A Slice of Heaven ©
An Khe is a hell of a place. It’s only about twenty minutes by chopper from Fire Base Echo but it’s civilized and safe. They’ve got dusters, quad 50s, 155s, and Cobras so Charlie hardly ever messes with An Khe. Sorry – we get so used to talking among ourselves – that would be recoilless rifles mounted on jeeps, fifty caliber machine guns mounted on two and a half ton trucks, heavy artillery, and attack helicopters. They have hot showers too, and bingo on Wednesday nights with the local girls. An Khe has just about anything anyone could ever want.
An Khe has a quartermaster unit too so that’s where we get our C-rats – canned rations. They send us bottled water too but we’ve all had diarrhea for so long that even good water goes through us pretty fast. On the flip side, Fire Base Echo doesn’t have as many officers to salute – in fact the commanding officer at Echo is just a captain. I feel sorry for any unit with a bum captain. These guys are only three or four years out of college and they’re all in their first commands. Most of ‘em don’t know one single thing.
We have this one mission we do called “harassment.” It doesn’t sound like much but it gets at least one of us killed every month. Harassment means that we go out beyond the base’s perimeter and kick up a fuss in some village and see what happens. If Charlie owns the village we get hammered, if he doesn’t, it’s real quiet. We announce a curfew after, say 8:00 pm and anyone out after curfew is Charlie. Farmers are all home way before then and the Yards are squatting around their campfires. Sorry, Montaignards, or, as we call ‘em, Mountainyards. They’re the aboriginal people in the Central Highlands, technically the Hmong. We shoot anyone out after 8:00. They’re mostly Charlie – basic process of elimination.
This one time we had a reinforced squad out on harassment around this muddy little village. Not even a village really, just a clearing up in the Central Highlands with six or seven shelters. Plei Le or Plei Lec; something like that. These Yards were sitting around drinking homemade rice wine in the glow of a dying fire. We were so close we could see them spitting out the insects that had fallen into the fermented mash. They weren’t wearing anything but penis sheaths, a kind of male thong. Their wet skin glistened in the firelight. None of us spoke Yard so we had no idea what they were talking about. They were pretty loud though, so they must have already drunk up most of their homebrew.
Yards don’t wear wrist watches of course but they knew better then to take a leak in the jungle after dark so they kept a bucket handy where they’d relieve themselves. Most nights it was just like this. Us sitting in the dark getting wetter and itchier by the minute and them sitting there like the primitives they were and getting more primitive the more they had to drink. We often said how much we’d prefer to exchange places with them. One guy actually did, but after swallowing a fairly large insect in a bowl of rice wine he said sayonara to the primitive life.
On harassment you can’t smoke. You can’t whistle or even hum. Half the things you do when you don’t even know you’re doing them, you can’t do out on harassment. Your boots fill up with muddy water and your flak jacket gets heavier by the minute. You can’t even fiddle with your weapon because metallic sounds travel. Our radio has to stay off, too, so we’re totally out of touch. I never knew one man to complain though because as long as your mind is occupied with itching and wet socks it means you’re not getting shot at. Our sergeant said the choice between insects or bullets was real easy.
The first sign of trouble was that the number of Yards had dropped to two or three. The others had just evaporated. Then those last ones got up and waded out into the rice paddies in the darkness. Yards live in these hooches –that’s their shacks – up on ten foot pilings, and they have homemade ladders going up to their front doors, except they don’t have doors, just an opening, like a doghouse. Our sergeant figured Charlie must have flanked us so we advanced into the clearing and took up positions under the hooches. That’s right about when the shooting started.
The sergeant turned on the radio and reported hostile fire to the Captain back at Echo as quietly as he could. We were cut off from base, Sarge said, and we’d need an evacuation chopper. “Stand by,” says the Captain. But standing by wasn’t really an option since Charlie was closing in real quick and had started lobbing his wicked little backpack mortars into the far end of the clearing to herd us back toward the force behind us. It was dark enough though that he couldn’t see us, so four teams broke up, with each one going up a ladder into a different Yard hooch. Charlie kept spraying lead at ground level so we figured he hadn’t seen us. Once he found us it would only take four grenades to finish all of us off. It was really just a matter of time. Say what you want but Charlie ain’t stupid.
When the captain came back on the radio we could hardly hear him for the small arms fire and incoming mortars. We estimated there were fifty or sixty Charlies based on the amount of AK – that’s communist lingo for carbines. When the grenades stopped we knew they were closing in on both sides. In a lull in the firing we heard the Captain say that the Cav – the First Cavalry Division – that’s the choppers -- had refused the evacuation mission because they’d heard hostile fire on our radio. They don’t go into hot landing zones. The Captain said he’d even asked some pilots who’d received the Silver Star on their first tour of duty and they’d refused too. “Bad risk,” they said. We’d heard of situations like this. Infantry and Cav operated independently and only the Two Corps commanding general could order the Cav to evac us. That could take six hours. We had maybe forty minutes, max.
The sergeant tried to get some Cobras – helicopter gunships – to come in and lay down enough fire that we could retreat on foot but none of the duty pilots were certified for night ops. Or so they said. We started hearing commands being shouted in Vietnamese as Charlie’s main force closed in on our position. The hooches where the other teams were hiding were as dark and quiet as ours and those other poor bastards didn’t even have a radio so they had no way of knowing that evacuation by air wasn’t viable. They had no clue how desperate the situation was.
