The Running of the Bulls!
Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)
First off, let me say that although I was a member of the Sierra Club at one time, I am not now nor have I ever been a card-carrying Party Member of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But I respect life in all forms and I love and admire Mother Nature in all her stages of dress and undress. My time in Vietnam didn't change that; it merely brought it into sharper focus.
I have enjoyed hunting in my day. A long shot across a valley in Montana once dropped a deer that was sub-trophy by a millimetre, I have blasted Mormon pheasant out of the sky after flushing them from the brush, been chased in Arizona by a mountain lion, and rabbits in the San Juan Islands have a bounty on me. But this was all pre-Nam.
My wife, on the other hand, is a rabid bow hunter, and set a State Record. Imagine that, a former Playboy Bunny who anoints herself in camouflage paint and hunts the poor defenceless little bunnies down; there's something Freudian about that. While I don't really hold that against her, I can be merciless in my sarcastic defence of Bambi and Thumper, although I must confess to a vicarious primal thrill in placing my still quavering arrows unerringly into their little paper hearts. I just don't make a big deal out of it and stuff and mount their little paper heads or tails on my walls. And we've given her mounted goat heads to one of our sons who still hunts.
I'm also not one of those, in the words of one former Vice President of the USA, "effete intellectual snobs" who carry on in a holier-than-thou mode about the injustices in this world or the next. I'm an engineer, colorless, odorless and wholly focused on getting each job done right - first time, every time.
On the day in question in this story, Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry was patrolling in a free fire zone (FFZ) in Binh Thuan Province well away from our base at LZ Betty outside Phan Thiet, the nuoc mam capital of the World. No kidding, it really was, and the nuoc mam "factories" seemed to be corrugated tin sheets leaning against buildings and covered with rotting fish which dripped their vile brew into waiting clay pots at the end of each rill. When the wind blew over LZ Betty, we were glad to be in the field!
At this stage of the war after the U.S. force reductions had already begun, one of our common missions was "training" the Army of Vietnam (ARVN) units in offensive operations. Many of those training missions deserve a book themselves, so I'll just get on with this story.
The records show that during early 1970, the period of this story, the battalion continued combat operations and support of the Pacification Program in the Thien Giao District and adjacent areas under the operational control (OPCON) of Task Force South.
The enemy was gradually increasing the intensity of standoff attacks and small unit actions, and enemy activity throughout the II Corps area dramatically increased on 31 March 1970, with battalion sized and larger attacks attempting to overrun friendly units to tie U.S. forces down before the Cambodian incursion that kicked off on 29 April 1970. Beaten off, enemy action diminished from mid April onwards to sporadic standoff attacks of varying intensity, as the enemy fragmented their surviving forces into smaller elements that presented smaller targets and focused their planning in the district on preparations to mass in early May for a symbolic major attack on our battalion rear at LZ Betty.
Charlie Company was meanwhile conducting combined operations with the Regional Forces (RF), building their confidence and demonstrating offensive operations including ambushes, search and clear operations, and even airmobile operations. The airmobile operations largely involved a U.S. CA (combat assault by helicopter) to secure the LZ (landing zone) for the arrival of the RFs in CH-47s (Boeing Chinook helicopters).
We would then patrol together, with the RFs under my operational control as the US company commander. I suppose other companies approached the assignment in various ways, but we typically traded one platoon; so a US platoon patrolled on foot with the RF Company (-) and one of their platoons rode on our APCs with us. I don't want to steal anyone else's thunder, but there were some amusing incidents that arose because our methods of operation were so diametrically different. For example, we could easily cover three or four times or more the amount of ground that they covered, even when dismounted. On tracks, it was double that again.
The dai uy (captain) in charge of the RF Company on this occasion was a veteran of the French Indochina War in the early 1950s, when he had been a lieutenant. There was no "up or out" policy for him, and caution was his middle name. When viewed from a chopper, his company's formation on the ground could have been used in a tactics textbook from École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, the French military academy, and you wouldn't need high speed film. One of their most successful ambushes demonstrates this point clearly.
As explained to me by our troops who had been attached, the RF company had strolled, sorry, patrolled (in perfect formation) for just over a kilometer when it was time for lunch. The lunch was also a textbook tactical lunch, with little talking or other boisterous behavior. The troops were spread out and prepared little fires to cook their lunches. Then half or so took a nap or prayed or whatever they did. Our troops were torn between amusement, impatience and relief at a chance to relax a bit.
After about two hours, the effectiveness of this tactic was made obvious when two VC, convinced by the lack of sound and motion that the RF unit had long since departed the area, popped up from hidey holes in the middle of the resting unit. They quickly donated their souls to Uncle Ho and their weapons to the RFs.
That's also relevant to this story. It was customary when working in an FFZ for the RFs to collect war booty. Presumably they sold it and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to an equitable if mystical formula.
So here I was commanding a task force of two companies that was operating in the foothills of the mountains that gave the enemy sanctuary. We were making it difficult for the enemy to come out of the mountains, attack and flee back into them.... and the enemy didn't like that very much.
