It was just a short three-day operation, a small military-civilian affair quickly forgotten by strategists. But for the Marines and Vietnamese it was what the war really means
The plan for Operation Zippo is simple: The 200 Marines of Lima Company, assisted by two platoons of Vietnamese militia, will cross south over the Sông Vu Gia at dawn and sweep through the Viet-Cong controlled area. After detaining the VC suspects (pho-
tos at right are keyed to numbers on map) and placing a protective cordon around the paddy fields, the Marines will bring 400 peasants from the pacified side to harvest the VC rice. A nice simple idea. So why didn’t it work? For the answer, start reading.
THE RED-CLAY ROAD down Hill 65 opens like a wound to the grey Vietnamese sky. The blurred reflections of heavily burdened men in olivegieen uniforms pass over the dark puddles of water on the road. The men move in combat formation, in two lines on either side of the road, each man six to eight feet behind the one in front. Suddenly there is an obscene blurt of automatic fire. A couple of the men go down on one knee, weapons at the ready, looking back over their shoulders, a little bewildered. An embarrassed 19-year-old is fumbling with his M16 rifle, repeating, “I had it on safety. I had it on safety.” His comrades only curse him.
A few seconds later, a tall, bespectacled, young Marine correspondent called Fitzpatrick hurries forward. “I’m not staying back with those boots [greenhorns],” he says. “They almost got me.” He needn’t have hurried; the boots hit him a few hours later with a short mortar round.
This is the beginning of Operation Zippo and the men are of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Division of the Uni-
ted States Marine Corps. The commanding officer is Captain Matt Marshall. He has a full company of three platoons, 160 men, plus another 40 men who make up the mortar, engineer, and medical corps attachments. For most of Lima Company it is their first time in combat. It is Captain Marshall’s first operation. He has been in Vietnam two months. The lieutenants leading the 1st and 2nd Platoons are also new; so are most of the NCOs. Only a few of the squad leaders have been around any length of time. Despite their inexperience, the Marines are in superb physical condition. Even the 40-year-old top sergeant has no gut.
Like most military plans on paper, Operation Zippo is simple, almost beautifully so. Immediately below Hill 65 flows the Sông Vu Gia. South of the river is a free-fire zone, which means the U.S. forces can shoot and bomb anything that moves out there. It also means it's Viet Cong-controlled territory. The plan is to cross the Sông Vu this morning, establish a perimeter around six square miles that will encompass the rice fields on the south side of the river, then bring over from the north side some 400 Vietnamese civilians to harvest the VC rice. In a way it’s retaliation against
the VC units who keep coming north across the river to the American side to exact rice taxes from the civilians in Dai Lôc. The whole operation is supposed to take three days.
To assist Marshall in securing his perimeter, he has the 92nd and 82nd Popular Force platoons of the Dai Lôc area militia. The PF militia has been training for three months under officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. And that’s where Operation Zippo begins to fall apart. To use Vietnamese civilians and militia units means secrecy is nonexistent. Charlie, as the Marines call the VC, knows Lima Company is on its way. He even said so last night over a portable loudspeaker that moved up and down the river bank in the darkness. “Soldiers of the American Imperialist Army, we know' you are coming across the river tomorrow. We are ready for you. If you do not want to die, surrender with your arms and you will be treated well.”
And if the VC had any doubts, well, here in the early dawn is Lima Company, coming down the hill in full view of the enemy-held territory where, according to intelligence reports, a battalion of Viet Cong and a battalion of the North Vietnamese Army are waiting.
At the staging / continued on page 48
OPERATION ZIPPO continued from pane 21
noise of shells. Below, tense curses
Above, the fluting
area, two tanks armed with 90-mm guns pour preparatory rounds into the first tree line across the river. From behind comes the always - startling crack of the 105 and 155 howitzers firing from the battery on Hill 65. The shells soar overhead with that eerie fluting noise made by their own slipstream. “You don’t hear the
one that kills you.” grins a Marine beside me. “At least that’s what they say.” His face is blackened and he wears camouflage foliage in his helmet cover. He is "Frenchy" Johnson, formerly of New Brunswick, latterly a Californian surfer, now a lance corporal in a squad that call themselves the Dirty Dozen. With Magic
Markers the squad members have written the title on their helmets and flak jackets, along with a lot of other obscenities: “If you find me dead, VC, then f . . . you.” Some are more philosophical: “Old men make war in which young men must die.” Also popular among Marines: “Oswald,
where are you now that we need you?”
