A Reckoning for Kings

A Novel of the Tet Offensive

By Chris Bunch and Allan Cole

 
  Cover of "A Reckoning For Kings"
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The 302d Division,

North Vietnamese Army

There are 7,000 of them. Burly peasants, mostly from the Red River region of North Vietnam. They’re leavened with 500 old soldiers - battle-experienced ex-Viet Minh noncoms and officers.

Many of them are volunteers. Even in 1967, the Army of the Democratic Government of North Vietnam can offer a better life than the drudgery of farming. Some are reluctant volunteers, rootless, uneducated and unconnected young men of cities like Hung Yen or Hanoi. But they are all


 
  part of a division with proud traditions:

Formed in 1947, the division fought at Cao Bang, Lang Son, and, seven years later, the 302d was one of the first regular units committed to that hell in a very small place of Dien Bien Phu. Vo Nguyen Giap personally chose them to lead the first assault waves there against the outpost Beatrice, whose fall sounded the first tocsin of French defeat.

After that war, the 302d was built back to full strength and fought in countless jungle skirmishes on the Chinese border against Maoís soldiers. From 1958 to 1960, the North Vietnamese Army underwent intensive self-examination. It was a long, continuing purge that left only the dedicated.

Again the 302d survived. Its personnel were so highly regarded by the Lao Dung’s Central Committee that they were filtered into Laos to supervise the opium harvest - a crop that was one of the few major exports of the struggling People’s Republic.


 

 


They were withdrawn in 1963 and assigned to garrison duty at Yen Bai airfield outside Hanoi. They vegetated there for four years, seemingly ignored while the war drums from the south built into a thunder. But in the spring of 1967, the 302d was reassured.

The Central Committee had not forgotten its elite. The division was isolated in holding camps and built up to full strength. It was rearmed with new weaponry. New officers and new noncoms were assigned. Some of them were a little overweight from time behind a desk. Others had the pallor the perpetual jungle war gave. But all of them had the constantly flickering eyes with the wrinkles at the edges - wrinkles ground in by endless nights staring into blank night and forest. Eyes that were hardened by the war that had gone on since 1944, and might continue for another two generations.

Each man carried, as his personal basic load, about eighty pounds: a pack, one extra olive-green uniform, two pairs of sandals, one set of black pajamas, a raincoat, a shoddy nylon tent, a woven


 

 

hammock, a mosquito net, a few meters of rope, a wicker helmet, and a very simple first-aid kit. They also carried their individual weapons: Chinese Type 56 copies of the Russian Kalashnikov or AK-47. It was one of the finest assault rifles ever built by any nation. Each man had 200 rounds of ammunition. Specially chosen men also carried radios, the broken-down 82mm or 120 mm mortars, and RPD, SGM or Degtyarev machine guns.

The 302d was ready.

In October of 1967 their orders were given: march south.

They were to spearhead the long-awaited General Offensive. The offensive that would overthrow the puppet government of the South and destroy the hated American colonialists.

The attack would begin during the traditionally peaceful celebration of the Vietnamese New Year.


 

 


Tet.

1968.

The Year of the Monkey.

In the final hours before they marched, some soldiers of the 302d Division had themselves tattooed: “I was born in the north. . . to die in the south. . .”

The Twelfth Infantry Division,

United States Army


 

 

FTA was lettered on the back of the infantrymanís sun-bleached camouflage helmet cover: FUCK THE ARMY.

The grunt was plodding up a 30-degree slope trying to keep in the ribbed-sole footprints of the man ahead of him. One grunt - lost, pissed off, dirty, smelly and bewildered.

He was one of almost 18,000 Americans who wore the patch of the Twelfth Infantry Division: a black bayonet inside a red, flat-bottomed arch. Since he as a line soldier, there was about a forty percent chance the man was black. He almost certainly had a secondary education or less. He was most probably from the South or Midwest. And he was likely nineteen years old.

This particular grunt was four months into his tour, and he could instantly tell you how many days, hours, and possibly even minutes were left of the thirteen months before he was rotated back to the Land of the Big PX.