The RFs and attached U.S. platoon were out on a foot patrol nearing the end of a long and largely fruitless day spent finding, removing booby traps from, bagging and backlogging more tons of rice by chopper. We had just located and pulled our tracks into an open field where we were to establish our NDP (night defensive position). In cowboy movies, we would've been circling the wagons. Everyone was dirty and thirsty from the dusty patrolling, and the mid-afternoon sun was beating down. To say that our alertness was at its peak wouldn't be completely true.
As the 140 or so American and Vietnamese soldiers started digging in, intense firing broke out in the direction that the RF company and our attached platoon were coming from. The firing involved a mix of weapons, M16s, M1 carbines with their distinctive crack, M1 rifles and AK 47s, with the occasional 40mm grenade blooping off. The 50 caliber machine guns and M60 7.62 mm machine guns on each track swung to set up overlapping fires, and individual weapons swung in that direction as well.
As the firing intensified, we could tell that it was moving towards us, a running battle of some sort. Naturally we were on the radios to alert battalion to a major contact and to find out from our platoon what in the heck was happening. I'm sure that in the unlikely event that any combat company commanders go to Hell, they'll be put in charge of a unit without radio contact.
With the tops of trees starting to waver in our sight, and a dust cloud starting to rise through the trees, the firing continued to grow louder and closer. Then a breathless American voice on the radio advised us to hold our fire, they were coming in. We quickly got the word out in at least two languages, but trigger fingers were still ready for anything.
Then the first of several dozen sprinting men started bursting out of the tree line at the edge of our clearing, a mix of Vietnamese and Americans running at full pace, heads back, arms pumping even with weapons, and legs taking long strides. What were our soldiers running from? Was this to be like the 1453 French rout of the English at Castillon, or Horatio Gates' defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga, or our army fleeing the Chinese in the Korean winter of 1950-51?
As more and more of our mixed soldiers came sprinting out of the woods, we held our fire, but speaking for myself, my heart was in my throat! I didn't know what was coming next.
What came next was a bull, an enraged water buffalo, with angry horns lowered and in a full charge, its fighting blood fully roused to maim or kill anything in its path, but especially the humans who had hurt it so badly. And hurt it was, bleeding from countless wounds in its muscular gut, and with one leg hanging in shreds. It was a large bull, and angry bull, a mean bull, a murderous bull... and it was in full charge.
There is a moment of truth in bull running, say the fools who race them at the Fiesta of San Fermin each year in July. The bulls run like the very devil, and it's impossible to race them or even keep up with them for very long. The only way to do it is to jog slowly until the bulls draw near, then run like the devil until they get as near as you are prepared to risk, and then get out of the way as cleanly as possible, being careful not to cross in front of other runners. No one, Vietnamese nor American, needed to be trained in that tactic. Instincts honed by combat, the warriors knew instinctively that the top of the APCs offered refuge even from rampaging bulls intent on their destruction.
The sheer terror of the event stunned some of the soldiers on the ground who were quickly bypassed by those already lent wings and tearing hell-bent for the sanctuary of the M113A1s. Caught flat-footed, they soon became the target for not only the rampaging bull, but for another two of its mates in similar strife, shot full of holes... and mad! Very mad!
More people burst out of the tree line with only one objective in mind, the 12 tons of steel cleverly designed by the FMC Corporation to serve as a plaza de toros. Like the banderilleros seeking the relative safety of the wooden barrier after placing their banderillas over the horns into the bull's neck muscle, there is no dishonor in unrestrained flight from a bull with a personal grudge.
A song is sung before the running of the bulls in Spain. It goes, "A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición" Translated, it says, "We ask San Fermín, as our Patron, to guide us through the Bull Run and give us his blessing." Whether he approved of the treatment of our water buffalo, San Fermin was with Charlie Company and our OPCON RFs because by a miracle no one was injured.
But the drama wasn't ended, not with two companies of soldiers seeking refuge from three enraged enemy water buffalo looking for vengeance. But the enemy were tiring, especially the large mean one with only three operational legs (for the record, I don't count legs still hanging onto the body by a few tendons as operational).
My senses were slowly returning as well; just don't ask where I was physically located at the time, because as company commander I'm sure that I was where I could best influence the action.
Slowly and surely, a state of conditional truce was being established between the warring parties. The wounded water buffalo, fair game since they were found in a free fire zone, realized that the insane humans did not expect them to run any further and they could stand around nursing their wounds in a bovoid way. And the humans did what humans tend to do best, let their avarice replace their fear.
As the story emerged from my puffed troops, the RF company had come across the untended water buffalo and set about capturing them to sell when they returned to Thien Giao or wherever they were based. Apparently, the water buffalo were a major find... certainly better than weapons or ammunition or explosives which the Americans had price controls on; better even than rice since Charlie Company had backlogged nearly 100 tons recently and created a rice glut; and better than enemy bodies which had very little intrinsic value other than odds and ends.
Of course, they seemed to have overlooked one tiny yet meaningful issue, the need to get the water buffalo in good health back to whatever village they intended as the marketplace. And these poor creatures were literally "shot to hell"!
