The Death of McCarron
All this is true, as near as I can remember and with the help of a journal I kept at the time. Except for McCarron, the names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the guys involved.
It is the dry season – December – but the jungle trail is soft and even moist in places. We move without a sound. The mission of the platoon is to recon trails in the jungle. This has been going on for three weeks. Twenty guys. Tired, hot, thirsty, smelly, stubble-faced, dirty, whipped and fed up. We look like unwashed hell. That’s us, the Recon Platoon of Echo Company, 2nd of the 3rd, 199th Light Infantry Brigade. We should be ashamed of ourselves. Our sister battalion, the 1st of the 3rd, guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. If those guys, spit-and-polish and soldierly deportment of the highest order, could see us now, they’d be shocked and dismayed.
I am thirsty all the time. Yesterday I punctured my bladder canteen on a bamboo spine. It leaked out as I was walking along, unawares. So I’m short on water, and water obsesses me. I also have several bamboo puncture wounds on my hands, and insect bites too numerous to count. Last night, I was awakened in the jungle blackness by something crawling on me. I tried to brush it off, but it got me first, right on the hand. “It bit me!” I said aloud. “Quiet over there,” Sgt. Holmes said. So I waited for the scorpion sting to take effect. Maybe I’d get out of the field. But no, it wasn’t a scorpion. Not even any swelling, just a welt and sore spot.
We walk in a file, moving a step at a time, from eight in the morning till one and again from two to eight at night. One comes to dream of dropping the rucksack and running, screaming, through the jungle, in search of the nearest body of water. The whole thing gets tiresome, irritating, boring and aggravating beyond endurance. It is the hardest thing in the world to be tired, hot and hungry, loaded down painfully with sixty pounds of gear, moving for hours at the rate of fifty feet every ten minutes and waiting for the Dogs of War to be set loose at any second. I am sick of it.
We have been moving this way all morning and now into the afternoon. I look at my watch. Three o’clock. Five hours to go. Better not to think of it. Think, instead, of being short – a little over three months to go. Bill McCarron is still new, as are Laminetti and Perkins.
Sgt. Holmes is behind me. Riley and Weisman are in front of me. We are near the end of the file. Weisman and Riley, breaking the exasperating boredom, are talking in low, but animated voices. McCarron is up front near Lt. Wagoner, who wants a machine gun – McCarron carries one of the two in the platoon – close by. The lieutenant always wants to be close to the action, and a gun, like a radio, has to be near him.
We had moved from the rice paddies into the jungles northeast of Saigon in the province of Hua Nghia near the hamlet of Xuan Loc some two months ago. Mines are not a problem here. We told ourselves it would be better, but, of course, war is war. Here you can’t see far and so the fear, though different in source, is just as great. It was after the move that McCarron joined the company, along with the other new guys. I describe it all in the journal I keep, day by day, of what’s happening to me here.
McCarron is tall and thin, with a handsome, friendly face and a manner that seems somehow disconnected from the nasty business of war. One would not apply the soldierly terms ‘tough,’ or ‘gritty,’ to McCarron, more aptly, ‘fun-loving,’ and ‘puppyish.’
But McCarron is a good soldier. He moves when told, even when the fire is intense. A couple weeks ago, his assistant gunner, Perkins, was thrown to the ground when a bullet lodged in the sole of his boot. But McCarron was firing the gun.
During the trail reconning, we have been in constant contact with the enemy. There is a sizable unit of NVA in the area. But the fire fights are brief. We have not had a prolonged fire fight, not lost a man, in fact, killed or wounded, since our platoon leader, Lt. Acoff, that graduate of West Point, was killed last month. The fire fight the other day was typical. At the first sudden explosion of fire, we hugged the ground. Soon, as the rattle of the machine gun started up, we sprinted to the front, got on line and moved with fire through the area of contact. It was over in minutes. No body count that time, either. They usually run away. Why engage the Americans and get the artillery and gunships down on their defenseless rear ends? Good. The only one who cares is the Battalion CO, who is trying to make a name for himself. Sorry, Sir, but I am not concerned about your career move.
Riley and Weisman are still talking in a low, light chatter. “Tell those guys in front to spread out and quiet down,” Sgt. Holmes, behind me, says. I relay the word, readily, sharply.
We stop and I bend over to get the pack off my shoulders. If I ever get outta here, I’ll never carry a heavy pack again in my life.
McCarron would be waiting patiently up front. Perhaps even smiling at some wayward thought. His fiancée, perhaps. That’s the thing about McCarron – the inclination to smile, which is strong and spontaneous. He is a happy man.
