Escalation 15

Approaching a hard-core Vietcong village could be explosive, how¬ever, as two marine companies discovered in early 1967 at Thuybo, a complex of hamlets straddling an intersection of rivers about a dozen miles south of Danang. Captain E. J. Banks, commanding the sweep, had expected only a minor engagement, even though the sector had been designated as “unfriendly.” But, on that hot and humid morning, the enemy fire intensified as his men advanced slowly across rice fields toward the tree line shrouding the village. By dark, they had suffered heavy casualties, and only one helicopter managed to get through to evacuate the wounded. What began as a small-scale operation would degenerate into three murderous days of fighting, as so many oper¬ations in Vietnam did. A marine private, Jack Hill, later recollected his own experience during the encounter: “They started with snipers, and then their thirty calibers opened up, sounding like ten or fifteen jackhammers going off at the same time. Our guys were falling every¬where. We spread out and dug in, waiting for the word to go forward. But we couldn’t move. We were pinned down, all day and all night. It was raining something pitiful, and we couldn’t see nothing. So we just lay there, waiting and waiting and hearing our partners dying, big guys dying and crying for their mothers, asking to be shot because they couldn’t take it no more.”
Hill’s squad finally entered the village at dawn. The enemy had evaporated, leaving not even a cartridge shell. The peasants, mostly old men and women, were running around in panic, screaming .and denying any connection with the Vietcong. Disregarding them, the marines combed the place, burning huts and blowing up underground shelters: “Our emotions were very low because we’d lost a lot of friends. The death rate was ridiculous for such an operation. So when we went through those hutches, we gave it to them, and whoever was in a hole was going to get it. And whatever was moving was going to move no more—especially after three days of blood and guts in the mud.”
Interviewed in Thuybo after the war, a local Communist cadre depicted the episode as a holocaust, claiming that the marines had deliberately slaughtered one hundred and forty-five civilians, includ-ing women and children. Captain Banks rejected the charge, con¬tending that not more than fifteen peasants had been killed—“as if it had been a robbery and gunfight on a city street and several bystanders were hit.” The truth will never be known. The only reality about death in Vietnam was its regularity, not its cause.
Another reality that frustrated U.S. troops in Vietnam was the enemy’s ability to return to villages that had supposedly been cleaned out. They could never “liberate” territory but found themselves going back again and again to fight the same battles in the same areas with the same unsatisfactory results. Their repeated offensives during 1967 in Binh Dinh province, a Communist stronghold since the French war, illustrated the problem. They conducted at least four massive drives into the region—operations with names like Masher, White Wing and Pershing—and inflicted nearly eleven thousand casualties on the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. But apart from its principal towns, the province remained in Communist hands.
For most GIs in combat zones, patrols with no fancy operational names were a daily ordeal. Ehrhart recalled the normal experience of his marine unit as it plodded across rice fields and through jungles in the region near Danang: “You carried fifty to seventy pounds of equipment, and it was tough going, particularly in forested areas. Often you’d have to pull yourself along from one tree branch to the next, or we’d have to help each other by gripping hands. And you couldn’t see anything, so you didn’t know what was there around you. Of course, squads were sent out to flank the main column, but they would disappear from sight. Nobody wanted an assignment to the flanking squads because it was pretty hairy.”
The heat and rain and insects were almost worse than the enemy. Drenched in sweat, the men waded through flooded paddies and plan¬tations, stopping from time to time to pick leeches out of their boots. They might reach for a cigarette only to find the pack soaked. And at the end of the day, as Ehrhart remembered, they had nothing to look forward to except the next day.
You dug a hole right beside where you were going to sleep and put up a one-man poncho tent. Unless something happened, you’d wake up in the morning with your mouth tasting rotten and your clothes still wet. You’d eat, maybe for a half hour or forty-five minutes, and then you’d be off again, not thinking very much. In retrospect, it amazes me how ordinary that kind of life became. You’re sitting there at six o’clock in the morning, a cigarette hanging out of your mouth, pulling on your boots and you’re in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly you realize, I’m not supposed to live this way, but then you’re surprised that it seems so natural.
American combat units often patrolled for months without drawing even stray Vietcong sniper fire, and as Mark Smith recalled thinking at the time, “It was better to get into a fight than just walk around sweating.” To him, indeed, battle was exhilarating.
When you made contact with the enemy, you went from the most horrible boredom to the most intense excitement I’ve ever known in my life. You couldn’t remain detached. Someone was trying to kill you and you were trying to kill someone, and it was like every thrill hitting you all at once. If I felt safe in a fight, below the line of fire, I almost didn’t want it to end. But even in a severe fight, when I didn’t feel safe, there was a distinct beauty to it—a sense of exultation, the bullets cracking around your head and the tracers flying so close that they would blind you for a moment.

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