by Anne Sweeney
Bangkok, April, 1968
Come, my dear. The poor chap is on leave and lonely. Do him some good. For Queen and country.” Jonathan Davies, the assistant manager of the legendary Oriental Hotel, was insistent, and, I was sure eager to get home to his bungalow and his Thai houseboy on the other side of the Chao Phraya River.
“We don’t have a queen,” I noted, unwilling to be introduced to the American man at the bar. According to Davies, he was a captain in the Special Forces on leave from Vietnam. A big guy, powerfully built with muscles bulging under a short-sleeved polo shirt.
“I didn’t say for which queen,” Jonathan winked, reminding me that I owed him. I was getting a complimentary room here because The Oriental liked to have young and pretty women about. I was on my way back to the States after a year living in Hong Kong and flying American troops out of Vietnam to various Asian hot spots for R&R. Since the Tet Offensive, in February, Pan Am had closed our base and soon I would be back in New York, tending to paying passengers who would not be as grateful as soldiers, getting back to what they called The World.
Soon enough, I was having a drink with Captain Bradley Hanover of the US Special Forces. He was Texas-size, a good ole boy from Dallas. He had clearly been at the bar a lot longer than I had, renewing an old acquaintance with his pal, Jack Daniels.
We chatted about ’Nam. He was doing his second tour there, had spent time in Saigon before going “upcountry.” Took an R&R flight to Hong Kong. Sorry he didn’t meet me there. He was loquacious in that story-spinning, southern way, but on the subject of the Tet Offensive, evasive. I guessed that upcountry may have been further west of the Vietnam border than Americans should stray.
He talked about the Viet Cong. How most of the troops in Vietnam had never seen the elusive “Charlie.”
The VC knew the territory and their history, Bradley said. Once, he intercepted a radio transmission telling a group of VC to “ambush the Americans in the same place where they had trapped the French in 1954.” Charlie was elusive, hiding in a vast network of tunnels, crouched in the forests, occupying a village that seemed harmless until unfriendly fire burst from a hut. Sometimes Charlie retreated, crossing the border into Cambodia, where he regrouped for the next onslaught. Americans were forbidden to follow. And the Cambodian government was disinclined to protest.
Bradley told these tales in a deep-seated drawl that sometimes became almost a growl. Comrades were killed by snipers, land mines and grenade-toting civilians who supported the VC. Six men in Bradley’s unit had been ambushed and killed.
Some of these things I had heard before, from soldiers on the plane and from war correspondents I met at the Hong Kong Press Club or The Caravelle Bar in Saigon. But Bradley’s account had an immediate and very personal tone.
He was from a military family and saw the war as something noble — his duty and destiny. He seemed angry that his enemy was unseen, that he couldn’t confront his foe, who took refuge behind ill-defined borders where Bradley, a real and honorable soldier, could not pursue him. He believed in the war, but not its conduct. A limited engagement was not Bradley’s idea of a viable strategy.
I agreed to have dinner with him against my better judgment. My flight home would leave at 8 a.m. Bradley ordered a steak, well done. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d asked for it chicken fried. He drank more Jack Daniels throughout the meal.
I sipped a Singha beer with my shrimp in chili sauce. During our last hour at the bar I had switched to club soda. The granddaughter of an Irish saloonkeeper, I like my drinks. But I sober up fast at signs of a problem drunk. And right now, alarm bells were going off.
He was rambling now … on and on about Charlie, Gooks, Reds, the stupid civilians and politicians who tied his hands. Radical students. Commie agitators. I was getting testy and bored. I had not had near enough to drink to put up with this guy.
I stood up. “Maybe we shouldn’t be there. Maybe we should stop using every poor kid from the ghettos and the barrios and the sticks for cannon fodder. Maybe we should admit that these guys in black pajamas will never quit until we are beaten. Maybe we should pick up our marbles and go home, because as you can see from the Tet Offensive, they are winning!”
He looked at me, stupefied. I stood up. His arm went out … “Don’t leave,” he said softly. It was a plea and a threat.
“I’m just going to the ladies room.” It was showplace of marble and Thai silk that was bigger than the entire apartment I would be returning to in New York. I wanted to go to my room and pack for my flight home, but as obnoxious as Bradley was, I couldn’t. It would be rude and unkind. He was, after all, a lonely soldier, putting his life on the line.
The waiter directed me to the verandah where Bradley had adjourned with another Jack Daniels and a cigar. I was willing to bet, despite his loathing of the Red Menace, it was Cuban. He staggered up and indicated the snifter of brandy on the table. “I ordered that for you,” he smirked. “Figured a classy dame like you would want French brandy. It’s coo voy see er.”
