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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 1:25 am | Fair 50º


Ken Williams: The Last Day of Combat

Finding courage in the heat of battle to help ourselves and others

It was hot, like the inside of a frying pan. The sun blasted heat down on us, putting me in a meaner mood. I was also tired, hungry and thirsty and no longer wanted to be here — none of us did. The temperature had to be hotter than 100 degrees with boiler-room humidity. Taken all together, the day was pushing my sanity to the breaking point.

Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson.
Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

I stood with a group of Marines who also were dirty and painted in gray dust. All of us — black, white and brown — wore the same uniform color. We impatiently stood off to one side waiting either for the chopper that would take us away from this nightmare of enemy artillery and mortars, or for the rounds to hit. In that case, all of this craziness would end. Or maybe the men of the 324th North Vietnamese Army Division would finally break through the curtain of rolling fire and steel rain that up to now had protected us.

That’s the problem with war: too many unknowns, too many options for death. I looked over my shoulder and I knew immediately that I had made a big mistake.

The Marine behind me was just as young as I was. Fright scarred his eyes, pushing back the tiredness that framed them. None of the others had taken note of him. Instead, they concentrated with savage animal intensity on the sudden appearance of a chopper that fell like a rock out of the sky in its attempt to dodge enemy fire. It landed about 100 feet in front of us, although it looked like 100 miles.

I turned my head away from the Marine who stood behind me but couldn’t convince myself that I hadn’t seen that he had been shot in the foot. With the compression of time and death lurking about, the Corpsman had simply slapped a field bandage around his boot instead of taking it off. Blood freely leaked out. The image of his face remained, however — one torn with question: Did he have the reserve strength to fight through the fear, pain and whatever blood loss he had endured to make it to the chopper?

The helicopter’s ramp came down hard, and the word we were desperately waiting for was finally given. Break for the freedom bird as fast as you could or risk being left behind. I hesitated for a split second. What should I do? John Wayne would have turned around, wrapped his free arm around the man and carried him to the chopper. But I wasn’t him. I was more tired and thirsty than I had ever been in my life — all 19 years of it. I was also scared. Nor had I ever felt more alone. Also childlike. The last time I was to ever feel that way.

Hurry, a tiny voice said inside of me. Make the break. The voice grew louder. No one would ever know. This was war — life and death for real, and it was every man for himself. Others were rushing past me in hasty flight.

Frozen, the nightmarish din of combat descended upon me, clouding my thinking further. It was a disjointed and jarring devil’s sympathy that shattered sanity. Artillery, machine guns and mortars exploded all around as did the sound of bombs and, still more menacing, rifle fire. Had more than a few of the NVA foot soldiers finally broken through? Were hundreds about to overwhelm us? Besides, who would ever know if I ran to the chopper alone? No one had said to do otherwise. So it caught me by surprise when I heard myself say, “Put your arm on my shoulder.” Simple words I regretted saying immediately when his added weight buckled my legs.

A mental image came to mind of me simply sitting down. Why not? What would happen? Would I die? And if I did, wouldn’t that be preferable to all of this? Instead, on their own, my legs found strength and will power and propelled us forward. Each step I took felt like I was running through fine sand sinking up to my knees. The back of the helicopter had jets and, as we approached, their exhaust blasted us, pushing the temperature up another 20 degrees and making breathing impossible. The swiftly rotating blades were straining wanting to take off, throwing a wall of dirt, pebbles and yet more heat into our faces.

Suddenly, we were alone. All of the others had ran like hell and made the chopper. The thought came to mind again: What if I simply gave up? Another step, then two and my fellow Marine’s weight increased 1,000 pounds. The engines screamed louder in protest. The rear-door gunner waved frantically. What was behind us I’ll never know, but fear and determination creased his face. I knew he wouldn’t leave us, at least that was what my rational mind told me. My irrational fear said something else. Again, self-preservation begged me toward heedless flight.

We were all alone as time froze. We slugged our way forward through the nightmare. Eyes with resignation, others with fear and still others with annoyance were found before us in the belly of the chopper among the Marines who had made it before us. The engines strained, screaming for immediate takeoff. The noise was unbearable. Mere feet separated us now. Somehow strength was found and we leaped forward. We landed on the ramp just as it was lifting up. The chopper lumbered upward, and the door gunner cut loose with his machine gun as I flew past him, the sound exploding in my ears. I landed hard. I didn’t look down, but others told me later that the NVA infantry had broken from the tree line.

I had made it and managed to hold on to my warrior dignity — my human dignity — but a measure of shame will always share that day’s memory. I helped a fellow wounded Marine the best I could, but my mind had told me that I had another option. I could have either sit down and quit the game of war, or thrown off his arm from my shoulder — saving only myself. Both outcomes tugged at me that day and ever since. Later, when I witnessed other acts of courage and cowardice, I came to realize that they are the flip side of the same coin. We all carry the capacity of both within ourselves.

To this day, I hope and pray that when challenged I will always do the right thing, even though I know the opposite is always there as a seductive alternative. Guilt buries you; you lose either way — regardless of whether you survive.


Death claimed its 13th homeless victim in Santa Barbara this calendar year. He was a man in his mid-40s who made his living as a handyman. He lived in his truck among his working tools.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.

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