The Death of Lt. Little
I use quotation marks only to denote the spoken word and because the words are as close as I can recall. The actual words spoken were probably somewhat different. But the meanings follow my memory and journal closely. No liberties were taken with content. Except for Lt. Little, the names have been changed to protect the privacy of the men involved.
In the autumn of 1969, the home base for the 199th Light Infantry Brigade was Blackhorse base camp. Blackhorse was northeast of Saigon in an area of jungle and farmland that was, as I vividly recall, stunningly beautiful. My unit – a recon platoon of Echo Company of the 2nd of the 3rd of the 199th – operated in the jungle searching out elements of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Between missions, which could last anywhere from three days to more than three weeks, we often returned to Blackhorse to rest and refit for the next mission.
In the main mess hall of Blackhorse, the officers and enlisted men sat in separate sections. I recall that once I inadvertently sat down in the officers section and was summarily shooed away. I learn quickly and have a good memory. So I was sitting in the EM section, alone at a table, when Lt. Little approached and sat down with a friendly greeting. He was so new to the platoon – I recall just two short missions before this – that I did not at first recognize who he was. I took note of the black bars on his lapels, and used “Sir” liberally. He clearly knew I was one of his men, and, moreover, he might have been conversing with a friend. Typically, at the time, I was very shy, somewhat downcast, and immature. I would have thought Lt. Little was ten years older than me, though he was, in fact, at twenty-two, two months younger.
I don’t recall the arrival of Lt. Little with the Recon Platoon at all, and no mention of the first meeting is made in the journal I kept of my tour. There must have been a brief speech of introduction (he would not have made an issue of that) probably out in the jungle, and then probably, setting off on a mission straightaway – so the memory is lost. One day he was just there, friendly, good-natured, in command as naturally as a man breathes. That was the salient feature of Lt. Little as a soldier – his leadership was smooth, effortless, and utterly beyond question. To the best of my memory, he had the utmost respect of his men and no one would think to question his ability as a soldier. But beyond that, there was an easy relationship between Lt. Little and the men of Recon. To my knowledge, everyone liked him.
The fact that he had graduated from West Point was scarcely a matter of notice among the men. I think I only became aware of this detail from one of the other guys as word filtered through the platoon on one of the early missions. Except as an interesting point, as, for example, that one of the guys had tried out for a professional football team, it meant little to us, and I certainly don’t remember Lt. Little making an issue of it. We took his leadership utterly for granted and did what he said without hesitation.
Lt. Little was handsome, of average height, with short black hair and glasses, broad shoulders and sinewy arms. As we chatted, he exuded a good humor – but that was characteristic of him – smiling a little as he looked around the hall. One would say he was solid, at ease with himself.
“Well,” Lt. Little said at one point in our chat, “I guess we’ll go out on another mission, crash through the jungle for a few days again, find nothing, and come back in.”“Yes, Sir,” I said, finally figuring out whom he was, “that’s the way it’s been going. But we’ll give it a try, anyway.”
Others sat down at the table and a spirited conversation broke out.
When Lt. Little arrived we had already been going through a dry spell in terms of contact with the enemy of some four or five weeks in duration. Though we had threaded our way through the jungles of Phuoc Long province, day after day, our luck had not been good (or had been very good, as we saw it). The jungle’s a big place. If it was our mission to find the enemy – and we did, of course, try – it was understandable that we had been missing them somehow.
Now, perhaps, is a good time to introduce the new battalion commander. Major (later Lt. Col.) Whitmore had arrived in-country not long before Lt. Little. He was a tall, thin, ramrod-straight soldier’s soldier, on his third or fourth tour in Vietnam. To Whitmore, we came to learn, soldiers should look the part. Once, forgetting my jungle hat on the way to the mess hall, I didn’t return for it. (Could I not take one small liberty?) As luck would have it, I encountered Lt. Col. Whitmore on the way back to the company area. His look of displeasure was quite intense, as if I had somehow insulted him. I can recall another time he approached a man and motioned for him to button his shirt – “So the mosquitoes don’t get at you,” he said. He wanted us to shave in the field. But enough of that.
The thing about Lt. Col. Whitmore that got the attention of the battalion right away was that he spent much of his time in the field. We all marveled at him for this. He would walk on a mission with a platoon in the jungle. Once I sat on ambush with him in a squad on a rainy night.
