Charlie Company had been moving through thick jungle, down a steep grade. They were across the riverbed from Shadow Man and slightly in front of where the enemy squad appeared to be heading. It was by sheer coincidence that the Eight had been seen first by the Marines, and not the other way around.
L/Cpl. Hipkins was on point. The rest of his platoon, close behind, was struggling to pass down a riverbed that substituted for a trail during the dry season. It was not easy for the Marines. The ditch was steep, gravel strewn, and in places partly muddy. The Marines were essentially trying to negotiate a gully that ran off a cliff. They were heavily laden with boots, packs, cartridge belts, helmets, ammunition, assorted weaponry, and flak jackets. While the Viet Cong carried dry, light blanket rolls, the Marines carried a heavier, tight-fitting pack full of cans with moist food inside; a three-day supply. The uniforms Marines wore did not allow for the fresh flow of air. Their gear was far more restrictive than that of the eight Viet Cong. Under normal circumstances, heavily burdened Marines tended to crash and bulldoze through the jungle. They were often heard in advance of their arrival. In this instance, Marines trying to negotiate the steep jungle hillside, trying to not fall, trying not to get injured, were uncharacteristically quiet and stealthy as they approached the riverbed. As fate would have it, they happened to reach the river’s edge moments after eight members of the First Viet Cong Regiment had stepped out into an open area. Most critically for the Marines, the Viet Cong patrol did not hear a sound from Charlie Company’s muffled struggle down the mountainside. Now the enemy patrol was exposed slightly downstream from where Hipkins and his platoon commander crouched and observed. This happenstance could only be described as an irony of the first order. Long-time fighters, experienced in jungle warfare—these Viet Cong—were about to be vanquished by Marines in their late teens, recently out of high school, led by a handful of young experienced NCOs, and an officer who was not much older.
Rapidly, word spread down the line. A hasty ambush was being quietly set up where it appeared the enemy was about to approach. The entire platoon, having reached the riverbed, began moving cautiously and silently into a kill formation. The other platoons of Charlie Company remained above the ravine, in reserve—very quiet and very still. They were fully locked and loaded, waiting to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
As the Marines watched, their hearts pounding, the enemy patrol’s point man suddenly stopped. The rest of Shadow Man’s squad followed suit. The Marines held their breath.
The lieutenant, his point man Hipkins, and the rest of the platoon watched like predators, focusing their eyes fully forward and wide open. Their breathing was shallow and rapid; all weapons were off safe. The enemy crouched and remained absolutely still, almost disappearing before Charlie Company’s eyes, but not completely.
There was something that seemed to hang in the air beyond the stillness. Shadow Man did not or could not make up his mind. The default rule in the jungle—Marine, Viet Cong, or wild animal—was that if something didn’t feel right, it probably wasn’t. The Marines continued to wait for the enemy’s next move. They sincerely hoped that the eight guerrillas would move forward, just a bit more, firmly inside the killing zone; zero chance of escape.
Charlie’s Marines continued to hold back. For an indeterminate amount of time, there was such a surreal stillness in the ravine that the air seemed almost electric. There was not the slightest sound beyond nature. While peace and stillness had returned to the ravine, it was the wrong kind.
The Marines waited. Finally, the enemy patrol decided to move out—time was pressing. Shadow Man gave a signal. The eight phantoms stood up and floated forward cautiously. In moments Charlie Company’s trap was set. The Viet Cong patrol looked up as a flock of birds suddenly flew out of their treetop perches and away from the ravine far below, something was wrong. They cried out as their wings flapped and fluttered en masse, creating a quick, soft, swooshing sound.
Upon a given signal, the Marines of Charlie Company suddenly and with malice aforethought unleashed an opposing sound; a harsh sustained explosion of weapons-fire into the eight enemy soldiers who had mistakenly decided it was safe to continue with their patrol. The eight had no chance and received no mercy. They fell to the ground before they could defend themselves. They did not even have the opportunity to raise their weapons. As they fell, some managed to jerk—involuntarily. Some managed to take a step—to nowhere.
All eight skilled, deadly, experienced Viet Cong soldiers, who could move like phantoms through the jungle and had been in the business of guerrilla warfare nearly all their lives, melted into an undignified pile of bloody human flesh. This did not keep the Marines from firing far beyond the necessary bounds of effectiveness. They were guilty of overkill and proud of it. They were making a statement. It was an open invitation to all commie rat bastards. It felt victorious, righteous. It felt like United States Marines having a good day at the office. They were excited. The smell of gunpowder hung thick in the air. Repeated yelling of “Cease fire!” finally sank in, to the disappointment of some. Fingers eased off triggers.
