Winning Hearts and Minds

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Robert B. Robeson

Captain Nick Carver sat motionless while the straight razor, held firmly by a thin Vietnamese man, grazed his throat. It was July 1, 1969. This U.S. Army artillery officer was getting a weekly shave and haircut in a makeshift barbershop in Hiep Duc, South Vietnam.

Hiep Duc was situated on the north side of the Song Thu Bon River. It was adjacent to Landing Zone Karen located on a mountaintop to the southeast. The Song Thu Bon flowed between Karen and LZ Siberia. Siberia was where Carver’s 55-man artillery unit was stationed overlooking Hiep Duc and Antenna Valley. They were tasked with providing artillery support to allied forces operating in the area.

Their secondary mission was keeping an eye on a network of enemy North Vietnamese Army infiltration routes. Most of these were often undetectable paths from the air and originated above the demilitarized zone in North Vietnam. They wound through hundreds of miles of dense, triple-canopied jungle. Their camouflaged presence snaked over and around remote mountain chains. Then a few of them inconspicuously fed into lush rice paddy areas surrounding Hiep Duc, the infamous Vietnamese resettlement area in I Corps, about 36 miles southwest of Da Nang.

Confrontations with the enemy in this region were as consistent as persistent 100-degree temperatures. The heat and humidity, that American infantrymen had to endure and complained about, were so energy-depleting and oppressive they “could make a Quaker swear,” one “grunt” had remarked in frustration.

“Beaucoup Viet Cong not far away, dai uy,” Dien Tran said, using the Vietnamese words for “captain.” He wiped excess shaving cream from his razor with a white towel. “VC num-mer ten. Americans num-mer one.”

Carver had been making weekly trips off the firebase in his open Jeep for a number of months. It was an attempt to show a positive American presence in an area rife with ruthless enemy terror attacks. Kidnappings, beheadings of village chiefs, rapes and murders of their families were common occurrences. It was the enemy’s attempt to intimidate anyone showing support for Americans. Carver also hoped to gain intelligence from local civilians. They always knew when enemy troops were in their area.

Dien had already proven to be a valuable information source. One of his stated goals was an intense desire to be able to move to a more peaceful area. Da Nang, situated next to scenic Da Nang Harbor on one side and the South China Sea on the other, was his ultimate dream. Another wish was learning how to play American basketball.

“You bring b-ball today, dai uy? You show how to…how you say…dibble?”

“Dribble,” Carver corrected. “It has an ‘r’ in it, Dien. Dribble. Yeah, I’ve got you covered.”

“You num-mer one, dai uy. Num-mer one.”

After weeks of practice, Dien finally learned how to dribble the ball. Carver patiently taught him on a patch of concrete that had once been the foundation of a warehouse. The VC had leveled it with a barrage of mortar fire one night. From there, it was on to shooting at a bare basketball hoop one of the captain’s men had “liberated.” They’d snagged it, along with a new ball, from Special Services in Da Nang on a three-day rest and relaxation trip to China Beach. Carver had attached the net-less hoop, and an improvised backboard out of plywood, approximately ten feet up a telephone pole he’d scrounged. Then he’d buried one end of the pole next to this concrete pad.

“Well, sir, he ain’t no John Havlicek or Wilt Chamberlain,” Corporal Willie Sanders noted as they were leaving.

“Astute observation, corporal.

Sanders was one of three black enlisted men in the unit. He’d been drafted by the army before he could accept a junior college basketball scholarship. Basketball had been his initial opportunity to escape rural Alabama. Now his sole objective was attempting to stay alive another 24 hours in “the ‘Nam.” He was Carver’s enlisted driver and had been standing guard nearby.

“With his size,” Sanders added, “he ain’t gonna be bringin’ down no rims with dunks. Is this what politicians call winnin’ hearts and minds?”

“Something like that,” Carver replied. “If this is all it takes to get good intelligence, I’d say it’s pretty cost effective.”

“Think I’d be scared hangin’ ‘round us like this,” Sanders said. “There’s gotta be a bunch of VC informers livin’ in the Duc.”

“Could be. It always takes guts to do the right thing during tough times.”

“Well, sir, when the sun goes down and we’re back on the hill, even prayin’ to Buddha ain’t gonna do him no good if the VC decide to come visitin’ in the middle of the night.”

Ordinary life on Siberia was filled with a myriad of dreary day-to-day tasks. These mundane moments could be interrupted by intense excitement and emotion when fire missions were called in. Enemy mortar attacks and night probes were persistent events that tested their defenses and let them know they weren’t alone in the area. Troops serving on this exposed landing zone encountered the extremes of heat and humidity, monsoons and mud, loneliness and often boredom. It involved lots of the latter.

