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
We were dead men walking long before the term was coined. We had
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
“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
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
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
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
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.”
“You know, Sergeant McDaniels was killed by a twelve-year-old boy in
“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.