Then, the opposite happened; it became totally silent. No weapons-fire. There wasn’t a bird that flew or a snake that slithered. No small animals scurried about. It seemed that the bugs stopped crawling. Not even the rustle of a leaf or the snap of a twig could be heard. Nothing moved. There was only the spell of silence; it was a powerful spell—time stood still.
Technically, there was some movement. Blood moved; silently, richly into what had been pure unspoiled sand. But that didn’t count. The sandy river bottom was no longer pristine.
Peace had come for a third time to the ravine, but it was a perverse peace, no longer a paradise. Now, it was a hellish place of nightmarish visions. Dante Alighieri could not have described it. Hieronymus Bosch could not have painted it, because the scene was horridly real, not dreamed up by some poet or painter.
For a moment, many stared blankly at what they had done. The young Marines had outmaneuvered much older, more experienced jungle fighters operating on their own home turf. It made no difference at all that these were the wiry, tough as nails, deadly Việt Cộng-sản, who had been fully committed all their lives to fighting off colonialism, imperialism, and, as of late, the Americans and their puppets.
Many Marines considered these dead soldiers to be no more than a subhuman species; gooks, zips, slopes, dinks, insects, bugs. Denigrating the enemy was very common in war; killing human beings was easier if they weren’t human, if they didn’t have loved ones, if they didn’t have feelings, beliefs, and emotions.
America's Marines knew only what they were taught by example, or heard or read in the news. They did not know or care that these enemy soldiers were descended from a people that had fought against Chinese domination for over a thousand years. That period alone was more than five times older than the United States, as of 1967. Vietnam itself was far older than the Chinese domination. The people with whom the young country of America found itself at war with had survived and defeated such powers as the Tang dynasty, the Mongol invasions, the invasion forces of the Sung and Ming emperors, and a hundred other battles forgotten long before there was a United States of America.
In modern times, the Vietnamese survived starvation and torture by the Japanese during World War Two, the occupations of Chiang Kai-shek’s War Lord Generals Lu Han and Chang Fa-k’wei, and the occupation of the British, who rearmed both the French and Japanese to help suppress Vietnamese nationalism. On the heels of all that, the Vietnamese had fought off efforts by the French, who attempted colonial déjà vu all over again. This ended with mounting French losses—and their resounding defeat at Dien Bien Phu. In short, the Viet Cong were very good at what they did. Even so, the young guns of the United States Marines had just defeated an enemy patrol in spite of their history, glorious victories, and long struggles. None of their jungle-fighting skills were of any significance to Charlie Company’s men as they wolfed it up, feeling brazen and bad-ass. Had it been explained to them, they would have dismissed it outright. They were living in the moment. No one screwed with United States Marines. Not the Tang dynasty, the Mongols, nor the Sung or the Ming emperors.
In less than thirty seconds—it seemed far longer—the NCOs of Charlie Company took control. As small-unit leaders, they knew that they must get their men functioning and thinking as Marines in action, not as a bunch of Boots on base liberty standing around scratching their asses. Orders and directions came fast and furious. The call for casualty checks, ammo checks, and body searches went out. Without anyone giving the order, empty magazines were ejected and replaced with fully loaded ones.
All leaders learned that a busy Marine is a happy Marine; a happy Marine is a good Marine; and a good Marine is a Lean Mean Killing Machine. Rapidly, sound returned to their world and movement picked up. Awareness switched from the narrow focus on the dead enemy to the broader activity all around them.
Marines often begin to show signs of glee and bravado in these situations. But deep inside—more than some realized—many are troubled. Many eyes refuse to see or believe that incongruence which lies before them; humans who do not look like humans, in positions and under conditions that seem impossible for life. This was not only because these humans were dead, but also because Marines are human and it could have been them laying there—no one cared to balance that equation. What happened to these dead soldiers could happen to them—it was an almost subconscious awareness, quickly stashed away in the recesses of the mind. In a short time; hours, days, they forget; they blot it out. The hideous views of twisted, ripped human flesh are rapidly removed from their inner vision. For some, one day far off, it will return. For others, it means nothing beyond the fact that it happened; one for the books.
For some it seemed that life or death in the Vietnam War was often up to the Fickle Finger of Fate, or the Cosmic Muffin. As these hard-core Viet Cong guerillas had just demonstrated, their skill and experience combined with their glorious, thousand-year-old history, did not guarantee survival. This was a bit unsettling to any who had the time or inclination to ponder such things.
 Lance Corporal Hipkins