Lt. Col. Whitmore was such a thoroughgoing soldier that now I can see the draftee Army must have been hard on him. When I first met him, I was going on a mission as an RTO (radio operator) for the mortar platoon forward observer (FO). The FO, Franklin, had been seriously wounded early in his tour when a bad mortar round landed in the headquarters position out in the field. After two months in Japan to recover, Franklin returned to Vietnam, but none too happy. The subject of being out in the field came up in that first meeting with Lt. Col. Whitmore. I said I didn’t mind (which seemed like the right thing to say), but Franklin said, somewhat loudly, “Well, I hate it.” The look on the Lt. Col.’s face was distressing.
It quickly became clear that Lt. Col. Whitmore took the war personally, as other men do being a football coach or high school teacher. He chased the enemy with relentless passion. At one point during our dry spell, before the arrival of Lt. Little, Lt. Col. Whitmore had gathered the men of Recon about him and said, “The contacts aren’t happening, are they?” His eyes swept the men. “I don’t know why.” The tone of voice was, as I recall, troubled. “I’m trying to put you in the right places, and I know you are all professionals.” I guess it was our fault. I am certain that to a man – setting the platoon leader aside, of course – though we might have avoided his gaze sullenly, we were not the least disappointed in the lack of contact; quite the contrary.
If what I heard is correct, it happened that Lt. Col. Whitmore had taught at West Point and had even had Lt. Little in one of his classes. I can’t help but think that if Lt. Col. Whitmore was not someone to whom the enlisted men of the platoon gave a lot of thought, the same could not be said of Lt. Little.
So, the day after my lunch with Lt. Little, we were off on a mission. But we didn’t contact the enemy on that mission, either. Or the next one. Or the next.
A growing air of discontent was weighing on Lt. Little. He wanted action, contact with the enemy, and the frustration of not making contact was building inside him like steam in a boiler.
The closest we came to contact on those missions happened when the point man opened fire. There is a proper way of getting on the ground with a heavy pack – a three-step maneuver. My inclination was only to get there, as fast as possible. On this occasion, in falling to the ground, I banged my face on the rear sight of my M-16. I had cuts on my nose and above my left eye. I recall clearly that Lt. Little watched intently as the medic cleaned the cuts and applied bandages. It wasn’t a fire fight – the point man had opened up on a large animal of some kind – but, apparently, from Lt. Little’s point of view, it would do – for a few minutes. He gave a sprightly order to move on.
Lt. Little’s sense of humor was irrepressible and somewhat irreverent. I recall the time when, after eating a C-ration meal, he belched loudly and proclaimed, “From a West Point graduate. One of the best. By Act of Congress.” Another time, sitting in the jungle, he read aloud a letter from his father. Apparently, he found it lighthearted. In the letter, his father asked what he wanted for Christmas. Lt. Little’s comment on this was, “As for what I want for Christmas – the Army doesn’t authorize that.”
But the aggravation was growing. On one of these missions, we sat in a small jungle clearing beneath a hot sun for most of the day. I don’t recall what we were waiting for, but the wait was oppressive. At one point, long into the day, an element of perhaps four armored vehicles came bursting through the jungle. Lt. Little talked briefly to the armored commander, who asked, “Do you want to come with us?”
“No, I’ve got to wait here,” Lt. Little said. I recall that he was disconsolate.
“Sir, don’t volunteer us,” someone said.
I recall clearly that Lt. Little then walked off a little ways by himself, and lingered there, looking into the jungle.
I knew then – we all did – that the lack of contact was wearing on him. Only now, however, have I come to see that there might have been another factor – Lt. Col. Whitmore.
* * * * * *
One day, after Vietnam, I accompanied my father to meet with his attorney. The attorney’s son, a partner in the firm, had just returned from a tour in Vietnam. He was careful to tell me, with a knowing look, “You didn’t have it as tough as I did.” I wondered how he would know that, but I just smiled and let it go. Clearly, the man would be far from the brightest creature were he in a room full of chimpanzees. But I’ve heard such blather from even intelligent people.
In their own eyes, the young are immortal. Tired of the boredom of the mortars, I had written a letter to Lt. Col. Whitmore asking to be reassigned to the field. The Lt. Col., of course, was happy to oblige. He put in a call to the company commander – I lost the favor of that officer – and I was reassigned to the Recon Platoon. At least one other guy I know of had asked for reassignment to the field. I don’t know if he regretted it, too. I guess we wanted the experience of combat in our young, restless and boring lives.