Back at the basecamp, three weeks ago, with obvious pride, Bill told me about firing the M60 in a contact we had had as if he were describing his skill behind the wheel of a sports car. Getting a charge out of it. Pointing out the deficiencies in another machine gunner and how he had kept his rounds close to the ground and swept the area, as if we had been playing a game of softball. I think that the reality of killing people (he hasn’t had time to do it much, if at all) is utterly beyond his ken. It’s just a job.
Weisman steps forward and I straighten up, taking back the weight of the pack with a low groan. We move on – a step at a time.
Before we started this trail recon mission, we got lost in a swamp. It was an awful place. We were up to our thighs in smelly muck for hours. No chance to rest; the stench was nauseating. I was near McCarron that time. I saw him struggling to get over a log with the gun. He tripped and almost fell into the mire. Catching his balance, seeing that I was looking at him, he broke out into a great smile. I looked away thinking, “McCarron, you’d smile at the devil in hell."
That smile – it was almost unnerving, a little maddening. But when he was in the field only a couple days, something happened that sobered him for a while. In the evening, he was in front of the position putting out the Claymores for the night when he disturbed a hive of bees. Repeated stings set him on a brief but spirited romp through the jungle. I can still see him examining a sore finger, his face an intense pout, as JR, noting it was a new guy, commented, “Well, now, my man got stung.” But in a few minutes, McCarron was smiling again. He absorbed it, like all the pains and burdens of being a soldier.
Three forty-five. Will this ever end?
At the start of this mission, we had sat all day long in the hot sun waiting for choppers to carry us to the jump-off site. Waiting can be the hardest. The boredom becomes almost unbearable. At lunch I opened a can of fruit cocktail and poured off the juice into the dirt. McCarron was eating next to me.
“Pat…” he said, as if I was a source of great aggravation, “don’t spill that. Now you’re going to attract ants.”
I looked at him. “They’ll be over here,” I said, lamely, “and I don’t care.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but what if they start crawling over here?”
I shoved ground over the juice, glancing with some aggravation at McCarron, who was looking down with a wry expression.
He was like that – unshakeable in his good humor, something of a pain, but a delight at the same time; something of a joker, but deadly serious about his job as a soldier.
He talks a lot about his life in New York City – his job and commute. He brags, as if it were a note of honor, to have commuted two hours each way – by train, then subway – to work downtown. The earnest look on his face makes me think he considers this a matter of great importance to me, too. He worked for a financial firm, as I recall. I’m not sure about that, but I remember that he said they had reserved his desk at work for him when he returned. He was proud of that.
Bill was generous with the frequent packages he got from home. His mother must have been a superb cook, or at least baker of cookies and other good things. There was a fiancée, and he proudly showed us a photo of them together. He had his arm around her shoulders. She was half his size and very pretty.
A few days before, during a long wait, hungry and fed up, I had decided to make a quick meal.
I dropped my pack and dug into it for a can of beans and wieners. I set a heating tab in the dirt, lit it and set the can on branches over the tab.
“Pat, we’re not stopping to eat yet,” McCarron, who was behind me, said.
“I’m hungry, and there’s time.”
“No, there’s not time.”
“Yes, there is,” I said, somewhat sharply.
I had just started heating the can when the word came back to move on.
McCarron, who was up and ready to go, smiled at me fit to kill and said, “Hey, Pat. We’re moving, Pat…”
I hurried to get my pack in order.
“Better hurry up, Pat,” McCarron said. “I told you there wasn’t time.”
I stomped out the heating tab and picked up the can. His smile was irrepressible, infectious and not maddening. “I can eat as we walk,” I said, beneath the grin.
I smile at the memory for some time, thinking, “McCarron, you manage to dispel even the gloom of war.”
All of a sudden, a cacophony of sound, harsh and insulting, splits the jungle stillness wide open.
I fall to the ground and crawl for cover. I roll out of my rucksack and I check my weapon and ammo. Everything slows down. Every nerve in my body is alight as a crashing wave of fear washes over me, numbing me. A machine gun is going and rifle fire. Even at this distance, the sound is terrific. I look about frantically, but can only see Weisman. He’s wide-eyed, shaking his head, as if to say, “Damn, not again!”
Sgt. Holmes appears, standing, shouting and waving frantically, “”Get to the front! Get to the front!”
Weisman, Riley and I scramble forward, running at a crouch, dodging from tree to tree. We pass a soldier who is folded up behind a tree, his head in his hands. We keep going, pressing forward toward the focus of the roar. We pass another soldier half-lying behind a tree, watching us hurry past, waving his hand and saying, “go on. Go on.” As we get closer to the firing, we crouch more and dodge more from tree to tree.
We come to the front. “Over there,” Sergeant Holmes yells, waving to the right, “form a line.
”I see Lt. Wagoner, Lopez, McCarron, Perkins and several others strung out through the area of contact. Weisman, Riley and I get on line, kneeling and laying down fire to our front. I can’t see a target, but fire single rounds. McCarron is to my left; Lopez to my right.