During the day, temperatures could soar to 110 degrees. Not a shred of shade could be found except that which was found in buildings or underground bunkers. A thin film of yellow dust covered everything and everybody from morning to night. It was stirred by the wind, concussions from the 155mm and 105mm howitzers, moving vehicles, landing helicopters and shuffling jungle boots.

The hill was shared with other living creatures, too. This included snakes of various sizes and potency residing in rocky outcroppings. Many came out at night to embrace the warmth of flat ground surrounding officer and enlisted latrines. Sleepy troops making the trek from bunkers to a midnight rendezvous with nature needed to be alert. Everyone carried a flashlight on these excursions.

A flashlight could also expose a soldier to an enemy sniper. But poisonous snakes were always relegated to a higher danger level than “Charlie” taking potshots in the dark. Then there were the ever-present mosquitoes and cat-sized Vietnamese rats. These local residents consistently harassed sleeping troops in bunkers and hootches at night.

“Just received another intelligence report, sir,” First Sergeant Manny Hernandez said, as Carver entered their sandbagged command post. “Got a VC battalion out in Antenna Valley again.”

“Interesting,” Carver replied. “Dien Tran gave me that information two days ago. Maybe we’re getting better intel from him than higher headquarters.”

“No offense, sir, but relying on some village barber nobody knows anything about makes me nervous as a rabbit’s nose.”

“Top, you gotta listen to everyone and then make your decisions.” Carver removed his boonie hat and placed it next to their PRC-25 radio. This was his unit’s direct link with battalion headquarters.

“I don’t trust any of ‘em,” Hernandez said. “Far as I’m concerned, they’re all VC sympathizers.”

“So far, he’s been dead-on with his information,” Carver replied.

“’Dead’ meaning us or ‘dead’ meaning them?”

Carver ignored this pointed inference.

“I hear you’re teaching him to play basketball, too.”

“’Trying’ is the key word.”

“Then why bother, sir?”

“Sometimes you have to give something to get something,” Carver said.

Hernandez was a blue-eyed Hispanic. His unique eyes made him stand out. His “white-sidewalls” military haircut could have made even a jarhead marine take a second look. It was his second tour in ‘Nam. He had a wealth of combat experience for a young officer to tap into. Carver liked his blunt style. He’d learned a lot from him in the six months he’d been in-country. But the overall responsibility for Siberia was his alone. Carver knew he had to go with his gut feeling about Dien.

Weeks passed quickly. Carver and Sanders drove down the hill from Siberia, across the bridge over the Song Thu Bon River and through a forested area to Hiep Duc. It was time for another shave and haircut for Carver and a basketball session with Dien.

“You been practicing your shooting while I was gone?” Carver asked.

“Dibbling num-mer one, now, dai uy. But shooting num-mer ten. I shoot lots each day.”

“Dribbling, Dien. Remember it has an ‘r’ in it. Dribbling.”

“English not so good, dai uy. Dribbling,” Dien repeated.

“You do fine. You should hear my Vietnamese,” Carver said. “Look, we have a half-court set-up on the hill. We play a lot of three-on-three when there’s not much going on in the afternoon. Want to come up and play with us sometime?”

A smile spread across the barber’s face exposing two gold teeth.

“Oh, dai uy, that num-mer one idea. I never been on hill.”

“Okay, we’ll come back tomorrow. We’ll get three other guys to play a little three-on-three.”

“Tomorrow I have num-mer one information for you, too, dai uy,” Dien said. “There old Vietnamese saying: ‘Biot minh biet nguoi, tram tran danh tram tran thang.’”

“What’s that mean?”

“Knowing yourself and the enemy, you will win a hundred battles,’ dai uy.”

“Very good, Dien. I’m gonna write that down and post it in my CP.

“What CP?”

“Command post,” Carver said. “That’s where all of our command and control operations are directed.”

“Would you show me CP tomorrow?”

“Only if your information is good and you bring your scissors to cut hair. I have some enlisted guys who look like Neanderthals.”

“What Neanderthal, dai uy?”

“Kind of like VC,” Carver said, displaying a faint smile, “only smarter.”

Carver and Sanders picked up Dien in their Jeep at Hiep Duc the following afternoon. Carver turned to the barber in their rear seat on the drive up the hill.

“What have you got for me?”

“Important news, dai uy. Friend tell me he find VC weapons in tunnel by river.”

“So you gonna show me where they are?”

“Yes, I show. Friend, he hate VC, too. See, I tell you I have num-mer one news.”

