FIRST LESSON
by Thomas Crowley

Copyright © 2015 by Thomas P. Crowleyl



The jungle is an oppressive force. National Geographic would have us believe that it is continuously creating new life, but the opposite is equally true. The jungle is constantly dying and rotting. We could smell it in the humid, sweltering air; we could feel its corruption on our sweat-soaked skin as we slowly made our way along the footpath.

I had expected a change of atmosphere when we closed on the abandoned village, but not such a fetid change. The huts, with their mud floors, rotting bamboo walls, and collapsing thatched straw roofs, were clearly long abandoned, yet they still retained the stench of putrefaction.

The village lay at the intersection of a river and a large canal. A smaller canal ran through it, bordered by twin footpaths where the huts were clustered. There was little room between this waterway and the wetland and bamboo growth at the edge of the forest, which pressed right up against the huts. The village lay dank and dark as the shadows of the approaching night loomed over us.

I was told to call in the squad from my platoon that had been left on the stay-behind ambush. They came in about twenty minutes later and joined the troops who lay along both sides of the two footpaths that traversed the village.

When we arrived there was only a single hut left unoccupied, the one nearest to the thick stand of bamboo separating the village from the forest. I entered and saw that there was no furniture apart from a couple of wooden stools and a rough wooden platform three feet off the ground, which a Westerner might take for a dining table but which served as a bed. I sat down on the bed, dropped my backpack, and told my radio-telephone operator (RTO) to put his equipment on it to make sure it would stay dry. I was satisfied as I looked around that at least we wouldn’t be sleeping in the mud that night.

Having taken that short break, I knew I had to see to the placement of my platoon and find out if we had any specific orders for the night. I left the hut and found Sergeant Amado on one knee alongside the footpath, checking on how the platoon was arranged. He told me the stay-behind squad was back inside the company perimeter. I had just started to talk to him about how best to cover the way we had come in when it started.

We received a burst of automatic weapons and small-arms fire, not from the direction of our entry route, but very close by, on the other side of the bamboo growth behind the adjacent huts. For me, it was the first time under fire, and I had the silly thought that “it’s just like they say,” with the sound of the bullets whizzing past your head like a bee flying by at high speed. In as much as I was already bent down on one knee and leaning over to speak with Sergeant Amado, it was easy for me to hit the ground. Of course, at first, we weren’t sure of the direction of fire, so the troops opened up in response pretty much along the way we had come in, but off to the side a bit.

After about three minutes, the incoming firing stopped and we received orders to cease fire. I checked with the squad leaders to see if we had casualties and found that no one had been hit. I was told to send a squad back up the trail, to open fire and push towards where we thought the enemy fire had come from. I did so, but there was no response. The Viet Cong had either followed us and gone to the jungle-covered side of the village to take us under fire or, as I later came to think was more probable, had anticipated where we were going and waited on the other side of the bamboo for all our troops to place themselves in their village, and then opened up. After they had fired off a magazine or two they took off.

All the reconnaissance had finished and we were set for the night, having put a listening post in place fifty meters outside the perimeter. I walked back into the hut and got my second major shock of the day following my introduction to enemy fire and the abrupt possibility of death it had presented. The bamboo wall of the hut, right behind the wooden platform I had been sitting on for a minute or two, had a long string of holes running left to right about a foot above the platform’s level. If I had remained sitting there instead of kneeling out on the trail in front of the hut, at least two of those rounds would have pierced my chest. Of course, the VC were out to kill as many Americans as possible, not just me. It was just chance that I had sat there in the hut, talking to my RTO for a few seconds while the VC were on the other side of the bamboo thicket. I was sure they had heard our voices so, when they opened fire, that had seemed like a good direction in which to shoot. For me it was just like the movies. It could have been Rambo with the line of machine gun bullets stitched along the wall. Only this was real, and it was a wall I had been sitting against. It hit me later that the reason we had escaped injury was very simple. The VC who had shot at us, maybe only five or six men with a couple of AK-47s, had been standing up, unable to see through the bamboo, so they would have held their weapons above waist-height, tight and close to their chests to steady the automatic fire. As a result, the rounds went high as the American soldiers had all laid or sat down on the ground after hours of tough, hot walking through thick brush. The bullets went over our heads. Nevertheless, I now clearly understood the message. They. Had. Meant. To. Kill. Me. It left an impression. That was my first lesson. Now I understood what war was all about for the guys on the ground: It’s about killing. Killing and surviving. Nothing else.