Creative Writing: Instant I’ll always remember Instant. That was the nickname the men had tacked ontothe muscled giant that wielded the M60 in my unit. “Instant” was short for”Instant Death.” And I’ll always remember the first time I saw Instant inaction.
I was a new Lieutenant assigned to Vietnam. Back then, the Army didn’t try todevelop any “team spirit” within the corps; men were rotated frequently beforeany friendships developed. Consequently, my men were a group of strangers unitedonly by the need to survive. They were eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds with theeyes of old men. My first real assignment was to check a tiny hamlet, Dien Hoa.
Army Intelligence believed the Viet Cong were operating from Dien Hoa. Our jobwas to determine if that was correct.
We rode in an olive-drab chopper. The whooping blades of the helicopter giveus a little relief from the relentless heat of ‘Nam; the blades cut the thick,humid air and pushed a breeze downward over the passenger compartment.
Soon, we circled the landing zone. The LZ looked cold. There’s only one wayto find out if it is really cold, I thought as I double checked my M16. If noone zapped us when we entered, it was cold. If they did, it wasn’t.
“Lock and load,” I yelled.
The helicopter circled low and slowed down until it almost hovered four feetfrom the ground. The door gunner mashed the spade grips on his .30 caliber M60machine gun. The gun spewed bullets over the field below us.
It was time to jump off the skids while we skimmed above the surface of thelush, green valley. My stomach felt like it was turning wrong-side-out.
We dropped into the grass, stumbling under heavy packs and the weight of ammoand weapons. I wondered about snakes and hoped the groan I mad when I hit theground was drowned by the noise of the helicopters. Though the helicopter gunnercontinued firing into the heavy growth to the north of them, there was no returnfire. We were safe for the moment.
“OK,” I yelled signaling with my hands the way you’re not supposed to. Handsignals are a good way to mark yourself as the leader. It’s just the thing enemysnipers watch for. But few of my twenty-seven men could hear me over the roarand firing of the helicopters. I had no choice. “Move out. On the double,” Iordered. The choppers lifted. We were on our own.
The soldiers started with the usual complaining but then grew strangely quiet.
They knew we had to move quickly to leave the dangerously-exposed LZ. Thehelicopters were lost in the distance; the only sounds were the usual clankingof equipment and water sloshing in canteens.
It took nearly an hour to walk through the grassland and occasional woodedsection of the valley to the heavy jungle area at the foot of the hills. Ourspeed slowed while we went up the slight incline and wove through the everthickening vegetation. At the ridge which overlooked Dien Hoa, we halted while Iinspected the village below them with my binoculars.
I searched for a warning sign, some hint of danger. Old men, women, andchildren, with a few water buffalo, milled around; everything appeared normal.
But I knew that just because an area “looked” business-as-usual it meant nothingin Vietnam.
“Call headquarters,” I told my radio man as I lowered my binoculars. Momentslater, he had reached headquarters with his radio. I took the phone piece andlet my commander know what the situation was. As expected, we were ordered tocontinue toward the village. I gave the radio phone-piece to the radioman, putmy helmet back onto my head, and stood.
“Sergeant,” I said.
“Yes, Sir,” Sergeant Nelson answered. The burley, middle-aged troopersquinted at me. His face was wrinkles, sunburn, and peeling skin.
“We got bunched up on our way up,” I said. “Be sure they keep spaced apart.” Sergeant Nelson nodded. I didn’t have to tell him that it would be essentialto keep spaced in case of an ambush. I hoped the new guys would take his ordersseriously.
As the Sergeant crept down the line inspecting and giving last minuteinstructions, I wiped the sweat from my brow with a dirty hand. Your hands neverstay clean for long in Vietnam and you never quit sweating. I wondered how Iwould hold up in actual combat.
Eventually we were ready. “Saddle up,” I said, hoping no one noticed theslight quiver in my voice.
There were two trails leading into Dien Hoa from our side of the village. Ididn’t choose to take the most direct footpath down. We would have been tooexposed on it. I felt certain it would lead to an ambush or booby traps if someof the villagers were Viet Cong. I ordered the men off the ridge and into thejungle area overshadowing the village. Though it was dangerous to do, we had tostick to the trail; the vegetation was too dense to allow us to approach thevillage from another route without making a huge detour.
