Day 19 – Berserker: Green Hell, Chapter One, by Lee Franklin

Chapter One (Berserker: Green Hell by Lee Franklin)

Hell?

Why had I come back?  I asked myself for the millionth time. Because you’re a coward,  came the familiar answer. Because I’d returned willingly to this purgatory, and trudged up and down all nine rings of Dante’s Inferno. Trust me, I wish it was the pit of fire and brimstone the preachers all promised.

I wish it was a place you could leave, or a nightmare that would leave you—but it’s not. Hell is an endless green; broken only by deep shadows, white blankets of rain, and cesspools of bog and mud. It’s a thick, viscous heat that rots body and mind with incessant, stagnant decay and the odour of sweating men—and that’s so bad we can’t even stand our own stench. This is where we are: in Hell—or Dia Nguc  as they call it in Vietnam.

A lot of us blokes got the call up—but I signed up.

The first time was to win Jenny’s family’s respect. The second time was because that didn’t work and, well, I had nowhere else to go because I’d lost my place at University. Mostly, though, I couldn’t handle watching Jenny’s belly grow with my best mate’s baby.

Bullets don’t give a shit what colour skin you got, and for all its sins the military doesn’t give a fuck either; you’re just a number they will chew up and spit out regardless.

Swirling black spires of smoke could be seen from six klicks out—that’s kilometres for the civilians. Within two clicks it penetrated the jungle with long, reaching fingers and we could taste the oily ash of it in our mouths. Burning bamboo, rice paddies, gunpowder, and the subtle, distinct smell of burnt flesh thickened in my nostrils as we swept in from the outskirts of the village.

It was the rice paddies we saw first; black, smouldering ash with a sheen of oil marbled on top of the water—green crops wouldn’t burn without it. The Viet Cong didn’t have oil, or flamethrowers, to waste on crop fields. We spread out wide under Hammo’s instructions, close enough to see each other through the smoke, with bandanas pulled up over our faces so we could breathe.

We were a handpicked group of specialists—

unwanted oddities in reality—and we rolled in to do our job, which was to try and make sense of this shit storm.

The brutal, dry heat of the fire battling with the humid air sapped our strength as we sloshed around the edge of the paddies looking for the road in.

There’s always a road in.

We didn’t expect any action, of course; we were just The Ghosts, The Reapers.  We were unofficially attached to whatever grunt/infantry unit was in the area, and reported informally to some unofficial JAG team. Our job started after the bullets stopped flying; we went in to collect dog tags, MIAs, KIAs, and inspect for any potential war crimes. The whole fucking war was a crime if you ask me, but nobody ever did.

Lance Corporal Azzopardi dropped to his knees. We all followed like we were in a Mexican wave. Wog-Boy, like me, was into his second tour. You could tell by the lines of disgust and profound sadness carved into his face, the way his eyes narrowed in a perpetual squint of shrewd analysis—but mostly it was the trembling, always the trembling. As I made my way over, his fingers pointed toward the ground. “What is that, Pinny?” he asked me.

Now, I’d spent all my summers with my Mother’s mob—the Wardandi people of the Noongar Nation. My Uncle Miro taught me to track with my cousins, which became my specialty and my VIP invite to this particular shit-party. We Aboriginals aren’t known for much more, perhaps drinking and football.

Wiping the sweat out of my eyes, I watched as the jumps and jitters ran down my comrade’s arm to the muddy earth as he pointed to a significant depression in the boggy ground.

Studying it carefully, I replied, “That there is a bloody large U.S soldier, Wog-Boy—see the typical GI boot tread? Going on the length of the print, he must be close to six or seven-foot-tall and maybe around one hundred and twenty kilos—weight is hard to gauge in this bog. Thank God he was running away from the village.” I cast about for further prints but was unable to find anything obvious in the smouldering marsh. “Are Yanks meant to be in this area?” I asked, “I thought they were further north?”

Americans made me nervous, and with good cause.

On my first tour, back in ‘66, I’d been detached to an in-country training wing to instruct the scouts on tracking techniques. I’d just come out of the latrines one evening when I heard shouting around the back. Being a nosey bastard, I poked my head around the corner to see some LT and a group of cronies surrounding some poor Negro who was kneeling on the ground.

