Posted by: Thomas Drinkard | August 8, 2011

Why A Knife is on The Cover of “Where There Were No Innocents” –A Sample


Installing and servicing wiretaps, the heart of this mission, was simple. The tough part was getting to the sites undetected and getting back out safely.  The mission was only scheduled for three days.  This first night’s movement was planned to put us on the side of a hill above the first active tap.

“How’re you doing, Dại uý?” Jackson said.

His voice was barely a whisper. He’d been walking behind me for the past hour and I could hardly hear him.  His practice was to move, as terrain permitted, from front to rear of the team as we progressed, dropping back from man to man, then coming forward to the point. I turned to face him, still walking.

“Not bad. The team’s good.  I’m glad to be along,” I said.

“Hang in there.”

He eased ahead of me, past Kirk, who I’d been following and just behind the point.

Another half-hour and Jackson called a halt. We’d been moving for nearly two hours.  It had been dark under the trees, but now the night was almost a tangible black. We’d crested a hill and were on the western slope where the mountain began to ease into a gentler grade when we moved into our overnight formation.  Jackson, Kirk and I were in the middle of a circle, our backs against a massive tree trunk.  The team lay, facing out, in a circle around us.  They’d emplaced Claymore mines ahead of them.  Anyone trying to get to us would walk into a hailstorm of steel balls.

Jackson touched me on the shoulder and leaned to my ear.

“Get under the poncho with me.  I want to show you where we are and where we’re going in the morning,” he said.

Under the poncho, the heat was stifling.  Jackson cupped a penlight to limit any possible leaks of light.  He had a map unfolded on a waterproof map case.

“Here’s where we inserted. Here’s approximately where we are and here’s our first target in the morning.  We’ll be moving just at dawn. Now let’s get out of here before I suffocate,” he said.

He’d pointed to the three locations we’d seen on the map back at Kontum, but they were unmarked. Security.  In case of emergency, I needed to be able to find the spots he pointed out. The target he’d indicated was on the side of a trail not shown on the map.  We’d seen aerial photographs showing much more than a footpath.

After a cold dinner of rice and patrol rations we tried to sleep. Jackson, Kirk and I rotated shifts.  Vong lay just beyond my feet on his belly.  I don’t know when, or if, he slept.

A light tap on my shoulder. I hadn’t realized I was asleep. When I opened my eyes, there was faint light, dawn. Monkeys and thousands of birds were greeting the coming day. Good.  Quiet at this time of morning meant men were around.  Our little team hadn’t moved enough to disturb them.

We broke camp after a quick, cold meal. The team picked up the Claymore mines, disarmed them and stowed them away.

Below us, to the west, the land settled into a gentle slope, just as the map had shown.  I knew from the photographs that about three hundred meters away, there was a drop-off of about fifteen or twenty feet to a road that could handle cargo trucks.  The road, called The Ho Chi Minh Trail, was domed with a crushed rock surface.  Drainage ditches ran along both sides and, along the trail there were telephone poles with glass insulators.  Our first target was a wiretap emplaced ten days before. The recorder was buried near a pole.  Over the road, in many places, the tops of tall trees had been tied together to form a kind of green tunnel. The trail was invisible to aircraft.

Clever little bastards, but maybe we’ll use it against you.

We made our way to the edge of the track in about twenty minutes.  Our movement hadn’t made the jungle go quiet.  Recon Team Copperhead was professional.At the drop-off we halted and waited for half-an-hour.  No traffic, no sounds.

As planned, the team split about fifty meters apart, north and south to provide security.  Kirk and I went directly to the telephone pole.  The team that set the tap had cut a knife groove at the base of the pole, on the side away from the road, and had taken a picture.  Damn! Jackson was good with his map and compass.  He’d put us within twenty-five meters of the pole.

The camouflaged wires had been buried, routed through underbrush and then up to the ceiling of green. It came down through the leaves to the induction tap on the wire.  Even though I knew it was there from pictures, I couldn’t see it.  Good work!

After Kirk and I disarmed the booby trap, we uncovered the recorder and retrieved the tapes.  We replaced them with fresh spools and buried the recorder again, resetting the booby trap and camouflaging as we went.

Then we got the hell away from the road.  Working around in the open, on a roadway in Laos, made hair stand up all over my neck.

We met Jackson when we climbed the cut.  The rest of the team pulled in and we waited.  While the team watched the trail, Jackson wordlessly took out his map and showed Kirk and me our next objective.

To the south, the road curved out of sight on the right. We would parallel the trail for about five hundred meters to a site where we’d try to set a new tap.

Recon team Snakebite had set the tap we had just serviced.  On their mission, they’d found a few dilapidated hooches and had brought back pictures.  Those structures should be just around the bend.

Saigon’s intelligence gurus had decided we should check the huts and, if we could find any evidence that they’d been used recently, set a new tap. Probably the huts were being used as a kind of way station for NVA troops traveling the Trail.  The officers would probably sack out in them and possibly hook into the telephone wires to send reports and receive orders.

