The Ho Bo Woods
Republic of South Vietnam
20 miles northwest of Saigon
It was a fearsome place. It forced visions of a grisly purgatory where a man’s hope of a future was suspended, if not forfeited. Thousands of soldiers from a legion of proud American army divisions had died gruesome, lonely deaths here. With a summer temperature of 104 degrees and humidity at ninety-seven percent, its consecrated soil oozed with the musty smell of human blood and stench of violence. The dense green jungle known as the Ho Bo Woods waited patiently, still thirsty for more blood. It slumbered quietly, quietly like a huge venomous reptile aware it would soon drink again.
Between 1964 and 1969 proud and prestigious army units of the 1st Infantry Division, 9th Infantry Division, 25th Infantry Division, 173rd Airborne Brigade, 3rd Infantry Brigade, and the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment fought and died in the infamous 800 square miles known as the Ho Bo Woods. In 1968 alone thousands of young men most of them still teenagers never got out of that deadly Iron Triangle.
Even though they killed thousands of enemy Viet Cong and NVA regulars, still hundreds of miles of treacherous underground tunnels housing hospitals, truck depots, weapon storage facilities, ammunition production and staging areas remained undiscovered and undisturbed. The ‘Rolling Thunder’ of B-52 bombers with their 2,000 pound bombs did little damage to the complex network of tunnels. The American military remained ignorant of the true extent of the vast underground metropolis which stretched hundreds of miles. It remained a secret until well after the defeat of the United States.
In May 1969, Division Headquarters sent orders to the 82nd Airborne Division to enter the Ho Bo Woods. What everyone called the Ho Bos.
The troops were airlifted by helicopters from Chu Chi and inserted right on the doorway to hell. For three weeks the 508th Battalion played a deadly game of cat and mouse with the Viet Cong. Step by step the battalion struggled to maneuver closer to their evasive enemy. The monotonous swishing of machetes as they slashed through thick vegetation became background music to the muted blasphemies of soldiers tripping and falling over treacherous vines and monstrous tree trunks. Inch by inch, day after endless day unwashed soldiers labored through the miserable scrub brush and steaming jungle.
Their vision obstructed by trees, thick palms, vines and elephant grass the soldiers could see no further than ten feet in any direction. The 508th became easy prey to the endless snipers, sudden ambushes and booby traps. Condemned to sweat-soaked fatigues jungle rot chewed away their ankles and crotches. Heat stroke, fear and relentless exhaustion triggered intense hatred of their world. With faith only in their platoon the men hardened their hearts and continued their struggle. Like the men who had preceded them the 508th was trained to tolerate the intolerable.
On the morning of May 26th as the soldiers slept in the early morning hours of the twenty-second day of Operation Bold Strike, rays of sunlight pierced the black and gray predawn darkness and illuminated a 360 degree panorama of the dense jungle canopy. Various shades of green draped the rolling hills as the warming sun slowly slanted through the tree tops. The jungle was serene for the moment. Soon the thirty-one men of the third platoon started to stir. They appeared as if haphazardly scattered across the jungle floor. They woke from behind twisted tree trunks or in shallow fox holes of their NDP (Night Defense Position). Some began to shave while others brushed their teeth. Some dug small holes in the ground to conceal the scent of their human waste. Others began to clean their weapons. Some started to heat their instant coffee over a C-4 tab and eat their breakfast from their C-ration box. Those who just came off the last shift of night watch tried for five more minutes of sleep. There was nothing unique in their actions, just another routine day at war.
Infantry First Lieutenant Kelly O’Brian stood in the middle of a tight circle composed of a radio telephone operator, a medic and his interpreter/body guard. O’Brian was the leader of what was left of the third platoon. Rinsing his shaving razor with water in his steel helmet he bent down and put his small non-breakable metal mirror, razor and soap dish back into his rucksack. Like the others he wore faded and torn jungle fatigue pants, heavily scuffed and ripped jungle boots and two dog tags on a chain around his neck embossed with his name, blood type and no religious preference. He wore neither socks nor underwear. His forearms were covered in mosquito bites and scabs. Jungle rot turned his ankles and crotch into raw hamburger meat. The word Sir was generally not used on operations, as well as no saluting. That is unless they wanted their platoon leader killed by a sniper. He was pretty easy-going and had a sense of humor. His men trusted him, respected him and on occasion feared him.
The morning light revealed the Lieutenant’s heavily tanned muscular and naked torso. A mixture of Irish, Cherokee and French blood he stood 5’9” with dark brown hair and green eyes. His face was hard and handsome. At the moment his features revealed no emotion. There was no hurry in his movements. Every gesture was slow and easy. As he put on his fatigue shirt he watched Doc Wilson the platoon medic examining men for infected cuts, bruises and insect bites. Only a very serious problem would earn a free ticket back to the rear. Doc ordered the men to sprinkle powder on their feet and watched them take their malaria tablet. Doc Wilson was a conscientious objector who refused to carry a weapon. Still, he was not short of guts and had earned two Bronze Stars for Valor.
