I’ll always remember Instant. That was the nickname the men had tacked onto the muscled giant that wielded the M60 in my unit. “Instant” was short for “Instant Death.” And I’ll always remember the first time I saw Instant in action.
I was a new Lieutenant assigned to Vietnam. Back then, the Army didn’t try to develop any “team spirit” within the corps; men were rotated frequently before any friendships developed. Consequently, my men were a group of strangers united only by the need to survive. They were eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds with the eyes of old men. My first real assignment was to check a tiny hamlet, Dien Hoa. Army Intelligence believed the Viet Cong were operating from Dien Hoa. Our job was to determine if that was correct.
We rode in an olive-drab chopper. The whooping blades of the helicopter give us a little relief from the relentless heat of ‘Nam; the blades cut the thick, humid air and pushed a breeze downward over the passenger compartment.
Soon, we circled the landing zone. The LZ looked cold. There’s only one way to find
“Lock and load,” I yelled.
The helicopter circled low and slowed down until it almost hovered four feet from the ground. The door gunner mashed the spade grips on his .30 caliber M60 machine gun. The gun spewed bullets over the field below us.
lush, green valley. My stomach felt like it was turning wrong-side-out.
We dropped into the grass, stumbling under heavy packs and the weight of ammo and weapons. I wondered about snakes and hoped the groan I mad when I hit the ground was drowned by the noise of the helicopters. Though the helicopter gunner continued firing into the heavy growth to the north of them, there was no return fire. We were safe for the moment.
“OK,” I yelled signaling with my hands the way you’re not supposed to. Hand signals are a good way to mark yourself as the leader. It’s just the thing enemy snipers watch for. But few of my twenty-seven men could hear me over the roar and firing of the helicopters. I had no choice. “Move out. On the double,” I ordered. The choppers lifted. We were on our own.
The soldiers started with the usual complaining but then grew strangely quiet. They knew we had to move quickly to leave the dangerously-exposed LZ. The helicopters were lost in the distance; the only sounds were the usual clanking of equipment and water sloshing in canteens.
It took nearly an hour to walk through the grassland and occasional wooded section of the valley to the heavy jungle area at the foot of the hills. Our speed slowed while we went up the slight incline and wove through the ever thickening vegetation. At the ridge which overlooked Dien Hoa, we halted while I inspected the village below them with my binoculars.
I searched for a warning sign, some hint of danger. Old men, women, and children, with a few water buffalo, milled around; everything appeared normal. But I knew that just because an area “looked” business-as-usual it meant nothing in Vietnam.
“Call headquarters,” I told my radio man as I lowered my binoculars. Moments later, he had reached headquarters with his radio. I took the phone piece and let my commander know what the situation was. As expected, we were ordered to continue toward the village. I gave the radio phone-piece to the radioman, put my helmet back onto my head, and stood.
“Sergeant,” I said.
“We got bunched up on our way up,” I said. “Be sure they keep spaced
Sergeant Nelson nodded. I didn’t have to tell him that it would be essential to keep spaced in case of an ambush. I hoped the new guys would take his orders seriously.
As the Sergeant crept down the line inspecting and giving last minute instructions, I wiped the sweat from my brow with a dirty hand. Your hands never stay clean for long in Vietnam and you never quit sweating. I wondered how I would hold up in actual combat.
Eventually we were ready. “Saddle up,” I said, hoping no one noticed the slight quiver in my voice.
There were two trails leading into Dien Hoa from our side of the village. I didn’t choose to take the most direct footpath down. We would have been too exposed on it. I felt certain it would lead to an ambush or booby traps if some of the villagers were Viet Cong. I ordered the men off the ridge and into the jungle area overshadowing the village. Though it was dangerous to do, we had to stick to the trail; the vegetation was too dense to allow us to approach the village from another route without making a huge detour.
We walked into the shade of the thick canopy which gave some relief from the noondays heat. It was a sharp contrast to the hot grassy plane. The smell of wet dirt and rotting vegetation created the feeling of being in an entirely different place and time, rather than just a few kilometers from our LZ.
