THE DEADLIEST MEN IN Vietnam’s Mekong Delta were operating…
Deep inside the triple-canopied jungle, Brian, at point, held up a clenched fist. The silent stop-look-listen signal passed from point, down the line to Gene, and back to Doc in the rear. The seven SEALs froze, ten feet apart, seeing what wasn’t supposed to be there. What wasn’t on any map.
Gene, his M-60 aimed wherever he looked, smelted death, looked at death. His chest and throat tightened, adrenaline pumping. One step forward out of the jungle, where he stood invisible in the green shadow, and he’d be in there. The 60 moved very slowly, poised like a cobra.
The SEAL squad had inserted into the jungle hours earlier, after being taken nine miles upriver by boat into enemy territory. From their insertion point into the NVA Secret Zone, they’d patrolled to within two and a half klicks of the mission objective, an NVA Rest and Recovery Center. Progress had been slow. Well trained, all with hard-target combat experience, they’d snaked through dense jungle, weapons off safe, locked and loaded, never disturbing the natural sounds of the environment. The SEALs secured everything metal with green duct tape and made sure they moved quietly.
Now they almost didn’t breathe. In there, the jungle was beyond quiet. Totally silent. No birds, snakes, monkeys. Not even the constant insect hum.
To Gene, standing motionless and sweat-soaked in the stifling heat, it looked like the ancient rotting thing had been lifted from a horror film and just inserted in the jungle. A square-shaped structure, like a fort in a western movie, gray with age, sat up on stilts in the center of the fifty-by-fifty clearing. Gunports, high up, looked outward like empty eyes.
No sign of gun barrels or of any kind of life. There were only the walls of thin, rotted tree trunks, tied together with aging rope and rusted wire. Unevenly cut, but sturdy. Dangerous. He breathed out slowly. Probably booby-trapped—both the clearing and that fearful building—from the jungle’s edge where they stood, clear through to the far side. The 60 moved again. God, but the place was eerie.
After seven hours in the jungle, he, like the rest of the squad, wore a virtual bodysuit of mud. Sweat dripped into his eyes in spite of the olive-green bandana tied around his head to keep his dark, curly hair off his face and the sweat from washing off the green and black face paint. White-knuckled, he stood his ground and shuddered…
Something really bad had gone down here. A lot of people had died. Died real bad. Massacred. He could sense death, feel it. The mud in that clearing—deep, endlessly deep. Year after year of leaves falling, vegetation decaying. Animals dying in there, sinking down into the sludge to join the bodies of men…French, Viet Cong, whoever killed, whoever died…the men and their weapons…all in there, rotting away. God, it stank.
If they went in—no sign of an entrance on the side that he could see—a man on each corner, one at the entrance, two inside, would their squad be the next layer of bones and weapons? In the wet heat, he shivered.
Hand signals, a half-circle followed by the direction to take, came back from Jim: Retreat into the jungle, skirt around the clearing. Avoid. Gene lifted the 60 away, safety off, locked and loaded, as it had been since leaving Seafloat, as it would be until re-boarding, whether that was hours or days from now.
The seven SEALs moved as one, disappeared into the returning bird and monkey cries from the trees, and faded into the jungle.
Gene never looked back, but the image of the fort was locked in memory forever. No Patrol Leader’s Order could have anticipated a head-on encounter with ancient death. Not when they’d had no intelligence, never dreamed such a monstrosity existed.
Earlier. 1600 hours…
Between ops, Gene Michaels, in swim trunks and canvas jungle boots, squatted in the shade beside Lima Platoon’s hootch on Seafloat, smoking a cigarette and studying the jungle, as was his habit. The barges that made up Seafloat were anchored mid-river on the Son Ku Lon, near Old Nam Cam in the Tran Hung Dao III region, and they were always a target. An added attraction for the NVA and VC was Solid Anchor, the airstrip the Seabees were constructing on the bank next to them.
He kept an eye on the muddy brown river as well, though previous sapper attacks had always come at night. He drew hard on his cigarette as Lt. (jg.) Jim Henshaw came around the corner of their hootch and settled down beside him.
“Gene,” he said, “I’m going to run an operation. It’s cleared through the platoon’s officer in charge. We’re going in and eliminate an NVA Rest and Recovery Center. If possible, bring out a hostage for intelligence. You want to be my assistant patrol leader?”
