The Death of Root

by Richard Dieterle

 

Roger Root,
with the Author Standing Behind Him

 

AUGUST 21, 1967 — The skies were cloudy, and if we were not actually in the monsoon season, we were getting pretty close to it. It had just become September, the month in which an election was to be held. This was a novelty in itself, as for years a long series of generals had ruled the country, and now some semblance of democracy was to be erected. This election came to be won by Thieu, whose vice-president was one of the former military rulers, by the name of Ky. Thieu later retired to France with bitter feelings towards America, whereas Ky became successful and relatively prominent here. At the time, the talk was of the impending election and how the Viêt Cong and NVA were going to do their utmost to fuck it up. This meant a heightened probability of contact, and we knew we had to be on our guard.

On August 21, we began a routine operation, a search-and-destroy mission. We were walking down a path in column. The vegetation alongside the path was tall and thick, but every now and then it opened into a small vista where we could see a village ahead at the end of this path. As we were tramping along, we began to pass civilians coming out of this village in single file. Our SOP was to ask, "VC?" We usually got the response, "No VC!" which served to mean both that there were no enemy troops in the village and that they themselves were not of that affiliation. In response to our queries, the villagers grimly looked at the ground, and never turned their heads towards us. They just kept plodding along in silence. This grim picture made me declare to everyone who would give me ear that there was a problem up ahead. I said, "They're trying to tell us something by coming out in our direction. If they were against us, they would leave in the other direction from the opposite end of the village. Obviously they can't say anything because they risk being killed. We'd better keep our eyes peeled, because there's something going on in that village." The guys seemed to agree with my assessment. Actually, it was pretty obvious. We soon came to a small hamlet, which looked rather like a round ship floating in a sea of green, fallow rice paddies. It had little bamboo or coconut trees in it, and the hooches were perhaps a bit smaller than average. However, at the opposite end of the village, there was a rare house, complete with a concrete foundation. We looked through the little hooches we encountered and found no one inside any of them. The whole village had exited through our "lines." We had a tank with us that was traveling along the flank of the column through the short grass of the dry paddies. It now skirted the right side of the village. The point element had not yet searched the house, and since this was the last edifice to be encountered, it looked as if it might be where the enemy was holed up. I was an ammo bearer for the machine gun at the time, and they told the gun to remain in the back side of the village where we had come to a halt. A lot of the guys from the First Platoon had gone forward. Richard Yelland, who was in charge of the guns, was naively excited at the prospects of some action. He, Ron Gunsaulas, Roger Root, and Joe Archuleta — many others as well — had gone up front. I felt some disappointment that I couldn't get a better view of things and was stuck back at the rear of the formation.

I remember talking with Root before he went forward, but I can't recall what was said. The night before we had all been talking together after we had dug our foxholes. Root was a tall, slender guy. Rather quiet. Everyone liked him — he was a kind of soft-edged, younger version of Gary Cooper, although he had none of that charisma. Just the same, he was much respected and talking with him was always interesting. Root was a newlywed, and he shared something of his letter from his wife. I thought it was a serious moral error for the government to draft newlyweds, but the lack of enthusiasm of single males had made the military less choosy. I was glad that I had volunteered for Infantry and Vietnam — at least I had taken a spot that some young married man might have had to fill otherwise.

 
  The scene not long after Root was killed. Smoke can be seen in the background shortly after the tank fired into the floorboards of the hooch.

We were standing around when we heard small arms fire. It wasn't of the heavy kind that you hear when you have really hit the shit, but light and intermittent. Then we could see in the distance the tank come up and fire into the house with its barrel pointed down. A loud roar ensued, and black smoke filled that quadrant of the sky. We said to each other, "What the fuck was all that about?" Then all of a sudden there was a loud and intense burst of small arms fire, which quit as quickly as it had started. Now we were becoming really curious about what was going on, but we could not leave our position.

