Hue Citadel, Republic of Vietnam.
I’m not going to deny it. I absolutely love this shit. Tim Page said it best when he told some REMF reporter asshole back in Saigon, “Some folks had happy childhoods. The rest of us had Vietnam.” Truer words were never spoken. This place is hotter than hell, malaria is everywhere, the bugs are everywhere, and you can’t trust a goddamned soul when it comes to the locals. Our own government is supporting the most corrupt pile of sonsabitches that ever drew breath, but to tell you the truth? Hell, I’d rather be here than covering some jive-ass assignment back in the World.
Where else can you spend weeks at a time on the biggest adrenaline rush ever, hopping a slick out in the boonies for a search-and-destroy with a gang of 173rd Airborne, torch a couple of villes hunting for Charles and then catch an evac back to China Beach for air conditioning, cold beers, hot grilled steaks and hour-long hummers from eager little mama-sans in go-go boots?
Man, sometimes you get all that shit within one 24-hour period!
This is pure rock ‘n’ roll flash here, people. I fucking love the ‘Nam and any hippy-trippy dumbshits back in the States, those idiots I’m seeing more and more on the TV protesting and marching in the streets, definitely do NOT know what they are missing.
You’ll get what I’m talking about, if you live long enough.
My handle’s Greer, Paul Greer.
I’m a freelance stringer for the Associated Press. Yeah, that’s right. I’m not even part of the Great Big Green Machine keeping Southeast Asia free for democracy.
I’m a fucking photojournalist, dude, a genuine war correspondent.
But this is not your father’s Ernie Pyle here in the Emerald Hell we call home. Nah, this is a different game entirely. Not that I’m dissing those guys, mind you. I heard some positively hellacious* stories about some of those dudes. But somehow, I don’t think that bunch would take to the ‘Nam quite the way we have. Honestly, could you see Papa Hemingway doing what I do?
Sure, he was the original party animal, but he wouldn’t last five minutes here. They always wrote from that noble “war is hell” kind of mentality. And what, may I ask is so wrong with Hell? This place has it all, baby.
I came over here in late ’65, just around the time the big American build-up was happening. I started out with all that idealistic, objective journalism crap running through my head. Like a lot of us, we figured that Gulf of Tonkin stuff was bullshit and we were gonna expose the truth, but it didn’t take long for me to get those blinders pulled off.
It’s not about fighting the Communists or any of that other shit over here, kid. That’s just the rah-rah crap that people like LBJ and McNamara like to spout for the networks. Granted, there’s some true believers here and there, but most of us threw that rulebook out within a couple of weeks.
It’s about grooving with the flow here.
We rule the skies and the coastlines; we got the daytime in the palm of our hands. Victor Charles has got the highlands, and the nighttime is his, no questions asked. We play with each other — you push me, I shove you right back. The VC are tenacious little bastards, the best playmates you could ask for. I’ve seen arclight missions fly in, turning the whole jungle into an enormous barbecue pit, but Charles is always back the next night.
I’ve seen that Agent Orange shit, this nasty defoliant crap that turns the foliage into soup, literally rotting off the vine, dropped across hundreds of square miles of jungle, and Victor Charles invites you back for another round.
You can rack up all the body counts you like here. You cannot kill Charles. The fun never ends.
About a year after I came ashore, I fell in with the gonzo crowd at the International down in Saigon: Tim Page, Sean Flynn… Yeah, Mr. Badass Movie Hero Errol Flynn’s kid is running around in the jungles with us, popping pills and snapping pictures. How fucking marvelous is that? I’m running with the big dogs here, baby.
We met up, started swapping stories, the drinks turned to pills, we kept upping the ante. After awhile, it got to be sort of a competition. Who could be the craziest sumbitch out here? Who could stay out in the sticks with the badass swingin’ dicks the longest? And who could capture that elusive masterpiece that sums up on film what each and every one of us has felt here?
Our peers back in nice, safe Saigon, or hell, especially back in the States, they say we aren’t human anymore, that we’re glamorizing murder.
But fuck those people, y’know? They haven’t felt the tug in your gut when a Huey gunship comes swooping out of the clouds, the 60 pounding rounds into some rice paddy below, the sky lit up with tracers as Charles tries scrambling for cover, the rounds making him come apart, unraveling like a ball of yarn.
They haven’t seen the sheer beauty of a napalm strike turning night into day when those great, sleek, beautiful F-4 Phantoms swoop in like goddamned owls over a field mouse. They haven’t heard the boom of the Fast Movers as their rockets tear apart a Mig in mid-air.
Call me a junkie, see if I care. Call me a monster. Hell, I’m not the one pulling the trigger. I’m just along for the ride.
And, baby, it is one hell of a ride indeed.
The ride got really rough in January.
Tet was supposed to be a holiday, a time when all Vietnamese, north and south, put the war on hold and observe a cease-fire. But Victor Charles, devious little bastard that he is, decides to pull a country-wide sneak attack. Man, they hit us from everywhere! They had VC snuck into Saigon itself, and they all struck at once.
Hell, I gotta hand it to them. They even had the balls to hit our embassy and occupied the courtyard for a little while, before we shoved ‘em back, all nice and proper.
I had heard this shit Westmoreland was talking about there being a light at the end of the tunnel, and I’d laughed out loud. Tet certainly put that light out!
What the hell would he want that for anyway?
This is probably the most fun that old bastard had enjoyed in years.
MACVSOG upped the offensive patrols after that, really aggressive shit too. It was a fine time to be in the boonies, lots of action going on, lots of pictures to be taken.
But then things began to go all soft focus, like an old turd in a toilet someone forgot to flush.
I guess you could say the flush landed me here, hunkered down near the Citadel in the ancient city of Hue with a bunch of Marines ready to go all fugazi on me.
