CHAPTER 1: RED TIDE
“The path to glory is built by the bodies of our enemies.” – Vietnamese National Anthem, originally from North Vietnam
“The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his” – General George S. Patton, commander of US forces in Europe in WW2
CAMP BECKLEY, DA NANG AIR BASE, SOUTH VIETNAM
For the past week or so, the sound of artillery and antiaircraft fire echoed through the Southeast Asian night, but tonight it was silent at Camp Beckley, a joint US-South Vietnamese base in the northern tier of the country, only a few miles from the border of North Vietnam. Intel from the Pentagon had indicated that the North Vietnamese army was planning a major offensive across the border in support of the Vietcong guerillas they and the Soviets had been backing in the South.
Tonight, though was a quiet break, thought Corporal John Teller of the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division as he climbed the service ladder to the rooftop of the three story headquarters building, emerging right below the large American flag that flew up top. This was Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, where fighting died down as people throughout this country observed this holiday and tried their best to reunite with family and friends despite the war going on.
This rooftop, one of the highest spots on the grounds of Da Nang Air Base, was JT’s retreat, just like he liked to climb up onto the roof of his father’s garage back in Charming and just reflect on his life and write entries for his diary. Here, it also gave JT just the slightest reprieve from the muggy tropical air and the heat that rarely dissipated, not even at night, not even in January. Now the temperatures in Vietnam weren’t any higher than back home. In fact, California’s Central Valley often saw the mercury push over 100 degrees in the summer while it was only 89 here tonight, but it was the 100% humidity of Vietnam that pushed the heat index to 117 or so, making it far worse than any summer day in Charming.
JT felt the rare sea breeze come in from the South China Sea as he began writing in his diary again. “I guess people will always ask me what its like killing someone for the first time. To be honest, it’s kinda like killing a deer for the first time. I remember my first hunting trip with my dad when I was seven years old when he took us out to our hunting property outside Redding. I remember my first successful kill like it was yesterday as Dad and I crouched silently on the hunting platform as the buck first came into view, then into range. I remember the hesitation I felt, my hands shaking as my father helped me aim the rifle at the deer
“You got this, son, there’s no way you’ll miss, not from this close.” The buck was literally right beneath our platform by then. Then Dad let go of my hands. “It’s your shot, son, you need to take it. You need to learn that there ain’t nothing wrong with this, nothing you need to worry about.” I made myself think about the seven antlers mounted on the wall at Harvey’s Family Restaurant, how Mr. Harvey himself had tagged all those deer by himself, and how I wanted to be able to do the same. I forced myself to keep my eyes open as I pulled the trigger and watched the buck fall. “I’m proud of you, son. Damn proud. This is going in our living room, and everyone’s going to know that it was you that did it.”
I killed a man for last week, and two after that. That first time, we were intercepting an enemy scouting party in the jungle hills not far from here. I had climbed over a ledge along with Piney and two of our other guys and seen the hostiles on the footpath through the woods. We needed to take them out before they stumbled on our position. I aimed for the target closest to me. For just a few moments, I thought how different it was from training and hitting targets on the gun range, but then I thought of my first hunt with Dad. I never felt bad for killing that buck, and as everyone else in my squad told me, I should feel even less bad about killing this guy. The buck never did nothing to me. With it, it was the thrill of the hunt, the ability to beat him at his own game, on his own home turf. And about the venison that we enjoyed for weeks. It was much the same when I first got the commie in my crosshairs. Of course there was a slight hesitation at the magnitude of what I was about to do, but I knew that would pass as I pulled the trigger and watched the commie fall. He had no idea what had hit him, just like that deer didn’t.
