Introduction to War

by Morris Cox

Company “A” was on patrol in the Ashau Valley during the summer of 1969, moving cautiously down a well-worn trail through dense underbrush. This was my second trip into the Ashau. Anyone who has ever been there knows how intense that valley can be. This is not a place to let your guard down.

There, almost in the trail, was a dead NVA soldier – or at least the lower half of him, cleanly severed from the rest of his body as if by a surgeon’s scalpel. Unbelievably, his Ho Chi Minh sandals still remained on his feet. As was the practice of an infantryman to point out anything suspicious or unusual to the next man in the column, I pointed this out to the man following behind me. In an effort to conceal my unease I added something like, “I wonder where the rest of him is?” or some other off-the-cuff remark. Only a short distance down the trial that question was answered: there lay the upper torso of that NVA soldier, minus an arm, I believe.

Before there was any time to reflect on what we had just seen, we moved on to the ridgeline and there was another NVA body, then another, then another. Over a distance of a couple hundred meters laid thirty to forty dead NVA, each in his own morbid death position. It was obvious they had been killed days before, and now those putrid remains were recognizable only by God himself. That sight was deeply poignant; the stench was nearly unbearable. As we continued down that trail, stepping over many of the bodies, I don’t recall anyone speaking.

Even our arrival to the LZ offered no relief from the rancid carnage. On or near the LZ were an additional five or six bodies, one located only a few feet from my machine gun position. Re-supply day was usually an occasion we all looked forward to, but on that day, we just wanted to get it over and done with.

Along with the usual re-supply of C-rations, water, ammo, and delivery of mail, that day five replacements – known as “cherries”- landed in the field for their very first time. If the appearance and scent of unwashed bonnie rats weren’t enough to convince these new arrivals that they had just become part of the war, the gruesome presence of the dead enemy was. Fresh faces that reflected na ve curiosity suddenly displayed horror and repugnance while each man seemed to hesitate for a moment, then take a step back in total disbelief.

One of those men was assigned to my gun team. Shortly after he had met the other gun team members, he noticed the nearby body and could no longer keep down his breakfast. The grave and austere reality of the Vietnam War had presented itself in terms that even a cherry could understand.