During the war, VC tax collectors routinely toured the peasant villages and levied
a “freedom tax” in the form or rice of other food. Then,
they transported the goods by river to enemy base camps on shore. If
we saw the same face on the river too often, or if someone had in his possession
more supplies than he could account for, we were generally correct in assuming
him a tax collector. That afternoon, the other boat crew stopped a sampan
carrying just such a character. In the two minutes it took us to come
alongside, the situation had deteriorated, and everyone was locked and loaded
and ready for anything.
Faced with capture and unnerved by the burst
of M-16 fire he’d taken
across his bow, the VC tax collector had gone to pieces under questioning and
caused all kinds of trouble. He stood up in his boat and wailed and moaned,
gnashed his teeth, tore at his hair and wrung his hands. Two other men
behaved themselves at the bow of the sampan, and a teenage girl sat on a thwart
I’m not sure what happened next. To this day, I can’t
picture exactly how it went down, but in the confusion, the girl reached for
something inside the basket on her lap. Bad move. Big mistake. Everyone
in the sampan had been told a dozen times not to move, but the little dummy
stuck her hand into that basket, and that was all it took for our guys to let
go with M-16s on full automatic.
- Under constant threat of death, American soldiers became conditioned
to react instinctively to any perceived peril. Dave experienced many
traumatic events in which he was an active participant, such as the violent
death of another person.
I’d say it was over in a heartbeat, but I’ll spare you the bad
pun. When the smoke cleared – and I mean that literally – seconds
passed before the usual afternoon river noises supplanted the ring of rifle
fire in my ears. More seconds passed, then the tax collector collapsed
in a heap on the deck of his boat. This time, his wailing and moaning
was not an act. I looked down at the girl sprawled on her back, her long
black hair trailing downstream with the current. A huge, blood-soaked
hole occupied the space that had been her chest.
The officer in charge
of the other boat whistled under his breath and said to no one, “Oh,
man, we really messed up this time. We killed a
I don’t need to tell you the tension was high on
those boats hovering out there in the middle of the Mekong River. Three
Vietnamese, eight navy guys, and just then, nobody could tell the difference
between right and wrong, good and evil. A standoff. Tragedy looked
preservation of self right in the eye, and for a moment, the earth stood still.