 

 


The grunt also was eighteen days out of a shower, had worn the same uniform for twenty-two days, had eaten a hot meal twice in that time, and had not fired his rifle in the last month and a half.

He had no idea where he or the rest of the men in his company were. Three weeks ago helicopters had dropped his battalion into a valley somewhere in South Vietnam’s piedmont.

Then the 600-man battalion had formed up in company-size elements - around 100 men - and the battalion commander had given this grunt’s CO a mission: Proceed so many klicks on such-and-so a compass heading to this point (a ballpoint indentation on the captain’s map) and form a perimeter for the night. Viet Cong, in estimated two-company strength, are operational somewhere in this area. The ballpoint had easily circled a ten-square-mile area. Search and destroy.

Orders went down the chain, and the grunt heaved himself to his feet and started to hump. For twenty-


 
  two days he had seen nothing but jungle and the sweat-dark back of the man in front of him during the day, and nothing but black silence in front of his scraped-out fighting position at night.

In the Twelfth Division’s war diary, the sweep probably had been given some impressive-sounding name like OPERATION LIGHTNING STRIKE, FREEDOM.

The grunt would never hear that name, unless he happened to find a copy of Stars and Stripes in the shitter when he returned to base. To him the divisional motto, TO CLOSE WITH AND DESTROY, wasn’t even a tired joke.

Most of the 18,000 men in the Twelfth never went beyond their unit’s perimeter. They were the cooks, clerks, drivers, runners, specialists, signalmen, mechanics and other support people necessary to put one infantryman in the field.


 
 

Few of them had ever seen the division’s usually glass-encased battle flag at headquarters, or knew the Twelfth’s battle streamers nearly hid the flag itself: Meuse-Argonne. . . German occupation. . . Sicily. . . Anzio. . . Cassino. . . St. Lo. . . the Huertgen Forest. . . Malmedy. . . the Rhine Crossing. . . Inchon. . . the Punchbowl.

Even for the old soldiers those honors were forgotten men and wars. For the Twelfth, there was nothing but Vietnam.

The division’s operational area was from just beyond the Saigon Circle (an arc scribed forty-five miles around South Vietnam’s capital), stretching north to the Cambodian border - basically covering the province of Song Nhanh.

The Twelfth had three base camps - Division Headquarters and Second Brigade outside the village of Hue Duc, First Brigade at Lang Chu, and Third Brigade at Dau Tien.


 
 
By October 9f 1967, the division had been in-country seventeen months. The men who had come over in the initial deployment had gone home: some in the gray caskets unloaded at Davis Air Force Base in California; some to hospitals in Japan, San Francisco, or Pennsylvania; and the very lucky, the skillful, or simply those who had served far beyond the lines were trying to get themselves back into America and forget Vietnam had ever touched them. Then replacements filtered in, and in turn were educated, became skilled, were wounded, killed, or survived.

The Twelfth Division was blooded and ready. Now all it needed was an enemy. Not one that murdered from the ditch, or from the darkness of night, but an enemy in the open - an enemy the Twelfth, using the sledge of American technology, could “Close With And Destroy.”

That enemy was filtering toward them down a thousand miles of trail.

PART I:

October 3-12, 1967

* * *

Weíre going to win this war if it takes our lives to do it. - Lyndon Baines Johnson, quoting graffiti he claimed to have seen in Vietnam.

We are beginning to win this struggle. . . we are making steady progress. - Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey

With 1968, a new phase is starting. We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view. - General William C. Westmoreland, Commander, all U.S. Vietnam troops

The Viet Cong has been defeated from Da Nang all the way down in the populated areas. - General Bruce Palmer, Deputy commander, U.S. Army, Vietnam

Man, I be sayin’ to everybody, these dudes in black pajamas, they be winnin’ the war. It they bush. It they jungle. They say jump, man, we jump. Sooner come later, they come out they bush and they kick our asses. We be lucky we end up only be in Australia. - Anonymous SP/4, 101st Airborne Division

Chapter One

Shannon

Major Dennis Shannon sat with his feet hanging out of the Huey. Below him swam the night jungle. He checked the glowing dial of the Rolex on the inside of his wrist and his heart increased its pounding. Two minutes.

