SIX VIETNAM SOLDIERS GO OFF ON A VERY STRANGE ASSIGNMENT
One morning on my second tour of duty in Vietnam, this time with the 101st Airborne, my squad leader announced, “Men, day after tomorrow we’re all going to become cowboys.” The plan was to evacuate a valley in Quang Ngia Province of all residents and farm animals. Then we would spray something that would remove the leaves from the trees so that Charlie couldn’t hide. People and smaller livestock would be choppered out in Chinooks, but the large stuff, maybe 500 head of cows and water buffalo, we would herd to the mouth of the valley.
The operation began as scheduled. Even before we’d moved out to our starting positions, someone in the battalion started a tuneless recital that quickly caught on:
“Everybody now, say good morning to the world.”
“Now, good morning, Nam.”
“Good, Now let’s all say good morning to the lifers [career soldiers].”
“Excellent! Now all together, good morning, cows.”
Every American knows that driving cattle is arduous work, even for the experienced, well-mounted, and equipped cowpoke. Just try it without experience or proper equipment, on foot, with a 60- to 80-pound rucksack on your back, running through flooded rice paddies, elephant grass, and thick brush, in 100-degree weather.
One rainy night about a week into the operation I was sound asleep when I heard the repeated whispering of my name. It was Doc Wheatfield, an easygoing, soft-spoken young man of medium build and light brown skin, whose general disposition and importance to us made him very popular and respected. He was our platoon’s medic.
“Yeah, Doc. What’s up?”
“Sergeant B told me to get you and a couple of your guys to go with me. We got us an emergency to deal with. One of the village ladies is about to have a baby.”
“Hell, Doc, why us? We pulled drag on the herd all afternoon.”
Doc simply said, “Let’s go.” John, Peewee, Irish, the Cherry (our nickname for every new recruit), and I fell in behind Doc as he led the way out of the little cluster of trees where we had set up for the night. We took the rice-paddy dike trail that led to the next cluster of trees, where the lady waited.
We forgot our apprehension about the tempting targets we made out in the open when we reached our destination and saw the rain- and tear-streaked, frightened face of a young girl lying against an old banyan tree.
She couldn’t have been more than 16. Her black peasant clothing was soaked and plastered against her shivering body. Why she was outdoors in the rain instead of in one of the nearby huts, and why she was alone, except for an equally frightened five- or six-year-old boy clutching her hand, we never learned.
Doc told Peewee and the Cherry to build a hooch over the girl. As he gave instructions, Doc knelt by the girl’s feet. I took her hand and began to stroke it, and Irish began doing the same on the boy’s soaked and shivering shoulder.
“Don’t worry, baby-san,” I whispered. “We numbah one GIs. We help you good.”
As if on cue, the moment the shelter was completed the steady rain increased to a deluge. The wind doubled in strength to near-gale proportions, bringing down dead branches to join the swirling leaves and debris all around us. Irish and I helped slip a poncho underneath the girl, and Doc laid another on top of her, so that she was now covered all the way to her feet. John and Peewee held the poncho out of Doc’s way as he got under it to do what he had been only briefly trained to do.
“I know two things,” Doc stated with supreme confidence after his examination. “I know that very soon a child will be born here. And I suspect that after the baby is born, this young mother is going to need to recoup her strength. So, John, I want you and Peewee to go around to a few of the positions around here, tell the guys what’s going on, and get them to give up some of their fruit and chicken-and-noodle cans of C’s.”
“Fruit!” I exclaimed. “Doc, nobody’s going to give up any fruit. You know that as well as I do.”
He looked dead at me and said, “O ye of little faith.” Then he looked back at John and Peewee and said, “Okay, you two, move out, and bring back as much as you can carry.” They took off, with permission from each of us to get a can of each item from our rucksacks. About 20 minutes later they returned with two large poncho bundles of C-ration cans.
Just then the girl began moaning and squeezing my fingers. “Doc,” I yelled, “something’s happening!” But Doc had noticed and was already slipping underneath the poncho.
