Jeff White dropped flat onto the damp and stinking jungle floor when he heard the automatic gunfire. The dense foliage didn’t prevent Jeff distinguishing the rapid, dull thuds of Kalashnikovs—several had been fired simultaneously.
As the twenty-one-year-old, US Marine lay there with his M-16 clasped in his hands cocked and ready, he had no target. Duty told him to get up and run towards the firing, but common sense and instinct told him he’d die, just as surely as his comrades must have done. The Viet Cong would go around the bodies and ensure nobody survived—it was their style.
Among the fusillade of the ambush, there had been a few short bursts of a different, lighter, crisper sound, as Red Patrol returned fire at an unseen enemy. There had been shouts and screams of pain, and then silence. The VC had chosen their site well.
Jeff lay in the undergrowth, teeth clamped together, eyes blazing, trying to contain the urge to scream and run forward to certain death. Tears threatened, but the professional in the man forced him to hold them back. This was no time for pity, whether it was for himself or his comrades—this was a time to pause, think, and concentrate.
* * *
Jeff had tried to enlist as Jeff White Eagle but had been told there was no place in the US Marines for a man with such a name. Unlike the ‘Ghost Whisperers’ who were Navajo, Jeff was Apache and able to trace his bloodline back to the great war-leader, Geronimo. Although not a chief, Geronimo was recognised as one of the real heroes of the Native American peoples.
Jeff enjoyed immense pride to be of Native American blood and accepted into the Marine Corps. He took more abuse than any other man to prove his worthiness, and on the day he passed the course the chief instructor stood close to him on parade. Their faces were inches apart, and their eyes communicated.
Gunnery Sergeant Ford said, “When you’re in the jungle, use your training, but think and act as your ancestors would. These men have learned to respect your bravery and skills. Out there, you will become blood-brothers. You are as much a Marine as any of them, and I’m proud of you.”
The Gunny shook Jeff’s hand on parade that day—true acceptance.
* * *
All the hardships of training replayed in Jeff’s mind as he lay in the stinking quagmire. He thought of his white half-brothers as he jokingly referred to his comrades. The Gunny’s prophecy had rung true. Jeff and the other men had become brothers.
The soldier eased up into a crouching position, his weapon pointing forward, ready to use. His lips were slightly parted to improve his hearing, and as he moved his head slowly from side to side, he used all his senses to smell or see anything unusual. The rifle muzzle pointed where Jeff’s gaze fell.
He thought of Red Patrol, many of whom had been young men he’d trained with, and on occasion helped. They’d arrived in Southeast Asia together and gone on to share months of heat, and discomfort in this godforsaken place, and now he was alone. Of that, he was certain.
On occasion, during the tour of duty, Jeff would take the lead, but on this day he’d been trusted as Tail-end, Charlie. He’d hit the ground like any soldier, but when he stood up, he began to move through the jungle like an animal. In his mind, he had already reverted to his bloodline.
He’d waited that short while, wondering if the enemy soldiers would come past his location, but there had been nothing. After the brief, but loud burst of automatic fire in the near distance, the jungle had gone deathly silent for several minutes, and then it had come alive. The birds chattered, once again going about their business, but mindful of danger.
Jeff was several metres into the undergrowth, and away from what would laughingly be called the primary jungle trail. He didn’t move like a man in uniform carrying a modern weapon. He moved like a wraith, not making a sound, as each footstep landed slowly and he moved forward with the stealth of a big cat stalking prey.
It was one hundred metres to the carnage, but it took Jeff twenty minutes to cover the distance. Before he went near the bodies, he crouched beneath the nearest overhanging branches and listened.
He moved forward through the undergrowth to the scene of the ambush and steeled himself for what he would find. With a heavy heart, he went among his dead comrades, stopping to listen. The injuries confirmed what Jeff already knew. His friends had died in the hail of bullets, in a perfect trap. He heard a wheezing sound and spun, rifle at the ready.
Jeff moved forward and found the body of the patrol commander, twenty-two-year-old Kentuckian, Lt Casper Knight. The officer’s eyes were open and glazing over. Though his lips twitched, there was a steady trickle of blood from injuries to his lungs and stomach. He had little time left.