Soon I put it in perspective though. Whatever initial guilt I had about killing him quickly dissipated as I thought of the much greater guilt I would be feeling if one of my fellow Americans had been killed if I didn’t take the shot. The man I shot was my enemy. He was a commie bastard who wanted to kill me because I was American. He had been taught since birth to hate the United States and everything about it – the values we lived by, the God we worship, the way of life that we cherished. If he had a chance, he would kill my family the way the communists killed entire families here in Vietnam, the way the Soviets murdered tens of millions of people in the Siberian prison camps, an even more staggering number than what the Nazi and Japanese war criminals did. And I didn’t kill him as a trophy, or for food, or for the thrill of the hunt. I killed him to protect my men. I killed him for my country, for America, for a higher purpose. As Thomas Jefferson said, the tree of liberty had to refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants. I just hope its more of the tyrants, and less of the patriots.
“Up here again?” A voice jolted JT back to his senses. He turned around and saw two men from his platoon, Sergeant Piermont “Piney” Winston and Corporal Otis Cross, standing there. Piney had grown up together with JT in Charming, and Otis came from Lodi, not too far away. They had quickly bonded and become good friends during their basic training in California and their combat exercises in the Florida swamps.
“What the hell is that shit, man?” Otis said, smiling as he looked at the diary.
“Oh, nothing, just a diary. Weird, I know,” he said, then wanted to change the subject. JT always thought keeping a diary was a girly thing and he certainly was never mistaken for being gay, but he still wish his friends hadn’t seen it. “So I heard you had your baby yesterday. Is it a boy or a girl?”
“Boy,” Otis replied proudly. “Name’s Taddarius.”
“Hmmmm….interesting one,” Piney replied, “How the hell you come up with that?”
“I didn’t, wife did naturally. We thought about Darius but she already knew two other kids with that name and wanted to go creative. I’m sure that’s what your mommy or daddy was thinking when they came up with Piermont. Besides his full name’s going to be Taddarius Orwell. He can go by T.O. while I’m Otis.”
JT smiled and patted him on the back. “That’s a good one, gotta give her credit for that.” For a few moments, they sat in silence, enjoying the rare quiet as they breathed in the tropical air. “I’m sorry you weren’t able to be there for his birth.”
Otis nodded. “I know, but I also believe in what we’re doing here, what we’re fighting for. I’m here fighting for a better world for him, man. If the commies are focusing all their attention on this shithole, maybe they’ll focus less on America. I just hope T.O. can grow up not having to learn nuclear attack drills and how to get to the fallout shelters and bunkers when he’s in elementary school.”
As a black man, life in America certainly wasn’t the best for Otis. There was a period in time when the billboards on Interstate 580 near Charming openly advertised that blacks were not allowed in certain hotels and restaurants. But the thing about America was that the future was always getting better, while the evil of the Soviet Union and its communist allies grew darker with each passing year.
JT certainly understood these sentiments. His father had joined the Army right after Pearl Harbor and received a Purple Heart on the battlefields of Okinawa while his uncle in the Air Force flew critical sorties first against the Nazis and then in the Korean War. So far, what he had seen in Vietnam was not nearly as bad as what they had experienced, and he hoped it wasn’t just a matter of time. Especially since he would be sent on a mission in less than 24 hours. Yes, it seemed peaceful now, but you never knew what could happen.
BRIEFING ROOM, CAMP BECKLEY
JT looked at the men of his platoon, making eye contact with each and every one of them. They were here for various reasons. Many signed up because of their strong convictions in God and country and in fighting the Red threat wherever it reared its ugly head. The past decade or so had seen the mass murder following the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Soviet engineered revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in Cuba, right on America’s doorstep. If we didn’t fight communism and socialism abroad, we would be soon be fighting it at home. Some of the others were just young and restless, having joined for a sense of adventure and self-discovery, or for a possible chance to go to college through the GI bill. JT and Piney Winston were a combination of these things. One thing none of them knew was the price that this ragtag communist enemy in this distant land was about to extract from all of them.
Their platoon had been in combat before, but it was mostly skirmishes against Vietcong irregulars in the jungles outside of Da Nang and a few bouts of street fighting in the town itself. They had thus far taken no casualties.
