Read P. O. W. Online

Authors: Donald E. Zlotnik

P. O. W. (7 page)

James kept trying to locate the rest of the sergeant’s patrol hidden in the jungle, but couldn’t even find the man nearest
to the NCO. The NVA company had nearly walked into a perfect claymore ambush. “Naw… I just came from that way…” James pointed
down the trail, “and there ain’t anything
for a couple clicks at least.”

“Who are you with?” The sergeant remained in his camouflaged position.

“The Cav…”

“So are we… Second Brigade?”

“No… I’m with the First Brigade’s Recon Company….”

“Get your ass in here and off the trail.” The sergeant waved for James to join him.

The NVA point heard James talking in English and figured that he had run into an American element. The NVA company began maneuvering
around the area.

“You’re wasting your time on this trail…. My recon team has worked this area for the last three days, and we haven’t seen
any sign of NVA.”

“Yeah? We’ve been out here since last night and are about ready to pull back to the battalion’s perimeter.” The sergeant automatically
nodded his head in the direction the Cavalry unit was bivouacked.

James felt his stomach roll. An American battalion could maul the NVA company he was with in a matter of minutes. “How far?”

The sergeant pulled an ant off his cheek and looked at it before crushing the insect between his fingers. “A couple hundred
meters… Well, if you just came from that direction and say it’s clear, we might as well break this ambush.” The sergeant whistled
softly and called to his men. A minute passed with the Americans signaling to one another that it was all clear. The squad
left the protection of the jungle and eased out onto the trail. James was impressed with how well they were camouflaged and
how disciplined they were.

“Man, you’ve got a good team!” James smiled as he complimented the sergeant. “I didn’t even suspect that you were here.”

“Thanks; I work hard at keeping my men alive…. We might die in this fucking war, but it won’t be because I made a stupid mistake.”

“I know whatcha mean.” James turned his head away from the NCO so he couldn’t see his malignant smile.

The squad worked smoothly, breaking apart the claymore ambush and rolling up the wires to the antipersonnel mines. Within
five minutes the ambush site was clean and the men were ready to leave. The sergeant walked silently along the edge of the
trail through the old ambush kill zone and signaled for his men to follow him and James. A couple of the men gave James a
curious look, but none of them broke silence. There would be plenty of time to ask questions when they got back inside of
the battalion’s perimeter.

James noticed that there were only seven men in the squad counting the sergeant, which was normal for Vietnam units, considering
that men were constantly going on R and R and sick call from the field; most infantry companies operated about thirty percent

The cracking sound of the first AK-47 dropped the squad down on the ground. A barrage of small-arms fire followed. The American
squad maneuvered quickly on their stomachs and formed a skirmish line to return fire. James dropped down on one knee and shot
the soldier nearest to him. He killed two more before the NCO turned around and saw him.

“You motherfucking—” The sergeant died before he could finish the sentence.

James pulled the bright red bandana from his pocket and tied it around his forehead as the prearranged signal to the NVA troops
that he was one of them. A soft sound caught James’s attention through the din of gunfire, and he looked in the direction
it had come from. A black soldier, the only black assigned to the sergeant’s squad, was crawling toward the battalion perimeter.
James lowered his CAR-15 and hesitated. He let the weapon hang from its sling and ran to catch up to the man.

“Where in the fuck are you going?” James dropped down on his knees next to the soldier.

“Back to the perimeter to get some help.… Man, there’s hundreds of fucking gooks out there!” The soldier was afraid, but not

“Did you see anything?” James’s voice was threatening.

“Yeah, man!
Now let go of my fucking arm!” The soldier pulled free from James’s grip.

“Good… You go back to battalion for help, and I’m going to check and see if we have any wounded.”

The black soldier looked at James as if he had flipped his lid. “Fucking fine with me!”

James watched the soldier crawl for another ten meters and then jump to his feet and start running. He should have killed
him too, but killing black brothers wasn’t why he had joined up with the NVA.

