Memory of war


The armored personnel carrier loaded with American dead and wounded pulled up to the aid station. From the top the commander pushed a ragged bundle to his foot.

It landed at the feet of a sergeant directing the unloading. He reached down and parted the poncho, revealing a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldier drawn into the fetal position. He was breathing, but not conscious. “Why didn’t you shoot him?,” asked the sergeant.

The track commander shrugged. The NCA was taken inside. He was the lone survivor of a bunker complex bombed and then assaulted by our troops. I asked a nearby medic why the guy was curled into a ball.


The sergeant tried questioning him in Vietnamese, but got no response. He was unrolled so his pockets could be emptied. This produced a moaning, a folded family picture and the bits and pieces only an infantryman carries. A few more fruitless questions, then he was loaded on a helicopter to be evacuated with our casualties. I shot the breeze with the doorgunner.

Two days later the same helicopter and doorgunner were back. I asked the doorgunner if the NVA soldier had made it. He eyed me while lighting a cigarette. “There are three landing pads at the 9th Division hospital at Dong Tam,” he exhaled. “Five minutes before arrival we radio and are told which pad to land at. The doctor in charge of one pad works only with ‘friendlies.’

All others are left to die. We were instructed to land on his pad.” He said evenly, with no trace of arrogance or hatred, “That NVA soldier wasn’t on board when we touched down.” Saigon fighting, May 1968.

William Sirtola