This kind of behavior falls in the same category as the lame and silly, empty-headed blather related to the toughness of oneself, one’s unit or one’s tour of duty. If a guy steps on a mine on his first day in the field and loses his leg, hasn’t he had a tough tour? If a guy never fires a shot in anger, but happens to see his buddy blown to bloody shreds, and just can’t deal with the exper-ience, hasn’t his tour been tough, too? I recently saw a woman on TV who was receiving counseling for trauma from her experiences in Iraq. The worst thing that happened to her, she said, was pointing a weapon at an Iraqi man she was holding prisoner and telling him if he touched her again she’d shoot him. She cried as she talked about it. The toughest guy I’ve ever come across, I saw on TV. He was short, pudgy, effeminate, living with his buddy and probably gay. In a household explosion, he was burned over ninety-eight percent of his body. They showed a picture of him lying on a gurney in the hospital – a mere lump of charcoal. The doctors told him he had little chance no matter what they did, but they could try something. He said, “Go for it, docs. I love life.” With sheer guts and determination – I read an article in the paper about him – he made it. People in civilian life experience all the toughness of war, and often are heroes, exhibiting great courage. What I am saying is that a lot of the lightweight, emotional baggage that comes with war is just so much piss and wind. This stuff is only possible because war is largely the province of the young.
How much credit can the young take for being fearless, when the thought of dying can only get into their minds by main force? And furthermore, if they gave even a passing thought to the concerns of those who love them and long for their return, they would temper their recklessness. But, of course, they don’t.
I can’t say for certain, of course, but in my journal and memory, Lt. Little seemed to transcend the figment of war as a matter of glory and bragging rights. I never heard a word from him about the six months he was in country before he joined the Recon platoon. To my mind, he was not out to prove that he could stand up to combat – of that he was sure – and he didn’t want to amass war stories, either. He wanted to be a soldier, in function, not just training and stature. He wanted to encounter the enemy and lead under fire. In the absence of that, he wasn’t functioning as a soldier. Merely to trek through the jungle, spending nights there – what was that but an extended camping trip at taxpayer expense?
* * * * * *
Before Vietnam, in the spring of ’67, I drove out east to visit my older sister and her husband in Upstate New York. My brother-in-law, an officer in the Air Force, was stationed at Stewart Air Force Base. Some months earlier, my older sister had had their first child (now an officer in the Marine Corps). I stayed some three days.
On a Saturday morning, my brother-in-law took us all up to West Point for a sight-seeing tour of the campus. It was a brisk, cool day, wonderfully clear and bright. We drove around the grounds for some time. The old buildings, the trees and open spaces, the view of the Hudson River – it’s a lovely place. Some special event was scheduled that day, and the cadets, all in uniform, hurried about. Most were smiling, all were full of life and energy.
My brother-in-law had an insignia on the front bumper denoting that he was an officer. The cadets spotted this and saluted. He was continually returning salutes.
Some of the cadets were accompanied by women just as young – their girlfriends, no doubt. “Notice that they don’t hold hands,” my sister said. “That’s considered a public display of affection – and forbidden.”
I don’t recall for certain, but likely I was mesmerized by the beauty, the sight of the cadets, the sense of discipline and pride in accomplishment the place gives a visitor and something more, a powerful sense of tradition and history. Perhaps no other place on earth is more densely populated by ghosts than West Point. As a student of history in college, I might have imagined seeing Grant and Lee, Eisenhower and MacArthur, Patton and Pershing or even, with a growing love of literature, Poe and Clemens. Then, too, perhaps, by chance, we had driven past a bespectacled cadet, with an upbeat nature and irrepressible smile – not yet a lieutenant and not yet a ghost – chasing off somewhere with his girlfriend or buddies, perhaps, on a lark of some kind, proud beyond measure and full of high hopes and lofty aspirations for his career as a soldier. Or, we might have driven past a tall, thin, ramrod-straight officer, much older than the cadets, though still young, who taught there and once had the young bespectacled cadet in class. More serious than the cadets, he would return their salutes smartly.
* * * * * *
The Recon Platoon had seventeen men, as I recall, on the mission during which Lt. Little was killed. We had spent much of the day, November 11, 1969, chasing around in the jungle, almost frenetic, going from one set of coordinates given to us by headquarters to another. Apparently, there was intelligence of enemy activity in the area. But we couldn’t make contact. As I recall, on one of the recons, we fairly dashed to the coordinates. Lt. Little’s exasperation was growing, and things were getting a little out of hand.
I overheard one radio exchange between Lt. Little and headquarters, which is recorded in my journal. “Okay, we just finished a mad dash through the jungle,” Lt. Little said, “which accomplished nothing. Now what are we supposed to do?” He listened for a time. “Okay, we’ll make another mad dash through the jungle to those coordinates. What do you want us to do when we get there? Assuming we find nothing, which is likely what will happen. Do you want us to walk in circles, do pushups or what?” “Check out the area,” I heard. “Oh, yes, of course, we’ll just fuck around some more.” He hung up. “Let’s go, guys.”
