From my bunker, Aspirant Tĩnh walked toward the tent, cursing,
“The SOB thinks he was a general. What’s a fucking arrogant!.”
Sergeant Hung, who was sitting by me, approached the new guy, asked,
“What wrong, Aspirant? Who is arrogant?”
“That damned Lieutenant Phuc, the commander. He acts like a big boss.”
“ He is here with me. Look! He is drinking at the table. You may have seen someone else.”
“So, who is the Lieutenant in the bunker? I saw him with his rank insignia on his cap,”
We burst into a laugh! It was Vinh, the deserter laborer who served as my helper and coiffer.
“I am sorry, Lieutenant. I did not notice you earlier. I think the guy down there is the commander since he talks to me like a boss.”
“So you are the new graduate? What is your name?” I asked, looking at the new bee from top to toe.
The guy clapped his heels in attention, saluted, and said,
“Aspirant Nguyen Van Tinh, Serial number xxxxx, reporting.”
“Sit down,” I pulled a chair and poured him a glass of beer, “You must be thirsty. Drink first.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Did you volunteer to serve at this unit? Do you drink? Have a family, married or single?”
“I was not in a high grade to choose. No, I don’t drink much. Thank you.”
A long-range operation might last more than a month. In between the long operations, we had a beak in a week or two. The battalion had been back from an operation at Ho Bo secret zone; we were defending one-third of Lai Khe HQs Base. My company was responsible for a dozen bunkers right of the north gate. National Route 13 from Ben Cat ran across the plantation to Chon Thanh, An Loc… Since the plantation became the military base, the route changed course before it came to the south gate. There was a detour along the right half perimeter of the base and joined the direct route at about 50 meters from the north gate.
I set my CP at bunker 21, right at the gate to keep my eyes on the soldiers, since they could sneak to the hamlet that lay in the middle of the base. The hamlet had been a settlement of the rubber plantation workers before the 1st Infantry converted Lai Khe to its base. The Americans let the people stay in the base to work for them. It was like a small shopping area where there were tailor shops, barber shops, restaurants, coffee shops… and of course, it was a point of attraction with many pretty women.
At the maximum strength of my company, there were around 120 men of which, about ten were not operational capable. They were soldiers with wounds not too serious to be discharged. The 5th ID had suffered a desertion rate of about ten percent each month until 1969 when the leadership implemented new policies to improve the soldiers’ morale. We were also short of officers to lead the troops. When I assumed the commanding post of the company, there were only four. Two of the four platoons were led by sergeants. That’s why I was very pleased each time we had new graduates from the officer candidate schools. I said to Tinh,
“You will be with the First Platoon. You will work with Sergeant Tiet, the leader, in several weeks then I will see. But first, I need you to go get the haircut. Cut short, real short! Then buy the subdued rank insignia. You will see Sergeant Thanh to get an M-16. If you need more time with your family, I will give you seven days. But remember, I will not tolerate the AWOL. We as officers must be role models in the unit. You will see that we love each other like brothers!”
I then walked him to bunker 28. Sergeant Tiet and the platoon were ready to greet the new man who in near future, would be their leader.
“Lieutenant,” Tinh asked, “There are only 20?”
“You are surprised?” I explained, “we are short of resources. We will get new recruits as they finish their training at the center next month.”
“You help the Aspirant,” I said to Sergeant Tiet, ”make sure he will be soon accustomed to combat life.”
“Will he feel discomfort?”
“Don’t worry. He should understand. I, myself, had learned from Aspirant Tan for months.”
On my first operation with the company, I was surprised to see a small guy from the 4th Platoon who did not carry a rifle, but four M.60 ammo boxes on his shoulders. The boxes were tied to his chest. He had a look of a low IQ or mentally retard man rather than a soldier.
He walked like a drunk man!
“Why doesn’t this guy carry a gun?” I asked Sergeant Hung.
“Sir, this is Nghia, nickname Nghia Sua (Nghia the drunkard)” Hung said, “his memory is so bad that he always left the weapon behind. Lieutenant Dat decided that he only carries ammo boxes attached to his neck and chest.”
“He looks drunk?”
“No Sir,” Hung added, “he never drinks. But he would act like he was drunk if sees the bottle or hear the word alcohol.”
“What a weirdo!”
Now I remembered once I asked him to get me the bottle of whiskey from my bunker. He came out and wiggled his body; his legs swayed left and right as if he was drunk.
“You drank my whisky? Didn’t you? How much?”
“No Sir, I did not.”
The bottle was full, the cap was intact. That’s why he had got the nickname “Nghia Sua”
When I glanced at the roll call of the company, I could not believe that people have kind of funny names.
