“Code of Honor”
Wayne C. Rogers
The harsh smell of death was horrendous inside the black tunnel.
It caused the bile to rise up in U.S. Army Sergeant Steve Thompson’s throat. Before he knew what was happening, the Vietnamese food he’d had for breakfast was being spewed out onto the dirt floor. He only had a split second to whip his head to the right and throw up so he wouldn’t have to crawl through the damn mess. When Thompson was finally finished with heaving his guts out, he wiped his mouth with the back of his arm and shined the right-angled flashlight at the rotting body of the Vietcong soldier. The flashlight had a red gel over the lens to keep him from being blinded whenever he switched it on; but, it also seemed to cast everything within an eerie atmosphere that was often found in carnival funhouses.
The torso of the Vietnamese man was missing a head. The rib cage had been torn apart through the opened shirt and the internal organs were stretched out along the tunnel floor. There was a rifle in the man’s left hand, but it looked like he hadn’t been able to get off a single shot before being viciously killed. What made matters even worse was that the body was covered with hundreds of hungry insects, and the tunnel rat was going to have to crawl around it.
Trying not to freak out as he slowly eased his way passed the corpse, Thompson listened for the slightest noise in the darkness ahead. He knew that whatever had killed the man might still be in the tunnel complex. There was no sense in taking chances. Not hearing anything didn’t bring him the slightest bit of comfort. Thompson pulled out the Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol that he kept at the small of his back. He cocked the hammer so he’d be ready for any nasty surprises. He didn’t like using the handgun unless he had to. It was loud and announced his presence to everyone below ground.
Shuffling along for another twenty minutes on his elbows, Thompson came upon a shaft with an opened trap door in the floor. He shined the light into the hole as he stuck his head over the edge and gazed downward. He saw an old wooden ladder fastened to the wall and another tunnel to the side of it.
Thompson was going to need both hands for the climb.
Easing the hammer down against the firing pin of the handgun, he stuck the weapon and the flashlight into his fatigues. He then eased his legs over the edge and lowered his upper body into the hole. He was on the second level a few seconds later. Taking out the flashlight, Thompson shined it at the narrow passage to the right. He stepped over to the opening, squatted down, and carefully checked its outer perimeter for booby traps.
The entrance was clean.
He entered it head first with the flashlight guiding his way. Fifteen minutes later, he saw another opened trap door a few yards away. This one had light emanating from the inside. He inched his way over to the square hole and listened for any sounds coming from the third level. The only thing he heard was a faint humming noise. After a moment, Thompson stuck his head into the hole and looked down. All he could see was another ladder and a hard-clay floor. Shifting his head a little, he noticed a string of white Christmas bulbs stapled to the ceiling. This was where the light was coming from.
Sticking the flashlight back down his green fatigues, he slid into the hole like the rat he was and dropped quietly down to the hard floor. He drew the Colt, cocked the hammer back, and started walking down the corridor with the pistol pointed ahead in a two-handed grip as his eyes moved quickly from left-to-right and back again.
Thompson had to assume the complex was filled with Vietcong soldiers and, to a certain degree, he was right.
Only they were dead.
As the tunnel rat made his way down the silent corridor, he came upon numerous bodies of Vietnamese (men, women and children) lying in various frozen positions of death. Nearly each one was missing a head. Some of the Vietcong soldiers even had a rifle in their hand, but it seemed as if they’d been unable to get off a shot. All the bodies were bloated with gases and covered with insects, meaning this had happened at least three days ago…maybe four.
The American soldier continued on with his search of the complex. He came upon a small chamber to his right. Glancing inside, he saw a gasoline-powered generator that was keeping the ceiling lights on and causing the humming sound.
He kept moving down the passage, stepping over the dead. During the next half hour, Thompson checked out a mess hall with over-turned tables and chairs and more bodies scattered around. He came upon two dormitories with bunk beds—one for men and the other for women and children. Everyone he found inside the rooms was ripped apart by some kind of psychotic madman. For the life of him, Thompson couldn’t figure out what kind of human being could do something like this.
Thompson finally smiled to himself when he came across a Command Bunker. He was like a kid in a candy store as his eyes ran over the large maps of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lao on three of the clay walls, a metal filing cabinet up against the fourth, and two long tables with chairs in the center. One of the tables had official-looking documents stacked on it while the other had an X06 Communications Radio. There was a North Vietnamese major lying near the entrance. He still had a Russian Makarov pistol in his hand with the slide locked back and 9mm shell casings lying around like pebbles on a beach. The radio man was lying underneath one of the tables as if hiding might have saved his life from whatever had stormed into the chamber.
Thompson spotted a canvas tote bag underneath the table with the X06 radio sitting on top. He hurried over to the bag and took hold of the canvas strap hanging from it. Flipping the bag over, he emptied its contents onto the floor. Then, setting the .45 down on the other table, he began to stuff documents into the satchel, examining a few as he did so. When he had three-quarters of the bag filled, he slung the heavy pack over his left shoulder, picked up the handgun, and left the bunker. Once he was standing outside in the main corridor, he decided to take a fast look at the rest of the complex.
On the grassy knoll above ground, a hundred yards from the thick foliage, Special Forces Sergeant 1st Class Kit Seagraves answered a call coming in on the Prick 10 Radio Transmitter strapped to his back. Seagraves was the RTO for the Special Forces A-team that was spread out in key positions across the knoll and along the edges of the jungle. Listening on the receiver for a second or two, he raised his eyebrows and handed it to his commanding office, Major John Horton. The major was lying on the ground beside him. He cracked a Life Saver with his teeth, took the receiver, and placed it to his ear.