The LT was forcing him to lick shit from his boot.

I didn’t have any rank to pull to stop it—but I did have a fist-sized rock.

I lobbed that rock over my head and heard it clatter on the tin roof of the septic tank. I called out grenade! and watched as everyone threw themselves to the ground. In any normal situation, nobody would fall for that ruse, but in Vietnam, everyone was twitchy. Hell, I almost dropped to the ground myself.

The LT, Karey, (I found out his name later) stumbled and fell through the roof of the septic tank—eat shit indeed, sir.

After that, LT Karey’s victim, one Sergeant Marcus Hawkins, and I became best mates—until he left the war two months later after friendly fire took a chunk out of his leg.

Karey, on the other hand, eventually went to prison for war crimes after taking the lead role in a village massacre.

Marcus and I would write letters to each other; he just loved to fill me on all the happenings back home. It was Marcus who told me that the year after, when the M16s got handed out, some three hundred yanks had been killed by friendly fire—that’s in one year! There’s the consequence of armed, untrained conscripts burning their boredom and demons with a heavy mix of drugs and alcohol.

While I continued casting around for more prints, Taz squelched in behind us on his short, stumpy legs. He pushed his thick glasses up on his piggish nose, and I heard the click and grind of the camera as he wound on the film. It was a top of the range Minolta SLR—provided by the JAG—and thankfully the only kind of shot we’d heard that week.

Taz was a long way from shooting family photos at the local shops back home in Tasmania. Flat feet had him running errands for the Head Honchos back in Nui Dat until our last guy kissed a mine—then Taz got re-posted to the Reapers.

It’s a hard task out there for any desk jockey pogue, but Taz took it all in his stride. Pushing his mop of black hair out of his face, he had Wog-Boy stand next to the footprint for reference.

We were an odd mix, but it worked as well as it had to. None of us were sure what we were achieving, or even what we were really doing out there. But we were keeping someone up top happy, and I had a paycheck, so that was just fine with me.

There were no more prints, certainly nothing definite I could make out in the slush of ash and mud. I gave Wog-Boy the sign and we all continued moving on.

Even though that monster footprint was headed in the opposite direction, my hand gripped just a little tighter on my rifle. Why would a bloke that big run away from a fight?  I asked myself.  Because something bigger, or meaner was on the other team,  came the unwanted reply.

It didn’t take long for us to find the road in. It was not really a road, more of a wedge of dirt between the paddies that was just wide enough for a cart. We rolled in single file and approached the wrecked remains of the village. I immediately got to work and started casting about for any prints or tracks that could tell us a story.

Some huts were still burning, and amidst the normal miasma of death and fire there was a strong smell of bleach in the air. I had noticed it before at previous sites, but this time the acrid stink was that much stronger.

We didn’t normally hit a site so soon after the main event and it had us all on edge, so we moved fast. I cast about and indicated to Hammo and Taz the familiar GI tread in the churned up mud and mess around us. I estimated at least ten soldiers had been through the village, clearing out each building as they went.

“Hammo, Taz, come take a look at this,” I called over, confused by what I’d found.

“What is it, Pinny?”

“Are US Marines in the habit of taking their boots off and running around barefoot?” I indicated a clear trail of prints belonging to someone—or something—that easily reached over six feet tall and about one-fifty kilos.

Hammo removed his glasses and wiped them semi-clean on his filthy shirt. “What the fuck? This doesn’t make sense.”

“Look, there’s more,” Taz called out as he set his camera off snapping and grinding.

I followed the trail but there was no discernible pattern to it. While the GI boot prints were like following the yellow brick road—predictable standard operating procedure—the barefoot prints were chaotic and cut a winding, looping trail through the carnage of the village.

By now, I’d identified that there were at least two, maybe three different prints—each one running, jumping and walking sporadically. I chose one to follow and threaded my way through the village, trying to recreate the movements. I kept tripping up on arms, legs, and largely unidentifiable body parts that were strewn about the place. Corpses decorated with their own long, coiling viscera lay still in stagnant, muddy piles—one sat propped up against a pig’s pen, a dark black and red void where his jaw had been torn from his skull. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled up.