Two hundred meters away whapped the bulk of the lead UH-ID: the decoy ship. Then his mouth went dry as the Huey nosed down and the pilot twisted the collective. The helicopter moved abreast of the first ship.

Shannon checked the other troops in his Huey. Darkness. Only the sudden grin of teeth from Williams, the LRRP team commander, sitting by the door gunner. One thing the black cats got going for them, Shannon thought, is they don’t have to worry about camouflage at night.

The second hand on the Rolex crossed, and Shannon signaled the pilot. The helicopter swooped down toward a rice paddy: the LZ.

The theory was if you wanted to insert eleven troops into Indian Territory without the Bad Guys knowing about it, you took two helicopters and flew like a motherfucker across their stronghold. One chopper would make lots of noise, while the second dropped down and dumped out the Long Range Recon Patrol. Then the second ship would lift back out, and hopefully, nobody would be the wiser. The Lurps would be left to get on about their business.

And how many times, Dennis old boy, Shannon thought, has that theory been proven full of donkey shit?

But the jungle was coming up fast and the clearing was below and the chopper was flaring for its landing. . . ten fucking feet too high, you cocksucker, and Shannon was balanced on the skid, almost overtoppling, and he came off in a classic PLF, but without the roll because this rice paddy ain’t as abandoned as it looks on the map, and who wants to swallow shit, but if it is dried up I could bust a leg and. . .

He plummeted into five feet of muck. Even over the turbine whine and the slosh of the paddy water from the helicopter blades, he heard other troops falling into the paddy.

And then, thank the good lord, whopwhopwhop as the fucking pilot got his finger out and took that shitbird the hell out of it and. . .

Silence. Blackness.

Shannon crouched, ready. Then he realized: Jesus God! Softly moved the bolt of the K gun back until it was cocked. Go in hot, you dumb mick son-of-a-bitch, and you ain’t even ready. You’re getting too old for this. Almost twenty-eight. Leave this crap for the kids. Or kiss your sweet Irish ass goodbye.

Quit playing old home week.

You’re supposed to be back at the Ossifers’ Club waiting for word from and I quote your recon elements and I end quote. Drinking beer. What the hell are you doing standing in a rice paddy up to your ass in shit with a bunch of dumbass kids who haven’t learned any better?

Aw, shut the fuck up. You’re here. Besides, Williams is fifty years old. Doesn’t matter. Silly son of a bitch has been recon for three wars now. His brains are fried.

Knock it off! Look at your damned treeline, Shannon. Don’t you remember? Watch the trees, asshole. Okay. Get yourself back together. Stop thinking you’re a big-time Assistant Division Intelligence Idiot and start playing Cowboys and Gooks. Because that’s what they’re playing.

Eleven men crouched in the muck, waiting. Shannon started to motion, then caught himself. This isn’t your war anymore, remember? He looked at Williams. The man was still waiting. What the fuck is he waiting for?

Then Williams brought up his arm. Held one arc of the tiny LRRP perimeter in place. Motioned for a lead element to head for the treeline.

And Shannon moved. Sloshing, for Chrissakes. Goddamned U.S. technology. Home come nobody ever found a way to build good goddamned boots that don’t fill up, or else simply rot?

The rice paddy was only half farmed. They came to a dike and Williams’s M-60 man crouched. The troopies slithered over the dike like so many crazed tiger-stripe-camouflaged lizards. Put a damned chameleon on a camo shirt and the fucker’d go crazy, Shannon thought, a little hysterically, as he rolled over and came into a firing position. Thank you, God. Dry land.

The patrol assembled. Williams and Shannon quickly conferred over the map boards and lensatic compass, the conversation done completely with long-practiced shrugs, waves, gestures and expressions.

Is that shadow over there where we want to go? Does it look like a hilltop? Damfino, but good guess. How far are we from Cambodia? Good question. Pricks probably dropped us twenty klicks inside. Wouldn’t be the first time, would it? Fuck no.

Fucking maps, Shannon thought. “Made from good data.” My ass, good data. Basic survey by the Japanese, confirmed by the French. . . and we all know what happened to them. . . so trust this map if you feel like it.

