Of Unsung Heroes and Split-second Decisions. Of Mo Duc and Fallujah. Of Little Girls and Grenades. Of Soldiers and Marines and Killing or Dying. Of Kevin Sites and A Camera. Of Doing The Right Thing.
Some thoughts from my friend Rurik (aka George Mellinger) regarding the Fallujah incident I mentioned here and here.
Events of the past few days refresh old memories, and bring them back to the front of my brain, particularly an incident which happened at just about this time of the year, thirty-five years ago. I don’t remember the precise day, but it was some time in late November or early December. I do vividly remember the event, and will always.
After arriving in Viet Nam in mid October 1969, I was sent to the 39th Engineer Battalion, based at Chu Lai. Though my MOS was 12B20, Combat Engineer, since I had a clearance, and an undergraduate psychology degree I was sent to battalion headquarters company and assigned to the S-2 Section to work with their PSYOPS program. The S-2 didn’t care for the Specialist 6 who was the official program supervisor, and had him reassigned. And I was given charge of the program. PFCIC for PSYOPS and Civil Affairs. I was given a pass authorizing me to be in off-limits areas without explanation, a three quarter ton truck, 6 Vietnamese interpreters, and one Kit Carson Scout. Our job was to win hearts and minds, and to persuade the VC to change sides, to Chieu hoi. ["Chieu hoi" = "Open arms" -- bf]. A big element was the VIP, Voluntary Informant Program, under which we would pay the local villagers for turning in enemy weapons, munitions, and food dumps, or snitching on planned attacks and so forth.
A special word about the Kit Carson Scouts. These were former Viet Cong who had rallied to our side (deserted the VC), and volunteered to fight their old comrades, scouting for us. Obviously this was a very serious business for them, since they could expect nothing civilized if they were ever taken alive by their former comrades. For that matter, neither could we who worked with them as handlers; we were also marked men, with, I was told, a bounty of 10,000 Piastres on our heads. At the official rate of exchange that was about $25 American, though Vietnamese money went much farther in their own economy. Learning this, I decided I was glad to know my real net worth, but I’d be happier not to dwell on the subject. I was also warned to beware of children who might be sent to stick a grenade down the gas tank pipe, or to throw grenades at the unsuspecting. Well, it couldn’t be any worse than walking point on morning minesweep, and probably was going to be a lot more interesting. I was right.
So I started in, getting to know Luan and Ky, the interpreters working directly with me, and Quang, my Kit Carson Scout. Quang was new, and still in his probationary period, when he was not supposed to be armed. Quang had been a senior sergeant in a sapper unit before chieu hoi-ing, and was in his thirties, cheerful and very good. On one occasion, somebody found an unexploded rocket in the company area, and while the officers scampered around summoning EOD to deal with it, Quang just skipped on over and had that sucker disarmed and completely disassembled before anyone could stop him. Proud of his work, he gave us a b-i-g smile.
Not long afterward, I was given to order to take Quang, Luan and Ky, and drive down to Mo Duc to work with Charley Company at LZ Max. I decided I didn’t like the idea of taking Quang out unarmed, so I signed a second M-16 out of supply on my name and gave it to him. If he turned traitor on me, then accounting for that extra rifle would be the very least of my worries. And off we went to Mo Duc, not my first time out but the first time out on my own. Next morning we drove out with the morning minesweep, riding along in our truck broadcasting some sort of a propaganda tape. “Houw dung! Bin loi! Sell Ice! Hai dong!” I had no idea what any of those sounds on the tape meant, it could have been the menu for the local “Howard Johnson’s” Soup wagon for all I knew. Or maybe “Hey laugh at dinkey dau ["dinkey dau" = "crazy" -- bf] American, but don’t annoy him.” Morning sweep was uneventful. After a yummy lunch of warm coke and cold C-rats, we went back on our own to work in beautiful downtown Mo Duc.
