When I was a kid my dad and my uncle read magazines like Men, Argosy, and True Adventure. I wasn’t allowed to see them since they were filled with scantily clad women. This made them all the more exotic so I secretly read them when I could. This, along with the more educational voice of National Geographic were influences that shaped my taste for travel and adventure.
The writing style of the men’s magazines was unique in voice. It was laced with drama and embellishment and written in a crude, masculine language common to men who served in the military or worked in blue collar assembly jobs. With the end of WWII and Korea a new generation was born who were exposed to the stories of men who served in two wars but who had never been exposed to the terrible realities of war themselves. For this generation, born in the ’50’s and ’60’s, the wars were a series of romantic, adventurous and exciting stories that inflated heroes to mythical status.
By the time the stories reached the pages of men’s magazines they were a long way from journalism. They had become bawdy tales, often sexualized, always exaggerated. I grew up on these stories. They created the demand for the Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean novels and were the precursors to Tom Clancy.
Some time ago another writer whom I’ve had the good fortune to accompany around the world, Ms. Robin Postell, inspired me to try to write a short story as if I were one of those writers for the men’s magazines in the 1960’s. It was more difficult to capture the language and feel of the writing style than I thought. Here is the final version:
Death Dance of the Cong She-Devil: Navy Frogmen in The ‘Nam.
Lt. Steele doesn’t give a damn. He has too many missions in the Rung Sat Special Zone to count. Steele cheated death by the skin of his teeth so many times they say he can’t die. He knows different. The only thing that keeps him out of a body bag in the Rung Sat is moving quieter and shooting faster than Charlie Cong.
Steele’s a frogman, Navy “SEAL” they call them. His team hunts Charlie Cong in the murderous Vietnamese swamp. It’s a dark green, stinking wet, real life hell.
The “Rung Sat Special Zone” holds a buzzing hive of deadly Cong half sunk in a stinking mangrove swamp that cuts the ‘Nam in half. Charlie Cong holes up in the Rung Sat because it’s impossible to move in- except for him. The mud is so thick it sucks the boots off your feet. The mangroves so twisted you’ll never see the black cobra that gets you. Your last worry is a Commie bullet since the Rung Sat kills most men before Charlie Cong does. The Huey choppers and Skyraider bombers fly over it, the PBR patrol boats skirt around the outside of it, but only Lt. Steele’s gang of tiger striped, green-faced frogmen hunt Charlie Cong inside the Rung-Sat.
And hunt Cong they do. Take the night of January 19, 1968. Word came down to Lt. Steele’s frogmen that a VC tax collector was making the rounds with a platoon of North Vietnamese regulars as bodyguards. That was normal. What was different was the tax collector was a woman, if you could call her that. You think of a woman as your Mom or your girl. You can’t think of Madame Kang Tomb like that. She’s a she-devil from the swampy jungle hell. The crack NVA guard that follows Madame Tomb fear her. They see her unspeakable acts on the peaceful little swamp-people and her own bodyguards. Tomb isn’t fussy. If you glance at her the wrong way, she’ll have your skin peeled off and string you up to a nipa palm for the ants and the sun to finish. It usually takes a couple days.
Steele got the word that Tomb was expected the following night in the Rung Sat. The information cost a Viet spy a bullet in his head. She’d make her rounds, take what rice and chickens the little swamp people had as tax, murder some during her she-devil death dance, then melt back North where she kept her hive surrounded by terror-worker bee NVA bodyguards. It was Steele’s job to make sure she met a bullet or a blade.
Steel’s men are a gang of roughnecks and he-men. Back in “the world” they were surfers, skin-divers and longshoremen. All of his men are fit enough to win the Olympics. Here in the ‘Nam they’re green-faced murderers, paid to kill by Uncle Sam and made hard by the freezing waters of Coronado, California where only four men in a hundred could pass the gladiator training torture test called “Hell Week”. The Navy would half-drown them, freeze them, make them crawl on their bellies ‘til their skin was raw then do it all over again for seven days and nights with no sleep. Some men went mad, others cried for mommy. A few became frogmen. Steele was one, his gang of green-faced assassins a few more.
Their sixth man is the mystery, a jungle tribesman named Nimh. They call him “Charlie Brown” since he loves hunting Charlie Cong and his skin is dark brown from the Vietnamese sun. Charlie Brown isn’t even five feet tall, maybe a hundred pounds after a bowl of rice. His brown skin is like cowhide leather. He could be a hundred by the lines in his face; they say he’s less than twenty. He carries a handmade crossbow that shoots deadly poison arrows, wears a thing like a filthy diaper. No boots or sandals. He fights mostly naked. And there is the necklace. You know… ears strung on a leather thong, cut from Cong killed with his poison arrows. The frogmen told Charlie Brown he’s not allowed to do that. Charlie Brown makes his own rules though. He really doesn’t follow any rules anyway, except kill Cong before he kills you. He has a knife tucked into his loincloth, an old Kabar the frogmen gave him. Charlie Brown is part of the team because of his nose, ears and eyes- and his thirst for Cong blood. He can track the Cong through the Rung Sat when there is no trace; smells a day-old cooking fire a click away. He hears the Cong’s whispers no matter how hard it’s raining or how thick the nipa palm and mangroves are.
