Boy on a board

The officers higher up in the command chain sometimes wanted us to work with Popular Forces, which were a kind of Vietnamese National Guard. They were not regular soldiers but were part-timers. That’s what we were doing on this day. We didn’t like working with them because they were unpredictable. Sometimes if shooting started they would run toward the rear shouting “beaucoup VC! beaucoup VC!”, leaving us Americans to do the fighting while our supposed Vietnamese allies ran way. They didn’t always do it and on this particular day they stood their ground when some fighting started.

But, this story isn’t really about them, it’s about the “collateral damage” that I suppose all wars produce. Collateral damage meaning civilians who get shot up or killed in the course of a battle or firefight. On this particular day my platoon was operating with Popular Force troops in the area I called the “lowlands” They were low as compared to the jungled mountains we would otherwise have been working in, anyway.

One of the squads of the platoon set off on a patrol with their Popular Force counterparts. I didn’t know where they were going. I seldom knew much of anything. I stayed behind with the rest of the platoon at our day laager position. After quite some time had gone by I heard a firefight start up between our guys and the enemy. You could always tell the enemy. Their Kalashnikov weapons had a distinct sound that was different than the M16’s we used. Then I heard mortar rounds impacting. The squad in action had called in mortar fire. I could see the rounds impacting in an open area several hundred yards away but it was too far to see any people.

After some discussion over the radio it was decided to add some extra help to the skirmish so my squad got the order to go to where the action was and help out. We were accompanied by our own contingent of Popular Force troops. The order came from the platoon sergeant, who was leading the platoon at the time since we were without a lieutenant. The war didn’t stop because of a shortage of lieutenants. We would have been at it even if a PFC was the only available platoon leader.

Our squad formed up and we set off down the trail to link up with the other squad. Things were fairly quiet on our way there. Not much firing. Maybe a few more mortar rounds. It took us only a few minutes to reach them and when we did our two squads, both reinforced with a squad of Popular Force troops each, spread out into a wide line and began advancing across a big open field in the direction the enemy had gone. Partway across was a pile of food the enemy had discarded. Among the food was a stalk of dried bananas. A Popular Force soldier near me helped himself to the stalk of bananas and hoisted it over his shoulder. The field we were walking in was grassy and open. I didn’t like this. It made for easy walking but we were also in full view of the enemy the whole time although they hadn’t yet taken advantage of our exposure to open up on us. At that time I didn’t know who the enemy was. No one had told me. That is, I didn’t know if they were Vietcong or North Vietnamese soldiers. Both forces were working in the area, sometimes together.

We continued advancing across the field until the grass gave out and thicker vegetation began. The area where I came to a stop was also at the base of a ridge with small trees and thick brush on it. I could not see a thing which kinda creeped me out because I could hear someone in the brush and trees above me moving around. I could’nt see anything to get a shot at and it was making me nervous because I thought whoever it was up there might see me first, standing out in the open as I was.

There was a Popular Force soldier near me and he offered me a couple of bananas from his banana stalk. This was the same soldier who had picked up the stalk walking across the field. “Chop Chop!” he said, using the generic Vietnamese expression for food. I took the bananas and opened one and began to eat. I did not like it. The bananas were naturally dried right on the stalk and I didn’t think they were very tasty that way. The whole time the banana episode was going on I was annoyed because I had to keep my attention on the rustling in the bushes on the ridge above me and I seemed to be the only one out of the whole bunch of us who was aware of it. I seemed to be the only one paying attention to the potential danger. It was not the first time and would not be the last time that I felt as if I was the only one aware of things going on that everyone should be paying attention to. It’s like being the only person on guard while everyone else plays or daydreams.

It was about this time that some shots rang out to my right. Part of the squads had gone up onto a higher terrace above the field where a small hootch could been seen. The shots sounded like enemy AK47s and they sounded like they were coming from the hootch so the guys walking point, one American and one Popular Force soldier, opened fire on the hootch with their M16s and filled it full of holes. The enemy firing seemed to have died down so the two point men and part of a squad carefully approached the hootch and went inside, thinking they were going to find a dead enemy or two. Instead they found a dead little girl, a boy with blood on his legs but walking, a woman, presumably the children’s mother, wounded in the hand with two fingers hanging on by skin only, and a second little boy who appeared to have taken a bullet thru the jaw.

I didn’t know all of this at the time as I was still preoccupied with the noises of people moving around in the bushes on the ridge above me. All I was aware of was that an exchange of fire had taken place and some of our men had gone into the hootch. After they had been in the hootch for some time they emerged with a woman and boy walking and another smaller boy being carried on a board they had come up with somewhere. The boy on the board appeared to be about 5. The other boy, maybe 7 or 8. A squad leader called me over to them and explained the situation. The wounded civilians would need a dustoff to get them to a hospital and I was going to assist them to the place where the helicopter was going to land and pick them up. Dave, the point man from my squad who had gone into the hootch said there was also a little girl who in his words was “all f****d up” and dead. I never did see the little girl as I didn’t go into the hootch at any time.

I was detailed to carry one end of the board the little boy was on so I passed my M16 to another soldier to carry and picked up my end of the board and we started off to the dustoff chopper landing zone which was already being prepared. As we walked along the woman sound like she was cussing us. I didn’t understand Vietnamese but the tone was clear. I felt sorry for her. Two of her fingers on one hand were just hanging on by skin and didn’t look like they could be saved. The boy walking beside her had blood on his legs but it was hard to tell if it was coming from him or if he had got it on him from his wounded companions. He seemed to walk ok. The boy on the board was much worse. It looked like he had had a bullet pass thru his jaw. As he lay on the board his mouth was partway open and there was what looked like a ball of pulverized meat and bone at the front of his mouth. I didn’t understand how he could be so quiet. He never moved. He just stoically took it and never whimpered or cried or anything. Any American 5 year old boy would have been screaming bloody murder and tossing and turning uncontrollably. Perhaps he was in some kind of shock. I don’t know. I admired his courage, though.

We continued on our walk across the grassy field. We had to go several hundred yards to get to the dustoff landing site. The helicopter pilot didn’t want to land too close to the area where the action was going on as he was afraid to get shot down.

After a lot of walking we finally got to the dustoff site and set down our boy on the board and waited for the dustoff chopper to arrive. We didn’t have to do much waiting and when it arrived a couple of guys helped the wounded woman and two boys aboard the chopper. No sooner had the woman stepped on than an enemy with an AK47 started shooting at the chopper from an embankment a few hundred yards away. I couldn’t return fire as I was on the wrong side of the chopper and all I could do was lie in the grass on my back hoping the enemy’s bullets would not hit any of us or the chopper. The chopper was away quickly and the enemy stopped shooting. It was stupid. The enemy was maybe shooting at his own family who were being hurried off to surgery at an American hospital. Perhaps he didn’t know his own people were on board. It’s hard to say. I still see the face of that little boy on the board. It’s hard to forget.

Terry Coats

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