Rick Gauger

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The Old Lady’s Coffin: a Vietnam Story

Posted on | May 14, 2010 | 7 Comments

by Rick Gauger ©2010

[Author’s note: This is the first time I have written about my experiences as an intelligence officer with the First Cavalry Division during the Vietnam War. A warning to sensitive readers: this story contains descriptions that you may find disturbing. Everything in this story is true.]

This is one of the things that happened at LZ Pony. The LZ had been in place four or five days by the time this happened. There were about 30 American soldiers at Pony, including my little interrogating team. Fighting was going on elsewhere, so our helicopter support was sparse. We didn’t have our jeeps, our tents or our other luxuries. We were by ourselves on a bare hilltop surrounded by little hamlets and rice paddies in a valley in the mountains. We lived under our ponchos. For two weeks our luck held out. The weather was good and there was no enemy except for a sniper who used to fire one shot at us from a great distance every evening at 5 PM.

The LZ commander sent out small patrols of seven or eight infantrymen, to explore the hamlets that dotted the big valley and its tributary valleys. I wasn’t supposed to go on these patrols, but I did anyway. I was curious about this exotic place, the infantry needed interpreters, and it’s smart to scout around when you’re in VC country. My Vietnamese Army interpreter, Sgt Xuan, was willing to go too.


I’d been operational long enough to know this was Vietcong country. It was clean, orderly, and motor-scooter-free. Nobody wanted to sell us anything or wanted to come anywhere near us. There were hardly any people who weren’t elderly or taking care of small children. There were nontraditional kilometer-wide paddy fields on all sides where the VC had forced the villagers to collectivize the villagers’ smaller fields for greater efficiency. The hamlets were like islands of jungle dotted across the flat paddy fields. Once you got out of the hot glare and into a hamlet, your eyes adjusted and you saw mazes of pathways though jungle trees and bamboo, beautiful thatched-roof houses, gardens, tea hedges, fruit trees and animal pens. You also saw pits with sharpened stakes, prepared defensive trenches, dugout bunkers, tunnels and booby traps. We were lucky we caught this place by surprise.

We wandered wide loops from hamlet to hamlet, avoiding the open paddies as much as we could. The few villagers we encountered froze when they saw us. We tended to shoot at anyone who ran away. On another patrol few days before, I had been scared out of my wits. A black-clad figure had suddenly leaped up and started running away. A Vietnamese civilian running away might have life-saving information for us. We yelled at him to halt, but he didn’t. I was drawing a bead on him with my M16, deciding whether to shoot or not, when suddenly a woman burst out of the bushes and grabbed my elbow. Everybody in the patrol froze with their rifles aimed at me and her. We did a lot of ‘freezing’ in Vietnam. I was still aiming at the fugitive. The woman talked too fast for me to understand. Finally Sgt Xuan gasped out that the woman was saying for me not to shoot, that the fugitive was the village idiot, running away out of sheer simple-mindedness. This scene lasted two seconds, but it is engraved in my memory like an hour-long TV special.

That’s how I happened not to shoot a village idiot. Or maybe the guy I didn’t shoot was a valuable high-ranking VC with a lot of intelligence information, who was saved by a very brave and very fast-thinking VC woman cadre.

We never knew much in Vietnam. But now, 44 years later, I know that the Vietnam war was a pointless fiasco. So I’m glad I didn’t shoot anybody that time.

Anyway, there we were, Sgt Xuan, six American soldiers I didn’t know the names of, and 24-year-old, second lieutenant me. We pushed down a narrow red clay path between tree trunks and bamboo-fenced pigpens and emerged in a sunlit clay courtyard in front of an elaborate farmhouse. Out came a smiling little old Vietnamese lady in maroon pajamas and a turban to greet us. I understood about a quarter of what was going on. Welcome to the farm, she said. Sorry, everybody is away. Smiling with a few teeth, gesturing and bowing, with ducks and chickens around her feet, she offered us the run of the place. The soldiers, taken aback by the lady’s enthusiasm but trying to act businesslike, went through the motions of looking through the house and outbuildings, turning over baskets and checking under mats. I noted a foxhole in the middle of the floor of the front room of the house. The foxhole had a seat with armrests, neatly sculpted out of the clay floor. There was a dusty red cushion on the seat, and a teacup on one of the armrests.

Back outside, she led us around a corner where we saw a heavy wooden box the size and shape of a refrigerator leaning against the back of the house. It was a real eye-catcher. It was painted bright red, and it had old-time Chinese decorations, highlighted with gold paint, at the corners. The old lady, smiling so that her eyes disappeared in a washboard of brown freckled wrinkles that left only her gums and a few blackened teeth visible, talking a mile a minute, invited us to inspect and admire the object.

What the fuck is this thing? we wanted to know. What’s the old lady going on about? What’s she saying? I began trying to decide if we should go to the trouble of opening this thing and looking inside. The issue of booby traps was always present in our minds. Sgt Xuan explained: This is her coffin. Her what? Sgt Xuan didn’t know the English word ‘coffin,’ so he and I had to do some negotiating while the little old lady cackled on. Her coffin? The American GIs were amazed. You mean she’s gonna get put in it when she dies? And she’s got it in her back yard? That’s right, and not only that, she says her son bought it for her. It shows how much he loves and respects her. That’s why she’s so proud of it and is showing it off to us. The Americans grinned and chortled and congratulated the old lady and each other. We walked away smiling. Maybe we felt that we were, at last, having the adventure in a foreign part of the world that the war stories of our fathers had promised us.

We walked away from that place and continued our patrol. Nothing else happened except a really nice stroll in the boonies, and our return to LZ Pony in the evening in time to be missed again by the Five O’clock Sniper. I wish I could re-live that day.