JT pointed to the large map on the wall showing the immediate Da Nang area with major landmarks and enemy positions. “Gentlemen, we will be moving out for our next mission at 1900 hours tonight. Recent runs by the Air Force U-2 surveillance planes have revealed increasing enemy activity on the spur of the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the Laos border here to the Da Nang region. It is believed that the North Vietnamese Army has been armed with new military hardware straight from the Soviet Union and will be attempting to utilize these weapons in a new offensive in the coming weeks. Our operating area, code named Objective Bluefield, is the junction of this spur and a major route heading southward from North Vietnam. Our unit has been tasked with seizing control of these strategic transportation routes that the enemy may take advantage of in their efforts to expand the war.
“We are not anticipating heavy enemy resistance as intel does not report any large concentration of hostile forces in the vicinity and the self-imposed Tet ceasefire seems to be holding. Make no mistake, gentlemen, this war IS going to heat up again, and its absolutely critical that we maintain the upper hand once it does.
JUNGLE, 15 MILES SOUTHWEST OF DA NANG
The company that was dispatched to Objective Bluefield consisted of JT’s platoon, another platoon commanded by Lieutenant Derek Lawson and a South Vietnamese platoon led by Sergeant Major Loc Bui, a seasoned officer from Saigon who had been fighting the communists since before the arrival of the first American combat troops in Vietnam in 1965. The twenty mile trip outside of Da Nang took well over three hours since unlike the newly constructed Interstate Highway System back home, a “highway” here was simply a dirt track shared with rickshaws, pedestrians, and herds of farm animals traveling to the nearest market. In addition to the flies and mosquitoes that infested this jungle, a sudden tropical downpour suddenly sent mud and rocks collapsing onto the roadway, causing vehicles in the convoy to be bogged down on several occasions.
The delay would prove to be fatal. It was almost dusk by the time the company reached Objective Ripley, located in a clearing containing a cluster of rice and soybean farms. The area looked deserted and JT was on especially high alert as the convoy rumbled through the settlement while some units were sent to flank the town and make sure no enemy soldiers were hiding in or around the thatched roof huts and that there were no civilians here that sympathized with the Communists. Once past the village, the three platoons split up as they made their way across the flooded rice paddies into the thick jungles that began abruptly at the edge of the rice paddies. The sound of helicopter rotors appeared in the distance, then quickly grew louder.
“Didn’t know the air cavalry were joining us,” Piney remarked, looking up at the darkening sky which thankfully was clearing of the storm clouds, the only lightning now far to the east as the storm moved over the ocean. The choppers were obviously flying low, seemingly hugging the jungle treetops.
“Wasn’t aware either, could be the Marines too. That low, our radars wouldn’t have picked them up. What’s with these games they….”
Suddenly a barrage of air-to-surface missiles rained down on JT’s platoon as well as on the South Vietnamese one. At least six large explosions tore through the jungle sending fireballs rising into the treetops. The rainstorm was the only reason the entire jungle didn’t catch on fire from the attack. JT dove for cover then looked up, seeing several American soldiers running around ablaze, screaming to help as the helicopter flew even lower. He gasped as he looked up. What they thought was an Army or Marine aircraft was a North Vietnamese Mi-8 attack helicopter, which meant the commies also had ground forces swarming all over the area.
“All units, take cover!” JT radioed as the enemy pilot turned around for another run, opening fire again, firing more missiles as well as attacking targets on the ground with its heavy machine guns. JT saw that the South Vietnamese platoon was the most exposed, having stopped in an area where a newly cleared part of the forest lined both sides of the road. The enemy aircraft focused on the area, then they heard aggressive screaming in Vietnamese, almost a war cry, as dozens upon dozens of enemies appeared over the ridgelines. The Mi-8 unleashed another massive payload on the South Vietnamese unit. Several soldiers tried to surrender but the gunners on board the helicopter mowed them down with their heavy armaments, also shooting down countless American and South Vietnamese troops in the back as they tried to retreat.