“Horton,” he said. The Special Forces officer listened to what was being told to him on the other end of the line. Then—“How much time do we have?” Horton unconsciously nodded at the tall elephant grass surrounding him. “I understand, Colonel.”
“What did Kramer have to say?” Seagraves asked as he took the receiver from his boss.
“The Colonel told me that a battalion of North Vietnamese Regulars were headed our way,” Horton answered. “He said we have no more than two hours before they arrive, and he wants us to pull back and to not engage the enemy.”
“Kramer wants us to leave the tunnel rat in the hole with his back exposed?”
“That’s what the man said.”
“What are you going to do?”
Horton removed a half-filled pack of Life Savers from his fatigue jacket, popped one into his mouth, and then replaced the pack to his pocket. “I’m not leaving Thompson to the mercy of the NVA. I told the rat I’d cover his back, and I’m not breaking my word.”
Seagraves threw a glance at the opened trap door in the ground a few feet away. “Maybe he’ll be up by then,” the RTO said.
“Maybe,” Horton agreed, sucking on the Life Saver as if it might bring him some kind of inspiration. He lifted his head above the elephant grass, stuck a pair of binoculars to his eyes, and scanned the nearby jungle.
“Call the men in for a powwow.”
Thompson was passing an infirmary when he caught a slight movement out the corner of his eye. He stopped and stared into the room, taking in the half-dozen empty cots, the medical cabinet, and a few dead patients lying on the floor. That was when the Christmas lights on the ceiling began to blink off and on. A few seconds later, they went out, casting the Vietcong complex behind a solid veil of blackness. It seemed to the tunnel rat as if he was drifting aimlessly within a cold sea of time and death.
Thompson pulled his military flashlight back out, switched it on, and directed the red beam into the darkness of the infirmary. He swept the light from one side of the room to the other. He was at the point of saying adios when he unexpectedly saw a woman and two children huddled together in the far corner. Their eyes were filled with fear, but he didn’t think it was because of him.
Directing the light to his own face, Thompson said in Vietnamese, “I’m with the United States Army. I won’t harm you. If you want to come with me, I’ll take you out of here.”
The woman nodded.
As Thompson stuck the Colt down his fatigues, she and the two kids warily approached him, stepping over the bodies of their people and around the turned-over cots.
Still speaking in Vietnamese, he said, “My name is Steve Thompson.”
“I’m Lien,” the woman said in fluent English.
“I’m also a nurse,” she continued. “The little boy is Duc and his older sister is Cara. They only speak Vietnamese.”
Thompson knelt down in front of the two children, keeping the light pointed to the side. “How old are you?” he asked in Vietnamese. He could see a heavy film of perspiration covering their faces. “Are you both sick?”
“Duc is five, and I’m six,” Cara said shyly. She looked up at Lien, and then back at Thompson. “We have malaria.”
“I was treating them when the quai vat attacked us,” Lien said.
“A monster attacked you?” Thompson asked in disbelief.
“Yes,” said Cara. “Lien hid us.”
Thompson thought about that for a moment, and then looked at the nurse.
“I can get them to a U.S. hospital where they’ll be taken care of and given the necessary medication,” he said. “Are their parents alive?”
Lien shook her head, and then spoke in English. “No, the quai vat killed them when it entered our complex.”
“So, you’re saying a monster actually killed everyone down here?” Thompson asked.
“Yes, I am,” Lien said. “We’re lucky to be alive.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Thompson said as he stood back up. He handed Lien the flashlight, and then picked up Cara up in his arms. “You lead the way with Duc, and we’ll follow.”
“Thank you,” Lien said, offering him a smile of gratitude.
Lien turned around, took hold of Duc’s left hand, and headed into the blackness of the main tunnel with the red light guiding her way. As Thompson started to follow after the nurse, he heard something further back in the rear of the tunnel. It was a strange scuttling-type noise, and it was coming their way.
Cara wrapped her arms protectively around his neck. “It’s the quai vat,” she said in a whisper.
Thompson stared into her eyes for a second and then nodded. “Well, I’m a tunnel rat,” he said, “and the quai vat had better watch out.
She giggled and kissed him on the cheek.
“Are you my girlfriend?” he asked, heading after Lien.
Fifteen minutes later, Thompson was still listening for the noise behind them. But, there had been no other sound. The tunnel complex, however, was huge. He sensed they were finally coming to the end of it as they approached another chamber to the left.
“I need to check this out,” he said.
Lien and Duc stopped.
As the nurse directed the light at the chamber’s entrance, Thompson glanced inside and said, “Holy shit.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“This is where the armaments for the entire complex are kept,” Thompson said over his shoulder as he entered the cavern.
Lien and the two children trailed after him, afraid to be left alone in the darkness of the corridor. She shined the flashlight from side-to-side so Thompson could see what was inside the storage room.
There were Russian and Chinese AK-47s leaning against the left wall with SKS Simonov self-loading carbines and RPG-7 anti-grenade launchers intermixed with them. On the right wall were several American M-16s, M-17s, and 40mm grenade launchers. The center of the carved-out chamber held boxes of dynamite, blasting caps, mortar rounds, hand grenades, and beaucoup cans of gasoline and black powder.
Hurrying over to where the Russian AK-47s were, he dropped the tote bag to the floor and picked up one of the assault rifles, sliding the 30-round magazine out to see if the weapon was loaded.
Thompson slammed the magazine back into the weapon, and then moved the slide back and forth, injecting a live round into its chamber. He took five more loaded magazines from the other Russian rifles and stuffed them into the tote bag. Moving over to the central mound of supplies, he leaned the AK-47 against a crated mortar. He used his survival knife to jimmy open the top of a small box next to them. Inside were hand grenades. He took four of them out and placed them in the satchel.
“Steve,” Lien said. “You must hurry. The quai vat is coming.”
