James Gillam’s most terrifying moments in Vietnam came in the pitch-black darkness of an enemy tunnel.
After his poor academic performance in the spring of 1968, Ohio University sophomore James Gillam lost his deferment and was drafted that summer. Excelling in Advanced Infantry Training got Gillam a ticket to the Noncommissioned Officer’s Academy, where he became a sergeant in May 1969 and was sent to Fort McClellan to train a platoon bound for Vietnam. Sergeant Gillam joined the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, “an experienced, blooded” unit in September 1969 when it was in the last stages of Operation Putnam Tiger in Pleiku and Binh Dinh provinces. By January 1970, Gilliam had seen plenty of combat, been promoted to staff sergeant and was leading a platoon in the Vinh Than Valley on a mission to destroy a North Vietnamese Army base area.
It was February 4, 1970, and I was walking point for my platoon. This was a time when I lived by my reflexes and intuition about what would happen if I stepped around a rock or moved a tree branch out of my way. Because of the ambush I had conducted in October during Putnam Wildcat in the An Lao Valley, I was also very mindful of the fact that a careless point man could drag his whole unit to their deaths. Greg Bodell and Bob Frost, two of my platoon’s best point men, had helped me learn a lot of the subtleties of the job. Frost was a tough cowboy straight off a ranch from Oklahoma. He was an expert shot and just the kind of man you would take to a war or an alley fight. We called him “Rawhide.” He and Bodell both told me in different words, but no uncertain terms, that war is unforgiving, and body bags were usually filled with people who had excuses or made mistakes. They also helped me get better at the point. Frost gave me a very useful tip for close-range shooting. It was to use my middle finger on the trigger and my index finger on that hand to point at the target. I didn’t kill anyone with that technique in February, but I got close enough to two opposing point men to drive them off the trail. Bodell not only helped me learn to be a silent, aggressive point man, he also walked my slack. It was a perfect match. He was left-handed so his rifle was pointed to the side of the trail opposite mine when we teamed up, so we had natural coverage of both sides of the trail.
About midmorning, I was on a trail when the three of us decided to look inside a cave I saw near the trail. It had 20 cases of mortar shells in it. It was a good find, but we knew right away that the Lifers would want them all hauled to a clearing and taken to base camp. Nobody wanted to haul that kind of load for two or three days and fight at the same time, so I decided to booby trap them and leave. I stuck a thin wire into the top of a white phosphorous grenade to block the striker from hitting the primer and setting off the four-second fuse. Then I took the handle off the grenade, dug a hole under one of the cases and put the edge of the crate on top of the striker. Finally, I eased the wire out of the hole in the grenade top and pushed the dirt carefully back around the bottom of the crate. It would have taken a close inspection with a big flashlight to spot the tampering.
My platoon was 200 meters and 10 or 15 minutes away from the cave when we felt a shock wave, heard an incredible explosion, and saw a massive white and red fireball erupt from the cave. Frost walked up to me, gave me a big grin, and then we did a quick “dap,” the elaborate handshake between black men in Nam. Bob “Tiny” Pederson, the radio operator, called the captain and said he wasn’t sure, but he thought the explosion might have been a short round from some artillery mission. Then we continued on down the trail.
About midafternoon, the rain had slackened to a mist, and I noticed a footprint made by a Ho Chi Minh sandal, pointed toward me in the mud. Ho Chi sandals were common footwear for both Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). They were made from the treads of old tires cut to appropriate length and held in place by strips of inner tube. I stopped and noticed that the next two prints were heading off the trail into the jungle to my right. There was almost no water in them, so I knew they had been made within the last few minutes when the rain had slackened. It was also clear that the wearer of the sandals had heard us coming along the trail, and made a quick dodge down the side of the ridge. Bob Frost and I dropped our packs to track this soldier as quietly as we could.
The tracks led us to an area with moss-covered rocks on the side of the ridge. Scuff marks in the moss took us to a very shallow cave under a rock ledge. There was a hole in the back wall of the cave and recently turned semi-dry dirt on the floor of the cave. The dirt was there because someone had recently dug a tunnel into the back end of the cave. Frost said his shoulders were too wide to get into the tunnel and, unaccountably, I had an attack of stupid. I decided I would find out what happened to our quarry.
Greg Bodell and I had talked about tunnel ratting on a number of occasions. He thought I had a lot of advantages if it came to a fight in a tunnel. First, I was small enough to get in one, and I had been a varsity wrestler in high school. I won third place in the state tournament, and later, I beat the state champ in a college gym class and an intramural tournament. I was also used to wrestling blind because my coach, Paul Mowery, had insisted we wrestle several practice matches every week blindfolded. He wanted us to become intuitive wrestlers who could feel an opponent’s moves in his body before he actually finished them.
When I told Bodell about the blind wrestling, he didn’t believe it until I bested him three times in a row even though he was 20 pounds heavier than I was. While we rested up from our matches, he told me some other things about tunnels. One of the things he said was, “If you’re going to go in, do it quick, otherwise they get far enough ahead of you to set traps or wait at a turn in the tunnel for you to come by head first and defenseless.” He also told me that tunnels turn every five meters or so to prevent cave-ins without cutting timbers to shore them up. The slight turns made it easy to estimate how far you had gone. Finally, he told me, “If you ever see a flashlight coming your way, you can fire away, but more than likely, you’re already a dead man.”