Shannon always figured Army maps, especially the 1:25,000 projections that a LRRP team so desperately needed, should have some kind of a commercial disclaimer: WARNING; FOLLOWING THIS MAP COULD BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH.

Very cute, Dennis, he thought. And followed the shadows toward the treeline and toward the Cambodian border.

Chapter Two

Duan

The Comrade General’s back was cold. He stood, wet and shaking, outside Sister Marie Teresa’s office. Someone kept saying “Comrade General.” But he ignored the voice. Duan knew he was really not a general poised on the border of Cambodia, but a terrified schoolboy who had been sent to the Mother Superior, and he was standing in the rain waiting for the rasp of her voice.

The punishment, he realized, would be severe. He had been caught with an indelicate picture of a woman clipped from some German magazine. Sister Teresa was a nun who believed that all girls’ breasts should be bound and small boys should eternally sing in the key of C. She was also French. That meant she hated not only the Vietnamese, but Germans as well.

Whatever the punishment would have been for a picture of a nude Fenchwoman, ten extra blows would be added because the picture was of a Boche. Duan stood in the rain, as frightened as he would ever be in his entire life. And the voice kept prodding him: “Comrade General. . . Comrade General...”

Vo Le Duan, Commanding General, 302d Division, People’s Army of Vietnam, opened his eyes to see his batman bending over him. As ugly and menacing a face as he had ever seen. But at the moment Sergeant Lau was quite beautiful. Duan was back in the war again and would miss his appointment with the Mother Superior.

“You just saved me from a French nun,” he muttered.

The sergeant puzzled, then realized what Duan was talking about. He laughed.

“You fear dreams of nuns. In mine, I am always fleeing angry water buffaloes.”

Duan yawned, beginning to come awake.

“There was a man in my village,” Lau continued, “who believed bad dreams had a meaning and provided us with a warning.”

Duan was interested. “ Do you think he was correct?”

“I was never sure. For two weeks once, he dreamed that our village was being drowned in high floods. And so he retreated to the hills, and built himself a hut.”

“A prudent man,” Duan said.

“Perhaps. But when I took him rice for his evening meal, all I found were the few small bones a tiger had left.”

The Comrade General chuckled. “Thank God,” he said, “that our current enemies are not immortal like nuns, tigers and water buffalo.”

He shifted in his hammock, searching for the first cigarette. And felt the cold water splash against his back. A look on Sergeant Lau’s face told him what had happened. Lau was about to explode in laughter. Duan looked about him and realized the ties on his hammock had slipped down the tree trunks while he slept. He had spent most of the night slopping about in a spreading monsoon puddle.

“The man in your village was wrong. I did not dream of floods.”

Finally Lau did break into laughter. “Comrade General,” his friend said, “it’s time to get up. Your ass is wet.”

There was no easy way to do it, so Duan rolled out of the sagging hammock into the mud. He creaked to his feet, trying to ignore nearly five decades worth of protest in six hundred and fifty-some-odd muscles.

The sergeant handed Duan a mug of tea, and the general whispered a prayer to whatever gods helped stomachs and took his first sip. The tannic acid hit, curled and rebounded. Quickly Duan took another gulp to settle himself out. He hated tea, especially in the morning. The comrade General preferred coffee, hot, thick and black. But he was several thousand kilometers away from coffee. He grimaced at his weakness. I might as well wish for Florida orange juice. Or hot French chocolate and croissants.

While the sergeant pumped up the tiny Primus stove for the morning rice, Duan squatted near his hammock, dressed only in his loincloth. He lit the rather soggy cigarette he’d been absently dangling from the corner of his mouth and watched Lau at work.

The sergeant was a short, stocky man, a little older than the general. He had huge hands that worked in small delicate motions as he added spices to the ricewater. Lau crumbled a few tiny, fire-hot Red River peppers into the rice. Automatically, his batman handed Duan one whole pepper. And, just as automatically, Duan popped it into his mouth and chewed. His ears turned to flame as he flushed the pepper down with a huge gulp of tea. Lau handed him another pepper. Duan hesitated.

“One more” the sergeant insisted. “For the crossing. Besides, even that Mongol Mao says that the true test of a revolutionary is his liking for peppers.”

