John Flagler, Sanford
On the Ides of March, for nearly thirty years, I experienced a crashing depression followed by a recurring dream, each night, for approximately week to two weeks. I’d slog up the soggy, rain saturated hillside with my poncho thrown over my shoulder, filled to capacity with ‘contraband’, battle litter, to be collected and transported away by helicopter. As I reach the crest of the hill, the engineer for the relieving company detonates an enemy mine.
The white flash triggers my instinctual rapid descent to the deck seconds before the roar of the explosion. The searing blast burns the back of my jungle blouse clear off me. The engineers body somersaults over my prostrate body and lands in a gully behind me. There’s a moment of silence. Total silence. No bird chirping, no monkey chatter, no noise at all. Then, the moans, the cries, and frantic movement erupts as corpsman rushed toward mangled men. I turned to help the engineer in any way I can. But, the blast pushed under his jaw and peeled it to the back of his head. His brain fell out of the cavity and washed down the ravine. A squad leader and I wrapped him in my poncho and bound it with communication wire. Later that day, another Marine, I’ll call him ‘Tanglefoot’, and I carry his body in shifts a click back to a safe and secured LZ to be extracted by helicopter.
That is what I remember with any clarity of the assault of Hill 484, now made famous by Karl Marlantes’ novel, “Matterhorn,” and the documentary film, “Into the A Shau Valley.” I don’t remember the hallmark element of the battle, the rescue of a helicopter crew that crashed in the middle of the event. I don’t remember the thing tactically because it was my first experience of combat.
When I say “with clarity”, I mean the images are crystal clear. But, when I got together with my comrades last year, it became apparent we all remember it differently. I almost came to blows with a fellow Marine over the differences. Why? Well, who’d of thought that memory would have an agenda. The reason I was having these graphic, self flagellating dreams was my persecuting survivor guilt. I convinced myself the blast was from an dud American artillery shell instead of a Chinese manufactured mine, so that I could blame the government I resented for sending me to Vietnam. I convinced myself that the engineer was a husband and a father who was taken instead of this callow 19 year old with few attachments and no dependents. Only to find out he was not much older than me. Why did my comrade and I almost come to blows over ‘who’ carried the body back to the safe zone? Because we needed, very desperately, to rescue this awful catastrophe with a noble act, a small sacrifice of a personal item that would give great comfort from the monsoon rain. The noble effort of dragging a body over rough terrain for over half a mile.
The fact is that we all took shifts carrying ‘three’ bodies down that slippery trail. We were all young and few of us had wives or children. Our company lost 18 attempting three times to take this insignificant blemish in the jungle, and our relieving company lost five more. Finally, the mine had snatched our hard earned victory from us, just before the Marine Corps sent helicopters to extract us off the hill, and the jungle consumed it again. Hence, our saying, “Don’t mean nothing, just a thing.” The only thing that mattered really, in the end, was our dedication to ourselves. We didn’t matter to anyone, really. Maybe our families, but no one else. But, we all cared for one another, and, all these years later, we still continue to care for each other.