Muscular, tanned, his eyes now as hard as the grin that, tracer-like, flashed and died, Gene looked at the boyish face of his lieutenant. “Sounds like a good op, Jim,” he said, his voice low against the cadence of distant thunder over the jungle. “What do you need me to do?” He stood, took a last drag, and flipped the cigarette butt in a high arc off Seafloat into the river.
Jim, too, got to his feet. “Talk to the men, tell them the Warning Order time, set up early chow with the mess hall. And Gene, meet me at the helicopter pad at 1300 hours for a visual recon.”
The wall of the hootch was as unyielding as the shoulder Gene leaned against it. “Which men do you want?”
Henshaw named them and left. Gene Michaels went hunting. If the others were drinking, and they usually were, they needed to quit now. And maybe he could avoid running into Willie, who’d want to go, knowing damned well he couldn’t, because he wasn’t a SEAL. Willie, his best friend, was a photo intelligence specialist and took too many risks as it was, going out with the Kit Carson Scouts. Gene just wanted the southern aristocrat from Tennessee to live long enough to go home and get married as planned.
No such luck. Willie stepped away from the far side of the SEALs’ plywood hootch just as Gene rounded the corner.
“Whoa, Gene, I know that look. Y’all are jungle bound. Need a double on the op? Here I stand. At your service, sir.”
Gene shook his head. The guy was a redheaded rooster, always ready for combat, but he wouldn’t live through a SEAL op, and with him along, neither would the SEALs. “What’s the matter, Willie? The Kit Carson Scouts toss your rebel ass out?”
Willie took hold of the chain around his neck and dangled a gold cross at Gene. “Not while I’ve got this. This is their good-luck charm, and it doesn’t go without me attached.” He laughed. “Now, if you’re smart…”
He’d never met a more happy-go-lucky guy than Willie. Though he went out with the Kit Carson Scouts, the KCSs, as a fill-in, he mainly worked with their two combat military advisors, sat in on interrogations. Willie could read aerial photos like most people read road signs. Gene shook his head. “Sorry, friend. We’re covered.”
Willie’s green eyes narrowed. “Doc hates—I say, he hates—to operate. I’ll have a word with him.”
Gene shook his head. “Not a prayer. Doc’s going. He’s got no choice. But you, you’re going back to The World and get married. That’s an op worth experiencing.”
“Since you’re the only one married in the squad, I bow to your assessment.”
“Count your blessings.”
“I’ll save them for y’all,” Willie said.
They clasped each other’s shoulders, as close as they ever came to a hug.
“Catch y’all later.”
“Right.” Gene turned away and didn’t look back. Didn’t need to. He could feel Willie seeing him off, as always. He operated so often, with his own squad or another, that it was almost a daily ritual.
At 1300, he met Jim at the helo pad down at the far end of Seafloat. The chopper was already warming up. They climbed aboard and took off to inspect the terrain they’d be patrolling into.
Half an hour later, they landed and went directly to the briefing room where Sea Wolf and Mobile SEAL Support Teams, along with the five other members of the SEAL Team squad, were already waiting. Jim walked to the front of the room. Gene secured the door, then dropped into the nearest chair. Double security.
There was a knock on the door. Now, what the hell…He opened it to see Willie.
“Flash report,” Willie said.
Gene took the sheet of paper. “Okay. Thanks.”
Door secured again, Gene scanned the report, then walked it up to Jim.
“Flash report from intel,” Jim explained, then relayed the contents. “Information is needed on an NVA advisor, a Colonel Nguyen. It is believed that Colonel Nguyen was previously a double agent, known as Lieutenant Dong—a former Vietnamese SEAL who infiltrated the LDNN program about three years ago, and who disappeared before he could be apprehended.”
Shit, Gene thought, a Vietnamese SEAL! No damned wonder nobody can catch him—trained like us, thinks like us, operates like us, knows what we do, how we do it. He’d be dangerous as hell.
“So,” Jim went on, “interrogate all POWs concerning the whereabouts and the movements of this individual. The colonel is recruiting throughout the Mekong Delta. Information reports that if he gets any resistance from the local villagers, the villages and indigenous are being eliminated.” He looked around the room. “Just keep in mind that we want this guy.”
Whole villages and all the villagers? A butcher. Yeah, Gene thought, we want him. Colonel Nguyen. He’d make it a point to remember the name.
“The mission objective,” Jim began, “is a North Vietnamese Rest and Recovery Center. We’re going in to collect information, take a hostage, search and destroy the rest.”