The Comrade General ate the second pepper as well. It was only to keep his batman happy, he told himself. A minor peasant superstition. Lau seemed to believe that those peppers cured everything from fever to snakebite to flagging virility. Duan snorted to himself about the virility part. It would be months, if ever, before he slept with a woman again. Thinking about women bothered Duan slightly. It had been a long time since he had felt any desire. Yes, he frequently thought of his long-dead wife and his mistress in Hanoi. But rarely in a sexual sense. Mostly he remembered the nuns when he thought about women. Particularly Sister Teresa, the Mother Superior. The Terrible White-Winged Bat of Hue, the city of his birth.

Lau dumped out a huge bowl of rice for himself and a much smaller portion for the general. Duan scooped up a mouthful with his fingers. It was pungent, and good as only the Red River Vietnamese made rice, but the general had little appetite. He was almost never hungry anymore. The sergeant finished his rice, squatted, farted and lit one of the general’s cigarettes, waiting for Duan to give him his leftovers.

The general and the sergeant had been friends for years. They had met near Dien Bien Phu, when the general was a young major and the sergeant was. . . well, a sergeant.

It seemed to Duan that Lau had never changed. Thirteen years ago, he had been just as stocky and had the same round face with the smile that hated officers, distrusted any and all authority, and mocked politics. Comrade was a moderately dirty word on his lips. But Lau was a patriot, as only a farmer can be with generations buried in his own land. Most of all, Lau had remained what he was at Dien Bien Phu - a survivor. Duan thought of him as the universal sergeant. There must have been men like him with Alexander’s phalanxes, the Trung sisters’ army, the Roman legions, or the Trinh rebels. Farmers, forced from their fields, handed weapons, and ordered to march and die.

Duan thought it odd that Lau still considered himself a farmer, although he hadn’t seen the business end of a water buffalo since his late teens, when he was pressed into the People’s Cause. Lau was a man of no formal education. Duan had taught him to read and write, both French and Vietnamese. After that major victory, Duan had pressed the classic books on Lau, but Lau’s idea of relaxed reading was less Malraux than an after-action report from a stupid officer. The more idiotic the report was and the more flowery the language, the more Lau would howl in laughter.

Like most farmers, Lau was a fatalist. Whatever was going to happen would, and Lau believed he had no control over destiny. On the whole, he would rather live than die - but realized he was unlikely to be consulted in the matter. Duan considered that was what had kept Lau alive for so many years. As it has me, he thought. Duan realized he’d had as little choice in his life as did his batman.

Vo Le Duan’s father had been an official in the French-ruled Vietnamese government, and his mother a secondary-level teacher of French history. Vietnamese history, of course, was banned in the colonialist-run schools. Duan remembered childhood as a long, happy dream. He knew it couldn’t really have been like that - undoubtedly his mind, over the years of mud and blood, had created those warm, drifting memories as a shelter. But Duan preferred to keep those memories, even though they were false security.

The child Duan had one great talent. Mathematics. At three, he could look at the food on his mother’s stove and automatically divide it by the number of people expected for dinner. Since his family entertained often, both sets of numbers were large - giving Duan an interesting set of mental playthings to work with further: If we had sixteen guests, four of them French pigs, and one-third liter of nuoc mam, and the only non-Viet who uses nuoc mam on his fish is that Legion para sergeant, and if that one-third liter is gone, how much more nuoc mam would we have needed, if the colonialists knew what tastes good?

At five, Duan kept a running tabulation of the food costs and discovered the cook was padding the monthly bill. Duan was always proud of himself for saying nothing. Of course, the sweets he levied for the silence may have been a significant part of that decision.

Even with his talent, Duan knew by the time he was ten that there would be only three careers for him. He could become a paper-shuffling clerk like his father, teach meaningless imperialist jargon, or work in a shop. But to become a theoretical mathematician like his heroes Einstein, Planck or Heisenberg - impossible. The University of Hanoi, Indo-China’s most revered institution, did not even have a science department. Only by emigrating to France or possibly Russia would there be any hope for a career in pure mathematics. Leaving Vietnam was unthinkable for Duan.

