A CAP 2-7-2 patrol had intercepted a young woman leaving Thanh Quit (1), with some unusual contents in her market basket. Nestled among the usual foodstuffs were U.S. military issue flashlight batteries and insect repellant.
Hardly unusual in themselves, the typical Vietnamese peasant could not afford black market batteries or insect repellant and had little need for them. And, the young woman was stopped on the river trail, headed west into sparsely populated, VC-controlled territory.
Our patrol brought the woman to the CAP 2-7-2 day haven where she was questioned by our RF NCO, who was not satisfied with her answers. Our understanding was limited since the interrogation was conducted in Vietnamese and our interpreter was nowhere to be found. But over time, the questioning got louder, and more threatening.
Finally, in tears, the woman told our RFs she would lead us to the hidden bunker that was her destination.
Perhaps hoping for a major capture of VC weapons and supplies, the RF NCO called immediately for a strong patrol to investigate the young woman’s claims. We quickly agreed to support this rare display of initiative by our RFs, and an 8- or 10-man patrol was put together.
We moved out a few minutes later, led by the VC suspect. She was followed closely by the RF NCO who kept his M-16 in her back. Marine Angel Washington of San Antonio, Texas, walked behind them, and I walked behind Angel carrying the PRC-25. Moving quickly, we soon approached the western part of our ville.
There our route passed through a thick tree line into a large clearing roughly 40 meters long and 30 meters wide. We entered at the northeast corner of the clearing, headed for the southwest corner.
Actually, the VC suspect and the RF NCO entered the clearing, but Angel knelt to tie his bootlaces where the footpath entered the opening. I stopped briefly beside him, but he said, “Go ahead. I’ll catch up.”
I stepped around Angel and entered the clearing, now about 10 meters behind the leading pair, so I hurried to close the gap. I drew within about five meters of the RF just as he and the woman approached the next tree line. The gap between them had widened to 10 or 15 feet, and the rest of the patrol was still in the trees, backed up behind Angel.
Suddenly I was startled by the deafening blast of two or three automatic weapons. I saw bullets kicking up dust all around the RF and very close in front of me. The sound of bullets passing close by was an unbroken, high-pitched …
I had a glimpse of the woman darting to the left, and the RF veering sharply to the right in the split second before I turned right myself and ran toward the tree line. I saw a shallow, grassy ditch just in front of the tree line and had time to wonder whether it would be faster to dive in head first or do a baseball slide — then I dove in head first.
The ditch was deep enough, barely, and I felt tremendous relief to have that much cover. I had time to turn myself around, the firing suddenly stopped, and I popped my head up for a look.
The first thing I saw was the woman running from right to left along the far tree line, maybe 20 meters directly in front of me. She had lost her conical straw hat and her black hair was flying as she ran.
I laid my M-16 on the edge of the ditch, caught the woman in my sights, and put my finger on the trigger — and nothing happened. I didn’t decide not to shoot the woman, there was no thought process. I just went through all the usual steps to shoot her and the final step didn’t happen.
I kept the woman in my sights for three or four seconds as she ran along the tree line, until she vanished into an opening. Then I realized I was exposing myself and I ducked back down.
About that time I heard someone from our day haven calling on the radio, asking what the hell was happening — they could hear gunfire. I was soon busy talking to reinforcements en route from our day haven, then helping sweep the area after the rest of our patrol cautiously edged out of the tree line. We quickly searched a large area, but the woman and her friends were long gone.
I assumed the RF NCO was dead, but he soon popped out of the undergrowth, untouched, mad as hell about losing his prisoner, and amazed to be alive.
Beating through the tree line, we found scattered piles of AK-47 shell casings, meaning two or three VC had each fired a 30-round magazine. Standing by a pile of VC “brass,” one of my buddies eyed the ambush site and shook his head.
“You are one lucky motherfucker.”
I laughed, but I was feeling weird, spacy, like my feet had to go an extra couple of inches to hit the ground. Probably it was shock or an overdose of adrenaline. I barely slept that night, and it took about 24 hours for my heart rate to return to normal. Later that night I noticed a hole in the stock of my M-16, probably from a ricochet.
I wondered for awhile how three VC could miss me from less than 15 meters, but as “Erp” Erpelding once said about the RFs — “Shooting with your eyes closed sure fucks up your aim.” There was no reason to assume the average VC was better trained that the average RF.I also wondered why I didn’t kill the woman who led us to the ambush, despite a perfect opportunity. I still don’t know, but I suspect it had something to do with my childhood training. My parents were adamant that you NEVER hit a girl, no matter what she does. That’s the only reason my sister survived childhood.