In the midst of deathly violence, humanity could prevail even among enemies.
As a handful of soldiers gathered around the medic and his patient in the jungle’s growing darkness, one of them asked: “Is she doin’ any better, Doc? Is she gonna make it?”
“Has she said anything or opened her eyes?” said another.
A third trooper ventured:“Is there anything we can do? Can I wash or feed her?”
“Nah,” Doc replied.“I don’t want to move her or get her excited. I’m afraid she’s bleeding inside. We’ll try to get her on a chopper in the morning.”
In February 1966, the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, was on its second week of a two-week search and destroy mission near Cambodia in an anonymous stretch of dense, humid jungle, attempting to intercept the growing flow of Communist troops coming south. I was an infantryman/reporter with the 1-18, 1st Infantry Division, and the platoon I was attached to had already captured one camp, killing five very young and green North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops.
I’d arrived in Vietnam in June 1965 with the 2nd Brigade and had been in a unit protecting construction crews building harbor facilities at Cam Ranh Bay. Given the opportunity one day to take pictures and do the reporting for my battalion,I had jumped at the chance. “You’d be your own boss, so to speak, reporting wherever and whatever you want, getting stories and photos for military and national release,” said 1st Lt. Phillip Aigner, the brigade’s public information officer who had been in the Officer Candidate School class ahead of me. Shortly after I took my new job, the 1-18 joined the remainder of the 2nd Brigade at Tan Heip, about 25 miles north of Saigon. From September 1965 to June 1966, I accompanied many units on search and destroy missions, primarily in the area known as the Iron Triangle.
I was frequently with the units during firefights, taking photos and writing up my notes after the firing ceased. On many occasions, opportunities arose to exaggerate a story to make it more sexy or salable, but out of respect and admiration for the troops, I transcribed events precisely as they occurred. Other times, after a hard-fought firefight, the men would tell me they didn’t want the incident reported on at all, mostly because they had hoped for a different outcome.
On this particular afternoon, as the platoon traversed a shallow stream, the point man suddenly raised his hand to halt us. He sniffed a familiar odor: the foul human stench emanating from an enemy base camp inside the jungle ahead.
I inched next to the two squads crawling toward that smell, and we discovered a trench perimeter around a camp for new NVA arrivals. Gingerly crawling over the roots and vines surrounding the compound, we peeked through the tall elephant grass and saw four men dressed in dark silk clothes, wearing pistol belts with weapons and sitting at a crudely tacked table.
An enemy soldier standing nearby suddenly lifted a grass-camouflaged tunnel cover and called to someone below. Thinking he might have sensed our presence and was signaling others, the point, two men on his right and one on his left immediately fired their M-16s on automatic, mowing down the four at the table and the one calling into the tunnel.
With the top of the camp secured, the platoon dropped cooked-off grenades into the tunnels. When the firing stopped, the remainder of the patrol vaulted the perimeter. Then three of the initial assault group took their flashlights and .45-cal. automatic pistols and began exploring the tunnel complex.
After one guy had crawled about 35 feet into a narrow, stifling shaft, his flashlight beam illuminated black pajama pants ahead. He fired three quick rounds. Cautiously he snaked to the moaning, bleeding figure and disarmed it. He grabbed the enemy by the pistol belt and dragged it back toward the tunnel entrance. He managed to lift his victim near the surface, where the other troops snatched it.
Only then did the men realize this wounded enemy was a young girl, about 18 years old, wearing a grimy, peasant-type shirt, black silk pants and the ubiquitous Ho Chi Minh sandals made of tire treads.
We laid the girl on the camp’s rickety table.“Doc” had treated dramatic wounds of countless types, and he now appeared as confident as a surgeon working in a hospital operating room. He did his best to plug the two wounds in her legs, but the third wound, in her crotch, was pumping blood from an artery that he could not close. She needed immediate hospital treatment, but the dense jungle canopy prohibited a copter landing.