So we set off again through the jungle, which was sparse in that area. I was near the back of the file. We were moving fast.
We hadn’t moved far, as I recall, when a sudden avalanche of sound crashed through the jungle. The lead men had made contact and opened up. We dodged forward to get on line. Lt. Little pulled us back, formed a front and moved us forward again. Another contact exploded on the lead guys. Two guys were wounded. The enemy was not running away. We were facing, as it turned out, an unknown number of NVA in bunkers.
I was stationed to provide rear security, with Lt. Little, Sgt. Dawkins, Jacobs, the RTO, Gaffney, the machine gunner, and Gentry, the assistant gunner, and a couple other guys lying in the jungle just in front of me. The men were laying down a volume of fire. I recall the distinctive popping sound of AK-47 fire. The machine gun rattled. An M-79 thumped out explosive rounds. There was a lot of shouting.
Right away, the Lieutenant got on the radio to call in artillery fire. He dropped the rounds as close to the bunkers as he could to hold the enemy in place. They call it blocking fire. The whoosh, whistle and roaring slams continued for some time. The rounds landed so close the ground shook and great chunks of shrapnel crashed through the trees overhead, dropping on top of us, spent, like large, steel hailstones.
At one point, the artillery lifted and Cobra gunships the lieutenant had called for swooped in overhead. They circled the area of contact, like eagles or vultures, firing rockets and grenades, their mini-guns rattling like buzz saws.
We responded to the barrage of artillery and Cobra fire with delighted shouts, until Lt. Little yelled, “Shut up! Everybody shut up!” The shouting stopped. “If there’s any shouting to do,” the Lieutenant yelled, “I’ll do it.”
As the fight continued, choppers arrived, hovering overhead, and dropped wenches to haul out the wounded. Gardner had a shrapnel wound to the head; Olson had been grazed in the head by an AK round and was in convulsions.
Finally, Lt. Little shouted, “Okay. Hold your fire. We’re going to check out the area.”
The Lieutenant went forward with Dawkins beside him. In a short time, they came upon a lone NVA soldier. I was told later that Lt. Little gave Dawkins a shove out of the way and tried to draw on the enemy soldier. But he lost the duel and was fatally shot. Dawkins scrambled back to cover.
The next thing I heard was someone yelling, “Dawkins, is the Lieutenant dead?”
“Yeah, he’s dead,” was the downcast reply.
We resumed firing. Gentry was hit in the arm, smashing the bone, which protruded from the flesh.
“God, his arm is shattered!” Collins, the medic, exclaimed.
“Shut up, doc,” someone yelled.
Dawkins called for the gunships to resume fire. He must have been a little incoherent because the Cobra pilot said, in a very calm voice, “All right, bub, just tell me where you want it, and I’ll put it there.”
After the gunships worked for a time, Dawkins called for artillery fire. Under cover of the artillery, we pulled back, a sad straggle of men. We had to leave Lt. Little behind.
Gentry, his arm wrapped and trussed to his side followed behind me. He was glassy-eyed from two shots of morphine. When we got to the LZ, I fed him a half-canteen of water.
A little later, I overheard some radio traffic. Lt. Col. Whitmore was talking to the chopper pilot that led the element bringing in Charley Company for support. Lt. Col. Whitmore sounded very downhearted.
“What happened to him?” the chopper pilot asked.
“Sounds like it was just a running duel,” Lt. Col. Whitmore said. “I’m sorry he lost. But he did.”
“Do you want to pull your Recon out of there?”
“No,” he said, “my Recon element does not want to leave the field. They will be out there for a long time.”
From the field, Lt. Col. Whitmore, who used the Recon platoon as his headquarters, supervised a battalion-sized operation directed at the bunker complex. He talked frequently to a general who flew in a chopper overhead. He called in airstrikes of bombs and napalm. I remember the slam of the bombs and the soft thud of the napalm explosions. It took two days to get back to where Lt. Little fell. When we got to the area, I was again providing rear security. The others found some thirteen enemy bodies. Most had been killed by artillery fire. There were some seventy bunkers in the area.
I heard that Lt. Little was found buried where he fell in a shallow grave. They had taken his West Point ring. But there’s no way of knowing if they knew they had killed an elite soldier.
A group of Army engineers came in and blew the bunkers. I remember so clearly how the jungle shuttered with each explosion.
© 2008 Pat O’Regan