Tuesday, February 20 , 2018, 10:26 pm | Fair 43º


Ken Williams: In Vietnam, Close Encounters of the Snake Kind

Death had a thousand ways of finding its victim

[Writer’s Note: I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Peter Bie on the status of America’s veterans. If you are interested in the costs that our sons and daughters face fighting a forgotten war and the scandalous surging suicide rates of veterans — a silent epidemic — please tune in at 10 a.m. this Saturday to KTMS 990 AM.]

Breathe choking, soggy, intense heat. Vietnam. 1969. Walking in that furnace is like walking on a planet with 10 times the gravity of Earth. The humid-infused air crushes you with its sweltering weight. It is stagnant and thick — suffocating. Its intensity robs your strength and pushes fatigue down your throat while baking your brain inside a steel helmet. Breathing becomes laborious.

Our purgatory was the hills west of Con Thien and east of Khe Sanh. We humped those primitive hills till we were exhausted. Every ounce of fluid wrung from our bodies. Only then did we set up the ambush along a foot trail bordering the DMZ (demilitarized zone).

My position was in head-high elephant grass, burned yellow by our common enemy, the sun. We sat — invisible from the enemy should they make the fatal mistake of walking down the trail, invisible from each other. Again, alone, shrouded by razor-sharp tall elephant grass.

Sitting perfectly still in that heat is hard. I was hungry, thirsty, tired and angry. Before I knew it, I had dozed off. How many minutes passed before that sixth sense that helped us stay alive stroked terror in my heart? Was the enemy present? My eyes flew open. Terror.

Immediately my sight landed on a 3-foot-long snake crawling up between my stretched-out legs. The snake slivered. Its radiant, shiny, silver back seemed to bounce off the scorching rays of the white-hot sun into my eyes. Its brilliant — unique — color I’ll never forget. I startled but was unable to really move. Fortunately, he had no such inhibition and took off. He was as scared of me as I was of him.

Suddenly, an acidic smell of burning foliage filled the air. The knucklehead to my left had somehow caught the dry elephant grass on fire. Great! Would I burn to death, or would the snake be driven back to me? Was he the feared “two stepper”? Legend was that you would be dead before you could take two steps after its bite.

Weeks later, a joint grunt-tank-armored personal carrier (APC) sweep in the baking sun had been frustrating, exhausting and moral-sapping. The NVA refused to stand and fight — as usual, unless they wanted to. Our company broke off from the supporting armor. The tanks and APCs circled in a 360-degree defensive mode on the low ground.

As Marines, we climb the nearest, tallest hill. Always occupy the high ground. That night, that basic principle saved our lives. We set up our own 360. It was one Marine per fighting hole due to a lack of replacements for casualties. We made halfhearted and very noisy attempts at digging fighting holes. Our short-handled shovels bounced off the rock that the hill was made of. Mine was all of a foot deep.

Dusk, and someone came by checking the lines. He informed me that “Chuck,” a hole over, had a visit by a cobra and it wasn’t the gunship variety. I was informed that he had hit it with his shovel to no effect. It merely shrugged it off and crawled away. Which direction, I asked, hoping it was outside the perimeter. Of course, as my luck would have it, he said, “No.” It had slithered into the interior of the circle.

For the first part of the night, my sight shifted between the blackness in front of me and the threatening darkness behind. All that changed when the NVA launched their attack against the armored vehicles below. I was riveted by the sudden carnage below and then the surreal spectacle of Puff the Magic Dragon gunship firing thousands of rounds per minutes in a valiant attempt to prevent the tanks and APCs from being overrun.

The NVA snipers on the low-laying ridge in front of me also had demands. It was dark, and they couldn’t hit anything — at least that was what I told myself. But the sound of bullets flying your way tends to make one take it personally — very personally. The early morning hours were devoted to the sounds of the swirling blades of the dust-off choppers rushing the wounded to hospitals and the dead to Valhalla.

To say the survivors of the armored ambush were in a bad mood the next day would be an understatement. Some genius decided to form them up in a straight line and have us grunts — also in a straight line and about 200 yards away — sweep toward them. Of course, the idiotic NVA would be caught between the hammer and the anvil and annihilated.

A Marine company strong minus a third of our supposed strength lined up in the abandoned rice fields and moved forward into the brackish water that came up to our knees. Our boots sank into the black, foul-smelling mud. It reeked of decay — of eternal hopelessness. As usual, the NVA refused our playbook. They did, however, station snipers between us and the tanks and APCs aiming their fire at the beastly vehicles. They knew the survivors of the previous night’s ambush would be in a vengeful mood.

As soon as they received a few sniper rounds, the tanks and APCs opened up with machine guns. Their returning fire began to find a home in the rice paddies that we were trudging through. Then came the chilling words from down the line: “Corpsman Up!” Every third Marine would echo those dreaded words. It was my turn, and I barked them out. Five seconds later, the second part of the message came down the line: “Snake Bite!” I looked down into what I could not see.

In Vietnam, death had a thousand ways of finding its victim. Sometimes you could not hear him. Sometimes you could not see him. I pulled my booted foot out of the sucking mud only to splash it down into the unknown — into what I could not see, into what I could not understand. The journey continued. Hammer. Anvil. Online assault. Puff the Magic Dragon. APCs. The insane language of death.

Snakes. I really do hate them. Then. Now.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

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