Sunday, May 27, 2012

Purple Heart by BJ Neblett

Friday May 18th marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of my childhood best friend. I wrote this story for him a couple of years after returning from the Army. I still miss you Chris.  
This is for all my brother servicemen out there past and present, on this Memorial Day.

Purple Heart
By BJ Neblett

            Fighting had been heavy in recent weeks. The Viet Cong were determined to make this Veterans Day a memorable and bloody one for the US.
            The jungle plains around Bu Dop, a strategic village on the Cambodian border, were normally quiet. Occasionally, the enemy crossed the border, made their way around behind the village, and then snuck back over in a flanking maneuver from the west. The small bands of guerillas and mercenaries were lightly armed and not well organized. They made hit and run raids on supply convoys or set IED’s – Improvised Explosive Devices – for patrols around Saigon.
            But the past few weeks saw a sharp increase in hostilities in the area between the capitol city and Bu Dop, one hundred klicks to the north. These were seasoned troops, North Viet Nam regulars, equipped with Russian made assault weapons, as well as mortars and shouldered rocket launchers supplied by the Chinese. The surprise escalation caught US forces off guard, and causalities were mounting. Frightened locals flooding into Saigon clogged vital roads, making a bad situation worse.
            Sgt. Ryan wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his fatigue shirt. He looked at the stain left by the combination of sweat, grime and camouflage grease paint. It was the rainy season in Southeast Asia. Like most of the men, Ryan ignored the army issued poncho. In the downpours common to the area, the protective cover felt hot, heavy and cumbersome. There was little one could do to stay dry. Rains fell like a violent steam shower in the dense jungle. Foot fungus; damp, malfunctioning weapons, and cold, wet meals were a fact of life while on patrol.
            Sgt. Ryan looked around. He took a grim mental count of the men in his command. When he set out seven days ago they numbered twenty one, split into three squads: Alpha, Delta and Echo. What was once Echo squad laid scattered several klicks behind along with some two dozen dead VC. The thirteen remaining battle weary GI’s, including three wounded, were headed back to base camp.
            “What the hell am I doing here?” Ryan muttered to himself for about the thousandth time. He adjusted the M-16 slung over his left shoulder. A year ago he was studying automotive mechanics at Lincoln Tech in Philadelphia, and engaged to his childhood sweetheart Carol Sawyer.
            Ryan relaxed against a tree as his men filed past. He thought about Carol. He used to have a picture of her. But like everything in this lousy forsaken jungle, it succumbed to the rain and humidity, crumbling in his hands one night as he pulled it from his breast pocket.
            But no amount of rain could blur its image tattooed in Ryan’s mind. Or the memory of the day she gave it to him.

            Ryan graduated at the top of his class at Lincoln Tech. Then his deferment ran out and Uncle Sam came calling. Carol was a freshman at Villanova University. The night before Ryan left they drove to the Springton Reservoir in his Dodge Coronet. It was their spot, about thirty yards from the boat ramp, a clearing between two old pine trees by the water’s edge. As they sat and talked, watching an orange moon rise over the frosted water, a pine cone dropped, denting the hood of the muscle car. Ryan was furious, jumping out and vowing to chop the offending tree down.
            Laughing, carol ran a hand through his collar length wavy brown hair. The simple, affectionate act had an instant calming effect on Ryan. Carol’s touch always affected him that way.
            Hand in hand they wandered down to the water’s edge. It was there Carol gave him the snap shot of her. In it she wore his orange and black high school jacket. Long strands of golden rod hair tumbled over one shoulder partially covering the letter he earned in varsity baseball. Now that hair shimmered like a halo from the moonlight reflecting off the tranquil water. Carol looked like an angel. Ryan thought so the first time he saw her back in the fourth grade.
            “I have something for you, too,” Ryan said. He held out the keys to the red Coronet convertible. “I left some instructions in the glove box. Make sure you use only Sunoco 260, and change the oil every three months. She likes…”
            Carol accepted the keys putting a finger to his lips. “Pennzoil 20W50,” she said, smiling up at him. “I know… you forget, I’ve spent as much time under her as you have. Sometimes I’m not sure which of us you love more.”
            She took her finger from his lips and they kissed. Later, alone in her bedroom, Carol cried herself to sleep.

