The smiling, long legged brunette in the photo leaned against the door of a familiar car. One hand held a set of keys against her freckled cheek while the other seemed to toy with the unfastened snapof impossibly skimpy white shorts. In between, an unbuttoned olive-drab, US Army fatigue shirt was spread just wide enough to give a teasing peek at the swell of her firm young breasts.
The soldier holding the photo smiled. He’d taken the picture. It was his shirt, his car and most important,his girl. As he gave it one last look, it occurred to Mac Floyd that there were better places to spend Thanksgiving than here in South Vietnam. His first choice being the back seat of his car with the girl in the photo, Mary Beth Riser.
He was tired of death; tired of trying to kill unknown men who kept trying to kill him. He wanted life, and peace, and Mary Beth.
Someone yelled, “Get your squad saddled up, Mac. Time to go play soldier,” and his mind snapped back into gear.
Today’s plan called for his recon platoon to leave the shelter of a jungle-like wood line and cross a large expanse of dry rice paddies to a village. The word was it might be a staging area for the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army, maybe both. If everything went right, the infantry company and the troop of armored personnel carriers left back in the wood line would then move out and join them.
For the officer in charge of the operation, the plan had the advantage of protecting the men in his own company while risking a handful of troops. Viet Nam was a numbers war. Should recon get shot up, the casualties wouldn’t be figured against his unit’s body count.
It was a scheme Mac and the other men of recon knew all too well. They were the eyes and ears of the battallion, experts at operating alone on intelligence gathering operations. Ambushes, snatches, tracking, manning listening posts at night and observation posts during the day were all considered good missions.
No one thought today's assignment, serving as scouts for a regular infantry company, was a good mission. They were now under the direct control of another unit's commanding officer. Whenever that happened, they became expendable.
Halfway to the village, things started going wrong. A high-pitched shriek from somewhere ended in a sickening explosion followed by a geyser of dirt, smoke, and death. Unable to tell where the fire was coming from, twenty-four men dove for the only available cover. After that, it was a matter of praying they’d guessed right and put rice paddy dikes between themselves and a body bag.
The platoon began checking in. "What the hell was that? Where's the son-of-bitch? Is everybody all right?"
"Hardcore" Harding, the unit's platoon sergeant, yelled over from a nearby rice paddy. "That thing's gotta be a goddamn recoilless rifle, Lieutenant."
First Lieutenant Dale Lester never stopped scanning the terrain. "Roger that, shit. You got any idea where the hell it's firing from?”
"Can't be sure, sir. But they've probably got it set up on that hill over there on our right flank."
Mac forced himself to lift his head and look for the hill. There was a second explosion followed by an eruption of sporadic small arms fire from the village to their front. But he’d seen a flash.
“I think Hardcore’s right, Lieutenant. I spotted something looked like a small back-blast. Probably about two-thirds the way up the hill, just left of that dead tree.”
Dale Lester studied the hill and then the surrounding terrain. His platoon, a group he and Hardcore had molded into a first class recon unit, was pinned down in the open. Meanwhile, Delta Company and the supporting armored personnel carriers were back in the safety of the wood line and didn't seem anxious to risk exposing themselves by providing fire support.
"Looks like it’s command decision time, Big Mac.”
Mac, whose name and size had made the nickname inevitable, wiped sweat and dirt off his face and nodded.
"If we stay put and call for help that recoilless rifle will pick us off," said Lester. “Heading towards that automatic weapons fire would be dicey. Going back’s not much better. So that leaves….
His words were cut off by another incoming round. Mac had an idea, but wished he hadn’t.
“Lieutenant, my squad’s closest to the hill. What if the platoon lays down covering fire long enough for us to shag ass over there?
If it’s just the weapons crew, odds are they’ll ‘di di’ when they see us coming.” What he didn’t need to say, what both he and the Lieutenant knew, was that if the crew didn’t leave and the position was defended, the squad could be in a world of hurt.
Lieutenant Lester glanced at Mac, then surveyed the situation.
“Okay. Go get your squad moving. We’ll do our part here.” He looked away and began yelling orders to Hardcore.