“Piney, I need the Redeye now!” he ordered, referring to the FIM-43 Redeye, an American shoulder-launched antiaircraft missile that was a precursor to the Stinger missile. “Make sure you have a clear line of fire!” Piney nodded and ran back toward one of the transport trucks, removing the missile. They hadn’t carried it on their person since this attack was definitely unexpected. It was more than an ambush. They had stumbled upon a mass enemy offensive. The enemy’s ground forces alone were probably enough to overwhelm any stand the Americans tried to take, but unless the Soviet-made chopper was destroyed, they were looking at a wholesale slaughter of their unit. Different men were trying to check in with JT, but it was clear that over half of his platoon was already killed or wounded.
Piney finally took aim with the Redeye as the Mi-8 came to face them as its machine guns concentrated on the Americans on the ground. As the Americans’ attention was taken by the large deadly aircraft, the enemy ground troops took advantage of the chaos and quickly advanced toward the road. JT screamed in anguish as he saw one of the guys from his unit, a young man barely past his 18th birthday, bravely open fire with his assault rifle in a futile attempt to stop the aircraft then get cut down. He aimed straight at the front of the helicopter and prepared to fire but ducked as the machine gun fire from the front of the enemy lines struck the ground around him.
“Fuck!” Piney cursed as the missile left the launcher. The North Vietnamese pilot quickly banked to the left, but the missile nonetheless struck the rear of the aircraft, an explosion tearing off the tail including the back rotors. Thick black smoke poured out of the Mi-8 as it went into an uncontrolled spin. Several enemy soldiers were thrown out of the doomed aircraft, screaming as they fell to their deaths. The Mi-8 crashed into a muddy hillside, right in the middle of the enemy’s ground advance and exploded, wiping out a large contingent of commie soldiers.
JT slapped Piney on the back and breathed a temporary sigh of relief despite knowing he was still in the heat of the battle. “Good work, Piney! You taught those Red fuckers a lesson.”
“God bless America,” Piney said, nodding. JT saw what he was trying to do. “Smart thinking.” Piney now turned the missile launcher toward another clump of commies who were now charging into the clearing. He took aim at the center of the group and fired again, the missile exploding right in the middle of the advance, scattering the dead bodies of the commies all over the field and up into the sky. He had one missile left and aimed it on the hillside, triggering a mudslide that came tumbling down on more than twenty communist soldiers, burying many of them alive and sending the rest tumbling to the ground where the American machine gunners were able to make good use of their weapons. JT knew it wasn’t over, however. The enemy attached no value to human life, not even their own soldiers. This was how fervently they held their evil beliefs. No matter what the cost to themselves, they would fight on until every single American and South Vietnamese was killed or captured. JT, Piney, and the other Americans would not make it easy for them. They would extract a heavy cost in blood from these Red pinkos.
JT saw three commies coming over a short ridge behind some overgrowth and squeezed off a long burst with his assault rifle. He heard the three men scream and tumble down the hill and into a creek below with a splash. Two more enemy soldiers appeared with a mobile grenade launcher. The first grenade flew over JT and Loc’s head but impacted a South Vietnamese Humvee , incinerating two soldiers who were taking cover behind it in the firefight.
At the same time, Lawson grabbed the radio, desperately trying to call base. “This is Lawson, we’re one click east of Objective Bluefield in the clearing just outside the village, we have an enemy human wave attack coming at us from two directions, requesting air support immediately!”
“Say again,” came the reply from Da Nang. “What is your position again? What kind of opposition…..” It was clear from the voice that US Command was taken completely by surprise. The last two days had been among the most peaceful ones in Vietnam in months, ostensibly so both sides could observe Tet.
“We’ve been attacked by at least two full companies of the North Vietnamese Army! We need airstrikes on the hills above Objective Bluefield and toward our egress….”
Suddenly a sniper bullet fired by the enemy struck the radio and forced Lawson to take cover. “Jesus Christ!” Another American soldier opened fire in the general direction of where the bullet came from but had no visual on the sniper. The communist sniper sent a second bullet flying into the soldier’s forehead, splattering pieces of his brain and skull fragments all over Lawson. This was all surreal. Those bastards, JT thought. Using their own new year to mount this attack, ignoring their own culture’s time honored traditions that the South Vietnamese still respected. To the communist enemy, nothing was sacred, nothing at all.
