Wednesday, 22nd January 2020 - 23:30:19 pm
They heard the gunfire when they were only about two kilometers from the village. The entire column stopped as one man to listen. Kincaid turned Hao hoping that his own judgment was wrong. But Hao nodded and said, "It is Huc Van."
The gunfire increased in intensity and the sound was augmented by the explosions of grenades. It was coming from the home village of most of the men in the column including Kincaid. They had left few men there to defend.
Kincaid cut all thought of Phouc out of his mind so that he could function. There was only one quick exit from the village. That was toward the nearest road which was ten kilometers away. "Take half the men," he told Hao. "Block the trail toward the road."
Hao split off his men and left immediately. Kincaid started the others toward the village. They set a very fast pace without being told.
To keep his mind off of Phouc, Kincaid reviewed the situation. There was a good chance they could save much of the village. That depended on how strong the attacking force was and how good the defense. That was out of his hands.
The enemy in the village was doomed. Hao was sure to block the only quick exit before they could use it. If they retreated any other way, the Rhade would chop them up at their leisure.
Who could they be? There had been no reports of active Viet Cong units in the area. A large unit would have been spotted easily. The village of Huc Van was centrally located. Kincaid had moved his headquarters there because of its location, well within the borders of the Rhade territory. A Viet Cong unit from outside would have far to travel to launch an attack. There were VC locally. They were Vietnamese who worked on the rubber and tea plantations. But these units were very weak and had been quiet for months. Well, Kincaid thought, they're not so quiet now.
The head of the column came out of the woods. They could see the village. Many of the huts were on fire. There were planted fields between them and the village. A field of corn had grown high enough to provide good cover. Kincaid started the men toward the cover of the corn. He joined them when he saw that all were going the right way but they were moving so fast he could not catch up with the head of the column.
The Rhade in front should have stopped when they reached the huts. It would have been better to form up and launch a coordinated attack. But they didn't and Kincaid couldn't blame them. He might have done the same thing had he been in the lead. They plunged into a counterattack by ones and twos as soon as they reached the village.
It made no difference in the outcome. They might have taken fewer casualties if they had waited but perhaps more people in the village would have been killed. Who can say" But the enemy stood their ground for only a brief time. They saw that the slim force in the village was being reinforced and they broke and ran. They ran straight toward Hao and his blocking force. They had started running before Kincaid reached the huts.
Kincaid could see little of what was happening. Fleeting glances of men seeking cover, then they could be seen again running to new cover. Firing blindly, but that was the way of most fire fights at close quarters. Camouflage uniforms!? That was a new one for Charlie. He put all of it to the back of his mind. His overriding concern was that his hut was one of those burning and he had left Phouc in it!
He went forward to cover beneath a burning hut. A Rhade came at him from the side. It wasn't a Rhade.
"They didn't get the radio," Lou Gorski said.
Kincaid didn't give a damn about the radio. "Have you seen Phouc?"
"No. It all happened too quick. They were on us before we knew what was happening. Goddamned ARVN Rangers! Who would have thought it?"
Kincaid was stunned. He looked over at Gorski and said slowly, "Army of the Republic of Viet Nam? Our Viet Nam? They were our troops?"
"Yeah," Gorski said. "Look." He pointed at a dead soldier ahead of them wearing a camouflage uniform and a red beret. There was a dead Rhade woman on the ground near him.
"I saw the uniforms," Kincaid said. "Charlie could have stolen them."
"They had an American advisor with them. At least he looked American. I only had a glimpse."
Kincaid shook it off. "I've got to find Phouc."
All of Kincaid's Rhade were now out of the corn field and in action. The enemy had been driven from the last huts and were trying to cross open fields. Some had held their discipline. These were alternately turning to fire before retreating and turning to fire again. There were not enough doing this to worry the pursuers. The Rhade were picking them off at will from cover. Most of the enemy had broke and run right toward Hao's blocking force.