Thompson looked up at her and nodded. He took his knife and began to puncture holes into the top of cans containing the black powder. He then poured the powder over the mound of armaments. After that, he punched holes in the gasoline cans and emptied three of them over the crates, boxes, and other cans. Slipping the slings of the AK-47 and tote bag over his right shoulder, he grabbed another can of gasoline with holes already in the top and began to pour a trail from the mound to the entrance of the chamber. Once he was standing outside, he handed the bag to the nurse and aimed the barrel of the assault rifle down at the trail of gasoline.
“Start running,” he said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
That was when all four of them heard the noise coming from the darkness they’d just traveled through.
“Run!” Thompson said.
As the nurse and children took off down the corridor, Thompson pointed the AK-47 at where he thought the trail of gasoline was. He fired three fast rounds into the ground and a bright flame appeared on the floor, making a zigzagged path back to the black powder. Lifting his gaze to where the noise was coming from, he saw two red, demonic-like eyes staring silently at him from about twenty feet. Thompson didn’t have time to rationalize what he was seeing. Instead, he pressed the trigger of the rifle, firing the entire magazine at the menacing eyes. Once the clip was empty, he turned around and hurried after Lien and the kids, running as fast as his feet could move, his bare arms covered with goose bumps.
Thompson got to the Vietnamese, picked up the little girl and pulled her into his chest, shouting, “Get down on the ground and curl up against the wall!”
As Lien and Duc got down on the floor and attempted to make themselves as small as possible against the tunnel wall, the American covered everyone with his own body. That was when the explosives inside the chamber blew, ripping through the cavern with a loud BOOM, and sending a large ball of fire out into the tunnel.
The tote bag protected the American’s back from most of the flames that soared over them. A moment later, as a multitude of other explosions erupted from inside the cave, the rear of the tunnel could be heard caving in on itself with blocks of clay and dirt, filling the passageway with a giant wave of dust and debris. Through it all, Thompson heard the faint cry of something not human. He didn’t think the creature was dead by a long shot. He also didn’t think the quai vat was happy at having missed out on some fresh kills.
“Is everyone okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” Lien said. “I think so.”
“Let’s get going,” he said. “I don’t think the quai vat was killed. If not, it may come after us through a different route.”
The four of them got to their feet, brushing the dust and debris from their bodies. Lien still had the flashlight in her hand.
“Lead the way,” Thompson said.
Major John Horton looked into the eyes of each of the members of his A-team. They were either kneeling or squatting in front of him. Of the eleven men, only RTO Kit Seagraves knew why the meeting had been called.
“What’s up, Major?” Sergeant 1st Class Rich Daley asked. Daley was the medic for the team. He glanced around at the others to see if they were as curious as he was. “We’re like sitting ducks out here for the VC to pick off.”
“I know, Sergeant,” he said. “This won’t take long.”
“Yes, sir,” Daley said.
“Colonel Kramer called an hour ago,” Horton continued, shifting his gaze from one man to the other. “He told me a battalion of NV Regulars had crossed the Cambodian border and were on their way here. The colonel also told me not to engage them. He said to pull back and leave the tunnel rat on his own.”
“We can’t do that, Major,” Master Sergeant John Peterson said. “We don’t leave our men behind.”
“I know,” Horton said. He eyed his Lead Sergeant of Operations & Intelligence, knowing how much the men trusted his judgment. Peterson had never been wrong on a call in the years he’d served under Horton. “I’m the one who’s staying, and I want the rest of you to head back to base camp.”
“That’s a negative, sir,” Daley said, smiling his infectious grin.
“Excuse me,” Horton said.
“We can’t let you fight a hundred enemy soldiers by yourself,” Captain Joe Camacho said. “You’d become a legend. Songs would be written about you.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Joe?”
“What he’s saying, Major,” Sergeant 1st Class Mark Perry said, “is that we’re not leaving you, or the rat behind. This is what we signed up for and we’re not running.”
“Are you refusing to obey a direct order?” Horton asked.
“We’re just like you when it comes to obeying orders that suck,” Perry said. “You taught us too well, Major.”
“Shit, Kramer doesn’t even have his wings,” Peterson said with obvious disdain. “He’s not Special Forces. He’s just a desk jockey till they get someone in here who knows what the hell is going on.”
“All of you are refusing my command to return to the base?”
The eleven men nodded, smiling at their commander.
“The Vietcong are going to think we’re having a damn staff meeting,” Horton said, grinning back at them. “Let’s prepare for battle, men.”
Thompson didn’t know how long they’d been crawling inside the tunnels. He hadn’t checked his watch. Between one tunnel and another, he guessed somewhere around an hour or two. The kids were directly behind him with Lien taking up the rear. It was slow going. He couldn’t take the chance of hitting a booby trap with the two children and had to be extra careful in his search for danger. That was when the batteries inside his flashlight decided to flicker a few times before going out. They were suddenly enveloped in blackness so thick they couldn’t see each other.
“It’s okay,” Thompson said calmly in Vietnamese. “All that happened is that the batteries in my flashlight died. I have more batteries in my pockets.”
The others didn’t say anything.
Turning over onto his back, the tunnel rat removed the new batteries from his leg pockets and placed them into the flashlight, using his sense of touch. Once he had the red light on again everyone seemed to breathe a little easier.
“That wasn’t so bad,” he said, flipping over onto his stomach.
He started to move forward again and unexpectedly hit a thin trip wire stretched across the floor of the tunnel. He sucked in his breath and heard the flopping sound of something heavy dropping onto the ground in front of him.
“Don’t move,” Thompson he said.
“What is it?” Lien asked.
“I just hit a trip wire, and I think a snake dropped from the ceiling.”