“We need to retreat back to the east!” Lawson shouted at JT.
He acknowledged with some hand motions. “What’s the ETA on those Hueys? If our guys don’t start pounding those commies from the air we won’t be able to hold the line!”
JT knew that with communications cut and no American reinforcements on the way, the only option for any of them was for some of the vehicles to make it back to Da Nang and alert their superiors about what happened so that they could either finally send backup to relieve the men at Objective Ripley or in a worse case scenario to mount a rescue operation of captured Americans taken into enemy-controlled territory. In order to do this, he had to finish making the repairs to the last jeep.
“JT, you take cover!” Loc screamed as he also opened fire with the heavy machine gun, blasting at the enemy troops concentration coming from the jungle road. The American made weapon was much louder and powerful than the enemy, tearing through the dense forest and sending leaves and pieces of tree bark showering down all over the battle zone.
“No, Loc!” JT shouted back through the sound of the gunfire, whizzing bullets and explosions as he made another turn on his wrench in the jeep’s engine. “I got this! The vehicle’s almost up and running again, our other units are all pinned down, we need you to get back to Da Nang and tell them the details of what’s going on. I don’t have time for you to translate what the hell those commies are saying about their plans for us.”
On the other side of the hill, several more North Vietnamese troop transports pulled up and deposited dozens of more enemy soldiers while a BTR-40 armored personnel carrier and two Chinese-made Type 62 tanks also arrived on scene. By now the South Vietnamese platoon had been completely decimated as they had returned to Objective Ripley to help defend against the onslaught. Loc and two other South Vietnamese were the only survivors. The other American platoon had also taken heavy casualties and were falling back into a defensive position, crouching down in the flooded rice paddies set amid the burning thatched huts of the village. A round from the first enemy tank struck the middle of the rice paddy. JT heard a scream and saw a shower of blood as several American soldiers were blown apart. This was followed by another round as the communists decided to concentrate their fire on the retreating Americans.
About four or five more sprouts of water erupted from the rice field as the commie tanks continued to fire in an attempt to slaughter or flush out the remaining Americans. Another round went straight into the stopped convoy, destroying the first American jeep.
“Piney, Lawson, y’all need to hold them back until I get this thing running!” JT shouted as he continued to work on the jeep. Tucker, despite his wounds, also aimed an anti-tank missile along with Piney as several other soldiers rearmed his weapon for him. Piney aimed a missile straight at the first Type 62 destroying it completely. The BTR-40 troop transport and the other Type 62 both turned off the road, crashing through a small fence, the BTR-40 screeching to a halt, throwing up a large amount of muddy water as the Type 62 continued past the burning wreckage of the first communist tank.
“Tucker, I need you to take out both remaining vehicles. The commies will be dumping their troops off that transport, me and Lawson have to engage them before they scatter and provide more fire against us.” Piney squeezed the young man’s shoulder in a fatherly way. “You’re doing great son. I’m proud of you.”
Tucker nodded as he took aim at his targets. In the meantime, JT continued desperately working on the engine then stepped back. “Try it now!” he called up to Otis in the driver’s seat.
“Yes, sir, corporal!” Otis responded and turned the ignition. Smoke poured out of the engine but it sputtered and died.
“Goddammit!” JT struck the side of the jeep in frustration. “Son of a bitch!” He forced himself to remain calm. He had been around various kinds of vehicles his entire life given that his father owned one of the busiest automotive repair shops and garages in not just Charming but all of San Joaquin County, attracting business from as far away as Lodi and Stockton. This was his first time having to repair a vehicle with gunfire and men dying all around him but the men he served with depended on it. Soon they would be overrun and captured, and this was the only way they could get help.
The communist tank commander adjusted the turret of the second Type 62, lining it up with the clump of American vehicles left on the road. At that moment, an antitank missile fired by Tucker slammed into the tank, its engine fluids quickly igniting. The explosion was muffled by the heaviness of the tank but killed its entire crew instantly. Then the weapons on board the tank exploded, showering the advancing enemy troops with wreckage.
