February 15, 1968, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam
I’m in my 9th month of a 13-month tour as a Marine grunt, leading a rifle platoon of salty Marines, Delta One, on a combat patrol. Mad Dog, the Company commander, has given me this platoon. He wants them straightened out. I’ve had them about a week. So far, they remain rebellious and undisciplined.
We’re moving through almost knee-deep water, rice paddies, in a V-formation. One squad up, two back. I’m behind the point squad with my R.O. (the radio operator). Under a dark gray sky, we lean into a hard monsoon rain. We hump on through the muddy water. We’re soaked to the bone, tired, miserable. I climb on top of a paddy dike. When I step down my right foot lands on a hard object. I freeze. A mine! I’m screwed.
I yell back to the R.O., “I’m standing on a mine. Tell the squads to spread out, take cover, and face outboard.”
Backing away, he radios my orders.
Moments later I’m standing alone in the cold wind-driven rain. Facing death. Or worse. The mine casualties I have seen. I take a deep breath and carefully look around for anything to replace my weight on the object beneath my foot. Shit. There’s nothing but mud and water. Slowly I squat, careful not to move my right foot. I’m about to meet the Big Kahuna. My only chance is a slim one: dash and dive.
I reach down with my right hand into the muddy water to feel how big the mine is. My hand touches the metal under my jungle boot. It’s a big mine. Wait. It’s not a mine. It’s a weapon. An AK-47. It could be booby-trapped. That doesn’t make sense. It must be a discarded weapon, its owner dead or severely wounded. Maybe nearby. I slowly slide my foot off the weapon. The only sound is the hard rain hitting me. Thank you, Kahuna.
I pull the weapon from the muck and hold it above my head. I’ve heard the AK-47 is reliable. Unlike the M-16 it doesn’t jam. I put the weapon’s selector on full automatic. Pull the trigger. A burst of fire. Damn that was f-ing stupid. But I’m convinced. This is now my weapon of choice. I yell back to my radio operator, “Radio the squads, all clear. Saddle up.”
We move on in the unrelenting rain. I haven’t seen the sun or stars for 20 days. I never realized ’Nam would be this cold. A Marine up ahead slips in the mud and goes down on his side. He attempts to rise but falls again. Now completely covered in mud, he rises again. Falls again. I start to laugh. I can still laugh. A bit of humanity remains. Pointing at the fallen Marine, I ask my R.O., “Who’s that stupid bastard?” He responds, “Lieutenant, that’s Platoon Sergeant Scott.” Shit, he’s right. Scott finally gets to his feet.
We slog for a few moments more. Then my First Squad leader yells back, “Lieutenant we’ve got a prisoner!” I move up to take a look. An N.V.A. (North Vietnamese Army) trooper is half lying in the corner of a rice paddy just below the dikes, under a makeshift lean-to.
He has a belly wound. Blood is soaking through his utility shirt, seeping into the muddy water. He’s probably the owner of the AK. I point it at his head. I’ll kill him with his own weapon. Show Delta One what a crazy bastard I am. Get their attention. The trooper looks at me. Weakly extends his right hand for mercy. I lower the AK. I won’t kill him. I’ll do something worse: I’ll leave him. Let him slowly bleed to death.
“The hell with him. Take the lean-to down. Get ready to move out.” I wait a few moments then shout, “Delta One, move out.”
We continue on patrol. Late in the afternoon we stop at a village on a tributary leading to the Cua Viet to set up and dig in for the night. My platoon occupies several old French bunkers. I take over a Buddhist temple for my command post. On the way in I notice some seriously wounded villagers, women and children. They appear to have shrapnel wounds and I assume that we’re responsible. Without authority, I call in a Medevac to take them to the field hospital at Dong Ha.
On the third day in the village the sun comes out. That afternoon, some of the villagers bring me a man on a makeshift stretcher. I’m taken aback. It’s the enemy soldier I almost executed in the rice paddy, but left to die miserably. He catches my stare. I radio for priority Medevac.
Joseph Giannini is a local criminal defense attorney. He served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 with the First Battalion Third Marines.