The GirlsAt the end of the brown watered lake, green tropical foliage formed a verdant frame around the seven ships of the task force, and provided easy cover for the enemy. The broad flat area of the Mekong Delta was visible for forty miles around. A maze of rivers, streams and canals stretched chartlike when viewed form the high ship’s bridge. Hues of green, blue and brown led the eye to the mountains of Cambodia attesting to the expanse of the land and the extent of the war.
In was Sunday morning, a day of rest from the fighting. Officially it was “stand down”. The ship held by her anchor bow up into the current. The sailors and soldiers lay about the gray decks sunbathing, writing letters and playing cards. Some shined shoes or cleaned weapons. Others just smoked, sat and stared. The whirring of a small motor drew their attention to the starboard side.
A small boat forced its bow against the fast running brown water. The outboard motor at its stern responded to the solider at the tiller, steering the boat alongside the pontoon barge nestled against the ship’s side. The soldiers tied the boat up to the pontoon.
“Jesus? Look women.” The men on deck rushed to the ship’s side to see several soldiers lift two young Vietnamese women from the boat and onto the pontoon.
“Where the hell did they come from?” A dumb question, for all knew the young girls must have come from the land at the side of the river. The unknown place where other humans lived as ignorant of us, as we in the ship were of them.
More properly the question was, “Why are they here?”
Women on the land were unknowns who even when seen at a distance evaded their eyes from the visitors from the sea. The land people ignored our presence when they were in clear view. Did we exist? Why treat us so? We’re here. The people did not look at us when they were in view, but we knew that hidden eyes were always on us.
Here, now coming into our world were two slim and beautiful girls. We had not seen a female close up for months. We knew they were beautiful though blindfolds hid the upper parts of the faces and eyes. To us, all women were beautiful, so then were they.
Two rugged looking soldiers in green assisted them with firm grasps of their arms. The girls were led along the pontoon deck by the two men who tried to display a gentleness they’d lost in months of combat.
The bright, silk pastel brocades of their native dresses contrasted with their captors rough hewn greens and with the dusty gray paint of the deck. Gentle hands pressed down on their shoulders, and they lowered their lithe young bodies into the squatting position so common to Asians. The silence was broken as the young lieutenant in-charge of the captives instructed his men to bind the girl’s hands. The task was carried out with reluctance by men embarrassed to tie up so helpless an enemy.
Enemy? Is this what they look like? What happened to the black pajamas, the men of the night raids? We on the ship had never seen the Viet Cong. We feel their presence, there eyes upon us. But these girls in pink and blue silk, how could they hurt us? How could they be the enemy?
The lieutenant bounded up the ladder at the ship’s side leaving his charges and their guards on the pontoon. The girls squatted silently, submissively, their straw hats protecting them from the mid-morning sun. a ship’s officer greeted the young lieutenant and led him to the bridge where the Captain waited.
A sharp salute, a crisp “Good Morning, Sir,” an apprehensive smile and the lieutenant had dispensed with the military formalities.
“What the hell is this, Lieutenant?” the Captain asked impatiently.
“V.C., Sir. These were captured while spying for the enemy. They were in a sampan directing the planting of aiming sticks.” The sticks were a method by which the Viet Cong directed mortar and rocket fire at targets. In this case the targets were the ships anchored in the river.
“You gotta be kidding. They look like they’re dressed for Sunday Mass. Are you sure?”
“I didn’t capture them, Captain. I was just told to bring them here to wait for an interrogation team. I’ve got to report back to my commanding officer. I’ll leave two men to guard the prisoners.”
“Very well, Lieutenant. We’ll look after them.” The Captain returned his salute and the lieutenant left glad to be rid of this chore.
The girls squatted motionless, unaware of their surroundings or of the many eyes that peered down at them. The ship’s side was lined with sailors and soldiers staring quietly at these visitors from ashore. Word of their alleged aid to the Viet Cong had spread throughout the ship. Men waited for a place at the ship’s side from which they could gaze upon the two small females. They were about 15 years of age, petite but fully formed as women. Asian girls take a woman’s form at an early age. Small but prominent breasts rose under their brocade Ao Dai. Their short lean necks were partially covered by tufts of raven black hair which peeked from under their conical straw hats.