            Despite his conflicting feelings about the war, Ryan determined to make the best of his service time. With typical military logic, the army completely ignored his mechanical aptitude and love of anything with a motor and wheels. Eight weeks basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey was followed by a grueling ten weeks in infantry school. Ryan and five others were offered a chance to receive further training in explosives. One of them was Kurt Taylor, Ryan’s lifelong friend and former rival for Carol’s affections.
            The two emerged as E-4’s, Specialists Fourth Class, experts in explosives and demolition. After a short leave, they found themselves attached to the 1st Cavalry, 3rd Battalion, mechanized Division, Company H, operating out of Saigon. It was then the friends discovered, despite the mechanized designation and the silhouetted horse’s head which graced their shield shaped arm patches, the cavalry did a lot of its moving on foot. In the thick over growth that covered much of South Viet Nam, a vehicle of any type could be a liability, a fact US forces quickly learned the hard way.
            On their first patrol into the green, Ryan and Taylor’s unit was caught by surprise and hit hard. The fierce fighting, often close enough to make out the enemy’s frightening crocked sneer, cost the lives of a raw Lieutenant, both platoon leaders, and several young men. They were pinned down and desperate.        Acting on instincts and training, Ryan radioed in an artillery strike on their position. The result was a costly victory and a field promotion to sergeant for his quick thinking and action. Ryan reluctantly accepted command of his own platoon, much to the ribbing of his friend Kurt.

            “Hey, you gonna hold up that tree all day?” It was PFC. Washington. His words brought Ryan’s thoughts to the problems at hand. They were approaching base. He jogged through the sheets of rain, catching up to the others. Sgt. Ryan signaled and his men stopped, squatting behind available cover. Corporal Hunt un-slung the radio he carried.
            Outpost Tango Two-Nine-Five was located atop a low hill. It commanded a view of the valley and the single dirt road that wound its way through the jungle. The small compound, consisting of partially buried buildings and twin lookout towers, was surrounded by four rows of alternating chain fence and concertina wire. Anti-personnel fragmentation mines were scattered in-between. Beyond that a one hundred yard killing field had been cleared.
            “Tango-Fox Trot-Charlie, over…” Ryan spoke deep and clear into the radio’s handset, glad he got it right. Call signs and military lingo wasn’t his strong suit. Raindrops stung like bee stings as the wind shifted.
            “Tango-Fox Trot-Charlie, this is Tango-Fox Trot-Bravo-Two-Niner-Five…over,” came the fuzzy reply.
            “Papa Bear, this is Yogi. We have Jellystone in sight, over.”
            “Yogi, this is Papa Bear. What’s for lunch? Repeat, what is for lunch?”
            “Order me a large pepperoni with extra cheese,” a voice said into Ryan’s unoccupied ear. The whites of Kurt’s eyes contrasted sharply against the chocolate pupils and dark, smeared grease paint. He wore the same familiar toothy grin.
            Ryan smiled back, shook his head and shooed Kurt away, trying to think of the counter-sign. Even in the green, Kurt could be counted on to make you laugh.
            “Picnic baskets,” Ryan said finally, “picnic baskets. Over…”
            “Acknowledged… over.”
            “Papa Bear, this is Yogi. Visual now, over...” With that Ryan nodded to PFC. Johnson. The private lobbed an olive drab colored canister into the clearing.
            “Yogi, this is Papa Bear. I have green smoke at eight o’clock. Repeat… green smoke, over…”
            “Confirmed, over…”
            “Yogi, this is Papa Bear. Welcome home, over and out.”
            Ryan let out a long sigh and passed the handset back to Corporal Hunt. He looked over to Kurt who had removed his helmet. His dirty blonde hair was flattened and stuck out to the sides, below the impression left by the leather head band. Ryan couldn’t help but laugh. That was the worst case of hat head he’d ever seen.
            Despite the dirt and grease paint and the stark realities of bloody combat, Ryan realized his friend still possessed the eager expression and questioning eyes of a young boy. Sitting there in the rain they could have been playing war games in Kurt’s back yard.
            Ryan smiled and patted Kurt’s shoulder. “C’mon, Boo Boo, let’s go before they burn the pizza.”