Gene watched the helo crews and the boat people throw quick glances at one another. The five other SEALs, sprawled in their chairs, were still, focused on Jim. No mission was ever the same. They needed to know exactly who would be doing what, and what they’d be carrying.
“Okay,” Jim said. “We take no water, no food. Brian, you’re point man. Take a Stoner with eight hundred rounds of ammo, a nine-millimeter with a Hush Puppy, two magazines of fourteen rounds each. ‘X’ the nose of the bullets. One m the chamber. Four grenades—two fragmentation and two concussion—one claymore mine with a thirty-second delay fuse, two pop flares—one red, one green. Two smokes—one green, one violet. Pick up an area map at the platoon leader’s office. You’ll also need a Lensatic compass and a flashlight with green lens.”
From the back of the room, Gene saw the seaman nod. Brian Norwood usually drew point position because, at five foot three, 135 pounds, he was the smallest man in the squad, able to go into tight places in heavy brush and find them a path through the jungle—their eyes and ears up front. Good at spotting booby traps, good at navigation. And the Hush Puppy, with two magazines plus one round in the chamber, would give him the capability of fifteen silent kills.
Jim told each man what to take, following the same order they would patrol in. He named himself next. “I’ll be the PL. I’ll be carrying a Stoner, eight hundred rounds, two LAAWS rockets, Hush Puppy with two magazines, two smokes—one red, one green—and two pop flares, map, compass, and flashlight with red lens.”
Gene watched Jim take a careful drag of his cigarette. The ash was about three-quarters of an inch long. Maybe the PL would, one day, be able to smoke one to the end without the ash dropping off.
“Roland, you’re radioman. M-16, four grenades—two fragmentation, two white phosphorus—four pop flares—two red, two green—an extra battery for the PRC-77 radio, ten pounds of C-4 in two five-block charges with five-minute delay fuses.”
Stretching out his legs, he glanced over. Garson, the second-class radioman, was a good communications specialist. Lousy poker player, though. His face gave him away every time. His favorite phrase fit any and all situations: Everything’s all fucked up. Made Gene laugh, so it became a private joke between them, and Roland muttered it each time they met. It was the way Roland said it.
Clearing his throat, Jim went on. “Assistant PL and automatic weapons man is Gene. Take eight hundred rounds for your M-60 and a few grenades, map and compass, flashlight with green lens.” He took a careful puff and the ash fell off.
Gene kept a straight face and nodded that he understood. Jim ground the cigarette out.
“Grenadier is Alex. XM-203, four hundred rounds of 5.56 ammo, thirty rounds of 40 Mike-Mike, two claymores, twenty rounds of high explosive, five rounds of white phosphorus, and five flechettes.”
Third Class Alex Stochek was their real loner. Strange, silent guy. Woke up with a hard-on every morning. Must be tough on his women, Gene decided. The only one of the squad with a full beard, he was hot with the XM-203, an over-and-under weapon with an M-16 on top and a grenade launcher underneath, but the flechette seemed somehow more evil. Its pattern was like a shotgun’s, only each load was a cluster of barbed darts about half an inch long. Ugly. Strange guy. Yearned to make a knife kill. Really strange.
“Stoner man, Cruz Bertino. Take the Stoner, eight hundred rounds, four grenades, two LAAWS rockets, two claymores—one with a thirty-second delay fuse, one with a one-minute delay—and two pop flares—one red, one green,” Jim continued.
Cruz, the original cumshaw man. First words out of his mouth, most times, were “You owe…” Half the time they called him You-O, and if Gene remembered correctly, Jim owed Cruz first choice of his next box of cookies from The World—back home—in exchange for the case of Pepsi You-O produced out of nowhere two nights past.
“Rear security is Doc Murphy. M-16, six hundred rounds, medical kit to include emergency surgery kit, chloroform pack, two hand grenades, and two five-pound charges of C-4 with five-minute delay fuses.”
Gene’s grin flashed. The second-class corpsman hated operations where enemy contact was likely. Doc was a SEAL but hadn’t gone through training. He’d had Basic Land Warfare, SEAL Basic Indoctrination, and diving school. He hadn’t gone through Hell Week. Assigned to SEAL Team’s Lima Platoon, he had no choice over going. He constantly protested, “Goddammit, I’m not a SEAL. I’m a corpsman. You can count on me to treat you, but don’t count on me for battle.” He’d fire his weapon, but as soon as somebody got wounded, he’d quit firing to care for the man. He hated to operate. Just despised it, because he wasn’t a SEAL. Still, if Gene ever had to operate with just himself and one other man, Doc would be the other.
