Excerpt from Ray Gleason’s The Violent Season, Chapter Seventeen, “Chu Pa, Day Three,” The Death of Lieutenant Tuong
As if he had heard Fitz’ intelligence brief, Senior Lieutenant Tuong was positioning two RPK machine guns around his command post so that they would have clear fields of fire straight down the valley. From there, they would support the forward movement of his riflemen from their positions on the north ridge down into the valley below to finish off any American survivors.
The plan would work, Tuong considered, but it was not optimum. He was stretched too thin. What he wanted was control of Colonel Dung’s reserve company so that he could sweep the Americans out of the upper valley and engage the enemy unit still lodged in the valley farther below. But, the Colonel had denied his request. He was holding these men back because he believed that what was happening here was just a diversion and the real American threat would appear suddenly on the division’s left flank.
It was almost dawn, Tuong realized. We will soon discover if the Americans are as clever as the colonel imagined them to be, he mused. Meanwhile, Tuong had to clean up this mess with the resources available to him, two machine guns and about thirty riflemen.
Tuong glanced to his right, toward the blackness that represented both his right flank and the flank of the entire division. Being this close to the end of the division’s defensive line, with his back to the Chu Pa, made Tuong uneasy. Nothing specific, he was just uneasy. The colonel assured him that the mountain secured his flank and rear from any enemy threat. But, Tuong just didn’t like it. He knew it was just his nerves, but he imagined enemy eyes peering at him out of the darkness. He wished he had the manpower to establish an outpost on top of the ridge, but he needed every man he had to contain the Americans. Stop this, he chided himself. Soon you will be imagining the monsters of your childhood nightmares. There’s nothing out there. Concentrate on the job before you.
Tuong saw a machine gun crew approaching his position along the northern ridge. The lieutenant prided himself that he could recognize every one of his men from the front and from the back. He remembered the gunner was from Hanoi, the back streets. He had some kind of a shady reputation that made the political officers wary of him. What was his name… that was it… “Corporal An,” Tuong greeted him, “How is your machine gun working this fine morning.”
“Fast and hot,” An responded with a parody of a salute, “Just like a Hanoi whore on a Saturday night.”
Tuong winced a bit at An’s vulgar allusion, then quipped, “Haven’t you heard, Corporal? The party has declared that there is no prostitution in the people’s socialist state.”
“Ah, that’s too bad,” An retorted, “Then what fun will we have when we get back home?”
“I’m sure the party will find a way to fuck us,” Tuong punned, glad that political officers never wandered this close to the action. “Come with me. I will show you where to set up your gun.”
Tuong established An’s gun on the left, situated on top of his own CP bunker. Tuong saw no need to bunker the gun. The Americans dare not shoot their artillery at his position with their own soldiers in such close proximity. And, the Americans trapped below were in no condition to offer effective counter fire. Tuong restricted the gun’s left and right traverse with sandbags to prevent it from hitting his own troops on either flank.
Tuong instructed An that, once the command to fire was given, he would be firing alternately with the machine gun on his right. They were to continue to fire until he gave the command to cease fire. Since they were on higher ground than their target, they would be delivering “plunging fire,” fire into a restricted area, instead of “grazing” fire, fire across an area. An was to shoot into an area about fifty meters to his front with his first burst, then incrementally move his aiming point ten meters forward with each sequential burst, out to about two hundred meters down the valley. Then, he was to work his way back in ten-meter decrements. Given the ammunition available to him, Tuong had decided to prep the area for no more than fifteen minutes. That meant each gun would rake the target area, where the surviving Americans were cowering, at least ten times. Then he would send his riflemen into the valley to finish the job.
This is my duty, Tuong kept repeating to himself feeling for the wallet he kept in his breast pocket, just my duty.
When Tuong had both guns positioned and their crews briefed, and after he had instructed the sergeant who was to lead the assault into the valley, there was nothing to do but wait for the dawn. Already, as he looked towards the east down through the narrow valley, Tuong could see the color of the night sky almost imperceptively shifting from black to deep purple. Tuong glanced at his watch. It was 0445 hours. Soon the hungry forest birds would awaken. They will have much to feast on this morning, Tuong thought grimly.
Tuong wondered what his wife Mai was doing at this very moment. Probably still asleep, he thought. He hoped that she and little Anh Hung were safe from the American bombs. Despite the bombing, the party forced the families of officers to remain in the capital as an example to the people. The political officers said that the Americans were deliberately fire-bombing the homes of civilians in order to spread terror and break the will of the Vietnamese people. Each night their planes came over Hanoi in their hundreds and rained fire and destruction down on the capital and its defenseless residents. Hundreds, if not thousands, were being horribly killed by the American fire-bombs every night. But, the righteous will of the Vietnamese people would never be broken by these terrorist tactics. The Vietnamese people will never give in to these capitalist thugs. That’s what they said.
Tuong didn’t know anything about whether that was true. He just hoped that his wife and baby son were safe.
Tuong looked out into the valley below him. He could now distinctly see individual forest trees, but there was not yet enough light to discern any color. The jungle was a rough cartoon of a still life, a landscape in black, white and grey. Nothing moved.
Soon… soon… Tuong thought. He glanced again at his watch… 0510… very soon now.
The political officers said that the end of the struggle of the Vietnamese people was near. America’s own people were in revolt against the war. Their armies could not sustain themselves much longer. It was important that every soldier of the people’s army do his duty… do his duty. The Americans would soon break. Their resistance would crumble. Their puppet regime in the south would collapse. Victory was inevitable and it was near. The Vietnamese people would be united… as long as the soldiers did their duty. Then they could all go home. They would be reunited with their families… as long as he did his duty.
Tuong looked up. The color of the foliage was shifting from light grey to pale green. The birds were screaming the frantic, burbling songs of their morning feeding frenzy. It was time… time to do his duty for the people… a step closer to going home… a step closer to being reunited with his family… his duty.
“Fire!” Tuong screamed.
An’s machine gun vomited out flames and noise. A six-second burst. Tuong imagined he could hear the screams of the doomed Americans in the valley below.
This is my duty, he repeated to himself.
Then the machine gun on his right answered it. Then the left again. A frenzied chorus of noise, fire and destruction.
This is my duty… my duty…
Then again the right. Again the left.
“Finish it… finish it!” Tuong caught himself saying out loud.
Tuong glanced down at his watch to time the supporting fires. He raised his whistle to his lips to signal his assault force forward.
Suddenly, out of his peripheral vision, he detected another weapon firing, this one high on the ridge to his right. There’s no one there, was his first thought. As he turned, his impression was of four, flaming tongues of the muzzle flash of a heavy weapon, close… too close… then flaming orange tracers reaching down toward him from the southern ridgeline… Americans, he realized… but how… then his machine gun crew disintegrated under the glowing orange flames… but this cannot be… he thought to turn toward An’s gun… I must warn him… he heard a hollow pop from the American position on the ridge… he turned just in time to see an explosion engulf An’s crew… the soldiers were flung backward… the machine gun bent and broken like a child’s toy… Tuong moved toward them… someone was still moving… soldiers were writhing on the ground… Tuong felt a hammer blow to his back… he felt himself flying forward… there was a strange green glow in the sky… then the orange flames were all around… devouring him.
In the darkness, Tuong thought he heard a baby crying. Then he heard his wife’s voice comforting the child, cooing to it… “Sleep, my little one, sleep! Nothing will harm you! Your Mama’s here to protect you.”
With his last breath, Tuong sighed, “Forgive me!”