Soon O’Brian heard the familiar sound of an approaching Chinook cargo helicopter. The Chinook delivered four hundred gallons of water and three days of C-rations for the remaining one hundred and twenty men of Bravo Company. The helicopter also carried munitions, mail, medicine, and seven fresh untested replacements. The pilot gently sat the cargo net slung under the Chinook’s belly onto the ground and dropped the hook. Because the Chinook was a large and tempting floating target the pilot immediately pulled the throttle back straining for altitude to avoid enemy fire. It wasn’t until the supplies were safely unloaded that the Chinook reappeared. The now empty supply net was quickly reattached and once again the pilot screamed for altitude – another day and another delivery without getting shot down. That was a good thing.
After the supplies were unloaded and passed around, Lieutenant O’Brian ordered, “Saddle up.”
Sitting with his back propped against a huge tree trunk Corporal Mike Maddox a nineteen year old from Richmond, California had just been handed four letters from his sweetheart Glenda. With an ‘ah shit’ he shoved the letters into his jungle fatigue leg pocket and struggled to his feet adjusting the sixty pound pack so it rested evenly on his heavily callused shoulders. He stood 5’10,’ was slightly pale with reddish brown hair and a close shaved face. Mike managed to maintain his smiling good humor and enthusiasm despite his hatred of the war. To stay sane he wrote poetry and carried a paperback copy of War and Peace in his rucksack.
Mike quickly felt sweat trickle down his neck. Within minutes he and all the others would be soaking wet. There would be no relief from the brutal heat for hours. When he heard the next command, “Move out” he moved to his position as third platoon point man of Bravo Company.
As he struggled through the jungle thoughts came uninvited into his head during the long and monotonous morning.
There was the creature that had crawled up this fatigue pants during the night. At first he thought it was snake. Grabbing at his pant leg he held the animal’s head away from his thigh. As he pulled down his pants he saw a twelve-inch, highly pissed off poisonous centipede struggling to sink his pincers into his flesh. He crushed its head with his fingers and threw it out of the foxhole. Then he fell back to sleep. In his sleep poems he had written in high school drifted through his mind and brought him a degree of solace.
He thought of the letters from his girlfriend. Sometimes it was only a couple of lines, but she wrote every single day without fail. He remembered in San Francisco when he turned to walk toward his flight to Vietnam seeing Glenda’s entire body visibly shaking. He cursed the war for the pain girlfriends, wives and mothers suffered every day not knowing if this was the day their loved one died.
Throughout the day the men of Bravo Company moved through the dense under growth spaced five feet apart. They struggled to cover one mile in two hours. From the air they looked like a long slow green snake making its way through the jungle. They moved silently as if stalking a deer, using only hand signals for communication. Only occasionally was the silence punctured with a loud, ‘Oh, Fuck!’, ‘Goddamn it!’ or ‘Son of a bitch!’
The day rolled endlessly on.
And then in the late afternoon Mike sensed something. His stomach automatically tensed. Thinking he smelled rice cooking Mike fell to one knee and intensely scrutinized the dense panorama. Nothing. He got his feet again continuing forward. As he and the platoon crept on they were unaware they were walking into the killing zone of a horseshoe style ambush. They were all breathing and hacking at the jungle, but for all practical purposes they were already dead – about to be massacred by the men in black pajamas wearing Michelin tire flip-flops who breathed nervously just waiting for their killing moment.
Suddenly seeing movement Mike emptied an eighteen round clip from his M-16 into the bush. His fire was returned and an RPG rocket exploded two feet in front of him. Shrapnel sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel sliced through the air at 1554 feet per second and cleanly sliced off Maddox’s left leg six inches below his testicles then, without losing velocity cut off his right leg.
Mike dropped upright on the stumps of his legs into the pool of mud in which he had been standing. He slowly slid backward propped up by a tree. The thick mud stanched and slowed his blood loss and delayed the shock. He knew he was dead. Stretching out his arms he struggled to reach his right leg and the two letters from his sweetheart. Covered in slimy, putrid mud knowing he would never read the letters from Glenda he pleaded uncontrollably, “Please, just let me read the letters! Please….
The next two soldiers in the column were simultaneously chopped down by AK-47 rounds. The platoon’s two M-60 machine guns immediately returned fire lacing the Viet Cong with everything they had from left to right and back again. The rounds arched through the air like boiling water shooting out of a fire hose.
At the same time M-79 grenade thump gunners systematically raked their grenades into the enemy from the rear of the horseshoe to the front of the ambush. The heavy incoming and outgoing fire muted the screams of the wounded and dying.
