Georg E. Mateos
Of Philippine ancestry, his mother was only thirteen years old when she was taken from Luzon to serve, and survive, three years in various Japanese “Houses of Pleasure” for its troops in Mindanao during WWII.
His father got himself killed somewhere in the Korean War, leaving him in permanent care of his reluctant American relatives who didn’t lost any time to disown a suspected family connection and washed their hands of him in the Social Services fountain.
After the war, his mother was given refuge in the United States when the liberated Filipinos looked down at the slave-girls or “Filipino comfort women”, like they were dirty and not worth to even thinking going back into their “clean” fold.
She lived for a while with a good hearted Marine from Idaho until they married and kept house near California’s San Diego Navy Base. His mother died giving birth to a son who went wacko on his teens after been told the mother’s sorry story.
Because his mother was beaten and repeatedly raped by her captors he had “allegedly” chased after Datsuns, Nissans, and Toyotas, and beat up their owners or gimmicked open the gas tank lock, forcing down a piece of cloth, igniting it and running away; (and brother… you needed to be faster than Jesse Owen to escape the nearly instantaneous whoosh! and the ear splitting bang with the addition of all the debris that wanted to catch his ass).
He was caught a few times on arson-suspicion or aggravated assault, but never convicted of the demolition of quite a few cars coming from the Raising Sun factories. But on his last arrest, the suspicion was so strong in the mind of a bored Judge, that he was given two hard choices, make a lot of time at Folsom with “la crème de la crème” or hitch a ride with the Navy.
He didn’t let his “mouth piece” to recommend nothing, he grabbed the Navy forthwith.
By a clerical mistake, he was put down as a demolition man but, found too screwball to be on regular service, he was shunned from the Navy, which thought Folsom could take better care of him – thank-you-Sir.
But the country couldn’t afford to throw away even a screw-up sailor larvae and Navy found that perhaps the Marines could make some us of him.
Already loaded with the right-or-wrong demolition-man nickname, Sereno found himself surrounded by screaming Drill Sergeants, crates after crates of explosives, and learning to blow things everywhere, even under water… and never mind if you can’t swim.
In the end, a drill soprano with a dislike of any Asiatic features, screamed once too often and got his ass burned, literally, when his jeep was blown just a little, escaping with the last of his cat’s nine lives in behold. That Sereno was the culprit wasn’t even a remote hypothesis, but more than a theory was needed to nail him on one of Leavenworth’s walls.
They had none.
But they had suspicions enough to try their hands in the disengagement game: dump him and play
Interdepartmental Cooperation (read bureaucrats Vietnam panic syndrome). So Sereno’s fall was caught by the butterfly net held by one of the head hunters at hand, who dispatched him to the Dirty Tricks training center where they loved to make things to go bang! and create mayhem.
Afterward he became one of the standby demolition men, with a license to merrily pulverize (without a what-if thought) Cong’s ill fitted armored iron-rolling-junk of Russian manufacture, bridges or, with his enchanting personality, go tunnel-rat inside Cong’s underground facilities – cutting throats and blowing up the room filled with weapons like it was Xmas.
Sereno was gone for the good part of three months after being wounded, but was back like he never had been absent; he brought a bottle of rum as a way of thanks to Boom-Boom.
Unnecessary to say that Sereno was the first to arrive and start bare hands digging out when Boom-Boom got himself buried in a tunnel around Khe-Bo.
But it was the American-Filipino who was the only one doing something in Nam that would be talked about with awe.
The information had came down about a load of war material concentration, vaguely pointed to be around “west” between Cam Lo and Hue, whatever that meant. Air reconnoitering couldn’t pinpoint the location under the jungle foliage despite Agent Orange sprayings that supposedly would be taking care of every little tree leaf. Neither could the fast, low-flying, unarmed, single-engine snoopers.
The team was commanded to go over from Laos into Nam with a chopper ride that would follow the separation line going south from Ban Nape, in a black op to determine the exact location, using the cover of the of the rainy season’s nights to move, and to stay put by day so as not to alarm locals that unfriendlies were around.
The plan (the brass always have a plan that didn’t include them to be in the proximity of the fireworks) was to locate the enemy’s cache, crank the radio crying wolf, and light orange smoke markers five hundred yards each side so the fast bombers could bomb a mile strip between them.
That was the plan. What the plan didn’t consider was that being five hundred yards wasn’t far enough from an ammo depot going up. That it would also close all the escape doors for the team wasn’t even thought of.
Operating on enemy territory, where even seasoned troops would get wary of sounds that shouldn’t be there, after being pounded day after day, the next bang was always expected with harried nerves. Also, machete-ing way through the jungle is not advisable because small enemy patrols, always on the prowl, will get the idea of someone having been around when coming upon sliced branches and fresh made paths.