The Dirty Dozen is the second squad of the 2nd Platoon commanded by Second Lieutenant Thomas L. Krebs, a blond Southerner, who’s tough and looks it. He orders his men to burn the personal letters they have on them. The symbolic severing of this last tenuous connection to another life seems to suddenly heighten the tension. The young faces become tense, there is less talking, teeth gnaw at lips. Despite the slow-speaking calm of Captain Marshall, the young officers are obviously agitated. Krebs paces up and down in tight circles, head down, spitting constantly, issuing curt orders. He has good reason to be restless: the U.S. forces have lost a lot of infantry lieutenants over here. Somebody has figured out that, on the average, a lieutenant lasts 95 seconds of actual combat time.
Then something happens that releases the tension. A serious-faced little boy of about three, wearing only a shirt, comes running down the track. Behind him, four small South Vietnamese soldiers carry a litter with a body on it. They are followed by a group of wailing women and children. A Marine yells out, “Aw, shut up, ya stupid bitch.” A few others jeer. Another one yells out, “Hey, Whitcy. what did you do to her?” A few laugh.
I ask the medic what happened. “It’s a PF. They set booby traps around the village to keep the VC out at night, then they go out in the morning and forget where the booby traps are. Fini PF. This is the fourth one in about 10 days.” He shrugs. “Hell, they're farmers, not soldiers.”
The little farmers are still arriving at the staging area. Next to the Marines they make an incongruous sight. The little men casually ride up on bicycles, smoking cigarettes, natty in their olive-green uniforms, nervously polite. They gaze anxiously across the river where the first wave of Marines from the 1st Platoon are crossing the Song Vu on the Amtracks (amphibious tracked vehicles). The 50-calibre machine gun is hammering away, pouring more prep fire into the tree line. The landing is unopposed.
The 1st Platoon has to secure the beach, then sweep through the first village, My Hoa, and advance to a line about 1,500 metres from the river. The 2nd Platoon will stay on the Amtracks once they have crossed the river, and be carried up to the 1,500metre line, where they will hook up in the left flank of the 1st Platoon. The 3rd Platoon, which is also the headquarters platoon, will stay in a central reinforcing position behind the first two, while the two PF platoons will be moved up on each side to protect the flanks. Then the whole mobile force will roll forward in that formation to the 2.500-metre line. That's the plan.
I choose to go with the 2nd Platoon, which will make the central sweep through the most populated areas. Krebs orders the men to “saddle up.” and we wait for the “floating coffins” to take us across the river. Krebs yells to his men. “All right, if you’ve got bayonets, fix ’em.”
The order draws a little chuckle
from Corporal “Bronco” Martin, squad leader of the Dirty Dozen, “Hey, this is a pretty gung-ho, lieutenant.” Over the next three days there is always going to be a little abrasion between the lieutenant and Bronco. Bronco is a smooth, tough Negro. Not that there is anything overtly racial between the two men. It is probably a matter of competition for leadership. Bronco leads a very good squad
Forty-five minutes later we have crossed the river but are still sitting on the Amtracks, waiting for an F4 to complete its strike on some suspicious activity the spotter plane has observed ahead of us and to our left. To our right there is an occasional burst of M16 fire as the 1st Platoon proceeds with its sweep. The sun is fierce and we are out in the open, the sweat running off us. A tall Negro machine gunner is already dozing. The jet screams in and dumps its payload of high explosive. The 2nd Platoon piles off the Amtrack. There's a small, chest-deep river to wade across, then the men file into the trees.
