Blown Up

by Richard Dieterle

OCTOBER 6, 1967 — A Company 1/8 had a pretty good reputation when it came to avoiding war crimes. However, we had a sister company, C Company 1/8, which had a reputation for burning down villages through which they passed and similar acts of ruthlessness. They wore a black scarf with a skull and cross bones on it (the "Jolly Roger") and a superscription which read, "Death from Above." In Bồng Sơn we had seen villages that had been laid waste while we were on search and destroy missions in the area and these scenes of devastation had been put to the charge of Charlie Company. In a war that was suppose to "win the hearts and minds of the people," this was hardly a step in the right direction. Around November, 1967, someone, perhaps at Brigade, decided they had better do something about this, so they discovered who the ring-leaders were and reassigned them to a more disciplined company. There were three of them and, as an added measure of safety, they were separated from each other by being scattered among different platoons. One was placed in our own First Platoon, the other two in different platoons of A Company.

One day, which I remember as hot and sunny, one of these guys took his cigarette lighter and lit the dry straw of a hooch on fire. When we came to it, fire was clearly visible. Heath and several other guys from First Platoon ran over and poured their canteen water on it, successfully putting out the fire. This may seem like a small thing to the uninitiated, but canteen water was a very valuable commodity. We usually carried four canteens, since the heat was so oppressive that our trousers and shirts would be soaked with sweat, and this loss of water had to be replaced. Running out of water meant a kind of thirst that was hard to describe, and a weakening of the body generally, as the water continued to pour out the sweat glands until a potentially dangerous state of dehydration occurred. Just the same, these guys poured their valuable water on a stranger's hooch, whose owner was not even present. When word got back to the perpetrator that this had happened as a result of his vicious caprice, he soon mended his ways, as no one would wish to do this to his own people.

One day when the sky was clear (which would be unusual for November, as that is in the monsoon season, as I remember), we had spent the day "humping the boonies" in the Bồng Sơn Valley, in areas where villages were not too densely distributed. We came to a familiar area, a small rise of dirt generally free of vegetation. I remembered this place from the last time we had set up there: the dirt was the usual iron rich, red soil, but this stuff was like rock. When we dug in last time, it was really difficult to make a good foxhole because of the hardness of the soil. When we were leaving an area, we generally filled in the foxholes, as we did not want to leave a de facto fortification for the enemy to use. One of the general rules that we tried to observe was, Never set up in the same place again. However, the CO thought it was getting late, and there seemed to be no better place to set up, as this area had great visibility, with short grass extending in a radius of at least 50 yards around it. So we decided to suspend our rule and dig in where we had once before many months ago. We could easily scoop out the old foxholes and prones, so the digging this time around was not so difficult.

We had an added treat that afternoon: they flew in containers of food complete with plastic utensils and paper plates so that we could have a hot dinner. I believe that First Platoon was one of the first to line up and go through this kind of buffet chow line. Wash' and I were now back at our foxhole eating off our luxurious paper plates. He was sitting on the edge of the foxhole, while I was standing up. I was digging into my scalloped potatoes, which were a far cry from the usual C ration fare. I stood facing the guys in the chow line. The sun was getting low in the sky behind them, but the clouds were scattered so that the light was fairly bright. I was watching the guys as they were getting their chow, and I scanned up the line where I saw some people stepping past the last can and starting back to their foxholes. I fixed my eyes on Cook, one of the guys from Charlie Company. Then, suddenly, there was a terrific bang. The explosion formed a sharp 'V' and Cook's body spread apart as if in slow motion. It was not that his body was sprayed in every direction — it spread out exactly like the explosion: as the 'V' got wider, so his body spread itself apart. His arms and legs separated almost gracefully, but as his head came to the apex of the explosion, it began to tumble slowly through the air. Then his intestines, which had spread apart into little chunks about 1 inch cubed, started to fall from the sky like rain. We could hear the pit-pat sound as they landed. One landed on my web-gear shoulder strap, another landed in my plate, ruining the scalloped potatoes for me. I found a piece of grass-straw, and plucked the small chunk of intestine off my shoulder strap, and then walked over to our sump to throw out my plate, as the dinner had lost its charm. They had spread out a poncho to take up the remains, which various people were bringing in and tossing into the poncho. It was quite a mess. I walked back to my foxhole, making very sure that I didn't step on another pressure-plate device. The enemy liked to bury an unexploded 105 or 155 mm artillery shell point up, then attach a pressure plate device to it so that if a chopper or a person landed on it, it would explode upward. When I got back to my foxhole the sun was setting, and against the rise of the ground where the chow line had been was a glorious sunset. Silhouetted against the red sky was Westenburger carrying a whole leg upside down by the boot. It was a strange and ghoulish sight. Finally, a chopper came in and picked up the poncho just as the last rays of light were disappearing below the horizon.

I believe that we picked up and moved, setting up someplace else in the dark.

For another perspective on this event, see "The Death of Peter Brown Cook, Jr."