Jim turned his attention to the Sea Wolf crews, the two pilots, two copilots, and four gunners who would man the two helicopter gunships. “We need two helos. Fully loaded rocket pods, two M-60s on each gunship, with as much ammo as you can carry.”
Hottest pilots in the world, Gene thought. They’d go anywhere, do anything, to get the SEALs out alive.
He watched Jim pace, glance down at the paper in his hand, then look at the boat personnel, the eight men from Mobile SEAL Support Team unit assigned to Lima Platoon. “We need two MSSCs, Medium SEAL Support Crafts. I want two .50-calibers with five thousand rounds each on each boat, as well as two M-60s with five thousand rounds, per weapon, per boat.”
“Uniforms.” Jim announced the second half of the briefing, as was SOP—standard operating procedure—for the Warning Order. “Everyone in the patrol will have cami tops, pants—Levi’s 501s or cami bottoms—jungle boots, insect repellent, first-aid kits, UDT SEAL life jackets, knife, UDT emergency flare, and green and black face paint.”
Behind them, Gene stood up and stretched. UDT, he thought. Underwater Demolition Team. Frogmen, they were called, and they were good at what they did. Had some aboard Seafloat, but in spite of what people thought, UDT people weren’t SEALs, and SEALs sure as hell weren’t UDT. The UDTs hadn’t had the massive amounts of advanced training SEALs got.
“Inspections are set at 1530 hours, ready for patrol. Help each other out. Jump up and down and make sure nothing rattles, and that everyone has all the equipment and ammo brought up. Patrol Leader’s Order is at 1600 hours,” Jim finished. “Eat early. See you at 1600. In uniform. Ready to go.”
Gene unlocked the door, stepped out onto Seafloat’s deck and into steaming heat. The rest of the details he and Jim had worked out for the op would come later, during the PLO. It was his time now. He needed it to stay alive, stay sane…go quiet and read from his little pocket Bible. At least he still had his faith, but he’d given up a long time ago his high school dream of becoming a missionary. Becoming a SEAL had changed him too much. Now the jungle and the enemy were waiting…and so was he.
The Viet Cong, partly because of Gene Michaels, came to believe the Navy SEALs could fly, could breathe underwater, and could not be killed. Other military people who encountered them believed they were individually and collectively crazy. Nobody, not even other Special Forces, messed with the SEALs, one of the deadliest and most elite intelligence-combat entities in the world, a status shared only by Britain’s Special Air Services.
The SEALs of Lima Platoon, legendary for their fierceness in combat, were base-camped in mid-river on Seafloat, one of the hottest AOs—areas of operation—in Vietnam. Lima numbered fourteen SEALs, divided into two seven-man squads. Though assigned to Lima’s first squad, Gene operated not only with both squads but with other squads on Seafloat and with the Kit Carson Scouts, the Montagnards, and any other unit that wanted him and his 60. They all did. He was the most lethal of all the SEALs, and he loved to operate.
The men swore his big M-60 sang in combat, with a firing rhythm that was his alone. SEALs who’d operated with him insisted they’d recognize the da-da-da, da-da-da, dut, dut, da-da-da, da-da-da, dut, dut rapid-fire music of his 60 forever after.
He stood six feet tall, weighed two hundred pounds. When his laughter died and he went off alone, his features icy, his eyes gone from brown to black, not even Willie dared approach. But the squads considered Gene their lucky element. No SEAL on patrol with him had ever died. Nor had any ever been seriously wounded or captured.
Gene had caught some shrapnel, and he carried flecks of it still, inside his left wrist and arm. He refused to report such minor injuries, knowing a report would cause a Purple Heart to be forthcoming. Having seen the savage wounds others sustained, he had his own ideas about when a Purple Heart was called for.
Carrying a pack of Marlboro cigarettes in the left pocket of his cami shirt, and in the right pocket a small Bible, read before and after every mission, he ignored his squad’s comments about luck, the kidding about his praying. He just counted, like beads on a rosary, the number of times he should have been dead—they should all have been dead—and was silent.
MEN IN GREEN FACES Copyright © 1992 by Gene Wentz and Betty Abell Jurus.
GENE WENTZ served in Vietnam as a SEAL. His many decorations include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, three Presidential Unit Citations, three Navy Unit Citations, and two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry.