Dark Night - Memories of a dark night in a bamboo thicket
We were never really sure where we were. A few thought we might be near the Cambodian border. That was the rumor,
We were gathered in a company sized deployment, which was unusual. Normally, we were dropped in the jungle in
platoons of 12 to 15 men and though we would stay in constant radio contact with the other 4 platoons of Bravo
Company, we rarely saw the other platoons.
It was the peak of the monsoon and with a month in country I was only just beginning to get acclimated to the
environment. I’m still not sure what acclimated meant, but I think it had something to do with getting used to being wet
all the time Mentally, I was resigned to my fate, but apparently my body was not in an accepting mood. I struggled
against the insult to my skin from the overwhelming humidity, and clothes which rarely dried. I had ringworm on my
hips, where the waist band of my fatigue pants stayed wet between the frequent downpours and stream crossings. My
wrists were ringed in impetigo, a bracelet of blisters that oozed a sticky fluid down my hands and which I tried vainly to
control with a salve the medic gave me. My feet rarely left the confines of my boots or saw a dry pair of socks. Slabs
of slimy, rotten-fish smelling skin would slough off my feet on the rare occasions when I could pull off my boots and
It was late in the day and we had just finished eating our evening meal of C-rations. I could not possibly remember what
it was I ate those many years ago, but I can guess it was either the spaghetti or the beef with potatoes since those
were about the only two things I ate as a main course. They would have been heated in the can over a small piece of
burning C-4 plastic explosive, which we were frequently cautioned violated regulations. The warning rarely warranted
more than a shrug of the shoulders and the common assertion that “it don’t mean nothing.” “It don’t mean nothing,” was
a phrase we said to dismiss the absurdity of circumstance. Burning C4 explosive was dangerous and expensive.
Two consequences which meant nothing to us. The alternative was heat tabs, which burned the eyes, cooked the food
slowly, and were impossible to find anyway.
As we flattened and scattered the cans from our eaten C rations, the order to saddle up passed down the line and a
steady echo of grunts could be heard all about as men swung their heavy rucksacks over their shoulders and cinched
down the straps. It is from this effort, and the unavoidable grunting noise from which “Grunts” got their moniker. I moved
myself into position behind “Sarge,” the Platoon leader. I was his radio-telephone operator (RTO) and was always at his
side or behind him. I wasn’t an enthusiastic RTO since the extra weight was not something I relished, and I had heard
the NVA would target the radio antenna in a firefight, knowing the platoon command was nearby. On the other hand, it
freed me from the job I had when I first arrived in country, humping M60 machine gun ammunition for the gunner. A
back breaking and dangerous job since the other important target was the machine gunner and his assistant. Besides,
I really liked Sarge. He was a French Canadian who had joined the Army years before in order to become a US
citizen. He liked the army, cared about his men, and loved the United States. He spent a lot of time telling me what to
do in the event we got into a firefight. I felt I had a good chance of surviving if I stayed close to him and followed his
The area in which we had been eating our C rations showed heavy signs of NVA presence. There were a lot of fresh
trails in a part of the jungle that should have had no traffic at all. The trails were intersecting, which led even a neophyte
like myself to conclude we were in some sort of base camp. It was obvious by the freshness of the trails that whoever
had created them had left only a short time before we arrived. The jungle reclaims itself quickly and these trails were
recently used. The platoons split off into different directions and we headed down one of the trails and deeper into the
jungle. Our pace was very slow as the point man moved cautiously. When we were about 200 yards down the trail we
started coming across perfectly dug bunkers that had not yet been fitted with roofs. The quality of the work was
impressive with the walls looking like they had been poured into forms instead of dug out of the soil. There were many
of these unfinished bunkers and I assumed the builders were not far away.
Our pace was slow and we had not reached our intended night defensive position before it started to get dark. Finally,
Sarge passed the word up to find a spot soon so we could set up before it got too dark. Within a few minutes we were
moving off the trail and into an unusual patch of bamboo. The patch was thick on the outside but as we got into the
center of it there were very few bamboo trees. The bamboo on the edges of the thicket was bent over and created
almost a roof of bamboo over the center. We had to crawl in since the bamboo ceiling was only about 5 feet high. I
don’t know why the point man picked that spot since it certainly afforded no protection from the elements or gunfire. In
fact, had we come into contact from that position we would have little if any mobility. It seemed a defensive position in
which hiding was more important than fighting.
