August 7, 1969
During one of my walks around the base the previous day, I heard some little kids laughing. It was coming from the ward next to ours, building 3299. I stuck my head in to look around. I saw a nurse, a Major.
“Is it okay to visit?” I asked.
“Absolutely. The kids love to meet new people. These are the real victims of this war. Most of these kids were injured by rocket attacks. Be gentle with them.”
There were about twenty kids there, most of them infants. There were seven who were between four and seven years old. All of them were badly injured. One kid was missing his left hand. Another only had one eye. Several were on crutches. I wanted to wrap my arms around each one, to make the pain go away. It just wasn’t fair what was happening to these innocent kids.
And still, they smiled. There was no self-pity. With some of the kids, there was matter-of-fact acceptance, but with most, it was like there was nothing wrong. I spent about an hour with the kids. I couldn’t understand a word they said, and they couldn’t understand me.
But I was able to teach them the names of the seven dwarfs. Happy, Dopey, Sleepy, Grumpy, Sneezy, Bashful, Doc. We had a contest to see which kid could recite the names the fastest. It was great to see them laugh. It was a good feeling to leave them smiling.
I went to the BX and bought about a dozen Hershey bars. The clerk at the BX copied the informtion from my wrist band, and I left and headed back to building 3299. I had been gone for about an hour.
The kids were happy to see me again. The nurse said, “The kids have something to show you.”
One by one, each kid recited one of the seven dwarf names.
“They want you to call them by the names they learned,” the nurse said.
“With pleasure,” I said. I turned to the kids, “I’m so proud of all of you!”
I reached into my bag, withdrew the Hershey bars, and started handing them out. Suddenly, the nurse ran up to me and grabbed the candy from me.
“What the hell are you doing?” she demanded.
“I’m giving the kids candy.” It was what GIs did in every war movie I’d ever seen as a kid.
“Lieutenant, I appreciate the intent, but these kids are all taking medications, and the caffeine in chocolate can have an adverse interaction. Please don’t do this again.”
“I’m really sorry, Major.”
I stayed around for a little while and practiced associating each of the seven dwarf names with the seven kids. Then I left. I knew I should have checked with the nurse before giving the kids anything.
I felt like an idiot. I needed to talk to someone who would not be judgemental. I needed to talk to Sam.
I had been trying to place a MARS call to Sam for the past two days, and didn’t get through because they couldn’t find any ham radio operators in Japan that were on the air at the time, so I thought I’d give it another try. After dinner I went back to the MARS station.
It was just getting dark when I arrived at the station. As usual, I went to the head of the line, and this time, we made contact with a ham radio operator in Japan, right in Tokyo. I placed the call, and anxiously waited to hear her voice. A female answered, and my heart started beating faster as soon as I heard Sam’s voice.
“Sam, it’s so good to hear your voice. We’re talking on a radio call, so you need to say the word O-V-E-R when you finish each sentence. Over.”
“Ham! I was so worried about you. When I called your squadron, they said you hadn’t returned from your flight. Over.”
I needed to have a conversation about OPSEC – Operations Security – and COMSEC – communication security – with the squadron Admin Clerk. He should’ve just said I wasn’t there.
“I had a little problem in the target area, but I’m okay now. I’m not at DaNang right now, I’m at a beautiful base further south. Cam Ranh Bay. But you can still write to me at my old address, because I’ll be heading back to DaNang in about a week. Over.”
“Were you hurt? Over.”
“Very minor scrape. Nothing to worry about. But I have to tell you, the experience really got me thinking about what’s important to me. And what’s important to me right now is to tell you I love you. Over.”
“I love you too, Ham. I can’t stop thinking about you. Over.”
Cheers from the peanut gallery.
“I’ll call you again real soon, honey. I love you. Good bye. Over.”
“I love you, too. Good bye. Over.”
There. I said it. When I was down in the jungle, thinking I may die at any time, my only regret was not telling Sam how I felt about her. As I returned to the ward, I was walking on cloud nine.
Just as I approached the door of the ward, I saw a dark figure running from building 3299, toward our ward. Then the door of building 3299 exploded.
August 7, 1969
Just as building 3299 was engulfed in flames, the attack siren sounded. I heard other explosions in the distance, and it was immediately clear to me that the base was under sapper attack. And the dark figure running toward me, and my ward, was one of the sappers.
In our Unarmed Combat classes at the Academy, the instructors emphasized that it was important to use the element of surprise, to keep the enemy off balance. I gave a loud yell, what in karate we called a kiyai, and clapped my hands together, once, as loud as I could. It seemed to startle the sapper.
Then I quickly knelt down and grabbed a handful of sand, and threw it in his face as he closed the distance. He was temporarily blinded, and I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.
I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could, and he doubled over. Then I delivered a knife-edge hand strike to his neck, right at the front of his windpipe. It worked just as advertised. He started choking.
I remembered our instructor saying, “The windpipe is like soft copper tubing. You can crush it with a well-placed blow and there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent your adversary from ashpyxiating. Never, and I mean never, use it in a fight unless your life is on the line.”
I was pretty sure this qualified as justified use of the windpipe attack. The sapper was holding his throat, clearly unable to breathe. I went behind him, grabbed his head with both hands, and gave a forceful twist. I wanted to twist his fucking head completely off. I felt a snap and the sapper fell limp to the ground.
Royce had been correct. It was easier to kill a second time. And, when I saw what this bastard had done, it felt good.
I ran into 3299. There was blood and debris everywhere, and kids were screaming. The lights at the front of the ward were out. The only illumination was from the battery-powered emergency lights that remained on the far wall. Two nurses and a doctor were performing triage, treating the kids who were going to live, ignoring anyone with more serious, possibly mortal, wounds. There was a lot of shouting of medical terms I didn’t understand. I felt totally helpless. I didn’t know a thing about combat first aid. I just knew I needed to stay out of everyone’s way.
I saw Grumpy lying near the door in a huge pool of blood. He was still breathing, just barely. Short, shallow breaths. I sat on the floor and cradled him, softly weeping as I rocked him forward on his journey to Heaven.