Well, I can’t say I blame ‘em.
I mean, I just watched Walter Fucking Cronkite get his throat torn out. Jesus Christ, America’s own grandpa just bought it on camera and I was there! Top that one, Page.
Goddamn, it was a beautiful picture too. One minute, Cronkite is on camera, decked out in a flak jacket and steel pot, talking about how the situation is continuing to deteriorate, and the next, this rotten slope comes stumbling up and takes a big ol’ bite.
Bam! It was out of nowhere!
He just came shambling out of this rubble that was off camera to Cronkite’s left.
Nobody saw a damn thing till it was too late. But I got it, man, my shutter was positively blazing.
I even got the follow-up shot with Cronkite shuckin’ and jivin’ all over the pavement, blood spurting everywhere, and this big ol’ black Marine steps up and plants one between Cronkite’s eyes while his buddy caves in the skull of the slope that bit him.
That’s how the Tet Offensive, and everything else that’s followed, has rolled around here, one big fucked-up party.
And I’ve documented every beautiful minute of it.
TWO MONTHS EARLIER
First Signs in Indian Country
The first time I noticed something odd was when I joined a patrol up in Quang Tri Province. We were doing a sweep in this ville that we knew was harboring the VC, and we came across a tunnel entrance.
No big deal usually, you find that shit all over the place. Lousy country is riddled with miles and miles of tunnels. Charles is part mole, y’know.
Anyway, SOP is to send a couple of tunnel rats down there and flush Charles out, snoop around maybe and see if he left any supplies or intel down there. We drop a couple of Willy Pete’s down the tunnel entrance, get rid of the traps he likes to set for us, and go on a little gopher hunt.
It’s shitty work, I’ll tell you that for free. I went down in one of the tunnels once. Never again, that’s all I’m saying. Look, I know I’m crazy. But those tunnel rat dudes? Now, that’s crazy.
Thing is, we never actually got the chance to go down into this tunnel and, in hindsight, that was probably a good thing. Charles likes to lay all sorts of little goodie-bags out for us to collect. They dig pits with punjee spikes in ‘em, usually pissed on or coated with shit, so the wounds get nice and infected when some GI makes the mistake of stepping into one.
Well, he must have been getting sloppy that day because we heard this moaning coming from a couple of yards back on our six. The LT* sends a few guys back to check on it and they find a VC spiked all to hell down in the tiger pit.
Let me tell you, this one had been down there awhile too.
He was getting pretty ripe and he had flies crawling all over him. Man, it looked like one of those weird-ass beards of bees you’ll see at some carnival. They were coating him like a carpet, and Charles down there in the pit didn’t seem to even notice it.
He also didn’t seem to mind the spike sticking right out of his chest, exactly where his heart should be. He looked like an insect impaled in somebody’s bug collection, all dolled up and ready for the school science fair. I snapped a couple of good shots of him.
The LT was an FNG, a fuckin’ new guy. He promptly vomited, the barf landing smack dab on Charles’ face.
Us old-timers thought that was the funniest damn thing we’d ever seen, but the LT wasn’t laughing. He stammered out an order for the engineers to load up some explosive charges and collapse the tunnel, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the slope impaled down in the pit.
I kinda understood why he was freaked out. This VC should have been dead. He looked dead, smelled dead, had enough holes in him to make him look like a pincushion. But there he was, writhing around on the spikes, his one good arm reaching up to us.
I think we were all starting to get a little green around the gills. I mean, dead is one thing. But ‘d-e-a-d’, complete with drippy red letters and a Vincent Price voice-over? That shit took us by surprise.
“Fuck this,” one of the Marines said.
He pulled out a white phosphorus grenade, one of those we’d intended for the tunnel, and dropped it down into the tiger pit.
Charles went up pretty fast and we didi-maoed the hell out of there lickety split. We continued on with a sweep of the ville, but found the whole damn place empty except for two people: a little girl and one gook I’m guessing was her father. He was acting all fucked up and delirious. It was spooky. I mean, aside from those two nobody was there, not Charles, no kids, no wrinkly old mama-sans …nothing. I don’t know exactly why he did it, but I think the LT was more spooked than he let on.
He got on the horn and called in an airstrike on the ville.
No sooner had our evac swooped in and picked us up than a couple of A-10’s breezed in and the whole place went up in flames. Most of the guys didn’t have shit to say about that. They shrugged and figured it was one less ville to have to worry about, and you bet they were damn glad there weren’t more than two civvies there to evacuate, either. That’s always a pain in the ass to do.
We were up in the air, riding high over the big green canopy, watching the whole ville light up like the 4th of July. One of the guys started passing around a big ol’ joint and I got some nice snapshots for the guys to send home.
The LT got our Kit Carson scout to start talking to the kid. Those guys get a bad rap from the dinks back in Saigon ‘cause they were former VC before switching sides, but they know their shit and they’re good to have in a fight.
This dude, Tranh, had been with this company of Marines for probably two months now and they trusted him. I caught part of what they were saying, but not all of it.
The dad gook wasn’t saying much of anything. He looked terrible, skin all going gray, eyes glazing over. He acted like he felt cold too, which was the really weird part. He had bandages all over the side of his face and on his forearms. We didn’t bother with the kid, but LT had that gook bound before we even took him out of the ville.
Tranh and the kid were chattering back and forth in the chopper like a couple of magpies. The VC had been in the village, but there was something wrong with them. A couple of them started freaking out in the middle of the night and attacking everybody they could lay their hands on, not with guns, either. They were trying to bite people. Can you believe that shit?
The other VC started shooting everybody who’d been attacked and burned the bodies. The rest of the villagers fled with Charles in hot pursuit, but the little girl and her dad stayed hidden till we found them.