“Avenge us … White Cloud.” Casper gasped and coughed up blood. Jeff’s true name was known in the platoon, but never used.
Jeff unsheathed his hunting knife and performed an age-old ritual, drawing blood from his palm and that of his dying comrade. He pressed their hands together.
“I’ll fight them, Casper, while our blood moves in my veins.”
Casper’s hand gripped Jeff’s hand tight. The officer’s eyes blinked several times rapidly, he coughed up another mouthful of blood, and his body shook violently. He passed, with the trace of a smile on his lips.
White Cloud removed his helmet, and peeled his lightweight webbing from his shoulders, laying his issued equipment next to his blood brother. He retained his webbed belt. The survivor topped up his canteen from the water his comrades had in theirs, and then he took Lt Knight’s bottle and filled it in a similar fashion.
A massacre like this had been discussed in training, and by the men occasionally in private conversation. It was not considered looting, but survival. Water was life in the jungle.
To the belt, White Cloud attached the scabbard for his hunting knife and two small pouches for food and basic first aid kit. In a rapid sequence, he went around and removed the firing pin from every weapon, before returning to his patrol commander.
Lt Knight had been quick to accept the Native American as a warrior, and rank aside they’d developed a mutual respect for each other when times were hard. White Cloud removed his personal dog tags and hung them around the dead officer’s neck, intertwining the cords. To ensure any US recon patrols got the message, he placed his personal weapon on the body alongside the officer’s gun.
Something came to mind. White Cloud fished in the officer’s left breast pocket, pulled out his lighter, opened the lid, and flicked the wheel. As a small flame appeared he remembered Casper joking, “If only your forefathers had one of these.” They’d laughed together.
The Native American pocketed the lighter. He removed an item from each of his dead comrades, assessed the scene one more time, and silently blended into his surroundings.
When darkness came, it fell quickly. Before it happened, White Cloud circumnavigated the scene of the massacre and looked for a sign as he moved. It was before the curtain of night fell when he discovered the treasure.
He stepped slowly into an area where the foliage had been disturbed in a line several metres long. He found spent cartridge casings and nodded slowly. They belonged to the ammunition used by the VC. He moved a short distance away and sheltered in a tree to catnap.
* * *
White Cloud woke to the dawn chorus. For the first minute, only his eyes moved, and then he parted his lips to listen. He flipped open a pocket on his jacket and lifted out a vacuum pack. He had no need for taste or pleasure. White Cloud added water and rapidly consumed the contents. A mouthful of water followed.
As he’d dozed on the previous night, the Marine had formed a simple plan and now as the darkness was becoming a world of subdued light, and green once again, he knew his mind was made up. He would emulate his hero, Geronimo.
If the VC wanted to wage war as guerrillas, he would provide a demonstration. He was a direct descendant of one of the greatest guerrilla fighters in history. Both of his parents had died in a reservation – a region set aside for those of their race. White Cloud’s father often related tales of the courage shown by young men in the tribe’s proud history.
‘Perhaps my son, as a US soldier you might find a modern glory.’
The words of his dying father had remained clear in his mind throughout the hardships of training and helped to drive him on. Now he would establish the glory of which his father talked.
Whether in their haste to flee the scene, or because they had been in high spirits, the VC patrol had left sufficient sign to follow with ease. Patience was in White Cloud’s nature, and he avoided recognised trails, so his progress was slow but steady.
The warrior stopped only to snack, and take sips of water. It was before darkness fell when he tasted something in the air. Drifting through the foliage in the ground mist was the unmistakable aroma of boiled rice. White Cloud moved with the stealth of a wild animal, often pausing, parting his lips to savour the air and listen.
A trapdoor may be well camouflaged in the jungle, but Mother Nature can be an unreliable bed partner. A small patch of flowers had wilted before closing, and when White Cloud crawled closer, he knew why. He caressed the area with an open palm and sensed the heat rising from below.
It had taken twenty minutes of searching before he discovered the secret entrance. He pulled his knife and eased up the foliage covered trapdoor. Faint food aroma became stronger and was accompanied by whispers. White Cloud spent a long time in the area, locating the strong, straight branches he required, and the vines to support them.