Lt. Steele carries a Remington pump action 12-gauge, sawed off short so he can swing the barrel quick from one charging Cong to another in the thick mangroves. Over his back he slings an M79 “blooper” grenade gun. On his hip he wears a pistol belt, gunslinger style, with a Colt .45 in a special canvas holster tied to his leg. He carries a custom Randall knife hand made in Florida. It has a short blade because, as Steele tells it, “Cong necks ain’t that thick.” Steele uses the 12-gauge because the brand new M16 Marauder rifle the army carries doesn’t work in the Rung Sat. They jam up, too delicate. The bullets don’t cut through jungle. Steele’s men use the top secret Stoner machine gun, the M1 carbine used to fight the Japs in WWII and the new M14 rifle the Marines are carrying. Sure, the Stoner is fussy, but it spit bullets like a rancher spits Skoal, the M-14 hits like a needle-nosed freight train. Steele sticks to the sawed-off 12-gauge scattergun ‘cause he “likes to work close”. The SEAL-frogmen don’t wear normal battle uniforms. They wear special-made jungle camouflage rip-proof safari shirts with pockets sewn all over them. For pants the men wear regular blue jeans tucked tight into their Army canvas-topped jungle boots. Some men wear a green camouflage beret, others a narrow brim, camouflage beach hat. All of them rub boot-black on their faces so the only thing that shows at night are the whites of their eyes. Steele wears extra slugs for his 12-guage across his chest in a specially sewn bandoleer like a Mexican bandit.
Just after midnight Steele’s frogmen loaded up in a low, dark green Navy motorboat heavy with machine guns and grenade launchers. It cruised on the black water with silent engines along the bank of the Song Dua River in the T-10 Special Military Zone. This is one of the many rivulets that feeds off the Long Tau Shipping channel into the Rung Sat.
Using his red-lens flashlight in the pitch black to save his night vision, Steele showed the Navy boat captain where he wanted to be dropped off on a map, right in the thick mangroves where the main channel meets the Ong Keo River. The tidal current runs fast through there so Steele’s men will wade directly from the boat into the chest deep water inside the mangrove hell. The Navy boat captain is nervous. This is the deadliest part of the Rung Sat.
The boat captain cut the silent waterjet engines early, letting the current carry them into the mangroves. Lt. Steele jumps first, his shotgun in hand. He sinks to his neck and half swims, half walks along the pitch-black, sucking mud bottom. He hears the “ker-plunk” of a snake falling out of the mangroves into the water. Charlie Brown is next into the water, too short to touch bottom he paddles like a dog along the shiny black surface with his crossbow on his back. The rest of the men follow, slipping silently into the water while the boat backs away and disappears downstream in the opaque blackness on the swift tidal current.
It got shallower, the frogmen were almost on land, only waist-deep now, except for Charlie Brown whose bare feet just now touched bottom. They stopped. Listened. The jungle sounds drifted on black, humid air along with the fragrance of rotting vegetation and… smoke. Charlie Brown taps Steele’s shoulder, points off to the left, the due west, and the team of assassins slowly makes their way through tangled branches and ankle grabbing vines submerged in the black water. After an hour, they went 100 feet. Charlie Brown tugged on the back of Steele’s fatigue jacket, pointed his crossbow forward.
Barely visible in the darkness, up on the narrow, overgrown trail: a man in a triangular hat holding a curved-clip machine gun.
In less than a few seconds the Cong guerilla is flat on his face with Charlie Brown’s poison arrow in his temple. Silence, not even a whisper. Steele steps forward, pointing his boots as he lifts his feet out of the mud, moving silently. There is a narrow trail where the VC sentry stood before he took a poison arrow to the head. Steele carefully skirts it, staying a few meters inside the jungle.
He moves silently through the thicket as the ground comes up, and then onto solid ground, crouching down low. Charlie Brown squeezes Steele’s shoulder, he pinches his nose. Smoke. The village where Madame Tomb is reigning terror.
At the edge of the jungle the frogmen come on line. The man at either end slips around back of the village through the jungle, including Steele. He steps up to a thatch hut, unsheaths his Randall and silently slips it under the wall, turning it blade up. He cuts through the nipa palm thatch like flame through ice. Steele looks inside. Two men with rifles are sleeping there. He enlarges the hole and slides silently through it, into the thatched hut. First one man, then the other, both silently, both dead. Throats cut. He wipes the blade of the Randall off and stows it back in the leather sheath on his shoulder. He looks out the front of the small hut, too low for him to stand in.
Tomb stands in the center, villagers gathered around on the ground, sitting on their haunches. She collected baskets of fruit and rice. In front of her is a man, hands tied, on his knees. She’s getting ready to exact her toll on the Vietnamese swamp people. She raises her arms over her head in her weird murder-mamba dance, chanting an oath to the Commies as she begins to gyrate slowly in her death dance.
It’s too far for the shotgun, Steele might hit one of the tribesmen kneeling on the ground with the buckshot. It’s too close for his M-79 grenade gun. He pulls his secret weapon from inside his jacket, a Hi-Standard .22 caliber pistol with a silencer built on it. It shoots hollow-tipped bullets that blast apart when they hit Cong skin.
Steele takes a two-handed grip from inside the hut. Madame Tomb gyrates and chants her murderous mantra.
One shot chuffs clear of Steels’s Hi Standard, then two more. One to the head, two in her back. For a moment Madame Tomb seems bulletproof. Then, like a coon who only caught a piece of buckshot, she topples over. Dead. On the ground.
It’s silent for an instant, one loud VC voice barks. It’s drowned by a frogman lead orchestra as men on two sides of the village cut loose in an “L” shaped ambush. In less than a few seconds every Cong is down and bleeding. The couple that survive the crossfire scramble like monkeys back into the jungle, dropping their rifles in a terror-driven dash. The villagers lay flat on their face, terrified but unhurt. The black-faced frogmen are back.