"lt is life's only true opponent. Only Fear can defeat life".
We were going into a hot LZ (Landing Zone) to face off once again with the 325th hard-core division of the North Vietnamese Army. We had faced these guys on prior occasions, and they were as good as any soldier ever to put on a uniform. ln past battles, they had inflicted heavy casualties on us, while we in turn thought we had decimated their ranks with superior fire power on the ground as well as in the air. They were brave, well trained, and daring.
Some of their commanders participated in the defeat of Dien Bien Phu. lt was the last battle fought by the French against what was known then as the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh morphed into the Viet Cong, and then the Viet Cong became part of the NVA or North Vietnamese Army. These were battle-tested and battle-scarred warriors of the first rank. They were fighting for their homeland while were fighting for . . . Hell, I still don't know what we were fighting for. But in calm and sober reflection, I would rather have had the goals our "enemies" were dying for than the lies fed to us by our elected leaders back safely ensconced in their ivory towers in Washington.
We lined up in eight-man teams as we waited for the choppers to come pick us up. Each man carried a lot of killing weight. Grenades, extra ammo for the machine gunner, C-4 plastic explosive, and at least 300 rounds for our M-14 rifles. We had rations enough for three days, and the bayonets were honed and razor sharp. As we waited, smoking one last cigarette, we were informed that we would be landing in a hot LZ, which meant they were waiting for us. They were probably dug-in in fortified positions around an area they knew choppers would be landing. I only knew four of the eight men in our chopper. The others were replacements recently arrived in-country.
As we neared the drop zone, our pilot was wounded, and the ship went into a slow spin before hitting the ground in the saw grass. The door gunner was shot in the head, and his blood poured onto the white-hot barrel of his M-60 machine gun. The smell was first like pennies being burned in a macabre forge. It wasn't his fault, but the pilot landed the ship with the open door facing the wood-line. Rounds came in and pinged through the metal side. Two Marines were killed before they had a chance to hit the ground. I was third in line, and so scared that I pissed in my pants, before getting so crazy-mad that I just said "Fuck it" before jumping out of the door and lying face down in the grass to return fire, which then allowed the rest of the men to jump out and set up a base fire line.
We then charged in "two's" toward the direction of fire. All the time we watched as more and more Marines fell dead and wounded. The cacophony of planes flying low overhead and artillery rounds landing so close they bounced you into the air from the force of impact. Dying men screaming, and that taste of blood from bitten lips.
I have been through this sort of thing several times, and each battle seemed like the first time as far as the fear factor was concerned. The only way to stave off fear was to get so crazy mad that you did not think of anything else except killing the very thing that caused you to piss your pants in the first place. You killed the wounded enemy, and you killed the ones that had their hands in the air in gestures of surrender. You cut their ears off as trophies and mutilated the bodies for being that very cause of fear. However, during the battle itself, you found that everything happened in slow motion, as though you were not a participant but rather a spectator in a movie theatre. "Disbelief was suspended."
The smell of blood mixed with burnt cordite from expended rounds had a sickly-sweet smell. I remember thinking where I had encountered this smell before. Later when I reflected, I remembered: it was on a trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania. For several miles before you reach the chocolate factory, you can taste the sweetness.
Finally, after you discover you survived the battle and have the time to sit and think about it, the shakes began. It was almost impossible to light a cigarette with a match. After that came the elation of knowing you faced the fear and triumphed over it.
I was 19 at the time, and I must say, I have never been scared of anything since the war. Fear has no teeth (just as I, an older man, have very few). Fear and I reached an agreement a long time ago: He would stay in his place, and I would never again speak his name.
Joe Labriola, Former Marine Sgt.