The kid was getting more and more agitated, screaming and yelling at Tranh and pointing at her father. The more he listened to her, the wider Tranh’s eyes got. After a couple of minutes, he looked over at the LT and whispered something in his ear. LT just nodded and Tranh grabbed the delirious gook and just shoved him out the side of the Huey like he was setting bottles out on the curb for the milkman to pick up, real fucking casual-like.
Thing was, the kid didn’t freak out at this. Hell, she looked relieved.
It got weirder when I went back to Saigon to turn in my film for processing and transport out to the States about a week later.
It had been awhile since I’d gotten my knob polished and I decided to take a little detour down to the red light district near Soul Alley.
Now, normally, Soul Alley is not a place you want to go if you’ve got a lot of white in your water, if ya know what I mean. A bunch of the Brothers have set up shop in that neighborhood, shacking up with little mama-sans and basically minding their own business. The MP’s don’t go in there unless they’re black, too, and even they don’t go in there unless they absolutely have to. Black or not, MP’s are almost universally despised by anybody in uniform.
Anyway, I was walking past this side-street and I see this black GI pulling on some sweet young thing, trying to lead her into an apartment. He’s got a bandage wrapped around his hand and he’s sweating a lot. I mean, everybody sweats in ‘Nam, but this guy looked like he’d just climbed out of the pool.
His chick is moaning, swaying around, staggering like she’s drunk, which I just assumed she was. Another black dude comes out of the apartment and grabs her, hoists her up over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry and starts trucking on back inside. The guy with the bandage kept saying, “Be careful! Don’t hurt her! Watch her teeth, man! Watch her goddamned teeth!”
I shrugged and filed it away. Besides, I was out of film.
Let me tell you something about Saigon.
Like a lot of things about this country, it’s a study in contrasts. The war is sometimes less than twenty miles away, and Tet made it land right in our own backyard. You can hear the shelling, see the fires from napalm strikes over the horizon all the time.
Dudes are out there humping it in the bush, sleeping in holes, eating cold C-rats and picking off leeches on a daily basis. But one helicopter ride later, you’ve got all the comforts of home right here in your lap.
As soon as the sun goes down, this place is lit up like the strip in Las Vegas. There’s golf courses, a horse track, high-end shopping malls, and over 400 bars. But best of all are the women.
Back in the early days, some of these girls went under the knife to look more white, had their eyes worked on, big silicone boobs, all that shit. But that kinda B-Girl doesn’t suit the tastes of your regular man in uniform in the ‘Nam. No, we like ‘em all natural and, truth to tell, I don’t even find white women attractive anymore.
Now, the U.S. Army understands that there are itches that need to be scratched, appetites that need to be sated in their personnel. But the Army also doesn’t need a whole shitload of guys always out on sick call due to the clap, which quite frankly, runs rampant in this country. It was a problem, lots of guys getting the drippy dick from prostitutes. So the Army gets this bright idea to regulate the hookers.
Fucking brilliant move! I mean it, my hat is off to the first bright tactic the Green Machine has made here. They send Army doctors and nurses in to check out all the girls, give them doses of penicillin and regular checkups, set up the whorehouse in a district handy to the military police, and bam! You’ve got yourself a thriving cottage industry that keeps the boys happy and drip-free.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily keep out the drugs.
After I dropped my film off at the AP offices, I slid on over to one of the bars I like to frequent, a place ironically called ‘Wonderful’. Normally, this joint is hopping. But when I arrived, there were MP’s crawling all over it. They had the place cordoned off and there was a line of pissed-off G.I.’s and Marines, plus some Aussies and ROK’s who had been looking to get their wicks dipped. There was also an ambulance parked out front. I slapped a fresh roll of film into my Nikon and started clicking away.
I saw this one Airman with a beer in his hand who didn’t look quite right. He wasn’t pissed off like the rest of them; he was more shaken, upset even. “Hey, bro. What’s the story here, huh?” I snapped his picture.
“Who the fuck are you?” he shot back at me.
I whipped out my AP identification, and he shrugged. “Whatever…man, this is fucked up. You wouldn’t believe the shit I just saw in there.”
He then went on to tell me how he and his buddy Joey had come into the bar for a little R&R after getting off duty at Ton Son Nhut Airbase. Joey hooked up with a cute little number and they disappeared into one of the private rooms over the bar.
About thirty minutes pass with the party rolling along just fine when this yelling and screaming starts. A bunch of the working girls start spilling over the stairs, some of ‘em still butt-naked, bolting for the exits. Behind them comes Joey, holding a bloody hand to his throat. Somebody had hurt him bad.
Right behind him comes the girl he’d hooked up with. She’s got blood all over her mouth and there’s rubber tubing tied around her left arm with a syringe still sticking out of it.
She staggers over to Joey and takes a big ol’ bite out of his shoulder.
Well, suffice it to say, the party was now over with for the night at Wonderful.
The Airman downed the rest of his beer in one fast gulp.
“A couple of us ran up and pulled her off Joey. She kept trying to bite us the whole fucking time. We got her pinned down while someone got the MP’s. Joey fucking bled out right there on the floor of the bar before we could do anything. Jesus Christ…”
He started fighting back the tears at that point and I left him. By the time I got up to the front of the crowd, the medics were wheeling out the hooker. She was in restraints, but still whipping around, mouth snapping at everybody. I just barely overheard the attendants as I shot pictures. “I’m telling you, there is no fucking pulse on this bitch…”
“Check again, moron. She’s moving, ain’t she? Just another fucking OD who is still riding high on the horse…”
They loaded her up in the ambulance and right behind her comes another gurney, this one with a sheet pulled over the body, all nice and civilized. I took another shot, but then I noticed something that really made me look twice.