When the French surrendered to Japan in 1940, Duan, like almost all Vietnamese, was ecstatic. The Japanese, through their Vichy puppets, upgraded the Vietnamese into major administrative positions, built roads, and even began encouraging Vietnamese writers and painters. But the Japanese were still foreigners. And, by 1944, it was known through the street rumors, they were losing the war.

This meant that the French imperialists would inevitably return. And so, late in 1944, Duan picked his career. A fourth choice. He went north, traveling by foot, and joined the Provisional Republican Government of Vietnam. The nationalists. The tiny group was headed by a tall, thin polite man with icy eyes and a long, stringy beard. The man was then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc. Later he would change his name to the Vietnamese words for He Who Enlightens: Ho Chi Minh.

Quoc had already formed an alliance with the American Office of Strategic Services/China. Quoc believed that only the U.S. could keep France from returning to Indo-China, after the war’s end.

Duan was given an American M-1 carbine, and assigned to a raiding squad. The leader of his squad was instructed to watch Duan very closely, and to report on his performance to the Central Committee. The only measure of ability for a guerrilla is to survive. Then he was ordered to report to the Central Committee. Somehow, Ho and his aides had heard of Duanís talents in mathematics.

They offered him a position as an officer - an artillery officer. The liberation forces’ cannon were limited - a few mortars given them by Chiang Kai-shek’s robber barons, some elderly WW1 French 75s, and two 37mm guns from the American OSS. But even then, artillery was a snobbish, elite position, with historic roots both Oriental and Occidental. A man who could calculate the earth, the sun, the planets and the stars to get a heavenly map that resulted in godlike destruction many kilometers away was to be respected for his abilities. Duan’s talent had saved him from death - his raiding squad was wiped out, two weeks after he left them, by being sucked into an ambush set up by the Japanese.

Then the Japanese surrendered. Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent. In October, 1945, the French, courtesy of British transports, returned to Vietnam. America was more interested in salving the consciences of the collaborationist French than in any real commitment to the Vietnamese nationalists. The world disavowed any intention of letting Vietnam keep its freedom.

In 1946, Ho went to war again. This time, against the French. Slowly, as the French troops suffered defeat after defeat, the Viet Minh’s artillery forces grew. By 1954, Duan was a major, assigned to the 315th Heavy Division, and on his way to the Giap-engineered bear trap of Dien Bien Phu.

But on the march west, Duan was suddenly detached and given a command of his own. He was a battery commander, responsible for three American 75mm pack howitzers, recently captured from the French forces in Laos. Unfortunately, while the troops assigned to his battery were somewhat familiar with artillery, they knew nothing about the jungle, the mountains or the rivers that seemed intent on killing the men and destroying their cannons on the way to Dien Bien Phu.

By the time his battery was two days away from Dien Bien Phu, half of Duan’s troops were suffering from malaria, dysentery or jungle sores. The rest were victims of diseases of the spirit.

Two kilometers below Muong Pon, they were ambushed by a roving French GCMA patrol. Duan had been in his share of firefights before, but to him this one would always be the worst. He was within sight of his goal - the mountain of Pha Song and he was already cringing at the cliffs that had to be climbed and the bones that would be broken pulling those damned cannon over them.

Two machine guns stuttered into the jungle noise. Duan’s men dropped to the ground, crawling, screaming and dying. Duan was shouting at them to shoot - shoot at the colons! And then fall back.

The third Browning machine gun opened up on their only open flank. Duan remembered everything - the black tumble of grenades as the commandos arced them onto the trail. . . thudding rifle fire as his men shot blindly into the brush. . . the double flame spear of a bazooka firing. . . Duan pulling a grenade bandolier from the sprawled corpse of a gunlayer. . . then, on his feet, finger through the ring at the bottom of the wooden handle, and then shouting, running into that fire spatter.

A hundred years later, he found himself sobbing beside the ruined French machine gun. There were three camouflage-uniformed bodies by the gun. The other Frenchmen had vanished. Half of the men in Duan’s battery were dead or useless. Worst of all, one howitzer was lying on its side, the wheel lying meters away. The bazooka round had put paid to the second gun: barrel, shield, sights and carriage lay scattered around the bodies of the crewmen. Only the third gun was intact.

