LAST TRAIN RUNNIN'
By RD Foster
Twenty miles southwest of Da Nang, South Vietnam
The squad of seven heavily armed Marines stood at ease under gray skies in the drizzling rain as Sgt. Williams gave them their final instructions. They had heard the same speech many times just before going out on a night LP (listening post), all except the eighth-man, Hospitalman Everett Blalock. It was his first.
"I donít want to hear a peep outta yíall till yíall get back in the morning," the twenty-one year old battle-hardened platoon sergeant advised as he inspected each manís weapon. "Bravo Company had some contact out that way this morning, so stay alert. You never know. And watch out for the doc. Heís a cherry boy, so yíall take good care of him now."
HN Blalock, the youngest in seniority, but oldest guy in the group, was twenty-three years old, a college graduate, and had been in the Navy for about eight months. His orders in the States had originally assigned him to hospital duty at Subic Bay in the Philippines, but when he landed in Okinawa things beyond his control had changed and he now found himself on a dirty, wretched hilltop firebase with a Marine Corps rifle company. It was his third day in Vietnam. He was scared to death.
"Hey, Sarge, what about me? Who the fuckís gonna watch out for me. Iím too short for this shit. Twenty-four days and a wake up you know," the radioman, Lance Corporal Hanna, complained. "This is my last patrol, right Sarge?"
"Shut up, Meat Top. I feel your pain. I surely do," Sgt. Williams replied as he closed one eye, looked down the barrel of the M16, and handed it back to Hanna. He stepped in front of the new guy, the navy corpsman, and took his .45 automatic for inspection. The corpsman he replaced, Doc Campbell, had lasted only two weeks before he was killed when a medevac chopper crashed on top of him.
"Whatís your name, Doc?" Sgt. Williams asked.
"Blalock," answered the tall dark haired corpsman.
"Naw. Whaíd your momma call you?"
"Everett, named after my uncle," the older man replied.
"Everett, huh? I got an uncle named Everett. Lives in Memphis," the sergeant said and handed the pistol back. It was clean as having not been fired lately. "Just stick close to Corporal Coggins and do exactly what he tells you to do. Relax, Everett, everythingíll be all right," the sergeant advised as he checked the corpsmanís gear and tightened up a few straps. "No sweat, GI."
Doc swallowed hard, and trying not to look nervous, nodded to the pimply faced squad leader who grinned at him and didnít look like he was as yet old enough to shave.
"Keep your cover on and your head down," Sgt. Williams said as he stepped back. "Ainít that right, Meat Top?"
"Fuckiní A! Cover on, head down. This is my last patrol, right, Sarge?" Hanna inquired again as he adjusted the radio strapped to his back.
"Saddle up!" Sgt. Williams commanded. "Okay, Cog, you know the drill. Check in when you get to the LP. And no goosin' and grab-assin' either, goddammit. The smoking lamp is out! Turn to. Didi Mau."
Mario Salizar, a short stocky PFC, (private first class) took the point and led the way down the muddy, wet and slippery barren hill and into the tree line about one hundred yards away. The others followed in single file with Hanna, the radioman, between Cpl. Coggins and Doc Blalock. The rain started falling harder. It was about an hour until sundown and their destination was only about thirty minutes away, where they would set up a listening post in an area where not a lot of enemy activity had been reported lately. They werenít really expecting anything to happen that night, but you never know.
The squad was quiet and alert as the seven combat-tested young men and one rookie worked their way through the familiar surroundings of trees and tall grass they had patrolled for months. When they reached the designated spot on the map the squad spread out in a circle on a small hilltop and dug in for the night.
Hanna bitched in a low voice as he dug his fighting hole in the rain-soaked sandy ground. "Been here a year and still sleeping on the fuckiní ground. This ainít no way for a man to live." He sniffed the air and then himself. "Hell, I smell just like one of my old hound dogs back home. See that hill over yonder?"
Doc looked to the distant cloud covered mountain where Hanna was pointing and nodded.
"Thatís where I lost my old friend Bill." He stopped for a moment and with a far away look in his eyes added, "Damn. Iím gonna miss him. Yessir, yes I will."
Hanna seemed to be making progress with the hole but it filled with dirty brown water as fast as he removed the dirt. "Shit! Why the hell did I ever leave that little ole one-horse town anyway? What the hell was I thinking? Go to college my old man tried to tell me. But nooo."
"Knock it off, Meat!" Cpl. Coggins growled, "The talking lamp is out. Get that radio squared away and I want you to check in every hour on the hour. And keep it dry." He then crawled to the next hole inspecting his squadís positions and assigned fields of fire. "Dig in deep, Doc, itís gonna be a long night."
It seemed like it was daylight one minute and dark the next. Doc Blalock was still digging when a voice on his right told him it was deep enough.
"Whadda ya wanna drown or something?"