I couldn’t believe my fuckin’ ears when I heard the captain order the sergeant to call in five pizzas with pepperoni and mushroom. At first we thought the captain had lost it but the sergeant went wide-eyed and showed a mouthful of white teeth. Then he changed the frequency on the radio. “An Khe NCO Club dispatch, this is Sergeant Parsons at Fire Base Echo, over”
“Echo, this is An Khe, you’re loud and clear. You order – we deliver, over”
“We need five large pizzas, immediately, at the Mountainyard village five clicks to the north-northwest of Echo. Name of Plei Le or something. These shitfaced Yards are going to eat us if we don’t get them some pizzas PDQ. Over.”
“You got illumination on that LZ? Over.”
“Affirmative. An Khe. When we hear you, we’ll pop some Willie Pete with green, over.” Willie Pete was white phosphorous flares, and the green smoke flares would indicate a safe landing zone. At Echo we’d order pizzas every now and then and they’d come in hot and crusty, delivered by some warrant officer trying to get his flying hours up. They were usually fairly new pilots, just over from stateside, before they could be trusted with combat missions. They just flew cargo, C-rats, ammo, turtles, and pizza. Sorry, “turtles” are reinforcements, new guys who walk with their heads lower than their shoulders, like they’re perpetually dodging bullets. After a while in-country they straighten up and walk like men.
The sergeant risked a very brief order to the other hooches. “Hold your fire.” He couldn’t explain any further because Charlie might be close enough to hear. A minute later we started hearing Vietnamese voices not only from in front of us but also from behind us. They’d stopped shooting because having surrounded us they couldn’t risk shooting themselves. The peace would be temporary since it would take only about fifteen minutes for the rest of them to hack their way through the jungle and organize their units in the clearing. And we’d be right there with them, watching the show through the slats in the hooches, outnumbered three to one.
The first Charlies reached the clearing and started throwing wood on the dying fire, but it was almost out and the flames needed coaxing. Eventually, the Charlie commander pointed to one of the motorbikes and jabbered some orders. Two of them pushed the motorbike over to the fire and tipped it over into the embers. The gasoline leaking out of the tank burst into a huge flash of blue flame, but it burned out in a minute without doing much good. Then they tried shoving kindling under the embers but it caught very slowly since everything was rain soaked.
We were close enough that we could have thrown rocks at them but they still hadn’t searched the Mountainyard hooches. As the fire glimmered back to life, some of the Charlies yanked the ladders away and threw them on the fire. As the night grew still they relaxed and began passing around cigarettes.
Every few minutes a scouting party would return to the clearing to make its report. Our disappearance seemed to cause some consternation but not much excitement. They were probably happy enough to avoid a fight. We figured they figured we’d slipped away somehow. As the ladder wood caught fire, the number of Charlies grew and they pulled up stools and began servicing their weapons by the firelight. They were obviously fixing to spend the night.
The sound of an approaching chopper didn’t faze them at first. America owned the skies and choppers were as much a part of the jungle environment as parrots or monkeys. Generally we flew around fifteen hundred feet to be outside the effective range of AKs. And Charlie knew that pilots’ seats were reinforced with steel, so even a lucky shot from the ground was unlikely to kill anyone. But this particular chopper was approaching right at treetop level, and Charlie began to perk up.
The sergeant waited until the chopper was nearly overhead and threw three grenades out into the clearing as fast as he could pull the pins. If Charlie heard them tumbling in around him, he didn’t compute. In five seconds the closest of them were blown to bits. The rest tumbled into the jungle or the rice paddies, many without their weapons. We had maybe a minute before they’d come swarming back but without their command structure they’d just be firing randomly. The sergeant popped some Willy-Pete and the clearing became as bright as a movie set. Body parts littered the ground, some still twitching.
The chopper came in nice and slow and flared for a landing – there’s really no prettier sight. The smoke from the green flares swirled in the rotor wash and pulsed into the jungle. With the ladders removed from the hooches we had to jump the ten feet to the ground. Most of us reached the chopper as soon as the skids touched. This gawky private without even a helmet on held out the five boxes of pizzas stacked on top of one another. The chopper’s fifty caliber machine gun hung unmanned on its mounts. The kid looked surprised when instead of offloading the pizzas we pushed him back into the cargo bay. There are only enough seats for about ten passengers in a slick, a UH1chopper, but it’s rated for a lot more, which we proved that night. The Sergeant put on a communication helmet and told the pilot, “Change of plan. Mind dropping us off back at Firebase Echo?”
A slick struggling for altitude with a double complement of passengers makes an easy target, and we must have showed up nicely in the light of the flares, but the guys at the open bays on both sides emptied their magazines into the clearing to spoil Charlie’s aim. It seemed an awfully long time before we got up over the trees and into the safety of darkness. A roll call showed all present and no casualties.
The non-commissioned officer’s club at An Khe makes a damn fine pizza and we devoured all of them before we got back to Fire Base Echo. We saved a couple slices for the Captain though – he’s a pretty good guy.
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I really enjoyed "A Slice of Heaven.” It brought back memories. Some technical changes I saw were 1) Montaignards and Hmong are different ethnic groups, 2)AK means Communist AK47 rifle which is equivalent to our M-16 rifle, not a carbine, 3) Willie Pete is a phosphorus grenade or mortar which burns like napalm. We would say "popping green smoke.” If the helicopter pilot saw any other color than green, they knew it wasn’t us.