An Act of War

An Act of War

by Michael K. McMahan

ISBN: 9780615793337

Publisher Brad Kelly Books

Published in Mystery & Thrillers/Thrillers & Suspense, Mystery & Thrillers/Mystery, Literature & Fiction/Contemporary, Mystery & Thrillers, Literature & Fiction

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Book Description


When Lt. Travis Kelly kills a North Vietnamese officer near the Cambodian border in 1969, he tries hard to put the incident--and the rest of the Vietnam War--behind him. But like so many of Travis's experience in the war, this one comes continues to haunt him decades later. Forty Years after the war, a Vietnamese man by the name of Nguyen Li Minh, claiming to be the son of the slain NVA officer and the grandson of Ho Chi Minh, kidnaps Travis's daughter and her family from their North Carolina home and holds them hostage in Vietnam forcing Travis back onto the battlefields of his past.

Sample Chapter


Two Miles Southeast of the Parrot’s Beak

Republic of South Vietnam

22 February 1969

I sat on my helmet, quiet and still. Every muscle in my body ached or quivered like a marathon runner’s legs on the last mile. For the past twenty‑seven days my men and I had been bounced like the steel balls of a pinball machine from one firefight to the next, up and down the Cambodian border. My only pair of grimy jungle fatigues clung to my thighs and back like a wet bathing suit. My hands and arms were darkened and streaked by rich subtropical soil, and my fingernails were blackened crescents that a bayonet no longer cleaned. The eyes that stared back at me from the tiny mirror of my Army compass had shadows beneath them like the dark side of a half moon on a clear night in the Carolinas. I needed a shave as badly as I needed a haircut.

Still, like six other grunts in my platoon, I had raised my hand to volunteer for night ambush duty.

Volunteering for the night ambush squad was not the zealous act of an FNG. Even “fucking new guys” knew the risks of a night outside the company’s defensive perimeter, where you could get your throat slit if you fell asleep, or your face blown off by a Claymore mine reversed by an unseen enemy. But night ambush squads, when they returned at dawn, got a day off at base camp, a clean towel and wash cloth, a small bar of soap, a steel pot full of clean water to wash up and shave, clean fatigues, a haircut, a hot meal, and sleep—sweet, sweet sleep.

As the only officer, I was in charge, but I knew better than to push these men or even myself. Pushing grizzled veterans like us was like pushing a wagon with a rope. Unlike the fresh, wide-eyed FNGs in their new fatigues and rucksacks filled with underwear, socks, and C‑rations, we carried only the essentials—water, dehydrated meals, grenades, and ammo, lots of ammo. We knew too much. It was all crap to us now. We saw ourselves as pawns on the great chessboard of life. We no longer fought for country or honor. We fought to stay alive and to keep our buddies alive.

Death had laced its cold fingers into and through the fabric of our lives. We had carried too many young men out of the jungle, tied dog tags into too many boots, and zipped up too many body bags. We shared the distant stare of soldiers who were too often too close to the chilling crack of enemy small‑arms fire. We knew that life and the loss of it were random. The tools of combat have no capacity for selection. Bullets, rockets, mortar rounds, and grenades are mindless objects. They have no conscience. If they hit you, they hit you. Fight long enough, and you will get hit. When your time is up, your time is up.

We were dead men walking long before the term was coined. We had breathed

too much cordite and racked too many magazines of ammunition into our weapons. Our body bags were waiting. It was just a matter of time. The six other volunteers knew it. I knew it, too.


I called the men together about 1600 hours, 4:00 p.m. civilian time. I had broken down and scattered the parts of my .45-caliber pistol on a sandbag. I had an intimate relationship with this weapon. The old M1911 Colt .45, first put in service in 1911, had a relatively slow muzzle velocity. It fired a bullet the size of a man’s thumb. Not meant for distant combat, it was an up-close-and-personal weapon, perfect for the close-in combat of Vietnam. It had replaced the .38-caliber pistols that Teddy Roosevelt found would not stop a charging enemy soldier in the Spanish-American War. The .45-caliber bullet did not slice into and through the enemy’s body. It slammed into them with the force of a giant fist, pulverizing body tissue and knocking them down hard, like David’s stone. I had qualified as “expert” with the .45, earning the best score in my officer’s training class.

“Everybody clean their weapon today?” I asked—a question, not an order.

“Before we leave,” Ferguson said.

The others nodded.

“Okay, let’s leave in ninety minutes,” I said. “It will take about an hour to get to the river.” I tried to keep it friendly and low key. “No steel pots, just jungle hats. Everybody paint up good.” Paint was the camouflage makeup worn on missions like this one. “See you in an hour and a half.”

They all returned to their makeshift bunkers.


We snaked our way through the lush undergrowth of the jungle, each man about three meters in front of and behind the other, like tiny boxcars on a short train. Intel reports said that North Vietnamese regular army units, NVA for short, were moving men and supplies along a small stream that flowed from Cambodia into South Vietnam. I set up the ambush on a gentle slope overlooking a sharp turn in the narrow river. Positioning an M-60 machine gun up front, I put a man with a grenade launcher on each flank. The others lay on their bellies, M-16s ready to fire at anything that moved.

I set my field radio on silenced mode. I carried no weapon other than my freshly cleaned .45-caliber pistol. Contact with the enemy would find me calling in artillery and mortar fire. If the fighting got close enough that I needed an M-16, I could count on one or more lying on the ground nearby.

It was late February, and by 1830 hours it was dark in the thick jungle. Though we couldn’t feel them, we knew that bloodsucking leeches were attaching themselves to our bodies. We would burn them off in the morning light when we returned to our unit. For now, it was just a matter of being perfectly still and quiet for twelve hours or until a target of opportunity emerged.


