped. Then about 0200 VC opened up from all sides. I thought that they were attacking and called in mortar flares. A tracer round hit the straw roof of the smaller shelter, and it started to burn.
The mortar flares went off. Woolley asked if I wanted mortar rounds fired around my position. I said yes, but I wondered if he and the mortar crew had our exact position plotted. Within minutes mortar rounds began crashing around us. We stopped firing and hugged the ground.
There was no more fire from the VC when the mortars stopped. I called the company commander and thanked him. He said they would get a relief column out to us at first light.
Around 0500, the first rays of the morning sun began to seep into the jungle around us, and it was light by 0530. From across the hole under the shelter, Spencer said, “Hell of a night.”
I told Bratcher that I wanted us up and moving soon. If each man carried some items, we could take everything that we had brought out of the underground room.
Bratcher yelled out to the men that we would be moving out at first light. I looked at the spider hole in the corner and thought about the two-grenade booby trap over the door. I could leave them there. No one would know. But the VC would certainly get the grenades when they came back and eventually use them against us. I thought about sending Bratcher or Beck to recover them, but only I knew how the trap was set.
I told Bratcher and Spencer that I was going to get the grenades and picked up a pistol and flashlight. Down in the tunnel, I saw that the wire between the two safety pins had been bent upward. During the night, someone from below had pushed the door up but had stopped before the wire across the top pulled out either of the pins.
I smiled to myself, but I was suddenly unsure how to bend the safety pins back. One of the safety pins was slightly out the detonator. I backed out of the tunnel and asked Bratcher for the pliers he carried to crimp claymore detonators. They had wire cutters on one end.
Back in the tunnel I crawled to the trapdoor and caught my breath before reaching up and cutting the wire between the safety pins. Then, one at a time, I bent the pins back. I was backing down the tunnel when I heard small-arms fire from above. It started slowly, then a full battle erupted. I backed out furiously and was almost to the spider hole when I heard Bratcher yelling for everyone to hold their fire.
Coming out of the hole, I saw Bratcher running off to the side with Spencer on his heels. I heard loud, frenzied talking in the bush ahead of them.
Castro was yelling, “Ah shit, man, shit, shit.”
I recognized Peterson’s voice yelling for the medic and telling his men to spread out. Wondering why Peterson was here, I rushed forward.
Ten or fifteen feet from the shelters Castro was holding Private Patrick in his arms. Patrick had been shot in the chest and shoulder. The medic was on his knees. Patrick’s arms were lying loosely at his side, his eyes roaming around the faces of the men standing above him. Castro helped open his fatigue jacket. Blood was gushing out of a number of holes, and his eyes started to lose their focus. Castro yelled for him to hold on. He told the medic to hurry. Patrick coughed, and blood came out of his mouth. I dropped to my knees beside him.
“Goddammit, don’t you die, Patrick, don’t you die, don’t give up,” I said, helping to rip open his shirt.
Blood was everywhere. Patrick closed his eyes and his head rolled to the side, and he died.
We stopped what we were doing. The medic shook his head, took a deep breath, and stood up.
Castro was still holding Patrick and rocking back and forth on his heels. Then Castro laid him down on the ground. I stood up and looked at Pete. His eyes were moist. He had his hands out with the palms up.
“I left as soon as I could this morning to get here and help you,” Pete said. “Colonel wouldn’t let me come last night.” He paused. “Patrick must have fallen asleep, lying here in these bushes. He fired at my point man. Just jerked up and started firing. He and my point man just fired at each other. I’m sorry.”
I looked down at Patrick, then at each man who stood around him in slight shock — Castro, Bratcher, Spencer, Beck, Pete’s point man and finally Pete. Tired, it took a while for me to understand what happened. Then, more quickly, I sought some meaning. I couldn’t yell at Pete or his point man. It certainly wasn’t their fault, nor was it Patrick’s. I felt a mindless rage, like I wanted to cry and scream at the same time.
“Goddamnit,” I heard myself say, as random thoughts drifted through the fog of my mind. Death is so ugly. War is so unfair. Why Patrick? What’s the use? Who’s to blame? No answers and my mind turned numb.
Without comment, we built a stretcher out of ponchos and bamboo and gently rolled Patrick’s body onto it.
Pete’s platoon would stay in the area and try to pin down the VC who had attacked us during the night. As I began to walk away with my platoon, Pete fell in beside me, and we walked along together for a short distance. We didn’t look at each other or talk. I was exhausted. Pete didn’t know what to say. He stopped and I walked on.