Authors: J.B. Hadley
Gripping his rifle firmly about the buttstock, he thrust it forward and drove the tip of the bayonet into the Laotian’s back.
The man screamed with pain and lost his footing in the jungle underbrush. Mike was upon him in a flash.
Using the rifle as a primitive spear, he drove the bayonet deep into the man’s chest. Mike pulled the bloody dripping weapon
out of the Communist soldier’s body.
The American mercenary looked at the crimson-bathed stainless steel blade and the cut-open lifeless rag doll at his feet.
Mike Campbell had not forgotten how dirty war could be. It was just that he had hoped this mission would be different.
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pilot knew it was way too late for him to take evasive action. The surface-to-air missile corrected its trajectory, wobbled
for an instant on its stabilizing fins and then homed in on the exhaust of his starboard jet engine. He hadn’t seen the goddamn
thing in time.
He was flying a solo mission—no crew, no radio contact—north of the DMZ. He was a goner.
Except no man ever believes that.
He waited with one hand on the seat ejection mechanism in the hope that through some failure of infrared heat sensor technology
the missile would miss its target. This delay might cost him his life by trapping him inside the burning plane, but he would
take a chance on that rather than eject early and hang from his chute only to see his plane fly away on automatic pilot after
escaping the missile.
He felt the impact of the missile’s exploding warhead shake the plane out of control, and almost simultaneously he blasted
himself clear of the cockpit. He spun end over end at high speed in the cold, thin air, clear of the flaming wreckage and
its lethal debris. The green jungle turned crazily and then righted itself far beneath him as he began his slow parachute
descent. The burning jet fighter plunged
into the trees a few kilometers to the north, and a lead-colored plume of smoke marked its final resting place.
He hit the tops of the jungle trees and was fortunate not to break an arm or a leg as he crashed down through the branches.
The parachute canopy and its lines became entangled in a treetop and left him dangling in his harness, swinging to and fro
sixty feet above the jungle floor.
He swung harder until he caught the slender tree trunk with his arms and legs, released his harness and shinned down the trunk.
He hit the ground and looked around him. Five peasants pointed automatic rifles at him and stared at him in silence.
Finally, one let his rifle hang loose on its sling. He made gestures of taking off his clothes to the airman, who obeyed and
then stood naked before them. The North Vietnamese peasant fetched a spade lying on the ground nearby. He handed it to the
flyer. The spade was carved skillfully from a solid piece of valuable hardwood and would have fetched a fancy price in a Western
“Dig! Dig!” the peasant screamed at the pilot in Vietnamese.
The flyer leaned casually on the wooden spade. He asked in excellent Vietnamese, “Why do you want me to dig?”
The foreigner’s knowledge of his language seemed to increase the peasant’s frenzy.
“Spy! Infiltrator! You have come to monitor our activities!”
The airman smiled. “Look, I wouldn’t even be down here if some of your friends hadn’t sent me an invitation by way of a missile—”
“You came to bomb us!”
“You know the difference between a bomber and a fighter.”
“Dig! Dig! Here!” The peasant grabbed the spade from him, pressed down on its blade with a sandaled foot, dug
up a chunk of jungle soil and put it on one side. He handed back the spade. “Dig like that.”
“Why?” the airman asked truculently.
The others laughed heartily at this.
The flyer took the spade and decided to dig. Chances are, he guessed, they’re trying to psych me out. His mind resolutely
shut out another possibility. Almost.
He pressed down gingerly on the hard wooden spade with his bare foot and heaved aside a wedge of soil. The moist, soft earth
was heavy to lift but easy to cut through. Three of the peasants watched silently as he dug. The other two went through his
belongings, and one began to write with a ballpoint pen and paper that he found.
It was only as the hole assumed the shape of a grave and got to a depth of a couple of feet that a full realization of what
he was doing hit the flyer. The horror of his situation swept over him, and he stopped digging and faced the three peasant
watchers. They looked back at him without expression—he could see neither hate nor pity in their eyes. He threw the spade
on the ground.
The one who had ordered him to dig pointed at the edge of the hole. “Kneel!”
The airman looked at him with contempt. “Americans kneel only to God.”
All three sprang on him in a rage. One kneed him in the groin, and the flyer doubled over in agony. They forced him down on
his knees, held him by his hair and pushed his face into the dirt in front of him. The peasant who had spoken raised a machete
and swung the blade down on the back of the unprotected neck of the flyer. He hacked the head clear of the man’s shoulders
and put it in a rice-straw bag. The other two kicked and rolled the body into the shallow grave, then scattered soil over
it with the spade.
