A Shot in the Dark

By Michael W. Rodriguez

A Marine, whose tour in The Nam was finally at an end, celebrated his last night in-country by having a few beers with his bros at the EM club. They then decided to drift on over to the battalion's covered flick (one of only a few in I Corps) and catch his last movie in The Nam.

He was a short-timer, so short he had to carry an umbrella so the ants wouldn't piss on him. In the morning, he was on his way back to The World via the Freedom Bird.

In front of the screen was a small stage where USO troupes from the Philippines and Taiwan would perform. They did not often come to the stage that the men of the Second Battalion, First Marine Regiment (or 2/1, in the way of Marine Corps maneuver battalions) had prepared for them; still, it was there, anyway.

The young man -- the short-timer -- who was due to leave in the morning, made his way to the stage where he and his bros lay down on it in front of the movie screen, beers in hand, and joked with each other and waited for the movie to start.

At the time, 2/1 was deep in Indian Country, southern I Corps, far west of Da Nang. Called the Badlands by the Grunts who patrolled it and fought in it and over it, it was second only to the Arizona Territory, further to the south, in terms of depth and breadth and latent viciousness of the enemy.

The few days out of the Bush, that the line companies got as a respite, were always welcome. The chance of hot chow, a cold shower, a couple of beers, and a movie at the battalion covered flick offered these young men a moment or two away from the war.

The flick filled up with the Grunts of Hotel Company and Echo Company, two of the battalion's four rifle companies in for the night. Darkness came and so did the catcalls. "Start this damn thing, man," they shouted at the projectionist. "Hurry it the hell up! Come on, man."

"Chill out, goddammit," the projectionist shouted back. "Gimme a minute."

"I'll give you a round in the ass," someone hollered. "Hurry up."

Finally, to the cheers of the Grunts, the movie started. The lights were turned down, the credits rolled by, and everyone got comfortable on the wooden benches built for them by H&S Company, the battalion's support unit. The tops of beer cans were punctured by P-38s ("John Waynes") or church keys. Everyone was having a great time, including the kid lying on his back on the stage below the screen. Best seat in the house, his bros agreed.


"Shit! Kill the flick, goddammit! Kill the lights!"

Grunts dove for cover, grabbing weapons as they sought the protection of the now-darkened flick. The reaction squad moved quickly, putting out rounds as the 4.2-inch mortar team fired illumination rounds up into the night, trying to light up the bad guys. The react team left the safety of the perimeter-- the wire -- in search of the VC cranking out the rounds at the perimeter.

Minutes later, the all-secure sounded; and, after hearing only three or four VC were responsible for firing up the night, sheepish Grunts cleaned themselves off and started calling for the projectionist to fire up the movie.

The movie started again, lighting up the stage and the first few rows of wooden benches. One of the Grunts lying on the stage turned and made some remark to his friend, the short-timer. When his friend did not respond, he nudged the short-timer again. He turned to face his buddy and saw the hole in the kid's forehead.

"Holy shit!" The Grunt jerked erect. "Holy shit!"

Grunts sitting further back hollered for him to sit the hell down.

"Holy shit!," the bro shouted again. "He's dead! Goddammit, he's dead!"

One of the few rounds of AK-47 automatic weapons fire had found its mark. The short-timer, the kid due to leave the next morning, was killed instantly by one round to his forehead.

Corpsmen rushed to the stage. They worked frantically to save the short-timer's life. They couldn't.

Subdued, the Marines drifted away, no longer interested in the movie. "What a bummer," remarked one of Hotel's Grunts as he left the flick.

"Yeah, no shit," said another.

The name of the movie was "A Shot in the Dark," and it starred Peter Sellers.

The story is true, if unremarkable. What sets this story apart from the other "jungle legends" that came out of The Nam, however, is some guys swear in happened in 1966, while others are willing to fall on their swords in the belief it happened in 1967. Two different time periods in 1966; one time period in 1967.

Captain (now General) Gene Deegan, commander of Golf Company, swears it was one of his guys who was killed that night, but cannot remember his name. A platoon commander from Hotel Company says, "No, he was one of mine."

He cannot remember the kid's name, either.

Investigation of the battalion's recorded deaths shows no short-timer killed in any of the time frames. The event simply cannot be verified.

As one Marine said years later: "To me, the story is true. It happened. If no one else believes it, so what?"

If nothing else, the incident could have happened in no other war but The Nam. Apocryphal? Maybe. It was so long ago, it may have been just that--a legend, a myth, whose origin will be forever lost to us.

What I find interesting, however, is no other rifle company or battalion that served in The Nam has a similar tale to tell. And there are stories: the tiger and the Grunt from the 4th Marines; the "Walking Dead" tag that haunted the 9th Marines from 1967 to the end of the war; the "Skull and Crossbones" flag carried by Charlie 1/7 in 1967 (on Operation Blanco, I think...).

But none quite like ours.

A Shot in the Dark. Fact, myth, or Apocrypha, it belongs in the 2/1 "unit diary." Hell, it's perfect.

Source: "We Remember," the oral history of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, of the War in Vietnam.

copyright © 1995 by Michael W. Rodriguez, all rights reserved