Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The First Day of My First War: September, 1970

It was right after sunrise when the explosion of the claymore mine shook the ground. I was the new guy, so I foolishly looked around before I fell onto my stomach. The rest of the soldiers in my new platoon were already behind their weapons and they were ready for anything that might happen next.

God they moved fast.

I was the new lieutenant, so I joined my platoon sergeant and a couple of other soldiers as we moved slowly toward what was now a kill zone. I had never before seen live or dead enemy soldiers and I admit I was a little nervous. The platoon sergeant was aware of this and that was the reason he suggested I come along. He wanted to see my reaction to dead bodies and maybe he figured I would throw up or something.

The exploding claymore had cleared out a small section of the jungle. As we reached the edge of the kill zone, I could see human forms stretched out on the trail. (The above photo shows a later kill zone.) I started to approach them, but the platoon sergeant grabbed my arm and said, “Just a minute, L.T.; they look dead, but maybe they’re not.” Then he opened fire with his M16, spraying the bodies with bullets.

“Now we know they’re dead,” said the sergeant and we moved toward the corpses.

There were two dead enemy soldiers lying on the trail. We would learn that one of them was a Viet Cong, a South Vietnamese communist guerrilla. The man in the lead was a North Vietnamese soldier. He carried a folding stock AK which was still in the same position it must have been when he was walking – left hand on the front stock, right hand next to the trigger. The claymore knocked him over like a domino.

I walked up to the NVA, kneeled down, removed the AK from his lifeless grip and handed it to one of my other soldiers. At that moment the eyes of the dead body met mine. The soldier died with his eyes open and an “oh, shit” expression on his face. I realized at that moment that I was staring into the eyes of death for the first time.

Other than being dead, the most noticeable thing about this NVA was that one of his legs was neatly severed just below the knee. The severed leg was only a few inches from his body, but it was my first lesson in how a claymore mine can mutilate a human being.

As the other soldiers worked on searching the VC, I continued my search of his late friend. I removed his backpack, hat, belt and other equipment from the body and then searched his pockets for anything of intelligence value. The platoon sergeant was watching both searches and he was probably disappointed I didn’t cough up my last C ration.

During my search I came upon a scarf. It was dark blue and on one corner was the embroidered name of the dead man; on the opposite corner was the name of a girl surrounded by flowers. According to my Cambodian Kit Carson scout, this was a souvenir given to him by a wife or girlfriend. Now she would never lay eyes on him again.

We finished our searches and the platoon sergeant pulled the pin on a grenade and put it under the body of the NVA as a booby trap. If his friends returned to get his remains, they would get a fatal surprise as soon as they moved him. We returned to the platoon with the weapons and property of the dead soldiers and our war continued.

The other day I was in my attic going through an old duffel bag and I found the NVA waterproof bag I took from this dead enemy soldier. When I opened the bag, the smell of NVA sweat rose from the contents. Still folded up with the guy’s boonie hat and belt was the blue scarf embroidered with the names and the flowers.

It has been almost thirty-seven years since this kill zone, but I still don’t feel guilty that my platoon killed men who would have certainly killed us. I came to learn that war is surely the survival of the fittest as well as the luckiest.

I have now survived two wars and I know that I did so because of a combination of skill, luck and the fact that the odds were in my favor. Most soldiers will survive their combat tours, but the odds will run out for the rest.

On a jungle trail a long, long time ago, an NVA soldier’s time ran out when he died for what he believed in. Perhaps his last thought was of her and maybe just before he died he reached into his pocket to caress the scarf. In some ways, all soldiers are the same.

As I sat holding his lover’s scarf, I felt a brief moment of sadness for her. Then I remembered the soldiers I knew who were killed in Vietnam. I folded up the scarf, put it back in the bag and climbed out of the attic.

My wife asked me if there was anything wrong when I reached into the refrigerator for a beer.

SFC Chuck Grist


  1. All of what you say is true...nevertheless...I think that if you are a decent moral person, there can't help but be a regret. Even if it's just that things are the way they are.

  2. This is one of the most honest pieces I've ever read - thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. Thank you for sharing that very personal story.