“Our battle, hers and mine, was on that dirt floor.” In the jungles of Vietnam, in the throes of a hellish war, a soldier and a young woman connect over the shared bond of humanity…
by: James C. Gordon
On a September day so humid you could hardly breathe where the heat briskly sapped the energy from your body, Alpha Company trekked through a nameless valley to search a village for weapons. Our platoon walked point with twenty-six men because casualties had not been replaced. Harmon was platoon sergeant, a veteran of sixteen years. When he talked, we listened, and he often said, “In ‘Nam, you come to the party with what you got.” All I wanted was to survive and go home.
We slogged through rice paddies under a blazing sun then disappeared under a triple canopy where only thin daggers of sunlight stabbed through. Huge insects dive bombed us. Forget what you see in the movies, infantrymen cannot creep silently through the jungle. Hacking machetes fought nature, guys muttered when they stumbled, equipment rattled, and tromping, shuffling footsteps made us a noisy caravan. Eventually, the jungle thinned and revealed a cluster of bamboo huts.
“That’s our village,” Lieutenant Barrow said. His squeaky voice wasn’t ideal for one in command and he overcompensated by acting like an explorer claiming uncharted land.
“Lieutenant, we should wait for the rest of the company,” Harmon said.
“Hell no, Sergeant, we found this place.” Barrow squatted and drew a diagram in the dirt like a kid playing schoolyard football. “First squad deploy here, second squad here, third here. We’ll report when it’s secure.”
We approached the village like noisy burglars. I clutched my M16 in sweaty hands. I had been in combat before but as we approached the objective my mouth went dry and my tongue felt like an old biscuit. The pounding in my chest felt like it could crack a rib. A sniper lurked in every tree. Homemade bombs awaited one misstep.
Iron pots hung over cook fires with glowing embers underneath. The stink of boiled cabbage stung the air and squadrons of flies buzzed around food that was ready for cooking. Two squads moved forward. We probed rifle barrels into bags of rice and searched huts knowing that anything could be booby-trapped.
“They heard us coming and ran off.”
“You shits made too much fucking noise.”
“All of you assholes shut up,” Harmon growled. He turned to the radioman. “Get Alpha, pronto.”
Fitzy went down on one knee to relieve the strain of carrying the PRC-77 field radio on his back. He spoke into a handset covered in plastic to protect it from moisture. “Alpha Leader this is Alpha Point, over.” Static was the only reply. “I’m getting interference.”
“Get it sorted out.”
“Alpha Leader this is Alpha Point, over.” Fitzy shook his head.
We didn’t know that the rest of Alpha Company had stopped moving while our platoon slogged ahead. A dangerous gap of more than a click had grown between us and our nearest support.
Barrow bit his lip, looked toward the jungle, and ground his heel in the dirt. He took the handset from Fitzy. “Alpha Leader this is Alpha Point. Village secure. Rendezvous this location. Repeat, village secure. Over and out.”
He needed to act like he was doing something. His mistake was standing in one spot too long. The first shots ripped into chest and blew apart the handset along with his face. His body crumpled to the ground as AK-47 fire whistled overhead and thunked into trees.
Sergeant Harmon dropped to one knee and shouted. “Take cover! Everybody take cover somewhere! Return fire!”
The village became a swelter of gunfire, shouting, confusion, and more gunfire. I crawled so close to the ground that my face slid along the dirt until I reached a stump that might have been somebody’s outdoor chair. “Where are they?”
“Shoot at the trees!”
“Aim for flashes!”
Instinct took over. I peppered the trees, emptied one clip, slapped in another, fired more rounds without seeing a target.
“I’m hit! Oh fuck, I’m hit!”
I saw Pike on the ground grabbing his right thigh and dragging his foot. Gonzalez pulled him behind cover.
Bullets ripped the air. The sizzle of an RPG flashed overhead and obliterated a tree.
I saw a hut ten meters away offering minimal cover but better than nothing. I reloaded, fired toward the trees, jumped and ran, crashed through the flimsy door, and sprawled on a dirt floor.
It felt as if a freight train was barreling through my chest and I panted almost to hyperventilation. I heard a scratching noise behind me. It could have been a rodent scurrying for safety or someone leveling a weapon. In one motion I rolled to my right, whipped the barrel toward the sound, pulled the trigger, and clicked on an empty chamber.
A pair of soft brown eyes met mine in pleading silence. A Vietnamese girl, maybe fifteen years old, lay on her side under a bamboo bed frame. She held both hands over her protruding belly. Strands of hair clung to her sweaty face and her eyes were soggy with tears. She was biting hard on a leather strap and a tiny trickle of blood ran across her cheek.
“Are you alone?” I felt stupid for asking. She didn’t speak and I assumed we had didn’t share a common language.
Steady gunfire coughed outside and a shadow of guilt told me to rejoin the fight, but this helpless girl was going to give birth with only a millennia of female instinct to help her. And I only came to the party with a Boy Scout merit badge in first aid and a lecture on treating wounds with compresses, tourniquets and morphine.
“Hold on,” I said, as I reached beneath the bed. She resisted at first, wide-eyed, then accepted my arms and gripped the straps of my field pack as I slid her out.
I shucked off my pack, yanked out a poncho, shook it flat and maneuvered her onto her back. She gripped my arms again and her teeth clamped down on the leather strap as another surge of pain rolled through her. I held on until her muscles relaxed. She didn’t make a sound but I saw agony in her dewy eyes. I found a towel in my pack and wiped her face and neck.
The shooting diminished to scattered pops and I heard voices without registering words. Then a bullet flew through our bamboo wall reminding me there was a war outside. I hoped my guys could hold out. Our battle, hers and mine, was on that dirt floor.