The full moon lit the river like a Las Vegas boulevard. We could hear the water’s current and the occasional sounds of small nocturnal animals. Mosquitoes buzzed around us like miniature airplanes, looking for a place to strike. We kept them at bay with the repellent we reapplied throughout the night. We were experienced soldiers. We waited and watched. But no NVA moved on the river that night. It was a dry hole.


At 0630 hours, I broke up the ambush and quietly ordered the men to head in the direction of our unit. An hour would be needed to cover the short distance through the thick brush.

Sergeant Rick Dixon walked point, then Specialist Manny Hernandez behind Dixon. I followed Hernandez, the radio strapped to my back. The other four grunts, Bishop, Dawson, Alvarez, and Ferguson, brought up the rear.

The morning sun had just taken us out of the pre-dawn gloom when Dixon raised his fist, signaling us to freeze. Hernandez dropped quickly and silently to one knee. He raised his M-16 to his shoulder.

I pulled the Colt .45 from my shoulder holster, cocked it, and held it by my side, pointed at the ground. No one moved.

Dixon stood and waved us forward.

Hernandez advanced cautiously.

I had taken one slow step when I saw an enemy soldier in an NVA uniform and pith helmet just ten meters to my left. He pulled the string on a Chicom grenade and threw it toward the squad. The grenade fell four feet in front of Hernandez.

I turned and fired three times, catching the enemy soldier in the chest and driving him back and down into the thick jungle foliage.

Hernandez yelled, “Grenade!” at the same time I was firing.

The men all dived flat on their stomachs away from the grenade, but the grenade didn’t explode. It was a dud.

After a minute that seemed like an hour, I stood in the waist-high elephant grass and advanced toward the enemy soldier’s body. He lay on his back, his open eyes staring at nothing. Two of the three rounds I had fired caught him squarely in the center of the chest, killing him almost instantly.

I swung the field radio off my shoulders and motioned Hernandez over. I pointed him down a trail where he set up watch while I examined the body. It was obviously an NVA officer, probably the equivalent of a major in the US Army. Inside his jacket was a large map of the area with indications of NVA units not far from our position, mostly in Cambodia. I stuffed the map in one of the wide pockets of my jungle fatigues. I also found a wallet with money and pictures, including one that showed the dead officer standing behind a small boy with his arm around a young woman—a family photo.

I laid the wallet on the soldier’s chest. That’s when I saw the boy. He could not have been more than ten years old. He lay trembling in the underbrush, just a few feet from the body, his face streaked with tears.

I stripped a small pistol and two grenades from the officer’s body. As I pulled the radio back on my shoulders, I picked up the fallen officer’s pith helmet. It was practically new and had a red star in the middle front. I thought I could keep it as a souvenir and take it back to the States. I reorganized the men and motioned for Hernandez to recover.

We left the body on the trail, an act of professional courtesy among combatants. The dead soldier’s comrades would find the body, then bury or cremate it. We headed back to camp without further incident.


An hour later, we stood naked in a circle and used lighted cigarettes to burn the leeches off our backs and legs as we waited for the mail and water choppers that would take us to base camp. Once I was cleared of the bloodsucking parasites, I pulled my filthy fatigues back on and reported to the company commander, Captain Walt Bradley. I gave Bradley the map I had recovered from the North Vietnamese officer’s body. When I asked him if I could keep the pith helmet, he said I could.

Bradley was excited about the map and immediately called battalion HQ. He suggested that I be written up for a commendation, but I told him I had enough medals already, and all I wanted was to get to base camp for a day off. I said nothing about the boy.


As I was boarding the last helicopter to base camp, I saw Captain Bradley jogging in my direction, breathing hard and clearly upset.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the boy?” Bradley screamed above the noise of the Huey.

I didn’t respond.

“Ferguson said that Hernandez told him there was a small boy with the man you shot.”

I nodded.

“You know, Sergeant McDaniels was killed by a twelve-year-old boy in Saigon.”

“Can I go, sir?”

“You can go, but we need to talk about this when you get back. I’m sorry, but I have no choice but to write you up. You withheld vital information. Do you understand?”

I nodded and climbed into the chopper. Getting written up probably meant some type of disciplinary action, maybe an Article 15, and it would follow me the rest of my military career or until the bullet with my name on it found me. I was betting on the bullet. Career was the last thought on my mind in February 1969.

The man I had killed may have been the kid’s father. That was bad enough. Compounding the injury by bringing the kid in, knowing he would end up in the hands of ARVN troops, was not anything I wanted on my conscience. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam was thoroughly corrupt, profoundly incompetent, and incredibly cruel. I would take the Article 15, no problem. Better to take the military punishment than to see a young boy turned over to the ARVN.


Excerpted from "An Act of War" by Michael K. McMahan. Copyright © 2013 by Michael K. McMahan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Michael K. McMahan

Michael K. McMahan

Michael K. McMahan is a writer in North Carolina. His current release is An Act of War, a thriller about an aging Vietnam veteran whose daughter and grandchildren are kidnapped and taken to Vietnam by the son of an enemy combatant he killed near Cambodia in 1969. McMahan's other works include A Breach of Faith, Woodland Publications, 1996; Confessions of a Preacher's Kid, Xulon Press, 2001; and, Saving Hope (A Brad Kelly Novel) to be released in the spring of 2014. McMahan is a graduate of the University of North Carolina where he also holds a master's degree. He lives in North Carolina.

View full Profile of Michael K. McMahan

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