The gazers remained at the ship’s side for awhile, speaking rarely and in muttered reverential tones. Then each would depart for a place of silent thoughts and another would take his place to peer down at the young women. Word was sent from the Captain on the bridge to untie their wrists. The blindfolds remained for there were things about the ship an enemy must not see.
At mid-day rice and vegetables appeared unrequested from the ship’s galley and the cook appeared on deck to gaze at his luncheon guests. The girls ate silently from bowls with spoons unfamiliar to their tiny hands. Their meal finished they returned to motionless silence.
Into the heat of the afternoon stretched the vigil. The interrogators had not come. The men were concerned for the girls as the sun’s rays beat down, burning our skin and searing our souls. The men need not have worried for these young bodies were suited to this place, suited to this sun.
By mid-afternoon most of the men had done their turn at the ship’s side and the heat had driven many to shelter. A few of the men continued to stare at these representatives of womankind.
Several of the soldiers stationed on the ship had made the acquaintance of the guards and hung around the vicinity of the girls. A quiet fell about the ship, only the hum of various electrical motors provided a background of low noise common in ships.
“Hey, you son of a bitch, let her go,” came a voice.
All eyes quickened to the pontoon. The Captain looked down from the bridge, on the pontoon a green T-shirted soldier held the smallest of the girls, with his left hand under her chin. He lifted her head revealing a lean, smooth neck. The curses from on deck increased, then abrupt silence as his right hands laid a steel bladed knife against her throat. Her slim body stiffened at the touch of the chill sharp edge. She let out no sound, no gasp or cry.
“Jesus Christ, stop you bastard.”
The man looked up the ship’s side, smiled broadly and resheathed his knife. The girl collapsed into a pile of brocade and straw hat. The guard who had not seen the start of it asked, “What the fuck are you doing, man?”
“Just a joke, don’t get excited. I wasn’t going to do it.”
“Master-at-arms, arrest that man,” bellowed the Captain’s voice form the bridge. Sailors of the ship’s police force bounded onto the pontoon and took the arms of the man with the knife.
The girl lay in a heap on the deck. The guard raised her head, nestling it in the bend of his arm. He gave her water. She was unharmed but frightened.
“Bring that man to the bridge,” the Captain shouted.
The man in the green T-shirt, his knife now taken from him, stood before the Captain and executive officer.
“What’s your name, soldier?”
“Corporal Briggins, Sir.”
“What is your job on here?”
“I’m in charge of the troop’s supply.”
He was one of several Army men who remained aboard ship to provide supply to the troops on missions ashore. The Captain knew he had no disciplinary authority over the man, but would have to refer the matter to Army authorities aboard the Flagship.
Trying to control his outrage, the Captain spoke directly into the man’s face. “I don’t know what you were trying to do. And I can’t guess at your motive, but I want you off my ship.”
“Sir, it was just a little joke, to shake her up a bit,” he replied.
“Your little joke is the cruelest trick I’ve ever seen. You’ve got one hour to pack your gear and get off this ship. I can’t do much more than that. I wish I could. Master-at-arms, see that this man is off here in an hour and on his way to Army headquarters aboard the Flagship.”
The corporal was led away. To the executive officer the Captain continued his expression of disgust.
“That bastard! I should have turned him over to the crew. They’d have killed the son of a bitch.”
“Get him outta here X.O. and send a quick message to the Flagship that we’re sending him over to them.”
One half hour later a boat arrived from the Flagship and a combat clad Army major jumped to the pontoon, glanced at the young girls and then continued on to the ship’s bridge.
“Good afternoon, Captain, I’m Major Knowlton from the Brigade staff. What seems to be the trouble? Why are you sending Briggins off the ship?”
The Captain related the knife incident to the Major.
“Well, Sir I guess Briggins was being a real asshole, but he didn’t mean anything. And we need him aboard here.”
The Captain strove to keep his composure.
“There’s enough cruelty in this goddamned war, Major. We don’t need that kind of thing. Get him off here and right now.”
The Major persisted.
“Well, I’ll have to tell the Colonel and see what he says.”
The Captain’s face reddened at this challenge to his decision.
“I don’t care who you tell, the man leaves and now. Colonel, General, or whatnot, they won’t support this kind of thing.”
“Yes, Sir!” The major got the message, turned and left the ship taking Corporal Briggins with him.
In late afternoon a boat arrived and two Vietnamese Army officers took the girls away.
We never saw their faces.
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© 2005, Alfred Dillon