Bullets were still whizzing through the air as Kincaid moved from cover to cover toward his hut. All the huts in this area were on fire so he was not surprised to see his burning also. The carnage was not as bad as he had expected. Some women and children had been killed but he had seen barely a half dozen. They were now greatly outnumbered by the dead in the red berets. His hut was completely engulfed in flames. He stood and watched it burn. It doesn't mean anything, he thought. It's only a hut. She could have gotten out. She had to have gotten out. She wouldn't have stayed in there.
Lou Gorski was at his side again. "I'm sorry, Steve," he said.
Kincaid didn't know what he was talking about. He looked at him questioningly.
"Down there." Gorski pointed under the hut. "I thought you saw."
Kincaid saw. He turned away immediately and threw up. He felt Gorski's hand on the back of his neck, comforting him. "I'm sorry," Gorski said again.
Kincaid felt himself crying. He couldn't help it and he couldn't stop. The girl's soft flesh was beloved to him, and now?
"Fix it for me, will you Lou?" Kincaid said. He was bent over with his eyes closed.
Gorski moved his head close to Kincaid's. "What?" he asked. "I couldn't hear you."
Kincaid straightened up. "Take care of her, Lou. Please. I don't want to see her like that. She was... Fix it for me, will you Lou?"
"I"ll do it, Steve." Gorski patted his back. "I"ll take care of it."
Kincaid turned and went numbly toward the sound of firing. Dimly he thought, 'Stay away from the fighting. You're in no shape. You"ll get yourself killed.' But he was drawn toward it as a moth to flame.
"Where do you go, Chin Way?" A Rhade called to him from the side.
He stumbled but regained his balance and kept going forward.
"Do you need us, Chin Way?" another called from behind.
"He is hurt," another said. "Stop him."
Hands pulled him to the ground. He did not resist. He was glad for them. He knew they had saved his life.
There was comfort in the hands that held him. As long as he was in their grip there was nothing else he could do. That was what he wanted more than anything else at that moment. No decisions, no orders, on operations, nothing. He could just lie there, in the grip of friendly hands, and do nothing.
The shooting ended in the woods beyond the fields.
"It is over, Chin Way." The voice was close to his ear.
The gripping hands released him. He was free to stand up but he didn't want to stand up. The hands returned and lifted him to his feet.
He was surrounded by Rhade.
"Are you hurt, Chin Way?"
"He is not hurt. Where are your eyes?"
"Then what is wrong?"
"His woman was killed. He mourns his woman."
The tribesmen backed off a respectful distance.
Hao came up. "Some got away, Steve. Not..." He looked into his eyes. "What's wrong?"
"They killed Phouc." Kincaid said. "Shot her in the stomach and the head. Why?" He couldn't phrase the question.
"I'm sorry." He looked around. "Is Thai all right?" he asked in Rhade. He had brought his sister-in-law to the village to live with him.
"She is well," a man replied. "I saw her."
Hao spoke in English to Kincaid. "Do you want Gorski to take over for you, Steve?"
"No. Give me a minute. I"ll be okay."
Gorski was suddenly alongside him. "I took care of everything, Steve. Are you going to be all right?"
"I"ll be okay."
"Where are the ARVN observers?" Gorski asked. A captain and a lieutenant were assigned to the village.
Hao replied to his question. "They were here when we left this morning."
"They didn't go with you?" Gorski asked.
"I didn't see them after you left," Gorski said. "I thought they went with you. I haven't seen them all day."
A voice called from a cluster of men twenty meters away. "Do you speak English" Hey, over there, do you speak English?"
"What the hell is that?" Gorski asked Hao.
"A prisoner," Hao replied. "Wait till you see this." In Rhade he called, "Bring him over here."
Two Rhade escorted a western looking man over at gun point. His insignia was of a first lieutenant in the US Army Infantry. On the left breast of his camouflage uniform his name was spelled out as "Collins." He had lost his red beret somewhere. His left forearm had been hit. It looked as though the bullet had broken a bone. He held it across his lower chest with his right arm. The lieutenant looked young and scared.