            Mike Ryan met Kurt Taylor in Miss. Sherbet’s fourth grade class at St. Pius X Catholic School. Fresh out of college, the attractive teacher with the funny name sat the boys next to each other, touching off a friendship and rivalry that defied understanding. To the casual observer it seemed the only thing the pair had in common was a strong proclivity for mischief.
            Kurt was wild, funny, outgoing and studious. Coming from a large poor family, everything he owned was second hand. Tall, thin and lanky, he always struggled to fit into clothes that were either too big or too small. The humorous appearance only accented his comical antics and natural ability to make people laugh.
            Mike was upper middle class. His father’s job as supervisor at a local plant brought the family to a comfortable home in the suburbs. While his older sister was a straight A student, Mike was more interested in exploring the world around him than his school books. Quiet and shy, the short youngster with the deeply mysterious cow eyes was often picked on by the other kids. He never let their taunts bother him, preferring his Hot Rod magazines and model cars to Cub Scouts and board games. This didn’t prevent him from getting into his share of trouble.
            Mike Ryan hated the strict atmosphere of catholic school and the boring, repetitive teaching methods. He often skipped class, idling away hours wandering through a nearby junk yard. Mike felt a strange kinship with the forgotten vehicles he claimed spoke to him. With flair and imagination, he created histories and stories for each of the lonely wrecks.
            When the two boys met it was like oil and vinegar: keep them well shook and you have an unbeatable combination. Both youths knew exactly how to keep their friendship well shaken. It was in Miss. Sherbet’s class that they met Carol Sawyer.
            Fair skinned, precocious and already developing, Carol was a good student with a keen wit and an inquisitive nature. And she actually liked boys, something rare in a nine year old girl. Carol found Mike a prince charming, even if his steed was an off white. They shared interests in music, baseball and the emerging race for space. She especially enjoyed Mike’s knowledge of cars and the stories he made up about them. Years later those stories would be the basis for Carol’s first novel. The two drew close as time passed. Despite attending different high schools they remained a couple.
            Actually, Kurt was the first to take notice of pretty, indigo eyed Carol. She sat behind him in class and delighted in irritating him by gently blowing on the back of his neck. However, it wasn’t long before he found himself the reluctant middle man in a lopsided love triangle, passing notes between Carol and Mike, always with a sarcastic remark.
            Kurt would often deliberately read a particularly interesting looking note from the lightly freckled girl, knowing it made Mike furious. The resulting dispute usually climaxed at recess in a dramatic and funny duel with water pistols, and detention for Kurt, Mike and Carol.
            Ignoring his bad boy reputation, Carol’s mom took an instant liking to Mike. One afternoon after school, over milk and Oreo cookies, she revealed that he reminded her of Carol’s dad. Carol’s eyes gleamed dreamily. Mike recognized something in them that gave him a shiver.

            It was a warm spring day in the sixth grade. Mike remembered it like it was yesterday: Friday, May 18. The boys were swimming in the Ryan backyard pool. Mike had bought a friendship ring for Carol and Kurt was riding Mike hard, teasing him mercilessly.
            “Ok, lover boy, it took you long enough to save the five bucks for that hunk of tin,” Kurt teased. “Now all you gotta do is find the courage to give it to her.”
            “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mike countered. “I’m gonna give it to her Saturday afternoon at the movies.”
            Studying the silver plated ring, he wondered if he indeed did have the courage. Mike was in love with carol. He knew it that afternoon eating Oreo cookies with her mom. The look in Carol’s eyes, and the kinda sickly way it had made him feel, told him so. It took years for him to admit it to himself. Saturday afternoon, somewhere between the Road Runner cartoon and the attack of the flying saucers, he was going to admit it to Carol; and show her with the ring from Woolworths.
            Mike swallowed hard. He felt like the Coyote. He knew he was running off the cliff but he just couldn’t stop. Mike smiled to himself wondering what the fall would be like.
            “Not if you don’t have it you can’t!” Kurt snatched the ring and dashed off, Mike in hot pursuit.
            They chased each other around the pool, Kurt laughing, Mike hurling names, swearing revenge. Then Kurt slipped on the wet cement. Striking his head on the side of the pool, he tumbled into the deep end. Mike dove in and reached the unconscious boy before he hit bottom.
            In the hospital, Mike was hailed as a hero for saving his friend’s life. Kurt joked he would never leave Mike’s side till he could even the score. Making good his promise, when Mike received his induction notice Kurt volunteered for the draft. Fate, and the army, kept the boys together.

            Platoons assigned to a forward base went out on patrols in rotation. Excursions in-country could last five to ten days, followed by five days rest. Depending on manpower, base personnel were rotated after three months and then reassigned. Most forward posts were staffed by a mix of A.R.V.N. troops – Army of the Republic of Viet Nam – and US forces.
            Sgt. Mike Ryan and Spec. 4th Class Kurt Taylor were in their third month at forward outpost Tango-Two-Nine-Five. They would pull one more patrol and then head to Saigon or Cameron Bay for some rest and relaxation. If they were lucky they might even score a few days on the sugar white beaches of Thailand.
            The week passed quickly. Kurt’s mom sent the boys a big box of homemade chocolate cookies. Mike received a letter from Carol. It smelled like orange blossoms and the envelope and paper were peppered with pink and red hearts. Kurt didn’t miss the opportunity to tease his friend.
            The letter contained a photograph of Carol in a revealing two piece red swim suit. She stood beside the Dodge convertible. Her sun lightened hair now reached to her elbows. Ryan ran a finger over the image, his eyes welling up. Then he laughed. If Carol could see him he knew she’d ask who the tears were for, her or the car.