We walked into the shade of the thick canopy which gave some relief from thenoondays heat. It was a sharp contrast to the hot grassy plane. The smell of wetdirt and rotting vegetation created the feeling of being in an entirelydifferent place and time, rather than just a few kilometers from our LZ.
Halfway down the slope, Jerry, the point man suddenly dropped and signaled ahalt. I passed the order down the line with the same hand signal then pushed bythe three grunts ahead of me and crept forward to crouch beside Jerry. “What’sup?” I whispered.
“Charlie,” Jerry said in a low, hoarse voice.
I crawled by the soldier and looked down the trail. There, perhaps fortyyards ahead of us, was a group of black-pajamaed Viet Cong. They laughed andsmoked. They sat on a log alongside the path, their AK-47s carelessly restedagainst a palm.
As I watched, the Cong were joined by four similarly dressed comrades.
Jerry and I dropped back from the guerrillas’ sight. I used hand signals andwhispered commands to position my men on the high side of the trail. We creptthrough the vegetation still wet from the mornings dew. I again momentarilywondered about snakes, then forgot them while I fought my way through the vinesand dense growth.
I had ordered them not to fire until the M60 gunner Instant did. And Instantwas not to shoot until I gave the go ahead. I stationed myself next to him andEvens, the short, mousy private who served as Instants ammunition carrier.
Instant crouched in the brush; he wore a flack jacket without a shirt under it,exposing his muscled arms.
The Viet Cong on the trail acted like they owned the place. They made enoughracket and jabbering to be heard for miles. The guerrillas’ lack of disciplinewas astonishing; I hoped we could take advantage of their carelessness.
Moments that seemed to stretch to eternity passed, then six VC rounded theturn of the path. They walked into the kill zone of the ambush, continuing totalk loudly, completely oblivious to the danger. Each had his AK-47 balancedover his shoulder with the rifles butt behind him while he carried the firearmby its barrel.
There was jabbering and laughter on the trail behind the six; I let the firstgroup continued toward our trap. I watched. Four more men and two women roundedthe angle of the trail. One woman wore a hat, the other woman and the men hadrags on their heads; all wore black pajamas with sandals. All but one. He stuckout from the others. He walked like a soldier and wore a tan uniform and green”safari hat” of the North Vietnamese Army. Unlike his comrades, he carried anold Russian SKS rifle.
Headquarters would be glad if we got that guy, I thought. They were alwaystrying to trace the connections between the North and South. Too, the NVA mighthave documents on him from which US Intelligence could get useful information. Ihunkered down wondering if additional VC or NVA would stumble into our trap.
Things were going to be tricky; if I waited too long, the first Cong would beout of the kill zone.
I listened a moment for others; I could hear nobody else. It was time. Itapped Instants steel helmet.
There was a nearly inaudible click as Instant released the safety on the M60machine gun. Then all hell broke loose.
I blinked at the loud thumping of the M60. With each burst, it threw a goldenshower of brass into my line of vision. I strained to see through the thin bluesmoke that escaped from the flash hider of the machine guns barrel. The low-toned explosions of the M60 were joined by a higher-pitched ca-whacking chorusof M16 rifles. The twelve people on the trail jerked and danced to the cruelmusic. They were chopped down before they could take any action or even readytheir weapons.
“Cease fire,” I yelled. Two young soldiers continued to shoot although the VCwere down and obviously dead. I swore under my breath, need to work on firediscipline. The last few shots ended. Sergeant Nelson screamed and cursed thetwo privates for wasting ammunition.
We rose to stare at the bodies sprawled across the footpath below us. TheSergeant quit chewing the two soldiers’ butts and the jungle was quiet. Even thesounds of insects were absent. Only the whispers of my men and the smell ofgunpowder hanging in the air explained what had transpired.
I signaled several of my troops to quit gawking at the bodies and return totheir positions so each end of the trail would be secure. Sergeant Nelsoninspected the bloody corpses for documents. I ambled back toward the point,surprised at the elation I experienced after my initial taste of combat. As Ineared Jerry, I saw a flash of movement behind the palms and bushes thatscreened the trails bend.
More Viet Cong.
Jerry stood on the path, oblivious to the black forms running toward him.
“Watch out!” I hollered. I crouched instinctively. I brought my M16 up andsnapped off its safety.