As they stood tired, forlorn and in pain from countless bullet holes in their bellies and other parts of their bodies (which raised a few doubts in my mind about the stopping power of the .556 M16 round), the word "livestock" hardly seemed appropriate. I had no doubt whatsoever that each of the three would be dead meat in the morning even if they lasted into the night. It seemed to me, therefore, that we should take advantage of that fact and supplement our rations, but of course they didn't "belong" to me!
Drawing upon my extensive multi-cultural background and training, I asked my interpreter to accompany me to palaver with the RF dai uy. Explaining to him what I wanted to talk about, I got a blank look that I later recognized on Manuel's face in the classic John Cleese television series "Fawlty Towers" just before he says, "Que?" If my own interpreter didn't understand the humanitarian nature of what I was trying to do, which in brief was to end the poor animals' suffering so that we could eat them while they were still fresh, then what hope did I have to convince my counterpart who seemed to wear his abacus on his sleeve? The cultural gap was vast.
I started explaining the concept of animal suffering as the Vietnamese stood nearly comatose, but perhaps their inability to grasp my point is understandable. After all, cows of any type are really stupid. But I strongly believed that it was cruel to let them suffer like they were, so I persevered.
If I was having trouble getting through to them, they were doubly perplexed by me. Why should I, an Infantry company commander and a Ranger to boot, care about how cows think, if indeed they think at all? And they were wondering why I couldn't seem to understand that I was in effect taking food off their families' tables and out of their babies' mouths... not buffalo meat, but the many delicacies like nuoc mam that each RF could buy with their share from the sale?
The impasse continued for a bit, but not to the extent that thongs were slipped off our six-shooters, although that did happen later with another group of ARVNs. Finally, the dai uy's expression cleared as he finally worked out what my true motivation must be... I must want a cut of the proceeds! Not only did this make impeccable sense to him in a way that my real motive didn't, but in his world as his boss I was fully entitled. Heck, I could have taken all three and he would have just grumbled but given me what I wanted until he could arrange a suitable accident for me.
Suddenly all smiles, he said that I could take my pick of the three, being crafty enough to not offer more in case I was so stupid as to accept his opening bid.
I searched through my Biblical knowledge about Solomon and decided that the story about the mother's sacrifice didn't relate, and so I chose the largest bull, the poor fellow with three legs. I must confess here that two had only three legs, but the other's fourth leg wasn't dragging in the dirt quite as bad. After a moment of silence while he adjusted his opinion of me, the smile returned and he complimented me fulsomely on my choice. I tried to tell him that his two would also be dead in the morning but to no avail, so some of his troops, after much berating, left their sanctuary 8-1/2 feet in the air and cautiously herded their cash cows to a tree out of my sight to tie them up. So center stage was left to me and my own personal water buffalo.
What followed is something that I will remember to the end of my days just as my water buffalo remembered to his. There was inevitability about it that we both just seemed to accept. He looked at me across the span of about forty meters and I looked at him and I felt him in my mind, saying, "I don't blame you."
I had told the mortar platoon sergeant who doubled as our Field First Shirt to get ready for a barbeque, but there was still another act to go. While I wasn't dressed in the traditional matador's trajes de luces (suits of lights), I felt like there should be the two-beat music of the pasodoble as I drew my M1911 .45 pistol and walked across the barren plaza de toros towards my prey, my target, my friend.
I thought about how important it was to get a clean kill, just as it is for a matador. Of course, the reasons are quite different: in one case the prize is riches and glory and fame and adoration and ears and tails; and in the other a little bit of safety to avoid being gored or stomped or crushed. But of course, neither of us wants to look stupid.
So I slowly walked across our arena, away from the 250 or so men I commanded arrayed around our laagered APCs and towards my bull. There was no pomp or ceremony, just an act of mercy to perform for which there would be no accolades.
I walked straight up to the water buffalo, his eyes tracking me all the way as he stood still, waiting for me. His breathing was heavy, as befits a gallant fighter who had given his all against enormous odds.
I placed my 45 close to his left ear and, looking him square in the eyes, fired one shot into his head. His eyes simultaneously rolled up until only the whites showed, and his front legs collapsed so swiftly that his one remaining leg was never in danger of overbalancing and he settled down to eternal rest.
One shot, and that chapter was closed. I was left with a satisfaction that I couldn't explain, a sense of relief that no one had been injured, and a strange feeling that I had communicated with an animal.
The company came to life. I don't remember any cheering or applause or any sound at all; nor was any appropriate. It was finished, and then some engines fired up and our M578 recovery vehicle (VTR) drove out to dig a pit which was quickly filled with timber and then covered over with engineer stakes and cyclone fencing to form a grill. The VTR then hoisted the water buffalo high up, and he was gutted and prepared for the feast.
Top had outdone himself in preparations, and out came a chopper with salads, potatoes, soft drinks and quarts of barbeque sauce, along with the mess team and most of the people in our company rear. The barbeque was fine; and everything was cleaned up by the time our support crew was backlogged before sundown and another night in the field began.
Both of the other two buffalo died of wounds during the night. Their carcasses were still secured to a tree outside our perimeter as we moved on.
I haven't gone hunting since returning to the World, but
I still love a good barbeque.
Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin,
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