Halfway down the slope, Jerry, the point man suddenly dropped and signaled a halt. I passed the order down the line with the same hand signal then pushed by the three grunts ahead of me and crept forward to crouch beside Jerry. “What’s up?” I whispered.
“Charlie,” Jerry said in a low, hoarse voice.
I crawled by the soldier and looked down the trail. There, perhaps forty yards ahead of us, was a group of black-pajamaed Viet Cong. They laughed and smoked. They sat on a log alongside the path, their AK-47s carelessly rested against a palm.
As I watched, the Cong were joined by four similarly dressed comrades. Jerry and I dropped back from the guerrillas? sight. I used hand signals and whispered commands to position my men on the high side of the trail. We crept through the vegetation still wet from the mornings dew. I again momentarily wondered about snakes, then forgot them while I fought my way through the vines and dense growth.
I had ordered them not to fire until the M60 gunner Instant did. And Instant was not to shoot until I gave the go ahead. I stationed myself next to him and Evens, the short, mousy private who served as Instants ammunition carrier. Instant crouched in the brush; he wore a flack jacket without a shirt under it, exposing his muscled arms.
The Viet Cong on the trail acted like they owned the place. They made enough racket and jabbering to be heard for miles. The guerrillas’ lack of discipline was astonishing; I hoped we could take advantage of their carelessness.
Moments that seemed to stretch to eternity passed, then six VC rounded the turn of the path. They walked into the kill zone of the ambush, continuing to talk loudly, completely oblivious to the danger. Each had his AK-47 balanced over his shoulder with the rifles butt behind him while he carried the firearm by its barrel.
There was jabbering and laughter on the trail behind the six; I let the first group continued toward our trap. I watched. Four more men and two women rounded the angle of the trail. One woman wore a hat, the other woman and the men had rags on their heads; all wore black pajamas with sandals. All but one. He stuck out from the others. He walked like a soldier and wore a tan uniform and
Headquarters would be glad if we got that guy, I thought. They were always trying to trace the connections between the North and South. Too, the NVA might have documents on him from which US Intelligence could get useful information. I hunkered down wondering if additional VC or NVA would stumble into our trap. Things were going to be tricky; if I waited too long, the first Cong would be out of the kill zone.
I listened a moment for others; I could hear nobody else. It was time. I tapped Instants steel helmet.
There was a nearly inaudible click as Instant released the safety on the M60 machine gun. Then all hell broke loose.
I blinked at the loud thumping of the M60. With each burst, it threw a golden shower of brass into my line of vision. I strained to see through the thin blue smoke that escaped from the flash hider of the machine guns barrel. The low-toned explosions of the M60 were joined by a higher-pitched ca-whacking chorus of M16 rifles. The twelve people on the trail jerked and danced to the cruel music. They were chopped down before they could
take any action or even ready their weapons.
“Cease fire,” I yelled. Two young soldiers continued to shoot although the VC were down and obviously dead. I swore under my breath, need to work on fire discipline. The last few shots ended. Sergeant Nelson screamed and cursed the two privates for wasting ammunition.
We rose to stare at the bodies sprawled across the footpath below us. The Sergeant quit chewing the two soldiers’ butts and the jungle was quiet. Even the sounds of insects were absent. Only the whispers of my men and the smell of gunpowder hanging in the air explained what had transpired.
I signaled several of my troops to quit gawking at the bodies and return to their positions so each end of the trail would be secure. Sergeant Nelson inspected the bloody corpses for documents. I ambled back toward the point, surprised at the elation I experienced after my initial taste of combat. As I neared Jerry, I saw a flash of movement behind the palms and bushes that screened the trails bend.
More Viet Cong.
Jerry noticed my performance. The GI twirled and dived back into the brush with a crash. I saw a muzzle flash. The only way to see a muzzle flash in daylight is to be gazing down a barrel. The bullet narrowly missed me as it sped by with a crack.