The sweep is made through heavy jungle growth that every so often gives way to little square groves of banana trees and cultivated patches. The deserted silence of the little thatched houses makes it all the more ominous. The thick growth is ideal for snipers waiting in ambush. The Marines. often hidden from each other, are quite noisy with their sweep, nervously shouting back and forth to each other.
“Hey, Batchelor, are you there? Arc you hooked in on the flank?”
Batchelor shouts back in the jargon of the Marines, “That's firm.”
“Lieutenant!” yells a Marine. “I’ve found a coffin.” Painted in raw ochre, with the reversed swastika symbols of Buddhism at each end. the coffin stands under the shade of two small trees. “What shall I do with it, sir?”
"Leave the goddam thing alone, it's probably boobytrapped.”
By this time I am with Krebs’ third squad, led by Corporal Dale Eugene (Woody) Woodcook and his understudy Lance Corporal John (Spook) Casper, both college men. This is Woodcook’s last operation. He has been in Vietnam 13 months. He is wiry, cool, and still a very humane guy. Casper is tall, big-boned, and unpredictably violent.
The squad has found two houses that are occupied. “Lieutenant Krebs, there’s a bitch in here with some kids.”
“Search the house, put a guard on the people,” Krebs says. He seems to be everywhere at once, sweating, cursing, spitting out orders. “Goddammit, Martin, get your men up.”
Casper has made a find. In the first house he has found some of the grey-green material the North Vietnamese Army uses to make uniforms. Now he's screaming excitedly at the woman the few phrases of Vietnamese he knows: "You VC. Husband VC. Come on. get down, you bitch.“ He grabs her by the back of her neck and pushes her down on her heels into a squat. Her three children — between two and six years of age — cluster around her, whimpering. She opens her black pyjama top and lets the youngest feed at her breast.
Casper squats down beside her, thrusts his M16 into her face. “Same, same, where?” he shouts, pointing to the house, indicating she should show him where any weapons are hidden. But the woman, who is about 30, is playing dumb. She just repeats everything Casper says, and under the circumstances she seems a lot cooler than he is. A Vietnamese interpreter comes over, and at the sight of a Vietnamese face her composure breaks and she begins weeping. After a few
words of exchange, the interpreter shrugs and walks away.
In the next thatched house another woman has been found. She is breastfeeding a threeor four-day-old child. It is still covered with the red splotches of birth. The woman walks with difficulty. She is put under guard with the younger one.
The houses are ingenious, built out of woven grass and bamboo poles. The floors are dirt, the furniture meagre: a doll-size table with two
benches. String hammocks hang from the bamboo wall posts. Incorporated into the design of each house is a mud - and - bamboo - reinforced block that is the entrance to the family’s underground bunker. There is usually another bunker outside, which is connected by a tunnel to the house bunker. This is how these people survive in a “free-fire zone.”
The two women and their children are allowed to stay in the shade of one house. The sweep continues about
OPERATION ZIPPO continued
“For the guy who kills the first gook, beer—all he needs”
50 yards and stops at the first objective, a central path through the village of My Phii. It is here that the 2nd Platoon hooks in the left flank of the 3rd Platoon. It is here that we must wait for the PFs to move up on our flanks. Ahead and to our left, a sniper fires a few rounds vaguely in our direction with a semi-automatic carbine. He is a long way off and nobody pays him much attention.
The path is shaded, there is a good well, and most of the men break out some C rations. Everybody is feeling more relaxed. The staff sergeant tells the men. “For the guy who kills the first gook, all the beer he needs to get stinking drunk and I'll stand his watch on the hill.” Lieutenant Krebs says he’ll do the same for the second gook killed.
The pathway is not a good one to stay on for long. At some stretches in front of it, the jungle growth is thick and impossible to see through. Immediately in front of Woodcook's squad is a small rice field almost 100 yards wide. On the far side is another thatched house.
The vague shadow of a man flits back and forth across the doorway.
Batchelor squeezes off a careful shot. The Marines around him cheer.
“Holy Jesus! You see that? Just like the movies.