“Okay, I’ll be back with some infantry types about noon tomorrow,” Carver said. “If your friend’s on the level, I’ll take care of you.”

“Now we play b-ball and I get to see CP?”

“After you’ve finished some haircuts, Dien. First things first.”

“What’s going on, sir?” Hernandez asked, when Carver and Sanders had returned from Hiep Duc. “Why do we have an unknown Vietnamese civilian in a secure area? Why we givin’ this guy a grand tour of our firebase?”

“Top, he’s providing me intel we’d never get any other way. We’re checking out a weapons cache outside the Duc tomorrow.”

“Right. And in the meantime, this Tran character knows exactly where everything is on the hill. Pretty simple to lock-in mortar rounds when you know exact distances from major objects.”

“Yeah, I know,” Carver admitted.

“So the bad guys drop a mortar round on the basketball pole. And say this guy has counted the steps from that pole to our CP. Then they simply adjust their fire and walk rounds to our CP and ammo dump,” Hernandez said, shaking his head.

“He’s never given me bum info,” Carver replied.

“Maybe so, but say he’s really a VC. What he’s learned up here could get us burned later on.”

“If they’re going to hit us, they’ve got lots of ways to know where everything is,” Carver said. “Being realistic, we’re trapped on top of a mountain surrounded by jungle. That’s what close air support is for. And our quad-50 machine guns, mortars and our howitzers, too.”

“Sir, I hope you’re right. It’s not like ‘Charlie’ hasn’t given up weapons cache info before to get better intel about us.”

It was 0300 hours on a moonless September morning. Carver couldn’t sleep because of the heat and had gone to the CP to go over intelligence reports. His radio operator was listening to a tape cassette featuring song like “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Rolling on the River,” Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Rolling Stones’ rock hit “Let it Bleed.” They were being played quietly on a battery-powered tape recorder.

“Turn it off.”

“Sir?”

“Cut the music. I want to go outside to listen for a little while,” Carver said. He grabbed his steel pot and M-16 from a hook overhead. Then he walked down to their bunker line and stuck his head inside the first one he came to.

“Pretty dark tonight,” Carver whispered.

“Right, sir,” an enlisted man inside replied. “And really quiet. Too quiet. No monkeys, bird or animal noise. Nothing.”

“Keep your radio on and your eyes and ears open. Are the Claymores set up and

ready?”

“Yes, sir. We expectin’ company?”

“Don’t know, yet. It doesn’t feel right. Just keep each other alert. No smoking. No noise.”

“Right, sir.”

Carver walked their entire perimeter and returned to the CP.

“Sir, Charlie’s jamming our primary frequency,” the radio operator said a few minutes later.

“How long?”

“Just started.”

“All right, go to an alternate frequency and inform battalion headquarters. We’re going on a 100% alert,” Carver ordered. “I’ll roust Top and you ask battalion to have ‘Spooky’ put on notice in Da Nang, too.”

Spooky was the call sign for a U.S. Air Force AC-47 gunship. It had three, multi-barreled, electric, Gatling-type machine guns mounted on the left side of the plane. It could pump out 6,000 rounds of death and destruction a minute. This aircraft could fly in flat left-hand orbits for hours above a landing zone putting suppressive fire on enemy positions.

All 55 men on Siberia had taken their defensive positions when radio reports began coming in from the bunker line and listening posts.

“We got movement to our front on the east side of the hill. Sounds like guests are startin’ to arrive.”

“Okay, I’m going to give you continuous illumination,” Carver said. “They’ll probably lead with sappers in an attempt to get through the wire. And maybe flamethrowers. We gotta blunt their initial attack…so make every shot count.”

Flares, fired from a mortar pit in the center of the hill, swung slowly from their miniature parachutes above this mountain fortress. As they came down, like leaves wafting back and forth in a slight breeze, the sky became a black backdrop to their

momentary brilliance. Corresponding shadows rose in eerie complement to their descent.

M-16 rifle fire suddenly erupted from a listening post and bunker on their east perimeter. Then remote-detonated Claymore mines exploded, along with other anti-personnel mines, one after the other. A human wave of shadowy figures was illuminated by the flares as they emerged from the jungle below. They had been exposed as they slithered up the steep mountain slope. Cries of pain and anger rose from all quadrants.

“Two VC with flamethrowers were nailed before they could get through the wire,” Hernandez shouted to Carver above the smoke and chaos. “Spooky’s on the way. And we have a ‘Blue Ghost’ team of helicopter gunships en route from Chu Lai.”

“OK, Top, keep the ammo circulating and check for weak spots on the line,” Carver yelled. “I’ll keep commo going in the CP. Take cover…we got incoming! Incoming!”

