Is Tonight the Night I Die?


The explosions were everywhere.  Deep thudded explosions along with screaming, screeching ones, filled the night air. My ears were ringing, my heart throbbing.  I could feel the deep explosions deep inside my chest.  They hurt.

The deep explosions came from large caliber mortar rounds, the screaming ones from rockets.  On this particular night we were getting hit by scores of both.  It was around three in the morning.  When our base received enemy ordinance, it was normally during the middle of the night.

Mortar rounds throw their shrapnel and debris horizontally, along the ground whereas rockets tend to spew their deadly shrapnel skyward.  My automatic response system kicked in – I rolled out of my bunk onto the floor and slid under my cot for a little added security.  The barracks I bunked in had two floors.  I was on the bottom floor.  I rolled under my bunk during enemy shelling hoping for a little added protection if the barracks collapsed.  As I lay there plotting my next move, I thought to myself – why am I here?  Are you kidding me.  How did I get myself into such a mess?

My thoughts were interrupted by a loud noise hitting the concrete barrier closest to my bunk.  A five-foot-tall piece of reinforced concrete stood adjacent to my outside bunk house wall, roughly five feet from my bed.  These concrete slabs surrounded the entire barracks.  They would keep me alive (theoretically) if a mortar round landed outside of the barracks.  It could stop incoming shrapnel from a 120-millimeter mortar round or smaller.  It did its job that night as a dislodged rock from a mortar round smashed into the concrete barrier approximately five feet from my head.  I could hear the rock disintegrate.  I could hear the rock’s pebbles tearing into the wooden structure, above.  Surprisingly, I did not pee myself.

With my ears ringing, heart pounding, and my thoughts scattered, I tried to steady my nerves.  I laid there waiting for the next round to hit.  It never came.  The attack was over.  I had no sense of time.  How long did it last, I thought to myself, will they wait just long enough for us to come out of hiding so they could hit us again – they did this crap all the time.

I could hear muted voices.  I could smell gunpowder.  My ears were ringing so badly they dizzied me.  My thoughts drifted again to my situation.  I started imploring myself to get up and do something – anything but just lay there.  But what could I do?  GIs were often maimed and sometimes killed just trying to take cover and I already had cover.  I continued to lay there.  Time had now stopped – completely – it just stopped.  During battle, eternity can reside inside just five minutes.

Night then turned into day as flares – several hundred in total – were fired into the starry night by perimeter troops stationed in outlying fox holes.  Luckily, I was not in a fox hole that night.  I was in my little bed just trying to get some much-needed sleep.  It felt like I hadn’t slept for a year.

The sirens were blasting.  We opened up our arsenal into the trees surrounding the base.  The bad guys were in those trees.  The 50 cals, the 80 millimeter and 105 howitzers were emptying their chambers.  Our mortars came next.  We fired them, by the hundreds, into the night air.  We scrambled fighters and gunships, as well, and they too dumped their entire payloads into the trees.

Two hours later I put on my jungle fatigues and walked to work and thought to myself – am I going to survive this war?  Last night’s shelling hit very close to home.  The war was taking its toll on my mental health, that is, the little bit I had left.  As it turned out, my mental health was in freefall.  And I hate to admit this but after roughly seven months in country, I stopped caring about much of anything, including if I lived or died.  I became zombie like.  I went through the motions of doing my job but as it was referred to during WW II, I had become shell shocked.  And I returned home that way.  I was numb.  My emotions were corralled and put away inside a walled off section of my brain.

More later…