As the attendants loaded the second gurney, I could have sworn I saw the dead Airman under the sheet start to twitch.
Well, this shit sent me looking for the nearest bar that didn’t have prostitutes overdosing and trying to eat their johns, and I certainly found one. The four alarm hangover I had blazing the next day was bad, but duty calls.
I headed to the Press offices over at the International and started listening in on the local radio chatter. Something truly strange was going down all across the air waves. Patrols out in Indian Country were reporting lots of activity by hostiles during the daytime, which was unusual. Lots of medevac calls were being made, dust-offs were in the air all day long picking up patrols with casualties. Thing was, a lot of those casualties were from close-quarter combat, not booby-traps or ambushes. Charles was coming in all nice and close, sometimes not even bothering with weapons.
They were like those crazy VC in that village, chomping on people!
It made me think of that hooker the night before and I started getting this uneasy little itch on the back of my neck.
As the day progressed, things got weirder. Wounded brought in on the medevacs were showing bizarre symptoms. They sweated buckets, which reminded me of the dude back in Soul Alley. They started getting the shakes and got cold, with delirium not far behind. Their skin turned gray. By 1500 hours, the first fatality was reported.
The doctors couldn’t understand it. The dude died from a fucking bite, for God’s sake, and not even a bad one! About 20 minutes later, the dead Marine sat up on the slab in graves registration and he attacked the morgue attendant. Not long after that, another dead guy got up and did the same thing.
Tick, tick, tick … just like a row of dominoes. We started getting reports in from all over the fucking place, and I’m not talking just the ‘Nam here, son. This shit was happening everywhere.
West Germany reported NATO troops combating rabid rioters in Bremen. Radio reports jabbered about rioting and cannibalism going on in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of all fucking places!
Hanoi, Beijing and Moscow didn’t say shit, not surprising. But anybody with half a brain could figure out that if WE were seeing this shit going on, they had to, too.
I didn’t know what to think, but I definitely saw opportunity. If shit is going down, it needs to be chronicled for posterity. That, and it looked like the ride was about to take a hell of a detour.
That itch was starting to turn to one of excitement.
Now, the military is known for some seriously stupid decision-making, especially with the idiots that are running the show. But I got to give credit where it’s due. One of the noncoms who’d been out in the bush cued to the fact that you could shoot the crazy VC full of holes and somehow it did no damn good. But, those same VC went down and stayed down after you shot them in the head.
Word got around real quick. The grunts spread the word to the MP’s who were now patrolling the streets in full force. Us shutterbugs were out in force too, and I got some great shots that first night.
The higher-ups, Westmoreland in particular, weren’t saying anything official. It was all about containment, but nobody could say exactly what that meant.
Orders came down to shoot people who were :exhibiting aberrant behavior,” What the fuck was that? Hell, 9/10ths of us exhibited aberrant behavior most of the time we were in-country! Command was paralyzed, and it was up to the individual companies on the ground to seize the initiative, and by damn they
The guys on the ground who’d been there first figured out the score pretty quickly. They’d seen it out in the jungle and recognized it for what it was. The dead were getting the fuck back up and attacking the living. It didn’t matter if you’d been part of the Green Machine or Uncle Ho’s pajama party. Once the bite had been put on you, the game was over. It was an ‘us or them’ proposition. I was shocked to shit that anybody in uniform could get that smart that quick, but they did it.
The first major alert in Saigon came about when 15 dead guys got up off their slabs and started to file out of the central graves registration meat locker, causing all kinds of ruckus. I was tagging along with a group from the 716th Military Police Battalion, which were the first to arrive on the scene.
Normally, these dudes escorted VIP’s, conducted traffic and ran static guard posts. But during the opening hours of Tet, they were the dudes who took on the VC sappers who breached the embassy walls with satchel charges. They’d lost their cherry in a big way, and they’d gotten used to working with regular combat units, having been reinforced by infantry companies and ARVN Rangers that’d been pulled from the jungles to re-establish order in Saigon.
They were still on a paranoia high, which was actually a good thing. When they got to the hospital, they cordoned off the whole building and started shooting anybody and anything that was gray and staggering. After they put down the initial surge, they did a sweep of the interior, where they found more dead guys — all of them munching down on wounded in the burn wards.
We discovered some things while doing this sweep. When the dead guys were eating, they were oblivious to anything else around them. You could walk right up to one and pop ‘im in the head, no problem.
Now, if they weren’t eating, then they were all about putting the bite on somebody. But we began to recognize the advantages we had there, too.
They were slower than shit and whenever they laid eyes on somebody breathing, the let out this spooky moan. It was easy to track and easy to see.
It took about an hour before the hospital was secured, but then we had another problem to deal with. At least 30 wounded grunts had been bitten.
They were still alive and bitching to beat the band, but a lot of them were already starting to change. A couple of guys manned up and shot themselves before they could turn. I saw three guys who’d been out in the bush and been part of that first encounter do that.
A lot of the others didn’t know what the fuck was going on and they were freaking out. So were the soldiers trying to help them, and it was a real situation. Nobody wanted to do in somebody who was still breathing!
Charles is one thing, we’re here to fucking kill him. But these poor bastards were our own! Nobody knew what the hell to do at this point.
Well, one guy did.
About this time, the 716th got some reinforcements from a company of dudes from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Regiment, 23rd Infantry Division. They’d been getting ready to deploy to Quang Ngai Province to put down a recent surge of NLF activity when all this shit started to go down.
The LT from Charlie Company was a guy named Calley. He was highest ranking
boot on the ground, and took over general command of the hospital containment. “Make ‘em comfortable,” he said. “Shit, dope ‘em up on morphine. They don’t need to see this coming.”
So the attendants and medics got busy shooting them up, and it didn’t take too long before most of them were off to la-la land, totally out of it.
