A Few Moments After

By Keith Nightingale

Few people will ever experience, nor should they, the immediate aftermath of close, continuous, primordial combat. If observed by a detached eye, and there never are any, the first impression is one of junk, the awful and varied detritus of a battlefield.

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No photo that we could get rights to use in this magazine could ever come close to portraying the kind of scene portrayed in this article – but this photo, taken at a totally different time and place, a different unit, and different circumstances, at least scratches the surface of showing a torn-up area in South /Vietnam, along with exhausted troops – members of the 3rd Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, Hill 530, 25 November 1967. Photo: U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Another area has a dark dirty stain throughout the canopy – narrow at the perimeter and wider within the forest. This is the impact point of a napalm canister, barely effective against the deep wet of the jungle.

The eyes are mostly wide open, showing a lot of white, but with a red overarching film – an emotional conjunctivitis brought on by what the eye saw and sensed over a too-extended period of time.

When I joined the 101st as a replacement captain, I was sent to the Screaming Eagle Replacement Training Center (SERTS) for a programmed week of prep before being assigned to a specific unit. On the first day, the Brigade S1 raced up in a jeep and told me to load my duffle bag and myself. I was replacing part of a company command group that had been killed on the edge of the A Shau. Training was over.

Later in the day, uncomfortably wearing brand new jungle fatigues, clean kit, and shined jungle boots, I boarded a UH-1H for the melancholy trip to my new unit. I had no idea what to expect, and no real information to prepare me mentally, other than the obvious. A lot of my company was dead – more were wounded, and the residue required leadership. The Infantry School doesn’t teach much about this.

Another area has a dark dirty stain throughout the canopy – narrow at the perimeter and wider within the forest. Tis is the impact point of a napalm canister, barely effective against the deep wet of the jungle.

The helicopter began to reduce its speed, and orbited east of a rugged green mountain mass. As it lowered altitude, I could begin to make out a small, smoking scar against a ridgeline. It was more open than the rest of the land, and showed the red laterite dirt on its edges, much like a wound would bleed. Slowly, a wisp of purple smoke arose in a steady column unmoved by a breath of wind. Even in a moving helicopter, the heat and humidity were palpable. The bird turned toward the smoke, and the scar was hidden from view, and I was immersed in my final anxieties and questions as the pilot pulled power and did a vertical descent into the source of smoke.

Abruptly, the vast blue mist vista changed into the immediacy of trees, dirt, smoke, and noise within feet of my face. The door gunner pointed at the ground several feet below, visible through a tangle of chips, wood, logs, and swirling material – motioning me to get out. I tossed my ruck and followed it, beaten to the dirt by the downward blast and exhaust of the retreating helicopter. I could see nothing but the dirt in front of my helmet lip, which had now been pressed over my nose by the physics of the moment. I arose to the sounds of what seemed like utter silence, stood, and looked around.

Few people will ever experience, nor should they, the immediate aftermath of close, continuous primordial combat. If observed by a detached eye, and there never are any of those, the first impression is one of junk. The awful and varied detritus of a battlefield. The residue of hell in a small place. To the participant, it is the overwhelming and welcoming sounds of silence – a sound just recently achieved, which signifies the soldier remains among the living.

The overall impression is one of junk and destruction. The ground is littered with a snowflake mass of chipped leaves, branches, and wood parts – fresh and bleeding their sap of life. The dirt is very fresh, overturned, and refined with forces a plow could never muster – pungent with organic decay – and chewed to fine material separated by larger clods of muddy confluence.

On top, larger logs and branches, the remains of once-vertical trees, lay in random patterns as part of a failed giant jackstraw game. Piercing through are the remaining stumps of the original growth with supplicating shards of irregular height exposing the still oozing cambium, bark, and core red inner hearts.

The residue of hell in a small place. To the participant, it is the overwhelming and welcoming sounds of silence – a sound just recently achieved, which signifies the soldier remains among the living.

In random parts of the perimeter, smoke rises from still heated and glowing organic matter triggered by a random tracer round, grenade blast, or artillery round that found a welcoming dry piece of matter to extend its effect. The smell of cordite, the remainder of a myriad of ordnance devices, acrid and pungent still lingers in the atmosphere. It was blast-embedded in the fresh earth, and is now slowly extricating itself – joining the tendrils of liquid heat rising with the new unnatural exposure to sunlight.

On the edge of the perimeter, where vertical growth meets sunlight, combinations of junk and battle clues emerge. The sunlight reflects a number of unexploded cluster
bomb units (CBU) hanging in the edge growth – the tennis-ball-sized yellow belly under the four spring-loaded shiny silver wings on top. Junk to be carefully avoided. Another area has a dark dirty stain throughout the canopy – narrow at the perimeter and wider within the forest.