The guy sagged, then just kinda slowly slid down holding onto the doorway.”
"That lucky sonofabitch Batchelor gets all the beer.”
“Okay, shut up and get a fire team out there to check the body,” says Krebs.
A five-man fire team led by Casper moves out across the paddy. And suddenly it feels very naked out there in the open. Corporal Mike Stokey, a Marine correspondent, mutters, “This is how we got ambushed on Operation Arizona.”
But we make the house.
There is no corpse — just a very frightened old man and a woman. They don’t understand anything that is said to them. If there was a body, it has been dragged away, and nobody wants to check out the bunkers in the house. Everybody is a little tense and in a hurry to get back. They take the old pair with them.
At 3 p.m. we are still waiting on the path for the PFs. Over the radio we have heard that they're too scared to move off the beach. Their American advisers are trying to persuade them to move up beside the Marines.
On our pathway the whispered con-
versations have given way to loud talking up and down the line. Instead of squatting or lying down behind the available cover, some men arc standing around, walking. Mike Stokey, the Marine correspondent, and I discuss how we can move to the rear and see what's happening to the PFs. Stokey is a very cool young guy. with glasses and wispy blond moustache.
We stand up to walk to the rear, when from about 50 metres away there comes that vicious, fast pop-popping of some AK47s. Stokey goes down with a sharp grunt, a round through his right leg. “I'm hit.” he says matterof-factly to Woodcook who is on his other side. Woodcook is calmly emptying his M16 into the tree line just in front of us and to our right, where the VC are right on top of us. In the pause he takes to change his magazine clip, he calls out for a medic and shouts, "Hey, Willie! Get that
machine gun going.”
“The frigging gun is jammed, Woody.”
Most of the Marines are pouring lead into the tree line. The noises of the different weapons in the fire fight work around and over each other: there is the regular, heavy hammering of the 30-calibre machine guns, the grinding, rapid bursts of the Ml6s,
the light, fast popping of the AK47s (the Communist Chinese answer to the Ml6s). In the holes of noise, there are the single little pops of the carbines. And there is the scream, “Outgoing!” as a Marine throws a grenade. The heavy mortar shells start crumping in on the path, their fragments exploding and scattering through the foliage. Marines dive into ditches and into the mortar holes the VC have dug beside the path. Fitzpatrick, the other Marine correspondent. runs along the path, chuck-
ling at the sight of UPI photographer Frank Johnston who is stuck halfway in a mortar hole, jammed up by the pack on his back. Fitzpatrick runs around a house, a mortar shell comes right in on top of it and the fragments get Fitzpatrick in the legs.
Woodcook is swearing: “Those aren't incoming. Those are short rounds. Some 19-year-old kid has got scared and doesn’t know what he’s doing. Goddammit, I've seen more Marines killed that way.”
Under fire, Medical Corpsman Bob Dunn is applying a field dressing to Stokey. Dunn is a short, aggressive little guy. His helmet keeps slipping down over his eyes; with a curse, he throws it off. Finished with Stokey, he runs down the line to where the mortars came in. Besides Fitzpatrick, three other men are wounded. And all the time Dunn runs down the path the Marines are yelling, “Hey, Doc, keep down, you stupid bastard.” Then the confusion and firing is all over, as suddenly as it started. The wounded are carried to the rear and taken out by a Medevac helicopter. Krebs sends up a fire team. They find the body of an old man. unarmed, probably killed in the cross fire. Then the rain comes down. And there is nothing to do but lie in the rain, staring ahead, and wait for the PFs to come up.
When they finally do it is time to pull back for the night. There is a little scene where an ARVN officer in charge of the PF militia harangues a Vietnamese corporal for his cowardice. Furious, the officer slaps the man’s face and tears off his stripes. We walk back toward the beach.