The LT ordered the room cleared except for a couple of hand-picked personnel, and then Calley walked from bed to bed and shot every goddamned one of them in the head before they could turn.
Now, I’d been kicked out of the room just like everybody else. But as I got ushered out, I snapped off one last shot as I saw Calley pull his sidearm and walk to the nearest bed. A couple of seconds later, the shooting started.
That picture was one of my masterpieces, but the motherfucker never saw print. I figured out the whole extent of what containment meant not long after that. The military censors weren’t about to let any of that shit go public and those bastards either exposed my film as soon as I turned it in for processing, or they stamped it classified and tossed it in a locked filing cabinet.
Word got around about what Calley did, though. Folks started calling it the ‘Hospital Massacre’, and it probably would have destroyed the man’s career if not for all the shit going down with the dead guys walking around. Hell, I heard he got a commendation “for personal initiative in time of crisis.”
Fortunes of fucking war, huh?
Ain’t No Way To Plug This Bucket
Anyway, order got more or less re-established in Saigon not long after that. Within a week, SOP was to dope up any personnel that had been bitten and shoot them in the head. Same thing went with civilians, though they didn’t usually bother with the morphine in their case. Even the nurses back at the field hospitals had standing orders to euthanize anybody who’d been bitten, and that was a tough fucking order for most of those ladies to swallow.
Now I’ve been called a sexist pig in my time, but I’m not denying that the majority of them stepped right up to the plate. A couple of them were really hard-core, too — Angels of Death they called them.
Ground patrols in the highlands became suspended with the exception of Special Forces units, and the Air Force began a round-the-clock bombing campaign of all the countryside around major cities and the coastline. Our part of the country was now in quarantine.
Who knew what the fuck Ho Chi Minh was up to? Hanoi was still silent. A couple of F-4 sorties flew aerial recons over North Vietnam and snapped some shots of Hanoi, but they didn’t say much. You couldn’t tell a walking live body from a dead one at that altitude. They did note that anti-aircraft fire was remarkably light, which I guess told us something.
In our areas, I flew along as an observer on some of those arclight missions and it was a literal hell on earth. If you thought the napalm strikes had been huge before, they’d been seriously upgraded.
It was scorched earth, baby.
Nothing was left standing, no trees, no villes, whole patches of jungle for literally miles around looked like some No Man’s Land out of World War I. If anybody came shambling out of that, you’d see ‘em coming. I guess that was the idea, creating a buffer zone to keep the dead guys out while we concentrated our forces on cleaning up the interior we already occupied.
I think a lot of the higher-ups were kind of glad about this change of events. At least now you knew who your enemy was. He couldn’t just blend into the crowd anymore; you knew who the fuck you were fighting and he was easy to spot. You could tell the difference between the live monsters and the dead ones.
Funny thing was, we were doing pretty damn good at keeping this thing under wraps in the ‘Nam. Back in the World, we were hearing all kinds of horror stories. Some parts of America had gone dark after only a month, overrun with the dead. I guess that sort of shit happens when you concentrate most of your forces somewhere else, though.
You don’t have anything left to defend your own backyard.
Anyway, it was a waiting game after that. The first couple of weeks turned into routine, with gunships flying over the no-man’s-land, spotting dead guys and bumping them off. If they were in small groups, a patrol would land and pick them off one by one. That was the thing, you absolutely HAD to land if you wanted to deal with them.
Firing at ‘em from the air didn’t do any good. You could punch serious holes into the dead guys with a mounted 60, but it wasn’t precise enough to get ‘em in the head every time. If there was a large group (we took to calling those clusters cattle drives), an airstrike got called in and turned ‘em into crispy critters.
South Vietnam became surprisingly secured, with lots of VC either falling back into the hills and hiding out in their tunnels or taking advantage of the Chieu Hoi surrender program and turning themselves in to escape the dead. ARVN and the Kit Carsons got lots of new recruits; their ranks got fat.
Unfortunately for a lot of those poor bastards that turned themselves in, there were reprisal killings. The Thieu government killed a whole shitload of surrendering VC before MACV stepped in and told them to cut that shit out, that they were only making the situation worse.
The big fear was from the west and the north.
The borders for Laos and Cambodia had never been secured and were major re-supply pipelines for Charles along the Ho Chi Minh trail. As far as we knew, there were walking dead guys across the borders too, and there wasn’t a helluva lot keeping them from walking on in to Vietnam. Like I said, it was a waiting game.
Around the middle of April, the wait was finally over.
At first, the dead came trickling in across the McNamara Line along the DMZ. We had plenty of warning they were coming. The first ones to set off the claymores and anti-personnel mines alerted the forward observers at bases like Dong Ha and Khe Sahn, who called in the hueys to land squads on the ground to deal with them.
Business as usual, right? Problem was, more and more were showing up every day. These dead guys weren’t just your garden-variety peasants, either. These dudes were wearing NVA uniforms, and some of them had explosives strapped to them. It was fucking surreal.
I was up at Khe Sahn when this shit first went down and about 50 dead dudes came shambling out of the bush towards the perimeter around the base, about half of them with C4 strapped across their bodies.
And here’s the fucked-up thing — there’s a live dink up in front, leading them like the Pied fucking Piper towards our lines. He’s decked out in a North Vietnamese uniform, blowing on a goddamned horn and making sure the dead guys are following him. There were way too many of them to safely deal with hand to hand, so the OP calls in an arclight to take ‘em out.
Problem was, the F-4’s are still ten minutes away and there ain’t a lot of room between the wire and the dead guys.
Okay, Marines can adapt, so they start opening up with mortar rounds and short bursts from the heavy machine guns, whittling their numbers down. That works for a minute. The live dude in front gets taken out real quick, but that had to have been part of the plan. He was just there to get them close to our lines. It was a suicide run and he knew it.