Jerry noticed my performance. The GI twirled and dived back into the brushwith a crash. I saw a muzzle flash. The only way to see a muzzle flash indaylight is to be gazing down a barrel. The bullet narrowly missed me as it spedby with a crack.
Six Viet Cong raced around the corner of the trail. Their firearms blazed onfull automatic. I returned the fire, knocking one into the brush. Their shotskicked up plumes of earth on the trail next to me and shattered the canteen onmy belt. The VC leaped into the greenery off the track. I scrambled to leave thetrail myself.
I could hear my men thrashing in the undergrowth behind me; but no one wasshooting for fear of hitting me or Jerry. Everything grew quiet. I searched thebrush for a sign of Charlies presence. Then I realized that the VC had leapedinto the same area where Jerry hidden. All hell’s going to break loose ifthat’s what happened, I thought to myself.
Sure enough, there was a flurry of shooting. AK-47s and an M16 barked in thescrub ahead of me. Ignoring the stray bullets cracking in the air, I rose up toa crouch to witness the outcome, my carbine at the ready.
As I watched, three of the Cong bolted out of the brush. They crossed thetrail and dashed into the vegetation on the opposite side of the path before Icould zap them. Two more of the enemy followed them; one limped badly. Thesecond staggered, blood spurting from a wound on his neck. The two crossed thetrail; my men finally started shooting. American bullets kicked up the soddenpath around the VC. The first VC dropped like a limp rag doll. The othersprawled, his feet sticking out of the brush onto the trail.
After the flurry of shooting, there was a lull. Most of my men had exhaustedthe rounds in their magazines. They paused to place new magazines into theirM16s. AK-47s initiated a din of their own to fill the silence.
AK bullets cracked next to my head. I scrambled to place a palm between meand the VC and then realized that I was hearing the blast of a rifle from theknoll above me. I spun and discharged my weapon toward the sound. I caught aglimpse of a black figure. The man jerked and fell as I drew a bead on him. Halfhis face was blown away. More gun shots came from the hill as well as from thebend of the pathway; I cursed myself. I had permitted us to be caught in aflanking movement. There was little I could have done to prevent it, but I wasfurious for not anticipating it all the same.
Crouching down, I flipped the switch on my rifle to full auto. I kept thetree to my back so I’d be screened from the Cong on the trail. Rising slightlyfrom the foliage, I squeezed off a barrage of slugs toward where the shootingcame from the slope above. I dropped to the ground.
There wasn’t time to fire again. A hail of bullets answered my shots,cracking as they passed above my head; other bullets dug up the damp soil andgrowth. I crawled, hidden in the vegetation, and tried to withdraw from the spotfrom which I’d fired. I scooted on my hands and knees. Someone was thrashingtoward me. I froze. My finger tightened on the trigger. Then I relaxed. I couldsee the olive green of a US uniform. It was Jerry! The soldier crawled to me. Despite the fear in his eyes, he smiled grimly ashe hugged the ground. A trickle of blood was coming from a small wound onJerrys upper left arm. His lower ear lobe was also bleeding where it had beennicked by a bullet or possibly a splinter kicked up by a near miss.
The shooting stopped. I crawled forward and peeked through the thick brushthat screened the trail. I could barely discern the black forms of two Cong whowere crawling along the trail ten yards from us. I dropped the nearly emptymagazine from my carbine while I watched the enemy soldiers. I rolled over anddrew a full magazine from my pouch and slipped it silently into my rifle. Mygun was still set on full auto. I wiped the sweat from my right eye. Rising to acrouch, I shot into the foliage at the two guerrillas. One of the guerrillastwitched spasmodically, then fell flat, my bullets gnawing at his body. Thesecond, a young girl, spun over firing her AK skyward, then abruptly slumped.
As I dropped into the growth beside the point man, Jerry opened up with hisM16. I peered through the foliage where Jerry fired. Several more Cong weresprinting toward us. The VC discharged their AKs blindly at the sound of ourrifles. I emptied the rest of my magazine at them. All four of the Cong were hit.
They collapsed on the trail, out of view. Now AK-47 bullets again rained on usfrom close range. The hill just over us was lit up with gunfire. Jerry and Iplunged into the undergrowth, leaves and twigs from the trees overhead droppedon us. The moist dirt exploded with the impact of bullets.