Six Viet Cong raced around the corner of the trail. Their firearms blazed on full automatic. I returned the fire, knocking one into the brush. Their shots kicked up plumes of earth on the trail next to me and shattered the canteen on my belt. The VC leaped into the greenery off the track. I scrambled to leave the trail myself.
I could hear my men thrashing in the undergrowth behind me; but no one was shooting for fear of hitting me or Jerry. Everything grew quiet. I searched the brush for a sign of Charlies presence. Then I realized that the VC had leaped into the same area where Jerry hidden. All hell’s going to break loose if that’s what happened, I thought to myself.
Sure enough, there was a flurry of shooting. AK-47s and an M16 barked in the scrub ahead of me. Ignoring the stray bullets cracking in the air, I rose up to a crouch to witness the outcome, my carbine at the ready.
As I watched, three of the Cong bolted out of the brush. They crossed the trail and dashed into the vegetation on the opposite side of the path before I could zap them. Two more of the enemy followed them; one limped badly. The second staggered, blood spurting from a wound on his neck. The two crossed the trail; my men finally started shooting. American bullets kicked up the sodden path around the VC. The first VC dropped like a limp rag doll. The other sprawled, his feet sticking out of the
brush onto the trail.
After the flurry of shooting, there was a lull. Most of my men had exhausted the rounds in their magazines. They paused to place new magazines into their M16s. AK-47s initiated a din of their own to fill the silence.
AK bullets cracked next to my head. I scrambled to place a palm between me and the VC and then realized that I was hearing the blast of a rifle from the knoll above me. I spun and discharged my weapon toward the sound. I caught a glimpse of a black figure. The man jerked and fell as I drew a bead on him. Half his face was blown away. More gun shots came from the hill as well as from the bend of the pathway; I cursed myself. I had permitted us to be caught in a flanking movement. There was little I could have done to prevent it, but I was furious for not anticipating it all the same.
Crouching down, I flipped the switch on my rifle to full auto. I kept the tree to my back so I’d be screened from the Cong on the trail. Rising slightly from the foliage, I squeezed off a barrage of slugs toward where the shooting came from the slope above. I dropped to the ground.
There wasn’t time to fire again. A hail of bullets answered my shots, cracking as they passed above my head; other bullets dug up the damp soil and growth. I crawled, hidden in the vegetation, and tried to withdraw from the spot from which I’d fired. I scooted on my hands and knees. Someone was thrashing toward me. I froze. My finger tightened on the trigger. Then I relaxed. I could see the olive green of a US uniform. It was Jerry!
The soldier crawled to me. Despite the fear in his eyes, he smiled grimly as he hugged the ground. A trickle of blood was coming from a small wound on Jerrys upper left arm. His lower ear lobe was also bleeding where it had been nicked by a bullet or possibly a splinter kicked up by a near miss.
The shooting stopped. I crawled forward and peeked through the thick brush that screened the trail. I could barely discern the black forms of two Cong who were crawling along the trail ten yards from us. I dropped the nearly empty magazine from my carbine while I watched the enemy soldiers. I rolled over and drew a full magazine from my pouch and slipped it silently into my rifle. My gun was still set on full auto. I wiped the sweat from my right eye. Rising to a crouch, I shot into the foliage at the two guerrillas. One of the guerrillas twitched spasmodically, then fell flat, my bullets gnawing at his body. The second, a young girl, spun over firing her AK skyward, then abruptly slumped.
As I dropped into the growth beside the point man, Jerry opened up with his M16. I peered through the foliage where Jerry fired. Several more Cong were sprinting toward us. The VC discharged their AKs blindly at the sound of our rifles. I emptied the rest of my magazine at them. All four of the Cong were hit. They collapsed on the trail, out of view. Now AK-47 bullets again rained on us from close range. The hill just over us was lit up with gunfire. Jerry and I plunged into the undergrowth, leaves and twigs from the trees overhead dropped on us. The moist dirt exploded with the impact of bullets.