We quickly set Claymore mines outside the grove of bamboo and led the wires to the clackers at the center of the
grove. As we settled into position some of us smoked our last cigarettes of the night and broke into small groups,
drawing straws for guard duty shifts. I got lucky and drew the longest straw. Among my group of 4 I selected the final
duty, the last 3 hours before dawn. It was my favorite time to pull guard. I had slept enough so I was less likely to nod
off, and I would get to see the sunrise.
Rodriguez had drawn the shortest straw and moved toward the opening to in the bamboo, a vantage point from which he
would see the enemy before he stumbled on us. Rodriguez and I had grown close since my first weeks in Vietnam.
We shared little in common, him a Puerto Rican from New York and I a small town kid from Missouri. He had taken me
under his wing when my fatigues were still dark green and embarrassing and taught me day to day survival skills. I was
drawn by his confidence and patience. We quickly developed an unspoken bond.
As it got darker most of the men had begun wrapping themselves in their poncho liners and ponchos and curling up on
the ground. The point of a poncho and poncho liner was not to keep you dry. The poncho and liner acted much like a
wet suit, trapping rain water in the liner which your body kept warm. The first few minutes of a solid monsoon rain were
the worst, when you first got wet from the cold rain.
As I settled down and made sure my radio was on and the handset within reach Sarge leaned close to my ear and
whispered, “does this feel like it’s closing in on you?” I knew what he meant, since the bamboo made it feel like we
were in box, but it didn’t bother me. I could sense some fear and anxiety in his voice and I knew from a previous
experience in one of our Firebase bunkers that he suffered from claustrophobia. He laid back down and after a few
minutes if seemed as if he had fallen asleep.
As I was drifting off it started to rain. The bamboo roof offered us no protection at all and even added to the misery. In
some places the rain was running off bamboo stalks and streaming down on us like spigots. The noise as it fell through
the bamboo was loud, robbing us of one of our critical senses at night. I reached over to make sure the radio was
covered and I felt a strong grip on my forearm. The sarge pulled me close and whispered, “I gotta get outta here.” He
started to crawl away from me, dragging his poncho after him. I grabbed his arm to hold him back, but he twisted his
arm away, and again whispered he had to get out. I whispered back that I would go with him. I wasn’t sure where he
was going or what he was going to do when he got there, but I could think of nothing else to do, and going with him
seemed absurdly logical. I grabbed my poncho and my M 16 and went after him.
As he approached the hole leading out of the thicket, Rodriguez looked over his shoulder and saw him crawling past.
As I followed, Rodriquez grabbed me and put his lips up close to my ear and whispered “What the fuck is going on.” I
pulled his head to me and told him “The old man is having some sort of attack from the bamboo, and has to get out. I
am going with him.” Rodriguez grabbed his rifle and followed me out of the grove.
As I crawled out of the bamboo I could see Sarge sitting cross legged 20 feet from the trail and about 15 feet away
from us us. He was shaking and had the poncho draped over his head and shoulders. I crawled away from him and
toward the trail and found a spot where I could see Sarge and the trail. Rodriguez crawled over to Sarge and I could see
his silhouette leaning close and whispering in Sarge’s ear. For a second it looked as if the Sarge was leaning his head
toward Rodriguez in an effort to put it on his shoulder. As he leaned in, Rodriguez pulled away and crawled back to me.
My night vision was getting increasingly better and I could see the Sarge’s shoulders shaking.
Rodriguez crawled over next to me and was shaking his head. He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me close to him so
he could get his mouth an inch or two from my ear. “The old man is really sick,” he told me. What little communicating
we did that night would be done by leaning in close and whispering as softly as humanly possible. We were separated
from the rest of the platoon, near a fresh trail and bunker complex, and poorly armed. I was terrified.
Once I got my bearings I realized we were in a terrible position and given my limited experience I wasn’t sure what the
best option was. I didn’t know if the rest of the platoon knew we were out there and I leaned into Rodriguez and asked
him if anyone in the platoon knew we were outside their perimeter. He did an exaggerated shrug to indicate his
ignorance. I turned slowly and could see the claymore mine about 10 feet away and pointing directly at me. Whether it
was pointing at me or not was probably irrelevant since ten feet in almost any direction from a claymore is fatal. For a
second I considered crawling to it and disarming it, but then I thought someone might see me near it and assume I was
NVA and set it off. I tapped Rodriguez and pointed toward the Claymore, but I didn’t know till next morning that he
didn’t understand what I was pointing at.