It took us over three hours to cover five hundred meters.  The brush was heavy and filled with thorns. We couldn’t chop our way through it.  We’d  leave  clear evidence of our presence and make too much noise.  Thousands of hungry bugs feasted on us as we went.  We used repellent sparingly because we wanted to smell like the surrounding forest, not like American soldiers. When we finally came to a place where Jackson thought the huts should be visible, he sent one of the Nungs up a tree to look. The man climbed about twenty feet or so, peered through leaves and scrambled down to join us.  He whispered to Jackson.  Vong, standing beside me could hear the report.

“He says little village ahead,” Vong said.

That squared with the information and pictures we’d seen from Snakebite’s debriefing.  Three huts would be a little village.

Jackson signaled Kirk and me to him.

“We’re going to take a close look at those huts.  I’m not sure a tap will work here.  The huts are almost in a clearing and the wires are under the trees.  Let’s see what’s inside the hooches,” he said.

The plan we settled on was for the team to cross the trail, observe and then move in to check the huts.

We moved parallel to the road within ten meters of its eastern edge and when about a hundred meters south of the hootches, we stopped, watched and waited—then, on Jackson’s signal, sprinted across the road as a unit in a line.

After a half-hour of silence, the team eased to a point where it was directly across the trail from the huts. With no movement or sound from the hootches, Jackson quietly conferred with Kirk and me. We agreed on a plan of action. Jackson and the point man would cross the road and approach the cluster of thatch huts through the sparse cover from the north, along the ridgeline. The remainder of Copperhead would spread out parallel to the road, in the brush on the western side of the road and stay back until Jackson gave his bird call signal for all clear, then all but two would cross the road and rejoin the team leaders in the center of the hootches.  Kirk and one Nung would remain with the heavy rucksacks and guard them, creating a known rendezvous point in case of trouble.

The process was slow.

During the hour it took the unit to split, move and regroup among the huts it began to rain. Not just a common tropical shower, but serious, monsoon-type rain. The kind of rain that roared in the trees like a waterfall and made everyone move slower with their heads lowered and eyes half-shut. The kind of rain covert soldiers love, when moving on an unknown target. Guards were more likely hunkered down and preoccupied with staying dry instead of watching an empty trail and woods.

Thoroughly soaked, Vong and I checked two of the huts and met Jackson and the point man in the center of the hootches. I shook my head, flinging rainwater and sweat to say, “Nothing.”

Jackson signaled the team into a watchful, hidden perimeter while we gave the huts a closer look. When we found the ammunition cache, I was on my way to trouble.

It was a small stash. There were three cases of 7.62 mm AK-47 assault rifle rounds down in a spider hole, under one of the reed mats that covered the floor. I thought of it as a spider hole, because it had a trapdoor like certain spiders build so that they can retreat and close the door above them. These, the VC had built all over South Vietnam. Once in the hole, there was a tiny room, about five by five feet and four feet deep. Its only contents were two wooden cases of ammunition.

One case had been opened and several of the cardboard ammunition boxes were gone.  Obviously this little place was used as a rest stop and a little extra ammo was stored in case of need along the trail.

I loved it.

I had one box of “special” AK-47 ammo in my rucksack, hidden across the road at the emergency rendezvous point and Jackson had another. Only the three Americans officially knew about the contaminated ammo. It had been specially prepared on Okinawa by a CIA munitions lab, and had a high explosive called PETN, usually used in explosive detonating cord, instead of smokeless powder.

The effect of trying to use the contaminated ammunition was evidently spectacular. The VC or NVA troop chambers a perfectly normal-looking round in his AK-47, pulls the trigger. SURPRISE…. the round blows the chamber apart, possibly sympathetically detonating the other rounds in the chamber and inflicting lethal harm on the troop who pulled the trigger and, with luck, several of his comrades who might be standing close by. It made the NVA a little suspicious of weapons and ammo supplied by their Chinese and Russian friends. It was supposed to do just that. Our PsyOps people broadcast warnings that the firearms provided by the Chinese and Russians were unreliable.

Since only the Americans were allowed to handle the special ammo, Jackson slipped back across the road to where Kirk and one Nung were guarding the rucksacks to get the fun stuff. Placing the ammo was not a priority of our mission, but I got a little evil grin and a chuckle whenever I thought of the possibilities.

Then things began to unravel.

The rain had increased in intensity until it blurred vision past a few feet and Jackson, still across the road, gave his emergency bird call whistle indicating all hell was about to break loose.

I signaled Vong to move to concealment in the brush behind the adjacent hut and moved back inside the hut with the ammo cache to cover the fact that someone had been there. When I risked a peek between the dried palm fronds that thatched the hut, two NVA troops with pith helmets came trotting into the ‘ville.  They were headed for my hut with their heads down and ponchos covering them. I dropped into the dark hole, closed the lid part way and pulled the reed mat that covered the dirt floor over the lid, sitting motionless in the blackness.