"Americans pay beau coup dollars... uh... piasters. You take me see them. They pay you. Okay?" He looked around earnestly from face to face. His eyes did a double take when he saw Lou Gorski. He stared at him curiously. "Do you speak English?" he asked plaintively.
"Yeah, I speak English. What the hell are you doing here?"
"Hell," Collins said. "You're not a Montagnard at all, are you?"
"I think you had better answer Major Gorski's question, Lieutenant," Kincaid said coldly. "You are in big trouble here."
Hao and Gorski exchanged relieved glances. Kincaid seemed to be out of his trancelike state.
"Why you're not a Montagnard either. Who are you people? How could you be a Major? What army?"
"I am Lieutenant Colonel Steven Kincaid, Commanding officer, 3rd Provisional Brigade, United States Army. This is my Executive Officer, Major Louis Gorski. You have just attacked my headquarters with a company of ARVN Rangers."
All the color left the lieutenant's face.
"Grab him," Kincaid said. "He's going down."
Hao and another Rhade supported him.
Gorski shouted back into the village, "Medic! We need help over here!"
Bob Douglas came around a hut on the run. He was carrying a canvas bag in his hand and had a pouch slung over his shoulder with a white cross on it. He was dressed in his usual casual civilian clothes. "Will I do?" he asked. "The doc and his corpsman have their hands full."
Kincaid nodded at the prisoner. "Give him some smelling salts. Don't give him any morphine. I want him to talk."
They sat him down and Douglas waved a bottle under his nose. "I thought I spotted a round eye coming in with that bunch," Douglas said. "I tried my best to drop him, the son-of-a-bitch. I hope it was me that hit him."
Collins looked at Douglas' black skin. "My god," he said, "you are Americans."
"That's right Lieutenant," Kincaid said. "Now tell us what the hell you are doing here."
"They flew us in last night from Eye Corps," the Lieutenant said. "It was an all Vietnamese operation. They were supposed to fly us back out tonight. All we had to do, they said, was to investigate this one village that was suspected of harboring Viet Cong. It was a piece of cake, they said. We saw these armed Montagnards and fired at them. Then all hell broke loose."
"Why were you killing women and children?"
"God. Were we doing that? Hell, I don't know."
"They were after you, Colonel," Gorski said.
"Me? How do you figure that?"
"You were supposed to be here. I thought you were here. When did you decide to go with Hao this morning?"
"I was up," Kincaid said. "I thought I needed the exercise."
"Our ARVN observers must have left about the same time as you and Hao. It was dark. They didn't know that you weren't here. They set you up."
"It still doesn't figure," Kincaid said. "The ARVN observers knew what time our patrol was due back. We were right on schedule. The Rangers hit the village just before we were due back. It doesn't make sense."
Collins said something no one could make out.
"What did you say?" Gorski asked.
"Our trucks were late," Collins said. "That always happens in a Vietnamese operation. The trucks were four hours late."
"Shit!" Douglas said. "Good thing. They would have wiped us out. No one would have known it wasn't Charlie."
"They shot our men, sir," Collins said to Kincaid. "These Montagnards. When our men tried to surrender, they shot them. There was no call to do that. That is against the Geneva Conventions, sir."
Kincaid ignored him.
"What do we do with him?" Hao asked.
Douglas said, "I say we shoot him too. He's too dumb to live."
Gorski said, "It might look bad to the Rhade if we let him go. Look what he did to their village." Some of the huts were still burning.
"What do you think, Hao?" Kincaid asked. "Will the Rhade be upset if we let him go?"
Hao shook his head. "You can do whatever you want with him. It"ll be okay with them. They trust you."
"Well we're not going to shoot him," Kincaid said. "Our problem right now is to keep him alive. Whoever sent those Rangers here won't be happy that Collins survived to talk about it. Douglas can fly him out today. We"ll send two American officers along with them just to make sure nothing happens. Watch you ass," he told Douglas.
"Take him straight to Colonel Whalen," Kincaid told Douglas. "Let him take it from there. He"ll know what to do."