Duc and Cara cried out, but Lien moved up to put her arms around their bodies and to pull the children in close to her, shushing them with the softness of her voice.
Thompson didn’t move his body for a few beats. Then, gradually, he shifted the angle of the flashlight so the red bean shot upward. He saw a long, hollowed out bamboo pole embedded into the ceiling. The diameter of the pole was wide enough to house a good-sized snake. At the front end of the pole was a cork dangling from a peg. It was attached to the trip wire. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, he pointed the light straight ahead. Several feet away was a huge bamboo viper, coiled up and facing in his direction. The snake was at least six feet long, rapidly flicking its tongue up and down, and ready to strike out at the first sign of movement. The viper seemed to be pissed-off at the world for its enclosure inside the pole, which was probably the whole point.
“Shit,” Thompson muttered.
“Are you okay?” Lien asked.
“Yeah, but I hate snakes.”
The top quarter of the serpent’s scaly body was standing at attention, wavering back and forth like a crazed drug addict. The snake’s tiny tongue continued to flick up and down as it sought the heat from the American’s body.
Moving ever so slowly, the tunnel rat laid the flashlight down with its beam aimed at the deadly reptile. He kept his eyes glued to it as he uses his right hand to untie the bandana from around his neck. His face was covered with beads of perspiration by the time the bandana was loose. Thompson brought his left hand in and tied the cloth around his fingers and palm for protection against a bite. He then slid the survival knife out of its sheath and took a deep breath to prepare himself for what had to be done. Inching his way closer to the coiled snake, using the shiny blade of his knife to distract it, he whipped out his left hand with lightening speed and caught the reptile by its neck. Before the viper could bite him, he cut the head off with one fast sweep of the blade. Then, releasing the headless body, Thompson leaned back against the wall and let out a sigh of relief as he watched the dead snake slither around on the floor.
“Is the snake dead?” Lien asked with concern.
“Yep,” Thompson answered, removing the green bandana from his hand and using it to wipe the sweat from his face. Afterwards, he picked up the snake’s head and laid it beside the body, covering most of the serpent with his handkerchief. Glancing back at the others, the American attempted a forced smile.
“I’ve covered it with my handkerchief but the body is huge. You’ll have to crawl around it. Are you okay with that?”
“Yes, we can do it,” Lien replied. “You are a brave man, Steve Thompson.”
“No, just a scared one,” he said.
Picking up the flashlight, Thompson continued down the tunnel with the others following behind him.
Staff Sergeant, Tim Davis, raced across the field of elephant grass, making his way to the two men beside the opened shaft. Once he reached the major and the team’s radio/telephone operator, he squatted down to make himself a smaller target.
“The North Vietnamese are less than a half-mile out,” Davis said. “They’re coming in on the southeast path just like you thought, Major.”
“That gives us twenty minutes,” Horton said, looking at Seagraves.
“Paris and Cochrane will detonate the Claymore mines as they fall back,” Davis continued. “Ramirez, Adkins, Perry, and Gomez are in staggered positions along the edge of the jungle in case the NVA try to make a break for it.
As Sergeant Davis stood up in a crouch and prepared to leave, Seagraves answered a call coming in over the radio and then handed the receiver to the major.
“It’s Kramer,” he said.
Horton shook his head as he took the receiver from his RTO. “Horton speaking,” he said into it.
“Where are you, Major?” Kramer asked.
“About four clicks from the tunnel complex, sir,” Horton lied.
“I’m glad you had the good sense to follow my instructions. I’ll see you when you get back to base camp.”
“Yes, sir,” Horton said, and then handed the receiver back to his sergeant. “We’d better win this battle, Kit, or else I’m going to be spending the next ten years in the stockade. Let’s call in Puff, the Magic Dragon.”
Shining the flashlight further down the long tunnel, Steve Thompson saw the opening to another shaft. He threw a glance back at the kids and Lien.
“There’s a shaft up ahead,” he said. “I’ll check it for traps.”
Thompson crawled to the entrance of the hole and shined the light along its outer edges, looking for wires or anything else that might appear unusual.
“It’s clear,” he finally called out.
A minute later, when everyone was inside the shaft, he turned the flashlight around and saw a ladder leading upward to a trap door in the ceiling. There was another tunnel to the right side of the ladder.
“Stay here while I climb up and check the shaft above us.”
Setting the rifle and bag down on the floor, Thompson went over to the ladder and began to work his way up. He kept the light pointed upward at the underside of the trap door, eying it for possible booby traps. Once he was sure it was clear, he pushed the door up and made his way into the next shaft.
The jungle was a solid wall of greenery with mangrove trees and thick foliage and the sound of buzzing insects. The three North Vietnamese soldiers who materialized in the background, however, were as quiet as a mouse as they made their way carefully down the path. Their eyes roved to the right and left as they walked point for their battalion.
Unbeknownst to them, Special Forces Sergeant 1st Class, Glen Cochrane, quietly emerged from the jungle and slid up behind the last soldier with a knife in his right hand. He slipped his free hand over the man’s mouth and sliced his throat with one brutal swipe.
Alerted by the sound of a slight scuffle, the first two NVA soldiers spun around to see what was happening. They immediately saw the body of their comrade in the arms of an American with blood spurting out of his cut throat. As they started to raise their carbines, Cochrane flipped the bloodied knife over in his hand so he was holding it by the blade. He then threw it hard and fast at the soldier standing in front of him. The knife entered the man’s chest, and he collapsed to the ground with a grimace etched over his brown face.
As the third soldier took aim with a carbine, Special Forces Sergeant Richard Paris rushed out of the foliage with his own knife. He took hold of the enemy soldier by his face as he drove the point of the blade deep into the underside of the soldier’s neck.