So, I armed myself with those pearls of wisdom, a .45 automatic, a combat knife and a flashlight that I had no intention of turning on—because sight was the last of the senses a tunnel rat relied on to find and kill his enemy.
By the time I made the second turn in the tunnel it was pitch black. I felt like I was trapped in a narrow sewer pipe. I could move on my hands and knees, but from time to time, both shoulders scraped the walls. As I inched along, I tried to lightly touch every inch of the ceiling, walls, and floor. I was feeling for trap doors, trip wires, and turns in the tunnel to tell me how far I had gone. At the tenth turn, I had to lie flat. A couple turns after that, I could feel that I was moving noticeably downhill when my hands told me both sides of the tunnel moved away from me at right angles. The angles on both sides, and the fact that I could also feel a hint of breeze on the sweat on the left side of my face, meant I was at an intersection with a branch tunnel instead of a slight turn. The breeze also meant the tunnel had another opening.
The possibility of another opening could mean the guy I was following was gone, or it could also allow someone to get behind me. That was when common sense bit me on the ass, and I decided I had gone far enough. I was lying there thinking about backing out when I thought I heard a scraping sound and felt a vibration in the floor. I went absolutely still for a few minutes. While I lay there, I was almost certain that whoever else was there would hear my heart beating on the ground. Then, as slowly as I could, I gathered myself onto my knees and unsheathed my combat knife. The .45 was cocked and locked, but I was afraid to use it because I thought the sound of unsnapping the holster or taking the safety off would give me away.
The sound I thought I heard and the breeze I thought I felt were both to my left, so I put my left side against the tunnel wall and pulled my head back just inside my branch of the tunnel. I knew I was positioned just right when I lost the breeze on my cheek. I stayed there on my knees long enough to start believing I had imagined the noise when I smelled nuoc nam, the rancid sauce made from fermented fish and salt most Vietnamese ate with rice. I immediately covered my mouth with my left hand and tried to breathe slowly through my nose. If I could smell someone else’s breath, I was pretty sure he would smell mine. I held my breath while I moved to the middle of the tunnel, and I gripped the leather handle of my knife with the point forward as hard as I could. I knew for sure that there was an enemy only inches away. I also knew we would struggle in the dark until one of us was dead. I had that thought in my mind when a solid blow landed on the left side of my face, and I started the wrestling match of my life.
The hand on the left side of my face told me exactly where the enemy was. He was to my left, and I knew it was a right hand because the thumb was near my eye. I looped my left arm over the top of my opponent’s right arm and locked it in my armpit and jerked it toward me. At the same time, I drove forward, intending to stab for the chest or throat with my right hand, but somehow I had lost the knife. I jerked up on the arm I had trapped in an attempt to dislocate the elbow. Then I delivered an openhanded palm strike to where I thought the head would be. The heel of my hand connected and I felt teeth break. I kept battering the head, driving it down and away from me while I drove forward on my knees. We surged forward about three feet, and then we slammed into the far wall of the intersection.
We were both stunned, but I recovered first. I had only taken that one blow to the head. He had taken several, and I kept battering him as hard and fast as I could with forearm smashes to his head and face. When I felt him weakening, I jerked the arm that was locked under my left arm and that flipped the man onto his left side and pinned his left arm underneath him. His legs were in the tunnel branch to my left and of no use to him for leverage.
As he struggled to roll onto his back to free his arm, I felt my chance to end the fight. My right forearm was across his mouth, and he bit me. I jerked away and slammed my right elbow down across his throat. I rolled halfway onto my right side for better leverage and pressed as hard as I could. At the same time, I pulled the arm trapped in my left armpit as hard as I could in the opposite direction. We both knew he was dying, and I could feel him trying to free his left arm before his time and air ran out. My arms were cramping, and I was hoping this would end before I lost my grip when I heard and felt his larynx collapse. A crushed larynx is a fatal injury. I don’t know exactly how long it took, but this soldier did not go easily. He struggled until the very moment when death claimed him. Gradually, I sensed that his movements had become less coordinated and more like convulsions. Then, suddenly, even the convulsions stopped. It was over, and I collapsed across the body.
When I recovered, I untangled myself from the dead man. I tried to find a pulse on the neck to be sure it was over. The face was so bloody I decided to check for a heartbeat. I got nothing. All I felt was just the soft limpness of the newly dead. As I knelt over him, my left hand brushed against what I immediately knew was the haft of a knife on his belt. It was on the left side, and he had been trying to get it and his left arm into the fight when I crushed his throat. I pulled the knife out and cut his belt to get the sheath. Then I put them back together and stuck the knife in my belt. I also groped around for my knife but I couldn’t find it. Then the thought came to me that this guy might not have been alone and that I should get out of there.