The company commander ordered what was left of Bravo Company to reinforce the beleaguered point platoon. Moving forward Bravo was met with accurate and intense fire from a vicious and well organized Viet Cong line of defense. The company could only spread out, dig in and fight.
Exposed on both flanks with no relief coming the point platoon knew that they only had a few minutes of ammunition left. Facing overwhelming fire power they fought desperately. When death was certain, the game suddenly changed
While calling frantically for artillery support the company commander received the best gift he would ever receive. A forward artillery air controller returning from an earlier mission appeared almost directly overhead. The airplane pilot radioed the platoon to pop purple smoke grenades. Maneuvering his spotter airplane at nine hundred feet the air controller saw the wisps of smoke demarcating Bravo Company’s location. The company stretched out in a ragged line with the point platoon a protruding bubble in the middle. The pilot also saw a blanket of red US tracers surging toward the enemy and the enemy’s green tracers firing back. Grenade explosions and RPG rockets added their markings to the battlefield. The air controller immediately called in fire coordinates and watched as 155mm artillery shells began erupting well in front of the point platoon. Then he skillfully guided the artillery backward and placed it directly on top the enemy.
As surges of US artillery moved closer to the platoon the enemy’s fire slackened. Trying to keep his balance as the earth jolted under him from the impact of the artillery fire Private Henry Jenks could be heard screaming, “Walk’em in! Walk those basterds in!”
Lt. O’Brian ordered his men to fall back in line with the rest of Bravo Company. The wounded, the dying and the three dead soldiers were pulled out with them. Corporal Maddox was assumed dead and too far forward to be brought back.
After first refusing the two machine gunners and their ammo bearers cursing vehemently pulled back without the Lieutenant. Jimmy, the Platoon Leader’s radio operator also refused with equally colorful vulgarity to leave without the Lieutenant.
The Lieutenant screamed at his RTO over the screeching roar of incoming artillery, “Jimmy, get closer to the ground than rat shit and crawl back to Bravo’s position. I’ll be right behind you.”
Jimmy turned and crawled ten feet before glancing over his shoulder. Through eyes blinded with sweat, dirt, and fear the radio operator saw that the Lieutenant was nowhere in sight. With AK-47 rounds popping around him Jimmy let out a horrific, “Shit!” and continued crawling.
Suddenly a strong black hand reached out through the grass and grabbed a handful of Jimmy’s fatigue shirt and pulled him into the relative safety of Bravo’s perimeter. The hand belonged to a muscular Sergeant named Skinner. His first words were, “Where’s the Lieutenant?”
In a blinding rage Jimmy spit out, “I don’t know damn it! He said he would be right behind me, but he was gone, just gone!”
Squad Sergeant Hanson and Private Ortega crawled up to the radio operator shouting at him, “You asshole, you left him out there?” With rounds stitching the air Jimmy screamed back, “Fuck you! I didn’t leave nobody out there! He just wasn’t there when I looked back! He was just gone! Get it? He just fucking disappeared!”
“I’m going after him!” Hanson screamed. Private Ortega with equal determination echoed, “Let’s go.” But before either man could move Sergeant Skinner grabbed Hanson by the throat pinning him to the ground. In his other hand he pressed a .45 caliber pistol tight against Hanson’s temple. With his sweat streaming onto Hanson’s face, Skinner breathed in a heavy whisper, “You make one move to go after the Lieutenant and I’ll blow your brains out!”
Sergeant Hanson spit back, “If they keep walking those rounds in he won’t have a chance!”
The hand tightened on Hanson’s neck. Hanson struggled, “Get your goddamn hands off me!” Sergeant Skinner hissed angrily, “You heard what I said! Now shut-up!”
As Hanson’s tense body slowly surrendered Sergeant Skinner released his grip and in a wretched voice he said, “Don’t you think I want to go back for him? But we won’t. Those were always his orders.”
Slowly the artillery barrage drove the enemy into their underground haven of tunnels. Simply as flipping a switch to turn off a bedroom light Lt. O’Brian was able to put the confusion of battle, the screams of wounded men, the mangled bodies of the dead and the blood soaked earth out of his mind. He turned off all emotion. He became a man whose eyes turned black and his body flexed as if a time bomb waited to explode. There was no heroism, no cowardice, just rational clear logic void of feeling. In these instances of battle the men of his platoon obeyed his orders without hesitation fearing the Lieutenant far more than the enemy. At that moment with his platoon falling back the Lieutenant’s total concentration was to find the point man somewhere in the jungle ahead.
And then, Bravo’s Company commander ordered the artillery to cease firing.
In the eerie quiet that followed the men struggled to regain some sense of normalcy. But the silence was shatter a few minutes later when a single pistol shot rang out. The distant sound was shortly followed with echoes of a deranged, bestial voice from deep within the jungle screaming insane profanities. “You stupid, worthless piece of shit. I’ll kill you!” Then more shots.