Then, without saying a word to each other, Cochrane and Paris began to drag the three bodies into the surrounding foliage.
Thompson entered the shaft from the one below and swept his flashlight over the enclosed area. There were no tunnels, but there was a ladder leading upward to another trap door. He hurried over to it and climbed to the top, only to discover a trip wire connected to a hand grenade on the underside of the door. He shined the light on the wire and examined the trap before disarming it. Once the wire was disconnected from the triggering pin, he slipped the explosive-filled canister to his back pocket. He then raised the wooden door up a few inches and gazed out into the brightness of daytime, squinting at the scene before him.
The field of elephant grass was quiet and peaceful.
Lowering the door back in place, Thompson moved down the ladder and leaned over the opening in the floor. He stared at Lien and the kids with a genuine smile on his face. They were looking up at him with unanswered questions in their dark eyes.
“Everything is clear,” he said. “This is your last chance to stay behind and wait for your countrymen to find you.”
Lien talked quietly to the children. They replied to her in a low voice, and then stared back up at the American.
“We want to go with you,” she said.
“Okay,” Thompson said. “Hand me Cara.”
The nurse lifted Cara into the air and gave her to Thompson, who pulled the little girl up through the opening. The same procedure was repeated for Duc. The tunnel rat took Duc from the nurse and lifted him up into the higher shaft, setting the boy down beside his sister.
“Now, hand me the bag and rifle,” he said.
Lien tossed the tote bag up first, and then grabbed the assault rifle. As she held the AK-47 up to him so he could grab the barrel, a pair of leathery-looking hands with long talons at the end of the fingers appeared from out of nowhere. They snatched the woman by her shoulders, jerking her from view in the blink of an eye.
“Lien!” Thompson shouted.
Turning toward the kids, Thompson laid the AK-47 down beside them.
“I’m going after Lien,” he said in Vietnamese. “If I don’t come back, I want you to climb up the ladder and lay down on the ground outside. Wait for the Americans to find you. You’ll be safe.”
The children nodded, then–
“Please don’t leave us,” Duc said with tears forming in his eyes.
“I have to try and save Lien,” Thompson said softly. Reaching into the front pocket of his fatigues, the tunnel rat took out a metal Zippo lighter and handed it to Duc. On the front of the lighter was etched the image of a rodent with an army helmet on and a Colt .45 in his right hand. “You have my lighter. Use it when necessary.”
He then removed his Timex wristwatch and gave it to the little boy, pointing to a particular time. “Give me one hour. If I’m not back by the time this hand reaches this number, I want to you and your sister to leave. There are hand grenades inside the satchel for protection. They’re heavy, but all you have to do is pull the pin, drop it into the hole, and then lay down on the ground with your fingers in your ears.”
Duc and Cara nodded.
Stuffing the flashlight down the front of his pants, Thompson grabbed the edge of the trap door and swung down to the bottom like an acrobat. He hit the ground in a low crouch and pulled out both the flashlight and the Colt .45. Directing the light at the tunnel beside the ladder, he crawled into it and started moving as swiftly as possible.
Dozens of North Vietnamese were working their way down the jungle path. The ones out in front were whispering softly to each other, while eying the jungle for possible danger, wondering what had happened to their comrades.
A claymore mine suddenly exploded thirty feet back, killing several Vietnamese who were near the middle of the battalion. As the men in front spun around, two other mines went off close to them, taking out five soldiers in the blast. Another mine exploded further down the line. Some of the NVA were firing their weapons blindly into the jungle as three more soldiers dropped to the ground in a bloodied heap.
Four Green Berets (two on either side of the path) stood up within the leafy foliage and opened fire on the Vietnamese with their M-16s, spraying bullets left and right. The NVA soldiers quickly found themselves caught in the middle of a cross fire. A dozen more men were killed in the onslaught as Paris and Cochrane continued to fire their weapons from the right and Sergeants Gomez and Ramirez laid down heavy gunfire on the left. When their automatic rifles were empty, the four members of the A-Team blended back into the scenery and vanished.
Thompson was shuffling along on his elbows at brisk pace as he made his way down the tunnel. He didn’t have to worry about hidden traps, knowing the creature wouldn’t have been down here if it was dangerous. Stopping for a second, he listened to the quietness around him and detected a subtle noise coming from up ahead. He started moving again and before long there’s was the strong odor of decomposed bodies filling the air. The American soldier wrinkled his nose at the nauseating smell, but kept inching his way forward and soon encountered an opening on the left.
Stopping in front of the entrance, the tunnel rat shined his flashlight into the short pathway leading up to the much larger cave. He entered the passage and soon saw that it was filled with the remains of dead Vietnamese soldiers, women, and children. Swarms of insects were covering them, battling each other for a tasty morsel.
When Thompson was far enough into the cave, he saw Lien’s body a few yards away and hurried over to her. He swept the light over her body, checking for any visible wounds. The only thing he could see was some blood running from a cut to her upper lip. He checked her pulse and then gently shook her shoulders.
“Wake up, Lien,” he said softly.
Eventually the Vietnamese nurse opened her eyes. At first, they were filled with fright. Then, she focused on Thompson, who was leaning over her. She calmed down and stared into his eyes with a strong sense of affection.
“You came for me,” she said.
“Yes,” Thompson said. “Where’s the quai vat?”
Lien sat up with his arm around her, taking in the bodies that filled the cave. She then shook her head wearily from side to side.
“I don’t know,” she said in a whisper. “All I remember is being taken from behind and dragged through a tunnel.”
“We need to get out of here,” the tunnel rat said, handing her the flashlight.