The team point man, Mister Lee, was electing a route that didn’t disturbed the jungle’s green walls too much, following a path, here and there, going due east where seemingly others had gone before.
Possible Cong patrols made it a risky, but who travels in the middle of a stormy night taking a chance of being bitten by a 1-2-3 hysterical snake, of breaking a leg by steeping in an hole, or being speared by one of their own traps with punji stakes: even the most fanatic commies wouldn’t venture the discomforts of getting wet or impaled for nothing – only crazy people would be out on a bitch night.
They didn’t count on six crazy people, known as the wet-team, roaming around their turf, one hundred per cent focused like they were on the last hole of a multi-million dollars golf tournament and leading by a birdie.
By the second day dawn, the team had stopped and scattered to catch a little sleep when two pairs of light bombers went by half a mile or so to the south spreading their loads of napalm with a whoosh! A hot wave passed over them as did a couple of dozen of Cong cadres with eyes seeing nothing, but searching for the next exit.
Boom-Boom, flat on his belly trying to sleep, nearly gave himself away with an enraged grunt when one of the scared black pajamas stepped on his hand as he ran by, but the sound was covered by north Vietnamese voices hurrying each other going.
The team realized that they were wandering right in the middle of the west flank of a troop concentration and it was time to haul ass from there, daylight or no daylight, before the enemy came back.
They didn’t stop until nightfall when the strong scent of campfires which, weak at first, made them move extra carefully because it was obvious that enemy company was as near as it could get.
Below them was a long bluff like corridor covered from above by a dense old-trees leaf canopy with branches stretched to every side like green umbrellas, giving the bluff a tunnel appearance. Cautiously, searching for sentries and patrols, they moved along the rim until they came upon a bivouac encircled by Vietcong soldiers preparing to eat from a potbelly cauldron simmering over a fire.
The damp vegetation, wet from uninterrupted rain, meant that the noise of dry twigs snapping when a foot trod on then was reduced, but the team weren’t taking any chances and slid past the bivouac like phantoms. A quarter of a mile further, they could see an enormous stack of wooden crates occupying almost the width of the bluff and stretching away in the shadows below.
Kentucky skittered down and was gone for over an hour without the team feeling alarmed: the night was full of friendly noises. He returned suddenly. Nobody had heard him coming – suddenly he was just there. Boom-Boom was the only one to react with a sharp inhalation when Kentucky’s face unexpectedly appeared ten inches from his own. “One of this days you gonna get killed by pulling that” he angrily whispered.
“Aren’t you nervous?” one could hear a taunting smile in Kentucky’s whisper.
“Go to hell!”
“We already… “
“Cut it out!” Walther interrupted them with a harshly whisper, “What’s the Intel?”
With Roscoe taking care of the rear, Mister Lee posted ahead, and Sereno fifty yards inside the jungle to warn of any approaching cone straw hat, they had secured their position.
“Those crates,” Kentucky whispered pointing at the camouflage covered pile below, “are full of ammo. The pile goes for about hundred yards. Past it is a cache of petrol barrels – I would say three to four hundred – and after that, you wouldn’t believe how much heavy ammunition they have piled there… “
“They have sentries down there?” Walther asked.
“No one, but I saw the red spot of someone smoking a cigarette a couple of times, up by the rim on the opposite side, so I would think we have someone around on the rim this side too.”
“Boo-Boom,” Walther said, “go replace Sereno and say we have a job for him, pronto!” Five minutes later Sereno appeared soundlessly squatting beside the others.
After been briefed of the scout’s findings, Sereno fetched his backpack and retrieved a pouch containing eight five-pounds C4 blocks and a box of timers. He started to set in firing caps and connecting timers like he was preparing a lunch pack for everybody.
Kentucky, only a combat man, had eased himself away from Sereno. Once the demolition man had rigged the C4’s he asked, “How much time you want?”
“How much time we need?” Walther answered nodding sideways with the head in the bluff direction.
“It depends, but I would say one hour would get us plenty of time to reach a safe zone clear of any debris spread.”
“Okay, go with Kentucky and set the charges for two hours from now. It’ll take about one hour to cover the place without making noises or being seen – the rain had been a drizzle up to now but those rumbles from the west are promising more of the damn thing, so keep going as fast as you can.”
“Gotcha – c’mon Kenny” Sereno was already descending using the muddy bluff side as a slide holding against his chest the C4’s bulging pouch. Kentucky followed suit and they were gone from sight as, from inside the clouds, another approaching monsoon storm started flashing its lightning, beating the drums and beginning the water show.
The drizzle was interspersed with big drops of rain falling lazily – almost like the sky wasn’t ready to let it go, yet. Then, like dragging a blanket over the landscape, the rain with a capital R came, mercilessly soaking everything, converting hard stamped dirt into a quagmire, pouring down like it could drown a fish. One thing was blessed by being pelted by the rainfall; it soaked and washed the clothes of rancid sweat, giving a vigorous massage to aching muscles at the same time.