I followed the tracks into a hut. I felt a crunch under my foot and I gazed down to the hard-packed mud beneath my feet. A scream caught in my throat. It was the body of a baby, too small to have been born, its tiny head smashed open onto the dirt.

My stomach rolled and I turned to vomit in the corner of the hut’s remains. But I couldn’t stop myself before the bile arced in the air and splashed onto the body of the infant’s mother. Her stomach had been torn open and swarms of fat flies converged on the congealed blood in a convulsing wave of black. On her chest, there were two large, weeping red wounds where her breasts had been sliced off.

“Holy Mother of Christ,” Doc moaned as he stepped forward to close the mother’s glassy eyes—her poor face was contorted in terror. I watched as he scraped up the remains of the infant the best as he could and laid it gently in her arms. Doc had been a Priest back up in Queensland; he crouched next to the bodies for a few moments to whisper a prayer and pay his respects of sorts. Doc was a good man, gentle—an old soul, as my father would say. He clung to his God with a vice-like grip in the jungle, never once rising to anger or hopelessness. He had the same powder blue eyes as my old man, and that self-same anguish burning at their core. I recognised the grief. It was buried deep away to be dealt with another time—or perhaps, as in my dad’s case, never.

I put my rifle down and laid my hand on Doc’s shoulder in the way of support as I tried to find words to console him. As usual, I came up with nothing. As with most blokes of my generation, talking about our feelings just wasn’t a thing.

“I know in war people die, soldiers die—and die badly. I expected that. But this? This isn’t war, this is madness.” Doc spoke so softly I only just caught his words.

“It’s madness alright, Doc, and it’s getting worse the further north we head. This is the third village we’ve seen like this in as many months. Ain’t nothing much you and I can do about it—if this is what they do to their own people.” I tasted the bullshit in my own words.

Doc shot me a look as he stood up and peeled off his rubber gloves. The sweat that had pooled in them spat across the room. “You really think this was the VC?”

I couldn’t meet his eyes so I stared at the horizon instead. I recalled the scuffle of prints outside, and unless the VC were wearing size ten GI boots, or had doubled in size overnight, then no. “Fuck man, I don’t know.” I hawked a wad of smoky phlegm from the back of my throat out through where the hut door had once stood.

“Why would the US be doing this shit, man? It doesn’t make any sense.” Doc swung his arm out around at the village as he walked away. “This isn’t war. This is just mindless bloody slaughter.”

Our section head, Hammo, sent us out in pairs to clear what remained of the huts. I had seen enough and looked no closer than I had to. Puddles marbled with blood and mud told a story that was no fairy tale.

Everyone I found was dead—violently dead. It was not the kind of death that women, young children, and old men should suffer. It was a massacre.

What remained of the bamboo huts had been peppered with rounds. I pocketed a few casings that belonged to AK-47s, and some I didn’t recognise.

We cleared what remained of the huts. Doc followed through behind us, checking pulses—if there were places on their bodies left to check, that is. A few of the bodies had been shredded by gunfire, but most had been butchered.

Eyes burnt into my back, somebody—no, something—was watching, waiting. The mood grew dark and ugly amongst us as we all picked up on it. And, as usual, there was nothing we could do. Nothing we were meant to do, just gather pieces of a puzzle for some other schmuck to piece together.

An explosion from behind us made my guts lurch before I heard it. I was hot on Doc’s heels, all eyes out, as we swarmed towards the position. We found Hammo limping away from the dust and smoke.

“Booby-trap,” he grunted. He clamped his hands over his ears as blood trickled out onto his jawline. With his coke-bottle lenses cracked and knocked askew, he winced in pain as he showed us all the mangled flesh of his calf.

“Well, that’s a one-way ticket home, Hammo.” Doc sighed as he threw his medic kit on the floor and set to work.

A sudden rattle of automatic weapon fire broke out in the village; bullets whined, thumped and tore chunks out of the wreckage around us.

