The Story Where Viet Nam Was Cliche’d “The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong”
THE GENERAL GOES ZAPPING
CHARLIE CONG (The Sunday Times 5 June 1966)
By Nicholas Tomalin
After a light lunch last Wednesday, General James F. Hollingsworth, of Big Red One, took off in his personal helicopter and killed more Vietnamese than all the troops he commanded.
The story of the General’s feat begins in the divisional office, at Ki-Na, twenty miles north of Saigon, where a Medical Corps colonel is telling me that when they collect enemy casualties they find themselves with more than four injured civilians for every wounded Viet Cong-unavoidable in this kind of war.
The General strides in, pins two medals for outstanding gallantry to the chest of one of the colonel’s combat doctors. Then he strides off again to his helicopter, and spreads ‘out a polythene-covered map to explain our afternoon’s trip.
The General has a big, real American face, reminiscent of every movie general you have seen. He comes from Texas,· and is 48. His present rank is Brigadier General, Assistant Division Commander, 1st Infantry Division, United States Army (which is what the big red figure one on his shoulder flash means).
“Our mission today,” says the General, “is to push those goddam VCs rightoff Routes 13 and 16. Now you see Routes 13 and 16 running north from Saigon toward the town of Phuoc Vinh, where we keep our artillery. When we got here first we prettied up those roads, and cleared Charlie Cong right out so we could run supplies up.
“I guess we’ve .been hither and thither with all our operations since, an’ the 01′ VC he’s reckoned he could creep back. He’s been puttin’ out propaganda he’s goin’ to interdict our right of passage along those routes. So this day we aim to zapp him, and zapp him, and zapp him again till we’ve zapped him right back where he came from. Yes, sir. Let’s go.”
The General’s UH 18 helicopter carries two pilots, two 60-calibre machinegunners, and his aide, Dennis Gillman, an apple-cheeked subaltern from California. It also carries the General’s own M 16 carbine (hanging on a strut), two dozen smoke-bombs, and a couple of CS anti-personnel gas-bombs, each as big as a small dustbin. Just beside the General is a radio console where he can tune in on orders issued by battalion commanders flying helicopters just beneath him, and company commanders in helicopters just below them. Under this interlacing of helicopters lies the apparently peaceful landscape beside Routes 13 and 16, filled with farmhouses and peasants hoeing rice and paddy fields.
So far today, things haven’t gone too well. Companies Alpha, Bravo and Charlie have assaulted a suspected Viet Cong HQ, found a few tunnels but no enemy.
The General sits at the helicopter’s open door, knees apart, his shiny black toecaps jutting out into space, rolls a filtertip cigarette to-and-fro in his teeth, and thinks.
“Put me down at Battalion HQ,” he calls to the pilot.
“There’s sniper fire reported on choppers in that area, General.”
“Goddam the snipers, just put me down.”
Battalion HQ at the moment is a defoliated area of four acres packed withtents, personnel carriers, helicopters and milling GIs. We settle into the smell of crushed grass. The General leaps out and strides through his troops.
“Why General, excuse us, we didn’t expect you here,” says a sweating major.
“You killed any ‘Cong yet?”
“Well no General, I guess he’s just too scared of us today. Down the road a piece we’ve hit trouble, a bulldozer’s fallen through a bridge, and trucks coming through a village knocked the canopy off a Buddhist pagoda. Saigon radioed us to repair that temple before proceeding-in the way of civic action, General. That put us back an hour … ”
“Yeah. Well Major, you spread out your perimeter here a bit, then get to killin’ VC’s will you?”
Back through the crushed grass to the helicopter. “I don’t know how you think about war. The way I see it, I’m just like any other company boss, gingering up the boys all the time, except I don’t make money. I just kill people, and save lives.”
In the air the General chews two more filtertips and looks increasingly forlorn. No action on Route 16, and another Big Red.One general has got his helicopter in to inspect the collapsed bridge before ours.
“Swing us back along again,” says the General.
“Reports of fire on choppers ahead, sir. Smoke flare near spot. Strike coming in.”
“Go find that smoke.”
A plume of white rises in the midst of dense tropical forest, with a Bird Dog spotter plane in attendance. Route 16 is to the right; beyond it a large settlement of red-tiled houses.
“Strike coming in, sir.”
Two F-105 jets appear over the horizon in formation, split, then one passes over the smoke, dropping a trail of silver, fish-shaped canisters. After four seconds’ silence, light orange fire explodes in patches along an area fifty yards wide by three-quarters of a mile long. Napalm.
The trees and bushes burn, pouring dark oily smoke into the sky. The second plane dives and fire covers the entire strip of dense forest.