            It had been quiet… too quiet.
            The more experienced men knew things didn’t stay quiet for long. The holidays were coming. Charlie liked nothing better than to ruin Thanksgiving and Christmas for homesick GI’s. On Monday morning Ryan received orders; they were headed back in-country.
            An armored personnel carrier had been abandoned due to mechanical problems. It sat some thirty klicks north; in an area the army declared secure. Ryan was to lead two squads and retrieve the vehicle. If it couldn’t be recovered he was to destroy it… simple.
            The rain let up, the humidity lingered. Steam rising from the thick green foliage cast an eerie smoke grey fog, cutting visibility. Securing his perimeter, Sgt. Ryan set about deciding what to do with the stricken APC. He always felt bad when he had to destroy a vehicle. But he knew it was better than letting it fall into Charlie’s skillful hands. They would make use of whatever they could remove. Or they might bobby trap it for unsuspecting patrols.
            Ryan became aware of the sudden silence. Then the jungle came alive with small arms fire. Ryan threw himself into a shallow mortar crater. A skinny GI with a toothy grin landed next to him with a thud.
            “Jeez, Kurt, you scared me! What the hell is going on? I thought this place was secure?”
            “Well,” Kurt replied over the intermittent din of automatic weapons “I’d say the US Army has a strange concept of the meaning of the word secure.”
            “How bad…?”
            Kurt’s demeanor turned sullen. “Hunt took one. He’ll be alright… the radio won’t. Charlie is to the north, west and south maybe.”
            “How many…?”
            “Too many, we’re holding… but if they get behind us…” He didn’t have to finish.
            “Damn… ok…” Ryan’s orders came fast, automatically. “Have the men fall back to a tight perimeter around this spot. Have them set fraggers. I want you to take four men, secure the trail out of here. I’ll take care of the APC. Let me know when you are set. Go!”
            Kurt nodded and took off, zigzagging, keeping low to the ground. Mike Ryan watched his friend disappear into the thicket. Several rounds clipped the growth above Kurt’s head.
            Ryan could hear movement from all sides. He prayed it was his own men. With two satchels of C-4, Sgt. Ryan crawled the short distance to the APC. There was no time for anything fancy. Working franticly, he did his best to conceal the explosive around the drive sprocket, along the track, and in the engine compartment and driver’s controls. Carefully inserting the primers, Ryan made his way back to some fallen trees, leaving a trail of thin wire. He found Kurt waiting for him.
            “Everything is set, boss, just say the word.”
            Just then a muffled explosion ripped through the jungle to the right, followed by several gut wrenching screams. An anti-personnel mine had done its deadly job, taking out several VC.
            Then all hell broke loose.
            Branches and leaves shattered in a hail of bullets. Ryan and Taylor hugged the wet ground. An eternity later the air, tinged with smoke and cordite, turned deadly quiet. Ryan knew Charlie might be getting set to attack.
            “Ok, it’s the APC they’re interested in, not us. Get the men out of here two by two, now.”
            Kurt grinned his boyish grin. “Just like Noah’s Ark,” and he was gone.
            Ryan checked the clip in his M-16. He watched the clearing ahead. Sure enough, the bushes beyond the doomed vehicle began to move.
            “C’mon kiddies,” he said to himself, “come and get it.” His finger twitched over the curved leaver of the detonator.
            The APC began to look like an ant hill, swarmed over by eager workers. Jeez, how many were there? Ryan thought he counted maybe twenty.
            “Secure my ass!” Ryan cursed under his breath.
            Fortunately, he was right. The VC were not being careful. They probably thought the American GI’s had retreated. Instead of attacking, they surrounded the APC. Several crawled inside. Ryan shook his head. He thought of the junk yard he escaped to when ditching school. Images of twisted chrome bumpers and mangled rusting fenders tore through his mind.
            “Sorry old girl.” He pushed the plunger of the detonator home.
            “Damn it!”
            Risking a look, he saw the problem. A bullet had severed one of the two detonator wires. If he didn’t act fast Charlie would discover the explosives and remove the primers.
            Leaving his M-16, Ryan slithered over the fallen trees. The cut wire was in reach. Stripping the insulation with his teeth, he twisted the bare ends together.
            So far, so good.
            He scurried back over the logs. Someone shouted. Shots whizzed all around. Ryan felt a burning sensation in his right calf. He tumbled behind cover, the wind going out of him. It felt as if someone grabbed hold of his leg, tossing him to the ground like a bundle of newspapers.
            “You looking for this?” Kurt lay next to him holding the detonator. The mischievous smile Ryan knew too well beamed at him.
            “What the hell are you waiting for, Christmas?”
            “No… Fourth of July,” Kurt replied and hit the plunged.
            The force of the explosion rocked the ground. Both men covered in a fetal position. Dirt, rocks, bits of metal and rubber and body parts rained down. As the dust cleared, Kurt stole a peak.
            “Nice work… you always did have a knack for destroying things. Remember my old bicycle… Oh, shit!”
            Kurt ducked. A second later he popped up again. Kneeling on one knee, he began firing, his M-16 locked on full automatic. Mike tried to rise. His leg wouldn’t move. For the first time he became aware of a biting pain below his right knee. Dropping the spent rifle, Kurt pulled the pins on two hand grenades. Three VC appeared atop the logs. Three smoking Russian made automatic weapons starred down at the friends.
            Kurt tossed the deadly explosives into the air and flung himself on top of Mike.

