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Soft Targets - Part Three
By Joseph Giannini
Quang Tri Combat Base
Feb. 6, 1968
We leave the Combat Base in the morning and slick west. Drop onto a hill. I notice, to our northeast, the minefield and ville by the stream. Fan out. Establish a perimeter. Send out three roving fire teams. Dig in. Set and clear fields of fire. Plot platoon defensive fires. The VC and NVA know we're on this hill. We know where they are. Around us. 78 Marines in the jaws of death. I'm not scared. Maybe I should be. I'm proud that the Battalion Commander has chosen me and Delta Three to come out here and establish a Combat Outpost. So far, so good.
Just before sunset, we chow down. I'm eating ham and lima beans, better known as Ham and Motherfuckers. My First Squad Leader, Sergeant King, approaches. He's holding a newborn pup in his right hand.
"Lieutenant, I found him down the hill. What should I do with him?"
"Sarge, it must be a pup from a VC tracker dog. Kill it, but silently. Slit its throat." Sergeant King turns away and walks off.
At dusk I order, "Stand To." Every Marine gets into his fighting hole and faces outboard. We do this at every dusk and sunrise. A few minutes later, I order, "Stand Down. Lights Out." No fires. No smoking. No unnecessary noise. Out here a lit match or a glowing cigarette can be seen from a great distance. Even whispers can be heard way off.
At Lights Out, three four-man listening posts, one from each squad, silently leave our perimeter. Night black descends. We meld into darkness. Just before dawn, the listening posts return through our lines. So far, so good.
At sunrise I order, "Stand To." Mid-morning, I send my Second Squad out. My checkpoints will take them along a ridgeline to our east, Then north along another ridgeline. Beyond lay the minefield and ville, west along a very large hill on the other side of the valley from us. Two hours pass. The Second Squad is approaching my last checkpoint. Boom! From across the valley. Near the crest of the large hill, a brown cloud rises. Second Squad has hit a mine. They radio back to me. Their Squad Leader, Sergeant Baker, is seriously wounded. They request a Priority Medevac. I call for the chopper. Then radio back that it's on its way. Every Marine on the combat outpost is standing. Facing across the valley. The Medevac swoops in. Hovers for several seconds. Rises with Sergeant Baker. Banks. Then turns east, headed toward the Quang Tri Combat Base.
A half-hour later, the Second Squad enters silently through our lines. Delta Six radios over. Sergeant Baker is dead. I pass the word. Baker was a "Short Timer"—less than 90 days to go In Country. A tall black Marine from North Carolina. Quiet. Led by example. Respected and liked by all.
From inside and along the perimeter:
"Fuck this shit."
"Got to get out of this fuckin' place."
"We're not here, man."
"Don't mean fuckin' nothin'."
"What don't mean fuckin' nothin'?"
"Nothin' means fuckin' nothin'."
"Got to get some."
"It's fuckin' not right, man."
"Fuck this place."
"It's fuckin' not worth it man."
"Fuck these gooks man, fuck 'em."
"Damn, he was outta here."
"Poncho Rotation is a motherfucker."
Dusk. I order, "Stand to." Walk over to the 81mm mortar position dug in the middle of our perimeter. Approach the Section Leader, Staff Sergeant Hand. He looks up.
I order, "Fire Mission."
"Sir, no can do. You don't have authority to fire these babies. You need Battalion's approval."
"Sergeant, I'm the Commanding Officer on this hill. You understand?"
"Visual. Enemy infantry in the open."
"High explosive 10 rounds."
"At my command."
"Fire for effect."
The Section, four mortars, bangs away. Orange flashes explode to our northeast. Thumping echoes through the valley. I wait. I'll do it again. My R.O. approaches.
"Lieutenant, the Battalion XO is on the line."
Damn, they must have heard the racket.
"Five, Delta Three Actual over."
"Lieutenant, you know the procedure. You must go through the Battalion Fire Control Center to use the 81s. What is going on out there? Over."
"Sir, I've got buku movement out here. Over."
"Lieutenant, what do you mean? Over."
"Sir, I've got buku movement. At least 100 enemy troops moving our way. Over."
"Lieutenant are you sure? Over."
"Sir, I'm sure. Over."
"Lieutenant, you better be. You're in deep shit. Five out."
"Sir, Delta Three Actual. Out."
I look at Sergeant Hand, order "Repeat."
The four mortars bang out 40 more high explosive rounds.
I order, "Stand down."
Marines scramble out of their fighting holes and face northeast. Silently they watch the orange glow of the ville burning in the darkening night. Boom! Boom! Secondary explosions. Ammo and mines.
Sergeant King walks up. Stands on my left.
I turn to look at him. A glow, from the burning ville, on his face.
"I didn't kill that pup."
I turn to watch the fire.
"What is it, Sarge?"
"Payback is a motherfucker."
Joseph Giannini, a local criminal defense attorney, served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 with the First Battalion, Third Marines. A victim of Agent Orange, he is currently writing a book of short, non-fiction stories about fate, surfing, and war.