Doc nodded his appreciation, although the kid couldnít see his face anyway, and slid into the hole, half-filled with cold dirty water, while trying to keep his essential medical gear dry and covered by his poncho. The rain slacked after about an hour and he quietly baled the water with his hard hat. The mosquitoes and other unidentifiable flying and crawling creatures came in droves. His entire body was shaking, partly from the cold wet clothes, mostly from fear. His teeth chattered so violently that he put the corner of a towel into his mouth to muffle the sound. This was a listening post and he didnít know what to listen for. Everything sounded scary to him.
His mind raced trying to figure out how the hell he had gotten himself into this mess. Hell, he wasnít a warrior. He was an artist, a musician who wrote folk songs and believed the messages he sang about; peace and love. Thatís what he was all about. It all started the day after he graduated from college when he received a letter from the Selective Service informing him he was being drafted. In total absolute fear of becoming an infantry rifleman in the Army for two years, he instead went down and joined the Navy for four. The recruiter had assured him he would be trained in the medical field and because of his valuable college degree could serve his entire enlistment as an x-ray technician or something similar and work in big, nice, clean modern hospitals in places like Hawaii, Spain, Germany, Japan. The possibility he would end up on top of a little muddy hill in the middle of South Vietnam with his life in the hands of seven teenage high-school-dropout Jarheads never once entered the conversation nor the thought process.
After a while the fast moving clouds broke and a half moon emerged, causing eerie shadows to appear. Everett just wanted to close his eyes, go to sleep, wake up, and walk back up the hill, sit on his bunk and play his guitar he had bought in a pawnshop in Okinawa. But who the hell could sleep in these conditions? Cold and wet from head to toe, he was afraid to close his eyes, even though the shadows became enemy soldiers and started moving toward him when he stared at them. They were only shadows. He thought about Holly, his girl back in Dallas, and wondered if he would ever see her again. A new tune went through his mind and he silently hummed it to himself. He caught himself holding his breath from time to time and would have to consciously exhale and inhale as quietly as possible. It was awfully quiet and he was hoping his comrades werenít sleeping. How long had it been now since he last checked the time? He looked at the soft green glowing hands on his watch. Shit! Only ten minutes!
Donít worry, Marines donít sleep, he told himself. But then again, theyíre all just kids. He wondered if they were as scared as he was. They didnít act like it. Except for Hanna, and he just wanted to go home. Every grunt (foot soldier) knew the greatest odds were against the new guys, who didn't know any better, and the short timers, because their luck had run out. His hole was close enough to the radiomanís that one grenade could get the both of them. How ironic, he was thinking.
It was just after two in the morning when they heard the 'thumps' of the first mortar rounds being dropped into and launched from their tubes. A hard rain started falling as if on cue.
"Mortars! Keep your head down!" Hanna whispered to the corpsman, who was about three feet away, and keyed his radio handset to relay the information back to the hill.
It seemed like an eternity from the time the rounds left the tubes and swished through the air until they hit the ground. The squad members gritted their teeth and hugged the ground, not knowing exactly where the deadly missiles were headed, while guessing probably for the firebase on the hill. They guessed wrong. The first round landed directly in Lance/Corporal. Hannaís fighting-hole, killing him instantly and destroying the radio. The concussion raised Doc about two feet into the air and slammed him back to the ground.
Three more rounds fell in succession just outside of the perimeter. Everett, his head spinning form the near-by explosion, felt his heart jump into his throat when he realized that Corporal Coggins was yelling for him. "Doc! Doc! Meat Topís hit! Check him out! Hubba hubba!"
Everett jumped out of his hole and into Hannaís, but he wasnít there. In the dim moonlight he could see the largest part of the radiomanís body on the forward side of the hill. There was absolutely nothing to be done. It was hard to tell that that mound of smoking smoldering flesh was the same guy who had spoken to him just a few seconds earlier. Everett threw up just as all hell broke loose.
"Get down, Doc!" one of the Marines yelled as grenade blasts and rifle fire opened up on all sides of the perimeter and more mortar rounds slammed into the ground all around them. Everett jumped back into his hole and pulled the .45 from its holster. He didnít know why, he had no intention of killing anyone. He was here to save lives.
"Corpsman up!" Coggins yelled through the deafening sound of machine guns, M16s, AK47s, and exploding grenades. The squad leader had been hit in the shoulder and was bleeding profusely. Doc re-holstered his weapon and crawled quickly across the hilltop, with the rounds that were whizzing by only inches over his head sounding just like a swarm of angry bees. He found Cogginsí wound to be very serious and it was impossible to stop the flow of blood as long as he kept moving around. While Doc tried to bandage him the corporal was still firing his weapon and shouting orders to the others.