            Mike Ryan awoke in a white room that smelled of an odd mix of disinfectant and orange blossoms. A dull pain throbbed in the back of his head. Slowly, his eyes began to focus. He wore a pair of navy pajamas with white piping. He lay in bed on his back. Tubes ran from his arm and nose. His head was bandaged as was his right leg which hung in a sling.
            An angel with golden hair hovered over him.
            A soft, familiar voice filled the room. “Well, look who finally woke up. Welcome back, solider.” Carol stood next to the bed. Mike tried to sit up. The movement sent a shock of pain through his body.
            “Easy there, baby.” As Carol leaned forward, the silver friendship ring Mike gave her in the sixth grade dangled from a chain around her neck. She fluffed the pillows and helped him onto a comfortable position. Her touch immediately eased some of the pain.
            Mike could tell from the faint circles Carol had been crying. He looked at her, recalling the first time he saw her in Miss Sherbert’s fourth grade class. She looked cute in her school jumper. Now, dressed in fresh jeans, a cream colored turtle neck and boots, she was a beautiful as ever.
            Carol’s hair hung long and loose. Their last night together she’d vowed not to cut it till he returned safely to her. It now reached the small of her back. Ryan touched his bandaged head, looking into Carol’s damp eyes. His mouth was dry, his throat sore as he tried to speak. “Where… where… what…?”
            Carol took his hand in hers. The slim white fingers entwined around his. “You’re ok, Mike, you’re safe. You’re at Valley Forge Military Hospital.”
            “How… how long?”
            She kissed his hand and pressed it to her cheek. Mike felt the moisture of a tear. “You’ve been in and out… mostly out… for over two weeks. They took shrapnel out of your head and patched up a bullet hole in your leg.” She forced a smile. “The doctors said you may dance funny but you are going to be fine.”
            She brushed a tear.
            “You’re a hero Mike. Some military brass and a reporter came by this morning and left these.” Pinned to the pillow were two medals: the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart.
            Mike didn’t understand. He tried to think… remember. Carol held a glass and he took some juice. Over the next hour Mike related the story of the fateful patrol… the APC… how they were ambushed… and how Kurt shielded him from the two grenades with his own body. Carol listened carefully. When he finished her face showed concern.
            Her voice was patient, steady. “Oh, honey, you’re mistaken. It must be the concussion.” She touched his cheek, her other hand cupping the ring on the chain. Tears escaped the corner of her eyes. “Don’t you remember? Sweetheart, Kurt drowned. Mike, Kurt’s been gone for over seven years. You saved your platoon that day.”

            Sgt. Mike Ryan was discharged from the Army with all the honors befitting a hero. A couple of weeks later he left the hospital.
            On a cold December morning, Carol and Mike drove over to the small cemetery near the town where they grew up. In a corner, beneath and old maple tree, lay a carefully manicured plot with a polished marble marker. Mike knelt down, running his fingers over the deeply carved inscription.
Kurt Christopher Thomas
July 4, 1950 – May 18, 1962
            Taking the Purple Heart from his pocket, he laid the medal on the headstone next to Kurt’s name.
            “Thanks buddy,” he whispered.

                                                                                                                        Broomall, Pa
                                                                                                                        November, 1974

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