The black soldier ran toward his company’s portion of the perimeter, where the guards had been alerted and knew that one of
their rifle squads would be coming through from the night ambush. The soldier felt his back muscles tighten as he anticipated
the bullets from James’s CAR-15. He had seen James kill the sergeant and two more of his squad in cold blood.

The challenge came from a log-roofed fighting bunker on the side of a slight rise in the jungle floor.

“Barker! Second squad! Coming through!”
The black soldier didn’t slow down his stride and flipped into the closest foxhole he could find. “NVA!
Hundreds of them

An M-60 light machine gun started barking a couple of holes down from the black soldier, and then a claymore detonated a few
meters away before the familiar cracking from NVA AK-47s answered them.

The platoon leader slid into Barker’s foxhole, followed by his radio operator. “What’s out there, Barker?”

“Man, sir… you aren’t going to fucking believe this shit!” Barker took a deep breath and quickly told the lieutenant what
had happened to his squad.

*   *   *

The land-line telephone rang in Lieutenant Van Pao’s office twice before she answered the call. It was the division’s intelligence
officer. He informed her that he would be visiting her camp in two days, and he wanted to personally interrogate the young
American POW who was causing her so much trouble. The division commander wanted to know where the secret sensors were located,
and he wanted the information before they started their big push into the A Shau Valley the following week.

She was in a very bad mood when James entered her office wearing NVA pants and shirt.

“How do you like my new belt, Lieutenant?” James grabbed the gold belt buckle with the red star centered in it and tilted
the shiny metal fastener for her to see.

“Very nice, soldier.” Van Pao didn’t look up from the papers on her desk. “I called you here to tell you that a colonel from
Division is coming to visit us, and he
Americans. Stay out of his way, and when you meet him, show respect, or he’ll kill you on the spot.”

“Did he hear about my patrol?” James was smiling.

“Yes—that’s why you’re still alive.” Lieutenant Van Pao had had enough conversation with James. “Now go.” She nodded back
toward the door. Mohammed James was a great coup for her, and he was gaining a reputation even as high as corps level. What
bothered her most was that he could betray his own people and
doing it.



“Could I take Garibaldi and Barnett down to the river today?”

Lieutenant Van Pao thought for a minute and then decided that it would be a good idea to let Barnett swim in the river and
enjoy himself; directly after, she would make her last attempt at breaking him before the division staff officer arrived at
her camp. “Yes, take them and some guards; with the Americans so close to us in the A Shau Valley, they might send a patrol
over here in neutral Laos.”

“I’ll have them back early.” James pressed his lips together and frowned. He loved taking the other two Americans down to
the river to bathe. The experience gave him a sense of power, especially with Garibaldi being a full bird colonel and Barnett
hating blacks so much. The games he played with them were mostly brain games and didn’t do much harm, but he would get the
guards to beat them if they didn’t obey him.

A pair of armed NVA soldiers led the way down to the river where a shallow sun-heated pool made a perfect giant bathtub. The
soldiers were happy because they enjoyed cooling off in the river as much as the prisoners did. Barnett didn’t dare look back,
but he knew that James was right behind him. Garibaldi had to help him hobble down the path.

“Let’s move it faster!” James made a point out of “accidentally” kicking Barnett’s heel.

A muffled scream left the younger soldier’s throat. His feet were just beginning to heal and were still extremely sore.

“Something wrong with you,
?” James used the nickname Woods had found for him back at An Khe base camp.

Barnett continued hobbling. Garibaldi could feel that the young soldier had shifted more of his weight to him. “We’re almost

James tripped Garibaldi and sent both of the POWs rolling down the dew-covered embankment. “Who said you could talk,

“No one, sir… Sorry, sir.” Garibaldi had been a POW long enough to know what James was looking for, and he wasn’t going to
give him any reason to beat him or Barnett.

“You’re damn right! Say


“That sounds good…. Maybe you’ll be able to call me
James one of these days…. If I kill enough Americans, they just might promote me to a general.” This was the first time that
James had admitted killing American soldiers to anyone except the NVA.