From the start things began to go bad. I went down a side path, and while trying to turn my truck around, so I could get out of there straight ahead if necessary, I got the back end sunk into a paddy. Sunk and stuck. Was I going to have to wait for the VC to come along and resolve this dilemma? My morale was getting shaky, and I was embarrassed in front of my Vietnamese. Finally a friendly M-88 tank retriever happened along, and obliged me with a pull, and again before I could think what to do next, Quang was under the truck, cutting all the weeds and crud away from the rear axle. So finally, the truck was safely positioned, and we were set up. And Luan began playing the tape broadcasts again. I am standing up in the bed of the truck, rifle at the ready, round chambered, and safety off. I’m looking over the small crowd of blank faces that had gathered to observe. And I still didn’t know what we were telling them.
Suddenly I see a little girl, not more than about five years, pop out of the crowd and start running toward me. And she’s waving a frickin' great pineapple grenade! At times like this you notice things. It was not one of ours; it had a tall fuse and pineapple ridges instead of a smooth body. And she was running straight to me! If I shoot the kid and she’s trying to turn the grenade in to an adult, then I’m gonna be a goddam war criminal. If she’s gonna throw it, and I shoot her then its legitimate, but probably not gonna make much difference. No, you don’t think things through nice and analytically and clear like that in a couple of seconds. Shit, my knees didn’t have enough time to go weak yet! But all of that and a lot more sort of pops into your head all at once in one rushing jumble. And if I say I made a decision, then I’m a damn liar. I didn’t decide. I just reacted.
I did not shoot. And the little sweetie ran up to the truck, reached up and, with a big smile offered me the grenade. Now I could see the pin was still firmly and properly in place. And by now my knees had finally had time to turn to rubber. So I told me knees to behave, bent down as best I could, took the grenade and gave baby-san a big smile and five Piastres.
And then the crowd came alive. “Store’s open for business!” Next some old man comes up and sells me an 82mm mortar round, Then somebody else has a spankin’ new RPG round, and a momma-san with a mine, and sticks of explosives, and more mines, and ammunition, and rockets. And I keep buying and buying. Yes I give you 10P for that mortar round, looks like it might be a dud, that rocket how 'bout 20P? And so on, till I was out of Vietnamese money and I had a great big box of stuff. By now, my knees had begun to work again, so shop closed and I drove back to Max. I’d spent about $10 of taxpayer money and bought up about 7 or 8 American lives’ worth of munitions. It was both the worst day and the best day of my year.
But it could have been entirely different. Baby-san could have been coming to frag me. Or I might have shot her in error. Or she might have thrown it and killed my Vietnamese friends while leaving me alive, or... or... You do what you do, and later somebody else decides if you guessed right.
And this is why I become severely abusive when I hear anyone dare to question the decision of the man on the line, be it a soldier at war or a cop dealing with a confrontation in a dark back alley. If you’re not him, then you just can’t know or judge, so be quiet - and be grateful you’re not able to know.
Something I've noticed a lot recently. Heroes don't brag. The only way you get them to talk is for someone else to need them to. How long has Rurik carried this story inside him, quietly going about his business? And what made him tell it now? Knowing that a young Marine in Iraq needed it told. George, what can I say to a man like you? I take some pride in calling myself a Viet Nam Vet, but compared to someone like you I wasn't even in-country (to which you responded via PM "Compared to people like 1stCav I wasn't even in-country"). Thank you for your service. Welcome home.
Rurik wrote this in response to all the negative press an American Warrior in Fallujah has been getting for doing just exactly what he was trained to do, but I can't read it without thinking of it in other terms as well. The incident Rurik tells us about took place in late 1969. Do you remember where you were at the time, Johnny? I do, and so does Rurik. You were back in The World telling everyone who'd listen that Rurik was a baby-killer. Are you proud of yourself, Johnny? It ain't over, Johnny. Not even close. We're coming, Johnny. You can run, but you can't hide. We're coming.
[Updates and addenda here.]