Sometime in 1966, for a few days, some Marines from my battalion, including me, were sent to a hill on the perimeter at Chu Lai to watch over an infantry company’s equipment while they were in the hills chasing North Vietnamese ghosts—intelligence said a regiment of NVA had slipped into South Vietnam.
There weren’t many of us—just enough for two Marines to man each of the small bunkers near the base of the hill that was surrounded by coiled barbed wire and then rice paddies.
As daylight faded, the hum of a billion mosquitoes greeted our ears warning us of what was to come as we waged war with the bloodsuckers and lost.
Looking for a way to escape, several Marines scrambled into the largest bunker at the top of the hill—it stood two stories tall with a thick slab of cast iron for a roof offering protection from Vietcong mortar rounds.
Those Marines thought they would be able to escape the bloodsuckers by moving inside the bunker. But as fast as they went in, they came out—screaming like schoolgirls. The bunker was full of rats and when the first Marine’s boots landed on the dirt floor, the rats climbed his legs in a frenzy.
I watched the few who had gone in come shooting out like rockets—eyes wide with shock; faces pale. These were all men who had fought in combat without showing fear when confronted by an enemy who wanted to kill them. Before the cast iron hatch at the top was slammed shut, one Marine tossed a fragmentation grenade in the bunker and it went off with a muffled blast.
Hours later, during my watch between midnight and four, I heard a rustling noise near the wire. There would be long stretches of silence (if you didn’t count the sound of distant firefights and the glare of flares along the division perimeter), then another rustling as if someone were crawling up the hill. I couldn’t see anything and thought it might be a small animal.
When my watch ended, I visited the only latrine that was close to the top of the hill. It was a screened, plywood box with a four-hole plywood bench. Inside, it was black as ink and smelled of urine. Under the bench were four half-empty, fifty-five gallon metal drums with several inches of diesel fuel in each one. In the mornings, the drums would be dragged out from under the plywood bench and set on fire. When it wasn’t raining, hundreds of columns of black smoke could be seen drifting into the morning sky over Chu Lai as the shit was burned.
I had stomach cramps—probably from the twenty-one-year-old canned rations I’d had for my evening meal. Or maybe from the water we drank that had a strong taste of chlorine to it.
I leaned my weapon just out of reach against the three-foot high plywood wall in front of me and sat. Above the plywood was a screened in open space that allowed air to flow through while keeping the mosquitoes out.
There was a tin roof and the shitter was probably the only place to escape the mosquitoes. If it hadn’t been for the stink, I’d have slept there. On both sides of the shitter was a line of tents where the grunts (infantry) kept their gear and slept when they weren’t in the field.
That’s when the grenades started to go off. I glanced to the left and saw a shadowy figure running fast along the line of tents tossing a grenade through each opening. I reached for my weapon but a wave of cramps doubled me over as the diarrhea gushed out.
For an instant, I thought I was going to be dead when a grenade was tossed in the shitter. But from the outside, it must have looked empty and I was spared that fate.
No one died or was wounded on that hill that night. The tents were empty because the grunts were in the hills hunting an elusive enemy, and most of us were in the smaller bunkers near the concertina wire. I was closer than anyone to the lone killer who had slipped inside the wire.
That was just one night out of hundreds during my combat tour in Vietnam.
Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran.
His latest novel is the award winning suspense-thriller Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.
And the woman he loves and wants to save was fighting for the other side.
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