The Morticians

The troops left the ships in the early morning. They were herded aboard the landing craft and sped up river in hopes of engaging the elusive enemy. The hopes were those of the senior officers planning the attack. Troopers did not look forward to such meetings, they just went as ordered.

At some point along the river bank they jumped ashore to find “Charlie,” the local Viet Cong guerillas. No one told them that North Viet Nam regular army troops were in the area.

The day warmed, sunny and clear. On the LST sailors and rear echelon soldiers went about routine duties ever mindful of their compatriots off patrolling somewhere on the land beside the river. Hot food was prepared for the men ashore, encased in containers and made ready for helicopters to bring it to the patrol area. Beer was put on ice, two cans for each man on his return.

All was routine, the men had been through it dozens of times. But they still wondered about the mysteries ashore. Returning troops had rarely supplied information on what lay beyond the river’s edge.

By mid-morning the sun’s rays had heated the steel decks like a griddle. The radiant heat of the sun beat down, while its reflected heat rose from the deck. The men were caught between, sweating and being robbed of energy.

The first news of contact with the enemy came in the early afternoon when helicopters brought back the dead to the LST. The wounded went to ships having medical facilities. The LST got the dead men.

HUEY helicopters designed to carry six live humans, were loaded with stacked bodies. As each aerial hearse arrived, it was quickly off-loaded and then sped off to retrieve more broken bodies. The bodies in rubber bags were lined up on the main deck, then lowered through a cargo hatch to the tank deck below. A small mobile morgue had been installed in the forward part of the tank deck. A refrigerator capable of storing five dead men was the center of the morgue.

The helicopters continued their morbid deliveries until 15 to 18 corpses lay about the ship. Some were open to view, there was a shortage of rubber bags. Dead men, hastily loaded into the helos were flopped onto the deck. A helmet fell from the head of one of the dead. A small neat bullet hole marred its spherical perfection. Inside the helmet, blood had stained a picture of a young woman and child, and a reddened a recent letter from home.

Sailors handling the corpses moved in silent shock, some became sick. They were not used to the carnage spilled onto their ship. Most of the soldiers had some experience at this work. All moved in saddened silence, some recognized close buddies among the fallen.

The young army officer in charge of receiving the bodies, urged the men along. He did not hassle them, he knew the sensitivity of men performing this ghastly task. But his orders were to get the bodies out of sight before the surviving troops returned to the ship. Morale reasons. His job was to get the corpses cleaned up for shipment to Saigon where they’d be processed for the trip home. With only six soldier morticians, he expected a busy day.

By late afternoon all bodies had been taken to the makeshift morgue. Only five could be refrigerated, the rest lay about the deck waiting for their final ablution. A doctor came aboard from the Flagship to certify each was dead. Then they were marked for identity and cleaned up for their final journey home.

The surviving troops returned in the late evening. Dusk was closing the day as they remained on the pontoon to down their two cans of cold beer. Drinking of alcoholic beverages was not allowed aboard the ship. The pontoon alongside allowed a stretch of the regulation regarding booze. Some in silence passed up the beer, preferring solitude and sleep, not easily found in the crowded noisy ship. The beer drinkers were subdued by exhaustion and the emotional ordeal of combat. But each felt an exhilaration in their survival. Beer now and a joint later would calm them, make things normal.

Below, on the tank, deck the morticians worked on into the night. At eleven o’clock the lieutenant in charge went to the ward room where the ship’s Captain, unable to sleep, sat drinking coffee.

“Sir, I’ve got a mess down there,” spoke the lieutenant.

“Yeah, I know, lieutenant. How can we help you?” replied the Captain.

“Well, I can only keep five bodies cool and I’ve got way more than that. In this heat they’re already beginning to stink. Could you send a message asking to get them taken to Saigon early in the morning?” the lieutenant spoke urgently despite his fatigue.

“We’ll get a request off right away for helicopters to take them to Saigon in the morning. Anything else we can do for you?” said the Captain.

The lieutenant started to leave, paused then said, “Sir, my men are dragging ass, they’ve been working all day on the bodies. Some of the dead were torn up bad. My guys have never seen anything like it and they’re getting shook.”

“What do they need, lieutenant?” asked the Captain.

“Well, sir, some booze sure would help,” replied the lieutenant. He knew that drinking was not permitted on a Navy ship and that even the two cans of beer given to troopers had to be consumed off the ship, on the pontoon alongside.

“We’ve got brandy and whiskey aboard for medicinal purposes. I’ll have the ship’s hospital corpsman prescribe a couple of bottles for them. You take a couple of belts yourself. You look like you need it. Then come on back, I’ll have the steward make you something to snack on.”

“Yes, Sir, thanks a lot Captain,” the lieutenant smiled and left.

The brandy and whiskey were sent to the morticians and it sustained them as they worked through the night.

The lieutenant returned to the ward room, a bit tipsy from two large swallows of brandy. He was relaxed and sat easily in his chair.

“How did you get this job lieutenant?” asked the Captain.

“My father,” relied the lieutenant. “He owned a funeral home. I grew up with the smell of formaldehyde. I used to pump it into the corpses when I was just a little kid.”

“Boy, I couldn’t get used to that,” said the Captain.

“I never did,” said the lieutenant. “I hated it. Oh, when I was a little kid it was nothing. But as I got older it really bugged me. I loved my father, but whenever he hugged me I smelled dead people. When I was in high school I was sure I smelled the same way. I used to stand back from the other kids, afraid they’d smell me. My only close friend was “Fish” Handerhan. He worked in his father’s fish market, and smelled like it. I guess he couldn’t smell me, he had enough fish smell around him.” The lieutenant sipped his coffee.

“If you didn’t like it, how come you’re doing it in the army,” asked the Captain.

“Well, you know the Army, Captain. Or I guess the Navy ain’t too different. I went to college and graduated as an electrical engineer. I figured that was a sure way to avoid my old man’s business. When I had to go in the Army, they asked what type of work I had done. Without thinking, I told them, and here I am processing these poor bastards,” the lieutenant was talking more than usual, the liquor had taken its toll. He sipped more coffee then spoke.

“Sure hope them helos get here early. We gotta get them bodies outta here and up to Saigon. Jeez, I’m tired, but gotta get back with my men. Thanks Captain.”

The lieutenant lurched to the door and departed to resume his unwanted task.

In the early morning the morticians finished their job they dropped into their bunks exhausted and a little drunk. The bodies were ready for shipment, but there was no word on helicopters.

The wait dragged on into mid-morning, another hot day. On the tank deck the temperature reached 112. The scent of the dead crept throughout the ship carried by ventilators which were meant to supply fresh air. At noon meal the smell of grilling hamburger mingled with the now strong stink of decaying humans. Hungry men lost their appetites and their tempers as the heat and stench created a hell.

Men sought the forward part of the main deck where a slight breeze provided some relief from the stink.

“Where are the fuckin’ helicopters? Let’s get those guys out of here.”

Yesterday’s sorrow and sympathy for the dead had eroded. Now they were causes of discomfort. Reminders of what each of us can become, a smelly bulge in a rubber bag.

The helos came in mid-afternoon, the hottest part of the day. The rubber bags were lugged across the sun heated decks and loaded onto the helicopters. Eager hands worked hurriedly, to spur them on their way, to rid us of these invaders of our sanity.

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© 2005, Alfred Dillon