Although several of the men had been wounded, PFC JV Patrick was the first man killed in my infantry platoon in Vietnam. In sending his effects home, Sergeant Bratcher and I realized that his billfold and some other personal items had been sent from the field with his body, which we assumed had ended up at the morgue at Bien Hoa.
I took a day trip down to pick them up, starting out by the brigade helipad at sunrise. By noon I was standing in front of the MAC V field morgue near the 1st Division Headquarters. There was an unusual antiseptic smell to the place; an unhealthy, forbidding air.
I walked in the reception area and told a young corporal sitting behind a high desk that I had come for the personal effects of one of my soldiers killed in early January. I gave Patrick’s name and service number. The corporal acted bored and after a moment looking off in the distance he reached for a field telephone on his desk. He turned the dial on the side and was soon in lengthy conversation about what was Patrick’s and what wasn’t. He hung up and suggested we go in the back.
We walked out of the reception area right into the working area of the morgue. Six dead, nude G.I.s were laid out on marble top tables. Other unprocessed body bags lay stacked one on top of the other in the rear. The concrete floor around some of the tables was covered with blood. A man with a water hose was calmly hosing down the area, going slowly back and forth in front with the water. The morgue operators were wearing boots and were talking amongst themselves as I walked through, one or two taking note of the fact that I was trying not to lose my breakfast. My muscles froze and I walked awkwardly.
The smell in the mid-day Vietnamese sun was putrid: excrement, alcohol, some other atrocious smell akin to rotten oranges.
Trudging along behind my receptionist escort I stepped through the water, blood and human slime, and despite now looking straight ahead I replayed the clear image I had made of the room in those brief seconds as I first walked in. Some of the men on the tables were white, others black, some had lost limbs, blood was still dripping from some tables, some of the men had their eyes and mouths opened. Some were closed.
The dead men were so quiet; the black men so colorless, the white men so cold and chalky. The attendants so nonchalant.
My senses were assaulted. It was too sudden. Too unexpected. Too macabre and bizarre. It was the most horrible place I had ever been, the worst moments I had ever lived.
Back in the supply room I could not speak. The receptionist asked who’s effects I had come for, but I could not talk. Patrick’s name was finally mentioned and soon some personal items were laying before me on a table. I went through them like I was hypnotized. Taking this, discarding that, not sure why. When I finished, I looked up at the supply sergeant and he said, “That’s it.”
He put the items in a plastic bag, I signed for them in an indecipherable script and walked stiffly out without a word… not through the working bay, but out the back, around the building, to the road in front. I started to jog to get away from the place, and then started running as fast as I could. Finally, a quarter of a mile away I stopped and looked back, still afraid, breathing hard, drenched in sweat. In the distance the morgue stood isolated like a godless chamber. Its stench was still in my nose. The bloody, slaughterous sights inside permanently stamped in my mind.
An olive-drab gate to hell.
Story was originally published at: http://www.muleorations.com/blog/68-2
Background about the Author: James E. Parker, Jr. a.k.a. Mule
Many people dream of success and living a fulfilling life. This Bronze Star and Purple Heart awarded veteran is one of the few people to ever actually achieve those dreams. Mr. James E. Parker, Jr. fought in Vietnam as a 2LT and eventually joined the CIA where he received two Certificates of Outstanding Service, a Certificate of Distinction and the Intelligence Medal. He has decided to share his insightful experiences and through stories on his website as well as in the books he has written which are listed below. The Lint Center for National Security Studies is thankful and proud that we are able to share some of his selected stories with you in our Virtual Archive.
The Vietnam War Its Ownself (2015)
Kessler Country Homilies (2013)
Battle for Skyline Ridge (2013)
Covert Ops (1997)
Last Man Out (1996)
Codename Mule (1995)