I have no explanation for what happened next. The rain and wind and thunder let up, and all the night noises—the croaking of frogs, the chirping of night birds and crickets, the scurrying of mice, moles, and their like—abruptly ceased. As if to accent the miracle of the moment, the clouds parted, making way for the moon to cast its light on the stage where the guest of honor was arriving.
It started with a couple of muffled and barely audible ee-ee-eeahs. Then Doc emerged from under the poncho, carrying in his two hands a kicking bundle of life still covered with embryonic fluids and held it out before him for mother and all to see. With her first full breath of air, the baby issued forth a loud, healthy, and hearty announcement of her arrival. Satisfied that he’d done all that he could do, Doc wrapped the infant in three olive drab arm slings and carefully placed her in her mother’s arms.
For a few minutes we squatted around them, each of us, I think, trying to hide his tears. The rain began to fall again. While we tried to improve the shelter, Doc said to me, “You know, I think those C rations we got her will last her for a week or so. However, I don’t know if that will be long enough. And so I was thinking that if we gave her some piasters or MFCs [military pay certificates, one of the two principal negotiable currencies in South Vietnam at that time], she and the baby will have a better chance in the long run.”
Our little band of Florence Nightingales assembled, and hands reached into jungle-fatigue pockets for whatever currency we had. A quick tally of our assets came to about $300 in MPCs and somewhere near 15,000 piasters (about $160), which in her rural economy, I guessed, would total up to a small fortune. One at a time we crawled back under the hooch and gave her the money.
Sometime after the rain had stopped, the boy had quietly left, and he now reappeared with an old woman wearing black pajamas and a straw hat. After a stiff, perfunctory bow, she disappeared under the hooch. She re-emerged moments later to look at us in what I can only describe as astonishment. Then, rapidly speaking words we couldn’t understand, she came and bowed before each and every one of us.
No one spoke as we retraced our steps along the rice-paddy dike trail back to our platoon. But fate had one more curve to throw our way.
Smack-dab in the middle of the open space between the cluster of trees we’d just left and the one where we were camped stood our herd of cows and water buffalo. As we neared its edge, John pointed to a spot where there was a commotion going on. “Hey, Hopalong,” he called back to me. (I’m from Texas.) “In your vast one summer experience as a cowboy did you ever see a deformed cow?”
“There, see? Look at the rear of that cow. Ain’t it got at least two or three tails?”
It turned out they weren’t tails, but legs. The cow was having a baby, and she was having a damn hard time of it. A half-dozen or so young bulls, excited by the smell, were trying to mount her from the rear, sides, and anywhere else they could squeeze themselves in. The cow was on the brink of collapse, and if something wasn’t done, her calf stood a good chance of being trampled to death the moment she was dropped.
At first we tried to shoo the randy young Romeos away, but this was totally ineffective. So, without speaking, we formed a circle around the cow, stretched out our arms, and held hands, facing inward, to make sure we didn’t miss the blessed event. Here we were for the second time in one night, six highly trained U.S. paratroopers and would-be killers, assisting at a birth.
As we stood holding hands, not knowing how long this thing was going to take, we began to blurt out poetic and literary soliloquies. I spouted, “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, / ‘To talk of many things: / Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax— / Of cabbages—and kings. …’” The Cherry surprised us with a very creditable rendition of Shakespeare’s “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. … ” John let go with a definition of a U.S. paratrooper that I’d taught him a few weeks before: “a fighter by day, lover by night, and drunkard by choice.” After everyone had taken a turn or two, we began singing “Home on the Range,” “Red River Valley,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” (Yes, you guerrilla-fighting experts, we kept the noise level down.)
Some 45 minutes later the calf was born, and we named him Little John. Our duty done, we resumed our march back to the platoon. Outside my hooch, I lit a cigarette and puzzled over why, after weeks and months of killing, we had been granted a reprieve and twice honored with the privilege of witnessing the miracle of birth.
When Doc went over the next day to check on his patient, she was gone. Little John, on the other hand, we saw many times each day for the remainder of the operation. A few weeks later, I was wounded (for the third time), medevaced out, and (except for John, much later, at a fiftieth-anniversary reunion of the 101st Airborne) never saw the members of our little band again.
As for me, if there is an answer to my own question, it may be that fate has left it to me to tell of the generous heart of your average American GI.