The noise of the gunfire was accompanied by a wet, slapping sound, like awater melon being struck by a hammer. I glanced at Jerry. His face was staringwith unfocused eyes. His face was blank, emotionless, his spirit drained from it.
A large gaping hole in his temple oozed blood; the leaves behind him were mattedwith his blood and brains. I looked away and closed my eyes.
As a Lieutenant, I knew I was responsible for my soldiers. Forget Jerry, Itold myself. Save the rest of your men from this predicament. But how? I’m toofar from away to give orders. As close as the Cong are would make movementsuicidal…
Another barrage of bullets chewed into the dirt around me.
I lay still, playing dead, praying that the next bullet wouldn’t be the oneto kill me. After a few tense moments, the thumping of bullets so close to mybody stopped.
Lying motionless for an eternity, I listened to the battle. I couldn’tbelieve I hadn’t been hit even though the VC shooting at me had been quite close.
I heard the Cong approaching through the vegetation.
I rolled over, jerked a grime-covered grenade from the side of my magazinepouch, and pulled the pin. I tossed the grenade toward the rustling sound. Theblast that came seconds later was accompanied by a scream. On target, I thought.
I instantly flung two more grenades.
As I listened, my M-79 grenadier started firing and the larger explosions ofhis shells reverberated from the knoll above me. Above the sounds of explodinggrenades and the shots from the AK-47s, I could discern the staccato firing ofan M60 along with the renewed fire of an M16. I quickly snapped a new magazineinto my and looked over the grass to see what was happening.
I saw Instant. He was standing, firing his M60, oblivious to the incoming AK-47 bullets that were cutting through the brush and around him. He fired up thehill toward the Cong. With each string he shot, he took steps up the slope. Hiscowering ammunition handler scampered behind him with spare ammo, his M16 rifleplaying a counterpoint to Instants weapon.
As I watched, I learned how Instant had obtained his name. Bits of palmsshattered under the M60s fire. Here and there, Cong shrieked, cut down by theinvisible blade. Burst after burst spilled brass out the side of the weapon asInstant directed his bullets at the Cong. But it’ll only be a matter of timebefore they slaughter him, I told myself. They murdered Jerry. Damn it, they’renot going to waste Instant. Acting on my anger, I jumped up and pulled thetrigger on my carbine, and fired the Cong up the ridge.
“Come on!” I ordered a private I saw cowering in a clump of rubber trees.
After a moments hesitation, he jumped up and joined me, his eyes wide with fear.
We sprinted up the hill, exposed. But we didn’t care. Run, aim, shoot.
Sergeant Nelson stood up. He yelled and cursed those cowering around him. One byone they rose and joined the mad charge up the steep incline. We continued,stumbling, hurdling through the thick vegetation, and screaming like dementedsouls.
The firing of the AKs petered out. We darted through the foliage to the topof the ridge in our spontaneous charge. At the crest of the slope, the plantsbecame sparse. We overlooked what had once been terraced farmland on theopposite downward slope. In the sparse scrub, we could also see the retreatingVC. They were bounding like scared black rabbits. From our vantage point, theVC were totally exposed below us. We launched a hasty barrage after the enemy.
Then we realized our opportunity. The Cong had no cover close by. We proceededto take careful aim, savoring shots the way a hunter might when he made ready tobag a prized buck. We made careful, deliberate shots. One after another, theblack, running forms crumpled. With a final flurry of shooting, only a loneCharlie managed to escape into the grove of trees below.
The bodies of the VC dotted the open hillside. Sporadic last shots ended thelives of the few wounded who continued to stir below us. Complete silencereigned for a few moments, then Blake yelled an obscenity at the last Cong whohad eluded us.
“We did it,” I simply said, my words falling flat.
A weak cheer went down the line; one man dropped to his knees and cried. Eventhough we’d all felt as good as dead, we realized we had won.
Afterward, waiting with the wounded and dead for dustoff, I thought about thefirefight. Instants selfless deed had saved our skins. It was little wonder themen had so much respect for the soldier. I studied him for a moment. He sat byhimself beneath a tree, carefully cleaning his M60 like a mother washing a baby.
He wore a bandage over his right eye and a second on his arm; except for thoseminor wounds, he had managed to come through the fight uninjured. And he’dshown a green lieutenant and his men what true bravery was.