Once the dead got sight of us, they kicked it into high gear (well as high gear as any of those rotting fucks can walk), and kept coming. Of course, they got caught on the wire and hung there like Christmas ornaments, but I guess that was part of the plan too. As soon as the first couple of them got stuck, the C4 went off, blowing a big fucking hole in the wire and making a path for the dead guys to waltz right in.
Where the dink sonofabitch who set off that charge was hiding, nobody knew. But like I said, Charles is sneaky, and his cousins to the North are almost as good. The little bastards figured out a way to make the dead work for them. All the noise and gunfire was like a dinner bell.
Within minutes, more and more of them came pouring out of the jungles to the north of Khe Sahn, shambling and stumbling towards the firebase. More holes got blown in the wire, allowing more of them to come through. The forward OP got overrun damn quick and pretty soon, there were about 100 dead dudes within the perimeter, including the grunts who’d been manning the OP.
But the Marines kept their cool, blowing away the stench-ridden motherfuckers with style, one by one, never letting any of them get too close.
Within a few minutes, it was over.
The fast-movers finally showed up and laid down a line of napalm all across the DMZ, lit the fucking place up like hell‘s own bonfire. We didn’t see any dead guys come stumbling through after that. After they left, a couple of huey gunships dusted off and went in to investigate. Teams dropped off on the ground figured out what had gone down pretty quickly.
They found empty trucks back along the trails on the North side of the border, crates full of explosives, and dead guys tied to posts like they were on an assembly line, all still kicking and moaning.
It was fucked up, man. Teams of NVA sappers had allowed themselves to be bit, becoming walking bombs and leading whole squads of dead guys towards our lines. Jesus Christ, that was some hard-core shit.
Even with a plague of the fucking walking dead trying to devour every single one of us, North Vietnam continues its ‘great struggle’. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that one. What the fuck kind of enemy were we fighting here? A determined one? A fanatical one? He was sure as shit a crazy one, a lot crazier than me. I couldn’t wrap my head around that shit.
It only got worse after that.
The NVA proved this tactic worked, so they kept using it. At every firebase along the DMZ, you started seeing it happen. Teams of VC and NVA would surge toward our lines in suicide charges, acting as live bait, with dozens of dead guys right behind them, jonesing for a hot, live meal. They’d get to our wire, blow themselves up and leave the gates open for Dead Charles to come on in.
Khe Sahn got hit time and time again. They started flying in supplies on a daily basis, keeping the Marines in ammunition and mortars. I don’t even want to think about how much napalm got dropped along the DMZ.
But still, Dead Charles kept coming. That name stuck by the way; funniest fucking joke of the spring.
Now granted, they never actually took over any of our bases, well, not at that point. We always stopped them, but it freaked the hell out of our guys. Plus, it left gaps in the wire that took time to fix.
Little by little, our defensive lines were being hacked at. Any fool could figure that out. Once enough holes got gouged, it wouldn’t make any difference.
But Victor Charles, dead or alive, is unpredictable. Turns out, the attacks from the North were the least of our worries. They were a diversion.
After a couple of weeks of this, reports came screaming over the wire about mass waves of alive and kicking VC and NVA along with legions of DC pouring in from the west. Those fears about the Ho Chi Minh trail being used as a pipeline for further invasion proved accurate. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese came in the vanguard of the attacks, with their dead buddies shuffling in behind them.
The dinks weren’t stupid; they certainly knew that the only reason the dead dudes were following them was because they were looking at a mobile menu, but it didn’t seem to matter. All they saw was that their ranks had swelled. With this army of warriors who didn’t feel pain and couldn’t be reasoned with, panic and fear would tear the South apart.
As terror tactics go, it was pretty smart. Thing was, every time Charles had to stop and rest, the dead always caught up with him. Their lead time was shrinking with every day, and inevitably the dead were going to catch up, especially if our guys held the line and kept them pinned down.
This is exactly what happened, too. We stopped North Vietnamese advances cold at Pleiku, Dak To and Phuoc Binh, pinning them down and forcing them to hold tight, which left them completely fucked. The dead rolled right over them, hitting that buffet table for all they were worth. We opened up on them too, but it didn’t stop them all. They hit our lines as well, and when our guys ran out of ammo, they started overrunning some positions. We could hear the screams and cries for help over the radio as the dead came into their command posts. A lot of times, help simply couldn’t arrive soon enough to get every man out. It was all starting to come apart in pretty short order.
Dead Charles now had Dead GI and Dead Marine to keep him company, and they were just as hungry.
Problem was, there were too many firefights going on at the same time and not enough ordnance to hit every place that needed hitting without taking out our own guys too. Vietnam ain’t a big country, only a little over 100 miles at its widest, but it’s a long country, and with dead guys shambling in from every corner, it proved too much ground to cover.
The situation in the South was far, far worse than expected.
The amount of dead attacking far exceeded Command’s estimates. It looked like the populations of all of Thailand and Laos were infected and walking across the border looking for a meal. They’d already reached the outskirts of Saigon
> itself and the whole fucking city was bugging out.
In Khe Sahn, we watched some of the “Great Saigon Bug-Out of ‘68” from the Marine CO’s command post on a dinky. little battery-operated Magnavox with bent coat-hanger rabbit ears on top. Screaming dinks of all shapes and sizes ran through the city, piling one on top of the next in a mad scramble to get aboard a chopper and didi mao the fuck out of Dodge. There were long lines of them kicking and scratching at each other, going up the stairs to the chopper pad on top of the U.S. Embassy roof. The dust-offs got so loaded down that a door gunner finally unloaded into the crowd with his .60 and sent the whole lot packing. It got to a point, we couldn’t tell who the bigger threat was, the dead guys or the nervous nellies having a full-blown meltdown in the streets.