The Native American had decided to fight the enemy as a lone warrior with no dependence on modern weaponry, but in deference to his dead comrades, he had taken a hand grenade from each of them. The spirit of every member of Red Patrol would be satisfied to see an Earthly device repaying a debt.
* * *
Before the birds moved from their roosts, a hunter was already crawling around in the stinking, damp heat, working rapidly. White Cloud managed to discover several trapdoors. He knew there would be more, but these were enough to suit his purpose. He rigged up a device to deal with each, and close by stacked a pile of a rare jungle find—dry foliage.
White Cloud used mud and greenery to reapply his smelly, natural camouflage and then crawled back among the undergrowth to observe the area. He had two vines drawn back to his position and tied off. The other devices would be operated by the lifting of the trapdoors, but only if they went high enough for a body to emerge.
A whooshing sound was followed seconds later by a blood-curdling scream. The casualty fell back inside, blocking the southern exit from the network of tunnels. White Cloud’s eyes eagerly scanned the area to his front, and sure enough, a patch of foliage lifted a few metres to his left.
The trapdoor dropped again after a quick gasp from the emerging VC. Before the man could respond, a small device the size of an apple had swung inside the hole. Three seconds later a muffled explosion occurred underground, and the pressure caused surrounding trees to tremble. Leaves quivered for several seconds, and birds took flight.
White Cloud noted a plume of smoke filtering from a hatch he’d not seen during his search. He cut the two vines he’d tied off, and then moved forward, lifting a bundle of dry tinder as he went. When he reached the newly discovered trapdoor, he lit the kindling, lifted the natural-looking lid, and dropped the flaming branches inside. There was a bout of shouting and coughing, before the sound of muffled gunfire.
It took White Cloud three minutes to go to each of the trapdoors and seal them closed with the nearby trees he’d cut down on the previous night.
As water will find a way to descend through rock, so smoke will fight to find an escape from underground. There were three more whooshing sounds, each followed by short, but high-pitched screams. Wisps of smoke drifted from the base of a large tree fifty metres away from what must have been the main complex. The lone warrior drew his knife and raced towards the tree.
When he reached it, he saw the thin black wire entwined around the clinging vine which naturally climbed the tree. Not only was this the last escape tunnel, but it was also where the radio was located. With the VC, a radio meant an officer.
* * *
The VC leader opened his eyes. Like all truly hard men, he was prepared to fight to the death, but give nothing to his enemy. Opening his eyes was easy enough, but he had difficulty breathing. As he moved his head and scanned the area around him, there was searing pain from a tender spot in the back of his skull.
He tried to raise a hand to remove the item which was thrust into his gaping mouth but realised his wrists were bound. When he pulled again, he found the bindings were also attached to his ankles, and the movement pulled his arms and legs toward each other.
The VC leader continued to look around and saw a strand of vine led from the object in his mouth to a tree two metres away. A movement caught his eye. He focused on a camouflaged man squatting among the foliage fifty metres away. He was nodding.
When the hog-tied prisoner turned his head, he heard a light ping. The ends of the split pin on a hand grenade are bent to prevent accidental removal, but when the ends have been straightened, the pin will slide as if lubricated. When the ruthless VC guerrilla moved his head, the small item which pinged and flew out into the undergrowth was the safety lever, which having departed, left the remainder of the mechanism to perform their various tasks.
For five minutes pieces of foliage and VC flesh slithered down through the branches of the nearby greenery. As the unique rain of substances dripped to become nourishment for the undergrowth, a lone figure slipped into the depths of the jungle.
* * *
For four years, White Cloud remained in the South Vietnamese jungle. Often, his US countrymen were unable to explain some acts of horrific violence which befell the guerrilla fighters of the Viet Cong.
In March 1974, one year after what was claimed to be the end of the war and the withdrawal of US troops, White Cloud breached the security of the American Embassy compound in Saigon and handed himself over to the authorities.
He was flown back to the United States, where after lengthy debriefing returned to the land of his forefathers. White Cloud was twenty-five years old. To wake each day, to speak to his ancestors, and to eat and sleep may not be Heaven, but it would be close, for a man who’d already been to Hell.
Selected from A Time for Courage: and other military stories