Any other time, the scenery would be described as beautiful. The perfectly aligned rows of rubber trees in the Michelin Rubber Planation appeared as a giant formal garden of some English Lord's Manor.
The towering trees rose thirty feet or more; and as they reached for the sun, they created a strange environment under their carpet of leaves. Occasionally you would see underbrush, but for the most part, just well maintained rubber trees yielding their thick, dirty, milk-gravy sap which seemed to crawl as it moved from the tap into the container.
This milky resource was the same resource the world demanded just years ago. Battles of the past were fought just to control this strange garden's yield. But this war was now, and rubber wasn't the valuable in question.
In Viet Nam during 1967, the plantation held both armies...the infantry forces of the United States and the opposition guerrilla forces of the Viet Cong. Among the beauty of lush green life lie the dark scarlet by-product of combat, the blood of both armies. Light which danced through openings in the green canopy of leaves brought visions of reality, visions of war.
The day was coming to a close; and an infantry platoon of the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, the Ivy Division, was returning to the battalion perimeter after a fire fight with a Viet Cong squad in a small hamlet. The day would close with two notable events recorded. The first was the accidental destruction of a church by artillery shells during the engagement with the Viet Cong and the second, the taking of a Viet Cong prisoner. But this was a good day...no American in this platoon had shed blood.
As a prisoner, his hands were tied and his body drooped from the weight of his head, which was hanging in shame. Shame must be a heavy burden, I thought as I looked at his smallness. He looked a lot older than the seventeen or eighteen years of his life. His decision to live was made after the majority of his comrades had died as a result of the skill and training of the infantry platoon. Maybe his decision to surrender was hastened by the massive destruction resulting from artillery support. Life was not kind to this boy, this man. You could only call him a man after realities of combat. His traditional straw cone hat seemed to dwarf his entire body. He was in the middle of the platoon under heavy guard. Confusion and fear could be read on his face.
As the platoon moved closer to the perimeter, the necessary communications needed to take place in order to pass through preset checkpoints with safety. The unit paused briefly among the towering rubber trees. As was customary, all men kneeled facing in opposite positions so as to detect any movement. Their rifles were ready; and although fatigue was starting to show, their senses were on alert.
The routine motion of war took place. The claymores were placed out from the body of the unit and the posting of lookouts were stationed thirty meters from the main unit in all directions in order to detect any movement. As I watched the mechanical movements of war, I was proud. This was my platoon.
The pride I experienced seem to come from the voiceless actions of professionals...as skillful as any professional football team and in a strange way, as graceful as a ballet being performed by a well rehearsed and seasoned troupe of professionals. I was very proud.
Chopper's M60 machine gun was strategically positioned to overlap Spit's M60, and Anderson and Willy had grenade launchers positioned.
My RTO, radio telephone operator, was a real American Indian. He came from either North Dakota or South Dakota; I never got it straight. Over the months, he had told me of his heritage. Previous to our hours of conversation, I didn't have the knowledge to respect Native Americans, I respected them now. "Indian" didn't drink or smoke, and I never heard a curse word from his lips. He seemed to take pride in being called Indian.
As Indian handed me the handset so I could exchange the required information for safe passage through the checkpoint, I had a strange sensation I was being followed or watched. At that very instant, the sensation was validated as my eyes saw a Viet Cong standing less than twenty-five feet from me.
From that moment, life was slow motion film in which I participated as a central character. My eyes never blinked nor was eye contact ever lost with the VC, despite the actions which were to follow.
His straw hat topped a large frame. His eyes were fixed upon me in the same manner as mine upon him. Over his black pajamas he had two belts of machine gun rounds crossed in the fashion of Mexican bandits from the days of Poncho Villa. In his hands he held his AK-47, a rifle I knew all to well and respected for its accuracy and rapid rate of fire.
How the enemy soldier could be so close to the platoon without being detected I'll never know; but at that moment, I didn't care. My body started to fall to the ground as I yelled the command, "Hit It!"
Every member of the platoon fell toward the floor of the plantation in a single uniform movement. As I fell forward, my left hand released the radio handset. My right arm and hand were resting upon the top of my CAR-15, Colt Automatic Rifle, that was balanced upon the top of my ammo pouch connected to my web belt. My movements were from instinct now, not training.
The awkward position of my right arm and the lack of time to respond caused my left hand to reach for a grenade. As I continued to fall to the ground in slow motion, the pin was pulled; and an underhand toss sent the grenade straight toward the VC. My slow motion movement now placed me halfway to the ground; and, with my eyes still fixed upon the VC, I watched him drop his AK-47 as he cupped his hands to catch the grenade at mid chest as if it were a baseball.
Inches from the ground, my eyes and his eyes were still in solitary contact. We couldn't break eye contact due to some strange force or common bond. As my upper torso made contact with the ground, the VC completed the catch.
Indian and I were lying side by side as the grenade exploded. My eyes broke contact at the instant the grenade's explosion started to destroy my enemy. The dead tree, which lie as a barrier just inches from Indian's and my heads, absorbed the grenade's shrapnel. One misplaced tree in this strange garden of life and death saved Indian's and my lives.
By this time, the claymores had exploded; and the entire platoon was engaged in combat with a VC squad which had been shadowing our movements. Their probable mission...to rescue their comrade. Since we outnumbered them by four or five to one, they quickly broke contact and retreated into the plantation.
From the radio came the seasoned voice of the battalion commander requesting a status report. No matter how many times his voice requested the post engagement report, the paternal yet professional pattern was detectable. As I listened to his request, my eyes scanned the platoon.
Some of the new men were shaking, but it was the honest tremble of fear...nothing to be ashamed of, as their courage and bravery overshadowed everything else. The old guys, those who had been in country over six months, had the pale-grey, numb look that always followed each fire fight. This numbness was the anesthetic for the unseen wounds of war.