By the time we get there it’s dark. Krebs drops his platoon off in a long line through the jungle on the west side of the heach. I find myself with a twoman machine-gun crew and the courageous little medic, “Doc” Dunn. Everyone has become so scattered that we have no contact with anyone on either side of us. It has been raining for three hours. We know we won’t get dry until the sun shines tomorrow. Immediately behind us is the tree line of the jungle, black and wet, the tops of the trees barely discernible against the heavy sky. In front of us a field of four-foot-high reeds extends for some 500 yards down to the river. Immediately to our right, a thick hedgerow. White, the machine gunner, keeps demanding in a fierce whisper, “Where the hell does he expect me to set up? I can’t see a damn thing anyway I position. Screw it, let’s eat.” We pull C rations out of our packs.
By now it is cold. We are wet and are shivering. Then all of a sudden, from what seems like 10 yards behind us. the VC send up a flare. “Get down, get down.” hisses White, “and don't move.” I remember to keep a hand over one eye so I can still see when the flare goes out. Meanwhile, my left eye sees everything five times larger than life, my booted foot lying uncovered in a patch of sand. Dunn’s helmet, the machine-gun barrel.
When the flare goes out, we squirm farther back into the undergrowth. White sets up his machine gun. About 20 minutes later, Krebs calls out from our left. He is yelling for the position of Corporal Willeek, the squad leader anchoring our line about 500 yards away on the beach. Krebs’ shouting in the dark and coming nearer gets everyone nervous. “The dumb bastard is giving away our position! Jesus! Doesn't he know he's crossing in front of the lines of fire?”
But Krebs is desperate. The 1st and 3rd Platoons were attempting a scattered defense line such as ours and found it just as untenable. The order has now come for each platoon to regroup and form its own 360-degree defensive perimeter. Only Krebs is now lost in the dark. White challenges him. Krebs comes up. Strung out behind him in the dark, each man hanging onto the pack of the man in front of him, are the terrified little Vietnamese of the 82nd PF Platoon. Behind them are as many of the 2nd Platoon Krebs has so far been able to find. We hook up at the end of the line, and stumble off into the dark, Krebs yelling. “Willeek . . . Will — eck . . . Three-star cluster.” Willeek finally hears and shoots off the flare and we find the beach. Krebs is lucky tonight — by all odds, the VC should
have slaughtered us.
On the beach, Dunn and I pull off our helmet liners and use the helmets to scoop out a hole in the sand. “I know what I'd do if I were Charlie,” says Dunn. “I’d mortar hell out of this perimeter.”
There’s just enough space in the hole for the two of us to lie lengthwise. Somebody has stolen Dunn's poncho. We share mine and after a while our combined body heat builds up enough warmth under the poncho
to stop our shivering. Exhausted, we sleep. But then it rains, and we get cold and wet all over again.
The morning comes, golden and red, and in its first minutes the sky is beautiful behind the ghostly white of the sand and the dark reeds. We wait for a dawn attack, but there is none.
Day Two of Operation Zippo gets off at a fast pace. The PFs are left on the beach, ostensibly as an escort for the civilians who are supposed to
come across today to harvest the rice. The 1st and 2nd Platoons sweep quickly through the areas they cleared yesterday. The Marines are in a bad mood. The operation is a shambles and everyone knows it.
We quickly reach the path we held for so long yesterday. The combat engineers blow up a few caves and bunkers they have found. Dunn and a couple of other Marines try to set fire to a thatched house, but it is too continued on page 54
OPERATION ZIPPO continued
“You VC bastard,” Casper yelled, then booted him as he fell
wet and the flame just smolders through a bamboo wall curtain. A woman and some little girls run out from an adjoining house and douse it with water. The 2nd Platoon lines up and begins a sweep ahead. We get to where Batchelor thought he shot the sniper yesterday. The old man and his wife are still there. (They were released when we pulled back last night.) Casper is in a towering rage. “You VC, you old bastard,” he yells and drops the old man with a hard right to the jaw. then boots him as he falls down. The old man lies on the ground, crying. A Negro machine gunner comes around the house and boots him in the leg.
“Aw, shut up." The woman squats beside her moaning husband, stonefaccd.
