The Ghost Who Walks!By Ray Sarlin
Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (Copy permission at bottom)
Like the two rings of the comic legend the Phantom, Vietnam left an indelible mark on whoever it touched. One mark, a cross in a circle, was good, while the other, a skull, was bad. There were other parallels as well; the Phantom's legend spans five hundred years, while the roots of our own Vietnam War can also be traced well into the past. Natives called the Phantom "The Ghost Who Walks" because any Phantom who became too wounded or ill or dead would be quietly replaced by a son to continue the fight against evil.
So there we were in Vietnam to fight the evil empire of world communism: however, one thing that stands out about the Vietnam War is that not everything was what it appeared to be, as one particular ghost story of our own shows.
The 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry had moved from LZ Uplift in the northern part of II Corps to Phan Thiet in the southern part, into a vacant sandy lot adjacent to the airstrip at LZ Betty. We were expected to build our own camp area, and had plenty of odorous treated OD canvas tents to set up our new home.
The so-called ten man tent (Tent, General Purpose: Medium, FSN 8340-543-7788) was the main tent used; this 16'x32' tent was 10'3" tall in the center and 5'8" tall along each side. We also had smaller 5-man tents (Tent, G.P., 4-sided, 16'x16') for offices, NCO quarters and so on.
While the tents were designed to be installed without a floor directly on the ground, this was impractical on the sandy soil. It would have been ideal to have raised concrete pads for the floors, but in most cases we had do-it-yourself wooden floors made from ammo box wood. Floors were raised off the ground to keep the wood from getting wet and rotting, and also to allow air flow underneath the floorboards. Sandbags were stacked about 3' to 4' high around the outside of each tent to provide protection against shrapnel from mortars and rockets. Trenching ensured that the sandbag revetments wouldn't be undercut in a monsoon deluge.
Shortly after the battalion advance party arrived at LZ Betty, the outline of the new tent city started taking shape. Military rows of GPM tents were punctuated with a few smaller tents as well as some larger maintenance (Quonset) tents, Conex containers, sandbagged bunkers, burn-out latrines, and some permanent structures like the mess hall and perimeter towers and tubes sticking out of the ground.
One 16'x16' G.P. tent was set off by itself along some sand dunes at the northwest end of the battalion area. It had an official purpose that escapes me now, but was also home to the two NCOs who worked there. They had built a veritable palace among tents, complete with a lockable front door reached by a short flight of stairs that climbed over two feet through the sandbagged revetment from the sandy ground to the ammo box floor.
One problem with our style of camp architecture was the "basement" spaces under the floorboards that rats especially loved. Rats flourish in Vietnam. In fact, rats are such a plague in Vietnam even today that in one central province alone, 3,500,000 rats are killed a week and yet rodents still destroy between 30 and 50% of the crops. The rat plague is so bad that the communist government banned the serving of cat meat in restaurants.
Most of us got used to the occasional pitter-patter of rat feet and the occasional thump or swoosh of their bodies. At least they consumed their prey, so the smell of decaying flesh didn't usually penetrate the floorboards. Besides, we mostly only saw our hooches at night after a long day and once we got used to the fact that the rats wouldn't swarm us at night and eat us alive in our bunks it was easy enough to simply overlook the industrious nocturnal activities taking place a few feet beneath our exhausted slumber.
The rats residing underneath the NCOs' hooch, however, weren't so benign. They could put up a tremendous racket, and on occasion had been seen above the floorboards - big, mean, greedy, cruel rats rats that would be a match for Devil, the wild mountain wolf cub raised from birth by the Phantom.
Of course, the rest of us had little concern about their problem so long as our own rats left us alone. Besides, we figured that it was probably due to leaving food in the hooch or some other hygiene matter, although like most of the camp the hooch was regularly cleaned by local Vietnamese hooch maids.
But their rat problem seemed to intensify daily until they put out rat poison and adjusted the sandbags that rose tightly around the structure to restrict the rat's entry. For a while, the problem eased, but then came back with a vengeance. It was no longer just the pitter-patter of ghastly blood-smeared razor-sharp claws fresh from tearing strips of flesh off of rotting prey, now it seemed as if ghostly footsteps were pacing around on the floor during the day.
Perhaps the hooch was haunted! Hooch maids were so afraid that they stopped cleaning it. It wasn't unusual to even feel a vibration pass through your feet as you stood on the floor when the ghostly footsteps walked past. We had absolutely no knowledge of the history of the place before we arrived; it could easily have been the place of execution for local politicians or village chiefs by the Viet Cong or their predecessors, the Viet Minh, or possibly even the French or ancient Chinese warlords.
So who was this frightening apparition, this walking ghost whom people could sense but not see? Whoever the ghost was, he or she had certainly seemed to solve the hooch's rat problem!
Since most of a war involves problems, most soldiers and especially most NCOs tend to be good problem solvers. And although we may be superstitious, most of us tend to also have a strong pragmatic "show-me" streak. While the hairs on the back of our necks may occasionally tingle, we generally are a bit sceptical about the supernatural. So these men had a problem that they were determined to solve if they could.
The basic solution involved clearing away the sandbags to clean out everything under the hooch and see if they continued to be haunted. If so, the next move would be to break down the hooch and relocate it somewhere else. If that didn't work, then the answer would be to draw another tent and start all over. If that failed, I suspect they would each try to find a different hoochmate.
When the ghost was still for a while, it was time to act! With the help of a small work detail, off came the top row of sandbags to the right of the staircase, and then the second row. Sandbags were re-piled nearby ready to go up again. A few more were added to the pile when, with a shout, the men removing the sandbags jumped back from the hooch as if they'd seen a ghost!
Perhaps what they'd seen was actually worse than a ghost, though, for a monster-sized 20 foot long python had made the void her home! And she was coiled around her eggs to protect them until they hatched. To warm the eggs, she would from time-to-time make her muscles vibrate to raise the temperature, which in her enclosed nesting space rattled the floorboards.
After that incident, I probably wasn't the only person in the battalion to ensure that the sandbagged revetment around my hooch always had ample ventilation and drainage holes.
Copyright 2002 Ray
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Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website http://www.ichiban1.org/
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