Body Count

Have I really made it this far? Twenty years into the future? In utter amazement I reflect that but by a stroke of fate or the Grace of God, I have been carried two decades beyond the time of death.

1967, August, I am flying north of Saigon above the Bo Loy woods. A brilliantly clear day like so many in this part of the world. From my eagles nest of 1500 feet there is a clear view for miles. Below is jungle or what used to be jungle. Busily tearing it away is a Rhome plow making relentless swaths leveling the jungle in its path in attempt to clear the hiding places of the Viet Cong. It seems like a futile effort, for as far as the eye can see there is jungle with only a small clearing here and there inter-spaced in the thickness of triple canopy. Each clearing has trails leading to it and then back into the jungle. I always notice the clearings, for each is a potential landing spot should the motor stop or the ship take a hit and be forced to land.

Flying alone at eighty knots over an endless stretch of sameness Col. Shaw sits a few inches away taking it all in with his field glasses. The radio is silent, nothing but the constant drum of a turbine motor from a UH-ID helicopter can be heard. Always in the background, this steady whine is reassuring and seems to encompass and envelope everything, creating a trance like peace, where life goes on protected by this invisible audio force field. Only when the sound changes, rising or lowering in pitch, does one return from meditation quickly snapping ones head toward the pilots to determine what is about to happen.

I had for some time envied Mike King, the freckle faced, red headed boy from California, turned master killer. Mike's 102 kills were the envy of every door gunner in the entire battalion. He had been the Cols. regular gunner for over a year now, allowing him to get in on more action than any three other gunners combined. Col. Shaw had established his reputation as the hardest fighting Col. in the 25th. Infantry Division. Always to be found in the middle of any action taking place. Had Mike not gone on leave back to the "world" I would not be here now. My regular job, that of door gunner for the Commanding General for the 25th Infantry Division had been making me miss out on a lot of good fire fights. General Tilson, the C.G., is nice, but I am on my second tour in Nam and afraid I will leave for home without racking up fifty kills, either confirmed or probables.

As we head ever further into the seemingly endless jungle we arrive over a place that has been bombed out. The ground around a large clearing looks lifeless and most of the foliage is dead. Suddenly the Col. spots something and motions for the pilot to quickly go down to "the deck." I grab hold of my machine gun in expectation of receiving fire from the underbrush. At no more than ten feet off the ground we begin to cruise around the clearing at less then fifteen knots, while the Col. looks over the terrain. None of the normal covering foliage remains, just dried twisted trees and dead debris. Suddenly fifty feet to my front a Viet Cong clad in nothing but his black shorts, jumps up and begins to run across my field of vision. I shout to the aircraft commander for permission to fire. In the four or five seconds it takes him to reply the gook has leapt into the air as he dives toward a trench line with a tunnel connected to it. Permission to fire! comes through the headphones. I open up on the flying man with my tracers following him through the air into the hole. I run my bullets up and down the trench line and back into the hole again. The Col. looks at me and gives a big thumbs up sign, smiling and telling the Air Craft Commander that I did some excellent shooting.

We circle around and around the hole for several minutes not able to see down into it. Nothing can be seen of the flying gook. I ask to be allowed to go in the hole after him and see if we got him. Permission denied. The A.C. replies that the Col. has already been chewed out by higher ups for jumping out of the chopper and chasing gooks on foot and shooting them with his .45 pistol. I begin to curse to myself about what a lousy way to fight a war this is. Why must I ask permission to fire at a target that can only be the enemy? So many times the dirty little bastards get away. Why won't they let us fight like they did in World War II? I never saw a war movie where American soldiers have to ask permission to fire at the Germans. I brewed for the rest of the day on another lost chance to get a confirmed kill.

Late in the evening after landing back at Cu Chi, the Col. comes up and shakes my hand while saying that he enjoyed my good shooting. I feel like saying that I enjoy getting confirmed body counts, but hold back. What good would it do? He does not make the rules, only follows them, like the rest of us.

Last Update: 04/11/99
Author: Louis Beam