As they turned around to make their way out of the cave, they suddenly saw the red, blazing eyes of the creature gazing steadily at them from the entranceway. Thompson raised the Colt .45 and began to fire at the quai vat until the clip in the handgun was empty and the slide had locked in place. Ejecting the empty magazine from inside the handle, Thompson replaced it with a new one and released the slide so a round was injected into the chamber. He then re-aimed the weapon at where the creature had been but was now gone. Glancing at Lien, he gave her the semi-automatic and a spare magazine.
“Do you know how to fire this?” he asked.
“Good,” Thompson said. “Follow me.”
“Where did the quai vat go?” she asked.
“I don’t know, but my guess is the creature is somewhere down the tunnel, waiting for us to make an appearance.”
Both Freeman and Lien headed down the short incline to the main tunnel.
The day was filled with the sounds of machine gunfire, mortar shells going off, and claymore mines being exploded in the near distance.
Major John Horton and SFC Seagraves were lying prone in the grass, close to the entrance of the shaft Thompson had disappeared down. They fired their M-16s in short bursts as Captain Joe Camacho ran towards them on the right. When he reached the men, he dropped to the ground and fired his rifle at something near the jungle’s edge. He then turned his head to Horton.
“The men need to take the fight to the enemy,” he said, breathing heavily.
“Right now we’re barely holding our own.”
“Have them pull back, Captain,” Horton said. “Puff, the Magic Dragon is on the way.”
Camacho grinned widely and then saluted. A moment later, he was on his feet, racing back toward the jungle.
With Lien beside him, Thompson checked both directions of the tunnel before allowing her to crawl into it. He then pointed in the direction that led to the kids.
“Make your way to the shaft,” he said. “Be sure to let the children know it’s you, or they might drop a hand grenade on top of your head. If I’m not there in twenty minutes, leave without me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Kill the damn thing,” Thompson said, pulling out his fighting knife from the sheath tied to his arm. “It’s time the creature found out what a U.S. Army tunnel rat can do.”
Lien started to say something. Instead, she reached over and kissed him on the lips.
“Come back to me, Steve.”
She turned and started crawling back the way she’d come, keeping the red light out in front of her.
Thompson watched her leave, and then shifted his attention to the opposite direction. He began to move quickly along the dirt floor, feeling his way along, and blending into the blackness that surrounded him.
“I’m coming, you mother fucker,” he said.
The tunnel rat has gone less than eight yards when he heard the strange noise that the creature made when moving down a tunnel. It was coming from up ahead. Turning over onto his side, Thompson reached down his leg and withdrew an object from his combat boot. Then, there was a sound of something striking a coarse surface. Suddenly, he was holding a lit flare. He shielded his vision from it, holding the flare to the right and down toward the ground. He didn’t want the molten magnesium to drip on his exposed hand.
Keeping the flare ahead of him, Thompson picked up his knife and continued down the passageway, squinting at the brightness. A few minutes later, he entered a large shaft that housed two tunnels leading in different directions. There was a ladder up against the wall, connecting the shaft to the next level. Raising the flare higher, the American looked up at the ceiling and a shocked expression froze on his face as he saw the most hideous-looking creature alive.
The tunnel rat didn’t have time to move as the monstrosity dropped upon him from the roof. The only thing Thompson could do was shove the flare into the thing’s face, watching as the intense heat burned it way through the quai vat’s leathery cheek.
The pain surprised the creature, and it roared out in agony, revealing sharp fangs and a long, pointed tongue. Thompson jerked the flare back and then jabbed it into the creature’s chest in an effort to get it off of him. The quai vat jolted with another nerve-shattering scream. That was when the tunnel rat slid out from beneath the monster and pressed the burning flare into its leg, listening to a shrill that was nearly ear-splitting.
Back pedaling until he was up against the far wall, Thompson watched the creature as it warily stared back at him from across the shaft. The American tried not to let his own fear gain control and kept breathing steadily in an attempt to remain calm. Still, he was scared shitless and wasn’t afraid to admit it.
The thing in front of him wasn’t human.
It hissed wickedly at the rat and maneuvered itself closer as if to test his reaction.
Rather than waiting for the creature to make the first move, Thompson charged in and hit the thing in the arm with the hot end of the flare, sending it rushing back to the safety of the wall. That was when some of the molten substance from the flare splashed onto the tunnel rat’s hand, causing him to drop the torch and yell out in pain. He swiftly rubbed the back of his right hand in the dirt.
The quai vat saw its opportunity and charged.
It was purely by reflex that Thompson sliced the sharp blade across the monster’s extended arm, leaving a gaping wound. He then moved in without even thinking and stabbed it in the stomach, pulling upward and to the side like a Japanese samurai committing seppuku. He felt the claws of the thing raking down his own chest and barely managed to stifle a cry as an all-consuming pain shot through his racked body. Not knowing what else to do, Thompson went for broke and shoved the knife into the side of the quai vat’s neck, driving the naked blade in to the hilt and then backing quickly away.
The demonic terror screamed out in unbelievable agony. The tunnel rat watched it dash into one of the passages.
Glancing down, he examined torn military T-shirt, the ripped-opened flesh of his muscled chest, and the red blood soaking the fabric and the top of his fatigue pants. He didn’t have time to worry about pain or the wound. Thompson sheathed the knife and took out the hand grenade from his rear pocket. He pulled the pin and tossed it into the dark passage that the creature had disappeared into. Grabbing the flare from off the floor, he darted into the tunnel that led back to safety, hit the dirt, and curled up into a ball as the grenade exploded, causing a massive cave-in and maybe buying him some time. After that, Thompson started crawling back the way he’d come, glad that he was still alive.
Lien and the two children were kneeling around the trap door in the floor, staring silently into the blackness of the hole and were almost to the point of giving up when–
“It’s me,” Thompson called out. “Please don’t throw a grenade down my pants.”