Garibaldi squeezed Barnett’s arm to warn him to keep quiet and not piss James off. Barnett was sharp enough to realize that
James had made a very bad error in bragging about killing his fellow GIs, unless James didn’t think Garibaldi or he would
live to tell anyone about it.

The Rao Lao River appeared through the thick underbrush and gave Garibaldi a chance to change the subject. “Sir?”

“Huh?” Mohammed James glared over at the Air Force fighter pilot.

“Is it all right, sir, for Spencer and me to use the shallow part of the pool first?” Garibaldi lowered his eyes to the ground
as he waited for James’s answer.


“So Barnett can soak his feet in the cool water under those trees.”

“Yeah… go ahead.”

Colonel Garibaldi helped Spencer over to the shade-cooled water and assisted the soldier. It really didn’t matter what temperature
the water was, but Garibaldi knew that the NVA guards liked the deeper end of the pool, especially when they came to the giant
tub with James, who enjoyed walking around the rocks naked. The shorter NVA soldiers could be waist deep in the water and
have some privacy.

Two of the NVA took up positions overlooking the bathers, with angry looks thrown at those who had won the card cutting to
determine who would be first in the water.

Garibaldi waited until James had joined the NVA soldiers in the deep end before talking to Spencer. “They’re up to something,
Spence. The guards were whispering all day today, and every time I drew close to them they would stop talking until I left.”

“What do you think is going on?” Spencer was looking down the river. His thoughts were on how close they were to South Vietnam
and the A Shau Valley. Their POW camp at A Rum was just a couple of miles over the border. He wondered if Sweet Bitch had
beaten his feet so that he couldn’t attempt an escape, or if she really still needed the information on the sensors. He knew
that he couldn’t survive another one of those beatings without telling her anything she wanted to know. In fact, she didn’t
know just how close she had come to breaking him. If he hadn’t passed out from the pain, Spencer knew he would have talked.
He glanced over at James and lowered his eyelids. He wanted to kill James more than anything on earth. He had seen him leaving
the camp with his CAR-15 a number of times, and he now knew what James was doing for the NVA and why they allowed him to have
a private hooch and a woman.

James must have sensed Barnett staring at him and turned around slowly. Barnett reached down beside his legs and splashed
water over his chest. James smiled. He was going to enjoy killing Spencer, but he was going to do it very, very slowly.

“Watch out, here he comes….” Garibaldi spoke without moving his lips.

James stopped next to his pile of clothes and removed two cans of olive-drab C-rations and a pair of white plastic spoons.
He strolled next to the river naked and stopped twice to kick at the water with his feet. James couldn’t swim, but he liked
the water. He stopped walking when he reached the pair of POWs and looked down at Spencer from less than a foot away. “I thought
you’d like something to eat….” He set the cans of food down on a rock just out of Garibaldi’s reach. Spencer could have taken
the cans if he wanted to.

“What’s the price?” Spencer knew that James hated him too much to just give him something.

Garibaldi read the labels on the cans of fruit. One was peaches; the other, fruit cocktail. The colonel’s body craved the
fruit and sweet sugared juice.

“No price… I’m just being nice.” James handed a U.S. Army P-38 opener to Spencer. “We got to start trying to get along a little
better… and I heard Lieutenant Van Pao tell her sergeant that they were going to put you in Mother Kaa’s cage tonight….” James
paused, looking for a reaction from Spencer. He got it from the colonel.

“Those bastards!”

“You shut the fuck up, Colonel!” James backhanded the senior officer hard enough to bring blood between his teeth. The short
break away from Spencer gave him time to catch his fear and hide it from the traitor.

“So what? I could give a fuck about that snake…. I’m too big for the bitch to eat, and if she fucks with me I might eat
!” Spencer smiled to hide the fear that was trying to make his upper lip tremble.

“Eat the fruit and maybe you’ll smell like something good to eat and she’ll try… maybe nibbling on your leg….” James hissed.
The noise sent a shiver down Spencer’s spine.

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