War as recounted in the average personal memoir, is mostly frequently depicted in combinations of heroid actions, cowardly misdeeds and triumphs of the human spirit. It ain't always so. The fact is, much of war is not dramatic-it's just sad, as I learned firsthand in Vietnam.
In April 1967 my platoon of SEAL Team TWO (assigned to the IV Corps area in the southernmost part of South Vietnam) was making great strides In carrying the war to the enemy on his own turf. As we gained confidence In our ability to operate within Viet Cong territory, we began to conduct missions farther away from our base at Can Tho, on the Bassac RIver. SEAL platoons at that time were organized into two squads of six men; each was led by one of the two officers in the platoon. Thus it was that my squad, Three Alpha (3A), planned a particularly trick operation much deeper in enemy territory than had ever been attempted.
According to what intelligence we could gather, the Viet Cong were staging major crossings of men and material across the Bassac River from a village on the banks of a large canal that emptied into the Bassac. Working with the personnel from Task Force 116 (the River Patrol Force) and HAL-3 (the Navy Helicopter Attack Squadron), we devised a plan to infiltrate the area and set up a night ambush on the banks of the canal.
After final coordination with other units in the area, and after develping a detailed patrol leader's order, I briefed 3A the morning of the operation. In the afternoon we rigged equipment and test fired weapons from the barge where our gear was stored. We reviewed and rehearsed everything from hand signals to line of march: point man, squad leader, radioman, and interpreter (Sergeant Hoang of the Vietnamese regional forces), grenadier, machine gunner and rear security (RS).
We normally included an additional squad member a young Vietnamese Regional Force Corporal named Truoung, who dearly loved to patrol with the SEALs. He was an intelligent young soldier with a wife and kids in a nearby village, and we were usually glad to take him along. However, he couldn't speak English, and that could be a big problem. I had briefed the ssquad that he could not participate in the evening's ambush in the belief that, because of the difficulty of the operation, all patrol members had to speak English.
As we finished test firing our weapons, a clearly distraught Truoung came aboard the barge and sat down beside Jim Harmon (RS) and began to weep. I asked Sgt Hoang what the problem was, and he said that Troung had "lost face" bynot being included in the patrol. I went over to Truoung and, through Hoang, tried to explain the difficulty of the mission and why he should not participate. Nothing worked, he only became more disconsolate. It was so touching that the radioman, Freddy Kirk said, "Come on Lieutenant, let's take him. He'll be OK." Harmon said that he would take him under his wing at the rear of the patrol and make sure that Truoung "got the word" throughout the operation.
AGAINST BETTER JUDGEMENT
It was at this point that a well conceived and well-planned mission began to fall apart. Against my better judgement I consented to Truoung's participation. Hoang briefed him on the details, and we all went back to our quarters to grab a couple hours of sleep, run through the pre-mission checklists, camouflage faces and attend to all the other details.
I don't mind admitting that we were all a bit more nervous than usual since we were heading deeper into "Charlie Country" than any SEAL squad had ever been before. To get to the objective area we boarded the two river patrol boats (PBRs) assigned in support of the operation and traveled 20 miles downriver from Can Tho to just offshore the target area. After maneuvering to mask the purpose of our presence in the vicinity, the boats eased their bows onto the river bank, dropped off an apprehensive SEAL patrol and left us on our own.
Once over the side and following standard SEAL operating procedures, we laid up near the riverbank for a few minutes to get our bearings and listen for any hint of the VC. We cold hear the unmistakable sounds of sampans banging together. Just as our intelligence had indicated, there was a VC river crossing under way.
After determining that our insertion had been undetected, we began a dog-leg approach of approximately one kilometer (one click) to the ambush position. Upon arrival at a "rally point: (a pre-selected emergency rendezvous area) 20 meters or so short of the ambush site, I mustered the squad and discovered that Truoung and the RS were missing. After positioning everybody else along the canal bank, I went in search of the missing pair.
After stumbing around in elephant grass in hostile territroy for 15 minutes or so, fearful of being shot by both the VC and my well-armed and very alert men, I found my missing men and brought them back to the rally point. I briefed Harmon exactly where he and Truoung were to go, where everyone else was located and what everyone else was doing. I then went to my own position alongside my radioman and the patrol waited.
A couple of hours later, as I was observing the area to our rear, I saw two armed figures silhouetted against the moon. Thinking they might be my own men, I pointed them out to the radioman for his opinion. He practically yelled in a 20 meter whisper,"Mr. Bailey, It's Truoung and Harmon." At that instant both figures dropped to the ground. This was not the first time my radioman had whispered too loudly on patrol, and I was more a little taken aback by his violation of patrol procedures. We were now faced with the very real possibility that our position was compromised.
We all held our breaths until the situation returned to normal. Some time later, I saw the same two figures get up and start moving toward our right flank. I again pointed them out to the radioman, once more he shouted that iwas Truoung and the RS, and once again the two shadowy figures dropped to the ground. The fact that the two hit the deck had me worried. Why would the RS leave the rally point and then hide when he heard his name? When the same sequence of events happened a third time, and when I tried and failed to identify the individuals, I fired a full auto burst from myM16 at the shadow nearest me - only about 8 feet away.
At that point the RS started shouting, and I began to realize that I had made the worst mistake possible: I had shot my own man. Leaping to the prostrate form before me, it was obvious that Truoung was badly wounded. I immediately gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but upon hearing bubbles come out his stomach every time he was ventilated, we realized it was hopeless. Hoang was the first to state what nobody wanted to know: "Dai Uy(Lieutenant), I think Truoung die." Indeed he had. It was my eleven .223 caliber rounds and nobody else's that put an end to the life of Cpl. Truoung, regional forces of the army of the Republic of Vietnam.
The longest journedy of my life began on that clear, muggy night in the Mekong Delta over 27 years ago when I picked up Truoung's buttet-ridden body and carried it to the edge of the Bassac. One of the waiting PBR's put its bow onto the mudbank and I placed my burden aboard. Another boat pulled in and loaded the remaining members of Squad 3A and took us home.
The Ballad of Jesse Hardy
Oh, Jesse’s had his good times, and Jesse’s had his bad,
But these are the worst that he’s ever had;
He’s been devilled by the greeners, and devilled by the mob
Who come from out-of-county to steal and to rob!
Oh, some folks in Tallahassee think they own his land,
And they’re goin’ to steal his homestead if they can.
They don’t know what they’re into; I promise that they’ll see
How much his friends and neighbors all love their liberty!
It’s been twenty-seven years since Jesse made his camp
‘ Midst the gators and the cypress, the dew and the damp.
He’s Mother Nature’s steward; he loves the pine and loam,
And he’ll fight till fightin’s over for his son and his home.
Now, Jesse was a frogman, a Navy SEAL so true
Who gave every bit that his country said was due.
He never asked for a nickel that he could not repay,
And he always helped his friends along the way.
Is this how we repay him, this self-made friend of mine?
Will we let ‘em take the land that he hoped to leave behind?
Will the skeeters and the gators overrun his pride and joy,
And will that Tallahassee crowd disinherit Jesse’s boy?
Now, listen, friends and neighbors, oh, please take heed and learn,
When Jesse’s land is taken, there’s no place left to turn!
Let’s stop what’s happenin’ to him, lest it happen to us all,
Let us rally ‘round ol’ Jesse, and answer freedom’s call!
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