The three Vietnamese watched as the tunnel rat make his way wearily up the ladder. Lien could see the bloodied wounds to his chest as he climbed into the shaft and sat down.
“You’re hurt,” she said.
Thompson gave her a grin and said, “Yeah, but you should see the other guy.”
“What happened to the quai vat?” Lien asked.
“I don’t think we have to worry about monsters for a while,” Thompson said, slinging the AK-47 and tote bag over his shoulder. “Let’s get out of here. I need to see some daylight before I turn into a vampire.”
As he made his way up the rickety ladder, the American heard the sounds of distant rifle fire and explosions coming from above ground. He pushed the trap door up and stared out through the narrow opening. Three Green Berets were falling back from the jungle as a group of NVA soldiers hurried out after them.
The enemy was firing their rifles blindly at the American soldiers, but still managed to hit Sergeant 1st Class, Al Marshall, in the arm. Peterson and Camacho heard Marshall fall and returned to him. As Camacho laid down a heavy fusillade of automatic fire, Peterson took hold of his friend and helped to carry him across the knoll to where his other team members were gathering.
Climbing out of the hole, Thompson took the AK-47 from off his shoulder, pushed the fire selector to the bottom position, and then aimed the assault rifle at the enemy soldiers. The AK-47 wasn’t known for long distance accuracy, but Thompson could hit a squirrel on a tree limb at a hundred yards. Starting with the rear soldier and working his way up, he took out all five of the NVA soldiers before the first grunt even realized what was happening.
Camacho, who saw the enemy soldiers being dispatched, glanced around and saw Thompson on the other side of the elephant grass, firing his rifle. He waved to him and motioned to where the first shaft was located and the rest of the team was waiting for Puff, the Magic Dragon.
Thompson raised his rifle in the air to acknowledge the message. He then turned back to the shaft just as Lien’s head popped up.
“Is it safe to come out?” she asked.
“Yes, but we need to move quickly,” Thompson said. “I think the shit is getting ready to hit the fan.”
“Here,” she said, handing up Cara.
Major Horton saw some action off to his right, removed a M26 hand grenade from his web belt, pulled the pin, and threw it as two North Vietnamese soldiers charged him and his team.
“Duck!” he shouted.
The grenade landed a yard from the enemy, exploded, and blew them into the air like rag dolls.
“You should be a pitcher for the major leagues,” Gomez said to his boss.
RTO Seagraves was on the radio as bullets zipped past his ear and mortar rounds struck the ground several yards away. He talked rapidly to someone on the other end of the line. Hanging up the receiver, he grabbed his M-16 and sprayed a dozen rounds at the approaching NVA. His bullets prompted them to scatter back into the jungle.
“Puff should be here in three minutes,” he said.
“Thank, God,” Horton replied.
Seeing something unusual in the distance to the north, Seagraves laid his rifle down and picked up a pair of binoculars.
“You’re not going to believe this, Major.”
The sergeant handed his commander the glasses.
“Look north, about seventy yards out,” Seagraves said.
Bullets flew over Horton’s head as he gazed through the binoculars and saw Thompson helping a Vietnamese woman out of a shaft. Two children were standing next to him, watching nervously as a battle took place around them. It looked as though the little boy was holding onto Thompson’s leg.
“You’re right, Kit,” Horton said. “I don’t believe it.” The major lowered the binoculars and smiled happily at his RTO. “The rat is out of the hole, and he’s doing a goddamn John Wayne as we speak.”
“He’s making us look bad,” Seagraves said, taking the binoculars back and stuffing them into a carrying case. “We have to do something about that.”
“Damn right,” Horton said. “Everybody follow me.”
The major then took off running in the direction of Thompson, shooting the M-16 from his hip and killing two Vietnamese soldiers thirty feet away. Seagraves was right behind him with the rest of the A-team hightailing it after them.
Thompson was down on one knee, emptying the magazine in his AK-47 at four charging Vietnamese soldiers. He replaced the magazine with a loaded one from the bag. Lien and the kids were huddle next to him. As the tunnel rat slipped the new magazine into the rifle and pulled back the slide, he heard a noise to his left and whirled around, shooting another NVA soldier. He fired half the clip into the man, tearing him apart.
As Thompson dug into the bag for another magazine, Lien shouted at him.
“Watch out, Steve!” she screamed.
Three enemy soldiers seemed to come from out of nowhere, charging the tunnel rat from his blindside. Though Lien managed to shoot one of the men with the .45, the other two soldiers fired their rifles at the American and shot him in the left leg and twice in the back as he spun around in shock. The force of the bullets propelled him to the grass like a falling tree.
The other two Vietnamese shifted their attention to Lien and the kids. They charged them with their bayoneted carbines held out in front so they wouldn’t have to waste a bullet.
This was when Major John Horton magically appeared and shot one of the soldiers with his M-16. As he fired at the second man, a round of ammunition jammed inside the chamber. Not having time to clear the side portal, he tossed the rifle at the man’s face as he yanked his survival knife from the sheath strapped to his chest. The NVA soldier blocked the flying rifle with his own weapon, and then attempted to shoot the Green Beret. Horton, however, moved inside of the carbine and cut the man on his face and neck with two fast strokes of the blade. He then grabbed the surprised man and whipped him around, using the guy’s body to protect him as another Vietnamese soldier appeared and fired his rifle into his comrade, killing him deader than a door nail.
Just as the enemy soldier was taking aim at Horton’s head, Kit Seagraves cut the man down with a blast from his automatic weapon. In another ten seconds, the entire A-team was surrounding Steve Thompson and the three Vietnamese.