Drops would hit the barrel of the guns like bugs on the windshield, splattering and moving away to give place to the next one coming, all of them relentless like a Chinese water torture. You didn’t need to be hit by them; just the sound of their kamikaze demise was enough.
They could hear the water down below racing away, whirling around the wooden boxes, and by the sound of it, the two men there should be treading in water up to their knees.
By Walther’s watch they reappeared 42 minutes after departing, from the north with Mister Lee pointing the way. “We need to get the hell outa here!” Urgency was in the slanted eyes; he didn’t mind battle but did mind very much being around when a mountain of explosives got a barrel of monkeys stuck inside ready to wake up the circus.
The rain, helped by hard slapping gusts of wind, was now really hitting their faces.
“Kenny, go fetch Boom-Boom…” Walther said ignoring Mister Lee’s apprehension, “… and follow after us.”
Kentucky disappeared, going through the green wall. He could have moved making all the noise in the world under cover of the racket of the rain drumming on zillions of big and small vegetation leafs.
They had almost reached Roscoe’s position when a distinctive high-pitched scream reached them giving them a thousand volts jolt to their muscles. Adrenaline rushed through their bodies that made the team automatically spread out, take defensive positions, and to wait for the worst.
A long minute passed before they could hear Boom-Boom’s squirrel-cackling imitation and see the two arriving cautiously, lest their own team nailed them for coming too fast before hearing the code signal.
“We couldn’t help that,” said Sereno pointing over his shoulder to the approaching Kentucky who had the left front of his shirt covered in blood, “Kentucky was just reaching me when suddenly four of them came racing, half blinded under the rain, tripping over me. I never heard them coming. The two who ran over me on the ground didn’t know they were dead a couple of seconds later. Kenny here sliced one from ear to ear: the scream you heard was from the fourth man, who was trying to cover us with his weapon, getting knifed, I used his leg thighbone for support getting up. Kenny here wasn’t fast enough to duck the gory details flying from the black pajama’s throat that he was slicing to keep him from me… and here we are.”
“Where are they now?” Walther asked.
“Tucked away, well out of sight and their patrol path, but with this warm… they will be found by their aroma in a couple of days”
“Not if Sereno’s work is worth a shit,” Kenny said.
“You want to stay and look kemo-sabe?” snapped Sereno, always offended when his professional capacity was called into doubt.
“This place is crawling with black pajamas,” Walther said giving a sideway nod with his head in Mister Lee’s direction to get going and lead the way out. “How we reached here without been seeing was just dumb luck. We have one hour and fifteen minutes to get the hell clear from the fireworks, start moving… “
They moved like mice stomping away from a deaf sleeping cat.
For a moment one would think that the sky had gone berserk and decided to throw down everything, even the kitchen sink. It was like someone up in the clouds went amok with an on and off light switch that illuminated their path with lightning, which suited them just fine as they ran.
Mister Lee, the retreat point man, raced through thorns and branches like they didn’t count on the pain scale… followed by the others at five yard intervals. They hurried using the rain noise to cover their own, but the heavy downpour couldn’t last very long and eventually would decrease to a drizzle. When that happened, moving fast without letting on they were there would be tricky, because they were traveling in the midst of what appeared to be a troop buildup of some sort, and there were plenty of people around.
Numbers make people overconfident; no one was looking under their beds… yet. But they only need a noise that shouldn’t be there, or a shot, not necessarily in anger… just an alarmed one, and all hell would break lose.
Mister Lee had elected existing paths already there heading north, away from the booby trapped one in the south. After more than forty-five minutes of lung imploding and backbreaking exertions, Mister Lee’s racing followed the decreasing rain and he looked like he was soundlessly sliding over the ground. Suddenly he stopped like hitting an invisible wall – his arm high with a tight fist on top, signaling to standstill.
He then opened and closed the hand several times to signal approach.
When the others arrived, the dirty road (more like a mud river now) they had crossed before was again in front of them. Walther tossed once his head back as asking, “What’s the matter?”
Mister Lee pointed across the road to his left, where, about five yards inside the road-bordering tree line, under a makeshift roof made by extending a square little tarpaulin over their heads, two men, probably sentries, could be seen, minus their pants, rubbing bodies and entangled with each other’s legs in an aroused state.
“That’s making love not war Vietnamese style.” said Boom-Boom.
“Whatever,” Walther said, “we can’t stop now for a side show, and we can’t go over… Mister Lee… Kentucky, take care of them and look for other sentries.”
The two men crossed the like a couple of buffaloes racing over the road, bending down, fast, over their prey like shadows falling from the sky.
“If they can engage in that kind of game,” Sereno said, “they are sure enough of being far away from their main tepee, or any other sentry post in their proximity.”