Launching ourselves into the quagmire of mud and gore, we searched desperately for any form of cover.

I saw a flash of blonde hair as Snowy popped his head up first. A bullet kicked up dirt in front of his face just before he rolled away. I watched him indicate two shooters: nine and eleven o’clock. I passed it along the line before I crawled towards a pile of bamboo to take cover.

Hammo and Chook were well back with Doc, who was bandaging Hammo’s gaping leg wound the best he could with his stomach flat to the ground.

Chook squelched and fired off into the radio.

Wog-Boy waved at me from the remains of a hut across the way; he had Stevo and Macka tight on his ass.

Snowy was behind the hut. Taz and Cam crouched behind me on my left hand-side, flat up against the side of a pig pen.

Stevo and Macka shuffled forward under our covering fire so they could use the M60s to full effect.

The SLR kicked my shoulder like a donkey in retort.

A blood-curdling cry broke out, and in the corner of my eye, I saw Snowy getting pulled in under a bamboo screen. He was kicking and ramming his rifle at someone behind him, but just couldn’t shake him. I started to make my move over to him when I heard Taz scream out, “GRENADE!”  over the  ratta tatt tatt of the rifles.

As I hugged the dirt, the explosion punched my insides, and I lay there unable to breathe. White dots flashed over my eyes as I watched Snowy’s mop of white-blonde hair get pulled below that screen. Helpless, I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t move. A hand grabbed my shoulder and dragged me back to the side of the building just as a bullet bit the dirt in front of me. My stomach unravelled, and I was able to grab a mouthful of air. Within seconds, despite my aching ribs, I was back to it, and I watched Wog-Boy and Taz scramble over to help Snowy.

I leaned against the hut, still trying to catch my air. I couldn’t believe my eyes when a mountain of a man sprung out of the haze of smoke. He screamed with bloodlust, and his lips peeled back to reveal a set of chipped, stained horse-teeth. The whites of his eyes glared as he tore towards us with his body jerking as our rounds slammed into it.

Without pause or hesitation, the big guy flew straight into Cam’s unsheathed bayonet. At close to six foot, and one hundred kilos of hard, rugby muscle, Cam was not a small fella, but this man—this aberration—bulldozed through him and his bayonet like they weren’t there. He drove them both into the ground with a massive thump of flesh.

Cam grunted in pain as I ran over to heave the other man off him. I could see the tip of his bayonet poking through the man’s lower back, and the multitude of red flowers blooming on his shirt where he’d been shot— but he was still trying to choke Cam to death with his huge, meaty hands. I lifted my rifle and fired two shots straight into the side of the big man’s head—that finally did the trick!

I wiped his blood off my face and checked on Cam.

Blood splattered, pale, and gasping for breath, Cam gave me the thumbs up as we stared in shock at the soldier.

He was Vietnamese, and dressed in rags like a farmer; as with any of the Vietnamese we encountered, he could easily have been from either side. He was ludicrously massive for a local—who would typically average five foot nothing and fifty kilos soaking wet.

The footprints must’ve belonged to him.

The man’s face was a picture of devastation. It was torn, shredded, and threaded with half-healed scars—those landmines were a bitch. It was the stink of him that turned my guts inside out, though. He smelled like someone had just shat in a bowl of straight bleach.

Shaking my head in disbelief, I helped pull the dead weight off Cam. I then raced off to where I last saw Snowy with Wog-Boy and Taz.

Snowy was curled up in a ball in the corner of the trench where he’d been dragged. He was soaked in blood, and I saw his bayonet slick with the stuff and shaking in his hand.

Wog-Boy lay exhausted with blood splattered on his face and massive welts on his forearms where his rifle sling hung around their attacker’s throat. It looked just like he’d had garrotted the Vietnamese guy until Taz could make the killshot with a double tap to the head.

As with the other guy, this one was unusually large for a Vietnamese; he was punctured with at least ten stab wounds from where Snowy had stuck him like a pig. His ugly-ass face also looked as if it had been kissed by the same landmine as the other big bastard.