Not too long afterwards, Archuleta came back and said in a grim and somber manner, "Root is KIA." "Root's dead?" I said. The feeling of shock is hard to describe, and even though in our occupation you could expect such things frequently, still we could never really get over how the world had suddenly turned upside down. In the Infantry, death is always a shock. No one comes down with a lingering illness — death is sudden and unanticipated. Just then Charlie-Charlie angled overhead, and an order came over the radio which most of us could not hear. Immediately, people began taking out their cigarette lighters and igniting the hooch nearest them. Charlie-Charlie had ordered that the hamlet be raised to the ground in retaliation for our not being warned. Archuleta, who was simmering himself, said to me, "What do you think now about this kind of thing?" It was a rhetorical question, and one decidedly out of character for him — but allowances had to be made for the gut wrenching tragedy which had befallen us. I said nothing, as I was now in a kind of double shock. The villagers had not gone far, and they had filed back into their hamlet as quickly and as silently as they had left it. It took a great deal of courage for them to walk right through our formation and try to save what they could of their belongings before they were enveloped in the all-consuming flames. I saw one woman grimly drag out a beautiful spinning wheel that looked as if it were made of mahogany. Her hooch was really small, but she had a thing of real wealth inside. I felt glad that she could rescue such an artifact. No one stopped them from pulling out whatever they could save. They lost a lot of belongings, but they were at least able to save the most valuable things that they possessed. In a world where death is a wage paid out constantly, these people could surely count themselves lucky that they weren't shot. Still, I felt bad about what had happened to them. They really did all they could to warn us — we could hardly expect outright collaboration, as they would be made to answer for it later by the NVA. I suddenly lost my respect for Charlie-Charlie, as it seemed to me that he was ridiculously unsubtle.

 
Close-up of the tank having just fired at the floorboards of the hooch.

We eventually drifted up to the area where the action had taken place. Then the whole story came out. Root and Gunsaulas had approached the house. It even had a few wooden steps leading up to it. They ascended the stairs and Gunsaulas went inside. All of a sudden, a trap door opened in the floor, and a gook rolled a grenade out. Gunsaulas tried to scramble out, but when the grenade exploded, a piece of shrapnel struck him in the area of his knee. Root moved forward and fired into the building, not knowing precisely what had happened. Again the trap door popped up, and the gook opened up with an AK on automatic. Root was struck three times in the chest, but despite the gravity of his wound, he turned and ran a good 10 or 15 yards. Then he collapsed. Gunsaulas, despite his injury, bravely reentered, pulled up the trap door and fired a single shot right into the enemy soldier. Then he scrambled out. This brought a period of quiet. Root was not dead. His best friends gathered around him and strained to hear what he had to say. He spoke in a quiet voice, saying, "I'm shot and I'm going to die." He then asked someone to write to his wife and tell her how much he loved her. Then he expired. The most profound shock of his death would soon be felt by somebody else.

The tank rolled up, lowered its barrel, and fired a round right into the floor boards. A body went flying through the air, and landed on a pile of hay behind the house. Just then, someone yelled, "They're running across the field!" Two NVA who had been under the floor, had escaped out a tunnel that opened some distance away in one of the fields. They could be plainly seen about a hundred yards distant. About 20 guys opened up on them. At the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, where one of my ancestors fought, a man with a Kentucky long-rifle shot a British general between the eyes at over 300 yards. We had come a long way: now we could fire twenty rounds in a few seconds, but couldn't hit anything even a hundred yards away. Hundreds of bullets were poured in the direction of the fleeing enemy, but not one round found its mark. This was not too reassuring.

I walked over to the pile of hay where the body lay. His clothes had been blown off, and there was a black, quarter-sized exit hole in his back. One of the sergeants flipped him over. Right over his heart was a small black entry hole, which looked all the world like a cigarette burn. The small 5.63 ammo left a very small hole where it entered, and because it was fired at point-blank range, the exit hole was not all that much bigger. The corpse had a very pale look. His lips were lavender. He looked decidedly dead.

That evening we set up someplace pleasant, where the soil was easy to dig. It was starting to get near dusk, when Top came up to me and said, "Saddle up, you've got orders to go to Language School." I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. As I started towards the helicopter I caught a glimpse of Archuleta as he was digging in. He had an odd sort of smile barely visible on his face. I realized then and there that he had recommended me, and had gotten me out of the field for 6 weeks. I waved good-by to him, and that was the last I ever saw of him. He was killed at a piece of butchery held at Willie Bridge, a bridge to nowhere. I never saw Yelland again either. Their loss was a shock for the future.