“I bet they started it after the last patrol and they aren’t expecting any other very soon,” said Kenny.
“Or,” Roscoe added “they aren’t expecting any relief that can catch them on the act soon, so is safe to say we can go on half alert.”
“Maybe… “responded Walther as Mister Lee dashed back while Kenny signalized with two fingers pointing at his eyes and afterwards making a horizontal circle signaling that he was going to look around, Walther gave him a thumb up, “… and maybe nobody cares what they are doing because everybody’s doing it; we can’t take the risk that others wouldn’t come to join the party.”
With three small jumps across, the Chinaman joined the team “They died in each other arms.” said the arriving Mister Lee.
They waited for ten long minutes until, as suddenly as he left, Kentucky was back on the other side of the road, arm pointing to the left and curving north and inwards. Walther answered with a thumb up and gestured the go-ahead signal. “Okay, let’s get moving.” he said clapping Roscoe’s backpack.
One by one they dashed over the road like single buffaloes spooked by lightning. Walther remained, scanning with night goggles that got zapped with flashes that momentarily sent his night vision to hell, making certain that nobody but his own team was out there… straining his ears as the noise of the rain subsided, for the telltale noises of someone who shouldn’t be there was kind of approaching. But the jungle seemed as lonely and empty as he wished it to be. Then, and only then, he crossed over and saw that Boom-Boom, on the other side, was waiting for him – covering his back with his beloved 50.
The force of the rain was waning – they could now hear the distinctive rustling of the wind-agitated foliage. Now and then, from deep within the forest to their south, voices and whiffs of heavy smoke from campfires could be heard and smelt.
With Kentucky spearheading, they advanced in an arch going northwest, stopping now and then when voices seemed to come their way: false alarm and keep going, following the compass on the fringes of any path: no sense tripping on anything lest one gets a first class surprise – Hanoi sponsored.
They progressed cautiously but rapidly until the terrain began stepping up on both sides as they entered small ravine with water racing ten inches deep, not quite reaching the sides but angry enough to push your legs away under you.
The ravine sides stepped up eight feet or so, showing a lot of thick bushes on the rim keeping the sandy ground from falling down into the stream. With aching legs and burning lungs they went forward along both sides, breaking way three feet up from the gurgling bottom.
They had hiked half a mile or so, bodies bend almost to the ground by exhaustion, backpacks, weapons, ammo, and misery… when a ball of fire whooshed up with a column trailing after, like a giant mushroom, going up… and up… and up, reaching the clouds, making a big hole in them as the yellow-red-hot cloud ballooned through. Not only could it be seen for miles and miles around, but it converted, for a moment, the dark night shadows into a blinding daylight flash.
A faulty timer caused the pile of petrol barrels to blow up first, (it was supposed to be sandwiched between the both sides ammos one) and was followed immediately by a mighty roar that put a hysterical ringing in the ears of everyone. Then it was time for the explosion wave to come uprooting trees, pulverizing huts, flattening trucks, smear mountain rocky sides with people and obliterating everything else on its path.
The team, which had been expecting an explosion but not “that” kind of explosion, had taken cover. Pressing themselves face down, using all kind of deep crevasses offered by the ravine’s walls to escape the debris they knew would come the instant the petrol flash was on, they were still unprepared for the cataclysmic like effects of the big-bang, even from almost three miles away down the road.
After the sound wave came the air tsunami that pushed the trickling water flowing down the ravine into an ever increasing wave in front of it, followed by gravel, flying like shrapnel from a thousand fragmentation grenades going off at the same time. The angry wave was blowing, breaking and spitting as far as it could go, sending the six men tumbling fifty yards along the rocky bottom only cushioned by sharp stones left on the dried up creek.
Had they stood when the expansion wave came, it would have snapped their necks like twigs.
“Serenoyousonofabitch!” Boom-Boom tried to shout with a strangulated voice, as his ears were filled with furiously ringing and had nearly swallow his tongue, “Are you fucking crazy? You trying to kill us or something?”
Sereno was coming up on a sitting position showing a bleeding nose and an expression of bewilderment. He couldn’t hear Boom-Boom and was trying to find where the mad ringing was coming from. The others were looking around disconcertedly, trying to comprehend what just happened.
It took more than fifteen minutes for everyone to recover from the dazed state, to check nothing was broken, to attend the numerous stinging small and bleeding rifts, and to feel if a few bruised knees were ready to start healing.
“Get moving, get moving” prodded Walther as he took the point and began due west, shaking his head to get the cobwebs lose from his brain and the ringing out of his ears. The mad reverberating would be a hysterical for a couple of days yet.
All the way from Da Nang to Khe Sanh that night, after witnessing the flash in the horizon followed by the red glare, as well as the unheard before thunderclap, amazed grunts asked each other, “Have we nuked them?”
©Copyright 2007 by Georg E. Mateos