One of the two peasants who had been examining the airman’s belongings held up the sheet of white paper upon
which he had laboriously copied some meaningless English symbols with the ballpoint pen. Still in his teens, the peasant
looked very proud of his achievement. Had they understood what he had copied on the paper, they would have read: Lt. Frank
ornate mansions stood in walled compounds, visible through high, decorative iron gates. The French colonials had lived in
them when they had ruled Indochina and the city had been called Saigon. Now it was Ho Chi Minh City, and the elegant buildings
of this residential section had new masters and rotted gracefully in the tropic heat. All emblems of colonial rule had been
removed where possible. The name of one mansion, Les Pleiades, still remained, engraved too deeply in the cut stone of the
gate piers to be easily effaced.
In this house’s garden, which was about two acres in area and still bore traces of the obsessive geometrical neatness of French
horticulture, two dozen children labored over vegetables in the soil. They thinned out lines of seedlings and weeded between
the rows, bending over their work earnestly as drops of sweat fell from their faces onto the earth at their fingers. A few
had Western shirts, jeans and sneakers, but most were clothed in rags and wore sandals.
As they stooped at their work, the hair color of the children marked them as being different. Even those with black hair did
not have the glossy jet black of Vietnamese
children. Many had brown hair, and one had a shock of curly red hair. They looked up only when the front door of the mansion
slammed shut after a Vietnamese woman and two children. The woman glanced disdainfully at the Western faces of the children
working in the garden. She hurried her own two children before her and unlocked the tall iron gate opening into the street.
“Commie bitch!” one of the children in the garden called after her.
The child’s use of English and his American accent caused the woman to wince. She would never get used to these little monsters.
Her husband often said it would have been better for everyone if all of them had been shot. Not just these, but the thousands
of them all over the place fathered by American troops. The ones who looked Vietnamese could get by. Not these Western-looking
ones. No one wanted them.
She locked the gate after her.
The boy who had shouted at her spat onto the ground. He was thirteen years old and was the only one of the children who had
crossed over into adolescence. His voice had broken, and something of the belligerent adult male could already be detected
in his stance. His hair was brown, as were his only slightly almond-shaped eyes, and his skin was sallow. In a Coca-Cola T-shirt,
blue jeans, and sneakers, he could have been a kid on any American street.
The others looked up from their work, waiting for what he would do next. It was evident from the way they waited for him that
he was their leader.
“His goddamn crap cousins from up north!” the youth growled. “I’m sick of ’em!”
He carefully cultivated the tones he imagined belonged to a GI tough guy.
“Vo Veng is watching from the window,” a girl warned.
The youth looked up and saw the small, skinny figure clad in black pajamas standing at a second-floor window
looking down at him. The youth grinned insolently up at the man and glanced at his bare left wrist as if looking at a nonexistent
watch. The man at the window involuntarily glanced at his own expensive Swiss watch on his left wrist, grimaced at the trick
the youth had played on him, and stalked away into the interior of the room out of their view.
The youth laughed and said, “Now, I wonder what a dedicated communist cadre like Vo Veng would want with a rich capitalist’s
“Or with all the other watches, TV sets, radios, tape decks and other stuff we get him,” another boy added.
“One of the stupid kid cousins was wearing a blue T-shirt this morning,” a girl said.
They curled their lips in disgust at the thought of this. They could accept any kind of behavior from the adults, but they
kept their special scorn and hatred for the kids their own age who were part of Vo Veng’s extended family. Once they had lived
inside the mansion with Vo Veng as orphanage supervisor, his wife as cook, and his two children as classmates in their schoolroom
run by an outside teacher. Things hadn’t been too bad back then.
Vo Veng was from North Vietnam and felt himself superior to the South Vietnamese, who he claimed were corrupted by Western
values. After a while the teacher from outside ceased coming, and their school work came to a stop. Vo Veng put them to growing
vegetables instead. Then more and more of his cousins arrived from the north. The men built two huts out of sight at the back
of the house. The walls were constructed of bamboo, and they had galvanized zinc roofs which rattled like drums in heavy rain.
But the cousins didn’t move into these two huts. They moved the children out of the big house and put the girls in one hut
and the boys in the other.
Vo Veng’s wife no longer cooked for them. Nor were they supplied with any food. They ate vegetables they grew in the garden
and rice they bought in the market with surplus money from what they called their “business.”
Their “business” was where the orphanage’s supervisor’s watch had come from, which was why he had started guiltily when reminded
of it by his insolent ward. Smuggled consumer goods from the outside world were at a premium in communist Vietnam. Items such
as watches and tape decks, once cheap and taken for granted in Saigon, had become expensive status symbols in Ho Chi Minh
Most of the smuggled goods came overland from Thailand, across communist Cambodia or Laos into Vietnam. The rest were brought
in by fishermen in their boats at lonely spots along the coast.
The kids at Les Pleiades held what was almost a franchise for their part of the city in the sale of this contraband. They
were outcasts. They had nothing to lose, no one to embarrass by their antisocial activities. It was Vo Veng who had to be
careful. Party zealots did not take kindly to one of their members trading in Western luxury goods. Was he still receiving
a salary from the government for their nonexistent teacher? The children were long since aware he was spending money meant
for them on his cousins from the north and as capital to buy smuggled goods to resell at a profit.