I knew I was moving faster on the way out than I did coming in, but it still seemed like I had crawled backwards forever before the blackness of the tunnel turned to gray. When I got close enough to the entrance to hear Bodell calling my name, I yelled that I was okay and would be there in a minute. I stretched out full length on the tunnel floor to rest and think about what I had just done. While I lay there thinking about it, a disturbing thought hit me. I realized that when I checked the soldier’s chest for a heartbeat that I might have put my hand on a breast instead of a pectoral muscle. Then my friends grabbed my ankles and pulled me out of the tunnel. Bob and Greg asked me what had taken so long and if I was okay. I told them I was fine, but I think they both knew better. Bob looked at my right hand and arm and gave me a sarcastic “right.” The hand had a cut on the palm near the heel that was still bleeding. The right sleeve of my shirt was bloody, too.
We put on our packs and continued the day’s search without further incident. At the first break we took, I got a good look at the knife I had brought out of the tunnel. It was small and utilitarian. The blade was short and thick. The end of it was almost rounded instead of pointed, but the edge was very sharp. The handle was made from a piece of bamboo split down the middle and lashed to the haft of the blade with a bootlace, just like the ones in my boots, and covered with white tape from a medic’s M-5 kit. As a weapon, it wasn’t much, but it could have made a difference if the dead soldier could have gotten it into play. I used the knife to cut the lower half of my right sleeve off. I threw the sleeve away and put the knife in my pack.
In 2005, I told my therapist what had happened in the tunnel. I never told anyone in the platoon. In February 1970, I rationalized my denial by convincing myself that if I said anything, some Lifer would want me to drag the body out to confirm the killing for their damned body count. So I retreated to the practical considerations of staying alive that day. I replaced my lost combat knife with an “Arkansas Toothpick” I had taken from another dead NVA. It had a staghorn handle that wouldn’t become slippery if it got bloody and a long, heavy blade that wouldn’t break if it hit a rib. The name “Clem” was carved into the leather sheath. After that I just kept repeating the mantra that almost every Grunt repeated in times of stress: “It don’t mean nothin’.” We said it when it rained for weeks. We said it when we got shot at. We said it when someone got killed. We always said, “It don’t mean nothin’ ” and just kept pushing. I told myself what happened in the tunnel didn’t mean nothin’ too. But I knew, deep down, that it did. I knew it did because from time to time, the sight or touch of a small breast would leave me in a flaccid state of depression.
Operation Putnam Power ended three days after the fight in the tunnel. Helicopters extracted B Company from a tiny landing zone where a slick had crashed and burned. We could tell there had been a firefight over the weapons and any useable equipment at the crash site because there were skeletons all around it. One of the skulls looked like it had three eyeholes.
Only one bird could get in at a time, and mine was one of two squads left out overnight. No one slept. We were probed by enemy who had probably come back to see if we had left anything of value behind. The next morning, when the choppers came back for us, we knew we had left a lot of piles of expended brass shell casings, and we hoped we also left some dead NVA in the bushes around the landing zone, but we didn’t bother to check.
When our slicks landed in Pleiku, we also didn’t bother with looking for a shower or clean clothes. We went straight from the landing pad to the enlisted men’s club for hot food and cold drinks. Most of B Company was there, drunk before 10 a.m. Richie Beunzel, Cat Ackzinski, Bob Frost, Greg Bodell and I came in together. Richie had the skull with three eyeholes in it. He put it on the bar in front of the Vietnamese bartender and ordered two beers, one for himself and one for his friend. The horrified bartender left in a big hurry. We had a good laugh about that while we served ourselves, and the rest of the company too. There was a Vietnamese band there to entertain us. We noticed right away that they were all draft-aged men and that they played really poorly. Jim Hinzo, who had been a drummer in a band back in the world, decided that he could do a better job than their drummer. Cat, Jesse Johnson, a few others and I convinced the band to lend us their instruments. We were having a really good time when the Military Police came to break up the party.
With his deadly underground wrestling match behind him, Gillam thought: “I had seen it all, done it all, and things would get no worse for me before I left Vietnam. I was wrong.” Days later, Gillam’s unit was ordered to join Operation Hines, north of An Khe, and in one week in February he was in a fierce firefight, was wounded and later watched as one of his best friends was killed by three bullets to the chest. Before his tour was over, Gillam fought in Cambodia, where on the eve of returning to Vietnam on May 15, he survived a nighttime sapper attack and vicious hand-to-hand combat. “Three Americans and six enemy that I know of died that night,” he said. “I killed three of them myself, and almost died doing it.” Gillam’s last night in the jungle was June 13. Days later, after nearly being killed twice at Cam Ranh Bay before boarding his “Freedom Flight,” Gillam was back home in Ohio and within weeks back in college.
Excerpted from Life and Death in the Central Highlands, An American Sergeant in the Vietnam War, 1968-1970, Copyright 2010 James T. Gillam, published by University of North Texas Press.
James T. Gillam, a professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta, earned his doctorate in Chinese history from The Ohio State University, has served as editor of the Southeastern Review of Asian Studies and has been a contributor to History Channel documentaries on tunnel warfare in Vietnam and on the first Emperor of China.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.