This is the impact point of a napalm canister, barely effective against the deep wet of the jungle. A portion of the blackened husk of the shiny aluminum body sits caught in a tree, a beam of sunlight showing its presence. The jungle will soon reclaim this junk.

Just beyond the first stand of trees are craters scattered the circumference of the perimeter. They can be easily discerned, attesting to the proximity of the detonation and the moment of desperation that necessitated their birth. The newly turned earth at the edges of the craters is coated with a small but clear ring of grey cordite remains, the results of a moment of great heat and the residue of shrapnel that did not escape.

In some, an empty smoke canister rests inside. In several others, the bodies of the recent enemy lie in confused heaps – to be buried when the victors regain sufficient strength. Flies already festoon the corpses, and provide the only sound in an otherwise silent scene. Soon all this junk will be organically digested.

As the eyes accustom themselves to the light, pieces of humanity emerge to register. An arm reaching into the sun.

Portions of two soldiers expose themselves on the edge of the perimeter. A man standing, another sitting on a log, smoking.

Images of people begin to gather where dappled spots of light and movement emerge from the dark – the perimeter. It is small. Much smaller than it originally would have been.

Picking up off the ground and trying to focus, other things begin to emerge – again, the sudden and sorry detritus of war. Here, a large pile of expended machine gun links. Just beside it, separated by less than a man’s width, is another much larger pile – that of expended brass.

The shape and distribution of the piles indicates an even sweep of the weapon to the extreme left and right. It was a very busy position. Both the weapon and its crew are absent.

Further inside the center of the position, is a rumpled pile of rain ponchos, clothing, and boots. Many of the ponchos and all the clothes are coated with deep, dark visceral blood. The clothing stains are almost black, while the ponchos, the blood still liquid, has a tar-like ochre residue.

Close by and hanging on branches, are the empty bags of Ringers 5%, the medics’ immediate solution, scattered, stained bandages, some white with bright red, and others turned to the green camouflage back side – the vestiges of the aid station – so small and unprotected. The human junk of battle was no longer present.

In the center, scattered throughout the destroyed vegetation, are several dozen empty smoke canisters, ammo boxes, aid packets, overturned water cans, and empty magazines. Interspersed among it all are small collections of empty brass and radio batteries, all reflecting through the organic shade of jungle junk, reminders of what had been, and where soldiers had been at work.

Next to a large log, there are remains of two military radios, the aluminum skin punctured, exposing the blasted innards. This was the command post, less than 20 yards from the present perimeter. All the training and preparation the Army had invested in this venture had coalesced into this random undisciplined scattering of junk.

Finally, vision and senses begin to fix on the animated forms of life that begin to emerge in the mind’s eye. They are very quiet and almost motionless. The normal physicality, emotion, and energy of teenagers has been dulled to stillness by recent events. They stare straight ahead, and slowly pull on cigarettes, holding the smoke deep inside and then ever so slowly releasing it in a small continuous column from nose and mouth.

They hesitate a moment, and then repeat the process. Their skin is cloaked with dirt, ash, and other residue. Sweat makes small channels through the mud, and drips unsensed on their fatigues.

The cigarette is soaked where it meets the finger, and only stays aflame due to the constant stoking of its core.

They are well-beyond tired – physically and emotionally. Their fingernails are almost universally pared down to the quick, reflecting hours of continuous nervous biting, rubbing, and wear. There is no need for manicures in this environment.

Some slowly labor over an open can of C-rations, ingesting but not tasting. Grease and liquid coat fingers and the edge of the mouth, but remain unfelt and unwiped. The white plastic C-ration spoon is cleaned with a swipe in the mouth and returned, stained but still crucial, to a jacket pocket. Here, Maslow’s hierarchy of need remains at a very basic level.

The eyes are mostly wide open, showing a lot of white, but with a red overarching film – an emotional conjunctivitis brought on by what the eye saw and sensed over a too-extended period of time. This is what remains when the junk is cleared.

Once the senses return – and focus is achieved – another point emerges, and that is of the silence. There are no birds to hear. They fled some time ago.

There are almost no voices. The paired soldiers say nothing or whisper to themselves – too tired to extend a sound beyond that immediately necessary. The soldiers momentarily relish the freedom from sound – sounds they heard too often and too different just a little while before. It’s now time to pick up where Fort Benning left off, become the father of the family, and move on to what may be the next junk pile. “This is Musty Races Six. On the ground.” The silence is broken.

 

Keith Nightingale.Colonel (Ret.) Keith Nightingale served two tours in Vietnam as adviser to the 52d BDQ and Company Cdr of D/1-502 during Tet and Lam Son 719 respectively. He commanded battalions in the 509th, 82d, and 1-75th Rangers.