Since the gunfire had no doubt announced our presence to other NVA in the area, the patrol leader believed it best that we leave immediately by disappearing into the jungle. The medic conferred with the platoon leader and several seasoned sergeants. Should we finish off the wounded guerrilla now, just leave her there to bleed to death and be consumed by insects— or take a chance of being ambushed by carting her to a clearing for a medevac?
Doc said he thought there was a chance she would survive if she could get treatment soon. Even though the girl would have tried to kill us if she’d had the chance moments earlier, she was no longer a threat. Most of the troopers had adopted the warrior attitude: Whenever someone attempts to take your life, he is no longer human; yet when neutralized, as in this case, he becomes human again.
“What do you think?” the platoon leader asked the men around him. “Should we try to get her to a chopper?”
“Yeah, let’s do it, sir, let’s try to save her,” one man said.
While the platoon leader opened his map to search for the nearest landing zone, the troops began organizing to move out.
The medic and some of the men put together a makeshift stretcher by draping a poncho over the enemy’s conference table. Four men would have to carry this stretcher while two others would“point,”hacking a 3-foot swath through the jungle ahead.
The platoon leader located a clearing on his map that was several miles away. He told the men that they would have to make their way through thick jungle, but if they moved out immediately, they might make it there before dark, when it would be possible to get a chopper in.
“Let’s go,” the men all agreed. “We can save her.”
Moving the wounded girl through the vines and thorns of the jungle in 95-degree heat and 99-percent humidity proved difficult. Exhausted after days of little sleep and carrying 70 pounds of equipment usually with just one canteen of water a day, the men had to move their patient gently, but at a pace to get them to the LZ before sunset. Also, by noisily hacking a path through enemy-occupied territory, they knew they were inviting an ambush.Yet no one complained about trying to save this enemy soldier. In fact, troopers frequently asked the medic about her condition, and many volunteered to carry the stretcher or chop the bamboo and vines ahead.
After three hours of struggling, the patrol leader decided there was no way we could reach the clearing before sunset. He ordered a night perimeter established and cautioned all the men to be vigilant for an attack he thought was imminent.
Several men volunteered to help the medic hack a spot in the jungle and erect a shelter over the girl with a poncho. Another trooper spread out his poncho to keep her off the damp ground.
During the night, practically every one of the 45 men in the patrol left his position to take a turn watching over the girl. One of the troopers had a towel that he rinsed with his limited canteen supply and used to wash her clammy face, hoping for any response. The men seemed desperate to let her know that she had people there who cared.As the night wore on, the girl’s pulse became weaker and irregular. Her face began cooling and turned white. Then late in the night, her wounds appeared to stop bleeding; the medic suspected internal hemorrhaging.
At 0130 hours her pulse stopped, her labored breathing ceased and her body became cold. At first light, a shallow grave was dug next to where she died. Each of the men solemnly paid their respects, some tossing jungle blossoms on the grave, which had been covered with leaves and clumps of grass. The last man muttered “Amen” as he passed. I remember thinking this a contradiction, offering a prayer to God for someone whose dogma denies belief in God.
The men felt responsible for her death—not for shooting an enemy soldier but because of their slow portage through the jungle. They believed they might have been able to reach the clearing before dark if they had relaxed their security more. I can’t imagine how this would have been possible.
As we prepared to move on, a few of the men asked me not to report this story, and the other troopers all nodded their agreement. The incident was never mentioned again—we still had a war to fight.
It is unfortunate that stories about American soldiers’ humanity in Vietnam are rarely told, and that is why, after 46 years, I’m telling this one. In deference to the platoon’s request at the time, I’ve not named the individuals involved. I would have questioned the credibility of this event had I not been with them at the time, but I do know this is just one of many instances in which American soldiers in Vietnam went out of their way to aid their captives, often enemy soldiers who were trying to kill them only moments earlier.
The war in Vietnam was one gigantic paradox.
Ray Pezzoli Jr. is the author of A Year in Hell, Memoirs of an Infantryman in Vietnam 1965-1966, and was editor of The Rimrock Register in 1964-65 before serving in Vietnam as a public information officer with the 1st Division.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.