The prisoner

Waking up Charles

We were working in an area I thought of as the lowlands. It was low as compared to the jungled central highlands where we worked most of the time, anyway, with lots of unused rice paddies. They were unused because the war had driven the people away and the area was host to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. This area was not far from the Vietnamese town of Tam Ky. Within truck distance of Tam Ky, anyway, as we used to ride trucks out of the town to get to the area, on roads that when it was rainy and wet were nearly impassable mud. The trucks could just barely go through the mud and if one of us GIs happened to get off of the truck we would sink in the mud to about mid-calf.

It was another resupply day and the captain had gathered together our platoon and his headquarters platoon in the same place so we could get our resupply together. We were located up on a ridge that looked down upon the empty rice paddies. Earlier in the day, however, we had noticed while patrolling that there was a garden in the area with rice shoots growing in it. Rice is started out of water and when it reaches a certain stage it is uprooted and then planted in a paddy. Obviously someone in the area planned on growing some rice. The only thing is there were only enemy around so it had to be enemy rice. The captain thought somebody ought to keep an eye on those rice shoots in the garden so he told our lieutenant to send out an ambush squad for that night.

The lieutenant picked our squad to go on the ambush. We got our gear together and prepared to head out on the ambush as darkness approached. We didn’t take much with us. Just guns and ammo and a poncho to cover up with and try to keep some of the rain off in case it rained. On an ambush like this we didn’t take sleeping gear. We weren’t allowed to. We just slept on the ground when it was our turn to sleep. On the sometimes wet ground with all the bugs and leeches. Not very pleasant.

Our squad set off while we still had light to see our way to the ambush site. It’s no fun walking in the dark but we didn’t go too early because that might mean we get spotted and give away our ambush. We had several hundred yards to go so we walked fairly fast. The ambush site was on an island in the middle of some rice paddies. To reach it we had to walk a path on a dike between two rice paddies. The path to the island was about a couple hundred yards long from where it junctioned with the main trail through the area. When we got to the rice shoot garden we set up our ambush in a line close to the garden and settled down for the long night. I hoped no one would show up. I hated ambushes. It was just too creepy sitting in the black night waiting with only a squad of men for enemy to show up . We took turns sleeping. One man awake for two hours while the other guy slept. It was a long, slow night but fortunately, both for us and the enemy, nothing happened except we were miserable.

After the night passed uneventfully we all started waking up and stirring just before first light. Some of us, including me, lit up cigarettes as soon as light started showing in the East. It was probably a stupid thing to do since it was still really dark but the squad leader didn’t say anything to us so we went ahead and smoked our cigarettes as we rolled up our ponchos and waited until it got light enough for the walk back to where the rest of the platoons were.

When it became light enough to see the path we set off on our return trek and slowly filed down the trail which was on top of the dike between the two rice paddies. We had just about made the two hundred yards down the path to where it junctioned with the main trail back to camp when all of a sudden the men walking up front squatted down quickly and motioned for us walking in the rear to get down as well. After I squatted down I kept looking where the other men were looking and I finally was able to make out what they were looking at. Just off the main trail in a place where a house had once been there was a little guy with his back to us reaching up into a banana plant searching for bananas. Somehow he had failed to see us coming or to hear us, and Vietnam GIs could make a lot of noise even when supposed to be walking silently.

At the squad leader’s signal we all stood up as quietly as we could and crept toward the little guy. I was amazed. He must have been deaf and blind not to notice us but luck was on our side and we got really close to him and the squad formed a line and began approaching the young Viet Cong. He appeared to be only seventeen years old or thereabout. With Vietnamese teens it was hard to tell. A seventeen year old Vietnamese could sometimes look no older than an American twelve year old. He didn’t appear to be carrying a weapon. I looked to see if he had one nearby but I couldn’t see anything.

Some kind of luck was with us and we got up to within a few feet of him when the squad leader shouted “Dung lai!”, which was Vietnamese for “stop” and one of the few words we knew. The young Viet Cong whirled around to see a whole squad of American soldiers with their rifles and machine gun leveled at him. He sure was surprised. He thought he was dead. He stood stiffly before us and began to tremble in his sandals, no doubt expecting to die at any moment. Instead we laid hands on him and began to search him for weapons. After he saw we weren’t going to kill him he became somewhat cocky and tried to resist us. He resisted us tying his hands up. One of his arms was bad, swollen twice as big as the other one. It was apparently infected. He didn’t like us touching it. I became annoyed by his resistant attitude because he was probably the luckiest Viet Cong in the country that morning to still be alive. Any other American squad would probably just have shot him and been done with it but our squad leader was a religious man and didn’t want to kill him if we didn’t have to.

We got his hands tied up and put a blindfold on him as our training had told us to do and one of our squad hoisted him up over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and we set off for camp with our prize. The prisoner kept trying to get the blindfold off by rubbing his head on his carrier’s back. This really annoyed me again. He was lucky to be alive and was being cocky again. I felt like kicking him but I let it go.

We made the return walk on the trail back to where the rest of our platoons were without any other incidents and we climbed the ridge to where the camp was and deposited our prisoner with the captain. Our platoon sergeant began to make some coffee for the prisoner. Our sergeant was a nice guy. Our captain was not a nice guy, however, and chewed out our squad leader and threatened to have him court-martialed for risking our lives capturing the prisoner instead of just killing him. I knew we had done the right thing, however, because we did not need to shoot him.

The prisoner was given something to eat and actually drank the cup of coffee made for him. I figured in his cockiness he would refuse anything but he didn’t seem so cocky after he encountered our captain. After the prisoner’s breakfast was over the battalion commander showed up in his little helicopter called a LOHC but which for us had the nickname of “loach” and he picked up the Viet Cong and took off with him. I didn’t know where they were taking him but I knew it would probably not be pleasant for him wherever he was going. Our squad had probably been the nicest Americans he was ever likely to encounter.

We were to encounter this Viet Cong prisoner one more time. When our mission was over we walked out of the area to the road which ran to the town of Tam Ky. There was a small American base on this road and that was where the trucks would arrive to load us up and take us back to our rear area for a couple of days rest. When we got on our truck we noticed someone familiar nearby. A single Vietnamese soldier with a rifle was guarding a prisoner. It was our prisoner, the one we had taken, and we were surprised to see him again. His swollen, infected arm had apparently had medical treatment as it was wrapped in a bandage. The guard watching the Viet Cong acted like he did not consider him very dangerous and both were relaxed. Apparently he was giving the prisoner some exercise time outside. As our truck began to leave and drove past the Viet Cong our squad on the truck razzed him and asked him if he remembered us. He appeared not to pay attention to us and soon we were down the road and out of sight of him. I never saw him again and don’t know his fate.

Terry Coats

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