“He wouldn’t die, he wouldn’t die,” Snowy repeated as his blue eyes blazed with shock in a stark contrast to the thick curtain of blood that coated his hair and face. I pulled him out of the hole. Wog-Boy wriggled the bayonet out of Snowy’s grip while I called out for the Doc.

“Wog-Boy, we gotta evacuate now! Let’s hustle!”

Hammo roared. “The bastards are going to light us up—the Yanks are coming in.”

Ice-cold sweat broke out down onto my back. With was no time for questions, it was time to haul ass. I grabbed Snowy by the shoulder, pushed him forward, and shouted at him to run. We then followed Hammo, who was draped between Macka and Stevo. Chook took the lead back through the paddies towards the treeline, and made it only about five hundred meters before we heard the roar of the F100 tearing through the sky.

Where the hell had they come from so quickly? Ragged and exhausted, our adrenaline kept pushing us deeper into the jungle as we prayed we’d make it.

The air was sucked out of my lungs moments before the searing heat engulfed our bodies. Skin tingling as my nerve endings were singed, I was encased in a ball of heat…

Pain was a good sign; any burn past the nerve endings in your skin was bad news. When you felt nothing,  your flesh was melting off your bones, your body was shutting down through shock, and you were seriously fucked up. I gasped for air like a drowning man, but found nothing but hot carbon monoxide that seared my lungs; all of the oxygen and moisture in the air was instantly vacuumed up by the voracious appetite of the napalm.

Stumbling, I pulled a shocked Snowy along through the undergrowth, as the black dots that swam in front of my eyes grew larger until they dominated my vision.

Finally, I fell unconscious to the floor.

I don’t know if it was seconds, minutes, or hours until I woke up, but when I did, my skin was wrapped taut and hot over my body, and every breath rattled painfully through my scorched lungs.

Moans of agony echoed all around me. I jerked my head up to see Woody, a tall lanky fella from Intel, wandering lost through the jungle. He was only fifty meters or so behind the leading group, and his clothes had completely incinerated. All exposed parts of his flesh bore a weird look of white leather as he stumbled around aimlessly before eventually collapsing on the jungle floor.

I heard Doc flitting about, his voice low and calm as he checked on each of us. I watched his shoulders slump as he walked over to where Woody had last been seen.

Struggling to my feet, I checked out my body as I converged with Hammo and the rest as they made their way in silence. With his injured leg, Hammo had pushed Macka and Steve ahead of him and had been closest to the back with Woody. Most of his hair was burnt off, and ugly blisters covered his back. Still, he was alive and incredibly high on Doc’s precious stash of morphine. He was one lucky bastard indeed! Thank fuck they hadn’t used phosphorus in that bomb, or none of us would have made it.

Chook was about one hundred meters in front of us and had to backtrack. Never had I seen the young fucker run so fast.

“Did you call that aircraft in, Chook?” I asked.

“No. I had no chance to. Only found out they were coming because I picked up some American channel.”

I saw that his radio was still intact, and he was already calling in a situation report. His face grew even paler as he relayed information to Wog-Boy.

With Hammo doped up on morphine, Wog-Boy had suddenly found himself promoted into a complete cluster-fuck. We were on the wrong side of the valley, and the area would be inaccessible for days. With a forty kilometre trek around, we would not be making our rendezvous.

It was time for a plan B.

“Okay, boys, we’re rolling out in thirty minutes. Get your shit sorted and see Doc if you need to. Macka, Cam, I need you boys to make a stretcher for the boss man here.” Wog Boy indicated the stupefied Hammo.

“Pinny, I need you on that map. Work with Chook to find us an extraction point—or at least a medivac for Hammo. Taz, you and Snowy run an ammo and ration check, and then try finding some water. Then we’ll get the fuck out of here.”

Chook and I managed to organise the medivac. The best access for a bird was ten kilometres North West through the scrub, and to a small plateau. We had twelve hours to get there for a pickup at 0700 the next morning.

It was Hammo’s best—and only—chance. We would then have thirty-six hours and a fifteen kilometres trek south for a vehicle pickup for ourselves.

Berserker: Green Hell is available here.

Check out Lee Franklin’s website here.

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