Mac rose into a crouch and hurried toward first squad, his unit. The sound of another incoming round sent him diving back for cover. It exploded along the base of the dike being used by second squad, the squad of Sergeant Andy Andrews.
Redheaded, freckle-faced Anderson Andrews, Mike's friend and fellow squad leader, son of Mr. and Mrs. Carl P. Andrews, brother of Paul and Joyce, Kim Irving Andrew's husband, and father of their three month old daughter Kacey, was killed instantly when members of the North Vietnamese Army manning a recoilless rifle on Hill 87 scored a direct hit on his position.
Before Mac could get back to his feet “Hassle” Castle was rushing to Andy’s motionless form.
The expert grenadier and Andy had joined the unit the same day. They were very tight.
Everyone knew to avoid the junctions of rice paddy dikes. They were prime spots for booby traps. Hassle knew better. But maybe all he could focus on was his friend’s body.
There was a small bang and a can filled with tiny steel pellets shot into the air, then exploded at chest height. It was hard to believe how many holes that "Bouncing Betty" drilled into Hassle's dark, wiry, body.
The recoilless rifle fired another round while Mac’s squad was racing to the base of the hill. After catching their breath, they formed a ragged skirmish line and began moving up the steep hillside toward the unseen gun position. The heavy brush and stunted trees limited their vision. It all made for a very hairy climb.
Maybe that’s why they got careless. The well camouflaged firing site was undefended and deserted. For the squad, the danger seemed over. They relaxed and instinctively moved closer to talk and check out the scene.
Mac was on the radio with Lieutenant Lester when he noticed what the men were doing. With an impatient gesture, he motioned for them to move away.
“Don’t cluster fuck. Spread out and watch for….”
He never finished his last command. Tony Doughty a big, pug-nosed, good-natured guy from Tennessee—so new to the unit he still didn’t have a nickname stepped on a booby-trap. His large body danced in mid-air as a sheet of flame, laced with white streaks, raced toward Mac. It was the last thing he'd see clearly for months.
When the blast slammed into him, Mac struggled to stay on his feet, in part out of pride, but also fear of falling into another booby-trap. Then his knees gave out and he crumpled to the ground.
After spitting out a mouthful of something, he made a quick, unsuccessful search for his rifle.
Reaching for his canteen, he discovered his pistol still in its holster. Knowing he had the .38 Special made him feel better. It was common knowledge the VC seldom took prisoners and when they did, the captives were tortured, then killed.
He remembered to check his body for wounds an felt something warm and wet around his groin. A flash of panic ended when he discovered it was only urine, not blood.
The blast had caught him from the waist up. There were tiny pieces of metal and gravel in his arms, chest, and face. Raw powder burns also covered his face and he couldn't see. But Mac knew he'd been lucky. He was alive.
The cries of wounded soldiers replaced echos from the explosions. In front of him, someone was moaning, "Crotch, crotch, crotch." Mac rinsed out his mouth and then started crawling toward the moans.
The casualties soon turned into statistics. Tony was dead. Three more, including Mac, would require a medevac. The immediate danger of an ambush was over. Now the wounded needed moving to a flat, open spot for quick loading onto the “dustoff” helicopters.
Somebody linked Mike up with "Cowboy" Thompson. The low-key, reliable fire team leader had gotten his right leg messed up. He could see, but couldn't walk. Mac could walk, but not see. The lame soldier and the blind soldier linked arms and prepared to help one another down the hill.
"Helluva way to spend Thanksgiving ain't it, Big Mac?"
Mike’s mind flashed on an image of Mary Beth Riser stretched out nude and luscious on the back seat of his old Chevy, giving him that look that could turn his bones to jelly. He’d enjoyed that sight, and Mary Beth’s body, almost every day during his last leave home. In his pocket was the letter she'd just sent—the one with the photo of her smiling and leaning against the side of his car.
He was blind and had just lost two friends and the new guy under his command. But for the moment, the sudden realization that he was a survivor overwhelmed all feelings of remorse and loss.
"Damn straight, Cowboy. But it could be worse. We may be beat-up, but we're alive and going home in time for Christmas. Hell, let's celebrate."
As the two men began walking away from war and towards the rest of their lives, a ragged chorus of, “Jingle Bells,” floated over the world they were leaving behind.