No humor here; just the reality of war

Being an FO for an infantry company during the time I was in country was ~ for many of us ~ a rapid descent into the inner circles of a Hell we could not possibly have imagined before. Looking back on it, it’s often hard to imagine what we did or how we survived; more personally, I have a lot of trouble imagining what I did and how I survived.   A lot of times afterwards, I wished I hadn’t survived.  I think I’m past that. It’s just days like today ~ February 9 ~ that bring a lot of it back into my thoughts and dreams full force again. February 9, 1968 {exactly 40 years ago}  nearly marked the annihilation of 1/35th.

And I remember again key incidents and events on that descent into the Hell where we lived…..well, most of us lived.  Far too many of us didn't.  When I say remember, what I mean is that I remember what it looked like, and what it smelled like and the weather and whether I was cold from rain. I remember the little details that make up my traumatic reality.   And, most vividly, my remembering happens in my waking dreams.   I awaken with the tastes and smells from long-ago trauma still on my tongue and in my nose as I struggle to change and make right horrible things that happened decades ago. I always fail.

This is what I awakened with last night:  
LtCol Bobzien had regular talks with me on his visits to “C” Company regarding the need to avoid avoidable risks so that the company would have a FO that was alive and functional and also to avoid the need for him to write some of those letters home about us.  Most of the time, I did things his way. I only went into a tunnel with a "tunnel rat" a couple of times. He had railed against that so much, I just had to see why he thought it was so important.   And I sometimes joined one of the line platoons when they went out on a night ambush, too.   In fairness to Capt Dave Collins, he was pretty sure the tunnels were safe when I climbed in and he went along with joining a platoon on night ambush when the platoon was in a high risk situation. On one of my first excursions out into the darkness with a small group, only a few weeks after I joined the company, there was an event that still causes me nightmares.

The platoon leader, I think it was 2nd Lt Joel  Matusek, of 3rd platoon,  set up an “L” shaped ambush along a completely hidden but quite well worn trail. We moved into position in the rain, long after dark. My rubber poncho reverberated with the rain as I sat motionless along one side of the trail; I was sure that I wouldn’t hear a herd of elephants if they came down the trail with the noise from the rain. I was sure it would be an uneventful night.

I was wrong, of course. The platoon sergeant next to me in the pitch blackness nudged me after we had been waiting for a few hours. Something was coming!

I pulled the poncho hood from my head so that I could hear and then I heard movement coming from my left. No voices, no lights, just the sounds of people moving through the pitch dark night, brushing up against the bushes and trees lining the trail.

The first claymore detonated with a nerve-shattering roar and brief flash of white light.  Intense rifle and machine gun firing, along with another claymore followed before the roar of the first claymore disappeared.   I fired two clips into a small arc directly in front of my position. Even with the muzzle flashes punctuating the darkness, I couldn't see what had wandered into the ambush kill zone.

I don’t remember anyone calling "check fire!’ it just seemed that we all stopped firing at once.  Flashlights came out and, ready to fire again, we moved forward the last 3-4 feet to the edge of the trail.

With my flashlight, I saw a human form in the middle of the trail - in the spot where I had been firing. Vietnamese are a small people but this shattered form was so small. “Oh, God,” I thought, “we killed a child!” then I remembered that the small form was directly in front of my position and I knew that I was probably the killer.  I glanced up and down the trail and other men from our platoon checked the other bodies.  Except for one adult woman, they were all children!  We had just murdered a group of innocent children wandering through the darkness. This was a "free fire" zone but kids probably wouldn’t know about that. What kind of parents would take their children out on a night like this, right into an ambush?

I looked back at the body at my feet, examining it more carefully, thinking, “this is what death is like and what I must get used to seeing.” As the beam of my flashlight moved across the body, the body lay face down in the mud of the trail. I could see the bullet hole in the back of the small head; the bullet that killed this child.

Then I noticed the white smudge next to the head and moved the flashlight beam a few further. The white smudge was a complete face, eyelessly staring up into the night and the trees. It was a whole, complete face. The eye sockets and eyebrows were there, empty; the mouth and lips were there, with no teeth behind them; the cheeks with their chubby, childhood flesh was there, the nose was there, complete like a tiny mountain in a small wave of flesh. And it was attached by a flap of skin on the right side of the head. It was as if the face were a removable object.  But it was empty of life, like a detachable mask. Empty eye sockets; the mouth open in an oval "O" of surprised death.  The bullet had entered the back of the head, must have tumbled and, with great force on exiting, ripped his face completely off.

So this is death. Of innocent children.   This dead child was maybe six or seven years old.  It's so hard to tell age when the face is gone.  I probably killed him [I could tell he was male but it wasn’t easy with that face blasted off].   I vomited quietly by the side of the trail, afraid of further desecrating that lifeless body.

I never said anything about that night for decades. I don’t think anyone else noticed the eyeless, toothless, empty detached face of that little boy staring upward.  But that empty face is still with me, mostly at night and when I am awakening.  A few weeks later most of 3rd Platoon was killed or wounded during a forced march after dark. They wandered into a long daisy-chain of hand grenades. It was another nightmare situation that, along with that dead boy, lives with me still in my dreams.

Lt Bert G. Landau

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