Enemy mortar rounds began raining on the exposed mountaintop from secluded sites in the surrounding jungle.

Spooky arrived overhead, at 3,000 feet, twenty minutes later. Its alternating Gatling guns began spewing a volume of lead similar to the fountains of Versailles. One out of every fifth round was a tracer. Exquisite, slow-red, fiery trails swept down thousands of feet to earth. The aircraft flew in steady left-hand orbits above the carnage and enemy assault below. Six-thousand rounds a minute were a sight to behold. They were capable of making underbrush, trees and other miscellaneous hazards disappear that were located on any mountainside.

The attack was over two hours later. A medical evacuation helicopter had managed to land beside a mortar pit to evacuate five wounded Americans and one KIA. The KIA was a medic who had exposed himself during the initial attack to assist a wounded buddy. A Chicom grenade blew off his leg. He died on the helicopter.

A few of the naked sappers, painted black, high on drugs and packing satchel charges, had wormed their way through the outer perimeter razor wire. But they’d been stopped by small arms fire before they could set off these devastating explosives. Enemy dead littered the landscape. They were sprawled everywhere in the awkward postures of sudden death.

The surviving Americans dragged enemy bodies from beyond the bunker line to their improvised basketball court near the CP. The hillside reeked from a combination of smoke, gunpowder and the stench of spilt blood and wasted youth. Before long, the sun began to creep over mountaintops to the east.

“Look over here, Captain Carver,” a private yelled. He had an M-79 grenade launcher slung over one shoulder and a .45-caliber pistol in his right hand. He’d been tasked to go from body to body and ensure each enemy soldier was beyond repair. “Recognize this one, sir? Man, he’s been wasted…eaten up.”

Carver walked from near the CP to a spot 30 meters away. He looked at an enemy soldier whose lower extremities were ripped apart.

“It’s my barber buddy, Dien,” Carver said. “I’d say he’s deader’n vaudeville. Kind of late to be out looking for a pickup basketball game, don’t you think?”

Hernandez trotted up beside Carver, out of breath. “Looks like…the big, bad wolf…has been lying to the three little pigs…on a regular basis,” Hernandez wheezed.

“Big time,” Carver replied.

“Think tryin’ to overrun arty bases was his night job?” Hernandez asked.

“You either have a lot of hate or drugs in you to try storming a hill like ours,” Carver said, “or somebody’s prodding you from behind with a bayonet or AK-47.”

“You think he was forced to do this?” Hernandez asked.

“I’d felt better if that was a fact,” Carver admitted. “But I knew from the start that he was a VC.”

“You knew that, didn’t tell me and still brought him up here?” Hernandez asked, shaking his head.

“Division had intel that he was an enemy agent,” Carver explained. “And they asked me to strike up a relationship. I let him feed us info and also allowed him to get his own intel on us.”

“Oh, that’s nice, sir,” Hernandez said.

“He belonged to a VC battalion that hangs out around here. What he thought he knew about us enticed them to attack. They thought they had it all figured out. I was sworn to secrecy, Top.”

“So you used basketball and haircuts to open the door?” Hernandez asked.

“Yeah, Dien fed me info he figured our intel people already knew about,” Carver said. “I taught him basketball. He called me ‘num-mer one dai uy.’ Then he tried to sneak up here in the middle of the night to kill us.”

“Unbelievable,” Hernandez said.

“Makes you feel like you’ve been in the loco house all night, huh?”

“Winning hearts and minds is probably gonna be tougher than we thought,” Hernandez admitted. “But we made a lot of ‘believers’ tonight out of Uncle Ho Chi Minh’s boys. Guess they discovered a little late that ol’ Spooky can make anybody glow in the dark.”

“Remember that old saying, ‘He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword?”

“Or Spooky,” Hernandez said.

“Yeah, or Spooky,” Carver said with a smile. “Dien liked to quote Vietnamese sayings. Remember that one I put up in the CP? Well, there’s an old French war song that he probably never heard, but should have. It goes, ‘Chacun son tour…aujourd’ hui le tien, demain le mein.’”

“What’s that mean?” Hernandez asked.

“’To each his turn. Today yours, tomorrow mine,’” Carver said, shouldering his M-16. “Dien’s turn was today.” He took a deep breath. “As long as we’re in ‘Nam, there’s always gonna be that fear of what tomorrow or the night after that will bring.”

“Well, sir, don’t expect me to go with you to the Duc to get a shave or haircut anytime soon,” Hernandez said.

“Yeah, Top. How could anyone say war’s dangerous, devious and downright irrational?”

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