Read an Excerpt
Perhaps one of the deadliest threats to anyone sta-tioned
in Vietnam during the war came from Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army
mortar or Katyusha 122mm-rocket artillery fire. At any moment and,
seem-ingly, any facility, the "incoming" (as it was better known) could
rain down and wound or kill anyone within its deadly radius. In this
story, you'll come to bet-ter understand another aspect of that
frightening reality and, too, the terror of getting hit. In war, you
will die like a dog for no good reason.
Dong Ha, Vietnam
The North Vietnamese Army's Van An Rocket Ar-tillery Regiment had it in
for the Marine 3d Recon Bat-talion. At least, at times, it felt that
way. The base camp at Dong Ha seemed to be one of their favorite target
areas and, too, maybe one of their easiest. Dong Ha was located on
Highway 9, less than ten miles from the DMZ in the I Corps Military
Region, the northernmost of the four corps tactical zones into which
Vietnam was divided. The DMZ was the infamous and misnamed Demilitarized
Zone that separated North Vietnam from South Vietnam, and it was
anything but demilitarized. The North Vietnamese Army used it as a
springboard for attacks in I Corps, and since their rocket artillery
rounds could easily cover the distance, Dong Ha was not only a target of
choice for the NVA artillery gunners but a target of opportunity as
This time, they were walking the Russian 122mm rockets into the base
with such precision that even the uninitiated could see it wasn't a
random attack. The deafening explosions of the forty-pound warheads
erupted in an evident pattern as specific sites were being targeted.
With their vast spy network throughout the re-gion, the Communist
gunners knew the Marine facility well and took full advantage of the
However, even before the first rocket slammed into the tents or
tin-roofed barracks hootches, and split sec-onds before the base camp's
warning siren began build-ing into a screaming wail, Sgt. James P.
Henderson recognized their distinctive whoosh, like a truck's tires at
high speed on a wet road, for what it was and yelled at his people to
get to the protective sandbagged bunkers outside.
"Incoming!" the wiry noncommissioned officer yelled, pulling Marines out
of the barracks and shoving them toward the nearest bunker, just around
the corner of the hootch. "Go! Go! Go!"
The rockets were falling in rapid succession, dancing across the base in
deadly, macabre steps. Whoomphs fol-lowed the screaming whooshes and the
thundering roars of secondary explosions that told of direct hits. Hot
shrapnel rained across the camp, ripping and tearing through anything
and anyone in its way.
Rising black plumes and the acrid, oily odor of burn-ing fuel confirmed
the NVA gunners' accuracy. Since the bases and camps were stationary,
the ranges had long been defined and plotted by the Viet Cong and NVA.
Be-sides, they'd had years of practice.
Another 122mm rocket slammed into the next hootch over, tearing through
the sheet-metal roofing and gutting the wood-frame building.
Someone was screaming for a corpsman, then the call was drowned out by
still another series of whoomphs and explosions. The impacts and
detonations sent tremors across the base.
His rifle in hand, Henderson grabbed his flak jacket and steel-pot
helmet and took off in a dead run, follow-ing the others. If a ground
attack followed, he would damn well be ready. The North Vietnamese Army
some-times attempted a ground assault after a shelling, hoping that the
Americans' defenses had been weakened or were inadequately manned.
Henderson had just turned the corner of his hootch and was within a few
feet of the bunker's opening when a rocket exploded a few yards behind
him. The blast slammed into his back, and the intense heat, splintered
metal, and concussion lifted him up off the ground forcefully and threw
him down limply like a discarded doll.
The pain was intense and overwhelming, and when Henderson tried to lift
himself up and turn over, his arms and legs wouldn't respond. They
couldn't. There was too much weight on his legs and back. Lying facedown
in the hard-packed orange earth, he wondered what had fallen on top of
him. Building debris, most likely. But why was it so heavy?
His breaths were shallow, and he was soon struggling for air, fighting a
dark current that threatened to sweep up and overpower him. His chest
burned, and the air that somehow squeezed through to his lungs only
fanned his pain. In the distance, someone was yelling for a corpsman,
but the voice seemed too far away to matter. He knew he was hurt, but he
couldn't determine how badly. What was on his back?
He couldn't see any debris, but then he couldn't focus either; every
time he opened his eyes, a searing light burned through his sockets. It
was too bright and blind-ing to let anything else in. Then, in an
instant, the light began to fade, and a shadowy world took its place
around him. He was fading into black.
Most of his hearing was lost, and what sound filtered through was
muffled by the blood he could feel flowing from his ears. He would learn
later that his eardrums were shattered. Between the shaking from the
follow-up explosions and the cool shuddering earth, he could feel the
burning pain of his broken body.
Something was flowing down the side of his face and spilling into his
mouth. The droplets tasted like warm copper droplets, and memory
recognized it instantly. It was blood. He wanted to spit it out but
couldn't even find the strength to do that. Instead, he managed to use
his tongue to push it through his lips, and it dribbled to the ground.
He could feel it pool in the soil beneath his cheek.
When he tried to call for help nothing came out. The shallow exhaled
breaths didn't allow words, and in a terrible, frightening instant, he
understood his fate. He was dying.
Panic began to take over, but it was too late for that, too. The shadows
grew darker, and the pain lessened, drifting off, actually leaving him
in the cold tide of dark-ness.
All around him, the rain of rockets fell, then finally danced off to
another part of the base. Through the earth, he felt their rumble
diminish, moving away in big, labored steps.
Moments later, it was still. Too still.
For what seemed like an eternity, there was nothing for Henderson. No
sudden rush of life's reruns or re-grets. Nothing but white noise and an
internal pounding that replaced the exploding artillery rounds. The
inter-nal pounding was his pulse, and he could sense that the beats were
Then he still couldn't see, but he could feel someone at his side gently
turning him over, and he heard a yell, "Over here! Head wound!" The
Marine sergeant could barely hear the other wounded and dying Marines
cry-ing around him, but that was enough to bring back the panic.
"I can't get a pulse! Don't die on me, you son of a bitch!" he heard
that someone say as though in the dis-tance, and although Henderson
couldn't see the Marine shaking his head wearily or see the man's
blood-drenched hands, he could sense what was happening next as the man
lowered him back to the ground. "Ah, Christ!" the man said, distant and
"Don't go! I'm not dead!" Henderson yelled in his mind, only no one else
could hear. The back of his head was broken open where rocket shrapnel
had pushed his steel pot back into his skull like a baseball shattering
James P. Henderson's world and life were bleeding away, swirling
steadily toward a small opening of light propped against a dark sea
backdrop. He was being sucked into a whirlpool, and he fought it until
there was no choice but to spiral with it; he didn't have the strength,
and he realized it with a reluctant acceptance. He wouldn't go easily,
but he was going. Within sec-onds, he was gone.
Killed In Action.
From the Paperback edition.