I realized at this point that both of us would be up all night keeping watch down both directions of the trail and we
couldn’t depend on the Sarge to help us. Sleeping was not an issue since I was too terrified and anxious. Behind me
was a platoon that might not know we were out here. In front of me was a trail I was sure would soon be used by NVA
moving against us sometime during the night; and when they did, we would be caught between a god damned
claymore, and the NVA. The only hope I had was that the NVA would not move and our platoon knew we were out here.
Soon the rain stopped and the jungle got dead quiet save the steady but diminishing sound of rain dripping off leaves to
the jungle floor. Then the mosquitoes came. They started swarming around my head, and my heart sank when I
realized I had left my bug repellent in the head strap of my steel pot, which was still in the bamboo grove. I pulled
Rodriguez close and whispered “bug juice.” He shook his head. To make matters worse I had not put any on that
evening, and was totally unprotected. I shuddered at the thought of what the mosquitoes were going to do to me. I
could feel them bouncing off my face in their frenzy at finding so likely a target in the middle of the jungle. I couldn’t
swat at them for fear of making sudden movements, so I pulled the poncho over my head with only my eyes exposed.
In no time the wet poncho liner over my nose was suffocating me and I had to expose it to the mosquitoes. My eyes
were already getting puffy from the bites and I pulled the poncho over my eyes with only my nose sticking out. It
blocked my view but I had to get some relief from the mosquitoes. The assault was relentless and soon mosquitoes
were crawling inside my nose searching for an exposed patch of skin. Finally, I grabbed a handful of mud and smeared
it on my nose and eyelids. It helped some, but the occasional mosquito would still find a spot of unsoiled skin and
As the night wore on I found myself falling into unusual night fantasies. There was nothing to do when pulling guard
except think, and often for hours at a time. I would often plan what I was going to think about on guard duty. It was
somewhat like planning a night of TV watching or going to the movies. Frequently the visions were of comfort: with my
family at a good meal, or in my bed under clean sheets waking up in the middle of the night dry, clean and surrounded
by walls and ceiling. A hot shower could keep me going for a long time, just trying to recall what one really felt like.
Dates, with old girlfriends kept me occupied and very wide awake for long stretches. I am still amazed at how vivid I
could make the visions, but also how they sometimes took control. It was not uncommon to visualize death.
Sometimes I would imagine the instant of death and what the closing darkness would feel like. Then, of course, there
was the usual funeral, although I never saw my family in those dreams. It may have been too difficult to think about.
The mind wanderings were not working this night. I couldn’t concentrate and the usual visions were slipping away as
quickly as I could bring them up. Instead of a warm bed I could only recall a childhood habit of crawling in the space
between the wall and the back of the sofa and hiding out with the dust balls. The memory was powerful and I yearned
desperately for the security of that dry warm place.
As I stared into the grayness I could see silhouettes and shapes down the trail. Those shapes, slowly took on the form
of men, and as I stared harder they began to move. These hallucinations were common in the jungle I should have
known to ignore them. Tonight they were taking human form faster and moving down the trail at greater speed. I would
cock my head like a dog to try and see the images from a different angle and hopefully see what they really were. My
heart was racing and I could hear my own pulse as I became more and more certain those were NVA coming down the
trail. On one occasion I got my rifle ready and quickly glanced down to check the magazine. When I looked back the
forms had gone back to being bushes and trees. I soon discovered that looking away for a few seconds would clear the
images from the trail. Those few seconds of looking away were terrifying. My hair would stand on end and I would
shudder, knowing I was letting these night soldiers get close enough to slit my throat.
Looking over at Rodriguez would give me great comfort. He sat cross legged staring down his end of the trail, his
poncho draped over his helmet, not moving a muscle. Sarge was also sitting cross legged, facing out in the same
general direction as Rodriguez, but when I would look over he would sometimes be pitched forward as if his body had
The night was long and I could not have slept even if I had wanted to. The regular downpours would put us in total
darkness, unable to see even a few feet. Then when it stopped the noise of water falling off the leaves to the jungle floor
would create unusual and sudden noises, surging the adrenalin. I kept looking over at the claymore, so close and
pointing right at me. At times my own thoughts became my worst enemy. Images of my flesh tossed about in little
pieces on the jungle floor would come to mind and I would try every trick to replace it with something more acceptable.
