© Copyright 2022 by Fredrick Hudgin
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
You think life in a war zone is tough on the fighters, but most people don’t realize how tough it is on the non-fighters. I’ve replayed the encounter over and over a thousand time and never have figured out what I could have done to change the outcome. Now I’m watching the same stuff happen in Ukraine. Bodies of children lined up on the sidewalk. It breaks my heart. Childhood should be a happy time, not one filled with fear, hiding, bombs, and bullets. Maybe that’s why I finally decided to put this down on paper. It’s been fifty-one years since I came home from that damned war and I suppose I’m still healing.
“You wanna Coke? Cold Coke – very cold. Or beer? Have number 1 beer for GI.”
“Not today, Ha.”
She smiled and moved on to the next truck.
Our convoy had stopped outside of Pleiku. This was normal. The ride up from AnKhe always stretched out over several miles. Those heavy trucks slowed down to three miles per hour crawling up the steep Mang Yang pass between AnKhe and Pleiku. This was the place where everyone caught up, then we would continue through the town of Pleiku as a group and enter the army base where we off-loaded our trucks. I think the convoy commanders did this as a security thing, so local vehicles couldn’t enter the convoy between the trucks as we passed through the town and possibly attack us. The Vietnamese locals had set up an oasis of sorts where we stopped, selling anything that would sell—cold cans of pop and beer, souvenirs, trinkets, paintings, sex. The stop was popular with the drivers. We could get out of our hot, noisy trucks, stretch our legs, and get a cold drink after the sweltering, dusty ride.
Ha was a little girl, maybe ten years old, who I enjoyed seeing every time I stopped. She would joke with me in her pigeon-English and thank me profusely when I gave her the unused parts of my C-ration meals that I would save up between trips to Pleiku. She was so skinny and malnourished, a good breeze would have blown her into the next province. Sometimes I bought a cold pop from her just to be able to give her a little cash.
Instead of US greenbacks, our “cash” was MPC (military payment certificates). The GIs had flooded the economy with cash when paid in US currency, buying anything they wanted, primarily whores and drugs. Most of the cash ended up in the hands of the Vietcong. In large part, that’s how they funded the war against us. So the powers-that-be now paid us in MPC notes. Every so often, the US forces would collect all the old notes country-wide, and issue us new ones printed in a different style, invalidating the old notes. This removed the value of the money from the Vietcong. When we came back to the US, they converted any of the current MPC notes in our possession into US currency.
I changed my mind about the cold pop and went in search of Ha. Lots of other Vietnamese kids were working the convoy, just like she did. GIs always have a soft spot for kids of foreign lands. I found her standing next to a truck on the side that was away from all the people and stands. No one else was around. She hadn’t seen me yet and was acting strange, almost covert. I slid behind the truck I was next to and watched. She removed the fuel tank cap on the truck and dropped something in. Then put the cap back on, looked around to make sure no one had seen her, and walked quickly around the back of the truck, out of sight.
I walked to the fuel tank and opened it. Inside was a hand grenade wrapped in what looked like masking tape. The safety pin had been removed. The diesel fuel in the tank would slowly eat through the mucilage on the tape as it sloshed around when the truck went down the road. When the last of it had been dissolved, the grenade would explode, destroying the truck, the driver, and usually the tanker of fuel the truck was pulling.
I had no idea what to do. I called over one of the gun truck drivers and showed him what I’d found. He called the convoy commanded on his radio. The convoy commander, a second lieutenant, listened to my story. I could tell he was pissed off. He told me to find Ha while he called the MPs, then called EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) and evacuated everyone, along with the surrounding trucks, from the area near the truck with the grenade.
I found Ha hiding inside the little shack where she kept the things she sold. She was crying. “Please no tell, GI! I no do your truck. Vietcong have my family! Kill everyone if I no put in truck.”
I was torn. Yeah, she didn’t put the grenade in my truck, but she did put it in another guy’s truck. That guy was an American like me. He had family that loved him back home. I figured I had no choice. If I didn’t turn her in, she would do it again to someone else. I walked her over to the MPs.
The MPs weren’t sure what to do with her either, her being a Vietnamese national. They called the local ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) MPs. EOD showed up in their bomb suits and pulled the grenade out of the tank. They wrapped it in duct tape and put it in a bomb containment. They left as the ARVN MPs showed up. The ARVNs slapped Ha around, screamed at her in Vietnamese. She tried to talk, but they just slapped her again and again, then put her in handcuffs. I started to intervene, but an American MP put his hand on my chest and shook his head. The ARVNs, loaded her into their jeep and drove away. She looked at me over the back of the seat as they left, blood running down the side of her jaw from her split lip.
“What’s going to happen to her,” I asked the American MP.
He laughed—I’ll never forget that laugh. “She’ll be dead in a ditch before they get back to their HQ.”
I never saw Ha again. I asked the other kids every time we stopped there. No one knew. The next time we came through, someone else was using her shack.
later, I found out the name “Ha” meant “kiss of
life, sunshine, and warmth.” I hope she found some of that in
her next life.