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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 well.
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 knowledge.
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 lessening.
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 faint.
"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 a window.
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.