“My favorite. Thank you.” I lifted the glass and took a sip. He sat back and puffed on the cigar. Then came the look the saloonkeepers’ granddaughter knew so well. The look that passed over Dr. Jekyll’s face just before Mr. Hyde took the stage. The look my brother got just before he started his beery, bleary litanies and vicious verbal assaults. The quizzical, cruel and oddly triumphant look that takes over as the mean drunk is about to pounce.
Captain Bradley Hanover: Shee-it! This bitch does not get it. Probably been brainwashed by Communist sympathizers when she goes back to the World. Goddam Eastern college girl. Probably screwed hippie students before she became a stew. Well let me set you straight, babe, let me tell you what this goddam war is really all about.
I’ve gone over the border into Cambodia three times. Not as many times as we needed to wipe out Charlie’s camps there, and not with any air cover that would help us do it or let the world know what we were doing. But we did go and the brass knew about it. They ordered it. Whatever you think, I’m no renegade. I follow orders even when I don’t agree with them. But in this case I did, I surely did.
The first couple of times, we couldn’t find the camps but we did take out a sniper. And we found three VC in a foxhole just on the other side with machine guns aimed at Vietnam. They put their hands up but I shot them where they stood. One-two-three. We took their weapons and went back over the border to Vietnam.
The last time was right after Colonel Selleck sent us out to find a missing patrol, and we did. The VC must have come from nowhere, crawling out of their tunnels or waiting patiently — Charlie is very patient, I’ll give him that — waiting for hours behind the branches and undergrowth or dropping like cats from out of the trees.
They struck and they ran – over the border. When we found the bodies I radioed Colonel Selleck. There were only 10 of us, but we had our orders if we found them dead. And Selleck knew we would find them. He knew that the sight of them — the blood, the spilled guts, the staring, terrified eyes and their balls stuffed in their mouths would make us pursue Charlie over any border and do anything, anything, to make him pay.
Selleck gave me the orders personally. Find the patrol. Pursue the enemy and use all reasonable means to eliminate him, wherever he might be hiding. Direct orders to cross the border? No sir. The Army knows enough to cover its ass and to leave no traces.
We went about four miles into Cambodia, along a canal that had overflowed to irrigate the rice paddies. It had to lead somewhere and it did. There was a village with huts, some built on stilts and over the canal, others around a clearing in the jungle.
When we came into that village, there was nothing left. Not a living soul and not a pig or a chicken or a grain of rice. But Charlie had been there. There were footprints leading out of the clearing and by the huts, imprints in the sand where rifle butts had rested. The cooking fires weren’t cold. Along the canal were empty shell casings that came from a machine gun. The water was muddy — brown, red – I couldn’t tell.
I ordered three privates to wade down the canal and see what they could find. They came back in a half hour. They’d found more than twenty bloated bodies floating downstream. All machine-gunned, all Cambodians from the village, they figured. Guess Charlie didn’t think much of their hospitality.
It would be dark soon — no way we could chase Charlie any further today. Maybe Selleck would authorize a return visit.
Then Calvin Jones, a jumpy, mean corporal from Chicago approached one of the huts. Said later that he thought he heard something. All of a sudden, he started shooting, into the floor that was covered with straw mats. He fired until I told him to stop. The VC might be close enough to hear.
Jones pulled up the mats and then a board over a hole. The mats and the boards were full of bullets. In the hole were five Cambodians — an old woman, a young mother and three little kids. They were all bleeding and it looked like the old woman and two of the kids were already dead. The rest of the patrol gathered in the hut, looking down at the Cambodians. I ordered everybody outside.
Yeah, Miz Annie, I shot them. You saw that coming, a smart girl like you. You know I didn’t have a choice. If they were left alive they could tell the VC we had found them. They could report it to the Cambodian authorities and there would be an international incident that would give these goddam protestors some more to march about. I didn’t hesitate, not even when the woman threw herself over the babies. I shot them all.
We pulled them out of the hole and carried them to the canal. They would wash up with the others. No one would know. No one will talk. No one, not even you. ’Cause you know no one would believe you. No one wants to. No one would take the word of a little airline stew against an officer and a gentleman.
So why don’t you just go back to The World and screw your Commie friends and march against your country and leave this war to the real Americans?
Bradley slumped in his chair. Jack Daniels had won that round.
I went back to my room and finished packing. Jonathan Davies had sent up a tray with fruit, orchids, a brandy snifter and some Cognac. Coo voy see er.
I poured a glass and sat on the balcony, watching the lights of the boats on the Chao Phraya. The sun rose and the river came alive with sampans, junks and barges — the pulsing life and heart of Bangkok. The telephone sounded my wake up call. It was time to leave for the airport.
Anne Sweeney is a public relations consultant based in South Brunswick. War Story is excerpted from Out of the Blue, a novel to be published in September.