Westmoreland hustled to move his command to the safety of the USS Intrepid, just off-shore near Phan Thiet on the southeast coast, and MAVC ordered another “Rolling Thunder” style bombing mission, intent on leveling the country from the coastline westward. We were going to flatten the whole goddamned place, making it into a pancake.
Word came through to evacuate Khe Sanh and all the other western bases, and fall back towards the coastline. I got some great shots of the dead plowing through the gaps in the wire just as the last Chinooks, hueys and C-130s got us the hell out of there.
The Hue of my dreams.
Rumor had it the situation at Hue had been contained, and we were all looking for an opportunity for some R&R while the Air Force blasted the shit out of everything to the west.
We were to sit tight and wait it out. I even had a day or two to fuck around, shooting candid pics of grunts just goofing off. One dude put on an apron and a string of pearls he found in one of the whorehouses, grabbed a toilet brush and did this hilarious little riff* cleaning zombie parts off the treads of his tank, like he was some drag queen version of June Cleaver. But the real dog-and-pony show hadn’t even started.
Soon, everybody in Hue was distracted by all the news media from the States showing up to cover the upcoming mass bombing of the countryside. Cronkite was in town, and he was holding court, telling everybody who would listen about how the dead were being handled back in the World.
Apparently, every redneck that could carry a hunting rifle was going hog-wild back home, blowing away dead dudes right and left. It was kinda the exact opposite of here: The cities were being overrun, but rural areas were pretty clear and open.
But while we were listening to news from home and seeing if any of the bars were still open, the walking dead were gaining territory block by block in Hue.
Come to find out, a whole cadre of VC had gone to ground within their network of tunnels in the countryside surrounding Hue when the mop-up for Tet commenced, and somebody in that bunch had gone into hiding infected.
By the time the engineers found the tunnels and rigged their charges to blow the whole complex to kingdom come, everybody down there had turned. They were all dead dinks walking*, and when the tunnels collapsed, it was only a matter of hours before they started clawing their way to the surface, to the sounds of the living above them.
A patrol of Hoc Bao recon guys from 1st ARVN Division were the first to run into this nest. They fought back, but they got devoured anyway. Only their chickenshit officer got away, driving off in a jeep while his men got eaten. It could have been contained even then, but instead of calling it in, he ran off and hid.
I heard that the ARVN Rangers who responded to the scene found him a day later and fed him to a dead dude they kept tied to a leash like a mascot. Just desserts, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Two days into the nationwide bombing campaign, Hue fell apart. The dead had come from every direction, up from the sewers, out of the rubble. It was a free-fire zone throughout the whole city.
Command and Control were pretty much non-existent, with too many units in town and nobody knowing who was supposed to be in charge. It was pure chaos; anybody who could draw a breath had a gun in their hands, hunting Dead Charles even as he was stalking us.
But old Cronkite, he just had to get back on the air.
During Tet, the VC used Hue’s Citadel, built by the French in the 1800s, as their stronghold, and that’s where I and the squad of Marines I fell in with after Cronkite got bit went to ground.
We’d blasted the shit out of it ferreting out VC, but it was still a pretty solid defensive position, especially if the dudes you were fighting weren’t shooting back at you, just trying to eat you.
Half a click up from us to the North was the rail and highway bridge across the Perfume River. A Patton tank and a blockade of heavy weapons laid down a whole shitload of suppression fire on a huge group of dead guys plodding their way across it, but there were now thousands of them, too many to hold off forever.
We had a couple of things going for us. Hedgerows surrounded the Citadel, making approach difficult. Also, the VC had been obliging enough to dig lots of camouflaged defensive positions. There were traps still all over the place, and we used them to our advantage because the engineers had marked them all after the Citadel fell, but hadn’t disarmed all of them yet. Good thing Dead Charles can’t read and we can, huh?
We dug in and kept our ear to the radio, but it was the man standing next to us that gave us the bad news.
“Well, fuck…that’s it. Here they come.” The LT with our little group lowered the field glasses from his eyes and turned away from the bridge.
The grunts on the ground were gone, either totally devoured or getting ready to join Dead Charles in his movable feast. The tankers were buttoned up okay inside their Patton, but they weren’t moving. LT figured they must be outta gas. They continued to fire a couple more rounds into the crowd still surging across the bridge, but it was just a drop in the bucket, and sooner or later, they were gonna run out of sabot rounds.
The only good thing was that the dead knew they were inside the tank, spam in a can . A good-sized group kept pawing and scratching at its armor, unable to get in but stupid enough to keep trying. It wasn’t enough to distract the entire horde, but the more there were trying to get at the tank, the less there were trying to storm the Citadel…and us.
It took the dead about a half-hour to reach the outskirts of the Citadel. Almost everybody with a pulse hoofed it in the opposite direction, but there was really no safe place to run to. The LT had already been on the squad’s PRC-25 and made contact with an armored column of APC’s and tanks about a mile away. They were on their way to pick us up, but there was tons of rubble in the streets and they were grabbing everybody they could who was still alive.
Their ETA ticked past. We knew it was our Alamo and the final firefight had begun.
I shot at the enemy and ally alike with the only weapon I know.
Jesus tap-dancing Christ, this stuff is pure Pulitzer material. I’m gonna be immortal when this stuff sees print.
The hedgerows helped to narrow their advance to certain choke points, but the intense fighting of a few months back have left enough fissures for big groups to approach in as many as a half-dozen places, too many for us to completely cover.
