They were taking fire. The chopper pilot fought for control a few feet above the ‘LZ’ or landing zone. Five recruits ‘new meats’ leapt for their lives and taking a lead from their experienced comrades raced, doubled over, towards makeshift bunkers.
Tony Fererase had lived in both excited anticipation and dread of this moment, when he would first see action. He had been in Vietnam two months.
He hit the dusty ground as the first mortar landed, sending chunks of burning metal and ruptured earth scything through the torrid air. To his left Sid, his friend since boot camp and a ‘new meat’ like himself, cried out in pain. The need to help his friend overrode his fear, he ran to him. Blood poured from an ugly would below his jawbone. Tony screamed out for a medic. His cries for help could not be heard above the whirling rotor blades of the choppers sweeping in and racing away again. The down blast from the chopper blades threw tornados of dust at them and almost lifted Tony off his feet, as he knelt beside his wounded friend. He grabbed Sid’s arm, hauled it across his shoulder and yanked him unceremoniously to his feet.
Weighted down by his semi conscious friend, Tony staggered towards the nearest bunker he could make out. Weighted down by his friend, it seemed to Tony that ever step he took towards safety, left them not nearer but further from the bunker. The zing of incoming bullets and blast of mortar shells were answered by a massive, deafening and intensity of return fire from the American defenders. The horrendous noise made it impossible for Tony to hear the last rasping breath leave Sid’s body.
The bunker immediately to the right of the one he was headed for took a direct hit. It erupted; flames, sandbags, fragmented metal and bodies shot skywards. He felt the scorching heat blast and in the same instant was lifted off his feet and hurled through the air.
When he began to slowly regain consciousness, Tony became aware of having had the worst nightmare of his short life. He remembered trying to run from some great unseen danger, but no matter how fast he ran, he remained rooted to a blood soaked spot. He felt rivulets of sweat roll down his brow at the memory. An unseen, formless assailant had been trying to stab at him. The acrid smell of burning filled his nostrils, its effect, like smelling salts, forced him awake.
Tony lay propped between a dirt covered roll of tarpaulin and a leaking oil drum. He tried to move. Pain sliced its way through his body, his head jerked in reaction and he cried out. Medics, where were the medics? They would not leave him, they would reach him soon and in the meantime, he had no choice but to stay easy.
What if the base was overrun? Serge Monk’s vivid tales of the Vietcong’s mutilation of the dead and wounded were a terrifying possibility now. He made an effort to focus and stop his rising panic. His M 16 was of no use to him, he could not move his arms. He looked down his body to see where he had been hit. Bloodied and dirty, his fatigues lay in rags on him. Blood was pooling on the oil smeared earth from a gaping hole above his left hip bone. A thumb and forefinger were missing from his left hand, there was surprisingly little blood. He tried again to move but his body would not respond.
Out by the perimeter a Huey was nose down. The pilot, still in harness, slumped over the controls. There were more pieces missing from the chopper than remained on it. He could not see the co-pilot or the door gunner, he hoped they had both made it out safe. Tony slowly turned his head to the right and the bunker he had been trying to get to, came into view. Flames flicked erratically into the air, unhindered by the corrugated roofing and sandbagged walls which had been obliterated. Sid’s upturned helmet lay beside a blackened and smouldering lump of timber. A dust covered boot was attached to the timber, it was someone’s limb. If anyone was left alive on the base, they were staying concealed. A cloud of black smoke drifted across, obscuring his view and braking his concentration.
Tony let his head slump back, he was beginning to feel very nauseous. Drained and exhausted, he could feel the little remaining energy he had seeping from his battered body. He felt his eyelids dropping. A voice inside his head urged him to drift off, to slide away from the pain.
“Ok son.” A cool damp cloth pressed against his forehead and a needle plunged into his chest. He smiled at the reassuring presence. Tony forced his eyes open but everything was a red blur. The voice said something else to him but he could not understand what had been said. He made a great effort, using all his remaining strength to see his saviour.
“Mom,” he smiled happily.
She was dressed in her favourite white blouse with the ruffled collar, her hair held in place by two neat gold butterfly slides. She was kneeling beside him.
“Mom,” terror filled his aching body as he realised the enormity of what she was doing. “Get down you’ll be hit.”
“Ok son, try stay easy. It will be over soon.”
Tony thought she sounded hoarse. Of course she was as frightened as he himself was.
“Mom you shouldn’t have come, you could get hurt.” He said weakly.
“You shouldn’t have come.”
“Hush son, don’t try and talk, save your energy.”
“Mom.” He wanted to talk to her.
“Quiet son.” He felt a second jab break his skin.
Tony felt tired, devastatingly tired. “I’m cold.”
His eyelids closed, he fought in vain to keep them open. He did not want to miss a second of his mother’s presence but the pressure to sleep was greater than his will power. He felt a blanket placed over him. He liked that, she was tucking him in, just as she did when he was a kid.
The medic stood up. The morphine was working, helping yet another broken young man slip away. The kid looked about nineteen, they all looked about nineteen. There was nothing else he could do for him. He turned and raced through the smoke, across to the pilot of the downed Huey.