Rich Daley knelt down beside Thompson and checked out the two bullet wounds in the back. Looking up at Horton, he shook his head and moved over to Oatley Utter to treat his arm.
“I guess this is it,” Thompson said.
Kneeling down beside the dying man, Horton looked at his bloodied chest wounds and said, “What happened down there, Steve?”
“You wouldn’t believe it,” the tunnel rat said. “Even I’m having a hard time with what happened. It was a fucking monster, John. The thing killed everyone in the complex, except for the nurse and two children. It almost got me near the end. I think it’s still alive.”
“A monster?” Horton said.
“A quai vat,” Lien answered as she got down on her knees beside Thompson and Horton. “The creature got me, but Steve fought it so I could live.”
Horton glanced at the two children and they nodded.
“That tote bag is filled with important documents,” Thompson continued. “I can read Vietnamese, and I saw a couple of pages that dealt with a major battle plan at the end of January. Every major city in the south is going to be hit at the same time.”
Glancing at the bag, Horton said, “That might just keep me from going to the stockade.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Long story,” the major said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Give those documents to your commanding officer. They’ll guarantee his promotion to General. He won’t care about anything else.”
“One last thing,” Thompson said. “I promised Lien that she and the children would be safe with us. The kids have malaria and need some medical attention. I want you to take care of them and see that nothing happens.”
“You have my word,” Horton replied.
“I think I’m going to sleep for a while,” Thompson said. “I’m tired.”
Lien took his hand as the tunnel rat closed his eyes and then a few seconds later stopped breathing.
Sergeant Seagraves tapped Horton lightly on the right shoulder and said,
“Puff, the Magic Dragon is here.”
Turning around, Horton allowed his gaze to follow the direction of his RTO’s finger. He saw the Douglas AC-47 aircraft in the distance, flying in their direction. Two more minutes was all they needed.
“The North Vietnamese are coming, sir,” Daley said.
Horton shifted his attention to the jungle and saw at least seventy NVA soldiers emerging from the foliage, firing their rifles non-stop with most of the bullets going high and wide. The members of the A-team were returning fire, loading fresh magazines into their weapons as quickly as their hands could move.
“I’m out of ammo!” Ramirez shouted.
“Catch,” Atkins yelled, throwing him a loaded magazine.
The transmitter on the RTO’s back began to ring as Ramirez replaced the empty magazine in his M-16 with a new one. Seagraves answered the call, and then handed the receiver to Horton.
“This is Major Horton speaking,” he said into the phone.
A bullet just missed the major’s head and tore into Cochrane’s lower back, sending him to the ground in a spasm of agony. Daley finished with Utter’s arm and rushed over to the Lead Sergeant of Engineering, pulling out surgical powder, compresses and gauze. He started working on the Sergeant’s wounds after he injected a vial of morphine into his side.
“Big Dog,” the airplane pilot said, “this is Puff, the Magic Dragon. Where do you want me to put the payload?”
“Ten yards south of the red smoke,” Horton replied. “You’ll see the enemy. Show no mercy, Puff.”
“Roger that,” the pilot said. “Prepare to hunker down.”
“Everybody flat on the ground!” the major shouted.
As Paris threw two M-18 grenades out toward the enemy and red smoke began to billow up into the air, the gunship banked sharply to the left and circled around, coming in low over the field of elephant grass and the thick jungle.
The Vietnamese stared up at the airplane in awe for a brief moment, and then started shooting at it, hoping to bring the gunship down with the small-arms fire.
During the next fifteen seconds, as the Green Berets laid prone in the grass, the three mini-guns in the rear of the aircraft fired nearly a thousand rounds of 7.62mm ammunition through the opened hatch and two windows. The bullets tore into the seventy men, ripping them apart like a knife through crepe paper, cutting down the shrubbery and trees behind them, and leaving nothing but an ugly path of destruction. The North Vietnamese soldiers never had a chance, which was okay with the A-team. The idea was to survive an encounter with the enemy and not to die.
“Puff, the Magic Dragon,” Horton said into the receiver, “do you read me?”
“I read you loud and clear, Big Dog,” the pilot answered.
“We’re heading out. I owe you a beer when we get back to Nha Trang, Spooky.”
“Two beers, Big Dog,” the pilot said, laughing.
Horton gave the receiver back to Seagraves and looked at the rest of his men. “Let’s head back to base camp,” he said.
The members of the A-team begin to rise to their feet, shifting their eyes from Thompson’s body, to the three Vietnamese, and finally to Major Horton.
Daley finished with Cochrane and looked at the two children. He moved over to them and dug into his M5 medical bag for some pills to fight the malaria. When he found the tin can with the medicine in it, he gave each of the children two capsules and a drink of water from his canteen.
“I need someone to carry my rifle and pack,” Horton said.
Horton slipped out of his backpack and laid it and the M-16 down on the ground. Moving over to Thompson’s body, he squatted down and managed to lift the dead man up and over his board shoulders. Standing back up with a grunt and using a fireman’s carry for the body, the major glanced around at the other Berets.
“I’m not leaving my friend here for the Vietcong to find,” he said. He then stared at Lien. “I promised Steve I’d look after you and the kids. I will. I won’t allow anyone to mess with you.”
“Thank you,” Lien said.
“Grab the tote bag, Tim,” he continued. “What’s in that bag is going to save our asses with Colonel Kramer. He’d be more concerned with getting his first star than in sending me to the stockade.” He watched as Gomez picked up his rifle and backpack. “Dutch, I need you to carry the little girl, and Joe, you get the boy.”
Once the team was ready, everybody started moving toward the jungle at a fast pace, passing the bodies in the field and the destroyed foliage. A few bullets still zipped and zinged around the group, but not as many as before. The A-team entered the jungle and gradually disappeared from sight.