It was the first and only time that Duan had ever contemplated suicide. It wasn’t merely a failure - he knew that without those two guns firing into the cauldron of Dien Bien Phu, many of his countrymen would perish.

There was a slight rustling of bamboo. Duan did not care, turn, nor raise his weapon. Another commando might be the simplest answer.

A second later, a short, squat man stepped out of the jungle. He hesitated, then turned the cocking piece on his Mosin-Nagant to safe and knelt beside Duan. There was a gurgle from a canteen, and then a rag mopped mud and blood away from Duan’s face.

“Congratulations, comrade,” the man said.

“For what,” Duan said as he stumbled up.

“For surviving.”

Duan did not bother answering that idiocy. The short man wore the rank tabs of a bo-doi sergeant and spoke in the clipped northern Vietnamese accent Duan had always hated, since even to the peasants of the Haute Region anyone from South Vietnam was considered child. It was quite easy for Duan to turn his current wave of self-loathing toward the sergeant.

He tried blustering: “Comrade Sergeant! Where are your men? What are your orders?”

The sergeant seemed to ignore the question and strolled around one of the ruined guns. He also ignored Duan’s men, who, still shocked and bewildered, were clustering around him.

“Since you did at least kill a couple of the Tays, and destroyed this machine gun,” the sergeant said thoughtfully, “I am sure, Comrade Major, that the commissars will award you a medal. After they shoot you for losing their cannon.”

He shook his head, then farted loudly. It may have been a signal, as a moment later fifteen ragged men slipped out of the brush. Duan noticed, as the men began wordlessly tending Duan’s wounded, that they may have been wearing rags, but their weapons, which varied from Japanese 7.7mm Arisaka rifles through American carbines to the sergeant’s Russian rifle, were all very clean.

The sergeant took a tobacco pouch made from a buffalo’s scrotum from under his wicker hat, sprinkled tobacco onto a torn newspaper, and rolled a cigarette. He rasped a wooden match across his rifle barrel, lit the cigarette, and passed it to Duan.

“As to your question, Comrade Major,” he said, rolling another cigarette for himself, “I am Lau. Once the worst farmer in all of Bac Can, and now personally chosen by Uncle Ho to lead these fellow pigshit-waders in battle against the colonialist mercenaries.”

He blew smoke.

“Do you not admire, Comrade Major, how well I have learned from the commissars’ indoctrination sessions?”

Duan was about to explode, when Lau continued.

“As to my orders, Comrade Major, I have no idea. We are lost.”

Then Duan noticed how badly his hands were shaking. He left the cigarette in his mouth and pressed his arms against his sides. The sergeant pretended not to notice. “Where are you going, then?” Duan’s command voice was returning.

“Who knows.” The sergeant shrugged. “We are following the airplanes. Sooner or later, they will lead us to where there are Frenchmen to kill. And I think there will be commissars and officers at that place to tell us which ones to kill first.”

And, without a pause: I can move your guns.”

It took almost a minute for Lau’s phrase to get through. And it took almost a full day before Duan actually believed him. Only when Duan looked at the line of elephants standing before him in the slow afternoon rain did he start to understand.

Lau said he had purchased them at a local village. Duan did not ask where the sergeant had found money. He was starting to believe that maybe, just maybe, Sergeant Lau could get the guns to Dien Bien Phu.

Duan’s men had broken the two surviving howitzers down as far as their limited tools enabled them. Lau had then considered the bazookaed third howitzer and pointed out which pieces to take from the wreckage.

Duan had asked him why.

“With these parts, we shall be able to make at least two other guns function, Comrade Major. Is that not obvious? Perhaps the Comrade Major is still suffering from shock and should lie down under a tree.”

Duan decided that the sergeant’s self-examination session and subsequent court-martial would wait until they reached Dien Bien Phu. The loading began. Lau cursed at his men as they shifted and heaved. Duan noticed, however, that the sergeant always lifted the heaviest parts. The problem was that elephants are trained to push huge logs, not to carry them. The eight-foot-tall, monsoon-gray monsters watched the little men suspiciously as the pieces of steel were stacked beside them.

