Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Night in Nam with Jesus

I don’t typically talk or write about Vietnam, I’d just as soon forget it. I was going to include this account as a chapter in one of my books and talked myself out of it both times. But I’m comfortable enough now, in my waning years, to recount an episode that if nothing else reaffirms my atheism. This isn’t a war story.  I don’t do war stories.  This is a Jesus story.

From my first days in country, and after being assigned to my unit, I heard the phrase: “Charlie owns the night.”  Our ground forces…Army, Marines, South Vietnamese Army, Aussies, and assorted other allied troops ...we ruled the day light hours. But Charlie, the Viet Cong irregulars, Charlie flourished in the darkness. 

This idiom was in the back of my mind when a week or so into my tour my squad was sent out on ambush.  Ten or twelve of us, lead by our sergeant, were going out beyond our forward firebase’s concertina wire and set up before darkness in a likely spot, perhaps a path through the jungle, or a natural opening.  There we’d settle into position, an L-shaped configuration usually, in the hopes of surprising Charlie, the Viet Cong, as they moved through the darkness…catching him off guard, blowing claymores, and raining down shit on him.

Leaving our rucksacks and steel helmets behind, we wore only our soft boonie hats, ammo bandoleers, combat suspenders and pistol belt with a canteen, extra loaded magazines and fragmentation grenades; rifles, an M-79 grenade launcher, extra belts of ammo for our machine gunner, some claymore mines, and a PRC-10 radio (phonetically referred to as the “Prick”).  For my first ambush I was picked as the radio man.  

We should have already pushed off. It was getting close to dusk, and you don’t want to be humping the boonies in the dark.  But we were waiting for “Doc”, our medic.  He showed up 20 minutes late, reeking of weed. We pushed off.

We were about a klick, a 1000 meters, outside the wire when darkness started to close in.  The sergeant took point and following his nose he lead us through tall elephant grass looking for a place that was close by and advantageous for the ambush.

As he came around a curve in a trail, which we wouldn’t have been on had we left earlier and it had been lighter, he shouted “HALT!” (an involuntary ejaculation I suspect since shouting halt in the jungle is not SOP and rather absurd), and immediately opened up with his M-16.We would later find out we had walked head on into a unit of  North Vietnamese regulars, exact strength unknown.

In what seemed to be an instant hundreds of green hornets were streaming over our heads (they shoot green tracer rounds to track and adjust their rifle fire, we use red). The stream of  bullets were cutting the tops of the elephant grass over our heads as we all struggled to get on line and make ourselves as low to the ground as we could, then lay down return fire in the direction of the enemy.

The guy next to me wasn’t firing.  He was mumbling something I couldn’t understand between all the shooting and my sergeant yelling orders at the top of his lungs. 
“Gimme the fucking Prick!” That was my queue to crawl over to the sergeant with the PRC radio.

It was about fifteen yards but felt like a mile.  When I had almost reached him I realized I couldn’t find the handset to the radio. I started to panic until Doc, mildly bemused in spite of the shit storm all around us, gestured to me that the handset was attached to the radio and was trailing behind me on the handset cord. Oh…yeah!  The sergeant snatched the radio and started calling in artillery support from our firebase.  I crawled back to my position next to the mumbling kid.

He was still mumbling, and hadn’t seemed to have fired a shot as evidenced by there being no empty magazines around his position. Then I heard it. In between my changing magazines and over the din of the shooting I could hear “…who art in heaven hallowed be…”.  He was praying to Jesus….and crying. 

In short order our artillery was dropping high explosive shells about 75 to 100 meters to our front, and lighting the sky with flares…better for us to see any enemy movement. Eventually the enemy fire stopped. We set ourselves up in a tight perimeter in the event we were being flanked and to fend off any attack.  None came.  It got quiet.  No one slept. The kid next to me was still praying in between sobs. I must have heard “Jesus” mumbled in his southern drawl about a thousand times that night.  I came to hate that kid as much as the word “Jesus.”  The next morning the NVA were gone. We counted three NVA bodies; took their weapons and their assorted effects, and made it back to the fire base.

The praying kid was transferred to another platoon. Three or four months later he was killed in action.