We began deep breathing in unison. Her eyes pleaded, her chest heaved, and her brow wrinkled into a tiny mountain range. That girl was as tough as any soldier I ever knew.
“It won’t be long now,” I said, mainly for myself. It sounded encouraging even if I was wrong.
She elevated her knees, spread her legs, and pulled her dress up to expose a bulbous stomach, swollen thighs and a patch of damp fluff. I assumed the village women had coached her about how to deliver a child.
“I’m sorry everything is dirty.” Dirt was a second skin for soldiers but I figured it was bad for a woman giving birth.
Pain flashed in her eyes again. Her breathing became shallow and fast and we panted together. Her grip made red marks on my forearm.
I looked down and saw the top of a head. Then it disappeared. I didn’t know what to do and looked at her for help. She mumbled something in Vietnamese that I figured meant, “I want this to be over.” The baby’s head did the appearing and disappearing trick a second time. I had no idea that a baby might crown through the cervix and recede back into the uterus several times before a whole body comes out.
The next time the head appeared I violated her opening and worked my fingers into position to pull the little bugger out. A small face appeared with eyes pinched shut, flecked with blood, and wisps of black hair matted across the scalp. A short neck gave way to shoulders and arms and suddenly I held a slippery gooey bundle in my hands.
“It’s a girl. You have a baby girl.” Sweat ran down my face and I felt a deep sense of relief although she had done the hard work.
It was baby girl’s birthday and I felt like a new father. I marveled at the little thing cuddled in my arms as if sound sleep. Then I realized she wasn’t breathing and I panicked. I stood up and knelt back down, uncertain what to do. Then I remembered something about spanking a baby’s bottom to make it cry. Two light taps got no response. The girl said something and pulled me closer, reached over, and gave her daughter a solid swat on the bottom to elicit a whine. She offered a weak smile and spoke again in the language I never learned.
I searched my pack for a tee-shirt and wiped down the baby before I laid her on mother’s stomach. A fibrous cord stretched from the baby’s belly down to the mothers’ groin.
The girl grimaced again and for a minute I thought she was having another baby. I saw pain coming and got the leather strap back into her mouth an instant before she bit down. I was lucky my finger wasn’t caught.
After one more contraction, she gave birth to a purple globby thing attached to the other end of the cord. I folded my towel into a pad and crammed it against her crotch. She clamped her legs together and I pulled her dress down.
Holding the baby in one arm, the girl lifted the bloody cord between two fingers and made a scissors motion. I pulled out my bayonet, held a section of the cord in a loop, and sliced through. I flinched at the gush of fluid that poured out, then I tied a knot I’d learned in the Boy Scouts, coiled the cord, and folded the whole mess inside a corner of the poncho.
I sat back on my heels, drained.
Outside, the sounds of fighting had stopped and I heard my guys so I knew we held the village. I didn’t know how much time had passed since I first rolled into the hut but it felt like a lifetime. The new mother clutched her daughter and looked at me with a faint smile of relief, gratitude, and exhaustion. I found a blanket across the hut and spread it over them.
“Need help in here!” I shouted.
A soldier filled the doorway. I couldn’t remember his name because I was still in a world without soldiers. “You hurt? You’re bloody.” He sounded jittery.
“I’m okay. We’re all alive.” The mother struggled to huddle against me and hold her baby against her chest.
“That’s a baby.”
“Sure is. This girl squeezed her out a minute ago.”
“No shit,” he said, and tipped his helmet back. “LT’s dead. Company saved our ass. Choppers are here for casualties.”
The stupidity of my actions caught up with me. I could have been killed or captured trying to help that girl or else court martialed for desertion under fire. I had been foolish even if was the right thing to do, the human thing.
The girl shifted and grunted as if in pain. I figured that was normal until she pulled out the towel I had stuffed into her crotch and it was soaked red.
“Holy fuck, she’s gushing!” I couldn’t just leave here there, I had to do something. “Help me, quick!”
I threw on my pack and slung my rifle over my shoulder. The other soldier helped me wrap them in the blanket and hoist the whole bundle off the ground.
Swirling dust suffused the area and the acrid scent of cordite stung my nostrils. Huts were smoldering and the deep throb of helicopters shook the ground creating a horrific wind. Ammunition boxes were pushed out. Wounded grunts were helped onboard and the less fortunate loaded inside body bags.
I leaned forward against the downdraft and ran to the nearest Huey. The crewman waved me off when he saw what I was carrying.
I yelled at him. “You got to take her! She’s bleeding bad!”
“The mother needs a doctor!”
“No civilians!” he repeated, making a slash motion across his neck.
I held my load with one arm and grabbed him with the other. “Have a heart, man. She just had a baby!”
The Vietnamese girl was exhausted but she knew how to play her cards. The crewman looked at her and she gave him a double-barreled volley from those deep brown watery eyes. He caved.
Mother and child were stowed on board along with three wounded grunts and two body bags at their feet. I belted her into the seat before the crewman pushed me out.
The engines revved and the propwash knocked me down as the chopper lifted out of the jungle’s warm embrace. I crouched on one knee and waved. She lifted one limp hand toward me before the bird turned and flew away.
James C. Gordon grew up and resided in California. He viewed the world as raw material for Fiction. He said, “The human experience is a never ending story worth telling.” Unfortunately he died tragically on 9/6/2022 and the world will miss his kindness, generosity, and unique perspective of the world around him.
Rest in Peace James C. Gordon. Thank you for sharing your stories with us.
So lovely to read this riveting story written by my deceased brother in law who tragically passed away too soon with a head and heart full of stories to tell
What a compelling story about the human experience in the midst of chaos. Jim’s talent shows through here.
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