Lau ordered the first piece - a barrel - to be lifted onto an elephant’s back and lashed in place. The frightened men obediently bent, lifted and strained.

The elephant flicked its trunk absently, as if it were slapping an insect. One of Duan’s men went sailing into the brush. The others dropped the steel tube and scattered. Lau hustled them together again.

“Lift,” he ordered. The men refused. Angrily, Lau grabbed the barrel himself and strained one end of it off the ground.

“Help me,” he shouted.

Still the men did not move.

Duan almost laughed as the elephant waved its trunk at Lau in warning. But the sergeant just became angrier. He dropped the end of the barrel and unleashed a stream of curses.

“Cowards,” Lau shouted at the men and the elephants. ”Lazy cowards. Give me a pig any day. Or even a water buffalo. You can talk to a pig. But an elephant. .”

And then Duan witnessed one of the more improbable scenes of his life. The elephant, obviously not used to abuse from casual strangers, bellowed and rose on its hind legs. He towered buildings over the squat Lau. The sergeant took one measured step forward under the rearing elephant and kicked it squarely in the balls.

Duan waited for Lau to die.

He was somewhat amazed as the elephant whimpered, settled back on its hind legs, then, as Lau stepped away, the beast lowered itself gingerly forward. And began moaning. The other elephants - even the females, Duan noticed - quieted down and shuffled into line. Lau, however, was not looking at them. He was glaring at the men. He didn’t say a word. Lau didn’t need to.

Two hours later, the elephants were loaded and peacefully trundling down the trail, toward the peaks overlooking Dien Bien Phu.

Now General Duan laughed to himself at the memory of the elephant with the furrowed brow, who kept looking worriedly at the squat figure of Lau marching beside him.

While Sergeant Lau cleaned up after the morning meal, General Duan began dressing. He thought there should be some kind of ceremony, as he carefully rolled the olive drab uniform he had worn on the long march down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and pulled on the plain black pajamas of a peasant soldier.

From now on, he and the other men of the 302d North Vietnamese Division would appear to be Soldiers of the Public Regime - what the imperialists called Viet Cong. It was a minor fiction - minor, of course, depending on the point of view - that the diplomats of Hanoi and the National Liberation Front’s Central committee insisted on.

Duan would also wear no badges of rank. How this would supposedly keep an enemy soldier from seeing him as a most desirable target Duan could never understand, since he would always be surrounded by aides, bodyguards and radiomen. Anyone who could not identify Duan as a Most Important Person would be a very poor soldier indeed.

Duan finished dressing, and picked up his AK-47 - a weapon he carried quite deliberately, instead of the pistol his rank entitled him to. He had learned long ago that a pistol was less than useless for anything other than parades. Then he performed his final morning ritual, one which it seemed he had done for most of his life. Remove the magazine from the rifle. Check the rounds. Depress the top round slightly to make sure the magazine spring still held its tension.

Move the cocking handle of the Kalashnikov (actually, of course, it was the Chinese-built Type 56 copy of the AK) to the rear. No round in the chamber. Rub the rifle down with an oily rag, and then replace the magazine. Finally ready, Duan slung his rifle and picked up his map case. Lau snapped him a half-salute.

“We followers eagerly await your undoubtedly historical orders, Comrade General,” he said.

Duan smiled and slapped his friend on the shoulder.

“When will you learn to respect officers?”

The sergeant grinned and pointed.

“When the leeches stay in the trees, Comrade General.”

Duan looked where Lau was pointing and swore. Lau handed him his cigarette, and Duan pressed its glowing tip to the leech wriggling between his left thumb and forefinger.

“Speaking of leeches,” Lau added, “the Comrade Commissar is waiting.”

Duan cursed again. The last person he particularly wanted to see was Colonel Thuy.

“He advised me that he had a few suggestions about the morale of our fellow warriors.”

Tell that skinny snake’s ass,” the general barked, “that I will see him when I am ready.”

This time Lau snapped a very proper, very military salute. And this time the general returned it, and the little sergeant wheeled and marched off. It was a message Lau would be delighted to deliver.

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Last Revised: January 29, 2011