I always wondered about that night.  About what would have happened if every guy on the squad was praying and not focused on returning fire. About if that kid thought the reason he survived, that we all survived that encounter, was owing to his prayers and Jesus, and not because of ten or eleven other guys doing their duty, the sergeant’s cool head and experience, and the artillery support. I also wondered if, when he was killed, he was he still praying and not returning fire; if he may have contributed to his own demise…and the deaths of two other guys in that later action because of his dependence on his nonexistent God.

I’ll never know the answers to those questions.  I still wonder about it, almost a half a century later. But I know one thing for sure - that Jesus and any other imaginary friend - is worse than useless in battle.


Jason Lint said...

Folded hands never accomplished anything. Also that is a very interesting question. Did he believe the power of his prayer is what saved you guys? Very interesting.

Sue said...

That's a pretty intense story, Bart, with a hard-hitting message. Did you have a chance to talk to him about his useless 'contribution' before he left your unit? It's sad he died; sadder if he died just as much a fool as he was when you knew him.

Dromedary Hump said...

Sue, no..I did not.
I pretty much kept my distance from him and ignored him until he was transferred.

Charl said...

We used to have a Chaplain lead us in prayers before we set off on operations (COIN Unit operating in Angola/South West Africa). Invariably he would assure us that God was on our side as we were fighting the godless communists (Marxist Guerrillas with Russian and Cuban instructors)and He would grant us the victory and protect us from all harm. Even before fully embracing atheism I used to find this obscene and hypocritical. "Thou shalt not kill" but for this operation go out and slaughter with my full-scale blessing? We did win but that was due to superior tactics and firepower and because we were highly trained. Victory was gained due to the hard-earned effectiveness of our unit and not because of some invisible magic man and the pious words of some deluded REMF (I have read up on the Vietnam war as it had much in common with the conflict we were engaged in and have thus picked up on some of the jargon, Bart). Needless to say, we lost men and then the old tired 'he works in mysterious ways' would be trotted out.
That conflict was 35 years ago and my anger only grows greater when I look back on how cynically religion was used to sway the minds and hearts of 18 year old conscripts.
It is interesting to note that us older hands went one of 2 ways. Either you moved further and further away from magic man or you went the other way and became a fanatical magic man supporter. I am glad to say that former outnumbered the latter.
Thank you for sharing.

Dromedary Hump said...

And thank YOU for sharing that. Seems we have much in common. Yes, there are many freethinkers in the military, either as a result of their own common sense and respect for reality, or led to reason by what they did and saw.

Thanks again.

Tom Windwllow said...

I had sky pilots on a few occasions. They were always ineffective at helping save lives. They always gave credit to JC on a stick. I think there is a correlation between fear of god and cowardism. One night following a "Bright Light" operation, we were bringing in severely wounded members og our team directly to the hospital helipad. We couldn't land because jesus freaks were out smoking dope and laying out on the red cross and praising the coming of the lord when we turned on our landing light. A few of the less injured jumped out and had to physically remove them from the helipad so that we could off load the wounded. Decide;y nlot cool and not rational. On another team the team leader was a cherry and a sky pilot. On contact, he curled up and prayed feverishly. He was shipped out immediately on his return to base. His religious bullshit was considered evil and contagious.

Dromedary Hump said...

Hi Tom,

I guess my experience is not so unique after all. I had no idea it was so widespread, although I shouldn't be surprised. One would think with their expectation of eternal life along side their Man-god, they'd be more anxious to join him and less prone to shutdown.

I wonder if a Christian would justify that behavior as Jesus' spirit inducing that fear so as to better get him killed and sooner get "called home". Eh, speculation only. Who knows what kind of convoluted non-logic they'd come up with to justify what you, and I, and Charl, and likely many many more if us witnessed of their "true believers".


Anonymous said...

That there are no atheists in fox holes is a dearly loved canard of the religious. I became an atheist in fox holes. My faith was dangling by a thread when I listened to a priest give what I called a 'kill a commie for christ' pep talk. I walked away and never looked back. It's been nearly fifty years, and I haven't even come close to changing my mind.

Welcome home my brother.


Dromedary Hump said...


I said in one of my books that the next guy who tosses the "no atheists in fox holes" platitude at me in person will get his ass kicked. A few years ago an 85+ yr old devout Catholic Navy vet sprung it on me at a friend's party. Given his age I let him keep his ass in tact, albeit, his ears may still be burning to this day.

Thanks, and welcome home to you as well.