It was an all night struggle.
Finally, I started to notice that I was beginning to see more in the jungle and the sky was beginning to turn from black to
a dark gray. Eventually I could see the bushes and trees that had been haunting me for hours. They looked nothing
like human forms. Not even close.
I looked over at the bamboo thicket but could see nothing. It was still night in the bamboo. I stared intently into the
thicket waiting to see someone. Finally, I saw some slight movement and I raised my m-16 above my head and held it
there so they would recognize me as a GI and not an NVA. I saw a head and then a face looking at me and it waved. I
stood up and moved to the edge of the thicket where I had seen the face. As soon as I saw Clemente’s face I knew
they had no idea we were out there. I could tell by his expression he couldn’t figure out what I was doing out there.
Before he could ask I told him to quickly pull the clackers off the claymores. Without a word he crawled over to the
clackers and pulled the plugs. I walked to the claymores and pulled the blasting caps from them. All the muscles in my
body suddenly relaxed.
Rodriguez was over by Sarge and they were getting up. Movement was getting more apparent in the thicket as GI’s
started lighting c-4 to make coffee or hot chocolate. It was over.
When we were reunited with the rest of the Company I crawled over to a corner of our makeshift perimeter and collapsed
with the only migraine I have ever had. My head throbbed and even an overdose of aspirin from Doc didn’t help. I lay on
the ground and put a wet towel on my forehead easing the pain momentarily. I know now it was from dehydration, but
at the time I thought it was from the stress. My bottom lip was twice it’s normal size from an abundance of mosquito
bites, as was my left eye. I didn’t want to be in Vietnam anymore.
The Sarge was evacuated back to the Firebase that morning on a routine re-supply chopper. Our mission went on for a
few more days and then we also returned to the firebase.
When the choppers landed on the edge of the firebase to drop us off, Sarge was waiting for us. As we walked to our
little area he followed making small talk. The responses were mostly grunts or single word answers. When we dropped
our rucksacks he pulled me over and asked if I believed he was telling the truth about the claustrophobia. I assured him
there was no doubt in my mind and he pulled me around to face the rest of the platoon. He told everyone what he had
experienced and looked at me to support him. I told the platoon I was sure he had not been faking the claustrophobia.
Rodriguez, who had been in country a lot longer than I, was looking at me and when I gave him a pleading look to back
me up he just looked away. There were a few murmurs among the men and the words “shammin” and “job in the rear.”
The platoon made it clear they thought he had pulled a fast one to get out of the field.
Sarge looked at me and in a pleading voice said “tell them about the attack I had in the bunker that time.” I distinctly
remember the attack and would have vouched for him, but when I looked in the faces of the platoon I knew I was on the
verge of being cast out. These men were my family, they were all that counted, without them I was nothing, I had no
purpose. They were an organism. If I got cut off from the organism I would die, maybe not physically, but certainly
spiritually. Rodriguez understood this and was willing to sacrifice Sarge to continue as part of the platoon. I was
struggling with right and wrong in a situation and a place that had no right or wrong. There was the platoon or there was
nothing. Those were my choices.
I chose the platoon. I murmured something unintelligible and moved over to the rest of the platoon like a pack animal
abandoning a wounded member to the hyenas. We wandered off to the chow line and left him standing alone in our
area. When we came back later he was gone, along with his equipment. We would see him outside the perimeter
loading choppers for the next few weeks. Some of us would acknowledge him with a slight nod or eye contact, but we
never tried to communicate further than that. Then one day he was gone.
I think back on that time trying to understand what happened, but I can’t. I am still tortured by what I, we, did that day.
I had always believed that faced with a clear choice between right and wrong I would do the right thing. That certainty
about my own character ended one morning on a firebase in South Vietnam. One can sleep well if one has always
made the right choice. The wrong choice condemns one to frequent nights of tossing and turning over memories.
I wonder whatever happened to Sarge? Does he lay awake like me, wondering how men could do what we did? Or, did