Casper wants to shoot their water buffalo in its tight little stockade. He sights his MI6 right down the animal’s flaring nostrils. "Hey, Woody, can I zap it?” But Woodcook is already ahead, peering around. “Cool it and get to work,” he orders.
Up in front somewhere has got to be that VC harassment squad. Another 100 yards and there is another main path. The platoon pauses on it for a few minutes, while the engineers blow up some more caves with C-4 plastique explosive. Batchelor has bad news. "Woody, I left my LAW back there by the well.” The men shudder. The LAW is a light anti-tank weapon and everybody has an immediate image of what would happen if a guerrilla found it and opened up on the platoon from the rear.
“Report to the lieutenant and hope to God you're not busted.”
Krebs stares incredulously at Batchelor for a couple of seconds, then quietly tells him to get three men and go back and get it. Krebs has enough on his mind as it is. The staff sergeant is worried, too. “We came through there too fast. There could be 100 gooks in there and we could have walked right over them.” Batchelor is back in a few minutes, sweating, embarrassed. but with his LAW.
Krebs decides he hasn't enough men to continue with an efficient sweep and without falling into a trap. He leads the way left, out of the blind area of hedgerows and dense tree lines into the open paddy fields that are our main objective. The thinking is that perhaps the Marines can secure the immediate area around the paddy fields.
But as we march across them in a
long line it becomes obvious that it is too late. The VC rice has already been harvested. It’s hard to imagine that the Intelligence reports could have been that bad. After all, Hill 65 still looms within sight on the other side of the river.
From the other side of the paddy fields there comes a flat metallic sound. For a whole moment the pla-
toon hesitates in mid stride. "Down!" yells Krebs. The VC were waiting to ambush the platoon in the open, but an obviously nervous guerrilla fired too soon with a pistol. A second later when they open fire with automatics we are already flat on our bellies in the paddy water. The flankers pull out, firing into the tree line as they run hack. This time the mortar squad find the right tree line and there are no short rounds. The VC melt back into the trees. We move to the southern limit of the paddy fields, where
the 1st and 2nd Platoons set up a blocking force, a line that is meant to hold against a direct frontal assault.
The afternoon passes, waiting for the civilians to come and harvest the one or two small paddies that haven’t been touched.
Woodcook’s squad is dug in around a small house surrounded by a light grove of trees. It is pleasant and
shaded, and there is water. The two old grandparents in the house are taking care of three little children. Woodcook mixes up a batch of orange concentrate in an aluminum-foil bag and gives it to the kids. Their eyes shine and they're all smiles, holding the container up to get the last little drop out of it. Woodcook grins. “And just think, your daddy is out there, planning to get me tonight.”
The civilians have not been able to make it. Snipers infiltrated to our rear and pinned down the two Amtracks
carrying the would-be harvesters. The terrified civilians jumped off the Amtracks and ran back to the beach. And the Amtracks, carrying a resupply of food and ammunition for us, turn back. They have no armor plating.
Late in the afternoon, Kreb’s platoon pulls back from its blocking position and sets up in a small grove of trees around an empty thatched house. It is a tight perimeter for 80 men but all around it has a clear field of fire across the paddy fields. Woodcook hands me his trenching tool.
“Dig deep — tonight’s the night,” he says. “Dig a VC hole, about three feet deep, just narrow enough at the top to squeeze into, but bellshaped at the bottom so that you can sit cross-legged or with your knees up. That way it’s got to take a direct hit from a mortar to get you.”
He also shows me how to handle an M16 rifle. For a weapon that can do so much damage it is childishly simple to operate. On impact, the bullet is traveling at such a high velocity that it becomes a piece of cartwheeling lead. One round can take an arm off. It fires 750 rounds a minute when set on automatic. “But don’t ever load the magazines with the regulation 24 rounds,” says Woodcook, “because it will jam. Just put in 19.” Everybody is hungry, but the Marines are generous in sharing what they have. The staff sergeant offers me a white plastic flask. “Have some tea.” I knock back a big gulp of what turns out to be the best whisky I've ever tasted.
