Monday, May 21 , 2018, 7:12 pm | Fair 65º


Ken Williams: Horrors of Vietnam War Remain Vivid, with One Lasting Lesson

Hot. Alone. Abandoned? Unnerving sensations for a war. Other Marines lay scattered on either side of a trail atop a ridge that twists and turns between bomb craters. They are burrowed into the earth, visible only when they raise their heads, daring hot flying scrapple to shatter skulls and slice and dice brain matter.

The wide ridge trail is bombed, burned and chemically frayed of the jungle forest that runs on both sides. A small knoll rises 50 feet, about 50 yards in front of me. On the other side of the mound, the mountain drops precipitously thousands of feet to the valley floor. This mountaintop, in fact, resembles a saddle.

Hundreds of yards down the trail, the rest of the company secures the landing zone. It is the only way out of this battle via Wagnerian Valhalla Sea Knight choppers. Of course, the North Vietnamese Army knows this. That is why every time a chopper lands, hidden, mobile and highly accurate mortar tubes rain volleys of steel. If they can bring down even one chopper, the landing zone will be out of action. We will be at the mercy of the NVA.

We are at the other end of the saddle. Our job is to block the approach of the heavily armed men of the People’s Army 423B Division. If they can breach the hill before us, they will have a straight shot down the no man’s land that neither side controls between the two connected hilltops. But to do that, they have to get by us.

The fighting starts earlier — it's still dark. Harassing automatic rifle fire and machine gun fire erupts in front of me, slightly left. The Marine artillery that responds falls short, hurtling me into the bottom of a bomb crater. Tree branches, steel darts and hundreds of wood splinters fill the air.

The enemy assault on the rise before me starts soon after sunrise. At first, choppers dive down the mountainside strafing the advancing enemy infantry below. Marine Phantom fighter-bombers drop their deadly bomb loads on the other side. I watch napalm canisters tumble from these jets and land out of sight. Seconds count by until oily black coiling smoke rises over the knoll.

It's midmorning, and things don’t look good. The machine guns from the war birds rain down death. Bombs and napalm now land on top of the knoll. The enemies, dedicated and brave, have swarmed through an ocean of fire and steel curtain of death to reach their destination. The napalm offers hallucinatory light shows. The canisters tumble in midair, then burst alive to deliver withering death in brilliant oranges and radiant reds. Devouring themselves, they give birth to the blackest of blacks — the devil’s foul breath.

A heat wave rushes over me, jumping the temperature 20 degrees. Canteens empty, thirst adds another dimension of torture. Enemy mortars walk down the path toward me, stopping only when Phantom jets scream by again releasing a torrid of napalm, bombs and machine-gun fire.

We inhale the fumes of burning napalm all day. You can smell the gasoline that makes up 38 percent of Napalm B. Twenty-one percent consists of benzene, which allows these tears of Satan to burn for up to 10 minutes. The remainder is polystyrene, used as a stabilizing and thickening agent. It also makes it adhere to human skin, so this molten jell, once lit, cannot easily be brushed off. In the movie Apocalypse Now, Robert Duvall’s role as Lt. Col. Kilgore, states that he "loves the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Hollywood. Makebelieve. Emotions run easy, superficial. Part of me is thankful that a river of napalm stands between a professional army, hell bent on overrunning our meager lines and myself. If they do so, it would prevent our helicopter escape and insure a massacre. But how can I not honor the courage of men who have made it from the valley floor to the ridgeline that now stands contested? How can my humanity not be humbled by their torturous fate?

For hours, I inhale the thick drifting clouds. Maybe it’s the lack of food and water. Fear. Exhaustion. But with each inhalation of the oily substance, I can’t help but question the progress of the human race. What genius sat down and formulated this evil potion?  Did they question the long-term damage of breathing such a toxic brew? Did they imagine the pain of burning jell that cannot be brushed off and burns for 10 minutes? Could they conjure up the reality of a little girl horribly burned by a misplaced napalm strike?

Unlike Lt. Col. Kilgore, for me there was no enjoyment of the smell of napalm that morning. Instead, that battle tore open a moral dilemma that would haunt me ever since. And playing Russian roulette with a witch’s brew of modern chemistry run wild is hard for a boy of 19 to comprehend the long-term health and moral consequences when your only goal is to survive the storm of death swirling all around you.

Vietnam taught me one thing: Death may have been dodged, but he is evermore in the game. His imprint is forever.

Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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