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Old G.I.s and Sleeping Dragons

By Doug Francescon

Author Biography



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Copyright Doug Francescon 2004


In Honor of:

Waylen Powell

Joe McCurry

Arnold Palmer

And all the guys who left a piece of themselves in Vietnam


Chapter 4


On July 4th a few hours before dawn as I made my way back to the top of Hill 300, the one called Nong Son, two Marines called to me for help. They were standing in the trench line next to the small bunker where mortar rounds were kept. There was a fire in the bunker, and it was partially collapsed.

As I got there I saw a third Marine lying in the bottom of the trench. He was in very bad shape. All of his cloths were shredded, and his left leg was mutilated. Nearly all of the flesh was gone from his thigh to his ankle, but that wasn't his only problem. His back was covered with pieces of white phosphorus. This highly flammable material is used in artillery rounds and bombs to cause fires and terrible wounds. It burns whenever it comes in contact with air, and there's no way to put it out, and no way to remove it.

I got there at the same time as another Marine with a water can. We dropped into the trench together, and began mixing mud, as much as we could, as fast as we could. The other two started packing the guy in layers of the mud that we mixed. The idea was to keep air away form the phosphorus to stop it from burning. The problem with our effort was it only worked as long as the mud stayed wet and flexible. As soon as it dried it cracked, air got in, and the phosphorus began to burn again. So, one of us stayed busy mixing mud, and another patching the cracks. In a short time the mudpack began to work, or the phosphorus burned itself out. Either way, the burning stopped.

Once the phosphorus was under control we had to find a way to get him out of the trench. This was tough because of the mudpack and his mangled leg. We had to keep him in the same position by lifting him straight up and out.

I went to the command bunker and found a blanket. If we could get it under him we could use it as a litter, and lift him correctly. As I dropped back into the trench with the blanket the bunker exploded. The concussion knocked me forward and completely disoriented me.

As I came to my senses I saw the guy that was helping me mix mud hollering and pointing down at the Marine at the bottom of the trench. There was a mortar shell lying in the middle of his back. It had been in the burning bunker, and was still hot enough for the outside paint to smolder. I picked it up with the blanket, and tossed it and the blanket over the side of the hill.

I stopped for a second and thought about what I had just done, then said to myself, "nice going dumb ass, now the blanket is gone". It's amazing what ridiculous things pop into your mind at any given time. I remember looking down at the poor bastard in the bottom of the trench and thinking "man, he's having a bad day.”

As usual, one of the guys covered for me, God bless him. He found a poncho to replace the blanket that I had thrown away. We got it under our buddy and lifted him out of the trench. Then, the bunker exploded again. As it did the anger and frustration in me took over. I laid over the top of our buddy to keep anything else from getting to him. I was furious. I remember thinking "God damn it, can't you leave him alone for just a little while. Hasn't he had enough?”

A few minutes later we got him to the L.Z. (landing zone) and loaded onto a helicopter. I have no idea whether or not he made it. But, if he did, I hope that he found nothing but happiness for the rest of his life because he suffered enough in that one night to last a hundred life times.

There were many forms of suffering. There was the noisy, violent kind that shattered bones and tour flesh; and there was the silent kind that came in the night, in the rain, when we were alone, and could think of nothing but home and the ones we loved. Silent suffering caused us to discipline our minds so that some thoughts were put aside. There were times when memories of home were off limits. There were times when we had to be satisfied with only the present because it was the only thing that was available. The past and future had to be ignored because they don't fit into the world where we found ourselves. They were too beautiful.

This caused us to blot out love, warmth, and the best of our memories because the realization of being without them was just too painful. It was a terrible adjustment that created a cold, hard, impersonal environment, the one where the dragon lived.

As bad as this was, there was a much worse form. It was the one that touched the kids, and there were many who went through hell. Their lives were shattered, and they had no defense.

While in DaNang we were asked to help a woman and her daughter who needed transportation to an aid station so that the little girl could be treated for a head injury. As we helped them into the truck I could only see that the child was in pain and very frightened. Later that day I got the details about her condition. As was the custom, the wound had been covered with human waste (shit), and maggots entered the open sour. However, this didn't prevent the infection from spreading; and the maggots followed the deepening infection. The little girl and her mother were going to the aid station to have the wound cleaned out and properly dressed. I was told that the process was brutal.

There is no way to rationalize a child’s suffering. There is no way to repair the damage that is done when they are exposed to extreme fear, desperation, and pain. They will live with their scars forever.

I doubt that there were any Vietnamese who did not suffer because of the war. It went on year after bloody year. They felt the force of the most powerful nation in the world. In spite of American blunders and lack of resolve our weapons worked as they were designed, and unleashed hell on that tiny nation. American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen fought with savage intensity, killing and wounding Vietnamese by the thousands. The war’s intensity, the length of time it lasted, and the small area in which it was fought brought its effects close to everyone in Vietnam.

In America the war tour our nation apart. For the first time we began to doubt ourselves. It made us realize that we were all too human, and even the mighty United States had its limits.

Young men and women returned home crippled, blind, and in flag draped coffins. Mothers and fathers lost sons and daughters. Those who did return home found that home wasn’t there anymore because they changes so much that they simply didn’t fit their old environment. Wives greeted returning husbands that they hardly recognized. Fathers and sons found it much harder to talk because the war separated their worlds.

All this happened in plains site, in front of the entire world, and few really noticed. Fewer still gave the impact of the conflict the attention and consideration necessary to even begin to understand it.

This is the cause of suffering brought on by war, failure to recognize it for what it really is. Mankind has done this for centuries by glorifying its savage brutality.

There were no bands playing and no flags waving on the battlefields of Vietnam. They were killing grounds where young men and women fought bloody battles while trying to do nothing more than survive.

I heard the term, “acceptable losses” used to refer to the number of killed and wounded that commanders were willing to sacrifice in order to achieve an objective or defend a position. They were admitting that young men would die, and their deaths were a reasonable price to pay. I wondered how many of them understood the true cost of the war. Did they allow themselves to view the sacrifices on a personal level?

What was the right thing to say to a young woman who became a widow in her early twenties? Should we have told her that her husband was doing his duty? What would have eased a mother’s pain as she was handed a neatly folded flag at her son’s funeral, “thank you on behalf of the president and a grateful nation?”

Continued next week


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