“Aaaaah,” cries the General. “Nice. Nice. Very neat. Come in low, let’s see who’s left down there.”
“How do you know for sure the Viet Cong snipers were in that strip you burned?”
“We don’t. The smoke position was a guess. That’s why we zapp the whole forest.”
“But what if there was someone, a civilian, walking through there?”
“Aw come son, you think there’s folks just sniffing flowers in tropical vegetation like that? With a big operation on hereabouts? Anyone left down there, he’s Charlie Cong all right.”
I point at a paddy field full of peasants less than half a mile away.
“That’s different son. We know they’re genuine.”
The pilot shouts: “General, half right, two running for that bush.”
“I see them. Down, down, goddam you.”
In one movement he yanks his Ml6 off the hanger, slams in a clip of cartridges and leans right out of the door, hanging on his seatbelt to fire one long burst in the general direction of the bush.
“General, there’s a hole, maybe a bunker, down there.”
“Smokebomb, circle, shift it.”
“But General, how do you know those aren’t just frightened peasants?”
“Running? Like that? Don’t give me a pain. The clips, the clips, where in hell are the cartridges in this ship?”
The aide drops a smoke canister, the General finds his ammunition and the starboard machine-gunner fires rapid bursts into the bush, his tracers bouncing
up off the ground round it.
We turn clockwise in ever tighter, lower circles, everyone firing. A shower of spent cartridge cases leaps from the General’s carbine to drop, lukewarm, on my arm.
“I … WANT YOU TO SHOOT RIGHT … UP . . . THE … ASS OF THAT HOLE GUNNER.”
Fourth time round the tracers flow right inside the tiny sandbagged opening, tearing the bags, filling it with sand and smoke.
The General falls back off his seatbelt into his chair, suddenly relaxed, and lets out an oddly feminine, gentle laugh. “That’s it,” he says, and turns to me, squeezing his thumb and finger into the sign of a French chef’s ecstasy.
We circle now above a single-storey building made of dried reeds. The first burst of fire tears the roof open, shatters one wall into fragments of scattered straw, and blasts the farmyard full of chickens into dismembered feathers.
“Zapp, zapp, zapp,” cries the General. He is now using semi-automatic fire, the carbine bucking in his hands.
Pow, pow, pow, sounds the gun. All the noises of this war have an unaccountably Texan ring.
Lieutenant Gillman leans his canister out of the door. As the pilot calls, he drops it. An explosion of-white vapour spreads across the wood a full hundred . yards downwind.
“Jesus wept, lootenant, that’s no good.”
Lieutenant Gillman immediately clambers across me to get the second gas bomb, pushing me sideways into his own port-side seat. In considerable panic I fumble with an unfamiliar seatbelt as the helicopter banks round at an angle of fifty degrees. The second gas bomb explodes perfectly, beside the house, covering it with vapour.
“There’s nothing alive in there,” says the General. “Or they’d be skedaddling. Yes there is, by golly.”
For the first time I see the running figure, bobbing and sprinting across the farmyard towards a clump of trees dressed in black pyjamas. No hat. No shoes.
“Now hit the tree.”
We circle five times. Branches drop off the tree, leaves fly, its trunk is enveloped with dust and tracer flares. Gillman and the General are now firing carbines side by side in the doorway. Gillman offers me his gun: No thanks.
Then a man runs from the tree, in each hand a bright red flag which he waves desperately above his head.
“Stop, stop, he’s quit,” shouts the General, knocking the machine-gun so tracers erupt into the sky.
”I’m going down to take him. Now watch it everyone, keep firing roundabout, this may be an ambush.”
We sink swiftly into the field beside the tree, each gunner firing cautionary bursts into the bushes. The figure walks towards us.
“That’s a Cong for sure,” cries the General in triumph and with one deft movement grabs the man’s short black hair and yanks him off his feet, inboard .
The prisoner falls across Lieutenant Gillman and into the seat beside me.
The red flags I spotted from the air are his hands, bathed solidly in blood. Further blood is pouring from under his shirt, over his trousers.
Now we are safely in the air again. Our captive cannot be more than sixteen years old, his head comes just about up to the white name patch-Hollingsworth- on the General’s chest. He is dazed, in shock. His eyes calmly look first at the General, then at the Lieutenant, then at me. He resembles a tiny, fine-boned wild animal. I have to keep my hand firmly pressed against his shoulder to hold him upright. He is quivering. Sometimes his left foot, from some nervous impulse, bangs hard against the helicopter wall.
The Lieutenant applies a tourniquet to his right arm.