I watched a swarm of slow-walking monsters in black pajamas amble towards the forward positions, their arms wide open like they wanted a hug. A row of claymores went off, shredding their bodies with shrapnel in a deafening roar. But they kept coming on through the smoke, maybe four of them at the most taken out with head shots. The dudes in the forward fighting holes fell back, but two of them were too slow and they were ripped apart in front of my eyes. I caught every second of it on film.
A trio of .60 caliber machine guns opened up next, stitching great holes all across the tide of rotting bodies. Those that weren’t taken out with head shots ended up so full of holes, they couldn’t even walk. And those on the ground crawling towards us got hit again, flopping like fish out of water. A mortar squad kept lobbing rounds into the crowd behind them, anything to stem that flow a little bit.
“Second squad! Reverse fire! They’re coming up from the South!” I heard the LT yell.
All the gunfire was drawing more of them to us, not as many as the mass in front, but enough to warrant attention. I let the boys do their work, staying close enough to catch the action on film. I could see their faces: the tired determination of the true believers to do the work in front of them, the fear bulging in the eyes of the FNG’s who haven’t been exposed to this shit enough to become hardened by it, and the utter delight in the eyes of the crazy ones like me who find their dreams in other men‘s nightmares.
One of my brethren locked eyes with me and laughed as he slipped a fresh clip into his M-16. He handed me a joint, and I lit it, taking a deep drag and passing it back to him as he fired a short three-round burst into the head of a Dead Charles who topped the crest of the Citadel’s gradual slope.
Of course, the mood couldn’t last. The dead are fucking party-poopers, I’ll tell ya that much.
“Fuck it! I’m out!” A tall, blonde Marine built like a linebacker tossed his .60 aside, useful as a coat rack without any more belts to feed it. He grabbed two grenades and tossed them into the coming crowd.
After that, he unfolded his entrenching tool; it’s all he had left to fight with. He smashed three of them in the face, bashing their fucking heads in before a waving cloud of thrashing arms dragged him down. He disappeared into this mass without a trace.
The rest of us kept shooting as we fell back to secondary positions. Thirty seconds later, the mortars fell silent.
But then we heard it, over the persistent moans of the dead.
We heard the roar of engines coming towards us and the chatter of a .50 cal mounted atop a Patton as the first tank cleared the hedgerows.
They plowed right through the phalanx of the dead, chewing them up between their treads, at least ten vehicles strong. Two of the tanks broke off from the column and plowed back and forth through the mass of the dead, grinding them up like they were lawnmowers hitting the backyard on a summer afternoon.
Two armored personnel carriers pulled right up to our position, almost perfectly level with the second tier of the Citadel grounds. We had to jump for it a little, but it was only a foot or two. Between us and the APC were a dozen Dead Charles, their cracked gray arms reaching for us from the ground below. LT screamed to move out and we began to haul ass, sporadic fire hitting the dead from the guys covering the retreat.
I was in the second group to leap across and I almost made it when a pair of hands grabbed hold of my jungle boots and pulled. I didn’t fall off the APC, though. The grunt in front of me grabbed me by the arms, and it turned into a tug of war between dead fucks and live gyrenes.
The live ones finally won and hauled me onto the safety of the APC’s roof, and LT smacked the hatch lid a couple of good, hard hits. “Roll out! We’re all aboard!” The gears lurched and we shot forward, more of the dead pulled under and smashed flat beneath us as we left. The stench was God-awful.
We were a little less than two clicks away from the 1st ARVN Division HQ and the helipad behind it. An endless chain of dust-offs circled, dropping to the ground to load guys up and pop back up in the sky. The choppers were heading due east to the coast and the safety of the South China Sea, where the Navy sat waiting for us.
I guess I should have known there’d be some kind of quarantine procedure before they loaded the choppers. But hell, I wouldn’t have met you if they weren’t taking their sweet time checking out all the folks they just boosted out of the jaws of death. You’ll probably get a medal out of that bit of ordnance in your shoulder, newbie.
Me, I’m another story.
When my ass hit the top of that APC, I could see the tear in my pants leg, but just now in the john I got a better look at it. Motherfucker, it isn’t even a bad bite either, barely breaking the skin. Hell, I didn’t even feel it. The infection might not be in my bloodstream, but you think anybody is gonna take the chance with that? Nah, I know that score already. My chances in that tent when my turn comes amount to sweet fuck-all. Either I’m dead or I’m d-e-a-d. Either way sucks.
Now, hold up, Marine, and let me get a hit off that joint before you pull that .45. You don’t think I told you all this bullshit for no reason, do you?
Take my camera. Get this shit back for me, OK? I mean it, man. Don’t let this film get exposed or taken by those censor assholes. I want you to take this to whatever UP offices there are aboard ship, forward it to either Tim Page or Sean Flynn. They’ll know what to do with it.
Aw, suck it up, newbie. Here, now, get one more shot of me. I want this one to be my author pic when this shit finally goes to press.
Yeah, like that, with the Vietnam I know in the background, choppers in the air, smoke curling up into the skies, soldiers nervous and sweating in the heat. I only wish we could capture the sounds of the small-arms fire or the boom from the B-52 flights dropping an endless rain of bombs on the land of the dead. Fucking typical military logic, we’ll save the country by destroying the living shit out of it.
Take it now, while I‘m laughing. That’s cool, man. I appreciate it.
Aw, shit, man, it’s not like I was going to check out any other way from this place. I just can’t see myself as some cranky burnout, writing my memoirs and having the civvies look at me like I ought to be locked up ‘cause I’m too far gone to fit in with polite society anymore.
I’m in my Valhalla, my own personal Nirvana and it is fucking beautiful, man, my green hothouse Heaven. I am gonna die happy, with the tang of napalm and sweat on my tongue.
I’m gonna close my eyes and take one more hit off this doobie, brother. And I know what’s coming next.
I’m not going to deny it.
I absolutely love this shit.