Another man was hit and calling for the corpsman. Doc crawled as fast as he could across the perimeter, red tracer rounds going out and green ones coming into their position. It was the first grenade wound he had seen. Salizar, the young PFC who had walked point, was in total shock, both of his legs just shredded pieces of meat and bone. He kept firing at the enemy who kept charging up the hill, however. His eyes were as big as saucers as he yelled at and kept pumping rounds into the oncoming Viet Cong soldiers, while Doc tied off his legs to stop the bleeding. He refused a shot of morphine. "I ain't gonna skate while everybody else does the fighting." Moments later another grenade ended his misery.
"Corpsman up!" Another call. Again this time there wasnít anything he could do. A round had entered the kidís forehead and totally blew away the back of his head. It was the Marine who had told him his hole was deep enough.
Suddenly out of the darkness and the curtain of torrential rain, a uniformed figure appeared not more than two feet in front of him. It was a uniformed NVA officer. The two of them were looking into each otherís eyes. To Everett it seemed like everything happened in slow motion, like in a dream, and he couldnít move no matter how hard he tried, as the soldier pointed a pistol at his head and pulled the trigger: Click! Nothing happened. Suddenly the questioned look on the officerís face disappeared into his head as Coggins put an M16 round right through his nose and yelled, "Doc! Get your ass over here! Hubba hubba!"
The fighting grew more intense as the perimeter became smaller. It wasnít long until the squad was down to three men and dangerously low on ammunition. Both of the Marines had serious life-threatening wounds but refused any pain relief. The two of them, and Doc Blalock, sat back to back in a shallow mortar crater on top of that little hill as the enemy kept coming from all sides. All three were drenched in blood from head to toe.
"Doc, if you want to ever see home again you gotta help us out," Cpl. Coggins said as he kept firing, his shots rarely missing their targets.
Everett swallowed hard and pulled the .45 from his holster and not a second too soon. Two people who desperately wanted to kill him jumped up from the fighting hole he had dug and came right at him. He had fired twice before he even thought about it and they both tumbled back down into the hole. He didnít have time to think about what he had just done when he had to do it again. And so it went for he didnít know how long. A grenade landed right beside him. Before he even knew what he was doing, he picked it up and hurled it into the darkness. The explosion was followed by cries of pain. He kept firing and they kept coming. He didnít know how many he had shot. And then, 'click' he had ran out of rounds. Coggins gave him five grenades and told him to save one for himself. Shortly after that both of the Marines ran out of M16 ammo as well. They still had a few grenades and K-Bar fighting knives.
"They ainít taking me alive," the squad leader said through gritted teeth. "Come on you mother fuckers!" He yelled at the top of his lungs and lobbed a grenade at three shadows that were crawling in his direction. A rifle round slammed into his right leg with a thump. "Donít worry about it, Doc, keep fighting!"
When all seemed hopeless, they were down to two grenades each, a relief platoon arrived from the firebase on the hill and drove the enemy back. Sgt. Williams was the first one to get there. The rain had stopped and a half moon lit up the clear sky.
"Medevacís on the way. Whatís the status, Doc?" he asked the corpsman who was drenched in blood.
The corpsmanís eyes were big and wide, he was obviously shaken, and his lips quivered a reply. "Fi Ö five dead, two wounded."
"What about you?" Williams asked.
"Iím fine, Sarge," the corpsman replied in a shaky voice as he quickly turned to administer first aid to his two comrades.
"What about that cut on your head, Doc? Donít look like youíre fine to me," the platoon sergeant said and yelled to his radioman, "Call them slicks, tell 'em we got three to go. Where the hell are they?"
The next afternoon Doc Blalock lay in his clean, white upraised bed at the NSA Station Hospital at the Marble Mountain complex near Da Nang, in a long Quonset hut with a wounded Marine in every bed. He had a throbbing headache and a large bandage on the left side of his face, but the wound was less serious than it looked. He was suffering from a slight concussion and the corpsman who worked on him wasnít sure if it was a bullet or shrapnel that had caused the wound just above his left ear, but a fraction of an inch was all that was between his living and dying.
"I would say that you are one lucky man, Blalock," the Hospital Corpsman 1st Class commented as he stitched up the gash, "but then again, if you were a lucky man you wouldnít be here, would you?"
Everett soon found out he would be sent back to his unit the next day and presented with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal as soon as the paperwork was processed. They told him Cpl. Coggins had died on the operating table from six separate wounds. He was eighteen. The other wounded Marine had made it through the night but died early the next morning. Doc didnít even remember what he looked like. He couldnít get those other faces out of his mind though. There was Hanna, the short timer; Coggins, the baby-faced squad leader; PFC Salizar, and that look in his eyes when he realized both of his legs were gone; the enemy officer whose pistol misfired and the look on his face just before it disappeared into his skull. And those men he shot dead. How many? Six? Eight?
He opened the little spiral notebook he always carried in his jacket pocket and began to write as he hummed the tune that had come into his head the night before on that little hilltop in the middle of Hell itself. At the top of the page he wrote the words, My Last Patrol. Under that he wrote:
They say itís time to go.
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