The sun begins to set and Krebs orders everyone into their holes. We have just got into them when the VC open up from the nearest tree line w'ith mortars, 30-calibre machine-gun fire and automatic weapons. The mortars come right in on top of us. The earth shudders and the night turns all kinds of explosive colors. The Marines are replying with heavy fire. The barrage lasts about 10 minutes. Krebs screams, “Hold your fire!” The silence is strange. He checks for casualties. Miraculously, nobody has been hit. which is a credit to Krebs, who made everyone dig deep.
It is a long sleepless night. We don’t get hit again, but we can hear the VC squad moving around attacking the other platoons. Half the platoon stands watch while the others sleep. All night a small plane drones overhead, dropping flares around our position to illuminate the paddy fields. Lance Corporal Johnson spots some movement. Krebs gives him permission to throw the grenade. But Johnson can’t
get it out of the trees. It hits a branch and bounces back into the perimeter. There’s some fast scuffling, and, “Get down!1 Get down!” The grenade explode». The world bounces around. Fragments slice through the poncho I propped over my hole to keep out the rain. Krebs is furious, “Godammit, Johnson! How many times have I told you mothers not to throw a grenade unless you have a clean line of fire.”
All night the shells from the howitzers on Hill 65 whistle overhead to explode in a protective pattern of fire arourd us. The rain comes down. Cramped Marines crawl out of their holes, wrap themselves up in ponchos and lie down to sleep in the mud. Krebs walks around, nudging them awake with his boot, ordering them back into the holes ankle-deep in water.
The Marines are glad to see the morning, but they are tired and edgy. Bronco Martin and the Dirty Dozen get caught in a neatly executed masking manoeuvre when Bronco and his men go out to check some activity in the nearest tree line. The VC snipers waited until they caught the squad in the open and between themselves and the platoon's perimeter. That way the Marines in the perimeter couldn’t fire without shooting through Bronco’s squad. The men pull back, angry and frustrated. Krebs was afraid he was going to lose his machine gun. He kept yelling. "Bronco, haul your black ass and that machine gun back here.”
“When you see him, fire”
After that, the platoons set up the blocking positions they held the day before. The day wears on and the sun is murderous in its heat. Over the radio net we hear that the harvesters have given up on the rice fields and have fallen back to loot the first village. My Hôa.
“Goddam,” curses Krebs, “we’re just protection for a band of thieves and robbers.”
“Lieutenant. I can see a man out there in the hedgerow, about 50 yards away. There he is. He’s got black pyjamas and he’s carrying a weapon over his shoulder. He’s ducked back now.”
“Okay, next time you see him. fire.”
There is a brief burst of fire in which half the platoon opens up. Above it a human being screams. A fire team is sent up. The hedgerow hides a tiny thatch house and a courtyard. An emaciated old woman is dragging herself across the dirt. An
M16 round has torn off half her foot. Beside her lies the hoe she had on her shoulder.
A disgusted Krebs orders a medic to bandage her up.
"You want me to waste good field dressing on her, sir?”
“For Chrissake, fix her up!”
But the medic refuses to give her any morphine. At the same time this is happening, the company gets orders to pull out of the O Gia area around the rice field, and return to the beach.
Lima Company walks out in a gigantic. inverted V. A spotter plane keeps watch overhead. And the howitzers from Hill 65 keep on banging away. Three hours later the men are all standing on the beach waiting to be ferried across the river. The atmosphere is that of a locker room after a particularly grueling football game. The jokes are corny and everyone keeps slapping his neighbor on the shoulder. Some civilians have been brought out, too. The woman who had
her foot shot off is accompanied by her tearful 11-year-old grandchild. And there are five feeble-looking old men. One is very sick, in a malarial coma. I take a picture of them on the beach. A Marine standing guard puts his foot on the sick man and strikes a triumphant posture. Captain Matt Marshall, whose calm expression has long since given way to one of pained exasperation, angrily tells the Marine to take his boot off the sick man. And that’s the end of Operation Zippo. ★