“Radio base for an ambulance. Get the information officer with a camera. I want this Commie bastard alive till we get back … just stay with us till we talk to you, baby.”
The General pokes with his carbine first at the prisoner’s cheek to keep his head upright, then at the base of his shirt.
“Look at that now,” he says, turning to me. “You still thinking about innocent peasants? Look at the weaponry.”
Around the prisoner’s waist is a webbing belt, with four clips of ammunition, a water bottle (without stopper), a tiny roll of bandages, and a propaganda leaflet which later turns out to be a set of Viet Cong songs, with a twenty piastre note (about Is. 6d.) folded in it.
Lieutenant Gillman looks concerned. “It’s OK, you’re OK,” he mouths at the prisoner, who at that moment turns to me and with a surprisingly vigorous gesture waves his arm at my seat. He wants to lie down.
By the time I have fastened myself into yet another seat we are back at the landing pad. Ambulance orderlies come aboard, administer morphine, and rip open his shirt. Obviously a burst of fire has shattered his right arm up at the shoulder. The cut shirt now allows a large bulge of blue~red tissue to fall forward, its surface streaked with white nerve fibres and chips of bone (how did he ever manage to wave that arm in surrender?).
When the ambulance has driven off the General gets us all posed round the nose of the chopper for a group photograph like a gang of successful fishermen, then clambers up into the cabin again, at my request, for a picture to show just how he zapped those YCs. He is euphoric.
“Jeez I’m so glad you was along, that worked out just dandy. I’ve been written I;IPtime and time again back in the State for shootin’ up YCs, but no one’s been along with me like you before.”
We even find a bullet hole in one of the helicopter rotor blades. “That’s proof positive they was firin’at us all the time. An’ firin’ on us first, boy. So much for your fellers smell in’ flowers.”
He gives me the Viet Cong’s water bottle as souvenir and proof. “That’s a chicom bottle, that one. All the way from Peking.”
Later that evening the General calls me to his office to tell me the prisoner had to have his arm amputated, and is now in the hands of the Vietnamese authorities, as regulations dictate. Before he went under, he told the General’s interpreters that he was part of a hardcore regular YC company whose mission was to mine Route 16, cut it up, and fire at helicopters.
The General is magnanimous in his victory over my squeamish civilian worries.
“You see son, I saw rifles on that first pair of running men. Didn’t tell you that at the time. And, by the way you musn’t imagine there could have been ordinary farm folk in that house, when you’re as old a veteran as I am you get to know about those things by instinct. I agree there was chickens for food with them, strung up on a PQl~.You didn’t see anything bigger, like a pig or a cow did yuh? Well then.”
The General wasn’t certain whether further troops would go to the farmhouse that night to check who died, although patrols would be near there.
It wasn’t safe moving along Route 16 at night, there was another big operation elsewhere the next day. Big Red One is always on the move.
“But when them YC come back harassin’ that Route 16 why, we’ll zapp them again. And when they come back after that we’ll zapp them again.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier just to stay there all the time?”
“Why, son, we haven’t enough troops as it is.”
“The Koreans manage it.”
“Yeah, but they’ve got a smaller area to protect. Why Big Red One ranges right over-I mean up to the Cambodian Border. There ain’t no place on that map we ain’t been.
“I’ll say perhaps your English generals wouldn’t think my way of war is all that conventional, would they? Well, this is a new kind of war, flexible, quickmoving. Us generals must be on the spot to direct our troops. The helicopter adds a new dimension to battle.
“There’s no beter way to fight than goin’ out to shoot YCs. An’ there’s nothing I love better than killin’ ‘Congo No, sir.”
Newspaper editors are fond of arguing that the New Journalism cannot be adapted to daily journalism, either on the grounds that it works only with trivial (“PoP ”) subjects or breaks down under the demands of deadlines. In 1966 Nicholas Tomalin was one of England’s leading investigative reporters, a “hard news” ;ournalist of great repute, when he used the techniques of the New Journalism to write this story. He went on the Zapping mission with the General and wrote the story in a single day. It had the most astonishing impact in England, creating for English readers the emotional reality of the war. . . and a somewhat horrified fascination in it. Tomalin was, in fact, writing for a weekly, the Sunday Times, which takes some of the edge off his feat; nevertheless, writers on dailies could achieve this sort of effect fairly often, I am convinced, if they were trained and encouraged to do so. Jimmy Breslin used to manage it with regularity. Not many newspaper writers have the talent or moxie of Tomalin and Breslin. But there is a worse problem: not many newspaper editors want to know that it can even be done.-T. W