Roderick Mathis – Days in the Bushes of Vietnam
(An Interview with a Vietnam Veteran)
The Vietnam War was one of the longest and deadliest wars in U.S. history. More than 58,000 lives were lost and more than 300,000 were wounded. This conflict cost the U.S. more than $150 billion dollars. What were they fighting for? What could be so important that thousands of lives would have to be sacrificed? What were the reasons for involving America in a civil conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam?
“Man we didn’t know why we were fighting then, and we still don’t know today,” says 4th class specialist Asell Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick served a tour of duty in the bushes (jungles) of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodiaafter being drafted into the United States Army in July 1969. He was born and raised in a small suburb called Mt.Pisgahjust outside of Memphis, Tennessee.
The Vietnam conflict was a military struggle from 1959 until the cease-fire in January of 1973. Sell, as he likes to be called, started his six-week basic training program in Fort Polk, Louisiana. When that training was over he trained another six-weeks in advanced small weapons in a place called “Tiger land.”
“Somewhere in Louisiana.”
The band of brothers, (Sell’s unit) was sent there for training in preparation for the swamps ofVietnam. Sell started his 12-month tour inVietnam, 15 miles outside of a small, very primitive village calledSungBay. The natives were very poor and lived mostly like animals. They had no running water and very little to eat except for the vegetables they grew, like rice and corn and the animals they caught and cooked over an open flame. Animals like wild boar, deer, rabbit and an occasional rodent were considered delicacies. They slept on dirt floors inside of huts made of straw and bamboo that were held together with mud, baked hard in the sizzling heat. Sometimes if it rained hard enough their homes would float away like yachts in the open sea.
The high temperatures inVietnamsometimes remained above the 100 degree mark for months at a time, making it virtually impossible to hump (carry) the 100 pound equipment that every grunt (U.S.soldier) had to carry for survival in the bush.
“I would see guys pass out, I mean pass out cold,” Sell said,
Sell was starring out into open space as if he was back in the bush. Not only was it hot in theNam, it was hazardous. Soldiers not only had to worry about the enemy, they had to worry about the animals as well. You could see the fear in Sell’s eyes as he began to think about being out there again, Out there in the bush.
During a 12-month tour, an Army Infantry soldiers had to do 25 days in and five days out. This meant that the average U.S. soldier had to spend 25 days out of the month, deeply embedded in the jungle with only a five day break out of the jungle and then they would have to repeat the process over and over until their tour of duty was over or until they were injured or killed. Grunts would have to spend 305 days in the jungle and 60 days out of the jungle within a 12-month period. Some parts of the jungle were so thick with foliage that even in the day time visibility was about two yards or less.
These guys would come out of the bush with dried caked on mud from head to toe, lice in their dirty unkempt hair and unshaven faces, leeches (large black blood sucking worms) attached to their bodies, snake bites, scratches and blisters all over their bloody hands and swollen feet. The camouflage uniforms they wore reeked of body odor, gunpowder and death and were rotting and falling off their bodies. Some of the men died of infections such as malaria and hepatitis and some suffered amputations due to serious insect and animal bites. According to Sell, one of the most vicious insects that he had ever encountered was the giant red ant that would attack relentlessly by clamping onto the skin and curling up making it impossible to remove.
“Man, guys would yell and run around rippin off their clothes if they happen upon one of those ant nests. Those ants be tear’in there ass up,”
Sell continues to describe the pain and confusion of being attacked by the red ants. Sell then starts to talk about another animal he comes upon while in the bush, the fucque lizard.
“Man I once saw a fucque lizard the size of a park bench.”
The soldiers in Vietnam called these enormous reptiles fucque lizards because of the sounds they made, they sounded like they were saying f–k you. They were about 10 to 12ft long and weigh about 1000lbs; the size of an average crocodile. They could whip their powerful tails around and knock an average size man to the ground and they were highly poisonous. Although they weren’t aggressive, they would attack if you invaded their territory or threatened their young.
“If you didn’t mess with them they wouldn’t mess with you.”
In the jungles ofVietnamthe NVA weren’t the only enemies to be on the look out for; venomous snakes got a lot of respect also. Out of all the deadly animals and insects inVietnam, the bamboo viper had to be the most feared. They nicknamed this highly poisonous snake, one step or two step, depending on the area that you were in, because one or maybe two steps would be about as far as you would make it after one sunk its venomous vangs into you. One drop of its concentrated venom could kill an elephant within a twenty-four hour period, according to men in the field.
“Man, I’ve seen 170 lb. monkeys, 15-foot boa constrictors, red scorpions the size of your hand, king cobras, and two-ton water buffalos, but that damn bamboo viper is something I never want to see again for the rest of my life.” “I’d rather be shot at or maybe even ran over by a tank, instead facing that kind of shit again.”
Sell reassures himself with a far away glare in his eyes. Apparently remembering how hazardous this snake was to the guys out there.
Obviously, many men had succumb to the two-step, but not quite as many as the enemies weapon of choice, the AK-47 rifle. This was the preferred weapon of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army). The AK-47 rifle was a lot heavier that the U.S. Army’s’ M-16 rifle because it’s caliber was bigger and it made a loud bang that would send chills down the spine of anyone who was within an earshot of it’s distinctive sound. Every U.S.infantryman in the bush and out recognized the sound of an AK-47 rifle.
“Man, we knew where they (NVA) were, by the sound of that rifle.”
Sell recalls the day in combat when his actions earned him a Bronze Star Medal for heroism. He says he will never forget the day his platoon was about 200 clicks, (1 click is 1000 yards), from Sung Bay. Sell and a FNG(f–king new guy), who went by the name of PFC Stiff, were clearing a path out in the bush for the rest of the platoon that had strategically fallen behind in case of an ambush. Suddenly Sell and Stiff heard NVA voices up ahead. Without hesitation they unslung their rifles from their shoulders and lay in wait. They could see three NVA soldiers, coming up a path about half the size of a doorway. Sell and PFC Stiff had the deadly enemy in their sights not more than 10 feet away when out of the blue PFC Stiff lost his nerves and started running for his life, leaving Sell to face the enemy alone. When Sell turned to see that PFC Stiff had run off and left him, he accidently gave away his location and the enemy got the upper hand on him. When he turned his attention back to the enemy, he was staring down the barrel of an AK-47, eye to eye with the enemy. The only thing he could do was fight for his life, so he raised his weapon and fired several times miraculously killing all three enemies. One of which was a high-ranking officer carrying very important documents.
“Everybody killed some gooks that day”, Sell said, “but I killed an important one, that’s why we all received medals but, I was the only one to earn a Bronze Star.”
That day still haunts Sell because that was the day that he is sure, should have been his last.
“Man, I was supposed to die that day.”
After the short gun battle that day Sell checked the rifle of the Vietnamese soldier that had him dead to rights and to his surprise the bullet was still in the chamber of the rifle. The firing pin indention was clearly on the blasting cap of the bullet. In other words the rifle misfired, giving Sell the opportunity to fire his weapon sparing his own life and single-handedly stopping three very hostile enemies. After that day Sell kept that bullet around his neck and was no longer worried about future gun battles, because he was sure that he had the bullet that was meant to kill him around his neck. It was like a good luck charm. A few months later he lost that bullet along with his nerves. Fortunately for him his tour of duty was just about over, so he opted to spend his last seven weeks stateside instead of in the bush until he was honorably discharged from the U.S.Army.