Bravo Company listened in horror to an insane man savagely killing as many of the enemy as possible before going down. More shots followed by even louder screams, “You sorry-son-of-a-worthless-fucking-bitch whore! Come on! Come on! Let me see you, you fucking shit! You god-dammed coward! You worthless, worthless…” Then suddenly a loud explosion was followed by abrupt silence. It was Lt. O’Brian’s voice the men heard screaming as he took out as many of the enemy as possible before being killed himself. Sergeant Skinner could only ask himself, “Why didn’t Slick fall back?”
Meanwhile, Nun Dong a soldier of the People’s Liberation Army retreating from the heavy US artillery followed the sound of the pistol shot. Peering between the matted vines and vegetation he saw something he had never seen before during his six years of fighting Americans. It was an American officer holding a pistol in his hand, stumbling and falling in circles. The American, covered in mud and blood mumbled incoherent words punctuated with enraged screams as he fired his pistol seemingly in random blind hatred, but in reality was firing into the blackness of the heavens.
There also appeared a dead American soldier with his legs blown off propped up with his back against a tree.
Halting, Dong aimed his AK-47 at the American officer. But then he hesitated and just watched. Dong had never witnessed a man go mad in combat, at least not completely mad. The sight was surreal and painfully sad and Dong could not bring himself to shoot the Dinky Doa, the crazy man. He backed away into the jungle slowly while the explosions tore the air behind him.
With night falling fast Bravo Company dug fox holes. Soon swarms of mosquitoes wrapped themselves around any exposed skin like a blanket of needles and feasted on the men’s blood. Sometime during the night heavy rain swamped the fox holes. By sun-up the rain stopped and the flies arrived.
The Captain of Bravo Company ordered a sweep of the previous day’s battlefield. Sergeant Skinner was confident they would find the eviscerated body parts of the Lieutenant and point man scattered about the jungle floor or perhaps dangling from vines.
Twenty minutes into the sweep the Company Commander radioed, “Sergeant Skinner it’s ugly, but Kelly’s alive. Despite a thorough search of the battle area the point man’s body was never recovered.
Unconscious, bleeding and pulled from the palm tree he had been impelled against by an exploding booby trap, Kelly was flown by helicopter to 3rd Field Army Hospital in Saigon.
Consciousness came slowly the morning of the third day. His first hazy impressions were of gagging antiseptic and groaning men. Opening his eyes to cotton-white blurriness, the only sensation he felt was the excruciating pain of his head being squeezed in a crushing vice. He fell back into unconsciousness.
The morning of the fourth day he felt his left arm being shaken and a voice firmly repeating, “Hey. Hey, time to wake up! Open your eyes and look at me!”
Struggling to respond to the command he opened his eyes to see the blurry face of a tall, fair-skinned woman with red hair.
Looking down at him the Army nurse spoke matter-of-factly. “Trust you had a nice rest.” Seeing no sign of recognition or movement in his face she continued, “First off and most importantly you have all your body parts. You’ve broken ribs, right forearm is broken, palm stickers were taken out of your chest, one calf is fractured the other is broken in multiple locations You have what appears a thin one inch dueling slash on your left cheek and your over-all body is one huge bruise. We’re short on space so you’re stuck in the amputation ward. We’ll move you as soon as possible.”
With no response from the patient she raised her voice, “Can you hear me? Do you understand what I am saying to you? If so just blink your eyes.”
The patient stared at the nurse responding in a hard raspy voice, “I hear you just fine.”
Twenty-four hours of almost constant medevac landings on the roof of 3rd Field Army Hospital had taken its toll on amputation ward nurse Lt. Linda Vanter. The casualties had been very heavy. More than a usual number of the men coming off the choppers arrived dead. Nurse Vanter was physically exhausted. Her brain had gone into automatic mode hours earlier. She’d changed her bloodied uniform four times in twenty-four hours. Even though she had been through it all before the last few hours had been tough.
Sensing her patient was less than grateful to be alive her tone shifted, “Well, that’s good isn’t it?” But there was no answer. Her patient had dropped into a deep drug-induced sleep.
Subconsciously rubbing his right temple with his fingers as he slept, Kelly swam through a swamp of memories. Some clear, some as murky as the jungle he had just escaped. He dreamt dreams of bloody stumps, shattered skulls, unimaginable hatred and cursing the heavens.
However, this miniscule sliver of memory had been battered deeply into some impenetrable recess of his brain never to be remembered. Or perhaps, one day this ugly deformed sliver of memory would twist and squirm and struggle with all of its might to emerge with only one burning desire, to devour man’s soul.
Watching her patient sleep fitfully Lt. Vanter knew this guy had been through some serious shit. She forced a smile and said half to him and half to herself, “In a few days you’ll be bound for Japan. Then home, wherever that is.”