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Boat People

by Tom Skiens (AKA, 'Foxtrot')

Charlie company, 4th Battalion 3d Infantry Regiment, 11th Light infantry Brigade, Americal Division

*I will attempt to maintain the integrity of this story but I will not name names for those who issued or executed orders to kill. It would serve no purpose to identify them now.

Depending on your religion this particular day, or moment. Your ideology lost, revived or rebuilding. The following story could be considered murder or as one person said, there is no murder in war. This story must certainly be about a killing. The ending of life. I know in some small way my life ended during the week leading up to this event.

Please understand that I am just a grunt but I believe this week was dominated by a single ill conceived objective.

The objective was to cordon off an area of sniper alley, drop CS gas from the 4.2 mortars inside the cordoned area and shoot the sniper as he ran away from the CS gas. This was a great plan designed by great men. Except that gas goes up when you release it because its lighter than air. The gook sniper was living in a hole in the ground. We had a snowballs chance in hell of pulling this mission off successfully.

I think the frustration and losses we suffered during this mission help define us as a combat infantry unit. Elements of Charlie company became cynical, mean, without reason. They would kill for a shot of adrenalin or because they could. They would rape to hide their fears or because they wanted to.

It was during this terrible week of April 1968 where we hit 7 booby traps, suffered one wounded from a sniper, 13 wounded overall and 6 dead. Hargrove and Pennimon died from a bouncing Betty, The Lt. lost his right foot, and fingers off the right hand, An FNG, who had just arrived at about 1900 on the resupply chopper the night before, was wounded in the gut. I am right in the middle of the mess. So is Zimmerman. We were both also right in the middle of the January 13, 1968 bouncing Betty that killed two and wounded eight.

Zimmerman and I do not know each other at this time but we keep showing up at the same mass casualty events. Zimmerman still does not know me and I know him only indirectly through staff journals and a weird connection where Zimmerman is one of only two names I could remember when I came home from Nam. Thats because he and another grunt would be dusted off April 25th as Psycho cases. Zimmerman, the only original surviving member of Charlie company 1st squad 1st platoon. Twice in four months everyone else in the squad had become dead or wounded. I have always wanted to find Zimmerman and tell him I was proud of him for being the first to know when he had enough of war. The rest of us got traumatized and kept on trucking.

Two days later Sgt. Fox is moving from left to right to get his point orientated when he was shot by a sniper. I crawled over and started using my radio to get help while Zimmerman retrieved all available information from Sgt. Fox that would enable him to run the platoon. Zimmerman was a PFC but as things would have it he was the highest ranking person in the platoon. About one hour later Charlie company hit another booby trap. More people down. I'm resigned, this shit will never stop.

So this is kind of what is going on this week. We are completing our mission but taking heavy losses. Heavy to me anyway. Sometime here we established an RON (remain over night). We begin digging foxholes and opening C's. I always got rid of my Blouse as it was heavy with sweat by 1000 and it was now around 1800.

Someone over near the river alerted us to two gooks in a sampan. I grabbed my M-16 and joined 5 or 6 others at the rivers edge to have a look. The ranking member of the group said, 'Hail the gooks and see if we get a response'. Someone said, 'Lie Di mother fucker." Someone else said. 'La Dia mother fucker'. We did not speak good or consistent gook.

The boss told the M-60 gunner to put warning rounds in the water. M-60 Gunners love to fire their weapons. Each round fired is that much less weight to carry. The M-60 gunner let loose several bursts to let the gooks know we were talking to them. The gooks were waving their arms and repeating, 'me no VC, me no VC'. The boss let the M-60 gunner know they had followed the rules and it was now OK to shoot to kill.

Grunts that get their buddies blown up every day. Grunts who could get blown up themselves and never get a chance to shoot back because Charlie is inviable. These grunts were now told by authority that they could kill.

It did not take long for the M-60 gunner to depress and hold the trigger. 7.62 rounds spit up geysers of water as they plowed their way to the Sampan. The M-60 kept up a heavy pace chewing up the water then the boat then the people. I watched the upright bodies, who most surely were dead, do the spastic jerk dance and emit pieces of their bone and skin out the back of their body. The spastic jerk dance is done by those who are dead but rounds from opposing weapons keep their bodies upright and in motion.

The boat started sinking and the bodies began slipping under water. The order was issued to recover personnel and items from the deep and narrow river. The ammo bearer for the M-60 jumped into the water. He quickly grabbed a dead gook and started moving it to the waters edge where two sets of ready hands began lifting the gook up the steep, muddy and very slick river bank.

The grunt in the water paddled over to the second gook and repeated his motions from before. He then turned his focus to the floating debits and the need to secure the boat. The boss said to forget about the boat but collect whatever documents he can as he swims back to shore. Everyone gave a hand helping the ammo bearer out of the water.

We now search the bodies. Thats what war is. A whole lot of searching bodies. It makes no difference weather the body is alive or dead. You may have lived in this place for 60 years and I may have just arrived 30 days ago but I am going to search you. Thats just the way it is. When your most trusted loved buddy turns a prisoner over to you, you search the prisoner. Nothing else is acceptable. You must search the prisoner before you turn it over to a buddy and he searches the prisoner before accepting it. There are no exceptions. You search everything all the time.

The search turned up two I.D. Cards, American issue. One for each body. This was not the ideal situation we had hoped for. It would be nice if they would have gook cards with big red stars, but they didn't. It would have been nice to find sores on their shoulders from carrying a back pack or rings in their toes or a bone in the nose, or something, but we didn't. These guys could very well have earned the American I.D. cards they were packing. When we reported this incident to higher-higher we said, 'engaged two VC, 2 VC KIA, Sampan destroyed, no weapons'.

It is hard for me to put this in the category of murder. It was certainly a killing. Unlawful acts occurred but under order. It had been a tough week. We had suffered a lot of casualties and blowing these guys away sort of took off some of the tension. Pretty lame excuse.

Kill because we are tired of others killing those around me. This was a revenge killing. Not that these two people in the boat had done anything to us personally but simply because we needed to kill someone to help us feel like we could even the score. Killing to gain a sense of control over our lives. We did not win the war this day.

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