The noise of the gunfire was accompanied by a wet, slapping sound, like a water melon being struck by a hammer. I glanced at Jerry. His face was staring with unfocused eyes. His face was blank, emotionless, his spirit drained from it. A large gaping hole in his temple oozed blood; the leaves behind him were matted with his blood and brains. I looked away and closed my eyes.
As a Lieutenant, I knew I was responsible for my soldiers. Forget Jerry, I told myself. Save the rest of your men from this predicament. But how? I’m too far from away to give orders. As close as the Cong are would make movement suicidal…
Another barrage of bullets chewed into the dirt around me.
I lay still, playing dead, praying that the next bullet wouldn’t be the one to kill me. After a few tense moments, the thumping of bullets so close to my body stopped.
Lying motionless for an eternity, I listened to the battle. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been hit even though the VC shooting at me had been quite close. I heard the Cong approaching through the vegetation.
I rolled over, jerked a grime-covered grenade from the side of my magazine pouch, and pulled the pin. I tossed the grenade toward the rustling sound. The blast that came seconds later was accompanied by a scream. On target, I thought. I instantly flung two more grenades.
As I listened, my M-79 grenadier started firing and the larger explosions of his shells reverberated from the knoll above me. Above the sounds of exploding grenades and the shots from the AK-47s, I could discern the staccato firing of an M60 along with the renewed fire of an M16. I quickly snapped a new magazine into my and looked over the grass to see what was happening.
I saw Instant. He was standing, firing his M60, oblivious to the incoming AK-47 bullets that were cutting through the brush and around him. He fired up the hill toward the Cong. With each string he shot, he took steps up the slope. His cowering ammunition handler scampered behind him with spare ammo, his M16 rifle playing a counterpoint to Instants weapon.
As I watched, I learned how Instant had obtained his name. Bits of palms shattered under the M60s fire. Here and there, Cong shrieked, cut down by the invisible blade. Burst after burst spilled brass out the side of the weapon as Instant directed his bullets at the Cong. But it’ll only be a matter of time before they slaughter him, I told myself. They murdered Jerry. Damn it, they’re not going to waste Instant. Acting on my anger, I jumped up and pulled the trigger on my carbine, and fired the Cong up the ridge.
“Come on!” I ordered a private I saw cowering in a clump of rubber trees. After a moments hesitation, he jumped up and joined me, his eyes wide with fear.
We sprinted up the hill, exposed. But we didn’t care. Run, aim, shoot. Sergeant Nelson stood up. He yelled and cursed those cowering around him. One by one they rose and joined the mad charge up the steep incline. We continued, stumbling, hurdling through the thick vegetation, and screaming like demented souls.
The firing of the AKs petered out. We darted through the foliage to the top of the ridge in our spontaneous charge. At the crest of the slope, the plants became sparse. We overlooked what had once been terraced farmland on the opposite downward slope. In the sparse scrub, we could also see the retreating VC. They were bounding like scared black rabbits. From our vantage point, the VC were totally exposed below us. We launched a hasty barrage after the enemy. Then we realized our opportunity. The Cong had no cover close by. We proceeded to take careful aim, savoring shots the way a hunter might when he made ready to bag a prized buck. We made careful, deliberate shots. One after another, the black, running forms crumpled. With a final flurry of shooting, only a lone Charlie managed to escape into the grove of trees below.
The bodies of the VC dotted the open hillside. Sporadic last shots ended the lives of the few wounded who continued to stir below us. Complete silence reigned for a few moments, then Blake yelled an obscenity at the last Cong who had eluded us.
Afterward, waiting with the wounded and dead for dustoff, I thought about the firefight. Instants selfless deed had saved our skins. It was little wonder the men had so much respect for the soldier. I studied him for a moment. He sat by himself beneath a tree, carefully cleaning his M60 like a mother washing a baby. He wore a bandage over his right eye and a second on his arm; except for those minor wounds, he had managed to come through the fight uninjured. And he’d shown a green lieutenant and his men what true bravery was.