The moaning man

one evening in the jungle…

I was about one week into my final month in Vietnam. My platoon was again in the jungle, patrolling a trail which we had not been on before. I didn’t like it. The trail, that is. It was too well worn, with occasional sandal tracks going in both directions. It was an obviously well-used North Vietnamese trail and knowing it was well-used made me extremely uncomfortable as I knew we could come face-to-face with the enemy at any time and around any bend in the trail.

We had been walking the trail all morning and into the afternoon when at a place where the trail crossed a dry riverbed the lieutenant decided we would set up a patrol base and our night position. We didn’t set up right on the trail however. The lieutenant had us climb a steep bank next to the dry riverbed until we came out on top of a low ridge. It was hard going as there was much thick brush that we had to smash thru to get to the top. When we got on top of the ridge the lieutenant decided it was a good spot as it was more open with more trees than brush and he decided that that would be our patrol base as well as our night defensive position. I was glad to drop my fully loaded backpack and get rid of the weight for the rest of the day. The lieutenant had us form a circle and we all dropped our stuff and got ready for the next business of the day, which was to go on a patrol.

My squad was detailed to continue a patrol up the trail we had been following so we went back down the path of smashed brush we had made on our way up the side of the ridge and rejoined the enemy trail and began walking it again to see where it would lead us. I did not like this at all. It was bad enough walking a well-used enemy trail with a whole platoon but now we were reduced to a squad. We went a long way on this trail and the further we went the worse I began to feel. I had a sixth sense for the enemy and I could sense them around. Lots of them and close somewhere. I let my squad leader know my feelings and he admitted that he had the creeps as well. It felt to me like they were just around the next bend in the trail and if we continued on we would walk into a mess of them. Fortunately the lieutenant called on the radio and decided we had gone far enough and told my squad leader to bring us on back to the night defensive position. It was getting late in the day at that point and we needed to get set up for the night.

We returned to our night position without incident and began to set up our sleeping positions. For some of us that had trees, that meant stringing a hammock. For others that didn’t have trees, an inflatable air mattress on the ground would do. We all carried both so we would have something to sleep on no matter where we were. I strung my hammock between two small trees just big enough to hold me and after I took a look at the sky to see how rainy it looked I decided to go without a roof for the night, trusting that the rain would not come.

While I was setting up my sleeping position, the lieutenant detailed another squad to go down the side of the ridge and booby-trap the trail with a Claymore anti-personnel mine. This was accomplished by stretching a wire across the trail and using a plastic spoon between the jaws of a clothespin which had been wired with wire contacts. When the wire is tripped, the spoon is pulled out of the clothespin and the contacts come together and the mine blows up. The power is provided by a battery which is hooked up by a wire long enough to be away from the mine when it’s hooked up in case the mine goes off accidentally.

I was putting the finishing touches on my sleeping position while the other squad was down setting up the booby-trap when all of a sudden there was a tremendous “Booooooooom!” that resounded all around the area and I’m sure it could be heard for miles. The mine had gone off while the squad was hooking up the battery. They radioed up and said no one was hurt but one of our guys up on the ridge was hit on the left side of his face by a pellet from the mine. He didn’t seem to be hurt too badly but the pellet had entered his cheek and had not come out so he would have to go to the rear for surgery. At that time of day, however, it was getting so dark that it was decided to wait until morning to get him out unless he started showing signs of something serious happening.

The lieutenant still wanted to set up a booby-trap so he told my squad leader to do it. Each squad carried a booby-trap so we would go down and set up ours. My squad leader picked me and two other men to go down with him to help set it up. I didn’t like the idea because the accidental explosion of the first mine had alerted every enemy within five miles and they could have been already converging on the scene. There was no way of getting out of it though so I simply went along as I always did, come what may.

We set up the mine hurriedly but safely and it didn’t blow up. It was creepy though as it was continuing to get dark the whole time and I didn’t like being out in the dark with only four men. After we got it set up we hurriedly made our way back up the side of the ridge back to our night position. I lay down in my hammock to relax for a bit and get ready for sleep. As I was lying in my hammock in the gathering twilight I noticed on the ground just below me some very small bugs. They looked like tiny praying mantises. There were scores of them. I scooped up a few in my hand to take a closer look at them, amazed at their tiny size, about the size of a matchhead.

I returned the mantises to the ground and lay back relaxing in my hammock. I had just dozed off and was asleep for probably 30 seconds when I was awakened by another tremendous “Booooooom!” just as loud as the first one had been. It was eerie to hear the tremendous sound echoing over the countryside just like thunder. Well, I thought, if the enemy didn’t know where we were they sure did now.

A couple of seconds after the blast of the mine one of our machine gunners dove for his gun and began spraying the area of the explosion with bullets, which was a mistake, as it gave away our position and the enemy would surely now know exactly where we were. By that time I was out of my hammock and lying further out on the perimeter expecting a charge of hundreds of enemy soldiers to come angrily up the side of the ridge. We all were expecting it. Instead of an enemy charge, there was a sound from below. “Oooooooooh!” “Oooooooooh!” It was a man moaning. Apparently the person who had stepped thru our booby-trap’s trip wire. He kept moaning. Over and over.

After a few minutes of expecting an enemy charge but nothing happening the lieutenant ordered us back to our sleeping positions. I got back in my hammock and lay down. “Ooooooooh!” the enemy soldier moaned. I went to sleep to his moaning but it took me a long time as it was like something out of a horror movie. Very disturbing. Deeply disturbing. The man let us know every bit of his pain. I began to feel really guilty about it as I had helped set up the mine so I was partly responsible for his pain.

It was really hard to sleep. I would wake up about every twenty minutes and listen to the horrific moaning for a while and then I would drift back off to sleep. I had a stretch of guard duty from about midnight until two a.m. and the moaning man continued to moan without letup. As time went by, however, the moaning became weaker and weaker. I remember thinking that it must have really been horrific for Civil War soldiers who had to try to sleep listening to hundreds or even thousands of untended men moaning on the battlefield throughout the night and I was listening to only one.

After my guard duty was over and I managed to get back to sleep, I awakened again about three o’clock in the morning to quiet. The enemy soldier was no longer moaning. I presumed he was dead. He had moaned from about nine p.m. until three in the morning. It took him that long to die and I and indeed the whole platoon had listened to it all. It was not a pleasant sound, listening to someone die. Since no one helped him I presumed he was walking alone when he tripped the mine and lay there until the blood ran out.

When morning finally came our squad was detailed to do down the side of the ridge and check out what had happened at the booby trap on the trail. Before we went down the slope my squad leader had me pepper the area with several M79 grenades from my M203’s grenade-launching tube. We wanted to see if we could stir anybody up in case the dead enemy soldier’s friends had arrived and were waiting for revenge. We descended the slope and carefully approached the place on the trail where we had set up the booby-trap. As we got closer we could see what had happened. It was sickening. The enemy soldier’s legs had been blown off and he had laid where he fell, moaning until his body ran out of blood. Some of our squad examined his body but I was too sickened to want to participate. His clothing was found to have papers which contained useful intelligence and he had apparently been a courier. His messages had not arrived at their destination, however.

Sometimes, when I am quiet and my thoughts go back to the past, I can still hear this man moaning. Some things you don’t forget, indeed, cannot forget. This episode will haunt me until the day of my own death, I suppose. I’m sorry it had to happen.

Terry Coats

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