So now what, you tough, brainy fighting soldier from the sky?

 You asshole!

Here you sit, Brinson, because you just had to do something that isn’t in your mission… you just had to be a smartass!  Now there are several varieties of spiders for God’s sake! Crawling all over you. Soon, one of the little shits is going to decide to sting hell out of you and you’ll jump up and then these two nice gentlemen above will blow your ass away!  Nice mess!  Where in hell is Jackson?

I knew in the logical part of my brain that Jackson would get me out of this crap, and that my unrelentingly fierce guardian, Vong was nearby, but these damned spiders in the dark! Shit!

In spite of all the internal cursing and intelligent insight, I recognized the fact that one of the NVA in the hut was bitching about having to go back out in the rain to answer an urgent bowel call. The other one suggested that he just go to the next hut over, take a shit on the floor, and let the next occupant worry about it. They actually giggled over it. I had a small bit of a personal problem with giggling men, especially soldiers. They put my teeth on edge.

I waited.

NVA number one, left to answer nature’s bidding. Number two became still. My pulse boomed like slow timpani. Drips of rain and sweat falling from my face splashed the dry ground, the raw wood and spiders.

I took off my floppy hat and turned my head to the right, easing the cover up by millimeters until I could see just past the edge of the matting.  NVA number two squatted on another mat, about three feet away.  His back turned toward me, eating a ball of sticky rice. He held a small metal bowl in his left hand, eating with his right. His AK-47 leaned against the palm frond wall about four feet away to his right.

Staring through the tiny crack, holding the cover minutely open with my head and using both hands, I silently opened the snap that held the big, heavy-bladed knife stowed point upward on my load-bearing harness. It slid out of the oiled leather into my right hand with a lethal weight.

I remembered what my buddy, Captain Jimmy Whitefeather had said in his class on removing enemy sentries with a knife without causing an alarm.

“ Cut his throat if you can.  Go from ear to ear, get both carotid arteries and the blood will gush out of his brain so fast he won’t make a sound. If you can’t do that, jam the blade through his kidney and twist. The pain will be so bad he can’t yell. Then cut his throat.”

Jimmy, with whom I’d had shared several beers at the officer’s club—nice quiet Jimmy—had grinned at his students. He’d practiced what he taught, more than once.

I consciously centered myself, feeling strength coiling in the ki, the martial arts center of power. All my being was now in total focus on the unsuspecting enemy.


I burst from the hole, reaching with my left hand to grab, aiming to stab and slash with the knife in my right. I managed a hold on his sleeve.

The skinny man’s eyes and mouth stood open in shock. He struggled in my grip, rice dripping from his gaping mouth, reaching a hand covered with sticky rice for his AK. His straining and stretching turned to thrashing and quivering when the blade buried in his right kidney. I twisted the knife.  He moaned, gagged and rolled into a fetal position, kicking spasmodically until I snatched the knife from his back, knelt and jammed the point into the back of his neck at the base of the skull.

He fell slack in my grip, and began a slow, whole body shudder. His anal sphincter released. The stench turned my stomach.

I stood: quivering, shaking in the knees.

How much time had passed?  I’d knelt with my back to the door to finish off the NVA.


Trying to calm the shaking in my hands, I eased to the edge of the doorway.

Here came the other NVA, I could just make out the small splashing of careful walking over the noise of the rain. I tensed, shifting the Bowie to my left hand, and easing the .45 out of its holster with the right. The liquid sound of steps in rainwater came nearer. Evidently he’d taken his crap and was ready for rice but had heard nothing over the downpour.

Ready now!

Vong’s flat-planed Mongol face spun into the doorway his weapon leveled, ready to fire until he saw me: flat-footed and flabbergasted.

Vong grinned, like an Asian tiger showing all its teeth and gave a thumbs-up sign when he saw the bloody knife and dead soldier.

“Numbah one!” he said.

Stepping inside he slid his own long-bladed knife from its sheath to show me. It had been wiped, but was still bloody. NVA number one had never had a chance. Vong had crouched behind the hut, hidden like a vengeful angel, until the soldier had lowered his pants and squatted. The rest was swift, bloody and silent—trademarks of the hardened mercenary.

Vong, standing five feet five inches, weighing about a hundred-thirty pounds had to be, pound for pound, one of the peninsula’s most lethal soldiers with any weapon, including his callused hands.

Jackson and the point man, appeared from the opposite direction, Jackson wore a smirky shit-eating grin under his dripping floppy hat.

“How’s it going Đại uý?” he said.

I didn’t trust my voice for a reply, but smiled as much as possible and retrieved my AK and hat from the hole. With Vong and the point man standing guard, Jackson and I salted the ammunition with our special version and rearranged the matting as much as possible to cover the blood. Vong and the point man dragged both bodies through the mud, across the road and down the bank into the bamboo thickets.

The waterfall rains would erase the blood trails. If not, then the NVA troops would look behind their backs just a bit more often.

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