Soon after that, maybe the next afternoon, something happened, I don’t know what. Maybe one of the helicopter pilots thought he had been shot at. I was a little to one side of the LZ, by myself, doing I don’t remember what, when a gunship roared over me and launched a couple of white phosphorus rockets at something I couldn‘t see. Big white phosphorus explosions rose over the treetops, then the gunship turned and flew toward me firing its 40mm grenade launcher directly at me, poop-poop-poop-poop, and a line of explosions came at me across the flooded paddy like a giant stomping across a lake. I was too surprised to move. I suppose the pilot realized at the last minute that he was about to hit near the LZ, and took his finger off the trigger just as the next stomp was going to get me.

I said previously that the incident of the village idiot scared the wits out of me. That’s not really true. That didn’t really scare me, nor did the gunship thing. I was only really terrified once in Vietnam, and I will tell you about it later. The truth about me was that I was so busy all the time, so preoccupied with what I was supposed to do next, and remembering the million things I had to remember, so preoccupied with looking, thinking, and acting like an army officer, so preoccupied with the strain of understanding the Vietnamese language and all its dialects and accents, and the stuff that happened was so crazy and stupid that I sometimes felt that I wasn’t really living my life, but that I was trapped in an insane movie or nightmare or something, and it wasn’t real, so it wasn‘t real enough to scare me, except a little. I would like to know if anyone else felt that way.

Here’s another truth: I didn’t see enough combat, didn’t see enough of my friends killed around me, to really get to the depths of horror, despair, and fear that the real infantryman experiences.

I don’t remember what I did after that. I probably went back to where the officers were, to see what had happened. My team and I probably spent the day interrogating villagers and trying to make sense of what they told us. All the rest of the day, big fires burned in the hamlet beyond the trees.

The next day things were quiet, and Xuan and I went on another patrol with a different set of American infantrymen. We went here and there, various things happened that I don’t remember, and we found ourselves about five hundred meters from a big, burned-out area. The burnt space was flat and open, all the trees and houses gone, littered with smoldering charcoal. Yes, the soldiers said, that’s what the gunship hit yesterday. Sgt Xuan suddenly became agitated and began sputtering in an effort to say something in English. I looked more closely. Far away, in the smoke, I could see a human silhouette from the waist up. It didn’t move. One of the soldiers said that’s a dead Vietnamese, burnt to a crisp. We saw it yesterday.

Xuan, is that–? Yes sah. That lady we talk to. We talk to her.

She was sitting up in her living room foxhole, a charcoal effigy of herself. No doubt when the shooting started, she took shelter in it. It didn’t protect her when her house turned to flame around her. Nothing can put out a white phosphorus fire. Her coffin was obliterated along with the rest of her small estate. I turned away, and I did not look at her again. That’s how things always went in Vietnam. For years afterward I would find myself doodling that image in the margins of papers when I was supposed to be working, a black silhouette of a stumpy torso, a skinny neck with a little round ball on top of it. I’m sitting in a Starbuck’s in Seattle writing this, and I’m getting tears in my eyes, but I have no right or reason whatever to cry about this.

Photo & video credits:
Places in the Vietnam War – LZ Pony [Landscaper]
Photographs of Vietnam 1/12 Cavalry [12th Cav. Regiment]
First Cavalry Division Vietnam 1967 [logibear64 : Youtube]

Comments

7 Responses to “The Old Lady’s Coffin: a Vietnam Story”

  1. Tom Gauger
    July 3rd, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    It’s hard to write dispassionately about my brother, but nevertheless, he’s a hell of a good writer. He has some painful memories of his time in Viet Nam and his stories are beautifully crafted. Even without the accompanying pictures in this story you can easily see the place in your mind’s eye.

  2. Keith Bates
    July 31st, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

    Rick: It is so nice for me to hear from you once more. I have been searching for your name ever since you and Denise (and I and Cheri) broke up.

    You’ll remember that I criticized you for knowing everything but not having an opinion about anything.

    Thank you for telling your story. The price you paid for your experiences should be valuable to us.

    Keith Bates

  3. Grace Greene 19th October 2010
    October 19th, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    Rick I have been following you through your daughter’s website
    and the occasional things you posted.

    We last saw each other in New York in the summer of 1964 or was it 65 just before you went to the Presidio language school.

    I have followed your other websites. When I found this story that you wrote it broke my heart. You gave up so much!

    I still have your letters that you sent me in Paris with all the cartoons. Your drawings now are very similar.

    I hope you continue with your writings and drawings

  4. Chuck Lockwood
    December 6th, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    I am in awe of your ability to describe what you saw and felt in Vietnam.

    I thank God I never experienced anything like talking to the old lady one day to find her remains burnt the next.

  5. Steven Fox
    July 24th, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    As long as I have known you never talked about Vietnam in such a manner.Its a wonderful well written true story of the
    horror you did not truly feel at the time. You Should write more.
    Steven

  6. levans.63
    June 1st, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

    Hey Buddy, Its Lee Evans(Fillet) I feel you…I spent my time in Reagons drug wars…wasnt Nam,but saw my share…THANK YOU RICK SO SO MUCH FOR YOUR SERVICE!!!,and welcome home my friend!

    wish I could still play WOW with you,but I dont play online games anymore. to many changes in my life. Good Luck buddy!

  7. Chap
    September 13th, 2015 @ 7:26 pm

    You asked if anyone felt like that: too busy to be scared until afterward.

    Iraq was my deployment, and yeah, it’s like that. Shove it off until later because work needs done. Put it in a box until later. Every once in a while, open the box and look at what’s in there.

    And my experience was discount war, not the tougher stuff my comrades dealt with and are dealing with.

    Thanks. Good writing.

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