The smell was not unbearable; several hours would pass before it got that bad. It was, however, strong enough to prevent these men at the end of the line from lingering, as those at the front of the line had done, thus depriving them of the chance to look at the corpses long enough to become accustomed to the sight of blood. They just gave the bodies a brief glance, then moved quickly from the trailer and the growing stench.
The procession ended. Kazmarack and another clerk, Corporal Stasek, hitched up the trailer and drove off toward Danang. Anderson left for a staff conference that had been called in preparation for General Thompson’s visit. Ten minutes later, he came lumbering back into the tent, his red jowly face pouring sweat.
“Mister Caputo, we’ve got to get those bodies back here so he can show them to the general when he briefs him,” Anderson said.
“Stasek and Kazmarack are gone, sir. They’re probably in Danang by now.”
“I know they’re gone. I want you to find somebody who can handle a jeep. Tell him to catch up with those two and have them bring those bodies back here ASAP.”
“Captain, I don’t really believe we are doing this.”
“Just get moving.” He turned and walked off with quick, jerky little steps.
I managed to find a driver who knew the route and told him what to do. I returned to the tent, where, in the spirit of the madness in which I was taking part, I made up a new title for myself. I wrote it on a piece of cardboard and tacked the cardboard to my desk. It read:
2LT. P.J.CAPUTO. OFFICER IN CHARGE OF THE DEAD.
… The briefing started. Stasek and Kazmarack returned about a quarter of an hour later, both looking overwrought.
“Lieutenant, sir,” Stasek said, “what the hell’s going on? We had those VC buried …”
I told them what was going on and asked where the bodies were.
“Outside, sir.” Stasek started to laugh in the slightly hysterical way a man does when what he really wants to do is scream. “Christ, we had to pull them out of where we buried them. One of the VC’s guts spilled out of him. Then I pulled at another one and his leg started to come off. They were just coming apart.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” I said. “Sorry about all this. Just stand by for now, but you’ll have to bring the bodies when the briefing’s over.
“Yes, sir. If that general’s going to look at those bodies, we’d better hose the trailer down.
… Kazmarack and another marine had connected a hose to a water carrier and were filling the trailer.
…Stasek squatted, reached underneath the trailer, and unscrewed the plug in the bottom. He pulled his hand back quickly when the water poured out in a heavy, red stream speckled with bits of white stuff. “Jesus Christ,” Stasek said, “look at it all.”
When the briefing ended, General Thompson, Colonel Wheeler, and the other officers came out of the tent. I saluted smartly as they walked past me toward my freshly washed corpses. I thought of them as mine; they were the dead and I was the officer in charge of the dead. A rivulet of blood-colored water flowed from under the trailer and soaked into the dust. The brass stepped over it carefully, to avoid ruining the shine on their boots. Someone pointed out the bodies and told the General that they were the VC that had been killed in the morning. He glanced at them, said something to the colonel, then continued on to the LZ, where his helicopter waited.
I spent the rest of the afternoon puttering over some meaningless paperwork. When I walked into the mess for the evening meal, Chaplain Ryerson, and the medical officer, Milsovic, stopped eating and looked at me. Putting my tray on the plywood table, I sat down. The chaplain, who was as thin and cheerless as the doctor was heavyset and jolly, slid along the bench to sit across from me.
“The doctor tells me we lost another marine today,” he said leaning forward slightly. He sounded accusatory, as if in recording it, I had been responsible for the boy’s death.
“Yes, sir. We did.”
“I just hope these boys are dying for a good reason, lieutenant. What do you think?”
“All due respect, chaplain, but we’re not supposed to talk shop in the mess. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about casualties. I’ve had enough of that today.”
“Shop or no shop, I just hope these boys aren’t getting killed because some officer wants a promotion.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
“What do you mean, you wouldn’t know about that? You saw that show that was put on for the General today, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir. But right now, I’d like to finish chow. Maybe you ought to talk to the Old Man about it. What do you expect me to do?”
“Maybe you could explain what we’re doing over here. You’ve been a platoon commander. When we got here, we were just supposed to defend the airfield for a while and then go back to Okinawa. Now we’re in the war to stay and nobody has been able to explain to me what we’re doing. I’m no tactician, but the way it looks to me, we send men out on an operation, they kill a few VC, or the VC kill them, and then we pull out and the VC come right back in. So we’re back where we started. That’s the way it looks to me. I think these boys are getting killed for nothing.”
I held up my hands. “Chaplain, what do you want me to say? Maybe you’re right. I don’t know, I’m just a second lieutenant. Anyway, it’s not that bad a war. We’ve taken only eighty-four casualties since the end of April, and only twelve of those have been KIA. Hell, in World War Two an outfit like this would take eighty-four casualties in five minutes.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? This isn’t World War Two.”
“What I mean is that twelve KIAs in two months isn’t bad.”
Ryerson’s face reddened and his voice got strident. “That’s twelve wrecked homes. Twelve wrecked homes, lieutenant.” He pointed a finger at me. “Twelve KIA is pretty bad for the families of those dead marines.” I didn’t say anything. My food was getting cold in the tray. A few senior officers had turned around, to see what the chaplain’s outburst was all about.
“The doctor here and I think in terms of human suffering, not statistics,” Ryerson said, pressing his point. “That’s something you infantry types seem to forget.”
I thought of Sergeant Sullivan then and remembered how deeply his death had affected the “infantry types” in C Company.
“Well, good for you and the doctor,” I said. “You’re real humanitarians. Do you think I liked doing what I did today? Do you think I get a big fucking kick out if it, sky pilot?”
“Now hold on, mister …”
“Hey, Phil,” Milsovic said. “Watch that dago temper of yours. The chaplain didn’t mean anything personal.”
I cooled off, apologized to Ryerson, and finished eating.