“All right,” Sgt. Holmes yells, “move forward with fire. Move! Move! Let’s go. Keep the line in order.”
We fire, fall and roll over, get up and scramble forward a few strides. Fire, fall, scramble forward. Fire, fall, scramble forward. I can’t identify a target or detect any return fire. We keep moving through the area of contact. Fire, fall, scramble forward. The sound is horrendous.
Off to my left, I catch a glimpse of a man crying out sharply and throwing his hands to his face as he drops like a rag doll, hidden in the grass. At the same time, Lopez yells and looks at me, crazed, holding up a bloody thumb. “Get back,” I yell at him.
“Medic!” someone yells off to my left.
A few seconds later, Lt. Wagoner shouts, “Grenade!” and scrambles forward, grabs a grenade and throws it away.
I fire and move again, alongside Riley, whose weapon jams. He swears fiercely. I tell him to go back, and he scrambles off.
I see Lt. Wagoner fire a long burst into the grass where an NVA soldier is hidden.
We keep firing and moving. Someone is still screaming for a medic. Finally, the firing dies down, like a passing thunderstorm of incredible ferocity. Lopez has gone back. I stop behind a bamboo thicket, looking about desperately, now even more scared to death. I have never been more thirsty; sweat streams out of me; my fatigue shirt is soaked. My ears are ringing. An acrid odor fills the air.
“How is he, Doc?” Lt. Wagoner shouts.
“He’s hopeless, Sir,” the medic says, his voice downcast.
I yell back for support but no one comes up. I can hear the others talking in shouts, but calmly, getting a perimeter set up, calling a dust-off. What seems like a long time passes, though probably only minutes, when I hear the thudding of chopper blades in the distance, then louder and louder, until it is right overhead, its downwash roiling the tree tops. Soon a cable has come down and I see through the foliage several people working at something in the grass. They stand back. In a little while, I see a body hanging from the cable and rising up through the jungle. The face is shrouded in blood and unrecognizable. The body is long and thin. The arms are out-stretched. The shirt, which is open and flaps limply in the downwash, and the torso are crimson. The body rises above the foliage. The chopper leans forward and flies off. I am very thirsty and think sourly of death and killing.
Sgt. Holmes calls me back to the center of the position.
I see the medic, Doc Gorman, hunched over and obviously depressed. The thought hits me.
“Who got hit, Doc?”
“McCarron,” he mumbles, turning away.
I don’t hear him. “Who?” I say, pushing him on the back.
“McCarron,” he whines loudly, looking back at me.
I’ve never seen a man look more hurt.
I learn a little later that we had contacted a unit of NVA, probably a platoon or even a company. The unit had scrambled out of the area, leaving behind three men to hold us off – a suicide team. Two were killed straightaway, the other was wounded and lay dying, hidden in the grass, as we moved through. He carried an M-16. When we came within sight, he fired a long burst, which hit McCarron, the other rounds flying in front of me and hitting Lopez on the thumb. The NVA soldier then tossed a grenade in front of him, which Lt. Wagoner threw back. (He didn’t have time. The ChiCom grenade was a dud.) McCarron was hit by several rounds from gut to face and died almost at once. Lt. Wagoner killed the NVA soldier who lay hidden in the grass.
It was Bill, of course, I had seen being pulled up out of the jungle. Later I learned that someone on the chopper stole his billfold.
Sitting in the jungle that evening, I recorded the events of the day as carefully as I could. Some things – the grenade being a dud, the same burst that killed Bill flying in front of me and wound-ing Lopez – came only later. I didn’t know Bill well enough – or maybe I was too young and immature or hardened by the war – to feel any real grief at the time.
When we got back to the main base camp, the Protestant chaplain conducted a memorial service for Bill. A few of us attended. Lt. Wagoner read a glowing synopsis of Bill’s brief military career.
Later, I wrote a letter to Bill’s fiancée. She wrote back to the platoon. It was heartbreaking – “My Billy… Why was my Billy killed?” She told of the priest and two officers coming to the door.
That ended the events surrounding Bill McCarron’s death. Much, much later, it occurred to me that his family and fiancée must have been devastated for a long, long time.
We just went on, mission to mission. A few other guys in the platoon were wounded – no one else was killed, that I recall – in the remaining months of my tour. Largely, I had forgotten Bill McCarron, but for a passing thought brought on, perhaps, by Memorial Day or some mention of the Vietnam War in a book or on TV or any other reminder of war and combat and young men dying that pulled him back out of the past.
I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. many years ago. I lingered before Bill McCarron’s name, and that of other soldiers I also knew. But that was that. Until now, I had not dwelled on the war or Bill McCarron’s death. Strange, but now I find it had never left me, and never would. I can see him so clearly.
© 2008 Pat O’Regan