A Culpable Innocence
Chapter 4: Landing Zone Tiger (pg. 80)
Their anticipation was unhappily not unwarranted. Within the hour, the first round landed. Regis ducked, but Erickson never flinched. He was studying the area in front of him. “Anybody see anything?” Another one landed—the explosion a bit louder this time. “Shit, they’re walking them in this way.”
“What are you looking for?” Regis asked.
“Red flashes, we’re trying to locate their firing position”—another explosion—“wow, they’re getting closer. Fallen, look and listen! You can tell by the sound the round makes just before it hits.”
Just then the radio clicked on: “LZ Tiger, this is Spotter One. I’ve got a read on them . . .” From a forward position, a listening post, a hunkered down spotter reported approximate coordinates. Several yards behind the bunker, soldiers swung into action. Within seconds, they yelled out, “fire,” and the answering mortar round was on its way. The spotter called in again. “Two clicks to the right and one up . . .” His corrections were relayed in a loud, urgent voice to the mortar crew before the spotter even signed off. Meanwhile the incoming were getting closer to Regis’ position. Instinctively, Regis’ covered his ears as soon as he heard the round whistling through the air. It reminded him of that stray bullet fired past his head on his first night on guard duty. But unlike the bullet’s passing which comes unannounced—travelling faster than the gun’s retort—a mortar hisses and roars its approach like a missile careening back to earth and threatening to obliterate all in its path. With each successive explosion, the resultant thud grew louder and its concussive force increased.
Erickson yelled out behind him. “I see them! Look where your last round landed. Just walk it up that hill a little. It’s not even a click. You’ve got him.” Then he turned to Regis. “Fallen, they’ll be coming right on top of us unless we get them first. ‘Cept for a direct hit, you’ll hear it. Stay down . . .”
Without finishing his sentence, he suddenly leaped onto Regis just as the earth opened up. Regis had not heard the incoming round until it exploded. Then all went silent. Erickson was on top of him and both of them were covered with dirt. Regis was knocked senseless. His first physical sensation was something warm and wet on his shirt. Either he or Erickson was bleeding. “Erickson, are you hit?” Regis could not tell that he was screaming.
Erickson’s face was next to his: his eyes were open and his lips were moving. The words started to make some sense, but their calm did not match the violence that had just been wrought upon them. “Are you OK? I think I’ve been hit, but there’s no pain. It’s probably just shrapnel in my ass. Maybe, I’ll be like Jamison . . . purple heart and a trip home. You see, you are my good luck charm . . .” Then he fell silent.
Regis felt the air rush out of the squad leader with his last exhale. He knew the man who had befriended him was dead. He reached around, found a massive wound in Erickson’s back, and realized that the force with which Erickson had slammed him to the ground was not just a product of momentum.
Regis carefully rolled Erikson’s body off of him. Lifting his own, he gazed at an unfamiliar sight: the bunker wall opposite him was no more. At first, he did not recognize the disarray before him. Piece by piece he began to identify fragments of uniforms, gear, and bodies—or parts of bodies. At his feet, partly propped up against the rear of the bunker was Washington. His eyes were open, but so was his left side which apparently took the brunt of the explosion, his left arm broken and limp at his waist. His face was expressionless, his mouth, quivering as if he were trying to speak. Regis leaned close to glean what might be his last words. “Twenty three fuckin’ days short, man . . .” Somehow, Crazy Washington did not miss the irony of his last breath in Vietnam. A man who had faced enemy bullets head on and walked away unscathed was now felled by happenstance, as if struck by a lightning bolt. His head rolled to the right and sunk on his chest, revealing the left side of his skull, pale bone exposed to the moonlight, bereft of skin, hair, and his left ear.
From behind the bunker came a proclamation. “Erickson, we got ‘em! You were right! That last one shut them down big time!”
Regis surveyed the remains of the bunker. He was the only one who had survived. He replied in a voice as loud as his unrestrained emotions could muster, “he’s dead . . . they’re all dead!”