Gary Jacobson

A SHAU VALLEY

Foreword: A Shau valley is what comes to mind when you think of dark, imposing jungle. The beautiful A Shau Valley… leech infested streams, jungle cliffs, meager animal trails covered with rotted tree roots, 60 degree slopes, 140 varieties of poisonous snakes, the most unusual insects in the world, and jungle so dense at the bottom of the ridge lines that you could not see more than a few feet in front of you, meaning possible death only feet away… only a step away. The NVA could so easily remain undetected… unless their intention was to kill you. Perhaps because it was so inaccessible, this was “key terrain” for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), and one of the North’s major supply lines into the South for much of the war. Nicknamed “Ah Shit Valley”, this was the setting for some of the war’s bloodiest operations.

Ripcord was a Firebase the 101st Airborne attempted to establish near the end of the war, in a bold offensive planned to destroy NVA supply bases in the mountains overlooking the A Shau Valley. Fought during the American withdrawal from Vietnam, the Battle for Ripcord turned out to be the last multi-battalion, high-casualty engagement between infantry units of the U.S. Army and North Vietnamese Army.

Ripcord was the biggest single battle of 1970, and an engagement even more costly to the division than the infamous Hamburger Hill action of 1969. The NVA, by taking the fight to Ripcord before the 101st could launch its offensive, were able not only to disrupt the planned offensive, but also to inflict heavy casualties on the rifle companies operating around Ripcord. NVA mortar men inflicted heavy casualties among the artillery batteries positioned atop the firebase, and enemy anti-aircraft crews played havoc with medevac and resupply helicopters. The 101st finally withdrew, and B-29s bombed Ripcord into oblivion.

101st Airborne Screaming Eagles

A Shau Valley – The Poem

Death walks this shadowed alley
Where the rain never stops
Fierce
In rustic tangled wood
Inaccessible
Nigh impenetrable
Wall-to-wall
Dense obstructive green
Concealing well the malignant
Virulent rebel
Malevolent NVA
Warriors in the jungled screen
Sprayed with toxins obscene
Leach infested streams
101st Airborne
Enveloped by the valley
Searching
For hostiles.

Hostile
Men look to kill men
Enmeshed in hate
Murderously filled with it
Boys from both sides secreting furies
To poisonously harm
Boys on the other side
Conducting half-blind
Clashes contending for the right
To life
Snarled by evil
Fierce nose to nose
So quickly lost
In the darkening wild lair
Setting the knotty jungle snare
Initiating each other into hell.
Battling for the A Shau throne

Ripcord
Twisted forest whipcord
Is the rain never going to stop?
Obsessed generals,
In pitched battle for control
Vying for one last victory
One last gasp
Last chance for glory in this war
To hone their skills
In the Nam’s last dance
Before the war is through
To themselves console
Before withdrawal
Before Vietnamization.

Obsessed generals,
Playing God, by God!
Pumping technology
Into gnarled greenwood
Seeking an edge they thought
They’d win
A grunt’s life catapult
Flung into the fray
In the midst of infantry foes
With Charley
Slugging it out toe to toe.
Filling the road
On the pathway to hell.
“Whatcha gonna do,
Send me to Nam?”
If we only knew
Life there in Hell
Known as the A Shau
Was dependant on the gun
Under a blistering sun;
Blistering our innocence.

Look to skies supernal
For rescue by the eternal.
But find no relief infernal
As in multifaceted battalions
Sneakin’ and peekin’,
The latest in a series
Of Long
Hot
Miserable
Days.
In verdant jungle dark
Many men lay slaughtered
Thrown at each other
Torn from sacred life
Unto sanctified death
Down in the valley
Mid matted corkscrew
With a considerable body of troops.
Not ours
Where life could vanish
In a twinkling.

Is the rain ever going to stop?
Patrolling the dark A Shau
Slip and slide up one hill
Skim down the other side
In fevered breath
Awaiting
Fated death
Ah shit.
Fresh prints in the muddy track
Everyone on edge
Sniff the air for waiting ambush
Could this be the day we die?
Is the rain ever going to stop?

Is the rain ever going to stop?
Running in rivulets red
Flowing
Everywhere endless
Pop, pop, pop,
Pesky Viet Cong
Fire a couple rounds and di di
Harassment maddening
Frustrated
Taut jawed
Barbed wire lips.
Clash and dash
Get adrenalin roaring
Then bring it back down
No one around
Charley
Blends with the shadows
Until the next turn in the trail
Frustrated…
Waiting for “show time.”

Secure another LZ
On the high ground
Nestled in rocks on the ridgeline
Before fast closing dark
Just another wet miserable day
As a grunt
A ground-pounder
My God… a short-timer.
Listening to cricket rhythms
Hearing something small
Moving in underbrush
Harsh alarm of a monkey
Night birds singing low
Trembling rage still eats at me
Protected
Under the surface below.

I hate the quiet time
Too much time
For thinking
For fearing
Rivulets of swear merging
With tears from my eyes
Trying to discern
The deadly sounds.
Again adrenalin pumping.
Be absolutely quiet
In this life or death moment.
Can anyone hear
My primal scream?
Is the rain never going to stop?

Good morning Vietnam!
Another routine morning
Check for leeches
Dislodge other crawlies
Tend your jungle rot
No such thing as dry
Clear booby traps
And trips
Check claymores
See if they’ve been turned
By those practical jokers
Tricky Viet Cong

Try to calm
Stark fear stifling
Set jangled nerves
To survive another day
Saddle up that heavy pack
Loaded with lots of things
That go boom.
Clean the mud off your rifle;
Y’wanta make it home?
It’s going to be a long
Long day
Expecting the enemy to open up
On every rise
At every bend in the trail
To bring on the hurt
Make boiling blood pump…
Another adrenalin dump.

Still we make the turn
Take each forsaken step
Past trembling bush
Over muddied ground
Past silent sound
God only knows why.
Or how.
Each minute dragging by
Seems like a year.
Playing hide and seek with the Cong
The stakes in this game
So high.

Heroic grunts
Negotiating hell and shadow.
Good men
Brave men
Beloved men
Brothers.
Lost in obsidian thoughts
Slowly dying as former companions;
Omnipresent jungle closing in
Chilling hot
Sweet and sour
Surrounded within.

In this bamboo wood
You can’t find the Vietcong
Unless he wants to find us.
Napalm will ferret him out.
I’d rather be in Hell
Can’t be any hotter than this
But perhaps we’re already there
Knocking at the southern gates.
Look at the FNG
How long is this one gonna last?
Oh how fragile
These men of war.

As NVA assaulted
Sloping mountaintop
Left no choice but to bail
Out of the fiasco
Now as we left
That blood soaked ground
Picked up by the Huey’s
Wearied unto death.

Turn out the lights
The parties over
Look out your six
Charley hates to see you go.
Wave goodbye
It’s closing time
As gunships blast surrounding hills
Watch Uncle Sam’s parting gift
As B29s
Leaving nothing for the enemy
Bomb Ripcord into extinction
Napalm it
Like it never was.