As Piney had predicted, North Vietnamese infantry troops began pouring out of the BTR-40. Not all of them had made it out before Tucker’s missile made a direct hit, creating a large explosion that completely tore apart the vehicles. At least four commies were caught in the blaze, either dying in the explosions or running around in flames as they burned to death. The remaining commies from the transport were still heavily concentrated, giving Piney and Lawson and target rich environment. The two Americans set up their machine gun mounts in several spots, unleashing a furious and relentless hail of gunfire. More enemies were appearing but Piney and Lawson mowed them down quickly, one line after another of enemy infantrymen collapsing on the ground, some tripping over the bodies of their dead comrades.
“Any progress, JT?” Piney shouted back. “We got more of these bastards coming, I don’t know how much longer we can hold our position!”
“Almost done! Should be up and running in less than a minute!” replied JT.
One of the commies who had fallen into the creek was still alive, raising up his machine gun and opening fire in the direction of JT’s platoon. A round struck Tucker in the lower leg, sending him to the ground in pain. “Shit! Jesus Christ!” he cursed as he looked at his pants which were quickly being soaked in blood. JT turned his attention from the hilltop to the creek and finished off the commie with a long burst to the chest, sending him back into the water, permanently this time.
Sparks flew in JT’s face and he turned away. “Fuck!” He worked on the engine for a little bit more as Loc popped up behind the engine block, shooting down a commie charging through the woods, then another.
“I’m almost done with this,” JT told Loc, then shouted to several of his men as he saw seven commies making their way down a hill, taking turns firing at the American and South Vietnamese troops on the dirt road. “I need the rockets down! I count at least a half dozen commies in our two o’clock position on the hillside approaching our unit. Concentrate your fire there!”
Piney crawled along the putrid jungle ground, aiming his Glock pistol at two commies moving a crate with Russian lettering on it, no doubt more grenades for the team already attacking the company. Piney made sure he had a full round in his pistol and shot the first commie in the head, causing his comrade to drop the crate and lose his balance. Piney whirled around as a hail of return fire hit the clump of trees. The commie carrying the crate now had a visual on Piney, as did the two commies with the grenade launcher. Piney shot the commie twice in the chest then took cover again. He saw a smoke trail as the explosives team turned their attention to him. Piney dove head first into the creek, the RPG instead exploding next to a group of enemy soldiers killing them. At this moment, JT pulled the pin off his hand grenade as hard as he could and hurled it up. The two commies manning the RPG didn’t even see it coming. The explosion was powerful enough to send both commies flying into the air, depositing one of them in the treetops.
This time, the engine roared to life. JT almost shoved Loc into the passenger seat then turned his attention to another jeep. “Escort them back to Da Nang! Go! Go! Go!”
Loc quickly backed up, crashing into some jungle bushes, then hightailed it back from where they came from followed by the other jeep, even as the communist forces tried to close off their escape route. Loc went to the back of the jeep, opening fire with the mounted machine gun, killing six more attacking commies before they were out of range, speeding through impoverished villages on their way back to Da Nang.
“Fuck!” JT cursed, “We could have outflanked them, we could gotten past these motherfuckers! “ He shook his head in frustration. It seemed like more than a full company of enemy troops was upon them. To his right, he saw three American soldiers get cut down by enemy fire. As many commies as they killed, more were coming.
“It’s hopeless now, JT!” Lawson radioed in. “I don’t for a moment believe this bullshit about the Geneva Conventions but they’re intent on killing us all no matter how many men they lose. We’re not dealing with a rational enemy here.”
“If they’re right in the head they wouldn’t be commies,” JT retorted as he reloaded and shot down an enemy soldier wildly screaming communist slogans as he charged with a grenade. The grenade landed where the commie fell, killing another group of the enemy.
“You know I’m ready to go down fighting but I’m not going to sentence all these boys to death,” Lawson told JT, killing a commie with a shot through the throat.
“Surrender now! You are outnumbered and your position is exposed!” a voice boomed through a bullhorn in heavily accented English. “If you surrender peacefully, you will be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions! If not, you will be killed to the last man!”