“So, this company is a zoo for there are enough kind of animals in here: Nguyễn văn Hổ (Hổ means tiger), Nguyễn Văn Chó (Chó means dog), Trần Văn Chuột (Chuột means mouse), Nguyễn Văn Cu (Cu means pigeon)…” I joked with Seagent Hung.
“They are from the countryside where the parents chose the ugly names to keep their children from the attention of the evils,” Hung explained.
There were two Cambodian men in my company: Corporal Chau Phol and PFC Lai Bel. Phol was with the 1st Platoon. He claimed that he had an amulet to protect against evil and danger, It was the canine tooth of a wild boar he wore on his necklace. There were also some Chinese Vietnamese and some from Nung ethnicity. This 5th ID was formed with all Nung people at the beginning.
“Are there any drug addicts?” I asked.
“Not the soldiers, Sir,” Hung said, “only Vinh, who is a deserter laborer”
“Why does he work at the CP instead of at the heavy weapon platoon?”
“Because he has good handwriting and better education than other soldiers, Lieutenant Dat kept him here to assist Sergeant Minh, the company personnel NCO. He is also a skillful barber. Only bad that he is talkative and a big liar.”
“Tell me more about his past.”
“He blabbermouths about everything that I could not know whether it is true or false. He said that he had been a chief of a CIA station somewhere in Central Vietnam; that he bossed a dozen agents. Another time, he said he had been a company commander of a commando unit.”
Since his tent was next to my bunker, one day, he approached me and talk,
“Let me cut your hair. I was one of the best barbers in Saigon.”
I looked at his arms; both had bluish spots along the vein. His face was dotted with abnormal lumps like leprosy. I knew that this was not a good man!
“Do you still inject?” I threatened him, “If I find that you are doing it, I will abandon you in the forest. I will certainly.”
He said with a central Vietnam accent,
“No Sir, I quit a long time ago. Because my girlfriend sometimes give a small dose to comfort my mind.”
“You have a girlfriend? Where is she?” I chuckled.
“She is teaching high school in Bien Hoa! Whenever you go there, allow me to go with you. I will introduce her! She is the most beautiful woman in Bien Hoa!”
“Don’t you bullshit me! How could a man like you befriend a beautiful girl and a teacher?”
“You don’t know me,” He said, “I used to be an important person; I had a dozen men under my command; I even had a sedan. Beautiful girls lined up for me!”
The conversation with this deserter laborer reminded me of the story “The Barber of Baghdad” in the Arabian 1001 nights. Abdul Hassan, the blabber barber, who always stuck his nose into other men’s business, caused a lot of trouble to Nureddin, the man who was in love with the beautiful Margiana. It resulted in a great disaster as Nureddin fell from a trunk and got crippled. I didn’t mean to offend the barbers, but it seemed that most of the barbers were talkative and often fabricated false stories to entertain their customers.
Later, in 1970, my company received Private No, a real skillful barber who had worked at the most famous barbershop in Saigon. His father visited us and asked me to keep him at the CP for he was his only son. He was KIA when we invaded Cambodia in February 1971 along with the medic Sau. Private Lai Bel and Nghia the Drunkard, were also killed in the first week in Cambodia. Chau Phol, the man with an amulet (the wild boar tooth), was killed when he removed the claymore mine he set up because of a careless mistake.
Aspirant Tinh did not stay long with us. He deserted after we were back from Snuol, Cambodia, after the operation. Aspirant Hiep, an NCO who graduated from a special class at Thu Duc Infantry School, was with us from the beginning of the operation. He soon proved a capable platoon leader. Another aspirant, Khanh, was weak and incompetent. I made him an assistant to Aspirant Chieu. He later was transferred to another non-combat unit.
It was not unusual that an officer was not appointed to any position. In 1971, my battalion received a captain who had been a District Chief and Sub-Sector Commander. He might have made a serious mistake. Captain Hien was ordered not to give him any position in our battalion but assign him to a company. Another, a valedictorian who graduated from the National Military Academy, Captain Vo had stayed at the academy for years before being sent to a combat battalion in the 9th Regiment. The Battalion Commander, one of his students who was now a major, outranked him.
Due to rather high casualties, we always had new faces In our units. About forty percent of the soldiers would not be seen after a year. They were either KIA, WIA, or MIA. A small number of them would be transferred to other non-combat units after years of serving in combat and luckily survived.
From the regiment level, the KIA rate was about twenty percent per year. You either came back home wrapping in a poncho or lying wounded on a stretcher. When in the firefight, you could not expect your loved one to be with you amid the chaos and the battlefield madness; but your comrades-in-arms were the ones who watched your back, pulled you to a safe place, tend your wound, take care of you. When you got killed and your body was left at the scene for days, only your peers would stand the stench of rotten human flesh to bring it back to your family.
That’s what I learned from the real life.