His arms were stretched out and bent as if hugging someone who wasnâ��t there, his knees pulled up as if to prop a book for nighttime reading.
Back at home a young wife waits.
Her Green Beret has met his fate.
He has died for those oppressed . . .
—Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler (1966)
Captain Bracey, Mr. Stephens and I were headed home to Vung Tau after a day-long parts route or “milk run.” I had finished putting the emptied cargo compartment of the Caribou in order, stowed my cleaning supplies, and laid back to relax. As I reread my latest letter from Myra Faye, I hummed words from a recent Righteous Brothers song, You’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, oh-oh that lovin’ fe-e-elin’ . . .
Myra Faye and my relationship had been like an overworked Army airplane, in the sky sometimes, on the ground lots. And like Major Dint’s at Go Cong, our “landings” were hard and damaging. This time was no different. I loved Myra — her brown eyes — her searching hands — her husky voice that used to urge me on in the back seat of my old blue Dodge. I knew why we kept breaking up — she was just so hot and I wasn’t there . . . . and now it’s gone - gone - gone and I can’t go on, oh-oh-oh. I heard Mr. Stephens through my headset as he contacted the 1st Air Cavalry’s An Khe airfield.
“An Khe tower, this is Gray Tiger 99, over.”
“Roger, Gray Tiger 99, go ahead.”
“An Khe, we’re southbound through your vicinity.”
“Roger that, niner-niner. Got room for six dust-offs?” Dustoffs was Air Cav slang for combat dead. “We’re outta ice,” An Khe tower said. “Gotta send these boys to Saigon, now.”
“We’ll take ‘em, An Khe. How is it down there?”
We landed on An Khe’s semi-permanent runway, bulldozed from the coveting, suffocating jungle by Army Engineers. The air traffic controller was wrong about the heat. Hell never got this hot. I was sweating even before we touched down.
The six dead soldiers, in olive drab body bags, were delivered on the bed of a deuce-and-a-half which the driver had backed up to the airplane. Two privates, transformed into specters by rising heat waves, carried the bodies to the plane’s cargo bay.
I placed the bagged remains three to a side, heads toward the cockpit. The first five had been loaded and strapped down when the last one was brought to me. The gum-chewing PFC who handled the trailing end of the last stretcher looked up to me. “I told this joker to relax, to lay back.” He chuckled at his own wit. “But he just ignores me.” I chuckled, too.
A nearly visible stench preceded the body. The PFC told me he had been killed by Viet Cong and had floated in a rice paddy for several days. Rigor mortis, he guessed, had hardened him in the hot shallow water and the body bag had molded to his final figure. His arms were stretched out and bent as if hugging someone who wasn’t there, his knees pulled up as if to prop a book for nighttime reading.
More than the other five body bags, angry flies swarmed about this one, biting, buzzing, and ramming as they tried to penetrate the green plastic. They seemed drunk with the stench of death, something I’d never gotten used to. I couldn’t breathe, even with my handkerchief tied around my face.
I don’t know what Captain Bracey or Mr. Stephens thought, but I wanted to make the scene go away. I tried to think of other things; how would I answer Myra Faye’s letter? Whose birthday was coming up? How bad was that oil leak on number two engine? Nothing worked.
I finished tying down the last body and sat next to it, near the cargo door, for a moment. Curious, like the swarming flies, I leaned over and read his bag tag. He was a staff sergeant from Seattle. Now, I can’t remember his name.
I do remember trying for weeks to remove the stench from the plane’s cargo compartment. I scrubbed the gray vinyl sides with bleach and polished the wooden deck. I replaced the decking. Nothing worked. The death odor never went away. A month later, even Captain Bracey and Mr. Stephens said they could still smell it.